Sunday, September 18, 2022

Speaking of Which

A week I was planning on skipping this exercise, then wrote the long Bacevich comment, then had a peek around the usual sources. Rather haphazard approach, but quite a bit got stuck in my net.

Tariq Ali: [09-14] King Charles III May Keep His Head -- His Kingdom is Another Story: "The monarchy needs death and weddings for its cyclical renewal." I like this opening: "Charles is a name that most English monarchs have avoided since the 17th century. Let's therefore start where we really should."

Andrew Bacevich: [09-13] Will the U.S. Learn Anything from Putin's Disastrous Invasion? Alternate title: "Russia's Underperforming Military (and Ours)." Not really. Even though the U.S. military studies its own failures, the conclusions rarely waft up to policy levels, unless they argue that the failures can simply be solved by spending more money -- that's something the top brass and their congressional enablers can always get behind. This suggests that the real obstacles to change are high up in the security state, with their broad misconceptions about the competency, efficacy, and desirability of military power. To the extent that they can explain Russia's failures in terms where the U.S. is plausibly more proficient (like logistics), they shield themselves from self-doubt. But as should have been clear from Iraq, a virtuoso performance in capturing Baghdad wasn't anywhere near sufficient to achieve the desired political goals (roughly speaking, leaving Iraq as a stable and peaceful democracy integrated into the western capitalist economy). That's basically because it's very hard to occupy a foreign country, and very easy for natives to disrupt it, and once that starts, military domination does as much or more harm than anything else.

It may be clear now that Russia lacks the ability to conquer alien territory like the U.S. did in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it remains to be seen whether Russia will be able to defend its occupation of predominantly Russian areas like Crimea and Donbas -- where they know the language, and have cultural affinities unlike the U.S. in the Middle East.

One lesson the U.S. should draw from this war is that Russia isn't much of a threat beyond its borders, except for the nuclear threat. If the U.S. was seriously interested in world peace, it would make nuclear disarmament a major diplomatic priority, offering to sacrifice its own arsenal in the process. Secondly, it would negotiate pullbacks around Russia's borders. Thirdly, it would try to come up with a process for adjudicating border disputes in the region (and elsewhere: Kosovo and Bosnia are still unsettled; also, more ominously, Korea and Taiwan). But none of this is going to happen as long as U.S. politicians (and their security mandarins) think wars can be won, and that the projection of military power matters.

Bacevich has a book coming out in November on this theme: On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century. One thing I've long been struck by is how poorly the British people have been served by their deep feelings of their imperial past -- now mostly nostalgic but never far removed from the racist prerogatives the British claimed. When you look at the history of imperialism, it's easy to sympathize with the oppressed, but the experience has also warped the humanity of their oppressors, and that too takes a toll.

In looking up Bacevich's book, I noticed that Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad have a new book, with a striking subtitle: The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power. One lesson few have learned from the last few years is how fragile many things we depend on are, like supply lines. As systems get more complicated, as fewer people understand how they work, as resources get stretched, as responsibility is blurred or shirked, the world becomes more fragile, and things break, often catastrophically. (Which, by the way, is a mathematical term, meaning suddenly. There is a branch of mathematics called catastrophe theory, which studies discontinuous functions.) We live in a world which is increasingly fragile, governed by economic and political systems which assume it isn't, and are regularly blindsided when things break.

Jamelle Bouie: [09-13] It Is a Well-Known Truth That Opponents of Democracy Don't Want You to Have Nice Things: Looks at "the old idea that political democracy requires a certain amount of economic equality." Finds many examples, especially before 1870, when the Gilded Age took off -- like the 1920s and 1980s, a brief period when greed grew into "irrational exuberance" before the bubbles burst. "Wherever you look in U.S. history, you see Americans grappling with the connections among equality, inequality and democracy. Crucially, many of those Americans have struggled to make democracy itself a tool for the more equitable distribution of wealth and status." Which is, of course, why conservatives, as the self-recruited (or otherwise employed) defenders of the rich, have always distrusted and often plotted against democracy.

Rachel M Cohen: [09-14] What Republicans would do if they win back Congress. I could elaborate, but short answer is that it would be very bad and real ugly. Given how clear Republicans have been about their plans, I'm left with the nagging question: why would any significant number of American voters want to hurt themselves like that?

Artin DerSimonian: [09-15] New attacks on Armenia call for immediate Western diplomatic engagement. This is the latest flare up of another post-Soviet territorial conflict, with ramifications for Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Iran, and the US -- which is to say lots of countries with ulterior motives and chips on their shoulders. U.S. involvement is particularly disturbing: see Eldar Mamedov: [09-16] Caucasus conflict highlights US hawks' reckless support for Azerbaijan.

Connor Echols: [09-16] Diplomacy Watch: Putin reportedly spiked a peace deal in early days of war. A roundup of news in this week of no serious diplomacy. Robert Wright [09-16] writes more about the "spiked deal" report: You can't prevent a war after it starts.

On the battlefield, Ukraine has regained significant territory to the east of Kharkiv, including the strategic town of Izium, but has not yet crossed the border into Luhansk. Ukrainian gains in the southwest near Kherson have been less impressive. Russia responded to its losses with attacks on infrastructure in Kharkiv.

More on Ukraine:

  • Ross Douthat: [09-17] The Quality That Sustained Queen Elizabeth Is Hobbling Putin: Get ready for this: Putin "has been hobbled in his fight because his regime lacks the mystical quality we call legitimacy." For the record, Putin's been in power for 16 of the last 22 years (and arguably for the other 6), and unlike Queen Elizabeth II he was actually elected (four times). There are lots of problems with Putin, but this one is purely in Douthat's noggin. He's never worth reading, but sometimes he's so bad you can't miss him as an example of how little talent and insight it takes to write for the New York Times.

  • Connor Echols: [09-14] Zelensky takes weapons push to Congress -- and the defense industry: Seems at first like a rude reach, but you can hardly blame him for thinking that the arms merchants, pulling their strings in Congress, are the real powers behind American support for war in Ukraine.

  • Fred Kaplan: [09-13] When Will Russians Realize the Disaster in Ukraine Is Putin's Fault? Russia's political system and media are so closed off it will be hard to measure. On the other hand, any whiff of dissent is likely to be blown up as propaganda. Kaplan cites some examples, but cautions: "the fog of this war is particularly thick; there is so much that independent analysts and journalists can't yet see."

  • Paul Krugman: [09-16] What Ukraine Needs From Us: Gets off on the wrong foot by accusing "realists" as having "spent the whole war urging Ukraine to surrender and have been disappointed in their predictions of military defeat, are now predicting inevitable economic collapse." That's not a fair description of any "realist" I'm familiar with. I don't identify as such, but I've often found the realists to be more grounded than the fantasists and ideologues who dominate US foreign policy. But after reiterating his credentials as a liberal hawk, Krugman does have some interesting things to say about the macroeconomic effects of the war on Ukraine. Still, he runs out of space before getting to the question raised in the title. It's an open question whether the U.S. and E.U. will offer anywhere near as much support in rebuilding Ukraine as they did in tearing it apart. Past history doesn't offer many positive examples, but the West's welcome of Ukrainian refugees is categorically different from refugees from other war-torn nations. But we should be clear on two things: one is that no significant rebuilding will be possible before a negotiated peace; the second is that a lot of money will be required, and on more favorable terms than the West (especially the private sector) is used to. Probably a couple more things are worth mentioning: prewar Ukraine had quite a reputation for corruption and cronyism, which won't be easy to recover from; also Ukraine's recovery will to some extent be tied to Russia's own economic recovery, which is something U.S. planners will be especially reluctant to support.

Susan B Glasser: [09-15] A Second Trump Term Would Be a Scary Rerun of the First: "Scary" may be too mild of a word, given how the subhed cites velociraptors in Jurassic Park. The most obvious point is that the one thing Trump has clearly learned from his first term is to hire flunkies who are above all personally loyal to Trump and Trump alone. Don't expect any adults-in-the-room types. Maybe some diehard conservative agenda types will get on board, but only if they grovel a lot. (Mike Pompeo is the model here.) But it's not inconceivable that he felt sabotaged by the conservative apparatchiki Pence stocked his administration with, so he could lean more to popular/demagogic policies, most effectively in foreign policy (where the liberal/interventionist worldview has led to disaster after disaster). But it's not likely, because he doesn't seem to be capable of coherent thought, and his focus on hiring only the most servile flunkies all but guarantees incompetence. Still, it's hard to imagine how ugly it can get.

Julia Gledhill/William D Hartung: [09-11] How the Arms Industry Scams the Taxpayer. Arms spending is so popular on Capitol Hill that the House added $37 billion to the Defense Department's already astronomical ask, and the Senate topped with with $45 billion.

Briahna Joy Gray: [09-15] Debt is a Form of Social Control: "To be indebted means to lack freedom. That's why elites melt down in response to Biden's new plan to forgive $10k of student debt. They don't want you to be free." There's more to this the author goes into, and more beyond that. Much as debt maintains the class order here in America, the IMF has proven to be a more effective tool at preserving the domain of elite capitalism than imperial armies ever were. That's because most of the time debt is easier tolerated than challenged, but not always. Which makes one wonder: why do we keep paying tribute to the rich, when they don't have anything better to do with their wealth than loan it out?

Caroline Houck: [09-13] The questions over the queen's role in Britain's violent empire, explained by a historian: Interview with Caroline Elkins, who is the right historian to ask this question to -- see her recent book, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. The British Empire had started to unravel before Elizabeth was coronated, but the most brutal periods of repression in Malaya and Kenya occurred on her watch, and she was often called to represent the fading empire (she was in Kenya when her predecessor died).

Sarah Jones: [09-16] What Happens When a Party Rejects Humanity? No need to ask "what party?" And while Ron DeSantis got the photo op, Greg Abbott and Doug Ducey joined him in the second paragraph: all three governors thought it would be funny to bus immigrants to liberal enclaves up north. For more on this:

Sarah Jones: [09-14] Lindsey Graham Caught the Garbage Truck: He probably thinks he's some kind of great compromiser with his federal abortion ban after 15 weeks, but he's just another jerk who thinks he's funny. But his stunt is not only view as proof of malevolence by the left; isn't not very well received on the right:

Sarah Leonard: [09-08] Free the Internet: "A handful of companies control the web. It doesn't have to be that way." A review of Ben Tarnoff's book, Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future. The Internet wasn't always a business. Since it became one, it may have become slightly more entertaining, but also misinforming and exploitative in ways that are hard to even grasp and reckon with. Page also links to a 2019 article: Jason Linkins: [2019-12-31] The Death of the Good Internet Was an Inside Job. That was part of a Decade From Hell retrospective of the 2010s.

David Leonhardt: [09-17] 'A Crisis Coming': The Twin Threats to American Democracy. Big article, covers the partisan divide in considerable depth, as well as structural issues (quotes Steven Livitsky with this oxymoron: "We are far and away the most countermajoritarian democracy in the world"), but I find curious the lack of data on money in politics. This is part of a broader Democracy Challenged thread, but again there I don't see anything specifically on money, or the fact that most major media organizations (including the New York Times) are owned by very rich special interests.

Milo Milfort/Anatoly Kurmanaev/Andre Paultre: [09-16] Fuel Hike Plunges Haiti Into Near Anarchy: "Discontent over economic misery spilled into the largest national protests in years, prompting international calls for action."

Ian Millhiser: [09-15] 3 takeaways from that Trump judge's latest order in the Mar-a-Lago case: "Judge Aileen Cannon's latest order shows a disregard for established law." Millhiser also wrote: [09-15] The Supreme Court hands the religious right an unexpected loss. Don't expect it to last. "The Supreme Court disposes of the Yeshiva University case with an implicit threat." Update: Hurubie Meko: [09-16] Yeshiva University Halts All Student Clubs to Block L.G.B.T.Q. Group.

More on Trump and associates:

Timothy Noah:

  • [09-12] Why Isn't Everybody Rich Yet?: "The twentieth century promised prosperity and leisure for all. What went wrong?" Reviews new books by J Bradford DeLong (Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century) and Thomas Piketty (A Brief History of Equality): the former on how since 1870 previously unimaginable wealth has been created, the latter on how the rich prevented it from being widely disseminated, but also on how the more egalitarian period between WWII and the Reagan-Thatcher reaction produced the peak growth of DeLong's "long century," creating the broad "middle class" we're in danger of losing now. I have a number of nits to pick with Noah here -- like his Timothy Snyder-credited assertion that Stalin and Mao were greater monsters than Hitler -- but would rather note that his 2013 book, The Great Divergence: America's Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It, is still, as I put it in one of my Book Roundups, "probably the first book to start with if you want to understand how incomes and wealth have diverged since 1973, with the rich and the superrich pulling ever further ahead while everyone else stagnates or worse."

  • [09-16] Strike Settled. Now Let's Nationalize the Railroads. Settling the strike is a good example of something Biden could take an interest in and make work, while Trump or any other Republican would either ignore the problem or come down solidly on the side of the owners (see Reagan, Coolidge, and Benjamin Harrison for particularly gross examples). As for nationalizing the railroads, that wasn't something I've given much thought to. But the profit figures Noah cites are suggestive. Railroads are natural monopolies, which is why they've been heavily regulated in the past. The profit figures suggest not heavily enough. The thinking for wanting to nationalize companies has changed since the early days of socialism, but that doesn't mean that there aren't good reasons to nationalize some companies/industries today. Amtrak is already an example, where there is a public need that the private sector is not able to provide. That could be true for rail freight, or at least its infrastructure, as well.

Kaila Philo: [09-14] Election Deniers Are Running to Control Voting in More Than Half of U.S. States: 18 of 36 gubernatorial races, 10 of 30 races for attorney general, 13 of 27 races for secretary of state; no need noting which party ticket they are all running on.

Charles P Pierce:

Andrew Prokop: [09-14] The case for Democratic optimism -- and pessimism -- in the midterms. I'm not in a position where I have to, or want to, worry about November elections. For me there is very little to think about, and very little I can do about it. Still, it seems odd to me that 538 gives Republicans a 71% chance of taking the House, and Democrats a 71% chance of keeping the Senate. I know the former is gerrymandered to help Republicans, but have no clear idea how much. I also have no notion of how much effect the Republican voter-suppression bills will actually have, and even less idea whether the provisions that allow officials to reject results will kick in. (Georgia seems to be the main test case.) I do know that voter turnout will be down this year from 2020, because it always is in non-presidential elections. (I hate to say "midterm," which implies that electing a new Congress and a majority of state governors and legislators is not just less important but a mere reflection of the exalted presidency.) That killed the Democrats in 2010, but same thing happened in 2006 and 2018 and those are counted as "blue waves." I'm not sure that having more uninformed voters in presidential election years is really such a good thing. The other thing I do know is that it would be tragic to elect Republicans almost anywhere, let alone in quantities sufficient to do real damage. And I get the sense that more and more people see that. The question is whether enough do.

Nathan J Robinson:

  • [07-11] We Can Build Paradises for the Public: "We need to recover the concepts of great public goods, public services, and public works. The New Deal's WPA provides a vision of what is possible." Cites Joseph Maresca's book, WPA Buildings: Architecture and the Art of the New Deal. It shouldn't be hard to think of nice things even the WPA didn't envision, but catching up is a start.

  • [09-14] Can We Drop the Silly Idea That America Is "Heading for a Civil War"? Reviews the recent literature, which I and others have debunked several times before, then points out: "The idea distracts us from the class war we're actually in, and is a deeply misleading framework for understanding the real risks we face." Democratic politicians don't like to talk about class, probably because they spend most of their time and energy begging money from rich donors, who'd rather talk about abstract threats to democracy than tangible benefits at their expense. Even the phrase "real risks" detracts from the "class war" point, offering an alliance on issues that do threaten the rich, like climate change. On the other hand, a coat of "populist" culture war paint can scarcely hide the fact that Republicans are first and foremost servants of oligarchy. By the way, the term when people rise up against oligarchies isn't civil war. It's revolution.

  • [09-15] How Media Copaganda Hides the Truth about the US Punishment Bureaucracy: Interview with Alec Karakatsanis, author of Unusual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Justice System, and publisher of the Copaganda (I take this coinage to mean: propaganda for cops). Also see his [2020-08-10] piece: Why "Crime" Isn't the Question and Police Aren't the Answer. "The U.S. is currently caging human beings at a rate that is unprecedented in its own history and in the recorded history of the modern world. We're caging people at five times the rate that we did when Nixon was president. We're caging people at a rate of five or 10 times what other comparably wealthy countries do right now."

Sigal Samuel: [09-14] China is committing genocide. The world has no plan to stop it. This is about the Uyghur minority in the northwest province of Xinjiang, where they represent about 45% of a population of 26 million (vs. 42% Han, a number that has been rising and no doubt will eventually constitute a clear majority). Like many minorities around the world, they are subject to unfair treatment, prone to rebellion, and subject to harsh repression. The word "genocide" gets bandied about liberally in such cases, especially because it implies an obligation of other countries to step in and stop the perpetrators -- not that this has ever actually happened, even in the case of Rwanda, a much less fearsome power than China. (Ok, it has occasionally been used as a pretext for invasion, as when Russia invaded Ukraine ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians from Nazi genocide, but who really believes that?) While it seems likely that China trods on basic human rights in Xinjiang and elsewhere, you have to wonder why such hysteria over China -- especially given that there is absolutely no way the UN or any other world power can rectify the situation. There is no global world order. We live in a system where nations are not accountable to law or other nations, and that can only improve when all nations agree to establish some common standards -- something that is impossible to achieve with nations at each others' throats.

Alex Skopic: [09-13] The Commodities Markets are Absurd, Unstable, and Dangerous. Cites the recent book by Rupert Russel: Price Wars: How the Commodities Markets Made Our Chaotic World.

Emily Stewart: [09-08] What if we're fighting inflation all wrong?. Points out that the Fed is a blunt instrument for fighting inflation, rather limited and indirect in its efficacy, and indiscriminate in its side effects. Meanwhile, what we're calling inflation is often just an aggregation of discrete market failures, each better dealt with through direct policy changes. If your house has a roach infestation, the Fed can probably fix it by burning the house down, but less destructive solutions are possible -- just not from the Fed.

Derrick Bryson Taylor: [09-17] Western Alaska Lashed by Strongest Storm in Years: "Remnants of Typhoon Merbok" hit Alaska with "winds of around 90 miles per hour and heavy rain, causing significant coastal flooding. Also [09-17]: Storm Surge in Alaska Pulls Homes From Their Foundations. "Sea surface temperatures recorded along Alaska's western coast were at or near record highs."

Speaking of climate:

It looks like Tropical Storm Fiona will turn north into the Atlantic after hitting Puerto Rico. (PS: [09-18] Hurricane Fiona knocks out power to all of Puerto Rico, with "catastrophic flooding.") Typhoon Nanadol is heading north to Japan, and expected to follow the entire length of Honshu, with 39 million people facing hurricane-force winds in the south, and many more heavy rain. Meanwhile "dangerous heat" returns here to Kansas, with record-setting 100F days in the forecast.

Michael Wines: [09-07] In Voter Fraud, Penalties Often Depend on Who's Voting: Author "searched through newspapers, online databases and other sources to compile a list of roughly 400 voter fraud prosecutions over the last five years." That may seem like a number, but it's "infinitesimal in a country where more than 159.7 million votes were case in the 2020 general election alone."

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