Dark Star by Alan Furst

We were wandering around the local library as us less-digital folks sometimes do and we chanced upon books by Alan Furst.  Here is a list of all of his books in order.  We are always looking for new authors and we want to start on folks with a number of novels.  Alan has that and the jacket cover interested us because we like history and historical fiction.  Espionage in Europe in 1937 with Hitler, Stalin, and Jews seemed like a very interesting canvas so we took Dark Star home.  It is his second novel from that era but Alan tells us that there are just a few characters that overlap but that is it.

It is a really excellent book.  We have kept track of our reading for 91 books over the last two plus years.

Sidebar: Yes we have a spreadsheet.  Folks that know us will not be surprised.  It is nice to have a record with a summary and ratings.  End Sidebar.

It is the story of Andre Szara, a Jew born in Poland now a writer from the USSR who becomes and spy and likes it.  Over our recent 91 books there are four that got a ten rating and Dark Star is one of those.  It got that rating because it has marvelous detail, great scope, and lessons for us today.  Andre travels all over the continent (at least Belgium, Czechoslovakia France, Germany, Greece/Turkey, Lithuania, Poland, Romania [with a spare u on the map], and the USSR)  and Alan has details that impress us.  A simple one is the city that was formally part of Greece and, at the time of the book, was part of Turkey.  He does a good job of reminding us of the changes in countries.

Scope is tricky to get right.  We are especially suspicious of scope.  Authors that go for scope usually say silly things.  We think because Alan is so grounded in detail that he can get the scope right.  One example is his analysis of the relationship between Stalin and Hitler.  We can’t spoil it for you so you must read it to find out.  You will have to wait because it comes late in the book, around p. 393.  We think you will find Alan’s analysis enlightening.

We now live in a time where we often have political alliances that test our gag reflex.  So it was just before WWII.  Andre’s superior is telling him that Stalin is going to make a deal with Hitler and Andre should publish something in support of the treaty.  He explains why on p. 272:

You’ll be crucified by the doctrinaire Marxist, of course, but so what?  The important thing is to get the discussion rolling by claiming some territory.  There’s bound to be somebody who will rush to defend you – there always is no matter what you say… [T]he USSR is the hope of progressive mankind and the only ongoing remedy to fascism.  [Emphasis added.]

You could summarize much of the current discussion by replacing the words in bold with terms that reflect our current divisions.  You could play Mad-libs and replace the bold words with progressives, conservatives, Trump, the Green New Deal, and a few pejorative terms.

You do have to pay attention because everything is important in espionage.  Otherwise, our only complaint is that it would have been nice if they told us about the map in the back of the book.  We pick up another one of Alan’s books about the same era, Night Soldiers, tomorrow.  We can’t wait.

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Bad Decision Epidemic

There seems to be an epidemic of bad decisions recently.  No we are not talking about Jussie Smollett.  Wow, Jussie’s problems have really gotten worse since we started this post.  Individuals, not just Jussie but all of us, make lots of bad decisions.  Most of the time, like when we make a bad decision at the bridge table, the impact is limited unless partner goes postal.

Sidebar: Sometimes you escape the ramifications of bad decisions.  Thursday we made what we felt was an epic defense error causing our score to go from plus 50 to minus 140.  But under ordinal scoring it made no difference as there were no scores between those two outcomes so we got two out of three despite our error.  End Sidebar.

Epically bad business decisions are usually zero-sum games.  When Montgomery Ward (see Decline) anticipated the recession that never came after World War II, it was bad for them but good for Sears and JC Penny. Most really bad decisions come from government because the can enforce them because they have the means.

We are not saying we have collected all of the really bad decisions but we would look at The Donald’s state of emergency, NYC and Amazon, NY state and energy, and Marco Rubio and innovation.

The Donald paid homage to his immediate predecessor by declaring a state of emergency to build some fence on the southern boarder.  It is a terrible idea because it harks back to the previous administration and its tendency to make decisions with a phone and a pen rather than legislating.  As the NRO editors tell us it is bad but not all bad because:

He will also access other pots of money that don’t require a declaration of emergency, and here he may be on much firmer ground legally.

We hope he loses every legal challenge related to the state of emergency.  Otherwise, every president will use it.  Kamala will cause even more mischief.

Amazon has abandoned its plans to have a headquarters in NYC.  The Washington Examiner headline says this is a win for [the media darling (MD)] and a black eye for the NYC mayor and NY governor.  The Examiner has second thoughts about MD:

Then again, maybe “triumph” should come with an asterisk next to it. Gianaris and [MD] may have gotten their way, besting far more powerful political figures, but at the cost of the estimated 25,000 jobs that the Amazon deal was projected to bring to their part of the city.

Since NY and NYC tax folks and things in every way they can think of they are in need of folks with jobs and assets.  It was a bad idea to give lots of incentives to Amazon and an even worse idea to chase them away.  Holman at the WSJ thinks it will cause difficulties for the NY left.  It couldn’t happen to a nicer group. [Alert: satire]

NY has some strange energy policies.  The costs of these policies are coming home to roost.  Robert Bryce has a story at the WSJ that you should read several time to soak it all up.  NY state has banned fracking.  To help with the comparison, Pennsylvania has not.  NY has also blocked or delayed gas pipelines.  Here is Robert’s summary:

In 2008 New York drillers produced about 150 million cubic feet of natural gas a day—not enough to meet all the state’s needs, but still a substantial amount. That same year legislators in Albany passed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, the process used to wring oil and gas out of underground rock formations. In 2015 the Cuomo administration made the moratorium permanent. By 2018 New York’s gas production had declined so much that the Energy Information Administration quit publishing numbers on it.

In some areas of NY, Consolidated Edison is no longer accepting new customers.   How are things in PA?  Robert tells us:

At the end of 2018, Pennsylvania drillers were producing about 18 billion cubic feet of gas a day. That’s more gas than Canada now produces. [That is more than 100 times what NY was producing ten years ago]

By keeping its natural gas in the ground, New York has lost out on jobs and tax revenue. By 2015, some 106,000 people were directly employed by Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry, making it a bigger employer than the state’s famous steel sector. This year Pennsylvania’s state government is expected to take in some $247 million in gas-related fees.

Beyond the fees there is lots of income and spending for PA to tax too.

At NRO Samuel Hammond tells us that Marco Rubio wants a national innovation strategy.  Marco is the chair of the Senate Small Business Committee.  Samuel summarizes a report from the committee that supports industrial policy:

“This report’s central conclusion is that the U.S. cannot escape or avoid decisions about industrial policy,” its authors write, after opening with an extended quotation from Alexander Hamilton’s “Report on Manufactures.”

The committee doesn’t get its conclusions exactly wrong but it is close:

But what makes the report interesting, particularly from a Republican-chaired committee, is its suggestion that America shouldn’t merely punish China for unfair trade practices, but also should pursue a national innovation strategy of similar ambition.

The WTO should punish China.  The federal government should stay out of the market and the punishing countries business. Please say it isn’t so Marco (and Samuel).  This is the Green New Deal for the GOP.  It is a really foolish idea that might have some electoral resonance.

Our summary is that the bad decisions by NYC and NY are less of a problem because folks can freely leave NYC and NY.  Of course, these decisions are worse on the poor because it is more difficult for them to relocate.  The good news is that the comparison between NY and PA help us avoid the Green New Deal.

Fake states of emergency and industrial policy at the federal level are much more worrisome than the foibles of NY politics.  NY has instructed us on what not to do at the federal level.  When we do foolish things at the federal level folks and organizations have a much more difficult time leaving or adapting.

 

 

The Debt Crisis And Selective Memory

With all the oxygen being sucked up by the Green New Deal (GND) scam, at least some folks are trying to talk about serious stuff like the debt crisis.  The problem is that there is more emphasis on score settling than serious solutions.  Steven Rattner from the administration of the 44th president lets us know in the NYT  that your grandchildren are already in debt.  Steve is right and we are delighted that a leftist mentions the entitlement problem but:

In a perfect world, those programs would function like insurance; each generation’s annual premiums would pay for support received during its golden years. That principle was abandoned long ago. Based on the current demographics of the American populationwe would need to set aside $49 trillion to make the Medicare and Social Security Trust Funds truly solvent. [Emphasis added]

The problem with the principle in bold is that it was never adopted.  Many a Facebook post suggest it is a principle but it is not.  W tried to get us there some years ago on Social Security but neither party bought his pitch.

John Phelan from the Center for the American Experiment lets us know in the Star Tribune that The US Is (Still) Heading For A Debt Crisis.  John is also right.  John and Steve are on opposite sides of the aisle so this seems great.

It is not.  Steve is all about taxes.  GOP tax cuts, according to Steve, are the cause of the deficits.  He wants higher taxes on the rich.  He has a neat chart of the deficit but he never mentions that the first four annual deficits of a trillion dollars happened under his watch.  And there are some spending issues related to his time in office.

John punctures Steve’s proposal:

A currently popular answer is to raise taxes, particularly on “the rich.” But historical evidence suggests that doing so will have little impact on federal government revenue.

So for John it is a spending problem and he also zeros in on entitlements:

The problem diagnosed by the CBO is not a shortage of revenue but an excess of spending. To avoid spiraling federal debt and all the problems this will bring, substantial entitlement reforms are necessary. Indeed, it will be hard to give the Trump administration a passing grade if it takes no action on this front. Without it, the nation has little hope of avoiding a fiscal crisis.

The 44th president got his second term, in part, because his opponent wanted to defuse the debt crisis and he didn’t.  In 2016, both candidates pledged to make the debt crisis worse.  Well, that is not what they said exactly but it is what they pledged.  We need to convince the electorate that the debt crisis is the most pressing problem for the US federal government.  Steve and John only help a little by agreeing that entitlements are part of the debt crisis.  We need bipartisan support to solve a real crisis.

We need a compromise that increases taxes and decreases spending to get real support.  We still advocate eliminating the gas tax and replacing it with a carbon tax that does not raise the price of gas.  Our estimate is about $20 a ton.  We eliminate all funding for alternative energy and means test Social Security.  It is not a complete solution to the debt crisis but it would be a significant step in the right direction.

 

Not Too Good To Be True?

The Green New Deal (GND) is hot.  You can just google if you have been off-planet but to give you a feel for it our newspaper recently had two front page stories on it: Cleaner Energy Adds New Jobs To State (above the fold) and Green New Deal: Kind (our local Congress critter) Urged To Support Measure.  The latter reported that about ten residents showed up to lobby for the GND.

Sidebar: We love the phase about ten residents.  We are pretty sure that reporters can count the exact number when it might be single digits.  End Sidebar.

Clearly foolishness is on the rise.  But not everywhere.  We have held back our joy at Clifton Ross in Quillette because it seemed too good to be true.  You should read it all several times to get the full impact.  Clifton appears to be a dyed-in-the-wool socialist that came to an informed decision that brought conflict to his mental processes and his life.  Very few people can challenge long-held assumptions but Clifton was able to do that.  He says:

An early supporter of the Revolution, I had traveled to Venezuela in 2013 to cover the April presidential elections. By the time I returned to the US, I was disillusioned and depressed. I decided I needed to start writing and speaking about what I had seen there. In an article I wrote for the radical magazine Counterpunch around that time, I argued that “the so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ is bankrupt: morally, ideologically, and economically,” and I asked what we, as leftist solidarity activists, should do in response. “Should we continue to make excuses for incompetence, corruption, and irresponsibility and thereby make ourselves accomplices?” I asked. “Or should we tell the truth?”

He has a message for supporters of GND and The Donald.  Not only has Clifton rejected socialism in Venezuela but he has come to an overall conclusion on socialism:

I don’t like to admit that I once believed Jesus rose from the dead, but I did. I also believed that socialism would make everyone brothers and sisters and end what my comrades and I called “capitalist oppression.”1 The available scientific and statistical evidence (not to mention common sense) weighs strongly against belief in bodily resurrection from the dead. History has delivered a verdict of comparable finality about socialism.

Wow.  That is about as dramatic a change as you can make.  You can probably guess how he was received by his fellow travelers:

 As a result of my voltafaccia, former comrades and friends contacted my editors and publishers in (occasionally successful) attempts to have my articles spiked. I was denounced and slandered online and in print. Phone calls and emails to people I had thought of as friends now went unanswered. On those occasions when I encountered one of them in public, they looked the other way. Abruptly, I found myself excommunicated, and people I’d known for 30 or 40 years made it clear that they no longer wanted to be part of my life.

While it is a time to talk about foolishness like the GND or arguing over spare change for the wall in the US, Venezuela is trying to undo some serious foolishness.  Let’s let Clifton describe it:

If the Venezuelan regime falls—and I hope that it does—it won’t even be possible to credit (or blame) the United States. It is the Venezuelan people who finally are taking their destiny in hand and rejecting an intolerable status quo.

We hope that Venezuela finds economic and political freedom.  It is up to the Venezuelan people to do it.  The have an epic challenge in front of them but if Clifton reject socialism then so can Venezuela.  We wish them both good luck.

 

Lijiang And Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Lijiang is a city in the Yunnan Province of China with the population of a million and a quarter.  We visited it in the winter when the high temperature was in the sixties and dry.  It is about 120 miles north of Dali and has a similar climate, similar lack of pollution, and is over 1,000 feet  higher altitude at almost 8,000 feet.  In terms of latitude, Lijiang is just north of Palm Beach, Florida.  It is a wonderful place to visit, especially during the nice dry winter.  You must see the Old Town and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain while in Lijiang.  You could spend much longer there.  We also have a note on our experience with trains.

We took a couple of trains in China.  The trains run on time and, as this website says, they are safe, comfortable, and cheap way to travel about China.  We are not experts on Chinese train travel but we did notice something unusual.  The train stations were often like airports in that they were closer to the edge of the city than downtown.  Elsewhere when we traveled by train the station was almost always right at the center of town. Think of the location of Chicago Union Station compared to O’Hare Airport.   Our limited experience in China was that we were rarely at the center of town at the train station.  What it means for you is that if you travel by train you want to know where the station is and how to get to your destination.

Lijiang is home to a variety of ethnicities including the Naxi.  Yes, it is an unfortunate name and it is particularly difficult to type given the location of the “z” and “x” on the keyboard but there is nothing to be done about it.  The Naxi are not native Chinese speakers so it can exacerbate communication issues.  Since we spoke neither it made no difference to us.  We don’t know if it is the Naxi or other groups but they love to dance.  Open areas in Lijiang were filled with small and large groups of dancers in a wide variety of costumes.  Some smaller groups were in matching costumes while larger groups had a wide variety of finery.  We didn’t try to join in but they seemed to accept newcomers.

Lijiang Old Town or Ancient City is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It is the kind of place you could wander through for days or spend many evenings after viewing the great outdoors.  Little streams are become canals and run hither and yon with bridges and great photo opportunities with the mountains for background.  You can shop, eat, or just watch.  Look for a sugar sculpture for dessert.  Our hosts made fun of us because we thought it was too pretty to eat.  One of the places that surprised us was the Taiwan Tea Shop.  We thought stores with Taiwan in the name would not be allowed but there was one in Lijiang.  The streams and all of the stone in the Old City do make for a danger of flooding.  Winter is the dry season and the time to visit.

There is lots of outdoor places to see near Lijiang but Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is the place you must see.  Here are the pictures.  The mountain top is 18,360 feet.  You can see the waterfalls and pools at the near the bottom and ride a Poma eight person cable car (we would call it a gondola) to an altitude of 4,506 meters.  That altitude translates into 14,783 feet or 14,780 as my trusty compass app rounds to the nearest ten feet.  Mt Whitney in California rises to 14,505 feet and is highest point in the lower 48 states so 14,780 is pretty high.  If they ask you if you need oxygen the answer is yes.  Make sure you start it on the way up so you are ready at the top.  If you encounter distress there is an oxygen chamber at the top.

Sidebar: On our way to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain traffic was stopped as a large group of Chinese soldiers, perhaps a battalion, crossed our path.  It was quite a sight to see the vehicles and soldiers with weapons ready crossing the road.  Nobody was going to deny them the right-of-way.  End Sidebar.

We did the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain gondola and the scenery at the bottom in one day.  You could easily spend a day on each as long as you dress warmly.  We weren’t fortunate enough to have clear weather at 4,506 but it was still worth the experience.

 

Carbon Tax Problems

We support a modest carbon tax that would be coupled with entitlement reform and eliminating subsidies for alternative energy.  Robert Bryce at NRO tries to harsh our Patriot buzz when he identifies three major problems with a carbon tax:

  1. It is regressive
  2. It will be lobbied heavily
  3. International stuff:
    1. Tariffs on imported carbon
    2. Free riders

We think that our proposal has taken care of the regressive issue.  By eliminating the gas tax it substitutes one regressive tax for another.  The exact rate for the carbon tax might be less than the current gas tax so there is little impact on lower income folks.  In addition by eliminating subsidies and requirements for alternative energy the net impact on heating bills will be small and in an uncertain direction.  Of course, an important part is to keep the carbon tax modest.

Robert is exactly right that any tax will be heavily lobbied.  The danger that worries us most is an onerous carbon tax.  We need to expect something from our Congress Critters on both sides of the aisle.  We agree with Robert that this is a big ask but they really need to earn their pay.

We don’t care about the free rider issue.  This is about US policy that would move in the right direction on climate change.  As Robert points out it is hard to get the world to agree.  We care about US policy.  At first glance tariffs on imported carbon make sense but we are open other views.  We are highly unimpressed with the argument that the arithmetic is too hard.  We think that the US government can find somebody to do the arithmetic if imported carbon is to be taxed. If we can figure out state taxes for people like Tom Brady, who played in nine different states (ten if preseason matters for taxes) this year, we can do carbon.  But Robert has broached the real question: can we get it passed?  We are pessimistic but we also remember that the Patriots were trounced in their only two Super Bowls in the last century but have won six this century.  We are not expecting Congress to become the Patriots of the current century but we can hope for improvement.

 

A Perfect Ten

So it was the turn of the century, the last one, and we were reflecting that the Red Sox and the Patriots were zero for at least 120.  You can decide if the century turned on 12/31/99 or the next year.  We love our teams but they had only brought us heartbreak for 50 years in one case and 40 in the other as the Pats played their first game on September 9, 1960.

So, in case you were off-planet. the Patriots just won their sixth Super Bowl this century.  Just over three months ago the Red Sox won their fourth World Series this century (2004, 2007, 2013, 2018).  It was especially nice to beat a big market, LA, in both cases.  After 1918, neither team won any championships in the 20th century.  As a longtime fan it is amazing to go from, at best, once a decade heartbreak to domination with ten championships in the 21st century.  The children, their cousins, grandchildren and the grandnieces and grandnephews have a very odd view of the world from our perspective.  We just enjoy it because we know it will end sometime.  We hope it isn’t soon.