site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of January 16, 2023

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Why I don't think that Ukraine has bright future ahead
Disclaimer: This is not an anti-ukranian or pro Russia post, I wish only the best for Ukrainian people and Russia has most of the same and many unique problems.

Ukraine in 1991 was one of the richest countries in Eastern Europe, being on par with Russia and above such countries as Poland and Belarus. The crisis of the 90s escaped Poland, but was shared by the rest, after which Ukraine lagged behind its neighbors in development. We can say that this is due to such factors as Poland's membership in the EU or the presence of oil in the Russian Federation, but a noticeable lag even behind Belarus shows that this is not the sufficient explanation.

Such estimates of GDP PPP per capita in this context are often criticized for ignoring the problem of the shadow economy or, in plain language, "envelope wages". Only this problem is not unique to Ukraine, but a common feature of the CIS countries, and in it, it is more pronounced than in Belarus or Russia, but not enough to explain such a large gap.

Also, quite often one can hear about the supposed difference in the distribution of economic development in the Russian Federation and Ukraine, allegedly in the second there is greater decentralization and a smaller difference between regions. But in terms of GRP per capita, excluding, for obvious reasons, oil and gas regions like Yamal, in both countries one can see approximately same and strong difference between the capital and the poorest regions. This is also true for Belarus. Similar trend can be seen in HDI ranking - Russia standing at 52nd place, Kazakhstan at 56th Belarus at 60th and Ukraine at 77th.

There are many possible reasons that could explain such an outstanding backwardness of Ukraine even by the standards of the CIS. From crazy theories about the genetic or cultural inferiority of its inhabitants to a more adequate analysis of the particular corruption and arrogance of the elites. I won't pretend to know the right one and I don't even need to find some exact answer to this riddle. It’s enough to ask the question: “Why and what will change or has already changed in 2022, which has not happened in the history of this country?”.

War that will make patriots out of corrupt oligarchs? It started in 2014. A new president who promises to fix everything and fix corruption? It's happened so many times it's not funny anymore. Additional grants/loans/Marshall Plan 2.0? Didn't billions of dollars and euros already have go one way into Ukraine? Where did they go? They will go there the next time if there current corrupt system remains. European integration? It has been talked about since the 90s and European leaders are now talking about "the long road ahead for Ukraine", the status of a candidate is not at all a guarantee of an early entry, ask Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro. Why would EU want the poorest European country after Moldova, with the highest corruption and similar to Georgia problems(that of course could be theoretically solved in the near future but this is beside the point)? EU had enough of one Hungary with Orban stealing economic aid with his cronies, it doesn't need a second one. These internal problems will have to be corrected on their own, before, and not after, entry.

But there might be not enough time to for solving them. Ukrainian demographics are awful, a very old population with average age much closer to western countries and not states with similar economic development, which, at the same time, also has the opportunity to relatively freely leave for better countries. For the same reason that Ukrainian patriots in Canada still not returned and will not return in their entirety to help their homeland, major part of today's refugees have already found or will find work and will remain in Europe, having made a reasonable, rational choice.

P.S. It is more my personal pet peeve and not part of the argument but I think that this and similar economic deals that still going on are very strong evidence of some corrupt dealings going on between oligarchs from both sides.

A paragraph of questions is generally not one actually looking for them to be engaged, but I'll take a stab.

War that will make patriots out of corrupt oligarchs? It started in 2014.

And has had multiple decisive impacts against Russian intentions since 2013.

Multiple Russian efforts failed due to various sorts of nationalism by oligarchs refusing to cooperate with Russian pressure efforts. This started with the elite split over the Russian pressure on Yanukovych's corrupt reversal on the European Union association agreement in favor of the Eurasian Union in 2013, and dramatically escalated when many of the oligarchs in Yanukovych's own power base refused to support his Russian-pressured effort to start shooting protestors during Euromaidan, and then the major flop of the NovaRussia uprising in Eastern Ukraine where oligarchs generally supported post-Maidan Kyiv rather than join the Russian effort to astroturf a grassroots popular revolt. This doesn't even touch on the 2022 government cohesion in face of Russian invasion.

It's not that war has made patriots out of corrupt oligarchs. There is a war because a surprising number of corrupt oligarchs were already nationalists even before 2014.

A new president who promises to fix everything and fix corruption? It's happened so many times it's not funny anymore.

The relevant consideration for Ukrainian corruption considerations isn't because there's a new president, but that the war has created a new legal contexts and oversight measures with Ukraianian political support. This has not happened so many times before.

First, let's just be clear on something. The primary donor of economic aid, the states of the European Union, are not out to 'fix everything and fix corruption.' This is a false standard.

It also misses a key point of the European Union, which uses what others might call obvious corruption via patronage networks as a standard cohesion mechanism. The European Union is absolutely involved in the patronage system, and the way that even internal EU aid works is that governments taking aid are expected to use it broadly in the categories intended (agriculture subsidies on agriculture, not yachts), but who, exactly, gets the funds and how are left to the governments. It's a basic pro-European incentive scheme to build pro-EU interest groups who really like getting money and so are positively inclined to European influence in order to keeping it coming. This sort of pork is not what the Europeans consider unacceptable corruption, and patronage network of government elites building pro-government business elite networks is not the problem.

Since the war has started, Ukraine has gotten not only increased aid, but increased attention and various oversight mechanisms. Western donors, after all, have strong interests in seeing where their increase goes, and that it's having the desired strategic effect. The Ukrainian government, which is dependent on them in a way it was not under previous presidents, is in little position to refuse access, and has actually had an interest in granting access to its own information systems just to underscore how desperate the situation is. What has resulted is various access and tracking systems to western backers, which both gives institutions like the IMF insight on what is needed economically, and the Americans access militarily, but also also establish mechanisms. While some level of fraud is unavoidable- just look to the various western corruption issues around COVID monies- the war has brought new access into systems were the unacceptable corruptions rely on being opaque.

The war has also changed the political dimensions for western-pressured reforms. The Europeans have absolutely used the leverage of aid and Ukrainian desires/desperate to join the European community to pressure the Ukrainian government to make legal and administrative changes to improve on corruption. One of these results- something no previous president did- was dissolve the Kyiv Administrative District Court, one of the most notoriously corrupt court systems in the countries.

Between a confluence of crisis letting the government act, unique access and leverage by westerners pressing reforms, and domestic political support for the both, Ukraine has been undergoing major legal and structural shakeups no previous president of the last decades has matched.

Additional grants/loans/Marshall Plan 2.0? Didn't billions of dollars and euros already have go one way into Ukraine? Where did they go?

To the front, to salaries, to infrastructure and item purchases, and many other things needed in a war.

This is what I mean by question streams not actually being asked with the intent of receiving answers. The first is not a question or even referring to a specific thing (or, in the case of Marshal Plan 2.0, a thing that has happened), the second conflates the value/cost all forms of assistance, and the third presumes corruption for unanswered questions, even when the question doesn't even make sense.

Where does aid go? It depends on what the aid is, and when, and how one calculates. Since Ukraine is in a war, let's just take a single example: a single vehicle donation to the Ukrainian military.

Let's take a BMP-1. A BMP-1 is an early Soviet-era armored personnel carrier. It's not particularly good, but it serves a purpose. A google search says a single one costs roughly 1 million USD. But what is the cost? Not, actually, 1 million USD. BMP-1s are old, the cost of production was already consumed long ago, and in many cases are just legacy hard ware not intended for current use by their own militaries, and were slated for eventual replacement by more modern kit. Giving 30 BMP-1s is not equivalent to taxing your citizens $30,000,000 and then handing it over to the Ukrainian government for them to turn into yachts.

The answer to all unknown expenditures is not 'it was all wasted due to corruption.'

It has been talked about since the 90s and European leaders are now talking about "the long road ahead for Ukraine", the status of a candidate is not at all a guarantee of an early entry, ask Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro.

Appealing to the 90s, when Ukraine's elite and public were very indifferent about European association (and the European Union did not exist), and not 2014, when a major seminal moment saw the Ukrainian body politic actively affirm a desire for European association, is willfully ignoring quite a bit of context. Euromaidan wasn't a pro-European fanclub protesting, it was a result of long-established European-supported engagement structures successfully connecting with both publics and key elite interests to such a degree that a Russian-pressured lethal force crackdown was rejected by key members of the ruling coalition. The pro-EU political base in Ukraine has not been fair-weather or transient, enduring almost a decade of war now and demonstrating both enduring strength and conviction in a way that many of your examples have not, divided as they were for internal reasons.

Turkey is an interesting argument if you want to make it, but I'd argue Turkey was more interested in joining in the 90s/early 2000s than the EU was in letting them in... but this is due to factors not relatable to Ukraine, such as being a large muslim country and UK internal politics. The Ukrainians are not seen as outsiders in the way Turkey was, nor are they an election or two away from a conservative muslim government.

MTF for character limit.

Why would EU want the poorest European country after Moldova, with the highest corruption and similar to Georgia problems(that of course could be theoretically solved in the near future but this is beside the point)?

Global food stability, advanced chip making, strategic depth, sentiment, internal European power struggles over the political center of gravity take your pick. The question is not 'why', but rather 'why are not you aware of the following?'

To start, being poor is not the issue for Ukraine. A poor GDP per capita in the European context is a cheap work force, which is a significant part of corporate viability in the European model. This is absolutely a mixed bag, but also kind of the point for the european economic model of the internal market and internal migration from east to west. Nor is the monumental costs of rebuilding Ukraine the objection- this is, after all, money that will be spent by European countries on their European companies to do business in Ukraine, in the name of integration. Different stakeholders have different interests, but no one expects Ukraine to circle a drain of constant recession and de-investment, which means there is profit to be made.

First, global food stability under European influence. Ukraine is poor in many things, but very, very rich in food, and had roughly a global share of nearly 9% global wheat, 10% barley, and 16% corn. This is 'regional famine prevention' levels of food production, and having it under European auspices- and not under Russian, where the food pressure has been used already for macroeconomic blackmail attempts- is a major global asset in the expected decades to come of global demographics. When the third rail fear of European politics is mass migration, having the food stability of the middle east not under Russian influence is rather important.

Second, Ukraine was responsible for 50% of global production of neon gas, which was a byproduct of industrial plants specifically built for it during the Soviet Union. This is relevant because industrial-grade neon is a key resource in high-value chipmaking. Any polity wanting to play for the advanced technology spheres needs a good source of neon, and while the war has degraded/destroyed a lot of Ukraine's, it's still a strategic interest to have regardless of corruption.

Third, strategic depth between Europe and Russia doesn't just go in Russia's favor. One of the key shocks to the European public was the realization that war was literally only a long day's car drive from Berlin, and the prospects of a Russian-dominated Ukraine on the border of Poland is a significant concern to countries like Poland. Among other things, Ukraine is a buffer, and like Finland a demonstrably capable buffer able between Russia and others.

Fourth, sentiment is not to be overlooked. European governments are broadly accountable to their voters, and the pursuit of re-election does mean that things that are popular with the voters will effect decision maker cost-benefits. This is most obvious in leading power Germany, where the government's obvious resistance to aiding Ukraine- from the helmet fiasco to stated fears of escalation- have been regularly overpowered by not just external pressure, but internal pressure. A German government whose voters supported neutrality would be much more resistant to pressure- a German government whose own voters want it to deliver arms finds itself backtracking its prior concerns. The same applies to corruption- corruption of Ukraine is not the most significant emotional concern European voters have about it, and corruption is only an obstacle in so much as people are otherwise neutral.

Fifth and finally, internal EU politics. There are two key nexus of interests that have an interest in resisting Ukrainian entry regardless of corruption- EuroFederalists, who fear a new nation will be too emotional to defer to the EUropean nationalism intended to replace nation-based nationalism, and the French-German axis, whose power within the EU frays as more members join, to the point that the French-German alignment is no longer the 'motor' of European policy in the way it once was. To those groups, any entry of a state of 40+ million people (half of Germany) would be a major barrier to the centralization of European Union power over European states, or the ability of France and Germany to jointly dominate that power over the other European states. To other countries, this isn't a bug, it's a feature, and expansion-of-the-EU-to-weaken-it has been a core policy of much of the European Expansion advocates, which has included powerful countries (UK, previously), weaker countries (who want to keep the EU loose instead of centralized), and especially the Eastern countries (who doubt Germany/France having their interests at heart vis-a-vis russia policy). Regardless of any level of corruption in Ukraine, people who want to move the political center of gravity eastward, or at least away from France and Germany, and who are not on board with a European unitary state will have an interest in Ukrainian ascession. Notably both parties are flexible on this as part of the give-and-take of European politics- the French and Germans have raised the prospects of watering down the veto as a precondition to allowing entry, others have used the Ukrainian issue to leverage the French and Germans into Russia policies that both were inclined to resist until dragged across the line.

There are plenty of reasons, and whether you find them compelling or not, you should at least be aware of other people's perspectives.

EU had enough of one Hungary with Orban stealing economic aid with his cronies, it doesn't need a second one. These internal problems will have to be corrected on their own, before, and not after, entry.

The EU's problem with Hungary and Orban isn't 'stealing economic aid,' it's that he uses the patronage network funding for non-pro-EU patronage networks. He's a fly in the ointment, but the ointment has always been largess to build patronage influence.

All in all, my position is you radically misunderstand the corruption dynamics involved in both Ukraine and in the EU itself, and are over-fixating on this issue. Corruption isn't why Ukraine will be barred entry by the likes of Germany or France- corruption will be the pretext used to facilitate, further, and defend their own interests within the European Union, that a Ukrainian entry might disrupt. The Europeans engage in their own corruption a plenty, and are quite willing to turn a blind eye when it suits them- what matters more is not that there is corruption, but the sort, and the tradeoffs.

Ukraine was responsible for 50% of global production of neon gas, which was a byproduct of industrial plants specifically built for it during the Soviet Union.

This is interesting, and I'm totally unfamiliar with neon production. What is the realistic medium term impact of, say, this production disappearing completely? Are there significant barriers to production being ramped up elsewhere? Is it mostly just some capital expenditure, and since the Soviets dropped das capital previously to build it, it hasn't been profitable to build much else, but if it disappeared, then within 5-10 years, new capital could be easily dropped to pretty much make up for the gap with some modest final price increase?

Not exactly an expert on neon production, though for a good pop-culture roundup on the importance of neon production that overlaps, try this-

That is where the current situation in Ukraine enters the picture.

Air separation plants are expensive to build and operate. The products aren’t particularly difficult to transport, whether as a cryogenic liquid or compressed gas, but they are expensive to transport. Air separation plants generally serve a relatively local market or a large consumer. Distillation processes scale well, benefitting from what is commonly called the “two-thirds scale factor.” This is a mathematical relationship between how big something is and how much it costs to build. The capital investment to build an air separation plant grows at only 2/3 the rate of the capacity. Stated simply, bigger is better.

The neon industry in Ukraine takes advantage of very large air separation plants associated with steel manufacturing. These have economies of scale. They are a source of low-cost, crude neon-containing material that is a great starting point for making the purified neon used in lasers. Two manufacturers, Ingas and Cryoin, came to dominate the neon supply. They built on a feedstock advantage, gaining a further scale advantage. By some accounts, Ukraine was supplying about 70% of the world’s neon. Others estimate closer to 50%. No matter what the exact figure, the result is a dramatic and significant drop in the supply due to the war.

The current disruption is making many re-evaluate the global neon supply chain. It will likely lead to new entrants into the high-purity neon market. It is also causing a re-examination of neon use in excimer lasers. There is no replacement for neon, but use patterns are being examined in an effort to reduce consumption. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted a flurry of research on reducing neon usage. Recycle systems for neon are commercially deployed, but are costly.

So to guess at your questions-

-From what I've read, the chip market is going to suck for the forseeable future, and this is separate from the US lawfare against Chinese chip-making capacity. (One may even suspect that it was timed and launched with this expectation.) Chip production bottlenecks for the next several years- easily 5-to-10?- are going to hurt a lot of industries, and compound the economic woes of anyone currently either unable to afford relevant industries (potentially Europe with energy prices), legally access relevant technologies (China and Russia), or just weren't a player.

-Ramping up production elsewhere is possible, but difficult, and it's unclear how fast/able anyone is able to do this. Ukraine was used during the Soviet Union for reasons including steel production and logistics. Steel production- which provided the economies of scale mentioned before- is very energy intensive. The European energy-intensive industries were based on assumptions of cheap Russian energy imports... which aren't here anymore. I'd bet my blouse that China and the US have efforts, but I'm not familiar with anything specific.

-While in the longer term I'm given to understand a lot more people will develop neon production capacity out of need, the issue isn't so much the final price of neon then, but what the dynamics of the interim are between now and then. By the time neon supply restabilizes, the world could go through some major economic transitions or inflection points that radically reshape the global economy. Europe's efforts to combat Russian energy warfare are disguising a lot of the industrial pain behind consumer price controls. China has basically given up deflating some serious economic bubbles in the name of social stability... which means worse effects if they pop. Global demographic changes are accelerating, as rich countries get older and smaller. This great chip disruption could be the sort of thing that snarls a lot of countries on that front for a few years... by which point it's too late.

Or maybe that's over-stating it. Regardless, having any sort of control over a vital high-technology input resource is useful.