Saturday, February 28, 2015

The murder of Russian liberal reformer Boris Nemtsov

Yours truly has been more active lately on Twitter than his blog, even though I am on record saying Twitter is dumb. Mea culpa. So I want to get a post on the books for February.

The murder of Russian liberal "reformer" Boris Nemtsov seems like a good thing to comment on in more than 140 characters.

Most of you will never see the snarky left's or the conspiratorial right's comments to knock the deceased Nemtsov down, may he RIP. I'm here to tell you that you should know they are out there. 

They're saying or going to say he was a Yelstin-era fake "reformer" who didn't always walk the talk. True. They'll say he was probably involved in corruption and lining his own pockets as governor of Nizhny Novgorod and as a Duma state deputy. Also probably true. They're saying he was a known womanizer. True. They're saying he supported Putin back in 2000.  True.  And he even seemed to backtrack on Ukraine after the fire and fighting in Odesa last year. True.

But everything is relative. I'm a liberal, so I can say that and not risk crucifixion.  

Relatively speaking, Nemtsov was a Russian liberal. And he was brave by anyone's standards. He exposed the collossal corruption of the Sochi Olympics where literally billions of dollars were transferred to Putin's cronies to run the winter games in a sub-tropical, 3rd-tier resort city. The night he was gunned down on the street he gave an outspoken radio interview on independent Echo of Moscow. He called Putin a despot and a murderer. He called for Putin's regime to be taken down, democratically, but also certainly by using massive street protests and community organizing. 

He went to Ukraine in 2004 during the Orange Revolution and said he "envied" Ukrainians for what they were doing there, demanding political change and free and fair elections. (I know, I was there and heard it with my own ears, to roaring cheers from the Ukrainian crowd.) He came and said much the same thing during the Maidan Revolution in 2013-14.

Relatively speaking, and not just relative to other Russians, Nemtsov was braver than you or I or 99 percent of the people in the world, because he was a direct critic of the absolute ruler of a country where he lived that was known to jail and murder dissidents with impunity. 

He wasn't afraid to stand with strange bedfellows in favor of democracy. He stood with Marxist thug and faux intellectual Eduard Limonov (who had the gall to cast aspersions on Nemtsov immediately after his death, calling him a skirt-chaser and "not innocent".) He stood with Russian chess grand master and dissident Gary Kasparov. Nemtsov, it seemed, was ready to stand with anybody -- or with nobody at all, as one person remembered, seeing him picket alone on the street at a sparsely attended rally -- who was against the current non-democratic Putin regime.

Personally, I believe Putin ordered the hit on Nemtsov. Now was an opportune time. Only the West would care about Nemtsov's murder, not some 80 percent of Russians, and Putin is already in the West's doghouse. Western economic sanctions against Russia won't get any worse for this. The West would fall on its knees in gratitude if only Putin would seem to observe the unjust ceasefire agreement in Minsk II and keep a "frozen conflict" in the Donbas and occupied Crimea. Western leaders are hardly going to make Nemtsov's killing an issue (an "internal Russian problem") when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine -- and perhaps the entire post-Cold War order -- are on the line. So I suspect that this was just a timely moment for Putin to cross an old enemy off his list. KGB guys do that kind of thing.

Others say it was fanatics who were motivated by Russian state propaganda-media to kill the "traitorous" Nemtsov who represented the Western "Fifth Column" in Russia. That's possible. But the fact that this happened meters away from the Kremlin, one of the most heavily-policed and surveiled places on Earth, makes me suspicious. Whoever did this was either crazy/reckless, or pretty sure they wouldn't be caught. The killers also left Nemtsov's female companion alive while managing to put four bullets into him. Would somebody worried about getting caught leave an eyewitness alive?

It's not inconceivable, however, that the "real killers" will be caught (I mean betrayed by their mafia dons). There was camera footage, apparently. Not surprisingly, since it was right by the Kremlin. But these killers will never tell the truth, even if they were indeed put up to it by the Kremlin. That's just the way things happen in despotic regimes. Witnesses can be made to appear -- or disappear -- and the guilty may be innocent or they may be guilty but not necessarily of the crimes for which they were charged.... 

(In a classic example of Putin-era propaganda, where the goal is not to advance a lie (an alternative version of events) but to make the truth unknowable, already the Kremlin is advancing at least three different fictional scenarios of Nemtsov's killing, while Putin's chosen henchman/ruler in Chechnya has come right out and said it was Western spies who killed Nemtsov to make Putin look bad.)

As with so much involving Russia, a mysterious violent event begets conspiracy theories because we know that virtually all decisions are made by a cabal of corrupt Kremlin insiders; therefore it's hard to believe that anything happens without their say-so. In a way, this attitude even augments the Kremlin's power, while giving them plausible deniability.  

Time will tell, I hope, and reveal more facts, but it's likely that we'll never know the real truth.  All is speculation except that an outspoken critic of the ruler has been murdered in public, steps from the ruler's palace.  Even if Putin didn't order this killing, it serves his purposes: it augments fear of him among his opponents, and bolsters the brazenness of his cronies. In the end it doesn't really matter who pulled the trigger, argued Gary Kasparov: Putin is responsible. That's what today's sober analysts and future historians will say.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The myth of tech-economy 'makers'

This short little piece struck a nerve. As a result I'm gonna ramble far and wide here, so get ready....

If you want, ignore the feminist stuff in Debbie Chachra's essay. I did.

First, let me adduce my frequent correspondence with a Tea Party libertarian, John Birch Society paying dues member, Silent Generation curmudgeon and Hayek-Pinochet admirer, who says that every American without a job because of structural changes in the U.S. economy or globalization should become a barber, plumber, landscaper or carpenter, because Americans will always need such workers, who are generally sole proprietors, independent contractors, or even in the "gray" economy that works on cash and doesn't pay taxes.

True, such professionals are not strictly speaking "makers" or creators in the Silicon Valley sense of the word... but nor are they the great middle of white-collar service professionals, blue-collar service workers, home-care workers, etc. They do something with their hands, they can create "something" out of nothing, albeit with materials available to anybody. (But isn't coding just the same in that respect?) I think that's really what Debbie Chachra is getting at, although she would probably disagree. She would call much of that blue-collar work "repair." Her focus is on service-sector workers who are "caregivers" and nurturers.

She's talking about what our present culture and economy seems to value -- technological savvy. Whereas the Bircher is talking about the everyday needs in our economy that seem (?) to go unfilled. Both acknowledge a labor gap where people who can't write the next great app or create the next great disruptive business model -- the other 99 Percent of us -- actually dwell. Most of us are not adept enough to thrive in the tech culture as such; yet meanwhile, most of us are not trained to take care of our own quotidian needs, and furthermore, use such skills to make a living in the persistent remnants of the "old economy" -- I would call it the "domestic demand economy" -- that still needs hair cut, leaky faucets fixed, ceiling lights wired, etc. 

Indeed, the persistent value of domestic-demand economy workers probably does go overlooked. My old Bircher correspondent, however, goes too far, and unrealistically sees in them a way out for ALL those folks who are not made out for white-collar management or tech-savvy. 

To switch gears: In my home city, there is a business incubator supported by the city and a few large local corporations and donors to support young tech startups, most of them trying to write mobile apps. Most of these apps, from what I've seen, are contingent services. That's what I call them. Maybe you know a better term. I mean apps or Internet-based services that consolidate, or piggy-back on, existing businesses. This is the majority of apps that I've seen. The app makers endeavor to provide a composite, streamlined, user-friendly interface for people looking to do everyday things that they already do, not something new. One hopeful assumption is that people will consume these services more frequently -- or at least more frequently through such new apps -- than they do already. I think that's a foolishly naive assumption. 

For if you think of the Internet as a utility -- as I do -- then it's just pipes. In this case, pipes of information. You can piss down this pipe or that one, a la George Castanza, but you're still pissing the same amount. The Internet isn't going to make you piss more. Maybe somebody's new pipe is nicer, or easier to piss in, so it collects more piss -- but it's still just a pipe. That's how I view most Internet startups. They're trying to channel existing demand. Most are disruptive in the sense that they may rupture existing sales and distribution channels of established players by lowering transaction costs and doing better marketing -- but demand (the amount of piss) in most cases is not increasing, it's just being re-channeled. Do you get me so far?

Now let me contradict myself. The Internet's pipe-makers are hoping that, by making product search and payment so much easier, you actually will piss, er, consume more. In some cases, they may be right. (This is where my metaphor comes up dry; because without additional income to consume more, people must take on debt; and in real life you can't borrow piss. But borrowing to consume more, amid stagnant median incomes, is exactly what Americans have done since the 1970s).

Then I hark back to the structural economy. Consumers have to make more money to consume more, whether they're buying at Internet-based companies or bricks-and-mortar companies. The explosion of knowledge-based companies is not putting more money in consumers' hands to consume more. If you're skeptical of this truth, look here at U.S. per capita disposable income:

This shows that, "Per capita disposable income displays a low level of volatility." It doesn't change much. But even that stat is misleading, since rising U.S. inequality means that rising disposable income of the rich skews the total. The One Percent has more disposable income, not the rest of us.

The point is that average Americans don't have more money to spend; they have less. (And they're still paying down debt from the Great Recession). So any Internet-based business that forecasts rising demand is probably a pipe dream. The most they can hope for, again, is to disrupt existing businesses by lowering transaction costs and re-channeling sales and distribution through their app; meanwhile the good or service being bought through them will still be provided by the same existing business that simply loses a cut of the sales to the app.

You can think of exceptions. For example, Uber or Airbnb. They are creating additional supply/capacity with private-sector contractors. But such companies are a transitory phenomenon. They are skating on the fringes of regulation to provide more capacity at a lower cost. And sooner or later regulation will catch up with them. Because most regulations came about for a reason -- usually to protect consumers, but also employees of suppliers -- and so when enough consumers get cheated and catch on, or enough providers' staff complain, then regulation-skaters' days will be numbered. Regulation simply hasn't caught up to them yet. That's my take.

And so I have just debunked the idea that most tech workers are "makers" -- in fact, most are derivative sellers and consolidators of somebody else's product or service. (Exceptions: behemoths like Google and Amazon; but they are still great market-makers and consolidators). In other words, they may create new marketplaces where goods and services can be bought and sold, but that's all. They are not creating new products or services. Again, there are exceptions but this is the general tendency.  And this makes sense! For all these app-makers and code-writers are not experienced businessmen in their industry; generally they aren't trained to make widgets, drive cabs, run hotels or restaurants or fix roofs -- they have never "created" a product or service before, they just see an opportunity to dismantle an existing marketplace and displace it with a new one: theirs.

This realization puts Chachra's argument in its place. She's right that the knowledge economy is sexier, and gets all kinds of attention, and high salaries for some. But most of these tech startups have a lot to prove, and in the end, provide very little. Indeed, they often succumb to competition from competing "marketplaces" established by tech competitors. Maybe one or two survives, and it has little to do with tech, and more to do with first-mover advantages, marketing, and hard-nosed negotiating with existing suppliers. And what are consumers left with? One or a few new marketplaces to replace the old ones; and consumers still have the same amount of money in their pockets to spend. 

By Debbie Chachra
January 23, 2015 | The Atlantic

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Taibbi: 'American Sniper' too dumb to criticize

No comment here except to kind of echo Michael Moore's comment... At least in my youth we had movie war "heroes" like Stallone and Schwarzenegger who actually got their hands dirty and (sort of) risked death, as opposed to a covered sniper on a roof shooting women and children. 

Sean Hannity went nuts over this movie before it was even released, which instantly made me suspicious. I haven't seen it yet but feel like I have. 

By Matt Taibbi
January 21, 2015 | Rolling Stone

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bill Maher is wrong about Muslims

For the record, Bill Maher is wrong. And he probably knows it. He's right that all religions are irrational and most of their sacred texts espouse violence and outdated morality.

Where he's wrong is the liberal response. The liberal response to radical Muslims should be the same as what it has been to radical Christians from the days of the Ku Klux Klan onward: condemn the criminals, not the religion. 

Because religion is like human nature. We can ascribe everything bad we do to "human nature." But then there are all the good things we do, like love and charity, that are also human nature. It's the same with religion: the Inquisition and the Sistine Chapel coexisting.

Maher knows that the United States is not really going to single out Muslims for discriminatory treatment, second-class citizenship or the like. That's not who we are. But he wants media attention and maybe enough liberals to say, "Yeah, maybe you're right, maybe these guys are nothing like us."  False enemies like this are like jackalopes inserted to mock the American pageant. 

Remember: 12 million Muslims live in America. Twelve million! 

The "liberal" Maher is wrong that Muslims are not like us just like conservatives are wrong that blacks or Hispanics are not like us. Who is "us" anyway? Guys that look like Bill Maher? Or maybe Mike Huckabee? People that think like Ted Cruz? Or Bernie Sanders?  

By Travis Gettys
January 9, 2014 | Raw Story