Friday, March 23, 2018

Running the tap and flushing while Irish

These are average monthly water and sewage bills for families in the indicated cities in 2015.

The Irish left has attached itself to the cause that the right equivalent number for Irish families is zero. And they shouted about it enough that they won.

Chart from Circle of Blue via Julia Norgaard

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Bombing while white

The Austin murderer "blew himself up" (New York Times, Reuters) while today's Kabul murderer was a "suicide bomber" (New York Times, Reuters).

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Custodian of the Crazy Brexiteers

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman meets Queen Elizabeth II in London -- without bowing!

Photo: SPA.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018


In Cairo on Monday, Coptic Pope Tawadros II meets with visiting Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman at St Mark's Cathedral.

Consider this meeting in light of (1) Saudi Arabia's conventional portrayal as hostile to Christianity and (2) the fact that Pope Tawadros refused to meet with US Vice President Mike Pence in January, despite the latter styling himself as a champion of Christianity in the Middle East. 

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Money for Oil

There's a lot of excitement about a potential Trump - Russia strand that runs through the partial privatization of Rosneft in which the Qatar Investment Authority was part of a group (with Glencore) that bought a 19.5 percent stake in the company. For example, in Slate, there's a shaky logical chain running from that deal to Jared Kushner not getting a loan from the Qataris later in 2017, orchestrating the June crisis in the Gulf, and later getting a loan from a Qatari-backed entity. The link back to the Rosneft deal is supposed to be through the Qataris, but the link back to Trump is supposed to be through a Carter Page angle to the Rosneft deal - which never happened!

Anyway, for the present purpose, the point is that the actual flows of money associated with the Rosneft deal are not clear. From the start, well informed Russians and outside analysts suspected that the deal was actually a round trip of Russian state bank cash into the Russian exchequer, with the Qataris and Glencore agreeing to put their name to the transaction in exchange for (1) a nice fee, (2) being pals with Putin, and (3) an understanding that the shareholding would eventually be placed with someone else.

Evidence for this interpretation includes that the two shareholders put up almost no cash for their stake. Instead, the money came mostly from a loan to them from an Italian bank, Intesa, which had trouble offloading the loan through syndication (because of sanctions) and eventually found a solution in the sale of the share to a Chinese company. To say the least, finding any simple Trump angle in such a convoluted transaction is not easy.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

War for oil

A couple of weeks ago there was a lot of intrigue around an encounter between Russian mercenaries in Syria and US armed forces; a combination of pro-Assad militias and the Russians ran into much tougher opposition (Kurdish militia backed by US) than they are used to (civilians and poorly organized rebels) and it ended badly for them. Amid much theorizing about what was the motivation for the botched attack (e.g. Putin thought he could embarrass Trump), the Financial Times has a much, much simpler explanation:

For now, some [Russian] businesses are using unconventional methods to position themselves in Syria. Mr Jawabra said Evropolis, a company linked to an ally of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is receiving revenues from Syrian oil wells in territory captured from Isis by a Russian private military contractor.

Fontanka, a Russian website, last year reported that mercenaries had secured deals under which they would receive a cut of income from oilfields they captured, but Mr Jawabra is the first official to confirm it.

"I don't know how many wells, and how big a cut they get," he said. "But there are others as well. It may be one model that helps get around the problem with the sanctions."

Note that the botched attack was on an oil facility. Thus, the Russian mercenaries in Syria need to capture oil to get paid. If you adjusted the labels on this mechanism (e.g. change "Russia" to "USA" and "Syria" to "Iraq), it might even be a scandal!

Wenger is doomed

The FT weekly lunch slot is with Chris Ruddy at Mar-a-Lago:

We walk down to the beachfront, past the president's quarters and some of the cottages built for club members. In the middle distance, a boy in an Arsenal shirt is kicking a football around — he appears to be the president's 11-year-old son, Barron.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Cargo ship diplomacy

From the latest Theresa May speechifying on Brexit --

First, our agreement will need reciprocal binding commitments to ensure fair and open competition. Such agreements are part and parcel of any trade agreement. After all, why would any country enter into a privileged economic partnership without any means of redress if the other party engaged in anti-competitive practices?

Because the means of redress in a typical trade agreement is simply to retaliate and ultimately suspend the agreement, since more intrusive but less disruptive means of redress is precisely what the UK says it doesn't want. This has already been pointed out to the government by their own technical analysis. 

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Same as it ever was

From Emma, by Jane Austen (published 1815) --

(Emma speaking) “So obliging of you! No, we should not have heard, if it had not been for this particular circumstance, of her being to come here so soon. My mother is so delighted!—for she is to be three months with us at least. Three months, she says so, positively, as I am going to have the pleasure of reading to you. The case is, you see, that the Campbells are going to Ireland. Mrs. Dixon has persuaded her father and mother to come over and see her directly. They had not intended to go over till the summer, but she is so impatient to see them again—for till she married, last October, she was never away from them so much as a week, which must make it very strange to be in different kingdoms, I was going to say, but however different countries, and so she wrote a very urgent letter to her mother—or her father, I declare I do not know which it was, but we shall see presently in Jane’s letter—wrote in Mr. Dixon’s name as well as her own, to press their coming over directly, and they would give them the meeting in Dublin, and take them back to their country seat, Baly-craig, a beautiful place, I fancy. Jane has heard a great deal of its beauty; from Mr. Dixon, I mean—I do not know that she ever heard about it from any body else; but it was very natural, you know, that he should like to speak of his own place while he was paying his addresses—and as Jane used to be very often walking out with them—for Colonel and Mrs. Campbell were very particular about their daughter’s not walking out often with only Mr. Dixon, for which I do not at all blame them; of course she heard every thing he might be telling Miss Campbell about his own home in Ireland; and I think she wrote us word that he had shewn them some drawings of the place, views that he had taken himself. He is a most amiable, charming young man, I believe. Jane was quite longing to go to Ireland, from his account of things.”

Is Ireland any better understood in the elite classes in England now as Austen gently indicates was not the case then?

The storm with no name

The latest installment on the UK-Ireland weather service American import of naming winter storms: the blizzard hitting the countries is being referred to as Storm Emma, even though (1) there was no Storm Emma in the list of names for 2017-18 and (2) the low pressure system which is being named is not the feature that's causing all the snow.

Instead, Emma was named by the Portuguese weather service, and its collusion with an off-track Siberian jet stream is producing the blizzard.

Anyway, the American weather hype has moved on. Out goes named winter storms, and in comes impressive sounding weather physics. Thus, this weekend in the northeast will see an event due to Miller-B Cyclogenesis!

The Lavrov-Kerry Pact

Obama era National Security Adviser Susan Rice in a valedictory interview, January 16, 2017

We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.

New York Times story yesterday with  yet more revelations about Syria's continuing chemical weapons program --

Mallory Stewart, a former State Department official who was involved in the Obama administration’s efforts to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program, said that there were always concerns that the Assad government had not listed all of its chemical weapons stockpile on its declared inventory of what it gave up. The report, she says, “confirms everything we’ve been saying.” “Certainly what we tried to do in the last administration is dismantle the entire chemical weapons program,” Ms. Stewart said, “which we know they never did.”

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Multi-lingual trolling

Above, the featured story on the french website of RT. It says that Donald Trump is more popular than Barack Obama at this stage of his presidency. The story relies on a single dodgy poll (Rasmussen) and a blissful ignorance of the respective state of the economy one year into each presidency. But the most tell-tale aspect of all: there is no sign of the story on RT's USA pages: too easy to debunk there, but the purpose is served by filtering to French readers that all Americans are crazy. 

Least Surprising News of the Day

Pat Cox, former Irish and European Union politician, and Charlemagne Award recipient, was one of the so-called Hapsburg Group (although members deny they knew it such) organized to make the case for a Ukraine-EU association agreement (New York Times) --

Mr. Kwasniewski and Patrick Cox of Ireland, a former president of the European Parliament, said that they were working at the suggestion of the parliament’s president at the time, Martin Schulz of Germany, to get Mr. Yanukovych to release political opponents from jail to improve his standing with the Europeans as they debated the association agreement ... In an interview on Saturday, Mr. Cox said he had worked with Mr. Kwasniewski, Mr. Schulz and others to try to convince Mr. Yanukovych to release the jailed political opponents. Mr. Cox said that he had never heard of the Hapsburg Group, had never been paid by anyone for his efforts in Ukraine, and had had no dealings with Mr. Manafort. But in 2012, he said, he had been invited by Mr. Schultz to go to Ukraine with Mr. Kwasniewski, the first of some 25 trips, all done “pro bono,” Mr. Cox said, to try to get the detainees released. “The view in Western capitals was that these were the victims of selective justice,” Mr. Cox said. After meetings with Mr. Yanukovych and prosecutors, Mr. Cox and Mr. Kwasniewski were successful in obtaining the release of Mr. Ivashchenko and Mr. Lutsenko, who is now Ukraine’s prosecutor-general. “We were not successful with Yulia Tymoshenko,” who was Mr. Yanukovych’s prime political opponent at the time, Mr. Cox said. “But we did ensure that Charité hospital in Berlin would have access to her in prison and she not be subject to further trials,” he added. Mr. Cox made clear his distaste for Mr. Yanukovych, adding: “I wouldn’t lobby for him.”

A few things to note about this. One is a thriving business of eminent European people taking on high-falutin' assignments after their public service careers, which they hasten to add, is nothing as grubby as American style "lobbying." The second is the sheer number of people that got pulled into the Ukrainian economic orbit in the post-2004 era, when many long-time observers of the country would have advised that the corruption was so pervasive that it would be impossible not to get tainted, even with people skilled at the mental reservation that they were not lobbying.  And the third is the biggest hole in the Trump-Russia narrative to the extent that it depends on Paul Manafort's connections: up until 2014, Manafort was lobbying for what Putin didn't want, that Ukraine-EU Association agreement. And after 2014, Manafort had lost his Ukrainian gravy train, and needed to start cashing in his properties purchased with money from his shady Ukrainian connections. That's precisely the legal theory in the latest Mueller indictment.

Friday, February 23, 2018

No Shame

In July of this year, the Great and the Good will observe the 23rd anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. They will do so with their best Pharisee long faces and proclaim Never Again. This, as history repeats so precisely, a Russian-backed militarized regime committing atrocities against Sunni Muslims, this time in Ghouta, Syria. It's not just in the USA where the teenagers are going to have to give up on the prospect of their elders ever doing anything. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Inviting in Fake News

New York Times January 19, 2015, a report on the effectiveness of the Obama Administration's social media strategy in the run-up to the state of the union --

Rather than jealously guard the policy proposals the president will announce in the speech — lest they leak — the White House has already rolled them out on social media. That strategy scooped the press and generated millions of retweets well before the newspaper articles and television reports were even produced.

Any second thoughts on the strategy of enhancing the credibility of social media-propagated items at the expense of mass media outlets?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Mickey Mouse Money

In the Irish Times, David McWilliams interprets the Trump socio-economics in terms of Disney World --

I’m writing this to you from America but not just any America. I’m in an “all-you-can-eat” hotel in the bizarre planet that is Disney World, Orlando. Disney World isn’t just any America. This is the place that blue-collar America comes on holiday. An “all-in” week here is part of the American dream. The people who make the pilgrimage are the people who voted for Donald Trump.

Disney World tickets begin at $100 per person per day, and given the time constraints, that's actually $100 per person per day per park (there are 4 parks). All the saving in the world is not going to get his notional Trump voter family a week in Disney World, let alone the flights and hotel in Orlando.

McWilliams continues, trying to get in touch with his inner David Brooks (the same inner persona that created HiCos) --

The enemy of the working man isn’t Donald Trump but the professional, quasi-clerical aristocracy, who look down their noses at him for holidaying in Disney World, while they hang out in a similar la la-lands like Martha’s Vineyard – Disney World for people with degrees.

Those Martha's Vineyard vacationers might indeed look down their nose at people who go Disney World -- in summer. They take the family to Disney World in Fall, Spring, and Winter, when the central Florida weather is more agreeable (and thus everything is pricier).

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Quote of the Day

JD in Heathers --

People will look at the ashes of Westerburg and say, "Now there's a school that self-destructed, not because society didn't care, but because the school was society." Now that's deep.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Lying about a war

New York Times --

MOSCOW — Four Russian nationals, and perhaps dozens more, were killed in fighting between pro-government forces in eastern Syria and members of the United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, according to Russian and Syrian officials. A Syrian military officer said that about 100 Syrian soldiers had been killed in the fighting on Feb. 7 and 8, but news about Russian casualties has dribbled out only slowly, through Russian news organizations and social media. Much about the attack and the associated casualties has been obscured in the fog of war. For reasons that remain unclear, Syrian government troops and some Russian nationals appear to have attacked a coalition position, near Al Tabiyeh, Syria.

Since Vladimir Putin's latest Mission Accomplished moment in December (there have been three), the situation in Idlib and Damascus suburbs has gotten even worse, the regional tensions have escalated, and now, Russian casualties on the ground are catching up to the actual scale of the Russian engagement. It shouldn't take a lot of effort to hold Russia, Venezuela, and Syria to the same standards as other countries are held, but there's a class of people out there who revel in the differential treatment. And who like to watch RT.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Not discussed on Russia Today

New York Times with extended report on the external machinations in Libya --

The same year, the Russians also approached Ibrahim Jathran, a militia leader who controlled Libya’s key oil ports before General Haftar. United States Navy SEALs had recently boarded a North Korean-flagged ship and disrupted a plot by Mr. Jathran to bypass Libya’s government and sell oil directly on the international market. Two of Mr. Jathran’s top deputies, who asked that only their first names, Osama and Ahmed, be used, for fear of reprisals, described how the Russians then stepped in with a “really amazing” proposal to help Mr. Jathran sell the oil — and arm his militia. The Russians, Osama and Ahmed said, would market the crude oil, moving it through Egypt to Russia. Mr. Jathran would be paid in weapons for the first six months, and in cash thereafter. “The weapons included everything we have, plus armored cars, antiaircraft missiles, heat-seeking shoulder-held weapons, light weapons and comm gear including Hetra wireless,” Osama said.

The end of the tale is that while the oil-for-weapons deal didn't get done with this particular militia, it eventually got done with the Benghazi-based forces of Khalifa Haftar.

The sad fact is that there's nothing conceptually new about any of this. Natural resources used to finance weapons, which prolong conflict, which deplete the natural resources so that they can't benefit the people, so there is more reason for conflict. That's what the term "conflict diamonds" was meant to capture. But when Russia plays exactly the same game, it's portrayed as brilliant strategic moves by Vladimir Putin, and a lot of war critics go very silent. Since we know how this story of resource-fueled conflict ends -- it doesn't -- they'll have to be silent for a long time. 

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Pensioner Liberation Organization

A meeting yesterday of the executive committee of the PLO in Ramallah, West Bank. The meeting decided on further foreign trips for Mahmoud Abbas (centre) to give speeches about Jerusalem.

Photo via Al Arabiya.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Banks on the Danube

The basic question hovering around the controversial manufactured "memo" is why the FBI was so interested in Carter Page within the scope of a foreign intelligence investigation.

It's been known for a while that Page was keeping some strange company -- in the old days of espionage, he would be the kind of figure popping up in places like Istanbul, Tangier, and Vienna.

Except that he was still popping up in Vienna. Here he is describing a November 2014 visit to Vienna, in the course of remarks praising Austria's neutrality and saying that Ukraine would benefit from the same accommodation between Russia and the West. 

Even more interesting is a strange detour in his remarks to discuss Austrian banks --

Ironically, the Austrian economy has suffered a disproportionately severe impact from the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and E.U. in 2014. The effect of sanctions levied on Russia have severely punished some of Austria’s largest financial institutions, including Raiffeisen Bank International. Although banks today represent almost half of the total market capitalization of the Vienna Stock Exchange, they stand at the forefront of today’s economic tumult given the prominent role they have played in financing Ukrainian development. As a primary example, this unnecessary collateral damage has been particularly great in the case of Raiffeisen which holds a top five market position in Ukraine with loans of 2.9 billion Euro, 713 business outlets and 2,962,732 customers.

Why so much emphasis on Raiffeisen and the impact of sanctions against Russia on it? Maybe there was some lobbying involved. But Raiffeisen also has a bit part in Donald Trump's finances. Raiffeisen was the lender for Trump Tower Toronto -- launched in 2002 but only finished 14 years later, bankrupt, and no longer bearing Trump's name. In fact, Trump was never an investor in the project -- he collected fees while putting in no money -- but that subtlety was not clear to all the other investors, who lost their money.

Anyway, the point is that Trump's serial bankruptcies had made him toxic to most American lenders, so that put him in a relationship with German and Austrian banks that had opaque ties to eastern Europe and Russia. A world that includes a need for no-questions-asked movements of money into solid investment vehicles. Like property. In turn, a trail that Russian intelligence services might like to keep an eye on. Which in turn might pique the interest of other intelligence services, including the fabled Five Eyes, who might notice a recurring character like Carter Page. 

Friday, February 02, 2018

Scandal Singularity

Newsweek, 1998 --

In the spring of 1997, Michael Isikoff, a reporter for Newsweek and a coauthor of this article, first met Linda Tripp. At the time, Isikoff was investigating Clinton's alleged relationship with yet another woman. The twists and turns of Isikoff's reporting are complex, and normally Newsweek would not detail the behind-the-scenes work of its own reporter. But as will become clear, Isikoff's actions had an unavoidable impact on the story as it played out.

The House Republican "Nunes" memo (via Washington Post) --

The Carter Page FISA application also cited extensively a September 23, 2016, Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff, which focuses on Page's July 2016 trip to Moscow. - This article does not corroborate the Steele dossier because it is derived from information leaked by Steele himself to Yahoo News. The Page FISA application incorrectly assesses that Steele did not directly provide information to Yahoo News. 

Quote of the Day

Philip Stephens in the Financial Times --

If Britain does remain part of the EU after all this, it will be because, in its present state, it is simply incapable of leaving.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Brexit state of mind

Nick Clegg, an an otherwise good FT article noting the emerging logic for extending the Article 50 deadline --

Other EU countries are, privately, just as perplexed. A key figure in the Elysée Palace recently shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of Gallic disbelief when he described to me what the transition period would mean for the UK. “Do they not realise how powerless they will be?” he asked.

Isn't the inability to convey the views of a French official in anything other than classic stereotypes (shrug, Gallic disbelief) an illustration of how elite opinion in Britain got led down the Brexit path in the first place?

Hipster Mayor

Washington Post asking Washington DC Mayor to describe her dream day, which as the Post explains --

The mayor’s dream day, in the one and only city where her dream day could unfold, is pretty much an everyday reality for her.

So --

Then you can go to Le Diplomate for a great dinner.

Here's the menu (or should we say, la carte) for Le Diplomate. Remember, people laughed when David Brooks drew attention to the class element of restaurant menus. They're still laughing -- as they put the credit cards over the bill without even looking to see what it is. 

Saturday Music Selection

Just another work of genius off the assembly line for Paul McCartney (ably assisted by Linda).

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Companion Junket

Via official Jordan news agency Petra, that's US Vice President Mike Pence arriving at Marka Air Force Base after spending just a few hours in Cairo (not much more than he spent in Shannon for a fuel stop).

Note: Pence is accompanied by his wife Karen. This is when the US government is in partial shutdown due to the failure to pass an appropriations bill -- and only essential business is supposed to be conducted. So why is Karen Pence on the trip? To chaperone the VP in case he's alone with Queen Rania or Sara Netanyahu?

Friday, January 19, 2018

It's news all the way down

The above is unintentional illustration of the circularity of poll-driven political analysis in a nutshell. Trump's approval rating is steady as long as there is no "news." When there is news, it goes down. How do we know there's no news? Because his approval rating is steady. How do we know there's news? Because his approval rating goes down.

Note: the current boring news cycle includes: the Stormy Daniels payoff, the latest row over The Wall, the prospective government shutdown, and the sh*thole comments!

This is the same mode of analysis that Nate Silver claims gave him superior insights during the election season. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Not the Golfer-in-Chief

Jordan's King Abdullah -- in uniform (2nd from left) -- visits an army base on the country's northern border. King Abdullah occasionally participates in live fire drills, but this visit was to get a briefing. The King may be showing Donald Trump what being a Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East looks like.

Photo: Petra News Agency.

The end of concept company names

The demise of outsourcer Carillion probably has greatest significance for the world of public procurement, but a side benefit may be the end of meaningless appellations for mega merger corporations cooked up in a consulting firm's groundtruthing office suite. So farewell then Carillion, a name that always sounded 1980s progressive rock legends Marillion.