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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Monday Wake Up Call – October 22, 2018, Treaty Withdrawal Edition

The Daily Escape:

Autumn near Walpole, NH – October 2018 photo by knale

Happy Monday. Over the weekend, Trump announced that the US will be exiting the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which Reagan and Gorbachev signed in 1987. The INF banned all US and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The weapons ban resulted in the destruction of 2,692 missiles. Washington demolished 846, and Moscow 1,846.

From the NYT:

But the pact has also constrained the United States from deploying new weapons to respond to China’s efforts to cement a dominant position in the Western Pacific and to keep American naval forces at bay. Because China was not a signatory to the treaty, it has faced no limits on developing intermediate-range nuclear missiles, which can travel thousands of miles.

While the treaty was seen as effective, it’s hard to argue that the US is somehow obligated to remain in the INF treaty since we know that Russia has been pushing the edge of envelope for the last few years.

But, Russia’s behavior is just part of Trump’s calculation: His administration would like to develop a larger and more diverse portfolio of nuclear capabilities. It also has concerns about China, which isn’t subject to any arms control agreement, and they specifically rejected joining the INF.

As a result, Beijing has deployed a large number of intermediate and short-range conventional ballistic missiles, pointing them at US allies, including Taiwan.

Washington has focused on ballistic-missile defenses, but it seems that the Trump administration would prefer to respond with next-generation intermediate and short-range weapons. The US has done preliminary work on a new intermediate-range nuclear missile, and if deployed, it would also violate the INF.

It’s also far from clear where such new land-based weapons might be deployed. None of our European allies appear willing to accept them.

And there isn’t enthusiasm for US land-based missiles among our Asian allies. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam all are unlikely to host new US intermediate range missiles. That would leave Guam, which sits 2,400 miles from Beijing and 1,800 miles from Shanghai, not a decisive strategic counter-move.

The only argument for Guam is that those missiles would reach targets in China much faster than weapons sent via Guam-based bombers, but they would still be slower than sea-based cruise missiles.

Walking away from weapons treaties has had adverse diplomatic and strategic consequences in the past. When the GW Bush administration announced its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, the Kremlin responded by withdrawing from the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and its prohibition on land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads.

The Kremlin is now moving forward with deployments of new “heavy” land-based missiles that can carry ten or more warheads. Their purpose is to defeat US missile defenses. Likewise, the demise of the INF Treaty would only reinforce the current nuclear competition.

Is Trump doing a smart thing?

The INF Treaty was less about hobbling the US than it was about hobbling Russia. The treaty only covered land- and air-based systems. So the US and NATO held a strategic advantage with its navies.

The only advantage Russia had, and still maintains, is its large land mass that can hide huge numbers of mobile launchers. By withdrawing from the treaty, the US actually plays right into Moscow’s hands. Mobile launchers are notoriously difficult to track down. We can’t do it in North Korea, and we couldn’t do it in Iraq.

Trump thinks he’s playing hardball, but Wrongo thinks his business acumen has been sadly overplayed. Exiting the INF isn’t so good for the Americans. Republicans used to think that fewer international entanglements would allow the US to keep its defense budgets low.

The Trump-Bolton idea turns this on its head. In fact, when it comes to American military security, Trump’s idea relies on magical thinking. It’s not just that his plan isn’t good for national security, it’s also that the Trump administration aims to make the US a military powerhouse while cutting taxes.

Bolton’s aim seems to be to create the conditions that could lead to war, an extraordinarily dangerous game, considering the flakiness of his boss.

Wake up America! Here’s another reason why turning out to vote in November, and then voting to turn out as many of these Republican chicken hawks in DC as we can, is of ultimate importance.

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Monday Wake Up Call – October 15, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Early fall in Nuremberg, Germany – photo by voyageblonde

With so much anger about Brett Kavanaugh becoming a Supreme Court justice, it seems that Democrats care more about the Supreme Court than Republicans. As Sean McElwee has noted:

Democrats were more likely to approve of the court than Republicans by an average of a 14 point margin from 2010 to 2014. This gap increased…to a 32-point margin in 2016…even while the court decided cases like Trinity Lutheran, in which the court required the government to subsidize churches.

Democrats’ view of the Court was shaped by the Warren Court’s civil rights decisions (Brown vs. Board of Education), and Anthony Kennedy’s occasionally siding with Democrats on a few socially liberal issues.

The Dem’s higher approval of the court is striking, because it has been 49 years since the Supreme Court has had a liberal majority. From Marty Lederman:

On May 15, 1969, Justice Fortas resigned from the Supreme Court, thereby ending a seven-year period in which a 5-4 majority of the sitting Justices had been appointed by Democratic Presidents. I had just turned eight years old.  I’m now almost 58. And yet that day in May 1969 remains the last moment in time that a majority of the Court was appointed by Democrats.

In the 2016 presidential election, many Democrats said that the chance to appoint new Supreme Court justices was reason enough to vote for Hillary Clinton, but too few Democrats turned out in 2016, so control of the Court is safely in the hands of Donald Trump and the GOP for what could be another 50 years. More from Lederman:

In only seven of the past 108 years (1946-1953) has the Chief Justice of the United States been a Democrat who did not fight on behalf of the Confederacy.)

So, should we conclude that Democrats like the Court, but fail to see it as a priority at election time? There are a few other ideas to go along with that.

  • Democratic Presidents have served five terms since 1969, and have won a majority, or plurality of the popular vote in seven of the twelve elections in that period–including in six of the past seven elections.
  • Democrats have held a majority of the Senate in more than half of the 25 Congresses since Fortas’s resignation, including some with huge majorities. But the Court has remained in GOP control, and will for decades to come.
  • Consider that only Justice Thomas was appointed by a Republican President who entered office with a majority, or plurality of the popular vote.
  • In the 27-year span, which covers the entire tenure of all of the current Justices, a Republican President has won the popular vote in just one election, 2004.

It gets worse: The Senators who confirmed Gorsuch represented states in which only 47% of Americans lived. Back to Lederman:

Using estimated 2018 population figures—and not even counting the millions of Americans in the territories, including Puerto Rico—my rough calculation is that Kavanaugh was confirmed by the votes of Senators representing only 44% or so of the nation’s population…

So, our democracy, which specifies two Senators per state, makes approval of liberal justices an issue, since too few Senators represent liberal-leaning states.

But, liberals didn’t need to care about the Court’s direction for most of the second half of the 20th century. During that period, there were many victories in the Court that either enshrined liberal policy preferences directly, or made it possible for them to be legislated into existence.

There is a Japanese concept in military science called “Victory Disease” which occurs when complacency or arrogance, brought on by a victory, or a series of victories, makes an army underestimate the battle at hand. This is what infected Dems over the past 50+ years about the Supreme Court.

By the 1990s, liberals had largely stopped caring about the courts, except for the gay rights movement.

But, since the Rehnquist and the Roberts Court, it is now conservative policy preferences that are either being enshrined directly, (Shelby County, Hobby Lobby, and Citizens United) or are possible because of refusals to hear cases, such as Brakebill v. Jaeger, which disenfranchised Native Americans in North Dakota.

So it’s time for Democrats to Wake Up! And to have a laser focus on the Court.

When Hillary lost and Trump was inaugurated, many people were furious. Now isn’t the time to be furious, it’s time to be serious.

The mid-term election isn’t a game, and turnout is everything!

Otherwise, Dems won’t take back the House.

Then, they would be in danger of becoming a fringe party.

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Monday Wake Up Call – Russia Edition

The Daily Escape:

Swan Lake, by Tchaikovsky, performed on September 26, 2018 at the Alexandrinsky Theater, St.Petersburg – iPhone photo by Wrongo. Russians didn’t like the original ending of the ballet, where Sigfried and Odette die, so in their preferred performance, Sigfried and Odette live happily ever after.

A few random thoughts about the US and Russia: We often forget that all countries have their own history, all of which is ongoing in parallel to our own:

  • America’s colonial history was underway while Russian history was being written. For example, Wrongo’s home town was founded in 1709 on the banks of the Housatonic River. By 1720, the town was a rough collection of small farms, churches and commercial buildings, connected by dirt roads to other towns in Connecticut and New York, but it depended upon the Housatonic for connection to the sea, to the old world, and to the rest of the new world colonies.
  • In 1703, Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg on its current site. He built the city with conscripted peasants, starting by reclaiming the marshlands on both sides of the Neva River. Tens of thousands of serfs died while building the city. The Neva was important, because it was Russia’s only ocean port, their connection to the rest of the world. The land around St. Petersburg was ultimately raised by nearly 10’. It became the capital of Russia in 1712.
  • We all know that President Lincoln freed about 4 million slaves in the US in 1863. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II freed 23 million Russian serfs, who also were slaves.
  • Alexander had to pay compensation to the nobles who had lost their supply of free Russian labor. In 1867, he raised the necessary funds by selling Alaska to the US for $14 million.

Now, a few observations about Russia today.

Below is a photo of the Obukhov State Plant in St. Petersburg. It makes surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems, including the world-famous Russian S-300 and S-400 air defense systems that are employed around the world including in Syria and India. The S400 system will soon be in the hands of our somewhat belligerent ally, Turkey. Wrongo was told that it is currently subject to the US sanctions regime, although he couldn’t immediately find it on the US Treasury’s sanctions list. Here is Wrongo’s iPhone photo of the missile plant:

Why does the US place sanctions on a state-owned arms manufacturer in Russia? Russia is #2 to the US in global arms sales, and we can be sure that if Russia sanctioned Honeywell or Northrup, we would be screaming that they had no right to interfere in our commercial relations with other countries.

Next, everyone knows that the legendary Hermitage, formerly the Winter Palace, has an amazing art collection. The collection was started by Catherine the Great in 1764, when she purchased 255 paintings from the city of Berlin. Today, the Hermitage houses over a million works of art. It is a truly remarkable museum to visit.

So imagine Wrongo’s surprise when he noticed many paintings had been marked with an inventory control number, painted on the visible canvas! Inventory control numbers routinely appear on the back of paintings, but to see numbers, painted in red, on the canvas itself? Here is an example of what Wrongo saw:

Is this desecration of an art work by an overzealous Bolshevik accountant? Did the powers that be eventually discover the error of their ways? Most likely yes, because only relatively few paintings from the 15 and 16th century were marked, but all seemed to be in the same script. Wrongo asked several people if the red numbers interfered with their enjoyment of the painting, and none said it did, but it sure did piss off Wrongo.

Perhaps it’s simply a different way of looking at things. Like how each country views the Syrian president: is he a tyrant, or the savior of his people?

So wrapping up, based upon Wrongo’s observations, we have many similarities with the Russian people, and a few similarities with their government.

Of course, each country has an easy-to-criticize bureaucracy. Ours wouldn’t paint numbers on oil paintings, but it will happily perform other desecrations without being asked.

Geopolitically, we have voluntarily placed ourselves in a competition with the Russian state. We have been directly competing since the 1940’s, and it hasn’t delivered either side a more secure homeland, or world.

Instead, it has positioned us on opposite sides in many third world countries. It has made our defense contractors very rich, while causing the deaths of many young people in America’s military.

Wake Up! It’s way past time for both countries to re-think this competition.

 

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Monday Wake Up Call – September 24, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Avoto Metro Station, St. Petersburg, RU – 2014 photo via themindcircle

(Wrongo and Ms. Right are leaving today for Russia. We will be in St. Petersburg tomorrow, and eventually wend our way to Moscow. You should expect that blogging will be light. Regular posting will resume on October 9th. One more thing: We won’t be looking for the real hackers.)

The Trump administration doesn’t lack for enemies, but it is considering adding a few more. Bloomberg reports that:

The White House is considering a draft executive order for President Donald Trump that would instruct federal antitrust and law enforcement agencies to open probes into the practices of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc., and other social media companies.

Bloomberg says that the language of the order instructs US antitrust authorities to: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Thoroughly investigate whether any online platform has acted in violation of the antitrust laws. It instructs other government agencies to recommend within a month after it’s signed, actions that could potentially “protect competition among online platforms and address online platform bias.”

Assuming that the order is signed in something like its current form, it is an escalation of Trump’s aversion to Google, Facebook, Twitter, all of whom he’s publicly accused of silencing online conservative voices and news sources. The draft order says:

Because of their critical role in American society, it is essential that American citizens are protected from anticompetitive acts by dominant online platforms….It adds that consumer harm — a key measure in antitrust investigations — could come “through the exercise of bias.”

And there you have it. Because these companies allow criticism of the Very Stable Genius, we will get one step closer to government control of what you can say on the internet.

The draft order doesn’t name any companies, but it doesn’t have to in order to intimidate Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon’s parent’s other business, The Washington Post, to suddenly insure that their coverage of Trump is a whole lot nicer.

OTOH, there is a basis for what the DOJ is thinking of doing. There have been arguments from the right and the left that Silicon Valley companies including Google and Facebook, engage in anti-competitive behavior. The companies argue they face robust competition, and that many of their products are free.

Before this, bias has not been a factor in antitrust examinations. But, according to Bloomberg:

A Pew survey earlier this year found that 72% of Americans, and 85% of Republicans, think it’s likely that social media companies intentionally censor political viewpoints that those companies find objectionable.

But there is no objective evidence that either Facebook or Google systematically discriminates, left or right.

Even among some on the right, there are misgivings about a Trump administration crackdown on the free speech rights of these firms. The libertarian groups FreedomWorks and ALEC sent a letter to AG Jeff Sessions expressing concern that his:

…inquiry will be to accomplish through intimidation what the First Amendment bars: interference with editorial judgment.

While the political bias aspect of the order is controversial, it probably won’t scare either Google or Facebook. The First Amendment bans the government from restricting or imposing speech.

Federal authorities cannot require any company to publish views it favors, but it can take crippling anti-trust actions until the companies bend their algorithms to favor Trump messaging.

The danger of such thinking is obvious, however, as the Pew survey information above shows, the vast majority of Republicans agree with Trump.

You should agree that the government ought to be paying attention to the outsized market share of these companies.

You should be very afraid of the government going after them for political revenge.

WAKE UP, AMERICA! Time for all of us to remember these words from Benjamin Franklin:

“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom – and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech”.

Political revenge via government agency is the mark of an authoritarian state.

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Monday Wake-Up Call — Constitution Edition

The Daily Escape:

Spruce Knob, WV at sunrise – 2018 photo by zjustus88

Sept. 17 is Constitution Day, commemorating the signing of the US Constitution 231 years ago, the day that the Constitutional Convention adopted the Constitution as our supreme law.

We sometimes forget that the country was without a Constitution for 11 years after the Declaration of Independence, and for six years after the War of Independence ended. Somehow, we survived.

We also forget that there was plenty of conflict between the founding fathers at the Constitutional Convention. They had vigorous debates about the balance of power between the national and state governments. Two factions emerged: Federalists, who supported the Constitution and a strong central government, and anti-Federalists, who mainly supported strong state governments.

To placate the anti-Federalists and ensure ratification, the Federalists promised to pass a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberty and state sovereignty, which they finally did in 1791, four years after the Constitution was ratified.

Today there’s plenty of discussion about the Constitution, about what’s constitutional, and what’s not, about which of the Supreme Court justices are trampling on the Constitution and which are ripping it to shreds. It seems that there is nothing more important to the Republic than selecting the next Justice, in this case, Brett Kavanaugh.

Joseph Ellis in the WSJ Weekend edition, reminds us that:

Most members of America’s founding generation would have regarded this situation as strange. If you read the debates among the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and then read their prescriptions for judicial power in Article III of the Constitution, it becomes clear that the last thing the 39 signers of the document wanted was for the Supreme Court to become supreme.

Ellis says that the founders thought that Congress should be “supreme”, and a majority thought that each branch of government should decide the scope of its own authority. He says that the founders’ had no interest in having the Supreme Court be the ultimate control point for the US government, since it’s our least representative body, and the one farthest removed from the ultimate authority (the People).

More from Ellis:

For most of American history, the Supreme Court only infrequently stepped forward to redefine the political landscape in decisive fashion. The two most conspicuous occasions both involved the great American tragedy of race.

For Ellis, the first of the two most significant cases was Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), in which the Court tried to resolve the politically unsolvable problem of slavery. The majority argued that the framers of the Constitution clearly regarded slaves as property, and therefore the Missouri Compromise (1819) and the Compromise of 1850 were unconstitutional.

This meant that the federal government had no authority to limit the expansion of slavery in the western territories. Dred Scott deepened the sectional divide that led to the Civil War, and legal scholars and historians have long considered it one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in American history.

In 1954, the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education landed on the other side of the racial divide, striking down the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” that the justices had upheld as a justification for racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The Brown decision signaled a crucial shift in the role of the Court, the first step on its way to becoming the dominant branch of the federal government in deciding the direction of domestic policy.

That led to 30 years of liberal decisions for the Court. The liberal agenda expanded the rights of criminal suspects, broadened the definition of free speech and, in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), discovered a new right to privacy. Building on the right to privacy, the Court affirmed a woman’s right to abortion during the first trimester in Roe v. Wade (1973).

Ellis concludes:

…since Brown we have watched the Supreme Court bend the law in two different directions, landing on one side or the other of the political spectrum based on which political party could command a 5-4 majority. The only difference between the two sides is that liberals are transparent about their political agenda, while conservatives, using originalism to make problematic claims of detachment, are not.

Americans now know that the Supreme Court is biased, partisan, and often makes rulings based on ideology versus law. The word “unconstitutional” has become a catch-all term for whatever we don’t like about our government, or our society. This renders one of the most terrifying and powerful adjectives in American jurisprudence almost meaningless.

TIME TO WAKE UP AMERICA! We should spend Constitution Day trying to become better citizens. Maybe we start by learning our civic history.

The benefit should be clear: Knowledge lets us understand and appreciate nuance.

After all, America might not have many more birthdays left at the rate that we keep polarizing our ideas about the Constitution.

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Monday Wake Up Call – September 10, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Cordillera Huayhuash, Peruvian Andes – photo by mh-travelphotos. The area has very few people, and is a popular trekking destination. It includes six peaks above 6,000 meters.

Whenever Wrongo writes about Syria, the Wrongologist Blog records its fewest reads. Maybe people think that what’s happening in Syria just doesn’t mean much to America. Maybe people think that we’ve already given up on our original goals, and we’re already letting the Russians run the place.

Both of those thoughts would be er, wrong.

The WaPo reported about our new plan: (emphasis by Wrongo)

President Trump, who just five months ago said he wanted “to get out” of Syria and bring U.S. troops home soon, has agreed to a new strategy that indefinitely extends the military effort there and launches a major diplomatic push to achieve American objectives, according to senior State Department officials.

Although the military campaign against the Islamic State has been nearly completed, the administration has redefined its goals to include the exit of all Iranian military and proxy forces from Syria, and establishment of a stable, nonthreatening government acceptable to all Syrians and the international community.

You remember al-Qaeda, the guys who took down the NY World Trade Center? (We’ll remember that tomorrow). Well, the first step in the new US “diplomatic push” is to prevent an imminent Syrian army operation against al-Qaeda aligned groups in Syria’s Idlib province:

While the US agrees that those forces must be wiped out, it rejects “the idea that we have to go in there…to clean out the terrorists, most of the people fighting….they’re not terrorists, but people fighting a civil war against a brutal dictator,” as well as millions of civilians, said US special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey. Instead, the US has called for a cooperative approach with other outside actors.

He went on to say that:

The US will not tolerate an attack. Period.

Jeffrey had just visited Turkey to consult with Turkish president Erdogan about the upcoming Idlib attack by Syria, Russia and Iran. The result of the meeting was a plan that Erdogan presented at the Tehran summit that Erdogan attended with President Putin of Russia and President Rohani of Iran.

The parties didn’t agree to the US/Turkish plan, and the attacks on Idlib have already begun.

Jeffery said that the Trump administration’s plan for Syria involves more than the defeat of ISIS. It also was focused on reducing Iranian influence, and preventing Assad from controlling all of Syria’s geography. Jeffery said that Trump supports the strategy, contrary to Trump’s previous statements about withdrawing US troops after defeating ISIS:

…we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year….That means we are not in a hurry…

America needs to wake up. Those who voted for Trump did so in part because he wasn’t the warmonger that Hillary was. At some point, they’ll have to admit that Trump’s new Syria policy puts us in direct conflict with Russia and Iran on the ground in Syria. That isn’t something that could be implemented without Trump’s agreement, and with less than 60 days to the mid-terms, is this just a political calculation?

It’s difficult to know if Trump truly cares about what happens with Assad, but we know that he has a burning desire to confront Iran. And his new Syria policy is all about Iran. And he’s already tweeted warnings to Assad and Putin to leave Idlib alone.

Does anyone reading this believe that he’s thinking geopolitically? And since Putin, Rohani, and Assad have already defied Trump’s tweeted warnings, Americans should be thinking that there’s liable to be a strike at least against Iran, in the next few weeks.

You know that all the neocons around him, like Bolton and Pompeo, will goad him on. And after that, it could be game on.

Perhaps Trump is bluffing. We have no realistic means to prevent the operations against Idlib by Russia, Iran and Syria. The US military understands that an attack on Syrian and Russian forces would likely escalate into a direct conflict between nuclear powers.

We can’t assume that the “resistance” inside the White House either agrees with the US military, or is capable of averting such a risk.

Wrongo’s solution? Not one more drop of American blood should be wasted in either Iraq or Syria.

Withdraw completely from Syria. Hand over our in-country bases to the Syrians. Encourage and assist the Kurdish insurgents and the Syrian Defense Forces to reintegrate into Syria. Pass the intelligence we have on the jihadis we have assisted over the years to Damascus.

Then we have to hope that Trump moves on to focus completely on more important issues, like Colin Kaepernick’s shoes.

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Tuesday Wake Up Call – September 4, 2018

The Daily Escape:

The Desert House, near Joshua Tree NP, CA – photo by Lance Gerber

Wrongo’s back! However, he’s neither tanned, rested, nor ready. And he returns with a message: Wake up America, summer’s almost ending, and there’s no use pretending that the country isn’t in a mess.

Today, let’s focus on the Mueller investigation. We’ve seen many guilty pleas by people close to Trump, and we have the Manafort trial(s) still to assess. It’s still early days, but so far, nothing definitive connects the president to any conspiracy.

The New Yorker had an interesting column by Jill Lepore reminding us of the Nixon investigations:

In May, 1974, John Doar, the special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, called the Yale historian C. Vann Woodward into his office and asked him to figure out just how badly Presidents had behaved in the past, and how they had answered accusations against them.

Doar gave Woodward two months to pull together a report, cataloging every charge of Presidential misconduct from 1789 to 1969. There was one question to answer: Was Richard Nixon worse than the worst of them?

Woodward divided the work among 14 historians. They excluded allegations that appeared to be merely partisan or ideological, and confined themselves to the:

Responses of the President, on his part or on the part of his subordinates, to charges of misconduct that was alleged to be illegal and for which offenders would be culpable.

They found a lot. Every President except William Henry Harrison, who died in office after one month, had been accused of some form of misconduct. More from Lepore:

Most of it was petty, bumbling, and shabby: favoritism and graft, wheeling and dealing, mainly done not by the President but by the men around him…The Post Office (for a long time the largest part of the federal government) was quite often involved.

  • James Monroe was twice embroiled in congressional investigations relating to the White House furniture.
  • Andrew Jackson once accepted the gift of a lion from the Emperor of Morocco. (He sold it and gave the money to charity.)
  • James Buchanan appears to have had a hand in Democrats’ attempts to rig the elections of 1856 and 1858; in 1860, after Republicans gained control of the House, they launched an investigation, and leaked its findings to the press.

The historians who undertook the project dropped everything to work on it. Lepore says they:

Found not much to tell on F.D.R.; quite a lot under Truman…

Serious malfeasance really began with Jackson, reached a pitch with Buchanan, then quieted down until the Presidencies of Grant and Harding, but all of these seem quaint compared with what Nixon stood accused of.

Woodward, reviewing his 1974 findings, made a list of Nixon’s never-befores:

Heretofore, no president has been proved to be the chief coordinator of the crime and misdemeanor charged against his own administration as a deliberate course of conduct or plan. Heretofore, no president has been held to be the chief personal beneficiary of misconduct in his administration or of measures taken to destroy or cover up evidence of it. Heretofore, the malfeasance and misdemeanor have had no confessed ideological purposes, no constitutionally subversive ends. Heretofore, no president has been accused of extensively subverting and secretly using established government agencies to defame or discredit political opponents and critics, to obstruct justice, to conceal misconduct and protect criminals, or to deprive citizens of their rights and liberties.

Nixon has been the leader of the pack of Presidential malfeasance, until now.

Woodward’s study gives us perspective regarding our current situation. The conviction of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, tars him, and Michael Cohen’s guilty plea, implicates Trump. Cohen pleaded guilty to violating federal law at Trump’s direction, making the President an unindicted co-conspirator. If Trump were not President, he would very likely be charged with a crime. A total of seven in Trump’s orbit have now plead guilty to various crimes.

We’ll see where Mueller’s work takes us, but what can be proven, and what Congressional Republicans are willing to do about it, both remain to be seen.

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Monday Wake Up Call – McCain Edition

The Daily Escape:

Sedona AZ, view from Airport Mesa. Sedona is one of the most beautiful places in America – via Silver Spur Tours

Sen. John McCain died in Sedona, AZ on Saturday. He is remembered as a prisoner of war who suffered greatly, and then went on to a long career as a politician. Most media and politicians are paying tribute to him as a hero and a “giant of the Senate”.

Wrongo is of two minds about McCain: First, he lived a full life, he served his country for decades. As a prisoner of war, he suffered as no human being should ever have to suffer. In the end, we need to see that he was flawed, and made some terrible decisions that hurt the country he loved.

Yet, he deserves our sympathy for his losing fight with brain cancer. His family deserves our sympathy in their time of loss and grief.

Wrongo doesn’t want to kick his corpse, but here are a few things to reflect upon in his political life. From The Guardian:

Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of McCain unveiling Sarah Palin, a say-anything, gun-toting political neophyte, as his running mate in the 2008….It was an act of political desperation that left Washington aghast. It delivered a short-term boost in the polls. But it also opened the Pandora’s Box of populism.

The Guardian quotes David Brooks about the Palin nomination:

I don’t think he could have known it at the time, but he took a disease that was running through the Republican Party – anti-intellectualism, disrespect for facts – and he put it right at the center of the party…

The Guardian reminds us that, a month later, in September 2008, McCain held a four-point lead over Barack Obama, and had a pretty good shot at winning the White House, which slipped from his grasp.

Today, McCain is respected more by Democrats than by Republicans. A Fox News poll shows that McCain has a 60% favorable (29% unfavorable) rating among Dems, and a 41% favorable (48% unfavorable) rating among Republicans.

This is largely due to one moment from the campaign, now seen everywhere, where McCain is seen admonishing a supporter who refers to Obama as an “Arab”. McCain shakes his head, takes the microphone and says: (brackets by Wrongo)

No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, [a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is all about.

The crowd applauded. Yet, later at the same rally, a supporter says he is “scared” by the prospect of an Obama presidency. Again, McCain replies with integrity:

He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared as president of the United States.

But, on this occasion, the crowd boos and jeers in what we now hear at any Trump event.

And on election night, while conceding to Obama, McCain said that he had called Obama to offer congratulations, the crowd booed, and McCain begs: “Please.”

Moments later, when he referred to Obama leading the country for the next four years, there were more boos and another entreaty of “Please, please”. More from The Guardian: (emphasis by Wrongo)

From the vantage point of 2018, it looks and sounds like a member of the old guard fighting to hold back the populist tide – a tide that would eventually overwhelm both his party and nation.

That tide was amplified by the selection of Palin as nominee for vice-president. Although viewed from Trumplandia, her gaffes now seem quaint.

Subsequently, we saw the Republican’s anti-Obama obstructionism, the rise of the Tea Party to political power, and the emergence of a growing and toxic mix of cultural and economic resentment. What seemed to be angry but marginal voices at those McCain campaign events, now occupy center stage in the Republican Party. The Guardian concludes with:

And yet, future historians seeking to understand the man and his time will surely revisit that when McCain forced a smile and introduced ‘the next vice-president of the United States, Governor Sarah Palin of the great state of Alaska’.

They will consider what it foretold, and ponder why a man of decency and honor opened the door to demagoguery in America.

McCain didn’t “open the door to demagoguery”, but he held it open for Republicans at a critical point in our politics.

For all his lapses of judgement, Wrongo will miss McCain’s occasional appeals to American values, American principles, and duty to the public good. McCain could, and did, speak to this better vision, even if he didn’t always vote for it.

Let’s remember him as a veteran, and as a senator who saw his party fall into the abyss, knowing that, given his position in the Party, he was more than a little bit responsible.

So Wake up America! There’s no need to make saints of sinners. McCain wasn’t a saint.

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Monday Wake-Up Call – August 20, 2018

The Daily Escape:

East Byram River, Greenwich CT – August 2018 iPhone photo by Wrongo. With so much recent rainfall, CT waterfalls are working hard.

This Monday, we depart from our usual ranting about politics and economics, and turn to the subject of text-analytics. The Atlantic has an article by Frank Partnoy about it. Text-analytics scans unstructured text, and pulls usable data from it, using a variety of algorithms. The technology is used extensively in the finance industry. Investment banks and hedge funds scour public filings, corporate press releases, and statements by executives to find slight changes in language that might indicate whether a company’s stock price is likely to go up or down. From Partnoy:

Goldman Sachs calls this kind of natural-language processing “a critical tool for tomorrow’s investors.” Specialty-research firms use artificial-intelligence algorithms to derive insights from earnings-call transcripts, broker research, and news stories.

More from Partnoy:

In a recent paper, researchers at Harvard Business School and the University of Illinois at Chicago found that a company’s stock price declines significantly in the months after the company subtly changes descriptions of certain risks. Computer algorithms can spot such changes quickly, even in lengthy filings, a feat that is beyond the capacity of most human investors.

Most of us use a form of the technology without knowing it, since it operates in background powering things like the spam filters on our email. Many companies also use text-analytics to monitor their reputation on social media, in online reviews, and to find wherever they are mentioned on the internet.

The technology has become so sophisticated that companies are now using it to scan employees’ emails to determine levels of employee engagement, employee stress, and morale. Many firms are sensitive about intruding on employee privacy, though courts have held that employees have virtually no expectation of privacy at work, particularly if they’ve been given notice that their correspondence may be monitored. But as language analytics improves, companies may have a hard time resisting the urge to mine employee information. Here is a blurb from one industry leader, KeenCorp:

KeenCorp’s revolutionary software uses proprietary artificial intelligence and psycholinguistic analysis. Its algorithm recognizes patterns and detects tension from regular e-mail and corporate messengers. It works unobtrusively in the background to provide automated and continuous reporting.

The software then assigns the analyzed messages a numerical index that purports to measure the level of employee engagement. When workers are feeling positive and engaged, the number is high; when they are disengaged or expressing negative emotions like tension, the number is low. This allows KeenCorp to create a “heat map” of employee engagement for company management.

KeenCorp says the heat maps have helped companies identify potential problems in the workplace, including audit-related concerns that accountants failed to flag. This can be a big issue in highly-regulated industries, like finance, health care, and pharmaceuticals.

The firm’s software can chart how employees react when a leader is hired or promoted. And one KeenCorp client investigated a branch office after its heat map suddenly started glowing and found that the head of the office had begun an affair with a subordinate.

Imagine, an office relationship threw off heat!

KeenCorp says that they don’t collect, store, or report any information at the individual level. They say all messages are “stripped and treated so that the privacy of individual employees is fully protected.”

But, it’s absolutely a short step to snooping on an individual employee. It is a simple extension of the technology to grab information about individuals, based on their heat map score. KeenCorp indicates that some potential clients want it.

If sufficient firms are seeking that information, that software enhancement will be developed by an outside firm, or by building an in-house data-mining system.

Another software, Vibe, searches through keywords and emoji in messages sent on Slack, a workplace-communication app. The algorithm reports in real time on whether a team is feeling disappointed, disapproving, happy, irritated, or stressed. While it isn’t a fully commercialized product, 500 companies have tried it.

At this point, text-analytics is an unproven technology. No data exist about how often such tools might suggest a false positive, a problem when none exists. Or even fail to reveal a problem at all.

A real issue is what will managements do if/when they are made aware of potential problems surfaced via text-analytics? HR departments survey morale all the time, and few have success in changing the paradigm.

Wrongo thinks that the ability to parse information closely is what separates really outstanding analysts from the mediocre. This software will help, not hinder great analysis.

OTOH, it is what all paranoids do with friends and family. It’s also important to note that not all wrongdoing will register on a heat map, no matter how finely tuned.

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Monday Wake Up Call – August 13, 2018

(Wrongo will be taking the next few days off. He has blog fatigue, and also needs to work on some deferred maintenance here on the fields of Wrong. He’ll be back later this week, unless events require him to jump back in sooner.)

The Daily Escape:

Abandoned house, Wasco, OR – 2018 photo by Shaun Peterson.

We wake up today to Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece’s, review of “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World” by Adam Tooze posted in The Guardian. Tooze is an economic historian at Columbia University in NYC.

This isn’t a review of Tooze’s book, which sounds fascinating. Rather, it’s a meditation on one of Varoufakis’s ideas in his review of the book. Varoufakis says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Every so often, humanity manages genuinely to surprise itself. Events to which we had previously assigned zero probability push us into what the ancient Greeks referred to as aporia: intense bafflement urgently demanding a new model of the world we live in. The financial crash of 2008 was such a moment. Suddenly the world ceased to make sense in terms of what, a few weeks before, passed as conventional wisdom – even McDonald’s, for goodness sake, could not secure an overdraft from Bank of America!

Tooze focuses on the causes of the Great Recession in 2008, and the implications for our 10-year long economic recovery. He observes that neoliberalism’s mantra about markets had to be shelved to save the US economy: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Whereas since the 1970s the incessant mantra of the spokespeople of the financial industry had been free markets and light touch regulation, what they were now demanding was the mobilization of all of the resources of the state to save society’s financial infrastructure from a threat of systemic implosion, a threat they likened to a military emergency.

We have no idea where the current aporia will take us, particularly since this “moment” has already lasted 10 years, and the hard-won economic progress may be easily reversed. Varoufakis continues:

Moments of aporia produce collective efforts to respond to our bewilderment. In the late 18th century, the pains of the Industrial Revolution begat free-market economics. The crisis of 1848 brought us the Marxist tradition. The great depression produced both Keynes’s General Theory and Friedman’s monetarism.

We are clearly at a point of intense bewilderment. What direction is correct for our economy and our society? The concept of aporia may explain why no real solutions have emerged in the past 10 years.

Tooze thinks that the world economy today is at a similar point to where it was in 1914. That is, we’re headed to a global war based on the competition of the advanced economies for resources (this time, it’s markets, water and energy), while the Middle East is at war, competing to determine which variant of Islam will be transcendent.

Varoufakis thinks we are more likely to be where we were in 1930, just after the crash. Since 2008, like back then, income inequality has continued to grow, and we have a potential fascist movement in the wings. Varoufakis asks if today’s politicians have the vision, or the ability, to corral corporatist power on one side, and the emerging nationalist movement on the other.

We’re into the post-2008 world, one in which the owners of society, the largest corporations along with the international capitalists, portray austerity as our only answer. They stress the need for continued globalization and the upward transfer of wealth via tax cuts as the best chance to survive and prosper after the 2008 crash.

This is global capitalism at work: Continuing to extract all the wealth that it can in every economy with a compliant government.

People are getting near a breaking point. They want a better life, and they want to regain political control. The challenge for capitalists and their politicians is: Can they continue to distract the base, keeping them compliant with corporatism and the financialization of our capital markets?

Capitalism ought to fear nationalism, because a nationalist movement could easily rally the poor and the middle class against Wall Street and corporate America. But, for the moment, capitalism seems to be stirring the nationalist pot. To what end?

Whether a fight against Wall Street and Corporatism will emerge, whether it will evolve into a fascist-style rallying cry remains to be seen.

We’re too early in this iteration of aporia to know or to see where we are going clearly. We need an alternative to today’s global capitalism because the track we’re on could easily turn the world into a gigantic Easter Island-like landscape.

What alternative to today’s capitalism (if any) will develop? Will ordinary people have some say in the alternative?

Stay tuned.

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