Friday, November 30, 2012

Magnificent Censorship

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OK, mostly it's just "Dallas" with camels
America, unsurprisingly, has not bothered to look up from "American Idol" long enough to notice, but around the world over 150 million viewers are captured every week by the steamy heroic adventures of the Sultan in "Magnificent Century".   Now in its third season, the series is a Turkish prime-time soap opera based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the great sixteenth century Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  It turns out, however, that for all its global popularity, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan is most assuredly not a fan.  He took the opportunity to make that clear while attending the opening of a brand new airport in Kutahya Province, railing against the portrayal of the Sultan guzzling wine and rockin' his harem, even going so far as to take his complaints to the Judiciary. “We alerted the authorities,” he said ominously. “We wait for a judicial decision on it. Those who toy with these values should be taught a lesson within the remit of law.”

Now, I have on multiple occasions taken the opportunity to be complimentary in regards to PM Erdogan, for his modern views and his willingness to take an independent position even when it was not the expedient choice.  I still think his response to the Mavi Marmara atrocity was an example for leaders around the world.  But in the interest of honesty, he is also capable of showing some of the authoritarian intolerance that often characterizes Muslim - led governments.  Nations have to understand that a functional democracy is much more than just free elections and some kind of separation-of-powers arrangement.  Democracy is at its core a liberal endeavor, one that requires a tolerance of diversity, not only of people but of voices and speech and lifestyles.  This is one of the fatal flaws of a Theocracy, even in a highly homogeneous population - people want to choose their moral strictures, not have them imposed upon them by force of law.

This sort of tension arises in a Democratic society when a group within that society with rigid views on social behaviors gains some level of political power or influence, and politicians begin pandering to their prejudices in order to leverage that power.  We see that play out in a larger sense in Muslim nations, but it is prevalent in the United States, and can be seen in any nation with a significant fundamentalist or provincial population.  How different is Erdogan's outrage, really, than the almost comical national consternation over a "wardrobe malfunction" during a football game halftime show?

The growth of Muslim Fundamentalist political power in Arab nations, particularly those transitioning from long decades of single-party rule to some sort of democratic political system is a real risk to their growth and success as nations.  It is completely understandable, because during those years of authoritarian rule where the government used the secret police to crush any vestige of political opposition, the only venue for that opposition to organize was the mosque.  It fell to the Imams and Mullahs to challenge the political status quo, because to imprison, torture and murder them had disproportionate negative outcomes for the regime.  Now, in the post-revolutionary chaos of the Arab-Spring, it is these fundamentalist organizations that have the organizational and financial capability to govern.  Sadly, however, their approach to governance is not wholly dissimilar from that of the despot they replaced, as they seek complete legislative control and freedom from independent judicial oversight.  Again, when people go from the battlefield to the ballot box without seeing the establishment of democratic institutions and the rule of law, they do not live in a democracy so much as under the tyranny of the majority.

In Erdogan's case, however, he does not have such freedom to act unilaterally.  Turkey has a long post-Ottoman history of being an uncompromisingly secular society, officially tolerating all religions alongside no religion, with the military as the key institution safeguarding against a slide into Muslim theocracy.  The Prime Minister has sought, with some success, to change that balance, prosecuting hundreds of officers for plotting coups in order to cow the military into accepting changes driven by the civilian government.  But no one doubts that there are absolute limits to how many basic freedoms they're willing to see sacrificed on the altar of religious zealotry.
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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I'm Not a Scientist, Man

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Got all the bacteria, forgot the dinosaurs
Marco Rubio recently became the the next in a long line of politicians so cowed by the morons in their constituency that they are perfectly willing to become morons too.  As has been documented endlessly, when an interviewer with GQ asked him about the age of the earth, his response was "I'm not a scientist, man" and that questions like that are one of life's "great mysteries".  Now obviously, there is no mystery whatsoever about the age of the earth, or, for that matter, the age of the sun, the age of the galaxy or even the age of the universe.  Rubio and his ilk on the right think their problem is that there are people who won't vote for them if they acknowledge the amazing depth of accumulated scientific knowledge.  But his real problem is that a politician depending upon meeting the expectations of his electorate for ignorance and closed-mindedness for his election cannot then suddenly start to analyze information and use it to govern effectively.  He has locked himself in an information vacuum, forever afraid to recognize new discoveries at pain of alienating his voters.

But the thing that caught my eye was his attempt to justify his claim to basic scientific ignorance - the statement that he is not a scientist.  How does that apply?  If only scientists can know things, why would we have books in the library?  Why would we teach science class in school?  Indeed, how could we even create new scientists in the first place if they had to actually BE a scientist to understand the world around them?  Scientists discover things.  They learn things.  They figure things out.  Then they tell the world about those things, and the world takes that new knowledge and combines it with the earlier knowledge and it becomes understanding.  And understanding is available to anyone.  I couldn't do the necessary math to explain the fundamentals, say, of CP Symmetry Violation, but I am perfectly capable of understanding both what it is and what it means to the Standard Model.  And I'm not a scientist, man.

This is important to me because of a similar construct I run into quite often, even among otherwise scientifically literate and open minded people.  Particularly when discussing the implications of known physical laws, they often respond by saying "hey, we don't know everything, some day it might be possible to...".  At which point they wander off into a never-never land of science fiction, fantasy and imaginary jargon.  But here's the thing - we don't NEED to know everything to know some things.  And the things we know are not isolated factoids floating in a dark sea of ignorance, they are related to other things and have implications in the universe.  The things we know about matter lets us understand things we cannot directly observe about gravity, and the things we learned from relativity and quantum mechanics allow us to understand not only what is possible in the universe, but what is not.

Science and the scientific method does a very good job of questioning its own conclusions, and requiring proof that can be repeatedly demonstrated.  Researchers had seen the Higgs Boson many times before they were willing to announce its discovery.  When there is a broad scientific consensus that something is true about the world around us, it usually is.  And it is not that knowledge alone, but the conclusions we can draw from it that are important.
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The Self Defense Dodge (Updated)

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I don't think they were launching rockets
from the laundry room
Historical convention, common sense and even the United Nations charter accept the premise that a nation always has the right to defend itself against attack, invasion and aggression.  No rational or thoughtful person would truly question a nation's right to defend itself.  So what's behind this refrain, constantly repeated by Israel and the United States, reiterating Israel's right to self defense?  Well, sadly it's as obscene as it is obvious.  Israel has evolved to such a level of military dominance in the region that they are utterly unconstrained in their actions toward anyone they see as their opponents.  So when they respond to minor acts of armed resistance by committing repeated, horrific war crimes, attacks against civilian population centers and journalists, collective punishment and extra-judicial executions, their supporters find themselves in a terrific bind.  These actions by any other nation would draw instant international condemnation, but Israel often gets a pass from many in the international community, led by the United States.

So these supporters can't come out and say "in this case we actually DO support the bombing of hospitals and apartment buildings", so instead they simply repeat the meaningless platitude that Israel has the right to defend itself.  But let's think about this self-defense we are so mindlessly defending.  Because people have an inherent bias toward fairness, one of the things that most catches our attention in Gaza is the lack of proportionality.  Over the years, Palestinian rocket fire has killed about a dozen Israelis.  Now, this is not to be condoned, certainly, and a response intended to stop the rocket fire and defend against that threat is perfectly reasonable.  What exactly bombing apartment buildings in Gaza City has to do with stopping the rockets, or any other definition of self-defense, however tortured, goes unexplained.  Israel kills hundreds of Palestinians for every Israeli killed, and yet insists this is not an act of collective punishment, but merely self-defense.  An occupied, stateless people not permitted to grow their own crops, fish their own waters or export their own goods is the aggressor  and a modern, rich, nuclear armed country cries out they are the victim of this aggression.  It is impossible to believe the Israeli and American governments believe this construct - the open question is whether they think anyone else does.

One of the most interesting facets of this latest round in Gaza's endless torment is the role of Egypt, their immediate southern neighbor.  It is no longer under the dynastic control of the brutal kleptocrat Hosni Mubarak, but rather in a state of cautious balance between the longstanding military leadership and the newly elected moderate Islamist President Morsi.  Under the new government, there has been unequivocal condemnation of Israel's politically motivated slaughter of innocents, but the Generals have limited Egypt's actions in support of the Palestinians out of concern for their "global credibility" and, of course, their desire for continued US aid.  But one wonders if this isn't the end of the decades - old status quo, that with the 'Arab Spring', the increasing democratization of the middle east and north Africa, the peoples voices being heard rather than suppressed by greedy and authoritarian governments; it might be that "global credibility" will soon require speaking out against atrocities and war crimes committed in the name of political power.  It might be that in the eyes of the world, the US and Israel will find themselves viewed in the same light as Syria's Assad and Iran's Khameini.  It may soon be the case that universal disgust at the horrors inflicted on a stateless and helpless people will lead to international opprobrium and isolation, and political expediency will drive nations from a longstanding policy of looking away to more direct support for the people being slaughtered.

And that would be a welcome change.

Update:
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken out against the Israeli attacks on Gaza, calling them "ethnic cleansing" and emphasizing that they could in no way be deemed self-defense.  He referred to Israel as a "Terrorist State", and in discussing the refusal of the United Nations to act to reign in Israel war crimes, had this to say:

"It is against them today, tomorrow it will be us, keep that in mind. If we are going to die, let's go down with decency. Keep that in mind too."
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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Who I Am, What I Am, What I Believe In...

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At some point, ideology becomes stupidity
Once again, the Republicans find themselves struggling with the hard tyranny of facts and reality.  They believed that their political constituency could constitute a national majority, and they believed this national majority was immutable.  They believed they could exclude vast swaths of the American population, using hatred to energize their tribal contingent, and contempt to convince others that the economics of compassion and community had somehow become dangerous.  They spit bile at entire groups that might otherwise have been persuadable, and repeatedly sought to criminalize basic human liberties while crying out in panic that it was their opposition that was a threat to freedom.  Unsurprisingly, at least to anyone who didn't live in the right-wing media bubble, these policies were unable to generate a national consensus.

So now they find themselves confronting their own political mortality, forced to recognize that while Americans can be herded like frightened sheep, they also, at some point, can recognize a political and economic threat to their well-being and that of their families.  They are beginning to acknowledge that their policies are so cruel and so destructive that they actually alienated more voters than they convinced.  They clearly have come to recognize that you cannot conceal this vicious policy agenda by refusing to provide specifics, as anyone who has ever bought a used car can see through that tactic without difficulty.  And they are beginning to accept that they are going to have to reduce the hatred and vitriol in their message, at least toward a few select groups they have previously demonized, in order to expand their base of political support.

There is no doubt that strictly from a political standpoint, they can do this.  They could moderate some of their hardline social and economic stances and successfully expand their base of voters.  They face strategic challenges in that effort, but tactically the way forward is fairly clear.  But it raises one gigantic question - to what extent do they actually believe in these policies, as opposed to supporting them for technical or political reasons alone?  A very good example is the evangelical protestant community - they have already demonstrated their commitment to ideology over their desire to do what is necessary to win elections.  In both 2010 and 2012 they sacrificed significant opportunities to gain additional Senate seats by nominating unelectably extreme candidates.  It seems fairly obvious - if you truly believe you will suffer eternal torment for a given vote, it's not likely that you will cast that vote even if it is in your political best interests to do so.

So the challenge facing the national Republican Party is fairly straightforward.  No matter what policy you might point to, there are at least some people who think it is the only policy that matters - these "single-issue" voters are true believers in their own right, and exist all across the political spectrum.  But a large-scale political operation has to mostly ignore them in their broader calculation, because for every single-issue voter on one side of a given issue, there is  another on the other side.  Your candidate will get those that agree with him or her, and you can't persuade the others with favorable positions on other issues.  But beyond those, the party management will have to determine on what issues a larger portion of their electorate will allow them to bend, and try to calculate if a move to the left on a certain subset of policies will actually gain them the votes they need to once again be competitive.

And of course, if it turns out that the party's ideological commitment to tribal hatred and the upward redistribution of wealth is too strong to be overcome, they will see more and more of their more moderate electorate becoming "independents" and supporting the Democratic candidate, rendering them ever more irrelevant in the future...
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Thursday, November 15, 2012

...and the Agony of Defeat

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I feel your pain.
And it feels just like hope
We over here on the political left have been having quite a bit of fun watching the Republicans agonize over a fairly decisive if not overwhelming electoral defeat.  There was indeed something deeply satisfying in watching their smug certainty, even in the face of very clear evidence to the contrary, that they would finally be rid of this anti-American Chicago thug.  After all, everyone they talked to hated Barack Obama virulently, nobody they knew in their American Legion Hall or church congregation would vote for him - what possible chance would he have with the electorate at large?  And to see that certainty wiped away, so quickly and so completely that the denial many of thought would last for weeks actually lasted less than an hour.  There could be no cries of "voter fraud" or "stolen election" this time, as one by one the contested swing states all slipped away.  Seldom have I ever personally encountered the word "Schadenfreude" more often in the course of a single week.

And it really only gets better, as the national Republican party begins to come to terms with something we've all known was coming for years.  Every four years the population gets a little younger and a little browner and there just is no longer enough angry old white people to make a successful national political constituency.  So now we're hearing anguished cries from virtually all corners of the American Political Right that they have to find a way to soften their message and become more diverse and inclusive.  And I smile and think "good luck with that".

Now the hard political fact is that they COULD do this.  They could easily reduce their absolutist commitment to the wealthiest Americans and Corporations while still remaining friendlier to them than many Democrats.  They could back away from their commitments to social issues, from abortion and women's rights to gay rights and Church/State separation.  They could even moderate their positions on labor and immigration.  Sure, various factions of their coalition, primarily evangelical protestants and bigots, would scream bloody murder, but it's not like they're going to vote Democratic any time soon.  And while they might stamp their collective feet and threaten to create a third party, we can ask anyone from Ross Perot to Jill Stein how that's going to turn out for them - after a single election cycle they'll have their constituency back in place as if nothing ever happened.

But while these things are politically possible - the Democratic party has proven it time and again over the years by treating their left-wing base with contempt and still getting their votes, because people like me, while we would LOVE to see a more progressive President, are never going to facilitate the election of a bloated plutocrat like Mitt Romney or a reactionary fascist tool like John McCain - the Republican party has one specific reason why it cannot moderate its messaging.  The House of Representatives.

You see, there are three tiers of elections for national office.  There is a national election for President.  There are statewide elections for Senators.  And there are much smaller, district-level elections for Congresspeople.  Obviously, the national electorate includes the broadest set of political opinions, and includes a significant number of people who are ideologically left of center, or at least left of the Overton Window.  At the statewide level, the electorate tends to be more partisan, with some states much more blue overall, like California and Massachusetts and New York, and others, more rural and less densely populated much more red.  But a congressional district is a different kind of thing.  A large metropolitan area may include three districts, while vast agricultural and rural portions of a state might have fifteen.  The way America's population is distributed, and particularly the broad differences in diversity, tolerance, education and religious conviction between the big cities and the great hinterlands, essentially creates a condition where the median congressional district is significantly more Conservative than a larger sampling would be.  In a large percentage of these districts, the people demand an extreme-far right ideology in their representatives - this is the home turf of the "tea party".

So in order to start to back away from their more extreme wing in order to begin to appeal to Latinos, to educated Americans and to people who care about the environment and the poor, the national Republican party would have to repudiate the policies of their own Congressional caucus, which would lead to an incoherent and chaotic political message that could never get out of its own way long enough to win an election.  The party is, in essence, being held hostage by a political base that can never again be large enough to win national office, and yet their message is one of bigotry and exclusion.  It's a genuine challenge to which there is no easy solution - for which we can thank our lucky stars.
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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Balk Like an Egyptian

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Don't make Israel Angry.  You wouldn't like
her when she's angry...
Setting aside for a moment the humanitarian and legal contexts, as a pure matter of regional military and geopolitical effectiveness, Israel has done a very good job of securing her borders against access from any of her neighbors.  Because of Israeli belligerence, willingness to kill people in large numbers for vague reasons and oppression of the Palestinian people, the surrounding nations might be willing to at least look the other way if attackers sought to cross their frontier into Israel.  But as a practical matter, it has become just about impossible to do so.  In the north, the Lebanese border is strongly defended, and the Lebanese government itself is utterly cowed by repeated attacks and invasions from Israel over the years.  To the east, Syria and Israel have maintained a cautious truce in order to avoid a larger war, and much of Israel is buffered from direct exposure to the Syrian border by the occupied West Bank.  Southeast is the long border with Jordan, from the Dead Sea to Eilat in the far south.  This is another border secured by unrelenting militarization and decades of intimidation.  King Abdullah has maintained the policies of his father, recognizing that virtually every regional war between Arab states and Israel will be fought, at least partially, in Jordan.

Which leaves the Sinai, Israel's southern border.  Under agreements negotiated with Hosni Mubarak, who it seems had a much greater love of fabulous wealth than he did for his nation or people, the Egyptian military was banned from operating in that part of Egypt, leaving Israel in complete control of the border.  Except, of course, for the very large implications of tiny little Gaza.  Israel maintains an iron-clad embargo on the Gaza Strip, carefully keeping the population in a constant state of food-insecurity, preventing the import of construction materials to rebuild the towns and cities Israel has destroyed in wars and attacks over the years, and refusing to allow people in Gaza to export their manufactured goods, thus keeping the population mostly un- and under-employed and in poverty.  This blockade and embargo even extends to international humanitarian donations - it's hard to imagine how harsh the Western reaction would be to any other occupying nation that prevented the delivery of humanitarian aid.

But this absolute impenetrable embargo of the Gazan people has a critical weakness.  Gaza is not entirely surrounded by Israel - there is a tiny, five-mile border with Egypt, typically referred to as the "Rafah Crossing" after the name the little Egyptian town of the same name.  Under Mubarak, the Egyptians had an agreement with Israel to keep the crossing closed in support of the Israeli embargo.  This allowed Israel complete control over the lives of the people of Gaza, while Egyptian government officials could profit immensely from an institutionalized smuggling economy built up over the years in Rafah.  Since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Egyptians, particularly the Morsi government, has made a variety of noises about opening the crossing, and have partially done so to varying extents.  But still, the people of Gaza are unemployed, hungry and living in wretched conditions, mostly because power in Egypt is still in the hands of the Generals, and the Generals are much friendlier to the Likud government than the civilian government might be.

What could change this status quo in Gaza?  Turn on your television set. The Israelis have begun bombing Gaza City and assassinating Hamas leadership figures.  If the Palestinians choose to respond, Israel can reliably be expected to slaughter them in large numbers, destroying more of their cities, their utilities, their hospitals and refugee camps.  And in response to yet another humanitarian disaster, I would expect we will see the floodgates open.  Humanitarian agencies and NGOs might be allowed, even encouraged to set up shop in Rafah, and food and medicine and concrete and money might start flowing in, and goods might begin to find their way out and to markets.  Certainly, one should not be naive - the weapons trade will thrive in this chaotic boom-town too, but the weapons trade thrives where people make war.  Make peace and the arms brokers will find other buyers elsewhere, it's just not any more complicated than that.

Israel's collective punishment of the people in Gaza was never sustainable, and it was always a matter of some fascination to speculate on what might bring it to an end.  There is a rich irony that we may see it end in the very near future, not as a result of international demands or political negotiations, but as yet another unintended consequence of Israel's intransigence and brutality...

UPDATE:
Bending to popular pressure, Egyptian President Morsi has recalled the Egyptian Ambassador from Israel.  Morsi's political operation released a statement, saying "...“the occupation state must realize that the changes that took place in the region, especially in Egypt, will not let the Palestinian people fall at the mercy of the Israeli aggression as was the case before.”  There are already demands among both Islamist and Secular Egyptians that Morsi open the Rafah Crossing to unrestricted traffic and break the embargo once and for all.
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Friday, November 9, 2012

Serious Problems, Syria's Solutions?

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No.  These people do NOT like each other
The bloody civil war in Syria seems to be entering a new phase.  It started out as a political disagreement with a sectarian component and became a revolution, and as the people rushed to choose a side it became a protracted civil war.  But now so much blood has been spilled, and so many people have been horrifically affected that it is shattering into a factional free-for-all that will create divisions and hatred between and among the various political, ideological, ethnic and sectarian population groups that will take decades to heal, if they ever do at all.

Meanwhile, as refugees abandon their lives and homes and stream to the relative safety and desperate poverty of camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the world comes together in an orgy of finger-pointing, racing to blame one another for all the things that are not being done to help.

But it's odd that in the global firestorm of blame and counter-argument there is so little specificity.  What is it, exactly, that "we" should do?  For that matter, just precisely who are the "we" that are supposed to actually, you know, do it?  Fund the refugees?  Arm the rebels?  Enforce a no-fly zone?  The fact is, that there are precisely two resources the global community can bring to bear on the disintegration of Syria - Money and Violence.  There doesn't actually seem to be a desperate lack of funds - the logistical challenges of using them to deliver effective relief in the region, coupled with the inevitable local corruption, seems to be absorbing the charitable resources to the point of saturation.  Meanwhile, the entire area is awash in weapons, and while the rebels probably do need some specialized gear, particularly anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles and encrypted communications, they are not struggling to bring effective firepower to bear on the hardcore remnants of the Syrian armed forces.

That leaves violence.  The world could pick a side, presumably the rebels at this point, and provide them with an overwhelming military advantage.  The loyalists would quickly read the Libyan writing on the wall and the regime would collapse, much the same as it is doing now, only somewhat faster.  The real problem happens then.  There is no credible, competent leadership to step in and fill the void, there is vast distrust, ideological and sectarian disagreements and outright ethnic hatred among the factions that would find themselves on the "winning" side.  The only functional governing institutions would be those that were in place when the revolution started, and they would be considered untrustworthy, and many will even be prosecuted and executed.

As an interesting historical aside, peace only truly came to Lebanon after the Syrian army occupied it and enforced the peace with an iron fist.  Very likely the same would be true of a post Assad Syria, but who will be the guarantor of such a peace-at-gunpoint solution?  In another world, it might be Iran, but any aggressive move by Iran across her borders would quickly draw a massive military response.

Like Iraq and Afghanistan after foreign invasion, like Libya, Sudan and Somalia after civil war, like the decades-long futile search for peace in Northern Ireland and the ongoing, seemingly endless nationalist and sectarian hatred in the Balkans, these things truly have no end.  There is no agreement, no national consensus to end the fighting and re-build a nation.  There is only factions, one strong enough at any time to take power, the others continuing to use violence to try to gain that power for themselves.  As long as there are tribes and religions, money and weapons, nations torn apart by violence will struggle mightily to find a way to put themselves back together again.  And it doesn't help that these "nations" are just a set of arbitrary boundaries drawn by white colonists with no sense of the diversity of the populations. Afghanistan, for example, can never have a national consensus because it is a nation in name only, a group of incompatible tribal regions being told to see itself as a single people, and that is simply unrealistic.

Just as we have seen over the years from Ireland to Bosnia, religious identification is often predicated on hatred of other sects, and one of the things that gods and godlets from Zeus to Mohamed to Yaweh agree on is that it is good, and necessary, to kill the apostates - in large numbers and without mercy.  In Syria it is no different, with the Shiites and Christians aligning themselves with the Alawites out of fear of the Sunnis and their fundamentalist allies.  How can peace come until these various religious sects can agree to work together to build a nation?

The more you think about it, the less there is that the world can do in Syria.  The best we can offer at this point is to provide enough firepower to reduce the Assad government's ability to bomb and shell entire neighborhoods and slaughter non-combatants in large numbers, and make sure there is enough food and medicine available to the nations hosting the refugees.  And at that point stay out of it and hope that, at some point, humanity triumphs over hatred.
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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Strategic Ignoring - The Republicans and the Voice of the People

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I'm sorry.  Is there something about this
confuses you?
The Debt Ceiling fight was in the summer of 2011.  Since then, for eighteen months, the Obama Administration AND the Obama Re-Election Campaign have been relentlessly demanding higher taxes on the the wealthiest Americans.  Not crippling levels of taxation, but rather a combination of higher marginal rates on income taxes along with higher rates on investment income, and a reduction in the kinds of bizarre loopholes put in place by wealthy special interests, such as the Carried Interest Deduction.

Unlike the Romney Campaign, that was very careful to avoid making specific proposals, President Obama has been very clear, at every opportunity, and in every policy proposal.  One of the best approaches to begin to address the deficit and fund basic government services at the national and state level, they said, was nothing more than a simple roll-back of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans.  All by itself it wouldn't solve the deficit problem, but it would begin to make the income tax code more progressive, and it would give the government some resources to begin to address desperate problems in local education, law enforcement and infrastructure.

The Republican party made it very clear, from the very beginning, that tax increases on millionaires and billionaires were a non-starter.  They would go to the mats, shut down government and take the US to the brink of default before they would allow the government to raise the highest marginal tax rate by four percent.  Four a year and a half, the two parties have stood nose to nose, fighting a desperate ideological struggle for a tiny portion of the wealth of America's richest citizens.  Interestingly, many of those wealthiest citizens stood up and agreed they should be taxed at a higher rate, but the elected Republicans weren't going to risk their standing with the investment bankers and hedge fund managers to allow that sort of discussion.  There was to be no compromise on this issue - it would be a fight to the death.

And a fight to the death it was.  The Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, a perfect standard bearer for the top 1%, a rich plutocrat so out of touch with the reality of life in America he couldn't identify a donut by name.  And in a long, agonizing contest of lies in the service of the rich, media complicity and angry denunciations of basic community responsibility, this was really the core argument of a political season gone out of control.  Month after month the campaign spending piled up as the Republicans sought to portray Obama as a a Socialist, crippling capitalism and job creation even as they themselves sought to cripple unions and send manufacturing jobs to lower wage nations.

And finally, thankfully, last night it ended.  Decisively.  It's not like people didn't understand what they were choosing.  Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest to close the deficit and give the American government some financial resources to fund the programs already approved by Congress.  Romney demanded that the American people give up their government services, and live or die on their own so that the richest Americans might be just a little bit richer.  It was a very clear argument, and a very clear outcome.  The American people chose the Obama vision of a nation that serves its entire population over the Romney vision of a nation that exists to serve only ten percent of it's population and does not care about the lives and families of the poor and middle class.

So if our political system was truly functional, the government would recognize that the people have chosen, and the two sides would sit down together to craft a new budget and tax policy based on the stated preference of the American people.  It is, after all, government of the people, by the people and for the people - is it not?  Well, sadly, it is not.  The Republicans in Congress have already doubled down on their resistance to any tax increases on the wealthy.  Of course, ALL the Bush tax cuts expire on January 1st, so Obama will come to work with a new Congress and a new reality, but that's not really the point here.  The point is once again to point out, to DEMAND people see with clear eyes, that the Republicans do NOT represent their populations - their constituency is ONLY the wealthy, and they protect those interests at the expense of what's best for our nation, and this can no longer be doubted.  We had an election.  They lost.  And yet, like good soldiers in a losing cause, they keep serving their masters...
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The Unbearable Lightness of the 22nd Amendment

...
One big, happy family
The campaign is over, the election decided - now it's time to begin to consider the consequences.  I'm not one who believes that, freed from the political demands of re-election, President Obama will suddenly become a grand, fire-breathing progressive leader, fundamentally remaking America in the name of peace, justice and equality.  We KNOW who Barack Obama is, how he prefers to govern, and what his values are.

But that doesn't mean there won't be changes, or that they won't be positive changes.  It is true without argument that his political career is over - he has four years to govern and build a legacy, and then he will move into the special "Elder Statesman" role we reserve for our former Presidents.  But all the rancor and over-the-top rhetoric of the two campaigns and first four years cannot be called back, and it would be unreasonable to believe that the President wouldn't consider who supported him and who obstructed him, who made political arguments and who chose vile personal attacks.

With the Republican majority still solid in the House of Representatives, and the minority in the Senate still equipped with a substantial toolkit for obstruction and delay, there will be no legislative agenda this term.  No bills of any consequence will come to his desk for signature, and the battles over upcoming Supreme Court Justice appointments will be epic, and exceedingly ugly.  But this is where the lack of political constraints will help him.  He can act with a free hand in the executive branch, using his regulatory agencies to drive change or to force legislative concessions.  And it might be in the realm of foreign policy where we will see a President free to take actions that history will remember.

One key area of domestic policy that will see consequences from its political positions is the Financial Industry.  President Obama has been very friendly to their interests, to the point of shielding them from prosecution and using taxpayer funds to prop up their failing institutions.  And yet they reviled him, committing massive funds to his opponent and calling him everything from Stupid to Socialist.  This was a bet they lost twice, with the election of Barack Obama to a second term in the White House and of Elizabeth Warren to the Senate.  Now don't get me wrong, I don't expect to see a lot of major prosecutions in the Banking and Finance sectors (although Holder's DoJ appears to be poised to launch some, and even that's better than nothing), but I DO expect to see the gloves come off on regulatory policy and capital requirements, and even tougher rules around international currency flows and derivative trading.  President Obama doesn't need them any more, and he certainly owes them nothing at this point.

This new-found political freedom will also allow the President to work more effectively during the next debt-ceiling hostage crisis.  The open question in these kinds of fights is whether voters will hold the President or Congress accountable for a government shutdown, and this time the political risk is clearly higher for the legislators.  Plus, if the president decided to take a more aggressive approach like ignoring the debt ceiling altogether or, my preferred approach, simply ordering the Treasury to mint a couple Trillion dollar platinum coins to use to keep the government functioning, he would certainly have more flexibility to do so.

But some of the real opportunities for historic change are in the realm of foreign policy.  There is no longer any doubt that America's relationship with Israel is dangerous and actually damaging to American interests.  As Israel behaves in an increasingly belligerent and thug-like manner in her neighborhood, the unwavering support of the United States for even brutal criminal acts destroys American credibility and damages our ability to demand better behavior from other regional bullies.  But worst of all, the situation as it currently exists allows the Israeli political leadership to control America's actions in the region as if they were the superpower and we were the client state.  Indeed, the most critical decision any government can make, the decision whether and when to go to war, is no longer America's to make.  It rests with the Likud government and Bibi Netanyahu, who has tormented Obama for years and actively supported Mitt Romney in the American election.  If Obama wants to address these issues and bring pressure to bear on the Israeli government to halt the settlements and work actively for a two-state solution it would raise a tremendous outcry in Congress, but would have little in the way of direct political costs.  And by breaking the logjam brought about by Israeli impunity, it might just create a historic opportunity for real progress on Palestine.

For that matter, Obama could do a deal directly with the Iranian leadership, short-circuiting the march to a war that would wreck the global economy, lifting sanctions that are hurting the Iranian population and starting down the path to normal, peaceful relations with the Islamic Republic.  He's not really in the box he is often thought to be in, because he has only said that America would not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran.  Since Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and is not directly working on developing them, there is no contradiction in this approach.

In short, Obama is facing four years of divided government and an increasingly virulent and obstructionist opposition.  All his real legislative victories are likely behind him, so in order to cement the kind of legacy he certainly wants for himself and his administration, he's going to have to find a way to take some fairly bold steps outside of Capitol Hill.  But the fact that the United States Constitution includes the 22nd Amendment offers him the freedom to try to achieve some important things in his second term.  I certainly hope he takes that opportunity.
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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sometimes, You Have to Take the World Serious

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Got Heem
Sports is entertainment, nothing more, a metaphor for life's conflict and struggle, with outcomes that can be influenced, but never determined by the quality of personnel on the field.  They amuse us, and give us an endless topic of conversation, structured as they are on a regional geographic tribalism that creates a kind of visceral loyalty that kings and gods can only wish for.  For some, they become an obsession, occupying every waking thought, absorbing an irrational portion of the budget and determining their sense of happiness and well-being.  Often they are built into legends and epic sagas, cautionary tales of loss and redemption and morality plays that seem to offer clarity in the choice between heavenly success and divine retribution.

Mostly, though, sports is entertainment, nothing more.  But every now and then, like literature or poetry or theater, sports can offer us an important life lesson, a glimpse into those mystical core qualities that sometimes remind us that there are different kinds of strengths, and that, in spite of the world we have collectively built, there is still something noble and admirable in humankind.

The San Francisco Giants entered the playoffs in an enviable position, having clinched the NL West with more than a week to go, allowing them to set their rotation, rest their starters and open the series at home.  But the Reds were a very good team, with powerful pitchers and lots of hitting, and there was much concern that they would be too much for the Giants.  Sure enough, they beat the Giants in both of their home games - not closely, not by a little, but dominantly.  Then it was off to Cincinnati, where the Reds next win would eliminate the Giants.

That's when it happened.  "Reverend" Hunter Pence, one of the newest Giants, called his team together in the dugout before the game and with sincerity and passion and just a touch of madness told them he didn't want to go home, that he wanted to play with them just one more day.  He demanded they "play for each other, that they win every moment, win each inning, it's all we have left".

Nobody really noticed the earth shift on its axis, and nobody watching from outside had any way to understand what had been created.  But at that moment the 2012 San Francisco Giants went from being a pretty good baseball team to something much, much more.  They became an unstoppable force, a team much greater than the sum of its parts, because they just didn't want to stop playing together, and they absolutely refused to let their teammates down.  The Reds scored a run in the first inning, the Giants tied it in the third and from there, in a relentless battle of zeroes, the slow, ponderous tilt of history began.  When the Giants finally scored in the tenth, then shut down the Reds to take Game 3, nobody outside the Giants clubhouse knew it yet, but at that moment the playoffs had ended.  It was all over but the beer commercials.

The Giants dominated the last two games in Cincinnati to move on to the NLCS against the Cardinals.  Predictably, the Giants found themselves down in that series 3 games to 1, facing another 3 elimination games.  But this time was different.  The dark clouds weren't so dark, and there was never a hopeless thought of going home after a successful if not great season.  The Giants knew how to do this, and they had something almost magical, except it's not magic, it's something people have always known, a power that comes from a bond so deep it's indistinguishable from love, a knowledge that people fight harder for those next to them than they ever do for themselves.

Of course they won those last three elimination games against St. Louis, outscoring the Reds 20-1.  Ho hum.  And they entered the World Series an unbeatable juggernaut, all smiles and fun and the taste of blood on their lips.  Poor Detroit.  They never had a chance, there was no team, no matter how "good" they were, that could have beaten San Francisco in that series. The Giants dexterously handled the Tigers in a four game sweep, dominating with pitching, defense and timely hitting.

Thus endeth the lesson...
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The Training Dodge

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Everybody relax!  It's just a training mission
What are armies for?  Or even more simply, why does a nation build and fund a military force?  The answer is as obvious as it is eternal - a military force is a fighting force, meant to dominate other nations and impose their will on other other governments.  Thus it has ever been, with the wealthiest nations building the most powerful militaries, conquering the most territory and holding the greatest empires.

But nobody knew how different the post Vietnam, post Cold War world would be.  Oh, sure, everybody builds powerful armies, navies and air forces, and even more powerful coalitions and alliances, but no longer can they admit the raw greed and lust for power that has traditionally driven the violent conversion of wealth to power.  The acquisition of territory by conquest after the excesses of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan have been judged as evil, and the imposition of external coercion on sovereign nations is a war crime.  Now, don't believe any of this is anything more than a thin veneer of civilization over man's most base instincts - the golden rule is now, just as it has always been, that the one with the guns makes the rules.  It's just important in the modern era to wrap this ancient process in some kind of marketing message, where no matter what your army is doing to entire nations and populations, you can frame your efforts in terms of helping that nation, rather than destroying or looting it.

So now, it seems that the primary purpose of armed forces anywhere in the world is educational in nature - they're there to train the indigenous and local troops.  Training, not fighting, is a soldier's job today.  If you listen to the Pentagon, that's all we did in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Uganda - anywhere we go, it's merely to train that nation's soldiers.  It's hard to determine which is more amazing - the incredible need for training throughout the worlds armies or the amount of actual combat that seems to occur during these "training" missions.  It's also interesting how open-ended a training project can be.  Apparently, despite any and all efforts, everybody is in training but nobody is ever actually trained.  To me, this would call into question the actual capabilities of the trainers, but I'm cynical.

Obviously, it doesn't take one hundred thousand American troops to train the Afghan army.  You train up a cadre of Officers and Non-Coms and let them train their troops at the Company level, selecting the best of them to be retained to help train the next wave.  It's logarithmic - in a couple of years you have built a complete, professional training system that requires very little in the way of external support.  The US has merely decided that "training" sounds better than "stomping around the countryside hunting down local people who feel unrepresented or disenfranchised by their deeply corrupt, tribal government".

Now, of course, every foreign military adventure is advertised as a "training mission".  From Americans in Columbia, Yemen and Jordan to the French in Mali to the Iranians in Syria to the Russians in Georgia.  What we're seeing is another manifestation of blatant dishonesty in government.  I know, not exactly news, but if government is supposed to have the consent of the governed and they won't even tell the governed what they're doing, it's time for a serious re-examination of our so-called "democracy".
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