Monthly Archives: March 2018

Bet on red

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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_star#/media/File:Red_star.svg

There’s an interesting series that recently came out on Amazon Video; Comrade Detective.   It is a twist on the classic buddy cop show, from the point of Romania during the Cold War.   It is presented as a ‘found’ show, and although it is completely fictional, it has all the bits that try and make it seem like it actually might be a real show.  Yes, it is a bit of a parody of cop shows.   My sample size is small, but all in all, the vibe that came through was campy plus a not-so-subtle propaganda shtick, from the other side of the Iron Curtain.   There are some great exchanges; the initial dialogue (in a car, of course)  between two police officers;  a classic, “Bet on red!” phrase (mimicking Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57, “Bet on black!”); the televised chess match in a bar (with snide commentary and cheering), all make it an eerie mix of retro-80s and stilted propaganda.  But that’s kind of the point, as the producers have noted.

Once again, Art Is Important.  It makes us pay attention.   In some cases, it can even make us recognize our own propaganda, our own self-delusions, and own biases.

Questions:

 

 

 

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The Russians

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The Russian Flag; in the public domain.

The not-so-eyebrow-raising thing about the huffing-and-puffing outrage about Russia is that we’ve heard it all before.  Of course, it was during the Cold War, and we sometimes referred to them as the Soviets rather than the Russians.   Growing up in the US of A, they were quite literally the poster children for ‘Our Enemy’, seen in everything from Red Dawn to Rocky IV.  They were sometimes caricatures,  sometimes respectable adversaries (General Gogol in the James Bond franchise), but always on the the opposite (and presumably) wrong side.

For myself, “the party line” (to use an ironic term), never really rang true.  Like many of my friends, brought up on stories of World War 2, we dove into the histories at our local libraries, and knew the real, horrible score.   20 million Soviet citizens lost their lives during WW2 (with estimates going as high as 27 million); the American death toll was a little over 400,000, with hardly any civilian casualties.

Eisenhower stated, “The atomic bomb, the bazooka, the jeep and the DC-3 were the four things that won the war for the Allies.”  Nothing about the bravery of our soldiers, or brilliance of the generals.  In keeping with the dictum “amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics,” for those of you keeping score at home, two out of those four were things used for logistics, and the first was due to the brilliance of many engineers, physicists, and mathematicians who had never fired a shot.  The other weapon listed, the bazooka, was a force multiplier that allowed a few infantry to bring down a heavily armored tank, or attack fixed positions from a long distance.   Others, who have studied WW2, have also brought up cryptanalysis (thanks to the work of a good many brilliant Polish mathematicians, and a closeted gay genius, Alan Turing), the Liberty Ship, and American manufacturing capacity.  Oh yes, a few honest assessments mention Russians doing most of the dying.   If you aren’t much of a reader, may I suggest the Battle for Sevastopol; a bit fictionalized, but still a riveting view from the Russian side of the war. 

When the West ‘won’ the Cold War (more likely, the Soviet economy went south first, rather than ours), relations with Russia normalized.  Unfortunately, they listened to us, and in the land-rush of westernization and free-market, the life expectancy of Russian men dropped significantly.   But we got along, and even McDonald’s started showing up in Moscow in 1990.  Somewhere along the way, though, we thought we were the sole superpower, and started throwing our weight around.   After the Cold War, we said we’d never expand NATO eastward… until we did, and when Russia started pushing back – surprise, they got upset, and started pushing back. The tale of things in the Ukraine and Crimea are best told by folks like Dmitry Orlov, who have on-the-ground knowledge of things from both the American and Russian side.   Jim Kunstler has also been on a tear in these past few weeks on the topic as well.  From what has been written, it might be that the Democrats might be in a lot more hot water than the Republicans.

The personal anecdote brought to the table today is from the late 1990s, when I actually got to know a few Russians first hand, while (misguidedly) working in the financial sector on Wall Street.  As I remember jokingly telling one of my colleagues, “This is totally bizarre; ten years ago these guys were our mortal enemies, and I was working on stuff on how to kill them, and now we find out they are better capitalists than we are!”   A small point, but once you meet more than a few Russians (or members of practically any other group), you do make a few common connections, and realize, yeah, in general, they are a decent bunch.  This isn’t to say we all held hands and sang songs; there are still elements of the Russian character that shone pretty strong (one of the most stubborn software engineers I’ve ever met was a hypersmart fellow systems guy from Russia), but we worked together and essentially got along.

As a young child, I was taught that America did the right things, and was always a champion of good in the world.   I said the Pledge of Allegiance, and thought that we would always do the right thing.  Of course, after a bit of reading (everything from Smedley Butler, to our behavior during World War 2, to The Pentagon Papers, to the Citigroup Plutonomy memo), you realize we aren’t exactly the shining white knights many think we are.   If there’s anything that galls me about the current treatment of the Russians by the folks in Washington, it is our blatant, outrageous, full-throttle hypocrisy.  Even if investigations show the Russians did influence the election (the Wikipedia entry on Russian influence in the 2016 elections on this is pretty adamant, but there is pushback from this), it would a) not surprise me in the least b) be an enormously huge bit of karma, given the number of elections the US has tried to (and successfully) influenced over the years. Heck, we’ve even tried to influence elections of allied nations.

If the Russians started putting bases in Mexico now (oh, wait, they put them in Cuba, and look what happened), we’d have a huge hissy fit.   A few Americans have pointed this out (mostly on the right, as far as I can tell; love him or hate him, Ron Paul has been incredibly clear on this ). Why is this so hard not to accept – that the Russians are doing exactly what we’d be doing if we were in their shoes?

I’m not saying it is right that other nations should be meddling in the elections of other nations.  We aren’t perfect. The Russians aren’t perfect.    But don’t be surprised (“I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling is going on here!“) when it happens to you, if you’ve spent a good chunk of the last one hundred years doing the exact same thing.   There’s a great quote from the Bible, and it bears quoting here:

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Questions:

  • Who on the left feels that our policy towards the Russians is out of whack?
  • Could America ever exist without an enemy?  Could any nation exist without an enemy?
  • Hypocrisy is high on the list of abominations that drive me up a wall.  This recent article about a New York Times writer is a classic example. The seven deadly sins are ones that generally listed, but hypocrisy is one that rises above even those.  What are yours?
  • Yes, the Soviets did some very questionable things before and after the war, but if we start opening that can of worms, we should look at our own (and continuing) failures, from the way we treated Native Americans, to Vietnam and Iraq.  Is there any sort of metric you can use to gauge the morality of a nation, group or person?

 

 

 

 

Nukes

nuke_hand

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_studio_image_of_a_hand_of_playing_cards._MOD_45148377.jpg and commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nuclear_Explosion.svg

A few years ago, the well reasoning JMG pointed out that:

None of the concrete gains a nation can achieve by launching a nuclear strike on another nation comes anywhere near the scale of the costs that would be inflicted by even the feeblest nuclear response.

Having nuclear weapons is an expensive proposition; the paradox is that you can’t use them as designed (to go ‘boom’), but they can be “used” in a not-so-subtle way, to remind your enemies that you cannot be wiped out without severe existential consequences.

Would many be like to be rid of nuclear weapons?  Probably.  There have been quite a few times when we’ve come unbelievably close to nuclear war, and for that, the reduction in arsenals is a good thing.   But their usefulness as a final bargaining chip, the ultimate ‘ace in the hole’ isn’t trivial.   Which countries that possess nuclear weapons have ever been invaded?  Some countries have given up their nuclear programs voluntarily (Libya), and some have not completed a nuclear program in time (Iraq), and in those cases, the results weren’t pretty for the country or their respective leaders.

There’s an old saying that runs along the lines of “If you believe that the US government keeps its promises, ask a Native American.” The list of broken treaties is long.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO and the US promised not to expand eastward.  So much for that “iron-clad” promise.

North Korea says it might give up its nuclear program. Given its past dealings, that might not be the case, as reported in that same article.  Getting the US president to negotiate might be a trick, or just a way for them to feel important.  But given some of the egregious ways the US has violated iron-clad guarantees, would you advise the North Koreans to give up their nukes?  Getting the nuke card is hard, and you can’t play it, but it does allow you to stay in the game.

Questions

  • In the current North Korea issue, “who is playing who?”  Are the North Koreans just trying to get a US president to negotiate with them?   Could the US remove troops from the Korean peninsula in exchange for denuclearization in that region?
  • What do you do with people or organizations who continually break promises?
  • What if the broken promise was something like reversing a promise in the financial world, like taxing Roth IRAs, in the name of  “deficit reduction?”

 

 

 

 

Put your money where your mouth is

boycott

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boycott_-_The_Noun_Project.svg (Public Domain)

You may or may not agree with the National Rifle Association, nor may you agree with their proponents or detractors.  But you have to respect when people “vote with their wallets” and either stop participating in an activity, or do something differently.

Dick’s Sporting Goods decided not to sell “assault style” weapons .  It may (or may not) cost them, as people may be offended (or happy) with the fact that they took a position on the issue.  Delta decided to cut its ties with the NRA, and that might wind up jeopardizing millions in tax breaks for fuel.   A few years ago (2015), REI decided to close their stores on Black Friday, so people could spend time with their families.  Universities have disinvested from countries that they found reprehensible (South Africa during apartheid).   Boycotts by citizens of everything from buses to grapes have also been conducted throughout history.

If you don’t take a good paying job because you don’t like the ethics of the company, or you don’t invest in certain products because you feel they are morally wrong (anything from booze to meat to gambling), you are putting your money where your mouth is.   Like  it was mentioned in Nicolas Taleb’s Skin In The Game:

“For social justice, focus on symmetry and risk sharing. You cannot make profits and transfer the risks to others, as bankers and large corporations do…  Forcing skin in the game corrects this asymmetry better than thousands of laws and regulations.”

It may be that social change, or change in any direction (to the left, right, or center) is best served by this simple maxim.   Vote with your feet, vote with your wallet.   It isn’t easy, of course, but the fact that it isn’t easy is the point.   When people are willing to forego not-so-insignificant financial gains for other, more important reasons, it shows that finance/economics isn’t the most important thing in the world.

Questions:

  • Is this always a good strategy?  Some people thought disinvesting (divestment) from South Africa actually hurt the people they were trying to help.
  • In the parable of the Poor Widow, it isn’t how much you lose, but how much you sacrifice.   For some, not shopping at a particular store isn’t a hardship, since there are other places to shop.    For a company to abandon an unprofitable investment for “moral” reasons, this can just be a convenient way of bowing out.  What examples come to mind?