Monday, January 31, 2011

The Sound of People Power

For the perspective of a reporter/commentator outside of the United States, check out this article by the Asia Time's reporter Pepe Escobar:
Islamophobes of the world, shut up and listen to the sound of people power. Your artificial Middle East dichotomy - it's either "our" dictators or jihadism - was never more than a cheap trick. Political repression, mass unemployment and rising food prices are more lethal than an army of suicide bombers. This is the actual way history is written; a country of 80 million - two-thirds of which born after their dictator came to power in 1981, and no less than the heart of the Arab world - finally shatters the Wall of Fear and crosses to the side of self-respect.

Egypt's neo-Pharaoh Hosni Mubarak threw a curfew; people never left the streets. The police dissolved; citizens themselves organized for security. The tanks rolled in; people kept singing "hand in hand, the army and people are together". This is no think-tank-engineered color revolution, this is not regimented Islamists; this is average Egyptians bearing the national flag, "together, as individuals, in a great co-operative effort to reclaim our country", in the words of Egyptian Nobel prize-winning novelist Ahdaf Soueif.

But then, inevitable as death, counter-revolution reared its weaponized head. Made in USA fighter jets and military helicopters "bravely" flying low over the crowds at Tahrir Square (picture the Mubarak regime as the occupation army in Egypt; and imagine the West's outrage if this was happening in Tehran). Military commanders cozying up on state TV. A threat that made-in-USA tanks in the streets - manned by elite combat troops - would soon mean business (although soldiers told al-Jazeera reporters they would not fire a single bullet). To top it off, "subversive" al-Jazeera abruptly taken off the air.

The Egyptian intifada - among its multiple meanings - smashed to pieces the Western-concocted propaganda drive of "Arabs as terrorists". Now, minds finally decolonized, Arabs are inspiring the whole world, teaching the West how to go about democratic change. And guess what: one does not need "shock and awe", renditions, torture and trillions of Pentagon dollars to make it work! No wonder Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, London or Paris never saw it coming.

We are all Egyptians now. The Latin American virus - bye-bye dictatorships plus arrogant, myopic neo-liberalism - has contaminated the Middle East. First Tunisia. Now Egypt. Next Yemen and possibly Jordan. Soon the House of Saud (no wonder they blamed the Egyptian people for the "riots"). But the Northern African political earthquake of Tunisia 2011 also got its spark from the 2010 mass strikes in Europe - Greece, Italy, France, the United Kingdom. Rage, rage, against political repression, dictatorship, police brutality, out of control food prices, inflation, miserable wages, mass unemployment.

Rejoicing With the Oppressed At The Approach of Freedom

One of the best foreign affairs columnists for the Washington Post, Russian expert Anne Applebaum has written a column today with which I agree 100% and is a better articulated version of what I've been trying to say since last week on my blog and Facebook:
Politicians like stability. Bankers like stability. But the "stability" we have so long embraced in the Arab world wasn't really stability. It was repression. The dictators we have supported, or anyway tolerated - the Zine el-Abidine Ben Alis, the Hosni Mubaraks, the various kings and princes - have stayed in power by preventing economic development, silencing free speech, keeping tight control of education and above all by stamping down hard on anything resembling civil society. More books are translated every year into Greek - a language spoken by more than 10 million people - than into Arabic, a language spoken by more than 220 million. Independent organizations of all kinds, from political parties and private businesses to women's groups and academic societies, have been watched, harassed or banned altogether.

The result: Egypt, like many Arab societies, has a wealthy and well-armed elite at the top and a fanatical and well-organized Islamic fundamentalist movement at the bottom. In between lies a large and unorganized body of people who have never participated in politics, whose business activities have been limited by corruption and nepotism, and whose access to the outside world has been hampered by stupid laws and suspicious bureaucrats. Note that the Egyptian government's decision to shut down the country's Internet access over the weekend - something it can do because Internet access is still so limited - had almost no impact on the demonstrators. For all the guff being spoken about Twitter and social media, the uprising in Cairo appears to be a very old-fashioned, almost 19th-century revolution: People see other people going out on the streets and decide to join them.

We are surprised, and no wonder. For the past decade, successive American administrations have sometimes paid lip service to democracy and freedom of speech in the Arab world. Some American organizations, official and unofficial - the National Endowment for Democracy comes to mind - have supported independent human rights activists in Egypt and elsewhere. Some American journalists, such as my Post colleague Jackson Diehl, have cultivated Egyptian democrats, interviewed them, written about them. But to American presidents and secretaries of state of both political parties, other issues - oil, Israel and then the war on terrorism - always seemed more important. Our aid subsidized the Egyptian army and police, and the Egyptians know it. In Cairo, police were firing tear gas labeled "Made in the USA" at protesters.

Hence the gloom. If there are potential leaders in Egypt, other than the stuffy and somehow unlikely Mohamed ElBaradei, then we don't really know them. If there is an alternative elite, we haven't worked with it, as we had worked with the alternative elites in Central Europe in the 1980s. George W. Bush's administration spoke a good deal about "democracy promotion" but then allowed the idea to become confused with the invasion of Iraq. Real democracy promotion - support for journalists, judges and educators; financing of independent media and radio; encouragement of open discussion and debate - has never been a priority in the Arab world.

Our options are now limited. But there are a few, and we should exercise them immediately. We should speak directly to the Egyptian public, not only to its leaders. We should congratulate Egyptians for having the courage to take to the streets. We should smile and embrace instability. And we should rejoice - because change, in repressive societies, is good.

Days of Rage, Days of Courage

This New York Times essay from Egypt by a participant in the weekend uprising is very poignant and interesting, and to me, demonstrates the sheer courage of these very ordinary people taking their nation in their hands and away from the dictator.  Read it.

The American Raj

Canadian columnist Eric Margolis writes about the American control of the Middle East:

When I wrote my latest book on the way America dominates the Mideast, I chose the title, American Raj, because this modern US imperium so closely resembled the famed Indian Raj – way the British Empire ruled India.

As I predicted in this book, and in a column last April, Egypt was headed for a major explosion. America’s Mideast Raj is now on fire. Whether it survives or not remains to be seen.

One cannot escape a sense that we may be looking at a Mideast version of the 1989 uprisings across Eastern Europe that brought down its Communist regimes and then the Soviet Union. Americans should be uneasy seeing crowds of Egyptians pleading for freedom and justice watched over by US-supplied tanks.

There are indeed certainly strong similarities between the old Soviet East Bloc and the spreading intifada across the police states of America’s Mideast Raj. Corrupt, repressive governments; rapacious oligarchies; high youth unemployment and economic stagnation; widespread feelings of fear, frustration, hopelessness and fury.

Washington is watching this growing intifada in its Mideast Raj with alarm and confusion. Ignore the Obama administration’s hypocritical platitudes urging "democracy." All of the authoritarian Arab rulers now under siege by their people have been armed, financed and supported for decades by the US. The US has given Egypt $2 billion annually, $1.4 billion of which goes to the military. Almost all the tanks and armored vehicles deployed in Cairo’s streets came from the US.

Washington has previously lauded Mubarak for "moderation" and "stability." These are code words for faithfully following US policies and crushing all opposition. Moderate opposition groups across the Mideast have been jailed and tortured, leaving only outlawed underground movements. The same thing happened in Iran.

Egypt’s armed forces were configured to keep Mubarak’s military regime in power, not to defend the nation’s borders. The US keeps Egypt’s armed forces short on munitions and spare parts so it cannot fight a war against Israel for more than a few days.

The brutal, sadistic secret police and other security forces of Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen were all trained and equipped by the US or France. The CIA taught them "interrogation techniques," just as it did to the Shah of Iran’s secret police, Savak. We have reaped the whirlwind in bitter US-Iranian relations.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urges "restraint" on both sides. One supposes she means those being beaten by clubs, raped, or tortured by electric drills must show proper restraint. Washington simply does not understand that this kind of hypocrisy turns even more people in the Muslim world against the United States.

Egypt, as this column has long said, has long been a ticking bomb. Half of 85 million Egyptians subsist below the UN’s $2 daily poverty level. A third of all the Arab World’s people are Egyptian. A well-connected oligarchy grows rich while the rest of the country struggles for basic food.

The Mideast uprisings are poorly understood by most North Americans. The US media frame news of the regional intifada in terms of the faux war on terror, and a false choice between dictatorial "stability" and Islamic political extremism. Much of what’s happening is seen through Israel’s eyes, and is distorted. Burning Cairo should show how misguided we have been in our understanding of the Arab world.

Platitudes aside, there is little concern in the US about bringing real democracy and modern society in the Arab world. Washington still wants obedience, not pluralism, in its Mideast Raj, and primacy for Israel in the Levant. As with the British Empire, democracy at home is fine – but it’s not right for the nations of the Arab world.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Playing Small-Ball

In my more frustrated moments, I think like David Michael Green here.

The Demotion of Democratization

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, accuses the Obama administration of siding with regimes over people in the Middle East:
There is nothing wrong with crisis management in a crisis, but the problem that the Obama administration now confronts is precisely that it has not been a cornerstone of American policy toward Egypt to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people. It has preferred cronyism with the regime occasionally punctuated by some stirring remarks. What we are witnessing, in the confusion and the dread of the administration, are the consequences of its demotion of democratization as one of the central purposes of American foreign policy, particularly toward the Muslim world. There were two reasons for the new liberal diffidence about human rights. The first was the Bush doctrine, the second was the Obama doctrine. The wholesale repudiation of Bush’s foreign policy included the rejection of anything resembling his “freedom agenda,” which looked mainly like an excuse for war. But whatever one’s views of the Iraq war, it really does not seem too much to ask of American liberals that they think a little less crudely about democratization—not only about its moral significance but also about its strategic significance. One of the early lessons of the rebellion against Mubarak is that American support for democratic dissidents is indeed a strategic matter, and that the absence of such American support can lead to a strategic disaster. Such are the wages of realism. It is a common error that prudence is thought about the short-term; the proper temporal horizon for prudential thinking is distant and long. Realism does not equip one for an adequate appreciation of the historical force of the democratic longing. In this sense, realism is singularly unrealistic. It seems smart only as long as the dictators remain undisturbed by their people, and then suddenly it seems incredibly stupid.

Obama replaced the freedom agenda with an acceptance agenda. His foreign policy has been conducted in a vigorously multicultural spirit. He rightly sensed that an emphasis upon democratization was a critical emphasis—a castigation of the existing dispensations in countries ruled by autocracies and authoritarianisms, and he did not come to castigate. He came in friendship, to “restore America’s standing.” He sought to do so with an embrace of differences, an affirmation of religions, a celebration of civilizations. As a matter of principle, such assertions of respect are right and good. But what if the positive tone misses the point—not about the dignity of other peoples, but about their actual circumstances? Of what use is happy talk to unhappy people? Do societies desperately in need of secularization and its blandishments really need the American president to cite their Scripture to them? In accordance with his warm new priorities, democracy was the fourth of Obama’s five themes is his speech in Cairo in 2009, the one called “A New Beginning.” When he finally got around to it, he introduced it this way: “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.” Or: the United States will no longer bother you about how you are living. He then proceeded to a fine little sermon about the virtues of government “through consent, not coercion,” but said nothing about the political conditions in Egypt. The Cairo speech did not discomfit the Mubarak regime. I imagine that many of Obama’s listeners in Cairo that day are on the streets of Cairo today, and some of them attacked the American Embassy.

It was a terrible mistake for Obama to make democratization seem like an “imposition,” with its imperialist implications, and to conflate it with military invasion. The promotion of democracy is a policy of support for indigenous Egyptian, or Arab, or Muslim democrats who are just as authentic as indigenous Egyptian, or Arab, or Muslim autocrats and theocrats, and certainly more deserving of American respect. It is a policy—to borrow Gibbs’s words—of taking sides—specifically, of taking sides with peoples against regimes. It does not create dissidents, in some sort of ugly-American conspiracy; it finds them, and then it assists them, because they are in need of assistance, and because assisting them expresses our values and our interests. To be sure, there are instances in which our interests and our values may collide, because anti-democratic and anti-American forces may come to power by means of a democratic process; but there is no surer way to bring them to power than to ignore the illegitimacy of a tyrannical government and the ordinary grievances of a repressed population. The bizarre irony of Obama’s global multiculturalism is that it has had the effect of aligning America with regimes and against peoples. This was the case with our response to the Iranian rebellion in 2009, and it was the case with our response to the Egyptian opposition until a few hours ago. The striking thing about Barack Obama’s “extended hand” is how utterly irrelevant it is to the epochal events in Egypt, and Tunisia, and Iran, and elsewhere.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Stupid Big Things

Alexander Cockburn, second only to James Kunstler as politically and delightfully sarcastic, writes about the SOTU, and concludes this way:
All three [Obama, Ryan, and Baughman] ignored the export of jobs and the destruction of American manufacturing and the pauperization of American families. Obama seemed to trying to stage a replay of his own, of the US economy in the 1950s. “We do big things.” No we don’t. We do Stupid Big Things, dating back to that last heyday of Stupid Big Thing Thinking – dam constructon in the 1930s, surging to the disaster of the Glen Canyon dam and Lake Powell in the 1950s, the same decade freeway construction – Big Concrete -- destroyed city after city the same way – albeit more permanently -- Big Bombing destroyed Germany and many countries thereafter. Mr President: Big Thingishess is passé, like the new tunnel to Manhattan from New Jersey. It’s an unfinished Tunnel to nowhere, like the Bridge to nowhere in Alaska; boondoggles so swollen in their porkerish immensity that even their boosters run out of hot air trying to justify them. Is it $350 billion for the F-35? Let’s hear $400 billion. Give me $500 billion!

Nothing about the costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan – without which there would be no deficit right now. Nothing about the costs of that Big Thing – the American gulag and its three million unproductive denizens. It’s not just that none of Tuesday night’s speakers had any sort of a sane plan. None of them had a map of America’s recent history, to help them figure out where the ship of state has drifted, sails in tatters and parrots perched on the yard arm, squawking about America’s singular greatness.

Cut Public Spending So That Nations Can Be Ready To Rescue Their Banks, Again

Economist Simon Johnson writes from Davos about the disconnect between the two worlds: the bankers/rich and everyone else:
Many of the people who control the world's largest corporations are quite comfortable with the status quo post-financial crisis. This makes sense for them -- and poses a major problem for the rest of us.The thinking here is fairly obvious. The CEOs who provide the bedrock of financial support for Davos have mostly done well in the past few years. For the nonfinancial sector, there was a major scare in 2008-09; the disruption of credit was a big shock and dire consequences were feared. And for leaders of the financial sector this was more than an awkward moment -- they stood accused, including by fellow CEOs at Davos in previous years, of incompetence, greed, and excessively capturing the state.

But all of this, from a CEO perspective, is now behind them. Profits are good -- this is the best bounce back on average in the post-war period; given that so many small companies are struggling, it is reasonable to infer that the big companies have done disproportionately well (perhaps because their smaller would-be competitors are still having more trouble accessing credit). Executive compensation at the largest firms will no doubt reflect this in the months and years ahead.

In terms of public policy, the big players in the financial sector have prevailed -- no responsible European, for example, can imagine a major bank being allowed to fail (in the sense of defaulting on any debt). And this government support for banks has translated into easier credit conditions for the major global corporations represented at Davos.

The public policy issue of the day, from the point of view of such CEOs, is simple. There needs to be sufficient fiscal austerity to strengthen public balance sheets -- so that states can more effectively stand behind their banks in the future, and to keep currencies from moving too much. Leading bankers, in particular, insisted on the paramount importance of providing unlimited government support to their sector during 2008-09; now they insist with equal or greater vigor that support to all other parts of society be curtailed.

This is where cognitive dissonance creeps in. Most CEOs feel that the provision of general public goods is not their responsibility, although they are very happy to help guide (or capture) the provision of public goods specific to their firm.

The biggest disappointment at Davos was not the attitude of the corporate sector; these people are just doing their jobs (as they see it). To the extent the U.S. or eurozone official sector showed up at all, it continued to demonstrate the deepest levels of intellectual capture. The reasoning seems to be: As long as we do what the big banks and big firms want, everything will turn out all right. There was zero high-profile public debate at Davos this week on anything related to this way of seeing the world.

Corporate Davos was borderline exuberant. Even if a deeper crisis looms, does the global business elite really care?

A Corporate Ideology

David Bromwich, Yale professor and persistent Obama critic, has some insights that are similar to my own:
What is hard to take in at a glance is the extent of the change in the political description Obama has dedicated himself to earning over the next two years. All his general pledges now bear the stamp of the corporate ideology. This ideology assumes that the energy, initiative, and technical knowhow that contribute to our society the objects and experiences most valued by Americans originate in the private sector and are generally stunted, impaired, adulterated, or degraded by public supervision. The favor shown to charter schools by the president and his secretary of education Arne Duncan, in their endorsement of the testing regime of Race to the Top, draws on that ideology without much skepticism; and as Diane Ravitch has shown, it has encouraged a broad disdain for the supposed lack of "results" in public education that is not supported by facts.

Obama's model for sentiment, far more than Clinton, has now become Ronald Reagan. His manner in his first two years was burdensome, grave and oratorical; but in town halls and talk shows, he was experimenting with a different style; this was given a formal trial in Tucson and it became official in the State of the Union. Obama has copied the manners, the speech inflections, the kinetic rise and fall of the voice of TV talk show hosts, with as much application as Reagan brought to the study of 1930's radio announcers and the faces of the talkie stars who came before him. But there is a dimension beyond style in the choice of Reagan as a model for tone and surface. As Reagan, to clinch the Republican hold on the South, made common cause with racists -- a step his predecessors had refused to take -- so Obama, to move Wall Street reliably into the Democratic column, will be tempted to weaken or destroy unions, to dissociate himself from peace activists and defenders of civil liberties, and to lose what he can afford to lose of the base that brought him to power. (There were hints of this as early as August, in Robert Gibbs's comment that Obama's left-wing critics "ought to be drug tested.")

Like Reagan, Obama now cultivates a style of deliberate platitude. "Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age." There are times when the strenuous blandness passes finally into a vacuity of non-meaning: "We can't win the future with a government of the past." What is a government of the past? And what could it mean to win the future?

A main inference from the State of the Union is that in 2011 and 2012, the president will not initiate. He will broker. Every policy recommendation will be supported and, so far as possible, clinched by the testimony of a panel of experts. There were signs of this pattern in the group of former secretaries of state, including Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell, whom the president brought in to endorse the START nuclear pact; in the generals who were called on to solidify support for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell; and in Bill Clinton holding a presidential press briefing on the economy. Obama, on such occasions, serves as host and introducer; he leaves the podium to the experts. The idea is to overwhelm us with expertise. In this way, a president may lighten the burden of decision and control by easing the job of persuasion into other hands. Obama seems to believe that the result of being seen in that attitude will do nothing but good for his stature.

The obvious conclusion is forced on us. Barack Obama, starting in 2002 -- the year he declared at a Chicago rally his opposition to the coming war against Iraq -- had a keen eye on his political rise, but he had slender experience and a narrow focus disguised by inspirational special effects. In earlier years, he was protected by the Chicago Democratic machine; after 2004, he was shepherded by leaders of the Democratic party who disliked the Clintons or feared that Hillary Clinton could never win a presidential election. His apparent convictions -- on the environment, on the Middle East, on nuclear proliferation: matters of more concern to him than health care -- were resonant and sincere but they had never been brought to a test. It turned out that few of his convictions were as strong as Obama thought they were.

"We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America," said Barack Obama shortly before the 2008 election. "I am absolutely certain," he had said in St. Paul when he clinched the Democratic nomination, "that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth."

In retrospect, that messianic fervor is shocking. Today no one can easily say who Barack Obama is or what he stands for; and the coming year is unlikely to offer many clues, since all the thoughts of Obama in 2011 appear to concern Obama in 2012.

True Patriotism

As commentators on both CNN and MSNBC have made abundantly clear in the last 24 hours, the reason we neglect the Egyptian population (and other Arab populations) and their freedom is because we support the dictator Mubarak in order to secure our two primary strategic goals, past and present, in the Middle East: defend Israel and secure access to oil.  It's pretty much really that simple. 

That history and strategy puts our President and State Department in a huge bind in this Egyptian crisis, and consequently you see them stumbling around, not knowing quite what to say or do.  In their dithering, however, they/we run the risk, especially if things turn really bad, of further alienating the populations of the Middle East  and the world, and creating even more anti-Americanism than already exists.  (This is already happening with the disgusting sight in the media of empty teargas canisters, used by the Egyptian secret police to gas the people, made in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, just five miles from where I went to college, and given to the Egyptian government as part of our $1.3 billion military aid grant every year.)

Another lesson of this crisis: the diplomatic language that is used in public hides a multitude of sins.  One always needs to look beneath the mere surface of things (in the media, government, or most any other setting) for the reality.  Skepticism in this regard is always the wiser course.  Don't trust any government's words, including your own.  Always look at what they do for the truth.  Be ready to believe that they may well be naive, hypocrites, scoundrels or even criminals. 

True patriotism does not mean believing what your national leader's say, with your hand over your heart.  It means doing what is actually in the best, long-term interests of your own country and, to the extent possible, that of the entire world.  And that can well mean opposing the intentions and actions of your own government.  As Samuel Johnson wisely said, in 1775, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." 

Think for yourselves; don't let FOX or MSNBC or CNN or (add your own list of 'authorities') think for you.  One of the great Americans in our history was Henry David Thoreau, and perhaps his second best essay, after Walden, was Civil Disobedience, written in 1849.  In it, he wrote this about the true and real patriot:
Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desireable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time which I think right....

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus,etc.  In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.  Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.  They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs.  Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens.  Others--as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders--serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.  A very few--as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men--serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it....

Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was.  It not only divides States and churches, it divides families;  ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Dirty Little Secret

An event like that which is dominating the world stage this week, i.e. the violent uprising in Egypt, ends up revealing something that most of us, and certainly the United States government, would rather keep hidden.  I speak of the dirty little secret that most Americans do not really understand. 

What is that dirty little secret?  It is the fact that since World War II, the United States has in fact not been the foremost promoter and advocate for worldwide democracy.  Rather we have done most everything we can to secure a network of client states that will serve our economic and political interests.  And those are not the same thing.

After WWII, the United States was the top dog of the world, the 'indispensible nation' as Secretary of State Madeline Albright once put it.  Every other nation, with very few exceptions (Sweden?  Switzerland?), was either conquered, destroyed, devastated (or just plain third world undeveloped) by the most destructive war in human history.  Even the Soviet Union, our war ally turned Communist enemy almost overnight, was prostrate economically in 1945, having been nearly destroyed by the German invasion of 1941.  (If you want to see a really good movie illustrating this, watch Enemy at the Gates and see how the Germans ground the Russians to dust, before they themselves were blown to pieces by the Russians.)

So what did we do?  Partly in response to a perceived Communist/Soviet threat, partly because we wanted to achieve 'unilateral global hegemony' indefinitely, but I think mostly because we desired to maintain our global economy dominance in perpetuity (in 1945, we turned out 50% of the world's economic product) we established a network of client states, allied with us, and largely controlled by us, all over the world: in Europe, in Asia and Africa, in the Middle East, in South and Central America.

In each of these country, we basically made sure that the rulers were compliant friends of ours, and we established military/intelligence relationships with each ally, along with lucrative economic arrangements (for the US and those leaders, not the people of the client states).  And we resisted any change in these governments that would threaten their compliant status.  In other words, we were not interested in promoting democracies, as our national mythology wants us to believe.  We preferred authoritarian states, with strong, dictatorial leaders dependent on us.  And whenever these leaders were threatened by populist uprisings, we would yell 'Communist!' (now we yell 'Al-Qaeda), and either send in our troops or our CIA agents to suppress the uprisings with as little or as much bloodshed or violence as it took.  (Here I would recommend the books Legacy of Ashes:The History of the CIA by NY Times reporter Tim Weiner, and Rogue State: a Guide to the World's Only Superpower by William Blum, for a plethora of evidence and examples all over the world.)

The Reason There is Revolution in Egypt and Why We're Not Sure That We Like It

Egypt is a very poor, very polarized, very large Arab nation. Like many other Arab nations, it also has a very large population of young adults who are highly educated, highly motivated, and now connected by social media like Twitter and Facebook, but who are also very frustrated by the lack of democracy and economic opportunity. They are basically sick and tired of the authoritarian rule of President Mubarek, who has ruled for 30 years in a single party police state.

Unfortunately, he has also been our strong ally for 30 years, and we have not really encouraged democratic steps, preferring the 'stability' that his rule maintains. So, the US is being seen as very hypocritical in all this, proclaiming democracy but defending autocracy and dictatorship. That's why you're seeing a good deal of uncomfortable hemming and hawing by our government right now.

The chickens are coming home to roost now for our foreign policy. Saudi Arabia is in the same situation: our ally, very dictatorial. Fortunately, the people there are probably not in a position to protest or rebel, so things are safe for now in Saudi Arabia. But don't kid yourself, we're still supporting dictators so we can access the oil and defend Israel. That's what it boils down to, and it really bothers the 'street' in the Middle East.

Wikileaks Strikes Again

There has been a good discussion on the Diane Rehm show about the revolutions occurring in Tunisia and Egypt. One interesting thing is the credit they are giving to the Wikileaks for sparking these uprisings.

The Embarrassment Called Defense Spending

Andrew Bacevich, professor of international politics at Boston University and former Army officer, exposes the 'naked king' called the Pentagon:
In defense circles, "cutting" the Pentagon budget has once again become a topic of conversation. Americans should not confuse that talk with reality. Any cuts exacted will at most reduce the rate of growth. The essential facts remain: U.S. military outlays today equal that of every other nation on the planet combined, a situation without precedent in modern history.

The Pentagon presently spends more in constant dollars than it did at any time during the Cold War -- this despite the absence of anything remotely approximating what national security experts like to call a "peer competitor." Evil Empire? It exists only in the fevered imaginations of those who quiver at the prospect of China adding a rust-bucket Russian aircraft carrier to its fleet or who take seriously the ravings of radical Islamists promising from deep inside their caves to unite the Umma in a new caliphate.

What are Americans getting for their money? Sadly, not much. Despite extraordinary expenditures (not to mention exertions and sacrifices by U.S. forces), the return on investment is, to be generous, unimpressive. The chief lesson to emerge from the battlefields of the post-9/11 era is this: the Pentagon possesses next to no ability to translate "military supremacy" into meaningful victory.

Washington knows how to start wars and how to prolong them, but is clueless when it comes to ending them. Iraq, the latest addition to the roster of America's forgotten wars, stands as exhibit A. Each bomb that blows up in Baghdad or some other Iraqi city, splattering blood all over the streets, testifies to the manifest absurdity of judging "the surge" as the epic feat of arms celebrated by the Petraeus lobby.

The problems are strategic as well as operational. Old Cold War-era expectations that projecting U.S. power will enhance American clout and standing no longer apply, especially in the Islamic world. There, American military activities are instead fostering instability and inciting anti-Americanism. For Exhibit B, see the deepening morass that Washington refers to as AfPak or the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations.

Add to that the mountain of evidence showing that Pentagon, Inc. is a miserably managed enterprise: hide-bound, bloated, slow-moving, and prone to wasting resources on a prodigious scale -- nowhere more so than in weapons procurement and the outsourcing of previously military functions to "contractors." When it comes to national security, effectiveness (what works) should rightly take precedence over efficiency (at what cost?) as the overriding measure of merit. Yet beyond a certain level, inefficiency undermines effectiveness, with the Pentagon stubbornly and habitually exceeding that level. By comparison, Detroit's much-maligned Big Three offer models of well-run enterprises.
There is much more in this article that is well worth reading and tells the unvarnished truth about our national security state called America.

Standing By 'Our' Dictators

Laura Flanders writes about our speechlessness concerning the Egyptian protests:
In the State of the Union speech, Barack Obama did get applause for saying that the US stands with the people of Tunisia. Now, he didn't mention the two decades of support the US had given the dictatorship.

The President did not have anything to say about Egypt -- where thousands of people, inspired by Tunisia, were taking to the streets to protest their own repressive government — another one the US has backed for years. Secretary of State Clinton's official word is that the Egyptian government was “stable”. Aha. She said it's “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests” of its people. And she urged “restraint” as they suppressed protesters.

Today there's more tear gas and water trucks being used on people in the streets of Cairo, and Twitter's been blocked. As has become the norm, social media helped Egyptian protesters organize and spread the word: Video was uploaded to the Web from cell-phone cameras; it showed activists blocking trucks with water cannons and fighting off police batons.

As of Wednesday night the Guardian newspaper was reporting six dead. And now the Twitter-world's aflame with reports that Egypt's ruling Mubarak family's arrived in Heathrow. Stable -- in another country -- I don't think that's what Secretary Clinton meant.

While this was playing out President Obama was holding forth on US exceptionalism, and especially its role promoting world democracy.

The Leader Who Refuses to Lead

The negative assessments of Obama's State of the Union are now beginning to flood in, after mostly happy talk about good feelings.  This from WaPo columnist (not necessarily a conservative that I know of) Ruth Marcus:
The state of the union is . . . leaderless.

Sounds harsh, but when it comes to digging America out from what President Obama calls its "mountain of debt," I'm becoming increasingly worried that this assessment is accurate.

The president talks the talk about fiscal responsibility. But the evidence suggests he's not willing to spend the political capital to translate that talk into action.

Some serious people with unquestioned bona fides on fiscal responsibility grasped at wispy tendrils of seriousness in the president's remarks. He mentioned Social Security! He talked about tax reform! I hope they are right but fear they are deluding themselves.

From the Moon Landing to Solar Shingles

I hate to say it, but Charles Krauthammer--a neo-con whose views I normally disdain--is right:
The November election sent a clear message to Washington: less government, less debt, less spending. President Obama certainly heard it, but judging from his State of the Union address, he doesn't believe a word of it. The people say they want cuts? Sure they do - in the abstract. But any party that actually dares carry them out will be punished severely. On that, Obama stakes his reelection.

No other conclusion can be drawn from a speech that didn't even address the debt issue until 35 minutes in. And then what did he offer? A freeze on domestic discretionary spending that he himself admitted would affect a mere one-eighth of the budget.

Obama seemed impressed, however, that it would produce $400 billion in savings over 10 years. That's an average of $40 billion a year. The deficit for last year alone was more than 30 times as much. And total federal spending was more than 85 times that amount. A $40 billion annual savings for a government that just racked up $3 trillion in new debt over the past two years is deeply unserious. It's spillage, a rounding error.

As for entitlements, which are where the real money is, Obama said practically nothing. He is happy to discuss, but if Republicans dare take anything from granny, he shall be Horatius at the bridge.

This entire pantomime about debt reduction came after the first half of a speech devoted to, yes, new spending. One almost has to admire Obama's defiance. His 2009 stimulus and budget-busting health-care reform are precisely what stirred the popular revolt that delivered his November shellacking. And yet he's back for more.

It's as if Obama is daring the voters - and the Republicans - to prove they really want smaller government. He's manning the barricades for Obamacare, and he's here with yet another spending - excuse me, investment - spree. To face down those overachieving Asians, Obama wants to sink yet more monies into yet more road and bridge repair, more federally subsidized teachers - with a bit of high-speed rail tossed in for style. That will show the Chinese.

And of course, once again, there is the magic lure of a green economy created by the brilliance of Washington experts and politicians. This is to be our "Sputnik moment," when the fear of the foreigner spurs us to innovation and greatness of the kind that yielded NASA and the moon landing.

Apart from the irony of this appeal being made by the very president who has just killed NASA's manned space program, there is the fact that for three decades, since Jimmy Carter's synfuel fantasy, Washington has poured billions of taxpayer dollars down a rat hole in vain pursuit of economically competitive renewable energy.
Where Krauthammer and I would disagree, I'm sure, is that the wealthy and their grotesquely growing bank accounts need to be taxed more for the good of the budget and the nation. Not that that fixes everything, but they need to contribute their fair share, and they haven't!

Egyptian Protest: "Middle-Class, Non-ideological, And Pro-Western"

It's nice to see something hopeful happening somewhere in the world: Tunisia, Egypt, and other American allies where secular (not Islamist) young people are using the internet to throw off their autocratic and undemocratic rulers. Here's Roger Cohen from the NYT:
Sure, the first decade of the 21st century has seen anti-Western authoritarianism hold its ground, and there’s no question the people running repressive systems are quick studies who’ve learned to exploit, or suppress, a revolutionary technology that challenges them. Still, they’re swimming against the tide. The freedom to connect is a tool of liberation — and it’s powerful.

I am writing this on my return from Tunisia, where Facebook gave young protesters the connective muscle to oust an Arab dictator, and as I watch on YouTube images of brave young Egyptians confronting the clubs and water-cannons of President Hosni Mubarak’s goons.

“All they have, all they have,” says one bloodied protester of the brute force he’s encountered. Yes, when all you have is a big hammer — and that’s what’s left in the arsenal of decaying, nepotistic Arab regimes — everything looks like a nail.

The truth is these men — add the 23-year rule of the ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to the reigns of Mubarak and Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya and you have almost a century of despotism — are relics to whom a wired world has given the lie.

Organization, networking, exposure to suppressed ideas and information, the habits of debate and self-empowerment in a culture of humiliation and conspiracy: These are some of the gifts social media is bestowing on overwhelmingly young populations across the Arab world.

Above all, the Internet’s impact has been to expose the great delusion that has led Western governments to buttress Arab autocrats: that the only alternative to them was Islamic jihadists. No, the Tunisian revolution was middle-class, un-Islamic and pro-Western. The people in the streets of Cairo are young, connected, non-ideological and pragmatic: They want a promise that Mubarak won’t stand in the presidential election this year or hand power to his son, Gamal, who, by the way, has a nice pad on London’s chic Eaton Square.

As the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei told my colleagues David Kirkpatrick and Michael Slackman, “I am pretty sure that any freely and fairly elected government in Egypt will be a moderate one, but America is really pushing Egypt and pushing the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.”

Enough already! If Clinton was serious in announcing that a U.S. priority is now to “harness the power of connection technologies and apply them to our diplomatic goals,” and if she truly sees the Arab world’s foundations “sinking into the sand,” the moment is now to back change in Cairo.

It's About the Banks, Stupid!

Paul Krugman makes an important point about Europe and the lessons of its own economic crisis for America:
Let’s talk about what really happened in Ireland and Britain.

On the eve of the financial crisis, conservatives had nothing but praise for Ireland, a low-tax, low-spending country by European standards. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom ranked it above every other Western nation. In 2006, George Osborne, now Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer, declared Ireland “a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policy making.” And the truth was that in 2006-2007 Ireland was running a budget surplus, and had one of the lowest debt levels in the advanced world.

So what went wrong? The answer is: out-of-control banks; Irish banks ran wild during the good years, creating a huge property bubble. When the bubble burst, revenue collapsed, causing the deficit to surge, while public debt exploded because the government ended up taking over bank debts. And harsh spending cuts, while they have led to huge job losses, have failed to restore confidence.

The lesson of the Irish debacle, then, is very nearly the opposite of what Mr. Ryan would have us believe. It doesn’t say “cut spending now, or bad things will happen”; it says that balanced budgets won’t protect you from crisis if you don’t effectively regulate your banks — a point made in the newly released report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which concludes that “30 years of deregulation and reliance on self-regulation” helped create our own catastrophe. Have I mentioned that Republicans are doing everything they can to undermine financial reform?

Obama As Nero

David Brooks writes a heavenly dialogue between Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton, his two great alter-egos, on the issue of the SOTU. Burke is given the optimistic lines, seeing Obama as the great practical realist of the day. Hamilton is the hysterical pessimist, seeing all this as a huge disaster in the making:
Hamilton: You’re mad, Burke! Obama has completely misread the national situation. The United States is careening toward disaster. The deficit this year is the highest in history: $1.48 trillion. In a mere eight years, the national debt will hit 90 percent of G.D.P. Interest payments alone on the debt will be $1 trillion! And he goes before the country with nostalgic happy talk and decides to spend the next two years treading water?

He pats himself on the back for a spending freeze projected to save $400 billion over 10 years. That’s an infinitesimal sliver of the $45 trillion the government will be spending over that time.

Is he aware of the national bankruptcy rushing ever closer? Doesn’t he see that the nation wants a fundamental change in Washington, not a few more tax credits for solar panels?

Obama is going to go down in history as the Nero who fiddled as Rome burned. He reformed health care without changing the ruinous incentives that were bankrupting the system. He submitted budgets that hastened the national collapse. The Republicans accuse him of being a socialist, but, the fact is, he’s Mr. Status Quo.
It looks like Brooks feels like I do: he would like to hope, with Burke, that Obama is right, but he fears, with Hamilton, that he's not.

Political Paralysis

Here's my depressing thought of the day:

Regardless of all the high-sounding talk from the President, the Republicans, and the Democrats, things are so paralyzed in Washington that nothing will be done of any significance before the election in 2012 (or barring some kind of radical shift in power, after that either).  Neither the kind of innovation and national investment that Obama says he wants, or the kind of budget cutting and deficit shrinking that the Republicans say they want.

So we'll remain in the worst of all positions: treading water with an unsustainable status quo.  That's why I'm pessimistic, in spite of all the happy talk.  What it will take to change things is something I just cannot envision.

Taking the SOTU With, Not a Grain But A Bag of Salt

Vedran Vuk, writer of Doug Casey, explains his skepticism about all State of the Union addresses, a skepticism I share to a great extent:
Guess what I didn’t do last night? That’s right, watch the State of the Union address. However, I’ll take this moment to congratulate the team of mid-20s English and Political Science students who wrote the speech. I’m sure that they did an excellent job. Let’s not forget the researchers too. Also, someone had to get the polling data to determine the best-selling sound bites. Of course, remember the proofreaders that agonized on each sentence and word to ensure its impact. Excellent job, team. You deserve a round of applause and drinks.

Sadly, I’m not trying to ridicule the speech. This is really what happens in D.C. For a short time, I ghostwrote articles and helped design talking points in Washington. Essentially, the process starts with a team of researchers. They dig for any data that defends a certain viewpoint. They’re not there to find the “solution” to a problem – just the info that makes their side look good. A research team chooses the best figures or facts and passes them off to a professional writer.

The writer creates a speech, op-ed, or sound bite specifically tailored to the moderate centrist voter. I was always told, “Imagine that you’re writing for your grandmother who doesn’t care about politics and reads the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Don’t write anything controversial. Don’t write anything complex. Avoid big words.”

Sometimes, if it’s close enough to campaign season, the writer will have expensive non-public polls to aid his work. The same poll questions are often worded in numerous ways to find the strongest response. Furthermore, the polls help identify the most burning points. For example, what’s bothering the voter most about the bank bailouts: is it the dollar amount, the bonuses, or the lack of results? With this data, a good writer can shape a hard-hitting piece.

But it doesn’t end there. After the writer has spent a day or two on it, the piece is circulated to a team of other professional writers. Parts are removed and added. Specific words are carefully debated and examined with microscopic precision. When the piece is done, it is finally handed to the political figure or person who will be the “author.” Sometimes, they’ll change one or two sentences…

I’ve made the sausage myself; so I have no interest in these speeches. I only listen when a politician is caught off guard. When a Joe the Plumber starts asking question out of nowhere, then it’s time to listen. But even these responses are often manufactured. Manipulating the American public is down to a science in D.C. As a result, I tune out for these events whenever possible.
The SOTU was clearly a masterful political success. But other than helping Obama's political fortunes, it's hard to take it seriously as a roadmap for the future. But, hey, like a good sermon (or what our culture thinks is a good sermon), people leave feeling good about everything. And perhaps, as William James would say, believing something to be good may help make it good. Or, on the other hand, maybe it just helps you to avoid the tough decisions until they come and smack you in the face.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

How Quickly Things Change

It's amazing how things pop up seemingly out of nowhere.  The turmoil in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, with populations truly tired of their authoritarian leaders' ways, and the rapid change in President Obama's standing in the country, being two recent examples.  You should never be too confident in your view of how things are going in the world around you, because they can change completely overnight.

Tea Party Congressmen Pushing For Larger Cuts in Defense

According to the NYT, the Republicans in Congress are now engaged in internecine warfare on the defense budget, pitting the establishment Republicans who basically want little or no cuts, versus the new 'tea party' Republicans who are urging more drastic cuts:
To hear the Republican leadership tell it, the once-sacred Pentagon budget, protected by the party for generations, is suddenly on the table. But a closer look shows that even as Speaker John A. Boehner and Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, insist on the need for military cuts, divisions have opened among Republicans about whether, and how much, to chop Pentagon spending that comes to more than a half trillion dollars a year.

Those differences were on display Wednesday on Capitol Hill, where the traditional Republican who now leads the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Howard P. McKeon, fought back against proposed cuts in the Pentagon budget even as fledgling committee members supported by the Tea Party said that the nation’s debts amounted to a national security risk.

“I cannot say it strongly enough: I will not support any measures that stress our forces and jeopardize the lives of our men and women in uniform,” Mr. McKeon said in an opening statement that followed up on a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates urging him not to stop work on the Marines’ $14.4. billion Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a combined landing craft and tank for amphibious assaults that Mr. Gates canceled this month.

But Representative Chris Gibson, a Tea Party-endorsed freshman Republican and a retired Army colonel from New York’s Hudson River Valley, made it clear that no part of the Pentagon’s $550 billion budget — some $700 billion including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — was immune.

“This deficit that we have threatens our very way of life, and everything needs to be on the table,” Mr. Gibson told William J. Lynn III, the deputy defense secretary, who testified at the hearing along with Gen. Peter J. Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, and other service vice chiefs.

The discordant Republican voices on military spending have bred confusion on Capitol Hill, among military contractors and within the military itself, where no one is exactly sure what the members backed by the Tea Party will do.
This is what I was hoping for last year when I gave some support to several Tea Party politicians (including Rand Paul, but NOT including the irrational Sharron Angle and the 'not-a-witch' from Delaware).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


My nephew Tim sent this hilarious post:

Methodist Death Tsunami in 2018

I once told a prominent pastor friend of mine last year that I thought the United Methodist Church in America was in deep trouble.  He never responded to that, so I guess he didn't want to hear it.

Now comes this email from one of our District Superintendents (pastors who supervise districts made up of 60-100 churches and pastors).  It appears my sentiments appear to be shared by others:
Last week I heard Lovett Weems at the DS Consultation. He is the head of the Lewis Center of Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC. I like him, for like Doug Anderson whom we had a few years ago, he makes mud clear.

On last Thursday, he had a session on "What's Ahead for the United Methodist Church." It was eye opening. Here is some of what I heard him say. We are in the middle not only of an economic recession. We are also in the middle of a worship recession. Worship increased until 2001. After 2002, there has been a major drop off in worship attendance. The definition of regular attendance has changed from every week to twice a month. How does that definition play in your church?

Looking at the larger context - everything having to do with money has increased since the merger in 1968.
• Net assets increased by 206%
• Giving per worshiper has increased by 178%
• Total giving has increased by 147%

Everything dealing with people has gone down since 1968:
• Churches - 87%
• Attendance - 82%
• Membership - 76%
• Profession of faith - 61%
• Children & Youth - 40%

What this means is that fewer people are giving more. This is where the year 2018 comes in. He calls 2018 the beginning of the coming "Death Tsunami." Deaths are going to increase in the United Methodist Church. First, he depressed me by pointing out that I am now in the category of "older United Methodist ministers." Second he reminded me of what comes after old...which is death. The GI generation is leaving the stage now at 1,000 WWII vets a day. Boomers this year will be retiring at the rate of 7,000 a day which then means we will be beginning the next step, which is the death tsunami. Cheery thought, isn't it?

What this means is that if we do nothing, we will be facing a financial burden that will drive everything else. Just think about your own church. How many people in your active membership are 65+? How much of your budget may be attributed to them? Now, think about that disappearing in the next 5 to 10 years? What will that do to your ministry and what your church can afford in the way of a pastor?

The good news is that we have 7 years to position ourselves to be ready. Some of our churches have less than 7 years. So what is the way out?
His answer was (1)get your budgets in order; and (2)attract more people.  Hmmmm....I wonder if this is going to save Methodism from a slow, grinding, painful decline?   Naa!  Where is Charles Finney,  Dwight Moody, and Billy Sunday (or, I would add, even Billy Graham) when we need them?

Fox New's Early Campaign Contributions

David Frum has this interesting insight on the Republican candidates and their relationship to Fox News:
Once a candidate declares, they will be obliged to resign their jobs as media commenters. Media Matters calculates the value of airtime devoted to Fox commenters Huckabee, Palin, Gingrich, and also John Bolton and Rick Santorum at $55 million.

That does not include the value of whatever fees are paid those commenters. A lot has been said about the role of Fox in 2012. One effect could be unexpectedly perverse: a late start.

Doomsday Project

This article by Peter Dale Scott is worth reading.  He writes about issues that you won't find in the MSM, and he's a brilliant (if somewhat eccentric) scholar and diplomat.  I think there's a good chance he is correct about the Doomsday Project.  I've long thought that a lot of evidence points to 9/11 as an 'inside' job, and this article fits that idea into a larger, more frightening scenario.

The question this raises for me: how would Obama fit into this scenario?  Would he be the innocent, unknowing face of the open, democratic mask of America, or would he be more knowledgable of the way things really are and therefore more implicated somehow?

Historical Distortion

This little article by Christopher Hitchens on the sordid historical realities behind the movie, The King's Speech, is well worth reading.  How true it is, I don't know.

State of the Union? Very Questionable

Some thoughts on the 2011 State of the Union Speech.

The best thing about it all was the change in the seating, which led to a more dignified and less partisan event (and also less political pep rally-like atmosphere, thank God).  I hope they never go back to the old way.  The Gifford tragedy has resulted in something good, thank goodness.

I thought that President Obama started off strong and ended up weak, which seems to me to be his pattern.  I was genuinely moved and inspired with the first, what, 10 or 15 minutes of his presentation.  By the end, I was wincing.

As is also his pattern, he tends to say the 'right' things in theory, but then often doesn't follow through in particulars.  His theme of our 'Sputnik moment' is quite true, but I don't think that the policies or measures he set forth are going to do the trick.  You can talk all you want about innovation and competitiveness as the key to economic growth, but if every new product or invention is sent offshore to be manufactured, then the majority of our citizens will not really benefit from it. 

The last thirty years of 'growth' have been a disaster for America, in that it was illusory and not true growth at all.  It was based primarily on debt and a 'casino' economy, with the mostly non-productive finance sector (along with the super rich in general) gobbling up whole portions of the nation's wealth, leaving the ordinary person slowly sinking below the waves of higher debt, lower wages or no job at all, little in the way of retirement and a housing crisis that has crippled people's wealth and mobility.

What in the President's proposals will change this?  Despite his boast of change, he has fundamentally left the financial sector to continues in its greedy ways, which is probably my primary grip with his first two years in office (seconded by his Bushian policies on Afghanistan and terrorism).  But I am encouraged by his rescue of GM and the auto industry (but even that was started by the Bush administration before him).  He is also making an effort to increase exports, which could go a long way toward resolving many of our problems.  Also, his clean energy policies are a step in the right direction, although I'm somewhat skeptical that reducing our reliance on foreign oil can be halted in this way, without a major increase through taxation on oil importation, which politically can't be done.  I don't see many people being able to afford a Volt or putting solar panels on their roofs in the near future.  And the high-speed rail, that just isn't going to happen.  I'd be happy for just regular old rail that runs regularly, on time, and where you actually need to go.  But that probably isn't going to happen either.

I remain quite skeptical as well about his education proposals.  Though well-intentioned, I'm not sure that increasing the number of young people going to college is the answer to our economic woes.  There is a natural limit to the number of kids you can graduate from college and have employed in good jobs.  Question: do all economically sound countries have a high percentage of college graduates?  I googled this and it turns out, at least in one study, that Russia, of all countries has the highest percentage of college graduates (Associates degree or higher) at 54%.  Not exactly a model of economic growth and sophistication, I'd say.  The U.S. is down the list at 40%.  But guess which economically strong countries rank below that?  Denmark for example, one of the strong albeit smaller economies, comes in at 32%.  Switzerland is at 31%.  Germany and France, two perennially strong European economies, come in WAY below that with 22 and 16%, respectively.  And last but not least, perhaps the strongest and fastest growing economy in South America, Brazil, graduates only 8% of their people from college.  In other words, it is not at all clear to me that a higher percentage of college graduates leads to a strong economy.

I've written before about a non-productive bubble growing in our higher education sector, and I still think that's the case.  And the same is true for health care.  Perhaps Obama is thinking that we can 'export' our higher education and health care to the rest of the world, by having the wealthy folks from all the growing economies in the rest of the world send their kids to be educated here and their sick to be cured here.  Is that true?  I don't know, maybe.  I've not seen any projections about it and I'd like to.

There was very little mention of our foreign wars in this speech.  Understandably, politically.  It would be like pointing to an infected pimple on one's face, when what you want to do is just ignore it and distract everyone from looking at it.  Unfortunately, our Middle Eastern Wars are there in plain sight for everyone to gaze upon in disgust.  And there was of course no mention of real defense cuts.  That is an abomination.  There is no way we're going to solve our huge debt problems through domestic discretionary spending.  Period.  The libertarians and progressives are correct about that.

Maybe we can muddle through the next thirty years on huge military/intelligence expenditures, clean energy expenditures, and a bloated health care and higher education industries.  But frankly, I doubt it.  I think our economic woes are going to come back and bite us in the arse, through a monetary/debt crisis, continued high unemployment and rising poverty, private and public bankruptcies, a continuing housing crisis, increasing commodity/consumer goods inflation, a possible military confrontation with China, and worst of all, a possible BIG terrorist incident in one of our cities, which will turn America into an armed camp and would mean the real loss of our liberty, perhaps forever.

Sorry to be so pessimistic, but that just seems to me to be the more likely outcome.  I hope Obama's right, but I fear that I am.

Ps.  As I read other reactions to the speech on the net, I realize more what a political speech this was, that is, it really wasn't serious policy-wise (because very few of his proposals will get through Congress) but he fundamentally wanted to make Americans feel good, hopeful, etc.  But that isn't what we really need to solve our problems, I don't think.  It's more just 'feel good' sentimentality.

But it may help Obama get reelected.  Which may well have been the primary purpose of the speech, given the paralyzed state of our politics and the unlikihood of accomplishing anything in the next two years legislatively.  He made the Republicans in the House look like reactionary accountants.  It was a VERY effective speech in that regard. 

By the way, don't you think Weeper John Boehner looked out of place in the Speaker's chair behind Obama?  He'd make a very good car dealership owner (no offense to car dealers).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Repubican's Lobotomy

Richard Cohen of the WaPo writes of the Republicans in a similar vein to my own post of a few days ago. Writing about an new GOP candidate named Herman Cain, he notes:
I now know slightly more about Cain than I do of John Thune, Mike Pence and Jon Huntsman. They are also mentioned as possible GOP presidential candidates. They join a field of better-knowns, which includes the inevitable Sarah Palin, the persistent Newt Gingrich, the ideologically flexible Mitt Romney, the religiously besotted Tim Pawlenty, the improbable Haley Barbour, the familiar Mike Huckabee, the diligently competent Mitch Daniels and the ferociously conservative Rick Santorum, who could not even hold on to his Senate seat. As this list makes clear, the Democrats will occupy the White House forever.

...there's not a name on the list that screams president! Some of these people are so obscure their faces could be on milk cartons. Huntsman, now the ambassador to China, has no more name recognition than does Cain, who at least has an Atlanta-based radio show. The same holds for Pence and Daniels, substantive figures but nearly invisible to the naked eye. Among other things, they are unconnected dots - Pence and what? Daniels and what? Finish the sentence. What are their causes?

I hear good things about Daniels. I hear good things about Huntsman. Yet no matter how well they test, they must, like all the others, conform to GOP dogma. This will shrink the biggest of men. They have to swear allegiance to a balanced budget, dangerously low taxes, cutting (trivial) waste, fraud and abuse from the budget, the sacredness of even microscopic life, the innocence of mankind in the cooking of the planet, the inviolability of the 18th-century Constitution, meeting the challenges of globalism with even more localism and a furious rejection of the lessons of Keynes - even when those lessons are successfully applied.

Some of this, I think, is linked to a religious faith that rejects an appropriate skepticism. The Republican credo was enunciated by Pawlenty last year when he declared at the Conservative Political Action Conference that "God's in charge." For those who did not quite get this drift, he repeated himself. "God is in charge." Why he felt compelled to make a public spectacle of what in years past would have been a personal matter is now obvious. Republicans are more religious than Democrats (50 percent of evangelicals are Republicans while only 34 percent are Democrats, according to a Pew poll), but the more telling figure is this one from a different survey: Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to believe Satan is a real spiritual entity. The devil, as you can see, is in the polling details.

The consequence of such views has to be crushing. It is simply impossible for a centrist to capture the Republican presidential nomination - maybe even to be a Republican. (I challenge any of the above to wholeheartedly endorse evolution or global warming.) The party continues on a course that has already driven out the political moderates and pro-choicers that once comprised its intellectual and financial core and, in the staffing of administrations, still somewhat does - Colin Powell, for instance. To call this a brain drain understates the calamity. It's a political lobotomy.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Who Does This Sound Like?

I've been reading a wonderful biography by Robert Richardson of UNC of the great Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James, and I ran across this quote from a series of lectures he gave in Boston in 1896 on the topic of 'abnormal psychology'. It concerned witchcraft, and more specifically, medieval witch-hunters [friars of the Inquisition]:
"Incapable of simply saying 'lunacy,' as so many others had, James struggled to grasp the mentality of witch-hunters. He imagined a small mind 'guiding a will that stuck at nothing in the way of cruelty, and a conscience raised to fever heat by the idea that the battle was directly waged with God's enemy Satan, there in the very room.'  The torture session in the Malleus [Maleficarum] gave him, James said, 'the most curious gruesome rathole feeling.'"

Libertarian Attack on Defense Spending

Now this is why I supported some of the libertarian Tea Party candidates like Ron and Rand Paul:
[Tea Partyer] Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, has proposed cutting total government spending by $153 billion, including deep reductions in defense and elimination of several weapons programs. Brady called it a "down payment" on getting the country's finances in order.

In an unusual political pairing, liberal Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a libertarian and former Republican presidential candidate, have joined forces in pushing for substantial reductions in the defense budget, including closing some of the 600-plus military bases overseas.

"I'll work with anybody," Frank said of the effort, which could attract other liberal Democrats who have tried for years to reduce post-Cold War military spending and tea party-backed Republicans.

The schism within the GOP is philosophical as well as generational. Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, 48, a tea party favorite, says all spending should come under scrutiny, from food stamps to foreign aid to money for wars. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 74, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, worries about the rise of protectionism and isolationism in the Republican Party.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Blood on the Floor

Alexander Cockburn on the Republicans:
Before the shootings the Republicans were rearing and plunging as they burst out of the starting gate for the new Congressional session. John Boehner (dry eyed when talking about what happened in Tucson) went through a couple of cambric kerchiefs wiping the tears from his eyes in his “maiden” address as Speaker while down on the floor manly Republicans like Steve King of Iowa exulted that the blood-dimmed tides of payback were about to be loosed.

It was King, back in September, who fretted that the Republican leadership might go soft on reforming Obamacare, and that “a blood oath” of fortitude was necessary. It was King too who talked about the necessity of there being “blood on the floor” in the struggle for America’s future. Their first legislative target, Obama's health insurance bill, which passed into law last summer, was rolled out under the title, ‘Repeal of the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act'. They just couldn’t get enough of blood or killing. One columnist did a search on how many bills have had the word "killing" in the title. He found that "almost no legislation in 20 years used the word".

Then real blood splattered across the parking lot of a Tucson Safeway. The sheriff of Pima Country blamed poisonous rhetoric. Panic-stricken Republicans spent the next two weeks embarking on a fairly successful campaign to persuade the press that two years worth of incendiary, para-homicidal rhetoric could by definition have absolutely no measurable effect on any psychotic in America, including Loughner. Liberal pundits like Jonathan Alter obediently clicked their heels and agreed that putting targets on electoral maps was as influential in measurable consequence as sticking a soft toy on the window of a Volvo.

They may have counter-attacked with some effect in this skirmish, but even now about a third of the country still believes that violent political rhetoric helped provoke Loughner's rampage.

The Republicans have lost their ’mo, at least for a while. But efforts by their leaders to damp down the bellicosity of newly elected Tea Party types is running into the fact that the Tea Partiers have only the high volume setting on their amplifiers, just like Palin. They're like a couple having a fight at a funeral; politely sotto voce, then suddenly bursting out fortissimo with their plaints and accusations.
And on Obama:
Meanwhile Obama is looking more chipper than he has in the whole of the last year, a unifier at last, acting presidential as he triangulates just as Bill did in 95 and the years thereafter. Clinton and Gore “reinvented government” and Obama vows to do away with irksome regulations (like storing long form birth certificates securely) that hold America back.

Where is Monica Lewinsky now that we need her? Coming off the Tucson memorial service and the performance of the intern who may have saved Giffords’ life Slate compiled a list of Great Contributions by Interns in History. Of course it failed to include Monica Lewinsky and her almost single-handed salvation, exclusively reported here in CounterPunch, of Social Security which Clinton was on the very edge of “reforming” before the scandal forced him to drop his plans.
Cockburn's a little tough here on Obama, but only a little. I actually think that Obama will prefer his new 'situation'. This way he doesn't really have to lead, only 'facilitate', which seems to be his preferred M.O. 

A Rant About Republicans, in the Person of Weeper Boehner

As much as I criticize Obama, on the whole I'm glad he's President and not his opponent in the 2008 election, the unstable and quite possibly demented John McCain (and his chosen successor, Sarah Palin).  I feel mostly distain and real bitterness toward the Republican Party in most of its expressions.  They are warmongers, irresponsible economic hypocrites, and corporate prostitutes.  They talk small government, but when in office they just increase spending and the size of government.  They cut taxes but don't cut spending, and so they increase the deficit and national debt, even as they decry the deficits.  Then, when they're out of office, they criticize the Democrats for doing exactly what THEY did when in office.  Unfortunately, enough of the American people are stupid enough to believe them.

Republicans don't really care a lick (at least when it comes to actual policy) for the average American, the working and middle class millions who get up every day and make this country happen.  Or to put it another way, as Weeper Boehner keeps saying, it's the 'American Dream' they really care about, not the American people.  The Weeper cries about HIS having achieved the American Dream, not about the problems of the American people.  He has no intention and no interest in fixing the problems, for example, in our national health care system, despite his pledge to repeal Obamacare.  As far as I can see, he could care less that 50 million Americans don't have any health insurance.  He seems perfectly content to allow the dysfunctional, pre-Obama health care system to go happily on its way toward collapse.  It appears that as long as his corporate sponsors are happy, and as long as they keep their prodigious political contributions and perks coming, then he is happy.  It boggles my mind that John Boehner could be a successful Speaker of the House.  I think he will not.  In the meantime, just think, he is only two political murders away from being President.  My, that's a comforting thought!

The Republicans, with just a few exceptions (Ron and Rand Paul, the Maine Senators, and a few others), are a complete and utter farce.    God help us (and preserve and keep Barack Obama and Joe Biden!).

Reforming Social Security and Medicare

E. J. Dionne states the Social Security issue forthrightly and correctly:
Any proposal to raise the Social Security retirement age is a nonstarter because there is no reason to waste political capital on Social Security cuts that would do nothing to close the nation's deficit within any reasonable time period.

On this issue, the Washington establishment is entirely out of touch with the heartland. It's easy for columnists, CEOs, investment bankers and senators to work beyond 68 or 70. It's not so easy for construction workers, nurse's aides, firefighters or retail salespeople on their feet all day.
Thank you, E. J. I'm not one of those workers, but out where I worked (in the pastorate), they were all around me.

It is a mistake not to separate the dual issues of Social Security and Medicare. Social Security is fairly straightforward and stable, providing a basic retirement income for individuals (probably a majority of people, past, present and future) that keeps them in food, a roof over their heads and other necessities of life. With most pensions (except for government employees) disappearing, and most average people unable to save enough to provide for themselves after their worklife is over, Social Security is necessary to prevent poverty from overwhelming many future senior citizens. 

Medicare is a totally different problem, with medical demand (and hugely expensive medical therapies and drugs) outpacing the tax money available, with few disincentives to curb expenditures. Medicare (and its associated federal programs), such as it is, is a recipe for national bankruptcy. Drastic surgery must be performed on Medicare, because it is totally out of control. Obviously, there must be some basic medical care provided for seniors, but it must be kept circumscribed.  And that of course is going to make many people unhappy. Which is why it probably won't happen, until we're in complete crisis.

Economic Dysfunction

Peter Baker has an article today in the Times magazine about Obama's economic record of the last two years. He records the deep dysfunction that riddled the economic team in the White House:
The path from crisis to anemic recovery was marked by turmoil inside the White House. The economic team fractured repeatedly over philosophy (should jobs or deficits take priority?) and personality (who got to attend which meetings?), resulting in feuds that ultimately helped break it apart. The process felt like a treadmill, as one former official put it, with proposals sometimes debated for months before decisions were reached. The word commonly used by those involved is “dysfunctional,” and in recent months, most of the initial team has left or made plans to leave, including Larry Summers, Christina Romer, Peter Orszag, Rahm Emanuel and Paul Volcker.

At the National Economic Council, Summers was charged with running the process for developing policy. But the team never embraced the no-drama-Obama ethos. Over the last two months, I interviewed nearly all of the team’s main figures, past and present, and when we talked about their relations with one another, it was like picking through the wreckage of a messy divorce.

At the center was Summers, a larger-than-life figure who by many accounts was ill suited to run a bureaucratic process. To some of his colleagues, Summers was an eye-rolling intellectual bully. “He’s much better at telling you why you’re stupid than creating a system that can produce usable policy solutions,” said one Obama adviser, who, like others, did not want to be named criticizing Summers. At meetings, colleagues with differing viewpoints felt the full force of his capacity for finding flaws in their reasoning.

Summers skirmished with colleagues over protocol. Austan Goolsbee, who opposed rescuing Chrysler, once cautioned Obama during a meeting that rescuing auto suppliers would signal that they would also save the automakers; Summers cornered him afterward and “exploded,” according to a memoir by Steven Rattner, the auto-task-force leader. “You do not relitigate in front of the president,” Summers scolded. Goolsbee retorted, “I was not litigating in front of the president.” The moment to decide whether to rescue Chrysler came during the president’s morning economic briefing. And while Goolsbee and others of his rank did not typically attend that meeting, his absence was seen as depriving the president of the strongest opposition voice. Obama noticed, and summoned Goolsbee.

Summers skirmished with Romer over a meeting at which she was not included. “I didn’t come here to waste my time,” Romer angrily told him, according to someone informed about the conversation. “I’m perfectly happy to go home.” While Summers was often blamed, the White House spokeswoman said that Emanuel’s office determined meetings and tried to keep them small. Summers and Emanuel also clashed over incentives for small business — the chief of staff kept demanding a proposal, but Summers opposed the idea of using TARP money for the initiative, arguing it would not be effective. It took months to develop a policy.

Obama knew what he was getting with Summers....

It's Not Civility That's Lacking, It's Passion and Honesty

David Michael Green writes about the civility issue, making a point I've also made before:
If the right is all of a sudden feeling more inclined toward civility in their conduct of American politics, maybe it’s because they’ve won every battle they’ve engaged in these last decades.

And if the “left” continues its pattern of “civility” in their conduct of American politics, maybe it’s because that’s the name they’ve given to what is in fact just capitulation to the right.

Well, strike that. There’s no maybe about it, actually. That’s precisely what’s happened.

And it pains me to see it.

It pains me to see that you can actually get away with running a political program for decades on end, in a democracy where everyone can vote no less, that is all about transferring the wealth of working people to the rich.

It pains me that the public is so dumb that you can steal their money and their quality of life, for decades on end, and successfully hide what you’re doing behind attacks on gays, or minorities, or immigrants, or tin-pot dictators abroad.

It pains me that (alleged) people ranging from Joe McCarthy to Newt Gingrich to Glenn Beck to Sarah Palin to Rush Limbaugh could infect American politics with their endless stream of venom, bringing it to its knees, and the public’s reaction to that is to decide that American politics is too angry and vitriolic in general. As though these folks had their lefty equivalent in – who? – Rachel Maddow? As though the vitriol were coming from both sides of the aisle.

Fading American Values

Frank Rich compares the two recent films 'True Grit' and 'The Social Network', and the Americas they represent:
What is most stirring about “True Grit” today — besides the primal father-daughter relationship that blossoms between Rooster and Mattie — is its unalloyed faith in values antithetical to those of the 21st century America so deftly skewered, as it happens, in “The Social Network.”

At its core, the new “True Grit” is often surprisingly similar to the first, despite the clashing sensibilities of their directors (Henry Hathaway, a studio utility man, did the original) and the casting of an age-appropriate Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) in lieu of the 21-year-old Kim Darby of 1969. But what leaps out this time, to the point of seeming fresh, is the fierce loyalty of the principal characters to each other (the third being a vain Texas Ranger, played by Matt Damon) and their clear-cut sense of morality and justice, even when the justice is rough. More than the first “True Grit,” the new one emphasizes Mattie’s precocious, almost obsessive preoccupation with the law. She is forever citing law-book principles, invoking lawyers and affidavits, and threatening to go to court. “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another,” says Mattie. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.”

That kind of legal and moral cost-accounting seems as distant as a tintype now. The new “True Grit” lands in an America that’s still not recovered from a crash where many of the reckless perpetrators of economic mayhem deflected any accountability and merely moved on to the next bubble, gamble or ethically dubious backroom deal. When Americans think of the law these days, they often think of a system that can easily be gamed by the rich and the powerful, starting with those who pillaged Lehman Brothers, A.I.G. and Citigroup and left taxpayers, shareholders and pensioners in the dust. A virtuous soul like Mattie would be crushed in a contemporary gold rush even if (or especially if) she fought back with the kind of civil action so prized by the 19th-century Mattie.

Talk about Two Americas. Look at “The Social Network” again after seeing “True Grit,” and you’ll see two different civilizations, as far removed from each other in ethos as Silicon Valley and Monument Valley. While “Social Network” fictionalizes Mark Zuckerberg, it mines the truth of an era — from the ability of the powerful and privileged to manipulate the system to the collapse of loyalty as a prized American virtue at the top of that economic pyramid.

In contrast to Mattie’s dictum, no one has to pay for any transgression in the world it depicts. Zuckerberg’s antagonists, Harvard classmates who accuse him of intellectual theft, and his allies, exemplified by a predatory venture capitalist, sometimes seem more entitled and ruthless than he is. The blackest joke in Aaron Sorkin’s priceless script is that Lawrence Summers, a Harvard president who would later moonlight as a hedge fund consultant, might intervene to arbitrate any ethical conflicts. You almost wish Rooster were around to get the job done.

“The Social Network” is nothing if not the true sequel to “Wall Street.” The director, David Fincher (no less brilliant than the Coens), makes the atmosphere almost as murky and poisonous as that of his serial killer movies, “Seven” and “Zodiac.” In “Social Network,” the landscape is Cambridge, Mass., but we might as well be in the pre-civilized Wild West. Instead of thieves bearing guns, we have thieves bearing depositions. Instead of actual assassinations, we have character assassinations by blog post. In place of an honorable social code, we have a social network presided over by a post-adolescent billionaire whose business card reads “I’m CEO ... Bitch!”

This hits too close to home. No one should have been surprised that those looking for another America once again have been finding it in “True Grit.”