Trump on Taxation

President Trump has announced the intention to make sweeping tax reform, and a significant tax reduction for companies, at present reducing from 35% to 16%. His argument is that by doing this, he will encourage multinational companies to stop hoarding money in offshore tax shelters and bring it back to invest in the US. So what to make of this? The tax reform is an extremely good idea. The simpler and more transparent the tax law is, the less time everybody wastes on minimizing tax and the more they devote to actually earning money. Everybody accepts tax reduction is good for them, but the problem then is, does the government earn enough money to pay for what it wants done? That is a detail that has to be left because it depends on what is available to tax, and how much the government wants to spend.

Company tax is an odd animal because one argument is that you collect more or less the same tax irrespective of the rate. It goes like this. A company earns money, but those earnings are spent in four basic ways: investing in new plant; buying goods/services from other companies; paying staff; paying dividends. Looking at these in inverse order, money transferred to dividends becomes personal income, and that is taxed, so what we are avoiding is double tax. Many countries avoid such double taxation by giving company tax credits with the dividends, and while I am unaware of US tax policy on this, as a general rule as long as there is no double taxation, lowering the company tax rate has no adverse effect on dividends because those on the low tax rates in general cannot afford the stock. The important thing is that unlike people, companies do not spend on themselves, leaving aside “perks” such as company jets. My view is such “luxury expense” for senior staff should be taxed as a personal benefit to them.

Paying staff means the staff pay tax on their earnings. Now, if the staff are low paid, lowering company tax does reduce the tax collected, because most staff do not pay the 35% rate, although some may be on a higher rate. Similarly, buying goods and services from other companies simply transfers the taxable profits, although if the goods are imported, the profits go elsewhere. The question here is, then, will the US increase local production? The reason many multinationals manufacture offshore is that wages there are seriously lower, and they do not have to pay benefits and compliance is less strict. There is rationality in thinking that such goods manufactured offshore should be taxed as if the company met home compliance and had paid home benefits and wages because that levels the playing field from the “own country” point of view, but of course it hurts developing countries.

The virtuous part, according to Trump, is that by lowering company tax, multinationals will bring back more of the offshore funds accreted, and all companies will have more money to invest and create new jobs, or pay dividends. The next question is, is this valid reasoning? I am not so sure. The problem with investing to create new jobs is you have to have something to invest in. That is not so easy to find. There is no real evidence that company tax is inhibiting investment because there is no real evidence that, leaving aside small individual companies in trouble, there is a widespread shortage of money. What I see is more a general shortage of ideas. Thus we see the new product is another mobile phone that is only a little bit different from the last one. Ask yourself this: what would you really want that is not currently available if you had the money to buy it?

What that suggests is the economic slowdown is not caused by higher corporate tax, but more through inequality. Those with money already have most of what they want, and those without money cannot afford much of what is there. If we really want to promote growth, then I am afraid the poorer have to have more purchasing power, because they are the only ones at the moment who could power acceleration in sales. Of course the rich will keep on buying, but only at their current rate, and that will not power the growth President Trump wants. So my question is, will President Trump do anything to reduce inequality?

Post Election Angst

My last post focused on the allegations that Russian hackers influenced the US Presidential election. Even before I posted that, there were further allegations that Donald Trump had behaved badly in Moscow in 2012, and he was now susceptible to blackmail. So, what do we make of that?

One of the main allegations was that Trump had taken the same room in a hotel that President Obama had used previously, and he did this to defile it by bringing in prostitutes, and thus indirectly he defiled Obama. First, the allegation that Trump used the same room as Obama. I believe that, but not for any sinister reason. President Obama would probably warrant the best room in the hotel. Why shouldn’t Trump want the best room in the hotel? It is not as if he is short of cash. Further, there may well be only one really luxurious room because the demand for rooms at that price is probably low. So, quite simply, I am happy to accept the allegation that Trump used the same room, and I say, so what?

Then there is the issue that Trump brought in prostitutes. I suppose one cannot exactly rule it out, but really, it sounds ridiculous. I rather fancy that if he wanted a woman, there would be a number available, but people who go to Russia know that surveillance is rather common, and if you behave badly, there may well be consequences. Russian law, particularly to foreigners, is not quite the same as everywhere else. I recall advice given to me when I was young and I was driving in Poland, when it was behind the Iron Curtain: if you have an accident, it is your fault because you are a foreigner. Whether that was true I don’t know, but I certainly drove with more care through cities. (The countryside was different, as the chances of having a collision were negligible because the roads were basically empty but for a few trucks, and in one afternoon, a military Division heading for the Czechoslovak invasion.) I have also been to Moscow when it was part of the USSR, and the warnings from my embassy were clear: you will be watched. So if Trump really wanted to have business dealings with Russia, surely he would follow basic common sense? The basic evidence we have is that Trump really values a deal and would not sacrifice one for an hour of stupidity.

Which gets to my real issue. These allegations were made by one person who was paid to find dirt, and he has since disappeared. There is no supporting evidence whatsoever, and the author of the report cannot be made to answer or explain. In my book, the more important the allegation, the more important it is to have strong supporting evidence. What we need are facts, and the only fact we have is that one person who was paid to find dirt has reported finding dirt and has disappeared without leaving any evidence whatsoever of such dirt.

The next question is, suppose it were true? This requires someone to have recorded what happened in 2012. Why would he do that? To blackmail a businessman is a possibility, but surely whoever had the evidence would use it. Again, Trump is rich, and he might well have paid to have something go way. All the evidence is there was no such blackmail. To keep such evidence in the bottom draw in order to blackmail the future President of the United States verges on the bizarre. If they were so sure he would be President back in 2012, the more obvious move would be to take out some long-term bets. The odds back then should have been very high. Sorry, but I think the most likely story is our trusty dirt-digger went to Moscow and announced he was looking for dirt. For a suitable envelope full of euros, dollars, pounds, whatever, I am sure someone would supply whatever was desired, except, of course, evidence to back it up.

So what should happen next? I would like to think that the opponents to Trump and his policies should focus on the policies. So far, what he has done was announced in his campaign, for example he has cancelled Obamacare and the TPP. You may or may not agree with that, but they were announced policies and Trump won the election. In a representative Republic form of government, this is what is supposed to happen, the losers have to accept it and those who did not vote deserve what they get. Wild accusations against Trump are just that, and should stop. They will achieve nothing, except possibly give Trump a siege mentality, in which case he will stop listening to the thing that might have improved the effects of future action on is part. Either put up evidence or shut up.

One final and personal comment. I put a very simple version of that argument on a social medium site and some of the responses I got were quite vituperative. I was accused of supporting a Hitler, and being all sorts of things we need not state here. For me, this shows up something ugly coming into the political scene. People are so used to “fake news”, aka lies, that they think anything you state stands for your views on some side of an argument. They think everyone makes up their “news” to support their view. Just to be clear, you cannot read any political view into the above. My argument is simple: if you want to accuse someone of something publicly, put up the evidence. If you haven’t got any, shut up!

Russia hacks the Democrats??

One other piece of news that filled up the holiday period was that allegations sprang up everywhere stating the Russians hacked the Democrats and led to a change in the election result. My attitude is when something as serious as this arises, there needs to be evidence to support it. That evidence needs to be in sufficient detail to be plausible. “Fred assures me that there was,” is not evidence.

There are really two separate issues here. The first is, did the Russians hack the Democrats? A sub-question is, if yes, was it a Russian government agency, or just some private Russians? To answer the main question, we need to see evidence of when who was hacked, from where? The US Government might be a bit cagey about this, because if it announces when who was hacked from where, it starts to tell others what its capabilities are, and it may not want to do that, but if it does not, then it should have kept quiet in the first place. In WW II the British Government gave no warning to the people of Coventry that a raid was coming because they did not want to let the Germans know their enigma code was broken. That was a lot more serious than advertising that they tracked a hack on the Democratic National Congress. However, who was hacked, and with what security, is an important question because we know that Hillary Clinton had about 600,000 emails copied to the Weiner server. That should be more easily hacked, and any number of people, including but not restricted to, Russians, could have done it. For that matter, a number of industrious Republicans could have hacked it. To make this allegation stand, the details of the hack must be known.

There is one document on the web that claims to give the US government position (http://documents.latimes.com/read-us-…) Now intelligence gathering is difficult, but forming an opinion of what happened is just that; it is not evidence. Quoting: “Some analytic judgments are based directly on collected information others rest on previous judgments.” See the problem? The next problem arises when we consider the sources of the information. Quoting: “Many of the key judgments in this assessment rely on a body of reporting from multiple sources that are consistent with our understanding of Russian behavior.” In short, sources for many of the judgments came from “the behavior of Kremlin-loyal political figures, state media, and pro-Kremlin social media actors”. To me, the social media are not exactly reliable sources of facts. You might recall that the US Intelligence community, in public statements anyway, were sufficiently convinced that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that they unleashed a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. For me, the problem is the reputation for reliability was shot then.

Interestingly, while the CIA and the FBI had “high confidence” in these assessments, the NSA had only “moderate confidence”. The NSA should be the expert in this field. The FBI asserted it had “high confidence” that Russia tried to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but then, a week out from the election, FBI Director Comey effectively torpedoed her campaign. Prior to Comey’s comments, Clinton had a 10% lead in the polls I saw, and in the next few days, the lead vanished. If Comey had such high confidence that Russia trying to destabilize Clinton’s campaign, and it concerned him, why did he do that? My final comment on that document – there are about three pages describing what could have happened, including allegations that a Romanian hacker was really the GRU, and the far more pages criticizing the balance of RT (Russian television). Yep, RT probably is biased, but is it as bad as Fox News? And just because RT may be biased, what has that got to do with hacking? And why cannot a Romanian hacker be just that?

Am I prepared to believe Russia hacked the Dems? Yep. I have little doubt the Russian Security Service is busy hacking whatever it can. As an aside, the US does this too. Recall Angela Merkel caught them out hacking her computer, and Germany is an ally. If the US does this to its allies, why would Russia be exempt, and if Russia found out the US was spying on it, why would it not do the same? Even if it did not know about US spying, that would not stop it from spying. So to summarize, I am happy to accept that Russia was prepared to spy on the Dems, but I would expect they would stay quiet about it. Other individual hackers, including Russians may not have been so quiet. So, for evidence we first need to know what exactly was hacked, and exactly who was it that did the hacking? Details. We need details.

The second allegation is more serious. This is that as a consequence of the hack, the Russian government altered the outcome of the election. This requires even more detailed evidence. What we have so far is the allegation that the Russians provided details that would be embarrassing to the Dems to Wikileaks. For that to alter the election, either the contents then became highly public, or alternatively the voters in the swing states are avid readers of Wikileaks. Personally, I feel the latter is ridiculous. I suspect the average rustbelt voter really has little or no interest in Wikileaks.

But let’s suppose that could be wrong. This implies there was something in these Wikileaks that was so sensational that it swung the election. What was it? Why haven’t I heard of it? But let us suppose I have been asleep at the wheel. It would not hurt to publish this series of embarrassments, after all the allegation is asserting that it is in the public domain. Then there is the question of who provided this information to Wikileaks. It is alleged that it was the Russian government, but Julian Assange denies that, and he should know. Now it is true that Assange could be lying, but if so we need evidence that is convincing. The problem is, this all looks more like the Democrats, and Democrat-appointed officials, having a general whinge at their loss.

Also interesting is that there have been no protests against the FBI Director Comey, whose allegation a week before the election that Clinton was under investigation almost certainly would lose her votes. There is firm evidence this occurred, but nobody seems to be particularly interested in it. The question is, why not?

Is there a solution to the Palestinian question?

Back from a quiet time, and look at what happened? The first was that at the end of 2016, New Zealand co-sponsored a UN resolution “demanding” that Israel stop building settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank. This generated a surprising amount of heat, if not much light. For those who have read my fiction, I have advocated logic as a way of analyzing problems, and it seems to me this question is suitable for such an approach, not that it is likely to succeed.

We start by acknowledging where we are. Israel is a Jewish state, and it occupies by military force the West Bank, which was largely populated by Palestinians, many of whom were forced out of the rest of Israel. The two sides have been very antagonistic towards each other, and the objective is to try to find a solution where both can live in peace. The question is, what are the conditions that might lead to that outcome? In my opinion, the options are:

  1. Move the Jews out of the area. However, the Jews have such an invested infrastructure this option is not a starter.
  2. Move the Palestinians somewhere else. The problem is, where? People say Jordan, but Jordan is already overrun by Syrian refugees, and in any case, why does someone else have to pay the price? While most of the Jews came recently, the Palestinians have been there for a very long time. Whoever advocates this solution can do their own bit, by accepting a Palestinian family, providing them a home and jobs, and a guaranteed income until they can fend for themselves. In short, put your money where your mouth is. I bet there will not be sufficient takers to make a difference.
  3. Incorporate the Palestinians into Israel, with full citizenship, and enough money to make a start to life. That is a non-starter because Israel is a Jewish state, and a Muslim majority would be non-acceptable.
  4. Have a two state solution.

In my opinion, only (4) has any hope, but here the problem is the West Bank is not exactly large, and it is covered with a pox of Israeli settlements. Some people say, they are only 3% of the area. Before addressing that, we must ask, are the settlements legal?

When the first settlements were being considered, the legal counsel to the Israeli Foreign Ministry was asked whether international law permitted civilian settlement in the occupied territories. The reply: that would contravene the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements are illegal because international law forbids an occupying power from moving part of its population to occupied territory. The territory is under military occupation, and it is for that reason the Arabs who live there do not have to be integrated into Israel.

Here is the legal dilemma from the Israeli point of view. Granting citizenship to the Palestinians would mean either Israel ceased to be a proper representative republic, or it would cease to be a Jewish state. Not granting such citizenship meant they were under military occupation, and international law should apply.

In this context, it seems that everybody who keeps asserting Russia violates international law and should be punished are strangely quiet on Israel. Instead we have the rather bizarre situation where the people of the West Bank fall into two subsets: settlers enjoy the full rights of Israeli citizens, while the Palestinians are still under military occupation and have essentially no rights. The question then is, how long will this go on? Obviously, the hard right of Israeli politics seems to think, forever. Whatever else they have, compassion for the Palestinians is not one of them.

Returning to the 3% problem, the area of the settlements is not the issue. The settlements are all connected to Israel proper by roads controlled by Israel that slice up the West bank. The settlements all demand water, sewage, electricity, and other services. All of these services are controlled by Israel, and are unavailable to the Palestinians, and worse than that, Israel would not let the Palestinians cross their fixed infrastructure, because they would expect it to be damaged.

If there is to be a two-state solution, the Palestinians have to go some way. They have to accept the right of Israel to exist, not because it is right but because there is no alternative. Incidents such as the recent one where a Palestinian drove a truck through some Israeli soldiers have to stop. First it is not right to kill people, and particularly those who are not directly responsible for your problems, and second it is counterproductive, because it just firms up Israeli opinion about them. The Palestinians have been severely wronged, and everybody should acknowledge that, but the Palestinians cannot progress by living in a morass of moaning about wrongs. That does not mean that others should not do something to help, though. When the United Nations voted to form Israel, they gave away that which they did not own. In the Naqba, about 700,000 Palestinians were displaced, and their property taken over by Israel. Of course, following the UN resolution, the Israelis could say they had no choice. Maybe, but if that was what the UN wanted, they should have purchased the Palestinian properties and given them to the Israelis. The fact of the matter is that Israel was founded on promises (Lloyd George offered the concept to Jews to help raise money for the war effort, which probably did not help the attitude of a certain Austrian corporal.), terrorism (it is the one shining example that proves that sometimes terrorism does work) and military force. One of the great ironies is that the Jews sent to Palestine in the late 1930s from Germany, organized by a certain Reinhardt Heydrich, set about terrorist activities against the British during WW II, while Heydrich was busy organizing the mass murder of Jews in Europe. The fact that the Palestinians and other “Arab” countries tried military means to right the wrongs done to the Palestinians is also irrelevant, although through their lack of effectiveness it has obviously made the problem worse.

But the past is irrelevant. We are here. If we accept that the two-state solution is the only possibility for civilized peace, then both sides must make serious concessions, and more to the point, the rest of the world that voted to create this problem has to come to the party with serious investment to make Palestine at least a plausible state. If you vote to give away that which you do not own, then you should be prepared to pay for it, to give the Palestinians some hope. The alternative is that the Palestinians live in perpetual military occupation, with no rights, and subjugated by a military force that does not like them one bit.

The recent example of a soldier who saw a Palestinian lying on the ground, and because he believed that Palestinian had injured an Israeli, he shot him. The Palestinian was subjugated, and would have been taken away for trial, but this soldier simply executed him. If you see interviews of Israelis, a large number (including some right wing rabbis I saw interviewed) seem to think the soldier was right. Sorry, but that is not civilized, it is not legal, and it most certainly is not helpful.

So if neither side is interested in reaching a solution, how does this end? I confess I have no idea, except I cannot see it ending well

Voting for Aleppo

With the US elections coming up, and enduring chaos in the Middle East, we have to ask, which is the best candidate to sort that out? I am not exactly enthralled by either of them. First, the scenario. As is well known, the US has supported some “moderate” rebels who have the aim of ousting Assad in Syria, and is supporting the retaking of Mosul, apparently with air power. Russia is supporting Assad in Syria. Turkey wants to deal to ISIS in Mosul. This should have a straight-forward ending?

First, look at religion. Assad has support from Shia, including Hezbollah and Iran. The rebels include some moderates, but the important ones are associated with al Qaeda. So here, Russia is supporting Shia; the US is trying to protect Sunni and terrorists. Assad himself operated a secular government, as did Saddam, so an alien observer would presumably conclude that the US is against secular governments, which makes little sense. In Iraq, the US is supporting the Shia government to take out the fanatical ISIS, and will use air power to bomb the terrorists in Mosul. Or at least, that is a somewhat oversimplified account of what might happen. So, what do the candidates say?

Trump seemingly has not clearly defined policy here. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Leaving the place to sort itself out is a legitimate policy, and may be as good as any. The problem, though, is ISIS and al Qaeda. Left to their own devices, they are hardly likely to be beneficial. A second problem is that it appears Trump has not thought about this at all.

Clinton, however, is in my mind just outright dangerous. She has announced she will have a no-fly zone over Aleppo. That raises many questions. First, why? Does she want to nourish al Qaeda, who, as an aside, have killed far more innocent Western citizens than ISIS by a long shot? The nominal reason is to protect innocent civilians, but there are more in Mosul, and the US intends to bomb that, and, of course, there was “shock and awe”, which led to a very large number of dead Iraqis.

However, there is a much worse possible outcome than killing some innocent civilians, which is most certainly bad, but my worry is much worse. What does she do if the Russian air force continues bombing? Does she order the shooting down of Russian warplanes, which happen to be over the territory of, and at the invitation of, a sovereign government. If so, what is the justification? Because we can? That is a rather slippery slope. The US is actually one of the most warlike countries on the planet, and has been at war most of the time since 1890. It has been able to do this because the war is always “elsewhere”, and they cannot do any damage to the US. The result of this is that much of the population is unaffected by such wars. That does not give the US the right to shoot anyone they feel like, though. Russia has two choices: bow down before America, or ignore the threat.

If Russia bows down, then that establishes a precedent. Everybody expects that to happen again, and that encourages (from the Russian eyes) America to do more or less what it likes. It can order Russia out of the Crimea. Now what? Bow down again? Where does it stop?

If the Russians keep bombing, and the US shoots down at least one Russian warplane, now what? Russia can either bow down, or fight back. We don’t know the Russian capability, but we do know they have some ability, so unlike other recent opposition, Russia might shoot down an American plane, or attack an American base nearby. If the American aircraft came off a carrier, what happens if the Russians sink the carrier? The Russians have a carrier somewhere nearby, so the US sinks it. Now what?

Suppose the aircraft came from Turkey. Can Russia accept a border wherein America can come and shoot them down at will with no downside? It would be strange if they did. But if Russia attacks the base, that is an attack on a NATO country, which America could use to activate the NATO alliance. At this point we note that Russia could have done something more constructive earlier. When Clinton announces the no-fly zone, Russia should announce that any attack on Russia as a consequence of Clinton’s announcement from a NATO country will be taken as a declaration of war from that country on Russia. If the country is an aggressor, that should not trigger the NATO commitment. At the very least, some more nervous countries might decide that getting out of NATO is more desirable. Maybe not, but Russia should offer the option.

Now, suppose some missiles are launched from the Baltic states, and assume they are conventionally tipped. Now what? The least we can expect is that Russia sends all its motor rifle divisions westwards. Now what? Contrary to what some people think, my guess is that NATO would offer only moderate resistance, and indeed some of the countries would pull out of NATO on the grounds that it was not their fault that Clinton started all this. It is one thing to defend against an attack on one of their allies, but something else to get their ally out of a mess of its own making. Further, unless Russia makes good progress and has the ability to walk away from this with its head held high, there is little room for later negotiation.

It is hard to see such a war remaining conventional. The US simply does not have a big enough army to conquer Russia, which is a very big place, and it is far from clear that American soldiers want to fight multi-year wars in some of the world’s worst climate. One of the two will sooner or later resort to the nuclear option and a lot of us will be turned to ash.

Maybe there are other futures following such an edict. The Russians may surrender and comply with Clinton. After a brief skirmish, both parties might see sense, but do we want to bank on that? World War I was started almost accidentally. Do we want to start WW III?

Air strikes over Syria

This was the week of air strikes that demonstrated at best, general incompetence, and at worst, something more sinister. Deir al-Zour is, or was, the seventh largest city in Syria and has an unfortunate history due to its being on the Euphrates river and being on an important trade route. Consequently it has been a target for various invaders until the Mongols simply wiped it out and thus removed the misery. However, its location led it to rise again. Now it is one of the very few centres in Eastern Syria still held by the government, although ISIS has been attacking it and by surrounding it, has meant that resupply is only possible by air. This makes the local airfield important. Overlooking, from a distance, is the al-Thardeh mountains, although I might more likely call them hills.

Now, obviously these hills are strategically important, and ISIS has been trying to capture them from the Syrian army for some time. So what does the US do? It sends in warplanes from Iraq and bombs the Syrian positions, thus allowing ISIS to capture some key strategic positions. Shortly later, a Syrian warplane tried to bomb ISIS troops, and was seemingly shot down by a US made surface to air missile operated by ISIS soldiers. What do you make of that?

The Russians argue that the US is helping ISIS. While strictly speaking this is true, I really don’t believe it is intentional. The problem, of course, is if you are bombed, it makes little difference to those on the ground whether the bombing was intentional. If you are dead, you are dead. The Russians also argue that the US refuses to coordinate air attacks with the Russians, and that seems to be not in dispute. The US spokesperson countered by accusing the Russians of point scoring, which it undoubtedly was, but that is irrelevant because the point was valid. I see a real problem here. Both claim they are trying to bomb ISIS, but the US seems to have a pathological hatred against Assad. The Russians do not have this problem so the Russians are far more likely to be aware of the Syrian army deployments, and of current conditions. To make matters worse, this is the second time this year that the US warplanes have attacked the Syrian army in this district. Either these are not mistakes, or the USAF is not learning from its mistakes.

The US says it did not knowingly strike the Syrian military, and it confused them with ISIS fighters. For me, there are several difficulties with this statement. The first is the obvious one that it should be prepared to talk to the Russians and accept intelligence. If you really do not want to kill members of the Syrian military, should you not take the trouble to find out where they are? What also bothers me is a parallel with the old hunting advice: do not shoot until you have positively identified your target. That simply did not happen. Given the strategic nature of these hills, and given that the US knows that ISIS has a number of the surface to air missiles it has given so-called moderate rebels, then it knows that either the hills must be kept in Syrian hands, or the city will have trouble with resupply and it will probably fall to ISIS.

So, what is the problem? In my view, a mixture of arrogance and incompetence. The question then is, do we accept that as an excuse? The US Air Force appears to be so technically superior to anything else around that might fight it that it can effectively do what it likes. Does that not give greater responsibility to use that power responsibly?

The second air strike was against a UN relief convoy heading to Aleppo. The US has accused the Russians of being responsible. I do not believe a Russian plane did that, but the US then counters by saying Russia is responsible for the Syrians because it is supporting them. Assad denies doing it, but he would. He may well be right. It is possible that some Syrian pilot decided to do this on his own volition, and it is unlikely Assad could find out. It is also unlikely he would try very hard.

Why would a Syrian do it? Because the UN is sending food and medical supplies to the rebels who are busy shooting at the Syrian Army. I suspect the average Syrian soldier considers such supplies will largely go to the rebels, which relieves that major problem for them, other than ammunition. This is the problem for cease-fires; they solve nothing, as both sides try to strengthen their positions, and when one side cannot do much more, it is in their interest to restart as quickly as possible. The only time a cease-fire can achieve anything is if there are grounds by which the two sides can agree to end the fighting. That requires a resolution to the issue that caused it to start. The Western politicians all want this resolved, but they also want Assad to go, and they have no idea what to replace him with, having seemingly learned nothing from Iraq. Assad would have to be mad to step down now because all and sundry would want to try him for war crimes, and such trials have only one outcome: what the victor wants. So, with no means of resolving this conflict, the ceasefire is actually counterproductive to the innocent civilians, because it merely extends the misery as the rebels get stronger. (The fact that Assad is guilty is irrelevant; he has to have some reason to step down.)

If a politician rambles on about how the various parties should end this fighting, then they should specifically state how it could be resolved, and what will happen next. Otherwise, all they are doing is point scoring, and who cares?

Russian athletes and the Rio Olympics

The Olympic Games in Rio are approaching, and despite a number of protests, some Russians may be present. The International Olympic Committee has been heavily criticized for not issuing a blanket ban on Russian athletes because of widespread doping there. Let me say at once that I cannot condone doping, but there is also a question of natural justice. Basically, the logic says:

Some Russian athletes doped

Doped athletes should be banned from competing.

So, what is the logic conclusion? Mine is, some athletes, and specifically the ones who doped, should be banned, and that includes athletes from any country who have doped. As it happens, the initial call for a total banning of Russian sportspeople has been rejected, instead relying on a dubious procedure in which various sports federations will be required to produce a list of Russian athletes they believe to be clean, which will be checked by an arbitrator from the IOC and a court of arbitration. Any Russian with a doping conviction will automatically be banned, including Stepanova, who has finished her punishment for previous doping. Fair? Then why will there be many athletes in Rio who have previously doped but have completed their punishment. We have uneven rules here.

At one point, the Russian athletes were given an “out”. All they had to do was to prove they had been clean through a sequence of tests in non-Russian laboratories that were run during the last few months. That is impossible to comply with, because nobody can go back in the past and do what has to be done. So why put in such a silly rule? My guess is quite simply there are a number of Russian athletes who have been residing or training in the US, and to include them in the ban would leave whoever issued the ban open to a serious law suit in US courts, and my guess is that there would be a number of major law firms just queuing up to take on the contingency case. That sort of ban could easily cost tens of millions of dollars at a minimum. So the rule was not there to be helpful; it was there to cover backsides. Whatever you think about that, the IOC, by passing the buck down to various sports organizations, has opened those up to the same lawsuits.

There is a further interesting thing about the Russian doping allegation: the criticism is the dopees (if that is a word) escaped notice because the second samples got “lost”. Sure, that stinks, but what is of interest here is that nobody has questioned the laboratories’ analyses (as far as I know). What that means is that Russian athletes that have always had clean first analyses should be in the clear. This is of relevance because the IOC has argued that it must make sure all athletes play on a level playing field. Well, the level playing field means that everyone else should have to go through the same vetting process. That is not happening.

Exactly what went on in Russia is unclear. The fact that a Canadian Professor produced a report, commissioned by an antidoping agency, which accused Russia of state sponsored doping does not mean that the report is accurate. The losing of second samples is indicative of something going wrong, but that does not mean the state ordered it, nor is it obvious that the state had the power to do so. Serious corruption would suffice. The problem is evidence, and what is remarkable about this report is that the details do not seem to have made a significant public appearance. We are told what it concluded, but that does not make it so. I seem to recall high level government “reports” that Saddam Hussein had huge numbers of weapons of mass destruction, and could attack London with a fifteen-minute warning. The existence of a report is irrelevant; it is the evidence backing up the conclusions that is important.

Another point that I would like to see is that if Russians are banned, nobody else can take their place. The reason I say this is that the most vociferous calls for all Russian athletes to be banned appear to have come from callers who could reasonably be considered to have friends, acquaintances, or athletes from their own country on the verge of qualifying. If there were a blanket ban on replacements, other than for clear sickness or something unavoidable, then that would mean that any potential conflict of interest would be removed from those calling for the ban, and even more importantly, from those voting.

To summarize, I have a simple view. All athletes should play by the same rules. Guilt should be personal, and based on the evidence against that person. The judges should be independent of the outcome. Rules should not be backdated. If testing organizations are found to be corrupt, then they should be disqualified and from that point, other independent organizations should be used.