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The Boomers' Pontius Pilate moment

How symbolic that legislators all skip DC early for the weekend as the sequestration mechanism kicks in.

A new low point for the worst generation of political leadership that America has seen in well over a century.

And yet, it's the leadership we deserve.  The larger public's unwillingness to deal with fiscal issues is the underlying core of stalemate.  A close-but-evenly divided electorate gets us a do-nothing Congress.

The upside for me?  The soured gov and biz climate in US makes US companies that much more eager for brokered business opportunities abroad.  Takes a bit of the usual arrogance off the top.


Kerry not a fan of Asian "pivot"? I smell a plot!

WAPO story:  China is happy with John Kerry because it thinks he'll drop the 'pivot to Asia'

Obviously, you can be a strategic thinker and disagree with the transparency of the Obama administration's containment strategy on China.  You can also believe there's just as much - or more - work to be done right now in the Middle East (Spring, Iran's nukes, Palestine, Syria).

But this is a weird piece, because I don't think the Chinese are dumb enough to believe that Kerry can "drop" the pivot if he so chooses.

But the positive Chinese press pours in, apparently.

From the piece:

Kerry himself sort of predicted this when he said of the pivot during his confirmation hearings, “You know, the Chinese take a look at that and say, what’s the United States doing? They trying to circle us? What’s going on?”

The author Max Fisher's judgment is a bit simplistic:  if Kerry is just trying to make nice with China, then fine, but if he's serious and actually focuses on the Middle East, then China benefits!

Sounds to me like WAPO is trying to "out" Kerry on China in this sophomoric piece.  People on that paper have too much time on their hands and too little non-inside-the-Beltway stuff to cover.  WAPO is truly a small-town newspaper.  Always has been, always will.


Let a million muckrakers bloom!

Nice NYT story on Chinese blogger who "thrives as muckracker."  Odd choice of wording there.  Self-professed citizen journalist in early 40s is being tolerated for now, as his "freelance campaign against graft has earned him pop-star acclaim and send a chill through Chinese officialdom."

Sounds like a fine line.  I mean, once you start going on the BBC with your stories, you take your life into your hands.

One of his latest tricks is posting sex videos of high bureaucrats having at it with young prostitutes.  He also says things like, "I'm fighting a war.  Even if they beat me to death, I won't give up my sources or the videos."

A local Beijing journalism academic says, "Here on Chinese soil, it's almost impossible for citizen journalists like him to survive long term."

But if you want the self-regenerative progressivism to take hold, you have to tolerate these types.  Otherwise bad stuff continues to be swept under rugs.  Problem is, of course, showing the crimes of the single party leads to that single party's legitimacy being further diminished.

The CCP in China has typically operated along the lines of, it's okay to unmask mid-level officials but not truly high ones (like the NYT did recently, triggering the Chinese hacking attacks).  But people know that, if mid-level types are routinely engaging in mischief, it's because the higher-ups tolerate it as lesser versions of their own evil.

So the fine line continues.  The blogger recently got a flattering Xinhua treatment, and yet gov censors constantly remove his micro-blog pieces almost the minute they appear.

Again, ultimately Beijing needs to allow this sort of positive self-renewal. It's a sign of the maturation of Chinese society in response to all the positive socio-economic churn.

You either trust the people or you don't, and the CCP's problem is that, it most definitely does not trust its own people.

No question where things are headed.  Anyone who thinks the future is less transparency and less public accountability is kidding themselves.


South Korea follows Japan's path to soft-power exports

WAPO story on how South Korean directors are experiencing a sort of explosion in Hollywood.  I've long been a big fan of SouKo's horror films, but now it appears that we're getting a broader flow - post-Gangnam Style:

South Korea’s film directors, like its pop stars, have been trying for years to break out of their country’s competitive but small market and into the West. Just as Korean music finally broke through last year with Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” this might be the year that Korean directors take over Hollywood.

Three of South Korea’s top directors are this year releasing, and in one case already have released, their first English-language films, often featuring top-name American actors (or Anglophones who pose as Americans), the New York Times noted in a story this weekend. The directors have long had “fan bases” in Hollywood eager to pull them into the U.S. market, the Times says, explaining that American producers appreciate that Korean directors’ “style and restraint go hand in hand with a taste for visceral, often bloody stories in popular categories like horror and crime.”

South Korea seems poised to follow the path of Japan.  It had its democratization moment back in the 1990s, and its big firms have gone from knock-offs to high-end offerings.  Now, it's time to start exporting the culture.

It's a journey worth watching.  China invariably follows this path, and the Chinese spend a lot of time watching South Korea and how it navigates from middle-income to higher realms.  South Korea is, last time I checked, just about the biggest regional investor in China and you see Koreans all over the place in major cities - especially in universities.  It seems like a positive "lead goose" effect, wherein the Chinese are more ready to follow the South Korean example than admit to doing the same with Japan.

Then again, it's natural to focus more on the country making the journey is closest historical proximity to your own.  Japan modeled itself significantly on the US, South Korea watched and copied Japan's example.  China will eventually copy South Korea in many ways, and Seoul is an excellent example of how you do it.



More on the China middle-income trap

Great piece in Forbes that my wife found.

Part that caught my eye references a second analysis:

In their final installment on the Chinese economy, titled “Beyond the Miracle”,Barclays Capital analysts in Hong Kong led by Yiping Huang wrote that China will avoid the middle-income trap as a whole. However, they did not underestimate the risks facing China’s economy in the coming years.  It’s one thing to be middle income. It’s another thing to move out of that middle income and into the coveted high income category of Western Europe, the United Statesa and Japan.

The experience of countries that failed to make the jump to high-income status suggest that their inability to innovate and upgrade can be attributed to three broad factors: (1) macroeconomic, political and social instability; (2) persistent inefficient allocation of resources; and (3) insufficient support to physical infrastructure and human capital development.

The persistently inefficient allocation of resources is the government having too much of a role in investment and picking winners and losers (mostly shielding the latter while the elite corruptly hoards the benefits of the former).  I realize that contradicts the "wisdom of the state" notion behind the Beijing Consensus, but history says the state displays little smarts, and there is a ton of evidence of badly spent public investment in China.  

The instability arises from a lot of things:  enviro damage, repression of political rights and free speech, corruption of officials, and the S-curve slowdown in general.

China does decently-to-well on the sufficient support to infrastructure development - both hard and soft.  But that can backfire too if the growth fails to materialize or the slowdown is profound enough.

Answer for all these things is simple:  turn the people loose on creativity and freedom of spending choices. Problem is, of course, the single-party dictatorship finds all that uncomfortable, so they shortchange it whenever and wherever they can.  Why?  If people get to decide too much of their economic reality on their own, their ambition naturally turns to politics over time.  People simply stop being willing to be treated like children on the latter score; it offends their intelligence and obvious sense of accomplishment - especially when they know full well that talented Chinese abroad succeed and get to politically participate in democracies.

And that's what eventually stops the show, forcing political change.


Time's Battleland: National Security Putting China’s “Hacking Army” into Perspective

Great New York Times front-pager on Tuesday finally provides a substantive overview of the comprehensive hacking activities of the Chinese military against all manner of U.S. industries (with an obvious focus on defense).

Actually, the title was a bit of soft sell (China’s Army Seen as Tied to Hacking Against U.S.). This unit’s activities have been much discussed within the U.S. national-security community for several years now, so we are far past the “tied to” allegation. It’s clear that Beijing has the People’s Liberation Army conduct widespread cyber- theft all over the world, targeting the U.S. in particular.

Read the entire post at Time's Battleland blog.

I blame Dave Emery for making me write something on the subject.


Why the next pope should be a Latino

First, there is just the global distribution argument.

Then there's the dynamism/adaptation argument: a recent NYT story talk about how parts of the Brazilian church are "countering evangelicalism and secularism with livelier worship."


Market shift:

So both the center of global gravity in the church and its most likely form of marketing salvation.

Brazil is experiencing a huge expansion of its middle class.  People undergoing such tremendous socio-economic churn want moral handholds.  But they also want it in a form that they find conducive to their daily lives, and the traditional Catholic church has simply changed too slowly in response to the competition.

I saw a version of this in Ethiopia two years ago.  Place is booming and all sorts of change happening.  The classic Ethiopian Christian faith - very Catholic in form - just wasn't getting it done.  But you'd see these evangelical churches (mostly Pentacostal) everywhere and they'd be packed (I mean, with crowds extending out into the street!) - and jumping.

My fear with Benedict is that he retires so he can - in his typical control-freak fashion - determine his successor.  Let's hope it's something more than personal ego at work here.


Wasting lives over food "purity"

Bjorn Lomborg writing that 8m kids worldwide have died over the past 12 years because Western and local activists prevented the arrival of rice that is genetically modified to possess an abundance of Vitamin A:

Finally, after a 12-year delay caused by opponents of genetically modified foods, so-called “golden rice” with vitamin A will be grown in the Philippines. Over those 12 years, about 8 million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency. Are anti-GM advocates not partly responsible?

Golden rice is the most prominent example in the global controversy over GM foods, which pits a technology with some risks but incredible potential against the resistance of feel-good campaigning. Three billion people depend on rice as their staple food, with 10 percent at risk for vitamin A deficiency, which, according to the World Health Organization, causes 250,000 to 500,000 children to go blind each year. Of these, half die within a year. A study from the British medical journal the Lancet estimates that, in total, vitamin A deficiency kills 668,000 children under the age of 5 each year.

Yet, despite the cost in human lives, anti-GM campaigners—from Greenpeace to Naomi Klein—have derided efforts to use golden rice to avoid vitamin A deficiency. 

Great piece by a brilliant guy.

These fights are like every other one in a developing environment:  West wants South to avoid its own past 
"mistakes" and demands they develop in "pure" fashion.  Result is stunted development and wasted lives.  Truth of history is this: if you want people to care about the environment, get them richer first and then they'll care. Until then, expect a local rise in pollutions and other things because there really aren't any magical short-cuts on development.  Plus, quite frankly, the damage done while still poor vastly outranks the cumulative damage inflicted by the income/industrial rise.  But basic point:  don't be a hypocrit and expect the poor to atone for your past excesses.

On the GMO, the West's enviro case is far weaker.  There is no evidence of substantial risk and plenty of evidence of substantial gain.  This is simply rich people who can afford organic pretending they're doing good by telling the poor to hold out for it - or else.   

Expect a lot more fights as climate change exacerbates droughts in food-vulnerable regions and well-meaning Northerners do their best to prevent the application of genuine solutions.


Vali Nasr blasts Obama foreign policy (and team) in new book

Cohen talks about it in a recent NYT column.  Pretty brutal depiction.

Nasr, as you may know, is respected expert on Iran and he spent two years working for State.

“IT is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations.”

This stern verdict comes from Vali Nasr, who spent two years working for the Obama administration before becoming dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In a book called “The Dispensable Nation,” to be published in April, Nasr delivers a devastating portrait of a first-term foreign policy that shunned the tough choices of real diplomacy, often descended into pettiness, and was controlled “by a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers.”

I have little doubt in the verdict, but frankly, this is what the American people voted for in both 2008 and 2012: focus on the economy and temporize on foreign affairs.

Cohen agrees:

Nasr was led to the reluctant conclusion that the principal aim of Obama’s policies “is not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion.”

In this sense the first-term Obama foreign policy was successful: He was re-elected. Americans wanted extrication from the big wars and a smaller global footprint: Obama, with some back and forth, delivered. But the price was high and opportunities lost.

Lots of material on how Nasr's boss Holbrooke was dissed and marginalized - material sure to elicit a yawn.

Real point is not the realignment.  Again, the public wanted that and Obama delivered.

Real point is total lack of care regarding how it went down.  Doesn't really cost anything to make a decent effort but it was not made, to the point of marginalizing Clinton as SECSTATE whenever possible.

You get the feeling that Obama is big on control and having himself recognized constantly as the guy in charge and the smartest guy by far, so if foreign policy doesn't matter (after all, he got a Nobel for just being sworn in the first time), then he prefers non-action to any action that isn't attributed solely to his genius.

Cohen uses the word "petty" a lot, which is a sad commentary on Obama.

But the larger truth remains:  as long as people feel bad or weak on the economy (and most still do), there's no thought given to foreign policy and Obama knows that.


Nice side-by-side capture of globalization dynamics (guest post)

From Thomas Frazel of Tulane:


Heinz Sold as Deals Take Off

"We've been prospecting in the emerging world for a long time, and now they're prospecting here,"Heinz's Mr. Johnson said in an interview. "You're seeing a shrinking world and an equilibrium of wealth creation, and this kind of activity is only going to accelerate over the next five to 10 years."

In the interview, Mr. Johnson said he was surprised that firms from emerging markets would be capable of taking over America's most established companies.  "I didn't see this happening eight weeks ago, let alone five years ago," he said.



First Bud, Now Heinz, Tycoon Grabs Brands

Though Mr. Lemann is a Brazilian business icon, he moved his family to Switzerland more than a decade ago following a kidnapping attempt in Brazil, a stark reminder of persistent problems of crime in the South American nation. Mr. Lemann's family is of Swiss descent. He declined an interview request through an associate, and has denied past requests as well.

Frazel's comment:

It was too perfect to see these things side-by-side — money in the Gap, instability in the Gap.

The more sophisticated read of PENTAGON'S NEW MAP was that the Gap would experience more instability as globalization rapidly improved things.  Change destabilizes.  It's as simple as that.  

The security challenge that results more resembles small-wars than large - thus the call for the SysAdmin force. It's about seeing the world as it is - what really matters in terms of structural change, and staying true to America's several-decade effort to replicate its core dynamics on a global scale.

What did we get for our effort?  Our blood and treasure?

The best and most radically improving period in world history.

Many other powers had their versions of globalization before ours came along.  And they were all far less fair and far more bloody. Ours is hardly perfect, but much like a democratic republic, ours is the best worst version yet.

Our challenge:  China and India will be the shapers of this system in the future - more than us. That is why understanding those two powers and joining with them in co-managing this world is America's number 1 long-term foreign policy objective.

And this is why I find Obama's Asian pivot so idiotically misguided. Scratch that - too harsh. He is ideologically misguided.  He mistrusts US power and does not acknowledge the decades of effort that I cite - nor its success.

THAT America did far more good than harm, but he does see that America.

And so he does trust the future that that America made possible.


Obama's serious movement toward a genuine foreign policy legacy

NYT front-pager yesterday on "Obama's Bid for Trade Pact with Europe Stirs Hope."

Impossible!  I know.

If trade deals are hard in good times, then they must be harder in tough times, right?  I mean, aren't we told by stern-faced national security experts about how the Great Recession is fostering trade wars and currency wars, so this move - amidst all such rising trade protectionism - is IMPOSSIBLE, correct?

Except trade deals like this get down EXACTLY during slow times.  Remember when we got NAFTA, because this one will end up being just as big or bigger.  NAFTA was Clinton's signature foreign policy achievement.  I know, I got the grand tour of his library from the director when I gave a speech there years back, and NAFTA was front and center.

If successful (and this will be), then this will be Obama's big achievement - the one history will remember.  Compared to this, the wars and the targetted assassinations will be miniscule, because they just deal with the friction caused by globalization's historic expansion, whereas this will fuel another wave.


Chart of the day: US farm income to be highest in 4 decades

WSJ story.

Despite last year's drought, net farm income in US (128B projected) will be highest since 1973 (adjusted basis).


Higher prices for livestock and poulty and "a continued boom in the farm belt initially fueled by rising global demand for grains" + that idiotic conversion into corn ethanol.

The big danger?  Great Plains enters the season way too dry - still.

So we see here the interplay between two dominant global dynamics in this century: rising global middle class and rising global temperature.


Get yourself some Chinese (part II) and conquer the BOTP


Missed yesterday on 20-hour workday that featured 4 flights - sweet!  Just to go to fricking Norfolk from Indy. Such is the cost of being able to sleep in your own bed both nights (I have had all the hotels in this world that I care to). Unbelievable logistics that left my head aching from all the up-and-down.  I am going to build a future that has minimal flying and maximum time on the waves.  Count on it.

MS and Huawei do a GM-SAIC (my fave example of getting yourself some Chinese to capture the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid).


Microsoft, taking aim at the world’s fastest-growing smartphone market, said on Monday that it would team up with Huawei of China to sell a low-cost Windows smartphone in Africa.

The phone, called the Huawei 4Afrika Windows Phone, will cost $150 and initially be sold in seven countries.

Slick connection, yes?

Africa is the world’s fastest-growing region for smartphones, with an average sales growth of 43 percent a year since 2000, according to the GSM Association, an industry trade group based in London.

In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 10 percent of the 445 million cellphone users have smartphones, but that is expected to increase rapidly as operators expand high-speed networks.

By 2017, most consumers in South Africa will be using smartphones, up from 20 percent last year, according to the GSM Association. In Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, the outlook for sustained growth is even greater, with smartphone penetration projected to reach just 30 percent by 2017.

The World Bank says that roughly a quarter of the one billion people on the continent are middle-class wage earners, the target group that Microsoft will try to reach with the Huawei phone, Mr. de Sousa said.

“Africans are generally quite conscious of brand, quality and image,” he said.

Some serious bottom-of-the-pyramid stuff.

Think about it:  MS and Wal-Mart making these big moves in Africa.

Biggest analytic mistake I've ever made was overestimating how slowly (yes, my original post had me mis-stating this) Africa would embrace globalization and succeed with it.  Totally blew it.

And that mistake taught me:  the bias of the national security type toward pessimism is a huge analytic weakness WRT globalization.   It really means Washington, by and large, doesn't have a clue - PNT worst of all.

And that's a weird realization, when you remember that this era of globalization is a US-led creation, but now, here we are, and the progenitor and long-time bodyguard has lost its analytic ability to understand its own creation.


Nice NYT piece on dangers of inequality inside China

Appears in NYT Opinionator blog after print edition.  Writer is former Singaporean reporter/photojournalist.

Part of a series on inequality.

A snippet:

With the “rats” and “ants,” the trash collectors, cobblers and couriers, it took time to build rapport and trust. But it was even harder to get wealthy Chinese — perhaps like rich people everywhere — to open up. Most live in gated, guarded communities on the outskirts of the city, and socialize behind closed doors. A few months ago, I was granted rare permission to photograph inside an exclusive club in Beijing for high rollers, and only at a party where some members were in costume.

The migrant workers and the poor mostly accept that life is unfair, at least for now.

“There is no difference between me and the people who live in the posh condominium above,” Zhuang Qiuli, 27, a “rat tribe” pedicurist who lived in a basement apartment, told me in Beijing. “We wear the same clothes and have the same hairstyles. The only difference is we cannot see the sun. In a few years, when I have money, I will also live upstairs.”

I was just struck by the sun reference.  Other big driver in China is, of course, the pollution, which is why, on many days, nobody gets to see the sun.

As always, the similarities to the populism of the Second Industrial Revolution in the US are striking.



WPR Briefing: Trans-Atlantic Ties Still Key to Renewing U.S. Global Leadership

For roughly a decade now, I’ve been advocating that America needs to be unsentimental in choosing its military allies for the 21st century. Europe and Japan are aging and seem increasingly less willing to protect their interests abroad, while India and China are becoming budding superpowers with global interests that, to a stunning degree, overlap with America’s. Most pointedly, we live in an age of “frontier integration” triggered by globalization’s rapid advance, a process in which China and India, and not the “old” West, are the two rising pillars. So it makes sense for America to focus future alliance-building efforts in their direction.

Read the entire article at World Politics Review.


Aren't all those Islamists now in power supposed to keep globalization out?

Interesting NYT story on the cotinuing explosion of social media across the Middle East:

The use of social media exploded during the Arab Spring as people turned to cyberspace to express themselves. On the back of that, social media networks, including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, have moved into the region commercially, setting up offices to sell advertising products to companies like Mobily, which has over 200,000 Twitter followers, to capitalize on the growing audience.

In Saudi, social media gets everyone talking to everyone, which is something we just don’t have in the streets here,” said Muna AbuSulayman, a Saudi development consultant and formerly a popular television talk show host, who has over 100,000 followers on Twitter.

It’s a unique opportunity that lets people have conversations in a boundary-less way that wasn’t possible before,” Ms. AbuSulayman said. “In addition to promoting social and political discussion, it carries a powerful economic incentive for businesses, too.”

Well, you know what the experts say:


  • The Arab Spring failed - turned to a terrible winter.
  • Globalization is on the retreat- everywhere.  
  • Connectivity is oversold; it doesn't really change all that much.
  • Authoritarianism is resurgent.
  • We lost the Middle East, thank you very much.


What's odd to me?  People have no sense of patience anymore and reach for the fatalism in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, everything is moving at such a fantastically high speed in terms of positive change.


Time's Battleland: TERRORISM - Minority Report has finally arrived

Read it and weep:  "Memo Cites Legal Basis for Killing U.S. Citizen in Al Qaeda."

As a U.S. citizen, the government can now kill you in advance of your actually committing a crime - simply by knowing that you are likely to act in a dangerous manner.

Read the entire post at Time's Battleland blog.


Interesting panel on Chinese navy (video)

Got this from Tom Wade, who attended the US Naval Institute's WEST 2013 in San Diego.  Been a while since I last spoke at one of those, but they are very good conferences on all things naval.

The guy to watch is the Naval War College prof Toshi Yoshihara.  Most interesting point:  Remember just how easy it could be to thwart the PLAN by placing one's own area-denial anti-access assets all along (or on) the so-called first island chain, which is owned by everybody EXCEPT China.  Per my usual point:  the balancing dynamic here is not all that hard and can be achieved through highly incentivized "others" like Japan (which grows more incentivized by the day).  America's need to turn this into the man a mano fight of the century is a bit much - for all the non-military reasons upon which I love to harp.


A salute to the Super Bowl


Scorching (but dead-on) Battleland piece on US strategic pivot

Winslow Wheeler, clearly a bit of a defense-waste firebrand, takes on AirSea Battle and the whole pivot logic.

I couldn't agree more.

The best bits:

It’s old, and likely thoroughly forgotten now, but last summer the Washington Post ran an excellent article on the U.S. military‘s “pivot” toward Asia, its origins, and its budget implications. It presented some meaningful background on where the pivot came from, and how it so quickly became dogma in Washington as the decade-long ground wars receded in the national rear-view mirror ...

I urge you to read the piece: the pivot is not just a redirection of attention toward Asia; it is a proclamation of a new form of warfare, Air-Sea Battle, to solve the problem of defeating China’s presumed military ambitions in the Pacific with an assemblage of existing and new long-range, precision-strike weapons.

It is the brainchild of Andrew Marshall, the long-sitting director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment ...

The Air Force and the Navy are particularly enthusiastic about Air-Sea Battle; after a decade of budget emphasis on the Army and Marine Corps in the mostly-land conflicts in the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, ASB is so much all about the Navy and Air Force that, according to Jaffe’s article, they have “come up with more than 200 initiatives they say they need to realize Air-Sea Battle” and it “provides a framework for preserving [and expanding] some of the Pentagon’s most sophisticated weapons programs.”

The heavy bill for the hardware Air-Sea Battle contemplates was noted, last August, by numerous skeptics. In Jaffe’s article, Barry Posen—the director at MIT’s Security Studies Program—pointed out Marshall’s history of rationales for what is now called Air-Sea Battle saying “it should be called the Office of Threat Inflation.” As well, Jaffe quotes the Marine Corps—likely to lose big chunks of budget share under ASB—saying in a contracted study it would be “preposterously expensive.”

It is America’s new strategic fixation—even if some would argue that it doesn’t even qualify as a strategy, and is simply a shift of bureaucratic spending priorities for hardware garbed in pseudo-strategic talk ...

The focus on historically under-performing hardware, especially the long range—“global”—variety, displaces the higher-level thinking now needed. We must contemplate how to leverage China’s geographical disadvantage of being literally surrounded by actively-antagonistic and potentially-hostile neighbors: Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam ...

Worst of all, ASB presumes a new Cold War with China to sustain the Pentagon’s own budget, thereby swapping strategic thought with material considerations.

Panetta proclaims that the “doomsday” of the sequester of the defense budget—in all, nearly a 10% cut in spending over the coming decade—would require him and the Administration to come up with a whole new strategy.

Indeed; what a tragedy that would be ...

Watch Hagel closely on these issues ... it will be interesting to see if he leaves even the tiniest amount of daylight between himself and these strategically bankrupt ideas.

Read the entire piece here.