Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Girl Power in Action

Two weeks ago I opined, solemnly, that the Biden Afghanistan surrender and withdrawal seemed to have been managed by girls. I was referring to an enlightening article by one Andrew Stiles, to the same effect.

As it happened, and as commenters quickly pointed out, the Stiles article was labeled satire. This could have meant two things. One, that it was being offered tongue-in-cheek. Two, that branding it satire was a good way to keep the cancel culture mobs from your door.

Now, we have an intriguing anatomy of the Afghanistan failure, offered by one Matt Stoller. According to Stoller, the war effort failed because it was conducted by McKinsey consultant types and people who had learned leadership skills from our best business schools. 

And, today’s business schools are all-in with enhancing the awesome power of empathy. As one Yao Puzong discovered while attending the Stanford version, instruction had nothing to do with competing to win, but was all about how charitable work was the only real work. Worse yet, students were supposed to learn how to get in touch with their feelings.

As though to prove the point, a recent Harvard Business Review article claimed that professors now decamp in major corporations in order to teach the assembled drones the power of wonder and awe. Say what? In truth, I am all for wonder and awe. They are especially useful as descriptions of what we can feel when in the presence of great art. Yet, if you put them on the battlefield, alongside empathy, your troops are in for some serious trouble. It is a good thing not to think that what works in the theatre or  museum is also a principle that you can use for conducting a war. And yet, that is precisely what we did in Afghanistan.

If you recall the picture of the earnest feminist trying to explain the principles of gender equity to a group of Afghan women by teaching about Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal work, you know what I mean.

Anyway, Stoller does not emphasize the fact that the military is now being run by men whose minds have been girlified. And yet, his analysis leads inexorably to that conclusion. America is now fully in touch with its feminine side. It oozes empathy and wants nothing more than to care for people. When the going gets tough, it cuts and runs.

Stoller begins by describing a film about the Afghanistan War. I have not seen the movie, so I will rely on his description:

In 2017, Netflix put out a satirical movie on the conflict in Afghanistan. It was titled War Machine, and it starred Brad Pitt as an exuberant and deluded U.S. General named Glen McMahon. 

In War Machine, McMahan comes to Afghanistan with a spirited can do attitude and a frat house of hard-partying yes-men, after having ‘kicked Al Qaeda in the sack’ running special operations in Iraq. He is obsessed with inspirational speeches and weird bureaucratic box-ticking, under the amorphous concept of leadership. This kind of leadership, though, isn’t actually working with wisdom and foresight, but is more like management consulting. Prior to arriving in Afghanistan, for instance, McMahan created a system, with the acronym SNORPP to coordinate military assets. At night, he cozies down to read books on management excellence, the kind that Harvard Business Review publishes as sort of Chicken Soup for the Executive’s Soul. He is also the author of a fictional book with the amazing title, “One Leg At a Time: Just Like Everybody Else.”

This is precisely the point. People who have never exercised leadership pretending to be leaders by applying what they read in fatuous books. And yet, relying on the awesome strength of empowered women, McMahan concludes that killing is bad:

McMahan constantly makes awkward speeches that make no sense, with the tone used by untrusted executives at corporate retreats. “We are here to build, to protect, to support the civilian population,” he told his troops. “To that end, we must avoid killing it at all costs. We cannot help them and kill them at the same time, it just ain’t humanly possible.” 

Stoller continues:

I bring War Machine up because of today’s debate over Afghanistan. While there is a lot of back and forth about whether intelligence agencies knew that the Taliban would take over, or what would happen if we left, or whether the withdrawal could be done more competently, all you had to do to know that this war was a shitshow based on deception and idiocy at all levels was to turn on Netflix and watch this movie. Or you could read any number of inspector general reports, leaked documents, articles, talk to any number of veterans, or use common sense, which, polling showed, most Americans did. 

Afghanistan was war by management consultants. In truth, I have nothing against management consultants, but most of them have very little experience on the ground. They opine and meditate. Surely, the group currently running American policy fulfills that expectation:

In other words, the war in Afghanistan is like seeing management consultants come to your badly managed software company where everyone knows the problem is the boss’s indecisiveness and cowardice, except it’s violent and people die.

Our military leaders are all in with wokeness. They were in with it before it became fashionable. And also, they do not believe in facts. They did not believe in objective reality. They made it up as they went along. It was not a battlefield problem; it was a public relations and mind control problem:

I mean, U.S. military leaders, like bad consultants or executives, lied about Afghanistan to the point it was routine. Here are just a few quotes from generals and DOD spokesmen over the years on the strength of the Afghan military, which collapsed almost instantly after the U.S. left.

In 2011, General David Petraeus stated, “Investments in leader development, literacy, marksmanship and institutions have yielded significant dividends. In fact, in the hard fighting west of Kandahar in late 2010, Afghan forces comprised some 60% of the overall force and they fought with skill and courage.”

In 2015, General John Campbell said that the the Afghan Army had “proven themselves to be increasingly capable,” that they had “grown and matured in less than a decade into a modern, professional force,” and, further, that they had “proven that they can and will take the tactical fight from here.”

In 2017, General John Nicholson stated that Afghan security forces had “prevailed in combat against an externally enabled enemy,” and that the army’s “ability to face simultaneity and complexity on the battlefield signals growth in capability.”

On July 11, 2021, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said that the Afghan army has “much more capacity than they’ve ever had before, much more capability,” and asserted, “they know how to defend their country.”

Anyway, when the Netflix movie appeared, one of Stanley McCrystal’s aides took serious offense. Her name was Whitney Kassel:

In this review, Kassel noted the movie made her so upset that she started cursing, because, while there were of course mistakes, the film was totally unfair to McChrystal and demeaned the entire mission of building a safe Afghanistan. Kassel, like most of these elites, didn’t get the joke, because she is the joke.

I see the discourse on the withdrawal as a super-sized version of this Kassel’s review. The ‘Blob,’ that loose network of diplomats, ex-diplomats, generals, lobbyists, defense contractors, fancy lawyers, famous journalists, and insiders see the obvious desire for withdrawal as similar to how Kassel saw the truth-telling of Hastings and the Netflix movie.

They are angry and embarrassed that they can’t hide their failures anymore. Their entire sense of self was bound up in the idea of an illusion of an unbeatable all-powerful America, even when they, like General Glen “the Glanimal” McMahon were the only ones who believed it.

Stoller takes no prisoners:

None of these tens of thousands of Ivy league encrusted PR savvy highly credentialed prestigious people actually know how to do anything useful. They can write books on leadership, or do powerpoints, or leak stories, but the hard logistics of actually using resources to achieve something important are foreign to them, masked by unlimited budgets and public relations. It is, as someone told me in 2019 about the consumer goods giant Proctor and Gamble, where “very few white-collar workers at P&G really did anything” except take credit for the work of others.

And finally:

More fundamentally, the people who are in charge of the governing institutions in our society are simply divorced from the underlying logistics of what makes them work. Everything, from the Boeing 737 Max to the opioid epidemic to the waste inside most big corporations to war, has been McKinsey-ified. And it’s all covered up with moral outrage, partisanship and culture warring, public relations, and management wisdom bullshit.

Q. E. D.

Monday, August 30, 2021

China Cracks Down on Video Gaming

We have all seen the movie, The Social Dilemma. It shows how social media can be addictive. And better yet, it shows that the oligarchs that run social media know this to be the case, and have notably tried to exacerbate the problem.

Thus, more than a few American parents are horrified at the extent to which their children are addicted to their little devices. And they are also appalled by the fact that too much time on the gadgets produces feelings of despair and loneliness.

But, they do not know what they can do about it.

In truth, the situation in Asian countries is not quite as dire as it is here, but in one country, China, the government is cracking down on social media addiction. The president of China considers video games to be akin to opium, and we know the Chinese sensitivity to opium importation.

So, the Wall Street Journal reports:

China has a new rule for the country’s hundreds of millions of young gamers: No online videogames during the school week, and one hour a day on Fridays, weekends and public holidays.

China on Monday issued strict new measures aimed at curbing what authorities describe as youth videogame addiction, which they blame for a host of societal ills, including distracting young people from school and family responsibilities.

The new regulation, unveiled by the National Press and Publication Administration, will ban minors, defined as those under 18 years of age, from playing online videogames entirely between Monday and Thursday. On the other three days of the week, and on public holidays, they will be only permitted to play between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The government announcement said all online videogames will be required to connect to an “anti-addiction” system operated by the National Press and Publication Administration. The regulation, which takes effect on Wednesday, will require all users to register using their real names and government-issued identification documents.

How many American parents would wish to do the same. One appreciates that this policy strikes a blow at a pernicious modern form of addiction, but that it also restricts children's freedom to be addicted to video games. So, what do you all think of this authoritarian oppression?

The Taliban's Self-Interest

If you caught even the briefest glimpse of President Biden’s presser of last Thursday, you probably noted that he said that we were trusting the Taliban to act in their own self-interest. 

Houston, we have reached terminal stupid.

To my mind we were witnessing a man who had been fed a clever-sounding phrase by one of his aides. And we were hearing it bounce around, even echo through the empty caverns of his skull. Clearly, he had no idea of what he was saying. He had no idea of what he was doing. But, he was signing on to the policy of providing the Taliban with the names of our allies, because he trusted terrorists to act in their self-interest. To Biden’s feeble mind these medieval killers would naturally embrace civilized morality because it is in their self-interest. He did not consider that they might believe it to be in their self-interest to punish those who had betrayed their cause.

So, after twenty years of war, we are being told that we can trust the Taliban. Roger Kimball got it exactly right in a recent column:

Did you know that the United States is soon to be home to tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, many—if not most of them—Islamic fundamentalists? Did you know that, in its partnership with the Taliban (sounds odd doesn’t it?), the Biden Administration actually gave the Taliban the names of Americans and our Afghan allies. Yes, you read that right. “In a move no one can grasp,” Politico reported, “U.S. officials in Kabul gave the Taliban a list of names of American citizens, green card holders, and Afghan allies, believing the Taliban would allow them to enter the militant-controlled outer perimeter of the city’s airport. Lawmakers and military officials are outraged.” 

How about you? 

Why would the United States do that? No, it’s not that the people we elected to govern us trust the Taliban. Joe Biden made that clear. He doesn’t think the Taliban are nice people. But he is appealing to their “self-interest,” you see. We’ll partner with them, we’ll ask them to set up and man the checkpoints on the roads coming into the airport, and we feel confident in doing so because, after all, it is in their interest to play fair. They will do what they say they are going to do—and, more to the point, they won’t do what we fear they might do, things like attack Americans—and we will do what they want, i.e., leave Afghanistan. 

Of course, it might be in the interest of the Taliban to get along with Pakistan and even with China and Russia. How, exactly, would that be in the American national interest. As you noticed, Biden said nothing about America’s national interest, perhaps because he does not believe in our national interest. 

After all, when you are surrendering to terrorism you are not showing very much concern for the national interest.

Kimball regales us with a text by Dostoyevsky-- of all people-- on the subject of self-interest:

In Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky treated this liberalizing naïveté to some portion of the contempt it deserves. “Oh, tell me,” Dostoevsky wrote, 

. . .  who first declared, who first proclaimed that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own real interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else. . . . Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child!

So, it isn’t just about self-interest. It’s about showing that everyone has the same self-interest, to live in peace and harmony with one’s fellows. And then, what about those who believe it in their self-interest to take what you have earned, even to confiscate billions of dollars in American military equipment. Joe Biden has chosen to leave it all behind. What does he imagine the Taliban will do with it? 

Kimball continues:

No wonder the Taliban are busy trolling the Biden Administration, posing with ice-cream cones, re-enacting the iconic flag-raising at Iwo Jima in American uniforms but with a Taliban flag, vowing to battle “climate change” and ensure women’s rights “under Islamic law.” Ha ha ha. That’s the playful side of an ideology whose dark purpose was summed up by an Islamic radical in the aftermath of 9/11. “We are not fighting so that you will offer us something,” he said. “We are fighting to eliminate you.” 

Of course, anyone whose brain has more substance than Biden’s-- that would be just about everyone-- understands that in our civilizational clash with radical Islam, we just lost a very large battle. Islam is at war with the West, and Joe Biden just handed it a victory.

Accordingly, the proper response to this ideology is not to offer it partnerships in the hope that you can make a mutually satisfying deal that caters to everyone’s “self-interest.” On the contrary, the proper response is to understand, as Benjamin Netanyahu put it, that we are dealing here with “a war to reverse the triumph of the West.”

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Go Ahead and Ghost Him

Out there in Therapyville every human communication gets reduced to some platitudinous formula. Worse yet, we are told, by eminent psycho authorities, that one size really does fit all.

This past Friday psychologist Jenny Taitz explained in the Wall Street Journal that we should not ghost people. If we want to reject them, she said, we should just come out and reject them, but with a good dose of empathy added, for taste. If we do not want to hire them we should tell them, straight up. If we do not want to buy what they are selling we should, presumably, tell them that we do not want to clutter our homes with their trash. But, nicely, with feeling.

Fair enough, there are times when it is better to reject people outright. But, Taitz and her army of experts has not considered the simple fact that saying No is rude and offensive. In Japan, for instance, it is considered rude to reject people outright. There, no one ever says No!

I recall an old story, purportedly true, of a New York art dealer who was trying to sell an art work to a Japanese collector. The collector did not want the work, so he explained that he would need to think it over. In Japanspeak that means that he is too polite to reject the work, and does not want to be rude. The art dealer did not understand the message, so she retorted: “What’s the matter with you; can’t you make up your mind.”

So, who was being rude?

For the record, and without having any special information, I believe that said art dealer will soon be completing her sentence in federal prison-- but that had nothing to do with the exchange with the Japanese dealer.

For another counterexample to the mania about openness and honesty consider an everyday exchange. Imagine that a young man asks a young woman out on a date-- or else imagine that a couple invites another couple to go out to dinner.

And let us imagine that the young woman in the first example would rather crawl over broken glass than spend an evening with the young man who has invited her on the date. Imagine the same, somewhat less picturesque reasoning in the second instance.

You know and I know, and all sentient adults who are not in the psycho world know, that the woman in the first example will politely explain that she is simply too busy to schedule any future engagements. The same might be the recourse of the couple in the second example. In neither case will the put-upon recipient of the unwanted invitation simply say, No, I do not want to spend any time with you. Or, I don’t care for your company because I find you boring and tedious.

In all cases the coded expression is designed to end the conversation without leaving too many offended feelings behind. It is common practice, and it is good practice. Otherwise, you will either be picking a fight or inviting an extended conversation about why you do not want to accept the invitation.

You can sugar over rejection with all the empathy you want, saying No directly and honestly is bad rhetorical strategy. Better to ghost the person and not to make an enemy. When you reject someone openly you risk making that person into an enemy. Most people know this; most people practice this; the psycho world has not yet caught up.

In fact, the point is so clear that most women, in particular, understand that it is better not to break off a relationship directly. It is better to allow the other person to discover that the relationship is over, and for him to break it off himself. You do not want to be the one doing the rejecting; you should prefer to be the one being rejected. It causes less drama and less conflict. And we mostly want to avoid conflict.

So, the psycho advice is more likely to produce more drama. Thus, it ought to be avoided. 

Anyway, here is Taitz, offering the best and the nicest bad advice, which sounds like great advice:

That’s why it’s important to let people in your personal and professional life know when to expect to hear from you, and also to say what you mean, clearly and kindly, even when it isn’t what they want to hear. As a clinical psychologist, I’ve seen that many people find the prospect of disappointing someone so cringeworthy that they prefer to skip a potentially awkward exchange and just disappear—a practice popularly known as “ghosting.”

So, you are going to become rude and offensive, to treat people badly, but you really want to be a compassionate and empathetic human being. You can be fairly confident that, in the first place, this is girl talk, and in the second place, that it is bad advice.

Though my clients often find it uncomfortable to deliver bad news, I encourage them to offer others the courtesy of certainty. Studies show that being left hanging or obsessing over mixed messages—when someone gives you reason to hope, then pulls away, known as “breadcrumbing”—decreases life satisfaction and fuels loneliness more profoundly than disappearing completely. Your job as a compassionate human being is to “Give people predictability,” explains Dr. Robert Sutton, who teaches organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and is the author of “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.”

As I said, the purpose is to avoid drama and conflict. And yet, the compassionate and empathetic pose will produce more drama and conflict, and will show no consideration for the feelings of the other person. You do not want to be offensive and obnoxious toward other people-- because, no matter how deep your feelings are, straightforward and direct opens you to more straightforward and direct-- which produces conflict and extends an interaction that you do not want to extend. 

Once you explain that you do not want to see someone, your apparently honest insult opens the door to further conversation, along the lines of, what is there about me that makes my company so obnoxious. Why do you think that?

In principle, people ghost because they do not want to engage that level of conversation.

In any case, Taitz presents it all as a moral imperative. You have to respond, she and her expert witness tells us.

That’s why learning to say no with kindness is something we all need to practice. Though you don’t need to formally break up with someone after one meeting or reply to every message you receive on LinkedIn, “If someone you’ve engaged with contacts you, you have to respond,” says Dr. Guy Winch, a clinical psychologist and co-host of the podcast “Dear Therapists.” While at times you can’t help having to disappoint someone, reaching out promptly and offering compassion eases the sting.

It may ease the sting, but it also provokes conflict. Consider an alternative, whether you have to respond depends on the state of play. If you have ghosted someone and they start harassing you via text, you do not have to respond. If you do not want to engage a conversation about why you do not want a second or third date-- something about his bad table manners or her bad breath-- you do better to defer your response, and then perhaps to write a text to the effect that sorry, you have been very busy of late.

It becomes trickier in the business world. Again, Taitz goes all girly here and offers advice that no serious male would ever follow:

When my clients ask me for some sort of template, I suggest including an empathetic acknowledgment, a direct update and a warm parting. One rejection I received shortly after I applied for a position was so effective that I kept it to use as an example: “Thank you for your efforts yesterday. I think you did a great job. We all did. The fact that the group is planning to move to the next step with another therapist should in no way imply otherwise. I wish we could choose two therapists!”

This sounds charming enough, but I can assure you that the person who receives this missive will be far more likely to return to you, to keep in touch, to hassle you about future opportunities, to ask you to refer him to another place. Once you keep the line of communication open, you are going to be engaging with someone you do not want to engage with.

And then there are situations where an interviewee for a job will learn, before the interview, that if he does not hear back promptly, that means he has not been chosen. In truth, in our litigious society, you do not want to engage with people you are rejecting for a job, because it comports far too many legal risks. Your company would never allow you to do so.

Deciding whether someone is a good fit is subjective and you don’t want someone to walk away feeling like there is something wrong with them. Especially in the workplace, you could open yourself up to legal risks by saying too much, warns Dr. Sutton.

Taitz imagines that we all need to exercise our empathy muscles-- a decidedly silly locution, one that she should quickly retire:

Rather than delegate the task of delivering bad news to someone else, like the human resources department, you can think of doing it yourself as a chance to exercise your empathy muscles. “Part of your job is the ability to do dirty work,” Dr. Sutton says. Besides, it’s a small world and your reputation reverberates: “Ghosting creates lots of personal harm that others will remember.”

Ghosting does not create as much harm as a warm bath of empathy. The effectiveness of ghosting depends on whether or not both parties understand that it is a coded expression, one that adults should be able to read. 

If you, like Taitz, are dealing with vulnerable individuals, then you should reconsider how you choose your friends. Dealing with people who are that thin skinned, who are that hypersensitive, who are that easily triggered says something about you.

The people we interact with aren’t just email addresses or avatars on dating apps. All of us are vulnerable, and we all want to feel safe and seen. In these uncertain times, saying no to ghosting is one way to act like we’re all part of an interconnected community.

Precisely wrong. The whole point of ghosting a prospective dinner partner or a prospective new hire is that you do not want to connect with him, that you do not want him to belong to your community. If you want him to stick around, shower him in compassion and empathy. If not, ghosting is OK, but do it politely.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Can the World Unsee What It Has Seen?

As the world turns, today it is turning against Joe Biden. Witness the sober analysis offered by Edward Luce in the Financial Times. 

Biden will undoubtedly attract far more of the blame than he deserves for the closing chapter of America’s longest war. The defeat to the Taliban was a whole-of-government, bipartisan, multiple-presidency operation. But Biden’s name will always be associated with the manner of America’s pullout.

On Thursday, he dug a deeper hole for himself. As the US evacuation was accelerating, Biden vowed that “America will not be intimidated”. He promised the US would strike back against the terrorists “at our time, at the place we choose and the moment of our choosing”. The gulf between this boilerplate rhetoric and the reality of a retreating superpower will be hard for White House aides to spin away.

Weigh the last sentence. Luce derogates Biden’s tough guy rhetoric and contrasts it with the image of a retreating superpower. True enough, the Biden team will try to spin it away, but they are no longer fooling anyone.

Luce remarks that Biden looked like he did not know what he was doing. No one should be surprised, and yet, those who imagined that Biden was suffering from a lisp will be shocked by reality:

As Biden addressed the nation, it was hard to escape the conclusion that he was not the master of his brief. The president, whose life has been marred by personal tragedy, welled up when he spoke of the sense of loss that the families of the dead US servicemen would feel. He mentioned his son, Beau, a former US army officer who served in Iraq and died of brain cancer in 2015. “You get the feeling like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest. There’s no way out,” Biden said of the grief that will hit the families. The poignancy was enhanced by the fact that Biden might have been speaking about what it is like to be in his job now. The political black hole beckons.

Is Biden facing a political black hole? Luce concludes:

There can be no unseeing what the US and the world has seen.

Enabled by the Press

Regarding the debacle that Afghanistan has become, Ayaan Hirsi Ali raises a salient, and often overlooked point. How much of the responsibility falls on a sycophantic toadying press corps? Did the Biden team believe that the press would support them no matter what? Did they become more reckless because they knew that the press would have their back?

After all, the Washington press corps and the mainstream media and the tech monopolies believed that Trump could do no right and that Biden (and Obama) could do no wrong. Keep in mind, while social media companies continue to exclude the former president of the United States, and where Amazon web services shut out the Parler app, they had been hosting ISIS and the Taliban. Link here.

So, Hirsi Ali asks whether the Biden team had drunk too deeply of the unearned praise the press was heaving at them. Did they buy the hype and conclude that they could do no wrong? Did this belief make them feel invincible? Did it cause them to shut down their critical faculties?

Instead, seven months into the administration’s tenure, the Biden administration hunkered down and made a decision that would erase years of progress. It’s all too easy to picture the various individuals, all at the height of their professional careers, huddled together in the Situation Room. Some old and wise. Some fresh-faced and gung-ho. All fooled by the conviction that they can do no wrong.

As for why the Biden team had planned so poorly for the withdrawal and surrender, perhaps they assumed that, no matter what they did, the press would declare it a victory. Obviously, the suicide bombing of two days ago could not be blamed on Trump-- even though Biden certainly tried:

Speculation over what compelled Biden’s national security team to withdraw so suddenly without a proper contingency plan remains ongoing. Theories range from shrill claims about how “these men must be evil” to “experts” praising what they deem a calculated, realist approach to a never-ending war that was sapping attention and resources away from the bigger threats posed by China.

The more convincing argument, however, is more straightforward: The Biden administration screwed up because they had grown accustomed to uncritical support from the press. Instead of upholding their traditional role of checking and vetting individuals and decisions, for seven months the media has scarcely offered up a critical word of Biden. It was almost the exact opposite for Trump, who came in for relentless criticism — some of it fictitious.

Of course, nobody enjoys being hauled over the coals by the press corps. But it focuses the mind — unlike canine adulation. If enough people tell you that you’re going to be the most transformative president since Lyndon Johnson, it’s easy to forget how Johnson’s presidency ended.

That honeymoon period is over now. The situation in Kabul is now so dire that there is no option but to report on the failures of the administration. Even our new pedigree of activists journalists, for whom reporting is a form of proselytising, can no longer play defence for the President because the images coming out of Afghanistan are indefensible. When they learn that a toddler of one of our Afghan interpreters has been crushed to death in the vast and desperate scrum outside Kabul airport, Americans are rightly angry.

Will the press recover its sense of integrity? Or is it just too late? Unfortunately, it would require the press and the social media titans to accept some level of responsibility. One suspects that it is not about to happen.

For Afghanistan, the return of a critical press corps comes too late. But for Americans there is a lesson to be learned. Perhaps if the liberal media had done a better job during confirmation hearings and appointments, the situation in Afghanistan could have unfolded differently, with more effective leaders at the helm. Perhaps if earlier policy blunders had been subjected to closer scrutiny, this one might not have been so casually made.

But as we are now witnessing, competent government instead dies when the lights are dimmed to flatter a new administration. When journalists and editors suspend their critical faculties, tragedy is bound to follow.

An important point, well made.

"Wars Are Not Won by Evacuations"

George Will brings us a few words by Winston Churchill. The subject-- evacuations. As you know Churchill oversaw the evacuation of British soldiers at Dunkirk in 1940. If it had failed, World War II might have looked radically different.

In the immediate aftermath of the heroic rescue of soldiers from Dunkirk, Winston Churchill addressed the British as adults, reminding them that “wars are not won by evacuations.” As the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan ends, the authors of the ignominious and tragic last chapter are hoping that perceptions will be more malleable than facts are.

In America, leaders rarely address people as adults. They play for the politics. Will is not much enamoured with the Republican response to it all, but he focuses on the Biden administration’s grotesque mismanagement of the mission-- which is not so much evacuation a surrender.

Will quotes one Rory Stewart. While Stewart is a Tory, we recall that former prime minister Tony Blair expressed similar sentiments a week or so ago. Biden’s incompetence is playing poorly across the pond. Stewart takes severe exception to the Biden administration effort to blame the Afghan military:

So, Congress probably will not cast a cold eye on the incompetent and dishonorable conduct that Rory Stewart summarized with his riveting, scalding responses in a video interview in London.

Stewart, a British politician and diplomat, lived three years in Afghanistan and recalls that by 2001, when the previous Taliban regime was toppled, 4 million Afghans from a population of 20 million had fled the country to escape the dark night of theocratic cruelties. Stewart was incensed about Biden’s “incredibly offensive” Aug. 16 address, in which Biden disparaged the Afghans’ “will to fight.” Stewart:

“The United States provided all the air support for the Afghans. [The Americans] didn’t just take their own planes away. They took away 16,000 civilian contractors who were maintaining the Afghan helicopters. … So those things can’t even fly. And the morale damage. They left in the middle of the night from Bagram [air base]. They didn’t even tell the commander that they were leaving. The Afghans woke up in the morning. All their planes disabled, the Americans have left, no support of any kind. And you’re asking who exactly? Who is President Biden asking to fight?

“I mean, if you are an Afghan woman teaching in a school in Pul-e-Charkhi. Really? Really? I mean what are they expecting? A bunch of guys come riding in in pickup trucks with heavy machine guns, into your town. You don’t want the Taliban in there, you don’t support them. But if you’re genuinely asking them to put up a suicidal fight when the United States … was not even prepared to keep 2,500 soldiers and some planes in the country, with zero casualties, zero risk over the last few years. … No U.S. serviceman has been killed in Afghanistan for 18 months. No British serviceman for longer than that. This has not been a costly mission since 2014. … To basically hand [the Afghan people] over to the Taliban and then say, it’s your fault, you’re all a bunch of cowards, when we pulled out and weren’t prepared to accept a tiny presence.”

And, Will closes with a point that all savvy commentators have been making, namely that Biden has done severe and lasting damage to the NATO. Americans had been told that the Biden administration would be more concerned with fostering international alliances, that it would be kinder and gentler toward NATO than Trump had been,

How is that working out?

Biden’s hasty and unilateral decision to abandon NATO’s Afghanistan mission has done more damage to that alliance than the strains of 45 Cold War years did. Worldwide, nations are recalibrating their security policies, weighing reliance on a wobbly, impulsive United States against accommodation with a China that is on a different trajectory. Biden’s immediate task is to reassess his reliance on the intelligence, military and policymaking officials who gave him assessments and assurances that have been shredded by events. When there is no penalty for failure, failures proliferate.

Right now, from the Biden administration, it’s all about covering your ass, and deflecting blame to the other guy. As for what wins wars, the Biden team has no interest whatever in winning.

Friday, August 27, 2021

The California Recall Election

Full confession: I do not subscribe to or read the New York Times. I certainly do not waste time reading the mental drool of one Paul Krugman. The former professor has turned into a full-throated and rather mindless propagandist. For Times readers, apparently no longer the best or the brightest, this is not a problem. Feel some pity for Times readers.

Anyway, I was alerted to the existence of the Krugman brain, by a tweet. In it he said, referring to California:

A crazy recall process could lead to repudiation of the state’s policy successes. 

Of course, Krugman is the only living mortal who actually seems to believe that California is a great policy success. It is pathetic, to say the least.

In order to save you the trouble of looking up Krugman’s thoughts, I refer to an authoritative thinker on all matters California. Joel Kotkin, a Democrat, we are led to believe, but a man with integrity has been chronicling the failures of California for years now. (via Maggie's Farm) He lives there. He knows the state. He specializes in matters demographic. All of these qualifications Krugman lacks.

Here are a couple of salient points by Kotkin:

Newsom insists California is ‘doing pretty damn well’, citing record profits in Silicon Valley from both the major tech firms and a host of IPOs. He seems to be unaware that California’s middle- and working-class incomes have been heading downwards for a decade, while only the top five per cent of taxpayers have done well. As one progressive Democratic activist put it in Salon, the recall reflects a rebellion against ‘corporate-friendly elitism and tone-deaf egotism at the top of the California Democratic Party’.

“Tone deaf egotism”-- does that remind you of anyone else? Kotkin continues to critique the state regulatory policies, especially those that were designed to save the planet:

Much of this can be traced back to regulatory policies tied to climate change (along with high taxes). These policies have driven out major companies – in energy, home construction, manufacturing and civil engineering – that traditionally employed middle-skilled workers. Instead, job growth has been concentrated in generally low-pay sectors, like hospitality. Over the past decade, 80 per cent of Californian jobs, notes one academic, have paid under the median wage. Half of these paid less than $40,000.

Other government disasters can be traced back to efforts to present California as the global policymaking model for reversing climate change. Newsom predictably blamed the recent fires on climate change and pledged to switch to all-electric power over the next decade and eliminate gas-powered cars by 2035.

How well did these green policies serve the economy? Or did they make California’s forests into kindling:

Yet, as Pro Publica notes, the fires were made far worse by green policies, including constant lawsuits against local efforts to clean up dead vegetation. In fact, thanks to these largely preventable fires, California’s carbon emissions are now increasing.

Much the same can be said about the recent drought. Under Pat Brown, who served as governor during the 1960s, California constructed an enormous system of aqueducts and reservoirs. But, in recent years, the state stopped building new storage, and began siphoning water supplies into the river system, even in years of severe drought. Once California could withstand several dry years – now just one jeopardises the entire system, and threatens the state’s agriculture industry.

As for the California school system, it ranks among the worst in the country:

The state’s public schools were largely closed during the pandemic, although they did find time to add a course called ‘ethnic studies’ to the curriculum. This course promises to ‘build new possibilities for post-imperial life that promote collective narratives of transformative resistance’. But it won’t do much for the almost three-out-of-five California high schoolers who graduate unprepared for either college or a career. In terms of educating poor students, California ranks 49th out of America’s 50 states in education-performance tables. Indeed, San Francisco, the epicentre of California’s woke culture, has the worst test scores for African-Americans of any county in the state.

Chances are, Kotkin concludes, that Newsom will win the recall election. And yet, if progressive policies are so obviously failing in California, surely the Democratic Party will change its errant ways. You think?

Yet even if the recall fails to oust Newsom, a close vote would suggest trouble ahead for progressives, not only in California but also across the US. There is a growing gap between the Democrats, backed by Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and vast swathes of their own historic base. A close call or a recall victory would send a stinging rebuke to the Democratic elites. They now face the prospect of losing constituencies that they long saw as essential to maintaining power.

Simple-Mindedness in the Age of Covid

To our credit we have peppered our discussions of the Covid pandemic restrictions with observations about their costs. Surely, we derive a benefit from locking down the nation-- or so it seems-- but we also hurt businesses, hurt the economy and certainly hurt schoolchildren.

In fact, as we have been reporting, American children who have been deprived of in-person schooling have certainly suffered, cognitively and emotionally. How do you balance the cost of the shutdowns with the benefit that accrues to those children who do not catch the virus?

It’s a question of cost-benefit analysis. Glenn Greenwald reports on the calculus of decision making in his Substack column. (via Maggie's Farm) He notes in passing that cost-benefit analysis requires more advanced thinking than does the relatively primitive and simple-minded solution-- shut it all down; force everyone to wear a mask; upbraid your neighbors when you see them without a mask.

The benefits of mask-wearing are dubious; they are not a scientific certainty. And the World Health Organization has stated that wearing a mask while exercising is detrimental to health. 

Greenwald suggests that we normally use cost-benefit analysis in making policy:

In virtually every realm of public policy, Americans embrace policies which they know will kill people, sometimes large numbers of people. They do so not because they are psychopaths but because they are rational: they assess that those deaths that will inevitably result from the policies they support are worth it in exchange for the benefits those policies provide. This rational cost-benefit analysis, even when not expressed in such explicit or crude terms, is foundational to public policy debates — except when it comes to COVID, where it has been bizarrely declared off-limits.

He takes the obvious example. Considering the number of deaths and injuries caused by automobiles, why have we not banned them altogether?

Given how many deaths and serious injuries would be prevented, why is nobody clamoring for a ban on cars, or at least severe restrictions on who can drive (essential purposes only) or how fast (25 mph)? Is it because most people are just sociopaths who do not care about the huge number of lives lost by the driving policies they support, and are perfectly happy to watch people die or be permanently maimed as long as their convenience is not impeded? Is it because they do not assign value to the lives of other people, and therefore knowingly support policies — allowing anyone above 15 years old to drive, at high speeds — that will kill many children along with adults?

We do not do it because we weigh the costs against the benefits provided by automobiles:

It is because we employ a rational framework of cost-benefit analysis, whereby, when making public policy choices, we do not examine only one side of the ledger (number of people who will die if cars are permitted) but also consider the immense costs generated by policies that would prevent those deaths (massive limits on our ability to travel, vastly increased times to get from one place to another, restrictions on what we can experience in our lives, enormous financial costs from returning to the pre-automobile days). 

Whereas today’s Covid scolds insist on an absolutist approach to policy making, Greenwald points out that we never do this:

This framework, above all else, precludes an absolutist approach to rational policy-making. We never opt for a society-altering policy on the ground that “any lives saved make it imperative to embrace” precisely because such a primitive mindset ignores all the countervailing costs which this life-saving policy would generate (including, oftentimes, loss of life as well: banning planes, for instance, would save lives by preventing deaths from airplane crashes, but would also create its own new deaths by causing more people to drive cars).

What is special about Covid?

It is now extremely common in Western democracies for large factions of citizens to demand that any measures undertaken to prevent COVID deaths are vital, regardless of the costs imposed by those policies. Thus, this mentality insists, we must keep schools closed to avoid the contracting by children of COVID regardless of the horrific costs which eighteen months or two years of school closures impose on all children.

The most important cost involves children, especially minority children. They are at the least risk for the virus and they have been the most directly damaged by the school shutdowns. We will note that in some American states schools have remained open and that in many countries around the world the teachers’ unions have not succeeded in damaging children.

It is impossible to overstate the costs imposed on children of all ages from the sustained, enduring and severe disruptions to their lives justified in the name of COVID. Entire books could be written, and almost certainly will be, on the multiple levels of damage children are sustaining, some of which — particularly the longer-term ones — are unknowable (long-term harms from virtually every aspect of COVID policies — including COVID itself, the vaccines, and isolation measures, are, by definition, unknown). 

We have reported on several studies of the damage to children. Greenwald adds a BBC report from the beginning of the year:

But what we know for certain is that the harms to children from anti-COVID measures are severe and multi-pronged. One of the best mainstream news accounts documenting those costs was a January, 2021 BBC article headlined “Covid: The devastating toll of the pandemic on children.”

The “devastating toll” referenced by the article is not the death count from COVID for children, which, even in the world of the Delta variant, remains vanishingly small. The latest CDC data reveals that the grand total of children under 18 who have died in the U.S. from COVID since the start of the pandemic sixteen months ago is 361 — in a country of 330 million people, including 74.2 million people under 18. Instead, the “devastating toll” refers to multi-layered harm to children from the various lockdowns, isolation measures, stay-at-home orders, school closures, economic suffering and various other harms that have come from policies enacted to prevent the spread of the virus:

Greenwald explains that he is not arguing for or against any specific policy. He is arguing against an absolutist approach to policy making. 

Put another way, this is not an argument in favor of or against any particular policy undertaken in the name of fighting COVID. What it is, instead, is an attempt to highlight the pervasive and deeply misguided refusal to assign any costs to the harms caused by anti-COVID policies themselves.

Whatever is true about motives, what is unacceptable — sociopathic, really — is the insistence on assigning severe costs to just one side of the ledger (harms from COVID itself) while categorically refusing to recognize let alone value the costs on the other side of the ledger (from severe, enduring anti-COVID disruptions to and restrictions on life). Given the reflexive rage that is produced when one tries to make this argument — what immediately emerges are accusations that one is indifferent to COVID deaths — I wanted to walk through the evidence and rationale demonstrating why this approach is reckless, immoral and irrational.

Again, cost-benefit analysis is complex. Perhaps Americans, having suffered the influence of our educational establishment, are no longer capable of complex thought. Simple is as simple minded people do. Absolutist thinking appeals to the uneducated and to those who wish to manipulate the ill-formed minds of the undereducated.