Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Putinism considered as an ideology

By way of comments in Ta-Nehisi Coates blog, we have this analysis from conservative commentator Anne Applebaum: video and PDF.

It fascinates me how the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has begun to shift alliances among Western intellectuals. I previously would have had no reason to quote Applebaum, and I am not sure I trust her (defender of child rapist Roman Polanski, adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute) even now. But she may have some good ideas.

More Ukraine and Multi-polar Global Politics

The Ukrainian Education Minister Serhiy Kvit The Ideology of the EuroMaidan Revolution. (Kiev post op-ed, 24 March 2014.) I am far more inclined to credit this than Putin's creepy neo-Stalinist rants.

On 2 May 1998, New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman, to my astonishment, did something sensible: for an op-ed piece he interviewed George F. Kennan, who was 94 at the time, on the expansion of NATO. I suppose it would be wrong to reproduce all of Kennan's remarks, but I will quote some bits:

I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. … We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. … It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are -- but this is just wrong.
As was often the case, it seems that Kennan was right.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Why Hiring Prejudice Against the Long-term Unemployed?

Paul Krugman links to a study on long-term unemployment which finds: “it’s really hard to get employers to look at people who have been out of work for an extended period, so any sustained increase in long-term unemployment tends to become permanent.”

Which is interesting and important. But rather than look at the macroeconomic issues raised, I'd like to ask: why this is employer policy? It isn't random: hiring managers, HR managers, or both are choosing not to hire people who have been out of work for a long time. Why?

Global Environmental Disaster: It's Not Just Climate Change

This is the panic post.

Most greatly I fear environmental and biological catastrophe, not just climate change, but also the collapse of crop yields due to disease, the collapse of animal husbandry due to diseases we cannot manage, the collapse of fisheries, the obsolescence of all current antibiotics due to overuse and the emergence of new plagues.

When overpopulation is described in most older Western fiction, the vast growth of cities is the subject. To Robert Heinlein, all the towers of Manhattan were slums, regardless of how happy the residents were. (It's in Tramp Royale, if you want to read the man's own words on the subject.) But long before we feel the crowding, our vast population and use of resources will drive systemic disaster. Randall Munroe recently reminded us that our livestock outweigh us, and that all wild mammals are a tiny fraction of mammalian biomass. If human civilization collapses, from where will come the resources of a wild ecosystem, to rebuild the earth? If the salt shall lose its savor, from where will you resalt it?

And then there is nuclear power. Many scientists, most notably planetologist Jim Hansen, regard nuclear power as a solution to our current energy woes. But I do not believe we are competent to make effective use of it. As with overpopulation the dangers are different than those of the scare stories. It is true that most of the scare stories about nuclear power are wrong: power reactors cannot turn into nuclear bombs, waste can be disposed of if we are willing to undertake the effort and reactors can be designed that will produce fast-decaying radioisotopes that will become harmless in centuries rather than millenia. Yet the land around Chernobyl is so poisoned that even decay takes place more slowly. If we use nuclear power carelessly, over time, it will poison more and more of the earth and, as with fossil fuels, the temptation to misuse nuclear power will always be present. Better, I think, to start now, to reduce our population and develop sustainable non-nuclear energy technology. We would have done best to start decades ago, when the risks became apparent. By the time Al Gore published Earth in the Balance in 1992, it was old news: Gore was summarizing existing results. But we are stuck, and not acting. In some ways we are even making matters worse.

I look for hope from unexpected quarters. When Heinlein wrote Tramp Royale in 1954, he believed that population would continue to grow vastly, and this would lead to resource wars. Instead, contraception became widely accepted, which Heinlein couldn't imagine was possible, and the Green Revolution increased agricultural outputs sufficiently to prevent both these things. We are still not in a good way, but neither have we had global disaster. We may hope for more unexpected good news. Nonetheless we have much hard work before us, if our world and our civilization are to survive.

Books and articles

  1. Gore, Albert. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
  2. Heinlein, Robert A., Tramp Royale. Baen Books, 1996, ebook. (Original completion date 1954. If you're tempted to read this, be warned that that the book and Heinlein's prejudices have aged badly.)
  3. Munroe, Randall, "xkcd 1338: Land Mammals," self-published web comic.
  4. Nuwer, R., Forests Around Chernobyl Aren’t Decaying Properly. Smithsonian Magazine, March 2014.

Babes in the Multipolar Woods

Listening to US officials activists on Russia's conduct around the Black Sea is an exercise in depression. We have, on the one hand, the hawks, who want yet another open-ended intervention, on another the Putinists (who, astonishing to me, include several leftist sites and bloggers who really ought to know better), on yet a third the Ukrainianists, and on a fourth the European Union apologists.

What all of these have in common is a near-total disconnection from reality. These authors are flailing. What possible military response can the USA make? How can the EU respond without Russia freezing its own citizens? How can any military action be undertaken in Ukraine without jeopardizing the east-to-west flow of gas and oil?

As I foresaw, we are now again in a multipolar world, with regional superpowers and small states squeezed between them. No-one now alive has lived It has been 75 years since we lived in such a world. All the old wrong answers are being dragged out again. To not engage is to turn vast parts of the world over to tyranny. To engage as though each conflict has no wider implications is to be outmaneuvered. And there is something new, which the old multipolar world did not have: the threat of global environmental destruction. I fear a rebirth of Kissengerism, where lives by the hundreds of thousands and populations in the millions are spent for political purposes. I remember that the old multipolar world ended in global war and I hope that this one does not end in rising seas and mass starvation.

On 538 and Vox

538 (Nate Silver, editor-in-chief) and Vox (Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief) are turning out to be disappointments, with Silver hiring climate denialist Roger Pielke and Klein hiring Cato Institute crank technology policy commentator Ted B. Lee (no relation to Tim Berners-Lee.) Alas, I don't think these are going to fail, for the same reason that Fox News is not going to fail: these are funded propaganda operations, not honest news or commentary operations. Silver and Klein seem to be getting financial support because they’re thought safe centrists by the people who make the financial decisions. There’s plenty of that already in the media. So why should I care what these sites have to say?

"Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."

Both Silver and Klein have excellent analysis skills. If they do this for a while they're going to turn themselves into hacks. And that would be a shame.

If someone was willing to do a reality-based site, do journalism, I’d subscribe in a heartbeat.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MH370: Looking At The Possibilities

  1. Well-planned theft. Objection: there seems no way the craft could have been landed undetected. How could that have been the plan?
  2. Attack.
  3. Mechanical failure. Objection: it was awfully well timed.
  4. Pilot suicide. Objection: There seems no motive and no sense in the method. If suicide was the intention, surely the pilot could simply have crashed the plane in the Gulf of Thailand?
Only attack has no obvious objections. In this scenario, some sort of sabotage, perhaps a bomb placed to disable the ACARS system and depressurize the flight deck, leaving the craft to run out of fuel and crash. The attack was executed at just the right moment for the plane to be lost.

I suppose it could have been accident, but this is unlikely. Avionics do not usually fail in a way that also disables flight deck crews. The timing — just the right moment for the craft to be lost — is also unlikely. Still, unlikely things do somethings happen. (Since I wrote this article, but before I published it, Chris Goodfellow has proposed electrical fire as a possible accidental failure mode. I can see that as a possibility, but the timing is awfully suspicious.)

Why…? Now we go into cloud-cuckoo land. Provoking an international media event, raising anger and drawing attention to something — but what? —, seems the most likely motivation. Cui bono?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

In Which the Malaysia Air Theft Gets Real—Maybe

[Except that some of the pieces here have come apart, and the case for theft is weaker, though it is still strong. But it could also be that the plane flew unpiloted for hours before crashing. See CNN report.]

It has now been a week since Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared. A miserable thing, but most of us assumed the plane would be found, and we could mourn the passengers and crew or, better, rejoice that they had survived. The conspiracy theorists theorized and the rest of us mocked, and the media had a field day.

Reading the news of the past day has been like a bath in ice-cold water. Why? What? This was so well planned. It was not Larry Hussein, Moe Begin, and Curly O'Dare--this was the real deal, a well-planned theft demanding a high level of technical skill, perhaps executed with help from a national intelligence agency. Was the plane stolen so that it could be used as a covert transport in parts of the world where it could be concealed? As a provocation? Are the passengers going to surface as hostages or are they all dead?

To which Frederick Leatherman comments, and says it better than me:

The person who hijacked MH 370 had figured out how to exploit radar vulnerabilities. We do not know why, but there is no question that whomever pulled off this sky jacking is a brilliant, fearless and ruthless person who knew how to fly a 777-200 ER, disable communication equipment and weave his way through radar defenses. I do not believe that person went to all of this trouble just to commit suicide in the Indian Ocean.

Friday, March 14, 2014

In Which The Raven Changes His Feathers

It's been pointed out to me that the white-on-black color scheme I have been using for this blog makes it harder for older people to read. So, I have changed it. If there are still legibility problems, please let me know!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ukraine: Short Talking Points

This is a short summary of what I believe to be Russia's motivations, with a bit of analysis and commentary. For an extended discussion, see my post Ukraine: The Great Game, v2.0.

Russian motivations

  1. It's about natural gas: Russia sells and Europe buys. The Soviet natural gas industry began in Ukraine, and it is still a hub of the trade. Russia wants to control that hub and Europe would like to deny them that control.
  2. It's also about Russia's centuries-old desire to become a naval power in the Mediterranean.
  3. And, finally, it's about influence in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Central Asia: with Crimea in Russian hands and Syria and Iran Russian allies, Turkey is surrounded.

On the geopolitics

We seem to have returned to a 19th century multipolar world. That period ended in global war and we must work to avoid a similar outcome.

Ethnic conflict and morality in Ukraine

Ukrainians do not deserve to be ground between Russia and the EU. The Tatars in Crimea do not deserve further punishment for the crime of being in the way of Russian ambitions. A just settlement of conflicts in the region would forbid both these things.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Looking at the US health care system, and income levels

Here's a summary I put together.

Looking it over, I am struck by how much effort has been spent on preserving the inequities and corruption in the system. The working poor are hit exceptionally hard, both by the refusal to expand Medicaid in 25 states and by the transition from Medicaid to subsidized insurance. People over 50 who are relatively well off are also pressed by the too-low cutoff of subsidies. In both cases, there are levels of income where small increases in income put a family in a worse situation.

Medicare part A (the free part) covers hospitalization but not ambulances in emergencies. Medicaid puts most of its clients into managed care systems, which take a cut of the expenses and are often corrupt on top of that.

And I don't have a conclusion yet, but wow are we cheap-ass, here in the USA. And yet we spend more government money on health care than any other developed country. WtF?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ukraine: retracted

Original title: "Ukraine: In Which Obama Proves Yet Again He Is a Poor Negotiator"

"Obama spoke to [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel tonight about the situation in Ukraine and the possibility of Germany acting as a mediator."

Oh, very good. Try to get the other empire which invaded Ukraine (twice) to broker a deal.

"Can't anybody here play this game?"

But I cannot confirm the statement from the Telegraph, which I was reacting to. Other reports suggest that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is being proposed as broker, which makes a fair bit of sense.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Ukraine: The Great Game, v2.0

(My recent thoughts, organized and extended.)

The Game

The original Great Game was the conflict between the British and Russian empires, played out in the territories of Central Asia. The new Great Game seems to be between the European Union and Russia, with the rest of the world's great powers looking on: the USA, China, India. Fossil fuels are central.

I spent an hour online last night, discussing the geopolitics with a German-American, who is all for US intervention. She has a point: we don't want Russian imperialism—and it probably is that—to go unchecked. Juan Cole points out that Turkey is surrounded by Ukraine, Syria, and Iran. After reading that, and thinking some more about it, I spent time looking at the Google Earth globe and imagining a giant Go board, stretching from the Ukraine to Indonesia.

We seem to be back in the multipolar world, where great powers dream of empire and radicals dream of global federalism. I don't think we get to withdraw from the game without dire consequences. And climate change is the game timer.

Tug of Pipeline

Visualize a vast tug-of-war, with a whole crowd of creatures on the west and a bear on the east. Instead of rope, imagine natural gas pipelines, and most of those knotted together in the Ukraine.

Ukraine was the origin of the Soviet national gas industry in the 1920s. Ukraine's fossil fuel economy has grown hugely since then, and Ukraine into a nexus of pipelines and a home to refineries and gas storage facilities. The pipelines cross the country, carrying fuel from east to west.

Map of natural gas pipelines running through Ukraine
From Ukraine vs Russia: Tales of pipelines and dependence

Russia, because of this and because of its port on the Black Sea and its agricultural productivity, not unnaturally wants to control Ukraine. The European Union, fearing dependence on Russian gas supplies, not unnaturally wants to control Ukraine. There are some fine points, which Jerome a Paris (presumably a pseudonym) spells out in Ukraine vs Russia: Tales of pipelines and dependence.

Russia has twice forced genocidal famines on Ukraine, first in 1921-2 under Lenin and again in 1932-3 under Stalin. The Ukrainian people, because of this, and because of a longer history of oppression, hate Russia. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych apparently sold out to Russia, and partly because of this Yanukovych is now a hunted man.

And, where does Russia fit in? It appears that stories of emergent fascism in Ukraine are Russian disinformation (in this connection, it is perhaps useful to remember that Vladimir Putin was for many years a KGB officer.) There is a fascist faction in Ukraine but, so far, it is not in charge. When asking about fascism, however, I ask where it is that the government has chosen a group to oppress, and put the full power of the state behind that oppression. And that is Russia, with its tormenting of gays.


And yet the geopolitics will not be denied. Europe wants gas. Russia has gas. Ukraine is in the middle. It seems to me that we are returning to the global order of the 19ᵗʰ century. The world is again multipolar, and we must again think both of the local struggles and how these influence the relations among the great powers, and states caught between the great powers must step carefully. Where now are the great statesmen? Who will step forward to play the great game again? How do we avoid the end of the first great game, which was global war, and the drowning of our civilization in the rising seas of a warming planet?

The Great Game, v2.0

(This post has been corrected and combined with two other posts, to create the more complete Ukraine: The Great Game, v2.0. I am leaving it here so that links and references stand.)

I spent an hour online last night, discussing the geopolitics with a German-American, who is all for US intervention. She has a point: we don't want Russian imperialism—and it probably is that—to go unchecked. Juan Cole points out that Turkey is surrounded by Ukraine, Syria, and Iran. After reading that, and thinking some more about it, I spent time looking at the Google Earth globe and imagining a giant Go board, stretching from the Ukraine to Indonesia.

I think we are back in the multipolar world, where great powers dream of empire and radicals dream of global federalism. I don't think we get to withdraw from the game without dire consequences. And climate change is the game timer.