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Category: Dave Brockington

1914, Niall Ferguson, and All That

[ 288 ] January 30, 2014 |

Today, I play amateur historian. I’m not a pro, of course, though I did double major as an undergrad (history & pol sci). In this respect, I have a greater academic background in history than I do in international relations, which is sort of ironic considering I teach a seminar in IR at the Masters level . . . but I digress.[*]

Niall Ferguson, one of LGM’s all time favorite British historians working at Harvard, is making the rounds today, but not for the usual hilarity we have grown to love and expect. Rather, he’s going out on a limb by arguing that perhaps British involvement in the First World War was not such a splendid idea after all. Indeed, with trademark reserve, Ferguson characterizes British involvement as “the biggest error in modern history”.

There are two ways to critique this position. First, the easiest: “biggest”. It’s not. Andrew Gelman cites several alternatives of the same genre, including Operation Barbarossa 1941, Pearl Habor 1941, the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1981, and possibly even Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. I’d add in Germany’s declaration of war on the United States in December of 1941 for good measure. (Gelman’s brief piece is worth a read. It brings the funny.)

The other avenue of critique is the conception of “error” itself. Ferguson is flogging a new BBC documentary based on his 1999 book The Pity of War. With 100 years of perspective, [EDIT: i.e. knowing the consequences in blood and treasure] it’s easy seductive to conclude that Britain’s entry on the side of France and Russia was pointless. From a broad perspective, yes, that entire conflict was pointless as hell. However, from the perspective of the British political leadership between 1905 and 1914, specifically in July to August 1914, it’s not difficult (but it is painful) to understand why Britain indeed entered that war. That said, I do get the occasional bit of stick over here for America’s tardy participation in that conflict. My reply is usually something along the lines of “because we weren’t stupid” and “we didn’t have a dog in that fight”.

First, Britain, courtesy of the rapprochement with France, had a moral obligation to help her erstwhile enemy. They had a deal. The Royal Navy by and large ceded the Mediterranean Sea to France so the RN’s capital ships could be repositioned with the Home Fleet to cover the North Sea (and the rapidly expanding German High Seas Fleet). France was now predominantly responsible for protecting the critical lines of communication through the Mediterranean / Suez from any possible combination of Austria-Hungary / Italy / Turkey. The quid pro quo was that the British Army would send an expiditionary force across the Channel in the event of German aggression against France. (I believe that it wasn’t valid in the reverse scenario: French aggression against Germany, nor do I believe Belgium was included).

Second, nobody predicted that the conflict would ultimately be as costly in treasure and blood as it was. Britain got off relatively easy when contrasted with France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, or even Turkey: the public debt increased over tenfold, and 9% of the 18-45 year old male cohort killed (around 725,000). If the major actors in August 1914 knew what their own worlds would look like in 1919, I suggest that they would not have gone forward with war at all. In other words, Ferguson’s thesis could be applied to each and every participant. While Wilhelm II was erratic, vain, restless, and perhaps a few fries short of a full happy meal, he wasn’t suicidal. His conservative harboring of the High Seas Fleet is evidence of this: he knew that the German Navy would lose a classic set-piece battle against the Grand Fleet, and he couldn’t bear to have his beloved navy destroyed. Hence, the adoption of a hit and run strategy against the Royal Navy (and development of unrestricted submarine warfare). Even if Germany had succeeded in the 1918 Spring Offensive and had knocked France out of the war, I doubt he’d have been willing to pay the price aggregated over the four years it took to get there. He certainly wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen the ultimate result: to ruin his country, abdicate, cede the High Seas Fleet to the Allies, and spend the rest of his life in exile in the Netherlands.

Ferguson makes two other arguments worth engaging. First, that a German hegemony over the continent was essentially no big deal to Britain:

“Britain could indeed have lived with a German victory. What’s more, it would have been in Britain’s interests to stay out in 1914 . . . Even if Germany had defeated France and Russia, it would have had a pretty massive challenge on its hands trying to run the new German-dominated Europe and would have remained significantly weaker than the British empire in naval and financial terms. Given the resources that Britain had available in 1914, a better strategy would have been to wait and deal with the German challenge later when Britain could respond on its own terms, taking advantage of its much greater naval and financial capability”.

What Ferguson doesn’t acknowledge here is that Britain was already in a steep relative decline. The complete economic superiority that it enjoyed during the period from 1815 and roughly 1870 had evaporated. It was losing market share abroad as its own industries weren’t keeping up with advancing technologies and processes, but rather resting on their laurels. Indeed, if it wasn’t for investment income and the finance sector (sounds familiar) the Empire would have had a net negative balance of trade. They were struggling to finance the expansion of the Royal Navy in order to maintain a semblance of the two power doctrine, even when France was explicitly removed from that two power equation. Assuming that Germany over-ran a France lacking in the help of the British Army (which while not certain remained a remarkably high probability), could this Empire in relative decline have really chosen its time to confront a continent under the control of Imperial Germany? Could the Royal Navy kept pace technologically and materially? Germany would have gained the French fleet, the channel ports, and, perhaps more critically, the Mediterranean ports. A Royal Navy that had to concentrate the overwhelming majority of its capital ships in the North Sea to keep the German fleet bottled up would find itself having to be spread perilously thin.

Rather that Britain retaining the geo-political initiative, I suggest that Imperial Germany would have had this advantage.

Simultaneous was the rapidly changing social and political context in Britain. The Liberal government under Asquith and Lloyd George had already taken steps in this direction with the People’s Budget of 1909. The power of the House of Lords was significantly eroded with the Parliament Act of 1914. A viable and vital Labour Party was just around the corner. Domestic politics was about to become a major line item in the budget, against the backdrop of declining economic hegemony. How could Britain continue to build four to six capital ships per year while simultaneously modernising the British Army in preparation for some future conflict against the continent led by Imperial Germany?

Additionally, what good would the Royal Navy have been as an offensive weapon, as Ferguson suggests above? In 1914, it was a defensive weapon. It could have prevented Britain from losing a war, but it alone could not have ensured that Britain win a war. This segues neatly into the second argument that Ferguson cites: Britain’s experience in the Napoleonic wars. Regarding the sacrosanct status of the channel ports to British strategy:

“This argument, which is very seductive, has one massive flaw in it, which is that Britain tolerated exactly that situation happening when Napoleon overran the European continent, and did not immediately send land forces to Europe. It wasn’t until the peninsular war that Britain actually deployed ground forces against Napoleon. So strategically, if Britain had not gone to war in 1914, it would still have had the option to intervene later, just as it had the option to intervene after the revolutionary wars had been under way for some time.”

The Royal Navy did not win that war. Nelson might be revered, Trafalgar a seminal moment in British history, but that battle was in 1805. Napoleon wasn’t finally defeated until 1815, and his invasion of Russia didn’t help matters much. More critically, Britain had a handful of continental allies against Napoleon. It was a land war. Yes, Britain managed to tread water in economic terms between 1805 and 1815, but there were negative effects of losing the continent as a market, and Britain vis-a-vis the entire planet was in a much better position in 1805 than it was 110 years later. Assuming Germany overran Belgium and France in 1914, then dispatched Russia (two of the three basically happened even with Britain in the war), who would join Britain against a consolidated Imperial Germany when Britain chose its time to counter in 1920 or 1930? Obviously not Austria-Hungary. Not Italy; it was a minor coup to get them to remain neutral at the beginning of the conflict.

There would not be a long queue of applicants for the position of “continental ally” with Team Britain in the struggle against Germany after Russia and France were eliminated, especially given that Britain had reneged on its deal and thrown France under the bus in 1914. How trustworthy would Britain be perceived to a continental minor power with plenty more to lose in squaring up against a Germany dominating the continent?

I’m not arguing that the First World War was a good idea. The entire enterprise was monumentally stupid, horrendous, and ruinous. I defend America’s avoidance of that conflict as long as we could. However, given the choices open to British political leadership in 1914, and what they knew to be true, it’s not obvious that entering on the side of France was “the biggest error in modern history”. They made a deal with France, so they were under a moral obligation to defend it. It’s not at all obvious that Britain would have been in a better strategic position in five or ten years to choose the time to deal with Germany. Such a future conflict would have required continental allies, who would not be willing for a variety of reasons. Britain itself was in relative economic decline. Assuming that German aggression had to be countered some how, it was probably better that it was countered in 1914 rather than some unclear time in the vague future.

Better yet, of course, is that all the principle actors in 1914 known what their world would have looked like in 1919. Of course, the world doesn’t quite work like that.

[*] The more I think about this, the less certain I am of the claim regarding relative academic backgrounds. I did take some IR at the masters and doctoral level, so its possibly balanced considering the quality and depth of those seminars, but I took a lot of history as an undergrad (obviously). None of this matters to the topic at hand, of course.

Last Week in Misogyny, Florida High School Principal Edition

[ 113 ] January 23, 2014 |

What the hell is it with Florida this month?

This has been going around the past few days and I’m sure a not small number of LGM readers have seen a version of it. Long story short, the principal of Lakeland Senior High School in Florida instituted a dress code, and attempted to explain the motivation for it in a class (you know, in front of students). The principal, Arthur Martinez, exhorted girls to dress modestly, don’t show too much skin, because ”modest is hottest”. Otherwise, of course, ”boys will be boys.”

These two comments caught the attention of a junior in the high school, Marion Mayer. She wasn’t impressed with the principal’s comments, and confronted him in a meeting that ended less than satisfactorily. Ordinarily I’d point out the obvious problems with the principal’s explanation, but better to read Ms. Mayer’s own words from her original post on fb, reproduced verbatim by Jen Frankel. Frankel’s description: “Not just wise beyond her years — let’s face it, a lot of us NEVER get there.”

A couple of days later, it was picked up by HuffPo (edited down from the original linked above). The takeaway:

When the people who do sexually harass other people happen to be male and you use the excuse “boys will be boys,” you are not only excusing their behavior, you are condoning it.

It’s this “boys will be boys” mentality, culture and attitude that condone sexual assault. Whenever the excuse “boys will be boys” is used, it’s just an exercise of male privilege. You are telling them that it’s okay for them to be sexually violent.

This isn’t ordinary garden variety stupid, this is stupid in a position to culturally shape the next generation. Which Mayer also understands clearly:

He explained that his daughters “behave” and that his nephews were disrespectful… because they are boys. I said “That has nothing to do with their gender. They act that way because of how they were raised, the environment they are living in, and the choices they make.”

As Frankel wrote, wise.

On Strike, and Other Grumblings

[ 17 ] January 23, 2014 |

As I’ve written about, universities in the UK have offered us a 1% pay increase, which they implemented in December, backdating to August. My union went on strike twice last term, once in October and again once in December. Those representing support / professional services, as well as further education lecturers (who only received a 0.7% increase if my memory serves me correct) have periodically supported these actions.

The 1% increase is a joke, for two reasons, neither of which are at all unique to our industry. First, by my union’s own calculation, indexed against inflation, our pay has declined 13% since 2009. Second, Vice Chancellors (university presidents in the UK) have received large pay increases (8.1% according to the BBC) in the past year both down here and in Scotland, and the union’s own analysis suggests an average 5.1% increase (neither inclusive of bonuses nor pension contributions).

As the two one day strikes did not cause any movement on the part of management, the union has changed tack — now we’ve scheduled three two hour strikes over the next month. At least 11 universities have adopted a blunt intimidation approach: they’re essentially locking their employees out for the entire day, arguing that if they participate in the two hour strike they surrender the day’s wage. Curiously, they’re arguing that this decreases the disruption for our students:

A spokesman for Ucea insisted universities are entitled to withhold a full day’s pay if staff do not work normally as it would constitute “partial performance”.

“Higher education institutions do not accept partial performance and many will be deducting a full day’s pay in order to limit the impact on their students,”

“Higher education institutions are dismayed that this form of industrial action has been designed to damage students’ education but will do their very best to protect their students”

My university is only docking us two hours of pay today, unlike the up to 25 who attempt to intimidate, and the backlash to the above in the past 48 hours has seen at least two institutions back off that stand of questionable legality.

That said, at my own university, there are larger issues afoot. The Sociology Department, among whom I count friends and colleagues, is in the process of being gutted, and a new round of “divestment” was initiated on Monday. Tuesday we received an email from the union which in part said the following:

“Some of you may now have received, or know of, the proposals that management has put forward to cut particular posts as part of Academic and Research Review 2015.

We write to inform you that UCU has sent a clear message to management that it opposes compulsory redundancies. UCU will be firmly challenging the pools identified at risk and is seeking an urgent meeting with management to discuss the pool selection process.”

I neither received a letter (email, office post, home post, and it would have gone to all three), nor have heard any information as to those who have, but it does appear to have happened. I’m a little surprised, as my particular unit (the Politics half of P&IR) has always been at risk: we had a round of compulsory redundancies in 2005-06, our major was dropped in 2006, relaunched in 2009, dropped in 2010, and relaunched again in 2013. Needless to say, Monday was not a calm and relaxing day for me.

We had an EGM of the local branch two Fridays ago where this was discussed. To my mind, striking over a 1% pay increase is worthy; however, to make it pay off for me now at the margins the universities would need to between double and triple their offer. I doubt that will happen. However, if there ever was a reason to be in a union, it’s protesting against the annual re-allocation of “investment”, shifting business models, and seeing my institution and “redundancies” in the media every year between 2008 and 2013. I’d happily screw a two hour strike (designed in part to save us money), and walk out indefinitely if it would get my institution to stop sacking people every year. Whatever it would take to save those jobs.

The branch leadership brought this up, and suggested that if we were unified, and if we did all march to the Chancellery, we would probably be successful.

However, we face two problems, both immediately recognisable to Mancur Olson. One, participation in strike action is voluntary, not compulsory. (I voted against these ongoing strike actions, but I’ll be damned if I’m ever crossing a picket line). Leadership implied that we would not be successful in such an action. Attendance at EGMs is illustrative. Immediately before redundancy letters go out, attendance is high. After? it declines. If it’s not a direct threat to one’s livelihood, why should people risk income and the displeasure of management in order to save the jobs of others?

Well, for starters, it might be your own job some day.

The second problem that we face is we operate in an open shop. I don’t have to be a union member at all, let alone support the strike action. If I was a free-rider, imagine all the money I would save; any benefits accrued through improved contracts (such as the one we received between 2006 and 2009) that others sacrificed time and treasure for, I’d still gain. Likewise, Olson’s selective benefits simply do not add up to what I pay monthly in union dues, nor what I’ve sacrificed through the strike actions this academic year.

Today was always going to be a work from home day. I’ve been doing a lot of grading I have to catch up on, there’s a new lecture to write for tomorrow, and time allowing, an initiative for the School of Government that I’m working on. I have a much better computer here, and considerably more comfort, than my janitor’s closet of an office affords. In short, I’m more productive. But rest assured, between 11 and 1, I’ve downed tools. Next Tuesday, we’re scheduled to strike for two hours between 2 and 4. I have lectures from 1 until 2, and 2 until 3. Next week will be a bit more interesting.

Now that I’ve finished this post, I think I’ll have lunch and catch up on a little binge viewing.

This Week in Republican Crazy, Florida Edition

[ 105 ] January 21, 2014 |

Florida House candidate Joshua Black calls for hanging of President Obama.  That’s not hyperbole, that’s the headline from an article in yesterday’s Tampa Bay Times.  The pearls of wisdom include such hits as ”I’m past impeachment,” Joshua Black wrote on Twitter. “It’s time to arrest and hang him high.”

The argument Mr. Black makes is that the President is guilty of either war crimes or treason due to ordering a drone strike that killed a US Citizen.

More: ”I make no apologies for saying that the President is not above the People. If ordinary Americans should be executed for treason, so should he.”

Let’s look at this again: hanging. On MLK day.

“I guess they’re going to call me a racist now.”

Ya think?

I suspect this does not constitute an illegal threat, but rather political speech, under Watts v United States (1969). Of course, if the President were a white Republican, and the tweet the product of a certain cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, many would, after careful consideration, reach a rather different conclusion.

Honorable mention goes to Sarah Palin:

“Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card”.

Gay Weather Patterns

[ 25 ] January 20, 2014 |

A couple days ago, a UKIP local councillor in cosmopolitan Henley-on-Thames, David Silvester, wrote to his local paper arguing that God is punishing Britain through a series of storms in late December and early January because of the Government’s policy of allowing same sex marriage:

‘The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.

‘I wrote to David Cameron in April 2012 to warn him that disasters would accompany the passage of his same-sex marriage bill.

‘But he went ahead despite a 600,000-signature petition by concerned Christians and more than half of his own parliamentary party saying that he should not do so.’

Blaming the Prime Minister for the bad weather, he added: ‘It is his fault that large swathes of the nation have been afflicted by storms and floods.

UKIP belatedly suspended Silvester from the party (after first defending his right to his opinions). This is unfortunate for our God fearing councillor, as he left the Conservatives and joined UKIP this past year as a direct reaction against the PM’s policy. Presumably, he joined UKIP because he perceives their positions as more conducive and accepting of his heavenly-inspired homophobia.

While this has made huge news on this small island, none of this should be remotely interesting to an American. Blaming storms on God’s displeasure over LGBT advances in the realm of basic civil and human rights is part of the basic toolkit for Greater Wingnuttia.  However, Nicholas Pegg gave us the UKIP Shipping Forecast, which made the rounds this morning (GMT). For anybody who is at all familiar with the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast, Pegg’s parody is quality hilarious.

Mysterious Bitter Rivalries

[ 42 ] January 20, 2014 |

I basically grew up in Seattle. However, I was born in the Bay Area, and didn’t move to Washington State until half way through the third grade. My original NFL allegiance was to the Oakland Raiders, which I clung to, in the face of every other family member being a 49ers fan when we lived in the Bay Area, and my father’s retaining the Niners as his NFC team (although he grew to be a fan of the Seahawks as his AFC, and local, team). But for me, it was the Raiders of Kenny Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Dave Casper, Cliff Branch, Mark van Eeghen, et al. I remember the 1976 and 1977 seasons, especially the post-season, to this day, Super Bowl XI and all. Perhaps ironically, the first NFL game I attended was a pre-season game between the Raiders and expansion Seahawks at the Coliseum in 1976. It was in the stands at that game where I first heard that there was going to be such a thing as the Seattle Mariners, and I should probably rue the day.

My first passionate sporting hatred was the Denver Broncos, because of this. Specifically, a blown fumble call that would have prevented a Denver TD in the 4th quarter (EDIT: of the 1977 AFC Championship game). I clung to the Raiders even after my relocating to the PNW, and rooted for them against the local upstarts. I was unhappy when the Seahawks beat the Raiders twice in one of those early seasons. What caused me to divorce the Raiders was their move to Los Angeles in 1982. Even from my then vantage point in the PNW, moving from the Bay Area to LA was simply wrong. I adopted the Seahawks. When the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1994, there was no forgiveness. I delighted in the 1983 Seahawks playoff victory over Denver, and mourned losing the AFC Championship game that year to the Los Angeles Raiders. Through all of this, the 49ers were just there. Sure, they became successful, and I couldn’t help but root for them during this era due to my father’s influence, but as a Seahawks fan, the 49ers were annual pre-season competition, with no history, no rivalry, and no animosity. And they won. A lot.

I moved to Europe before the realignment of the Seahawks to the NFC, and to be frank, I no longer follow the NFL as closely as I once did, only really paying attention to the Seahawks, (though I still follow Pac 10/12 football). Thus, the bitter hatred and animosity that now exists between Seattle and San Francisco is a mystery to me. It almost seems manufactured. As I understand it, Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh aren’t universally loved, especially by one another. This dates back to their Pac-10 days (USC and Stanford). The teams have adopted their mutual enmity, simultaneous to both teams becoming good again. The fans have followed suit.

Isn’t this the exact opposite causal direction that these things usually assume? That, and yesterday was the first time these two hated, storied rivals ever met in a playoff game.

Strangely, last night (GMT) I inexplicably woke up in the middle of the night, checked the score on line, and made it just in time to watch the final San Francisco drive (it was pushing 3am here) on game cast. Being a Seattle sports fan, my assumption was that the Niners would score and it would all be over. The result certainly did not make me unhappy, but unlike the Mariners losing a post season series to the Yankees, I also wouldn’t have been bitterly upset had Kaepernick’s pass been complete. Indeed, I expected it to be.

Of course, while I don’t understand that rivalry, I do understand my life long commitment to seeing the Broncos lose. If it can come at the hands of the Seahawks in a Super Bowl, that’s nothing but icing.

I’ll allow a certain Stanford graduate to have the last word.

And Here Was A Good Guy With A Gun. Now What?

[ 94 ] January 14, 2014 |

Now that I’ve returned alive (*) from my three-week multiple city jaunt through the United States, and emerged from a jet lag induced haze, I was planning on writing about something also depressing, albeit in a different way. However, as Rob discusses below, we have this.

An equally fascinating and frustrating aspect of the gun issue is the sheer fatuousness of the pro gun-lobby argumentation. It comes across as random seat-of-the-pants theorizing, with all the internal consistency such post-hoc rationalization affords. That said, there is a pattern to it. The first response is to arm everybody and their teachers. That solves everything. When it is clear that this argument won’t fly, then individualise the issue. It’s not a cultural problem, or something that society is responsible for or can possibly address, but rather it’s the result of a deranged individual, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

I haven’t found anything on the right wing blogosphere on it yet, but that’s not surprising; it’s difficult to organise a pro gun-lobby defence for this one. “All we needed was a good guy with a gun” doesn’t quite work when the alleged shooter was a pissed off “good guy” himself, which is what I imagine a well trained former police officer represents to gun nuts. Also, given it was a dark movie theater, it would be a stretch for those in favor of an armed society to attempt a variant of this by suggesting we needed more good guys with guns to take out the good guy gone bad with a gun. It might look something like this, to liberally quote a good friend of mine:

But if everyone were armed, than another good guy could have taken out the good guy who went bad. Then another good guy could have taken out that good guy because he isn’t sure who the good guy is, but he knows people are shooting each other. And then another good guy could have taken out the confused good guy, because, well, somebody needs to take out the guy shooting people in the theater.

Call it the fog of self-defense.

I like to believe that even the gun lobby might see the problem with this line of reasoning.  (Incidentally, “the fog of self-defense” is my new favorite phrase).

So, it must be individualised. To quote a different fb friend rushing in to defend the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment (because clearly it’s besieged):

And most of the anti-gun laws being pushed would not have prevented this, as in most states there are special exceptions for retired police officers, who can take weapons into places the rest of us who can carry can not take weapons. Any senseless death is a shame, but making this one part of your anti-gun argument just doesn’t work, as none of the proposed laws would prevent this one.

This is a variant of the “lone crazy” defense. Not only can we not do anything about the lone crazy, since this particular lone crazy has “special exceptions” as a retired police officer (also known as one of those good guys we so desperately need) we really can’t do anything about it. These mythical proposed laws aren’t capable of dealing with the extant laws already on the books. Or something.

Oh, and senseless death is bad, and by implication, my politicising aforementioned senseless death is likewise bad.

(*) During a 36 hour window in New Orleans, the NOPD might have shown up in a neighborhood dive bar five minutes after my arrival at the same bar (great bar btw), I might have been cordially invited to spend some time in an ER, and I might have been out all night drinking with SEK. I assure you that these three events were completely unrelated.

War on Christmas

[ 70 ] December 25, 2013 |


Here you can find a growing archive of letters sent home to the UK (of Great Britain and Ireland) from the western front in 1914/15,detailing first hand accounts of the Christmas truce that occurred organically in some areas of the front.

The following was published in the Exeter Express & Echo on 2 January 1915:

Corporal Leon Harris of the 13th battalion London Regiment (Kensington) who has been serving at the front for eight weeks with one of the last batch of Territorials sent has written a letter to his parents residing at Caradon, Monks Road, Exeter, giving remarkable particulars of how some of the British lines spent Christmas at the front. “This has been,” he says, “the most wonderful Christmas I have ever struck. We were in the trenches on Christmas Eve, and about 8.30 the firing was almost at a stand still. Then the Germans started shouting across to us, ‘a happy Christmas’ and commenced putting up lots of Christmas trees with hundreds of candles on the parapets of their trenches. Some of our men met some of theirs half way, and the officers arranged a truce till midnight on Christmas Day. It was extended till Boxing day night and we all went out and met each other between the two lines of trenches, exchanging souvenirs – buttons, tobacco and cigarettes. Several of them spoke English. Huge fires were going all night and both sides sang carols. It was a wonderful time and the weather was glorious on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – frosty and bright with moon and stars at night.”

My Christmas is prosaic in comparison, but over all it will take me from Oregon to Seattle to Kitsap County back to Seattle then on to New Orleans and Atlanta. If you’re celebrating, either ecumenically or religiously, Merry Christmas; if not, I hope you’re having an atypically excellent Wednesday.

Friday Soccer Blogging: The Sublime Fairness of the World Cup Draw

[ 28 ] December 20, 2013 |

When the draw for the World Cup finals happened, there was much hilarious moaning in England. Since FIFA hates England, the English received the most difficult group imaginable. England FA chairman Greg Dyke was filmed making a cut throat gesture at the time of the draw (which of course has caused controversy).

England is in Group D with Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica.  Group B includes Spain, the Netherlands, Chile, and Australia.  Group G, Germany, the USA, Portugal, and Ghana. B has the two finalists from 2010. Each of the four sides in G made the knock out rounds in 2010. From the perspective of a USMNT supporter, the range of success I’m hoping for is from 0-6 points, with 2-4 most likely. I’ll make more robust foolish predictions closer to the tournament itself, but here in December I’m thinking a loss against Germany (the 4-3 home friendly win in June regardless), and one win plus one draw against Portugal and Ghana.

On Wednesday, The Guardian published something I’ve wanted to do: it analysed the strength of each group, using FIFA ranking points as the quantitative measure. Of the 32 sides, the USA has the third most difficult schedule (Australia and Ghana are more difficult by their measures), England’s is 10th. Group G is the most difficult, with England’s Group D third. So the English did have some legitimate whinging, but from the perspective of an American, get over it.

In terms of the difficulty of each match, the Spain v Netherlands match is measured the most impressive. But, “It’s no surprise that Spain versus the Netherlands is the strongest individual match in the group stages, but USA have two matches in the top seven and England have two in the top 10.”

If the goal of seeding teams is to ensure roughly equal competition across all the groups, there should not be appreciable qualitative distinctions in strength. FIFA does not operate that way, of course. The top eight were seeded, ensuring they’d be kept apart, but then the remaining “pots” were based on geography. While the Guardian didn’t illustrate the distribution, I’ve done that here:

The four “weakest” groups are all relatively equal, but then there’s a sharp, progressive increase in competitive strength from C (Columbia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan), D (Italy, England, Uruguay, Costa Rica), B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia) and then America’s Group G.  58 points separate the bottom four groups, while 196 between the toughest and the 5th toughest.

This is how we get some arguably unfair results. The English have complained about France (because it’s tradition) being placed in the relatively easy Group E even though they barely qualified for the tournament, having to win by three clear goals in the second leg against the Ukraine after losing in the opener 2-0. Mexico were stupendously lucky to qualify, as we know, on a stoppage time American goal against Panama in the final match of the CONCACAF hexagonal.

How did the Americans benefit from this? They’re placed in a group 196 points more difficult than Mexico’s Group A (or depending on how one measures this, 22% more difficult), and the US has the third most difficult schedule, while El Tri the 21st. The geographic distribution of teams into groups isn’t a matter of fairness, but rather it’s a matter of ensuring as many European sides get into the knockout rounds as possible.

Of course, if the US does manage to progress from its group, it will arguably be the best performance in a World Cup finals since finishing third in 1930 (or perhaps 8th in 2002).

Relatedly, Jurgen Klinsmann has signed a four year extension as national team manager. I approve.

Improper Use of Opinion

[ 65 ] December 19, 2013 |

Can get tenured faculty sacked.  Shorter University of Kansas: if you tweet or Facebook or Linkin or Flikr or Youtube anything that somebody powerful might disagree with, we can sack you. Or, put another way, we value the current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment higher than any interpretation of the 1st.

This new policy was crafted in response to a tenured professor at Kansas, who had the temerity to articulate his dissatisfaction with the state of gun control regulation in the United States:

In September, the University of Kansas suspended David W. Guth, a tenured journalism professor, after he responded to the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard with this comment on Twitter:  “#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

The rules that the Kansas Board of Regents adopted are overly squishy and expansive, and for the less brave will have a chilling effect on speech. They appear to be specifically designed to constrain the ability for faculty to opine on issues of national, regional, and institutional importance, because disagreement is scary and might just negatively impact the “brand” of the institution.

I think here at LGM we should refer to such guidelines as the “Loomis Rule”.

UPDATE: Duck of Minerva does better.

Guest Post: A Republican In Support of the ACA, and Struggling With The Direction of His Party

[ 222 ] December 15, 2013 |

DB: The following was written by Ken McGlothlen over the course of the last couple of weeks. I’ve known Ken since my undergraduate days. We both attended the University of Washington, in Seattle, and met in 1988 or 1989 on this thing called, variously, “bb” or “kcbs”, which was just as it sounds: a bulletin board system limited to UW staff and students. It, along with Usenet, was our introduction to what we now call “social media”.  Politics were discussed at length, as one might imagine.

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I just want to say this up front: It’s gotten acutely embarrassing to be a Republican and a conservative.

Both terms have been usurped by a party which doesn’t adhere to them anymore.

Instead, that party tossed aside most of its ideals in favor of an increasingly and relentlessly dystopian, hypocritical, mean-spirited and hysterical polemic that denigrates anyone who does not conform to narrow religious, ethnic, and economic standards.

So you can imagine my difficulty with moving into an area of the country that’s saturated with Tea-Party juice.

I’ve been avoiding reading the local newspaper for some time, but I had wanted to follow the local election results, and cracked one open—and my head promptly exploded.

It’s not like I didn’t know the general attitude in this area. I mean, I am conservative. I was raised conservatively. But these people don’t seem to know what the blithering blinketyblank “conservative” actually means.

Among other things, it means basing one’s view on actual fact, reasoning that view out using a logical process, and not making completely wild claims. (I know you haven’t seen conservatives like that for a while now, but we’re out here.) Healthy skepticism runs in our blood. We aren’t denialists—if anything, we accept that reality is what it is (though perhaps we occasionally get a bit complacent about that).

Yes, I understand that there are people that are uncomfortable with the government stepping into what they see as private enterprise. Never mind that this has been a fact of American life since before the Constitution was ratified; never mind that this has been upheld by the courts for centuries now. I understand why people are upset about that . . . and yet, the bottom line is that, when corporations create powerful conglomerates, reduce competition using dodgy means, and misbehave, do you really expect private enterprise to solve a problem that private enterprise created?

I’ve worked in businesses, large and small. I also spent some time working with some really remarkable people at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Yet I am constant regaled with the axiom that “private enterprise is always more efficient and cost-effective than government.” I’ve worked for both, I can definitively tell you that incompetence and waste is a universal problem. I have seen private enterprise waste millions of dollars on political strife and petty quarrels. I have seen talented government scientists come up with new understanding for how ocean currents work for a few tens of thousands of dollars, which could lead to billions of dollars in additional commerce and transportation improvements.

Sure, people like easy answers, but that was never a Republican ethic. We were known for embracing hard truths and understanding subtlety. We were known for careful analysis and cost-effective intervention, for a lightest possible effective tread on difficult-to-manage problems.

But then, it’s not like we didn’t have black marks against us. McCarthyism. Nixon. But it wasn’t anything like the Teapot Dome scandal, right? Or the perpetration of segregation? We were about trying to maximize freedom while trying to watch for any undue imbalance of power, right? We reined in corporate abuses . . . for a while, and when we didn’t, we paid for it with The New Deal and no Republicans in office from Hoover to Eisenhower—and we were lucky with Eisenhower, frankly.

So when I cracked open that newspaper, and read the headline “Obamacare is the most oppressive legislation ever” on the second page, my brain detonated.

It was a letter to the editor from one “Robert Wassman,” and it led off, right there, in black and white, “Obama’s 2,700 page Obamacare is the most oppressive legislation our government has ever passed.”

Really, Mister Wassman? The most oppressive? More than sending Japanese into detention camps? More than depriving Americans of habeus corpus? More than warrantless wiretapping? More than the Alien and Sedition Act? REALLY?

It takes such a breathtaking lack of perspective and historical knowledge to write this, and such an astounding absence of common sense that I’m amazed he had any neuron ticking over at all.

In addition, the scent of serial liar Betsy McCaughey is redolent here—she’s the one who came up with the false claim of 2,700 pages (it’s around 900 in its finished form), and she’s the one who’s still flogging that “death panel” nonsense.

In his screed, Mr Wassman writes “Obama claimed it would reduce health care cost $2,500 per family. Instead the cost is up about $3,000.” Turns out? Totally false. Seriously, totally false. False. Not true. False. Falsy falsy false falsity false false.

Here’s an example, one I’m reasonably familiar with: me. Three years ago, I was paying $550/month for a health-care plan with a $10,000 out-of-pocket annual. Now, thanks to the PPACA and the health-insurance exchanges, I can pay less than $300/month for a health-care plan with a $6,600 out-of-pocket annual.

Lessee . . . that saves me . . . oooh, carry the four . . . $7,400 a year, should I reach the out-of-pocket annual limit. Even if I didn’t require anything at all, it would save me $4,000 a year.

Of course, that’s just the health insurance; what does the PPACA cost me per year at the moment in taxes? Turns out that in my case, that would cost an extra $2,000 a year. So even if I required no medical care, I’d save $2,000 a year.

If it came with, say, budget cuts in the military (do we really need to outspend the next ten-highest military budgets—Russia, China, the UK, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy and Brazil? can’t we leave Brazil out of it?), it wouldn’t even cost that much.

But even the original claim Mr Wassman makes is questionable. Yes, in 2007, Barack Obama had a plan to reduce health-care costs around $2500 per family; I have little reason to doubt that. He talked about it frequently on the campaign trail. I don’t know what that plan was, but I know it wasn’t the plan that passed, which represented a considerable compromise, more closely paralleling conservative preferences for keeping the health-insurance industry in private hands rather than push for a single-payer plan (though it added some necessary reformatory regulation into the mix).

All this took me around ten minutes to find out—time which Mr Wassman didn’t care to spend. No, he’d rather parrot talking points written by someone else, and hold the president accountable for a figure predicated on a different proposal entirely. It would be like hearing someone claim that they can drive from Seattle to LA in under 12 hours in a car they’ve designed, handing them a 25-year-old Volvo that has two or three of the cylinders that occasionally shut down, and then complaining that it took longer than twelve hours.

I hear from many, many of my friends about how they are going to save money thanks to the PPACA. I hear from several of my friends how relieved they are to be able to afford health insurance after going several years without.

There will be some people in borderline cases that won’t save money, that’s true—it happens with every system change. But that doesn’t negate the tens of millions of Americans who will actively benefit from this.

And it’s certainly not enough reason to flagrantly shriek hyperbolic lies to vilify it.

Compared to a single-payer plan, the PPACA is actually a fairly conservative plan. Hysterical cowards like Mr Wassman want to believe that it embodies the end of our nation.

Poppycock.

Good Guys With Guns, and 194 More Dead Children

[ 177 ] December 15, 2013 |

Relentless in bringing to light the problems with limited regulation of firearms, on Friday Mother Jones discussed the 194 children killed by guns since Newton. They break it down as 103 homicides, 84 accidents, three suicides, and four “unclear” (but just as dead). 127 were killed in their own homes:

And the vast majority of them were killed in homes—127 in their own, and another 30 in the homes of relatives, friends, or neighbors.

In 39 cases, children were shot intentionally in their own homes by their parents or adult guardians, accounting for more than a third of the 103 total homicides. And out of 84 total accidental shooting deaths, at least 49 involved kids handling a firearm left unsecured inside a home.

And worse, in “accidental” cases, adults are rarely held responsible:

Moreover, when it comes to the accidental gun deaths of children, adults are rarely held criminally responsible. In 72 cases in which a child or teen pulled the trigger, killing themselves or other kids, we found only 4 cases in which an adult was convicted. (Charges may still be pending in some cases.) In part that may be because only 14 states and the District of Columbia have strong negligence laws with respect to children and firearms.

Given my pessimism about progressive change on this issue, one of the best things we can do is what Mother Jones has been doing: stubbornly publicise the issue, every aspect of the issue (including the obvious political economic links between the firearm industry, the NRA, and an unwillingness as a society to confront this issue) and hope for marginal, yet consistent, change in public opinion.

One step we can take as a society is to eliminate the concept of accident when a child has access to a gun in an unsupervised situation. Regardless of where or how or why, if a child gets his or her hands on a firearm, it’s not an accident. It should be legally characterised as reckless negligence, and the responsibility for the resulting injury or death should rest with the adult.

In other words, a child gets your gun and does something stupid? It’s your fucking fault, and you are criminally negligent.

And of those 194 dead children, where the hell were all the good guys we’ve been promised?

Post-script: (A girl’s seven year old voice, in a beautiful English accent).”What are you writing, daddy?”

“Nothing you’ll need to worry about any time soon, sweetheart. You can go back to sleep.”

 

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