Newsnotes 2006 12

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M Williams

The Extremely Short American Century.

The Counter-Revolution Betrayed? [US Republicans]

Milton Friedman, Banker’s Pet

Maoist legacies [Dutch Socialist Party]

Iraq: Spring and Run

Russia: the new White-Guards [Pro-Western Opposition]

Hurricanes on Earth and Saturn

‘Action’ Jackson and the Last Hobbit

Nandysaps [Human Hair]

 

The Extremely Short American Century.

The USA have managed to go from heroes to zeroes in less than a decade. Clinton oversaw the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia, still regarded as a Good Deed by the British media. He did nothing significant while the chance to remould Russia was thrown away. But he was smart enough to ensure that US power stood outside of foreign countries, bombing or disrupting without risk to US lives. Bush Senior had done the same. Bush Junior listened to those who thought they knew better, he trusted Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld has been finally discarded after unacceptably high casualty rates among Republican Congressmen.

But what next? It needs a song, to the tune of ‘Beyond Thunderdome’:

We don’t need another Rumsfeld

We just need to find a way home

We’ve been dropped into a shit-pit

By BlunderBush!

Do we need another Clinton, though? Whoever follows Bush will still be in a no-win situation. During the 1990s, the USA abused its brief advantage. It became clear that the US had been restraining itself while there was a Soviet challenge. Their real intentions were much nastier than they had dared show during the Cold War. The Iraq invasion was supposed to make it clear that foreign governments should not dare nationalise their key resources – Iraq was one of the first to take control of its own oil and use the wealth to benefit its own people.

[I hadn’t at that time become aware of Obama, but he did indeed fail to change anything much.  And allowed similar errors to be made in Syria and Libya, though keeping US troops out of it.]

 

The Counter-Revolution Betrayed? [US Republicans]

The US Republicans sold themselves as the party of ‘small government’, and it was untrue. They were happy to make state provision small for the poor and the average person. They kept it large for the things the rich need.

“Worse than sleaze is pork. All Congresses like to vote money for pet projects, most recently using ‘earmarks’ to tie a grant of federal money to a local scheme. But this one has been astonishing: the number of earmarks has shot up tenfold since the Republicans took the House in 1994. The party of small government has become the party of the absurd $223m ‘bridge to nowhere’ in Alaska… Voters might reasonably have expected a degree of austerity from the conjunction of Republicans in the White House, Senate and House. Instead, the past six years have seen a $236 billion surplus transmogrified into a nearly equal and opposite deficit, with the prospect of much bigger deficits to come.” (The Economist, editorial of 2nd November).

The underlying ideas were anyway foolish. The bigger and richer the economy, the bigger the state. When Britain became the first industrial economy, it was behind a wall of protective tariffs. There were more taxes and more government than in the rest of Europe. Likewise the USA made its biggest advance in the world in the tax-and-spend era 1950-1975. This went wrong because they got bogged down in Vietnam, but the basic methods were sound.

The USA pumped billions into Western Europe and non-Communist East Asia during the 1950s to 1970s. They secured those regions as US allies, an alignment that looks likely to be permanent. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were equally open in the 1990s, but the US sponsored New Right policies that sucked billions out of countries that trusted thm. Weak economies got worse, death rates and depression shot up. And in China, the 1989 crack-down at Tiananmen looked more and more like a necessary piece of harshness.

 

Milton Friedman, Banker’s Pet

There is no ‘Nobel Prize for Economics’. This title gets applied to the Swedish National Bank’s 300th anniversary present to itself, an award called the ‘Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel’. It was created in 1968 and associated with the five authentic Nobel prizes that have been awarded since 1901. Never very reliable for literature or peace, but the three science prize are deservedly respected as an international mark of excellence.

Science has been the great creator of mundane wealth in the modern world, beginning with the birth of modern science in Renaissance Italy. Quite apart from any cultural or philosophical benefits, most modern industries are expansions of processes that began in the laboratory. Complex finance and trade existed as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, and resulted in nothing very much. Science in the sense of a blend of theory and experiment was a unique European invention and gave Europe a key advantage over the rest of the world.

Not that the rest of the world was standing still. Since the fall of Rome, China had invented printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass. The Hindus had invented a way to represent large numbers with just a few characters, the ‘Arabic’ numerals that replaced the clumsy heritage of Rome. Muslims had transmitted these ideas, along with paper-making and windmills and also algebra that was vastly better than the brief attempts of the Classical Greeks. Science made a new world by blending the creativity of many different cultures. Commerce just tapped into the potential.

None of this features in the work of most economists, and least of all Milton Friedman. Wealth appears mysteriously, possibly by money breeding with money in the secrecy of the world’s bank vault. His ideas and the worry about inflation served as a cover for attacking what had been a very successful system

[A more complete study can be found at this site.]

 

Maoist legacies [Dutch Socialist Party]

I’d never previously heard of the Dutch Socialist Party, who won 16% of the vote in the recent General Election, gaining 25 seats in a parliament of 150. But it seems they began in the early 1970s as the ‘Communist Party of the Netherlands/Marxist-Leninist’, evolving away from Maoism and also towards a functional politics. They’re now the third largest party and could easily overtake the Dutch Labour Party next time.

Since the splits within Leninism in the 1960s, we have seen the pro-Moscow Communists dwindle even before Moscow lost it. Trotskyism absorbed a lot of the best radicals, but could do nothing with them. It is the Maoist or anti-Revisionist trend that proved productive. Producing an interesting variant on classical revolution in Nepal, and now a new electoral party that might mean the regeneration of the West European left.

Trotskyist achievements are easy to summarise – there aren’t any. Never an armed group that was more than a violent nuisance. Never a functional political party outside of Sri Lanka, where politics are a mess. Trotsky’s achievements in the Bolshevik Revolution were dependent on him forgetting what he’d been saying about Lenin for many years before 1917. When Lenin expected ‘bourgeois democracy’ as the next stage in Russia, Trotsky condemned him as dictatorial. When Lenin decided that circumstances required a dictatorship and the sabotaging of Russia’s Constituent Assembly, Trotsky was very much part of it. Only when no one trusted him to succeed Lenin did he return to his normal role of futile critic. (Trotsky had very few followers when he joined the Bolsheviks, and I think most of them declined to follow him in a move that made nonsense of his earlier positions.)

Meantime the grandest legacy of Maoism is China itself, the world’s fastest-growing large economy. Deng Xiaoping was criticised by Western liberals for not rejecting Mao’s heritage, but people in poor countries mostly do best if they do the opposite of what Western liberals advise them to do. Right now, China’s leaders are correcting for some of the excesses of the Deng era, when the poorest lost out. It does seem to be the poorest rather than the working mainstream, similar to Britain and very different from the USA. Only in the USA are large numbers of people full of a dopy enthusiasm for policies that only benefit the rich. In Britain it has been the poorest tenth who lost out under Thatcher: maybe something similar happened in China:

“Average income of the bottom decile went down slightly between 2001 and 2003, whereas all other income categories saw significant increases…

“China, which had relatively even income distribution in 1980 when it embarked on market reforms, is now ‘less equal’ than the US and Russia, using the Gini co-efficient, a standard measure of income disparities.” (Financial Times [A]).

Mao’s basic policies have held, including a unified country and effective politics. Multi-party democracy in Britain began as factions of aristocrats and only gradually included the people. Introduced suddenly it tends to produce sectarian warfare, as in Iraq. Even a stable political system is vulnerable – the USA’s own Civil War arose very directly from the election of 1860.

 

Iraq: Spring and Run

Britain is now preparing to get out of Iraq, hoping to hand over Basra in the spring. Someone must have taken the lesson of the four British soldiers killed a couple of hours before the solemn wreath-laying ceremony of November 11th. Poppy Day could once have been seen as a decent reflection on the horrors of warfare, but more recently it has become a ceremonial within an open-ended pattern of aggression. But in Iraq, no stable new order has emerged.

How were ‘insurgents’ able to hit a British river boat, previously considered safe? After the USA’s mid-term results, a lot of people in both Iraq and Afghanistan must have figured the West will definitely be pulling out, and maybe not too far ahead. A sensible person would make a deal with the insurgents while they still have something to bargain with

Except that multi-party elections have split the society into its component parts. Iraqis used to live in mixed communities and tribal links cut across the religious divide. That’s gone now. The USA are trying to bring in Syria and Iran as peace-makers, suggesting a new alignment. Maybe the Sunni / Baathist parts of Iraq become a Syrian protectorate, the Shia align with Iran and both sides stop the Kurds getting too bold.

Syria, Iran and a fragmented Iraq could also become a bloc strong enough to take on Israel. Saddam’s policy was never more than bluster, he stayed out of the serious fights in which Israel might possibly have been defeated. Saddam had no good reason to see Syria triumphant. Syria and Iran remain very different states, but splitting Iraq between them would give a basis for cooperation.

No trust can be placed in the USA, the Republicans draw a lot of their strength from people with an enthusiasm for biblical history but who basically don’t like Jews. Jews in the USA know their enemies and mostly vote Democrat. Neocons and Jews in Israel are being unrealistic.

Israel wasted the years it was given by Egypt losing interest in the fight and then by Arafat finally being willing to make a deal. A deal with Arafat was always going to be hard, but Israel make it impossibly by trying to hang onto West Bank settlements. These began to be planted soon after their victory in the Six Day War, but the process could have been reversed, no matter how much it went against sentimental attachment to places that were centres of Jewish life 2000 years ago.

I’ve said before, Israel has no long-term prospect of survival without a settlement that seems reasonable to most of the world’s Muslims, a block of more than a billion. The possible alternative was to create an Islamic identity subordinate to the USA. This failed. Iraq served as a horrible warning against accepting Western advice:

“Horror at the bloodshed accompanying the U.S. effort to bring democracy to Iraq has accomplished what human rights activists, analysts and others say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been unable to do by himself: silence public demands for democratic reforms here.

“The idea of the government as a bulwark of stability and security has long been the watchword of Syrian bureaucrats and village elders. But since Iraq’s descent into sectarian and ethnic war — and after Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, on the other side of Syria — even Syrian activists concede that the country’s feeble rights movement is moribund.” (Washington Post, [B].)

Then there’s Lebanon. BBC reports of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel normally fail to mention his political party, the Phalangists. Rather more directly derived from Nazi models than the Baath. Baathists created a secular nationalism that could cross religious divides; the Phalangists were among the most sectarian of the Maronite Christians. I doubt that it’s accidental that he was assassinated just as the US made it clear it needed Syria and when Syria and Iraq resumed tied that had broken down under Saddam. But I also doubt that Syria did it: why create instability when things are going your way? It could have been inter-Phalange: it used to be run by the Gemayel family but Pierre Gemayel didn’t have that sort of power. A lot of Lebanese Christians including many Phalangists are accepting Syria as their best hope of long-term survival: Western ‘help’ has destroyed most other surviving Christian communities in the Middle East.

That’s one possibility. But the present Lebanese government, the pro-Western ‘March 14 alliance’ [C], also had good reason to create a crisis at a time when their position was crumbling. A strong opposition was grouping itself around Hizbullah, the only Lebanese to dare fight foreign invasion. This process will probably resume quite soon.

The USA is increasingly becoming a ‘broken reed’ in international politics. If Israel goes on relying on US support, it will all end in a disaster requiring another Jeremiah. Only where would Jews go this time?

 

Russia: the new White-Guards [Pro-Western Opposition]

After the Russian Civil War, the defeated ‘White Guard’ forces hung around for a few decades in the West. There’s a well-made film called Triple Agent that explores their murky politics

This time round, the Soviet Union vanished peacefully, but Yeltsin shelled the Russian Parliament and established a pro-Western authoritarian system. All cheered loudly at the time by the Western media, which applauded ‘radical reforms’ that made the economy weaker and ordinary Russians sicker and poorer. Fancy privatisations made a few people very rich and did no one else any good.

Putin was put into power by Yeltsin, who maybe realised he had been conned and cheated. Putin stabilised things, made it clear that he would accept the new class of dubious rich people if they would just start behaving and paying their taxes. Some did, they are fine. Others thought it was better business to fund an opposition, and it is those clowns who are now the exiles in the West, with Britain hosting a lot of them.

As I said last month, Anna Politkovskaya was something else, a sincere believer in the libertarian nonsense that most Russians used to believe in. This dwindling band do at least stay in Russia and take their chances. They are also wary of the exiles:

“At Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper where journalist Anna Politkovskaya worked before her assassination last month, there was scepticism over Mr Litvinenko’s claims that he obtained documents about her death on the day he was poisoned.”[D]. The matter remains an enigma. The current boss of Chechnya is a plausible suspect: so too is a former major of a Siberian town. [E].

As for the late Mr Litvinenko, Putin had even less reason to kill him than to kill Anna Politkovskaya. Putin’s power rests solidly on his success and on the support he has from a large majority of Russians, nearly 4 in 5.

 

Hurricanes on Earth and Saturn

don t cuss the climate

it probably doesn’t like you

any better

than you like it.

(Don Marquis, in “archy and mehitabel,” 1927).

Climate is also very surprising. The Cassini space probe:

“recently found there a spectacular massive swirling storm system with a well developed eye-wall, similar to a hurricane here on Earth… The storm is slightly larger than the entire Earth and carries winds that reach 550 kilometers per hour, twice the velocity of a Category 5 hurricane. This pole vortex on Saturn might have been raging for billions of years and is not expected to drift off the pole.” [F]

Saturn’s weather may be stable – though on Jupiter, the famous ‘Great Red Spot’ has been joined by a smaller look-alike and no one is sure what will happen next. Not on Saturn, not on Jupiter, but on Earth it is confirmed that things are getting warmer and that wilder weather will become more common.

In weather, it is the pattern is significant, not any one event. It’s a bit like the National Lottery. One winner in Peterborough would be ordinary – there’s a recent report of such a person who won more than a million on 28th October and has only just noticed that their ticket was a winner. Two million-pound winners in Peterborough in the same year would be a further oddity, if it happened. Ten in the same year would be very odd indeed and suggest something not quite random. This doesn’t happen with the lottery, as far as I know. But with the weather, the pattern of oddities is so bizarre that something basic must have changed.

No one in the 1990s said there would definitely be bigger hurricanes, just that it was one of many perils that might arise from global warming. So the USA was battered in 2005, Asia was battered this year, there has been the first recorded hurricane in the South Atlantic and who knows what next? Australia is having what’s been called a 1000-year drought [G]. Worse may follow.

There is also some good news, it seems that the Gulf Stream is less vulnerable that was suggested. Overall global warming is unlikely to produce a massive regional cooling in Western Europe. Western Europe’s weather is an oddity: places at similar latitude north are mostly frozen waste, but it looks like the Gulf Stream will go on keeping us comfortable for some time. But this was pure luck, the result of us understanding less about the system than we thought.

For now, Western Europe shares the general warming trend. This year we had an exceptionally warm July in Britain, an average August and then September and October were warmer than the British norm. A norm we are unlikely to see again very often, because what was normal has become exceptional, the exceptional the new norm.

 

‘Action’ Jackson and the Last Hobbit

The film industry all is about money and hype. Director Peter Jackson sued New Line Cinema in a DVD royalty dispute arising from the vast success of Lord Of The Rings. So it may be that he won’t be allowed to make The Hobbit, the story that features the ring’s original finding but which is mostly about other matters, dwarves and dragons. Fans are outraged, but I am thinking it might be a blessing in disguise. (Always assuming a deal is not patched up, as often happens.)

I liked the films of Lord Of The Rings, but they were also rather more action-adventure than I’d have wished. The Hobbit is a much slower and gentler story, it needs a lighter touch. My own choice if I could govern such matters would be M. Night Shyamalan, who directed The Village and The Sixth Sense. It would be nice to see someone take a new approach to Tolkien’s material, which is open to a lot of different interpretations. Let the film of The Hobbit be an artwork in its own right, rather than Lord Of The Rings Minus One.

[It ended up as three films made by Peter Jackson and full of action-adventure stuff. I liked it and there are some brilliant moments, but there are other ways it could have been done. For more of my views on dramatising Tolkien, see this article.]

 

Nandysaps

What do humans have, which is exceptionally long compared to other apes, is apt to grow longer and is frequently a source of pride and even vanity?

Not the penis – only 50% of us have one of those – but the hair on one’s head. No human male can stay vain if they compare themselves to a stallion, but human hair seems to be quite unique.

“While the fur of other mammals just grows to the required length and then stops, the hairs on our heads stick around for years getting longer and longer. “Have you ever seen a chimpanzee getting a haircut?” they asked. “For that matter, have you ever seen any furry mammal (aside from certain competitive canine contestants) in need of tonsorial grooming?” Of course not. So why then have humans evolved this unique adaptation of almost continuously growing head hair?” (New Scientist 04 November 2006)

The suggestion is that hair care began early and became a mark of culture. It might also have been a distinguishing mark by which early humans recognised strangers as being either ‘of our kind’ or else something near-human yet not capable of being fully human.

Studies of Neanderthal DNA suggest that they separated from modern humans about 400,000 years ago. Also that the common ancestors of ourselves and the Neanderthals were quite a small population, no more than 12,000 and maybe as few as 3000. These would have been one small group among many different descendants of Homo erectus, the Walk-Tall People. Most of these, Neanderthals included, did things much the same was as almost-humans had been doing them across hundreds of thousands of years. Maybe 100,000 years ago, our own ancestors got some sort of fit of genius and began inventing new things that had never been seen before. Stone tools go back millions of years, bone tools were a sudden innovation, though it seems Neanderthals also had them. They may have been close, just not quite close enough to survive when true humans moved onto their lands. There were probably no big wars, just a pattern of small hunter-gatherer groups avoiding each other and the Neanderthals and others gradually fade away.

When hair came into it remains uncertain. Potentially a very interesting answer.

 

References

[A] [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/e28495ce-7988-11db-b257-0000779e2340,dwp_uuid=9c33700c-4c86-11da-89df-0000779e2340.html]

[B] [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/25/AR2006102501893.html]

[C] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1954670,00.html]

[D] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/russia/article/0,,1954687,00.html]

[E] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/russia/article/0,,1940816,00.html]

[F] [http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap061113.html]

[G] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/australia/story/0,,1941942,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=12]

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