Cave Paintings and Elementary Science

This is a travel story of sorts of travel through time, to an extent. Be patient.

Directly to the west of Marseille, the second largest city in France are a series of beautiful, narrow coves, like fjords, situated in a sort of desert. They are called “calanques” in French. They are accessible only by sea or through a long walk on hot rocky ground. Although they constitute a separate world, the calanques are close to Marseille, as the crow flies. They used to be a major fishing resource for the city. You can be sure they were never forgotten during the 2600 years of the city’s existence. Also, the city was founded by Greeks and thus, it always had a literate population, one that kept records.

Marseille and its environs are where SCUBA was invented, the first practical solution to the problem of men breathing underwater. Accordingly, the calanques were always and thoroughly explored after 1950. In 1985, one of the co-inventors of SCUBA discovered a deep cave in one of the calanques. He couldn’t resist temptation and swam into it until he reached a large room emerging above the water level. I mean a cave where he could stand and breathe regular air. The explorer’s name was Cosquer.

Cosquer visited several times without saying a word about his discovery. Soon, he observed dozens of beautiful wall paintings belonging to two distinct periods on the upper walls of his cave. The art of the first period was mostly hand imprints or stencils. The art of the second, distinct period, comprised 170-plus beautiful animals including many horses, ibex and others mammals, also fish, seals and other sea creatures. Archeologists think the painting of the first period were done about in about 25,000 BC, those of the latter period date back to about 18,000 BC, they believe.

Today, the entrance to the cave is about 125 feet below sea level. We know that paleolithic men did not have SCUBA. They simply walked into the cave for their own reasons, with their own purposes in mind. Thus, the sea level was at least 125 feet lower then than it is today. The people of Marseille never saw the cave. They would have written about it. There would be records. They would not have forgotten it. They simply did not know of its existence during the past 2600 years or so, since the foundation of their city.

Sometime in the past 20,000 years, the sea rose 125 feet or more. That’s an amplitude several times greater than any of the direst predictions of the official United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the next century. The IPCC squarely blames a future ocean rise (one that has not been observed at all, yet) on abnormal emission of several gases, especially CO2. These abnormal emissions in turn, the IPCC affirms, are traceable to human activities such as driving cars and producing many useful things by burning fossil fuels.

It seems to me that basic good science requires that causal analysis begin with a baseline. In this case, it would mean something like this: In the absence of any burning of fossil fuels, the ocean rose 125 feet sometimes during the past 20,000 years. Let’s see if we can find evidence of the ocean rising above and beyond this order of magnitude since humanity began burning fossil fuels in large quantities.

The conclusion will likely be that nothing out of the ordinary happened. Hence, fossil fuel emissions are probably irrelevant to this particular issue. (This leaves open the possibility that such emissions are odious for some other reason. I mean CO2 is plant food. Too much CO2 may promote weed growth in our fields and gardens.)

The ocean is not currently rising and if it is, the existence of the Cosquer cave suggests that it’s rising to a minuscule degree. Let’s keep things in perspective. Let’s discard openly and loudly every part of the building of a complex hypothesis that does not work. Those who don’t take these obvious cleansing measures simply have a lot of explaining to do. They should not be allowed to wrap themselves in the mantle of science while violating Science 101 principles.

One of the conceits of the Warmist movement (re-branded “Climate Change” something or other) is that you don’t have a right to an opinion unless you possess a doctorate in Atmospheric Science. By this dictate, anybody who has to keep a job, raise children, or pay a mortgage is out of the discussion. This is the typical posturing of intellectual totalitarianism. Note what’s missing in the story above: It says nothing about what did cause the ocean to rise between 18,000 years ago and today. It’s enough to know that whatever it was, it was not the massive burning of fossil fuels. And, if factors other than burning fossil fuels explain large rises in sea level, they should first be applied to a tiny rises in sea rises before other explanations are tried. That’s just good practice.

The Cousquer cave story is now complete as is. Yes, that simple.

John Rawls at 100

Neoliberal Social Justice available April 2021

John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, was born 100 years ago today. He died one year before I first read A Theory of Justice as part of my undergraduate degree in philosophy at University College London. This year, Edward Elgar publishes Neoliberal Social Justice: Rawls Unveiled, my book which updates Rawls’ approach to assessing social institutions in light of contemporary economic thought.

Mike Otsuka (now at the LSE) introduced us first to the work of Robert Nozick and then to Rawls, the reverse of what I imagine is normally the case in an introductory political philosophy course. Most people ultimately found Rawls’ the more attractive approach whereas I was drawn to Nozick’s insistence on starting strictly from the ethical claims of individuals. I wondered why something calling itself ‘the state’ should have rights to coerce beyond any other actor in civil society.

Years of working in public policy and studying political economy made me recognise a distinctive value for impersonal institutions with abstract rules. Indeed, I now think the concept of equal individual liberty is premised on the existence of such institutions. Although the rule of law could theoretically emerge absent a state, states are the only institutions that have been able to generate it so far. Political philosophy cannot be broken down into applied ethics in the way Nozick proposed.

Some classical liberals and market anarchists are increasingly impatient with the Rawlsian paradigm. Michael Huemer, for example, argues that Rawls misunderstands basic issues with probability when proposing that social institutions focus on maximising the condition of the least advantaged. Huemer argues that Rawls ultimately offers no reason to pick justice as fairness over utilitarianism, the very theory it was directed against.

I think these criticisms are valid for rejecting the blunt assessments of real-world inequalities that some Rawlsians are apt to make. But I do not think Rawls himself, nor his theory when read in context, made these elementary errors. Rawls’ principles of justice apply to the basic structure of social institutions rather than the resulting pattern of social resources as such. Moreover, the primary goods that Rawls take to be relevant for assessing social institutions are essentially public goods. It makes sense to guarantee, for example, basic civil liberties to all on an equal basis even if turns out to be costly. I can think of two reasons for this:

  1. In a society not facing acute scarcity, you would not want to risk placing yourself in a social position where your civil liberties could be denied even if it was relatively unlikely.
  2. Living in a society where basic liberties are denied to others is going to cause problems for everyone, whether through regime instability or fraught social and economics relationships that are not based on genuine mutual advantage but coercion from discretionary powers.

To be fair to utilitarians, J.S. Mill went in this direction, although one had to squint to see how it fit into a utilitarian calculus. But if Rawls was ultimately defending a more principled approach to social relationships using the tools of expediency, I see that as a valuable project.

So, I think that the Rawlsian approach is still a fruitful way to evaluate the distinctive problem of political order. His theory offers the resources to resist not just utopian libertarian rights theorists, but also socialists and egalitarians who similarly fail to account for the distinctive role of political institutions for resolving problems of collective action. Where I think Rawls erred when endorsing what amounts to a socialist institutional framework is on his interpretation of social theory. Rawls argued that people behave pretty selfishly in market interactions but could readily pursue the public good when engaged in everyday politics. I argue otherwise. Here is a snippet from Neoliberal Social Justice (pp. 96-97) where I make the case for including a more consistently realistic account of human motivation within his framework:

Problems of justice are not purely about assurance amongst reasonable people or identifying anti-social persons. Instead, we must consider the anti-social person within ourselves: the appetitive, biased, narrow-minded, prejudicial self that drives a great deal of our every-day thoughts and interactions (Cowen, 2018). If we are to make our realistic selves work with each other to produce a just outcome, then we should affirm institutions that allow these beings, not just the wholesome beings of our comfortable self-perception, to cooperate. We have to be alive to the fact that we are dealing with agents who are apt to affirm a scheme as fair and just at one point (and even sincerely mean it), then forgetfully, carelessly, negligently or deliberately break the terms of that scheme at another point if they have an opportunity and reason enough to do so. Addressing ourselves as citizens in this morally imperfect state, as opposed to benighted people outside a charmed circle of reasonableness, is helpful. It means we can now include such considerations within public reason. The constraints of rules emerging from a constitutional stage may chafe at other stages of civil interaction. Nevertheless, they may be fully publicly justified.

Power outages in Texas

From an email I sent my principles of economics students:

Since we can’t have classes this week and the midterm is postponed a week, I felt chatty and wanted to share at least a few thoughts about why so many people are without power.

tl;dr: see the graph below. Prices are fixed. Supply shifts left, demand shifts right = instant shortages. This is not an easy problem to solve.

Issue #1 is that bad weather events increase demand – demand shifts to the right. Issue #2 is that energy prices are really sticky. We’ll be getting to this in March, but in energy markets we sign contracts with our energy providers that lock in the price of electricity for 1-2 years at a time. When demand increases, the price doesn’t! Further, some contracts allow us to smooth the bill out over 12 months, so if I need extra $12 of electricity today, I don’t actually pay for it today: I’ll pay for it by having a $1 higher electricity bill over a 12 month period. That does two things. a) It means that energy demand curves are really vertical, a small change in price doesn’t change my electricity consumption much; and b) when demand increases, prices don’t. That ruins the market price signal that tells you and me to conserve electricity. Issue #3 of course is that it is really amazingly expensive to increase electric capacity. That means that energy supply curves are also really vertical. Even if energy firms COULD raise prices, they can’t increase the quantity supplied in the short run. In the longer run, we have time to build more plants and add capacity, but in the short run we’re stuck with what we have. 

The graph above shows the marginal cost of different types of energy. Some are energy that is easy to turn on and off, but expensive (eg. oil). Some are energy that is really, really hard to turn on and off at will (eg. nuclear) but very cheap. And producing more energy than you need is bad. So you build enough cheap stuff that you know for 100% positive will always be needed, and then you build expensive stuff to handle changes in demand. That’s the short version, anyway. It means that producing a little extra electricity is really expensive and there is a hard limit to much extra we can produce – eventually supply curves are completely vertical!

My friends on the right tend to send blame towards green energy. And they have a point! Renewables are temperamental – with too many clouds solar doesn’t do anything, and frozen blades can’t turn wind energy turbines. The impact of the storm is to shift energy supply curves to the left, and the more the grid relies on renewables, the bigger that shift is. The basic problem renewables have had is that it’s really difficult to STORE their energy for future use. If we could create really large energy reservoirs, we could store Texas’ abundant solar and wind energy for a literally-rainy day. 

So we have supply curves shifting left at the same time demand curves are shifting right and prices can’t move … the final result is massive shortages! Now what could be done about that?

My friends on the left tend to blame deregulation. Sadly, not one of them is spelling out exactly what regulation they think would solve this problem. Let me be generous to them and imagine they mean the following: if the government ran (rather than regulated) the energy grid, they would build a greater capacity than we typically use. 

And they have a point. Energy is like the opposite of the hotel industry. In the hotel industry, you don’t build the hotel based on AVERAGE, normal operations. In Stephenville, you build a hotel large enough to accommodate people who come for graduation. The cost of having unused rooms is fairly low – you still need to keep the room cool in case someone needs it, and you want to hire someone to dust it, but it just sits there most of the time. Then you rake in big money when demand suddenly increases. The energy industry is the opposite: it is very expensive to build capacity and it is also expensive to maintain it. Whether you are a private firm or a government, the money to maintain unused generators has to come from somewhere.

How do we afford that? In the market, energy prices are actually set a little bit higher than equilibrium so that supply > demand. That ensures we have plenty of electricity to handle normal, typical demand fluctuations. We pay for that excess capacity during the normal part of the year so that when temperatures are particularly high or extra low, the grid can handle it.

The government has a different problem, though. If electricity is publicly-run, they will tend to set the price lower than the market would and make up the differences with taxes. That further divorces energy use from the price paid. We would have a higher quantity demanded at all times (wasteful). Add in that governments generally do a bad job running businesses (wasteful) and in order to have that excess capacity we would have to be willing to pay higher taxes (and lower energy bills) for many years to make up for the extra expense. Most governments, like most markets, will therefore tend to undersupply for an emergency because the voters don’t want to pay higher taxes and there is no such thing as a free lunch. So it’s not 100% clear that this would solve the problem. Europe has power outages that affect millions too. 

Why? Healy and Malhotra: Governments respond to incentives, and voters give the wrong incentives: “Do voters effectively hold elected officials accountable for policy decisions? Using data on natural disasters, government spending, and election returns, we show that voters reward the incumbent presidential party for delivering disaster relief spending, but not for investing in disaster preparedness spending. These inconsistencies distort the incentives of public officials, leading the government to underinvest in disaster preparedness, thereby causing substantial public welfare losses. We estimate that $1 spent on preparedness is worth about $15 in terms of the future damage it mitigates. By estimating both the determinants of policy decisions and the consequences of those policies, we provide more complete evidence about citizen competence and government accountability.”

Bottom line: there isn’t an easy solution to weather events that happen once in a hundred years, whether it’s floods or hurricanes or … whatever this white, powdery substance is that’s blanketing my lawn. The basic problem is scarcity in a market where price signals don’t work (by design) at a time when supply shifts left and demand shifts right. To the extent climate change means more frequent extreme events, this will be a growing problem.

Affirmative Guilt-Gradient and the Overton Window in Identity-Based Pedagogy

Yesterday, I came across this scoop on Twitter; New York Post and several other blogs have since reported it.

Regardless of this scoop’s veracity, the chart of Eight White identities has been around for some time now, and it has influenced young minds. So, here is my brief reflection on such identity-based pedagogy:

As a non-white resident-alien, I understand the history behind the United States’ racial sensitivity in all domains today. I also realize how zealous exponents of diversity have consecrated schools and university campuses in the US to rid the society of prevalent racial power-structures. Further, I appreciate the importance of people being self-critical; self-criticism leads to counter-cultures that balance mainstream views and enable reform and creativity in society. But I also find it essential that critics of mainstream culture don’t feel morally superior to enforce just about any theoretical concept on impressionable minds. Without getting too much into the right vs. left debate, there is something terribly sad about being indoctrinated at a young age —regardless of the goal of social engineering— to accept an automatic moral one-‘downmanship’ for the sake of the density gradient of cutaneous melanin pigment. Even though I’m a brown man from a colonized society, this kind of extreme ‘white guilt’ pedagogy leaves me with a bitter taste. And in this bitter taste, I have come to describe such indoctrination as “Affirmative Guilt-Gradient.”

You should know there is something called the Overton Window, according to which concepts grow larger when their actual instances and contexts grow smaller. In other words, well-meaning social interventionistas easily view each new instance in the decreasingly problematic context of the problem they focus on with the same lens as they consider the more significant problem. This leads to unrealistic enlargement of academic concepts that are then shoved down the throats of innocent, impressionable school kids who will take them as objective realities instead of subjective conceptual definitions overlaid on one legitimate objective problem.

I find the scheme of Eight White identities a symptom of the shifting Overton Window.

According to Thomas Sowell, there is a whole class of academics and intellectuals of social engineering who believe that when the world doesn’t reconcile to their pet theories, that shows something is wrong with the world, not their theories. If we are to project Thomas Sowell’s observation on this episode of “Guilt-Gradient,” it is perfectly reasonable to expect many white kids and their parents to refuse to adopt these theoretically manufactured guilt-gradient identities. We can then —applying Sowell’s observation—predict academics to declare that opposition to the “Guilt Gradient” is evidence for many covert white supremacists in the society who will not change. Such stories may then get blown up in influential Op-Eds, leading to the magnification of a simple problem, soon to be misplaced in the clutter of naïve supporters of such theories, the progressive vote-bank, and hard-right polemics.

We should all acknowledge that attachment to any identity—be it majority or minority—is by definition NOT a hatred for an outgroup. Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University, Ashley Jardina, in her noted research on the demise of white dominance and threats to white identity, concludes, “White identity is not, a proxy for outgroup animus. Most white identifiers do not condone white supremacism or see a connection between their racial identity and these hate-groups. Furthermore, whites who identify with their racial group become much more liberal in their policy positions than when white identity is associated with white supremacism.” Everybody has a right to associate with their identity, and equating one’s association with an ethnic majority identity is not automatically toxic. I feel it is destructive to view such identity associations as inherently toxic because it is precisely this sort of warped social engineering that results in unnecessary political polarization; the vicious cycle of identity-based tinkering is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hence, recognizing the Overton Window at play in such identity-based pedagogy is a must if we have to make progress. We shouldn’t be tricked into assuming that the non acceptance of the Affirmative Guilt Gradient is a sign of our society’s lack of progress.

Finally, I find it odd that ideologues who profess “universalism” and international identities choose schools and universities to keep structurally confined, relative identities going by adding excessive nomenclature so they can apply interventions that are inherently reactionary. However, isn’t ‘reactionary’ a pejorative these ideologues use on others?

The 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh: 50 years later

2021 happens to be the 50th anniversary of the 13-day Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which also resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. In 2011, I co-edited a book titled Warriors after War which consists of interviews with retired Army officials from India and Pakistan. Here is an excerpt:

Tridivesh Singh Maini recalls that part of the inspiration for this book arose from the history of this incident, and the fact that the original impetus for change had arisen not from politicians but from ex-military figures in Pakistan and India. Subsequently, he carried out the interviews with all the Indian ex-military figures for this volume, while his colleague in Pakistan, Tahir Malik, carried out all but one of the interviews with Pakistani ex-military figures (Brigadier Shaukat Qadir was interviewed by Richard Bonney).

It is difficult to emphasize sufficiently the uniqueness, importance and timeliness of this volume. Relations between Pakistan and India were strained from the outset as a result of the events of Partition in 1947, when the mass migration of the populations in opposite directions and the slaughter that occurred on both sides led to mutual recrimination. (pgs 34-35)

Here is a link to the book on Amazon. Here is a pdf of the entire book.

How Falsehoods Take Root

“On the afternoon of January 6, most Americans watched in horror as an armed mob stormed the US Capitol….” (Emphasis mine.)

This is part of the opening sentence of an essay in the Wall Street Journal by Steven B. Smith (weekend edition, Jan 23-24, C5). The piece is entitled: “The Two Enemies of Patriotism.” It’s described as adapted from the author’s forthcoming book to be published soon by Yale University Press. The author is a professor of political science at Yale. Even a superficial survey shows he possesses very good academic credentials. His PhD is from the University of Chicago. He seems to be a specialist in Spinoza, which I find especially disturbing, personally (more on this below).

My question: were the protesters who breached the US Capitol on January 6 “armed,” as Mr Smith asserts? The answer to this question matters because it’s one of the dividing line between two interpretations of the same events. In one interpretation, the notably unmasked protesters went too far and engaged in unlawful entry, small amounts of vandalism (some windows were broken), and in disorderly conduct – that most subjective of all kinds of law breaking – which, together, made the unaccountably thin line of Capitol police feel threatened and forced them to retreat. As I write, a little over one hundred and twenty participants have been charged, almost all with the kinds of crimes mentioned above. No one has been charged with murder or any other crime I would consider serious.

In the alternative interpretation, a real “insurrection” took place with the aim to….Well, no one explained what a credible aim the “insurrectionists” might have had besides what the protesters actually achieved: putting off a ceremonial congressional proceeding of counting electoral vote by several hours without altering its results in any way.

It seems to me that reasonable people should agree that the presence or not of real weapons marks the line dividing somewhat riotous protest from insurrection, which must be armed, it seems to me. Is there any historical example of an event called an “insurrection” when weapons were absent? Or is this a novel use of the word? I say “should agree” because in the two weeks since the event, what I think of as reasonable people seem to have largely vanished recently.

Here are the facts as I am able to gather them from the internet. After the breaching of the Capitol, police found two vehicles nearby (I don’t know how near), each with a varied panoply of weapons. Whether the owners broke any laws by carrying their several weapons, I can’t tell from the media reports. Here, I would like to have a baseline: In an ordinary day when nothing much happens, how many vehicles with weapons inside would be found in a police sweep of the same area? At any rate, none of those weapons were in the possession of the crowd that breached the Capitol’s weak defenses.

In addition, one identified Capitol protester (one) was arrested at his hotel in possession of a Taser. There is no reason to believe he had this weapon in the Capitol. (Burden of proof is on the accuser). Another protester was found with plastic ties in his possession while he was on Capitol grounds. He said he found them there. They might actually have fallen out of a Capitol policeman’s pocket. At any rate, whether plastic ties are “arms” is a real question. If a civilian without a weapon orders me to put my wrists behind my back so that he can secure them with plastic ties, I will just say “No.” Someone else?

The media made much of the news that several pipe bombs were also found on the ground not far from the Capitol. The first one found was at the National Republican Committee. I have to ask, of course: why on the ground, why at a Republican building? (Some really clueless Trump supporter?)

One protester present on the Capitol grounds during the breach did have a pistol; that’s one, one!

So far, as of today, two people died in the Capitol or as a direct result of the breach by Trump supporters. The latter were re-enforced by an unknown number of left wing radicals, or, at least, by one, a young man named Sullivan. I understand that one is one, that this fact may not mean much. Same rules apply against and for the argument I am making.

One Capitol policeman was killed by a heavy object (not precisely an “arm,” a weapon) by a person or by persons unknown. The killer or killers seem to have been present in the invading crowd.

Finally, a Capitol policeman shot to death one avowed Trump supporter from a short distance. The victim was allegedly killed while entering through a broken window. She was unarmed. I did not find a commentary about a Congressional legal policy making breaking-and-entering a capital case punishable by death. The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had nothing to say on the topic although Congress is in charge of its own policing.

In brief: Using public sources, I don’t find the armed mob of Prof. Smith’s opening sentence. A “mob”? Maybe that’s a subjective designation, but I understand the impression that particular crowd made and I too think it was disorderly. But, I am pretty sure it takes more than one individual to make up a “mob.” So, either, it was not a mob, or it was not armed.

Why did Prof. Smith begin an essay surely only intended to promote his scholarly book with a reference to an armed mob, specifically, in spite of the shortage of supporting evidence? Four possibilities.

First, he lied shamelessly in the service of his ideological and political preferences, including a hatred of Trump supporters;

Two, Mr Smith displayed an appalling lack of information. It’s only appalling because the man is a scholar, and a political scientist to boot, one who should follow current political events a little carefully. One would reasonably expect him to be attentive when the word “insurrection” is used repeatedly.

Three, Mr Smith was a little distracted when he wrote the above lines, not especially interested, and he just followed passively the narrative prevailing in his faculty club with a care to preserving his dedicated place at the table in the same faculty club’s dining room.

Four, he thinks one protester with a handgun constitutes an “armed mob.”

The later possibility should not be brushed off too easily. We live under constant hysteria.

Mr Smith is a scholar of Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher. Spinoza was one of the originators of undiluted rationalism and thus, a founding father of Western civilization (thus far). He even paid a high personal price for his courage in renouncing the theological certainties of his age. I suppose you can be an expert on the works of another scholar and remain morally unaffected by his example. If this is uncommon, Mr Smith is showing the way.

Now, for consequences of word choice, just compare two short narratives about the same event;

“About one hundred to two hundred unmasked and mostly unarmed protesters forced their way into the Capitol. ‘Mostly unarmed’ because one protester was found to have a handgun.”

“…an armed mob stormed the Capitol….”

Which of these two narratives would lend implicit support to the view that Trump supporters should be treated as “domestic terrorists” with the expectable outcomes for individual rights?

Whatever the real explanation for Prof. Smith’s departure from the truth, it seems obvious to me that it constitutes one of the roots, a minor one perhaps, that will help grow and help propagate that particular falsehood. The fact that he is an academic operating from a respected university makes the verbal dishonesty worse. The fact that the falsehood appears in a well-esteemed and mostly conservative newspaper makes the breach of truth worse again.

I have been saying for months now that American universities are committing suicide. Professors’ irresponsibility, such as in this case one, are just another one of a thousand cuts. Very sad!

PS I voted for Mr Trump twice. I am a white supremacist, of course.

And the Surfers Shall Lead the Revolution

The central coast of California where I live has been cursed and blessed by sunny weather this winter; it has also been blessed and cursed by unusually high waves. The curse of good weather when it should be raining, known as “drought,” is that it may feed into more horrendous forest fires next summer, same as we had last summer. The blessings of sunny weather are obvious. The curse of very high waves is that they cause some damage to infrastructure and that they sometimes claim lives. The blessing of high waves is that surfing is thriving like never before in “Surf City,” Santa Cruz, my town.

On a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon of January, the beach two miles from my house is crowded like in June (not quite as much as in August). It’s largely covered with family clusters. Look at it in context. Children are not allowed to go to school (although they are almost completely immune); many moms who would otherwise work have been laid off from their more or less precarious jobs. Many dads have been laid off too; others “work from home.”

The kids are restless, the sun is shining, the temperature is better than OK; the beach is within the reach of many. (More on this later.) What are we going to do? Let’s spend the middle of the day at the beach, of course.

I should have have been able to predict it because I am a serious beach social scientist. I missed the boat. Santa Cruz was one of the best small towns I knew only seven or eight years ago. Then, the homeless started drifting in and they never left. Some are in the last stages of a life dedication to drugs; others are rationality challenged; a few are both. For the past five years or so, there have been enough of them to affect the quality of life for everyone else. Their presence determines to an extent where one can take one’s children in town. (Sorry, I call them as I see them; no judgment involved.)

Then, the COVID fell upon us from China. In short order, the authorities, including the local powers, found their authoritarian footing, or they got in touch with their own panic. And panic is often a handmaiden to petty authoritarianism. They began prohibiting this, and that, and that public behavior, this and that kind of work, etc.

Santa Cruz is becoming a ghost town, one restaurant closing at a time, one store closing at a time. The movie theaters are shut down, the biggest one forever. The one large bookstore does remain open though. You can still pick up and return books at the public library but either you can’t browse or it’s fiendishly complicated to do so on-line. Besides, one can only read so many hours a day if one is under fifty, so many minutes if under fifteen.

Just from looking around, I assume that many school-age children have taken the opportunities on-line learning offers to become even more adept at using the internet. Such skills come handy in times of extreme idleness. I believe a good many kids are on TikTok and similar on-line alternate worlds six or seven hours a day, some amassing “followers.” (Don’t ask me why I believe this, it’s very personal; I just know.) But although such games are addictive, they too become tiresome and children crave direct social contact anyway. So, eventually, many kids end up at the beach with their parents and with their siblings and their parents or, with adult neighbors and their children.

In point of fact, many of the family clusters on the sand are further grouped into larger ensembles including some ten or fifteen adults and thirty or forty children. I haven’t yet figured out whether they are grouped on the basis of school, church, or just neighborhood. Whatever the case, it’s pretty impressive. No one is wearing a mask.

On weekends, visitors from far afield join those mostly local people on the beach, increasing again the crowding. There are several ways to spot the visitors. Some play loud music- a sure activator of xenophobia; others send their kids to the water with a life jacket on top of their wetsuits. (Not cool.) Some wear masks.

Speaking of wetsuits, a new thing, something I have never seen before, is that dozens of little kids are in wetsuits. This is a rare sight because in normal times, parents tell themselves: Not worth buying the kid a wetsuit; he is going to outgrow it in months.

The calculation has changed because of a virus. The parents are largely unable to spend money on dining out, other shopping opportunities are limited and inconvenient; for the well-heeled, this year, there has been no winter vacation to spend on; for the least well endowed, there are not even school supplies expenditures. I am saying that under current circumstances, unlike in previous years, almost any parents feel that they can afford to buy one or two children’s wetsuits (at about $125 or less each). This changes everything.

More importantly, perhaps, but I won’t dwell on this because I can’t afford to lose half of humanity as potential friends, for the first time in my experience, you see dozens of mature women in wetsuits. I have to be cautious here because, let’s say that the wetsuit as a garment is not all that flattering to the mature female shape.

The beach I have in mind is a few hundred yards around a point from globally famous Steamer Lane where world surf championships are held most winters. The waning rollers of Steamer Lane land on that beach and they are suitable, the farthest ones for intermediate surfers, and the closest, for beginners. So, almost every family cluster on the beach includes one, two, or three surfers.

Learning a new sport is often wonderful; learning it as a family is terrific. Coming out of the water cold but exhilarated and sharing a sandwich with your kids and with your spouse is like a return to a lovely, simpler past most people today have only heard of, if that.

Downbeach some way, three tiny girls in tiny bikinis chase one another in the small waves. Their squeals gladden the heart. A couple of boys nearby are on the wet sand absorbed by a hydrokinetic project. They ignore the girls as is proper. A smart white egret has figured out that humans are not predators. It picks sand crabs right between the feet of children. At least some creatures are enjoying a new freedom and that’s all good (except for the sand crabs).

Surfing, loosely defined, plus the new pleasant, voluntary family closeness around it, has become the first recourse but also the last recourse of many of the locked-down. It must be pretty much irreplaceable for them under the current circumstances of health-based restrictions, and health pretext-based restrictions on ordinary activities, circumstances of forced idleness and, of unnatural family interaction in a closed space. Surfing is the thin pillar around which some people are building a small, fragile edifice of freedom and joy.

If the local health authorities try – as they did last spring – to restrict parking near the beach, I believe all hell will break loose. (And, I am being polite, I was thinking of fans, not fanatics, air circulation devices.) That’s true, although Santa Cruz is largely a “progressive” town. Every material obstacle to parking is one less family group able to have recourse to the last recourse. The real surfers among them, advanced or not, are tough people. They immerse themselves voluntarily for hours in cold water. (Wetsuits don’t protect faces and hands, and the rest of the body, only imperfectly). They deliberately submit themselves, and often their children, to the dangers of breaking surf. And, I don’t even mention sharks, known to frequent the area because we have many sea lions. (The last fatal shark attack was about 18 months ago, a long time ago or yesterday, depending.)

At any rate, the surfers won’t go meekly. They are not likely to submit to orders to stay away from waves that are extremely unlikely transmitters of viruses. If the authorities even attempt to take away this last vestige of personal freedom, the surfers will proclaim and lead a sort of revolution. Also, if I were the authorities, I would think twice before turning draconian because many law enforcement people (and firefighters) are surfers themselves so, the expected instruments of repression would be somewhat unreliable. And no one, but no one hates surfers except other surfers. So, don’t go seeking allies in repression.

Local tyrants – however well meaning you are – don’t even think about it! You don’t want to face the full anger of barefoot families in wetsuits who have been enduring for a year a bunch of largely ineffectual, ill-explained, and often idiotic regulations.

Pandemics and Hyperinflations

I wrote an article a few years ago about hyperinflation in ancient Rome (and blogged about it here), arguing that the social trust in issuing bodies has been a foundation for monetary value long before modern institutions.

I got a random notification that someone had actually read and cited my work in a recent article “The US Money Explosion of 2020, Monetarism and Inflation: Plagued by History?” I really liked the author’s concept: inflation during pandemic periods is staved off for years because of saving rates, but then the post-crisis period is actually when the most inflation occurs.

This passed my ‘gut check’: during a crisis, who blows their entire budget? It also passed my historical-precedent check, and not only because he researched the Spanish flu and medieval precedent; in the Roman hyperinflation, the inflation lagged decades behind the expanded monetary volume, and in fact came right as the civil wars that nearly brought the Empire to its knees came to an end.

So, in short, inflation-hawks, you are probably right to fear the dramatic expansion of the money supply; however, you won’t feel vindicated for potentially years to come. In an age where people look for causes today to become results tomorrow (EVERY DAY, the WSJ tells me “stocks moved up/down because MAJOR EVENT TODAY”), we need to lengthen our time horizons of analysis and recognize that, just maybe, the ramifications of today’s policies will not really be felt for years. Or, put in a more dire light, by the time we realize who is right, it will be too late to reassert social trust in monetary value, and the dollar will follow the denarius into histories of hyperinflations.

The Al Ula Accord: Qatar’s gains, the UAE’s losses, and Iran’s quiet win

Introduction 

Days after the signing of the solidarity and stability agreement – the Al Ula accord – between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia’s allies, the Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, made it clear that Doha would continue to pursue an independent foreign policy driven by its own national interest. The Qatari Foreign Minister was alluding to demands by Riyadh and other countries that Qatar should re-assess its ties with Iran and Turkey in the aftermath of the agreement.

Days after the imposition of the blockade, Saudi Arabia and other countries had stated that they would remove the blockade provided that Doha accepted a list of 13 demands. One of these demands was that Doha should downgrade ties with Tehran and Ankara. Qatar categorically refused to accept this demand.  

The UAE’s response to the accord  

While all other signatories have hailed the agreement, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has said that while the signing of the agreement is a welcome step, there is no clarity with regard to contentious issues – such as Doha’s relations with Ankara and Tehran. Expressing the UAE’s skepticism, its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said

Some issues are easier to fix and some others will take longer. We are off to a very good start…but we have issues with rebuilding trust.

The UAE had opened land, sea, and airports with Qatar on January 8, 2021 (Saudi had opened the borders on January 4, 2021). According to many observers, the accord will give a boost to bilateral economic links between the UAE and Qatar (the UAE’s tourism and construction sectors are likely to benefit significantly from the agreement).

It would be important to point out that, till a few months ago, the UAE had been opposed to the removal of the blockade on Qatar, but was compelled to sign it, given the changing dynamics in the Middle East. 

Iran, Turkey, and the agreement 

The key objective of both the US (White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner had visited the Middle East in December) and Saudi Arabia in removing the embargo on Qatar was reducing the latter’s dependence upon Iran. Qatar has been using Iranian air space ever since the blockade was imposed in June 2017.

On the other hand, Doha realizes that its independent foreign policy, and good relations with Washington and Tehran and Ankara, are an asset. The latest agreement, which will improve ties with Saudi Arabia, could further bolster its strategic importance and foreign policy options. Qatar has consistently batted in favor of reduction of tensions between the US and Iran, and after the signing of the agreement, it has offered to intervene between Saudi Arabia and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Turkey (both Turkey and Iran had also welcomed the Al Ula accord, and expressed optimism that it would pave the way for stability in the Middle East). 

Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, Special Envoy of the Qatari Foreign Minister for Combating Terrorism and Mediation in the Settlement of Disputes, while commenting on the possible role of Qatar in reducing tensions between Ankara and Tehran, stated:

If these two countries see that the State of Qatar has a role in this mediation, then it is possible to do so.

The UAE is not too happy with Qatar’s increasing clout as a result of the agreement (for long the UAE has viewed itself as a key player in the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] and a bridge). While the UAE itself has maintained back channels with Iran, especially in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, it has serious differences with Turkey and has not been comfortable with Qatar’s increasing proximity with Ankara. 

Conclusion  

In conclusion, the agreement is an important step but the geopolitics of the Middle East are extremely complex. Qatar is unlikely to drastically alter its approach vis-à-vis Turkey and Iran; in fact it would like to view itself as a peacemaker rather than just a mere bystander. The fact that Qatar was able to deal with the economic implications of the blockade has only strengthened its position (in 2021, it is likely to grow at 2.7%, the second highest rate within the GCC). 

It remains to be seen how the Saudis and the US view the role of Qatar within the GCC. What would also be important to watch is how the UAE deals with the changing landscape in the Middle East.

Greenwald on Silicon Valley

On Thursday, Parler was the most popular app in the United States. By Monday, three of the four Silicon Valley monopolies united to destroy it.

With virtual unanimity, leading U.S. liberals celebrated this use of Silicon Valley monopoly power to shut down Parler, just as they overwhelmingly cheered the prior two extraordinary assertions of tech power to control U.S. political discourse: censorship of The New York Post’s reporting on the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, and the banning of the U.S. President from major platforms. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a single national liberal-left politician even expressing concerns about any of this, let alone opposing it.

Not only did leading left-wing politicians not object but some of them were the ones who pleaded with Silicon Valley to use their power this way. After the internet-policing site Sleeping Giants flagged several Parler posts that called for violence, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked: “What are @Apple and @GooglePlay doing about this?”

The rest is here. Do read it. (H/t Mark from Placerville)

I haven’t jumped into American domestic politics for a long, long time. It’s nice to see that Glenn Greenwald is still the same ol’ Glenn Greenwald. I saw on Twitter awhile back that some Leftists were savaging him because he refused to take their side on something or other.

The tribal trend is one that is here to stay, I think, at least for the duration of my lifetime. In the old days, in the United States, politics was more polarized. Whole families based part of their identity on a political party. What we are seeing is a return to the norm after 80 years of postwar boom (and bust), when being an American trumped being a Democrat/Republican. Coming to terms with a bug in the democratic system (polarization), is going to be difficult for a lot of Americans.

The problem is not just ignorance with polarization, either. Before the postwar boom, America’s federal government did a lot less than it does now. Our polarized society, which again is a normal feature of democracies that don’t win world wars, is fighting for resources that are now wielded largely by one entity rather than by hundreds of local entities. There are plusses and minuses to this. The federal government is more professional about such things, and graft is harder to commit, but this also means that there will be more losers (for those federal goodies).

In the past, violent riots were the product of racist and Nativist animosities that were not dealt with effectively by local authorities. Basically, black Americans and immigrants were not able to get any public goods from local and “state” governments unless they literally fought for a place at the table. Today, and for the foreseeable future, the animosities are going to be federal in scope rather than local, so violence will not be a product of racist or Nativist abuse. Violent riots will probably flare up more often than they once did, too, but they won’t be as deadly as the racist or Nativist riots of old.

I hope I’m wrong, but I rarely am.

Post-Mortem

Mr Trump is practically gone and he is not coming back. (For one thing, he will be too old in 2024. For another thing, see below.) The political conditions that got such an un-preposterous candidate elected in 2016 however, those conditions, don’t look like they are going away. (I hope I am wrong.) A large fraction of Americans will continue to be ignored from an economic standpoint, as well as insulted daily by their better. Four years of insults thrown at people like me and the hysterical outpouring of contempt by liberal media elites on the last days of the Trump administration are not making me go away. Instead, they will cement my opposition to their vision of the world and to their caste behavior. I would bet dollars on the penny that a high proportion of the 74 million+ who voted for Mr Trump in 2020 feels the same. (That’s assuming that’s the number who voted for him; I am not sure of it at all. It could be more. Currently, with the information available, I vote 60/40 that the election was not – not – stolen.)

I never liked Trump, the man, for all the obvious reasons although I admired his steadfastness because it’s so rare among politicians. In the past two years, I can’t say I liked any of his policies, though I liked his judicial appointments. It’s just that who else could I vote for in 2016? Hillary? You are kidding, right? And in 2020, after President Trump was subjected to four years (and more) of unceasing gross abuse and of persecution guided by a totalitarian spirit, would it not have been dishonorable to vote for anyone but him? (Libertarians: STFU!)

Believe it or not, if Sen. Sanders and his 1950 ideas had not been eliminated again in 2020, again through the machinations of the Dem. National Committee, I would have had a serious talk with myself. At least, Sanders is not personally corrupt, and with a Republican Senate, we would have had a semi-paralyzed government that would have been OK with me.

One week after the event of 1/6/21, maybe “the breach” of the Capitol, many media figures continue to speak of a “coup.” Even the Wall Street Journal has joined in. That’s downright grotesque. I don’t doubt that entering the Capitol in a disorderly fashion and, for many, (not all; see the videos) uninvited, is illegal as well as unseemly. I am in favor of the suspects being found and prosecuted, for trespassing, or something. This will have the merit of throwing some light on the political affiliation(s) of the window breakers. I still see no reason to abandon the possibility that some, maybe (maybe) in the vanguard, were Antifa or BLM professional revolutionaries. Repeating myself: Trump supporters have never behaved in that manner before. I am guessing the investigations and the prosecutions are going to be less than vigorous precisely because the new administration will not want to know or to have the details be known of the criminals’ identity. If I am wrong, and all the brutal participants were Trump supporters, we will know it very quickly. The media will be supine either way.

It’s absurd and obscenely overwrought to call the breaching of the Capitol on January 6th (by whomever), a “coup” because there was never any chance that it would result in transferring control of the federal government to anyone. Develop the scenario: Both chambers are filled with protesters (of whatever ilk); protesters occupy both presiding chairs, and they hold in their hands both House and Senate gavels. What next? Federal agencies start taking their orders from them; the FBI reports to work as usual but only to those the protesters appoint? Then, perhaps, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs interrupts the sketchy guy who is taking a selfie while sitting in the VP chair. He says he wants to hand him the nuclear controls football. (Ask Nancy Pelosi, herself perpetrator of a coup, though a small one.) If you think any of this is credible, well, think about it, think about yourself, think again. And get a hold!

That the Capitol riot was a political act is true in one way and one way only, a minor way. It derailed the electoral vote counting that had been widely described as “ceremonial.” Happened after (after) the Vice-President had declared loud and clear that he did not have the authority to change the votes. The counting resumed after only a few hours. There is no scenario, zero, under which the riot would have altered the choice of the next president. If there had been, the breach would have been a sort of coup, a weak one.

On 1/9/21, an announcer, I think it was on NPR, I hope it was on NPR, qualified the events as a “deadly” something or other. He, and media in general, including Fox News, I am afraid, forgot to go into the details. In point of fact, five people died during the protest and part-riot of 1/6/21. One was a Capitol policeman who was hit with a fire extinguisher. As I write, there is no official allegation about who did it. There is no information about the political affiliation, if any, of the culprit(s). For sure, protesters caused none of three next deaths which were due to medical emergencies, including a heart attack. The fifth casualty was a protester, who was probably inside the Capitol illegally, and who was shot to death by a policeman. She was definitely a Trump supporter. She was unarmed. Many people who are busy with their lives will think that Trump supporters had massacred five people because of the mendacity of the language used on air. Disgraceful, disgusting reporting; but we are getting used to it.

Today and yesterday, I witnessed a mass movement I think I have not seen in my life though it rings some historical bells. Pundits, lawmakers, and other members of their caste are elbowing one another out of the way to be next to make extremist pronouncements on the 1/6/21 events. Why, a journalist on Fox News, no less, a pretty blond lady wearing a slightly off the shoulder dress referred to a “domestic terror attack.” With a handful of courageous exceptions, all lawmakers I have seen appearing in the media have adopted extreme vocabulary to describe what remained a small riot, if it was a riot at all. I mean that it was a small riot as compared to what happened in several American cities in the past year. The hypocrisy is colossal in people who kept their mouths mostly shut for a hundred nights or more of burning of buildings, of police cars, of at least one police precinct (with people in it), and of massive looting.

It’s hard to explain how the media and the political face of America became unrecognizable in such a short time. Two hypotheses. First, many of the lawmakers who were in the Capitol at the time of the breach came to fear for their personal safety. Four years of describing Trump supporters as Nazis and worse must have left a trace and multiplied their alarm. Except for the handful of Congressmen and women who served in the military and who saw actual combat, our lawmakers have nothing in their lives to prepare them for physical danger. They mostly live cocooned lives; the police forces that protect them have not been disbanded. (What do you know?) I think they converted the abject fear they felt for a short while into righteous indignation. Indignation is more self-respecting than fear for one’s skin.

My second hypothesis to explain the repellent verbal behavior: The shameful noises I heard in the media are the manifestation of a rat race to abandon a sinking ship. Jobs are at stake, careers are at stake, cushy lifestyles are at stake. “After Pres. Trump is gone, as he surely will be soon,” the lawmakers are thinking, “there will be a day of reckoning, and a purge. I have to establish right away a vivid, clear, unforgettable record of my hatred to try and avoid the purge. No language is too strong to achieve this end.” That’s true even for Republican politicians because, they too have careers. Trump cabinet members resigned for the same reason, I think when they could have simply declared, “I don’t approve of…. but I am staying to serve the people to the end.”

Along with an outburst of extremist public language, there came a tsunami of censorship by social media, quite a few cases of people getting fired merely for having been seen at the peaceful demonstration (all legal though repulsive), and even a breach of contract by a major publisher against a US Senator based solely on his political discourse (to be resolved in court). And then, there are the enemy lists aired by the likes of CNN, for the sole purpose of ruining the careers of those who served loyally in the Trump administration.

President-elect Bidden called for “unity.” Well, I have never, ever seen so much unity between a large fraction of the political class – soon an absolute majority in government – the big media, and large corporations. I have never seen it but I have read about it. Such a union constituted the political form called “corporatism.” It was the practical infrastructure of fascism.

As if political correctness had only been its training wheels, the vehicle of political censorship is speeding up. The active policing of political speech can’t be far behind. It won’t even require a revision of the federal constitution so long as private companies such as Twitter and Facebook do the dirty work. Soon, Americans will watch what they are saying in public. I fear that national police agencies will be turned to a new purpose. (The FBI, already proved its faithlessness four years ago, anyway.) Perhaps, there will be little collective cynicism involved. It’s not difficult to adopt liberalism, a self-indulgent creed. And what we understand here (wrongly) to be “socialism” only entails an endless Christmas morning. So, why not? The diabolical Mr Trump will soon be remembered as having incited some misguided, uneducated, unpolished (deplorable) Americans to massacre their legitimately elected representatives.

Incidentally, in spite of a near consensus on the matter, I have not seen or heard anything from Pres. Trump that amounts to incitement to do anything (anything) illegal. There are those who will retort that inviting his angry supporters to protest was tantamount to incitement to violence. The logic of this is clear: Only crowds that are not angry should be invited to protest. Read this again. Does it make any sense? Make a note that the constitutional propriety of Mr Trump’s belief that the election had been stolen is irrelevant here. One does not have to be constitutionally correct to have the right to protest.

Night has fallen over America. We are becoming a totalitarian society with a speed I could not have foreseen. Of course four years of unrelenting plotting to remove the properly elected president under false pretenses paved the way. Those years trained citizens to accept the unacceptable, to be intellectually docile. Suddenly I don’t feel safe. I am going to think over my participation in the social media both because of widespread censorship and because it now seems dangerous. As far as censorship is concerned I tried an alternative to Facebook, “Parler,” but it did not work for me. Besides, it seems that the big corporations, including Amazon and Apple, are ganging up to shut it down. The cloud of totalitarianism gathered so fast over our heads that all my bets are off about the kinds of risks I am now willing to take. I will still consider alternatives to Facebook but they will have to be very user-friendly, and reasonably populated. (If I want to express myself in the wilderness, I can always talk to my wife.) For the foreseeable future, I will still be easy to find in the blogosphere.

Best of luck to all my Facebook friends, including to those who need to learn to think more clearly, including those whose panties are currently in a twist.

Casual Empiricism: USPS

It looks to me (as I refresh tracking numbers) that the post office is still reeling after several months of attempted voter suppression. It also looks to me like even though Trump is on his way out, there is no reason to believe that someone just as terrible couldn’t come along at any point in the next 50 years and outdo him.

As far as the USPS goes I think there’s a fairly simple solution that should make most people happy: split the USPS in two: a private for-profit firm that delivers junk mail and competes with UPS and Amazon, and a government agency that handles government business including things like distributing ballots and census surveys.

But the USPS is just one small part of a much larger problem. When the Trump II comes along, he’ll have more powers, including (very likely) a lot more power to mess with the health care sector. There are a lot of reasons I don’t like the idea of more government in health care, but this one should be terrifying to everyone.

The Saudi-Qatar thaw

Introduction

On January 5, 2021, at the annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, at Al-Ula, an agreement was signed between Saudi Arabia (along with its allies) and Qatar that restored diplomatic ties.

Blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt had imposed a trade, travel, and diplomatic embargo on Qatar (two GCC states, Oman and Kuwait, did not cut diplomatic ties with Qatar). Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, and its close ties with Iran, were cited as the main reason for the decision to impose this blockade.

Saudi Arabia and its allies had closed its sea routes, land borders, and airspace to Qatari vehicles. As a consequence of the blockade, Qatar was compelled to use Iranian air space. Riyadh re-opened its airspace and land and sea borders with Qatar on January 4, 2021, and other countries will be following suit.

Attempts had been made by the US to broker a deal between both sides in 2017. Riyadh, along with other countries which had imposed the blockade on Qatar, had presented 13 conditions to Qatar including; shutting down of Al Jazeera and other Qatar-funded news outlets, downgrading ties with Iran and Turkey, and refraining from meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. Qatar categorically refused these conditions and stated that it would not in anyway compromise its sovereignty.

Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, had said that “we are willing to negotiate any legitimate grievances with our neighbours, but we will not compromise our sovereignty.”

He also dubbed the blockade imposed on Qatar as a violation of international law.

The agreement signed for restoration of diplomatic ties

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, while commenting on the agreement signed to end the blockade of Qatar, stated:

What happened today is… the turning of the page on all points of difference and a full return of diplomatic relations.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman dubbed the agreement as a reiteration of “Gulf, Arab, Islamic solidarity and stability.”

Senior Advisor to the White House, Jared Kushner (also Donald Trump’s son-in-law), along with Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook, a special State Department adviser, witnessed the agreement for restoring diplomatic relations between Riyadh, its allies, and Qatar.

Role of the US, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia

During his visit to the Middle East in December 2020, where he met with the Saudi Crown Prince and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, Kushner is supposed to have pushed for the removal of the blockade on Qatar.

Kuwait too has been an important player in trying to reduce tensions between Qatar and the other Arab states. In December 2020, the Foreign Minister of Kuwait, Al Sabah, had hinted at progress in this direction, though Qatar had stated that it would only accept any agreement which was fair.

Iran and Saudi Factor

There are two important factors behind this agreement. First, that the Saudis want to send a positive message to the incoming Biden administration. Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s poor track record on human rights, and he has even dubbed Riyadh as a “pariah state.” The Biden administration has also stated that it will re-assess ties with Riyadh, and it has accused Trump of being soft vis-à-vis the Saudis.

The Trump administration, especially Jared Kushner, is taking credit for the removal of the blockade, with one senior official dubbing it as a massive breakthrough and that “it will allow for travel among the countries as well as goods. It will lead to more stability in the region.”

The Trump administration is calling this agreement its second most important Middle East accomplishment, after the Abraham Accords (through which relations were normalized between Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel).

Riyadh too is likely to take credit for its role in reducing tensions with Qatar, which is home to the largest American military facility in the Middle East – the Al Udeid air base.

The second important part is the Iran factor. Saudi Arabia is wary of the Biden administration’s possible outreach to Iran, and it has sought to isolate Iran through this step. As a result of the embargo, Qatar had moved much closer to both Turkey and Iran.

Conclusion

In conclusion, a number of economic and geopolitical factors have resulted in removing the embargo on Qatar. While it is likely to reduce tensions, there are some major divergences between Qatar and other Arab countries on crucial foreign policy issues, especially Iran. Qatar is unlikely to accept any conditionalities, and unlikely to re-orient its foreign policy significantly. It will also be interesting to see how the incoming Biden administration views the role of Saudi Arabia in this agreement.

EU-China trade talks: More than just economics

The in-principle agreement between the EU and China over the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) is significant both from an economic and geopolitical standpoint.

The first round of talks for EU-China CAI began in January 2014 (it was only in 2016 that there was some agreement between both sides on the broad contents of the CAI). Ties between the EU and China too had witnessed a sharp deterioration in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, and a number of EU member states, including Germany, Spain, and Italy, had tightened FDI regulations with an eye on preventing Chinese takeover of companies, especially in sensitive sectors like security.

In the month of September, while commenting on the possibility of the CAI, the European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen had stated: “China has to convince us that it’s worth having an investment agreement.”

Key contents of the agreement

The CAI will ensure a uniform arrangement for the whole of Europe with China. The key issues which will be addressed through the CAI include; resolution of disputes, greater transparency with regard to Chinese state subsidies, and curbs on China’s practice of asking foreign investors to share their technology in lieu for market access.

China has also agreed to address issues pertaining to sustainable development – such as environment and climate (China has agreed to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change). Beijing has also agreed to implement the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.

According to an EU official, substantial commitments have been received from China on three issues: market access, level playing fields, and sustainable development. One of the strong backers of the CAI has been the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The deal will provide the EU greater access to China’s market. While the EU provides a significant amount of market access to China, the same can not be said of Beijing. Beijing is supposed to have made a firm commitment to the EU towards greater market access, especially in manufacturing (which makes up more than half of EU’s investment in China, including the automotive sector and basic materials).

Geopolitical implications

The deal has an important geopolitical dimension to it. While in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, ties with the Western world, including the EU, had witnessed a downward spiral, this deal is important in terms of symbolism. Chinese media publications have hailed the finalization of this agreement, emphasizing the point that the EU has adopted an independent stance vis-à-vis China and not followed Washington’s line.

Gao Jian, a scholar at Shanghai International Studies University, states:

Deeper China-EU ties will decrease possibility that the US will be able to hijack Europe for its anti-China chariot. Hopefully, the completion of the China-EU BIT talks will sound an alarm bell to the US administration and send this message: cooperation is the only way out for China-US relations.

If one were to look at US reactions, it is not only officials in the Trump Administration (which has a little over two weeks in office) who have been skeptical, but those from the incoming Biden Administration as well. Matt Pottinger, Trump’s Deputy National Security Advisor, has stated:

Leaders in both U.S. political parties and across the U.S. government are perplexed and stunned that the EU is moving towards a new investment treaty right on the eve of a new U.S. administration.

One of Biden’s key thrusts has been on working with the EU, and his pick for NSA chief, Jack Sullivan, had said that the US would like to work with the EU on common concerns vis-à-vis China’s ‘economic practices.’ Many observers argue that the decision of the EU could drive a wedge between the EU and the US, and this was one of Beijing’s main aims. It has also been argued that trilateral economic cooperation between Japan, the EU, and the US vis-à-vis China could also be impacted by the CAI.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the EU has sent out a clear message: that it would like to chart its own course given that it has its own economic interests, and not necessarily toe the US line vis-à-vis Beijing. For China, it is important in terms of messaging, as is evident from the tone of the Chinese media who are trying to dub this as a snub by Brussels to Washington DC. While US President-elect Biden has sought joint cooperation with the EU, the EU and the US will need to be on the same page with regard to dealing with China.

Next

I have to report that I think my advancing age is not preventing me from gathering facts and exercising criticality. (Sorry, Joe; I don’t mean to put you down. – Joe Biden and I are the same age. But, I know what I am talking about.)

The year 2020 was rough, of course, not so much for me or for my wife Krishna, as for our children and others we love. For the two of us, sheltering in place did not really change our habits all that much except that our shopping for ourselves became progressively more limited. We didn’t party much before; we did not party in 2020. We had not partied that much in 2019. (That’s unless you count staying up until eleven pm with a small glass of Marsala as partying.) We might start partying in 2021 but it’s not all that likely!

The COVID affair did two things for me. First it reminded me of what a thin veneer rationality really is in Western society. We saw many lose their cool and accept the unacceptable. I was reminded also of something I knew in my bones, from thirty years of teaching: Even otherwise educated people don’t know how to deal with simple numbers. So, 320,000 excess deaths from the C-virus for a population of 320 million correspond to an excess death rate of 0.001. That’s one per thousand; it’s a very small figure. (I am deliberately leaving aside the idea that the number of deaths from COVID is almost certainly overestimated in this country. One problem at a time works best.) If people understood how small the number is, they would respond accordingly that is, with calm, perhaps. The evidence of innumeracy is all over our media, and all over Facebook, on all political sides. I don’t know why we keep doing such a piss-poor job teaching basic math. (It’s been like this as far back as I can remember.) Perhaps, it’s because people who can’t count don’t know that they can’t count.

Speaking of innumeracy, another topic rises to my mind irrepressibly. Above, I was referring to the task of interpreting simple fractions for example. There is something else missing among those, specifically, who are tasked with explaining what causes what, and who take the task seriously. People so engaged have always had to deal with two problems. First, there are multiple real causes to the thing they wish to understand, multiple causes of different strengths. So, weight gain is influenced both by calorie intake and by amount and intensity of exercise; fact. Calorie intake counts more than exercise. Second, there are possible causes that may not be causes at all. So, in addition to the two causes above, one may believe that weight gain is influenced by the ambient temperature. (It’s not.) Well it turns out that there is a series of tools that help understand better both kinds of problem. I mean much better.

There exists a toolbox called “econometrics” that does exactly that. It’s far from new. I learned econometrics in the seventies, and I was not a pioneer. Media explainers have evidently no acquaintance with it and probably don’t even know the tools exists. Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression, learning econometrics is not light intellectual lifting but it’s within the reach of any smart person with a little time. I am baffled by the fact that something so obviously useful to figure out with real data whether X causes Y, in addition to Z, has failed to leach into ordinary educated society in fifty years and more. It’s discouraging about the pace of, or even the reality of progress.

The second important thing that happened in 2020 is that government at all levels gave us striking examples of its incompetence, and further, of its tendency immediately to turn tyrannical when frustrated. In the US and in France (whose case I am following pretty closely in the French media), government decisions have ruined a good part of the economy without real explanation being forthcoming. I mean closing by force thousands of small businesses that have little or no chance of recovering. I mean closing schools which prevents some, or many parents from going to work. The explanations for such actions are too light-weight to be taken seriously and they are frequently reversed like this: X causes Y; Ooops! X does not cause Y, Ooops! X does cause Y, sort of… Sometimes, often, good government consists in doing less rather than more: “We don’t know; do what you think is right,” at the most local level possible.

And, speaking of everyday government incompetence: The state of California wants to eliminate all internal combustion engines cars (and my own little pick-up truck) within fifteen years, to replace them with all-electric vehicles. That’s in a state where the local (PG&E, in central California) power monopoly has chronic trouble merely keeping the lights on. So, the question arises: Does the State of California really not know or does it know and not care (because it’s all about saving the planet)? I am not even sure which answer I prefer.

In the US, in addition to the COVID pandemic, we had a half a year of riots and burning of businesses, all in large cities held by Democrats for a long time. The inability, or the unwillingness, to stop the civil strife was striking. It expressed either a stunning degree of incompetence, or of complicity with the rioters. One explanation does not exclude the other, of course: Personal cowardice can easily hide under ideological fellowship. And ideology can generate cowardice.

In the minds of small government conservatives like me, the minimal task of government is to keep order so that individuals and companies can go about their constructive business. Local government largely failed in America in 2020. Extreme libertarians were more right than I thought. I wonder, of course, how much worse it would have been if a liberal had held the presidency instead of Donald Trump.

Government demonstrated to me in 2020 that it tends to be both incompetent and tyrannical. The thought crosses my mind that if it were more competent, it would be less inclined to tyranny.

The riots were adroitly attached to protests against the deaths of black suspects at the hands of police in questionable circumstances. They were staged as anti-racist protests, and especially as protests against “systemic racism.” I have already written why I think the police killings of black citizens in general are not racist acts. (Note: This is a long article. It can be read in nine segments, for convenience.)

I have also argued that in today’s America, systemic racism is too hard to find to lose sleep over it. Black Lives Matter, the organization, did almost all of the staging. It’s an organization of professional Marxist revolutionaries. I believe they are merely using alleged racism as a means to trigger a revolution in the US, or at least, to make their brand of statism gain ground, or at worst, to earn some credibility among the ill-read but well-intentioned.

In spite of the mendacity of the BLM campaign in every way, it may have done some good simply by drawing attention. I have always thought that American society has never really digested the fact of slavery. I mean the fact that it was 250 years of unrelenting atrocities. Some good may come from greater and deeper knowledge of that past. Same reason I am horrified by the brutal removal of statues and by the biased (“woke”) erasure of history going on in the streets and in universities as I write. Not facing the legitimate grievances about yesterday is like asking for insidious and endless blackmail today. That’s what we have now. There is a better way.

Do I think the Democrats, some Dems, stole the presidential election? I am not sure. I am sure of two things however: Many Democrats in several locations tried to steal it as much as they could. Some have argue in their defense that it was just “normal” cheating, that it happens the same every year. I want to know more about that. The second thing is that – to my knowledge (I am educable) there have been few or no complaints of cheating against Republican entities. Electoral cheating is a Democratic specialty.

Stealing a word from conservative commentator, Mark Stein, I fear we are entering a post-constitutional era. I don’t know what to do about it. I wish secession were more practical. It’s happening anyway on a small scale with tens of thousands voting with their feet by leaving California and New York State. It’s a first step. If the federal government would shrink some, I could imagine that this sort of peaceful partial secession would work for all: a Middle America centered on Texas, and an Extreme America based in California and New York State. The two parts linked in a loose confederacy. (Oops, wrong word!) Unfortunately, there is no miracle in sight by which the federal structure will become more skinny, with a shorter reach.

2020 saw the dramatic introduction of censorship and also of guided thought throughout the social media. If capitalism is allowed to function, the giant privately held businesses responsible for these poisons, and first and foremost Facebook, will have to withstand the emergence of rivals that will compete on that basis, precisely. I have tried one such and it did not work for me. There is no reason why there can’t be more, better ones. In the worst scenario with which I come up, the forces of darkness cannot eradicate capitalism fast enough to prevent this from happening. That’s my optimistic prediction for 2021 and beyond.

Other interesting things have happened to me that are kind of hard by their nature to recall. Here is the main one. As anthropogenic global warming became the state religion in many places, including to an extent, in the US, its narrative lost its remaining credibility in my mind. (Ask me why.)

Finally, we saw again that Communist China is too big and too powerful for a country that does not share our values. I refer to mass imprisonment without trial and outside the law, extra-judicial kidnapping by the government, guaranteed non-freedom of the press. This is true even if most rank-and-file Chinese citizens are satisfied with their government. (They may well be.) I am not Chinese myself. Chinese economic power has to be restricted (even if doing so is unfair). The influence of the Chinese Communists in America must be constrained. If Finland, for example were as big as Communist China, I wouldn’t mind so much, or at all.

I wish all of us a better year, more wisdom, more intellectual honesty, the ability peacefully and firmly to resist creeping tyranny.