Wednesday Night #1558

Written by  //  January 11, 2012  //  People Meta, Reports, Ron Meisels, Wednesday Nights  //  No comments

With a great sense of loss, we share the sad news of Knut Hammarskjöld’s death on January 3rd, just 13 days shy of his 90th birthday. Ron Meisels spoke for all of us saying “I fondly remember how he lit up WN every time he attended.” We plan to hold a special Knut Knight soon for all who knew him and enjoyed his many contributions to Wednesday Night.
Recommended Reading — Todd Purdom’s article on George Kennan in the January Vanity Fair, One Nation, Under Arms
The private papers of the late George F. Kennan, Cold War architect and diplomat extraordinaire, reveal his anguish over the way his famous 1947 warning about Soviet expansionism helped transform the America he loved into one he no longer recognized: a national-security state. A half-century after a similarly historic warning—President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speech about the dangers of a powerful “military-industrial complex”—Todd S. Purdum shows how completely Kennan’s and Eisenhower’s worst fears have been realized, warping almost every aspect of society, deflecting attention from urgent problems, and splitting the country into two classes.

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The Report

Whether one is a creationist, believing that the world was created in seven days (more precisely six), or an evolutionist who believes that life began in the swamps, slowly evolving over eons from the chance creation of unicellular beings into the marvel of Man, the most incredible miracle is that Man still exists, albeit with continuing tribal and individual dominant male instincts. For reasons as yet to be explained, although the transfers of dominance among nations from ancient history are studied and recognized throughout the world and its transfer from Great Britain to the United States during and following World War II evident to most, few appear to recognize that the world is currently in flux, that tribalism is alive and well and the future is likely to continue to see tribal, national and international evolution continue.

Westmount
A frequently recurring theme at Wednesday Night is the absence of civility in political discourse. Until quite recently, the municipality of Westmount has been a shining exception, however, with the introduction of the arena project, a small group of determined individuals has opposed Mayor Trent and the Council at every opportunity, disrupting meetings, distorting facts and creating a poisonous ambiance which will surely discourage the type of devoted and selfless public service of which Westmount has been so justifiably proud.
U.S.
The microscope naturally focuses on the United States, its debt, President Obama and the November elections this year. Mitt Romney, viewed by some Wednesday Nighters as the least worst potential Republican candidate, appears to be likely to lead the Republican Party into the election. This should not cause the Democrats much anxiety regarding the presidency, but it is likely that the Republicans will gain control of the Senate, and thus of Congress. Will matters be worse than over the past two years? Or is it possible that the politicians will finally recognize that the public’s patience has been exhausted by the dysfunction of Congress?
With the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama has announced a reduction of defense spending and reshaping of the U.S. military. Even with the most drastic cuts, the defense budget will be at the same level as in 2007, and should the Pentagon’s much-publicized purchasing excesses be curtailed, perhaps there would be little or no diminishing of the funds for necessary military expenditures. In the 1960s, the U.S. could easily put a half a million troops in the field.
The U.S. economy is not as grave a problem as the debt; the public sector is squeezed by the debt not the economy that is not doing well. . One caveat appears to be the danger of cutting the armed forces leading to the inability to fight two wars at the same time, the demonstration of which in the past may very well have made the U.S. a less vulnerable target. The dubious nature of declared victories in Iraq and Afghanistan may very well have changed the view of the U.S. The U.K. has undergone a similar experience in their view of the necessity of funding the maintenance of the world’s largest public in terms of the cost and value of the military, but any Pearl-Harbour like attack would most certainly change citizen view of the value of a strong, albeit expensive, military presence.
The nature of debt, money and value is ephemeral. Although she is admired, perhaps revered by some, it is difficult to explain the inherent value of an engraving of Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Wilfred Laurier, or George Washington on a sheet of quality paper, or currently, on plastic. On reflection, it is evident that we are, collectively, far wealthier in this century than we were in the middle of the last century but perhaps less so individually. As inflation permits both nations and individuals to more easily repay their debts, a far more reasonable but less measurable yardstick of inflation would be the number of units of labour required to produce a unit of consumption. Mid-twentieth-century Canadians didn’t travel as even modest wage earners do now, had no computers, television and/or other electronic devices owned by most.
Greece
Greece is the focal point for debt resolution, which, albeit with some winners and some losers, will be resolved. If Greece defaults, some predators will be content and the appropriate debit and credit entries will be made in ledgers. In 2004, Basel II established the amount of capital Banks were required to maintain as insurance against a total collapse of the banking system and it is apparently believed by some, that the accord actually favoured crises similar to the current European credit crisis. It is said by some Wednesday Nighters, undoubtedly cynically, that the greatest as yet insoluble debt is the increasing environmental debt.
Iran
Perhaps as insurance against physical attacks on its nuclear program and following the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, believed to be related related to the Iranian Nuclear development program, Iran, on the surface, appears to be prepared to shoot itself in the foot in its threat to deny passage through the Strait of Hormuz on which its’ as well as other oil producers’ ships must pass if the vital export of oil is to be maintained. A closer examination reveals a win-win situation for Iran. If shipping is in danger, insurance rates will rise, adversely affecting the cost of oil to the West. If the U.S. or other navies pose the threat of opening the Strait by force the numerous small boats these can easily deflect the missiles intended for the Iranian Navy and cause damage to the ships of the attackers. In either case, the increased insurance rates would prevail, leaving the western countries to pay the penalty. There is far greater concern about the role and fate of Israel, which would be considered by the Iranians a fair target, particularly after the multiple assassinations of Iranian Nuclear Scientists.
Stratfor website hacked
Several Wednesday Nighters rely on George Friedman’s Stratfor for in-depth intelligence and analysis of geopolitical developments. Recently, it was reported that Stratfor’s data base had been hacked and that members’ (including at least one Wednesday Nighter) information, notably credit cards and passwords, had been compromised. Those who have been affected had every right to believe that of all organizations, Stratfor would have implemented the highest level of security, however, it appears that the organization had overlooked some of the elementary rules. It has now resumed its services, with a somewhat chastened message.
Outlook for Investors
As the crystal ball becomes clearer, there appear to be much better signs than expressed a week ago, indicating that 2012 is now expected to be a better year for investors than anticipated. The TSE index is expected to reach and possibly exceed that of the Dow-Jones.
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The Prologue
Meanwhile, this week, we are very happy to have John Jonas among the distinguished Wednesday Nighters who will be with us. John’s informed comments on science, technology and Canada’s place on the world stage are always of value, as are his assessments of nuclear capability (and weaknesses) around the world.
Although it is almost unseasonably warm, there has been a fair amount of sunlight and the days are growing slightly longer, an air of lassitude tinged with disagreeableness seems to have infected us in the past few days. Possibly something to do with the problems that David was having with his computer? More likely having to do with the general lack of good will or good humor in world and local events.
Sad to say, all those enthusiastic season’s greetings invoking the triumph of good and evoking thoughts of good tidings of comfort and joy have been blown away by the Scrooges and Grinches of public policy and governance in places like Hungary, Iran, North Korea, Syria – and even the U.S. and Canada.
While there is admittedly not much to chortle over, there is a common thread – a total lack of sense of humor – let alone wit – among the current crop of leaders, pretend leaders, or pretenders to leadership. Just think about Orban, Ahmadinejad, Bashar al-Assad or Kim Jong Un (now being touted as a military genius!) saying something even faintly amusing. Mind you, these are all pretty grim figures even in good times and one trembles to think of what might bring even a faint smile to their lips.
Israel has been the source of often biting political humour, but of late there hasn’t been much from anyone other than the wonderfully sardonic Yuri Avnery, and we don’t see much hope for the immediate future.
And U.S. politicians are suffering from what Slate refers to as The Great Republican Humor Crisis as they battle for the nomination. Once again, this week we will have Tuesday’s results (from New Hampshire) to parse on Wednesday, after which we can take a deep breath for all of ten days.
Nor have there been many entertaining ripostes from Canadian public figures for a while (exception for Bob Rae’s “We wish you had voted liberal” riff, which did make us smile). No notable quotes heading into the Liberal Convention, and somehow the Harper Conservatives are not a bundle of laughs. At least we can thank J.L. Granatstein, for his light-hearted (we hope) assessment of the Harper Government’s proposal for a  very British Canada – we don’t however anticipate a clever response from the PMO;  in fact we suspect they may not be amused.
The Slate piece reminds us that “A joke well-told gives the audience something they can pass along later to their friends. It magnifies your message easily or at least makes voters feel good enough that they report back favorably about their experience at your rally.” Good advice for politicians of all stripes (though maybe not too pertinent in the countries mentioned at the beginning).
Economists are not notoriously comical – very few have our Tony Deutsch’s deft touch – and today’s economy doesn’t offer a source of clever one-liners in response to such treatments as Martin Feldstein: The Failure of the Euro – The Little Currency That Couldn’t, or Paul Craig Roberts: The Dismal Economic Outlook For The New Year

So, as we ponder the immediate outcome of the New Hampshire poll, the Liberal Party convention this weekend in Ottawa, and those longer-term results of a number of important elections in 2012 in Europe, the U.S., Russia, China … we submit that humour is only one element of the elusive quality called charisma, and invite you to consider the latter’s importance in achieving political power. Going further, is charisma a quality that changes in national/cultural contexts?
How we wish that Knut could be with us for this discussion – he would have loved it.
As always, a couple of quirky items in conclusion:
For a fresh approach to political forecasting: What Wikipedia Can Tell Us about the NDP Race … beside who the candidates are and how to spell their names — According to Eric Grenier, the number of visits each candidate’s Wikipedia entry receives could be an accurate indication of public support. Shall we apply this hypothesis to all elections in 2012?
Our attention was recently drawn to this March 2011 news item which we believe has value far beyond the confines of the Yale Law School “At the Yale Law Library circulation desk, students have been signing up this week to check out Monty, a ‘certified library therapy dog,’ for 30-minute sessions of unconditional, stress-busting puppy love.”

 

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