Desperately Seeking Coherence

There’s a post over at FP’s blog that makes an interesting point. In providing air support for the joint Iraqi Army-Shi’ite militia offense to retake the city of Tikrit from DAESH, the U. S. is supporting a violent ethnic cleansing:

Sunni villages in Amerli and Suleiman Bek, in the Salah ad-Din province, have been looted or destroyed by militiamen operating on the specious assumption that all inhabitants once ruled by IS must be IS sympathizers or collaborators. Human Rights Watch has also lately discovered that the “liberation” of Amerli last October — another PMU/Iranian-led endeavor, only this one abetted by U.S. airstrikes in the early stages — was characterized by wide-scale abuses including the looting and burning of homes and business of Sunni residents of villages surrounding Amerli. The apparent aim was ethnic cleansing.The apparent aim was ethnic cleansing. Human Rights Watch concluded, from witness accounts, that “building destruction in at least 47 predominantly Sunni villages was methodical and driven by revenge and intended to alter the demographic composition of Iraq’s traditionally diverse provinces of Salah al-Din and Kirkuk.”

As of this writing we are being treated to a very bizarre spectacle. In Syria we’re at least implicitly supporting DAESH and opposing Iran by opposing the Assad government. In Iraq we’re implicitly supporting Iran and opposing DAESH by supporting the Iraqi government. If there is clearer evidence that our Middle East policy is in disarray I don’t know what it would be.

As a thought experiment let’s list the possible combinations of policies we might be adopting.

  • Support the established governments. That would mean we would support the Assad government in Syria and the present government in Iraq. That’s essentially the Russians’ position.
  • Oppose the established governments. That would mean we would oppose the Assad government in Syria and the present government in Iraq. We’re obviously not doing that but it would have some consistency to it. We would be opposing pro-Iranian governments.
  • Foster chaos. Support the Assad government, the Syrian rebels (implicitly DAESH), the Iraqi government. Let ‘em beat each other to a pulp. We don’t like any of them so why not? Don’t laugh. I’ve actually heard people articulate this as a strategy.
  • Incoherence. Which is where we are. We’re supporting DAESH in Syria and opposing it in Iran. We’re supporting Iran in Iraq and opposing it in Syria.

Let the banner of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick fly!


National Dialogue

Let’s engage in a thought experiment. Let’s say you’re a middle aged white man on a commuter train in St. Louis. A young black man sits next to you and asks you your opinion on the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson would you be within your legal rights to draw your legally licensed firearm and shoot the young man dead? It’s beginning to look to me as though you might be:

(CNN)When one man sat down next to a second man in a St. Louis light rail car and asked him his opinion on the shooting of Michael Brown, it was not the beginning of a discussion.

It was the start of an assault, police said.

The second man, who was white, didn’t want to answer the question. Then the first man, who was black, boxed him in the face. Two more African-American men joined in the beating, according to a police report about Monday’s incident.

It was caught on surveillance cameras on the MetroLink train and a passenger recorded it with a cell phone and posted the video online. It has gone viral.

Police confirmed to CNN that the online images came from the attack.

The victim, 43, was commuting home when a young man in a red T-shirt and cap walked up to him. The victim asked not to be named in media reports.

The man asked to use the victim’s cell phone. He declined, and the young man sat down beside him.

“Then he asked me my opinion on the Michael Brown thing,” the victim told KMOV, “and I responded I was too tired to think about it right now.”

The suspect, in his 20s, stood up.

“The next thing I know, he sucker punches me right in the middle of my face,” the victim said. The video showed the suspect unleashing a barrage of punches at the head of the victim, who covered himself with his hand and forearms.

The two other men, also in their 20s, joined in, police said. As the train pulled into a station, a security guard saw part of the beating and alerted police.

Lest there be any doubt I do not view the developments of recent months as benign and this is one more piece of evidence. It also makes me wonder what the heck Howard Schultz was thinking when he started his “Race Together” project at Starbucks. He should have known better. In the neighborhood that he grew up in (and the one I spent my early years in) starting a racial dialogue was a good way to get yourself killed. Or at least beaten up.


Fine-Scale Genetic Map of the British Isles

I’d run across this study, published in Nature, earlier in the week and hadn’t had a chance to post on it. Here’s the abstract:

Fine-scale genetic variation between human populations is interesting as a signature of historical demographic events and because of its potential for confounding disease studies. We use haplotype-based statistical methods to analyse genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data from a carefully chosen geographically diverse sample of 2,039 individuals from the United Kingdom. This reveals a rich and detailed pattern of genetic differentiation with remarkable concordance between genetic clusters and geography. The regional genetic differentiation and differing patterns of shared ancestry with 6,209 individuals from across Europe carry clear signals of historical demographic events. We estimate the genetic contribution to southeastern England from Anglo-Saxon migrations to be under half, and identify the regions not carrying genetic material from these migrations. We suggest significant pre-Roman but post-Mesolithic movement into southeastern England from continental Europe, and show that in non-Saxon parts of the United Kingdom, there exist genetically differentiated subgroups rather than a general ‘Celtic’ population.

I’ve mentioned it before but my maternal line and, consequently, my mitochondrial DNA derives from Ireland and I find the map from the study (above) very interesting. I ran the genetic testing information I’ve obtained through a more sophisticated analysis than provided by my testing company and it determined that my mtDNA haplogroup is J1c3g. That particular mtDNA haplogroup is pretty common in northwestern Europe and Russia. Most Americans don’t know it but the Norsemen travelled long distances up Russia’s rivers and were very influential in ancient Russia. The very first Russian kingdom, known as “Rus”, was founded by Norsemen. It’s my understanding that about 80% of the Norse are J1c3g. And that haplogroup occurs in Ireland as well. I may even break down and buy the study.

One of the things all of the genetic testing that’s going on now has done was called into question some long-held ideas about history. You only inherit your mitochondrial DNA from your mother who got it from her mother, who got it from her mother, etc. A reasonable rule of thumb is that a particular subgroup probably originated where the highest proportion of the population has it so that suggests that J1c3g originated in Norway. If the Norsemen were just raiders, what’s a Norse mtDNA haplogroup doing in Ireland and Russia? Perhaps the Norsemen were settlers rather than just raiders.

I suspect that as these maps become available for more parts of the world prehistory will be re-written (so to speak).


What I’m Watching Now

I’ve watched the first couple of episodes of the new CW television series iZombie. It’s sort of a mashup of The Walking Dead and Veronica Mars if you can imagine such a thing. It’s original, I’ll give it that. It suffers from the same problems as most American TV shows do: bad writing and constant mugging on the part of the actors. I don’t know that I’ve ever explained what I mean by “mugging”.

Mugging is mostly what passes for acting here in the United States. It consists of making faces and striking poses. It’s most common in but not exclusive to young actresses. One of the reasons I find British, Canadian, and Australian television programs so much more watchable than American ones is that the acting is so much better.

Right now I’m streaming an old British detective program called Lovejoy which stars Ian McShane. Here in the States detective programs are either police procedurals or private eyes (and private eyes have almost completely disappeared) with the occasional criminology professor or physician. In the UK there are detective programs in which the detectives are gossipy old ladies, clergymen, cooks, or gardeners. There isn’t the straitjacket there is here in the States.

Lovejoy is a sort of detective program in which the detective is a slightly shady antiques dealer. I haven’t mentioned it for a while but for several years I was an antiques dealer. Part time not full time. And I wasn’t much into fine arts as Lovejoy is but I knew guys like Lovejoy in the trade. Not as handsome, of course. I was more into what I suspect the Brits might call “collectables” or just plain junk rather than antiques. Antiques of the sort that Lovejoy deals in are in very short supply here in the U. S.

Selling furniture is hard work. You frequently need to deliver your sales which means you need a truck and must be willing to carry heavy pieces. Glass and china break. I knew a number of dealers who made an amazing amount of money selling old costume jewelry. That had the advantages of being light, portable, and not particularly fragile. The margins could be very good if you knew what you were doing. It’s something about which I know nothing.

There’s a lot of money in selling fine antique jewelry. I knew a dealer or two who could carry their inventory in their pockets (and did).


In Re Bergdahl

When asked my opinion of the Bowe Bergdahl case, here’s what I said.

As Lord Sankey said in 1935, the presumption of innocence is the golden thread that runs through the criminal law. That is as true of our code of military justice as it is of our civil code. I’m concerned that too many are forgetting that in the case of Bowe Berdahl. Let the case work its way through the courts. That’s what hearings and trials are for.

I do find it interesting that the editors of the New York Times a) assume that Berdahl is guilty and b) think he should be absolved from that for political reasons. There is another ancient legal dictum that covers that: fiat justitia ruat caelum or let justice be done though the heavens fall.


More on Looking Forward in the Middle East

I see that Pat Lang is about as perplexed by our foreign policy in the Middle East as I am:

In pursuit of our new/old post modern goals we have spread havoc across the world while fostering the revolutionary change that we imagine all mankind eagerly awaits.

– Russia/Ukraine. The NED and the doyenne of neocon missionary work have actively sought regime change in Ukraine and Russia and have not felt the need to disguise their intentions. Can we doubt that POTUS is an active backer of this policy? If he were not, then Nuland would be returned to hanging out with her husband at one or another of their lobbies or think tanks.

– Tunisia, place of martyrdom of the poor green grocer man, the western style democracy sought there hangs by a thread.

– Egypt, sanctified by the hysteria of the mob and western press; that went well did it not? Now Sisi, who owes Saudi Arabia and the other Gulfies a lot, makes menacing noises about intervention in Yemen. Has the Egyptian Army forgotten what happened to them in Yemen fifty years ago? Nasser called it his” Vietnam.”

– Libya, I thought that one was a good idea. I was wrong.

He continues in that vein. Just to refresh your memory, Col. Lang is a former Green Beret, the first ever instructor in Arabic at West Point, and has extensive knowledge of the Middle East, particularly Yemen. I suspect his post was prodded by the goings-on in Yemen now and our role in them.


The Imaginary Recovery

If you’re looking for something else to be depressed about this post by Jeffrey Snider at RealClearMarkets on the state of the economy and what that portends for Federal Reserve policy is a pretty good choice. It’s a bit hard to excerpt but here’s an interesting snippet:

In that respect, the closing of the “output gap”, the academic calculation of “slack”, is highly misleading. Again, far be it for the FOMC to point out and emphasize the true reason for that outcome as it would at least muddy the preferred recovery narrative if not end it entirely. Larry Summers perhaps put it best earlier this year when he stated, with appropriate frankness,

“The United States is now about 10 percent below potential, as it was estimated in 2007. In so far as the output gap has closed, it is not because we have gotten closer to what we thought potential was. It is because we have revised downwards our assessment of the economy’s potential. That 10 percent potential represents about $20,000 per American family.”

To be even more blunt, the reason that there may be less slack now is not because the economy has finally found its recovery but rather because it may never do so at all. You can quibble with the mathematic construction of the measure or its theoretical basis, but what is important here is that the very people that believe in these sorts of things are now forsaken by their very creations. If there is actually a reduced level of slack in the economy right now, it is only because the US economy has permanently shrunk via the Great Recession.

Thus explains the great “mystery” about why the numbers so differ with what people feel and say about the matter. This cannot be overstated by hyperbole, as it essentially confirms what many of us have been saying for years and years; that the Great Recession was no cycle but rather a permanent rift in economic function that will alter our history and social standing for a long, long time (depending on how it is ultimately dealt with). Again, I make no claims about the figures or even the concept of “slack” except to point out that orthodox economists have now endorsed an idea that disproves a great deal of their own theoretical foundation.

The way I prefer to look at it is that the increases in productive capacity that economists were figuring on were predicated on productive capacity that never existed to begin with. When viewed that way growth has been very slow not just for the last eight years but for the last fifteen years. The purchasing and wage commitments that were made during the period of imaginary growth are with us still, holding us back. That’s what state and local governments and taxpayers are running into.

What should be clear from Mr. Snider’s post is that monetary policy won’t save us and we should be looking elsewhere. As is a recurring theme on this blog, our economic problems are the foreseeable outcomes of about a half century now of very bad policies. To change the outcomes we must change the policies.


Looking Forward in the Middle East

The great Negro League and later integrated major league baseball player, Satchel Paige, once gave a bit of advice: don’t look back—something might be gaining on you. As we survey the situation in the Middle East,, roughly from the Dardanelles on the western border of Turkey to the Radcliffe Line that divides India from Pakistan, nearly every country is either at war, engaged in a civil war, or fallen into chaos. We are involved, directly or indirectly, in at least five of those conflicts.

In the interests of honoring Mr. Paige’s advice and to avoid futile rehasing of what we should or shouldn’t have done, let’s focus on what we’re doing and what we should do. We can’t undo past bad decisions. We only live with their consequences. That doesn’t mean we should keep making the same bad decisions over and over again.

What are our interests in the Middle East? I can think of seven:

  • Oil
  • Israel
  • Non-oil trade
  • Humanitarian
  • Our military assets in the region
  • Terrorism exported from the region.
  • The dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran

not necessarily in that order. I think that we can reasonably say that all of those interests are threatened right now and that what we’re doing now isn’t doing much to move things in a more positive direction.

We could always take the recent advice of former UN Ambassador John Bolton and immediately bomb Iran into submission. Not only would doing that place all of the interests listed above in jeopardy, it ignores something basic. The only way you can control the outcome on the ground is to be on the ground and barring some catastrophe I just don’t see that happening.

Also, that would advance the interests of Saudi Arabia which either directly or indirectly is the sponsor of a lot of the Islamist radicalism that’s causing so many headaches in so many places.

I personally don’t have much more interest in Israel than I do in Tajikistan, a country with roughly the same population and somewhat less interest than in Switzerland, ditto. There’s a humanitarian interest but that’s about it. That means my views are so divergent from those of so many Americans I’m just in no position to offer advice on what we should or should not be willing to do to secure that interest.

Our non-oil trade with the Middle East is actually pretty minor. Other than arms, of course. We sell a lot of arms to the countries of the Middle East or, said another way, we would be contributing to the problems there if Russia, France, Germany, the UK, and China weren’t eager to expand their markets there. We’re not the primary supplier of arms to Syria so I guess that’s something.

Should we decamp completely from Afghanistan? IMO U. S. aid to the country will evaporate shortly after we leave and when that aid ends what little civil order exists now in Afghanistan will collapse completely. Do we care? If we don’t care what happens in Afghanistan why have we been there for the last six years? For the last 14?

I also think that our attempts at securing humanitarian interests in the region are doing more harm than good. Shouldn’t the basic rule of a responsibility to protect be primum non nocere, first do no harm?

I don’t claim to have any answers but I can certainly see the problems. Increasingly, I feel like the doctor who’s the narrator in the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s all madness.

I simply can’t figure out what the White House or Congressional Republicans are trying to accomplish or see that the means they want to employ as suitable to those interests. We seem to be doing things to do things.


To Coin a Cliche

I honestly don’t know what to make of this story. Apparently, the U. S. declassified a previously top secret document outlining Israel’s nuclear weapons capabilities (or, at least, some details of its nuclear weapons development program).

The Pentagon has declassified a document that was once labeled “top-secret,” which goes into sophisticated detail about Israel’s nuclear weapons program. The document was released quietly just prior to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to a joint session of Congress.

Israel has never officially confirmed or denied the existence of a nuclear weapon’s program within its borders.

The Pentagon declassified sections covering Israel’s nuclear program, but “kept sections on Italy, France, West Germany and other NATO countries classified, with those sections blocked out in the document,” Israel National News reported.

The 386-page top-secret memo, titled, “Critical Technological Assessment in Israel and NATO Nations,” goes into great detail about how Israel turned into a nuclear power in the 1970s and 80s.

“As far as nuclear technology is concerned the Israelis are roughly where the U.S. was in the fission weapon field in about 1955 to 1960,” the report assesses.

Questioning the timing has become something of a cliche but it certainly looks apt in these particular circumstances. First, why did the U. S. declassify the report just prior to PM Netanyahu’s visit? And why is this just being noticed now? I find the whole thing mystifying.


Your Bonehead Plan of the Day

I’m not sure I’ve heard about anything much dumber than the provision in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, leaked today, to allow foreign companies to recover for U. S. actions that hurt foreign companies’ investment expectations. Suing for actual damages I can see. But investment expectations?