Sagely advice

These are verbatim extracts from the article, ‘Finale’ written by James Taranto who compiled the ‘Best of the web’ for the Wall Street Journal for nine years.

In our own postelection conversations with Trump supporters, the predominant emotions we’ve detected have been joy and hope. It reminds us very much of the prevailing mood in the mainstream media around this time eight years ago.

No doubt before the election a lot of Trump supporters were angry about the incumbent and the status quo more generally. But the same was true of Obama supporters in 2008.

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Territorial animals fiercely defend their turf: “When a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest–usually within a matter of seconds,” observes biologist John Alcock in “Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach.” We’d say the same instinct is at work when the great apes who call themselves Homo sapiens defend their authority. When it is challenged, they can become vicious, prone to risky and unscrupulous behavior.

That, it seems to us, is the central story of our time. The left-liberal elite that attained cultural dominance between the 1960s and the 1980s—and that since 2008 has seen itself as being on the cusp of political dominance as well—is undergoing a crisis of authority, and its defenses are increasingly ferocious and unprincipled. Journalists lie or ignore important but politically uncongenial stories. Scientists suppress alternative hypotheses. Political organizations bully apolitical charities. The Internal Revenue Service persecutes dissenters. And campus censorship goes on still.

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We argued in November that Trump’s election was “probably a necessary corrective” to left-liberal authoritarianism—a point PJMedia’s Roger Kimball echoes in a recent column:

Among the many things that changed during the early hours of November 9 was a cultural dispensation that had been with us since at least the 1960s, the smug, “progressive” (don’t call it “liberal”) dispensation that had insinuated itself like a toxic fog throughout our cultural institutions—our media, our universities, our think tanks and beyond. So well established was this set of cultural assumptions, cultural presumptions, that it seemed to many like the state of nature: just there as is a mountain or an expanse of ocean. But it turns out it was just a human, all-too-human fabrication whose tawdriness is now as obvious as its fragility.

What we are witnessing is its dissolution. It won’t happen all at once and there are bound to be pockets of resistance. But they will become ever more irrelevant even if they become ever shriller and more histrionic. The anti-Trump establishment is correct that what is taking place is a sea change in our country. But they are wrong about its purport. It is rendering them utterly irrelevant even as it is boosting the confidence, strength, and competence of the country as a whole. Glad tidings indeed.

That may prove overly optimistic. On the other hand, do you see what we mean about joy and hope?

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Our advice to journalists who wish to improve the quality of their trade would be to lose their self-importance, overcome the temptation to pose as (or bow to) authority figures, and focus on the basic function of journalism, which is to tell stories. Journalists are not arbiters of truth; we are, unlike fiction writers (or for that matter politicians), constrainedby the truth. But fiction writers bear the heavier burden of making their stories believable.

When you think about journalism in this way, its failure in 2016 becomes very simple to understand. Whether you see Trump as a hero or a goat—or something in between, which is our still-tentative view—his unlikely ascension to the presidency was a hell of a story. Most journalists missed the story because they were too caught up in defending a system of cultural authority of which they had foolishly allowed themselves to become an integral part.

Notwithstanding Haidt

Jonathan Haidt might conclude that conservatives are on to something. He might urge dialogue. He might start the ‘Heterodox Academy’. He might feature videos and put up lists of heterodox universities. He might encourage a dialogue between two Professors, one of whom is a ‘conservative’ and the other is a ‘liberal’. I put the labels in quotes because they are misleading and/or useless, for the most part.

Yet, the so-called ‘Liberals’ come across as the most intolerant and dogmatic. Anyone who is full of certitude cannot be a Liberal.

The Democratic Party in the United States is playing with fire. As before the elections, the media is playing along. What they are doing is very dangerous and might cause the polarisation in the American society to be almost irretrievable.

When Trump said, during one of his Presidential debates, that he would not comment on accepting the election result right, he was taken to task for being anti-democratic and as confirmation of the worst fears of the media and his opponent about his inherently intolerant, authoritarian personality.

Now, the outgoing President/administration, the Democratic Party and the media are playing the same game. It is good to see some Wall Street Journal editorial writers calling them out on this. See here and here.

This paragraph is important:

This effort is all the more pernicious because it poisons with partisanship the serious issue of foreign intelligence hacking, not least by the Russians. Foreign cyber-attacks have proliferated during the Obama years, but the President has never held any national government accountable. Even when officials fingered the Russians this summer for the hacks on the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Obama did nothing but wag a finger. [Link]

This piece in WSJ correctly points out that the Democrats and their media cheerleaders are doing exactly what they accuse the Russians of wanting to do: poison the result:

But why wait? U.S. intelligence services already know most of what they’re likely to learn. Release the evidence now. Let’s see if the Kremlin really did steal RNC emails, and let’s also hear from those who don’t share CIA Director John Brennan’s “high confidence.” The last thing Americans need is for an outgoing Administration that is still sore over losing an election to assist Vladimir Putin in poisoning the result. [Link]

The Administration too has embarked on a witch-hunt for alternative media that they and the Democratic Party wrongly believe contributed to the loss of their preferred candidate. They call it fake news outlets. This is undemocratic and almost Orwellian. That is also anti-competitive and anti-market economics. One must applaud the Wall Street Journal editorial writer for calling them out on ‘fake news’ too here:

Then the press reports as major news the non-story that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has endorsed an intelligence probe that has long been underway. Talk about fake news. [Link]

To read more about this nonsensical and dangerous crusade against ‘fake news’, see here and here.

James Taranto who curates an utterly interesting and delightful (it is my loss that I discovered it only recently) daily ‘Best of the Web’ for Wall Street Journal calls out many media outlets by name for their inconsistency (read, ‘hypocrisy’) here.

A Republican Elector refuses to be swayed by false and toxic propaganda to vote according to her ‘conscience’. Her last paragraph is a classic:

I noticed another theme in the thousands of missives I’ve received. They don’t seek to understand or persuade—only to insist. Most of these people want it their way and they want it now. As a mother of two small children, I know how to handle that. [Link]

It is not happening not just in the United States but almost everywhere. Reuters also reports, citing Sunday Times, that some in Britain are trying to argue that the British government should invoke another article (Article 127 of the European Economic Area Agreement) to leave the European single market. This is hair splitting. If Britain left the EU, EU would automatically ensure that Britain left the single market.

It is clear that a verdict that had a clear lead in Britain (outside of London and Scotland) is being thwarted by elites who refuse to accept a proper democratic verdict.

Perhaps, their logic works differently. Modern liberals do not discriminate between themselves and the rest. If they went down, they would ensure that the country (and even the world) went down with them.

Jonathan Haidt took pains to show that liberals swear only by fairness and equality. Nothing else matters to them and that it was not the most appropriate thing. He argued correctly that equality was not the only dimension of fairness but that proportionality between effort and reward was also a dimension of fairness.

BTW, does any of the above strike you as being fair? If so, you are a true Liberal!

Hanging up boots

Lucy Kellaway – one of my favourite columnists in international press – is leaving FT by July next year. Apparently, one of her colleagues, Gideon Rachman, could not understand her decision. I am not surprised. I hope she convinces some of her colleagues to leave with her. FT can do with infusion of open minds. Her announcement is to be found here.

This paragraph from her missive is interesting:

For me, the thought of starting over, learning something that is new and terrifyingly hard, is part of the point. So is the thought of being in a staffroom with colleagues who are my children’s age. But the biggest thing, which readers may find hard to swallow given my entire career has been based on ridiculing others, is that, for my next act, I want to be useful. Yes, I know sticking pins in pompous chief executives is useful in a meta kind of way but that’s not the kind of useful I have in mind.

Surgical writing

Ashley Tellis’ piece in MINT on India’s options with Pakistan. He points to the United States’ failure to rein in Pakistan.

Supporting insurgencies within Pakistan, engaging in economic warfare, pursuing focused retaliation to punish Rawalpindi, or threatening major military action to induce external pressure on Pakistan then remain the only means left for neutralizing Pakistani terrorism. (Here he is talking about options for India).”

“It is indeed frustrating that even after suffering Pakistani duplicity on terrorism for over a decade now, successive US administrations have been unable to threaten Pakistan with anything more persuasive than the suspension of petty carrots.”

“That the US, the world’s greatest power and Islamabad’s biggest benefactor, seems unable to do much about these perils darkens the prospects for hope in South Asia—not Narendra Modi’s token slap against Pakistani terrorism. [Link]

His piece appeared in MINT even as there has been one more terrorist attack on a civilian building (a government building of the Enterprise Development Institute) in Pampore.

Brahma Chellaney too points the finger at the United States:

US President Barack Obama’s administration also opposes a move in Congress that would officially brand Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.

The US has a lot of leverage: Pakistan has one of the world’s lowest tax-to-GDP ratios, and is highly dependent on American and other foreign aid. It should use that leverage to ensure that the Pakistani military is brought to heel – and held to account. [Link]

Brahma’s piece has several interesting references. Worth checking out some of them.

Dr. Sashi Tharoor has praised the Indian government’s surgical strikes. See, for example,

Still, a country that refuses to suffer repeated body blows earns more respect than one whose restraint can be interpreted as weakness. [Link]

That was exactly the point that some of the columns written before India undertook its surgical strikes (in the week of September 26) missed. The most notable and disappointing example was that of Praveen Swami.

In contrast, Raja Mohan had a more thoughtful piece and Pratap Bhanu Mehta was more restrained than usual in his scepticism of government’s intentions and capabilities.

I reiterate that these three pieces were in the week before the strikes.

 

A response to ‘Trumpism: a new era in world politics’

I visited Andrew Batson’s blog after a long time and was browsing through his posts of several months. Read this one fully.

I read the original article in ‘Project Syndicate’ he is citing approvingly. It is not quite, ‘It is not the economy, stupid’, as Andrew Batson notes. In fact, it is very much ‘It is the economy, stupid’.

Seems like a summary of various thoughts that would help the author and the reader, eventually, to arrive at a sensible and cogent narrative of events. Perhaps. That is the optimistic conclusion. It is not a criticism.

It appears that the author leans towards the explanation offered by Joschka Fischer that it is the ‘white man’s angst’. A recent article in Wall Street Journal, part of its series on the ‘Great Unravelling’ (of the American economy and society) seems to agree with Fischer. It is an important read.

If it is the ‘white man’s rage’, then the author seems to think that the causes are socioeconomic and that simply defeating Trump or Le Pen would not suffice. See his sentence here:

“if the social and economic forces that led to their rise persist, an increasingly angry populace will simply look for a new tribune.”

Also, he seems to be sceptical of Bradford de Long’s optimism. He is not confident that the political systems would implement desirable socio-economic policies in the future since it has failed to do so in the past (last thirty years?).

So, if one wants to fix accountability for the rise of Le Pen, Trump and Geert Wilders, what would the author recommend?

He does not go there.

His conclusion seems to be one of resignation. I am inclined to agree with that. It would have to play out just as the indifference of the political, policy and educated elites to the ‘insecurities and inequalities of our hyper-globalised age’ played out for thirty-five years or so. There was mere lip service to the concerns of the losers even as politically correct pursuit of ‘gender parity, and the legal and social emancipation of sexual minorities’ searched for and reached new heights and methods. The pursuit shows no signs of abating. The pronouns at Vanderbilt University may not be its most recent nor the most egregious illustration but it qualifies as a good exhibit.

The author concludes that liberal democracy is at peril. May be, he is right and may be he is not. But, assuming that he is right, one reason it could be at peril is that, like many others he has cited in his article, he is in no hurry nor does he show any inclination to name and shame the real culprits responsible for imperilling liberal democracy.

Where there is no accountability, there will only be disenchantment, cynicism and bitterness of the mobs with their own brand of justice that would be dispensed.

Since the crime has been committed and no one seems inclined to affix or accept responsibility, the process of retribution will follow its own logic and momentum now.

There is not much purpose served in wringing hands nor blaming Trump, Le Pen and Geert Wilders. They are mere cogs in the wheel of evolution whose law is that where there is cause, there will be effect. Now, it is the turn of ‘effect’.

Just sit back and watch and survive, with luck and prayer.

Luck and asymmetry

Read this nice, short piece by one Mr. Robert Frank in ‘The Atlantic’ magazine on how he was lucky to be saved by the unlikely presence of an ambulance in the neighbourhood, after a sudden cardiac arrest on a Tennis Court. He is a professor of economics at Cornell University.

The piece goes on to argue that humans seldom give credit to ‘luck’ for their successes while ‘bad luck’ is somewhat easily blamed for failures. He is right. But, many other behavioural scientists have made this point repeatedly in recent years. That is why it is often said that success has many parents while failure is an orphan. Our eagerness to associate ourselves with success is driven by ego which is also needed to sustain self-belief, which is a positive thing. But, as with everything else, it is important not to confuse between pride and delusion.

What struck me in his piece was his reference to this asymmetry in human behaviour:

When you’re running or bicycling into the wind, you’re very aware of it. You just can’t wait till the course turns around and you’ve got the wind at your back. When that happens, you feel great. But then you forget about it very quickly—you’re just not aware of the wind at your back. And that’s just a fundamental feature of how our minds, and how the world, works. We’re just going to be more aware of those barriers than of the things that boost us along.

The asymmetry again: headwind is blamed for failure to make progress but tailwind is ignored or forgotten. Life is full of asymmetries and our  response to most things is asymmetric.

That is why I found fault with economists who were trying to look for a symmetrical relationship between interest rates and inflation. It is becoming clear now to many that, due to the behavioural messaging of pessimism embedded in ultra-low (zero or negative) interest rates, it induces excess saving and hence, disinflationary or deflationary tendencies. Quite the opposite of what the policy intends to achieve.

However, that does not mean that higher interest rates would induce inflation. That is what some economists like John Cochrane are trying to establish theoretically. That strikes me as somewhat silly for it fails to acknowledge the essential asymmetry that is all pervasive in human lives.

I had referred to this in my column in MINT  recently.

(Of course, on a different note, religious scholars could and would have something to say on why and how ‘luck’ finds some and does not find some others)

 

The ‘Blood Telegram’ – a review

The book, ‘Blood Telegram’ by Gary Bass came out in 2013. Three years later, I began reading it towards the end of my summer break in the US and finished it on the return flight to Chennai. It was, no doubt, an interesting book. Of course, one could not escape the thought that had the author dropped the swear words used by Henry Kissinger and his President Richard Nixon on India, Indians and to Mrs Indira Gandhi, the book’s size would have considerably shrunk. The pair had nothing but contempt for India, its people and the Prime Minister. After a meeting with Mrs. Indira Gandhi in the White House, President Nixon told Henry Kissinger that they ‘really slobbered over the old witch’.

Archer Blood was the Consul General of the United States Government in Dacca and the telegram in which he labelled the killings in Bangladesh genocide made him famous and infamous. In one of those bizarre coincidences, the cables from the Consulate-General’s office would be drafted by Scott Butcher, approved by Killgore and signed by Blood.

When Nelson Rockefeller asked Mrs. Indira Gandhi as to why she was putting all her eggs in the ‘Soviet Union’ basket, she said that she would not if there was another basket. That much comes through very clearly in the book. Shankkar Aiyar, in his book, ‘The Accidental India’ had referred to how Mrs. Indira Gandhi slammed the phone after one of her phone calls to Lyndon Johnson to ‘beg’ him literally not to keep the PL-480 shipment on a ‘hand-to-mouth’ basis for India. That was humiliating. She found the phone call so humiliating that she swore, ‘Never again’ and so was born the Green Revolution. If that is a bit dramatic, well, it played no small role, no doubt.

The NSA (Kissinger) and the President had, for some strange reason, total admiration and love for Yahya Khan. Well, not so strange. They used him as a conduit to begin their relationship with China. Hence, he was too important to them. But, Americans, over the years, have always had a reason to prefer to keep Pakistan warm. Sometimes, one wonders if the reasons were merely ‘after-the-fact’ explanations for their inexplicable love for Pakistan. Over the years, in my conversation with many ex-diplomats, none of them felt that they had found an ‘Aha’ explanation for it.

What was incredible was that Kissinger made a trip to India and the Indians thought that they had extracted a promise that America would support India if China turned aggressive against India. Despite his promise, he went back to Washington, D.C and was urging China to get aggressive with India!

That America was unwilling to lift a finger and use its leverage with Pakistan to stop the genocide in East Pakistan must go down as one of the biggest failure of the Nixon-Kissinger leadership. Yet, Peter Kann, who apparently won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Indo-Pakistan war for the Wall Street Journal, and was Chairman of Dow Jones & Co., until 2007, thinks that Kissinger and Nixon ‘behaved like leaders of a great power’. Read his review of the book here.

The book repeatedly mentions that the Pakistani Army systematically targeted Hindus in East Bengal. The Blood telegrams to the State Department made that quite clear. Mr. Kann, in his review, takes no note of the ethnic cleansing and genocide engaged in by the Pakistan Army and that America did not try even moral suasion on its ally.

Of course, it appears that Henry Kissinger was nothing, if not consistent. Apparently, some recently declassified documents show that he was as supportive of the Argentine military junta as he was of Pakistan.

While it would be easy for Indians reading the book to form an instinctive anti-American view, based on the behaviour of the Nixon-Kissinger duo at that time, should also remember the rousing welcome that Edward Kennedy got in India, at the height of the refugee crisis.

Today, so much is being written about the ‘magnanimity’ shown by Mrs. Angela Merkel of Germany towards refugees from Arabia. In fact, a friend of mine wondered why she did not think that something was amiss when all these young men swam and ran and made their way into Europe, leaving behind their wives, sisters, mothers and children. Mrs. Merkel is not popular in her own country for what she is doing. Clearly, instance of misbehaviour and dangerous behaviour in Germany by the refugees are proliferating.

Yet, forty-five years ago, India accepted ten to twelve times more refugees than Germany had done. Forty five years ago, India was too poor and yet, had to bear the brunt of the inflow of millions of refugees from East Bengal.

However, Gary Bass does not come across as someone sympathetic to India’s cause and situation. He seems to go out of his way to appear to be even-handed by not sparing India from the blame for how the situation evolved.

Kenneth Keating, the American Ambassador to India was solidly behind India and Joseph Farland, the Ambassador in Pakistan was solidly behind his host nation. Kissinger was furious that all Ambassadors who end up in India went local! But, it escaped them that Joseph Farland was doing the same too. He had famously told Nixon that Hindus worshipped the cow and that Muslims ate it. It was as simple as that.

The book describes Zulfikar Ali Bhutto well. Despite (or, because of?) his education in Berkeley, he was very anti-American. Nixon did not like him. But, Kissinger thought that he was’ violently anti-Indian and pro-Chinese’. Blood simply called him ‘malevolent’.

Like with many (why ‘only’ many? – all, in fact) things in life, had there not been a devastating cyclone in East Bengal, things might have turned out different. Who knows? The cyclone, the devastation and the failure (ineptness) of the Pakistani administration to in providing rescue, relief and rehabilitation fomented and cemented the disaffection of the people of East Pakistan for the rulers in Islamabad. That is why when the elections happened, they voted overwhelmingly against the Pakistani ruling party and backed the Awami League. That is when the troubles started. West Pakistan did not accept the result and kept blocking the formation of the government precipitating the civil war.

The lack of trust meant that no compromise solution such as devolution – two Prime Ministers – one for East Pakistan and one for the West with a common President – would work. The people of East Pakistan wanted a ‘Bangla-desh’.

So, it was not human but it was a divine intervention in the form of the cyclone that set the ball rolling on the events that culminated in the vivisection of Pakistan into two nations. Nixon, with all his bluster and anti-India venom, could not prevent that from happening. For all their vanity and hubris, the hand of destiny uses humans to move things along a path that it has chosen for them!

Archer Blood died in 2004, at the age of 81.