Saturday, October 27, 2012

Iranian Sanctions - Did Shit Just Get Rial?

Check it out. It's that cool graphic again.
I'm like CNN or something.
The Iranian economy is in trouble.  They are seeing massive inflation as the value of their currency plummets against the dollar.  Revenues, particularly oil export revenues, are down.  GDP growth is negative, consumer prices are skyrocketing, and there is unrest in the population as they are the ones suffering the consequences.  Of course, Western nations are happily and proudly announcing that the "sanctions are working".  Now this condition has the welcome consequence of reducing the Israeli leadership's demands for war against Iran NOW, but we need to think clearly about what we mean when we say the sanctions are working, and whether they actually meet that criteria.  Certainly the UN and unilateral sanctions against the Iranian government and business interests have damaged the Iranian economy, but that was never the goal in the first place.  The stated goal was to coerce Iran's leadership to stop their work on the Uranium fuel cycle, particularly enrichment, despite the fact that as an NPT signatory they are just as legally entitled to that process as America is.  And to this point, they continue their enrichment work without hesitation.

Have economic sanctions ever "worked"?  Remember that the entire world enforced very strong economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq after it occupied Kuwait in 1990.  How effective were those sanctions?  Well, it still took a war to get Iraq to abandon Kuwait, and thirteen years later another war to topple his government.  Iraq was crippled economically, millions of her people suffered terribly and thousands died, mostly children for lack of medicines.  But none of the goals of the sanctions, the improvement of Saddam's treatment of his own population and his ultimate removal from office were ever accomplished.  War wasn't avoided - indeed, the West went to war against Iraq TWICE while the sanctions were firmly in place.

The most interesting thing here is that it would, at this point, be pretty straightforward to make the sanctions work.  Iran would clearly be willing to make concessions in order to get some of the sanctions on their oil, banking and shipping industries lifted.  So you have to wonder: If the west could get what they say they want by negotiation, and they aren't willing to negotiate, you have to come to the conclusion that they don't actually want what they SAY they want.  If the issue was truly just Iran's nuclear program, you could make huge strides by trading away some of the sanctions.  But the demands are for even more sanctions, and while demands are made of the Iranians, they are all sticks without carrots.  There is no real incentive for the Iranians to comply with the demands, because they would be giving up bargaining power while getting nothing in return.  Either the leadership of the United States, Europe and the UN are collectively so blind and naive that they don't understand the most fundamental rules of game theory, or they are just outright lying about what they are trying to accomplish.

So with no relief in sight and no incentive to negotiate, you have to think about what options are available to the Iranians.  They have to find a way to get the sanctions on the table, and right now it is clear that concessions won't accomplish that.  So the only remaining option is to try to ratchet up the tensions in order to make the West feel a greater sense of urgency to take yes for an answer.  They have three options to do that.  They could use their influence with Syria, Hezbollah and in Lebanon to raise tensions between the Palestinians and Israel, with the implicit understanding that those tensions would be reduced along with the sanctions.  This is a risky approach, because Israel is such a belligerent neighbor that lots of people would likely die as a result and the West would not feel any pressure from those events.  They have the ability to affect the price of oil by threatening shipping in the straits of Hormuz.  This would be my preferred approach if I was Khameini.  He'd have to be very careful and not overreach - anything that draws a military response could escalate out of control very quickly.  But low level actions with some deniability, particularly a few untraceable mines showing up, and the cost to insure tankers in the gulf goes way up and the price of oil jumps.  If they could keep up the right amount of pressure, the global economic condition would suffer, with the knowledge that to start a shooting war would make things worse.  Again, with an implicit understanding that these actions would stop under a reduced sanctions regimen, this might be the best chance they have.  Of course, it also has a pretty good chance of leading to a regional war.  The third option is to increase their nuclear program.  Begin enriching to 60%, bring the new centrifuges at Fordow online or increase work on long range ballistic missiles.  With a more explicit understanding that Iran does these things reluctantly, and is completely prepared to cease them in exchange for a reduction in the sanctions.

The main thing to realize at this point is the situation is unstable, and unsustainable.  Iran won't back down without some reason for doing so, and the sanctions are not going to result in any kind of regime change.  At some point somebody, either Iran or Israel, is going to miscalculate and the result is going to be a war that will be very bad for Iran and her people, but also very bad for the region and the global economy, and no matter how the war ends, the entire region will be destabilized and militarized to an extent unimaginable before now, with ethnic, sectarian and ideological hatreds etched in the sands from Tashkent to Mogadishu.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Brow-Beatin' Heavy Leather Libya Shuffle...

Sometimes rubble is just...rubble
Wow.  The conservative echo chamber, Fox News, the Romney campaign and the Republican Party is ALL up in arms in outrage over...something.  There was an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, four American diplomats were killed and the consulate building was destroyed.  I'm going to be honest here - I tend to think of myself as an astute observer of the American political scene, but I can't for the life of me figure out what they're wailing, tearing their hair and rending their garments over. There seems to be some dispute over whether it was an attack by Salafi Jihadists on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks or was an attack that grew out of a protest against a ridiculous movie trailer, but it's completely unclear which narrative they prefer.  For the most part, they seem to once again prefer whatever is the opposite of the White House position, and they abandoned any pretense of logical consistency long ago.

I've mostly avoided even thinking about this idiocy, because it's stupid, and because it's purely politically motivated.  The very vacuousness of the "allegations" tend to indicate that there's really nothing behind them.  The fact that nobody is suggesting that there might have been a different outcome, or that if something had been handled differently the situation would be markedly different, tells me that nothing egregious happened, and nothing significant was neglected.  And on a larger scale, if this represents the best line of attack the opposition party can mount against an incumbent President, well that sounds to me more like a tacit endorsement of his performance more than anything else.

They seem to think it somehow matters whether and when the President called it a terror attack.  Now, I don't have any idea what that changes or how it changes anything, but in a hilarious example of right-wing epistemological closure manged to convince themselves that Obama didn't use the magic word "terrorism" for two weeks, to the point where Willard Romney used this argument in a climactic attack on Obama in the debates, only to be shocked to discover that he could have saved himself all manner of embarrassment with one simple Google search.

Now that they're stuck with the truth of Obama and the "T-Word", the next line of attack is that it took him four minutes in his speech before he said it.  I wonder how things might have been different if he had said that word three minutes earlier.  I'm having trouble seeing it.

So an attack happened in a post-revolutionary Arab country five thousand miles from Washington and the White House worked through the chaos and confusion, eventually determined what happened, and set out to react to it.  None of this is shocking, or even unusual, and the only real important question is how the State Department resolves, mitigates and prevents further attacks.  Diplomats are always at risk in unstable places, and it's important that the Department leadership react rationally.  They should not over-react - diplomats cannot operate from hermetically sealed fortresses, and wouldn't be significantly safer if they tried to.  They should work with the host nation to determine if it was an organized attack, and if it was they should try to prosecute the organizers.  Some review of policies and procedures in revolutionary and post-revolutionary locations would not be a bad thing.  But beyond that, it just seems like another day in a world that tries to solve too many problems by killing them.

What's the Matter With Cliff?

There's a very simple explanation
There are two arguments around the upcoming so-called 'Fiscal Cliff' - the unintentionally coincident expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the implementation of the Sequester cuts put in place in the agreement that ended the Debt Ceiling hostage crisis - one around the impacts on economic growth and the other around the deficit.  There is no doubt that, if nothing at all is done, there will be a negative impact on the economy.  The size of that impact is a subject of some debate, but simple common sense suggests that if you increase taxes and reduce spending simultaneously, you'll be taking a certain amount of demand out of the economy, reducing consumer spending and business investment.

The more interesting argument is the one led by the 'deficit hawks' in Congress.  This is another clear demonstration of the fact that there are very few people in American government who actually care about reducing the deficit.  As we've discussed in the past, this is primarily because the American economy represents the safest asset any investor can purchase in the entire world, and because, regardless of the ridiculous rhetoric you so often hear, it is impossible for a nation with it's own currency to 'run out of money'.  The United States Treasury can produce as many dollars as it needs to meet it's needs and obligations, just as it produced the money you have in your pocket right now.

But ask yourself - what position should a real, honest-to-goodness deficit hawk hold when it comes to the fiscal cliff?  Let's see.  The expiration of the tax cuts increases revenues, while the sequestered spending reductions, well, reduce spending.  The deficit plummets in a matter of a few years.  So there should be a robust clamor of voices in Washington, from Tea Party Republicans to fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats to pundits like the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post editorial pages demanding that the lame duck congress do...nothing.  Never has serious deficit reduction been so easily accomplished - by simply sitting on their hands, this Congress can do more to balance the budget than any since the Clinton Administration.  And yet, on this topic, we hear...crickets.

Or rather, we hear nothing that would maximize deficit reduction.  Everybody, it seems, has a suggestion on how to prevent the legislation of the fiscal cliff from actually reducing the deficit.  The most important lesson to be learned here is just how hard fiscal discipline is in the kind of representative democracy we have in America.  Whether for reasons of ideology or convenience, Congressmen and women can come out all for a balanced budget, but individually their election strategy is to simultaneously reduce the federal tax burden on their constituents while increasing the amount of government largess showered on the people and businesses they represent.  They like reduced spending in theory, but as soon as you start talking about specific programs to be cut the enthusiasm dissipates rapidly.  At the same time, there is often a willingness in the majority to implement deficit financed tax cuts, which, when coupled with unabated spending inevitably drives up the deficit.

The other problem making true deficit reduction unlikely is the overall composition of federal spending. It has often been said that the US Government is really just an insurance company with an army, and that explains why there is such resistance at the legislative level to make substantial reductions in spending programs.  The great majority of the money appropriated by Congress goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense and security agencies.  These spending programs are widely considered untouchable, despite the many calls for cuts from outside Congress, and what remains of the federal budget isn't enough to eliminate the deficit.

There is, of course, a simple solution to this problem, but it's oddly one you never seem to hear mentioned in policy discussions.  You could simply accept that this is the level of government services the American people have demanded, and just go ahead and fund them all.  Federal revenues of 22-24% of GDP will accomplish that.  You could do it with a carbon tax, a sales tax, a VAT - there are many ways to accomplish the basic goal of providing the people what they demand of their government.  And in two months there will be another path to this simple solution - to do nothing at all.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

American Combat Troops - Your Jingoism at Work

Stop it.  Just stop it now
It's a pretty good time of year to be someone who enjoys watching the mainstream American sporting events on the television.  We have the baseball playoffs, and we have the football season in full swing.  Lots of good story arcs, little narratives running through the larger tale, one building towards a climax while one plays out the inevitable surprises and disappointments.  But there is something that comes bundled with these televised events that is quite a bit less interesting - the inevitable and ubiquitous demands that we "Support our Troops™" and declare our eternal gratitude to them for sacrificing so much to protect us and defend our freedom.  At some point this foul bile just sticks in my throat and gags me.

First of all, they don't need our support.  They need health care, educational assistance and some kind of program to help them reintegrate into civilian life.  But you and me?  There is nothing we can do to improve their lives.  The best we can do is ignore them, they live in an alternate reality where they go places to fight utter strangers to the death with incredibly lethal modern weapons for reasons they cannot articulate, and then they come home and try to figure out how to live in a place where killing is not an option at all, let alone the preferred approach to problem resolution.  When you hear people spouting "support the troops" orthodoxy in America, it is due to peer pressure driven by guilt.  We know what we use these young people for, so we make up ridiculous narratives to try to convince ourselves that their actions are good and just, and we demand unhesitating 'support' for them, although, like so many other grand lies of guilt and convenience, we cannot explain what we mean by this.  Do we 'support' their mission, even though no one can tell us what it is?  Do we support their goal, even though it seems to be only to perpetuate the conflict?  Do we support their leadership, though it seems utterly unconcerned about the pointless death and destruction they bring about?

But there's more to it than that.   Americans, particularly those marketing products to a mass audience, like to pretend these soldiers are out there fighting and dying in order to, wait for it, here it comes, "defend our freedom".  This is the most toxic lie since Nagasaki.  Let's be clear.  The Iraqis didn't pose any threat to our freedom.  The great American democratic experiment was never threatened by the Taliban.  The Taliban is a small, local insurgency trying to take control of a poor third world nation.  They no more have the power to threaten American freedom than do deer in Argentina.  Americans in Yemen, in Columbia, in Japan and Korea are not defending America, and they certainly are not defending our freedom.  If anything, representing a secretive, autocratic and authoritarian government at its most violently aggressive, they are contributing, however individually unintentionally, to the erosion of freedom here at home.  If war is antithetical to freedom, perpetual war is antithetical to democracy.

We use our vast military power for reasons that are vague at best, and detestable at worst, but America as a nation or as a concept is not at risk from any foreign attacker, and our military is entirely unnecessary to protect us from attacks that will never come.  Let's be serious.  The only routes to an invasion of the United States are Canada and Mexico, and we don't see much in the way of massed armor on either border.  Beyond that, an enemy would have to sail across an ocean to even begin to attack, and with American air and sea power that seems, well, unlikely.  But if American military power is not defending America, and not, despite all the protestations to the contrary, defending American freedoms, then what role are they performing?

They are not the 'world's policemen', as they often like to assure us, because all around the world brutal unelected dictators are slaughtering their own people or those they occupy merely to maintain their grip on power, often with our tacit agreement, and often with weapons we manufactured and supplied.  And even when we raise our voice in condemnation of these atrocities, we suddenly find ourselves backpedaling, explaining why the most expensive, technologically advanced and brutally effective combat force in the world is incapable of solving that particular problem.  If we look dispassionately at American military action since World War II, the lesson we seemed to have learned in the blood and fire of the 1940s is to never go to war with a nation anywhere NEAR the same capability as the US.  We readily fought in Korea, but backed off quickly when China appeared willing to get involved.  We fought in Vietnam for over a decade, primarily because we weren't willing to fight the Russians.  In one 12 year stretch, we mobilized gigantic resources at a cost of trillions of dollars to invade and crush a small middle eastern nation, Iraq, not once, but twice.  It's like we decided they were our sparring partner or something.

The militarization of America is the number one threat to America's own survival extant today.  We need to stop bombing, invading, occupying and arming other nations.  We need to stop building bases.  We need to reduce our funding of a bloated and useless military force by 75%.  There is no direct path to these outcomes - the military is such an institutionalized part of the American government that it can use that very system to perpetuate its own power.  But there's one thing we can do.  We can think about what it means every time somebody demands that we 'support our troops'.  We can think about the costs of perpetual war, in terms of money and lives, but also in terms of basic human values.  And we can spend some time thinking about all the cities and towns those troops have destroyed, all the innocent twisted corpses they left behind, all the families ripped apart, all the lives destroyed.  And we can decide, no.  I don't support that.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

I Don't Believe What I Just Saw...

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, RAGE against the dying of the light
Hopeless.  Done. First round failure. That's where we found ourselves two games into the National League Division Series.  The Giants lost the first two games, the two they played at their home park.  No, that's not right.  To say they lost those games was to say that Summer morning in Hiroshima was a bad day.  The Reds beat the Giants in every way - they outpitched them, outhit them, came with more energy, more camaraderie, more desire.

So the series moved to Cincinnati for what everyone expected to be a brief stay.  The baseball writers liked to harp on how no team had ever come back from 2-0 in a five-game series on the road, but I think that is looking at it backwards.  The reason no team ever did it is that it cannot be done. Three games, all of them win-or-go-home affairs, against an arguably better team.  Your best pitchers already used, your best hitters ineffective and demoralized, your field leadership casting about, looking for answers where there were only questions.

Then came that moment.  If something historically impossible is going to actually happen, something unusual, even bizarre, has to occur in order to break the momentum and shatter the methodical march to victory.  The Reds could afford almost anything to happen in Game 3 - they only had to win ONE GAME at home and, even with their ace, Johnny Cuetto, out of the lineup with injuries, they'd still have Giant killer Mat Latos to pitch in a deciding Game 5.  But out of an infinite set of possibilities, the ONE thing the Reds could not allow was what happened in Game 3.  They won that game in every way but one - the final score was Giants 2, Reds 1.  The Reds could call it a fluke, they held the Giants to one hit while striking out SIXTEEN over 9 innings.  But to the Giants, it was anything but a fluke.  It was proof of a belief that was rapidly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The Giants didn't HAVE to be better - they just had to play together, as a unit, every man selflessly fighting for the man next to him.

Before the game, quirky mid-season acquisition Hunter Pence did something that isn't done in professional baseball.  He gathered the team together, and he gave a little speech.  As it turned out, it was a stemwinder, a barn-burner, a war cry of unity and determination.  He said he was having the time of his life playing with these guys, and he just wasn't ready to go home quite yet.  He implored the team to win once more so they could play together again tomorrow.  And something funny happened - even though Homer Baily flirted with another no hitter, they stood up and traded blow for blow.  The Giants pitching and defense kept the score tied, and when Scott Rolen made an uncharacteristic error in the 10th, they pushed the winning run across.

The Reds could have survived a blowout.  They could have survived a slugfest.  What they could not overcome was the incredible display of determination, a team that, because they absolutely refused to lose, had no option but to find some way to win.  And by winning that way, not with star pitchers and power hitters, but by something less easy to measure, something that can't be found in the box scores, the Giants altered the basic calculation of the series.  Still down 2 games to 1, at the end of Game 3 the experts knew the Giants still didn't have a chance.  But the Reds knew there was something like a force of nature in the opposing clubhouse, and the Giants knew they had something more than talent, something more than luck, something more, ultimately, than the Reds had.  They had love.

In the end, it really wasn't even close.  The series was over, it just remained to play it out.  In Game 4, Pence was back with another motivational oration.  Barry Zito, the Giants most dependable pitcher down the stretch, was ineffective, but it didn't matter. The Giants bats came to life, and the woeful, struggling Tim Lincecum came on and pitched six innings of electric relief.  He never seemed to doubt, he never wavered.  The Reds never got close.  In Game 5, the Giants took the lead in the fifth and fought throughout the rest of the game to hold it.  The Reds challenged and threatened every inning, but the Giants did everything they needed to do to hold on and win.

The comparisons to the 2010 team are inevitable.  That was a bunch of castoffs and misfits, a team that came together at the end and were simply better than everybody else.  The similarities are noteworthy, but the differences are more important.  The 2010 team was better, mostly due to their starting pitching. That year, it was simply a fact - if the Giants scored three runs, they won.  This year, the team has much better hitting from top to bottom, a bullet-proof bullpen and terrific defense.  And they have a secret weapon the older, more jaded Cardinals don't have a counter for - they are simply having too much fun to go home.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

History and the Lessons of Israel in the East China Sea

Disputed Islands - Worth Fighting Over?
In the East China Sea, somewhere between Okinawa and Taiwan is a little collection of uninhabited rocks, collectively totalling about 6 square kilometers.  They have been considered Chinese territory at least since the sixteenth century - the Chinese call them the Diaoyu Islands - but the Japanese conquered them in the first Sino-Japanese war and annexed them in 1895, calling them the Senkaku Islands, part of Okinawa Prefecture.  They were captured by the US along with Okinawa at the end of World War II, and as such were included as part of the Okinawa Reversion Treaty in 1972 that returned them to Japanese control.  Since 1900, the islands have been privately owned, since the 1970s, by a brother and sister from the wealthy Kurihara family of Saitama Prefecture.

For the larger part of history, nobody cared a bit about these tiny rocks.  The Japanese tried to operate a fish processing plant on the largest of the islands, but it failed.  They remained mostly isolated, uninhabited and ignored.  But there was one other event that occurred in 1969, while the islands were still under US control.  That year the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East released a report indicating that there were likely large reserves of oil and gas in the seabed around the islands.  And immediately thereafter, a long-simmering dispute was born.  In light of the threats and saber rattling, just last month the Japanese government took back full control over the Senkakus by purchasing them for 2 billion yen and nationalizing them.  Needless to say, the Chinese government was not pleased by this turn of events.

Now, as oil prices have risen to one hundred dollars a barrel as demand for refined petroleum spikes all across Asia, the availability of domestically produced energy resources has gone from being an economic advantage to a strategic necessity.  As such, the two largest consumers of fossil fuels in the region, China and Japan, now eye each other belligerently across the East China Sea, each demanding their claim be recognized, and neither willing to back down or compromise.  Diplomats, analysts and pundits are now talking openly about the possibility of an actual shooting war, ostensibly over the disputed islands but more accurately, a war between Japan and China would be over control of the energy resources under the waters of the East China Sea.  The economic and territorial dispute between these two Asian powers is exacerbated by their history of occupation and brutality over the last century.

It's very important to understand why Japan would be willing to confront a much more powerful China over a territorial dispute.  On its own, Japan could be counted on to back down before the shooting started, as it has already been utterly destroyed by war in the recent past, and would not once again be willing to go to war against an adversary that it could not hope to defeat.  But Japan is most certainly not on its own.  The US is committed by treaty to defend Japan, and even beyond that, the US has always seen China, as a communist nation, as a major natural global adversary, so Japan knows well that a war with China would quickly become a war between the United States and China.

Which brings us to Israel.  America is just starting to discover the risks and dangers inherent in an open-ended, unlimited commitment of military support to another, smaller nation.  That nation can easily become the obnoxious kid in the neighborhood with a big, tough older brother.  He need fear no one, no matter how inappropriate and unfair his actions, he knows, just as the entire neighborhood knows, that to stand against him is to find yourself in a fight you can't win.  America has now, by dint of its unequivocal commitments to Israel in every possible scenario, sacrificed control of its own middle east policy, and it is Israel, rather than the US leadership, that will ultimately determine if America goes to war in the Persian Gulf yet again.

So now we find ourselves facing this same situation in the Far East.  Japan staring down China over a remote atoll, threatening war and refusing to negotiate in the UN, knowing that if they miscalculate and war breaks out, the US will find itself in the thick of the fighting.  At this point, how many other US client states will see the lesson of Israel and use the power of the American military to drive their own interests, even if those interests run counter to American policy?  When the most powerful military force in the world is no longer controlled by its own leadership, but rather can be unleashed at the whims of the government and military leadership of various smaller nations, Americans should think very hard about their approach to international relations.  And the world should be very afraid.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Polling the Chicken Little Demographic

The sky, believe it or not, is very likely NOT falling
American Democrats are weird.  In a not-good, annoying sort of way.  There was a presidential debate last week.  You might have heard about it.  Mitt Romney was more aggressive, more active, and worked had to get outside the "severely conservative" box he has been locked in by the distrust of the tea partiers.  President Obama was more passive, didn't counterpunch and generally had the debate performance predicted of him - competent, adequate, nothing more.  So at the end, the general consensus was that Romney had outperformed the President, and it could fairly be said that he "won" the debate.

Now this should have been news for about 24 hours.  A single debate in a year-long campaign matters, at least to some extent, but it cannot be a game-changing event.  Unless it brings about a large-scale Democratic freak-out, a week long rending of garments and dire predictions of the collapse of the Obama campaign into rubble and dust.  And so the media did what they do, reporting on the debate and the reaction in typical horserace fashion.  The Republicans crowed that their candidate had mopped the floor with the President, and he had turned the whole election on its head in two hours in Colorado.  Meanwhile, Democrats, from politicians to pundits, roundly cried and wailed that Romney had mopped the floor with Obama and turned the whole election on its head in two hours in Colorado.  The media, acting in its preferred role as stenographer to the stars, duly reported that Mitt Romney had mopped the floor with Obama and turned the whole election on its head in two hours in Colorado. Cause and effect.

So people watched the news, read the blogs, and talked to each other about the news and the blogs.  And based on the media reports of the reactions of partisans on both sides, they "knew" that the debate had been an epic disaster for Obama and a stunning turn-around win for Romney.  But the key here is that they got this information not from the event itself, but from media reports of unified Republican certainty of their candidates fabulous performance and unified Democratic certainty of their own candidate's epic failure.  And when the pollsters came calling, they knew the answers to the questions, and as the poll results trickled out that only fed the coalescing conventional wisdom on both sides.

But here's the thing - absolutely nothing has changed.  Romney is still Romney, an unlikable buffoon who will say anything for a chance to grab power.  Obama is still Obama, a centrist technocrat and at the very least a competent government executive.  Romney's policies are still deeply unpopular - voucherizing Medicare, deep tax cuts for the wealthy, reducing financial, environmental and food safety regulations, slashing government services and starting wars.  Romney still has the mostly discredited Paul Ryan as his running mate.  Obama is popular and trusted, while the people view Mitt Romney with skepticism and even outright antipathy.

It's about a month to the election.  There will be more events, and more reactions, and the media will play each of them up, as if it is the biggest event in the campaign, rather than just another day in the 24 hour news cycle.  But in the end, the American people will reject Mitt Romney, as they reject the extreme Republican ideology.  We all lived under the loathsome GW Bush for 8 years, we know where that got us, and we have collectively internalized that lesson.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

He's BAAaaaack...

He shows no remorse...
Hi Dusty.  I hate you.  I'm not sure I have the English language skills to tell you how much I hate you.  I have always believed you were a fraud, a manager who wanted to be friends with all his veterans while delaying or derailing the careers of promising young players.  You inflicted the hapless  Marvin Benard upon us long after it was obvious to everyone that his one good season was a fluke, something he could never repeat.  Don't think I've forgotten Marquis Grissom, Ray Durham, Pedro Feliz or any your other buddies that you left in the lineup long after it was clear that they could no longer play.

But you know what this is really about, don't you, Dusty.  You KNOW.  Russ Ortiz.  Felix Rodriguez.  You remember.  That Saturday night, late in October 2002.  Anaheim, CA.  The Giants in complete control, up three games to two, they could win their first championship since coming West that night.  And sure enough, behind home runs by Dunston and Bonds and stellar pitching from starter Russ Ortiz, the Giants found themselves a mere 8 outs from the promised land.

And even though Ortiz had a 5 run lead and a shutout, after he gave up a pair of 1-out seventh inning singles you panicked.  You just couldn't put your ego in your pocket and keep your hands off the levers.  In an act of monumental stupidity and cowardice, you came out of the dugout, walked across that brilliant green infield grass, handed Ortiz a "game ball" and called for Rodriguez.  What, did you think I don't remember?  Do you think it wasn't obvious, watching you stand on Ortiz' mound, waiting for Felix to come in from the bullpen, that you had broken the spell?  Maybe the Giants weren't doomed right then, but the direct path from one out in the seventh to a clubhouse celebration was gone. You had turned a walk in the park into a streetfight, and if we know anything at all about you, Dusty, we know you'll ALWAYS lose a streetfight.

Look.  I know - it's just history, another San Francisco fan's heartache, and while the improbable run in 2010 cauterized the wound, the scars are still there, bright and raw.  But to be honest, to the extent it's possible, I feel sorry for your team, and the Reds fans.  Because this Cincinnati team is really good, and with decent field leadership they'd have a fighting chance of winning it all.  But that outcome is going to be a lot more difficult with Dusty at the helm.  Believe me, we saw it out here.

The Giants have the bats this year to bang head to head against the Reds.  They have the bullpen to shut down the back end of the game.  But if the starters can't keep the team in the game, if the Reds can hang crooked numbers on the board early, they will win games.  And the Division Series is short, only best-of-five, and a team can't afford to play from behind.  But that's OK.  I'm more than glad to see you again this weekend Dusty, back here at the scene of the crime.  Because, sure, I think your bloated presence in the opposite dugout is an advantage for the Giants, just as it was such a brutal detriment when you sat on our side, but even more than that, in the name of a kind of perfect cyclical baseball justice.  Perhaps, just perhaps, by chewing up your team, we fans can spit out the last foul taste of 2002 and the joy you stole from us.

Lessons in Sovereign Territorial Integrity

What goes up...
The press is crowing this morning about how the brilliantly capable Israeli Air Force shot down a drone that violated their airspace.  This is interesting to me because it's one of those cases where they're once again reporting the wrong news.  They see the event - those evil brown Palestinians or Iranians tried to harm the plucky Israelis again, but the vaunted Israeli military defeated them once again - without any consideration of the consequences.

The US military is becoming more and more dependent upon unmanned aircraft for operations all over the world.  The drones were created primarily for surveillance, and they are spectacularly good at it, with loiter times that can sometimes be measured in DAYS and all sorts of broad spectrum imaging gear along with real-time satellite communications.  But increasingly, these robotic aircraft are being modified, and even purpose designed and built from the ground up as strike aircraft, precision ground attack platforms without the vulnerable human component.

But here's the dirty little secret - drones are not in any way the equal of an F-15 or an F-22.  They fly slow, they have no capacity for self defense, they are not stealthy and they can't even maneuver particularly effectively.  This hasn't been a matter of critical importance, because whenever the US has used them in what might be contested airspace, they have done so with at least the tacit permission, or even encouragement, of the government and military leadership there.  The Pakistanis like to scream about the US drone attacks, but this is entirely for domestic consumption.  As Wikileaks showed conclusively (as if there was any practical doubt), the Pakistan military is utterly complicit in the drone operations, even at times asking for more unmanned aerial resources than the US could supply.

So today the world got a lesson it hadn't been willing to think about before: Drones are ridiculously vulnerable.  At their current state of development, they simply cannot be used in any nation that genuinely doesn't want them there.  They are vulnerable to ground fire, which they lack the ability to suppress, and they are sitting ducks for ANYTHING that flies.  Even an attack helicopter is plenty fast enough to catch them and destroy them.  As the use of drones becomes more common, it's going to become well known that if US drones are striking targets in a particular nation-state, it is a certainty that they are doing so with the approval, perhaps even at the request, of the government of that nation.  And the people of that nation will not be able to ignore the fact that their own leadership is asking the United States military to attack them.  And that is, increasingly, not going to sit well with them.

In a related note, the immensely popular ex-Cricket superstar Imran Khan is leading a so-called "Convoy" from Islamabad into South Waziristan.  One of the key complaints of the protesters and Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf party is the drone strikes.  Khan is considered a relatively secular Muslim, and this is an interesting attempt to garner support from the fundamentalist Waziristan population.  Hopefully they will recognize the clear implication from the events in Israel that the drones would not be attacking the people in South Waziristan without explicit approval from President Zardari and General Kayani.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Myth of "Post - Truth" Politics

Hey!  Those kids are taggers!
Stop it right now, you kids!
There has been, quite appropriately, a great deal of discussion in this year's presidential campaign of the use and consequences, or lack thereof, of blatant lies and disingenuous presentations of fact.  The assumption, well grounded in recent history, has been that the media, in their own corrupt attempt to avoid specifically accusing either side of lying in order to preserve some artificial sense of 'balance', would allow even the most egregious falsehoods to pass unchallenged.  And sure enough, from the Romney's selective editing of the "you didn't build that" quote to the repeated whoppers in Paul Ryan's acceptance speech, the media did exactly as much as they absolutely had to in order to attempt to preserve their own credibility and nothing more.  It is remarkably interesting that it wasn't the repeated public bald-faced lies that ultimately brought disaster to the Romney campaign, it was a moment of unrestrained honesty behind closed doors.

But let's be honest.  No campaign would employ lies in their campaign in any situation where telling the truth would accomplish their goals.  If a candidate has as part of his policy agenda the redistribution of actual ponies, then he might promise every voter that they'd get a pony - and in this case he'd be telling the truth.  Instead, candidates and campaigns lie for one of two reasons - either to artificially demonize their opponent, or to conceal unpopular policies or outcomes.  If a candidate has as part of his policy agenda the murder of every family's firstborn child, he might promise that the government agents who took that child away to be executed would leave a pony.  Now HIS promise that every voter gets a pony is a lie, necessary to cover up the unpopular policy of child murder.

Viewed in this context, a candidate's lies are a very useful barometer.  When the campaign lies about its opponent, it is a clear indication that the opponent has done a credible job or is promising to implement some valuable or popular policies, and the only way to tarnish his image in the voter's perception is to invent some bad history or dangerous potential outcomes.  And when a candidate lies about his own policies, it is even clearer that he knows that to tell the truth about those policies would be to lose the election.  He's making it clear by his dishonesty that he will have to fool the people into electing him so he can then pursue an agenda that will harm them and their interests.  So recognizing the lies is important, even if debunking them seems to be beyond the capacity of what remains of American journalism.

With the upcoming debates, it is also important to be attuned to lies of omission, rather than the more typical lies of commission.  Virtually every policy the Romney campaign intends to implement is unpopular, destructive, economically counterproductive and/or serves only to disproportionately benefit a small portion of the electorate.  So look for both Romney and Ryan, in their debates, to struggle to find gimmicks of obfuscation and mis-direction to attempt to avoid providing any specific details.  It is my profound hope that this institutionalized vagueness and ambiguity will be the primary reason for the campaign's failure, but it remains to be seen if the American people are both capable and willing to see it for what it is.

In the end, though, it's important to remember that we can learn almost as much from the lies as we could from the truth.  A candidate isn't lying because he's a pathological liar - although, to the extent he can lie smoothly and effectively he may be a better politician - he's lying because he wants to be elected, and has come to the conclusion that the risks of lying outweigh the political costs of honesty, and therefore the more a candidate lies, the more dangerous his governing agenda is likely to be.