Monday, September 30, 2013

1987: the Shutdown of discontent(ment)

With a government shutdown now looming over the implementation of Obamacare, there has been a lot of talk about the nature of Federal Government shutdowns, what it means, and the history of the same. Witness this lengthy--and mostly complete--history of Federal shutdowns at Wonkblog. Starting with the 1976 shutdown initiated by Ford's veto of a spending bill for HEW (the Departments of Health, Education, and Welfare), and concluding with the huge budget-induced shutdown under Clinton from December 5, 1995 to January 6, 1996, it details a total of seventeen--that's right, seventeen--shutdowns in a twenty year period.

No matter what any politician or pundit might say now, the reality is that the nation and the Federal Government survived all of these shutdowns with relative ease. None were the harbingers of doom that many portrayed them to be. And if another shutdown happens tomorrow, it will not spell the end of the government, of democracy, of freedom, or of anything like that. This isn't to say it won't have significant consequences, for it most certainly will. But those consequences will be short-lived, by and large. The only potential long-term ones revolve around the implementation of Obamacare. And given that this is not an election year, the short-term ones--if the shutdown happens--will not have the huge political repercussions many are imagining. We--as a nation--simply don't have memories that long.

And with regard to those memories, let's take a closer look at one of the previous shutdowns, the one day shutdown that occurred in December of 1987. The Wonkblog article describes it thusly:
Shutdown #14: I Think You're a Contra 
When did it take place? Dec. 18-20, 1987
How long did it last? 1 day
Who was president? Ronald Reagan
Who controlled the Senate? Democrats, 54-46; Robert Byrd was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 258-177; Jim Wright was speaker
Why did it happen? Reagan and congressional Democrats could not agree on funding for the Nicaraguan "Contra" militants in time to avoid a shutdown. Additionally, Democrats pushed for a provision reinstating the "Fairness Doctrine," which required that broadcasters give equal airing to both sides in political disputes, and which the FCC had recently stopped enforcing at the time.
What resolved it? Democrats yielded on the Fairness Doctrine, and a deal was worked out wherein nonlethal aid was provided to the Contras.
A fair summary, but a little more depth is required to get a full picture.

The issue of funding for the Contra rebels was a product of a great deal of haggling and was in fact still on the table--as the specifics here show--even after the Iran-Contra affair had been exposed (Reagan had created the Tower Commission to look into the affair a year before, in late November of 1986). This is worth noting because at the time, there was general support in Congress for continued assistance to the Contra rebels. There was disagreement over the form and size that assistance should take. Now, more than twenty-five years later, many Democrats and others on the left would tell a markedly different tale about the U.S. funding of Contras, a tale that doesn't mesh with the reality of Congressional actions or votes.

Nonetheless, this disagreement over the nature and size of the support the Contras should receive was a major issue in the moment. After all, it led to a shutdown of the Federal Government.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Another Boko Haram update: it's getting worse

Back in March of this year, I detailed an incident in Nigeria's Kano state wherein members of the Boko Haram sect executed some thirteen factory workers--in front of their families--for simply being Christians, nothing more. It would seem that event was only an appetizer for what lies ahead.

Source: Channels Television, Nigeria 
Boko Haram's primary goal, since it came into existence in 2001, is the founding of a Muslim state in Nigeria (and in parts of neighboring nations, as well) under strict Sharia law. As such, it is opposed to all things "western," from Christianity to education ("Boko Haram" translates to "western education forbidden"). Early this morning, that point was driven home when members of Boko Haram entered the dormitories of the Yobe State College of Agriculture (located in Yobe state, two states to the east of Kano) and gunned down dozens of students sleeping in their beds. There is no official death toll yet, but reports suggest the number of dead is at least as high as forty and will likely continue to climb.

The college itself is located in the town of Gujba, not far from the capital of Yobe, Damaturu. Total enrollment is around one thousand students, though those not injured or killed in the attack have reportedly fled the school. Who can blame them? This is not a well-funded college and it has no security to speak of. Even as compared to other colleges in Nigeria, it is on the poorer end of the scale. The buildings are old, many in need of repair, made of mud bricks and with corrugated metal roofs. But the students who attend this college are there to learn, to better their lives (and the lives of their families, their fellow citizens, and others in their nation).

Yet like the innocent workers in Kano, they have been gunned down for no real reason, for doing nothing wrong, for merely daring to live their lives. In my previous piece, I noted that the idea of amnesty has been floated in Nigeria by members of the government there, subject to Boko Haram laying down arms at the very least. But how can people like these thugs ever deserve amnesty of any sort? It's one thing to be engaged with government forces in what amounts to a civil war, it's another thing (though an awful one) to target innocents as retribution (as was the case in Nairobi, recently), but this is neither of those things. This is wanton slaughter for the sake of that slaughter, nothing more. There is no political goal--in Nigeria--being served by this attack, it does not serve as basis for demands or the like. It serves notice that Boko Haram does not care about life, that it will take any action it pleases against people who do not believe what its leaders believe, even if those people represent no threat, whatsoever.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Godwin's Law, Descartes' hypocrisy, and the trouble with Ayn Rand

Anyone who as spent any time on messageboards--from the old days of Usenet to the current world of comment threads on everything across the 'net--is likely familiar with Godwin's Law. The "law" was postulated by one Mike Godwin in 1990. Simply put, the law states that in any online discussion, there is the possibility of someone comparing Hitler and/or the Nazis to some aspect (or some person) of the discussion; the longer the discussion goes, the greater the probability of such a comparison. Here is Godwin's original version of the law (which is even more simply put):
I developed Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.
It is of course not an actual law, but empirical evidence suggests it was--and still is--quite accurate. Godwin himself thought he might actually limit the frequency of such comparisons by articulating this law and seeding it throughout the net. That didn't really happen. The Nazi and Hitler comparisons continued, only with the added bonus of someone "calling a Godwin." And that, in and of itself, is not actually a good thing in my opinion. For sometimes--depending on the discussion--such comparisons can be entirely appropriate. But the calling of a Godwin has the effect of stifling legitimate discussion on such matters.

So what we have now--in the current state of affairs in messageboard world--is a still-extant high probability of Hitler and Nazi comparisons in a sufficiently long discussion, coupled with a pronounced lack of ability to make such a comparison even when it might be valid. How can any argument survive such a cacophony of caterwauling: "you Godwinned the thread," "nice Godwin," "Godwin, Godwin, Godwin," etc? Thus rather than being simply an observation,  much less being a means of curbing bad behavior, Godwin's Law is either an empty invocation of the now-obvious or a means of silencing the opposition. And not just any sort of means, but an illegitimate means.

Anther very common tool used to silence the opposition in serious messageboard discussions--and indeed, also in real life--is the mighty Spear of Hypocrisy. Those who hurl it are quick to point out how the ideas expressed by someone (usually a famous someone) are apparently inconsistent with how they live or had lived (in the case of dead someones) their lives. The essential thrust is that because they did not follow a course of action consistent with their avowed ideas, philosophies, or ideologies those ideas must therefore be invalid.

These kinds of deflections are so common as to be almost a given in any kind of discussion involving politics, economics, or the like. A related theme is the "if you're so smart, how come you aren't rich?" fallacy, though this tends to be a much more personal kind of deflection, directly targeting a person on "the other side" of a discussion (yeah, I know, it's more of an argument than a discussion). But the hypocrisy angle is, I think, far more robust as it does not require personal knowledge of actual participants.

History is replete with thinkers, philosophers, and politicians who lived by the mantra "do as I say, not as I do," there's no doubt about that. But it is a little much to expect people to eschew all things inconsistent with their own expressed ideals. Consider many of the Framers. We look to them, their words and ideas, for inspiration and support, when to comes to concepts like freedom, rights, liberty, and the scope of government. But many of these men were themselves slave-owners or at least supportive of the idea of slavery. When they speak of freedom in its most ideal sense, there is hypocrisy here, there just is. Yet that hypocrisy doesn't mean their words have no value, no meaning. It just means they were not perfect, themselves (far from it, like most of us).

But nowhere is such hypocrisy so apparent--and so readily forgotten--as in the ideas and actions of René Descartes, the "father of modern philosophy" much beloved by the intelligentsia of the world, from the seventeenth century onward. "I think therefore I am," the backstop of the navel-gazing liberal elites' worldview.

Descartes had a great deal to say about everything (and to be fair, much of what he says is very much worth reading, worth exploring). One of the things he spoke about in great length was the human soul or mind. He argued that this was what set man apart from the beasts. According to Descartes, animals were mere automatons, whose actions were the product of instincts and reflexes, alone. They possessed no actual consciousness, no emotions. They were simply complicated machines, nothing more. And make no mistake, this divergent nature between man and animal is a fundamental element of Descartes entire philosophy, when it comes to the nature of man, of how the mind works.

Today, Descartes' obvious mistakes in this regard are merely forgiven or just overlooked. But what is rarely mentioned is the fact that Descartes, himself, enjoyed the company of a pet dog. He named this dog Monsieur Grat; he went for walks with him, played with him, and indeed was with Monsieur Grat almost constantly (a significant point, given Descartes' penchant for solitude).

Thursday, September 26, 2013

No pain, no gain: the foolish striving for a shock-free world

It is a very old adage, "no pain, no gain." Anyone who has ever spent time working out has likely heard it on multiple occasions. And it is, in fact, very much true. Make no mistake about that. The phrase became popular during the 1980's exercise craze, along with other similar expressions like "feel the burn," but its history extends back much farther in time. Benjamin Franklin--writing as Poor Richard--said something similar in 1734. Before that, there are theses words in the teachings of the Mishnaic rabbis, as compiled in the Ethics of the Fathers, dating from the second century (and likely the source used by Franklin):
Ben Hei Hei would say: According to the pain is the gain.
While this was largely a call for a greater spiritual life, it was intended as a general life lesson as well. Hard work and industry, these things required one to give greatly, to commit oneself to what was required. And such a commitment meant sacrifice, as a matter of course. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the reward in the end.

Words to live by and the basis of the Protestant work ethic theory, as conceptualized by Max Weber: the promise of the spiritual fulfillment through sacrifice and effort was transposed to the material world to the extent that hard work as a means of improving one's station in life became an actual philosophy of life, to not only guide one's work, but to also be passed on to successive generations.

But with the exercise craze, the saying was strictly about the physical. And again, it is very much true, very much sound advice. For the human body--any living organism, really--improves itself by reacting to pain (or at least it can). Incremental increases in thing like weights being lifted or distances being run cause muscle pain and the body reacts by adding strength/endurance to the muscles so afflicted. Indeed, bone strength can also be improved in the same way. No where is this process so evident as in courses of physical therapy to regain strength after an injury.

Recently, I broke a bone in my wrist after a bicycle accident (all my fault, no one else's). After surgery, I has to undergo several months of physical therapy (which included daily exercises) in order to return my wrist and hand to full usage and flexibility. And that meant pain. It meant forcing my wrist and fingers to bend farther than they would by themselves, day in and day out.

But as in all things, moderation remains key. There are limits to the pain, to how hard or how far one pushes their body in this regard. Too much pain indicates a serious injury or worse. Yet no pain means no improvement. And in the long run, no improvement is just as detrimental, for it leads to atrophy and death, metaphorically and even literally.

At an individual level, this process is one of simple growth; we utilize it to improve ourselves over time. But for the collective--the sum total of all people, all of whom approach life in different ways--the process is evolutionary. The more successful approaches tend to be repeated but at the same time, failures represent information that can be used to improve future actions. Consider stretching. We know--or at least some of us know--that a good period of stretching before and after, say, a long run is very important, improves performance and lessens the chance of injury not only for that run but for the next run, as well. This isn't due to a scientific study (though studies confirm it) but rather to the appreciation of the consequences for those who fail to take this tack.

Such knowledge can be gleaned both firsthand and secondhand, but note something important in this regard: first hand knowledge is better, not only because it is more easily processed but because it is individualized. I know (learn) from such knowledge how much I need to stretch, just as I know (learn) when I have pushed myself far enough in the actual activity (in this case, running). The pain I experience is itself a signal, a warning sign, that I have reached a necessary point for improvement and I know (learn) how much past that point I can or should go.

Of course, we all have different thresholds in this regard, thresholds that are both mental and physical. Some will go farther, will achieve more, because they are willing to push harder. At the same time, they are exposed to greater risk of injury, as well. But such injuries are not career or life-ending, as a matter of course. The occasional injury from "over-doing it," from the added risk of pushing harder, is just more information; it conditions and improves future activity.

Can you see where I'm going with this?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Why the Left wins: too much Salter in our diet

There can be no compromise between a property owner and a burglar; offering the burglar a single teaspoon of one’s silverware would not be a compromise, but a total surrender—the recognition of his right to one’s property.--Ayn Rand, Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal, 1966

Contrary to the fanatical belief of its advocates, compromise [on basic principles] does not satisfy, but dissatisfies everybody; it does not lead to general fulfillment, but to general frustration; those who try to be all things to all men, end up by not being anything to anyone. And more: the partial victory of an unjust claim, encourages the claimant to try further; the partial defeat of a just claim, discourages and paralyzes the victim.--Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, 1964
I'm not usually given to quoting Ayn Rand, not because I find her objectionable (I don't) but because the mere mention of her name tends to summon hoards of literary jackals, eager to justify their own flimsy egos by expressing their extreme distaste for Rand as both a writer and a person. Not unsurprisingly, they rarely have any actual specific objections in this regard; it's mostly just an exercise in unsupported allegations, misrepresentations, and ad hominem attacks. But I quote her here because she so aptly discussed--on multiple occasions--the essential reason why the Left--modern liberals and progressives--are successful over time: compromise.

"The government should feed and house the poor," say the leftists, the socialists, the idealists. "It doesn't have the resources to do that, without taking the property of other citizens," say the conservatives, the libertarians, the pragmatists. "Let's compromise," say those of the former sort. "Well okay, but not too much," say some of those (enough) of the latter sort. And with that, the war is substantially over. For such spending becomes the new normal. The same conversation is had, again and again and again. And one compromise follows another. Eventually, the spending is even beyond what was initially asked for.

One need only take a look at the history of Welfare. Or of Social Security. Or of the various federal bureaucracies that exercise regulatory authority over aspects of daily life. The spending always goes up. The extent of the programs always increase. The range of authority always grows. And why? Compromise.

Before the nation now is the implementation of yet another such program: Obamacare. This particular behemoth has already grown substantially, even before its actual implementation, as estimates for its cost to taxpayers keep increasing. But in Congress--mostly in the House--there is a last-ditch effort to stop that implementation, to essentially save us from our own stupidity. And that effort is being roundly criticized as pointless, as doomed to failure, and therefore a waste of time, resources, and political capital.

I can understand why those on the Left, Democrats and the more honest partisan pundits, would make these arguments: they want the effort to fail miserably, to prove costly to Republicans in general and Tea Party Republicans in particular. But what about that portion of the Right offering this same kind of analysis? What's their goal. Look at this piece by McCain's former chief of staff, Mark Salter. Cleverly entitled "What Tea Party Voters Don't Understand," the piece is a tour de force on why the Federal Government continues to grow, on why efforts to achieve any kind of fiscal sanity are doomed to failure, on why the Right almost always loses and the Left almost always wins. From it:
Tea Party voters are a pretty self-assured lot. They're 100 percent certain that if they stand by conservative principles (as they define them), scorning any compromises, a minority can rule the world.

They're also pretty good at discerning apostates. They're the keepers of the one true conservative faith. Anyone who deviates a hair from their prescribed policies -- or even expresses qualms about their political tactics -- is a traitor and a squish, which covers all but a few Republicans in Washington.
Great, Mark. Crap all over those voters. Your bitterness from McCain's failed election is palatable.

Salter goes on to admit that Obamacare is a "lousy law" but then offers this rather moronic defense against opposing it: "it is the law" (of the land). A bad law is still a bad law, or a lousy one to use Salter's terminology. It should be opposed as a matter of course by any Congress members who see it as such. To not do so is to surrender one's integrity at the door. To not do so is to perpetuate the overriding problem in our government: no sense of fiscal responsibility and no recognition of the principles of limited government.

Salter concludes:
And don’t worry about Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin and the handful of your fellow elected officials who tell you only what you want to hear. They’ll be fine. Your intransigence is good for their business. But you might discover, as you see how seriously your tactics have set back your progress, that it’s they, and not the Republican establishment, who’ve been playing you for suckers all along.
Yeah, okay Mark. What the f*** are you talking about? What "progress"? 2010 has come and gone. People like you, Mark, stopped the advance of common sense. Why? Because you feared for your own piece of the pie, for your own hold on power. You justify your capitulation by supposing you're winning small victories here and there, even as every large battle is lost in toto. The Republican "establishment" that you speak of is concerned only with themselves, with the good of the party as a party, not with the ideals the party is supposed to represent.

I realize the effort here is doomed to fail, but that's because such events are rare things from the Right, but common things from the Left. There's nothing wrong with standing on principle. Ever. And if the Left has taught us anything, it's that there's nothing wrong with asking for the Moon, because if you keep at it, eventually you get the Moon and the stars.

Cheers, all.

Gallup poll on the growth of Federal power: racism on the Left

As a general rule, I distrust polls, especially those polls intended to address the mood of a society, to capture it's general feelings about an issue, or to gauge its inherent racism or the like. Because societies are not monolithic entities and do not actually possess any of these characteristics, cultural zeitgeists notwithstanding.

That said, polling data can most certainly indicate what views are most common within a society, or a portion thereof, and similarly be used to indicate how popular a given concept or idea actually is, even how well it is understood. Witness some of the international polling data on 9-11. From it, we can learn a lot of things. For instance, it indicates the continued existence of widespread Antisemitism in Egypt, as some 43% of respondents actually believe Israel orchestrated the attacks. And it demonstrates something of a disconnect between Muslim nations in the Middle East and ones in Africa, as less than 50% of respondents in the former believe al Qaeda was behind the attacks, while over 70% in the latter accept al Qaeda as the culprit.

We cannot say, from such data, that a given country believes anything, but we can say what the common perceptions are about a given idea, be that idea an event, a policy, or even a trend. With that in mind, take a look at the results from Gallup's latest polling data on Americans' perceptions of the extent of Federal power:

The fact that some 7% of the population consistently thinks the federal government has too little power is of course quite troubling, all on its own (that works out to more than one person in every fifteen), but more significant is the somewhat steady increase in the number of people who think the federal government has too much power and the corresponding decrease in the number who think the federal government has just about the right amount. From 2002 until the present, the former has increased by a whopping 53% (from 39% to 60%). The latter has decreased by 38% (from 52% to 32%). That's a full 20% of the population who have changed positions, who have--for lack of a better way to say it--gone over to the Dark Side (actually, a better way to say it would be "have recognized the truth").

Of course, there's an obvious partisan angle that needs to be addressed here. And thankfully, Gallup breaks down the belief in too much power according to party affiliation:

Monday, September 23, 2013

AQIM and violence, coast to coast

What do various instances of terrorism-linked violence in Algeria, Mali, Nigeria, Kenya, and Somali have in common? For a time, very little beyond the fact that all tended to be driven by terrorist groups striving for some form of an Islamist state. But more recently, intelligence points to linkages between these groups, stretching from one side of Africa to the other. The ongoing tragedy in Nairobi, Kenya--the attack on an upscale mall that has left at least sixty people dead--is the latest piece of what appears to be a much larger puzzle on these linkages.

The Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahidin group--also known as al-Shabaab--has claimed responsibility for the attack. Al-Shabaab is ostensibly a Somalia-based terrorist organization, but after Kenya interjected itself into Somalia's affairs several years ago, members of al-Shabaab openly threatened Kenya with retaliatory violence. The mall attack represents the fulfillment of this promise.

But here's the rub: al-Shabaab is no longer particularly independent. It appears AQIM (which I've discussed previously) is slowly assuming control over the group and ultimately bending the Somalian-based fighteres to its (AQIM's) will. For those unaware, AQIM stands for "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb." It is less than clear who is currently leading AQIM. For a long time, Mokhtar Belmokhtar was thought to be at the top of the group, but as I detailed in the linked-to piece, he appeared to have split from AQIM some time back (though he and his new group, the Signatories in Blood, remained loyal to the greater al Qaeda). Reports of his death in March of this year (at the hands of troops from Chad, but in Mali) have never been confirmed and he still seems active.

But his interests--and AQIM's--were once thought to be largely limited to establishing control over Algeria and at least parts of Mali, quite a long ways from Kenya and Somali:

Meanwhile, somewhat closer to Algeria and Mali, yet still separated by other nations, there is Nigeria and the violence there, largely orchestrated by the group Boko Haram, which I've also discussed previously. The goals of Boko Haram have always seemed restricted to Nigeria, proper, and are largely about the elimination of "western" ideas, particularly those ideas in conflict with Islam. Thus, Nigeria's Christian population has remained in the crosshairs.

But as of last year, experts on the region began to posit the idea that Boko Harum was no longer so restrictive in its vision:
Ham said there is a move "to establish a cooperative effort amongst the three most violent organizations." Ham said: "Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram may be sharing funds, training and explosive materials." According to AFP, the US State Department has said that Khalid al-Barnawi, one of the three leaders of Boko Haram that the U.S. designated as "global terrorists" has links with Al Qaeda. According to the US State Department, Barnawi and Abubakar Adam Kambar [now dead], who was also designated a "global terrorist," have "close links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb..."

AFP reports that sources close to Boko Haram say that Abu Mohammad [also dead] and Barnawi formed an alliance with the faction of Boko Haram led by Abubakar Shekau, who was also designated a "global terrorist." According to sources that AFP quotes, the three formed an alliance in which Mohammad and his group would carry out abductions for ransom, part of which would go to financing Boko Haram operations. Boko Haram, in turn, would provide security cover for Mohammad's group.
Barnawi had apparently fled Nigeria at one point and ended up in Algeria, where he established closer contacts with AQIM and perhaps helped run a training camp for the group (and for Boko Haram).

The larger picture fits the story I posited in my analysis of the situations in Algeria and Mali: location-specific organizations like Boko Haram and al Shabaab are being infiltrated by people more loyal to AQIM than to the goals of these orgs. This is exactly what happened in Algeria, though without the clear AQIM umbrella. Mokhtar's group effectively usurped the movement for a Tuareg homeland (which would most definitely be Islamic, to be fair) in service to more strictly Islamist goals, to the extent that those concerned with the former were pushed out (and often killed).

Al Shabaab, supposedly concerned with establishing control over Somalia, first and foremost, no longer can be called independent from AQIM as a whole. Boko Haram is falling into the same pattern, as its goals are morphed into those of AQIM.

All of which suggests a growing AQIM and therefore a growing al Qaeda, exactly what was supposed to not be the case. This is not just bad news, it's bloody terrible news.

Cheers, all.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Black Swans and Climate Change: fragile experts abound

Thanks to the excellent recommendations of a reader some time back, I finally delved into the works of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Lebanese-American thinker (there really is no term that captures all of what Taleb is) who has become well known for his writings on Black Swans--unpredictable/improbable events with huge consequences--and his rather blunt habit of calling out academics of all sorts for the charlatans that they are. Taleb's arguments--found in his books The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility" and Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder--are devastating ones for many practitioners of various "sciences," especially those whose work involves statistical analysis and attempts to model the future, from stock markets to political change to world wide weather patterns.

The path to understanding Taleb is a treacherous one; many who read him who are already skeptics to some degree--like yours truly--will quickly find confirmation of their own skepticism in his analysis and parables. But there is a deeply embedded problem in this regard: confirmation bias is exactly what Taleb is trying to rip apart. I read what Taleb writes about the Financial Crisis of 2007/2008, about how the "risk management" of the financial industry is nothing but smoke and mirrors, and for me it is an "aha! moment." For of course I knew it was all nonsense, I knew there was a looming catastrophe, just like Taleb knew.

I steel myself with Taleb's own point on Black Swans, that they are specific in their existence to points of view, to frameworks of reality. Thus, what may be a Black Swan Event for one group may not be so for another (because the latter were less blind to such a possibility).

But when I do that, I err. Badly. For I am doing exactly what Taleb is saying is wrong, I'm using an event that I most certainly could not and did not predict to justify my own point of view.

This is, I know, I difficult thing to grasp, even for people who understand the bulk of Taleb's writings (which I imagine, intellectual snob that I am, is but a small percentage of those who have read him).

Here is a prime example of someone who thinks they understand Taleb but is actually way out of his depth. The piece is by one Joseph Romm, a darling of the Climate Change crowd and deeply passionate leftist. With degrees from MIT--including a PhD in physics--one would think he would know what he was talking about. But alas. Of Taleb's Black Swans, Romm says:
One of the defining characteristics of humans is our ability to ignore or downplay facts that would shatter or overturn our world view. At the same time, we tend to favor or selectively recall information that confirms our preconceptions, which is called “confirmation bias.”

I bring that up because, these days, pretty much everything that seems anomalous is called a “Black Swan,” a term popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in writings such as, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.”
And he has a fair point, the assignment of the term "Black Swan" occurs far too frequently these days, not unlike the term "perfect storm." Of course--not unexpectedly--Romm has no problem with such terminology when it goes along with his worldview. But back to the Swans in our midst.

As I said, Romm recognizes the overuse of the term and indeed even cops to his own misuse of it some years back (a smart move that, as it heads off the obvious rebuttal). But from there, he pursues an ill-fated course in trying to show why pretty much nothing is actually a Black Swan because there is always a Cassandra available with a doom and gloom prediction.

The point of all this is an attempt to show how Climate Change, itself, is not actually a Black Swan event. To which I would reply--as would Taleb, I think--of course not, you clueless modeling monkey! Climate Change--as a worldview--is exactly the opposite of a Black Swan Event. It's a future path being predicted by people armed with computers and slide rules, a path that is supposedly near-certain unless steps are taken--as envisioned by the "experts" among us--to avert it, to create a new path.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Obama still way out of his depth on the economy

Yesterday, the President marked the five year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers with a speech about the economy, the state it was in when he took office, what he's accomplished, and what he plans to do in the future. It was, without a doubt, a huge steaming pile of cluelessness.

First, however, let's note that the speech was intended to mark the five year anniversary of the Financial Crisis by equating the beginning of this crisis with Lehman Brothers' declaration of bankruptcy on September 15th, 2008. Supposing this was the beginning of the crisis is itself indicative of a severe lack of understanding on the whys and whatfors behind the Crisis. For Lehman Brothers was in dire straits long before September of 2008. Wall Street and the Feds were fully aware of this, as was anyone else paying attention to the stock market. The collapse of Bear Stearns in March of 2008--because of investments in MBS's and other derivatives--was a far more significant signal, especially since it was preceded by the fall of Northern Rock bank.

Specific people in the Federal Reserve were also keenly aware of what was happening and what was coming long before Lehman Brothers went belly-up. Fannie and Freddie were already under a conservatorship, as well, a move that was seen as almost a given many months earlier. The point here is that the Crisis was underway in full by mid-September of 2008 and government attempts to avert it were not working. This is because the Feds--and other government  people--did not fully understand how their actions (and lack of actions) had precipitated all of this. Pushing the date of the Crisis to mid-September is a transparent attempt to minimize the culpability of Washington, D.C. (and the New York Fed) in creating the Crisis.

And that, in and of itself, represents the key to Obama's ignorance on all things economic--one shared by many others in the Federal Government, it is true--and why his recommended solutions to various problems have been ineffectual at best.

The President's summation of the problems besetting the country and how he's "successfully" tackled them:
By the time I took the oath of office, the economy was shrinking by an annual rate of more than 8 percent. Our businesses were shedding 800,000 jobs each month. It was a perfect storm that would rob millions of Americans of jobs and homes and savings that they had worked a lifetime to build. And it also laid bare the long erosion of a middle class that, for more than a decade, has had to work harder and harder just to keep up.

In fact, most Americans who’ve known economic hardship these past several years, they don’t think about the collapse of Lehman Brothers when they think about the recession. Instead, they recall the day they got the gut punch of a pink slip. Or the day a bank took away their home. The day they got sick but didn’t have health insurance. Or the day they had to sit their daughter or son down and tell him or her that they couldn’t afford to send their child back to college the next semester.

And so those are the stories that guided everything we've done. It’s what in those earliest days of the crisis caused us to act so quickly through the Recovery Act to arrest the downward spiral and put a floor under the fall. We put people to work repairing roads and bridges, to keep teachers in our classrooms, our first responders on the streets. We helped responsible homeowners modify their mortgages so that more of them could keep their homes. We helped jumpstart the flow of credit to help more small businesses keep their doors open. We saved the American auto industry.

And as we worked to stabilize the economy and get it growing and creating jobs again, we also started pushing back against the trends that have been battering the middle class for decades. So we took on a broken health care system. We invested in new American technologies to end our addiction to foreign oil. We put in place tough new rules on big banks -- rules that we need to finalize before the end of the year, by the way, to make sure that the job is done -- and we put in new protections that cracked down on the worst practices of mortgage lenders and credit card companies. We also changed a tax code that was too skewed in favor of the wealthiest Americans. We locked in tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans. We asked those at the top to pay a little bit more.

So if you add it all up, over the last three and a half years, our businesses have added 7.5 million new jobs. The unemployment rate has come down. Our housing market is healing. Our financial system is safer. We sell more goods made in America to the rest of the world than ever before. We generate more renewable energy than ever before. We produce more natural gas than anybody.

Health care costs are growing at the slowest rate in 50 years -- and just two weeks from now, millions of Americans who’ve been locked out of buying health insurance just because they had a preexisting condition, just because they had been sick or they couldn't afford it, they're finally going to have a chance to buy quality, affordable health care on the private marketplace.

And what all this means is we've cleared away the rubble from the financial crisis and we've begun to lay a new foundation for economic growth and prosperity.
In assessing the specifics here, I just have to note Obama's usage of the "perfect storm" metaphor. I hate this metaphor, because people using it misuse it as a matter of course. Like the President. There was no "perfect storm." If there had been, the global economy would have truly collapsed, 1929 style or even worse. As I alluded to above, the Feds--even when they recognized the coming crisis--didn't have a clue how to deal with it, because they were responsible for initiating it.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Gator Flop and the death of honor

Last weekend, the University of Miami Hurricanes squared off against their on-again-off-again in-state rivals, the University of Florida Gators. The Hurricanes won, thanks to the sloppy play of the Gators, by a final score of 21-16. Much to the chagrin of many Florida fans, the Hurricanes now lead the series 29-26 (full disclosure: I'm a Hurricane) and have garnered a total of five National Championships while the Gators have but three.

Beyond that, Hurricane fans make a habit of pointing out two things, whenever trash-talking (all in good fun, all in good fun) with Gator fans. First, they note how Florida dumped Miami from its annual schedule in 1987. Florida officials and fans claimed it had to do this because of SEC requirements, while Hurricane supporters chalk it up to fear and fear alone. In 2002, the rivalry was briefly renewed with a home and home series, then shut down by Florida once again, until another home and home pairing in 2008 and 2013. Last weekend's game--right now--stands as the final one the two schools will ever play during the NCAA regular season. This talking point rankles most Gator fans who--I believe--would just as soon play Miami every year. But alas, their AD sees things differently.

The second thing that always comes up--always from the Hurricane side--whenever there is cross talk between fans of the two programs is the now-infamous 1971 "Gator Flop."

When a single incident in a game has a special name and scores of articles written about it using that name, you know it's a big deal, like "The Immaculate Reception," "The Drive,""The Catch," or even the "Hail Flutie."

In 1971, the Hurricanes and Gators met on November 27th in Miami for both teams' final regular season game. Both had poor years; neither were bowl-bound and neither had (or would have, no matter the game's outcome) winning records. But on that day, the Gators were dominant. Late in the fourth quarter, Florida was ahead 45-8. Despite this lead, the Gators continued to throw the ball down field, instead of just running out the clock. Why? Because their quarterback--one John Reaves--had a chance to break the NCAA career passing yards record then currently held by former Stanford standout Jim Plunkett.

Alas, Reaves was intercepted on the Gators' last (apparently) drive and all that remained was for the Hurricanes to run a few plays in order to get off the field and end their miserable day. But that didn't happen. The Florida coach--one Doug Dickey--proceeded to use his time outs after each Hurricane play, in order to conserve time and get Reaves back on the field. After those were used up and the Hurricanes--close to the Gator end zone--appeared to be in a position to finally run out the clock, Dickey instructed his defense to "let them score." And the defense obliged on the next play. Nine of the eleven players on the field simply fell to the ground--flopped--when the ball was snapped (the other two did nothing) and the Hurricane quarterback walked into the end zone, untouched. Watch it transpire below:

Friday, September 13, 2013

The new U.S. foreign policy: walk slow, act dumb, and look stupid

In the 1967 classic war movie The Dirty Dozen, there is a great scene wherein Donald Sutherland's character Vernon Pinkley--something of an idiot--is asked by Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) to pretend he's a general and inspect some troops. Sutherland reluctantly agrees, but isn't sure what to do. Reisman lays it out for him in the most basic terms:
You've seen a general inspecting troops before haven't you? Just walk slow, act dumb and look stupid!
Judging by what has been happening the last several days, it would appear the Obama Administration has decided to adopt Reisman's sage advice as well, with regard to its dealings with Syria, Russia, and the rest of the world.

Vladimir Putin's op-ed in the New York Times garnered a lot of attention from various U.S. officials and politicians. Most, from both sides of the aisle, were at pains to criticize Putin, taking offense at the Russian leader's apparent hypocrisy in talking about things like equality given Russia's track record on human rights. Others pointed out how Putin criticized the U.S. for acting unilaterally when Russia has done the same, like in Georgia in 2008. Here's an extended "fact check" of Putin's piece that addresses most of these things.

But the problem is, Putin's piece still resonates with many people, particularly those opposed to any U.S. action with regard to Syria. These people can be found in the United States in some number, but they're a lot more them in the rest of the world and make no mistake, they're watching this all very closely.

With the table now set for Russian-Syrian negotiations as a means of "solving" the problem of Syria's chemical weapons, Assad has stepped forward back into the light and is asserting himself as the legitimate leader of Syria, exactly as Putin and Assad had hope would be the case. Indeed, Assad is even making demands of the United States as a part of this process. U.S. leaders are blustering, huffing, and puffing about it, but the Administration's actions (and lack of action) has placed the United States firmly in the back seat.

Pseudo-analysts like the always contrarian Andrew Sullivan are imagining new realities, wherein Obama has somehow gotten the best of Putin in all of this by removing himself and the United States from the Syrian equation. Sullivan even imagines that in this contest of wills, Obama is playing the role of a Machiavellian prince, using guile and the appearance of simplicity to get the result he wanted all along. It's an incredibly stupid argument on Sullivan's part. It's forced, unrelated to reality, and based on a total lack of understanding of Machiavelli. But that's neither here nor there. The point is, it's obvious to all that Putin is in control, that Obama is not, so the only way to "save" Obama is to engage in some seriously crazy spin.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Seas of glass and the wolves of the world

And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God.--Revelation 15:2, KJV
This verse has always been a favorite of those given to biblical prophecy, for in foretelling the End Times, it provides one of those descriptions that seems to represent something more modern, a kind of event unknown at the time of its writing (generally agreed to be in the first century of the Common Era). To whit: "a sea of glass mingled with fire." What exactly that refers to, in the context of the world of two millennia past, is hard to imagine apart from wild-eyed imagination.

But in the modern world, it sounds very much like the aftermath of a nuclear strike, especially if such a strike took place in a region with a lot of sand. Thus, those given to biblical prophecy see the nuclear devastation--in some part of the world--as an element of The End of Days. Even if the reading is a little stretched, it's not an unreasonable basic assumption, that nuclear war is tantamount to the coming of the end, whether in a religious or non-religious context.

Of course, this was the fear across the globe for many decades after the conclusion of World War II and the advent of the Atomic Age, for the entirety of the Cold War, that any type of major conflict could lead to a global holocaust because of these new weapons, thus the many attempts to avoid such things through treaty, disarmament talks, and the like. Still, the threat of a nuclear response from the United States, the Soviets (and then the Russians), or the other nations who acquired these weapons served as a kind of deterrent. Indeed, this continues to be the case even today and explains why still other nations have been trying to become members of this particular kind of "nuclear family."

But it is an unquestioned fact that of every nation on earth, in all of history, only the United States has actually used these kinds of weapons in war, at the end of World War II when it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The decision to do so is now second-guessed almost as a matter of course by armchair historians throughout the world.

One of the most common (phony) arguments in this regard is that the United States dropped the bombs for no valid military reason, as Japan had already surrendered or was in the process of surrendering prior to the first bombing run on August 6, 1945. It's wholly untrue; Japan refused to accept the Potsdam Declaration--which called for an unconditional surrender by the Empire of Japan--and was even preparing for a Russian invasion in the time immediately prior to the bombings. Japan's leaders still believed they could negotiate a peace that would allow them to retain some of their mainland conquests--on the Manchurian Peninsula--and not be forced to disband their armed forces.

Another common argument is that the bombing was still ultimately unnecessary, since Japan was beaten and would soon surrender, just to avoid a Russian invasion, if nothing else. But passing such a judgment from the outside, decades later, is a very different thing than assuming it to be the case in the middle of a very bloody and global war. As above, Japan had the opportunity to surrender and it passed. After Hiroshima was bombed, Soviet forces invaded Japanese Manchuria (Manchukuo), putting even more pressure on the leadership of Japan. But even then, even after Nagasaki was bombed on the same day the invasion began, some in the Japanese military argued against surrender. In the end, the Emperor stepped in and forced a surrender on August 14th (which was predicated, by the way, on his assumption that he would retain his position).

Saturday, September 7, 2013

An open letter to Obama: do your job, Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

I watched your press conference yesterday at the G20 Meeting in St. Petersburg. At the end of your remarks, you took questions from reporters. One asked you about the number of countries supporting you in your call for military action against Syria. And in your reply to that question, you said the following (my boldface):
Over 1,400 people were gassed. Over 400 of them were children. This is not something we’ve fabricated. This is not something that we are using as an excuse for military action. As I said last night, I was elected to end wars, not start them. I've spent the last four and a half years doing everything I can to reduce our reliance on military power as a means of meeting our international obligations and protecting the American people. But what I also know is, is that there are times where we have to make hard choices if we’re going to stand up for the things that we care about. And I believe that this is one of those times.
With respect, no sir. That is simply untrue. You were not elected to end wars, nor were you elected to start them. You were elected to fulfill the obligations of your office, the Presidency of the United States of America. And chief among those obligations, not instituting a government takeover of the healthcare, not protecting overreaching bureaucracies like the NSA and the, not even "creating jobs." Chief among your obligations, among your duties, is maintaining the security of the nation and of its citizens. Above all else, this is the primary role of the President of the United States. As a Constitutional scholar, you should know this.

It is the President who commands the armed forces, it is the President who negotiates treaties, it is the President who appoints people to lead the State Department, who appoints ambassadors, and who oversees that bureaucracy, along with the CIA, the NSA, and others. When it comes to international relations and security, the buck begins and ends with you, sir.

And in that regard, your role is neither to stop or start wars as a matter of course. It is to do what you deem to be appropriate and necessary, first and foremost, when it comes to protecting the nation. The very idea that you would weaken the military as a matter of policy is deeply offensive, not to mention tragically stupid. The world is and always has been a dangerous place. Like it or not, the United States rose to its position in the world as a leader of liberty, open societies, and economic success on the back of a strong military.

This is the way of things. Supposing you might change this is a fool's goal, especially within the span of a mere eight years. And now we see the folly of such efforts, for the world is becoming more dangerous by the second. Despite our response to 9-11, despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, the despots and terrorists of the world are on the rise once again. They have assassinated a sitting U.S. Ambassador. They have turned much of the Middle East on its head, from Egypt to Syria to Libya. And you largely sat by and did nothing.

Now, one of those despots has used chemical weapons against his own people, something you publicly stated would not be tolerated, by the United States or the world community. But you cannot act in the name of the world community, you can only act in the name of the United States.

And in that regard, I beg of you: act. Lead. You've had more than enough time to manage your "calculus." Too much time, really. If you believe--as I do--that Assad's actions should not be tolerated, do what needs to be done. Don't wait for Congress to make your decision for you, make your own and let history be the judge. If it really is as important a situation as you keep claiming it to be, that is your only recourse, both morally and pragmatically.

In the end, the American People will respect leadership above all else, this much you must know is true.

If you decide you should not act (and I hope you do not), then speak clearly and plainly about your decision. Put the matter to rest, not in a week or two, but immediately. Again, be the leader you were elected to be. Lead.

Either way, there will be those who disagree, who criticize and attack, but such is always the case, it goes with the job. You alone, sir, are charged with carrying out the duties of your office. Again, people did not vote you into office to end or start wars, they voted you into office because they believed in and trusted in your judgment to do what is necessary, one way or the other.

So do it. Just do it.


A Citizen of the United States of America

Friday, September 6, 2013

"Weird tricks" and a society always looking for shortcuts

I'm tired of these ads. You've seen them. Click here to learn this one "weird trick" to building muscle, losing weight, increasing your Social Security checks (yes, really), or pretty much anything else you can imagine. Weird tricks to end diseases, to have the sex organs of a porn star, to become a millionaire, they're all out there just waiting for one click of the mouse.

Alex Kaufman at Slate recently did an investigation into these "weird trick" ads, in order to see where they actually lead. In order to look into them, Kaufman used a second laptop--one that could later be wiped clean--and a prepaid debit card to prevent extensive fraud. What he discovered was that all of these ads led to videos. Long videos, where people engaged in baiting and promising a "shocking" revelation at the end:
The link brought up a video with no pause the button or status bar. A kindly voice began: “Prepare to be shocked.” I prepared myself. As “Lon” spoke, his words flashed simultaneously on the screen, PowerPoint-style. As soon as he started, Lon seemed fixated on convincing me to stay until the end. “This could be the most important video you ever watch,” he promised. “Watch the entire video, as the end will surprise you!”

Every time Lon seemed about to get to the spicy heart of the matter, he’d go off on a tangent. This video wouldn’t stay on the Internet for long, he said.
If you watch the whole video, you do indeed get the promised "trick," some sort of herbal "blend" for the various health-related tricks, or a book/pamphlet for the others. For a fee, of course.

And apparently, these ads are effective to some extent, which is why we keep seeing and hearing more of them on the internet, on television, and on the radio. Those in the latter two mediums direct you to a website, of course. Even if you fail to buy the product at the end of the video, such ads are still likely effective, as a Chicago professor quoted by Kaufman notes:
There may be another reason for the length and shoddiness of the ads. “The point is not always to get the customer to buy the product,” Urminsky says. “It may be to vet the customer. Long videos can act as a sorting mechanism, a way to ‘qualify your prospects.’ Once you’ve established this is a person who’ll sit through anything, you can contact them by email later and sell them other products.”
Kaufman digs further into the psychology surrounding these ads, about why the word "weird" is being used, and how they play well with the conspiracy-minded, but there's more to say here, I think. For this idea of a simple trick or maneuver as a means of getting a huge reward is far more pervasive in our current culture than just with these ads and the gullible fringe.

Granted, such things are disproportionately focused on matters of self-worth and body image, where huckster after huckster (many of them well-funded) promises weight loss, sexy abs, superior sexual performance, or the like by using a supplement or a pill, doing a ten-minute "workout," or using some kind of special device or apparatus once a day. Many people--who are otherwise not of the fringy sort--have the latter such things now taking up space in their garage or closet, having been used for a week or two and never again. And many people have bottles full of special herbal blends, vitamins, or powders in the pantry or medicine chest. And these same people--of which I admit to being one--are willing to listen and maybe even investigate the next great "breakthrough" in this arena.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Top 5 Obama Foreign Policy Blunders

Just to be clear, this list encompasses the Administration as a whole and is not restricted to the actions of the President, alone. And I guess--if I really wanted to be fair--I should include a list of the Top 5 Foreign Policy Successes for the Obama Administration. But there are two problems with that: first, I'm in a bad mood and not inclined to be fair in the least, and second, I can't think of five significant successes.

With that said, on with the list!

Worst Foreign Policy Blunders by the Obama Admin

5. Bowing to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, April 1st, 2009

Hey, his defenders tried to slough it off as no big deal, but it was a big deal. State Department protocol is simple here: the President does not bow to another head of state. The basic rule: Presidents don't bow and Emperors don't toast. The flurry of defensive posturing by the Administration on the matter was only enhanced by silly attempts in the media to "prove" this was nothing unusual, when a simple search of the New York Times during the Clinton years destroys all the attempts to defend Obama's bow.

The upshot of this bow: it can be seen as a sign of weakness, especially when considered in context with the President's "apology tour." Moreover, we just don't do royalty in the United States. It's in the Constitution. We've even gone to war to make the point.

4. Bowing to Emperor Akihito of Japan, November 14th, 2009

Proving he's nothing if not a quick learner (that's sarcasm, by the way), President Obama once again breaks protocol and offers the Emperor an un-reciprocated bow from the waist. Goofily, the Administration defends the action as being "according to protocol," when it was anything but. The same defenders fire up their wayback machines and pretend to find evidence "proving" this wasn't unusual, but all to no avail.

While the Emperor of Japan is certainly not the King of Saudi Arabia, thus providing the conspiracy wingnuts with no perch for their claims of "Obama is a secret Muslim," the faux pas once again makes Obama appear weak and something of an amateur on the world stage.

3. Undermining the U.S. Relationship with Poland, 2009 to Present

This particular blunder has been an ongoing one. It started back in 2009, when the Obama Administration backed out of an agreement reached under the previous Administration to place missile defense systems in Poland (and the Czech Republic). Ignorantly, the Administration chose to announce this decision on September 17th of 2009, which happened to be the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Invasion of Poland. It only got worse when Obama offered up one of the most ignorant gaffes of his political career on May 30th, 2012, wherein he referred to the "Polish death camps" of World War II, a turn of phrase that deeply offended Poles everywhere, though made even worse because the President was in Poland at the time.

Poland has been a staunch U.S. allies since the fall of the Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union. The nation committed itself to U.S. actions in both Iraq and Afghanistan from the get-go. But the Obama Administration, in seeking some sort of "reset" with Russia, sacrificed our relationship with Poland. And to what end, since it looks like there has been no reset with Russia? If anything, the relationship between Russia and the United States has gotten progressively worse under Obama.

2. The Benghazi Fiasco, September 11th, 2012 (and long afterwards)

How much do I need to say about this? A sitting U.S. Ambassador--Chris Stevens--was basically assassinated in an assault on a U.S. consulate in Libya, an assault that took place on the anniversary of 9-11. The Administration was apparently out to lunch when this was happening; no support was sent to help the U.S. forces there and no one is really willing to explain why this was the case. In the aftermath of the assault, Administration mouth piece Susan Rice ran around blaming the incident on a nothing YouTube video. And when that explanation was proven to be nonsense, the Administration claimed ironically that it was still trying to gather all of the facts.

It was a horrible event. In the past, such an action--the assassination of a sitting ambassador--would have been a big deal. But not under Obama. It was apparently more important to play the fool, so as not to upset other Middle-Eastern nations. As a result, the U.S. looked not only weak, but also ineffectual.

1. The Syrian "Red Line," August 20th, 2012 to Present

If you're going to draw a line in the sand--or anywhere else--you have to be prepared to act if it is crossed. If you draw it, then hem and haw once it is crossed, you look both foolish and weak. And that's exactly how Obama looked after saying the use of chemical weapons was a red line for the U.S. and that there would be "enormous consequences" if this line was crossed. Rather than stepping up to the plate and taking action when Syria used chemical weapons this year, the Obama Administration has stepped out of the box and is now looking to Congress to make the decision. If Congress fails to approve the President's plan, Obama's credibility is virtually destroyed, along with the credibility of the U.S., in the region. But even if Congress goes along with the President's plan, it's all too late and largely pointless now.

As I've previously explained, this particular failure on the part of Obama essentially ends deterrence as a policy goal for the U.S., now and well into the future. Empty threats are hardly the basis for an effective foreign policy, but that is all we will have left, thanks to the President.

Now I'm certain there are other blunders that could be cited--like the whole Arab Spring thing--but I've chosen these five because they are the ones that were so obviously blunders and could have so easily been avoided. Plus, they all have the same basic consequence: an appearance of weakness on the part of the United States, something that very likely represents the beginning of the end for the Pax Americana.

Cheers, all.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Kerry the only adult in a room full of dimwits?

Let me be clear here: I don't much care for former-Senator-now-Secretary-of-State John Kerry. I think he's very much a part of the larger problem that afflicts our government and our nation, a self-important, cock-sure liberal elitist who thinks he knows what's best for everyone else.

Thus you can imagine how much it disturbed me, while watching the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings yesterday, to watch him field questions from Senators far more worried about simple partisan posturing than national security, from Senators unable--for the most part--to ask significant or meaningful questions.

The committee chairman--Senator Bob Menendez--began the hearing with flowery rhetoric about how the meeting was a "profile in courage" or some such nonsense, then admonished Senators to put their personal politics and  ideologies aside on the matter. Yet, Menendez made a point of establishing his own politics, noting how he voted against military action in Iraq, as if that somehow gave him "street cred" on the issue of Syria. And beyond that, all he did was play the role of administration mouthpiece.

Ranking Republican Senator Bob Corker was little better. He was more concerned with demonstrating his first hand knowledge--he recently took a trip there--with the situation in Syria, than anything else. And with criticizing the lack of support given to rebel factions (which may be a valid point, but has no bearing on the issue of military strike against Syria for using chemical weapons).

Senator Boxer, later in the hearing, read her statement which was little more than absolute evidence of her very clear political partisanship, of her support for Democratic Presidents and opposition to Republican Presidents. So of course, she voiced her support for the President's idea of a "limited strike" against Syria.

The other Senators postured in similar ways, the Democrats basically making it clear that they supported the President and the limited strike doctrine, while most Republicans found fault with the President's actions up to the current point, in one direction or the other. But Senator Rand Paul really took the cake, by trying to elicit something from Kerry that he was in no position to give: a promise to not engage in Syria if Congress voted down the resolution (for President Obama has already said he can act without the consent of Congress, because he can, like it or not). It was a pointless excursion, to be sure, but one that Senator Paul is no doubt proud of.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Clueless media finally coming around on economy; what's changed?

Yesterday, CNN ran the following article: "Jobless rate is worse than you think." It was written by Heidi Shierholz, a labor market economist working at the Economic Policy Institute. The EPI is a liberal-leaning (to put it mildly) thinktank founded in 1986 by a group that included Robert Reich and Robert Kuttner (who also founded The American Prospect), among others. Here are some highlights from the article:
According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, if the labor market were healthy, the labor force would number about 159.2 million. But the actual labor force numbers just 155.8 million. That means about 3.4 million "missing workers" are out there -- jobless people who would be in the labor force if job opportunities were strong.  
Given the weak labor market, they're not actively looking for work and so aren't counted. If those missing workers were actively looking, the unemployment rate would be 9.4%
We need 8.3 million jobs to get back to the prerecession unemployment rate, considering the 2 million jobs we are still down from the start of the Great Recession in December 2007 plus the 6.3 million jobs we should have added since just to keep up with normal growth in the potential labor force.  
Over the past three months, we've added 175,000 jobs a month. At this rate, it will take six years -- until the middle of 2019 -- to return to a healthy labor market.
Our sustained high unemployment and weak job growth is also hurting wages: When workers have limited outside job opportunities, employers simply don't have to offer much in raises to get and keep the workers they need. The typical worker saw wages drop 2.6% between 2007 and 2012, and with unemployment expected to remain high, wages for most workers aren't expected to grow much -- if at all -- in the next few years.
Ms. Shierholz goes on to explain--wrongly--how this situation is a consequence of "aggregate demand" and how it could be solved by increasing government spending, along with upping the minimum wage. But her profound economic ignorance on these latter issues is not really the point, here. Instead, the issue is her recognition of the actual facts, with regard to the economy, and CNN's willingness to actually print this recognition.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Anthony Weiner's campaign: it's just embarrassing

The latest polls for the New York City mayor's race--Democratic primary version--show upstart candidate Bill de Blasio with a comfortable lead over William Thompson and Christine Quinn. The RCP average puts it at just over ten points, 30.3% for de Blasio to 20.0% for Thompson and just a hair less for Quinn. Meanwhile, Anthony Weiner is sucking wind in second to last place with 10% or less of the vote, ahead of only scandal-ridden city comptroller John Liu.

But is Weiner deterred! Hell no! Despite the utter collapse of his political fortunes, following the second Twitter-based sex scandal of his political career, Candidate Weiner remains Candidate Weiner. He will not go quietly into that good night! And why should he? He's has bold and original ideas that will surely resonate with the voters. Doesn't he? One of my personal favorites:
Idea Number 72: Create a Multipurpose “Big Apple Card.”  
Undocumented New Yorkers need a way to identify themselves. But an ID card for them alone would create an unworkable stigma. If we combine the card with other services that many people need, such as food stamp benefits or ATM services, then we would have a widely-used and badly needed multipurpose “Big Apple Card.” The card could also be used as a cultural institution discount card, allowing all New York City residents lower-cost access to museums, cultural events, and other attractions.
Wait, what? To be fair, the actual Democratic contenders in the race--de Blaiso, Quinn, and Thompson--support such an idea in full (which kinda makes it very unoriginal and thus somewhat less bold). Still, it's a rather pathetic attempt at vote-buying populism, isn't it? And the gist of it would be to tax everyone who is not undocumented in order to protect (somehow) those who are, because such a program is going to cost big bucks, though the logistics of implementing it--without tipping of ICE escapes me. And in that regard, should we ever support candidates whose platforms are built on ideas about how to get around the law and federal authorities?

But I digress. This about Weiner and why he should stay in the race. The answer: because he has Big Ideas, dammit! And that's because he's an idea man. He has ideas all the time. Like this one:
Hold it! Hold it! Wait a minute! Chuck! Take live tuna fish...and feed them mayonnaise!

1962 all over again...with Russia holding all of the cards

After the colossal failure at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, President Kennedy switched tactics with regard to Cuba in the beginning of 1962, by increasing the scope of the economic embargo against the island nation put in place after Castro took control of U.S interests in Cuba in 1960. At the same time, the CIA and other groups continued to look for ways to bring Castro down. All of this was a product of fear,by and large, fear of the continued spread of communism and Soviet influence.

At the time, the Soviet Union was being led by Nikita Khrushchev, who already viewed Kennedy as something of a weakling. In response to the embargo and other actions against Castro, Khrushchev substantially upped the stakes later in 1962 by placing medium-range nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba (a move that Castro was none too happy with, to be fair). This was done in secret, but eventually intelligence operatives and spy plane photographs--taken on October 14th of that year--proved to U.S. military commanders that there were indeed Soviet missiles in Cuba. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara learned of the missiles the next day. On October 16th, President Kennedy was notified of their existence, too.

The period from October 15th--when definitive proof of the missiles was first revealed to McNamara--until October 27th is known now as the Cuban Missile Crisis. For thirteen days, the world teetered in the brink of nuclear war, as Kennedy and Khrushchev engaged in what amounted to a high stakes game of poker. In the end, Kennedy triumphed. He did so by making it clear that he would accept no agreement on the matter that was anything less than outright Soviet capitulation to U.S. demands, with regard to removing the missiles from Cuba.

Many in Kennedy's administration lobbied for outright invasion of Cuba. Others pushed for a tit-for-tat agreement to end the crisis. But Kennedy did neither, yet still acted decisively throughout the period. It was truly a high point for his administration and proof of his serious mind and critical thinking skills, as he effectively out-dueled his Soviet counterpart, a man who had made it clear he did not believe Kennedy was up to the task in the least.

The long term consequences can be--and have been--debated ad nauseam, but it is crystal clear that the crisis cost Khrushchev dearly. He looked weak throughout the world and back home in the Soviet Union in particular. Less than two years later, Leonid Brezhnev and others successfully ousted Khrushchev from office (arresting him was debated as a possible option), forcing him into "voluntary" retirement (though luckily for Khrushchev, not in Siberia). The Party virtually erased his name from history, however, in a way that would have made Orwell proud.

Now, we have another possible confrontation brewing between west and east, though not over nukes and not over Cuba. Instead, it is over Syrian leadership and the decision by the same to resort to chemical weapons in the course of an ongoing civil war. The U.S.--in the person of President Obama--is weighing its options in this regard, apparently leaning towards some sort of limited military strike against Assad's forces (though how this will prevent future use of chemical weapons is yet to be explained).