Thursday, July 31, 2014

Are we nearing WWIII?

Says The Atlantic:

Instability in Ukraine, chaos in Syria, conflict in the East China Sea—the trigger points for World War III are in place.

Pessimism is a useful prism through which to view the affairs of states. Their ambition to gain, retain, and project power is never sated. Optimism, toward which Americans are generally inclined, leads to rash predictions of history’s ending in global consensus and the banishment of war. Such rosy views accompanied the end of the Cold War. They were also much in evidence a century ago, on the eve of World War I.
Then, as now, Europe had lived through a long period of relative peace, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Then, too, rapid progress in science, technology, and communications had given humanity a sense of shared interests that precluded war, despite the ominous naval competition between Britain and Germany. Then, too, wealthy individuals devoted their fortunes to conciliation and greater human understanding. Rival powers fumed over provocative annexations, like Austria-Hungary’s of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, but world leaders scarcely believed a global conflagration was possible, let alone that one would begin just six years later. The very monarchs who would consign tens of millions to a murderous morass from 1914 to 1918 and bury four empires believed they were clever enough to finesse the worst.
The unimaginable can occur. That is a notion at once banal and perennially useful to recall. Indeed, it has just happened in Crimea, where a major power has forcefully changed a European border for the first time since 1945.

I could write an identical article about the trigger points of the late ‘90s.
The late '90s saw the onset of a technological revolution – the Internet – which launched a wave of prosperity and a far greater ability for nations and cultures to integrate. Velvet Revolutions were fresh in the memory. The Evil Empire had fallen. Happy days abounded.
Then in ’98, Russia, whose relatively new openness to the world was on very shaky legs, defaulted on its debt and slid into crisis. The default had a contagion effect that stung Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine (where they experienced the kind of hyperinflation that causes revolutions).
Other countries in that neighborhood – Romania, Hungary - were also still on very shaky legs after emerging from the fog of totalitarianism. Oh, and there was that whole Yugoslav chaos in the background. NATO eventually intervened in Kosovo, less than a year after Russia's default, the same NATO H.W. Bush promised wouldn’t expand towards Russia (oops)!
So many former enemies quaking with turmoil, so many people whose point of reference was authoritarianism suddenly feeling tumult and desperation during their transition to relative freedom. Perfect petri dish for a widespread rise of STRONG MEN. Perfect breeding ground for authoritarianism, revolution, and warfare that ripples and ripples. OH MY GOD THE END WAS NIGH!
Things were bleak, but WWIII didn’t happen. Of course it CAN happen; it can ALWAYS happen, but  pieces like these (which have been everywhere this year) are closer to cold reading than they are to political analysis. People didn't talk like this in '98 because it wasn't the centennial anniversary of the War to End All Wars.

Right now I’m not as worried about the rise of nationalism as I am about the rise of commentaries (and documentaries) that cause the impressionable to spot WWI and WWII analogies around every corner.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

All Crises are Local

You go to parties, right? You know what it's like when you're making the rounds:

First you talk to a scientist. The scientist tells you that there isn't enough funding for his specialty. He says it's a serious problem, and the public doesn't even know about it!

Then you talk to a music teacher. She tells you there isn't enough funding for music in schools. She says it's a serious problem, and the public doesn't even know about it!

Next you talk to a cop. He tells you his hands are tied when it comes to investigating crimes. He says it's a serious problem, and the public doesn't even know about it!

If every sector of human endeavor was as badly off as these types of conversations make it appear, human endeavor would cease entirely. If everyone worked in a field that was in crisis, nothing would function. See, because everyone thinks their interests and pursuits are extremely important, anything they consider awry with those pursuits to them constitutes a grave, MUSHROOMING crisis. Makes sense; we are all our own little sun that the rest of reality revolves around. We're more crestfallen by our personal setbacks than by anything Hitler cooked up.

Much is made of the power of anecdotes; not enough is made of the power of telling anecdotes. The more opportunity we have to reveal the plight of our work field to strangers (particularly those unaffiliated with that work field), the easier it is for us to believe its problems are uniquely dire and underappreciated. People are more skeptical of statistics than they are of anecdotes - including the anecdote teller. You seldom hear - even from scientists - hard data being tossed around at parties.

Holocausting haberdasher Harry Truman said it well: It's a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it's a depression when you lose yours. All crises are local.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Is New York America's Unhappiest City?

New York, America’s unhappiest city

New York City has been declared America’s unhappiest city by researchers from the University of British Columbia and Harvard.

The paper, “Unhappy Cities,” leaned on survey data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that asked respondents: “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?”

Researchers then tweaked that data for control factors such as race, education, marital status and family size. They concluded that New York, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Milwaukee and Detroit are, in that order, America’s least happy cities.

Envy contributes indefatigably to unhappiness, and it is difficult to avoid envy in New York. I don’t subscribe to the idea that neighborhoods with diverse incomes generally make people happier. When you’re in a building with kingly penthouses and you’re in a claustrophobic studio – like my last apartment – you really see up close how the other class lives. In Manhattan at least, those situations are common. It is much easier to keep up with the Joneses when the Joneses are a fellow suburban neighbor with a lifestyle roughly the same as yours. Subdivisions don't usually have a McMansion next door to a Steinbeckian shack.
A lot of people move here to build an identity, to reinvent themselves as winners. They don't just come to be a lawyer, they come to be a New York lawyer. Many of these transplants were large fish in cramped ponds. They arrive and suddenly realize that in Manhattan they’re just average (or worse). They're whole scheme to be the crème de la crème goes sour, and overachievers don’t take underachievement well. They probably would have been happier staying in Omaha, being the best lawyer in town and sucking on a small regret about what might have been in New York (and telling themselves, and probably believing it, that they would have conquered New York). 
Those who do try to keep up with the manic Manhattan competition do so at the expense of health and social lives, which of course begets unhappiness. Those competing in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx have a hard time even saying they're in the competition (Staten Island is actually a floating car dealership).
A city with a lot of dreamers is going to have a lot of broken dreams.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Assassination is a young man's game

Two things you don't see often in this life: Bon vivants who listen to the Cure and middle-aged assassins.

Czolgosz was 28 when he killed President McKinley.

Gavrilo Princip was 19 when he killed Archduke Ferdinand.

Hinckley was 25 when he shot Reagan.

Yigal Amir was 25 when he killed Yitzhak Rabin.

Wilkes Booth was 26 when he killed Lincoln.

Lynette Fromme was 26 when she tried to kill Gerald Ford.

Arthur Bremer was 22 when he shot George Wallace (Travis Bickle was partly modeled on Bremer*).

Sirhan Sirhan was 24 when he killed RFK.

Mehmet Ali Agca was 23 when he shot Pope John Paul II.

Mohammad Bokharaei was all of 17 when he killed Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Ali Mansur.

If Stefan Wisniewski killed Germany's Attorney General Siegfried Buback, he did it the day before his 24th birthday.

Giuseppe Zangara was 32 when he killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak while attempting to shoot FDR.

Truman's failed assassins were 36 and 20.

van der Graaf, who was 32 when he killed Pim Fortuyn, was an elder statesman of the assassination racket.

Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry was also long in the tooth, being almost 35 when he tried killing De Gaulle.

The reason assassins are usually mere babes (particularly when it comes to random "lone gunmen"): is obvious: Young people are romantic, and only a pie-in-the-sky romantic sacrifices himself to commit a murder that in 99% of cases alters very little. If the killing of Franz Ferdinand led the way to WWI, it was the exception.

People in their 40s and 50s might care about politics, but in addition to being less romantic about the world they usually also have more to live for; kids, spouses, mistresses, etc. A 22-year-old guy is living for beer and Transformers 5; hardly impenetrable walls against foolish revolution attempts.

Even when assassinations involve teamwork the organizations behind them normally rely on wide-eyed youngsters to commit the actual violence. The heads of these organizations know it ain't easy getting a boomer to try a low percentage act of terror that will change nothing and end with his facing a firing squad.

When you're young you feel much more strongly about revenge; even if it is macro revenge, the kind you take against political figures. Plus young folks are more likely to harbor a sense of destiny; they compare themselves to Great Ones much more often than oldies. Someone who thinks he's destined for greatness is going to be far more inclined to TAKE ONE FOR HISTORY.

By the time you're older you're more aware that nothing changes. This is why young people, including the non-assassins, do most of the marching and screaming. They're too young to know no one is listening.

*Behind every would-be "great man" is a woman who said no.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Killing 'Em Profitably

Here's a theory about the globe's nagging economic stagnation: The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth

One of the arguments for immigration, in the U.S. and Europe, is that these young transplanted workers will pay taxes and save the pension systems. Well, who is likely to be killed in these ostensibly prosperity-inducing wars? Young people.
If large swathes of the young are killed off, who is left? The pension-expectant elderly. Then you really have global Japan-like malaise.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Workers of the World, Download!

Calls for an increased minimum wage are echoing coast to coast. Many of those doing the calling are millennials; the Piracy Generation. The generation that wants everything for free - music, movies, TV - are upset that someone is trying to give them less money for their services.

Funny how they decided "labor rights" didn't matter when they suddenly had a chance to obtain music for free. Funny how they decided a living wage wasn't necessary for musicians. Funny how they didn't worry about royalty checks keeping up with inflation. "Workers should control the means of production," except when I can horde their services with the click of a mouse.

Isn't it convenient that these anti-business folks started using the term business model when it came time to justify the "business model" of musicians no longer getting compensated for their songs? Don't ya just love watching these anti-globalists participate in the movement of goods across borders without paying for them?

Apple takes flak for what it pays people. Millenials use Apple products to behave like Apple.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Marlboro Man was born that way

Drinking is now called a disease.

Drug use is now called a disease.

Even gambling addiction has been upgraded to a disease.

But cigarette addiction: not called a disease. In fact, smokers are treated as though they're a disease. They're even quarantined like a disease. No one shows them the slightest compassion. Quite the opposite. Folks will regurgitate the claim that "nicotine is more addictive than heroin," then two seconds later cast disdain on the smokers puffing on the sidewalk outside the bar.

How about all the cartoonish outrage against cigarette companies? They're vilified for "targeting" new addicts. But what about beer companies? Their ads, which are EVERYWHERE - TV, magazines, billboards, sporting events - don't aim to make drinking seem cool? How about bar owners: their entire enterprise consists of intoxicating "diseased" folks right before they get in a car to drive home. Sounds pretty callous to me. Cigarette companies have to put pictures of diseased lungs on cigarette packs. How come Miller doesn't have to garnish its beer bottles with pictures of beaten wives or families flattened by drunk truckers?

What about casinos? Unlike tobacco companies, Vegas still gets to advertise on TV. Yet when was the last time you saw an attorney general get elected by taking brave stands against backgammon?

Here's how it is: alcoholics, drug addicts, and hardened gamblers very often destroy their lives and the lives of everyone around them. Telling them a disease was at the root of it makes it easier for them to cope with the damage they've inflicted, and thus find a way to start over. Which is more likely to get someone to attempt a painful rebirth; telling him he's a victim too, and therefore his neglected kids, traumatized wife, deceived friends, and stiffed creditors aren't entirely his fault, or telling him he indulged himself to the point that it dragged everyone he cared about into the undertow?

Ironically, because cigarette smoking DOESN'T wreck lives we don't bother qualifying our criticism of it. You hear that smokers: a little less nicotine gum and a little more domestic abuse and soon you'll be welcomed back indoors. Or just start calling cigarette addiction a disease and attack anyone on Twitter who dares suggest otherwise. After a few radio and TV hosts lose their jobs for being Kool-o-phobic everyone will magically forget that for decades cigarette smokers were treated like lepers.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Will Obama be remembered as worse than W?

Poll: Obama 'worst president' since World War II

According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, those surveyed consider Obama worse than W. Bush; worse than any President since the Axis called it a day.

Whether it's getting elected or securing a legacy, the mechanics of politics are the same: It isn’t about what you do, or even about what you say; it is about the feeling you give people when you speak. Reagan is seen as a fiscal hawk, yet he ran deficits that would have embarrassed Lyndon Johnson. But he made people feel good when he spoke, so no amount of evidence can erase the memory of his tough but empty talk on government spending.
Clinton signed a “tough on crime” bill, and presided over and SIGNED the Defense of [hetero] Marriage Act, but because he made people feel good when he spoke he has the image of a benign, progressive liberal.
Obama makes a lot of people feel good, so in the long run, he will be remembered more favorably than W, who didn’t even make himself feel good.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The running away of the bulls

China is facing an epidemic of overwork, to hear the state-controlled press and Chinese social media tell it. About 600,000 Chinese a year die from working too hard, according to the China Youth Daily. China Radio International in April reported a toll of 1,600 every day.

In America in the late '80s, stories like these appeared, only they concerned Japan. The American narrative about China surpassing the US has been similar to the narrative about Japan's. The narrative moves in stages:
1)            Everyone starts mentioning everything they own is from that country.
2)            Everyone starts complaining that country is taking American jobs.

3)            Politicians start pretending they’re going to do something about it. People believe them.
4)            All the pundits and business leaders start saying in public that the Japanese/Chinese way is better (in the ‘80s Japanese conformity/homogeneity was seen as a positive). Before the 2008 Crash everyone in the West was saying China had a smarter command economy and a much smarter citizenry (hence their explosion); post-crisis they said China’s system could better react because they didn’t have to answer to voters (even the NYT got on board with this).

5)            Cracks start showing, and suddenly people stop viewing the country's system as a monochrome positive (even my mother now knows about Chinese ghost cities). 

6)            The top-down bulls capitulate and the country that couldn’t be stopped stops hard.

The question is whether China will crash like Japan or just slow down significantly. My guess is the latter.