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Should we risk using anger to arouse America?

16 January 2014

Summary:  Anger can be a political tool, motivating both an organization’s cadre and its mass audience. Too risky or the other available tool? Today we examine both sides of the issue, and end with a question for readers.

Danger: Angry American

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“As for those American soldiers asking, “Was our sacrifice in Fallujah worth it?,” one is at a loss about how to reply to the thought that comes to mind this week: No, it really wasn’t. It is time to get angry.”

— “What the War in Iraq Wrought“, Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, 15 January 2014

I remain convinced that motivating Americans is the key to starting a reform movement, both to obtaining the key people necessary to build an organization — and to spur public interest and then involvement.  Appeals to logic and theory are insufficient. Anger is the key to arouse passion, and passion unlocks resources — people’s  time and money.

America, especially the construction of New America on the ruins of the old, provides a plethora of sparks to arouse anger. Jon Anderson mentions one. The bank bailouts rightly aroused anger that led to the Tea Party Movement. The ongoing diversion of Federal, State, and local tax dollars to the 1% provides another.

Readers objected in the comments that anger has an irrational component, easily exploited by unscrupulous leaders. Worse, it often precludes effective decision-making, the balancing of resources, goals, risk, and moral considerations. Too often it leads to futile, senseless violence.

These are all valid points. Consider the dark side of this quote I’ve often cited:

Read more…

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The state of the American middle class: are we thriving or sinking?

15 January 2014

Summary: One function the FM website performs for readers is assembling data into pictures that show how our world works. Today we look at three factors of American households: income, spending, and debt — and how they relate to one another. It’s not a pretty picture, but one we can change if we work together.

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One powerful measure of America’s recovery from the crash is real disposable personal income (aka after-tax income). Let’s look at it in pure form, after adjusting for population growth and inflation: Real Disposable Income per capita. It has risen a pitiful 0.7% per year over the five years from the start of the recession. Slow movement in the right direction.

Real Disposable Income per Capita

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But that’s an aggregate number, and such numbers hide as much as they reveal. How has this tiny income gain been shared? Have all classes gained income? Note inflation (CPI) was 1.5% in 2010, so gains less than that are negative in real terms.

Read more…

Afghanistan: The Desert of Death, an opportunity to learn

14 January 2014

Summary: Our small wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end, but we fear to learn from these failures. Such cowardice didn’t make America great, but might bring it down. It need not be like this, since the truth is out there. Today we have an article that can help us begin  the process of understanding what we did wrong in Afghanistan, and what to do next with this knowledge.

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Introduction

America, both leaders and people, struggle to forget our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The dead lie quietly with those of our many other wars. Our politics continue their mad cacophony — Benghazi Climate Apocalypse Benghazi! The false story of these wars have become a portrait of ourselves that, like Dorian Gray’s, we damage at risk of death — the death of our illusions of competence and exceptionalism. Learning is the enemy of such people, and the path back to security and prosperity.

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Ozymandias

Afghanistan: The Desert of Death
by Anatol Lieven, Blog of the New York Review of Books
7 January 2013
Posted with their generous permission.

I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. …
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

A number of writers have preceded me in quoting Shelley’s Ozymandias to evoke the huge US and NATO bases planted since 2001 in Afghanistan. The comparison is irresistible, but not necessarily apt. Even if only the head and legs were left, bits of Ozymandias’s statue had still presumably survived for 3,000 years or so, which is a pretty good record as these things go. Few US or NATO officials, by contrast, seem to be planning seriously much beyond the next 3 years.

In Kabul, the changes wrought by the West’s 12-year Afghan adventure have a certain solidity, at least to the point where the banks and office buildings would make for reasonably imposing and long-lasting ruins. Even some more intelligent members of the Taliban seem to recognize that the Afghan capital, a city of some five million people, is no longer the rubble-filled and shrunken city that they ruled in 2001; that the modern educated classes have grown to the point where they cannot be subjected to the moral code of a madrassa in a Pashtun mountain village; and that if a future Afghan government including the Taliban wants the help of these people — those who do not depart following the West’s withdrawal — in ruling and developing Afghanistan, it will have to grant them some freedom.

In the southern Pashtun province of Helmand, however, the atmosphere is very different. The presence of the Taliban is much more palpable both from conversations and the watchfulness of the Western forces. The veil of progress brought by the West is also a great deal thinner. During a recent trip with NATO officials, I was kept within the fortified perimeters of the US and British forces and the Afghan government centers — an indication of the current level of concern about the Taliban.

Visiting US and NATO bases there, I found that the images that came to mind were not Ozymandian images of long-fallen imperial grandeur, but rather those of science fiction: of Ray Bradbury’s human and Martian species meeting under an enormous, indifferent sky amidst the vast and utterly strange landscape of Mars.

Read more…

The astonishing news about the December jobs report: it shows continued slow growth

13 January 2014

Summary: Manufacturing is strong, household income is growing (driven by gains for the top quintile). Employment is the weak link in the recovery. The news media focuses on the monthly changes, mostly noise. Strong months confirm the narrative; excuses explain the weak months. In fact the economy’s trend remains locked near the 2% stall speed — supported by years of fiscal and monetary stimulus (now fading). Here we look at the December report. The key point: it gives no evidence that the widely expected second half growth acceleration has begun.

Economy

Contents (revised from the usual format)

  1. The big picture
  2. Did bad weather kill jobs?
  3. Household survey
  4. Establishment survey
  5. Unemployment
  6. Wages and hours worked
  7. What are the hot sectors for jobs?
  8. For more information about

(1) The big picture

This report dashes the hopes — again — of those hoping the US economy has returned to “normal” growth. The growth of non-farm payrolls was 75 thousand (SA), not statistically significant from zero (the minimum significant change is 92 thousand; details here).

This is no surprise to those of us who have said for four years that the US remains locked in a slow growth mode (aprox 1.7% in 2013).  Now eyes turn to 2014, with the consensus forecast seeing faster growth 2.6% — but far slower than the 3.5% expected for 2013 in November 2011.

Consider the price paid for this slow growth. Not just the $774 billion in debt the USA accumulated during the past 12 months (4.6% of GDP), but also the as yet unknown results of 5 years of zero-interest rates and 3 rounds of quantitative easing (the third and largest still running, to be tapered in 2014).

As for 2014, there are too many variables to do more than guess.

(2)  Did bad weather kill jobs?

Most questions and objections people raise to the Bureau of Labor Statistics have been considered in detail by their experts. Such as the effect of bad weather. From the report about December:

Unusually severe weather is more likely to have an impact on average weekly hours than on employment. Average weekly hours are estimated for paid time during the pay period, including pay for holidays, sick leave, or other time off.

… In order for severe weather conditions to reduce the estimate of payroll employment, employees have to be off work without pay for the {employee’s} entire pay period. … Employees who receive pay for any part of the pay period, even 1 hour, are counted in the payroll employment figures.

It is not possible to quantify the effect of extreme weather on estimates of over-the-month change in employment.

Below is an attempt to quantify it. Note that this does not show the effect on the jobs numbers! Also, last month’s weather-related job losses were high, but not much higher than previous peaks during the past decade.

Read more…

50 years of warnings about the next industrial revolution. Are we ready?

12 January 2014

Summary:  Today we look at three early predictions about the 3rd Industrial Revolution, now upon us. We have sufficient warning (and the experience from the first two industrial revolutions), and should be able to navigate through it without massive suffering — to a prosperous future. This is the latest in a long series about what might be the major economic event of the 21st century (links to earlier posts at the end).

On September 23 {William the Conqueror’s} fleet hove in sight, and all came safely to anchor in Pevensey Bay. There was no opposition to the landing. The local fyrd had been called out this year 4 times already to watch the coast, and having, in true English style, come to the conclusion that the danger was past because it had not yet arrived had gone back to their homes.

— From History of the English Speaking People by Winston Churchill

Danger, Construction Ahead

There is a safe path to the future.
“Danger, Construction Ahead” by Kay Sage (1940)

Contents

  1. Preparing by closing our eyes
  2. James Blish: science fiction warning
  3. Jeremy Rifkin’s bleak forecast warns us
  4. David Noble looks at the politics of the 3rd industrial revolution
  5. For More Information

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(1)  Preparing by closing our eyes

As our world has grown richer and our technology more powerful, our ability to anticipate troubles increases. Yet that’s so only if we make the effort to do so.  Too often we fail to even try. Extreme weather (i.e., hundred-year events), climate change, peak oil, and the next Industrial Revolution all show this sloth at work.

All of these are visible problems, long forecast. Yet rather than make use of this warning time, which allows gradual, careful preparation, we interpret failure of the event to arrive as evidence that it will not come.

In the past we could not well anticipate, mitigate, or avoid large-scale changes in the world. Plagues, droughts, floods were the natural course of life, often devastating regions — even destroying civilizations. Social and economic changes, like the first two Industrial Revolutions, brought greater wealth — but its poor distribution created massive suffering from pollution and poverty.

That was then, but need not be so today. We can do better. Too often in America we’re not.

Coastal cities such as New York should have defenses against typical storms like Sandy (details here), as do many of the great cities of Europe. Sea levels have been rising for thousands of years, and the world has been warming for two centuries (until roughly 1950 largely from natural causes), with obvious effects that should shape public policy.  Building cities in the desert without assured water supplies courts disaster. Developing new energy sources prepares us for Peak Oil and It’s a long list.

Too often we squander the time provided by advance warnings for the most feckless of reasons: the problems are coming but not yet arrived.

Which brings us to our issue for today: the 3rd Industrial Revolution is upon us. Below are some of the earlier forecasts of its effects during the past half-century. We have no excuse for being caught unaware, destabilizing our society and causing widespread suffering. With modest planning we should enjoy it fantastic benefits without pain. As with driving, reacting without planning might mean more pain than gain.

A Life for  the Stars

(2)  Science fiction then, but fact for the future

The effects of automation have been visible to some people many years. Such as science fiction authors An early example is in this from James Blish’s A Life for the Stars (1962, second of his Cities in Flight series):

The cab came floating down out of the sky at the intersection and maneuvered itself to rest at the curb next to them with a finicky precision.  There was, of course, nobody in it; like everything else in the world requiring an I.Q. of less than 150, it was computer-controlled.

Read more…

2013 in review: The Annual Report for the FM Website

12 January 2014

The FM website has had 4.6 million pageviews since opening in November 2007. Plus 31,400 comments. The @FabiusMaximus01 Twitter feed provides updates to the themes followed here; it ended the year with 980 followers.

Here is the FM Website’s 2013 annual report, prepared by WordPress:

Maelstrom

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 742,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 31 days for that many people to see it.

In 2013, there were 284 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 2,599 posts. There were 880 pictures uploaded.

The busiest day of the year was July 10th with 26,179 views. The most popular post that day was Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again)

Click here to see the complete report.  It has the following:

  • The posts that got the most views in 2013.
  • Where did readers come from? (only 63% came from the USA)
  • Most frequent commenters.

Things we need to know about the Long War

11 January 2014

Summary:  Today we have a note by Mike Few about our Long War, one of the great public policy issues of America today. We post the work of many experts at the FM website. Usually I post them without comment. Today I’ll add an endorsement. All of Few’s articles deserve attention. This one even more than most. I agree with every line, and strongly recommend reading it.

Know your foe, know yourself, you can face a hundred battles without danger;
if you do not know your foe but know yourself, you will win one and lose one;
if you do not know your foe and do not know yourself, every battle will be lost.
— Sun Tzu’s Art of War (circa 6th Century BC)

Islam Logo

Contents

  1. Understand the Arab world
  2. Understand al Qaeda
  3. Events in Iraq are not a surprise
  4. Be wary of experts
  5. About Counter-Terrorists
  6. A Forecast
  7. A good place to start your research
  8. About the author
  9. For More Information

Comment by Mike Few

Made to the post Now that they’re in the game again, let’s ask “who is al Qaeda?”, 9 January 2014

Excellent review by Owen Bennett-Jones. I’ll try to add a couple of additional thoughts.

(1) Understand the Arab world

To understand al Qaeda (AQ), I spent a lot of time trying to understand the Arab world. In the bigger picture, I believe that the Arab world and Islam is undergoing it’s own internal Political and Religious Reformation. This process started almost a century ago as the Ottoman Empire crumbled and the Sykes-Picote treaty (see Wikipedia) drew new lines in the sand and created nation-states.

AQ is an ideology that provides an alternative to government and religion from the current hated norm. Thus, it has not died. It was never dead, and it resonates with some folks.

(2) Understand al Qaeda

If we want to understand AQ, then we must respect the ideology and stop dismissing it as terrorism. Terrorism is merely the form of political violence that AQ is using in order to gain power and maneuver space (Given their size, it is the only option that they have).

Instead, I think that we need to look at AQ in the same vein that we would consider the spirit of the American Revolution, the ideals of the French Revolution, and the initial ideals of the Russian Revolution. Previously (myself included), AQ was dismissed as akin to anarchist in the late 19th century angry at uncontrolled capitalism.

(3)  Events in Iraq are not a surprise

Read more…

Confronting the Fundamental Uncertainties of Climate Change

10 January 2014

Summary: Today’s we have an article from Quadrant by Garth Paltridge about the politics of climate science. It’s conducted by people, grouped as organizations, operating in American society. That gives it dynamics beyond those they model. This is a good introduction to the narrower discussion of the Possible political effects of the pause in global warming.

Community Climate System Model

NCAR’s Community Climate System Model

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The Fundamental Uncertainties of Climate Change

by Garth Paltridge
Published by Quadrant
January-February 2014
Hat tip on this to Judith Curry (Prof & Chair of Atmospheric Science, GA Institute of Technology)

Posted here with their generous permission.

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The World Meteorological Organisation of the United Nations took its first steps towards establishing the World Climate Program in the early 1970s. Among other things it held a conference in Stockholm to define the main scientific problems to be solved before reliable climate forecasting could be possible. The conference defined quite a number, but focused on just two.

  • The first concerned an inability to simulate the amount and character of clouds in the atmosphere. Clouds are important because they govern the balance between solar heating and infrared cooling of the planet, and thereby are a control of Earth’s temperature.
  • The second concerned an inability to forecast the behaviour of oceans. Oceans are important because they are the main reservoirs of heat in the climate system. They have internal, more-or-less random, fluctuations on all sorts of time-scales ranging from years through to centuries. These fluctuations cause changes in ocean surface temperature that in turn affect Earth’s overall climate.

The situation hasn’t changed much in the decades since. Many of the problems of simulating the behaviour of clouds and oceans are still there (along with lots of other problems of lesser moment) and for many of the same reasons. Perhaps the most significant is that climate models must do their calculations at each point of an imaginary grid of points spread evenly around the world at various heights in the atmosphere and depths in the ocean. The calculations are done every hour or so of model time as the model steps forward into its theoretical future. Problems arise because practical constraints on the size of computers ensure that the horizontal distance between model grid-points may be as much as a degree or two of latitude or longitude — that is to say, a distance of many tens of kilometres.

That sort of distance is much larger than the size of a typical piece of cloud. As a consequence, simulation of clouds requires a fair amount of guesswork as to what might be a suitable average of whatever is going on between the grid-points of the model. Even if experimental observations suggest that the models get the averages roughly right for a short-term forecast, there is no guarantee they will get them right for atmospheric conditions several decades into the future. Among other problems, small errors in the numerical modelling of complex processes have a nasty habit of accumulating with time.

Read more…

Now that they’re in the game again, let’s ask “who is al Qaeda?”

9 January 2014

Summary:  US counterinsurgency experts have declared al Qaeda down for the count many times. Their #3 executive assassinated, repeatedly. Defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in the 13th year after 9-11 we have been ejected from Iraq, which has burst into flames again. We face almost certain defeat in Afghanistan. Our special operations forces fight shadowy jihadists in dozens of nations. Our strategy of lavish killing, often in support of corrupt tyrants, doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps we should go back to step one, and learn about the organization that initiated the Long War. Owen Bennett-Jones walks us through two new books helping us do so.

Flag of Jihad

Flag of Jihad

.Bunches of Guys

by Owen Bennett-Jones
Published in the London Review of Books
19 December 2013
Red emphasis added
Reprinted with the permission of the author and LRB.

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A review of these books:

  • Decoding al-Qaida’s Strategy: The Deep Battle against America by Michael Ryan
  • The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organisations by Jacob Shapiro

As they fled Afghanistan after 9/11 some of bin Laden’s followers wondered whether the attacks on the US had been a mistake. Among them was one of al-Qaida’s most acerbic writers, Abu Musab al-Suri. In public he backed bin Laden: privately he described him as an obstinate egotist. And he was scathing about the consequences of 9/11: ‘The outcome, as I see it, was to put a catastrophic end to the jihadi current which started in the early 1960s.’ Al-Suri believed that the Afghan Taliban regime, the most religiously correct Islamic emirate in centuries, had been destroyed for the sake of a provocative attack on a country al-Qaida could not defeat.

Before 9/11, the organisation’s training camps had processed a steady stream of highly motivated recruits. After the attacks it was on the run. Another senior al-Qaida figure, Abu al Walid al-Masri, put it even more bluntly. Bin Laden, he said, had led his followers to ‘the abyss’.

A decade later those concerns seemed to have been vindicated. By 2011 al-Qaida had been reduced to a few bands of men hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Distracted by the need to evade death or capture they were capable of mounting only puny attacks. Their allies in the Afghan Taliban were a shadow of their former selves: they may have been fighting US forces with increasing vigour, but they were nowhere near conquering Kabul for a second time.

It was much the same story in North Africa, where the local al-Qaida branch, al Shabab, was thrown out of Mogadishu by African Union forces fighting in support of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. In Saudi Arabia, al-Qaida had suffered an even more devastating reverse. In 2003 the royal family had to be persuaded that al-Qaida was a genuine threat, but once that was done the state was running a concerted and well-resourced security and propaganda campaign. Senior clerics were seen on TV denouncing the organisation.

At the same time, many of al-Qaida’s most capable leaders, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who put together the 9/11 attack, were languishing in Guantánamo. Those who were still in Pakistan faced drone strikes of such accuracy that they had to be continually on the move and could not risk meeting up for more than a few minutes. The West’s assault on al-Qaida’s finances had left bin Laden, the son of one of the wealthiest families on earth, worrying about money for the first time in his life. Then in May 2011 the US located and killed him.

All of which makes plain how remarkable al-Qaida’s resurgence over the last three years has been.

Read more…

Looking at natural resources as limits to growth

8 January 2014

Summary:  Previous posts about the future of economic growth in America have examined the drivers of growth. Today we look at the most commonly cited barrier to growth: a future scarcity of natural resources.

Limits To Growth
A typical doomster prediction, more precise and famous than most (quite unlike those in Limits to Growth):

“If current trends continue by the year 2000 the United Kingdom will simply be a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people, of little or no concern to the other 5-7 billion inhabitants of a sick world. … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

— Paul R. Ehrlich at and after a speech in London at the Institute of Biology in Autumn 1969. From “In Praise of Prophets”, Bernard Dixon (Editor) in the New Scientist, 16 September 1971).

Ehrlich also predicted worldwide plague, thermonuclear war, death of all sea-food, “rocketing” death rates, and ecological catastrophe. Dixon reported that “the audience loved it and gasped for more”.

World in our hands
Contents

  1. Predictions of resource scarcity
  2. Reality of ample supplies
  3. Why have we not run out?
  4. For More Information

(1)  Predictions of resource scarcity

The Doomslayer“, Ed Regis, Wired, February 1997 — “The environment is going to hell, and human life is doomed to only get worse, right? Wrong. Conventional wisdom, meet Julian Simon, the Doomslayer.”

This is the litany: Our resources are running out. The air is bad, the water worse. The planet’s species are dying off – more exactly, we’re killing them -at the staggering rate of 100,000 peryear, a figure that works out to almost 2,000 species per week, 300 per day, 10 per hour, another dead species every 6 minutes. We’re trashing the planet, washing away the topsoil, paving over our farmlands, systematically deforesting our wildernesses, decimating the biota, and ultimately killing ourselves.

The world is getting progressively poorer, and it’s all because of population, or more precisely, overpopulation. There’s a finite store of resources on our pale blue dot, spaceship Earth, our small and fragile tiny planet, and we’re fast approaching its ultimate carrying capacity. The limits to growth are finally upon us, and we’re living on borrowed time. The laws of population growth are inexorable. Unless we act decisively, the final result is written in stone: mass poverty, famine, starvation, and death.

Time is short, and we have to act now.

That’s the standard and canonical litany. It’s been drilled into our heads so far and so forcefully that to hear it yet once more is … well, it’s almost reassuring. It’s comforting, oddly consoling – at least we’re face to face with the enemies: consumption, population, mindless growth. And we know the solution: cut back, contract, make do with less. “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

There’s just one problem with The Litany, just one slight little wee imperfection: every item in that dim and dreary recitation, each and every last claim, is false. Incorrect. At variance with the truth.

Read more…

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