Streetwise Professor

June 17, 2017

Out of the History, Into the Heat

Filed under: History — The Professor @ 2:31 pm

Apologies for the paucity of posts over the last couple of weeks. I was traveling, bracketed by a visit Zug and Lugano for speaking and teaching and a trip to Oxford for a commodities conference. In between I bounced around France for 12 days–first real vacation I’ve had in years.

My itinerary was Paris-Rouen and environs (Gisors, Gaillard, Harcourt)-Bayeux-Omaha Beach-Avranches-Mortain-Mont St. Michel-St. Malo-La Rochelle-Bordeaux-Chinon-Chartres-Paris (where I spent a couple of enjoyable days with my uncle, aunt, and my cousin and her family). My main focus was, as usual when I travel, history. With the exception of the foray to La Rochelle and Bordeaux (which wasn’t worth the extra mileage), I was not disappointed.

Perhaps my favorite spot was Chinon, even though I’ve been there before. It is hard to imagine such a small place with so much history. In the space of a few acres took place dramas involving the Plantagenets (and notably Henry II and his three sons–who will never be confused for a Fred MacMurray sitcom!–as portrayed in A Lion in Winter), Phillip II of France and the forces of Bad King John (one of Henry’s sons), and most notably, Joan of Arc. Chinon is quite beautiful, offering very pleasant views of the Loire Valley, and blessed with remnants of the castle dating from the 12th-14th centuries. (Not far away is the Abbey of Fontevraud, most notable for the effigies of Henry II, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard I. It is also definitely worth a trip.)

The connection with Joan is most meaningful to me. It was to Chinon that she traveled in order to meet the future King Charles. Charles attempted to disguise himself, to test Joan’s supposed gifts. But the Maid immediately picked him out in the throng of the court, ignoring the servitor dressed in Charles’ clothing. Overcoming the incredulity of the court at the temerity of a young girl claiming to be a messenger of God sent to redeem France, she persuaded Charles to let her lead an expedition to Orleans, where she led seemingly forlorn hope charges that routed the besieging English and freed the city. From Orleans she led Charles to Reims for his coronation. That was the acme of her career. Her subsequent attack on Paris failed, and soon thereafter she was captured by the Burgundians (perhaps as the result of treachery–there is no doubt that Charles subsequently betrayed her), ransomed by the English, then burned at the stake in Rouen.

Joan has the remarkable talent to dissolve the deepest cynicism of people like her battle-hardened contemporaries, Mark Twain–and me. I actually would consider it more miraculous if she achieved what she did without divine intervention, than with it. How can you explain an ignorant peasant girl persuading kings, becoming an inspirational war leader and skilled tactician, and devising the strategy that reshaped western European politics, all in the course of a few short months? Her performance at her trial–she was both brave and clever–is equally inexplicable, given her background. Her moments of doubt when confronted with the pyre were human, and were redeemed by her decision to suffer a horrible death rather than suffer dishonor, and her transcendence as the flames devoured her. Yes, she has been mythologized, and conscripted in religious and political battles over the centuries, but the basic facts of her life are well-documented and those speak for themselves. I cannot think of a parallel in history: she is an exception that proves many very dreary rules.

I have previously been to Chinon, Orleans, Reims, and Compiègne (where she was captured). Rouen was the last major scene in her life that I visited. There is a single tower remaining from the Rouen Castle where she was imprisoned during her trial (but it is not the tower where she was kept). There is a small garden marking the spot in the Rouen marketplace where she was immolated as a heretic. There is a fairly new multimedia presentation about her trial in a building that is part of the cathedral complex–it’s worth a visit.

The physical remains of the scenes of her life are almost non-existent–the room where she met Charles in Chinon is no longer there, for example–but visiting those traces does evoke thoughts about her remarkable life and career.

I’m back in Houston now, just in time for summer to begin in earnest. So the work–and the posting–will resume. Hopefully it will be improved by a relaxing few weeks immersed in history and historical places.

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We Can Now Bound From Above the Price of German Principles

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:30 pm

If you really concentrate, I’m sure you can stretch your memory to recall those long past days when Angela Merkel was hailed as the new Leader of the Free World, most notably because of her stalwart stance on Russia, in contrast to Trump, who was deemed a squish on Russia at best, and a collaborationist at worst. But that was so . . . May. Now in mid-June, the Germans and much of the rest of Europe and their fellow travelers here in the US are totally losing it over the 98-2 vote in the US Senate (the two dissenters being ideological bookends Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders) to strengthen the sanctions regime on Russia, and notably, to limit Trump’s ability to relax sanctions unilaterally.

So: In May, soft on Russia bad, hard on Russia good. In June, hard on Russia bad. In May, Trump had too much power. In June, limiting Trump’s power is inexcusable.

What changed? Actually nothing changed. This is volte face reflects an enduring constant: German commercial interests. The Senate sanctions bill would impose potential penalties on those assisting in the construction of Russian pipelines, most notably NordStream 2. NordStream 2 is a joint project between Gazprom and a handful of major European, and particularly German, corporate behemoths.

German explanations of the motivation behind the Senate’s action betray extreme psychological projection. Echoing Gazprom (an action which if you were to do it in the US would immediately bring down upon on your head screams of “RUSSIAN TROLL”), several European policymakers have claimed that this action was intended to advance the interests of US LNG exporters.

Um, no. Not even close. The objections of the US to NordStream date back to the Obama administration, which was hardly a major promoter of the US natural gas industry. Further, the main drivers in the Senate were people like McCain, for whom economic considerations are tertiary, at best: McCain et al have had it in for Russia generally and NordStream particularly for geopolitical reasons, and their opposition dates back years. Moreover, the bill reflects the current anti-Russia hysteria in the US, which in turn reflects a strange mix of political factors, not least of which is the clinical insanity of the Democratic Party post-November, 2016.

Indeed, US opposition to Russian gas pipelines into Europe dates back to the Reagan administration. The US tried to stop the pipelines through Ukraine that Putin is now trying to outflank with NordStream, because it thought the pipelines provided an economic benefit to the USSR and made Europe hostage to Russian economic pressure. This was in fact a source of one of the few disagreements between Thatcher (who supported the pipelines) and Reagan.

How much did the US hate the USSR-Europe gas pipelines, you ask? Enough to blow them up. Blow them up real good: “The result was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space.”

Those who claim economic motivations say a lot more about themselves than they do about the US Senate: adopting a policy to advance German/European economic interests is exactly what they would do, and they are projecting this motivation on the US.  Indeed, the Germans’ hysterical reaction demonstrates just how important economic considerations are to them, and how marginal are geopolitical considerations vis-a-vis Russia.

If you think the Russians are as big a threat as the Germans and other gas-poor nations say, they should be deeply grateful for the emergence of US LNG which reduces their dependence on the evil Russkies. But the Germans say: we don’t want your methadone, we’d rather continue to buy smack from this really nasty dealer.

The hypocrisy and projection don’t stop there. Of course German economic policy is strongly oriented towards boosting its exports, often at the cost of beggaring its supposed European brothers and sisters (especially the swarthy ones down south). What’s good for zee goose, kameraden. .  .

Further, recall (if you can remember back that far) that one reason for the German/European freakout over Trump in May was his refusal to acknowledge solidarity with our allies by mouthing the words “Article 5.” All for one! One for all!

Right?

Well, eastern Europeans–the Poles in particular–think that NordStream basically sells them out to the Russians in order to benefit Germany. The Germans have totally blown off this criticism, and have subjected the Poles and Baltic States to considerable criticism and pressure for their opposition to NordStream. So much for European solidarity. It’s all for one, all right: that one being Germany. That one for all . . . not so much.

It gets better! Merkel and other Euros are fond of saying “more Europe.” Well, that’s exactly what the dispute and the sanctions are about, isn’t it? The economics of NordStream 2 are dubious, but it presents a nearly existential threat to Ukraine. The entire reason for the conflict in Donbas and the seizure of Crimea (conflicts that Merkel is allegedly attempting to mediate) were Ukraine’s attempt to move closer to Europe.

That is: (1) Ukraine takes “more Europe” seriously, and enters into an agreement with the EU that would open up trade with an eye on Ukraine joining the union in the future, (2) Putin takes exception to this, and initiates a series of actions that culminate with the ouster of Yanukovych followed by the seizure of Crimea, and a hot war in Donbas, (3) the US Senate attempts to penalize Russian actions by sanctions, and (4) the Europeans scream bloody murder at US intrusion into their policy domain.

In other words, when forced to put their money (and their gas) where their mouths are, the Europeans jettison “more Europe”. And then turn around and slag the US for taking them at their word.

Hey, they can do what they want. And the US can do what it wants. Just spare me the sanctimonious bullshit about standing up to Russia, European solidarity, more Europe, and on and on. It’s all about the Euros, baby–€–and German € in particular. Every “principle” that supposedly earned Merkel the designation as Leader of the Free World went out the window in a nanosecond, once some big German companies were going to have to pay a price for those principles.

We can now bound from above the price of German principles. The upper bound is in the billions of Euros. I am sure that the true price is far lower than that.

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June 4, 2017

Terrorism, Populism, and Elite Failure

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 1:02 pm

Yesterday witnessed yet another terrorist attack in Europe, leaving seven dead in London.

The London mayor, safe behind his massive security detail, assures that there’s no reason to be alarmed.

Easy for him to say. Revelers and pedestrians, not so much.

This kind of vapidity is of a piece with something that I’m sure we’ll hear yet again: People overreact to terrorism. After all, you are more likely to die in your bathtub or some such than be slain by a terrorist. So accept it! Don’t be alarmed! Nothing to see here.

For one thing, this banality about violence does violence to statistics. I’m pretty sure that the Saturday night partiers in London or the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo or the attendees at a concert in Paris or the celebrants in Nice or the schoolgirls at a concert in Manchester are not in demographic cohorts heavily represented in the statistics of bathtub slips and falls.

For another, there is a difference between a small risk willingly taken to achieve some other benefit and being subjected to the risk of political violence in return for no benefit whatsoever. I am perfectly aware that every time I get in my car to go somewhere, I might be killed in an accident. That is part of the full cost of driving, and when I decide to drive I do so because the benefit of the trip exceeds the full cost. I made that choice. Getting decapitated by a religious fanatic while going out for a drink should not be something that must be considered when evaluating the pros and cons of a night on the town. That is the result of a breakdown of public order, not a private misfortune to which everyone is prone.

But those aren’t the biggest reasons to object to the bathtub comparison. The biggest reason is that intuitively people recognize that there is a difference between political violence, a social phenomenon, and the ordinary risks of every day living. They recognize that political violence may start with small, isolated instances, and spin out of control. The history of humanity is a dreary litany of social and political violence, and people have an intuitive sense that if it is not contained, it can well metastasize and make life all but unbearable. People rightly dread the prospect of political violence, because if unchecked, its trajectory is almost always upwards not the other way round. That is categorically different from the random misfortunes inherent in everyday life, and people intuitively recognize it is categorically different, and therefore react differently to it.

In brief, people realize that if you don’t suppress political and social violence when it is a relatively modest problem, it will become bigger: and that if you can’t deal with it when it is a small problem, you will be totally overmatched when it grows.

It is particularly infuriating when such platitudes pour from the pieholes of pompous politicians, of whom the London mayor is only the latest, and by no means the most powerful–the recently elected president of France, and the departed and unlamented (by me, anyways) president of the United States have uttered similar “thoughts.”

The only principled argument for the existence of the state is that people exchange some liberties for security of their lives and property. The primary–and to a classical liberal, sole–reason for the state is to provide such protection. When it fails to do so, it has failed utterly in its mission. When those ostensibly responsible for governing trivialize these failures, it is unpardonable.

It is particularly unpardonable in places like France particularly, but almost as much in the UK, and increasingly in the US, where the state holds itself out as omnicompetent to rule over every aspect of citizens’ lives. As the saying goes: you had one job. You fail at that, yet you presume to tell us that we should trust you with everything from health care to occupational licensing to monetary policy to all the other goddam things you claim only the government can do?

The initial reaction of the increasingly horrid British PM, Theresa May, encapsulates–yet again–the elite failure that is the hallmark of the 21st century. May posits that it might be necessary to restrict–wait for it–the Internet. If you are going to constrain liberties further in your feeble attempts to provide security, mightn’t a little more targeted approach be better, Ms. May? Starting, say, with places like the Finsbury Park Mosque? Or the 1000s of individuals which your security forces have already identified as threats (and then apparently ignored until after they act on them)?

But oh no. That would be discriminatory. Can’t have that, can we? But indiscriminate approaches like restricting the Internet or subjecting everyone from toddlers to the senile to security theater at airports are both wildly over inclusive and wildly under effective, thereby entailing great cost with no remotely corresponding benefit. Which just makes the populace all the more alarmed by terrorism, because it makes them all the more convinced that their supposed betters in government are not serious people and do not have their true interests at heart.

The elites are frightened and befuddled by populism: they freaked out at Trump’s very populist reaction to the latest London attacks. They should not be confused in the slightest, but they just cannot admit the truth: that populism is a reaction to profound elite failure, which the elite gives evidence of every passing day. Understanding populism would require that they admit failure, which they adamantly refuse to do.

People fear terrorism when they see it growing and they see those charged with preventing it failing time and again, and consciously avoiding doing the sometimes messy things necessary to do so. That fear seems pretty rational, given the fundamental differences between political violence and the risks of normal life, no matter how frequently the better thans instruct us about mortality statistics.

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May 28, 2017

Calling Out the Free Riding Euroweenies

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Russia — The Professor @ 4:26 pm

Trump’s continued insistence that Europe pony up to pay for its own defense–by living up to its commitment to spend 2 pct of GDP on the military–sent the Euros into a tizzy during the recent Nato and G-7 meetings. Ironically, given that the UK is leaving Europe, the FT has been particularly obnoxious in its defense of the decided lack of Euro defense spending. Two opeds from last week are perfect cases in point.

In this one, Ivo Daalder, former US permanent representative to Nato, and diehard foreign policy establishmentarian, opines that defense expenditures are not the measure of a defense alliance. Instead, “[t]he heart of the alliance lies in the commitment of each member to defend the others.”

That this is retarded is self-evident. What, pray tell, is the commitment to defend worth if those making the “commitment” do not have the means to live up to it?

It is worth exactly nothing. If, for instance, the Russians invaded the Baltics or Poland: what could the Europeans do? They could no doubt issue stirring statements expressing solidarity with their eastern brethren. But as for actually doing something–fat chance.

Belgium has committed to defend other Nato members. Belgium has zero main battle tanks. The Netherlands has committed to defend other Nato members. The Netherlands has 18 MBTs. Germany has committed to defend other Nato members. Germany–an economic colossus–has a grand total of 250 MBTs.

Furthermore, not only do these nations have little actual combat power, they have virtually no strategic mobility. God only knows how the 18 Dutch MBTs would actually make it to Nato’s eastern marches.

When the Europeans intervened in Libya, they depended almost exclusively on the US for reconnaissance, intelligence, and aerial refueling.

In brief, non-US Nato countries have little combat power, and no ability to sustain what little power they have outside of their own countries.

Meaning that the hallowed commitment is worth exactly squat.

The second oped, by a Princeton poli sci prof, claims that Europe pays its fair share because measuring contributions to security by looking at military expenditure alone “rests on an outdated notion of global power.”

Pray tell, Professor Moravcsik, how is that “civilian power” is working out in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, etc.? Besides, I thought that the reason that Putin was such a grave threat is precisely that he clings to “outdated notions of global power”, for which the Europeans have no answer.

Moravcsik and others who make the same argument also present a false choice: “civilian power” and military power are not mutually exclusive. In fact they are highly complementary. As the Al Capone line goes, you can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone. That’s especially true when those you are dealing with do not embrace the same post-modern conceits as you.

This last point is of particular importance. “Civilian power” may work in a world where there are only sheep: it is not a feasible strategy when there are wolves, too. Moreover, playing the sheep strategy makes it quite advantageous for others to adopt the wolf strategy. If you declare force to be an “outmoded measure of global power,” and disarm yourself accordingly, as sure as night follows day, a nation or nations will find such “outmoded” notions work quite fine, thank you. Indeed, by disarming you make it quite affordable for economic basket cases that could not compete otherwise (e.g., Russia) to obtain a relative advantage in conventional military power–and a relative advantage is all that they need.  By disdaining “outmoded measures of global power” you make it eminently affordable for less edified nations to achieve an advantage.

Today Angela Merkel said that Europe can no longer rely on the US. That’s projection, Angie baby: the US has not been able to rely on Germany for decades. Well, we can rely on them for pretentious preening, carping, and ankle biting. But for actual contributions to mutual defense, not so much.

Trump is right to continue to pound of the Euros about this. If it hurts their tender little feelings, oh well. Free riders need to be called out.

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May 6, 2017

Son of Glass-Steagall: A Nostrum, Prescribed by Trump

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:30 pm

Apologies for the posting hiatus. I was cleaning out my mother’s house in preparation for her forthcoming move, a task that vies with the Labors of Hercules. I intended to post, but I was just too damn tired at the end of each day.

I’ll ease back into things by giving a heads up on my latest piece in The Hill, in which I argue that reviving Glass-Steagall’s separation of commercial and investment banking is a solution in search of a problem. One thing that I find telling is that the problem the original was intended to address in the 1930s was totally different than the one that is intended to address today. Further, the circumstances in the 1930s were wildly different from present conditions.

In the 1930s, the separation was intended to prevent banks from fobbing off bad commercial and sovereign loans to unwitting investors through securities underwriting. This problem in fact did not exist: extensive empirical evidence has shown that debt securities underwritten by universal banks (like J.P. Morgan) were of higher quality and performed better ex post than debt underwritten by stand alone investment banks. Further, the  most acute problem of the US banking system was not too big to fail, but too small to succeed. The banking crisis of the 1930s was directly attributable to the fragmented nature of the US banking system, and the proliferation of thousands of small, poorly diversified, thinly capitalized banks. The bigger national banks, and in particular the universal ones, were not the problem in 1932-33. Further, as Friedman-Schwartz showed long ago, a blundering Fed implemented policies that were fatal to such a rickety system.

In contrast, today’s issue is TBTF. But, as I note in The Hill piece, and have written here on occasion, Glass-Steagall separation would not have prevented the financial crisis. The institutions that failed were either standalone investment banks, GSE’s, insurance companies involved in non-traditional insurance activities, or S&Ls. Universal banks that were shaky (Citi, Wachovia) were undermined by traditional lending activities. Wachovia, for instance, was heavily exposed to mortgage lending through its acquisition of a big S&L (Golden West Financial). There was no vector of contagion between the investment banking activities and the stability of any large universal bank.

As I say in The Hill, whenever the same prescription is given for wildly different diseases, it’s almost certainly a nostrum, rather than a cure.

Which puts me at odds with Donald Trump, for he is prescribing this nostrum. Perhaps in an effort to bring more clicks to my oped, the Monday after it appeared Trump endorsed a Glass-Steagall revival. This was vintage Trump. You can see his classic MO. He has a vague idea about a problem–TBTF. Not having thought deeply about it, he seizes upon a policy served up by one of his advisors (in this case, Gary Cohn, ex-Goldman–which would benefit from a GS revival), and throws it out there without much consideration.

The main bright spot in the Trump presidency has been his regulatory rollback, in part because this is one area in which he has some unilateral authority. Although I agree generally with this policy, I am under no illusions that it rests on deep intellectual foundations. His support of Son of Glass-Steagall shows this, and illustrates that no one (including Putin!) should expect an intellectually consistent (or even coherent) policy approach. His is, and will be, an instinctual presidency. Sometimes his instincts will be good. Sometimes they will be bad. Sometimes his instincts will be completely contradictory–and the call for a return to a very old school regulation in the midst of a largely deregulatory presidency shows that quite clearly.

 

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April 9, 2017

Down the Syrian Rabbit Hole

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:15 pm

The Syria story has many threads. I’ll address a few of them here.

First, to follow on Ex-Regulator’s comment: Trump’s initial public justification for the strike–the humanitarian impulse stirred by pictures of dying children–is deeply troubling. Sentimentality is a poor basis for policy. In particular, it has no limiting principle. If you take a tragic view of humanity–if you view mankind as fallen and flawed–you know that there is a virtually unending supply of sad, heartbreaking, stories. So how does a president choose which appeal to answer? And how do people know which appeals he will answer? Truth is, we have no idea. The line will be arbitrary, which leads to unpredictable, inconsistent policy.

Further, as Ex-Reg notes, by emphasizing his susceptibility to sentimentality, Trump makes himself a target for manipulation. These manipulations are likely to include false flags whereby those attempting to get the US to intervene on their side create an outrage to pin on their opponents: it cannot be precluded that this occurred in Syria last week.

Second, in subsequent remarks by others than Trump, the administration has downplayed the humanitarian aspect, and emphasized the signaling motivation. Moreover, it has explicitly stated that the signal was not directed at Assad alone, or even Putin and Assad, but also at Kim Jung Un and the Chinese.

My concern here is the Rolling Thunder problem: the signal that you think you are sending through a limited use of force is not necessarily the signal that your intended audience hears. What happened in Vietnam during the Johnson years was that graduated escalation was interpreted by Ho Chi Minh et al as weakness, and as an unwillingness to take decisive action. Assad or Kim Jung Rolly Poly may conclude that they can easily absorb a strike like the one launched Thursday night, and that Trump may not be willing to go much further. Or, they may conclude that (a) this strike was so modest, (b) Trump is likely to engage in graduated escalation if he escalates at all, and (c) they can absorb much heavier blows. Either way, they could be encouraged, rather than deterred.

Lesson from Vietnam (pun intended): if you want to achieve a decisive outcome, Linebacker trumps Rolling Thunder.

Of course, one reason for Johnson’s reticence in Vietnam was the risk of drawing in the USSR or China. That’s obviously an issue in Syria and North Korea. But if that is the real concern, don’t even start down the road with a limited strike. If you do, eventually you will pull up short and look feckless.

Third, the administration is sending extremely mixed signals. Last week, Tillerson said point blank that regime change was not on the administration’s agenda. This morning, Nikki Haley intimated that it is. Given that no matter how horrid the Assad regime any successor is likely to be as bad or worse, that regime change is even on the table is highly disturbing.

Fourth, assessing whether the chemical attack was a false flag or a regime attack requires an evaluation of the plausibility that Assad would do such a thing. As Dearieme and Ex-Reg note, and as I noted initially, it does not seem rational for Assad to have taken this action. It certainly was not a military necessity. But people like Assad think differently, and there may be some Machiavellian reason for him to take this action.

One is that he, like everyone else, is trying to fathom Trump’s policy, and Trump himself. Therefore, Assad ran a calculated risk to see how Trump would respond to a pretty extreme provocation. As suggested above, he might be pleased with the answer (contrary to DC conventional wisdom).

Another is that he needed to bind Russia and Iran closer to him. Again running a calculated risk that they would stand with him rather than abandon him (for that would call into question their previous policy of support), he launched this attack and forced them to be complicit in a very inflammatory war crime.

Relatedly, one of Assad’s big fears has to be a rapprochement between Russia and the US that would make him expendable. The Russians had guaranteed that he had eliminated chemical weapons. That guarantee is now shown to be inoperative, either due to (as Tillerson said) deliberate deception or incompetence. Regardless, now no deal with the Russians regarding Assad can be considered credible. This reduces the risk that the Russians will be able to cut a deal with Trump that makes Assad expendable.

I have no idea whether these possibilities are realities. I just put them out there to highlight that there can be twisted motives that cause people like Assad to take actions that seem to be against their interest–just as there can be twisted motives for jihadis to kill their own in horrible ways.

Fifth, Occam’s Razor would say that Trump’s attack completely undercuts the narrative that he is Putin’s bitch. But Occam’s Razor is an alien concept in the fever swamps of the left. The certifiably insane (Louise Mensch) and the hyper partisan but supposedly sane (Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Matthews) certain have never shaved with it. They are claiming that this proves Trump is Putin’s bitch! The “reasoning”? He is doing it because the most likely interpretation is that it shows that Trump isn’t Putin’s bitch, so that means that he is! Or something.

In other words, this lot interprets everything that Trump does as evidence of his collusion with the Russians. This means that the hypothesis that he is in collusion with Putin is unfalsifiable, and hence is junk reasoning. It should therefore be rejected, as should anything that those who espouse this theory say.

Lastly, the attack is a complete embarrassment to the Obama administration, which preened and bragged that it had rid the Assad regime of chemical weapons. All of the administration weasels–Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, Colin Kahl among them–have been quick to defend the administration. Although Obama remains silent, their voices were joined by the next most authoritative one–John Kerry–who ranted against the airstrike. He claimed that the Obama administration had accomplished MUCH more without firing so much as a shot, and that Trump’s attack will undermine all of the great progress that had been achieved.

But watch the weasels’ weasel words. They all say that the 2013 agreement eliminated all of Assad’s declared chemical weapons. Um, the criticism of the deal all along was that Assad might have undeclared stocks, and hence might retain a chemical capability despite the deal. It is beyond embarrassing that these people would protest so stridently that their deal was great in the face of an event which most likely shows that it was a complete, and completely predictable, sham.

So is Kerry’s outraged response to the Tomahawk Chop delusional? Chutzpah? I’m going with delusional chutzpah.

It’s almost tax time. So I suggest that you implement the following strategy, and cite the authority of John Kerry as justification. Report 50 percent of your actual income on your 2016 1040. When the IRS comes after you, tell them–in high dudgeon: How dare you! I paid all I owed on my DECLARED income! Good luck! I’ll write you in jail!

The alternative explanation for the chemical attack–a false flag–hardly provides any cover for Obama and the Obamaites because that would mean that the chemical attack was launched by opposition forces that the administration supported. So, either the administration entered into a farcical deal, and was played the fool by Assad, or it was played the fool by anti-Assad forces whom it had supported.

People with any decency would don sackcloth and ashes and plead forgiveness. But we are talking about the Obama administration, so  . . .

Perhaps there will be more clarity on all these issues in coming days and weeks. But I kind of doubt it. Any venture into understanding Syria is a trip down the rabbit hole. And given the depravity of all the actors involved, that’s yet further reason to stay as far away from this mess as is humanly possible.

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April 7, 2017

Trump, Putin, and the Tomahawk Chop

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:14 pm

President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base that was allegedly the launching point of a sarin attack on a town in the Idlib  Governate. My initial take is like Tim Newman’s: although the inhumanity in Syria beggars description, getting involved there is foolish and will not end well.

The Syrian conflict is terrible, but Syria makes the snake pit in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom look hospitable.

Further, the politics of Syria (both internally, and in the region) make the intrigues of Game of Thrones seem like child’s play by comparison. So I agree with Tim:

Every course of action I can think of other than “fuck ’em” has an almost zero chance of succeeding in its aims and a very high chance of making things worse.

. . . .

It’s not through moral principle that I am saying this, it is from practicality based on fourteen years of recent, bloody experience: Assad is a monster, the Russian government is showing the world exactly what they are like by backing him, and the Syrian people are suffering terribly, but there is nothing – nothing – we can do about it. It is a terrible indictment on the state of the world, but a policy of “fuck the lot of ’em” is the only workable one on the table right now. It’s high time our leaders started taking it seriously.

To put it slightly differently. Good intentions mean nothing. Results and consequences do. I am at a loss to think of any policy with results and consequences that accord with good intentions. Indeed, it almost inevitable that any major military intervention would not save Syrian lives but would cost American ones.

Truth be told, given the devastation wreaked on children, women, and men in Syria by bombs, shells, small arms and even throat-slashing blades, chemical weapons do not represent a quantum shift in the horribleness of the Syrian war. Dead is dead, and periodic use of chemical weapons does not materially affect the amount of dying that is going on. Assad–and the Islamists he is fighting–have killed and maimed far more innocent civilians with conventional weapons than with chemical ones.  The use of chemical weapons does not represent a fundamental shift in the nature of the war, which was already a total war waged without restraint against civilians by all sides (would that there were only two sides in Syria).

Insofar as Trump’s action is concerned, it is best characterized as a punitive strike. And as punitive strikes go, it is modest. It bears more similarity to Clinton strikes in Iraq (e.g., Desert Fox) than Reagan’s Operation El Dorado Canyon in 1986, which put the fear of god into Gaddafi: a 2000 pound bomb dropped near one’s tent has a tendency to do that. In contrast, Thursday’s Tomahawk detonations wouldn’t have disturbed Assad’s sleep in the slightest, let alone put him in mortal danger.

The record of such punitive actions in curbing the misbehavior of bad actors like Saddam or even Gaddafi is hardly encouraging, but at least the downside (to the US) of such indulgences of the Jupiter Complex is rather limited. The concern is that the raid turns out to be ineffectual in moderating Assad’s behavior and leads to Trump to escalate, and to make regime change–rather than a change of regime behavior–the objective. The neocons are celebrating and baying for more: that should be a cause for serious concern.

And I don’t think that this was exclusively about Syria, or even primarily so. The Tomahawks might have landed in Syria, but in a very real sense they were aimed at North Korea.  It is significant that Trump launched the attack while Chinese premier Xi was still digesting the steak he had eaten with the president.

Russia is clearly processing the message. The Russians are obviously angered. One would think that this puts paid to the Trump is Putin’s bitch narrative. But that would assume sanity on the part of the left and the Never Trumpers, who are anything but sane.

The prospects for some rapprochement between the US and Russia were already on life support, now they appear to be dead and buried. This reinforces a point I’ve made for months: that if Putin really did think that a Trump presidency would be better for him than a Clinton one, he made a grave miscalculation. This event proves that Trump is predictably unpredictable, and that he is completely capable of a volte face at a moment’s notice. The word I used was “protean”, and the decision to fire off a barrage of cruise missiles after months-years, in fact-of criticizing the idea of American intervention in Syria is about as protean as you get.

This points to a broader message. For all his alleged tactical acumen, Putin has stumbled from one strategic blunder to another. It is highly unlikely that Russian involvement, whatever it was, materially impacted the US election: its impact has been exaggerated for purely partisan and psychological reasons. It is also highly unlikely that any Russian meddling in European elections will sway them in favor of pro-Putin candidates.

But Russia has paid a steep price for these equivocal gains: Russian actions have created political firestorms not just in the US but in Europe that have actually increased Russian isolation. Hysteria in America about Russian meddling in US politics is vastly overblown, and has been ginned up for partisan reasons, but that is irrelevant as a practical matter: it has made the US-Russia relationship more adversarial than it has been since the height of the Cold War, and that works to Russia’s detriment.

His support for Assad in Syria has had similar effects. Yes, Putin achieved his immediate objective: Assad has survived, and looks likely to prevail. But Russia has only cemented its pariah status. The chemical attack makes it even more than a pariah. For what? Syria’s strategic value is minimal.

Indeed, the chemical attack is not just a crime, but a blunder, and puts Putin and Russia in an even worse spot. The action appears so militarily unnecessary and politically counterproductive that like Scott Adams, it raises doubts in my mind as to whether Assad actually ordered it. (The alternative explanations include a rogue general or a false flag carried out by the opposition.) But this is largely irrelevant: Assad is almost universally blamed, and as his stalwart defender, Putin and Russia have been deemed guilty of being accessories to and enablers of what is just as universally considered a war crime. By going all in for Assad, Putin made himself vulnerable to this. (That might provide a Machiavellian motive for Assad’s action: maybe he thought that the chemical attack would bind Putin even more closely to him.)

So by intervening in Syria, and defending Assad even in the aftermath of a widely reviled chemical attack, what has Putin gained? Yes, he had the satisfaction of showing Obama (and in his mind, the US as a whole) to be feckless, all grandiose talk and no action. He could claim to have reversed Russia’s retreat from the Middle East. He could assert that Russia is back and must be reckoned with in world affairs. He apparently experienced great personal satisfaction as a result of these accomplishments.

But viewed more soberly, these gains are more than offset by losses on the other side of the ledger. Russia is isolated, distrusted, feared, and reviled. It’s not entirely fair, but it should have been predictable. Moreover, nothing that Putin has done has improved what the Soviets called the correlation of forces. Indeed, although Russia has rejuvenated its military to some degree, other elements of national power (relative to the US) have slipped since 2008, and a Trump presidency will almost certainly erase the relative change in military power that occurred during Russian rearmament and the American sequester.

The simple fact is that other than in nuclear weapons, Russia cannot compete with the US, let alone the entire west. By achieving limited victories in strategic backwaters like Syria, all Putin has succeeded in doing is goading the US and the west into viewing him as a threat and sparking a competition that he can’t win.

But Putin has staked a great deal on Syria, in terms of both national and personal prestige. He is not the kind of man to back down and lose face after putting down such a stake. For his part, after claiming benign indifference to who rules Syria, the protean Trump has reversed course, and in so doing has put his own reputation on the line over who rules there, or at least how the man who rules there behaves. That is a combustible mix, and I have no idea how it will turn out.

But I am sure of how things will not turn out. Sore election losers’ dystopian fantasy of Trump selling out to Putin will never become reality. In fact, the reverse is more likely. Indeed, this could develop into a reversal of Reagan-Gorbachev. Then, two bitter antagonists found enough common ground to come to an understanding and ratchet down Cold War tensions. Now, two alleged members of a mutual admiration society are likely to find themselves in an increasingly antagonistic relationship, in yet further proof of my axiom that if you want to find the truth, you could do far worse than to invert elite conventional wisdom.

 

 

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March 26, 2017

Counting the Days Until Jerry Brown Raises the Confederate Flag Over Sacramento

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 8:44 pm

For more than a century, progressives have tried to read the 9th and 10th Amendments out of the Constitution. Some conservatives and libertarians periodically attempted to argue that the amendments could be used as a check on federal power: whenever they did so, the left assailed them as extremist cranks–that is when they did not accuse them of racism and other reprobate tendencies:

[Senator Mike] Lee is a “Tenther,” part of a new extremist movement that seeks to brand all major federal legislation — not only labor regulation, but environmental laws, gun control laws, and Social Security and Medicare — as violations of the “rights” of states as supposedly spelled out in the Tenth Amendment.

But that view is soooo pre-Trump. Post-20 January, 2017, the progressive left is enamored with these amendments, and is seizing upon them as a talisman to ward off the evil Trump spirits. Want proof? Look no further than Governor Moonbeam himself, Jerry Brown:

Despite some recent threats from the president to use federal funding as a “weapon” against the state if it voted to become a sanctuary state, the Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown gave a tough rebuttal in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this week from the nation’s capital.

“We do have something called the ninth and the 10th amendment,” Brown said.

“The federal government just can’t arbitrarily for political reasons punish the State of California, that’s number one,” he said.

Jerry Brown, Tenther. I wait with bated breath for The Atlantic to label him an extremist fellow traveler of Mike Lee.

Under Brown’s leadership, California is moving to become a “sanctuary state”. As such, it would not be able to prevent the operation of federal law enforcement of immigration laws, but it would bar local and state cooperation with such efforts. In response, Trump has threatened to pull federal funding, and it is this that Brown considers a violation of the amendments that his ilk previously considered Constitutional dead letters appealed to only by right wing freaks.

The sanctuary state movement (which includes Maryland as well) edges very close to advocating nullification of federal immigration laws: it is interesting to note that nullifiers on the right routinely appeal to the 10th Amendment. To do so in defiance of a Jacksonian president is quite risky, in light of how it worked out for South Carolina in the 1830s in its conflict with the original Jacksonian. Like Jackson, Trump may well take up the challenge. Because of his personality. Because immigration is one of his signature issues. Because he is on firm legal ground, since courts have been decidedly hostile to 10th Amendment based claims (although I would not be surprised if leftist judges followed the example of Brown and find a strange new respect for the 10th). And since politically it should cost little: California (and Maryland and other states likely to pursue sanctuary legislation) aren’t going to vote for Trump  anyways. This is the kind of fight someone like Trump relishes.

But regardless of whether Brown and Trump come to legal blows over sanctuary status, it is beyond amusing to see progressives man the 10th Amendment barricades. I expect any day now that Jerry Brown will take up the states rights banner, and raise the Confederate flag over Sacramento. Even if he doesn’t go quite that far, the mere fact that he cites amendments that the left once scorned and which the hardcore right embraced demonstrates just how thoroughly Trump has scrambled American politics.

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February 19, 2017

More Contradictions and Confusions

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 2:12 pm

One could really make a parlor game out of identifying all of the contradictions and confusions in the “thinking” of the identity progressive left.

Further yesterday’s point, how can they possibly win (in the US, anyways)? On their terms, winning would mean the subjugation of the victimizers (e.g., the alleged white patriarchy, including all of those white privileged denizens of Appalachia). How is this to occur? Since those to be subjugated are unlikely to voluntarily agree to become Morlocks, they must be subdued by force or the ballot box. The current correlation of forces, however, is strongly on the side of the alleged oppressors. Re-education camps to get their minds right would also be required, but “elite” liberal arts colleges (the closest thing to such camps currently in operation n the US) have already made plain their unwillingness to admit such people, and coercion would be required to force them into something that Pol Pot could love. And given that those to be coerced have the guns (a fact the left never ceases to bewail), how could that possibly work?

And is victory even possible? The leftist version of identity politics is predicated on the conflict between the oppressed and the oppressors. What happens if the oppressed defeat the oppressors? How could they function if a vital piece of their worldview disappears? When your life is structured around fighting The Man, what do you do when The Man loses/dies/disappears? My guess is that there would be a period of internecine struggle to identify who assumes the role of oppressor, and who gets the prized role of being the oppressed.

This brings to mind the Taoist critique of other (not exclusively, but mainly) western religions and philosophies which posit wars between light and darkness, goodness and evil, and so on, which can be summarized as: “um, what happens when light/good win?” Similar critiques have been applied to progressive thought (cf. Alan Watts): how is progress possible in a world of polarity? This problem is particularly acute for identity leftists, because polarity (oppressed/oppressors) is at the core of their mental model.

Traditional Marxists faced a similar dilemma. Marx was quite detailed in describing the class struggle and its ultimate outcome of a dictatorship of the proletariat, but he was quite hazy at describing just what that dictatorship would look like, and how it would be free of conflict (in the presence of any specialization at all).  I would guess that in the unlikely event of victory that the intramural contests on the left would put the intra-party conflicts among the Bolsheviks post-1917 to shame. (And remember what ended the latter conflict: Stalin killing everybody who disagreed with him.)

One last thing. the focus on identity has led to a category error in interpreting US politics, Trump’s rhetoric, and the appeal of that rhetoric to his supporters. In the identity left’s worldview, nationalism is inherently based in national, racial, and ethnic supremacism (and gender and sexual orientation and on and on). Hence, when Trump or a Trump supporter celebrates or asserts American nationalism, the Pavlovian response on the left is to think of European nationalism of the blood and soil variety. No! American nationalism has always been different, and to equate Trump with a Le Pen or an Orban–or a Putin!–on this issue is fundamentally wrong.

On this eve of Presidents’ Day, a review of Lincoln’s formulation of American nationalism, and his distinction between American and European varieties is quite useful. Sadly, all too many people have forgotten this fundamental distinction, including Republican Senators, notably John McCain, who committed this very category error a few days ago. In a statement aimed clearly at Trump, as well as continental nationalist leaders, he said:  “[The founders of the Munich conference] would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood and race and sectarianism.”

Maybe that’s true in some countries, but it is not what is going on in the United States. Indeed, it is a disgusting insult of tens of millions of Americans to insinuate that it is. McCain’s combination of senility and narcissism is becoming too much to bear, but this remark (and other things he said in Munich) demonstrate how deeply the identity left/progressive rot has penetrated establishment opinion in the US.

 

 

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February 18, 2017

Putin Is So Smart That He Outsmarted Himself–You Should Have Listened to Me, Vlad

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:29 pm

Apparently there is buyer’s remorse in Moscow, as Putin and his coterie are disappointed at Trump’s failure to change dramatically the relationship between the US and Russia. Don’t believe me? The WaPoo and the FT say so.

This is no surprise to me at all. Indeed, from the time that the hysteria over alleged Russian manipulation of the US election broke out, I said Putin should be careful what he asks for, because it was be unlikely that Trump would behave as expected–and hoped, in Moscow, apparently. There are several reasons for this, some of which I pointed out at the time.

The first is Trump’s mercurial nature. Counting on what he says at time t to be reliable information for forecasting his behavior at T>t is a mugs’ game, because much of what he says is for tactical value and to influence negotiations, and because he changes his mind a lot, in part because he does not have strong ideological convictions.

I think Trump’s stand on Nato–an issue of particular importance to Putin–is a classic example. There is good sense at the core of Trump’s position: European Nato states have been free riding for years. He wants to get them to stump up more money. What better way than to threaten to ditch Nato? He has quite clearly put the fear into them. Then he dispatches his reasonable emissaries–Mattis and Tillerson–to lay out the framework of a modus vivendi.

The second is that Trump’s assertion of an independent United States with attenuated ties to traditional multilateral organizations is hardly helpful to Putin. This is especially true because part of Trump’s program along these lines is to revitalize the US military. Russia has strained mightily to overcome the decrepitude of its 1990s military, and has managed to recapitalize it sufficiently to make it a credible force. Even after these efforts, however, it can only dimly see the tail of the American military in the distance. If Trump goes into super-cruise mode, Russia’s expenditures will have largely been for nought. Closing the military gap required the US not to compete. Trump made it clear he would compete. How could Putin have desired that?

Nato was already the US military plus a few European military baubles hung on for decoration. A stronger US military makes Nato stronger, regardless of what the Europeans do. If the Europeans kick it up a bit too, well that all really sucks for Vlad.

The third is something that has only become manifest in the past months. Namely, the Democratic loss left them desperate to find a scapegoat. Russia has become that scapegoat, and anything said that is remotely positive about Russia unleashes paroxysms of fury–not just from Democrats, but from many Republicans as well. Any positive move that Trump would take towards Russia would be seized upon as evidence of a dark bargain with the Kremlin. So (as he acknowledged in his press conference) he has no political room to deal with Russia. Indeed, if anything he might be forced to being more Russophobic Than Thou in order to put this issue to rest.

That is, the dynamic created by his intervention has completely undermined Putin’s purpose. A self-inflicted wound.

There is yet more irony in this development. Along with their spawn, 1980s peaceniks who shrieked that Reagan’s robust stance with the Soviet Union threatened the earth with nuclear annihilation now sound like those in the hard right in the ’80s who thought Reagan was a wimp, and a traitor for talking with Gorbachev. Trump, of all people, is the one lamenting that defusing conflict and talking with the Russians would reduce the risk of nuclear holocaust.

All this calls into considerable doubt Putin’s vaunted tactical and strategic acumen. If indeed Russia intervened heavy-handedly in the US election, it is not turning out well for Putin. And evidently he recognizes this, and is sharply reducing his ambitions. Maybe, pace Stalin, we’ll see him write an article where he claims Russia is dizzy with success, and needs a respite to consolidate its gains.

Truth be told, I do not think that Putin thought that his machinations (whatever they were–and I am skeptical about some of the more lurid claims) would result in Trump’s election. I surmise that his objective was to damage Hillary, in the full expectation that she would win and it would be advantageous to deal with a weakened president. But, he was too clever by half, outsmarted himself, and now has to deal with an unpredictable dervish capable of turning any which way.

Viewed in this light, Putin is less Sorcerer, than Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who cast a spell he could not control: authoritarians who have been in control too long have a tendency to do that, because they are convinced of their own greatness. Whatever his intent, the unintended consequences of his actions have arguably left him worse of than if he had left well enough alone. I do not believe that it was his intent to elect Trump. When Trump was elected, he let his mind run wild with the possibilities, but he has now come crashing to earth.

Wiley Coyote comes to mind. That Acme Election Kit (or would it be the Acmeski Election Kit) hasn’t worked quite as planned, has it Vlad?

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