Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What is there in Syria? Apocalypse

"Mesopotamia . . . yes . . . oil . . . irrigation . . . we must have Mesopotamia; Palestine . . . yes . . . the Holy Land . . . Zionism . . . we must have Palestine; Syria . . . h'm . . . what is there in Syria? Let the French have that." — Lloyd George during the 1919 Peace Conference, thinking aloud in the presence of Arnold Toynbee [Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919, page 381]

What is there is Syria? Not Lebanon or Palestine. Both were traditionally part of Syria, but were partitioned off by the Great Powers (the old French Empire and British Empire) in the early 20th century.

How many people are left in Syria? Maybe 18 million. Note that Greece has a smaller population, about 11 million. So why are we so worried about a debt default in Greece, when the Apocalypse has already come to Syria? Because the Greeks owe the rest of Europe so much money. Syrians made the mistake of not borrowing vast sums of money from America and Europe.

Of course, to borrow vast sums of money from Europe and America, the Syrians would have had to give up much of their autonomy. They would have to undertake a pro-American and pro-Israeli foreign policy. And they would have to use the loans to make profits for the lenders, which was a little hitch the Greeks forgot about.

After the French Empire finished mismanaging Syria in 1945, it was left to the locals to mismanage their country. The French apparently trained the locals well.

At one point, when the two empires were dividing up what bits of the world they had not grabbed already before World War I, the city of Mosul and the area around it was supposed to be part of Syria. Mosul was already known to have oil. The French and British argued. They decided Mosul would be part of British Iraq, but that French oil companies would share the profits from Mosul oil, and would allow a pipeline to be built through Syria so the oil could be picked up on the Mediterranean coast.

Syria may not have much, but people want it all the same. It was building up a respectable tourist industry before the current civil war began. So of course President Bashar Assad and the political and economic elite wanted to hold on. It's not like they were in the position to grab anything else. They could not even grab the Golan Heights back from Israel.

Every system, no matter how democratic or how authoritarian, has its outsiders who would like to become a new part of the old elite, or a new elite. Assad and friends had made enemies, and for all I know some of their complaints might have been justified. In any case protest turned to civil war in 2011.

Civil war is usually a bad choice. Maybe the legally elected regime could have compromised more and averted the war, but I doubt it. The Syrian civil war was always about Islamic radicalism. Sunni Arabs account for about 60% of the population, yet Assad is Shia and the government is dominated by the Shia minority. Politically the government is dominated by the Baath party and its allies in the National Progressive Front, which includes many Sunni Arabs.

Some people just never modernize. They think religious platitudes are actually fact-based. They don't want to tolerate anyone who does not believe in the same fairy-tales as themselves. Apparently there were plenty of these people in Syria, because they flocked to the rebellion. Then the I-am-more Islamic than you game got some momentum. Al Qaeda became prominent, then its even-more-radical offshoot the Islamic State.

Syria may not have anything the British Empire wanted after World War I, but when you have nothing, even Syria may be attractive. The Islamic State wants Syria, and since the U.S. has an irrational hatred of Assad and the Baath Party, it won't be a big surprise if the Islamic State gets what it wants.

Wither then? Turkey? More likely Jordan. The difference is that Jordan has long been a U.S. client state. Whoever is President (of the U.S.) at that point will probably try to get Saudi Arabia or Israel to defend Jordan. But likely at that point, if they are not needed somewhere else in the world, U.S. troops will be deployed in earnest.

Even when you are better armed and better trained, fighting fanatics is not a job any sane person wants. They just keep coming at you. You begin to feel like you are a minor character in the Walking Dead series. You can't let your guard down for a moment. Ask any Vietnam Veteran.

It kind of makes me wish we had just let the old U.S.S.R. have Afghanistan and a free hand to convert the lot of them to atheism.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Hot Shower before the Apocalypse

More to save on the electric bill than on California's water, I habitually have showered only twice a week for years. I can get away with that partly because I work at home. You can't smell me over the Internet.

I was brought up to bath or shower once a day, and I do enjoy a hot shower. I enjoy it especially when I think about how the Apocalypse could come any day. No, I am not expecting the return of Jesus. He said he would return during the lifetimes of his Apostles, and he didn't.

By Apocalypse I mean all the ways the civilized world as we know it could fall apart.

I am a child of the Atomic Era, so my earliest apocalyptic worries were about Atomic War. Apparently that came pretty close to happening several times both before I was born (in 1955) and on up until the end of the Cold War. It still could happen. Even a single atomic bomb going off in New York City, Washington, London, or perhaps Moscow could bring on a kind of lesser economic apocalypse that could turn hot showers into luxuries.

I live about a half mile from the San Andreas fault, so a major earthquake is a real possibility. That could bring on a local apocalypse, but would not effect people outside of California much.

Some people think storms will get worse due to global warming. But I see storms as just temporary apocalypse lite events. If it takes a long time to repair the electricity lines I would long for a hot shower.

Famine might leave us with hot showers, but hungry. It is hard for Americans to grasp how bad a famine could be. Most post Civil War hunger in America has been due to screwed up economic priorities, not due to an actual shortage of food. But look at the recent egg shortage. What would happen if the corn and wheat crops failed in a major way two years in a row? We don't have a lot of food in storage in the U.S. any more, not like we had during the Cold War. People would fight over food, with the relatively rich probably getting most of it.

I live in the country, but not in a food-producing region. My soil is lousy, it required fertilizer to produce anything edible. The only thing I typically have a surplus of is apples. Apple trees love it here. I know how hard it is go grow enough food on a small scale to do more than just supplement food that comes from professional large-scale agriculture. Don't kid yourself. A suburban backyard garden won't keep you from starving to death (if you can't get food from outside), it will just slow down the process. Assuming your water supply is even working.

But the most likely and scary form of apocalypse would be economic and social collapse. I don't see that coming until we have another bubble of some sort first. Even then if people have done some saving in the meantime and keep their heads, we might muddle through. My main concern as an analyst is the National Debt. It has become a balloon, and if interest rates rise enough, it will balloon so fast it could take down the government and economy.

Sometimes people just go nuts. Enough nutty people and the economy tanks, the government falls, and the next thing you know food does not get distributed, and neither does electricity, and so: the end of hot showers.

Or it could be a combination of things. Like when people walk out on a balcony with wood rot. Dry rotted wood can be surprisingly strong, but put enough weight on it, and at some point it reaches the snapping point.

A sudden jump in the rate of global warming, a tightening of world food supplies. A war in the Middle East spilling over into India or Europe. Too much debt. Too much political gridlock. Too many people unwilling to give up their oversized piece of the pie for the common good. A blight striking down grain crops, or perhaps knocking down a good proportion of the human population. Plans based on growth suddenly up in smoke, defaults on loans, low tax receipts, a default on the federal debt, Dr. Strangelove firing off a nuclear missile thinking that, somehow, will make things better.

Of course the Apocalypse might kill you, or me, but I enjoy thinking about surviving it.

Enjoy your next hot shower. It is not likely to be your last, but it could be.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Terminate the H1-B Visa Program

The H1-B visa program allowing U.S. businesses to employ specialty workers on a temporary basis should be terminated. It has been abused by employers while offering little or no benefit to the U.S. economy even when used as intended.

The foreign workers employed are supposed to have skills in technology, science, business, or other areas that are not available from potential employees in the U.S.

In large, however, the skills are available from U.S. employees. The difference is the H1-B workers can be employed at low wages and threatened with deportation should they fail to meet employer demands.

In the cases where there are shortages of skilled workers in the U.S., these could be fixed by simply training Americans or providing specific education for them.

In theory only 65,000 H1-B visas are to be issued each year, but due to loopholes in reality almost 136,000 were issued in 2012. Each visa is good for up to six years.

The legal immigration quota for the U.S. currently is 700,000 per year. That does not include student visas and guest workers. That is a lot of new arrivals each year. If Congress wants to prioritize within that 700,000 those who have skills that would help the U.S. economy, I have no problem with that.

Work skills are already one of the criteria for determining who gets a regular immigration slot. The difference is that person does not come to the U.S. as a slave to a corporate sponsor, but may take any employment they like.

Comprehensive immigration reform is something every politician says they want, but different groups have different ideas of what changes they would like.

I favor comprehensive immigration reform, including allowing all North American citizens the freedom to travel, work, and do business anywhere in North America.

But the H1-B visa program has been abused to the point that it should be terminated. No exceptions. Businesses that abused the program should be investigated and sanctioned.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Islamic State compared with St. Bartholomew's Day Roman Catholics

I don't like the Islamic State, or ISIS. I try to be tolerant of people's religions and philosophies, but when a group tries to impose its religion (including atheism) using violence, I take issue.

In this essay I want to provide some historical context for the level of violence that has been practiced by ISIS during the last few years. This is by no means meant to excuse ISIS. It is meant to remind people that religious violence this is a long-term problem that has not been confined to any particular religion or ethnicity.

Historical comparisons to choose from are numerous, but I believe the most appropriate religious one is known as the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. Spin the time machine back to Europe in 1572 and a great religious transformation was taking place. Spurred on by the printing press making Bibles more available, a variety of Protestant groups had broken the monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church on religious life in Europe. That monopoly had previously been enforced by Rome killing anyone who disagreed with it from roughly 400 A.D. onward. Martin Luther was simply the first of what the Catholic Church called Heretics to disagree (in 1517) and live.

The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre took place in France in 1572. France was mainly Roman Catholic, but had fairly large numbers of Protestants known as Huguenots. On the eve of the feast of the Apostle Bartholomew, August 23, a well-planned slaughter of the Huguenots was executed under orders from King Charles IX. No one knows for sure how many Protestants were killed, but probably at least 10,000 and perhaps many more.

I don't know how many people ISIS has killed, but we should keep in mind the difficulty in separating out murders conducted for reasons of religion, politics, or economics. Were American Indians slaughtered because they were not Christians, or because they were not paid-up members of the white race, or simply because of greed? All are partly true. The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre had political and economic components as well.

So too with the Islamic State. While it has a distinctly religious character, it also shows a rather sharp interest in business enterprises. It seems to have its own power-hungry elite. While you might think that its Caliph would seek to unite all Islam against all infidels, so far ISIS seems to prefer killing Shia moslems to converting them.

Today it is hard for anyone to imagine the Roman Catholic Church killing people for not being Catholic, partly because people have short memories and partly because the Church changed. After almost enforcing Catholicism on all of Europe during its Fascist peak in World War II, Roman Catholic armies were rolled back by atheists and Protestants, with atheists suffering most of the casualties. The horrors of the Holocaust and the battlefield and defeat left a widespread disgust with the Church that led to the following decades of pretending to be a church of peace. Maybe it has pretended so long now that it has genuinely transformed itself into a peaceful organization.

Being known to be ultra-violent on the battlefield is often a good way to win battles, as ISIS has shown in both Iraq and Syria. It also cows populations and gives them time to think that they might as well profess whichever religion does not get them killed. Most people in the world today who believe in traditional religions have ancestors who decided to convert under threat of death.

I believe, at this point, that ISIS has to be defeated on the battlefield, if it is to be defeated. ISIS would not exist if the United States had not destroyed the government of Saddam Husein and attempted to destroy that of Bashar Assad. But the U.S. should keep its hands off the region from now on, except for perhaps making economic reparations for the harm we have already caused. Let Iran and Turkey fight ISIS. It is their area, they know the cultural landscape, and will doubtless do much better, given that Turkey is predominantly Sunni and Iran Shia. Both are modern nations where Islam is much more liberal, on the whole, than the ISIS version.

If necessary, let the Saudis send their fat-ass princes to the slaughter, instead of sucking on all the delights of the earth bought with their oil money.

Perhaps August 23 would be a good date for all the good people of the world to remember the victims of religious fanaticism, and to pledge to keep religious conversion efforts peaceful.