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Monday, September 21

Wasting food is a custom in modern China. Changing the custom won't be painless.

From Xi Declares War on Food Waste, and China Races to Tighten Its Belt; The New York Times, published August 21, updated September 17:
[...]
Mr. Xi’s “clean plate” campaign strikes at the heart of dining culture in China. Custom dictates that ordering extra dishes and leaving food behind are ways to demonstrate generosity toward one’s relatives, clients, business partners and important guests.

Such habits have contributed to an estimated 17 million to 18 million tons of food being discarded annually, an amount that could feed 30 million to 50 million people for a year, according to a study by the Chinese Academy of Science and the World Wildlife Fund.

Mr. Xi’s call is as much a warning against the dangers of profligacy as it is a reflection of the generational shift in values that has emerged as living standards rise.

[...]

Many among the country’s younger generation, such as Samantha Pan, a 21-year-old student in Guangzhou, embrace being free from having to worry about saving food for a rainy day, and hold little regard for the state’s moral exhortations.

“This type of initiative is very boring and useless,” Ms. Pan said in a telephone interview. “I am entitled to order as much food as I want. If I just happen to love wasting food, it’s still my freedom.”

[...] 

As we can see from Ms Pan's ringing defense of her freedom to waste food, not all of China is racing to tighten its belt. Yet China is now facing severe food insecurity, as detailed by the updated Times report and one from The Hill, Another famine coming? China struggles to meet basic food demands.

As with so many other kinds of crises that have arisen in this young century, the only viable course of action is for individuals to change their thinking. 

Change or die; that's what the crystal ball is telling me. 

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Tuesday, September 8

Should India stay with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?

 Well, here is my opinion of Beijing:


"Bite by bite, China has been eating away at Indian borderlands." The quote is from an Indian security expert published today in The New York Times report, Shots Fired Along India-China Border for First Time in Years.  Brahma Chellaney is right as far as it goes but the Chinese haven't only been taking bites from the 'borderlands.'  For years they got so little pushback from the China-huggers bought-off Indians in Delhi they moved ever more openly into Ladakh. They went so far that finally Delhi woke up and took action. Then the Chinese got nasty. And here we are today.  

The Chinese have shown their true colors so many times during the past 20 years that any government is a fool to join a security organization with "Shanghai" in the name -- unless it's so desperate for Chinese financial aid it's willing to endure being shanghaied by smiling backstabbers. India doesn't and shouldn't need to endure being stabbed in the back.  

As to whether India should be turning to the United States for help in dealing with the Chinese, well, here is my opinion of Washington:


Substitute "land" for "lady" in the lyrics, and there is America, the British Empire wannabe, to a T.  These days you have to be crazy to join any American 'coalition of the willing' 

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Wednesday, September 2

Human response to Covid virus

Farmer in Amazon fighting
 forest fire with sprinkler can
 
Photo : CARL DE SOUZA/AFP

Photo at Sputnik's This week in pictures, August 15-21.  

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Monday, August 24

I can tell you in one sentence what's wrong with America. But then you'd have to understand the sentence.

What's wrong is that when statistical data interpretation rules societies, disaster results. That's the truth, the whole truth about what's wrong with today's USA; everything else is blither spewed by superficial thinkers.

The fastest way to understand what I've told you is to gather your attention and plow through a lengthy, tortured article by Gwynn Guilford,who spent six years in China researching their economy and trying to explain it for hedge funds. In her 2018 writing for Quartz, The epic mistake about manufacturing that’s cost Americans millions of jobsshe sets out to explain the thinking that led a majority of economists to misinterpret the statistics they used to interpret the American manufacturing sector. To call what they did a mistake, even an epic one, hardly conveys the disaster that resulted.

Here are a few passages from the writing:

... Manufacturers’ embrace of automation was supposedly a good thing. Sure, some factory workers lost their jobs. But increased productivity boosted living standards, and as manufacturing work vanished, new jobs in construction and other services took its place. This was more of a shift than a loss, explained Bradford DeLong, economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

So when Trump won the presidential election, the true-blue data believers dismissed his victory as the triumph of rhetoric over fact. His supporters had succumbed to a nativist tale with cartoon villains like “cheating China” and a shadowy cabal of Rust Belt-razing “globalists.”

But it turns out that Trump’s story of US manufacturing decline was much closer to being right than the story of technological progress being spun in Washington, New York, and Cambridge.

Thanks to a painstaking analysis by a handful of economists, it’s become clear that the data that underpin the dominant narrative—or more precisely, the way most economists interpreted the data—were way off-base. Foreign competition, not automation, was behind the stunning loss in factory jobs. And that means America’s manufacturing sector is in far worse shape than the media, politicians, and even most academics realize.

Here I'll skip over several paragraphs to get to this part:

In other words, the method statisticians use to account for these advances can make it seem like US firms are producing and selling more computers than they actually are. And when the computers data are aggregated with the other subsectors, the adjustment makes it seem like the whole of American manufacturing is churning out more goods than it actually is.
Misreading the manufacturing statistics

It’s this adjustment that is the crux of economists’ misinterpretation of the health of manufacturing. There’s nothing wrong with accounting for product quality. But most economists and policymakers have failed to take into account how adjusting for quality improvements in a relatively small subsector skews the manufacturing output data.

[...]

Later in the writing Guilford observes:

Two decades of ill-founded policymaking radically restructured the US economy, and reshuffled the social order too. The America that resulted is more unequal and more polarized than it’s been in decades, if not nearly a century.
In effect, US policymakers put diplomacy before industrial development at home, offering the massive American consumer market as a carrot to encourage other countries to open up their economies to multinational investment. Then, thanks to the popular narrative that automation was responsible for job losses in manufacturing, American leaders tended to dismiss the threat of foreign competition to a thriving manufacturing industry and minimize its importance to the overall health of the US economy.

[...] 

Guilford stays away from the larger inference, but the tortured tale she unravels speaks for itself. We -- the American society as a whole, not only economists -- have reached a stage where we are simply overwhelmed by our attempts to interpret the shifting and changing statistics we wring from masses of collected data.  

We are in over our heads. The awful state of American society reflects this.     

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Sunday, August 23

Japanese scream jar



Soundproof jar you can scream into to let off stress.  From a list of 101 products only available in Japan. I also like the soundproof karaoke machine, which lets you sing into a funnel microphone without anyone else hearing you.   

I've only looked at 20 products so far but there are probably more can't-live-without Japanese inventions on the list.   

Product descriptions with pix, year of invention, and price in USD at Investing.com.  

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Thursday, August 20

Has Dr Ron Paul been branded a Russian agent yet?

 

Dr Ron Paul turned 85 years old today. He is a great American, a very loyal American, but by a curious logic just about every loyal American you can name these days who advises against mindless U.S. wars and meddling has been labeled a Russian agent. Such is the state of America's defense/foreign policy establishment and the media, here and abroad, that backs up the establishment.

Protesting the label is no use; there is no defense against the accusation. Whether you know it or not, you're a Russian influence agent even if you aren't on the Kremlin's payroll if you argue against, say, American actions in Syria, which Dr Paul most certainly has done. And God Forbid if you've ever been interviewed by Russia's RT, which Dr Paul has. Any American who speaks to RT or writes an opinion column for them is ipso facto a Russian influence agent. You might not think you work for the Russians but that just goes to show how much they have duped you.  

From Wikipedia's article about Dr Paul (not to be confused with his son, U.S. Senator Rand Paul):

Ronald Ernest Paul (born August 20, 1935) is an American author, physician, retired politician, and presidential candidate who served as the U.S. Representative for Texas's 22nd congressional district from 1976 to 1977 and again from 1979 to 1985, and for Texas's 14th congressional district from 1997 to 2013. On three occasions, he sought the presidency of the United States: as the Libertarian Party nominee in 1988 and as a candidate in the Republican primaries of 2008 and 2012. A self-described "constitutionalist", Paul is a critic of the federal government's fiscal policies, especially the existence of the Federal Reserve and the tax policy, as well as the military–industrial complex, the war on drugs, and the war on terror. He has also been a vocal critic of mass surveillance policies such as the USA PATRIOT Act and the NSA surveillance programs. He was the first chairman of the conservative PAC Citizens for a Sound Economy, a free-market group focused on limited government, and has been characterized as the "intellectual godfather" of the Tea Party movement, a fiscally conservative political movement that is largely against most matters of interventionism. 
Paul served as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force from 1963 to 1968, and worked as an obstetrician-gynecologist from the 1960s to the 1980s. [...]

I can't say I agree with every one of his political positions because I'm not familiar with every one of them, but I hope that the above is enough to convey why I admire Dr Paul. 

So, from one Russian dupe to another (since the start of the Russian intervention in Syria I've probably quoted RT more than any other blogger) happy birthday, sir, and I pray for your long life and good health.

http://ronpaulinstitute.org/

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Tuesday, August 11

Guess what? Our bones think and network. That's not all the news about bones.

“The idea that bone is just a simple organ that’s separated from everything else as a mineralised tissue and doesn’t communicate – that’s changed.”

I stumbled across the following article while researching calcium supplements. The discoveries written about have been around for some time but this is the first I'm learning about them.  All I can say is wow, and thank The Guardian and the reporter, a health journalist and former neuroscientist. And ponder that sometimes a failed experiment leads to a vast leap in knowledge.

Does the key to anti-ageing lie in our bones?
By David Cox
July 4, 2020
The Guardian

Osteocalcin, a hormone produced in the bones, could one day provide treatments for age-related issues such as muscle and memory loss

Gérard Karsenty was a young scientist trying to make a name for himself in the early 1990s when he first stumbled upon a finding that would go on to transform our understanding of bone, and the role it plays in our body.

Karsenty had become interested in osteocalcin, one of the most abundant proteins in bone. He suspected that it played a crucial role in bone remodelling – the process by which our bones continuously remove and create new tissue – which enables us to grow during childhood and adolescence, and also recover from injuries.

Intending to study this, he conducted a genetic knockout experiment, removing the gene responsible for osteocalcin from mice. However to his dismay, his mutant mice did not appear to have any obvious bone defects at all. “For him, it was initially a total failure,” says Mathieu Ferron, a former colleague of Karsenty who now heads a research lab studying bone biology at IRCM in Montreal. “In those days it was super-expensive to do modification in the mouse genome.”

But then Karsenty noticed something unexpected. While their bones had developed normally, the mice appeared to be both noticeably fat and cognitively impaired.

“Mice that don’t have osteocalcin have increased circulating glucose, and they tend to look a bit stupid,” says Ferron. “It may sound silly to say this, but they don’t learn very well, they appear kind of depressed. But it took Karsenty and his team some time to understand how a protein in bone could be affecting these functions. They were initially a bit surprised and terrified as it didn’t really make any sense to them.”

Almost 15 years later, Karsenty would publish the first of a series of landmark papers that would revolutionise our perspective on bone and the skeleton in general. We used to view our skeleton as primarily a mechanical structure whose main role is to serve as a scaffold for the rest of the body. But our bones are very much live organs, which we now believe play a role in regulating a whole range of vital bodily processes ranging from memory to appetite, muscle health, fertility, metabolism and many others.

“The idea that bone is just a simple organ that’s separated from everything else as a mineralised tissue, and that doesn’t communicate – that’s changed,” says Thomas Clemens, professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Johns Hopkins Center for Musculoskeletal Research. “Karsenty has ushered in the idea that bone is involved in communicating with other tissues in the body that wasn’t really understood or investigated before."

We now know that bones communicate by participating in a network of signals to other organs through producing their own hormones, proteins that circulate in the blood. Karsenty’s mice eventually led him to realise that osteocalcin was in fact one such hormone, and understanding its links to regulating so many of these functions could have future implications in terms of public health interventions.

“The idea that bone could produce a hormone affecting metabolism or even your liver initially came as a bit of a shock,” says Ferron. “People did not expect that. But other scientists have since replicated the results, and even discovered new hormones also produced by bones. It’s opened up a completely new field in bone research.”

Reversing age-related decline


As we age, all of us inevitably lose bone. Research shows that humans reach peak bone mass in their 20s; from then onwards, it is a slow decline that can eventually lead to frailty and diseases such as osteoporosis in old age.

Over the past decade, new findings have suggested that this reduction in bone mass may also be linked to the weakening of muscles – referred to in medical terms as sarcopenia – as well as the memory and cognitive problems that many of us experience as we grow older. This appears to be connected to the levels of osteocalcin in the blood, through its role as a “master regulator”, influencing many other hormonal processes in the body.

“Osteocalcin acts in muscle to increase the ability to produce ATP, the fuel that allows us to exercise,” says Karsenty. “In the brain, it regulates the secretion of most neurotransmitters that are needed to have memory. The circulating levels of osteocalcin declines in humans around mid-life, which is roughly the time when these physiological functions, such as memory and the ability to exercise, begin to decline.”

But intriguingly in recent years, Karsenty has conducted a series of experiments in which he has shown that by increasing the levels of osteocalcin in older mice through injections, you can actually reverse many of these age-related ailments.

“Osteocalcin seems to be able to reverse manifestations of ageing in the brain and in muscle,” he says. “What is remarkable is that if you give osteocalcin to old mice, you restore memory and you restore the ability to exercise to the levels seen in a young mouse. That makes it potentially extremely attractive from a medical point of view."

Scientists have also found that for humans, one way of naturally maintaining the levels of this hormone in the blood, even as we age, is through exercise, something that makes intuitive sense, as physical activity has long been known to have anti-ageing properties. Ferron is hoping that these findings can be used to support public health messages regarding the importance of staying active through middle age and later life.

“If you exercise regularly, then it stimulates your bone to make more osteocalcin, and that will have these beneficial effects on muscle and brain,” he says. “From epidemiological studies, we know that people who are very active tend to have less of a cognitive decline with age than sedentary people. With time, maybe people will be more aware of this connection, and think of their bone health as being just as important as other aspects of staying healthy.”

Ongoing research in this area also suggests that exercising more during the teenage years and early adulthood can continue to have a protective effect on bone and other aspects of health much later in life.

“I think this could reinforce the message that it’s important for people to be active during adolescence and early adult years,” Ferron says. “This means they reach a higher peak bone mass, which will protect them from age-related problems linked to osteocalcin decline.”

Utilising bone hormones to develop new drugs

Osteocalcin is not the only bone hormone to have caught the attention of scientists, however. At the Mayo Clinic, Sundeep Khosla has been studying a hormone called DPP4, which is made by cells on the outer layers of bone, called osteoclasts, and appears to play a role in how bone regulates blood sugar.

Khosla is particularly interested in this hormone because the drug denosumab – which is clinically prescribed to osteoporosis patients to try and slow down the rate of bone loss – seems to have a positive effect on DPP4 as well. In a study of osteoporosis patients taking denosumab published earlier this year, he noticed that those also suffering from diabetes experienced an improvement in their symptoms.

“This shows that maybe this drug can treat both osteoporosis and diabetes at the same time,” says Khosla. “We’re now looking to follow up on these observations and test this through a randomised control trial."

However, osteocalcin, with its potential to prevent many aspects of age-related decline, remains the major topic of interest in bone research. Given that so many people ignore public health guidelines regarding exercise – in 2017, the British Heart Foundation reported that around 20 million adults in the UK are insufficiently active – Karsenty is working on a means of artificially increasing the levels of osteocalcin in the blood and has even filed a patent on using it to treat cognitive disorders.

“This is not easy, but what we are hoping to do is to deliver osteocalcin perhaps through developing a molecule which regulates osteocalcin,” he says. “We’re exploring various ways of doing this, but the idea would be eventually to have something which could be used to treat age-related diseases such as sarcopenia and memory decline. This is really going to profit the elderly the most, but anyone with a decline in muscle function, because of a hip fracture or another condition, could also benefit from this treatment.

Ferron says that such a treatment would differ from current medications designed to improve bone health in osteoporosis, as they only work by blocking bone loss. A drug targeting osteocalcin would aim to achieve wider health benefits through stimulating bone gain.

However, there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome. For example, simply injecting a form of osteocalcin is unlikely to be sufficient to achieve a therapeutic benefit in humans.

“Treatments like that tend to be more costly and more difficult as protein injections don’t have a very long half life,” says Ferron. “My lab is developing a stabilised form of osteocalcin so it can stay longer in the body, but the best solution would be to have some sort of small pharmacological molecules that could be put in a pill to target the receptor of osteocalcin to stimulate its activity. So that’s the idea I see for the future.”

But Karsenty’s findings have also led scientists to ponder a somewhat profound question: how did bones develop the ability to produce hormones such as osteocalcin in the first place?

The scientist himself believes that the answer lies deep in our evolutionary past. “I think that evolution has invented osteocalcin as a survival hormone,” he says. “Because to escape predators, you need your bones to be able to signal to your muscles to run, which is mediated by osteocalcin. To survive, you also need to remember where to find food or where a predator was an hour ago, and such memory processes are regulated by osteocalcin. More and more, we think that it evolved as a hormone to help animals escape danger.”

[END REPORT]

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Thursday, August 6

Wèishéme?

Learning the Mandarin for "Why?" can take you a long way in The Story of Yanxi Palace. Wèishéme (为什么), pronounced weshema, might be the most repeated phrase in the series. "Why?" cried in anguish, in despair, in fury, in confusion, as one character after another in the story falls victim to circumstances he can neither control nor understand. 

So much is going on, so many crises, it's only toward the end it comes clear that The Story of Yanxi Palace is one long morality play. There is always a choice, and how the victim of circumstance decides will determine whether he takes up with evil. What is not necessarily evident in the short life span of a human but graphically illustrated over the course of Yanxi Palace is that the inexorable fate of evildoers is to meet with justice in exact measure.  Why? Their own character has the answer. 

That, and the fact that evil, as with goodness, is personal; it has to do with an individual's decisions. There is no such thing as collectivist evil, just as there is no group Karma.  To believe otherwise is to thunder at the heavens, "Why?"

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Sunday, August 2

The Turkish general who learned too much

So much corruption, so much ruthlessness in the service of corruption; one becomes hardened to it after a time. But this got to me.  

General Semih Terzi     
Ismaeel Naar, Al Arabiya English
Friday 31 July 2020
Al Arabiya

The report further alleged that Terzi was aware of public officials involved in oil-smuggling operations with ISIS from Syria.

The Turkish army executed a senior general within its ranks after he had discovered the embezzlement of illicit Qatari funding for extremists in Syria by public officials, according to a 2019 court testimony unveiled in a report by the Nordic Monitor.

Semih Terzi, a general within the Turkish army, was executed on the night of the 2016 Turkish coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The new allegations unveiled in court testimonies from a hearing March 20, 2019at Ankara 17th High Criminal Court were made by Col. Fırat Alakuş, an army officer working within Turkey’s Special Forces Command’s intelligence section.

According to the Nordic Monitor, Terzi is said to have been executed after discovering that Lt. Gen. Zekai Aksakallı, in charge of the Special Forces Command at the time, was working covertly with Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) “in running illegal and clandestine operations in Syria for personal gain while dragging Turkey deeper into the Syrian civil war.”

“[Terzi] knew how much of the funding delivered [to Turkey] by Qatar for the purpose of purchasing weapons and ammunition for the opposition was actually used for that and how much of it was actually used by public officials, how much was embezzled,” Col. Alakuş was quoted as saying by the Nordic Monitor via his court testimony.

The Nordic Monitor said in its report published on Friday that Alakuş testified that Aksakallı had run a gang outside of the chain of command within the Turkish intelligence that was involved in illicit activities.

The report further alleged that Terzi was aware of public officials involved in oil-smuggling operations with ISIS from Syria.

“[Terzi] was aware of who in the government was involved in an oil-smuggling operation from Syria, how the profits were shared, and what activities they were involved in,” Alakuş said in his testimony.

[END REPORT]

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Wednesday, July 22

Is it because the British became nihilists and the Russians didn't?

Something a little eerie happened last night as I pondered the British hatred for the Russians. This after I read Spying, election hacks, assassinations: British report details scale of Russian subversion campaigns, published yesterday  in the American mainstream national newspaper, USA Today. The accusations have the earmark of a Shaggy Dog Tale, a type of joke which goes on and on while the listener waits in vain to learn the point of the story, the only point being the doomed wait for the point.  

There is no evidence that the accusations have a basis in facts, which the USA Today report eventually gets around to explaining. But the British are sure that if only they'd worked harder and earlier to investigate, they would have had the evidence. 

I am so sick of British Shaggy Dog tales about the Russians but I told myself wearily I had to keep track of the nonsense because it kept unleashing horrors on the Syrians. Yet the British government's hatred for the Russians was not caused by Russian actions in Syria; it was an obsessive hatred. Why? 

The standard explanations, plausible on their own, didn't stack for me; when there are so many explanations this is not about specific incidents or people. Instead the Russians had come to symbolize something for many British,  something they hated. What did they symbolize?   

I was so intent on my ruminations I didn't notice I'd been unseeingly clicking through YouTube videos after I'd watched a movie 'trailer' about the Brexit political campaign.

That was how the more mysterious of the YouTube bots took charge of my question. And that was how I watched scenes from a 1980s BBC TV comedy series called "Blackadder," which I'd never seen before and knew nothing about, and all the while asking myself, 'Why am I watching this?'

I had to go to Wikipedia to learn about the series. But I'll do to you what the bots did to me: with no introduction beyond that the scenes are set at the British front lines in the Great War (WWI), I'll throw you into the madhouse.

Ready? Start at the 19:11 mark, then watch until the end, which is about eight minutes later.


If you tell me after watching that there was actually nothing funny about it -- right.

I've heard that fatalism is part of the Russian character; whether or not such a generality applies, there is a big difference between fatalism and nihilism. So here I'm going to take a flying leap.

It could be that the Russians symbolize to the British upper class a people who avoided nihilism when by all rights they should have become nihilistic. Whereas many British lost faith in themselves over the course of two world wars and the breakup of their empire, and so fell into the trap of nihilism.

If I am in the ballpark, I venture the British need to be a little kinder to themselves before they can forgive Russians for being too dense to realize they have nothing to be proud of.  That might be a hard to do if the British upper class and intellectuals take their sense of identity from a set of values that places great emphasis on adherence to high ideals.

In short, the British would need to acknowledge to themselves that the penalty for acting all too human should not be nihilism.

That's the best I can do with the Blackadder scenes YouTube wanted me to see.  Ah well, the brilliant reasoning of those mystery bots is wasted on me. 

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Tuesday, July 21

Chief conduit for U.S. meddling argues U.S. should stop meddling. Pundita faints from shock.

Get the smelling salts away from me; I'm alright, just a little discombobulated. [fanning herself]  

The argument has been made by many others including this blogger, but the shocker is that it has now appeared in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine.  Although you won't read this in Wikipedia's article about the magazine it can be argued, it has been argued and even bluntly stated by informed observers, that FP is a creation of the U.S. Department of State to serve as a conduit for State views, which have always reflected the U.S. policy of interventionism.  

So for the magazine to allow an opinion piece titled, "Countries Should Mind Their Own Business" would be something like Bernie Sanders suddenly extolling the virtues of capitalism or William Ayers announcing that White Privilege is a myth.  

The article's author, Stephen Walt, a neorealist and professor of international affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, hedges a bit -- as if he had a choice if he wanted FP to publish his argument -- in that he only gives "two" cheers for the idea that governments should respect the sovereignty of other nations and directs his criticism to all meddling governments, not only the American one. But in context of his entire article I am nit-picking. The lid was already loose. Stephen Walt, with help from Foreign Policy, has blown it sky-high.

What now?  Now we prepare for counterarguments from the incredibly powerful forces that have profited most from interventionism. Prepare, and pray. 

I'll add that the lede I provided is not the one supplied by the editor. The original lede reads, "Two cheers for a classic idea that’s been out of fashion for too long: state sovereignty." The sentence I used is actually the title given the article for its url.  FP hedging.  [smiling] 
         
By Stephen M. Walt
July 17, 2020
Foreign Policy magazine

From the United States to China every country should respect national sovereignty.  

What’s the dumbest idea affecting the foreign policy of major powers? There are plenty of candidates—the domino theory; the myth of the short, cheap war; the belief that a particular deity is “on the side” of one nation and will guarantee its success; etc. But right up there with those worthy contenders is a country’s belief that it has found the magic formula for political, economic, social, and international success and that it has the right, the responsibility, and the ability to spread this gospel far and wide.

In some cases, this impulse arises from (mostly) benevolent aims: The leaders of some country genuinely believe that spreading (through force, if necessary) their ideals and institutions to others will genuinely benefit the recipients. Defensive motives may also be operating: A state may believe that it cannot be reliably secure unless other countries have similar if not identical institutions. U.S. leaders once worried that America could not survive alone in a world dominated by fascism, and Joseph Stalin believed the Soviet Union needed “friendly” countries on its borders, by which he meant countries governed by Leninist parties patterned after the Soviet model.

Of course, such claims may simply be a reassuring story that ruling elites propagate to justify aggressive actions undertaken for more selfish reasons. Whatever the motivation, if their efforts were successful the world would gradually converge on a single model for political, economic, and social life. Individual national variations would be modest and declining in importance, limited to purely local concerns (such as national holidays, cuisine, preferred musical styles, etc.). In theory, even some of these features might begin to lose their individual features over time.

This hasn’t happened, however, due to an intriguing paradox. Thus far, the only political form that has commanded nearly universal global acceptance is the territorial state itself, along with the closely related idea of nationalism. As Hendrik Spruyt, Stephen Krasner, Dan Nexon, and others have explored, the territorial state was only one of several political forms coexisting in early modern Europe, and its eventual emergence as the dominant political form was a contentious process that might have turned out differently. Many factors contributed to its ultimate success, and one of them was the idea of sovereignty: the principle that every government got to run its own affairs as its rulers (or, eventually, its citizens) saw fit. And once that principle took firm hold, individual local variations were reinforced and entrenched.

Add to this notion the emerging idea of nationalism—the belief that different groups of people have distinct identities based on language, culture, shared history, etc. and that such self-aware groups are entitled to govern themselves—and you have a couple of powerful and mutually reinforcing ideals. As John Mearsheimer argues in The Great Delusion, nations want their own state so that they can protect themselves in an insecure world, and states often encourage nationalism in order to unify the population and enhance state power.

The gradual spread of these twin ideas—nationalism and sovereignty—has had far-reaching if uneven effects. Nationalism undermined and eventually destroyed the Spanish, Portugeuse, British, French, Belgian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet empires, and decolonization eventually swelled the United Nations from its original 50-odd members to nearly 200 states today. In this way, the territorial state became the dominant political form in the contemporary world, but the specific content within each state still varied enormously. Democracies, monarchies, oligarchies, one-party authoritarians, military dictators, religious regimes, etc. all coexisted within the basic framework of the sovereign state, along with a number of different economic systems.

Throughout this process, a number of countries have at one time or another seen themselves as models for the rest, and they have tried in various ways to convince others to adopt their formula. The leaders of revolutionary France sought to topple foreign monarchs and spread liberty to Europe and beyond, and Napoleon subsequently tried to impose his own order on the countries he had conquered. Soviet Russia was explicitly committed to spreading its particular form of socialism, and pan-Arabists, Nasserites, and assorted Islamic fundamentalists have sought to convince or coerce others into adopting their preferred model within the Arab and Islamic world.

Although Americans were initially ambivalent about whether their newfangled republic could be a model for others, confidence that other states would benefit if they become more like the United States grew as the country rose to great-power status and became the world’s strongest power. 

The impulse to remake the world in America’s image kicked into overdrive when the so-called unipolar moment arrived: The tides of history seemed to be running America’s way, liberal democratic capitalism was said to be the inevitable end point of political and social development, and there were no rival great powers who could prevent the United States from wielding its vast economic and military power in the service of liberal ideals.

Not surprisingly, in the unipolar era the United States increasingly favored a one-size-fits-all approach to other countries. Foreign countries may still have been regarded as formally sovereign, but the United States increasingly sought to influence (if not dictate) some of their national policy decisions.

In the military realm, states that sought weapons of mass destruction were sanctioned, ostracized, attacked, or overthrown, even as U.S. leaders declared that America’s own nuclear arsenal was still essential for its security. Rising powers such as China were advised to forgo “advanced military capabilities” on the grounds that this was “an outdated path” that would “hamper its own pursuit of national greatness.” (For some strange reason, Beijing chose to ignore this friendly advice.) Where possible, the United States sought to recruit new states into security institutions that it already led, thereby obtaining more influence over other states’ security policies.

In politics, Washington sought to promote democracy where and when it could, whether by providing money and advice to nascent civil society groups, supporting human rights more generally, or acting to topple regimes that were unlucky or unwise enough to attract Washington’s particular ire. The goal, as President George W. Bush put it, was “a generation of democratic peace,” and U.S. power could be used to speed up the timetable and get the globe there as quickly as possible.

Lastly, as my colleague Dani Rodrik argues convincingly, U.S. efforts to promote what he calls “hyperglobalization” led other states to alter their domestic arrangements in ways that would attract foreign capital, expand trade opportunities, and bring them into greater conformity with U.S. preferences. Whether in the form of the 1990s Washington Consensus or trade agreements like the stillborn Trans-Pacific Partnership, a world with fewer barriers to the movement of goods, people, or capital left national governments less able to chart their own course or insulate their populations from global market forces. As practiced, globalization meant states either had to put on what Tom Friedman dubbed the Golden Straightjacket” or fall by the wayside.

The past 15 years has not been kind to this ambitious vision of a world increasingly united by shared values and similar institutions. Efforts to prevent adversaries from acquiring WMD were only partly successful (and at considerable cost). Key states such as China did not liberalize as expected yet continued to prosper. The spread of democracy slowed, stalled, and then went into reverse, and the state of America’s own democracy become deeply troubling.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, a broad backlash against globalization was underway, whether in the form of Brexit, Trumpism, the growing segmentation of the internet, and the partial decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies. As I’ve written elsewhere, the pandemic has accelerated and deepened these tendencies, and raised the walls that the United States and others had been trying to lower before the arrival of Donald Trump.

The common taproot to these various trends is simple. It is the desire of leaders or peoples in different states to have a greater say in how they live, even if it means somewhat less material prosperity. The leaders of the Brexit campaign may have been supremely cynical in the many false claims they made to sell their scheme, but the supporters who voted to “take back control” were utterly sincere. They wanted to defend a particular way of life against changes they saw as disruptive and as threats to a cherished “way of life.” Much the same instinct lies behind efforts to curb immigration in many countries, or the every-state-for-itself impulse that is leading many nations to seek a COVID-19 vaccine for themselves first and others later.

What we are seeing, in short, is a reassertion of sovereign independence on the part of great and small powers alike. The Westphalian model of sovereignty has never been absolute or uncontested, but the idea that individual nations should be (mostly) free to chart their own course at home remains deeply embedded in the present world order. The territorial state remains the basic building block of world politics, and, with some exceptions, states today are doing more to reinforce that idea than to dilute it.

Although there are clearly areas where our future depends on states agreeing to limit their own freedom of action and conform to global norms and institutions, greater respect for sovereignty and national autonomy has some obvious benefits. First, states that interfere in foreign countries rarely understand what they are doing, and even well-intentioned efforts often fail due to ignorance, unintended consequences, or local resentment and resistance. A stronger norm of noninterference could make some protracted conflicts less likely or prolonged.

Second, trying to impose a single model on other countries inevitably raises threat perceptions and increases the risk of serious great-power conflict. The Westphalian idea of sovereignty was created in part to address this problem: Instead of continuing to fight over which version of Christianity would hold sway in different countries (one of the key drivers of the wars that preceded the Westphalian peace), European states agreed to let each ruler determine the religious orientation of their realm. 

Similarly, a powerful state’s efforts to shape the domestic arrangements of another country will inevitably be seen as threatening by the target: Just look at how Americans now react to the possibility of Russian interference in our political system.

Third, creating a more stable international economic order while preserving most of the benefits of trade and comparative advantage will require fashioning trade and economic arrangements that permit great national autonomy, even at the price of slightly lower global growth rates. Not only might this reduce the risk of global financial panics, but allowing individual states greater freedom to set the terms of their international economic engagement could also reduce the anti-free trade backlash that is currently fueling costly trade wars.

Finally, a world in which a single political and economic model prevails is probably impossible anyway, at least for the foreseeable future. To believe that one size could fit all ignores the enormous diversity that still exists in the world and the powerful tendency for ideas and institutions to morph and evolve as they travel from their point of origins.

Take pop music: Elvis Presley creates a new amalgam of rhythm and blues, gospel, and rockabilly (with a jolt of testosterone), his influence arrives in England and helps inspire the Beatles, who lead the “British invasion” of America in the 1960s, which then combines with Bob Dylan and the folk music movement to create the sound of groups like The Byrds. Or look at how Lin-Manuel Miranda combined hip-hop with his deep appreciation of traditional Broadway styles to create something new like Hamilton. These examples just scratch the surface of how music changes when different cultural streams begin to interact; I could just as easily have cited examples from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, or the Silk Road.

Because humans are boundlessly creative social beings who resist conformity, and because no social or political arrangements are ever perfect, dissidents will always arise and contending visions will emerge no matter how fiercely they are repressed. Institutions created in one place may travel to other locations, but they will mutate and evolve in the process and exhibit different forms wherever they take root.

And that’s why I’ll raise two cheers for the (partly) sovereign state. A world made up of contending nationalisms is hardly a utopia, with the ever-present possibility of conflict and war and many obstacles to mutual cooperation. But trying to fit a diverse humanity into a uniform box is doomed to fail—and no small source of trouble as well. Even if we hold certain values to be sacred and are tempted to act when other states violate them, continued respect for boundaries and sovereignty is also a norm that can keep simmering rivalries in check. Libya would not have multiple powers interfering in it today had Britain, France, and the United States not decided to meddle there back in 2011.

As A.J.P. Taylor once archly observed, leaders in the 19th century “fought ‘necessary’ wars and killed thousands; the idealists of the 20th century fought ‘just’ wars and killed millions.” 

Looking ahead, greater respect for national sovereignty and fewer efforts to force the whole world into one way of living will help emerging rivalries stay within bounds and help countries with very different values cooperate on those critical issues where their interests overlap.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University
.

[END]

********

Sunday, July 19

Chilling Out in the Dog Days of Summer


Then there's always Yoga 


But what do dogs and cats know


I'll be back the first day the temperature here in Washington, DC is below 90 degrees. Won't be any day this week, that's for sure.  Let's see: 98, 96, 96, ah a cold snap on Thursday; only 92! 93, 93, 96, 95 -- and on and on.       

I think we're nearing a record, if it hasn't already been reached, for most days in a row at 90 or above. 

Have fun, stay safe, stay cool. Hasta luego!  

********

In America, a flight from the cities


1968
"Nathan La Franeer" by Joni Mitchell

I hired a coach to take me
from confusion to the plane
And though we shared a common space
I know I'll never meet again
The driver with his eyebrows furrowed in the rear-view mirror
I read his name and it was plainly written 

Nathan La Franeer
I asked him would he hurry
But we crawled the canyons slowly
Thru the buyers and the sellers
Thru the burglar bells and the wishing wells
With gangs and girly shows
The ghostly garden grows

The cars and buses bustled thru the bedlam of the day
I looked thru window-glass at streets
and Nathan grumbled at the grey
I saw an aging cripple selling Superman balloons
The city grated thru chrome-plate
The clock struck slowly half-past-noon
Thru the tunnel tiled and turning
Into daylight once again I am escaping
Once again goodbye
To symphonies and dirty trees
With parks and plastic clothes
The ghostly garden grows

He asked me for a dollar more
He cursed me to my face
He hated everyone who paid to ride
And share his common space
I picked my bags up from the curb
And stumbled to the door
Another man reached out his hand
Another hand reached out for more
And I filled it full of silver
And I left the fingers counting
And the sky goes on forever
Without meter maids and peace parades
You feed it all your woes
The ghostly garden grows


2020
Americans leave large cities for suburban areas and rural towns
A combination of the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social unrest is prompting waves of Americans to move from large cities and permanently relocate to more sparsely populated areas. The trend has been accelerated by technology and shifting attitudes that make it easier than ever to work remotely. Residents of all ages and incomes are moving in record numbers to suburban areas and small towns.
A perfect storm of factors makes the decision to leave major cities like New York very obvious. The dense nature of urban living and the lack of proper local government planning led to the coronavirus spreading five times faster in New York than the rest of the country. The city that never sleeps now resembles a ghost town in many areas after thousands of its wealthy and middle-class residents fled early in the pandemic.
[...]
The flight began much earlier than the pandemic; Covid only accelerated it. A half century ago Canadian Joni Mitchell's haunting song expressed the feelings of urbanites who felt trapped in a way of life they had begun to see as dehumanizing, alienating.  But it was Australia's Gregory Copley who echoed Plato to explain the worst aspect of life in the big cities. From a review of his 2012 book, UnCivilization:
... Copley remarks that urbanization entails distortions in epistemology and ethics. The apocalypse of the megalopolis, its apparent (but false) independence, its triumphant concentration of power and wealth, provokes the urbanite into “disregard… of respect for hierarchy,” which, while it “has not yet reached the status of anomie,” has nevertheless become “that which Plato feared most about democracy,” namely “ochlocracy (mob rule), and the demands for gratification which are the hallmark of all mobs.”
Why yes. The megacity, which should be the crowning glory of democracy, is actually the agent of its doom. I doubt the majority of Americans now fleeing cities have thought about the matter as deeply as Copley -- or Plato, for that matter. But they know, as Joni knew a lifetime ago, they are fleeing something that is terribly wrong for the life of the individual. 

Today, large swaths of residential buildings in New York City stand empty -- not because they're abandoned but because they've been bought or rented by wealthy foreigners, who use the domiciles as boltholes in case they have to flee their country -- and as safe deposit boxes to house their valuables. It's the same in London, England.  

But you can't expect a viable democratic political climate to flourish in a ghost city.

*********

Monday, July 13

Covid Era: U.S. Food companies scramble to ramp up depleted inventories

"Flour has remained particularly hard to come by, as a surge in home baking caught the sleepy industry off guard. Sales of baking ingredients had been sluggish for years, making it difficult to ramp up to meet the sudden demand."

"Soup is particularly hard to source ... 'There’s no plethora of manufacturers available.' "

****
Half the story of how Covid has affected the food supply in the USA was already told in a Wall Street Journal report published March 23, headlined, Grocers Stopped Stockpiling Food. Then Came Coronavirus. 

But the other half is the companies that supply grocers.  Food processing companies, even the big boys, were also blindsided. So by today, “We are running flat out,”Conagra’s Chief Executive told the Wall Street Journal.  Across the board, food makers are doing everything they can think of to build up wiped-out inventories. 

So while there is plenty of food in its raw form in the United States, getting it processed and distributed to the grocery shelves is the challenge in the Covid Era, which could last much longer than the pandemic.
It's too soon to estimate how many Americans will keep up the food shopping/consumption habits they formed during the pandemic, once the lockdowns finally end. But I've seen signs that many Americans won't return to the pre-Covid Era, at least not at the same level. They learned during the lockdowns they could save a lot of money buying in bulk and doing their own cooking and baking. This trend, if it continues, will cause big changes in food industries of all types.  

If the pandemic continues for two years, as some observers have estimated, will this eventually create true food shortages at the level of the global supply chain? The pandemic has always been very uneven in when it strikes at countries, and there have been differing rates of recovery across societies. This has given foodstuff importers the ability to switch their suppliers from one country to another, and so the global food supply chain hasn't collapsed because of Covid.   
One thing can said with a fair amount of certainty at this point. The possibility that a pandemic can cause widespread food shortages has scared the tar out of all sensible governments around the world, not to mention the people who dominate agribusiness. Vast changes in both domestic and international food supply chains can and most probably will evolve from the scare. How, exactly, the changes will shake out, by country, is something to watch for.

Covid has awakened many sleeping companies, not just the American flour makers, as the following report underscores:                  
Food makers work to meet rising demand after initial lockdowns ate through inventories
By Annie Gasparro and Jaewon Kang 
Photographs by Katie Currid for The Wall Street Journal
July 12, 2020 - 5:30 am ET
The Wall Street Journal

Grocers are having trouble staying stocked with goods from flour to soups as climbing coronavirus case numbers and continued lockdowns pressure production and bolster customer demand.

Manufacturers including General Mills Inc., Campbell Soup Co. and Conagra Brands Inc. say they are pumping out food as fast as they can, but can’t replenish inventories. Popular items such as flour, canned soup, pasta and rice remain in short supply.

As of July 5, 10% of packaged foods, beverages and household goods were out of stock, up from 5% to 7% before the pandemic, according to market-research firm IRI.


Restocked
Many key items have returned to supermarket shelves since the height of the lockdown

[GRAPHIC: Percentage of items out of stock at U.S. supermarkets]

“We are running flat out,” said Conagra’s Chief Executive Sean Connolly. He said Conagra won’t be able to build up inventory of certain brands, such as Chef Boyardee and Healthy Choice, unless demand slows or it further increases manufacturing capacity.

Food makers and grocers expect prolonged shelter-in-place orders and restrictions on restaurants, as well as the battered economy, to result in a longer stretch of eating at home. Added safety measures at plants are slowing operations, too. There is enough food in the U.S. to keep people fed, executives say, but every product might not be available everywhere while inventories are strained.

Many retailers in states where cases are surging, including Texas-based H-E-B LP, are reinstating rationing on high-demand items including paper products. They say their distributors are still capping the amount of fast-selling products that can be ordered at one time.

Shelf Stable Stock levels at supermarkets are approaching the industry’s historical average

[GRAPHIC: Percentage of U.S. supermarket items listed as out of stock]

Mark Griffin, president of Nebraska-based B&R Stores Inc., said the chain would be in worse shape if cases rise again in the Midwest because it lacks the inventory it had in March. B&R has been stockpiling bottled water and other products at its warehouses, he said. The grocer has also tried to secure new suppliers for canned products, baking items and ramen noodles. So far, that has only yielded a truckload here and there, Mr. Griffin said.

Soup is particularly hard to source, he said: “There’s no plethora of manufacturers available.”

Campbell’s CEO Mark Clouse said the company ran through reserves of its namesake soup and snacks such as Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers during the initial rush of orders in the spring. That demand was a shock to a supply chain that had been largely recalibrated to handle flat or falling demand over the past decade, he said: “We’re racing to try to rebuild some inventory.”

General Mills, which owns Gold Medal flour and Betty Crocker dessert mixes, said it hasn’t built up normal levels of inventory of baking ingredients or its Progresso soup.

McCormick & Co. is also struggling to rebuild inventory of its spices and other items. It is adding the equivalent of another U.S. factory by using more third-party manufacturers and increasing production at its own plants.

Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize NV, owner of the Giant and Food Lion supermarket chains, said it is trying to build up inventory by finding new suppliers and adding shifts at distribution centers. The company found a new toilet paper supplier that primarily sold to college bookstores before the pandemic, said Andre Shaw, a senior vice president of supply chain at Ahold’s services business. Ahold Delhaize also found new pasta suppliers in Italy.

Wisconsin-based grocer Festival Foods is receiving about 80% of the goods it orders and is removing some products from shelves to make room for roughly double the toilet paper it normally stocks, said Chief Executive Mark Skogen.

Availability for some products has improved, Mr. Skogen said, including meat, which ran short this spring when some meatpacking plants temporarily closed after they became hot spots for coronavirus transmission.

Flour has remained particularly hard to come by, as a surge in home baking caught the sleepy industry off guard. Sales of baking ingredients had been sluggish for years, making it difficult to ramp up to meet the sudden demand.

Flour Power
Mills can't keep up with the rise in baking.

[GRAPHIC: Change in U.S. flour sales from a year earlier]

In mid-March, U.S. flour sales soared 233% from a year earlier, according to market-research firm Nielsen and remained 25% higher in June than the prior year.

“The orders are still there even though we are producing double to triple the normal volume,” said Bill Tine, head of marketing at King Arthur Flour Co.

Mills that never caught up with that demand are now trying to build surpluses to prepare for the holiday baking season and the potential for higher orders if the rise in Covid-19 cases causes more areas to slow reopening plans and weigh a return to shelter-in-place status.

King Arthur has added a fulfillment center in Kansas and booked more time on manufacturing lines at the mills that make its flour.

“There is enough wheat. There are a lot of mills. The packaging lines at the mills are the limiting factor,” Mr. Tine said.

Home bakers such as Beth Boyington, an athletic trainer near Boston, have had difficulty securing flour. Ms. Boyington splurged on a 25-pound bag of her favorite King Arthur flour when she finally found it.

“Stores seem to continue to be low on specific brands and types of flour, which is annoying,” she said. “Baking is my stress relief.”

Farmer Direct Foods Inc., a Kansas mill and supplier for King Arthur, is filling about 35 trucks a month with flour, up from 18 typically.

The mill has run out of packaging at times, said CEO Bob Morando, and equipment has broken down because he added a shift and hasn’t had time to do preventive maintenance.

“We’re going to run like crazy from now to Christmas,” he said.

[END REPORT]

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