Belmont Club

The Hoarders

Rocky Jones lives. “SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed upright on solid ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida this evening, after traveling into space and back.” It is the first time an orbital-class, commercial booster has been able to return to earth in easily reusable condition, a development which opens up the possibility of vehicle re-use and far lower launch costs.

For many viewers the landing was a dramatic reminder that America — the private part of it at least — had not lost its mojo.  The future is here, if it can escape the bureaucratic quicksand which seems to bury everything.  Therein lies the dissonance.  Apart from some bright patches on the landscape, gloom abounds. The New York Times moans:  “the European Union was supposed to be an economic superpower, but … widespread joblessness and diminishing opportunities confront an entire generation of young Europeans.”

Young people resist marriage for lack of economic opportunity. Poorer European countries are experiencing brain drains as many of their best young professionals and college graduates move abroad. …

The migrants only accentuate the European paradox: A place of deepening pessimism for many of its own young people has become a beacon of hope and safety for migrants, many of them Syrian refugees who have been through the horrors of civil war. Many are young and educated, seemingly a timely fit for a region with an aging population. Except Muslim immigrants present a challenge to European ideals of tolerance, especially in a year of terror attacks, as far-right extremists and conservative political leaders like Orban warn that Europe’s security and ‘‘Christian values’’ are threatened — a reminder of just how fragile the European system has become.

Nor is the malaise confined there.  Disorder, superstition and barbarism are spreading like a stain across the map of the world. The Wall Street Journal reports that radical Islam is moving into Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan—The Taliban’s growing momentum in Afghanistan is beginning to threaten the fragile former Soviet republics of Central Asia just to the north, where some officials already fret they may live through the troubles of the 1990s all over again. …

Compounding the external danger is that in many of these states, radical Islam increasingly appeals to citizens frustrated with some of the world’s most autocratic regimes and with corruption-riddled, sluggish economies.

Even countries that are already failed states are trying to fall even further, like Pakistan. According to AFP the “land of the pure” is losing its battle with that unrecognized quantity, radical Islam. The WSJ writes,  “new forms of extremism continue to emerge” even if those forms of extremism aren’t even recognized in Washington, DC.

The challenge it seems, is not to explain failure.  It is to account for success.  Blindness seems to be the big thing  now.  The Washington Post writes that Iran is provoking the world “as Obama does nothing”.

Iran is following through on the nuclear deal it struck with a U.S.-led coalition in an utterly predictable way: It is racing to fulfill those parts of the accord that will allow it to collect $100 billion in frozen funds and end sanctions on its oil exports and banking system, while expanding its belligerent and illegal activities in other areas — and daring the West to respond.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s response to these provocations has also been familiar. It is doing its best to downplay them — and thereby encouraging Tehran to press for still-greater advantage.

Obama sees nothing either. The Daily Beast headlines “will the Saudis let us beat ISIS?”  Nice word, that, “let”.

On Dec. 15, Saudi Arabia announced a new “Islamic military alliance” of 34 countries to “coordinate and support military operations to fight terrorism.” … Unfortunately, both of these initiatives fell apart before they were even underway. Not only did the Saudis exclude the Kurds—the most effective ground force fighting ISIS—from the Syrian opposition conference, they also included radical elements like Ahrar al-Sham, an ally of Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra. …

So why the dog-and-pony show? Saudi Arabia is hoping to draw attention away from the true objectives of it and its partners, Qatar and Turkey, and the support they give to the Salafist groups in Syria that contribute to the continued instability in the country. …

Where is the United States in this? What should the United States do? …

Simply demanding they stop will not likely persuade Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to abandon their goals of bleeding Iran and preventing a Syrian Kurdistan, so the United States should be prepared to go further in pressuring its allies if necessary. When these countries continue to act against long-term U.S. interests—that is, stability in Syria—Washington should restrict, rather than facilitate, new arms sales and investment opportunities for them. This will of course create complications, as the United States has used Turkey’s Incirlik airbase since June and has coordinated with both Turkey and Saudi Arabia to arm and train rebels against ISIS. But if Washington remains quiet on these countries’ divisive behavior, they will be emboldened to continue and create further instability.

If the past is any indication the administration will do nothing except pay and keep paying to make things as quiet as it can. Bloomberg reports that “the U.S. government believes that the Assad regime is holding four or five American citizens and the State Department has been secretly negotiating with the Syrian government for their release, according to two administration officials.” The Washington Free Beacon says “Russia and Iran are beginning to trade sensitive nuclear materials, an activity that is at least in part condoned by the Obama administration and permissible under the tenets of the recent nuclear accord, according to U.S. and Iranian officials.”  Like Sgt Schultz used to say, “I see nothing”, especially if it might undermine the “historic” deal with Iran.

The administration — and most of the Western political elite — is acting as if it were sedated. Marc Thiessen writing in the Washington Post says statistics released by the administration showed that immigration officials let in four times as many suspected terrorists as it keeps out. It misses four leakers for every interloper turned away, a record that can be bettered by 80-year old night watchman.

The State Department admitted to Congress last week that it had revoked the visas of 9,500 individuals since 2001 who were believed to have either engaged in terrorist activities or were associated with a terrorist organization. Think about what that means: Nearly 10,000 people considered too dangerous to enter the United States because of suspected terrorist activity or association were mistakenly granted visas to lawfully enter the country. They successfully penetrated our defenses, beat our screening system and got their hands on U.S. visas.

An examination of State Department records by American Enterprise Institute researcher Justin Lang found that since 2001, the State Department had denied visas to just 2,231 individuals because the applicant was suspected of terrorist ties or activity. Yet during that same period, the State Department granted U.S. visas to 9,500 people who it later figured out posed a terrorist threat — and had to go back and retroactively revoke those individuals’ visas.

Perhaps the most high profile example of visa screening failure was the inability of the system to detect the militant tendencies of Tashfeen Malik, the San Bernardino jihad attacker. It’s possible that God does bless America when one considers all the unreported near misses the government missed. The Wall Street Journal reports that “Iranian hackers infiltrated the control system of a small dam less than 20 miles from New York City two years ago, sparking concerns that reached to the White House, according to former and current U.S. officials and experts familiar with the previously undisclosed incident.”

The still-classified dam intrusion illustrates a top concern for U.S. officials as they enter an age of digital state-on-state conflict. America’s power grid, factories, pipelines, bridges and dams—all prime targets for digital armies—are sitting largely unprotected on the Internet. And, unlike in a traditional war, it is sometimes difficult to know whether or where an opponent has struck. In the case of the dam hack, federal investigators initially thought the target might have been a much larger dam in Oregon. … These systems control the flow in pipelines, the movements of drawbridges and water releases from dams. A hacker could theoretically cause an explosion, a flood or a traffic jam.”

Yet despite the administration’s inability to use its existing instruments of diplomacy, visa control and cyberwarfare effectively, the constant refrain of politicians is that they need more power, more authority and more intrusion in order to protect the public.  More, more, more is the watchword. Ars Technica has covered Hillary Clinton’s latest call for a “Manhattan-like project” to break encryption to ensure that no message can be kept secret from government.

“I would hope that, given the extraordinary capacities that the tech community has and the legitimate needs and questions from law enforcement, that there could be a Manhattan-like project, something that would bring the government and the tech communities together to see they’re not adversaries, they’ve got to be partners. … “It doesn’t do anybody any good if terrorists can move toward encrypted communication that no law enforcement agency can break into before or after. There must be some way.”

The British are simply going to demand the data from the tech companies, as the BBC reports. “Apple raises concerns over UK’s draft surveillance bill … Apple appears to be concerned that the bill’s language could still be interpreted more expansively and force the creation of a so-called “backdoor” to provide the authorities with access. Apple argues that the existence of such a backdoor would risk creating a weakness that others then might exploit, making users’ data less secure. A key left under the doormat would not just be there for the good guys. The bad guys would find it too.”

Even more alarmingly, Britain wants US tech companies to enforce UK laws globally, which could Apple warns, result in China requiring them to enforce Beijing’s rules in the UK.

Existing British legislation – and the bill – maintain that companies need to comply with warrants for information wherever they are based and wherever the data resides. …

US companies have long resisted extra-territoriality on the basis that if they accept they are obliged under UK law, then they fear other countries – they often point to Russia and China – will simply demand the same right, and that such assertions may conflict with the privacy laws of the countries in which the data is held.

Yet the demands for new powers, gun laws, restrictions and watch lists is belied by a curious impotence, as if made by a diner overstuffed, indeed constipated with food unable move from excessive grossness yet eager to eat ever more.  Governments are hard pressed to use even a fraction of their authority effectively yet seem obsessed with ordering more from the table of individual rights.

Perhaps the most illuminating example of constipation was the sad fate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the Newark city schools.  One would think $100 would buy some improvement, but the school system spent the entire sum without improving education in the slightest when the public school teacher’s unions simply increased their pay. The “expansion” of the charter schools was effected by consolidation and rearrangement. The result was that the money was spent and nothing happened.

So where exactly did that $US100 million go if the turnaround was a failure?

Russakoff mapped the money trail in her new book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools,” which tracked the five years since Zuckerberg’s donation.

The $US100 million from Zuckerberg actually became $US200 million under the agreement other sources would match his contribution. Here’s where that money went:

Labour and contract costs: $US89.2 million
Charter schools: $US57.6 million
Consultants: $US21 million
Various local initiatives: $US24.6 million

Given this, a rational person might ask:  did the SpaceX really happen? How sure can we be it didn’t come crashing down on Cocoa beach and they’ve just put the lid on it? Can a spaccraft landing like the Orbit Jet really be part of the same America that can’t even name it’s enemies? One commenter in a British paper suggested the launch was fake, like the Moon Landing.  Perhaps the commenter works in a public school union, where the universal experience is that everything except the paycheck is bogus, and sometimes even that.  In that world, fake makes more sense.

The contrast between the success of the SpaceX launch, for example, and the abysmal failures of Western governments may be rooted in a fundamental difference in reasoning. Hillary Clinton apparently believes that a government ability to read secret communications is a good thing and that a “Manhattan-like” project could achieve it. But supposing she’s wrong about the conventional wisdom that more government is better?

Leaving aside the question of mislaid backdoor keys, the evidence suggests that God, nature or mathematics — whichever term you prefer — thinks that secrets are a necessary feature of the universe. The recent development of quantum cryptography potentially means that communications can be made secure in principle; guaranteed never to be broken. “The best known example of quantum cryptography is quantum key distribution which offers an information-theoretically secure solution to the key exchange problem.” It would make possible the exchange of one-time pads, proof against anything, even a “Manhattan-like” project or hundred such projects.

Why would God make unbreakable secrecy possible unless it served some purpose? If the durability of what we regard as human rights is rooted in nature, then it may actually be dangerous to remove these elements from public life. The First, Second and Fourth amendments can be restated as the a) ability to pose undecidable propositions in any given system; b) the ability to defend one’s life as a prime directive, and the c) capacity to keep secrets.  Once they are regarded in that way it becomes obvious that they contribute decisively to stability and that undermining them might cause more harm than good.

The First is the source of creativity which gives American society its peculiar innovativeness and strength. One can only imagine the sinking feeling in Russia at the spectacle of two private space companies making soft terrestrial landings within 3 weeks of each other. Putin can count on beating Obama, but he can be sure of losing to America, because of the First.

The Second is a source of personal security the lack of which has already destroyed the Middle East and threatens to destroy Europe.  The reason refugees want to come to America in the first place is to get the personal security they could not find in the Old Country.

The Fourth makes it possible for companies to invest untold trillions of dollars in a new process or product knowing they can protect secrets without someone in government selling it to the highest bidder. As Apple so elegantly put it, once you mandate a backdoor to proprietary communications you create a doorway where thieves can pass.  In a counterintuitive way, we may be safer in a world that can keep secrets.

Of course one can trust government to mandate creativity, protect life and not to pry into secrets.  But how well di it do screening  out Tafsheen Malik?  Certainly private intiative is by no means blameless nor perfect (think of the number of SpaceX crashes before they got it right).  But it has the advantage of needing to work and for that reason it is more likely to succeed in the long run than the strategy of surrendering all resources and powers to the government.

The probable reason for this difference are the liberties which politicians are just itching to abolish. But they will probably find once they do, a kind of curious rumbling beneath their feet, as if they had disturbed some elemental bedrock which they had neglected to consider.  Perhaps the reason America is heading for Mars is because in some deep way it is heeding some code which reflects how the universe works. As for the Newark public schools, that’s how politics works.

Follow Wretchard on Twitter

Recently purchased by readers:

Split Second, What if you found a way to send something back in time? But not millions of years back, to the age of the dinosaur. Not even a minute back. What if you could only send something back a fraction of a second? Would this be of any use? You wouldn’t have nearly enough time to right a wrong, change an event, or win a lottery.
The Christmas Room, Grace Trinisi, deathly ill in a hospital ICU and unaware that Christmas had passed months before, wanted her room decorated for the holiday. Her son lovingly fulfilled her wishes. A little tree was put in the corner, a battery-charged candle was placed in the window, and Grace’s treasured nativity set was arranged on the table beside her bed. It was beautiful and comforting. And it turned out that the Christmas Room, as it was quickly dubbed, served as an oasis of beauty and comfort for hospital staff as well.
Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-1942: Schwerpunkt, Robert Forczyk’s incisive study offers fresh insight into how the two most powerful mechanized armies of the Second World War developed their tactics and weaponry during the critical early years of the Russo-German War. He uses German, Russian and English sources to provide the first comprehensive overview and analysis of armored warfare from the German and Soviet perspectives. His analysis of the greatest tank war in history is compelling reading.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
Tip Jar or Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the Belmont Club