Question time on the FM website – chapter 7

Ask any question about geopolitics, broadly defined. We’ll attempt to answer it in the comments.   Links to other episodes appear below.

Like Jeopardy, your comments must be in the form of a question!

Questions received so far:

  1. Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU?
  2. Is the European “fix’ (of which we only have rumors) a done deal?
  3. Are there any amendments to the current Constitution you’d advocate? Are structural fixes unworkable and it’s more a matter of will and character of the people etc.?
  4. Der Spiegel seems to be hinting that Germany will abandon the Euro.  Will the other members take the hint, before it is too late?
  5. What was the most important news of the week?
  6. Are you concerned about the EMP threat to our electrical grid from an attack (ie Iran), or solar storm like the Carrington event in 1859?
  7. How do the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street differ as political movements?
  8. Where do I find a good description of the growing political polarization in America?
  9. What is the most important book published recently, affecting public policy?
  10. Opinion about the unification of Europe.
  11. What advice would you have for the non-American parts of the industrialized/modern world, who are watching American democracy decompose, and wondering how to avoid a similar fate?

Previous episodes

Earlier episodes were big successes. My thanks to all who participated!

30 thoughts on “Question time on the FM website – chapter 7

  1. Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU?

    Asked by The_Quiet_Earth at Ask Reddit

    Adam Kolbrenner from Madhouse Entertainment read the story on reddit and contacted the author, James Erwin, about developing the idea. Warner Brothers bought the story, now called Rome, Sweet Rome, and is making plans to film it.

    1. Interview with James Erwin, the author, ScreenRant, 8 September 2011
    2. Warners nabs ‘Rome, Sweet Rome’“, Variety, 13 October 2011
    1. The immediate effects:

      THe Marines would be vulnerable to diseases, but all-powerful while their supplies lasted. Marines require antibiotics, fuel, ammo, and spare parts. They’d also need to learn to forage, a difficult skill in the (by our standards) poor and low-density Italy of Roman times (the population of Rome itself during Augustus reign was roughly one million).

      Their major challenge:

      To use their short-term power to build a secure place before their supplies ran out. After that, they’d risk defeat — followed by a lifetime of slavery. Modern soldiers are untrained in pre-modern weapons and tactics. Line troops, nco’s, and officers took years to master those skills.

      It’s a question what fraction of modern troops could even function well in close combat with blades. They’d have to learn quickly, against the experienced legions of the early Empire.

      Long-term effects of their presence in ancient Rome:

      (1) A massive knowledge transfer. They would know many things, each of which would change the world: the stirrup, the zero, the horse-collar, the heliocentric solar system, etc.

      (2) The diseases they carried from the future would exterminate much of the Empire. Just as the diseases carried by Europeans trashed the civilizations of the New World after Columbus. That would probably be a larger effect than the knowledge transfer, at least for a century or two.

    2. Forget the Romans. A MEU on it’s own can’t sort the Taliban now. The MEF in Helmand could be rendered ineffective simply by shutting down the ground supply routes through Pakistan. I suspect this could be done with 1st Century weapons if the users were sufficiently motivated.

      Why haven’t the various enemy done this? My guess is that like Lawrence they are happy to keep us at the end of a tremendously expensive supply line and do just enough to keep us repairing the damage but not enough to leave while looting billions. Perhaps the Taliban are analogous to English 16th & 17th century pirates. They need to keep the treasure fleet coming.

    3. I cannot find the story, but from memory it’s an article from Analog sci-fi magazine: “How to identify a time traveler”. The easy way: they have the flue and the runs, because the germs are different in every era.

      That will diminish both morale and combat efficiency.

    4. The Marines would bring their equipment and supplies — and probably some animals swept along. Such as rats. Or marmots, native to Afghanistan. Animal carriers of the plague. The effect on Europe and Asia, at that time unexposed to it, would have been severe. Perhaps like the sixth century Justinian Plague, which may have been worse than the 13th century Black Death epidemic.

      A cute little carrier of the Black Death

    5. It’d be more likely that the marines, having grown up with vaccinations against modern variants of diseases and no immunity against 1000+ year-old varieties, would be very sick, very quickly. Someone from the ancient times would have amazing resistances, if they survived to adulthood, mostly from drinking non-purified water, etc. For example, I don’t know if the current shot package that troops get includes smallpox (when I went through basic in ’83 it did) … Anyone going back in time without smallpox immunity would be facing a horrible death.

      Also, as someone who’s done a small amount of sword-fighting in his day, going up against Roman legionnaires who had trained to fight in a unit; that’d be horrible bad news. Also, the ancients were ancient not stupid. I think Harry Turtledove does a pretty good job with this topic in “the guns of the south” (time-travelling white supremacists take AK-47s back to arm confererate troops, resulting in a severe but relatively brief technology imbalance)

    6. This is beyond my expertise, but I believe your comments are correct. Anyone reading this with medical or biological expertise — please comment!

      (1) Modern people might have little immunity to viruses of the ancient world, as they mutuate so quickly. Nor would Marine Medics have effective treatment for ancient virals diseases.

      (2) Even the non-viral diseases of the ancient world differ from those against which we have vaccines and acquired immunity. See this recent article: “Scientists Solve Puzzle of Black Death’s DNA“, NY Times, 12 October 2011.

      (3) We are accustomed to clean food and water. William Manchester described the food of the 19th century: “The groaning tables of Victorian Christmas had platters of food that would be condemned as unfit by modern public-health officials.”

  2. My reply:

    (1) The rescue of Dexia Bank unravels

    The ECB’s advice to Belgium about the bailout of Dexia bank does not indicate that EU leaders are on the same page, or that they’re near a comprehensive agreement: Boomberg today:

    The European Central Bank advised Belgium not to backstop Dexia SA’s interbank deposits and to avoid providing guarantees on debt maturing within three months because it risks interfering with the central bank’s monetary policy. The ECB also said the planned debt guarantees for Dexia may last as long as 20 years, which is inconsistent with European Union guidelines for national support measures to be temporary in nature, according to a statement published on the Frankfurt- based central bank’s website and dated Oct. 13. Belgium sought the ECB’s opinion on draft legislation that would grant state guarantees on Dexia loans.

    Guarantees on interbank deposits “could entail substantial distortion in the various national segments of the euro-area money market by potentially increasing short-term debt issuance activity across member states,” the ECB said in the statement. “It could also affect the transmission of monetary policy decisions.”

    Dexia obtained a pledge from the governments of France, Belgium and Luxembourg last week to backstop as much as 90 billion euros ($125 billion) of interbank and bond funding with maturities of as much as 10 years until 2021. The French-Belgian municipal lender, which is being broken up after concern over its European sovereign debt holdings caused short-term funding to evaporate, sought state guarantees to finance long-term assets including 95 billion euros of bonds with an average maturity of almost 13 years at the end of June. …

    (2) Possible trouble with the rumored additional w/d of Greek bonds

    Investor threat to second Greek bail-out“, Financial Times, 14 Octoer 2011 — Excerpt:

    The lead negotiator for private holders of Greek debt has said that investors are unwilling to accept greater losses on their bonds than the 21% agreed in July, jeopardising eurozone plans to finalise a second Greek bail-out by the end of next week. Charles Dallara, managing director of the Institute of International Finance, criticised European leaders on Friday for failing to allow the July deal to proceed. He said any greater losses imposed on Greek bondholders could prompt investors to sell the sovereign debt of other eurozone countries, destabilising the single currency.

    “We do not see that a compelling case has been made to reopen the deal,” Mr Dallara told the FT. “A deal is a deal.”

  3. (1) Pretend for a minute we don’t need a new constitution… Are there any amendments to the current Constitution you’d advocate?

    (2) Are structural fixes unworkable and it’s more a matter of will and character of the people etc.?

  4. Der Spiegel seems to be hinting that Germany will abandon the Euro? Will the other members take the hint, before it is too late?

    1. Aha. If Germany is not leaving, yet, then maybe they want to boot out Greece instead? Err, according to Der Spiegel, that is?

  5. With rising financial stress and a slowing global economy, the world wants monetary easing — perhaps even fiscal stimulus — by the Emerging Nations (EM’s). Unfortunately, many of the EM’s are fighting inflation — especially food inflation — which makes any stimulus problematic. Food inflation can spark riots, even force a change of government. The bad harvests of the past two years, largely due to La Nina in the Pacific Ocean, have sent food prices rocketing.

    Governments are starting to gain control of the situation, but another bad harvest might have large effects on the world. So this year’s weather will be critical. To see what lies ahead we turn to the just released September Climate Diagnostics Bulletin of the US National Weather Service.

    The Forecast Section section gives us the following warning (bad news, potentially very bad):

    ENSO Alert System Status: La Niña Advisory.
    Outlook: La Niña conditions are expected to gradually strengthen and continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2011-12.

    Opening of the discussion section:

    During September 2011, La Niña conditions strengthened as indicated by increasingly negative sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies across the eastern half of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. … Currently, La Niña is not as strong as it was in September 2010.

    Roughly one- half of the ENSO models predict La Niña to strengthen during the Northern Hemisphere fall and winter, although most of these maintain a weak La Niña through the winter. In addition, a weaker second La Niña winter has occurred in three of the five multi-year La Niña’s in the historical SST record since 1950. However, the NCEP Climate Forecast System (CFS) predicts a moderate-strength La Niña this winter and CFS.v2 predicts a strong La Niña, which rivals last year’s peak strength.

    For CFS forecasts made at this time of year, the average error for December-February is roughly ±0.5°C, so there is uncertainty as to whether the predicted amplitude will be achieved.

    Thus, at this time, a weak or moderate strength La Niña is most likely during the Northern Hemisphere winter. …

  6. Are you concerned about the EMP threat to our electrical grid from an attack ie Iran, or solar storm like the Carrington event in 1859? Ive heard about the SHIELD and Protect the Grid Act but no one seems to be doing anything about this societal ending event.

    1. (1) About the potential destruction from a solar storm.

      (1a) From the Wikipedia entry about the Carrington Event (see the links in the references for more information):

      The solar storm of 1859, also known as the Solar Superstorm, or the Carrington Event, which occurred during solar cycle 10, was the most powerful solar storm in recorded history, and the largest flare, observed by Richard Christopher Carrington, became known as the Carrington Super Flare.

      For an detrailed analysis see “Severe Space Weather Events – Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts“, National Academy of Sciences, 2008 — Excerpt:

      Because of the interconnectedness of critical infrastructures in modern society, the impacts of severe space weather events can go beyond disruption of existing technical systems and lead to short-term as well as to long-term collateral socioeconomic disruptions. Electric power is modern society’s cornerstone technology, the technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend. Although the probability of a wide-area electric power blackout resulting from an extreme space weather event is low, the consequences of such an event could be very high, as its effects would cascade through other, dependent systems.

      … we begin with a description of the magnetic superstorms of August-September 1859, by some measures the most severe space weather event on record. {approximately four times larger than anything seen in the past 50 years}. Known as the Carrington event, the 1859 storms were referred to throughout the workshop as an example of the kind of extreme space weather event that, if it were to occur today, could have profound societal and economic consequences, with cascading effects throughout the complex and interrelated infrastructures of modern society.

      … The disruption of the telegraph system in 1859 caused problems in communication, but because modern society is so dependent on large, complex, and interconnected technical systems — and because these systems not only are vital for the functioning of the economy but also are vulnerable to electromagnetic events — a contemporary repetition of the Carrington event would cause significantly more extensive (and possibly catastrophic) social and economic disruptions.

      (1b) About shockwaves

      For a discussion of shockwaves — what they are and how we should prepare — see this post from January 2009.

      (2) About EMP weapons

      Worrying about the EMP effect of a nuke is a serious case of missing the point. What about the bomb fragments! If one lands on your head it will hurt real bad!

      This is yet another “scare the peasants” campaign. Although they’ve worked it hard for the past several decades, this particular scare has not caught the imagination of the US sheep. Perhaps next time.

    2. But what are your thoughts on the solar event? NASA seems to be hinting toward some sort of major event in the new solar cycle and the government and utilities are doing nothing about it at all.

    3. The consensus was that the Livingson-Penn theory was proven correct (you would have learned about this in 2009 on the FM website) about a slow (low activity) solar cycle 24 (now) and 25. See the current NASA forecast here.

      On the other hand, the Carrington Event occurrec during solar cycle 10 — which was also a slow cycle. So a large solar event could occur at any time; it’s beyond our ability to predict at this time.

      We could spend hours just listing the possibilities, wailing that we should spend fortunes to prepare fully against each and every one. All the money in the world will not suffice. We have to accept that we are, like every previous generation, at the mercy of forces beyond our control.

      Please read the post I mentioned about shockwaves, which discusses to reasonably handle these issues.

    4. Perhaps your question was inspired by the book “One Second After” by William Forstchen(1) – a novel in which the US is plunged into catastrophe by a “high altitude airburst” of ‘uncertain origin’. I’ve gotten emails from several friends who’ve wondered if it’s plausible.

      What fascinates me is that everyone seems to forget that massive high altitude airbusts (including Hardtack Orange which was about 4 megatons!) were a common occurence during the cold war from 1958 onward. There are even propaganda videos about them on youtube(2) Forstchen’s scary scenario, in other words, was pretty common and – obviously – civilization hasn’t collapsed. The type of damage you might expect from a high altitude burst at 500 miles distance would be failure of some electronics and setting off burglar and car alarms. They made pretty auroras, though. Ham radio operators around the world (as well as nuclear explosion detector satellites like Vela) would have heard the distinctive double-click that only a nuke makes – and which can be used by nuclear forensics techs to identify the yield and therefore the design of the device.

      There are other bits of silliness in Forstchen’s premise – namely that an H-bomb might be of ‘uncertain origin’ – the science of nuclear forensics is so advanced that given a sample of fallout IAEA can accurately tell what reactor the plutonium was bred in, and during which fuel cycle. I’m always disappointed in popular novels like these which ignore the obvious wrongness of their premise, then hide behind ‘creative license’; it’s not ‘creative license’ it’s ‘hackwork’.

      Here’s another flaw in Forstchen’s hackwork: even if the EMP scenario were sort of right, the US ballistic subs are designed with the intent of resisting a massive first strike. EMP is not going to effect a boomer cruising underwater, and they deliberately cruise a distance from the US mainland with the specific goal of being able to deal an infinitely more destructive retaliatory strike. At least 4 of them would be submerged and deployed at the time of any EMP attack and they would all survive.

      Given that the EMP scenario is extremely doubtful/disproved, one ought to assume that any terrorist or enemy sophisticated to understand how to build or obtain an H-bomb would understand that the most damage they could do with it would be to set it off in a large urban area. Any force that understands nukes well enough to employ one would also understand that, within a very short time, the victims would know exactly where the plutonium came from and who designed the device. The evolutionary lineages of proliferation are very, very well-understood and thier yields fingerprint them absolutely accurately. (For example, the South African gun-type fission bomb based on the much-proliferated Los Alamos ‘little boy’ design had a titanium bucket around the HEU target to reflect neutrons back into the chain reaction, increasing its yield by a specific amount. That also changes the fallout and double-flash of the detonation. IAEA and the US DOE would immediately know it was an older Israeli bomb – because the 7 South African gun-type bombs are in Oak Ridge, TN and the only other bombs like them were tested by Israel…)

      Nuclear fears are one of the panic buttons that the military-industrial complex keeps periodically pushing in order to secure its funding sources.

      What’s the use of a few nuclear weapons? In ten thousand years’ time we couldn’t have as many nuclear weapons as you. Assume that we are producing nuclear weapons and have one or two. What’s the point? They’d be useless. If we fired them, you would kill the entire Korean people.” – Kim Il Sung, 1991 in conversation with Congressman Solarz.(3)

      (1) http://www.amazon.com/One-Second-After-William-Forstchen/dp/0765356864/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1
      (2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9Gr9YEDRUI
      (3) The twilight of the bombs, Richard Rhodes

    5. Yes but the majority of electronics back then were not affected by emp ie vacume tubes etc, today that is a different story. Ever hear of Starfish Prime and some Soviet test that had noticable affects? Better safe than losing our entire way of life and society collapsing and billions dieing of starvation, disease, and anarchy due to their being no electricity. We must take steps to harden the civilian grid or at least certain key parts of it. I was without power for four days due to hurricane Irene. I dont want to be without power for months and even years due to a prepareable event like this. There was an bill in Congress called the SHIELD act that dealt with such a thing. I havent heard anything since earlier this year on it so its probably DOA.

    6. This is a classic reply to a shockwave scenario. It is terrible! Spend spend spend!

      In fact there are scores of such high impact, low probability threats. We cannot protect against them all. We need a way to assess them as a group, and prioritize responses.

  7. Mass movements tend to be evaluated almost in purely tribal terms. Are they like me? If yes, they’re good! If not, they’re a public menace! So the OWS gets better treatment from the news media, as they are “like us”. The Tea Party movements was covered like a new species of bugs.

    Objectively, the Tea Party movement is (from its start) structurally more promising. Highly committed people, grassroots organization, dedicating time and money, focus on education and base-building (less on media grandstanding), emphasis on political policy and elections. The OWS is deficient in all these things.

    This is a depressing analysis, because the TP operationally did so much right — and has been to date a massive failure — almost totally co-opted by the GOP. They serve as shock troops, justification for the GOP to adopty far-right positions desired by their rich donors — while shifting the blame onto the increasingly unpopular TP. This is easily seen with respect to the original issue motivating the TP protests — bank bailouts. The candidates they support are bank tools, working to weaken bank regulation, cover-up bank crimes, and boost bank profits.

    Let’s hope the OWS evolves in a more effective way.

  8. See “Angry White Men: Obama’s Electoral Arithmetic“, R.W. Johnson, London Review of Books, 20 October 2011

    It’s gated, but illustrates why the LRB (and the NY Review of Books) are among the most useful general media services, and well worth subscribing to.

    Here are snippets from the article:

    Running for Congress in Louisiana in 1961, Joe Waggonner, a conservative Democrat and militant segregationist, faced a tough challenge from the Republican candidate, a wealthy oilman called Charlton Lyons. Waggonner came up with a novel – and winning – argument: he warned that electing Lyons would help bring about a competitive two-party system in which a contest could easily be tipped one way or the other by the black vote. This, Waggonner pointed out, was how Jack Kennedy got elected president in 1960, and that sort of thing would never do in Louisiana.

    … Johnson in 1964 was the last Democrat to win a majority of the white vote. … The last Democratic president to win a majority among Southern whites was Roosevelt in 1944.

    It might be thought that Barack Obama … did make a success of his ‘post-racial’ theme. His was the biggest Democratic victory since 1964. Yet in {many key States} which he won, Obama lost among white voters. In each case he won these states because he won massive majorities of the black and Hispanic votes (95% and 67% respectively). … without them {these States} he would have lost by 315 to 223. Obama also managed to get black and Hispanic voters to turn out in unprecedented numbers.

    … A great deal may be traced back to the elections of the 1960s. … In 1964, however, Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights led to a major Republican breakthrough among whites in the South, while blacks moved, almost all of them, to the Democrats – and stayed there. It was this exacerbation of the racial divide that made it by far the most potent division in US politics – though the class divide, despite a great deal of verbiage to the contrary, is remarkably persistent. Finally, there has been a slowly widening gender gap, one without parallel anywhere else in the developed world.

    The gender gap wasn’t much noticed until 1980 when Reagan opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. In its way this was just as dramatic a moment as when Goldwater turned his back on civil rights: the GOP, the party of Lincoln, was the traditional friend of the black man, and had been the champion of women’s rights for generations. Women had always favoured the Republicans, but since 1980 women have not only been far more pro-Democrat than men but also more likely to vote: in 1960, women made up 49% of the Democratic electorate; by 1980 they accounted for 60% of it.

    … Working-class men, meanwhile, were moving in the opposite direction. … The last institution binding the white working class to the Democrats was the trade unions. …The tide, however, was moving strongly against them: by 2004 membership was down to 12.5% of the workforce, and only 7.9% in the private sector. The recent rise in unemployment will have cut that figure even further.

    In 1980, a vast number of white unskilled workers and the self-employed moved over to Reagan, a trend that has been consolidated since. The main shift in the other direction has been of professionals and managers and liberal Protestants (often the same people) to the Democrats. By the 1990s, the Democrats were getting about the same number of votes from professionals as from unskilled workers – and since 1984 they have raised more money from business than from labour. So there is no longer a party which workers can truly call home.

    … One of the greatest conundrums of US politics is that white working-class men have moved to the right while their wives and sisters have done the opposite. Women vote ever more clearly on class lines; men don’t. Something similar is going on with blacks.

  9. The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert by Donna Laframboise

    Sections 1 – 7 can be read for free onlien at Amazon. They discuss the IPCC, major eye-openers for those who get their news from the mainstream media. You will never recover your confidence in the IPCC after reading this information.

  10. It is clear beyond doubt, that the PEOPLE in Europe expressed their displeasure about too fargoing unification as soon as 2004 (EU treaty). Today, in view of the looming large sacrifices, this is even more so. It looks they find the common market OK, they find the free movement of labour not OK. Armed conflict is looming only on the Balkans. Also in the Middle East, but that is not central for Europe. We have today In Europe the struggle to opt out from nuclear power and from financial hegemony in the EU politics. Both have huge imperatives driving them. We shall see.

  11. What advice would you have for the non-American parts of the industrialized/modern world, who are watching American democracy decompose, and wondering how to avoid a similar fate?

    (It’s become a pet peeve of mine the way Americans keep forgetting that outside there’s more than just the third world. Particularly when someone says “X will turn us into the third world” when if fact X has been taken for granted for decades by everyone else EXCEPT the third world…But I digress. If Americans don’t want to learn what to do from the outside world, maybe at least the outside world can learn what NOT to do from America.)

    1. That’s a good question, with no easy answer. Each people must find their own path into the future, and learning lessons from other’s is problematic. “Avoid hubris and paranoia” is, I suspect, our primary lesson to the world. These are our greatest enemies (see here for details).

  12. What do you think about Israel agreeing to swap Shalit for 1027 Palestinians? Isn’t it a huge mistake? Why have Prime Minister and government agreed to this deal? In general, why has Israel been ready to pay so much here and in previous deals, unlike any other country?

    1. All great questions. But note to which I have answers. I have not folllowed this issue, and know little about the internal dynamics and values of Israel’s society. Perhaps someone reading this can provide answers.

      Swapping hostigages offers nothing but difficult choices. The theory is simple, the practice difficult.

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