Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Enlargement of the German Defense Budget: What Does it Mean?

In recent years I have generally refrained from attempting to offer comment on immediate events, especially in a news-y sort of way--my researches instead tending to be somewhat more long-term in their orientation (as with my recent stuff on British policy). This is, in part, because I like to take my time and give myself a chance to be thorough when attempting a piece of analysis, but also the generally lousy job the media does in supplying information that would provide a basis for an analysis that would be better than superficial in the extreme and, quite likely, outdated just ten minutes later (as the "analysis" the media itself tends to give us shows). What I have seen of its coverage of the current war in Ukraine, absolutely true to the pattern, has been exceedingly vague and extremely short on explanations or insight, even given the unavoidable uncertainties and rapid unfolding of the situation. (Consider how much we are actually being told in the headline-grabbing stories about the fight for Chernobyl, or the Battle of Kiev--not much of substance.)

However, one development did catch my eye as worth mentioning here, precisely because it seems that something can and should be said about it, namely the German government's announcement of increases in its defense spending. According to what we are now hearing it means to raise its defense spending to over 2 percent of its GDP y 2024--though we are not told much in those pieces of why 2 percent should represent a significant benchmark, or what it would mean in terms of Germany's particular economic position. The other figure we are seeing is 100 billion euros--with a glance beyond the headlines (for example, at the actual Febraury 27, 2022 speech by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz from which the press has derived these little factoids) indicating that the 100 billion euros would be a "one-off sum" out of the 2022 budget to provide a "special fund for the Bundeswehr" that would pay "for necessary investments and armament projects."

What do the numbers really mean?

According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Germany's defense expenditure averaged 1.2 percent a year in 2011-2020, if generally rising in recent years (so that it was just a hair under 1.4 percent a year in 2020, and in 2021, it seems, a hair over 1.5 percent). The result is that in the decade of the '10s it averaged an expenditure of 40 percent less than the 2 percent mark, and in 2021 spent a quarter or so less.

What does that mean in currency terms? Well, using the World Bank's GDP figures (in this case, the constant 2015 dollar series), adjusted for inflation using its own deflator, that would work out to an extra $290 billion in 2020 dollars devoted to the German armed forces over the decade of the '10s had it spent at that level. And today, given a German GDP of about $3.8 trillion, it would translate to a German defense budget in the $80 billion+ a year range (as against the under $60 billion to which the rising trend of German defense spending brings its efforts today). This might well make Germany the world's number three defense spender after only the U.S. and China.

Still, impressive as it is that would be considerably less than the other figure we are seeing, the 100 billion euro figure, which at today's rate of exchange equals $113 billion, about twice Germany's already elevated recent expenditure--more like 3 percent of the country's GDP than 2 percent—which, especially if, as implied in Scholz's speech, it comes on top of the defense appropriation for the year (producing a budget well to the north of $160 billion), would change Germany's place in "the league tables" from "maybe third biggest" defense spender in the world to "definitely third biggest by a long way."

The result is that Germany is publicly announcing what may well be a tripling of its defense spending this year to levels (4+ percent of GDP) unseen since the Cold War era, as well as a longer-term commitment to elevated spending at some uncertain level, with the 2 percent+ figure cited as the target from 2004 forward indicating a much raised floor--with this particular way of communicating the budget increase, one might add, carrying a particular meaning for the country as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. By common agreement 2 percent on defense is their minimum obligation, a minimum of which they have tended to fall short. In the past Germany was no exception, but here it declares that this will no longer be the case in what its government presumably hopes will be taken by allies, and non-allies, as an indicator of, besides its commitment to a more forceful posture, the NATO alliance (as one might expect, a major theme of Scholz's speech).

These are big numbers, intended as, among much else, a big political signal, which I suspect will not be the last, with other NATO members (the French, the already high-spending British) plausibly announcing their own increases--testimony to the extraordinary events of the present, and extraordinary in their own right.

I have said it before but it bears repeating. The 1990s, and their illusions, are now far, far behind us as history, the end of which was another of those '90s-era illusions, marches on.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Half-Life of the Interest of Popular Fiction

I recall seeing a data set which showed that of some 60 million copies of works of fiction sold in the first half of 2018, some 3.6 million were classics--6 percent or so in a period that I have no reason to regard as unrepresentative. That is scarcely more than the reported sales of just those books with James Patterson's name on their covers (not long ago credited with accounting for about 4 percent of the total), which means that Patterson alone was coming close to matching the sales of every famous old author you have ever heard of put together, from Jane Austen to Emile Zola.

Comparisons aside, this works out to not much more than a copy a year for every forty to fifty Americans. Moreover, consider the reasons for the sales. How many of them are for students in school assigned the books? How many for restocking libraries? And how many to make a coffee table or a book shelf look good? In short, few of even this small percentage of sales are a matter of individuals voluntarily, seriously choosing to read the works in question. Meanwhile, even those who do pick up such books without some educator demanding it do so because they feel they "have" to do so as self-respecting persons of education and culture, many in the most "middlebrow" fashion. The result is that those who pick up such books very often because they genuinely enjoy even a part of "the canon" is very small indeed.

Why raise this all too familiar point again? The reason is that it seems a useful point of comparison with the sales of those books that have become old without becoming classics. Sales of these are harder to glean from the available data. But it seems that even the popular books of yesteryear acquire the disadvantages of age without the advantages of being classics, commercially as in other ways. One is not assigned to read them in school, and librarians feel less obliged to keep copies in stock. Meanwhile individuals looking to show off are less likely to think they can impress anyone by having them on their coffee table or their book shelf, and few will feel they "have" to read them for any reason. All that automatically means fewer sales, and even beyond sales, less chance of their being noticed by those who might actually find them interesting. And when people do happen upon them, in contrast with those approaching Important Literature, with which all but the most callow are prepared to show some patience because even if it is not all that entertaining when they first pick it up it (perhaps, because it has come down to us from another time, with different standards) it may yet prove worth their while, no such case is made for popular fiction. Facing it their demand to be entertained immediately, significantly and fluently is uncompromising, and it must be admitted that given the narrowness of most personal tastes, very little is likely to make the cut.

All of this affects all fiction. (Certainly those who insist that anything they pick up conform to a 2020s' standard of "wokeness" will find very, very little older fiction bearable.) However, I suspect that it is a particular problem for the thriller genre, and especially thrillers of the "high," big picture type. Political thrillers derive much of their interest from the topicality of their premise--and that tends to decline very quickly. (I recently read a Customer Review of a Robert Ludlum novel from the 1980s in which the reviewer complained about the book's being set in the 1980s, as if the reader were somehow cheated by that! Such a complaint is of course absurd--but reflective of how easily such work loses its interest.)

Meanwhile, with visual media leading and print fiction following, the expectation has increasingly been of brisker, more action-packed thrillers; and in line with the demand for action and briskness (and not only that) the books easier to read. (Back in the '60s, the '70s, even the '80s John le Carrè managed to be among the top bestsellers of his day. Now even a Robert Ludlum likely would not make the cut. Besides the problem posed by how today's superabundance of spy-fi sets the standard, he expects his readers to know words like "pavane" and "bromide," which is totally a deal-breaker in an age in which Dan Brown sets the standard.)

Indeed, looking back the fact that I read so much of those thrillers strikes me as having been a matter of picking up the '80s-era hits of Clancy and Ludlum and Cussler back when those books’ author were, if already passing their peak of popularity, still fairly new, and those writers still fairly prominent on the bestseller lists; in my having a stronger-than-average in their themes; and in the early ‘90s being a period before visual media so totally supplanted those sorts of thrillers in their niche; all of which went to form a rather different interest. But formed that interest was, and so here I am writing about those authors and their books all these decades later, long after, to all evidences, general interest in them has decayed to nearly nothing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Is Bad Sci-Fi Holding Technological Progress Back?

Ordinarily we hear about how science fiction has encouraged technological progress--how science fiction writers set forth ideas long before scientists and engineers took them up as objects of practical work and maybe even played a part in their doing so, how science fiction stories inspired scientists to pursue scientific careers in the first place, and so forth. (Indeed, Hugo Gernsback, who more than any other single individual may be credited with having made science fiction a genre in the publishing-pop cultural sense, pointed to exactly such justifications for the view of science fiction as more than entertainment.)

However, it seems to me that there is another side to the story, all too evident in the kinds of stories science fiction tends to tell--not least, horror stories which treat scientific and technological progress as a transgessive, cosmic order-upsetting act, inevitably, brutally, deservedly punished, epitomized by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Indeed, writing about the way fiction has tended to depict robots in particular Isaac Asimov coined the term "Frankenstein complex" to refer to what he saw as a psychological hang-up over the prospect of "robot rebellion," "robot apocalypse" and the like, and consciously opposing himself to that trend, pointedly wrote other kinds of stories depicting robots as part of a positive future. In that object he succeeded admirably--but that success has not always been acknowledged, or his intentions respected. Indeed, when Hollywood inevitably adapted the famed collection of those stories, I, Robot, what the filmmakers wound up giving the audience was, in contrast with a tidy, rational, progressive Asimov future a spectacle of robots on the rampage as beleaguered humans blasted away at them with machine guns. Of course anyone who actually followed the storyline amid all the stuff blowing up and all the robots coming at the viewer like horror movie monsters saw an attempt at something more nuanced--the traumatized anti-robot bigot Del Spooner recognizing the humanity in the machines--but all the same, it was a flashy, high-concept summer blockbuster sold on the basis of action-adventure rather than ideas, in line with a genre revolving around grandiose spectacle based on large-scale physical destruction and reptile-brained appeals to fear and prejudice.

That said, one may wonder just how much difference it all makes. A recent Pew Research Center study affirmed the impression that far more Americans are exposed to science content via entertainment than actual news. It also reported that on the whole they think it does their understanding and attitudes toward science no harm. They even report that those polled regard the media as depicting science quite positively. Still, I can't help suspecting a gap between what they may think in the abstract, and the way they actually react when looking at a particular scientific or technological prospect, with the conversations I have had with actual people in actual life consistently persuading me that Hollywood blockbuster-variety Luddism has had rather a deeper effect on their thinking and feeling in regard to these matters than they admit, or even realize. It is hard to see how it could have acted as anything but a drag on progress in an age that has had far too little of it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Review: Trevayne, by Robert Ludlum

In reading my way through Robert Ludlum's canon I was particularly late in coming to Trevayne. This was in part because it is one of his older and less commonly available books, to which I had generally been less attentive, but also because, published pseudonymously (under the name "Jonathan Ryder"), it seemed to be somehow off of the main track of his work. Actually reading it, however, my impression proved incorrect. Certainly the Ludlum formula had yet to take shape. Here the titular protagonist is a happily married family man for whom any extracurricular involvements are out, he is brought into the mess at the book's center by rather undramatic mutual agreement (albeit in far from full awareness of the facts), and the book is set entirely in the U.S. rather than a globetrotting adventure. Moreover, the book's thrills come from suspense-building plotting--from the hero's detective work and menacing (if, in the immediate term, non-violent) personal confrontations with the powerful and corrupt individuals he finds in his way as he goes about it--rather than action-adventure, the incidents of actual violence coming late, often off-stage, and just about never describable as "action," with the sole exception not involving Trevayne in any physical way. (Indeed, the cover art of my 1988 paperback edition of the book seems so inconsistent with the story as to merit some remark here. The image beneath the title is of a man in a suit facing toward us sprawling out his limbs as he is shot in the back by a soldier with a rifle in front of the dome of the United States Capitol--putting me much more in mind of the famous scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still than anything actually inside the novel, as if someone had accidentally switched the cover of the book with that of a novelization of that film. These things happen, you know--as the lawsuits testify.)

Still, Trevayne seems to me a milestone in Ludlum's career. This is the first of Ludlum's books in which we get a sense of the hero as a lone individual (save perhaps for a few helpers) up against an enemy that is truly, overwhelmingly vast. Indeed, the type of conspiracy Ludlum presented here--the reach of the vast defense contractor collectively known as "Gennessee Industries," which vast as it is proves to itself only be the tip of an iceberg--was shortly to reappear as Inver Brass in The Chancellor Manuscript and The Icarus Agenda. It also significantly anticipated the Pentagon corruption in The Gemini Contenders and the ascent of corporate power envisioned in The Matarese Circle.

As one might guess from such parallels one may rank it with The Chancellor Manuscript as one of his more critical works--while being remarkable even among these in ways besides its originality. One reason is that while Ludlum's fortè has rarely been verisimilitude in his presentation of the details of machinations in high places, in Trevayne he was rather more than usually sophisticated and convincing in his portrait of the conspiracy's tentacles, and the detective work that led Andrew Trevayne to it. The picture Trevayne uncovers certainly has its less plausible touches (not least the extent to which he had it all coming back to one company) but all the same, the way subsidiaries stand in back of other subsidiaries, obscuring complex ownership arrangements and the influence that goes with them; the links between "legitimate" business and organized crime, and the extension of such corruption into organized labor and high politics; the revolving door between the public and private sectors, and the ways in which the private sector exercises public power; the way elder statesmen hailed as a democracy's best and brightest smile in public and sneer at the idea of democracy in private; the way the "practical," "pragmatic" office-holders make their peace with such things, and in the hope of doing some good, and maybe even actually doing so, become implicated in the corruption themselves, facilitating it; are all too in line with unseemly realities, and rather credible in the portrayal, with this even going for the minutiae of accounting and engineering and law Ludlum references. It matters, too, that rather than such things being briefly mentioned background details, as in Ludlum's later, more action-oriented Ludlum novels, in this book--which devotes so much less attention to the mechanics of manhunts and being on the run and shootouts--Trevayne and his team's working their way through the bowels of the empire that is Gennessee is the heart of the matter.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while the novel seemed to me less visceral than some of his other works (The Matlock Paper, The Chancellor Manuscript, struck me as angrier) the book may actually be the more radical intellectually, not least in the sense it gives of such villainy works, how powerful they are, how high up and how deep the corruption goes, while this time the hero himself gets compromised and coopted. One consequence is that the ultimate issue of the contest is far from certain at the book's end, Trevayne's hope that he could ultimately get the better of them only drawing his more deeply into their trap. In fact it seems significant that the last words of the book are their expression of their self-assurance--and one is allowed to wonder if Trevayne's children, a bit more radical politically than he (which radicalism he and his wife were prone to brush off as childish and callow), were not right after all about the limits of what one man could do playing by the rules of the System when he took up the President's offer to chair what had seemed an essentially pedestrian subcommittee investigation of defense contracting and found himself up against far, far more than he bargained for. Also unsurprisingly, even after the success of Doug Liman's adaptation of The Bourne Identity had Hollywood snapping up the film rights to various Ludlum novels I do not remember a single word about its taking an interest in this book. However, I think Ludlum would have left a more interesting and more substantial body of work had he given us more books like this one, and fewer shoot 'em ups and reiterations of and sequels to the same.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Review: The Gemini Contenders, by Robert Ludlum

Robert Ludlum has more than once incorporated an element of family epic into his books, particularly his World War II-themed work, as with The Scarlatti Inheritance, and later did so again in The Holcroft Covenant. Yet in 1976's The Gemini Contenders he wrote out an actual multi-generational saga about the Fontini-Cristi family, the first half of which tracks the Fontini-Cristi's first two generations all the way through that conflict.

As it happens, that is not Ludlum's only divergence from the usual. This time, bound up with the world war, is another secret war, being waged in the pursuit of a religio-historical mystery that we are told could be of world-historic significance--the contents of the vault delivered by the Greek Orthodox Order of Xenope to the Fontini-Cristis for safekeeping.

Today I suppose that Dan Brown would be the obvious point of comparison--as this novel similarly presents a conflict of religious orders intriguing and killing over the possession of a secret they believe would shake the world if ever it got out. But of course Ludlum did it a generation earlier here, quite differently--and, I thought, considerably better. The family epic approach--which intertwines an intrigue running through three generations with two of the century's major wars and comes down to a struggle between twin brothers with utterly opposed political ideals and ambitions in highly charged conflict--gives his narrative a far greater dramatic interest than Brown's book had. Additionally the revelation at the end of the novel regarding "What it was all about" seemed to rather more interesting, and handled in a rather more sophisticated fashion. (This being the '70s Ludlum could afford to be less smarmily conciliatory toward "faith" after raising the clash of "faith and reason," and more lucid about just what such a secret's getting out would mean in actual life. As one character says, the secret of the vault both changes everything, and changes nothing.)

I even preferred Ludlum on the level of prose. This being an early Ludlum novel the narration is comparatively efficient and the manifestation of his well-known tics (the italics, exclamation points, etc.) was less frequent, while even when his writing was not all one might have hoped for Ludlum at least sounded like an adult writing for other adults--whereas the idea of a "Young Adult" version of The Da Vinci Code seemed superfluous to many (myself included).

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Review: The Matlock Paper, by Robert Ludlum

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

In Robert Ludlum's third novel, 1973's The Matlock Paper, the FBI, looking to identify the leader of a powerful drug trafficking network in the northeastern U.S., determining that Connecticut's "Carlyle University" is central to the activity, enlists one of that university's professors, James Matlock, to help in their investigation--and promptly plunged into a conflict between parties of which he knows nothing, and for which he is woefully unprepared and unequipped.

As is generally the case with the early Ludlum The Matlock Paper is more a suspense story than an action story, if one with the danger and violence and piling up of bodies beginning rather early on and coming more consistently afterward than in his two preceding works. On that level the book is efficient and effective. Moreover, while I generally find that even the better thrillers are more satisfying in their mechanics than in their explanations of what in the end the intrigue was all about--and Ludlum was no exception in that regard--this time around he gets a good many points for at least having a surprise to spring on us. As it turns out the big network was organized and run by the administrators of New England's universities in an attempt to save their institutions financially in an era in which government and private donors were not willing to give them the resources they needed to go on. And in the end Matlock is caught between Little Ivy university presidents-turned-Pablo Escobars and the Black nationalist movement's military wing's answer to the Navy SEALs operating out of a frat house named "Patrice Lumumba Hall" (in a Little Ivy-type liberal arts college in the early 1970s!), and forced to make a temporary alliance of convenience with whichever seems the more survivable to him.

The scenario may seem ridiculous, but then as Ludlum's characters so often scream the "Madness!" of "Maniacs!" is pretty much what makes a Ludlum plot a Ludlum plot, and all things considered it seems to me that there is more than just over-the-top plotting in this image of Matlock caught in between president Adrian Sealfont and Black radical Julian Dunois--the political symbolism unmissable, a centrist nightmare of a country caught in between a traditional Establishment sinking to the very depths of corruption on the one hand and "extremist" radicals on the other. Distinctly '70s, the book seems about as unlikely as any of Ludlum's works for a film adaptation, but I'm sure that someone is trying to make something of it anyway, with such an effort perhaps looking more plausible amid the "Madness!" and "Maniacs!" of 2022--which, I must admit, have me wondering what Ludlum, were he alive and still working, would be producing after looking at today's American political scene.

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