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Counter-Factual World

January 25th, 2015 - 6:00 am

One of the most interesting forms of rebuttal is to invoke the counterfactual.  Apparent failure must always be contextualized against the background of the what-might-have-been. For example president Obama once claimed he saved 1.1 million jobs that would have been lost had he not bailed out Detroit.  We are also told that Obamacare has saved everyone money, although premiums are rising under it, because premiums would have risen faster without the program.  These are successes  despite appearances.

Today president Obama justified his policy in Yemen saying the alternative to his strategy would have been disaster.  The rise of Isis, the loss of vast territories in Iraq, the dissolution of Libya, the upheaval in Egypt are the best of possible worlds in comparison to what would have occurred if Bush were in charge.

President Barack Obama defended his administration’s drone-based counterterrorism strategy against al Qaeda militants in Yemen, saying the alternative would be to deploy U.S. troops, which he said was not sustainable.

While the outcomes of his policies do not seem to be a success in themelves, they are deceptively brilliant when it is considered they headed off some alternative future which would have been far worse.  This type of reasoning is called counter-factual thinking “Counterfactual thinking is a concept in psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred; something that is contrary to what actually happened.”

Thus you can rationalize, for example,  the “failure” of the Secret Service to protect president Kennedy in Dallas by arguing that ‘if Oswald had not shot Kennedy, then someone else would have’. If you think about it in that way the protective detail prevented what could have happened.

The most interesting thing about counterfactual justifications is they only pertain to events that have already occurred in the past, which leads people to think they are a form of sophisticated excuse-making. Certainly if you had asked the administration to explain why Yemen was its “model” last year, they would would not have characterized it in terms of what actually happened. That kind of rationalization has to applied retrospectively to be useful.


There’s a Great Future in Plastics

January 24th, 2015 - 5:12 am

The wheels are turning faster than ever to cement the administration’s foreign policy legacy.  A certain urgency has been inserted into proceedings. President Obama is cutting short his trip to India to rush off to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman.  Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute mordantly Tweets: “Hello #France: POTUS trip to #Saudi suggests WH figured out how to make quick trips to foreign capitals.”

This is in reference to the excuse offered by the White House for the president’s inability to stand in solidarity with France in the matter of terrorist attacks against it.  He couldn’t make Paris.  But he can make both India and Riyadh.

All a question of motivation.

The Huffington Post notes that John Kerry now believes a deal with Iran, which has been delayed all these months, can now be concluded sooner than anyone could have imagined.

The U.S. expects to achieve a deal on reining in Iran’s nuclear program within three or four months, Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday, suggesting an agreement could be possible months sooner than previously anticipated.

Iran and the global powers negotiating with it — the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — had previously failed to reach a deal by their self-imposed deadline of Nov. 24. At that point, they extended the talks for another seven months to June 30, 2015.

“Though it said seven months, we’re not looking at seven months. I think the target is three/four months and hopefully even sooner if that is possible,” Kerry said.

What changed?


Clouds on the Horizon

January 23rd, 2015 - 4:12 am

Two things to watch in the coming days are the resurgence of heavy combat in Ukraine and the uncertain situation in the Arabian peninsula following the fall of the administration backed Yemeni government to Iranian-backed rebels and the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.

In Eastern Europe, Russia is on the offensive.  The problem is how to call it something else.

The Business Insider has a photo spread and map depicting the recent loss of Donetsk airport to Moscow’s forces.  Those are the basic physical facts.  The political facts are another matter.  The Washington Post says the administration and its European allies are trying to keep characterizing events as a mere hiccup in Western-Russian relationships and are at pains to avoid any appearance of regarding it as a belligerent situation because of all that would entrain.

By Tuesday, the Ukrainian government and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine were reporting that fresh Russian army units were crossing the border and attacking Ukrainian positions north of the city of Luhansk and at the Donetsk airport. “The situation,” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told us shortly after arriving in Washington, “is not going in the right direction.”…

The episode illustrates a pervasive disconnect in Western thinking about the regime of Vladi­mir Putin. As Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations pointed out recently , many Western leaders persist in seeing the Ukraine invasion as a hiccup in relations with Russia that can be smoothed over, rather than as a demonstration that Mr. Putin’s agenda is fundamentally at odds with Europe’s security interests and its values. Because of their attachment to the hiccup theory, governments — including the Obama administration — have refused to take steps, such as providing the Ukrainian government with defensive weapons, that could help stop Mr. Putin’s aggression. Instead, they concoct futile schemes for “reengaging” the Russian ruler.

At the same time, Washington is also facing a crisis in Yemen where its counter-insurgency strategy has collapsed. Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post writes “Yemen chaos threatens U.S. counterterror efforts, including drone program”. (more…)

The Part of Yourself You Used to Own

January 22nd, 2015 - 4:54 am

The media world passed a milestone of sorts when the British tabloid The Sun decided to discontinue its “Page 3″ topless photo feature thus “delighting the legion of critics who have branded the photos of bare-breasted models sexist, offensive and anachronistic”.  Welcome to 2015, when hardly a day passes without some new stricture against smoking, drinking, ogling pretty girls or speech.  It is as if we were back in the days of Queen Victoria, with all the prohibitions against demon rum, devil lust, swearing and  blasphemy being reinstated under other names.

The West flatters itself by thinking it lives in a world of tolerance and individual freedom. Recently Marine Le Pen wrote an op-ed in the New York Times extolling the virtues of “laïcité, France’s distinctive form of secularism” which in contrast to the strange taboos of religious fanatics, liberates the human spirit. But the distinction between the two is rapidly becoming a sham.  To an ever-greater degree the “free man” of the West is an unarmed, frightened, policed and browbeaten cipher whose first reaction to any crisis is to ‘shelter in place’.

Through some strange process which doubtless some French sociologist will soon explain, our vaunted secular society is progressively reviving every taboo found in religions past or present as if we were experiencing some global religious revival without even the benefit of having a God.  It’s like a joke, and it’s on us.

We are far along the road. Already we’ve reintroduced sackcloth and ashes, in the form of Green Living.  We purchase indulgences in the form of carbon credits. Our daily lives are now being prescribed to the minutest detail of acceptability not on the basis of divine revelation or ethical teaching, but because some politician or celebrity said it must be thus.  We do this even as we congratulate ourselves for being free of religious cant when in fact we are as full of it as ever.

Consider the piteous regard that liberal, enlightened newspapers have for the members of Christian Health Ministries, who share the cost of medical treatment among their members.  The liberal papers readily admit the arrangement provides a much smaller monthly bill than Obamacare, but are full of contempt for the Christian rules of “clean living” its members must observe in order to keep this pool low-risk.  To join a health sharing ministry “certain conditions are excluded, particularly those that arise as the result of a lifestyle that does not meet the guidelines of the organization, such as drug or alcohol abuse, or extramarital sex.”  Tut tut.

Yet the supposedly secular Obamacare is just as full of “Wellness” provisions  as any Christian Health Ministry.  The Wellness programs punish disapproved lifestyle choices with heavy financial penalties. The American Interest writes: “pretty soon your mom might not be the only one nagging you to quit smoking or lose weight—and it won’t stop at nagging. As the NYT reports, workplace penalties for non-participation in wellness programs are on the rise. The ACA gave employers more freedom to offer rewards or penalties in order to make their employee pools less of an insurance risk, and apparently they’re running with it.”


Nemesis 1, Hubris 0

January 20th, 2015 - 8:52 pm

The Greeks had a word for it: hubris.  Just as president Obama claimed in his state of the union that “the shadow of crisis has passed” and proclaimed that American firepower had stopped the advance of “militants” in the Middle East, the Washington Post is reporting a possible coup in Yemen. “Shiite insurgents from the rebel Houthi faction stormed Yemen’s presidential palace and attacked the residence of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Sanaa on Tuesday.”

The Wall Street Journal says the development is “sparking fresh concerns about a country that has become a cornerstone of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.” CNN reported that it threw “a wrench into Obama’s terror message.”

The unraveling security situation in Yemen — the same country President Barack Obama cited as a model for his fight against ISIS — could throw the President’s counterterror message into question ahead of Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

In Sanaa on Tuesday, the presidential palace was overrun by Shiite Houthi rebels, a situation the country’s minister of information described as the “completion of a coup.”

That’s a problem for the United States, which has relied on the government in Yemen as an ally in battling the al Qaeda affiliate that’s based there. A power vacuum could benefit al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist offshoot that U.S. officials consider the most dangerous branch of the global jihadi network.

Obama himself cited the U.S.-Yemen partnership when he announced in September he was going after ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria.


Robin in Deadwood Forest

January 20th, 2015 - 1:41 am

Chris Edwards at the Cato Institute believes there should be a National Museum of Government Failure.  He argues that the displays at the Smithsonian would pale into insignificance if set beside the awe-inspiring sight of such things as the “$349 million on a rocket test facility that is completely unused“, the Superconducting Collider whose ruins include  nearly 15 miles of tunnel and the ex-future Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site.  Yet these artifacts, whose scale would surpass many a Lost City, are far from the worst failures.  The biggest fiascos by dollar value are the various government programs designed to win the war on drugs or poverty which after having spent trillions of dollars fruitlessly, lie somewhere in an unmarked bureaucratic grave.

Were Chris Edwards a distinguished economist he would realize at once that pointless activity is the best sort of government activity there is.  John Maynard Keynes couldn’t recommend it highly enough.  The great economist said that the best use of government effort was to bury money in a deep hole and employ the idled to dig them up again.

“If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.”

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman was not far behind Keynes in sagacity when he suggested a similar scheme.  He seriously proposed to end unemployment by hoaxing an alien invasion in order to spend money repelling it. “If we discovered that space aliens were planning to attack, and we needed a massive build-up to counter the space alien threat, and inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months.”


You’ve Got To Fend

January 19th, 2015 - 2:46 am

What thread could possibly connect the following four apparently unrelated events?

  1. An Israeli airstrike which just killed six top Hezbollah commanders (including the son of the deceased super terrorist Imad Mugniyeh) in Syria;
  2. Breaking reports that the  Shi’ite Houthi militia, believed to be controlled by Iran has just launched a major  attack on the Yemeni presidential palace, in what is viewed as a Tehran vs Riyadh battle;
  3. The administration’s threat to veto any new sanctions against Iran, even though, as the Washington Post’s editorial board notes, it would “mandate new sanctions only if Iran failed to accept an agreement by the June 30 deadline established in the ongoing talks”;
  4. The death of an Argentinian prosecutor the night before he was to reveal explosive details on alleged cover-up deal between Argentina and Iran of 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center.

They are developments within Barack Obama’s foreign policy universe, that’s what.  What they mean we will get to in a moment.

Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution described the chief executive’s security strategy as essentially a full-scale, covert participation in the Islamic and Middle Eastern civil wars.  America hasn’t withdrawn from the Middle East.  It’s right up to its elbows in it. The four events enumerated above are events within that civil war in which America is an active participant and whose outcome and aftermath the administration hopes to influence. In his  Assessing the Obama Administration’s Iraq-Syria Strategy, Pollack writes that we are backing proxies across the length and breadth of the region:

In both countries, the Administration hopes to empower moderate forces—both Sunni and Shi’a to the extent possible—to fight against all of the extremists, both Sunni and Shi’a. Indeed, to the extent that there is an overarching theme to the strategy, it is one of empowering moderate forces, an idea that ought to be applied more broadly across the Middle East.

Backing the different sides because it’s a whole lot more nuanced and more effective than invading a country and trying to turn it into postwar Germany. All across the Middle East the president is playing a balance of power game. In Yemen, which the president himself called his “model” for operations against the Islamic state, the idea is apparently to pit the Houthi against al-Qaeda so that the moderates can triumph.  Therefore the attack on the presidential palace is a win for Iran.

Obama hopes to make a nuclear weapons deal with Iran. In that context the Israeli attack on Hezbollah is probably a loss for Obama because it complicates his diplomacy, as does Congress’ plan to impose more sanctions on Tehran.  The death of the Argentinian prosecutor might be all for the best as there’s no use upsetting the applecart now.

See? It’s not senseless after all.  OK the administration’s losing across the board unfortunately, but that’s a detail.

He’s playing both sides of the fence everywhere. Pollock says, that in Iraq “the Administration has reconciled itself to the need to build, in effect, two separate militaries: a revamped Shi’a-dominated Iraqi Army and a new Sunni national guard” joined together by some kind of inclusive power-sharing arrangement. In Syria he is patiently looking for a force he can back with drones, confident that any proxy can be ushered into office by backing it with airpower and the running the resulting show from behind the scenes at arms length. Pollock explains:

It is worth noting that these ground forces do not have to be first-rate. They simply need to be good enough that, with the addition of American air power, they can defeat both Asad’s forces and those of ISIS and the other Sunni militants. That isn’t a very high standard. In its grandest moments, the Syrian armed forces never rose beyond a rigid mediocrity, and while ISIS has certainly shown both some strategic acumen and tactical ability, it faces both quantitative and qualitative problems of its own. By comparison, in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance could not defeat the Taliban until 2001 when it was backed by U.S. air power, and the Libyan opposition was a joke in 2001, but it defeated the remnants of Qadhafi’s military with NATO air support ten years later. Thus, the historical record demonstrates that indigenous ground forces too week to win without American air support can win handily with it.


Addition and Subtraction

January 18th, 2015 - 4:59 am

Readers may remember French economist Thomas Piketty from an earlier Belmont Club post.  He’s the intellectual I heard being interviewed on the radio by a journalist who admired his economic views. Wikipedia has a summary his main beliefs:

He is the author of the best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), which emphasizes the themes of his work on wealth concentrations and distribution over the past 250 years. The book argues that the rate of capital return in developed countries is persistently greater than the rate of economic growth, and that this will cause wealth inequality to increase in the future. To address this problem, he proposes redistribution through a progressive global tax on wealth.

Today Matt O’Brien of the Washington  is happy to announce that president Obama has finally decided to put Piketty’s ideas into action in his proposal to raise taxes. “President Obama finally has his Piketty moment,” O’Brien writes.

The state of the union is pretty good, actually, but President Obama has an idea to make it better: taxing Wall Street and the super-rich to make middle-class work even more worthwhile. It’s Piketty with an American accent.

Okay, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not a huge one. Obama’s State of the Union, you see, will call for $320 billion of new taxes on rentiers, their heirs, and the big banks to pay for $175 billion of tax credits that will reward work.

Wait a minute, you might say. “I don’t work for the government, so why is the administration giving me a raise through the tax system?” Well, the answer O’Brien says, is to make amends for wage stagnation. The president wants to “subsidize middle-class work” because “wages still aren’t rising and people are still dropping out of the workforce.”

So the answer wage stagnation is to raise taxes and send all deserving individuals a check.  It’s genius, O’Brien says, “helping people who are already helping themselves, either by going to school, working, or saving for retirement. It’s just acknowledging that growth alone hasn’t been enough to do that for a long time now.”

Wage stagnation according to both the Heritage Foundation and the World Socialist Website  is the side effect of all the underemployment the administration has been piling up. As Heritage puts it, “millions of Americans no longer count as unemployed because they have become so discouraged, they’ve stopped looking for work. Analysts have paid much less attention to another problem—anemic wage growth.”

Growth, according to the World Socialists, draws on this “reserve army of the unemployed” which is willing to work for cheap.  So when jobs are added, they just pick up the people who’ll work for peanuts.

How did the undermployment build up? Heritage names three factors, Reduced Labor Demand, Increased Labor Supply and Obamacare . Think the 29ers. All three are to a greater or lesser extent, of the administration’s doing. It’s only fair that having caused the problem the administration should try to fix it. So to the question: why is the president subsidizing work the answer is “because he previously penalized it”.


The Coming of the Serpent

January 17th, 2015 - 4:15 am

There is something seemingly sad about Pluto’s demotion from the status of planet, possibly because it shatters the story arc of Clyde Tombaugh, the observatory assistant who believed he found the long-sought “Planet X”.  The romance of that narrative, beginning with search for the predicted Planet “X”, the arduous labors of the young assistant laboring nearly forgotten among thousands of photographic plates using a blink comparator to identify it; the selection of its name from the god of the underworld by an 11 year old British schoolgirl and finally its ascent to the crown of fame as Mickey’s Dog when Walt Disney chose to ride the wave of publicity, all make for a god movie.

If Pluto’s not a really planet it should have been.  With a backstory like that it should at least have been famous for something.

But the recalculation of orbital perturbations now suggests there was never a “Planet X” beyond Neptune. So Pluto must content itself with being not the last of the ancient Wanderers but the first of a new class of mysteries: the world of the outer solar system. Instead of being a planet, it is now classed as largest body in the Kuiper Belt, a region extending from 30 to 50 astronomical units (1 au= the distance from earth to the sun). One can think of the Kuiper Belt as the beginning — but only the beginning — of the wider interstellar world.  Pluto might even have greater fame potential as the greatest of the Kuiper Belt than as the least of the planets.

Josh Worth’s site, If the Moon Were Only a Pixel, graphically illustrates just how little a way humanity has gone in its own neighborhood when the New Horizons probe makes its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015.  We are like children wandering only but a little way from our birthplace. On the scale of the Solar System the Kuiper Belt is as near as the local Seven Eleven. Go a little further and you’ll get to the first corner: the bow wave of the sun as it plunges, like a comet through intersteller space.

Even further out, at about 80-200 AU is the termination shock. This is the point where the Sun’s solar wind, traveling outward at 400 kilometers per second collides with the interstellar medium – the background material of the galaxy. This material piles up into a comet-like tail that can extend 230 AU from the Sun.

Beyond that is the Oort cloud, an astonishing 100,000 AU distant — two thousand times further than Pluto. We don’t really have much data yet on what’s out there, nor will we for some time.  A spacecraft like Voyager might reach it after some thousand of years yet still be in the Solar System; it will be coasting uphill out of Sol’s gravity well for 126,000 AU before it begins to slide downhill into the gravity of Proxima Centauri.


The Right Reverend Rambo

January 15th, 2015 - 6:39 am

What happens when the state can’t — or won’t — protect you?  In that eventuality individuals tend to arm and shift for themselves.  For those who believe such a thing could never happen in Europe, there’s this from Newsweek:

A prominent Jewish leader has written to the governments of all the EU countries, calling on them to pass legislation giving special licence for Jewish people to carry guns.

In a letter sent to interior ministries around Europe and obtained by Newsweek, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director general of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe (RCE) and the European Jewish Association (EJA) – the largest federation of Jewish organizations and communities in Europe – writes: “We hereby ask that gun licensing laws are reviewed with immediate effect to allow designated people in the Jewish communities and institutions to own weapons for the essential protection of their communities, as well as receiving the necessary training to protect their members from potential terror attacks.”

Speaking to Newsweek, Rabbi Margolin added that he believes that “as many people within the Jewish community as possible” should carry weapons.

To some extent the massive French police deployments were meant to send a message to the public.  We can still protect you.  But not everyone is convinced. Nearly half of British Jews, responding to a survey taken before the Paris terror attacks, believe the country’s Jewish community has no future. “The figure rises to 58% when asked if there is a future for Jews in Europe.”

You can argue the point in Europe, but to northern Nigerians, any expectation that the state will protect them from the Boko Haram is a cruel joke.  The jury on that is already in. Barbara Nadeau in the Daily Beast writes: “Remember the #bringbackourgirls campaign? The girls are still gone and as the body count rises in Nigeria, the country’s leaders are almost as silent as the global community.”

They’re just letting them die and they’ll keep dying unless they defend themselves. The reason for state inaction is that defending a few thousand poor rural people isn’t worth a war against powerful, multinational Islam — and the leaders of OPEC — to which Nigeria belongs.

Carl Levan, a professor at the school of International Service at American University in Washington and author of Dictators and Democracy in African Development … says that the reluctance to pursue Boko Haram, which flies the jihadi black flag and publicly supports ISIS, stems from the fact that sitting President Jonathan, who is from southern Nigeria, risks an electoral backlash if he comes down hard on his military’s ineffectiveness. “There’s never been much of an attempt to pursue Boko Haram within the criminal justice system,” Levan told The Daily Beast.

Not worth it to the Nigerians, just as confronting so-called Islamic terrorism isn’t worth going to the mat against the so-called Saudis.  There is too much trouble and too little money in it. And like the Jews in Europe who’ve discovered that when moments count, the flics are only minutes away, if the Nigerian villagers expect to be defended they’re going to have to do it themselves.