I appeared on two podcasts this week. First was Ideas Sleep Furiously, which is a brilliant new Substack that should be on your radar. The second was The World of DaaS with Auren Hoffman, the CEO of SafeGraph. Finally, here’s me on Callin with Michael Tracey last night, talking about all the crazy stuff happening on Twitter, the war in Ukraine, and Trump’s presidential announcement. Relying on disgruntled former employees, the media is telling us that Twitter could collapse at any moment, so we’re getting a real life test of the 80/20 rule.
My last conversation with Rob Henderson on Dahmer is now available for free.
Michael last night directed my attention to a Substack he wrote and a Tweet of his that back up what I told Chris Nicholson this week about there being no way the US ever cuts off aid to Ukraine. The more I think about it, the more crazy the idea sounds. To go back to an analogy I made last night on Callin, I think Chris made the same mistake one makes when you hear news stories about “racism” or “transphobia” and take them at face value. We have extreme taboos on racism and transphobia, so the littlest thing will draw a huge amount of attention. The outrage of the day simply reinforces the taboo.
It’s the same with aid to Ukraine. Stopping it is unthinkable, so every time anyone gives the slightest hint that it may be in jeopardy, the walls collapse on them. This is what happened to progressives in Congress who a few months ago released and then immediately withdrew a letter calling for negotiations, and recent comments by Kevin McCarthy – which, as Michael points out, lacked any substance in the first place – can be seen in the same way.
1. Fascinating reporting on the Ukrainian train system, a holdover from Soviet times, and its role in the war.
Ukrzaliznytsia is so vast it has long been referred to as “a country within a country.” There are 230,000 employees, from those on the trains themselves (locomotive drivers, their assistants, train attendants, conductors) to everyone at the station (stationmasters, security officers, ticket sellers, luggage-storage clerks, cleaners) and then everyone behind the scenes (track inspectors, car inspectors, signal maintainers, structural engineers, electricians, electronic-equipment engineers, locomotive electricians, greasers, train dispatchers, railcar loaders, railcar mechanics, switchmen, track workers and depot attendants, without whom passenger toilets would back up). Then there are depot and workshop jobs (hostlers, repairmen, carpenters and factory workers, to name a few). Ukrzaliznytsia does its own laundry, it has its own glass factory, a carriage factory, a steel-rail rolling factory and another factory that cuts the rails to size. There are railway schools for children, vocational schools, summer camps, sanitariums and hospitals. The 15,000 miles of tracks are government-run and controlled from the center, including stations, depots and factories.
230,000 employees is around 1 in 170 Ukrainians of the pre-war population if you believe the official numbers, which I’ve heard were exaggerated. On its historic links with the Soviet train system:
At its height, the U.S.S.R.’s railroad network totaled 91,600 miles. It was among the largest in the world. It had its own ministry with as many as four million employees. Train attendants memorized all routes from Vladivostok to Tbilisi. A railway job was prestigious, not just because of the relatively higher salaries but because of the benefits that came with it. Generations went to work on the rails and proudly referred to themselves as “dynasties.” Many married one another and sent their children to railway technical and trade schools. In a Soviet society corrupted by nepotism and performative party loyalty, many believed it was the kind of career in which a person who applied themselves could truly advance.
Russification, already predominant in urban areas of the center and east of Ukraine during the Russian empire, spread along the railway lines as more regions were integrated into the Soviet structure. Yet, the trains also inadvertently created space for the survival of a Ukrainian identity. As young people flocked to the cities for Soviet education in Russian, train travel was cheap enough that those same students often went home on the weekends to the villages where their parents lived and where Ukrainian was spoken…
After Ukraine’s independence in 1991, Kyiv painted green Soviet carriages blue and redesigned the uniforms and epaulets, but little else changed. Ukrzaliznytsia’s six regional branches still don’t bear Ukrainian names or orientations — their directions only make sense when viewed from Moscow: The “southern branch” is actually in the center of Ukraine, while the “southwestern branch” is geographically in the north of the country. Ukrzaliznytsia was restructured but never privatized, the railroad degraded, and the chief executive position became a political post, given out to curry oligarch favor. “It was so common to choose someone who had no idea how railways work, people even started to joke about it,” Mykola Kopylov, editor in chief of Rail Insider, a Ukrainian industry publication, told me.
On how the system’s backwardness has kept it functioning during the war:
In some ways, it was the state monopoly’s autocratic Soviet legacy that led to its unexpected wartime success. The things Kamyshin had been asked to change became an advantage. Ukraine had too many rail lines, making it possible to ferry goods and people on varying lines and reroute the trains quickly in the event of an attack. Because Ukrzaliznytsia had only electrified part of its rails, diesel-powered trains could still run when electrical substations were attacked. (Electrified rails are considered faster, cheaper and more environmentally sustainable, but diesel locomotives are more reliable in war.) Reformers complained there were far too many workers, but that also meant there was a surplus of engineers familiar with making repairs in tight economic conditions. Employees, used to top-down command structures, reported for work.
Just a compelling profile of Ukrainian governance and society, and a look into an interesting and important part of the nuts and bolts of the war effort. Do read the whole thing.
2. My last Kirill Stremousov link, I hope, unless we get more info on the circumstances of his death.
3. David French on how the midterms were a loss for the “malice theory of American politics.” I think that activists are much angrier than normal people, so they think anger plays well. But most Americans see someone yelling or making bombastic statements about Second Amendment solutions to our problems or overturning capitalism and are just weirded out. It’s a problem for both the right and the left.
4. Videos from the land of Zero Covid. “Around 340 million people across 37 cities in China — about a quarter of the population — were under some form of lockdown in mid-November, according to an estimate by the investment bank Nomura.”
In a country of 1.4 billion, the one man who shows he still has a soul inspires me.
The masked police sprayed him with disinfectant. China should build a statue of this man if they ever get a non-deranged government.
5. This article claims that anti-wokes had a big election night in school board races. But this article gives a more mixed picture.
Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan election site, analyzed 361 races and found that about 36% of candidates who opposed school Covid protocols, diversity initiatives or the use of gender-neutral learning materials, won their elections.
About 28% of winning candidates in the analysis supported those policies or efforts. That percentage is down from elections in April and November 2021, according to Ballotpedia. About a third of candidates in Tuesday’s election analysis didn’t take clear positions on these issues, according to the site…
Across the country, more than 90,000 school board members control policy and spending decisions for more than 13,500 districts, according to the National School Boards Association. Most members are elected, rather than appointed, and most races are nonpartisan.
So about a third of school board victors are woke, a third are anti-woke, and a third don’t have a position (i.e., probably woke)? One would need data over time to understand whether anti-wokes are making progress or not. I’m guessing that they are. But then again, if there are 90,000 school board seats, the 361 races analyzed by Ballotpedia don’t tell us much. This is a strange issue where everything is so fragmented it’s difficult to know who is winning and exactly what is going on.
Relatedly, Moms for Liberty won some races in Berkeley County, South Carolina, and purged the wokes. It’s a county of only 250,000 people, less than 5% of what is a small state. Looks like these fights are going to always be community by community, as maybe it should be. But really markets are just so much better, and privatizing the whole thing should always be the end goal.