The Rocket Man and the Dotard
For some, 2018 has been a year of disappointing clarity. Speaking from his hotel suite by Lake Zurich, billionaire patron of liberal causes George Soros lamented the fate of the globalized world. "Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong," he said:
His favored presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, lost to President Donald Trump, whose "America First" platform runs counter to the globalism Soros embraces. Trump, he said, "is willing to destroy the world." The European Union, which Soros once hoped would be so successful that he could end his charitable work in the region, is contending with the impending loss of Britain and a rise of anti-immigrant sentiment. And Soros himself has emerged as a political target in elections from Hungary to California, where his donations have been used as a cudgel against the causes he supports.
Though Soros defiantly vowed to double down on his efforts despite setbacks, Reihan Salam of The Atlantic is willing to consider the alternative: maybe globalization itself, or at least the way it was implemented, was a big mistake. Salam argues it facilitated Beijing's entry into corporate networks which now constitute "Chimerica," the meld of multinational corporations with "China-centric supply chains" that, like Frankenstein's monster, Washington can no longer rid themselves of.
Had America been more careful, Salam argues:
... [the U.S. could] have entered the age of globalization under markedly different terms: Instead of offshoring much of its industrial base to an often-hostile authoritarian power, perhaps it would have deepened its economic ties to democratizing states in Latin America, Asia, and the wider world. ... There is no going back. We can’t rewrite history. ... The question is what we should do now. For starters, I propose admitting that we made a grave mistake.
"A grave mistake."
The public acrimony following the conclusion of the recent G7 summit only confirmed the breakup of the "international world order." Trump is already treating it like a dying institution. "Donald Trump Prefers Unscripted Kim Summit in Singapore to G7 Ritual," writes the BBC.
Salon summarizes the analysis of Yanis Varoufakis, "a leftist academic who briefly served as the Greek finance minister at the apex of that nation’s debt crisis in 2015," of the global economy. In his book, Varoufakis describes the international order as a fraud with no more basis in reality than The Wizard of Oz:
Varoufakis argues that the entire Western economy has become a massive con game, on a scale thousands or millions of times larger than anything Bernie Madoff could have imagined.
Furthermore, in his telling, it’s a con game run by intelligent and not necessarily malevolent people who understand perfectly well that the whole enterprise is a fraud that’s bound to come crashing down eventually. He says he knows that to be true because those people told him so, in the kinds of closed-door meetings where the uppermost level of the managerial caste discuss such things. That’s where the “Greek tragedy” enters the Greek tragedy: Those who supposedly control the system have instead become its prisoners. Or to put it another way, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
What all these narratives have in common is a retrospective explanation for the crisis that is now officially acknowledged by Angela Merkel, though as yet without a name. No longer do people believe that Hillary Clinton's defeat and Brexit's passage was a fluke. They accept it as part of something larger. Addressing a political gathering, the German chancellor declared the phenomenon "confirms the assessment that the world is being reorganized" and that Europe desperately needs to circle the wagons against the menace of the unknown future.
What that menace consists of -- no one yet knows.
The forthcoming summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un reflects this. It is taking place against the backdrop of a chaotic international stage with the air of a "rollercoaster" ride as Kirsty Needham of the Sydney Morning Herald put it. "The commemorative coins have been minted and Singapore is going into lockdown" for the meeting between "The Dotard and the Rocket Man," quoting a headline from the Korea Times, encapsulating in one phrase the juxtaposition between the awesome gravity of nuclear war and the carnival atmosphere of a comic book convention:
Just 300 metres from the Capella hotel, where a US president will sit down for the first time with a North Korean leader and talk nuclear weapons, is Universal Studios. It boasts the world's tallest duelling rollercoaster, "a battle between good and evil", and "unbelievable thrills" as two intertwined coasters race towards each other.
Negotiations to this point have felt like the nearby rollercoaster ride, and, come Tuesday, the world will strap in and hold its breath for more.
"Con game" though the vision of a globalized world may have been, it at least provided reassuring certitude about the future. The globalization model told everyone, admittedly without proof, where the sun would rise and where the End of History would be. For decades the European Union as the examplar of a borderless, multicultural and secular world dominated by giant international institutions was sold as tomorrow. Until suddenly it wasn't.
What went horribly wrong for Soros in 2018 was the future he believed in and poured his fortune into creating disappeared. The real future, to the anxious anticipation of Angela Merkel and many ordinary citizens, is about to make its appearance. What will it be?
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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds - from lawyers to truck drivers - will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT's Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.
Open Curtains: What if Privacy were Property not only a Right, by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. This book is a proposal for bringing privacy to the internet by assigning monetary value to data. The image of "open curtains" is meant to suggest a system that allows different degrees of privacy, controlled by the owner. The "curtains" may be open, shut, or open to various degrees depending on which piece of data is being dealt with. Ultimately, what is at stake is governance. We are en route to control of society by and for the few rather than by and for the many, because currently the handful of mega tech companies are siphoning up everyone's data, for nothing, and selling it. Under the open curtains proposal, government would also pay for its surveillance in the form of tax rebates, providing at least some incentive for government to minimize its intrusions ... (from a review by E. Greenwood).
Skin in the Game, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his new work, Taleb uses the phrase "skin in the game" to introduce a complex worldview that applies to literally all aspects of our lives. "Never trust anyone who doesn't have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will profit and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them," he says. In his inimitable style, he pulls on everything from Antaeus the Giant to Hammurabi to Donald Trump to Seneca to the ethics of disagreement to create a jaw-dropping tapestry for understanding our world in a brand new way.
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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific