Archive for the 'Politics' Category

London life

Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park, London.

HP-SC-London-2012




Remembering Tiananmen

Yellowbird

Last week was the 25th anniversary of the violent suppression by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army of the non-violent protest in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on 4 June 1989.  How distant now is that spirit of hope and confidence that existed in the Spring of that year, a spirit slaughtered on the Square?

In the years since, we have learnt that not all the senior leadership of the Chinese Communist Party were among the butchers of Tiananmen.   In particular, the brave Zhao Zhiyang (1919-2005), at the time the General-Secretary of the Central Committee of the CCP, opposed the action and suffered  politically and personally  for his views.  It seems that Zhao was not alone.  A New York Times investigation reports that Major-General Xu Qinxian, leader of the 38th Group Army, refused to execute an order to participate  in the action, a refusal for which he was court-martialed, imprisoned, and expelled from the CCP.   Other military officers, possibly including the Defence Minister himself, Qin Jiwei (1914-1997), also opposed the action and/or refused to shoot civilians.

By this post, I wish to remember all those who struggled for freedom and democracy across China that spring, and especially all those who died in that struggle. Those, like Zhao and Xu, who bravely refused to join the action are also remembered.

A Luta Continua!




The end of Catholicism in Ireland

It is hard to see how Catholicism can survive in Ireland, given that the Church seems to have been involved in maltreatment, starvation, and mass burial of innocent children in septic tanks, and within living memory. Who could belong to such an organization?  The church apologists have already started arguing that we should not judge the past with the criteria of the present, but when was it ever morally acceptable to murder children?  Like the Communist Party of the USSR, the Roman Catholic church in Ireland was a criminal conspiracy that captured the State, and as with the CPSU, it needs to be outlawed.  Only by closing down the whole shebang and starting afresh can any moral worth be retrieved from this evil, shameful, despicable organization.




Kriegsspiel 1914

Kriegsspiel 1914:   A war game re-enactment of the battles between German and Allied (French, Belgian, BEF) forces on the Western Front between late August and late September 1914, organized by Philip Sabin of the War Studies Department at King’s College London.   Our team comprised Evan Sterling, Nicholas Reynolds and myself, and played as Germany.  We beat the Allies, capturing more territory than Germany had captured in actuality in 1914.  In other words, we not only beat the Allies, we beat History.

The photo shows the final placement of German forces (black boxes) after 6 rounds of fighting, with the yellow boxes showing territory held by Germany.     Cells without yellow boxes are held by the Allies.  This was immense fun.   (Photo credit:  Nicholas Reynolds.)

Kriegsspiel1914-30May2014




Just do it, already, Mr Prez!

Norm Ornstein in The Atlantic on criticisms of Bam that he’s not as good at cajoling and arm-twisting as was LBJ, not as good at shooting-the-breeze as was Clinton, and not as good at hard-ball negotiation as was Reagan.   An excerpt:

But there was one downside: the reactivation of one of the most enduring memes and myths about the presidency, and especially the Obama presidency. Like Rasputin (or Whac-A-Mole,) it keeps coming back even after it has been bludgeoned and obliterated by facts and logic. I feel compelled to whack this mole once more.

The meme is what Matthew Yglesias, writing in 2006, referred to as “the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics,” and has been refined by Greg Sargent and Brendan Nyhan into the Green Lantern Theory of the presidency. In a nutshell, it attributes heroic powers to a president—if only he would use them. And the holders of this theory have turned it into the meme that if only Obama used his power of persuasion, he could have the kind of success that LBJ enjoyed with the Great Society, that Bill Clinton enjoyed in his alliance with Newt Gingrich that gave us welfare reform and fiscal success, that Ronald Reagan had with Dan Rostenkowski and Bill Bradley to get tax reform, and so on.

If only Obama had dealt with Congress the way LBJ did—persuading, cajoling, threatening, and sweet-talking members to attain his goals—his presidency would not be on the ropes and he would be a hero. If only Obama would schmooze with lawmakers the way Bill Clinton did, he would have much greater success. If only Obama would work with Republicans and not try to steamroll them, he could be a hero and have a fiscal deal that would solve the long-term debt problem.

If only the proponents of this theory would step back and look at the realities of all these presidencies (or would read or reread the Richard Neustadt classic, Presidential Power.)

I do understand the sentiment here and the frustration over the deep dysfunction that has taken over our politics. It is tempting to believe that a president could overcome the tribalism, polarization, and challenges of the permanent campaign, by doing what other presidents did to overcome their challenges. It is not as if passing legislation and making policy was easy in the old days.

But here is the reality, starting with the Johnson presidency. I do not want to denigrate LBJ or downplay his remarkable accomplishments and the courage he displayed in taking on his own base, Southern Democrats, to enact landmark civil-rights and voting-rights laws that have done more to transform America in a positive way than almost anything else in our lifetimes. And it is a fact that the 89th Congress, that of the Great Society, can make the case for having more sweeping accomplishments, from voting rights to Medicare to elementary and secondary education reform, than any other.

LBJ had a lot to do with the agenda, and the accomplishments. But his drive for civil rights was aided in 1964 by having the momentum following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the partnership of Republicans Everett Dirksen and Bill McCullough, detailed beautifully in new books by Clay Risen and Todd Purdum. And Johnson was aided substantially in 1965-66 by having swollen majorities of his own party in both chambers of Congress—68 of 100 senators, and 295 House members, more than 2-to-1 margins. While Johnson needed, and got, substantial Republican support on civil rights and voting rights to overcome Southern Democrats’ opposition, he did not get a lot of Republicans supporting the rest of his domestic agenda. He had enough Democrats supporting those policies to ensure passage, and he got enough GOP votes on final passage of key bills to ensure the legitimacy of the actions.

Johnson deserves credit for horse-trading (for example, finding concessions to give to Democrat Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to get his support for Medicare), but it was the numbers that made the difference. Consider what happened in the next two years, after the 1966 midterm elections depleted Democratic ranks and enlarged Republican ones. LBJ was still the great master of Congress—but without the votes, the record was anything but robust. All the cajoling and persuading and horse-trading in the world did not matter.

Now briefly consider other presidents. Ronald Reagan was a master negotiator, and he has the distinction of having two major pieces of legislation, tax reform and immigration reform, enacted in his second term, without the overwhelming numbers that Johnson enjoyed in 1965-66. What Reagan did have, just like Johnson had on civil rights, was active and eager partners from the other party. The drive for tax reform did not start with Reagan, but with Democrats Bill Bradley and Dick Gephardt, whose reform bill became the template for the law that ultimately passed. They, and Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, were delighted to make their mark in history (and for Bradley and Gephardt, to advance their presidential ambitions) by working with the lame-duck Republican president. The same desire to craft transformative policy was there for both Alan Simpson and Ron Mazzoli, a Senate Republican and a House Democrat, who put together immigration legislation with limited involvement by the White House.

As for Bill Clinton, he was as politically adept as any president in modern times, and as charismatic and compelling as anyone. But the reality is that these great talents did not convince a single Republican to support his economic plan in 1993, nor enough Democrats to pass the plan for a crucial seven-plus months; did not stop the Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich from shutting down the government twice; and did not stop the House toward the end of his presidency from impeaching him on shaky grounds, with no chance of conviction in the Senate. The brief windows of close cooperation in 1996, after Gingrich’s humiliation following the second shutdown, were opened for pragmatic, tactical reasons by Republicans eager to win a second consecutive term in the majority, and ended shortly after they had accomplished that goal.

When Obama had the numbers, not as robust as LBJ’s but robust enough, he had a terrific record of legislative accomplishments. The 111th Congress ranks just below the 89th in terms of significant and far-reaching enactments, from the components of the economic stimulus plan to the health care bill to Dodd/Frank and credit-card reform. But all were done with either no or minimal Republican support. LBJ and Reagan had willing partners from the opposite party; Obama has had none. Nothing that he could have done would have changed the clear, deliberate policy of Republicans uniting to oppose and obstruct his agenda, that altered long-standing Senate norms to use the filibuster in ways it had never been employed before, including in the LBJ, Reagan, and Clinton eras, that drew sharp lines of total opposition on policies like health reform and raising taxes as part of a broad budget deal.

Could Obama have done more to bond with lawmakers? Sure, especially with members of his own party, which would help more now, when he is in the throes of second-term blues, than it would have when he achieved remarkable party unity in his first two years. But the brutal reality, in today’s politics, is that LBJ, if he were here now, could not be the LBJ of the Great Society years in this environment. Nobody can, and to demand otherwise is both futile and foolish.”

 

(HT: SP)




Dissident graffiti in Czechoslovakia

MustekStationPrague

In August 1984, I saw a display of cartoons by Jan Bernat, at the Mustek Metro Station in Prague, CSSR.   One cartoon showed a crowd of Western Europeans of various nationalities saying “No”, “Non”, “Nien”, etc, to nuclear weapons, with Ronald Reagan in front of them all with a placard saying “YES.

However, some graffitist had scribbled over this “YES” and written “NO.




Predicting your opponent’s behaviour

I have argued before that I believe few organizations did as much to prevent the Cold War turning into a hot one than the various intelligence agencies, CIA and KGB among them.   The reason for this is that each side lacked accurate knowledge of the true beliefs and intentions of the other side, and the intelligence agencies were at the forefront of identifying, calibrating and verifying those beliefs and intentions.

A good example was the series of NATO military exercises in 1983 which the USSR erroneously feared would be a cover for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against them.   To preclude that possibility, the Soviet leadership came very close to launching their own pre-emptive nuclear strike.  New evidence has come to light about the mis-understandings that each side had about the other, as reported here:

A classified British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) report written shortly afterwards recorded the observation from one official that “we cannot discount the possibility that at least some Soviet officials/officers may have misinterpreted Able Archer 83 and possibly other nuclear CPXs [command post exercises] as posing a real threat.”   The cabinet secretary at the time, Sir Robert Armstrong, briefed Thatcher that the Soviets’ response did not appear to be an exercise because it “took place over a major Soviet holiday, it had the form of actual military activity and alerts, not just war-gaming, and it was limited geographically to the area, central Europe, covered by the Nato exercise which the Soviet Union was monitoring”.

Armstrong told Thatcher that Moscow’s response “shows the concern of the Soviet Union over a possible Nato surprise attack mounted under cover of exercises”. Much of the intelligence for the briefings to Thatcher, suggesting some in the Kremlin believed that the Able Archer exercise posed a “real threat”, came from the Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky.

Formerly classified files reveal Thatcher was so alarmed by the briefings that she ordered her officials to “consider what could be done to remove the danger that, by miscalculating western intentions, the Soviet Union would over-react”. She ordered her officials to “urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise Nato attack”.

Formerly secret documents reveal that, in response, the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence drafted a joint paper for discussion with the US that proposed “Nato should inform the Soviet Union on a routine basis of proposed Nato exercise activity involving nuclear play”.

I wonder if the UK Government communicated anything to the Soviets about the exercises not being a cover for a surprise attack.   And, if so, was their message believed?  Of course, as I’ve discussed before, merely telling your enemy something does not mean that they will believe that something, and nor should it.  And this is why Governments need subtle, strategic analysis of intelligence, not merely the raw data.  The case of Yuri Nosenko is a good example where what the other side believes you believe has consequences, and these consequences need to be considered when deciding what to believe.  And for this reason, clever espionage agencies try to ensure the existence of channels of communication to the enemy which the enemy trusts, so that messages sent through the channel are likely to be believed.   Perhaps, for example, British intelligence knew that Kim Philby and his Cambridge colleagues were Soviet agents many years before they fled to the USSR.




The death of Enos Nkala

The death has occurred of Enos Nkala (1932-2013), co-founder of ZANU, former Zimbabwean Senator, and ZANU-PF Minister in the government of Robert Mugabe (1980-1989).  As Minister for Home Affairs, he was chief prosecutor of the Gukurahundi, the brutal genocidal campaign waged by ZANU-PF against supporters of PF-Zapu and the people of Matabeleland.    This prosecution was undertaken despite Nkala being Ndebele himself.   In a more just world, he would have died in prison.

The Telegraph obituary of Nkala is here.  The writer says:

Nkala became Mugabe’s most feared enforcer after the collapse of an uneasy coalition between the ruling Zanu-PF party and Joshua Nkomo, the leader of the Zapu party. This was essentially a truce between Zimbabwe’s two largest tribes: Mugabe’s majority Shona people and Nkomo’s Ndebele. The deal fell apart in 1982 when Nkomo was ejected from the cabinet and accused of planning armed rebellion.

This supposed plot was almost certainly an invention, but Mugabe retaliated in January 1983 by sending a special army unit to Matabeleland, the home of the Ndebele in western Zimbabwe. The Fifth Brigade’s task was to wage war on the population, eradicating Zapu and enforcing support for Mugabe by terror and violence.”

Well, either Joshua Nkomo was plotting against the government of Robert Mugabe while he was a Minister in that government or he was not.  At the press conference he gave in Salisbury (as it still then was) in February 1982 upon his dismissal, Nkomo was reported by Newsweek (February 1982) to have  admitted that he had indeed sought the assistance of the apartheid Government of South Africa to stage a coup and to overthrow Mugabe.   South Africa had, apparently, refused his request.

The crimes of the Mugabe regime against the people of Matabeland were genocidal and deserve to be punished as crimes against humanity.   It does not diminish these crimes in any way to say the truth – that Mugabe’s government was also right to be suspicious of plots by PF-Zapu and Nkomo to overthrow by illegal, unparliamentary means the legitimately-elected, majority government of Zimbabwe.   Later in 1982, somebody – and this was no paranoid invention of a crazed megalomaniac – blew up most of the planes of the Zimbabwean Air Force while they were parked on an airforce base at Gweru.  The plots and enemies of ZANU-PF were real.

 




RIP: Norman Geras

The death occurred today of blogger and philosopher of Marxism, Norman Geras (1943-2013).  He was a great fan of actor Montgomery Clift, so it is perhaps fitting that he missed dying on Monty’s birthday by just a few hours.




Specialization

Our modern, technologically-advanced, societies require very specialized knowledge and expertise to function.   In such societies, it benefits individuals to specialize. Despite the beliefs of management consultants and the old Bell System, it is not true that everyone can do anything.

In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, the British Government successfully promoted the development of a highly-specialized cadre of nuclear energy physicists and engineers, able to design, build and operate nuclear power stations.  Once that  technology became mature, however, Government policy shifted and it was thought that country could purchase nuclear power technology “off the shelf”; the country had no need for the skills involved (it was argued) and thus de-skilled.  The French government took a different view, with the consequence today that young French nuclear engineers are in high demand in Britain.

Just as it benefits individuals to specialize, so too with cities and regions.  If there are many companies in the same industry near to one another, recruitment of specialized, skilled staff is easier, exchanges of ideas and business occurs more often, and collaborative partnerships and common campaigns are facilitated.   This is why, for example, the world’s leading commercial insurance companies operate near to one another in Trinity Square, London, and have done for centuries.  This is why Stamford, CT, is a similar centre for insurance companies.  This is why, despite the so-called abolition of distance by the Internet, the key US companies in telemedicine all operate within a few blocks of one another in Manhattan.   Michael Porter’s work on regional industrial clusters has been rightly compelling in explaining the causes and consequences of these phenomena.

But what of countries?  Most national borders are historical or geographic artefacts, contingent accidents of history that could well be otherwise.   So, prima facie, what is true of regions should also be true of countries:  it should benefit countries to specialize.  Since David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage in 1817, economists have believed that countries gain from specialization in the production of goods for which they have relative advantage (despite the theory’s flaws).    Why then do many people think it necessary for countries to NOT specialize, to have strong services sectors AND strong manufacturing industries AND a strong agricultural base?   Many Marxists seem to think this – that all countries should have large manufacturing sectors – and none I have questioned has ever been able to give me a good justification as to why.   (Perhaps believing that a proletarian revolution is a necessary stage of every country’s history leads one to believe that an industrial working class is also necessary, and hence a large manufacturing sector.)

Since the Great Global Recession of 2007-?, conventional public policy wisdom in Britain has been that the country’s economy needs “rebalancing” to reduce the role and proportion of financial and professional services, and increase the role of manufacturing.   But why?  Surely, most jobs in services are better paid, have better working conditions, and are generally more intellectually and emotionally challenging,  than the repetitive, dirty, noisy, foul-smelling, physically-demanding jobs of factories.  Of course, modern factories are often clean, quiet, and air-conditioned, because robots, unlike people and trades unions, refuse to work in any other conditions.   

Now, according to The Economist,  the British Government is planning to throw money at industrial sector strategy again – “picking winners” is the term of art.  Not only did this fail last time Britain did it (in the 1960s and 1970s), but even MITI – the once all-powerful Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry – failed at it.   Japanese attempts to enter the avionics industry were a bust, for example, despite MITI’s great desire, focus, power, and resources.

I can see a valuable role for government in overcoming problems of collective action – for example, when the actors lack knowledge of each other’s capabilities, beliefs or intentions, or when there are network effects or externalities associated to actions, or when it is in everyone’s interest to do something, but in no one’s interest to be the first to do that something. In these cases, government can can bring relevant actors or stakeholders together; it can co-ordinate; it can develop common visons for the future; it can suggest, request, cajole, morally suade, and even harry participants to act for the collective good against their own self-interest.  But none of these government actions or policies requires the government to choose winning companies or perhaps even winning sectors or regions. And none requires vast sums of money.