Saturday Soother – February 26, 2022

The Daily Escape:

Sedona, AZ dusted in snow- February 2022 photo by Valentina Tree

Late on Friday, the US, Britain and EU said they will sanction Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. This is the third round of Biden’s sanctions, and blocks the Russian president from any economic activity within the American financial system. White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated the US would also implement a travel ban for Putin.

These sanctions effectively place Putin in the same category as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

As with other Russian sanctions, it isn’t clear how effective the Putin asset freeze will be. According to the Pandora Papers investigation, Putin appears to control assets in Europe, but the amounts are trivial compared to estimates of his wealth. The travel ban is significant. It says that the West considers Putin to be an international pariah. Earlier, Biden also announced a second round of sanctions against Russia.

The challenge facing Biden is how to avoid either starting or losing, a World War. He’s done a decent job rallying other nations towards a common viewpoint about Putin’s War. Putin believed he could at least neutralize certain allies within both NATO and Europe, along with some politicians and the public in a few EU countries.

But thus far, Biden’s had success at undercutting Russia’s efforts. He has been able to achieve broad unity by making it clear that Russia is an unprovoked aggressor. Yet Kyiv may soon fall to the Russian invaders. Addressing his nation, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Russians are coming after him specifically:

“The enemy has marked me as enemy number one.”

He told EU leaders on a Thursday night zoom call that “this might be the last time you see me alive“.

We can’t ignore what’s happening, but the US won’t risk all-out war over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We hope to avoid these choices by imposing sanctions that might turn the Russian people against Putin, by depriving Russia of cash and other resources. The sanctions are impressively multilateral.

However, the new sanctions have some loopholes. Adam Tooze reports that the sanctions specifically exclude energy: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Energy is the really critical issue in the sanctions saga for both sides. It is what will hurt Russia most. It is also what is most critical for Europe. And, on energy… Biden…made this aside:

‘You know, in our sanctions package, we specifically designed to allow energy payments to continue.’”

Really Joe? The sanctions say that as long as your energy-related transactions are channeled through non-sanctioned, non-US financial institutions, for instance a European bank, buying gas from Russia is peachy. So, all of the payments for Russian gas will be paid free of problems for as long as sanctions are in place.

The political pressure for an energy carve-out comes from Germany. Bloomberg reported earlier:

“The German government has pushed for an exemption for the energy sector if there is a move to block Russian banks from clearing US dollar transactions….other major western European nations hold similar views.”

It gets worse. The carve-out isn’t limited to energy, it also applies to Russia’s agricultural commodity exports. So long as those transactions run through non-US, non-sanctioned banks, the US sanctions will not apply.

This shows how dependent our European partners are on Russia for gas and agriculture. It also shows how hollow the sanctions are, and how they will not be the “punishing” sanctions Biden promised.

It’s useful to remember that Germany’s use of Russian gas has been a completely tenable and a mutually beneficial relationship for 40+ years.

Finally, Biden didn’t announce excluding Russia from the SWIFT global financial payments system because Italy, Germany, and Cyprus weren’t willing to do it. Part of this has to do with buying Russian gas. It also has to do with how dependent their economies are on exports to Russia. Although, as Biden noted, full blocking of Russian financial institutions should achieve the same, or even greater, effect as a SWIFT ban.

Except for that gas and agriculture thingy, so not the same at all.

The question is whether the EU and NATO are truly willing to bear the costs of inflicting pain on Russia in order to end the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As of today, it seems that they are not.

Time to take a break from geopolitics and whether Lindsay Graham will support Biden’s new Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. It’s time for our Saturday Soother, where we turn away from the news and focus on trying to calm the f down.

Today is a typical winter day in Connecticut. It’s chilly and there’s snow on the ground, but far less than predicted.

Since Putin is acting like the Honey Badger, let’s start by upping your honey badger game by brewing a mug of Honey Badger Espresso from Intelligentsia Coffee. They’re a Chicago-based chain with locations in Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Boston, and NYC. Leave the intelligentsia and take the honey badger.

Now grab a seat by a window and listen to Handel’s “Ombra mai fu”, known as Handel’s Largo of Love, it’s the opening aria in the 1738 opera Xerxes. Here it is performed in 2017 by  Czechoslovakia’s Janacek Chamber Orchestra with soloist soprano Patricia Janečková:

Beautiful voice!

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Putin’s War

The Daily Escape:

Rio Grande, near Taos, NM – February 2022 photo by Augustine Morgan

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography”Mark Twain

Yesterday we woke up to a new world order created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Details are still sketchy, but it seems that Russia attacked from the north, east and south. Cruise missiles hit targets even in western Ukraine. The NYT provided this early map of reported Russian attacks:

The shaded areas on the right are Donetsk and Luhansk, the Ukrainian provinces that Russia recognized a few days ago as independent republics. The smaller area inside is the area currently controlled by the Russian separatists.

This news and Putin’s kabuki play leading up to the invasion obscures the fact that we’re now seeing the revival of war as an instrument of statecraft. History shows that wars of conquest used to be common. In the 19th century, that’s what strong states did to their weak neighbors. Since the mid-20th century, wars of conquest are the exception not the rule. Russia has now brought wars of conquest back on the geopolitical stage.

Putin’s attack has the goal of regime change, plus the annexation of the breakaway provinces. While NATO and the US seem to have no real countermeasures, other than sanctions. That demonstrates another of Russia’s goals: exposing NATO’s impotence.

NATO’s late-stage impotence has many causes.

The collective defense provisions of Article 5 of the NATO Charter has held the alliance together. It provides that if a NATO ally is attacked, all members of the Alliance will consider it an armed attack against them and take action to assist the attacked ally.

For much of the Cold War, (including when Wrongo served in Europe) NATO had a standing army prepared to deter an attack by the Soviets and/or its Warsaw Pact allies. NATO also maintained significant air and naval forces to confront Soviet aggression. NATO’s forces were anchored by a massive US military presence in Europe, including hundreds of thousands of troops, tens of thousands of armored vehicles, thousands of combat aircraft, and hundreds of naval vessels.

All of this gave Article 5 teeth.

When the Cold War ended in 1990-91, this combat-ready military force was gradually dismantled. Now, if there were to be a conventional fight in Europe, the Russian military is much stronger. It would defeat any force NATO could assemble.

Today the ability to deter a potential adversary from considering military action against a NATO member is no longer a certainty. That means the notion of NATO providing European collective self-defense is questionable.

In the past, NATO planned on countering the Soviet Union’s weapons and manpower superiority with tactical nuclear weapons. But The Heritage Foundation says that we can’t do that because there’s an imbalance in our nuclear arsenals:

“While the US and Russia have a similar number of deployed strategic (i.e., high-yield) nuclear weapons as limited under New START, Russia has a 10:1 advantage over us in nonstrategic (i.e., low-yield) nuclear weapons—aka tactical or battlefield nukes.”

They report that Russia has about 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear weapons, while the US has about 200. Half of them are in the US and half are with NATO, so we have about 100 tactical nukes on the ground in Europe. You might say no one is ever going to use nukes in Europe, but on Wednesday Putin warned: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Anyone who tries to interfere with us, or even more so, to create threats for our country and our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.”

Putin’s threat could mean anything from cyber-attacks to nuclear war. But Global Security Review reports that the current edition of Russian military doctrine says that Russia:

“…reserves the right to use nuclear weapons to respond to all weapons of mass destruction attacks…on Russia and its allies.”

That significantly lowers the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. The idea is Russia might employ tactical nuclear weapons during a conventional conflict with NATO forces to prevent a defeat, to consolidate gains, or to freeze a conflict in place without further fighting. The last two could happen in Ukraine.

Given that the disparity between Russian and European tactical nuclear weapons is so large, Moscow probably thinks any potential NATO nuclear response to their threat of using nukes isn’t credible.

This means NATO today can no longer stave off a Russian threat in Europe without using strategic nuclear weapons, a major escalation. That would be a very unlikely scenario if Russia is taking small bites of Western territory, as in Ukraine:

(hat tip, Monty B.)

Since World War II, the US has reserved the right to the “first use” of nuclear weapons should the need arise. But in January, several Democrats urged Biden to promulgate a “no-first-use” policy for US nuclear weapons. Eleven Senators and 44 House members signed a letter urging Biden to accept the policy. Imagine the consequences if a policy of no-first-use was in place, given what’s happening in Ukraine. Or what might happen if the fight was with a NATO member.

We’re now in a place where the West either accepts Russia’s new European order, or we gear up to make them recalculate Putin’s strategy.

If we choose to oppose the new Russian order, the US and Europe will incur costs. It will hurt our economies, since while sanctions will hurt the Russians, we’re hoping they will not hurt us as much, or more. Russian cyber-attacks may seriously hurt our infrastructure. The West will be forced to provide large levels of military and humanitarian support to a damaged and smaller Ukraine, possibly for years.

We will see increased defense spending. Our military will once again be deployed to Europe where they will serve as a tripwire against Russian aggression like they did in the Cold War.

This will require a unified NATO to work together for many years. Is that a realistic plan, given that different US presidents, like Trump, may not support the goals of this new NATO?

We’re in a different world now. This war will almost certainly be transformative for Europe and the world. The full effects of Russia’s attack on Ukraine will play out not just for years, but for decades.

Let’s close with the Beatles “Back in the USSR”:

Lyrics:

Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out,
They leave the West behind
And Moscow girls make me sing and shout
That Georgia’s always on my mind

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Biden Must Take the Gloves Off

The Daily Escape:

Delicate Arch, Arches NP – 2022 photo by Nannette White

(The hosting service for the Wrongologist continues to have intermittent problems with the RSS feed that sends subscribers an email version of the column in the morning. Please go to the website to see earlier columns.)

The tense standoff between Ukraine and Russia took an ominous turn towards war when, as Wrongo forecasted on Feb 14, Putin recognized the independence of the two breakaway eastern Ukraine provinces:

“Wrongo has no crystal ball but thinks that Russia will formally recognize Ukraine’s disputed Eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states….But Ukraine doesn’t recognize these provinces as independent….Ukraine could be lured into trying to regain control of both provinces. At that point Russia would help defend them against Ukraine, most likely assuring that they would remain independent, although still technically part of Ukraine.”

Putin also said that he was ordering “peace-keepers” into both provinces. That effectively blunts most military responses that Ukraine might attempt.

One way to look at the situation is that Putin didn’t “invade” Ukraine. Instead, using this pretext, Russia is prepared to fight on behalf of two independent Republics who asked for Putin’s help. By recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk, Putin is following the model of how Western nations handled the 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia into three separate republics, ending communist rule in the nation.

This is a watershed moment for European security. Russia has dared Ukraine and the West to attack the breakaway provinces in the face of Russia defending them. The absolutely central question is: What aid and comfort are NATO and the US going to give Ukraine?

Biden has announced what he called the “first tranche” of sanctions on Russia, targeting two Russian banks, VEB and Russia’s military bank, along with the country’s sovereign debt. That means Russia can no longer raise money from the West and will not be able to trade its debt in US or European markets.

Biden also said sanctions on Russian elites and their families members would be rolled out starting tomorrow.

Wrongo doubts that Russia will move significant numbers of its forces into the two “independent” regions unless Ukraine attempts to re-occupy them. If Ukraine does that, it’s likely that a general war between Ukraine and Russia will begin.

Americans (specifically Republican chicken hawks) should remember that eastern Ukraine is very remote in logistical terms. Even if the US wanted to help defend Ukraine’s east, the logistics of movement and supply would be absurdly difficult.

We should immediately implement our strongest sanctions. Biden shouldn’t meet with Putin, although Blinken and Lavrov should meet. Diplomacy should determine if recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk is what Putin will settle for. If so, the task is to see if Ukraine would be fine with that. If both agree, so should the West and the US.

One thing NATO could do is close the Bosphorus, the narrow straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. NATO member Turkey controls access to the Bosphorus under a 1936 treaty called the Montreux Convention. In wartime, Turkey is authorized to close the straits to all foreign warships. It can also refuse transit for merchant ships from countries at war.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently has emphasized his support for Ukraine. Erdogan has said Turkey will do what is necessary as a NATO ally if Russia invades, without elaborating. But Turkey is also reliant on Russia for energy and tourism. It has forged close cooperation with Moscow on energy and defense, even deploying Russia’s S-400 missile air defense system.

Imagine the pressure on Putin if Russia couldn’t send warships or merchant ships through the Bosphorus so long as the Ukraine crisis is hot.

In effect, Ukraine lost its Eastern territories along with Crimea, eight years ago. If Russian forces now start patrolling the line of contact with the new “Republics”, that will probably end the shooting. People on both sides of the border could then get back to a more normal life.

It would still leave an unstable Eastern Front for NATO and an unstable Western Front for Russia. That is something diplomacy could work on solving. Russia would have to deal with a Western-facing Ukraine integrating even more deeply into the EU. NATO would remain in Eastern Europe from the Baltics to the Balkans. NATO would then have a true mission, rather than floundering around without purpose.

Putin won’t be totally happy with this. But right now, he isn’t getting his demands met, even though he has more than half of his army on the Ukrainian border.

Let’s close with a tune. Here’s 1974’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” from Bachman Turner Overdrive, because in Ukraine, you ain’t seen nothing yet:

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Boeing Documentary Shows Corporate Malfeasance

The Daily Escape:

Mount Liberty, White Mountains, NH – February 2022 photo by AG Evans Photography

Over the weekend, Wrongo and Ms. Right watched the Netflix Boeing documentary: “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing”. You can watch the trailer here. It exposes how Boeing’s management, Wall Street’s influence and the cratering of Boeing’s culture of quality control, resulted in two plane crashes of the 737 MAX, just months after being placed in service.

That two new planes would go down within five months of each other was beyond a chance event in 21st Century airplane manufacturing. Boeing initially blamed the pilots based in Indonesia and Ethiopia for being poorly trained. But it turns out that Boeing knew all along that the 737 MAX had a critical software problem that caused the plane to go into an irreversible nosedive.

The film makes it clear that pilots had just 10 seconds to reverse those faulty software commands before it was too late. It shows that Boeing told the FAA and the airlines that purchased the MAX that no new pilot training was required to fly the new plane, even though pilots knew nothing about the software or the glitch.

Boeing was lying about training to keep the costs of the new aircraft competitive with Airbus. It was a lie that Boeing took months to correct. It also took months for Boeing to admit that they were flying an unsafe plane.

Why did this (and even worse things) occur while Boeing was attempting to bamboozle the Feds, the airlines, crash victims and their families? Money. The film features Michael Stumo, father of Ethiopian Airlines crash victim 24-year-old Samya Stumo. While not mentioned in the film, Ralph Nader is Samya’s uncle. At the time, he published an open letter to Dennis A. Muilenburg, then-CEO of Boeing. Here’s a part of his letter: (brackets by Wrongo)

“Your narrow-body passenger aircraft – namely, the long series of 737’s that began in the nineteen sixties was past its prime. How long could Boeing avoid making the investment needed to produce a “clean-sheet” [new design] aircraft and, instead, in the words of Bloomberg Businessweek “push an aging design beyond its limits?” Answer: As long as Boeing could get away with it and keep necessary pilot training and other costs low…as a sales incentive.”

Nader draws a connection between Boeing’s decision to “push an aging design” and their financial engineering:

“Did you use the $30 billion surplus from 2009 to 2017 to reinvest in R&D, in new narrow-body passenger aircraft? Or did you, instead, essentially burn this surplus with self-serving stock buybacks of $30 billion in that period?”

Nader notes that Boeing was one of the companies that MarketWatch labelled as “Five companies that spent lavishly on stock buybacks while pension funding lagged.” More:

“Incredibly, your buybacks of $9.24 billion in 2017 comprised 109% of annual earnings….in 2018, buybacks of $9 billion constituted 86% of annual earnings….in December 2018, you arranged for your rubberstamp Board of Directors to approve $20 billion more in buybacks.”

Nader shows that Boeing had the capital to invest in developing a new plane. They also had problems with the launch of the 787:

“In the summer of 2011, the 787 Dreamliner wasn’t yet done after billions invested and years of delays. More than 800 airplanes later…each 787 costs less to build than sell, but it’s still running a $23 billion production cost deficit.

The 737 MAX was the answer to Boeing’s prayer. It allowed them to continue their share buybacks while paying for the 787 cost overruns. Abandoning the 737 for a completely new plane would’ve meant walking away from a financial golden goose.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) who chaired the House Committee on transportation and infrastructure that investigated Boeing, said:

“My committee’s investigation revealed numerous opportunities for Boeing to correct course during the development of the 737 Max but each time the company failed to do so, instead choosing to take a gamble with the safety of the flying public in hopes it wouldn’t catch up with them in the end…”

Wrongo remains baffled by how Boeing management was given a pass after this gross negligence. They paid the US government $2.5 billion to settle criminal charges that the company defrauded the FAA when it first won approval for the 737 MAX. The deal deferred any criminal charges by the DOJ to January 2024 and will dismiss the case then if there are no more misdeeds by the company.

Perhaps this is another example of a corporate mistake that’s simply too big to be punishable in the US. That means US corporations and their CEOs are immune to accountability. This should have put people into prison, but the CEO got off, and ultimately got a $62.2 million severance for his misdeeds, despite a lot of people dying on his watch.

To curry favor on Wall Street, Boeing reduced salaries. They cut costs deeply in quality assurance and safety programs to give the shareholders more money.

See the movie. Be outraged. Elect more people like Peter DeFazio.

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Monday Wake Up Call – February 21, 2022

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise, Head of the Meadow Beach, Truro, MA – February 2022 photo by Maia Gomory Germain

Today is Presidents Day. Originally we celebrated George Washington’s birthday on February 22, until it was moved to the third Monday in February in 1971. It later morphed into Presidents Day (with no apostrophe).

Each year, in honor of Washington, a US Senator reads Washington’s farewell address. The political Parties alternate in the reading. Last year, Republican Rob Portman of Ohio read the address. This year, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont has the honor. He’ll do the reading on Feb. 28.

This part of Washington’s farewell address remains relevant today: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction…turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”

Words to live by.

Here’s another view on the Ukraine crisis. Foreign Affairs has an article, “What if Russia Wins?” The assumption in the US media is that Putin has little to gain by invading. Wrongo has said as much. But the Foreign Affairs article says that if Putin succeeds, he stands to gain a lot by weakening NATO and also the US.

The authors remind us that in 2015, after Russia joined the Syrian civil war, then-President Obama said that Syria would become a “quagmire”, that Syria would be Russia’s Vietnam or Putin’s Afghanistan, a mistake that would cost Russia dearly.

Syria wasn’t a quagmire for Putin. Russia changed the course of the civil war. It then translated its military force into diplomatic leverage. Russia kept its costs and casualties sustainable, and today, it can’t be ignored in the Middle East.

Obama failed to anticipate the possibility that Russia’s intervention would succeed.

Once again, most analysts are warning of dire consequences for Russia if they invade. All of our cost-benefit analyses say that the price of full-scale war in Ukraine would be very high, including significant bloodshed. The thinking is that war and the escalation of western sanctions would undermine Putin’s support among the Russian elite, endanger Russia’s economy and alienate the Russian public.

At the same time, it could leave Russia fighting a Ukrainian resistance for years. According to this view, Russia would be trapped in a disaster of its own making.

So why would Russia invade now? From Foreign Affairs:

“Putin’s cost-benefit analysis seems to favor upending the European status quo. The Russian leadership is taking on more risks…Putin is on a historic mission to solidify Russia’s leverage in Ukraine (as he has recently in Belarus and Kazakhstan). And as Moscow sees it, a victory in Ukraine might well be within reach.”

Russia could just continue the current crisis without invading, but if Putin’s calculus is right, as it was in Syria, then the US and Europe need to think through that eventuality. Putin may conclude that political dissension in America gives him a decided advantage, along with an opportunity to remake the map in Eastern Europe, where Ukraine is second only to Russia in size.

If Russia gains control of Ukraine, Western Europe and the US enter a new geopolitical era. They’d face the challenge of rethinking European security while trying to avoid being drawn into a war with Russia. Overhanging that is the possibility of nuclear-armed adversaries in direct confrontation.

The two goals of a robust defense of Europe, but one that also avoids military escalation with Russia, aren’t fully compatible. The US could wake up to find ourselves unprepared for the task of having to create a new European security order after Russia controls Ukraine.

Invading Ukraine would also put enormous pressure on American democracy and national cohesion. Biden would go into the midterms with two extraordinarily difficult-to-justify foreign policy disasters — the Afghanistan withdrawal and Putin’s win in Ukraine.

Biden’s defenders would argue that both had complex causes and weren’t really solely Biden’s doing. But what the average American would see, even before the eventual Republican chicken hawk posturing, will be that America’s diminished effectiveness and power occurred on Biden’s watch. Biden will be blamed, and Putin might then help get his old buddy, the easily manipulated, NATO-hating Trump, back in power.

If Putin succeeds, the potential consequences in the US are great, and they would be a boon to Russia.

Time to wake up America! If/when the sanctions don’t work, we’re probably bringing back the Cold War under a new Republican administration. To help you wake up, watch Playing For Change’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive river flooding in US history.

Here, original band member John Paul Jones is accompanied by Stephen Perkins of Jane’s Addiction, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and 20 other musicians from seven different countries:

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – February 20, 2022

(The hosting service for the Wrongologist is having problems with the RSS feed that sends subscribers an email version of the column in the morning. Please go to the website to see earlier columns.)

 

Is there a better metaphor for today’s America than this?:

“A ship carrying cars from Germany to the United States caught fire in the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday, forcing the crew’s 22 members to abandon the vessel and leave it burning and adrift.”

So, there’s a 60,000-ton cargo ship adrift off the Azores yesterday with no crew. It’s carrying an estimated 4,000 cars, including 189 Bentleys and 1,100 Porsches. Tow boats from Gibraltar and the Netherlands are on their way to the site with three expected to be there by next Wednesday. The abandoned and burning vessel is operated by the Japanese shipping company Mitsui O.S.K. Lines.

Think about America as a ship adrift, in flames. One that its essential workers had to flee to survive. And it’s loaded with Porsches and Bentleys. On to cartoons.

Putin’s always thinking ahead:

Rumors of Russia’s pullback are deceiving:

Irrational discourse is America’s brand:

When a priest says “I baptize,” instead of “we baptize,” there’s no baptism:

Trump’s CPA walks away:

Sarah Palin vs. New York Times:

Sarah Palin sued The New York Times for defamation but failed to prove her case. In 1964, the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan, said that public figures (like Palin), have to prove a defamatory statement was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

From Clay Jones who drew the cartoon above:

“It’s weird how Republicans claim they love the United States Constitution, refer to themselves as ‘constitutionalists’, yet hate press freedom and do everything in their power to destroy it. The Supreme Court has affirmed the right to a free press time and time again, yet Republicans like Donald Trump have argued to limit press freedom, if not outright destroy it.”

Press freedom doesn’t belong to liberals or conservatives, it belongs to everyone. Free speech is a Constitutional right and if you try to kill it because someone said something about you that you didn’t like, you’re not just killing free speech for your enemies, you’re killing it for yourself.

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Saturday Soother – February 19, 2022

The Daily Escape:

South Dakota Badlands- September 2021 photo by Mark Campbell

Wrongo had to take time off after cataract surgery, and unable to read (or type on the pc), he spent some time watching the Beijing Winter Olympics. The achievements and failures of three women stand out.

First, 19 year-old Eileen Gu, the San Francisco-born free skiing phenom who competes for China, won three medals, two of which were gold. She has been the subject of fascination in Beijing because she is able to cross the competing cultures of the US and China. That also brought questions about whether she has dual citizenship. But she withstood the glare, and won three medals and adoration from China’s state-run media.

Second, Mikaela Shiffrin, the American skier who was favored to win gold in Beijing and failed to medal. On Thursday, she crashed in the Alpine combined, ending her last chance for an individual medal at these Games. In downhill training before the Alpine combined, Shiffrin had the fastest run of the 14 skiers who started, but she couldn’t maintain it during the actual event. Shiffrin already has three Olympic medals, plus she has six world championships to her credit.

Finally, Russian skater Kamila Valiera had the most controversial Olympics of any athlete. She started with placing first in a fantastic short program. Later, we heard about her positive doping test. Then, the Olympic Committee allowed her to skate anyway, while saying there would be no medal ceremony if she won. Finally, she failed to medal in an event where she was heavily favored.

Her story tells us how terrible the Olympics have become. Remember when you were 15? Remember all of the angst that came with being that age? Now try to imagine dealing with it in front of the press. Imagine millions of people watching what are likely your most painful moments.

The moment that the Olympic Committee learned Valiera tested positive for a banned substance, she should have been disqualified from the competition. It wasn’t fair to her competitors, and the increased spotlight wasn’t fair to her.

Her long program and the aftermath was brutal to watch. She looked like a broken person. And the worst thing about this was that the Russian coaches who were in charge of her well-being failed her spectacularly.

There’s plenty of blame to go around: The Russian Olympic Committee for its systemic, state-sponsored doping of Olympic athletes. The Court of Arbitration for Sport that allowed her to skate after the International Olympic Committee wanted her disqualified. You can blame her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who instead of comforting a young woman in distress after her poor performance, berated her.

In an era where there’s a new emphasis on the mental health of athletes, no adult on the Russian Olympic Committee looked out for her. One thing is certain, this fifteen-year-old girl needed support and empathy. Both were in short supply in Beijing.

It’s another example of the abuse of young women in sports competition. Another question is when publicity plus crushing expectations makes people like Mikaela Shiffrin, Simone Biles or Kamila Valiera emotionally crater on the biggest stage, what should the public’s response be?

Society isn’t great at recognizing the humanity of women in elite sports, where one momentary slip can undo a lifetime of work. That’s assuming we define their work by what happens when people tune into the Olympics every four years.

We’re obsessed with the “busts” and those who “cheat” or “choke”. The sports world establishment has until very recently, not fully appreciated the strains that top female athletes face. It also has failed on many occasions to provide the support systems they need. That pressure is greater for Olympic athletes. The spotlight is brighter if you point towards a competition once every four years that defines your career.

Shame on you Russia!

That’s enough about what’s wrong for this week. It’s cold again in Connecticut, although it’s mostly what’s normal for February. It’s time once again for our Saturday Soother, where we forget about the impending death of mask mandates, or threats to Ukraine, or trying to understand why Kamala Harris is in Germany meeting with NATO.

First, let’s brew up a vente cup of Josh Josh coffee ($18.75/12 oz.) from Colorado Springs, CO’s Model Citizen Coffee Company. The roaster says it’s the perfect cup for a lazy Saturday morning.

Now grab a seat by a window and listen to organist Jonathan Scott perform his solo organ arrangement of the Radetzky March Op. 228 by Johann Strauss on the organ of The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK. It was first performed in August 1848:

Watch Scott use his left hand and right hand at the same time he’s using both of his feet. Doesn’t seem possible to this untrained person.

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Pundits are Crowing About Inflation

The Daily Escape:

Colorado River north of Moab, UT – February 2022 photo by Rich Briggs Photography

(New columns will be light and variable for the rest of the week. Wrongo’s having cataract surgery today)

Last week, the Labor Department published data that showed consumer prices rose 7.5% in January from a year earlier, the biggest increase in decades. This brought all of the economic know-nothings who have pundit positions in the media to say that Biden’s presidency is in grave danger.

David Axelrod, former senior adviser to Obama, has an op-ed in the NYT that suggests Biden needs to show humility in his upcoming state of the union speech on March 1:

“…recognize that we are still in the grips of a national trauma. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans believe we are on the wrong track, and people will have little patience for lavish claims of progress that defy their lived experiences.”

It’s true that Americans have been through hell in the past two years. It’s also true that they have been helped in their negative thinking by the media. Despite all the bad news on high inflation since August, Bloomberg reports that US consumers don’t expect sky-high inflation levels to last:

“…the January consumer survey from Federal Reserve Bank of New York…showed that the median one-year-ahead inflation expectations fell for the first time since October 2020, to 5.8%. The outlook over three years dropped even more sharply, and the decline was broad-based across age, education and income.”

Bloomberg says that in that recent Fed survey, the median three-year ahead inflation expectation decreases to 3.5%.

Politically, that could still be a potential crisis for Democrats. While there’s no question America is creating jobs at a record pace and GDP growth bounced back faster than anyone imagined possible, the public is quite grumpy about the state of the economy. Rising costs for groceries and gas are points of economic pain, and good economic news is always trumped by anger about high inflation.

Dan Pfeiffer says Democrats need to go on offense: (Brackets by Wrongo)

“Democrats should consider turning the entire conversation around inflation into an argument for populist economics….[they should] expose Republicans for siding with highly profitable corporations.”

Pfeiffer says that Democrats should focus on a message on inflation that in polling seems to work:

“President Biden says that we need to bring back manufacturing jobs in the United States to drive down prices. Our supply chains need to be housed here at home, rather than outsourced abroad.”

Pfeiffer adds that this is a big point of contrast with the message Republicans are using. The 2018 Trump Tax law rewarded companies that shipped jobs overseas. That fact can give Democrats an opportunity to punch back with an argument about how Republicans have made the problem worse.

A poll by Data for Progress showed that the Republicans have an eight-point advantage over Democrats on which Party can better control inflation. But Democrats have a nine-point advantage on “cracking down on corporate abuses and corruption.” Other polls show that most voters cite increased government spending as the leading cause of inflation. This is what Republicans are saying, but it isn’t completely correct.

We know that corporations are reaping record profits while prices are rising. CEOs are bragging about how they’re able to use inflation as a cover for their price hikes. These higher prices are adding to inflation, while shareholders are seeing record profits.

There’s a sense that Democrats won in 2018 because they ran on “kitchen table issues”, specifically, on health care, and some Dems want to go back to that. It’s partially true. But 2018 was also a referendum on Trump, and Democrats turned out in large numbers to vote against him and his fellow traveler Republicans.

In November, some Republicans will run away from Trump. But for most of them, he can be made to be an anchor on their coattails.

As Axelrod says, the country is still traumatized by the pandemic and the economic challenges that came with it. But it’s also traumatized by what Trump did, and what the Republicans are doing now to our democracy. If the Dems fail to address both they will look completely out of touch to most voters who aren’t huge partisans.

Both Biden’s State of the Union address, and the Party’s mid-term messaging needs to also focus on the state of our democracy because it’s in danger. Americans are struggling and many, many are angry, so Biden needs to accept responsibility for high prices. But he must also spell out specifically where Republicans bear responsibility for obstruction.

If Democrats tell themselves that inflation is the only important issue, and ignore the Republican threat to democracy, they will lose.

The messaging choices Democrats make right now will determine the country’s future.

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Monday Wake Up Call – February 14, 2022

The Daily Escape:

Red barn, white snow, in Spatford, NY – 2022 photo by Michael Erb

In last night’s Superb Owl, the LA Rams won. Your guacamole was probably better than the commercials.

Today is Valentine’s Day, a marketing triumph for the greeting card industry. There are no other triumphs to celebrate this morning, so let’s talk about a less than triumphal situation: Is something big about to happen in Ukraine?

Biden says America won’t fight for Ukraine; that would lead to “a world war.” Putin reads that as saying he’s got a free hand there assuming that he’s willing to take on whatever pain the West’s sanctions bring. Assuming Russia has economic support from China, Russia will probably be able to cope with the strain of new sanctions.

Wrongo has no crystal ball but thinks that Russia will formally recognize Ukraine’s disputed Eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. Today, Russia acts as if they are a part of the Russian Federation. The people living in these ethnically Russian provinces already speak Russian and carry Russian passports.

But Ukraine doesn’t recognize these provinces as independent. That has been a stumbling block in the current negotiations between France, Germany Russia, and Ukraine around what were formerly known as the Minsk accords, agreed in 2015, but never implemented.

Ukraine could be lured into trying to regain control of both provinces. At that point Russia would help defend them against Ukraine, most likely assuring that they would remain independent, although still technically part of Ukraine. That would be a huge win for Putin since its long been clear that NATO will not accept any new member that has a substantial Russian population.

That would achieve what Putin wants without the US having to put it in the form of a written guarantee.

Finally, it is hard to believe that Russia really wants to become responsible for the economic basket case called Ukraine. Here’s a comparison by Adam Tooze, of Ukraine’s GDP per capita compared to Russia, Poland, and Turkey:

From Tooze: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Ukraine’s performance between 1990 and 2017 was not just worse than its European neighbors. It was the fifth worst in the entire world. Between 1990 and 2017 there were…only 18 countries with negative cumulative growth and…Ukraine’s performance puts it in the bottom third…. amongst the four countries that delivered less growth for their citizens than Ukraine were the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Yemen.”

Why are things so terrible in Ukraine? It’s due to corruption, demographic decline, and lack of investment in most industry sectors.

Disputes are negotiated when each side can call it a “win”. It’s obvious that an invasion of Ukraine would not be a win for Putin, so what he’s doing now seems more like a negotiating tactic. If he declares these two breakaway provinces to be an independent part of Russia, look for Belarus to be next.

Since the US and NATO have put up such a big stink, Russia probably won’t try to overthrow the government in Kyiv. OTOH, Putin doesn’t want to be seen as losing in this standoff over Ukraine, so recognizing the disputed provinces is an available middle ground.

And the US has already tacitly agreed to this once before when Russia annexed Crimea.

A Morning Consult Poll — done on February 7th that sampled 2,005 registered US voters showed that if there was a complete Russian occupation of Ukraine, then 42% of Americans support sending in troops. That’s a plurality, but not a majority.

The Morning Consult found a different response in Europe. Respondents in France (31%), Germany (37%) and the UK (37%) support the primary sanction, closing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Interestingly, in Germany, another 37% also opposed closing the pipeline if Russia invades.

So viewpoints are more nuanced the closer you get to the front lines.

Time to wake up America! Ukraine isn’t core to US strategy in Europe or in NATO. Yes, Ukraine’s right of self-determination is at stake. But given the GDP rankings above, you could say it’s already a failed state. And what about US support in other low income countries looks like the ticket out of failed state status for Ukraine?

To help you wake up, listen to Billy Bragg perform “Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained” from his 2021 album “The Million Things That Never Happened”.

Sample Lyrics:

I’ve been down rabbit holes
I’ve seen the rabid trolls
Cackling in the twilight
Of the Age of Reason
One thing I’ve noticed
As I get older
Common sense like art
Is in the eye of the beholder

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – February 13, 2022

Have you given any thought to the inconsistency between how Whoopi Goldberg was treated for her comment about the holocaust, and how Joe Rogan has been treated for his um, body of work? Whoopi was condemned by the left and right. She was appropriately suspended from her position as a host of ABC’s The View. She later apologized for the hurtful inference in her remarks.

With Rogan, after the flap over his COVID misinformation, it came to light that dozens of his episodes were quietly removed from Spotify because they featured Rogan using the N-word. To date, Spotify has yanked more than 100 of his episodes. But Rogan wasn’t suspended or “cancelled” by Spotify. Still, he’s held up on the Right as another victim of leftist cancel culture.

The artists who left Spotify weren’t trying to “cancel” Rogan. They just wouldn’t continue being associated with a platform that promoted him. Both the artists and Spotify are making free-market business decisions that they have every right to make.

That’s an idea that you’d think would be vigorously supported by Conservatives.

The outcry on the Right about “cancel culture” comes at a time when they are working to outlaw Critical Race Theory, overturn elections, enact legislation to deny the vote to millions of Americans, and ban books. It’s clear who’s doing the cancelling in America.

Those who defend Rogan say he’s simply providing a forum. Sure, he interviews kooks and sleazes, but he also interviews some reasonable folks. So he’s presenting “both sides“. The other side of a fact is a lie. And if you put a lie on an equal footing with the truth, you give the lie credibility. This is a cardinal sin that the media have been committing for decades. On to cartoons.

The massive self-deception the Right Wing practices while copying Nazi tactics:

Trump’s monument on the Mall:

RNC censures two of its own, says many of its own are totally fine:

Mitch the turtle takes RNC to task for its censure, also says Trump is wrong:

Russia’s about to bite off more than it can chew:

The end of mask mandates is political signaling. We’ll soon know if this calculated risk works:

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