Why Send Abrams Tanks?

Published at 09:04 on 26 January 2023

Well, because Ukraine is at war and needs them to help defend itself, duh. But it’s not that simple.

You see, the M1 Abrams tank is just about the biggest, most high-tech tank around. Each tank comes with a very complex set of technological and logistical challenges. It will take a significant amount of time to train the Ukranian military to answer these challenges. Until that is done, one might as well send Ukraine a shipment of large boulders; they will be as useful in war as those tanks will be.

Yet Ukraine needs help now, not at some ill-defined point in the future when training in the use and maintenance of the M1 becomes complete. As such, smaller and simpler tanks like the German Leopard 2 would be much more useful. So why waste time and money sending Abrams tanks at all? Just send more Leopards.

The answer is politics. Germany has a deep-seated domestic aversion to using military force or helping others use military force. This aversion was in fact deliberately planted by the victorious Allies after Germany was carved up after losing World War II, and it persists in today’s unified Germany.

There is, as a result, very little support in Germany for taking a leading role when it comes to arming Ukraine, and shipping a big batch of Leopards to Ukraine would amount to taking such a role. So the Germans said to the USA: “after you.” They were willing to send tanks only if others did so as well. The United Kingdom is also sending some of its Challenger tanks, making this whole tanks-to-Ukraine business a multinational effort. (France may send tanks as well.)

That some of these tanks are unlikely to be as useful as others matters not; domestic German politics, and not military strategy, necessitated sending them.

Given the Decline, Where Next?

Published at 17:47 on 23 January 2023

So, given the advanced state of democratic decline in the USA, where next? What is the way out?

It is obvious that a political class which does essentially nothing about a coup attempt that is more serious than the one that happened at Munich in 1923 stands atop a political edifice so thoroughly rotten that it will probably soon collapse of its own weight. The inevitability of such a democratic collapse can be understood even more when one considers that the Beer Hall Putsch, despite its far less serious nature, was treated far more seriously by the Weimar Republic (see previous link) than the USA has treated the 2021 putsch at the Capitol, yet the Weimar response to the 1923 putsch is now almost universally seen in retrospect as having been insufficiently robust. Future historians will doubtless struggle to explain today’s American political elite, and how they could be so feckless in response to such clear signs of danger.

Since change cannot come from within, it must come from without. Reform being impossible, the only choice will be revolution. Such it has always been: societies that have revolutions tend to have them as a result of having become failed societies.

The coming revolution will of necessity have a bourgeois character. The radical left is simply too small, and too politically ineffective, and the vast majority too ignorant, for it to be any other way. In today’s USA, the principle that one should have a society of laws and not of men is in and of itself a radical notion that the status quo is incapable of accommodating, and therefore it will be this general precept that motivates the coming revolution.

What should the response of those of us on the radical left be?

First, the response should not be to dismiss the revolution as useless or irrelevant. It will offer a very real hope of substantial improvement, even though the degree of immediate improvement will fall short of what we would like to see. In fact, it’s the only thing that can offer such hope, there being no possible alternate revolution. A bourgeois democracy is a far better environment in which to struggle for a better world than a fascist dictatorship. The perfect must not be allowed to become the enemy of the distinctly better.

Second, it was capitalism that got us into this mess. This should become the watchword of the radical left. We should say this phrase over and over until people become sick of hearing it. It was capitalism that created a society in awe of capitalists like Trump, and preached that the authoritarianism of the capitalist was a virtue. It was capitalism that built the media empires that degraded dialog to soundbites and kept the public stupid and indoctrinated. It was capitalism that created a political process so grotesquely beholden to wealth. It was capitalism that led the attack on the unions that created such inequality and resentment amongst blue collar workers. And so on.

Capitalism was, after all, the cause. The masses may simply want democracy, but unless, to paraphrase W.D. Haywood, we push back, pull out, or break off the fangs of capitalism, we cannot have lasting democracy. Capitalism was the midwife of fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain and Chile. It almost was the midwife of fascism in the USA once already, and will soon be again. Capitalism is an enemy of democracy. Make that sufficiently clear and there will be a chance for real change to start happening.

American Führerprinzip

Published at 10:58 on 22 January 2023

Since some here may be unfamiliar with the term, here is a definition (shamelessly copied from Wikipedia):

The Führerprinzip (German for ‘leader principle’) prescribed the fundamental basis of political authority in the Government of Nazi Germany. This principle can be most succinctly understood to mean that “the Führer’s word is above all written law” and that governmental policies, decisions, and offices ought to work toward the realization of this end. In actual political usage, it refers mainly to the practice of dictatorship within the ranks of a political party itself, and as such, it has become an earmark of political fascism. Nazi Germany aimed to implement the leader principle at all levels of society, with as many organizations and institutions as possible being run by an individual appointed leader rather than by an elected committee. This included schools, sports associations, factories, and more. Nazi propaganda often focused on the theme of a single heroic leader overcoming the adversity of committees, bureaucrats and parliaments. German history, from Nordic sagas to Frederick the Great and Otto von Bismarck, was interpreted to emphasize the value of unquestioning obedience to a visionary leader.

From this, we come to an inescapable conclusion: The USA ascribes to the Führerprinzip. Because, really, it does:

  • Johnson’s word was above all written law. Johnson was exempted from punishment for lying his way into Vietnam and starting a war without a formal declaration of one from Congress.
  • Nixon’s word was above all written law. Nixon was exempted from punishment for Watergate and the invasion of Cambodia.
  • Reagan’s word was above all written law. Reagan was exempted from punishment for Iran-Contra.
  • George W. Bush’s word was above all written law. Bush was exempted from punishment for lying his way into Iraq.
  • Trump’s word was above all written law. It is pretty clear now that Trump is not going to be punished for anything. Even my nice liberal friends who used to consider me cynical when I said that odds disfavoured the system holding him accountable now mostly agree with me on this.

Nixon was right: if the if the president does it, it is not illegal. Oh, sure, the system might put on a good show about hypothetically being interested in accountability, but when the rubber meets the road it never actually ever happens. In today’s USA, the leader’s will is above all written law.

Don’t get me wrong. The USA is not a fascist state. The next time I check up on my place in Bellingham, I do not expect to be questioned about posting opinions critical of the ruling ideology when I enter the USA. The USA is somewhere in between being a functioning democracy and a fascist state: it is a flawed democracy that ascribes to a fundamentally fascist principle.

Like all states where fascist principles are in play, the American public is not allowed to choose whether or not fascist principles are to be policy of the day. Both the Republicans and the Democrats agree that Führerprincip ought to be the policy of the land. Typically this support is worded as “having respect for the institution of the presidency” or some other such bullshit.

Yes, the Republicans may be the big innovators in using Führerprincip, but the Democrats really never ever truly challenge their right to use it, and the system is rigged to make it virtually impossible for any political party other than these two to achieve power.

The question is what it all means for the future. Probably the main takeaway is that one cannot rely on the professional political class to do much about it: both parties, and the punditocracy that supports them, agree on Führerprinzip.

A second conclusion is that it is inevitable that the USA will become a full-fledged fascist dictatorship if nothing is done to turn away from Führerprinzip. Trump was attracted to the unlimited power of the presidency, and the only reason he failed was that he really wasn’t all that good at political leadership. Eventually someone equally power-hungry will get into that office who is not so politically incompetent. Then it will be game over for democracy.

Eventually may take a while, but eventually it will happen.

If, that is, nothing is done to turn away from this principle. And since such turning away cannot depend on the professional political class, it must depend on those of us who are on the outside of power. What are the chances of that?

First, anti-fascists are not a majority in the USA. A little under half the country is already objectively pro-fascist or at least very fascism-friendly in their outlook, based on the support Trump was able to obtain. When you get to Democrats, many of them support the status quo, too. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that a lot of rank-and-file Democrats are already disgusted with their party and its morally bankrupt principles. They only support the Democrats because the rigged system gives them no other real choice. Such support is grudging enough that the Democratic Party establishment often has difficulty overcoming the resulting voter apathy.

I have no idea how big the number of actual antifascists in the USA is, but I would have to guess that it probably is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, maybe more. If half of rank and file Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents were disgusted by American Führerprinzip, that would make 25%.

Note that this fraction is not simply the party’s progressives: many of the Democratic Party’s “centrist” voters are also disgusted by the elitism and lack of accountability in society. In fact, such disgust often drives their distrust of liberal policies; they wonder and worry about how such a corrupted system can properly oversee expanded social programs, which they might theoretically support if only the system were not so self-evidently rotten.

Then we get to the Republicans that Trump pushed over the edge and have abandoned their party. The numbers may not be great, but they exist, and (given how even the divide is) their numbers are significant. If they had stayed loyal to their party, Trump would have been reelected. So 10 to 20 percent is a very conservative estimate, and the actual number is probably higher. But let’s err on the side of caution and go with the more conservative numbers.

10 to 20 percent is significant. It is way more than the 3% or 5% that is commonly cited as the critical mass needed to launch a social revolution. The size of the Womxn’s Marches (the largest demonstrations in US history) that happened shortly after the Trump inauguration prove that the base numbers are there.

The question is how much pain and suffering there will be before that revolution happens. The numbers are there and ideally it would happen before a full-fledged fascist dictatorship is in place. But complacency and denial are things, as is general disorganization and ineffectiveness on the grassroots Left, so we cannot count on this.

And if it doesn’t happen early enough to avert a fascist dictatorship, then the likelihood of violence (understated in the article I just cited, but that is a topic for a future post) and the associated pain and suffering goes way up.

A Bad Take in a Country Full of Them

Published at 09:13 on 15 January 2023

This is just another bad take in a country full of them. A bad take underpinned, no doubt, by the naïve faith that the USA is special and the rules of democratic decline therefore do not apply to it.

A bad take that, combined with a nation full of similarly bad takes, has the overall effect that if you are sufficiently powerful, you can do anything and get away with it. A nation full of bad takes which is now already a nation of men and not a nation of laws. A nation that acts like a cocky teenager who believes that his drinking will never lead to his driving causing any problems.

Yes, it all complicates things, no doubt about that. But the cases are not completely identical (one accused criminal’s actions appear to be mostly accidental, governed by how the accused cooperated with the authorities to the point of informing them of the unlawful behavior). The complications are not being disputed by me here. What I am taking issue with is the outright celebration of how there is now a path to holding neither Trump nor Biden accountable for something that would land J. Random Federal Employee behind bars in detention pending a criminal trial.

Both should be held accountable, and this accountability process includes taking into account one accused’s cooperation and the other accused’s lack of remorse into fact. If this ends in Biden being compelled to resign with a misdemeanor charge to his name, so be it. No special rights for the powerful.

There is only one place where a nation ruled by the principle that the powerful can do whatever the hell they want can go, and it is not a good place.

Maybe things will change, and a turn off the road to hell will be taken before the inevitable arrival at that road’s destination comes, but I’m not holding my breath.

Brazil Gets It (and the USA Does Not)

Published at 06:53 on 11 January 2023

Two countries, two coup attempts by the supporters of a recently-defeated right wing president. Both featured police officers standing idly by and even welcoming the insurrectionists. Both featured well-heeled right-wingers providing financial and logistical support.

Both countries now have people who see themselves as “patriots” shocked, shocked that in the eyes of the law they are accused criminals, and being treated accordingly.

But in only one of those two countries are top law-enforcement officials placed under arrest pending investigation of why some cops stood idly by. In only one of them are capitalists being investigated for their roles in the conspiracy.

The difference is revealing, and it is why I am not optimistic about the long-term prospects for democracy in the USA. To date, the USA’s response has been weaker than the Weimar Republic’s one to the Beer Hall Putsch. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Much Ado about Nothing: The “All-In” Housing Plan

Published at 09:50 on 7 January 2023

With much fanfare, the White House this week released a new housing plan.

It is unlikely to make much of a difference. Explaining why is going to leave me feeling a lot like Captain Obvious, but ignoring what should be obvious is what got us here in the first place, so here goes.

The reason is quite simple, it fails to prioritize the number one reason why so many are homeless: because they can’t afford to pay the rent. Why can’t people afford to pay the rent? It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Price too high. It’s the reason why anything becomes unaffordable. Duh!

And why are prices too high? The same reason prices of anything get too high: because demand is outstripping supply. And why has demand outstripped supply?

To answer that one, talk to those whose job it is to increase housing supply: builders and developers. Ask them why they are not building more, when there is such a need for more. In places like Seattle and San Francisco, where the homelessness problem (and high rents) are the worst, the answer you get will always feature regulations.

It typically takes years for new housing to be approved. During these years, developers are holding a parcel of land (at a loss because they have to pay taxes on it), and paying legal experts (again, at a loss) to shepherd the permitting and approval processes through. All these are costs that must be reimbursed for a project to pan out. The easiest way to get them back is to ignore the crisis in affordable housing and build luxury units which have a higher return.

What can get approved, is often subject to extreme restrictions on how dense it can be, i.e. how many units you can create on a given parcel of land. Since urban land is expensive, the easiest way to hold down cost per unit is to minimize land per unit, i.e. build denser. Yet builders can’t do that. Yet another incentive to build only luxury housing that goes for a high price per unit.

This all makes me sound like a Libertarian Party member, blaming it all on government for getting in the way of private enterprise solving a problem. Well, in this particular case, I’ve thought a lot about it, and looked a lot into it, and it mostly is the government getting in the way of private enterprise solving a problem.

To see how much better it could be if only local governments stopped actively being part of the problem, you only have to look to Japan, where the national government has a big role in setting zoning policies, and one of its principles is to prevent local governments (who still have an important role to play there) from being able to restrict the creation of housing supply.

And, surprise surprise, not getting in the way of supply matching demand works. The world’s largest city, Tokyo, has rents comparable to Miami and way less expensive than US cities like San Francisco and New York. Also note that, within Japan, Tokyo is known for being an expensive city.

Now, the USA can’t simply import housing policy from Japan, which has a significantly different government structure. But there is still plenty of room for the Feds to do significantly more strong-arming of state and local governments: “Oh, you would like the top level of Federal aid for your highway and transit projects? Sorry, we find your housing policies too restrictive to qualify. Fix those and get back to us.”

Now, to be fair, the Biden plan does make some mention of this:

Encourage states and cities to review and update their zoning laws and policies to include more land for multiple units (like multifamily housing), offer density bonuses to developers, ease height and density restrictions, create land banks and streamline the permitting and approval process for missing-middle housing types, such as Accessory Dwelling Units.

The problem is, that is buried in the middle of a list on page 44, and the wording is weak sauce. Local governments restricting the creation of housing supply is such a huge part of the problem as to warrant its own section or at least subsection, and to use terminology stronger than encourage (strongly encourage, mandate, or even compel would be better).

And yes, there is certainly room for most of the other stuff that plan mentions. I said above that the housing crisis mostly is a result of government regulations restricting the creation of supply. Mostly is not entirely. The homeless will still need specific, targeted help.

But focusing almost exclusively on that sort of help while almost completely ignoring the primary cause is a bit like worrying a lot about the chipped paint in a room while your home’s foundation is crumbling.