Sunday, 23 February 2014

A hero or a traitor?

Gripping, witty, superbly-shot and adroitly-played is “Jack Strong”, political thriller directed by Władysław Pasikowski, which went to the silver screen on 7 Febraury 2014 and within first few days was watched by over half a million cinema-visitors. In terms of form, despite not being the ultimate masterpiece, undoubtedly it could be ranked no lower than most praised Hollywood thrillers. When it comes to substance, opinions are divided, as the film is a biography of colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, one of the most controversial public figures in the history of post-war Poland.

Mr Kuklinski was one of the most prominent officers of the Polish People’s Army. His career developed swiftly since his conscription to army just after World War 2. After several subsequent promotions, he became one of the youngest executive officers in the commandership of the Poland’s military forces and earned himself impeccable credentials of an ardent commie with comrades from Warsaw Pact’s commandership. He participated in preparations for “fraternal aid” in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Since 1972 (or according to some sources since 1967/68 when he served in Vietnam as a member of ICC) he collaborated with CIA as a spy and delivered the U.S. intelligence thousands of pages of documents relating to Warsaw Pact’s and Poland’s defence systems and strategic plans, including plausible nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Along with his family he defected to the United States, evacuated by the American intelligence in November 1981.

The film is claimed to be “based on facts”. From the first scenes, when death sentence on Oleg Pienkowski is executed by throwing the spy into the furnace (in fact the was killed customarily, by being shot at the back of his head and the “burning alive” execution is admitted to have been a myth), to the last scenes in which one of Mr Kuklinski’s sons dies in a traffic accident, being pushed off the road by a huge truck (in fact he was run down several times by an SUV with no number plates in university campus), the film departs from facts or is very likely to include overt fiction. Who can reliably confirm Brzehnev, after a phone call from Jimmy Carter, instructs marshal Kulikov to desist from plans of invading Western Europe? At best in many moments the film is based on conjectures or one-person assertions, taken for granted without third-party verification.

As Adam Krzeminski rightly points out in the recent issue of Polityka, the film is intended to leave no room for doubts or moral reflections. Mr Kuklinski’s treason (objectively judging, no matter what you thought of communist Poland’s degree of its dependence on the Soviet Union, he breached the military oath, sworn in 1947, in which subjugation to the Soviet Union was not mentioned) is fully justified and is worshipped. Actually the purpose of the film is to glorify the controversial person of the colonel and although the film will not make those who think he is a traitor change their mind, but for those who know little about the most famous NATO’s spy in communist Poland, the one-sided film will help shape a positive opinion about Mr Kuklinski.

Those who accuse Mr Kuklinski of treason claim no matter how lame the Polish country was at that time, duty of loyalty was still owed to it. In the film, Mr Kuklinski (the entire plot is a retrospect to his interrogation by Polish prosecutors in Washington in 1997) in an interview excuses himself by saying all the documents he had passed on to Americans pertained to Warsaw Pact and not Poland, hence he betrayed the Warsaw Pact, not Poland. It only takes to watch the film until the end to find out this excuse was untrue – information on preparations to martial law in Poland were internal documents of Polish army and internal office, the very martial law was not a Warsaw Pact operation.

Apart from worlds-apart view’s on Mr Kuklinski’s collaboration with the CIA, there are plenty of understatements, myths and unanswered questions regarding the biography and doings of Mr Kuklinski. Some of them are listed below. Please note facts are separated from my private opinions and other people’s opinions and asked questions mean what they mean in plain English, no need to read between the lines, nor scratch beneath the surface.

1. If Mr Kuklinski knew in advance on the planned imposition of the martial law in Poland, why did not he, nor the US intelligence let the Solidarity movement know about it, to let the dissidents better prepare for the clampdown?

2. Mr Kuklinski was said to live beyond his means long before he began spying for CIA. He earned a lot in Vietnam, but declared to have spent it for a Western car. His wealth was suspicious for his fellow army officers of similar rank, whose financial status was incomparably lower. The unclear source of Mr Kuklinski’s wealth is also mentioned in the film. But how come no one in Polish army’s commandership bothered to look into colonel lavish lifestyle, when according to procedures all persons having access to confidential information should have been closely screened out?

3. For Soviet comrades, Poland was just a satellite country, an inferior republic. Moreover, the Soviet empire of evil and relationships between its chief functionaries were founded on anything, but trust. Bearing this in mind, is it conceivable that Mr Kuklinski, an officer from the most subversive country in the Warsaw pact, could have been granted access to most confidential documents of the Soviet army, or mostly to those related to Poland?

4. During the almost 10-year espionage, Mr Kuklinski was caught red-handed photographing secret documents (this scene is shown in the film), but he got away with it, the report on the dubious situation somehow vanished into the air. In 1981 (also underlined in the film) it was pretty clear there was an American spy in the commandership of the Polish army and all evidence tipped at Mr Kuklinski. At some moment it became clear for everyone he was a traitor and no one bothered to take steps detain him. Even after his defection no one’s head rolled. Lack of reaction among the Poland’s highest-ranked army officers appears daunting.

I deliberately refrain from asking explicitly whether Mr Kuklinski was a double agent, i.e. whether he also spied for Soviets. Given abundance of arguments supporting such hypothesis, coming also from right-wing oriented, or even IPN-affiliated historians, it should not be disregarded. More on such possibility in a series of articles from “Przegląd” weekly here (part 1, part 2, part 3). I do not mind the leftist orientation of the magazine; the articles are informative, often precisely cite sources of information, ascribe statements to specific persons, although I would prefer to see it with more precise footnotes and extensive bibliography at the end, so that a reader could double-check accuracy of ample information these excerpts convey.

Poland sometimes looms as a peculiar country. Is there any other nation in the world that would hail a foreign country’s spy a national hero, as the Polish parliament resolved last Friday? I would hazard a guess in all jurisdiction espionage is a serious crime, subject to severe punishment. In 1984 Mr Kuklinski was in absentia sentenced to death, upon regaining independence the sentence was converted into 25 years of imprisonment, then, in 1997 he was vindicated. Was not it enough?

The squabble between right-wing deputies and their left-wing opponents which took place on Friday in the parliament reflects one of divide lines in the Polish society, not only concerning the assessment of colonel Kuklinski’s deeds, but also the attitude towards what Poland was between 1945 and 1989. Some claim in that period Poland was a Soviet Republic, others argue this was a dependent, lame country, being a part of the Soviet bloc, but still it was Poland, with all implications, including duty of loyalty and respect to one’s country. Stance towards political status of Poland between 1945-1989 is thus a starting point for assessment of Mr Kuklinski’s deeds.

Mr Kuklinski was a hero, but not Poland’s hero. He was instrumental for NATO in gaining the edge over Warsaw Pact and reinforced NATO’s position in case of military conflict between the two blocs and enfeebled Poland by revealing plans of its defence systems.

For me it is clear, unlike many assert, he did not act to the benefit of Poland. During the cold war, United States, nor NATO were not Poland’s allies. Poland for NATO was a part of its biggest enemy, the Warsaw Pact. If a military conflict had come to a pass, Poland would have been only worse-off on account of Mr Kuklinski’s espionage, because NATO strategist would have been better able to prepare plans of attacking and destroying Poland. If his activity could have had contributed to freeing Poland up from the Soviet dominance, I would concede there would be room for debate, but no Western country would have lifted its little finger to liberate Poland from the Soviet empire.

Giving credence to the tall story presented in the film that once Soviet comrades were informed NATO had learnt of Soviet’s blueprints to combative warfare, they immediately got scared and abandoned their plans is naïve. Putting down to Mr Kuklinski changing the course of world’s history is out of place. One man is not capable of doing so, mostly a spy from a hostile military bloc, who for CIA surely was not an implicitly trusted collaborator (as a contact from the hostile bloc he must have been handled with reserve)… Forces driving events in international politics are more complex and have many architects

Nevertheless, if you have not watched Jack Strong yet, I recommend you do so, for the pleasure of watching a decent political thriller.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Politics, Economy, Society – five years on

Having soldiered on as a blogger for half of a decade (fifth anniversary officially falls tomorrow), a tenure few can boast about accomplishing, I can dub myself an unfaltering blogger (blowing my own trumpet). Instead of posting some tedious musings on hardships and sacrifices in blogging, I decided to review all my posts tagged ‘predictions’ and ‘forecast’, to check, with hindsight, their accuracy. As the list below demonstrates, I was an active forecaster during first two years of blogging and then perked up in last quarter of 2013.

18 March 2009 – mentions forecasts of GDP growth in 1Q2009 of 0.5% y/y and encouragement to speculate against the Polish currency. In fact the Polish economy expanded by 0.8% and PLN hit its many years’ trough one month earlier.

25 March 2009 – makes a reference to BNP Paribas forecast of EUR/PLN conceivable reaching 5.40. It has not climbed to even 5.00 thereafter…

13 April 2009 – a bearish post, completely wide of the mark. My outlooks of stock market reverting to a downward trend vehemently have not fulfilled. 2009 witnessed one of the most vigorous bull markets in the history, largely driven by the scale of precedent decline (what goes down must come up) and flood of cheap money, pumped in by central banks.

24 April 2009 – IMF’s prophecies of doom have also not come to a pass, neither in 2009, nor later in 2012 or 2013… The Polish economy has not contracted in any single quarter.

4 August 2009 – again I expressed a bearish stance on the stock market, hoping for a correction allowing me buy stocks at cheaper price. In subsequent months stock market moved most upwards…

29 August 2009 – interesting to look back on the musings on shape of the 2008/09 recession in retrospect. In Europe, while the financial crisis is still not over (had the end of it been proclaimed, we would have to see different-than-zero interest rates) there was a double-dip recession, with the second bottom of W-letter touched at the end of 2012.

2 September 2009 – these bearish postings are getting boring. Yet, they reflect my key investment strategy I use until today. I wait for a local trough in corrections to buy up shares near lows and sell them a few weeks later with double-digit (in percent) profits. Predictably, the forecast was a miss.

14 October 2009 – no stock market tumble was observed, decreasing my hit ratio, but after the first early spell of winter, no snow was seen in Warsaw for 2 months.

16 December 2009 – here I was more successful – the stock market correction I waited for ensued in early February 2010, PLN generally appreciated against other currencies, Mr Bernanke was elected for his second term as CEO of the money-printing factory.

5 January 2010 – I mentioned a forecast of long and snowy winter. Generally it proved true. In January 2010 temperature dropped to –23C and in mid-February snowcover reached 53 centimetres in Warsaw. The last gasp of winter was felt around the half of March.

30 January 2010 – I estimated odds of failure of my bearish conjectures at 35%. Was much enough to prove me wrong.

5 February 2010 – post compiled on the second day of an abrupt stock market decline. Yet the guess the bull market was just a correction in a long-term downward trend was flawed.

19 April 2010 – I foresaw a crash on stock market, which in a soft version ensued three weeks later, in the wake of threat of Greek default.

6 November 2010 – makes a reference to reliability of long-term weather forecasts. Winter in 2010 was to hit early, while November 2010 was extraordinarily warm. The long-term forecast of winter 2010/11 generally proved right, except for late advent of spring.

13 November 2010 – here I mentioned what I had heard of a projections of super-crash in late 2014. It is too early to judge whether this forecast was correct, but I today I would not dismiss it out of hand.

19 January 2011 – bolstered up by strength of the Polish economy, I put too much faith in the Polish stock market. In the short-term indeed the Polish equities performed well and the blue chip WIG20 index peaked in April 2011 above 2,900 points, but then, in August 2011 plummeted and at the end of the year was well below expected 3,200 points.

2 October 2011 – another chance to confront long-term weather forecasts with reality.
- October was chilly – hit.
- November was generally cold, but not wet – partly hit,
- December was anything but frosty and dry – miss,
- January also neither very frosty, nor dry - miss,
- February instead of above-average temperature brought the longest cold snap since 1987, but its last days were balmy – miss,
- March was spring-like – hit.

1 January 2012 – contains a whole bulk of predictions for 2012:
- financial market were quite wobbly indeed – hit,
- fire in PIGS countries was put out, bondholders of Greek government debt had to take on board a loss of 53% of face value of securities they held, but Greece was not forced out of the eurozone – miss,
- winter did not stay mild and the lowest temperature was –23C rather than –16C – miss,
- in 2012 indeed Poland’s economy expanded slower than in 2011 and economic performance, measured by GDP growth, was worse than in early 2009 – hit,
- property prices kept going down – hit,
- no economic disaster struck us – miss, fortunately, albeit markets were very shaky and investors fearful in 2Q2012.

1 September 2013 – had a go at dream interpretation. In retrospect, what I thought could send misery on me, left no mark on me, I was not riding for a fall.

6 October 2013 – an extensive and informative (I dare to claim one of my best) post on prospects of the property market in Poland. 3Q2013 figures point at surge in demand and uptick in prices. I suspect we have to wait until data for 2Q2014 (to see a full year of upward trend) to judge whether last revival is just a temporary rebound, or the trend has sustainably reversed.

1 December 2013 – also to early to evaluate accuracy of the forecast. Second half of January 2014 saw a considerable correction on developed stock market, but clearly there are no reasons to speak about any crash. Needless to say, QE tapering might clamp down on the bull market that has lasted for five years.

I sadly and honestly have to admit my hit ratio over five years was low. I would justify my poor performance by psychological bias in forecasting. I envisaged what was favourable for me, not necessarily the scenario grounded in cogent economic reasoning.
I thank all the ardent readers of the blog for their endurance and patience. Take care!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Economics for masses

A shame economics is not widely taught at schools during the ‘general education’ stage. The high-school curriculum includes a course in ‘basics of entrepreneurship’, which gives brief overview of rudimentary economic concepts to teenagers, but attention the course receives from both teachers (who often deem it to be a ball and chain to do everything to tick it off) and students seems inadequate. The upshot is that understanding of economics among ordinary people appears insufficient.

Basic grasp of economics (as well as of any discipline, ranging from fine arts, through physics, ending on medicine) is essential to function well in the contemporary world and to understand how it all works. I do not posit an ordinary man should be familiar with all the concepts a first-year student of economics should know inside out to get a pass in courses in basic micro- and macroeconomics or finance. An average man should not learn by heart formulas, solve equations, nor drill down vague concepts. An average man should recognise some causations and be aware how some phenomena affect their own personal finances.

Command of basic economic principles, from what I have observed, gives you one ultimate benefit in life. If you are well-versed in economics, you are less likely to be deceived by other people. And those who are most likely to trick you come usually from three groups: politicians, journalists and self-styled financial advisors. Politicians tend to over-promise, but an economically literate voters should be able to assess whether the promises are affordable for the state. Journalists in Poland too often have too little notion on topics they write about, or do not carry out extensive research before spewing out an article, but economically literate readers should be able to distinguish substantive piece from a bullshit (pardon the foul language). Financial advisors are those who try to appear as wiser than you when it comes to managing your personal finances, while in fact they are just fee-oriented salespeople, who advise you what is good for them. An excellent example of a man who fell victim of their “advice” was a guy who in 2007 looked for a loan to buy a flat. Property prices at that time were sky-high, but paradigm that they will double over the next decade was still widespread and risk tolerance excessive. Prompted by a financial advisor, he took out a 110% CHF-denominated mortgage to finance a flat purchase for 400,000 PLN. The remaining 40,000 PLN he invested in aggressive investment fund at the peak of stock market bull market. In 2007 his assets equalled liabilities and stood at 440,000 PLN. After the financial crisis: value of his flat dropped from 400,000 PLN to 300,000 PLN, half of his contribution into investment fund evaporated, his mortgage debt, converted into PLN, mounted to 800,000 PLN. A few years later the guy’s assets were 320,000 PLN, while his liabilities were 2.5 times higher.

The approach in which you focus on outcomes of economic processes, without exploring details, is far too rare in today’s economic discourse. Those who propagate speaking about economics in simple words, intelligible for an average man, deserve the biggest accolades. Tadeusz Mosz, who departed last Wednesday, was one of such men. His TV and radio programmes have done a superb job in terms of promoting economic literacy among masses. He had his own unique style and his guests had to conform to it. In his programmes there was little room for economic jargon; meanders of economics were straightened out into plain language and outcomes were favoured over the workings. Mr Mosz was facing a huge challenge, since in economics “it depends” is the answer to too many questions. For example, if you ask, whether it is good for an average Pole, if PLN appreciates and bad when zloty depreciates, or the other way round, there is no straightforward answer. It depends on a variety of factors. And you can go on for hours about them… A mediocre economist could witter on about exchange rate movements and their whys and wherefores endlessly. A clever economist, appearing in Mr Mosz’s programme before audience made up of ordinary people, would have to squeeze the answer into a few straightforward, informative sentences in plain Polish.

For many months I have not followed Mr Mosz’s programmes. I would not be even able to tell you how long before his departure he had ceased to turn up on air. Some four years ago, as a student, I would follow his “Plus Minus” programme in TVP Info on day-by-day basis. I used to watch it, but I was not fond of it. As a student fascinated by complexity of economics and financial markets, I found the discussions moderated by Mr Mosz over-simplified, far over-simplified. I craved for splitting hairs, touching hearts of problems, while Tadeusz Mosz’s guests focused on what economic phenomena mean for ordinary people. With hindsight I see at that time I was out of his league.

Mr Mosz’s style of presence in the public discourse bears out, again, the paramount importance of linguistic clarity. To be an expert in a specific area, you need to have extensive knowledge, but to be an outstanding, widely appreciated expert, you must be able to share your knowledge with ordinary audience in simple words. The ability to convert intricate issues into plain language is the skill that ought to be fostered.

Tadeusz Mosz’s death came as a bolt from the blue. He had no makings of a celebrity, so no one could keep track of his struggle against cancer in gossip columns. For the last weeks he suffered in silence and passed away in silence, with dignity. His departure is a great loss for economic journalism in Poland, as I dare to claim no other journalist has done so much to bring economics closer to people and help them understand for it affects their lives. His work should be carried on, but is there any successor who could take it over?

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Growing mature?

At the Soulmate’s insistence, I finally re-watched “A beautiful mind”, the magnificent film I once had seen when it went to silver screen and I had been fourteen then. I only remembered I had been under the spell of the drama; nothing more. The second viewing, dozen of years after the first one, had all features of the first viewing. For the first hour of watching, I was promising myself to look up whether John Nash’s mathematical genius was indeed exploited U.S. Army agencies in the first years of cold war. Subsequent scenes passed by until I finally realised most of the plot I had witnessed were just John Nash’s delusions or a blend of reality and figments of the great mathematician’s imagination. Then ensued the gruesome depiction of him, fighting the illness.

The film is neither a faithful biography of Mr Nash, nor does it focus on his contribution to theory of economics. The big-screen interpretation of his biography leaves out some facts from his life (my point of reference is the wikipedia entry) and distorts others. It totally omits the story of having an illegitimate child before getting married, the divorce to his wife, as well as the fact they were not married in 1994 when he was receiving the Noble prize. The selective references to his academic achievements seem actually in place, given most of the audience have basic notion of game theory, economics and abstract aspects of mathematics and would actually get bored if the film dwelled on academic concepts.

The plot actually revolves around the theme of a hell a person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia goes through. I have no idea how much trouble the crew shooting the film had taken to explore perception of the world by a person afflicted by that mental illness, so I would not dare to assess the accuracy with which the delusion Mr Nash could have had, were presented. Probably even extensive studies on schizophrenia-affected mind and hours spent talking with psychiatrists specialising in the topic would just allow to produce a substitute, simplified picture of what actually goes on in ill person’s head.

The moment a viewer realises the events they have followed for the half of the film were just a delusion, comes as a shock. The scenes witnessed in the second half of the film emanate with torment afflicting a mentally-ill outstanding academic.

I wonder why has someone come up with this very and no other title of the film. What was so ‘beautiful’ in Mr Nash’s mind? The film might not depict truthfully the mathematician’s disposure, attitude towards the world and relationships with people and I should make allowances for it. But the picture of his personality which emerges from the film shows an outstanding academic whose grasp of complex mathematics and ability to describe interactions in the world using algorithms and equations are totally outshined by absolute lack of social competencies and conviction of his own superiority. According to the article dated 2002, when the film was nominated to Oscar Award, the film deftly passes over dark sides of Mr Nash’s biography, as in the reality his conduct was at best shameful. As the author points out, at the time of releasing Mr Nash was still alive and could sue film-makers for putting him in bad light, therefore they have filtered out all “sludge” (a perfect equivalent of Polish omnipresent word SYF) and have put out a rose-coloured, though poignant picture of a man trying to overcome the mental disease. In fact, Mr Nash was an exceptionally gifted, but full of himself mathematician, those talents were offset by social deficiencies. No mind over matter here for me and no sympathy for the devil.

Despite his ‘lousy character’, John Nash will go down in history as a Noble prize winner who has made considerable contribution into game theory. It has to be noted his exceptional intellect made him prone to mental illness which almost knocked down his career.

Recall the story of my classmate who once begged me to lend him money (I have not recovered until today)? Karol was also remarkably clever, therefore my first guess on why he had wheedled out thousands of zlotys from his friends was schizophrenia. Only later his mother told me he had fallen into compulsive gambling. But my general observation was spot-on – even his therapists confirmed due to his wits, curing his addiction was more complicated. I last called his mother in December 2012, she was very reluctant to talk me and only let me know he was still doing his time for unpaid debts. Watching “A beautiful mind” reminded me of his calamity. I wonder what and how he is doing…

Mother Nature when she endows people with competencies usually strives to be even-handed when giving out talents. Those generously bestowed with some skills lack other. The other story is that intelligence and emotional intelligence often do not pair up. A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in a meeting on talent development in my company during which someone asked a question, whether there can be any drawbacks of retaining most clever employees. Without second thoughts I responded: “A not really clever employee will do their job according to the rules and will not take the trouble to think how to circumvent them. A quite clever employee might be shrewd enough to come up with a way how to circumvent the rules, but if internal control systems are efficient enough, they will be caught. An outstandingly clever employee will not only circumvent the rules, but will also dupe the internal control system. Thus their misconduct might unnoticed and results might grow big until they blow up the whole company.” My not really well-thought-out (in the context of the meeting and its participants) was maybe politically incorrect, but I believe was actually spot-on. The more intelligent you are, the more dangerous you are. The history has proven this dependency right.

Drifting back from another digression to the pivot of this post, I posit one should sometimes grow up to fully grasp content one is exposed to it. This spans from understanding purports of books, films or dramas to taking part in religious celebrations. My reception of “A beautiful mind” differs from impressions the film made on me in 2002. The same happened recently when I read George Orwell’s 1984 for the second time, while the first time was in 2006.

Recently I repeatedly asked myself a question whether familiarising young people with some stuff should not be deferred. Two months ago I went to a theatre to see an enjoyable, hilarious, play. Most of the audience were teenagers (aged approximately 16 who came as organised school group) who most of the time would burst out laughing, giggle, whistle or shout something towards actors. Oddly enough, shortly thereafter I read a letter from a reader of Gazeta Wyborcza, who experienced even more scandalously behaving youngsters in another theatre. I am of the opinion sensitivity to high art should be instilled into young people before it is too late, especially because not everyone’s parents care about this aspect of child’s development, but should such occurrences be the price to be paid?