Archive for June 2010

Who’s Spookin’ Who: Worth-What-You-Pay Speculation on the latest round of the Great Game, Post-Cold War Follies Edition

June 29, 2010

So, bearing in mind that I routinely rail in this space about the propensity of pundits to opine wildly beyond their competence and knowledge, herewith my one bit of blather on the recent great victory in the war against post-Soviet perfidy of the sort of, kind of, journalism/schmoozing spying nature.

I first heard of the arrest of 11 people charged with being agents of a foreign power while sitting in an undisclosed foreign capital with a member of another nation’s diplomatic corps who has had extensive experience in and around some of the rougher trades in international relations, along with a second observer in a senior policy position in an administration unconnected to either power in this dispute…people with bullsh*t sensors well trained over a number of years but with no connection at all to the current foofaraw.

Their reaction, almost instant on hearing the BBC report?

This was the weakest-sauce espionage ring they’d ever heard of, and the timing smelled from the eastern seaboard to our undisclosed location.

Coming after a ten year investigation, as claimed, and yet  so soon after  Obama foreign policy successes, (anti-nuke advances, Iran sanctions agreements and all that…) with a restarting of useful relations with Russia so badly damaged during the Bush years, it appeared to my much-more-canny-than-I interlocutors that someone or ones in the US intelligence service is throwing a monkey wrench into this newly warming relationship.

As noted above, I ain’t got any chops in this area.  My associates, you will have to take on faith from me, do actually have relevant experience — but taking on faith is another way to say this is yet more random noise.  But I will say that reading this today in the NYT made me think that if they are already making excused for the timing of the arrests, then that issue is an issue.

There you have it.  As noted above, worth every penny it has cost you to acquire this (sic) “intelligence.”

Image: Film poster for Hitchock’s The Secret Agent, 1936

Marc Ambinder, General McChrystal, My Uncle, and Gays in the Military

June 26, 2010

American policy on gays in the military has been a self inflicted wound for years now.  The loss of Arabic (and Farsi) language specialists at just this moment in our strategic history was an own goal if ever there was one.  But the firing of General Stanley McChrystal has brought into sharp relief another truth about the chicken hawk quality of arguments against an end to the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” farce.

Marc Ambinder, continuing in a really sterling transformation of his work from that of being a villager in training to a serious, independent reporter, wrote about the McChrystal connection and the implications of military reality (and or closeness or distance to the sharp end) on assessments of the ability for gays to perform in the armed forces (and for those forces to perform with gays openly in their ranks).

(I’ve harshly criticized Ambinder in the past, and stopped reading him after what was for me one too many retellings of conventional wisdom; picking up on cues from the folks at Balloon Juice who are much more conscientious than I in following folks through their twists and turns, I’ve started up again, and it is as if there is a whole new Marc reporting, rather than retelling what his sources feed him.  To be acknowledged and encouraged.)

The short form of Ambinder’s story is that (a) McChrystal is genuinely a social liberal, untroubled by (among other things) gays in the military, and that (b) the special forces he used to command are much more focused on the job that their fellow soldiers, gay or straight, actually do than on who they happen to sleep with.  Money quote:

As one former member of a special missions unit put it to me recently, “It’s really about competence. If you’re competent, it doesn’t matter who you are.”  And then, switching instantly from an analytical posture to a machismo mode, he said, “If a guy saves my ass, he sure as hell can look at it.”

Exactly so.  The folks who worry most about gays in the military are chickenhawks, those who never get close to the real work of an army:  fighting the enemy, supporting your comrades.*

This struck home in a deep way recently as I helped my family mourn the death of the senior surviving male member of our parent’s generation, my beloved and much missed Uncle David, who, among much else in a life well-lived, served as a career officer in the Royal Artillery, fighting the United Kingdom’s wars from 1943 to the early nineteen sixties, retiring at the rank of Major and having served as a battery commander.

Long ago, in the early eighties, I visited David after I’d finished my college degree, hanging out mostly.  For some reason the issue of gays in the military came up (maybe the Dutch had just opened up their ranks — I don’t really recall).

David surprised me.  He was, after all, an Eton-educated former career officer (and the son of a Colonel) — not obviously the sort of person who would readily dissent from what remained then the British military norm.

What came next was another in a long series of lessons in the risks of assuming individual qualities from group characteristics.  David told me two things, one an observation in principle and the other a specific story, both with the same point.

Principle first:  David told me that his objection to gays in the military had been based on the notion that the potential for relationships to form between different ranks in the same units raised the possibility that a commander would be faced with an impossible command dilemma if he had to assign hazardous or likely fatal tasks to members of the unit.

But, he said, once women were admitted to the military, that objection failed…or rather it seemed that the military had decided it could manage that potential problem, and there was no reason other than bigotry to assert that gay soldiers would be more likely to fall afoul of such a dilemma than straight ones.

The story was more direct, and more on the point that Ambinder made in his story.  One afternoon, relaxing after a day’s work on the farm that was his second career, he told me about an experience he had just after he joined his battery in northern Europe in late 1944.  Then nineteen, and a newly minted junior officer, he commanded a towed gun — a 155mm howitzer, I think, though don’t quote me on that.

One day he sought out the battery adjutant.

What was the problem? the adjutant asked.

Well, said David, it seems that my loader and my driver are sharing the same sleeping bag.  What should I do?

How does the lorry run?

Fine — perfect; starts every time, is maintained and fueled each night (not morning … crucial under the circumstances — ed.); shines as much as can be expected under the conditions.

How is the gun?

No problems, none at all.  The ammunition is in good order, the gun never jams, everything works as it should.

And what was the problem you wished to discuss, Lt. S-M?

Nothing, sir. Nothing at all.

Which is to say exactly what Ambinder’s sources told him:  what matters in combat is what you do in combat.  Wasting time, and worse, depriving yourself of good soldiers, is worse than bigoted.  It is stupid, and it costs the most at the very point where we can afford it least.

Did I mention I revere and hugely miss my uncle?

*It is true, as Ambinder points out that there are plenty of serving military who oppose gays in uniform who are not chickenhawks; I’m referring here to the much larger number of those who never wore the uniform, or did so always at many safe removes from combat who stand shoulder to shoulder to prevent some Americans from serving their country.  For these, the full measure of contempt is not enough.

Image: Dying Achilles at Achilleion, Corfu. Sculptor: Ernst Herter, 1884.

They keep us alive to serve the machine: vacation edition

June 21, 2010

Through a concatenation of circumstances too complicated to explain (involving as it does an odd personal slice through 20th century history and a bit of the dynamic of globalism in recent years) I am sitting in the drawing room of the residence of the South African ambassador to Sweden.

It is a glorious day here in Stockholm, made better in my corner of it by the two-nil halftime lead enjoyed by Bafana Bafana.

But, as the kind of sophisticated readership that this blog enjoys I’ll have inferred, I’m on something of a holiday just now, and will be until early July. So while it may seem I’ve been enjoying an extended excursion for the last month or so, now it’s for real.

And in fact I actually hope to do a bit more blogging over the next little while than I’ve managed lately — something about long lazy days with no office phone (and I do mean long: sunset at 11 pm plus tonight) — but now you know.

Now for a bit of cured fish and a suitable libation. See y’all soon.

Carly Fiorina Reveals the Source of Her Failure at HP: Can’t Walk, Chew Gum at the same time/shouldn’t be a Senator edition.

June 17, 2010

So, stylist/Senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina is turning her attention away from her opponents ‘do to more serious matters.

Unfortunately, she brings the same gravitas to the question of confronting the gulf oil disaster that she did to the matter of Barbara Boxer’s hair.

The AP reports today that while she supports President Obama’s success in compelling BP to come up with a $20 billion escrow fund to cover local losses, she disapproves of another part of his handling of the crisis:

Fiorina, who is trying to unseat Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, said the president should be focused on capping the leak and cleaning up the oil, not working with Boxer on greenhouse gas legislation.

“President Obama’s emphasis right now should be on cleaning up the spill, something (Sen.) Dianne Feinstein clearly recognized when she said, ‘cap-and-trade legislation isn’t going to clean up the spill,'” Fiorina said.

Instead, she said the president is planning to meet with Boxer to discuss the climate change bill.

“I think our commander in chief’s attention should be devoted exclusively to cleaning up the spill and to making sure that the residents of the Gulf Coast receive the relief that they so desperately need,” Fiorina said after her visit to Rex Moore Electrical Contractors and Engineers in Sacramento.

Oh FSM! Where to begin?

Last time I looked, American presidents have to be able to think about more than one thing at a time — and to do so beyond the next quarter’s results.  Actually, as people have been pointing out for a while, that’s President Obama’s particular strength.

Fiorina , it seems, would rather have it that Obama do nothing but don his scuba outfit and put what one blogospheric type called his magic tampon down the Deepwater Horizon well.  (Apologies to the mystery wit; lost the link in the day’s surf madness Thanks to commenter Courtney below for pointing to the correct attribution.  We love the blogosphere. ;)

Heaven forfend that he should also think about the context of the spill:  the fact that the need to drill in conditions in some ways more difficult than those of outer space is the direct consequence of an unsustainable dependence on oil as one of our chief sources of energy.

“Cleaning up the spill” is a critical task, of course — but after organizing the executive branch to do so, while fending off GOP resistance to, say, “making sure the residents of the Gulf Coast” get the help they need, there is a limit to the number of hours Obama can usefully give to that job out of every 24.  But there is a larger concern, one with several levels — which is how to prevent repeats of the disaster.

Clearly that involves looking at what went wrong at both the drill site and in the regulatory process that allowed BP and its drilling partners/subcontractors to get away with as many shortcuts as it appears they did.  Making the drilling process work better is clearly a good thing

But there is, of course, a larger context, which is that dependence on oil as a primary energy source is a long term loser, not simply in the sense that the peak oil concept suggests, but given the fact that exploitation of oil compels us to accept risk that over time will produce various disastrous outcomes.  Bad spills, cash flows to unstable regions and hostile folks, wars from time to time are all part of the cost of oil. They aren’t “accidents,” “natural disasters” or acts of God.  They are anticipatable, if not precisely predictable outcomes of what you have to do where to get oil out of the interior of the earth. Not to mention the use of oil carries with it significant, real environmental costs (and not just global warming).

Note also this map — versions of it been making the round of  the ‘tubes lately.  Note, as many have , just how much of that fossil fuel infrastructure is concentrated around the Louisiana coast in particular, and the Gulf Coast more generally

Put all that together, it seems to me that trying to work out how to reduce the role of oil (and other fossil fuels) as energy sources is an integral part of responding to this specific catastrophe — and it even seems like it would be directly relevent to what the folks on the Gulf Coast need if a total disruption (and/or extinction) of a lot of ways of life down there isn’t going to recur every few years.

To repeat: Presidents have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The last GOP hopeful who denied this lost, badly, to the man now in the office that requires such mental agility.

So:  Fiorina is an idiot.

But we knew that.

I’ll leave you with the thought that what’s actually interesting about Fiorina’s inadvertent self-revelation here is that her reaction is precisely that of someone incapable of thinking past the immediate horizon — nothing matters more than hitting the next quarter’s numbers, in the context of her experience.  That’s a crappy way to run a business — and it is a much worse way to run a government.

Image:  General view of Funkville in 1864, Oil Creek, Pennsylvania

On the matter of an extended walk around Dublin

June 17, 2010

SEK (Scott Kaufman) explains it all to you. (via LGM).

I am feeling stately, plump.  I rarely dine with anti-Semites (never knowingly).  I do not eat with relish the internal organs of beasts and fowls. (The occasional fois gras excepted.  Sweetbreads too.  My tante Helen’s chopped liver also. Oh hell.)

Happy Bloomsday, all, a day late, in the greatest traditions of this blog.

Image:  Wandering rocks (1967-1970) by Tony Smith

Completely Outsourced Eye Candy: Jedi Bear edition

June 17, 2010

I know that reposting something from Andrew Sullivan’s blog is sort of pointless, given that outlet’s reach, but on the off chance you haven’t seen this, you should.  It’s true snort material.

For a good time in Edmonton (Crack o’ Dawn edition)

June 16, 2010

Anyone in the greater Edmonton/University of Alberta area tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. can come and hear me talk about “Newton’s coins and Einstein’s letters: living lives in science and society.”

I’ve been very kindly invited by folks running the first university-wide celebration of graduate student research in engineering to talk about some aspects of life beyond grad school, so I’m going to talk on what those giants have to say about life beyond the cocoon of pure research.

Time: 8:30
Place: The student center on the campus of the University of Alberta.

Come one, come all!

On the low expectations of bigotry: Chuck Schumer/data matters edition

June 14, 2010

Picking up a thought from before the weekend, when John Cole posted on a gem of insight moment of uncharacteristic clarity from the senior senator from New York.  It was notable for an admission that the Gaza blockade has as its overarching purpose not the military one — but a collective punishment, a starve-them-out intention.  Schumer said that beyond the search for weapons, the blockade is

actually to show the Palestinians that when there’s some moderation and cooperation, they can have an economic advancement. When there’s total war against Israel, which Hamas wages, they’re going to get nowhere. And to me, since the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas, while certainly there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death, to strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go, makes sense.

Alright — that’s grotesque.  (Not to mention stupid:  last time I looked near-starving someone’s kids was not the best hearts and minds strategy, but maybe that’s just me.)

You didn’t need me to tell you that.  Cole, and the folks over at Think Progress caught the malevolent absurdity of this is a strategy.  (I am not a huge sci-fi fan, but I’ve long thought that John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider was more than worth the price of permission.  It’s last thought (paraphrased):  treating human beings as things defines evil.  To echo the tradition in which both Senator Schumer and I were raised, such thoughts are the outcome of giving in to one’s yetzer hara.)

But there was another line that really struck me as evidence of the damage done not just to Schumer’s credibility, nor simply to the Middle East and US policy towards same, but to our whole politics:

The Palestinian people still don’t believe in the Jewish state, in a two-state solution. More do than before, but a majority still do not.

There’s the rhetorical cheat there:  “The Palestinian people don’t….More do than before….” which leads to the Which-is-it response.  And this isn’t mere pilpul* either:  the answer matters to policy and the approach to any hope for a peace process.

If the numbers of Palestinians welcoming a two state solution is growing, then it would be worth knowing why and how one might encourage it.  And while arguing from a priori principles is not all that helpful in lots of real-world situations, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, again, that starving someone’s kids until they concede the point is not obviously the best way to go about nurturing human empathy between communities.

But there’s a bigger problem here.

Schumer is not telling the truth.

As of 2007, a substantial plurality of Palestinians favored a two state solution.  46% in fact, with 26% seeking a single, binational state and about a quarter refusing to choose between the two alternatives.  To suggest, as Schumer does, that Palestinians are committed to the destruction of Israel to the exclusion of other possibilities is to give cover to those in the Jewish community who oppose a two-state solution — some of whom, one must sadly note, are now in cabinet positions in Israel.

Now, 46% is not a majority, to be sure; Schumer could perhaps cover himself with a figleaf.  But it is a strong majority of those expressing an opinion, and damn near an absolute one.  The clear implication of Schumer’s remarks, if not the most charitable reading of it, is that the Palestinians obstruct the path to peace, leaving the poor Israelis with no choice but to devastate Gaza.  And if the numbers are now worse (as, data-less, I’d bet they are) then that’s a useful datum too.

And even if they are, that result doesn’t make me forgive Schumer’s sin here.  He makes a claim.  There are data that bear on that claim.  They contradict it.  Schumer himself roundly ridiculed the Republicans for their refusal to pay attention to the real world in the matters of health care and financial reform.  He gets no more lee-way, for this good reason:  it’s too damn easy in politics/policy to choose to ignore inconvenient data.  It makes the narrative run better, and the country run worse.

If this is a science blog, this is where that heritage comes in.  The one great virtue of science is that it has a method for both uncovering facts about the world and analyzing them.  It is not a perfect system; no human enterprise could be.  But it is damn good, and it has built in the mechanism that permits self-correction.  And most of all, it is a practice, a habit of mind inculcated through years of training and acculturation.  That we desperately need such practice in politics, Senator Schumer inadvertently attests.

*in the colloquial, derogatory sense.

**That Judaism that is, in his words, “the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men” combined with a passion for “every form of intellectual aspiration and spiritual effort.”

Image:  “The Siege of Tripoli,” before 1400.

In the Matter of the US vs. Bush…

June 9, 2010

not yet indicted for confessed war crimes, I give you an amicus brief from Ambrose Bierce:

PARDON, v.  To remit a penalty and restore to the life of crime.  To add to the lure of crime the temptation of ingratitude.  (From The Devil’s Dictionary)

That second definition applies particularly well to the accused’s partner in such crimes, the also not-yet-indicted Richard Cheney.

That “not-yet” should most likely read “never” is merely a reflection of a my suffering the lapse of mind Samuel Johnson described in defining a second marriage: “The triumph of hope over experience.”

Image:  William Hogarth, “The Bench,” 1758.

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong…Health Insurance Reform/Great Depression edition

June 7, 2010

I’m trying (and failing – ed.) to learn how to go all Daniel Goldin on my blogging stylz these days (you know, “faster, better, cheaper” and all that), so let’s see if I can keep this latest bit of outrage at Megan McArdle’s willed incompetence short and to the point.

In this post she considers a broad claim…

I’ve been pretty skeptical of the Amity Shlaes argument that regulatory uncertainty was the major culprit in prolonging the Great Depression…

And then rejects her doubts…

Over time, however, in talking to banks and business people, I’ve become more convinced that it’s at least a minor problem…

In support of a conclusion that should make you go hmmm.

About that, more in a moment.  To slice and dice — of McArdle’s first statement,  she shoulda stood in bed.

The historical record is pretty clear (a) that Shlaes is a dishonest and incorrigible hack and the (b) the signal policy that slowed recovery from the great depression in this country (leave aside the global nature of the beast), was the decision to switch from stimulus measures to premature attempts to balance the budget in 1937.  (Something you can see graphically here, with a nice additional slam at Schlaes.)

On her second claim: this is the kind of reporting that has given Ms. McArdle so much of her notoriety to this point…in that, of course, whatever this post represents, it ain’t journalism.

There are certainly actual attempts to study regulation, and that subset of the field, the issue  of uncertainty in regulatory regimes.  If you’re interested in the subject, it takes very little time to find dozens of interesting threads to pull — I’ve just been reading this one on the paradox of prudential regulation [pdf] (i.e., because the cost of regulation is obvious and individual perceived but the benefits from successful regulatory systems are broadly dispersed and individual, it becomes hard to sustain support for such systems).*

But that’s not what McArdle has done here.  There isn’t even a shred of an attempt to suggest that she actually has mustered some real data here.  Instead, she’s talked to some folks she knows and they have told her they don’t like regulation.  They especially don’t like it if they sense that they might not be effectively in charge of the regulatory agencies that purport to govern their industries — which is how I translate “uncertainty” in this instance.

So, to this point, here’s the state of play:

McArdle invokes an often debunked partisan writer to suggest that one of her routinely disproved claims might actually be true. She says this seems to be so because we should trust her when she tells us that her unidentified sources in an industry that has just disastrously failed have told her so.

But never mind, because all this is preliminary to this stirring confirmation that regulatory uncertainty right now is causing businesses to shutter.   Her evidence?  This:

And this seems like a pretty clear cut case of death by regulation:  startup health insurer forced to shut down because of uncertainty surrounding health care reform.  According to the insurer, at least, they neither have the capital to handle the new requirements, nor have any prospect of raising it from the markets, where they’ve already tried and failed to get more investment.

She’s not even trying.

It’s almost not worth the effort to sneer at this.  McArdle’s link is to an article in a local Virginia business journal that, as McArdle indicates quotes the insurer to account for why that insurer is leaving business.  This isn’t journalism, this is stenography.

The whole story boils down to a complaint that an unspecified insurance model established two years ago (hence, in the last administration) may not in the future meet requirements specified by the new health insurance law, and that this is the reason this small insurer has been unable to raise capital.

There are two things to note here, beyond the simple sloth and meaninglessness of taking a failed businessman’s account of why the enterprise went bottom up at  face value.

One is that McArdle is playing a very slippery game here.  Remember:  she began by specifically calling out regulatory uncertainty, all the bad stuff that happens when a new administration starts changing things.  But this company is complaining not simply about lack of knowledge, but of the substance of the change itself:

“…the uncertainties in the regulatory climate coupled with new demands imposed by national healthcare reforms have made it challenging to sustain the level of sales required to remain viable over the long run.” (from James Slabaugh , executive vice president of nHealth.)

New demands, eh?  I’ll leave the reader to judge whether it is the fact that the new health care rules include provisions like prohibiting revocations of policies (rescission), or the like, or whether it is unspecified “uncertainty” that weighs more heavily here.

And while McArdle is careful to fudge just a bit — she refers to “new requirements” after all — she is really trying to have it both or maybe three ways.  Regulatory uncertainty is bad; regulation is bad; and the health care reform is bad…and because she knows these truths to be self evident, she needs do no actual reporting or research to prove her case or identify the specific root causes of the one actual business failure she tries to adduce as proof for these articles of faith.

This isn’t even a parody of journalism.  As I said above:  she’s not even trying with this stuff.

And one last thing, my second point:  it remains amazing to me how gutless and pathetic the glibertarian crowd becomes in the face of actual capitalism.

This insurance company had an approach (unspecified in the linked article) to providing insurance.  It’s approach did not survive a change of administrations, a change in the landscape of health care delivery and payment, the competition within the insurance market itself, and/or the problems that are face  undercapitalized companies at any moment — and especially in a period of disruption in the financial markets.

The company and its owners/managers made bets on certain expectations about the future.  Those bets didn’t pay off.  They go out of business.  I’ve run my own small business and I don’t wish that outcome on anyone…but it is a fact of life in the marketplace: some folks don’t grab the gold ring.

Sorry.

Try again.

I’m a screaming liberal, social-safety-net, environmentalist, birkenstock-wearing**, Berkeley, California born and raised, Kremlin-on-the-Charles educated, Massachusetts-pointy-headed-university type, yellow-dog Democrat, and I got no problem with that.  What’s McArdle’s excuse?

Wimp.

* It’s relevant here because it suggests just how McArdle’s sources may have in fact connived in the regulatory relaxation that permitted the reckless behaviors that lay behind the recent near-collapse of the financial system.

**Actually, I’ve never owned or even tried on a pair of Birkenstocks.  They look ugly and uncomfortable to me … but you got to ride with the stereotype that brung ya.

Image:  Wilhelm Maria Hubertus Leibl, “The Newspaper Reader,” 1881.


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