29 December, 2008

Community nuclear power

Here's a syllogism to consider.  Distributed power is better for the liberty and security of human beings than concentrated power.  The technology is near to bury small nuclear reactors (or "batteries," it that word helps you sleep at night) to provide electrical power on a local scale--between 10 and 25 MW, to 20,000 homes, for thirty years. Conclusion: if we want to promote liberty and security, we should promote the use of community-sized nuclear power plants.

Ok, now to take it apart.  Is distributed power always preferable?  Not always, but often enough that it's a good rule of thumb.  The ideas of federalism and checks and balances are based on the assumption that the concentration of power in the hands of a few is a threat to everyone else.  One of the greatest arguments against nuclear power, in my opinion, has been the construction of vulnerable, complex mega-plants, each a target for terrorism, each "too important and too large to fail" without threatening millions of people.  They require a massive security infrastructure, which limits the liberty of innocents, and which will never be perfect enough to deal with an unanticipated threat, or act of God, or (most likely) act of stupidity.

(For a nightmare scenerio, consider what would have happened if one of the 9/11 flights had come down early, on the Hudson-river nuclear plant that helps to provide power to New York.  It was an easy target, and on the flight path to the World Trade Center.)

To harm (or even to open) the nuclear element of a community power plant would require digging it up from under 100 feet of soil.  There are much easier ways to get nuclear materials.  The nuclear components are sealed, to be opened an refueled at the factory, under tight security.  An act of God (for example, a massive earthquake) or stupidity (?) would lead to an automatic shutdown.  This would be a problem, but not a catastrophe.

The more I think about this, the better it looks.  Not perfect, but worth pursuing.  Now lets see if the regulators and politicians can see beyond the "nuclear" label and give it a fair hearing.


Backyard reactors? Firms shrink the nukes. | csmonitor.com

27 December, 2008

March of the pundits

Foreign Policy has made their list of the ten worst predictions of 2008. I'm guilty of falling for one of them (the price of oil will reach $200). But at least I'm not guilty of these:

“If [Hillary Clinton] gets a race against John Edwards and Barack Obama, she’s going to be the nominee. Gore is the only threat to her, then. … Barack Obama is not going to beat Hillary Clinton in a single Democratic primary. I’ll predict that right now.” —William Kristol, Fox News Sunday, Dec. 17, 2006

Bear Stearns is fine! Do not take your money out. … Bear Stearns is not in trouble. I mean, if anything they’re more likely to be taken over. Don’t move your money from Bear! That’s just being silly! Don’t be silly!” —Jim Cramer, responding to a viewer’s e-mail on CNBC’s Mad Money, March 11, 2008

“[A]nyone who says we’re in a recession, or heading into one—especially the worst one since the Great Depression—is making up his own private definition of ‘recession.’” —Donald Luskin, The Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2008

“It starts with the taking over of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which has already happened. It goes on to the destruction of the Georgian armed forces, which is now happening. The third [development] will probably be the replacement of the elected government, which is pro-Western, with a puppet government, which will probably follow in a week or two.” —Charles Krauthammer, Fox News, Aug. 11, 2008

“I believe the banking system has been stabilized. No one is asking themselves anymore, is there some major institution that might fail and that we would not be able to do anything about it.” —Henry Paulson on National Public Radio, Nov. 13, 2008

We'd do better to read the entrails of a chicken.

Inauguration Map Exercise


Just an indication of the logistics involved.  (US Navy, StrategyPage.com)

26 December, 2008


I mentioned, at a recent conference, my concern that biotechnology would follow a trend line similar to that of personal computing. It's not that I have a visceral fear of change, or of empowering people. I happen to think the PC/web revolution is one of the best things to happen in several centuries. I do, however, worry that the computer virus of today will be matched by the bioengineered virus of tomorrow. Computer viruses are annoying, Real viruses can be deadly---and we don't have the option of cutting our connections, or restoring our lives from backup, or continually updating our antiviral software.

Or do we? In fact all of those options are conceivable--for those with the money and/or skill to make it happen. For everyone else--you better hope the freeware is good.

See more at Reason Magazine.

10 December, 2008

Nuclear history--another book to get

The book is from Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman: “The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation.” These are two insiders who know of which they speak. For a condensed version, see the chart produced by the Times today:

Don't understand all the connections? Get the book.

Friedman gets it right

Tom Friedman has his good days and his bad days. Today's column in the Times is one of the good days. A gem from around the middle of a discussion of the auto "bailout/reorganiztion":
...someone in the mobility business in Denmark and Tel Aviv is already developing a real-world alternative to Detroit’s business model. I don’t know if this alternative to gasoline-powered cars will work, but I do know that it can be done — and Detroit isn’t doing it. And therefore it will be done, and eventually, I bet, it will be done profitably. And when it is, our bailout of Detroit will be remembered as the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into the CD music business on the eve of the birth of the iPod and iTunes. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into a book-store chain on the eve of the birth of Amazon.com and the Kindle. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet.
Frankly the whole idea of a "car czar" leaves me a little sick. Remember how well the other czars did? The energy czar? The counterterrorism czar? The Romanovs? Beyond the appeal for some that they can grab short-term power, I can't see why anyone would want to take that path.

28 November, 2008


The killing is not yet over, but Indian troops are winning. Current casualty estimates: 154 dead, 327 injured.

Behind the scenes, everyone is trying to make sense of this, and to avoid what could turn into a crisis. The operation was well planned and well executed. The terrorists were trained--by someone, somewhere--and while there is evidence the group was homegrown: the Deccan Mujahideen, or something similar--that doesn't explain the levels of professionalism or support. India, as usual, is pointing to "foreign elements," implying Pakistani involvement. To defuse the situation, the head of Pakistan's intelligence service (ISI) is to visit India and assist with the investigation.

A crisis between India and Pakistan--both equipped with nuclear weapons, and with long-standing hostilities--is in the interest of neither government. It may, however, be in the interest of some elements within one or both governments, and/or other political parties.

Domestically, if the government of India does not blame Pakistan--or some other foreign element--it is stuck with the next obvious question: why didn't they see this coming? And if it is linked directly to the Islamic minority within India, how will the government and people of India change how they treat them now?

International barter

Iran has oil. Thailand has rice. Neither has cash or credit. So it's time to do things the old-fashioned way.

Meanwhile, the EU pushes another stimulus package, and China's central bank makes its biggest rate cut in eleven years.

In the good news, it may be time to refinance the mortgage.

Boldy going where no one has gone before

An idea that's been floating around since at least the late 1960s--a program to defend against killer asteroids. Unfortunately, anything that can do that would be great at controlling earth orbit and beyond, with all that implies for the balance of forces on the ground. So the idealists call for a global program, and the nationalists refuse.

If the world is like a village...

...then it makes sense to have global elders.

17 November, 2008

Peace operations by the numbers

From the United Nations (DPKO):

Peacekeeping operations since 1948 = 63
Current peacekeeping operations = 16
Current peace operations directed and supported by the Dept.of Peacekeeping Operations = 19
Uniformed personnel = 88,754 (74,656 troops, 11,529 police and 2,596 military observers)
Countries contributing uniformed personnel = 119
International civilian personnel (31 August 2008) = 5,542
Local civilian personnel (31 August 2008) = 13,106
UN Volunteers = 2,.044
Total number of personnel serving in 16 peacekeeping operations = 109,107
Total number of personnel serving in 19 DPKO-led peace operations = 111,612
Total number of fatalities in peace operations since 1948 = 2,518

Suicide bombing goes global

Foreign Policy (November-
December) charts the spread of a tactic.

16 November, 2008

Status of forces agreement

At long last, a status of forces agreement (SOFA, if you like acronyms) has been reached between the United States and Iraq. It's pending approval by the Iraqi parliament, but that should be straightforward. It is not a case of Iraq rolling over and giving the US whatever it wanted, but it does facilitate the transition to a situation where American troops are rare, relatively invisible, and on their way out.

Terms of the agreement include the following:

  • American forces will vacate Iraqi cities and towns by summer 2009.
  • American forces will vacate Iraq by the end of 2011.
  • U.S. soldiers are guaranteed immunity except in cases of serious felonies committed while off duty outside their bases.
Obama's promises are being overtaken by events on the ground--in a good way. This is a reasonable plan for withdrawal.

15 November, 2008

Defcon One

I have a lot of respect for Fabius Maximus, who has been watching and commenting on the financial collapse for years now. His predictions, while couched in all the necessary social-science qualifications, have a very good track record. An exceptionally good track record. Today, according to FM, the US economy must move to "Defcon One." That, for those who don't know the terminology from the military side, is immedate readiness for full-scale war. Everything needs to be mobilized, or risk losing it all.

Paul Krugman agrees: this is not a typical recession. While he doesn't expect unemployment to rise to levels of the Great Depression, he thinks we are in an era of depression economics, when the usual tools of fical and monetary policy won't work. A former chairman of Goldman Sachs says the "economy faces a slump deeper than the Great Depression and a growing deficit threatens the credit of the United States itself."

I, for one, am glad I have tenure. A lot of people are going to feel a lot of pain before this is over. In 2004, 40 percent of American families were unable to survive on their assets for three months of unemployment. I imagine it's significantly worse now. It's not time to panic (which does no good anyway), but it is time--past time--to prepare.

12 November, 2008

Crisis and opportunity

I can't improve on the summary in my morning brief from Foreign Policy magazine. Trouble is here, and more is coming:

As world leaders prepare to descend on Washington for the upcoming G-20 summit, the grim economic news just keeps coming.

In the United States, consumer spending has fallen off a cliff and the fate of the auto industry hangs in the balance. Shares in General Motors dropped below $3 Tuesday, continuing a downward slide that accelerated after a particularly dire third-quarter earnings report. Bankruptcy looms unless the U.S. Congress can put together an effective rescue deal.

The Bush administration yesterday announced new measures to help homeowners renegotiate their mortgages, but critics -- including the Republican chair of the FDIC -- fear the move won't have a big-enough impact. Meanwhile, new data from Europe, China, and South Africa suggest the long-feared global recession has finally arrived. Oil prices, accordingly, have fallen below $60, a level not seen for 20 months. Former Canadian PM Paul Martin hopes the G-20 summit will lead to greater input from emerging economies such as China and India. "Do what you think is necessary with the Bretton Woods institutions, but for heaven's sake, stop keeping half the world out of them!" he tells FP.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will not attend the meeting, the Guardian reports. Nor will he meet any leaders on the sidelines, according to the New York

Raghuram G. Rajan, former chief economist at the IMF, doesn't expect sweeping changes at the summit, but warns that "if enough of the other countries make their voices heard at this meeting and say 'we are not willing to go along with incremental
change,' it does put a lot of pressure on the Obama administration to respond, because this is a crisis that was made in America."

This can be an opportunity to rethink and reorganize (to recreate the Rule Set, as Tom Barnett might say). Sometimes I feel we're in a race against time. Can we wait long enough for a new American administration? Can we survive what the old one will do over the next two months?

On the other hand, the Obama team seems to be using this time to think--really think--about what needs to be done. That's a luxury few presidents have had: enough time to think about the fundamentals, followed by a clear mandate (domestic and international) for change.

09 November, 2008

Some things you can't make up

From the New York Post:

What's the easiest way to get a 25-foot-long missile into Manhattan?

Apparently, the Queens Midtown Tunnel.

A Long Island man offered up that astonishing answer yesterday to an incredulous judge in Manhattan federal court.

Arye Sachs, 48, is being sued for trademark infringement by Pfizer Inc. for hauling the fake rocket emblazoned with the words "Viva Viagra" through Midtown last month.

"It's been in the back of my mind since you first came in: How do you get the missile on the trailer into Manhattan?" federal Judge William Pauley III asked.

Sachs, from West Babylon, said cops just laughed as he passed through the Queens Midtown Tunnel on his way into the city Sept. 8.

Sachs also claimed he drove his "missile" through the Lincoln Tunnel five times, and was only stopped twice.

"They checked license and registration, but not the missile," he said.

"You're telling me that when you drove up to the Lincoln Tunnel -" Pauley said.

"They saluted," said Sachs, who is representing himself in court.

05 November, 2008

I need to get this report

The title is America's Defense Meltdown, and I may use it in class.
Executive Summary
Introduction and Historic Overview:
The Overburden of America’s Outdated Defenses
Lt. Col. John Sayen (U.S. Marine Corps, ret.)
Shattering Illusions: A National Security Strategy for 2009-2017
Col. Chet Richards (U.S. Air Force, ret.)
Leading the Human Dimension
Out of a Legacy of Failure
Col. G.I. Wilson (U.S. Marine Corps, ret.)andMaj. Donald Vandergriff (U.S. Army, ret.)
Maneuver Forces: The Army and Marine Corps after Iraq
Col. Douglas Macgregor (U.S. Army, ret.)and Col. G.I. Wilson (U.S. Marine Corps, ret.)
A Traveler’s Perspective on Third and Fourth Generation War
Mr. William S. Lind
The Navy
Mr. William S. Lind
Reversing the Decay of American Air Power
Col. Robert Dilger (U.S. Air Force, ret.) and Mr. Pierre M. Sprey
Air Mobility Alternatives for a New Administration
Mr. James P. Stevenson
The Army National
Guard, the Army Reserve, and the Marine Corps Reserve
Mr. Bruce I. Gudmundsson
Long in Coming, the Acquisition Train Wreck Is Here
Mr. Thomas Christie
Understand, Then Contain America’s Out-of-Control Defense Budget
Mr. Winslow T. Wheeler

From the preface:

The vast majority, perhaps even all, of Congress, the general officer corps of the armedforces, top management of American defense manufacturers, prominent members ofWashington’s think-tank community and nationally recognized “defense journalists”will hate this book. They will likely also urge that it be ignored by both parties in Congressand especially by the new president and his incoming national security team. It is not just that following the recommendations of this book will mean the cancellation of numerous failing, unaffordable and ineffective defense programs, as well as the jobs, and more importantly careers, those programs enable. The acceptance of data and analysis presented in this book, and the conclusions and recommendations that flow from them, would require the elite of Washington’s national security community to acknowledge the many flaws in their analysis of weapons, Pentagon management and leadership of the nation in a tumultuous world. In too many cases, it would also require those elites to admit their own role in the virtual meltdown of America’s defenses.

I need a complete copy! I hear it should be out November 19th. The sections that are available can be found here.

The American economy in context

Here's where you can find an excellent graphic showing many of the changes in the gross figures for the U.S. economy since 1920.

Thanks to Tom Barnett for the find.

04 November, 2008

Reality strikes back

According to an "unnamed administration official" - often assumed to be Karl Rove - in conversation with journalist Ron Suskind, October 2004:

"[He] said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,'
which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors.... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

Reality is what happens even after you deny it. Karl Rove, meet President Obama.

Quote of the day

From the opinion page of the Daily Trust newspaper of Nigeria, a few choice words:
Whenever the cliche "world opinion" is used by western powers we can expect economic sanctions, military intervention or some form of meddling in the affairs of weaker nations.


A global village is truly emerging.

If in George W. Bush we got the first global village idiot, everyone (or almost everyone) is praying that in Obama we would have the first global tribal chief. Our understanding and expectations differ, we have no illusions about that. After all the expectations of Isreal's Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and the Ayatoolahs in Iran are very different. Yet they all would prefer Obama.


If the son of a Kenyan, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, attended a Muslim-majority school, could raise the cosciousness and hopes of people all over the world, could rise to become a credible contender to the most powerful office in the world, we have truly come far, thanks to the American dream, and the decency and common sense of its' average folks. Most of all, thanks to all those who fought to make ipossible for an Obama to emerge at all; from Martin Luther King Jr. to Spike Lee, from Rosa Park to Oprah

This, to me, captures the best and the worst of America's relationship with the world.

03 November, 2008

Declining oil production

Not good news. From the Financial Times:

World will struggle to meet oil demand

By Carola Hoyos and Javier Blas in London

Published: October 28 2008 23:32 Last updated: October 28 2008 23:32

Output from the world’s oilfields is declining faster than previously thought, the first authoritative public study of the biggest fields shows.

Without extra investment to raise production, the natural annual rate of output decline is 9.1 per cent, the International Energy Agency says in its annual report, the World Energy Outlook, a draft of which has been obtained by the Financial Times.

The findings suggest the world will struggle to produce enough oil to make up for steep declines in existing fields, such as those in the North Sea, Russia and Alaska, and meet long-term de­mand. The effort will become even more acute as prices fall and investment decisions are delayed.

The IEA, the oil watchdog, forecasts that China, India and other developing countries’ demand will require investments of $360bn each year until 2030.

The agency says even with investment, the annual rate of output decline is 6.4 per cent.

The decline will not necessarily be felt in the next few years because demand is slowing down, but with the expected slowdown in investment the eventual effect will be magnified, oil executives say.

The complete article is here.

Bretton Woods II

French President Sarkozy and British PM Brown are seeking a "new Bretton Woods" to replace the world's teetering financial system. Unfortunately, I suspect things will have to get a whole lot worse before they get better. France and Britain are important, but not the key players, and for differnt reasons neither the US or China is ready to take on that challenge.

Sounds to me like democracy in action

South Africa's ruling party, the Africa National Congress, is splitting in two, and the ANC leader says the rebels are "snakes." Maybe this will push the ANC to clean up its act.

29 October, 2008

Watch North Korea

The following excerpt is from the most recent (10/28/08) Nightwatch. The quotes are translated by a South Korean news service. The comments come from John Mccreary--and I can't improve on them.

“We clarify our stand that should the south Korean puppet authorities continue
scattering leaflets and conducting a smear campaign with sheer fabrications, our
army will take a resolute practical action as we have already warned.”
(Note: this is a reference to threats made at a 2 October working
military-military working meeting.)

“As for the "preemptive strike" which the puppet warhawks officially announced as a basic mode of strike at the DPRK (Note: South Korea announced it has a preemptive strike doctrine), we will counter it with more powerful and advanced preemptive strike of our own style as we have already stated before the world. This is our steadfast stand.

“The advanced preemptive strike of our own style is based on a preemptive strike beyond imagination relying on striking means more powerful than a nuclear weapon. It will, therefore, render any early warning system and interceptor system of the puppet warmongers completely ineffective, and the "preemptive strike" based on the so-called method of fighting a war centering on Network much touted by them will also prove futile.

The puppet authorities had better bear in mind that the advanced preemptive strike of our own style will reduce everything opposed to the nation and reunification to debris, not just setting them on fire, and it will turn out to be a just war of strike to build an independent reunified state on it.”

(Note: this seems to refer to thermobaric weapons and/or an electro magnetic pulse blast. The context of fire is that in the1990s the North’s military representatives at
Panmunjom threatened to set Seoul on fire. Same guys, same setting, worse threat.)

Comment: This is out of character with other actions taking place, including that listed below. The threat is disproportionate to the provocation and violates the North’s oft touted principle of symmetry: “action for action.” The proportional response, for example, would be a revival of the old propaganda wars across the Demilitarized Zone. The North is betraying extra-sensitivity to slight provocations. It does this whenever the country or leadership is experiencing internal trouble that the leadership fears outsiders will attempt to take advantage of.

The video taken of Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of Kim Chong-il, leaving the hospital in Paris is persuasive that the elder Kim has taken a turn for the worse. The hypothesis is reinforced by the mismatch in the military statement between the provocation and the threat response.

This is a warning that needs to be taken seriously and the North’s missile forces
watched closely because the North has the capability to do what it has threatened with little warning. The message behind the threat statement is that this is not a time for business as usual relative to leaflet deliveries, which do foment discontent.

On the other hand, North Korean media continued to report on routine diplomatic and other internal activity. A delegation from Syria was feted in Pyongyang by the Party leadership, not including dear leader Kim.

What graduates earn

Yet another survey of the starting salaries of graduates with the Bachelor's degree in various fields. I've trimmed the descriptions of most of them, but left the comments regarding political science:

A general biologist starts out at $38,896, while a biochemist
makes slightly more at $43,961.

Business administration and
Beginning salary: $57,132.

salary: $30,921.

Computer science
Beginning salary:

Criminal justice
Beginning salary:

Elementary education
Beginning salary:

Beginning salary: $59,471.

Beginning salary: $41,173.

Beginning salary:

Political science
Politics is far more than local, state, and federal elections. Political science majors can work in a number of roles, including working for political parties in administrative positions or as analysts. Forty-one percent of all workers with this major are employed by government agencies. Some common career paths for political science
majors include lobbyist and diplomat. They may also work in the media as a journalist in an editorial capacity or for nonprofit organizations.
Beginning salary:
Of course, actual salaries are influenced by a local and personal factors. Your mileage may vary.

The worst presidents

The Times of London gives us, yet again, a list of the best and worst among US presidents in history. Starting with the worst:

1. James Buchanan

2. Frankilin Pierce

3. Martin Van Buren

4. William Harrison

5. (TIE) Richard Nixon and George W. Bush

Personally, I wouldn't have included Harrison (with only 32 days in office, there's only so much he could do) and Nixon, while a totally screwed-up human being, had skills in foreign policy. Thus, as I figure it, G.W. Bush is the fourth-worst American president ever.

What is it about these guys and melamine?

Now it's showing up in eggs from China. Probably got into the feed.

27 October, 2008

Middle earth politics

An article by Ruane and James, in the most recent issue of International Studies Perspectives, has a lot of fun with using The Lord of the Rings to illustrate some of the classic divisions among IR theorists. Here's something to think about:

Table 1. Approaches to IR and the Characters by Which They Can Be Illustrated

Great Debate IR Approach Race Male Character

1. Vision of future (idealism ⁄ realism): 1920s ⁄ 1930s
Kantian Elf Elrond
Machiavellian Orc Uglu´ k, Led by Saruman

2. Method (history ⁄science): 1950s ⁄1960s
Rational choice (bounded ⁄ unbounded) Wizard Gandalf ⁄ Saruman
Neorealist (defensive ⁄ offensive) Human Boromir ⁄ Ringwraith
Neoliberal (Institutionalist) Dwarf Gimli

3. Epistemology (positivism ⁄postpositivism): 1980s ⁄ 1990s
Constructivist Hobbit Frodo Baggins
Critical theory (Marxist roots) Ent Treebeard

source: A E.bigail Ruane, Patrick James. The International Relations of Middle-earth: Learning from The Lord of the Rings. International Studies Perspectives, Volume 9, Number 4 (November 2008), pp. 377-394.

Stiglitz' recommendations

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel prize winner, former chief economist of the World Bank, chairman of Clinton's council of economic advisors, critic and reformer of globalization, makes some suggestions in an essay in Time magazine to deal with the financial mess. You can't claim he doesn't think big:

5 Create an effective multilateral agency. As the global economy becomes more interconnected, we need better global oversight. It is unimaginable that America's financial market could function effectively if we had to rely on 50 separate state regulators. But we are trying to do essentially that at the global level.

The recent crisis provides an example of the dangers: as some foreign governments provided blanket guarantees for their deposits, money started to move to what looked like safe havens. Other countries had to respond. A few European governments have been far more thoughtful than the U.S. in figuring out what needs to be done. Even before the crisis turned global, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in his address to the U.N. last month, called for a world summit to lay the foundations for more state regulation to replace the current laissez-faire approach. We may be at a new "Bretton Woods moment." As the world emerged from the Great Depression and World War II, it realized there was need for a new global economic order. It lasted more than 60 years. That it was not well adapted for the new world of globalization has been clear for a long time. Now, as the world emerges from the Cold War and the Great Financial Crisis, it will need to construct a new global economic order for the 21st century, and that will include a new global regulatory agency.

This crisis may have taught us that unfettered markets are risky. It should also have taught us that unilateralism can't work in a world of economic interdependence.

Some will see this as yet another assault on American sovereignty. And you know, they're not entirely wrong. But no country has absolute sovereignty in practice. Only a great power like the US could lose sight of that--until reality drives home the point. I doubt Stiglitz' answers are entirely correct--and I'm sure they're not complete--but he's probably on a productive track.

The big breakdown

No matter how bad you think it is, it's worse.

If you don't believe me, listen to Taleb and Mandelbrot. I've been watching this for years, hoping to avoid it. I still hope the system proves to be more resilient than these guys believe--a "break-UP" rather than a "break-DOWN"--but they make a strong case.

Thanks to zen for the pointer.

Security studies conference

Just back from a conference for security studies types, held by the ISA and APSA in Vail,
CO. Lots of good people. I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn't so ill. Fever, lack of sleep and congestion are bad enough at home; they are more of a pain at 10,000 feet. I did get to present my paper on NBIC technologies, soon to be published by the Journal of Human Security, and learned more. I was too sick to present my paper on PMCs, but it needs a substantial rewrite anyway.

(I wish I could have heard the comments on the second paper. I'll contact the chair to see if he has anything for me.)

Two general observations:
  • A lot of people are waiting to see how much of the Bush foreign policy will survive the upcoming election. Will there be a general outbreak of sanity? If so, what does that mean for strategic and security studies?
  • Few people, inside or outside government, seem to be interested in discussing some of the threats on the horizon associated with nano-scale and associated technologies. In part, I suspect this is just because it donesn't fit the standard paradigm. In particular, the potential for commercial dual-use applications, small-scale (personal?) production, and accidental release (let alone terrorism) challenges the whole idea of a state-based regulatory regime. It felt at times like we were medieval experts, confronted with the proliferation of guns, who would prefer to keep talking about the tactics of armored knights.
The world is changing. Just how much, I don't know. But it clearly is changing, and we aren't ready. While I'm glad I went, I'm equally glad to be home.

Twittering terrorists

An Army report, released throught the Federation of American Scientists, finds that Twitter could be used by terrorists to coordinate attacks.

Well, duh.

That's the "problem" with global, real-time communications: people you don't like might use them, too. What I find more interesting are a couple of other points. First, there seem to be no open-source references to twittering terrorists. Are the terrorists clueless? Are they that good? Is nobody looking? Are the reports classified? Second, there is the ease with which the Army lumps all kinds of "hacktivists" with terrorism.
Twitter has also become a social activism tool for socialists, human rights groups, communists, vegetarians, anarchists, religious communities, atheists, political enthusiasts, hacktivists and others to communicate with each other and to send messages to broader audiences...


Twitter is already used by some members to post and/or support extremist ideologies and perspectives. Extremist and terrorist use of Twitter could evolve over time to reflect tactics that are already evolving in use by hacktivists and activists for surveillance. This could theoretically be combined with targeting.
Gee, is there anybody with a different opinion who we shouldn't be afraid of?

26 October, 2008

Palin "goes rogue"

While watching the VP debates my brilliant and beautiful wife commented that it seemed to her that Palin was less interested in winning this election than she was in positioning herself for the next one. The national press is finally getting it, too. This from CNN:

Several McCain advisers have suggested to CNN they have become increasingly frustrated with what one aide described as Palin “going rogue” recently, while a Palin associate says she is simply trying to “bust free” of what she believes was a mishandled roll-out that damaged her.

McCain sources point to several incidents where Palin has gone off message, and privately wonder if they were deliberate. For example: labeling robo calls “irritating,” even as the campaign was defending the use of them and telling reporters she disagreed with the campaigns controversial decision to pull out of Michigan.

A second McCain source tells CNN she appears to now be looking out for herself more than the McCain campaign.

While the McCain campaign goes down in flames, the newest darling of the neocons is the only person positioned to get any long-term advantage. A paranoid question: were the advisors who pushed for Palin hoping something like this would happen? McCain, despite towing the line in this campaign, was always too unpredictable (and autonomous) for many "conservative" true believers.

22 October, 2008

The good news (and bad)

The Conservative Rebellion October 21, 2008Alvaro Vargas Llosa

WASHINGTON—A rebellion is beginning to take place among American conservatives, many of them influential commentators who are denouncing the takeover of the Republican Party by a mixture of anti-intellectual populists and political extremists.
Novelist Christopher Buckley, the son of the founder of modern American conservatism, has endorsed Barack Obama for president. Columnists Kathleen Parker and Peggy Noonan have questioned John McCain’s judgment in picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. Another columnist, David Brooks, has offered a jeremiad against the Republican Party’s anti-intellectual bent.

More poignantly, they all decry what they perceive as a betrayal of conservative principles. Buckley put it succinctly when he wrote that George Bush’s government has brought America “a doubled national debt, ruinous expansion of entitlement programs, bridges to nowhere, poster boy Jack Abramoff and an ill-premised, ill-waged war conducted by politicians of breathtaking arrogance.” Brooks thinks the problem goes beyond the Bush years, stating that “modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals” against the liberal domination of the academic world, but “what had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole.” Parker is even more forceful: “The well-fed right now cultivates ignorance as a political strategy. ... Years of pandering to the extreme wing ... have created a party no longer attentive to its principles.”

We don’t know if these symptoms of dissent will develop into a full-blown rebellion against the Republican establishment. Much will depend on the result of the presidential election. If McCain and Palin lose, the chances of an insurgency taking root within the party itself are significant.
The Republican Party has indeed deviated from conservatism as it is understood by those who consider Edmund Burke the founder of the conservative idea, William F. Buckley the intellectual midwife of modern-day American conservatism, and Barry Goldwater the flint that sparked a vast political movement in favor of small government in the United States.

This deviation expresses itself in different ways. First, in the confusion between Jeffersonian populism—a salutary mistrust of economic power allied to political power—and class-based populism, which is what Republican leaders promote when they scorn America’s coastal and big-city culture. Second, in the contradiction between a low-tax, low-spend policy and an interventionist foreign policy that, by definition, is costly—as every empire in the history of mankind eventually and painfully found out. Last, in modern-day Puritanism, which started, perhaps understandably, as a reaction against the cultural excesses of the 1960s but ended up turning into what H.L. Mencken described decades earlier as “grounded upon the inferior man’s hatred of the man who is having a better time.”

These fundamental deviations from conservatism crystallized in the Bush administration. The result was the biggest growth in government since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, a loss of international prestige and, in purely political terms, the alienation of millions of people who could have been attracted to the Republican Party had its libertarian roots been preserved in dealing with social issues. Thus, the party that styles itself the champion of individual liberty has come to be seen by many in the United States and around the world as a special-interest group driven by factions and devoid of principle.

That many conservatives have finally decided to speak out is encouraging. That they are being vilified is even more encouraging—it means that they may just have a point. After the elections, conservatives will have to do some serious soul-searching and ask themselves a few simple questions: How was it that they let their movement and their party be hijacked by people who were hellbent on disfiguring the face of American conservatism? How was it that the self-styled party of individual liberty became, in the eyes of many, the party of big government, intolerance and jingoism?

The recent spats among the various strands of American conservatism are the harbinger of a transcendent fight for the soul of the movement. We don’t yet know who the leaders will be and much less who will emerge victorious. The search for a renewed Republican Party could, as in 1964 and 1980, produce a return to its roots. But this will not be a pretty picture. If the “root” conservatives are going to displace the faction that now controls the movement, they will need to displace some very unpleasant people.

Excellent advice

Intended for Sarah Palin, but good for anyone to hear.

Cyberwar goes both ways

Somebody is screwing with Al Qaeda's propaganda websites.


You gotta love a globalizing world: Columbian drug smugglers are helping to finance Hezbolah.

08 October, 2008

A history lesson

Excerpts from pages 166-73 of They Thought They Were Free: The Germans
First published in 1955
By Milton Mayer

"What no one seemed to notice," said a colleague of mine, a philologist, "was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider. You know, it doesn’t make people close to their government to be told that this is a people’s government, a true democracy, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote. All this has little, really nothing, to do with knowing one is governing.

"What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

"This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.

"You will understand me when I say that my Middle High German was my life. It was all I cared about. I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the university was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was ‘expected to’ participate that had not been there or had not been important before. It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one’s energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time."

"Those," I said, "are the words of my friend the baker. ‘One had no time to think. There was so much going on.’"

"Your friend the baker was right," said my colleague. "The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?

"To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it— please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

"How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.

"Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late."

"Yes," I said.

"You see," my colleague went on, "one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not?—Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 166-73 of They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1955, 1966.

06 October, 2008

The market reacts to the bailout

New web address

In the interest of distinguishing this blog from all the other "Political Outsiders" out there, I'm changing name of this blog, and changing the address to http://secureliberty.blogspot.com.

03 October, 2008

A pork-encrusted scam

The "revised" Bailout is the most horrible piece of legislation I have ever read: wrongly conceived, poorly organized, badly written, a collection of executive aggrandizement and legislative pork that makes the PATRIOT Act look well-considered.

Even if something needs to be done, this is not it.

The Bailout conference call

I'm seeing this in several places. I have no independent confirmation. The story is that there was a conference call Monday evening involving spokespeople for the Treasury Department and various insider analysts looking for a precis of what the "improved" bill that was going to the Senate (and now to the House) really means. The call was recorded, and has been linked to several sites, starting with a torrent (that I have so far been unable to open) at The Pirate Bay. There are also notes from the call:
"Draft bill is very positive for both markets and our companies"

Much explanation of Executive Comp

Residential and commercial mortgages. But very importantly, it can be any asset.

Excited about ability to guarantee assets in exchange for a guarantee fee.

Sought as much authority and as much flexibility as possible.

Eligibility: as broad participation by institutions as possible. The
more participation, the more effective it will be. Want banks of all
sizes or any financial institution that has a meaningful presence in
the US to be interested and enthusiastic.

Purpose is to help private sector clean up their balance sheets.

Highest priority: make sure it works, will attract companies to
participate. Warrants and exec comp. were very highly negotiated.


Direct purchases from failing institution e.g. Bear Stearns, AIG, F&F: will do the same thing, take maybe 79.9% equity.

Market mechanism: Congress wanted taxpayer benefit in upside. Sell
warrants for assets over $100M , but the amount of warrants is still
TBD. WE want healthy institutions to participate so it should not be

Exec comp.

Most difficult part of negotiation.

Direct deal: fire the management, like AIG etc.

Market mechanism: if sell over $300M into fund, some exec comp limits
come with it. For 2 years, the firm could not enter into NEW contracts
including golden parachute, for involuntary departure. And lose some

We feel really good that we have encouraged healthy institutions to participate, not just bailouts of sick institutions.

Clawback of taxpayer losses:
1. it's a long way out, "a lot can happen in that time"
2. it's targeted at all financial institutions, not just participants! (that means it will never happen)
3. would need more congressional and presidential action to implement this.

Oversight (Bob Hoyt)

1. Financial Stability Oversight Board
2. General Accountability Office and Comptroller General managing purchase auctions
3. Special Inspector General
4. Congressional Oversight Panel
5. Reporting provisions
some1 | 09.28.08 - 9:27 pm | #

Tranching of $700B (I didn't know that was a limit)

Entire 700B is appropriated entirely by the act, no further appropriation necessary.

Tranching: first $250B
Then Secretary determines that more is needed and tells Congress, another $100B
Then Secretary determines that more is needed and Congress has 15 days to refuse, the remaining $350B

No time limits. Can request all the tranches at once, no need for delays.

More about tranching:

To block the last $350B, Congress has to say no. Then the President can
veto that. To override that veto, Congress needs 2/3 majority.

ALL of that must happen within 15 days, otherwise the money goes out.

Can't the President wait and veto it with one minute left in the 15 days?

RTC had to go back to Congress. Kudos for making this program much EASIER!

Price: not a fire-sale price, not an outrageous price, a "fair" price. Firms might get a price higher than their current mark.

(Congress will be voting on this, with this aspect totally undetermined.)

Not trying to maximize return to the taxpayer, but to provide liquidity to the system as a whole.

They will prefer to help healthy banks become even healthier, as
opposed to rescuing a failing bank, because the healthy bank is more
likely to relend into the system.

They expect that the exec. comp. limits won't constrain the healthy banks, since they are so light.

It will take several weeks, before any assets can be bought, to hire asset managers and get systems up and running.

(They're going to let the weak banks fail, then help the rest.)

No provision to mandate re-lending.

Stuff that is still to be determined, will be issued as "guidelines" therefore exempt from discussion and comment period.

About 800 people on the call.
Make of it what you will. I think it sucks.

30 September, 2008

"All experts believe",,,NOT

I'm growing tired of the ever-narrowing gap between reporting and commentary in the current financial mess. CNN and CNBC, although not alone, seem particularly guilty in this regard. The past day I've heard the situation defined as a "crisis," requiring immediate and radical action that--coincidentally?--places more power in the hands of government in general, and in particular the hands of many of the people most responsible for this mess.

Where are the questions? How do we know the crisis is a big as we're told, or the proposed solution would work? We're told "everyone knows"--just like the intelligence leading up to the Gulf War, or the threat analysis after 9/11. Look how well those worked out.

Yesterday morning it struck me that we'd seen this before. And we have: the proposed bailout is to the American financial system what the PATRIOT Act was (and is) to American civil liberties.

But the expert opinion has not been unanimous, no more than it was before the war. Here are a few smart people who make a good case against the proposed bailout:

Jeffery Miron argues that bankruptcy is preferable to the bailout, and gives reasons why.

David R. Henderson argues against it, too.

So does Alan Meltzer, in his NPR interview.

David Cay Johnson discusses what the press should be doing.

Maybe the American people, and the House of Representatives, aren't are dumb as some think they are.

27 September, 2008

Financial transparency

As long as we're fixing the regulatory system, there's a technological fix that will do wonders for transparency:

Technological limits used to mean that any kind of data had to be laboriously culled and aggregated before being submitted to regulators. Now, innovations such as XML tags and data syndication in formats such as RSS (as a Huffington subscriber, you get the Post via an RSS feed) or KML (used for Google map mashups) make it simple for companies to automatically combine the data and release it, whether internally or to regulators -- and even to the public.

The District of Columbia, long plagued by corruption, began a transparency initiative under former Mayor Anthony Williams. It shifted into high gear under Mayor Adrian Fenty, and CTO Vivek Kundra. They now publish, on a real-time basis, more than 260 different data streams of statistics as varied as violent crime, building starts, and even requests to fill potholes. All of those statistics are available for anyone to analyze and interpret, and current uses range from tracking development around the new Nationals Park to showing crime reports on a Google Map.

Equally important, District agencies use the same data feeds internally to deploy their workforces more effectively, and break down barriers to cooperation between agencies.

If the same system was applied to banking, critical statistics could flow automatically to federal regulators, while also being available to the banks' own staff -- many of whom have never had real-time data access in the past. Combined with innovative web-based tools to turn obscure data into easy-to-understand visualizations, for the first time the workforce, as well as regulators, would have the kind of real-time information that's essential in today's global economy, whether to regulate businesses or to run them.

Furthermore, if the data were automatically "scrubbed" of identifiers and any kind of information that might be a legitimately competitive concern, it might also be possible to aggregate and publish the data externally, so that the general public, media, and scholars could also subscribe to, analyze, and scrutinize the information on a real-time basis. The Patent Office is experimenting with an analogous innovation, the Peer-to-Patent program, which allows anyone with relevant expertise to review a pending patent and submit commentary to the Patent Office.

You can't oversee a globalized economy with 20th century methods. And if something like this had been in place, external observers could have brought more pressure to bear on Congress and on regulators, avoiding some of the current disaster.

22 September, 2008

Better ideas

Here are some better ideas about bailouts. The details matter. In the long run, the details are what matter most.

21 September, 2008

How far the fall?

The BBC put together this little chart. Sometimes, it's best to use a picture.

Out of the loop

From a forthcoming book, excerpted in the Washington Post, comes an enlightening view of the politics of the Bush White House. Meanwhile, VP Cheney has been ordered by a Federal judge to preserve all records of his time in office.

I'm not thrilled about Obama. I've never voted for a democrat for president. One of the best reasons to vote for this one is the off chance that we might actually get an investigation (and/or leaks) that tells us what the hell has been going on for the past eight years.

It's going to be interesting to watch the weeks between an Obama victory (of it happens) and the end of the Bush administration. I expect a lot of paper-shredding and "accidental" erasures. I wonder: can a president pre-emptively pardon himself?

The market meets a need

Even as the government-regulated markets teeter on the brink, it's good to remember the good that can come from the gray and black markets--simple supply and demand, and entrepreneurship. In Estonia, the government discovered a underwater pipeline that was set up to pump cheap Russian vodka two kilometers under a reservoir into the country, where it could be sold without export tariffs. At least 6,200 liters of it were pumped under the border before it was shut down.

How much is the tariff on imported vodka in Estonia? It must be substantial to justify the investment in a pipeline. And why should anyone assume there's only one?

Foreign policy debate

I'll be one of the participants in a pre-debate roundtable starting Friday 8 pm, September 26th,
in the MPR of the University Union.

The topics are foreign policy and national security.

I hope it will be interesting, but we shouldn't overhype the debates.

"Debates are like a restart button in the campaign. That's where viewers say, wait a minute, I don't have to make up my mind until I see them both in an equal footing in an unscripted situation," he said.

"But you know what's interesting? In 2004, John Kerry won every debate against George Bush. Every single one we polled after each debate. People thought Kerry was the better debater. But winning the debate does not give you the prize of being elected president."
--Bill Schnieder, CNN

Socialism of the rich

The US has bailed out AIG, in the process taking operational control of the company. I haven't seen all the details, but I suspect some variation on the "golden parachutes" deployed from Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac. The government then proceeded to dump $700 million into the markets to pick up the "toxic mortgages" and other bad paper that threaten to freeze the credit markets.

Some kind of bailout is probably necessary, if we are to avoid a collapse on the scale of the Great Depression. The more I look at the details of this deal, it looks like a scam.

There's no surprise to that. For the largest players, the system has been a cycle of booms and bailouts for several decades: private profit, public risk. We can talk about credit-risk derivatives, greed, complexity, moral hazard, over-leveraged deals, and so forth, but there's a more basic problem. As one observer put it,
If financial behemoths like AIG are too large and/or too interconnected to fail but not too smart to get themselves into situations where they need to be bailed out, then what is the case for letting private firms engage in such kinds of activities in the first place? Is the reality of the modern, transactions-oriented model of financial capitalism indeed that large private firms make enormous private profits when the going is good and get bailed out and taken into temporary public ownership when the going gets bad, with the taxpayer taking the risk and the losses? If so, then why not keep these activities in permanent public ownership?

The system, as it exists--and as it is coming to be--seems to be a socialism for (some of) the rich. Financial interests--acting rationally as individuals within the system that was constructed--have bet that there will always be a "sucker" to take the bad paper. It might be foreign investors. It might be the Chinese government. It might be somebody's retirement fund. When the world finally runs out of chumps, the bet went, there's always one you can depend on: the US government, backed by the American people.

Well, crunch time is here, and it's time to see what kind of a penalty the hedge fund managers, et al, will pay for their actions. At present, it looks like socialism for the rich will endure. Or, as suggested above, another kind of socialism might be tried, one that probably would do no better. Either way, some people are being granted the power to manufacture money, without fear of paying for their mistakes. Becasue of basic economics, the bill will have to be paid by someone--through inflation, a falling dollar, unemployment, etc. It just won't be these guys.

Of course, you can trust the government to do what's right, uninfluenced by lobbying or partisanship. In the final analysis, this is a system of laws, right? The national interest includes all of us, right? It isn't even possible to use these tools to consolidate power or crush opposition, right? Right?

"Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency."

--From the proposed $700 billion bailout legislation

Why am I not relieved?

10 September, 2008

The fighter jock versus the jurist

Part of the McCain-Obama contest is about "temperament," beyond the particular issues, and its no wonder the most fervent supporters of each can't stand the other. As the VP selection process indicates, they operate in very different ways.

John McCain remains in many ways the fighter-jock. He trusts his instincts. He's willing--he enjoys--flying off into new directions. A successful fighter pilot is not stupid, by any means, but there's not a lot of time in a dogfight for deliberation. It's best to move, and move now, before the opposition is sure where you are. If your choice is not the ideal move, that may still be ok. If you can keep shifting faster that the other guy, you can correct your errors while his errors accumulate. It's Boyd's OODA: Observe/Orient/Decide/Act (repeat as necessary).

Barack Obama is by training and temperament a jurist. For him, the decision-making model is the analytic loop drilled into first year law students--IRAC: Issue/Rule/Analysis/Conclusion. It's essentially conservative, in the sense that it discourages rapid change or experimentation. Oddly enough, for the "change" candidate, there's remarkably little in his program that hasn't been knocked around in Democratic think tanks for years.

Fighter jocks think tactically, but they can miss the big picture. They focus on how to improve the situation in Iraq, but are less likely to ask whether the war is necessary. Jurists think in terms of general principles and precedents, but avoid the particulars. Once they decide Iraq is the wrong war to fight, it doesn't much matter to them what is happening on the ground.

Jurists campaign systematically. They organize, they build their forces, they organize some more. They stay on message. They think things through. They strive to avoid mistakes. They conduct long search processes that result in conventional choices. Fighter jocks enjoy coming from a direction you didn't expect. They take long gambles. They go with their gut. They hold the decision close, make it quickly, and look for ways to rattle the opponent. On occasion, they crash. Then, if it doesn't kill them (and on occasion those who fly with them), they learn to do better.

(Remember the movie Top Gun? The hero's call sign was "maverick.")

Long political campaigns favor the systematic, the organizer, the jurist. The last two months before the American election, down and dirty, with charge and countercharge, play to the strengths of the fighter jock.

08 September, 2008

Disturbing news

From the International Herald Tribune:

KARALETI, Georgia: Russian soldiers prevented international aid convoys from visiting Georgian villages on Monday in a blunt demonstration of power in a tense zone around the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

The ambassadors of Sweden, Latvia and Estonia said they also had been barred from visiting villages beyond Russian checkpoints.

Monday's show of authority came as French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried in Moscow to persuade Russia to honor its pledge to pull its troops back to the positions they held before the fighting broke out Aug. 7.

A convoy of four vehicles from U.N. aid agencies waited for about an hour at the checkpoint in Karaleti, but was turned away after a brief discussion with a Russian general who arrived to negotiate. The three aid agency SUVs and a World Food Program truck loaded with wheat flour, pasta, sugar and other staples were headed to Georgian villages around South Ossetia.

An old lesson: he who controls the ground makes the rules. I really thought (hoped) the Russians would do a quick incursion, withdraw for peacekeepers (including their own), and try to get it all over with as soon as possible. I was wrong. Not just this action, but the pattern of action indicates a return to a more open imperialist stance.

I suspect that Russia has concluded that for the immediate future more formal integration, like WTO membership, isn’t as important as it used to be. Likewise, Russian stock markets have been falling, and that doesn’t seem to both Putin/Medvedev much.

There’s a window of opportunity here for Russian expansionism (or reestablishing its traditional sphere of influence, if you care to look at it that way). One reason for that is oil. There’s a good connection between oil prices and authoritarianism among oil producers. Today, crude oil is at $108 per barrel, and OPEC suggests an oil price range from $113 a barrel to as high as $186 a barrel by 2030. GAZPROM, Russia’s monopoly, predicted oil prices could hit $250 a barrel in 2009. While that’s less likely now than it seemed six months ago, one thing that could drive up the price is a perception of political instability. In that sense, while war is bad for people who profit from production and open markets, it can be great for the state oil monopoly. We seem to have an ugly cycle emerging, and few of our potential punishments do anything more than reinforce it.

A way to break the cycle is to reduce global dependence on a few oil producers. Even if it is possible, it takes time. Hence, a window of opportunity for Russia.

What does this mean for the emerging rule set? I suspect it will look a lot more like regional blocs and spheres of influence than a global Leviathan/SysAdmin. A global system might be sold as being in Russia’s interests, but they seem to have concluded that it isn’t going to happen, so the best they can hope for is regional integration and domination. Acting on that analysis tends to be self-fulfilling.

The post-convention bounce

According to a USA Today poll, "McCain leads Democrat Barack Obama by 50%-46% among registered voters, the Republican's biggest advantage since January and a turnaround from the USA TODAY poll taken just before the convention opened in St. Paul." Prior to the convention McCain lagged by 7 percentage points.

Don't read too much into it.

07 September, 2008

Factchecking the speeches

A useful on-line device is FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan site devoted to checking the "facts" tossed around by the candidates. Sometimes, of course, there are no facts. One can't find a reference to measure "hope" or "courage". Sometimes--and I'd put Ronald Reagan in this category--the candidate would speak in parables and metaphors. I don't think we were supposed to believe all the details. But where you can check the numbers, it's good to do.

So how about these candidates? Let's compare the acceptance speeches of Obama and McCain. Obama first. From FactCheck:
  • Obama said he could “pay for every dime” of his spending and tax cut proposals “by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens.” That’s wrong – his proposed tax increases on upper-income individuals are key components of paying for his program, as well. And his plan, like McCain’s, would leave the U.S. facing big budget deficits, according to independent experts.
  • He twisted McCain’s words about Afghanistan, saying, “When John McCain said we could just 'muddle through' in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources.” Actually, McCain said in 2003 we “may” muddle through, and he recently also called for more troops there.

  • He said McCain would fail to lower taxes for 100 million Americans while his own plan would cut taxes for 95 percent of “working” families. But an independent analysis puts the number who would see no benefit from McCain’s plan at 66 million and finds that Obama’s plan would benefit 81 percent of all households when retirees and those without children are figured in.
  • Obama asked why McCain would "define middle-class as someone making under five million dollars a year"? Actually, McCain meant that comment as a joke, getting a laugh and following up by saying, "But seriously ..."
  • Obama noted that McCain’s health care plan would "tax people’s benefits" but didn’t say that it also would provide up to a $5,000 tax credit for families.

  • He said McCain, far from being a maverick who’s "broken with his party," has voted to support Bush policies 90 percent of the time. True enough, but by the same measure Obama has voted with fellow Democrats in the Senate 97 percent of the time.

  • Obama said "average family income" went down $2,000 under Bush, which isn't correct. An aide said he was really talking only about "working" families and not retired couples. And – math teachers, please note – he meant median (or midpoint) and not really the mean or average. Median family income actually has inched up slightly under Bush.
How about McCain?
  • McCain claimed that Obama’s health care plan would "force small businesses to cut jobs" and would put "a bureaucrat ... between you and your doctor." In fact, the plan exempts small businesses, and those who have insurance now could keep the coverage they have.

  • McCain attacked Obama for voting for "corporate welfare" for oil companies. In fact, the bill Obama voted for raised taxes on oil companies by $300 million over 11 years while providing $5.8 billion in subsidies for renewable energy, energy efficiency and alternative fuels.

  • McCain said oil imports send "$700 billion a year to countries that don't like us very much." But the U.S. is on track to import a total of only $536 billion worth of oil at current prices, and close to a third of that comes from Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

  • He promised to increase use of "wind, tide [and] solar" energy, though his actual energy plan contains no new money for renewable energy. He has said elsewhere that renewable sources won’t produce as much as people think.

  • He called for "reducing government spending and getting rid of failed programs," but as in the past failed to cite a single program that he would eliminate or reduce.
  • He said Obama would "close" markets to trade. In fact, Obama, though he once said he wanted to "renegotiate" the North American Free Trade Agreement, now says he simply wants to try to strengthen environmental and labor provisions in it.
It seems there's enough truth-stretching there for everyone. The idea of paying from programs by "closing loopholes" and ending "failed programs" I find irksome. The math doesn't work--especially when you consider that "loopholes" and "failure" are often in the eye of the beholder.

04 September, 2008


The New York Times is reporting what it calls the first publicly acknowledged case of United States forces conducting a ground raid on Pakistani soil. This is not about "hot putsuit." It was preplanned and appears to be part of a larger operation by American speical forces.

Pakistani leaders are upset.

Me? I think it's about freakin' time.

A problem of image

"Superman is the way America sees itself, but Batman is the way the world sees America."
--Michael Caine

03 September, 2008

Pact Sunt Servanda

From Nightwatch:

Fox News is the only source to report North Korea has begun to reassemble its
nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, as it threatened last week. Fox cited statements
by US official sources who were not identified by position or name. Fox also
provided no details as to just what activity is taking place that is related to
reassembly of the facilities. Fox appears to have been co-opted into a North
Korean ruse considering North Korea made the threat last week.

There are far too many unknowns and uncertainties to credit the Fox report so soon after the North Korean threat. The main point is the North has the technical capability to reassemble the facilities at Yongbyon eventually, which distinguishes the
North’s statements as threatening, instead of bluffing. Actions to reassemble
Yongbyon facilities would be consistent with the North Korean tactic of forcing
the US to re-negotiate over old issues that were settled in earlier talks.
Whenever the North thinks it can get a better deal, it simply changes the rules
and sometimes the game. If the US chooses to stay engaged, Ambassador Hill or
someone else must now re-negotiate for the dismantlement conditions that the US
worked five years to achieve. That would be the significance of increased
activity at Yongbyon, if confirmed. In short, the price of North Korean cooperation went up again.

"I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it further."

--Darth Vader to Lando Carlissian

22 August, 2008

"Peacekeeping" and imperialism

From John McCreary's Nightwatch:
[The Russian foreign minister] said Russia will keep 500 troops in the buffer zone around South Ossetia and establish eight checkpoints, Reuters reported.

No significant withdrawal of Russian forces has taken place or is being prepared. Reuters related a report that a column of Russian armor withdrew from central Georgia. Interfax, however, withdrew an earlier report of a pullback from Gori. Russian forces still hold positions around the cities of Gori and Igoeti, about 30 miles from the Georgian capital in the center of the country.


Georgia no longer has the right to conduct peacekeeping operations in its secessionist region of South Ossetia [my emphasis--PO], Russian General Colonel Anatoly Nogovitsyn said, as RIA Novosti reported. Nogovitsyn insisted only Russian forces have the right to carry out peacekeeping missions in South Ossetia and that Russian peacekeepers are still operating in Abkhazia. Russia will set up additional peacekeeping observer posts there soon.

Nogovitsyn announced any planes flying over South Ossetia and neighboring Georgian regions [my emphasis--PO] must have Russia's permission and that foreign observers must coordinate visits to the conflict zone with the Russian Defense Ministry. (Note: This is a new requirement.)

Comment: The gap between statements by the Russian President and the Foreign Minister and those by the Deputy Chief of the General Staff has widened this week. Ground truth favors the Deputy Chief of the General Staff. The miscommunication and disinformation are reminiscent of the Soviet era in which civilian officials, including the highest ranking diplomats, lacked the clearances to discuss military operational issues, but hated to admit it.

The Russian moves this week reinforce the assessment that the Russians have carved out a security zone from the north center to the northwest of Georgia. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have requested Russian recognition of their independence. Russian behavior suggests it will grant that recognition in some form and back it up with a mutual defense agreement, a conventional military presence including armored forces, plus a security zone of lightly equipped peacekeepers in Georgia proper. Recognition might not occur immediately, but the other moves are nearing completion. Georgia as it existed on 6 August 2008 no longer exists except as a memory.
It looks like Russia is pushing to set up de facto protectorates in Ossetia and Abkhazia. Rebel governments in both areas want Russia to acknowledge their independence from Georgia. Russia might just do it--but it will be clear that formal "independence" means permanent Russian domination. Making that move could prove counterproductive--why rub everyone's face in the mud?--but military success can lead to political overreach.

I wonder if the Russians would be happy with a "lawless zone" not officially under its control, but with the understanding that criminal activity would be disproportionately aimed at the Georgians?

19 August, 2008

John (1958-2008)

John was my friend since 6th grade. We were roommates in our first year of college, and shared a house our fourth year. We shared interests in science fiction, military history, strategic board games, role-playing, technology, politics, monty python's flying circus, girls, movies, motorcycles, and the general absurdity of life--though not necessarily in that order. I stopped riding my bike years ago, but he progressed to motorcross and cross-country cruising. He saw most of the country on his BMW. Second only to his wife, Sue, he loved to ride most of all.

John was an engineer, running his own consulting company. It was really starting to take off. Returning from a meeting with a client, he passed through an improperly-marked intersection: flashing red in one direction, flashing yellow in the other. He stopped, looked both ways at the red light, and carefully pulled out to see what might be coming.

What was coming was a car that came down the other street without bothering to slow down.

As best we can reconstruct it, John did everything right. It didn't help: the car clipped the front of the bike, throwing John forward, putting his knee through the windshield and wrapping the rest of his body around to drive John's head through the passenger side window.

He was declared dead at the scene.

I've spent the past few days in Missouri, trying to help his wife and all the relatives to take care of the things that have to be done, while struggling with the shock. That's why there haven't been any posts here lately. And while I usually keep my personal life out of this blog, I want everyone to know what happened.

John was one of the smartest people I've ever known. He was also, although he didn't share it at first, one of the most caring. What was most obvious to everyone who knew him was he was one of the most alive people you would ever meet. If there was something he needed, or wanted, to do--his marriage, his business, his riding, his collection of microbrews, or simply making somebody laugh--he threw his whole self into it.

He lived large. Now he leaves a large hole to fill. We'll survive, and get back to the business of living. All of us--even Sue, who is another of the most remarkable people I've ever known--will rediscover that the world remains full of things to do, and enjoy, and laugh about. At the same time, we will always remember him, and miss him.

11 August, 2008

Russian "peacekeeping"

The term "peacekeeping" has a fairly straightforward definition. The Russians claim the 1500-man Operational Group of Russian Forces inTrandnestria (seperatist Republic of Moldova) and the CIS-authorized force in Abkhazia (Georgia), as well as the forces operating in South Ossetia as "peacekeeping" forces and claims they operate under the authority of the UN. The UN includes none of them in its official list of peacekeeping forces.

The official mandate of the the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) "peacekeepers" in Abkhazia ended in 2003, but last I heard (May) about 2500 Russian troops remained. Georgia has tried to get the Russians out, to be replaced by a larger UN force, but of course it has gotten nowhere. The UN Security Council refers to the "CIS collective peackeeping operation" in its regular (6 month) reauthorization of the official peacekeeping operation in Ossetia, UNOMIG. If it didn't include that phrase, the Russians would veto reauthorization.

Besides, according to Russia’s Ambassador in Georgia, “The Russian constitution stipulates protecting Russian citizens wherever they may be --- whether in Abkhazia, Zanzibar, Antarctica, wherever,” and President Medvedev (Interfax, Aug 11) is saying that the operation is almost finished. Some quotes:
"The task of forcing the Georgian side, the Georgian authorities, to
[accept] peace in South Ossetia has almost been achieved. Tskhinvali is
under the control of the reinforced Russian peacekeeping contingent."

"We – I mean the Russian peacekeepers – will take all further necessary
measures to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens."

“From the political point of view Georgia’s aggression has ruined the
process of searching of the peaceful solution for the Georgian-Ossetian
problem. As a result Georgia has hit an irreparable damage to its
territorial integrity."
The Georgians are looking for help. They won't get much. They really screwed up, and the Russians are taking full advantage ot it.