Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - March 17, 2018

Brian Gongol

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Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.


Segments 1-4: Interview with Kori Schake


The book: "Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony"

In 1894, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "[W]e must face facts as they are. We must neither surrender ourselves to foolish optimism, nor succumb to a timid and ignoble pessimism." Nearly a century later, Margaret Thatcher echoed the same sentiment when she said, "We are too prone to believe that our devotion to peace is universal. It is not. We must see those who could threaten us as they are and not as we would like them to be."

The thoughtful reader who wants to see the world as it is, and to understand why, should waste no time in obtaining a copy of Kori Schake's outstanding book, "Safe Passage".

Few ideas about global affairs are more foundational than the notion that the United States and the United Kingdom have a "special relationship". The received wisdom on this matter is that it has always been thus, and that it is such an obvious relationship that it requires no further explanation.

Schake shatters that conventional wisdom by documenting in a thorough and engrossing way that the "special relationship" wasn't preordained, nor obvious, nor organic. It was instead a carefully cultivated product of a century-long process during which multiple generations of British leaders of state and diplomats managed their own country's loss of global strategic dominance as the United States emerged as a rival (and ultimately more powerful) hegemon.

Even most educated people are probably too dismissive of the transition. There's a simplistic popular notion that the relationship was bad in the War of 1812, then there was some neutrality on Britain's part during the Civil War, and then Teddy Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet around the world and Britain bowed courteously as the United States took the mantle of global dominance.

The real narrative is vastly more complex and the choices made along the way tell a gripping story, thanks to Schake's masterful storytelling. "Safe Passage" isn't afraid to grapple with events as notorious as the Civil War without introducing true "Aha!" moments. Nor does it shy away from moments as seemingly esoteric as the Venezuelan debt crises of the late 1800s and early 1900s (go ahead and look them up; it's doubtful you would have encountered them in any depth outside a graduate-level history course), yet Schake manages to make them as seamless and engrossing a part of the bigger story as tales of Teddy Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders.

As history alone, it's a terrific book: Fluid, fast-paced, and vivid. The reader might choose to resist the urge to read it too quickly because it contains just so much interesting and thought-provoking analysis about historical moments most Americans assume we already know (reading "Safe Passage" will shatter those assumptions).

But the person who reads this book only for the history will miss out on the real reward, which is in what it says about the present. The United States had a remarkable head start on global political, economic, and military dominance in the present day. But quite a few civilizations have had their time in the sun as either regional or global hegemons. The core of Schake's book is that the transition from British to American dominance was the first time such a change had happened almost entirely peacefully -- and how it was no accident that Britain emerged with a claim to a "special relationship" to serve its own interests in the end.

This is, ultimately, a book about heeding Roosevelt and Thatcher by choosing to see things as they are, rather than as we might imagine them to be. In the present day, that means examining honestly how China has risen and what direction it is choosing. In the long term, it is a compelling argument for ensuring that the future of America's place in the world is shaped by choice, rather than accident. The crux of the book is contained in this one passage:

"Britain's hegemony comprised political balance among European powers, acquisition of colonies for economic gain, preferential trading within its empire, open trade and investment outside it, and military enforcement of its economic policies. As a rising power America aspired to and enacted similar policies: the United States became a responsible stakeholder in the British order, playing by the rules and seeing its interests served."

There could scarcely be a bigger, more defining question about the world today than whether America's present hegemony is secure for the future, especially as other powers gain economic and military might. Are they stakeholders in our order? And whose interests will be served?

Few books reward the reader by being, all at once, pleasant to read, deeply informative, and frequently surprising. "Safe Passage" scores high marks on all three. If you read mainly for pleasure or because you enjoy history, it's a great pick. But if you want to understand the world today and to have a contextual framework for understanding some of the epic, generational-scale events unfolding around this complex and fast-changing world, then read this book without delay. With a very light touch, Kori Schake will guide you toward convincing yourself that the future of the world really does depend on choices being made by diplomats, leaders of state, and ordinary voters right now. The future is a choice, and we are obligated to make our choices with the full knowledge of history.

Just as in Theodore Roosevelt's time (as the hegemonic baton was being passed from one power to another) and in Margaret Thatcher's time (when Britain's investment in creating the "special relationship" paid dividends probably as substantial as those it paid during the two World Wars), the only way to ensure that high ideals can be met is to make practical decisions in the present, facing the facts -- as well as our allies and our adversaries -- for exactly what they are. The shape of our world today is no accident. Its shape tomorrow ought not to be an accident, either.


Segment 5: (11 min)


Humor and Good News A new album is out from Stone Temple Pilots

And Generation X rejoiced

Your role in cyberwar

Threats and Hazards "50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach"

The Guardian reveals a stunning whistleblower claim that Cambridge Analytica used data on 50 million Facebook users -- data that was obtained in contravention of Facebook policies, using "personality test" apps that collected data not only on the user, but on the user's friends as well. And then Facebook was slow to fix the problem: They claim to have acted in 2015, but didn't go on to suspend the parties involved until this week. The New York Times reports that "Cambridge not only relied on the private Facebook data but still possesses most or all of the trove." This is a huge warning on lots of levels: To resist the urge to share too much online; to hold Facebook and other social media tools at arm's length (they're not your friends); to resist the urge to fall for the lure of "personality tests" tied to tools like Facebook; to know that third parties might collect information on you even if you didn't engage with them; to suspect anyone who claims to be collecting information online for "academic research"; and for a hundred other reasons. Data is being weaponized, and regardless of this particular case, that is only bound to accelerate.

Threats and Hazards Russian cyberattacks compromise power and water plants in the US and Europe

A Symantec executive says "They have the ability to shut the power off. All that's missing is some political motivation". One particular piece of the New York Times report puts the problem in stark terms: "[A]t least three separate Russian cyberoperations were underway simultaneously. One focused on stealing documents from the Democratic National Committee and other political groups. Another, by a St. Petersburg 'troll farm' known as the Internet Research Agency, used social media to sow discord and division. A third effort sought to burrow into the infrastructure of American and European nations." That doesn't preclude the possibility of yet other operations, as well. That's what makes the use of cyberwarfare so unnerving: It involves asymmetries between the inputs required and the outputs it can create. Thus it is highly attractive to those parties that calculate a low cost (in terms of retaliation) for high potential gain. This might be a good time for private and public parties in places like the United States to consider having a backup plan, like secondary operating systems.

Make money

Business and Finance The US only has a trade deficit with Canada if you exclude services

And excluding services is a ridiculous way to count economic output. Can we all just take a minute to reflect on the anachronism of thinking that goods are somehow better outputs than services? Any parent who has ever encouraged their kid to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer has revealed a preference for providing services. Goods and services need one another -- you can't build a bridge without designing it, too. Someone makes a pair of shoes, and someone else sells them. Boeing can build an airplane, but Delta has to fly it.

Business and Finance Where do traded dollars go when we are a net importer?

A hypothesis: Agglomerative network effects could neutralize the ordinarily negative effects of trade deficits. Suppose we run a trade deficit with country "B", buying things that help increase our growth rate. Country "B" returns some of the resulting cash surplus here, buying property or firms (maybe at inflated prices) that only exist because of the high growth rate in the first place. In a framework where certain imports of goods or services end up contributing to the creation of capital (of which some is sold to the exporting parties), the trade deficit might be more of a catalyst than a cost. In the short run, we show a current-accounts deficit; in the long term, the resulting capital creation (and thus future productive potential) is much greater than the proportion of the capital stock that is sold off to repatriate the dollars exchanged in trade early on. This would depend, though, on the US market having certain characteristics making it a uniquely high-return locaion for investment.

Segment 6: (8 min)

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Iowa news

Weather and Disasters Parts of Des Moines metro got 8" of snow overnight

Other places, not 20 miles away, got less than half an inch

21st Century conservatism

Business and Finance A US Senator who gets the big picture

Sen. Ben Sasse demonstrates again (this time in an address to the Heritage Foundation) that the economy isn't served by going back to the 1950s

Threats and Hazards Sounding the alarm

There is a tension in having the President act both as head of government and head of state. Senator Jeff Flake is right to sound the alarm that the part about being head of state isn't being taken seriously. Preserving the dignity of the office as a tool of moral suasion is one of the reasons why so many people were interested in punishing President Bill Clinton for his bad behavior in office -- it wasn't a matter of policy, it was a matter of behavior. President Barack Obama conducted himself generally quite well as a head of state, but made a lot of errors as head of government. Today, it's entirely incomplete for people to approve of President Donald Trump's policies in government when his words and behavior as head of state are reprehensible. It's time for a pro-civic wing of the Republican Party to speak up and demand accountability for the duties of a head of state.

Segment 7: (14 min)

Live reads

Iowa Women's Basketball vs. Creighton -- pregame at 4:45 this afternoon, game at 5:00


News Embedded diamonds instead of engagement rings?

Just because a reporter can find a half-dozen people who do something doesn't make that thing a trend. And while picking on Millennials for sport is a joy of being in Generation X, this really isn't a generational thing. It's just some isolated instances of people being dumb.

Hyperbole is going to kill us all

News Justice Department fires former acting FBI director just before he retires with pension

Whether or not there was true merit to the dismissal of Andrew McCabe, openly taunting some of the nation's highest-ranking law-enforcement officers after you fire them probably isn't the most effective way to demonstrate innocence.

Threats and Hazards Former acting FBI director is fired just before retirement

And then the President turned to Twitter to openly taunt him. It doesn't seem wise for a President under investigation to mock people like Andrew McCabe and James Comey, but perhaps his lawyers have a creative defense strategy up their sleeves.

Stop the deliberate ignorance

Threats and Hazards So much stupidity concentrated into one interview

Everyone trying to remain in the public eye has a choice: Whether to be thought-provoking...or mindlessly provocative. The nonsense captured in the Spectator interview with Steve Bannon is definitively of the latter type.

Segment 8: (5 min)

Live reads

Smart speakers

Totally Unnecessary Debate of the Day

News Queen Elizabeth "consents" to her grandson's marriage

Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952. Imagine if we were talking today about Harry Truman (POTUS in 1952) "giving consent" to permit his grandson to marry an actress from the UK. The institution itself is such a peculiar artifact of past civilizational habits that it's interesting to superimpose their order on our facts and see how it would look. All monarchies (even parliamentary ones) are a bit silly -- but if their political gravity didn't matter, they would be republics by now. There's an implicit public consent to the status quo which itself is a form of political power.

Unsorted and leftovers:

This week

By the numbers

Have fun

Clean up after yourself

Mind your business

Quote of the Week

The week in technology

Contrary to popular opinion

Curiosity, competence, and humility

Have a little empathy

Inbox zero

Tin Foil Hat Award

Yay Capitalism Prize

Capitalist solution of the week

One year ago

Five years ago

Ten years ago

Programming notes

Calendar events to highlight


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