Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People


The Crimea (and beyond)

When the Russians more or less militarily annexed the Crimea a couple of days ago , it was pretty obvious the West wasn’t going to go to war over it, any previously mumbled promises to Ukraine that implied we might aside.  It’s still obvious, not that avoiding a war is a bad thing and all.

Who can blame Europe for not wanting another war? They’ve hosted so many, and I’m reliably told if you wander about you can still find nostalgic bits of wreckage to prove it.   There are parts left over from wars everywhere. Castles, forts, the Kaiser Wilhelm church (what’s left of it) in Berlin.  Graves….lots and lots of graves.  Graves of local men, and graves of men who came from across the world, and graves of civilians.

In January of this year, in Euskirchen Germany, a bulldozer operator was killed by a bomb from WWII, and it’s not uncommon for unexploded ordnance to be found, some dating back to the big fandango they held 100 years ago this year.   The Europeans have done a super job of cleaning up the place, and I’m 100% certain they aren’t interested in having to do it again anytime soon.

This is why, no one, not even the allegedly crazy Russians, really wants to die for real-estate to get it back into Russia.  Maybe some Ukrainians are willing to die out of pride for Ukraine, but the Russians prefer it be done with the bare minimum of shooting, explosions and death.   Even ‘crazy’ ‘evil’ people understand that upsets folks, and the shooting, explosions and death get out of control, and pretty soon it’s happening everywhere in sight.   The Russians don’t want a war either, but they’re not averse to picking up (re-acquiring) some real-estate on the cheap.

For my entire life we, Americans, helped keep the Russians from taking over the joint by being in places they wanted to be before they could be there. Kudos to NATO and all for asking us to stay.  But everybody knew when we parked Americans in their path all across Europe and the Russians did drive tanks through Fulda Gap…if they did it over American bodies; America was likely to take a war-like exception to it.  Geo-politics and military science is brutally practical about things like that, and the Russians understood.  America was across the ocean and much harder for Soviet tank division to blitzkrieg than a quick push to the east bank of the Rhine.  We made it difficult for them by being where they wanted to be in ways that only war, or government over throw, could clear us out of.  We stood in Western Europe and they stood in Eastern Europe and we glared at each other.  The Europeans understood where the fight was going to happen if it happened.  If some were nicer to the Soviets (now the Russians) than we liked, it was probably out of practicality.   At times they glared at both us and the Russians.

The ‘other’ people further east, in the Russian zone, just had to live with the Russians because clearing them out would wreck the joint, and everybody knew that too.  They didn’t glare at anybody because they didn’t dare.  Then the Soviet Union/Eastern Bloc collapsed, they became Russians again and Ukrainians and Latvians and Estonians and Lithuanians and Moldovans and Serbs and you get the idea.

The Europeans don’t want a war, the Russians don’t want a war, we don’t want a war.  Having so much experience in wars, and cleaning up after wars, one can understand the reluctance to do the centennial anniversary reenactment of 1914 this year with live rounds.

Still, Russian occupation of the Crimea should never have happened if the West was sincere about helping the Ukrainians keep their lands (especially after the Russians vs Georgia take-down in 2008).   I have mixed emotions about our policing the world, and our commitments to far flung places. But our word has to mean something too, and if we bother to give it, we ought to keep it.  Not keeping it leads to where we are, drawing red lines and erasing them just as quickly, making threats on an international basis and then barring a couple people from Disney World to show how much we mean it.   There’s a whole set of posts that could be written on why we let down our guard in Europe.  A quick hit list, military use fatigue, the cost, the simple hope that the not Soviet Russians weren’t going to start up the ‘let’s take over a country’ club again, resurgent Russian pride, feckless American policy, and a new world order.

The biggest one we hear about is this inane belief in some new order that has taken hold.  A magic set of rules for countries came into being when we hit the millennium.  Who knew?   It’s not clear, to me anyway, why that is, must be a side effect of climate change or something because I don’t recall any burning bushes or Jewish prophets with stone tablets making the news recently.   I do know our Secretary of State thinks they exist ( I mentioned feckless American policy); Angela Merkel seems to think they exist.  But maybe no one forwarded the memos to Vladimir Putin, because all in all he seems pretty proud of using the old rules, and so are his constituents.

No, there is no magic set of new rules.  I can’t even say it would be nice, because not only is it not real, it’s not even clearly laid out what it means internationally.  Furthermore the old rules still work and still apply.  Power and vacuums of power.  In fact these new rules already seem remarkably ineffective against people who still use the old rules. As a result there aren’t any new magic formulas or methods for getting the Russians to give Crimea back now either.    They certainly aren’t going to do it because we in the West tell each other that Russia is naked in the eyes of the world.  They aren’t going to do it no matter how many times some idiot calls them ‘evil’.   They aren’t going to do it because they suddenly understand they’re violating the 21st century rules.

Just because the West doesn’t want to apply power doesn’t mean the Russians can’t and won’t.   When a country can take over a chunk of another country in a week, there really isn’t much threats that will take months to show effect are going to do to stop them.   Done deals.  Because people don’t want to wait that long for results (especially the Ukrainians in this case), and life, and business, and in Europe’s case, the need to heat their houses, goes on.

If the West is serious, and worried about the Russians moving into Kiev, park ‘non-threatening’ NATO forces in Kiev.  Not just visiting, full time. Park a ‘non-threatening’ contingent of ground troops in Estonia (note the date of that article, last year…). See if the other Baltic countries would like to have permanent physical NATO contingents with troops who are not local. Go beyond ‘air policing’. Put the equivalent of a guard contingent on the equivalent of the Rhine bridges before the Russians do the equivalent of occupying the Rhineland.

And hit our own damn power reset button. Drill like hell for natural gas and oil here in the US and export it to Europe to cut their dependence on Russia.  The Russians will understand, they’ll bitch, but they’ll stop because they really don’t want the same war we don’t want.  There can’t be a whole lot in Estonia the Russians want to die for.

Project POWER back into the vacuum we’ve created before Putin again proves the old rules, the same ones Hitler used so well, still work just fine.   Do it before Chamberlain calls to say he wants his ‘new’ rules back.

Not gonna happen, I realize.  We have ‘smart’ diplomacy now, we lead from behind.  We’re going to jaw about the new international rules the millennium brought us, and threaten the Russians with our economic power even while we struggle to keep that power turned on for ourselves.

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Observations: The QandO Podcast for 23 Mar 14

This week, Bruce, Michael and Dale talk about Russia, ICANN, and Bill Quick’s new novel, Lightning Fall.

The podcast can be found on Stitcher here. Please remember the feed may take a couple of hours to update after this is first posted.

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Book Review: Lightning Fall

Bill Quick is a well-known blogger and writer, and many of you may be familiar with his DailyPundit blog. He has a new book out called Lightning Fall: A Novel of Disaster. It’s pretty…dark.

Basically, the story starts in the near future, with a nuclear terrorist attack. The attack is state-supported, not only by the usual suspects in the Middle East, but also by Mexico. New Orleans gets nuked, and a a major EMP blast essentially disables everything that uses electrical power in the states west of the Rockies. Then it gets worse.

America’s political leadership isn’t up to the job of responding. President Millicent Carter isn’t the best person to handle this sort of crisis, despite the keen political acumen and assistance of her husband, ex-president B.J. Carter–who was impeached, but not convicted, in the late 1990s. So, 60 million people are set to starve to death, or die in horrific rioting, or be killed by the invading army from Mexico, while the President does essentially nothing useful, and much that is counterproductive. This kicks off a Constitutional crisis.

Everything gets just about as bad as it possibly could, but, while it’s dark, it’s a pretty compelling read. I recommend it.


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Economic Statistics for 20 Mar 14

Initial jobless claims rose 5,000 to 320,000. The 4-week average fell 3,500 to 327,000. Continuing claims rose 41,000 to 2.889 million.

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index fell -1.4 points to -29.0 in the latest week.

The general business conditions index of the Philadelphia Fed’s Business Outlook Survey rose from -6.3 to 9.0 in March.

Existing home sales fell -0.4% in February to a 4.6 million annual rate. On a year-over-year basis, sales are down -7.1%.

The Conference Board’s index of leading indicators rose a solid 0.5% in February.

The Fed’s balance sheet rose $40.7 billion last week, with total assets of $4.222 trillion. Reserve Bank credit increased $39.1 billion.

The Fed reports that M2 money supply rose by $23.7 billion in the latest week.


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Europe discovers its gas problem

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared the G8 to be dead, thanks to Russia’s take over of the Crimea:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the Group of Eight leading nations defunct given the current crisis in Ukraine, in a clear message to Russia that the world’s seven other major industrialized countries consider its actions in Ukraine unacceptable. “As long as there is no political environment for such an important political format as the G-8, the G-8 doesn’t exist anymore, not the summit nor the format,” said Ms. Merkel, in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. “Russia is widely isolated in all international organizations,” the chancellor said.

Ah, yes, the old “isolated in all international organizations” gambit.  And what have all the “international organizations” done in reaction to Russia’s Crimean takeover?  About what they did when Russia pushed into Georgia.  A whole lot of nothing. It is one thing to have international organizations that have teeth and are willing to do something in reaction to such a blatant act.  But when they mostly issue statements condeming the action and void the Netflix accounts of certain Russian officals, being isolated from those organizations isn’t such a big deal.  All it does is make further diplomatic efforts more difficult, not that it is clear that Russia is open to diplomatic overtures.

Another thing that is happening is Europe is discovering it has managed to put itself in an energy situation that isn’t at all to its advantage.  30% of Europe’s natural gas flows through Russian pipelines (Germany gets 40% of its natural gas supplies from Russia).

So the scramble is purportedly on to change that situation.

European leaders will seek ways to cut their multi-billion-dollar dependence on Russian gas at talks in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, while stopping short of severing energy ties with Moscow for now. EU officials said the current Ukraine crisis had convinced many in Europe that Russia was no longer reliable and the political will to end its supply dominance had never been greater. “Everyone recognises a major change of pace is needed on the part of the European Union,” one EU official said on condition of anonymity. As alternatives to imported gas, the Brussels talks will debate the European Union’s “indigenous supplies”, which include renewable energy and shale gas.

Now, one would think that such a situation would call for drastic and speedy action.  Anyone want to bet how long they dither and, should they decide to exploit their “indigenous supplies”, how onerous the rules and regulations will be?

When leaders of the European Union’s member states meet today and tomorrow (20-21 March) in Brussels, they hope to reach consensus on the EU’s long-term climate goals. But agreement appears unlikely because of deep divisions between east and west. Ahead of the summit, ministers from 13 member states signed a declaration supporting a European Commission proposal for an EU commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 – up from a 20% target set for 2020. This ‘green growth group’ includes France, Germany, Italy and the UK. But Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia are wary of the target and the timeline, and are resisting any such commitment.

The latter group will most likely be all for moving ahead as speedily as possible to exploit “indigenous supplies”.  They’ll meet some pretty stiff headwinds, apparently, from the Western EU nations. You can almost see this train wreck coming.

Meanwhile in the pursuit of “green energy”, Europe is apparently ready to toss in the towel:

Governments across Europe, regretting the over-generous deals doled out to the renewable energy sector, have begun reneging on them. To slow ruinous power bills hikes, governments are unilaterally rewriting contracts and clawing back unseemly profits.

You have to laugh.  “Unseemly profits”?  They’re subsidies, sir.  Not profit.

It’ll be interesting to see if the EU has the will to sort this all out in the next couple of days.  If one is a betting person, you’d have to guess that the odds for success are long, given the EU’s recent history.

~McQ

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Economic Statistics for 19 Mar 14

The MBA reports that mortgage applications fell -1.2% last week, with purchases and re-fis both down -1.0%.

Strong exports narrowed the nation’s current account deficit to $81.1 billion in the 4th quarter of 2013, down from a revised $96.4 billion in the 3rd quarter.

The Federal Open markets Committee announced that interest rate policy will remain unchanged, with the Federal Funds Rate target at 0% to 0.25%. The FOMC released their projections for US GDP Growth: 2014: 2.8 to 3.0 %; 2015: 3.0 to 3.2 %; 2016: 2.5 to 3.0 %; longer run: 2.2 to 2.2 %.


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The most transparent administration in history … not

The Obama White House has quietly rewritten a portion of the Freedom Of Information Act to exclude what it calls “White House equities” from being released without a White House review.  The rewrite was inspired by a 2009 memo by then White House counsel, Greg Craig:

The Greg memo is described in detail in a new study made public today by Cause of Action, a Washington-based nonprofit watchdog group that monitors government transparency and accountability.

How serious an attack on the public’s right to know is the Obama administration’s invention of the “White House equities” exception?

“FOIA is designed to inform the public on government behavior; White House equities allow the government to withhold information from the media, and therefore the public, by having media requests forwarded for review. This not only politicizes federal agencies, it impairs fundamental First Amendment liberties,” Cause of Action explains in its report.

The equities exception is breathtaking in its breadth. As the Greg memo put it, any document request is covered, including “congressional committee requests, GAO requests, judicial subpoenas and FOIA requests.”

And it doesn’t matter what format the documents happen to be in because, according to Greg, the equities exception “applies to all documents and records, whether in oral, paper, or electronic form, that relate to communications to and from the White House, including preparations for such communications.”

What this effectively does is stop federal agencies from answering FOIA requests which might include “White House equities” within the 20 days required by law.  There is no apparent limit to the review time the White House can take with its “review” of such requests.  Since the White House gets to decide what are “White House equities” and how long it will take to review requests which include them, the change effectively neuters the intent of the FOIA law.  This gives the White House the ability to delay release of such information until it is politically beneficial for them to do so (or, in reality, not at all):

In one case cited by Cause of Action, the response to a request from a Los Angeles Times reporter to the Department of the Interior for “communications between the White House and high-ranking Interior officials on various politically sensitive topics” was delayed at least two years by the equities review.

And that isn’t the only department in which such delays have become common:

“Cause of Action is still waiting for documents from 16 federal agencies, with the Department of Treasury having the longest pending request of 202 business days.

“The Department of Energy is a close second at 169 business days. The requests to the Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services have been pending for 138 business days,” the report said.

This is what political subversion looks like.  It is also a fairly common example of this administration saying one thing and actually doing the opposite.

Most transparent administration ever.  Another lie worthy of 4 Pinocchios.

~McQ

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Economic Statistics for 18 Mar 14

In weekly retail sales, Redbook reports a soft 2.8% increase from the previous year. ICSC-Goldman reports a weekly sales increase of 0.7%, and a 1.5% increase on a year-over-year basis.

Consumer Prices rose 0.1% in February at both the headline and core level. On a year-over-year basis, consumer prices are up 1.1% overall and 1.6% less food and energy.

February housing starts dropped 0.2% to a 0.907 million annual rate, but building permits rose 7.7% to a 1.018 million annual rate.

The Treasury Department reports that net inflow of long-term securities totaled $7.3 billion in January vice a revised $-49.5 billion in December.


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College professor calls for jailing climate “deniers”

It never fails.  At some point, the mask slips among the “tolerant” members of academia and we are exposed to their real controlling and authoritarian face.  Over the past few weeks there have been two good examples of this.  At Harvard, we had senior Sandra Korn (“a joint history of science and studies of women, gender and sexuality concentrator”, whatever that might be) declare that academic freedom is an outdated concept and that “academic justice” is a much better concept:

In its oft-cited Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the American Association of University Professors declares that “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” In principle, this policy seems sound: It would not do for academics to have their research restricted by the political whims of the moment.

Yet the liberal obsession with “academic freedom” seems a bit misplaced to me. After all, no one ever has “full freedom” in research and publication. Which research proposals receive funding and what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities. The words used to articulate a research question can have implications for its outcome. No academic question is ever “free” from political realities. If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?

Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

Tolerance of ideas you don’t like or agree with?  Forget about it.  Instead, refuse to fund research that doesn’t conform to your agenda and we’ll call that “academic justice”.  Feel a little chill?

Now we have an assistant professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology who would like to see those who disagree with him on climate change put in jail.  Apparently freedom of thought and speech and the right to disagree are outdated concepts as well.  Eric Owens at the Daily Caller brings us up to date:

The professor is Lawrence Torcello. Last week, he published a 900-word-plus essay at an academic website called The Conversation.

His main complaint is his belief that certain nefarious, unidentified individuals have organized a “campaign funding misinformation.” Such a campaign, he argues, “ought to be considered criminally negligent.”

Torcello, who has a Ph.D. from the University at Buffalo, explains that there are times when criminal negligence and “science misinformation” must be linked. The threat of climate change, he says, is one of those times.

Throughout the piece, he refers to the bizarre political aftermath of an earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, which saw six scientists imprisoned for six years each because they failed to “clearly communicate risks to the public” about living in an earthquake zone.

“Consider cases in which science communication is intentionally undermined for political and financial gain,” the assistant professor urges.

“Imagine if in L’Aquila, scientists themselves had made every effort to communicate the risks of living in an earthquake zone,” Torcello argues, but evil “financiers” of a “denialist campaign” “funded an organised [sic] campaign to discredit the consensus findings of seismology, and for that reason no preparations were made.”

“I submit that this is just what is happening with the current, well documented funding of global warming denialism,” Torcello asserts.

No mention of the current, well documented funding of global warming alarmism (Al Gore, call your booking agent).  No mention of the science that counters many of the claims of alarmists. No mention of the unexplained 15 year temperature pause.  In fact, no mention of anything that might derail his argument.  But that’s par for the course among alarmists, and Torcello is certainly one of them.  And, as he makes clear, he will not tolerate deniers because they’re not only wrong, they’re criminals:

Torcello says that people are already dying because of global warming. “Nonetheless, climate denial remains a serious deterrent against meaningful political action in the very countries most responsible for the crisis.”

As such, Torcello wants governments to make “the funding of climate denial” a crime.

“The charge of criminal and moral negligence ought to extend to all activities of the climate deniers who receive funding as part of a sustained campaign to undermine the public’s understanding of scientific consensus.”

Of course the reason he’s so upset is this new fangled thing called the internet has enabled anyone who is curious about the climate debate to actually see both sides of the argument layed out before them.   For the alarmists, that has inconveniently helped a majority of people realize that the science behind the alarmism is weak at best and fraudulent in some cases.  It has also helped them understand that the alarmist science that Torcello wants enshrined as “truth” was gathered from deeply flawed computer models and fudged data.  And, it has also let the voices of dissenting scientists be heard.  Finally, this ability for the public to weigh the arguments has found most of the public viewing climate change as a minor problem at best.

Torcello would like to make all of that a crimnal activity based simply on his belief that the alarmist argument is the accurate argument.  He’d jail the heretics and deny the public the opposing argument.  This is what you’re reduced to when you have no real scientifically based counter-arugment and are just pushing a belief.

The Torcellos of the world once tried to do this to a man named Gallileo.  And we know how that worked out.

It is always easy to wave away those like Torcello and claim they’re an anomoly.  But it seems we see more and more of them popping up each day.  The struggle to gain and maintain freedom is a daily struggle.  It is the Torcellos and the Korns of the world who would – for your own good, of course – be happy to help incrementally rob you of your freedoms.  They must be called out each and every time they do so and exposed for what they are.

~McQ

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Car Review

So, terms that don’t seem to go together. Like “military intelligence”. Or, in the case of this week’s car, “Korean Luxury”. Kia’s brand new K900 flagship sedan hit the shores of the United States this month. I drove it. I wrote about it.


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