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Richard Fernandez

Richard Fernandez’s portal is at Wretchard.com.

The Mystery at Idlib

The sheer ruthlessness and ferocity of Islamic-style warfare was underscored by the decimation of ISIS’ main rival by persons unknown. “Nearly fifty senior commanders of a major coalition of Islamic ‘moderates’ opposed to ISIS in Syria have been killed by an explosion at their secret command bunker as they met to discuss strategy against the the Islamic State,” writes Breitbart.

The group, the Ahrar al-Sham, was also opposed to the Assad regime as the New York Times reminds us. “An explosion tore through a secret meeting of one of Syria’s strongest and most enduring rebel groups on Tuesday, killing a dozen of its top leaders, including its head, and striking another blow against the forces seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad.”

The blast hit a basement where the leaders of the group, Ahrar al-Sham, had collected to plot strategy, according to antigovernment activists. It remained unclear who had carried out the attack, which reportedly killed dozens of people and occurred in Idlib Province in Syria’s north.

The explosion added to the troubles facing Syria’s rebels, who have lost ground in the country’s civil war in recent months to Mr. Assad’s military while also being overshadowed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group that has seized territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

Ahrar al-Sham were the in-betweeners, close enough to al-Qaeda to give Westerners pause when supporting them, but with substantial links to the “moderate rebels” as well. The Carnegie Foundation has a long description of the group’s history.

Ahrar al-Sham was one of the first armed movements to emerge in Syria, and it has long appeared to be one of the best organized. Its foundations were laid in Idlib and Hama in May-June 2011 by former Islamist political prisoners and Iraq war veterans held in the Sednaya Prison north of Damascus, after their release from jail in early 2011. These men espoused a stark Salafi ideology calling for a Sunni theocracy in Syria. Funding was quickly secured from foreign sympathizers such as Hajjaj al-Ajami and other Gulf clerics, many of whom were linked to the Salafi Umma Party in Kuwait.

Ahrar al-Sham never made any pretense of belonging to the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella term for rebels backed by some Western and Gulf countries. But while it was in some ways close to the al-Qaeda movement, and some leaders had worked with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, Ahrar al-Sham was not quite a transnational jihadi group either. For one thing, it consistently stated that its battle was limited to Syria and avoided the aggressive minority-baiting common among the more radical jihadis. Ahrar al-Sham also sought to ally pragmatically with all groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government—certainly including al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, but also Western-backed FSA factions. Emerging as a central pillar within the wider Syrian Islamist landscape, Ahrar al-Sham helped engineer a large rebel coalition called the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) in December 2012 and then grew by absorbing most of its smaller member groups. A year later, the enlarged Ahrar al-Sham movement co-created a successor to the SIF, the still-existing Islamic Front.

It was, in short, the missing link between radical Salafi-jihadism and the type of mainstream and Syrian nationalism-infused Islamists that Western and Gulf state powers preferred to work with—a powerful “swing voter” in the struggle over the ideological direction of Syria’s insurgency.

Now that its entire leadership has been blown to glory, Bill Roggio at Long War Journal says that Ahrar al-Sham’s new boss previously led a Free Syrian Army unit, emphasizing the revolving-door nature of the factions. The attack on Ahrar al-Sham provides a glimpse into the world of sub-national warfare. It’s a world where, as Bill Roggio notes, “even US-vetted Syrian rebel groups such as Harakat Hazm fight alongside the Al Nusrah Front.”

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Posted at 8:26 pm on September 14th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Myron Vs Atilla

There is an unfortunate tendency to regard organizations like ISIS, Hamas or Hezbollah as a rag-tag agglomeration of mindless fanatics.  However, as the Marine Corps Association’s recollection of the Second Fallujah attests, Jihadi outfits are anything but hopelessly incompetent. After all, they fight only the best: the USMC, the IDF, the Special Forces.  It is inevitable that they should learn.  And the Marines and IDF, etc stay ahead of them. The degree of skill, deception and tactical skill which went into winning Second Fallujah is amazing.

First of all the enemy had learned from First Fallujah.  After being initially devastated by Marine Corps snipers in initial encounters, the enemy adapted  by becoming completely invisible from overwatch. They linked each house in the dense city to the adjacent via a network of tunnels, trenches and holes-in-the-wall. The Marines recollected, “overall, the enemy has adapted their tactics and techniques in order to maximize their strongpoints and hit Marines when they are the most vulnerable. They have learned from 2/1′s attack last April. This is common sense, but it must be said in order that Marines realize that the enemy they are fighting is somewhat intelligent. In MOUT it only takes a miniscule amount of intelligence in order to create massive numbers of casualties.”

The Israeli Defense Forces had faced the same problem of a learning enemy earlier.  In response they had adopted a strategy termed “walking through walls” in their Nablus campaign.

At Nablus 2002, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers used none of the streets, roads, alleys or courtyards that constitute the city, and none of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows that constitute the order of buildings, but rather moved horizontally through walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as ‘infestation’, sought to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares.

The three-dimensional progression through walls, ceilings and floors across the urban mass reinterpreted, short-circuited and recomposed both architectural and urban rules of combat. The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through-walls’ involved a conception of the city as not just the site, but the very medium of warfare – a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.  Innovation provided new tactics and success in this urban fight.

The recently concluded battle for Gaza is the latest iteration of this deadly evolution. Hamas knows all about swarming, tunnel warfare, and deception. Anyone who thinks that Western victories are won effortlessly — and can therefore be casually thrown away by politicians for polling points — should think again. Very few national military organizations can fight the best Jihadi units on anything like equal terms, as the Iraqi or Nigerian armies have discovered to their cost. The soldiers of the Jihad are as capable of learning as anyone and they have had the best teachers.

So why has the West, till now, kept winning? The answer is to be found in what can be called the “productive flank”.  The West has won in the past because it gave people ordinary things to do.

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Posted at 3:32 pm on September 13th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

The Prince and the Vizier

The story goes that there was once a young Prince who, being inexperienced, was taken to the cleaners during a negotiation with his wily Vizier. “The prince set a contest and as a reward, decided to give the winner whatever he wishes, boasting of his wealth, being under the illusion that his wealth is virtually endless. The Vizier won, and asked the prince for the prize: a single grain of wheat and a chessboard.”

What?! Just a grain of wheat! Are you insulting my wealth?” yelled the prince.

“No! Your majesty!” The Vizier explained. “You have to promise to double that grain of wheat until the chessboard is full, so on the first day you give me one grain of wheat on the first square of the chessboard, on the second day you double it on the second square (giving me two grains), on the third, you double that on the third square (giving me four grains), and so on, until the sixty fourth square on the chessboard.”

That progression turned out to be more than all the wheat in the Islamic world. It was certainly more than the Prince had in his kingdom. The Wheat and Chessboard problem is an object example of the dangers of underestimating the power of exponents. That property was invoked by Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg who warned Deutsche Welle that Liberia and Sierra Leone are now lost to Ebola.

“The right time to get this epidemic under control in these countries has been missed,” he said. That time was May and June. “Now it will be much more difficult.”

Schmidt-Chanasit expects the virus will “become endemic” in this part of the world, if no massive assistence arrives.

With other words: It could more or less infect everybody and many people could die.

The only thing that can be done now, he dolefully said, is to prevent the virus from spreading to countries like Senegal and Nigeria. The compartment is flooded. Dog the watertight door if you want to save the ship.  Is he right? One way to visulize Ebola’s spread is via a graph from Wikipedia.

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Posted at 6:43 pm on September 12th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Here Have a Drink

The punditry struggled to find something enlightening to say about president Obama’s strategy to degrade … defeat … inconvenience … manage ISIS — whatever you want to call it — because there was almost nothing to hold on to. It remains a kind of mystery object, like the 2001 monolith, a presence sitting in the room. CNN says it’s not war. “Kerry: U.S. not at war with ISIS”.

“What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation,” Kerry told CNN’s Elise Labott in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “It’s going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.”

David Corn at Mother Jones says it’s “nuanced war”. Corn writes, “but whatever he calls it, the president is attempting a difficult feat: waging a nuanced war.”

It is described as having four parts: airstrikes, increased support to allied forces on the ground, counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance — proxy war in other words, as I anticipated. The proxies haven’t signed up yet. Turkey has not yet agreed to provide bases:

Agence France Presse ANKARA: Turkey will refuse to allow a US-led coalition to attack jihadists in neighbouring Iraq and Syria from its air bases, nor will it take part in combat operations against militants, a government official told AFP Thursday.

“Turkey will not be involved in any armed operation but will entirely concentrate on humanitarian operations,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Germany will provide support to the Kurds (strategy item number 2) but no air strikes. “Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Thursday Germany will not take part in US-led air strikes against Islamic extremists Isis in Syria, following US President Barack Obama’s announcement that the air campaign will be extended.” The Brits are not providing airpower either.

“We are neither being asked to do that, nor will we do it,” Steinmeier told journalists in Berlin on Thursday after meeting with his British counterpart Philip Hammond.

Military action had to be embedded in a “political strategy” to counter Isis, Steinmeier said.

Germany’s pledge to deliver weapons to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq was “not small,” he added. “That’s the right amount of responsibility for us to bear.”

Hammond also ruled out British strikes on Isis positions inside Syria.

The heavy lifting will be done by Saudi Arabia. The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday: “WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia will host a train-and-equip program for moderate Syrian fighters to combat Islamic State, Riyadh has promised in consultations with the White House. The Saudi kingdom will also fund the training, and will consider contributing military aid to the broad, US-led coalition against the Islamist group.”

And so it proved. The New York Times covered John Kerry’s arrival in Saudi Arabia to drum up Arab support. “Arab Nations Vow Help to Fight ISIS ‘as Appropriate’”.

None of the Arab participants said precisely what they would do, and it remained unclear whether any would join the United States in mounting the airstrikes.

Turkey also took part in the meetings here, but it did not sign the communiqué. A senior State Department official sought to minimize the significance of that development, saying the United States would continue to consult with Turkish officials on how to respond to the threat posed by ISIS, which has captured 49 Turkish diplomats in Iraq and held them hostage.

“We understand the challenging situation Turkey is in given their detained diplomats, and they will make the decision on what role they can play moving forward,” the official said, requesting not to be identified in accordance with the department’s rules for briefing reporters.

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Posted at 3:50 pm on September 11th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Rescuing the 21st Century

New Year’s Eve before January 1, 2000 was so long ago that it is hard to remember that it was the future. September 11 was nearly 2 years away. the crash of 2008 was yet unsuspected. America was a hyperpower so unassailable that some feared it would last forever.  But no one cared because it was a time without fear. We had a guarantee things would get ever better; the world had settled into the groove of progress. Liberal democracy had won the jousts of history.  Dark words like ‘drone’ and ‘NSA’ were as yet unknown. The biggest worry of that festive evening was whether the Y2K bug would kick in the next day.

Yet somewhere over the next decade a strange reversal took place. Everyone was astonished to learn the future was really the 8th century. In the major capitals of the West it became fashionable to don a keffiyeh,  burka or grow a beard.  British public figures started converting to Islam. But there was more. Set to challenge the 8th century for supremacy of the coming century was a resurgent 19th. Malthus, in the shape of Global Warming and Marx in the guise of political correctness and “positive rights” were back in intellectual vogue. Socialism, which had collapsed of its own weight in the late 20th century was again resurrected, for the nth time, as the Coming Thing.

But the new 19th century was novel in that unlike the old socialism which emphasized a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,  the new worker’s paradise consisted of people cycling around on muddy paths fasting on arugula or reading by the dim light of a windmill-operated bulb or shame-facedly paying penalties for any unavoidable air travel. (“Climate criminal!”)

NASA, which had once landed on the moon in 1969, had been relegated to boosting the self-esteem of the Muslim world. But the biggest difference for people who lived in what used to be called the First World is that the future now meant desirable poverty. This feature is called sustainability. Horizons were now meant to shrink. The small gulp softdrink or the Michelle Obama school lunch were now signs of conspicuous nonconsumption. Gone were the days unlimited horizons when the word “49er”  meant vistas of riches and gold. In its place was a new term: the 29ers, people cowering under the 30 hour limit to escape the benefits of Obamacare.

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Posted at 7:43 pm on September 10th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

World Views

Richard Epstein at the Hoover Institution has an interesting article on president Obama’s apparent reluctance to use certain kinds of force to defeat ISIS. “The President has been immobilized by his deep ambivalence over the use of force. Right now, his stated campaign relies on the limited use of air power largely to knock out ISIS fighters who threaten key dams and other infrastructure—which is all to the good—but he will not budge beyond that target.”

One reason for his dogged persistence lies in his flawed world view, which deep down, regards the United States (and Israel) as akin to colonial powers, whose actions should always be examined under a presumption of distrust. His ingrained uneasiness with the values of western civilization makes it impossible for him to think and act as the leader of a western nation. Instead, he much prefers to regard himself as a nonpartisan critic and a bystander to world affairs. He has no firm conviction in the rightness of his cause, and hence no confidence in his ability to get others to act as perils mount.

What makes the situation even worse is that Obama receives support from commentators and public intellectuals who think that his reluctance to commit military force should be commended as part of some grand plan to restore American hegemony by gentler means. Just that kind of thinking was evident in a recent column by Thomas Friedman, “Leading From Within,” which refuses to come to grips with the short-term peril that ISIS presents. Friedman accepts the conventional analysis that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake and ignores the current short-term military crisis in order to piece together some long-term strategic plans to make things better. One of his suggestions is that the United States remove its self-imposed limitations on the export of oil products. Of course, that proposal is correct. But it is an insufficient response to the perilous military situation today in the Middle East. It is also correct even in times of peace because free trade policies always work to the long-term advantage of our nation and the world. In good times, as well as bad, a global increase in the supply of oil will enhance prosperity at home and abroad.

Epstein’s article is thought provoking not in the least because certain themes are echoed perhaps unintentionally, by Peter Baker of the New York Times. Baker also questions Obama’s “world view”.

To Mr. Obama’s critics, the disparity between the president’s previous statements and today’s reality reflects not simply poorly chosen words but a fundamentally misguided view of the world. Rather than clearly see the persistent dangers as the United States approaches the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they said, Mr. Obama perpetually imagines a world as he wishes it were.

But too much of a focus on the president’s world view risks perpetuating the false problem between the doves and the hawks and emphasizing the bogus choice between those who are temperamentally inclined to peace and those who thirst for war.  These characterizations are beside the point.  In reality all good security decisions — even those that use war or violence as much as those which do not to attain their aims are ultimately violence minimization decisions. The object of strategy has always been to minimize the maximum possible loss.

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Posted at 6:17 pm on September 9th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

The Last King of Scotland

The resurgence of interest in the subject of Ebola can be summarized in one sentence: “nearly half of the cumulative case burden of Ebola in the three countries has occurred in just the last 21 days”.

Christian Althaus of the University of Bern in Switzerland just released a grim new calculation of the RO for this epidemic that finds that when the outbreak began in Guinea, it was RO = 1.5, so each person infected one and a half other people, for a moderate rate of epidemic growth. But by early July, the RO in Sierra Leone was a hideous 2.53, so the epidemic was more than doubling in size with each round of transmission. Today in Liberia, the virus is spreading so rapidly that no RO has been computed.

This basically means this disease, while still a minor league killer compared to other African diseases, has gotten away from the public health authorities. Reuters writes “Ebola spreads exponentially in Liberia, many more cases soon: WHO”.  Laurie Garrett at Foreign Policy turns the acronym WHO into a question. WHO?

The neglectful status of the WHO was, horribly, by design. Its governing body, the World Health Assembly (WHA), in which nearly every nation on Earth is a voting member, has declined to increase country WHO dues for more than a quarter-century. Worse, following the 2008 financial crisis, most of the extrabudgetary special support that the WHO relied upon — funds from rich countries that more than doubled the agency’s financing — disappeared as once-wealthy governments turned away from philanthropy while saving their fiscal skins….

This week the WHO finally came out of its somnambulant state and infuriating claims of being just a “normative agency,” as Director-General Margaret Chan has repeatedly put it. … The WHO’s Chan has been at great pains in her media blitz this week to say that the U.N. and WHO are not in charge … If Ebola spreads to other countries this conundrum will arise again, and the global community will be left with its own question: “Who’s in charge?”

The real ‘Who’ of course is Captain America.  Since the end of the Second World War, and especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve lived in the most religious of eras. One reason why the superhero movie trend is enjoying a boom is because our modern world, which has grown too sophisticated to believe in Christianity, really believes in the Marvel Comic Book universe.  WHO can safely say “who me?” because like everyone else, they feel sure that somebody will save the day.

The idea that “someone” will take care of things now universal. It is not confined to Africa. Most will have heard by now that Scotland is on the brink of declaring its independence from the UK. Some of the most telling arguments for Scottish independence are shown in this poster.

Just wait till Putin shows up

Just wait till Putin shows up

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Posted at 3:56 pm on September 8th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Predicting the President’s Big Speech

In a few days President Obama will unveil his strategy to destroy ISIS to a waiting public. NBC reports “one day before the thirteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, President Barack Obama plans to address the nation on the threat posed by ISIS extremists — telling NBC News the U.S. will ‘hunt down’ the terrorists ‘wherever they are.’.”

While the strategic plans themselves have not been disclosed in advance, Obama “revealed his plans for the upcoming address” — the domestic political objectives of the speech — to Chuck Todd.

“What I’m going to be asking the American people to understand is, number one, this is a serious threat,” Obama said about the speech, which is not expected to be a prime time address. “Number two, we have the capacity to deal with it.”

Obama emphasized he will not advocate for the deployment of U.S. ground troops in the region, saying it would be “a profound mistake” to put American boots on the ground in Syria as some critics have suggested.

However the basic outlines of the strategy itself have emerged from information already available to the press. A Los Angeles Times story suggests that Obama will rely on proxies to fight ISIS at three levels: on the ground, within the region and in the West. Kerry invokes comparisons to the Sunni Awakening, seeking to recall the days when al-Qaeda in Iraq was beaten by George W. Bush.  Obama plans to organize the Sunni Arabs to fight ISIS.

“We are going to have to find effective partners on the ground to push back against ISIL,” Obama said. “And the moderate coalition there is one that we can work with. We have experienced working with many of them. They have been to some degree outgunned and outmanned, and that’s why it’s important for us to work with our friends and allies to support them more effectively.” …

“It is absolutely critical that we have Arab states, and specifically Sunni-majority states, that are rejecting the kind of extremist nihilism that we’re seeing out of ISIL, that say, ‘That is not what Islam is about,’ and are prepared to join us actively in the fight,” Obama said, using one of the acronyms for Islamic State.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are to fly to the Middle East in coming days to line up regional partners, a push for a Middle Eastern coalition that recalled the Sunni Awakening movement a decade ago that brought some stabilization to Iraq during the war there.

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Posted at 3:47 pm on September 7th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Down Boy, I Said Down Boy

Nothing expresses Putin’s determination to humiliate Obama as much as the kidnapping an Estonian intelligence officer in Estonia and abducting him to Russia only hours after the president assured the Baltics of Western protection. Max Fisher at Vox says: “This is bad: Russia ‘abducts’ Estonian officer after Obama says US will defend Estonia”.

On Friday morning, less than 48 hours after President Obama delivered a speech in Estonia warning that Russian aggression against Estonia could trigger war with the US and NATO, Russian security forces have seized an officer with Estonia’s state security bureau at gunpoint and taken him into Russia.

Estonia says the officer was kidnapped (or “abducted”) on Estonian soil and taken across by force. Moscow says the Estonian officer was on Russian soil and detained with a gun, 5,000 euros and “materials that have the character of an intelligence mission.” Nearby Estonian police radios were reportedly jammed during the incident.

Investor’s Business Daily writes, “less than 48 hours after President Obama vowed to “defend Estonia,” Russian goons kidnapped an Estonian cop to demonstrate just what U.S. red lines are worth. Any questions as to the nature of the threat?”

The Daily Beast adds, “the incident comes at an extremely delicate moment, just as the United States and NATO try to convince the front-line members of the Alliance that have solid protection from Russian territorial ambitions.”

The sleight-of-hand invasion of non-NATO Ukraine over the last several months has raised fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin will claim in the Baltic States, just as he claimed in Crimea and the Donbass region, that the large Russian-speaking population needs to be protected, separated and inevitably annexed to a reconstituted Russian Empire.

The Estonian statement implied the alleged abduction is an intentional slap in the face to the Americans. “The incident comes two days after a visit to Estonia by U.S. President Barack Obama and in the middle of NATO’s summit in Wales,” it said. Apparently there have been “airspace violations” reported as well, including over Finland, which is not a member of the Alliance.

Russia’s strategy has been malevolently brilliant, psychologically at least. Faced with an occupant of the Oval Office who lives by words, Putin is screening a silent movie.  The Ukraine is being invaded by stealth. Estonia is being attacked by subterfuge. Finland is being intimidated in pantomime. Putin is riding dirty without making a sound. The visuals are unambiguous, but since there’s no dialog, no musical score — because there’s no words — the president is unable to respond.

And this is intentional: Obama’s boundaries are all on paper and Putin refuses to cross the lexical frontier.

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Posted at 4:29 am on September 6th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

The Reciprocal

Nick Miroff of the Washington Post revisited a Venezuelan dream: the Ciudad Guyana.  It was a modernist planned city in the wilderness. “President Rómulo Betancourt, a key partner in John F. Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress,” founded the city in 1961, inviting his countrymen to turn Ciudad Guayana into a tropical Pittsburgh.” It was a monument to the kind of progress that was in vogue in the 1960s. Instead it became a kind of tropical Detroit.  The Washington Post writes:

When it was founded, Ciudad Guayana and its state-run heavy industries were Venezuela’s best hope for breaking the country’s overwhelming dependence on crude oil exports. It had all the right ingredients: iron ore, bauxite and gold; timber and farmland; and huge rivers to supply cheap hydropower for smelters and factories.

Planners from MIT and Harvard came to lay out the streets. Loans from the World Bank helped finance the dams. The city grew to more than a million residents.

The steelmaking company at the core of the Ciudad Guayana project, Sidor, produced a record 4.3 million tons before it was nationalized by Chávez in 2008.

Today, most of its furnaces sit cold, deprived of raw materials, new technology and reliable labor. The last contract for its 14,000 steelworkers expired four years ago.

Today steelworkers who once earned enough to buy a new car on 3 month’s wages can hardly feed themselves.  They have a guaranteed income, though. “Despite repeated strikes and work stoppages, the government has continued to pay salaries at the aging plant, including for more than 2,000 union officials who draw wages but don’t produce an ounce of steel.”  But there’s nothing you can buy with it and nowhere to go.

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Posted at 5:30 pm on September 5th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez