20220625_The Week in Review

Oh Lord, the pile is so deep, and my shovel is so small.

It’s been, shall we say, an eventful couple of weeks.  Where do I begin?

How about our favorite national obsession? Guns.

Bret Cavanaugh had an unexpected visitor. He came all the way from California, intent on curtailing the Justice’s tenure on the homeland’s highest court.  Fortunately, he did not succeed.  I say ‘fortunately’ only in the sense that no person’s life should be at risk of wanton violence. Not a subway rider. Not a supreme court justice whose vote this week will put more lives at risk. 

The immediate response was a demand for heightened security for justices.  I support that.  But I would like to set an appropriate standard.  I would like to see the Supremes get the same level of security accorded to…election poll workers and officials, nurses and doctors, school teachers, 1st graders, store clerks, public health officials. It would be instructive for them to walk among the ‘common folk’ and experience life in the raw, where every day is a new and exciting adventure.  Yes.  I support equal justice and security…FOR ALL.

Of course, the Supremes’ recent ruling on guns has made personal security so much easier and personal. Now they’ll be able to carry their own heat, even in D.C.  They may need a wardrobe modification to their judicial robes for easy access to the side arm.  Heck, those robes are ample enough, they could probably sneak an AR-15 in there with an amo belt for extra clips and no one would be the wiser.  Of course, Amy, being of more modest proportions, might have to settle for an Uzi, but it could still work.  Clarence could add a bullet proof vest and no one would know the difference.  And, self-security, the virtue promoted so ardently by the NRA, would be a fiscal savings for the taxpayer, also a conservative virtue. And if Sam Alito’s aim isn’t quite as good as his finely tuned regressive legal intellect, well…the Federalist Society has a long list of replacements.  Not to worry. Life and The Agenda will go on.  Because, in America, life is precious.  Just not that precious. Yes, let the Supremes walk among us, and see how their legal handicrafts play out in that free-fire zone we call the real world.

Then there’s the abortion issue.  Well, the shoe has finally dropped, to no one’s surprise except Susan Collins.  I think the bestowers of awards for professional theatrical performance have overlooked a serious thespian talent.  Yellow 45 should understudy her.  All but a third of the country knows when he’s lying, and the third apparently doesn’t care.  But the whole country, and certainly the state of Maine, seems to be in a quandary as to whether she’s that clueless, or that craven.  I give her the benefit of the doubt.  She’s that craven.  But she’s just a side note to the drama, a mere comical digression.

The bigger concern is why the issue of abortion seems to have so few men standing with the women in their lives, not merely on the matter of reproductive rights but women’s’ health more broadly.  After all, every pregnancy has a man involved in some fashion.  To ignore our responsibility for consequence is not a measure of our male privilege, but our lack of male responsibility. And every man who doesn’t have a female partner should be just as concerned about access to health services in all their forms, because the medical/finanical industrial complex is gender agnostic when it comes to discriminating in its rationing of care to protect the bottom line.  

Part of the problem lies with the “abortion rights” movement.  Women’s health is bigger than abortion alone.  But by couching the broader issue as abortion rights primarily, the Movement has attached a lightning rod to an issue that is far more important and defensible and promotable in its broader dimensions, and that political partisans with no regard for human life have now used to devastating effect.  When you couch the issue in terms of personal privacy, that is as much an issue for men as for women.  I will never have an abortion, but I can easily imagine that at some point in my later life, I might wish to go quietly into the Big Sleep at a time and in a manner of my choosing, rather than as a slow agonizing death march for me and my family, as I have witnessed of four women in my family, or according to the dictates of the Catholic caliphate.  I don’t tell Catholics how to pray. Don’t tell me when and how you will allow me to die. 

The abortion rights movement had fifty years to perfect a more defensible legal grounding. They were complacent, very much like Hillary failing to grasp the importance of electoral votes. The only way to protect abortion rights from the court they rightly feared is in bullet-proof legislation that can withstand the creative assaults of the Originalists. But that takes a Congress responsive to the public will, and not to the loudest minority or the deepest pockets. And that cannot be resolved in one election. A price has now been paid. It is a costly tuition in political education for the 2024 election, because 2022 is largely out of reach.  You need more than an issue. You need credible candidates. And you can’t conjure those overnight.

So, the political Regressives who fly under the false flag of conservatives must be doing a happy dance this weekend, and pulling out the plans for the ground wars to follow at the state capitols. The battle for personal rights and dignity of life is not over. But it needs the involvement of the broader public who may not agree with each other on every aspect, but must surely not want to see the draconian measures that some aspiring autocrats are priming to implement “in the name of freedom”.  Tyranny is like inflation; your recession may be the other person’s depression, until their depression becomes your depression.  Baby steps.

Speaking of tyranny reminds me of this week’s January 6 hearings. What really amazed me on further thought was that, in all of Trump’s machinations to overturn the election and the government, he overlooked the most obvious resource: Mitch McConnell. If he had played nice with Mitch, I’m sure that Mitch could have contrived some diabolical scheme that would make truncating Obama’s presidential authority to pick a supreme court justice look like an internship for the tyranny that McConnell represents as much as Trump.

Representative Kinzinger stated the obvious regarding the risk of violence in 2024. The Supreme Court’s gun ruling should make that so much easier. I wonder if two years is enough time for our domestic security folks to wrap their heads around that.

It’s a fair question, because our foreign and military intelligence folks are just beginning to acknowledge that maybe they weren’t quite up to snuff on Ukraine.  And they’d still rather not talk about Afghanistan.  And then the State Department acknowledged this week that perhaps they should be paying more attention to the South Pacific where China has been making inroads recently.  Not like they could have seen that coming with China’s rapid island building progress heading in that direction over the past ten years.   Some free advice with the benefit of hindsight from last week’s underwhelming US success in San Diego at the Conference on the Americas:  start worrying about Latin America. It’s in our back yard, it’s a contributor to our immigration problem, and that problem will only grow if the region is unattended in a constructive manner.

A hat-tip to Ukraine for the modest accomplishment of being officially considered for membership in the EU clubhouse, if they behave. Someday. Maybe. I don’t know how much EU membership is worth to Ukraine if it isn’t accompanied by NATO membership to secure the investment in rebuilding against the next wave of Russian ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, the Russian meat-grinder grinds on, while Macron worries about Vlad’s self-esteem. And Kissinger soils the end of his illustrious, or is that illusory, career by becoming an enabler of a mass murderer. Ukraine remains an irremovable bloodstain on the moral fabric of The West. Time is running out, and the consequences for the world will be more costly than we imagine. (Hint to NATO: it will cost far more to defend the Baltics and Poland after Ukraine’s defeat then it will to defend Ukraine against defeat now.)

Can’t wait for next week.

Onward

20220625

© Copyright 2022 All rights reserved.

Memorial Day – What are we remembering?

Memorial Day – A day to remember the fallen and their sacrifice for our liberties.

In my hometown, we remember the generations of citizens who served and gave their lives for the liberties that we enjoy today, such as they remain.

I say ‘such as they remain’ because they have diminished with time and events that have curtailed them, particularly over the past fifty-plus years of my observation.  What progress was made during those 50 years is being steadily eroded.

For many, the day is a day off to indulge in family gatherings, the unofficial first day of summer, and retail sales in need of another justification to consume above and beyond need.

For those who take a moment to contemplate those who died or were wounded in our defense, I would suggest that it is also important to take a moment or two to contemplate what they sacrificed for: to “provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”1 “with Liberty and Justice for all”.

I suggest this because it appears that not enough of us have engaged in either part of the remembrance, and the results are observable.  We have all observed and lamented the physical decline of our society over recent decades.  Most notably, our infrastructure, our cities, our environment, the quality of goods and services provided by government and the private sector; physical things that we can see and touch.

Less obvious, but more important, is the degradation of our societal infrastructure, our social and ethical values, legal and moral principles that create the glue that binds us together in a cohesive whole that can accomplish results for all of us that none of us can accomplish alone.  That is the logic of a nation.

But we have been coming apart for some time now, and it is easy to feel that there is little that holds us together.  Commercial marketing culture has overridden the average citizen’s grounding in civic principles. It tells us that ‘we can have it all’, and ‘sometimes ya gotta break the rules’.  Both offered in jest as marketing hooks, but over time with the pedantic repetition that is ‘marketing communication’, they seep deep into the crevices of the cerebrum, until they permeate down to the medulla oblongata, and take their place with our other primal instincts, where the ‘rule of law’ is supplanted by the ‘rule of self’. 

Not all who die are dying for their country. Too many are dying for living in their country under circumstances that should be unacceptable, but are too widely tolerated by an indifferent citizenry.  It should be our shame, but it seems we have moved beyond that to apathy. It is time for us to recalibrate our values, and find the ones to which we can all commit to build a society worthy of our founding principles.       

Memorial Day is a good time for us as individuals to reexamine our place in the world and ask ourselves what kind of nation we want, and what we are prepared to sacrifice for it.  For the greatest battle to come may not be one beyond our borders, but the one within.  We must prevent that.

Onward

20220530

  1. Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America
  2. Pledge of Allegiance

© Copyright 2022  All rights reserved

Ukraine and Strategic Clarity

It’s time for the West to stop being a spectator to the Apocalypse, with Ukraine serving as Scene 1 in the made-for-tv serial.  It’s time to realize that, sooner or later, we will all be called upon to pay the price for freedom, and in currency other than howitzers and drones.  Strategic ambiguity, that well-worn strategy of preference in statecraft, has had its day, and we are witnessing the results on two fronts.  Perhaps it is time for strategic clarity.

Now, I’m just a humble accountant.  Not a military strategist. Not a diplomat. So I’m looking at the situation in Ukraine from a management perspective, without the benefit of satellite intelligence, reams of history of revolving social and cultural grievances, international law (which doesn’t appear to be operational at the moment).  So, I hope the experts at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom and in Brussels will forgive me for my rank amateurism and lack of comprehension of all the complexities that they struggle with.  But let’s give rank amateurism a chance.

The United States cannot act unilaterally in the matter of the sacking of Ukraine.  It’s not our continent. We can’t do anything without the agreement of our European allies.  But similarly, our European allies can’t do very much without our clear commitment to stand with them in facing a threat they will have to confront sooner or later, if not tomorrow.  And so will we, by treaty.

Ukraine may not be the war we want to fight. This may not be the time we want to fight it.  And we may not be as prepared as we could be or should be to do it.  But crises and fortune rarely come on our schedule. In the case of Ukraine, we must act now, for our own good as well as others.

So, what would Sid do if he were president? (No, I’m not running in 2024. Somebody has to stay on the sidelines to watch the circus!)

  1. Accelerate the  surge of equipment and forces into front line allied states to make clear that we’re coming to the fight, and be prepared to do so.
  2. Reinforce that effort with the call-up of reserves to prepare for deployment.
  3. Prepare the following communique to Putin, to be delivered in Russia, Belarus and the embassies in Washington.

*  *   *

To President Putin:

This memorandum is to communicate the views of the United States regarding actions that you have taken in Ukraine in recent months, and to advise you of actions we are preparing to take in response in support of Ukraine and our allies. We have listened to your various pronouncements on the conflict in Ukraine and believe a clear response is in order.

First in the matter of use of nuclear weapons.  As a professional intelligence officer, you are aware that we also have nuclear weapons, and we have used them previously. Our arsenal is not a historical artifact, but our own experience convinces us that in today’s environment, a nuclear war is an event that neither side can win and both sides will suffer beyond benefit.  Therefore, we strongly recommend that you remove the use of nuclear weapons from your list of options, and your rhetoric.  If you choose to use them at any level, be assured that you will receive a decisive response.

You have initiated your barbaric assault on a peaceful nation with the contrived justification of enhancing Russia’s security from external threats.  At this point, your effort has seriously depleted your military and your economy, and your actions have created threats beyond your imaginings and contrary to your professed objectives. This will continue and get progressively worse to the extent that you continue your aggression. 

We are offering you two choices.  We believe that one is much better than the other.

  1. Commence an orderly withdrawal from Ukraine.
  2. Face an alliance to assist Ukraine in removing Russian forces and its collaborators from Ukrainian territory. 

The following is the process we propose for Option 1:

  1. As of 2022-mm-dd, Russia and its collaborating forces will initiate a total cease fire throughout the theater of operations within 48 hours.  Ukraine will hold fire unless fired upon during this period, and will only respond to attacks in self defense.
  2. At the conclusion of 48 hours, if the Russian alliance has implemented the cease fire on its side, it will begin withdrawal of all forces from Ukraine’s territorial borders as they existed before Russia’s incursion of 2014. They will be assured safe transit back to their countries of origin.
  3. As of 2022-mm-dd, the Alliance for Ukraine (AFU) will begin moving air defense systems and personnel into key locations, and will enforce control of Ukraine’s air space.
  4. If the Russian alliance fails to implement its side of the cease fire as prescribed above, at the conclusion of the 48 hour period, the Alliance for Ukraine will support Ukraine in the neutralization of all aggressor forces within Ukraine’s borders.
  5. It is not the intention of the Alliance for Ukraine to invade Russia or its allies with the purpose of seizing territory.  However, if the Russian alliance initiates hostile actions from its territories or international space into Ukraine, or against AFU forces beyond Ukraine, we will take decisive action in self-defense to terminate such actions at their source.
  6. Any acts of provocation or hostility by Russian allied forces against AFU forces anywhere in the world shall be considered an act of aggression and met with swift response. 
  7. If you choose to continue your assault on Ukraine, you should expect that the AFU may take similar actions against supply lines and supporting infrastructure within Russia and Belarus as you have taken against Ukraine.  You should prepare your citizens accordingly for the consequences of your actions, and we will attempt to communicate the same to them by all available means for their protection.  Unlike your own assault, any action against your national territory will be for strategic military purposes and will seek to minimize harm to civilians.
  8. We recommend the implementation of a hotline that will assure ongoing communication during the offered period of disengagement outlined in Steps 1 through 3 above so that our intentions are mutually understood and any unintended conflicts are resolved in an orderly manner.
  9. At the conclusion of hostilities, any legitimate concerns of the parties regarding future security arrangements can be subject to negotiation.

Our purpose is not to increase bloodshed but to end it.  However, we are mindful of your expressed intention to extend your reach beyond Ukraine.  Our intention is to communicate to you that this is not an option.

In summary, you have two options:

  1. A strategic retreat
  2. A strategic defeat

We recommend option 1 for the benefit of your nation.  The choice is yours.

* * *


4. At the appointed hour for initiating the cease-fire, begin moving Patriot batteries and other anti-aircraft assets into Lviv and then Kiev and Odessa.

5. Move air units forward to begin operations over Ukraine along with the Ukrainian air assets, neutralizing hostile allied Russian air defenses where necessary, to facilitate accelerated debilitation of aggressor ground forces, and greater logistical and tactical mobility of allied forces.

6. If Putin does not implement the cease fire by the prescribed deadline, begin air operations against Russian ground forces and neutralize any airborne weapons, air defenses, logistics and supply depots, and concentrations of artillery within Ukraine.

7. Make a priority of quickly smashing the siege of Mariupol (assuming there is still a Mariupol), both strategically and symbolically to drive home that the move west to Odessa will not happen. Send in elite allied units to augment Ukrainian forces in breaking the siege and holding back any surge of Russian forces from the east.

8. Insert AFU ground forces with Ukrainian forces to provide a shield north of Kiev and free Ukrainian forces to engage Russian forces in the east.

9. Insert special operations units and other specialists that Ukrainians need to flesh out their skill sets in facing Russian capabilities, and operate weapon systems to which Ukraine cannot quickly train.  Truly equalize the fight.

10. Put AFU trainers in-country to speed the training of Ukrainians to pick up the war.

11. Send in combat engineers to augment Ukrainians in areas of ordinance clearance and  infrastructure reconstruction.

* * *

The United States created an AirLand Battle doctrine in the eighties to deal with circumstances very much like Ukraine faces in the east and south.  We developed weapons platforms specific to the strategy, and we still have them; the A-10 Thunderbolt tank killer and the Apache attack helicopter to name two.  We saw the strategy and its weapon systems as critical to neutralize the brute force strategy that Russia was likely to present.  To suggest that Ukraine can win this war without such resources and skill sets and without horrendous loss in innocent life can only be regarded as craven indifference by our ‘professional’ governing elite.

This all looks so straightforward on paper.  But war is never straightforward.  There will be blood. There will be costs. But there will be blood and costs in any case. If these steps are taken, it seems reasonable that we can capitalize on Russian military management weakness and end the human horror long before economic sanctions will debilitate Putin’ monstrous military machine.

Some may read my proposal and dismiss it as bellicose saber-rattling, and an irresponsible disregard for the risks of nuclear annihilation. To the contrary, I believe that our professed fears of confronting Russia openly and directly do more to encourage Putin’s stretch for power than to lay our cards on the table at this time, and demonstrably prepare to meet the challenge.  If Putin truly believes that he must win this war, as some experts propose, then sooner or later, he will play his final ace.  If Zelensky can sustain a war of attrition with our material support alone, and inflict enough damage in the process that even Putin realizes end-game is near by current means, then logic suggests that he will use what he has to change the game, and invoke his ‘scale up to scale down’ strategy. 

Putin has expressed what he considers an inevitability.  Based on his history, we must take him at his word.  Then we must ask ourselves if it is the world we want, and what price are we willing to pay to prevent it.

My fear is not of Putin.  He is a bully, and bullies are generally cowards when they’re confronted with a credible threat.  Our European allies face that threat and understand it more viscerally than we can because they lived its reality eighty years ago. But they lack the means to address it alone because of their complacency in recent decades.

The U.S. has the means, but is understandably reluctant to launch another military venture in the shadow of recent failed endeavors.  The question is, have our leaders learned anything from those past failures?  My concern is that they have not.  But the moment requires a clarity of purpose that is not beyond our capabilities.

My fear is that our nation, which pontificates about principles and rule-of-law and freedom, will fail to respond to the moment until it is too late, as it has too often.

I hope that I am wrong.

Onward.

20220513

Ukraine, Nukes and Death by Strategic Ambiguity

Profiles in Cowardice

Moral Capital

© Copyright 2022  All rights reserved.

Moral Capital

If you missed the 2nd World War, you’re in time for the 3rd World War. It’s evolving like all those Hollywood sequels. Unlike Star Wars, there are new characters and set props, but the themes and plots are disturbingly familiar. You can break for popcorn and bio-breaks at any point in time, with comfort that you can pretty well pick up the plot line if you followed WWII history.  But first, a meditation on the subject of moral capital.

Moral Capital.  The two words together sound almost oxymoronic, particularly in this moment. Capital, as we tend to think of it in the economic sense, too rarely has moral foundations in its purpose, process or results. Morality tends to be an uncomfortable bedfellow with capitalism.  Yet there can be and should be a connection.  And when there isn’t, there are often unpleasant consequences.

In business, the closest equivalent to moral capital is the concept of goodwill.  It is a value attributed to an entity based on its past performance and the expectations of future performance based on its history.  It is the value attributed to the entity over and above the value attributed to its other identifiable assets.  It is intangible, but it is nonetheless real. It is based on an inference that the entity’s superior performance, when that exists, results from intangibles of culture and values that somehow command added respect, loyalty and, most important, premium in the marketplace.

A similar concept applies to government and not-for-profit entities, and that is moral capital: the sense that the entity commands high respect for its objectives, the leadership that achieves and sustains them, and their efficacy in improving the well-being of their stakeholders, constituents, whatever for whoever.

The United States emerged from World War II with considerable moral capital.  It was the ‘Last Man Standing’, so to speak.  It was the most powerful.  It fought ‘The Good Fight’ and achieved a moral victory over a clearly discernible evil.  That it came to the fight reticently and was forced into it by events is generally not emphasized. 

We are a land of opportunity, of self-promoters.  The term hucksters is often appropriate, as in the case of Yellow 45.  It is not a mere coincidence that the nation is book-ended between two pillars of fantasy: Madison Avenue in the east; Hollywood in the west.  They manufacture dreams and illusions that inspire us to believe in our ‘exceptionalism’, and distract us from our all too human flaws.  In our sense of exceptionalism we believ(ed) that we can do anything, and be anything, and therefore have the god given right to lead, if not rule, the world.  At the end of World War II, the world accepted that because, frankly, they had no choice.  We had all the marbles.

To our credit, we ran the world with an uncommon degree of benevolence in the immediate aftermath of WWII while confronting an evolving menace in Communism that threatened to be as bad or worse than the menace we defeated.  But we never really understood the world we ‘inherited’.  We assumed our position with a mixture of arrogance and naivete. If consistency is a virtue, we have managed to sustain both postures for seventy years.

But ‘moral capital’ is a strange commodity.  Its value is in the eyes of the beholder.  Putin would argue that he too has ‘moral capital’, though of a very different kind.  And much of the world appears to accept it, if not embrace it.  Putin’s capital is that might makes right, and it is not radically different from our exercise of our moral authority, though not the way we portray it. We wrap our moral authority in the shroud of the Constitution, an incredible document that we still struggle to live up to.  Word has it that Putin is wrapping his iron fist in the well worn shroud of religion, to bring a certain divinity to his brutal quest for power.  That has far more precedent than our constitution, but has often worked, until it doesn’t.

And then there’s the rest of the world which stands by, placing bets on the winner.

President Biden insists that ‘America’s back’ to lead the free world in defense of freedom.  But the ‘free world’ isn’t a majority of the world by any measure.  And in the roll-call vote for sides in the contest for Ukraine, the bulk of the world’s population led by autocrats of varying degrees of severity, seem to be inclined toward Putin, either as a matter of affinity or a matter of necessity.  That The West has garnered the majority of member votes in the UN is more symbolic than substantive.  And even within NATO, there is the sense that unity is not as strong as Biden strives to advertise, and may not be as durable as the conflict requires.

Moral capital and goodwill are not magically conferred by a benevolent god or constituency.  They generally must be earned by some measure of sacrifice over the long term.  But they can evaporate surprisingly quickly.  It has been a long time since ‘The West’ has had to sacrifice to sustain its moral capital. And so the alliance comes to this contest with Putin at something of a deficit in the world arena, and for good reason.  That is not to say that Putin is the better alternative by any means.  It is to say that The West has failed to sustain a credible case for its moral, ethical and managerial superiority.  Putin on the other hand has sustained a credible record for his unfettered use of force, covert and overt, to shape the world to his liking.  The bystanders have taken note.

We have not improved matters in the past few months leading up to the sacking of Ukraine or its occurrence.  Indeed we have given Putin every reason to believe that he can achieve his immediate goals, despite their heavy cost in lives and national wealth, and continue to pursue his grander version unfettered by any serious opposition. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine is serving as a speedbump to Putin while we look for an easy way out at its expense.  Recently, Bad Boy Boris Johnson has allowed that Russia may yet win a war that may not end until the end of next year.  I’m sure that was music to Zelensky’s ears, like a funeral dirge.  So much for his hospitality to Johnson’s visit, which served Johnson more than him.  And Biden didn’t help matters by asserting that Putin will never be able to occupy ‘all of Ukraine’.  That leaves unanswered the inference of how much of Ukraine Putin will be able to occupy, until he decides to take the rest of it.

We in the U.S. pride ourselves on our benevolence of flooding $4 billion of weaponry into Ukraine as if this is a major accomplishment. We sent a couple of hundred thousand soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, and blew a trillion greenbacks on less capable and committed clients for twenty years, and for our own selfish purposes. 

Worse, we dragged our NATO allies into it, largely on false pretenses. It is understandable that many of those same allies hesitate to join a unified command with the same principal while calculating their own self-interest, both economic and security. 

But there is an inescapable truth.  Putin’s world does not represent a desirable standard for the future of mankind, nor does Xi’s.  The conditions of their own nations stand as Exhibits A and B.  And, to the extent that we have devotees of theirs in our own country such as Tucker Carlson and Yellow 45 attracting as many useful idiots as they do, the integrity of our own moral capital is very much in doubt in the eyes of the world. 

So, getting back to World War III, let’s imagine the road to the front lines.

  1. We will commit enough resources to Ukraine to allow them to continue the fight, but not enough to win decisively and curtail the loss of human life, and the destruction of their national infrastructure.
  2. The West will continue to pray that economic sanctions will buckle Russia before it is necessary to send troops to assist Ukraine.
  3. But the Russian people are far more conditioned to suffering than the NATO alliance and the odds are that Putin can keep them under thumb longer than the West will be willing to sustain tight sanctions in a protracted war between Ukraine and Russia. 
  4. The longer the war lasts, and particularly if Russia continues to pulverize Ukraine relatively unimpeded, the more the bystanders will be inclined to abstain from sanctions or bypass them to accommodate who they perceive to be the likely winner.
  5. In the long run, Bad Boy Boris may be right.  The Russians will win because the West lacked the moral capital to take the risks and pay the price of confronting a menace that must be destroyed to be stopped.
  6. Once Putin consolidates his gains in Ukraine, whatever they may be, he will move on, and maybe beforehand with a well-practiced playbook.  Even partial success in Ukraine may unnerve the Baltics enough that even a covert action will be enough to undermine them.  At that point, Putin will not have to fire as many shots to bend Europe to his will.  He will merely have to apply the same mental judo to Europe that he seems to have applied effectively to certain segments of the US leadership, both those that embrace him and those that fear him.
  7. China, having watched The Putin Show, determines that Taiwan isn’t off the table, and increases its threats with the benefit of the Putin Playbook as a credible advertisement of coming attractions.  It also helps Putin further his goals in Europe and recover his economy, no longer afraid of Western sanctions that it has gradually prepared to mitigate.
  8. Meanwhile, the bystanders:  India, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries of significance that have long resentments of colonial rule and dominance by Western powers, evolve their own international mechanisms of trade and interdependency to decouple from “Western Dominance”, and/or become more aligned with the ‘apparent dominant power’.   
  9. At some point, even our more durable allies, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Great Britain, begin to question our reliability, more than they already are.

This is admittedly a dark view of prospects, but not inconceivable.  Somewhere around Number 6, I believe that the US and key NATO members will discover their backbone and accept the reality that they’re going to have to get their hands dirty, and get in the trenches and fly with the Ukrainians in their own self interest.

The U.S. has allowed its considerable moral capital to erode through arrogance and complacency.  It has demonstrated repeatedly that it cannot use its considerable power to effect, because it thinks tactically in its own myopic self interest and not strategically.  It doesn’t matter that you have a global footprint if you lack global understanding.  And without global understanding, you cannot earn global respect, whether it be by fear or admiration.

The United States’ current policy toward Ukraine of providing weapons but not confronting Russia directly is either moral cowardice or a cynical, self-serving strategy to buy Western security at the unreasonable expense of Ukraine life.  We cannot ‘lead the West’ and ‘save democracy’ with weapon sales and transfers alone.  Ukraine will likely pay more in blood than the value of those weapons. We should not resign ourselves to standing by as spectators and contributors to a long war.  We should engage it to make it a short one.

We can debate whether Putin is a bully or a madman, but either gets us to the same approximate place. He will continue his enterprise at all costs because past performance has convinced him that he will win. And we have done little over decades to dissuade him.  The only thing that will stop him will be a forceful response so powerful that it shatters his delusions, or frightens his enablers more than he does. 

Nuclear war? It may happen, though none of us should wish it. It did once before. But confronting Putin quickly with strength and resolve before Ukraine has been depleted by attrition may be the better bet for avoiding it than publicly cowering in the shadow of his stockpile.

In the end, moral capital without power is a good intention.  Power can be its own moral capital, with or without good intentions.  Not the way it should be.  What it is.

The United States, the self-anointed leader of the “free world”, must rediscover its moral center, and put its human capital at risk in defense its professed ideals. Short form:  Walk the talk.

Onward

2022-04-29

Ukraine, Nukes and Death by Strategic Ambiguity

Profiles in Cowardice

©  Copyright 2022  All rights reserved

Profiles in Cowardice

The refusal of the US and NATO at large to support and facilitate transfer of aircraft to the Ukraine is a study of cowardice with a cover of arrogance.

Let’s start with the arrogance first.  Our so-called ‘experts’, both military and think-tank armchair, conclude that air assets and a no-fly zone would be of little use to the Ukrainians.  Let’s look at this proposition first from 30,000 feet.  This is the same brain-trust that, after 20 years of direct engagement, was clueless about the capability and value system of its client in Afghanistan.  After 8 years of semi alliance with the new client in the Ukraine, this same brain-trust was equally wrong about its capacity and will to fight.  So, in the matter of how effectively the Ukraine might use its aircraft, would you put your money with the brain-trust or with Zelensky? 

Now, let’s take the analysis down to 15,000 feet, metaphorically speaking.  Think of Vietnam. Think of the Balkans.  Think of Iraq 1 and Iraq the Sequel. Think of Afghanistan.  In all cases robust air defense systems and air power were vital to keeping us in the game.  Particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, we could not have managed in that harsh terrain without air power to supply and deliver the fight.  By what logic does ‘the brain-trust’ think that an outnumbered and outgunned military can leverage its assets on the ground against a force of superior size and firepower in a conventional war?  The truth is that the brain-trust does not care to answer that question because it is willing to accept the sacrifices of the Ukrainians in a protracted quagmire conflict as long as the brain-trust does not bleed or fear its condos and factories and opera houses will be shelled.

Finally, let’s get down and dirty.  If all we give the Ukrainians is Stingers and Javelin anti-tank weapons and a handful of S-300 air defense weapons, the Russian bleeding and bombardment will continue until Russia runs out of ammo, or some element of Russian society runs out of patience, because there will be no other countervailing force in the West to shut down the Russian onslaught more expeditiously. 

The Ukrainians, brave as they are, suffer a constraint similar to the Russian army:  supply lines.  The Russian problem is incompetence.  The Ukrainian problem is air cover. So long as the Russians control the airspace, Ukrainian movement to resupply and reposition its scattered forces is impaired, and Ukrainian capacity to take out Russian artillery and tanks is similarly diminished.  They lack the very advantages that we enjoyed in our various military enterprises. 

As we know from experience (Vietnam, Iraq the Sequel, Afghanistan) air power alone is not enough, and not necessarily decisive, but always critical. As we should remember from the days when we were planning to defend NATO against Russia with our direct use of force, air-power was critical to neutralize Russia’s tank advantage, even in the shadow of its nuclear arsenal which was a threat then as it is today.

The A-10 Warthog tank killer and the Apache attack helicopter were conceived for just this kind of war as initiated by Russia.  If one remembers the ‘the road to Bagdad’ in Iraq 1, a.k.a. Saddam’s retreat from Kuwait, the Alliance made quick work of Saddam’s army.  It was almost as brutal and unrelenting as Russia’s assault on Ukrainian civilians.  But at least it was limited to military.  What really made it ugly was that it was likely an unnecessary by-product of the ‘strategic ambiguity’ of our position that led Saddam to take a risky gamble and lose bigly.

But the Ukrainians don’t have or know how to fly A-10s and Apaches.  That’s where the US could be decisive in resolving this more expeditiously, along with a couple of Wild Weasels to neutralize Russian air defenses, and open the air space for Ukrainian and NATO aircraft.

But that means that NATO forces would be killing Russian troops and pilots, and that might make Vlad mad.  True, like Russian troops are killing Ukrainian civilians, and that’s making them mad.

Or, is it even about humanity?  Is it simply a callous, calculation of cost-benefit by the brain-trust in safe oak paneled rooms removed from the dust clouds of debris and the cries of refugees?  What’s the cost benefit of waging war, versus the cost-benefit of putting the Ukraine back together? 

Or, is the cost-benefit calculation including risk factors that we dare not discuss publicly, although they are well known?  Could it be that we are afraid that our military, big and bad as it likes to present itself, really isn’t up to the challenge, and may not be decisive in a contest with the Russians.  Let’s take a peak at our hand in this poker game.

  • We have, by economic measures, the largest military in the world, but it is bloated, and the budget reflects the bloat of numerous weapon systems that are of marginal utility or are being abandoned:
  • The F-35 flying Swiss-army knife that does everything but nothing well is our current front-line fighter, with troubled avionics, guns that can’t shoot straight and a host of other publicly documented functional deficits.
  • The $13 billion aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford is still more of a problem than a potent threat.
  • At the sacrifice of 24 Arleigh Burke class destroyers, we built 3 Zumwalt class destroyers  that have been deployed in search of their mission, with guns made immediately obsolete before the last boat was in the water by a belated calculation of the prohibitive cost of complex ammo, which was critical to the capability of their intended mission.
  • We’re abandoning the littoral combat ships at a fraction of their useful life because this other Swiss-army knife experiment in ‘modularity’ produced a weapons platform that really wasn’t effective in any mission.
  • We’ve got land combat vehicles that are basically rolling castles with so much bulk and armor that you can’t fit enough of them in transport planes to move them to conflicts in sufficient numbers quickly enough to be a credible force, nor can they operate effectively in the diverse  environments that may be required.
  • We may have considerable cyber capabilities, but so do our numerous opponents (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea).  How do we stack up?  I dunno.  And I suspect neither does the brain-trust.

And then there’s the nukes; the show-stopper.  Nobody in their right mind would rush to use them. But there are too many people who don’t share that mindset and are willing to consider it.  (Let me hasten to point out that we undoubtedly have a few of our own in uniform, and the only check on them is a command structure that maintains what we hope is a tight leash.)  But the fact is that nukes are out there. And the fact is that they have been a deterrent for most of their history precisely because there is an awareness on the part of all parties who own them that we are prepared to use them under certain undisclosed circumstances (strategic ambiguity). 

All of this just speaks to hardware.  What about capability?  The Russians brought plenty of hardware to the party, but obviously left the capability at home.  Or maybe not.  Maybe we don’t understand Russian capability any better than we understood Afghan or Ukrainian capability?  That also gets into intelligence, a question that cuts too close to the bone of the brain-trust, but is vital to the cost-benefit calculation. 

The Russian capability is best demonstrated in what it has done before: Chechnya, Ukraine, the prequel.  Bombard and brutalize the target.  No finesse, no surgical use of force. No pretense of concern for civilian casualties.

The Russian capability in cyber warfare is unknown to the likes of me, and possibly to the brain-trust.  That Russia has not displayed its handywork in the Ukraine does not mean it lacks the tools.  My concern, and possibly that of the brain-trust, is that it is withholding the best for near last, and it will be felt throughout Europe and the US if we continue to intervene and things really get bad for the ‘visiting team’. This may also be true of US capabilities, though our failure to protect critical infrastructure, particularly in government and infrastructure systems, prompts the concern that our offensive capabilities may be similarly deficient.

Note that I said ‘if we continue to intervene’.  The point is that we’ve already intervened in ratifying our intention of flooding the Ukraine with weapons to neutralize the Russian offensive (translation: kill Russian soldiers).  Vlad may not care any more for Russian conscripts than he does for Ukrainian civilians, but he clearly cares about results.  And as his inventory of cannon fodder depletes, so do his prospects of domination.  So he has made clear with a couple of well placed projectiles in Lviv, that the supply line, wherever it may exist, is a valid military target of opportunity.  Is anyone in the Russian command plotting coordinates in Poland?  That no-fly zone in the Ukraine would reduce the options.

 *    *   *

I believe that the US and NATO have the capability to be decisive, and bring Putin’s brutality to a quicker end.  But it will not be cost free.  We have paid far more in blood for far less than is at stake in Ukraine and in Europe at large.  If we fail here, our failure will be multiplied.

We don’t have a treaty ‘obligation’ to Ukrainian citizens, military or civilian.  We maintained discrete strategic ambiguity about accepting them into the NATO clubhouse.  And we never accepted their check for membership so we’re not ‘obliged’ to render services.  True, but what makes Ukrainians less valued of our humanity than citizens of NATO? What makes their struggle for freedom less worthy of our commitment than our own? How can we bloviate about democracy on the one hand, and turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the cost of their democracy on the other?  Yes, we’re giving them equipment.  And they’re paying for it in blood.  But their fight is ultimately our fight, and their investment in a shared value is much greater to date than our own. 

 *    *   *

Before World War II, the United States made a decision to turn back the S.S. St. Louis with 937 Jewish refugees, consigning them to a knowable fate.  It is a moment of shame, chiseled in the hard rock of history.  Ukraine’s current pain is our moment.  Will we again shrink from our responsibility, or stand, not behind Ukrainians, but with them?

Give them the damn planes!  And fly with them.

Onward.

20220326

© Copyright 2022  All rights reserved.

Ukraine, Nukes and Death by Strategic Ambiguity

Being a simple lad, there is a simple drill that I do to gain a toe-hold on a matter that struggles within the boundaries of my information and the bandwidth of my comprehension.  It’s a three question drill, and it grossly oversimplifies things.  Its chief virtue is that it also focuses on the most important matters and doesn’t become distracted by all the loose ends.  It goes like this:

  • What’s the worst that can happen in the situation of question?
  • If it happens, are you prepared to accept it?
  • If you can’t accept it, what are you prepared to do about it?

We are confronted with the dilemma of war in the Ukraine, and its probable outcomes.  We are making a half-hearted effort of response; significant relative to our prior level of confrontation with The Bear, but insufficient in absolute measure of resolving to an acceptable and timely conclusion.  Timely being defined as a cessation of needless human suffering and destruction.

Our fear is that any engagement of Russia in a manner other than economic sanctions will risk devolving into nuclear war.  Therefore, we have thus far committed ourselves to no military engagement or anything that might reasonably devolve to it to avoid a death spiral to nuclear war.  In that decision, we have in effect renounced the use of nuclear weapons itself, since it is the fear that inhibits other military action necessary to curtail needless suffering of the Ukrainian people, and possibly others.

So, let’s ‘do the drill’, and we will need to do it in a few rounds.

Round 1:   Nuclear War

  • What’s the worst that can happen in a nuclear exchange?

It could escalate into a death spiral of destruction for mankind.

  • If it happens, are we prepared to accept it?

Now, the ‘democratic world’ is not willing to risk that outcome, although certain autocrats seem not too concerned with the risks relative to their narrowly perceived rewards.

  • If we can’t accept it, what are we prepared to do about it? 

Continue doin’ what we’re doin’ (sanctions, refugees, send more peashooters to fight spears) until they all work.

  • Dilemma: 

Be prepared for protracted bloodshed ultimately leading to Afghanistan, the Sequel.

Round 2: Escalate our defensive posture to protect NATO while wringing our hands over the bloody views from the Ukraine.  A wing of A-10s and comparable assets showing up on NATO’s eastern border might add some clarity of thought to Russian military planners, particularly on the road south to Kiev.

  • What’s the worst that can happen in the situation of question?

Rushing US and raising European military assets to create a credible defense posture and ‘demonstrate resolve’ in the face of further Russian provocations may risk a conventional military confrontation that escalates into nuclear war.

  • If it happens, are we prepared to accept it?

Now, the ‘democratic world’ is not willing to risk that although certain autocrats seem not too concerned with the risks relative to their narrowly perceived rewards.

  • If we can’t accept it, what are we prepared to do about it?

Continue doin’ what we’re doin’ (sanctions, refugees, send more peashooters to fight spears) until they all work.

  • Dilemma:

Be prepared for protracted bloodshed ultimately leading to Afghanistan, the Sequel.

Round 3: Continue doin’ what we’re doin’ (sanctions, refugees, send more peashooters to fight spears) until they all work and be prepared for protracted bloodshed ultimately exceeding Afghanistan, the Sequel.

  • What’s the worst that can happen in the situation of question?

Nuclear war, because a leader like Putin who does not fully comprehend the consequences of what he has unleased, whatever may be his state of mind, will continue to escalate his tactics until he gets what he wants, particularly in the face of forbearance by his adversaries without apparent limits. Then he will push for more, because experience has confirmed that he can do so with acceptable losses. And then China may think it is safe enough to join him.

  • If it happens, are we prepared to accept it?

That is the question, and also the trap of ‘strategic ambiguity’.  It invites the very spiral of events that it presumes to deter.  A strategy of confusion is generally not a match for a posture of clarity, capability, and resolve, assuming that one can muster clarity, capability, and resolve.  The recent history of the West, and the US in particular, has been dubious on all three counts.

  • If we can’t accept it, what are we prepared to do about it?

That is the other unanswered question.

The world is watching events in the Ukraine unfold with a voyeuristic fascination as if it was a bloody soccer match rather than a brutal shredding of humanity.

I suspect that at some point our revulsion  and silent shame will overcome our fear, and we will join the battle, if not for the benefit of the Ukraine, then in response to a belated and costly calculation of our own self-interest.

We are not totally detached from this war’s ugly brutality and senselessness, but neither are we motivated to take action that might end it short of ‘the unthinkable’.  So, we are paralyzed by fear; much of it of our own making. 

We have built this myth of Putin that makes him far stronger than he may be, and he has gladly played into it.  After all, we did the same thing with Trump, and Putin had a ring-side seat to that spectacle, and the opportunity to practice his soft skills during that beta trial to boot.  We in the West helped make Putin what he is today. And now we are confronted with the pile of excrement we have allowed to fester.  We have done this with Putin. We have done this with Xi.  We have done this with Trump.  But in doing this to ourselves, we also hold the key to undoing it and confronting the situation effectively.

Let’s take Trump as an example.  Trump, aided and abetted by the media, created the myth of his invincibility, built on his delusional self-image as a titan of commerce in his sit-com “The Apprentice”.  An entire Republican Party, and a disturbing percentage of the American electorate bought into this fantasy for reasons I will never comprehend.  He had a too long run, and it appears to be winding down, delivering him to the dustbin of history, if not his twisted philosophy.  How did that happen?

The main reason is that Trump is nothing without his enablers and facilitators; also known as ‘useful idiots’.  One of the feckless facilitators, Mike Pence, proved crucial to Trump’s undoing in his refusal to do Trump’s bidding in the congressional count of the Electoral College.  It wasn’t a decisive moment, but critically symbolic.  Others had opposed Trump previously, but largely sub rosa. 

The key point is that Trump was and is powerless without the minions who are dumb enough and cowardly enough to do his bidding for fear of consequences, however real or imagined.  But once those consequences became too great, whether from him or from adversaries, they recalculated their self-interest, withdrew their support, countered his commands, or otherwise diminished his effect. And now Yellow 45 pines and whines in exile in Mar-a-Lago.

Now, let’s go to Moscow.  Putin is no more powerful than Trump.  Both had nukes.  My guess is that Trump could not use them, and Putin cannot use them without a group of facilitators to ‘actuate’ the orders.  It appears that Trump did not have that obeisant chain of command within the US military. I question that Putin has it within the Russian military.  Why?  Because while Putin may be quite willing to use nukes indiscriminately in his own delusional calculus, his military likely recognizes that the US will be much more focused in its use.  And guess who’s first at bat?  Russian military installations. 

So, in the matter of the Ukraine, our best hope (I won’t call it a prayer, because there is obviously no god on duty to answer it and (s)he should have by now) is that the oligarchs and a few select generals at the end of the Long Table during a ‘cold mic’ moment will agree after a back-of-the-envelope calculation of their own self-interest, that Mr. Putin should be the next designated casualty, and ‘terminate him with prejudice’ as the saying goes.  Nothing personal; just business. 

In order for this to happen, one necessary factor will likely need to be a perception on their part that we not only have nukes, but will use them in specific circumstances.  For that to happen, we must confront our fears with a clear sense of the possibilities and a mindset that the sooner we are willing to take a hit and not merely match it but strike a decisive blow, the sooner we will preclude the risk of that which we fear the most. 

Stated more bluntly, if we are not prepared to use nuclear weapons, as horrific as they are, we should get rid of them, because their presence adds cost and risk without benefit.

If, hypothetically, we were willing to get rid of our nukes, then we have rendered ourselves vulnerable to the worst of what Putin or Xi or any other despot with big fireworks may choose to bestow on us with less ability to reciprocate. 

Obviously, in the US there would be strong disagreement on that choice, but I imagine that the preponderance of public opinion would support keeping our nukes, and our options.  But that only works if they are under control of rational people unlike Yellow 45, At the moment, that is not a risk, but there seem to be a critical shortage of rational people who might be in that role in the future. 

The important point is that if we are not willing to get our nose bloodied at lower levels of conflict in order to resolve it quickly, we are more likely to risk escalation to the very level of conflict we seek to avoid.  Mother Nature and tyrants hate a vacuum and will strive to fill the void.

So, what would Sid do? (shudder)

In a discrete call to Putin and separate ones to military leadership and doyens of the oligarchy, we should make clear that:

  1. We too have nukes, and remind our adversaries that we are prepared to use them at our discretion in response to any use of nuclear weapons by Russia.
  2. We are in the process of forward positioning and activating military assets to assure the security of our NATO allies, and will respond with force to any incursion into NATO territory or perceived threat to territory or forces outside the current war zone.
  3. We will continue to supply Ukrainian forces with the weapons and humanitarian aid that they need in their own defense.
  4. At the Ukraine’s invitation, we will operate in their airspace and on their land as necessary to deliver that humanitarian and military aid, and shall respond ‘appropriately and decisively’ to any threat to our forces in that mission.
  5. If Russia should launch strikes by air or land-based missiles into Ukraine from within its territory against Ukrainian people and forces or ours, we shall consider it Ukraine’s right to neutralize that threat, not as an act of aggression but of self-defense; and we and our NATO partners shall do the same.
  6. We and other western nations which have sequestered Russian assets will retain those assets for possible application first to the reconstruction of the Ukraine after cessation of hostilities, before releasing any that may remain to their previous state or private owners. 
  7. Accordingly, to limit further loss of life and damage of property to all parties, we call upon the Russian government to cease its military operations and return to its borders as they existed prior to the 2014 incursion into the Ukraine as it then existed.
  8. Upon the return of Russian and Belorussian forces to their territory, we will consider lifting sanctions on economic activity, but will retain sequestered assets as noted in reference 6.
  9. Recognizing that Russia has security concerns as we do, we and our NATO partners welcome an opportunity to convene a security conference after hostilities have ceased and Russian forces have withdrawn to Russian territory to address those matters.
  10. At the successful conclusion of a conference to resolve near-term security concerns, we welcome the possibility of engaging with Russia and China in a conference to implement the elimination of all nuclear weapons, as a basis for encouraging other states that have or seek nuclear capability to do the same.

References 9 and 10 are the only initiatives that we should offer Putin for an off ramp.  Otherwise, how he extricates himself from this is his problem, though never without potential consequences for us.

There will be no winners in this war. The only question is how much each of us have yet to lose. But if we lose our moral compass, nothing else will matter.  That is what is at stake.

The first risk in this approach is that we cannot build sufficient consensus in the US to make this a credible position.

The second risk in this approach is that its actuation will depend upon NATO similarly coalescing around this policy in recognition that it is the front line and, whatever happens, it will bear the brunt of any policy position and its consequences.  That will not happen unless and until we demonstrate our commitment to lean forward and be fully in the fight with them because we remain the critical factor.

The ultimate risk is that the West fiddles while the Ukraine burns, and the fire, by whatever means, spreads.

*   *   *

A colleague of mine has a sardonic cartoon on his cell partition that reads:  “ I’m not saying we should kill all the stupid people.  Let’s just remove the warning labels and instructions and let things sort themselves out.” 

Ouch.  And yet, that seems to be what has happened with COVID. It’s happening and escalating with Climate Change.  The Ukraine crisis may just turn the microwave on ‘toast’ and accelerate the end result, possibly before Elon can escape to Mars, which would be best for Mars. Less space junk.

*   *   *

A postscript:

I have often used this three-question drill with my two daughters when they would come to me for my thoughts on some particular issue they were struggling with.  As my younger daughter and I concluded one such session before her departure for college, she turned to me with a wry smile and said: ‘You know dad, I’ve always found this approach to be helpful.  Just don’t give up your day job to become a motivational speaker.’

Enough said.

Onward!

20220305

© copyright 2022. All rights reserved.

Some Random Thoughts on Democratic Dysfunction

There is a clear difference between the Republican Party, the self-styled party of business and bastion of faux conservatism (better labeled ‘regressivism’ in its current incarnation) and the Democratic Party, the self-styled ‘party of the people’ and progressivism, often confused or mis-labeled with liberalism.

The Republicans, as befits the party of business, have superior organization and internal discipline, though a simplistic (when not deceitful) and lately toxic value system and platform. ‘The Party of No’ says so much without need for elaboration.  And Mitch McConnell has arguably done more to dismantle our system of government from inside than the insurrectionists of 20210106 did from the outside.

The Democrats have a platform and value system that is generally more constructive and humane, but they can’t manage themselves across the street without getting distracted.  And, for a party that regards itself as more enlightened and sophisticated, it seems particularly inept at messaging. It seems to have volunteered to be the punching bag for Republicans and for the windbag in Florida, when, based on the past four years, it should be punching back to great effect. The greatest asset the Democrats have is the record of the Republicans.  They seem not to know how to use it.

Joe Biden’s return to Washington was not a triumphal march, but rather a relief from the aberration that preceded him.  It required someone who could ‘hit the ground running’ as they say, and as he promoted himself, because there was little margin for error or delay. Indeed, in the first few months, he seemed to be doing all the right things.  But then, it’s as if his administration reached the end of the first act and suddenly realized that no one had written the script for the rest of the play.  Well, now we’re ‘deep in it’, and it’s beginning to look like improv going badly.  Time to pause and regroup.

The following Random Thoughts are offered from 30,000 feet and 350 miles away, with all the insight that comes from those parameters. (Sometimes, it’s better to be not burdened with the details).

RT #1:  Experience has its limits.

Experience is good.  It facilitates ‘hitting the ground running’.  But adaptability is equally important.  Biden has brought back the Obama crew for a return engagement.  But it’s not the Obama era. Circumstances are radically different.  Smarts help, but they’re only as good as their application to the problem at hand; not to the problem you want to solve, the problem you solved before, or the problem you didn’t solve before and want a second shot at in the same way as before.

RT #2: When you’re in a hole, stop digging…

…unless it’s an intentional hole, such as a fox hole, or prepping your grave site.  You don’t win wars from foxholes, and there are plenty of others who can prepare your grave when needed; some quite willing in anticipation.

In this instance, it’s time for the Biden Team to be its own harshest critic, acknowledge its failings, and get a workable, if not perfect game plan.  Simple, right?  Just say it and make it so.

RT #3:  Bipartisanship is dead. Deal with it!

 It was a nice thought, but the past year has proven beyond doubt that it hasn’t got legs. 

RT #4: You’re a minority party. Deal with it!

Your two Swinging Door Senators have made you what you are, and you’ve made your situation worse by pandering to their egos.

Make clear that the party is actively seeking their replacements within their states, and adding to your majority in other states. Strip them of their illusion that they are secure.  Don’t throw them out of the party.  Just don’t let them feel secure in their self-absorption.

RT #5:  The Republican Senate Big Red Wall can be penetrated. Penetrate it!

You act as if the 50 vote Republican block in the Senate is a given. That is your self-defeating mindset, not a fact. Rejecting that mindset is another tactic for 1) putting the two Swinging Door Senators on their heals, and 2) leveraging your minority status to possible victories. 

There are three distinct groups of senators in the Republican caucus.

  • Those not running for re-election in 2022 in the shadow of Trump;
  • Those running for reelection in 2022, but in the greater shadow of a restless constituency looking for real solutions to real life problems;
  • Trump zombies who are not up for re-election in 2022, and probably cannot be moved in any cases, (although some have shown themselves to be incredibly adept at all forms of logical and ethical contortionism).

The first two are targets of opportunity for tactical coalition building around specific initiatives. The third, which stars Republican leader Mitch McConnell, can also serve a useful purpose.

Let’s start with Mitch.  Make him the poster boy of accommodation and facilitation of Trump and the economic elite who strive for naked power at society’s expense.  Don’t hurl the stupid school-yard taunts at Mitch that Trump uses so effectively with the spineless eunuchs of his party whom he has cowered to his will.  Instead, frame McConnell clearly and cleanly in the facts of his own record, and his own disingenuous statements.  Compromise his brand and his power with those who do his bidding now as they did Trump’s before.  Begin with him, beginning the campaign for his next de-election and then move mercilessly to the Zombie senators.  If nothing else, this serves to give the senators running for re-election in 2022 coming attractions of what awaits them in their own campaigns if they persist in stonewalling.

At the same time, reach out to the senators that are planning to retire at the end of the session.  Ask if they want to complete their records with unblemished loyalty to McConnell, or to do something meaningful on the way out of the chamber for the constituents and communities some of them may be returning to (assuming they are not remaining in Washington in new careers as lobbyists and consultants). Work with them to get meaningful legislation passed for the good of their constituents. Having declared their intentions not to run, they have nothing to fear from Trump and owe nothing to McConnell.

Additionally, reach out to those running for re-election next year in challenging states, as defined by the level of constituent economic distress.  Similarly, encourage them to work with you on those programs that will make their constituents lives meaningfully better.  Ask these senators if Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism is really going to work for them in the voting booth.

Finally, to make any of the above credible and effective, the Dems must launch a coordinated ground offensive with voters; not just their base, but the unaffiliated and Republican base, to bring home the facts of their situation, the facts of Republican promises broken, and the programs that can make their lives better. Appeal to their naked self-interest. This is the context in which the prior elements will gain power in breaking the deadlock, co-opting the power of the Swinging Door Senators into possible cooperation, and sustaining a presidency that, though seriously flawed and troubled, still holds promise of righting our listing national ship.

The Republicans have an empty playbook. Small government and low taxes serve big business; not the average voter, not even small and medium size business.  It gives them the illusion they have more in an economy that is steadily diminishing their options and their wealth.  If the Dems hold the Repubs to account, sooner or later, reality has to sink in.  Fight the Big Lie with the Big Truths. The Dems have far more to work with than the Republicans; far more than they appear to be using effectively.

RT #6:  Redefine your mission and priorities.

Again, Biden started out well.  He made COVID, the economy, and national unity his major priorities. All three have taken a serious hit for reasons over which he has little if any control. But he must deal with them all.

One of his crafted priorities is the Build Back Better bill, a multifaceted Swiss Army knife of legislation cleverly crafted to solve everything.  There is a logic to it. And there are significant risks to it.  It just doesn’t fit in today’s reality.

One of B3’s problems is its sheer size.  Anything that is that big and that complex is inherently difficult for the average voter/taxpayer to understand, and easy to suspect.  And it makes all too easy a target for the simplistic Republican mantra of Small Government/Low Taxes, which is easy for Joe and Jane Six-pack to understand and embrace, as long as they don’t ask what kind of government and services low taxes provide.

RT #7: Break it up. Drive it home. Think long term.

Joe Manchin, the accomplished party-straddling chameleon, may be devious, duplicitous and destructive in many ways, but he is correct on one point:  If you can’t present a program in terms that the average taxpayer/voter can understand, you shouldn’t vote for it.

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs no doubt did much good.  But in retrospect, they are also perceived has being costly and ineffective in many ways.  Build Back Better, by its sheer size and complexity, invites analogy to its disadvantage.  Big bills, by their nature and by Congress’ proclivities (which are bipartisan), invite cover for pork and other well concealed initiatives that earn voter/taxpayer cynicism when subsequently exhumed from the legislative text.

There is logic to B3 as it was crafted as a comprehensive, long term, integrated strategy for dealing with problems that have long persisted and resisted solution by more fragmented and short-term programs. However, under the circumstances, it may be better to dismantle it into more discrete program packages that are clear in their respective purposes, easier for the voter/taxpayer to relate to, and do not invite the same degree of cynicism that the Republicans would like to impute to them, not that they won’t try.   

Smaller, better-defined programs will also avoid the optic of the huge price tag of the current all-in-one bill.  Segmenting the mother-ship bill into logical clusters and moving them through Congress individually also reduces the risk that all will be sunk in one package.  And, from a tactical election focused perspective, if the Republicans maintain the Big Red Wall of opposition and kill every bill in turn, that’s a great record to run on for 2022 against the party that spent four years trying to scuttle the Affordable Care Act and never provided a credible alternative to a program that, however imperfect, met the needs of citizens that the health care/insurance industry has left behind.

Don’t feel compelled to make it all happen this year.  Steady incremental progress will sit better with voters than the massive B3 failure against opposition that you may not be able to overcome.  This will gravely disappoint AOC and her Squad quintet, the mirror image of the Republican Young Guns of the ‘90s. Bring the moderates and progressives of the party closer together, and remind the Left that they too can be replaced if they, like Mitch, become the obstinate impediment to progress.

The future will not be won or lost in 2022.  But the future will be built or destroyed incrementally with each election.  Make each one count.

RT #8:   Clean you own house!

Get rid of the deadwood. Clean up your ethical ‘dust bunnies’.  You’re not pure. Thank your senior most members for their years of service and honor their accomplishments.  And respectfully ask them to step aside to allow younger leadership to grow. Demonstrate that you are a credible institution and not just a collection of egos sharing party stationary. Plan for the future beyond the next election.  Nancy Pelosi may want to hang on for one more term, and that’s fine.  But it is time for her to show the wisdom and leadership to step down from the Speaker’s position at the end of this term and remain as an advisor.  Dianne Feinstein, in a moment of clarity, might ask what is best for the party, and choose to make way for the next generation rather than the opposition.  The greatest wisdom of age is knowing when to say goodbye and enjoy one’s success before suffering one’s embarrassment. 

If you don’t clean house, you can be confident that the opposition will do it for you, and on their terms.

RT #9:    Be assertive in pursuit of your goals, but be humble in your accomplishments.

Don’t congratulate yourself for good intentions or bask in past victories.  Nobody cares what you did for them; only what you can do for them.  Don’t over-promise, and don’t under-deliver.

RT #10: Begin re-thinking 2024.

Trump didn’t win in 2016.  The Democrats lost due to terminal complacency and a lousy candidate.  The ticket that won in 2020 is not guaranteed to win in 2024 on its merits.  Re-think everything. For the good of the country.

Joe Biden may not be the best candidate for 2024.  And Kamala Harris is most definitely not the best candidate to replace him.

Mr. Biden will hopefully continue during the remainder of his term to serve a vital role in bringing a measure of sanity and stability to federal government and to our nation’s role in the world.  He has much to be proud of, and not yet much to regret that can’t be repaired.  But the most important task before him is also the most difficult for anyone in his position: to stare deep into his soul and ask himself if he is the best person to lead the country in 2024 and beyond.

The greatest wisdom of age is knowing when to say goodbye. 

Mr. Biden would do his party and the country a great service by declaring himself a one term, transitional president.  This would:

  1. allow him to focus all his energies on the task of being president and not also running for president during the remainder of the term.
  2. energize the party to think dynamically about the possibilities of 2024 and make sure this time that they have the best candidate and not the best compromise.  (Suggestion:  Not Kamala Harris, and not Pete Buttigieg, and not Hillary, unless the party is contemplating suicide.)
  3. allow the Dems to seize the momentum from the Republicans and Trump in defining the terms for the 2024 election.

In summary, the Democratic Party desperately needs a clear set of values, a clear and credible strategy to implement them, a leadership that can walk, chew gum, and manage a national campaign with local nuance all at the same time, and a messenger with the gift of FDR and the clarity and integrity of the late Representative Barbara Jordan.  Not all in the same person, but a credible team.  And a sense of unity.

Joe Biden’s primary goal, above all others, was to bring the country together. To do that, he must first bring his party together. If he can unite the party around a workable agenda for the greater good, he can hopefully unite enough voters to make the next election and the one to follow a clear enough statement of citizen commitment that the results are beyond question by any reasonable mind. If he can do that, we may yet find our way back to governance by consensus, and not grounded in conflict.

If he cannot do that, little else matters.

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
       Ulysses

Onward

20220116 © copyright 2022. All rights reserved

Random Thoughts on the Close of an Anomalous Year

I’m cleaning out the ‘mental attic’, surveying the mental shrapnel of a year which stands on its own in so many ways, and hopefully will not have a sequel,…except it likely will, because we haven’t yet found a vaccine to prevent it.

So, following are some mental odds and ends in search congruence wherever they may find it. I make no pretense of expertise regarding these subjects. But then, that no longer seems to be a requirement in public discourse, and is sometimes an impediment.

Killer Asteroids and Other Space Junk

I recently read about the plan to cue-ball an asteroid in a test of possible future defenses against killer asteroids threatening earth. It seems that the test, as described, has an extremely long shot at producing meaningful results, but then the folks planning it at NASA no doubt have a much better handle on the math and physics than I do.  And even a measurable response would be of value in anticipating the requirement of an effective effort. Good luck.

At about the same time, I read about plans to decommission the International Space Station (ISS) in the next five or so years, and the concern of risk that the plan to drop it into a designated ‘satellite graveyard’ in the Pacific Ocean might not go exactly as projected, given the ungainly nature of the structure, and the potential to scatter random shards of debris across the earth-scape. 

It set me to wondering. Wouldn’t it be better to strap a booster rocket to the space station, gently and gradually nudge it into higher earth orbit away from current satellite traffic, and then sling-shot it toward the sun for ‘final disposition’, loaded with cameras and instruments that might give us additional information on the target and its near-neighborhood?  Doing so would have a number of advantages.

  • It won’t be the last hunk of huge hardware we’ll have to dispose of, with Jeff Bezos and his gang planning to build orbiting condos for those with a more exotic idea of ‘working remotely’.
  • It is a good test case for engineering a solution closer to home before we must do so in more remote regions and to greater scale.
  • Since the ISS is a joint project of the US, Russia, and the international community, it would be a great opportunity for a peaceful, cooperative venture to build confidence in our ability to work together to achieve something of shared interest.  It would also be an opportunity to engage the Chinese, since they bear a risk, and will someday have a similar need.
  • We could gain additional scientific and technical knowledge and skill from the project.
  • The projects will not put solar inhabitants at risk, or disrupt its environment.
  • To this armchair space cadet, it seems a better alternative than dropping it in the ocean to join the great Pacific garbage gyre, or wherever it chooses to land.

Good luck.

Speaking of space junk reminds me of Elon Musk. Our Chinese friends have just complained to us that our resident teenager is cluttering up the near-earth neighborhood with toys that are disrupting adult traffic and risking harm.  Somewhat like our Russian friends did when they splattered one of their satellites to our consternation with the logic ‘it’s my toy; I’ll break it if I want to’ (more a libertarian mindset than communist). I wonder what our Chinese friends, who seem not to understand the concept of reciprocity, would be willing to offer in return for the Herculean task of containing a force of nature such as Mr. Musk; not that it isn’t in our own best interests to do so.

But the Chinese raise a valid question that has troubled me for a while. What international controls exist over space: near earth orbit, the moon, asteroids, Mars, Uranus, whatever? And, to bring it closer to home, our oceans? Who gets to decide and how? Right now, it’s like the Wild West, as we Americans like to think of it in our egocentric way.  Others might liken it to past colonialism of all brands by all ethno-politico-religious forces. We have enough history to know the result. Have we yet acquired enough intelligence to prevent it? If not, leave Mars alone until we do. We have plenty to do getting control of our earthbound assteroids before we can ever hope to control the celestial ones.  Good luck with that!

Electric Vehicles and Charging Stations.

There’s a loud hum in the socio-sphere of the need to accelerate the implementation of electric vehicles (EVs) and to electrify buildings in order to decarbonize the planet and prevent the worse consequences of climate change. One of the key tactics in that effort, aided and abetted by the recently passed infrastructure bill, is to sprinkle electric vehicle charging stations across the landscape like fairy dust to facilitate the progression of EVs.

I believe that climate change is real, and will be severe, and that we have set in motion a series of natural forces that have built sufficient momentum to run for the next twenty to thirty years, no matter what we do from this point on. And we’re not doing anywhere near enough to make a discernable difference in bending the carbon curve during that period. I believe that the decarbonization of the economy to the greatest extent possible is inevitable and beneficial, but we will not likely ever be ‘carbon free’ without radical impact on society that we are not now willing to accept as a society, efforts and wisdom of our climate warriors notwithstanding. In that context, I question the wisdom of rushing to electrify personal transportation at this time.

If I were king, or even president, I would withhold funds for EV charging stations and redirect them into three project areas. The first would be for battery capacity improvement and electric charging technology that would reduce recharge time to ten minutes, or something closer to filling your gas tank. I would seek to do that within the next five years. Once achieved, I would subsidize implementing these super charging stations into gas stations to evolve existing private sector infrastructure to a new but equivalent purpose while sustaining the gradual draw-down of demand for carbon fuels at those same facilities. No convenience store/filling station left behind. This has the multiple benefits of repurposing an existing facility to new use, evolving and sustaining it, while avoiding the risk of resource and effort of implementing an early-stage technology that will likely be replaced long before its useful life has ended, and after it has been implemented at great cost.  In my mind, the problem with advancing EVs is their limited range and long recharge time. Solve the recharge time, and range becomes less of an issue.  Concentrate the recharge resource in existing fuel stations and you eliminate the difficulty and cost of deploying enough charging stations to anticipated need.

The second project area would be to attack methane leaks wherever they may exist as the fastest way to impact causes of warming, given methane’s greater leverage on warming than CO2 from auto emissions. Without relevant data or knowing the relevant math, I would imagine that a much smaller investment in this area would have a much greater return than investing in EV charging stations today and for the next five years.

Third, before electrifying personal transport and pushing to retrofit existing buildings, I would make a major investment to bring the electric power infrastructure up to capacity and sustainability to the level of need that environmentalists advocate.  You know, the ‘horse before the cart’ kind of thing.  Novel, but it might avoid a bunch of unnecessary knock-on consequences of SOP.  Harden the grid. Expand the grid’s ability to handle multiple energy generating scenarios.  Distribute energy production to reduce exposure to damage of huge facilities (think ports and bottlenecks in transportation, or the Texas grid in 2021). Build in more ‘circuit breakers’ to prevent cascading power failures. BULLET-PROOF the grid from cyber-attack. Build in redundancies to assure resilience against any other type of attack. All of this adds to costs.  Corporatists will whine that it hurts ‘the bottom line’. But so does the mindless pursuit of profit at all other costs.

At no extra charge as a part of my year-end clearance, I’m including a bonus recommendation. I would advocate for a comprehensive system of carbon taxes, carefully targeted and escalating gradually over time to recognize the truth that our current carbon regime imposes social costs for which corporations receive benefits of avoidance, and the rest of us pay for the consequences.  An intelligently designed carbon tax will enable the so-called ‘free market’ to deal with a defect in our market economy that does not effectively match social costs with private profit in a manner that is fair to business and society. I would implement the tax selectively and escalate it gradually so as not to cause shock to the economic system and give all players (business and consumers) a chance to adapt to future prospects in their enlightened self-interests.

As an example of an early target, I would implement a carbon tax on delivery services like Amazon Prime ‘free same day delivery’ for non-perishable, non-essential items or any delivery involving carbon-based vehicles. Free same-day delivery is a convenience to a few with a social and environmental cost to society as a whole.  Carbon based vehicles add to that cost. The market place should incent responsible activity (by whatever definition) and disincent wasteful activity.  By contrast, our hedonistic society craves immediate gratification of whatever kind at whatever cost, preferably to someone else. (Now you can see why there is zero risk that I will ever ascend to being king or president.)

Environmentalists will complain that the above measures are too little, too slow, and will not stave off calamity. I would respond that calamity at some level is already ‘baked in the cake’, and the challenge now is to plan for it, adapt to it, and let the evolving horror motivate people to make the belated sacrifices that environmentalists have advocated for 50 years with insufficient impact.  At this point, the first imperative is to avoid doing stupid, and begin doing smart. But at this point, far too many people are too comfortable with stupid.  And that includes some environmentalists who refuse to deal with the reality we are in, in a manner that can effectively lead to the result they want.

Going Nuclear

Energy-wise, speaking of energy. Even some environmental scientists are warming to that. And I’m fine with it.  Anything to keep the lights on and the A/C and heat within reasonable parameters.  But for godsake, will someone tell me what we’re going to do with the waste? We’ve been mute on that issue for the life of the technology, and it’s not getting better; just bigger.  And it’s a little bit more serious that getting rid of plastic bags.  Just answer that question, and I’m good to go.

Acronyms and the Militarization of Language

We need to demilitarize our language, which has been overrun with a proliferation of acronyms that are so abundant, they’ve become redundant.  I have lately had to consult an acronym dictionary on numerous occasions to translate a reference into something that might make sense in context because the author neglected to define the acronym anywhere in the text.  And when I arrive at the dictionary, I often find a plethora of terms using the same acronym, but widely varied in meaning or context.

I blame the military for this. The scientific community may have preceded the military in the use of acronyms, but the military has made it sexy. The military saw the benefits and, as with nuclear weapons, proceeded to proliferate without considering the possible costs, and in effect created the Agent Orange of comprehensible communication.

I PREDICT THAT BY 2030 we will reach Peak Acronym, a veritable planet of Babel in which everyone is pinging everyone else with strings of characters that look more like computer programming code than human language. The progression to that destiny will be capped by the collapse of the internet and the power-grid as Artificial Intelligence (AI) is ramped up to deal with a situation beyond human capacity, and is overwhelmed. Think the equivalent of the Port of Los Angeles, and little containers of meaning waiting to be off-loaded for processing. The Chinese will be instrumental in the global failure when they mistake the trend as an area for competition with the West which they must dominate.  They will bring the full force of their 3,000 character language to bear against our pathetic 26 letters. But they will not win; merely pushed humanity over the edge. Whatever.

We will have evolved from SNAFU to FUBAR. People around the world will retreat to their electrified caves (running on backup generators and scarce supplies of propane) to watch reruns of old movies of pre-1960 vintage in an attempt to reclaim distant memories of language lost.

Recommendation:  De-escalate the militarization of communication wherever possible.  Minimize the use of acronyms, even at the cost of a few seconds and more keystrokes.  And, when they must be used, please give future humanity and anyone who resides in the present outside your little specialist bubble a clue as to what the hell you are referring to by defining the term somewhere in text, hopefully at point of first use, or at least in an addendum detailing all acronyms included in text.  (Can you imagine love letters of the future?  Assuming there is still love that might need to be communicated beyond self.)

Just a digression, but I’m thinking ahead about my grandchildren and their grandchildren.  What follows Generation Z? Have we yet created a designation? Are we going to recycle the alphabet to A?  Regress to the Greek alphabet because it implies sophistication?  Or should we just go with those 3000 Chinese characters and not have to worry about another transition in generational designation before the next asteroid strike?

Gravity, Quantum Physics and Wall Street

Some day I’m going to read up on quantum physics and string theory so I can be somewhat conversant about the subject at the water cooler, whenever we return to The Office.  In the meantime, Newtonian physics and gravity as we know it by way of falling apples and the like works just fine for me.  But, when I think of the economy, and particularly that portion that works on Wall Street, Palm Beach and in Crypto-land, I have to wonder if maybe there is such a thing as a parallel universe?  Or, alternatively, will the markets reach escape velocity from Main Street’s gravitational pull? Or, on the third hand, will Newton win in the end and Wall Street falls to earth with collateral damage that dwarfs the impact of the ISS by several orders of magnitude?  None of us know for sure, which is why I still consider Power Ball a credible investment medium, and probably more honest than SPACs, crypto and NFTs.

I’ve been waiting for economic gravity to take down Wall Street for a long time, but must confess to my persistent error in assumption.  So bear that in mind when considering my prediction on the Acronym Apocalypse.  However, I’m much more confident about the Climate Change Catastrophe, with regret.  As for the economy, Wall Street seems to have created a protective bubble that has defied economic gravity, with a little help from the troika of the Fed, the White House and the Senate over the past dozen years.  But I still believe that either the sun or wind shear will eventually burst it, or humankind in aggregate, rejecting the cumulative insults of the economic order to its collective and individual well-being.

Summation:

I prefer to avoid hyperbole.  And I suspect any choice that is cast in binary form.  There are often more than two options in any situation.  But, at the risk of hyperbole, we are approaching an existential moment. Maybe next year, maybe later.  But it is waiting for us down the road. We must resolve a fundamental binary choice on which all other issues will rest:

        Are we a civilization of humans served by corporations?

        Or are we a civilization of corporations served by humans?

The choice should not be in doubt, or even exist. But it exists, and the result is very much in doubt.

We have much work to do in the New Year 2022 and beyond.

Onward.

20211231

© 2021 Integratedman

Gratitude

I am grateful that my family and close friends have survived the past year and a half without death or major illness in the pandemic.

I am grateful that my family has had the means to survive the disruption with minimal impact.

I am grateful that a portion of my taxes serve to help those less fortunate by no fault of their own to hang on, however tenuously, and hang in for a better day.

I am grateful for the medical professionals who guided me safely through this pandemic as they struggled themselves to navigate its fog.

I am grateful for state and municipal governance that made basically sound decisions when it really mattered, and put human life above budget and profit.

I am grateful for a community and state that basically banded together to do the right thing to protect ourselves and each other in our personal and community conduct.

I am grateful for a work environment in which management took initiative to make it safe and productive.

I am grateful to live in a country which, in spite of its many imperfections, retains the capacity to face the errors of its past, and the hope to create a better, more equitable, and just future.

I am grateful for a family who remain my greatest source of wealth and the only one that matters.

I have much to be grateful for, and on this day I hope you do too.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Onward!

20211125

Copyright 2021

Deconstructing Inflation

Let’s be honest.  None of us really understand inflation or how to control it.  Least of all, the economists.  So, in my role as a lay economist, (or is that a screwed consumer), I’d like to take a stab at it at a time when the subject has induced much smoke and no light.

Inflation has been with us pre-Covid in stealth form since before 2008, but has exploded into our consciousness, if not our comprehension, post-Covid, thanks to the supply chain, nominally.  The debate is how bad and how long and who’s to blame and who can fix it?

Hint:  Neither Joe Biden nor Jerome Powell is to blame, and neither can “fix” it.  They can nudge it, influence it, but not fix it, nor can anyone else in their positions.

One can’t fix a problem until they understand the problem.  To understand our current inflation conundrum, we must deconstruct it into its components and understand the dynamics of each.

There are three main paradigms of inflation to understand:

  1. Pre-Covid, Post-Financial Meltdown stealth inflation
  2. Post-Covid supply chain collapse.
  3. Capital Market Pandemic – Systemic Greed
  1. Pre-Covid, Post-Financial Meltdown stealth inflation

Before Covid and after 2008, inflation moved from visible real estate driven inflation to below-the-radar stealth inflation. While Uncle Ben Bernanke was soothing us with assurances that “Core Inflation”, whatever that was meant to represent, was in fact stable, stealth inflation gradually and insidiously insinuated itself into our lives, but only subliminally in our awareness by means such as:

  • downsizing quantities but not prices;
  • cheapening products and services, and taking the savings straight to the bottom line; also generating faster replacement than previously required;
  • accelerating product replacement in the name of technological progress, but in effect inducing added cost without appreciable substantive benefit.
  • arbitraging labor costs with offshoring, but not passing the savings on in comparable measure to consumers;
  • cost-transference to the public of brutalizing the lower end of the labor force in wages and benefits that reflected the neutering of the labor movement as a proper check and balance to corporate abuse.
  • the ‘pixelization’ of the economy, as I like to call it; the proliferation of enterprises peddling services of dubious economic value to entertain or distract us, but adding little or no discernable intrinsic benefit to society in productivity, or utility – merely enhancing the velocity of money transfer in a techno game of three-card Monte and adding a layer of faux productivity to GDP.

These elements have been and will continue to be elements of stealth inflation until countervailing forces arise to mitigate them. Don’t hold your breath.

2. Post-Covid supply chain collapse.

The aforementioned elements were tolerated with growing unease  pre-Covid, but Covid blew out the economic house of cards.  The pandemic manifested itself not only in a body count, but in a blow-out of a supply chain maximized for economic efficiency and profit but highly vulnerable to the kind of disruption that Covid made painfully obvious in the present, and climate change will in the near future.

Let’s deconstruct the supply chain disruptive elements and their contributions to this segment of inflation:

  • Covid itself, requiring significant medical and operational costs to deal with the pandemic, and consequences of lockdowns on the flow of goods and services;
  • Logistical delays and backups in transportation;
  • Imbalance in the access to containers for assembling shipments;
  • Effective reduction in shipping capacity due to backups in turn-around;
  • Insufficient port capacity to modulate the shipping backup and the insufficiency of land transport;
  • Insufficient trucking to relieve port storage congestion;
  • Insufficient drivers to drive available trucking resource;
  • Insufficient warehousing in the distribution chain;
  • Insufficient personnel supply chain due in part to the disruption of COVID with intermittent rolling lockdowns;
  • Imbalance of personnel supply coming out of the pandemic as some segment of workers shed shitty jobs in search of something more reasonable in a sudden ‘labor shortage’ contrived by COVID, and major worker dissatisfaction up and down the food chain with the status-quo-ante.   
  • Raw material and product shortages due to a sudden and unanticipatable  demand resulting from the Pandemic; most notably, chips, computing, communication and automation gear, as well as health supplies;
  • Dislocation of the real estate market, commercial and residential, with offsetting inflationary/deflationary effects.
  • Write-offs and write-downs of inventory from spoilage, or obsolescence during the recovery;
  • Reconfiguration of facilities and real estate (commercial to residential, commercial to reconfigured need resulting from remote work, revised function and format);
  • Rebalancing or increased subsidization of public transportation to post-Covid usage patterns, whatever they may become;
  • Increased wages to attract people back to pre-Covid shitty jobs, until they can be replaced or reduced in number through automation when the chip supply matches demand.

All of these are ‘temporary’, except the last one which may have some lingering effect to the extent that management cannot arbitrage labor again or otherwise mitigate it.  In fact, remote work will likely be management’s go-to, in addition to automation.  Hellooo, India!

All of these are ‘temporary’, and presently significant.  But the question is, how temporary.  At a minimum, I would guess another two years at the current level until ‘things work themselves out’, and possibly diminishing over 5 years. But the wild card in this is Covid, and the rate of durable vaccination worldwide, which could make recovery and reduction of inflationary causes much longer. 

Let’s review:  The supply chain conundrum began in China.  A critical portion of the world economy’s access to resources and products occurs in 2nd and 3rd tier countries; the ones with the least access to vaccines.  The 1st tier countries have taken care of themselves first with vaccines.  But until the rest of the world that the 1st tier depends on is similarly secure, nobody’s secure.  Given the refusal in this country by “people in high places” to grasp the importance of controlling Covid by every means possible, it is unlikely that this segment of inflation will abate quickly, and may not reach a point of stability soon.

It is this critical segment where I state that Biden and Powell have little decisive power.  It depends on multiple players making intelligent decisions when intelligence itself seems to be in shortest supply.

3. Capital Market Endemic – Systemic Greed

It’s a little amusing to read that none other than David Solomon of none other than Goldman Sachs opined at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum that “greed has far outpaced fear”.  I have no doubt that he speaks with authority in this matter.

I have long ago concluded that the capital markets were not so much a market for investing and capital allocation as a form of legalized gambling and sanctioned fraud.  It flushed out much of the retail trade in the fallout of the dot.com implosion, and had to prey instead on corporate suckers-in-suits.  Softbank \ WeWork \ Archegos \ Theranos all exemplify the syndrome of what the market has become. The electric vehicle and ESG segment are also ripe territory. COVID didn’t cause the Capital Market Endemic; it just played 52 Card pickup with the gaming table.

But, ironically Covid brought back the retail market in an appropriately viral and hybrid form: partly gamers looking for an adrenaline rush with the possibility of payback; some revolutionaries who see the Gamestop\ meme investing\Robinhood template as a means of hanging capitalists with their own rope; and desperate souls who believe that, like state lotteries, The Market is a game anyone can play, and maybe with better odds leveraged by ‘the wisdom of crowds’(?).

The Wall Street economy has long been detached from the Main Street economy, though some self-professed market seers have protested to the contrary.  The reasonableness of market indices is predicated on the bubble that the market has become, insulated and isolated from Main Street, and subject to its own contorted logic, shamans and mysticism.  The ‘wealth-effect’ that is the reputed by-product of its contortions has the inflationary effect of drawing resources from where they are needed to where they are wasteful.  That will continue until the government serves its proper function of curbing the excesses of a dysfunctional market and redirecting it to serving society as a whole.  I do not see that prospect on the horizon.

*   *   *

Inflation has a valid purpose as an indicator of imbalance among market forces in meeting market needs.  It assumes that a self-organizing market will read the indicators and take appropriate action through its many actors to bring the market back into balance through mechanisms of demand deferral, substitution, competition.  But this assumes a free and competitive market which we no longer have.  It is becoming increasingly concentrated in a few hands.  Rapid and contagious inflation signals a fundamental breakdown in the markets.  That is a more serious signal.  And a few megalomaniacs with inflated egos, deficient intellect, no apparent moral grounding, and a lot of power can leverage tremendous damage.

I am not supportive of investing more funds in SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence in the universe, or for colonizing Mars. I believe we should begin searching for intelligent life on Earth.  And if we find it, we should send it to colonize Congress.  But then, what intelligent life form would consent to that mission?