Streetwise Professor

January 17, 2010

Farce Protection

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 4:39 pm

The Department of Defense released a report on the Fort Hood shootings.  The public version of the Report is deeply disappointing.  There is no discussion of the key issue: namely, the role that political correctness played in permitting Major Hasan to be advanced in rank, and assigned to counsel soldiers despite (a) the plain-as-the-nose-on-his-face evidence of his radicalization and his sympathy with jihadism, and (b) his p*ss poor performance.

There is evidently a restricted annex to the report that discusses how Hasan was retained and advanced in the Army. This annex evidently blames eight superiors for letting Hasan slide:

The review found that Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, repeatedly failed to meet basic officer standards for physical fitness, appearance and work ethic, but that superiors allowed his medical career to advance.

“Had those failings been properly adjudicated, he wouldn’t have progressed,” and could have been forced out of the armed services, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the review’s findings had not been made public.

Instead, the investigation found that for much of Hasan’s career, supervisors were blinded by his resume, believing they had found a rare medical officer: someone with a stellar undergraduate record, prior service in the infantry and intimate knowledge of the Islamic faith.

“The Army thought it had hit the trifecta,” the official said.

. . . .

During his residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, from 2003 to 2007, Hasan was counseled about improperly discussing his religion, the official familiar with the review said. “The feedback he got seemed to be effective,” the official said. “[The proselytizing] stopped.”

But Hasan was a difficult person to work with and at other times pushed back forcefully against counseling. At one point, the review found, a supervisor insisted that he see a Muslim psychiatrist.

Hasan refused, saying his religious views were none of the Army’s business. The supervisor backed down, a decision the review found was a mistake.

Following his Walter Reed residency, Hasan won a military fellowship to continue his studies for two more years. But the review concludes that the honor was intended for high-achieving doctors, so Hasan should instead have been sent into the field or pushed to correct his conduct and behavior.

Despite the failings, the review did not conclude that it was a mistake to send Hasan to Ft. Hood and found no clues that he would become violent. [Emphasis added.]

All this raises the question: Why?  Why was he allowed to slide despite PPP?  Why was he given an honor for high-achievers, when he was an underperformer?  Why was his stridency overlooked?

Political correctness is one obvious candidate answer, but nothing in the public reporting on the issue suggests that the military has confronted that issue head on.

Indeed, one of those co-chairing the group that authored the report, retired Admiral Vern Clark, was specifically asked about this at a press conference. (Starting about the 34:45 mark of the video.)  Clark was obviously peeved at the question, and refused to answer anything about his “personal views” on the conclusions rendered in the restricted annex.  The committee co-chair, former Secretary of the Army Togo West, said such questions were “out of bounds.”

This suggests that the military is still not willing to confront honestly issues of PC; they are certainly unwilling to do so publicly.  Indeed, the press conference provides additional evidence of their refusal to deal honestly with this issue.  At another point in the press conference, West was asked “isn’t the immediate problem Islamic self-radicalization?”  (25:15 mark.)  West refused to acknowledge this, saying that “the immediate problem is any kind of self-radicalization,”  and said that “we” are concerned with actions, not motivations.  He then discussed a hypothetical about a radical fundamentalist Christian.

Well, the whole point of this exercise was supposedly how to improve the military’s ability to identify threats.  And in a world of scarce resources, prioritizing threats is essential.  Observing motivation is an important element in both identifying and prioritizing threats.  So is paying attention to obvious empirical evidence, such as the disproportionate (not exclusive, but disproportionate) representation of radical Muslims among those who have committed terrorist acts–including terrorist acts directed against the US military by Americans, e.g., the individual who threw a grenade into a tent of officers during the Iraq invasion, and the shooter at the Arkansas recruiting station.

West’s response refuses to acknowledge these realities.  Indeed, he seems at pains to suppress any discussion of them.  Instead, he adopts an attitude that reflects the same mindset as the Department of Homeland Security’s warnings that the gravest threat of domestic terrorism comes from disaffected right wingers; a two handed, “radical Muslims on the one hand, radical Christians on the other hand” attitude.  This does not inspire confidence that the issue of political correctness has been identified and addressed.  Instead, it strongly suggests that political correctness is still in the saddle.

I would also suggest that the whole concept of “self-radicalization” is a politically correct dodge.  It is clear that there were other individuals who contributed to Hasan’s radicalization.  He made choices to become radical, but he did not do so in a vacuum.  The phrase “self-radicalization” makes it sound like something going on completely within somebody’s head, and therefore difficult for outsiders to observe or understand.  It suggests that observing an individual’s associations and contacts are not useful in identifying risks.  How convenient.

So, maybe there is something in the restricted annex that deals honestly with the role that political correctness played in giving Hasan multiple passes, and with how to address the particular risks associated with Islamic terrorism.  But the responses (verbal and non-verbal) of Clark and West both strongly suggest that these issues are indeed, to use West’s words, “out of bounds.”

The whole point of this exercise was supposed to be about how to improve force protection.  Indeed, the title of the damn report is “Protecting the Force.”  Pray tell, how is refusing to grapple with difficult issues contributing to protection of our service personnel?  Thus, rather than getting at the root of the issue, it seems that this report will hang it on the oversights of a few field grade officers.  Moreover, the public report and statements of its authors strong suggest that there was no serious effort to ask whether these oversights were the predictable consequence of careerist pressures directly traceable to an atmosphere of political correctness in which anyone raising questions about the potential dangers posed by a Muslim officer faced career crucifixion.

This is of a piece with the administration’s immediate response to the Xmas junkbomber and myriad other actions.  It does not make us–or our military personnel–any safer.  To the contrary, it creates risks.  We–and our servicemen and -women–deserve far better.

January 16, 2010

Martha Coakley: Political Dodo

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 9:51 am

Despite the Scott Brown surge in MA, I still think it more likely than not that Martha Coakley will win the senate race there.  The Democrats’ structural advantages there are very difficult to overcome.

That said, Coakley is the most amazingly inept candidate I think I have ever seen.  She is the Popeil Gaffe-o-matic.  The MG-42 of gaffes, spewing out inanities at a very high cyclic rate of fire.

Her campaign provides an excellent example of the debilitating effects of political monocultures.  Not usually having to compete in truly competitive elections, the candidates of the dominant party are not selected on the basis of their ability to survive and thrive in such an environment.  Instead, the selection process favors those who can play to the party, not the electorate.  Those who operate well in the back rooms.  It selects party cadres, not real candidates who can operate well in a dynamic competitive race before an electorate.

Throw somebody groomed in that environment into a fluid, competitive election contest, and it is highly likely that that somebody will self-destruct.  The traits for which they have been selected are maladapted to the new environment.  Indeed, they are often positively counterproductive.    They are completely unprepared, and very vulnerable to making serial mistakes.

Subject a political monoculture like Massachusetts (or is it Massachusettes?) to a huge environmental shock that is Obama and Obamaism, and those creatures like Martha Coakley who evolved in the monoculture are very likely to perish.

January 15, 2010

Unintended Consequences in Derivatives Regulation: A Flashback

I was talking to some folks at a research/policy institute at another university about regulation of carbon derivatives trading who are attempting to educate Congress (or, more precisely, Congressional staff) on the matter.  They told me that there was a widespread belief on Capitol Hill that customized, OTC derivatives offer little or no social benefit, and that as a result, their use should be highly restricted, if not eliminated altogether. The view is that these instruments create systemic risks, but confer no corresponding benefit that cannot be offered by exchange traded products.

I disagree, for reasons I set out in a Brookings paper released last fall.  But I don’t want to focus on the details of that argument here.  Instead, I just want to flash back to a historical example that demonstrates that limiting the contracting choices of commodity market participants can have extremely perverse effects, and can in fact create systemic risks.

The legislation that restructured the California electricity markets, AB1890, precluded the state’s major utilities from entering into long term contracts for power.  Instead, in order to ensure the “success” of the spot market for power, the utilities were required to buy electricity from generators through an exchange–the Power Exchange (“PX”).  The bill also capped the price that utilities could charge their customers for power.

This legislation created a huge short position for the utilities.  They were exposed to increases in prices on the PX, and could not pass on these costs to customers.  Most importantly, the bill prevented the utilities from managing their price risk by engaging in long term forward contracting.

We all know what happened.  Power prices spiked, and two utilities still subject to the constraints (SoCal Edison and PG&E) suffered huge losses.  PG&E went bankrupt.

The problem would likely have been less severe had the utilities been given the ability to hedge.  Indeed, the absence of forward contracts may have exacerbated the price spikes, because these contracts would have precommitted the generators to supply power, whereas they arguably had an incentive to restrict output on the PX when conditions became tight.

Moral of the story: limiting the ability of firms to manage risks can impose substantial dangers of financial distress on those companies.  Indeed, if they limitations are systemic (as they were in California), they create the risk of a systemic problem.

Now, the analogy should not be stretched too far.  In its infinite, tofu-fueled wisdom, California chose to favor one type of exchange trading (spot auctions on the PX) for different reasons than Congress in its infinite God-knows-what-fueled-wisdom is contemplating favoring exchange trading of carbon (and other) derivatives.  Moreover, the restrictions in California were particularly draconian, especially when combined with the retail price caps.

Nonetheless, the tale should be a cautionary one.  Firms use derivatives contracts to pass risks to others who bear them at a lower cost.  If you constrain their ability to do so, they will wear more risk than they would otherwise.  This raises the likelihood that they will suffer crippling financial losses.  The more draconian the restrictions, and the wider the scope of their application, the greater the likelihood, severity, and extent of these losses.

That is, by avoiding one risk, you create others.  Rational policy requires a prudent trade-off between these various risks.  But fixated as they are on the risk (largely chimerical, IMHO) of OTC markets, most policy makers in DC are blind to the risks they are effectively choosing.  Their ability to weigh these tradeoffs is, moreover, extremely limited due to a fundamental lack of information.  Carbon trading regulation in particular will have systemic effects: it will impact every producer and consumer of energy.  How could Congress possibly have the knowledge to evaluate the risks that they are forcing on such a vast and diverse group of companies when they restrict their ability to choose the instruments that they can use to manage that risk?  Short answer: they can’t.

I would hope that the California experience would at least make policy makers aware of the possibility that restrictions on the contracting choices available to market participants creates risks.  So far, however, the debate appears to have taken no recognition of this very real possibility.  Keeping their eyes fixed on the skies to reduce the risk of being hit by a falling object, they face the very real risk of stepping into an open manhole.

Then Where Are Your Badges?

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 1:44 pm

The CFTC floated its proposal to set energy futures & futures options position limits yesterday.  Here’s the NOPR, and here’s a cheat sheet and FAQ about the proposal.

The result is no surprise to me.  In the weeks leading up to the announcement, many reporters had called to ask for my take on the CFTC’s likely course of action.  I responded that the CFTC would do something, but that the limits it chose would be relatively generous.  The agency was between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, Congress clearly expected action; indeed, I strongly suspect that Gensler had to promise that he would act on energy position limits to get the job in the face of skepticism from Bernie Sanders and some others in the Senate.  On the other hand, it eventually dawned on the Commissioners that overly restrictive limits would just drive business to OTC, and perhaps overseas; given that Gensler in particular wants to rein in the OTC markets, this would be an extremely perverse outcome.  So, they did something, but not much.

Which isn’t the best alternative, but it’s not the worst either.  The best alternative would have been to take a principled stand like the FSA, which has remained skeptical on position limits because of the lack of any evidence that speculators distort prices.

Indeed, the entire justification for the CFTC action could be summarized as (with apologies to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre): “Evidence?  We ain’t got no evidence.  We don’t need no evidence.  We don’t have to show you any steenkin’ evidence!”

Don’t believe me?  Well, here’s what they say:

The Commodity Exchange Act directs the CFTC to act prospectively, as necessary, to curb or prevent excessive speculation . . . The CFTC’s notice of proposed rulemaking does not speak to whether there was excessive speculation in the regulated derivatives markets for energy commodities. [From the FAQ.]

The CFTC need not demonstrate that there has been excessive speculation in the regulated derivatives markets for the major energy commodities. [Emphasis added.]

I see.  There is no evidence that speculation has distorted prices in the past, but the Commission feels it is perfectly acceptable to act against the purely hypothetical possibility that it might in the future–even though the logical and empirical basis for the hypothetical is extremely dubious, at best.

A couple of other comments on the proposal.

First, it creates a tripartite classification of market users–bona fide hedgers that use futures to manage physical risks; swap dealers that use the contracts to manage financial risks, and speculators.  Swap dealers can hold positions equal to twice the limit to which speculators are held.  This seems like being a little bit pregnant.  The higher limit is an implicit admission that swap dealers do use these instruments to manage financial risks.  Indeed, many of these risks are transferred from the very same physical market players whom the proposed limits favor as bona fide hedgers.  (Swap dealers offer risk management solutions to physical players, and then lay off some of that risk through the futures markets.)  So then what’s the point on limiting the position swap dealers can hold to hedge their OTC books?  And why is “two” the magic number.

Perhaps this is best seen as a backdoor approach to push trading from the OTC market onto exchanges.  Not a good idea.

Second, some aspects of the proposal are intellectually incoherent.  For instance, (a) there are all month limits, and (b) the limit for cash-settled contracts is five times the limit on delivery-settled contracts for firms that hold only the former.

Now, if you believe that market power manipulation is the problem, and if you believe that delivery settled contracts are particularly susceptible to market power manipulation, then all month limits are unnecessary; a spot month limit would be sufficient to mitigate manipulation.  (It’s wrong, as I showed in a JOB paper some years back, to conclude that cash settled contracts are not susceptible to market power manipulation, but it is a widely held belief.)

So, by choosing all month limits, the CFTC must believe that market power manipulation alone is not the problem; speculation can distort prices in other ways.   But if you believe that (not that you should, but if you do), you should also believe that speculation in cash settled contracts could also distort prices.  (A lot of the hyperventilating about index funds, and OTC markets, is based on the view that people making bets affects the outcome of the race.)  But if you believe that, you wouldn’t privilege cash settled contracts through a much more generous position limit than for delivery settled ones.

Perhaps this incoherence shouldn’t be a surprise.  Given the complete absence of any credible theory or evidence as to how speculation distorts prices to guide policy making, silliness is inevitable.

How will this play out?   Apparently the Commission is quite divided.  Moreover, it has indicated that it will take its sweet time in evaluating comments on the proposal, and may revise it accordingly, stretching the implementation time line.

My guess is that this is a strategic decision.  The Commission at least recognizes that any coherent approach to limits (even if the coherence is based on flawed theories and evidence: I just mean intellectually consistent) must encompass both the OTC markets and the exchange traded markets.  If the Commission wants to, for reasons known only to its members, crack down on speculation generally, acting on the futures markets alone is doomed to failure.  But they are waiting on Congress for authority to act in the OTC market.  Slow walking the proposal gives Congress time to act, and may indeed goad it into action.

In brief: laws, sausages–and CFTC proposals.

January 13, 2010

Gary Appleseed, Populist Crusader

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics — The Professor @ 7:51 pm

Gary Gensler is following in Timmy! Geithner’s footsteps, striking a populist pose to argue for forcing virtually all derivatives trades onto exchanges:

“Big Wall Street banks” benefit from a provision in derivatives legislation that has been promoted as aid for companies hedging their own risks, Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chairman Gary Gensler said.

“It is the Wall Street banks that benefit from the so- called end-user exemption from transparency, not the businesses that use derivatives,” Gensler said yesterday in a speech to the Atlantic Council in Washington criticizing the provision.

Talk about a false choice.  Gensler’s statement presumes a zero-sum game: if banks win, customers must lose.

Uhm, Gary, ever heard of mutually beneficial transactions?  Gains from trade?  Positive sum games?  How about “win-win”?  No?

And how does Gensler explain that the end-users have been among the most outspoken advocates for exemptions?  The mesmeric powers of Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon?  Battered spouse syndrome?  Or have a cabal of “Wall Street bankers” kidnapped large numbers of children of derivatives users, with the ransom being paid in lobbying?

And how does Gensler explain the fact that end-users have voted with their checkbooks to trade OTC even when exchange traded alternatives are available?  Does he know their businesses better than they do?

To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, Gensler and the rest of the DC crowd seem to be financial Puritans, haunted by the fear that somewhere, in the darkest recesses of the OTC market, consenting adults may be happy, making mutually beneficial deals.

And Gary, give the apple thing a rest:

“We would not tolerate it if other markets operated similarly to over-the-counter derivatives, where dealers are the only ones with much of the relevant information,” profiting from spreads between bids and offers that are wider than they would be in an open market, Gensler said.

He compared the situation to “buying an apple from the supermarket when the price of the apple is kept private.”

(Note to self: work on controlling the eye-roll reflex.)

Where to begin?  First, in point of fact, we tolerate these kinds of markets in just about everything.  I would wager a pretty sum that even if you wanted to limit the discussion to apples, that most wholesale apple trades were undertaken in “search markets” (like the OTC derivatives market) with negotiated prices, rather than posted prices like in the grocery store.  That’s pretty much the case in cash markets for most commodities.  Second, for vast numbers of other goods, search for counterparties and negotiation of prices is the norm, and posted prices the exception; sometimes the posted prices are just a focal point for the beginning of negotiations, like with cars.  This is especially true for expensive, differentiated goods–as most OTC derivatives are.  There are a variety of different marketing and pricing mechanisms in markets, and these mechanisms are adapted to the characteristics of the goods, the sizes of the transactions, and the individuals and firms that trade them.  Third, it is definitely the case that centralized auction markets (like futures exchanges) are the extreme exception.

In brief, taking his apple metaphor seriously, Gensler apparently believes that myriad goods and services are priced and marketed inefficiently.  Why should he stop at regulating OTC derivatives when virtually every wholesale market, and many retail markets, are obviously in need of his penetrating insights?

The first time I read of Gensler using the apple analogy, I thought it was lame.  The second time it sounded positively stupid.  Word to the wise: never fall in love with your analogies, especially if they’re bad ones.

And as for the assertion that spreads are wider than they would otherwise be, why do end-users choose to trade on OTC markets, even when there are close exchange traded substitutes (e.g., interest rate swaps and Eurodollar futures)?  Again, on an all in basis, the end-users must think they’re getting a better deal.  Or, again, does Cotton Gensler know what’s good for them?

But as entertaining as all the above is, the best thing in the article was at the end:

“There’s a legitimate public policy debate,” he said. “Corporate America is on one side of the debate, I’m on the other.”

Gary Gensler, Lone Crusader, Stickin’ it to The Man!

If this wasn’t so serious, it would be hilarious.

Some Follow Up on Afghanistan

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:49 pm

Further my post on the Gromov-Rogozin agitprop published courtesy of the NYT, here are a couple of items of direct relevance to my argument.

First, re civilian casualties, the UN–yes, the UN–clearly places blame for the vast bulk of the civilian casualties there on the Taliban:

KABUL, Afghanistan — Last year was the most lethal for Afghan civilians since the American-led war began here in late 2001, with theTaliban and other insurgent groups causing the vast majority of noncombatant deaths, according to a United Nations survey released Wednesday.

The report said 2,412 civilians were killed in 2009, a jump of 14 percent over the previous year. Another 3,566 were wounded.

The growing number of civilian deaths reflects the intensification of the Afghan war over the same period: American and NATO combat deaths jumped to 520 last year, from 295, and the Taliban are more active than at any point in the past eight years.

But the most striking aspect of the report was the shift in responsibility for the deaths of Afghan civilians. The survey found that the Taliban and other insurgents killed more than twice the number of civilians as the American-led coalition and Afghan government forces did last year, mostly by suicide bombings, homemade bombs and executions.

The 1,630 civilians killed by insurgents — two-thirds of the total — represented a 40 percent increase over the previous year.

By contrast, the number of civilians killed by the NATO- and American-led coalition and Afghan government forces in 2009 fell 28 percent, to 596, about a quarter of the total number. The cause of the 186 other deaths could not be determined.

The report attributed the drop to measures taken by the American-led coalition to reduce the danger to civilians. Since taking over in June as commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has issued several directives aimed at winning over the Afghan population, sometimes at the cost of forgoing attacks on Taliban fighters.

Principal among these directives was the tightening of the rules governing airstrikes, the main cause of civilian fatalities caused by the American and other NATO forces.

Under the new rules, coalition forces caught in a firefight with insurgents may not order an airstrike on a house in a residential area unless they are in danger of being overrun. In the past, airstrikes carried out in the heat of battle in residential areas accounted for several widely publicized episodes of civilian deaths.

I would also note that the total number of civilian deaths, though obviously tragic, is low compared to the numbers in comparable conflicts.  Moreover, a goodly number of the deaths blamed on US/NATO forces were due to Taliban use of civilians as shields.

And re the Gromov-Rogozin slur about the cowardly Americans fighting from the air, as opposed to the brave Soviets who fought face-to-face, this from StrategyPage:

It’s not by chance, but because of better equipment, weapons, tactics and leadership. The lower casualty rate makes troops bolder, less stressed, and more effective. The older Taliban, with experience fighting the Russians in the 1980s, noted this early on, and warned their young associates to be careful when fighting the American and NATO troops. These new foreigners are much more aggressive, and dangerous, than the Russians (who were mostly poorly trained conscripts). The Taliban old timers remember that the Russians had some aggressive, and effective, troops in the form of Spetsnaz commandos and paratroopers. There weren’t many of them, but with the Americans, everyone seems to be a commando. So the Taliban rely more on roadside bombs and mines. And the Americans come right after the people who make and employ this new weapon. Some Taliban are getting discouraged by all this. Especially with the Pakistani Taliban getting hammered by the Pakistani Army. It wasn’t this way back in the 1980s, when the Russians were lousy fighters, and safe base camps in Pakistan were full of rich Arabs giving out equipment, weapons and cash. These days, there’s no safe haven, and you have to protect drug dealers in order to make the payroll or buy new gear. Worse, most Afghans hate the Taliban. The good old days are really gone, and more Taliban are just giving it up.

The Taliban also know that more American troops are on the way. The American tactics of spreading these new troops out, in territory the Taliban thought they controlled, has worked. The Taliban are searching for new ideas, because without much support from the population, and an enemy you cannot defeat in combat, the prospects don’t look so good. Thus the Taliban are increasing their Information War efforts, by planting more atrocity stories (some invented, some taking actual incidents and altering them). This obviously works. While the Taliban kill five times as many civilians as government and foreign troops, most of the media coverage is of Afghans killed by foreigners. [Emphasis added.]

January 12, 2010

Deadbeats AND Hypocrites

Filed under: Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:25 pm

I’m sure you’ve read about Putin and/or Medvedev reacting with high dudgeon to Ukrainian failures to pay for gas in full and on time.  Oh, the lectures they can give.  The moral outrage!  How dare they not pay what they owe!  The nerve!  The idea!

Keep that image in mind when you read this:

Poland and Russia have yet to sign a gas delivery deal for 2010 due to Gazprom owing Warsaw around 410 million dollars.

Poland still has not signed a deal on gas supplies with Russian energy giant Gazprom, which should have been agreed at the end of last year. Poland is delaying the signing because the Russian company owes it over one billion zloty (410 million dollars).

Gazprom’s debt of 350 million dollars results from paying lower tariffs for gas transit in Poland as required by the Energy Regulatory Office. Additional 60 million dollars debt results from not delivering gas to Poland by Gazprom’s middleman company RosUkrEnergo in 2008. Later, the Russian gas giant took over the company’s debt.

As for now, Gazprom is willing to sign a new agreement on condition that Poland will cancel a part of its debt. The Polish gas company EuRoPol Gaz, however, does not want to make concessions, claiming that it would violate Polish law.

Just another example of the for-thee-not-for-me Russian commercial mentality, as if we needed another.  (The Producers episode in which Gazprom cut off gas imports from Turkmenistan, causing a pipeline blowup rather than meet its take-or-pay obligations is another great example.)  Keep that in mind the next time you hear Putin or Sechin or Medvedev or anybody in the Russian government caterwauling about somebody being a deadbeat.

Every Word a Lie, Including “And” and “The”

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:34 pm

Moscow Region Governor Boris Gromov and the Russian Federation’s Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin published an oped in the NYT today.  It is a farrago of tendentious falsehoods.  Not that one should be surprised, considering the source.

A few of the lowlights:

  • Gromov and Rogozin state that the Soviet army “accomplished its tasks” and did not make “a shameful escape accompanied by the hooting of the mjahadeen.”  They further state that this was “unlike the US in Viet Nam,” thereby insinuating that the US (a) did not accomplish its tasks, and (b) fled, tail between its legs, with the hoots of the NVA ringing it its ears.  False.  No, I let me rephrase that.  BULLSHIT.  That’s better.  Fact: virtually all US troops had withdrawn from Viet Nam by 1973, having accomplished its tasks far better than the Soviet Army did, having destroyed the Viet Cong in Tet in 1968 and secured a far more stable situation on the ground throughout South Viet Nam than the Soviets ever did in Afghanistan.  Indeed, most US ground troops were gone by 1972, and the ARVN defeated the NVA’s Eastertide Offensive with virtually no US ground support, but with considerable help from US airpower.  Airpower that Congress prevented the US from using when the NVA attacked again in 1975.  If GR are interested in some, you know, real history, I suggest Lewis Sorley’s A Better War.  (Instead of doing bongs with Oliver Stone, which appears to be how they learned their Viet Nam War history.)
  • They state that the Soviet army fought “against the fathers of today’s Taliban militants face-to-face, whereas Western armies prefer to fight from the air.”  Facts: (a) the Soviets employed airpower extensively (indeed, the tide turned primarily because the provision of Stinger AA missiles sharply limited the Soviet ability to use airpower, especially helicopters), (b) the US military (and other NATO forces, especially the British, Australians, Canadians, and French) have gone “face-to-face” against the Taliban, drug lords, Al Qaeda elements, etc., on numerous occasions.
  • RG shed crocodile tears for Afghan civilians, blaming the NATO/American reliance on airpower for “tragic mistakes that kill and wound civilians” and “the suffering of civilians.”  No mention of civilian casualties resulting from Soviet action.  Facts: (a) yes, there are tragic mistakes, but they are just that, mistakes, (b) the US/NATO rely heavily on precision munitions and have restrictive rules of engagement that sharply reduce civilian death tolls, (c) the Soviets did not use precision munitions, employed airpower and artillery indiscriminately, and did not have restrictive rules of engagement, thereby killing large numbers of civilians.  Not to mention that the USSR and its Afghan allies employed mines promiscuously, resulting in massive human carnage, especially among children, whereas US/NATO forces do not.  The mines continued to kill long after the last Soviet soldier turned his back on Afghanistan.  There is no doubt that the Soviets inflicted far more casualties on civilians than has US/NATO.  If you want an indication of the effects of the two wars on civilians, look at the flow of humanity: refugees left in droves during the Soviet invasion, and returned in droves after the US routed the Taliban.  There has been no mass exodus since the US invaded in October, 2001.
  • Gromov and Rogozin break their arms patting themselves on the back for the Soviet’s being “the first to defend Western civilization against the attacks of Muslim fanatics.”  In fact, the initial Soviet invasion had nothing to do with “Muslim fanatics.”  If anything, the Soviet invasion catalyzed Muslim fanaticism, and its militarization–admittedly with the assistance of the US in the 1980s.  But no Soviet invasion, and that wouldn’t have happened either.  To portray the Soviet invasion as some sort of attack against Islamic fanaticism on behalf of the Western world (a sort of reprise of the meme in which Russia saved the West by absorbing the attention of the Mongols and bearing the Tatar Yoke) is a sick joke.  It was a Cold War power play, pure and simple.
  • They claim that Russia is “ready to help NATO implement its UN Security Council Mandate in Afghanistan” and insist that NATO troops stay in the country “until the necessary conditions are provided to establish stable local authorities.”  Help, my foot.  Is a sincere desire to help NATO why Russia tried to bribe Kyrgyzstan to deny NATO the use of the Manas Airbase that it used to supply the Afghan mission?  Russian logistical assistance for the NATO mission has been niggardly, slow–and sold in an extremely mercenary fashion.  (I’m sure the latter is a big surprise to y’all.)

I could go on, but I’ll do my blood pressure a favor.

The post title is something of an exaggeration, because there are, in fact, two true sentences in this screed: “withdrawl without victory might cause a political collapse in Western security structures.  This troubles Russia far less than the consequences for the region itself.”  I’ll bet.

I understand that this is an oped, by high officials of a member of the UN Security Council.  But doesn’t the NYT have any standards whatsoever?  Will they publish anything, no matter how flagrantly false, as long as it is penned by government officials?  This piece is as outrageous as one would expect from Kim Jong Il or Hugo Chavez–or Soviet propagandists.  Which is revealing in its own way.

January 11, 2010

I Went to a Fight, and a Hockey Game Broke Out

Filed under: Russia,Sports — The Professor @ 8:50 pm

That was a gag from the ’70s, when fighting–and bench clearing brawls–were common sights at NHL games.  That was the decade of the Broad Street Bullies, and goon squads.

Things have sure changed.  The third man in rule, rule and rule enforcement changes designed to make the game faster and more exciting, and perhaps most importantly, the influx of European, and most especially, Russian players into the NHL have transformed the game.  Yes, there are still fights, but you go to a NHL hockey game now to see end-to-end action, finesse, and speed (the hallmarks of Soviet hockey at its zenith) rather than fisticuffs.

It is more than a little ironic, then, to read this (3 pix at the link):

Ice hockey-Russian clubs handed heavy fines after mass brawl

. . . .

Officials had no choice but to cancel the contest because the teams did not have enough players left to continue the game.

It was the first time a Russian hockey game has been called off due to a mass brawl.

Vityaz were fined four million rubles ($133,300) and warned they would be thrown out of the league if there were a similar incident while Siberian team Avangard escaped with a one-million ruble fine, the KHL said on their website (

The league also fined four players, Canadians Darsy Verot and Brandon Sugden from Vityaz and Avangard’s Russian pair Alexander Svitov and Dmitry Vlasenkov, 150,000 rubles each.

In addition, seven players — Vlasenkov and six from Vityaz, including both Verot and Sugden — received one-game suspensions and each club was awarded a 5-0 defeat.

Verot instigated the mass brawl after three minutes of play by firing the puck at an opposing player. The referees restarted the match after handing appropriate penalties but were forced to stop it again when another fight erupted a few seconds later.

This time, the match had to be abandoned after officials handed a record 691 penalty minutes to both sides.

691 penalty minutes.  Takes me back.  Dave “The Hammer” Schultz must be smiling.

Blame the MPH

Filed under: Climate Change — The Professor @ 8:37 pm

Finally coming out of the pretty intense cold that had temps in Houston down into the low-20s.  I am perfectly willing to stipulate that one cold month doesn’t say too much about the correctness of the AGW hypothesis–and I would hope (probably in vain) that those flogging that hypothesis would do the same.

The NYT felt sufficiently concerned that some out there might conclude that the cold weather refuted AGW, so it ran a piece to explain that it did no such thing:

What’s going on? Global cooling?

Nope. A mass of high pressure is sitting over Greenland like a rock in a river, deflecting the cold air of the jet stream farther to the south than usual.

This situation is caused by Arctic oscillation, in which opposing atmospheric pressure patterns at the top of the planet occasionally shift back and forth, affecting weather across much of the Northern Hemisphere.

What’s notable this year is that the pattern of high pressure over the Arctic is more pronounced than at any time since 1950.

. . . .

No one is quite sure what drives these flip-flops in air pressure.

“I tend to think of it as a random thing,” said John M. Wallace, who is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. “I don’t think we understand any reasons why it goes one way one year and the other way another year.”

What does seem clear is that these oscillations have nothing to do with global warming, or, for that matter, global cooling. For one, they’re not new. And this winter’s cold has not been global. Santa, by North Pole standards, has been experiencing a balmy winter.

Well, according to one climatologist, and AGW skeptic, the late Marcel Leroux, (a) this certainly doesn’t have anything to do with AGW, because it doesn’t exist, and (b) the phenomenon of varying intensity and frequency of polar high pressure events actually explains variations in temperature (temporally and spatially) far better than the AGW hypothesis.  Thus, if Leroux is correct, the current cold weather could actually provide evidence against CO2 driven climate change.

Leroux set out his ideas in a book: Global Warming: Myth or Reality: The Erring Ways of Climatology.  He focused on just the kind of phenomenon described in the NYT piece, what he dubbed “Mobile Polar Highs” (MPH).  Interestingly, these MPHs cause exactly the effect described in the NYT article: cold temperatures at medium latitudes, and warm temperature at the pole experiencing winter.  A summary of the idea can be found here.

Leroux argued that the intensity of MPHs oscillates between rapid and slow modes on a decadal scale, and that this oscillation can explain (autocorrelated) variations in temperatures, as well as glaciation and deglaciation, fluctuations in sea ice and sea level, and other climate-related phenomena.

The book doesn’t provide a very extensive or convincing explanation as to what causes the shift between rapid and slow modes, but it is provocative, and does raise some serious empirical issues that the CO2-driven models don’t handle well.  It certainly provides considerable evidence of cyclical behavior of that would necessarily complicate any effort to isolate any CO2-driven temperature trend, especially in a relatively short time series of data.

The next several years could provide some evidence relating to Leroux’s hypothesis.  He argues that the MPH cycle has been in slow mode since the late-1970s.  If the current winter is the harbinger of a return to the rapid mode, the next several winters will be cold as well.

Moral of the story: the cold weather currently being experienced in much of the northern hemisphere could indeed be germane to the debate over AGW.

Note that Leroux was not an employee of ExxonMobil.  He was, in fact, a climatologist at the Jean Moulin University in France, and the director of the Laboratoire de Climatologie, Risques, et Environment at the University.  A real climatologist, in other words, and one who lived in the world of data, rather than the world of models.

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