29 May 2010

Revisiting the 1920s & 1930s

From The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2007), Kindle Loc. 145-88:
It is time to revisit the late 1920s and the 1930s. Then we see that neither the standard history nor the standard rebuttal entirely captures the realities of the period. The first reality was that the 1920s was a great decade of true economic gains, a period whose strong positive aspects have been obscured by the troubles that followed. Those who placed their faith in laissez-faire in that decade were not all godless. Indeed religious piety moved some, including President Calvin Coolidge, to hold back, to pause before intervening in private lives.

The fact that the stock market rose high at the end of the decade does not mean that all the growth of the preceding ten years was an illusion. American capitalism did not break in 1929. The crash did not cause the Depression. It was a necessary correction of a too-high stock market, but not a necessary disaster. The market players at the time of the crash were not villains, though some of them—Albert Wiggin of Chase, who shorted his own bank’s stock—behaved reprehensibly. There was indeed an annihilating event that followed the crash, one that Hoover never understood and Roosevelt understood incompletely: deflation.

Hoover’s priggish temperament, as much as any philosophy he held, caused him to both misjudge the crash and fail in his reaction to it. And his preference for Germany as a negotiating partner over Soviet Russia later blinded him to the dangers of Nazism. Roosevelt by contrast had a wonderful temperament, and could get along, when he felt like it, with even his worst opponent. His calls for courage, his Fireside Chats, all were intensely important. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—in the darkness, Roosevelt’s voice seemed to shine. He allowed Cordell Hull to write trade treaties that in the end would benefit the U.S. economy enormously. Roosevelt’s dislike of Germany, which dated from childhood, helped him to understand the threat of Hitler—and, eventually, that the United States must come to Europe’s side.

Still, Hoover and Roosevelt were alike in several regards. Both preferred to control events and people. Both underestimated the strength of the American economy. Both doubted its ability to right itself in a storm. Hoover mistrusted the stock market. Roosevelt mistrusted it more. Roosevelt offered rhetorical optimism, but pessimism underlay his policies. Though Americans associated Roosevelt with bounty, his insistent emphasis on sharing—rationing, almost—betrayed a conviction that the country had entered a permanent era of scarcity. Both presidents overestimated the value of government planning. Hoover, the Quaker, favored the community over the individual. Roosevelt, the Episcopalian, found laissez-faire economics immoral and disturbingly un-Christian.

And both men doctored the economy habitually. Hoover was a constitutionalist and took pains to intervene within the rules—but his interventions were substantial. Roosevelt cared little for constitutional niceties and believed they blocked progress. His remedies were on a greater scale and often inspired by socialist or fascist models abroad. A number of New Dealers, Tugwell included, had been profoundly shaped by Mussolini’s Italy and, especially, Soviet Russia. That influence was not parenthetical. The hoarse-voiced opponents of the New Deal liked to focus on the connections between these men, the Communist Party, and authorities in Soviet Russia. And several important New Dealers did indeed have those connections, most notably Lauchlin Currie, Roosevelt’s economics adviser in later years, and Harry Dexter White, at the Treasury. White’s plan for the pastoralization of Germany takes on a new light when we know this. Lee Pressman and Alger Hiss duped colleagues in government repeatedly.

But few New Dealers were spies or even communists. The emphasis on that question is in any case misplaced. Overall, the problem of the New Dealers on the left was not their relationship with Moscow or the Communist Party in the United States, if indeed they had one. Senator McCarthy was wrong. The problem was their naïveté about the economic value of Soviet-style or European-style collectivism—and the fact that they forced such collectivism upon their own country. Fear of being labeled a red-baiter has too long prevented historians from looking into the Soviet influence upon American domestic policy in the 1930s.

What then caused the Depression? Part of the trouble was indeed the crash. There were monetary and credit challenges at the young Federal Reserve, and certainly at the banks. Deflation, not inflation, was a big problem, both early on and also later, in the mid-1930s. The loss of international trade played an enormous role—just as both Hoover and Roosevelt said at different points. If the United States had not raised tariffs at the beginning of the decade and Europe had not collapsed in the 1930s, the United States would have had a trading partner to help sustain it. Part of the problem was the challenge of the transition to industrialization from agriculture. Part was freakish weather: floods and the uncanny Dust Bowl seemed to validate the sense of apocalypse. With money and the weather breaking down, men and women in America felt extraordinarily helpless. They were willing to suspend disbelief.

But the deepest problem was the intervention, the lack of faith in the marketplace. Government management of the late 1920s and 1930s hurt the economy. Both Hoover and Roosevelt misstepped in a number of ways. Hoover ordered wages up when they wanted to go down. He allowed a disastrous tariff, Smoot-Hawley, to become law when he should have had the sense to block it. He raised taxes when neither citizens individually nor the economy as a whole could afford the change. After 1932, New Zealand, Japan, Greece, Romania, Chile, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden began seeing industrial production levels rise again—but not the United States.

27 May 2010

Wordcatcher Tales: Kamaboko heisha

While poking around looking for something else in my Spahn & Hadamitzky Japanese Character Dictionary: With Compound Lookup via Any Kanji (Nichigai Associates, 1989), I came across a wonderful, but sadly obsolescent compound, 蒲鉾兵舎 kamaboko heisha, which seems to be yielding to a katakanago loan from English: クォンセット kuonsetto 'Quonset hut'. A Quonset hut is a Kamaboko(-shaped) barracks. Nice image.

The 舎 sha of 兵舎 heisha 'barracks (lit. soldier-lodge)' also occurs in 牛舎gyuusha 'cowshed', 鶏舎 keisha 'chicken coop', 犬舎 kensha 'dog kennel', 豚舎 tonsha 'pigpen', and 田舎 inaka 'countryside (lit. paddy-lodge)'. It indicates a fairly rustic or rudimentary sort of accommodation.

The kanji components of 蒲鉾 kamaboko 'boiled fish paste, fish cake' are less straightforward. The 鉾 hoko is a kind of heavy pole weapon more commonly written 矛, which Spahn and Hadamitzky gloss rather loosely as 'halberd', which has a much more complicated head on it. I suppose the fish paste is (or was) extruded into long spears before being cut and packaged into standard blocks.

The character 蒲 is usually pronounced gama and means 'cattail, bulrush' (although many people seem to confuse it with 蝦蟇 gama 'bullfrog'). A couple of summers ago in Japan, we met two of my wife's former students who hailed from 蒲郡 Gamagōri on the coast below Nagoya. One tutored English and the other tutored Italian, and they both admitted to being mildly embarrassed to tell people they were from an outlying district whose name can be translated as 'Cattail County'.

The principal Sino-Japanese reading of 蒲 is FU, as in 蒲団 (usu. 布団) futon, but it can also occur in a crazy kanji representation of tampopo 'dandelion', 蒲公英, which is usually written in kana.

Even though its use may be fading with regard to Quonset huts, the modifier かまぼこ型 or カマボコ型 kamaboko-gata 'kamaboko-shape' still thrives as a descriptor of all manner of semicylindrical objects, like some kamaboko-gata pataa 'mallet putters' in golf.

26 May 2010

Who Toppled Mossadegh?

From: Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, by Vali Nasr (Free Press, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2154-75:
History has charitably characterized the Mossadegh period as a democratic revolution in the making. But Iranian politics was not then truly moving in the direction of liberal democracy. Mossadegh talked of reducing the power of the Shah but was amassing power in his own hands and was quick to cross the constitution when it suited him—including dismissing the parliament in 1953. Far from liberal democracy, Iran seemed to heading for the familiar story of an elected Third World politician riding the wave of nationalism and transforming himself into an authoritarian ruler, leaving his country broken in the process.

As Mossadegh stepped up tensions with Britain, cutting off diplomatic relations in October 1952, the British government requested U.S. assistance, suggesting that the United States collaborate in overthrowing Mossadegh. The Truman administration refused to take direct military or diplomatic action against Iran, fearing that Mossadegh was naïve about the Soviet threat and too close to the communist Tudeh Party, which had backed Mossadegh’s election. Cold war paranoia fueled fear that Iran would join the Soviet sphere of influence. Shortly after Dwight Eisenhower won the presidency in the 1952 election, he approved a plan for the CIA to sponsor a propaganda campaign to foment protest against Mossadegh, allocating $1 million in funding to the plan (of which not much more than $60,000 was eventually spent), which was dubbed Operation Ajax.

The CIA urged the Shah to execute his constitutional authority to remove Mossadegh from office, but he resisted doing so, and in a preemptive move, Mossadegh, who had learned of the intentions against him, announced that he was dissolving parliament and he organized a national plebiscite to affirm his hold on power.

His extreme moves ignited further agitation against him, and the crisis came to a head when, in August 1953, the Shah finally did formally dismiss Mossadegh from power. When Mossadegh refused to step down, the Shah fled the country to Rome, appointing retired General Fazlullah Zahedi prime minister. With Mossadegh still in charge and the Shah gone, however, the Anglo-American plan failed and the crisis deepened. Massive protests erupted in the streets of Tehran and around the nation, with brutal fighting breaking out between pro-Shah and pro-Mossadegh factions. Four days later General Zahedi, widely popular in the royalist military, led troops to storm the capital in a second coup attempt. Mossadegh surrendered to Zahedi the next day, and the Shah was reinstalled in power. It has been common wisdom that the CIA did all the heavy lifting for the coup, but in reality it was General Zahedi, taking advantage of the growing popular apprehension with the worsening situation, who planned and led the second coup that won the day.

20 May 2010

Lankov on Pyongyang's Recent Blunders

In the Korea Times (20 May 2010), veteran North Korea–watcher Andrei Lankov asks, What's going on in Pyongyang.
In recent years the North Korean government has begun to do strange things. In the past, the actions of the regime frequently hurt the populace, but the rulers have been very careful in guarding their own interests. This is not the case anymore.

Let's start with the Cheonan affair. Obviously the operation was revenge aimed at massaging the ego of aging admirals who were hurt by the recent defeats in previous naval clashes. However, revenge is a purely emotional category and as such it should have no place in a truly Machiavellian mind.

From a broader perspective, the affair will greatly diminish Pyongyang's chances to receive more aid from both South Korea and the U.S. This will make them even more dependent on China, and this is not what Pyongyang rulers want.

Another potentially self-damaging action was their attempt to assassinate Hang Jang-yop, a former top ideologue of the regime who defected to the South in 1997. Upon his arrival in Seoul, Hwang was not very prominent.

The old man in his 80s has largely been a figurehead, presiding over some defectors' groups, but, frankly, lacking both charisma and practical influence. It did not help that he frequently insisted that juche (self-reliance) ideology is basically a good idea, to be restored to its initial glory.

Hwang is very different from such opposition leaders as, say, Aung San Suu Ky of present-day Burma or Lech Walesa of communist-era Poland. However, had he been killed, he would have become a martyr, a symbol of the resistance movement.

The North Korean diplomacy of the last two years is full of mistakes and miscalculations. They began in late 2008 when North Korea decided to employ the two-stage tactics which it used for decades.

In the first stage, Pyongyang creates a crisis and drives tensions high, while in the next stage it extracts concessions for its willingness to restore the status quo. This time, however, the usual (and well-rehearsed) play was performed badly.

In spring 2009 North Korea launched a long-range missile and tested a nuclear device, while driving the rhetoric bellicosity to unprecedented heights.

However, those excessive efforts backfired. Prior to 2009, a considerable part of the U.S. diplomatic establishment still believed that there would be some ways to bribe and press North Korea into denuclearizing itself.

By now everybody in Washington, D.C., has come to understand that it is not going to happen (they should have realized this much earlier). For North Koreans, this is bad news....

The list of mistakes can easily get longer. But why did the quality decision-making in Pyongyang deteriorate so suddenly and to such an extent?

The most likely explanation seems to be related to the nature of the North Korean state, a personal dictatorship run by one individual who has to approve all major decisions. Dictators tend to micro-manage, and this tendency seems to be very pronounced in the case of Kim Jong-il.

One should notice that the first unusual signs emerged in late 2008 when Kim suffered from a serious illness, in all probability, a stroke. Strokes do not sharpen one's mental capacity, so it is quite possible that his ability to analyze and judge has been damaged.

It is also possible that now Kim simply has to work much shorter hours, unable to sort out all the important details.

At any rate, Pyongyang is becoming less calculating, less rational and less Machiavellian than it used to be. And this is not good news.
via The Marmot's Hole

Three Past Outbreaks of Major Violence in Thailand

Hong Kong-based security consultant G. M. Greenwood offers some historical perspective on Thailand's current turmoils in an article in the Asia Sentinel (19 May 2010) under the discouraging headline, Reconciliation or Retribution in Thailand: The odds are on retribution.
Thailand has experienced three major violent political upheavals in the 35 or so years before the present crisis began. All can be linked, and while each offers a differing insight into how the state has responded to being challenge, context makes them unreliable indicators of the country's direction in the coming days and weeks.
  • On 13 October 1973, months of anti-government protests against the armed forces' dominant role in government culminated in a huge demonstration in Bangkok. The following day troops attacked the protestors, killing at least 75 people and wounding hundreds of others. King Bhumibol directly intervened, superficial order was restored and the three politicians seen as largely responsible went into exile overseas.

  • On 5 October 1976, leftist students at Bangkok's Thammasat University protesting against the killing of two students by rightists a few weeks earlier were attacked by well-organised militia personnel. The official death toll among the students, many of them the children of the elite, was 45 but hundreds more were widely believed to have subsequently murdered. Many fled into the bemused arms of the then revolutionary Communist Party of Thailand, whose fighting strength was drawn from the same northern rural communities that remain the hinterland of today's reds. The subsequent anti-communist campaign by the Thai military was accompanied by a wave of extrajudicial killings that have been largely forgotten outside these communities.

  • Between 17 and 20 May 1992, at least 44 people were killed and hundreds injured when troops fired at demonstrators protesting against efforts to make a prime minister of a military leader who had seized power in a coup the previous year. In addition to acknowledged casualties, many of them drawn from the higher social classes, at least 100 people were presumed killed by the security forces after the immediate unrest. When containers were found on the seabed off the Sattahip naval base at the head of the Gulf of Thailand in 2009, there was widespread speculation that they might contain the remains of the missing of 'Black May.' The fact that they did not has not diminished the belief that the state is capable of killing its opponents.
These precedents, rather than vague talk of compromise and national unity, are likely to guide the actions of the Red Shirt activists and their countless thousands of supporters across the country as they prepare for the aftermath of the loss of their key redoubts in Bangkok. For them, any outcome to the crisis that erodes their present strength will be resisted.

The problem for Abhisit and his allies is as much cultural as political. While democratic institutions are developing roots across the region, the concept of 'loyal opposition' is still regarded as an oxymoron by many local politicians. It is within this context that an overly soft line against the Red Shirts will be interpreted by UDD activists, Abhisit's opponents within government, the military and pro-establishment People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) Yellow Shirts as a sign of weakness rather than a display of pragmatism.

Nevertheless, an effort is likely to be made to re-emphasise the narrative that distinguishes the Red Shirt leadership from the 'misguided misled.' In this model, the red rank-and-file would be allowed – even helped – to return to their communities, accompanied by a chorus extolling their virtues as loyal but unwitting dupes of toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his clique.
via RealClearWorld

12 May 2010

Baruto the Giant Baltic Cowboy Ozeki

I imagine even regular readers don't often see the giants of Japan's sumo world profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and I've never, ever seen anyone compare any rikishi to Leonardo DiCaprio—until now. (Either the Titanic or the iceberg that sunk it is a more likely comparison, but I wouldn't want to jinx anyone, especially not the genial giant featured in this WSJ vignette.)
As the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament gets underway in Tokyo, the spotlight shines on Baruto, the rising star aficionados hope can give a lift to the scandal-plagued national sport.

This is the first time for the Estonian-born wrestler to compete as an ozeki, sumo's second-highest title. Having gotten off to a strong 4-0 start, his fans hope he could soon vault into the top ranks of yokozuna, making him the first European to reach that exalted status.

The 25-year-old's relatively trim (for a sumo star) figure, and glamorous looks have drawn comparisons in the Japanese press to Leonardo DiCaprio. His inspiring story, including a rise from hard labor on a rural Estonian cattle farm, is well-known. "Baruto" means "Baltic" in Japanese.

The rapid climb of the clean-cut Baruto -- nee [sic] Kaido Höövelson -- comes at a moment of need for the struggling sport. Earlier this year, grand champion Asashoryu resigned suddenly after tabloid reports of a bar fight, just the latest in a string of embarrassing reports about the Mongolian in recent years.

Before that, other wrestlers were arrested for dope-smoking, and there was a hazing death. The fan base has been shrinking, and fewer young Japanese are taking up the sport, with its extreme discipline and hierarchy at odds with the comforts of modern Japan.
Here are a few more details from Japan's Daily Yomiuri, which profiled the newly promoted ozeki before the May tournament got underway.
"When he first came here he had problems with the food," the stablemaster said. "One of the wrestlers told him that as a foreigner he wouldn't like natto. Baruto simply filled a huge bowl and ate the lot. It didn't do him much good but I was impressed that he didn't like to lose or give up."

A former nightclub bouncer and judo champion, Baruto has more than repaid the faith shown in him since arriving from Estonia.

After making his debut in May 2004, he became the first wrestler in 43 years to win the juryo division with a perfect 15-0 record when he triumphed at the 2006 Spring Basho.

On March 31 of this year, he was promoted to the sport's second-highest rank, having won 35 bouts in the previous three tournaments.
UPDATE: Baruto started strong but lost several bouts during the second week of the tournament. On Day 13, the sole yokozuna, Hakuho from Mongolia, clinched victory with a record of 13-0. Behind him, at 10-3, is the Russian Aran. Behind him, at 9-4, are the giant Estonian ozeki Baruto, the diminutive Mongolian ozeki Harumafuji, the lanky Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu, and the Mongolian Hakuba, who made his debut in the highest division in January. Not one Japanese among the leaders!