The Insidious Wiles of Foreign Influence: Trump, Bin Salman, and Netanyahu

Even if the Saudi monarchy or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in particular did not murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi, that regime is an especially evil one in both its domestic and international conduct. To see that, one need only consider the horrendous Saudi war against the people of Yemen, with the backing of the U.S. government starting with Barack Obama. That war, with its merciless killing of defenseless thousands and its inevitable benefits to al-Qaeda, is just the latest in a series Saudi atrocities.

Predictably, Donald Trump wants it all ways. He’s made the obligatory mild critical remarks at the same time as he floated his “theory” that Khashoggi’s death may have been carried out by rogue agents. But since that explanation, along with the “interrogation gone wrong” alternative, is hardly likely, Trump seems to be banking on his warm relationship with and confidence in the credibility of King Salman and the crown prince to reassure us. Actually, Trump has two things on his mind: arms sales and Iran.

He believes, first, that he can make the U.S. economy vibrant by being the country’s arms-trafficker-in-chief. He can throw multibillion-dollar figures around like confetti all day, but that he can’t erase the fact that a thriving arms industry is not the key to real and general prosperity. Quite the contrary, its products either destroy lives and wealth or rust. Real prosperity is not captured by aggregate numbers, whether they refer to military contractors’ profits, stock prices, or GDP. Real prosperity means regular people having increasingly easier access to the goods and services they believe will enhance their lives. As long as the laws of physics operate, scarcity — though, thanks to technology and innovation, not its severity — will be with us. So if people are devoting resources to making warplanes, killer drones, and bombs, they aren’t making things that you and I actually use. Arms-industry fatcats and their workers will make money, but they could be making money in ways that actually serve consumers instead of murderous and oppressive dictators, monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers.

Trump is wrong: this is not about the economy. His position is a dangerous mix of economic illiteracy fueled by nationalism and a hegemonic geopolitical vision according to which Iran is throttled and Israel is enabled, with Saudi Arabia as a beneficiary. Those objectives serve neither most Americans nor the rest of the world’s people.

The old admonition about permanent and entangling alliances still holds. As often as it’s been quoted, it’s worth quoting again — Washington’s Farewell Address, that is. Despite all its qualifications, Washington’s essential message is clear:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. [Emphasis added.]

While steering clear of alliances is good advice, we may still question why the American regime has, beginning long before Trump, chosen one government for an ally over another. Why, for example, is the U.S. government close to Saudi Arabia rather than Iran? It certainly is not the case that the former is more liberal than the latter. That would be a laughable proposition. To pick a random test, how close are centers of Riyadh and Tehran to the nearest synagogues? I wouldn’t want to live in either place, but if those were my only choices, please give me Tehran. As for Iran’s allegedly creeping hegemony in the Middle East, check your premises. George W. Bush made Iran influential in Iraq by invading and knocking off Iran’s nemesis Saddam Hussein. (Iraq invaded and waged a long war, using chemical weapons, against Iran in the 1980s — with U.S. help — not vice versa.) Then Bush and Obama brought Iran closer to Syria by their continued war in Iraq, giving birth of the Islamic State, and Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s declaring open season on Bashar al-Assad after the putative civil war broke out. Iran, no matter what Trump tells you, does not aspire and never has aspired to be a nuclear power. (See Gareth Porter’s Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.) Nor does it aspire to attack the United States or Israel, though it does oppose Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Iran is not on the march.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable party to a great deal of mischief, including mischief involving al-Qaeda — you know, the organization that brought down the Twin Towers — throughout the greater region and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The U.S. friendship with Saudi Arabia has benefitted al-Qaeda and even worse offshoots in Syria.

Thus the demonization of Iran and the glorification of Saudi Arabia, whence Muslim extremism was born, has no rational basis.

And Israel? The self-declared State of the Jewish People (a label rejected by countless Jews worldwide) has forged an alliance with Saudi Arabia for the dual purpose of intimidating Iran and cowing the long-suffering Palestinians. America’s entangling alliance with Israel has amounted to a gross offense against humanity, blackening whatever reputation the United States once might have had as a beacon of freedom, justice, and goodwill. Furthermore, the partnership has endangered Americans by provoking a desire for revenge in those who identify with the Muslim victims of U.S.-Israeli policy.

One final matter: the question of whether the U.S. government should block arms sales to the Saudis. We can say for sure that the government should in no way facilitate the sales. That’s an easy one. But maybe the arms makers need neither government material help nor Trump’s salesmanship to close deals with the House of Saud. In refusing to come down too hard on Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi disappearance, Trump said, “I will tell you up front, right now they’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment. And if we don’t sell to them, they’ll say thank you very much, we’ll buy it from Russia or China.” (On the actual size of the deal, see this.)

Is Trump right that Russian or China might have gotten the deal? I don’t know, but if he is right, it raises interesting questions: did Trump make any side promises to close the deal; if so, what were they and would the deal have gone through without them? Most likely, any promises have involved things Trump and perhaps Israel would or would not do with respect to Iran and the Palestinians. We deserve answers.

Assuming American arms makers would sell arms to Saudi Arabia and other regimes without government help, we may complicate the matter further by pointing out that those firms are not actually private enterprises, no matter their appearance. Rather, they are creatures of the American state and deserve no respect from supporters of free enterprise. It’s unlikely they would exist in anything like their current form, if at all, were it not for the U.S. government, its captive taxpayers, and its global imperial apparatus, whose personnel rotate regularly between “national security” jobs and lucrative seats on defense contractors’ boards of directors. The upshot is that these nominally private firms are really state-held, that is, illegitimately held, property and could legitimately be liberated and turned to the production of goods for the consumers. In 1969 Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess wrote provocatively about when an apparently private entity is actually not private and what we might do about it. Some of their solutions are debatable, but Rothbard was surely correct when he wrote: “What we libertarians object to, then, is not government per se but crime, what we object to is unjust or criminal property titles; what we are for is not ‘private’ property per se but just, innocent, non-criminal private property. It is justice vs. injustice, innocence vs. criminality that must be our major libertarian focus.”

The Arms Export Control Act of 1976 (AECA) requires a president to ensure that arms sold to other governments are used for defensive purposes only. Obviously, this act is flouted every day. Imagine if it were applied to Saudi Arabia and Israel! It’s not that I’m a fan of the AECA: a president who wants to see arms sold to a repressive regime will find ways to give that regime a clean bill of health; the AECA would have no force in such a case. On the other hand, it has been used to harass exporters of encryption software to people who would use it to protect themselves from their oppressors’ prying eyes.

So what can we do? Our options are limited at this point. But one ought to do whatever one can to sow public hostility toward these “merchants of death”: public shaming, divestment campaigns, and the like. It’s the least we can do. At least let us make a loud noise!

If someone is going to sell arms to the Saudis and other regimes, I’d rather it be someone other than us Americans because I don’t want to be even remotely associated with the inevitable crimes against humanity that will follow.

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The Cost (and Rewards) of Generosity

Serving others is costly.

A life of service forces you to pay the price of abandoning your scarcity mindset and all the sympathy that comes with it. When you walk around with an “it’s just little ole me” attitude or when you carry yourself as someone who doesn’t have enough to share, no one expects anything of you and they extend pity in your direction.

When you decide to step up and share your gifts with others, however, it gives you the appearance of abundance. When you behave generously, people see you as someone who actually has something to give. It can be really hard to give up comments like “Wow, you really have it rough” in exchange for comments like “Wow, you really have a lot going for you.”

This might sound like the beginnings of an argument for not being generous. It’s not. Because the best part about being generous is how it changes the way you see yourself.

Once you get into the rhythm and groove of looking for opportunities to create value, you start to realize that you always have more to give than what meets the eye. By acting generously, you begin to experience life in a more generous way. It produces a fundamental shift in your mindset that leads to greater opportunities.

If you truly want to experience the universe as a place brimming with possibilities, go solve some problems for people.

Even if you see yourself as the one who has the most problems, the best way out is to push yourself to help someone else with their problems. Instead of competing for the title of “who has a more difficult life”, strive for the greater prize of making life a little less difficult for someone else.

It’s not easy, but it’s the best way to make life easier.

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Scarcity

Nobody asked but …

It seems to me that there are 3 kinds of scarcity: 1) natural, 2) monopolistic, and 3) creative. The first and third are conducive to free markets. The second can produce horrors.

Natural scarcity arises from natural phenomena such as dispersion (difficulty of collection) or concentration (ease of control). The second case may often lead to monopolistic scarcity.

An egregious example of monopolistic scarcity arose under King Leopold II of Belgium wherein he enslaved an entire region of Africa, the Congo. This was a corruption of capitalism and imperialism. Most other examples are those of statist communism/socialism.

The third category presents the example of Disneyland. Private resources were gathered and developed so that a new category of human want was created.

With the purported discovery of water on Mars, it will be informative to see which market dynamic will apply. Also, we must consider whether it is ethical to take from Mars, according to voluntaryist principles.

— Kilgore Forelle

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The Law of the Instrument

What is your favorite tool? Is it so familiar or compelling that you are tempted to employ it in all contexts? The law of the instrument illustrates this tendency.

Tools are designed for specific uses.

  • Law for legal issues
  • Reason and logic for conceptual issues
  • Culture and freedom of association for values and preferences issues
  • Organizational management for governance issues
  • Philosophy for epistemological and ethical issues
  • Persuasion and service for educational and spiritual issues
  • Property rights and markets for scarcity issues
  • Power for productivity and self-defense issues
  • Measurement and statistics for information issues
  • Compassion and contribution for relationship issues
  • Technology for practical application issues

It is tempting to think “only X issues exist!” or “I can apply my favorite tool to all issues!” or “if I reframe an X issue as a Y issue, my favorite tool will be effective!”

However, power can’t solve preference problems any more than organizational management can solve spiritual problems or technology can solve relationship problems or compassion can solve scarcity problems or measurement can solve ethical problems.

Next time you encounter a problem, consider the context before you grab a hammer and start pounding away.

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The Trouble with Abundance

Humans aren’t evolved to have or handle abundance. Our nature has a very hard time dealing with abundance. Our abilities, desires, motivations, tools, and everything about us were forged in an evolutionary history of extreme scarcity. What we are evolved for is the journey of survival in the face of scarcity, not the destination of contentment in the face of abundance.

One of the problems I face is that I make alright money and I have very young children. In an evolutionary sense, our children are born into extreme abundance and are highly disconnected from the journey of survival (which is what they are primarily built for). As a parent, we have a balancing act of having my children adapt to the new normal of abundance while trying to retain the journey of survival.

I don’t have the answers for this problem. I have some theories I will be trying out. Like at the age of 6 we plan on providing our kids only educational materials, basic food, basic clothes and such … everything else they want they have to work for. Another one is what I discussed in the other thread; I will tell my children not to plan on receiving any inheritance since I plan to blow it all on cocaine and hookers before death (whether or not that is true).

I think free stuff to competent people is one of the biggest ways to create purposelessness, dependency, depression, disconnectedness, and suicide. The first thing people say they would do if they won the lottery is usually quit their jobs. There are less reasons to compromise with family and community if you don’t need them for survival. Unearned wealth disconnects us from society and kills purpose.

I think people often inadvertently create human zoos … places where all of what we strive for is provided without understanding that we weren’t built to attain the destination, we were built for the journey. What makes us feel alive and wonderful isn’t vacation, but working towards our values and connecting with our loved ones. Unfortunately, with kids, we have to work to reconnect them to their journey due to the wealth of our society, the dependency of our culture, and incompetency and fragility we attribute to youth. One strategy I have is to make them work for their stuff and not let them anticipate a windfall when I die.

Anyway, a friend said “you’re just denying them information that is relevant to future planning.” In response to my belief in telling my kids they will inherit nothing (whether or not it it true). Here is a better answer than I provided: Yes, I am. That isn’t a bug, that is a feature. Every dollar a person receives for free slightly diminishes the value of their labor and the value of their relationships. An unexpected windfall at the age of 40 does far less damage since, hopefully, the person already created their life and values. Maybe an unexpected half-million could even help them at that point.

I don’t know, maybe I should just give any leftover money to people I hate and let it destroy their lives.

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Removing Failure is a Recipe for Disaster

Today, my Momentum Dash had a quote:

“What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

This question has the same danger as, “What would you do if money were no object?”  Sure, sometimes imagining a world without scarcity can open new mental vistas, but the lurking implication that activities would be easier or better absent risk is faulty.

I know, you’re supposed to get your answer to what you’d do in a risk free world and use that as a guide for what to do in this one.  But more often, daydreaming about the person you imagine you’d be if choices had no cost leads to lazy bitterness about the real world of trade-offs.  It lulls you into thinking that your goals would be better achieved with fewer risks and costs.  This is never true.  The only kind of person sturdy enough to handle big success is the kind who became sturdy by going through all the shit it took to get there.

Remember the scene in “The Dark Knight Rises” where Bruce Wayne is trying to escape from a hole in the ground prison?  He can’t make the jump as long as the safety harness is tied around him.  He’s only capable of his full physical prowess when death is a real alternative.  Like it or not, that’s the way it works.

So if risk and scarcity and challenge weren’t an object, what would you do?  Whatever it is, you’d do it at less than your peak potential, which is only accessible in the face of real hardship.

Don’t long for a frictionless life.  You’d atrophy.

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