The Great Liquidation

America is hanging by a thread.  A great liquidation is underway, with many of the structures that support American society..or, in some cases, any viable society…being kicked away, sold off piecemeal, or just wantonly destroyed.  I’m talking about physical structures, legal structures, and social structures.

I do not think it is too late to turn this trend around, but the situation is very serious, and I’m going to ask you to gaze into the abyss with me before I discuss some reasons for hope.

Consider:

–Significant parts of America’s energy infrastructure are being destroyed or targeted for destruction.  For example, the Indian Point nuclear plant, serving NYC, was closed in April, despite the fact that this closure will likely create grid instability–and will certainly result in the zero-emissions power it had previously produced being generated instead by sources which do generate emissions. (Yet at the same time, NYC is banning the use of natural gas in new buildings–which will further increase the demand for electricity!) The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, the largest source of electricity in California, is also scheduled for closure in 2025.  The cost of Diablo Canyon was $14.5B in present-day dollars, and I estimate that this represents at least 50,000 person-years of labor.  Something like 1200 working lifetimes, being wantonly trashed. Only a society which is very rich (for now)–disrespectful of its past accomplishments–and uncaring about the future would act in this way.

And these examples represent only a small portion of the assaults being conducted on America’s energy infrastructure. Peaker plants which ensure continued output under tough conditions, are being closed, with much hand-waving about how ‘demand management’ will solve any problems.  Oil and gas production are being squeezed. Pipeline construction is being suppressed, at the same time Putin is given the US green light for a Russia-Germany pipeline.  Energy is being transformed from an American asset into an American vulnerability.

–Billions of dollars of America military equipment were abandoned in Afghanistan and are now in the hands of the Taliban.  If we use a conservative estimate of $40 billion, that represents at least 400,000 person-years of human labor, thrown away. But that’s not the worst of it, of course: much of that equipment will now be used against us or our allies.  There are already reports of formerly-American weapons on their way to Iran.

The effect of the horribly-executed Afghanistan withdrawal on our credibility as an alliance partner will be devastating.  While many foreign policy types expressed worry about what expecting Germany to pay a larger % of the NATO bill would do to our alliances, any imagined impact of that was trivial compared with the impact of the current debacle.  The negative effect on American military recruiting, also, will be considerable, as discussed by several commenters at this blog.  Overall, America’s actual and perceived power position in the world has been greatly reduced over the past few months.

–American manufacturing has been negatively impacted by numerous policy choices and social factors, and America is no longer the world’s facto ry: that role now falls to China.  We have become extremely dependent on China and other countries for many products and components of products–as we found out during last year’s Covid crisis when we were subject to threats that we would ‘burn in the fire of Covid’ if China should choose to deny us critical pharmaceuticals and ingredients thereof.  We have become highly dependent on other countries for electronics manufacturing, especially microchips: a single Taiwanese company, TSMC, acts as the ‘foundry’ for a whole range of chips produced to the designs of many different American companies.  A Chinese takeover of Taiwan could be devastating to our industry, and such takeover appears considerably more likely than it did a couple of months ago.

Manufacturing was, for a couple of decades, considered by the approved-expert classes to be an increasingly-unimportant industry, populated only by those with inferior and uncreative minds. There is some recognition growing lately that this field may actually matter. But American politicians generally have so little comprehension of how the economy actually works that it is hard to believe that any remedies that they propose will be efficacious ones.  As example #1, I give you Joseph Biden: a man who asserted that anyone who can mine coal can ‘learn to code’, and who apparently believes that manually shoveling coal into furnaces is an actual substantial occupation in America today.  Biden also said, referring to China: “They’re not competition for us.”  This was in mid-2019!

America has given up much of its potential in manufacturing. and the consequences are severe for national security and for millions of people.  

–And, speaking of China: the United States has increasingly adopted a submissive position regarding to that country.  Major corporations are bending over backwards to avoid offending the leadership of that country…see my post here for some examples.  Universities, too, have become increasingly dependent on Chinese students and money.  At MIT, a board member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research raised concerns about whether a certain research collaboration with China was appropriate on national security grounds…other board members took offense, and even said that any serious inquiry into the ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party would be “racist.” She was told to ‘stick to science’ and not to mention China again.

The situation is unpleasantly like what Churchill observed in the Britain of the late 1930s, where he wrote of “the unendurable..sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany, and of our existence becoming dependent upon their good will or pleasure”…A “policy of submission” would entail “restrictions” upon freedom of speech and the press. “Indeed, I hear it said sometimes now that we cannot allow the Nazi system of dictatorship to be criticized by ordinary, common English politicians.” (quote from William Manchester, The Last Lion)

At the same time that the Biden administration is pushing for total electrification of transportation, they seem to have little concern about the fact that the US is far from self-sufficient in the minerals required for electrification technologies–and Biden’s son Hunter has been involved in a deal to give China a strengthened position in the supply of cobalt, a key material needed for battery production.  We are being positioned for a return to the kind of extreme energy dependence on other nations that for years gave the OPEC nations so much power and hence contributed to Middle East instability.

America’s relative strength vis-a-vis China is under threat not only as measured by traditional military, economic, and geopolitical factors, but in terms of the influence of the CCP on American internal politics and affairs.

–Media, academia, and increasingly business, indeed the majority of institutions in our society…are being taken over by an obsession with race and ethnicities.  People are not seen as individuals, but rather as members of ‘communities’, which term now refers to demographic categories.  Those who dare deviate from the political and social views assigned to members of their groups are denounced; see for example the attacks on the new Virginia Lt Governor Winsome Sears.

According to this 2018 survey, favorable race relations in the US peaked in 2009, with 66% of people rating them ‘good’…falling to only 26% assigning a ‘good’ evaluation in 2018.  A more recent Gallup poll shows that favorable views of race relations have fallen sharply over the past several years.

America’s colleges have been particularly race-obsessed:  see for example some college reading lists, with their assumption that ““diversity is defined by race or gender.” The link in the last sentence is from 2017…the obsession has clearly gotten much worse since then.

And it has gone way beyond colleges. “I’m so exhausted with being reduced to my race,” a girl at Grace Church School, an upscale private school in Manhattan said. “The first step of antiracism is to racialize every single dimension of my identity.” Kindergarten students at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx are taught to identify their skin color by mixing paint colors. The lower school chief in an email last year instructed parents to avoid talk of colorblindness and “acknowledge racial differences.”  These cases are only one example of a much wider phenomenon.

If this sort of thing continues, then at best…at best…America becomes something like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, about which historian AJP Taylor wrote:

The appointment of every school teacher, of every railway porter, of every hospital doctor, of every tax-collector, was a signal for national struggle. Besides, private industry looked to the state for aid from tariffs and subsidies; these, in every country, produce ‘log-rolling,’ and nationalism offered an added lever with which to shift the logs. German industries demanded state aid to preserve their privileged position; Czech industries demanded state aid to redress the inequalities of the past. The first generation of national rivals had been the products of universities and fought for appointment at the highest professional level: their disputes concerned only a few hundred state jobs. The generation which followed them was the result of universal elementary education and fought for the trivial state employment which existed in every village; hence the more popular national conflicts at the turn of the century.

A creaky and dysfunctional society like Austria-Hungary is the best outcome for America if the race obsession continues on its current path…it is possible, even likely, that the actual outcome will be something much darker. Categorizing people by groups and defining them by the single dimension of membership in such groups is very, very dangerous.  I’m reminded of something Ralph Peters wrote:

“Man loves, men hate. While individual men and women can sustain feelings of love over a lifetime toward a parent or through decades toward a spouse, no significant group in human history has sustained an emotion that could honestly be characterized as love. Groups hate. And they hate well…Love is an introspective emotion, while hate is easily extroverted…We refuse to believe that the “civilized peoples of the Balkans could slaughter each other over an event that occurred over six hundred years ago. But they do. Hatred does not need a reason, only an excuse.”

Excuses for inter-group resentment are now being manufactured at high speed, even mass produced.  Really want to go there?

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Dangers of National Dependency

I recently read a history of the French Air Force–The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force, Greg Baughen–which includes much analysis of aircraft design and construction.  One historical fact I thought was interesting: in 1939, the French licensed the design of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine (the engine that powered the Spitfire and Hurricane, among other airplane) and contracted with the Ford Motor Company to manufacture these engines.

But when war was declared on September 3 of that year,  Henry Ford–who had strong neutrality and ‘antiwar’ beliefs–pulled the Ford equipment and people.  No Merlins for you, Mr Frenchman!

Closer to our own time, during the Iraq War, the Swiss company Swatch Group refused to supply contracted components for the JDAM missile.  In this case, there was a US company that could provide the items, and the Swiss refusal was ultimately overcome by diplomatic pressure.

In this retro-reading post, I cited an old copy of Mechanical Engineering magazine, which discussed the shortage of certain chemicals for which the US was largely dependent on Germany:

America did not make much progress (with aniline dyes) owing to certain complications and the lack of consolidated action.  What was produced here was in most cases equal to the imported product, but owing to the greater facilities for producing the color, the greater attention given to research, substantial government financial aid, and, primarily, the exceedingly low labor cost abroad, competition was out of the question.  Hence up to 1914 we had practically no dye industry and depended on Germany not only for dyes but also for many valuable pharmaceutical preparations as well as for phenol, the basis for many of our explosives.  

This problem was solved by intensive efforts during the First World War.

Prior to 1914, most people, including government people, probably thought (if they thought about it at all), “Well, dye for fabrics isn’t exactly a strategic resource…sure, we like wearing & seeing attractively-colored clothes, but it’s not really a matter of life and death”…but missed the connection to the pharmaceuticals and the explosives.

If we do wind up in a military conflict with another major power, the time constants are likely to be relatively short–more comparable to the time pressures the French faced in 1940 than to our situation in 1914, separated by oceans from any immediate threat to the country.

And today, we have a report on US companies investing significantly in Chinese semiconductor companies and related software providers.

A Prototype for Biden?

President Biden’s bizarre behavior during media appearances reminds me of something.  The British general Edward Spears, who was Churchill’s personal emissary to the French Army during the campaign of 1940, described a meeting he had with Philipe Petain during the final desperate days of that campaign…his objective being to turn the old general away from his growing defeatist orientation and toward the direction of resistance.  When Spears said that “What France needs today, Monsieur le Marechal, is another Joan of Arc”, the general’s reaction was startling:

“Once more he was all animation. His face lit up. “Have you read my speech on Joan of Arc?’ (no) ‘Well, that is too bad…I made it at Rouen, when was it, in 1937? 38?  It was an extremely fine speech, I may say. I shall read it to you.”

To Spears’ consternation (for the military situation was very urgent), Petain began to search for a copy of the speech. Unable to find it, he summoned his chief of staff, who finally found it.  The speech was very, very long, and Petain read it in a monotone.  “I do not think he was really proud of that speech as a great achievement, for he did not caress it by inflections of voice as a sculptor might stroke a statue he believed to be a great work of art.  He was recalling rather the pomp and circumstance of its delivery, the applause, and he wanted to include me in that admiring audience of years ago.”

And when the speech finally ended, Petain pointed out that “Joan of Arc was a peasant of France,” talked about the importance of peasants, and insisted in locating and reading another speech, this one about the French peasants.

“Genuine alarm brought me back to realities.  Time was passing, I had endless work to do.  The London telephone was certainly calling. How could I get away?”

Spears finally made his escape.  But doesn’t Petain’s retreat to his old speeches, and, further back, to his old victories, mirror Biden’s verbal retreat back to the days when he played shortstop, and such?

A month or so earlier, Spears had discussed some of the key players in France with his combative friend, the Interior Minister Georges Mandel.  Concerning Petain, Mandel had been dismissive:

“Surely you have seen for yourself–barely alive–and what there is left is pure vanity. He became a Hidalgo in Spain.”

I don’t think Biden has ever spent any significant time in Spain, but “what there is left is pure vanity” seems like a pretty good description of the man.

(The quotes are from Spears’ memoir Assignment to Catastrophe, a two-book series which is essential reading for anyone interested in the events of that period.)

 

Recent Reading

Four mini-reviews in this batch:

Splendid Solution, by Jeffrey Kluger
Red Plenty, Francis Spufford
Instruments of Darkness, Alfred Price
The Scarlet Thread, Mandy Rice-Davies

Splendid Solution is about the development of the Salk polio vaccine. The book gives a vivid picture of the devastation wrought by epidemics with no vaccines and without meaningful treatments, both the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and the successive polio epidemics, and the public health measures used in attempts to control such epidemics.  It describes how the Salk vaccine was developed, some of the conflicts among scientists, and the vaccine rollout, including media reactions and early manufacturing problems.  Very interesting reading, especially in the light of our present vaccine situation and controversies.

Red Plenty is about Soviet economic planning, as seen from the inside.  (I’ve reviewed it previously here, but recently re-read it in conjunction with an online book discussion group.)  It’s part fiction and part factual history: the characters include factory managers, economic planners, mathematicians, computer scientists, and “fixers.” Very well-written and also well-researched and footnoted.

Instruments of Darkness is about electronic warfare during WWII, primarily on the European front but also touching on the Pacific war.  Covers ‘the battle of the beams,’ in which Britain attempted to interfere with the radio guidance system used by the Germans to support night bombing, and the jamming and spoofing which was directed at communications between night fighters and their ground controllers.

The author was himself an electronics warfare officer with the RAF during the war, so speaks from a position of knowledge.

A Scarlet Thread is a historical novel about Israeli settlements in what was then called Palestine, at the time of the First World War.  Faced with increasing exactions and depredations by the Turkish rulers, a group of Jews resolve to support the British war effort by providing intelligence information–if they can find anyone in the British government who is willing to accept such information and take it seriously, that is.

The author became famous (or infamous) as one of the two women involved in the Profumo sex scandal of 1963-64, which brought down Prime Minister Macmillan and the Conservative government.  She married an Israeli, moved to Israel, and converted to Judaism–this book (published in 1989) is a pretty decent historical novel, not just an attempt at capitalizing on her celebrity.