The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

A tale of two realities

Indiana University history professor Rebecca Spang compares the world's response to Covid-19 to the conditions that led to the French Revolution in 1789:

Fear sweeps the land. Many businesses collapse. Some huge fortunes are made. Panicked consumers stockpile paper, food, and weapons. The government’s reaction is inconsistent and ineffectual. Ordinary commerce grinds to a halt; investors can find no safe assets. Political factionalism grows more intense. Everything falls apart.

This was all as true of revolutionary France in 1789 and 1790 as it is of the United States today. Are we at the beginning of a revolution that has yet to be named? Do we want to be? That we are on the verge of a major transformation seems obvious.

An urgent desire for stability—for a fast resolution to upheaval—is in fact absolutely characteristic of any revolutionary era. “I pray we will be finished by Christmas,” wrote one beleaguered member of the French Constituent Assembly to a good friend in October 1789. In reality, of course, the assembly took another two years to finish its tasks, after which another assembly was elected; a republic was declared; Louis XVI was put on trial and executed in January 1793; General Napoleon Bonaparte became “first consul” in 1799 and emperor in 1804; Europe found itself engulfed in wars from 1792 to 1815. In short, life never went back to how it had been before 1789.

People sometimes imagine yesterday’s revolutions as planned and carried out by self-conscious revolutionaries, but this has rarely, if ever, been the case. Instead, revolutions are periods in which social actors with different agendas (peasants stealing rabbits, city dwellers sacking tollbooths, lawmakers writing a constitution, anxious Parisians looking for weapons at the Bastille Fortress) become fused into a more or less stable constellation. The most timeless and emancipatory lesson of the French Revolution is that people make history. Likewise, the actions we take and the choices we make today will shape both what future we get and what we remember of the past.

Keep that in mind as you read these indications that Republicans have entirely incompatible views with the rest of the world about most things:

  • Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly addressed the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt yesterday, calling the CO he removed last week "stupid," among other things certain to endear him to everyone in the Navy.
  • Conservative propaganda news outlets continue to repeat the president's lie assertion that no one knew how bad the pandemic would get, despite ample evidence that it would.
  • It looks like the Federal government is seizing protective equipment en route to Democratic-leaning states, but no one seems to know (or will admit) why.
  • Three academics who specialize in health policy warn that when, not if, Covid-19 starts hitting rural areas in force, it will get much worse, owing to the older populations as well as a general lack of hospitals and supplies outside of cities.
  • This week's New Yorker takes a long look at Illinois' response to the crisis, which is different than, say, Georgia's.
  • Wisconsin governor Tony Evans issued an executive order earlier today postponing the state's primary election until June 9th. The state was to hold its primary election tomorrow, despite the Democratic governor and Democratic minority in the state legislature demanding postponement or universal mail-in ballots. The Republican-controlled legislature refused even to take up the proposal, perhaps because, as other Republicans have admitted, more votes means Republicans lose. The state's top Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), said the governor "cave[d] under political pressures from national liberal special interest groups" like, one must assume, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a known hotbed of partisan Democratic thought.

Finally, ever wonder about the origin of those creepy plague-doctor outfits from the 17th century?

Back when we sabotaged an empire

People who don't study history tend not to understand why our foreign allies and adversaries behave the ways they do. Case in point: the Soviet Union, of which the largest part lives on as the Russian Federation, ended in part because we forced them to spend down their economy just to keep up with us. They might still hate us a little for that.

One man who helped this effort, Gus Weiss, hit on the idea of sabotaging the technology that Soviet spies bought or stole from American and other Western companies. Via Bruce Schneier, Wired has a long-form description of Weiss and his plan:

This plan to feed defective technology, which Weiss says carried the operation designation “Kudo,” existed as part of a larger government mobilization in response to the Farewell intelligence across the national security community. “It was multilayered operation,” Galahad told me. According to Galahad, Weiss didn’t hold any formal leadership role in this effort; instead, “Gus did his work through his own contacts. He was a White House guy. He could get people to pay attention to his ideas. He had friends in the computer business. He had Casey’s ear.”

Galahad told me that Weiss zeroed in on the Soviet industrial sector; he wanted to gut punch the Soviet economy. Galahad recalled that Weiss was friendly with the analysts in the CIA’s Office of Soviet Research. “Let’s say the Italians were building a tractor factory for the Russians in the Ukraine—the guys in OSR would have had access to those blueprints. Gus shared his ideas and recommendations based on that intelligence to his friends at the DoD.”

Meanwhile, the government worked with private sector software companies to create doctored industrial products. They were then made available to the patent clerks and engineers in American technology and arms companies who’d been recruited by the KGB.

High up on the Soviet tech shopping list was software to regulate the pressure gauges and valves for the critical Siberian gas pipeline. According to Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, the Soviets sought the software on the open market. American export controls prohibited its sale from the US. However, a small industrial software company located in Calgary called Cov-Can produced what the Soviets wanted. As Weiner writes, “The Soviets sent a Line X officer to steal the software. The CIA and the Canadians conspired to let them have it.”

The faulty software “weaved” its way through Soviet quality control. The pipeline software ran swimmingly for months, but then pressure in the pipeline gradually mounted. And one day—the date remains unclear, though most put it in June 1982—the software went haywire, the pressure soaring out of control. The pipeline ruptured, igniting a blast in the wilds of Siberia so massive that, according to Thomas C. Reed’s At the Abyss, “at the White House, we received warning from our infrared satellites of some bizarre event out in the middle of Soviet nowhere. NORAD feared a missile liftoff from a place where no rockets were known to be based. Or perhaps it was the detonation of a nuclear device. The Air Force chief of intelligence rated it at three kilotons.”

I wonder if Presidents Putin and Trump discussed this history during any of their recent unrecorded conversations?

Another one rides the bus

Today is the 103rd birthday of Chicago's bus system:

The City of Chicago had granted a transit franchise to the Chicago Surface Lines company.  But the boulevards and parks were controlled by another government entity, the Chicago Park District.  In 1916 the new Chicago Motor Bus Company was awarded a franchise by the Park District.  Now, on March 25, 1917, their new vehicles were ready to roll.

Mayor William Hale Thompson and a collection of dignitaries boarded the bus at Sheridan and Devon.  The ceremonial trip moved off over the regular route, down Sheridan to Lincoln Park, through the park and over various streets, until reaching its south terminal at Adams and State.  Then, while the invited guests were brought back to the Edgewater Beach Hotel for a luncheon, revenue service began.

And it only took 62 years for "Weird" Al Yankovic to make his immortal contribution to public transit lore.

The Times Schütz—and scores!

The New York Times' chief classical music critic, Anthony Tomassini, gives credit to the person who was Germany's greatest composer, until Bach:

[B]orn in 1585, exactly 100 years before Bach, he is considered the greatest German composer of the 17th century. I hardly knew his music, however, and neither does much of the concert-going public today.

One day, that professor put on a recording of Schütz’s “Die Sieben Worte Jesu am Kreuz,” a setting of Jesus’s final words from the cross, framed by two stanzas of a hymn text. From the start of the poignant Introitus to this austerely beautiful piece, I was hooked.

What grabbed me was the importance Schütz gave to making the German text clear. In faithfully rendering the clipped rhythms and natural cadences of the language, the music taps into the deeper meaning of the words. Schütz drives home the emotions through deliberate repetitions of overlapping phrases. As a devotee of musical theater, I was struck by how Schütz seemed to anticipate the word-setting techniques of Broadway songsmiths.

Later in life, Schütz — who died in 1672, at 87 years old — composed three passions that anticipated those of Bach. These works are affectingly austere. The elegant, supple, quasi-melodious recitatives for the Evangelist and Jesus are unaccompanied; the lucid choral writing is dramatic, but understated. The tenor Peter Schreier, who died last year, recorded all three of the Evangelist roles with the Dresdner Kreuzchor choir, singing with radiant sound and aching sensitivity. I especially love the “St. Matthew Passion.”

I don’t think Bach would mind if, now and then, a performance of his own “St. Matthew Passion” were replaced with Schütz’s. I’d be there.

If you find yourself with extra time on your hands, check out some of Schütz’s works. 

Happy 42nd Birthday to a hoopy book that knows where its towel is

BBC Radio 4 first broadcast The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on this day in 1978. On thus august, er, March anniversary, ponder this: "What do you get when you multiply six by nine?" The answer: 4213.

This is why the universe was replaced by something even more inexplicable and insane upon the publication of Restaurant at the End of the Universe in 1980. Reagan got elected, Thatcher consolidated power, and I changed grammar schools.

Have a Jinnan Tonix (or whatever equivalent exists on your planet) in celebration tonight!

That time when the CIA made encryption products

For about 50 years, the CIA and its (West-) German equivalent, the BND, owned Crypto AG in Switzerland, giving them access to the secrets of dozens of countries:

From 1970 on, the CIA and its code-breaking sibling, the National Security Agency, controlled nearly every aspect of Crypto’s operations — presiding with their German partners over hiring decisions, designing its technology, sabotaging its algorithms and directing its sales targets.

Then, the U.S. and West German spies sat back and listened.

They monitored Iran’s mullahs during the 1979 hostage crisis, fed intelligence about Argentina’s military to Britain during the Falklands War, tracked the assassination campaigns of South American dictators and caught Libyan officials congratulating themselves on the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco.

Greg Miller, the Washington Post reporter who broke the story in the US, followed up today with some insight into the bureaucratic bullshit that nearly scuttled the deal, and would go on to help our intelligence services miss that 9/11 was about to happen:

The CIA comes across as an overbearing elder, impatient with its more timid counterpart, dismissive of its intermittent objections. CIA officials “made the rules as they went along,” according to the history, “and were much more inclined to ask forgiveness than permission.”

The NSA was full of people who were technically brilliant but struggled to grasp the potential of the operation, impeded efforts to expand its scope and at times put the program’s secrecy in jeopardy with sloppy tradecraft.

“NSA people traveled in true name, and sent far more people to meetings than CIA felt was advisable from a security standpoint,” the CIA history says. “One of the continuing irritants on the CIA side was this apparent lack of appreciation for traditional [agency] clandestine operational procedures.”

“Between the CIA and the NSA there were always disputes about which of these services had the say,” a senior BND official said in that agency’s history of the operation. “CIA saw itself as the one in charge and emphasized this by having a CIA man posted at the operation in Munich,” the location of a CIA base for overseeing Crypto.

Yesterday, NPR's Fresh Air broadcast an extensive interview with Miller, that ended with this chilling thought:

When you learn something, when you learn about something terrible that's happening - in South America, for instance, many of the governments that were using Crypto machines were engaged in assassination campaigns. Thousands of people were being disappeared, killed. And I mean, they're using Crypto machines, which suggests that the United States intelligence had a lot of insight into what was happening. And it's hard to look back at that history now and see a lot of evidence of the United States going to any real effort to stop it or at least or even expose it.

To me, the history of the Crypto operation helps to explain how U.S. spy agencies became accustomed to, if not addicted to, global surveillance. This program went on for more than 50 years, monitoring the communications of more than 100 countries. I mean, the United States came to expect that kind of penetration, that kind of global surveillance capability. And as Crypto became less able to deliver it, the United States turned to other ways to replace that. And the Snowden documents tell us a lot about how they did that. Instead of working through this company in Switzerland, they turned their sights to companies like Google and Apple and Microsoft and found ways to exploit their global penetration. And so I think it tells us a lot about the mindset and the personalities of spy agencies as well as the global surveillance apparatus that followed the Crypto operation.

Think about Crypto AG when you install Kaspersky Anti-Virus or install a Huwei device on your network. Just think about it.

A century ago, in Kansas...

...the 1918-19 influenza pandemic began. Historian John M Barry studied the outbreak, summarizing his findings in a 2017 Smithsonian Magazine article that did nothing to help me feel more comfortable about our present circumstances:

At its worst, the epidemic in Philadelphia would kill 759 people...in one day. Priests drove horse-drawn carts down city streets, calling upon residents to bring out their dead; many were buried in mass graves. More than 12,000 Philadelphians died—nearly all of them in six weeks.

Across the country, public officials were lying. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” New York City’s public health director declared “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza...[caused] the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.” The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”

For an example of the press’s failure, consider Arkansas. Over a four-day period in October, the hospital at Camp Pike admitted 8,000 soldiers. Francis Blake, a member of the Army’s special pneumonia unit, described the scene: “Every corridor and there are miles of them with double rows of cots ...with influenza patients...There is only death and destruction.” Yet seven miles away in Little Rock, a headline in the Gazette pretended yawns: “Spanish influenza is plain la grippe—same old fever and chills.”

People knew this was not the same old thing, though. They knew because the numbers were staggering—in San Antonio, 53 percent of the population got sick with influenza. They knew because victims could die within hours of the first symptoms—horrific symptoms, not just aches and cyanosis but also a foamy blood coughed up from the lungs, and bleeding from the nose, ears and even eyes. And people knew because towns and cities ran out of coffins.

People could believe nothing they were being told, so they feared everything, particularly the unknown. How long would it last? How many would it kill? Who would it kill? With the truth buried, morale collapsed. Society itself began to disintegrate.

Time and time again, we see that public officials lying or minimizing imminent threats makes the results worse. Time and time again, they lie or minimize imminent threats.

Good thing Mike Pence is on the job today. It's not like he ever lied and minimized an imminent health threat, causing loss of life that his government could easily have prevented.

Trump and the Republican Party have left us dangerously unprepared for this

By "this," I don't mean the Covid-19 outbreak itself, though by cutting CDC pandemic funding 80%, ending epidemic prevention aid to 37 of 47 countries, or by appointing perhaps the worst possible administration official to lead the response effort, he has almost certainly increased the risk of infection to every person in the world.

No, I mean that we're dangerously unprepared for the recession the virus outbreak appears to be encouraging.

Economists have had a hunch we'd eventually get the stock-market correction we got this week, because we had ample evidence that stock values were not in line with fundamentals. However, the S&P 500 losing 10% in one week, wiping out more than a year of gains, has been the fastest correction in history, according to Bloomberg News. And at this writing the indices are still falling.

But the Republican Party passed massive tax cuts two years running, which has resulted in Federal budget deficits exceeding $1 trillion. Now many people are about to find out why a massive deficit in a strong economy reduces our options when the economy slows down.

In a strong economy, people feel wealthy, so they spend more money. We all know that. But people also have a higher tolerance for taxes when they feel rich. In individual states in the US that have constitutional balanced-budget requirements, boom times allow them to save money. In the US writ large, which has no such restrictions, boom times allow us to make investments in infrastructure, education, social programs, and all manner of things we have as a country failed to invest in for years.

Not so coincidentally, the years in which we've failed to invest are the same as the years the Republican Party has preached lower taxes, cutting social benefits, and getting the government so small "you can drown it in the bathtub." The goal is to consolidate wealth in a small minority that can then exert disproportionate control over an ever-more-impoverished majority. As I've said for 30 years, the Republican Party doesn't want to govern; they want to rule. And it's easier to rule peasants than burghers.

The last two years under Trump have made previous Republican wealth grabs look gentle. And they almost got away with it, too. They've kept the economy going just strongly enough, preventing the inevitable slowdown after 10 years of Obama-led growth, to make people feel good about the next election. If only they could have made it to November. Four more years of Trump would, they hoped and planned, allow them to lock in Republican policies for 40 more years.

Walking from the train this morning, I realized the Trump administration has acted like a cocaine addict regarding the economy. They forced lower taxes through Congress (or blocked raising them) since the last years of Obama, then came out of the bathroom with powder on their noses crowing about how low taxes have helped the economy.

At the first signs of a slowdown in 2018 and 2019, they did a couple more bumps to make it last longer, just a little longer. But the crash is upon us, and like a cokehead, it's going to be much worse because it's been too good too long.

So here we are. We've lost hundreds of billions in paper wealth this week, we've got the Spanish Flu exploding all over the world, people are scared, and the front-runners in both parties represent the extremes. A really good recession right now will go a long way to helping the kids understand, on a personal and visceral level, why we don't want extremists in power.

And because of our massive deficits, it will be hard to summon the political will to continue those deficits and start necessary spending efforts to keep people employed and the economy from screeching to a halt. The only arrows we have left in our quiver include printing more money or raising taxes in a recession, both of which will increase inflation, wipe out more paper wealth (but of debt holders, not of debtors, which is the point), and possibly make the retirements of Boomers more uncomfortable than their grandparents had it in the Depression. (Oh, and we Xers will get screwed regardless, but that's been the case our whole lives.)

You think we're smarter than Europe in the 1930s? We're about to really find out.