Archive for the 'Politics' Category

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.   

 




Danish surname mystery

According to this list, the 20 most popular Danish surnames all end in “-sen” (meaning “son of”).  Surname #21 is Møller, and the next 7 surnames again end in “-sen“.  Surname #29 is Lund and of the next 21 surnames (ie, numbers 30 through 50 inclusive) , fully 15 also end in “-sen“.

As I browsed this list, I thought of the characters in the TV series Borgen, a fictional series about Danish coalition politics.   I struggled to think of any characters with a surname ending in “-sen”.  The Wikipedia page for the series lists 28 recurring characters whose surnames we learn.  Of these 28, only 5 characters (18%) have surnames ending in “-sen”.  One of these 5 characters is the Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg, whose husband’s surname is “Christensen“; almost never in the series is she called by her husband’s surname.  Interestingly,  9 of the actors playing these 28 characters (32%) have names (which may be real or stage names) ending in “-sen“.

Here are the surnames of the 28 recurring characters in Borgen listed on the Wikipedia page, in alpha order.  Where the surname appears in the list of the top 100 Danish surnames, I include its position in the list in parantheses following the name.

Christensen (6), Dahl (52), Diwan, Fønsmark, Friis (61), Hedegård (98), Hesselboe, Hesselboe, Holm (32), Höxenhaven, Juul (96), Kiær (48), Klitgaard, Kruse (92), Laugesen, Lindenkrone, Lund (29), Madsen (12), Marrot, Mørch, Munk, Nagrawi, Nedergaard, Nyborg, Saltum, Sejrø, Thorsen (89), Toft (71).

For comparison, I also looked at the character names of the Danish TV series The Killing.  In Season 1, there were 11 main characters, of whom only 2 (the victim’s parents) have a surname ending in “-sen”.  In Season 2, just 2 of the 13 main characters do, and in Season 3, not a single one of the 12 main characters does.    

How very curious. I checked the list of current members of the Folketing, the Danish Parliament, and a mere 26 of the 179 members have names ending in “-sen”, just 14.5%.   The ranked list of surnames shows that, of the top 100 names, those ending in “-sen” or “-son” are held by at least 49.6% of Danes (2,774,269 out of 5,590,000). So perhaps having a relatively rare surname is an advantage in Danish politics.  I wonder if the writers of Borgen and The Killing were worried about their characters being mistaken for living politicians or other well-known people, or about foreign viewers not being able to distinguish one Mads Kaspar Somethingsen from another.

 




Cultures of disrespect

The right-wing press are always keen to complain that we are on a fast track to hell in a handbasket, because people in our modern society allegedly lack due respect.  How right they are!  Journalists from one newspaper group hacked into the mobile voice mail box of a dead child.   How disrespectful to the family of the child is that?    And another newspaper  – which had consistently supported appeasement with the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s  – just this week traduced the memory of a man who had joined the Royal Navy to fight for his adopted country in World War II.     Oh the irony of Nazi appeasers accusing an ex-serviceman of disloyalty to Britain!   How they must have all laughed about that in the editorial planning meeting!

And as if to prove there is no threshold below which some journalist will not sink, a reporter from the same newspaper group gate-crashed a private memorial service for a recently deceased family member, held in a hospital, and questioned participants on their attitudes to another deceased.

Have newspaper owners and journalists no sense of decency?




Political invective

I’ve long been a fan of good political vitriol.   Here was a catalog, compiled by journalist Mungo MacCallum,  of words used by Paul Keating in the Australian Commonwealth Parliament to describe his opponents.    With such a past, it is good to see that some folks are still hard at work keeping standards of vitriol high:

Here is Telegraph financial journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, skewering (and rightly so) that smug and arrogant architect of our common European Economic Disaster, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble:

I apologise personally to Mr Schäuble for calling him a dangerous mediocrity: arrogant, shallow, narrow-minded, provincial, and unscientific in equal degree. This was shockingly rude. It brings shame to Fleet Street.”

And here, on David Cameron, is Jack Davis, aka Topiary, who has not lost his way with words since being the tweet-face of Anonymous and LulzSec:

David Cameron is an absolute wet-lipped Eton-spawned fleshnugget with no actual perspective on global policy. I hate the Tories with a burning passion reserved for the Westboro Baptist Church. The fault of cyberbullying lies with the parents, like all fault for everything, especially the troubles in Syria.”

 




Enemies of liberty

Andrew Sullivan on the rank abuse of power that was the 9-hour detention of David Miranda on alleged suspicion of terrorism at Heathrow Airport this weekend:

In this respect, I can say this to David Cameron. Thank you for clearing the air on these matters of surveillance. You have now demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that these anti-terror provisions are capable of rank abuse. Unless some other facts emerge, there is really no difference in kind between you and Vladimir Putin. You have used police powers granted for anti-terrorism and deployed them to target and intimidate journalists deemed enemies of the state.

You have proven that these laws can be hideously abused. Which means they must be repealed. You have broken the trust that enables any such legislation to survive in a democracy. By so doing, you have attacked British democracy itself. What on earth do you have to say for yourself? And were you, in any way, encouraged by the US administration to do such a thing?




And the Romans? What did they ever do for us?

Andrew Sullivan takes down Maureen Dowd:

Obama’s political style is useless, apart from becoming the first black president, saving the US from another Great Depression, succeeding at getting universal healthcare, rescuing the American auto industry, presiding over a civil rights revolution, ending two failed wars, avoiding two doomed others (against Syria and Iran), bringing the deficit down while growing the economy, focusing the executive branch on climate change, and killing bin Laden.”