Monday, July 30, 2012

Bowser's Various Plans Are an Ongoing Economic Disaster For Him

Bowser’s stated goal, according to Wikipedia, is to “marry Princess Peach, defeat Mario, and conquer the Mushroom Kingdom”. Not having played the Mario games very much (read: at all) and being unfamiliar with the Mushroom Kingdom’s economy, it seems to me that Bowser’s pursuit is financially quite unprofitable. By kidnapping Princess Peach, Bowser then has to deal with the inevitable journey of Mario and Luigi and whoever else through his lands, which seems like it would be a huge financial drain on him.
What, you think upkeep for a lava castle is cheap?
-It’s not made clear, and probably differs depending on the game, whether the resources Mario and Luigi find throughout their various quests—mushrooms, coins, fire flowers, POW blocks, etc.--are part of Bowser’s arsenal or simply indigenous to the Mushroom Kingdom. If it’s the former, he’s losing a colossal amount of money as Mario goes through his power-ups; if the latter, he’s still losing money because they’re gathering and consuming these valuable goods within his territory that he can no longer harvest.

-Bowser has to employ whole armies of Koopas and other enemies to try and stop or slow down Mario and Luigi. That means regular pay, hazard pay, compensation for injuries suffered on the job, medical care for the disabled and death benefits to the families of fallen soldiers. Bowser could be simply intimidating the Koopas into helping him, or else relying on clan loyalty, but Koopas have to eat like everything else. And after the first few games where Bowser is defeated, you’d have to think his intimidation factor among the rank and file would go down. It’s a whole lot easier to ask for medical benefits when your employer isn’t an invincible tyrant, but a vincible one, and some asshole has been bouncing on your head and throwing your shell at people all day. And somebody has to water those damn carnivorous flowers.

-Property damage and loss. Bowser doesn’t own all the territory Mario travels through, but he tends to own quite a bit of it. That means a considerable amount of time and money spent constructing spiked passageways, digging lava pits and installing huge swinging blades to screw with Mario and friends. And every time Mario clears out one of Bowser’s castles, he raises a different flag over it (at least in the game I just played part of). Bowser is basically a warlord who is usurping parts of the Mushroom Kingdom, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the raising of a different flag meant that it was reverting to government control, or at least remaining in Mario’s hands. Either way, Bowser loses that castle—and because his armies are eventually decimated by Mario and he himself defeated, he probably doesn’t have the strength to retake them by the end of the game. That’s a big deal.

-Finally, the loss of prestige is important. Sure, Bowser is big and scary in all the games, but after the first few he’s a known quantity. Mario and Luigi know him, they’ve worked with him and they’ve beaten him. He’s not a tremendous threat. This relates to the “intimidation factor” thing up above: by being beaten, he loses prestige and reputation amongst the rest of the Kingdom. And that means that he is less able to demand concessions or tribute from the central government. Why would they give anything to him if they know he can be trounced by a couple of unemployed plumbers, even if he has kidnapped Princess Peach? After the first few times, she’s probably gotten used to it by now. And there’s always the pain and suffering that Bowser endures in the process of repeatedly getting his ass kicked, including getting all of his flesh burned off and turning into a skeleton.
"AAARGH! Oh, but it's OK, I'm going to marry Princess Peach and--oh, God, how are my bones staying together."

It's hard to think of what rewards the Mushroom Kingdom would offer that could be tempting enough to go through all this crap, game after game after game. At some point in the last few decades, Bowser's total expenditures probably overtopped the predicted economic productivity of the entire Mushroom Kingdom if he was able to capture and hold it. When it gets to that point, buddy, you should probably just give up.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Parade of Nations: The Twelve Who Were Never Colonized (Ish)

When I was watching the Parade of Nations last night, it occurred to me that around 1/4 of the 206 nations represented in the Parade were once British colonies. (For the record, I did think of this before that picture of Queen Elizabeth went viral.)

That made me wonder, how many of these countries were able to escape colonization entirely? How many of them were never under the sovereign rule of any European power?

So I did a lot of research. The rules are these:
-The country is not on the continent of Europe.
-The country was never ruled by an European country, including Russia and Turkey, from 1400 to the present day (although I'll mess with this rule if I so choose).
-Some of this stuff is subjective. I'm subjecting.
-The country is currently a sovereign, independent state.
-All research comes from Wikipedia; if I write down any historical fact, assume it's from the relevant Wikipedia article. 

The undisputed winners: Liberia, Japan, Thailand, Bhutan and Iran. The area that became Liberia had British, Dutch and Portuguese trading posts, but after the U.S. started sending free blacks and former slaves to Liberia in 1820, the area was never snapped up by any European power. It officially became a country in 1847. Meanwhile, Japan, Thailand and Iran were powerful enough/had strong rulers/didn't enter into "sucker" treaties/and/or played Western powers off against each other to such a degree that they've been able to maintain independence all the way to the present day. Bhutan fought a war or two against the British, lost some territory and political influence, but kept itself autonomous throughout the colonial period.

The rather disputed winners: Nepal, Tonga, China and Ethiopia. Tonga was apparently under the British aegis as a "protected state", had a British consul for seventy years and was part of the "British Western Pacific Territories" for fifty, but it was able to maintain its own indigenous monarchy all the way up to the present day; in other words, it never gave up its right to self-government. Nepal was never a British colony, and in fact fought a war to ensure autonomy from the British Empire; however, they had to cede a third of their country to do it, which is why they're in the "dubious" category.
 Ethiopia was one of only two countries (along with Liberia) to survive the Scramble for Africa more or less intact, but finally fell to Italy in 1936 when Mussolini decided to create his 'New Roman Empire'. The British ejected the Italians in 1941, and the country regained full independence again in 1944. (Eight years isn't so bad; consider the Philippines, for example, who were under Spanish, American and Japanese rule from 1571-1945.) Finally, China was technically never a colony (except for Hong Kong and Macao), but got screwed in so many other different ways by various Western powers (plus the U.S.) that it's hard to label them as a perennially free country with a straight face.

The (maybe) ineligibles: North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia. Back in the day when Korea was one country, it apparently did a decent job resisting the West, but a lousy job resisting Japan, which ruled them for 35 years. Meanwhile, Mongolia was essentially ruled by China throughout the colonial era, and like Korea, was geographically remote from other Western territories or centers of power. Both the Koreas and Mongolia were able to escape rule by the West, but only because they were totally (Mongolia) or partially (Korea) ruled by other powers during that time. I'm not sure if they should get credit for resisting imperialism, given that.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Commentary on Mitt Romney’s Speech to the VFW (7/24/2012)

The first thing that jumps out at me is Romney’s attempt to pin the looming defense cuts to the Pentagon, a process known as sequestration, on President Obama. He referred to “President Obama’s massive defense cuts”, “the President’s radical cuts in the military” and says that “the President has chosen this moment for wholesale reductions in the nation’s military capacity.” I think it’s pretty clear that all three statements are attempting to pin the cuts, and the blame, on Obama.

The problem is, they’re not Obama’s cuts—or at the very least, responsibility falls on both houses of Congress as well as the President. The cuts are a result of Congress’s failure to produce a bill that would cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget, and will (or may) be enacted as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011. They are not a uniquely Obama policy, nor does he (or anyone else, really) actually want them to be enacted. Their inclusion was as an incentive to get other cuts passed, not as anything that was actually supposed to pass. Romney’s presentation of them as belonging solely to Obama is, at best, misleading.

Romney also lambasted Obama for pulling missile interceptors and a radar system out of Poland and the Czech Republic respectively, calling it the “sudden abandonment of friends” in both countries. And while the policy change was reportedly sudden to both countries, it was also welcome in both; Der Spiegel reported that a majority of Poles opposed the shield, while the Reno Gazette-Journal (Romney’s speech was in Reno) noted that the radar system was unpopular in the Czech Republic and was unlikely to get the Czech parliament’s approval for placement. (In fairness, Lech Walesa lambasted the U.S. for giving up on the program.) And while Romney portrays the dropping of the shield as a concession to the Russian government, the justification for the system’s construction was not to defend against Russia—ten interceptors in Poland wouldn’t do much good against the Russian arsenal—but to block missiles from Iran. It’s entirely possible that the change was in part to placate the Russians, who hated the idea of the program—although the administration never painted it as such—but a 2009 defense review of the program noted that the Iranians were concentrating on different types of missiles than the ones the shield was supposed to block. That was the reason given for the "policy reset".

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee mentioned Hugo Chavez as “inviting Hezbollah into our hemisphere”, but there’s little evidence that Hezbollah has any activity in the Americas beyond some fundraising. And while the administration’s failure to speak out publicly in favor of the Green Revolutionaries in Iran seems to me like a legitimate black mark, as the National Catholic Reporter points out, it’s entirely possible that an American endorsement of the protesters could’ve done more harm than good—living as they do in a country that rallies around its hatred of America. This one is totally up for debate, though.

Later, Romney tells his audience that “at the United Nations… [Obama] spoke as if our closest ally in the Middle East was the problem [there]”. Here are the relevant speeches, since Romney doesn’t specify which (2009, 2011). While both include criticism of Israeli policies, both also acknowledge the ever-present dangers that Israel faces, both foreign and domestic. In my opinion, it would be very difficult to call a line from either speech part of the “chorus of accusations, threats and insults” that they supposedly contribute to. (Don't take my word for it though--read them yourselves!)

While the problems with China are real—it does “permit… flagrant patent and copyright violations, forestall… American businesses from competing in its market and manipulate… its currency”—Romney doesn’t offer a solution, saying only that “the cheating must finally be brought to a stop. President Obama hasn’t done it and won’t do it. I will.” Short of a wholesale trade war, which would be disastrous for both countries, I’m not sure if there’s really much that either Obama or Romney could do to manipulate China or change Chinese policies without offering major concessions in return. They are, after all, China.

Similar criticisms apply with the Iranian paragraph. Romney calls for “sanctions [to] be enforced without exception,” “negotiations [that] must secure full and unhindered access for inspections” and “a clear line” to be drawn against “any enrichment, period”. All of those things are current U.S. policy, though, and have been since the Bush administration. As with China, it’s not exactly possible to enforce domestic policy decisions on a foreign country; the US has tried sanctions, but they haven’t really worked. And Romney doesn’t mention the clandestine US program that has been working in-country to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program for years, including the Stuxnet virus and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists (although that was probably Israel). I’d say we’re doing plenty in Iran, quite possibly more than we should be.

Finally, Romney denounces the leaks of classified information that have happened over the past few months (like Iran, as I just mentioned) but he does so mostly on the assumption that the leakers were “seeking political advantage for the administration”. Not only has that yet to be determined, but Romney also says that the leaks demand a “full and prompt investigation by a special counsel”. There are two special prosecutors investigating them at the moment. Romney does have a point that all US district attorneys are Presidential appointees, so it makes sense an independent agency should be investigating the leaks, but it remains to be seen how harsh the attorneys’ report will end up being. And the implication that the prosecutors cannot be trusted because they're Obama appointees leads back, inevitably, to the idea that the leaks were orchestrated by the White House for political gain--which has yet to be proven or disproven. Give it time.

Now, I know this is campaign rhetoric. Only a fool would expect either side to adhere strictly to the facts, devoid of spin, glaring omissions or unfounded attacks—and that goes for Democratic candidates as well as Republican ones. But despite the historical Republican lead on matters of defense and national security, President Obama has a fairly strong foreign-policy record, which is reflected in the polls If Romney wants to supplant the President’s current lead on matters of foreign policy, he’ll have to do better than the Reno speech. The problem is that the best critiques of Obama’s foreign policy are currently coming from defense doves, which is precisely the opposite of what Romney is painting himself as. Attacking Obama’s national security policies from the hawk side won’t be an easy road for the former Governor.