The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Trump’s Stock Market Myth-Making

Donald Trump

The stock market, especially the Dow, has been performing very well under Trump. Various measurements do, in fact, indicate the “record-breaking” gains which have been repeatedly claimed, but whether or not we decide to quibble with the selected metrics, Trump’s first year stock market performance is definitely in the top five, alongside names like George H W Bush, Roosevelt, and Obama.

And this is where we hit our first snag: the phrase, “Trump’s first year performance”. Western governments in general, and US Presidents in particular, are consistently given far too much credit and/or blame for the state of the economy. It seems there are two kinds of cognitive dissonance at play. The first is the fact of most democratic elections being fought with complex economic policies as one of their major pillars. The vast majority of the populace simply does not understand even the most basic principles of economics, and yet they are generally unshakably convinced of the rightness of their chosen candidate’s economic policies. But by far the most germane dissonance is the tendency to praise the President for encouraging the growth of a Free Market Economy, while simultaneously crediting him as if he were in charge of a Command Economy. Trump is not unique in this regard. The tendency of all political discourse around economics is to fall prey to this serious logical fallacy. Western democratic governments do not control their economies. This is in accordance with one of the fundamental principles of Western democracy. This means that simplified, cause/effect views of economic policy and activity need to be taken with a grain of salt, and if they also come with a package of cheerleading for one or another form of ideology, then it is a cubic tonne of salt which is required. Looked at objectively, giving sole credit for economic performance to a POTUS is akin to crediting the umpire, and the umpire alone, for an Ashes win.

Of course, not everyone falls prey to this kind of thinking, regardless of how much politicians try to encourage it. There is, of course, a significant minority of the electorate, including commentators and analysts, who possess sufficient nous to understand the true nature of the nexus between government and economy. Discourse at this level tends centre much more sensibly and accurately around the role of governments as regulators and influencers of economic performance and activity. In these circles, the unusual degree of credit/blame assigned to POTUS makes more sense – the office has a peculiar and unique influence on both the global and national economies, for a whole complex of reasons far too tortuous to elucidate here. Let’s just say that military and diplomatic power, geography, and the interplay of various economic cartels, make the attitude and actions of a US President particularly significant. Where this all falls down, however, is in the areas of ideological partisanship and the very real fact that economics is almost purely theoretical.

It is no secret that the bulk of the US media is now, and always has been, openly partisan. There are clear and obvious identifiers, when looking at the US media, which allow us to label most outlets as either Democrat, Republican, or tinfoil hat crazy. If we take the very sensible decision to leave outlets like Alex Jones, Breitbart, and Raw Story out of the picture, a quick sampling of Democratic and Republican outlets helps us to see the extent of this problem when it comes to clear-sighted evaluation of Trump’s administration as positive or negative economic influencer. When we look at the Dow Jones Index in isolation, the gains under the current administration outstrip everyone but Roosevelt. When we look at absolute dollar value of the market, Trump comes in a distant second to Obama. But these rankings don’t really mean anything. Outlets like Bloomberg, for example, tread very lightly – almost imperceptibly – over the fact that Obama’s Keynesian response to the GFC means that the dollar value measurement is always going to exceed that of a president walking into a relatively strong economy. And what focus on the Dow alone ignores is the value of a measurement biased so heavily towards theoretically questionable assumptions on the effect and impact of equity market adjustments. But what can be said, without question, is that theoretical extrapolations of cause and effect can be constructed to favour Keynesian, monetarist, neo-conservative, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or (somewhat less convincingly) Illuminati based ideological positions, with breathtaking ease.

In terms of reporting, all sides of the political divide are more or less equally guilty of cherry-picking, bias, and selective memory. The facts are basically ineluctable, and apply to all presidents – all governments, in fact – claiming sole credit for economic performance. It is usual for stock market value to increase, and to increase sharply in the first year of a presidency. This is partly because it tends to dip around election time, but mostly because that first year is when most presidents increase and retrench spending in certain areas, and thus clarify their intentions, providing a degree of certainty. There is, however, a real Trump effect happening in this instance. Possibly the only thing Trump has been clear about is his intention to be business friendly. So the boost deriving from this certainty within the business community is, in fact, down to him. But a great deal of the economy’s strength has to do with both local and global factors which are not only outside his control, but of the control of any sitting government. And given Trump’s destabilising effect in other areas, it’s very important to be clear-sighted about the one positive claim of his which actually has some credence.

Is Trump Going Down?

There’s a lot of excitement amongst the very broad spectrum of people who hate Trump. The indictment of Manafort and Gates is being heralded as the final nail in the coffin of the Trump presidency, and there is already wild speculation about the range and shape of charges which could be laid against members of Trump’s administration and family, with many rightly pointing out that the fact of these two words being interchangeable is appalling. While this isn’t exactly irrational, it is somewhat premature. I would suggest that it’s best viewed as a first nail, always assuming that key figures in the Trump administration are actually guilty of collusion, which I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to, regardless of how tempting or natural this would seem.

The indictment is probably best interpreted as an example of The Capone Gambit, where seemingly peripheral infractions are used against the investigation target. Add to this the heavy weight of precedent (and its absence), as well as presidential powers, and it becomes clear that it’s much more accurate to view this as the first step in a longer game. Given what is known about the character of Manafort, it’s possible this game could play out very quickly indeed, but the endgame is far from clear. Several possibilities need to be considered. Namely, that the Trump administration may have been competent enough to set up a deniable structure, the fact that collusion can be extremely difficult to prove, and the possibility of Trump and his senior staff actually being innocent, even if only technically.

A close reading of the indictment reveals that the charges laid against Manafort and Gates do not relate directly to the investigation target. These two men are being charged with lobbying for a foreign power without declaring the fact, receiving and controlling moneys in foreign accounts without ditto, and lying to federal investigators and entities. While the titles of the charges sound impressive and momentous, and are getting the usual very loud play in tabloid headlines, the fact is that they’re quite narrow in scope. Manafort’s association with the foreign power in question (Ukraine) has a distinct air of low hanging fruit. His association was already quite well known, to the extent of being reported in the media, and there is a grain of truth in conservative arguments that this kind of polite fiction (lobbying for a foreign govt while saying you’re not) is endemic and widespread. What’s more serious is the accusation of money laundering. To be fair, the scheme allegedly set up by Manafort and co looks much more like tax avoidance and fraud than anything in the washing of blood money spectrum, but the right of forfeiture is what’s important here. It appears that serious efforts have been made to locate and identify assets with a view to their seizure by the US govt. This is very clearly the stick. Manafort’s open greed and expensive tastes are obviously being used as a lever to coerce testimony. Will Manafort sing? Nobody really knows, but it’s hard to imagine that a man like him would stonewall and fall on his sword into penury.

All of this sounds very promising for those who wish to be rid of Trump, but certain important things need to be remembered. What’s being attacked here is not the administration, but the campaign. Without direct and compelling evidence of wrong doing, one would expect it to be easy for the administration to simply deny all knowledge. Admittedly, the Trump administration does not have the best record for basic political competence, but surely it’s safe to assume that the skills required for protection of the principal in this case are not confined to insiders on the hill. While it’s very obvious that this investigation could potentially end the Trump presidency, the Manafort/Gates indictment should be seen as an early stage attempt to turn the enemy’s flank, so to speak – a gambit designed to open new channels of inquiry.

Quite a bit of the analysis circulating at the moment seems also to have lost sight of the investigation’s frame of reference. This is not solely an investigation of Trump. What is being attempted to be established is the fact and extent of Russian interference in the election, which inquiry was brought about by widespread media reports and accusations. What is much more directly related to this are the charges made against Pappadopoulos, who has reportedly pleaded guilty. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that this is certainly not one of the big fish, but the potential ripples from his confessions are quite large. But once again it has to be remembered that this all refers to a specific act of collusion conducted within the Trump campaign – an act which any half-way competent organisation would have firewalled from its principal as a matter of course. It would be astonishing if it turned out that a direct line of complicity could be drawn even to senior leadership in the Trump campaign. Of course, there’s plenty of precedent for astonishing incompetence amongst Trump’s people, but there must surely be a limit.

It should also be remembered that Trump can pardon people. And while this may cause outrage, it’s still a fact. The recent pardoning of Arpaio is a case in point – none of the outcry or protest changes the fact that Arpaio’s numerous transgressions have been pardoned, with all that that implies. So criminal charges against individuals or entities linked to Trump are of potentially limited impact. What’s much more dangerous to the Trump administration is the risk of impeachment. If enough key people roll over and point fingers, there is a real possibility that key members of the administration, including the president himself, could be sufficiently implicated to trigger constitutional provisions for impeachment. Which obviously could end the Trump presidency. But would it? And what would happen if it did? The possible consequences are enormous, and possibly very dangerous for the US and its allies. Which is something which Mueller must have in his mind, making it reasonable to assume that whatever happens from here on in is going to happen, at least on Mueller’s part, slowly and carefully.

Having said all that, this is a scandal which dwarfs Watergate. There is a very real chance of this presidency, already beleaguered on multiple fronts, crumbling under the weight of its troubles. But as far as this specific event is concerned it is, to coin a phrase, just another brick in the wall.


Now Is The Time To Worry About War

Donald Trump

World War III, as a concept, has descended into the realm of cliche and farce, with its imminence being used as an argument against Brexit, Trump, Clinton, intervention in Syria, non-intervention in Syria, Halal butchery, and marriage equality. If you’ve decided to stop paying attention to the screamsheets’ predictions of a major power conflict that never, ever ends up panning out, I’d say that was a sensible course. Until now, that is.

I hasten to point out that there is no cause for panic. I emphatically do not support any one of the stupid journalistic narratives of some accidental collision of forces causing an apocalyptic major power conflict – that sort of garbage is the result of far too much Hollywood and far too little actual study of the international community. We are, however, approaching a situation of some danger – a sort of near perfect storm of disturbances in the balance of power: questionable world leadership, popular unrest, and regional flashpoints.

While it may currently be trendy to identify Russia or China as future superpowers, and harp endlessly on about their supposed capabilities without reference to their deep, systemic internal problems, the fact remains that we currently live in a world that is still very much unipolar. Given this, the failure of the Trump White House to fall into any kind of rhythm is deeply concerning. To be fair, this administration has been subject to sustained attack of unprecedented savagery and disruptiveness, mostly by deeply hostile major media outlets, as well as from some elements within the government itself. I make no comment on this beyond saying that it’s a major factor in Trump’s continuing inability to put a foot right. The problem with this is that it renders previously predictable situations dangerously fluid. Add this to low-level, but intense and dirty conflicts going on all over the world, and the general instability and uncertainty surrounding the leadership of the USA’s great power supporters, and we have a potentially explosive situation.

Fighting in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Ukraine, Central and Western Africa, and Kurdistan, tensions in the South China Sea, and the resulting humanitarian and economic effects these conflicts precipitate, all place great pressure on the current world order. Not only do they have real and significant impacts on governments and peoples, they also all  involve major powers who could conceivably be drawn into larger conflicts as a result. Weakness, confusion, or disarray in the USA can and will be seen as an opportunity for both friendly and unfriendly powers to make diplomatic and/or territorial gains on the assumption that the use or threat of force will go unpunished by a superpower preoccupied with the containment of its own Idiot in Chief. Deep divides in the UK, an unknown quantity in charge of a heavily armed and highly nervous France, a Germany whose centrality is becoming cause for fear and resentment in much of Europe, and a Japan made volatile by deeply unpopular re-militarisation, all make it possible to assume that the USA’s major allies and proxies may also be too busy to do anything about naked adventurism in any or all of the above-mentioned regions. What this can lead to is a situation where prestige politics becomes the only available option, and to judge from the few clear, concrete actions of the Trump administration, we’re practically already there.

What this can create is the kind of slow burner that eventually kicked off World War I. Leaving aside the moronically simplistic narrative taught in schools, there are remarkable similarities to the global instability which slowly manifested itself over a long period of inexorable shifts in the balance of power between 1870 and 1913. A fluid world order, such as the one which is beginning to develop now, needs adroit, courageous, and far seeing handling. It seems unlikely, given the current state of the major liberal western democracies, that we can expect such handling in the near future. I don’t for a second contend that we might wake up tomorrow to a nuclear winter, but whereas until now it’s been a matter of ‘wait and see’, I’d argue that in the past month we have edged appreciably closer to the kind of global disorder which could, if we’re not very careful, drop the first domino in a previously unthinkable chain of events.

It’s vitally important that the populations of the major and medium democratic powers remember the lessons of history, the price of nationalist or xenophobic hysteria, and send our leaders the clear message that grandstanding idiocy will not, under any circumstances, win them votes.

Syria Strike And The Trump Effect

Syria Strikes

It’s been an amazing experience, watching the world’s reaction to Trump’s recent strike on the Al Shayrat airbase in Syria. Rarely before has there been an opportunity to observe so many different conspiracy theories being formed in real time, and remarkably rapid real time at that. According to the various left and right wing rags which currently seem to pass for news media, Trump has variously conducted this strike in collusion with Russia and Syria for reasons which aren’t immediately clear, in collusion with Raytheon in order to raise their share price, in collusion with his own press office in order to raise his approval ratings… and this is even before we get to the Alex Jones end of the spectrum.

What’s amazing about this is that quite a bit of this kind of idiocy is coming from the mainstream media. While it’s axiomatic that any media will always make a dog’s breakfast out of any military story, it’s rarely been done to this extent. While I understand that reality isn’t nearly as entertaining as the hysterical witterings of partisan screamsheets, I do feel it’s probably important on some level, so let’s break down both what’s happened and what’s likely to happen.


Very few media outlets spent any time at all avoiding the incorrect assumption that this was the first major chemical strike of the Syrian civil war. As such, it became difficult to see that there was any real background to the strike, as it seems to serve the turn of  sensationalist reporting to present this action as random and bizarre. A full transcript of Tillerson and McMaster explaining the rationale behind the action can be found here. Even if you don’t believe a word they say, it makes sense that even blatant lies coming from the White House are going to bear some relation to the truth, even if that relationship is purely inverse.

For those of you who can’t be bothered reading lots of stuff in order to answer questions, I’ll provide a quick summary here. Previous chemical attacks had gone unpunished by the Obama administration (despite Obama’s efforts to get congressional approval for a near identical strike). This appears to have emboldened Assad, who stepped up his campaign of terrorising civilians in rebel held areas in order to aid his campaign. Whether this was a miscalculation, or was business as usual, this provided the Trump administration with the necessary pretext to signal their marked difference in approach. The official narrative from Trump is that he was watching television, had an attack of the feels, and called for options from the Joint Chiefs. This is worryingly plausible, given what we know about Trump, but there are some important factors to consider before we all retire to our bunkers.

The strike itself was perfect and copybook arms-length intervention. Not only was an attempt made to pre-establish a legal justification (Trump’s statements heavily hinted at collective self defence being the element in question), the strike itself was strictly, fussily in line with principles of proportionality, limitation, and targeting. Many outlets rightly pointed out that this strike looked to have been prepared months or even years in advance. This makes sense – an action like this would have been on the books as an option since the beginning of the conflict, with only the GPS co-ordinates wanting for completion.


Going further on the legal theme, much hay has been made of the fact that Syrian and Russian troops were informed of the impending action. This has been used as ‘evidence’ of collusion with Russia, Syria, China, the inhabitants of Planet X, and so on. Which is, needless to say, pretty damn silly. Notification of the strike is in line not only with certain elements of the international law of armed conflict, it’s also in line with numerous precedents. Like German U-Boat command in WWI. And WWII. And British submarine command. And the USAF. And so on, and so forth. Sure, it could mean that the Trump administration are colluding with their lizard overlords to create a New World Order, but it’s probably more reasonable to link this behaviour to the past behaviour exhibited during countless military actions conducted by countless administrations the world over.

The purpose of the strike was clearly to target relevant materiel. Or at least, as much materiel as could be targeted with a mere 59000 pounds of high explosive. For anyone who actually understands these matters, this always looked like a slap on the wrist – a largely symbolic act. It’s rather in the same category as a fine – the infliction of expense via the destruction of some very costly equipment. Casualty and damage reporting after the fact would indicate that people died, but it’s important to remember that these figures come from the Syrian regime and other less than credible sources. Regardless of this, the fact remains that this is about as distant and as minor as it’s possible to get while still being able to claim direct action.


War with Russia isn’t really on the cards unless the US is hell bent on making it happen. This is owing to the simple fact that Russia is neither ready nor able to win even a dirty little local war with the USA. So Russia’s reaction to the strike has largely been to open a war of words. Let’s focus, then, on the element that isn’t purely verbal.

Russia has intimated that any future strike will be met with “force”. This statement, initially worrying, should provoke some examination to try and figure out exactly what they mean. A quick scan of Sputnik, RT, and other Russian propaganda disseminators, allows us to discern that what Russia is heavily telegraphing is their intention to use BUK and S500 air defence systems (already deployed for over a year) in defence of any Syrian air installations to come under similar attack. While this will make things a bit tense, it’s important to note that exactly this level of hostility was repeatedly operative in the recent Balkan conflict, with the net result of the world failing to burst untimely into WWIII.

As for the likelihood of deep US intervention in Syria, I’d say that’s anyone’s guess. Will Trump be persuaded that his only option moving forward will be to establish regional hegemony a la Dubya? Or will his base force him to maintain the arms-length policy he inherited from Obama? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else, no matter how well they conspiracy.


Much has been said about whether or not the strike was legal, largely by partisan and entirely unqualified sources. There’s a good break down here, but I’ll once again summarise. The short answer to the question, “Was the strike legal?” is: yes and no. Or maybe, and probably not. The thing about international law is that it’s complicated and, like any law, it is by definition arguable. Is this aggression against a sovereign nation for no reason? How ‘legitimately sovereign’ is the Assad regime? Can the collective self defence argument be used? Who knows? This stuff needs testing in courts, most of which the US doesn’t recognise, so the point is largely moot (in the American sense of the word). What we do know, is that the US government is required to make its arguments to congress regarding the legality of the strikes some time within the next day or two, so it’s up to us to wait for that and either analyse those arguments ourselves, or wait for some media outlet to spin them into more entertaining hysteria.

Trump, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and Beyond…

Trump Iran Nuclear Deal

The Iran Nuclear Deal, or, to give it its proper name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been described by President Trump as “the worst deal ever negotiated”, and likely to cause a “nuclear holocaust”. Throughout the course of his campaign, Trump made repeated references to the JCPOA, telling anyone who would listen that the deal was a “joke”, and that he intended to re-negotiate, revising key provisions, lengthening time limits and generally changing the current plan into a kind of extended penance. As always with President Trump, there is some doubt as to how much, if any, of what he’s said is meant to be taken seriously, but let’s do our best.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that the JCPOA contains no provisions for checking Potential Military Applications (PMA), no safeguards to prevent Iranian weapons development now or into the future, and that it virtually guarantees a nuclear armed Iran within fifteen years, followed shortly by a nuclear holocaust. Unsurprisingly, none of these claims is true.

Let’s first look at the provisions of the plan. PMAs were a sticking point during negotiations, and it became apparent to even the casual observer that the Iranians, beyond a natural unwillingness to share their secrets, were also unclear as to the exact extent of their secret research programs. In the UNCLAS version, very little is said about PMA, but it is nevertheless apparent from various textual clues that the issue was dealt with. Similarly, the provisions with regard to intrusive inspection, the closure of various pathways to weaponisation (enrichment and plutonium), and various other strictures, all point to an agreement which is perfectly competent to achieve its stated aim: a temporary freeze of Iran’s progress towards nuclear weaponry. President Trump, however, does not see it that way. In President Trump’s view, Iran is a “bad” and “terrorist” state, needing to be kept at all times under the mailed fist of US hard power. It’s difficult to see, given this view, how any deal could have struck him as satisfactory.

Hassan Rouhani Iran Nuclear Deal

Hassan Rouhani, unique amongst Iranian presidents for being more stable than his US counterpart

Now for the safeguards designed to prevent Iranian weaponisation of its nuclear program which, according to Trump, do not exist. Firstly, there’s provisions for inspection, facilities re-purposing from high level enrichment and Plutonium manufacture to power generation, technology, replacement programs for cycling out 20% enriched uranium, the list goes on… And Iran has been pathetically eager to comply. Completion of each action plan has been tagged to the lifting of sanctions and, more importantly, the release of the associated funds. The deal, from Iran’s point of view, is easy to understand. In exchange for restored oil wealth, access to global markets, normalisation of trade and other relations, and a place at the negotiating table, they take a fifteen year halt in a nuclear weapons program which took twenty years to produce next to nothing, and which isolated them so badly that one of their key trading partners was North Korea. President Trump’s belligerent paranoia aside, it’s difficult to see a situation where Iran voluntarily breaks the deal. There’s too much to gain, and at such little cost. And while it is true that Iran could restart weaponisation post agreement, there’s little reason to expect this. A large part of the agreement is clearly designed to end Iran’s isolation – a key factor in their clandestine rush for the bomb.

Trump Iran Nuclear Deal

Trump labelled Iran a ‘terrorist state’ when addressing AIPAC

It’s axiomatic, though, that Christian conservatives cannot see any future in the Middle East without Israel, heavily force-multiplied by the US, maintaining military superiority. A rehabilitated Iran would necessarily change the dynamic. Iran is a natural hegemon – it has ample resources, an educated and numerous populace, access to the sea and a position of key strategic importance. All it really lacks is money. The deal itself, being a UN deal brokered by P5+1, is not US property. Energy hungry P5+1 members Russia and China have a strong interest in its success, as does the UK, who hopes to profit from expanding G/O exploration.

Now that Trump has finished appeasing the GOP’s Zionist donors, the time is ripe for one of his trademark backflips. It’s far from clear whether he can kill the deal (I’d say he can’t), but he is easily capable of killing relations with Iran. Given the likely interventionism of a Trump administration, this would be a critical mistake. Iran has a long (albeit covert) history of co-operation with the USA, and has been a key collaborator in US campaigns in the Middle East. Iranian support, or at least non-aggression, is vital to any operation in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Additionally, Iran has reach and effectiveness far out of proportion with its military power, thanks to decades of investment in power projection by paramilitary and covert proxies. If President Trump really intends to establish safe zones in Syria, escalate the campaign against IS, and generally re-establish US hegemony in the Middle East, all this will be much easier with Iran’s cooperation and assistance. This is a problem for the near future, of course. In the meantime, President Trump should work on gaining better control of his public utterances before the laws of consequence come into proper effect.