Category Archives: Politics / Geopolitics

Politics, international relations, economics, public perception, power, etc. It all winds up here.

The Yuan: Stealing from Piers to pay 保罗

So, indeed the Yuan was made into a reserve currency and the link-by-failure is already being established. It is interesting, though, that the bulk of the value transfer involved is coming from the Euro, not the Dollar or Yen. Linked by the IMF formally or not, though, if either the Euro or the Yuan fail over the mid-term the other will as well. The Chinese and Eurozone economies are intimately linked already, but were linked more by success than failure until now. That the failure of either is a very real possibility is too terrifying for the financial press to discuss, I think, and it is a political landmine public figures are trying very hard to avoid mentioning. It even seems that the made-up nature of Chinese government economic estimates isn’t even in the news much these days. You would think that little detail might enter into the discussion about adding a new currency to the IMF’s reserve currency group.

There is no longer a strong relationship among basic aspects of value assignment, legal ownership, practical control (that is, “real ownership”), vested business interest in terms of the performance value of concerns, and available goods and services in either the Eurozone or Chinese markets. While there are no recipes for economic success, there are several recipes for disaster (ask an economist about this — their responses tend to be as enlightening and humorous as they are depressing on reflection). A lack of correlation between various forms of utility values and assigned values is one of the disaster recipes. There is no easy way to fix this other than a kinetic re-establishment of property rights, and that means there is nothing left to do in the current situation than hope that when they do fail, they fail cleanly. But historically there is no such thing as a clean failure (in theory, of course, all sorts of lovely solutions exist).

Dropping an anvil on the overloaded camel’s back in the Eurozone or China would be rather easy at the moment, as both economies are in precarious situations. In fact, inducing a major market collapse would be so easy right now that failure is almost certain to come as the result of a deliberate action from an external player than by mere circumstance. The more players who realize this is true the more likely such an action becomes: why let a failure happen to you when you can be the one making it happen if the event is inevitable?

In describing the European and Chinese economic situations a financial analyst friend of mine used the phrase “poised to fail” (along with a lot of depressed-looking facepalming). When someone says that to a geopolitical analyst, though, ears perk up. There is always opportunity to be found in crisis, and sometimes when crisis is inevitable the best play is to be the cause of it yourself, because then you are the only one truly prepared. Consider the economic fallout of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008. A similar performance is absolutely not out of the question, nor is having some “terrorists” conveniently demonstrate the peaceful nature of some religion all over a ship in the Strait of Malacca at a perfectly horrible moment.

2007-2010 SPY chart

Rhetoric forces us to pretend that the August invasion of Georgia did not trigger a reassessment of risk in Eastern European carry trade loans, and instead believe that the already liquidated American subprime loans acted as a magical “contagion” that unfairly crushed the Eurozone. As if the European economies were not profoundly overleveraged and primed to implode.

There really isn’t anything to do about what is going on with the Yuan, really. This course was set about 20 years ago (yes, all the way back in 1995 — after the Cold War, after the first post-Tienanmen Square Five Year Plan was in action; as China started on its “Money is Good” -> “Expansion Above All” -> “Don’t Stop the Train” -> “WTO Rules? Screw the rules, I have money!” chain of policies). The general trend will continue, as none of the players seems to have any inkling of how to change the rules of the game — and the trend is of the end of a decades-long political and financial cycle. The way these stories end is never happy.

1984-2015 Money Base chart

Anyone who thinks that events since 2008 have been business as usual and that geopolitics plays no part in this because “its just a market hiccup” is deluded.

But!

Every end is a new beginning, and that’s what is really worth focusing on. That may sound like small comfort (and it is), but if you already know things are going to get worse before they get better, then at least you won’t find yourself sleeping in a bed of broken dreams. It is too soon to tell which way this Jenga tower is going to topple, but we are nearing the end of this round of the game.

China: Yuan Will Be a Reserve Currency, Come What May

EDIT: Indeed, it has been made a reserve currency, or at least it looks like announcements have already been made to pave the way.

The IMF is considering adding the Yuan to the group of reserve currencies. That would put it alongside the U.S. Dollar, the Japanese Yen, the English Pound, and the Euro in terms of “officially perceived” stash-your-value-here viability. As far as actual criteria for inclusion go, the Canadian Dollar, Australian Dollar, and very likely the Russian Ruble are probably actually closer to being genuine reserve currency material than the Chinese Yuan.

But… politics.

China is much closer to a total financial collapse and internal civil disruption* than recovery and stability in its current form. Long-term, of course, China will still be right where it is and the people there will still be Chinese (but there will eventually be far fewer of them, at least for a few generations). A Chinese collapse right now would be a major disaster for everyone. The commodity markets are depressed more than they have been for several decades (in relative terms, actually, I’m not sure that we actually have a post-WWII precedent for what is happening), energy is cheap, credit is massively overleveraged, and yet people aren’t buying enough stuff to keep the wheels spinning.

What does that have to do with the Yuan becoming a reserve currency? It does three things:

  • Gives China access to an external aggregate value device to prop up the yuan if necessary (links their economy to everyone else’s by failure, similar to the way subsidies can do this within a national economy). This effect is actually more a hoped-for psychological effect on the market than a tangible superpower China is being granted by the rays of a yellow sun.
  • Makes the Yuan a necessary holding for anyone trying to carry a balanced basket of reserve currencies (temporarily spikes demand for the Yuan).
  • Promotes an impression of stability in the Yuan (well-founded or not).

Why would the West agree to this? (And I say “the West” because, let’s face it, Washington and London are pretty much the ones who will be deciding.) Because if China were to fail right now it would be a severe annoyance for the U.S. and a complete disaster for Europe and Russia. Nobody really knows what the fallout of that would be, but it wouldn’t be pretty.

The Yuan will be made a reserve currency, whether it makes sense or not, and whether it actually fits in the reserve currency club by the standards and rules the IMF itself has laid out. These are scary times and nobody has any good levers to pull to “fix the economy” so national governments and central banks are pulling at straws because there is simply nothing left to try. All the control rods have been yanked out and tossed already, or shoved in and locked tightly; all the red buttons have been mashed; all the hyperbolic rhetorical devices have been so over-used at this point that the only thing that might actually influence market participants is a frank exposition about the truth rather than more “we’ll do whatever it takes!” and other gung-ho, “it’ll work this time” and “this is the lastest of the last rounds of QE, and this time it will really be the most effectivest of effective measures… I promise!” blather.

[* China is due for two painful corrections which will likely occur together, as they are linked. The first is a political correction; China’s geography does not lend itself to a central command economy. The second is a property-claims correction; when basic goods cannot be had at any price it means the entire system is so out of whack due to government interventions that only a hard reset can fix things. This will likely take the form of a civil war, but who knows. It could be gradual decline toward state failure followed by a logical and non-violent nation-wide roundtable discussion, or even a bloodless revolution coupled with a voluntary capitulation of material holdings by the power elites. But seriously, this has never happened in history and there is no reason to expect China’s inevitable transitions to occur independently of one another, or for either to be non-violent.]

2015-2016 Energy Price Drop Will Disentangle Russia, Not Crush It

Energy prices are dropping. Commodity prices are dropping, actually, in general. Production is slowing. People are finally realizing that China is as flimsy as government construction. The Euro is indeed linking Eurozone economies by failure instead of success, and doing so in a way that limits their market rights. The EU is inherently unstable. Cold War II is finally no longer a secret (though many folks are still oblivious to it).

Long story short: a lot of stuff is going on!

This is one of those “interesting” periods in history — the kind that Chinese proverbs use as a curse. Or, rather, we are re-entering a normal period in history, one where there are more than two poles to the world, and the Cold War alignment stresses are not purely polarized — which means more interesting plays for middle empires (like France), and a very strong possibility that empires that are currently viewed as either permanently vanquished (Japan and Thailand) or part of the new world standard (China) are likely to either find a way to rise again, or endure complete collapse prior to changing form entirely upon resurrection.

Japan might realize the space play it could make by diverting public largess toward space instead of beautifully designing dead-end mountain roads. China will very likely endure a civil war, but it could just as easily be won by the standing government which changes form after it wins as it could be reformed as a republic under a totally different political concept. France my find a way to leverage its African empire to provide an energy alternative to Germany and thereby insulate it from Moscow’s control at the same time it forces it into a subordinate relationship (winning a Napoleonic victory without fighting a war — the way the Germans thought they were “re”winning WWI without fighting a war by imposing the Euro as the new European currency under their former central bank, renamed as the ECB). The Turks may find a way to leverage their water control position over Iraq and work to put ISIS in control of Baghdad as part of a bid to force them to normalize by giving them something that can be taken away. Tehran and Washington are very likely to become close allies. etc.

The world is changing.

Many folks feel guilty pleasure at watching Russian financial numbers decline and the ruble fall as energy prices sink worldwide. Folks think “ah, this is finally it, once Russia’s economy suffers enough, Moscow will have to agree to work with Washington and stop bullying the East so much”.

Well, that last part isn’t going to happen. Not because of energy prices, anyway. There are two reasons for this: Russia doesn’t need money the same way other countries do, and in some regions alternatives to Russian energy are impossible to obtain at any price.

The first point is that Russia is a raw-materials exporter, and also maintains a considerable high-tech domestic manufacturing capability. The reason we don’t see more Russian products in the world, though, is because Russia lack much heavy shipping infrastructure. In particular, its ability to push products to ocean ports is severely limited, so it will never make sense to produce finished goods in the interior of Russia, ship them by rail or truck overland to deep water ports (across hostile political lines, no less — if you think pre-Civil War inter-state tariffs were insane within the United States, imagine what they look like in the middle of a Cold War-style mutual embargo and tariff festival), and from there to the world. China is a much easier shortcut. On the other hand, it will always make sense to ship raw materials from the interior of Ukraine or Russia (which are effectively controlled by the same political decision-makers — even more obviously now than ten years ago), because raw materials can only be had at their sources.

A big part of Russia’s power comes not from being able to throw money around, but by being able to make client states become dependent on material subsidies from Russia. If the Russian’s are subsidizing gas at a certain price in Germany, then the existing infrastructure will be built with that in mind. That lowers the difficulty of obtaining and routing that energy source. That means it lowers the cost of extending that infrastructure and thus deepening systemic dependency on that source over time. That means Russia winds up with a lever of control. As long as nothing bad happens Russia will keep the gas flowing. Once things go their way or favors are refused gas lines might “suffer breakdowns” and prices might arbitrarily increase. It doesn’t matter if the global market price for natural gas is X if that gas is physically impossible to obtain in any significant quantity when you are talking about powering an entire national economy’s energy needs. The local spot price of the gas can be whatever Russia makes up — and if Russia wants to cause pain it can simple experience a series of conveniently timed technical difficulties.

The Russians of today can, as they have for the past several waves of their history, substitute labor for capital when necessary. The methods by which this is accomplished change a bit every generation — conforming to the expectations of the peasantry (and for all practical purposes Russia is still a country of peasants and royalty). A drop in the ruble is annoying, it prevents Moscow from keeping the charade of open engagement with Western economies alive, but does not fundamentally change the power relationship between the West and East, and certainly does not change the geopolitical calculus over the long-term.

France in Syria: Still Not Here to Save the World

Folks have been really excited about France getting into war-mode on Syria after the Paris attacks. People were even momentarily excited about Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian plane the other day. Now Paris and Moscow are maybe working together on hitting ISIS? While the Washington is doing the same thing?!?

Man, its like a giant peace party!

Wait… um… what? No. War is not the same thing as peace. Let’s be careful to remember that. Let’s also be careful to remember that “peace”, taken without any qualifications, is a meaningless, impossible, and downright harmful goal.

Some folks are very hopeful that France’s involvement in the Syrian conflict signals a Great Change in The Way Things Work. They hope that Paris will somehow “bring Moscow into the fold” because “now Paris understands terrorism”. Other even hope that now Paris will bring NATO together under a single purpose (other than simply being an anti-Russian alliance). Lovely hopes, but not really the way things are going to work out.

I don’t mean that Paris doesn’t understand terrorism, they totally understand it — to the point that Paris is expert at both resisting it and employing it where it makes sense. They understand it so well that they know that uniting NATO “against terrorism” would make about as much sense as uniting NATO against Middle Eastern kidnapping.

I’m not saying the French are evil, mind you, I am saying they are savvy. They get the way the game works. They have been on the ball, racking up a string of strategic victories in Africa over the last decade. They’ve re-established their “middle empire” (the “middle” being between Washington and Moscow) while Washington has been too preoccupied with chasing brown guys to notice. This indicates that while they know how to play terrorism for votes in domestic politics (they are too smart to care much about what outsiders think of them) they also know that making “terrorism” the target of a major military operation is totally ridiculous.

Terrorism is a tactic not an identity. You can’t target terrorism any more than you can target long-hand division or yoga. Terrorism is the “civil disruption” phase that a political movement goes through whenever a legitimate political course of action is not available. Consider the evolution of the PLO or Hezbollah. Unless you are over 40, you likely won’t even remember that those are the groups that were arch-terrorists before. Now they are political parties. Yasser Arafat, the PLO’s Dr. Evil himself, received a Nobel Peace Prize (not that the Peace Prize means anything). Hezbollah is a fantastically profitable global franchise operation now, only partially focused (by some measures) on imposing a political outcome in Lebanon (their purpose for existing is the subject of eternally flexible rhetoric — which means the real purpose for Hezbollah’s existence is simply the survival of Hezbollah at this point).

But what about this cooperation thing? France getting into Syria must require some coordination with Russia and the US, right? And NATO? Turkey is in NATO, the US is in NATO, France is (again, that is) in NATO… so what gives?

Coordination will be necessary to prevent more “friendly” (?) fire incidents, but its more the kind of coordination that seeks to prevent midair collisions as polits jockey for superior position against one other while they run their sorties against ground targets. Remember, Turkey just shot down a Russian plane — anyone in the sky above Syria right now is considering everything else in the sky and absolutely everyone on the ground to be a threat. Sounds weird? Well, it is. But that’s reality for you. You couldn’t make up a plot for a book more convoluted than the way the real world works.

France’s goals are still France’s goals. They are not American goals. Sure, a lot of Americans and French and non-French Europeans see things the same way for the moment — but that’s a common view held of mutually held anger at a third party than anything else. The immigration wave and xenophobia that is going to increasingly fuel will continue to drive a common view over the short term (not in the least because the nightmares fueled by fear of rampant Middle Eastern and African immigration are not without foundation, particularly when coupled with domestic population decline).

France’s goal is to maintain its middle empire and use it to force Berlin into a subordinate relationship with Paris. This goal has held steady since the creation of the Euro, and France has demonstrated an amazing amount of fortitude and clarity of direction in the realization of that goal — even more amazing considering the contentious nature of their electoral politics since the Soviet collapse. Germany being in NATO with France, being home to the ECB, being “friends” with France, etc. doesn’t really matter — the reason France and Germany have been enemies so long is still based on geography, and that still forces France and Germany to regard one another in terms of capacity instead of intent. France has the upper hand in military terms, and will the economy likely to crash the only lever Germany has (dependent entirely on imported energy) is likely to disappear, or fall under the indirect control of Paris anyway if France can create an energy alternative for Germany that isn’t Russian gas (which is why France worked to isolate Germany even more from practical alternatives by destroying Libya and demonstrating their practical ability to dominate North Africa (ENI’s gas fields) and the Mediterranean).

Russia’s goals are still Russia’s goals. Well, in Russia’s case it is even more clear that Russia’s goals are actually Moscow’s goals. That is also not going to change, and despite a lot of poorly disguised epicaricacy on behalf of Western powers, Russia’s financial problems based on dropping energy prices are actually more likely to make Russia turn into a deliberately confrontational, economically detached player than a compliant ally of the West. Russia is looking out for what its own survival in what it necessarily views a dark and dangerous world. The West world will soon find itself with even fewer levers to control Russia for the forseeable future.

So France “bringing Russia into the fold”? France “getting NATO on the same page” to lead a charge against dastardly terrorist types? Nope. That’s just as naive as hoping that Russia was either sincere about squashing ISIS or helping Assad (either goal would at least speed a non-ISIS resolution to the Syrian conflict — and life under Assad wasn’t nearly as screwed up as life in a civil war…). Syria is, for the moment, a useful problem for France. That doesn’t mean that French politicians won’t accidentally start believing their own rhetoric (the way the Americans did after the invasion of Iraq was over… whoops!), but unlike 2001, the world today is full of threats that are obviously more important than chasing brown guys. In view of the Cold War II / WWIII type issues at stake right now, if the Europeans get serious about “solving” terrorism they are much more likely to resort to historically typical European solutions such as mass deportation at spear-point, mass military impressment, mass concentration, or mass execution than believing that an air campaign is going to make anything change (well, maybe carpet bombing would have some effect…).

France is a lot more likely to play Syria partly to drive a wedge between Russia and NATO (particularly Germany and Turkey), partly to demonstrate to Russia that France is willing to deal (and has something worth dealing), partly to show Washington where the red lines are (without spoiling the relationship with AFRICOM), and partly for the domestic electoral lulz. Killing ISIS guys is always good press and all it costs (right now) is printing more money and a general disregard for collateral damage (which is, ironically, why the Americans are always going to be utterly ineffective — they are absolutely afraid to hurt anyone, and religious bad guys are very good at hiding in plain sight, right behind rows of school children). Aside from this there is a vast array of geopolitical opportunities open in Syria right now, because of how the Syrian play augments the Russian play in Armenia (to pressure Turkey and keep Georgia as an effective vassal). Syria has become an interesting stage upon which Cold War II politics is playing out — this act of it, anyway.

How the Internet of Things Will Change the World: Not by Much

Are you ready for the enormous, revolutionary, ground-shattering changes coming with the IoT?

If you said “yes” and by “yes” you meant you were prepared for breathtaking changes, you are a naive child wading in a murky pool of lampreys, your will putty in the hands of the same charlatans who brought you terms like “cloud computing” which still has yet to be defined in any concrete technical sense.

If you said “yes” and by “yes” you meant that you felt that the more things change the more they stay the same — then you are indeed prepared.

Cold War II, civil war in China, the breakup of the EU, abolishment of American drug laws, the DEA and an end to the Mexican civil war all at once — those are the kinds of things that will have a measurable impact on life. The so-called “internet of things” concept as heard in internet marketing is… well, not at all what the guy who coined the term “Internet of Things” meant.

We already have an internet of things. Has it cured cancer yet? Nope. But if we put RFID in every part of our bodies we will certainly be even more exposed to the will of outside actors. Not that the public has demonstrated that it cares about complete loss of its privacy, especially when “Google style conveniences in exchange for your life’s data” can be backed up by the rhetoric of fear necessitated by government “anti-terrorism” funding. (Yes, I mock this, and yes, I was a Green Beret in the US Army for 6 years — the direction that rhetoric is headed is toward government empowerment, and the government is exactly the least well equipped element of society to deal with terrorism.)

Want to see an internet of things? Tesla cars receive system updates across the network now, and can turn in performance data to help the maker improve on their designs and software. Open water jetski robots can follow automated routes and report hydrographic and bathyrithmic data back to a data processing facility to chart change over time. I was working on a (now defunct, but promising) design project to develop spotting scopes that were intelligent enough to peer data amongst one another within an operational space and change “spotter calls” into more generally interesting “shot requests” and aggregate shot providers in the area to engage targets based on type, effect and following damage reports. Whenever any peers had a network connection they could aggregate data externally.

Dude, we’re already there.

What we lack is standards. Oh, wait, nevermind… we actually have tens of thousands of those. What we lack is standards that people actually can use, that aren’t harder to learn and comply with than the handling of the basic user problems at hand are. These problems will mostly never be solved, not really. Truly understandable data must have a semantic foundation, and semantics are essentially arbitrary in most ways that matter in data processing. That means data must either be tagged in a non-trivial way or must be placed into a schema where relationships are what have meanings.

Note that “tagged in a non-trivial way” above means taking tagging systems to such extremes that they become their own ontologies. Think about that. It should make your face turn pale. That’s at least as difficult as developing an arbitrary formal language. (In case you didn’t notice, an “arbitrary formal” language is a oxymoron — though consortia and governments alike love nothing more than funding committee efforts to formalize the syntax of futile efforts in this area). Writing even trivial software using such a tagging system would require that programmers at every step of the system learn this arbitrary formal language of tagging before they do much of anything, and that’s a lot harder overall than just continuing on with our pile-of-ad-hoc-systems approach. Schema-based systems, while having some different tradeoffs (computationally natural descriptions of data as a “shape”, for example, is a really big win in practical application), ultimately suffer from the same complexity explosion at some level. In particular, applying a particular schema designed in the context of one problem domain will very often not fit in the context of another problem domain — and fully normalizing all data ever, ever would eventually require an infinite (and ever growing) number of relational definitions. Yech.

So… Internet of things? Yeah. We’re already living it. Don’t get too excited and don’t give into the hype. Just because you technically can read data from remote sensors or activate your house’s appliances with your phone (hint: you already can) doesn’t mean this is something you will want to do, or that the venture capitalists of the world will peel their lips off the adsearch cock for long enough to realize that there are more interesting things they could be funding than bounce-under ads and invisible iframe reclick-to-click javascript tech.

Rest easy. Humanity’s material circumstances will continue to get incrementally better (save the occasional dip due to predictably stupid things we do to ourselves) until The Singularity when we are all either suddenly eliminated due to obsolescence, or drive ourselves into a new mode of existence-as-slavery to whatever Google turns into (when all data is network accessible, privacy does not exist, all data is the private IP of a single aggregate, the rights of conscious uploaded entities don’t exist, the definition of “life” is still “way way way after birth”, and continued conscious existence equates to paying a service charge — that’s not really life). None of this is particularly dependent upon the hype surrounding the “Internet of Things”.

Turkey Responds to Russia: “No”

As I mentioned when Russian airstrikes in Syria began, the airstrikes have nothing to do with Assad and everything to do with keeping Washington distracted, maintaining the status quo in Syria (that is, prolonging the conflict), and pressuring Turkey (as an expansion on the already decades-old play of keeping Armenia at odds with Turkey and Azerbaijan).

The Russians did what militaries so often do when they want to present a pressuring posture and forced the issue by violating a political target’s airspace while in the course of some other operation (consider the US Navy’s recently deliberate disregard of what the Chinese claim are their “territorial waters” in the South China Sea — though the issue there is almost exactly reversed: the Chinese are the aggressors in the sense that they are laying claim to broad swathes of ocean over which Beijing has never had any practical control). Turkey decided to take the opportunity to send a message to both Moscow and Washington by shooting down a Russian jet.

The important message Ankara is sending is that they will not cooperate on any terms with Moscow, that Ankara still considers itself a Western-ally, and — perhaps most interestingly — forcing the public dialog to become, at least temporarily, about the geopolitical game that is going on instead of the incidental and petty distraction of Assad and ISIS that has been filling the news. ISIS has used terror tactics to get in the news lately (Paris made a big splash, after all), and now Turkey has used a similar technique, though not terrorism by any stretch, to change the focus of public reporting for at least a few days.

If Washington was waiting for a green light in the region before surprising everyone with a sudden shift from Arab to Persian support, this was it. The best move right now would be for Obama to show up in Tehran tomorrow, and Washington to flip sides overnight, both with regard to Tehran/Riyadh and ISIS/Assad. By getting on the Persian side of things Russia has nowhere to go, loses its lever in Iran, and has to (for the first time in two decades) react to Washington instead of being the initiator. The Israelis and Egyptians will play ball — they have before and they will again (and judging by Bibi’s deft use of hyperbolic rhetoric over the last few years, he’s ready to make a deal that let’s Tel Aviv relax), and Turkey is all but shouting out loud in plain language that its time to pinch the destabilizing issues at their source.

Whether anyone who is allowed to make a decision is paying attention is anyone’s guess — the last several years of American policy make me wonder if anyone is paying any attention at all… which is probably why Ankara is trying its hardest to force a focus on the strategic issues that underlie the future-changing alignment shifts in the region instead of letting the public dialog remain purely about peripheral issues like ISIS and Assad.

A More Likely Calculus Behind Russian Airstrikes in Syria

The media has been abuzz with talk about the Russian airstrikes in Syria. More than a few people have asked me about it. This is a record of my thoughts immediately after hearing the first news.

I haven’t gone to any great trouble to find out the names of places hit or who did what when or whatever. I don’t really need to. I have been expecting Russia to become (more overtly) involved in the Syrian/Iraqi conflict for quite a while now. The news reports I’ve read confirmed the expected: Moscow is not yet picking sides, but is definitely picking targets that will provoke Washington to double-down on its already deep investment in meaningless, expensive actions in the Middle East.

The frustrating part about those “news reports”, however, is they they purport to be news reports but are just pages and pages of unfounded speculation designed to satisfy emotional needs. None attempt to explain how Moscow’s actions may fit into the framework of this or that possible ongoing strategy, evaluate western assumptions about what is going on, determine whether or not Moscow’s activity supports or challenges those assumptions, or highlight any areas where Russian actions require further analysis due to some evident incongruity with whatever was previously assumed to be happening in the world.

Obviously we’ve gotten something wrong or else we would have seen this coming (well, a few of us did, but we aren’t the ones anyone pays attention to). None of that is addressed in the media. But then again neither truth nor analysis nor truthful analysis is the business that media is in. It is in the business of selling advertizing, impressions, user data and click metrics as cheaply as possible, and sensationalism is the best tool at hand for that (other than porn, but that’s already a saturated market).

The explanation the media seems obsessed with is that Putin’s goal is to support his good buddy Assad. The slightly more interesting version goes on to explain that neither Assad nor Putin have attacked ISIS directly, but have instead attacked the smaller factions. Some speculate that this is so that Assad can force any decision about foreign support to be a polar decision between himself or ISIS. By excluding other factions as viable alternatives he can appear to be the only reasonable choice by comparison, the lesser of two evils. At least that is an interesting take on things, and probably not far from the truth. Assad’s truth, anyway. But it doesn’t explain Putin at all; he doesn’t have a horse in that race unless we assume that he just really, really likes Assad.

To believe in this deep and abiding love between those two naughty star-struck dictators we have to answer a few difficult questions: Why is the only support a few airstrikes on minor targets? Why hasn’t Putin leveraged any of his other influence in the region to gain support for Assad? Where is Kadyrov & co. when they are needed? Why hasn’t Tehran been empowered/proded by Moscow to do anything about their (supposed) mutual pal? Where is the old Hezbollah magic when its needed? Why he has waited this long to actually do anything?

I could go on, but suffice to say this isn’t about any Putin-Assad bromance as much as it is about distracting Washington. Its pretty obvious which of those two goals is more important to Russian strategy.

“Hmmm… should our strategy focus on Washington or Damascus… I just can’t make up my mind! Man, this political stuff is really hard! Decisions decisions…”

— What is not going through Putin’s mind

It is silly to concoct an explanation which consists purely of a flimsy, unsupported assertion (“to support Assad”) and then drag a reader through page after page of humanistic moralizations, vague calls for the “international community to act”, regurgitation of random violence statistics, fun factoids about how shitty life in the Middle East might be, or even go off on a long explanation about target selection without addressing why Assad would be Putin’s choice. Even that is premature without addressing the possibility that perhaps Putin has not made a choice. It should absolutely be explained that for Moscow there does not have to be a meaningful distinction of choice. Neither of these guys are amateurs nor is either stuck in the Geopolitics lvl1 Tutorial Playground of this particular game. (Washington, on the other hand…)

I saw some rather lengthy articles about the Russian airstrikes, many well over 4 pages. None of them referenced the history of external influence in the region. Not a single mention of the Turks, not a single mention of how WWI impacted the region, not a single mention of the whole King Faisal I thing (no, not that set of Faisals, the Iraqi/Syrian ones), no reference to how the typical “put a minority in power to foster future political dependency on you” play works (ever wonder how the tiny Alawite minority came to be in charge?). Not any of that. The media simply makes it appear as though Putin is desperately in love with his long-time buddy Assad — two great pals against the world, backs against the wall, willing to do anything for each other. Which is ridiculous.

Off the cuff I would say Putin is definitely angling to create space for Assad, but the reason for that is probably to achieve two goals, neither being “to support Assad”:

  1. Tie Washington down in a pointless game (or rather deepen its investment in the ongoing one).
  2. Maintain the status-quo in Syria.

(There are very likely peripheral goals and incidental benefits to any action Putin takes, and some of them may turn out to have interesting long-term repercussions.* These are just the goals that fit this action in this place at this time the most closely.)

The West, and especially the US, has already invented a rhetoric that mandates unlimited political agitation whenever anything unrelated to Europe or the US happens in the Middle East. Lighting a fire larger than a BBQ grill, for example, may cause a 4-hour special on some news channel, or maybe even a Muslim riot in London or Paris (or more likely a cartoon which itself prompts such rioting — strange that lengthy, detailed, deliberate editorials don’t have the same effect). This rhetoric prompts Washington to invest ever more deeply in pointless actions designed to deflect other pointless actions which may or may not come to pass in the Middle East (like countering Russian influence with Assad, for example). The West is a gigantic, over-charged Van de Graaff generator right now, rubbing itself to pieces internally with angst, just waiting for some poor lab student to come too close. This is as easy for Moscow to exploit as unattended lab equipment is for mischievous high schoolers.

By attacking anything that is both not Assad and not ISIS in Syria Putin is subject to the following effects:

Loses

  • Very little money
  • Very little military supply
  • Exactly zero international standing (any faction that matters has already decided their support/neutrality/opposition to Moscow)

Gains

  • Actual pilot experience
  • A live, public, and very well photographed showcase for Russia’s new aircraft and weapons (Hey! Its not 1988 anymore!)
  • Vastly improved domestic political standing (He made a point of being seen sidestepping both the “save face at the UN before doing whatever we were going to do anyway” and “coalition building” games. In fact, he made the “international community” in general and the UN in particular look like troublesome trivialities to Moscow. Russians love this. Incidentally, Americans would too…)

Risks

  • Nothing (the probability that Washington will manage to comprehend what is actually going on and turn it around on Moscow is very close to zero)

Initiates

  • Massive media blather and especially social media buzz in the US (Obama’s kryptonite seems to be social media)
  • Massive white-knighting around the world about how “someone should do something!” where “someone” always really means “Americans” and “do something” always means “blow something/someone up (but without actually offending or hurting anyone or actually blowing anything up… on second thought, just talk convincingly tough about taking action and then censor the media to make it appear that things that don’t affect my life at all but rile me up all the same have actually ceased to occur)”
  • The US to double-down on its “anti-terror” investment in one form or another
  • The US to bleed money it doesn’t have
  • The US to commit resources it can’t afford
  • Prolong ongoing American strategic distractions in politically irrelevant areas
  • Prolong ongoing developmental and structural distractions within the US military (Washington has a strategic need to widen the gap in space tech, turn the Air Force into the Space Force and extend its naval dominance to space, not yet another multi-billion-dollar plan for a truck design that would be great if we get in a time machine and re-occupy Iraq but useless in actual force-on-force infantry operations.)

Distracting Washington is the primary goal, not actually supporting Assad or causing problems for this or that American-aligned faction in Syria. Support for Assad and causing problems for whichever groups happen to be American proxies this week is incidental to the goal of cheaply stirring shit up. He’s trying to suck the Americans in somewhere that is cheap for Moscow but very expensive for Washington (both politically and financially).

This strategy worked very well for him in Afghanistan. It bought him an opening to get its way with Poland (after the demise of almost the entire Polish government in a profoundly well-timed plane crash inside of Russia), invade Georgia, take over Ukraine and demonstrate that American security promises are empty whenever Washington is distracted. These actions have had the side effect of deflating the European economy, prompting France to create an opening for itself to re-establish its West African empire and destroy ENI’s main gas alternative (by blowing up Lybia — and before you ask, no that had nothing at all to do with Ghaddafi, freedom or the “Arab Spring”).

Making your opponent expend massively more effort than you do is a winning strategy. The US actually used to be very good at making this sort of play itself, but has apparently lost the touch ever since it bought into the totally bullshit idea that peace was about to break out all over the world with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Oops.

Interestingly, one of the most outspokenly “pro-peace” sort of nations, France, has recovered its knack for both low-cost/high-yield military operations and empire building all while continuing to make the Americans look like the “real bad guy” most of the time (even if its half tongue-in-cheeck). Paris and Moscow are both riding pretty sizeable winning streaks achieved through some heavy-duty, but subtle, geopolitical maneuvering over the last fifteen years**. Impressive.

The appearance of support for Assad works in Putin’s favor because it makes Washington get even more intense about not being his supporter, and reality be damned because politicians are absolutely going to be tripping over each other to be the first to condemn and then be seen as acting against these “ill intended and dangerous Russian activities”.

The air strikes aren’t designed to actually support Assad winning the civil war, they are designed to create space for him. This delays any conclusion to a conflict which is itself useful to Moscow. This gives Moscow time to decide whether it is worth the trouble to support the Alawites once things are over, and judging by how easy it was to dupe Washington into blowing a decade of prosperity in Afghanistan for absolutely no reason at all, it may just be able to turn this strategy around again in Syria.

The Turks, Sunnis and Kurds are all much more important geopolitically. Being a sponsor of Assad’s Syria would turn out the same way Russia’s “sponsorship” of Iran has turned out (lukewarm on the hottest of days). The Arabs are fundamentally more important to Moscow, so the Persians will only get anything from Moscow when it would hurt Washington to give Tehran anything. Other than that, they are just the red-headed stepchildren Russia doesn’t really have much use for. These are “meh, take-em-or-leave-em” allies. The Alawites in Syria are in very nearly the same situation, as evidenced by several political generations of foreign influence now.

[* This would be true of any of a list of potential Russian military moves right now. Listed above are the two primary short-term goals against which the decision was made to actually order sorties in Syria and at this time. Consider that an incidental outcome of invading Georgia at the the end of August 2008 was crashing the European economy. Once it was demonstrated that the East European side of the Yen carry trade was not a secure way to underwrite Western European securities that carry trade unwound and with it quite a few other things that happened to be very ready to get blown over at the next strong wind. People were very deeply invested, both emotionally and financially, in being blind to this risk. If this were a real risk it meant that the pan-European dream didn’t make sense. It meant that war was not actually “a thing of the past”. It meant that pure egalitarianism was unworkable. The reality that offensive power still matters more than the opinions of intellectuals who spend most of their time trying to not offend one another is downright scary. This emotional barrier gave birth to a worldview which made the bizarre explanations that invoke a mysterious “American economic contagion” from two years prior sound like a reasonable definition of “the problem” — the economy is full of highly technical issues and mysterious pitfalls, after all. It is much more comfortable to think that “the Americans” might be the problem than either “the Russians” or the chance that the European economy itself might be inherently unsustainable. Of course, these explanations miraculously avoided any mention of the unopposed Russian invasion aimed at one of two non-Russian pipelines feeding Europe’s economy the week before the crash. So while Putin’s reasoning behind making the attacks where and when they did focus around the two goals above this is a period in which he stands to gain a lot by making very public demonstrations of political and military strength.]

[ ** What France and Russia have been doing is not evil.  Geopolitics is what it is, and its not going to change for you or me. You can’t start moralizing about it just because your side is on the losing end of some issue, or some particular aspect of history is emotionally significant to you (right now), or because you really, really want the world to be some great centrally-administered perfect Eutopia. That sort of thinking doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Letting your emotions get the better of you in politics — thinking in terms of “what should be” instead of “what is” — only confers blindness.]

The economy of good intentions

This is a story about four people: Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody.
There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it.
Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.
Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did.
Somebody got angry because it was Everybody’s job.
Everybody knew that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Somebody wouldn’t do it.
And Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

An Observation on Economic Motivation

When we want to discourage people from smoking we levy taxes on cigarettes. When we want to discourage people from drinking we levy taxes on alcohol. When we want to discourage the purchase of a product from a particular country we levy taxes on their imports.

What should we interpret as the motivation behind taxes on businesses? Businesses of a particular size? Income? Income of a particular size?

None of this has a happy ending.

On the Meaning of “Carbon Neutral”

I noticed that a few products in my house have begun to proudly proclaim themselves as being “carbon neutral” over the last few months. Apparently this is among the new set of empty phrases marketing people feel are necessary to distinguish their otherwise ordinary commodity products from identical products of comparable quality. It used to be “Made in U.S.A.” or “日本製” (depending on the neighborhood), then it was “low sodium”, then “waterproof”, then “low fat” then “low transfat” then “cholesterol free” then “omega-3” then something else I probably forgot.

The problem isn’t that any of these things aren’t potentially good selling points, its that they usually don’t apply to the things I see the labels on. For example, I remember seeing an electric wok that said “Made in U.S.A.” on the bottom. I’m not so sure that’s the best thing to concern one’s self with when buying a cooking apparatus that originated in another hemisphere. That’s like buying a tuna steak because the sticker on the package marks it as being “a peanut-free product” or believing that a piece of software is high quality because its written in Java (or even more uselessly, “utilizes Java technology!”).

This reminds me of my sister’s enlightening tale of the truth behind the now heavily regulated terms “organic” and “all natural” as applied to food labels. She did her undergraduate study in genetics and graduate work in nutrition, worked in colon cancer research for a while, started a dietary medicine program at a hospital in Virginia a few years back, and now (after reaching some disillusionment with the state of government-funded research) raises “range fed Angus beef” as a side interest. She is therefore directly governed by some of the more hilarious regulations the FDA has come up with.

Needless to say, her opinion on the value of these buzzwords has much more influence to me than whatever a “medicinal cannabis expert” has to tell me about the benefits of toking up or the local yoga girl at the gym has to tell me about the benefits of yogurt shakes or almond oil or peanut-butter enemas or whatever it happens to be this week (of course, she’s just right about the benefits of sex in exciting places). In short, the regulations governing terms such as “organic” and “natural flavor” (or even the way the term “X% fat free” is permitted to be used) are both economically draining legally apply due to the administrative overhead of regulatory compliance and yet so full of loopholes that there is really no clear distinction between a head of lettuce that is “organic” and one that isn’t so labeled. Essentially the only difference is the price of the market package.

Of course, the real difference is that the lettuce sporting an “organic” sticker on it is almost undoubtedly produced by a large agribusiness firm that can afford the overhead of doing all the pencil-drills necessary to proclaim their lettuce to be “organic”. Either that, or it is quite pricey lettuce only rich folks who feel the need to spend more to sate their moral thirst can afford, grown at an “organic” farm run by one savvy businessman and a flock of altruist peons bent on saving humanity from itself one vegetable at a time. I’m certainly not saying that large agribusiness is bad — ultimately its the only way we’re going to survive over the long-term (and here I’m including post colonization of space) — but that the terms used on packaging are enormously deceptive in nature.

But that’s food. It is a specific example where it is relatively easy to trace both the regulatory documentation and the research literature. Of course, very few people actually track all that down — other than unusual people like my sister who happen to be trained in genetics, directly involved in agriculture, and so habituated to both scientific and regulatory research that they find nothing daunting about navigating the semantic labyrinth the FDA has let agricultural regulation become in the US (and the phrase “let…become” could easily be replaced with “deliberately made of…”). I suppose the problem isn’t that few people track all that down, really; its more a problem that even if my sister were to go to the trouble of explaining what she knows to the average consumer they wouldn’t have the faintest clue what she was getting at. The average consumer is instead faced with an essentially religious (or at least dogmatic) choice of whether to trust someone that has a stack of official paper backing up her credibility, or a government agency and a huge food industry which are both populated by thousands of people who each have every bit as much officious documentation backing up their reputations.

And that brings me back to “carbon neutral”. We still chase the purported value of demonstrably empty terms such as “cloud computing”, demonstrably failed vehicles such as “social networking”, and demonstrably flimsy labels such as “organic” and “all natural”. But we don’t stop there. We are jumping head-first onto the “carbon neutral” bandwagon as well. The point isn’t that we shouldn’t be concerned with the terrestrial environment, but rather that we must at all times guard against political forces that constantly seek to invent new social mores and foist them on us by conjuring meaning into empty phrases like “carbon neutral”. It tricks you not just into buying ordinary thing A over ordinary-but-cheaper-thing B, but also into feeling morally superior. In this it is indistinguishable from other dogmatic rhetoric that engenders an unfounded sense of moral certainty. If we thought convincing people that a man in the sky doesn’t want them to fly airplanes into office buildings was hard, consider how much more difficult it is to convince average people who genuinely want to “do good” that reasonablish sciency words are nothing more than unfounded political siren songs trying to open one more door for the tax man.

So back to the reasonablish sciency phrase “carbon neutral”… what does it mean? This is where I have some semantic issues, mainly because nobody really knows.

Let’s say, for example, that we start a paper mill. We’ll make paper, but only from recycled paper and only using wind energy. This could probably qualify as being entirely “carbon neutral”. But so could the same paper mill if it planted its own trees. But what about the wind generators? They have to come from somewhere. What about the diesel-powered trucks that carry the old paper stock to the recycling mill? What about the initial material itself? Are we being carbon neutral if we don’t go replace as many trees as our recycled stock represents? How about the electricity used by the paper-compactors run by other companies we have no control over? What about our employees’ cars they use to get to work? What about all the flatulence the invite by eating pure vegan meals?

The initial production itself would almost certainly not qualify as being “carbon neutral” — which demonstrates that we have to draw an arbitrary line somewhere from which we can derive a meaning for the term “carbon neutral”. It is almost certain that something, whether directly or indirectly, involved an increase in carbon emissions (and the meaning of “direct” and “indirect” really should be their own battlegrounds here, considering what people think the term “carbon neutral” means) somewhere at some point, otherwise there wouldn’t be people to buy our recycled earth-friendly paper to begin with.

But what are “carbon emissions”? This is, apparently, intended to only refer to releasing carbon into the air. Consider for a moment how monumentally arbitrary that is. There are currently some well-intended, but enormously misguided efforts to “sequester” carbon by burying it in the crust of the Earth. This, of course, represents an enormously heavy emission of carbon into the environment, but we are calling this a “good” emission (actually, we refrain from using the word “emission” because we intend that to be a “bad” word) because it is going into the ground and not the air. Incidentally, it is also not going into something useful like diamond-edge tools or nano insulators or any other beneficial process that is desperate for carbon (which our planet happens to be poor in by cosmological standards).

So where did all this “bad” carbon come from? If you believe the press, its coming from our SUV exhaust, coal-burning plants, Lady GaGa (well, she might be a Democrat, in which case she can’t be bad), and pretty much anything else that humans use to modify local order at the expense of a probable increase in universal entropy.

Where did the carbon come from for the coal, crude, natural gas and bovine flatulence? Probably from the atmosphere and the sea. At least that’s what a biologist will tell you.

And here is a problem for me. Nobody has explained (not just to my satisfaction, but explained at all) where all the billions of tons of carbon necessary to create the forests that created the coal (and possibly crude oil) came from in the first place.

Well, that’s not quite true. In the first place it came from a long-dead stellar formation, some crumbs of which clumped together to form our solar system. That’s the first place. So the second place. Where did the carbon for all this organic activity come from in the second place? Was it distributed evenly in the early Earth? Has it always been a fixed quantity in the atmosphere? Does it boil out of the molten terrestrial substrate and gradually accumulate in the atmosphere and ocean?

If the forests grew in the first place then the carbon was in the air, at least at one point. If it is a fixed amount of atmospheric carbon then the growth of the forests and their subsequent demise and burial beneath sediment represents an absolutely massive sequestration of atmospheric carbon. If it is indeed a fixed amount, then the absolutely huge amounts of flora and fauna represented by these forests were not prevented from thriving in an atmosphere which contained a huge amount more carbon than the atmosphere contains today. If that is true, then either climate change is not affected much by the carbon content of the atmosphere, or a changed climate does not pose much of a threat to organic life on Earth.

Some parts of the fixed atmospheric quantity scenario don’t really add up. Despite a bit of effort I’ve only managed to scratch the surface of the ice core research literature, but a static amount of available atmospheric carbon doesn’t seem to be the story research efforts so far tell. This area of research has been made amazingly difficult to get a straight tack on ever since environmental sciences got overheated with politically-driven grants looking for results that validate political rhetoric instead of grants seeking research into what is still largely an observational field, but it seems fairly clear that there have been fluctuations in atmospheric carbon content that do not directly coincide with either the timing of ice-ages or the timing of mass terrestrial forestation. (The record is much less clear with regard to life in the ocean — and this could obviously be a key element, but it doesn’t seem that many people are looking there, perhaps because the current rhetoric is full of fear of rising sea levels, not full of hope for a marine component to the puzzle of eternal human salvation). That said, there must be some pretty massive non-human sources of atmospheric carbon which have been in operation millions of years before we evolved (as for where trillions of tons of carbon may have gone, I think the huge coal formations may be an indication).

While the idea that a carbon-rich atmosphere providing adequate conditions for thriving terrestrial life might seem odd (at least when compared with the “Your SUV is killing the Earth!” dialog), the idea that the Earth itself has both mechanisms to gradually ratchet up the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere over the eons and to drastically change the climate in spans measured in mere years (not decades, not centuries or millenia) without human or even atmospheric input is pretty scary.

A lot more scary than the idea that driving my kids to school might be damaging in some small way.

But this isn’t the way we are thinking. We are letting marketers and politicians — two groups infamous for being as destructively self-serving as possible — sell us a new buzzword stew, and we, the consumers, are ready to confidently parrot phrases such as “carbon neutral” about as if they mean something. “Oh, Irene, that salad dressing is 100% organic and carbon neutral — you’re such a gourmet!”

We’re clearly having the wool pulled over our eyes, except this time it doesn’t just play to our ego-maniacal craving to live forever (“If you eat gluten-free yogurt and drink positive-ion water you’ll live forever — and have huge tits/a thicker penis/ungraying hair/a tiny waist!”), it engenders a dangerous sense of moral superiority (“I’m doing this for the planet/global socialism/God/The Great Leader!”) which tends to eliminate all possibility of rational thought on a subject which could indeed affect us all.

What if, for example, the Atlantic currents are just panting their last, barely keeping us away from a global mass cooling event? We won’t just be blind to the threat because we’ve blown our research money on politically driven quests to generate the academic support necessary to pursue whatever new pork-barrel projects we come up with over the next decade or two — we will deny the very idea that a threat other than carbon emissions could possibly exist on moral grounds because we’ve already identified the “real enemy” (wealthy people in SUVs who come with the added benefit of being fun to hate). That’s dangerous.

Words mean things. We should remember that.