Saturday, September 29, 2012

1989 Called - They Want Their World Series Back

I felt the earth move
It's another of those "very good times to be a baseball fan" in the San Francisco Bay Area.  The Giants have already won the National League West crown, and just across the bay the Oakland As are closing in on that new one-game play-in for the Wild Card.  Of course, Giants fans and As fans are not typically friendly, and it is rare (but not impossible) to find someone who genuinely roots for both teams, but these moments are different.  There's something extraordinarily cool about a World Series played in one metropolitan area.  For one thing, there's just not that many places where it can happen - New York, Chicago, Florida, Los Angeles and of course, the Bay Area.  But more than that, particularly out here on the left edge of the map, we like any opportunity to remind the denizens of the Bronx and Bristol CT (yeah, I'm looking at YOU, ESPN) that there is baseball outside of New York and Boston, and it can even be worth watching.  When the Giants won it all two years ago, the grudging nature of the appreciation in the national press was a joy to behold.  Sure, west coast games go well past a lot of bedtimes, but it can still be a little frustrating to be the second class citizens of MLB.

Certainly, there's a LOT of great storylines in this year's playoffs.  The Orioles, a Washington DC team that is not only good, but VERY good, even though they may have voluntarily crippled their starting rotation, the final year of the classic Chipper Jones' great career playing for the odious Atlanta Braves, the Rangers giving it another go for the third year in a row, always a bridesmaid, the Reds turning it on down the stretch even as their hapless and notably incompetent Manager had a stroke - these are all going to play out in a very interesting post-season.  But the possibility, however faint, of another whack at a cross-bay World Series is much more than intriguing.  How might 1989 have played out had the fault stayed where it started, had disaster stayed away for another week?

The 1993 Giants were arguably the best team that has ever played in San Francisco, dominating opponents with both pitching and a prodigious offense and winning 103 games that year.  Unfortunately, they never got a chance to see how that particular team stacked up to the rest of the league as those loathsome Braves won 104 and took the pennant.  But that 1989 team was almost as good, better in most ways than the 2010 team that took the World Series championship.  2010 was characterized by a few incredibly special performances, Lincecum and Cody Ross and a few others finding something inside themselves that nobody quite realized was there.  Beyond that, it was the bullpen and a few good breaks that took that team over the top.  But that 1989 team had it all.  They had Brett Butler at the top of the lineup getting on and stealing bags.  They had not only power, but average up and down the lineup.  They had good outfield defense and an utterly unrivaled infield.

This year's Giants team has a better offense than in 2010 and the best bullpen in the game.  Unusually for this team, it's the starting pitching and defense that are the question marks.  And the overall quality of the teams in the playoffs is ridiculously high this year.  If the Giants can get through the Reds and the Nationals, they ought to be favorites to win the World Series.  I haven't paid enough attention to the As to know how they really stack up - I know they've been getting good pitching and a lot of home runs, but it's going to be hard for them to get through whatever combination of Orioles, Yankees and Rangers they'll have to play.  But right now, before being confronted by all that reality, I can think about another shot at the As in the World Series, and smile.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Inherent Limitations

If only white people had some power in this country!
Conventional wisdom is rapidly coalescing around the premise that Mitt Romney is in over his head, a 'B Team' political player in the most major of political leagues.  And that may very well be quite true.  But there are larger issues that call that assumption into question, or at least may render the entire construct meaningless.

It's interesting that the entire Republican field seemed to be nothing more than an undisciplined rabble, a group of cranks and nincompoops unprepared for the challenge of a national election, so deeply enclosed in their own ideological bubble that they were utterly unaware that their 'ideas' had little in the way of popular traction.  And, of course, the explanation for this is that the Republican party has been completely pervaded by the most extreme tribal, sectarian and bigoted portion of the right wing.  And while that is undeniably true, it is not, in and of itself, an explanation for the relentless failure and accumulated hopelessness of the Romney campaign.

This wholesale movement to the extreme right has resulted in an uncompromising, stringently enforced set of policy plans that the party, and all of its candidates, must enforce in lockstep.  These policies are not only unpopular, but are tailor made to eliminate support from vast swaths of the electorate.  The black vote - gone due to blatant bigotry.  The Latino vote - ditto.  Gays - forget it.  Women - well, let's just say the Republicans haven't made them feel completely welcome, as equal partners in the movement.  Unions - well, no, and there goes the police and firefighters that have traditionally been strong Republican constituency.  The elderly - another part of the traditional Republican base feeling deep concerns about how a Romney presidency might affect their lives.

This is important for three reasons.  First, in the past the party's presidential nominee has taken on the role of de facto party leader, defining the policy agenda for his presidency in broad strokes, including plans for specific legislation alongside larger, more conceptual issues in areas such as social concerns, civil liberties and foreign policy.  But the Romney campaign, indeed, the entire Republican presidential nomination process, has turned that history on its head.  The party defined its specific ideological agenda and demanded the candidates adhere to it in perfect lockstep.  The process reversal means that we can predict, with greater accuracy than has been possible before, what the actual policy goals of a Romney administration would look like.

Second, it completely undercuts the advantage the Republicans should have as a result of the Citizens United verdict.  Being the party of rich white men, they have an outsized share of the large political contributions, and can expect to deliver more of everything, from lawn signs to television advertising.  But when your message is not just unpopular, but downright toxic to vast swaths of voters, the ability to convey that message in a relentless stream can actually become counterproductive.  Is simply provides the Obama campaign with an opportunity to offer real, compassionate and inclusive policy choices to an electorate coming to largely fear and dislike the apparently bigoted and authoritarian Republicans.

And third, it leaves the Republicans as a national party in a trap.  With an ideological agenda provided in a bottom-up fashion by the base, any attempt by the national party leadership to change those policies in order to make them friendlier to some of these growing American constituencies will result in a firestorm, complete with threats of primary challenges and re-direction of contributions.  When a national party allows its most extreme wing to define its mainstream message, it becomes a de facto hostage to that wing, leaving it with no flexibility to attempt to increase its voter population.  It is a party, that is, that has been forced to value ideological purity over electoral success.  And that simply does not make for a viable political organization.

2012 might be the last real opportunity for the Republican party to grasp the levers of power and undertake fundamental change to the American system - rolling back the New Deal, sharply reducing the role of government in American life and fundamentally remaking the social compact.  Demographics suggest that an over-reliance on the votes of white males has seriously diminishing returns, and in four years success under that strategy may have become impossible.  So if they fail and the hated enemy Barack Obama is re-elected, there will be many on the Right who blame Mitt Romney, the candidate and the campaign.  And they will have plenty of examples of his incompetence and egregious errors.  But perhaps they should look the other direction, at the bigots and christian fundamentalists, the war mongers and the vast insular communities full of anger and resentment.  Perhaps they should embrace the future, and the real American population in all it's diversity, and finally leave behind the fantasy of an America that can never again exist.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Quantitative Easing and the Incentives Problem

It's really hard to concentrate
with a nose whistle
As Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke's job is defined by the dual mandate that defines the mission of the Central Bank.

             •  Full Employment
             •  Price Stability

As a practical matter, the better he tries to do his job, the more he finds himself in a political crossfire.  The key to the effectiveness of a Central Bank is its political independence - it cannot act effectively if its decisions are based on political demands as some of its actions will by necessity have negative political implications.  To add to the current paradox, Bernanke himself is a Republican, originally appointed by the odious GW Bush and then inexplicably re-appointed by Barack Obama.  So his instincts run to sympathy for the plutocracy and hard money policies that protect extant wealth, even at the expense of a higher-than-necessary unemployment rate.  But Bernanke is also a respected scholar on precisely the kind of issues on the table now - how to improve an economy in a liquidity trap using fiscal and monetary policy, particularly expansionary fiscal and monetary policy.  Indeed, he wrote well respected papers recommending the Japanese use economic stimulus and easy money to improve their economic conditions in the '90s, even at the expense of higher inflation.

So for three long years of the current financial crisis, the Fed has done virtually nothing to improve the lack of aggregate demand in order to reduce the unemployment rate in America.  And as the United States entered the campaign season leading up to the 2012 election, this policy was seen as favoring the Republican challenger by keeping the economy depressed, allowing the eventual nominee to run against Obama on the basis of a poor economy.  During the Primaries, the candidates each took their turns railing against and threatening Mr. Bernanke and the Fed in a fairly ham-handed attempt to intimidate him into continued inaction.  Famously, Texas Governor and short-lived Presidential candidate Rick Perry even suggested that if the Chairman of the Federal Reserve were to act to improve the economy before the election he might have to be lynched.  And because of the institutional political independence of the Central Bank, the Obama administration was unable to bring any kind of equivalent pressure to bear for more expansionary policies.

So Ben Bernanke finds himself in an odd position.  To act to improve the American economy and the lives of millions of unemployed citizens would be helpful to the electoral prospects of the incumbent, a member of the other party but the man who saw fit to re-appoint him.  To do so would also mean implementing policies he spent much of his life championing as the best solution to the very problem he is faced with now.  To continue to take no serious or dramatic action would boost the political prospects of his own party's nominee, a man who has famously promised to replace him on day one.

Now, it seems likely that if the Republican nominee won the election, Bernanke would not be replaced, but would serve out his term and find many ways to make common cause with all but the most rabid right-wing congressmen and women.  But it is becoming increasingly obvious that Obama will win re-election rather handily on November 6th, and as that likelihood becomes a near-certainty, Bernanke will have the option to use his academic expertise to improve the economy, even as it provides a benefit to the Obama campaign, without having to fear any kind of retribution from a victorious Republican President.  And after an Obama victory, with expansionary fiscal policy still an unavailable option due to the ignorance, incompetence and intransigence of the Republican legislators, he will be free to take real action, such as setting a higher explicit inflation target.  We cannot know for sure he will do something like that, and there would be ear-splitting howls of protest from the right-wing hard money plutocracy, but it will be the very first time in this term when he truly had the freedom to implement monetary policies he actually believes in.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Freedom - I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Come on, you guys.  He's a very sensitive prophet
UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon is confused.  First he said that the silly and amateurish movie trailer that seems to have excited so much consternation among Muslims represents a "disgraceful and shameful act".  Which it is, without a doubt.  Then he follows that up by saying "My position is that freedom of expression, while it is a fundamental right and privilege, should not be abused by such people, by such a disgraceful and shameful act..."  Let's be very clear here, because this is important in the way that provincial arguments over the second amendment or property ownership rights are not.  It is not possible to "abuse" one's freedom of expression, or freedom of speech, and it is constructs like this that lead to limitations on individual liberties that themselves lead to tyranny.  Not the kind of tyranny the tea partiers are always panicking about, the real kind with people rotting in brutal prisons for something they said.

Come on.  Just about every expression of controversial ideas will be seen by someone as an abuse of freedom.  Freedom of speech is, pretty much by definition, a right to express what you believe.  Oppressive and totalitarian regimes, along with theocracies, have laws that control speech.  They place limits on journalists, and allow prosecutions for insulting the political or religious leadership.  But in a democratic nation that guarantees freedom of expression, the idea that you can 'abuse' that freedom is a null construct.  It creates a limit on speech and expression that is every bit as toxic as actually criminalizing speech determined to be offensive.

We all know all the rote arguments.  Bad speech is best countered not by censorship, but by good speech.  We protect speech we find offensive, because expression of ideas we find to be benign needs no protection.  All these things are, and will remain, true.  But it's much, much deeper than that.  Free speech rights will always be fragile - everyone is all for them until it's their ox being gored.  Then they immediately demand the offending words and images be silenced, the speakers punished.  Unlike so many other inalienable rights, the right to say what you wish is always under question, with various groups at various times demanding that limits be placed on what can be said.

But that is unworkable.  The only way that freedom of expression can survive in any society is to define it's reach and limits up front, and then defend those parameters without question or hesitation as an absolute and unwavering human value, and when making judgments to always err on the side of more speech, not less.  Here in the US we have some common sense limits on speech and expression, including a prohibition against the incitement of violence.  This is only logical.  But now, if we allow religious groups to intimidate us into silence over the taboos in their quaint mythologies, we are accepting de facto limits on our rights as free human beings.  And that is not only intolerable, it is dangerous.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Message is Medium

Let's not argue about who
wrecked the economy
The core message of the Romney campaign is comprised of two related premises.  The first acknowledges that President Obama, upon his inauguration in 2009, inherited a very bad economic condition, but takes the position that he has had nearly four years to 'fix' it and has failed.  The second, often less explicitly stated but every bit as important to the campaign's messaging, is that given the same set of economic and political conditions, a Mitt Romney Presidency would be able to relatively quickly turn things around.

In order to think about this election in economic terms, which we are reliably informed is the primary basis for determining the winner of every national election, we need to evaluate these two premises to see if they can hold up to scrutiny.  Because, to be frank, the labor market, housing market and economic opportunity in America are in a horrible state, and the status quo is doing serious damage to the future prospects of millions of Americans, not to mention the future economic growth and well being of the nation itself.  So if it is true, or at least reasonable to believe that a Romney presidency can change these conditions, improving the economy and reducing the unemployment rate, one would have to at least consider voting for him on this basis alone.

It's hard to argue with the first premise.  Obama certainly did inherit a disastrous economy, and it is impossible to argue that he has done a sterling job, or even everything he could, to improve it.  There is no doubt that he was stymied on the legislative side by a cynical and partisan political opposition, one that never accepted the legitimacy of the Democratic President and were more than willing to sacrifice the best interests of the nation and their constituency to create the worst possible conditions for Obama's re-election.  But in so many moves, from his pivot from economic growth to deficit reduction, his retention of Ben Bernacke as Chairman of the Federal Reserve to his management of the Debt Ceiling crisis, Obama has chosen politics over policy, and has avoided the kind of confrontation that might win policy fights at the expense of political popularity.  He has continuously tried to walk a middle path, attempting to incorporate even the most ludicrous "ideas" from the Republican side, seeking bipartisan support for policies that required those policies to be made useless or even counterproductive, even as all along they painted him as a socialist enemy of the country he leads.  There are those who at least want to believe that a second Obama term would be free of these political constraints, allowing him to lead more aggressively, but just as there was no indication before the election that he was anything but a center-right technocrat with powerful populist instincts, there is no indication that he would govern in a significantly different manner in his second term.

It is the second premise of the Romney campaign that bears more scrutiny than it has been getting.  Is there any basis for believing that he could (and would) take measures that would actually improve the economic conditions for America's citizens?  Oddly, because his party has rejected wholesale the longstanding concept of Keynesian stimulus and continue to embrace a more Freshwater, hard-money, supply side macroeconomic model, much of his economic plan would function as at least an indirect Keynesian stimulus.  There is no doubt that the massive deficit-funded tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy, that he would push to implement immediately would be economically stimulative.  Of course, tax cuts for the wealthy are the least effective Keynesian option, but would fall into that category nonetheless.  But in general, to the extent his policy goals would be implemented, it's hard to believe that they would not serve to take a tremendous amount of money, jobs and demand out of the economy, strangling growth in the process.  With the reduction of social safety net spending, government employment at the federal, state and local level and massive reduction in government revenues that could be applied to infrastructure, research and aid to states, it seems very likely that Romney's economic plan might well lead directly to another recession.

So in the end, while Romney is correct and to evaluate Obama on the merits of his ability to improve American economic conditions, it also appears that a Romney presidency would make them significantly worse, which in a two-party system is an unfortunate endorsement of the status quo.  But probably the most important thing to remember in any Presidential campaign season is the highly limited power of the Chief Executive in American governance.  Without legislation, there is very little in the way of domestic policy that the President can implement.  As the de facto leader of his party, he can help shape the legislative agenda, but passing a bill still requires (at least) a congressional majority.  Of course, this is less true in foreign affairs and judicial appointments, so one must not understate the actual power of the American Presidency, but in economic matters he will remain at the mercy of the Congress and the Fed.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sweet, Merciful God

This gentleman has a god problem
I'll try to keep this short, because we're not going to learn anything new here today, or discover any important insights into the world or how I see our place in it.  But it's something that needs to be said, something I need to say, even if I've said it all so often before.

I try to be objective about how I view the world.  I'm an American, but I refuse to fall victim to the knee-jerk assumption of American goodness and generosity so typically present under the rubric of "American Exceptionalism".  I try to be cognizant of events in which America is the bad guy, using her military and economic power to unduly support some nations and regimes while punishing others.  I understand Palestinian resistance in the face of a brutal Israeli occupation, and while I hate to see Americans harmed, when we choose to attack, invade or occupy other nations, it is more than just their right, it is their obligation as citizens to resist that attack or occupation.  And no matter how carefully I think about it, it's very hard for me to perceive a moral difference between blowing up a house full of people with a suicide belt, a truck bomb or a drone-launched Hellfire missile.  If one is terrorism, then they all must be.

But in order to gain my understanding, or even my sympathy, these acts of violent resistance have to be premised on some kind of rational basis - if they are just more slaughter for the sake of human brutality or tribal hatred, they are as evil as any other act of mindless violence, and are to be roundly condemned on the same basis.  Which brings us to the attacks on American people and installations, driven, at least so some degree, by a perceived insult of the "Prophet" of their mythology.  Honestly - killing real people in 2012 because someone somewhere on the planet might have insulted your fucking PROPHET?  The idiocy is mind boggling.

Religious mythology is a toxic tool of intimidation and control, a source of uncompromising power rooted in a course of indoctrination that begins before birth and always includes threats of the most horrific punishments for straying from the flock.  Indeed, no religious mythology can stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny, so anything that might lead to simple questions about these fantastic claims must be precluded.  Viewed in this light, complete intolerance for mockery is understandable as an important strategic method for preventing uncomfortable independent thinking. Even to the extent that it makes the given supreme being look petty and weak for its thin skin and lack of self-confidence, it is still preferable as a construct because it focuses on the evil 'others' rather than the flaws in the creation tale itself.

I hate the right-wing war monger's construct that there is some kind of war to be waged between the West and the Muslim world, but this IS a war.  It is a war between the primitive world view of 14th century agrarian society and modern scientific empiricism.  I refuse to be intimidated into silence by acts of violence and brutality targeting nothing so much as enlightenment and reason.  The fear of the religious leaders is these expressions of contempt for a mythological worldview presented as the factual central organizing principle of the universe might lead a new generation to question the unsupported and unsupportable assumptions in the doctrine, and from there embrace a more modern, rational way of seeing the world around them.

If anything, my disgust and outright contempt for 'people of faith' has only increased over the last week.  What does it say about us when it is easier to get a group of people to riot and burn and murder complete strangers than it is to get them to think rationally about the basic premise in a collection of centuries old just-so stories that demand they believe impossible things or suffer terrible punishment?  So do the events of the past week mean that Sam Harris is right, and Islam is worse, or at least more dangerous, than Christianity?  Actually, no, I don't think so.  I think it means that right now, there is a lot of hate and violence in the Muslim world, and that leads their religious leaders - along, it should be added, with many of their political leaders - to see violence as a solution to many of the problems they face in that region.  It means that in many places in the world there isn't an effective firewall between public policy and religion, and that often allows religious leaders to make, or at least drive, policy decisions.  It hasn't always been this way, and I am definitely seeing indications that there are factions in Christiandom who are beginning to flex their muscles and espouse hatred and violence.

But we are faced with a choice.  We can back down to the primitive violence of the forces of mythology and dogma, or we can recognize that this is just another attempt by organized religion to silence the voices of reason and maintain their grip on power even now, when it no longer can be justified on any basis.  For my part I will continue to mock all religions equally, the silly Prophet of Islam right alongside the Holy Ghost (whatever the hell that actually is) of Christianity.  I have a different kind of light to show me the path - the kind that is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum, the kind you can measure and explain, the kind that comes from photons with a wave-particle duality that is so much more interesting than some thousand-year-old legend.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

When Prime Ministers Attack!

Every day, he looks more and more like Dick Cheney
Israel's increasingly unhinged Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, decided to ratchet up the pressure on the United States to lead the unnecessary and horrifically counterproductive military attack on Iran this week.  In on-the-record remarks on Tuesday, Bibi demanded that the US set clear red lines that would trigger an attack on Iran, while also concluding that the US had yielded any moral right to constrain an Israeli attack.  Here's the quote:

“The world tells Israel: ‘Wait. There’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel..."
Now the list of things that are wrong with this statement is long, but let's highlight a few of them.   First, there IS no hurry.  Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, is not actively working on one, does not have weapons grade fissile material, and even if they do ultimately develop a bomb they have no reliable method for delivering it.  First generation atomic bombs are too big and fragile to mount on missiles - it takes years, even decades to develop the technology that allows that level of miniaturization.  The temporal pressure that Netanyahu is reacting to is the American Presidential election.  If Obama is re-elected to his second, and final, term in office, he will no longer have the political constraints that currently allow him to be abused and pushed around by this murderous thug.  Israel knows they have the capability to start a major regional war, but not to finish it, and without the firepower the US can bring to bear will find herself bogged down in a brutal war of missiles, bombs and terror, while the price to insure a tanker of oil traveling through the Straights of Hormuz skyrockets and the price of oil rises and cripples the global economy.

Then there is the matter of these "red lines".  No government should ever put itself in the position where the decision to go to war is essentially dictated by events and powers outside its control.  If the US is to go to war against Iran, I would want that to be at the time of our commander's choosing, not dependent on some arbitrary set of factors under the control of the Iranians.  That would be utterly negligent on the part of the US government, something a Romney administration might do, but hopefully not the Obama team.  It is also worth noting that any red line that was described might be very difficult to confirm, and would be subject to endless argument over whether it had been crossed.  Even the current construct, where the US says a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable, would be impossible to prove unless or until they actually tested a bomb.  Something more ambiguous than that, for example the Israeli construct that an Iran with the capability of building a nuclear weapon is unacceptable, is more in the way of a justification for war than a true red line.

One thing that Netanyahu has certainly done - he has come out as an active member of Team Romney, lending his voice to an unprecedented foreign blast of anti-Obama propaganda.  It's remarkable that this is one of America's key allies, doing something so vile not even our enemies have been willing to do.  There is a powerful taboo against taking sides or blatantly meddling in the political process in other nations, and for a very good reason.  Netanyahu has essentially bet his coalition on a Romney electoral victory, because he has now crossed a line, and a second Obama term will not be conducive to the kind of unlimited support that Israel has received in recent years, even when it was not in America's interest.

All of this left the Administration and the Obama campaign with a tough choice.  With Netanyahu coming to speak at the UN, and requesting a meeting with President Obama, the President could appear politically weak and meet with him, he could use the meeting to put Bibi in his place, risking alienating more Jewish voters, or he could take the safest path and merely explain that there just isn't time in the President's schedule for such a meeting.  And that is what team Obama did.  Everyone knows it's a snub - the President can always rearrange his schedule for meetings he deems important, but as long as the White House sticks to their story and Netanyahu at least is restrained from accusing the President of outright lying, this is the path with the least political risk.

This leaves us with the remaining concern, and it's a big one.  If Netanyahu is all in, and it appears that he is, as we get closer to the election he is going to become more desperate.  With Obama building a strong lead in the polls, and a significant lead in electoral votes, the Israeli leadership may feel that they have no choice but to launch an attack on Iran before that window is closed to them forever.  The scenario is a dark one, and it plays out like this.  Israel uses its air power against Iranian nuclear facilities, including the operating reactor at Bushehr, and Iran retaliates by threatening shipping in the Straights and launching missile strikes against Israeli cities, along with rockets launched from Gaza and Lebanon.  Israel simply does not have the air power to reduce or eliminate all these threats simultaneously, and begins to suffer increasing casualties.  They send a message to the US that they cannot stem the tide using conventional weapons, and will use nuclear missiles if the US does not get involved in striking the Iranian missile launchers.  And with that, welcome to the regional conflagration we've been fretting about for forty years.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Where In the World Is Xi Jinping?

Seriously - I'll be right back...
I find myself amazed and amused this morning by reports out of China that the man expected to take over the political leadership of that giant nation in the next few weeks has disappeared and no one seems to be willing or able to explain his disappearance.  Now, admittedly, this sort of thing is outside my brief.  I like to do a technical evaluation of events, history, forces and capabilities in order to interpret and try to understand international geopolitical events.  I have never been interested in Kremlinology, on the basis of the theory that international relations are driven by national and regional interests, and these interests tend not to be particularly variable over time.  And, of course, when they do shift, that in itself is the big news to be interpreted.

But it's hard to even express how bizarre and out of step Xi Jinping's vanishing act actually is.  This is one of the key factors that sets China apart from all the other modern, powerful nations.  They simply have no institutionalized mechanism for the transfer of power.  It's one thing if that's North Korea, where the Army finds it in their best interests to permit dynastic transfers, or third world banana republics where the people with the guns get to choose the leadership, but for a nation that demands, and in many ways has earned, a seat at the table with other global economic and military powers it is dangerous and unpredictable.

In light of the recent political turmoil driven by events surrounding Bo Xilai and his wife, the sudden evanescence of Xi Jinping has led to rampant speculation.  What is known is that he was last seen on September 1st and has since canceled all meetings, including those scheduled with SecState Hilary Clinton and the Prime Ministers of Singapore and Denmark.  There are rumors that he has health problems, but in these cases it's impossible to know if the rumors are simply that, or if they have been planted intentionally in order to "explain" the inexplicable.  The darker, more interesting speculation is driven by the complete silence of the Chinese political leadership regarding Mr. Xi's whereabouts, leading many to suspect he has been the victim of a very late-stage power play.  Things only become murkier when you realize that the Party Congress in which the new leadership is to be announced has yet to be officially scheduled.  It has long been the expectation that it would happen in October, an assumption that has not been addressed or refuted by the Party leadership up to this point.

Obviously, the maturity and stability of a nation's political system of governance is determined to a large degree in how the leadership is chosen, and how it is changed.  Even if Xi is merely in poor health, it reflects poorly on a governmental system if they are afraid to let that information become public.  People get sick, and they get injured - no one needs their heads of government to appear invincible, but it is impossible for citizens to trust a government so opaque that something like this can happen.  Obviously, there are major questions about Chinese - and global - economic growth, and if they decided to postpone the leadership change and maintain the status quo under Hu Jintao, they might try to provide an alternate explanation that would explain that outcome.  But the silence and utter lack of transparency tells us a great deal about the Chinese system of governance, and none of it is good.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Modern Game - The Designated Terrorist

Seriously - Do these guys look like terrorists to you?
Today the Obama administration designated the Haqqani Network a Foreign Terrorist Organization under the relevant provisions of the Patriot Act.  As a practical matter, very little will change as the United States has been openly at war with the Haqqanis for years.  It is true that the Haqqani Network was originally funded by the Pakistani ISI and gained tremendous power and tactical capabilities under the support of the American Central Intelligence Agency, but I am not one to place a great deal of importance on that.  Our world is one of shifting loyalties and evolving priorities, and Jalaluddin Haqqani provided a ready-made guerrilla force that could operate in Soviet occupied Afghanistan, so it was not automatically a poor decision to support them.  There were certainly opportunities to reduce the prospects of blowback, but ultimately, the ongoing American occupation of Afghanistan was going to put the US government at odds with the Haqqani Network under any circumstances.

Jalaluddin Haqqani is a Pashtun from Southeast Afghanistan, and represents a textbook example of why the arbitrary national borders drawn by the colonials in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are dangerous and counterproductive.  Haqqani's tribal area covers a geographic area that straddles the border, which gives them in modern times a perfect sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal frontier from which to mount operations in Afghanistan.  The US has been, quite unrealistically, pressuring the Pakistani military to launch an offensive against the Haqqanis in Waziristan - such an attack would indeed be helpful to the American and NATO presence in Afghanistan, but the government in Islamabad recognizes that there is truly nothing in such a fight for them.  They know that eventually the international forces will withdraw from Afghanistan, and they will be left with a long border shared with Afghanistan and a continuing strategic standoff with India.  Indeed, the actions of the US government today can be best seen in this light - another attempt to pressure the government of Pakistan to act in America's best interests instead of their own.  

As mentioned previously, the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation will change very little.  The US military has been trying to damage or destroy the Haqqani Network militarily for years, trying to trap them in Afghanistan and launching cross-border attacks into Pakistan using Drones and Afghan mercenaries.  That battle will continue, probably even heat up.  But there is something interesting here.  The Haqqani network is considered a problem by the US government because of their attacks on US and NATO occupation forces in Afghanistan.  By definition, attacks by resistance fighters against military occupiers is NOT considered terrorism, and in fact has been embraced many times by the US, from the French resistance in WW II to Organizations like, well, the Haqqani Network when they were resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  One of the most dangerous factors contributing to the ongoing militarization of our society and the creation of an endless state of low-level global conflict is this squishy, flexible, non-specific definition (or lack thereof) of terrorism.  If terrorism can be anything we say it is, or anything the Russians or the Chinese or the Israelis or the Iranians say it is, or if it is used to kill and destroy anything and anyone we (or they) don't like, then it is only a matter of time when someone designates US as the terrorists and attacks us.

Everything about the war and occupation in Afghanistan is an obscenity - from its pointlessness and futility to its small, local brutalities to the lies used to create and sustain it to the hatred it evokes and perpetuates.  With these wars of choice, killing, maiming and destroying for artificial political or economic reasons, the US has not only made herself into a monster, she has changed the world forever.  This is the future - not the one of technology and trade, rising living standards, decreasing poverty, healthier, richer and better educated people that we could have had - but rather one of the exercise of raw power at the point of a gun, death, sickness and suffering inflicted upon people almost randomly because it's just too hard to figure out a more civilized solution to the same old problems.  Technology has made rich nations invincible, and those invincible militaries will always be used, because it's beyond the capacity of human imagination to NOT use them.  Your children's world will be one of drones, and terrorism, assassinations and truck bombs, cyber war and nuclear proliferation.  It is not a bright, hopeful future, and it is us who are primarily to blame.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Four More Years?

One of these guys is going to be President
for four more years
In war, there are essentially three things your army can do.  You can attack, seeking to push the enemy back and take the ground he is trying to hold.  You can defend - when under attack, you can try to hold the line, seeking to maintain the status quo.  And you can retreat - give ground under attack seeking a better tactical situation, one where you can at least stop the enemy's advance.

That's how I see the 2012 Presidential election.  We can't really attack - there's not really any hope of some great progressive leader showing up to offer a genuine liberal policy agenda.  I am quite sympathetic to those who are disappointed in Barack Obama.  While I don't feel disappointed, exactly - I can't say I'm terribly surprised by most of the actions of a Center-Right technocrat politician - there are cases, from the drone assassinations to the failure to prosecute economic and war criminals, where he surprised me with his vicious pragmatism and willingness to place political expediency above basic American values.  But I view his re-election as a necessary defensive action - the enemies of all I believe in are on the offensive, they have dropped all pretense of participating in a democratic process and are out to radically re-shape the America I want to live in.  Sadly, the best outcome we can hope for is another four years of divided government, relentless obstruction and the veto pen as the last line of defense.  But make no mistake: If Obama is re-elected, the Affordable Care Act and the Insurance Exchanges get implemented, 30 million people will for the first time have some hope of getting health care, the EPA and FDA will continue to protect Americans from rapacious greed, the brutal pogrom against poor immigrants will at least be postponed and, while we can expect endless low-level warfare to be a fixture for the rest of our lives, major regional and nuclear conflicts might be avoided.

The remaining scenario is retreat.  In this outcome, Romney wins the White House, and quite possibly drives enough down-ticket momentum to flip the Senate to Republican Control.  If that happens, the new Republican majority may bet the farm and eliminate the filibuster, giving them unfettered opportunity to drive radical legislation through Congress for at least two years.  The gloves are off - this is no longer a polite game, no longer is it the case that "there ain't a dime's worth of difference" between the parties.  This is an all-or nothing fight for the soul of America.  It's hard to imagine what America might look like after four years of right-wing bigotry, hatred and greed defining the new normal, but you can be absolutely certain of one thing: If you are not comfortably wealthy on November 6th and you do anything to enable the election of Mitt Romney you're no different than the poor unemployed carpenter voting for Romney because he's white.  You're letting your ideology blind you to your own best interests.