16 March 2014

RUSSIA AND UKRAINE PART 2

There are those who are criticizing President Obama for not doing more about Russia and the Ukraine. I would argue that he and Kerry ought to be doing less because what they are doing is so inept it is almost comical. We have a weak leader (as perceived by a majority of Americans) playing a weak hand. Given that, less is better than more, lest the US be perceived as even weaker. Red lines that are indefensible and threats of “consequences” that impress no one are pointless. Given the nature of this administration, the less action there is the less embarrassment there will be.

Putin sees a power vacuum, with weak, irresolute western leaders that he has only contempt for, and he is acting on it. The main basis for the “illegality” of Russian actions is an agreement made in the 1990s to guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine as it gave up its nuclear weapons. Among the signatories to this were Russia and the US. So Russia has reneged on another agreement. Who is surprised by this? For it is not only international agreements that they have discarded but also contracts with gullible western corporations dumb enough to do business there under current conditions. 

The notion of the “west” and Russia as the “east” is a false dichotomy. The Russians inherited the same Greek foundation as the west via Greek monks who created their alphabet and converted them to Christianity a thousand years ago. It is ironic that after more than seven decades of communism Russia today is far more Christian than the west. It is through this prism that Putin views western countries as degenerate and weak. But Russia also feels threatened by NATO expansion to its borders, which is one of the main reasons that Putin wants the former Soviet republics to get in line with Russia. 

The real barrier to better relations and integration with the western world is the lack of rule of law in Russia, which involves more than just arbitrary government. Normal business cannot be conducted with parties who renege on contract agreements. This will continue as long as there is not a a truly independent judiciary. Constitutional government requires more than the formal edifice of institutions with separate powers. Putin’s government is not so much in opposition to this as several steps removed. His model now is essentially that of the state as protector of traditional values, defender of the faith, etc.  with himself at the apex of the state. Nevertheless his government still has support with the majority of the population.

This is not to suggest that Russian aggrandizement should not be opposed, but realistically just what assets do we have available for this? This administration does not have the standing in the world to support its posturing. We need to take a longer term view to a post-Obama (and Putin) world. If Russia annexes Crimea based upon a popular vote it will backfire on them badly. For if Crimea can have self-determination then logically the restive regions in the Caucasus could do the same. Thus Chechnya and Dagestan could use the same pretext to break away from Russia. What the US and other western countries need to do is focus on rebuilding the economy, institutions, and strength at home before we can be taken seriously abroad. 




15 March 2014

DON'T GIVE UP THE INTERNET

If someone set out to deliberately undermine the United States he could not do worse than this President. Now he has decided to give control of the Internet to the “world.” This has to do with domain assignments, etc. which are working fine in their present, American, incarnation. There may be some foreign resentment of the fact that the US controls key aspects of the Internet, never mind that they originated and evolved in America and have been working fine. Nevertheless no on can say that the US has in an real way disadvantaged others with this. What’s next? The dollar?
One could argue that the Internet has long since become an international phenomenon and it therefore ought to be under the purview of an international body. However, there are many other instances of global standards being maintained by a particular country. For example Britain and Greenwich Mean Time, as well as other standards and measure. It is thus, not unprecedented for standards that originated in a particular country to be maintained by that country. Only a basic hostility to the US can account for a wish to change this. 
Furthermore the record of international bodies is less than impressive. There are many countries clamoring for various forms of censorship, and this is the surest path to that end. It will also provide the pretext for exclusion, i.e. of Israel, as has happened in other international bodies. How about Islamic, or any other restrictive standards? How about erasing something because some regime somewhere finds it offensive? This is effectively taking the part of repressive regimes rather than the people on the street. The possibilities for mischief are endless, but what is certain is that it will be the end of the wide open Internet. Some governments may   oppose the US hold on the Internet, but the people don’t because they trust it to be free and open. That will end the minute the US gives up control. For an American President to take such a step is just disgraceful. The only way to stop this now is through congress and by making our voices heard. 



06 March 2014

WHAT TO DO ABOUT RUSSIA & UKRAINE?

Russian actions in Ukraine continue to dominate the headlines, and there is no common western policy beyond expressions of disapproval. The question now is what should be done about Putin’s actions? The short answer is, not much. First, because not much can realistically be done by outsiders, and second, given the extent to which the Obama administration has abandoned leadership in the world, things like this are bound to happen in that power vacuum. With the “reset” in relations with Russia in shambles who can have confidence in the ability of this administration to handle this appropriately?

There has been some tough talk from Hillary Clinton, which makes some sense on the surface. She compares the Ukrainian situation to that of Nazi Germany, which grabbed the Czech sudetanland followed other territories on the pretext of protecting Germans in those areas. When there was no effective response Hitler’s appetite increased until the invasion of Poland finally brought on World War II.  However, Putin is not Hitler, and the global context is quite different. Britain and France were committed to alliances with Poland. No one apart from Russia is allied with the territories of the former Soviet Union, which we can assume Putin dreams of recreating. But what can he realistically do in that regard?

If Russia were to regain all those territories the Russians themselves would become a minority in the federation. They would have a substantial, growing and increasingly restive population on their hands. They have yet been unable to completely subdue the existing Muslim population in Chechnya and other Russian territories in the Caucasus. The Russian population is roughly 142 million and declining, with a non-Russian minority at nearly 20% and growing. Russia cannot possibly maintain a stable society with more ethnic minorities in its fold. Putin is no fool and he must know this. But he also knows that he can annex some territories with little to lose. 

Crimea, which is now basically occupied, has a Russian majority and the regional government is seeking a referendum on joining Russia. That should be amended to say rejoining Russia, insofar as Crimea was in fact Russian territory until Kruschev ceded it to the then Ukrainian SSR, in what was basically an internal shuffle, never imagining an independent Ukraine. From the Russian point of view they are simply reoccupying historically Russian territory. Given the history and the demographics there is not much of a case for a strong response to this by anyone. Putin took advantage of the political turmoil in Ukraine. A similar case could be made for Russian majority areas in eastern Ukraine. As long as there are substantial majority-minority population differences there is certain to be instability, and a degree of sorting out would mitigate that and eliminate any pretext for further aggrandizement. A more Ukrainian Ukraine could then pursue its goal of joining the west via the European Union. 


What disturbs much of the world is the use of force in this situation, and for that there should be consequences. The problem is that there is really no one in a position to do much of anything. The next step would be to give a strong message along the lines of “this far but no further.” The problem is that the US administration has drawn red lines before that fell away without consequences, and has no credibility left. The outrage of some hawks on the right is misplaced. This is not the Soviet Union. Russia is not an enemy and there is nothing to be gained by treating it like one. The notion of the west versus Russia is a false dichotomy. . Russia has been a part of the “west” in some sense, at least since Peter the Great. The real barrier to better relations and integration with the western world is the lack of rule of law in Russia. To be continued. 

26 February 2014

UPRISINGS IN UKRAINE AND VENEZUELA

Ukraine and Venezuela are exploding with popular uprisings against oppressive regimes. In Ukraine the people have triumphed as the government has been driven from power. In Venezuela the struggle continues, but freedom cannot indefinitely be suppressed. In both cases the US has zero influence due to the deliberate weakening of American power by the current administration, which is further seeking to reduce the Army to below-WWII levels. The US is no longer respected in much of the world, and it will take considerable effort to recover from this disastrous decline. But you would not know much of this from the coverage in American media.

This is not to suggest that there ought to be military intervention, or the threat of it, particularly in Ukraine, where the situation is decidedly complex. The Russians are mobilizing forces on the border of Ukraine, but there is little we can do about it. The problem in Ukraine is the western half is mostly Ukrainian and oriented toward Europe. In the eastern half there is a large, and in some areas dominant Russian population. Although this may have come about from Soviet efforts to export Russians to the region. at this point it is an unchangeable reality. The complexity of the situation arises from the fact that they share a common history flowing from the city of Norse-controlled Kiev over a thousand years ago, after obtaining their alphabet and Christian religion from the Byzantine Greeks. Thus, although it is in present day Ukraine, Kiev is also the spiritual home of the Russians. 

But after Mongol invaders destroyed much of what was in their path there was some divergence. Western Ukraine was occupied by Poland  in 1349 and then Lithuania for centuries until the eastern portion reverted to Russia in 1654. It was subsequently divided between Russia in the east and the Austro-Hungarian empire in the west, and after World War I was incorporated as a republic within the USSR. In 1954 Russia ceded Crimea to Ukraine, clearly as part of the Russian dominated union never anticipating it would not be under their control. Modern independence only came after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Thus, not surprisingly the Russians consider the status of Ukraine to be in their vital interests, and realistically an independent Ukraine can only exist as long as Russia tolerates it. The European Union is favored by western Ukrainians, but the military power of the EU is nonexistent, and integration with Ukraine may only be possible  if Russia itself becomes an EU member. While we may sympathize with the democratic will of the people, given its leadership vacuum there is not much the west can or should do. Warnings from John Kerry are laughable, and at this point, for better or worse, Vladimir Putin is going to determine the outcome. 


Venezuela is a different story. The repressive socialist regime there is a posturing enemy of the US and a troublemaker in the region. It has gone so far as to align itself with Iran. The standard of living has declined as one would expect it to in a country with all out socialism as its goal and the people appear to have finally had enough. Here we should intervene, not militarily, but by providing full support to the opposition, especially since the regime will accuse us of doing that anyway. For Venezuela is located in what we used to consider our own back yard. Deposing the Chavista regime is in our national interests and would be a severe blow to the evil satellite regimes that have sprung up with their aid. But given the sympathies of the current administration it would be a pleasant surprise if they actually did anything. 

23 February 2014

FIFTY YEARS IN A FLASH


The Beatles arrived in the US fifty years ago, as hard as that is to believe for those who were around at the time. The years seem to have flashed by progressively faster, as they inevitably do as we age. Somehow what seems like a long period of time just doesn’t feel like it. Curiously this is not because things have changed so much, but rather because they have changed so little. There is a surprising degree of continuity between now and then. For example, people still listen to the music of the Beatles, whereas in 1964 few people were still listening to the popular music of 1914. Where there is a virtually seamless connection between today and 1964 for most people in the West, the fifty years prior to that time are like a huge chasm of discontinuity. 

Consider the year 1914. Then, for the broad public everything was new, from electricity to movies, automobiles, airplanes, appliances, telephones, recordings, etc. Although most of these things originated in the late 19th century, they did not reach most people until costs tumbled due to mass production early in the 20th century. In contrast, apart from the Internet, medical devices, and electronics generally, there is not much in the way of things with comparable fundamental impact on daily life over the past fifty years. Thus, a person from 1964 could fit in comfortably in 2014  (apart from wondering where all the space travel and robots are), whereas a person from 1914 encountering the world of 1964 would be flabbergasted.  
In geopolitical terms 1914 was the apex of the civilization of the19th century and the old order of Europe, which disastrously exploded into war in August of that year. Thus began, one hundred years ago, the biggest disaster in modern western history, subsequently referred to as “the Great War,” or World War I as we now call it today. There was worse to come, but most of what followed was a consequence of that war. Had it not happened the map of the world would be very different today, and more dynamic powers would still exist in Europe. Today it is hard to imagine countries sending off millions of their young men to war, largely as cannon fodder, ultimately all for nothing. It is equally hard to imagine European countries gripped by patriotic fervor and clamoring for war as some did at the time. The United States only entered the war three years after it began, so military deaths of 116,516 were far less than the 416,800 in World War II. But for European countries in the west the losses were almost incomprehensible. Thus the Great War still resonates in Britain, which lost 908,371 versus 303,800 in World War II or France, which lost 1,357,800 soldiers in WWI versus 200,000 in World War II. On the other side Germany lost 1,773,700, Austria-Hungary 1,200,00 and all of these are only battlefield death. Total casualties were several times more. In the east Russia lost 1,700,000 before leaving the war after the 1917 revolution.
The German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empire, (which controlled much of the middle east at the time), all collapsed as a result of the war, followed by years of turmoil that led directly to WWII and the further consequences of that war. An imperial civilization vanished, and in some ways Europe has yet to fully recover from what began in August 1914.
Clearly most of the seminal events occurred in the first half of the 20th century. The years between 1914 and 1964 constituted a period of great discontinuity, in contrast to the curious continuity between 1964 and 2014. Although we have been led to believe that we live in a time of rapid change, the truth is things haven’t changed all that much, and that is why the years seem, even more so, to have gone by in a flash. As the saying goes, “the more things change the more they stay the same.”



07 February 2014

HEY, TEACHER, ALL THOSE KIDS ARE SMART!


There was a considerable amount of feedback on a piece I wrote previously about gifted students in city schools. One in particular alerted me to the fact that there is a kind of mirror opposite happening in some of the suburbs, but curiously producing the same kind of leveling results. In this case the number gifted, accelerated, honors, etc. classes are increasing, not being phased out. This might lead some to conclude that the kids have somehow gotten a lot brighter, but in reality it is more a matter of parents demanding their kids be placed in the accelerated classes, thereby diminishing their effectiveness, and thus diluted they in effect become the new “ordinary” class. As one teacher wrote me: 

Years ago, the accelerated classes were reserved for the upper 5% (give or take) of students who earned grades from 95%-100% during seventh grade in their Math and Science courses. In addition to their classroom grades, students were required to earn high marks on a placement tests to discover the truly gifted from those who were simply good students. In other words, if a student had a 95% average and scored high on the placement tests, they'd skip the general science and math courses and they'd start taking High School Regents classes ahead of time in the Middle School.  Today, since the placement tests are considered "biased", parents can just call and ask to have their kids placed in accelerated classes. As a result, instead of one or two sections of accelerated courses in eighth grade, we now have four in Science and three in Math. This makes good publicity for the School Board, but with so many kids in accelerated classes (that don't belong), the teachers are no longer challenging the highest 5%. Instead they're spending most of their time trying to get kids to pass a Regents course, where their previous caseload was smart enough to pass the Regents from day one. In prior years it was assumed that the kids would inevitably pass the Regents, so more time was devoted to truly advanced lab and activities that would challenge the genuinely gifted. 
A a result, since all of the "good" students are now in accelerated courses, those who remain in the General Science classes tend to be our lower functioning kids who are now paired with Special Education students who have to take class in a general education setting as opposed to the old self-contained settings.

So here again the gifted students do not get the kind of education they should, being combined with what are essentially ordinary students, who have not suddenly become equally bright. While this gives bragging rights about all their “honor” students to parents and school officials, as the teacher further states, “Accelerated classes in 2014 are more like the "typical" classes of 15 or 20 years ago. The "typical" classes of 2014 would have been a Special Ed class in 1985.” Thus this kind of system also results in the general dumbing down  of the curriculum as in the city schools, only here the pretense is that most of the students are exceptionally bright, at least statistically, which is all that seems to matter these days. But in truth the end result is that there is essentially nothing for the truly gifted, with all the negative consequences  described previously. 


It is also unfair to the teachers to the extent that those with the “ordinary” students are evaluated the same way as those with the “bright” students, even though they cannot possibly get comparable results. Teachers have to do a lot more than produce statistics and it should definitely not be the only way to determine their effectiveness. To the extent this arises from federal mandates they are simply making things worse. I learned from another, unrelated context, that when you have to produce numbers you wind up not doing what you really were supposed to be doing substantively in the first place. There may be a “statistical” success, but little true progress. 

06 February 2014

NO SMART KIDS ALLOWED!

Much has been written about how our schools are failing “poor and minority” students, as the cliche goes, but far less has been said about shortchanging gifted or exceptionally bright students of whatever background. The latter is increasingly happening, and if the left has its way, it will accelerate, based upon convoluted, loony theories and radical political ideology. 

A public school in Brooklyn recently began to scrap its program for gifted students, essentially because the gifted were not sufficiently “diverse,” so as to proportionately reflect the student population. As a result the smart kids will now be educated and treated the same as ordinary students, so that everything is nice and equal. This means that they will be held back by the rest, and have little opportunity to develop the full potential they have because of an ideology that puts equality above all else. If some kids are too smart they have to be constrained by others less able so that the outcomes are equally bad. It is more than leveling the playing field, for it is detrimental to the development of these kids, who are likely to become bored, disinterested, and even troublesome to the extent they are held back. In an ordinary class social pressure will further inhibit them from being “too smart” in the classroom. It also reduces their prospects vis a vis gifted kids in other places in the world who are not so limited when they go on to further education.

Leaving aside the kind of damage it does, you can argue they still have an even chance, the same as everyone else, but equal mediocrity is not a recipe for a dynamic society. Whether we like it or not, talents are not equally distributed and equal results cannot be programmed. If those who excel at something are discouraged from reaching their full potential, it is a loss for everyone. The only way we can have, i.e. the best scientists, is by encouraging the best minds to flourish. To the extent that they do, we have more discovery, innovation, new processes, ideas, technologies, etc. These are the things that improve life for everyone. It is a relatively small handful of people who bring about breakthroughs and significant change. In historical time we are dependent on a few bright people, no matter how inconvenient this is for the ideologically obsessed. 

We are simply not equally endowed. We have equal rights before the law, but we do not have equal abilities. To pretend that we do, or to suppose that we can change this simply limits our future prospects. Certainly everyone should get a good education, but it is in fact the bright students that will most influence our future and the quality of life we have. 


Good teachers also need good students who actually want to learn. If this kind of leveling spreads into the public school system, more and more parents will be driven to place their children in private schools. There are rumblings now of also leveling down the elite high schools, which have competitive admissions, based upon the same misguided ideology. If these trends continue we will be much poorer as a society in every way.