Celebrate the Facts!
Vladimir Putin learned intelligence tradecraft during his time as an officer in the KGB and has used that knowledge well to destabilize overseas governments and expand Russia’s influence. Putin reportedly is unhappy with the fall of the former Soviet Union and intent on recreating Russia’s worldwide influence. Putin has created an organization called the Wagner Group to infiltrate sovereign territory, destabilize governments, and plant the Russian flag in the Middle East, Africa, and South America.
Corruption, apparently led by Putin who might be the richest man in the world, has drained the resources of Russia, and the country teeters on the precipice of being a failed state. As a country, it has negative population growth, has fallen to the 11th largest economy in the world, has an autocratic government with dubious election integrity, and is ranked 9th in annual defense expenditures. To accomplish his dream of recreating the territorial expanse of the former Soviet Union, Putin does more with less, and he is quite successful.
The Wagner Group is nominally overseen by Russian Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin – a familiar name to people who follow United States politics as he also ran the Russian troll farm credibly accused of interfering in the 2016 United States elections. In 2018 Putin maintained Russia has no responsibility for what Prigozhin does because he has no official position. Through the arms-length arrangement, Russia can intentionally confuse its involvement and stay below historic thresholds for a robust military and diplomatic response while seizing territory and recreating the Soviet footprint. Putin has created a lifetime command so his planning horizon is decades, not election cycles, and he integrates this in his strategic approach.
The Wagner Group has known activity in Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, Venezuela, and Belarus.
Russia counters with claims that Wagner is a private military company identical in purpose to Western companies like DynCorp International, and Academi (formerly Blackwater), and there is some truth in this representation. Western media rejects this premise out of hand for a variety of reasons but the differences are a matter of shade of questionable ethics, not the fundamental purpose.
Certain questions result from this analysis:
A good study of this matter can be downloaded from https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/07/08/putin-s-not-so-secret-mercenaries-patronage-geopolitics-and-wagner-group-pub-79442. General information on the Wagner Group in Africa was obtained at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52571777. Another hearty resource is located at https://www.thecipherbrief.com/column_article/the-wagner-group-a-russian-symphony-of-profit-and-politics. Information on Venezuela is available at https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_russian_mercenaries_on_the_march_next_stop_venezuela. RT (Russian-funded news network) provides information about Belarus at https://www.trtworld.com/europe/belarus-hands-over-alleged-wagner-mercenaries-to-russia-38908. Additional information on Belarus is available at https://www.npr.org/2020/08/25/905808711/facing-the-biggest-challenge-ever-to-his-power-lukashenko-looks-to-russia-for-he. The Atlantic Magazine provides a good look-see on Wagner Group at https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/russian-mercenaries-wagner-africa/568435/
China is using a clever strategy to leverage debt to obtain political advantage. This strategy is undermining the historic United States centuries-old dominance of the region.
Central America’s geographical position is strategic as it enables China to ship goods to both the East and West Coasts of the United States and African and European markets. South America is a largely undeveloped continent with substantial opportunities for market growth. Over the past 20 years, China has grown from one of the region’s smaller commercial partners to its second-most important as bilateral trade grew from $12 billion in 1999 to $306 billion in 2018.
In 2013 China developed an international economic development Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a project linking Eurasia through physical infrastructure. According to publicly available representations the BRI has the potential to reduce global trade costs 2.2% and shipping time 2.5%. The BRI was also extended to Latin America.
Since 2005, Chinese policy banks have provided more than $141 billion in loan commitments to Latin America and these loans have been extended at higher than market rates. Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) account for 70% of the contract value of BRI construction projects, so the loans essentially finance the development of Chinese international construction capabilities, further strengthening China. Self-dealing opportunities arise from these arrangements.
The United States government counters with warnings the loans are encouraging a debt trap and that the projects are unsustainable and there certainly is an element of truth in this claim. The United States has historic experience with the same strategy and exerting political and economic pressure as a result.
Chinese-sponsored development includes an evaluation of environmental impact but there is substantial international concern about the efficacy.
Examples of the Chinese Latin America initiatives and effects include:
The strategy is singular and intriguing in that in the end it involves minimal investment and risk by the Chinese while helping build an empire and extend Chinese political influence and power. The effect of this on power and influence by the United States is certainly negative and is a long-term strategic concern. The United States continues investment in military hardware such as fleets of stealth fighters, new nuclear submarines, and aircraft carrier groups which require immense amounts of money to build and maintain. As a policy matter, a wiser and longer-term view would involve efforts to counter Chinese influence in their debt-brokering strategy.
Another considered viewpoint is the financing of infrastructure development is a good thing for Latin America. Despite the environmental impact, these construction projects have the potential of improving lives and encouraging wealth accumulation. Arguably the United States didn’t do a great job of stewardship in its hegemony in Latin America. Policies of military intervention, regime change, and support of autocratic dictators resulted in distinct hardships on the populations. Chinese influence will mitigate these unilateral interventions in the future and may benefit the region in the long run.
Values for Chinese investing were provided by https://www.brookings.edu/research/chinas-investment-in-latin-america/#:~:text=For%20the%20five%2Dyear%20period,%24250%20billion%20in%20direct%20investment. Information on BRI in Latin America was discovered at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/belt-and-road-in-latin-america-a-regional-game-changer/. Documentation of the Costa Rican soccer stadium was found at https://psmag.com/economics/chinese-funded-costa-rican-soccer-stadium-explains-world-65667. El Salvador infrastructure information can be found at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-el-salvador-china/china-signs-on-for-gigantic-investment-in-el-salvador-infrastructure-idUSKBN1Y7266. Detailed information on Ecuador was located at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/24/world/americas/ecuador-china-dam.html
It seems we are often assailed with predictions of the demise of Christianity, and the demographics somewhat support that conclusion, but Christianity continues and will continue to play an outsized role in the United States government. Each branch of the federal government is dominated by Christians and so does not resemble the population of the United States in religious affiliation.
Data show erosion of religious affiliation over time – people with no religious identification have increased from 7% in 1976 to 24% in 2016 but that group includes people who identify as secular as separate from atheist and agnostic. Secular appears to correlate with the ambiguous ‘spiritual but not religious’ self-designation. The ‘no religious identification’ also is more prevalent in younger populations who tend to become more religious as they age. The claimed erosion of Christianity in the United States is occurring, but the effects of this decline are not as profound as some pundits claim.
There are, however, profound reasons why the government of the United States will continue to have undue influence from Christian ideology. Each branch of the government - executive, legislative, and judicial is dominated by people who identify as Christian.
Christian figures often make erroneous claims the United States was founded as a Christian government. The founders were careful to maintain strict legal boundaries between religion and governance. These limitations were generally well-respected until the Eisenhower administration and the influence of the Reverend Billy Graham. The words ‘under God’ were inserted in the pledge of allegiance, and ‘In God We Trust’ made its first appearance on the federal currency. Later presidents sought alliances with Christian cultural figures. Coveted endorsements often included public affiliation with Christian cultural causes such as school vouchers and the elimination of abortion.
Every President has designated himself as Christian. Since the Eisenhower administration, many presidents have campaigned with Christian figures or adopted one or more as a spiritual counselor. Both candidates for president in 2020 are Christian. President Trump is a self-identified nondenominational Evangelical Christian and Joe Biden's campaign promotes his devout Catholicism. Both vice-presidential candidates are also Christian.
The 116th Congress was 88% Christian, 6.4% Jewish, with only three Buddhist members, two Muslims, three Hindu, one Unitarian, and one atheist. Those demographics are dissimilar to the population statistics, where 41% identified as Christian, with the aforementioned ‘no religious identification’ as 24%. Christianity is over-represented in the federal legislative branch.
Federal judges have been nominated by a Christian president and then confirmed by a Christian senate. Disputes about these nominations often rotate around Christian-hot-button cultural issues. A 2017 study found among federal judges, 73% were Christian, 19% were Jewish, and 5.1% were Mormon. Hindu judges comprised just 0.5% of federal judges, and the study’s authors were unable to identify any Buddhist, Muslim, or atheist federal judges. It would be difficult to argue the judges’ faith traditions have no effect on their conduct at the bench. As these are lifetime appointments, changing the demographics of the federal judiciary to resemble the diversity of the country would be a generational process.
Statistics on the religious identification of Americans through time was provided by https://www.prri.org/research/prri-rns-poll-nones-atheist-leaving-religion/. More information on the Eisenhower/Graham relationship can be obtained at https://www.history.com/news/eisenhower-billy-graham-religion-in-god-we-trust. Data on the composition of the 116th Congress was obtained from Pew Research at https://www.pewforum.org/2019/01/03/faith-on-the-hill-116/pf_12-31-18_faith-02/. Information about the composition of the federal judiciary was presented at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/courts/reports/2019/10/03/475359/building-inclusive-federal-judiciary/
Elon Musk’s technical leadership is about to unleash a new technology and delivery system that will leapfrog existing systems and change the way information is transmitted. Over the next few years, his Starlink organization will place between 12,000 and 42,000 small satellites in low Earth orbit to transmit broadband globally at much higher speeds than are typical at costs competitive with current technologies. While this all sounds like the miracle of free-market innovation there are compelling security and economic reasons to contemplate making this a publicly-owned utility.
Starlink is currently affiliated with Musk’s SpaceX organization, providing economies in launch costs. At this time competitors are far behind although Amazon is engaged in early steps to provide the same services. Starlink will provide speeds of up to a gigabit per second - the average US Internet download speed is 93 Mbps as of June 2018 with the global average speed of 46 Mbps. Costs are anticipated to be somewhere between $60 and $80 per month which will be competitive with average US broadband costs of $80 per month – a better service at a competitive cost.
Required would be an antenna about the size of a pizza box. Unfortunately, it appears mobile phones will not likely have the ability to access this signal, but that could change in the future. Bandwidth in urban areas may also be limited although to what degree is unclear.
Starlink has positioned itself as a do-good organization to provide Internet access to underserved areas like most of Africa and Australia, but it also offers a much faster method of transmitting data. This speed is strategic for certain industries – trading for instance, where organizations have built stand-alone fiber optic cables to improve incremental speed. Electromagnetic waves transmit much faster in space than through fiber optic cables. One can presume this precious resource, provided it was technically dependable to the financial end-users, would be coveted and command premium prices.
There are strong hints Musk intends to spin this unit off as an IPO which sounds great in practice but offers some potential issues for consideration:
Conversely, management of a satellite Internet system would provide strategic advantages:
Information on Starlink technology and speeds obtained from https://www.starlink.com/ and https://www.zdnet.com/article/spacex-starlink-internet-prepares-for-beta-users/#:~:text=According%20to%20SpaceX%2C%20Starlink%20will,upload%20speeds%20up%20to%203Mbps. Data on broadband speed provided by https://www.ncta.com/whats-new/average-us-internet-speeds-more-double-global-average#:~:text=According%20to%20Ookla%2C%20the%20forerunner,average%20speed%20of%2046.25%20Mbps. Broadband pricing attributed to https://www.telecompetitor.com/report-u-s-median-broadband-price-is-80-monthly/. Information on a possible Starlink IPO came from https://www.fool.com/investing/2020/03/01/is-this-elon-musks-next-ipo.aspx. Information on Internet access by income obtained from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/07/digital-divide-persists-even-as-lower-income-americans-make-gains-in-tech-adoption/.
Audience demographics of infotainment giants CNN and MSNBC are forcing Fox to move to a more moderate approach. The recent Chris Wallace guerilla-interview of President Trump was one of the first salvos in a repositioning of the network to capture a younger and more affluent audience. More changes are anticipated as the media behemoth attempts to attract more viewers in the 25 to 54 age demographic.
Infotainment – also colloquially known as Hate, Inc. – is a term used to define entertainment programs masquerading as news. The hour-long programs are built around a personality and are broadcast Monday through Friday between 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. CST. The shows are built around a daily theme that reflects a controversial current event. In Infotainment ‘if it bleeds it leads’ – topics are incendiary and there is no attempt to ‘cross the aisle.’ The formula involves presenting pieces of information bound together with storytelling, conjecture, and hypothetical speculation sprinkled with facial expression, sarcasm, dog-whistle statements skirting defamation, and a general disdain for the ‘other side.’ Fox News carries Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, CNN counters with Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, and Don Lemon, and MSNBC offers Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O'Donnell.
As an aside these programs seem to divide and isolate Americans. Tucker Carlson doesn't care if Uncle Ralph is not invited to family Thanksgiving because he has become more radical and outspoken due to his rapt attention to his program. Rachel Maddow is profiting because of higher ratings due to the tsumani of Trump stories. The American public would be better served to have a serious conversation about how to discriminate between legitimate news and Infotainment.
It is impossible to imagine an individual consuming, say, both Anderson Cooper and Tucker Carlson. These programs are strictly tribal and exist as an echo chamber that reinforce not challenge – if one wants an evening rant about President Trump's latest antics then Rachel Maddow is on the menu, but if one prefers to be outraged about hordes of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters destroying our heritage then Tucker Carlson will do nicely. These are strictly meant to inspire feelings, and usually not very good ones. As a Lincoln Child novel is not pretending to be fine literature these programs are not purporting to be pursuing Pulitzers or even aspiring to be much more than a one-hour rant, with occasional guest spots like the Mary Trump on Rachel Maddow's program or President Trump’s appearances on Sean Hannity’s show.
The second quarter of 2020 was a good one for Fox News—and cable news in general—with viewership up across the board due to no sports broadcasting, the coronavirus pandemic, and the upcoming presidential election. Fox News finished first with a total audience in the prime time of 3.5 million viewers, followed by MSNBC (1.9 M) and CNN (1.8 M). Among viewers 25 to 54, however, Fox News led with 624,000, followed by CNN (528,000) and MSNBC (315,000).
On initial examination it appears to be a great report for Fox News, however, deeper investigation indicates systemic challenges that will force Fox News to alter its content as depicted in the following charts. CNN and MSNBC attract essentially the same tribal cohort. Compounded MSNBC and CNN attract a larger audience (51.6%) but a much more important factor is they capture a significantly higher audience in the high-value 25 to 54 age group at 57.5%. Also significant to note is CNN is very close to Fox News in this highly sought after demographic.
Is Fox News an ideological organization or a firm motivated by profits? While the Murdoch family might be conservative, they like money even more, and the likelihood is they will pursue viewers who are ideologically more to the middle to attract higher advertising revenue. The recent Chris Wallace takedown of President Trump is a good indicator of Fox News moving to the middle. Other indicators are softer and harder to formally identify and the move to the middle is hard to empirically substantiate – but President Trump certainly thinks they are. His recent tweets include comments:
Fox News might consider certain actions:
Information related to the second quarter rating report was obtained at https://www.forbes.com/sites/markjoyella/2020/06/30/tucker-carlson-has-highest-rated-program-in-cable-news-history/#7bc09ff76195. General information about infotainment ratings was acquired at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/18/business/media/tucker-carlson-advertisers-ratings.html. More granular information was collected from https://www.adweek.com/tvnewser/category/ratings/.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.