Cyreenik Says

April 2013 issues

Boston Marathon Bombing Blunder

I wasn't going to write about this event. It's terrorism and the best way to stop terrorism is with business as usual -- as in, ignore it.

But the Blunder response of the Boston area protective agencies has become too big to ignore. So, here are my thoughts.

First, lets compare the media and social media coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombing with its contemporary disaster news competition, the storage facility explosion in West, Texas. This is instructive.


Disaster Boston Marathon Bombing West, Texas Fertilizer Explosion
Deaths 3 12 dead, 60 missing (unconfirmed)
Casualties 183 200+ (perhaps... still conflicting reports)
Property Damage "The blasts blew out windows on adjacent buildings but did not cause any structural damage." "...leveled several blocks of the town and caused fires to spread across several more blocks. The explosion was measured by the US Geological Survey as a magnitude 2.1 earthquake." "...that there were '50 to 75' homes and businesses damaged."
Commerce Damage half a day of holiday shopping and celebrating in a two block area Loss of a major fertilizer storage facility, loss of many blocks of town commerce for months to years
Source for above Wikipedia: 19 Apr 13: Boston Marathon Bombings Wikipedia: 19 Apr 13: West Fertilizer Co. Explosion and West, Texas
Blunder Damage See below  


Blunder Damage

The West, Texas disaster was a million times bigger in terms of changing lives... if you take out the Panic and Blunder elements. But add those in and things go topsy-turvy.

Five days after the event the Boston area people and protective services have demonstrated their willingness to panic deeply by locking down the region. Yes, as in similar to that curious drill of the 21st century: the school lockdown. This is a curious response because it comes after the suspects have been identified, after the suspects actions indicate they are panicked as well and off familiar ground, and the one person they are chasing is a nineteen year old who just witnessed his older brother getting blown away in front of him in a panicked shootout. And based on talking with the suspects' known friends and acquaintances there is no sign of some sinister organization involved that already has plans in place to commit more mayhem.

Eh? This situation calls for a city-wide lockdown? Including armored cars rumbling up and down the streets? This is Blunder action writ large. This response would have been appropriate if low budget SF movie maker Ed Wood was at his cameras and Godzilla was rising out of the Charles River Basin.

Looking back, this response is consistent with Boston protective services treatment of previous terror threats. I wrote up their over-the-top response to the Cartoon Sign Scare in 2007. It seems they have learned from that... how to coordinate even bigger Blunder responses to terror threats! <sigh>

This is important because it damages America. America the Free and America the Prosperous are not being promoted by practicing and getting better at this kind of hysteria.

Update: Being afraid, very afraid, of terrorism seems not to have diminished from the 9-11 days. It remains an attention-grabbing issue as indicated by this 24 Apr 13 MIT News article, ‘He was truly one of us’ Thousands of law enforcement officials join the MIT community in honoring fallen officer Sean Collier by David L. Chandler, about literally thousands of attendees at Sean Collier's funeral. And this 24 Apr 13 "woulda, coulda, shoulda" editorial in the WSJ, Judith Miller: How to Stop Terrorists Before They Kill The NYPD's surveillance program was designed to detect local terrorists before they strike—and it's working by Judith Miller, which says NYC's anti-terrorism is better than Boston's anti-terrorism.

The very public solidarity being displayed by Americans on this issue is wonderful... except that all this high-profile response is a cause promoter's wet dream, and the root of every terrorist act is cause promoting. Terrorists the world over are noting that terrorism in big US cities still works as a cause promoter, big time.

Plus, it's distracting attention from those issues where attention can help Americans, all Americans, grow more prosperous -- things such as better education, better infrastructure, better regulations, and better immigration laws.

Update: This 26 Apr 13 WSJ The Numbers Guy article, Bill for a Bombing Can Be Hard to Tally by Carl Bialik, discusses the difficulty in putting a price tag on the damage done by terrorism. From the article, "Economists still haven't reached a consensus on the cost of the far-deadlier Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Questions such as whether to count the cost of the war in Afghanistan, the plunge in the stock market after the attacks and the post-9/11 fall in airline travel, have led to a broad range of estimates, from less than $100 billion to more than $2 trillion." (I go with the 2 trillion) The World Trade Center itself was insured for 3 billion. These cost estimates show how this blunder grew to involve much, much more than two skyscrapers, four jet planes and thousands of people. The added cost (waste is also a good word) was self-inflicted because we as a community got afraid... very afraid, and because we ignored that fine proverb about vengance, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." "Blame Bush" if you like, but in those scary days he had well beyond a simple majority of Americans rooting for him.

This is why it's so important to be aware of blundering.

Thoughts on promoting a housing boom

This topic was inspired by an 11 Apr 13 WSJ editorial, Can We Afford Another Housing Boom? With prices rising, now is the time to prevent over-investment, which offers some cautionary advice that I agree wholeheartedly with.

In the second half of the article we find this:

"Every dollar of capital that policy makers drive into housing is a dollar that won't be spent creating the next great innovation in software or medicine or something else. Over the long haul, the economy grows when people invest in things other than housing—specifically in technologies that enhance productivity and allow all of us to achieve higher living standards. Housing does fine when people are employed and wages are rising. In other words, sustainable growth in real-estate values is a symptom of a vibrant economy, not a cause.

In the 2000s, America tried to use a debt-fueled real-estate boom as a substitute for real wealth creation."

Since end of World War II good intentions have been promoting more and more distortion in the US housing market. The current symptom of the distortion is that even with the late 2000's scandal surrounding Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, "Through Fannie, Freddie and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the feds now underwrite some 90% of all mortgages." In other words, home financing is still nationalized and there's no sign of that ending soon.

This distortion leads to the system gaming of the sort that lead to the debt-fueled real-estate boom of the 2000's. (This is a rare case where I find "Blame Bush" to be true.)

Here's what should be happening instead of handing out the nation's wealth and attention to mortgages:

1. The nation's wealth and attention is directed to researching and developing "The Next Big Things" (NBT) in industry that are going to increase productivity and help everyone get what they want faster, better and cheaper. When these NBT's have positive feedback -- the more we invest, the faster the economy grows -- then the economy booms.

2. Factories and workplaces are built to make NBT products and services. Workers are hired to fill these factories and workplaces. Those workers have jobs and earn money.

3. When the workers feel ready, they buy their homes using free market financing systems -- not some nationalized mortgage system.

The advantage of this is national attention is focused in the right place: On making our economy grow and making our lives better with worker-produced prosperity. "Helping the poor to buy a decent house." is a wonderful good intention, but like all good intentions it needs to be carefully thought through or it becomes a waste rather than a blessing. Becoming a waste is what has happened to the housing finance market.

Thoughts on Margaret Thatcher's death

I am surprised at the response to the death of Margaret "Iron Lady" Thatcher. I'm surprised at the magnitude, the emotion, and that the emotion is evenly divided between love and hate -- and this isn't love-hate, this is either love or hate deeply. (Here is an example of a love article: 8 Apr 13 Economist Margaret Thatcher: A cut above the rest. Here is an example of a hate article: 8 Apr 13 Mother Jones Bursting the Thatcher Bubble by David Corn.)

This reminds me of the death of Oliver Cromwell -- England's first dictator who died in 1658. He was buried with honor and pageant by his lovers who were then in power, then a few years later his body was exhumed and "tortured" by his haters who had come into power. Strange.

(But perhaps not that strange. This in turn reminds me of how we D&D players in the 1980's would treat the occasional in-game character who seriously rubbed us the wrong way as a group: We would kill him in a horrible way, find a high priest and pay him to resurrect this scum, then kill him again in another horrible way. We players would get a good laugh and a lot of satisfaction out of that.)

Those doing the loving point out that she turned around England's economy and changed it from stagnating to growing. Those doing the hating point out how she and Reagan were pals, and how she helped the rich start collecting a bigger share of England's wealth. And both sides support their point of view with a lot of emotion.

This is not your typical reaction to a celebrity death.

Update: This 13 Apr 13 Economist article, No Ordinary Politician, goes into Thatcher's fit into the world of Britain in the 1970's and 80's. Even more than Reagan she was a union breaker. This cost her and the party any support from Northern English and Scottish areas for a generation. She was a also a privatizer and a business growth supporter.

Related, and covered in this article as well, is the description of the deep differences in social and business policies pursued by Britain and America as they emerged from WWII -- the lessons learned during the Great Depression and WWII era about government's role in business produced very different conclusions and objectives. The British under Clement Attlee's leadership (1945-51) learned the lesson that full employment was the government's responsibility and nationalizing industries and wage and price controls were among the tools that would be used to make that happen. (Attlee's Labor party was aspiring for what I call the Total Entitlement State.)

Americans, under Truman and Eisenhower, were more concerned with keeping productivity high. The American government didn't seriously dabble in wage and price controls until Nixon imposed them in the mid-sixties in an effort to combat Johnson's "we can have guns and butter" inflation roar as he tried to both implement Kennedy's vision of a Great Society and support the Vietnam conflict without putting America on a war footing. Ford and Carter, those presidents following Nixon, both suffered, as Thatcher did, in trying to reverse the wage and price controls, market distortions, slow growth, and inflation which followed. Neither Ford nor Carter got thanked for their efforts, which is typical. Amazingly Thatcher did... by half the British people it now seems.

Thatcher's times were trying times, indeed, and her response to them was exceptional.

Thoughts on North Korea's saber-rattling

All through 2013 there has been increased muttering in the media I read about military confrontation in the China Seas areas of the Far East. The Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Malaysians have all been bickering louder than usual about rights to reefs and tiny islands...

Now, with impressive PR fanfare, comes North Korea to steal the limelight. <Ta Da!>

This gets old. What also gets old is how willing the media is to parade this shop-worn thread of threats and incidents as headline news. To their credit, the media is pointing out that none of North Korea's posturing is new, but they won't get serious about laughing it off, and even better, ignoring it.

Here are my thoughts:

o North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-un seems to be fully in the pocket of the hard-liner faction in North Korea. The state-released photos almost all show him inspecting something with military surrounding him. This isn't too surprising: He's young, and military stuff is exciting. But... he is also a demigod running a nation. He and his handlers need to keep that in mind as well.

o Historically, when North Korea throws a temper tantrum, major nations in the area such as China and the US give it a lollypop and tell it to be quiet. North Korea takes it, and shuts up for a little while, but keeps playing the sullen brat. This strategy has been consistently successful since the Korean War ended in the mid-1950's. First Russia, now China, have been happy to support these spoiled-brat-of-a-nation antics, and happy to let its leadership and people stay delusional about North Koreans being a Chosen People.

o Don't expect North Korea to change until the surrounding nations stop supporting its spoiled brat behavior. There are other factions in North Korea, but they can't come to power as long as the hard-liners both control the extortion wealth, and that wealth is plentiful.

[Just to be clear, this next part is simply an opinion based on Roger Insight.]

o The North Korean army is likely a Potemkin village, and the PR manipulating machine part of it is well-oiled and top-notch. North Korean PR routinely extols the virtue of the military, and does so in ways that make external watchers sit up, listen, and report breathlessly. But this is a country that's been impoverished for decades, at peace for decades, and quite willing to lie to itself and its neighbors for decades. My guess is that current North Korean military prowess consists of conducting massive parades through the main square in Pyongyang, and showing off around Panmunjom at the South Korean border -- everything else is now a sham.

How to deal with this

How to deal with the success of this spoiled brat tactic?

Several possibilities come to mind. The obvious and childish one is to spank the North Korean military. I envision China, South Korea, the US and Japan each undertaking a lightning, limited assault on North Korea: South Korea occupies the Kaesong industrial area near its border, China occupies the Sinuiju area on its border, the US slags the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and maintains a no-fly zone over the entire nation, and the Japanese pick something that vexes them. Each occupier holds their ground for just a month, then backs off. They announce this is what they are going to do, and they do it.

The goal of this is to show the average North Korean the delusion the hard liners are living in: That their military really is effective against North Korea's enemies. Once the harsh reality is clear, change will come from within.

Another way of accomplishing this is to simply stop paying the North Korean leaders for their saber-rattling drama. The key player in this strategy is China -- for decades they have been North Korea's key supporter. As soon as they formally get tired of the antics, and stop paying for them, they end.

There are many other options, but the key is getting North Korea's middle- and decision-making classes to recognize that they are living in a spooky, dangerous, delusional and unproductive dream -- one it is time they ended.

Update: This 15 Aug NBC News article, 'A big hoax': Experts say North Korea showing off missiles that can't fly by Robert Windrem and M.L. Flynn, NBC News, discusses in detail an example of North Korea's military being a Potemkin village.

-- The End --