The Mandela effect, Star Wars edition

How much do you trust your memory?

We all know the famous line. “Luke, I am your father.” Right?

Now I have probably seen this scene a dozen times over the years, but even so, I was mildly shocked to watch this video. Listen carefully:

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That’s right… “Luke, I am your father” is not spoken in the movie. The line does not exist in the film, although it lives in our pop culture and collective memory. Your memory lied!

The confusion over this line is an example of what is sometimes called the Mandela effect. I reckon the universe is a might peculiar. Enjoy!

Social credit system in action

China’s dystopian social credit system is in full swing, and the results are… sweeping:

Skipped paying a fine in China? Then forget about buying an airline ticket.

Would-be air travelers were blocked from buying tickets 17.5 million times last year for “social credit” offenses including unpaid taxes and fines under a controversial system the ruling Communist Party says will improve public behavior.

Others were barred 5.5 million times from buying train tickets, according to the National Public Credit Information Center. In an annual report, it said 128 people were blocked from leaving China due to unpaid taxes.

The ruling party says “social credit” penalties and rewards will improve order in a fast-changing society after three decades of economic reform have shaken up social structures. Markets are rife with counterfeit goods and fraud. The system is part of efforts by President Xi Jinping’s government to use technology ranging from data processing to genetic sequencing and facial recognition to tighten control.

How long before China adds social credit incentives to boost its lowest-in-the-world fertility rate? Have another baby, get “points” that you can redeem on Taobao!

And before you get complacent, the Western democracies are not far from implementing “social credit systems” of their own.

Fuzzy GDP math

It’s hardly a secret that China’s reported GDP growth figures are less than reliable; premier Li Keqiang actually acknowledged that the numbers are “man-made and therefore unreliable” more than a decade ago. A new study from economists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Chicago estimates just how inaccurate those figures are:

China has overestimated its nominal and real growth rates by about 2 full percentage points on average between 2008 to 2016, with the miscalculation increasing each year, according to a new study published on Thursday.

The results indicate that the actual size of China’s economy at the end of 2018 was well below the government’s official estimate. […]

Using the study’s findings and applying them to government figures starting with the level of nominal gross domestic product (GDP) at the end of 2007 and the growth rate for 2008, calculations by the South China Morning Post show that the current nominal size of the Chinese economy is about 18 per cent lower than the official level of 90 trillion yuan (US$13.4 trillion) at the end of 2018. […]

SCMP calculations show the adjusted nominal GDP level in China is about US$11.5 trillion using current exchange rates, still more than twice the size of Japan’s economy at US$5.16 trillion, but well below the economy of the United States at US$20 trillion.

US to shrink aircraft carrier fleet from 11 to 10

Might as well. China’s deployment of carrier-killer missiles effectively turns our aircraft carriers into floating, $4 billion targets:

The Pentagon reportedly plans to send one of its Nimitz-class aircraft carriers into early retirement, shrinking the carrier fleet to save billions of dollars.

The US military is set to scrap plans for a midlife overhaul of one of its carriers, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported Tuesday. That carrier is the USS Harry S. Truman, which was scheduled to have its nuclear reactor core refueled in 2024, Breaking Defense’s Sydney Freedberg reported Wednesday.

The Truman, which entered service in 1998, was designed to serve for half a century, as is the case with all the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. In 2024, the ship was to sail to the shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, for a refueling and complex overhaul, or RCOH, to be completed in 2028, Breaking Defense reported.

The cancelation of the midlife overhaul and retirement of the aircraft carrier — reportedly part of the 2020-24 budget plan — would see the US carrier fleet shrink in size, to 10 from 11.

Failed coup

Juan Guaido Venezuela

Juan Guaido may remain interim president of Venezuela for a while

Looks like plans for a Venezuelan Spring are falling apart. According to Bloomberg, opposition leader Juan Guaido amassed a mini-army of 200 exiled soldiers to storm the Venezuelan border from Colombia… and was stopped by the Colombian government:

Late last month, as U.S. officials joined Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido near a bridge in Colombia to send desperately needed aid to the masses and challenge the rule of Nicolas Maduro, some 200 exiled soldiers were checking their weapons and planning to clear the way for the convoy.

Led by retired General Cliver Alcala, who has been living in Colombia, they were going to drive back the Venezuelan national guardsmen blocking the aid on the other side. The plan was stopped by the Colombian government, which learned of it late and feared violent clashes at a highly public event it promised would be peaceful.

Almost no provisions got in that day and hopes that military commanders would abandon Maduro have so far been dashed. Even though Guaido is back in Caracas, recognized by 50 nations as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, the impromptu taking up of arms shows that the push to remove Maduro — hailed by the U.S. as inevitable — is growing increasingly chaotic and risky.

Bloomberg appears to suggest that Guaido is taking order from the US:

There have been other concerns. Guaido was planning to make a tour of European capitals this week to build international support, but the Americans told him he needed to return to Venezuela or he’d lose whatever momentum remained.

He’ll also need to be in Venezuela to serve as Maduro bait:

The Latin American diplomat, who has been in contact with Washington, said the U.S. strategy seems to be to continue to provoke instability in Venezuela in hopes that Maduro will make a move that could warrant more aggressive U.S. action. Bolton and Abrams have said that arresting Guaido would prompt a severe response.

Dunno, given its track record on regime change, maybe the US should sit this one out. Just a suggestion.

Some economic doom & gloom

David Stockman says it wouldn’t be prudent

A sobering assessment of America’s economic health by a former Director of the Office of Budget and Management (OBM). Whether you agree or disagree with his analysis, it’s worth a listen:

Listen to “Josh Jalinski Talks to David Stockman, Author & Former Budget Director” on Spreaker.

Quoth David Stockman:

The trade war with China is aimed at the wrong problem: it’s not bad trade deals or even nefarious activities by the Chinese state, the problem is bad money – this tremendous money-pumping that the Fed has done over the last 20 or 30 years, which has really undermined the Main Street economy and caused production and good jobs to shift offshore.

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At the federal level, we now have [$]22 trillion of debt… If you take households that have 15 and a half trillion of debt, business that has about 14, you take the federal government, state and local, and then financial institutions, the total debt in our society today is $70 trillion, sitting up there on top of a GDP that’s barely 20 trillion. So we have three and a half times as much debt as we have income, and if you look at history… that is off the charts, that is a warning sign that this system is not sustainable. When we had a healthy economy, pre-1971, we had in fact a whole century of good economic prosperity and progress, from 1870 to 1970, the average debt-to-GDP ratio for the whole economy was 150%, not 350%.

Very old stories

This is intriguing:

In a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, a folklorist and anthropologist say that stories like Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk are much older than originally thought. Instead of dating from the 1500s, the researchers say that some of these classic stories are 4,000 and 5,000 years old, respectively. This contradicts previous speculation that story collectors like the Brothers Grimm were relaying tales that were only a few hundred years old.

It turns out that it’s pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are using simple historical data. Since the tales were passed down orally, they can be almost impossible to unwind using a historian or anthropologist’s traditional toolbox. So the team borrowed from biology, instead, using a technique called phylogenetic analysis. Usually, phylogenetic analysis is used to show how organisms evolved. In this case, researchers used strategies created by evolutionary biologists to trace the roots of 275 fairy tales through complex trees of language, population and culture. […]

As they tracked, they found evidence that some tales were actually based in other stories. More than a quarter of the stories turned out to have ancient roots—Jack and the Beanstalk was traced back to the split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages more than 5,000 years ago and a tale called The Smith and the Devil appears to be more than 6,000 years old.

If true, this would mean that elements of present-day Western culture date back to before the Epic of Gilgamesh and before the first (legendary) dynasty of China. From the study:

Wilhelm Grimm argued that the traditional German tales that he and his brother Jacob had compiled were remnants of an ancient Indo-European cultural tradition that stretched from Scandinavia to South Asia…

In case you were wondering:

The Smith and the Devil is a European fairy tale. The story is of a smith who makes a pact with a malevolent being—commonly the Devil (in later times), Death or a genie—selling his soul for some power, then tricks the devil out of his prize. In one version, the smith gains the power to weld any material, he then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain.

(Sound familiar?)

One nation under Kim

Kim Jong-un smoking

The US and South Korea have confirmed reports that they plan to end large-scale war games to ease tensions with North Korea, which views these exercises as preparations for an invasion. I commented yesterday:

This could also be seen as a step in the direction of reducing the US troop commitment in South Korea, which currently numbers 28,500 soldiers, and perhaps eventually a total withdrawal.

My comment may not have been far off the mark. From a blog post by Dongseo University’s Professor BR Myers, dated March 2018:

Hence also the confident hope of many that under the right sort of pressure, Washington will reduce USFK [Ed: United States Forces Korea] from bodyguard to chaperone: a force just high-tech and well-armed enough to reassure foreign investors, reward the US military-industrial complex, and discourage the North from doing anything crazy, but too small and averse to military exercises to frighten the neighbors. (Which may well be what is foreseen for the very first stage of a confederation, as a transition to US troop pullout.)

The rest of the post is interesting for its analysis of the astonishingly anti-American, pro-North-Korean orientation of South Korea’s current government, led by president Moon Jae-in:

It is therefore misleading of the New York Times to say that the Moon Jae-in administration is “hungry for a diplomatic rapprochement” with Pyongyang. There is no bad blood or grudge between the two parties that must now be laboriously reconciled. Besides, they have the exact same short term goal of bringing off a North-South summit that is PR-effective enough to get a) the international community to relax sanctions, and b) the South Korean public to sign off on confederation. Their longer term goals are different. The North wants unification under its own flag, while South Korean progressives want the two states to coalesce over decades of mutually beneficial economic cooperation.

Here’s more on that topic by North Korea expert Joshua Stanton (dated April 2018):

LAST DECEMBER, I PUBLISHED A SURPRISINGLY CONTROVERSIAL HYPOTHESIS that Korean War II would not be a conventional war, but is a hybrid war to alternately cajole and coerce South Korea into gradual submission to the North’s hegemony, aggressive implementation of a series of joint statements, and eventual digestion into a one-country, two-systems confederation. I argued that this plan would only work if a sufficiently submissive government in Seoul yielded to Pyongyang while going only so far and so fast as possible to avoid a domestic backlash among a population that was, at least until recently, deeply distrustful of Pyongyang. Rather than involving anything as implausible and dramatic as a North Korean occupation, this hegemony would be enforced by South Korean institutions, such as state media, the National Intelligence Service, and the riot police—with occasional assistance from the muscle of hard-left street thugs, like those who are blocking the THAAD sites now and preventing them from becoming fully operational. I argued that the historical conduct of both Pyongyang and Korea’s left also suggested that this plan was not only plausible, but no great secret. This is why I find the controversy to be surprising. […]

Again, I’m not oblivious to how conspiratorial it all must seem. But then, on what evidence do skeptics of this view believe that those who staff the top ranks of the Moon administration — men who are veterans of groups like Minbyun, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and Chondaehyop, with deep ideological and financial links to Pyongyang and a lengthy pedigree of violent anti-Americanism — have moderated their views? At some point, status quo bias must yield to what’s right before our eyes.

To reiterate what I said before, the US needs to reassess its relationship with South Korea in the cold light of these facts. If the Moon administration wants to pursue a phased unification with North Korea, then, well, that is the sovereign decision of South Korea. But in that case, the US should not have any part in defending South Korea from its friendly nuclear-armed neighbor to the north.

Korean unification

Unified Korea

NBC is reporting that the US is preparing to end the annual large-scale joint military exercises held with South Korea, as part of a bid to placate North Korea. This could also be seen as a step in the direction of reducing the US troop commitment in South Korea, which currently numbers 28,500 soldiers, and perhaps eventually a total withdrawal.

North Korea, of course, would love to see the US depart the peninsula, and according to BR Myers, a professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, that is in fact the goal of its nuclear program:

More concretely, North Korea wants to force Washington into a grand bargain linking denuclearization to the withdrawal of US troops. South Korea would then be pressured into a North-South confederation, which is a concept the South Korean left has flirted with for years, and which the North has always seen as a transition to unification under its own control.

The concept of unification under North Korea’s control is not as crazy as it sounds. In a fascinating speech from December 2017, Professor Myers explains South Korea’s vulnerability to a Northern-led unification drive:

The Moon administration cannot be called pro-North yet. […]

His government nonetheless appears more hostile to anti-North, pro-American elements than any other administration has been. The intelligence service is already a shadow of its former self, and the ostensible anti-corruption campaign turns out in practice to be a seemingly endless purge of veterans of conservative administrations. The word chŏkpye or “accumulated evil” is being used freely to mean any conservative, i.e. anti-North, pro-American, security-minded element. [Note: There is broader agreement between left and right on economic issues in South Korea than in the US, for which reason conservatism is considered largely a matter of animosity to the North Korean regime and strong support for the alliance with America.]

Most interestingly, Moon Jae-in’s right hand man, the number two in the Blue House, is none other than Im Jong-seok, a former protest leader who was in contact with the Kim Il Sung regime in 1989, and who spent much of his time in the National Assembly pushing causes of which the North approves. It’s due to Im, for example, that royalties must now be paid to North Korea for South Korean media use of its propaganda films and images.

Moon is pushing the idea of a “low-level confederation” between the South and the North, which Kim understands to be a path toward unification of the peninsula – under Pyongyang’s auspices:

Kim Il Sung told his Bulgarian counterpart Zhivkov that if the South agreed to confederation, “it’s done for.” That was 1973. He went on to try killing two presidents in succession, so obviously the South’s economic boom did not lessen his determination to unify the peninsula. You may say, “Yes, but in those days the South Koreans didn’t have a liberal democracy worth defending.” But from Kim Young-hwan, who traveled to Pyongyang in 1991, we know that the Great Leader was upbeat about the prospect of a takeover by the end of the century.

His grandson can hardly be less ambitious now that he has nuclear weapons, his ally has become a superpower, Washington is in chaos, and South Korea has its most pacifist administration ever. The young man also knows that people here do not identify strongly with their state. No public holiday celebrates it, neither the flag nor the coat of arms nor the anthem conveys republican or non-ethnic values, no statues of presidents stand in major cities. Few people can even tell you the year in which the state was founded. When the average man sees the flag, he feels fraternity with Koreans around the world.

North Koreans have been positive characters in South Korean films for about 20 years now. Popular this year have been buddy thrillers [Ed: like Steel Rain] that show North and South Koreans teaming up against a common enemy. Although all actors are of course South Koreans, the A-list heart-throbs play the North Koreans, which tells you a lot about how this republic sees itself in relation to the other one.

Even more extraordinary: North Korean defectors are increasingly common as villains. A new film has North and South Koreans cooperating to catch a serial killer who has fled to the South.

While nationalism is not strong enough to make people welcome a North Korean takeover, all Kim needs is for it to weaken their resistance to one. He can’t have failed to notice the general indifference to the Cheonan sinking and the attack on Yeonpyeong, both of which acts of [Ed: North Korean] aggression the local left blamed on Lee Myung Bak [Ed: the South Korean president at the time]. The only people who got really angry at the North then were already too old to fight.

Apparently, I spoke too soon when I speculated that Kim Jong-un may try to reinvent himself as an economic reformer in the mold of Deng Xiaoping:

Pyongyang watching has become quite an industry, and American presidents have kicked the can down the road for a quarter century in no small part because of expert assessments that proved to be very wrong. The North just wants an aid package, the Sunshine Policy will calm it down; black markets will weaken it; Kim Jong Un will be a reformer; ideology no longer matters there; and on and on. This may be the most protracted and catastrophic failure of intelligence in American history.

How hard would it be for the North to pacify the South in a unification scenario? Perhaps not very, according to Myers:

I read, for example, that Kim Jong Un must know he couldn’t hold on to power here, because South Koreans are such fearless protesters. Despite the ease with which the hated Japanese took the entire peninsula, and the unique longevity and stability of the North itself, some Americans seem to think Koreans are freedom fighters by nature. I shouldn’t have to point out that since 1945 the protests here have all been either anti-conservative, anti-Japanese, anti-American, pacifist or explicitly pro-North. In 1961, students marched through Hyehwadong in Seoul shouting “Long live Kim Il Sung.” All demonstrations here were cheered on by the Rodong Sinmun. Granted, there have been anti-Pyongyang rallies, but until 1988 they were organized by the government, and since then they have been the province of the geriatric right. Why should the North feel intimidated by this history?

Much is also made of how wired South Koreans are. Well, so what? The part of East Germany that caused Honecker the most problems was the one where TV bunny ears could not pick up West German broadcasts, where people read books and had a sense of community. Adorno said modern man is drugged with light and sound, and that’s much truer today; just look at the gormless faces on the subway. The narcotic and socially atomizing power of the internet is far greater than television’s ever was. As if that weren’t enough, it has the benefit of helping to spy on people — indeed, it gets them to spy on themselves. […]

Entire generations of South Koreans have grown up hearing good things about Kim Il Sung. To hear him glorified would not be as big or sudden a change as it would be to hear Syngman Rhee glorified. If you think I’m exaggerating, read some South Korean school textbooks.

In summary:

Pyongyang’s unification drive is not a will to wage war with the US. The nuclear program was conceived to compel the peaceful withdrawal of American troops. Encouraged by the long decline of conservatism and of hostility to the North, by public indifference to the twin attacks of 2010, and by Moon Jae-in’s pledges to realize a confederation, Pyongyang believes that a break-up of the alliance would resign the South to its ethnic destiny. It follows that America’s most urgent task is to call publicly on Seoul to disabuse the North of its hopes. This would have to entail formal renunciation of the concept of confederation, the South’s support for which now conveys to Pyongyang a prioritization of nationalism over constitutional, liberal democratic principles. As a sovereign state, the South has every right not to accede to any such requests from its ally. But in such an event, the US government owes it to the American people to take the next logical step — and I don’t mean a strike on North Korea.

Myers doesn’t spell it out, but the next logical step would, of course, be for the US to cut South Korea loose and let it face the North on its own. The piece should be read in full by anyone remotely interested in Korean politics, but Myers provides the TLDR version in an interview with Slate.

And here’s a great article, dated last October, in the South China Morning Post detailing the growing willingness of many in South Korea to countenance the idea of some sort of unification with the North:

Since April [2018], when Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held their first inter Korean summit, the Herculean challenge of North Korean denuclearisation has dominated the world’s attention. But on the Korean peninsula, the spotlight has shone with equal intensity on the steps being taken to complete a potentially even more monumental task: reunifying North and South.

In a Gallup Korea opinion poll last month, 84 per cent of South Koreans said they supported unification, the highest proportion since 2004, with most favouring a gradual process over the next 10 years.

“We expect debate about plans for unification to kick off in earnest in the second half of next year,” said Han Sung, a spokesman for the left-leaning civic group People’s Congress for Peace Federation. […]

With inter-Korean relations at their warmest in years, a growing chorus within South Korean politics, academia and civil society has steered discussion towards various models of political integration with the North – ranging from a federation to a union of states – that would mark the first practical steps toward unification.

A North Korean defector warns that a federation would be a Trojan horse for a Northern takeover of the South:

It is no secret that North Korea, which claims sovereignty over the whole peninsula, originally conceived of a federation as a way to subjugate the South without the bloodshed of war. Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official to ever defect to the South, detailed in his 2001 book Sunshine Siding with Darkness Cannot Beat Darkness how Kim Il-sung believed federation would allow the North, united under “one ideology”, to dominate and propagandise the politically divided South.

The US, as well as South Korea, will certainly have some hard choices to make about their alliance in the years ahead. A US withdrawal would be extremely dangerous, as it would invite North Korean aggression. On the other hand, for the US to maintain a massive military commitment to a country that is increasingly aligned with our nuclear-armed adversary, is pretty insane. Something has to give, sooner rather than later.

De-escalation

Nuclear apocalypse averted on the Indian subcontinent:

Pakistan finally handed over a recently captured Indian fighter pilot after an inordinate seven-hour delay, allowing him to walk across the Wagah border on Friday night. Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced on the floor of the National Assembly on Thursday that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would be released as a “gesture of peace.”

The release of the pilot proved to be a significant de-escalation measure, coming days after Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets crossed into Pakistan and bombed an alleged “terror camp” of the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Pakistan retaliated with air strikes on Wednesday morning, bombing some open areas next to Indian military installations along the Line of Control (LoC) on the Indian side. Varthaman’s aircraft was scrambled from Srinagar air force base and engaged the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets before being shot down. The air attacks came in the wake of a terror attack that led to the death of 40 Indian policemen in Pulwama, Indian-administered Kashmir.

The outcome was definitely a happy one for the pilot:

He was captured by the Pakistani military soon after being assaulted by some local residents. “I am happy to be back to my country,” he said to Indian officials waiting anxiously before he was whisked away to board a flight to Delhi. He will have to undergo a detailed debrief, IAF officials told Asia Times.

According to Pakistani media reports, Varthaman was confused about his location before being found by the local residents. They chased him for half a kilometer, and he fired a few shots with his service pistol to dissuade them, before jumping into a pond. “He was trying to swallow some documents and drown the rest when the locals caught up with him,” eyewitnesses said. The locals had started beating him up when Pakistan Army soldiers arrived and took him away.