Category Archives: Chapter 0

Ongoing discussions about the current events and news of the last few years.

The Electoral College and Election Mathematics

Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as one of the most controversial presidents-elect in US history. 1 Because it was a complicated election and Clinton won the plurality of votes, many protesters characterize Trump’s election victory as “illegitimate”, and (as in most elections) there is a lot of grumbling that the Electoral College system is flawed.  The underlying assumption seems to be that this system must be “outdated” since it is centuries old, and that only a one-person / one-vote rule would be fair.

Police talk to Trump protesters, downtown Los Angeles, 11/12/16

As a math instructor who has taught lessons in political science, my simple message today is this:  There is no such thing as a perfect election method.  Every conceivable system has inherent unfairness or even contradictions.  The only principle that’s really essential is that all parties agree to the rules before the election.

Here’s an example to give you an idea of how a voting system can be paradoxical.  Consider a three-candidate race among Arthur, Buchanan, and Cleveland.  The presidency will go to the candidate who receives the plurality of votes, i.e. more votes than anyone else.  A survey (which we will consider accurate!) reveals these voter preferences:

10,000,000 voters prefer Arthur 1st, Buchanan 2nd, and Cleveland 3rd.

8,000,000 voters prefer Buchanan 1st, Cleveland 2nd, and Arthur 3rd.

4,000,000 voters prefer Cleveland 1st, Buchanan 2nd, and Arthur 3rd.

If the election were held that day, Arthur’s 10 million votes would win him the election.  Cleveland would come in last place.  Discouraged by the polls, Cleveland announces at the last minute that he is dropping out of the race.  But then something very interesting happens at the election:  Cleveland’s 4,000,000 votes go to Buchanan.  Buchanan now wins the election, 12 to 10 million!

That doesn’t seem fair.  The winner changed just because the loser dropped out.  To look at it another way, the three-man election wasn’t really fair either. More people preferred Buchanan over Arthur but, with Cleveland in the race, Arthur would win.  This hypothetical election violates the “Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives” criterion of fairness.

Political theorists have a handful of other criteria for what makes an election fair.  They have names such as the Majority Criterion, Universality, Monotonicity, and Citizen Sovereignty.  I won’t bore you with the details here, but they are basic conditions that most of us would agree seem fundamentally fair.

Now here’s the kicker.  In his 1951 PhD dissertation, a Columbia student named Ken Arrow proved mathematically that no election system can possibly satisfy all of these fairness criteria all of the time!  It’s an idea now called the Arrow Impossibility Theorem.  OK, there is one exception to this rule.  In a two-candidate race, “Majority Rules” is perfectly fair.  However, while the US has two major parties, there are several minor parties too.  If we insisted that our elections be perfectly fair in every way, we would have to eliminate minor parties … and that already isn’t very fair or democratic.

I often say, “Life is 90% great, 9% imperfect, and 1% terrible.”  This is part of that 9% that we just have to accept.  Since there is no such thing as a perfectly fair voting system, we have to pick one and deal with its quirks.  In the case of the Electoral College, it is possible to get a national winner with a relatively small fraction of individual votes.  What is vital is that everyone agrees to the election system before the votes are cast.  Gray areas and surprises will happen.  We want them to be resolved by a rulebook that everyone knew they were playing by.

That’s why the part of this election cycle that bothered me most was when the Republican party was still debating its nomination rules just a few weeks before the convention!  If you recall, there was a rule from 2012 requiring a candidate to have won a majority of delegates in at least eight states in order to be considered as a Republican nominee.  As the convention drew near, dark horse candidate Trump was the only one who had met that threshold.  He started to gloat about it, but other candidates were saying, “Wait now; there’s no guarantee that rule will apply to this convention.”  I was stunned.  I would have thought the party had firmed up its nominating rules years earlier.  In fact, though, those rules were only decided one week before the convention!  That’s a problem, because rules can be crafted for or against specific candidates at that stage.

The Electoral College has some legitimate strengths and weaknesses.  The constitutional purpose was to let each state decide how to determine its electors.  Every state starts out with two votes (that’s fair when counting states) and then an additional number of votes proportional to population (that’s fair when counting voters).  On balance, the system is biased toward small / rural (presently Republican) states.  For instance, blue California has a population of 40,000,000 – as much as the 19 least-populous red states combined.  That red bloc has 36 more electoral votes than California, for the same number of people.  That’s why you actually don’t hear much talk about California in national campaigns.  It has the most diluted votes in the nation.

If we switched to a one-person / one-vote system, we would bypass the states.  It would then be essentially a race of Democratic cities versus Republican countryside.  That could pose its own challenges; for instance, it is much easier to organize and to campaign in dense cities than in sparse counties.  We would also lose the sense of regional interests.  Here is an incredible map that shows “where the voters are” as granularly as possible.  Each county’s population is represented by area, and its Republican : Democratic ratio is represented on the red / blue spectrum.  It’s hard to see any sense of party identity other than the urban / rural divide.  (Large cities are concentrated on the coasts).  Here you can see that the country as a whole is pretty evenly split.  The new “swing” areas are the most medium purple; you see a lot in Arizona, Texas, Florida, and the Northeast.

Trump can credit his victory to a handful of counties where he out-campaigned Clinton. 2 In a popular vote, the candidates would have learned how to “game” this system instead of the state-based electoral one.  Trump said so himself.

So, sure, the Electoral College system has its wrinkles.  But so does direct popular voting.  To drive the point home, the unfair Arthur / Buchanan / Cleveland example above was a popular vote.  The Electoral College is not perfect, but it’s perfectly legitimate and as good a system as any.

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump duly won the election.


  1. Mark Murray, “Trump Enters Office With Historically Low Approval Rating”, NBC News (1/17/17), (accessed 1/17/17).
  2. Charles Mahtesian, “How Trump Won His Map”, Politico (11/09/16), (accessed 1/19/17).
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We need to stop terror, not just terrorism


One of LA’s most intriguing corners symbolizes the nation’s fears and divisions over the War on Terror

This September 11, I feel compelled to write a few words about the War on Terror.  It is an important issue this year as Americans make big choices.  We all know that emotional thinking can cloud judgment – and the War on Terror is one of the most emotional issues of our time.  When you look at it objectively, though, you reach a striking conclusion.  Yes, terrorists are definitely evil.  But in the grand scheme of things, they are not very deadly to Americans.  When you compare the cost of this war to its benefits, it is very hard to justify on its present terms.

American conservatives describe the War on Terror as a “Clash of Cultures”.  This characterization is an ideological belief, not a fact, and it is not productive.  A look at worldwide terrorism deaths reminds us what the fight is really about:  instability within the Moslem world.  Of the roughly 20,000 terrorist deaths worldwide in 2013, a majority of them were in Iraq or Afghanistan.  90% of them occurred in 10 African / Asian countries that are home to terrorist groups.   1 These groups are militias aimed at local governments or other sects.  Most of these groups don’t target outsiders.  ISIS and al Qaeda are the main exceptions.  The US and other countries engage them directly in combat, and they strike back at our civilians.

From 2001 – 2013, the number of Americans killed by terrorist attacks was about 3,000.  Outside of 9/11/01 itself, that number is about 400, and of those only 50 were on US soil. 2 That was a whole decade’s worth of casualties.

By contrast, on a typical day (based on annual rates), 90 Americans are killed by guns at home or in the streets – by angry acquaintances, accidents, or suicide. 3  Another 90 Americans are killed in car accidents.  4  The overwhelming majority of preventable deaths in the US – 2,000 per day – are caused by our own stupid decisions to smoke, drink, overeat, and abuse drugs. 5

Terrorism is not even close to our biggest problem.

Nevertheless, more than half of Americans are “very concerned about Islamic extremism.” 6  That’s a higher rate than in Pakistan!  This disconnect is not surprising.  People don’t think with statistics.  We think with emotions.  Lifestyle-related deaths are not as evil or terrifying as terrorist attacks.

The emotionally-driven political response has been vastly out of proportion.  This war has cost trillions of dollars 7 , killed perhaps a million people 8 (wow), and sacrificed 7,000 US soldiers in combat 9 to avenge our 3,000 dead.  Not only that, but ironically most of those 400 American civilian deaths since 2001 have resulted from counterattacks against our War on Terror.

This conflict means less to the US, but more to the world, than most Americans realize.  The US needs to downscale its response, make it more efficient, and share it more evenly with its allies.  Our trillions could be much better spent on intelligence, police, and security.  Better yet, the responsibility and the budget should be spread among many nations.  The global solution to the problem is a very interesting discussion, and beyond the scope of today’s post.

As for the upcoming election, the two presidential candidates, for all their mudslinging and difference in style, have roughly similar platforms on the War on Terror.  Some of the key differences include:

  • Trump has expressed his desire to remove the US from NATO.  This would be counter-productive, as the solution needs to be international.  Trying to shore up the entire Moslem world would stretch America far too thin.  Then again, he has also spoken in favor of coalition support.
  • HIllary Clinton wants to work with Moslem Americans as a “coalition at home”.  10
  • Clinton supports stricter gun control for people on FBI watch lists.
  • Trump wants the US military to grow even larger.  Clinton supports a sustainable military with enhanced cyber capabilities.
  • Trump opposes arming Syrian rebels.  Secretary Clinton supported arming them, but Obama tried that and it backfired.  She does not include arming rebels in her presidential platform.

The more serious difference between the candidates and their supporters is their outlook on the conflict.  Trump buys into the “Clash of Cultures” storyline.  He and his voters see ISIS as first and foremost out to get America.  That outlook doesn’t get us any closer to the real problems in West Asia and their solutions.  Trump is riding on the coat tails of American fear, perceiving the terrorist danger as so large that it threatens the entire nation.

FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Yoda was just as wise when he said, “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”  For Americans right now, it is just as important to conquer our terror as to conquer the terrorists.

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This website reminds us why terrorists attack in the West

Tornado GR4 Attack on Libyan SCUD LauncherIt surprises me that even to this day, when there are terrorist attacks on the US or Europe, people still wonder why.  “Why do they hate us?!” they ask.  They often come up with self-pleasing answers:  “They hate us because we’re free.”  “They’re attacking our way of life.” “They have the wrong religion.”

No.  ISIS attacks “us” because we attack them.  Sure, we may be on the right side of the law, but at least we should acknowledge our part in this two-way cycle of violence.

Time and again, terrorist attackers make their motives clear.  When Jihadi John beheaded US hostages, he specifically said that it was a punishment for US airstrikes.  Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind behind the Paris attacks, did not choose Paris at random.  The French military had personally targeted and tried to kill him the month before.  Why did ISIS take down a plane full of Russian passengers?  It’s not a coincidence that Russia had just begun a series of airstrikes against Syria.

And if ISIS wants to retaliate, what else can it do?  Our military is invincible and invisible.  ISIS cannot strike down drones.  We have no soldiers to shoot.  Its only option is to strike at “us”, the people, in hopes that we will cave in and implore our governments to leave ISIS alone.  Welcome to 3rd-millennium warfare.

Islamists’ war was not about us until we intervened.  Jihad is fundamentally about Asian / African governance.  ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, al Shabaab, Hamas, and Hezbollah are primarily interested in toppling secular dictators, changing borders, and establishing a caliphate.  Some of them have serious problems with Israel.  Beyond that, they don’t really care about the outside world.  In fact, ISIS is the only one particularly active outside its territory.  They only attack outsiders to keep us out of their turf, especially in retaliation for intervention.

Our news cycles are dominated by terrorist attacks.  Somehow, we don’t seem to be as aware of our side of this fight.  ISIS is being pummeled on a daily basis, reports Chris Jennewein of the Times of San Diego.  Some airstrikes are more justified than others.  Last month in Iraq, coalition bombers killed 300 ISIS militants, one of the most successful air attacks to date.  But last week, an errant US airstrike killed maybe 100 innocent civilians in Syria.  One way or the other, these attacks are sure to breed counterattacks.  The cycle never ends!

The website AirWars is a very interesting journalism project keeping track of coalition attacks.  You can find breakdowns by coalition country or by year, and even daily news.  I think it is important to stay apprised of our own activity.

Right or wrong, this is the cause of terror attacks against North America and Europe.  It’s not just random cultural hatred or religious insanity.  It’s a cycle of violence.  At the very least, we should understand the reason for these retaliations.  Only then can we decide what to do about them.

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3rd-Millennium Immigration Policy

immigration policy global nationalism

Immigration restrictions are a direct conflict between national sovereignty and universal human rights. In the long run, freedom of movement should prevail as the moral and economic better choice.

As a former attorney with experience in immigration law, I have been watching some recent news developments with interest.  Donald Trump, in his own irascible way, has brought immigration to the forefront of policy issues in the 2016 US election cycle.  A recent shooting in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant sparked discussion about “sanctuary cities”.  Meanwhile, Syrian refugees face a very complicated situation as they are forced out of an unstable homeland and try to seek asylum in Europe.

Today’s immigration policy is based on numeric quotas enforced by border patrols.  I can understand that; in today’s world maybe this system is still necessary.  However, I think that this system is going to seem more and more outdated and impractical as time goes by.  Eventually, we should strive for a world where crossing a national border feels like crossing a state border within the U.S:  not a big deal.   I come to this conclusion with both liberal and conservative arguments, which are elaborated below.  In a quick nutshell, I want to throw two “radical” ideas out there that are rarely ever considered but really should be.  First, immigrants don’t have to be job takers.  They can be job creators too.  Second, migration doesn’t always have to be into the US.  In a free world, Americans could emigrate out to find jobs and low-cost property of their own.  If these two factors were played out, eventually the world would reach an economic equilibrium and the great migratory pressures would ease up.

Immigration restrictions are a byproduct of nationalistic times.  Nationalism was the paradigm of the late 2nd millennium.  It originally meant that individuals identified more strongly with their nationality than with their emperor or church.  Nationalism played a valuable role in deconstructing empires and freeing colonies for self-rule.  However, it had a darker side too.  Nationalism also meant that people identified more strongly with their nationality than with their common humanity.  It inevitably pitted nations and empires against each other.  This nationalism was the psychological fuel for the world wars.  It has lingered through the cold war and the war on terror, and it is the reason that the UN is ineffective at policing world conflicts.  Nationalism taught us as young children that our country was the best, and as a corollary that other countrymen were undesirable and suspicious.  It also resulted in immigration restrictions that were nakedly racist and eugenic.

Meanwhile, in practical reality, nobody can deny that the 3rd millennium world is increasingly global.  Nations are learning the value of cooperating over competing.  Large cities are a microcosm of the world.  Corporations are multi-national, and the products you use daily are made here, there, and everywhere.  There are only a handful of major languages in use anymore.  Just as importantly, contact with foreigners helps us feel more in common with them.  Ultimately, integration is good for peace.

So much for the liberal argument.  One of the main tenets of conservative macroeconomics is that trade barriers are a harmful practice.  The purpose of a quota, like a tariff, is to protect a special interest, but it does more harm than good outside of that zone.  Free trade creates synergy.  It allows Nation A with a productivity of 1 and Nation B with a productivity of 2 to combine economies for a total productivity of 4.  Free trade consists of an easy exchange of goods, services, money, and people.  In a world with freedom of movement, workers (including Americans) will find their way to jobs, money will find its way to capitalists, and the best products and services will find their way to consumers.  Restrictions on trade — and that includes onerous immigration laws — inhibit this progress.

A few examples can demonstrate the paradoxical ideas we have about nationalism and immigration.  We say that we value universal human rights, but we don’t allow each other to choose which country to live in.  We impose strict quotas on how many immigrants can enter a country, but we allow that country’s poor families to have as many children as they want.  We patrol our borders pretending that it keeps criminals out, while we know fully well that there are criminals at home.  We complain that undocumented immigrants hurt the economy, and then refuse them the means to make productive contributions.  American unions would complain vehemently about Michigan jobs going to Mexicans, but would find it perfectly okay for those same jobs to go to New Mexicans.  Is there really a practical difference, or does it just come down to how we define “us” and “them”?  Should we base economic decisions on the irrational emotions of self-identification?

One of the main arguments for immigration control is that it can help “keep the criminals out”.  Francisco Sanchez, a known felon from Mexico, made a lot of news this year when he accidentally shot and killed Kate Steinle in San Francisco.  It’s interesting that the widespread response was, “If he had been kept in Mexico, he wouldn’t have been there to shoot her” as opposed to “If he had been kept in prison, he wouldn’t have been there to shoot her.”  The relevant fact about him is not where he was born, but that he was a repeat felon and a druggie.

Was Sanchez worse than US citizen Eric Rudolph, who traveled from Georgia to Alabama to detonate a bomb that killed a person?  After all, Rudolph only crossed a state line.  Were the Boston Marathon Bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, better than Sanchez because they were in the US legally?  We should judge people by the acts they commit, not the arbitrary borders they cross to get there.

The US constitution grants citizenship to every child who is born here, yet federal law makes no accommodations to naturalize the child’s parents.  In fact, visa sponsorship laws are deliberately written to prevent US born children from petitioning their foreign parents.  Why the inconsistent treatment?  It is designed to break up the families of young US citizens, or else to force those citizens out of the country.  One way or the other, it just doesn’t make sense.

To put it bluntly, immigration restrictions date back to xenophobic times and are based on simple fear of the unknown.  That fear has already proven itself unfounded in many cases.  For most of American history, Chinese were all but banned from the US.  Now, of course, Chinese nationals and their descendants are thoroughly integrated into US society, and by and large they are doing very well at school and work.  19th century sinophobes might be surprised to see that we’re still doing just fine.

This is not to say that immigration should be completely unregulated.  It is reasonable for governments to give hiring preferences to locals (insofar as the need can be met).    And the US can not unilaterally open its borders without assurances that American workers can easily seek jobs and property abroad.  Immigration reform is a global issue, not a national one.  Refugee crises like the current outflow from Syria should be managed by international organizations.  The long-term solution will probably come with a series of treaties. 

The problem with “undocumented immigration” is not the immigration per se but the lack of documentation.  When migrants sneak across a border, they become lost in the system.  That can make it extremely difficult to find them if they cause trouble.  Immigrants do not reach out when they need help, because they fear authorities.  Imagine a new system where each person had a trans-national ID, or where it was easy to get registered into a new national database before crossing a border.  If immigrants found it easy to travel internationally, they wouldn’t bother sneaking across borders.  If they were easily able to find work, open bank accounts, buy houses, and report their income for taxes, they wouldn’t have to stay underground.  They could even help create jobs, something that anti-immigration activists never seem to consider.  If they found no jobs, they would feel free to return or move elsewhere without fear that they’d never be able to come back.  And if it were easy to locate migrant criminals, they’d be brought to justice.

Rather than restricting entry into a country, it makes more sense to restrict entry into a densely populated area.  The largest mass migration in history is the one occurring within developing nations right now, as young men move from the countryside to the cities looking for work.  They are overwhelming the cities.  It’s creating terrible problems with housing, traffic, pollution, and sewage.  There are more itinerants than jobs, so we see huge expansive slums in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Delhi, and Cairo.  Yet these are migrants from within the same country.  Does that make it okay for them to invade their own cities?  Not really.  City growth should be managed with public health in mind.  China does a better job of it, though it still suffers terrible congestion and pollution.  Within the US, our tough immigration checks should not be in the empty plains of Texas but at the city lines of major metropolitan areas.

I don’t expect the entire philosophy of immigration policy to change overnight, or even in my lifetime.  But with nationalism fading into globalism, these are the changes that I think need to be considered over the long term.  It should be easier for persons to cross national borders and harder to move into dense cities, and it should be easier for governments to register migrants across borders.  Families shouldn’t have to make choices to separate or uproot their children to a different country.

Maybe someday immigration policies will catch up to the realities of the 3rd millennium.

Image:  ID 57560023 © Omendrive | , used with royalty free license


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US diplomacy with Iran, Cuba

The ongoing saga of the “Iran nuclear deal” is difficult to follow for the casual news watcher.  It never seems to end.  Israelis, Saudis, and US Republicans oppose it without explaining which terms they are against, or what they would like to propose instead.  The opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba is also hotly debated.  But these are positive developments in two ways.  First, in the true spirit of a contract or treaty, the Iran nuclear deal offers something positive for both sides.  Second and more broadly, this recent trend indicates an opening of communications between geopolitical enemies.  Obama’s belief in “talking to the enemy” has been one of the most controversial elements of his presidency.  With a perspective outside of political bias, I agree that it is the right course.  Communication is healthy for international relations just as it is for personal relations.  This has already been proven by Republican presidents Nixon and Reagan.  At the very least, communication humanizes the enemy.  The US and the West should continue the policy of talking openly to its adversaries – Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and more.

The Iran Nuclear Deal in a Nutshell

Iran has a large nationwide program of uranium enrichment.  Enriched uranium can be used either for nuclear power plants or (at much higher concentrations) nuclear weapons.  Obviously, nobody would like to see Iran develop an arsenal of nuclear bombs.  Thus, the primary interest in the West is to keep Iran free of weapons-grade uranium.

To put pressure on the Iranian government – for nuclear activities and other reasons – the US has “boycotted” Iran with trade sanctions since the revolution of 1979.  The UN and EU followed with major sanctions in the 21st century.  Other nations have imposed minor sanctions as well.  The sanctions have had their primary intended effect of making it difficult for Iran to develop nuclear weapons.  However, they have also had a major impact on Iran’s overall economy, including high inflation and a current unemployment rate of well above 20%.  After four decades, these actions directed against the Iranian government have made life very difficult for ordinary people throughout the entire country.  This is bad not only for Iran, but for perpetuating Iran’s negative perception of the outside world.

For decades, the US and Iran’s mutual strategy was to be strong-headed and hope to win a battle of wills.  The US hoped that sanctions would eventually cripple Iran to capitulation; lifting sanctions was not an option.  Iran felt that it had no choice but to arm itself into a stronger position; nuclear enrichment was non-negotiable.

Diplomatic overtures began in 2003.  Iran offered to negotiate a middle ground.  The US refused, after which Iran vastly increased its nuclear enrichment program.  A decade later, after UN and EU sanctions had strained Iran even further, a tentative agreement was reached between Iran and a multinational coalition representing the US, UN, and EU.  The gist of the agreement was very simple.  In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran would limit its uranium enrichment to peaceful purposes, and open its nuclear energy program to international monitoring.  The 2013 agreement gave Iran and its negotiators time to work out a “framework,” and then the details of execution.  A framework for such a deal was reached last week, in April, 2015.

The agreements of 2013 and 2015 are historic and significant.  This is the first time that Iran has offered any sort of concessions on its nuclear program.  The agreement-in-progress includes important provisions allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect Iran’s uranium industry closely.  Easing of sanctions would make life better for average Iranians.  It would also start to open the Iranian market to many importers and exporters around the world.  Until Iran proves its commitment to the deal, the most important sanctions (those related to uranium and military imports / exports) would remain in place.  In short, there would be clear benefits for the global economy and safety.  This is an important step forward.

As the deadline for the framework approached, the “nuclear deal” became hotly controversial.  Iran’s greatest regional enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, oppose the idea of negotiating with Iran.  They are not part of the current talks.  In the US, the Republican Party follows Israel’s lead.  Interestingly, opponents of the talks are very vague about exactly what they oppose.  Benjamin Netanyahu argues that the deal would only favor Iran, “without receiving anything tangible in return.”  He does not acknowledge the value of Iran’s changing stance, from defiance to compromise.  US Republicans complain vaguely that the deal is not tough enough, that it should insist on more enrichment curtailment while offering less sanction relief.  Essentially, what they are arguing for is a repudiation of negotiations altogether; they believe in principle that the US should continue opposing Iran with brute force instead of diplomacy.  I have not heard Republicans propose specific alternatives to any of the deal’s terms.  Keep in mind that congressional opponents are not the same people who are involved in talks.  The negotiators have had years to get to know specific Iranians, their attitudes, needs, and points of flexibility.  Third parties are expressing opposition for opposition’s sake.   Israel and Saudi Arabia’s stance is apparently, “If Iran is for it, we’re against it,” while Republicans feel, “If Obama is behind this, we won’t allow it.”  Some Republicans raise a legitimate point about which branch of government should be involved in the negotiations.  That’s for Congress and the White House to wrestle over.

Cuban Diplomacy

The relationship between the US and the Castros has always been rocky.  After Fidel Castro’s first few aggressive years in office, the US imposed a particularly strong embargo against Cuba and cut off diplomatic ties.  It can be said that this only made matters worse.  Shut off from the US, Cuba turned to the USSR for oil, money, and defense, setting the stage for the particularly bad crises of the 1960s.  Even after the USSR collapsed and Cuba went into depression, neither nation made a move to mend fences.  Talks have only resumed under Raul Castro’s administration.  A trickle of trade is now being allowed, and there is talk of reopening the embassies.  An open channel of communication could even lead to an easing of the embargo in exchange for Castro concessions.  Again, there could be something good in it for both sides.  Nevertheless, of course there is some opposition to these gestures of peace too.

Aside from some matters of asylum, political prisoners, and allying with other dictators, the Castros have not actually posed a threat to the US since at least 1980.  They have just been corrupt dictators in their own nation.  Most of the pressure to shut them out comes from two sources: Cuban-Americans who have family left behind on the island, and those who once again misunderstand the purpose of communication.

To communicate does not mean to condone.  Yes, Fidel Castro wrongfully took his country by force, seized US assets, and harbored Soviet nuclear weapons.  By all accounts, the Castros and their government never should have been in power.  But let’s face it, they are awfully entrenched there.  What are we going to do about it?  Ignoring them has not proven very effective at accomplishing anything.  The US embargo, like the sanctions against Iran, has a strong grip on Cuba.  It is obviously not squeezing the Castros out of power, and is hurting ordinary Cubans more than the government.  The UN recommends lifting it.  The embargo’s greatest value now is as a bargaining chip.  In this century, the US’s main goal is to see a Cuban transition to democracy, at least after the Castros’ death.  Maybe the best way to get Raul to listen to what the US has to say is for the US to listen to what he has to say.  It sounds like he could be willing to negotiate some democratic reforms in exchange for some economic relief.


If a man were having serious problems with his boss, a neighbor, or his wife, most people would give the same advice:  Talk to her!  Whether it may be at the dining room table or in pre-trial litigation, at some point they need to figure out how to end the conflict without hurting each other.  That’s still true if the neighbors-at-odds are governments – even bad governments.

The alternatives to communication are recalcitrance, failure to understand each other, demonization, retribution, and violence.  Negotiation can be difficult, because it requires compromise.  But the very act of negotiation, even the willingness to negotiate, can facilitate a mutually agreeable position.  And communication does not necessarily have to mean negotiation or validation.  Formal discussions force each side to identify specific points of contention, rather than reacting emotionally to each other.

Iran is willing to cap enrichment and open its nuclear industry to inspection.  That’s worth an easing of sanctions.  The Castros have not threatened the US in decades, and they are willing to normalize relations.  That’s worth meeting them in the middle.  I think we’d all prefer to have international seats at the table when discussing a post-Castro Cuba.




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What’s Happening in Ukraine?!

Headlines have been streaming from Ukraine since November.  The news immediately caught my interest because of the background history that I had researched for Chapter 1.  Then the situation seemed to keep getting more baffling.  Soon, it was a country in chaos.  It quickly became one of the year’s biggest events, at such a pace that it has been difficult to keep up with developments.  In this post, I lay out visuals, look at the big picture, and try to get a handle on what’s going on.  The more I research, the more I forgive myself for being confused about the constant stream of news in the last few months.  It’s complicated!  Finally, I offer a few thoughts on “who’s right and who’s wrong.”


As discussed in Chapter 1, the 21st century world is essentially quadripolar.  The US, EU, Russia, and China form the four major spheres of influence.  The eastern powers are more old-fashioned and nationalistic, and see foreign affairs as more of a zero-sum game.  Most second-world countries rely on one of the four superpowers for investment, trade, energy, and security.  Some regions, such as the Eurasian front, are caught in the middle.

Ukraine, a former Soviet territory, has long ties with Russia.  It became an independent republic in 1991, though its government hewed close to Russia for another decade.  In 2004, a politically charged election highlighted the question of whether Ukraine should continue looking east or develop closer relations with the EU to its west.  That question has divided Ukraine ever since.  This news story is not just about sudden panic in one second-world nation.  It is part of the slowly unfolding saga of the superpowers and the shaping of the 21st-century world.

As geopolitics so often revolves around natural resources, of course there is an economic twist in this plot too.  Ukraine hosts major natural gas pipelines providing Russian gas to Ukrainian and European consumers.



Two leaders who embody Ukraine’s split personality emerged from the election and “Orange Revolution” of 2004.  Yuliya Tymoshenko, the on-and-off prime minister from 2004 – ‘11, looks westward.  Viktor Yanukovych, president from 2010 to February, 2014, based his career on developing relations with Russia and the gas lobby.  During Yanukovych’s term, some of his political opponents, including Tymoshenko, were imprisoned.  Though it is difficult to pin these convictions to Yanukovych’s orders, the US and EU condemn them as unjust political maneuverings.

Tymoshenko looks west to Merkel and the EU

Tymoshenko looks west to Merkel and the EU


Yanukovych looks east to Putin and Russia

Yanukovych looks east to Putin and Russia

The EU and Ukraine have been negotiating a formal alliance since at least 2008.  In Chapter 1, I discussed the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria.  In order to join the EU, a candidate nation must make commitments to economic stability and human rights.  Ukraine has not yet been pursuing full EU membership, but an “association agreement” that confers many of the same benefits and requires many of the same demands.  After Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, the EU made her release a condition necessary to finalize the alliance agreement.

Russian president Putin was never a fan of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement.  Fearing a loss of influence, he put pressure on Yanukovych to reject that agreement and strengthen ties with Russia instead.  Ukraine is a vulnerable nation, deeply in debt and at risk of default with little economic power of its own.  Russia had a few major bargaining chips:  natural gas price guarantees and the promise of a bailout as carrots, and a boycott of Ukrainian chocolate as a stick.

Chaos in Kiev

Russia’s pressure proved more compelling than Europe’s on the Ukrainian government.  Just a week before the association agreement was scheduled for signature, the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) announced that it would not free Tymoshenko, and president Yanukovych publicly announced that he would abandon the alliance.

In response to these announcements on November 21, protesters took to the streets of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.  Public opinion in Kiev and the western half of the country was largely in favor of the EU alliance.  Ukrainians demanded Yanukovych’s resignation.  Protests did not fizzle out but grew over the next few months, usually a sign that a government has gotten itself into real trouble.  Demonstrators took control of government buildings in Kiev and western Ukraine.  The police responded with mass arrests in late 2013.  In January, parliament cracked down and police force resulted in a few deaths.  Amidst the chaos, the prime minister resigned.

The situation accelerated dramatically in late February, with a climax on the 22nd.  In Kiev’s Independence Square, three heavy days of fighting between police and protesters resulted in about 100 deaths.  This street battle galvanized protesters’ passion.  Yanukovych finally sensed the gravity of his situation and fled to Russia.  Civilian soldiers seized control of the presidential palace and stood guard over it.  Parliament released Tymoshenko from jail.  Ms. Tymoshenko addressed her supporters as they packed Independence Square.  “Don’t leave this square until we have achieved real change!” she encouraged them.

Let us not get swept up in revolutionary romance, though.  Demonstrators are, needless to say, not legally recognized as a lawmaking body.  It was up to Parliament to make the next move.

The Verkhovna Rada held a vote to remove President Yanukovych from power.  His ouster was approved by a vote of 328 – 0.  This sounds like unanimity, but the parliament has 439 members, and the impeachment votes were technically short of the ¾ super-majority required by the constitution. 1 Russia and Russian Ukrainians have never accepted the legitimacy of this vote, and still regard Yanukovych as the rightful president.  Nevertheless, Parliament proceeded to appoint an interim president and prime minister who are both pro-western Tymoshenko supporters.  The US and EU have rallied behind the interim government.  Permanent elections are scheduled for May, with Tymoshenko as the leading presidential candidate.

John Kerry greets Ukraine’s interim leaders, President Oleksander Turchynov (L) and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk

John Kerry greets Ukraine’s interim leaders, President Oleksander Turchynov (L) and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk

The Kremlin in Crimea

The hasty appointment of a new pro-western government instantly set off counter-protests in the eastern pro-Russian half of the country.  Overnight, the turmoil shifted from Kiev to the Crimean peninsula.  Just as in Kiev, there were mass protests in Crimea, and armed rebels seized control of government buildings.  The Russian military quietly but quickly slipped into Crimea to take control of essential infrastructure such as highways, ports, and airports.  So far, direct confrontation between Ukrainians and Russian troops has been minimal, with about two confirmed deaths.

Crimea has its own capital city, Simferopol, and its own parliament.  While Simferopol, literally down to the parliamentary building, was occupied by Russian forces, this parliament approved a local referendum, a popular vote of whether Crimea should remain with Ukraine or defect to Russia.  The March 16 referendum claimed to show a 96% majority in favor of seceding from Ukraine.  Besides the circumstances of this vote at gunpoint and its fishy super-duper-majority, there is evidence that the election was rigged. 2   More pertinently, a change to the country’s territory must be approved by all Ukrainians.  Restricting this referendum to Crimean voters contradicted the Ukrainian constitution. 3 So now both sides have relied on Constitutionally iffy moves, and the whole country is in a state of legal limbo.

Russia has already ratified the referendum and claimed Crimea (once again) as its own.  It is clear to all but the most hardened Russian apologists that this whole procedure was orchestrated by the Kremlin.  Moscow justifies its presence in Crimea on the basis of protecting ethnic Russians.  Crimea is a Russian-speaking semi-autonomous republic with strong family ties with Russia.  By treaty, it has hosted Russian military bases for decades.

Despite little connection to Ukraine, the US has reacted strongly against Russia’s takeover of Crimea.  In the larger context of superpower spheres of influence, the western powers regard this as unacceptable precedent.  “It would allow the old way of doing things to gain a foothold in this young century,” remarked President Obama from the symbolic platform of a WWI cemetery, “And that message would be heard — not just in Europe but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.” 4  Obama has been leading strategic sanctions against Russian government officials behind the takeover of Crimea, as well as President Yanukovych.  Today’s news is about deepening occupation, military buildup, and tension in the region.

Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong?

Geopolitics is a strange combination of law, consensus, and “might makes right.”  Casual observers tend to focus on moral questions of good guys vs. bad guys, fairness vs. greed.  We forget that there are constitutions, treaties, and UN directives that apply to almost every question at the national level.  Most diplomatic discussions are based on legal arguments.  The debate that you have with your drinking buddies is probably very different from the issues discussed at international summits and in government chambers.   On the other hand, legalities can be very difficult to enforce.  It is one thing to point fingers and say that Leader X is in violation of Principle Y.  It is another matter to do anything about it.  The UN provides a body of laws but very limited power to enforce them.  Sometimes, paradigm shifts happen as well.  When a mob of 100,000 squeezes a leader out of his capitol, it implies that the constitution has been abandoned and it’s time to start over.  Then it is up to the international community to decide whether to recognize the old government or the new one.  There are no legal standards for those decisions.  It really does come down to what individual nations want to do and how much influence they have – though their arguments are cloaked in legal raiment.  Round and round we go.

Following a strictly legal tack, Yanukovych supporters are technically correct that the president was not properly impeached.  He was duly elected, and, by the book, he would still be the rightful president.  Yanukovych had many party die-hards in his parliament who abstained from voting against his impeachment for fear of retribution, or who were not even present that day due to the angry mob outside.  Those Members of Parliament (MPs) represent an ethnically diverse electorate throughout a broad swath of Ukraine.  The Verkhovna Rada did overstep its bounds by appointing a new administration.  If the discussion had ended there, certainly western Ukrainians would have been unhappy, but they would have an opportunity to rally for change at the next election.  This kind of lesson is important for a young republic to learn.

Yanukovych could have stood a chance if he had remained in Ukraine and made some concessions.  But his next move was even more egregious.  After his police force killed dozens of his own subjects, he defected to Russia and took part of the country with him.  There is no way to justify the Crimean sequestration – at least not in the manner it was done.  That episode has been a farce.  It would be entirely reasonable to bring charges against him now, and to remove him from power based on criminal convictions.  Perhaps he could be tried for “abuse of power,” which is the very charge that was brought against Tymoshenko.

Russia believes that it is justified in reclaiming Crimea because the Crimean peninsula has been historically and ethnically Russian for centuries.  That may be, but things change!  Since 1991, Crimea has been a semi-autonomous republic within Ukraine.  The borders and constitutions were very clear, and Russia was committed to respecting them not too long ago.  There is no legal basis for turning back the clock.

On the other hand, some changes just fell into place, and it is apparently going to be simpler to accept them where they now lie.  In western Ukraine, the unconstitutional impeachment and its proximate causes – the interim government and the May election – now have the support of two superpowers.  Right or wrong, this is a ratification of legitimacy.   It is not entirely a positive development.  If you are more swayed by good-buy / bad-guy arguments, consider that at the heart of the western protest movement is Svoboda, a fringe neo-Nazi party. 5 There is something to be said for stability.  But realistically, with the recognition and backing of the US and EU, the Yatsenyuk government is now the de facto voice of Ukraine.

In eastern Ukraine, it’s interesting to see how quickly the world has become resigned to the notion that Crimea is once again Russian.  Despite a complete lack of legitimacy, it is now spoken as a hard truth.  Even Obama admitted as much, just a week after the takeover. 6 The objective now is to stop Russia where it is, to keep it from spreading Soviet-style further into Ukraine.

The western response has been particularly interesting.  President Obama has been meting out punishment, not with military force or even broad national sanctions, but with drone-like laser precision against Russian and Ukrainian government officials and arms traders. 7 Those individuals will be forbidden from travel into the US, their assets within US jurisdiction will be seized, and most importantly, they will be legally cut off from access to dollars.  The EU is imposing similar sanctions.  Obama is even considering sanctions against the Russian energy sector, the heart of its economy.  He is not finding much support in EU, though, because Europe depends so heavily on Russian energy.

Sanctions against guilty individuals are much more humane and sensible than the overly-broad strikes or sanctions that usually characterize international disagreements.  Nationwide embargoes, for example against Cuba, North Korea, and Iran, have been deeply hurtful to millions of innocent ordinary people.  The takeover of Crimea was orchestrated by a few individuals, and nobody else should be punished for their political over-reach.  On the other hand, it is unclear whether such sanctions will have any effect, or even what the objectives are.  Some commentators, including Jimmy Carter, believe that Russia is happy with today’s borders and will not move forcibly further. 8 Others believe that Russia is now preparing to swallowgeorgia_moldova Moldova and Georgia. 9 Some believe that western response should be much stronger.  “Sanctions would only really have an effect if they became general measures against whole sectors of the Russian economy,” says Nina Schick, a policy analyst with Open Europe. 10 But wouldn’t that mean that millions of innocent Russians would pay the price for a few greedy politicians at the top?  There we are back at square one

The bigger question, the question that very few people seem to be attuned to ask yet, is why individual nations should be the enforcers of other nations’ actions at all.  Sure, Russia is behaving out of hand.  Sure, its leaders should be taken to task, especially if they make another move of territorial expansion.  But why should that be the United States’ job?  It is such a clearer mandate when punishment comes from an international organization – especially one that includes Russia.  Fortunately, organizations such as the G-8, G-20, and UN are all condemning Russia’s taking of Crimea. 11 But all they really have the power to do, besides more sanctions, is exclude Russia from meetings and say, “Bad Russia!”  The UN or its future successor, or the Global Federal Republic if there ever is one, needs to have the power to strip abusive politicians from office or even imprison them or seize their assets.  That’s a very long-term solution.  For now, Russia has Crimea and there’s not much that anyone else can do about it.

In the end, I think that history simply takes some turns.  The splitting of Ukraine is one of them.  In the long run, my guess is that each half of Ukraine will end up allied with the neighbor of its choice, a win-win situation.  Ukraine has been a nation divided ever since the Cold War.  Now it is going through a divorce.  Europe tried to woo eastern Ukraine along with the west and failed.  As the saying goes, EU, “He’s just not that into you.”


Life goes on.

  1. Ukrainian constitution, Article 111 Paragraph 6
  2. Graef, Aileen, Crimean referendum vote could have been fixed, world awash in faux shock, UPI, 3/17/14
  3. Ukrainian constitution, Article 73
  4. Obama, Barack, speech in Brussels, 3/26/14
  5. Kramer, Andrew, Unease as an opposition party stands out in Ukraine’s protests, New York Times, 12/16/13
  6. Brown and Dovere, Obama:  Putin will lose – eventually, Politico, 3/26/14, p. 1.
  7. Obama, Barack, Executive Order 13661, Federal Register, Vol. 79, No. 53, p. 15535.
  8. Carter, Jimmy, Interview with David Letterman, 3/24/14, 5:00 – 6:00
  9. Norman, Laurence, Europe accelerates agreements for Georgia, Moldova, Wall Street Journal, 3/21/14
  10. Espiner, Tom, Do sanctions against Russia have any bite? BBC, 3/24/14
  11. Brown, Hayes, How international organizations are responding to the  Ukraine crisis, ThinkProgress, 3/03/14
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Love and Hate at the Olympics

Last week, I helped a student with a current-events essay of his own choosing.  He selected an excellent topic: the meaning of the Olympics.  Are the games a platform for peace and solidarity through civilian statesmanship?  Or are they a highly visible stage for flexing geopolitical muscle?  Because this is a complicated world, the answer is:  both!  We have all witnessed international superstars like Nadia Comaneci thawing public attitudes during the Cold War.  We have seen countless Olympic stadiums packed with families and fans from every imaginable country, sitting side-by-side.  We have seen athletes from warring nations shake hands or hug on the podium.  On the other hand, we also remember controversial boycotts and attendances, Hitler’s exclusion of Jews from the Olympic team, and even acts of terrorism.

This year, of course, the Winter Olympics are in Russia.  The event has certainly drawn a lot of attention to the policies of President Putin and the national government.  Even seemingly mundane details as construction contracts have raised eyebrows.  Suspicions are that artificially high bids were awarded to contractors close to Putin.  The cost comes out of public coffers, probably lubricated by bribes in high places.

In the months leading up to the games, Russian authorities released several controversial prisoners.  In December, Putin granted amnesty to members of Pussy Riot and Greenpeace who had been detained for months or years.  All had been arrested on charges of “hooliganism.”  Most outsiders had seen the arrests as a thinly veiled suppression of free speech directed against the Russian church and state.  With the Olympics only two months away, many observers speculated that Putin felt uncomfortable justifying the protesters’ continued imprisonment in a glaring global spotlight.  It’s good to know that Olympic media pressure can make a difference like that.  On the other hand, forcing governments into momentary good behavior only permits them to wiggle out of criticism when all eyes are on them.  It’s easy to put on a good face for a few weeks.  One of the pardoned Pussy Riot members actually wanted to finish serving her term in prison.  Her ongoing sentence through the Olympics would have made a much stronger statement than her unheralded pardon and release a few months early.

Two ongoing Olympic themes are especially related to issues addressed in Chapter 1 of this book:  Russia’s gay propaganda laws, and the threat of Chechen terrorists.

Russia has had a complicated history with gay rights.  Homosexuality has only been legal since the 1990s.  In the ‘00s, regional governments started passing laws forbidding gay “propaganda” in the presence of minors.  Last year, the federal government officially made the ban nationwide.   The punishment has generally been fines on gay rights activists.  Gay pride parades are not permitted.  The stated purpose is to protect children from the overtly sexual displays that can characterize gay activism.  In so doing, of course, it is quite a damper on free expression.  It also strikes most Westerners as old-fashioned, as if homosexuality should be shameful and as if propaganda influences children to become gay.   The Russian government in turn has been fined for supporting this law, in a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.  But the law still stands, and actually has widespread support among Russian parents.  For the record, here is an English translation of the actual text.  I have arranged it in outline form for the sake of readability:


of non-traditional sexual relations

among minors

expressed in distribution of information that is aimed at

  • the formation among minors of non-traditional sexual attitudes,
  • attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relations,
  • misperceptions of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations,
  • or enforcing information about non-traditional sexual relations that evokes interest to such relations,

if these actions do not constitute a criminal offense,

is punishable by an administrative fine.”

(Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses)

This law has pitted conservative (especially Russian) and liberal (especially Western) views about the gay pride / civil rights movement directly against each other.  As the Olympics began, Google’s home page featured a quote from the Olympic Charter:

“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” 

This was a little bit of an overreaction, because Russia had imposed no discrimination against gay athletes themselves.  But it made the point, a contrast of moral values.

As the games approached, there was a lot of speculation about whether foreign activists would be punished under the law.  Some athletes themselves had to decide whether to protest the law or respect the host country.  So far, protest has been subtle and unpunished.  The US official delegation to the Olympics includes three gay members, including Brian Boitano, who came out publicly after being assigned to the committee.  A silver medal has been dedicated to “gay friends back home.”  Rainbows have been painted on fingernails.  In summary, the law and its reactions have produced a peaceful collision of cultural values, a dialogue that is a little more global than it was last year.

sochi_mapAnother major theme of this Olympiad is the threat of terrorism.  Sochi is located on the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus region, not far from Chechnya and Dagestan.  Since the Chechen wars, this area has become an increasingly popular destination for violent jihadists.  (The Boston Marathon bombers were from Dagestan).  In 2007, separatist leader Doku Umarov founded the Caucasus Emirate.  This militant organization strives for an autonomous Caucasus under Shariah Law.  With only about 1,000 members, their vision is overblown.  However, so is their passion against  Russia and especially Putin, with fresh war memories and lingering depression.  Russia cast the Olympics in the Caucasus partly as a strategic effort to attract tourists and foreign investment, to revitalize the regional economy on Moscow’s terms.  Nothing could be worse for the Islamist isolationists.  Local separatists know that one single blow at Sochi would keep foreigners out for years.  It would be a perfect target.

The Caucasus Emirate has been very active in recent months.  In the city of Volgograd, a major travel hub toward Sochi, it has bombed buses and trains three times since October.  Dozens of civilians were killed.  The Emirate also committed public murders in Stavropol last month.  None of these attacks were expressly Olympic-related.  However, direct threats have been made.  In a January video, two Emirate members warned, “If it happens [the Olympics], we’ll have a surprise for you. This is for all the Muslim blood that is shed every day around the world, be it in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, all around the world. This will be our revenge.”  Influential cleric Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi has approved of the recent bombings in a manner that some see as a fatwa.  “They are careful to demonstrate security stability in their country especially with the approaching Olympics,” he wrote last month, “so shaking such stability is a required matter and an intended target.”  The threats are taken very seriously.  Russian forces have created a massive “ring of security” around Sochi.

The Emirate’s notorious female suicide bombers are known as “black widows,” because many of them lost their husbands in the Chechen wars.  Last month, there was a rumor that a black widow had already penetrated the ring of security and was lying in wait.  Now it is unclear whether she is actually there.  With their ongoing success with “soft” (less centralized, more vulnerable targets) it seems likelier that terrorists would strike somewhere outside the main Olympic village.  Some experts have assessed a bombing attempt as “almost certain.”

Last year, Umarov himself encouraged attacks against the Olympics.  He was reportedly killed by Russian special forces last month.  Now, thankfully, the rebels may be too disorganized to launch a successful attack.  “That’s why all the talk about the threats to Sochi are absolutely groundless,” said (legitimate) Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.  So far so good!

The Olympics are complicated.  In the end, though, we keep coming back to them every two years.  That’s because of the true spirit of the games.  They are about inspiration, competition at the highest level, and sportsmanship.  One of the best moments this month has been the figure skating routine of Jeremy Abbott.  American Abbott fell hard during his routine.  Yet the crowd, mostly Russians, encouraged him to get up and finish, and cheered him on through the rest of his performance.  Despite the forum that they provide for noisemakers, the Olympics foster peaceful cooperation and cultural intermingling.  It is important for everyone to see such international camaraderie; it helps make world peace palpable.  Beyond that, of course the games provide an important goal for the very best athletes and their families.  We can’t help being intrigued by the world’s best.  We will always love to see them represent our home countries in battles of peace.

Since "we know what we see," it is important to witness this kind of international coming-together.

Since “we know what we see,” it is important to witness this kind of international coming-together.


References (in no particular order)

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Why We Mark the Beatles’ Golden Anniversary in America

McCartney and Starr last week in LA (Photo: Reuters)

McCartney and Starr last week in LA (Photo: Reuters)

Today, CBS will be broadcasting a rare reunion of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, on the occasion of their 50th anniversary in America.  The concert was filmed the day after the Grammies, just a couple of miles from me here in LA.  The occasion is also marked by several magazine cover stories this month.

The Beatles were a phenomenon that will not happen again, a band that was both the most popular and the best.  They made their US debut in 1964, when TV was still a relatively new medium and the number of channels was very limited.  The national dialogue was narrowly focused.  Today, we enjoy much greater diversity in entertainment options, but at the cost of being fragmented.  There is no turning back to a time when one band can catch the attention of children and adults in one monolithic nationwide audience.

The Beatles are usually remembered for their popularity and timeliness.  They wrote catchy songs, and they were right there at the leading edge of baby-boomer youth culture.  The 1960s was a decade of enormous social changes, and will probably merit a section all its own when I write Chapter 2.  It was really the beginning of of what we would identify with as “today’s world.”  As a cultural phenomenon, The Beatles were indelibly impressed on the social fabric of the times.  Beatlemania is a necessary ingredient of nostalgia for that period of time.  Even I have always felt oddly retro-nostalgic for the decade before I was born, when I hear the Beatles songs that still dominated the airwaves in my first few years.  And to think, the Beatles almost didn’t make it onto the Ed Sullivan show.  Management had trouble finding a sponsor.  Bayer aspirin came through at the last minute.  Isn’t it interesting how entertainment and pragmatic economics are intertwined.  Ultimately, the Beatles got on TV in February, 1964 because Bayer needed to sell aspirins.

Even aside from their cultural signficance, all music nerds will agree that The Beatles were a game-changer in the art.  It’s a little ironic that they started out as a cover band, and actually came to the game kind of late for rock-and-roll.  Many music agents at the time felt convinced that “guitar based bands” were already on their way out in 1962, as the Beatles sought their first record deals.  Their catalog from 1962 – 1964 is usually played on the same radio stations that play the “oldies” of the 1950s.

The Beatles' US debut, 50 years ago today

The Beatles’ US debut, 50 years ago today

From the start, though, one thing was unique:  The Beatles synthesized all of the rock-n-roll roles into one band.  Before that time, the industry had specialists.  There were songwriters (Willy Dixon, Neal Sedaka).  There were great vocalists (Roy Orbison) and vocal groups (The 4 Seasons).  There were instrumentalists (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis).  There were stars (Elvis).  Very few had it all in one package.  With a few concurrent exceptions like the Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, the Beatles were the first self-contained rock band.  Their Ed Sullivan appearance set the new industry standard.  After that, it was commonly understood that bands should be able to write their own songs and perform them with panache.  It was an extremely high bar.  Honestly, in the whole history of rock music, only maybe a few hundred bands have ever been capable of pulling it off well.

But it was the next year, 1965, that the Beatles started to metamorphose and to take the art of music in new directions.  That was the year that the Beatles became the first progressive rock band, with a focus on studio production.  They launched two albums, “Help” and “Rubber Soul.”  These included songs the likes of which had not been heard before, such as “Ticket to Ride,” “Yesterday,” “Michelle,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “In My Life.”  1965 was a watershed year for the Beatles and other artists.  The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” brought distortion to the electric guitar while McCartney introduced fuzz bass.  It was the year of “Satisfaction” and “California Dreaming.”  Then the scene exploded.  Psychedelia appeared in 1966, again with Beatles contributions.  Hard rock / heavy metal was appearing by the late ’60s, influenced by Beatles songs like “Helter Skelter” (1968) and “She’s So Heavy” (1969, the year before Black Sabbath’s first album).  Even the bands that are usually given credit for inventing progressive rock, such as Pink Floyd and King Crimson, made their debuts only after the Beatles mid-career mark.  The Beatles continued to adapt their sound and be at the forefront of songwriting and production until their last album, “Let It Be,” in 1970.  They went out on top.

It is no exaggeration to say that the entire era of classic rock music was just three decades of Beatlemania.  The scene remained rich until the early ’90s.  I regard Dream Theater’s 1992 “Images and Words” as the last significant classic rock album.  It was preceded in 1991 by the sudden explosion of modern rock, a scene that produced great albums for only about two years before going stagnant.  The golden era of rock music is long gone and will never stage a comeback.  Today’s scene is too fragmented.  Audiophilism has given way to iPod miniaturization, live bands have given way to DJ’s.  At bottom, there’s not enough money in the industry anymore to cull talent and foster rock music communities.

I admire all the Beatles, with a special appreciation for Paul McCartney.  Half of the energy that you hear in early Beatles songs comes from his voice.  He drove the band in their late years.  I especially respect the way he has kept an active career all these years.   You remember his Christmas song and his collaborations with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in the ’80s.  His song “Freedom” was an immediate response to the attacks of 9/11/01.  I saw him live in 2006, when he was touring for his great “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” album.  The crowd was riveted by “Jenny Wren” just as much as “Yesterday.”  He likes to stay up-to-the-minute on hot new bands.  He has released some orchestral albums that are really good.  He even did some anonymous albums under the band name “Fireman,” which I enjoy as much as any electronica.

Ringo Starr has distanced himself from the Beatles legacy in recent years, so I was glad to see him join Paul at this event.  It seems that he was very excited by it.  Wish I could have been there!  I’m sure tickets were hard to come by.  😛

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