Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Mexico and India: Some Good News For a Change

July 12, 2014

imagesThe world is always full of bad news, but here’s something in line with this blog’s title.

Background: Mexico had a big revolution/civil war a century ago. When the dust settled, power was monopolized by the “Institutional Revolutionary Party” (PRI), whose rule was anything but revolutionary. Mexico stagnated with a closed rentier economy of crony capitalism, its big shots labelled “dinosaurs.”Unknown

The PRI’s chokehold was finally broken by the opposition PAN party winning the presidency in 2000. PAN’s program was right, but it was stymied not only by PRI holdovers but also a third left-wing party. So after two PAN presidencies, little had actually changed.

Peña Nieto

Peña Nieto

In 2012 the PRI recaptured the presidency with Enrique Peña Nieto. Bad news? To the contrary. No dinosaur he. The Peña administration’s tone was set at the start. Emblematic of Mexico’s dysfunction was a teacher’s union so politically entrenched that it controlled the whole school system. Unknown-1Its boss: Elba Esther Gordillo, a quintessential dinosaur. Peña had her arrested on charges of (flagrant) embezzlement and organized crime.

But he was just getting started.

Carlos Slim

Carlos Slim

Peña has moved boldly to reform, shake up, and open up Mexico’s politics, educational system, and economy, by promoting competition and curbing the kind of monopoly power that has so long hobbled the country. (His telecommunications stranglehold made Mexico’s Carlos Slim one of the world’s richest men.) A centerpiece of Peña’s agenda is to break what for generations has been a PRI sacred cow: exclusive government control of the energy sector.Unknown-2

Not all of Peña’s initiatives have yet been successfully pushed through, and inevitably, there have been stumbles and criticisms. And Mexico still has some very bad problems, notably horrendous gangster violence. But you can say this: Peña has changed the rules of the game, and shown what true visionary leadership looks like.  Now this is what I call progressive. (What a contrast to loudmouth lefty populists of the Chavez sort.)

Modi

Modi

Similarly heartening was the recent smashing election victory by Narendra Modi in India. His BJP party won an outright parliamentary majority – seemingly impossible given India’s fractured politics with numerous regional and caste-based parties usually divvying up the spoils. The stale old Congress party was practically annihilated. This gives Modi a tremendous opportunity to remake India for the better. He’s been talking the right talk. Now let’s see the walk.

Why Both Left and Right Are Wrong

June 26, 2014

The Left’s calling itself “progressive,” while in some ways annoying, isn’t entirely wrong. A key element is caring about other people, including those outside the traditional ambit of human concern (our own families and tribes), and even sometimes including non-people. UnknownThis is indeed progressive; this widening of human concern, working toward a better, fairer world, with lessening conflict and violence, compared to the past, reflects very real progress. It’s ironic that another typical attribute of the “progressive” temperament is denial of such progress.

It’s because being critical and cynical flatters the Left’s intellectual vanity. Indignation is a satisfying emotion. To be an optimist, on the other hand, to believe well of others, and that we’re making progress, seems just too sappy. It isn’t hip.

The Left views market capitalism with hostility, as though it’s some kind of perverted system artificially imposed by a conspiracy of a few to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest; which could be changed if we wanted to. Not a single element of that catechism reflects reality. A market economy is merely the natural, indeed inevitable, way that any bunch of humans interacts. Yes, with friends and family, we do a lot of sharing. images-1But otherwise if you have something of value – be it an object, or your labor – you won’t give it without getting something in return, indeed the most you can get (bar fraud or cheating). That is in fact merely justice (a word the Left loves). Striving to do well for oneself isn’t wrong; mostly people do that by creating value for others who’ll pay them for it. And this is how we’ve made a better, richer world — by people putting in efforts in order to improve their own situation. Is this the “greed” we hear so much about?

And the Left’s conception of justice tends to omit what ought to be its principal component: deservingness. While they do insist no one deserves to be poor, they meantime seem to deny that anyone deserves to be rich. At least they don’t see any entitlement to keep riches one has earned.

The right is less confused about the economics, but frankly tends to be grinch-hearted. images-2Its conception of justice is flawed in mirror-image of the Left’s – believing that when people don’t succeed it’s because they didn’t deserve to. That the less successful are basically slackers and moochers (this is why Romney’s infamous “47%” comment was so resonant). The right doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge how much luck determines one’s situation. And if the Left is overly obsessed with inequality, the right is too complacent about it.

Even cave people were humane enough to take care of the sick, infirm, or injured. Today’s right no longer seems to regard this as a fundamental societal obligation. Part of the problem is that the whole issue of helping the needy is crapped up by the fact that the great bulk of “help” goes to people who aren’t needy at all (look at the farm program, for example, most of whose subsidies go to millionaires). Unknown-1This blatant milking of the government teat tends to taint all such spending.

But we are a very rich society that can easily afford to take care of those less fortunate – if only we focused on just that.

Lessons From the VA Scandal

May 30, 2014

Suppose you’re Eric Shinseki (Veterans Administration head).

Actual VA photo

Actual VA photo

You learn of huge problems – a vast backlog of unprocessed paperwork (partly because it is literally paper, mountains of it, not computerized) – and now this scandal of delayed medical attention and resulting horror stories and even deaths – compounded by widespread cover-ups of those treatment delays via fraudulent record keeping.images

So you snap your fingers and order it all fixed. Right? Wrong. The VA is a vast organization, but these scandals tell us it’s not actually vast enough. The paperwork piled up because the VA lacked the manpower to deal with it, let alone take steps to computerize it. Likewise, appointments were delayed because there weren’t enough doctors and other resources to meet patient needs.

Unknown-2No snap of the fingers could have fixed this. It required money. Shinseki should have been shouting from the rooftops, “Houston, we have a problem,” pre-emptively telling Congress and the president the VA is in trouble and needs more money.

But wait, you’ll say: isn’t that what bureaucrats are always whining? That they could do wonderful things if only their budgets were increased? Was there ever a bureaucrat who said, “My budget is quite adequate, thank you very much”?

We’re told the VA scandal shows what a lousy manager President Obama is. I’m loath to dispute that; but I take a bigger lesson. It shows what a lousy manager government is. Especially big government.

Unknown-1It’s actually probably unfair to imagine Obama should somehow have seen and fixed the VA problem. The VA isn’t exactly all he has to worry about. The government is a monster with a million tentacles and a very small brain – the president and his administration – to minutely direct those tentacles’ behavior. Good luck.

Yet the essence of American liberalism is the faith that government, because it is the avatar of disinterested public spiritedness, of the wish to do good – in contrast to a (selfish, grubby, greedy) quest for private profit – will do good, if given our trust (and money). images-5But the fly in the ointment is that government is comprised of human beings, not angels, and while they may indeed be motivated for good, they are also subject to all the other personal motives that govern human behavior in any context. And when those motives conflict with the disinterested desire to do good, it’s a rare person who will sacrifice the former for the latter.

VA staffers are probably mostly altruistic people who sincerely want to help veterans. But caring also for their own asses, in the situation, has made many of them perpetrate a great crime. Performance incentives, great in theory, merely incentivized VA personnel to cook the books to earn the rewards despite screwing patients. (And it’s not obvious how Shinseki might have avoided bamboozlement.)

At least in the private sector, the (selfish, grubby, greedy) profit motive – and competition – impose a certain discipline that’s lacking in the public sphere. Unknown-3That’s a fundamental reason why government is so problematic. No private sector organization could survive in a competitive marketplace treating customers as badly as the VA.

More broadly, the VA scandal shows that we, as a society, have gone way overboard in what we ask of government – greatly outstripping the money to pay for it. It’s not as though we’re miserly with the VA; its budget is huge; yet still evidently insufficient for its ever expanding mission, as more and more veterans survive better and live longer, with ever more and costlier medical advances to help them do so. This story is emblematic of so much of what government does, and why spending outgrows what we can afford. We borrow the difference, but as I keep saying, there’s a limit to how far we can stretch that without triggering economic disaster.

Unknown-4I’m not suggesting shutting down the VA. We must honor our commitment to veterans. But we, as a nation, must get serious about the overall gap between what we ask of government and what is affordable. This is the great problem of the age, which Obama is sweeping under the rug.

 

 

Andrew Cuomo: New York’s Odious Governor

May 8, 2014

I actually thought Governor Andrew Cuomo started off admirably.

For one thing, he seemed sensible toward fracking. But then the antis ramped up their campaign, and Cuomo’s fracking policy became study-it-to-death and endless weaseling. Just like Obama on Keystone, cowed by the anti-progress “progressives.” Even they must be nauseated.

As to New York’s notorious gun law, I am no fan of the gun culture, but that legislation seems extreme, was rammed through with scant public consultation, and its true purpose was just to fuel Cuomo’s presidential imaginings.

Note the quotation marks

Note the quotation marks

But the biggest disgrace, in a word: Moreland. The stench of Albany corruption got so bad that Cuomo felt compelled to invoke the state’s Moreland Act, convening a blue-ribbon panel to investigate and make recommendations. The commission duly met a number of times, held hearings, and was in the midst of fulfilling its mandate — when Cuomo abruptly pulled the plug. The pretext for this breathtaking action (“It’s my commission,” he said) was that the purpose had been served, because it got the legislature to pass reform to clean up the mess.

And what, exactly, did this reform consist of? A state public campaign finance law. Excellent, you might say – until told that this “reform” was applicable to precisely one elected official, for precisely one year. The official happens to be State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who – coincidentally, I’m sure – happens to be in Cuomo’s dog house. And even for DiNapoli, participation in the campaign finance scheme was made optional. He promptly opted out, saying this “pilot program” was designed to fail.

But this was not the first shell game Cuomo’s played with reform. Previously it was gerrymandering – at the very heart of political dysfunction. “Gerrymandering” means drawing legislative district lines for partisan advantage. It virtually eliminates electoral competition and thus legislators’ accountability to voters. Well, Cuomo swore up and down he would not accept the redistricting required after the last census, absent a reform that took redistricting out the legislature’s hands altogether.images-2

Guess what? A reform was enacted, giving the process to an independent commission. But the commission will have an equal number from each party. And what if it deadlocks (as it’s thus guaranteed to do)? Redistricting goes back to the legislature. In other words, another totally bogus “reform.”

Cuomo postures not only as the Great Reformer, but also the Great Tax Cutter. Needless to say, the tax cuts are equally a sham (and New York’s business climate remains 50th out of 50 states). But the scheme will have the state send every taxpayer a rebate check. No doubt with Cuomo’s name prominently displayed. This will be in October – right before the election, when voters can show their gratitude.

images-4Excuse me while I go lose my breakfast.

OK, I’m back. Now, where was I? So — Republicans will nominate Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who seems a very reasonable guy with a strong record of accomplishment (including genuine tax and budget cutting). So far his campaign has focused on a factual deconstruction of Cuomo’s record. In contrast Cuomo, with his bulging $30+ million re-election war chest, has rushed out TV ads smearing Astorino. One ad says he’s “so far right he’s wrong for New York.”

Rob Astorino

Rob Astorino

This uncannily echoes a recent Cuomo comment that people with right wing views – which apparently means any views different from Cuomo’s – don’t belong in New York State. (Yet again we see the tortured relationship “progressives” have with freedom of thought and expression.) Cuomo’s remark justly elicited a barrage of condemnation. But not, apparently, enough to deter using the same tar-brush on Astorino. Never mind that there’s actually no basis for calling Astorino “right wing,” let alone “far right.” It’s simply name-calling, unashamedly cynical, based on the proposition that if you fling enough mud, some will stick.

Another ad says Astorino as County Executive is “in violation of anti-discrimination laws,” all but calling him a racist bigot. The grounds for this incendiary accusation? Westchester County’s opposing federal government efforts to seize control of the county’s public housing.

Unknown-1I think I’m going to lose my lunch now.

But one final thing: somebody please inform Cuomo that loud yelling isn’t eloquence.

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition*

April 29, 2014

imagesIn the Spanish Inquisition, if your beliefs did not conform to religious orthodoxy, you would be tortured to change them; and failing that, burned alive. America is different and, being nonconformist myself, I cherish that difference. I’ve always felt free to express myself. Yet even America has its Inquisitors.

Brendan Eich was not tortured or burned alive for his beliefs. images-1Not quite. But a campaign by gay activists recently forced him out of his job as head of Mozilla. His crime? In 2008, he donated to California’s referendum against gay marriage.

Now, such censoriousness might arguably be defensible were the beliefs in question especially stupid and/or heinous. Holocaust denial, say. Though in my view even Holocaust deniers have a right to hold and express their ideas (and not be jailed, as has occurred in Europe).

However, in Eich’s case, the views at issue were not beyond the pale. In fact, at the time, his was the prevailing view. That referendum passed, remember. Yet now, to have supported it is deemed so atrocious that a man should lose his job over it? Have Eich’s persecutors lost their minds? What about the other 50+% of Californians who voted “yes”? Fire them all too? (Good thing there’s a secret ballot.)

Gay marriage is a just cause. But it’s sullied when its advocates pursue it by unjust means. You (and I) might think opponents are wrong, but theirs is not an illegitimate opinion to which they have no right.

Unknown-2Unfortunately the Eich episode isn’t some isolated aberration. It’s all too typical of the mentality of the so-called “progressive” left, which thoroughly contaminates their politics. While the left is all “free speech” and “freedom of expression” and “academic freedom,” what they really mean is freedom for them and them alone. The hypocrisy mirrors Putin’s – he’s all against outside interference in a country’s affairs – Russia’s affairs — but not Ukraine’s. (And all against Ukraine “killing their own people” – after Putin killed at least 25,000 Russian Chechens.) The left even has a magazine named Dissent! I guess opposing gay marriage doesn’t count as dissent. Or at least not the good kind.

Eich is, again, no aberration. Remember when Larry Summers speculated that women’s underrepresentation in math and sciences might be due to brain differences? Truthiness didn’t save him from Harvard’s feminist political correctness Inquisition, which ultimately booted him out of the school’s presidency. images-2And in campuses all across America, students and teachers are criminalized and booted out for violating “speech codes” that sacralize particular political orthodoxies. Is this what the 1960s campus “free speech” movement was for?

Of course, the right too demonizes opposing views. But there’s a real difference. You don’t see the right seeking to punish anyone for their opinions. At one time communists were jailed, but nobody would seriously suggest that now. Indeed, for all the liberal alarm about the religious right and putatively looming theocracy, nobody – nobody – would seriously suggest punishing atheists! Only the left is into punishing dissent.

Why? Why is the left so gosh-darn intolerant? Because they are imbued with hypermoralism? Seeing politics as a morality play, with diverging views not just mistaken but evil? There is certainly a lot of that. Yet that’s true on the right as well, but, again, the right doesn’t generally seek actual suppression, and indeed punishment, of opposing opinions. Maybe the difference is that the right doesn’t imagine for a moment they could get away with it; whereas the left, certain of its monopoly on virtue and posturing on the high horse of a tolerance ethic, can get away with the worst intolerance. Sanctifying nonjudgmentalism, they are the most judgmental of people. And don’t forget McCarthyism and blacklisting — people persecuted, and kept from working, due to their political beliefs. The left still lionizes those victims and loves to cry “McCarthyism!” Yet isn’t the Eich story perfect McCarthyism?

The howling contradiction between the left’s professed ethos and its actual behavior seems baffling.

Then again, so many policies embraced by the left are likewise grounded in curbing other people’s freedom. Unknown-3Progressives seem to have an Orwellian understanding of the word. (They certainly have down pat 1984′s concept of “thought crime.”) And how about their excusing the rottenest human rights abuses by monsters like Castro or Chavez? But cynicism is a hallmark of left thinking too.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer recently addressed the whole Citizens United money-in-politics issue. There’s irresolvable tension between the undeniably corrupting effect political money can have, and the idea that in a free country government has no business regulating political participation at all (which always really amounts to incumbent protection). Krauthammer saw the ideal answer as full disclosure of political contributions and spending. But then he noted how disclosing Eich’s referendum donation resulted in the man’s persecution, ruining his life. Krauthammer therefore concluded that his full disclosure solution to the campaign finance conundrum is – as often happens – ruined by zealots. People should feel free to make political donations without expecting the Spanish (or American) Inquisition.

Here yet again we see the scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners style of partisanship poisoning our body politic.

Unknown-1Jefferson said that the best response to bad ideas is not suppression, but better ideas. Nobody should expect the Spanish Inquisition, and punishment for their beliefs. In general I see people whose views differ from mine as being wrong, but not evil. These are the precepts of a genuinely free and good society. But undermining those crucial precepts – as happened in the Eich case – may be not just wrong but evil.

*For my younger readers, the reference is to a famous Monty Python skit. In a conversation, one guy being questioned a bit closely blurts out, “Well, I wasn’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition!” At that, a bunch of red-robed churchmen suddenly materializes, intoning “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

UPDATE NOTE: The comments by “Rob” illustrate exactly what I’m talking about regarding the left-wing mind and freedom of speech. Worth a look; really frightening.

Do Women Earn Less Than Men?

April 12, 2014

President Obama’s been loudly hitting the supposed pay gap between women and men. All too typically, this is a phony issue distracting from our true economic problems he should be tackling.

Unknown-1Obama dismisses pay gap deniers by saying, “It’s just math.” I’m reminded of the old line, “figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”

True, if you average all American women, and all men, women earn less. But what’s the significance of this? Not much – because it ignores differences in jobs, industries, career paths, etc. The fact is that women and men don’t have comparable working lives. Women – for a host of reasons (many having to do with differences in psychology and temperament; male and female brains don’t work identically; not to mention divergent parenting roles) – tend to have different talents and proclivities, to want different things, and to choose different careers and jobs than men. They tend to interrupt their career paths more often. And to be less aggressive in seeking advancement.

Such factors explain why, on average, women earn less. But – studies have found that if you control for these factors – that is, you analyze women and men following comparable career paths in comparable jobs – the pay gap is practically zero.

The President might reply that, well, women can’t necessarily get the jobs men get. But that’s wrong for the same reason that pay for comparable jobs really is virtually equal. imagesBecause in today’s highly competitive globalized economy, businesses cannot afford to discriminate against women, instead needing to get the best talent, irrespective of gender. In fact, if it really were true that firms could hire women with equal qualifications for less pay than men – why would they hire any men?

Undoubtedly, at one time women did face severe career limitations. images-3But that time is long past, and so this latest presidential crusade is disgracefully bogus; a cynical political ploy to posture as the champion of women (against a purported Republican “war on women”) and to perpetuate a gender gap that really does exist – in voting.

But it actually sends women a bad message, falsely warning that they face workplace discrimination. How many young women will thereby be discouraged in their career choices? Wrongly imagining they’d be blocked in their true ambitions, and choosing lesser ones instead? And I don’t think the politics of stoking resentments is good for the country.

Nor are the remedies Obama seeks for this largely nonexistent bugaboo of discrimination. All would reduce flexibility while adding bureaucratic and paperwork burdens for businesses, and pretexts for proliferating litigation, making it harder and costlier for firms to function. Yet again we see a president who constantly whines about jobs and pay yet constantly does things that handicap the businesses that provide jobs and their ability to pay workers.

images-4Meantime he ignores what is surely our biggest economic problem: ever more retirees soaking up pensions and health care, with an ever shrinking percentage of working people taxed to pay for it. That’s our real pay gap, and borrowing cannot bridge it forever. It will end in an equal-opportunity catastrophe, for all Americans – working and nonworking – and women as well as men.

Obamacare, Jobs, and La-La Land

February 19, 2014

So you’ve heard that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) now estimates 2.3 million fewer people working by 2021, due to Obamacare.

imagesRepublicans gleefully said, “See? It’s a job-killer.” Wrong, retorted Democrats, the jobs are not going away – rather, it’s people being able to leave those jobs, and still get health insurance.

In fact, Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and White House spokesman Jay Carney positively rhapsodized about this, as a wonderful liberation. No longer would folks be shackled to their jobs (to have health insurance), they’d gain the freedom to quit and pursue their hearts’ desires, like poetry and art; or, indeed, to retire early and do nothing at all. Economist Paul Krugman says people making this choice are to be congratulated. After all, aren’t conservatives always prattling about freedom of choice? Welcome to Nirvana!

images-1Or is it La-La Land? Sorry to be the skunk at this party – and I’m all for poetry and art – but who is going to support these 2.3 million new poets and artists? UnknownAssuming it won’t likely be consumers of their oeuvre, it will have to be – guess who – people still actually working dreary old jobs.

Think about it. Ultimately all the people getting pensions and Social Security and Medicare (no, you did not pay for it throughout your working life; not much of it anyway) and Disability and welfare and food stamps and child support and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and now subsidized health insurance and poets-and-artists-benefit and so on and so forth – all that must be paid for by people still creating wealth to be taxed, by doing productive work. If any are left.

This is what the Pelosis and Carneys and Krugmans, et al, living in their liberal La-La Land, don’t get. images-2Their recent absurd spin on the CBO report shows how mixed up they are. The self-styled party of working people actually thinks people not working is a good thing. The more the better.

I have shouted myself hoarse about America’s key economic problem: a decreasing percentage of people in productive employment supporting a growing percentage not working. This imbalance can only worsen as Baby Boomers retire and longevity continues rising. This will mean government shelling out ever more and collecting less in taxes, with borrowings hence rising to unsustainably ruinous levels.

Unknown-1We cross our fingers that somehow, economic growth will rev up to get us out of this mess. But where will economic growth come from with an ever smaller population segment that’s working? (You may say we lack the jobs. Not exactly true. What we increasingly lack is the skills needed to work productively in today’s world. That’s why “Disability” rolls keep growing, as I’ve discussed.)

Willfully ignoring the true predicament makes President Obama’s reign disastrous. Indeed, his “signature” policy achievement worsens the problem. Obamacare will raise government spending (increasingly, as the young and healthy refuse to overpay to subsidize the old and sick); while incentivizing businesses to limit payrolls (in order to avoid some onerous requirements that kick in at 50 full-time employees) – and disincentivizing work, by tying more government benefits to income, and also (per the CBO report), by giving folks cheap government-subsidized health insurance without having a job at all. If it pays less to work, people will do less of it. (And raising minimum wages isn’t the answer, as I’ve explained. Where’s the money for that to come from, if not other working people’s pockets?)

Incidentally, what would help is immigration reform. Ironically, many Americans hate immigration because they think it’s bad for jobs, when in fact we desperately need more young workers. I’m not talking about Mexican lawn-mowers; it’s much more about technology hot-shots from India, kept out by our suicidally restrictive immigration regime.

images-4I’m still an optimist – about humanity as a whole. About America – not so much. I love this wonderful country deeply, and weep at how we’re sleepwalking to its destruction.

More New York Legislative Slime: Senator Jeff Klein

February 11, 2014

I’ve written before about corruption and cringeworthy behavior in our New York legislature.

Despite a heavy Democratic enrollment edge, Republicans have managed to cling to control of the State Senate by grace of extreme gerrymandering. Well, at least it has kept New York from being a one-party state.

As of 2012, Republicans had a bare 32 of 62 Senate seats. But fearing loss of a seat, they created a sixty-third one (of dubious constitutionality) tailored for their hand-picked candidate to win. But then Democrats outside the district threw in a ton of money, and pulled out an 18-vote squeaker for their candidate, Cecilia Tkaczyk (pronounced “Gotcha”).

Giving the Democrats a clear 32-31 Senate majority. You would think. But this is New York.

Senator Klein

Senator Klein

So Bronx Democratic Senator Jeff Klein organizes an “independent Democratic caucus” group of a few colleagues (one of whom he’s sleeping with) and makes a deal with the Republicans to share power and shut out all the other Democrats. In normal politics this would be considered utterly treasonous to both his party and the voters who seemingly elected a Democrat majority. But this is New York, and they get away with this slimy maneuver.

Klein claims this has nothing to do with personal ambition or power; it’s only to advance his policy concerns. Sure. And that money under your pillow was left by the Tooth Fairy.images-1

So now Klein has sponsored a bill that would require all wine sold in the state to have been warehoused in New York for at least 24 hours. Just another idiotic regulation that pointlessly hobbles commerce, you might think; just part of government’s never-ending war against (small) business. But such legislation never comes out of the blue. There is always some interest to be served.

Klein’s office insists the bill is aimed at job creation. There’s that Tooth Fairy again. The truth: most wine distributors happen to have their warehouses in New Jersey, near the port where much wine arrives. They’ll be screwed. But one big distributor – Empire Merchants – already has warehouses in New York. Thus the bill would handicap Empire’s smaller competitors, maybe drive them out of business, which would limit the wine choices available to New York consumers, and raise prices. All to Empire’s benefit, and the public’s detriment. (And as if you do “job creation” by forcing businesses to add unneeded warehouses.)

"I'm shocked, shocked..."

“I’m shocked, shocked…”

And guess what? Since 2009, Empire has handed Jeff Klein $53,000 in campaign contributions;  and given to a wide range of other elected officials, including $259,850 to Governor Cuomo (who’d have to sign the bill).

When a contributor gives money to an official whose stances the contributor likes, that’s called politics. When there’s a specific bill created to benefit that contributor, against the public good, it’s called BRIBERY. I’m shocked, shocked, that corruption is taking place in this legislature.

I credit the Albany Times-Union’s Chris Churchill for exposing this cesspool.

Egypt, and the Future of Democracy

January 21, 2014

UnknownEgypt’s new constitution was approved last week by a 98% vote. When a vote is 98%, you know it ain’t democracy. In this case, no opposition campaign was even permitted; people were arrested just for hanging signs.

The result was nevertheless called plausible because most Egyptians are fed up with the turmoil introduced by the 2011 revolution. Yet only 38.6% turned out to vote. Meantime, that civic exhaustion is making the army chief, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a popular hero for cracking down, and a shoo-in for the coming presidential election.

I endorsed the July coup, ousting President Morsi, because his undemocratic behavior seemed to legitimate it. But I expressed concern lest his successors emulate Morsi – that instead of working to ameliorate divisions in Egyptian society, they’d exacerbate conflict by trying to annihilate the Islamists. And so they have.

images-1We’ve seen this movie before – The Empire Strikes Back – the return of the so-called “deep state” – the military, the police, all the elements accustomed to control by force, together with all their powerful and corrupt economic cronies. The 2011 revolution seemed to shake this “deep state.” But it recovered its mojo and it’s back.

Presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi called last week’s constitutional referendum a vote “for a better economy, for social justice, for new legal protections expanding human dignity and liberty,” and “the dawning of a new Egypt.”

El-Sissi

El-Sissi

Mubarak

Mubarak

Orwellian verbiage if I ever heard it. The reality is precisely the opposite. Not the dawning of a new Egypt, but a fall back to the old one. Amid all this palaver about human dignity and liberty, it’s not just Muslim Brothers who’ve been rounded up and jailed, but also legions of the democracy and human rights advocates who were the vanguard of the Tahrir Square revolution, and the press is less free than ever too. When Senators Graham and McCain met with el-Sissi after the coup, they reported him intoxicated by power. Electing him president will reprise Mubarak and his stifling regime.

*     *     *

But Egypt is not the only case of democracy in trouble.

images-2Bangladesh is a sorry mess, its politics for decades poisoned by a vendetta between two venal widows of former leaders (the “battling begums,” they’re called); the army tried stepping in, but only made things worse; now the civilian government of one of the begums has been dubiously re-elected after a vote boycott by the opposition, and seems bent on entrenching itself in (mis)government forever.

In Ukraine the citizenry struggles desperately against President Yanukovych intent on replicating Putin’s Russia.

I’ve written about Sri Lanka, whose President Rajapaksa finally defeated a long-running insurgency, but instead of building on this for national reconciliation, is gutting the nation’s democracy to cement control by his band of brothers.

images-4And I’ve written about Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra (no would-be tyrant, it seems) won a fair and decisive election victory; but the opposition “Democrats” (actually anti-democrats) refuse to accept it, and have been destabilizing the country, seeking in effect a minority dictatorship. To resolve this, Yingluck has called an early election – which the “Democrats” are boycotting (because they’d lose again).

It’s been my gospel that, in the big picture, the world has been undergoing a democratic revolution; that while nothing in human affairs is ever linear, notwithstanding zigs and zags democracy is rising because it addresses fundamental human yearnings (see my initial comments on Egypt’s 2011 revolution). But admittedly we’re seeing lately more zigs than zags. Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ukraine – and there are others – together with the ostensible flourishing of authoritarianism in Russia and China – and its stubborn persistence in still other places like Cuba – all might seem to make my gospel as wishful as belief in Heaven.

Unknown-1Perhaps in truth the great wave of democratic progress, in the latter part of the 20th century, represented a harvest of “low hanging fruit;” in societies where (using a related metaphor) the soil was fertile for democratic seeds to take root; whereas the places singled out above are the tougher cases, with stonier soil.

A couple of threads run through all of them. The will to power is of course very strong; even stronger is the will to retain power once gained. Fettering that human ambition is a key challenge for any democratic system (as the writers of The Federalist recognized). And it’s very hard to do where civil society is weak. That’s true in Egypt, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, where democratic consciousness is not sufficiently developed to be able to thwart illegitimate power. Ukraine hangs in the balance on this. images-3A similar story is Venezuela, which couldn’t keep Chavez from shredding its democracy. Of course, he was originally elected, which points up another problem: where democracy is not mature, voters are too often suckered by the likes of Chavez, Yanukovych,  the begums, and el-Sissi.

Another factor is an ethos of pluralism. This means accepting that elements of society other than your own have a legitimate role to play, a right to participate in governance, and even to wield power if acquired through fair process. For all America’s partisan divisions, it would be unthinkable for election losers to go into the streets to overturn the result. We take that for granted; but such is exactly what Thailand’s election losers are doing. They don’t share our ethos of pluralism. The same is true of other nations I’ve discussed. This is particularly a problem in Arab countries like Egypt: a refusal to accept that segments of society other than one’s own have a legitimate role that must be respected and accommodated.

Unknown-3If that sounds childish, in fact it is. But people outgrow their childish traits, and most of us become mature adults. The world is still divided between childish and mature societies. But the former will, in time, grow up too.

Our New Year’s Inaugural Diversity Bath: A Great Country Altogether

January 2, 2014

imagesYesterday, I was an invitee at the inauguration of Albany’s new mayor, Kathy Sheehan. After 43 years here, it was the first time I didn’t feel like some kind of outsider. Indeed, what struck me about the event was the broadness of representation (especially the great number of blacks commingled): not a segment of the city, but the whole city, as it were, come together as a community celebrating our new day.

I sat next to a former black elected official, outspokenly left-wing; but she recited the pledge of allegiance, and even sang along with the national anthem, without irony.

Much was made of Sheehan’s being our first woman mayor, and in her speech she spoke of diversity’s virtues. “E pluribus unum” (“one out of many”) is our national motto; and I take it to heart, as one who is here only because some other country had a very different attitude. The Albany inaugural event was an embodiment of that motto’s spirit. While the simultaneous mayoral installation in New York City was striking a different note: not of inclusivity but divisiveness, all but declaring some citizens the enemies of the rest; to me an echo of that other country.

Before

Before

At the reception I was glad to encounter newly elected city councilman and community activist Mark Robinson. I told him my name and that I didn’t think we’re related (he’s black). Then I said, “I only know about you from the newspaper. But I think it’s a great country altogether when you could go from where you’ve been to where you are today.”

He seemed deeply appreciative. Where he’d once been, in fact, was prison, for drug dealing. Was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, “There are no second acts in American life”?

“A great country altogether” is actually another line from literature, the penultimate line from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. He said it about America, upon his arrival here at last, for something seemingly frivolous that greeted him. But that surface frivolity bespoke something far deeper about the character of this country that, again, was much in evidence at our inaugural event. We are a free people; and a community of free people. The two ideas are not antithetical.

Pertinent to this theme, with another attendee I compared notes about the New Year’s Eve party we’d both been to, hosted by our mutual friend Geraldine, formerly Gerald.*

“I think there were only three males,” I said, “best I could tell.”

“Well, let’s see: you . . . Jack . . . and Melissa.”

“So Melissa is still a man? OK; but what about Ryan?”

“Ryan is a girl.”

“I thought so too, until he was introduced to me as Melissa’s son.”

“That’s because Ryan is becoming male — while her father is doing the opposite.”

Melissa’s wife was there too; as well as another cheerful married female couple, of whom one had apparently started as  husband.

Welcome to Twenty-first Century America.

Not that all this is exactly normal. But the better word to use is common. It isn’t common, of course, but it’s up to the individual to choose how to live, and that includes the most essential aspects of our identities. And in this country, in this time, at long last, glory Hallelujah, people can do exactly that. There were some straight people at the party too but we all had a fine time together.

And after the mayoral bash, my wife and I went to the annual New Year’s party of a local activist poet, yet another convocation of non-conventional people, rounding out our diversity immersion.images-3

Isn’t this a great country altogether?

‘Tis.

*The names in this story are changed.


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