Quotulatiousness

December 18, 2014

The Tsar’s new clothes

Filed under: Europe, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

At Samizdata, Johnathan Pearce suspects that the folks at NATO headquarters are not getting as much sleep these days as they used to:

… it appears that the image of Putin as this ruthless, chess-playing genius wrongfooting silly old Cameron, Merkel, and the chap with the funny moonface from France is not quite standing up to scrutiny. Here’s a report by Bloomberg:

    “The foundations on which Vladimir Putin built his 15 years in charge of Russia are giving way. The meltdown of the ruble, which has plunged 18 percent against the dollar in the last two days alone, is endangering the mantra of stability around which Putin has based his rule. While his approval rating is near an all-time high on the back of his stance over Ukraine, the currency crisis risks eroding it and undermining his authority, Moscow-based analysts said.

    In a surprise move today, the Russian central bank raised interest rates by the most in 16 years, taking its benchmark to 17 percent. That failed to halt the rout in the ruble, which has plummeted to about 70 rubles a dollar from 34 as oil prices dived by almost half to below $60 a barrel. Russia relies on the energy industry for as much as a quarter of economic output, Moody’s Investors Service said in a Dec. 9 report.

Now might also be a good time to remind ourselves of the “curse of natural resources”.

It would be worth wondering what are the odds that Putin can last a lot longer in power. That said, a sobering thought is that when regimes are in deep trouble, they can do desperate, crazy things, as Argentina did in 1982 by invading the Falklands. If I were a planner for NATO right now, I’d be having a nervous Christmas and New Year ahead of me.

December 6, 2014

QotD: Wartime failures of the peacetime army

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Military operations are, arguably, especially mistake-prone, because militaries aren’t like other organizations. A normal bureaucracy has a job, and it does that job all the time. Militaries, on the other hand, tend to spend most of their time not really engaged in their main purpose: fighting wars.

Teles noted James Q. Wilson’s observation about the fundamental difference between a peacetime army and a wartime army. In peacetime, it’s easy to observe inputs but impossible to observe the output — which is to say, how ready your troops are to go out and kick some enemy butt on the battlefield. When you get into a war, this completely reverses. In the chaos of battle, it’s very difficult to know exactly what your people are doing. On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to observe whether they killed the people they were supposed to kill and took the territory they were supposed to take.

That means that the people who advance in a peacetime army are, unfortunately, not necessarily the same people you want around when the shooting breaks out. Virtually every major war I can think of has had a few well publicized firings early on of senior people who had done very well in the peacetime army but turned out not to be ready to lead their men into a fight. The most famous of these is probably George McClellan, who led the Union Army early in the Civil War. He was everything you could want in a soldier — second in his class at West Point, author of several training manuals, beloved of his men and his fellow officers. There was just one thing he wasn’t good at: winning battles. He was passive in the face of Confederate advances, and he didn’t want to attack until he had absolutely overwhelming force, by which he seemed to mean a huge chunk of the adult male population of the Union. You can argue that this was out of totally admirable concern for his men, but it still let the Confederates push uncomfortably close to Washington.

Ulysses S. Grant, the man who ultimately led the Union forces to victory, was a middling student at West Point and eventually left the army because it didn’t pay him enough to support a family. When the Civil War started, Grant was working for a harness company and not really excelling at it, either. But in some ways, having failed in the peacetime army made him more successful in the wartime version: He was not afraid to take risks, because he’d already tasted failure.

Megan McArdle, “Why Militaries Mess up So Often”, Bloomberg View, 2014-04-24

December 5, 2014

QotD: The art of political leadership

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

[A politician’s] ear is ever close to the ground. If he is an adept, he can hear the first murmurs of popular clamour before even the people themselves are conscious of them. If he is a master, he detects and whoops up to-day the delusions that the mob will cherish next year.

H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 1926.

November 24, 2014

QotD: “… a modern Tory version of Mackenzie King”

Filed under: Cancon, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Harper is now the 6th longest serving PM in Canadian history having just surpassed Borden and Mulroney. The former fought a major war and the later revolutionized international trade policy. Harper? He abolished the Wheat Board. A sensible thing really. Not a big thing. This is not a government of big things, it is a government of small things. Harper is, as Lord Black has pointed out, a modern Tory version of Mackenzie King.

Now King did fight the Second World War. Sort of. He thought the whole thing rather a bother, getting in the way of his equivocating and crystal ball polishing. The general impression in Ottawa during the early Forties was that CD Howe was running the country. The only time in Canadian history when an engineer was given real power. I neither condemn or condone that fact, I simply point it out.

Harper would, of course, never delegate any important authority. Even the late Big Jim Flaherty was kept on a shorter leash than Paul Martin. A modern day CD Howe, assuming he could get elected, would never last five minutes in the Harper cabinet. Big Prime Ministers breed small cabinet ministers.

This leads to one of the essential problems of quasi-Presidential Prime Ministers. When the King falters so does the Kingdom. The Pearson government bungled along for five remarkably influential years. Mike had little idea of what was going on but with one of the strongest cabinets in Canadian history the business of government carried on.

If the PM doesn’t have any new ideas there are plenty of competent ministers more than willing to fill the gap. This is how men like Macdonald and King survived for political eons. How great Dynasties like those of the Tories in Ontario and Alberta were forged. If the King falters there is no shortage of Princes to carry the load.

Richard Anderson, “Steam Punk”, Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-11-18.

November 20, 2014

QotD: Obama’s negotiation skills

Filed under: Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

[President Obama] said he would take executive action on immigration by year’s end unless Republicans passed a bill. It’s certainly a bold negotiating tactic: You can do what I want, or I’ll go ahead and do what I want anyway. This is how you “negotiate” with a seven-year old, not a Senate Majority Leader.

I’m not sure that isn’t what Obama thinks he’s doing, and I’m sure many of my left-leaning readers are chuckling right now at the comparison. But Mitch McConnell is not a seven year old; he’s an adult, and he just won an election in which voters repudiated Obama and his party. (Temporarily, I am sure, but just the same: As someone once said, “Elections have consequences.”) McConnell is not the proverbial Tea Party extremist who won’t negotiate; he’s an establishment guy, known as a strategist and a tactician, not an ideologue (which is why the Tea Party isn’t that fond of him). In short, he’s someone who can make deals. Responding to McConnell’s rather gracious remarks about finding common goals by announcing that you know what the American public wants, and you’re going to give it to them no matter what their elected representatives say, seems curiously brash. It might chill the atmosphere today when he sits down with congressional leaders.

I wonder if Obama even knows how to negotiate with Republicans. It’s not as if he has a long, distinguished record of passing legislation in a mixed environment. His later years in the Illinois State Senate enjoyed a solid Democratic majority, and he jumped into the U.S. Senate at a propitious time. Soon after he arrived came the wave of 2006, when Democrats controlled both houses of congress by comfortable margins, and Senator Obama was far too junior to be negotiating with the White House. Then came the financial crisis, and another wave, and Obama spent the first two years of his presidency in a happy situation where he could get things done without needing the support of the opposition. He didn’t even negotiate with his own party; the Senate negotiated his health care bill, and Nancy Pelosi whipped it through the House.

Post 2010, of course, he also hasn’t had much practice negotiating. I’m not interested in another tedious argument about who did what to whom; whatever the cause and whoever’s fault it may be, the fact remains that the president has spent the last four years in a stalemate: Neither party can leave, and neither party can win.

It’s a little late in the president’s career to learn the fine art of making deals with people who fundamentally disagree with you, but might be willing to work on whatever small goals you might share. I suspect it feels more comfortable to go along with the strategy that has worked decently well over the last four years: hold your ground, complain about Republican intransigence, and hope that Republican legislators give you another opportunity to play long-suffering adult in the room.

Megan McArdle, “Does Obama Even Know How to Negotiate?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-11-07.

November 16, 2014

QotD: James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan

Filed under: Britain, History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

The 11th Light Dragoons at this time were newly back from India, where they had been serving since before I was born. They were a fighting regiment, and — I say it without regimental pride, for I never had any, but as a plain matter of fact — probably the finest mounted troops in England, if not in the world. Yet they had been losing officers, since coming home, hand over fist. The reason was James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan.

You have heard all about him, no doubt. The regimental scandals, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the vanity, stupidity, and extravagance of the man — these things are history. Like most history, they have a fair basis of fact. But I knew him, probably as few other officers knew him, and in turn I found him amusing, frightening, vindictive, charming, and downright dangerous. He was God’s own original fool, there’s no doubt of that — although he was not to blame for the fiasco at Balaclava; that was Raglan and Airey between them. And he was arrogant as no other man I’ve ever met, and as sure of his own unshakeable rightness as any man could be — even when his wrongheadedness was there for all to see. That was his great point, the key to his character: he could never be wrong.

They say that at least he was brave. He was not. He was just stupid, too stupid ever to be afraid. Fear is an emotion, and his emotions were all between his knees and his breastbone; they never touched his reason, and he had little enough of that.

For all that, he could never be called a bad soldier. Some human faults are military virtues, like stupidity, and arrogance, and narrow-mindedness. Cardigan blended all three with a passion for detail and accuracy; he was a perfectionist, and the manual of cavalry drill was his Bible. Whatever rested between the covers of that book he could perform, or cause to be performed, with marvellous efficiency, and God help anyone who marred that performance. He would have made a first-class drill sergeant — only a man with a mind capable of such depths of folly could have led six regiments into the Valley at Balaclava.

However, I devote some space to him because he played a not unimportant part in the career of Harry Flashman, and since it is my purpose to show how the Flashman of Tom Brown became the glorious Flashman with four inches in Who’s Who and grew markedly worse in the process, I must say that he was a good friend to me. He never understood me, of course, which is not surprising. I took good care not to let him.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman, 1969.

September 4, 2014

“David Cameron mouths foolish nothings” while “Obama … resembles a spineless invertebrate”

Filed under: Britain, Europe, Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:25

Historian Max Hastings pours out the scorn toward British PM David Cameron and American President Barack Obama for their dithering and unwillingness to grapple with real world problems like the invasion of Ukraine and the rise of ISIS:

Suddenly, the world seems a frightening place. The beheading of a second American hostage by jihadist fanatics and the threat that a British aid worker will suffer the same fate has shocked the peoples of the West, as have few events since the Cold War.

We are uncertain how the Western Powers should respond.

At such moments, we turn to our national leaders for wisdom, reassurance and decision. Instead, we get posturing, dithering and waffle.

David Cameron mouths foolish nothings, proclaiming that Britain would commit ‘all the assets we have’, including our ‘military prowess’ against the Muslim extremists.

More serious, the President of the United States seems supine in the face of the gravest threats to international order in a generation.

Barack Obama boldly strides golf course fairways, while apparently washing his hands of the job the American people — and, by association, the civilised world — pay him for: to strive to lead us into the paths of righteousness.

To borrow P. G. Wodehouse’s phrase, however intelligent Obama may be, he resembles a spineless invertebrate.

Update: Speaking of scorn, here’s Jonah Goldberg yesterday (H/T to Jim Geraghty for the link).

This was always nonsense, but then again so much of the hype about Obama in the early days of his presidency was nonsensical. Still it does contribute to the poignancy of the moment. I’m referring specifically to the Islamic State and their celebration of slavery. MEMRI has excerpts of Facebook chats between British and French supporters of the group as they discuss the great news that you can buy Yazidi women as sex slaves.

[…]

It’s also worth noting that the president has done everything he can to claim that his domestic political opponents are engaged in a “war on women.” He won an election largely because he convinced enough women — and pliant journalists — to take this bilge seriously. Just this week the head of his party went on at great length to claim that the Republican governor of Wisconsin has been “giving women the back of his hand.”

Oh, and let us not forget, the president and his supporters work very hard to paint their domestic political opponents as religious extremists because some private businesses and religious groups don’t want to pay for procedures that violate their conscience.

Now compare this to the people who are celebrating the fact their faith allows them to enslave women.

Just think about it for a moment. The president surely knows about this. His administration surely knows about this. And yet, the president — this modern incarnation of Lincoln, protector of women and opponent of domestic religious extremism — defines his goal for the Islamic State as reducing it to a “manageable problem.” Does this mean that if the group renounces any designs on attacking the U.S. homeland (an impossibility given the tenets of their faith and ambition for a global caliphate) he will stand by as they continue to barter women as sex slaves and breeders? This is the same man who campaigned in Berlin as a “citizen of the world” and champion of global community.

Forgive me, but the term, “Lincolnesque” doesn’t immediately spring to mind.

August 12, 2014

QotD: Jason Kenney as a potential Harper successor

Filed under: Cancon, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

A few [Conservative workers and contributors] are growing frustrated with the categorical abortion truce [Stephen Harper] has imposed on his caucus, and see hope in Jason Kenney, whose activity in recruiting ethnic minorities to the party is attracting increasing attention. Kenney might already be the most influential Canadian politician of the past 20 years, not excluding Harper. Canadian Taxpayers Federation jobs are still seen as attractive largely because Kenney, by some miracle, actually managed to influence policy in Alberta when he had one. His tending of minorities seems superhuman. I am convinced I could start a fake religion tomorrow and within six months Kenney would be sending us excruciatingly correct salutations on precisely the right made-up feast days. “The Conservative party wishes His Excellency the Pooh-Bah a happy and abundant Saskatoon-Picking Day.”

But there are many problems with the sudden agreement on an imminent Kenney succession, starting with the fact that accumulating authority with small ethnic and religious groups is … well, his job. Perhaps it gives him potential leverage in a leadership race, but it is indistinguishable from merely having done excellent work on behalf of Stephen Harper.

Colby Cosh, “Stephen Harper has no reason to quit while he’s ahead”, Maclean’s, 2014-01-10

August 11, 2014

QotD: The decay of the profession of arms

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Military, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

We lecture the [West Point] cadets on professionalism but we practice bureaucracy. To summarize the difference, professional cultures debate, discuss, and continually innovate to stay effective in the changing world. Bureaucracies churn out ever-restrictive rules and seek to capture every eventuality in codified routines.

Consider this: From day one at the academy every possible situation that a cadet could conceivably encounter is accounted for by strict regulations. Not sure how many inches should be between your coat hangers, whether you can hold your girlfriend’s hand on campus, or how your socks should be marked? Consult the regulations. Moreover, all activity is subjected to the cadet performance system, which essentially assigns a grade to every measurable event in a cadet’s life (think shoe shines, pushups and pop quizzes) then ruthlessly ranks the entire class from first to last. Cadets at the top of the list get the jobs and postings they want after graduation. Those near the bottom end up driving trucks at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The result is two-fold: First, cadets have very little experience adapting to unfamiliar environments. After all, what happens when the regulations don’t describe what’s going on around you? Second, cadets devote zero attention to activities that “don’t count.” If it’s not on the syllabus, and it’s not for a grade, the cadets aren’t learning it. Ask a cadet to spend a few minutes writing up a list of the skills, traits, and knowledge that he wishes he’d have when he finally takes over his first platoon in combat. Then compare this to his four-year curriculum and summer training plans. There will be surprisingly little overlap between the two lists, and the cadet has neither the time nor the incentive to learn what’s missing. In the end, we graduate far too many cadets that are more bureaucrat than professional, lacking the expert knowledge of their trade and the flexibility to be effective in the complex environments they’ll soon encounter.

Major Fernando Lujan, U.S. Army, quoted in “West Point faculty member worries it is failing to prepare tomorrow’s officers”, Foreign Policy, 2010-06-11

August 3, 2014

A promise of stability for the Vikings

Filed under: Business, Football — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:49

In the Star Tribune, Jim Souhan looks back at the Minnesota Vikings long, tattered history of leadership struggles, coups d’etat, backstabbings, legal battles, and instability that would embarrass a banana republic in the 1930s:

In the beginning, there was Norm Van Brocklin, and he was angry. So angry that he would scream at Fran Tarkenton when Tarkenton scrambled. So angry that Van Brocklin unwittingly became the Vikings’ cussing precursor to their current coach, Mike “Bleep” Zimmer.

That Norm couldn’t get along with a future Hall of Fame quarterback foretold decades of Vikings history, in which owners, coaches, star players and team executives would scheme to seize influence within the organization.

Today, the Vikings appear to have all of their key decisionmakers on the same page and, for once, that page is not a legal brief.

There have been good times, and calm times, in Vikings history, but rarely were the Vikings good and calm at the same time when anyone other than Bud Grant was in charge.

Grant employed problem players and his team lost big games, but with ol’ Steely Eyes in charge, the Vikings took on the appearance of a lake unruffled by whitecaps.

Since Grant retired, the Vikings have not been the same. They have not returned to a Super Bowl. They have not enjoyed a multiple-season stretch of anything that could be labeled as tranquil.

Les Steckel replaced Grant, and quickly got himself fired by mistaking the NFL for a special forces training center. Grant returned for one season, but finished 7-9. Grant’s longtime protégé, Jerry Burns, another coach who could swear with creativity and stamina, took over and advanced to the brink of a Super Bowl, but retired before new executive Roger Headrick could push him out.

Headrick had replaced Mike Lynn, whose time as the team’s top football executive included feuds between him and the ownership group known as the Gang of 10, members of which spent more time suing one another than watching football. Headrick, a corporate type who mistakenly showed up for a practice in coaching shorts and wearing a whistle, replaced Burns with Denny Green.

Green won right away and for a long time, but by the end of his first season he was the subject of reports about numerous non-football allegations, and soon he would be writing a book threatening to sue for ownership of the team.

Here’s hoping that the Mike Zimmer years will be as calm as the Bud Grant years… oh, and at least as successful.

July 27, 2014

QotD: Qui veut tout défendre ne sauve rien (Who defends everything defends nothing)

Filed under: Military, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

This is an elementary and self-evident Principle. Indeed, it is so axiomatic that few examples of it will be given in these pages. The only point to stress is that it is useless to hope to obtain complete security in passive defense. It is also unsound. “He who tries to defend everything saves nothing.” declared Marshal Foch, echoing Frederick the Great. It should be noted that the very act of assuming the offensive imparts a certain degree of security. Make as if to strike a man, and he instinctively assumes a defensive attitude. As General Rowan Robinson expresses it in his Imperial Defence, “The highest form of strategic security is that obtained through the imposition of our will upon the enemy, through seizing the initiative and maintaining it by offensive action.” There may sometimes be an element of risk in this, but, as we have seen, war in its nature involves risk.

Lt. Colonel Alfred H. Burne, The Art of War on Land, 1947.

July 4, 2014

Is this the end of Obama’s cult of personality?

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Ace, at Ace of Spades H.Q., says the latest Quinnipiac poll shows that Barack Obama’s cult of personality is over:

It is cathartic and reassuring for We, The Gaslighted, to finally have the majority of the public agreeing that we were essentially right all along.

That shouldn’t matter — ideally, a man possessed of the truth should not care if his truth is popular or not — but as a practical matter it does.

It is an altogether unpleasant experience to be separated from one’s fellows and the greater culture by knowing a truth the masses consider unspeakable. And so then it is pleasant to see the mass of humanity regain its senses.

It is good to no longer be called “crazy” by people who are themselves overtaken by madness.

So the Cult of Personality is well and truly dead. Never again will we hear hoseannas about our Great Leader’s supple mind, erotically throbbing pectoral muscles, or literary genius, except perhaps from our Great Leader himself or his whispering sycophant Valerie Jarrett.

This is good for America, as well: It is a stupid and frightening and shameful thing for a people to fall so hard for a ridiculous, false-on-its-face fairy tale about a Crusading Hero Who Will Deliver Us All. This is how nations die.

Perhaps America has learned some hard-won wisdom from its folly. Perhaps there will not be a Next Charismatic Cult of Personality Hero on a White Horse, at least for a generation.

Perhaps Obama will become a shorthand for a dreadful folly, like “Ozymandias” or “Icarus.”

I could scarcely imagine a man more deserving of such a fate as the Failed God Obama.

But perhaps the American public is every bit as stupid as I think they are, and will fall for the next Man on a White Horse just as easily as it did for this one.

May 30, 2014

QotD: Pursuit of a beaten foe

Filed under: History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:09

All commanders must have been aware of the advantages of vigorous pursuit; hence the mere fact that they did not succeed in achieving it shows that there must be some big predisposing cause militating against its attainment. This cause may be defined as lassitudo certamine (to coin an expression), that moral and physical fatigue and reaction that usually supervenes toward the close of a hard-fought struggle as the daylight departs and the pursuit should just be starting. At the battle of Orthez Wellington thoroughly defeated Soult but omitted to pursue him. Why? Almost certainly because he was himself wounded just at the close of the action, and his physical and mental powers at that critical moment no doubt suffered temporary eclipse. In the same way Marlborough after his brilliant exploit in forcing the Lines of the Geet in 1705 made no attempt to pursue. He had just taken part himself in a fierce cavalry charge, and was physically bouleversé. It is doubtful whether in any army this potential weakness is sufficiently recognized and systematically combatted.

Lt. Colonel Alfred H. Burne, The Art of War on Land, 1947.

May 29, 2014

QotD: Formula for measuring the importance of managers

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Every student of human institutions is familiar with the standard test by which the importance of the individual may be assessed. The number of doors to be passed, the number of his personal assistants, the number of his telephone receivers — these three figures, taken with the depth of his carpet in centimeters, have given us a simple formula that is reliable for most parts of the world.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Plans And Plants, or the Administration Block”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

May 1, 2014

QotD: Leadership

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 00:01

I’m a little slow on the uptake from time to time. Occasionally people mistake this form of aphasia for things right in front of my face as a kind of aplomb — it isn’t. To coin an aphorism by butchering Kipling quotes: If you seem to be keeping your head because you’re a little dimwitted, while everyone else is smart enough to be losing theirs, they’ll often put you in charge of that pack of panicking headless men, for all the wrong reasons, and then you’ll be a man in a world of trouble, my son.

Sippican Cottage, “Real Estate, Red In Tooth And Claw “, Sippican Cottage, 2013-11-12

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