The Death of Expertise

March 27, 2017

While the internet has allowed more people more access to more information than ever before, it has also given them the illusion of knowledge when in fact they are drowning in data and cherry-picking what they choose to read. Given an inexhaustible buffet of facts, rumors, lies, serious analysis, crackpot speculation and outright propaganda to browse online, it becomes easy for one to succumb to “confirmation bias” — the tendency, as Nichols puts it, “to look for information that only confirms what we believe, to accept facts that only strengthen our preferred explanations, and to dismiss data that challenge what we accept as truth.”

Citizens of all political persuasions (not to mention members of the Trump administration) can increasingly live in their own news media bubbles, consuming only views similar to their own. When confronted with hard evidence that they are wrong, many will simply double down on their original assertions. “This is the ‘backfire effect,’” Nichols writes, “in which people redouble their efforts to keep their own internal narrative consistent, no matter how clear the indications that they’re wrong.” As a result, extreme views are amplified online, just as fake news and propaganda easily go viral.

Today, all these factors have combined to create a maelstrom of unreason that’s not just killing respect for expertise, but also undermining institutions, thwarting rational debate and spreading an epidemic of misinformation. These developments, in turn, threaten to weaken the very foundations of our democracy. As Nichols observes near the end of this book: “Laypeople complain about the rule of experts and they demand greater involvement in complicated national questions, but many of them only express their anger and make these demands after abdicating their own important role in the process: namely, to stay informed and politically literate enough to choose representatives who can act on their behalf.”


Confused Conservatives

March 26, 2017

Confused Conservatives

by Scott

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As the West continues its struggle with hard right extremists, Malaysians have perhaps looked at the most powerful country in the world and felt a chill of déjà vu. We’ve had plenty of experience with contradictory statements from our public officials, our messy bureaucracy and a childish administration that seems to exist in its own deluded reality.

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The doublespeak and the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump’s administration in the face of criticism is eerily reminiscent of what we go through in Malaysia on a regular basis, and perhaps it is time too to look at the resurgence of right-wing rhetoric around us.

Conservatism takes many forms, but we’re concerned here with social conservatives, who of late have earned for themselves a black name in the United States for their disregard of boundaries in their determination to win the culture war. In the highly charged protest against the withdrawal of tax exemptions from racist Christian colleges, we cannot fail to see that the festering heart of the movement was always just below the surface.

But what of Malaysia, where conservatism has been a way of life for the better part of our history since independence?

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Malaysian conservatism has long revolved around the “Malay way of life”, which ostensibly revolves around the culture and customs of the Malays, but has evolved in recent decades into one centred on a strict and punitive version of Islam. And thus, in recent years, we’ve been watching a race among various groups to see which can be more conservative than the others.

When NGOs can say barefacedly that non-Malays and non-Muslims must pay taxes but accept being exiled from the administrative process of the country, one must wonder if we have reached peak conservatism – in other words, the rock bottom. Add to that the inflammatory rhetoric that states that Chinese Malaysians are intruders originally brought in by the British to oppress the Malays, and one has to wonder if the situation is absolutely hopeless.

Conservatism’s biggest weakness has always been the assuredness of its own righteousness, and as it has slid further to the right, those pronunciations of religious privilege become ever louder. One suspects even the conservatives know that loud noises are needed to obscure the shakiness of their positions.

Much like Trump’s self-contradicting evangelical Christian support, conservatives are far too often willing to ignore logical fallacies and ideological inconsistencies to ensure that their message makes its way out into the mainstream. Conservative commentators in the US have observed this phenomenon and have made much of the battle for the Christian soul that Trump’s election represented. That battle was obviously lost and has resulted in the America we see today.

Modern Malaysian conservatism does not lie at a crossroads. It continues down that same path it was set on by those who claimed to succeed Tunku Abdul Rahman’s spirit, absorbing and distorting the narrative in its favour every step of the way. At which point will it be time for self-reflection? Without that moment of clarity, the fear that things will never improve becomes one that is too close to the skin.

Scott Ng is an FMT columnist.

Steve Bannon’s Political Mythology

March 23, 2017

Steve Bannon’s Political Mythology  does not stand up to strict rational analysis

 by Nicholas Lemann @

Steve Bannon is the keeper of the secret formula—that peculiar and potent mix of aggressive bluster and selective empathy—that enabled Donald Trump to be elected. It’s worth remembering how unlikely the success of the formula seemed even a year ago. Before Trump got to Hillary Clinton, and when Bannon was an informal adviser, the candidate mowed down a long list of Republican opponents, without being the biggest spender or having the best organization. That was because the formula worked. It isn’t conventionally liberal or conservative, and it doesn’t have much in common with the standard views of either political party. Essentially, all of Trump’s Republican opponents were more pro-market, more pro-trade, and more anti-government than he was. And Clinton, by virtue of unexpected pressure from Bernie Sanders, had moved slightly in the direction of the Trump formula before she was nominated.

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Last week, Bannon gave an extended interview to the Wall Street Journal, in which he offered an origin story about his (as the Journal’s headline put it) “journey to economic nationalism.” He said that Marty Bannon, his ninety-five-year-old father, a devout Catholic whose education ended at the third grade, had, like his father before him, worked at A.T. & T. for half a century, rising slowly from a blue-collar job to a white-collar one; his loyalty to the company was so great that he put all his savings into A.T. & T. stock. Then, in October of 2008, he was watching Jim Cramer on the “Today” show, and heard Cramer say that it was time to sell—so he did. Poof, a hundred thousand dollars of painstakingly accumulated savings were gone, even as the financial institutions that perpetrated the crisis were being bailed out. Bannon told the Journal, “Everything since then has come from there. All of it.”

This is political mythology, and it doesn’t stand up to strict rational analysis. Steve Bannon was well into his career as a conservative documentary filmmaker who sounded nationalist notes before the 2008 financial crisis. And, after watching Cramer on television, Marty Bannon had lots of better options than selling his stock. He neglected to consult his sons—two of whom, including Steve, had worked in finance—before selling. They would have told him not to. Had he not sold, he would not have lost any money, because A.T. & T. stock regained its value over time. There were many other, more prudent ways he could have invested his savings over the years than putting it all into a single company’s stock, like buying shares in a mutual fund. He had bought some of his A.T. & T. stock with borrowed money, which he should not have done.

“He’s the backbone of the country, the everyman who plays by the rules, the hardworking dad that delays his own gratification for the family,” Steve Bannon told the Journal. People like that were often treated like dirt during the early Gilded Age days of industrial capitalism in America; that situation was corrected by an expanded federal government, and Marty Bannon was the beneficiary. He lived under a social compact that was created during the two liberal heydays of the first half of the twentieth century, the Progressive Era and the New Deal, and that shaped the lives of many millions of Americans. Beginning in 1913, A.T. & T. was a heavily regulated, government-sanctioned monopoly. It was able to provide the rock-solid stability that the elder Bannon remembers because it had no competitors but did have passive and widely dispersed investors (for decades, A.T. & T. had by far the highest number of individual stockholders of any American company), as well as the heavy hand of the state pushing it to treat its employees generously, through unionization and other means.

A.T. & T., when Bannon worked there, was hardly an exemplar of the prevailing values of the modern Republican Party—or the modern Democratic Party, for that matter. In the nineteen-eighties, the government broke A.T. & T. up into seven smaller companies. Today, many mergers and acquisitions later, two of the seven survive, and telephone service is a duopoly—A.T. & T. and Verizon—rather than a monopoly. Along the way, the company, along with many other big corporations, dropped most of the welfare-state aspects that Marty Bannon misses so keenly. All of this happened because the consensus about economic regulation changed profoundly: telephone deregulation began during the Nixon Administration and proceeded through the Presidencies of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. But it’s fair to say that, between big government and the free market, the latter is far more to blame than the former for what happened to Marty Bannon.

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Steve Bannon himself, as he acknowledges in the Journal story, has none of the fanatical loyalty that has been the touchstone of his father’s life. He is an educated-élite type who has switched jobs and locations repeatedly. One can call him a hypocrite, but he has been able to use his sense of his father’s life effectively in service of his own, and Trump’s, political ambitions. (Remember that Franklin Roosevelt had nothing in common with most of his constituents, either.) Bannon told the Journal, “The problem we’ve had is that in the ascendant economy—Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood—the Marty Bannons of the world were getting washed out to sea, and nobody was paying attention to them.” This is potent stuff, best thought of as a powerful political weapon that could conceivably be used for good or for evil, and by the Republicans or the Democrats. It could easily be deployed against the Trump Administration, which is now trying to dismantle the Obama-era government agency that was created after the crash to protect small investors like Marty Bannon, and has Goldman Sachs alumni (like Steve Bannon) in its top economic-policy posts. Liberals are missing a big opportunity if they don’t try to tell stories like Marty Bannon’s in a different way, and to offer people who are touched by them a different kind of hope.


Trump prepares to pass the world leadership baton to China

March 19, 2017

Trump prepares to pass the world leadership baton to China

by Fareed Zakaria

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We do not yet have the official agenda for next month’s meeting in Florida between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. But after 75 years of U.S. leadership on the world stage, the Mar-a-Lago summit might mark the beginning of a handover of power from the United States to China. Trump has embraced a policy of retreat from the world, opening a space that will be eagerly filled by the Communist Party of China.

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Trump railed against China on the campaign trail, bellowing that it was “raping” the United States. He vowed to label it a currency manipulator on his first day in office. But in his first interaction with Beijing, he caved. Weeks after his election, Trump speculated that he might upgrade relations with Taiwan. In response, Xi froze all contacts between Beijing and Washington on all issues, demanding that Trump reverse himself — which is exactly what happened. (Perhaps just coincidentally, a few weeks later, the Chinese government granted the Trump Organization dozens of trademark rights in China, with a speed and on a scale that surprised many experts.)

The Trump administration’s vision for disengagement from the world is a godsend for China. Look at Trump’s proposed budget, which would cut spending on “soft power” — diplomacy, foreign aid, international organizations — by 28 percent. Beijing, by contrast, has quadrupled the budget of its foreign ministry in the past decade. And that doesn’t include its massive spending on aid and development across Asia and Africa. Just tallying some of Beijing’s key development commitments, George Washington University’s David Shambaugh estimates the total at $1.4 trillion, compared with the Marshall Plan, which in today’s dollars would cost about $100 billion.

China’s growing diplomatic strength matters. An Asian head of government recently told me that at every regional conference, “Washington sends a couple of diplomats, whereas Beijing sends dozens. The Chinese are there at every committee meeting, and you are not.” The result, he said, is that Beijing is increasingly setting the Asian agenda.

The Trump administration wants to skimp on U.S. funding for the United Nations. This is music to Chinese ears. Beijing has been trying to gain influence in the global body for years. It has increased its funding for the U.N. across the board and would likely be delighted to pick up the slack as the United States withdraws. As Foreign Policy magazine’s Colum Lynch observes, China has already become the second-largest funder of U.N. peacekeeping and has more peacekeepers than the other four permanent Security Council members combined. Of course, in return for this, China will gain increased influence, from key appointments to shifts in policy throughout the U.N. system.

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The first major act of the Trump administration was to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a treaty that would have opened up long-closed economies such as Japan and Vietnam, but also would have created a bloc that could stand up to China’s increasing domination of trade in Asia. The TPP was, in Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s words, “a litmus test” of U.S. credibility in Asia. With Washington’s withdrawal, even staunchly pro-American allies such as Australia are hedging their bets. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has raised the possibility of China joining the TPP, essentially turning a group that was meant to be a deterrent against China into one more arm of Chinese influence.

The United States’ global role has always meant being at the cutting edge in science, education and culture. Here again, Washington is scaling back while Beijing is ramping up. In Trump’s proposed budget, the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the national laboratories face crippling cuts, as do many exchange programs that have brought generations of young leaders to be trained in the United States and exposed to American values. Beijing, meanwhile, has continued to expand “Confucius Institutes” around the world and now offers 20,000 scholarships for foreign students to go to China. Its funding for big science rises every year. The world’s largest telescope is in China, not the United States.

The Trump administration does want a bigger military. But that has never been how China has sought to compete with U.S. power. Chinese leaders have pointed out to me that this was the Soviet strategy during the Cold War, one that failed miserably. The implication was: Let Washington waste resources on the Pentagon, while Beijing would focus on economics, technology and soft power.

Trump’s new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, once remarked that trying to fight the United States symmetrically — tank for tank — was “stupid.” The smart strategy would be an asymmetrical one. The Chinese seem to understand this.

Steve Bannon, Ryancare and the Fate of Trump’s Agenda

March 18, 2017

Steve Bannon, Ryancare and the Fate of Trump’s Agenda

by Ryan Lizza

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the White House, Steve Bannon’s office, on the first floor of the West Wing, is called the war room. Bannon, the Administration’s chief strategist, has cleared out much of the furniture, and on one wall has hung an enormous whiteboard on which he has scrawled every promise that Donald Trump made during the campaign. Bannon and the war room are the heart of the effort to turn Trump’s populist campaign into a policy agenda that can pass Congress or be implemented through executive actions.

Bannon is trying to infuse Trumpism with a coherent nationalist “workers’ party” agenda. Trump’s health-care bill was written by the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, who is a more traditional conservative, and, as the Congressional Budget Office and other nonpartisan analysts have noted, older, rural, low-income white voters—the Trump base—would fare worse under the new legislation than under Obamacare. This makes the American Health Care Act a poor showpiece, to say the least, for Trump’s alleged transformation of the Republican Party into a vehicle for white-working-class assistance.

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Ryancare–Doomed to Failure

Nonetheless, Bannon knows that the Ryan bill’s failure would be catastrophic for the rest of Trump’s agenda, because it would break a core campaign promise and sap Trump’s already limited political capital. So, on Saturday night, Bannon secretly hosted Mark Meadows, the leader of the Freedom Caucus, for several of hours of negotiations in the war room. (At least one of Meadows’s own top staffers didn’t know he was there.) The Freedom Caucus, which is made up of some forty of the most conservative members of Congress, opposes the Ryan bill on the grounds that it’s too similar to Obamacare. The resistance from Meadows and his allies threatens to hobble the entire effort—Ryan cannot lose more than twenty-two House Republicans and still pass the bill

The details of the deal that may emerge between Meadows and the White House are still murky, and might not be enough to overcome all the obstacles in the House. But a top White House official insisted that the meeting was the moment that “the real deal started getting done.” A G.O.P. aide familiar with the negotiations said to me, about the meeting, “there’s a bigger play in the works here.”

It’s prudent to remain skeptical. Any concessions to Meadows—who laid out his demands for a less generous bill yesterday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed co-authored with Senator Ted Cruz—might scare off moderates who want more assistance for low-income Americans through Medicaid or the individual market. But perhaps Bannon and Ryan can overcome the bill’s challenges. From a political standpoint, the White House is correct in assuming that the downfall of the Ryan health-care bill could have a cascading effect on the rest of Trump’s agenda.

Consider for a moment how Trump’s agenda is faring compared to the last President’s. By this point in his Presidency, Barack Obama had passed an eight-hundred-and-thirty-one-billion-dollar stimulus bill, a sweeping piece of legislation that alone would have made his first term memorable. By early April his first federal budget had passed both chambers of Congress, laying the groundwork for his overhauls of health care and government spending on education. Obama signed these large-scale policy changes into law the following year, along with the rewrite of Wall Street regulations known as Dodd-Frank. Of all the major pieces of legislation that Obama pushed during his first two years, only his climate-change plan, which passed the House and died in the Senate, failed. In all, it was the most significant period of legislating since Lyndon Johnson’s first few years in office.

Obama had several major advantages over Trump: a high approval rating, a large majority in Congress that was relatively united (including, for a stretch in late 2009, a filibuster-proof Senate), and an economic crisis that created a sense of urgency. Obama, like previous Presidents, understood that his best chance for getting big things accomplished was at the start of his first term.

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As Trump hit fifty days in office this week, his Presidency was teetering on failure. Health-care reform is hobbled by divisions between conservatives who want to cut Medicaid deeper and faster and moderates who want to preserve the Obama-era expansion. Yesterday Trump released a budget with eye-popping cuts to discretionary spending that many Republicans have described as dead on arrival. Even with the proposed increase in Pentagon spending, many defense hawks are opposed to the draconian cuts at the State Department.

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After 50 days

More moderate Republicans, especially the two dozen who are in districts carried by Hillary Clinton in the last election, are balking at the annihilation of popular programs, such as federal assistance for Meals on Wheels and spending on clean-air and water programs. Unlike Obama’s first budget, Trump’s will be rewritten in Congress, as numerous Republicans made clear yesterday. Meanwhile, Trump’s second attempt at an executive order banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries is again being successfully challenged in the courts, eating up more time and resources in an overwhelmed White House. The Russia investigation, which will begin on Monday with potentially damaging testimony from the F.B.I. director, James Comey, is only beginning.

But Trump’s first test is his ability to fashion a complex deal on health care—a task that would be difficult for even the most skilled Washington negotiator. In the Bannon war room, there are only a few items with check marks next to them on the whiteboard. If health care dies, there won’t be many more.

*Ryan Lizza is the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, and also an on-air contributor for CNN