Friday, August 29, 2014

Today's thoughts on ISIS

Just like our President, I don't yet have a strategy with regard to ISIS. I'm not even sure whether they're worth defeating. 

The fact that President Obama has refused to be rushed by the media into taking action is refreshing; then again, it's typical Obama restraint that at other times is so frustrating. When our troops' lives and billions of dollars are on the line, his restraint is atypical of balls-to-the-wall Presidents trying to look tough, and who pay for it with the nation's credit card and somebody else's children.

Pop quiz: How many fighters does ISIS have?  You probably don't know. If you nevertheless feel we must defeat ISIS, little facts like this one are important.

Spot check: If there were no YouTube videos or reports of ISIS carving off Westerners' heads, would you feel the same way about them?  The answer is probably no. So is emotion -- or revulsion, as the case may be -- a proper basis for going to war?

My impression is that many Americans -- driven by FOX and talk radio -- have an ill-informed, fear-based, apocalyptic view of ISIS. Maybe ISIS is indeed worth our trouble to "take out," but let's be real: an Islamic state they are not. Al Qaeda they are not.

Because as I've said so many times before: conflict and religious extremism are encouraged by failed states, not vice-versa. ISIS is the orphan of Syria to the west and Iraq to the east, who got a huge, unexpected inheritance from its rich Uncle Sam with lots of guns who lives across the ocean.

Today I was listening to talk radio. First, Rush Limbaugh. He was slamming Obama's "no strategy yet" statement, naturally, but also Obama's caveat that we cannot "perpetually" destroy ISIS: as soon as we would leave, they would reconstitute. "Can you imagine FDR telling the American public that we couldn't perpetually defeat Nazi Germany?" Rush asked, incredulous, in perpetual outrage mode.

Bam.  Rush hit one of my pet peeves: comparing everything with Nazis and WWII.  Hell, Russia's president Putin is doing it right now, comparing Ukraine's army's actions against terrorists in its own country to the actions of Nazis in the siege of Leningrad.  Crazy, right?  Well it's crazy here, too. 

Because ISIS is not a state. They may have pretensions or plans to statehood, but a state they are not. There is no infrastructure of theirs to blow up -- they'd probably blow it up first, just for the hits on YouTube.  They have no political apparatus -- they are strictly a paramilitary organization.  And ISIS has none of the other trappings of a state with which we'd go to war and eventually have to make peace with.  

Incidentally, Obama is right: ISIS can be hurt or even crippled by the U.S., but with failing states and the ensuing anarchy in Syria and Iraq, not to mention volunteers from all over the world, and donations from our "allies" the Saudis, ISIS surely would come back. Indeed, they are not Nazi Germany. They don't intend to rebuild anything or hold any borders. All ISIS needs to do is re-arm. 

So we should be careful about declaring war on groups of irregular soldiers with tons of outside support, some of it from our "allies." The U.S. is the most powerful and richest country on Earth; when we bend down to crush an ant, suddenly that ant gains status

Do we really want to grant ISIS such "enemy" status? Methinks that is exactly what ISIS wants, that's why they're executing our citizens after demanding ridiculous ransoms they know that nobody will pay.  ISIS wants the U.S. to get involved.  Hey, there's no better recruiting and donations tool than the Great Satan as your adversary.

I mean, think for a second without emotion. Let's say the U.S. declares war on ISIS.  Then we wipe them off the battlefield, winning every fight along the way.Then we go home, or leave yet another small training and security force in Iraq. And then... two months later ISIS is back.  It doesn't matter in what guise. Nevertheless they're back on YouTube, back to taking hostages, back to seizing unprotected villages in the desert, whatever. Suddenly -- and this is important -- ISIS can say that it "defeated" the United States. It wasn't destroyed. All ISIS has to do to win is live, in whatever form, to fight another day.   

Understanding that, if you were POTUS, would you want to commit yourself to total victory over ISIS in Rush Limbaugh's terms? Or would you hedge? Or would you even consider doing nothing at all? What's the upside?  Does ISIS really represent a clear and present danger to the U.S.?  No.  To our allies?  Well, yes (Iraq), no (Syria) and maybe (Saudi Arabia, et al). Meanwhile, those allies do not have armies capable of defending themselves -- they rely on the U.S. 

Even worse, meanwhile, some of those allies -- cough, Saudi Arabi! cough! cough! -- spend billions exporting Wahhabist and jihadist religion all over the world that bites themselves and us in the ass. 

And meanwhile, sadly, as our small attention span is captured by masked men with dull knives in the desert, a European country is being invaded for the first time since WWII by an honest-to-God scary military power. THAT'S where the WWII analogies should be drawn.  HAT'S where America's attention should be.

Alas, our media loves sensation and so do we.  Folks, let's be smarter and shrewder, eh? 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Guns in Kroger and the myth of the open-carry Old West

You never know what mortal dangers you might face at the Kroger pharmacy, so be packing!

This story from HuffPo gives me deja vu from February 2013, because gun nuts have chosen Kroger stores to carry their AR-15s into as a display of their "rights." My response then still applies:

Imagine being with your child or grandchild and seeing this guy walk into the Kroger or Walmart before you toting an AR-15. At that moment, I guarantee that you won't be thinking, "Hooray for the Second Amendment!" You'll immediately go into fight-or-flight mode, fearing for the life of your child. You might use your own gun, preemptively, if you have one, creating all kinds of deadly confusion.

You might dial 911 and precipitate a costly and dangerous emergency, or a standoff situation if the guy is itching for it. In any case, I guarantee that you wouldn't not feel terror, it's just human instinct.

This is the country that the NRA and GOP have given us. This is not the country of our grandparents; there's nothing "conservative" or traditionally American about a guy casually walking into a grocery store with a deadly weapon that can fire more than 120 rounds per minute.

On the flip side, I have a second protest against an open-carry society: ironically, it would dull the instincts of those who carry guns to protect themselves and put them in danger. I mean, if everybody's carrying a gun and there's nothing alarming about that anymore, then how much time would you have to react if one of those folks in the crowd decides to point and shoot you? A second, maybe. Whereas if you see a guy with a gun today, in most cases, you're either immediately running away, calling the police or getting ready to defend yourself.  

That's why even in the Old West, where today we imagine everybody and his granny was packing, in fact many towns practiced gun control, for example in famous Dodge City, as my man Leonard Pitts recently pointed out: "Forget that myth about open carry’s Old West roots."

By Ben Hallman
August 18, 2014 | Huffington Post

News digest / Catching up on news (08.24.2014)

Here's a news roundup from the past few weeks. Sorry I haven't had time to re-post these with the thoughtful and incisive commentary that you've come to expect from me:

"How Isis came to be," By Ali Khadery, August 22, 2014, Guardian. URL:  -- FASCINATING, ESP. CONSIDERING THE U.S. HAS ARMED ISIS TWICE ALREADY

"Obama's legacy could be a revitalized NATO," By Anne Applebaum, August 22, 2014, Washington Post. URL: -- A SCARIER RUSSIA DEMANDS A STRONGER NATO

"New Study Debunks Big Corporations' Tax Inversion Arguments," By Ben Hallman, August 19, 2014, Huffington Post. URL:  -- THE FACTS DON'T SUPPORT INVERSION

"Left out in the cold by the ice bucket fad," By Michael Hiltzik, August 21, 2014, Los Angeles Times. URL: --  DONATE MONEY; CONSERVE WATER

"US still has time to stake out a position of strength in Ukraine," By John Bolton, August 21, 2014, Los Angeles Times. URL: -- USUALLY I DISAGREE WITH 'YOSEMITE SAM' BOLTON, BUT HE'S BASICALLY CORRECT

"Shoddy US roads, bridges take a toll on the economy," By Don Lee, August 17, 2014, Los Angeles Times. URL:  -- WHY LIBERALS AND DEMOCRATS CAN'T RUN AND WIN ON THIS SIMPLE FACT IS BEYOND MY UNDERSTANDING

"Among world leaders, the trend for acting like Vladimir Putin is catching on," By Adam Taylor, August 14, 2014, Washington Post. URL:  -- JUST TAKE YOUR SHIRT OFF IF YOU WANT TO BE LIKE PUTIN!

"The GOP’s war on voters continues in Virginia," By Editorial Board, August 14, 2014, Washington Post. URL: -- PESKY VOTERS! WISH THEY'D JUST STAY AT HOME!

"The case for free tampons," By Jessica Valenti, August 14, 2014, Guardian. URL: -- IT GENERATED A LOT OF BUZZ ON THE INTERNETS

"Economic inequality, not just wages at the bottom, needs to be addressed," By Harold Meyerson, August 13, 2014, Washington Post. URL:  -- AMEN BROTHER

"WATCH this to understand the level of Russia’s sickness," August 9, 2014, YouTube. URL: --EVER WONDERED WHAT FASCIST STATE THEATER LOOKS LIKE?  HERE YOU GO

"Teenagers in US prisons: it's time for the savagery and neglect to finally end," By Sadhbh Walshe, August 7, 2014, Guardian. URL: -- OUR COLLECTIVE SHAME

Ukrainian Independence Day parades: Compare & contrast

Whereas Ukraine put on a somber and patriotic Independence Day parade in Kyiv, in traditional national dress, without cursing or mocking anybody...

... the terrorists and rebels in Donetsk garishly paraded Ukrainian POWs on the street to cheers of "fascists," "f-ing demons" and "faggots," then symbolically "washed" the street after them with a water truck:

UPDATE (08.25.2014): The forced march and intentional public humiliation of Ukrainian POWs in Donetsk was likely a war crime under the Geneva Conventions: "Donetsk POW March: When Is A Parade A War Crime?
The misled and brainwashed crowd in Donetsk was ready to tear their brothers apart like animals. 

Reconciliation in Eastern Ukraine will be a decades-long endeavor, but first Ukraine's victory there against Russian aggression must be secured.

Happy Independence Day to my Ukrainian friends!  You have suffered much already; may you endure till the end.  Glory to Ukraine!  Glory to the heroes!  Слава Україні -- Героям слава!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

U.S. economy stinks because of greedy corporations?

Blodget accurately uses the word "greedy" and "short term" to describe how U.S. corporations are acting -- by cutting back staff, freezing most workers' wages, and buying back stock. 

Yet there's another way to look at these trends: from an orthodox business perspective. Indeed, in my finance course in business school, we were taught that corporate decisions such as buying back shares and issuing big dividends may be popular among investors; yet such actions must also be eyed skeptically by long-term investors, since they are a signal that the corporation can currently find no better use of its profit, such as R&D or capital investment.

 Now jump to the "job creators" myth, and you'll understand why this is relevant: every time Wall Street cheers these short-term gains in stock price, U.S. workers are losing out again, because either somebody's not getting hired or somebody's not getting a raise. And this means less consumption and economic activity (about 70 percent of U.S. GDP).  

And this gets back to the idea of depressed aggregate demand, and why the "job creators" myth is bullshit, because the capitalists (people with money) and the corporate owners (shareholders) and officers, when acting rationally in a system where their customers don't have as much money as they once did to buy their products, stop investing and producing as much, because this seems like the sensible thing to do. And they all do this at once. They are prisoners in the same system that wage-earners and consumers inhabit; they're not divorced from it, at least not in the long term. 

So this idea that job creators, if government would only get out of their way and/or cut their taxes, would behave much differently than they are now, is totally bogus and irrational, because although they are at the top, they are not the commanders of the system, nor do they stand apart from it. 

In fact, as Paul Krugman pointed out back in 2010, and just about every business survey since then has supported, lack of demand (sluggish sales) is the key business problem, not taxes or regulation or general "uncertainty."  

By Henry Blodget
August 19, 2014 | Business Insider

GDP Growth
Business Insider, St. Louis Fed
GDP growth.
The U.S. economy is still sputtering. (See GDP growth chart above.)
Why is growth so slow and weak?
One reason is that average American consumers, who account for the vast majority of the spending in the economy, are still strapped.
The reason average American consumers are still strapped, meanwhile, is that America's companies and company owners — the small group of Americans who own and control America's corporations — are hogging a record percentage of the country's wealth for themselves.
In the past five years, American corporations have boosted their profits and share prices by cutting costs (firing people) and buying back stock. As a result, unemployment remains high. And wage growth for the Americans who are lucky enough to be working has been pathetic — the slowest since World War II.
Meanwhile, America's corporations and their owners have never had it better. Corporate profits just hit another all-time high, both in absolute dollars and as a percent of the economy. And U.S. stocks are at record highs.
Even Scrooge would be appalled.
Many people seem confused by this juxtaposition. If corporations and shareholders are doing so well, why is the economy so crappy?
The answer is that one company's wages are other companies' revenues. Americans save almost nothing, so every dollar we earn in wages gets spent on products and services (including, in some cases, those of the companies we work for). The less that American companies pay their workers, the less American consumers have to spend. And the less American consumers have to spend, the slower the economy grows.
This isn't a complex concept. We're all in this together. People make it complicated by casting it as a political issue and inflaming partisan tensions. But it has nothing to do with politics.
Importantly, it doesn't have to be this way.
There's no "law of capitalism" that says that companies have to pay their employees as little as possible. There's no law of capitalism that says companies have to "maximize short-term profits." That's just a story that America's owners made up to justify taking as much of the company's wealth as possible for themselves.
Ironically, this short-term greed on the part of America's owners is most likely reducing their long-term wealth: Companies can't grow profits by cutting costs forever, because their profits can't grow higher than their revenues. At some point, revenue growth needs to accelerate. But that won't happen until companies start sharing more of the wealth they create with the folks who create it — their employees.
Let's go to the charts ...
1) Corporate profit margins just hit another all-time high. Companies are making more per dollar of sales than they ever have before. (Some people are still blaming economic weakness on "too much regulation" and "too many taxes." That's crap. Maybe little companies are getting smothered by regulation and taxes, but big ones certainly aren't. What they're suffering from is a myopic obsession with short-term profits at the expense of long-term value creation.)
Corporate profits
Business Insider, St. Louis Fed

Profits as a percent of the economy.
2) Wages as a percent of the economy just hit another all-time low. Why are corporate profits so high? One reason is that companies are paying employees less than they ever have as a share of GDP. And that, in turn, is one reason the economy is so weak: Those "wages" represent spending power for consumers. And consumer spending is "revenue" for other companies. So the profit obsession is actually starving the rest of the economy of revenue growth.
Business Insider, St. Louis Fed
Wages as a percent of the economy.
In short, our obsession with "maximizing profits" is creating a country of a few million overlords and 300+ million serfs.
Don't believe it?