Thursday, January 15, 2015

Losing the Wars

The hot item right now is James Fallows' The Tragedy of the American Military, in The Atlantic.  This post isn't intended as a review; it's a long article and I haven't finished it.  I'd like to explore the general theme, however, as I heard it discussed on the PBS News Hour this afternoon (that's January 15 if you want to chase it down; it won't be available on line until tomorrow).

Basically, James Fallows says that although we have the best military in the world and our soldiers have performed superbly, we've lost the wars we fought over the last 13 years, at the cost of billions of dollars - Afghanistan, Iraq, and our current involvement in Syria. If you look back to Vietnam, we lost that too, even though in all cases we were fighting a ragtag insurgency.  How can this be? said the reviewers.

Do you people not read your history?  (I absolve Mr. Fallows, I think he gets it.) The United States, in its early incarnation as an 18th century British colony, wrote the book on the ability of a ragtag insurgency to defeat a standing military, as long as the people who lived in the insurgent country supported their fighters.  In 1775, when the "shot heard round the world" was fired at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, the British Army was the finest military in the world, in charge not only of North America but of empires in India and the Caribbean.  And yet, over the next 6 years, the ragtag insurgency built into a real army and kept the redcoats from victory (sometimes very narrowly), eventually standing them down at the battle of Yorktown.  And so was born a nation, even though a sizeable number of colonials supported the British!

The Brits used our techniques themselves, one generation later, during the Peninsular Wars with Napoleon - who at that time had the finest military in the world.  Wellington's tactics depended as much on his irregular Spanish supporters, and the fact that the Spanish peasants hated Napoleon, as they did on his trained regulars.

Frankly, we should have known, in 1964, that we couldn't defeat a guerrilla insurgency (in a jungle, yet) supported by the local people.  But we were scared to death of the "Commies" and afraid if Vietnam went Communist, the whole of southeast Asia would follow, like dominos.  Remember the domino theory?  It was wrong, wasn't it?  We also thought, after World War II, that we were invincible and could win any war we took on.  Also wrong.

But we don't learn from our own history.  So after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we sent our military roaring into - Afghanistan, a country about which we knew nothing and where we spoke no local languages.  And since no one knew where "Al Qaeda" was, we took on the Taliban, a former local insurgency which at that time was the government, in a country, that (frankly) neither the British Army nor the Soviet Army could subdue.  And nor could the U.S.  We're now out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban are still there.  They aren't currently the government.  Yet.

I will not discuss the Iraq war except to say that it was a stupid action, based on a whole series of lies, which turned a stable country run by a competent dictator into the mess it is today.  Everything that was wrong about going into Afghanistan was also wrong about going into Iraq.  Saddam Hussein was not a nice man, but if he was anything, he was a secularist, and he could have been a useful ally against Al Qaeda - and much more ruthless than we are.

Barack Obama has taken a great deal of flack for his unwillingness to get involved in the mess in Syria.  He got involved only after the Islamic State thugs beheaded a couple of American journalists on video.  His initial response to stay out was correct - Syria is a hell-brew civil war of faction fighting faction, and the air strikes we're running in have a good solid chance of landing on someone we would support, if we knew they were there.  My heart breaks for the Syrian people but there is no solution to this except for someone else to come in, defeat all comers, and run the place himself.  President Obama refuses to be that person, and I support him; Syria would be a classic case of an organized military taking on not one but multiple insurgent factions.  We'd be there for decades.

I know of one case where a standing army defeated a local insurgency, and it was 21st century Sri Lanka, where the Rajapaksa military machine rolled over the remains of the Tamil Tigers and established military rule over the north of the country.  I believe this exception proves the rule, because the Tamils were a minority in the country, and in that case the majority of the population supported the government troops.  One hopes the newly elected President Sirisena will be able to begin mending fences between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

It's About Time

Thank you, President Obama, for moving to normalize relations with Cuba.  There may have been some justification for the embargo back in 1961, when Fidel was hand in glove with the Soviets and they were considering placing missiles on the island.  But we talked them out of that, so then what was our basis for the embargo?  Well, Cuba was still "Commie", and we hated all Commies, so we continued to deprive them of the ability to buy things from us (which they probably couldn't have done because the Cuban people were and are dirt poor).  And if we embargo trade, the Cubans will rise up and overthrow the dictator Fidel.

Worked really well, didn't it?  True, Fidel isn't still in power; but he passed it to his brother.  It's a dynasty.

When I say, "we hated all Commies," don't assume that every U.S. citizen in the 1950s and 1960s spent their leisure time muttering "I hate those Reds."  A very small number of very loud people actually did do that, or something close to it (think John Birch Society); but for Joe Sixpak (we miss you, Art Hoppe), Communists were a sort of background threat, who mostly existed in the Soviet Union.  Joe Sixpak was much more interested in his next raise, and his kid's baseball game.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, there has been No Rational Reason for us to embargo Cuba.  Without the U.S.S.R. at its back, Cuba was (is) a tiny, poor country, without an army of any standing or any major weapons.  We even lease Guantanamo from Cuba (in a 1903 treaty with a very different Cuba!), they're our landlord.  Our loudly protesting landlord, but still.

In recent years we've embargoed countries when we really want them to change something:  Iran, for their nuclear program; Russia, for its outrageous behavior in Ukraine.  It is a short term embargo, based on the assumption that if they change their behavior, we'll remove the embargo.  But somehow the embargo on Cuba was Sacred, because Fidel Castro (whose longevity is amazing) was Still In Power.

But Cuba is a dictatorship, yes?  We can't do business with dictators!  And what about Human Rights?

Oh, hell, we do business with dictators all the time.  How long have we been buddies with the Saudis?  How about China (speaking of human rights)?  We talk to Iran, which has an elected tyrannical government.  As for old dictators still in power, we have an embassy in Zimbabwe, despite Robert Mugabe's indifference to anyone's human rights except his pals'.  The only dictator we really don't talk to is Kim Jong-Un, and he's crazy.

The embargo did two definite things.  I'll let you decide if they were positive.

First, it gave Fidel Castro a gold plated gift - an Enemy he could blame things on.  There's nothing a dictator likes more than an enemy he can point at, who he knows isn't really going to attack him.  That was the U.S.

Second, it made the U.S. look silly, because everyone else in the world was talking to Cuba and they knew exactly what was going on there. It began to look even sillier when Cuban medical personnel built a reputation for showing up and helping in poor countries and in emergency situations - they've been really active in the Ebola crisis, even now that it's off the front page.

It's time we talked to Cuba.  God knows when or whether Congress will ever lift the embargo; but we can talk to them without Congress' permission, and we should.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Why Didn't Bankers Go to Jail?

I heard this again this morning:  President Obama is a failure because no bankers went to jail after the financial meltdown.

I worked in the financial industry.  I wasn't a banker but I worked with bankers, and I understood banking.  I think it's possible that no bankers went to jail because what they did wasn't actually illegal.  It was immoral; no question.  But in order to jail somebody, there has to be a law against what they did; and you have to be able to pin the violation on them.

Most of the financial meltdown happened because of a bunch of financial tricks and ploys, mostly called derivatives, which were invented over the preceding decade or so.  Some of those tricks and ploys were explicitly not covered by the securities laws - because the finance industry's men in Congress had written the laws to exclude them from regulation.  I refer you to the late Phil Gramm of Texas; a summary of his career is in this article in from the NY Times in 2008.

Further, most of the men we'd all like to see in jail are senior executives.  Believe me, the way big banks operate, the men in the executive office can legitimately claim that they didn't know what the guys on the trading floor, or the loan platform, were doing.  So there weren't any laws; and if there were, you couldn't pin them on the men who set the general policy that allowed the actions.

So quit blaming Obama because nobody went to jail.

Postscript:  if you're interested in derivatives, you can Google them; or you can look at the blog entries I posted, back in the day, under the tag Subprime Mortgages.  I wrote them up while I was watching my 401K dwindle (it came back, thank God).

For that matter, I've said all this before; see my post Finally the Truth, from October 2011.

Blaming Obama

I've been mulling this one over for a long time.  It's been 6 years since Barack Obama was elected president the first time.  He was elected again 2 years ago, which means he again persuaded a majority of voters to cast ballots for him.  And yet people of all views constantly blame him for whatever they think is wrong, as if he could correct all the sins of the world with a wave of his hand and simply chooses not to.

I'll take flack for this, but I don't need an explanation when I hear someone with a southern accent say, "I can't stand Obama."  Many from the South, especially senior members of Congress from the South, can't stand the idea of a black man in charge, and they don't bother to hide their feelings.  Interestingly, the self-identified Republican caller on CSPAN, who used the N-word about the president, was attributing hatred of "that n*er Obama" to Republicans in general.  (He was from San Diego, sigh.)  But I heard a caller on Michael Krasny's Forum program this morning ranting (in a New York accent as I recall) that he hated Obama even though he voted for him.  Why?  Because we went through an economic meltdown (which Mr. Obama was instrumental in ending, by the way), and no bankers went to jail.

I'll get to that in another post, but right now I want to posit a theory:  I believe a lot of the people (maybe even some Southerners, but certainly all the annoyed "lefties") who "can't stand" Obama, say that because he isn't doing what they wanted him to do.  They had an agenda item - jailing bankers, or raising the minimum wage, or "taking care" of immigration, or some other item.  He said he was on our side, and we assumed that he would take care of our agenda item. Then when he decided that other things were either more necessary or more possible, we felt betrayed.  I personally feel betrayed by his hounding of the press; he said he'd be "transparent," and he clearly isn't.

But I'm not in his shoes.  I don't sit down in that office and have to answer to the entire country, plus the rest of the world.  No one who has never been President of the United States can really grasp what that job is like.

And I think he's done a good job.  He's done a lot of what he promised; a lot of what he promised and didn't get done (immigration, tax reform) can be reasonably blamed on the Republican Party, which openly declared they wanted him to fail.

He entered office in something as close to the Great Depression as I hope we see in our lifetimes.  His team pulled the country out.  We are not where we'd like to be, but the financial system isn't in meltdown.  There was a time there where nobody could get any credit - banks couldn't get the short term loans they run on - that's now fixed.

He said he'd get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan; we're out of Iraq, and we're about out of Afghanistan.  Leaving Iraq may have been a mistake in hindsight, but I couldn't see any flaw at the time in the way he handled it; Al-Maliki's demands were not reasonable.  Leaving Afghanistan - we'll just have to see.  But he kept the promise.

He said he'd fix health care, and he did - more people now have health care than did before.  It isn't perfect, but it was designed by a committee and you know what that means.  (It didn't help that the U.S. government is incapable of managing large IT projects; but that predates Obama by decades.)

On top of all this, he is calm, dignified, intelligent, and publicly unflappable. You never have to wonder what he just said.  As far as I can tell, he's done overall about as good a job in the Presidency as anyone could do, under very difficult conditions.

I also want to give him credit for something he didn't do. He didn't get us involved in the mess in Syria.  I think he knew - and I agree with him - that if we send American troops into Syria, we will own Syria; and we'll own it for decades.  At some point the Middle East either has to fix itself or deteriorate into warring tribes.  I don't want to own Syria.

History will judge him, no matter what the Republicans say.  It will be very interesting, if I live long enough, to see what that judgment is.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

People Don't Change

Listening to Morning Edition today, I heard a clip about the preview, at Harvard, of a new film entitled Dear White People.  Film sounds pretty good, if it gets to California I might go see it. But what blew me away started with this quote, from Shereen Marisol Meraji, of the NPR Code Switch team (emphasis mine):
The character who emerges as the film's unlikely hero? Lionel Higgins. He's a gay sci-fi nerd with an Afro who seems uncomfortable with his blackness. But when he gets word of a party where white students in blackface are eating watermelon and mocking hip-hop culture, he goes to the Black Student Union.
A little later in the interview, the director, Justin Simien, said that he put that party in, and then removed it from the next version of the script, thinking it was "over the top."  A few months later, there was a string of actual blackface parties, at campuses all over the country - to which Simien said, "Got it, Universe."

Why does this crack me up?  My undergraduate major at Cal was - English.  In my senior year I took an honors course in 18th century English literature.  I specialized in Jonathon Swift, but you can't study that period without dealing with Alexander Pope.  What does Alexander Pope have to do with blackface parties in a movie?  This:

In 1738, Pope published an anonymous (but everyone knew who wrote it) dialog called Epilogue to the Satires, or, Satires, Epistles, and Odes of Horace Imitated.  The full text is available at Bartleby if you're interested, but this is the quote:
Vice with such giant strides comes on amain,
Invention strives to be before in vain;
Feign what I will, and paint it e’er so strong,
Some rising genius sins up to my song.
In the 21st century we say, "You can't make this stuff up."  Satirists beware:  in the 18th century, Pope knew:  you can't make something up so stupid that someone, somewhere, won't try it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Don't Let Them Talk You Out of It

That's my reaction to the current case of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old who plans to commit assisted suicide in a few weeks, under the Oregon "Death with Dignity" laws.  In case you've been living in a cave and missed this, here's the latest CNN article.

The case has stirred up a great deal of discussion on both sides.  The arguments on both sides are well known.  The dangers of allowing assisted suicide to become more available are unquestionable; it should be "assisted" unless someone really wants it.  Oregon, from the numbers I've seen, seems to be handling it pretty well - not many ask for the drugs, even fewer use them.  Al Jazeera English has an article that summarizes the current position.

Here's why I encourage her to carry through, though God knows I don't wish her ill.  I've seen the other side. I had a cousin who developed an inoperable brain tumor in her, I think, late 30s, maybe early 40s.  At that time assisted suicide wasn't possible anywhere, and in any case, she was a devout Catholic.

It took my cousin almost 15 years to die.  I don't think her tumor was a glioblastoma.  But she lost the ability to work, then the ability to walk, she had to have constant attendance.  Toward the end, she barely knew people.  And she had a pre-teen daughter, whom her sister had to raise.  Her family made sure she had the best care she could get.  But, oh, my God.  What an end.  What a terrible end.

I'm not suggesting we should immediately do anything.  This needs thought and care.  The last thing I want to see is people forced to "commit suicide" for someone else's convenience, like the 2008 case of Barbara Wagner, where an insurance company refused to pay for a drug that would extend her life, but offered to pay for her assisted suicide.  The case is summarized in Marilyn Golden's opinion piece on CNN.  That is so immoral I can hardly believe it.  Whatever the right answer may be, that's the wrong answer.  But Brittany Maynard's decision, given the fact that our vaunted modern medicine offers her absolutely no hope, seems rational and reasonable.

We have to rethink our approach to death.  I've noticed over the years that Americans, as a group, don't deal well with death - which doesn't mean there are no individuals who do.  But there seem so many who are hypnotized with the idea of being young forever; they talk about extending life, and living past a century, as if they think they will never die.  Nobody wants to die.  But there have to be better ways of doing it than in a hospital, surrounded by strangers - as my father died, although I did spend one night in his hospital room with him before he was gone.  He actually refused medical help - he told the doctor the Lord had called him, and it was his time to go.  So they made him as comfortable as they could, and he was gone in about 3 days.

Go in peace, Brittany Maynard.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Tech Is Not Pink

Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle had a front page article entitled How not to attract women to coding: Make tech pink.  Apparently, colleges trying to recruit young women to computer  engineering have been sending out flyers done in curly purple script, with flowers on them.  They create pink web sites for women computer engineers.  They refer to "web divas," in flyers printed on purple polka-dot paper.

Does this make you cringe a little?  It should.  They're trying to sell an actual, well paying career, and they present as if they're selling Barbie dolls.  You would think people running colleges would be smarter than this.  Folks, this approach is insulting - which, to the Chron's credit, was the point of the article.

I speak as a woman computer engineer.  I have 19 years experience in a mainframe data center belonging to a major bank; in retirement I support 3 web sites for local non-profits.  Computer science classes weren't available to women when I was in college - well, they were there (using IBM cards), but no one told women what they were about.  Women of my generation didn't get jobs working with computers, with very few exceptions.  (Grace Hopper was the previous generation.)

I started working with personal computers almost immediately after they came on the market.  I kept department books on an Apple IIe, using VisiCalc, in 1979.  I wrote my own menus and installed my own programs on an IBM PC-XT (10MB hard drive!) in 1982.  I took night classes, read books, took on free projects for experience building databases, and finally lucked into an "entry-level training program" at the major bank.  (If that rings a bell with you, you know what the bank was.  The program hasn't survived.)  When I retired I decided to do web management for non-profits; I taught myself that, too.  I don't do web design, I'm a mediocre designer; but I can set it up, I can maintain it, and if it breaks I can probably fix it.

I hate pink and never wear it.  Little flowery things make me wince. I'm interested in how things work, not how they look.  And while today's young women aren't like me in a lot of ways, if they aren't interested in how things work, they probably aren't going into computer science anyway.

Why do we all care that there are few women in tech?  Because women see things differently than men do.  Women ask different questions, and sometimes produce answers the men didn't think of.  If you ever wondered why the tech world works the way it does, the answer may well be, because it doesn't have enough women, asking those different questions.  Go for it, ladies; ignore the curly purple things.  It's a fascinating field, even if the recruiters haven't got a clue how to sell it to you.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

War on Whom?

Like many other people, I'm shocked and appalled by the SCOTUS decision in Hobby Lobby.  I've seen a lot of flap suggesting this constitutes a "war on women." (What else did you expect from a panel with a majority of Catholic men?)  But if the Hobby Lobby decision started (or contributed to) a war, it's a little narrower than that.

The Hobby Lobby decision is a war on poor women.

The women directly affected work for Hobby Lobby.  Hobby Lobby is bragging today that it has raised its "minimum wage" to $14.50 an hour and its part-timers get $9.50 an hour.  Well, goody for them.  According to Planned Parenthood, IUDs (one of the 2 methods that Hobby Lobby objects to) cost between $500 and $1000.  If you work 40 hours a week at $14.50 an hour, you make $580 a week - before withholding.  So an IUD, if that's what you need, will cost you all of one week's and part of a second week's net pay.  Or more.  And that assumes 40 hours a week.  If you work part-time you get $9.50 an hour and I won't even bother to calculate how that stacks up against the cost of an IUD.

Hobby Lobby, at least, is only objecting to 2 methods of contraception.  But the ripples are spreading - just today, Eden Foods, a maker of soy milk, has announced that the 150 people who work for them will not get any paid contraceptives at all.  Eden Foods is closely held and the owner is Catholic - and he's refusing to pay for anything that "prevents procreation."  He sued about being forced to cover contraceptives, and was refused by the U.S. Court of Appeals, on the grounds that a for-profit corporation couldn't exercise religion.  The day after the Hobby Lobby decision, SCOTUS vacated that ruling and sent the case back to the Court of Appeals "for further consideration."

This is a war against poor women.  Well-to-do women can pay for contraceptives themselves.  How much money do you have to make before you can drop $500 on birth control?  How much before you can drop $1000?  What if you're married with kids?  I'd stop and think before paying $1000 for anything out of my pocket.

One could argue that this is merely a salvo in a larger attempt to reduce women to mere chattels again, with no voice in society and no ability to make their own decisions on when and whether to have children.  That war is going on.  But this specific decision is just a skirmish in it.

The most ironic statement of all came from Justice Alito:
“The most straightforward way of doing this would be for the Government to assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any women who are unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers’ religious objections,” he writes in the opinion.
So here it is:  a prescription for single payer, direct from the Supreme Court.  I thought we should have gone straight for single payer years ago, when this whole argument started.  Can we reconsider Obamacare and go where every other civilized nation in the world has gone, now?