Russian Economy Collapsing? Merry Christmas Vladimir

In case you haven’t noticed, over the last couple of days Russia’s economy is shaking.   That perked up my day when I learned of it Monday, but I have more sober thoughts since then.

I admit to a feeling of glee when reading that Russia’s Central Bank hiked its interest rates from roughly 10 to 17 per cent, this in the attempt to stabilize the value of the ruble vis-a-vis the American dollar.  The ruble had dropped 50% since January and was dropping more.  That is a radical step to take and, as someone pointed out, its effect lasted about 10 minutes.

Just heard today that Apple is refusing to be paid in rubles along with all of Finland, I believe.  And I imagine that trend continues as I type.  A more detailed account of the events can be found in this Theworldpost piece from Monday.   And there is plenty more out there to Google.

Why gleeful?   Well, I like my beliefs to be validated and have believed Russia’s fragile economy would undermine Putin’s opportunistic foreign policy, while at the same time I did not believe he was another Hitler, only that he was the proudest of Russians humiliated by the weak state Russia had been in after the break up of the Soviet Union.

Now in a much stronger Russia, Putin has welcomed opportunities to push back at the West.  He has never wanted to conquer all of Ukraine, but just to keep it in turmoil, unstable and not a prized Western trophy, and not another Russian humiliation.

I was hoping the sanctions would do the trick, but it turns out the foremost cause has been the drop of oil prices from a high in the summer of $107 a barrel to $50-something now.   Russia’s main source of income comes from its energy sales, and now much of that income is lost.

The contribution of the Obama-led economic sanctions is hard to parse, though not surprisingly Democrats think they helped quite a bit while Republicans think their effect has been negligible.

Whatever,  the good news is Putin should have enough to worry about in keeping his hold on power over the next few months, enough worry that I read he now seems more pliable when it comes to working out some sort of political solution in eastern Ukraine, where Russian supported rebels and government forces continue to battle.

I would like to end this piece on that upbeat note, but feel the need to dampen that enthusiasm because who knows what instability and excesses might arise from an increasingly squashed Russian economy.

Putin just won the Man of the Year award in Russia for the 15th straight year and, though his popularity has slipped a bit of late, it has dropped only a few points to around 80%.  EIGHTY PER CENT!  American presidents tend to reach those upper limits at one point or another, but not for long.

The Russian hunger for revived national pride still seems to outweigh their economic values and, with Putin controlled media continually developing the narrative, this budding economic collapse will be portrayed more and more like a result of Western manipulation of oil markets as well as sanctions, both aimed at destroying Russia.

What will happen, who will Russians blame and how will Putin react?

I am reading a biography of Putin and am struck by a number of points made, like his describing himself as a thug when growing up and his childhood dream to become a KGB agent, while most other Russian boys dreamed of becoming an astronaut.  He often got into fights, and he seems to have suffered from the little-man-syndrome, the need to show he was the toughest guy around to compensate for his small stature.

One childhood friend states:  “If anyone ever insulted him in any way, Volodya (Vladimir) would immediately jump on the guy, scratch him, bite him, rip his hair out by the clump – do anything at all never to allow anyone to humiliate him in any way.” (1)

A little tough guy who refuses to be humiliated and I would add identifies so closely with mother Russia that he takes all slights to the nation personally.   It seems those are traits the Russians love, but how long will they love him if the predicted deep 2015 recession comes to pass.

And how will he react to it all?

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(1)  Quoted from:  The Man Without a Face:  The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, written by Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who lived in Moscow when this book was published in 2012.   Gessen contends that Putin’s rise was largely a freakish accident, a guy who was in the right places at the right times and one so nondescript (“no face”) that it allowed others to envision him to be just what they wanted.

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Why I Write About the Greater Middle East

In my post last week I asked for feedback on my blog and received none.

Greater Middle East

Greater Middle East (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, none, not one.   I have to say I am surprised, but not terribly so when I consider my own reading of blogs and editorials, glancing at many and reading some and seldom leaving comments.    It is the way we are these days.  So much information available to us,  and so little time, a situation exacerbated by the misshaping of information to fit someone’s political ideology.   We can not even begin to integrate all that information because so much of it is suspect.

It often strikes me that we have more knowledge and less collective understanding than ever.

If you like a post you linger longer.  If not you move on sooner.   No need to comment unless you really want to and why would you really want to?  Ingest it or just move on.

Hey, I’ll just assume those of you who read this fairly regularly feel the way the reader cited last time  does:  “I’ve enjoyed receiving (the) American Titanic blog this year. You put it together judiciously, pacing its frequency and length just right, to be of passing interest each time. I like your generously including further web-refs, for anyone wanting to follow-through on a particular subject.”

Love that comment.

The other response to my post I listed was from my close friend Judy.  Since she doesn’t want to read about the Mid-East – too complex and too removed from her life – I want to say something about why I want to write about it, even  if hardly anyone else wants to read it.

I want to write about it because of its complexity and its potential for rocking our world.  I have paid attention to world affairs for nearly 50 years and believe I can give some useful perspective to the burgeoning chaos that envelops the region.

Three factors have guided our foreign policy towards the Greater Middle East:  Oil, regional stability and nuclear weapons, either already there or potentially so.  Of course, the three are tied together and all linked to Israel, both a staunch ally and source of ongoing problems.  In our desire to maintain stability, so our sources of oil remained reliable, we often backed dictators, such as the Shah of Iran and Hosni Mubarak of Eygpt and, lest we forget, Saddam Hussein, before he got too big for his britches and invaded Kuwait.

We placed our faith in strong men who could keep their  internal politics stable, and all things considered, that vast region had been much more stable than it is today.

The Greater Middle East has become much more difficult to deal with now, as the age of the strong man has diminished and the age of republics has yet to arrive.  What we take for granted as democratic processes has not been experienced by most of this region.  Except for Israel, India and possibly Turkey, the nature of rule is either strong men, some pretending to lead democracies, chaos or semi-chaos.  Trying to make sense of this gigantic region is particularly difficult these days because so much is unpredictable.

I think I have some useful perspective and worthwhile thoughts on that collective tumult, and so that’s why I will return to the subject again and again in upcoming months.   Much will happen and it won’t be easy judging events when they do.

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Barack Obama: Our First Black and White President

Barack Obama is often referred to as our first black president, but I have thought of him as our first black and white president.  His background, experience and personal gifts combine to make whites like myself believe he not only empathizes  with the concerns of blacks when it comes to racial issues,  but also the concerns of whites.   Without that quality, he could not have been elected.

In case you haven’t heard, he displayed that capacity yesterday in a surprise visit to the White House Press Corp as described by Philip Rucker and Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post (on-line).

“President Obama implored Americans on Friday to “do some soul-searching” in the aftermath of the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Florida, speaking expansively and introspectively about the nation’s painful history of race and his own place in it.

Directly wading into the polarizing debate over last weekend’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Obama tried to explain the case through the lens of past discrimination that still weighs heavily on African Americans.

The nation’s first black president, recognizing the disconnect between how whites and blacks were reacting to the Zimmerman verdict, sought to explain why the acquittal had upset so many African Americans.

“I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” Obama said.

Since the Zimmerman court decision, the discussion of the issue on MSNBC has been dominated by black pundits, implying you have to be black to really understand the racial nuances of the case.   At least one called for a national dialogue on race and democracy, which I welcome as long as it is a real dialogue he is seeking.

But he is a professor who seemed to be inviting we whites to an ongoing seminar in which he and other black intellectuals are going to enlighten us as to the many facets of our racism, conscious or otherwise.   No thanks.

If a real dialogue is to develop on issues that are in black and white, a tone must be set that reflects empathy with the fears,  anger and prejudices of both races.

In his surprising address yesterday, the president set such a tone:

Going Mad! Be Back April 9

Congress take its Easter/Passover two week recess next week and President Obama has gone to the mid-east to shore up our relations there, so this seems a good time for us to take a break from thinking about the torturous budget SNAFU, too.    Congress comes back April 8,  which just happens to be the final game day of March Madness, so the following day seems a good time to post again.

Unlike Congress, the NCAA basketball version of March Madness has a plan in place to get something accomplished, namely decide a national basketball champion.

Warmup before the 2006 NCAA Men's Division I B...

Warmup before the 2006 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament National Championship Game (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The time off will allow me to clean up that red row of Page  categories across the top, which seemed a good idea at first but I haven’t had the time to build them up as sources of information, so they have been neglected for months.  I’m not sure what I will put up there instead, but will go with the notion less is more.

Another thing I will work on some is my attitude.   I am a class half empty kind of guy and dwelling on our federal fiscal follies has drained the glass further.

When I was in my 20s – those  olden times when people still pecked on clunky typewriters, actually received letters and not all bills and junk mail, and spoke into phones attached to a wall – I saw a quote which I wish I still had.   It was from one of those wise ancient ancients and it went something like this:   Do not  dwell on the worries of the world.  The world is not worried about you.   Shrink the world to suit your daily life and you will be happy.

This was succinctly summed up more recently by another philosopher:  “Don’t worry be happy.”   That’s easier said then done, but below is a TED talk by Shawn Achor that might help.   A student of the  “science of happiness,” he wittily asserts that the problem is we have this pursuit of happiness thing backwards.   We tend to think success brings happiness, while it is actually the reverse.  Happiness brings success.

So, give him a gander when you have about 18 minutes for a few chuckles and some thought provoking.  (Those signed up to be emailed posts  may need to go to the web site to see the video.  Click the red and white symbol in the top left corner of the emailed post).

See ya two weeks from this coming Tuesday.

An Alternative to Thinking About the Sequester

Happy Sequestration Day, or Eve as it begins at midnight, I think.   According to the Huff Post, there will be a White House meeting today between President Obama and top congressional leaders, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner.   I will be shocked….shocked I say….if it produces anything except more animosity, though it is hard to fill a jar that is already full.

For those who have forgotten, this whole sequester thing was the result of a series of discussions, primarily between the Obama team and the Boehner team back in mid-2011.  Discussions on a fiscal compromise that went nowhere, so in August of that year they came up with this gun-to-the-head scenario called the sequester.   Surely, the threat of across the board meat cleaver type cuts would make both sides come to some agreement.   Well, no.

It seems widely agreed upon that the key stumbling block is the Tea Party wing of the Republican House.  It has been said politics is the art of compromise.  They apparently didn’t get the memo.  They are thrilled that they can do nothing and still get some budget cuts.   It is not that they are so powerful as a block, maybe 30 or 40 of them in the House, but the well funded Tea Party threatens other members with campaigns against them in the next election.  It has come to be called “being primaried,” and to my mind a cancer in the Republican Party.

So, Boehner, who is actually a pretty flexible guy, is very limited in what he feels he can agree to in negotiations, especially if he wants to remain Speaker.  That’s not the whole problem, but it is a big part of it.

According to Bob Woodward, on July 6, 2011 the President and Speaker Boehner met while still trying to make a deal.  “But at the end of the meeting, despite their previous discussion about pressing staff to find an agreement, they remained far apart on the key issues of taxation and entitlement reform (the emphasis my own).

That split remains wide and intractable.  At this point, I agree with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that both sides seem “willing to just let the sequester happen as long as they don’t get blamed for it.”

NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Thank you Monty Python for the above intro.   I can only think so much about our congressional gridlock before getting brain cramps, so as a form of refreshment I suggest TED, which produces an ongoing series of great lectures, showing nearly infinite human potential, in contrast to that reflected in Congress.   Anyone familiar with Ken Robinson?   I wasn’t until recently, but now I know he is recognized internationally as an expert on the subject of creativity, something I’d love to see Congress show a bit of.

He is much more interesting than the sequester and funny, too,  as I think you will agree.  Do note, though, it is an 18 minute talk, so put some time aside or prepare to listen in nibbles (I know it’s a mixed metaphor.  I love to mix metaphors if you haven’t already noticed).

New Year’s Resolutions and Evolutions

Diary

Diary (Photo credit: Barnaby)

If I make resolutions at all, they are small ones that seem relatively easy to keep.   For example, MY ONE resolution for 2013 is to make an entry in my personal journal every day instead of leaving several days blank as I have done in previous years.  The entry can be only one sentence.  Just as long as I do it.  And if for some reason I fail to be perfect, which is likely, than I will take the fall back position of making the resolution a general goal….to get into the habit of making an entry almost every day of 2013.    And then aim to do better in 2014.

In other words I will let the entry making evolve. The same as I did with this blog.  I began working on it a year ago, uncertain that I would actually wind up doing it.   The “it” being to examine our leaking political economy in hopes of separating the real issues we face from the politicized versions so that we  might actually have useful dialogues about how to patch the holes.

At times I felt totally intimidated.  The issues I wanted to sort out seemed too complex requiring too much time to get any kind of handle on them.  Who did I think I was? (*1).   I calmed down when reminding myself that most Americans concerned with the future of our country must have similar feelings. The difference between me and most of my fellow citizens is that I am inclined to put more time and energy into researching these issues, and to write something about my limited understanding of them.

Still, I did not fully commit to writing the blog until  I realized, after I had already decided on the title, that April 14th was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.  That seemed an amazing coincidence to me, an omen which dispelled doubts and firmed up my commitment (*2).

My ongoing goal is not to come up with solutions but to better illuminate the nature of our real problems, so we might better understand our disagreements. That’s what I hope makes this blog worthwhile reading, despite my shortcomings.

Because misinformation abounds, most of my posts have either revolved around that issue or been tangential to it.   Most of the political chatter over months and months of electioneering was tangential at best when it comes to discussing our real political/economic problems and how we might combat them.   So, I tried to point out lies, distortions, facts out of context that prompted false conclusions, etc.   One reader kindly thanked me for guiding her through the election.  I try to be a trustworthy guide, while admitting I often get lost in the labyrinth of political spin, a house of horrors for someone struggling to understand.

While understanding the problems of our complex political economy is hard in itself, our loss of a common base of respected knowledge  makes understanding border on the mind boggling, while often refused a visa.   As conservative Democratic Senator Michael Bennett recently described the problem, in Washington “there are all kinds of people whose job it is to obfusgate the facts.”   That’s just for starters.  The internet allows us all to make our versions of the truth go viral, no matter how ungrounded they are.

Along with “sifting and winnowing” in search of truth,  much of what I have written has been about the presidential election, even though it often struck me as largely a huge waste of money, energy and time just to decide whether Barack Obama would remain Captain of our Titanic or be replaced by someone else.    Except for an economy that remains on an upward slope (but still largely a jobless recovery), our fiscal problems and our politicians inability to work together on addressing them, have not improved, as if that is news to anyone.

Regular readers know I am glad Barack Obama was reelected.  I spent a lot of space defending him from Republican talking points, which for the most part were lies or reasonable facsimiles of such.

Now that he has been reelected I can spend more time on examining how he does.  And how the Congress does in actually tackling our political/economic problems.   The recent fiscal deal was not a great start, but it was a start, reminding me of that ancient Chinese proverb… “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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(1*)  For those who do not know, I am 67 with a varied work back ground, though most of it has been related to education or horse racing, at times the two being combined.   My credentials regarding politics and economics are largely having observed the two in action over several decades.  That and my knowledge of history, being a history major in college and a history buff ever since.

(2*)   While a skeptic I have long thought there is something valid in what the psychologist Carl Jung called “synchronicity.”  Wikopedia provides a useful definition: ” Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner.”

So, I do think that some coincidences mean something, even though I’m always guessing at what they might mean.

A Real Political Debate is as Rare as a Great Prize Fight

The Pacquiao-Marquéz rivalry known for its lac...

The Pacquiao-Marquéz rivalry known for its lack of a definitive triumph suddenly had the most definitive ending of them all. (Photo credit: Erolle)

Barack Obama and John Boehner met two days ago and their aides are remaining mum, other than rumors that Obama made a proposal Sunday and Boehner just made a counter proposal today.    I can’t imagine much of a real deal taking place at this time, though perhaps a small agreement can come about while  kicking the rest of the cans down the road months into 2013, per usual.   We can only wait and see.

In the meantime, anyone like to watch prize fighting? I love a great fight and the Pacquiao-Marquez one Saturday night was great, a battle between two skilled warriors dramatically ended by one Marquez punch in the 6th round (*1).   Great fights are rare, but so is real political debate these days.   Mostly we have two sides flailing their talking points about, often with feckless moderators allowing lies and lesser truth misdemeanors  to score hits below the belt.

An exception would be the Jon Stewart interview of Governor Chris Christie a few days ago.   Stewart has been called the Walter Chronkite of our time, which I think is fitting in that our political scene has literally become  a joke over the past 30 years or so,  and parody is the best way to illuminate its phoniness.  Christie, on the other hand, has been called a rarity by newsman Bob Sheaffer:  “A politician who actually answers questions.”   In short, two men worth listening to when they tangle.

While no knock out punches were thrown, there was lots of sparring in what was a real debate.   Some of that debate was edited to fit the show, but you can see it in its entirety at the link shown at the bottom of this post.

There were three segments, like rounds, totaling about 26  minutes, but you can watch each separately if you don’t have the time or inclination to watch them all at once.  In the first round there were mostly love pats, two Jersey boys having some fun and building rapport, including Christi proudly telling of a hug he recently got from Bruce Springsteen.

Things got serious in the second round, though, as Stewart kept punching away at the Republican tendency to see things others need as “mooching” entitlements.   He said more than once that cancer for someone who lacks health insurance is a personal example of what a hurricane is to many, a tragedy as in New Jersey, stating that Republicans can see the need of relief for a whole region in an emergency but not the calamity of an individual who can’t afford health insurance.   Christie parried those blows and got in a few shots of his own in a debate that helped illuminate the issues involved.

In the third round, there was less punching and more badinage once again with the two agreeing on one thing in particular:  Real political debate seldom breaks out anymore.

Well, it broke out here, which is why I recommend your taking a glance via this  Huffington Post ink.

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(*1)  A related political tidbit:  Mitt and Ann Romney had seats ringside compliments of the chair of the Nevada State Boxing commission.  I didn’t know he liked boxing, but there’s a lot I don’t know about him because he has wanted it that way.  I’m waiting for someone to shed light on the matter with a book possibly titled:  Who was Mitt Romney?