Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Chutzpah of Newt

Newt Gingrich just blows me away with his arrogance and, how do the Jewish spell it, "chutzpah" (defined as "audacity with no shame").  This glib Republican politician, who has a slick mind and even slicker mouth, is about set to announce for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination.  His latest book is, if you can believe this, "Rediscovering God in America."

This comes to us from a man, 67, who is now on his third marriage (including one affair going on while he was simultaneously going after Bill Clinton for his dailliance in the White House!).  And now, guess what, he has suddenly found God.  He converted to Catholicism two years ago, at the age of 65. So, according to the New York Times (which article is entitled "On the Stump, Gingrich Puts Focus on Faith") he's going around to Pro-Life rallies and trying to pass himself off as a conservative Catholic (so that, I suppose, they'll vote for him for President) and writing about how much America needs God. 

What a farce.  How convenient it is to have found God at long last at 67 years old, and then use it to further your political ambitions!  Supposing that he sincerely believes these things, now at the ripe old age of 67, why would anyone believe this man, given his past, and reward him with the most powerful political office in the world?  He's obviously counting on the sheer gullibility of the American public, along with the power of the Fox News to 'persuade' the people that here is a politician worth believing.

It boggles the mind. 

I have a suggestion for Newt.  If he thinks that America needs Gods so much, become a priest, become a Catholic missionary, go stand on the street corner and evangelize, start a TV ministry, or whatever else your local priest might suggest.  But, for crying out loud, don't use your newfound religious faith to try and win the Presidency.  That is SO cynical.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

L'affaire Assange

Julian Assange is finally going to be extradicted to Sweden from Britain, on charges of sexual something-or-other.  My guess is that those charges will fall apart, once he gets there and goes throught the procedures.  Sweden obviously is not sexually puritanical, though these charges seem based more on feminist thinking, with which Sweden is blest.  Yet, these charges seem somehow trumped up to me and not serious, though I could obviously be wrong in that.

My guess is that it could be very unpopular in Sweden to try and convict someone like Assange, who is seen in much of the world (and I would imagine in Sweden) as a hero for freedom of the press and the free flow of information.

However, I think the threat of extradiction to the United States has passed.  The Middle East crisis has so changed things in terms of foreign policy, that it seems to me that Wikileaks is now 'old news' and the Obama administration will not want to bother with the Assange affair.

Liveable Cities and the British Commonwealth

Toronto: 4th Most Liveable City in the World
I find it interesting that the 'Most Liveable Cities' worldwide survey, by The Economist magazine, was totally dominated by the large British commonwealth nations:  Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  For some reason, they know how to produce great cities.  (Does this mean that we should have stayed a British colony?  Hmmmmmm.....)
At the very least, perhaps we proud Americans could learn something useful from how our Canadian and Australians cousins run their cities.  Do you think?

By the way, there were a lot of 'Americans' who were on the British side in the Revolutionary War.  A new book on that subject, Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War, is reviewed here in the New York Review of Books.  Here are a few paragraphs from that article (which unfortunately for most of you is not available in full if you don't have a subscription):
The American Revolution had international consequences that went beyond spreading the ideas of democratic republicanism. Indeed, Jasanoff persuasively contends that “the 1780s stand out as the most eventful single decade in British imperial history up to the 1940s.” What she calls the “spirit of 1783” that emerged out of the peace treaty with America animated the renewed British Empire well into the twentieth century. Ultimately, she says, it had more worldwide significance than the “spirit of 1776.” This “‘spirit of 1783’…provided a model of liberal constitutional empire that stood out as a vital alternative to the democratic republics taking shape [in this period] in the United States, France, and Latin America.”

The events of the 1780s created an enduring framework for the spread of the principles of British centralized hierarchy and liberal humanitarianism to the farthest reaches of the globe. It was Britain that defeated Napoleon and stood for ordered liberalism against the reactionary forces of the Holy Alliance. It was Britain that backed up the Monroe Doctrine and prevented conservative Europe from reconquering the New World. It was Britain that led the world in the abolition of slavery. And it was British ships that scoured the seas and enforced the ban on the international slave trade. According to Jasanoff, the loyalist exiles played an important part in this nineteenth-century expansion of the liberal British Empire, a worldwide expansion that more than compensated for the loss of the North American colonies. It was even an American loyalist, James Mario Matra, who put forward the first serious proposal to colonize Australia.

A Seismic Shift in the Middle East

Fareed Zakaria is one of the best interpreters of world events around, and his CNN show on Sunday mornings, 'GPS: The Global Public Square,' is really the only one worth watching.  Here's an excerpt from his Washington Post column:
We are in the midst of a revolution in the Middle East, one that has unleashed long-suppressed forces that will continue to send shock waves across an arc of countries from Morocco to Iran. We are all looking at each crisis individually as it breaks out. But if we step back we can see that this is really a seismic shift and that it will in time reverberate throughout the region.

For the first time in perhaps a millennium, the Arab people are taking charge of their own affairs. Since the 11th century, after conquests by Mongol, Persian and Turkish armies, Arab lands have been controlled by foreign powers. Most of these lands were ruled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries. By the late 18th century, as Ottoman power waned, the era of European expansion began, and for the next 150 years the Middle East fell under its sway. In the aftermath of World War I, Britain and France carved up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, creating most of the modern Middle Eastern states.

A Mega-Explanation

The Explanation to a Lot of Our Problems in decent public transportation, cars/suvs that get poor gas mileage, why we're so involved in the Middle East, etc:

Better Than a Bomb: Thank You All You Computer and Internet Geeks!!

Why Middle Eastern dictatorships are crumbling:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Human Nature When Civilization Crumbles

New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise writes about the dangers of being a woman reporter:
...women reporters face another set of challenges. We are often harassed in ways that male colleagues are not. This is a hazard of the job that most of us have experienced and few of us talk about.

Last week, CBS News said that its reporter Lara Logan was assaulted by a crowd of men in Cairo. CBS News did not detail the circumstances, but the network’s statement — that she had suffered a “brutal and sustained sexual assault” — said enough. Threatening had turned frightening. The moment when you hold your breath in a crowd did not pass safely for her.

I have worked in a half-dozen countries since the late 1990s, including Lebanon, Gaza in Israel, Pakistan, Turkey and Russia. In none of these places was I dragged off and raped, but I have encountered abuse in many of them. The assaults usually took place in crowds, where I was pinned in place by men.

The risk of something happening is especially high when all the rules have fallen away and society is held together by a sense that anything can happen. This was the case for me in Baghdad in 2003 at the gun market, when a crowd of young men, impoverished and not used to seeing foreigners, first started touching me, and then began ripping at my clothes. A colleague helped me fend them off.

It was a beginner’s mistake. I was wearing pants, baggy and formless, but still looking nothing like any of the women in the area, who all wore abayas, black sheaths completely covering their bodies. That same day I went to an Iraqi clothing shop to stock up on ankle-length jean skirts and shirts that reached to mid-thigh.

Background on Bahrain

Here's some background information on the Bahrain protest from a New York Times article (besides the fact that it's a major base for the US Navy in the Persian Gulf):
The longstanding root of the tension here is the sectarian divide, a Sunni royal family ruling over a Shiite majority. For years, the Shiites have complained of discrimination in housing, employment, education and governance.

That rift makes Bahrain, an archipelago about the size of Fort Worth, a potential regional powder keg. The contest for influence in the Middle East has pitted largely Sunni Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States, against largely Shiite Iran. A critical Saudi ally in that struggle was President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who was ousted by a popular revolt this month, leaving Egypt’s future leadership and loyalties an open question.

Moreover, Bahrain sits just off Saudi Arabia’s east coast, connected by a bridge to the mainland. On the Saudi side lies Eastern Province, an oil-rich region with a Shiite majority, who have an affinity for their fellow Shiites in Bahrain and no great love for the Saudi leaders.

To the north, Kuwait also has a Sunni monarchy and a restive Shiite population. The big fear among Sunni governments is that Bahrain, once part of Persia, could become another Iran, where the Islamic revolution of 1979 produced a bellicose Shiite theocracy.

But the Shiite protesters here insist their revolt is secular and democratic. When the protests started on Feb. 14, in a so-called Day of Rage modeled after events in Egypt and Tunisia, demonstrators called for a constitutional monarchy, an elected cabinet and a constitution written by the people, as opposed to one imposed by the king.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bait and Switch

Obama was sold to the Democrats as a bold, transformational kind of leader.  "We're gonna change the way things are done in Washington!"  But that's not what he is.  He's a 'slow and easy' kind of guy, who doesn't want to upset anyone (except maybe those who believed the hype about his being transformational!) Here's David Brooks again:
The president has enormous faith in getting smart people around the table and initiating technocratic reform. But you can’t renegotiate the social contract in private. You have to have public buy-in. You have to spend years out in public educating voters about the size of the problem and what will be required. You have to show voters what a solution looks like.

The New Deal wasn’t passed by a president who led quietly from the back. Neither was the Great Society or the Reagan Revolution. President Obama’s softly, softly approach is a rationalization, not a coherent strategy. It’s the latest version of Obama’s eternal promise: I’ll do it tomorrow.
I remember one of the first things Obama did after winning the election was to meet with a bunch of conservative thinkers like George Will, David Brooks, David Frum, Kathleen Parker (writers who had, if not endorsed him, at least had broken with McCain for picking Sarah Palin) for dinner and conversation. At the time, I thought that was a little weird, but in retrospect, it seems clear what he was doing: reassuring them that he wasn't what the Democrats thought he was, but a 'thinking conservative's' kind of President). 

For those in society who have benefited from the way things have been for the last 30 years (the bankers, the CEOs, the rich) he's perfect.  For the rest of us who wanted someone to change the way things were done, not so much.
So the mantle of leadership has passed to Capitol Hill. While Obama asked for patience yet again, Eric Cantor announced that Republicans will put entitlements on the table. It may be politically risky, but it looks more like leadership to me.
So, David Brooks is disappointed, now that he's decided we need transformational leadership.  George Will and others conservatives have switched over to Mitch Daniels as the calm, cool, but decisive leader they want.  Sounds like Brooks is getting ready to do the same.

To say I'm disappointed is an understatement.  I'm getting bitter over the 'bait and switch' that happened in 2008.

Promises, Promises

Now that David Brooks has come out in criticism of Obama's leadership on the national debt, maybe the President will listen and do something about it (he likes David Brooks, because of his support as a conservative for his candidacy).  In an interview on Charlie Rose, Brooks said that his contacts in the White House indicated that they were focused on 'minutia', not the big picture, and he wondered where the candidate of 'hope and change' had gone.
Jonathan Alter wrote a book about Barack Obama’s first year in office called “The Promise.” That’s a great title because it works on so many levels. For example, over the past four years, Obama’s career has been marked by a constant promise: He has continually said he is on the verge of doing something serious abut the national debt.

He started making the promise back when he was in the Senate. In “The Audacity of Hope,” published in 2006, he expressed alarm at the “mountain of debt” caused by $300 billion annual budget deficits. (They’re now $1.6 trillion.) During the presidential campaign, he pledged to put away childish things and tackle the tough budget issues.

During the transition, he said the time to act on the debt is now. “What we have done is kicked the can down the road,” he told The Washington Post. “We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further.” He said he would start a budget initiative in February 2009.

After the stimulus package passed, he and his aides said it would soon be time to turn to deficit issues. The same promise was made after health care reform. He made the pledge yet again at a press conference this week. Right now is not the time, the president always says, but tomorrow we will get serious.

But tomorrow never comes.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I Want To Burden My Loved Ones

Gilbert Meilaender, a thoughtful Lutheran ethicist, makes a good point after attending a hospital conference on 'advance planning directives': the workshop wore on, I found myself giving it only a part of my attention, because I couldn’t help musing on this recurring theme [that many people don't want to be a burden to their children as they are dying]. Understandable as it surely is in many respects, there is, I am convinced, something wrong with it. I don’t know how to make the point other than a little too crassly—other than by saying that I want to be a burden to my loved ones. But, rightly understood, I think I do.

The first thought that occurred to me in my musings was not, I admit, the noblest: I have sweated in the hot sun teaching four children to catch and hit a ball, to swing a tennis racket and shoot a free throw. I have built blocks and played games I detest with and for my children. I have watched countless basketball games made up largely of bad passes, traveling violations, and shots that missed both rim and backboard. I have sat through years of piano recitals, band concerts, school programs—often on very busy nights or very hot, humid evenings in late spring. I have stood in a steamy bathroom in the middle of the night with the hot shower running, trying to help a child with croup breathe more easily. I have run beside a bicycle, ready to catch a child who might fall while learning to ride. (This is, by the way, very hard!) I have spent hours finding perfectly decent (cheap) clothing in stores, only to have these choices rejected as somehow not exactly what we had in mind. I have used evenings to type in final form long stories—longer by far than necessary—that my children have written in response to school assignments. I have had to fight for the right to eat at Burger King rather than McDonald’s. Why should I not be a bit of a burden to these children in my dying?

This was not, I have already granted, the noblest thought, but it was the first. And, of course, it overlooks a great deal—above all, that I have taken great joy in these children and have not really resented much in the litany of burdens recited above. But still, there is here a serious point to be considered. Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other—and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens? Families would not have the significance they do for us if they did not, in fact, give us a claim upon each other. At least in this sphere of life we do not come together as autonomous individuals freely contracting with each other. We simply find ourselves thrown together and asked to share the burdens of life while learning to care for each other. We may often resent such claims on our time and energies. We did not, after all, consent to them. (Or, at least, if we want to speak of consent, it will have to be something like that old staple of social-contract theorists, tacit consent.)

It is, therefore, understandable that we sometimes chafe under these burdens. If, however, we also go on to reject them, we cease to live in the kind of moral community that deserves to be called a family. Here more than in any other sphere of life we are presented with unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans and projects. I do not like such interruptions any more than the next person; indeed, a little less, I rather suspect. But it is still true that morality consists in large part in learning to deal with the unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans. I have tried, subject to my limits and weaknesses, to teach that lesson to my children. Perhaps I will teach it best when I am a burden to them in my dying.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

No Revolution in Egypt

John Judis, a really good writer and analyst of things political, has a very thoughtful (and depressing)article in the New Republic, in which he basically says that a revolution has not occurred in Egypt yet.  That is because the army has basically controlled the state and society since the overthrow of Nassar many years, and it still controls the state since the resignation of Mubarak.  And he say that there isn't much reason for the army to give up power, without a whole lot of pressure from the US, which he doesn't expect.

Kind of bums me out (to quote Dan Ackroyd).

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Classic Pol

Andrew Sullivan, as loyal an Obamamaniac as you'll find, is finally saying what I've been saying for almost two years now:
Instead, Obama's transformation into a "what debt crisis?" liberal means that the GOP for the first time can legitimately call Obama out on his fiscal recklessness. Like Megan, I can see the point of spending in a recession. But when you have a new opportunity to set a new fiscal compass in a slowly recovering economy, outflank the GOP on the long-term debt, and help prevent a looming fiscal collapse, and you give the lame-ass SOTU Obama gave and unveil the risibly unserious budget we got yesterday, you reveal yourself as, well, not exactly change and certainly not hope.

I am not turning on the president given the alternatives, but I am not going to use the alternatives as excuses for the president to shirk his core responsibility to the next generation. I didn't send eight years excoriating George "Deficits Don't Matter" Bush to provide excuses for Barack "Default Doesn't Matter" Obama. Like other fiscal conservatives, I'm just deeply disappointed by Obama's reprise of politics as usual - even as the fiscal crisis has worsened beyond measure in the last three years. My point is that actually being honest about the budget and what it will take to resolve its long-term crisis is not political suicide, as Chait says. It's statesmanship. It's what a president is for.

One reason many of us supported this president was because he pledged not to return to the cynical politics of the Washington game in which partisan maneuvring always, always outweighs the national interest. But what he is telling us now is that he is indeed a classic pol, aiming for re-election, even if the US risks becoming a fiscal banana republic in the next decade.

Leadership is not a bullshit SOTU that dredges up that ancient cliche about a "Sputnik moment" (really, Favreau? That's all you got?), as if Obama were Harold Wilson extolling the "white heat" of the technological revolution as some sort of cure-all. It is not new slogans like "cut and invest", which involve trivial amounts of money in the grand scheme of the things and may do actual harm to good government programs, instead of tackling where the real money is. It isn't trimming a pathetically small amount from defense, while still adhering to Cold War troop deployments across the entire globe.

It is preventing the US from moving inexorably to default as we go year after a year with a trillion dollar deficit even before the real turds start hitting the fiscal fan. Readers tell me Obama is once again playing the long game, tactically outsmarting Republicans, while freezing domestic discretionary spending, and waiting for his second term to deliver the real cuts and tax reform the US desperately needs. Usually, there is some evidence for this. But not now.
I think Sullivan is losing 'the faith'. I lost it a long time ago.  I saw it as soon as he began appointing his staff and cabinet...classic pols, everyone of them, starting with Rahm Emmanuel.  Not a significant reformer/transformer in the bunch.  It was a sure tipoff of his true political intentions, and it was deeply disappointment.  I felt betrayed and still do by the, what Roger Hodge has called (and what Sullivan used in one of his posts) mendacity of it all. 
Still, he's better than the present alternatives.

Balancing the National Budget Is Going To Be Interesting

This is a very interesting national budget analysis by Annie Lowry in Slate.  Bottom-line, we need to either raise taxes by 41% to balance the budget or cut 30% of the budget (or some of both):
Next year, the government plans to take in $2.63 trillion—and to spend $3.73 trillion. For our purposes, let's use $60,000 as the government's income and $85,000 as its expenses.

Where does all of that spending go? Mostly, to mandatory programs, spending that does not change much year-to-year and is not easily reduced. But given that mandatory spending makes up about 60 percent of spending, if the debt is going to come down, these are the line items that need to change. Next year, Obama is requesting $17,400 for Social Security, $10,700 for Medicare, $6,100 for Medicaid, and $13,600 for other mandatory programs such as food stamps. There's no way around any of those expenditures, which total about $48,000—or more than three-quarters of the federal government's annual income. (Last year, mandatory spending alone actually exceeded income.)

Next up comes the discretionary budget. This is money that, in any given year, Washington is not required to spend—which is not to say that there are not obligations to be met. First and foremost is security spending. The country needs to fund the Afghanistan war and the Department of Defense. This is not cheap: In fiscal year 2012, Obama is asking for $20,000 for overall security costs.

So far, my friend, you're at $68,000. No cuts yet, and you've already blown your budget by about $8,000. But wait—there's more, as they say. You have to pay for all the debt you're ringing up. This year, you are on the hook for $5,500, and that is just for interest payments to creditors. So you see the problem here: Before you've even gotten to anything that anyone even talks about cutting, you're already about 25 percent over budget.

Then, we come to nonsecurity, discretionary programs—all of the money for bridges, schools, nuclear power plants, foreign aid, space flight, and everything else. Obama is asking for $10,400 for all of this, or about 12 percent of total spending. In the discretionary budget, the sums are astounding not because they're so huge, but because they're so puny: $400 on energy, $500 on agriculture, $1,000 on housing and urban development, and $1,800 on education, for example.

So where to cut? The White House is mostly focusing on those nonsecurity, discretionary programs. Next year alone, the federal government plans to cut from 200 of them—axing some of them entirely. This saves a grand total of $750, and includes reducing program funding even for the poorest Americans. For instance, the administration wants to withdraw $7 from the Community Development Block Grants program, which gives money to states and local governments for low-income housing and anti-poverty initiatives. Over 10 years, the White House takes $2,000 from Pell grants and other education initiatives. And its five-year non-defense discretionary spending freeze saves about $9,100 in a decade. The White House also takes about $2,000 from the Pentagon.

Obama also hopes to meet his goal of reducing deficits by $25,000 over the next 10 years by making some tax hikes. For instance, he hopes to end subsidies for oil and gas companies, raking in $1,100 over 10 years. He also plans to let the Bush tax cuts, recently re-upped for everyone, expire for those in the highest brackets.

All of this does help reduce the annual deficit—but in no year over the next decade does the government run a surplus. And the debt, the total amount the United States owes its creditors, remains enormous. In 2012, for instance, the White House estimates the total national debt to be about $379,300. By 2021, it will be about $600,600.

Plutocracy, Not Democracy

Bob Herbert has become very quotable in his 'speaking truth to power'. After making the obvious point that the recent job data was simply confused (jobs down, unemployment rate down?), he goes on to make what is simply the sad truth in 21st century America:
The people running the country — the ones with the real clout, whether Democrats or Republicans — are all part of this power elite. Ordinary people may be struggling, but both the Obama administration and the Republican Party leadership are down on their knees slavishly kissing the rings of the financial and corporate kingpins.

I love when the wackos call President Obama a socialist. Wasn’t it his budget director, Peter Orszag, who moved effortlessly from his job in the administration to a hotshot post at Citigroup, beneficiary of tons of government largess? And didn’t the president’s new chief of staff, William Daley, arrive in his powerful new post fresh from the executive suite of JPMorgan Chase? And isn’t the incoming chairman of Mr. Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness very conveniently the chairman and chief executive of General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt?

You might ask: Who represents working people? The answer, as Tevye would say with grave emphasis in “Fiddler on the Roof,” is, “I don’t know.”
In his next column, Herbert continues in the same vein:
As the throngs celebrated in Cairo, I couldn’t help wondering about what is happening to democracy here in the United States. I think it’s on the ropes. We’re in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only.

While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.

So what we get in this democracy of ours are astounding and increasingly obscene tax breaks and other windfall benefits for the wealthiest, while the bought-and-paid-for politicians hack away at essential public services and the social safety net, saying we can’t afford them. One state after another is reporting that it cannot pay its bills. Public employees across the country are walking the plank by the tens of thousands. Camden, N.J., a stricken city with a serious crime problem, laid off nearly half of its police force. Medicaid, the program that provides health benefits to the poor, is under savage assault from nearly all quarters.

The poor, who are suffering from an all-out depression, are never heard from. In terms of their clout, they might as well not exist. The Obama forces reportedly want to raise a billion dollars or more for the president’s re-election bid. Politicians in search of that kind of cash won’t be talking much about the wants and needs of the poor. They’ll be genuflecting before the very rich.

The Truth About Social Security

This column by Bob Herbert of the NYT is simply the best thing I've ever read on Social Security, and it's the way I've felt for a long time now.  I'm going to quote it at length because most readers can't access the link to the NYT unless they have registered.
If there’s a better government program than Social Security, I’d like to know what it is.

It has gone a long way toward eliminating poverty among the elderly. Great numbers of them used to live and die in ghastly, Dickensian conditions of extreme want. Without Social Security today, nearly half of all Americans aged 65 or older would be poor. With it, fewer than 10 percent live in poverty.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us that close to 90 percent of people 65 and older get at least some of their family income from Social Security. For more than half of the elderly, it provides the majority of their income. For many, it is the only income they have.

The demagogues would have the public believe that Social Security is unsustainable, that it is some kind of giant contributor to the federal budget deficits. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Economic Policy Institute has explained, Social Security “is emphatically not the cause of the federal government’s long-term deficits, since it is prohibited from borrowing and must pay all benefits out of dedicated tax revenues and savings in its trust funds.”

Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t have been clearer about the crucial role of the payroll taxes used to finance Social Security. They gave the beneficiaries a “legal, moral and political right” to collect their benefits, he said. “With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.”

There has always been feverish opposition on the right to Social Security. What is happening now, in a period of deficit hysteria, is that this crucial retirement program is being dishonestly lumped together with Medicare as an entitlement program that is driving federal deficits. Medicare costs are a serious problem, but that’s because of the nightmarish expansion of health care costs in general.

Beyond Medicare, the major drivers of the deficits are not talked about so much by the fat cats and demagogues because they were either responsible for them, or are reaping gargantuan benefits from them, or both. The country is drowning in a sea of debt because of the obscene Bush tax cuts for the rich, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have never been paid for and the Great Recession.

Mugging the nation’s grandparents by depriving them of some of their modest, hard-earned Social Security retirement benefits is hardly an answer to the nation’s ills. And, believe me, those benefits are modest. The average benefit is just $14,000 a year, which is less than the minimum wage would pay. With employer-provided pensions going the way of the typewriter and pay telephones, the income from Social Security is becoming more precious by the day.

The Reagan Disconnect

Bob Herbert, commenting on a new documentary about Ronald Reagan by Eugen Jarecki, makes an important point that is becoming clearer by the day:
The biggest problem with Reagan, as we look back at his presidency in search of clues that might help us meet the challenges of today, is that he presented himself — and has since been presented by his admirers — as someone committed to the best interests of ordinary, hard-working Americans. Yet his economic policies, Reaganomics, dealt a body blow to that very constituency.

Mark Hertsgaard, the author of “On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency,” says in the film, “You cannot be fair in your historical evaluation of Ronald Reagan if you don’t look at the terrible damage his economic policies did to this country.”

Paul Volcker, who served as chairman of the Federal Reserve during most of the Reagan years, commented in the film about the economist Arthur Laffer’s famous curve, which, incredibly, became a cornerstone of national economic policy. “The Laffer Curve,” said Mr. Volcker, “was presented as an intellectual support for the idea that reducing taxes would produce more revenues, and that was, I think, considered by most people a pretty extreme interpretation of what would happen.”

Toward the end of his comment, the former Fed chairman chuckled as if still amused by the idea that this was ever taken seriously.

What we get with Reagan are a series of disconnects and contradictions that have led us to a situation in which a president widely hailed as a hero of the working class set in motion policies that have been mind-bogglingly beneficial to the wealthy and devastating to working people and the poor.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Politics Before the Good of the Nation

Andrew Sullivan is back blogging, after a serious illness.  One of the first things he does is come after President Obama big time on his budget.  Refering to the group of Senators trying to get serious about budget reduction, Sullivan writes:
They have to lead, because this president is too weak, too cautious, too beholden to politics over policy to lead. In this budget, in his refusal to do anything concrete to tackle the looming entitlement debt, in his failure to address the generational injustice, in his blithe indifference to the increasing danger of default, he has betrayed those of us who took him to be a serious president prepared to put the good of the country before his short term political interests. Like his State of the Union, this budget is good short term politics but such a massive pile of fiscal bullshit it makes it perfectly clear that Obama is kicking this vital issue down the road.

To all those under 30 who worked so hard to get this man elected, know this: he just screwed you over. He thinks you're fools. Either the US will go into default because of Obama's cowardice, or you will be paying far far more for far far less because this president has no courage when it counts. He let you down. On the critical issue of America's fiscal crisis, he represents no hope and no change. Just the same old Washington politics he once promised to end.


Sullivan posts some good critical responses to his outburst here.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Tahrir Tiger

Here's a hopeful insight from Tom Friedman on the revolution:
Some people worry, though, that the Egyptian Army will strangle this Egyptian democracy movement in its crib. Personally, I think the army leadership is a little afraid of the Twitter-enabled Tahrir youth. The democracy movement that came out of Tahrir Square is like a tiger that has been living in a tiny cage for 30 years. Having watched it get loose, there are two things I would say about this tiger. One is that anyone who tries to put it back in that little cage will get his head bitten off. And, two, any politician who tries to ride the tiger for his own narrow interests, not for the benefit Egypt, will get eaten by it as well. Iran, the other day, issued a declaration urging the Tahrir youth to make an “Islamic revolution,” and none other than Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood told Tehran to get lost because the democracy movement here is pan-Egyptian and includes Christians and Muslims.

Meltdown of Rationality on the Right

The American conservative movement is having a hard time figuring out how to view the Egyptian revolution, as anyone watching Fox News knows by now.  Here is one conservative figure, Heather MacDonald of the Manhatten Institute, taking a shot at Fox and Rush:
The Fox News reporter, speaking from Cairo half an hour ago, did not receive the right-wing-media talking points. Back in the New York studio, a Fox blonde had been skeptically quizzing Alan Colmes about all the downsides to Mubarak’s stepping down; the reporter instead excitedly gushed about the unforeseen and rapid triumph of people wanting, as Bush might have put it, to be free. Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, after having spent the last two weeks criticizing whatever it was that the Obama Administration had most recently done towards Egypt—whether supporting regime change (remember that Bushism?) or backing off from regime change (either way, Obama was wrong)—has now lost interest in the story. After a sour prediction that Obama would try to take credit for Mubarak’s concession in his forthcoming speech about the Egyptian revolution, Limbaugh has been concertedly focusing on Obamacare—which is of course his right, it’s just that the sudden change of focus is rather startling.

Expect an outpouring of right-wing bile towards whatever Obama says about Egypt, as if any president wouldn’t want to align himself with what at this moment cannot help but conjure up hopes for greater openness in the Middle East—even if those hopes are ultimately dashed,

I am by no means an unequivocal fan of revolutions; I do not believe that human rights are universal and timeless, rather than the product of evolving and contingent political beliefs. But I could better stomach the right-wing media’s effort to discredit the Egyptian revolution and to portray it as a failure of Obama’s diplomacy if they had not given such unthinking jingoistic support to Bush’s Freedom Agenda, if Sean Hannity’s theme song was not “Let Freedom Ring,” if they didn’t claim a divine mandate to lead the world towards American-style democracy.
Here's another shot from the previous day:
The right-wing punditocracy’s sputtering reaction to the Obama Administration’s Egyptian diplomacy is a new low point in the melt-down of rationality on the right.

I am utterly convinced that had Bush been in power and had gently suggested that Mubarak cede power, the right would have loyally backed him. After all, the Freedom Agenda was a signature Bush policy, if only intermittently realized in practice. Nothing that Obama is doing now contradicts that policy; in fact the nudge towards Mubarak is something that would seem to have been long overdue under the Freedom Agenda. The right cheered on the invasion of Iraq to remove a dictator, with its concomitant risk—temporarily realized–of empowering Islamists, in this case, Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Right is constantly extolling American exceptionalism and our God-given duty to spread freedom throughout the world. The Right has also proclaimed the need to back a war-time president and to maintain a strong executive control over foreign affairs.

But the rule on the right now is: If Obama is doing it, it is wrong.

Living Our Values

Nick Kristof writes concerning what the US stance toward the Arab world needs to be:
The truth is that the United States has been behind the curve not only in Tunisia and Egypt for the last few weeks, but in the entire Middle East for decades. We supported corrupt autocrats as long as they kept oil flowing and weren’t too aggressive toward Israel. Even in the last month, we sometimes seemed as out of touch with the region’s youth as a Ben Ali or a Mubarak. Recognizing that crafting foreign policy is 1,000 times harder than it looks, let me suggest four lessons to draw from our mistakes:

1.) Stop treating Islamic fundamentalism as a bogyman and allowing it to drive American foreign policy. American paranoia about Islamism has done as much damage as Muslim fundamentalism itself.

We tie ourselves in knots when we act as if democracy is good for the United States and Israel but not for the Arab world. For far too long, we’ve treated the Arab world as just an oil field.

2.) We need better intelligence, the kind that is derived not from intercepting a president’s phone calls to his mistress but from hanging out with the powerless. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, there was a painful post-mortem about why the intelligence community missed so many signals, and I think we need the same today.

3.) New technologies have lubricated the mechanisms of revolt. Facebook and Twitter make it easier for dissidents to network. Mobile phones mean that government brutality is more likely to end up on YouTube, raising the costs of repression. The International Criminal Court encourages dictators to think twice before ordering troops to open fire.

Maybe the most critical technology — and this is tough for a scribbler like myself to admit — is television. It was Arab satellite television broadcasts like those of Al Jazeera that broke the government monopoly on information in Egypt. Too often, Americans scorn Al Jazeera (and its English service is on few cable systems), but it played a greater role in promoting democracy in the Arab world than anything the United States did.

4.) Let’s live our values. We pursued a Middle East realpolitik that failed us. Condi Rice had it right when she said in Egypt in 2005: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”

I don’t know which country is the next Egypt. Some say it’s Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Syria or Saudi Arabia. Others suggest Cuba or China are vulnerable. But we know that in many places there is deep-seated discontent and a profound yearning for greater political participation. And the lesson of history from 1848 to 1989 is that uprisings go viral and ricochet from nation to nation. Next time, let’s not sit on the fence.


Frank Rich is correct that the fundamental flaws of the American financial system, which allowed our casino capitalism to exist ( and the unwinding collapse in 2008 to happen), has not yet been corrected:
WHEN Bernie Madoff was arrested in December 2008, America feasted vicariously on a cautionary tale of greed run amok. But like Rod Blagojevich, the stunt governor of Illinois who had been arrested days earlier, Madoff was something of a sideshow to that dark month’s main events. For a nation reeling from an often incomprehensible economic tsunami and unable to identify the culprits, he was, for the moment, the right made-to-order villain at the right time.

But Madoff was a second-tier player. Some in the upper echelons of New York’s financial world, including in the business press, had never heard of him. His firm’s accountant operated out of a strip mall and didn’t bother with electronic statements. The billions that vaporized in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme amounted to a rounding error next to the eye-popping federal bailouts, including those pouring into too-big-to-fail banks wrecked by their own Ponzi schemes of securitization. The suffering he inflicted on his mostly well-heeled dupes was piddling next to the national devastation of an economy in free fall. In a December when a half-million Americans lost their jobs — a calamitous rate not seen since 1974 — the video of a voiceless, combative Madoff in a baseball cap, skirmishing with photographers outside his Upper East Side apartment house, soon lost its punch.

A month later Barack Obama would be inaugurated and declare “a new era of responsibility.” Now, another two years have passed, and while the economy is no longer in free fall, we’re still waiting for that era to arrive. What’s extraordinary is that Madoff, unlike such tarnished titans of the bubble as Rubin or Fuld or Prince, is very much at center stage, even as he rots in prison. Perhaps that’s because he’s the only headline figure of the crash who did go to prison.

His evil deeds, in their afterlife, are now serving as a recurring wave of financial body scans. Each new Madoff revelation sheds light on an entire culture that allowed far loftier flimflams than his to succeed — though the loftier culprits, unlike him, usually escaped with the proceeds. That financial culture largely remains in place today.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Tyrants Everywhere, Beware

I always appreciate leftist Alexander Cockburn's take on things (don't always agree, of course):
We need good news. When was the last time we had some, here in this country? The Seattle riots against the WTO? That was back in 1999. Around the world? Hard to remember – it’s been a long dry spell. It reminds me of the old Jacobin shivering in the chill night of Bourbon restoration, and crying out, “Oh, sun of ’93, when shall I feel thy warmth again!”

We raise our glass to the Egyptian people. In the end Mubarak propelled them to irresistible fury with his dotty broadcast on Thursday. It seems that for some years now he’s been drifting in and out of senile dementia, same way Reagan did in his second term. The plan had been to run his son Gamal in the last elections, but that turned out to be a non-starter so they rolled the semi-gaga Hosni out one more time and fixed the results, ringingly endorsed by the US. On Thursday morning Mubarak probably told Suleiman and the US that he was going to quit, then forgot and, braced by a supportive call from the Israelis and a pledge by the Saudis to give him $1.4 billion if the US withheld it, announced that he would be around till September.

The talk about the US calling all the shots, including a final peremptory injunction to the Army chiefs to dump Mubarak is surely off the mark, part of a tendency to deprecate any notion that the Empire has hit a bump in the road and is in total control. Most of the time the current executives of Empire have been panting along, trying to stay abreast of events.
Obama’s call for “clarity” on the part of Mubarak on Thursday didn’t do it. Phone calls from the Defense Department and Langley and the National Security Council didn’t do it.

The brave Egyptian demonstrators did it. Conscripts ready to mutiny if ordered to fire on the crowds did it. Immensely courageous Egyptian union organizers active for years did it. Look at the numbers of striking workers enumerated by Esam al-Amin on this site today. This was close to a general strike. It reminds me of France, its economy paralysed in the uprising in the spring of 1968. That was when President de Gaulle, displaying a good deal more energy and sang-froid that Mubarak, flew to meetings with senor French military commanders to get pledges of loyalty and received requisite assurance.

And next for Egypt? These chapters are unwritten, but the world is bracingly different this week than what it was a month ago. The rulers of Yemen, Jordan and Algeria know that. Rulers and tyrants everywhere know that. They know bad news when they see it, same way we know good news when we hear its welcome knock on the door of history.

Friday, February 11, 2011


The End of the Beginning

Mubarak has fallen.

No Longer Willing To Be Humiliated

The NYT's Tom Friedman from Egypt:
The words of Mubarak and Suleiman directed to the democracy demonstrators could not have been more insulting: “Trust us. We’ll take over the reform agenda now. You all can go back home, get back to work and stop letting those foreign satellite TV networks — i.e., Al Jazeera — get you so riled up. Also, don’t let that Obama guy dictate to us proud Egyptians what to do.”

This narrative is totally out of touch with the reality of this democracy uprising in Tahrir Square, which is all about the self-empowerment of a long-repressed people no longer willing to be afraid, no longer willing to be deprived of their freedom, and no longer willing to be humiliated by their own leaders, who told them for 30 years that they were not ready for democracy. Indeed, the Egyptian democracy movement is everything that Hosni Mubarak says it is not: homegrown, indefatigable and authentically Egyptian. Future historians will write about the large historical forces that created this movement, but it is the small stories you encounter in Tahrir Square that show why it is unstoppable.

I spent part of the morning in the square watching and photographing a group of young Egyptian students wearing plastic gloves taking garbage in both hands and neatly scooping it into black plastic bags to keep the area clean. This touched me in particular because more than once in this column I have quoted the aphorism that “in the history of the world no one has ever washed a rented car.” I used it to make the point that no one has ever washed a rented country either — and for the last century Arabs have just been renting their countries from kings, dictators and colonial powers. So, they had no desire to wash them.

Well, Egyptians have stopped renting, at least in Tahrir Square, where a sign hung Thursday said: “Tahrir — the only free place in Egypt.” So I went up to one of these young kids on garbage duty — Karim Turki, 23, who worked in a skin-care shop — and asked him: “Why did you volunteer for this?” He couldn’t get the words out in broken English fast enough: “This is my earth. This is my country. This is my home. I will clean all Egypt when Mubarak will go out.” Ownership is a beautiful thing....

Finally, crossing the Nile bridge away from the square, I was stopped by a well-dressed Egyptian man — a Times reader — who worked in Saudi Arabia. He was with his wife and two young sons. He told me that he came to Cairo Thursday to take his two sons to see, hear, feel and touch Tahrir Square. “I want it seared in their memory,” he told me. It seemed to be his way of ensuring that this autocracy never returns. These are the people whom Mubarak is accusing of being stirred up entirely by foreigners. In truth, the Tahrir movement is one of the most authentic, most human, quests for dignity and freedom that I have ever seen.
As I've said before, this sounds so much like our own civil rights movement of 50 years ago.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Fractured Neo-Conservatives

There is an interesting split in the neo-conservative community taking place over Egypt.  Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, son of Irving Kristol, and leading neo-con, has come out four-square in support of the Egyptian democracy movement (and against the lunatic ravings of Glenn Beck), while the bombastic neo-con David Horowitz, for example, has criticized Kristol for this.  I've also seen several of the neo-cons on the editorial page of the Washington Post come out against Mubarak and for the democratic protesters.  I also saw it recently on some show with neo-con Elliot Abrams.

Having been a neo-con myself back in the 80s and early 90s, with some familiarity therefore with this community of activists, it seems that the neo-conservative movement is fracturing and perhaps even dissolving.  You first saw it happening with David Brooks of the NYT, who moved to a more centrist and moderate position ideologically several years ago, after having been on the writing staff of Kristol's magazine.

Neo-cons are well-known for being hypersupportive of Israel and its defense, subordinating everything else to that goal.  Others were just Cold War hawks, followers of Sen. Scoop Jackson.  Many of them supported the invasion of Iraq back in the 90s, and were part of the Bush administration planning (and media hyping) for the Iraq invasion in 2003.  Many of them have been calling for war against Iran.

So for them to be supporting the young Egyptian democratic protesters, when Israel for example is so frightened by what's happening in Egypt, puzzles me.  I'll be looking for the explanation of this.

Learning the Future Tense

Nicholas Kristof, a NYT columinist and extremely intelligent foreign correspondent who is very familiar with the Third World, has a column today that hits the nail on the head when it comes to Egypt and America.  Bottom line is this: "To many Egyptians, the U.S. is conspiring with the regime to push only cosmetic reforms while keeping the basic structure in power. That’s creating profound ill will."

It's well worth reading the entire column here, but here are the final paragraphs:
These are Egypt’s problems to work out, not America’s. But whatever message we’re trying to send, the one that is coming through is that we continue to embrace the existing order, and that could taint our future relations with Egypt for many years to come.

Many years ago, when I studied Arabic intensively at the American University in Cairo, I was bewildered initially because for the first couple of months I learned only the past tense. That’s the basic tense in Arabic, and so in any Arabic conversation I was locked into the past.

The Obama administration seems equally caught in the past, in ways that undermine the secular pro-Western forces that are Egypt’s best hope. I hope the White House learns the future tense.


Donald Trump was the guest on the Piers Morgan show on CNN last night.  I almost didn't watch it, because my reaction to Trump is, well, not good.  He has always come across to me as an arrogant, boorish, New York rich guy, with bad hair.

But the promo of the show made it clear that Trump was possibly running for President, so, with my interest in politics, I watched it.  And I'm glad I did.

Trump reminds me of another eccentric wealthy businessman, Ross Perot.  Perot ran on a third-party ticket in 1992, against G.H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and he won 19% of the vote that year, a huge number.  Being in my opinion somewhat more charismatic than Perot, Trump could appeal to the country as a straight talker who is also a kind of economic nationalist.  Meaning that he would economically confront China much more directly than any other candidate has been willing to, in an attempt to address the unfair trade situation which has hollowed out America's industry.  Trump comes across as very concerned about American jobs, and seems more willing to do something about it, in his hard-nosed, businessman kind of way.

Trump also came across as well-informed on international and economic issues, more than I would have suspected from my previous exposure to him.  He also impresses one as a leader with an independent mind, willing to take tough stands.  People like that kind of thing, especially when times are bad.  Finally, he is wealthy enough to afford to run.

Having said all of the above, there are any number of obstacles and booby traps that could trip him up.  But my first impression is that he could be another Ross Perot, a spoiler who, though he may not be able to win, could make the 2012 campaign a very interesting and uncertain prospect for Obama and whoever ends up running on the Republican side.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Peak Oil

From this Wikileak 'leak', it looks like the US government knows much more about peak oil than they're admitting:
WikiLeaks has released cables revealing that Saudi Arabia's oil reserves have been exaggerated by as much as 40%, or 300 billion barrels. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil exporter. Peak oil, or the point when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction has been reached and is about to enter terminal decline, is no longer the fringe theory it was just 10 years ago. ...

Only time will tell whether [U.S. consul general and geologist Sadad] Al-Husseini's predictions are correct, but the possibility of imminent peak oil is enough to make Obama's goal of putting one million electric cars on the road by 2020 a little less overly ambitious.
The Caretaker and I have been talking about Peak Oil on this blog for two years now.  So stay tuned. And perhaps you might want to get a vehicle that gets better mileage?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

It's Health Care, Stupid!

Senators love to suggest raising the Social Security retirement age, when in fact, Social Security is fairly stable financially and with a little tweaking, will be fine, providing a steady, foundational income for every American, many of whom will have very little other retirement income.  You can be pretty sure those Senators and their loved ones are millionaires, and/or have sedentary jobs that they expect to work at until the good Lord takes them home, so any cuts in Social Security definitely won't affect them!

The real problem in the entitlements area is health care, including Medicare.  (An even bigger problem is a bloated war budget, but I won't get into that here.)  That's where the big deficits are expected, because health care demand is increasing at rates far above the rise in GDP.  So why don't Senators suggest cuts there?  Two reasons.  One, they're politically chicken.  And two, lots of wonderful special interests group in the health care field (hospitals, doctors, lawyers, big pharma, medical equipment, etc.) directly benefit from that spending, so it's simply much harder to cut.

Frankly, with our current political paralysis, I don't see anything good happening along those lines until the big crisis hits, ie. foreigners refuse to buy our debt and the currency crumbles.  Then, all kinds of bad things are going to happen.

The Real 'Left Behind'

Bob Herbert is also the realist:
The Ronald Reagan crowd loved to talk about morning in America [or maybe it's the Sputnik moment]. For millions of individuals and families, perhaps the majority, it’s more like twilight — with nighttime coming on fast.

Look out the window. More and more Americans are being left behind in an economy that is being divided ever more starkly between the haves and the have-nots. Not only are millions of people jobless and millions more underemployed, but more and more of the so-called fringe benefits and public services that help make life livable, or even bearable, in a modern society are being put to the torch.

Employer-based pensions, paid vacations, health benefits and the like are going the way of phone booths and VCRs. As poverty increases and reliable employment becomes less and less the norm, the dwindling number of workers with any sort of job security or guaranteed pensions (think teachers and other modestly compensated public employees) are being viewed with increasing contempt. How dare they enjoy a modicum of economic comfort?

We have not faced up to the scale of the economic crisis that still confronts the United States.

Standards of living for the people on the wrong side of the economic divide are being ratcheted lower and will remain that way for many years to come.

In the real world, schools and libraries are being closed and other educational services are being curtailed. Police officers are being fired. Access to health services for poor families is being restricted. “At least 29 states and the District of Columbia,” according to the budget center, “are cutting medical, rehabilitative, home care, or other services needed by low-income people who are elderly or have disabilities, or are significantly increasing the cost of these services.”

For a variety of reasons, there are not enough tax revenues being generated to pay for the basic public services that one would expect in an advanced country like the United States. The rich are not shouldering their fair share of the tax burden. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to consume an insane amount of revenue. And there are not enough jobs available at decent enough pay to ease some of the demand for public services while at the same time increasing the amount of taxes paid by ordinary workers.

Corporate profits and the stock markets are way up. Businesses are sitting atop mountains of cash. Put people back to work? Forget about it. Has anyone bothered to notice that much of those profits are the result of aggressive payroll-cutting — companies making do with fewer, less well-paid and harder-working employees?

For American corporations, the action is increasingly elsewhere. Their interests are not the same as those of workers, or the country as a whole. As Harold Meyerson put it in The American Prospect: “Our corporations don’t need us anymore. Half their revenues come from abroad. Their products, increasingly, come from abroad as well.”

Do Something About Oil

WaPo's Robert Samuelson writes about the continuing oil crisis we face:
The Age of Oil continues; we need to deal with it. The upheaval in Egypt reminds us of lessons that, despite decades of warnings, Americans have consistently sidestepped: The United States and the rest of the world will depend on oil for the indefinite future; global oil markets remain hostage to political crises that cannot be predicted or controlled; and we have not taken the prudent steps that would reduce - though not eliminate - our vulnerability to catastrophic oil interruptions....

What can we do? Well, two things: decrease oil consumption, preferably by a stiffer gasoline tax; and increase production, preferably by less-hostile regulation. The Obama administration isn't doing either. Instead, it's touting a goal of 1 million electric hybrid vehicles by 2015. This is more public relations than policy. The goal is probably unrealistic; first-year sales of the Chevy Volt may reach 25,000. Even if the 1 million is attained, the oil savings would be tiny - perhaps 40,000 barrels a day, about two-tenths of 1 percent of U.S. consumption of 19 million barrels a day. There are already 240 million cars and light trucks using gasoline.

A higher gasoline tax - gradually introduced to avoid wrecking the economic recovery - would dampen wild swings in fuel prices and push consumers to buy the more-fuel-efficient vehicles that the government is ordering auto companies to make. Americans have traditionally preferred bigger vehicles and, without the prod, might cling to old habits. There is a convergence here between energy and budget policy. An energy tax would help both. It would improve oil security and, with spending cuts, curb budget deficits. Neither the Obama administration nor congressional Republicans seem willing to grasp the possibilities.
Samuelson doesn't mention the Peak Oil issue, but his basic point is well taken. Don't just stand there: cut oil consumption, increase production, and do it now.

It Finally Comes Out: Obama Is a Center-Right Realist

Ross Douthet, young conservative columnist for the NYT, acknowledges what I've been saying since not too long after his election: Obama is a center-right foreign policy realist.
Indeed, from the twilight struggle over Iran’s nuclear program — featuring sanctions, sabotage, and the threat of military force — to the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, this White House’s entire approach to international affairs looks like a continuation of the Condoleezza Rice-Robert Gates phase of the Bush administration.
Conservatives and Republicans have been denying this for a long time, saying that Obama is a weak liberal type. Only honest progressives and leftists have seen it correctly, and nearly from the start. Which is why they are unhappy with most of Obama's foreign policy. They didn't vote for such a foreign policy, but that's what they got, because Obama is so good as faking out the liberal/left.

Egypt Is More Like Pakistan Than Iran

Fareed Zakaria believes that Egypt isn't like Iran in 1979, it's more like Pakistan 2011:
Egypt is not Iran in a dozen important ways. Its Sunni clergy play no hierarchical or political role the way they do in Iran. Perhaps most important, the current Iranian regime is not a popular model in the Arab world. Egyptians have seen Mubarak and the mullahs and want neither - Pew polling in 2010 found that a large majority supports democratic governance.

Fears of this imagined future are drawing American eyes away from the actual problem in Egypt: military dictatorship. Egypt is not a personality-based regime, centered on Mubarak, despite reports of his wealth and efforts to establish his son as his successor. Since the officers' coup in 1952, Egypt has been a dictatorship of, by and for the military. The few presidents since then have emerged from the officer corps; the armed forces have huge budgets and total independence, and are deeply involved in every aspect of society, including owning vast tracts of land and hundreds of companies.

Right now, the military is consolidating its power. Mubarak's efforts since 2004 to bring civilians and business leaders into the cabinet have been reversed over the past week - in fact, the businessmen have been turned into scapegoats, sacrificed so that the generals can continue to rule. The three people running Egypt - the vice president, prime minister and defense chief - come from the army. Half of the cabinet are military men, and about 80 percent of the powerful governors are drawn from the armed forces. The military seems to have decided to sacrifice Mubarak but is trying to manage the process of change, to ensure that it remains all-powerful. Egypt, remember, is still ruled by martial law and military courts.

Many commentators have made parallels to Turkey, where the military played a crucial role in modernizing the country. But the military in Turkey has yielded power very reluctantly, and only because the European Union has persistently applied pressure to weaken the military's role in politics. The danger is that Egypt will become not Turkey but Pakistan, a sham democracy with real power held in back rooms by generals.
So what will happen in the US is seen as backing the generals and not 'the people'?
It's worth remembering what has led to the rise of Islamic extremism and anti-American rage in the Middle East. Arabs see Washington as having supported brutal dictatorships that suppress their people. They believe that it ignored this suppression as long as the regimes toed the line on American foreign policy. If Washington is now perceived as brokering a deal that keeps a military dictatorship in power in Egypt, de jure or de facto, the result will be deep disappointment and frustration on the streets of Cairo. Over time, it will make opposition to the regime and to the United States more hard-line, more religious and more violent. That might be the real parallel to the forces that led to the Iranian revolution.
In other words, don't get too cozy with the Egyptian military, Mr. President Obama.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bread and Circus

James Kunstler didn't like the Super Bowl half-time show (neither did I):
My Gawd, what a farrago of auto-erotic triumphalism tarted up in the raiment of techno-grandiosity. The renowned Black Eyed Peas vocal krew descended on cables from the ethers of Cowboys Stadium stuffed into carapace-like costumes that lit them up like robotic waterbugs while something like a thousand worshipful myrmidons in LED-rigged suits capered about the pulsating stage like bits of discarded CGI FX from the latest installment of the Tron saga. Message: this is a nation so dangerously intoxicated on fumes from the arson of its own culture that it will soon melt down into a smoldering puddle of techno-narcissistic glop. Our bread and circus hijinks (or, should I say, Nacho and Fuhball), make the late Romans' antics look like a simple summer evening at the frog pond. In fact, nothing would make me happier in 2011 than the coming-true of the threatened NFL "lock-out" - except maybe if Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) were nabbed in flagrante delicto at a Super-8 Motel with a nineteen-year-old sheet-rocker of the undocumented persuasion. For that, I would definitely open the bottle of Lambrusco that somebody left at my Christmas party.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Student Loan Bubble

Mike Whitney writes in Counterpunch about the Student Loan Bubble:
Alan Nasser is professor emeritus of Political Economy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He co-authored "The Student Loan Debt Bubble" along with Kelly Norman, which appeared in CounterPunch.)

MW Is it possible to "walk away" from a student loan and declare bankruptcy?

Alan Nasser--- No, it's not possible for student debtors to escape financial devastation by declaring bankruptcy. This most fundamental of consumer protections would have been available to student debtors were it not for legislation explicitly designed to withhold a whole range of basic protections from student borrowers. I'm not talking only about bankruptcy protection, but also truth in lending requirements, statutes of limitations, refinancing rights and even state usury laws – Congress has rendered all these protections inapplicable to federally guaranteed student loans. The same legislation also gave collection agencies hitherto unimaginable powers, for example to garnish wages, tax returns, Social Security benefits and -believe it or not- Disability income. Twisting the knife, legislators made the suspension of state-issued professional licenses, termination of public employment and denial of security clearances legitimate measures to enable collection companies to wring financial blood from bankrupt student-loan borrowers. Student loan debt is the most punishable of all forms of debt - most of those draconian measures are unavailable to credit card companies. (Maybe I'm being too harsh. Sallie Mae recently announced that it will after all forgive a debt under either of two conditions: in case the borrower dies or becomes totally disabled.)

MW--Is it fair to say that the student loan industry is a scam that targets borrowers who will never be able to repay their debts? Are these students like the people who were seduced into taking out subprime loans? How much money is involved and how much of that money is either presently in default or headed for default?

Alan Nasser---It's as fair as fair can be. First, the student loan industry is huge – a large majority of students from every type of school are in debt. Debt is held by 62 percent of students enrolled at public colleges and universities, 72 percent at private non-profit schools and 96 percent at private, for-profit ("proprietary") schools. It was announced last summer that total student loan debt, at $830 billion, now exceeds total US credit card debt, which is itself bloated to the bubble level of $827 billion. And student loan debt is growing at the rate of $90 billion a year. So we're not talking small change.
And there's a lot more. This is a problem that could get young people in the streets someday.

A More Open Egypt That Is Also More Critical of Israel and America

A Jewish-American Middle East advisor, Aaron David Miller, writes about why even a fairly moderate democratic Egypt will prove to be a problem for both Israel and America, and why the Obama administration is probably not very anxious to move too fast in that direction:
The inevitable hardening of Egyptian attitudes will not just constitute an Israeli problem but will pose significant concerns for Israel's major ally: the United States. The old devil's bargain in which Washington relied on Cairo for support in its war and peacemaking policies, in exchange for giving Egypt a pass on how it is governed, is probably dead. And perhaps it's just as well. The Egyptian people deserve better, and that deal didn't produce a peaceful, stable and secure Middle East, anyway - just look around.

For Egyptians, who hunger for freedom and better governance, democracy will probably secure a brighter future. For America, Egyptian democracy, however welcome in principle, will significantly narrow the political space in which U.S. administrations operate in the region. On any number of fronts, a more representative Egypt will be far less forgiving and supportive of Washington. On U.S. efforts to contain Iran, on the Middle East peace process, on the battle against terrorism and Islamic radicalism - especially if Egypt's own Islamists are part of the new governing structure - there is a great deal of uncertainty about how much cooperation we can expect.

The irony is that the challenges a new Egypt will pose to America and Israel won't come from the worst-case scenarios imagined by frantic policymakers and intelligence analysts - an extremist Muslim takeover, an abrogation of peace treaties, the closing of the Suez Canal - but from the very values of participatory government and free speech that free societies so cherish. In a more open Egypt, diverse voices reflecting Islamist currents and secular nationalists will be louder. And by definition, these voices will be more critical of America and Israel.

The Cool, Loner Reagan

Biographer Edmund Morris has an interesting column in the WaPo about Ronald Reagan, describing five myths about him and the opposing truth.  I thought three and four were particularly fascinating:
3. He was warm-hearted.

No. But Reagan wasn't cold - except in his detestation of totalitarianism - so much as cool, in the way a large, calm lake is cool. Like many another natural leader (George Marshall and Charles de Gaulle come to mind), he viewed those who clustered around him abstractedly. He registered audiences rather than individuals. Reagan intimates have confessed to me that they were never sure he knew who the hell they were.

His three younger children have publicly stated that there were times (decades before any rumors of dementia) when he treated them as complete strangers. As for his marriage to Nancy, I'll note only that she was the fourth short, tough, street-smart woman he dreamily depended on to organize his everyday life, the others being his mother, Nelle Reagan; his first fiancee, Margaret Cleaver; and his first wife, Jane Wyman. He had no close friends. And until young Ron reminded him, it didn't occur to him to put a headstone on either of his parents' graves.

4. He was only a campaign Christian.

On the contrary, Reagan was a "practical Christian," that being the name of a mainly Midwestern, social-work-oriented movement when he was growing up. At 11, young Dutch had an epiphany, prompted by the sight of his alcoholic father lying dead drunk on the front porch of the family house in Dixon, Ill. In a moving passage of autobiography, Reagan wrote: "Seeing his arms spread out as if he were crucified - as indeed he was - his hair soaked with melting snow, snoring as he breathed, I could feel no resentment against him." It was the season of Lent, and his mother, a devotee of the Disciples of Christ, put a comforting novel in his hand: "That Printer of Udell's" by Harold Bell Wright. Dutch read it and told her, "I want to declare my faith and be baptized." He was, by total immersion, on June 21, 1922.

I read a speckled copy of that book in the Library of Congress. Almost creepily, it tells the story of a handsome Midwestern boy who makes good for the sins of his father by becoming a practical Christian and a spellbinding orator. He develops a penchant for brown suits and welfare reform, marries a wide-eyed girl (who listens adoringly to his speeches) and wins election to public office in Washington.

Shy about his faith as an adult, Reagan was capable of conventional pieties like all American politicians. He attended few church services as president. But on occasion, before critical meetings, you would see him draw aside and mumble prayers.

What Is The US Trying to Do?

The New York Times this morning is reporting that Western government, including the US, want Egyptian VP Suleiman to pursue a slow, gradual transition to a more democratic society.  Here's what the protesters themselves think:
Protesters interpreted the simultaneous moves by the Western leaders and Mr. Suleiman as a rebuff to their demands for an end to the dictatorship led for almost three decades by Mr. Mubarak, a pivotal American ally and pillar of the existing order in the Middle East.

“What they are saying behind closed doors, they are backing Mubarak,” said Noha el-Shakawy, 52, a pharmacist with dual Egyptian and American citizenship. “We are nothing to them. The United States wants to sacrifice all of our lives, 85 million people.”

Just days after President Obama demanded publicly that change in Egypt must begin right away, many in the streets accused the Obama administration on Saturday of sacrificing concrete steps toward genuine change in favor of a familiar stability.

“America doesn’t understand,” said Ibrahim Mustafa, 42, who was waiting to enter Tahrir Square. “The people know it is supporting an illegitimate regime.”
In other words, they don't trust the US and Europe. After supporting Mubarak and dictatorship for 30 years, we have not earned the trust of the Egyptian people. I'm not sure I trust us in that regard. Our foreign policy has not been conductive to true democracy around the world.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Israel: Enemy of Democratization

Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic writes of Israel as the enemy of democratization, in Egypt and in Palestine :
Israel may be forgiven for the shudder it has experienced at the end of the Mubarak era in Egypt. While it is still premature to conclude that the next government in Cairo will abrogate the treaty of 1978, which has brought many tangible benefits to Egypt, it is a prospect that must now be entertained, and for Israel it is a very unpleasant prospect. It is virtually certain that the Muslim Brotherhood will be included in the next Egyptian government, though hopefully the Egyptian opposition, the Egyptian army, and the White House will be cunning enough to prevent it from becoming a Muslim Brotherhood government; and however much the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced its virulent origins, it certainly has not renounced them so clearly and so completely that Israel has nothing to fear from its rise to power. It is preposterous to suggest that Israel has no basis for alarm, or for its feeling that a fine period of strategic stability is drawing to a close. This is not the apocalypse, but it is profoundly rattling.

The collapse of the Mubarak regime cannot be attributed, obviously, to the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egypt has exploded for Egyptian reasons. The valiant people in Tahrir Square did not include Palestinian statehood among their demands. Their grievances were domestic, as Mubarak’s outrages have been domestic. Yet the Egyptian repudiation of Mubarak will have consequences for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and so the analysis of Israel’s new situation cannot be addressed solely in terms of vulnerability and vigilance. Here is where concern about Israel must be added to concern for Israel. For the Netanyahu-Barak government has displayed gross historical irresponsibility in recent years. It has, in its relations with the Palestinians, desired only stasis and the status quo. The Al Jazeera leaks and the Olmert memoirs have abundantly demonstrated that the Palestinian Authority has been capable of significant concessions in the pursuit of a deal. By all accounts the Palestinian security forces on the West Bank have worked assiduously, and effectively, to thwart terrorism and to cripple Hamas. But the momentous improvement of life on the West Bank—is this not what thoughtful Israelis have dreamed of for decades?—has not moved Netanyahu to any kind of creative diplomatic activity. Not at all. Instead of plans and initiatives, he offers platitudes and debaters’ points. He bewails the fate of Palestinian moderation even as he does his best to seal its fate. He warns about the weakness of moderate Arab governments even as he makes them look weak. He worries about the waning influence of the United States in the region even as he helps to damage the influence of the United States in the region. Obama was mad to transform the issue of the settlements into a deal-breaker, when Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had already found an approach to the problem; but Netanyahu was mad—but also clever and consistent—to agree to let the issue be so transformed. Are rec rooms in Ariel really worth all this? Ground was broken last week for a massive new Israeli development in East Jerusalem as Tahrir Square was filling up with the evidence of a new Egypt. Do the Israelis have the right to build there? Let us say they have the right. But this is not a question of rights. It is a question of brains. Why in Herzl’s name would Netanyahu wish to alienate the Palestinians in the West Bank now?

The answer, of course, is that he wishes to alienate them always. “Israel Digs in On Peace Process With Egypt in Turmoil,” The New York Times reported last week. But Netanyahu was dug in on the peace process also before Egypt was in turmoil. Whatever he says, his history shows that in his view the time is never right. “We have to look around us with our eyes wide open,” Netanyahu told the Knesset. “The basis for our stability, for our future, and for preserving the peace and widening it, lies in bolstering the might of the state of Israel.” But nobody ever suggested that in the name of peace he lessen the might of the state of Israel. The purpose of Israeli military power is not only military. It is also political. It can serve as the guarantor of diplomatic imagination and diplomatic progress. But there is no diplomatic imagination and there is no diplomatic progress. There is only a perverse surrender to the settlers, and a miasma of short-term (and self-interestedly political) thinking, and a general hunkering down. What Netanyahu has offered his country is a complacent immobilism, now followed by a mild panic. So with our eyes wide open, it is important to assert that Israel’s vision of its future cannot be premised upon an eternity of Arab authoritarianism and an eternity of Palestinian statelessness. Such a vision is wrong, and it will not work. It is painful, for someone who admires the Jewish state for its democratic character, to see it emerge as an enemy of democratization. Jews should not rely on Pharaohs.

And We Wonder Why the Average Egyptian Doesn't Really Care For Us

This article in The New Republic on US aid to Egypt shows what our real goals were in Egypt:
U.S. military aid to Egypt—which averages $1.3 billion annually, and which this week allowed Egyptian police and paramilitaries to bombard protesters with volley after volley of tear gas made by Combined Systems International of Jamestown, Pennsylvania—may be grotesque in the objective sense because Washington has provided the Egyptian armed forces with such weapons platforms and systems as F-16 fighter aircraft, Abrams Main Battle Tanks, Apache attack helicopters, anti-aircraft missile batteries, and much else, precisely so these weapons will not be used against Israel. A March, 2009, cable from the US Embassy in Cairo that was made public by Wikileaks summed up both Washington’s rationale for the aid and President Mubarak’s expectations about it with admirable clarity. It is worth quoting in some detail:

"President Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil relationship and consider the USD 1.3 billion in annual FMF as “untouchable compensation” for making and maintaining peace with Israel. The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the U.S. military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace. We believe, however, that our relationship can accomplish much more. Over the last year, we have engaged MOD leaders on developing shared strategic objectives to address current and emerging threats, including border security, counter terrorism, civil defense, and peacekeeping. Our efforts thus far have met with limited success."

Whatever one thinks of these “tangible benefits,” and the wisdom of continuing an aid policy with a strategic but with no strictly military rationale, at least there were some, as Israeli discomfiture with the prospect of the end of the Mubarak regime has amply demonstrated. And at least Washington has been coherent. At a joint press conference Secretary of Defense Robert Gates held with President Mubarak in Cairo on May 5, 2009, after opining that “multiple American presidents and administrations have benefited from [Mubarak’s] wise counsel,” the secretary went on to say that, while the Obama administration was supportive of human rights, as “the United States always is,” the position of the administration was that “the foreign military financing that’s in the budget should be without conditions.” Of course, a more honest answer would have been that, while there were indeed no specific conditions, there was, as the Wikileaks document showed, a quid pro quo understood by both sides.

Obamacare In Critical Condition

I'm getting the feeling that Obamacare is not going to survive.  In my opinion, it was a jerry-rigged, Rube Goldberg contraption from the start, that was fated to breakdown and be replaced by....something.

Assange Off the Hook

My guess is that the US has pretty much forgotten about trying to bring Julian Assange of Wikileaks here for trial.  World events have bypassed that issue and shown 'openness'--speaking truth to power--to be an aid to democracy, not a threat to it.  Assange's timing is pretty good, I'd say.

Frank Wisner, Bagman of Empire

Here's a little something about the guy, Frank Wisner, Obama sent to talk to Mubarak last week. (I knew I recognized that name from somewhere--Legacy of Ashes:
From inside the bowels of Washington's power elite, Frank Wisner emerges, briefcase in hand. He has met the President, but he is not his envoy. He represents the United States, but is not the Ambassador. What is in his briefcase is his experience: it includes his long career as bagman of Empire, and as bucket-boy for Capital. Pulling himself away from the Georgetown cocktail parties and the Langley Power-point briefings, Wisner finds his way to the Heliopolis cocktail parties and to the hushed conferences in Kasr al-Ittihadiya. Mubarak (age 82) greets Wisner (age 72), as these elders confer on the way forward for a country whose majority is under thirty.

Obama came to Cairo in 2009, and said, "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone." Those words should have been cast in gold and placed in the portico of the White House. Instead, they drift like wisps in the wind, occasionally sighted for propaganda purposes, but in a time of crisis, hidden behind the clouds of imperial interests (or those of Tel Aviv). America presumes to know, and presumes to have a say equivalent to those of the millions who have thronged Egypt's squares, streets and television sets (one forgets about the protests of the latter, too tired to get to the square, nursing sick children or adults, a bit fearful, but no less given over to anger at the regime).

The Republicans have their own ghouls, people like James Baker, who are plucked out for tasks that require the greatest delicacy. They are like diplomatic hit-men, who are not sown up by too much belief in the values of democracy and freedom, but to the imperatives of "stability" and Empire. The Democratic bench is lighter now, as the immense bulk of Richard Holbrooke has departed for other diplomatic assignments. He had been given charge of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he found little traction. The Taliban could not be cowered, and nor would the Pakistani military. Holbrooke had much easier times in the Balkans, where, according to Diana Johnstone, he instigated the conflict by refusing the road of peace. Wisner comes out of the same nest as Holbrooke. He is the Democrat's version of James Baker, but without the pretend gravity of the Texan.

Wisner has a long lineage in the CIA family. His father, Frank Sr., helped overthrow Arbenz of Guatemala (1954) and Mossadeq of Iran (1953), before he was undone in mysterious circumstances in 1965. Frank Jr. is well known around Langley, with a career in the Defense and State Departments along with ambassadorial service in Egypt, the Philippines, and then India. In each of these places Wisner insinuated himself into the social and military branches of the power elite. He became their spokesperson. Wisner and Mubarak became close friends when he was in country (1986-1991), and many credit this friendship (and military aid) with Egypt's support of the US in the 1991 Gulf War. Not once did the US provide a criticism of Egypt's human rights record. As Human Rights Watch put it, the George H. W. Bush regime "refrained from any public expression of concern about human rights violations in Egypt." Instead, military aid increased, and the torture system continued. The moral turpitude (bad guys, aka the Muslim Brotherhood and democracy advocates need to be tortured) and the torture apparatus set up the system for the regime followed by Bush's son, George W. after 911, with the extraordinary rendition programs to these very Egyptian prisons. Wisner might be considered the architect of the framework for this policy.

Wisner remained loyal to Mubarak. In 2005, he celebrated the Egyptian (s)election (Mubarak "won" with 88.6% of the vote). It was a "historic day" he said, and went further, "There were no instances of repression; there wasn't heavy police presence on the streets. The atmosphere was not one of police intimidation." This is quite the opposite of what came out from election observers, human rights organizations and bloggers such as Karee Suleiman and Hossam el-Hamalawy. The Democratic and Republican ghouls came together in the James Baker Institute's working group on the Middle East. Wisner joined the Baker Institute's head Edward Djerejian and others to produce a report in 2003 that offers us a tasty statement, "Achieving security and stability in the Middle East will be made more difficult by the fact that short-term necessities will seem to contradict long-term goals." If the long-term goal is Democracy, then that is all very well because it has to be sacrificed to the short-term, namely support for the kind of Pharonic State embodied by Mubarak. Nothing more is on offer. No wonder that a "Washington Middle East hand" told The Cable, "[Wisner's] the exact wrong person to send. He is an apologist for Mubarak." But this is a wrong view. Wisner is just the exact person to send to protect the short-term, and so only-term, interests of Washington. The long-term has been set aside.

I first wrote about Wisner in 1997 when he joined the board of directors of Enron Corporation. Where Wisner had been, to Manila and New Delhi, Enron followed. As one of his staffers said, "if anybody asked the CIA to help promote US business in India, it was probably Frank." Without the CIA and the muscle of the US government, it is unlikely that the Subic Bay power station deal or the Dabhol deal would have gone to Enron. Here Wisner followed James Baker, who was hired by Enron to help it gain access to the Shuaiba power plant in Kuwait. Nor is he different from Holbrooke, who was in the upper circle of Credit Suisse First Boston, Lehman Brothers, Perseus and the American International Group. They used the full power of the US state to push the private interests of their firms, and then made money for themselves. This is the close nexus of Capital and Empire, and Wisner is the hinge between them.