Category Archives: History

Learning from the past

Did anyone predict the 2008 crash? Will anyone predict the next crash?

Summary: There are many who claim to have predicted the 2008 crash. Most (or all) in fact did not foresee the banking collapse that was at its center, that expanded a commonplace downturn into the worst global downturn since the 1930s. That tells us something important about our times, and what we an expect in the future.

Expect the unexpected: fish

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“Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find truth, for it is difficult to discover.”

— Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic “Weeping Philosopher” of Ionia

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An important message of the FM website is that the post-WW2 era has ended, starting an era of unpredictable events. It’s a message nobody wants to hear, ripping asunder our comfortable belief in the reliability and normality of our institutions. We see these things in the history of the 2008 crash, the worst since the Great Depression. Legions claim to have seen it coming; in fact few (perhaps nobody) predicted its nature.

I doubt the many (or anyone) will do better in the next crisis. This uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of our situation. We’re “off the map”, sailing through unknown conditions (that part of the puzzle I got right, writing about it as early as Sept 2008).

As an example of how this worked — and what we can expect in the future — a previous post looked at Steve Keen’s predictions of trouble for our financial system.  He saw the flaws in our financial system, the potentially ruinous fault lines — but not the distinguishing feature that in 2008 turned the commonplace bursting of an investment bubble into a global 1929-like crash: the collapse of banks in the USA and Europe.

Other economists, such as Nouriel Roubini, also saw the danger in broad terms, but not the fragility of the banks that brought so many nations to the brink of Depression. Many non-economists also saw it (though in less detail), such as myself (e.g., the housing bubble and unsustainable levels of debt). I doubt that the senior managers of the banks themselves saw the danger (although their blindness proved quite profitable for themselves, getting paid both to cause and clean-up the bubble).

Another prediction of the crash

Another description of a successful prediction appeared in Gideon Rachman’s review of Jonathan Kirshner’s new book, American Power after the Financial Crisis (Financial Times, February 9): “The fire of the crisis was extinguished at great cost, but ‘the firetrap remained.”

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Mark Twain gives us advice about our wars

Summary: Most of America’s wars have been counterinsurgencies, fought before Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WW2. As we start a new war, let’s take advice from wise men of our past about such conflicts. Such as Mark Twain (1835-1910), who lived during America’s golden age of counterinsurgency. Today we have two of his articles. One gives advice. The other is something to shock us into sense.

Mark Twain

Contents

  1. Mark Twain’s advice about Counterinsurgency
  2. The War Prayer
  3. Other notes from the past

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(1) Advice

Mark Twain on Counterinsurgency

by Mike Few at the Small Wars Journal
16 November 2010
Reposted with his generous permission

In a month when we’re asking the experts hard questions on the need to reform FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency and rethinking the colonial methods, Mark Twain, the quintessential American writer, decided to chime in. Nearly 100 years after his death, Mark Twain is finally publishing his autobiography. In his political views, Twain was decidedly anti-imperialist. Twain wrote in “Returning Home” (interview in the New York World, 4 October 1900):

You ask me about what is called imperialism. Well, I have formed views about that question. I am at the disadvantage of not knowing whether our people are for or against spreading themselves over the face of the globe. I should be sorry if they are, for I don’t think that it is wise or a necessary development.

As to China, I quite approve of our Government’s action in getting free of that complication. They are withdrawing, I understand, having done what they wanted. That is quite right. We have no more business in China than in any other country that is not ours.

There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it — perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands — but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector — not try to get them under our heel.

We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now — why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I’m sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.

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Before your celebrate Labor Day, look at the reality of America’s workers

Summary: On this Labor Day let’s revisit the lost history of the union movement, and its vital contribution to building America’s middle class. Before you celebrate, look at the situation of America’s workers, and the trends.

“If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar. If any man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool.”
— attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Union: bargain or beg

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Contents

  1. Talking to the workers of America
  2. Rise and Fall of America’s Middle Class seen in graphs
  3. We throw away 150 years of effort
  4. For More Information
  5. A note from our past

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(1)  Talking to the workers of America

“There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve alone.
— attributed to Lyndon Baines Johnson

I travel a lot. Usually in a narrow circle of airports, hotels, and business districts. Lately I’ve gone to a wider range of events: farmers’ markets, gun shows, stock car races, etc. I chat, looking at the faces of the people I meet. Looking into their eyes. Here are my impressions, totally subjective — FWIW.

Most of the people I meet are white. I ask what they think about many things. To grossly oversimplify, in general I get similar responses. The economy (it sucks), about gold (they trust it), the government (the enemy), Blacks and Hispanics (they don’t like them), immigrants (they hate them), Asians (envy and some mistrust), police (strong but mixed feelings), the military (admiration), Obama (a wide range of unfavorable impressions).

These are strong hard-working people. They see their cultural washing away. They’re under increasing economic stress, with their class experiencing severe downward mobility (by now unmistakable). They’ve been subjected to generations of information operations by conservatives and liberals. As a result their view of the world is a confused mish-mash of discordant elements, much of which is false (about our past and present, about science and culture).

Most important, the concept of collective action has been erased from their consciousness. No matter how great their strength of the will and bodies, their worship of individualism makes them as easily controlled as sheep. This is easily seen when asking how they’d respond to a great disaster, perhaps the social collapse so many of them expect. Guns, gold, family — perhaps combined with a retreat to the hills.  A guaranteed futile fantasy.

These are the people revolutions are made of. They are soldiers waiting for a cause and a Leader. Let’s hope they get neither. My guess (emphasis on guess) is that the result will be painful for America.

(2)  Rise and Fall of America’s Middle Class seen in graphs

The economic drivers of this class struggle are easily seen. Since 1990 wages are falling as a share of Gross Domestic Income (GDI), especially for the lower middle class. Corporate profits are rising. The reasons are complex, the result has by now become unmistakable: a shift of our national income from return on labor to return on capital. Since the nation’s wealth is so highly concentrated, the result is rising inequality of income.

Wages paid as a share of Gross Domestic Income: at a post-WW2 low and falling fast.
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FRED: compensationGDI
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About half of this lost share of national income has gone to boost domestic industries’ share of Gross Domestic Income: now at the highest level since 1968, and rising.

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The protesters at Ferguson might have won, but choose to lose

Summary: 4GW is the dominant form of warfare in our time, allowing materially weaker peoples to defeat stronger opponents. Such victories are not free; they require a group to become morally strong: cohesive, disciplined, behaving so as to gather support from others. Mere violence accomplishes nothing, as African-Americans will learn again in Ferguson MO.

Ferguson: police car

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“Our immediate goal is to make sure that the residents of Ferguson are safe, that the looting stops, that the vandalism stops, that the people who are living in the community are confident that justice will be done.”
— Valerie Jarrett (Senior Advisor to Obama) interviewed by American Urban Radio Networks, 17 August 2014

“A number of locals have told NPR that they’re increasingly frustrated that Ferguson residents are being represented by small handfuls of looters and rioters, who they suspect are from out of town.”
— “More Mayhem In Ferguson: Tear Gas, Looting, Gunshots“, NPR, 18 August 2014

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Technology has given us superpowers, but not to the extent that we know what’s going on in Ferguson. There has been looting and burning. But how much? By whom: locals or outsiders? How violent have the protests been?

What we do know is that the people of Ferguson MO, especially its African-American members, had the moral high ground after the shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown by local police for still-unclear but probably insufficient reasons. The moral high ground has often provided a decisive advantage in conflicts — even in war. America proved in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, gaining vital support in both from the UK and Farnce). It’s even more important in 4GWs.

The Ferguson shooting might have been the equivalent of the 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks, which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott , which led to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — from which still greater events came. These triumphs came through non-violent protests, requiring great discipline by large numbers of people — achieved by organizations and leadership built over generations. (I’ve been unable to find details about how they maintained such tight discipline during these protests).

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Look at past airliner shootings so we can learn about government lies

Summary:  Airliners are occasionally shot down (collateral damage) by modern air defense systems. Like children run over cross the street, it’s an ugly fact of modern life. These extreme (but fortunately rare) events reveal much about the behavior of governments — and about us. Governments lie; they do so because we believe them (no matter how much we pretend no to). We can learn from our past; we can do better.

“Never believe anything about the government until it has been officially denied.”
— Attributed to Bismarck.

“Since becoming a journalist I had often heard the advice to “believe nothing until it has been officially denied”.
— Claud Cockburn (Irish journalist), A Discord of Trumpets (1956)

Air Defense Artillary

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The young men running modern air defense systems can shoot down an airliner with the push of a button. No matter how well trained, and they’re often not, under pressure the complex (often confusing) flood of information on their screens lead to bad decisions.

(1)  Russia’s military shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on 1 September 1983, followed by the usual false stories. Only in 1992 did they release vital information about the event. They never apologized.

(2)  Ukraine’s military shot down Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 on 4 October 2001. For 9 days they denied responsibility.

The FM website is about America. We too have shot down a civilian airliner. The incident deserves attention because it can – and should — enlighten us about the nature of our government, and ourselves. It’s a standard drama of our time, repeated frequently, from which we seem unable to learn. But first let’s step back in history.

The Soviet Union shoots down a U-2

In 1960 the Soviet Union shot down Gary Powers’ U2 flight. The US denied that he was flying over their territory. They lied to fool us, since the Soviet Union’s officials knew the facts. The truth quickly emerged. US officials then made a discovery of the sort that changes the fate of nation: there were no consequences to lies, even when caught. No penalties. No laughter when they lie again; not even skepticism.

The shooting of Iran Air Flight 655

The USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 on 3 July 1988. The US initially denied it (see this AP story, and the transcript of the DoD Press Briefing. The next day we took responsibility, but made a wide range of claims in defense about the location of the ship and the behavior of the aircraft — all of which justified the shooting.

On 28 July DoD published its Formal Investigation, which won the Doublespeak award for 1988 for “omission, distortion, contradiction, and misdirection”, presented by the National Council of Teachers of English (“Doublespeak and Iran Air Flight 655″).

On 8 September 1988 DoD presented these lies to the House Armed Services Committee, as ritualistic a performance as Noh but without the art and music (see the transcript).

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Let’s stop the 2-minute hate on Putin & think before we reignite the Cold War

Summary: Americans cheer as our leaders restart the cold war, for reasons known only to them (just like the Iraq War). They need a casus belli, and have the ability (abetted by our gullibility) to produce one. In our eagerness for conflict, a defining characteristic of us since 9-11), it’s easy to do. This post attempts to put the current crisis into a more useful context.

“Mysteries abound where most we seek for answers.”
— Ray Bradbury, “All flesh is one: what matter scores?” (1975)

Freed from desire, you can see the hidden mystery.
By having desire, you can only see what is visible.
Yet mystery and reality emerge from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness born from darkness.
The beginning of all understanding.

— Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching

Wreckage from MH17

MH17 wreckage (perhaps), proving something!

 

Contents

  1. Another perspective
  2. Who are the sinners?
  3. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17
  4. What we know for certain
  5. For More Information
  6. Obama’s future entry in Guinness

(1) Another perspective

One cause of conflict, often leading to war, is people’s inability to see things from the other nation’s perspective — and so see things in terms of good guys and bad guys, with us of course as the angels.

Russia, during the last days of the USSR, left Eastern Europe with a tacit agreement that the West would not occupy it. Respecting Russia’s sphere of influence — its “near abroad“, their version of the Monroe Doctrine — might have led to a new era of global peace in the new millennium.

Instead we’ve aggressively moved into the geopolitical space left vacant by the collapse of the USSR. Russia let us run until we came up to their borders in Ukraine. Then came the 2014 Ukraine coup. We don’t know the degree of western involvement. We seldom do in such things, until years or decades later (only last year did the CIA admit its role in the 1953 Iran Coup). However, it fits the pattern of past coups run with assistance of the UK’s SIS and US CIA. Then the new friendly government is invited into NATO.

(2) Who are the sinners?

Who are the angels and devils in this? As usual in geopolitics, both sides are sinners (not every year is 1939).

The West’s leaders must have known that shifting the Ukraine into the West’s military and economic alliances would inevitably start a conflict with Russia. Perhaps like the US response to the USSR’s involvement in Cuba, which wrecked Cuba’s economy and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. (See the terrifying transcripts of the White House Executive Committee described in The Virtual JFK).

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We love the Constitution yet hate our government. The past tells us why.

Summary:  The pasts of other nations provide insights into the problems of America today, free lessons of what works and what fails. Some pasts are more relevant than most. Some are more disturbing. Some are both; these are the ones that deserve your attention.

The Hitler Myth

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As discussed here previously, NAZI Germany was the first nation to break from traditional modes of western society into modernity. During and after WW2 the West followed Germany into a world with a new morality, plus new physical and political technology.  Although we recoil from direct comparison to NAZIs, we seldom feel uncomfortable from the aspects we have in common. Perhaps we should.

Excerpt from “The Good Tsar Bias

By Xavier Marquez
Prof Political Science, Victoria University of Wellington

At his website, 16 July 2014
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Ian Kershaw’s remarkable book The “Hitler Myth”: Image and Reality in the Third Reich {see Wikipedia} is a really clever piece of public opinion archeology. It attempts to reconstruct the rise and fall of Hitler’s popularity in Nazi Germany, drawing primarily on secret reports compiled by the Gestapo, the Security Service of the SS, and the clandestine agents of the banned Social Democratic Party.

…Among other things, the book makes the case that, at least until the war started turning sour in late 1942, Hitler was far more popular than the Nazi Party, which quickly grew to be disliked, even despised, by the vast majority of Germans,  despite the initial improvement in economic conditions they experienced in the early years of the Third Reich:

At the centre of our enquiry here is the remarkable phenomenon that Hitler’s rising popularity was not only unaccompanied by a growth in the popularity of the Nazi Party, but in fact developed in some ways at the direct expense of his own Movement.

In Kershaw’s telling, the contrast arose primarily from the fact that the “little Hitlers” (as Party functionaries were sometimes derogatorily called) were constantly encountered in everyday life, where they were perceived, not without ample justification, as corrupt and overbearing, while Hitler operated on a “higher” plane, concerned with the “big questions” of war and peace.

America has no Leader as the foundation of our political regime. But the dynamics Kershaw describes might explain the largest anomaly of modern American politics: we revere the Constitution — increasingly so, if the Tea Party is representative — but have low and falling confidence in the Republic’s political institutions. From Gallup’s 2014 Confidence in Institutions poll:

  • Supreme Court:…….30%
  • Presidency:…………..29%
  • Congress:……………..07%
  • executive agencies:..???   (most probably rate very low)

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