Saturday, March 8. 2014
I rarely pay any attention to news when I travel, and my recent trip to Florida was no exception. When I left I was vaguely aware of violently repressed anti-Russian (aka "pro-West") protesters in Ukraine, but when I got back to Wichita the table had flipped with Ukraine's Prime Minister (democratically elected, as best I recall) ousted and exiled to Russia, while a new "caretaker" government had taken over and was, in turn, violently repressing pro-Russian (aka "anti-West") protesters. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in turn, had become very upset, and intervened militarily taking control of the Crimean peninsula -- with an invite from the regional government there, and aided by the fact that Russia already had a substantial military presence in Crimea.
As usual, outsiders see events like this through their pre-existing lenses, which in the US mostly means the relics of the "Cold War" -- the anti-Communist ideology that drove America's security state to seek worldwide hegemony. The issue is no longer economic: Russia adopted a particularly brutal form of privatized capitalism following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but remained more/less isolated from the neoliberal international system, and after Putin came to power resumed thinking of itself as an autonomous regional (if not world) power. Meanwhile, neocons in the US shifted their focus from economic to military hegemony, seeking to contain and marginalize any nation that had not aligned itself under US military command.
As such, they were more focused in extending NATO -- which with the end of the Cold War seemed to have no reason for continued existence -- through eastern Europe to the former SSRs than they were interested in pushing economic integration. Russia, quite reasonably, regarded such efforts to expand NATO as a challenge to its own autonomy. The Ukraine has turned out to be a focal point in this US-Russia struggle because popular opinion there is closely divided between pro- and anti-Russian factions, with each able to draw in foreign alliances by catering to the prejudices of Moscow and Washington. That, in turn, results in overreactions by all parties.
I was thinking about doing a piece collecting various links, but one article stands out: Anatol Lieven: Why Obama Shouldn't Fall for Putin's Ukrainian Folly [March 2]:
Many Americans are so fond of zero-sum games that they assume any "serious geopolitical defeat for Russia" is a net gain for the US -- a sense reinforced by sixty years of unrelenting Cold War propaganda. That's very foolish: a crippled Russia is more desperate and dangerous, more estranged from international norms, and more likely to provoke worse behavior from the US -- a superpower with a notoriously weak sense of international law, scant appreciation that such law holds the key to a stable future, and none that Americans might actually benefit from some constraints.
The neocon notion that a superpower can impose its vision of how political economies should work on foreign peoples has proven to be a disaster, most obviously in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US spent so many billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of soldiers. That lesson hasn't sunk in, least of all for morons like John McCain, who was so eager to send troops to defend Georgia in 2008, but at least those currently in control recognize that American power is limited -- in particular, an army that can't manage a few thousand Taliban has no itch to take on nuclear-armed Russia or China.
Still, the Obama administration hasn't done much to reassure us of its sanity. They've moved token armed forces into position close to Russia. Secretary of State Kerry has pushed for economic sanctions against Russia -- "war by other means" but still hostile with an aim toward crippling -- while his predecessor, probable future president Hillary Clinton, has absent-mindedly likened Putin to Adolph Hitler. (The problem isn't just historical. The US waged total war against Hitler, insisting on nothing short of unconditional surrender. When Bush I painted Saddam Hussein as "just like Hitler" he set up an expectation for victory that his 1991 Gulf War couldn't deliver, a shortsightedness that Bush II felt the need to remedy in 2003.)
One more point: intervention, and its ill effects, didn't start with Putin seizing Crimea. It goes back to when the Ukraine became independent, split off from the Soviet Union, with NATO expansion a particularly aggressive move by the US. Moreover, apprehension and bad blood wasn't inevitable after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the main ways the US irritated Putin was the program to install a US-controlled anti-missile defense network in Poland during the Bush II years. This should remind us all once again: conflicts don't begin with war; rather, war is the shameful and disastrous failure of parties to solve conflicts before they get out of hand.
Sunday, January 26. 2014
At some point during the past decade I came to the conclusion that the single most important economic, political, and social problem we face is growing inequality. The problem it supplanted, preeminent in the 2000s, was war: in particular, the use of armed force to impose a "world order" that was short-sighted and injust. Needless to say, that problem is still with us, but it's faded a bit as all those wars have turned into futile quagmires. Before that, in the relative normalcy of the 1990s, we had the luxury of worrying about more chronic problems, like the long-term effects of anthropogenic climate change and future limits on natural resources -- problems we still face, of course. One could even make a case that all three of these big problems are related: on all three politicians, at least in the US, tend to split the same ways, even though one can construct sound arguments why conservatives should be wary of war and environmental disaster.
On the other hand, the very definition of conservatism -- the political ideology devoted to the preservation of the social order as dominated by whoever is richest at any given time (at various times: the landed aristocracy, slaveholders, merchants, industrialists, financiers) -- both assumes and promotes inequality.
Most conservative arguments reduce to a simple pattern: if we let X happen, we'll start down the slippery slope to communism, socialism, or some such terminal condition -- most of which actually define their goal as a fairer and more equitable society. Which is to say: once you get past the scare words you wind up debating the real question. David Brooks, of course, has no desire to argue that vast inequality is the just order of society and the masses should just buckle under and get used to their lot. As someone practiced in the art of arguing against people's better interests and nobler desires he seeks to obfuscate and confuse the issue, then blame it on someone else, then propose fixes that wouldn't work in the very unlikely event that they were ever tried.
I'm going to do something I haven't done before and quote Brooks' column, The Inequality Problem, in its entirety, stopping every paragraph or so to make some observations.
What Brooks means is that "suddenly" people like the US President and the elites at Davos are talking about inequality -- people Brooks takes seriously, people of his world. Needless to say, those people, like Brooks, have been a little slow on the uptake. Income inequality has been around forever, but it was considered less of a problem up to about 1980 because incomes from the 1930s into the 1970s, at least in the US, had been trending toward less inequality, and the purchasing power of most incomes had been increasing. Poverty among the elderly, for instance, was largely eliminated by Social Security, introduced in the late 1930s, and the socalled "war on poverty" programs started in the late 1960s at least initially -- until conservatives like Donald Rumsfeld started running those programs -- reduced residual poverty.
From 1980 on, coincident with the rise of conservatives with the Reagan administration, income inequality grew, and by the end of the 1980s the trends were clearly documented. The most obvious case, much commented on at the time, was a shocking increase in CEO compensation relative to average wages. This was accompanied by a wave of leveraged buyouts, the result of lax regulation of financial institutions and the more general "greed is good" culture that the Reagan administration encouraged at every opportunity. Reagan's marginal tax cuts were one such signal. Another was his crushing of the air-traffic controllers union.
Brooks specifies income inequality rather than wealth inequality, which is much more extreme. Ferdinand Lundberg wrote a classic study of the accumulation of wealth in 1937, America's Sixty Families, then updated it, finding little changed, in 1968 as The Rich and the Super-Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today. The list of billionaires Forbes celebrates each year has become a bit more volatile with new money made from high tech and financial scams, but the concentration of wealth has if anything become more extreme. And the division has become so extreme that in 2008 Occupy Wall Street popularized the notion that a line separates the top 1% from everyone else: that the underclass today is 99% of the population.
As for "confusing matters more than clarifying them," that, as you will see, is Brooks' mission, starting with the next line:
Brooks' first obfuscation is his expansion of the haves to the upper 5% of incomes from Occupy Wall Street's 1%. The threshold for the top 5% of incomes was $161,000 in 2012, versus $394,000 for the top 1%. Between 1% and 5% you get into well-paid professionals and small business owners -- well-to-do, for sure, but hardly filthy rich (unless they inherited it). But the real inequalities only grow in the top 1%, so much so that Paul Krugman has suggested we focus only on the top tenth, the 0.1%, where incomes start around $1.9 million and go way up from there. Emmanuel Saez has calculated that 95% of all the income growth since the "recovery" began in 2009 has been snapped up by the top 1%, and two-thirds of that by the top 0.1%.
The bottom 80-90% of Brooks' top 5% may indeed make their money the ways Brooks enumerates, but the very top have different means: with overvalued equity in corporations and/or through the financial transactions that overvalue that equity. (CEOs make most of their "compensation" through stock options, so they gain by this process both coming and going.) This results in a series of bubbles and busts, but as long as the political fundamentals remain strong -- as long as labor markets are too weak to claim a share of productivity gains, as long as antitrust enforcement is too weak to curtail monopoly, as long as regulation is weak and tax enforcement limited -- companies will prosper on paper, even if they wallow in debt, with the rich getting all that much richer.
Since 1980 incomes for the bottom 80% have remained stagnant, and since 2000 they have lost ground. Brooks, like all conservatives, wants to blame this on the "losers," as if, for instance, CEOs had nothing to do with "the disappearance of low-skill jobs." There is no doubt that getting more education and a stable marriage helps individuals to improve their lot, but it's pretty incredible to assert that an increase in dropouts and broken families since 1980 has reversed a trend toward greater income equality under liberal governments from 1933 to 1969 (or later if you're soft on Nixon -- something I can't quite stomach).
Nor is there any real shortage of unskilled jobs these days. They are less likely to be in manufacturing or agriculture, and more likely to be in services, but what distinguishes them isn't the skill level: it's the pay. And wage levels are down almost exclusively due to political pressures. Raising the minimum wage -- a purely political act -- would help, and bringing back unions strong enough to negotiate with management would help even more.
The economy is not necessarily a zero-sum game. Some businesses, for instance, actually make things that are worth more than the sum of their costs, and those businesses -- their workers, their skills and the technology they employ -- produce added wealth ultimately for the economy as a whole (although who benefits from that wealth depends on the relative power of workers and management, and that approximates a zero-sum game). Other businesses just redistribute goods, and this can also make them more valuable. But there are other businesses which just redistribute costs: they are zero-sum or worse, although they may pretend to add value by inflating assets, creating a bubble which appears profitable until it collapses. A typical example here is what private equity firms do: buy a company at an inflated price, paid for by burying the company in debt; sell off pieces, cut costs elsewhere, and pocket tax breaks; resell the company, preferably to a firm expecting to repeat the cycle. The real effect here isn't to build a productive company but to tear one down by stripping it of its value.
Many financial schemes wind up being cases of the rich screwing the rich -- the 2007 collapse exposed cases of banks knowingly selling worthless securities to supposedly cherished customers -- but there are ways ordinary folks get hit too: their "professionally managed" retirement funds are easy game; they put pressure on many companies to cut jobs and labor costs; they help form near-monopolies which help to drive up prices. And they support politicians who help them save on taxes and regulation, creating even more returns for their predatory practices.
There are two reasons for the minimum wage. One is that it sets a minimal social standard about the value of work within the context of human life. Basically, if a job isn't worth paying minimum wage for, it isn't something humans should have to do. Secondly, it puts a limit on the relative power of employers and employees. A nation which values its citizens will insist that they be paid decently. Conservatives hate the minimum wage because it limits the ability of employers to bully their employees, and because they generally regard employees as loser scum they feel entitled to abuse.
One can argue further that the minimum wage should be at least the minimum amount it takes for a single parent to support a family above the poverty level. There is no sense in which the current US minimum wage satisfies that requirement. One may fix that by raising the minimum wage, by raising a wage alternative like the earned income tax credit, by reducing the costs of living in other ways -- e.g., through subsidized housing, food, education, health care, etc. -- or by some combination of these. One should take note that subsidies for low-wage workers are effectively subsidies for low-wage employers, which may seem distasteful, but only through subsidies can one even out variable factors like number of dependents.
Like so many right-wing pundits, Brooks cheerfully cites studies with minimal attribution and qualification, with a high likelihood of having been churned out by conservative "think tanks" that are little more than ideological publicity firms. However, even if his data that most minimum wage workers are merely supplementing the incomes of non-poor families, that proves nothing more than that he doesn't understand my first paragraph here: that the minimum wage has to do with the dignity of work -- teenagers shouldn't have to work under abusive conditions even if their parents are adequately paid -- and that the minimum wage is a lower boundary condition: it should be set high enough so that no working person should be denied a decent standard of living (at least within a nation's means).
Also note that changing the minimum wage, even doubling or tripling it, would have virtually no effect on the broader question of equality. It is merely a lower boundary: it says a lot about a nation's sense of decency, but has virtually no power to change the median or balance the spread of the incomes above it.
It's hard to believe that even Brooks wrote that first line with a straight face. Recall that the current minimum wage is set well below what most families need to be self-sufficient and out of poverty. No doubt some suffer from not being able to get 40 hours of work a week, but some work considerable overtime (probably not paid as overtime, as it is scattered across multiple jobs) and are still not able to escape poverty. Brooks is trying to argue that the fix for their problem is to give them more hours of underpaid work. Clearly, by any standard of decency, they are not being paid enough for their work.
Sorry to interrupt Brooks before his big punch line, but there is a lot to slog through here. These correlations are all true to some not-very-important extent, but the net effect (and most likely the sole intent) of choosing them is to blame the poor for their poverty. To pick out a similar truism on the other side, there is a very strong correlation between inheriting a fortune and making lots of money. (I'd invite Brooks to re-run his examples on a sample of heirs, so we can get an idea of how pregnancy, divorce, dropping out, drug abuse, etc., have on people who start out with a thick cushion of money.)
And from a policy standpoint, I have to point out that a viable alternative to single motherhood is abortion, and that blocking that option both punishes women and adds a drag on the economy. That many people who drop out of high school aren't too dumb -- they just didn't fit in (I'm an example). De-industrialization may be a problem, but but it's hard to see it as a character flaw -- except perhaps of the MBA/CEO class. And I have to wonder whether "engaging in behaviors that damage their long-term earning prospects" isn't a cheap shot at the Army, which may have been a decent jobs program during times of peace but has been an unmitigated disaster the last 12 years.
Aside from his confusion about cause and effect, not to mention his inability to distinguish dependent from independent variables when running a correlation, Brooks' third and fourth sentences are truthy enough. But the uncomfortable part he's permitting himself to ignore is class. It's true that class and money aren't exactly the same thing, but they correlate quite well, especially if you start from the beginning. In every example Brooks has cited thus far, more money would make a world of difference -- that single mother could afford childcare, that dropout could find a more suitable education -- and even more so the nurturance of an upper class environment. So perhaps the policy argument should be more than just money.
So much here we have to first turn it inside out to make any sense of it. Brooks asserts that we can only implement policy on a bipartisan basis, which gives the Republicans dictatorial control over policy, since they won't agree to any policy but their own. But the Republicans are a minority in Washington now, and are likely to become even more so if voters ever manage to figure out how much they are personally hurt by the party's slovenly allegiance to the 1%. So the first thing Brooks is trying to do here is to steer Democrats away from talking about the issue -- even as "the income inequality frame" but most of all, heaven forbid, as class.
Secondly, he's claiming that Republicans would be happy to do something about "the human capital piece" -- an obnoxious term for working people, reduced to the most miniscule cogs in machinery controlled by money. However, I haven't seen the slightest evidence of any such interest among Republicans -- not since George W. Bush conned Teddy Kennedy into his Trojan horse "No Child Left Behind" law, which did more damage to the public education system it claimed to be saving than would have happened had nothing passed. And that's now regarded as one of Bush's "big government" heresies, something no one in the party defends any more. Rather, all the Republicans seem to care about is cutting taxes, completely undermining safety net spending -- cf. their recent moves on unemployment compensation and food stamps -- and letting businesses run amok with fraud.
Brooks reaches a bit in his reading of the Democrats, but at least he acknowledges the notion that low wages are indeed "a problem caused by unequal economic power." Still, he misses an important linkage. The "human capital" he's so fond of -- education, although there's really more to it than that -- is only a means for individuals to move up the class hierarchy. Equalizing economic power, on the other hand, is the way to move an entire class to a higher standard of living -- promoting unions is one way to do it, using the government is another. (And, for what it's worth, I'm very fond of the idea of worker-owned companies, which is a private sector solution that moves beyond the conflicts inherent in union-management negotiations.)
Brooks, like most pro-business Americans, likes the idea of equal opportunity and eased mobility, because they leave the class structure and its attendant inequality intact -- they just shuffle the players. Clinton and Obama are in fact good examples of poor boys who worked their way up through the system -- by being very smart, of course, and working very hard, but also because they had unique talents for sucking up to the rich and powerful. They are, or should be, prime examples of the fabled American dream, but rank-and-file Republicans simply loathe them, and their rise coincides with the most ambitious attempt ever to close the American system: to make higher education inaccessible and unaffordable except to the upper crust; to dumb down lower education; to exempt inherited wealth and proprietors and push the tax burden down on the working class, who take home ever less for their toils; to shut down the nation's borders; and to manage the losers through a complex system of jails, courts, and parole, making sure they can't vote.
Again, Brooks has no clue as to what causes what. Increasing inequality is the thread that runs through dozens of problems. It has multiple causes, some endemic to capitalism, but many of them are purely political. And even those that are endemic may be limited and rendered reasonably safe by political means, once we have the desire and clear thinking to do so. It's been difficult to mount a serious political movement around such a basic problem. I put a lot of the blame on the Cold War, with so much ideological and propaganda investment in demonizing communism and in whitewashing capitalism. Pace Brooks, before WWII large numbers of Americans intuitively responded to populist political campaigns, and if they failed to achieve power, it was usually because liberal reforms blunted the people's direst complaints -- the New Deal being a prime example.
I won't try to prove this here, but there must be much better ways to express the truths that surround the boring statistics documenting increasing inequality. When that happens you'll start to see some real movement on this issue. It is, after all, a profound issue, at the very heart of the left-right divide. Our lives, our survival, hang in the balance.
Even though the column only ran in Wichita today, turns out I'm late to the bonfire. Here are some more links on Brooks:
Sunday, January 12. 2014
Charles Krauthammer wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post last week which was picked up by the Wichita Eagle. His title was New generation must confront anti-Semitism, but it had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. It was just a knee-jerk neocon reaction to a minor victory for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement against Israel's continuing occupation over and debasement of more than five millions Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This bugs apologists for Israel like Krauthammer because it shows that their propaganda is beginning to lose its grip in America and Europe. Krauthammer doubles down with this amazing paragraph:
Israel has no constitution, nor any fundamental guarantee of free speech or freedom of religion, and its courts, far from being "fiercely independent," rarely act to restrain the most extreme abuses of state power. Israel classifies its citizens, granting many exclusive privileges to those who are Jewish, and dividing up its Palestinian subjects into various classes based on where they live. Most of the latter have little freedom of movement, have limited economic opportunity, and are subject to arbitrary arrest without charges or due process. Worse still, they are constantly subjected to the threat of violence, and often, almost randomly, to its actuality, and not just from the various armed forces of the state but from ad hoc groups of Jewish citizens, who are rarely restrained and almost never punished for their transgressions.
Krauthammer tries to defend Israel by pointing to crimes of other countries, such as Syria's recent use of "'barrel bombs' filled with nails, shrapnel and other instruments of terror." Hard to see how that in any way exculpates Israel's air force for using white phosphorus munitions during its 2008 attack against Gaza. But Israel's affront to human rights goes far deeper than the inevitable atrocities of its numerous avoidable wars. In 1948 Israeli forces obtained a substantial Jewish majority population in its territory by driving over 700,000 Palestinians into refugee camps, and secured that majority by refusing to allow any Palestinian refugees to return to their prewar homes.
In 1951 Israel extended citizenship to those Palestinians who remained as a minority in Israel, making Israel in principle a nation of its residents, but in reality non-Jewish "citizens" of Israel were second-class, subject to military rule (until 1967) and discriminated against in numerous ways ever since. However, in 1967 Israel attacked Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and seized substantial territories from each. Contrary to international law, Israel moved to settle and in some cases to annex the occupied territories, but in no case has Israel offered even nominal citizenship to its new subjects. As such, Israel ceased to be a nation belonging to its residents and became a state allowing one ethnographic class (Jews), with a semblance of internal democracy, to dominate, control, restrict, denigrate, and oppress its larger population.
Europe and America have long been sympathetic to Israel. They have provided vast support, especially military, which has helped Israel to persevere and to emerge as the preëminent power in the region. It's easy enough to understand why Americans, in particular, have been so enamored with Israel, but it's gradually dawning on many Americans that the regime in Israel has become deeply inimical to the principles and ideals our country was founded on and has long, publicly at least, aspired to. (In practice, America's treatment of its own native people and the long-term persistence of a racial caste system, is one thing we have in common but would prefer to think we've overcome.) Israel's propagandists get so agitated when their system of control over Palestinians is likened to South African Apartheid because they realize that history isn't on their side. Same thing with BDS, which most people associate with the struggle for equality in South Africa.
There's no doubt that sanctions can go too far. Japan, for instance, only attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 (and invaded Indonesia) after the US shut off oil supplies. Israel's own attempt to impose "a diet" on Gaza led Hamas to launch its toy rockets into Israel. Some people, like Noam Chomsky, have opposed BDS not because they don't understand how inimical Israel has become to human rights but because they fear driving Israel to some sort of violent paranoid fit. Readers of Max Blumenthal's new book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, which focuses on the extreme right in Israel and the inroads they've made on mainstream Zionist thought, will be all the more nervous in this account.
But I see two reasons why I think BDS will have a positive effect. The first is that it sends a message, or actually two: one is that the propaganda isn't working and we can see through the unfair behavior. The other is that continuing that behavior has tangible, even if not especially damaging, consequences. One big reason the right wing in Israel has gained power over the last decade is that they've managed to convince voters that no one in the west would ever push back when Israel imposed its will on the Palestinians, and left-center parties have pretty much acquiesced to that argument. BDS shows both sides that there are tangible costs now and potentially greater costs in the future, and that will help the center-left to counter against the self-destructiveness so well described in Blumenthal's book.
The other reason for pushing BDS now is that it's something small groups can do well short of gaining political power. We're a long ways from being able to turn the US government around, but the ASA -- the American Studies Association, the group Krauthammer is railing against ("an exercise in radical chic, giving marginalized academics a frisson of pretend anti-colonialism, seasoned with a dose of edgy anti-Semitism") -- is a much more practical forum, yet still one that sends the message.
Is supporting BDS anti-Semitism? The only people who see it so are those who equate the state of Israel with the Jewish people, and even then they're hard pressed to find any evidence of anti-Semitism other than a critique of the abuses of power by the armed state of Israel and its chosen people. If such people really had any concern about anti-Semitism, they wouldn't insist on equating Jews with Israel, let alone with Israel's involvement with occupation, domination, and wanton violence. But true believers in Zionism have always depended on anti-Semitism: it is the force that drives Jews to flee to Israel, the force that justifies the need to live apart from the world, the force that fuels their revenge fantasies. And if often seems like the only way they can carry on is to invent more of it.
One irony here is that Jews in the diaspora have been in the forefront of local and international movements for liberalism and socialism, for personal freedom and for social justice -- a stance which drives them increasingly to question the behavior of the Israeli state and people. The few Americans who are aware of how distorted and dehumanizing life has become in Israel, especially in its settlements and occupied territories, and who still insist on championing Israeli militarism to the hilt are on the far right here -- fascists like Krauthammer, and highly disingenuous ones at that.
Ariel Sharon, né Scheinermann, died yesterday, at age 85, although he had been incapacitated by a stroke and coma since 2006, making his earthly departure something of a non-event. Possibly the single dumbest thing that George W. Bush ever said was when he described Sharon as a "man of peace." Sharon's own autobiography, which came out about that time, was titled Warrior. He was intimately involved in every Israeli war and nearly every border skirmish and retaliatory atrocity since 1948. In 1951 he led an Israeli commando force that demolished the village of Qibya, setting a standard for flagrant abuse of power that continued unchecked until he embarrassed the IDF during the Sabra and Shatila massacres in his 1982 Lebanon War and was removed from his post as Defense Minister. After that, he worked to rehabilitate himself by promoting illegal settlements, finally became Likud party leader in 2000, wrecked the Oslo "peace process" and provoked the "Al-Aqsa Intifada," the excuse he used to viciously crush the Palestinian Authority. He was a showboating general, a flamboyant politician, a ruthless opportunist, and most likely deeply corrupt. Even when he made a step that might have led toward peace, such as his 2004 withdrawal of settlements from Gaza, he did it in such a way as to ensure that the conflict would continue. That Israel should forever be at war with everyone, not least with its own people, is his enduring legacy. It's not clear whether he would have been proud of that, but that was the only way of life he ever knew, and the only one he could stand living. He was far from the only one to have created that world -- in his youth he was devoted to David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan and benefited much from their favoritism -- but by the end he had come to personify and embody the wretched fruits of war.
Wednesday, December 11. 2013
A few recent items I thought notable:
Had I dug deeper, I could probably find links pointing out that the revolution that Nelson Mandela led in South Africa has not produced the full equality we hoped for. Part of the grand bargain that freed him from jail and advanced him to the presidency was to keep the economic system that had favored the white minority, as it continues to do to this day. Similarly, the extension of the franchise to blacks in the US has done little to redress the great imbalances in wealth we suffer here in the US -- that inequality, indeed, has only increased in the decades after the triumph of the civil rights movement. Still, both breakthroughs were (and are) real and irreversible. Those gains came to pass primarily because the injustices of the old systems became too visible not to ignore. That needs to happen with class as well.
[*] The main difference between Israel's and South Africa's versions of Apartheid: whites were never more than a small minority in South Africa (close to 10% when Apartheid fell), whereas the Jewish/Zionist population share in pre-occupation Israel was more than 80%, and is still more than 50% including the Occupied Territories (although it could drop to less than 50% if the Palestinian refugees were able to return). Control is largely a numbers game, which is a big part of the reason Israelis have been so preoccupied with promoting Jewish immigration and with ridding themselves of as many Palestinians as possible. Israel is also much more intensively militarized, so the controllers have more power and resources. And the Zionist labor movement developed the doctrine of "Hebrew labor" so systematically sought to free themselves from depending on low-cost Palestinian labor, whereas the South African economy was built on native labor, so the Afrikaners never had the option, much less the ability, to consolidate their political power by "ethnic cleansing."
Saturday, November 16. 2013
It isn't exactly surprising that Israel should want to sabotage the new round of talks between Iran, the U.S., and other major powers. Nor that they would employ their vast lobbying networks in the U.S., nor that this would bring out their most obsequious media flacks to the forefront. Still, it is downright shocking the extremes to which Cal Thomas went in his column Iran agreement shouldn't stab Israel in the back. He starts with a story about a 1994 promise North Korea made to ex-president Jimmy Carter to "close a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in exchange for food and humanitarian aid." He notes then that North Korea reopened the reactor, concluding that "Tyrants lie" -- without mentioning that the US failed to fulfill its end of the agreement, or that the US maintained a blockade and crippling sanctions, or that Bush dubbed North Korea a member of "the Axis of Evil."
Thomas goes on:
Thomas' argument here is not just a "big lie" -- it's based on a total fabrication. No such fatwa has ever existed, nor is any such "religious duty" consistent with any official Iranian position. Iran, like most nations -- judging from UN resolution votes virtually every nation except for the US and Micronesia -- disapproves of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, or Israel's refusal to allow Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars to return to their homes, and Israel's frequent aggression against neighboring countries. But Iran has also taken the position that it is up to the Palestinians to decide how to deal with Israel. Iran has gone beyond other nations in that they provide substantial military aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but thus far at least Hezbollah has only used Iranian rockets in response to Israeli bombing of Lebanon. (Nor have those rockets been very effective.) That is a far cry from a plan to "annihilate" Israel.
The revolutionary Islamic government in Iran has had many reasons over the years to be critical of the US, starting with the CIA-directed coup against Iran's democracy in 1953, the US alliance with the Shah and US training of the Shah's secret police, the US harboring the Shah after he was deposed, the US freeze of Iranian assets, the US role in supporting Iraq in its 1981-88 war against Iran, as well as various acts of American terrorism against Iran, such as shooting down a civilian airliner and attacking an offshore oil platform. The Iranian government hasn't always acted honorably, but since the Iraq war ended and Ayatollah Khomeini, who came up with that "Great Satan" rhetoric, died, it's been the US that has repeatedly rebuffed efforts by Iran to put relations on a less confrontational level.
On the other hand, Israel has frequently threatened to attack Iran. Israel supports the anti-Iranian terrorist group MEK. Israeli agents have murdered Iranian scientists. Israel has used cyberwarfare against Iran (evidently with US help). Israeli security experts openly talk about their hopes for "regime change" in Iran. And since the early 1990s, Israel has lobbied the US heavily to isolate and undermine the Iranian regime. The interesting thing about that last sentence is that Israeli-Iranian enmity didn't start with the revolution in 1979, with the ascension to power of Ayatollah Khomeini and his "Great Satan" rhetoric. Throughout the 1980s, Israel maintained a close alliance with Iran, shipping it arms, and actually intervening in the Iraq-Iran war in 1982 when Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor project site. Perhaps Israel's interest in Iran was cynical -- the hope that by supporting Iran they could weaken their closer enemy, Iraq.
However, after the US-led coalition defeated Iraq in the 1990 Gulf War Israel began to cast about for a new "existential" enemy -- a role that could no longer be plausibly imagined for any Arab state. Iran fit the bill for several reasons: first, the US still harbored resentment against Iran for holding its embassy staff hostage from 1980-82, so it was relatively easy to push American hot buttons; second, Iran's government explicitly identified itself as Islamic, which also raised some hot buttons with America's Christian right, even when none of the latter had any clue about the differences between sunni and shiite; and third, Iran had been fascinated with nuclear power starting with the Shah before ther revolution, and thanks to self-isolation and sanctions, they could only pursue nuclear energy by developing their own capabilities so it was easy to characterize Iran's program as intending to develop nuclear weapons. And, of course, the prospect of a nuclear-armed nation hostile or even merely opposed to the Israel -- populated by the residual victims of genocide -- and/or the US excited all sorts of paranoid fears. And recall that for the post-9/11 Bush administration, those fears were very useful for advancing their ambitions against Iraq, which was supposedly all about "weapons of mass destruction" -- e.g., Condoleezza Rice's taunt that "the smoking gun may be a mushroom cloud."
Problem was, in order to convince people that their fears were based on solid intelligence, Israel had to project a time frame for Iran's "nuclear programme" to come to fruition. In the mid-1990s, they cautiously projected that Iran was five years away from having the bomb. At various points after that, they even projected shorter time spans, but the fact is that 15 years after the Iranian bomb was due, it still hasn't been built. And when the CIA assessed its own intelligence, they concluded that Iran didn't have actual plans to build a bomb. Which, coincidentally, is what Iran's leaders have said all along.
Thomas' next ploy is to cite an anonymous item from "ynetnews.com" -- the website run by Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot. If he had a non-Israeli source, don't you think he'd use it? Conservatives love to quote the Wall Street Journal or New York Times not because they revere those papers as because they realize their reports usually look less fishy than "Rush Limbaugh says . . ." or "according to an anonymous tip reported by Drudgenet . . ."
Thomas ends up with a dubious historical analogy, concluding, "Roosevelt and Churchill were wrong about Stalin, and the Obama administration is wrong about Iran." Given that Obama's "go to" guy on Iran for most of his time in office has been Dennis Ross, the Obama administration has usually been wrong about Iran. But even if they're wrong now, you have to ask yourself what are they trying to do, and how does that compare to all the alternatives. If the goal is to keep Iranian maniacs from using nuclear weapons against Israel and/or the United States (or any other enemy they have, something Saudi Arabia is especially keen on being), then first of all you have the time-tested standard approach: Israel and the US have enough nuclear weapons to deter any Iranian plot by making it suicidal. (That approach, after all, deterred the Soviet Union, who as Thomas no doubt said dozens of times were a bunch of godless fanatics convinced that capitalism must die and that history was on their side.) It also wouldn't hurt if the Iranian people were given a better stake in the future, which is a reason for relaxing sanctions, normalizing relations, increasing trade and investment, and so forth. It's worth noting that the only communist nations that didn't democratize were the ones the US fought hot wars against and have nurtured grudges against: China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. Ill will only begets ill tidings.
Realistically, that should be enough, but given how wholeheartedly Israeli and American officials have swallowed their own propaganda, the concerned countries should work to establish greater transparency and more open review of Iran's nuclear power efforts. Iran is a member of the NPT, which commits them not to build nuclear weapons and not to aid in the proliferation of nuclear weapons. (Israel, by the way, is not, so if you want to look at renegade states bearing weapons of mass destruction, start there.) Under the NPT, countries such as Iran are still entitled to develop nuclear power, and some countries have done just that without ever considering a weapons program -- most notably, Germany and Japan. Iran is unusual in this regard solely because they are so isolated -- especially due to UN-supported sanctions -- and that produces unique dangers. One thing that we should worry about is whether Iran has access to the latest methods and equipment needed to make sure that their nuclear power plants are safe -- and that won't happen if we keep Iran isolated and force it to be self-sufficient. Again, the way forward here is through more openness and less hostility -- exactly the opposite of what Thomas is arguing for.
It is, therefore, easy to see that the path opened up in this new round of negotiations with Iran can lead to allaying Israel's (and America's) fears, and indeed of defusing one of the world's most dangerous hostile fronts. On the other hand, you need to look at Israel's approach -- which aside from sanctions, espionage, and acts of terror within Iran, might add military strikes to destroy Iran's physical plant -- and what its prospects really are. Bombs may do some damage, but they're most likely to drive the nuclear project ever deeper underground, into deeper security. Moreover, they'll drive more Iranians into believing that nuclear weapons are necessary to defend Iran against outside aggressors. Espionage and terrorism will only make Iran's government more closed and more paranoid, and they will invite Iran to do the same in turn. And sanctions again will impoverish Iran, encourage autarky, and a stubborn resolve to fight back.
It should be understood that Israel has its own reasons for making and maintaining enemies: the idea of external threats helps politically unite the Jewish population and keeps the military-industrial complex humming along, and the security issue distracts from the fundamental problems caused by the occupation and treatment of Palestinians. On the other hand, as Americans we have to ask ourselves whether fondness for Israel is really a good reason for the United States to let Israel decide who our enemies are and how we should deal with them. Certain elements of the US right-wing like the idea of letting Israel lead us around by the nose because they wish us to have the same degree of militarism and war-lust Israel has, but most people think that our "enemies" selected us, not the other way around. And so when a nation like Iran comes to us seeking peace and understanding, why should we reject them?
If you believe everything Cal Thomas says here, and buy into all the bogus historical analogies and suppositions, all he's really saying is that we can't trust Iran, so we should go to war with them now instead of waiting until they, like Hitler and Stalin, inevitably go to war against us. (Ignoring the fact that Stalin and his successors never did start that inevitable war.) Fortunately for us, Thomas is as wrong on his facts as he is ghastly in terms of morality. An agreement with Iran wouldn't "stab Israel in the back"; it would save Israel from making the worst mistake a nation could make.
Tuesday, October 29. 2013
From the start of hostilities in 1947 through the declaration of a borderless Israel's independence in mid-1948 and the subsequent war between Israeli militias and various Arab armies up to the signing of the armistices which established Israel's unhappy "green line" borders in early 1950, over 700,000 Palestinians fled their ancestral homes and/or were driven into an exile. Following the armistices, Israel's Knesset passed a series of laws determined to make the exile permanent: Palestinians who escaped the expulsions were granted what turned out to be second-class citizenship -- they lived under military law until 1967, and even today are denied opportunities afforded to Israel's Jewish citizens -- while those who left had their property expropriated and were denied any chance of returning to their homeland. Sixty-five years later millions of their descendants still wait in refugee camps, a stubborn obstacle to ending the conflict.
Many years later, Serbian military commanders in Bosnia coined an euphemism for genocide which has turned out to be a fair description of many historical events: ethnic cleansing. One way to effect ethnic cleansing was to kill everyone you wanted to get rid of. That was, for instance, Germany's response to the Herero rebellion in its Southwest Africa territory (1904-07, in what is now Namibia), and there have been many more examples, most famously the mass slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during WWI and of Jews by Nazi Germany in WWII. But the words "ethnic cleansing" also describe a case just short of genocide -- as a norm, not that murder is not a substantial part of the story -- namely, the forced exile of one ethnic group leaving a piece of territory more completely in control of some other group.
A classic example came out of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-22), which resulted in a "population exchange" as Greeks fled Asia Minor and Turks repatriated from Greece. Some examples were notoriously bloody, such as the British partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 (especially but not limited to Punjab and Bengal). Some were more efficiently managed, such as the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after WWII, but they've never been done without bloodshed and great hardship. An example from American history, the forced transfer of Cherokee and other Indian tribes to Oklahoma Territory in the 1830s, is remembered as Trail of Tears.
For a long time Israel denied responsibility for and evaded discussion of the expulsions. Benny Morris, in his 1988 book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, was the first Israeli historian to systematically document what happened, including more than a hundred massacres which set up a pattern of orchestrated terror. (Morris, by the way, has lamented that Israel didn't drive out even more Palestinians. For a more recent summary, see Ilan Pappé: The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.) Morris took pains to deny that the Israeli leadership had any "centralized expulsion policy as such," but there were at least two cases where David Ben-Gurion personally directed mass expulsions: the centrally located towns of Ramle and Lydda (population 50,000 or more in 1948).
Lydda and Ramle were Arab towns on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and the main airport in Israel-Palestine was adjacent to Lydda. After Ben-Gurion lobbied for UN approval of a plan to partition Palestine in November 1947, he began plotting how to expand Israel's allotment of the territory. In particular, the UN had kept Jerusalem as an internationally administered region rather than attempt to split it up, but he plotted to seize at least the western half of the city, and that meant he had to capture the corridor between his partition area and Jerusalem. (Israeli forces were only partly successful in this: they captured the cities in the valley but failed to claim the Latrun heights, which like their inability to capture the Old City in Jerusalem remained as a spur to future expansionist wars, an itch not satisfied until 1967, when Israel immediately annexed its most coveted territories.)
The reason I'm dredging up all this history is because I was struck by a passage in a new article on "Lydda, 1948" by Ari Shavitt in The New Yorker (behind their paywall). The article covers the Israeli military campaign to take Lydda -- Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin were leading officers there -- and the expulsion, with some background suggesting that Jewish-Arab relations in and around Lydda were relatively benign before the war. No real news there, but after noting that: "By evening, approximately thirty-five thousand Palestinian Arabs had left Lydda in a long column, marching past the Ben Shemen youth village and disappearing into the east," Shavit adds:
This whole paragraph is sort of a black box about Zionism -- what you get out of it is a reflection of what you put into it. It's easy enough to understand Ben-Gurion's tactical thinking in emptying Lydda and Ramle. He was in the midst of a war where the survival of the Israeli state was at great risk. He had to claim at least half of Jerusalem, and therefore he had to secure the path connecting Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. On that path were close to 70,000 Arabs, and in the hills above that path was the British-led army of Transjordan, his most formidable adversary. Expulsion was an alternative to occupation, and a relatively cheap one under the circumstances -- assuming, of course, that one doesn't have moral qualms about such things.
Ben-Gurion certainly didn't have any such qualms. When Britain's Peel Commission, in 1937, first proposed partitioning Palestine, they also proposed forced transfer of a small number of Jews and a much larger number of Arabs to create two ethnically cleansed states, Ben-Gurion was among the first to stand up and applaud. (The Arabs staged a revolt for independence from Britain and majority rule. When they were finally suppressed in 1939, the British tore up the Peel proposal and never brought it up again. It was Ben-Gurion pushing for partition in 1947, then going to war to secure and to expand his territories, and while no one spoke much of transfer, at least in public, it was deep in their minds -- and I might add it was all too common in fact, as can be seen by the mass violence in partitioning India and Pakistan, by the eviction of Germans from Eastern Europe, by the shift westward of the Polish border, by the massive displacements of the recently ended WWII.
But while it's easy to see the tactical value of emptying Lydda in 1948, and in retrospect it does look like Israel got away both with ethnic cleansing and with its persistent resistance against any return of its refugees -- a combination that shows that justice doesn't always prevail. Still, it's a rather deep and dark statement to see Lydda as something intrinsic to Zionism -- especially looking back from now, when the Jewish State has never been more secure. It's worth recalling that in the 1940s Zionism comprised a range of opinion, ranging from Jabotinsky's "revisionism" on the right -- Netanyahu's father was Jabotinsky's secretary, in case you've ever wondered about his bona fides -- to "cultural" Zionists like Martin Buber and Joseph Magnes whose vision for Israel included an accommodation that would allow Jews and Arabs to live within one state together. The idea that Zionism excludes the possibility of Arab-majority towns like Lydda and Ramle reflects the fact that cultural Zionists have been systematically excluded from popular memory in Israel. That forgetting is ultimately as poisonous as the insistence on drumming into every schoolkid a legacy of fatalistic Jewish heroes from Masada to the Warsaw Ghetto.
Ben-Gurion wasn't a moderate on this scale. He differed from Jabotinsky in his commitment to building the social institutions of the Yishuv, using them as his power base and recognizing that they provided a form for Jewish solidarity before a Jewish state became possible. But his commitment to "Jewish labor" was every bit as exclusionarily racist as Jabotinsky's terrorist militias. Ben-Gurion's great claim to fame was his pragmatism, which let him act ruthlessly while appearing to be reasonable -- in large part due to his remarkable insight into other folks' prejudices. Those skills helped him to use the British colonial administration to destroy his Arab enemies while undermining British rule. They helped him negotiate emigration from Nazi Germany. They helped him gained arms support at critical times from the USSR, France, and the US. They helped him negotiate reparations from Germany. But his compromises with the religious parties precluded development of a broader secular society, and his obsession with maintaining Israel's warrior spirit prevented him (and especially his successor, Moshe Sharrett) from gaining Israel legitimacy as a normal country.
So the view that Israel depends on an Arab-free Lydda (or Lod, as they call it now) should be viewed as a consequence of endless struggle, defined now (as ever) around ethnic cleansing. And if Lydda is key, what's to stop the call for an Arab-free Bersheba, Nazareth, or even Jerusalem? And Shavit, by celebrating Lydda as an essential event in the founding of his beloved Jewish state, leaves himself little defense against even more ethnic cleansing, ever more strife and struggle. It may be pointless to condemn past atrocities, but consecrating them is even worse: it's just a way of surrendering the future to a fate as dismal as the past.
Let me reiterate a bit. Shavit writes:
Or one can search for a different flavor of Zionism that would allow different peoples to live together in peace, or one could shift the import of Zionism into the past (the "post-Zionism" approach), or one could recognize that the mainstream of Zionism was profoundly racist and, given sufficient power, unjust, and try to chuck its dead weight off. By not doing any of these things, Shavit dooms himself to repeat history even though he is aware enough to know better.
Friday, October 18. 2013
I don't have time to write at any length on this, but I thought it was worth noting that the two front page articles in the Wichita Eagle this morning -- well, aside from two other articles about shootings, past and present -- were titled "Obama calls for end to partisan fake crises" and "Despite failed efforts, tea party hangs on." The former included a picture of the president next to a quote from him: "You don't like a particular policy or a particular president, then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election." Above that is the tag line, "Political climate must change."
The Eagle is a fairly moderate newspaper that tends to blow with the wind. Each year, for instance, they endorse more Republicans than Democrats, but that's partly because they overwhelmingly go with the incumbents: they like the establishment in large part because they are the establishment. So a big part of the takeaway here is that for now at least the Republican (or as they would put it the "Tea Party") efforts to shut down the federal government and to force a default on the federal debt were not only not appreciated but were regarded as downright dangerous. This makes sense, of course: there is nothing the establishment hates more than anything that disrupts business as normal. But they rarely come out and say that because they like to pretend that both parties are legitimate and sane, even though these days the Republicans show little evidence of it -- and in fact have used the respect accorded them by self-conscious moderates to move political language far to the right. At least today they're reminding us that the "Tea Party" has gone beyond the bounds of respectability.
One more thing I want to note on the "bipartisan" deal that solved the immediate crisis. Sen. Pat Roberts, who is up for reelection next year and is being challenged in the Republican primary from the right voted against the deal. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, whose primary opponent next year is critical of how hard she's turned to the right since winning in 2012, voted for the deal. Neither may think they have anything to worry about from the Democrats in 2012, but both are aware that the split within the Republican party could swallow them up.
Saturday, October 5. 2013
The Republican wrecking crew has got their way and forced a federal government shutdown. I suppose there may be a silver lining there, in that this should postpone the date at which the Republican resolve not to raise the federal debt limit forces the government into theoretical bankruptcy. You might ask why they're doing this. Back in the 1990s, when Clinton was president and Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich ran the Republican-dominated Congress, they tried to shut down the government and it was generally regarded as a political disaster. Republicans did manage to get some concessions out of Obama is a previous debt limit crisis, so they may still figure he's a pushover, but insisting on wrecking the Affordable Care Act just when many people have begun to understand what an improvement it is may have finally stiffened his spine.
There's a famous John Maynard Keynes line which goes:
So I suppose we could blame this on F.A. Hayek -- or, in the kiddie book version favored by "young guns" like Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand -- but I think the real source of Republican confusion here is a joke from Ronald Reagan:
Now, as jokes go, that's good enough for a chuckle, but as a factual statement it's just plain wrong, and as a worldview it's dumb and blind. The fact is, whenever something bad happens, the first resource people look for help from is the government. When you get robbed, you call the police. When your garage catches fire, you look to the fire department. When a tornado or hurricane or earthquake strikes, everyone looks to the government to manage the damage and coordinate the recovery -- even if you deal with a private insurance company, that company depends on the government to backstop its losses. When there's a drought, farmers may pray for rain, but federal insurance is more tangible. And then there are disasters that never happen because the government is there. Your bank deposits are secure because the FDIC insures them, and since you don't have to worry about them bank runs are a thing of the past. One can come up with hundreds of examples, even in a country as corrupt as the United States of America.
Reagan's joke was funny because it's true just often enough to get a nod of recognition. Sometimes government is self-serving -- Zaire under Mobuto was so much so it earned the label kleptocracy. Sometimes it is corrupt, so may work in someone else's favor at your expense. Some government workers are inept. Some follow rigid rules that don't really apply to the given situation. Some don't really understand the notions of public interest and public service. And sometimes when they do that they wind up siding against what you think of as your rights. So, in America at least, most people have had occasion to feel like the government has done them wrong. So they laugh along with Reagan's little joke. But they still look to the government for help when they need it. After all, they pay taxes and believe the government belongs to them -- not that some don't wonder when they see lobbyists paying off politicians, and not that some don't begrudge it when government helps people they don't much approve of.
But it's a big conceptual leap from understanding that sometimes government isn't as helpful as it should be to the position Cal Thomas recently expressed: Government incapable of making lives better:
Reading Thomas is likely to give you whiplash, as he counters strawman opponents who "believe government can solve every problem" with his insistence that government is not only incapable of solving any problem, that it cannot ever make lives better. His evidence? Mostly it comes from the Heritage Foundation, a "think thank" that sees everything through its peculiar ideological prism. So what if they've declared Head Start, food stamps, and social security failures? All that means is that those programs don't function to make the rich richer. If they don't make "lives better," that's because they're only concerned with the lives of the very rich.
On the other hand, it's easy to construct a list of things government has done that have made most lives better. The single thing that has had the most dramatic effect on life expectancy has been the construction of safe water and sewerage systems -- virtually all the work of government. Malaria, smallpox, polio are once prevalent diseases that have been largely eradicated due to public efforts. Pharmaceutical companies are enormously profitable today, but influenza vaccine is a government project, something the profit-seekers have little interest in.
Transportation infrastructure has largely been government work -- from subsidizing the railroads and building canals in the 19th century to the interstate highways and air traffic control today. Electric power from hydro and atomic energy has mostly been due to government support -- even if private companies profit, they stand on the shoulders of government investments. Fundamental research is mostly backed by public investment. The internet and most of its protocols came out of public research.
Strip away everything that government does in America and you'll go a long way of reverting to a hunter-and-gatherer society, with an economy that would be hard pressed to support 1% of the people living here now. Thomas may not appreciate this, but his corporate sponsors must know that without the government-regulated money supply and without government-enforced contract law their sainted markets could not exist: people would be reduced to barter, with no recourse against fraud. Such a world would be unthinkable, except in the narrowly ideological minds of people like Thomas.
This should be obvious, but we don't have to choose between government for everything and government for nothing: reasonable people will favor various mixed approaches for different things. The ACA -- supposedly the immediate target of the Republicans' extortion -- is in fact far short of a government takeover of the health care system. It doesn't nationalize the pharmaceutical industry nor the hospitals. It doesn't even eliminate private insurance companies. It just forces them to play by certain rules, the goal of which is to make sure that the insurance they sell effectively insures the people who buy it. Nor is such regulation of the insurance industry anything new: before ACA a number of laws already regulated insurance companies (without which the industry would be even more prone to fraud than it is). Still, ACA will help a lot: the key question being how effective it is at providing every American with health insurance. If everyone is covered, people will be freed from the fear of losing their coverage, of bankruptcy, of catastrophic losses, and hospitals and other "providers of last resort" won't need to charge paying customers for free riders. And full coverage will reinforce in people's minds the understanding that comprehensive health care for all is a right and not just a privilege of wealth. That, in the future, will lead toward reforming the system in democratic ways as opposed to the previous system of naked profit-taking.
So you should be able to see by now why the Republicans have targeted ACA. Ideologues like Thomas are just the froth on top of the current struggle. True conservatives don't want to "drown the government in a bathtub" (as Grover Norquist put it); they want to run the government and use it for their own purposes, mostly to help the rich get richer by any means possible, and to prevent everyone else from being able to use democracy to improve their lot.
Still, Reagan's joke has taken root among the small and bitter minds who habitually blame government for helping the downtrodden. Those are the people who applaud the shutdown, and are likely to keep applauding until they lose everything. They're a pitiful lot, and their shutdown gives us a taste of what happens when their wretched worldview becomes reality. (But only a taste: for now it's only the federal government they've shut down, and that only partially.)
Some links, starting with two more pieces from the Wichita Eagle (cartoon from Truthdig).
Krugman's earlier post, Aggressive Blunderers:
For more relevant Krugman, see his columns The Crazy Party and Rebels Without a Clue. Both are completely quotable, and show that he's even more worried about the impending default than the current shutdown. The latter ends:
Closing thought from Andy Borowitz's twitter feed:
And no, I don't follow Borowitz (or twitter), but now that I'm looking at it, I also see "Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I wish mental health care were as easy to get as, say, a gun"; "New Texas law requires voters to have ID with photo of white person"; and, combining those two thoughts, "Disturbed Man Slips Past Senate Security, Gives 21-Hour Speech." Sometimes it's easy to be funny; sometimes it's sad.
Wednesday, September 11. 2013
Twelfth anniversary of the late Osama Bin Laden's orchestrated attack on the big buildings of New York and Washington, but today that appears strangely overshadowed by the first anniversary of a gunfight at the "US consulate" in Benghazi -- actually, just a CIA station, but an ambassador on the State Dept. payroll was killed along with three other Americans. The Benghazi attack has become a major bugbear for Republicans for reasons that have never made much sense, at least until recently.
Initially, the major complaint was that the administration (specifically UN Ambassador Susan Rice) confused the armed attack with angry but peaceful demonstrations at other US embassies over a YouTube film trailer that was believed to be blasphemously anti-Islamic, and failed to use the proper codeword ("terrorist") to describe the attack. While Rice no doubt misspoke, Obama himself never missed a beat in using the T-word or in avowing all the time-tested V-sentiments from vigilance to vengeance.
This gripe then evolved into a more general complaint that the Obama administration had covered up the event, which is true inasmuch as they tried to deny the central role and presence of the CIA, both in Benghazi on that day and in Libya during the summer-long operation that overthrew Gaddafi -- one where Obama had promised a limited NATO-led air offensive and "no boots on the ground." Obama's people never understood an issue here: presidents always have to lie to protect their covert operatives, and besides, weren't the Republicans way more hawkish on Libya than Obama was? Certainly John McCain and Lindsey Graham were, and weren't they the GOP's Fearless Leaders on foreign policy?
Well, we now know that McCain and Graham are no longer representative of the party: they're just a pair of superhawks, dedicated to getting the US into jams practically no one else wants to get stuck with. One hint should have been that when Obama belatedly went to Congress for approval of his Libya intervention, the Republican-led House refused to consent. Of course, that didn't matter much at the time -- Obama had done what he wanted to do -- but over time it became clear that a Congress that hadn't bought into the war in the first place felt free to snipe at every little setback: hence, Benghazi.
That turns out to have been a big part of the reason Obama went to Congress before bombing Syria. Back in the 1990s when Clinton would bomb Iraq Republicans may have seethed in private but they were so heavily committed to bombing Iraq themselves that they couldn't raise an objection to the act. McCain and Graham are still around, but most Republicans have quietly moved on. For example, consider this letter by William Stout in the Wichita Eagle today:
This letter didn't come from anyone in the traditional "peace and justice" camp. I would have toned it differently, but I can't say that I disagree with a word of it (well, I'm not wild about "treason" but it makes sense in context). I have several very different reasons for reaching the same conclusion, but if this is the way you think about the world, at least you're no longer the problem. And even if not every anti-Assad insurgent in Syria is anti-American, a US attack on Syria will push enough Syrians over the edge to make the net effect anti-American.
Personally, I could do without the word "terrorist": not that it is never applicable, but I've seen it used so casually to dehumanize people who are merely defending their homes -- Robert Fisk's big book on Lebanon, Pity the Nation, is so full of such examples it gradually eats at the author until he himself explodes. On the other hand, the assertion about sacrificing "freedom and personal liberty" is spot on: the monstrous NSA surveillance program could only have grown in an atmosphere of perpetual war.
I'm even more struck by the Eagle's editorial, titled Casualties still mounting, which starts like this:
This, by the way, was written by Rhonda Holman, who invariably takes the right-wing view on the editorial board. The first point is the active noun in the first sentence: "al-Qaida terrorists drew the United States into war." The US was suckered into a war that only compounded the initial suffering with more and more, a war where we can take no comfort in knowing that others have suffered even more.
Twelve years ago that rush to war was automatic, unthinking, a conditioned response to our self-image as the world's sole superpower -- the culmination of 55 years of patting ourselves on the back for saving the world in the second World War, and never admitting that we had made a mistake along the way. Osama Bin Laden recognized that hubris and knew how to play on it. He knew that empires including the British and the Soviet Union had crumbled in Afghanistan, and figured that he could topple the United States by luring it into war there -- and as much as we hate to admit it, he hasn't been proven wrong.
But if you carefully read Obama's "bomb Syria" speech last night, you'll see how skillfully he pushes the same buttons that let us be driven into war in 2001, but you will also feel that they ring hollow. This is partly because his arguments are exceptionally disingenuous and his logic is tortured, but it's mostly because we're no longer excited by the prospect of more war. Given that poison gas is on the menu, I'm most tempted to compare this to the first World War, which began with jubilant parades and ended four-and-a-half years later with 21 million dead, with its survivors holding much more somber views of war. (By the way, poison gas fatalities in WWI are estimated at close to 90,000 -- less than 4% of military deaths. Its use was largely discontinued after that not because it was universally abhorent so much as because it wasn't very effective or manageable. It doesn't seem to have been used on civilian populations, where it would have been more effective.)
But to return to Holman's editorial for a minute, she goes on to make an interesting point:
I'm not sure what to make of this. It is at least relatively easy to see how the debilitating injuries and PTSD make one more likely to commit suicide. But absent those exceptional stresses, this also suggests that mentally troubled people are more likely to join the military and/or are more fragile when exposed to military culture -- it does, after all, celebrate killing even for those not on the front lines. But also the military has become a very peculiar form of safety net for individuals who lack civilian opportunities, yet the skill set it leaves veterans with is increasingly at odds with what the economy needs.
(David Finkel has a new piece in the New Yorker, The Return, on veterans with PTSD -- unfortunately, only online for subscribers.)
The Eagle today also featured a frequent columnist writing what turns out to be an antiwar column: Cal Thomas: Mideast mistakes likely to be repeated in Syria:
Now, Thomas is no genius. In fact, he's one of the worst columnists working in America these days. And he's got virtually everything wrong about Iran. Carter may have been somewhat sympathetic to early demonstrators against Iran's Shah -- who had by then become one of the most embarrassing despots in America's shadowy closet of dictator-allies -- but he did nothing to overthrow the Shah, and his sole contribution to helping turn what was initially a democratic revolution into a theocratic one was by making the US public enemy number one by inviting the Shah to enter the US. And, by the way, the Shah did too have a nuclear program, and was involved in proxy fights (albeit against Iraq, not Syria).
So it's odd to read a column about the importance of history lessons written by someone with so little grasp of his subject, but even Thomas understands that bombing people to send a government a message isn't going to have the intended effect.
Today's reading on Syria:
War in Context has a series of posts arguing that the Russian-Syrian plan to give up chemical weapons will work in Assad's favor. This seems to bother Paul Woodward, although not everything he runs seems to be rebel propaganda. (Woodward's own piece on "Why Syria was so quick to support the chemical weapons deal," which I linked to yesterday, is a useful summary of that point-of-view.) Right now, the biggest risk to the chemical weapons deal is that the US and other "rebel" sympathizers will sabotage it in favor of trying to force regime change.
Tuesday, September 10. 2013
Note: This post was substantially written before Obama have his big speech tonight. The speech reiterates his desire to bomb Syria, either to punish Assad for using chemical weapons (adding to the death toll of Syria's civil war) or just to remind the world of America's might-makes-right moral superiority (adding to the death toll of Syria's civil war). And he still wants Congress to rally behind his leadership and bless his right to bomb Syria, but he's going to hold off on that for a few days -- not so much because Congress was prepared to vote against his war mongering as because he's willing to give Russia and the UN a few days to wrap up a deal where Syria would give up its chemical weapons (although he still wants the UN to authorize him to bomb Syria if they don't do it to his satisfaction). Not that he actually needs anyone's permission to bomb Syria -- he is, after all, the Commander-in-Chief and he can damn well bomb anyone he pleases: "That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional." And, uh, "God bless the United States of America."
One reason I've been harping so much on Obama's failures to engage Russia (and Iran) over Syria is that a deal such as the one Putin proposed (and Assad agreed) to on chemical weapons has always seemed possible. The Obama administration is now trying to spin this as a victory for their sabre rattling (see White House Takes Credit for Syria's Apparent Concession), but the main reason they have for embracing it is that it gives them an opportunity to put off potentially face-loosing votes in Congress. However, in order for the deal to go through, Russia insists that the US withdraw its threats to bomb Syria -- how, they argue, can you get a state to voluntarily disarm while under threat of attack?. Already, the French have attempted to undermine the deal by tying it to a UN Security Council Resolution that would authorize force. (See Russia balks at French plan for U.N. Security Council resolution on Syrian chemical arms). I've also seen reports that the insurgent groups are opposed to the deal.
For an example of how little effort the Obama administration put into diplomatic efforts, and how strong their mental blinders are, consider this quote from the latter article:
Lucky for us that Putin, at least, was paying attention. Also that he recognized that chemical weapons were a matter of some ambivalence for Assad. Chemical weapons have never been very effective -- the few exceptions were mostly cases where they were used on people who had nothing comparable to fight back with, such as when the British used them in Iraq in the 1920s or when the Italians used them in Ethiopia in the 1930s. Nor have they been an effective deterrent against powers like Israel and the United States. On the other hand, their possession can be pointed to in propaganda, as the US did with Iraq and is doing now with Syria.
As far as I can tell, Syria developed chemical weapons thinking they would provide a deterrent against Israeli attack, maybe even offering a cheap balance against Israel's arsenal of nukes. A second reason may have been Iraq, at least back when Saddam Hussein had (and was fond of using) chemical weapons. Syria and Iraq were both Ba'ath Party states, but they had split in terms of what that meant, and were rivals for the leadership of the broader Ba'ath movement (Arab nationalism). Syria was so hostile to Hussein it became an agitator for the US-led Gulf War against Iraq.
But the Ba'ath rivalty with Iraq is long past, and it never was clear that chemical weapons did much to deter Israel -- which continues to bomb Syria periodically, but is unlikely to send its army into Damascus, not because it fears the Syrian army but because there are just too damn many Arabs living there. So there's little reason for Syria not to give up its chemical weapons. Indeed, there's the risk that rebels will loot them for use against the government. So for Syria this isn't a setback. If anything, it makes the regime appear more reasonable and legitimate.
Aside from France, some Syrian insurgent groups, and superhawks like John McCain, everyone else is pleased by this turn of events. One more quote from the article is especially interesting:
This is an interesting choice of words, not least because the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia -- probably the three largest per capita military spenders in the world -- habitually accuse Iran of being the one militarizing a "Shiite Crescent" from Iran across to Lebanon. Afkham's choice of words not only express approval for ridding Syria of chemical weapons, they open the door to further demilitarization in Syria and elsewhere. Also, the word "resolve" is significant: the civil war could go on indefinitely without chemical weapons, but that doesn't seem to be Iran's intent or desire. We should look at this as one step of several toward a resolution.
It seems essential to me that there should be a ceasefire while the chemical weapons are being inventoried and secured. A ceasefire would freeze the current territorial division, and set up the basis for a negotiated resolution. It would stem the current torrent of refugees, and allow at least some to go home. It would be the right thing to do.
More reading today:
That's a good line to end on: "They have led the president into looking pretty stupid." Unfortunately, if you read his speech, you'll see that he has scarcely begun to recover.
Friday, September 6. 2013
Saw an article in the Wichita Eagle today about Obama bumping into Putin at the G20 conference in Russia. They greeted each other cordially, but didn't set up a much needed tete-a-tete on Syria. Although in general I don't like nations meddling in the internal politics of any country, the US and Russia are the principal arms suppliers to that conflict (so are in effect already involved) and also hold the most economic impact on the future of Syria. So right now the best chance for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement lies in Obama and Putin putting aside their other differences and agreeing to press to end this war. But Obama isn't even trying for that chance.
I dashed off the following to the Wichita Eagle's Opinion Line:
I could have written a letter about this and unpacked it a bit more. It's worth recalling that both the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars were ended under the pressure of UN ceasefire resolutions that were hammered out by the USSR and US -- the arms suppliers and economic allies of the belligerents. An Obama-Putin agreement would be easily ratified by the UN. Putin could put a lot of pressure on Syria for a ceasefire, and most likely for some controls in chemical weapons -- something Obama has no chance of doing through bombing. Obama would have to give up his missile campaign, and his insistence on Assad's removal as a precondition for negotiation, and would have to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and any other "allies" arming the insurgents. But none of those "concessions" really hurt American "interests." Syria is not a proxy fight between the US and Russia (and/or Iran). It is something that happened locally, and has sucked in foreign powers because of their pre-existing conflicts. (The US should empathize: we have been sucked into more than a few civil wars in defense of dictators we should have wanted no part of -- lots of examples in Latin America, but the most costly one was Vietnam.)
Besides, there was already a good letter in the Eagle today, from Kathleen Butler (don't know her):
I would quibble a bit here. I doubt that the "sectarian differences" in Syria were checked by the dictatorship so much as were things that didn't much matter until the civil war led both sides to associate minorities with the Assad regime. Those differences would again vanish under a properly liberal democratic society, but civil war may turn the conflict toward genocide. Indeed, that's exactly what happened in Iraq, and for that matter in Afghanistan -- in both cases groups that had lived relatively peacably with one another for thousands of years soon became bitter enemies.
The Eagle also had a good opinion column from a local professor, Russel Arben Fox: Vote 'no' on Syria strike, for whatever reason. They've also run pro-war columns by Clive Crook and Cal Thomas, and something in between by Kathleen Parker ("Credibility matters, but so does being wise").
More useful links keep coming it (cartoon from Truthdig):
I saw a bit of TV discussion tonight where veteran Washington pundits were sitting around absolutely incredulous that Congress might reject Obama's war resolution -- one admitting that his own reporting didn't confirm anything he believed. It's been clear that ever since the "sole superpower" moment following the collapse of the Soviet Union -- the "end of history" and all that-- that the US was declining as a world power, and for lots of reasons: the hollowing out of the economy, a series of debilitating military misadventures, fiscal crises, neglect of education and even public contempt for science, gross internal divisions. But all along politicians of both parties pretended nothing was amiss. And now they worry that the president may face a "loss of credibility" when in fact they're the only ones so myopic as to still deny that it's already been lost. The congressional vote may finally be their comeuppance. Welcome to the real world.
Thursday, September 5. 2013
As long as the war drums are beating for Syria, we might as well keep the links coming. But first, let me quote myself. I was asked to write something for a Wichita Peace Center press release, and turned in the following paragraph. (I've since added some paragraph breaks.) Not sure what they did with it, but I gather it was longer than expected, so they trimmed here and there. Anyhow, it's a succinct position paper, touching on a lot of the central points.
I didn't want to play up the question of chemical weapons. I'm not convinced that Assad's forces have actually used chemical weapons, but I don't think they have any particular scruples against doing so. One of the many problems with Obama's "red line" speech is that it gives anti-Assad forces reason to fake chemical attacks in the hope that if credible such attacks might push the US into providing more anti-Assad support. If that turns out to be the case, Obama could wind up bearing some responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
In any case, we won't know more about recent alleged chemical attacks until the UN inspectors finish and publish their analysis. At that point the findings should be kicked up to the UN Security Council for action, which could condemn Syria, impose sanctions, and/or authorize the US to use force to punish Syria, or not. But unless that happens, the strikes that Obama is proposing are war crimes, nothing less. I didn't get into that point either, because at this point it's virtually impossible to win an argument on the basis that the action you're opposed to would be a war crime. The problem is that hardly anyone in the US appreciates the prospect of living under international law any more. Proof of that is that even if he passes on Syria, Obama is already a war criminal, one of many in a procession that dates back through Bush and Clinton and on to the other Bush and Reagan, and Nixon and Johnson, and arguably other presidents.
We could, of course, debate about the need for international law and what that law should cover, and we could go into the need for reforms that would make the UN more effective. But you don't have to be so idealistic to see the folly in Obama's plans, so that is what I chose to focus on. I also didn't get into the matter of how much open-ended war with Syria would cost, or what else should be done with the money. For one thing the reflexive politics of Washington will always find money for any wars they want to fight, and can never be counted on to allocate that same money to any other project.
Needless to say, anyone who wants to limit government, let alone safeguard freedom, should first cast a jaundiced eye at the military. But those who do fall into the "limited government" trap will never be persuaded by arguing that the same money could be better spent on schools and bridges. Indeed, most of them have repeatedly voted for war on the theory that if the government has to spend money, at least there it won't be spent on anything constructive.
Some links (plus cartoons from Truthdig):
Given that this issue will be voted on in Congress, this is a rare time when it might actually work to put as much pressure as possible on your representatives -- especially in the case of Democrats, who seem to be especially wobbly on Obama (as well as soft on Israel). Much of Obama's own legitimacy as a presidential candidate owed to his prescient opposition to the 2003 Iraq War, but he has squandered his reputation several times over since assuming office, and nowhere more clearly than here. The same standards should be applied to all his potential successors: in particular, Hillary Clinton has once again proven her unfitness for the Oval Office. By all means be clear about that.
Sunday, September 1. 2013
The best piece I've seen recently on Washington's incessant drumbeat for intervening militarily in Syria is Stephen M Walt: We're Going to War Because We Just Can't Stop Ourselves:
Since Walt wrote those words, the UK Parliament voted against joining in the American folly. First time that's happened, so I'm reminded of the 1960s sign, "suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" And today, Obama announced that he'll seek Congressional authority before he'll launch that war, and John Boehner slated the House vote on Sept. 9. So while the chatterers on last night's Washington Week were excitedly expecting a volley of cruise missiles before Obama's trip to Russia next week, retribution is at least ten days away.
Lots of things can happen in those ten days. The UN will get a chance to finish its evaluation of the alleged chemical weapons attack, and debate its own legal recourse. (Any American attack without UN sanction would be illegal under international law, not that the threat of war crimes trials has ever stopped the US in the past.) Obama will have some face time to negotiate with Putin in Russia. Someone might realize that there is a new president in Iran who might be more amenable to diplomatic measures than the previous one. (Not that there is any justification for the popular notion that the Syrian Civil War is a "proxy fight" between Iran and "pro-Western forces" -- you know, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.) And Congress might decide to buck its 20% approval rating and do something that actually aligns popularly with the wishes of the American people. Also expect some large anti-war rallies along the way.
In Congress, opposition to a resolution giving Obama the option to "use force" will be bipartisan. How that breaks depends a lot on how much pressure Obama puts on Democrats to give their president the benefit of their doubts: the more so the more Democrats he gets, and the fewer Republicans. From the Wichita Eagle today, I know that Tim Huelskamp will oppose in any case, but I also see Mike Pompeo very critical of "a warning shot across the bow" -- he wants what he calls a "robust response," but since Obama is unlikely to satisfy his bloodlust, he too may oppose. (In this he's not as bloodthirsty as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who'll take what they can get and pray the war gets worse and we get sucked in ever deeper -- although I've seen reports of even them holding out for a more resolution that commits the US to toppling Assad.) Also, his patron David Koch has come out against intervention.
And while the Senate seems more likely to consent than advise, can't we at least expect a fillibuster?
Some things I've been reading as I try to catch up (much more pro-hawk than I'd like; cartoons from Truthdig):
The Syrian Civil War is a great human tragedy, and a decent United States government should do everything reasonable to help bring it to a just and peaceful solution. However, a decent US government would not have conspired to overthrow the democratic government of Iran in 1953, nor subsidized and rationalized Israel's aggressive war in 1967 and occupation of Syrian and Palestinian land ever since then, nor subsidized a civil war in Afghanistan since 1979, nor countenanced let alone abetted Israel's interference in Lebanon from 1982-2000 (again in 2006), nor supported Iraq in their 1980s war against Iran, nor repeatedly and almost promiscuously bombed Libya and Sudan and Iraq and Afghanistan (and with drones much more, from Somalia to Pakistan), nor helped Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States suppress democratic movements for decades, nor invaded and fomented a civil war in Iraq from 2003-09, and that list goes on and on -- did I mention Yemen yet? Nor is there much evidence that anything that the US consciously tried to do in the Middle East has actually turned out the way expected. The bottom line here is that the US has no credibility trying to insert itself, militarily or clandestinely, anywhere in the entire region. And the degree of US failure in the region isn't exactly a secret. The regimes we put in place in Iran and Egypt proved to be so corrupt and hated that they led to revolutions. And US acts have generated blowback like kidnappings and bombings including the 1983 Beirut event and the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. We should know better by now. After all, we have laws like "3 strikes and you're out" which seek to prevent serial offenders from ever getting another chance to do ill -- yet the CIA and the DOD goes on and on, from one blunder to another.
So the first reason why the US shouldn't intervene in Syria is that we've proven that we're absolutely incapable of doing so in a way that doesn't make things worse. The second reason is that in order to quit intervening (and making matters worse), we need to break down the institutional support for doing so. They only way to stop making these mistakes in the future is to deny ourselves the ability to make them. (Then you won't have some Madeleine Albright character coming around and taunting you with "what's the point of having this magnificent military if you never use it?")
Beyond this obvious point there is a more profound one, which is that war or the threat of war almost never resolves a conflict without making it much worse, at least in the short run. Lots of people don't recognize this, and that's a big problem, but we can run through hundreds of cases, and it's really hard to find cases where wars couldn't have been profitably avoided had people made the effort to negotiate just solutions ahead of time. A corollary here is that the defense dogma -- the idea that we can avoid war by preparing a strong military defense -- is utter bullshit, as anyone can see by looking at the how often the dominant military power wound up using that power (e.g., the UK in the 18th-19th centuries, and the US since 1945; in between the dominant power was mostly Germany, which doesn't counter my point).
So again, on these grounds, what the US should be doing is cutting back its military power (including the CIA and NSA), not blundering its way into more wars.
So far these are just general statements that would apply anywhere to any such conflict, such as the decisions to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. While those instances were disastrous enough they shouldn't generate much controversy, the models that you hear socalled experts jaw about as pertaining to Syria are Kosovo in 1998 and Libya in 2008 -- air-only campaigns that are commonly remembered as successful, mostly because our memory is rather selective, and is focused rigidly on minimal costs to us as opposed to the suffering of actual people in the countries the US claimed to be helping. Two points here: one is that neither of those cases weaken by one iota the general principles above; the other is that many of the specific circumstances that made Kosovo and Libya relatively manageable are not applicable to Syria. (Also note that Libya turned out not to be as painless as originally thought, as several Americans were killed in blowback against a CIA base in Benghazi.)
Given the above, we shouldn't have to argue specifics about Syria, but some are worth noting. The first is that Syria is approximately the same size and population as Iraq and Afghanistan: two countries that the US was able to quickly invade but never quite pacify. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, it has a stronger, more modernized military that is actively supplied by Russia and Iran. It has a functioning air force and anti-aircraft defenses, intermediate range missiles, and evidently some chemical weapons -- none of which Iraq had in working order in 2003, or Afghanistan had ever. So the bottom line there is that Syria would be more difficult, at least more painful, for the US to invade than Iraq was. That Obama isn't contemplating "boots on the ground" pretty much acknowledges this difficulty.
That in turn brings back the question of the effectiveness of airpower only. That was widely debated a decade ago, when Bush decided to invade Iraq, arguing that the "no flight" zones that the US had enforced over Iraq for more than a decade had no real effect on Saddam Hussein's control within Iraq. For many reasons Syria is more similar to Iraq than it is to Kosovo or Libya, so what article of faith makes people think that "no flight" zones and periodic bombing that didn't work in Iraq would work now? (On the contrary, Syria's superior air defenses make at least some observers think the opposite.) The only thing that makes Syria seem more vulnerable is the ongoing civil war, which has broken Assad's power in several scattered areas of the country. That opens up the possibility that the US could arm and direct rebel armies as proxy "boots on the ground" -- that the US could fashion a combination of sophisticated weaponry and tight air support that would eventually defeat Syria's professional army, air force, and security services.
That was, after all, what basically happened in Libya, but: Syria is a more populous country with a larger, better equipped, and much better trained army; taking out Syria's air defenses would be a major undertaking, whereas Libya's were wiped out in two days; Assad has a much larger internal security organization than Gaddafi had (in large part because he had been challenged much more before the civil war broke out); Assad (or his regime) is also, by any conceivable measure, much more popular within Syria than Gaddafi was in Libya -- moreover, the split in Syria is largely sectarian, which quickly hardened the lines in the civil war, and raised fears of mass killings (especially if Assad loses); meanwhile, the anti-Assad forces are split and scattered, and it seems very likely that even if they defeated Assad they would wind up fighting among themselves (as did the Afghans).
Most of those problems can be overcome if the US is desperate and committed enough to make the investments and bear the pain -- pilots shot down, CIA operatives lost, etc. But neither Obama nor the DOD (see Dempsey's testimony above) really seem up for that level of involvement, so they are vulnerable to the charge that whatever they do will won't be enough to get the job done. But the latter is the real vexing problem. It turns out that the most militant of the anti-Assad forces are affiliated with Al-Qaida, making our worst enemies in the region our best friends in this particular battle (and not for the first time -- recall Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Osama Bin Laden got his first taste for blood working for the US war effort). A good indication of how big a problem this is can be gleaned by the fact that some months ago Obama decided to start arming the Syrian rebels, but now we know that the US hasn't delivered any of those arms, mostly because we haven't found any rebels we trust with those arms.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you can't find any Syrian rebel groups to arm, the strategy that is based on arming the rebels isn't really an option. So that leaves you with the plan that says you're just going to bomb shit until Assad cries uncle. OK, that one worked in Kosovo, but there the Serbs had the option of just retreating into Serbia, where they were unthreatened (an option that Assad, and more importantly his sectarian supporters, lack). But what Obama's proposing isn't even that: it's that, like, the US is going to bomb Syria until we feel like we've punished Assad enough, then leave him be until he pisses us off again, at which point we'll bomb him some more, and maybe, eventually, he'll get tired of it, or we'll get tired of it, or something.
The more you dig into these specifics, the less reason you can come up with why anything the US is likely to do is likely to come anywhere close to working. It's certainly true that a dictator who responds to peaceful demonstrations by shooting people or firing artillery into whole cities has no right to continue ruling. He should be arrested and hauled before the ICC, or dealt with appropriately by a local court. On the other hand, demonstrators who respond to such provocations by starting an insurrection, leading to a civil war resulting in over 100,000 deaths, don't deserve to rule either. Nor do you ever want to set up a situation where people simply because they are affiliated with a sectarian group -- sunnis, alawites, kurds, christians; you can slice and dice Syria dozens of ways -- are put at risk simply because people associate those groups with various power factions. All that has happened in Syria, and, sure, someone needs to sort it out, but it can't be the US, it can't be Israel, it can't be Turkey, it can't be the Arab League, it can't be Russia, it can't be Iran, it can't be Hezbollah; it has to be done in Syria, and sooner or later the factions (if not the individual leaders) need to learn to live together and accommodate one another. Maybe a non-violent group like the UN could facilitate in a useful way, and it would probably help if everyone else get behind them in some way. But what doesn't help at all is for outsiders to try to align with inside groups.
If you'll indulge a fantasy solution, it's that while Obama and Putin are drinking in Moscow next week they'll agree to freeze arms shipments to Syria, press whatever other countries they have any influence with (Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia for the US; Iran for Russia) to do the same; insist on a cease-fire with no jockeying for control; get Syria to bring the UN in to oversee dismantling their chemical arms (which, as with Iraq in the 1990s, are more a liability than an asset); negotiate a broad framework for opening up the existing Syrian government to democratic reforms while at the same time ensuring minority rights (e.g., from the sort of overreach the Muslim Brotherhood tried in Egypt). Even if the latter parts of this fantasy are a tough sell in Damascus, any sort of international arms embargo would start to starve out the war, whereas Obama's current plans can only escalate it.
And by the way, the demonization of Assad (which I admittedly did a bit of above) isn't helpful. While it might be ideal to see everyone on every side responsible for any death brought to justice, these conflicts usually end in broad amnesties and it is better to have lifted the burden of revenge. (Even the US let Robert E. Lee retire from the battlefield.) Again, Iraq offers a good example of what not to do: the demonization of Saddam Hussein gave the regime no reason to compromise or liberalize, and the complete sacking of the Baath state and army led directly to chaos and civil war which still smolders today. One thing that makes today's hawks so dangerous is that they haven't begun to come to grips with their tragic mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two more points need to be made, if only briefly:
The first is that Israel has had an enormous impact on the thinking of America's hawks, and that this has completely distorted their sense of America's interests in the region. Israel's deepest desire is to preserve its unity and ethos as a warrior-settler state, which means it has no desire for conflict resolution. In 1951 Syria was the first Arab state to seek a peace agreement with Israel, and they were rebuffed. Israel initiated many border skirmishes with Syria over the next 16 years, after which they occupied and annexed a substantial strip of Syrian territory, now called the Golan Heights. Since then, Israel has kept Syria as a close enemy, and that status has informed America's own troubled relationship with Syria -- despite occasional attempts by Syria to cozy up to the US, especially when they supported the Gulf War against Iraq. But Syria could never make peace with Israel as long as Israel held onto Syrian territory, and Syria had no choice but to depend on Russia for weapons in a region with many enemies. The only real US interest in the region is for peace, free trade, and free capital flows, and that's the opposite of Israel's warrior-settler interest. Yet because US policy has been so reflexively stupid for so long, Israel can easily manipulate the US into opposing its enemies -- Iran has been the big project since Iraq was defanged in 1991 -- and as such we keep feeding the conflicts that Israel depends on.
If Obama were to make peace with Syria and Iran, he would move a long way toward freeing American foreign policy from the perverse stranglehold of Israel.
The second, and last, point I want to make here is that growing Republican opposition to Middle Eastern entanglements is the logical outcome of their racism and Islamophobia. I wouldn't want to support their thinking in those terms, but at least it gets you to the right policy answer, which is disengagement. The right were the first to see that the Syrian rebels were mostly sunni fundamentalists, and that arming them is equivalent to arming Al-Qaida. (The liberal hawks, on the other hand, reflexively see only fellow liberal hawks in the region.) If Obama's war powers resolution fails in Congress, it will largely be a victim of Republican nativism. That's not the best reason to vote against Obama, but it's the right vote.
Sunday, August 25. 2013
The Wichita Eagle published a piece by Dion Leffer on Sen. Jerry Moran's pep talk to the Wichita Independent Business Association. In it he admitted that he had thought about retiring, but then he realized that he hadn't done enough damage in Washington yet, so he feels obliged to keep banging at it.
I dashed off a letter to the editor, which was published Wednesday. (The link also gets you a letter by Amos Leitner on Israel's congenital inability to understand the concept and value of borders, a subject that is worth a post of its own.) Anyhow, here's my draft (I haven't checked it closely for edits):
Wichita Eagle letters are pretty rigidly limited to 200 words, so I tried to pack as many points as possible into that can. As such, I make a lot of assertions that seem pretty self-evident to me but which may not be so obvious to the reader. So I'd like to unpack this a bit here, and possibly bring up some more related points.
The first point everyone should understand is that the Federal deficit in no way resembles personal debts you or your household may have. There are several reasons for this, but the simplest is that the government doesn't grow old and unproductive, like individuals do. The government only needs to cover the interest on its debt, whereas creditors insist that we, because we age and become less productive, also pay down the principal. The amount it takes to service interest on the debt is very small compared to the total debt, especially when the economy is depressed -- something which leads to especially low interest rates.
The same thing could be said about corporations, and indeed much of the time they only pay interest, paying off debts as they mature by issuing new debt -- but they occasionally go bankrupt when their prospects sink and their creditors balk. Same thing can happen with state and local governments, although it is much rarer, if only because they can always, in principle at least, raise whatever income they need through taxes. The US government can raise taxes too -- and can do so much more efficiently than state and local governments can -- but they also have a couple more important tricks up their sleeve. For one thing, the federal debt is owed in dollars, which the federal government can simply print as needed. For another, the Federal Reserve effectively controls the interest rate the government has to pay on its debt, so it can intentionally reduce the cost of servicing that debt. (Actually, these two points are joined together.)
This isn't to say that the federal debt never matters. There are circumstances when increasing the federal debt, at least as in ratio to GDP, can cause inflation and/or cause a drag on the economy by pushing up the cost of finance for the private sector. But those times aren't now, and I have reason to doubt that the second factor will ever be true again.
As for inflation, one can even argue that would be a good thing. Inflation is tough on people on fixed incomes, such as pensions, but that can be mitigated as Social Security does with cost-of-living escalators -- something, by the way, Greenspan successfully attacked in the 1990s, and which Obama has foolishly offered to sacrifice as part of his "grand bargain" scheme. But if you assume that everyone has equal wage-price flexibility, inflation reduces to a simple trade between creditors and debtors. Inflation lets debtors pay off their creditors with cheaper dollars, so you can see why bankers hate hate hate inflation. But we're in a recession now because businesses and consumers aren't spending, and the main reason they're not spending is debt overhang. The economy is only slowly picking up as those debts are paid off (or written off), and the faster that happens the better. Inflation, assuming it can be done fairly, is one way to make that happen.
Of course, that's a big assumption, because nearly everything in the current economy is structured to be unfair, and nowhere more so than in matters of finance. The current recession is the direct result of a vast and unscrupulous expansion of consumer and business credit and its inevitable collapse -- a path that was paved by lobbyists and politicians as they systematically ended regulations that limited usury, combinations and conflicts of interest, even outright fraud, while allowing bankers to pocket obscene profits and even protecting "too big to fail" bank owners against their own misjudgments.
If not for the latter, the big banks that caused this crisis would have gone bankrupt and been reorganized -- this is in fact what happened during the S&L crisis in the late 1980s, early proof how deregulation of banking leads to catastrophe -- and a lot of their loans would have been written down or off. Such a writedown would have been a quicker and more efficient way to get out from under the debt overhang that had dragged the economy down. Several such plans were floated, but nothing was accomplished, mostly because writedowns would have looked bad on the banks' books, but also because the Tea Party blew a gasket over the idea that the government might help reprobates who had gone over their heads in debt.
The Tea Party instinct here almost instantly became the Republican Party consensus: they decided that they would rather have a deep and long recession than to allow the government to intervene and do some good for the vast majority of people who weren't bankers, who didn't cause the financial collapse, who didn't benefit from the extraordinary largesse handed out by the Fed and the Treasury to save a banking system that had completely failed. To be fair, the Tea Partiers by and large didn't support the bank bailouts either -- their eagerness to punish the whole world for its sins seems boundless -- but the banking system found grifters enough in both parties to secure their salvation.
While reducing the debt overhang either by inflation or writedowns would help get the economy going again, there was a simpler approach, one that had been proven in the past, and which could work much faster given the political will. This was to increase government spending to make up for the private sector shortfall. To some extent this happened, and that is the main reason the recession didn't go any deeper than it did. The government's first line of defense against recessions is a set of "automatic stabilizers" that kick in, well, automatically, to soften any economic downturn: unemployment insurance, various welfare programs like food stamps. These would have worked better had we had more of them, but decades of conservative efforts to weaken the safety net and drive down the costs of labor have ravaged those programs. The second thing that happened was that Obama, over unified Republican opposition, pushed an emergency stimulus bill through Congress. This turned out to cover only about half of the expected shortfall, and much of the total was in the form of relatively inefficient tax cuts, and spending cuts at the state and local level undid much of the gain, but had the Republicans prevailed the recession would have gone deeper. As it is, they had to settle for longer.
The economic collapse led immediately to a huge drop in tax revenues, at the same time automatic stabilizers, the bank bailouts, and stimulus spending added to government expense, so the deficit -- already high due to the combination of the Bush tax cuts and the Bush wars -- skyrocketed. That gave the Republicans their great mystical story line: they paint the deficit as the great peril facing the nation today and as far into the future as it takes until they win back the presidency and the next Dick Cheney admits that "deficits don't matter" anymore. Moreover, they argue that the only way deficits can be brought under control is by cutting spending, especially on things that actually help people, even though doing so slows the economy down, reduces tax revenue, and leads to a death spiral of further spending cuts.
In the past, the problem with countercycical spending has usually been one of political will. Because it is needed during recessions, it creates large deficits which bring out the scolds in droves. Even in the 1930s when the need was clearest, Franklin Roosevelt was dogged both as much by his own deeply held belief in balanced budgets as by opponents (whom he could hold in fabulous contempt, a knack that Obama and Clinton evidently lack). Only with the bipartisan commitment to WWII was he able to throw caution to the winds and use government spending to push the economy all the way to full employment: this resulted in the longest, broadest economic growth in the nation's history, even as postwar government spending returned to "normal" levels. Of course, we don't need anything remotely close to WWII spending now, but the example gives you a sense of the advantages a full-employment economy offers, like major investments in public infrastructure and education.
Full employment means that everyone who wants a job can find one, and it means more: it means that many people can find better jobs than they have now, and that most people can see their pay reflect better the value they produce (as opposed to now, when the weakness of the labor market -- the legitimate fear you have of losing your job -- takes a chunk out of your pay). Under full employment, people are worth more, their time is worth more, and they (and the public) invest more in education, so you wind up with a more productive and efficient workforce, and ultimately a much richer country.
Full employment is supposed to be the Fed's policy directive, but it's taken a back seat to fighting inflation ever since Paul Volcker became chairman in 1979. Although inflation is supposed to be based on consumer prices -- which are strongly influenced by patents and monopoly rents, and in the 1970s were largely driven by oil shocks caused by cartels -- economists came up with a theory called NAIRU to blame inflation on labor and, especially, on full employment. Under Reagan, and aided by the 12% unemployment Volcker created by raising interest rates to unprecedented levels, businesses cranked up their war on unions and further squeezed unprotected workers, and through their political cronies worked to weaken the safety net, making workers all the more fearful of losing their jobs.
A weak labor market has the opposite effect of full employment: most workers have fewer prospects of improving their lot; many find themselves unable to find jobs at their skill level, so have to settle for relatively unproductive and unrewarding jobs. Education is less likely to pay off -- even as public education resources are being reduced, so costs are shifted to individuals, often resulting in unprecedented levels of debt -- so workers get less of it, or train more narrowly for skill niches, or fall back on desperate measures like joining the military. (Thanks to the Bush wars, the latter is as likely to train you to be psychotic as to hold down a quality job.)
Moran is right to worry that his "kids" will face -- indeed, already do face -- a world with less opportunity than the one he grew up in. And that's even more true for the vast majority of Americans who didn't grow up with the advantages that Moran started with, let alone his eagerness to serve as a "useful idiot" for those who have sponsored his political career -- a list that (no big surprise here) started with the Koch brothers. But the reason for worrying isn't the federal deficit phantom -- a problem that could easily be handled by sensible politicians, and that in any case is far removed from the present. The real reason is how the political ascent of the right since the 1970s has crippled economic opportunities for the vast majority of Americans while at the same time allowing a tiny privileged elite to live ever more rarefied lives.
Depending on how you slice it, that "tiny privileged elite" may be 1% of the population, or even smaller. Since the current recession officially ended in mid-2009 -- the point where overall GDP stopped shrinking and started growing -- virtually all of the growth in the economy has gone to the top 1%, but that merely continues a trend that started in the early 1980s. The numbers that document growing inequality trends are well known but surprisingly sterile. (There are several good books on this, like Timothy Noah: The Great Divergence: America's Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It and Joseph E. Stiglitz: The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future run through the relevant numbers.) One thing that still needs to be done is to go through the broad range of everyday life experiences and show how inequality distorts life at all ends of the scale.
Perhaps the most obvious case is higher education. Following WWII college became accessible and affordable for most men, thanks to the GI Bill, and over the next few decades heavy public spending plus scholarships plus a relatively minor loan program made it seem possible that anyone who could hack the grades could get a college education and wind up with a rewarding and relatively lucrative career. None of my ancestors had made it through college, and I didn't either, but I (foolishly, no doubt) fell just a couple credits short of a BA from a prestigious private university. I wound up owing $2,000 in loans, and despite the lack of a degree I had little trouble getting good jobs and making a much better than average living. Since then, the anti-government parties -- taking as gospel a Ronald Reagan joke -- have cut way back on public support for higher education, while the schools themselves colluded to raise prices way above the inflation rate (the Ivy League school were sued by the Clinton administration for fixing prices, but antitrust enforcement was halted under Bush and has yet to be reinstated under Obama), and the banking industry got ever more into the act. So, for instance, I have a niece who got her law degree with close to $100,000 in debt, but has struggled to find an appropriate job.
School debt has become such a huge obstacle that young people -- probably even Moran's "kids" -- are caught in a bind: on the one hand if they don't pay up they'll never get a chance at jobs that will allow them to, if not become rich at least live comfortably, although frankly the odds of that level of success are increasingly slim; on the other hand, if they don't pay and avoid that debt they will probably be stuck in bottom end jobs with no security and no benefits. It's hard for people to judge these intergenerational shifts: most people start out with low pay jobs, then over time build up their expertise and seniority until they reach a peak, hopefully close to retirement, so when older people look at the problems young people run into, they tend to recall themselves and figure nothing much has changed. But much has changed: more and more middle-aged people are finding their careers chopped down well before they expected to retire, and few of them ever regain their footing. And more and more young people never really get on track, especially if they lack parents who can help out well past college. (Even for my generation that made a difference.)
There are many more aspects to this. Back in 2009, when Obama wanted to roll back the Bush tax cuts on incomes over $250,000, I recall someone in Chicago publishing a household budget which purported to show that his family was only barely getting by on its $250,000/year income as it was, without having to cover more taxes. The budget was unintentionally revelatory: aside from having spent a bit more than average on cars and a house, all of the listed household expenses were for privatized versions of things that were provided to everyone in modern European social democracies: they were paying off school loans, paying for health insurance, sending their children to private schools, saving for their children's college, and socking away quite a bit of money for future retirement. Otherwise, they were living the lifestyle of someone who makes less than half their income in Europe (and has a smaller house, but probably a better car).
My point here isn't just that a bit of socialism is the best thing possible for the middle class. (Again, let me recommend a book, Thomas Geoghegan: Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life.) The finer point is that all those extra expenses are a desperate attempt to bridge the chasm that's opened up between rich and poor and all but swallowed the middle class. And more importantly, that chasm didn't just open up on its own: it's been hollowed out by the right's war on any possibility of the government aiding the welfare of the majority of the population. Aspiring parents need private schools because the public ones are rotting out, from underfunding and all sorts of disinterest and stupidity. They have to pay much more for school and health insurance because we've turned those services into arenas for profiteering. And you have to save so much more money while you can work because you know that in the future your country will no longer have the will let alone the ability to take care of you. So not only does Jerry Moran's future offer less opportunity for the "kids," it offers less security for Moran and his cohort -- probably why he's decided to keep sucking up to the Kochs so he can milk out another term in the Senate.
Some other quick points:
Obviously, much more could be written about all of this. Stiglitz, for instance, is very good on rents.
Tuesday, July 23. 2013
Jonathan Chait's Anarchists of the House makes some useful points about the today's Republican majority in the House of Representatives. For instance:
Having read much in the communitarian anarchist tradition of Kropotkin and Bookchin (and probably too much in the libertarian anarchist oeuvres of Rothbard) I wouldn't have picked "anarchists" as an ideology I'd like to saddle the Republicans with, but it's true that some people who called themselves anarchists (mostly about a century ago) threw bombs and caused mayhem, and if that's all you recall and consider it isn't that wrong. But the Kochs are big on the Rothbard line, and your typical anti-government euthanasiast may consider it a compliment.
Moreover, it's the kind of slander that identifies Chait as a "big government" liberal, as opposed to the kind of liberal that considers a state necessary for some things but not altogether without risks. Then Chait goes on to compound his ignorance and prejudice, in this paragraph approvingly cited by Ed Kilgore (which is how I got here, and it turns out even worse):
Kilgore stops the paragraph short, quotes Mario Savio, engages in some gratuitous hippie punching, and pronounces this "a very apt analogy," conceding only that Ted Cruz and Eric Cantor might find it "mortifying . . . to be compared to a dirty hippie." I've never seen Kilgore this far off base. I mean, for starters, how is the poor hippie going to feel being compared to Cruz and Cantor? Much less being blamed for the budget fiasco that caused the US government bond rating to be downgraded? But that's just one of many incredible brain slips that Kilgore and/or Chait have made in trying to build an argument that ultimately amounts to nothing more than calling someone else a presumably disreputable name.
It's silly to have to tear this house of cards down, and I'm not going to bother with much of it, but . . . it's not necessarily true that hippies were dirty, at least hygienically (some hippies left the city for farms, and farmers do work with dirt, but we don't routinely speak of "dirty farmers"); hippies had very little to do with the new left -- they overlap historically but one was countercultural and the other political; Mario Savio, by any stretch of imagination, was not a hippie, nor was he a persistent figure in the evolution of the new left -- he appeared, made some speeches, then got on with his life; the new left was never defined by a single coherent ideology -- it was left in the sense that we believed that all people are equal and deserve equal justice, and it was new in the sense that we didn't belong to Leninist parties conspiring to foment revolution; other than that, new left tactics varied according to situation -- direct non-violent action in the civil rights struggle, mass demonstrations against the Vietnam war, electoral activity when worthy (or even some not-so-worthy) candidates presented themselves. Some splinter groups did wrong-headed things, but they were marginal. Most new left ideas entered the mainstream, and much was done by Congress in the 1960s to secure civil rights, and again by Congress in the 1970s on issues ranging from clean air to limiting the president's warmaking powers. The one thing the new left didn't do was to grab institutional power for its own self-perpetuation. One reason for this was that the new left was always distrustful of power, having seen bad examples of its use both in the Soviet Union and in the US.
Chait is arguing that if the new left ('60s radicals) had the sort of Congressional power the Republicans currently have, we would have behaved like the Republicans do now. Surely he realizes that there is no policy reason for that. The major fillibusters of the 1960s were to prevent votes on civil rights. Then, as now, the obstructionism was done by the right (same for Truman's famous "do-nothing Congress" of 1947-49). Maybe obstructionism works for the right in ways that it doesn't work for the left? Maybe right and left have significantly different attitudes toward democratic processes? Maybe there's no moral equivalency whatsoever between far right and far left?
One clue should be that in forums where Republicans have control today Republicans -- many states, among the most notorious Wisconsin, North Carolina, North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas -- don't encourage Democrats to practice the "procedural extremism" they use in Washington. They simply go about implementing their pet policies any way they can. They are utterly opportunistic, and utterly cynical, about procedure. And -- this is the key point -- what lets them be so opportunistic and cynical is their utter contempt for democracy. (Nor should you be surprised: the Democrats actually received more votes for the House in 2012, but the Republicans were able to get more members elected, mostly due to their skillful gerrymandering in 2010. And they've gotten key support from their cadres in the courts, from Bush v. Gore to Citizens United to this year's gutting of the Voting Rights Act.)
The rest of Chait's piece is worth reading for his reporting on how the House Republicans plan to use the debt ceiling as hostage to force Obama to cancel Obamacare, maybe even to "privatize Medicare." It's a scary story, but not because Chait likened Republicans to anarchists, or Kilgore called Cantor a "dirty hippie." The Republicans are ruining their own brand name. Just hang them with it.