Debunking the Great Reagan myth

A central founding myth of the Tea Party is the legacy of Ronald Reagan. It is one of the reasons cited for supporting Trump as they see him as another Reagan (although its worth noting that not even Reagan’s own son agrees with this one). Around Reagan, or Thatcher in the UK, cults of personality have grown that border on those of many a despot. Hence why I think it would be prudent and timely to de-construct this myth and expose the realities of the Reagan Presidency.

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Figure 1: Reagan has developed something of a cult of personality that ignores the realities of his reign

Myth #1 – Reagan brought down the Soviet Union

Reality: Reagan wasn’t even in office when the Soviet Union collapsed and there is very little evidence that his policies helped push it over the edge. Economic miss-management and internal opposition offer more plausible explanations for the USSR’s collapse

Reaganite’s have a habit of claiming credit for things that happened when he wasn’t even in office, yet they are often slow to accept blame for events that occurred shortly after he left office, or even when he was in office (as we will see when discussing the economy). But it has to be acknowledged that the Soviet union collapsed after he’d left office.

The massive military spending the US engaged in is often cited as the reason why the USSR collapsed, as it couldn’t compete with the US. However in truth Soviet military spending was fairly static over the course of Reagan’s presidency, with no significant increases. This is why Republicans often cite Reagan’s star wars program for being the final nail in the coffin.

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Figure 2: Soviet military spending and US spending, keep in mind Reagan was in power between 1981 and 1989, ironically there is a steep increase in spending under Jimmy Carter & Richard Nixon!

While it is true that the soviets did initiate a counter program to star wars, but Reagan’s supporters often exaggerate the scale of this program. One of the most expensive elements of this program was the Energia rocket booster which may well have consumed as much as 1% of the total soviet budget for a brief period. However it seems unlikely building one rocket would bring down the soviet empire. And besides Energia was a multi-use program that also launched the Soviet space shuttle and was envisaged as supporting future space station construction or space colonies. And the Russian federation continued to fund this program right up until 1993, two years after the collapse. It would seem strange, if we buy into the propaganda, that if the costs of this program were so crippling to the Russian economy they’d keep spending billions of rubbles on it for a further two years afterwards.

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Figure 3: The Soviet Energia rocket with the Polyus Orbital Weapons Platform test vehicle, on its way to the launchpad

Indeed the Russians continued to fund (and ultimately deployed) a number of other ABM counter measures even after the USSR collapsed. So the neo-con narrative simply does not correspond to the facts.

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Figure 4: If competing with the US star wars system was so crippling to the USSR, why did the Russian Federation continue to fund (and deploy) weapons systems like this Topol-M? (which can evade attempts to intercept it)

Aside – So why did the Soviet Union collapse?

Well the answer is a bit more complicated that the GOP preferred answer so it would be wrong for us to point to any one single cause. Books have been written about this topic. Certainly continued competition with the West did not help, but all the indicators were that the Soviet’s were spending money that they had. Military spending by the soviets was at around 7% of GDP and it was what was going on with the other 93% that was the problem. Western counter-espionage definitely helped, but it was the Europeans, most notably the French, who led the way here. But in simple terms, the Soviet union collapsed like a house of cards because it was a house of cards.

Ultimately the soviet system just wasn’t very good at organising at running a country. The talking heads in Moscow gave out orders and dictates, setting unrealistic targets divorced from reality and expected everyone to magically achieve them. Inevitably this created all sorts of problems. For example, they drained the Aral sea away in pursuit of cotton quotas. The Reactor at Chernobyl was built without adequate shielding and without sufficient numbers of trained staff to operate it (only one member of staff in the control room that night was a qualified nuclear engineer and he was fresh out of college!). The soviets also badly mismanaged their oil supplies, mining and other core industries. One need only look at a Lada of the era as proof of everything that was wrong with the soviet system.

Ultimately three events were largely to blame. Firstly the mismanagement of their agricultural system meant the soviets went from a net food exporter to an importer in the space of a few decades. Now initially this wasn’t a big deal, because they were also one of the world’s largest oil producers and thus they were able to use their petro-dollars to buy American grain to feed the soviet populace. This incidentally counters a key neo-con myth that the soviets wanted to destroy America. Had the Kremlin ever done so, they would have destroyed their main source of food and much of the surviving Soviet population would have starved to death over the proceeding winter.

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Figure 5: Missmangement of agriculture and a dire environmental policy played a major role in the collapse of the soviet system

Soviet oil production ensured they could easily spend their way out of trouble, until in 1988 when soviet oil production peaked. Given that ex-soviet oil production rebounded in the years after the soviet union, it is generally believed that this “peak” was an artificial peak caused by soviet mismanagement, rather than a geological peak caused by a lack of oil. Either way, shortly there after this the soviets started to have financial problems.

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Figure 6: Soviet Oil production, note how it rises again after the collapse of the USSR, suggesting that miss-management by the soviets might be to blame

And as if to make matters worse, the world was struck at the same time by a massive oil glut with oil prices tumbling. This was triggered by the fact that a number of OPEC nations began cheating on their quotas leading the Saudi’s to decide to “punish” them by opening the taps. However they did so right at the same time the global economy was entering into another recession, sending oil prices off a cliff. This pretty much bankrupted the USSR.

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Figure 7: Oil prices around the time of the Soviet collapse

Some Reagan supporters, aware of all of this, have tried to make out that this was all part of Reagan’s master plan. Pro-saudi bloggers claim instead it was the Saudi king’s idea. In reality, the collapse in oil price badly effected the Saudi economy. One of the reasons why many young saudi’s took to Afghanistan (forming what would become Al-Qaeda) at this time was because they had nothing better to do back home. And recall that the trigger for the price collapse was a sluggish economy. So we would have to believe that Reagan & H. W. Bush, along with the Saudi king, deliberately sabotaged their own economies to score a few political points against the soviets.

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Figure 8: The Soviet’s didn’t take down this wall because Reagan told them, the east Germans did it because the communist system had collapsed due to internal hubris

Finally, there were many long standing opposition movements to soviet rule, the Polish Solidarity movement for example, which started long before Reagan ever got into office. Naturally when soviet bloc citizens lost their jobs and got sick of queuing for bread, they began to listen to these people and the rest is, as they say, history.

Myth #2 – Reagan cut back public spending and pushed for a smaller government

RealityThe Reagan administration was one of the most prolific deficit spenders in US history, government spending massively expanded under his reign and much of it was squandered on pointless projects. And far from shrinking the US government, Reagan hired nearly half a million extra civil servants

It is, to say the least strange that committed anti-communists in the GOP will come up with such elaborate explanations as to why the soviet union collapsed when the more obvious reason (it was basically a crap system) is a lot more satisfying. Well that might have something to do with the awkward conclusion that if the USSR didn’t collapse because of star wars, it means Reagan took $209 billion of taxpayers money and urinated it up against a wall.

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Figure 9: Federal spending under Reagan was exceptional high, even higher than Obama or G. W. Bush.

Star wars basically didn’t work and was little more than a massive fraud. Thirty years later and none of the hardware they set out to develop has been deployed. It was the biggest waste of public money in the history of western democracy.

Yet star wars was merely one of a whole host of foolish military projects either started under Reagan, or ones from previous administrations which were a waste of money and should haven been cancelled, but which he continued. The B-1 program for example had been cancelled under Carter, but was revived by Reagan. In another example, he wanted a 600 ship navy (don’t ask me why) so they brought back into service a bunch of old WW-2 era battleships that had been essentially obsolete since the 1940’s.

And, ironically given how many Tea Partiers tend to be conspiracy nuts, the US “black budget” expanded significantly over the Reagan era, as did the secrecy around it. And there is good evidence to suggest it wasn’t being spent wisely. The two programs we know about, the B-2 and F-111 were both budgeted on the assumption of orders in the hundreds, but Congress rightly pointed out that this would be insane given how expensive these aircraft were. Its likely had both aircraft been subject to greater public scrutiny prior to this, they would have been cancelled or re-designed. The similar A-12 program, was able to resist cancellation under Reagan, only to be cut as soon as he was out of office.

And like I said, this is they stuff we know about. In 1987, an oversight saw the US budget include a line item for a half a billion to be spent on a black project called “Aurora. Conspiracy theorist have claimed that this might be some sort of alien spacecraft. I propose a more obvious explanation, the damn thing didn’t work and was such an embarrassing screw up (who knows maybe it crashed on take off) that the powers that be decided to use the cloak of national security to push some soil over the corpse and tip-tow away.

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Figure 10: The US federal deficit soared under Reagan

And it wasn’t just in defence spending that Reagan miss-spent. He’s often remembered for firing air-traffic controllers or cutting spending on welfare programmes such as mental health services. But he also expanded Medicare, the FBI, CIA and other intelligence services. He increased total federal-government employment (excluding the military) by 400,000. And he was doing all this using the country’s credit card. Reagan had been elected because Carter had run up a deficit of $79 billion. By the time he left office Reagan blew through $155 billion. Worse, Carter’s deficit was run up during a recession, while Reagan was running deficits at a time of economic growth.

Myth #3 – Reagan was a tax cutter and this stimulated the US economy

RealityReagan cut taxes for the wealthy but overall he put up taxes. There were three recessions during his reign and any growth during his reign wasn’t as spectacular as it is sometimes portrayed

The wealthy saw taxes fall from a top rate of 70% to 28%. However, the Reagan Adm. also slipped through a range of tax increases. In fact federal taxes increased every year of his presidency except for the first and the last.

This brings us to the question of why the US economy grew under Reagan, because the implication is the opposite of what is claimed by neo-liberals (i.e. Reagan put up taxes which caused economic growth !?! ). In truth there were a host of things going on, that we need to account for. The recessions of the 70’s had been quite severe and thus the rebound effect was equally large. This may have created the illusion of growth that was stronger than it was in reality.

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Figure 11: US GDP adjusted for inflation, note the recessions include two within his term and one during the following Bush(snr) presidency

Also, there was (as noted) an oil boom going on in the middle of his presidency, which naturally pushed up growth. Indeed, for Thatcher, once you account for the 10% added to government coffers each year because of the North Sea boom, the Thatcher era “boom” doesn’t look that spectacular. Back in the US, the early 80’s was also marked by a tech revolution in the form of video games and home PC’s beginning to reaching a mass market.

Furthermore we have to ask whether any growth under Reagan (or Thatcher) due to their market liberalisation was sustainable growth, or just a boom and bust bubble. I’d argue that recent events suggest it wasn’t sutainable growth. But even over the course of the Reagan Adm. there were several economic downturns. The first, was clearly the hangover from the Carter Adm. But the second occurred 2 years through his first term. Sluggish growth inter-spaced with various downturns and recoveries followed, with a further major recession under G. H. Bush (which, if we’re going to blame Carter for Reagan’s 1st recession, its only fair we blame Reagan for this 2nd Reagan recession).

So the growth under Reagan was at best sluggish and uneven and there is little evidence that they can be related to his policies. Noting that those policies including tax increases not cuts.

Myth #4 – Americans were better off under Reagan

RealityUnder Reagan, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer

A rising tide lifts all boats. Well not under Reagan. US unemployment increased under his term in office, largely because while the yuppies in Wall Street did rather well out of it all, many of America’s primary industries were being shut down. The Reagan era is the period when large parts of the US industrial heartland became a rust belt. And in the UK Thatcher too presided over a period when many UK manufacturing towns went from full employment to virtual welfare colonies.

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Figure 12: Wages and purchasing power under different US presidents

And should anyone blame the unions for all of these, its worth noting that many of these job’s didn’t go to Asia, but they simply moved to other Western countries. At the same time for example, that ship building was in decline in the UK, new ship yards were opened in Finland and Germany, which got (and still get) many of the very same liner contracts that used to go to Newcastle and Glasgow dockyards. And in Germany and Finland union membership is actually compulsory for workers in certain heavy industries. Similarly car makers in the UK and US started to slide at the same time that German and Japanese car production rose.

And not only did Reagan or Thatcher do nothing to stop this, they actually encouraged the collapse of heavy industry. Quite apart from Thatcher’s ideologically motivated attack on the coal mining unions, this was also the era of corporate raiders who would buy up a company and then tear it down, firing thousands of workers so they could build apartments on the same site as the factory. This was an era of sleazy destructive economics, with much corruption behind the scenes.

And while the richer certainly got very rich thanks to our dynamic dyo, the lot of many others declined, as large numbers of UK and US citizens suddenly found themselves mired in a poverty trap that their children and grandchildren still found themselves stuck in. Reagan’s tax hikes disproportionally effected the poor and middle classes compared to the better off. To my mind Thatcher’s real legacy is the Ned or the Chav, while Reagan’s is the inner city ghettos of cities like Detroit or LA.

Indeed we could go further, as the fact is that growth under democratic presidents has a tendency to be higher than under Republican presidents. Reagan’s presidency was something of a rare high point by Republican standards, but still lower than Clinton, Johnson or Kennedy.

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Figure 13: GDP growth by US president, Reagan ranks highly by Republican standards, but average (at best) by the standards of democratic presidents.

Myth #5 – Reagan was an active president, with a vision who worked hard for America

RealityHe was an unimaginative, ill-informed and so ill-attentive he frequently fell asleep during meetings and important briefings

It is ironic that Reagan is known as a man with a vision, as this is not shared by those who knew him in office. As William Leuchtenburg (a history Professor from Carolina) describes in a recent book (based on cabinet papers from the Reagan era), Reagan frequently stunned those around him with his ignorance at current events. His mind, according to Peggy Noonan, was “barren terrain”. Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton describes how Reagan once interrupted a meeting on nuclear weapons policy to discuss the plot of the kids movie War Games. Clark Clifford regarded the president as “an amiable dunce” and as William Leuchtenburg summarises it “No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed”.

This forced his staff to work hard to bring him up to speed on at least some basic level, or as David Broder (a white house aid) put it “The task of watering the arid desert between Reagan’s ears is a challenging one for his aides.”. However the fact was he wasn’t a very active president, frequently he would be given briefing papers which he won’t read, instead lazing around watching cowboy movies. On the day before a summit meeting with world leaders about the future of the economy, he was given a briefing book. The next morning, his chief of staff asked him had he read it (he hadn’t even opened it!). “Well, Jim, the Sound of Music was on last night.

As Lou Cannon, his principle biographer put it “Reagan may have been the one president in the history of the republic who saw his election as a chance to get some rest”. And on some cases he did so by dozing off in the middle of important meetings…once while the French President was in the room!

As for his political vision, it was sadly lacking. He simply did not have any, aside from the sort of vague Republican sympathies towards “low tax” or “commies bad”. As George Shultz (his chief of staff) puts it “Trying to forge policy was like walking through a swamp.Donald Regan recalled: “In the four years that I served as secretary of the treasury, I never saw President Reagan alone and never discussed economic philosophy”. You could walk through Ronald Reagan’s deepest thoughts” a California legislator said, “and not get your ankles wet.”.

As a consequence, a Republican senator went so far as to say: “With Ronald Reagan, no one is there. The sad fact is that we don’t have a president.”Of course in the absence of active leadership, the bureaucrats simply ran the country without him.

If Reagan’s government was the best American government ever, then it was a government where the bureaucrats in DC ran everything, raised taxes, expanded the federal government and ruled the people like a king.

Myth #6 – Reagan was a competent leader

Reality Even his own staff considered him mentally unstable and sufficiently unreliable that they drew up contingency plans to remove him from office under the 25th Amendment

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Figure 14: It did occur to Reagan’s staff that their boss might not be the full shilling

As noted it quickly dawned on many in his cabinet that the president might be mentally unstable. At the very least he was a little slow (probably early onset of his alzheimers) and not mentally competent.

This also forced him to rely ever more and more on his wife, who practically became the defacto VP. Now while president’s frequently resort to their spouse for support and advise, giving your wife top secret briefing papers is entirely another thing. And worse Nancy Reagan had a strange obsession with Astrology, something she dragged her husband into. This created something of a national security nightmare for the white house staff, quite apart from the fact that the president was now under the influence of others and not technically capable of carrying out his duties.

So serious was this situation that when Howard Baker took over as the white house chief of staff, he was advised by his predecessor to start making preparations to enact the 25th Amendment, removing the president from office on grounds incapacity. Thus it is very likely that had there been any major crisis during Reagan’s reign (such as nuclear attack), that his staff would have put this plan into action and removed him from office, either putting George Bush (snr) in charge or resorting to some sort of direct rule by the white house cabinet.

Myth #7 – Reagan was a great communicator

Reality Reagan was gaffe prone and treated his presidency much like an acting job

As Reagan’s defence chief Colin Powell put it “the President’s passive management style placed a tremendous burden on us…” . Or as Frank Carlucci, observed: “The Great Communicator wasn’t always the greatest communicator in the private sessions; you didn’t always get clean and crisp decisions. You assumed a lot. . . . You had to”.Many republicans seem to forget than in his early years the president was frequently prone to making all sorts of serious gaffes.

Such incidents led his staff to taking measures in hand to keep their president from the media, in case he blurted out something crazy. He performed all of 6 news conferences in his first year in office, a modern president would do that many in a month. In the end he and his staff took to treating the role of president essentially as an acting job. They would give him cue cards, they would put out a chalk spot to show him where to stand and he would do as he was told. As one staffer put it “Every moment of every public appearance was scheduled, every word scripted, every place where Reagan was expected to stand was chalked with toe marks.”.

The president “cut ribbons and made speeches. He did these things beautifully” Congressman Jim Wright of Texas acknowledged. But in essence the US got itself not a president for 8 years, but instead they hired an actor to play the part of a President. Unfortunately this template of a stage managed actor as a sort of presidential spokesmodel for special interests was something we’ve seen emerge on several occasions since then, most notably with G. W. Bush (jnr).

Myth #8 – Reagan’s tough line with the Soviets, or in the middle east, helped keep Americans safe

RealityHe nearly started WW3 and provoked a series of terrorist attacks against the US, notably the Lockerbie bombing

While we can look back at Reagan’s gaffe’s now with a certain level of amusement, at the time they were a little more serious. His “evil empire” speeches were taken very seriously in Moscow who became convinced that Reagan meant to attack the Warsaw Pact. As a result they were on a heightened level of alert throughout this period. This paranoia reached a head during the 1983 Able Archer exercise, which the soviets feared might be a pretext for an actual NATO first strike. They actually went on full alert a hair’s breath away from firing throughout this exercise. Worst still was a malfunction of a key early warning system (which seemed to indicate a missile attack) just prior to the exercise, which could also have led to a soviet strike had they taken these results at face value.

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Figure 15: Deployment of the Pershing missiles dramatically heightened Cold War tensions

Meanwhile, Reagan’s posturing in the middle east far from keeping America safe, had the opposite effect, leading to a wave of terrorism launched against Americans. Prior to the bombing of Colonel Gaddafi’s headquarters, the Libyans had actually been downscaling involvement in terrorism. However instead this attack lead to a pronounced escalation. It is not clear whether it was Gaddafi or some other middle east group, possibly the Iranians (in revenge for the shoot down of an Iran airliner by a US destroyer) who bombed the Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie. But the very fact that there’s more than one candidates isn’t exactly an endorsement of Reagan’s foreign policy.

And of course there was his regime’s intervention in Afghanistan, which involved giving much weapons and CIA training to a group of Jihadi’s who Reagan went so far as to compare to the founding fathers…..groups we now know as “the Taliban” and “Al-Qaeda”. The actions of the CIA in Afghanistan, were naive at best and dangerously counter-productive at worst. The US was getting involved in a tribal war, which had little to do with geopolitics and they were aiding and abetting Jihadi groups who were arguably as great a danger to the US as the soviets.

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Figure 16: The Taliban who came to Tea, Reagan’s support for Islamists in the 80’s led eventually to 9/11

And then there’s his support for Saddam Hussein, even after he started gassing the kurds and was supplied with a large amount of weapons in the Iran/Iraq war (America also supplied weapons to the Iranians, indeed America’s policy here seemed to be to keep the war going for as long as possible). And of course there was the disastrous intervention in Grenada and Beirut to consider (again this too probably provoked a number of terrorist attacks against the US).

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Figure 17: Under Reagan the US was an ally of Saddam, supplying him with much hardware

That said, we need to consider that Reagan was surrounded by Neo-con hawks at this time, many of whom were urging a much more aggressive US stance on a foreign policy. There are some who argue we should credit the president with reigning in the neo-cons, as they would have almost certainly started WW3 if he had not restrained them.

Myth #9 – Reagan was a climate change denier and anti-science, just like any good GOP president should be

RealityScientific research undertaken during his term of office proved the link between recent warming and CO2 emissions, under Reagan’s term the IPCC was founded based in no small part to research conducted by US scientists

It is practically a rite of passage for any Republican candidate these days to take an anti-science position and decry “evolution”, stem cell research conducted by scientists “with an agenda”. And of course, any presidential candidate must be a climate change denier.

However George Shultz has pointed out that the Reagan white house, for all its faults, took a very different approach. While they cut research funding to a number of environmental causes, climate science funding continued. This led to the founding of the IPCC, with the US agreeing to provide a significant portion of its funding. Now some claim that this might have been a miscalculation by the Reagan white house, attempting to bury the problem in a sea of analysis. But the fact still remains that while modern republicans deny climate change (despite having access to far stronger evidence), the Reagan government was at least open to the idea of doing something.

Also around this time the issue of the ozone layer emerged. And again, while skeptical of the issue, the Reagan Adm. did at least try to tackle the problem, again with further investigation of the science and possible solutions. This eventually led to the Montreal Protocol signed under his predecessor. Again, the contrast between Reagan’s approach to environmental issues, and modern Republicans is pretty stark. Noting that he was not a person known for his pro-environmental views (Carter had solar panels put up on the white house, which Reagan then had taken down).

Of course, given the ineptitude discussed earlier, we do have to wonder how much of this was Reagan’s policy and how much of it was well informed advisers pushing pieces of paper under his nose for signature knowing he won’t bother to read it. But certainly his administration did not take the sort of actively anti-science approach that is now a virtual entry requirement for the GOP. Yes, Reagan was to the left of many modern republicans on the environment!

Myth #10 – Reagan was a racist and pro-gun and would be the ideal Tea Party president

RealityThere is little evidence to support this, his policies are largely neutral on these issues, I suspect Reagan would have been appalled at the Tea Party

To the Tea Party Reagan has become a blank canvas that you can paint anything on to. This is a common thread for the many who see Trump as a new Ronald Reagan. And equally those on the left have tended to view him as a near cartoon like bogeyman. Hence some have been going back through his speeches with a racist code book in hand and picking out various phrases and terms and interpreting them as sign’s of Reagan inherent racism.

As I pointed out earlier, anything we hear from a Reagan speech was generally scripted and not really his words. Indeed, one of his most prominent speech writers is now known to be a racist. So I would take anything said by Reagan while in office with a certain pinch of salt. Furthermore, I would argue that Reagan simply wasn’t the sort of person to form strong opinions. As a privileged white guy from California, who worked most of his life in a film industry that was more white than this year’s Oscar nominations, he probably never had sufficient contact with any minorities to form strong opinions.

But as regards “building a wall” and shipping the Mexicans out, Reagan actually enacted an amnesty that helped 3 million undocumented migrants gain residency in the US.

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Figure 18: Reagan, while supportive of the 2nd amendment, was not in favour of an unregulated free-for all

Similarly, I would argue the Tea Party view that Reagan was pro-gun isn’t entirely supported by the facts. Recall that he was nearly killed by an assassin in his first year of office. An attack that would ultimately lead many years later to the so-called “Brady law”. Over the course of his presidency he passed one measure that relaxed certain regulations on guns, but signed into law another (criminalising attempts to make concealable firearms, indeed the very law those trying to use 3D printers to make guns are likely falling foul of).

Several items of gun control legislation were drafted under his presidency, although ultimately signed into law by other presidents. The Gun-free schools act was signed by Bush (snr). While the Brady law was signed by Bill Clinton (in no small part due to Reagan stating he was in favour of it) as was the assault weapons ban (which Reagan also supported).

On the whole I’d argue Reagan was largely neutral on guns. Like many Republicans he was, at least in principle, in favour of legalised gun ownership. But he certainly wasn’t in favour of the unregulated free for all that we now see many Tea baggers argue for. And keep in mind Reagan wasn’t facing the scenario Obama now faces where spree shootings have become a daily occurrence. I suspect had Reagan faced this sort of problem neither he nor his administration would have hesitated to bring in appropriate measures.

Indeed, prior to the recent measures taken by Obama, the Brady foundation gave him an F for prevention of gun violence, suggesting he was weaker on gun control than Reagan. Yes, if we were to argue that Obama is “anti-gun” we would have to move the goal posts of what counts as anti-gun (i.e. regulation v’s banning them) so far to the right than even Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and many other republicans would have to also count as being “anti-gun”.

And as regards the tea party (aka the American Taliban), while Reagan was something of an outsider within the GOP, he was certainly not a radical, he did not favour burning the house down just for the hell of it. We’ve seen all sorts of self-destructive policies coming out of the Tea party the last few years, no-gun regulations even in the face of mass shootings, no debt ceiling increase, even if it means the US government going bankrupt (recall no President has ran up a higher deficit than Reagan), shut down Congress until Obama scraps Obamacare, or more recently threatening to shutdown the Supreme court for nearly year in the hope they can get a more conservative justice in the job. It is difficult to believe Reagan would have gone along with this sort of behaviour. I suspect he would have considered it as un-American and entirely counter productive.

Myth #11 – Reagan did not abuse his office like more recent presidents

RealityReagan should have been impeached for his involvement in Iran-Contra

Certainly it is true that many US president’s have done things in office that could be seen as an abuse of power. Obama has some tough questions to answer over the PRISM spy network, which was never subject to proper judicial, legislative nor public scrutiny. Clinton’s private affairs, while I would argue they were not grounds for impeachment, they still weren’t the sort of behaviour we’d expect from a US president. And let’s not even begin to discuss G. W. Bush lying to congress and the public about WMD’s and starting an illegal war, not to mention approving torture, detention without trial and co-operating with states known to be hostile to the US (such as Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria).

However, its difficult, even for G. W. Bush, to top the high crimes committed by the Reagan Adm. In two works – Iran/Contra.

For those unfamiliar with the crisis I’ll attempt a brief summary, although American Dad provides a more humorous one here. But in short, as part of his efforts to fight what Reagan considered to be communist aggression, he funded various CIA operations against socialist groups in south and central America. One group to attract US attention was the Sandinista’s. Exactly how communist the Sandinista’s were is a matter of dispute. Keep in mind they are currently in government in Nicaragua and while they are fairly left-wing, they are certainly not communist. And even if they were, they were clearly not taking their orders from Moscow.

Unfortunately for the US the main opposition to the Sandinista’s were a group called the Contras, a rebel group known to use terrorist tactics as well as trading in drugs…much of which ultimately ended up on the streets of the US. Naturally congress would not allow funding of the Contra’s, pointing out the hypocrisy of them spending billions a year on a war on drugs, but then help a bunch of drug dealers to found a narco-state.

At the same time the US was approached by the Iranians with an offer to trade US hostages in Lebanon for weapons. The Reagan Adm. approved of this sale and then diverted the funds to the Contras who used the money to buy guns. However, the Contra’s actually used some of the money to ship drugs and then used the profits of this to buy yet more guns. Exactly how compliant the CIA was all of this is still disputed, some argue the CIA actively helped the shipment of drugs into the US, others argue they knew about it but simply turned a blind eye and actively suppressed attempts to expose it. But certainly the CIA and the white house would have known that the Contras were actively using funds that they had supplied to smuggle drugs into the US.

By trading weapons for hostages Reagan was contradicting a long standing US doctrine of never negotiating with terrorists….and then giving the proceeds to another bunch of terrorists! Worse, Iran was at this point considered an enemy of the US. Many other US allies in the region considered Iran to be their main military threat, notably US ally Saddam (who again was at war with them). This is why I think we can dismiss the suggestion earlier than the Saudi’s helped America bring down the USSR by increasing oil production. After this little escapade the Saudi’s won’t have pissed on Reagan to put out a fire.

By aiding and abetting known enemies of the US (and terrorists) many have argued that the Reagan Adm’s actions on Iran/Contra constituted high treason. While that might be going a bit far, certainly his actions meet the criteria of “high crimes” and “abuse of power” laid out in the US constitution as grounds for presidential impeachment. And keep in mind this would have swept up not just Reagan but also Bush (snr) who had his grubby paw prints all over this scandal (again recall he had been head of the CIA).

However Reagan was spared impeachment by a partisan political system (the GOP knew that if they pulled the trigger on this they could kiss goodbye to the presidency next election). And the fact that they had a compliant fall guy in Oliver North….guaranteeing Oliver North would never be short of a few bob, as the GOP made sure he was well cared for afterwards…after all we won’t want him spilling his guts….

But again, we have to ask, how complicit was Reagan in Iran/Contra? I suspect he may have vaguely nodded to his staff when they discussed it, but did he actually understand what it was they were up too and the geopolitical implications of it? If it had come to trial I suspect any good lawyer would have gotten him off on grounds of diminished responsibility.

The Church of the one true Ronald

The reality of Reagan, once we de-construct the propaganda and the cult of personality, is that of a slightly senile retired actor, who through a combination of luck and coincidence managed to blunder into the white house. He was very much the accidental president. However, once in power he was quickly out of his depth and forced to rely on others, be it his wife or a snake pit of neo-con hawks, neo-liberal cheerleaders or big government bureaucrats, whom he pretty left to run the country, with mixed results. In essence for 8 years the US didn’t have a president, they hired an actor who played the role of president. Although due to this pesky thing called “the constitution” they had to give him some input on the direction his character was going to take.

But many on in the GOP will steadfastly refuse to believe this. Indeed another myth we failed to tackle is the idea that he was popular during his reign. Actually his approval ratings were no better than many other presidents while in office, at times in fact they dipped as low as 30%. Reagan’s popularity only really started to rise after his diagnosis with Alzheimers. And since then the myth’s above (and many more) have grown around him.

Reagan’s cult of personality is perhaps an interesting thing to study as it does show you how major religions get started. I won’t be surprised if in a post-apocalyptic future of a ruined America, many worship icons to the one true Ronald, the last of God’s profit prophet, before the end times. And perhaps worryingly, they are already naming everything and anything after Reagan. Thousands of streets, schools, airports, bus stops and landmarks were promptly named after him (including a mountain!). If a hobo laid down on a park bench for too long he could find himself staying at the “Ronald Reagan Restorium” by the time he sobers up. They even tried to get his face carved into the side of Mt Rushmore.

This cult of personality of Reagan is not only delusional and a disservice to the man, but it is also extremely dangerous. It raises the risk of the US repeating many mistakes committed in the past. Or worse, pursuing policies that even Reagan won’t have supported. And electing a genuine nut as President (i.e. Trump or Cruz) might just destroy the country. Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

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Tories cuts to renewable subsidies – a new age of stupid

The Tories have followed through with their election threat to cut wind farm subsidies. However they have also proceeded to cut numerous other subsidies, including those given to solar energy and biomass as well as the Green deal (grants for improved insulation). The Green investment bank, one of the few progressive moves that came out of the previous lib dem/Tory government is also to be “part privatised”….which sounds suspiciously like “allowed to go bankrupt” (the only type of bank the Tories would let go to the wall!). All in all it looks like the UK’s energy policy is about to be plunged into a “dark age”.

The (pro-nuclear) environment secretary Ashley Rudd also misses the irony of the fact that she is throwing a massive subsidy the way of nuclear energy, to the tune of 68% of the cost of every watt of electricity they sell. Yet wind farms are also excluded from this “contracts for difference” nuclear slush fund subsidy scheme, despite offering better value for money. And this is on top of the fact that the UK DECC already spends 40% of its budget servicing nuclear waste, the costs of solar energy subsidies are but 6% of the total costs associated with energy subsidies.

All of this would be just plain bad news, if it weren’t for the fact that industry (and not just the renewables industry) are warning, that these measures send out a “chilling” message to business, something that will inevitably lead to job losses, if not a complete halt to work in terms of adding new power capacity. Just as we go into a winter with just 1.2% of spare capacity. It hardly seems to me a winning strategy to halt the production of the the very energy source that’s growing, while coal stations are shutting down, as they cannot compete with wind power and hydro.

And yet, as I’ve previously mentioned, while the Tories are quite keen to block wind farm applications, they also plan to remove any right of residences to object to fracking under their own homes, while throwing yet more subsidies the way of the fossil fuel industry. Something that is sure to put the UK at loggerheads with the rest of the EU, Obama (and inevitably Hilary, who appears to be trying to make climate change an election issue next year) and the Pope (of course Cameron and Osborne aren’t Catholic, so the Pope’s message was kind of lost on a pair of followers of Cthulhu ;D ).

Perhaps the worst of all of the cuts however, are those to the Green deal and the scrapping of building codes for low carbon homes. As I’ve previously mentioned on my energy blog the bulk of the UK’s energy consumption is spend heating and cooling homes, particularly the heating load over the winter months. This accounts for between 36-42% of the UK’s energy consumption and carbon emissions (depending on how you count it). By contrast, electricity is but 20% of the UK final energy consumption (a good portion of which is of course consumed heating and cooling buildings) while vehicles consume 25%.

So the easiest, simplest, cheapest and most painless way to cut carbon emissions, while in the long term cutting energy bills and improving the nation’s energy security, is to improve energy efficiency standards. Furthermore, I would argue that it is heating, not electricity, that is the energy source we need to protect. Give most people on a cold winter’s night the choice between losing electricity or losing heating and most will chose to do without electricity (trust me I’ve had many a cold bothy night and I know which of those two I’d choose!). Going without electricity isn’t fun, its inconvenient, but at least nobody’s going to die. Which is exactly what will happen to the UK with the loss of heating, we’re talking about grannies freezing to death and that sort of thing.

So there is ultimately no logic to this other than the more obvious fact that this Tory policy is driven purely by ideology. The same ideology that drives the right wing in the US Tea Party to deny climate change and oppose gay marriage. A belief that if you bury your head in the sand the lion will go away. That the solution to a look out screaming “iceberg” is to not have any look outs and blind the helmsmen. We are truly in the age of stupid.

Let me get this straight

So the government wants to end subsidies to wind farms. This is despite the fact, as I’ve pointed out on my energy blog, that onshore wind represents the cheapest form of low carbon energy available. It also means ignoring the fact that the historical subsidies paid out to fossil fuels and nuclear have exceeded those paid out to renewables, by some significant margin.

Yet at the same time the government is willing to throw yet more subsidies at the fossil fuel lobby in an effort to promote fracking. And while they are promising to extend the rights to allow the landed gentry to object to wind farms within visual range of homes, they are going to remove people’s rights to object to fracking. Even if a company wants to frack underneath homes, they won’t having to apply for planning permission.

It has been suggested that being near a wind farm might impact on property prices by an average of 2-5%, or perhaps even 12% in the worse case scenario. Although another study suggests no significant correlation (my take on this is it probably depends, if there’s lots of property available, a buyers market, house prices might be effected as buyers are more choosy, but if the reverse is the case, as it often is in the UK, there’s no effect). However if someone fracks under your home, forget about selling it…..ever! Already some near fracking operations are complaining of this very thing.

And there is significant doubt as to whether the shale gas reserves of the UK are even economically viable, particularly given events in the US, where shale gas operators are loosing their shirts. Already its speculated that US shale gas output might well peak by the end of decade. The Tories are in effect committing the UK to an energy policy in the form of a new dash for gas, but in the blind.

And of course we are supposed to be taking action on climate change. This amounts to a complete U-turn on last 25 years of UK energy policy, one which was launched with little warning, which will probably send the signal (as I speculated in a prior post) to the power industry to halt all investment in energy….keeping in mind that all the fracking in the world will be little use without power plants to burn it in. What the energy industry needs is not some get rich quick scheme, but a long term energy plan for them to work around. These proposals offer no such promises.

Reserves v’s Resources

This is a reposting of something I put up on my energy blog recently regarding recent stories claiming large oil and gas finds:

In amongst the election news there’s been a lot of news on the oil and gas front that’s had my spider senses tingling….as in I sense the distinct consistency of grade A Bull$hit!

Consider the story of what was described as “the world’s largest oil field” under Gatwick in South Eastern England, with talk of “up to 100 billion barrels of oil”. This comes on the back of media reports over the last few years highlighting the scale of the UK’s shale gas and shale oil resources. Consider for example this typically Cornocopian piece from a libertarian.

A clue to the truth behind all this can be gained by actually bothering to read the report from the BGS that sparked all of this speculation. And in particular skipping to the bottom and checking out the references. You will immediately note how quite a few of them are not new, some go back many years to as early as the 1960’s. This is not really surprising because its long been known by geologists that this formation of shale existed for quite some time. What the BGS has been attempting to clarify recently is how big this hunk of rock is and what level of gas and oil is concentrated within in it, i.e. how big are the resources of gas and oil within the formation.

There is a world of a difference between saying there’s 100 billion in resources (i.e. gas/oil that is we know is located in a certain area, but may not be economic or technically possible to extract) under our feet and 100 billion in reserves (oil and gas which we know can be accessed and drilled economically).

Incidentally, anyone who wants to know more about the process of oil discovery and drilling, I’d advise taking a look at this webseries of video’s  by an Oil and Gas professor (Dr Lau), who does a good overview of the topic.

A quick look at figure 2 will help illustrate the point I’m making. As you can see only about 7% of the world’s fossil fuel resources are classified as reserves. The rest is certainly there, it exists, but the problem is that much if it isn’t necessarily in a form that’s easily extractable. It could be too deep to drill into, it could be under a mile of ocean, the rock between us and it may present problems, there could be a large underground aquifer between us and the oil (a significant problem for much of the UK’s shale resources in fact), the oil/gas might be in lots of little fields that are too far apart to be economic to drill, or it might be in waters claimed by another country. Or more often than not, a combination of factors may apply.

And a big part of the problem here is that its often far from clear, when a company starts drilling, what the situation is. Many people have this image of an oil well as being like a tank of oil under the ground. Actually a more accurate view is that of a lair of sand, soil, gravel or “source rock” trapped between two impermeable barriers. So less a tank and more a sponge….but a sponge buried under several miles of earth and rock! While the oil immediately close to our drill might well flow up naturally under pressure, or it can be pumped out, stuff further way is harder to access. We have to drill more holes…at a couple of million a pop. Or even start pumping stuff down there to force the oil out. Fracking may be called for to stimulate flow.

At some point, and we won’t necessarily know when, we’ll no longer be getting enough oil or gas out of our well to make it economically sensible to keep production going. So the well is capped. And keep in mind the industry average for oil well recovery ratios (what comes out v’s what stay’s in the ground) is about 40%, with a range of about 10-55% for conventional production. That is to say that on average 60% of the oil in a typical field is left in the ground. And recovery ratio’s tend to be poorer in new oil fields (particularly with unconventional oil and gas), largely because the drillers are still feeling they’re way around the underground elephant.

So if for example in this Gatwick field we were to identify a reservoir of oil with say 1 million barrels in place and let’s assume we can recover that for a cost of $10 million, would it be worth our while to drill? The media or the cornucopian’s types will probably say, well of course, but let’s think about that.

At current oil prices (let’s assume $60/bbl) and assuming average rates of recovery (so 400,000 bbl actually recovered), we’ll make $24 million, which doesn’t sound bad. But what if we end up only getting 10% out? Or because of unexpected complications (e.g. a load of FoE protesters occupies the rig for several months, we hit several gas pockets, we end up drilling a dry hole and need to start again, etc.) our costs jump to £30 million. Or perhaps several of these things happen, what then? Well, in this case we’re loosing our shirts is what happens, even if the oil price goes up to $120!

And this is the reason why a lot of oil finds worldwide will turn out to be minions that the oil majors simply chuck back in the sea and ignore, hence the massive difference between global reserves and resources.

To draw an analogy, if we were to assume you could book all resources and treat them as reserves, then nobody by the sea, such as a ship wreck survivor, could ever die of thirst, as after all he’s surrounded by water. However if we consider the amount of trouble its going to be to separate out the water from its salt content, we realise he’s going to be struggling to extract enough to survive. And only then if he can build some sort of solar still. Listen to the cornucopian’s and they’ll have you believe he’ll have a swimming pool with a jacuzzi up and running by his first week! B) By contrast, someone by a small mountain pond, is in a substantially better position. While his water resource is smaller, its in an easily accessible form. So long as he doesn’t over-produce and drain the pond dry, he’s always going to have at least some water available.

Hence why talk in the UK comparing the Gatwick find to Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia is laughable. Is it being seriously suggested that the UK holds more oil than the rest of Europe (including Russia and central Asia) combined? Ghawar field, represents a proven reserve of oil that has been producing for 50 years, while only relatively small quantities of oil have been produced in Southern England. Again to give you a comparison, Ghawar’s peak production is in the order of 5 million barrels a day (out of a Saudi total close to 10 million bbl/day), oil fields in Southern England output about 20,000 bbl/day.

Similarly any suggestion that the US holds “100 years of shale gas” is simply not accurate. This analysis assumes that 100% of Shale resources could be recovered (they can’t!), with a recovery factor of 100% (shale formations tend to have recovery factors well below the 40% mention earlier). A more reasoned analysis suggests 11 to 21 years of supply. The EIA estimates that Shale Gas has increased US resources by 27% and worldwide by 32%. A lot of gas yes, but not quite the massive game changer that is often suggested.

This brings us to the final point in figure 2, production v’s reserves. Again you will notice that annually only about 1.2% of world energy reserves are produced per year, or if we focus on oil alone, about 8% comes out per year. The fact is we can’t simply extract oil or gas at any arbitrary rate of our choosing. A higher production rate often means more drilling, more pumps, more costs and again beyond a certain tipping point, its not going to be economic nor technically feasible to up production. Too high a rate of production also risks causing technical problems, which will in the long term limit the amount of oil we ultimately extract from our reservoir. So large reserves, nevermind large resources don’t automatically mean a high rate of production.

And of the world’s oil resources (conventional and unconventional) annual oil production is but 0.8% of these resources. So you understand how laughable stupid the ravings of some cornocupians, like our libertarian fantasist earlier, sound when they imagine being able to drain the UK’s shale resources away (with a recovery ratio of 100%!) in just 50 years! To draw another analogy if we we’re to send a load of cornocupians to the sides of a large lake and get them to extract water using just spoons and sponges, while I took a small pond and a foot pump, who do you think would achieve a higher rate of production?

So you may enquire given everything I’ve said why are the companies behind these finds spreading such falsehoods. Well for the very same reason why the oil and gas companies are laying off staff. With the recent drops in oil price, nobody wants to invest in finding more oil, which is really bad news if you are head of a oil exploration firm. Of course the best way to attract some suckers investors to fill the company coffers is some good oil fashioned snake oil salesmanship, which the media have been more than happy to promote free of charge. Keep in mind that one of the key promoters of this story also just happens to be a city firm who specialises in oil and gas investment.

Similarly the shale gas promoters have been selling the myth that shale is some new magically energy source developed by professor Dumbledore at Hogwarts. In truth, the first fracking of oil wells dates back to 1949. Certainly the fracking technology used today is very different, the scale is larger, the depth and pressures are different. But the basic idea that we could use it to extract the oil and gas from the shale resources we’ve long known existed is not a new idea.

Anyone who doubts me, go to your universities library some evening and go through the oil and gas journals of a few decades back (say 60’s to 80’s, whatever’s on microfilm was my rationale) and you will see the odd paper or journal pop up relating to “hydraulic fracturing”. I found several going all the way back to the 1960’s….including one crazy one which thought of using fracking to dispose of nuclear waste! 88| (they went a bit nuts in the 60’s, all those drugs! :crazy:).

Again, the oil and gas industry has been attempting to suggest otherwise, as they have a very specific agenda. Which is basically that the existing reserves of oil they hold are rapidly depleting. There reserves are also uncompetitive compared to those held by Middle East producers. And the “let’s steal the Arab’s oil” gambit appears to have failed rather dramatically. So plan B is to con the rest of us into paying over the odds for domestic oil and gas, while ignoring the urgent matter of climate change and the fact that unconventional oil and gas production often comes with a much higher rate of pollution and a higher carbon footprint.

So given these factors, yes you can go with the dodgy “cowboy” fracker, whose offering a “too good too be true” deal. Or do you go with the science, which says we need to engage in a long term strategy to get off oil. Nothing spectacular, but a long term commitment towards energy conservation, renewables and generally living within our means.

ISIS and the Bitter Lake

If you’ve not already seen it, the BBC have a film out on i-Player by the always excellent Adam Curtis, called “Bitter Lake”. In this film Curtis discusses the effects of the West’s Middle Eastern policy, often in pursuit of oil. The film highlights how such policy has frequently become unstuck due to politicians sticking to simplistic explanations, of what are often very complex internal issues within these states. The film in particular focuses on Afghanistan and the various western interventions in this country.

The film is not for the feint hearted and includes many shocking scenes, the sort that the BBC never broadcast and hence why I doubt this film will ever be broadcast on television. For example the aftermath of an assassination “attempt” on Karzai’s convoy (about 25min’s in, which does seem to imply it was just his trigger happy security guards being jumpy rather than anything else). Indeed the film has provoked much controversy, being both praised as brilliant and on the other hand condemned by the very sorts who you’d think it would appeal too.

The film gets its name from the Bitter Lake agreement, where in the twilight weeks of World War II, in one of his last major policy decisions, President Roosevelt met with the Saudi king and they struck a deal through which the US would gain access to Saudi oil and in return the Saudi’s would get a guarantee of security. However, this deal threatened in the long term to undermine everything that Roosevelt had worked towards, and directly led to the events of 9/11.

The religion of Saudi Arabia has, since the 1800’s been not Islam but Wahhabism, an often puritanical, xenophobic and technophobic offshoot of mainstream Sunni Islam. Wahhabism itself grew as a counter to Western Imperialism (notably the Ottoman Empire) and it was both one of the Saudi Kingdom’s key strengths…but also its greatest internal threat. Indeed from time to time the Royal family has literally been forced to turn on the Wahhabists and buried more than a few in holes in the desert.

One solution that the Saudi’s developed was the idea that the best way of dealing with the more troublesome extremists, was to give them a pile of money, which thanks to the oil revenues they now weren’t short off, bundle them off to somewhere like Pakistan to set up a Madrasa and spread the good Wahhabi word. Its a bit like the old Irish policy, in some families, of sending the smart brother to college so he could become an engineer or a doctor, letting the middle ones take up a trade and become plumbers or joiners, while the idiot brother gets bundled off to a seminary. Similarly, in Saudi families, the runt of the litter, the kid who was too dumb to pass high school…and spent his spare time torturing small animals, gets bundled off to some foreign Madrasa where he’s out of sight and out of mind and not making waves for people back home.

And for a time this tactic worked, however the end result has been to create a number of very serious long term problems, notably in that these Wahhabi preachers have now indoctrinated a substantial portion of the Muslim populations in certain countries with teachings that actually contradict traditional Muslim teachings in those countries. There is for example very little tradition in many Muslim countries of women wearing full face veils. Yet many Muslim women in some countries now do so, despite the obvious practical problems it creates, as they are still expected to do the jobs and chore’s they’d long performed without wearing the veil or Burka.

This growth in Wahhabism, was fuelled by Western policies. For example, the man who actually inspired the 9/11 hijackers, was an Egyptian by the name of Sayyid Qutb. This simple school inspector had been radicalised in part thanks to his treatment by the Nasser regime, with whom the US was at the time co-operating on security matters. Nasser represented the opposing force in Islam, of Muslim secularism which sought to exploit the west and copy some of its methods, notably Western technology and industrialisation. However in the process, the Pan-Arabians succeeded in alienating many more conservative Muslims as well as trampling on the traditional systems of tribal loyalties that had held such societies together for Millennia.

For example, in the 1950’s the US helped build a dam in Helmand province of Afghanistan as part of a programme to modernise the country. However the dam forced many off their land. Also for the dam to function, it relied on a system of canals to provide water to farms, which soon became clogged due to lack of maintenance. This causes significant disruption to local tribal life as well as making it difficult for local tribes to farm, as the dam had also raised the salt levels within the water table….until the locals realised that instead they could grow Opium poppies! For decades after, this Opium crop would be a major problem for the West, both due to the drug problems that resulted in the West, but also the funds it would funnel to terrorist groups.

Recently on US TV there was a controversial debate between Bill Maher, Ben Affleck (of all people) and American author Sam Harris. The crux of this debate was a simplistic spinning of the conflicts within the Arab world into a fight between “good” Muslims versus “bad” Muslims, when in fact a more accurate analysis would be Muslims and the rest of the civilised world against Wahhabi extremists. For increasingly, during the 1980’s the Wahhabist’s “exported” from countries like Saudi Arabia were being utilised as a counter to the Pan-Arabism of Nasser, Saddam or the Asad’s, which both the Saudi’s and the US now considered as their enemies and allies of the soviets.

When a pan-Arabian regime took root in Afghanistan, the Americans tried all they could to destabilise it, eventually leading to a Russian invasion. The Saudi’s and the US (under Reagan), then persuaded many Muslim extremists to go off to fight a Jihad against the Russians in the hope that the US could get one back on the sov’s for Vietnam. They even convinced a number of Arab countries to effectively empty their prisons of many violent Jihadi’s, who had been rotting (often on death row) for various attempted rebellion’s, and send them to Afghanistan to fight to soviets….and probably in the very real hope that they’d be killed, thus solving two problems at once. Of those who went to Afghanistan included Al-Qaeda’s number 1 and 2, Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, a follower of the aforementioned Sayyid Qutb. It seemed like a good plan…until a number of those Jihadi’s put their CIA training to good use over the skies of New York….15 of the 19 of them being Saudi’s.

And again, it was the simplistic analysis of the problem in both Moscow and Washington that was the problem. Neither understood the complex system of tribal loyalties and long running cultural rivalries. Reagan had an almost megalomaniac obsession with the conflict, even dedicating the inaugural launch of the space shuttle to the Afghan fighters…or comparing the Mujahideen to the founding fathers of the US.

Similarly the Soviet leadership did not initially understand that the reason for the revolt was due to the land reforms that had been imposed on the country and the tribal feuds this had set off. Much of the reason why local tribes fought the soviets had little to do with politics, or religion for that matter, but in defence of tribal claims. And indeed they often used one side or another against one another. For the surest way of getting you’re rival killed was to go to the Soviets and tell them such and such a person was Mujahideen, or visa versa. And many tribal elders would happily switch sides at the drop of a hat if the winds of change suited.

And when the Americans and British came into Helmand province in the 2000’s the locals played the same game, using the coalition forces to settle long standing tribal scores. In part, this was because that the West failed to understand the consequences of putting the likes of Karzai in charge of the country, who presided over a regime that was institutionally corrupt and widely despised. The end result was that both the soviet occupation of the country and the Western one did not have any appropriated outcome. And similarly in Iraq, the West backed a president who alienated the Sunni’s, who promptly threw in their lot with ISIS, who took over half the country, leaving the Americans playing catch up very quickly.

The result is to make something of a mockery of fifty years of western diplomacy and some will take this as a clear sign as to why the West should stay out of Middle East affairs. However one valid criticism would be to accuse Adam Curtis of making the very same mistake that he accuses Western governments of, he relies too much on simplistic explanations and a fairly narrow interpretation of the facts, and quite a lot of hyperbole.

For example, he goes so far as to claim that much of the global trade on stock markets is ultimately a massive ponzi scheme fuelled by Saudi oil money. This is going perhaps a little far. Certainly, a point I would make (as an expert on energy) is that much of the supposed wealth of the West is somewhat imaginary, as its dependant on the availability of cheap fossil fuels which won’t always be available, hence unless we come up with some alternatives there’s going to be some sort of major economic correction. However it would be incorrect to conclude that the stock markets only exist because of petro-dollars (he is aware that they existed long before oil came along?).

Also, one has to be careful in this narrative of blaming the West for everything. After all, nobody made the Taliban become Taliban. The US certainly scored an own goal by helping to train and equip them, but it wouldn’t be fair to blame the West without pointing the finger at other factors closer to home, the Wahhabists, corrupt and oppressive local regimes, ignorance and greed on the part of locals?

Take this Jihadi John character. Certain apologists for ISIS, such as professional moron Russell Brand, have been trying to argue its all the West fault he decided to go to Syria and take to beheading aid workers and journalists, ignoring the fact that clearly he was radicalised long before the security services got near him. Its not as if MI5 put a plane ticket in his hand and a machete in the other? And are we going to blame MI5 for those 3 girls who were groomed online and when missing last month?

But either way this film does raise awkward questions, such as what to do about ISIS. Nobody can doubt that ISIS are a murderous and dangerous perversion. Tales from within ISIS held territories speak of such horrors as mass executions, crucifixions and a regime, run by sex-mad slave drivers, that literally collects not just outrageous taxes, but even taxes paid in blood (and you thought taxes in the UK were tough!). The city of Raqqa (ISIS capital) has seen its population drop by more than half since they took over. Veils for women indeed simply aren’t enough, as in almost monty python-esque style they’ve introduced double veil’s with gloves.

In short its difficult to argue how anything could be better than leaving the likes of ISIS in charge. And the argument that we should just let the Kurds and Shia’s sort out ISIS ignores the likely consequences of that. For example, the Kurds have taken much land and territory in both Syria and neighbouring provinces of Iraq, as have the Shia’s, who are currently advancing on Tikirit….possibly with the assistance of the Iranian Revolutionary guard.

But will these groups give up the land afterwards? The land captured is majority Sunni areas but with large Shia or Kurdish minorities. And it contains in many cases large oil reserves. Suppose they hold onto the land, or indeed start fighting each other over this land? It could mean that the war against ISIS is replaced with a wider internal conflict inside Iraq, or possibly a war between Iraq and Syria with Turkey and Iran backing one side or another.

But of course Western boots on the ground, won’t necessarily work out any better. After all if the plan is to repeat past Western mistakes, it would be merely a case of the West demonstrating one of the proof’s of madness (doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result). Its all well and good, throwing rocks at Western policy, but its possible that a lack of intervention could be as bad, if not worse, than further intervention.

Hence why I’d argue a more effective strategy is to break our addiction to oil. No petro-dollars, no Saudi money to Madrasa’s and ISIS. It also means being careful whose side we pick. Another flash point is the West’s unyielding support for Israel, ignoring Israel ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and its production of WMD’s. Obviously, doing as Netanyahu suggests, would be dangerous, without first tackling Israeli nuclear weapons. To argue that Iran can’t have Nukes, but we’ll let Israel have them is clearly hypocritical.

In short there needs to be an end to Western double standards, backing up one heavily armed oppressive regime (such as the Gulf States), then bombing or isolating another one (such as Saddam’s Iraq or Iran) and ignoring totally the crimes of others (such as Israel). Equally thought the West needs to wake up to the fact that we’re in the mess due to attempts to secure oil reserves. So a programme of reducing the Western addiction to oil is certainly essential.

You have trodden on the forbidden lawn

I recently commented on my energy blog about the success of community ownership schemes for renewables in Germany. In Germany about 46% of renewable energy schemes are owned by individuals, farmers or community co-operatives, while the 4 major German energy companies own a mere 5%. This means that as locals own the renewables, they have greater say in their deployment and directly benefit from them (e.g. a share of any subsidies). While in the UK where you so much as try to put up a flag pole and twenty seconds later there’s a community action group formed to oppose it.

There have been efforts to export these policies of community ownership both to the UK and the US. However, as I describe on my blog, the major energy companies have been opposing these moves, obviously fearful of the loss of market share. For example, they’ve been very slow to connect such schemes up to the grid or started charging outrageous fees to do this.

Well now the Tories have started to get in on the act. They have been increasingly accused of blocking such schemes for seemingly spurious reasons and in effect seem to be trying to covertly move the goal posts in terms of what’s required to get approval for such co-operative schemes. The only people who benefit from this are the major energy companies.

And it’s not just a problem in the UK. Arch climate denier Tony Abbott of Australia is attempting to renege on previous commitments towards renewable energy, not because they are too costly but because they’ve been too successful. Recent falls in the prices of renewables and increasing manufacturing rates means renewables in Australia are set to not only hit the target set by the previous labour government but exceed them, which clearly Abbott does not want to see happen, even though it’s been pointed out the only people who will benefit from these measures are Australia’s coal companies…how happened to donate handsomely to his campaign.

While I can understand a government reacting to changing business conditions and for example spending the same money on renewables, but demand of the companies that they install more hardware (which recent price drops should allow). But, as I’ve discussed in another post on my energy blog, it beggar’s belief that a government would do something as anti-business as punishing a company for being too successful. It’s the equivalent to, say, a train company actual hitting its targets for punctuality and then finding its reward was to not have its franchise renewed.

The negative signal such polices sent to investors seems to be that energy markets are regarded as a closed shop. Renewables, energy efficiency and anything else who might break up the cosy cartel aren’t welcome.

4,093 days since Mission Accomplished

On May 1st 2003, 4,093 days ago, G. W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. The War would go on for at least another 8 years, and that just covers the period of American involvement. It is entirely possible that the fighting could continue for decades to come.

The devil’s rejects
The ISIS group, who have taken over large chucks of Iraq, have been showing their devotion to Islam by going around the region they control and blowing up mosques and holy sites! Now what would have happened had the US soldiers even accidently shelled a Mosque?

The reality is that ISIS are about as committed to Islam as Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist church (which is probably unfair to the Westboro Baptists as I don’t believe they’ve ever actually blown up a mosque or anything like that!). They are in reality little more than a rabble of thugs from around the world, using a twisted interpretation of Islam to justify rape, looting and murder. In many respects they aren’t that dissimilar to various groups of brigands and raiders who looted caravans in this region many centuries ago.

On the plus side, ISIS are now being pushed back. Unfortunately it appears to be Shia and Kurdish militia who are doing most of the fighting and not the Iraqi army (who the US trained and equipped at great expense). This is worrying, as the fear is that Shia militia might start taking reprisals on Sunni’s for the atrocities committed by ISIS, including scenes eerily similar to those in Eastern Europe under the nazi’s. In short Iraq, like Syria could be a case of another re-run of the Yugoslav civil war.

Rise of Kurdistan?
There’s also questions as to what the Kurds will do. Will they hand back territory they’ve captured to the rest of Iraq? or absorb it into Kurdistan? There’s also the possibility of them declaring independence. The Kurds, at 38 million people, are one of the world’s largest ethnic groups who lack a country of their own, so such a desire for a homeland is not really surprising. However, only a fraction of the Kurdish population live in Iraq (about 25%) and only some of those live within Kurdish held areas in Iraq. Large populations of Kurds live in neighbouring countries of Syria, Iran and most notably Turkey.

Thus if Kurdistan becomes a sovereign nation, the desire to unite these lands together will probably become irresistible. But this will almost certainly provoke conflict between Kurdistan and its new neighbours. Note that in the past both Syria and Turkey made separate threats to invade Iraq if the Kurds declared independence. So some form of conflict, either an outright war or a series of insurgencies, seems very probable if Kurdistan goes independent. It is no exaggeration to say that this conflict could go onto till we are ten thousand days past mission accomplished.

Then there’s the question as to what happens to whatever is left of Iraq. The chances of Sunni and Shia parts of Iraq splitting into two rump states is fairly likely. The possibility of war and insurgency between the two are a risk. And its equally a risk that the Shia rump state will fall under the influence of Iran (or possibly even be absorbed by Iran) with a similar risk as regards the Sunni region and whoever ends up in charge of Syria (and thanks to ISIS that will probably be the Assad regime).

And with all the oil in Iraq the cash to keep any wars going indefinitely is all too readily available.

Saudi connections
While it is all too easy to pin much of the blame for the situation in Iraq on the Americans, in particular the Bush administration and their ally Tony Blair. But there is another player in this mess, and many other Al-Qaeda affiliate operations – Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi regime both officially and unofficially supports groups such as ISIS as part of the chess game they are playing against other Arab states, as revealed in the wikileak cables. The cables also revealed that some of the strongest lobbying for bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities came not from Israel but the Saudi’s.

Islamic extremist groups also serve as a lightning rod for many angry young wahhabists within Saudi Arabia. During the Iraqi insurgency, Saudi’s rated highly as those responsible for suicide bombings. And of course, lest we forget, 19 of those hijackers on 9/11 were also Saudi’s.

But equally one has to worry that what goes around comes around. Sooner or later Saudi Arabia’s meddling in the affairs of other Arab states will come back to haunt them. Possibly in the form of their own Islamist uprising as a result of events in Iraq spilling over into the kingdom along with returning Islamist fighters.

All in all, the situation in Iraq is yet another reason for the world to break its addiction to oil. Even when you factor in recent advances in unconventional oil and gas (e.g. Tar sands and shale oil) at least 50% or more of proven reserves still lies under the Middle East. So long as the world is committed to oil as its primary energy source, these sorts of battles will continue.

Tories plan to decimate Green energy

Hidden away within the recent Queen’s speech was a series of commitments to dismantle many of the Green energy policies brought in under both the last government and indeed the previous Major government. Obviously fearful that labour might win the next election, the Tories are taking a leaf out of G.W. Bush’s play book and trying to hammer through as much legislation as possible favourable to their pay masters.

The Tories, aided by their lib dem lackies, firstly plan to make it easier for shale gas drillers to frack under people’s homes (wonder what that will do to house prices?). And this comes on the back of news that the US shale gas boom is running out of steam (not that this should come as a surprise to anybody who has been paying attention to the facts rather than the propaganda) and that even the US is now talking about the need to kerb emissions. Its as if the Tories were living in a cocoon through the winter storms (presumably in a coffin holding a handful of grave soil ;D).

And should protesters against fracking try to stop this drilling, the Tories are also seeking to tighten up trespass laws with another bill they’ve slipped into the queen’s speech.

Perhaps more serious is the threat to fiddle with building standards. The Tories are now proposing to relax current standards for new buildings intended to ensure that new build structures are more energy efficient.

This is a hugely significant move. As I’ve pointed out before, as much as 30-40% of the UK’s final energy consumption involves providing heat to buildings. By contrast electricity is just 20% of the UK’s final energy consumption (and quite a bit of that goes towards heating!). So any measure that can reduce the energy consumption of buildings would go along way to both reducing the UK’s carbon emissions and reducing the peak demand for energy in winter (thus improving energy security).

And it would also mean saving money for not just householders, but also the government (by reducing the scale of the winter heating allowance…of course the Tories want to get rid of that too!). Not to mention less cases of pensioners freezing to death in winter in leaky cold houses. Such measures are also intended to counter the mistakes of the past. The fact is that the UK has in past housing booms thrown up lots of cheaply built but expensive to maintain houses which were poorly insulated, leaky, damp and without putting much thought into support infrastructure (e.g. drainage to avoid flooding, public transport to reduce the dependency for cars, etc.).

Obviously one doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, so given these facts, the previous Labour government introduced strict limits and tough new building codes. These went so far as to suggest that all new homes should be zero carbon by 2016. These rules were no bolt from the blue, but built on measures previously introduced by the Major government and indeed measures the current coalition originally supported.

The justification for the changes the Tories now propose (in what is another U-turn on the environment…anyone still remember that “greenest government ever” pledge!), is that these tough building standards are curbing house building (by making the costs of building homes more expensive). So given that the Troy plan for the next election is to trigger a housing bubble (and thus an artificial spur of growth), these building standards are proving more than a little inconvenient.

However its worth reflecting on the consequences of such a policy. It was all well and good throwing up cheap leaky homes in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s when the world was awash with cheap fossil fuels, but that is not the case anymore. Anyone buying these homes will essentially be locking themselves into a future of many decades of ever higher gas bills (while the zero carbon homes come with much lower running costs).

And of course, where is all the gas to run these homes going to come from? As I’ve previously discussed it is highly implausible to suggest the UK can rely on Shale gas and with events in Ukraine the security of supply of the UK’s gas supplies is under greater threat than it ever has been before. Obviously in such circumstance’s creating a whole new generation of natural gas users is hardly a sensible strategy, no more than previous Tory policy to get rid of energy efficiency grants intended to allow existing households to refurbish homes (make them more air tight, better insulation, etc.)

As a token gesture, the Tories do include a measure to introduce a 5p charge on plastic bags. A good idea, as I’ve discussed before, but clearly a classic example of bait and switch, as can be observed from the fact that the Daily Mail, which is usually allergic to anything environmental, actually praised this measure.

In short the Tory plan is to gut the environmental budget, repeat all of the mistakes of the past, leading to a Britain in future with yet more leaky, badly built, flood prone homes. The unfortunate owners of these new homes will find themselves trapped with the millstone of negative equity around their neck in a home they cannot sell and cannot afford to heat (once the shale gas fantasy runs its course).

The New Normal

I caught the film “Company Men” on TV over the last week. It was yet another tale of the impact of the Great Recession, as its now called, on society, this time focusing on the mid-level manager types who while well paid and technically wealthy, were living pay check to pay check during the boom and then wiped out financially when their cosy $200,000 a year job went up with the balloon.

Of course this prompts the constant question of when will the recession end? When will things go back to normal. Well I’d argue, we’re in what you could say is the new normal. It was the economic growth prior to the recession that was unusual and the recession has more been a case of the global economy resetting itself to a more stable equilibrium.

The truth is that starting from the Thatcher and Reagan era up till 2007 the world went through an unprecedented level of economic growth that was not normal. It was in fact an unsustainable boom. It was sustained by many factors that just could not be maintained, not least because many of them were entirely self-destructive.

e.g. in both the beginning and end of the boom corporations would downside or shut down factories in order to boost their share price. To draw an analogy, if the owner of the local fruit shop were to respond to a temporary drop in profits by firing staff and closing off half his store, or a farmer responded to a bad harvest by having his prize winning breeding heifers sent off to slaughter, most would argue they’d clearly gone a bit mad and if the bank heard about it they’d be calling in any loans pretty quickly. Yet this is basically what many corporations were doing in the 80’s. Towards the end several of the Wall Street firms were betting against themselves, equivalent to taking out fire insurance on your own firm and then asking the insurance agent if he knows where you can buy some petrol and could he lend you a match.

And this bubble was ultimately the result of the deregulation heavy lassie-faire policies of Thatcher and Reagan. Of course we can’t solely blame Thatcher/Reagan for this crisis. Clinton’s decision to repeal the Glass-steagall Act certainly didn’t help matters, nor New Labour’s failure to properly reign in the city of London. And one can scarcely think of a worse person to have in charge of the US economy at the crucial hour than G. W. Bush.

Also, as I discussed in a prior post, we have to consider the issue of global oil supplies. Oil shocks of the 1970’s were replaced in the 80’s and 90’s with a massive oil glut. Prices fell so low that in the 90’s oil once hit a low of around $10 a barrel. Of course this trend wasn’t sustainable and its very likely that the growth of China simply soaked up so much of the world’s oil and gas to raise the price so high as to finally burst the bubble.

As the saying goes, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Those who favoured deregulation failed to pause and ask why those regulations were brought in to begin with. As the history of capitalism is littered with examples of short sharp boom and bust cycles with market panics and many of these rules had been developed in the wake of one train wreck or another.

And indeed all the evidence is that the spiv’s in the markets are at it again. In the last month we have news of attempts to rig the London foreign exchange rates. This of course coming on the back of the LIBOR rigging scandal. Notably nobody was actually arrested or jailed for that so is it no surprise that they’re at it again. Also this week comes news of traders conspiring to rig the HIBOR rate in Hong Kong…over 100 times in recent years! The Economist also has an article out about the extent of “crony capitalism” worldwide, demonstrating that in some countries as much as 40% of the economy is essentially corrupt….and unsurprisingly Hong Kong finishes top with Russia second. Again if you let people get away with such high crimes is it any surprise that the fail to chance and keep doing it over and over again.

And we would do well to remember this or else its very possible we’ll be staring into the same abyss again in a few years time, but this time there will be no bailout as the public will not stand for it and no government will be able to afford it.

Shale Gas Protests in Romania

One story that the major news media seems to have missed was that of a recent set of shale gas protests in rural Romania against the actions of the US owned firm Chevron. It would seem Chevron decided to start fracking on people’s land (or even back gardens!) without making any effort to consult with them first nor offer any sort of compensation.

Naturally this made them none too popular with the locals who proceeded to make a bit of a fuss, blocking roads and occupying sites. With the international media starting to sniff around and realising they were sitting on a bit of a PR disaster, Chevron responded by going around handing out flyers explaining why having a shale gas well in your back yard is kind of swell.

It would seem to be yet another example of an all too typical tale. Representatives of a corporation show up with a truck load of money outside the door step of some impoverished government. In return for which they get Carte Blanche to do whatever they want in said country. Inevitably this leads to exploitation and repression of local communities and destruction of the environment. A good example is the actions of Chevron’s in Ecuador and the toxic legacy they’ve left behind. Here they began using drilling practices and waste disposal techniques that were illegal in the US causing enormous harm to the Jungle environment.

It also shows us yet another reason to oppose fracking in the UK or US. Although at least in the US if a shale gas well explodes you get a free pizza!

Another factor related to shale gas fracking has been the level of methane leakage from such wells. Given that methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas any significant leakage of methane would represent a significant level of greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed some worry that shale gas might be worse than coal as far as overall greenhouse gas emissions. Recent evidence now points to the possibility that the leakage levels have been significantly underestimated…by as much as 50%!

There are in short, many reasons for opposing shale gas drilling and pursuing alternatives to fossil fuels. Climate change is one, the destruction of the environment another. But the corrupt dirty politics of these industries is clearly one of them.