Yes, the Russians Are Silly — Just Like We Are

PutinI’ll tell ya, you can tell when I’m on the road. Normally, I would not post two article from the same source in one day. This isn’t a philosophical thing, although I do try to mix it up. It is that when I’m at home, I have my RSS feed. So things come in all mixed up. But when I’m out, I’m stuck with my crummy phone. And so I tend to stick with single outlets. That’s especially true of Vox, which displays really well on my phone. (Interestingly: Frankly Curious does not; I’ve really got to do something about that.)

Anyway, Vox is a great source. I really like the site Lawyers, Guns, & Money, but it is very much an old fashioned blog with a lot stuff that is either pathetically brief or too obscure without cluing me in on what’s going on. Vox is great at cluing me in regardless what the subject is. Anyway, so one of the excellent articles I read was Amanda Taub’s The Fear and Insecurity Behind Putin’s Bizarre New Workout Video. The video is of Putin and his beta Dmitri Medvedev working out in the gym. Taub thinks it is pretty pathetic. I’m not so sure — they look pretty good for guys their age. But putting it out is pathetic, that’s for sure:

According to Taub, these videos and the other ones we know so well (shirtless horseback riding) are not the result of an autocrat exercising his ego as Mussolini did. They are rather a calculated propaganda tool of an autocrat with a weak grip on power. As long as he is invading Crimea, the people know he is “strong” and don’t need videos of him working out. But when his popularity slips, he wants Russia to know, “He Tarzan; he strong.” It shows just how paranoid these leaders are, because Putin is hugely popular in Russia. But whatever.

Amanda TaubWhat I find fascinating is how my fellow Americans scratch their heads about Putin’s approval ratings. But Putin’s high approval ratings are mostly due to the exactly the same things that gave the last two Bush presidents such high approval ratings: chest thumping and war mongering. Apparently, humans just love this kind of thing. But they just can’t see that they do the same thing. A good example of this was France during the Iraq War. It wouldn’t allow the US to fly some fighter jets over its air space. The people of France loved it. But Americans decided that France was awful and weak. That’s right: they thought that France was weak for not just bowing down to the US.

When the attacks of 9/11 happened, I had many reactions. I was saddened, of course — even disgusted. But I was also self-critical. First, I knew (and I can document publishing this on that very day) that we would use the tragedy inappropriately. We would do things that the government had long wanted to do, but really nothing to make the country safer. But I also thought, “What did we do now?” That wasn’t to justify the attacks; I don’t think they are justifiable. But I knew that they didn’t just happen. The US interferes with every country on the globe. All kinds of people have all kinds of really good reasons for being pissed off at America.

But almost no one now (and even fewer at that time) would admit such a thing. No, it is the greatest myth of America: we just mind our own business and people hate us for no reason at all. That’s why we have troops stationed in almost 150 countries and bases in 38 countries. This, above all, is what Americans need to understand: we are just like every other country. We aren’t “exceptional” except in our power, and that only makes us worse.

So Putin is working out on video? How is that different from Obama playing basketball or Bush clearing brush? It isn’t.

Bush’s “Better Deal” With Iran

Marc ChampionIt was in late 2002, almost two years into Bush’s presidency, that an Iranian opposition group exposed Iran’s covert nuclear fuel program to the public. In the first half of 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed the information, and later that year, after the US had invaded Iraq, France, Germany, and the UK began negotiations with Iran to end the nuclear program.

When IAEA inspectors visited Iran in February 2003, the country’s nuclear fuel program consisted of a centrifuge production plant; a largely empty commercial-grade underground enrichment plant at Natanz, with about 100 casings for centrifuges awaiting completion; and a heavy water reactor at Arak under construction. Iran said the program was civilian; however, it could one day be used to produce weapons-grade fissile material.

In other words, at the start of Bush’s presidency, Iran had no operational centrifuge cascades and no stocks of enriched fuel, so it had no means of making a nuclear weapon.

In their talks, the Europeans sought to offer Iran trade and investment incentives to end to the fuel program. The Bush administration supported this approach, setting zero enrichment as a red line. The Iranians refused to consider abandoning their fuel cycle ambitions, but they agreed to suspend “enrichment activities” while talks progressed.

This was a temporary deal designed to give space for a final agreement to be worked out — and if that sounds familiar, it should. It was in many ways similar to the agreement reached in 2013 to enable the current talks. The 2003 language, however, was vague, and the Iranians gamed it.

Iran decided that the suspension applied only to actual uranium enrichment, and not to other activities. So by June 2004, there were 1,140 fully installed centrifuges at Natanz. In October of that year, Iran announced it had substantial feedstocks ready to enrich in the centrifuges.

The Europeans hurried to produce a proposed final deal, which again required that Iran make “a binding commitment not to pursue fuel cycle activities.” Iran refused, offering instead to limit enrichment capacity to a pilot program of a few thousand centrifuges and to send everything produced abroad for conversion into fuel rods. This was a better deal than the one that’s [been reached]. Under pressure from the Bush administration, however, the Europeans refused to cross their zero-enrichment red line.

So the talks collapsed. The Iranian parliament voted to end its voluntary application of the IAEA’s enhanced inspection regime and, by 2006, Iran was enriching uranium. By the time Bush left office in January 2009, Iran had just under 4,000 working centrifuges and an additional 1,600 installed. These had, to that point, produced 171 kilos of low-enriched uranium. Oh, and Iran had covertly built a new enrichment facility under a mountain at Qom.

Obama at first continued with Bush’s policy of keeping to a zero-enrichment red line while piling on sanctions, to similar effect. Iran pressed ahead, producing 20 percent enriched fuel for use in medical equipment — an alarming development, because the time needed to enrich 20 percent fuel to weapons grade is short.

It was this shift, in fact, that persuaded the European Union to participate in the sanctions against Iran. By the time Iran was ready to return to the negotiating table — this time with the tacit agreement that any deal would leave them with a limited enrichment capacity — it had 19,000 centrifuges, about half of them operating, and had produced more than 7,000 kilos of low-enriched, plus 196 kilos of 20 percent enriched, uranium. That’s plenty for several nuclear weapons.

Since Iran entered into a second temporary agreement in November 2013, it has stopped producing 20 percent uranium; the number of installed centrifuges has been frozen; and the rate at which Iran has been increasing its production of low-grade uranium has slowed accordingly.

So what if now the two sides reconvene to produce a final agreement and can’t agree, as happened in Paris in 2005, because the US takes Bush’s advice and again insists on zero enrichment? Would sanctions make the Iranians buckle? We already know the answer is no. Iran would go back to the trajectory it was on until 2013, ramping up its nuclear fuel program and speeding toward a breakout.

—Marc Champion
Bush’s Iran Plan Is Worse Than Obama’s

Let Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis Suffer for Her God

Kentucky Clerk Kim DavisI’m fascinated by this whole case of Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis refusing to marry anyone because she’s against same sex marriage. For one thing, this is all so Christian: looking for a loophole. According to her, she isn’t being prejudice as she would be if she simply wouldn’t marry LGBT people. But it is ridiculous. I think as a nation we have to stand with the evidence. She would marry people when same sex marriage was illegal and she won’t now. Of course, she isn’t even being that sly. She says she won’t issue marriage licenses “under God’s authority.” Of course, she isn’t working for a church. But that’s another matter.

It seems clear to me that she should simply be fired. She isn’t willing to do her job. Imagine that I was a member of the Church of Lazy People, and I took at a job at the US Postal Service. But I refused to work the counter or deliver mail, because it was against my religion, I would be fired and that would be that. Because Christianity is a popular church and there are many bigots similiar to Kim Davis, she’s treated as though her demands were valid. Of course, no reasonable person seems to be defending her.

What I expect to happen is that Davis will have a “Go Fund Me” campaign set up for her and walk away with a million bucks and retire. At worst, some church will hire her for her “brave” stand against Satan. But if she ends up poor and living in a homeless shelter, I’m fine with that. To be honest, I’m tired to hearing conservative Christians whine and complain about all their oppression without actually experiencing any harms. These people aren’t being fed to lions, after all. In fact, in the case of Kim Davis, she hasn’t even been fired, even though if she worked (for far less money) at Walmart, she would have been fired days ago.

The Republican candidate for governor in Kentucky, Matt Bevin, supports Davis’ right not to do her job, “I absolutely support her willingness to stand on her First Amendment rights.” As Scott Lemieux responded sarcastically, “I’m sure he would feel the same way if state officials started withholding their services to him on the grounds that his economic views were inconsistent with the Sermon on the Mount.” That’s right. Bevin only supports Davis because he supports the effect. Even he must know that such a broad reading of the First Amendment would make society ungovernable. Even Justice Scalia understands this priciple.

But here is what I really don’t understand: if this is all about religion, why not just say, “Sure the government can ‘marry’ whomever they want, but God doesn’t accept those marriages”? I mean, from the government’s standpoint, marriage is primarily about tax policy, and Jesus was very clear about that. There’s my good friend Mark. In 12:14-15, he wrote, “They came and said to Him…. ‘Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay or shall we not pay?'” Jesus knew that they were just trying to trick him, so he had them bring him a coin and show that it was Caesar’s image on the coin. Jesus then said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

I know that Kim Davis would respond that marriage is God’s. But clearly not in this case. The “marriage” of the United States of America is not the “marriage” of the Bible. So what’s the big deal? Well, we know what the big deal is. As I say: Christianity is, for most people, a cultural signifier. They don’t care about God. They just want to stop the flow of history. They want to say that their tribe is right and other tribes are wrong. And most of all, they want to continue on oppressing those they’ve oppressed in the past.

So for those who have some sympathy for Kim Davis as a pawn in a political game she probably doesn’t even know she’s part of, I say unto you, “Render her unto God.” Fire her and let her powerful God take care of her. If he really cares so much about the sanctity of marriage, he will reward her — maybe by killing her so she can go up to heaven. Regardless, if doing God’s work is easy, it is meaningless. Let her be a good Christian and suffer for her religion.


It turns out that Davis is elected and so can’t be fired. Thus, she should be thrown in jail.

Denali and the Cross of Gold

DenaliI want to talk about the stupidity of the gold standard. But before I get to that, I think we should take a moment to be pleased that Mount McKinley will now be called by its previous name, Denali. It is the tallest mountain in North America. The Koyukon people have been living in the area for centuries — long before William McKinley was even a glint in the eye of William Sr. They called the mountain Denali — or as close as you can get to it when you aren’t speaking one of the Athabaskan languages. The fact that we are going back to the old name is a very good and honorable thing.

But Matt Yglesias is the kind of guy who isn’t above kicking a guy when he’s down, President McKinley’s Policies Were Garbage, and He Doesn’t Deserve an Awesome Mountain. As usual, Yglesias is totally right. While it is true that McKinley was president during a rip-roaring recovering at the end of the 19th century, it is also true that it was just dumb luck. He’s kind of like the Ronald Reagan of his day: he got all the credit for a change in the money supply that he had nothing to do with.

Now in the case of Reagan, we weren’t on the gold standard. So it was Paul Volcker who basically destroyed Carter’s presidency and then created Reagan’s “Morning in America.” (Note: Volcker was and still is a Democrat; can you imagine a Republican sabotaging his own party like that? And don’t say Greenspan because it doesn’t work at all!) But in McKinley’s time we were very much on the gold standard. And what happened at that time ought to make all the gold bugs out there rethink their ridiculous notions of money. But of course, they won’t.

Remember William Jennings Bryan “Cross of Gold” speech? If you are like most Americans, you don’t understand a damned thing he was talking about. And all the stuff about “free silver” is the same thing. People advocating for it wanted a greater supply of money in the economy. They wanted inflation. I know that the power elite have done a great job of vilifying inflation in this country, but as I write about all the time, modest inflation is a good thing. It drives the economy forward; it creates jobs; it alleviates debt. But on the other hand, for the rich, it’s a bad thing — primarily because more demand for labor means more money has to be paid for it, and because lenders want to squeeze every drop of blood out of borrowers that they can.

So allowing currency to be based on gold and silver would have been a good way to achieve some inflation and provide farmers and workers with some relief. But McKinley — like most representatives of the power elite — did not want to provide the working man with relief; he wanted the rich to keep on getting richer. So he was strongly behind the gold standard. But a funny thing happened during his presidency: there was a huge increase in the output of gold in the world. As a result, the value of gold went down, causing the inflation that the “free silver” movement wanted. McKinley got the credit, but he shouldn’t have. In fact, if he had gone with the “free silver” movement, the depression would have ended much earlier.

A couple of years ago, I wrote, Gold Is Not a Good Investment — at Least for 500 Years. The truth is that the value of gold has only gone down over time. What’s more, its value is highly volatile. The gold bugs are always on about how the Federal Reserve is “printing money” and causing inflation. As I said, that would actually be a good thing. But the truth is that since we left the gold standard, the economy and prices themselves have been far more stable than they were when we were on the gold standard. So I don’t even know what these people are on about — except that they are totally irrational and immune to reason.

But it is very cool that Denali in the highest mountain in North America. In addition to it being the right thing to do, it is one less occasion when we even need to think of President McKinley.

Morning Music: Tin Man

Holiday - AmericaI’ll admit: this is an embarrassing one. My parents both loved the song “Tin Man” by America. As I remember it, they thought that it was profound: “Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have.” Even at ten years old, I thought that was lame. I mean, I’d seen the movie. That’s the whole point. The whole point is that the Tin Man who doesn’t have a heart is the most emotional and caring of the characters. The Cowardly Lion is the bravest when it comes down to it. And the Straw Man is the smartest.

Years later, my friend Will and I got into America. And the “Tin Man” album, Holiday, is one of the more listenable of their albums. But it was a transition thing. I know their first ten albums forward and backward. And never has so much care and attention be wasted on such dreck. It’s not all bad. It has its moments. And the guys were clearly all talented. But there is no substance. And Dewey Bunnell, who wrote “Tin Man” and “A Horse With No Name” and many other “word collage” songs almost seems like he could have developed into a fine songwriter if he hadn’t found success so easy with gibberish.

Anniversary Post: Treasury Department

United States Department of the TreasuryOn this day in 1789, the United States Department of the Treasury was formed. It’s the agency that prints money. But even more important, the IRS is part of Treasury. I’m constantly amazed at the conservative anger at the IRS. Unless you simply don’t believe we should have a government, we need a tax collector. This goes along with something that I publish later today about conservatives really not thinking things through. It’s kind of like starry-eyed liberals thinking we could have no military and everything would be just fine. (I believe we have a military that 5-10 times the size of what we need, but I still think we need one.)

Even more ridiculous is the common belief that we could get rid of the IRS if we instituted a “flat tax.” To begin with, a flat tax is meaningless. Looking up how much in taxes you owe after doing your taxes is the easiest part of it. The hard part is dealing with all the deductions and such. And that is the stuff that is in there because of the rich. I have a great idea for simplifying the tax code: let’s make all deductions standard — no itemization. How about that rich people?! Would you go along with that? Because I’ll tell you something: that would make filing your taxes easy. It would also make paying them harder, but if the issue is not money but convenience, the rich ought to be all over my proposal. But they aren’t.

The point of the flat tax is the point of all so called tax reform: to shift the burden of taxes from the rich to the poor. But regardless of what you do, there still needs to be a tax collector. And this has been true for thousands of years! People don’t pay taxes voluntarily and they never have. So let’s just cut the nonsense. The IRS isn’t evil — in fact, by the historic standards of tax collectors, it’s quite reasonable. In fact, dealing with the IRS is a breeze compared to dealing with the California Department of Revenue. But if people have a better idea, I’d love to hear it. Because here’s a secret: none of us like paying our taxes. But the smarter people understand that living in a civilized society requires paying taxes.

Happy birthday Treasure Department!