Fog of War

Can this really be true? At The Telegraph former UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace is quoted as claiming that the average age of Ukrainians at the front is over 40:

Putin is desperately grasping at the final two things that can save him – time and the splitting of the international community. Britain can do something about both. We must help Ukraine maintain its momentum – and that will require more munitions, ATACMSs and Storm Shadows. And the best way to keep the international community together is the demonstration of success.

Ukraine can also play its part. The average age of the soldiers at the front is over 40. I understand President Zelensky’s desire to preserve the young for the future, but the fact is that Russia is mobilising the whole country by stealth. Putin knows a pause will hand him time to build a new army. So just as Britain did in 1939 and 1941, perhaps it is time to reassess the scale of Ukraine’s mobilisation.

I have no idea how he would know that, whether that’s accurate, or what it implies. I also have no idea how fit a 40 year old Ukrainian is.

For comparison the average age of U. S. soldiers in Europe in 1945 is estimated at 26.

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A Strategy for a Longer War in Ukraine

From Bloomberg via American Enterprise Institute Hal Brands outlines a strategy for a longer war in Ukraine:

Even now, the peace Putin wants would leave Ukraine indefensible and dismembered. So unless the US opts for disengagement — tantamount to Ukrainian defeat — it needs to start addressing the problems a longer war will confront.

The first involves assessing, and perhaps adapting, military strategy. Ukraine’s current offensive initially struggled because the country sought to mimic Western tactics without the advantages, such as air superiority, Western militaries have come to expect.

The US and its allies need to start equipping Ukraine now for operations in 2024 and after. The question is whether they should be preparing Ukraine for a similar offensive next year, or perhaps helping it employ a more familiar, if less ambitious, strategy of attrition. This would involve localized offensives combined with ramping up long-range strikes meant to sever Russia’s supply lines and gradually make its military position unsustainable.

Second, a longer war may require accepting higher risks of escalation. At the outset, Washington stepped across Putin’s red lines gingerly. More recently, the US has committed to provide sophisticated capabilities such as Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets.

These commitments are meant to show that Putin can’t simply outwait the West. But if a new theory of victory involves coercing, rather than directly evicting, Russian forces, Ukraine will need longer-range ATACMS missiles and other systems to vastly increase the pain it inflicts by targeting Putin’s forces wherever they occupy Ukrainian soil.

Third, Washington must tighten the economic squeeze. Sanctions have injured but not crippled Putin’s economy, which continues to churn out weapons for the war. The Treasury and State Departments are already cracking down on sanctions evasion, with the announcement last week of further penalties on 150 individuals and entities. The next step might be lowering the price cap the Group of 7 imposed on Russian oil sales, to reduce Putin’s revenue without throwing global energy markets into chaos.

Fourth, Washington must prevent a long war from becoming a source of weakness and distraction. The record to date is encouraging: Since February 2022, the US has dialed up production of artillery shells and other weapons, while expanding and strengthening its global alliance network.

There are several points missing from Mr. Brands’s outline. Most critical is who will be fighting the war in Ukraine? We don’t actually know what Ukraine’s casualty rate has been. We can assume that the figures we’re receiving from both the Ukrainian and Russian governments are lies. Is the plan to add NATO regulars in addition to the irregulars who are already fighting? How can that be accomplished without the conflict turning into a nuclear exchange?

At this point Ukraine is using the annual U. S. production of artillery shells in a matter of days. In order to supply Ukraine with the munitions it needs to fight a long war of attrition, we will need to produce many more faster and to do that we must increase our base of heavy industry and the high-density energy that requires. We can support Ukraine or decarbonize our economy. We cannot do both.


Can Economists Predict a Recession?

From the Department of LOL comes this post by Jeremy Majerovitz of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The graph above pretty much says it all but this is his conclusion:

Economic forecasters provide useful information about the future state of the economy. But making predictions is hard, especially about the (distant) future. Even though forecasts can help, we must live with significant uncertainty about future economic conditions.

The TL;DR version of the piece is that although economists are pretty good at telling whether we’re in a recession now the precision of their forecasts decreases rapidly the farther in the future they’re projecting. When we say “future” we’re talking about quarters, 90 day periods, not years.


Does Work From Home Work?

In a piece at The Hill Nick Bloom says it does and the numbers prove it:

The numbers paint a picture of small, positive productivity gains for hybrid work. The savings in commuting time more than offset the losses in connectivity from fewer office days. In contrast, the impact of fully remote working on productivity is typically mildly negative. Fully remote workers can struggle with mentoring, innovation and culture building. However, it appears this can be reversed with good management. Running remote teams is hard but done well can deliver strong performance.

But this is about more than just worker output. Firms care about profits — not productivity.

Working from home massively reduces overhead. It drives down recruitment and retention costs, as employees value working from home. Fully remote companies also slash office costs, and cut wages bills by enabling national or global hiring. Indeed, the widespread adoption of working from home has been a triumph of capitalism. Higher profits have led millions of firms to adopt this, generating the five-fold increase in home working many of us now enjoy.

It’s hidden a bit but that “global hiring” aside is important. I am presently leading a team of about 20 people. I’m the only one in the United States. The rest are in India, Ukraine, Serbia, and Mexico. The cost of paying that team is significantly lower than paying a comparable team comes into the office every day. The trick is in “comparable”. IMO the productivity of the team is not comparable to a completely local, stateside team on a head to head basis.

I actually think the issue is more complex than Mr. Bloom realizes and than the way it is usually presented. I think that WFH works for the people for whom it works and for the jobs for which it works. I can’t tell you who those people or what those jobs are but it isn’t everyone or everything. I can tell you some of the qualities the people for whom WFH works must possess. They must be self-starters, conscientious, and focused as a start. I could be wrong but I think that fewer and fewer people have those qualities.


Will Kaiser’s Workers Strike?

Speaking of strikes and Kaiser, at The Hill Miranda Nazzaro reports on the imminent strike of Kaiser-Permanente by 75,000 of its employees:

The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents over 85,000 health care workers in seven states and the District of Columbia, said Sunday it did not reach an agreement with the organization ahead of the contract’s expiration, setting the stage for the possibility of the largest health care strike in U.S. history late this week.

Hours before workers’ contracts were set to expire after 11:59 p.m. PT on Saturday, the coalition said it remains far apart from nonprofit Kaiser Permanente on important issues like across-the-board pay increases, retiree medical plans and protections against subcontracting and outsourcing.

“Kaiser continues to bargain in bad faith over these issues and, so far, there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” the coalition said in a statement Saturday night.

Very nearly every criticism you might make of the Big Three automakers is true of Kaiser-Permanente in spades. For example, CEO pay is around $15 million at a company half the size of Ford. Kaiser is more profitable than Ford, too, when you compare apples to apples, difficult when comparing a notionally not for profit organization with a for profit one.


The Affordable Care Act at 10

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Affordable Care Act’s portal, Ignoring the disastrous first few days, as good an illustration of the federal government’s shortcomings in managing technology as any, how would we evaluate the success of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)?

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the objectives of the ACA are:

  • Make affordable health insurance available to more people. The law provides consumers with subsidies (“premium tax credits”) that lower costs for households with incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL).
  • Expand the Medicaid program to cover all adults with income below 138% of the FPL. Not all states have expanded their Medicaid programs.
  • Support innovative medical care delivery methods designed to lower the costs of health care generally.

Since 2012 the percentage of Americans with some form of healthcare insurance has increased from 84.6% to 92.1%. The percentage of people covered by Medicaid has increased from about 12% to 18.8%. However, according to Peterson-KFF per capita spending on health care has increased from $3,152.30 in 2012 to $4,255.10 in 2021 (in constant 2021 dollars). On that basis I think we should consider the ACA a qualified success. That can be explained a variety of ways but most of those ways were known in 2012 and the opposite was claimed. The bottom line is that costs have increased while life expectancy has decreased.

Where to go from here? Will we be able to continue spending a greater percentage of the national income on healthcare indefinitely? It seems unlikely that covering the remaining 8% of people under Medicaid will reduce costs. Will it increase life expectancy?

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What’s the Effect?

One of the key provisions that the Writers Guild of America secured was a minimum staffing level guarantee. Exempt from that are shows in which all episodes are written by a single writer.

Will the provision:

  1. Improve the quality of scripted shows
  2. Reduce the quality of scripted shows
  3. Both (improve some; reduce others)
  4. Have no effect

I think that scripts written by focus groups or committees other than sitcoms become worse the more writers are involved in the process. Option D would be an indictment of writers 9in general.

I should add that otherwise I have no problem with what the WGA achieved.


Bidenomics’s Problem

The problem with Bidenomics is summed up pretty well by economist James K. Galbraith in a piece at Project Syndicate:

Unlike unemployment, inflation does affect everyone. But what matters to working people is not the monthly or yearly price change taken alone. What matters is the effect on purchasing power and living standards over time. Whether these are rising or falling depends on the relationship of prices to wages. When wage growth exceeds price increases, times are generally good. When it doesn’t, they aren’t.

It is here that Biden has a problem. During his presidency, living standards have not risen. From early 2021 to mid-2023, prices have increased more than wages, implying that real (inflation-adjusted) hourly wages and real weekly earnings have fallen, on average. Not by much, but they have fallen. Worse, the average figure probably masks a larger fall, in real terms, for families that started out below the average. And given how income distributions work, there are always many more families earning less than the average than there are who earn more.

The only strategy working people have to pay their bills is to take on extra work and a lot of them are. The number might be as many as 10% of American workers. Telling them they should be happy about that is probably not a winning political strategy.


A Taxonomy of Foreign Policy Views

I’m a sucker for taxonomies and this one of foreign policy views by Ash Jain at Foreign Policy is no exception. Mr. Jain divides the spectrum of foreign policy thought into six “camps”:

Camp Internationalist  Example
Unilateral Yes John Bolton
Democratic  Yes Joe Biden
Realist Yes Henry Kissinger
Multilateral Yes Barack Obama
Retractor No Donald Trump
Restrainer No Bernie Sanders

I found his “camps” a bit jumbled—he probably needs more than one axis rather than just the internationalist to non-internationalist one. Is it actually possible to be “unilateral” and “internationalist” simultaneously? Similarly, are realists internationalists at all? Furthermore, I think that ascribing any policy to Donald Trump is a stretch. I think he is much more transactional than that. His classification of the late John McCain as a “democratic internationalist” ignores his stated views on American greatness. I think that any taxonomy of American foreign policy views that places John F. Kennedy, John McCain, Ronald Reagan, and Joe Biden in the same “camp” is puzzling.

For one thing I would place “multilateral” at one end of the spectrum and “unilateral” at the opposite end.

If I had to place myself into a “camp”, it would be realist. Here’s how he describes it:

  • View great-power rivalry as inevitable in the global system and support U.S. alliances and active efforts to deter rival powers and maintain global order
  • Are willing to engage adversaries and work with all nations, regardless of regime type, to advance strategic objectives
  • Are prepared to make mutual accommodations with rivals, or seek to divide them, to achieve a stable balance of power
  • Are inclined to “accept the world as it is” and are wary of U.S. intervention and democracy promotion efforts
  • Support a strong U.S. defense posture and are willing to use force when required to defend vital national interests

I think that “realistic Jeffersonian” is actually a better description of me. Like Jefferson I think that the U. S. is an outlier and too great a reliance on international institutions will inevitably destroy what makes the United States the country it has been.

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Dianne Feinstein, 1933-2023

I have just learned that California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has died. She was a great woman with many accomplishments, not the least of us was providing some stability to San Francisco under tragic circumstances. I thought she would have made an excellent president. I would have preferred her over Al Gore in 2000.

More recently she has become a lightning rod for controversy around her age. I suspect there will be some turmoil in California over replacing her. Presumably, Gov. Newsom will appoint someone to serve at least temporarily. His choice may have some impact on his presumed presidential candidacy.