Where have you gone Richard Nixon?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 6, 2018)

Born in 1964, my lifetime has witnessed three transcendent U.S. foreign policy achievements:

(1) Richard Nixon visiting China in 1972,

(2) Jimmy Carter facilitating a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978,

(3) and Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush presiding over the end of the Cold War and eventually the Soviet Union without doing a gratuitous endzone victory dance.

Those three master achievements still largely define the U.S. relationship with those countries and regions today. And what do these achievements have in common? They all deescalated the chance of a war, though in the case of Nixon’s China visit the intention was more to contain the Soviet Union’s influence than to bring about Sino-American peace.

Nonetheless, Nixon’s China overture may yet have the most lasting impact of all. Today, even with tensions in the South China Sea simmering and the prospects of a trade war looming, China is fully integrated into the world’s market economy and will, in our lifetimes, become the globe’s largest economy. But, more importantly, while China is a major competitor to the U.S. and arguably still engages in unfair trading practices (though many U.S. business leaders dispute this), the long-term forecast remains positive for Sino-American economic cooperation.

As for Israel, Egypt and the Greater Middle East, the region remains a minefield of religious and ethnic prejudices with the constant potential to devolve into an open conflict. Yet, the Camp David peace accords still stand in full force today, unbroken and resolute. And even as most Arab countries don’t officially recognize Israel, the reality is shifting.

“Israel has become a key intermediary in the shipment of goods between Arab and other Muslim-majority countries, primarily because of the unrest in Syria,” according to journalist Joe Charlaff, who covers Israeli business and technology for The Media Line news service. “Israel has been serving as a continental bridge for Turkish-Jordanian trade, in particular, as well as for freight making its way to Turkey from other nations.”

And, finally, the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, occurring on George H. W. Bush’s watch but initiated towards the end of Ronald Reagan’s administration, marks one of history’s most unique moments when two bitter and highly armed adversaries ended their hostilities without resorting to a large-scale, direct military conflict.

Three extraordinary foreign policy achievements within a 20-year period.

And President Donald Trump has put all three in jeopardy during the first two years of his presidency.

Failure defines U.S. foreign policy since 1993.

From Bill Clinton to the present, American foreign policy has been ineffective, at best, and dangerously incompetent, at worst.

Clinton’s administration competently shepherded the downsizing of the U.S. military in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dismemberment, but failed to call attention to the Rwandan genocide when it could, and grossly misunderstood the source and significance of radical Islamic extremism’s rise.

George W. Bush, in contrast, was an unmitigated foreign policy disaster on every conceivable level that cannot be adequately dissected here. Suffice it to say, today, we still suffer the consequences of the actions of W. and his neocon compatriots.

The next eight years under Barack Obama did little to rollback W’s mistakes and, in fact, amplified them through his ill-advised expansion of America’s military footprint into Syria, Yemen and the northern half of the African continent. Moreover, the escalating use of drones to attack terrorists (including Americans) was another policy low point for the Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

It is no accident Russia initiated two unprovoked invasions late in the administration of both G. W. Bush (Ossetia 2008) and Obama (Crimea 2014). Both were weakened U.S. presidents unwilling to risk an escalation of hostilities with a relatively weak but aggressive Russian adversary.

Trump is making the same mistakes and some new ones

Any optimism inspired by Donald Trump’s campaign promise that he would ‘drain the swamp,’ is forced to accept that what Trump really meant was farming out American foreign policy to the capitals in Riyadh and Jerusalem, two American allies with decidedly parochial interests compared to the U.S.

The probability of a direct military conflict between Iran and the U.S. is increasing with the renewed imposition of economic sanctions against Iran by the U.S. and its allies. Australia’s state-owned television network (ABC) recently quoted senior sources within the Australian government as saying a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities as could occur as early this month (August).

“A war with Iran would define, consume and potentially destroy the Trump presidency, but exhilarate the neocon never-Trumpers who most despise the man,” writes Pat Buchanan, generally a Trump supporter and a vehement opponent of U.S.-led regime change wars. “If we start a war with Iran, on top of the five in which we are engaged still, then the party that offers to extricate us will be listened to, as Trump was listened to, when he promised to extricate us from the forever wars of the Middle East.”

Establishment Democrats and the Never Trump Republicans are noticeably silent on the growing prospects of a hot-war with Iran.

Even Trump’s greatest potential for a foreign policy triumph, the de-nuclearization talks with North Korea, looks increasingly like a diplomatic dud.

And, finally, we have the Russians. With some prominent Democrats even calling Russia’s meddling during the 2016 U.S. presidential election an act of war (it wasn’t), the chances of at least a mini-Cold War starting back up is a real possibility.

No U.S. foreign policy in the past twenty years however has been more unnecessary and ill-advised than the expansion of NATO to include former Soviet bloc countries, some of whom border Russia today. It started with the additions of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999, the accession of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004, and, more recently, the adding of Albania and Croatia in 2009.

Why that would be provocative to Russia has never been fully appreciated by the U.S. and its NATO allies, but can reasonably be cited as an important causal factor behind not only Russia’s military annexation of Ossetia and Crimea, but also behind its meddling in recent European and U.S. elections.

Of the three foreign policy achievements cited at the beginning, only the peaceful rise of China remains largely intact. And though Trump’s ill-advised tariff penalties targeting some of China’s more egregious trade practices threatens to expand into a wider trade war, if Chinese leaders have one predictable trait, it is that they do not over-react to short-term crises.

As for the survival of the other two foreign policy achievements (End of the Cold War and the Camp David Accords), my confidence is shaken.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com or at kroeger98@yahoo.com)

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One fine mess: Economic theory, national debt, regime change wars and the corporate news media

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 3, 2018)

Donald Trump proudly touts 4.1 percent GDP growth in the last quarter, as he should. For advanced economies today, economic growth at that rate is not the norm and rarely sustained.

In Trump’s words, he’s released the American economy from the “shackles of Obama’s of government-worshiping approach” to policymaking where he increased environmental regulations through executive fiat, raised taxes and imposed even more regulations to fund Obamacare, and supported TARP and government spending increases in hopes of boosting an ailing economy coming out of the 2008 worldwide financial crisis.

There is some truth to Trump’s argument and Democrats would be well advised to recognize its merits. But what makes Trump’s booming economy significant is that he tinkers with it while possessing no structured, interconnected understanding of how the economy works. Trump’s policies are a jumbled mess only loosely linked to anything resembling economic theory.

Where establishment Republicans since Ronald Reagan have attracted voters by touting Adam Smith’s classical economics along with its more recent neoclassical synthesis that acknowledges the utility of Keynesian policies for near-term macroeconomic boosts, Trump just throws economic policies against the wall to see what sticks. Some of Trump’s policies are pure classical economics (fewer regulations) while others are right out of Keynes (increased defense spending). Supply-side Trump has stoked disposable income through short-term tax cuts, and boosted business confidence by cutting corporate tax rates. Trump is no ideologue and his economic policies reflect that fact. And Trump the mercantilist shows no fear in starting a potentially growth-killing trade war with not only our greatest adversary — China — but with our closest allies (Canada, European Union).

Trump’s intellectual malleability— which is a gentle way of describing it — is filled with internal contradictions that could undercut the economy in rapid fashion. The future debt growth arising from Trump’s tax cuts and massive defense budget increases is staggering. In April 2018, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) announced its projection for the annual federal budget deficit to exceed $1 trillion in 2020 (see Figure 1).

A $1 trillion deficit during an economic expansionary period!

Imagine what will happen to government spending if a deep recession similar to the financial crisis of 2008 were to occur in the next four years. The neoclassical synthesis school recognizes the need for Keynesian policies in recessionary periods, but when the country is already carrying an annual deficit near $1 trillion, the government’s options become more limited. Sure, we could run the deficit to $2 trillion if we had to, but at some point that approach turns the U.S. into Greece and the major U.S. Treasury debt holders (China, Japan, Ireland, Brazil and Britain) will contemplate putting their money elsewhere.

Figure 1.

Yet, as I am a ‘Chicken Little deficit-hawk’ in the spirit of Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, I readily admit predictions of economic doom if we fail to reduce our national debt never materialize.

And when I seek current evidence to support my sky-is-falling worldview, I get this: Moody’s Investor Service’s report in February 2018 ( “Preeminent Financial, Economic Position Offsets Weakening Government Finances”) about the capacity of the U.S. economy to handle our growing national debt. The study is a near total rebuke of small government libertarians.

In the report, Moody’s Investor Service summarized our nation’s current situation: “The stable credit profile of the United States (Aaa stable) is likely to face downward pressure in the long-term, due to meaningful fiscal deterioration amid increasing levels of national debt and a widening federal budget deficit. However, the US economy is very strong, wealthy, dynamic and well diversified, and its role in the global financial system is unmatched. These factors help compensate for the impending fiscal weakness.”

At least Moody’s acknowledges the impending fiscal weakness, which they say will be driven by our country’s rising entitlement costs, rising interest rates, and Trump’s tax cuts.

Still, many factors keep the U.S. from becoming Greece, according to Moody’s report, including our trade competitiveness, rich resource endowment, high income levels and relatively supportive demographic trends.

Yes, President Trump, you read that correctly: supportive demographic trends. There must be some Never Trumpers at Moody’s because their report emphasizes that one of this nation’s greatest advantages over other advanced, slow-growth economies is the significant influx of new immigrants that helps keep our nation’s population growing at a time when others are contemplating losing population over the next 20 years (Japan, Greece, Poland).

Finally, most important to the U.S.’s ability to handle its growing national debt, according to Moody’s report, is the role of the U.S. dollar in global financial markets and the depth and liquidity of the U.S. treasury market. “They insulate the U.S. from external shocks and shifts in financing conditions in a way not seen with other sovereigns,” says the Moody’s report.

While Moody’s shuts up people like myself, I still believe in this economic maxim: All else equal, economies perform better when guided by free markets and lower levels of government intrusion.

What reinforces my belief in small government are charts like the following that I created using data from The Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Index of Economic Freedom report.

Freedom and limited government are strongly associated with economic growth

For over 20 years now, The Heritage Foundation, a free market, conservative-leaning think tank, has been quantifying the levels of economic freedom across the globe.

“Economic freedom is a critical element of human well-being and a vital linchpin in sustaining a free civil society. As the Index of Economic Freedom catalogues, the best path to prosperity is the path of freedom: letting individuals decide for themselves how best to achieve their dreams and aspirations and those of their families,” write Terry Miller, Anthony B. Kim and James M. Roberts in the introduction to The Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Index of Economic Freedom report.

The 2018 Index of Economic Freedom (IEF) grades and ranks countries on 12 measures of economic freedom that evaluate the rule of law, government size, regulatory efficiency, and the openness of markets. A complete description of the 2018 IEF methodology can be found here.

My innovation to the 2018 IEF data set was to reduce the 12 measures of economic freedom down to four (Business Freedom, Gov’t Integrity, Freedom from Gov’t, and Fiscal Integrity) through a principle components analysis which is available upon request.

Of particular interest are the Business Freedom and Freedom from Government factors as they were strongly associated with 5-year GDP growth across all of the models tested.

The Business Freedom factor measures a country’s regulatory and infrastructure conditions that impact the ease of starting, operating, and closing a business.

The Freedom from Government factor as two major components. The first measures a country’s tax burden in terms of marginal tax rates on both personal and corporate income and the overall level of taxation (including direct and indirect taxes imposed by all levels of government) as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). The second component reflects the burden imposed by government expenditures, which includes consumption by the state and all transfer payments related to various entitlement programs.

I also added these variables to the data set:

(1) Freedom House’s 1997 and 2017 Index of Political Rights to test the association of political freedoms and institutions with economic growth. This variable is coded on a 1 to 7 scale where 1 equals the highest level of political rights and 7 equals the lowest level of political rights.

(2) The economic cost of violence as a percent of GDP (as measured by the Institute for Economics and Peace).to control for the effects of war and domestic violence on a nation’s GDP growth.

Finally, my dependent measure was the 5-year GDP growth for each country from 2013 to 2017 (Source: World Bank) and the linear model generated using SPSS software is in the Appendix.

RESULTS:

As I am using a cross-sectional model to investigate the relationship between GDP growth and economic freedom, I am not able to draw strong conclusions about the direction of the causal relationships or how those dynamics change over time and in different economic contexts. It should also be noted that the 2018 IEF dataset occurs within a general period of economic expansion across the globe.

Nonetheless, while I do not pretend that the following results prove anything, they give us a snapshot at one point in time about the economic relationships between freedom and GDP growth.

Overall, the linear model explained about 40 percent of the variation in 5-year GDP growth (R-squared = 0.398) with the parameter t-tests for the following independent variables achieving significance at the p<.05 level (95% confidence level):

⚫ Business Freedom factor (standardized beta = 0.233): More business freedom associates with higher GDP growth

⚫ Freedom from Government factor (standardized beta = 0.226): Greater freedom from the government’s intrusion in the economy associates with higher GDP growth

⚫ An indicator variable for Asian Pacific countries (standardized beta = 0.258): Being an Asian Pacific country (the “Asian Tigers”) associates with higher GDP growth

⚫ Economic cost of violence as a percent of GDP (standardized beta = -0.216): Violence due to wars associates with lower GDP growth

⚫ Natural log of GDP per capita (standardized beta = -0.408): High-income countries associates with lower GDP growth

⚫ Index of Political Rights in 2017 as measured by Freedom House (standardized beta = 0.228): Lower levels of political freedom associates with higher GDP growth (This finding may sound counter-intuitive but it is consistent with the political science literature which has found the relationship between the political rights and GDP growth is curvilinear such that countries in the middle of the political rights scale tend to have the highest growth rates. In future analyses of these data I will explicitly model the relationship as curvilinear as opposed to the linear specification reported here)

⚫ Change in Index of Political Rights from 1997 to 2017 as measured by Freedom House (standardized beta = -0.193): Countries gaining in political freedom between 1997 and 2017 associates with higher GDP growth

The first graph (Figure 2) shows the relationship between the Freedom from Government factor and the predicted 5-year GDP growth. Interesting to note in the graph is how low-income countries tend to have higher predicted GDP growth. Also interesting is that the linear relationship between the Freedom from Government factor and predicted GDP growth is still strong when filtering down to only high-income countries (the green dots). It is apparent that the “Asian Tiger” countries (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, etc.) predominate among the high-income countries with strong predicted GDP growth. No surprise there.

Figure 2.

The second graph (Figure 3) shows the relationship between the change in the Index of Political Freedom (1997 to 2017) and the predicted 5-year GDP growth. Interesting to note in this graph are the countries where political freedoms declined over the 20-year period (Russia, Serbia, Venezuela, Hungary, etc.) also have lower predicted GDP growth. Conversely, countries where political freedoms increased (as many in Africa did), predicted GDP growth was higher (Indonesia, Tunisia, Nigeria, Gambia, Niger, Sierra Leone, etc.).

Figure 3.

The takeaway is that economic and political freedom really does matter. The ability to start and operate a business without excessive government intervention aids in a country’s economic development. The more government takes from the economy (taxes) and competes for resources (gov’t spending), the lower the growth prospects for a country.

That sounds like a message right out of the Ronald Reagan playbook.

This is not an argument against all government spending. Governments are vital when ‘tragedy of the commons’ and other sub-optimal results occur in free market environments. And in the provision of many vital services and functions — such as health care, education, and national security — governments are often more efficient and economically rational than the private sector.

It is economically plausible that a Medicare-for-All health care system in the U.S., such as the one as proposed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, would eat fewer financial resources than the current ‘mostly private’ system while also providing better outcomes. A recent study by the Mercatus Center (George Mason University) provides tentative evidence of this possibility, though critics of a Medicare-for-All system are quick to point out that many strong assumptions in the Mercatus study would need to be realized for Medicare-for-All to save the nation money.

Therefore, a general belief in the power of free markets to unleash a nation’s economic potential should not be translated to mean every social function has to be met by an unfettered private sector. Our expensive and ineffective U.S. health care system is living proof that free enterprise has its limits.

Trump has jettisoned the GOP’s ‘small government’ narrative

For my entire adult life, the Republicans have carried the following message to the voters at every level of elected office: Less government is better government; lower taxes, fewer regulations will unleash the power of free markets.

The Republicans’ franchising of this simple message over the past 40 years may well account for their current dominance at all levels of government.

In describing the Republican’s rise to political dominance, starting with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election victory, Brown University political scientist James Morone wrote:

“The great conservative narrative of American decline-a formidable Puritan jeremiad with all the trimmings-routed the Democrats, who promised only more efficient government and more expansive benefits. Conservatives smeared national health insurance as another big-government, something-for-nothing program aimed at the wrong people-the poor, the failed, and the lazy. Republicans soon converted the backlash into a “Contract with America” and seized control of government by winning the House, the Senate, both legislative chambers in eleven new states, and-over three years-fifteen new governors’ offices. Conservatives have been tightening their grip on power ever since.”

In Morone’s view, the Republican’s have ridden their big government is the enemy trope into power and maintained their political dominance at all levels of government because Democrats and progressives have never countered with equally coherent, grand vision. Democrats and progressives are good at offering policies and solutions to address problems, but that strategy, according to Morone, only reinforces the germaneness of the Republican’s pre-Trump narrative.

It’s not like Democrats haven’t possessed opportunities to turn the GOP’s own ‘anti-government’ sentiments against them given, since World War II, the GOP while in control of the executive branch has never decreased the size of government.

Ironically, it took a Democrat to translate the GOP’s ideas into reality. In Bill Clinton’s last year in office, the federal payroll, when measured relative size to the total U.S population, had almost 25 percent fewer civilian employeeswhen compared to 1992. Similarly, direct federal expenditures under Clinton held constant during his presidency, going from $5,694 per American in 1992 to $5,647 per American in 1999 (when measured in constant dollars). When measured as a percent of gross domestic product, federal net outlays under Clinton fell from 21 percent to 17 percent (see Figure 4).

Figure 4.

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Clinton was so confident in his belief that his “New Democrats” had discovered the secret sauce in striking a balance between the necessary size of government and robust economic growth, he declared in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over, but we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”

As I often quote my father as saying about Bill Clinton, ‘He was the greatest Republican president we’ve ever had.” He wasn’t saying it as a compliment, however; but I now believe, as a libertarian with progressive tendencies (or am I a progressive with libertarian tendencies?), the post-Clinton presidencies squandered an opportunity to put the federal government on a sound fiscal path that could have lasted through the 21st century.

Democrats and Republicans have colluded to make the American economy a permanent war economy

If Clinton’s fiscal model had been pursued through today —smaller government, higher taxes on the wealthy, targeted tax cuts, broad deregulation, and limited military commitments — this country would be in a better financial position to consider substantive policy ideas to address global warming, terrorism, student debt, slow wage growth, and a more rational health care system.

Instead, our country today is too busy funding the occupations of Afghanistan and one-third of Syria, supporting a regime change war in Yemen, threatening new regime wars in Iran and North Korea, and maintaining military bases and special operations forces in over 150 countries, to seriously consider implementing progressive policies such as an economically rational health care system comparable to what EVERY advanced economy in the world already enjoys.

In the shadow of the Trump administration, it is very sheikh in intellectual circles to reevaluate George W. Bush’s legacy as not being as bad as we once thought. The rehabilitation of W. is what happens when corporate Democrats join forces with neocons like Bill Kristol and David Frum in a common struggle to remove Donald the Barbarian from power.

In point of fact, the cost of George W. Bush’s incompetence continues to grow by the day. The hope that Barack Obama would end Bush’s interventionism never materialized — instead, he maintained most of the U.S.’s military commitments abroad and, often at the urging of his Secretaries of State, found new ones (Libya, Syria, Yemen, and half of the African continent).

The ink and airtime spent in the last two years by the news media over Russia’s crude meddling in the 2016 election is a convenient distraction so establishment Democrats and Republicans won’t be held accountable for their failed foreign policy policies and unsustainable military interventions over the nearly past 20 years. The radical Islamic terrorism whose seeds were planted by the First Gulf War in 1991 but isolated geographically in Middle East, now finds sanctuary from Southeast Asia to Northern Africa and has planted roots in many of Europe’s largest urban centers.

Our Middle East regime change wars create more problems than they solve through the killing and dislocating of millions of civilian noncombatants, destabilizing social institutions, inflaming centuries-old conflicts, and increasing the regional influence of America’s competitors like Russia and Iran.

Why are newspapers and TV news among the least trusted institutions in America? Because they fail to address the issues that matter most to people. Russia doesn’t keep 30 million Americans without health insurance. Russia doesn’t saddle college students with debt that will take some most of their adult life to pay off. Russia isn’t warming the planet to where forest fires, droughts and urban flooding are no longer newsworthy but the norm (oh wait, Russia is actually part of that problem…but no more culpable than we are).

Figure 5.

Source: Gallup

The media-fanned Russia scare looming over America today has set this country back on a whole host of important issues. Two years have been lost and there is no reason to believe we won’t lose the next two as well.

As long as the mainstream media continues to profit from fulminating at every word out of Donald Trump’s mouth and trying to convince Americans that Russia and Trump are existential threats to our democracy (they aren’t), as a nation, we are avoiding the real conversations that need to be going on regarding our counterproductive military entanglements and the more pressing domestic issues such as an over-priced health care system, student debt, and stagnant incomes for half of the country.

But nothing demonstrates the feckless and banal content of today’s news media than their uncritical coverage of American’s pursuit of regime change wars across the globe.

The crass cynicism of the corporate media and its unapologetic shilling for the nation’s military-industrial interests is perfectly captured in this discussion between CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) over America’s continued military support to Saudi Arabia in its proxy with Iran in Yemen’s civil war.

Wolf, you muttonhead. You are not supposed to say out loud, ‘We can’t end our substantial role in this tragic war in Yemen because it will hurt American jobs.’

Wolf, sometimes you are a total imbecile.

That some Americans disproportionately profit from the American war machine is not new but it is always news.

Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, one of two Marines to receive Congressional Medals of Honor for two separate acts of heroism, said it first in 1935 and it still applies today: “A few profit — and the many pay. But there is a way to stop it. You can’t end it by disarmament conferences. You can’t eliminate it by peace parleys at Geneva. Well-meaning but impractical groups can’t wipe it out by resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only by taking the profit out of war…”

Six companies control 90% of U.S. media

And who is front and center supporting (and profiting) from the military-industrial complex? Comcast. AT&T. Disney. 21st Century Fox. Viacom. CBS.

Just six companies, for all practical purposes, control the media you consume. Thirty years ago it would have been 50 companies controlling 90 percent of the U.S. media.

This is a problem with, not a virtue of free market capitalism.

Figure 6.

Source: Fortune.com

Animal species depend and thrive on genetic diversity. It helps them avoid going down some potentially unfortunate genetic cul-de-sacs.

For example, when too much inbreeding occurs, this is what you get:

Charles the II of Spain and the Habsburg Jaw

 

Charles II (1661–1700) was the son of Philip IV of Spain and his second wife, Mariana of Austria. Quite unfortunately, Philip and Mariana were uncle and niece to each other, making Charles, their son, also their great-nephew and first-cousin respectively. Hence, the Habsburg jaw.

As a child, Charles did not talk until the age of four or walk until eight and was considered, using the terminology of the day, an total imbecile. He nonetheless rose to throne in 1665 and reigned for five torturous years.

In Charles II of Spain, I can’t think of a better analogy to represent today’s American news media — inbred, lame, unteachable, yet still dangerous.

The U.S. democracy is under threat, but it is not from the Trumps or the Russians. And while both can do harm to this country, their threat pales in comparison to a national news media that is hopelessly biased, incurious, frequently inaccurate, impertinent and generally not trusted by most Americans.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com or at kroeger98@yahoo.com)

 

APPENDIX: Linear Model Predicting 5-year GDP growth rates for 154 countries (2013–2017)

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The four mistakes the media makes when talking about climate change

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 13, 2018)

Nathanial Rich’s epic New York Times Magazine essay on the world’s missed opportunity to adequately address climate change in the 1980s is a masterwork of advocacy journalism. Rich’s readable storytelling through a labyrinthine of mathematical models, greenhouse gases, satellites, ice cores, congressional hearings, oil company executives and powerful K-Street lobbyists is a must-read for every politician, environmental lawyer, climate scientist, political scientist, and concerned citizen.

Rich believes humankind could have avoided the global warming mess it is in now if it had seized the opportunity in the 1980s, when conditions were at their apex for the large industrial countries to sign a binding agreement that would put them on the path to zero greenhouse gas emissions.

“Is it a comfort or a curse, the knowledge that we could have avoided all this?” he writes in the article’s prologue. “Because in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions.”

For Rich, human nature is to blame for our failure to address global warming in the 1980s. Our tendency to focus on our short-term interests to the detriment of the long-term is the critical flaw keeping us from meaningful collective action.

The Intercept’s Naomi Klein offers a pointed critique of Rich’s thesis: “One could scarcely imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face to face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet. Why? Because the late ’80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendancy for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating “free markets” in every aspect of life.”

Klein’s uses Rich’s reductionist approach, only she points the finger at the economic system — which is equally unsatisfying if the goal is to find a way to combat global warming. I have a hard time taking seriously a plan whose first step is: Replace capitalism.

Along with Klein, others have also offered tough judgments on Rich’s article. I won’t rehash all of the criticisms here, but I highly recommend Joe Romm’s article for ThinkProgress.org where he cites climate scientists who say Rich over-idealized the history in those early years of the global warming debate. (You can find Romm’s article here).

Instead, my focus here is on the four common mistakes we all make in our discourse regarding climate change. Mistakes that I believe hold us back from making more rapid progress on the issue.

Those mistakes are: (1) A belief that elites producing abrupt, tectonic policy shifts will solve global warming; when, in fact, the most substantive progress is occurring incrementally at more mundane levels, (2) a failure to acknowledge the genuine and profound progress the world is making on clean energy, (3) an emphasis on partisan politics which poisons the public discourse and stunts our progress on global warming, (4) and failing to understand the practical implications of the monetary costs associated with mitigating and adapting to global warming.

We need fewer show ponies and more work horses

I like former Vice President Al Gore. He would have made a good president (certainly better than the guy who beat him). However, his second documentary, “An Inconvenient Sequel,” released last year, underscores the weaknesses in our public discourse on climate change, particularly with respect to the importance of politicians, diplomats, and other elites.

It was sad watching Gore scurrying around the 2015 Paris Climate Conference trying to “save the deal” by keeping India committed to the final agreement. After some intense negotiations with unknown people and phone calls to some other unknown people (who somehow possessed the power to make India change its mind on some aspect of the Paris agreement), the deal was saved…roll credits.

Apparently, the Indian government didn’t appreciate being portrayed as the ‘bad guy’ prepared to scuttle the 2015 Paris Agreement if they didn’t get some last minute concessions. In a review of the documentary by The Guardian, the reviewer writes: “While the movie never quite gets into the specifics of the (Paris) agreement, it positions India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, as a villain whose economic impulses stand in direct threat to the progress the summit represents…This film suggests that Gore’s back channel networking saves the day, and maybe the world.”

Piyush Goyal, the Indian minister of state for coal, mines, power and new and renewable energy, cut to he chase during his speech at the 2015 Paris summit: “The base load in India is coal. It cannot be anything else as we don’t have gas and without a base load we can’t even do renewable energy. We are a developing nation. We are rapidly creating infrastructure, setting up manufacturing, creating jobs for our people, setting up homes, all of which the United States and the European nations did in the last 150 years on the back of low carbon base or coal-based energy.”

Gore’s preening and dancing for the cameras at the 2015 Paris Conferencedidn’t change India’s economic reality or its stance at the Paris Conference, as evidenced by both India and China agreeing to considerably easier greenhouse gas emissions goals than those adopted by the more advanced economies.

Gore is right on this point. It was important to get India and China as signatories to the final Paris Agreement, even if it meant the practical impact of would be minimal.

Which is the problem with the inordinate amount of media coverage (continuing to this day) dedicated to the 2015 Paris Agreement. Diplomats and politicians are not the change-agents needed to address climate change. Global warming is not that kind of policy problem. The progress, instead, is occurring right now in more incremental steps by more mundane social actors. The Paris Agreement was for show ponies, while the real work is being done by millions of microeconomic decisions transpiring every day, independent of (or despite) national or international policy efforts.

And why is this? Climate change is too complex of a problem for bureaucrats and politicians to fully understand, much less effectively and comprehensively address through discrete policy changes.

Even the climate scientists don’t understand the full dynamics behind climate change. It requires one of the world’s most powerful computers to handle the mathematics used to model the earth’s climate system. Operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, their current supercomputer (named Cheyenne) is capable of computing at 5.34 petaflops, carrying out 5.34 quadrillion calculations per second. That’s a lot of computing juice dedicated to just one problem.

If we want to understand how humanity will ultimately address climate change, we should reacquaint ourselves with the policy research work of Charles Lindblom. Had Nathaniel Rich done so, he might have written a different article.

Lindblom’s contribution to policy science started with his 1959 article, “The Science of ‘Muddling Through,’” where he distinguished between two methods for creating constructive public policies. The first approach he called the “Root Method” which followed a highly-structured methodology in which a total understanding of a social issue was achieved and then addressed appropriately by an equally rigorous process for testing and finding solutions.

Here is the “Root Method” as described by Lindblom:

Source: Charles Lindblom

According to Lindblom, the “Root Method” works fine with simple social problems (e.g., reducing traffic accidents a specific types of intersections), but is not practical for larger, more intricate problems. Instead, Lindblom’s research found that policymakers tend to use a more ad hoc methodology for the most complex social problems. He called this policymaking approach the “Branch Method” which he described as such:

Source: Charles Lindblom

This type of policymaking became known as incrementalism and still explains a large percentage of public policies, particularly at the national level (e.g., Obamacare).

Rising from Lindblom’s theoretical perspective is an understanding that the policymaking process requires going beyond national policy elites and looking more at local and state actors, both public and private. Lindblom and the incrementalist school seek out the work horses — those people in the smallest corners of America implementing small, but substantive policy decisions, not necessarily because of a federal mandate, but because they think its the right thing to do for their family and community. Individually, their contributions are too small to register, but in the aggregate their actions are doing the actual heavy lifting.

Sexy events like the Paris Conference garner the airtime and most lines of print, while few who notice when the Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines invests in windmills and solar cells in an effort for their religious community to be 100-percent renewable. One church’s specific contribution to the nation’s renewable energy reformation is minimal. Yet, when added to the thousands of other organizations, churches, schools and businesses doing something similar, it can change an entire country’s energy profile.

And it is…

A clean energy transformation is happening all across the U.S. right now — with or without the Paris Agreement. My 12-year-old is so well indoctrinated by his public school on the environment, global warming and renewable energy, he lectures me when I make recycling mistakes or buy the wrong light bulbs.

Again, one 12-year-old doesn’t change much. But hundreds of thousands of 12-year-olds undergoing a similar indoctrination will in ten to fifteen years be filling up the lower and middle management of American companies, and in another 10 years becoming the CEOs or COOs of those same companies. I can’t imagine an America without Exxon-Mobil or Shell Oil — I’m certain my son and his generation can.

The world is on a rapid trajectory towards near 100% clean energy

This may be the most heretical statement in this essay: Humanity in winning the war on global warming. The clean energy transformation is in its earliest stages and one must look hard to see the indicators and signals, but the evidence is everywhere that we are winning. And I don’t mean Donald Trump-like false assertions of winning. I mean real evidence that the adoption of clean energy is well underway across the globe (except maybe Russia where people are probably embracing the idea of a warmer planet).

Our clean energy progress was too slow for the those that tragically died recently in the California fires, or those in Puerto Rico still recovering from a hurricane that struck their island almost one year ago. Sadly, ending the use of fossil fuels will occur too late for far too many people who will die due to the higher-order effects of global warming (e.g., floods, droughts, fires, etc.). To paraphrase The Godfather II’s Hyman Roth, this is the world we’ve chosen. We don’t always make the right decisions fast enough, and some people will get hurt more than others, but we will successfully mitigate and adapt to climate change.

If I could collect the proceeds, I would gladly bet anyone $1 million that the world in 2100 will have more people (approximately 11 billion according to United Nations demographers), living longer, safer and more prosperous lives, on average. Likewise, the year 2200, will exceed 2100 on those same measures. My evidence? Human history up to now. And see the forecasts of the World Health Organization and Brookings Institute forecasts that support this view.

But back to the issue at hand.

Optimism on clean energy’s growth is tempered by the reality of the global warming we’ve already experienced. The current warming of our planet (by human activities) is as plain as the sun at noon. The following chart forecasts current land and sea surface temperature anomalies (as compiled by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) up to the year 2100:

Figure 1. Global Land and Ocean Temperature Anomalies (Actual and Forecast)

The above forecast (which is mine, not NOAA’s) simply takes the current curvilinear trend and extends it forward on the assumption the world does not dramatically change its consumption of fossil fuels. On the current trajectory, the planet will pass 3°C above the pre-industrial average around 2100 and go 4°C above before 2150. This assumes we, as a planet, burn all of the cheap fossil fuel available to us.

If one focuses on the blue dots in Figure 1, the curvilinear trend is unmistakable. It is not a statistical slight of hand or an optical illusion caused by ‘natural variation’.The planet has been getting warmer since at least the 1950s and is doing so at an increasing rate. If we do nothing, our great-grandchildren and all kin thereafter will suffer the worst consequences of the global warming (assuming we haven’t permanently colonized a terra-formed Mars by then).

Now the good news.

As I detailed in a previous article — “The renewable energy revolution is progressing faster than we realize” — the world is generally on a path at current trends to reach near 100-percent clean energy electricity generation around 2050 (the U.S. comes in a few years after that). The blue line in Figure 2 below shows the S-curve for renewables (as a percent of total electricity generation). The world is only at the beginning of a new technology adoption S-curve for renewable energy, but if the initial year-to-year increases continue to grow at their current rate, by 2025, almost 20 percent of the world’s electricity generation will be from renewables and by 2040 it will pass the 50 percent mark.

Figure 2. World Forecast for Renewables Share of Total Electricity Generation

Source: BP 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy (Forecasts are by Kent Kroeger)

The recent small, but significant, rise in coal’s energy contribution (due to Trump administration policies) are worrisome and, if continued, could slow down the growth of clean energy in the U.S. — but it won’t stop it because renewable energy sources are fast becoming cheaper than coal (in the case of solar) or is already cheaper (in the case of wind) (see Figure 3 for a recent Bloomberg analysis on this trend).

Figure 3. Renewable versus Coal Cost Comparisons

Source: Bloomberg

Adding to this optimism are recent scientific advances in energy storage and transport technologies which could significantly bend the renewable energy adoption curve upward even more. If the solar and wind’s intermittency problem is solved sooner rather than later, it is possible the U.S. could reach near-100-percent renewable electricity by 2040.

And while my previous article doesn’t address forecasts on the phasing out of gasoline-powered combustion engines for transportation, once the momentum starts (though it hasn’t yet) the transition should be swifter than for electricity generation since cars and trucks are smaller investments with much shorter lifespans than coal electricity plants. Nonetheless, it would be nice to see more worldwide sustained progress in eliminating dirty combustion engines.

The irony of Klein’s article on capitalism’s culpability in our delay in addressing global warming (a premise I agree with) is that it is free market capitalism and the profit motive that will ultimately drive the world to 100-percent clean energy by 2050.

Partisanship is holding back our ability to fight climate change

Nothing has harmed how the U.S. has addressed global warming more than partisan politics and nowhere greater is the current divide between Americans than on the issue of climate change.

In a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, the issue on which Democrats and Republicans differ most is climate change (see Figure 4). On climate change, 68 percent of Democrats and those that lean Democrat consider the issue a priority. Only 18 percent of Republicans and those that lean Republican consider climate change a priority.

Figure 4. The Partisan Divide on the Priorities of Selected Issues (2018)

The impact of this partisan divide harms climate change efforts in two ways:(1) It has hindered the use of two viable bridging solutions — natural gas and nuclear —that would have accelerated the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the U.S., and, (2) has made it difficult for the U.S. to sustain any climate change policy from one presidential administration to the next.

Partisanship distorts and shuts down constructive debate. And it is true for both sides of the political divide. Too many Republicans and independent conservatives continue to deny the most basic scientific fact — the earth is warming by approximately 0.15°C every 10 years and, if the climate models are reliable, that rate will increase over successive decadal periods. The Democrats, however, are not blameless in explaining Republican stubbornness as they have misused climate science as a political cudgel against the GOP, never resisting to exaggerate and misrepresent climate science when it is convenient.

Even climate scientists have a hard time laying off the hyperbole when it comes to climate change. Prominent CIA and Nixon administration geophysicist, Gordon MacDonald was referenced by Rich as saying people could see “a snowless New England, the swamping of major coastal cities, as much as a 40 percent decline in national wheat production, and the forced migration of about one-quarter of the world’s population, not within centuries — (but) within their own lifetimes.”

MacDonald said that in the 1980s. None of those predictions have come even close to being true. One could fill multiple book volumes with examples of where climate change predictions are far off the mark.

The most serious partisan abuse of science has been in the debate over whether to allow the gas and oil industry a substantive role in the solutions to climate change, particularly in the role of natural gas and nuclear energy as transitional energy sources until renewable energy can reliably cover base load electricity requirements (i.e., solve clean energy’s intermittency problem).

Writing in 2012, environmental journalist Fred Pearce lamented that “many environmentalists who argue, as I do, that climate change is probably the big overarching issue facing humanity in the 21st century, nonetheless often refuse to recognize that nuclear power could have a role in saving us from the worst. Nuclear power is the only large-scale source of low-carbon electricity that is fully developed and ready for major expansion.”

Anti-nuclear environmental activists will argue that nuclear energy is too dangerous and not as clean as its advocates assume. Unfortunately, that argument is not based on science, it is based on unwarranted fear.

“To abandon our primary current source of low carbon energy during a climate change emergency is madness,” argues George Monbiot, the UK’s most prominent environment columnist. Monbiot specifically cites a widely quoted but entirely discredited scientific study on the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident which concluded that up to a million people died. In truth, only the 28 plant workers that put out the reactor fire are known to have directly died and indirect deaths — due to higher cancer rates — don’t come close to one million.

One of the most respected studies on the issue, conducted in 2006 by Elisabeth Cardis of the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, predicated that by 2065 Chernobyl will have caused around 41,000 additional cases of cancer.

That is still a big number, but Chernobyl is not representative of the risks associated with today’s nuclear power industry. In a 2013 United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reporton Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, the most serious accident since Chernobyl in terms of radiation released, researchers found no increase in spontaneous abortions, miscarriages, perinatal mortality, birth defects, or cognitive impairment; and no discernible or expected increase in radiation-related cancers.

In the case of the U.S.’s Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, two separate studies, one by the World Nuclear Association and the other by Columbia University, have confirmed there were no immediate deaths or indirect deaths associated with that accident.

Between 2008 and 2017, an average of 8.6 people per year die in the U.S. due to accidents related to the building and operating of windmills, according to the Caithness Windfarm Information Forum. In that same period, the number of deaths in the U.S. related to the operation of nuclear power plants was one — in Russellville, Arkansas when a worker was killed and two others injured as they were moving part of a generator.

While the risks of nuclear energy have been misrepresented by environmental activists, not to the degree the risks related to ‘fracking’ and shale gas extraction are exaggerated.

The rapid decline in coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation during Barack Obama’s administration was aided by a significant increase in domestic natural gas production, which included the expansion of gas extraction through ‘fracking’ methods (see Figure 5).

Figure 5.

“A switch from coal to shale gas is the main reason why, in 2011, U.S. CO2 emissions fell by almost 2 percent,” says Pearce. Yet, too many Democrats and environmental activists dismiss natural gas out of hand as an interim solution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, was driven out of his position by environmental activists for just suggesting natural gas could be a “bridge fuel” on the path to a clean energy world.

And what is wrong with natural gas? Well, for one, it is a fossil fuel — far cleaner than coal, but still a carbon-based fuel.

Fair enough. If a purist view of clean energy is more important than reducing greenhouse gas emissions now, than rule out natural gas.

And then there are the dangers associated with ‘fracking,’ which is a a well stimulation technique in which rock is fractured by a pressurized liquid, creating cracks through which natural gas is more easily extracted. The primary risks are the (1) release of methane gas (a potent greenhouse gas), (2) the contamination of ground water, and (3) and the exposure to harmful chemicals by workers involved in the ‘fracking’ process.

All legitimate concerns. But a wide range of U.S. and European studies have concluded that those risks can minimized through well-regulated operational standards (see a 2014 UK study here).

Again, the choice is between making a rapid and substantial impact on greenhouse emissions today through the expanded use of natural gas, or delaying those emission reductions by many years as we wait for solar, wind and other clean energy sources to come online.

“There is a good environmental case to be made that shale gas, like nuclear energy, can be part of the solution to climate change,” argues Pearce. “That case should be heard and not shouted down.”

But that is what partisan politics does best — shut down honest debate and eliminate valid solutions.

The other way partisanship hurts our attempt to address climate change is that it forces administrations, such as Obama’s, to almost exclusively use policy tools that do not require a congressional vote. Executive orders and bureaucratic rulemaking procedures have become the primary tool for dealing with climate change. The problem is, such an approach is relatively easy to reverse once a new administration from the opposite party takes over.

The pattern goes like this: The Obama administration issues a series of climate change related executive orders (EOs), EPA rules and Energy/Commerce Department policies, only to have the Trump administration reverses them within a few months of taking office. And when the Kamala Harris administration takes over, the Trump-era EOs, policies and rules will themselves be reversed, until the Nikki Haley administrations steps in an undoes those rules and policies, and the pattern repeats over and over again.

That partisan-induced cycle is not an effective way of addressing a serious problem. It is only good at maintaining the status quo.

If you want gov’t to spend money on climate change, tell me what you want gov’t to stop doing…

This is where the conversation gets difficult. How much will mitigating and adapting to climate change cost humankind?

But throwing out big, overly-aggregated financial costs related to climate change only numbs the American people and inhibits collective action. Average people can’t react to $535 trillion in any meaningful or constructive way. The cost estimates (or, rather, guesses ) bandied about need to be brought down to a household level and disaggregated so that Americans can make informed choices. How much money will climate change cost the average American household and where is this money most likely to be effective? Should we focus on mitigation or adaptation?

So, lets give it a try here…

Almost any number currently in circulation is speculative at best, and dishonest at worst. In the service of continuity, let us work off of a number quoted in Rich’s New York Times Magazine article.

Rich writes: “(Climate scientist James Hansen) and his team have concluded that the only way to avoid dangerous levels of warming is to bend the emissions arc below the x-axis.We must, in other words, find our way to “negative emissions,” extracting more carbon dioxide from the air than we contribute to it. If emissions, by miracle, do rapidly decline, most of the necessary carbon absorption could be handled by replanting forests and improving agricultural practices. If not, “massive technological CO₂ extraction,” using some combination of technologies as yet unperfected or uninvented, will be required. Hansen estimates that this will incur costs of $89 trillion to $535 trillion this century, and may even be impossible at the necessary scale. He is not optimistic.”

For climate realists like myself, a price tag upwards to $535 trillion this century makes me genuinely wonder if we should just take our chances and embrace a planet that is 5°C warmer.

Borrowing from nautical lore, the most cost effective way to address climate change may be to yell, “Every man, woman and child for themselves!” Don’t expect the government to help you and don’t buy ocean front property.

But, of course, a civilized world can’t do that. We need to have a collective plan and that will require governments directing vast sums of (someone’s) money to a fund dedicated to combating climate change.

Here is my back-of-the-envelope estimate of what many of us will need to pay every year to help address the climate change problem in the 21st century:

A quick walk-through on how we get to an estimate:

(1) Take the midpoint of Dr. Hansen’s cost estimate ($323 trillion)

(2) Use the population in 2050 as an estimate of the total number of people potentially expected to contribute money to address climate change (10 billion)

(3) Divide $323 trillion by 10 billion people to get an estimate of $32,300 as the lifetime contribution potentially required by every human being

(4) Divide $32,300 by 40 (the avg. number of working years for each person) to get the yearly contribution potentially required by every human being

(5) Subtract the 3.1 billion people expected to be living below the poverty line from the 10 billion people on earth

(6) Subtract another 3.1 billion people living just above the poverty line from the 10 billion people on earth

(7) Which leaves us with 3.8 billion people comfortably above the poverty line that will be expected to contribute to the climate change fund

(8) Which means they will be expected to pay $85,000 in their lifetime to the climate change fund

(9) Or, if we divide $85,000 by their 40 working years, we get $2,125 as the amount everyone will need to pay during their productive years to mitigate and adapt to climate change

(10) For a family of four, that translates to $8,500 every year during your productive work years.

That is $8,500 every year sent to the government by a family of four.

Good luck selling that additional tax burden to the average voter at election time.

I don’t blame Tucker Carlson for thinking climate change is nothing but a cynical money grab by the East and West Coast literati to control Americans’ lives more than they already do now.

Equally plausible, climate change is the perfect ruse to punish the oil and gas industry barons for the 100 years they profited enormously for our collective addiction to cheap (but dirty) fossil fuels.

You don’t have to agree with those theories to understand their logic and seductive power. Republicans (and more than a few establishment Democrats) will gladly turn the costs to address climate change against progressive Democrats and their social spending ideas.

“How can we implement ‘Medicare-for-all’ or ‘tuition-free public college” given the expected costs of climate change?” Republicans will ask. It is a fair question, independent of your partisan inclinations.

But narrow, partisan thinking may be one of the first casualties of climate change. It is quite possible that one of the most cost-effective ways to protect Americans from the consequences of global warming is to make sure all Americans have quality health insurance and are in good relative health.

And education will be even critical as individuals start facing the real challenges of rising sea levels, more powerful storms, longer droughts, more frequent flooding, and more arid living environments.

Everything is interrelated and partisan political rhetoric, ad hoc theorizing and lazy assumptions will not be as tolerable when the earth is 3°C warmer. Trust me, there’s going to be a lot more bar fights.

So what will most likely happen?

We will muddle through is what Lindblom would predict. Incrementalists will expect to see small year-to-year policy changes that, over time, may pay dividends. But will it be soon enough?

What I would ask climate change alarmists who expect a ransom’s sum from the average American, what are you willing to give up to fund such a project? What are we doing now as a society that we will have to stop funding in order to afford the costs of climate change?

It is easy to say, “Cut the defense budget.” If you cut it in half, you save $300 billion every year. Great. We just need about $125 billion more from the current discretionary U.S. budget to cover our nation’s share of the climate change fund.

These are not easy decisions.

[Side Note: I hope partisans from both sides of the political spectrum will agree that the money the U.S. currently spends helping the Saudis kill Yemeni children needs to stop ASAP.]

Fundamentally, global warming is easy to address. On the mitigation side of the ledger, stop using coal power plants to generate electricity and replace gasoline-powered combustion engines with something far cleaner. Where the damage is already done we will need to adapt to our slightly warmer world by, for example, limiting the building of homes on ocean shorelines or in thick alpine forests. How we use water will have to fundamentally change.

How we think will also need to change.

Rich writes : “If human beings really were able to take the long view — to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths — we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison…

…Like most human questions, the carbon-dioxide question will come down to fear. At some point, the fears of young people will overwhelm the fears of the old. Some time after that, the young will amass enough power to act. It will be too late to avoid some catastrophes, but perhaps not others. Humankind is nothing if not optimistic, even to the point of blindness. We are also an adaptable species. That will help.”

Adaptation, says German physicist-philosopher KlausMeyer-Abich, “seems to be the most rational political option.” It is the option that we have pursued, consciously or not,t all along, concludes Rich.

On that important point, Rich and I completely agree.

  • K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com or at kroeger98@yahoo.com)

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U.S. role in Yemen has one certain outcome: a disaster for the Yemeni people

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 16, 2018)

A last-minute provision in the Fiscal Year 2019 John McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has gone largely unnoticed in the mainstream media. The recently passed U.S. defense bill included conditions on the U.S. role in Saudi Arabia and UAE’s military intervention in Yemen.

The current Yemeni civil war, beginning in 2015, is an ongoing conflict between Iran-backed Houthi forces controlling the capital Sana’a and forces loyal to the former government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, now based in Aden.

Originally introduced in the Senate-passed NDAA, the Yemen provision conditions U.S. military support to the Saudi/UAE effort on the U.S. Secretary of State certifying to Congress that the Saudi coalition is: (1) implementing concrete efforts to end the Yemeni civil war, (2) minimizing the impact of Saudi/UAE military actions on Yemeni civilians by providing food, fuel, and medicine, (3) ensuring that other humanitarian efforts are not impeded, and (4) actively reducing the risk of harm to Yemeni civilians.

Though there has been sparse news coverage of the NDAA’s Yemen provision, when it has occurred it has generally implied the provision puts Congress in a much stronger oversight role with respect to Yemen and will most likely limit such involvement.

“Yemen remains an area of intense interest and concern for our members, and we have aggressive oversight in the conference report,” a senior staffer told reporters at a background briefing.

Color me unimpressed.

If history is any guide, the probability Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decertifies U.S. military support to the Saudi coalition is zero. Try to name one instance in U.S. history where a Secretary of State (or any cabinet officer) ‘decertified’ a U.S. military engagement. The U.S. Congress doesn’t even exercise its own constitutional authority to do something like that anymore, much less a Secretary of State.

Instead, the $717 billion defense bill guarantees the U.S. military will possess the manpower and resources necessary to significantly increase its role in Yemen if the Trump administration so desires.

The Yemen provision was ostensibly prompted by the Saudi-UAE coalition’s July offensive on the Houthi-controlled strategic port city of Hodeida, in which a significant number of civilian causalities occurred.

August 9th’s Saudi bombing of a civilian school bus passing through a crowded market in Dahyan, Yemen, in which around 50 civilians died, mostly children, occurred after the U.S. Senate added the Yemen provision to the 2019 NDAA but before President Donald Trump’s signature on August 13th.

In a statement issued soon after the Dahyan school bus bombing, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy said, “US bombs. US targeting. US mid air support. And we just bombed a SCHOOL BUS. The Saudi/UAE/US bombing campaign is getting more reckless, killing more civilians, and strengthening terrorists inside Yemen. We need to end this — NOW.”

Even ardent supporters of U.S. military actions in support of the Saudi coalition in Yemen must now realize the conflict is a bloody mess unlikely to end quickly or peacefully.

But the U.S. is not the only country assisting the Saudi/UAE forces. Thousands of troops, advisers and mercenaries from Sudan, Chad, Uganda, Colombia, Australia and France have been involved as well. And the net result has been anything but successful.

Daniel L. Byman, a Brookings Institute Senior Fellow on Foreign Policy, summarizes the futility of Saudi efforts to remove the Iran-supported Houthis from power in Yemen: “Riyadh has flown more than 100,000 sorties and spends billions a month on the war. Airstrikes managed to destroy much of Yemen’s already-tottering infrastructure and kill thousands of civilians, but the Houthis held on.”

The deterioration of water and sanitation infrastructure in Houthi-controlled areas, caused by the civil war, led to a cholera epidemic in 2016 and has been a constant threat since to the civilian population. The World Health Organization estimates that, since April 2017, there are over 1 million suspected cases of cholera (with 612,70 confirmed) and 2,255 Yemenis have died.

It is unlikely the Yemen civil war will end soon, decisively or well

Good intentions count for nothing in geopolitical chess and warfare. Results are what matter and the U.S.-backed Saudi/UAE military intervention in Yemen has amounted to a public relations victory for Iran and a living nightmare for civilians in Houthi-controlled areas.

There are few clear lines delineating ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys’ in this three years and counting civil war.

Since the 2004 Houthi uprising against the democratically elected and globally recognized government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of supporting the Houthis, who are Shi’a. With the overthrow of the Saudi-allied Hadi government in 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened to prevent an Iran-backed regime gaining a foothold on the Arabian peninsula.

But the U.S. role in the conflict was not automatically aligned with the Saudis. At the start of the 2015 civil war, some U.S. generals at U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) reportedly favored the Houthis, as they had proven to be extremely effective at fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Yemen.

However, the Obama administration eventually chose to support the Saudi Arabia’s goals in Yemen and the U.S. military has since been providing air refueling, intelligence, and logistical support the Saudi/UAE effort. And, quite ironically, reports have surfaced in the past month that Saudi/UAE commanders have ‘cut a deal’ with AQAP and are now recruiting al-Qaeda fighters to fight the Houthis.

This ‘enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend’ approach to building coalition forces has only one guaranteed outcome: whatever the happens in the Yemen civil war, AQAP will emerge better trained, and better equipped than ever before.

The European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations body offers a bleak summary of what the Yemen civil war has wrought:

“Yemen remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The country has been devastated by a war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government and those allied to the Houthi rebel movement. An estimated 22.2 million people — 80% of the population — are in need of humanitarian assistance or protection. This includes 11.3 million deemed to be in acute need; an increase of more than one million people since June 2017.The country is also suffering the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded in modern history, with over one million suspected cases reported in 2017 and over 2 200 related deaths.

Millions of Yemenis are affected by a triple man-made tragedy: the brutal armed conflict, a looming famine and the world’s largest ever single-year cholera outbreak. Civilians are facing serious risks to their safety, well-being and basic rights. All parties to the conflict have repeatedly violated International Humanitarian Law and houses, bridges and other critical infrastructure have been destroyed or damaged. Reports of grave violations against women and children have increased. Despite the massive scale of humanitarian needs — Yemen is classified by the UN as a Level 3 emergency — the country remains a neglected crisis, both financially and politically.”

Despite the emerging humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the civilian death toll, there is no indication the U.S. is prepared to abandon the Saudi/UAE coalition — not as long as an Iran-backed regime potentially threatens the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, where 20,000 commercial ships pass through each year as they go back-and-forth between the Mediterranean and Arabian Sea.

But beyond its strategic geographic location, Yemen’s other economic and natural resource assets are relatively small, with around $9 billion in exports each year, consisting primarily of crude oil, natural gas, coffee, and dried, salted fish. And most of those exports are sent to China, South Korea, Thailand, India and Japan.

In fact, American involvement in the Yemen civil war is about stopping Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, which grew considerably after the U.S. destabilized Iraq starting in 2004. Largely at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Israel, who have themselves entered into a strategic alliance that once would have been unthinkable, U.S. foreign and military policy is slowly redirecting away from conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan and towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. Whether the proxy war in Yemen is just a precursor to a direct confrontation with Iran is speculative. But the eagerness of the U.S. under Donald Trump’s leadership to enter into such a conflict is less speculative.

What is also not speculative is the havoc created by the four largest military powers currently active in the region (Saudi Arabia, Israel, the U.S., and Iran). Despite the young, charismatic Saudi prince’s worldwide public relations tour over the past year touting his social reform agenda in Saudi Arabia (which mostly consists of women getting the right to drive), a country Human Rights Watch still considers to be one of the world’s worst human rights abusers, the prospects for freedom and democracy advancing in the Middle East have rarely been dimmer.

And Iran is no budding Finland either. Oppression, particularly towards women, and the denial of basic civil rights remains an entrenched cultural norm in Iran and throughout the Middle East.

As for Israel, the second-class status of its Arab Palestinian minority, now codified directly into Israeli’s Basic Law by the recent passing of the “Jewish nation-state” law, and its continued occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza, represents the moral and ethical standards unbefitting a country which calls itself the Middle East’s only democracy.

And there is the U.S. who, in the post World War II era, has masterfully engineered a global security regime that rewards U.S. economic interests independent of the outcomes in specific military conflicts.

Civilians caught in the middle of these conflicts usually pay dearly— often with their lives — but not U.S. defense contractors. They cover both sides of the military-peace equation.

Saudi and UAE combat aircraft are refueled in air by McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender tanker aircraft.

And when the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross presses the Saudi coalition to recognize the humanitarian disaster emerging from the Yemen civil war, it is Boeing C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft airdropping humanitarian food and aid in the Northern Tuhaita province of Yemen using the Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPAS) technology supplied by Boeing subsidiary Argon ST.

America is the global security regime’s toll booth operator — we get you comin’ and we get you goin’.

If it weren’t so immoral, America’s plucky audacity would be admirable.

  • K.R.K.

You can contact me at: kroeger98@yahoo.com

_______________________________________________________________

Here are some links to organizations taking donations to help the people of Yemen:

Action Against Hunger
CARE
Doctors Without Borders
International Committee of the Red Cross
International Rescue Committee 
Mercy Corps
Oxfam International
Save the Children
UNICEF

United Nations Foundation
World Food Programme

 

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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The Trump-Russian mob connection story is fueled by conjecture and dubious sources, not facts

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 21, 2018)

Will the soon-to-be-released documentary, Active Measures, and the new book by Craig Unger, The House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia, reveal something new about Donald Trump’s Russian connections that will bring his presidency down?

Let me pump the brakes on this one. The film (from what I’ve seen of it) and the Unger book are fascinating and compelling, but they share two deep flaws: a heavy reliance on the testimony of very, VERY shady characters and a healthy dose of speculation in lieu of hard evidence.

Last week, comedian Bill Maher touted the conclusiveness of the evidence presented in Active Measures that alleges the Russian mob ‘made their move’ on Trump in 2002. Maher may have just had his ‘slam dunk’ moment.

“He’s a Russian asset,” trumpeted Maher (pardon the pun).

Perhaps, but what is the evidence?

The film walks through Trump’s business history where, by 2002, Trump had experienced numerous bankruptcies and was finding it difficult to raise capital using American banks. According to filmmaker Jack Bryan, the Russian mob, which is known to use the New York City real estate market to launder their ill-gotten money, came to Trump’s rescue and started funneling money and credit to the Trump Organization.

I have only seen extended excerpts from Active Measures but from what I have seen, the film contains more conjecture than slam dunk proof of Trump’s misdeeds. Accordingly, I fear Trump’s critics are putting far too much weight on the power of this film to ‘take down the President.’ Evidence that sounds iron-clad in a documentary, often breaks down under the legal processes’ bright lights.

As for Unger’s book, even the USA Today reviewer, Ray Locker, questioned the credibility of its main claims. At one point in the book, Unger writes, “But my source cautioned that he had not seen any kompromat first-hand, only that he had heard about it, and his allegations have not been corroborated.”

It’s the Steele dossier all over again.

Writes Locker in his book review: “The standard of proof when writing about the president of the United States, even someone as polarizing as Trump, needs to be higher than that. As evidenced by his July news conference with Putin in Helsinki, Trump often acts as if he’s under Putin’s spell, but the proof so far has lagged behind the speculation.”

Neither Bryan or Unger sufficiently entertain the real possibility that their Russian sources are deliberately lying to inject even more chaos into the American political system. That is one of Russian intelligence’s bread-and-butter tradecraft methods.

Furthermore, the unholy union of New York real estate developers (including the Trump Organization and Jared Kushner’s family), the Russian mob, and the New York City real estate market was known well before Active Measures. This is just a sample of the many investigative journalism stories on the topic:

How New York Real Estate Became a Dumping Ground for the World’s Dirty Moneyby Michael Hudson, Ionuț Stănescu and Sam Adler-Bell (The Nation, July 3, 2014)

How Russians Launder Stolen Money Through Real Estate, by Amanda Abrams (Newsweek, December 21, 2015)

Why the Silence about Donald Trump’s Mob Ties?, by Jon Ponder (Pensito Review, September 8, 2015)

The Ponder story, which details Trump’s alleged American mafia ties (not the Russian mob), describes money laundering processes parallel to the Russian mob’s methods outlined in Active Measures.

“Why are Trump’s Republican opponents silent about his mob connections?” lamented Ponder in 2015. “It’s possible, perhaps, these Republican candidates are afraid that the notoriously litigious Trump might sue them. This seems unlikely. These facts are on the record, and there’s no evidence he sued Wayne Barrett or David Cay Johnston after they exposed his mob connections in the early 1990s.”

But that is the problem with the Trump-Russian mob connection story: it is well-trodden ground with not single money laundering indictment of Trump during that time.

[That might make a great 2020 campaign bumper sticker for TrumpI was never indicted!]

Prior to the 2016 election, the federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York certainly must have been aware of the Trump Organization’s alleged mob connections, which some claim go as far back as the 1980s. Of course, pretty much every real estate developer in New York City will, at some point, come into contact with the mob.

The Mueller probe, known to be looking into the Trump Organization’s business practices including alleged money laundering activities, may have financial information on Trump that has never been reported before now. That is always a possibility.

But money laundering is hard to prove in court and became even harder after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that “merely hiding money headed out of the United States is not proof of money laundering.”

According to defense attorney Christopher Morales, money laundering requires three steps: (1) Obtaining illegal cash, (2) a financial transaction meant to disguise the source of the funds, and (3) and the money is used as legal funds.

“To be criminally culpable under 18 U.S.C. §1956(a)(1), a defendant must conduct or attempt to conduct a financial transaction, knowing that the property involved in the financial transaction represents the proceeds of any unlawful activity, with one of the specific intents, and the property must in fact be derived from a specified unlawful activity,” says Morales.

As the Trump Organization would be an intermediary, not the original source of the illegal cash, Trump’s willful ignorance might pay off if he is ever indicted for money laundering.

Eric Trump’s now famous 2014 quote during a golf outing, “We don’t rely on American banks — we have all the funding we need out of Russia,” would actually buttress Donald Trump’s likely defense that he was unaware of the money’s illegal origins, should he be indicted for money laundering.

Again, Mueller may have emails, phone conversations or other incriminating financial documents proving Trump knowingly laundered funds involved in a financial transaction originating from an unlawful activity.

And Active Measures doesn’t just focus on money laundering. It alleges the Trump Organization became deeply indebted to the Russian mob after 2002 which is supposed to explain Trump’s conversion into a Russian asset and his current obsequiousness towards all things Russian.

Like the Steele dossier, Active Measures and The House of Putin often rely on indirect evidence and use conjecture as a placeholder where credible evidence is needed. “Just connect the dots,” is another way of saying, “I don’t have actual evidence.”

We’ll have to wait and see what actual evidence Mueller has found. In the meantime, remain skeptical of Democrat-funded documentaries and quickly written books purporting to have proof of Trump’s fealty to the Russians.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

 

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How the Russians manipulated the 2016 election outcome

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 20, 2018)

The Russians not only interfered in the 2016 presidential election, in all likelihood, they changed the final outcome.

By hacking the DNC and John Podesta emails and releasing them periodically throughout the general election campaign via Wikileaks, the Russians were able to reinforce issues detrimental to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and keep them at or near the top of voters’ collective minds.

Without this manipulation, it is unlikely an issue such as Hillary Clinton’s conflicts of interest with respect to the Clinton Foundation would have received as much media attention as it did.

Using Google Trends search data as a proxy measure for the campaign issues most interesting to Americans over time, I found that variation in these inquiries were highly correlated with the probability Hillary Clinton would win the election (as measured by futures contract prices on the Iowa Electronic Markets).

The following may not be definitive proof that the Russians changed the 2016 election outcome, as that may never be found, but it gravely wounds my previous belief that the Russians had ‘no substantive’ impact on the election.

Google Search Trends Reveal the Impact of the Russian Email Hacks

My earlier analysis of the impact of social media on voters’ preferences in the 2016 election found that “weak” or “leaning” Republicans that actively used social media for sharing political information had significantly more negative attitudes about Hillary Clinton than other “weak/leaning” Republicans.

[Readers rightfully pointed out that I did not show evidence of opinions regarding Clinton changing during the election; that would require more powerful repeated cross-sectional or longitudinal panel data.]

That study did not address, however, the impact of specific Russia-related tactics, particularly the hacked emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta and released by Wikileaks (and DCLeaks) periodically throughout the 2016 campaign, starting in late June and ending in early November.

While some opinion survey data conducted during and soon after the 2016 election did ask about topics contained in the hacked emails (such as the ‘rigging’ of the Democratic primary system or the alleged conflicts of interest related to the Clinton Foundation), such cross-sectional data are difficult to use for showing causal relationships and opinion change over time.

Time-series data are much better for that. And the time-series data in Figure 1 (below) shows both the Clinton and Trump win probabilities from mid-June to Election Day. An eyeball analysis reveals five major periods in the 2016 where candidate evaluations substantially shifted;

(1) The Clinton win probability declined by about 20 percentage points during the Republican National Convention and heading into the Democratic National Convention.

(2) The Clinton win probability then surged by over 30 percentage points after the Convention.

(3) But then her win probability declined by over 30 percentage points between mid-August and the first debate in late September.

(4) But then she re-surged by over 30 percentage points during the debate period.

(5) Only to decline again by about 23 percentage points following news of the Obamacare premium hikes and the release of the infamous Comey letter.

Figure 1. Win Probabilities and Key 2016 General Election Events

There was significant variation in candidate evaluations during the general election campaign and a significant percentage of it is probably explained by the national party conventions, the debate performances, the news of the Obamacare premium hikes and the Comey letter.

But all of it? Not likely. The early general election period is particularly interesting due to Clinton’s almost monotonic decline in her win probability, as it was a period in which she spent an unusually large percentage of time off the campaign trail to raise money or nurse the flu.

Two issues dominated the news headlines during the early general election: The Clinton Foundation and Clinton’s health. We can rule the Russians out as a cause of Clinton’s collapsing during 9/11 ceremonies on a hot New York City September afternoon. The Clinton Foundation, however, is a different story.

Figure 2 shows Google search trends by specific “negative” issues that arose or were emphasized during the 2016 general election. According to Pew Research, three-quarters of Americans spend at least some time on the internet every day and almost 80 percent of them use Google over the course of a month.

Using specific terms related to major election issues, I utilized the Google Trends service to calculate the relative number of searches on each election issue over the course of the campaign. I specifically chose ‘negative’ issues which anecdotally seemed especially potent in 2016.

Figure 2 presents the relative search frequencies for these issues: (1) Second Amendment (associated with Trump’s thinly-veiled threat on Clinton’s life during a campaign stump speech), (2) the hacked DNC emails, (3) the alleged connection between Trump and the Russians, (4) the Khizr Khancontroversy when Trump mocked a Gold Star family, (5) the Clinton Foundation controversy, (6) Clinton’s health, (7) the hacked Podesta emails, (8) the Access Hollywood tape, and (9) Clinton’s deleted home server emails.

Figure 2. Google Search Trends during the 2016 General Election

Source: Kent R. Kroeger

The most frequent search was related to Clinton’s deleted emails peaked during the week of October 30th and therefore received the value of 100 for that week. Not surprisingly, Google searches grew steadily from late May to near Election Day.

Also interesting is the joint spike in Google searches for DNC emails and Trump-Russia collusion the week of July 24th. Any assertion that the Trump-Russia collusion narrative was not factored in by voters before Election Day is most likely false. I have no doubt a lot of voters pulled the lever for Trump knowing or suspecting his campaign may have colluded with the Russians.

The next step in the analysis was to calculate a weekly “relative” Google search advantage between Clinton and Trump. Operationally, issues ‘negative’ towards Clinton (e.g., Clinton home server emails, health, Clinton Foundation, DNC emails, Podesta emails) were summed, and Trump’s ‘negative’ search frequencies were subsequently summed and subtracted. The new variable (Relative Search Volume) was positive if Clinton was receiving more negative Google searches than Trump and negative if Trump received more.

Ten weeks stand out for their relative Google search volume. The weeks of July 31st and October 2nd are the only two weeks when the relative search volume strongly disadvantaged Trump (see Figure 3). Eight such weeks found Clinton strongly disadvantaged (the weeks of July 24th, August 21st, September 11th, October 9th, October 16th, October 23rd, October 30th, and November 6th).

I’m going to go out on a limb and say traditional measures of favorable/unfavorable press coverage (which tend to show both Trump and Clinton received similar levels of negative news coverage) fail to measure the true bias found in media coverage. Clinton took far more cleats to the back from the national news media than did Trump, at least based on what Americans felt were important enough issues on which to conduct Google searches.

Figure 3. Relative Search Volume on Negative 2016 Campaign Issues

Source: Kent R. Kroeger

Now for the punchline. Figure 4 reveals the strong negative association between Americans’ Google search frequencies and changes in Clinton’s probability of winning the election (as measured by the Iowa Electronic Market’s winner-take-all futures market for the 2016 presidential election). The overall model explains over 40 percent of the variation in changes to the Clinton’s win probabilities. That is not too shabby for a two-variable model and 24 cases.

Figure 4. Relationship Between Relative Google Search Volume & Clinton Win Probabilities

Source: Kent R. Kroeger

What makes Figure 4 compelling to me is the one weekly case (October 30th) driving the strong negative association. That was the week of the Comey letter (which re-ignited interest in Hillary’s deleted emails) and three weeks after the initial release of the hacked Podesta emails by Wikileaks (which was still being heavily searched on by Americans).

Equally important, a surge in searches on the Clinton Foundation occurred in that second-to-last election week. If we go back and recall the contents of the hacked Podesta emails, one of the biggest revelations regarded Clinton’s potential conflicts of interest as Secretary of State and the Foundation. If you look at Figure 2 again, there is a clear correlation between searches on the Podesta emails and the Clinton Foundation.

The BBC created a useful summary of the thousands of Podesta-related emails posted online by Wikileaks (That summary can be found here). Contained in them were inside conversations going on about Hillary Clinton’s tone deaf understanding of the issue.

The Morocco ‘quid pro quo’ emails are a good example:

From the BBC article

Mrs Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin, usually known for her unflinching loyalty, was blunt in her criticism of her boss over a Clinton Foundation summit in Morocco.

At the time of the meeting in Marrakesh, in May 2015, Mrs Clinton was no longer secretary of state but about to announce her campaign for president. But four months before it took place, Abedin voiced concern about her pulling out. “If HRC was not part of it, meeting was a non-starter,” she warned. “She created this mess and she knows it.”

The implication from the leaked emails is that a $12m donation from the king of Morocco was dependent on Mrs Clinton attending the summit.

“Her presence was a condition for the Moroccans to proceed so there is no going back on this,” Abedin wrote to campaign manager Robbie Mook in a November 2014 email.

In the end, Mrs Clinton decided not to attend and sent husband Bill and daughter Chelsea instead. There is no record of a $12m donation.

The Clinton Foundation controversy is not nearly as interesting to the news organizations without the concurrent Podesta email revelations. The emails were like pouring lighter fluid into a fire.

In other words, I find it difficult to deny the importance of the Podesta emails at keeping alive an issue that weighed negatively on Clinton’s campaign.

Not convinced? I don’t blame you. There are a lot of causal steps between a voter doing a search on Google and changing their candidate evaluations. At best, the Google Trends search data is a proxy for a much more complicated causal process.

But there is more…

In the final step in the analysis, I calculated an aggregate estimate of how each ‘negative’ campaign issue affected Clinton’s win probabilities over the course of the general election (Actual calculation: parameter for X in the two-variable model [b = 0.0008] multiplied by the summed search frequencies for each issue).

In the following table (Figure 5) these estimates are likely inflated as I did not directly control for the party conventions and debates which had an obvious impact on the election. Nonetheless, I believe differences in relative effects across the campaign issues are reflected in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Total Effects of Each Campaign Issue on Clinton’s Win Probability

Source: Kent R. Kroeger

First thing to note from the above table: the absolute values of the total impact on Clinton’s win probability are generally much higher for the ‘negative’ Clinton issues than for Trump’s ‘negative’ issues. Trump’s worst issue was his indirect death threat towards Clinton by way of 2nd Amendment supporters (a 22 percentage point increase for Clinton’s chances overall). The alleged Trump-Russia collusion and the Access Hollywood tape are second and third (a 16 and 17 percentage point for Clinton, respectively).

As for Clinton, the DNC emails (which revealed the Democratic primaries were rigged against Bernie Sanders) did not have a large total impact on her win probability (-7 percentage points). Why? I believe because Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard had pretty much made that point in January 2016 when, as she announced herself as the first Democratic House member to endorse Bernie Sanders, said the primary system was basically rigged against Sanders. It wasn’t news in July 2016 that the Democratic Party system was rigged. Everyone already knew it.

What did have a large negative impact on Clinton’s chances were the issues of the Clinton Foundation (-49 percentage points), the deleted Clinton emails(-41 percentage points), Clinton’s health (-21 percentage points), and thePodesta emails (-19 percentage points).

As noted previously, the impact of the hacked Podesta emails cannot be viewed in isolation from the Clinton Foundation controversy as the emails helped sustain the lifespan of the Clinton Foundation story. Without the Podesta emails, I seriously doubt the Clinton Foundation story would have been as prominent throughout October.

In the month of October alone, the Clinton Foundation and Podesta emails reduced Clinton’s win probability by at least 30 percentage points. More than enough to change the outcome in a close election decided by a mere 80,000 votes.

Final Thoughts

I still understand why some may not yet be convinced of the impact of Russia’s meddling. There may never be solid proof that the Russian’s changed the election outcome.

But I now think the Russians did change the outcome and the prime suspects are the hacked Podesta emails and a corporate news media that birthed the Trump monster during the primary season and clearly relished sticking it to both Clintons throughout the campaign. Hillary Clinton wins in 2016 otherwise.

– K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

 

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The Israeli Knesset has signaled their preference for a One-State-Solution

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 20, 2018)

On July 19th, the Israeli Knesset passed what has been called the Jewish Nation-State Law. The new law, which becomes part of Israel’s Basic Law does three things:

(1) Explicitly states “the right to exercise national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

(2) Establishes Hebrew as Israel’s official language, thereby downgrading Arabic to “special status.”

(3) And establishes Jewish settlement as a national value that will be promoted by the State.

This represents what is likely a de facto acknowledgement by Israel’s political Right that Israeli is headed towards the official annexation of the West Bank and the implementation of a One-State-Solution with Arab Israelis (mostly Palestinians) being legally relegated to second-class citizenship status.

Within Israel’s political class, opposition to the bill has been exemplified by Israel’s most potent challenger to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni. While she had no objection to the text declaring Israel to be “the national home of the Jewish people,” she is no Leftist after all, Livni also argued the law needed a stated commitment to “equality for all its citizens.” In Israel’s Declaration of Independence, she noted, Israel promises “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

Livni has also stated support for a two-state solution which ensures Israel’s security and identity as a Jewish and democratic state. In fact, from 2006 to 2009, Livni served as Israel’s Acting Prime Minister, during which she led multiple rounds of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Outside of Israel, the Jewish Nation-State Law has been openly questioned.

“We are concerned, we have expressed this concern and we will continue to engage with Israeli authorities in this context,” a spokeswoman for European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini told a news briefing.

Even the U.S., a strong ally of the Netanyahu government, has asked for clarifications from the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. Officials in Washington are particularly concerned about the “Jewish settlement” clause and how that will impact the rights of minority groups.

Those most negatively impacted by the Jewish Nation-State Law are of course Arab Israelis. Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of the Knesset and vocal opponent of the law, believes it will legitimize anti-Arab racism and increase the building of illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

“The law will now give illegal Israeli settlements legal backing and officially get rid of any possibility of establishing a Palestinian state in the occupied territories,” according to Zahalka. “The law will also back discrimination against Arab citizens who can be legally prevented from residing in Jewish-only areas.”

“Everyone understands what this law is,” says Israeli political scientist Galia Golan of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. “It enshrines the Jewish majority as dominant and ruling without protection of the rights of anyone else. It definitely takes us out of the Western liberal democratic camp and puts us in the xenophobic super-nationalist East European camp.”

What Happens Next?

Like Donald Trump, Netanyahu stokes racist sentiments for political advantage. He ditches any pretense of trying to represent the interests of an entire country and, instead, foments social divisions that keep the people divided and less likely to reach a broad, lasting reconciliation between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

The Jewish Nation-State Law will add twenty years to any legal effort by Israeli Arabs to achieve equal rights in their own country. That is not merely an ancillary effect of the new law, it is one of its primary purposes.

On the other hand, it is time for everyone within and outside of Israel to realize the Two-State-Solution is officially dead and buried. It has no future and cannot be revived. The Israeli Knesset made that official on July 19th.

Now, progressive leaders in Israeli — Jewish and Arab — must recognize this new phase in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be contested more and more in courtrooms, not as much in street and border protests.

That could be a good thing as Palestinians, even with the Jewish Nation-State-Law, will not face as big an asymmetric disadvantage as they do when they confront Israel militarily.

There is still hope for a lasting, peaceful resolution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It just won’t include a Two-State-Solution — may it rest in peace.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

 

 

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Is the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting evidence of a conspiracy or a dumb son?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 21, 2018)

There is a lot of news media attention on the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya (among others).

Why?

“It proves Trump-Russian collusion,” says Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Ari Melber, Joe Scarborough, Chris Hayes, Joy Reid, Anderson Cooper, and the guy running the Falafel King food truck on the corner of 7th Avenue and 31st Street.

Everyone not currently employed by the Fox News Channel or the White House has concluded: The mere intent on Don Jr.’s part to receive ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton from Russians constitutes evidence of a conspiracy.

The defense of the meeting’s legality, in contrast, rests on the belief that conducting opposition research, even with foreign nationals, is not just legal, it is part of every presidential campaign. You could even argue that it is a campaign’s patriotic duty to discover any misdeeds perpetrated by their opponent, even if that means working with foreign nationals or going overseas.

Unsurprisingly, the partisan website PolitiFact rejects that defense, citing Democratic political consultant Mike Mikus from Pennsylvania, who says, “I have been working on campaigns since 1994 and have managed races since 1998. I have never heard of any operative meeting with a representative of a foreign government — friend or foe — to discuss opposition research.”

A guy from Pennsylvania who has worked on statewide elections is not who you talk to in trying to find out if presidential campaigns have ever conducted opposition research on foreign soil or using foreign nationals.

The obvious example is the Steele dossier. Its original genesis was as a Washington Free Beacon investigatory effort on Donald Trump. Ostensibly, it was journalism, funded by a major GOP donor opposed to Trump’s candidacy. Later, that effort would become what we now know as the Steele dossier and its funding was taken up (indirectly) by the Hillary Clinton campaign.

The Steele dossier is nothing less than opposition research, conducted by a former British spy and funded by political operatives connected to a presidential campaign. Furthermore, it contains information sought and derived from ‘representatives of a foreign government,’ and a hostile one at that.

Now, I will grant, a well-run campaign does not send the son and son-in-law of the candidate to gather such information from such sources. Even if it was legal, it was just dumb.

Had Don Jr. taken possession of stolen emails or some other illegally obtained information, then he would be in trouble. But that would have nothing to do with a conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

The Steele dossier is what aggressive, well-run presidential campaigns do. The Trump campaign just did it poorly.

Direct Evidence of a Trump-Russia Conspiracy Remains Elusive

What does the public evidence so far say about an alleged Trump-Russia conspiracy?

Here is what we know as fact: Trump campaign operatives gamboled around with a Russian lawyer purporting to have ‘dirt’ on Clinton, an Australian diplomat, a Maltese academic, a hacker going by the name Gucifer, and, through Paul Manafort, a variety of other Russian and Ukrainian consorts, some connected closely to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Trump campaign also actively (but amateurishly) pursued a new detente with the Russians during and after the 2016 campaign — which is not inherently illegal — and is probably a good policy.

Conspiracies are not hard to engineer, but proving one exists is

If the Trump campaign engaged in a conspiracy with the Russians to defraud the U.S., this question must be answered: “Did the Trump campaign premeditatively conspire with the Russians to defraud the American people by interfering in an U.S. presidential election.

As yet, the evidence of such a crime is conspicuously elusive.

However, a conspiracy does not require that the Trump campaign actively helped the Russians hack the DNC and Podesta emails or helped in creating and promulgating some Facebook and Twitter memes.

The Robert Mueller probe could indict principles from the Trump campaign on conspiracy charges if they either: (1) aided and abetted any criminal behavior by the Russians, (2) willfully participated in the planning of a crime prior to its commission (“accessory before the fact”), or (3) helped to conceal a crime already committed or give assistance to perpetrators of the crime to help them avoid detection, arrest or prosecution (“accessory after the fact”).

According to California defense attorney Paul Wallin, “In these situations, you are culpable under the accomplice liability theory because you knew of the illegal plan and willfully did something to cause it to be carried out or concealed.”

As yet, no evidence reported by the news media or rising from the Mueller probe’s initial indictments suggest the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians on that conditions outlined by Wallin.

Some legal experts believe Donald Trump himself committed a crime when he encouraged the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails during some of his public rallies in the early Summer of 2016 (which the Russians subsequently tried to do, according to U.S. intelligence sources). That opinion seems like broad conjecture; and, besides, how dumb would a conspirator have to be to announce their conspiratorial intent on live, national television?

Who could be that dumb?! Who?! Who?!

But here is what else we know…

The documented associations of the Trump campaign to the Russians almost all postdate the moment the candidate became the presumptive Republican nominee in March 2016. That is probably not mere coincidence.

Furthermore, the FBI opened a counterintelligence case (“Crossfire Hurricane”) against the Trump campaign only after “Western intelligence assets and Clinton-affiliated political operatives repeatedly approached the Trump campaign and tried but failed to damage it through associations with Russia,” reports Real Clear Investigations.

In my opinion, we all need a healthy dose of skepticism towards everyone involved in this collusion hash.

“I have certain rules I live by. My first rule: I don’t believe anything the government tells me,” once said comedian George Carlin. I would just amend that by adding: the news media, cable TV personalities, politicians, comedians, and myself.

With that caveat, here is my developing theory on the Trump-Russia collusion narrative:

The Trump-Russia collusion story is most likely borne from four sources:

(1) Trump’s associations with wealthy Russians (call them oligarchs or mobsters, if you must) involved in the real estate industry in New York City and elsewhere (And there is circumstantial evidence the Trump Organization carries substantial financial debts with Russians and other foreign lenders),

(2) campaign manager Paul Manafort’s falling into the arms of pro-Russia Ukrainians while trying to dig himself out of debt,

(3) the Trump campaign’s clumsy and reckless efforts at conducting opposition research and policymaking, and

(4) a political establishment, burned by the fact they were outmatched by Russian intelligence and unwilling to accept a Trump presidency they never believed possible, that manufactured elements of the collusion drama to drain the new administration’s political capital and neuter its impact while in office.

This fourth source of the collusion narrative speaks to an issue rarely addressed in the news coverage: How could the Obama administration have screwed up so royally in trying to stop Russia’s election interference?

Why aren’t there career bureaucrats high up in the intelligence community losing their jobs over this debacle?

We know U.S. intelligence was aware of Russia’s intentions to interfere in the election months before the email hacks of the DNC and John Podesta or the propagation of Russian-sourced Facebook memes on social media. And we also know the general public was beginning to become widely aware of the Russian meddling as early as July 2016 (see my Google Trends analysis here).

So what was the FBI and intelligence community doing to harden the defenses of the social media companies and the political parties in preparation for this foreign intrusion?

Apparently, not much, according to The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, who suggests the Obama administration feared they would themselves be accused of trying to manipulate the election outcome if they did too much publicly to stop the Russians.

Perhaps if the U.S. Department of Justice and intelligence agencies weren’t so politicized (and Obama is not the first president to make them so), they could be trusted to warn the American people about impending foreign attacks without it being dismissed as a partisan political act?

The news media’s obsession with the Trump Tower meeting is misplaced. If laws were broken, it is not clear how. If collecting legally obtained intelligence on an opponent from a foreign source is illegal, and someone in the Trump campaign is indicted for it, there will be a legal challenge and don’t be surprised if it goes to the Supreme Court.

It will be the First Amendment versus federal election laws — and, if the past is prologue, the Constitution tends to win those battles.

Until Mueller finally hands out the crown jewel of indictments — a conspiracy charge — as many in the media expect him to do, I suggest borrowing some more wisdom from George Carlin, “Question everything.”

Its a good life strategy, in general.

K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

 

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What ever happened with the Douma, Syria chemical attack investigation?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 24, 2018)

On April 7, 2018, a chemical attack in the Douma, Syria reportedly killed at least 70 people. Initially, it was not certain what (if any) chemical had been used, though medics and rebel-allied witnesses mentioned smelling chlorine.

As with any war zone, reliable information on the attack was hard to secure.

Here is CNN’s initial reporting on the attack:

“And there is definitely something (sniffs) that stings,” said CNN correspondent Arwa Damon as she tweaked her nose after smelling some clothing allegedly involved in the chemical attack.

Unfortunately for CNN and the anti-Syrian government brigade on Capitol Hill, there was no definitive evidence that the Douma attack was perpetrated by the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The U.S. and most NATO countries attributed the attack to the Syrian Army, despite Russian and Syrian government claims that the attack was a ‘false flag’ attack engineered by rebel groups and British intelligence. No independent evidence was ever presented by Russia or Syria to support their assertion.

Despite the uncertainty of the source of the Douma attack, on April 14th, the U.S., France and the United Kingdom carried out military strikes against multiple government sites in Syria.

What did the OPCW investigation into the Douma attack find?

When there is a suspected chemical attack somewhere in the world, the internationally-respected investigation group, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), tries to get on the ground as soon as possible and collect its own independent evidence. Chemical attacks are against the Geneva Convention and are war crimes. Furthermore, the Assad regime (as did the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq) has used chemical weapons against its own people. That is not debatable. But so too have the anti-regime forces. That is also not debatable.

From a strategic point of view, some observers thought the Douma attack made little sense, assuming Assad was rational and wanted to stay in power. His forces were about to take over Douma from anti-regime forces when the alleged chemical attack occurred.

As a ‘false flag’ operation where anti-regime forces would try to pin the blame on Assad’s forces, the Douma attack made much more sense. In that scenario, if the blame could be assigned to the Assad regime, it would increase the chance of deepening the U.S. military commitment in Syria.

That did not happen, in part, because the OPCW could not verify that chlorine-gas canisters were the cause of the civilian deaths. In its preliminary report, the OPCW did verify the existence of chlorine gas residue in two locations where such chemical agents were known to have been produced, but “no organophosphorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties.”

In other words, the OPCW confirmed that no nerve agent was used in Douma but could not confirm a chlorine-gas attack on civilians. More analysis will need to be done, said the OPCW.

However, in another OPCW report issued at the same time as the Douma preliminary report, the OPCW shared its final findings on allegations of chemical weapons used in Al-Hamadaniya, Syria on October 30, 2016, and Karm al-Tarrab, Syria on November 13, 2016.

Writes the OPCW: “On the basis of the information received and analysed, the prevailing narrative of the interviews, and the results of the laboratory analyses, the FFM cannot confidently determine whether or not a specific chemical was used as a weapon in the incidents that took place in the neighbourhood of Al-Hamadaniyah and in the area of Karm al-Tarrab. The FFM noted that the persons affected in the reported incidents may, in some instances, have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating substance.”

But, strangely, I never heard about OPCW preliminary or final reports from mainstream U.S. news media outlets. I first read about it on Al Jazeera and again on RT.com (the Russian international news organization partially funded by the Russian government).

And, while I have no doubt in the 24–7 cable news cycle the OPCW’s findings on the Douma and other alleged chemical attacks were mentioned on CNN or MSNBC, it was certainly never emphasized.

I also saw the OPCW-Douma story on the Syrian government aligned news site called the Inside Syria Media Center. It is a pro-Syrian government news organization, probably financed by Iran, though it does not explicitly identify its funding sources on its website. Hence, it is considered a propagandist organization and is one of the hundreds of Facebook accounts recently suspended by Facebook for allegedly spreading “factually inaccurate” information.

I will let Facebook speak for themselves on this act of censorship:

We’ve removed 652 Pages, groups and accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran and targeted people across multiple internet services in the Middle East, Latin America, UK and US. FireEye, a cybersecurity firm, gave us a tip in July about “Liberty Front Press,” a network of Facebook Pages as well as accounts on other online services. They’ve published an initial analysis and will release a full report of their findings soon. We wanted to take this opportunity to thank them for their work.

Based on FireEye’s tip, we started an investigation into “Liberty Front Press” and identified additional accounts and Pages from their network. We are able to link this network to Iranian state media through publicly available website registration information, as well as the use of related IP addresses and Facebook Pages sharing the same admins. For example, one part of the network, “Quest 4 Truth,” claims to be an independent Iranian media organization, but is in fact linked to Press TV, an English-language news network affiliated with Iranian state media. The first “Liberty Front Press” accounts we’ve found were created in 2013. Some of them attempted to conceal their location, and they primarily posted political content focused on the Middle East, as well as the UK, US, and Latin America. Beginning in 2017, they increased their focus on the UK and US. Accounts and Pages linked to “Liberty Front Press” typically posed as news and civil society organizations sharing information in multiple countries without revealing their true identity.

This was a voluntary act of censorship by Facebook.

In practicality, Facebook’s censorship campaign is hitting some groups more than others, says Olivia Solon, who writes for The Guardian. “The first campaign involved a network of Facebook pages and accounts on other platforms under the banner ‘Liberty Front Press’ that positioned themselves as independent but were discovered to have ties to Iranian state media. The 74 pages, 70 accounts and three groups on Facebook and 76 Instagram accounts — some dating back to 2013 — posted political content focused on the Middle East, UK, U.S. and Latin America. The pages had about 155,000 followers in total. The same group spent more than $6,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads paid for in U.S. dollars, the last one running in August 2018.”

“The cybersecurity company FireEye, which first identified the campaign and flagged the campaign to Facebook, said the intent behind the activity appeared to be to ‘promote Iranian political interests, including anti-Saudi, anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian themes, as well as promote support for specific US policies favorable to Iran, such as the US-Iran nuclear deal’. There was also significant anti-Trump messaging and the creation of sock puppet accounts masquerading as liberal Americans.”

So, as of today, if you are a Facebook user and want to learn more about U.S.-Saudi-UAE actions in Yemen, where dozens of Yemeni children were recently killed by a U.S.-supplied Saudi air attack, you will find it harder to be informed.

Instead, you are more likely to get a Saudi, Israeli, or Trump administration view on that senseless massacre.

That might be acceptable for the causal, intermittent news consumer. But that should not be acceptable for anyone that really wants to understand what is going on in Yemen or any other Middle East conflict where Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.S. are direct or indirect participants.

If the Saudi, Israeli and U.S. point of view is all you require from your Middle East news, Facebook is working for you.

For the rest of us, Facebook’s censorship campaign is doing us a tremendous disservice.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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Social Media’s Censorship Was Predictable — The Public Response Doesn’t Need To Be

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 24, 2018)

It was a sad moment in real time watching Bill Maher’s HBO’s Real Timeaudience cheer at the news that tornadic showman and InfoWars founder Alex Jones was being suspended on a number of social media platforms.

To Bill Maher’s admirable credit, he chastised his audience and the former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who is in a constant search for the most sublime level of political tonedeafness, for their mob mentality in applauding the censorship of Alex Jones.

“If you are a liberal you are supposed to be for free speech; that is for the free speech you hate,” implores Maher. “That is what free speech means. We are loosing the thread.”

Senator Padmé Amidala’s lament at watching The Republic end in 19 BBY seems appropriate now: “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.”

[I still can’t forgive Natalie Portman for her acting in the Star War prequels, but she was a given a nice line there by George Lucas in the only watchable prequel — Revenge of the Sith.]

Brooks Heatherly, creator of YouTube’s ‘No Bullshit’ podcast, adds, “Like Bill (Maher) said, the Left is about being free speech. They are the anti-exclusivity party, the pro-diversity party. They are all about being who you want to be. And speaking your mind should be a part of that too. But, apparently, it is not OK to speak your mind if you are not a liberal.”

Alex Jones is indefensible on many levels. He’s a fantasist — a health supplement-pushing performance artist that profits from defaming the powerful (and, to his lawyer’s dismay, occasionally targets defenseless average folk) and pushes social theories meant to exploit existing social and political divisions. His best vein-popping rants, however, are brilliant theater (here is one of his pitch-perfect anti-globalist rants), matched in talent only by the progressive Left’s Jimmy Dore (here is one of his funniest political rants).

Yes, American civic discourse is more coarse than ever — but Alex Jones and Jimmy Dore are, first and foremost, about entertainment in the context of civic discourse. Not every comedian does political comedy (Thank God! for Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld) but some of those who do it, do it very well (and, frankly, Dore’s material is often far more honest and information-laden than any mainstream cable news show).

So when Facebook and Twitter suspends Alex Jones, it should matter to all of us, regardless of ideological orientation. There is something seriously wrong in this country today when people cheer the rapid decay of a social consensus on free speech and of the press.

While not technically a First Amendment issue, as Facebook and Twitter have the legal right to delete Jones (and InfoWars) from their services, their act is still censorship. In fact, it may be worse than government-mandated censorship as Facebook and Twitter did this voluntarily (after weathering some credible threats from congressional Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans that, if Facebook and Twitter don’t censor their service’s content, Congress will).

The enthusiastic cheering by Bill Maher’s audience indicates this new period of American censorship is not about to end and it has already limited your ability to find the news and content necessary to be an informed world citizen.

No, InfoWars should not be your primary source for world news. But with the news that Facebook removed 652 pages, groups and accounts “for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran,” the use of censorship by Facebook to homogeneous its content has become normalized. And it will happen again and again…until Facebook users decide they’ve had enough and collectively leave Facebook.

You’ll be forgiven if you thought Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Google) were just targeting Russian trolls and influence operations for their censorship programs.

Why now are Facebook censors targeting Iran influence operations (and, more quietly, Palestinian-sourced Facebook pages)?

Are Russia and Iran the only countries running covert influence operations through Facebook and other internet platforms? Of course not. Every major country runs covert influence operations to promote their national interests and preferred policies. Its called statecraft.

It’s not as cloak-and-daggery as cyber-security firms like FireEye (who helped Facebook identify influence operations on their service) try to make it sound. Its often just a series of rather mundane publishing activities where the content lacks attribution to its government source.

Countries’ intelligence and defense agencies incentivize journalists to write stories favorable to specific policies or opinions; and some create web-based news sites to propagandize for the government without directly (or even obliquely) identifying the information source. The targets of the information are usually foreign audiences, but not always. And they don’t always tell the truth, even to their domestic audiences. Because that is statecraft. That is what governments do.

And now we have Facebook deciding by algorithm what is ‘good information’ versus ‘bad information.’ And why target Iran now?

It’s not too hard to guess.

[Nikki Haley, make sure your power heels are shined and ready for another long round of Iran-bashing at the United Nations Security Council. This is going to be your president-in-waiting moment.]

Facebook is being persistently nudged by Congress (and the defense and security establishment) to identify influence operations originating from countries hostile to U.S. interests, particularly countries the U.S. may want to militarily engage with in the next few years. Don’t be surprised if North Korea is also on the censorship target list.

Facebook and the other major social media platforms are morphing into propagandizing machines for U.S. business and government interests, not unlike the content already available during an average quarter-hour on U.S. cable news networks.

Facebook will never be that homogeneous, but it will continue to trend towards that type of monotony as its algorithms continue to filter out ‘disinformation’ and unacceptable viewpoints.

The American Civil Liberties Union’ Vera Eidelman, the William J. Brennan Fellow for the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, summarizes the problem:

“Given Facebook’s nearly unparalleled status as a forum for political speech and debate, it should not take down anything but unlawful speech, like incitement to violence. Otherwise, in attempting to apply more amorphous concepts not already defined in law, Facebook will often get it wrong. Given the enormous amount of speech uploaded every day to Facebook’s platform, attempting to filter out “bad” speech is a nearly impossible task. The use of algorithms and other artificial intelligence to try to deal with the volume is only likely to exacerbate the problem.”

Having worked with them for thirty years, algorithms are rarely unbiased. The questions always become: Is the known bias acceptable? And what may be the unintended, potentially unacceptable biases?

Facebook and Twitter are fast abandoning their original charters to be open, free speech environments for a worldwide online community.

That dream is officially over and I suppose we are supposed to blame that on the Russians too.

It should never have been Facebook and Twitter’s job to determine what is ‘factually correct’ or appropriate content. In its first censorship algorithm, Facebook suspended a page containing the Declaration of Independence due to ‘hate speech’ contained in its text, but kept Holocaust-denying Facebook pages.

And now the company is expected, with the help of cyber-security firms like FireEye, to identify systematic disinformation on its pages?

I think not. And Facebook and other social media users may want to start looking for better online platforms to share information, opinions, and general happenings.

It might force Facebook and Twitter to remember why we originally used their services in the beginning.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

 

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Journalists must remember the George Carlin Rule

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 30, 2018)

Two recent news reports have again raised serious doubts about the veracity and integrity of past reporting surrounding the Hillary Clinton email controversy and its over-reliance on government sources.

First, in an August 23rd RealClearInvestigations story, Paul Sperry reported that the FBI’s examination hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s unsecured laptop may not have been as complete as originally suggested by FBI Director James Comey.

Sperry writes:

In fact, a technical glitch prevented FBI technicians from accurately comparing the new emails with the old emails. Only 3,077 of the 694,000 emails were directly reviewed for classified or incriminating information. Three FBI officials completed that work in a single 12-hour spurt the day before Comey again cleared Clinton of criminal charges.

“Most of the emails were never examined, even though they made up potentially 10 times the evidence” of what was reviewed in the original year-long case that Comey closed in July 2016, said a law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the investigation.

Yet even the “extremely narrow” search that was finally conducted, after more than a month of delay, uncovered more classified material sent and/or received by Clinton through her unauthorized basement server, the official said. Contradicting Comey’s testimony, this included highly sensitive information dealing with Israel and the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas. The former secretary of state, however, was never confronted with the sensitive new information and it was never analyzed for damage to national security.

The second news story was broken by The Daily Caller’s Richard Pollock on August 27th, in which he reported that “a Chinese-owned company operating in the Washington, D.C., area hacked Hillary Clinton’s private server throughout her term as secretary of state and obtained nearly all her emails, two sources briefed on the matter told The Daily Caller News Foundation.”

According to Pollock’s anonymous sources, who were briefed on the intelligence finding, the Chinese firm was a cover for a Chinese intelligence operation which “obtained Clinton’s emails in real time as she sent and received communications and documents through her personal server.”

Keep in mind, Pollock’s evidence is no more concrete than the evidence Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia probe provided when it indicted various Russian intelligence operatives for hacking the emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. In both cases, the public is expected to accept the honesty and accuracy of evidence that cannot be independently scrutinized.

While the details provided in both cases appear plausible, even likely, independently verifiable documentation is conveniently withheld. “Trust us, we’re the government.”

Between the Weiner laptop revelations and the alleged Chinese hacker news stories, from a journalism perspective, the latter seems far more serious should the story prove to be even partially accurate.

It is understandable that the press didn’t have enough time before Election Day to verify FBI sources’ Nov. 6th claim that the “thousands of new emails were mostly personal and duplicates of what had already been seen.”

As for the alleged Chinese hacker story, it is baffling that the news media took over three years (!) to produce a substantive follow-up to a New York TimesJuly 2015 story that Department of State Inspector General Steven A. Linick and then-Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG) I. Charles McCullough III asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether classified information on Clinton’s private servers was compromised.

It can’t be emphasized enough, any conclusions drawn from a news story dependent on anonymous government sources, current or former, must be tentative. But The Daily Caller’s alleged Chinese hacker story is no more dependent on anonymous sources than most Trump-Russia collusion stories over the past two years.

National Public Radio runs a headline on the alleged Chinese hacker story like this — Trump Says Without Evidence That China Hacked Clinton Email Server— but gives us this headline for an even weaker-sourced CNN story on former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s possible testimony regarding President Trump’s prior knowledge of the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting — Cohen Contradicts Denials Of Trump Tower Meeting By President’s Team.

While the core conclusion of The Daily Caller story has yet to be invalidated, the assertions of CNN’s Cohen story have been contradicted by Cohen’s own lawyer, Lanny Davis, who was the source of CNN’s original story.

“Attorney for Michael Cohen keeps changing his story on Trump Tower meeting,” cries CNN’s Jim Sciutto.

Sorry, Jim, it should be in your job description to confirm the veracity of your sources. You don’t get to cry “Foul!” after you run the story.

As for the rest of the national news media, we continue to get a nightly diet of “Russia, Russia, Russia” stories from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and others, but nary a peep about the possibility that Hillary Clinton was feeding our nation’s diplomatic secrets to Chinese intelligence on a real-time basis.

And we wonder why the average American doesn’t trust the news media.

The New York Times response to The Daily Caller story is even more disingenuous— China Denies Trump’s Claim It Hacked Clinton’s Emails, readsThe Times’ August 28th headline. Really? That is The Times’ response to The Daily Caller story? They thought maybe the Chinese government might fess up to spying on Clinton to a Times reporter?

Instead of showing such disrespect for its competition, The New York Timesshould be talking to the ICIG that, according to Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, found an “anomaly on Hillary Clinton’s emails going through their private server, and when they had done the forensic analysis, they found that her emails, every single one except four, over 30,000, were going to an address that was not on the distribution list.” Based on the ICIG analysis, the unauthorized source was a ‘foreign entity.’

Do we believe Louie Gohmert? Not in isolation we shouldn’t. Instead, we must first invoke the George Carlin Rule: If all we possess is the word of a U.S. House member, that’s as worthless as an Adam Schiff press availability. We should require actual evidence we can see, touch, and examine. But, at the same time, the suggestion that Chinese hackers would know how to exploit a private server and email system is entirely plausible and can’t be dismissed out of hand.

One would think The New York Timeshaving had its own servers penetrated by Chinese hackers in 2013, might be more sensitive to the possible compromise of Clinton’s email server by the same foreign actor.

Yet, it should be obvious why The Times hasn’t and won’t lead such an inquiry. Based on the recent surge in The Times overall readership and profitability during the Trump-Russia collusion panic, do you think its readers would want to know if Clinton’s private server may have seriously jeopardized national security? The Times would likely lose readership if its readers were told as much.

From the vantage point of commercial news organizations striving to maximize audiences and profits, the current news media obsession with the Trump-Russia collusion story is understandable. And while I tend to agree with journalist Glenn Greenwald’s assessment that the Russian meddling in 2016 was “not especially untoward,” the U.S. has done as much in other countries’ elections, I still don’t trust a single word that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth or anyone associated with him. In other words, it has never been more urgent to invoke the Carlin Rule.

So, given the profit motive and the persistent untrustworthiness of the Trump administration, it is hard to judge too harshly those journalists today pushing the Trump-Russia narrative. Its just too good for business.

Perhaps I’m too forgiving.

My better angels would like to think there is an alternative universe out there somewhere. A place where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election and Rachel Maddow has spent the last two years hammering on “China, China, China” and how they may possess lèsuo (勒索) — the Chinese word for kompromat — on President Clinton. In such a world, I still wouldn’t respect Maddow’s journalistic standards, but at least I would respect her consistency.

Journalists would be well-advised to internalize the Carlin Rule

Good journalism is hard. When done well, it goes beyond merely parroting the words of government or official sources and finds that relevant but reluctant source, silenced by fear, status or ambition, who nudges the journalist closer to the truth.

Good journalism requires a tenacious level of objectivity, a learned skill humans don’t naturally possess. When honest with ourselves, we realize objectivity potentially opens up some of our most deeply held beliefs to scrutiny and validation. Thus, in practice, objectivity is often so painful it is subconsciously avoided.

But journalists are supposed to fight that ingrained bias. They are supposed to counter their own selfish instincts and fragile egos with aspirations of bias free reporting.

That is not easy to do — and on some level impossible. So we should not be surprised (or overly judgmental) when sometimes journalists get crucial elements of a story wrong, particularly early in a story’s life cycle — history’s ‘first rough draft’ as journalist Alan Barth once wrote.

But sometimes that first draft is not just off-the-mark, but seriously flawed and capable of doing lasting damage.

The New York Times, Judith Miller, and the Search for Saddam’s WMDs

The run-up to the 2003 Iraq War precipitated what some consider the nadir of modern American journalism. In early 2002, as the U.S. continued its occupation of Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration had another regime change war plan in the works — the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

U.S. and U.K. intelligence briefing books, declassified in 2010, suggested the decision to invade Iraq occurred as early as March 2002. According to a Downing Street briefing on March 8, 2002, British intelligence had already concluded the “U.S. administration has lost faith in containment and is now considering regime change.”

National Security Archive Senior Fellow John Prados and journalist Christopher Ames, who have extensively researched the declassified U.S. and U.K. documents, concluded that “the Bush administration sought to avoid the emergence of opposition to its actions by means of secrecy and deception, holding the war plan as a “compartmented concept,” restricting information even from allies like the United Kingdom, and pretending that no war plans were being reviewed by the president.”

“President Bush and his senior advisers were so intent on pursuing their project for war, the documents show, that they refused to be deterred by early and repeated refusals of cooperation from regional allies like Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt; or from traditional allies such as France and Germany,” wrote Prados and Ames.

Which is why The New York Times’ reporting on the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War was critical and so damaging when it failed to rigorously question the Bush administration’s assertions and justifications for a regime change war in Iraq.

In 2002, Judith Miller was a rising star at The Times, having just shared a Pulitzer Prize with other Times staff reporters for their coverage of global terrorism before and after the September 11 attacks. A graduate of Barnard College and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Miller was a bright reporter with a TV-friendly face, an increasingly important characteristic among ambitious print reporters who were appearing with more regularity on cable TV news programs.

Miller, however, had one deep and critical flaw: she didn’t understand what it meant to be a journalist (regrettably, she was — and is — not alone in that respect). In a scathing article in The New York Review of Books critiquing the reporting on the Iraq War, Michael Massing quotes Miller’s own words on what she felt the job of being a reporter entailed:

…Miller said that as an investigative reporter in the intelligence area, “my job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.” Many journalists would disagree with this; instead, they would consider offering an independent evaluation of official claims one of their chief responsibilities.

Her reporting problems on Iraq started with a September 7, 2002 story (co-authored with Michael Gordon) on the reported interception of aluminum tubes headed to Iraq, in which she quoted unnamed “American officials” and “American intelligence experts” who claimed the tubes were intended to be used in centrifuges for the enrichment of weapons-grade nuclear material.

An independent CIA analysis in October 2002 would contend the tubes’ “diameters were too small and the aluminum they were made from was too hard” to be used for centrifuges; instead, they were most likely intended for use in artillery. However, attempts by David Albright, a former weapons inspector who directed the Institute for Science and International Security who had read the CIA analysis, to convince Miller to correct The Times’ reporting on the “tubes” were rebuffed.

Miller’s reporting on Iraq didn’t improve after that. An April 2003 Miller-penned story, based on hearsay evidence quoting an Iraqi scientist claiming Iraq had kept biological and chemical weapons right up to the U.S. invasion in March 2003, became a headline story throughout the U.S. news media.

But, again, other U.S. intelligence reports contradicted Miller’s reporting.

Among Miller’s sources on other Iraq WMD stories was Ahmed Chalabi, the U.S. government’s (and CIA’s) initial pick to replace Saddam Hussein. Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles, who would make up a large proportion of Miller’s sources on Iraqi WMDs, had one thing in common: their agenda was to replace the Saddam Hussein regime.

When the Bush administration ended its ties to Chalabi in May 2004, in part due to his dishonest behavior, The Times had to admit much of its reporting on the Iraq War used Chalabi and his associates as sources, even when the veracity of their information was questionable.

Oddly enough, I’ve often defended Judith Miller and her reporting on Iraq. I still contend that she was more a victim of a U.S. government-led manipulation effort aimed at American journalists than a perpetrator of a deliberate fraud. She should have known better. She should have been more inquisitive and doubtful regrading the information being fed to her. At the time, the pressures on reporters at a national news outlet to stick to a management-approved narrative are significant.

Judith Miller and The New York Times didn’t lead the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, they just made it easier for the Bush administration to sell the idea to the American people.

The New York Times’ solutions to minimize bad reporting are still relevant

The Iraq War reporting debacle still resonates throughout The Times’ newsroom. Miller’s career has all but ended, except for a few of her stories appearing on Newsmax now and then. Even Times reporters less culpable on the Iraq reporting, like James Risen, have moved on.

At the corporate level, The Times expressed regrets over their paper’s reporting and even implemented editorial and policy changes in the newsroom. In that regard, I highly recommend reading Daniel Okrent’s full article, “Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?”.

In the meantime, here is an abbreviated list of his suggestions for how The Times and all news organizations can avoid the mistakes made during the Iraq War:

(1) The hunger for scoops creates an incentive to publish too soon and without the proper quality controls. News organizations must enforce editorial quality controls, even if it means delaying publication.

(2) Wartime reporting increases the pressure for scoops and exclusives, making it important to increase, not relax, quality control procedures.

(3) The Front-page Syndrome encourages reporters to imbue stories with the “sounds of trumpets.” Instead, news organizations need to give more respect to “on the one hand, on the other hand” stories that offer balance and perspective, but may lack the urgency and drama of more one-sided, assertive stories.

(4) Military-sourced stories are seductive and exciting to write. They are too often biased. Yes, even quotes from military officers with stars on their shoulder cannot be uncritically accepted.

(5) Surprising stories — Okrent calls it hit-and-run journalism — are too frequently published without the requisite editorial controls. Unexpected news, if anything, requires more curiosity on reporters’ part.

(6) “There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source,” writes Okrent. While sometimes necessary, anonymous sources are too often “coddled” by reporters who want to keep them providing information. But anonymity allows sources more latitude to stretch the truth — even lie. Reporters need to be more diligent and assertive in getting sources to go “on the record.”

(7) And, finally, end-run editing, where reporters in often remote locations are able to abbreviate normal editing procedures, needs to end. In the internet age, physical distance is no excuse for short-circuiting editorial standards.

And I would add one more suggestion to Okrent’s list: Don’t believe anything the government tells you. Or anyone else for that matter.

(8) Question everything.

Had these suggestions been implemented in the coverage of the Trump-Russia collusion story, it would have helped news organizations avoid the rash of false reporting and out-right deception that has contaminated too much of the reporting so far.

If the national news outlets want to rebuild the public’s trust in their reporting, it is imperative Okrent’s suggestions are systematically implemented in newsrooms again.

Someday, the Trump-Russia story will be history…

It is doubtful senior management at CNN or MSNBC or The New York Timesare too concerned about the public’s overall trust in the news media. Not at this moment at least.

The major news outlets are experiencing record audience growth and profits. Perhaps the public’s low overall trust in the news media does not reflect their trust towards their preferred news outlets?

That may be true in the short-run, but what will happen to audience and readership numbers when the Trump-Russia story goes away? And it will go away…someday.

What will happen if the final outcome of the Mueller probe is inconclusive or is reduced to indicting Trump campaign operatives on only “process crimes” and not any conspiracy charges? The news media, in that case, will have to answer a lot of questions about their journalistic standards and methods.

The corporate news media has effectively exploited anti-Trump passions for short-term gain, but its rank journalistic standards in that pursuit may be doing permanent long-term damage to the Fourth Estate.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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The 2018 midterm elections are effectively over — feel free to start your Christmas shopping

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By Kent R. Kroeger (September 6, 2018)

It’s over.

While we still have to suffer through the general election kabuki dance, there is no mystery as to which party will control the U.S. House after the 2018 midterm elections. According to NuQum.com’s prediction model (see Figure 1) for the 2018 midterm election, the GOP will lose 35 House seats (Democrats need 23 to regain control of the House) and 4 Senate seats.

Despite far more Democratic incumbents running in the 2018 U.S. Senate contests, the NuQum.com model predicts the Democrats will regain control of the U.S. Senate.

Figure 1. Midterm Congressional Election Predictions

The NuQum.com U.S. House prediction model relies on five variables to predict the number of House seats lost/gained by the two parties: Presidential job approval (Gallup), Pct. Change in Real Disposable Personal Income, Size of Current Party’s Majority, Majority Party’s Performance in Previous Midterm Election, Indicator for Lame Duck Presidency. The U.S. Senate model uses only three variables: Presidential job approval (Gallup), Pct. Change in Real Disposable Personal Income, and an Indicator for a Lame Duck Presidency. Data and model specifications are available upon request to: kroeger98@yahoo.com

Why is the midterm elections outcome irreversible?

Labor Day is considered by many political analysts the key inflection point for midterm elections. Any party with a large lead in the generic ballot at that point is going to do well on Election Day. Given the current numbers, it would be unprecedented if the GOP were to retain control of the U.S. House after the midterms.

Figure 2. 2018 Generic Congressional Vote

Source: RealClearPolitics.com

Since the wide use of the generic congressional ballot question for tracking purposes, such a turnaround has never happened this late in a midterm election year. The last two midterms are illustrative of this stability and the practical irrelevance of general election campaigns (see Figure 2).

Figure 3. Generic Congressional Ballot in 2014 & 2010 Midterm Elections

Source: RealClearPolitics.com

The party that significantly leads the generic ballot in early September will most likely win the majority of votes in November. Scandals, candidate gaffes and other unpredictable events occurring late in the general election can alter individual race outcomes, but those cases tend to be randomly distributed and never sufficient in numbers to change the aggregate outcome for the Democrats and Republicans.

The Democrats will gain 35 House seats and 4 Senate seats in November and there is nothing Donald Trump and the Republicans can do to alter this eventuality. According to the NuQum.com model, Trump’s job approval could surge to 50 percent approval (it won’t) and the Republicans would still lose 26 House seats and one Senate seat.

Understandably, memories of the 2016 election give Democrats pause about making strong predictions regarding 2018, but congressional elections in general are more predictable than presidential outcomes. In a bad year for incumbents, such as 2010 when the Democrats lost 52 House seats, 85 percent still won re-election. Retirements and open seat contests introduce some competitiveness into congressional elections; but, generally, those contests tend to break towards the party with the momentum heading into the general election. That party is the Democrats this year.

Despite the considerable effort The Cook Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball put into predicting each congressional race, they are just modeling idiosyncratic variation. While their predictions are interesting, their analytic efforts merely nibble at the margins and are wholly unnecessary. The net partisan outcome for the 2018 midterms was largely determined in late 2017 when candidates had to make a decision whether or not to run for office.

Figure 4. Trump Job Approval

Source: RealClearPolitics.com

A quick inspection of Figure 4 shows Trump’s job approval in late 2017 was at or near the bottom for his term. In other words, quality Democratic candidates should have been feeling at that time very confident in their candidacies being successful in 2018. The NuQum.com model at the start of 2018 predicted a net House gain by Democrats of around 40 seats. Little has changed since that prediction.

The Democrats are putting high-quality candidates up against vulnerable Republicans

The New York Times’ Frank Bruni and Liriel Higa recently highlighted the 13 congressional candidates they consider the “faces” of the next generation of Democratic leaders. Despite relying on a lazy and predicable ‘year of the woman’ narrative, their article conveyed the considerable strengths of the newest generation of first-time Democratic congressional candidates.

The candidates in the article share this common trait: Good speakers that prefer to emphasize their background and résumés over talking about specific policy ideas. It’s a safe strategy geared towards getting centrist Democrats elected in conservative-leaning congressional districts.

The following video clips are indicative of the high quality found among the candidates mentioned in the Bruni and Higa article:

Chrissy Houlahan (PA-6)

Katie Hill (CA-25)

Lauren Underwood (IL-14)

Elissa Slotkin (MI-8)

Max Rose (NY-11)

Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11)

M.J. Hegar (TX-31)

Ammar Campa-Najjar (CA-50)*

Colin Allred (TX-32)*

Leslie Cockburn (VA-5)

Kathy Manning (NC-13)

Andy Kim (NJ-3)

Xochitl Torres Small (NM-2)

* Indicates Justice Democrat (progressive)

These are strong, high-quality Democratic challengers who saw President Trump’s significant weaknesses with voters in late 2017, particularly in suburban America, and realized now is their opportunity to run and win. That fact, more than any other reason, is why the outcome of the 2018 midterms is already baked into the system. At this late juncture, there is nothing the Republicans can do to save their House majority, and they will probably lose the Senate majority as well.

The 2018 midterm elections are, for all intents and purposes, over. Election Day in November is a mere formality.

Now the bad news for Democrats…

Unwittingly, Bruni and Higa also brought into focus a dangerous split that increasingly defines today’s Democratic Party. For lack of a better description, the split is between the Democratic Party establishment, still personified by Barack Obama, and the party’s progressive wing, otherwise known as Berniecrats.

According to Bruni and Higa, to win in traditionally Republican and suburban congressional districts, the Democrats are relying largely on centrist Democrats (or policy averse Democrats, as I call them) who emphasize their identities and personal backgrounds over their specific policy ideas.

Among the candidates Bruni and Higa feature, most are women, many have military service in their background and, with some noticeable exceptions, avoid policy specifics. Yes, these candidates have policy preferences, but that is not how they want to define themselves with voters. Similar to the Hillary Clinton campaign, the emphasis is on résumé over substance. Only Allred and Campa-Najjar from the Bruni and Higa article can be considered strong progressives.

A good example of these centrist candidates is Katie Hill, the Democratic House candidate in California’s 25th district, who is bisexual, married to a bisexual man, had an unplanned pregnancy at 18 and owns guns. These specific traits, experiences and life choices really have nothing to do with one another, other than they emphasize her distinctiveness from the Republican incumbent, Steve Knight, who has routinely voted to limit reproductive rights and deny basic civil liberties to LGBTQ Americans. More importantly, Hill is decidedly centrist in her policy views, even though she is routinely called a ‘progressive’ by the national news media.

In describing the Hill candidacy, The Los Angeles Times asksHow does a progressive Democrat try to unseat a Republican? Step one: Don’t talk about single-payer healthcare.

During a chat with a liberal activist group about universal health care, Hill said, “I shouldn’t go into the district and talk about single-payer, right? Like, that word by itself is going to be something that just immediately turns off a lot of people. But, if I talk about how we need to make sure that everybody has access to healthcare and that it’s affordable for everybody and how having a government option is needed at the very least, that is something people can really get behind. It’s more about the way we talk about things than being very far apart on issues.”

Hill’s answer is straight out of the corporatist ‘New Democrat’ handbook: When addressing universal health care, load your sentences with inoffensive platitudes and commit to nothing. This is not a criticism of Hill. To the contrary, it demonstrates her readiness to run for office and win. It is that quality in her that separates high-quality candidates that can win from political neophytes, who usually go down in a flaming heap of position papers and policy statements when they first run for office.

Hill is simply implementing the ‘New Democrat’ strategy championed by Bill Clinton and Al Gore in post-Reagan America and perfected by Barack Obama. Strategic centrism, as Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth describes it, advises Democrats to stay as close to the political center as possible, without alienating the progressive wing of the party; and, when at all possible, avoid boxing themselves in with firm positions on major policy proposals when, instead, they must put a premium on ideological flexibility.

It is this strategy that has become the dominant approach among today’s establishment Democrats, particularly those competing in middle America and conservative-leaning, suburban districts.

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th House District primary, Duckworth told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Ocasio-Cortez is not necessarily a model for other Democrats to follow. She is only “the future of the party in the Bronx, where she is,” said Duckworth. “I don’t think that you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.”

Duckworth may be right, but her opinion, which reflects the views of most establishment Democrats, is oddly reminiscent of an argument establishment Republicans were making in the mid-1970s when they dismissed Ronald Reagan’s muscular conservatism as a viable national strategy. Like Duckworth, the Bob Doles and Nelson Rockefellers in the GOP at the time saw overly strident ideological positions as a liability, not a strategic asset.

They were wrong and Reagan conservatism has been the establishment position for the GOP up until Trump’s recent rise.

And today’s Democratic Party looks increasingly like the Republican Party when it emerged from under Richard Nixon and Watergate — no coherent vision, just a need to regain power any way possible.

The 2018 midterms may be 1978 all over again

Democratic leaders insist on using the same playbook as Bill Clinton’s in 1992 or Barack Obama’s in 2008: Stay near the political center and rely on organizational superiority and candidate charisma to win elections. Substantive policy fights are best held away from the public’s gaze.

But what will happen once the Democrats, riding on the success of its centrist candidates, take back control of the House and Senate next January? Do the Democratic progressives who will join them, such as New York’s Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, and Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley, simply take a backbench seat and wait for their marching orders from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? I don’t think so. In fact, conditions will likely deteriorate very fast for the Democrats, especially if they also control the U.S. Senate.

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t going to Congress to watch Pelosi and New York Senator Chuck Schumer run investigations on the Trump administration. Her constituents will want to see tangible results. Sadly, they will far more likely see the Democrat-controlled Congress approve record-sized defense budgets than the passage of legislation overhauling the inefficient U.S. health care system or increasing the minimum wage or reducing the student debt burden for millions of Americans.

Can Pelosi and Schumer maintain the delicate balance between the corporatist interests seeking open markets, capital mobility, and low labor costs and progressive Democrats, many of whom are still fuming over how the Democratic National Committee openly rigged 2016 primary process against Bernie Sanders? It’s a balancing act the Democratic Party establishment has been attempting since 1992, with little success. Why should the present be any different?

Still, establishment Democrats will see the 2018 landslide as a watershed moment in U.S. political history where a near-permanent Democratic majority finally emerges. The GOP’s impending electoral debacle will, in turn, be seen as a signal of the end of its dominance over the American political system since 1978, when the first sizable number of Reagan conservatives began to win elections.

As it always is, the reality for Democrats will be murkier and fraught with political landmines. The 2018 midterms will be the first election when a meaningful number of progressive, anti-establishment Democrats start winning elections.

However, if progressives are rebuffed and ignored by their congressional leadership (as I expect they will be), they will unleash hellfire on their leaders, not unlike the backbencher revolt Newt Gingrich engineered against his party’s establishment in the late 80s and early 90s. Furthermore, it is increasingly possible the Democratic Party will effectively split into two separate parties, aligned on social justice issues, but permanently divided on economic policy.

If the 2016 election taught us anything, it is that majority of voters across the ideological spectrum are tired of establishment politicians dedicated to the interests of their large campaign donors over the interests of most Americans. As filmmaker Michael Moore aptly put it, Trump was their Molotov cocktail being thrown into the political system.

The message should have been obvious to the political establishment in both parties. Instead, we are distracted by various forms of Trump Derangement Syndrome and anti-Russia scaremongering every night on our nightly news programs.

The American political class has done nothing to regain the trust of the American people. Nothing.

As I pour through reams of survey cross-tabulations on current American attitudes, two years removed from the 2016 election, I see the same distrust and anger that was evident then— in fact, the discontent directed towards the political system may be worse (see Figure 5 below). And while most Americans are done with Trump, they are not screaming for more cautious centrism in his place. And does anyone think Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are the leadership Americans are craving for?

Figure 5. Trust in the Federal Government is Near All-time Lows

Source: Pew Research Center

It is informative that Bernie Sanders is still among the most popular politicians in America today. According to YouGov’s popularity tracking service, as of July 2018, Bernie Sanders was the 14th most popular person in the U.S., behind other politicians and notables such as Joe Biden (13th), Pope Francis (11th), Jimmy Carter (10th), Barack Obama (5th), Prince William (4th), Prince Harry (3rd), Bill Gates (2nd) and Queen Elizabeth (1st).

Behind Sanders are Bill Clinton (20th), Hillary Clinton (28th), Donald Trump (29th), Elizabeth Warren (41st), Nikki Haley (64th), Nancy Pelosi (67th), Chuck Schumer (78th), Corey Booker (82nd), Kamala Harris (88th) and Kristen Gillibrand (117th).

Seeing the continued strength of the Sanders brand relative to other active Democratic politicians, I wonder if the Democratic Party learned what it should have from 2016?

We will find out soon enough.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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What would an American coup d’état look like?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (September 11, 2018)

The following essay is mostly personal opinion, adorned with quotes from anonymous sources, all linked together by wild conjecture and creative license, and peppered throughout with occasional facts whenever possible — in other words, just your average news story today.

_________________________________________________________________

Typically, when we think of a coup d’état, we think of tanks in formation in front of a parliamentary building, jersey barriers surrounding a presidential palace, and armed militia controlling entry and exit at major access points and thoroughfares in a capital city.

But coups can come in many different forms, some ruthless and violent, and others barely noticeable outside of a small cadre of military, political and bureaucratic elites.

For the purposes of this essay, however, a simple dictionary definition of ‘coup d’état’ will suffice:

Coup d’état, also called Coup: the sudden, often violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group whose chief prerequisite is control of all or part of the armed forces, the police, and other military elements. Unlike a revolution, which is usually achieved by large numbers of people working for basic social, economic, and political change, a coup is a change in power from the top that merely results in the involuntary replacement of leading government personnel. A coup rarely alters a nation’s fundamental social and economic policies, nor does it significantly redistribute power among competing political groups.

The definition is narrow enough to distinguish a coup from legal transfers of political power, such as through elections or other constitutional processes, but broad enough to capture less obvious, but no less involuntary, removals of ruling elites.

The question posed in this essay’s title is not suggesting the U.S. is in the midst of an existing, or soon-to-be-implemented, coup attempt; but this essay is offering evidentiary signs and visual markers of what an American coup might include.

What this essay is not addressing is if the president has demonstrably committed a high crime and misdemeanor or is incapable of executing the duties of president. In such a case, a coup is not necessary. The Constitution through Article II, Section 4 (Impeachment) or the 25th Amendment (Incapacitation) has the means to deal with that problem.

We are considering here a situation where powerful people decide they don’t like a presidential election outcome and want to change the result sub rosa; a situation where the president has not committed a high crime and is notincapacitated and, instead, where conspiratorial actors attempt to remove him or her from power for illegitimate reasons.

Who would be the actors behind an American coup?

Coups require the cooperation of a decent number of people. Not too many. But a good number — lets say, 30 people. For a large country, like the U.S., maybe 50 people are needed.

An American coup would furthermore require people who were not only motivated to remove a duly-elected president, but capable of planning and implementing such a hostile takeover. That last requirement narrows the potential pool of conspirators down to a tiny fraction of Americans — probably less than 1,000 people in strategically useful positions.

Qualifying as a potential conspirator is not a function of wealth either, though the financial stakes involved in an attempted coup would no doubt inspire great interest in its potential risks among this nation’s wealthiest elites. Bill Gates or Warren Buffett might have the financial resources to fund an American coup, but they lack the incentive (the current president is working just fine for them and a failed coup would be really bad for business) and specific knowledge, or a strong relationship with people with such knowledge, to execute a successful coup. The super wealthy are better off watching from the sidelines.

On the other hand, a successful American coup will need to undermine the legitimacy of the current president and, therefore, the conspirators will need at least the passive cooperation of the nation’s major news, social and entertainment media outlets. And given that six companies control 90 percent of today’s U.S. media, it is likely that an American coup would include some of the most senior executives in our nation’s largest media companies.

Far more important than money or media access, however, will be an ideological esprit de corps among the conspirators. Bonded by like minds and interests, the potential conspirators will have a common understanding of the imminent threat posed by the current president and why his or her removal from power needs to happen now and not through the normal constitutional procedures. The coup’s urgency will feel so organic to this cabal, so obvious as to its necessity, that there may be surprisingly little communication between conspirators during the planning and execution stages. They will just know what to do and when to do it.

So who are the conspiratorial candidates? Probably two groups top the list: neoliberals and neoconservatives. An overly simplified description of these two political factions goes as follows:

Neoliberals, also known as corporatist Democrats, focus on economic issues (both domestic and global in scope), and attempt to maximize the public support while focusing on the interests of large corporations and private capital. Their patron saint is Bill Clinton and are represented today by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party establishment. They do not like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Tulsi Gabbard. In fact, they will do everything in their power to crush their collective bones into dust.

Neoconservatives originally were a sect of prominent Democrats (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Henry “Scoop” Jackson) who focused on defense and national security issues and were fiercely anti-Communist, though always supporting major aspects of the Democrats’ social agenda, particularly with respect to civil rights. The early neoconservatives were a reaction to the emerging New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s that emphasized pacifism and moral relativism, a set of beliefs the neoconservatives blamed for George McGovern’s epic defeat to Richard Nixon in 1972. Eventually, the neoconservatives expanded into the Republican ranks as well (William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Paul Bremer) and, today, are represented by the likes of Bill Kristol, Jon Podhoretz, Robert Kaplan, Trump national security adviser John Bolton, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, among others. Arizona Senator John McCain was also considered a neoconservative.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of modern neoconservatism is its belief that the American national interest often requires the U.S. to intervene (militarily, if necessary) in the internal affairs of other countries deemed anti-democratic and/or hostile to American global interests. Where the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia established that the sovereignty of individual nation-states was supreme and that the internal affairs of one nation-state was not to be interfered with by another nation-state, the neoconservatives tore such thinking asunder. In their view, it is the inherent right and moral imperative of supranational entities, such as the United Nations, or the U.S. itself, to intervene in the affairs of individual nation-states, whether they violate the rights of their own citizens or potentially threaten the broader interests of the U.S. and the international community.

In other words, neoconservatives love regime change wars and generally push for them at every opportunity.

While neoliberalism and neoconservatism are distinct ideologies, their adherents often commingle and individually may move freely between them. Case in point, many of Hillary Clinton’s closest national security advisers during her two presidential campaigns were staunch neoconservatives (Robert Kaplan, Sidney Bloomenthal), even though she is generally considered the neoliberal prototype.

Yet, I refuse to dive down a rat hole quibbling about the precise definitions of these two factions and therefore, for the purposes of this essay, I treat them as largely one cohesive group.

Neoliberals and neoconservatives are real groups and not intellectual abstractions. And while they don’t use secret handshakes and ancient rituals to initiate their brethren into the rules and customs of their ideological sect, they do possess fiercely homogeneous lifestyles that make membership in them obvious to their members. They go to the same schools, attend the same parties, work for the same companies, vacation on the same islands, were military officers at the same time, share the same spouses, read the same political columnists, and use the same financial advisers. Most importantly, they know who belongs and doesn’t belong to their respective sect.

Bernie Sanders, you are not a member of the neoliberal and neoconservative sects and will never be…even if you beg…on both knees.

What would be the tactics and methods used in an American coup?

This is the easiest question of all to answer.

Short of tanks on the White House lawn, the tactics and methods of an American coup would mirror tactics and methods the U.S. already employs in instigating coups outside the U.S.: (dis)information campaigns, manipulation of the popular media, financial incentives, planting conspirators inside the existing ruling group, and enlisting the ideological and (sometimes) material support of military leaders, the domestic security apparatus and the nation’s major economic interests.

Worldwide there have been 43 attempted coups since 2010, most have been in Africa (31), and only 9 were at least temporarily successful. Coups are hard, even in small countries. With a country the size of the U.S., the task is monumental.

But there is some guidance on how to execute a successful coup. Edward N. Luttwak, the godfather of coup planning and prevention, worked for U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment and was a consultant to the National Security Council, the White House Chief of Staff, and several other foreign governments. In 1968, he wrote the book Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook.

Though many of the conditions he views as necessary for a coup to succeed do not currently exist in the U.S., such as a prolonged economic crisis, the book still offers the basic structural patterns of successful coups.

For example, according to Luttwak, coups require the cooperation of military officers commanding units that can be quickly placed around government headquarter buildings and key hubs within the capital city. Luttwak also points out that passive, large-scale acceptance by the public is essential, as is the necessity for conspirators to move quickly and minimize violence. “The ideal coup is swift and bloodless,” says Luttwak.

In the case of the U.S., given the country’s sheer size and diffuse distribution of power, the Luttwak model does requires some alterations; but, nonetheless, offers a generalized framework for what an American coup would require:

First, delegitimize the president and his administration. An obvious task, but absolutely essential it is done well. Flood the daily news and information streams with negative stories, rumors, and outright lies about the current administration. For every rumor and falsehood you make them address today, they will be blindsided by two more tomorrow. And it will be critical to mix legitimate administration mistakes (which there will be many) with falsehoods. Muddle the information stream to the point where truth and fiction become indistinguishable.

Leverage every relationship you have with the national news media and entertainment industry and enlist them to spread these negative messages through the media bloodstream. Absolutely inundate the average American — politically active or not — with negative stories and images about the current president.

Additionally, plant your operatives in the current administration wherever possible, and have them leak rumors and innuendo to an eager press corps on a regular basis. And when the president’s popularity and influence starts its inevitable death spiral, plant an anonymous editorial in The New York Timessuggesting a disloyal cadre of senior administration officials, out of their selfless sense of patriotic duty, are working against the president’s agenda on a daily basis.

As the administration’s wheels start to fall off as the tenacity of the internal and external opposition grows, the administration loyalists themselves will start making objectively serious mistakes, which will augment, amplify and validate your initial disinformation campaign.

Second, ensure the defense and national security establishment supports the removal of the president. Without their support, even if only passive, there is no chance an American coup can succeed. Let them know what the U.S. defense establishment gains by allowing the premature removal of a duly-elected president. An even larger defense budget than the already bloated one we have today? A limit to the number of regime change wars we engage in at any single point in time?

What the Pentagon wants must be incorporated into the coup’s ultimate objectives.

Senior military officers are, by training and genetics, painfully risk-averse. Believe it or not, they hate ‘hot’ wars. Truly. They hate them. Especially against well-equipped adversaries (North Korea, Iran, Russia, China) where they have a chance of losing many of the sexy weapons systems the U.S. Congress has generously funded. Or worse yet, exposing the irrelevancy and impotence of these multi-million dollar systems. The reputations of defense contractors and distinguished military careers can be permanently ruined in ‘hot’ wars, and that scares stars off of generals.

The neoliberal-neoconservative conspiratorial cabal will profit directly from any of the regime change wars being gamed every day within the Pentagon. That doesn’t mean the Pentagon wants to engage in these wars. But they if they are going to be forced into them by their civilian masters, they want to “win” them according to some objective, though inevitably inadequate, metric.

A successful American coup will therefore establish clear boundaries and goals towards which the defense and national security establishment can buy into and implement once the new administration takes over.

[Donald Trump’s ill-informed, arbitrary, and Twitter-driven foreign policy development process is precisely the type of civilian leadership that would provoke a Pentagon-led mutiny. And, frankly, it would be hard to oppose such a mutiny — though we still should.]

Thirdly, there must be a singular leader that can sell the coup to the American people. To use the current American political context as an example, a coup against Donald Trump must be marketed and legitimized in such a way that even the most ardent and clueless Trump supporter (Eric) will grudgingly concede ‘it had to be done.’ It may be a fair estimate that a quarter of the American people will never accept the removal of a U.S. president (if Richard Nixon’s resignation is any indicator). But that level of resistance is tolerable. They can shamed into silence with enough help from the media.

What cannot happen is something north of 40 percent of the public opposing a president’s removal. In that scenario, all hell breaks loose. Riots breaks out. People will die. And whatever benefit achieved by the president’s removal will be more than lost in the nation’s streets and neighborhoods.

How do you sell a coup to the people? The conspirators will need a consensus-building leader, a statesman, someone with qualities that transcend party and ideology. Without that person, there is no American coup, just a nationwide melee followed by martial law.

How about Barack Obama? He’s why we are facing this problem to begin with.

How about Michelle Obama? We sort of tried that with Hillary and, well, here we are.

Joe Biden? Only Democrats love Joe Biden, and even most of them don’t.

Oprah? Stop it.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? Maybe. A definite maybe.

As of today, no such person exists. And no American coup will succeed without someone possessing that stature.

So, to instigate an American coup, at some point, sooner rather than later, someone must come riding in (figuratively) on a white horse pledging to unite the partisan factions and return order and decency to the American presidency and political system. When that person arrives, then you can have your coup.

Lastly, an American coup will need to look, as much as possible, like democracy in action. In other words, the only plausible route for a coup is through the specious application of either the Constitution’s Article II (Section 4) or the 25th Amendment.

So, even under conducted under false pretenses, the act of removing a president must look to the American people as morally and legally copacetic. Anything less, and the coup fails. However, if the first step outlined above (delegitimization) is executed properly, it should not be hard to make the coup look like the Constitution and our democracy are working exactly the way the Founding Fathers designed them.

Let us admit what many serious people are thinking: Donald Trump needs to be removed from office immediately

Personally, I believe Donald Trump is more an imminent threat to himself than to the U.S. Rather, his powerful enemies are far more dangerous to the American democracy and way of life than he is.

But I also recognize Donald Trump is not up to the job of being president. He’s not even close.

He is a chronic liar, poorly-educated, stubbornly uninformed, inarticulate, immature, misogynistic, devoid of empathy, and emotionally erratic — and that assessment is based on just his behavior in the last 24 hours.

When I tell people my 12-year-old son, right now, would make a better president than Donald Trump, it is not said in jest. I truly believe it. Even scarier, my son believes it.

Unfortunately, our system of government is poorly designed to handle someone like Trump. If we had the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system, Trump would be a non-issue. The ruling party would change the locks on his office door and he’d be marginalized immediately. The British House of Parliament doesn’t f*rt around with numpties like Trump. The UK (or any other parliamentary democracy) will never have a potentially existential crisis such as the one enveloping the U.S. at present. UK’s stodgy politics may be far too biased towards elites and the status-quo, but they will never have a Donald Trump problem. Never.

So, as of today, what should we do here in the U.S.?

Again, the answer is easy. Donald Trump is the duly-elected President of the U.S. He has the constitutional and moral right to stay in office for the rest of his term, assuming nothing disqualifying is revealed by the Robert Mueller probe — and there is little reason to believe he will. If Congress negates the 2016 election because the Russians bought some Facebook memes and stole some emails with the prior knowledge of the Trump campaign, they will be granting the Russians far more power over the U.S. than they deserve.

Plus, pursuing the removal of the president only distracts Americans from the real, more serious issues facing this country.

Therefore, any attempt to contradict the will of the American electorate in 2016 will do more harm to the republic than anything Trump can do as president.

An American coup, through the improper application of the Constitution’s mechanisms for removing a president, is the last thing this country need’s and serious people need to start saying so.

Besides, we only need to wait two more years before the next presidential election. A blink of an eye.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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Is the Syrian civil war winding down?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (September 14, 2018)

With an impending ‘final’ battle for the last major rebel stronghold in Idlib, Syria, many observers are suggesting this may be the final stage of the Syrian civil war which started in 2011.

Several significant in the past year are generally cited as evidence of the war coming to a close. “For one thing, 2017 marked the fall of opposition-held Eastern Aleppo to government forces,” says journalist Alessandria Masi, managing editor for Syria Deeply. “The evacuation of rebels from Aleppo to Idlib that followed was the first of many such movements to take place in other areas of Syria over the past year. The battle against the so-called Islamic State has been — to a certain extent — won. What’s more, the Syrian government has made a major push to spur reconstruction, development and financial investment in the country.”

While pockets of Islamic State forces (ISIS) and Syrian rebels still exist in southern Syria, the last major concentration of anti-Assad forces reside in the Idlib province (see Figure 1). In addition, Kurdish forces with the support of U.S. Special Operations forces control most of northeast Syria.

Should the Assad forces regain control of Idlib province, the government will control two-thirds of the territory it controlled prior to the start of the civil war seven years ago.

Figure 1. Status of Syrian Civil War (September 2018)

Source: Bloomberg News Service

At the same time, Russian, U.S., Iranian, and other foreign fighters will still be firmly entrenched within Syria (see Figure 2), not to mention Israel’s continued control of the Golan Heights (internationally recognized as Syrian territory) and Turkey’s opposition to any Kurdish independence push in northeast Syria.

Given the stark realities on the ground, the notion that the Syrian conflict is winding down appears somewhat optimistic.

Figure 2. Locations of U.S. and Russian Troops in Syria (January 2018)

Source: Artishok Interactive

Many unresolved aspects of the Syrian civil war could ignite a new, and possibly deadlier, round of Syrian fighting. Most prominent among them is the fact that U.S. and Kurdish forces control a substantial percentage of Syria’s oil fields and its most productive natural gas field near Deir Ezzor (also known as Dayr Az Zawr) (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Location of Syrian Oil and Gas Fields

Source: The Energy Consulting Group

Before the civil war, Syria’s GDP provided approximately 20 percent of the Syrian government’s revenues and about 40 percent of its export receipts, according to The World Bank.

The Bashar al-Assad government is already strapped for money as it begins to fund reconstruction in post-civil war Syria, and if Damascus cannot leverage the entirety of its energy production assets for generating export revenues, it is hard to imagine how Syria can avoid taking on enormous levels of additional foreign debt. As of 2017, the CIA estimated Syria’s gross public debt as a percentage of GDP was 58 percent.

“Syria as a centrally managed state no longer exists,” says Osama Kadi, founder and president of the Syrian Economic Task Force. “Analyzing the Syrian economy in terms of it being a comprehensive state economy is meaningless because there are four influential military powers on the ground: Iran, Russia, Turkey and the U.S. They have control over areas and resources that the Syrian regime does not.”

For example, when the U.S. ousted ISIS from Raqqah, its forces also took control of the majority of Syria’s oil fields, the revenues from which will be critical for Syria’s reconstruction. “Thus, if no deal is reached between Russia and the U.S., which most likely will be the case, then each area of influence will have separate reconstruction and development plans,” says Kadi.

Unfortunately, there is already evidence that any attempted settlement regarding Syria’s oil and gas reserves, as small as they are relative to other oil and gas producing countries in the region, could turn violent.

Jared Szuba, writing for the DefenseReport.com, believes competition for control of Syria’s gas and oil fields was behind a brief but deadly skirmish near Deir Ezzor (also known as Dayr Az Zawr) between American forces and Russian paramilitary contractors on February 7, 2018, which left around 300 Russians dead and hundreds of pro-regime fighters injured.

Writes Szuba:

On the night of February 7, hundreds of fighters from various countries, backed by artillery, multiple rocket launcher systems and Soviet tanks, emerged from a row of villages near the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor and advanced towards the one of the country’s largest natural gas fields.

As the yet unidentified forces advanced on February 7th towards American positions controlling the Conoco natural gas field, which were captured in September 2017, US Army Brigadier General Jonathan Braga, director of operations, Combined Joint Task Force (Operation Inherent Resolve) picked up the phone used for Russian deconfliction to ascertain if Russian forces were in the area. When Gen. Braga’s Russian counterpart said ‘No,’ U.S. forces promptly unleashed three hours of airstrikes on the enemy positions, resulting in the death of hundreds of Russian contractors.

Since the incident, the U.S. military has been vague on what caused those events on the evening of February 7th, but Szuba believes a race between U.S. forces and pro-Syrian government forces, including Russians and Iranians, is the root cause:

The Department of Defense may have been covering for bold battlefield opportunism in the place of failed diplomacy. Shortly after the airstrike, there were multiple reports that there had been no such deconfliction line agreement at Deir Ezzor. An anonymous U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal in September that attempts to pressure Russia to commit to the line in the summer of 2017 “stalled,” and as a result, both sides dashed for the area’s oilfields.

In all probability, the pro-Assad forces were probing the American defensive positions on February 7th to determine how committed the Americans are to protect strategic territory, such as the Conoco natural gas field near Deir Ezzor.

According to Szuba, the Assad government considers control of its oil and gas fields as critical in financing the country’s reconstruction after seven years of war. Before resigning, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even admitted that U.S. control of Syria’s oil and gas assets would be used as leverage against the Assad government once the civil war as effectively ended and ISIS has been defeated.

But more critically, the U.S. aims to prevent Iran from establishing a continuous land-route to its Mediterranean allies through Iraq and Syria’s Deir Ezzor corridor. An unbroken land transportation route from Iran to the Mediterranean would be a major strategic victory for Tehran and something the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to accept quietly.

And, finally, very little attention has been given to the Assad regime’s stated desire to recapture all Syrian territory lost during the civil war.

“Although the [government] essentially obtained victory after reconquering Aleppo city in its entirety, it still vows to retake all of Syria,” Aymenn al-Tamimi, research fellow at the Middle East, told Syria Deeply. “This intention needs to be taken seriously, especially with regards to the conflict with the armed opposition. Hopes that ‘deescalation’ will be conducive to bringing about a real political settlement and long-term toleration of formal opposition control of certain areas are mistaken. Whatever truth there might be to the supposed Russian reluctance regarding the military reconquest of particular places is not enough to restrain the government when it is intent on military reconquest and ‘softer landing’ methods have failed.”

If Szuba and al-Tamimi are correct, a Syrian government victory in Idlib will merely mark the end of the Syrian conflict’s first phase. The next combat phase may be driven by four factors: (1) Syria’s urgent need for oil and gas revenues to support reconstruction efforts, (2) the regime’s nationalist desire to regain control of all territory held prior to the civil war, (3) the enormous challenges Syria will face as it reincorporates the potentially millions of Syrian refugees who will return once security conditions allow, and (4) Iran’s ambition to control a continuous land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean.

If these factors cannot be settled diplomatically through negotiations, and there is reason to think they will not, the likelihood of a military solution involving multiple countries substantially increases. And this new combat phase could escalate rapidly into a wider regional war given there is no timetable for Russian, Iranian, Turkish and U.S. forces to leave Syria.

When that much firepower under differing commands is put that close together, bad things often happen.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are already engaged in a semi-secret alliance to contain Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East. While Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have taken the lead on fighting Iranian proxies in Yemen (with substantial U.S. assistance), Israel has focused on attacking Iranian assets in Syria. The magazine, Foreign Policy, recently reported that Israel secretly armed and funded 12 Syrian rebel groups to push Iranian-backed forces and ISIS fighters away from the Israeli border.

Add to this volatile mix Israel’s strategic incentive in keeping Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah embroiled in Syria’s civil war and it becomes hard to be optimistic about Syria’s immediate future.

And still lurking behind the curtain are America’s neoconservative regime-change mavens, formerly led by late-Senator John McCain, who now believe they have figured out how to win a regime change war, and would love to demonstrate their newly-acquired wisdom by doubling-down on U.S. military commitments in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and half of Africa.

With every new atrocity against civilians in Syria, whether it be an illegal chemical or incendiary attack or a more ‘civilized’ barrage of artillery shells where the victims die under tons of rubble, the calls for a larger U.S. troop presence in Syria will grow louder. South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, Tom Friedman, David Ignatius, and a vast assortment of former George W. Bush national security mavens are always prepared to appear on Morning Joe or Rachel Maddow to promote their forevermore discredited regime change agenda.

In other words, the Syrian conflict could get even uglier than it already is.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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