2011/07/20

Glenn Beck and historical accuracy

Sorry, but the history major in me just couldn't resist when I read this:


Russia and China and Saudi Arabia -- Saudi Arabia is so upset with us right now and our president that Saudi Arabia is negotiating a deal with China for their oil. What do you think is going to happen with that one? And these three are really critical. Nobody ever -- nobody ever thought these countries could come together and form any kind of alliance. And the reason I say nobody ever thought it is because people have been looking for these three to bring an alliance together for thousands of years.

Okay, I'm reading the book The Great Game, the story of the fight by Great Britain to prevent Russia from capturing India during the 1800s and the early part of the 1900s. The distance between Baku, Russia and Rawalpindi, Pakistan is about 1300 miles. Now this was considered a really, really lengthy distance in those days, especially when traveling by land. It took several months of travel on horseback to cover this kind of distance and the book relates several stories of how difficult it was for travelers to sustain themselves over several stretches between cities in this region. Yes, the Mongols swept across the plains of Central Asia centuries earlier, but keep in mind that the Mongols traveled very lightly and lived off the land. They didn't need to maintain supply lines back to Mongolia.

Naturally, travel via ship or railroad was faster. Ships were around for several thousand years beforehand, but that mode of travel wasn't exactly speedy and they couldn't carry a whole lot. In the 1600s, a voyage across the Atlantic in ships that typically displaced from 150 to 200 tons of water (A guided-missile cruiser today displaces 9,600 tons) could take from 47 to 138 days. By the 1870s, ships had gotten quite a bit faster and, with a good wind, could make up to 50 miles an hour.

Railroads are a pretty recent invention, the first one came about in 1830. By the time of America's Civil War, they were in very wide use, but the Russian Trans-Siberian Railroad wasn't ordered completed until 1891, meaning China and Russia couldn't very easily communicate until then. Rail lines in Saudi Arabia weren't put in until 1951. 

The distance between Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Baku is less, only 1100 miles and the distance between Baku and Kunming, China is nearly 3200 miles. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Kunming is a bit under 3500 miles. So, the idea that Russia, China and Saudi Arabia could easily communicate and send armies back and forth is a complete fantasy. Kievan Rus was a powerful state from the late 900s right up until they were conquered by the Mongols in the early 1200s.  Ivan the Terrible wasn't crowned the first Tsar until 1547 and Russia, the successor to Kievan Rus, wasn't considered a serious power until then. Under Peter the Great, Russia was declared an empire in 1723. It's appropriate to say Russia was truly an actor on the world stage at that point.

China was a great power going back around 4,000 years, but the Opium Wars with Britain in the early 1800s demonstrated that the Industrial Revolution of the West had passed China by. China didn't begin to regain international relevance again until Mao Zedong's Communist Revolution of 1949.

Erwin "The Desert Fox" Rommel, the German general who ran the German-Italian "Afrika Korps" from 1941 to 1943 considered Saudi Arabia a desirable target, but that was entirely because it was a producer of oil. Saudi Arabia produced few, if any, troops for that fight and truly, hasn't been involved in any actions since then. In 1991, Saudi Arabia was far more a staging platform for an allied force to be used against Saddam Hussein's Iraq than it was anything else.

So, sorry Glenn Beck fans, but the idea of Russia combining with either China or Saudi Arabia in any effective manner that the West would have felt threatened by is hardly "thousands of years" old.

Seriously people, anyone who ever depended on Glenn Beck to provide worthwhile information on any topic is completely out of it.

2011/07/09

Iraq's future


Local Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin surveys the shape of Iraq today and worries about the future when US troops are scheduled to depart. She felt that Iran, which had not expanded its territory since, as far as I'm aware, the early 1600s, would gain tremendous influence. This is hardly a new concern.

In the spring of 2003, the Islamic Republic of Iran not only proposed to negotiate with the Bush administration on its nuclear program and its support for terrorists but also offered concrete concessions that went very far toward meeting U.S. concerns.

Bush, swelling with pride and hubris, refused to consider opening negotiations and the opportunity to defuse tensions between the US and Iran was quickly frittered away. Allegations of Iranian involvement in Iraq go back to late 2006. A great deal was made of (allegedly) Iranian EFPS (Explosive Formed Penetrators, sort of like IEDs, but more useful against armored vehicles), but there wasn't actually much evidence that the EFPs came from Iran.

These same weapons were first used by the IRA and spread to Columbia's FARC and Spain's ETA as well as Hizboullah and other terror groups worldwide years before the US-led invasion of Iraq. They are easy to make in any minimally equipped machine shop and at least three manufactories for EFP's have been found inside Iraq itself.

One of the real problems Rubin identifies with Iraq trying to remain out of Iran's orbit is that

Iraq already depends on Iran for about 10 percent of desperately needed electric power (U.S. inability to help Iraq produce enough electricity, despite many aid projects, has bewildered Iraqis).

There's no mystery about the US failure to reconstruct Iraq. I've long identified the need for, and advocated, and have known that there will never be, an American “Colonial Corps” for Iraq. The US could have used such a unit in Iraq after the fall of Baghdad, heck, such a unit could have prevented the sacking of Baghdad's government buildings in the aftermath of the US takeover, which would have in turn facilitated reconstruction. The US could have used such a corps in 2005, 2007, 2009 and could still use it today. I'm not speaking of some touchy-feely “Let's get Iraqis and Americans to get to know each other” kind of stuff.

The US needs about 10,000 to 15,000 people (A buddy of mine suggested that the US Army Corps of Engineers would be extremely well-suited for this job. True, so would the US Navy Seabees. I just don't think it's a job that only military people can handle as the ability to march in formation or handle weapons would be irrelevant to doing this job) to survey each city, town and village for reconstruction projects that need to be accomplished, would order the necessary materials from the US or from geographically closer sources, and would see to it that funds were obtained from the US to pay Iraqis to carry out the projects.

This would absolutely need to be a hands-on project. There would need to be American people on the ground, speaking the language and seeing to it that projects were carried out with minimal corruption. In 2008, Iraq received very low scores by Global Integrity, which was reporting on government and corruption. Also, as of mid-2008, the US had lost $23 billion to corruption in Iraq. A separate corps is needed to provide accountability. It simply cannot be outsourced to local persons. Also, Americans have to run the projects as America need to get the credit for doing so. Americans can and should utilize local expertise and should try to work through existing authorities, but outsourcing the management of the reconstruction projects to Iraqis means not only will projects never be completed, but no one will attribute the projects to the right source.

President George W. Bush never made a full-throated appeal for people to go to Iraq as soldiers. In late 2003, as country after country dropped out of the “Coalition of the Willing,” the call went out for volunteers to serve on draft boards. But as Bush realized that a draft would open up all sorts of problems, nothing followed that. Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, as Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad's Green Zone" showed, the Green Zone was run by hopelessly young, completely unqualified people. America's experienced professionals preferred to stay home and blog against the “Enemy at Home” (i.e., liberals). As Naomi Klein showed in her book "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism," L. Paul Bremer was far more concerned with imposing neo-liberal economic policies in Iraq than he was with actually rebuilding the place and getting services to function again.

As a buddy of mine, Ben Burrows, puts it in an LTE:

Boo hoo, Trudy Rubin (Worldview, 7/8). The nice little war you cheered from the Petraeus bunker, the nation-building you and Tom Friedman so desperately wanted to succeed, is winding to an end. The trillions we spent in Iraq that might have been applied to medical care or industrial investments at home lie wasted on desert sands, often used against us by the very people you thought were our friends and allies. The lives that have been maimed or lost heroically in the pursuit of some Kipling-esque White Man's Burden "nobility" can never be repaid, and the productive capacity and intelligence they might have provided will be permanently lost. Yet Rubin longs still for a better outcome, that shining sunny Teheran on a Hill that might have been.

The idea that the US can construct or even enable a workable government from half a world away is, as Burrows says, a fantasy. Back during the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia for Afghanistan (Russia's ultimate goal was India, Britain successfully stopped Russia several hundred miles short of that), Rudyard Kipling wrote “Kim,” a book that popularized the Great Game and made Britons identify very strongly with the struggle over there. There is nothing even remotely comparable in America's culture today towards any country in that part of the world. As Rubin points out:

Of course, Americans are even more weary of this war than of the Afghan conflict. And any extension of U.S. troops would require a request from Maliki, a Shiite, which he looks unlikely to make.

So, I just don't see any sort of American victory on the horizon. A Colonial Corps would need to be protected by an able military force and would need to spend lots and lots of money at a time when Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats and even President Obama are shrieking and pulling out their hair about deficits. Why are they all concerned about deficits at a time of 9% unemployment, at a time when Global Warming and Peak Oil are screaming for attention and at at time when President Obama explicitly declares that US infrastructure needs $2 trillion in upgrades and maintenance? Damned if I know, but I think such concerns are weighing far more heavily in Washington DC than concerns about Iraq ever will and Iraq is simply never going to be fixed up short of a serious national effort coming from this side of the world.

2011/07/05

On being a "dick"

The context of the debt limit debate is that it's long since been leaning very, very heavily to the right-wing side. President Obama offered all sorts of sweeteners and concessions and outright gifts and was just asking for a few minor concessions to get revenue a bit up. What did he get for his troubles? He got called a "dick" by MSNBC’s Senior Political Analyst Mark Halperin. Full disclosure: My full legal name has always been Richmond, but I used to go by the nickname Dick. Back when I worked as a receptionist at a private school, I was thinking of changing it anyway and the final straw came when two female students were talking to each other in front of my desk: "So what do you think of [Our Vice-Principal who also taught a few courses]?" "Oh, he's okay, but he's kind of a dick." I didn't say anything to them, but I decided that since some people I liked were using the nickname of Rich for me anyway, I'd adopt that as my new nickname. So yes, in some contexts, dick is a swear word, but in others, Dick is simply a first name.

Why did progressives consider it outrageously unacceptable for Halperin to call the President a naughty name? We, as a group, are not particularly concerned with "naughty language," but James Fallows of the Atlantic put his finger on the problem:


In this case, the "what" of Obama's press conference -- the unbelievable recklessness of mainly House Republicans in inviting the largest self-inflicted economic wound in American history -- deserves every bit of frustration Obama showed, and lots more. In the long run we'll have some sense of whether Obama's typical surreal unflappability, whatever its origins (I have my theories, but for another time), was the wisest long-term response to today's Republican party -- and whether this unusual flash of emotion worked in directing public attention to a looming and entirely unnecessary blow to America's wellbeing. [emphasis in original]

The problem was, as Fallows said, that Halperin, as a political commentator, was acting instead as though he were a theater critic or a figure-skating judge. He was judging Obama's performance and making judgments as to "how it was playing in Peoria." That's not the job of a political commentator. How something plays with the public is something that should be left up to the public to decide. A political commentator can refer to polls if he likes, but he's not a theater critic and shouldn't second-guess the public. The real problem was the incredibly radical stance that the Republicans Party as a whole was and is taking in the deficit debate. That's the job of a political commentator! Their job is to look below the surface and to tell us why the actors were behaving the way they were. Calling the President names because Obama showed an uncharacteristic flash of anger shows us an incredibly shallow commentator who really should find himself another line of work.

Just ran across a piece explaining how Howard Kurtz considers Halperin "a substantive guy." Kurtz does indeed mention that

"Now the indictment is being expanded to saying Mark Halperin is the epitome superficial theater criticism and, you know, empty beltway conventional wisdom," Kurtz noted.

Of course, Kurtz's comment is a typical piece of Village "empty beltway" commentary as he completely fails to explain what any of that means to someone who hasn't been reading the blog posts of lefty critics. As a TV performer, Kurtz's audience is obviously vastly larger than those of the blogs and magazines that have leveled that charge at Halperin. The effect, of course, is to characterize Halperin's critics as making obscure, hard-to-understand charges.

Now, a very important thing to keep in mind when one looks at the deficit debate is that in 2004, President G.W. Bush offered corporations a "tax holiday," an opportunity to bring back the cash that they had earned overseas with very small taxes to pay in return:

And it was a total failure. Companies did indeed take advantage of the amnesty to move a lot of money back to the United States. But they used that money to pay dividends, pay down debt, buy up other companies, buy back their own stock — pretty much everything except increasing investment and creating jobs. Indeed, there’s no evidence that the 2004 tax holiday did anything at all to stimulate the economy.
What the tax holiday did do, however, was give big corporations a chance to avoid paying taxes, because they would eventually have repatriated, and paid taxes on, much of the money they brought in under the amnesty. And it also gave these companies an incentive to move even more jobs overseas, since they now know that there’s a good chance that they’ll be able to bring overseas profits home nearly tax-free under future amnesties.

So, does it really do America any good to permit corporations to keep more of their earnings? Sure doesn't sound like it to me. This is a critical leg of the whole deficit debate. The idea is that government spending crowds out private investment. The charts shown at the link show private investment going down from 2007 to 2009 and government spending going up. These facts are entirely true, but there was no "crowding out" effect as the collapse of the housing bubble explains private investment going down while the need for government to step in and maintain necessary services and to therefore engage in deficit spending explains government spending going up. It's simply not the case that government spending was making it difficult for private investors to obtain "scarce resources."


The problem here of course, is that the crowding out theory is a theory that regards investment as a fixed value, as a zero-sum game and not a positive-sum game. When a football team gains yards towards its goal, the other side is pushed further away from its goal. This is an example of a zero-sum game as the total yardage doesn't change. When a baseball team gets bases on the other hand, this is a positive-sum game as the number of bases that one team gets to is limited only by the time that the teams have to play in and by the competence of the teams' opponents. 


Government spending and private investment are engaged in a positive-sum game where there is no limit to the amount of wealth that they can both spend. The "crowding out" effect doesn't exist.


An interesting chart from Business Insider shows that the income of the top decile (Top 10% of income-earners) has been growing by leaps and bounds, starting in the early 1970s and really taking off during the Reagan Administration. How was productivity doing during the same period? Productivity is the value produced by each worker. Actually, the gains in wealth by the top income-earners closely tracks with the gains in labor productivity. Productivity, too, has been growing rapidly. A not-terribly-surprising result of these two trends is that corporations are sitting on enormous piles of cash, surely as much as a trillion dollars and probably more.


So how are regular folks doing? What about state finances? The government of Minnesota is alleged to have a serious spending problem. The Republican House Speaker, Kurt Zellers says


“We’re talking about runaway spending that we can’t afford,... And we will not saddle our children and grandchildren with mounds of debts with promises for funding levels that will not be there in the future.”

While the New York Times publishes this charge without making any attempt to demonstrate that the charge is either true or false, substantiated or not, the economist who quotes them shows very quickly and easily that state spending hasn't actually increased over the past decade, not is it scheduled to increase over the next half-decade. Again, as with Howard Kurtz and the "theater criticism" charge, the press corps lies by omission. It's not that they say things that are false, but that the reader is left with no way to determine whether the charge is true or not. The result of that is that Minnesota's government has to partially shut down for the indefinite future, but very few people in the state have a clear understanding as to why that is. All they know is that the Republican Party is screaming about the state suffering from some sort of fiscal crisis. A crisis that doesn't actually exist in the real world.


What are some of the other consequences of the alleged fiscal crisis? Well, Republicans in Congress have decided that certain government departments are not really needed, specifically, that "the principal federal agency that does testing for contamination — such as E. Coli — of fruits and vegetable produce" is a superfluous, unneeded waste of the taxpayers' money. Ordinarily, Americans would choose to keep such government services running anyway, but if the US is suffering a fiscal crisis, well then, sacrifices must be made!


Ordinarily, the US Government would have the political strength to punish companies that pollute through both routine leakage and spillage and through the occasional disaster.


An oil spill in Montana's Yellowstone River surged toward North Dakota on Sunday as outraged residents demanded more government oversight of Exxon Mobil's cleanup.
An estimated 750 to 1,000 barrels, or up to 42,000 gallons, spilled overnight Friday through a damaged pipeline in the riverbed, Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said. The break near Billings could be related to the river's high water level, officials said.

Montanans are urging a much more energetic reaction because their fishing industry is almost as important to the state's economy as oil is. Montana gets about 11 million tourists a year in a state with a population of less than a million. Having an oil spill like they do could do serious harm to the standard of living of residents. Obviously, an energetic clean-up effort by Exxon/Mobil would be an all-expenditure project, with no prospect of serious profit at the end. Exxon/Mobil might earn a bit of good-will, but it's hard to show that on profit-loss statements.


A strong government hand is necessary here because Exxon/Mobil is obviously slacking off and clearly doesn't wish to expend serious resources to contain the spill. Not that there's any reason, under classical capitalist theory, why they would. The problem is, this sort of strong government reaction is precisely what the Grover Norquist "Starve the beast" theory explicitly rules out. A government that's competent to take charge of the spill response is necessarily one that is well-funded and that has the extra cash and personnel to handle something like that.


In a generally good piece, USA Today makes a point that I strongly disagree with:


Republicans deserve major credit for forcing action on deficit reduction when President Obama and many Democrats in Congress were showing little interest.

But there was a reason that Democrats "were showing little interest." Cutting expenditures is a grand idea in theory and is generally a good thing for a country to do, but not when cutting expenditures interferes with more important priorities. Global Warming and Peak Oil are two problems that are vastly more critically important and that need much more urgent attention. US unemployment is around 9%. That's vastly too high a rate for Americans to be puttering around with unneeded distractions like the deficit. When, in five or ten or so years, these higher priorities have been handled, then we can worry about deficits!


I strongly disagree with President Obama's approach to dealing with Republicans. Starting up what progressives call the "Cat Food Commission" (Officially, the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission) was an awful idea that gave far too much credence to Republican complaints and distracted America from getting the aforementioned problems under control. The President is obviously a Blue Dog Democrat who leans much too far to the right for my tastes, but he has been showing some stiffening of the spine lately and that's something progressives should encourage. If that makes people like Halperin angry enough to call him names, tough for them!