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Belmont Club

Things to Be Surprised By

January 5th, 2015 - 5:43 pm

Since many sites have offered their predictions for 2015, rather than repeat them it might be better to list some sleeper issues which may have been widely ignored.

  • The student debt bomb could be about to explode. “Under the radar, maneuvers to avoid paying off loans are surging. ‘Forbearance’ has hit the $125 billion mark,” writes Jason deLisle in the Wall Street Journal.
  • Libyan ground war is “imminent”, predicts Bel Trew at Foreign Policy. “For three years, Libya has been without a functioning government, police force, or army. The country has been ripped apart by warring fiefdoms of ex-rebels who helped oust Qaddafi but have since directed politics with AK-47s and anti-aircraft guns. This summer, as the battle lines began to harden, two rival factions emerged to vie for control of Libya: On one side is the newly elected parliament that has been banished to the eastern city of Tobruk — supported by the fractured remains of Qaddafi soldiers who defected during the uprising, as well as regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. On the other side is Libya Dawn, a self-described revolutionary coalition of militiamen and Islamist-leaning politicians that originated in the western city of Misrata, allegedly backed by Turkey and Qatar.”
  • Here Comes The Saudi Dynasty Succession Crisis, writes Michael Kelly at the Business Insider.
  • Obama is overlooking deep trouble in Venezuela, writes Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post.  The former socialist paradise is becoming a failed state.
  • The Jeffrey Epstein sex scandal may tarnish Bill Clinton, sink Hillary.  Epstein story at the Daily Mail.
  • Retaking Mosul. American Special Forces are training Iraqis to go on the offensive aginst ISIS, retaking Mosul being the first step. Karen Leigh and Matt Bradley from the WSJ report.


Escape From Planet Earth

January 4th, 2015 - 2:34 pm

In 1945 Warner Brothers cartoon Draftee Daffy,  America’s most famous aquatic bird unsuccessfully tries to dodge “the little man from the draft board”. But it’s hopeless. Even after attempting to seek refuge in Hell, Daffy discovers the little man still attempting to deliver his message in those infernal regions.

Seventy years later, economist Bryan Caplan has advice for those  trying to dodge the new version of the “little man from the draft board” — in this case feminists determined to tell you they wish to avoid you.  Caplan advises single male nerds in colleges (abbreviated SMN) to avoid persecution by retreating into a bubble; to wall themselves off; to literally become internal refugees. “SMNs should exclude hostile feminists from their Bubble. Stop arguing with hostile feminists.  Stop reading them.  If you know any in real life, stop associating with them.  Even if they have halfway decent reasons for berating you, you’re clearly not right for each other.  The best response is to amicably go your separate ways.”

The Washington Post describes a nerd who has almost achieved the contemporary ideal of hermitage in a tech cave.  Alex Ross has retreated to a dark room and earns his living playing video games for the amusement of an online audience.

Alex Ross is playing a video game in a dark corner of his one-bedroom apartment in Woodbridge, Va. Cardboard on the windows blocks the outdoor light, and a black sheet behind him covers skateboarding and heavy-metal posters. The 25-year-old with the scraggly beard and the dark circles under his eyes looks sorely sun-deprived.

With Breaking Benjamin blaring in the background, Alex is shooting at enemy aliens known as the Covenant and talking out loud — to fans who are online watching a live stream of him playing “Halo: The Master Chief Collection.”

Now there’s a man in a Bubble if ever there was one. “I have my games and my poetry to protect me. I am shielded in my armor.”

But agents from F.E.M.I.N.I.S.T  are probably roaming VA to find his hideout. And they will. If Alex thinks he can escape being reminded of his male privilege, he’s got another thing coming. Glenn Reynolds describes modern feminists as the latter day equivalent of the Fuller Brush Men, who’ve got a social sales quota and are determined to meet it. Quoting someone writing at Caplan’s site, Reynolds says they’ll get you or miss their sales target.

What must be understood here is that young female campus feminism is a social climbing strategy – it is a way for women who from middle-class backgrounds with low future income potential to pose as upper-middle class.

Thus, attacking of the SMN is merely bullying to increase social status.

Ask yourself, why is it the SMN that is attacked, and not black men, Texas ranchers, rich white men, etc who are attacked?

The reason the SMN is attacked is because:

1: The SMN is S, and thus weak and socially isolated.

2: The SMN is M, and thus a socially-approved target

3: The SMN is N, and thus gravitates towards academia and blue states, and thus cannot escape.

Further, just as in any case of bullying, every time the SMN shows weakness or acquiescence, the bullying is going to get worse.

No escape, bro. No escape.


Stumbling As Strategy

January 3rd, 2015 - 2:57 pm

David Rothkop argues in Foreign Policy the big sleeper story of 2014 is that America has succeeded despite the best efforts of its leaders to fail. After enumerating the world’s catastrophes, he writes: “amid all these stories of 2014, the one that may be the most important is one that no one would have expected”.

America is back. Despite Washington. Despite lousy leadership. Despite the rise of other great powers. Back because its economy is resilient. Back because the other great powers are each facing deep challenges at home — from European coherence to corruption and the slowing growth of job creation in China. Back because America remains a hotbed of innovation. Back because the fiscal deficit that threatened it has receded along with the recession that stirred up fears. Back because it proved that even at a low point in political creativity, the country could flourish — especially in light of the fact that that low point is likely to end soon. …

But the majority of the credit goes to the American people, to American businesses, and to America’s hotbeds of innovation, be they in universities or research laboratories. … Imagine what they could have done with leaders who were more effective at advancing America’s international interests … to better harness the energy and guarantee the future of all U.S. citizens and all those who are here today contributing to our economy?

In the words of the Business Insider, “Asia Slows, Europe Stinks, America’s Great”. Actually relatively few of America’s Founding Fathers would have been shocked by this counter-intuitive result because they understood, perhaps better than we moderns do, how little politicians have to do with the success of a nation. In fact many of the Founders believed the secret to good governance lay in keeping the politicians as divided and as impotent as possible. Checks and Balances meant things were in balance when it took several hundred people to sign a check.


The Future of Collective Punishment

January 2nd, 2015 - 2:03 am

An acquaintance related a conversation he had with a friend from South Asia.  ”Americans are bad people,” the South Asian said. “Why do you say that?” my friend asked. “Because president Obama is a bad man and Americans share in the guilt for electing him.” Welcome to the world of guilt by association, a theory with a long and bloody history which is making a comeback on the world stage.  In ancient China the most severe punishment for a crime was the so-called “nine familial exterminations“. This is the epitome of collective punishment. The nine familial exterminations were:

typically associated with offenses such as treason, the punishment involved the execution of all relatives of an individual, which were categorized into nine groups. The occurrence of this punishment was somewhat rare, with relatively few sentences recorded throughout history. There were also variants of the punishment found in ancient Korea and Vietnam.

The practice has not completely died out as Vladimir Putin has recently demonstrated. He made news in Russia by incarcerating “the apparently apolitical younger brother of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in what seems like an effort to ensure his good behavior.” It’s not quite as severe as the “nine familial exterminations” of ancient China, but it is an idea in the same vein.

taking hostages from the family of political rivals was a common practice in Europe during the Middle Ages and indeed in feudal societies around the world. A political leader would demand high-ranking captives, often the sons of lesser nobles, as evidence of their good faith in pledging him their allegiance, or take hostages to ensure safe passage or a truce during wartime. Hostages served as guarantees for international treaties.

Modern terrorism is in many ways just a revival of customary tribal retaliation or the application of ‘guilt by association’. The September 11 hijackers had no particular beef with the individuals in the World Trade Center. They were out to slaughter anyone in New York. None of the people in New York had to be individually guilty of anything. They were simply the most handy targets available to expiate the collective Western guilt for its real or imagined offenses against Islam.

The participants of the Jihad see it as a matter of “them” against “us”. Even though Western politicians are at pains to deny there is any “them”, “they” know who “they” are, despite the fact that “we” do not acknowledge who “we” are.  ’Us’ versus ‘them’ pervades everything. When the Taliban could not strike at the Pakistan military directly it struck at the Pakistani Army Public School in Peshawar.  The hand-wringing articles asking why innocent children were attacked miss the point completely.  To the Taliban there are no “innocent children”.  In a world of collective guilt there is naturally only collective punishment.


Rare Events

December 31st, 2014 - 11:59 pm

The average newspaper headlne reader would be forgiven for thinking that 1) America is collapsing under a crime wave; 2) airliners, especially those based in Malaysia are falling out of the sky at an alarming rate and 3) the world is on the brink of international chaos.  But the numbers tell a different story.

Despite the dissatisfaction with the police in Missouri and New York, murder rates in America are actually at historic lows.   “The number of homicides in the United States’ biggest cities hit record lows again in 2013 as the murder rate nationally continued to drop to levels not seen since the 1960s,” writes Time. Every year the numbers drop ever lower.


The trends in air travel are even more dramatic.  Airplanes are now so safe that some analysts say that pilots are losing their skills. “In 1959, as the jet age was only beginning for passenger airplanes, there were 36 fatal accidents in every one million departures, according to a recent Boeing Co. report. That quickly plunged to 2.4 fatal accidents in every million takeoffs by 1969. In the past decade, the fatal accident rate for airlines hasn’t been higher than 0.6 per million flights.”



Modern Perils

December 29th, 2014 - 2:51 pm

What if you woke up one day and realized that you were crazy?

Laurie Penny in the New Statesman argues that it’s about time that nerds realized they were simply another kind of victim.  Then they might sympathize with feminists. She starts by citing the charges of unacceptable behavior directed against MIT professor emeritus Walter Lewin, whose physics lectures have been removed from the university’s online courses pending an investigation into accusations of sexual harassment.

MIT is indefinitely removing retired physics faculty member Walter Lewin’s online lectures from MIT OpenCourseWare and online MITx courses from edX … in response to a complaint it received in October from a woman, who is an online MITx learner, claiming online sexual harassment by Lewin. She provided information about Lewin’s interactions with her, which began when she was a learner in one of his MITx courses, as well as information about interactions between Lewin and other women online learners.

She sort of understands why a professor might do this because nerds are damaged.  She argues the psychological stress nerds are under should open the eyes of MIT professor Scott Aaronson to the reality of “male privilege”.  Aaronson’s been a victim of meatheads all his life, as he himself admits while denying the decisive influence of the patriarchy.

“Much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my ‘male privilege’ — my privilege! — is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience . . . I suspect the thought that being a nerdy male might not make me ‘privileged’ — that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes — is completely alien to your way of seeing things. I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not ‘entitled’, not ‘privileged’, but terrified.”

I know them feels, Scott.

You know the feels. The “crippling anxiety”, the stings of “weaponised shame”, “the disaster of heterosexuality” and the “post-rationalisation”.  All the feels that oppress nerds, LGBT individuals and countless other victims and make them incapable of living life. Were Scott Aaronson only able to cast off his blinders, he’d realize that the same structures of privilege which caused his childhood loneliness and frustration are the drivers of women’s failure in the STEM professions.

Nonetheless, he makes a sudden leap, and it’s a leap that comes right from the gut, from an honest place of trauma and post-rationalisation, from that teenage misery to a universal story of why nerdy men are in fact among the least privileged men out there, and why holding those men to account for the lack of representation of women in STEM areas – in the most important fields both of human development and social mobility right now, the places where power is being created and cemented right now – is somehow unfair. Nerds are not like the ‘neanderthals’, the REAL abusers of women. They should get a break.


You Are The ‘World’

December 27th, 2014 - 3:24 pm

The Military Times calls it a puzzle.  A survey shows that president Obama has the approval of only 15 percent of military personnel yet a majority now accept the reality of gays in the military and women in combat roles.  But there’s no contradiction.  Acceptance has always been different from approval. Most of us accept we are going to die of some day,  even though not many approve approve.  The US military, like civilians, may have little fondness for their Pointy Haired Bosses yet still go to work each day and  boast: “I never missed a day of work in my life.”

One of the most salient characteristic of American culture is “can do” — its ability to find a way around obstacles placed in its path.  Reuters recently reported that ice-cream shops in Venezuela are closing due to the unavailability of milk.   In America the outcome may have been the invention of a source of artificial milk.  Instead of closing the shops they might have reopened as artificial ice cream parlors.

American oil and gas companies reacted precisely in this way to government discouragement.  The industry simply invented new technologies which made America the biggest oil producer in the world.

In the United States failure appears to be a profit opportunity. Several  American friends have unaccountably offered me exactly  the same piece of sage advice.  ”Richard, never trust anyone who hasn’t failed.”  In their view anyone who hasn’t been flat broke at least once in his life has some kind of character defect. One acquaintance  wistfully recalled the time he lost his fortune and had to live out of his car, and how that motivated him to even greater wealth.  Maybe his last conscious thoughts when the time comes to cross the river will not be of the yacht anchored off the Riviera, or of starlit nights and steel guitars in Rio, but fond memories of a shower and shave at the CITGO rest room.

The downside to this laudable impulse to self-help is that very few American politicians are ever punished for their blunders.  The population apparently finds it easier to adapt.  It is easier to invent a new industry than start a political movement.

Take for example the case of New York City resident Nicolas Karlson.   The Affordable Care Act gave him the shaft. In the pre-Obamacare days Karlson paid only $1,805 every three months to medically insure himself and his wife.  Obamacare canceled his plan and the cheapest thing he can get costs “$1,221.60 per month, or more than 100 percent more than his old plan cost.” Not only that, his network of doctors excludes everyone. So what does Karlson do? He adapts by hiring an adviser named Brett Sigler of Client Focused Advisors in New York.  Brett will get him a deal somehow.

He reached out to someone he knew who had dealt with insurance before, who referred him to an investment adviser name Brett Sigler, of Client Focused Advisors in New York. Sigler and his colleagues last year got certified as brokers for the New York State of Health.

Sigler told CNBC that while “we saw there was an opportunity where a lot of people were going to need help,” other than putting out the word in a networking group he was associated with, he didn’t really solicit business actively.

Despite that, Sigler’s gotten Obamacare business this year from Karlson and about 100 other people, essentially from word of mouth.

“It’s been way more than I anticipated,” Sigler said. “I’ll get calls from people that I’ve never met before.”

Obamacare will be great for guys like Sigler. The bigger the screwup, the bigger the opportunity. Megan McArdle notes the reason Vermont  gave up on Single Payer was it would cost as much as everything the State was now spending. The problem isn’t how to divvy up the bill. The problem is the bill. Nobody can make the unaffordable affordable any more than guys at a clip joint can pay for the bottle service when the dollars in their pocket come up short. Asking the waiter for single or separate bills is irrelevant. The reason health care is so expensive is it already consists of a mass of workarounds.

But workarounds it is. The American ability to adapt explains why president Obama — and why incompetent politicians in general — can get away with almost anything. Michael Walsh warns Barack Obama is in the final, unfettered two years of his plan to fundamentally pervert America and nobody seems to care.  They care. It’s just they many are focusing on survival strategies, preferrably ones which can earn them a profit.


The New Year

December 26th, 2014 - 8:53 pm

The perennial question at the end of each year is ‘what will next year be like?’  Nobody actually knows but pundits are predicting an interesting next 12 months, either very good or very bad. You choose.  Many pundits are monitoring the effect of oil prices on international security and  the global economy.  Others are looking to see whether Japan and Europe can continue to pump money into the system after the Fed tapers off.

They are watching the usual things. Overall, the Atlantic believes Russia and Europe will decline, Moscow plummeting along with oil prices and Europe under the weight of a renewed currency crisis. China could go either way depending on whether it can get corruption under control. The United States may face a “debt reckoning”  or a period of self-sustaining growth, depending on who you believe.

Christopher Whalen, Senior Managing Director and Head of Research at Kroll Bond Rating Agency expects the oil price fall not only to crash Russia and Venezuela but to create financial trouble for the world at large as banks who bet on high oil prices find themselves backing the wrong horse.  ”The magnitude of the losses on loans to energy companies closely approximates the decline in the price of petroleum, but we all have seen this movie before. The oil price bust of the 1970s resulted in the failure of large banks. ” What will pop the trapdoor is “leveraged loans to companies in the petroleum sector, as well as the banks that make these loans”  to the tune of $1 trillion.

Set against these dire predictions is the reassurance that since none of the bad things that have already happened have killed the global economy, then nothing can hurt it now. Bill Adams, senior international economist for PNC Financial Services notes that “for years now, euro showdowns, and Middle East quagmires were supposed to threaten the global recovery, and in hindsight have had little impact”.

Thus, when the Verisk Maplecroft Company predicts a 2015 full of political risk, nobody seems too worried.  ”An increased threat from militant Islamism, aggressive Russian foreign policy, rampant global corruption, and elections in restive countries such as Myanmar and Nigeria” is probably going to happen, but ‘so what?’. The year 2014 has made us feel a little like the character Max Klein in the 1993 movie Fearless.  Max walks out of a plane crash without a scratch. At that point you conclude that either your fears are exaggerated or it’s already too late.


Comfort and Joy

December 23rd, 2014 - 3:47 pm

Has Christmas has become a kind of “micro-aggression”? It seems to be bringing out the worst in people.

France is on high alert following a string of inexplicable attacks on civilian crowds. “Authorities said a driver crashed his van into a crowded Christmas market before stabbing himself several times. He is among five people hospitalized in serious condition. Local prosecutor Brigitte Lamy said the incident was an isolated incident and ‘not a terrorist act’, though police investigations were continuing late Monday.”

In Nantes, bystanders ran toward the attacker as he was stabbing himself, said Mohammed Bader Ghegate, one of the witnesses who ended up at the man’s side. Contrary to media reports, Ghegate said the attacker did not say `God is great’ in Arabic.

“I said that to myself: `Allahu Akbar, help us so there is no bloodshed,”‘ Ghegate told The Associated Press….

The Nantes attack came one day after another driver ran down 13 bystanders in the eastern city of Dijon, and two days after Bertrand Nzohabonayo, a 20-year-old recent convert to Islam, knifed two police officers outside the city of Tours before being killed by police.

The Guardian quotes the French prime minister says the country will go on high alert. “Patrols by police and gendarmes will concentrate on areas where there are a lot of people: shopping areas, city and town centers, stations and transport networks.”  It won’t be long before what used to be called Christmas will be too dangerous to celebrate.  It might even be construed as a form of hate speech.

For one lady, it already is.  Latham Hunter writing in the Hamilton Spectator argues that it is almost impossible to escape offense because Christmas is about the ‘patriarchy’, she argues.

It’s impossible to “do” Christmas without running into one patriarchal construct after another. Aside from singing the praises of a man who rules over everything (there really are the most gorgeous choral renditions out there), even the secular Christmas songs are ubiquitous in their praise of male characters: “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and of course, Santa Claus. Santa Claus, a white male who, by the way, gets all the credit for labor overwhelmingly done by women.

Hunter, a professor of communications and cultural studiess, explains it all.  Things will never be the same again. Bet you thought “White Christmas” was an innocent tune.  I’m sure you thought Santa’s “Ho ho ho”  was a laugh.  They’re “dog whistles” all of them.


The Subversive Ordinary

December 22nd, 2014 - 3:22 pm

Yesterday I wrote that the “Guardians of the Peace”, that shadowy group responsible for stealing a major chunk of the intellectual property  of the Sony Corporation, might soon find themselves attacked similarly nameless programmers.

How about hiring the Justice League of America, who now have day jobs on Playstation Portable Systems, to take on the Guardians of the Peace? There may be many mild mannered programmers in the CIA, NSA, FBI and DOD, not to mention the PSP who are secretly Batman, Superman, Wonderwoman and the Flash by night. This may be happening even as we speak, except that nobody talks about it.

Maybe invisible supervillains can only be countered by invisible superheroes, if only to give them pause. You have got to make the Guardians of the Peace worry; to ponder each time they get into the elevator in the high rise building which serves as their secret hacker’s headquarters, whether the lift might not suddenly plunge straight into the parking basement.

The Justice League may already be striking back. Reuters reports that “North Korea experienced Internet outages on Monday, a U.S. company that monitors Internet infrastructure said, adding that the reason for the problems was not known.

“For the past 24 hours North Korea’s connectivity to the outside world has been progressively getting degraded to the point now that they are totally offline,” said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at New Hampshire-based Dyn Research.

“There’s either a benign explanation – their routers are perhaps having a software glitch; that’s possible. It also seems possible that somebody can be directing some sort of an attack against them and they’re having trouble staying online.”

The average North Korean may not notice that his Internet connection is down because the average North Korean doesn’t have a connection. Wikipedia notes: “Internet access is available in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), but only permitted with special authorization … as of late 2014 there are 1,024 IP addresses in the country.”

But the outside world will conclude that president Obama has fulfilled his vow “in a place and time and manner that we choose” and consider chastisement delivered.