What now for Ukraine?

As the situation in Ukraine seems to deteriorate, the question is, what now? Accurate information is, understandably, rather scarce but from a strategic point of view, most parties seem to be digging in, more with a view to making the problem worse than in improving it. The first step in forming a strategy is to have a clear goal, and from what I can make out, the various parties have goals that are essentially irreconcilable. My guess is that the following is approximately what the goals are, but I could be wrong. Poroshenko wants to exert control over all of what he claims is Ukraine on the basis he was elected president of it, except of course the parts that don’t want him were not given a vote. The leaders of Eastern Ukraine want independence from Poroshenko. Crimea is part of Russia again. The position of the US and NATO is less clear. They claim they want Ukraine united, but the real position may be that they want to put one over Russia, and have military bases close to Russia. Russia almost certainly wants fewer missiles aimed at it, and not in Ukraine, and additionally, it wants to support Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, who reports say either are or most certainly will be oppressed by right wing militias. Missing from all this is what do the average Ukrainian want? Do they all want the same thing?

The West has sent Ukraine various supplies to help those afflicted by the war, and sent them to Kiev, where they have been sent eastwards. From what I can make out, a very high per centage of these have been hijacked and looted. Further, the land near the separatists may or may not have Ukrainian regular soldiers present, but they most certainly have right wing militias and paramilitary groups. The separatists may or may not have irregular soldiers from Russia, and they may or may not have been supplied with weapons from Russia. Everyone says they have, but it should be recalled that there were a number of arsenals in Eastern Ukraine that are now under separatist control, and from what we can make out, most of the weapons used by the separatists are of Soviet age. Thus the BUK missile that brought down the airliner was designed and supplied up to thirty odd years ago.

So, what to do? Germany and France have apparently argued for a demilitarized zone between the east and west and a cease-fire. In my opinion, that is not going to work unless there are good troops there to enforce it. The problem with a cease-fire is that its only real purpose is to buy time until some permanent settlement is reached. Even in Korea, there is a permanent settlement, at least to the extent it has survived for nearly fifty years. But this will not work while the right wing militias want to bring the East to heel. The US is talking about giving Kiev better arms. What that will do, based on recent history, is to first better arm the militias, who are uncontrollable, and secondly they will be looted and sold off, and may well end up in terrorists hands. Worse still, if the US supplies military aid, Russia will be obliged to match it, which will merely escalate things. If the US sends “advisors”, or troops, Russia will match it. The danger of a real war breaking out if someone makes a mistake is only too obvious. Suppose a US weapon was used against Russians in Russia, now what?

So what should happen? My view is that the previous cease-fire was time wasted. What the West could do is to try to get Putin onside by promising not to have Ukraine in NATO and promising not to have missiles there, then offer Ukraine an independently monitored election, district by district, to decide what they want to happen. There must be sufficient external force to guarantee militias stand down, and clear instructions to the parties that undermining this process will not be tolerated. At the end of this, those districts that have a majority to secede should be permitted to do so. I know, people will say, this is interfering with a sovereign nation, but my response is, it is actually offering the people the chance to get what they want, not what various other parties that do not live there want. After the election, if any districts do secede, then there should also be financial assistance to permit those who do not want to be a minority in a district to move. In all probability, the numbers moving each way should be roughly equal. That would be expensive, but nowhere nearly as expensive as an all-out war.

What do you think?

Democracy? Do the people have a say?

One of the themes of my futuristic ebooks is to look at different forms of government. We believe, or are continually told, that democracy is the best form of government, but that is merely an assumption. We know Plato did not think so, despite living in something much closer to a democracy. In The Republic he makes the excellent point: if you and a number of others were lost at sea, do you want a navigator or a vote?

But that leaves open the question, do our forms of government really have democracy, and if so, to what degree? Two events have sparked this thought. The first involves military action against Syria. There were good signs, in that in the UK, while the Prime Minister was quite gung ho over action, parliament turned around and voted against it. There are also less good signs. When President Obama suggested that Congress should vote on the issue, John McCain immediately implored the Republicans to vote with the President so as not to weaken the US image overseas. That might have been the right thing to do, but surely the decision as to whether to kill so many people should be made on grounds better than, “Let’s keep our image strong!” Surely a decision like that should be made on the basis of whether the situation will be better with the act than without it, and whether there is something else that could be done that would be better still. Logic says that at the very least, if you are going to do something, there should be a net benefit, not a net liability.

The second event was local to New Zealand. There is a question as to whether the government should partially sell infrastructural assets that it owns. There are a variety of views on this, the government saying it will give it more cash to do more, to which the cynic might suggest that it is selling assets to do things that make it look good at the next election, which is essentially the government trying to buy votes. The reality is that the government has latched onto the right wing “privatize everything” theology. Now, in an effort to get some democracy, some citizens have initiated a referendum, which, unfortunately, is not binding on the government. The government has said it will ignore the referendum, which it is legally entitled to do, but what message about democracy does that send to the citizens? The government says it was elected, and that gives it a mandate to sell the assets, since it mentioned this in its electoral policy statements. Is this argument valid? 

In my opinion, the answer is, “No.” In any such election, there are a number of issues, and in my opinion, the real reason why it got elected was that it had lowered income tax rates, and those that voted for it wanted to cement that in. It is funny how a little extra for the wallet leads so many to overlook so many other things. A subsidiary reason was that the opposition was still somewhat unpopular, having previously earned some ire during nine years in power. As for the tax, only too many overlooked the fact that those taxes had been made up with other taxes, such as an increase in the goods and services tax.

The problem with an election is that everyone gets one vote, but they have to spend it on a politician. The net result is that the people can choose their temporary autocrat, but they cannot selectively vote on policy. The referendum concept gives the people the right to vote on an issue, but autocrats tend not to like that. Yes, I know it would end up being messy, with everyone voting for mutually incompatible policies, but surely there must be some level of policy that citizens could vote for?

Leaders; do we get the best?

How to select leaders is of particular interest here (New Zealand) at present because the Leader of the Opposition has resigned, and the race is on for a replacement. The resignation came because the previous man, while he had a great record as a reasonable negotiator, was not an incisive speaker and he had a poor command of television appearance. He did not look good, he was picked on by the commentators, so he had to go. Quality was irrelevant! Whether that is good for democracy I leave to you to decide, but this issue of leadership is one of the themes of my ebook trilogy First Contact, which, while nominally about contact with aliens, it also looks at governance in a dystopian future. One of the advantages of fiction, and why I write it, is that one can construct scenarios to make specific points without embarrassing a specific person, and without starting a feud with someone. The idea is to give things to think about for those who wish to, besides also entertaining.

The first book (A Face on Cydonia) starts by showing how governance has failed to eliminate blatant injustice and corruption, how one character becomes devoted to stopping that while another evolves into taking advantage of the situation and becoming a significant part of the problem. In the second (Dreams Defiled) the characters advance, and one becomes in a position to “fix things”, while the other evolves into an even worse character and sabotages the first, only then to be constrained by other forces. At the end of the third (Jonathon Munros) the main surviving character notes that the set of skills needed to get to a position of power through a vote have nothing in common with the set of skills required to do the job the candidate is standing for.

This particularly applies to politicians, but in Jonathon Munros it also applies to some extent to the election of the head of a corporation. For a corporation, the voters were restricted to Board members, and the candidates were, perforce, senior directors and so to some extent many of the skills could be assumed to be present from all candidates. In the novel, the problem was, if a candidate simply wanted to stand on his or her reputation, the candidate would lose. Winning required some additional pressure, which opens the way for bribes and threats. In other words, the skill required to get to the top was to be more cunning than the others. What happened was, of course, is simply fiction, but I believe the problem is real. Sometimes the best person really does get to the top, but in other cases it is someone less than adequate. Recall the time when Apple Computer hired as CEO the man from Pepsi? As someone remarked, the biggest technology challenge he faced previously was to change the colour of the can. In a period of years, Apple went from the most promising and advanced personal computer company to a near basket case. That it survived was almost entirely due to picking Steve Jobs as CEO, and I suspect that only happened because the company finally realized it had done so badly it needed a near miracle.

The case for politicians is worse. I recall once being in such a candidate selection meeting. There were seven votes. Three came from votes from the floor, i.e. party members who would cast their individual vote after hearing the candidates speak. Three came from a branch committee of the party, and I have no idea how they were selected. Finally, one came from the party head office, exercised by a representative. In principle, all votes were supposed to be decided from the candidates’ speeches, but in practice, the head office vote would be predetermined. So, did the best candidate win? What happened is one candidate got the three from the branch committee, who were presumably his friends. Because two of the other candidates were of reasonable quality the floor votes went to them but were divided, and the three branch votes produced a majority over the others. I have no idea how the final vote was decided but the three votes won. Only too often candidates win positions in safe seats because they have been loyal party members, or because they have friends on the selection committee.

Another issue is the minority card. The argument seems to be that we need more of the minorities. More women, more gay people, more minority races, more indigenous people, then there is the religious card. A Jewish lesbian of mixed Chinese/Maori descent would seem to tick a lot of boxes here. I do not have anything against any of those groups, but I do think that if they ask me to give them the right to run the country, they have the obligation to show they have some chance of doing the job. What do you think?

Democracy and governance

One of the subthemes in the futuristic novels I am writing is, how should we be governed? Most readers of this blog will think the answer is obvious: democracy. Think about this for a minute, and ask, is this true, and how do you know? My answer is that democracy is too cumbersome. Trying to get everybody to even consider an issue is hopeless in our modern life, and even if you can get them to think about it, the thoughts tend to be very superficial. So, what we tend to do is to give everybody a vote, but they have to spend it on a politician. We do not have democracy; we have a republic, and the United States constitution in particular is based on the Roman republic. What happened then was that the eligible citizens were all given a “stone” and they went to a selected spot and cast it. The United States President is elected in a similar way to the Roman Consul, the electoral college representing the role of the great families. Most other “democracies” work in a similar way. This is more efficient at decision-making, but it has its problems.

Recently, the death of Margaret Thatcher illustrated what I consider to be much of what is wrong with our political system. You may not agree with her policies, but why not disagree while she was alive? Perhaps because there was nothing the public could do to change them? In an election you get one vote, so one issue predominates. It is not democratic to have no means of deciding separable issues, but merely more efficient.

I think it is a fair assessment that when she came to power, Britain was sick. The manufacturing industries were simply non-competitive. There were several reasons for this. One was the overall debt incurred by Britain in fighting Hitler. This debt totally wrecked Britain’s economy, and Britain would have been better to have stayed out of the war, or to have made peace after Dunkirk. The world, of course, would have been a much worse place, but the fact remains, Britain never really recovered from that war. The second problem was that British industry did not reinvest, but rather it ran its factories into the ground, and did not value what it had. A long time ago, I owned a Datsun 1600, which was quite an advanced car for its time, and one day, while driving in the Australian country, I had trouble with a hose. I limped into this small country town with one garage, which nominally was an Austin/Morris agency, so I stopped. Could he do something to get me to …  No problem, he had the part. Austin had sold its designs to Datsun, and persisted with a much inferior design, but the Austin hoses exactly fitted the Datsun. So Japan has a car industry and Britain does not. The final piece of bad news for Britain prior to Thatcher was the Union movement. Nobody would do anything that was not on their formal job description, which meant that industries were hopelessly overstaffed. Margaret Thatcher excised the cancer. The trouble was, she excised far too much. She closed the coal industry, almost overnight, and industry simply collapsed, unable to compete with German and Japanese industry. I consider this was a triumph of political dogma over logic

Thatcher became extremely unpopular, until the Falklands. Whether she was completely rational there is a matter of opinion, but she decided to retake them. In my opinion, all other things being equal, Britain should have failed. What happened is that Thatcher risked many lives as she staked her reputation, and the question is, was what she did a rational assessment of the situation, a moral stand, or was it a throw of the dice to rescue an otherwise impossible political position? Whatever it was, it worked, and her reputation reached unparalleled heights.

So what we saw was that prior to Thatcher, Britain was sliding into a depressed inefficient state, thanks to politicians who refused to take hard decisions. Thatcher went to the opposite extreme: there was no shortage of hard decisions, but how many of them were right? What we need is a government that makes the right decisions. The problem is, how to get such a government?


My first career “backward step”

Sometimes, one of the problems of being successful in an organization is that you end up getting more work, usually the sort of work you do not need. In my previous post, I mentioned that, early in my career at the national chemistry lab, I managed to get a report on bioethanol in a very short period of time. Accordingly, certain administrators seemed to decide that I must have been good at this so I got the job of correlating and reviewing the overall Department’s efforts in response to energy. This involved sending out requests for information and correlating the responses. Everybody sending a response was senior to me, but of course the request for the response, although it came from me, had somewhat more senior backing. The request was for outlines of what projects were to be worked on in the coming year, how many people were working on them, budgets, and hoped-for outcomes. I duly submitted the report to Head Office and tried to return to doing something useful.

If I thought that would be the end of that, I was in for a disappointment. Next year I got the same job, presumably because they thought I was good at this sort of thing. So, out went the requests, and in came the responses, and I did the same thing again, except I made one addition: I correlated what had happened with what was supposed to happen based on the previous year’s responses. The results were quite hilarious: the first ever responses had claimed huge effort, a clear response to an urgent crisis, but when the time came to own up to progress, there were dramatic reductions in effort. I dug deeper, and came up with further surprises. One particular example was that several years previously, to show that it was taking forestry seriously, the Department had set out to tackle wood waste, and various Divisions set up a Wood Waste Working Party, which had been touted by Head Office as an example of what was being done to address this problem. What I found was that over the several years of its existence, it had never met, and most certainly had never worked. So there was a lot of smoke, but not much fire.

The report, when it went in, probably created more heat than the energy program. I was called in to meet an Assistant Director-General, and told that this report was unsatisfactory. My response was that anyone could edit it, I would accept any changes to grammar or style, but if anyone wanted to change the content, my name had to come off it. There was something of a stand-off. I have no idea what happened to that report but I was never asked to do anther, nor was anyone else.

This failed situation is, I suspect, only far too common. It is a problem anywhere where leaders make announcements regarding what is going to happen, or what is happening, when they do not know for sure that it is happening. Particularly susceptible are voted politicians, because ultimately, their priority is getting re-elected, senior public servants, because they always want to look good, and business leaders who care mainly about their short-term share prices. As long as it is not too critical, it is easier to ignore failure than try to ensure it does not happen. This problem of how to get things done is a theme of much of my fiction writing, and part of the reason I am writing this series of “future history” novels. Also, of course, examples like the one above help give ideas for fiction. Fictional scenes are just that: fiction. However, they can be inspired by reality. In an ebook I intend to self-publish soon, called “A Face on Cydonia”, there is a scene inspired by the above.