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Covid-19: lies, damn lies and statistics

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Brazilian President Bolsonaro, explaining how government mismanagement and corruption is a good thing

Canto: So Russia is being described as a ‘late arriver’ with regard to Covid-19. It now has the second-highest number of cases, as everyone knows. Yet the mortality figure is astonishingly low. It’s only natural to be suspicious as there’s surely no obvious epidemiological explanation. It’s worth comparing Russia to Germany, whose figures few would quibble with, given its reputation for efficiency. It’s been treated as the European outlier in terms of its response, but nobody appears to be praising Russia for its tiny mortality rate. Why would that be?

Jacinta: Just looking at some reporting, various reasons have been given. Take this one from Dr. Elena Malinnikova, the chief of infectious diseases in the Russian Ministry of Health:

The low mortality is due to timely detection of infection as well as the fact that that Russians tend to see their doctor soon after symptoms appear.

Canto: Hmmm. Other nationalities don’t see their doctor, when there’s a killer pandemic on the loose? And ‘timely detection of infection’ sounds overly vague to me.

Jacinta: Let’s try another one. ‘Russian journalists have reported that more than 60% of all cases diagnosed in the country have been in Moscow, which has a younger and healthier population than rural areas’.

Canto: Yeah, but in the USA it’s the richer, more heavily populated regions of the north-east that have been hardest hit. The rural regions much less so.

Jacinta: Okay. In the article linked to above, Kent Sepkowicz, a physician and infection control specialist, provides good reasons why Russia’s mortality figures don’t make much sense on their face. And before I report on that, let’s look at rough reported mortality rates of a few countries, for comparison. I’ve just looked at total reported deaths as a percentage of total cases. As of May 20, the USA’s mortality rate is around 6%, the UK’s a horrendous 14%, Germany’s has gradually risen to 4.6%, and Brazil, another latecomer like Russia, and now with the fourth largest number of cases, is at 6.5%. Russia, on the other hand, is at 0.95% mortality. That’s a huge disparity, which we might call ‘Russia’s miracle’. But, as Sepkowicz points out, despite reports that Russia is doing well on testing (more than ten times that of Brazil, and somewhat more than the USA, and they might’ve started earlier too), Russia scores poorly on the comorbidity front, otherwise known as ‘pre-existing conditions’, such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes and obesity. It has an ageing population, and smoking is far more prevalent there than in European countries and Brazil. The testing regime is definitely not so much better than other countries to account for Russia’s apparent success – both Spain and Italy have done more tests per population.

Canto: Hello, are you saying there’s something shifty in the works? Vlad and and his charming circle would never lie to us, surely?

Jacinta: I don’t know that they’d gain much from fudging the figures…

Canto: Are you kidding? Isn’t that like saying Vlad wouldn’t gain much from rigging his election results? What he loses in international credibility, he might gain on the national scene, and that’s more important for him. But maybe there’s some less nefarious reason for the low mortality – I know they’re counting the numbers differently in some way. But the deaths from Covid-19 are the deaths from Covid-19. It should be a straightforward matter.

Jacinta: What about the deaths from x, y or z, exacerbated by Covid-19 infection?

Canto: I think that’s what they’re doing in Russia. Unless they’re certain that it was Covid-19 directly, they’re not counting it, even if they’ve tested positive for the virus, and then they die. They might be arguing that they were going to die anyway, Covid-19 just hastened the end.

Jacinta: Very dodgy if true. You could say that about anyone who’s a bit peely-wally.

Canto: Anyway let’s look at another country in this very complicated trans-national battle against the virus. Brazil’s an interesting one. I’m noting that countries with right-wing laissez-faire governments tend to be killing their citizens at a faster clip than leftist or centrist governments. Whadyareckon?

Jacinta: That’s a bit crude, but let’s look again at the reported figures and give number of deaths per number of cases as percentages. I’m going to leave out Russia and China, as I don’t trust what they’re reporting – which isn’t to say I entirely trust the other nations, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Britain, as mentioned, is very high at 16%, and has a conservative government. A very interesting country to look at is Belgium, which has the highest death rate per million of population of any major country in Europe. It’s death-to cases percentage is also high, at just over 16%. The country’s political situation is horrendously complex. They’ve had a caretaker PM for a year or so, and there’s basically a caretaker government after messy election results in March, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. This interim government is supposedly in place just to manage the crisis. Clearly it’s not going well. It would be reasonable to put their problems down to no strong central government, à la the US. Now, Brazil has a notoriously extreme-right government at present, and I’ve already given its deaths-to-cases ratio, but the number of cases is rising rapidly, as are the number of deaths. Now, let’s have a look at Scandinavian countries, often glorified as models of good government. I’ll include in that vague grouping, in order of population: the Netherlands (17m), Sweden (10m), Denmark (5.8m), Finland (5.5m) and Norway (5.4m), and I’ll exclude Iceland, which has all the advantages of a distant island re isolation (it’s 87th in the world for cases). On deaths-to-cases: The Netherlands 13%, Sweden 12%, Denmark 5%, Finland 4.7% and Norway 2.8%. On those statistics, it seems that the smaller the country, population-wise, the better managed it has been in terms of preventing mortality, which does make some sense.

Canto: Okay so I’ll look at their current governments. the Netherlands is clearly hard-hit, Covid-19-wise. It has a multi-multi-party system (that’s not a typo) and is currently governed by a centre-right or conservative-liberal party, VVD, presumably supported by the next largest party, PVV a right-wing nationalist group. The left appears to be divided amongst a number of smaller parties, and the current government has been in power for ten years. Sweden, also faring badly under Covid-19, currently has a minority government with a social democrat PM after a controversial and inconclusive election in 2018. So it’s a centre-left government relying on centre-right parties. The social democrats have been in power, mostly as a majority, since 1917, but there has been a movement towards the right in recent years. Denmark, doing better than the previous two, but faring much worse than we are here in Australia, where we have a death-to-case ratio of 1.4%, has again a multi-party system – and by the way, all of these Scandinavian countries, except Finland which is a republic, are constitutional monarchies practising parliamentary democracy like Britain, and, in a weird way, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The leftist social democrats are currently in power in Denmark, and they have a far tougher position on physical distancing than the Swedish government. Finland Has both a President and a Prime Minister, somewhat like France. The Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, made news worldwide as the youngest PM in the world when elected late last year. She’s a social democrat and heads a coalition government, which seems to be the case with most Scandinavian governments.

Jacinta: Yes, They seem designed that way so the parliament is more or less forced to collaborate in order to get things done. It seems a much better way to run a country, a far superior system to that of the USA, much more team-based. Anyway, statistics seem to suggest that, overall, strong central governments that can co-ordinate efforts effectively, and have the support of the people, are doing better at saving lives. It’s not a conclusive finding though, and no doubt each country has its confounding factors.

Canto: Norway, finally, has handled things in much the way you would expect of the nation rated first in the world by the OECD. On March 19 this year, their federal government was granted emergency powers by parliament until December. That’s one way of creating strong central government, albeit temporarily. The current government is essentially right-centrist, within a multiparty system where the balance is usually held by left-centre parties. Clearly, though, this is a nation where people place more faith in government than, say, in the USA. And speaking of libertarianism and such, it’s interesting to look at Brazil more closely. When we began this post a couple of days, ago, Brazil was fourth in the world in terms of confirmed cases. Now it’s up to second, that’s how fast-moving things are.

Jacinta: And it’ll never reach top spot, surely – the USA is way way ahead of the rest of the world.

Canto: So Brazil is a republic, and currently has an extreme right-wing government under Jair Bolsonaro, who, according to this very recent New Yorker report, seems to be doing everything he can to exacerbate the situation. Brazil’s rise in cases has been more recent than most, and the death toll is now rising rapidly, now up to sixth in the world.Bolsonaro is shrugging it off and encouraging defiance of state restrictions in much the manner of Trump, whom he idolises. So it seems that when you get extreme anti-government government – negligence mixed with incompetence – as in the case of Trump and Bolsonaro, the death toll will likely be devastating, and will impact mainly the poor, elderly and disadvantaged. Who would’ve thunk it?

References

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/13/opinions/russia-low-covid-19-mortality-rate-sepkowitz/index.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/without-a-government-for-a-year-belgium-shows-what-happens-to-politics-without-politicians/2019/12/19/5c13cb48-20de-11ea-b034-de7dc2b5199b_story.html

https://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Europe/Belgium-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT-AND-TAXATION.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_the_Netherlands

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Sweden

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Denmark

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Norway

https://www.forbes.com/sites/carmenniethammer/2019/12/12/finlands-new-government-is-young-and-led-by-women-heres-what-the-country-does-to-promote-diversity/#28236f8835aa

https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-coronavirus-hits-brazil-hard-but-jair-bolsonaro-is-unrepentant


Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2020 at 10:47 am

Trump – still watching the slo-mo train wreck

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Jacinta: Well haha, you made a prediction to me last December that Trump would be out on his highly intelligent arse by the end of this year – how’s that going?

Canto: Well after making that prediction I’ve embarked on a bit of a journey re US politics and the presidential system in particular, and as you know, what I’ve discovered has shocked me to the core. So, yes, he probably won’t be out by year’s end, but he obviously should have been, well before this. Basically, as I see it, the sensible folks of the US, the adults, are paralysed in the face of a crooked, incompetent, solipsistic pre-teen brat being elected, with less than half the votes, to the most powerful position in the most economically and militarily powerful nation on Earth. They just haven’t got the political system, the checks and balances, to deal with him, in spite of their constant braying about being ‘the world’s greatest democracy’. Still, as a number of US pundits have pointed out, he’ll be much closer to his end when this month comes to an end. And I find it all very engaging, in a morbid kind of way.

Jacinta: Well, yes, we’ve referred to it for some time as a slo-mo train wreck, and it looks like some of the more visible damage might be witnessed in the next few weeks.  

Canto: Follow the money. Which takes us to Russia. We’ve long known that Trump was saved from his bankruptcies and financial incompetence by Deutsche Bank, the Russian money-laundering bank, that he’s very secretive about those finances, and his tax returns haven’t been prised from him…

Jacinta: But the Mueller team have subpoenaed Deutsche Bank, haven’t they? Specifically for Trump’s business finances? I mean, why else?

Canto: I’ve long said that the Mueller team have such a feast of incriminating info on Trump and Russia that even the world’s greatest glutton couldn’t consume it. And there’s plenty of murky stuff available to the public, as reported in The Moscow Project, for example, and in presentations by MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow, among others. 

Jacinta: The word ‘kompromat’ comes up a lot – compromising information or indebtedness, used to exert leverage over powerful individuals or business entities. Though I’m sure Russia-Putin never dreamed they would one day have such leverage over a US President. 

Canto: Well that’s the thing. They did dream about it, and what’s more worked to make it happen. Remember that Trump didn’t win the popular vote, he won the electoral college. And remember that the Russians interfered with that election. I haven’t looked into this in detail, but the claim made, for example, by the historian and commentator Niall Ferguson, that Russian interference in the 2016 election was negligible as to results, that claim is bullshit, I suspect. They targeted ‘purple states’, theirs was a value-for-money operation, very sophisticated. I recall reading the speaking indictment on the hacking, and noting the mention of ‘known and unknown individuals’ on the American side of that hacking. So Mueller knew then about some American conspirators, and probably knows more now. Trump goes on about ‘no collusion’, but there clearly was a conspiracy, to win the election with Russian assistance in return for removal of sanctions and god knows what else.

Jacinta: Kompromat indeed. Certainly seems to explain Trump’s behaviour re Russia-Putin from before the election to now. What’s amusing is that he’s not only parroted ‘no conclusion’ endlessly, he’s also repeated the ‘no deals with Russia’ mantra ad nauseam. Pretty dumb, because it soon becomes clear that when he repeats things like that, he’s lying. 

Canto: Dumb but hey, he’s never been jailed or had to pay much of a price for his misdeeds. But let’s focus on Russia itself – or Russia-Putin as you call it (I like that combo). As you know the country is run, or rather fleeced, by a bunch of billionaire oligarchs who are Putin’s puppets, and if they don’t do his bidding they’re fleeced in turn by Putin and either jailed or forced into exile, or worse. Trump enters this network of fiends as the archetypal bumbling braggadocio. These guys love to sneer at Americans, no doubt seeing them as amateur scammers and thugs compared to themselves. And Trump is the ultimate incompetent amateur, as if created for their cynical purposes. Now, as is well known, Trump has filed for bankruptcy six times, from 1991 to 2009. It’s called Chapter 11 bankruptcy and it’s designed to enable restructuring, so Trump says he uses the system to his benefit, but of course little of what he says is true or even makes sense…

Jacinta: But surely it’s true that he hasn’t suffered much from his bankruptcies. 

Canto: That’s true, and there are obviously major flaws in US corporate law that allow him to get out from under while others apparently foot the bill. But what’s interesting is that, as American banks saw him more and more as an unstable businessman, they turned off the tap. One bank that didn’t, however, was Deutsche Bank – the Russian money-laundering bank. Not only that, Trump was increasingly interested in business relations with Russians, probably due to their lax standards. Trump Tower Toronto was largely funded through VEB, a Russian state-owned bank once chaired by Putin himself, and Russian investments into Trump real estate in the US are too numerous to list. And that takes us to more recent events. Trump and his enablers were trying to build a tower in Moscow in the run-up to the campaign. Clearly this was of interest to Russia-Putin, so again the VEB was heavily involved. Imagine if candidate Trump, who already shared many of Russia-Putin’s anti-democratic proclivities, could be installed as President,  in return for financial assistance, which would be tied to the lifting of US sanctions on Russia, and other sweetheart deals. What a coup that would be.

Jacinta: Yes, and all that is pretty well established, I mean in the public realm. But what about the law? Which laws have been broken? We both agree that impeachment stinks, so how exactly is the law going to deal with Trump and co?

Canto: Well, let’s leave aside the probable case that the Mueller team won’t have Trump arrested, due to the vast powers they’ve given their President. Let’s imagine it’s a more sensible system in which the head of state is as immediately accountable for his crimes as any other citizen. I’m not an expert on US law of course, but as often mentioned, Cohen has pled guilty to two felony offences, campaign finance violations, and has stated – obviously correctly – that they were directed by Trump. The FBI, or whoever, already knew that as they have all of Cohen’s paperwork, emails, texts, mountains of the stuff. So that’s two dead certain offences. 

Jacinta: Cohen is trying for what we know Flynn will likely get – no prison time. How does that affect Trump?

Canto: Badly. I love it that Trump is lambasting Cohen for doing the right thing, and praising Manafort and Stone for doing the wrong thing. Now all Manafort can hope for is a pardon, from a surely doomed President. 

Jacinta: So if Trump pardons Manafort and then he goes down on multiple charges – financial misdealings, conspiracy and obstruction of justice – what then?

Canto: The pardon shouldn’t be allowed to stand, and that’s another test for the US judicial system.

Jacinta: So should we try to find out the precise laws that have likely been broken? 

Canto: That may be a difficult, or at least a painstaking task. There are lawsuits pending against him however. For example there are a couple of suits against him for violating the emoluments clause of the US constitution, one by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and one filed jointly by the Attorneys-General of the District of Columbia and the State of Maryland. This will be the first time the emoluments clause has been tested in court. The D C and Maryland suit was filed back in June 2017 but there has been action on it recently, with subpoenas issued just a few days ago for Trump’s financial records relating to his D C hotel. So that’s one to watch on the sidelines. But generally there will be laws relating to money laundering, conspiring with foreign entities to interfere in an election, and obstruction of justice, that will likely apply to Trump. The obstruction of justice matter, which no doubt includes lying to the FBI (but perhaps not lying about the FBI!) is unfortunately a bit vague. In any case, we just need to stop hyperventilating – or I do – and watch it all play out. I’d love to see Trump in jail, but the other side of me knows he can’t help himself, he is what he is. The real problem, as I’ve always said, isn’t really Trump but the American political system, most particularly the Presidential system. I want to see if they try to fix it, post-Trump. 


Written by stewart henderson

December 6, 2018 at 10:24 pm

Is Donald Trump a great businessman?

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another failed venture and a probable scam

Today I listened to a ‘news report’ delivered in front of our small class by a teenage student from China, a sweet young lad, near 7 feet tall and skinny as a bean, with limited English, whom I’ve been coaching in grammar. Students are asked to choose from a list of articles, simplified, in our class’s case, to pre-intermediate or elementary English level, and report on the article in their own words. My student had chosen the topic ‘Why Hilary Clinton lost the election’, a simplified version of an article by Dan Roberts, originally published in The Guardian on 9 November 2016, the day after Trump’s victory. Before he delivered his report, he had to check it through with me, a routine procedure, but to my annoyance he didn’t have any plan or notes to show me, and assured me that ‘it was all in his head’. He also asked me if it was alright if he focused more on Trump than on Hilary. I told him it was best not to divagate too much from the article, but he was free to voice his own opinion of the candidates.

It wasn’t a great talk. My student was, of course, very nervous, and he glossed over Roberts’ view that Clinton lost the election due to the economy, lack of trust and the weakness of her message. His main point was that Trump won because he was a successful businessman, and running a nation is all about money and success. This was really the totality of his talk, delivered in a halting, repetitive way.

Naturally I was irritated at this, but I let it slide. This was a test of English and not so much a test of critical thinking and analysis, though that had to be a factor. So, the fact that my student didn’t provide any evidence of Trump’s great business acumen certainly was a problem for his talk, which was clearly tendentious. However, considering that this was a low-level class I was prepared to give him a bare pass, and to quash my feelings over this oft-repeated claim that Trump has great business smarts.

From other sources I’ve heard very different claims. Sam Harris, in his Waking Up podcast, regularly asserts his view that virtually nobody is more unfit for the office he currently holds than Trump – the ‘boy-king’, as he calls him. In a recent interview with David Frum, Trump’s business skills were ridiculed. First, Frum took aim at Trump’s foreign policy approach, which was to see other parts of the world, such as the EU, as essentially business competitors, or people you should try to ‘cut deals with’, obviously to the advantage of the US. The fact that he was often dealing with allies who shared the values of the US seemed irrelevant. Then Frum mocked Trump’s reputation as a business operator, pointing out that in Toronto, where Frum, a Canadian-American, is involved in business, namely real estate, which of course is Trump’s business field, Trump’s reputation is somewhere between mud (to people he owes money to) and a laughing-stock (to interested spectators). He went on to say that ‘No-one in the business world has any respect for him as a businessman’.

Business and economics are not exactly my strong suits, but it seems to me that Frum, a lifelong Republican with inside knowledge of the real estate business, is a reliable witness here. However, I don’t want to take on face value his claim that nobody in the business world respects him. I need more evidence.

Before I go on though, I should make the point that Trump has, of course, already shown himself to be unfit for office regardless of his business activities. His bullying tactics as a candidate, the profound narcissism in so many of his utterances, his inflammatory and stupid remarks about those who live south of the US border, his ‘moslem ban’, his treatment of the free press, his admiration for the Russian mafioso dictator above all other world leaders, his scientific illiteracy, his pathetic and disgusting attacks on women’s appearance, his attacks on the judiciary, his contempt for his own intelligence agencies, and so much more, prove him to be a disaster for democracy and proper governance, and the shame for his election lies squarely with those who voted for him, knowing, as any intelligent person would know, the kind of person they were backing.

So to the business. A brief dummies’ guide to Trump’s ventures is given here, and it shows that his failures outnumber his successes, which presumably doesn’t prove him a failure, just as one or two movie successes can recoup twenty movie losses. As to his actual value, it’s pretty well the length of a piece of string, and it’s unclear if he’s made any money at all from the wealth he inherited. And it’s also very unclear how much money he actually inherited. Trump himself said during the campaign that he started off with $1 million and built a company worth more than $10 billion, a remark he prefaced with ‘believe me’.

Funnily enough, nobody does.

Trump received a share of his father’s estate at his death in 1999, and though there’s no clear figure, it was a lot more than $1 million. More importantly, his father set him up financially long before that. Donald Trump became President of Trump senior’s real estate business in 1974, at which time it was valued at $200 million, according to one estimate. But who knows? Here’s an interesting commentary from a Quora finance expert, Will Wister:

The growth of his wealth since 1982 has been in line with that of the S&P 500, according to his own statements. Donald Trump’s self-described net worth was $200 million in 1982. If he invested that money in the S&P 500, he’d be worth about $8.3 billion today. Today he claims his net worth is $8.7 billion. So based on his own claims, he has barely outperformed the S&P since 1982.

Some articles claim that Donald Trump’s inheritance was somewhere between 40 and 200 million in 1974. Since 1974, the S&P 500 is up about 74-fold. So his current claimed net worth of 8.7 billion would equate to about 120 million in 1974, which is right in the middle of estimates of what he inherited. In other words, if the articles are accurate, his performance was very close to that of the market from 1974 to present.

What this tells me, above everything else, is how the world is geared to the massive advantage of the super-rich (if you inherited millions in the seventies, you’d have to be disastrously stupid or dysfunctional to be a failure today), but it’s totally speculative about the boy-king’s wealth.

You would think that the public have a right to know more about this subject, considering that Trump parades his success as a businessman, and has used the claim as evidence of his ability to be the bestest of Presidents. Yet Trump has managed to evade the call to present his tax returns to the public, rejecting a 40-year tradition, and why would a successful businessman do that?

This matter of his tax returns and the state of his wealth takes on added importance in consideration of Trump and his family’s seemingly murky relations with Russia’s kleptocracy. Considering the bumbling way that Trump is dealing with the US presidency, it’s virtually impossible to imagine him as anything other than a bumbling businessman. Loud, histrionic, bragging and bullying certainly, but also bumbling and quite likely manipulable, given his infantile narcissism. This makes it more urgent than ever to uncover whether or not he’s indebted to Putin and his billionaire henchmen, who, I have no doubt, are far smarter and more cynical than he is. There’s an Emoluments Clause in the US constitution which states that:

no Person holding any Office…shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

The legal question then becomes – do any Russian bail-outs for Trump’s incompetent business dealings constitute such emoluments? This would result in endless legal argy-bargy. Presumably Trump could squirm out of it if it was shown that, if there were any bail-outs, they occurred before he became President. But anyway it’s unlikely that he would willingly provide any information whatsoever about his financial dealings – which, given his well-known association with Russian political and financial figures, and given the well-established fact that Russia sought to undermine the democratic process in the recent election, and given the fact of Trump’s fawning admiration for the Russian dictator, whom he clearly admires above all other political leaders, should surely be sufficient reason, not for impeachment, but for removal from office. The Emoluments Clause, which in any cause wasn’t originally intended to be interpreted broadly, shouldn’t be given as the reason, it should be based on more serious matters. I’m not one to argue for treason, given my stance as an international humanist, but clearly Trump has betrayed democracy, the open society and the rule of law with his evasions and allegiances.

So far it looks like Trump is the kind of businessman you’d expect him to be given his performance as President, and given the character he displays. His ties to Russia are legion, and appear to be financially substantial, given that his many bankruptcies have exhausted the patience of US moneylenders. His business bragaddocio may fool the odd naive Chinese teenager, but the American public should have known better.

Incidentally, it seems the best business decision Trump has ever made was to run for President. The huckster’s chuckling now. Talk about playing the American public for suckers.

http://www.internationalbusinessguide.org/trump-business-career/

http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/the-administration/338153-sleep-well-president-trump-there-are-no-emoluments

http://time.com/4433880/donald-trump-ties-to-russia/

https://www.quora.com/Did-Donald-Trump-inherit-a-lot-of-money-and-then-increase-his-net-worth-at-an-unremarkable-rate

http://www.politifact.com/florida/article/2016/mar/07/did-donald-trump-inherit-100-million/

https://www.businessinsider.com.au/trump-financial-disclosure-report-2017-6?r=US&IR=T

https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-great-unraveling

Written by stewart henderson

June 18, 2017 at 11:10 am