Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A good man without a gun

Hard to believe,  but surveillance cameras don't lie, do they? Apparently, in the French Quarter there is more than one answer to "a bad man with a gun."

The follow-up ("The victim told police that the driver of the car said, 'give me my gun back and I’ll give you your phone that you dropped.' ") sounds like a Bug Bunny-Elmer Fudd routine. Not sure the police report tagged the right "victim," either.

However you slice it, Wayne La Pierre is a moron, but we already knew that.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Words to die by

RtO considers that 2 rules dominate markets. You have read them here before:

Unsupervised markets crash.

If the free market thinks you are worth more to it dead than alive, it will see to it that you are killed.

The death count in the Bangladesh factory disaster is higher each time I look: 381 now.

Not a huge toll in the context of the number of people who are shot to death in Chicago or die in single-car drunken crashes, but the reason we pay attention (those of us who do, see this Bloomberg story for those who don't give a damn) is that unlike single-car drunken crashes, factory disasters and gunshot deaths have their cheering sections. There are people who regard the collapse of an 8-story building as a feature not a bug.

(And here let me turn aside to one of my favorite books, Henry Petroski's "To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design." Petroski argues that it would be possible but inefficient to overengineer every structure and machine so that none ever failed. The cumulative cost to society would be large; whereas with the occasional collapse of a bridge or a building, because daring engineers were pushing for the most economical design, in the long run society is better off, and too bad about the people on the bridge. Perhaps so; it's the kind of argument that adults make. But the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh was not pushing any design parameters. It was just a shoddy, murderous worker-killer.

(It is significant that the ground-floor businesses, including a bank, were evacuated when the building showed signs of cracking, while the garment factories above were kept working.)

The Bloomberg News story is not explicit about the argument, which is that ever-cheaper consumer goods are, in themselves, an unmitigated good and anything -- absolutely anything -- that makes them cheaper is desirable. However, the Bloomberg story does include a factoid that brings the deal down home:

Clothing companies have come under increasing pressure to lower costs as the rise of fast fashion at cut-throat prices has trained consumers to expect $5 T-shirts and $6 bikinis. The cost of clothing in Britain has dropped 20 percent since 2005, according to the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, while food is up 43 percent.
And if the price of the cheap bikini is paid by distant people of whom we know nothing, why then, it isn't a cost.

In a comment on my last post on guns, Bret said we could argue about the consequences of guns vs. not guns. Indeed we can.

We can argue the consequences of any action, and, in the context of Rana Plaza, of any regulatory action. It is a matter of balancing the interests.

The Bangladeshi workers, who live in great poverty, have an interest in low-wage jobs -- which are not low by their standards -- but the unspoken component of the deal is that they should live to spend the money.

Modern methods have greatly benefitted the Bangladeshis. Because of the geography of the Bay of Bengal, cyclones blowing up from the south frequently submerge vast areas of the coastal lowlands. Up through the 1970s, for centuries these floods had killed people in the millions, sometimes several hundred thousand at a time.

Traditional society shrugged its shoulders and accepted this as a consequence of reaping the rich harvests available on the plain of Bengal. Modern society saw a cheap fix: build earthen berms high enough that people and their animals could shelter on them until the water receded.

The engineering of the berms was not difficult; it could have been done any time in the past 4,000 years. It was the modernist thinking that made them worth undertaking.

Free marketeers like to think of themselves, I believe, as advanced people, advocates of a modern attitude (despite that fact that their hero, Adam Smith, was the last representative of medieval scholasticism in Scotland).

They are not.

The free market is incapable of correcting this flaw. I recently came across a stunning statement about why not. It is in the CBS News documentary "Harvest of Shame," which was broadcast in 1959. I didn't see it then, but earlier this month I borrowed the DVD from my public library.

In it, a Florida farmer named Jones admits that his field hands are paid miserable wages and have to work in miserable conditions. At least, he says, they are guaranteed their miserable wages, while Jones may end up losing money when he brings his tomatoes to market.

This, to free marketeers, is a feature not a bug. Jones says he is not a free actor although he operates in a free market. If he paid decent wages, or if the state of Florida required him to do so, tomato growers in other places would not, and they would undersell him and he would go broke.

Too true.

That is why modern societies, at least those run by grown-ups, make it a point to balance interests and pass onerous regulations.

The free market is unsentimental. If it thought a banker was worth more to it dead than alive, it would have him killed. But the free market is class-conscious. It seldom or never finds bankers worth more dead. Factory hands are another matter.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Book Review 277: The Drive on Moscow 1941

THE DRIVE ON MOSCOW 1941: Operation Taifun and Germany's First Great Crisis in World War II, by Niklas Zetterling and Andres Frankson. 336 pages, illustrated. Casemate, $32.95

The war in Europe was decided before the United States became a combatant. This is a judgment long held by historians, especially those who are not American. Niklas Zetterling and Andres Frankson validate it with their study of the German “final assault” on Moscow that began Oct. 1, 1941.

Zetterling and Frankson, prolific writers on Eastern Front operations, make extensive use of operational documents that have now been available for nearly 20 years. The older conclusions remain persuasive.

The Drive on Moscow 1941” is not revisionist history, even if it will seem so to many American readers.

Zetterling and Frankson are sophisticated strategic analysts, although their writing is rather pedestrian and that conceals somewhat the incisiveness of their report. But they are also narrowly focused in this book.

They set out the strategic situation as it presented itself to the Hitlerians before hot war began in 1939, but they do not consider the “what ifs” of the way things played out.

They do not, for example, consider whether the formations frittered away in North Africa would have changed the outcome of the battles if sent to Russia. This restraint is commendable.

However, it is surprising that they do not even mention the three-week delay in the start of Operation Barbarossa caused by the coup of Serbian monarchists in March. When playing “what if,” this event makes for one of the more plausible alternative histories.

It is unquestionable that Hitler's unscheduled conquest of the Balkans delayed his Russian adventure. After digesting the prisoners of the initial drive, the German army was ready to renew its drive on Moscow on October 1.

The slight breathing space allowed the Red Army while the Germans reduced the Kiev pocket did not prove helpful tactically. In 10 days, the Germans rounded up even more prisoners than they had in the initial drive.

The Russian losses were at least 670,000.

Then it rained. The tired and worn out Germans could not go forward. It was a huge struggle just to get food and munitions to the forward formations.

Zetterling and Frankson, unlike most historians, give full attention to the consequences of the German army's use of horse transport.

In a sense, we can push the determination of the outcome of the European war to Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany unleashed “lightning war” on Poland. The rush of the tanks obscured the fact that the German army moved by rail and, where the tracks ended, horse.

It can be argued that in Russia blitzkrieg was a phantasm. No matter how fast the panzers advanced, the rest of the German army was not going to move faster than Napoleon's Grand Armee had in 1812.

Still, despite that, it is conceivable that the German army could have encircled Moscow in autumn 1941 if it had gotten an earlier start.

What might have happened then is imponderable.

It didn't happen because the autumn rains began just about when they usually did.

Found Sounds 14: Old Hawaiian recordings

RtO didn't find these. Gillian Atkinson at the excellent Document firm in Scotland did. Document has issued a CD of apparently forgotten Edison recordings. Sound samples embedded within the press release, follow link.

" 'Hawaiian Rainbow’ is the latest CD in the Document ASA (American Sound Archives) series featuring previously unissued recordings produced by the Edison Company between the years of 1914-1929. Hawaiian music had been recorded as early as the 1890s but was not especially popular or influential until 1912 when Richard Walton Tully’s Play Bird of Paradise hit the Broadway stage sparking an explosion of interest.  Next came the appearance of Keoki Awai's Royal Hawaiian Quartette at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. In late 1915 Victor began issuing Hawaiian discs on a monthly basis. By 1916 all companies, not least Edison, recorded Hawaiian or pseudo-Hawaiian numbers. An article titled "Hawaiian Music Universally Popular," included in the September 1916 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly, asks, 'Two years ago what did the public know about Hawaiian Music, Ukuleles, Hula Hula Dances? Since then Hawaiian music and American versions of it have taken the United States by storm . . . ' ”

Like most music recorded that early, it seems to have a very quick tempo. Perhaps the musicians were conscious of squeezing all the notes on a short cylinder or disc.

"After Every Party" by the Hilo Serenaders has a vocal by Vernon Dalhart.

Document also is offering a book about Hawaiian guitars that is modestly described as "arguable the most remarkable guitar book ever published."

" 'Palm Trees, Senoritas....And Rocket Ships!' by Mark Makin

" "Palm Trees, Senoritas... and Rocket Ships' is arguably the most remarkable guitar book ever published, it contains the history of National, Valco and Dobro instruments and paraphernalia.

"4 images

"Every illustration of players and instruments was drawn by hand, by the Author, taking over 50 years of research and 10 years to produce. Simply unbelievable, a must have for any guitarist's collection!!! We can’t recommend this enough. Please don’t go to Amazon as the book appears to be 'out of print,' but this is not true."

I have noted before that the Europeans have done a better job of finding and reissuing American recorded music than Americans have. Document was the first publisher I became aware of, but there are others in England and Germany, and probably still more I haven't found.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A comforting familiarity

It's a big disappointment to learn that America, the most innovative country, has not produced an Elvis-impersonating domestic terrorist who signs his threatening letters with his real name.

That would have been so much more interesting than the real domestic terrorists we have.

On the other hand, we have the satisfaction of the familiar in knowing that the FBI believed that we had an Elvis-impersonating terrorist who signed his real name to his letters.

You have to be really gullible to go far in the FBI. But we already knew that.

Once in 75 years

The reality-based economic community has been having great fun with two rightwing Harvard economists (you read that right) who cannot do simple inputs in Excel. Sort of like George Bush not knowing how to buy groceries.

Anyhow, you know they're not going to recant because faith-based economics don't need no steenking spreadsheets. They even went to theNY Times to demonstrate what clucks they are (not their intention but that's how it reads).

If you haven't followed this sordid story story of rightwing idiocy, you don't actually need to. All you need to read is Rogoff and Reinhart's own summation. Here it is:

We have long emphasized the need to use the whole tool kit creatively in the aftermath of a once-in-75-year financial crisis.
Hmmm. And why, one wonders, did the financial system go 75 years without a crisis, when in the previous century it had never gone longer than 7 years?

Could it be New Deal regulations?

Why, yes, it could!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Gun nuts on parade

I have a lot of stuff piled up about gun nuts that I haven't had time -- or the heart -- to post to RtO. But some things won't wait.

While scanning the 'net for pawn shop stuff this morning, I came across this story from Chicago.

The Tribune story is the usual: A trained, legit gun owner -- 2 of them, in this case -- on the alert still failed to protect themselves from other Second Amendment-followers and 1 ended up dead. Hardly worth the pixels it takes to tell, happens every freakin' day.

But the comments are appalling.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The eternal feminine, Maui style

As I was driving in Kahului this afternoon, I saw a fat biker chick in a tiara gunning a red chopper. Didn't pay too much attention till she pulled around to pass me and I saw her vanity plate: BITE-ME.

What happens when you trust the markets

You know all those people who say you cannot do better than allow the market to do as it lists? In particular, that it is impossible to sit down and think about something and then act on your conclusions and have your act turn out better than if you just let the invisible hand take care of it?

Well, balderdash. Here's today's evidence, from Business Insider:

Of course the story was false, though it remained uncorrected for several minutes. Eventually an AP employee tweeted that the company's account had been compromised.
But in that time, the stock market briefly tanked.
The Dow had been up over 100, but it then lost 150 points.

How much is 150 points off the Dow worth?

Tuesday's event was transitory, because it proved easy to show and tell that the market was reacting to a delusion. The market always reacts to delusions, and sometimes those delusions persist for years and years.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Free market funnies

Speaking of skepticism about the spooky goodness of unrestrained markets (see previous  post, "2 ideas at once, head must explode," over at my commercial blog, I have been having a little fun with the free marketeers.

Besides Restating the Obvious, which I do for fun, I get paid to blog at Kamaaina Loan (http://kamaainalona.com/wordpress). This is a totally market-oriented blog, to the extent that content is almost beside the point; the point is SEO (search engine optimization) in order to make Google rank Kamaaina Loan high. It could probably do the job if it was just a melange of random words, as long as the SEO keywords were included.

Nevertheless, I try to make it interesting as well. The most recent posts were  inspired by the curious case of the gold bullion that fell in the night. If you believe the classical liberal economists, it was not supposed to do that.

But that's the price you pay if you adopt an inductive belief system, trying to tell economies what they must do, rather than inquiring of the data to see what they do do.

Anyhow, lots of people had lots of thoughts about gold, most of them contradictory. I mined two posts out of it: "The rout of the gold bugs" (April 15) and "Thoughts from a gold refiner" (April 19). Both, I think, hold up well although they are already a week old, a coon's age in Internet years.

In between there was ". . . and what about diamond investing?" (April 17), which has some good advice for anyone thinking about investing in diamonds. (Shorter advice: don't.)

2 ideas at once, head must explode

Hmmm. As regular readers know, RtO is skeptical of AGW (anthropomorphic climate change) and of the unchallengeable wisdom of the free market. Both at the same time, if you can believe that.

According to this report, though, AGW skeptics are free market devotees, or something.

Lewandowsky and his colleagues’ research also found supporters of right-wing economics tend to reject “other established scientific findings, such as the fact that HIV causes AIDs and that smoking causes lung cancer.” Additionally, researchers found a strong link between climate change deniers and conspiracists in general, such as the 9/11 “truthers” movement and those who believe NASA staged the Apollo 11 moon landing.
And how did Lewandowsky et al acquire their scientifically-valid sampling?

Examining 1,377 visitors to climate change denial blogs . . .
RtO is sorry, but it does not believe that "Stephen Lewandowsky" is really a credentialed scholar at the "Psychology Department" of the "University of Western Australia." RtO does not believe there really is a psychology department at good ol' UWA, and is doubtful there is even a place called "Western Australia" or that it has any people in it.

It's easier to believe that "Psychological Science" is one of those spoof sites that are so common on the Innertubes, like The Onion. It can't be serious.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book Review 276: The Ohlone Way

THE OHLONE WAY: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area, by Malcolm Margolin. 189 pages, illustrated. Heyday paperback, $16.95

The San Francisco Chronicle once selected “The Ohlone Way” as one of the 100 best non-fiction books about the west in the 20th century. It deserved it.

Malcolm Margolin's book is the most persuasive evocation I have read by a modern westerner of how it was to live as a non-western primitive.

In an epilogue written on the 25th anniversary of publication, Margolin sensitively writes about how na├»ve he was going into his project. He also rejects “primitive” as a descriptive for the Ohlone, but we can discount that.

The Indians may have known a great deal about their little world, but it was a little world. Forty or so tribelets, as Margolin calls them, lived a most circumscribed hunting and gathering life.

Each group's home ground amounted to about 10 by 10 miles. They could survive in such a small space because the Central California coast was among the most fecund places on earth. On land, elk, deer, bear and smaller animals. In the water, salmon, otter, abalone and cormorants.

Historians of Egypt often marvel about the deep conservatism of old Egypt, which did not change much in 3,000 years (although, as they usually fail to remark, the conservative Egyptians did invent such things as glass). The Ohlone may have lived in their area, Margolin thinks, as long as 4,500 years, and there is little if any evidence of change, certainly not technological, once they adopted the bow.

4,500 years is not long compared to the hundreds of thousands of years without innovation during the Old Stone Age, but it is remarkable for recent times.

Ironically, the Ohlone area includes Silicon Valley. But the elk and bears are gone and the salmon, otters and abalone nearly so.

I am usually skeptical of admirers of primitives who gush over the balance that primitives maintained with their environment. In every case, the primitives managed their environment as much as their technology allowed; the Ohlones burned over their territory, largely to get seeds to set. Margolin is, as elsewhere, clear-eyed about this.

However, that said, the Americans destroyed most of the renewable wealth of Central California in barely more than two generations. The San Francisco-Monterey area is the poster example of the wickedness of unrestrained capitalism.

(Amusingly, Monterey County today produces little of natural wealth, although the exception, artichokes, is sort of a symbol of capitalist silliness, one of the most expensive cultivated vegetables, and by a long way the least edible.)

There is more irony to be enjoyed. At Carmel Mission, the tour, which I took, speaks in self-satisfied terms of the civilizing influence of the friars on the Ohlones. Margolin, clear-eyed again, calls it was it was, slavery, torture, superstition, cruelty, ignorance and genocide. The irony comes in the place I purchased “The Ohlone Way” – the Carmel Mission gift shop.

As Lenin memorably said, when capitalism is hanged, a capitalist will sell the rope. I doubt, despite the claims of the Franciscans and modern-day Catholics (who run a school at the mission, without, however, any Ohlone students) to pursue an educational course, any of them ever read this excellent book.

The Ohlone are not, however, extinct. Like the otters, a few eluded the white men.

Be afraid, be very afraid

If I were a Republican in Arkansas, I'd be afraid, very afraid.

(In fact, I might be translated to Arkansas, Tricia and I are talking about living part-time on her family's farm in Garland County, but I suppose I can resist becoming a Republican.)

Via Wonkette, links to a leading local Republican. Does this guy sound like he, and his wife, are about to snap and start pulling the trigger? Does to me.

And as we learned in Kaufman, Texas, when a local Republican and his wife come gunning for ya, even taking full advantage of yer Second Amendment rights and going armed all the time won't keep ya from getting shot to death.

Well this is a nice change of pace! For once, a GOP newsletter has made its own news not by printing pictures of watermelon patches on the White House lawn, or calling for beheading Democrats, but by switching it up and calling for people to shoot fellow Republicans! We do get tired of writing the same thing over and over, so thanks, Benton County, Arkansas, GOP newsletter!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

So, how are we doing?

About 45 years ago, when I was trying to learn how economies work, I subscribed to the Journal of Economic History and read each issue through. (I am pretty sure I was the only non-academic who subscribed and also pretty sure that nobody read the whole thing the way I did for about 3 years.)

A lot of the articles were by doctoral or master's candidates trying to construct price series for different places and times. (These familiar "deflators" are used to say what a dollar or a guilder today is worth compared to 100 or 400 years ago.)

What I learned from that is that a) it is challenging to build a series; b) you have to guess at or assume some of your inputs; and c) you end up with a simple number that conceals as much as it reveals.

This is hardly a brilliant insight. Stephen Jay Gould used it to demolish the concept of IQ in "The Mismeasure of Man"; and anyone who looks even briefly at the climate fearmongers' work learns that the so-called temperature series they rely on are largely faked.

Still, people (and I'm lookin' at you, fellow newspapermen) are transfixed by simple numbers the way birds are said to be immobilized by the gaze of a snake.

All this by way on introduction to a read-the-whole-thing op-ed in the Washington Post by Zachary Karabell making the same point about economic series generally. If anything, economic stats are even dicier than climate numbers. Take, for example, the iPhone:

Take trade statistics. These strongly shape our sense of whether the United States is competing effectively in the global economy. The most sensitive of these is the annual trade deficit with China, which has led to considerable animosity and hand-wringing over the past decade and has yawned wider as the U.S. economy has sagged.

Apple, that icon of American innovation, famously does not make its devices in America. It outsources production to factories in southern China, where its largest contractor, Foxconn, has come in for significant international criticism over the way it treats workers. And each time an iPhone is shipped from those factories to the Port of Long Beach, it adds about $200 to the trade deficit between the United States and China.
Or so the official statistics tell us. But are they right?

Surely, they are correct about the $200, which is — give or take — the declared wholesale value of the phone. Surely, that is correctly ascribed to China under the rules of the World Trade Organization, which dictate that a country of origin for a manufactured product is the place where it has undergone its last “major transformation.” But does that mean, as the numbers say, that $200 has simply left American shores to end up in the pockets or vaults of the Chinese? No, it does not.

Trade statistics, compiled in the United States by the Census Bureau, are based on straightforward reporting on customs forms, adhering to standards that have evolved over decades and are now codified by the WTO. But they stem from an earlier era, when something made in country X was, indeed, made in country X.

Today, however, many intricate manufactured goods are made in multiple countries. As companies such as Apple seek the least expensive and most efficient supply chain, various components and parts are made all over, shipped to a factory where they are put together and then sent to their final destinations. Foxconn may run the factories where the iPhone is assembled, and it may operate in China, but only in the world of static trade statistics is China where the iPhone is “made.”

In recent years, various academics and trade groups have attempted to break down the components of an iPhone and an iPad to determine where the money goes. The estimates vary but all indicate that only a fraction of the final price tag goes to China, as little as $10 per device, and those devices retail for more than $500 (before carrier rebates). The rest of the money goes to a web of suppliers based in Germany, Taiwan, Malaysia, Korea and the United States — and above all to Apple, the creator of the idea and provider of the intellectual property that made the devices possible. Almost none of that complexity, however, is visible in trade statistics.

Worse, those numbers make it seem as if China is accruing advantages that it is, in fact, not.

Statistically, of course, these devices do benefit China. Every iPhone sold in the United States adds about $200 to the U.S.-China trade deficit, and each iPad adds $275, at least according to economists who looked at the issue in 2010. That means that Apple sales of the iPhone in the United States add billions of dollars to the trade deficit with China every year. But if the numbers reflected the complexity of the supply chain as well the intellectual property provided by Apple, much of this benefit would evaporate.According to the Asia Development Bank, if the official figures incorporated a more accurate measure of value added, the balance of trade for the iPhone alone would be a paltry $73 million for China instead of billions. Similar studies have been done by the WTO and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

 So the next time some Tea Partier says the debt is unsustainable, ask him how he knows that.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Let's all go to No Lookin' Back, Texas

I see where Incurious George says he's comfortable with his decisions about the war in Iraq.

Of course he's comfortable. He still has all his feet.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Book Review 275: Endgame, 1945

ENDGAME, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II, by David Stafford. 581 pages, illustrated. Little, Brown $26.99

Canadian historian David Stafford fingered a gap in the enormous historiography of World War II – most authors (unless perhaps writing monographs) – stop when the fighting stopped. I don't know a good general history of the transition to peace and the enormous, world-shaking events that occurred in the “peacetime.”

Endgame, 1945” isn't it, either, though not a bad job of retelling a story told many times before.

Stafford gets no further into the postwar than the Potsdam conference.

The most momentous event of the postwar period was not the consolidation of Soviet political power in a buffer zone of satellites that had been conquered by the Red Army. This was important.

More important, in the long run, was the expulsion of the Germans from the east. Stafford covers this, without remarking on its consequences.

When I say he covers it, he reports the beginnings. As the Russians advanced into East Prussia and Poland, raping and plundering and murdering, the Germans who could packed up and ran west.

Not much is said about what replaced them. In fact, in this book, the western allies get all the attention. Europe east of the Elbe is mentioned briefly and seldom.

Yet we now know that the occupation of the Russian army was a passing event. The unmixing of the national groups that had been the source of so much conflict for a thousand years was the permanent change.

In particular, the driving out of the Germans set the stage for the final act of national creation that had began in the revolutions of 1848.

A smaller example was the struggle over the presence of a minority of Italians among the Slavs of Yugoslavia. Stafford has a bit about this, but only because one of the individuals he follows along to personalize his history ended up in the Trieste area, where the struggle was sharp and deadly.

In each case, a more modern linguistic group had lorded it over a mass of politically unsophisticated peasants.

This clearing of the peoples – Stafford calls the expulsion of about 12 million Germans the biggest movement of peoples in so short a period in all history, which is about right – set up a world order in which some 200 states would be created, mostly on linguistic/cultural bases.

This was the big result of the war, although not many people seem to have understood the consequences when the United Nations Organization adopted its charter in San Francisco during this period. Astonishingly, Stafford does not mention this event.

More about the DPs, (displaced persons), who were the human expression of this momentous political rearrangement, would have been welcome. Stafford does a bit along this line, since one of the individuals he follows is Francesca Wilson, an experienced relief worker who joined UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency). Stafford mentions, just briefly, that this was another new thing in the world, an attempt by a conquering army to take care of the people in its path.

Wilson was frustrated by the confusion and mixed directions of the effort, which would have been a profitable path for Stafford to have traced in more detail.

Endgame, 1945” is not a bad book, but it has been written before as well or better by others. It promises to tell the story of how “victors do not suddenly turn their swords into plowshares.” Stafford says, correctly, that peace requires “more than the absence of conflict, and is harder to build than battering cities to rubble.”

He does not do such a good job of telling that story.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Would North Korea start a war?

All the opinionators I have seen are agreed that North Korea is not likely to start a war. Most cite the apparently obvious fact that they could not win it, although that never deterred George W. Bush.

RtO has no way of assessing what the Norkoms want to do or might do. It does, however, know how similarly situated states behaved in the past 100 years. They often went to war.

Most of the war deaths of the 20th century came in fights initiated by states that had no reasonable prospect of winning. Although, as it happened, often enough they won anyway. It depends largely upon whether you have big, firm friends.

World War I began because Conrad, the chief of the Austro-Hungarian general staff, believed his army could handle Serbia (true) and its big friend Russia (false). For reasons that are hard to justify, German generals are highly thought of by most military historians.

Conrad's polyglot and disaffected conscript army did not much want to fight anyone, and some of the ones who did want to fight wanted to fight the Austrian Germans. Others were opposed to fighting fellow Slavs. Similar problems faced Saddam Hussein, but they did not prevent him from starting two wars either.

Conrad's officers, promoted on the basis of birth, religion or nationality, were, as one would expect, unimpressive. Again, like Hussein's.

On the other hand, in 1915, when it was apparent how bad the Austro-Hungarian army was, the Italians switched sides to fight the Germans. Although the Italians had been bested by even the Ethiopians at Adowa, and had had indifferent success against even the Arabs in Tripoli, they thought themselves superior. In about 20 murderous "battles of the Isonzo," neither side had any success.

Memories of Italian fecklessness failed to deter Italy from starting wars with France, Greece and Britain, against all of whom it failed in 1939-40.

Remarkably, in 1939 the German army was nervous about taking on the Poles despite an advantage of around 10 to 1. The easy victory then went to their heads, and they went off to war against the USSR not expecting even to have to fight.

They had the advantage of watching the Red Army struggle weakly against the Finns, but they should have paid more attention to the Red Army's annihilation of the Japanese Kwantung army at Nomonhan. The Germans were so confident the Russians would collapse without a fight they didn't bother to order clothing for a winter campaign. Evidently they, like George Bush, imagined an occupation would take care of itself.

Skipping over a variety of conflicts, the Vietnamese rose against the French despite few resources. This is not exactly an example of a lesser power going to war against a greater; it is more like one of history's many examples of desperate risings against an oppressor. Later, however, once they had a state, the North Vietnamese dared to take on the Americans. And they beat them, one example of an underdog winning through.

Going back to the Norkoms, in 1950 they had every rason to think they could conquer the South Koreans, who didn't even have an army. They apparently thought they could occupy the peninsula before the Americans could react, and they were almost right. But not quite.

It is hard to figure what lesson he Norkoms carried away from the 1950-53 war. My sense is that whatever hardheaded lessons were learned have been lost with the deaths of the men who learned them. As far as I can tell, 60 years of indoctrination about the victory of 1950 probably has produced a military high command that believes it to be a fact that the Koreans defeated the Americans.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Spook watch

I do not believe in any kinds of spooks. No guardian angels, no demons, no poltergeists. None of those silly superstitions.

Generally, though, I consider other people's belief in spooks to be relatively harmless, or, at least, harmful only to them and perhaps their family and friends, so who cares? However, people in positions of power and influence who believe in spooks can be very dangerous.

That's why Rev. Pat Robertson is such a threat.

Even though I'm retired from the news business, I still get press releases. Here is a scary one:

As Israel and Iran escalate their mutual threats and provocations, nuclear war is a realistic outcome, according to the newly released book by Japan's most prolific author, Ryuho Okawa.
In "The Iran-Israel Crisis: Looking For A Way to Prevent a Nuclear War" (IRH Press) Master Okawa exposes the bitter animosity between these two adversaries, but also provides hope. This book offers telling evidence "to people of all religious persuasions, cultures, and nationalities" that the world needs deeper spiritual truths to obtain answers to long-standing clashes between religions. I would be happy to provide you with a copy of Ryuho Okawa's, The Iran-Israel Crisis: Looking For a Way to Prevent a Nuclear War for review.

This most recent release from Okawa features interviews Master Okawa conducted with the guardian spirits of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel. These spiritual messages warn of more war in the Middle East and beyond, the sharp differences in their views of the United States and Japan, and the millennia-old roots of this dangerous animosity.
As the most published author in Japan with over 1000 books, Okawa has also produced over 150 spiritual messages from historians and the guardian spirits of today's living figures. He founded Happy Science in Japan in 1986, a spiritual movement with more than 12 million followers in 75 countries (10 centers in US).

Mysteries of the mail

I am waiting for a computer I bought, which was shipped from Downey, Calif. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I can see where it's been since. It was a surprise:

Depart USPS Sort Facility
April 08, 2013
Signature Confirmation
Processed through USPS Sort Facility
April 07, 2013, 10:20 pm
Depart USPS Sort Facility
April 06, 2013
Processed through USPS Sort Facility
April 06, 2013, 4:48 am
Depart USPS Sort Facility
April 05, 2013
Processed at USPS Origin Sort Facility
April 04, 2013, 5:47 pm
Accepted at USPS Origin Sort Facility
April 04, 2013, 4:32 pm
DOWNEY, CA 90241 

Depart USPS Sort Facility
April 08, 2013
Signature Confirmation
Processed through USPS Sort Facility
April 07, 2013, 10:20 pm
Depart USPS Sort Facility
April 06, 2013
Processed through USPS Sort Facility
April 06, 2013, 4:48 am
Depart USPS Sort Facility
April 05, 2013
Processed at USPS Origin Sort Facility
April 04, 2013, 5:47 pm
Accepted at USPS Origin Sort Facility
April 04, 2013, 4:32 pm
DOWNEY, CA 90241 

Accepted at USPS Origin Sort Facility     April 04, 2013 4:32 p.m. Downey, Calif. 90241
Processed at USPS Origin Sort Facility    April 04, 2013  5:27 p.m. Los Angeles, Calif. 90052
Depart USPS Sort Facility                       April 05, 2013                  Los Angeles, Calif. 90052
Processed through USPS Sort Facility     April 06, 2013  4:48 a.m.  West Palm Beach, Fl. 33416
Depart USPS Sort Facility                      April 06,2013                    West Palm Beach, Fl. 33416
Processed through USPS Sort Facility    April 07, 2013  10:20 p.m. Honolulu, Hi. 96820
Depart USPS Sort Facility                     April 08, 2013                    Honolulu, Hi. 96820

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Bad example

I am back from a week in Monterey, a place I had not visited before. It is the richest, whitest town I have been in for a long time. To be precise, since spending a few weeks in Essex, Connecticut, in 1985.

It is also very clean and neat. Even the bums are well-clothed and have salon haircuts.

Monterey is also the poster child for the wickedness and stupidity of free market capitalism. When the Americans, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese got there, starting around 1840, they found inexhaustible riches of otters, whales, salmon, sardines, abalone, deer and elk.

In the free-for-all, they quickly exhausted them.

This orgy of destruction would be mostly forgotten had John Steinbeck not written “Cannery Row,” a book so simple and short that even a capitalist ought to be able to understand it. They didn't, though.

Ed Ricketts, the real-life Doc of the novel, and other biologists warned the sardine packers that they were going to kill the fishery. The capitalists scoffed. The proletarians, too, for the most part, although they were not in a position to have their opinions counted.

It wasn't as if Ricketts was predicting something that had never happened before. It had happened, just about 20 years earlier, not far away in the San Juan Straits and for exactly the same cause – overfishing for canning killed the salmon fishery forever.

In the last great year of the salmon fishery, the capitalists didn't bother even to pack most of the salmon. There was thought to be an insufficient market, so the fish were caught and dumped.

The canners of sardines added a new stupidity. In their greed, they concluded that if they could eliminate labor costs, they could make even bigger profits.

Let's stop a moment and consider this labor. It was not well-paid, and since the canneries worked only half the year, was either idle or thrown upon other resources half the time. No worker did well out of sardines, but since unrestrained finance capitalism had wrecked the economy, they were desperate for anything.

It is often claimed that market forces allocate resources better than any other method ever tried. Monterey proves this to be nonsense.

The greatest utility value, to humans, of the Pacific sardine was as a food fish. It was cheap protein, as little as 10 cents a case before World War I. The early canners boiled the innards, heads and trash to a slurry, which was dried, sacked and sold for fertilizer.

This was sensible.

However, technical advances made it possible to easily harvest and convert whole – good to eat for people – sardines into fertilizer. Since that avoided all that cannery labor, the profits to the packers were higher, even though the unit price they sold at was lower.

Government regulators sought to sustain the wealth of the fishery by imposing catch seasons. The capitalists responded by innovating; they designed factory fertilizer ships that operated in international waters. In one year, they destroyed the fishery.
It never came back. While on Cannery Row, I ate two sardines for lunch. They cost me nearly $10 a piece.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Always fasten your seatbelt

I've been on vacation in Monterey, an odd place about which RtO will have something to say when I get a moment.

Meanwhile, this story is just weird. Read the whole thing, it gets weirder and weirder.