Question time on the FM website – chapter 18

Ask any question about geopolitics, broadly defined. We — and others reading the FM website — will attempt to answer it in the comments.   All answers welcomed!


  1. Questions received so far
  2. To start the discussion: articles of interest this week
  3. Quote of the week

(1)  Questions received so far

Click on the link to go directly to that thread.  Please use the REPLY button when replying to a previous comment, to keep threads together.

  1. What is going on in Iran and what is the best response? What is really going on in Syria and what is the best response?
  2. Can military service actually prepare you for a successful career?
  3. What does the USA`s support of Israel mean to the people of Palestine?
  4. What is the role of the US in the planned destruction of the states of Libya, Syria, Lebanon and Iran?
  5. Can we develop a national economic strategy, such as the American System brilliantly articulated by Henry Clay?
  6. Has the volunteer military created a class distinct from the American people? If yes, to what or whom do they give allegance?
  7. What do you think of Celine’s laws?
  8. Can Iran successfully block the Straight of Hormuz and its oil traffic? Is this sabre rattling or are we on the brink of war with Iran?
  9. Are peripheral countries like the proverbial canaries in coal mines?
  10. What is the best (most interesting and useful) of the many year-end articles?

(2)  To start the discussion:  articles of interest this week

  1. Recommended:  “The best graphs of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities – Guideposts on the Road Back to Factville“, Jared Bernstein (economist, CBPP), 29 December 2011
  2. Yes, Virginia, Afghanistan IS Strategically Irrelevant“, Bernard Finel, 12 December 2011
  3. Jonathan Ladd (Asst Prof Government, Georgetown U), Why everyone hates the media“, Salon, 23 December 2011 — “Mistrust of the press is at near-historic highs. A new book argues that has dangerous public-policy consequences”
  4. The Worst NYT Story on Climate Ever?“, Roger Pielke Jr (Prof environmental studies at U CO – Bolder), 26 December 2011
  5. We’re weak because they’ve taken away our history and substituted lies: “Why we still can’t talk about slavery“, Peter Birkenhead, Salon, 27 December 2011 — “On a trip through the South, Civil War culture is presented as authentic. They just leave out the slavery part.”
  6. Plutocracy at work in 19th C America:  “State of Nature“, James Kwak, Baseline Scenario, 27 December 2011
  7. Facts, the antidote to propaganda:  “The Ocean Is Not Getting Acidified“, Willis Eschenbach, WUWT, 27 December 2011
  8. More good news about ocean acidification:  “The fishes and the coral live happily in the CO2 bubble plume“, David Archibald, WUWT, 28 December 2011
  9. Important:  “Keynes Was Right“, Paul Krugman, op-ed in the New York Times, 29 December 2011 — Perhaps the biggest story of 2011, OECD governments’ test of Keynes.
  10. Vengeance in Libya“, Joshua Hammer, New York Review of Books, 12 January 2012 — Update on the results of our latest foreign intervention.  It’s not pretty.

(3)  Quote of the week

“There’s a reason we separate military and the police: one fights the enemy of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”

— Commander William Adama on the Battlestar Galactica espisode “Water”, first broadcast on 14 January 2004 — See the Battlestar Wiki

42 thoughts on “Question time on the FM website – chapter 18”

  1. Actually two questions:

    (1) What is really going on in Iran and what is the best response?

    (2) What is really going on in Syria and what is the best response?

    1. (1) Iran

      So far as I see, nothing unusual is going on in Iran (unusual vs. the past decade). What did you have in mind?

      (2) Syria

      Pressure for regime change. Again, nothing new — and we (ie, western public) may not not know what’s happening. It’s not clear we know what’s behind the pressures seen in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, etc. The drivers of revolutions — esp in small nations — are often hidden. We should, IMO, do nothing. It’s not our affair.

    2. Is it possible that the unrest in Syria has been significantly amplified by covert foreign assistance? According to this link (I have no idea about the credibility of the link, it’s just the first one I came across now, but I have seen the claim in several other places over the past couple of months), Turkey and other NATO nations are training and arming a Syrian resistance army in southern Turkey.

      I can provide more links if requested– I’m just wondering if anybody else has been reading the same reports and what they think about it.

  2. Can military service actually prepare you for a successful career? What are the circumstances that lead to a successful transition from the military to a civilian job. Who succeeds and who who fails, and what are the reasons? Specifically, how does being involved in wars figure into this?

    1. There are costs and benefits. The benefits include learning discipline and attention to detail, getting above average pay which means you can save money if you’re careful, and great educational benefits which will get you a free 4-year education either coming in as an officer or leaving as an enlisted man. The costs include having to start again at a lower career level if you decide to leave (time in a military career track will not translate 1 to 1) and some degree of alienation from civilian society (lack of shared experiences). There is also, of course, the risk of serious bodily or psychological injury, made all the more worrisome by serious systemic problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs that often make it difficult for wounded veterans and their families to get the support they need.

      Given these costs and benefits, the military will pay off for alot of people and for other people it won’t really pay off. The people who are most likely to enter the military tend to have some combination of a risk-seeking personality and a lack of access to educational and career opportunities which may be due to their lack of direction, poor performance, or lack of financial resources. High-performers who have their whole lives planned out and plenty of resources to get where they want to go rarely enter the military. Same with timid people.

      The most successful transitions that I have seen are made by people who stay in the military 20 or more years and retire. At that point they don’t really have to work, but many of them manage to find well-respected, high-paying military-related jobs in goverment and business and ride the gravy train for 20 more years. People who spend less than 20 years in the military generally have a harder time– they will probably have to spend a few years hustling just a little bit harder than everyone in their peer group to get established in a new career track. Some inevitably will fail to make a satisfactory transition, and may turn back to the military or even end up in desperate straits.

    2. Cathryn,

      Carefully research the effects of combat exposure. My understanding is that PTSD levels are very high. That makes it very risky even if no physical injury is sustained.

      By “civilian”, do you include working for a defense contractor in a military setting? I’ve heard stories of people (reservists) going to work in the same facility (overseas) immediately after quitting the military.

      re: if you are interested in education benefits: If you can, contact a good veterans advocacy/services office at a college or university. Some are very innovative, and have won awards. There are more veterans in California than anywhere, so that might be a good place to start. They can give you answers based on dealing with 100/1000s of cases. Cal State Veterens Contact list (Excel spreadsheet)

      Matt D.: I know ROTC people that served <20 years and have had great civilian careers, but I do not know how common that kind of thing is.

    3. I learned how to drive a forklift, make a bed, and polish boots when I was in the military. I work in IT.

      I’d say what being in the military taught me a healthy disrespect for arbitrary authority, but to be honest with you I already had that going in. However, being in the military sharpened my existing healthy disrespect for authority to a lethal razor-sharp edge.

    4. The question’s hard to answer, now. Our various overseas follies really queer the calculation.

      I was delighted to finally see discharge day, but I did benefit from my time () sis years) in the navy, and I’m glad I did it. But it was peacetime, and what’s more I was relatively good at negotiating when I signed up. That is to say, I actually **read** the documents before I signed them, and I knew the recruiters were lying slimeballs from the start. Which they are — what they said was NOT in accord with the first round of enlistment documents that they wanted me to sign. They weren’t happy that I, again, read them.

      Anyway, my job (corpsman) was such that I learned some things, and I was stationed in a place where I could take night courses — I had all the math and physics for an engineering degree finished by the time I got out. And I had some minor adventures, and got to see some parts of America that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Here’s another bennie that you don’t hear too often: No matter how bad life gets, no matter what misfortune I may stumble into, it’s very unlikely I’ll ever have to share a room with a hundred adolescent males. This is a comfort, eh?

      Nowadays, though, when I see sailors assigned to my old duty station, it seems to me that their duty is much more strenuous, because they have to ship out for one or another of our stupid, aimless wars. I wouldn’t enlist now. It’s one thing to genuinely serve your country, i.e., assist in a sensible cause. But we don’t do those any more.

      When I think of my own experience, it seems to me that it’s a good argument for universal national **non**military service. Unfortunately, we’ll never see anything like that even discussed by our “leaders”. Hell, for that matter, scrapping the draft was one of the very worst parts of Nixon’s poisonous legacy. I suspect a conscript army would make us much less eager to invade everywhere.

    5. Probably not . The warrior archetype when fully developed is focused on serving life.
      The dysfunctional sociopathic organizational culture of the military is focused on serving the self.

  3. Submitted by email: “What does the USA`s support of Israel mean to the people of Palestine?”

    It means that the Palestinians have good reason to hate us, and consider us their enemies.

    Given our support of governments in Israel and Egypt, our actions in Lebanon, and our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan — they have reason to consider us to be enemies of Islam.

    1. Dan Rather Reports – A Precarious Peace, 23 November 2011 — Transcript (.pdf). Summary:

      An encore presentation of “A Precarious Peace.” While demonstrations spread across the Middle East, there is calm in what has long been one of the region’s flashpoints, the West Bank. Credit is being given to a previously little-known U.S. program that has fostered unprecedented cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians.

      re: Retired U.S. Colonel Philip J. Dermer – Featured in the above program: see below:

  4. Submitted by email: “What is the role of the US in the planned destruction of the states of Libya , Syria, Lebanon and Iran ?”

    An interesting and provocative question. As said above, we might not know what’s going on in that region. Some of the drivers of the popular unrest might so far remain hidden. For instance, how much support (if any) has Qater provided — and why?

    My guess (nothing but a guess) is that the US has had little role in the unrest sweeping the region. We’re putting immense pressure on the economy of Iran, but that has probably increased popular support for the regime.

  5. Do you think there is any way to return to a national economic strategy, such as the American System as brilliantly articulated by men like Henry Clay and President Lincoln? If so explain how I would be able to convince others to help carry the banner, like Clyde Prestowitz desperately tries.
    FM note, from Wikipedia:

    The American System, originally called “The American Way”, was a mercantilist economic plan that played a prominent role in American policy during the first half of the 19th century. Rooted in the ” American School” ideas of Alexander Hamilton, the plan “consisted of three mutually reinforcing parts: a tariff to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to foster commerce; and federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other ‘internal improvements’ to develop profitable markets for agriculture.”[1] Congressman Henry Clay was the plan’s foremost proponent and the first to refer to it as the “American System”.

    1. We have a national economic strategy — State Capitalism. It works quite well for the nation’s stakeholders (ie, our ruling elites). We have near-record profits. Wealth and income of the top one percent are doing well in both relative and absolute terms (esp the former, which increases their ability to force continuation of these trends).

      Perhaps you are asking if this system can be changed. Yes, but the spirit of the American people must first blaze again.

    2. That’s an accurate description but can we return to the American System or create the modern equivalent thereof?

    3. (1) A useful national economic strategy for us would look no more like the American system than America today looks like early 19th C America.

      (2) Can we change? I answered that:

      Perhaps you are asking if this system can be changed. Yes, but the spirit of the American people must first blaze again.

  6. Is the current all volunteer manpower structure of the armed forces creating a military class distinct from the American population at large? If yes, to what or whom does the military class owe its prime allegance?

    1. These are important questions. Our future might depend on how these things play out.

      (1) The volunteer military — large and well-paid — is creating the nucleus of a new class (including vets). Distinct in social and poltiical orientation from the mainstream of American society.

      (2) To whom will they give their loyalty? As we see since 9-11, their support (like most American’s) for the Constitution is not for its substance — but for the Constitution as a totem. As the Republic fades away, whom will they support during the transition to a new regime?

      Some posts on this subject:

    2. I think active duty, vet and military families are isolated from the greater culture to an extent. (I am talking mainly about whites as minorities in the armed forces seem, in my experience, to be not very concerned with the Constitution. For them the military is not a tradition, but a way out that could have easily been substituted by something else if it has been an option.) As pointed out by FM, I agree that they tend to view the Constitution as a totem. In my experience, they don’t seem to comprehend that most Americans are apathetic to the Constitution, totem or otherwise. Rather they see the apathy as simple ignorance. These are not the same things. The ignorant can be educated. (Of course, making the Constitution into a totem is a form of ignorance.) The apathetic never will, as they see questions of governance as irrelevant to their lives, therefore they have no interest in doing so. Consequently, the Constitution is not respected. The foundation for a Constitutional Republic cannot be built or sustained on apathy. Some of the more recent fascist legislation signed into law, with little or no public outcry, illustrates this apathy profoundly. (For those who do care, such actions simply help to destroy the state’s already shaky legitimacy, thus further undermining any potential revival of constitutional governance.)

      My own view is that the Constitution is outdated and needs to be revamped for the modern age for a Constitutional Republic to survive. As the population is apathetic, this will not happen either. (The future is not written, but some things are so far beyond the realm of the possible that they are not worth considering.) I believe 4GW theory is the more likely possibility, namely turning away from the state to primary loyalties. One cannot care about the greater picture when more immediate needs take precedence.

      One other thing to note: as the US becomes more racially diverse, the foundations of the Constitutional Republic become less important to a greater proportion of the population. From the point of view of non-whites (and even many whites), who cares what a bunch of old racist white men thought over two centuries ago?

      One thing that should never be underestimated is the power of not caring.

  7. What do you think of Celine’s laws? (I think the first 2 have merit but am not sure about the last 1)?
    FM note, from Wikipedia:

    Celine’s Laws are a series of three laws regarding government and social interaction attributed to the fictional character Hagbard Celine from Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy. Celine, a gentleman anarchist, serves as a mouthpiece for Wilson’s libertarian, anarchist and sometimes completely uncategorizable ideas about the nature of mankind. Celine’s Laws are outlined in the trilogy by a manifesto titled Never Whistle While You’re Pissing. Wilson later goes on to elaborate on the laws in his nonfiction book, Prometheus Rising, as being inherent consequences of average human psychology.

    1. National Security is the chief cause of national insecurity.
    2. Accurate communication is possible only in a non-punishing situation.
    3. An honest politician is a national calamity.
    1. You’re statement “For each it is sometimes so ; sometimes not so” is certainly in the ontological agnostic spirit of its author, which I appreciate. However, it seems to me that the deployment of drones in an increasing surveillance state – in the name of National Security – is well underway (1st ‘law’); that the 2nd ‘law’ constantly occurs in a highly bureaucratic society such as ours (counter-examples?); and that the 3rd arguably cuts to the heart of what a Ron Paul presidency might look like, since he is by many accounts honest and would theoretically get rid of a number of laws, such as those making the drug war possible.

    2. Another Wilson quote: “What the thinker thinks, the prover proves”.

      In other words, people have a theory, and then find facts to fit. Ties into law #2.
      FM Note:

      “Whatever the Thinker thinks, the Prover will prove. And if the Thinker thinks passionately enough, the Prover will prove the thought so conclusively that you will never talk a person out of such a belief, even if it is something as remarkable as the notion that there is a gaseous vertebrate of astronomical heft (“GOD”) who will spend all eternity torturing people who do not believe in his religion. ”
      — Robert Anton Wilson (1932 – 2007) in Prometheus Rising (1983)

  8. Can Iran successfully block the Straight of Hormuz and its oil traffic? Can the US in that eventuality force the Straights open again? And finally is this all sabre rattling or has this become deadly serious and we are on the brink of war with Iran?

    1. (1) Iran can temporarily block the Strait of Hormuz. But only temporarily.

      (2) The US and Israel (perhaps only Israel, which I doubt) have attacked Iran. Undeclared war, like Japan did on the day that will live forever in infamy. Iran has shown great restraint — we don’t know why — by not responding with force. Their threats, such as to close the Strait, are attempts to stop the war by demonstrating the ability to respond.

      The US news media, as always during wars, lies to us. For example, they describe Iran’s restrained defensive warnings as “provocative.”

      That most Americans cannot clearly see this simple situation shows — again — that our OODA loop is seriously fractured. Fortunately our leaders ignore us, paying attention to us only to manipulate public opinion.

      1. This can be a valuable lesson for you on this New Year’s eve: don’t believe everything you read. Also, the Huff Post is not The Economist.

        This article is silly, on several levels. First, the author gives zero evidence for his broad statement, and cites no sources. Second, it’s grossly, dumbly, wrong. The US Strategic Oil Reserve is 726 million barrels, roughly 34 days usage. That buffer (part of the global government reserve, est 1.4 billion) is our primary defense against such supply reductions.

        For more info: “Can Iran Close the Strait of Hormuz?“, Time, 28 December 2011

    2. A more relevant question might be “Can Lloyd’s close the Strait by refusing to insure tankers in a war zone?”

  9. It seems that the important events taking place in the past couple of years first occurred at the periphery of the relevant regions, not in the supposedly larger, more instable, more crucial countries: Arab Spring in Tunisia and Jordan (Egypt came later), Banking and Sovereign debt collapse with massive austerity first in Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Greece (Italy came later), victorious islamist parties in elections in Morocco and Tunisia (Egypt came later), protests in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (Russia came later).

    Are peripheral countries the proverbial canaries in coal mines? If so, on which should we keep an eye instead of focusing on the obvious points of attention (such as, say, Iran or Spain)?

    1. Your question is an important one.

      (1) Beware of correlations without causes, or turning clear physical examples into metaphors.

      We know why canaries suffer first from bad air. Why would peripheral nations act like canaries in a coal mine? We’re guessing.

      An alternative theory m/b that similar societies are equally likely to experience disruptons, irrespective of the nation’s size. Since there are more small nations than large, then small nations appear less stable.

      There’s probably research on this. I suggest Google scholar as a first place to look.

      (2) With modern tools, we need not focus our gaze, or guess at where trouble is likely to occur (unlike policy makers, who must do so — but have more sophisticated tools and experts to help). For example, the weekly Economist gives a nice and brief summary of events. I strongly recommend it!

  10. What is the best (most interesting and useful) of the many year-end articles?

    Please post your nomination!

    My vote: “The best graphs of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities – Guideposts on the Road Back to Factville“, Jared Bernstein (economist, CBPP), 29 December 2011

    From a different perspective: Krugman’s article about what historians might consider the biggest story of 2011, OECD governments’ test of Keynes: “Keynes Was Right“, Paul Krugman, op-ed in the New York Times, 29 December 2011.

    1. Bernstein’s article is quite good. Read the “Comments”; prepared in my mind to fwd it to my usual list of people who already understand and know all of what JB clearly offered…the old preaching to the choir routine. Then I considered fwding it to some Business partners, you know guys in the upper 10% (not 1 %!), the typical Millionaires who now are in full-blown-awakeness (re: mild panic) as our cash flow declines precipitously and (unmarked to mkt) Values whisperingly do also. Nah. Why bother (with either group)? The Republic is already lost. Is there a second Chapter?

      Is there a Big Event that will move us or how about a small event? Maybe the Iranians will just say — To hell with it, you guys will take us out anyway, we will give you a good dose of your own Hormuz Medicine and take out a Carrier or two, bring those Marines —we will see what you are really made of. Little shock and awe, eh boys? Who knows?

      Is there something Big coming? Probably not. Slow grinding dislocation and cynicism? Who knows? But this stuff just is not working, now is it?

    2. Greg – You ask good questions that don’t have concrete answers.

      “[More] Slow grinding dislocation and cynicism?” That is the reasonable bet for the next few years but pressure is building throughout the politcal and business systemes (public cynicism is a good way of measuring the pressure). At some point something in these systems has to give, but the question is when and where will this occur? That will likely determine much about the outcome.

      “Who knows?” I can safely say that nobody knows at this time and that is for the best.

      “Why bother (with either group)?” Because successful changes are driven by people who are being damaged by current trends and still possess the power to alter the trends. Both the groups you mention could reverse the trend if they were sufficiently aware of the damage it is doing to them. The republic is only truly lost when the last person who could change things says, “The Republic is already lost.”

      “Is there a second Chapter?” Why are you passively asking this question? You are very unlikely to be happy with the destiny assigned to you by the movers and doers if you wait for them to deliver to you. Make your own second chapter and start expanding it to your family and friends. Move events to make your future brighter or accept that there may not be a future for you.

  11. What do you think of Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis regarding Keynes’s counter cyclical fiscal policy advice, and in the broader scheme, escape from our current debt overhang problem? Does it suggest a path forward different from Keynes? Is anything possible other than a slow (possibly interminable Japan style) grind out?

    1. A summary of our situation from Causes of the financial crisis (no, its not the usual list), 29 October 2008:

      The Thomas Kuhn-type paradigm crisis in Keynesian economics, by which the world economies have been steered for fifty years. The aggregate debt level of an economy is not a significant variable; attempts to integrate into orthodox theory by radical Keynesians (e.g., Hyman Minsky) were unsuccessful. Sometime after 2000 we reached and broke though the edge of the “operating envelope” of Keynesian theory. We ran like Wile E. Coyote off the cliff and beyond — a few exhilarating years — and now we fall.

      The Fisher-Minsky-Bernanke theory is an attempt to integrate aggregate debt levels (or sectoral debt levels) into a Keynesian framework. It has not yet been completed, and is IMO the primary (not the only) division in the world of economic theory (the Austrians have valuable perspectives, but not yet expressed as useful theoretical statements). To use poor metaphor, it’s like that between quantum mechanics and relativity in physics.

      Both theories have worked quite well during this crisis, in different ways. The major lesson is that decision-makers inadequately used both — before and during the crisis.

      Looking forward, macroeconomics has moved to a sideshow. Political dynamics, or perhaps political economy, run the show. Economic policy in the developed nations consists of little but boosting the banks and insulating the great pools of wealth from the effects of the large-scale processes now in motion. Our ruling elites have choosen to ignore the lessons of the 1930s (ie, repeat their mistakes of the 1930s) and the many national-level busts since then. At best, this probably dooms us to a long period of instability and slow growth — like Japan. My guess is that we should not hope for such a beneign outcome.

      There are other alternatives, but they’re just speculative fiction for now. Grist for future stories of counter-factuals.

      For more information, the relevant economic theory was described in detail in these two posts (esp the second):

  12. How many ‘big’ catches do the TSA or the Air Marshals get?

    Does the government have an incentive to hide or flaunt their catches?

    1. I believe they are deterents, so they do not need to justify themselves by “catches.” Anymore than the water company needs to demonstrate competence by fast repair of broken water mains — or SAC by winning an atomic war.

      It’s a nice gig. Like being defending Earth from dragons. Every day is a success. And if a dragon comes and levels a city — who can fight a dragon?

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