Category Archives: Thoughts

The American déjà vu

Trump’s victory was a complete shock. In the run up to the election I kept repeating to my friends and colleagues that I was terrified by the possibility that he could win. For a long time in 2016 I believed that he actually would. But all the recent polls insisted in one voice that Hillary had a comfortable lead. And so I expected her victory.

But right now my most acute emotion is the distinct sense of déjà vu. After a successful two-term Democratic president, a robotic and nerdy heir-apparent is pitted against a bigot adept at sending dog whistles and speaking in dumbed down sentences but who somehow connects. The outcome? The nerd wins the popular vote but loses the Electoral College and the Presidency. We’ve seen it all before. Clinton vs Trump is but a repetition of Gore vs Bush. The consequences of 2000 were horrific. I’m afraid the consequences of 2016 will be even worse.

On the eve of the election, I wrote down the argument describing how the system is rigged, how the House, the Senate and the Supreme Court do not reflect the will of the people. As is now apparent, I missed the most glaring rigged arrangement of all. For the second time in the last 16 years, the Democrats won the popular vote and lost the Presidency.

Trump’s victory is disheartening in two ways.

First, it is disturbing to consider the far-reaching and dark consequences in terms of policies that he is likely to implement, for America, but also for the whole world. He will reverse climate change agreements. He will pass huge tax cuts for the rich. He is likely to roll back Obamacare, depriving millions of people of healthcare. He will double down on fossil fuels. He will spend massive amounts of money on unnecessary projects, the famous wall but one of them, probably personally enriching himself. He may well attack press freedoms. He will appoint a conservative Supreme Court judge, perhaps several, extending the right-wing dominance of the Court. All this will be done by a guy who has no popular mandate. Who lost the popular vote. This is maddening.

But his win is even more disheartening in its vast symbolism. What kind of signal does it send? You don’t have to prepare, you don’t need to work hard, your personal efforts do not matter. You can be a bigot and a bully, you can insult everybody in sight, you can behave like a teenager, you can abuse women. No need to be truthful. No need to be modest. No need to be hard-working. All that matters is that you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth, preferably as a man, and that you project boundless self-confidence. And then you can just lie your way to the Presidency.

A con man is the most powerful man in the world.

The rigged system

Donald Trump says the system is rigged.

He’s quite right. The system IS rigged.

It is striking that the most obvious way in which the system is rigged is virtually never mentioned. Election after election, the Democrats win more votes that the Republicans in the House elections. This happens every two years. And yet, it’s the Republicans that end up controlling the House – election after election. The reason can be summarised in one word. Gerrymandering.

The scandalous House results belie an even greater scandal. All states have the same two Senators representing them, irrespective of their population size and composition. This serves – again – to disenfranchise the minorities and the poor and to give outsize influence to the whites and the well-to-do. California and New York and Florida host all the colours of the rainbow. The Wyomings and the Montanas are almost exclusively white.

The Supreme Court is rigged too. The Republicans treat it as their own property. They have outright refused to confirm President Obama’s pick – an act unheard of in the history of the Court. And they promise to keep sabotaging Hillary’s picks indefinitely.

But the most glaring example of the rigged system is right in front of our eyes. For the length of this interminable Presidential election, the media have kept harping about one story and one story only – Hillary’s emails. More time has been spent by TV networks discussing her emails than on all her policies combined.

Her opponent is literally accused of assault by scores of women, confirms it in his own words, spews endless racist and xenophobic venom, insults everybody in sight, avoids paying any taxes, stiffs his contractors, discriminates against other races on his properties, goes bankrupt repeatedly, spends donated money on his own portraits, is a draft-dodger, knowingly abuses vulnerable people via fake university, is obviously unqualified and temperamentally unfit for office, is completely void of any policy knowledge or even interest in policy, lies non-stop in most obvious ways.

And yet all we hear about is Hillary’s emails. A farcical non-story. A practice that was never illegal. Something her own predecessor did and advised her to do, and something that never resulted in any harm. This non-story has zero news value, and yet in a tragical farce the media somehow represent it as an equivalent to all the unthinkable and vile acts that Donald Trump has committed in plain sight. In the paradox of partisanship, we have the audacity to pretend that the most qualified Presidential candidate in history is somehow comparable to the least qualified.

So yes, the system is rigged. And Donald Trump is its number one beneficiary.

The first debate: Trump sabotages himself

1. Elections matter. The two major parties in the U.S. are close to each other on issues. And yet there are very important differences. Had Gore been elected instead of Bush, Iraq war would have never happened. The incredibly wasteful tax cut would have never happened. And a concerted effort to combat climate change would have happened. These are enormous differences.

2. Too much TV watching makes you think that the world is going to hell. In fact the opposite is true. The world has never been as rich, as peaceful and as equal as it is today. And the trend is up. But you can mess it up, short-term. That’s what happened when the Americans elected “authentic” Bush over “nerdy” Gore. They can do it again, by electing “authentic” Trump over “nerdy” Hillary.

3. The U.S. presidential election is the ultimate reality show. The first nominee debate is the peak moment of that reality show, the ultimate showdown. And this was the most exciting such encounter ever. Most watched one too. Both candidates were under incredible pressure. But Hillary being the favourite, the pressure on her was simply immense.

4. Hillary is a flawed politician, but her performance in this debate was beyond excellent. She appeared calm and steely. Despite Trump interrupting her ceaselessly, she never lost her cool. He, on the other hand, got more and more flustered and angry, bordering on incoherent by the end of the debate. Every detail in the way she acted was immaculate, from her clothes to her body language to her laughter to the substance of what she said. She was the Sun and he was the Moon. She projected strength and appeared Presidential. Considering what pressure she was under, this is ridiculously difficult. And for all that, she appeared to be having fun.

5. Trump lost the debate. We know he didn’t prepare properly and this is what happens when you don’t prepare. I wrote that he doesn’t want to win. In truth, he’s probably torn. The presidency is too big of a prize not to want it once it’s in your sights. But it’s hard work, and I very much doubt he seriously wants to do this hard work. When you’re ambiguous like that, you sabotage yourself. His behaviour fits this pattern.

6. People are irrational creatures. We act based on emotion and then we rationalise our behaviour using reason. That’s why in “id” versus “intellect” elections, “id” often overperforms. It’s clear that Trump is the “id” and Clinton represents “intellect”. But in this debate, in addition to being obviously more competent, Hillary projected leadership and strength. She looked the winner. Whereas Trump, with his angry interruptions and petulant sighs, looked unhappy and weak. This is the type of mental picture that will diminish Trump’s “id” advantage.

7. Who will win? Last time (on 3 August 2016) I said that Clinton had the advantage, but Trump may still win “accidentally”. I stick to that view.

Trump doesn’t want to win

Back in January, before the voting started in the U.S. primaries, I posted on this blog. My belief was that Donald Trump was going to win the Republican primaries and become the Republican nominee for President. This prediction turned out to be exactly right.

In addition, I predicted that Trump would beat Hillary Clinton easily in the general election. Lo and behold, it is Trump versus Clinton. However the current polling shows that Clinton consistently leads Trump.

My belief is that Trump is a much stronger candidate than Clinton. On political instinct alone, he would beat her any day. However observing Trump over the recent months, particularly since he won the Republican nomination, I have come to believe that he does not want to actually win the Presidency. All his terrible statements and apparent personality flaws notwithstanding, Trump is certainly a very clever person. It cannot possibly be that he is unaware of the negative consequences of some of his statements in terms of his own popularity and the reaction from the public.

It may well be that Trump’s runaway success in the primaries was a surprise to himself first. And that he never expected to win the nomination and be in a position to win the Presidency. And once he saw that he is very close to winning the election, he came to a realisation that he doesn’t actually want to do the everyday job of the President which requires extreme concentration and dedication. At this stage, his thinking must be: how do I maximise my own pleasure and utility from this unexpected position I find myself in?

He revels in the glory of being the focus of attention of the whole country, if not the whole world. He wouldn’t trade that for anything. That’s why he’s not planning to withdraw. But he’s also not planning to win. The best way to achieve both ends? Continue making outrageous statements that keep everybody talking about him and make it impossible for him to win the general election.

I think it is highly likely that once Trump loses, he will cash in on his newfound political following. The most obvious way, as a number of commentators have pointed out, is Trump TV. Fox News is a money making machine – the top cable network in the U.S. – sustained by the existence of an army of right-leaning viewers. I’ve no doubt Trump observes its success with considerable interest. He has a ready-made audience of loyal followers right there.

As we’ve seen with Brexit, sometimes victory can be unexpected for the winners themselves. And they may utterly lack a plan. Trump is so good at campaigning that he may win accidentally, despite all the advantages that the Clinton campaign will surely accumulate – data-driven voter turnout operation, endless array of attack ads, a sterling lineup of surrogates. But Hillary is a deeply flawed candidate of the establishment in an election where the electorate craves change. Like Boris and Nigel, against all odds Donald might find himself a winner without a plan. That would be another catastrophe.

Trump as the Mule: will he alter history?

In my previous post, right before the Iowa caucuses, I predicted that Trump and Clinton would win their respective nominations, and that Trump would beat Clinton handily in the general election. Now that the Super Tuesday results are in, my predictions seem to be right on track so far.

Observing the election extravaganza, there is one thing that I find particularly striking. For all his success in attracting the votes of the disenchanted and the angry, Trump’s platform is incredibly vacuous. On issue after issue, we literally don’t know what he really stands for or what he will do once elected.

Yes, he does make some very controversially sounding noises, particularly on race and immigrants. But considering his oft-declared tactic of always making an impossibly high first ask to start a negotiation, we really don’t know what his true negotiating intent might be even on his most controversial issues.

Take healthcare. He declares that he will repeal Obamacare and replace it “with something a lot better”. That’s a position that can obviously be supported by everybody across the board – because everyone can fill it with their own meaning. Given that over the course of his life Trump has expressed a whole diapason of views on all kinds of topics, we truly have no idea what kind of “a lot better” he will go for as it applies to healthcare – or to anything else, for that matter.

In the sci-fi classic Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, the history of the Galaxy is steered in a preplanned direction by hidden Foundations, mysterious power brokers which know how to manipulate the rules of the game. And then a completely unexpected personage, called the Mule, appears. A mutant, possessing strange, near magical powers. The Mule goes on to wrestle control over half the Galaxy, completely upending the plans of the Foundation and throwing history into chaos.

Trump reminds me of the Mule. His unique blend of powers and abilities seems to be the perfect storm from the point of view of those who hold power. Unprecedented celebrity, unassailable wealth and genius for media manipulation – take away any of these ingredients, and his improbable run becomes impossible. But together they put him in a unique position to take control of the United States and implement an agenda that at this point is largely unknown and likely groundbreaking.

One result of such a paradoxical confluence of events is that very powerful interests are now stacked up against him. They may wait till he becomes President to see what he will actually do. But don’t be surprised if an assassination attempt happens early in his Presidency.

After a mighty struggle, the Foundation did overcome the Mule. The history of the Galaxy followed its predicted path.

How the IT revolution reshapes the American politics

With a held breath I’m following the unfolding of the American presidential race this year. Unusually, there is a genuine uncertainty this time as to how the race will develop and who will ultimately win.

It feels as if the lithospheric plates of American politics have began to shift. The unlikely figures, Trump and Sanders, are rocking the stage on both sides of the aisle. What gives? The answer is simple. The internet revolution has finally reached the American political mind.

The trick that both parties used to play with the electorate was essentially to promote whatever sells and then to implement an ulterior agenda while in power, sometimes completely ignoring the population’s preferences. The Republicans would concentrate the voters’ ire on culture wars and limited government while pushing through the agenda of expanding military spending and drastically cutting taxes on the superrich. The Democrats would focus on liberal social policies  while decisively deregulating the financial sector and bailing out banks at taxpayer’s cost. Both parties essentially serving the interests of moneyed elites while largely ignoring the preferences of the electorate in key areas.

That’s no longer possible. The age of (more) perfect information finally affects the United States. People like Trump and Sanders now have an unprecedented direct connection to the voters. In different ways, both of them are products of the information revolution. Trump is the emperor of the media in general and the social media in particular, deftly using both to amplify his message. A message sensibly tailored to the widely shared actual preferences of the Republican voters. Sanders is the king of online fundraising. Both insistently position themselves as not soiled by any super-PAC connection, as if super-PACs were some dirty underworld creatures. Citizens United has been neutralized by the internet revolution.

Trump has skilfully exploited the divide between the voters’ preferences and the official position taken by the party. As an example, the Republican establishment has endorsed the issue of immigration as an area of a convenient political compromise. Turns out, voters would have none of it. GOP politicians were not afraid of hammering on about the deficit, transparently preparing the ground for cutting social programs. But there is no support for touching Medicare or Medicaid among the electorate.

With an equal vigour, Sanders has endorsed Elizabeth Warren-style anti-rich rants. He is an authentic messenger for this creed, in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton. Her ties to financial services industry go back to her husband’s presidency and continue over the years as a steady stream of campaign contributions and speaking fees. Her credibility as an anti-inequality crusader is questionable at best.

Ultimately, the reason why Trump is the overwhelming favourite now to win the Republican nomination is the fact that he represents the voters’ preferences in the way that other candidates don’t. Will Sanders win on the Democratic side? Hillary Clinton is a mediocre politician who was propelled into the pole position by being uniquely connected to two former presidents. She has nevertheless amassed a solid lead in several key metrics: recognition, minority support, supercandidates and endorsements, money. This lead may be too large for Sanders to overcome. But watch out for the power of information technology revolution. Once he wins both Iowa and New Hamphshire, Bern she will feel.

My prediction for the general election: Trumps beats Hillary in a walk.

What does Merkel want? Mass migration is German Chancellor’s secret weapon against aging

The hot topic in the news for the past weeks has been the unprecedented influx of migrants into the European Union. I am surprised by a distinct difference between what my friends from the West and my friends from the East of Europe are saying privately on this question. The Westerners tend to focus on the plight of the migrants and on the ways how we as individuals can help them. The Easterners on the other hand are puzzled by the perceived naiveté of the West. They are honestly wondering if Angela Merkel is irrational, reactive or simply confused. What are her motives to invite thousands, if not millions of poor people from a different culture into her country, seemingly creating a cultural disaster of her own making?

In 2001 CIA prepared a major report that discussed the major worldwide demographic trends and their implications for security and economic growth. (It’s still readily available on their website.) Discussing the dangers of one key trend – aging in developed countries – the report pointed out that to maintain the size of its working-age population, Japan would need nearly 650,000 migrants per year in years 2000-2050. Germany would need 487,000, and Italy 327,000. It literally said that “developed countries will need record levels of immigrants to support their retirees. Immigration to Germany would have to far exceed the 1 million immigrants in 1990 that resulted from unification. Strong public resistance to immigration—especially in Germany and Japan—will fuel political controversy.”

In real life we have not seen anything like these numbers. There have been attempts to create an orderly migration system along the lines of Canada or Australia for Europe, but the political will simply isn’t there – not in Germany and not in the greater European Union.

What we suddenly saw in 2015 was how Angela Merkel seized the sad occasion of a humanitarian crisis in Syria to decisively advance a necessary but painful dynamic. It didn’t hurt that the Syrian population is relatively well-educated. To call for massive migration in order to combat aging (and steal some qualified foreign manpower in the process) just wouldn’t fly. But to invite refugees chased by a terrible dictator was suddenly very popular. “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” were chanting the German demonstrators in the throes of altruistic élan. Flabbergasting many a parochial observer in Eastern Europe in the process. We are beginning to see the backclash caused by inevitable cultural frictions. There will be a lot more of it.

And yet massive immigration into the EU is here to stay. It’s only the beginning. In terms of the numbers, we ain’t seen nothing yet. As developing countries become slightly richer and people get access to information and transport, the migratory flows will become ever stronger. For our aging societies, that might not be a bad thing.

Taking stock of one mad trip

It is often like that with travel. You feel somewhere between amused and bored as you wander around a strange faraway destination. And yet as you look back at that moment just a couple of months later from another place thousands of kilometres away, the very fact of having physically occupied a small piece of the Earth out there seems surreal.

That is how I feel now that I am back in Europe, as I look back at my trip around Latin America and the Caribbean. So many places discovered, so many new (and old) people met, so many impressions and events… and all of that in such a short timespan!

Sometimes I think back about my days before this crazy two-year-long trip and it feels to me as if all of it was in another life. I have changed so much, experienced so much and learnt so much. And simply time-wise it feels like a temporal abyss separates me from that day in 2013 when I left Brussels.

Certainly it was the most intense period of my life.

As for you, my dear blog, I must apologise to you that I haven’t spent much time with you in these last months. You are probably well and truly upset with me. Yes, other causes have consumed my energy. I could probably write 25 posts about all the places I visited during that time. And in the back of my mind I still have that idea, that need – to write about these places. Now that I will not write about them day to day, it will be a retrospective look. But how surreal and magical it feels to take that look.
Looking down at Minsk

Their art is not art, it’s a part of general ritualistic complex. They use it as a tool. Only in a disconnected society like ours, the Western society, art is called art, it’s isolated and not a part of the whole system.

Марина Абрамовић

Twenty best experiences of 2014

What does it mean to travel for a year around the world? At the end of 2013 I wrote a selection of 20 best experiences of the first part of the trip. As the year 2014 was rolling in, I was seriously asking myself: could I possibly surpass 2013?

Today my answer is: absolutely yes! This was a tremendous year full of events and impressions and new people and places. Indeed so intense was the year, that as I re-read some of my early posts of 2014, I feel like they might have happened in another life eons ago.

Here are the twenty most powerful experiences of 2014:

20. Helicoptering to the top of a glacier
It was my lifelong fantasy to fly in a helicopter, and what a spectacular way to do it! In New Zealand’s Franz Josef, a helicopter took us up all the way to the top of a glacier, inaccessible otherwise. An otherworldly walk in the land of ice and light inside a deep glacier valley followed.

Continue reading Twenty best experiences of 2014