Dog Whistles in the Senate

The Daily Escape:

Poppy bloom, Lancaster, CA – March 22, 2022 photo by Matthew Mactaggart

There are many urgent issues that the Supreme Court is considering, but whether a children’s book should address racism isn’t one of them. At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the qualifications of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson for the Supreme Court, the curriculum at a private children’s day school in Georgetown was among the questions Republican Senators felt she needed to address.

This is more than simply a performative effort by a few Republicans to dog whistle to their supporters. It’s part of a decades-long effort by conservatives to control public education.

Bob Oakes of Boston’s WBUR had a report about how local Massachusetts school boards, like school boards across the country, have been facing angry questions about everything from Covid restrictions to the way schools teach about racism:

“WBUR found dozens of districts have faced criticism over how teachers discuss race and diversity in the classroom, as well as sex education.”

Oakes reported on the school committee at Dudley-Charlton, two small towns that share a school district and a high school. For years, local school committee meetings had focused on routine items such as staffing and trips by the marching band. More from WBUR:

“….that all changed last July when dozens of parents and residents packed a committee meeting to protest the school’s efforts to combat racism, including the hiring of a new diversity consultant.”

That led some residents to push unsuccessfully a recall of five school committee members over issues including Covid mask requirements and the hiring of the diversity consultant.

Jill Lepore has an article in the New Yorker about the history of efforts to control public education stretching back to the 1880s. She notes that for more than a century, from the teaching of evolution to anti-racism, parents have clashed over who gets to tell our origin story. She points out that community control began in the 1880s with the move to mandatory public education:

“Some families objected, citing “parental rights,” a legal novelty, but courts broadly upheld compulsory-education laws, deeming free public schooling to be essential to democratic citizenship.“

By 1916, nearly every state had mandated school attendance.

We have generally accepted that local and state school boards set curricula with the intention of having our students absorb a consensus-approved range of subjects which collectively tell a story about how we want our children to develop into adults.

This means teaching math and science, history and civics, the novels of Steinbeck and Toni Morrison in English class, along with the foundational myths we feel are important to the American story. All of this – the curriculum and the teaching – cohere to mold young citizens.

As Lepore notes, some Americans keep their children out of public schools because they don’t believe in a community of interests. That isn’t what they say of course. They put their children in charter and private schools, because they prefer their “quality.” What they won’t admit is how their search for a “quality” education also implies a question: What kind of information and what kind of child will their private school keep away from their children?

From Lepore:

“A few parents around the country may not like their children learning that they belong to a much bigger family—whether it’s a human family or an American family—but the idea of public education is dedicated to the cultivation of that bigger sense of covenant, toleration, and obligation. In the end, no matter what advocates of parents’ rights say, and however much political power they might gain, public schools don’t have a choice; they’ve got to teach, as American history, the history not only of the enslaved Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 and the English families who sailed to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620, but also….everyone. That’s why parents don’t have a right to choose the version of American history they like best, a story of only their own family’s origins. Instead, the state has an obligation to welcome children into that entire history, their entire inheritance.”

Parents trying to bully school boards into changing the curricula to suit their worldview is inherently wrong. The argument that “parents have the right to control what is taught in public schools because they’re our kids” is un-American. The Supreme Court found that to be true in 1943 in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, when the Court struck down a statute that required schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, saying it was a violation of the First Amendment.

The purpose of public school is to teach kids what society needs them to know. It’s the parents’ job to teach them what they WANT them to know.

Listen up Republicans: the “customer” of the public school system is the entire community, not individual parents or specific political parties. Those parents aren’t harmed, and they haven’t lost any “freedom” when curricula are set by school boards.

They still have the right to send little Jason and Janey to the private school of their choice at their own expense.

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Saturday Soother – March 19, 2022

The Daily Escape:

Cherry blossoms, Tanque Verde Ridge, AZ – February 2022 photo by Bel Meader

Wrongo and Ms. Right started our return trip from Florida yesterday. We said goodbye to being able to sit on the patio with our coffee at 8 am and to walk without wearing a jacket. Two observations from our visit: First, it’s clear that all older people there are members of a “club”. On our morning walks, everyone said hello, something that doesn’t routinely happen in the north. Second, virtually everyone is maskless in public spaces.

That’s largely due to the public health policies of Florida’s governor and legislature. This time around, it didn’t work out badly for them. But we all should be at least somewhat concerned about what’s visible on the Covid horizon.

We’re talking about the arrival of the Coronavirus BA.2 subvariant. The Omicron we know is BA.1. CNN reports that the BA.2 variant is 80% more transmissible than trusty old Omicron, and about as serious an illness. They also say that BA.2 has been growing steadily in the US. The CDC estimates it is causing about 12% of new Covid-19 cases in America.

Hong Kong is in the throes of a severe wave caused by BA.2. It currently has the highest Covid-19 death rate in the world. The WaPo reports this from China:

“China’s worst coronavirus outbreak in two years has reached almost all parts of the country, stretching medical resources, shuttering businesses, and manufacturing outfits, and raising questions about the government’s staunch commitment to its “zero covid” policy.”

Meanwhile, BA.2 now accounts for more than 50% of cases in the UK and in several European countries.

Here’s an interesting chart from Charles Gaba, showing the point at which Covid deaths in Red states overtook Covid deaths in Blue states:

They crossed when Biden was inaugurated. The graph includes all variants of Covid. It shows the cumulative Covid death rates in the reddest and bluest tenths of the US at the county level. The total population of the 50 US states, plus DC, is right around 331.4 million people. That puts each tenth of the population at around 33.1 million each.

The date may be a coincidence, but the data aren’t. You know why this happened.

We look like we’re about to have another surge. That’s depressing since we are barely past the Omicron surge. If the data coming in from places where Omicron BA.2 is surging hold up, it means that our vaccinations should mitigate the worst of it.

But if you are over 60 or are unvaccinated, or unboosted, or have any medical vulnerabilities, you’d better wear your mask when out and about, even in Florida.

A whole lot of people won’t do you the favor of wearing one, so you should be extra careful.

Time for our Saturday Soother, where we try to forget about what’s happening in Ukraine, or whether Jessie Smollett deserves to be out of jail on appeal. Let’s unplug and relax and think about how Spring is just around the corner. Of course that means yard work on the Fields of Wrong, but it also means enjoying weather like we were having in Florida.

To help you relax, grab a seat by a window and listen to Mozart’s Rondo from the Horn Concerto Number 4 KV 495. This is a trio arrangement played by Sarah Willis (horn), Tamás Velenczei (trumpet) and Jesper Busk Sorensen (euphonium). It was performed live in a virtual concert in the Berlin Chamber Music Hall for the Pacific Music Festival 2021:

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Helplessness Isn’t Solved by Playing Nuclear Chicken

The Daily Escape:

Sunset, Lake Waramaug, Warren, CT – February 2022 photo by Dave King

We’re feeling helpless as we watch what’s happening in Ukraine, because America and NATO won’t step up and stop Putin from laying waste there. Last week, Biden declared:

“I want to be clear: We will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full might of a united and galvanized NATO….But we will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. A direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III. And something we must strive to prevent.”

Biden has drawn a red line. Unfortunately, he’s signaling to Putin the things we won’t do. The catch is that Biden’s red line doesn’t cover several non-NATO European countries that Putin might be interested in taking over. It creates a couple of strategic problems.

First, it puts a target on non-NATO countries. NATO fought for Kosovo and Kuwait in similar circumstances. And what about Finland or Taiwan? Second, what should NATO do if Putin uses WMD in Ukraine? Biden’s statement is a failure of strategy. Every time the US says, “We will defend every inch of NATO territory,” Russia hears, “It’s OK to take the rest.” When Putin learns that NATO will do nothing directly to stop his invasion, it decreases his costs of war, and increases what he will demand in the “peace” negotiations.

Back to helplessness. When we feel helpless, our level of anxiety goes up. When our anxiety is high, we say “We have to do something.” It doesn’t take long for us to say, “This is something, so let’s do it.”

That has led Ukrainians and Americans to talk about a No Fly Zone (NFZ) over Ukraine. Robert B. Hubbell had a practical take on what an NFZ requires: (brackets by Wrongo)

”…the no-fly zone over Washington, DC after 9/11 required twelve fighter jets in the air continuously…. DC is 68 square miles, and Ukraine is 233,031 square miles….Ukraine’s [landmass] is 3,400 times larger than DC….it would require a massive commitment of fighter jets to enforce a no-fly zone.”

Hubbell points out that jets on patrol must refuel every two hours, requiring KC-135 tankers to refuel them in mid-air over Ukraine. Our KC-135 tankers would be easy targets. The KC-135s can only stay aloft for six hours, requiring a constant rotation of multiple refueling tankers to keep our combat jets in the air.

We would have to establish air traffic control for our hundreds of aircraft over Ukraine. That would require AWACS aircraft to manage the airspace and detect oncoming threats from Russian jet fighters. Our AWACS would also be targeted by Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense systems that can see deep into Ukraine.

To maintain a no-fly zone in Ukraine, the first action necessary to protect US jets would be to attack S-400 missile systems on Russian territory — an act of war.

The threat of using nuclear weapons is palpable. We know that Putin has thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, while NATO has less than 100 in Europe. Putin declared two years ago that Russia reserved the right to use tactical nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks. Nuclear weapons are real and deadly threats. We’re in a tight spot with Putin and he seems more willing to use the threat of nuclear weapons than is NATO.

Shay Khatiri offers a different view:

“It would be wrong to assume that, if the US military enters the conflict in Ukraine in some capacity, nuclear war would inevitably follow. First, it wouldn’t be the first time that Americans and Russians have killed each other. The Soviets reflagged their aircraft during the Korean and the Vietnam Wars and directly engaged with their American enemy. They also launched missiles at American aircraft during the war. The United States, on the other hand, has killed Russian mercenaries as recently as 2018 with no ramifications.”

There have been just two conflicts between two nuclear-armed states, (between China and Russia in 1969 and India and Pakistan in 1999). Both were border disputes rather than major wars, partly because the parties were wary of a nuclear escalation.

Nobody knows for sure how Russia and the US would react if they fought in earnest.

Direct military confrontation doesn’t always mean war, much less World War III. Remember that Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the border with Syria in 2015, without setting off a global conflagration.

Is there a point when NATO will show Putin that it’s not afraid to act? Don’t count on that.

The pressure to act in the coming days will become enormous. The images of Ukrainian suffering already stirs the public, and the images will get worse. The calls for Biden to act will grow louder. American and NATO support to Ukraine has helped the country to resist so far. But Washington and its allies must be honest about the limits of that support and whether we have the willingness to step up to support Ukraine’s needs.

How will Biden handle the great dilemma presented by our feeling of helplessness in Ukraine? Will he play annihilation chicken with Putin?

Watch Fiona Apple’s cover of the Lennon/McCartney song “Across the Universe”. See if it provides you with any insight into Biden’s dilemma:

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China’s Reaction to Putin’s War

The Daily Escape:

Snow on the Fields of Wrong, March 10, 2022                 Sand on the beaches of Florida, March 2022

(This is the last column for the week. New content next week will be light and variable as Wrongo and Ms. Right make our annual pilgrimage to Florida to visit Wrongo’s sisters.)

Subsequent to the meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping in Beijing at the start of the Winter Olympics, the Chinese government’s statements and actions about Putin’s War in Ukraine have been a kind of doublespeak.

With its public statements, China’s been supportive. The foreign minister has referred to Russia as its “most important strategic partner.” China hasn’t endorsed Russian sanctions and its state media seems to repeat a lot of Russian disinformation about Ukraine.

On the actions side, the Chinese government has called for an end to violence and has promised to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

One thing that hasn’t been public is Chinese financial institution’s hesitancy about new deals with Russia. Chief Investment Officer magazine (CIO) quotes Yuan Jiang, a Chinese PhD candidate at Queensland University who specializes in Russia-China relations:

“Currently, the risk is simply too huge…”

Jiang said that traditionally, only state-funded institutions or large corporations would transact or directly invest in Russia, but even these institutions were wary of Russia:

“Russian markets are full of political corruption and other dangers…”

China’s financial sector has been leery of being caught up in the Western sanctions. Two major Chinese state-owned banks are now restricted from financing Russian commodities, according to Bloomberg. Reuters reports that the Bank of China in Singapore stopped financing Russian oil trades.

CIO also reports that some banks with partial Chinese state ownership have also been backing out of Russian deals. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has many Asian governments as shareholders, suspended its business in both Russia and Belarus after the invasion. Similarly, the Shanghai-based New Development Bank, which has China as one of its founding members, also has terminated its business with Russia.

Now Russia is barred from participating in SWIFT, the global financial messaging system. In the past, China’s large banks have complied with American sanctions against Iran and North Korea because of the importance of clearing via SWIFT. The Chinese distancing from Russian transactions makes it clear that Beijing intends to continue complying with this Western sanction.

The Russians are looking to China as a lifeline in the midst of the sanctions. And the Chinese government is providing some help. China’s UnionPay card service will serve as an alternative for credit and debit card holders now that MasterCard and Visa have ended the ability of Russian citizens to use their cards abroad. UnionPay is accepted in 180 countries.

But China is shying away from a full rescue. Former US Treasury official Peter Piatetsky said in an interview with RadioFreeEurope:

“China can essentially do one thing here, which is to buy more Russian goods, but they don’t seem to be willing to do that….Russia doesn’t have that many different goods that China is willing to buy….The relationship between Russia and China is very transactional….They both dislike the US and dislike the US-led world order, but aside from that, I don’t think there’s much there.”

China could buy up Russia’s oil that’s no longer going to Europe if it wanted, but it doesn’t appear to be doing so, at least not yet. According to Jiang, ultimately the US has much more to offer China economically:

“Investing in the West is much simpler and more secure. No more unnecessary economic risk, not many political factors, and more transparent…”

And importantly, the US is China’s largest trading partner. The US buys 16.75% of all Chinese exports, creating a relationship that the Chinese government can’t afford to lose. Although ideological differences might dominate headlines, the US-China relationship is strategic for both.

It’s likely China will continue to keep Russia close and expand the relationship should relations with the West shift. And since the stated US strategy is to use Ukraine to destabilize Putin’s hold on power, China worries that it’s next.

Jiang says that Beijing is particularly afraid of “color revolutions,” a phenomenon in which popular uprisings result in regime change:

“Moscow and Beijing share almost indistinguishable views on the potential domestic and international security threats posed by color revolutions, and both nations view these revolutionary movements as being orchestrated by the US and its Western democratic partners to advance geopolitical ambitions.”

Despite the havoc that Western sanctions have brought on the financial system, China’s strong economic relationship with the West will help it keep Russia at arm’s length. If anything, the Ukraine war has shown just how much China relies on the West for its economic prosperity.

China and the US are particularly intertwined financially, and despite ideological differences, China will continue to prioritize its economic relationship with the US.

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Russia’s Repeating its Syrian Strategy in Ukraine

The Daily Escape:

Quiet stream, rural NH – March 2022 photo by Betsy Zimmerli

There are lessons from history that inform what Putin is doing in Ukraine. First, Syria demonstrates how Putin intends to operate. Putin got Russia involved in Syria in 2015 and helped Bashar al-Assad take back control of most of the country.

One part of Syria that isn’t under control is Idlib Province. That’s because Russia’s Syrian strategy was intense aerial bombardment of cities, followed by the establishment of temporary “humanitarian corridors”. That pushed civilians and fighters eventually into Idlib.

During the Syrian civil war, the Russian and Syrian militaries systematically besieged opposition-held cities, towns, and districts. They rained destruction on the populations with airstrikes, artillery and rockets blasting residential districts, hospitals, and infrastructure.

Eventually, the Russians and Syrians offered humanitarian corridors, allowing civilians and fighters to leave, and be funneled into the northwest province of Idlib. Idlib remains today the last opposition-held part in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of people used the corridors to get out of the war zones. The largest and most notorious example was the evacuation of Aleppo City in 2016, ending four years of siege. These internally displaced Syrians now make up about two-thirds of the 3 million people living in Idlib province. It is still surrounded by Syrian forces and is still hit by Russian airstrikes.

It’s now clear that Putin will bomb Ukrainian cities much like the carpet bombing of Grozny in Chechnya, or Aleppo in Syria. What’s happening on the ground in Ukraine should sound familiar to anyone who watched Russia in Syria. Here’s an up-to-date map of the military conditions in Ukraine from the UK Defence Intelligence Agency:

The map shows that despite many setbacks, Putin’s forces are close to (if they are not already) surrounding Kyiv. If you note the map legend showing “Assessed Encirclement” areas, those are places that the Russians have either captured, or are close to surrounding. They include most major Ukrainian cities.

In response, the Ukraine government in conjunction with the Russian military, have announced humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to leave cities where there is fighting between the Russian and Ukrainian armies.

In Syria, this strategy was effective. The Syrian government regained control by removing large opposition populations, many of whom remain unable to return to their home cities and towns.

This is Putin’s plan for Ukraine. Create a pocket within Ukraine that can be cut off from most resources, a rump state where most of the opposition is located. Damage or destroy most of its infrastructure. Leave it as a broken state unable to exist without outside humanitarian support. That rump state might be as small as a province, or as large as the majority of Ukraine west of the Dnieper river, as Wrongo has suggested.

A second lesson was learned by the Soviet Union’s military in Hungary. Russia’s military won’t repeat their Hungarian experience in Ukraine. In 1956, Hungarians attempted to overthrow their pro-Soviet leadership. In October 1956, the Soviets sent tanks into Budapest to crush the uprising. Many Hungarians, (called “freedom fighters” by the West), rose up against the Soviet invaders. From History.net: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Incorrectly assuming that the sight of Soviet armor rumbling through the Hungarian capital would quickly cow Budapest’s restive population, Kremlin leadership sent in tanks without the support of infantrymen….Over the next several days, small teams of Hungarian freedom fighters throughout Budapest took on the Soviet tanks, sniping at…crewmen or destroying the vehicles with Molotov cocktails.”

The freedom fighters’ most effective tactic was the “decoy and ambush,” where a decoy team fired at a Soviet tank to attract the crew’s attention and then fled down a side street to lure the tanks into a predetermined “kill zone.” This hubris on the part of the Soviets was a mistake that wasn’t repeated in Grozny and will not be repeated in Ukraine. Hungary didn’t achieve its freedom until 1991 when the USSR collapsed.

But have the US and NATO learned any useful lessons? The West has two conflicting goals in Ukraine. First, imposing strategic defeat on Russia. And second, defending Ukraine’s sovereignty. If our only goal was protecting the sovereignty of Ukraine, then our available options might include putting boots on the ground or imposing a No Fly Zone. But we’re not willing to do either one.

Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born British journalist said the West:

“is doing an AMAZING job…of responding to 2014. That’s when we needed sanctions and arming Ukrainians. We’re ‘winning’ the last war. Not sure we’ve quite caught up with this new one yet.”

The US has discussed an arms lend-lease program for Ukraine. Alexander Vindman asks where are the: (parenthesis by Wrongo)

“…medium- and long-range air defense systems, antitank weapons (beyond the Javelins that have already been provided), advanced extended-range antiarmor capabilities, coastal defense systems, high mobility artillery, and critically important UCAVs” (drones)?”

The West is dithering on the correct level of support for Ukraine. If the US and NATO provided lethal aid via lend-lease, there’s a risk that Russia will escalate. But there’s a better chance that they will not.

It would be a gamble for Putin to escalate, and it’s a gamble for Biden to provide the weapons. Our reaction so far says that the US has lost its nerve without saying the US has lost its nerve.

Sorry Ukraine, we can’t follow your example.

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Russian Sanctions: Who Blinks First?

The Daily Escape:

Secret Canyon, Moab, UT – February 2022 photo by Klaus Priebe Photographer

Collateral damage from the US and European sanctions is growing. One question is whether the West will blink before Russia.

First, a few words about Putin’s strategy. It doesn’t seem that Putin was intent on “recreating the Russian Empire” as many pundits said. Instead, he’s going to partition Ukraine, with Russia controlling Ukraine east of the Dnieper River. That includes much of Ukraine’s industrial base. The southern part of Ukraine contains 13 seaports. In 2021, they exported over 150 million tons of cargo, representing 60% of exports and 50% of imports for Ukraine. Russia has already ended Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.

When hostilities end, Ukraine will be a land-locked country.

The Russian army will ensure that what is left of Ukraine west of the Dnieper is a broken, third-world country. The indiscriminate missile, artillery and bombing in Ukraine’s west shows that is their intent. Whatever remains of western Ukraine will be the buffer state that Putin wanted prior to the start of his war. In the end, NATO will be forced to agree to a buffer state that is smaller and much weaker than the one NATO originally refused to agree to.

The US strategy for Ukraine had several elements. First, to make the cost of Putin’s War so harsh that he wouldn’t proceed, or after proceeding, would cause him to look for an early way to end hostilities before both were badly damaged: Ukraine by Russian weapons, and Russia by Western sanctions.

Another strategy was to get Germany to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. That has begun. Last week Germany unveiled plans for a terminal to import liquefied natural gas (LNG). Germany currently has no LNG import terminals.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then to learn that the US is the prime producer and exporter of LNG, ahead of Qatar and Russia. But LNG delivered to Europe is 50% more expensive than the gas delivered by pipeline from Russia. It’s true that there’s plenty of European LNG capacity besides Germany’s new planned facility. From the National Law Review: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“The current large-scale LNG receiving countries in Europe are Belgium (one terminal), France (four terminals), Greece (one terminal), Italy (three terminals), Lithuania (one terminal), Malta (one terminal), the Netherlands (one terminal), Poland (one terminal), Portugal (one terminal), Spain (six operational), Turkey (four terminals) and the UK (three terminals). Collectively, their overall LNG capacity is 237 billion cubic meters (of gas)…which is sufficient to cover approximately 40% of Europe’s gas demand.”

It’s possible to reduce German reliance on Russian gas imports, but they can’t easily achieve total independence. Substantially higher gas prices would definitely hurt the competitiveness of German industry, and slow global economic growth. It could become German economic suicide.

A third US strategy was that Putin’s rush into Ukraine would lead to a stalemate on the ground, and that sanctions would lead to a change of government in Russia. Then the new government might turn more towards the West.

The calculation was that Russia can’t win a major (non-nuclear) war without the economic support of the West through purchases of gas, and exports of technology. We’ve discussed natural gas. Protocol’s report on Russia’s dependence on foreign chips found that European and US companies sell them a lot of microprocessors, while their memory chip imports come mostly from South Korea and the US. All are now embargoed.

It’s possible that in executing these strategies, we’re burning up the world’s economy at the same time. These strategies have helped push oil prices above $130 a barrel. Natural gas prices have shot up to over $3,900 per 1,000 cubic meters for the first time in history. This will destabilize more than a few EU countries. As we wrote, the Ukraine war has slashed wheat exports, which will lead to high food prices and shortages in countries that rely on wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

We must be careful that we aren’t sanctioning ourselves. We already have a blowback effect on the sanctions inflicted on Russia. We may see double-digit inflation globally before the end of the year.

It’s possible that every dollar of Republican and Democratic campaign spending for the November mid-terms will be spent on stickers for gas pumps: The Republican sticker will feature Biden saying “I did this” while pointing at the price on the gas pump.

The Democrats’ sticker will feature Putin pointing at the gas prices and saying, “I did this”.

Then campaign workers will spend all of their time pasting one over the other’s sticker.

Pick your poison.

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Monday Wake Up Call – March 7, 2022

The Daily Escape:

Watson Lake, near Prescott, AZ –  February 2022 photo by Steve Matten

Last week, the Labor Department released its monthly Nonfarm payroll report. It showed strong hiring, and a substantial decrease in unemployment. Employment rose by 678,000 in February, the unemployment rate fell to 3.8%, wages rose by just 1 cent to $31.58 per hour, although wages have risen 5.1% over the past 12 months.

We still have 2.1 million fewer jobs (1.4%) than we had in February 2020 just before the start of the pandemic. At the average rate of jobs growth for the past 6 months, it’s about 4 more months before we get back to where we were. From Krugman:

“…what people are actually experiencing in their daily lives is a very strong job market. For example, according to the latest survey from the Conference Board, 53.8% of consumers said that jobs were “plentiful,” a near-record, while only 11.8% said that jobs were hard to get.”

More from Krugman:

“Yet the public doesn’t believe it. According to a new survey by Navigator Research, only 19% of Americans believe that the US economy is experiencing more job growth than usual, while 35% say that it is experiencing more job losses than usual.”

Pandemic unemployment peaked in April 2020 at 14.7%. Back then, Congress was afraid of the country entering another depression, or at best a recession similar to 2008. Congress decided to prop up the economy through a fiscal stimulus called the first CARES Act. Many politicians have talked about how the CARES Act was the financial jolt that has caused inflation to spike.

You probably didn’t realize just how large that unemployment aid was. When unemployment benefits were at their peak in June 2020, the government pushed $1.395 trillion dollars out to the unemployed. Here’s a chart from the St. Louis Fed that shows how fast and how high that cash injection into the economy moved:

Today, these unemployment payments have shrunk by 98% to $26.7 billion. So where in our economy did that $1.4 trillion go? It went primarily to goods purchased locally at Mom & Pop stores and supermarkets. It also went to the big box stores like Walmart, Costco, and Target. It went to Amazon and hundreds of online retailers. At the Mansion of Wrong, it also went to Peloton.  And it went to online services, like Netflix and online education.

Americans spent less than usual on services, so we saw huge job losses in the services sector. Statista reports that we are still short 3.75 million jobs in the services sector and less than .5 million in manufacturing. Leisure and hospitality account for 1.38 million of the total, while losses in education, health services and government also remain high.

Much of today’s inflation is the result of this trillion-dollar unemployment stimulus. Barry Ritholtz interviewed Rebecca Patterson, Director of Investment Research at Bridgewater Associates. She described how the one-two punch of monetary and fiscal stimulus led to a “Demand Shock” where demand for durable goods overwhelmed what manufacturers could supply. She says that while global manufacturers ramped up production by 5% above pre-pandemic levels, demand for those same goods rose by 20%. This is a large part of the inflation spike we’re experiencing, and why the Fed has called it a “transitory” problem.

America’s response to the pandemic reminds us that the way our government responds to crises brings different impacts to different parts of our society.

The Federal Reserve’s expansionary monetary stimulus since 2008 has primarily benefited corporations and the well-off who could buy ever more expensive assets with very cheap money. Fiscal stimulus like the CARES Act and like the new infrastructure bill mostly benefit the bottom 50% of the country: low-wage labor, the unemployed, and the middle class.

So the economy is doing just fine for the top 10% and the upper middle class. But people who make minimum wage aren’t flying to Barcelona this year. They’re not eating at high-end restaurants. When they shop, it isn’t at boutiques. They continue to split financial hairs trying to figure out how to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads, because rents are rising everywhere in the US and the price of food is going out of sight.

Add to this the interest rate hikes we know are coming, and things aren’t getting better for the lower middle class or people in poverty.

The discussion of the impact that fiscal stimulus had on our labor market isn’t finished. No one really knows why so many people haven’t returned to work, despite the roaring economy.

Time to wake up America! Some Americans are going through hard times. Clearly, people in Ukraine are facing terror that is much worse than here at home. Maybe this cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” by The Brothers Comatose with AJ Lee can bring a momentary comfort in this age of discomfort:

Watch it, you won’t be disappointed.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – March 6, 2022

A federal district court judge in Florida issued an order preventing disciplinary action against a Navy officer who refused to take the Covid vaccine on religious grounds. In the military, this is called insubordination, and is subject to many different forms of punishment. But not according to Florida District Court Judge Steven Merryday:

“The military is well aware of the frailty of their arguments in defense of their practices….The record creates a strong inference that the services are discriminatorily and systematically denying religious exemptions without a meaningful and fair hearing.”

The officer is in charge of a guided missile destroyer that is about to deploy. The warship carries 320 officers and sailors, along with missiles and torpedoes. The Navy isn’t saying where it’s headed. But now, the Navy can’t deploy its warship, even though it says it has lost trust in its commanding officer, an anti-vaxxer who has repeatedly disobeyed lawful orders.

Perhaps the craziest aspect of the judge’s ruling is that the Navy is prohibited from reassigning the insubordinate commander to a position at the same rank, pay grade etc. while the case is litigated. That’s something that the military normally has absolute discretion to do.

But the judge has overruled the Navy, along with the many senior officers who have said under oath that deploying the ship with the anti-Vaxx commander could imperil national security. Instead, the judge has ordered the Navy to keep the disobedient officer in charge of its $1.8 billion warship.

Now, the Navy and the judiciary are at a standoff. The Navy won’t deploy its warship until the commander is stripped of command. The judge will not allow it to do so. As a result, the judge has effectively commandeered a Navy guided-missile destroyer.

The issue seems to be about the limits of individual religious freedom. Military courts don’t usually decide these issues. The controlling law is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that requires “reasonable accommodation” for religious requirements, like for service members who must have beards or wear religious headgear.  They are permitted to do so, even if regulations would otherwise prohibit them. The question is should it apply to vaccinations for commanders when the Navy says they must be vaccinated.

Another problem is jurisdiction. A US district judge shouldn’t have any jurisdiction when the dispute is between the US Military and an officer or enlisted person. Soldiers do surrender some of their Constitutional or legislatively guaranteed rights while in the military, but not all. So some actions must be resolved by civilian courts.

This is a clear example of how the band of authoritarian theocrats with lifetime judicial appointments are trashing decisions taken by both our political and military institutions. In the coming years, the center and left must decide if they’re OK with right-wing judges carrying out a slow motion religious coup under the color of law. On to cartoons.

Strongman has a new meaning:

Does love between two authoritarians amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world?

March Madness used to mean basketball on TV, not war:

Can nuclear war bring Red and Blue together for a one night stand? Nope:

Trans kids being who they are is bringing out the true nature of Republicans:

After last week’s revelations, is the tide turning for Trump? Let’s root for the undertow:

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Saturday Soother – March 5, 2022

The Daily Escape:

Herring Cove, Provincetown MA – February 2022 photo by Karen Riddett

Wrongo and Ms. Right went to the big box store yesterday. Most of the things on our list were out of stock. We also needed to fill the car’s gas tank. Local prices ranged from $3.65 to $3.92/gal. We filled up at the place with the lower number.

This is before any effects of Putin’s War on prices here at home. One product that will be impacted is wheat. Russia is the largest exporter of wheat in the world, and Ukraine is #2. Reuters says that the two countries account for about 29% of global wheat exports. They also say that US wheat futures rose to a 14-year high earlier this week.

The reason is that major wheat exporters aren’t holding as much wheat in storage as they do usually. Wheat stocks are set to fall to a nine-year low of 57 million tons by the end of the 2021/22 season. The news gets worse: If Russia and Ukraine are excluded from those holdings, other major global wheat exporters account for just 16% of the global stock.

That’s enough wheat to feed the world for less than three weeks.

The majority of wheat stock that isn’t in the hands of major exporters is held by China. China’s expected to account for 47% of global inventories at the end of the year. And last Thursday, China started approving imports of Russian wheat that had been blocked for years over Beijing’s concerns about fungus and other contaminants. The countries had announced that China would begin importing Russian wheat and barley shortly after Putin visited China ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

Emptywheel reports that Russia imports a significant portion of the wheat seed it needs for each growing season:

“…where will Russia buy the wheat seed needed? (Depending on source, there’s a disparity in what percentage of wheat seed Russia imports, but it’s between 18-40% depending on spring, hard wheat, or other type.)”

Will Russia purchase seed from China and India? Will those two countries accept rubles? Or will they look to barter for something else in trade, like natural gas?

Ukraine is in an even worse position. Reuters says that Ukraine has confirmed stoppage of its grain exports until the end of the Russian invasion. There is a chance that supplies for the next season from both Ukraine and Russia could also be in jeopardy, pending the duration and outcome of the war.

They also report that Ukraine accounts for 16% of world corn exports. Ukraine and the US are the only world corn exporters until Argentina and Brazil gear up to export their crops. Apparently, Ukraine still has a good deal of its 2021 corn crop to ship, but given Russia’s closing of Ukraine’s access to the sea, that may be problematic.

As the Northern Hemisphere enters spring, grain planting is right around the corner for both Russia and Ukraine.  Corn is going in for Ukraine and spring wheat for Russia. It’s highly uncertain how Putin’s War will impact crop production this spring. Russia has yet to plant 30% of its 2022 wheat crop.

Brazil imports wheat because it can’t grow enough for its own consumption. After Trump closed soybean exports to China, Brazil moved land into soybean production for the Chinese market. Brazil could try to increase acreage dedicated to wheat, but new Brazilian acreage comes at the expense of further destroying their forests, a terrible tradeoff.

We are looking at the emergence of a global economic war of attrition brought about by the sanctions regime. The target is Russia, but economic costs will spill over to the rest of the world.

On that note, it’s time to unplug from the terrible news that for the moment, is mostly caused by a terrible country.

It’s time for our Saturday Soother. We can’t escape the cold blustery weather in Connecticut, so it’s another indoors weekend here at the Mansion of Wrong. Let’s start by brewing up a mug of Monarch Estate Gesha ($42/4oz.) from Honolulu’s own Monarch Coffee. The roaster says it has subtle, sweet flavors of berries, mango, honeydew, apple, and pear. Note the price. Coffee prices have spiked along with many other items.

Now grab a seat by a big window and listen to Hauser performing the cello solo in “Adagio” by Albinoni, accompanied by the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra in Zagreb, Croatia in 2017. This weekend, given the tragedy in Ukraine, it’s nice to listen to music that transports us to a place where there’s peace:

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Judge Says Jan. 6 Was a “Seditious Conspiracy”

The Daily Escape:

Sandhill Cranes, Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, CO – February 2022 photo by Rick Dunnahoo

Most of us had few expectations that the organizers of the Jan. 6 insurrection would face any legal consequences. Indeed, we’ve had almost zero confidence that the truth about what led up to that day would ever be known.

That just changed. Politico reported that:

“Joshua James, one of the 11 Oath Keepers militia affiliates indicted earlier this year on a charge of seditious conspiracy alongside the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, on Wednesday became the first person to plead guilty to the sedition-related charge in connection with the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.”

James admitted that he tried to disrupt the peaceful transfer of presidential power and that Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes had a “plan” for accomplishing that disruption. The plea deal statement describes planning that occurred in November 2020 in the DC area and VA:

“On November 14 and 15, 2020, James met with Rhodes and others in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and at Caldwell’s Virginia farmhouse and learned about the start of their plans to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.”

The November planning meetings are important, because they suggest broader coordination with “others” at the Jan. 6 March. Perhaps the most interesting detail of the statement describes a plan to report to White House grounds and secure the perimeter:

“In the weeks leading up to January 6, 2021, Rhodes instructed James and other co-conspirators to be prepared, if called upon, to report to the White House grounds to secure the perimeter and use lethal force if necessary against anyone who tried to remove President Trump from the White House, including the National Guard or other government actors who might be sent to remove President Trump as a result of the Presidential Election.”

This begs the question of who is suicidal enough to plan to meet as an armed group at the White House grounds, unless they believed they were invited there and cleared for entry by Trump. Absent that, they should have expected to be arrested or shot on sight.

We’re looking at a plea of seditious conspiracy. From the WaPo:

“Federal law defines seditious conspiracy as two or more people who “conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States,” or act “by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States.”

This means we can now legally describe Jan. 6 as a conspiracy to commit sedition. For those among us who were wondering what Merrick Garland’s DOJ has been doing for the last year, it’s this: January 6 was officially a sedition, at least for Joshua James.

That says things are getting very interesting, particularly when we add to it this from the WaPo:

“The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol said on Wednesday that there was enough evidence to conclude that former President Donald J. Trump and some of his allies might have conspired to commit fraud and obstruction by misleading Americans about the outcome of the 2020 election and attempting to overturn the result.”

In a court filing in a civil case in California, the Committee’s lawyers said they had accumulated evidence demonstrating that Trump, the conservative lawyer John Eastman, and others could potentially be charged with criminal violations including obstructing an official proceeding of Congress and conspiracy to defraud the American people by illegally obstructing the counting of Electoral College ballots.

The Committee made the statement in a court filing to force Trump’s lawyer, John Eastman, to turn over documents to the Committee. Eastman is the attorney who advised Trump that Vice President Mike Pence could reject the electoral ballots.

The Committee also released an email written in the middle of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, to Eastman from Greg Jacob, a Pence advisor:

When you read the email above, don’t gloss over this sentence: “I share your concerns about what the Democrats will do once in power.” That shows he is a hard-right partisan. But he closes with the big point:

“…thanks to your bullshit, we are now under siege”.

Short-term, despite the way the media is breathlessly talking about the Select Committee’s court filing, the Joshua James guilty plea is more interesting.

He connects the dots with the Oath Keepers’ leader, Stewart Rhodes. James was also in contact with Roger Stone, which begs the question of what Stone knew about their plans, or more troublingly, what Stone might have directed them to do.

Let’s not get too excited, but it seems that it’s now remotely possible that Trump, Roger Stone, and others will discover that in America, it’s true that no one is above the law.

Cook up some popcorn and watch the show.

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