Thursday, 26 May 2016

Just get Trump into the White House so he doesn't hurt anyone


I like Donald Trump. Not the person but what he represents. If I were a US citizen though, I wouldn’t be fooled by his rhetorical tricks and I certainly wouldn’t be voting for the man.

That might sound contradictory but it isn’t. On the one hand, Mr Trump has defeated every other Republican hopeful to become the party’s de facto nominee for November. Supporters are attracted to him because he represents change from the Barack Obama administration. But whereas President Obama was elected as, essentially, not George W Bush (I know that’s cartoonish), Mr Trump’s success is due to his essentially being not a politician. And I appreciate the sentiment.

Conversely, what makes Mr Trump attractive is exactly what should guide my hand to pretty much any other small, square, inky box at the voting booth – preferably a box storing all my possessions where I sometimes watch hilarious movies. And by “box” I mean “house,” because staying at home in November is the best choice.

Although I agree with Mr Trump that the US government is a broken machine desperately needing surgery – the cosmetics applied by Mr Obama just won’t do, it’s time to get out the bone-saw – there’s simply no chance Mr Trump as President will dent the leviathan’s enormous body.

Harvard economic and financial historian Niall Ferguson said although much of the world may finally be pulling clear of global financial crisis nastiness, populist candidates of the Donald Trump variety could reverse the valuable gains made over the last eight years.

“Donald Trump is a reckless, irresponsible person whose business record alone should disqualify him from being the town sheriff, never mind being the president of the US. He is formidable, however. He has ripped up the rulebook of American politics and crushed the Republican establishment with a campaign that tells normal citizens they are less well-off than 16 years ago, because of a) immigration, b) globalisation and c) corrupt politicians in Washington who are too close to Wall St.”

Harsh words. So assuming all goes well with Mr Trump’s Washington facelift, America will be great again, yay!

Prof Ferguson doesn’t think so. And in this estimation, the Harvard professor sounds just like everybody else. Except this time around the power of the US executive branch is being overestimated, and that’s a problem.

Everyone knows politicians will say anything to be elected, even those who haven’t spent a day in any official political role. This fact connects Mr Trump with his opponents: they are salespeople through and through, selling themselves to a populace trained from birth to look for certain and specific semiotic giveaways of an ideal leader.


But when a new president finally sits down in the Oval Office, and aides with dossiers as thick as their forearms wait their turn to show the most powerful man in the world the realities of the nation, the blood from Mr Trump’s face will drain.

Those dossiers represent the left and right-hand boundaries of what is possible and feasible for the not-so-all-powerful president. That spectrum is always surprisingly, and often annoyingly, thin.

So Mr Ferguson and every Trump supporter are actually aligned on one crucial issue: they believe, for different reasons, that if Mr Trump is elected he will be able to carry out his extreme bone-saw programme. And if that possibility is something you, dear reader, also believe then thank Athena I am here to say, you have no idea what he’s up against.

Not only was the executive branch designed carefully in the US Constitution to avoid concentrating the kind of power many Trump observers are fearful of him achieving, the reality is that sometime in the 1930s the government switched to operate under an unwritten constitution via a series of Supreme Court precedents (here’s one). This gradual but clear evolution to a new deal (recognise the term?) constitution is about as different from the yellowing parchment sitting in the National Archives as it is from the 60,000 pages of the Trans Pacific Partnership – which Mr Trump says he doesn’t like either.

Let me explain.

Under an unwritten constitution, there is a single dominant legislative institution controlling the actual power of government. This authority cannot be questioned or legally disobeyed because the law is whatever this institution says it is. In New Zealand, this institution is Parliament. But in the US, the body sitting in the throne room is the Supreme Court.

Once these laws, expressed as judicial decisions, are made (usually broad and vague), Congress writes its own laws within the new boundaries. Those too are broad and vague enough that every other government agency can write regulations within the boundaries set by Congress. At this point, laws crystallise into more specific stipulations such as an exact consequence for failing to file taxes. If this isn’t legislative sovereignty, what is?

And notice that the executive branch was entirely sidestepped throughout this neat sausage-making process. Curious, it’s almost as if the president doesn’t have any actual power over domestic US affairs …

One hindrance keeping the US government from transitioning to a truly parliamentarian structure is that tricky written constitution of 1789, which still requires court and congress officials to stretch their laws around its yellowy framework. Officials are good at gymnastics and generally have few problems getting what they want. So in all the ways that matter, there is little difference between the American government and the way the Commonwealth governs – although the accents are easy to spot.


But what makes me really snicker when Mr Trump talks about cleaning up Washington is that most of his extreme policies (immigration, Islam, Wall St) involve more government, not less.

The idea of limited government is admirable but it doesn’t take much to see how it is impossible in the modern structure. How can a sovereign limit its own power? And if it decides it doesn’t like that flavour anymore and wants to take back the power, who will stop it?

Consider something I know a bit about: media. It is impossible for any government agency to tell the US press what to write. The mere idea is laughable. The New York Times and Washington Post are therefore at least as powerful and robust as many formal government agencies, perhaps more so.

For instance, during the recent Panama Papers leaks, the media cleverly framed the issue for the public about whether the hoarding of wealth and failure to pay taxes was a good thing. The default assumption however, made by every journalist and missed by most consumers, was that, of course, it’s kosher for the press to handle, view and publish legitimate private business records – for profit – “in the public interest.” Of course, of course.

But observe that when spy agencies are caught looking at a handful of private metadata records (not the contents of this correspondence) of innocent citizens, a procedure signed carefully into law by every branch of government under multiple administrations (the same is true for New Zealand’s spies), the agencies are dragged through the mud.

But if stolen private records, or illegally recorded celebrity phone conversations, are given to the press, it has complete and utter power to do whatever it wishes with those documents and will be protected by both law and custom when it does so. Again, if this is not actual power, what is?


So returning to Mr Trump, the central question is what powers the president of the US in the actual government has.

Republican voters possess a strange belief that presidents are the “leader of the country” and treat the position as CEO. But if this were true, then the President would control absolutely four aspects of government directly: budget, policy, structure and personnel. In other words, he or she can spread funds to government agencies, tell employees what to do and how to do it, arrange lower-level management and hire and fire employees at will. Hmm…we’ve hit a speedbump.

Most CEOs sitting in the Oval Office would be confused and a little irate that they were sold the most powerful position in the world but, like a standard potato chip packet, the job looks filled with a lot of funny-smelling air. The president cannot reallocate funds between agencies, let alone between programmes. Civil servants would laugh at him if he tried, and he couldn’t do anything about that either because he has no power to fire them.

Neither can he change the government’s organisational structure. If he doesn’t like the way management is constructed, the worst thing he can do is write an angry sentence in his autobiography – assuming it passes the censors. He can’t tell any official what to do, anywhere, for any reason. Far from being a CEO then, being a president is little more than ceremonial, where one's only job is to look noble and smile on CNN. The office isn’t yet entirely impotent like the British monarchy but come back in a century or so.

This page is instructive and stores the so-called “executive orders.” My favourites for Mr Obama’s stellar eight years are “Combatting Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria” and “Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women and Girls Globally.” I’m sure he’s keen to combat bacteria and violence against women. Those are admirable goals. But the question is how those orders made it to the tip of his fountain pen? The answer: Someone placed them in front of him to sign, and he obliged with a well-practised signature swirl.

Despite a leader’s happy smiles and shaking hands at new factories, the above is the day-to-day existence of every politician and political appointee in the modern Western system of government. They receive emails/orders/policies, drip ink in the right places and send it over to the proverbial outbox. The civil service, which by definition is permanent and cannot be altered, attacked or blocked by anyone who’s so much as idled next to a politician in traffic, takes care of everything else.


This is why in November, although I agree the US government demands serious surgery, it would be better off if Hillary Clinton is elected.

Life is much easier for politicians if they are aligned ideologically with the permanent civil service. And since the US civil service is comprised mostly of people voting Democrat (re: progressives), the whole machine works smoother with one of their own in the ceremonial position at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The left is always and in every case across the Western world the party of the permanent civil service. I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing, only that it most certainly is true.

It could well be that after reading the dossiers, Mr Trump decides to thrash around in the deep waters trying to “get things done” rather than simply turning over to float with the tide. At least for a while, Republican presidents like to try thrashing, and no one will be surprised if Mr Trump doesn’t “get the memo” quickly enough. He hasn’t, after all, spent a day in official capacity in his life.

The civil service is immune to this thrashing, and it has a few tricks. A simple and effective medicine is to ask the extended civil service for help – namely, the media. Describing what a president is doing as “politicising” a perfectly responsible and legitimate civil service idea is usually enough to flick the tiny Trump-sized flea from the shoulder of the leviathan. The press are shock troops for these little wars because politicians need press support to get elected. And by “need” I mean, without it, they might as well go fishing.

If Mr Trump decides to keep fighting the civil service, what will happen? Beyond mediocre power to block congressional legislation (every senator can do this, and Congress is only the second step in lawmaking, not the first), power to nominate Supreme Court justices (pending senate confirmation) and nominal control of the armed forces (limited to being “part of the discussion” and signing orders), Mr Trump can’t do much to hurt America or the world at all.

The problem with Mr Ferguson’s worry and all of Mr Trump’s supporters is the misguided belief that voting the overly-tanned fan of walls is the equivalent of doing something meaningful. It is also a common but incorrect belief that democracy in modern Western governments means what we think it means. It doesn’t.

The permanent civil service is larger than it looks and doesn’t like stepping into the light often. So one shouldn't feel guilty if it isn't noticed. None of the people who are involved at the business end of the leviathan’s actual decisionmaking process are elected officials. There’s a word for this structure, and it certainly isn’t “democracy.”


If Mr Trump tries to effect his extreme plans, and if any of those ideas are contrary to what the permanent government are already doing, I can already predict how that particular battle will play out.

He will then have two options: Either he learns to float or loses his job. The public responds to training, and it has been trained since childhood by schools, universities and the press to listen to authority. Understand, however, that this authority is not and will never reside in the person of the president of the United States of America. The institutions themselves are the true authority.

Assuming none of this changes reader’s minds, and Mr Trump (or for that matter, the New Zealand political leadership) is still considered an important role by my fellow citizens, then I do have one piece of advice:

Elect a person who will respond to unexpected events with sincerity, aplomb and poise. Because while those people do not possess actual power, they will be the first person a populace sees when the events occur. They will guide us through crises while the civil service figures out what to do.

If that person is a buffoon or wants to thrash about a bit too much, then the central fear of the civil service – which is what Mr Ferguson fears too – could become a reality: an overflow of angst among 300 million people who no longer trust the civil service. US government may be wide and numerous but it is always outnumbered. And ever since the explosion of world population after the 17th century, the fundamental question for any government is strictly: What will we do with all these people?

Attempting to solve this problem is the reason modern government institutions were created in this way – from the police to the press. Constrained as presidents may be in this system, a leader will always be symbolically important for humans, however. And something inside our brains cracks when these leaders are incompetent.

So in this regard, if nothing else, choose wisely, US voters.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Sitrep - 25 May, 2016

In a startling break of precedent and patience, the US targeted the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansoor with a drone strike in southwest Pakistan on May 22. It was the first time the US has operated an armed drone in the province of Baluchistan, a known Taliban safe-zone but out of bounds for US operations due to an understanding with Islamabad.

The context of the strike is important. The US, along with China and Pakistan, is negotiate with the Afghan government and Taliban for a power sharing deal when the US perhaps departs the country in 2018. During the negotiations, Taliban forces have continued deadly operations against coalition forces and Pakistan is frustrating the talks by dawdling, both of which may have forced Washington’s hand against Mansoor.

Nevertheless, the use of a drone to kill the Taliban leader has attracted outcries from anti-war activists. The issue however, is not whether drones are a moral weapon. For the US it is more important whether the weapon is strategically beneficial. There are downsides to the weapon, but its use over the past 15 years has helped limit the capability of Islamic extremists to conduct attacks, a key war goal for Washington.

Over the Mediterranean, EgyptAir flight 804 disappeared from tracking radar as it entered Egyptian airspace en-route to Cairo from Paris carrying 66 passengers. In 2016, the immediate assumption for many observers was of a terror attack, however no group has yet claimed responsibility – something both the Islamic State and al qaeda generally have done quickly after conducting attacks.

The lack of a responsibility claim however, doesn’t rule out terrorism. It is unclear if the aircraft was brought down due to mechanical  failure – which usually occurs near take-off or landing – or if it was struck by a surface-to-air missile. An IS group in Egypt attacked a Russian passenger jet in 2015, but used a smuggled explosive device not a missile, and the group is not suspected to possess weapons sufficient to hit a cruising altitude aircraft.

While investigators retrieve the wreckage to determine the cause, a process which could take years, the most sinister explanation is worth outlining. There is a possibility a competent bombmaker is on the loose and that this was a proof-of-concept strike. So rather than claim responsibility, he could choose to keep the method hidden – which may have bypassed all security – for future attacks. The exact cause of the crash will determine the veracity of this theory.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Do drone strikes work? Depends on the question

Afghan intelligence officials confirmed May 22 that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was killed in a US drone strike in southwest Pakistan, near the Afghan border. This is the second leadership crisis for the Afghan Taliban in less than a year.

Mansoor took control of the Taliban in July 2015, replacing founder Mullah Mohammad Omar. Under his leadership, the group launched large scale attacks on Afghan security forces in several parts of the country. He also silenced splinter groups and is credited by his followers for containing Islamic State offshoots.

The targeted killing of Mansoor is interesting. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or “drones” have become a central tool in modern warfighting. Drones presently have human operators, and while there is some automation, a person ultimately tells the machine what to do. There is an ethical argument here: does the distance between human operator and target make it easier to kill?

While ethics is worth discussing, it cannot address whether the use of drones to kill high-value militant targets is an appropriate strategy for the US in the fight against Islamic extremism. It is efficacy, not morals, which is at the heart of the drone debate.

Two things are true about drones: the machines are the most efficient method of warfare ever devised, and they are equal parts useful and detrimental in the fight against terror. Fast-moving fighter jets will never attain the same level of situational awareness as drones, but hovering for days over a target at 25,000 feet isn’t the same as capturing the target to learn his secrets either.

Drone strikes in Pakistan – a country the US is not at war with – have skyrocketed during Mr Obama’s presidency. In 2008 the number of attacks increased from five to 35, according to the Long War Journal. In 2009 it rose to 53, before doubling in 2010 to 117, dropping to 64 in 2011 and then 46 in 2012. The total has continued to drop over the last few years, but still not to zero.

A similar ratcheting occurred in Yemen against al qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants. Yet a major issue with these strikes, highlighted by CIA directors and US generals together, is that drones are the easy option when capturing the individuals for intelligence is far more important.

The Obama administration is not willing to capture terrorists because it and the American public have displayed revulsion at either enhanced interrogation techniques or the permanent internment of terrorists at sites such as Guantanamo Bay. Politically and ideologically, the option of killing terrorists is more attractive but it denies the critical component of intelligence gathering and therefore limits the overall efficacy of the strategy.

US war goals are laser-focused on collapsing the capability of jihadist organisations to launch major attacks against its homeland and strategic interests. From Washington’s perspective, killing jihadists is not morally wrong if the US is officially at war, which it considers itself as being. So with criticism aside, after 15 years of uninterrupted military conflict, is the drone strategy working?

Judging by the number of jihadists in the world, the answer is no. There are more operational jihadists alive today than in 2001. But the quantitative argument is not as important as the qualitative or narrative arguments. And by those measures, the strategy of targeted killing is more successful.

Killing extremists will never destroy al qaeda, but it does remove its fighters from the battlefield. The idea is not so much to kill an individual, but to remove the capability and experience personified by the individual. Many senior leaders and high-value targets possess impressive terrorist or militant skills. To let these people continue wandering the earth in search of prey is to endanger innocents.

The question that paints this correctly is why, with so many terrorists alive today, has there been so few actual attacks? And there has been relatively few attacks in the West. The answer, and this is to my point, is that those people are no longer in a position to do so because of kill/capture campaigns.

Many individuals, such as AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri, are innovative fighters. Just because his bombing attempts, such as the 2009 Christmas Day bombing or the November 2010 parcel bombing, were unsuccessful doesn’t make al-Asiri any less important. His vehicle bombs, sticky bombs, suicide vests and roadside bombs used in Yemen are responsible for high casualties.

There are two types of bombmakers: operators and innovators. Al-Asiri is the latter. An operator can follow instructions but it is not easy to construct viable improvised explosive devices. An innovator creates devices using existing ingredients in new ways to thwart security. Those people must be removed because they lift the overall capability of terror or militancy.

And these new bombing techniques are spread easily with the internet. Quite different to Cold War terrorists, al qaeda isn’t structured hierarchically so killing its leadership is like punching water. After a time, someone else is elected leader – water rushes back to fill the void and the puddle remains.

As this column argues the war against Islamic extremism is not actually a fight between Islam and the West. It is a conflict between and amongst the strands of Islam: Sunni, Shia and westernised “moderate” Muslims. The West is collateral damage in this movie, playing as extras to Islam’s main character. The US can keep killing people forever without affecting this conflict because the conversation is not the West’s to have.

The only way to get rid of a puddle is by either evaporation or changing the geography so the water cannot pool. Since evaporation is impossible with jihadists, then the only option is to alter the geography which, in this case, is the landscape of people and ideas across the Muslim world.

Where possible, the US should remove high-value targets such as al Asiri or Mansoor. Preferably with capture operations, not kill. But the real fight, the one that doesn’t get the airtime, is the encouragement and containment of the Islamic modernity conversation.

So the question is not whether the drone strategy is moral or practical. The question, it seems, is whether the impact of the programme will negatively affect the larger goal of facilitating the modernity conversation in the Arab world, and containing the spillover of that conversation at a manageable level.

The answer will depend on the willingness of the US to maintain this strategy over time and the progress of the conversation away from the battlefield. It is not obvious that either of those factors are receiving the requisite resources. This then, not the moralising about targeted killings, is where concerned humanist parties should be focusing their energies.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Libraries are lost, broken institutions and that sucks

There is a problem with modern libraries. It is the same problem across society: the people responsible for maintaining our institutions have forgotten the original purpose of those institutions.

Recently I asked my local library to purchase a book which wasn’t on their catalogue titled “The Process of Government.” But the librarian declined to order the book because it is more than 70 years old (published in 1908), saying: “since this is a public library, the priority is to purchase books that many people will read.”

That sounds like a reasonable policy, but I’m going to argue it’s not. Choosing to feature content based on an estimation of its consumption, rather than importance, is a terrible idea. But there’s little point arguing with someone who thinks state institutions should listen to the public. Most people have no idea why they think the things they do, and even less knowledge about where those ideas came from.

This is an issue in media as well. I have the debate so often that I now decide whether a conversation about media is worth having if the other person thinks it “only exists to make money.” Take my advice, it’s not worth the energy. And if a journalist takes this position, run away. Media may have become a business, but that was not its original purpose and I suspect is precisely why the institution is failing.

My librarian’s next response, however, was first time I’ve heard someone even approach the solar system containing the solution to a library’s problems: “People expect libraries to solve, or at least contain, social problems that go far beyond their mission.” This might have been true in the past, but the grim truth is that most people do not use libraries anymore. And the reason they aren't is because librarians have no idea what libraries are for.

The fact that people pour into libraries when the economy is struggling proves they don't need libraries. If they needed them, they would have been using libraries all along. It might be that people need entertainment, but when they can't afford it they turn to libraries to provide it for free.

Over the last century, growth in the entertainment industry has effectively been exponential. And yet, the number of places offering culture and knowledge of elevated importance has not changed, or at best grown sporadically. Libraries have a niche in the latter. They should play to that, and make it a strength. But they are not.

Every good businessperson knows when an organisation is stressed, the first thing to do is define the organisation’s purpose. Only then can the leader define what the organisation must become. Libraries and librarians have not done this. They can no longer articulate what the function of a library is in society, so they believe it should serve every social function anyone can construct for it.

Are libraries a repository of scholarly knowledge? Of course. But then why are there shelves after shelves of Norah Roberts and Stephen King? Is it a place for students and others to conduct research? Definitely. So why do libraries allow people to hire pop music CDs and DVDs of Hollywood movies? Is it a place to provide access to computers for the underprivileged and the unemployed? Then why are there so many books and so few computers?

My librarian’s thought process assumes that institutions should deliver what the public wants and if that means buying 20 metres of Tom Clancy, so be it. But if the people want pornography, will libraries stock that too? Choosing more Tom Clancy might mean less Foucault. More Nickelback might mean less Ligeti. Basing choices on poorly informed customer demand means librarians are not making informed judgments about what serves the public interest.

Everyone talks about taxpayers as consumers needing to be served. But the average taxpayer only uses libraries because they are strapped for cash. So applying a market calculus ("we provide what they want") to a class of consumers with no money to pay for the service is flawed. No consumer is going to support raising their own taxes to increase funding for libraries which they only use because they have so little spare cash.

It also isn’t clear that the public agrees Tom Clancy constitutes the items whose free availability results in a net gain for society. In fact, I’d suggest the free availability of such content is a detriment to society.

Consider how junk food is bad not because of its poor nutrition but because it is cheaper than real food. Junk food should be more expensive than good food, not less. The same is true of books. And who gets to decide? Librarians. A librarian is not a cashier or a clerk. They are paid to make judgments about what a library is supposed to hold, and in so doing define what a library is. They should exercise some judgment extending beyond what will increase patronage (which is exactly the kind of cultural lowest-common-denominator effect libraries were set up to thwart).

A library is a store of knowledge and information. They should be like a holy place, venerable and slightly imposing. It should be a place someone can pull any book, video, or CD off the shelf and reading, viewing, or listening to it will make them a better person and a better community citizen. It should be a place that is decidedly not commercial, not defined by fleeting tastes or fads, but rather driven by informed and intelligent judgments.

Most people think libraries are special hallowed places, but can't articulate how or why they are special. The problem is here: define a library in a way that is different to anyplace else. If you can't do this, or if libraries can't do this in a way that makes them more than an entertainment discounter of last resort, then they will vanish as the latest casualty of budget cuts and cultural indifference.

The problem seems to be with the inability to reconcile an increasingly costly institution with failing to charge an entry fee. There is no free lunch, and who- or whatever has been picking up the check might soon say "no longer." It would then be time for patrons to pony up. If this stuff is so important, then it must be worth paying money for.

Before you attack my comment, consider for a second that music stores disappeared because although people still need music in their lives, they didn't need a store to attain it. The same thing is happening to libraries. People just don't want to accept the similarities.

Certainly libraries can offer free access to computers and wifi, and even coffee if that’s important. And yes, they can offer Norah Roberts and Tom Clancy too, but people should have to pay for these. Important material should remain free to access because libraries are places of high-knowledge. But the implicit message should be that all the other stuff is crass, base, frivolous, trivial and should be restricted – and money is the easiest way to restrict anything.

The way for any organisation to compete with electronic media is either to digitise or to impose surcharges for the privilege of dealing with physical media. You like browsing the stacks? Pay for it. You like perusing back issues of magazines? Pay for it. You like watching crappy movies, having reading rooms with big tables or anonymous broadband access to the internet? Pay, pay, pay.

A big chunk of New Zealand households already pay for the internet via cable, satellite or fibre. That means 83% of households pay at least $60/month for electronic media, even though everyone can get TV for free. If they choose to spend $720 a year for this media, then surely, if these same people need libraries, they can pay $50 or $100 per year for it.

A library should not replicate what Netflix or iTunes already does. If someone is so "underprivileged" that they can't get movies from Netflix, then they probably don't have a DVD player or time to watch movies anyway. I can't understand how anyone would argue that Netflix, which is a library of nearly every film ever released to DVD, is expensive at $20/month.

And in any case, the argument about cost makes no sense. Water and electricity aren't free. The bus ride to the library isn't free. So why should access to the books in the building you have to pay to get to also be free?

Another obvious problem is that, in cities, libraries are the de facto social service provider for the "underprivileged," which is code for the homeless and mentally ill.

These people do not need libraries. They need homes. And hospitals. There was talk a while back of installing showers for the homeless, because libraries are the logical place for that. Why not offer an in-library travel agency and manicurist as well? We don't know what the hell to do, so let's do anything!

Why don't homeless people hang around police stations, the IRD, or the WINZ offices? Because those places throw them out. Not libraries, they welcome everyone with open arms. There are books and computers there, so of course the homeless are welcome to masturbate in the bathrooms. Duh. This is madness.

Libraries are a convenience store of knowledge. Convenience stores charge higher prices than regular stores because of the convenience. The stores routinely toss out loiterers, lunatics and the homeless because they interfere with the convenience of paying patrons.

With the same logic, libraries should not be accessible to all manner of people who do not wish to consume books. The shopping mall is accessible, and those are going out of business as well. Any commercial enterprise built on giving people what they want is failing, because people are coming to realise that they don't know what they want.

Now, if libraries focus on stocking the things that encourage the lofty social goals of storing knowledge and stop providing access to popular material for the underprivileged, there might be a drop-off in patronage as those people move on to chase their cultural drug of choice from retailers.

But I suspect this will make library a special place once again. Every person of every class will know that it is special, and that what resides within was not achieved easily or quickly. Patronage may decline if it is measured quantitatively, but the use of the library will increase qualitatively. Greater numbers of people will have more intellectual experiences than do so currently, and for that reason, they will probably sacrifice other things (money) to preserve it.

By the way, I bought the book from Amazon and it now sits in my own well-stocked library.

Finding sanity in IS insanity

The month of May has two anniversaries worth capturing this year: the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (May 16, 1916) and the killing of Osama bin Laden (May 2, 2011). What may be happening now in Iraq and Syria has everything to do with these events.

A hundred years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the carnage of WWI, word on the foreign policy street is that the status quo decided by the Sykes-Picot Agreement is painfully disintegrating. This is bad for its citizens, surely, but something much more important could happening deep behind all the vehicle bombs and parliamentary squabbles.

Sykes-Picot Agreement
Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, diplomats of Britain and France respectively, conducted closed-door negotiations to lay the groundwork for the modern Middle East. It would be easy to dismiss that – as the general belief at most universities seems to be – the ex-nihilo creation of nation states in a place where the idea was entirely foreign was colonialist and naïve.

But for those diplomats, the only way to govern a new world in which four empires had just collapsed, and the final two were teetering, was to organise the region into self-governing nation states. Their estimation was proven somewhat accurate as the various people-groups forged fresh nationalist narratives to accompany their new territories. Some of their old traditions and identities remained however, and those are pushing to the surface today.

This struggling is best exemplified by the leader of al qaeda, Osama bin Laden. The infamous Saudi millionaire was frustrated with the heretical regimes across the Middle East which he saw as illegitimate Muslim leaders. He called for them to be overthrown and used classic leftist techniques such as terrorism and direct political activism to achieve this. Yet he wasn’t successful.

Five years after Mr bin Laden’s death, the group which picked up his mantle – the Islamic State (IS) – is having a tough 2016. The Russian intervention behind the Syrian regime bolstered the loyalist troops, allowing for fresh counterattacks against IS positions across the country. Airstrikes and ground attacks against IS forces in Iraq are also keeping the group contained.

Yet the group still holds significant territory in both Syria and Iraq, and over sections of Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen. And it is consolidating around major cities. Looking at a map it is hard not to notice a pattern: whether by design, accident or pressure, the group is forming a web of city-states.

This is important because one of the major criticisms of the IS campaigns is that its control of land is oversold. All those black-painted marks on control maps is really just desert and highway, few people live there. But that’s the point: IS only cares about consolidating control where the people are, and right now that’s the major cities of Raqqa, Mosul and Sirte.

This is worth pondering as the group’s assumed quest stalls. Its narrative up until now has been one of an unstoppable force, washing away everything in front of it. But its irrepressible march has slowed recently so perhaps it is time to consider not the group’s goals but its actual achievements to date. Those achievements have it acting suspiciously similar to the rest of the Middle East.

City-states of Italy
It is clear Baghdad has neither the inclination nor the capability to administer Iraq as a coherent whole. This is one of the reasons Iraqis are protesting intensely. Basra in the south too is increasingly administering itself, with some assistance of Iran. And in the northern city of Mosul, occupied by IS forces, Baghdad’s influence doesn’t come near at all. The Kurdish eastern region also is centred on the city of Arbil, which has only fragile control over the surrounding countryside.

In Syria, the regime is resigned to a tight stretch between Damascus and Latakia on the coast. A bloody fight is occurring over the northern city of Aleppo, which could fall to regime forces but may not remain their possession for long. In the east, IS controls Raqqa which Syrian Kurds further east have no desire to help liberate because the city doesn’t fall inside historical Kurdish lands.

The international community is hoping the region will at least organise along nation state lines. The exact Sykes-Picot Agreement might be defunct, but in their minds only nation states can bring peace and stability. Mr bin Laden wanted the removal of corrupt rulers yet he stopped short of directly calling for the preservation of nation states. He didn’t know what would come next if the rulers left.

Yet perhaps IS does know what’s coming next, or at least what it wants. City-states were never made obsolete by some advancement in political theory, it was the invention of artillery that pounded their walls in Italy. The idea of a sovereign city-state is still impressively viable and in Dubai, Hong Kong or Singapore actually performs better as a system than nation states can. Perhaps the age of nation states is passing its use-by date.

The democratic nation state governments are being smashed, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be replaced by a global spiderweb of tens, even hundreds, of thousands of sovereign and independent mini-countries, each governed by its own joint-stock government without regard to the residents' opinions. If residents don't like their government, they can and should move. Are we witnessing the emergence of such a formation in the Middle East?

If IS actions in Iraq and Syria do result in a web of increasingly sovereign city-states without reference to national ideals or modern democracy, and within these jurisdictions people either choose to stay or choose to leave, would this not be an adequate answer to instability? Is this at least not worth considering?

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Why Starbucks is fun

In modern psychoanalytic theory, castration anxiety is not about a man losing his penis. It is about masculine identity as a source of power. The reason the female object is threatening is because, in more modern representations, sexuality equals power. In this context, men derive pleasure from their dominant sexual role. If the female is stealing the power, that is threatening and therein lies the castration anxiety. It has nothing to do with the organ itself.

In my personal theory, men subconsciously think during a moment of anxiety they've lost their penis already, and need to be reminded that it is still there.

There is another 'gaze' that is ignored, which is one of my personal favourite cafe pastimes: watching men watch women. There really isn't any better way to see frustration and impotence manifest as facial features than in that setting. It's fun watching some scruffy tool gaze at a woman because there's always a moment when he realises he can never so much as talk to her, let alone have her. It flashes across his face as a pouty lower lip, a clenched jaw and a slight bowing of the head. (On second thought, maybe the castration anxiety really is about men feeling they've lost their penis. More study is needed. Off to Starbucks!)

Women don't realise the power they have to remind men of their utter uselessness. I would like to see them abuse this power more. I'm only joking a little bit.

Sitrep - 18 May, 2016

The US ballistic missile defence system hosted in Romania known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) became operational on May 12. The controversial system, discussed in the Bush administration but sidelined under the Obama administration, is a shore-based “Aegis” interceptor and radar meant to stop ballistic missiles from Iran.

However, that reasoning doesn’t convince Russia. Despite the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia in his first term, the Russians remain sceptical the system’s purpose is actually directed against them. Moscow worries EPAA changes the nuclear balance in Europe, giving the US a first-strike capability and therefore making the entire European theatre unstable. But Moscow is truly concerned about the potential for a permanent US military presence in Eastern Europe as a result of EPAA.

For instance, the introduction of a BMD system will quite likely demand the protection of an infantry force close by, potentially the size of a battalion. Those forces will need armour protection, so Russia can also expect tanks and fighting vehicles. In turn, those tanks will require helicopters and other close air protection, perhaps even fighter jets. Suddenly, the US BMD programme looks very much like an increased force in Russia's backyard.

Looting in Venezuela over food shortages and dangerously rising inflation levels prompted Caracas to send more armed police to the streets and consider the deployment of military units to quell the unrest. The Venezuelan economy has been struggling for a few years, mainly because of low global oil prices, but the current spate of looting and demonstrations could spin out of the government’s control.

Negative growth has led to an increase in unemployment. Inflation and the shortage of US dollars for imports caused not only food shortages, but increasing prices for the items that make it to store shelves, making them unaffordable for many. President Nicolas Maduro is deeply unpopular among voters and in the wider government, but the opposition cannot yet cohere sufficiently to oust him. The country’s outlook for the rest of 2016 will probably be a continuance of this dire situation.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Is the oil age ending?

In the middle of April, the world’s leading oil producers planned to discuss the basement-level prices of fossil fuels, hoping to freeze production. The idea was that because the market is oversupplied and demand remains low, controlling how much oil is pumped would steady spot prices.

But it wasn’t to be. There was a draft agreement ready for signing at the Doha meeting, but at 3:00am on the morning of April 17 Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called the Saudi delegation instructing them to scuttle the deal. This is the same 30-year-old prince who has implicit control of both the Saudi economy and military, and is struggling to handle each.

According to people close to the events, the prince’s decision to cancel Saudi was a geopolitical move to block an Iranian ambition to increase its own market share now that a nuclear deal has been reached and international sanctions ease. But it really shouldn’t take a handful of insiders to see that Saudi Arabia is exclusively obsessed with the Iran problem these days.

Yet last month’s oil drama, and the incredible collapse of prices over the past 18 months, is geopolitically significant for reasons far beyond the animosity of two Middle Eastern powers. Saudi Arabia and Iran are certainly using oil as a weapon, but if it wasn’t oil it would be something else. There is a fixed amount of real power in the region, and it abhors a vacuum – someone is going to have it, and it is not going to disappear.

So putting all that aside, the question behind every geopolitical planning in the second decade of the 21st century is: will oil prices remain low or rise again? Every country will be affected by the answer in different and individual ways. Net producers, such as Russia or Venezuela, will suffer if prices stay low. While net consumers such as Indonesia or Egypt will benefit.

But the assumption made a decade ago that “peak oil” would dictate ever-increasing prices as more people enter the middle class, each expecting their own carbon-based transport, is in many circles changing. They now say “peak oil demand” could instead become the reality as emerging economies slow their development and the green revolution offers viable alternatives.

Amongst the infinity of possibilities in the unknown future, this is surely one of the more probable outcomes. Yet in times of actual or perceived global chaos and disruption – as many people characterise the present day – analysts are prone to slipping into biases of tunnel vision, cultural blindness and unwarranted extrapolation from historical data. This column suspect such a thing could be occurring now.

Geopolitical tensions may be high, oil oversupplied and demand low, but the argument for future demand continues to be the best indicator of what’s coming. By 2030, the global middle class will more than double in size, from 2 billion to 4.9 billion. Brookings Institution confirms that demand slowdown in Europe and the US is indeed occurring because its middle classes will shrink from 50% of the global total to 22%.

Despite its current problems, Chinese middle class growth is expected to swell – it already overtook the US in total numbers in 2015. India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia will also push Asia’s share of the new middle to more than double from its current 30%. By 2030, Asia will boast 64% of the global middle class and account for over 40% of its consumption. All of which will be new demand.

Assuming the trajectory of these middle classes follows a similar pattern to the experience of industrialised nations (so far, so good), and assuming the most efficient energy choice for transport remains fossil fuels (battery technology has a long way to go), then an eventual clawing back of oil prices isn’t so crazy.

The current downturn is probably a lag effect of the 2008 financial crisis finally affecting exporter countries, such as China and India. We may look back in a decade and see the 2010s as a deep breath before the plunge back into high commodity prices as demand eventually catches up with the emerging middle class reality.

Then again, this analysis could be wrong and the world truly has already made a fundamental shift in just a few years away from the most freeing fuel source ever to pull nations out of crippling poverty. But that seems unlikely. Most analysts would love to see the end of fossil fuels, but they may be reading into the data something which isn’t there. We will have to wait to find out.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Sitrep - 11 May, 2016

The Philippines will soon have a new leader following a boisterous election this month. Although votes are still being counted, the Davao city mayor Rodrigo Duterte is set to secure victory after May 11 in Manilla. The mayor was highly popular among the southern city’s residents, eliminating pools of crime, negotiating with communist and Islamist insurgents and increasing the efficiency of public services.

However, Mr Duterte’s politics have attracted criticisms of unprofessionalism. Although he draws support from a Filipino middle class frustrated with corruption amongst incumbent officials and leaders, he has also been called a “Trump-like” figure for his many anti-establishment comments. Yet with a history of extrajudicial executions in Davao as mayor, Mr Duterte may not be entirely law-abiding, he nevertheless represents a salve for corruption, which is deeply important for voters.

In Brazil, the looming impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff fell into confusion this week when interim president of the lower house Waldir Maranhao alleged procedural irregularities in the April Senate vote which organised the impeachment process. Mr Maranhao attempted to annul the proceedings on May 9.

The Brazilian Senate blocked the lower house decision, confirming it will continue with the impeachment proceedings. A decision is expected on May 11 in Brasilia. Should Ms Rousseff be removed, even temporarily, her vice president Michel Temer will replace her. However, he too is subject to corruption investigations. Brazil will not return to political stability until at least 2017. This will have some effect on the country’s hosting of the Olympic Games and hurt the country’s foreign investment prospects.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Sitrep - 5 May, 2016

The Iraq capital of Baghdad flirted with a de-facto coup over the weekend as hundreds of protesters stormed its parliament buildings in the secure Green Zone. What was beginning to look like revolution, with politicians being slapped and kicked and blast walls torn down, dissipated after the protesters moved out of the buildings on their own.

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr spurred the protesters to storm parliament before issuing calls on social media for them to depart. The protesters responded to both directions, indicating that al-Sadr can call on significant sections of Iraq’s Shia population for political effect. Iraq’s internal politics is clearly fragile and almost collapsed entirely due to al-Sadr’s political posturing. The situation remains tense.

However, not only politics compels the protesters. Many in Iraq are frustrated with the high levels of government corruption and the resultant lack of basic infrastructure. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recognises the problem and has attempted to root out corruption. In a way, the protesters, al-Sadr and al-Abadi want the same thing: self-autonomy and to replace corrupt politicians with technocrats. The question is who can achieve this goal and therefore ultimately siphon political power.

In China, the website of the Central Commission of Discipline Inspection (CCDI), one of the tools of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, announced that 313 National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) employees had been found guilty of providing data for financial gain.

The NBS bureaucrats allegedly took money for providing internal information in violation of agency rules. The watchdog has demanded the funds – totalling almost $US500,000 – be returned, and more arrests may still be forthcoming. In the recent past, a high-ranking official in the NBS was detained on similar charges, but this latest investigation suggests the data manipulation goes all the way to the bottom.

At a time when China’s economic growth appears to be slowing – and may well have stopped completely – there is obviously incentive for officials to deliver positive growth statistics. And while manipulated data may be useful for Beijing, buying it some breathing room, this particular game cannot go on forever given how connected the Chinese industrial machine is to the world economy. No amount of falsified figures can hide a slowing economy the size of China’s forever.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

China doubts its own statistics

It’s become a cliché to read Chinese economic statistics with scepticism. Every China-watcher and businessperson knows that the country’s data collection methods are dubious at best, but the difficulty always lay in proving the suspicions.

No longer. At the end of April, the website of China’s Central Commission of Discipline Inspection (CCDI), one of the tools of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, announced that 313 National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) employees had been found guilty of providing data for financial gain.

The NBS bureaucrats allegedly took money for providing internal information in violation of agency rules. The watchdog has demanded the funds – totalling almost $US500,000 – be returned, and other arrests may still be forthcoming.

The easy criticism would be to add this news to the pile of similar information labelled “China’s impending doom.” Admittedly, that pile is creeping ever-higher with fewer people now reciting the maxim that China is on track to overtake the US economy on most economic measures in the next five, ten or twenty years. That scenario is unlikely, to say the least.

Yet there are other, arguably more important, lessons from the CCDI’s uncovering of systemic data corruption, not to mention the actual corruption too. Earlier in April, the NBS released its updated figures for China’s GDP in the first quarter. Leaving aside the fact that the first quarter has barely ended, so knowing what the actual GDP figures are is questionable, it registered 6.7%. This is an envious figure for any economy, but still one of China’s lowest in over a decade.

The first quarter also registered record credit expansion in China, ballooning to 7.5 trillion yuan, up 58% year on year and equivalent to 46.5% of nominal GDP. The Financial Times framed this expansion as “one of the highest ratios ever.” Credit growth accelerated to 15.8% year on year to end of March, which was also the fastest increase in 20 months.

The hand-wringing at the beginning of the year over China’s tumbling stock market is another piece of the puzzle. To average Chinese workers and citizens, slipping GDP figures and the health of its stock market barely register on their consciousness. Both the credit expansion and the first quarter’s suspicious GDP point to the true audience for such data: foreign investors and governments. Who this display of data is meant for is revealed to have a clear answer – if you’re seeing it, it’s for you.

Measuring an economy or populace is not a strictly Western idea. Many government structures, including traditional Chinese governments have gathered data on civilian subjects for millennia. Both the Western and Chinese civilisations found ways to use this knowledge to both better understand its people and plan for inevitable power swings. As far as tools of the state go, official statistics can be incredibly powerful.

For this article’s purposes, GDP figures isn’t a Chinese idea, it is a Western idea. This might sound trite, but it is a fundamental world dynamic. Much like the rest of the modern Chinese economic system, the fundamentals of doing business are all adopted from the American and British machinery of economic stewardship. Even its political structure, communism, is a western idea.

This is not uncommon across the world. Every nation state considered part of the “international community” governs with some form of the Western politico-economic model. Countries not embracing enough of this model are considered “rogue states” – think North Korea, Iran or the suppressed Somaliland. Proto-states such as Kurdistan are considered “emerging” precisely because they agree to adopt the basic forms of the Western politico-economic model.

China took this exact step with vigour during the middle of the 20th century following the end of WWII, although by that time it was already well on the path to integration with the international community. The victors, and liberators, of China were the Allies led by the US and the Soviet Union. In the years since, China has experimented with models of communism and capitalism.

This explains why ordinary, low-level Chinese bureaucrats – not just the elites – prefer to manipulate economic data rather than report the truth. It is the way they have been trained to act. Gathering data, collating it and reporting the results is all part of a business game they did not invent. It is a process introduced to the Chinese system, and for that reason the Chinese government is simply playing by Western rules.

Do not misunderstand this, China is not being manipulated. It has learned the tricks of displaying exactly what the creators of the politico-economic model expect to see. China is not yet strong enough to develop its own models, and it is not clear that it wants to either. All indications are that what China really wants is to incorporate into the existing system, not overtake or replace it.

Consider how Chinese businesspeople attend meetings with foreign counterparts dressed in Western suits, not traditional Chinese clothing. A society hoping to usurp, display ambivalence or even replace the status quo make very different sartorial decisions. Beijing is aware its growth rate has slowed, or perhaps stopped, but it also knows that stats are all that matter for foreign eyes. And if those are healthy, it can buy breathing room to make those lies into the truth.

Yet a deeper criticism than this is that the answer to the question of what China’s GDP figure really is, can only be: no one knows. If China can’t gather all data, and the data it does collect is now clearly unreliable, what exactly are financial analysts expected to think about its economy?

Whether China’s economic miracle is at an end is no longer academic: the struggle can be seen in the NBS arrests. In the monumental task of restructuring the economy to deal with these changes, China might count itself lucky it has a trailblazing Western economic model of consumerism to mirror. After all, it has so committed itself to the fundamentals of that system it can hardly back out now.