Streetwise Professor

March 17, 2018

Fighting Joe Hooker

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — The Professor @ 11:14 am

Or the Joe Hooker entrance to the Massachusetts State House, anyways.  In a further illustration of the descent of the US into PC madness, MA State Rep. Michelle DuBois (D-Plymouth)  is calling for the removal of a sign designated one entrance of the State House as the General Hooker Entrance because it is an “affront ‘to women’s dignity.'”

Oh please. Fightin’ Joe’s last name has been a source of much tittering over the years.  (Tittering–can I say that? Or will that trigger Mizz DuBois too?) Some have claimed that his name inspired the slang for “prostitute” but that has long been disproven.  Yes, Joe’s moral character was rather dubious, but hardly that bad.

Why did Massachusetts honor Hooker with a statue, and emblazon the entrance to the State House facing said statue with his name?  Well, Hooker’s Civil War record was largely creditable, with a few exceptions.  He was a very solid division and corps commander, both in the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the Cumberland.  His rejuvenation, reorganization, and reform of the Army of the Potomac after the disaster and deep demoralization of the Burnside era was truly remarkable, and laid the foundation for the Army’s eventual triumph.

Hooker’s initial moves in the Chancellorsville Campaign were excellent, and seriously wrong-footed Lee.  Then, as Hooker himself said, Joe Hooker “lost confidence in Joe Hooker.”  Rather than pushing out of The Wilderness, he stopped his advance and left the initiative to Lee.  Lee launched Jackson against Hooker’s right flank, which Oliver Otis “Uh-oh” Howard failed to post properly.  Even after Jackson’s stunning flank attack, Hooker could have prevailed, but he made some fatal errors (notably ordering Sickles to withdraw from Hazel Grove, thereby gifting the Confederates with an artillery position that dominated the Union lines, and then withdrawing from an extremely strong position that Lee could not have possibly driven him from) and eventually slunk away from the battlefield.

Ironically, given the location of his statue, Hooker’s biggest flaw was politics.  He was an inveterate schemer who attempted to advance himself by pulling down his superiors, in part by saying nasty things about them to politicians.

But all in all, Hooker’s accomplishments were not undeserving of memorialization by his native state. Who else would Massachusetts so honor? Its other sons who reached army command–Ben Butler and Nathaniel P. Banks–were serial disasters as commanders, and only reached and retained their elevated positions because they were prominent Massachusetts politicians. For all his flaws, Hooker far outshone them.  (The other Civil War general to have a statue on the State House grounds, Charles Devens, was a rather undistinguished division commander–including ironically in Howard’s XI Corps at Chancellorsville–whose post-war career that culminated in his service as Attorney General in the Hayes administration was actually much more impressive than his war service.)

But service and achievement in America’s greatest historical episode is irrelevant to twits (that’s with an “i”, people) like Rep. DuBois. Their sensitive feelings must come first, history be damned.

This is yet another example of iconoclasm as an assertion of power by those with an agenda.  Hooker fought against slavery, and was indeed closely aligned with the Radical Republicans.  Perhaps that was merely political opportunism on Hooker’s part, but it definitely went against the grain in the high command of the Army of the Potomac, which was adamantly opposed to waging war on slavery.  You’d think that would win Joe some plaudits from Mizz DuBois–but no! His name is an affront to her dignity, and what’s more important than that?

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March 15, 2018

Fire McCabe–On the Merits, et Pour Encourager Les Autres

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 7:55 pm

In the aftermath of a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Minorca in 1756, the British hanged shot the losing Admiral John Byng for a “failure to do his utmost.” [Thanks to pedant2007 and Tim Worstall for the correction re the means of execution.] . Voltaire sardonically remarked that the real reason for Byng’s execution was “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres–“In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”

Former Deputy Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe is at risk of being fired before he can quit. If Attorney General Jeff Sessions follows the recommendation of the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility and terminates him, McCabe will lose his pension.

From what we know, McCabe clearly warrants such treatment on the merits,  far more than Admiral Byng deserved for the treatment meted out to him.  But there is an additional reason to terminate McCabe: Voltaire’s reason.

“Les autres” in the FBI and the rest of the US intelligence and security apparatus have to know that they are accountable. Alas, the execrable, loathsome, abominable James Clapper has escaped accountability for his clear criminal conduct.  Since he has escaped, all the more reason to let McCabe swing–for encouragement to others in the security state.  To let those who operate in the shadows know that they are at risk if they cross the line.  This is important, because there is every indication in the conduct of many of them that they believe that they can act with impunity, at no personal risk.

Many of the DC pilot fish swarming around the security establishment sharks–including, remarkably, many leftists who once upon a time excoriated the FBI and CIA–are wringing their hands at the prospect that a man so long in public service could be disgraced and punished.  That’s exactly the point: “public service” of the sort that McCabe rendered is actually a public menace, which should be stamped out with malice aforethought.

There is also the issue of the stark hypocrisy that runs rampant in DC.  Mike Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI in order to avoid financial ruin.  In the view of the Office of Professional Responsibility, FBI agent McCabe lied to the FBI: why should Flynn–whose record of public service is far longer and more distinguished than McCabe’s–swing twisting in the wind while McCabe retires on a public sinecure? Especially since Flynn probably did not lie to the FBI, and the conduct that the FBI was questioning him about (communications with a foreign government while he was a high ranking member of an incoming administration) was legitimate, whereas McCabe almost certainly lied to his own FBI as part of an illegitimate coverup of illegitimate exercise of his power.

Which means that merely denying McCabe his pension would still be too light a punishment in view of what Flynn could suffer: whatever penalty is imposed on Flynn, McCabe should get far worse.

If Sessions wusses out and lets McCabe skate, the consequences will be baleful, especially in light of Clapper’s dancing past the statute of limitations.  It will be clear that those in the FBI and CIA can act with impunity.  They will probably think that their risk of punishment for misconduct is low even if Sessions axes McCabe, but at least there will be a nagging doubt in the backs of their pea picking minds.

And that would be somewhat encouraging, anyways.


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The Netherworld of the Russian Security State, Where Angels Fear to Tread

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:14 pm

Relations between Russia and the West–most particularly the UK, but the US, France, and Germany as well–are being roiled by the poisoning (using a nerve agent) of a former Russian double agent,Sergei Skripal, who had been exchanged for Russian spies in 2010.

So whodunnit?

I have no idea. And anyone who claims they know is full of it.  We have a very limited set of facts that can fit any number of competing–and indeed mutually exclusive–hypotheses.

Occam’s Razor says that an individual or individuals with connections to the Russian security services is responsible: who else would have access to a particularly nasty nerve agent developed under great secrecy and produced in large quantity in the USSR?*

Vladimir Putin certainly qualifies as an individual with connections to the Russian security services, and the reflexive reaction by many in the West has been to blame him personally.  However, although Putin is a member of the set of individuals with connections to the Russian security services, the set is not a singleton: there are thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of other members.  Some of these may not even be in the security services (e.g., mafia elements or an oligarch whom Skripal double crossed).

Like many in his profession, Skripal was a fundamentally dishonest man who could play both sides.  Men like that make many enemies.  His attempted murder could be very similar to Murder on the Orient Express, where the problem is not the lack of suspects, but a surfeit thereof.

My suspicion is that Skripal was far too minor a player, and one too far beyond his sell-by date, to warrant Putin’s personal attention.  But this cannot be ruled out.  Given the seismic consequences of such an act, the implications of Putin’s personal involvement would be ominous indeed.  He would be risking a superpower confrontation over a has-been: and for what? To gain a momentary burst of popularity to secure an electoral victory that was inevitable in any event?  A sort of burning of the boats, to bind Russians to him in opposition to the West?  To provoke a confrontation?

These are not inconceivable possibilities, but they seem so extreme–which is why that I am skeptical that Putin was involved directly.

The “Putin did it” claim that is so widely repeated is largely a reflection of the cartoon image of a Russia in which Putin is all knowing, all seeing, and all powerful, and where nothing in Russia, not even the fall of a sparrow, occurs but at his direction.

An alternative explanation is actually more plausible–and more frightening.  That there are elements with connections to the Russian security services who can carry out such an act without Putin’s permission.  The prospect of rogue elements operating in such a reckless way is truly sobering, especially since one predictable consequence is to create a confrontation between superpowers.

I have no doubt there are elements in Russia who want to provoke such a confrontation. Which is a reason to remember that however bad Putin is, his potential successor could be far worse.

The fundamental problem here is that Russia is so opaque, and there are so many scary types operating in the shadows, that it will be impossible to fix responsibility with any precision. We know Putin’s address, and his previous acts–real and imagined–make it emotionally satisfying to many to give him a knock. But we cannot know with any certainty–and we run the risk that even more ominous figures are counting on such a reaction in order to bring on a confrontational crisis.

The most likely outcome is an even greater estrangement between Russia and the West, and the potential return of a Cold War with a temperature approximating that in the 1950s.  Unless the perpetrators were mouth-breathing idiots similar to the criminals in Fargo, they would have known that this would be the result.  Tragically, the list of those who might have such an agenda is long indeed, and for all the hyperventilating, I don’t put Putin on the top of it.  It would actually be better if it was as simple as that.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  And angels surely fear to tread in the netherworld of the Russian security services.

*It pains me to acknowledge that the credibility of Western security services, including notably MI6 and the CIA, has been so compromised as of late that the credibility of the claim that Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by Новичок is less than absolute.

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March 10, 2018

The FT Recycles a 19th Century Stereotyping Image to Convey the Same Stereotype in the 21st

Filed under: Guns,History,Politics — The Professor @ 6:32 pm

It is very telling that the FT chose an iconic photograph of the Hatfields to illustrate its latest act of cultural condescension.  In doing so, it is repeating a stereotyping meme for the exact reason that the meme developed in the late-19th century.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud achieved national prominence, and became the archetypal mountain feud of the 19th century.  The story resonates to this day: in 2012 Kevin Costner starred in a History Channel miniseries on the feud, and there are well over 100 books about the feud on Amazon.

Why did this episode in the West Virginia-Kentucky backwoods attract such attention? The intense coverage was largely a product of the growing urbanization of America, and the conscious and unconscious desire to distance a modernizing country from its rugged pioneer past. East Coast newspapers covered the feud for years, and portrayed the protagonists as backwards reprobates. The Hatfields and McCoys were foils for an urbanizing nation: see how different we are from those hillbillies!

This is why there are so many photographs of the Hatfields in particular, and why they were posed with guns–this is the image that coastal elite wanted to see, and how they wanted to portray the kind of people whom had once been viewed as ideal Americans–think Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, who were viewed and portrayed as rugged pioneering mountain men blazing new frontiers for freedom. But in the late-19th century press they were transformed into ominous, dangerous throwbacks.

Which is exactly the message conveyed in the FT oped, and which is exactly why that image was chosen.  So the FT doesn’t even score points for originality. They are just recycling a century-plus old slur, to serve a similar purpose.

Lost in the lurid coverage was the fact that a driving force behind the conflict–and in particular its persistence–was a battle for control over timber rights in West Virginia. The Hatfields in particular were trying to resist the inroads of large timber and coal companies, and the McCoys were to a large extent their somewhat witting, somewhat unwitting accomplices.

Another meme that resonated around the same time was the battle between moonshiners and “revenuers,” which also received considerable media attention. The message was pretty much the same: backwards backwoodsmen resisting order and progress. Untamed anarchy vs. social control exercised by progressive forces embodied in government. (This was a meme in the Whiskey Rebellion too.)  Wild borderers vs. civilization.

Again, there is little new under the sun. Political battles and the tactics employed therein may appear to be different, but they are often merely echoes or mutations of conflicts that have been raging for centuries. The FT’s use of a long-ago image that gained prominence because it conveyed a political and sociological message to frame a story about a modern political controversy intended to convey a very similar political and sociological message demonstrates that perfectly.

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The FT Takes Aim at My Gun Toting Ancestors, and Misses!

Filed under: Guns,History,Politics — The Professor @ 2:48 pm

I seldom read the FT anymore–with a few exceptions, it is unreadable. I never read the FT opinion pieces any more–they are unreadable, without exception.  But the photo on this FT tweet brought me up short, and compelled me to click through to the article: my relatives! Really: my mother’s grandmother’s family were Hatfields, and cousins of the famous/notorious West Virginia feud family in the picture.

The article is an attempt–kind of–to explain to superior Brits those “barking mad” Americans and their “distinctly American attitudes towards guns and family.”  Note the sneering title: America has a gun “fixation.”

The article (by the FT’s chief editorial writer, Robert Armstrong) is largely correct in its history: American attitudes towards guns are deeply rooted in history.  Irritatingly, Armstrong’s attitude is condescending and dismissive: he clearly considers this to be a barbarous atavism.

Armstrong’s take is also quite superficial, and misses something that I have pointed out in a previous post: namely, that among many Americans, the right to bear arms is the most tangible badge of individual liberty and autonomy.  Slaves are disarmed: free men answerable only to God can arm themselves. For those who value individual freedom above all, guns have an importance that post-modern people like Armstrong who do not value personal liberty so highly, and whose values are more collectivist, not only cannot really grasp, but recoil from in horror.

A couple of remarks.  The first is that while Armstrong bewails “America’s destructive gun culture,” which he claims causes the “grisly status quo,” he utterly fails to acknowledge that the toll of gun violence today is actually quite low in the precincts where “gun culture” is most deeply rooted. Indeed, the vast bulk of gun deaths in the US occurs miles away–geographically and culturally–from the hollers of the Tug River Valley where Devil Anse once roamed, and other locales where “gun culture” is the norm. This objective fact poses insuperable logical obstacles for Armstrong and his lot, because it flies in the face of his assertion that there is a link between the gun culture in Jacksonian America and the “grisly” toll of gun deaths in the US: Mingo County ain’t Fuller Park or Englewood.  If it’s a culture issue, it’s thug culture, not gun culture.

This is a major reason–arguably the primary reason–why the gun debate in the US is so intractable: “I’m not the one shooting anybody. Why should I give up my guns because of someone else’s criminality or insanity?” And this is at root a deeply philosophical divide that pits people like Armstrong against those he believes to be atavists.  It is a divide between a belief in individual responsibility and accountability vs. a collectivist mindset.

This relates to the second point. I find it deeply ironic that post-Trump the Armstrongs of the world have warned of the impending descent of authoritarianism on America all the while decrying the resurgence of the benighted Jacksonians that still inhabit the less refined corners of America–whom they also largely blame for Trump’s victory. Well, hate to break it to you, Bob, but these people are the most ardent anti-authoritarians in the US. This anti-authoritarianism goes hand-in-hand with the emphasis on the primacy of personal liberty which drives the “gun culture.”

This goes back a long way in history. My branch of the Hatfields were Whiskey Rebels in Washington County, PA, and decamped from there for points west after the U.S. Army crushed the rebellion in 1791. The Whiskey Rebellion was an archetypal battle between the anti-authoritarian and elite elements in American society that echoes in today’s struggle over guns.

What animates the resistance (and yes, this is a real resistance, not the faux virtue signalling Hillary Meets Hollywood “Resistance”) that rallies around the gun issue is an instinctive anti-authoritarianism.  It is a resistance to the the “soft despotism” that de Toqueville presciently perceived at the height of the Jacksonian Era:

Thus, After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience. I do not deny, however, that a constitution of this kind appears to me to be infinitely preferable to one which, after having concentrated all the powers of government, should vest them in the hands of an irresponsible person or body of persons. Of all the forms that democratic despotism could assume, the latter would assuredly be the worst.

When the sovereign is elective, or narrowly watched by a legislature which is really elective and independent, the oppression that he exercises over individuals is sometimes greater, but it is always less degrading; because every man, when he is oppressed and disarmed, may still imagine that, while he yields obedience, it is to himself he yields it, and that it is to one of his own inclinations that all the rest give way. In like manner, I can understand that when the sovereign represents the nation and is dependent upon the people, the rights and the power of which every citizen is deprived serve not only the head of the state, but the state itself; and that private persons derive some return from the sacrifice of their independence which they have made to the public.

It’s the better thans who presume that the country will be a better place if they lead and the great unwashed defer to their superior wisdom and virtue vs. those who don’t want to be led by anybody and who think that the presumed leaders are self-impressed asses, and often malign ones at that.

This is why Parkland has been even more polarizing than other mass shootings in the US–it is a stark example of elite failure at every level.  Armstrong notes this at the outset of his piece:

“None of the events in Parkland have taught me to trust others to protect my family. And certainly none of the events in Parkland have built my trust in government.” That is David French, of the National Review, who is in my view the smartest of the American gun rights advocates. French sees America’s last mass shooting — in Parkland, Florida — as born of incompetence and cowardice. The FBI was tipped off and did nothing. Local law enforcement knew the shooter was dangerous and did nothing. The armed officer at the school waited outside, listening to gunshots, as the rampage went on.

So for French, the massacre shows why gun rights are important, not why they should be curtailed. The government cannot be counted on to protect your family. It is up to you.

Armstrong fails utterly to confront the fact of “incompetence and cowardice.” It is undeniable that it occurred. The question is: was it was a fluke or systemic? That matters–but rather than meeting this crucial issue head on, he merely dismisses it in a conclusory fashion by saying he “rejects French’s view.” A rejection based on neither argument nor evidence, and therefore worth nothing.

What it comes down to is that the gun issue is only the most highly charged manifestation of the deeper conflict that de Toqueville identified the year before the Alamo between the supporters of soft despotism (which is often not that soft) and those who “wish to remain free.”  So yes, this is a conflict with deep historical roots.  But that does not mean that the conflict is anything like Armstrong describes it, between primitive atavists and enlightened moderns. Unless, however, you believe that individual liberty is an atavism unfit for modern times.

And if you are one of those people, you should realize–though you probably don’t–that it is precisely that attitude which galvanizes the intense opposition against you on guns.

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March 3, 2018

Trump Cuts the Hair Suspending the Trade Sword of Damocles

Filed under: China,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:04 am

Overall, I have found the Trump administration’s economic policies to be favorable.  The tax bill was pretty good, even though it was worse than the administration’s original proposal.  The chipping away at the encrustation of regulation has been highly beneficial.

But there was always a sword of Damocles hanging by a thread over our heads: protectionism. Heretofore, that sword has remained dangling, but last week the hair broke (perhaps by Trump’s hair-trigger temper) when he announced plans to impose substantial tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

This is egregiously bad policy, even on its own terms. Like all tariffs, these will impose far greater costs on consumers than they will generate benefits for producers.  Since steel and aluminum are intermediate goods, the first consumers are manufacturers that use the metals.  The cost will be borne in the form of lower output from these firms, lower employment and wages in the consuming industries, and higher prices for the final goods.

These tariffs are a failure on their own terms, and demonstrate Trump’s economic ignorance. Trump wants to bolster American manufacturing: these tariffs will harm US manufacturing overall, even though they benefit relatively small subsectors thereof.   This is because US manufacturing is a big consumer of these materials.  As an example, Trump touts the American energy revolution and promotes American energy exports.  Well, the energy business is a huge consumer of steel in particular, in everything from pipelines to rigs to drill pipe to storage tanks to oil refineries to LNG liquefaction plants.  By helping one shrunken sector of the US economy, Trump is imposing substantial harm on a growing one–and one that he touts, no less.

A common retort to criticisms like mine is that the trade playing field is unfair, and that countries like China in particular advantage domestic producers at the expense of foreigners.  Well, they do that in many sectors, but even though that is inefficient, it redounds to the benefit of other sectors in the US economy: for example, subsidizing aluminum benefits US auto manufacturers, who increasingly utilize aluminum (in part to achieve compliance with self-inflicted regulatory harms, namely CAFE standards).

What is little understood is that a tax on imports is a tax on trade: it reduces both imports and exports.  Similarly, subsidizing exports increases trade–including exports by the country importing the subsidized good.

This is true over the long run: in the short run capital flows adjust as well as trade flows.  For example, Chinese subsidies can lead to an increased US trade deficit (Chinese trade surplus), which means that the Chinese accumulate US dollar claims–pieces of paper (or, more accurately, electronic book entries).  Then one of two things happens.  Either the dollar claims prove worthless, or the Chinese spend the dollars on US goods.  So we either get goods in exchange for worthless pieces of paper (or electronic records), or we export goods later.

If retaliatory measures like Trump’s tariffs could result in some bargain or accommodation that levels the playing field, then perhaps the benefit would exceed the cost (although ironically much of the overall benefit will redound to those who tip the playing field, because they bear the brunt of the cost of doing so). The track record on this is hardly encouraging, however. I predict that the likelihood is that Trump’s actions will not materially reduce imbalances in the trade playing field, and that as a result they will be highly detrimental to the US economy–including the sectors which Trump claims to champion.

When Trump was a candidate, I was highly critical of his views on trade, e.g.:

Perhaps to give him more intellectual credit than he deserves, Trump is a died-in-the-wool mercantilist who believes trade is a zero sum game, and who favors protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbor currency policies. He talks like it is the late-80s, and Japan is still an economic juggernaut that will overwhelm the US, completely overlooking the fact that Japan’s crypto-mercantilist policies gifted it a 25 year long lost decade, and that neo-mercantilist China is on the brink of the same fate. If it is lucky.


What is bizarre is that the sin of “giving our industrial markets to the Japanese” was somewhat dated by 1999, but Trump pounds on that theme today, when it is well past its sell date. Decades past. Just yesterday, in  Greenville, SC, he said something to the effect that “the Japanese are up here [holding his hand over his head] and we are down here [holding his hand by his knee].” Fact: Japanese per capita GDP is $36K, and US per capital GDP is exactly 50 percent higher, at $54K. But facts don’t matter. The image of Japanese domination (now accompanied by the image of Chinese domination) resonates intensely among Jacksonians.

I was hoping that he would not act on these impulses, or that he would be constrained from doing so. No such luck. Impulsive ignorance has won out.

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March 1, 2018

Teetotaler Putin Channels the Bourbons–And I Don’t Mean Old Granddad or Maker’s Mark

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:35 pm

Talleyrand famously said of the Bourbons: “They had learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.” That thought came to mind in reading more about Putin’s speech.  He has obviously not forgotten a single slight, perceived or real, from the west, ever.  But he obviously learned nothing from the demise of the USSR, which was economically ruined attempting to compete in military power with a far more economically vibrant and productive rival–the west generally, and the US in particular. If anything, the economic gap has widened since the Cold War.  Indeed, this is especially the case in most military production: the hollowing out of the Russian military-industrial complex is manifest, and the loss of skilled labor in particular has been severe.  The USSR was unable to compete in an arms race, and Russia is in an even worse position to do so.

Yet Putin is announcing a new arms race.

Perhaps this is why Putin’s speech focused on nuclear weapons.  It is the one area in which Russia is competitive, and may actually have some advantages.

But the enemy (and Putin definitely perceives the US to be an enemy) gets a vote too, and Putin cannot unilaterally limit the locus of competition to nuclear weapons.  The US is likely to respond to a more truculent Russia with some new nuclear weapons (e.g., air-launched cruise missiles), but also by expanding conventional forces, and by innovating in technologies that Russia cannot hope to compete in.

This is a sobering thought though–or if you look at it a little differently, one that might get you to hit the bourbon. If nukes are the only tool in Russia’s kit, the likelihood of use becomes higher.

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Putin: Living Down to Caricature

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:11 am

The old caricature of the Soviet Union–which like most caricatures merely exaggerated a fundamental reality–was that it was “Upper Volta with missiles.”  In his State of the State address today, Vladimir Putin gave ample proof that the caricature applies to contemporary (I won’t say “modern”) Russia as well.

The most memorable part of Putin’s speech was a growling, defiant boast–complete with animation–that Russia had introduced new nuclear missiles that could not be defeated by missile defenses.  He also brandished new cruise missiles (which seem to breach the INF treaty, despite previous Russian claims to the contrary) and a submersible drone carrying a massive nuclear warhead.

The rest of his speech was boilerplate about promising to halve Russia’s impoverished population (an implicit acknowledgement that it had grown in his most recent term), and raising expenditures on infrastructure and health care (which has also suffered greatly in recent years).  Lost in the rhetoric was the Russia has stagnated economically under his rule.  The country is a caught in a double trap: the middle income trap and the resource economy trap.  Further, Putin has no real prospect of escaping either, let alone both.

The speech reveals, I think, that Putin understands all this.  Frankly, he realizes that the only reason Russia matters now is its nuclear arsenal, and the widespread belief that it is willing to use it.  He further realizes that this reality will only grow in the remainder of his political life, as Russia falls further and further behind economically.  So he brandishes his missiles, and mouths platitudes about economic development.  Upper Volta with missiles–and nuclear sub drones!–indeed.

As such, the speech gives a clear foreshadowing of what is in store for post-re-election. International pugnacity combined with domestic political and economic Potemkin villages. The Putin Hamster Wheel keeps spinning.

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February 27, 2018

Well Played Igor, Well Played–But Not Well Paid, Collateral Notwithstanding

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Profesor 2 @ 7:33 pm

I recall being quite amused at those who panicked over Rosneft investing large amounts of money in Venezuela’s cratering national oil company PDVSA, thinking that it gave the Russians a vital foothold in America’s back yard. They’ve outsmarted us again! said this lot.

My thought was the exact opposite: they were utter fools for plunging billions into a country and a company run by socialist lunatics (excuse me, “Bolivarian” lunatics), and figured that it would not go well:

Rosneft lent large money to a deadbeat. It’s not going to get paid back so it is seizing assets, and will end up losing money. Playing repo man is hardly the road to riches. It just mitigates the losses from making a bad loan, and it is the bad loan that is the real story here.

But it gets better!  Repo Man Igor outsmarted himself by getting Rosneft’s collateral in the US in the form of a lien on Citgo’s US refineries.  But given sanctions, the probability that he will be able to repossess them can be rounded up to zero.

Now oil trading firm Mercuria senses weakness, and is involved in an effort to take the collateral off Igors hands:

Commodity trader Mercuria has asked the US Treasury for permission to buy out a $1.5bn loan between Russia’s Rosneft and Venezuela’s state oil company, which had raised the prospect of Moscow taking control of refineries on US soil.

. . . .

“Rosneft would have faced an uphill struggle to get approval to exercise a stake in Citgo so this avoids a potential diplomatic strain between the US and Russia if this deal goes ahead,” said Mr Mallinson.

“If this signals that Russia is looking to reduce its loans to Venezuela rather than offering more support that leaves Caracas with nowhere obvious to turn.”

Rosneft has said it is unwilling to extend further loans to PDVSA, many of which have been secured against crude supplies, as the country’s economic crisis starts to hit oil output from the country. The Russian company is seen as keen to reduce its exposure to Venezuela as oil output falls, with the country seen as precariously close to defaulting on its debts.

Well played, Igor. Bravo! The move was so brilliant, that now he’s desperate–sorry, “keen” doesn’t quite cover it–to get out.

Rosneft’s bargaining leverage is pretty much nonexistent.  PDVSA is circling the drain, with a collapse in oil output and revenues.  It can’t pay back the Russians. The collateral is off limits to them.  So Rosneft faces a choice between a big fat zero, and whatever Mercuria et al deign offer it. Perhaps Rosneft can scare up other bidders, but the company holds a very weak hand, and will be lucky to walk away with kopecs on the ruble.

Keep this in mind whenever anyone tries to convince you of Putin’s or Sechin’s strategic brilliance. In this case, they have brilliantly succeeded in flushing several billion into the Venezuelan cesspool, with no real recourse or exit strategy.

They can take some comfort, though, having lent Venezuela a mere $5 billion. The even more brilliant Chinese lent 11 times as much. So there’s that, Igor!

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February 24, 2018

Why Should We Give More Power to Those Who Presume to Rule But Can’t Even Govern?

Filed under: Guns,Politics — The Profesor 2 @ 11:13 pm

The left has reached new heights in its paroxysms of rage in the aftermath of the Parkland mass school shooting.  But anger and over-the-top virtue signaling fail both on substance and rhetoric.

In terms of substantive policy, the recommendations range from the utterly ineffectual (another symbolic ban on “assault weapons”) to the wildly overinclusive and utterly impractical (“ban all guns” or “ban all semiautomatic weapons”).  Overinclusive (if practical) because they would penalize the vast majority of gun owners who are not mass murderers–or murderers at all.  Impractical because (a) seizing tens of millions of firearms from tens of millions of Americans is an obvious impossibility, and (b) a country that cannot stop the mass importation of opiates, cocaine, and marijuana would never be able to stop gun running either.  The end result would be disarmament of the law abiding, and the empowerment of the criminals.

It is also rather amazing to see people demanding more laws in the face of the clear and systematic failure of every level of law enforcement in the Nikolas Cruz case.  I noted this failure in the hours after the shooting, and the subsequent days have seen an avalanche of new evidence of this systematic failure.

Episodes like Parkland are not due to guns per se, but to the intersection of guns and clearly disturbed individuals like Cruz, who seems to be a classic psychopath who was pegged as a potential school shooter by many who came into contact with him.  The school, social services, local law enforcement, and federal law enforcement observed his aberrant behavior, or were warned of the risk he posed, multiple times, yet did nothing. Repeatedly.

If the “authorities” can’t intervene to stop Nikolas Cruz, who raised more red flags than a Soviet May Day parade, who can they stop? The question answers itself.

Further: why should we expect more from, or grant more power to, the same people and institutions that proved feckless and incompetent in dealing with Cruz (and many other mass shooters before him)? Talk about a triumph of faith over bitter experience.

Yet further: in the face of this evidence of the inability of authorities to protect the citizenry, few things incite more leftist rage than someone who protests against being deprived of the means of self-defense. The more the institutions fail us, the more we are supposed to surrender to them.

Which brings me to the rhetoric. The left does not even attempt to persuade or understand those who hold different views on guns. For all their bleating about The Other, leftists are the passed masters at treating those who have the temerity to disagree with them as an unspeakable Other that is completely beyond the pale. If you object to their demands that you disarm, if you assert your right to self-defense, they label you a Nazi, a child killer.

This may be emotionally satisfying, and a way of bonding with those of like mind, but it is utterly self-defeating as a matter of practical politics.  Have they learned nothing in the two years? Do they really think that reprising memes about “deplorables” and “bitter clingers” is going to advance their political agenda by cowing people into acquiescence and silence? Shouldn’t they have figured out by now that shrieking invectives only galvanizes the opposition, especially given that much of that opposition consists of prickly Jacksonians?

We are constantly told about the need for “conversation” and “dialog”, but what we actually get are lectures and shout-downs.  The natural responses are to tune out or shout back, and to view every gun control proposal as merely a first step towards ultimate confiscation (because that is the only policy that is consistent with the maximalist rhetoric about the evils of guns–and those who own them). The result is that the left fails politically, because it is not a majority that can impose its rule in a democracy, which only stokes its rage to greater heights.

What’s that about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? And these are the Smart People? After all, they constantly tell us so.

Maybe they are smart–but just insane.

The fundamental problem is that a would-be ruling class can’t even govern. This failure is widely understood, which means that demands for more power will produce resistance, rather than submission. This is especially true when the demands are made against the background of as grotesque a failure as could be imagined, as in the tragic case of Nikolas Cruz and the seventeen people he murdered, where “serve and protect” proved to be a sick joke.

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