Streetwise Professor

September 22, 2017

The Mueller Investigation: One Part Abuse, One Part Absurdity. There is No Third Part.

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:32 pm

The Mueller “investigation” of “collusion with Russia” is one part abuse, one part absurdity. There is no third part.

One aspect of the abuse is well summarized by my friend Tom Kirkendall and others quoted in this article:

“Here is a United States citizen where the FBI is coming in, picking his lock, and raiding his home in the early morning, over what? It doesn’t matter which side you’re on. It’s just crazy. We’re not the Soviet Union. It’s appalling,” said Kirkendall, who has worked on cases involving one of the special counsel’s key investigators, Andrew Weissmann.

As Tom noted to me, apparently the irony of using KGB tactics to investigate rumored Russian intelligence involvement in the US election is lost on Mueller and his thugs. The presence of serial prosecutorial abuser Andrew Weissmann is also quite revealing about Mueller’s attitude.

Another aspect of the abuse is the continued and repeated leaking from the investigation, and about Manafort in particular. The leaked information was obtained either by search warrant in a criminal investigation, or a FISA warrant in an intelligence investigation: it is criminal to release either.

All of this is clearly intended to intimidate Manafort into cooperation against Trump. In this effort, they are apparently ranging far afield from anything remotely related to the 2016 election. One (leaked) story is that they are looking into Manafort’s activities dating back 11 years. That might have more relevance to the 2008 election involving current Swamp darling John McCain–Manafort’s partner Rick Davis was McCain’s 2008 National Campaign Manager–than it does 2016’s.

No leaks yet as to whether Mueller is investigating contacts between Manafort and Agamemnon during the Trojan War. Which would be about as relevant to the things he is pursuing now.

Another leak is that–gasp!–Manafort offered to brief Oleg Deripaska about the campaign. I checked my thesaurus. “Brief” and “collude” or “conspire” are NOT synonyms. Furthermore, this is an example of how dishonest and misleading leaks can be. In court they make you swear to tell the whole truth, because partial revelations can be as misleading and deceptive as an outright lie. How many other people from what other nations did Manafort offer to brief? What did these briefings involve? Just revealing a single communication about a possible Russia contact (without even confirming that any briefing actually occurred) is highly manipulative, and presents a distorted picture of what actually occurred.

It is telling that Manafort has demanded that ALL of the material collected about him be released. He no doubt knows that the Deripaska connection would appear trivial when put into the context of the entirety of his activities.

I wonder if they have the measure of their man, however. After all, the whole reason Manafort has come under suspicion is his history of dealings in Ukraine, and on the side of Russia-friendly politicians there. These people are not boy scouts. They are capable of far worse things than no-knock raids. Someone like Manafort who is used to dealing with the likes of Yanukovych and Ukrainian oligarchs cannot be easily intimidated. I’m not saying he’ll go all G. Gordon Liddy, but he’s not likely to collapse into a puddle of tears begging for Mueller’s mercy either.

One last thing about this: the massive leaks give Manafort a colorable claim that he cannot receive a fair trial anywhere in the US due to the highly prejudicial pre-trial (and even pre-indictment) publicity. Mueller et al have to know this, but are willing to leak prejudicially anyways, meaning they don’t give a damn about Manafort qua Manafort. But Manafort (and his attorneys) know this too–which might lead him to resist the pressure.

As for absurdity, it is widely reported that a major focus of Mueller’s investigation is the alleged purchase by Russians (which of the 145 million odd citizens of the Russian Federation has not been revealed) of a piddling sum of ads on Facebook. What connection this has to the collusion allegations that started this whole effort in motion has not been disclosed. But even if there is some remote connection, this is farcical.

The purchase price of the ads was between $50,000 and $100,000. (I have seen both numbers quoted.) To put things in perspective, Hillary spent $400 freaking million on ads. (And every dollar was wasted–hahahaha!) So even assuming the high number, the FB ads represented .025 percent of Hillary’s ad buy: Hillary was spending more per business hour than the entire FB ad buy. This does not count the massive free publicity via the mainstream media, which was highly partisan: that would have cost many billions to buy. Nor does it count pro-Hillary Facebook and Twitter (and for all I know, Instagram) material that was churned out during 2016.

Given that Mueller has hired 14 high-powered lawyers, who always come with a train of support staff, I would not be surprised if he spends more in a day investigating the Great Facebook Conspiracy than the conspirators spent on the ads in the first place.

All of which shows beyond cavil that any putative Russian ad buy on Facebook was about as relevant to the outcome of the election as what Putin had for breakfast on election day. Or put differently, if it did have any impact on the election, every campaign manager and consultant is an idiot and a wastrel for spending vast sums on conventional media buys when spending the campaign budget for a hotly contested school board race on Facebook ads would be sufficient to propel their candidates to the highest offices in the land.

Both the abuse and the absurdity demonstrate the depravity of the independent counsel statute, and the grave disservice that Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions did not just to Trump but to the nation, by appointing Mueller, and in particular, appointing him with a license to look into anything remotely related to Russia. Prosecutorial power must be restrained, or it will be abused: not may be–will be. (This is especially true with US prosecutors.) The most important constraint is that they be limited to prosecuting a specific allegation of criminality. Indeed, given the stakes and the huge ramifications for the operation of the US government, special prosecutors should be particularly constrained. Instead, we are in a situation where this special prosecutor is apparently free of any limitation, and is free to roam at will as a hybrid of Inspector Javert and Frankenstein’s Monster.

The only silver lining in this dark cloud is that the fact that Mueller is chasing chimeras likely means that there is nothing to the collusion allegations that were the reason for his appointment.

The reason I started to write about Russia years ago was that it represented to me a real world dystopia that showed what could happen in the absence of a rule of law, and protections of individual rights: writing about a place where these things did not exist was (to me) an effective way of demonstrating their importance where they do exist. But in the 11 odd years since I started blogging about Russia, the United States has been converging to it from above, and the pace of convergence has quickened in recent years. It is sickly ironic that one of the most disturbing illustrations of this convergence is a special counsel investigation ostensibly motivated by grave concerns about Russian interference in American politics. Pace Pogo, we have met the enemy, and he is us: we are doing a damn good job at becoming Russia all by ourselves, thank you very much.

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September 19, 2017

Motivated Seller

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:18 pm

I conjectured that Qatar’s sale of half of its Rosneft stake reflected at least in part the dramatic change in the emirate’s circumstances between December (when it initially bought in) and September (when it sold off), specifically the cold war with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (oxymoron alert!) that broke out over the summer. This conflict has put substantial financial strains on Qatar, which would suggest it bailed on Rosneft (at what price???) to raise cash and reduce risk.

This story from Bloomberg is consistent with that: private depositors have been fleeing Qatar’s banks, and the state is stepping in, putting about $11 billion into these banks. Liquidating investments like the Rosneft stake is one way of raising that cash, and reducing debt. (This raises the possibility that if the crisis drags on, Qatar may sell the rest of its 4.7 percent share of Rosneft.) That is, Qatar could have been a very motivated seller–war clouds can do that to a country. And if it was a motivated seller, CEFC probably obtained its position at a good price, perhaps even a fire sale price. That’s not evident from the reported terms of the transaction, which means that there are side deals.

One other thing about the Qatar-GCC standoff. There are reports that Trump kept the cold war from going hot:

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates considered military action in the early stages of their ongoing dispute with Qatar before Donald Trump called leaders of both countries and warned them to back off, according to two people familiar with the U.S. president’s discussions.

The Saudis and U.A.E. were looking at ways to remove the Qatari regime, which they accused of sponsoring terrorism and cozying up to Iran, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were confidential. Trump told Saudi and U.A.E. leaders that any military action would trigger a crisis across the Middle East that would only benefit the Iranians, one of the people said.

Donald Trump, peacemaker. Not that he’ll get credit. Note that early on, Trump’s pro-Saudi message clashed with Tillerson’s more neutral approach. This story suggests that Trump’s private and public positions may have been different, and that he was really on board with Tillerson all along. Alternatively, Trump initially tweeted his gut reaction, but Tillerson and others quickly persuaded him to moderate his course. Either way, the outcome conflicts with the prevailing narrative about Trump.

 

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State Firms Are Running From Private Banks in Russia: Are Putin’s Hands On or Off?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:59 pm

Russia’s private banks  are in pretty dire shape. The biggest one, Otkritie, was bailed out. Others have been designated as systemically important (i.e., TBTF), reflecting their size and their marginal financial condition. Further, the FT reports that some private banks are undergoing a run of sorts. Interestingly, the run is being led by state corporations, which are withdrawing billions (of dollars, not rubles)–one unidentified state corporation is leading the way. Such withdrawals sounded the death knell of Otkrite, and are jeopardizing other big private lenders.

In the conventional view of Russia as a centrally directed “vertical of power,” such potentially destabilizing moves by state entities would not take place without Putin’s acquiescence. Indeed, in this view, such moves would most likely occur at his direction.

If that is the case here, one is led to wonder about the motivation given (a) the potential for sparking a banking crisis in Russia, and (b) the cost to the central bank/government of dealing with such a banking crisis: the central bank lent Otkrite about $12 billion over the summer. Certainly, the large state banks (VTB, Sberbank, Gazprombank) would appreciate a reduction in competition for funding, although they are evidently not the only immediate beneficiaries: private bank Promsvyazbank has experienced a surge in deposits from state companies. The inflow to Promsvyazbank followed its designation as a systemically important bank, which may have convinced the state firms that their deposits are effectively backed by the RCB.

So under the power vertical view, this could be perceived as a boon to state banks who may see more deposits from state firms and less competition for funding. It could also reflect bleak choices facing the government and central bank: the weakness of the private banks means that they need to shrink their balance sheets, and the withdrawals by state firms are a way of forcing that outcome. But whence the funds to pay off the fleeing depositors? Asset sales?: fire sales could cause contagion that damages other banks, including the state banks. The central bank?: that would mean that this could be a first step to bailouts and eventual liquidation (or dramatic shrinkage) of the private banking sector.

The alternative explanation is that the state firms are acting on their own hook, and in their own interest, without direction from the top, or without receiving permission despite the potentially systemically risky implications of these moves. In some ways, that would be even more intriguing, as it would suggest a serious degradation of the degree of central control in Russia–or that such control has been overstated all along.

A shaky banking sector will test the RCB, and the government. How it plays out–a relatively orderly wind-down of wobbly lenders directed from the center, or an uncoordinated sauve qui peut by big depositors–will say a lot about the state of the Russian economy, the Russian financial system, and crucially, the true nature of the Putin system. Is the Kremlin orchestrating this behind the scenes, or is it taking place without Putin’s directing hand? Inquiring minds want to know!

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September 16, 2017

The Rosneft Farce Gets More Farcical

Filed under: Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:39 am

A Reuters piece today provides even more evidence of the farcical nature of the Rosneft “privatization.” Specifically, it reports that (a) the CEFC deal was heavily leveraged, and (b) more importantly, a good part of the leverage was from a Russian bank (VTB). The remainder of the debt was provided by the Chinese Development Bank.

Remember Putin’s original injunction to Sechin: the deal should be a real privatization, without participation by Russian banks, and western investors must participate. Remember the triumphant statements of Putin and Sechin at the time of the original deal, and when he awarded Medals of Friendship to two of the big players in the deal: to hear them tell it, the participation of a major western bank, Intensa, was a validation of the legitimacy of the transaction, and an endorsement of Rosneft and Russia as a place to invest.

Of course, those statements were lies when made: Russian banks guaranteed at least Glencore’s debt, so even if they did not provide any funding, they did bear the risk, which is what really matters. Further, the unaccounted for difference between the alleged purchase price and the funds provided by Intesa, Glencore, and QIA also makes it quite possible that Russian banks even chipped in some funding. (VTB was likely one. Gazprombank is another.) And don’t forget that VTB provided bridge financing until Russia cadged Intesa into the deal.

But now the falsity of the original narrative, and original plan, is laid bare. There is not a western entity in sight, unless you count Glencore and its piddling .5 percent stake–which is more than compensated for by generous off take deals and a seat on the Rosneft board. The deal was clearly structured–almost to the kopek–to make Intesa whole, and allow it to flee snowy Russia for sunnier Mediterranean climes (with its CEO Carlo Messina getting a cool Medal of Friendship as a pre-parting gift). A major Russian bank ends up exposed to Rosneft by stepping into Intesa’s place, along with a Chinese state bank. Not a private western investor or lender in sight.

So yes. The Rosneft deal indeed speaks volumes about the company, and about Russia as a place to invest. And what it says is exactly the opposite of the message that Putin trumpeted in December 2016, and again in April (when the friendship medals were awarded).

Think about it. Russia cannot entice private investors to buy into an oil company with access to some of the greatest oil properties in the world. How damning is that?

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You Too Can Own a Copy of Hillary’s Therapy Session Notes, For a Mere $30!!!

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 11:15 am

Hillary Clinton expects you to spend $30* to read the notes from her post-election therapy sessions–all 512 pages(!) of them. She is also on tour, broadcasting hour after hour of therapy session with assorted media shrinks.

The therapy has obviously been an utter failure, because Hillary remains stubbornly stuck in denial and anger, and incapable of moving anywhere close to acceptance. The therapy has also failed to resolve her rampant internal contradictions, wherein she is simultaneously the smartest, most powerful woman in the world and the serial victim of offenses committed by all humans great and small, simultaneously the ubermensch and untermensch.

In What Happened, Hillary purports to explain her (to her anyway) inexplicable loss to the worst man in the world, bar none, Donald Trump. What Didn’t Happen would have been a much shorter book, because in her tome (and in her interviews) she blames everyone and everything for her loss. Check that: she blames everyone and everything except Hillary Clinton, save for some pro forma acknowledgements of responsibility, before she returns to her regularly scheduled blamecast. There are more scapegoats in this book than in all of Greece.

James Comey–whom, as you may know, I loathe–is the target of considerable ire. Lest you think that this is one thing Hillary and I can agree with, it ain’t. One of the reasons I dislike Comey is that there is ample evidence that he gave numerous passes to Hillary: most recently, it was revealed that he had basically decided to clear her before interviewing her or any of her flunkies, and basically said mother-may-I when requesting (not demanding) documents. But Hillary blames Comey’s late-in-the-day hedge on some of those passes for her loss: he never should have terminated the investigation that he felt compelled to resume later on.

The most tedious refrain in Hillary’s pity party is that she was the victim of misogyny. Please. For one thing, if misogyny is so rife in affecting American votes, why are there so many women in elective office in the US? It was just one woman in particular whom many Americans found off-putting.

For another, Hillary and her ilk believe that misogyny is rife on the right–but those people weren’t going to vote for her in any event. Hillary therefore must impute misogyny to middle-of-the-road swing voters in places like Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania who voted Democratic in the past but who voted for Trump this time around. (And who voted for women for high political offices–note that Debbie Stabenow has received a majority of the votes in Senate contests in Michigan, and that Jennifer Granholm was elected governor years ago. Tammy Baldwin, a woman–indeed, a lesbian–was elected to the Senate from Wisconsin in 2013.) Indeed, since there was a swing to Trump of female voters who had previously voted Democratic in these states, she would have to argue that moderate and Democratic-leaning women acted out of misogyny. Evidence for these assertions would be nice. I’ve seen none, and she presents none. Chalk this up as another example of Hillary’s penchant for insulting those she should flatter. In brief, Hillary believes that if you voted against her you are a misogynist, and if you are a woman who voted against her (or did not vote), you are a traitor to your ovaries to boot. That’s just pathetic.

The issue of states leads to one of her most appalling rants–the attack on the Electoral College. Well, those were the rules going in, lady, and had been in place for 229 years and 57 presidential elections prior to 2016. You didn’t play the electoral map properly. Trump did. You lose.

Further, if she had been an even remotely decent candidate, the Electoral College wouldn’t have mattered a whit. The loss in the Electoral College demonstrates some of her fundamental failings as a candidate, most notably an overweening belief in her own inevitability, which led her to run a lazy, uninspired, unstrategic and frankly stupid campaign.

I will also note in passing that precisely because of the Electoral College, her husband cruised to victory twice despite receiving a minority of the popular vote, and indeed a smaller fraction of that vote than the reviled Trump. Besides demonstrating one of the virtues of the Electoral College system (which can result in an unchallenged outcome even in a sharply divided electorate), this is also deliciously ironic, and karmic. But irony is not one of Hillary’s strong suits. (I honestly can’t say what Hillary’s strong suits are, but appreciation for irony and karma are definitely not among them.)

The obsessive self-focus of this book also apparently blinds her to all of the slings and arrows that Trump endured during the campaign (many of which were self-inflicted). By any objective measure, Trump experienced far more negative treatment than Hillary. You can argue that it was warranted, but you really can’t argue that fact. So why were negative coverage and damaging revelations fatal to Hillary, but not to Trump, even though (in her mind at least) those directed at her were false and those directed at Trump were true? After all, this was a contest between two individuals, meaning that the relative degree of negativity should matter.  Furthermore, it is gravely insulting to the American people to insinuate, as Hillary does, that they are utterly incapable of distinguishing fair criticism from false. In Hillary’s mind, she is wonderful, and every criticism is unfair, but Americans are too stupid to see through fake news concocted in Macedonia to perceive her incomparable wonderfulness.

The book and the interviews primarily show that Hillary is still Hillary, and she will always be Hillary. This should not be surprising. Hillary is a narcissist, and narcissists never change. She believes that she is so wonderful that any criticism is a grave injustice, and that Trump is so horrible that no criticism is too strong: the fact that she was criticized at all is to her an outrage. In her mind, she should have been elected by unanimous affirmation. She should move to North Korea.

Further, the book and interviews show that Hillary lost despite every objective advantage because of her myriad personal defects. Well before the election I pointed out often that Hillary was a horrible candidate, in large part because she is a horrible person. And wouldn’t you know, she done wrote herself a book to prove that to the world.

*That’s list price. The book is available at $17.99 on Amazon almost immediately after release: indeed, it is available new for $12.99 from some sellers. Draw your own conclusions.

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September 9, 2017

The Rosneft “Privatization”: The Farce Continues

Filed under: China,Commodities,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:32 pm

The Rosneft deal involving Qatar and Glencore, announced with such fanfare in December, and commemorated with Putin awarding medals a few months later, has been undone. A Chinese conglomerate, CEFC (not exactly a giant name in the energy business) has agreed to invest $9.1 billion. As a result, Qatar’s stake will fall by more than half to less than five percent. Glencore, which notionally owned half of the nearly 20 percent stake sold in December, but which went to great pains to point out that it was at risk to the tune of a mere $300 million, will retain only .5 percent of Rosneft. The Italian bank which funded the deal, Intesa, will be paid off and exit the transaction. And as Ivan Tkachaev notes in RBC, it also lets the heretofore unknown Russian banks who provided guarantees to Glencore (and perhaps provided some funding too, given the gap between the price of the deal and the contributions by Intesa, QIA, and Glencore) to eliminate their exposure to Rosneft. (Exposure that Rosneft/Sechin/Putin never admitted, and which was allegedly not supposed to exist in this “privatization.”)

Like the original transaction, this one raises many, many questions. And like the original transaction, no doubt few (if any) of these questions will be answered.

The most notable issue is that the transaction clearly was not done at a market price. The amount invested exactly pays off the Intesa loan, plus about $100 million to cover costs and fees: it would be miraculous if a market-price deal exactly paid off existing loans. Thus, the deal was clearly done to save Intesa from its predicament, which was quite dire given that it could not syndicate the loan, and its association with the deal put the banking some sanctions-related binds.

Further, the deal is a boon to Qatar, which is embroiled in a standoff with the Saudis and the rest of the GCC, and which has suffered some economic difficulties as a result. The deal helps its balance sheet, which was under pressure due to the economic conflict. Further, Qatar needs all the friends it can get right now, and being a major investor in Rosneft did not help its relations with the US.

Not only was the deal not at a market price, it is highly likely that the Chinese overpaid. The price was at a 16 percent premium to the average of Rosneft’s stock price over the previous month. It is extremely rare to pay a premium, let alone that big a premium, for a minority passive stake–especially in a country where minority investors are routinely raped. (And Sechin is a multiple offender in this regard.) Indeed, most such deals are done at a discount, not a premium.

Note that the original deal was at a discount, and Putin explicitly acknowledged it was at a 5 percent discount. He claimed it was the “minimum discount,” but it was a discount nonetheless.

The Chinese are not notorious for overpaying. Thus, it is almost certain that there is some side deal that makes the Chinese whole. Or better than whole. The side deals could be in the form of cash payments from Rosneft (or maybe even Qatar), but I consider this the least likely. Instead, CEFC could obtain oil at preferential prices from Rosneft, or provide financial services to the Russian company at above market prices.

Ivan also reminds me that just days before the CEFC purchase, Rosneft and the Chinese company announced a “Strategic Cooperation Agreement and a contract for the supply of Russian crude oil at the 9th BRICS summit.” Rosneft describes the oil contract thus:

Rosneft and CEFC signed a contract for the supply of Russian crude oil, opening up new opportunities for the strategic partnership. This contract will lead to an increase in direct supplies of crude oil to the strategic Chinese market and ensure a guaranteed cost-efficient export channel for the Company’s crude sales.

Price is not mentioned, but this could provide a mechanism that would allow Rosneft to compensate CEFC for any overpayment on the purchase price of the stake. (Recall that Russia obtained funding for an oil pipeline to China by contracting to deliver oil at discounted prices.)

Again, we will likely never know the details, but there has to be more to this deal than meets the eye.

Here is how the investor describes its business:

In recent years, CEFC China has been accelerating its strategic transformation, focusing on building an international investment bank and an investment group specialized in energy industry and financial services, which has helped boost the Company’s sustained rapid development. The Company has under it two group companies at management level, 7 level-one subsidiaries as investment platforms and an A-share listed company, with a workforce of nearly 30,000.

Underpinned by its European oil and gas terminals, CEFC China secures its position by obtaining upstream oil and gas equities and interests, building professional teams of finance and independent traders and providing financial support with a full range of licenses. The profits in the financial and logistics sectors are driven by its energy operations and financial services. In addition, CEFC China has set up its second headquarters in the Czech Republic to conduct international banking businesses and investment, and acquired controlling shares in banks and shares in important financial groups with its investment focusing on airline, aircraft manufacturing, special steel and food, in order to facilitate international cooperation in production capacity.

Hardly a major oil player, and certainly not a strategic investor that brings to Rosneft any technical expertise or access to upstream resources outside Russia. It’s just a supplier of cash. And as such, and as one that is providing cash to help previous Rosneft investors/lenders get out of a sticky wicket, you can be sure that it got a pretty good deal. Thus, like so many Russian transactions, the interesting action is not that which takes place in plain sight, but that which takes place behind many screens and curtains.

Although Sechin now boasts that Chinese investors are always the ones he wanted, that’s not what he–and notably Putin–said in December and January. Then they were saying how the participation of a noted western company–Glencore–put a stamp of legitimacy on the deal, and showed that Russia was an attractive place for western companies to invest.

Well, Glencore never really invested anything substantial in the first place: if there was any doubt back in December and January that this was a Potemkin privatization involving western companies, there should be no doubt now. And of course, Glencore comes out a huge winner in this. The company earned a lot of goodwill from Putin and Sechin for saving them from the embarrassing situation that they faced in 2016, with a privatization deadline looming and no investors in sight. More tangibly, Glencore obtained–and retains after this deal–a lucrative concession to market Rosneft barrels. It took on very little risk in the first place, and has very little risk now. Glasenberg received a seat on the Rosneft board, and apparently retains it, even though Glencore’s equity stake is now trivial. And Ivan gets to keep that totally cool Order of Friendship medal.

But he better not fall in with the “wrong crowd,” like previous recipient Rex Tillerson, whom Putin is now very sore at! But since I doubt Ivan has any prospect or interest in becoming a diplomat, that’s probably not going to happen. Ivan knows a good deal when he sees one. And this deal was very, very good for him and Glencore.

For Rosneft and Russia, I’m guessing not so much.

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September 2, 2017

Harvey’s Danger Has Passed (For Most, Though Not All)

Filed under: Climate Change,Houston,Politics — The Professor @ 9:36 pm

The last several days in Houston have been warm and sunny. Most stores are open (with the surprising exception of a local Starbucks), traffic is getting back to normal–unfortunately (I-610 in particular is a nightmare). There are still flood waters in some locations, but most of the water has drained. I drove on US-59 (I-69, which nobody calls it) yesterday. Here’s how it looked a few days ago.

us59_kayak_at_hazard_dave_rossman

Some of the bayous are pretty much back to normal. Here is Brays (or Braes) Bayou, at Calhoun Rd. near UH, as of Friday–less than 48 hours after the rain stopped.

brays_bayou_calhoun

That doesn’t look much different than on a normal day. (This bayou has been subject to a lot of Corps of Engineers work post-Allison. The place I first lived in for a bit had been flooded up to the 1st floor ceilings during Allison. That area did not flood this time around. Whether that can be attributed to work on the bayou I can’t say.)

I only had to contend with many small lizards who took refuge on my 2d floor patio. When I sat out there after the storm, I felt like I was at a casting call for a Geico commercial.

Thank you to all who contacted me via various channels to inquire about how I was faring. I am deeply grateful, and am glad to say that unlike so many others, I was mainly inconvenienced, rather than suffering bodily or material harm. I am deeply sorry for those less fortunate than I: there but for the grace of God . . .

As I told most of those who wrote, the impacts were highly variable, and largely driven by proximity to the bayous. Or as Beldar, who returned from a long blogging hiatus to write about Harvey put it, there were highly localized but widely distributed areas of impact. In the areas that it was bad, it was horrid. But the bad areas were not as ubiquitous as viewing the news would suggest.

As some commenters have noted, and has been widely recognized, Houston and Texas have acquitted themselves very well. The contrast with the New Orleans during and post-Katrina is remarkable on every dimension. Rather than social disintegration, there has been solidarity and a spirit of mutual aid. My tennis coach’s father works with Red Cross, and says that they have more volunteers than they can handle. The lines in grocery stores that I visited once they reopened were amazing placid, with people patiently chatting while waiting their turn. Would that Christmas shopping scenes be as civil.

But of course, numerous people of ill will outside of Houston and Texas have taken this opportunity to take swipes at the city, state, and their people. Examples include a disgusting “cartoon” in Politico (a Tweet of which the gutless bastards deleted when called out on it), an even more disgusting cartoon in Charlie Hebdo, and more Tweets than I could count claiming that Harvey was divine justice for Houston’s petrol-chem industry–presumably these were Tweeted from artisanal wood and hemp smart phones by people who don’t drive, eschew all plastics, and produce all their own food using only llama dung as fertilizer. (The Unabomber was an evil bastard, but at least he lived what he believed.) These criticisms make as much sense as fundamentalists blaming earthquakes in the Bay Area as God’s retribution on sodomites (which is an illustration of how political opposites are often doppelgängers).

To which most Texans reply: we really don’t give a shit what you think. Or as one meme put it: Hold our beer–we got this.

And of course there are those who are using this to advance their political obsessions. I’ve already mentioned those who assert, obnoxiously and ad nauseum, that Harvey was the inevitable and predictable result of climate change. Among the most prominent, and certainly most execrable of these, was one-time economist Jeffrey Sachs:

Gov. Abbott, we would like to bid you a political adieu. Perhaps you can devote your time to rebuilding Houston and taking night classes in climate science. Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, you will soon be asking us for money to help Texas.

My answer will be yes, if you stop spewing lies about climate dangers, agree to put US and Texas policy under the guidance of climate science, back measures to lower carbon emissions and stay in the Paris Climate Agreement. Then, of course, let’s help your constituents to rebuild.

And to ExxonMobil, Chevron, Koch Industries, ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, and other oil giants doing your business in Texas: You put up the first $25 billion in Houston disaster relief. Call it compensation for your emissions. Tell the truth about growing climate threats. Then, as citizens seeking the common good, we will match your stake.

This is the rankest opportunism, and his entire piece is written with a reckless disregard for the evidence about the link between CO2 and hurricanes generally (which is equivocal at best), and about the link between anthropogenic effects on climate and Hurricane Harvey in particular.

As I noted in my earlier post, Harvey was not an exceptionally powerful storm by historical standards, and indeed storms of its intensity were actually more common during the period prior to large increases in CO2 emissions. Harvey’s devastating effects were a result of the chance interaction of weather patterns that led Harvey to meander and linger over Houston.

At present another hurricane–Irene–is forming in the Atlantic. To illustrate the role of weather, there are two scenarios for its track. If the dominant weather pattern over the North Atlantic is a strong high pressure region, it will likely hit the US, most likely Florida. A weaker high pressure area, will result in Irene turning north and petering out in the Atlantic.

The other hobby horse being ridden with abandon is that Houston’s pro-development policies increased the damage: I’ve read that Houston’s lack of zoning bears some of the blame. Two of the most strident advocates of this view include The Economist and Bloomberg Business Week.

Well, on one level, this is Captain Obvious DUH territory: no development, no damage. More seriously, it is difficult to see how any policy change would have had an appreciable impact. The Houston Has No One to Blame But Itself litany wreaks of the correlation-causation fallacy, and post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments.

Where to begin? I guess with the fact that this was truly an exceptional storm, with record rainfall. Given Houston’s topology and geography, there would have been massive flooding even had the place been inhabited by Karankawa and the Akokisa indians living in grass huts sleeping on chickees, as it was once upon a time.

Houston is flat as a table. It is cut by numerous bayous and streams: its nickname is “The Bayou City.” Many of these streams are quite winding, which means that when they take on a lot of runoff, the water goes up and over the banks rather than rushing out to Galveston Bay, because it has nowhere else to go.

Yes, the pavement and building increases runoff. But several factors need to be kept in mind. First, Houston’s soil is sandy and its water table is very high, meaning that even absent parking lots and streets and buildings the capacity of the soil to absorb is limited. Second, contrary to the prejudices of people who write about Houston in blissful ignorance of the facts, Houston has the largest amount of green space of any city in the United States. Only about 10 percent of the area in Houston is rated as impermeable, and 90 percent is ranks less than 2 on a 5 point scale of permeability (with a lower score indicating greater permeability). Third, many of the outer lying areas that flooded were inundated by the Brazos River and connecting streams, which is another meandering stream, and which was not swollen by runoff from suburban developments, but which just couldn’t handle all the rain and the runoff from undeveloped areas.

And can anyone honestly say that any of Harris County would be that much less developed under any alternative development policies? Zoning for instance, might have affected the distribution of business and maybe some residential areas, but the total amount of the county that would be built on would almost certainly be virtually the same.

Yes, if Houston had adopted the policies of Detroit, and suffered the same economic shocks, there would be a lot more green space and Harvey would have done a lot less damage. No serious person considers that a good trade-off.

Indeed, there have been floods as extreme and even more extreme, back when Houston was far less developed than today. A good example is 1935, when Buffalo Bayou crested at 54 feet. It crested at a mere 40 feet in 2017. But downtown Houston has flooded ever since there was a downtown Houston, because downtown Houston lies hard up a flood-prone bayou. And it was put there because that bayou was the city’s economic link to the world, and which eventually made it one of the great ports in the United States.

In sum, given the prevalence of floods before the boom of the recent decades, it is difficult indeed to attribute this week’s floods to that boom. Instead, the floods are a constant, as is Houston’s geography and topology. Combine those with biblical rains, heavy even by Houston standards, and we have what we have.

Some–The Economist for example–blame permitting of houses in 100 year flood plains. The impact of this (the magazine estimates 8600 houses so located) on the total volume of flooding is certainly trivial, meaning that there are no external effects to speak of. Those who built in these locations assumed the risk, based on the same information The Economist used to make its calculations.

Yes, to the extent that such development is encouraged by subsidized flood insurance, or the prospects of post-flood government assistance, too many of such houses are built, and the private losses are socialized to US taxpayers at large. I completely agree with the principle of making people bear the full cost of insuring the risk, or the full cost of losses if they choose to build but underinsure. But again, the contribution of this to the magnitude of the flooding is probably too small to even measure: the magnitude of the flooding was due to record rain and Houston’s topography. Further, it also likely represents a small fraction of the estimated $160 billion in damage from the storm.

Jeffrey Sachs writes: “Houston has been growing rapidly without attention to flood risk.” It has been growing rapidly, but to say that this growth has occurred without attention to flood risk is a damnable lie–a libel, actually. Especially post-Allison (in 2001) there has been an effort to reduce the city’s vulnerability to flooding. Of course, as with any government endeavor, one can criticize the execution, and the priorities: as commenter and friend Tom Kirkendall notes, money squandered on sports stadiums and light rail (the lightest aspect of which is ridership) could have been better spent on infrastructure, including drainage improvements. But there has been considerable attention. There has been work on the bayous. (For example, there has been ongoing work on Brays Bayou near Calhoun for some time–and the crews were back at work on Friday.)  Moreover, as any Houstonian with a car can tell you (and that is the vast majority of Houstonians, as many outsiders often snarikly remark), every road repaving project is a long running saga because in addition repaving, the city is installing huge storm sewer lines. Shepherd has been a nightmare for years because of such a project.

If you look at the 2011-2015 Houston capital improvement plan, which sets out the various major road projects, you will see that almost all of them include “improving drainage.” There are 27 references to this in the document.

The strategy has been to try to direct runoff to the major highways, which is one reason for some of the most striking images of the flooding. Better to flood freeways than neighborhoods.

So Jeffrey Sachs, in his lofty and deliberate ignorance, can fuck right off.

The rainfall in Harvey was approximately double that of Allison, and covered a much wider area. For example, one reason that some of the major disasters Harvey caused did not occur with Allison is that the former storm overwhelmed the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, whereas that did not happen with the latter because the heavy rain area did not extend that far.

I do not know for certain, but it is my impression that the Harvey flooding in the area that Allison also hit hard is comparable to what happened in 2001, despite the fact that Harvey’s rainfall was about double Allison’s. A comparison of 2017 and 2001 will tell a lot about how well post-Allison infrastructure changes mitigated the damage this time around.

Post-Allison, the Harris County Flood Control District put out an excellent report on the storm, and its effects. It was titled “Off the Charts” to indicate how exceptional Allison’s rains were. Since Harvey’s were about double Allison’s, off the charts doesn’t even come close to describing 2017.

No doubt HCFCD will put out a post-Harvey report, and will be challenged to come up with a appropriate title. I look forward to reading it, paying particular attention to what it has to say about the effect of post-Allison mitigation efforts.

But the basic point is that this is not primarily, or even secondarily a policy issue, regardless the attempts of opportunists to make it so. This was a historic storm–an epic storm–produced by a chance interaction of weather events. It dumped huge rains on one of the largest cities in the US–in amounts that would have no doubt overwhelmed every major city in the US. Moreover, it hit a city which nature made preternaturally vulnerable to flooding.

In sum, Harvey is a natural disaster. The economic cost is indeed due to economic development, but that is primarily an effect, rather than a cause, as Jeffrey Sachs, the Economist, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and myriad others with an axe to grind would make it.

Musical postscript. I survived Harvey’s danger, and didn’t even have to climb a flagpole.

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August 28, 2017

Hijacking Harvey: It’s High Pressure Meets Low Pressure, Not Climate Change

Filed under: Climate Change,History,Politics — The Professor @ 9:26 pm

As surely as night follows day, a large hurricane causes the usual suspects to harrumph that this MUST END THE DEBATE OVER CLIMATE CHANGE. Interesting that those who claim to be all about Science® argue that you should base your conclusion on a single data point, or a small number of data points.

This is happening now, as the rain continues to fall in Houston, as I can affirm by looking out my window. There is effectively a pump in the Gulf that is pushing massive amounts of moisture into central Houston, and dumping it on my head.

But as Dr. Wayne Spencer points out, attributing this effectively local event to global climate change is a huge stretch. There are those who hypothesize that greater warmth leads to greater ocean temperatures which leads to more frequent and intense hurricanes. There are those who hypothesize that this mechanism is too simplistic. Further, the evidence that there has been an increase in hurricane frequency and/or intensity is equivocal at best. The nearly nine year pause in major hurricanes in the western Gulf is certainly hard to square with this explanation.

And reading this Texas hurricane history (produced by NOAA) or this Louisiana hurricane history makes it plain that hurricanes are a fact of life in this region, and were long before consumption of oil, or even coal in significant quantities. (They also make me ask myself WTF was I thinking when I moved down here :-P) Scan those publications and you will find numerous monster storms, many of which date widespread use of the internal combustion engine, or even the steam engine.

No, what is making Harvey so horrible is something that I feared when I first saw the forecasts of the track before it made landfall: that it would stall over the coast and drop huge amounts of rain, like Allison did in 2001. And that’s what’s happened, but occurring later in the year and being more powerful (as later storms typically are), Harvey is outdoing even Allison in inundating Houston.

It’s the combination of the track and the economic development of eastern Texas that is producing the current catastrophe: those two things are intersecting in Harris county and the surrounding region. Harris county has grown dramatically over the years, and that creates a bigger target. Further, more development is more pavement and built up area, which doesn’t retain water: there is controversy here, but it is quite plausible that due to the political economy of development, takeaway and retention capacity hasn’t kept up with the runoff, leading to more flood risk for a given amount of rainfall. The Tax Day Storm of 2016 could be another illustration of this.

So what kept Harvey from going inland? A high pressure area in central Texas that moved east and has pushed Harvey back into the Gulf, where it can drink heavily and then relieve itself over Houston. This is a chance intersection of weather events and circulation patterns, not a signal of long term climate change.

This is not unique. Consider Racer’s Hurricane of 1837. It was a huge storm, probably Cat 4 like Harvey–illustrating that global warming is not a necessary condition for the development of such storms. Moreover, it wreaked havoc on the entire Texas coast, then the Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida coasts, before petering out in North Carolina (where it also did considerable damage). If you look at the track it did a sharp u-turn, almost certainly because it hit a high pressure area coming in from the north. (Sound familiar?)

What would have happened had Harvey not hit the high pressure, and continued inland from Corpus Christi? Likely a repeat of the 1921 San Antonio Great Flood, which led to flash flooding in the city, with up to seven feet of water in the downtown area. (No margaritas on the River Walk when that happened, I’m wagering.) Harvey is worse because by stalling over the Gulf, instead of moving inland (as the 1921 storm did) it can continue to replenish its moisture.

So this is about weather and circulation, not climate.

It should be noted that many other extreme weather events used to flog the global warming cause are also attributable to circulation, and in particular, the impact of high pressure systems. The great French heat wave of 2006, and the great Russian heat wave of 2010 were attributed–not by climate “deniers” (whatever the hell that is–who denies there is such a thing as climate?) but by NOAA and others who are sympathetic to the warming hypothesis–to high pressure systems that stalled, creating thermal inversions and extended periods of hot weather.

To attribute what is going on outside my window to climate change would require a credible model, with evidence to support it, showing that the probability of the collision of a major tropical depression and a high pressure system over the Texas coast is higher when the average surface temperature is a degree or so warmer than it was in the past. I’m not aware of any such theory, and reading Spencer, he’s saying there isn’t one.

So rather than try to hijack Harvey to advance a political cause, it’s better to accept it as one of those things in the category of “stuff happens.” In this case, “stuff” is high pressure meets low pressure over Houston. Further, that stuff like this will happen regardless of government policy–imagine the havoc that Racer’s Storm would do today, and it occurred a quarter century before the drilling of the first oil well in the US.

Rather than making this another opportunity for political theater, it would be far better if energies were directed to helping out those devastated by the storm. Texans (with a strong assist from those in neighboring states, especially Louisiana) are coping heroically. We gladly welcome assistance from others, and you know that help will be reciprocated (as it has been in the past). To those attempting to exploit Houston’s misery, shut your pie hole and pitch in. Or don’t pitch in–but shut your pie hole regardless.

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August 27, 2017

The Mask Is Off

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 6:42 pm

The mask is off in Berkeley, precisely because the masks are on. Masked Antifa thugs with black shirts and red flags–quite a chilling combination, no?–set upon a small group of individuals whom they declared to be Nazis. But, unlike in Charlottesville, there wasn’t a swastika in sight–or even an tiki torch. Instead, a small group of Trump supporters–including those with names like Irma Hinojosa (I’m sure her friends call her Billy Bob, or maybe even Nathan Bedford)  attempted to stage a rally, and were attacked by the Antifa types, who labeled everyone in sight (other than them) Nazis:

Andrew Noruk, who was wearing a T-shirt denouncing both the Republican and Democratic parties when two young women came up to him and started yelling at him.

“You’re a Nazi,” they shouted, leaving Noruk, who said he came out to protest Trump supporters, confused.

Poor, poor, deluded Andrew. If you aren’t one of them, you are a Nazi.

How ugly did it get? This ugly. And by the way, Shane, since the victim is “apparently” alt-right, does that make it OK with you? Sure not sensing any outrage in your coverage or your TL.

Also note the tremendous heroism of the black shirted thugs. Ten or so vs. one. Sticks and shields vs. nothing.

Where were the police, you’re asking? Um, they did a full on Sir Robin, and ran away–buggered off; scarpered. Shameful. I understand that this is the Berkeley PD’s new headgear. It’s appropriate in sooo many ways.

This should be–but of course won’t be–a clarifying moment. First, we see that if there aren’t actual Nazis around, that is no impediment to Antifa–they’ll manufacture one out of any material at hand. And indeed, anyone who isn’t full on Antifa likely qualifies as a Nazi in their book. But apparently the most useful of the idiotic–or is it the most idiotic of the useful?–like Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio are totally cool about delegating the task of Nazi-designation to this lot.

Second, this strips away some of the ambiguity present in Charlottesville. There were no plausibly violent Nazis massing in Berkeley, yet there was violence anyways. It had to have come from the left, and there is graphic evidence that it came from the left. So if the left engages in violence in someplace like Berkeley when they had to imagine a far-right provocation, it is highly likely that they engaged in, and came with the intent of engaging in, violence in Charlottesville when there were large numbers of their main enemy present.

In other words, things like Berkeley are a natural experiment that sheds light on the causes of political violence in the US. Viewing such experiments, it is beyond farcical to absolve the left of any responsibility for it in places like Charlottesville.

This is why I am saying that the mask is off. Events like those in Berkeley (and the threat of similar violence that led to the cancellation of a rally in San Francisco) reveal the aggressive and violent agenda on the far left. It is not resistance or reaction. It is a driving force.

Would that the useful idiots paid attention. But then they wouldn’t be idiots, or useful.

Third, there were other leftists protesting in Berkeley. These included relatively mainstream groups like the Democratic Socialists of American (recall that Bernie Sanders identifies himself as a democratic socialist). Yet the DSA was chanting Antifa slogans.

Is this entryism (a well-known tactic advocated by Trotsky, among others)? That is, has Antifa infiltrated the DSA and is pushing it in a more radical direction? Or more disturbingly, are mainstream left groups, heretofore non-violent, embracing a more violent and confrontational–and non-democratic–ideology?

I will note that the grotesque imbalance in media treatment of Antifa and other hard left groups on the one hand and Nazis and White Supremacists on the other does suggest a mainstreaming of communism that is extremely disturbing. Indeed, the mainstream media refuses to look seriously at Antifa violence, and when it acknowledges it, rationalizes it as a form of idealism, thereby whitewashing black shirted thugs spouting a red ideology.

Fourth, in some jurisdictions, law “enforcement” is ceding ground to violent individuals and organizations, which will beget violence and the Weimarization of America.

Meanwhile, here in Texas, we see spontaneous acts of civility, charity, and civic action under increasingly dire circumstances. These acts cut across racial, ethnic, and class lines. For instance, the man with the airboat festooned with a Confederate flag logo picking up strangers–including African-Americans. Which, alas, set the SJW set into a frenzy on Twitter, though I’m guessing that if they were in the water and he pulled up, they wouldn’t go all Japanese sailor mode and chose to drown rather than be rescued by an “enemy”. We are also seeing commitment to duty, hard work, and courage displayed by law enforcement and military personnel (including notably state and national guardsmen and women). We are seeing (for the most part) professional competence displayed by state and local authorities working under very trying conditions.

There are many Americas. I know which one I prefer.

 

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August 20, 2017

Even Orwell Would Be Agog

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 6:18 pm

If you read the news lately, you’d think it’s the 1930s all over again, and Nazis are the gravest threat the world faces  in 2017. Case in point, the Prime Minister of Sweden:

Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven called for people to stand up against the growing threat of Nazism and white-power movements to protect democratic values.

Fascist groups are moving forward their positions “step by step,” the premier said in a speech in Eskilstuna, Sweden, highlighting local demonstrations across the Nordic country as well as “Nazi groups, the Ku Klux Klan and white power protesters in Charlottesville.”

“It may be easy to try to laugh away these angry men with big words, small hearts and closed fists,” he said. “But all fascist movements were small when they were founded and were able to quickly gain followers during difficult times.”

I’ve spent time in Gothenburg. I’ve been through Malmo. Hell, I’ve been to the Stockholm train station. Based on what I’ve seen with my own two eyes, I can state with metaphysical certainty that Nazis in Sweden are not the country’s biggest problem, let alone Nazis in Charlottesville,VA.

For this . . . person to say this in the immediate aftermath of a Islamist terror attack in Spain that killed 14 in a reprise of an Islamist terror attack in Stockholm in April that killed four (and targeted small children), and in the immediate aftermath of an Islamist terror attack in nearby southwestern Finland that killed two, and in the aftermath of other Islamist terror attacks in Europe and the US almost too numerous to list is loathsome and appalling.

All the more so because it is deliberately political. Lovfen and others like him–including the increasingly loathsome Angela Merkel–are hyperventilating about Nazis–including Nazis thousands of miles from anywhere that is their business to begin with–precisely to distract attention from the real danger lurking in their midst, and their responsibility for letting this danger metastasize.*

And it’s even more cynical than that, especially in the US. By setting up Nazis as the straw man to epitomize evil, the left is staking out its claim as being the main adversary of this looming menace, and laying the foundation to claim that anyone who opposes the left is pro-Nazi. We are seeing this daily in the US, and we are also seeing cowardly political putzes like Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, John McCain and Lindsey Graham buy into this premise and validate a cynical strategy that will be used not just against them (which they actually well deserve) but against tens of millions of other Americans whom the left despises and wants to silence.

Given that Nazis in the United States, and even in Europe, are fringe figures, present in tiny numbers, made up exclusively of losers, hyping the Nazi menace actually trivializes the monstrousness of Nazism in the 1920s-1945.

If Nazis and white supremacists did not exist, the left would have to invent them. In a way they have. They are not completely a figment of the imagination, but the outsized role they are playing in current discourse is completely fantastical, and bears no relationship to reality. This is a calculated attempt to seize control of the political narrative and to silence vast numbers of people who oppose the identity politics of the left.

Ironic, isn’t it? The most ruthless practitioners of identity politics wildly exaggerate the danger posed by fringe groups obsessed with racial identity in order to silence those who are disgusted by identity politics. I think even Orwell would be agog.

*Lest you say that Europe’s Islamism crisis is thousands of miles away from anywhere that is an American’s business, I remind you that (a) the 9-11 plot was hatched in Hamburg, under the eyes of the German authorities, (b) Americans have died in many of the Islamist attacks in Europe, including in Barcelona last week, the attack in Paris in November, 2015, and the attack in Nice in July of last year–and that’s just off the top of my head, and (c) the foreign ISIS recruits that the US has spent billions killing in Iraq and Syria, and who have killed Americans engaged in that fight, come from Europe in large numbers.

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