Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

How to defeat terrorism: by ignoring it

December 7, 2015

images-3With every terrorist atrocity, like San Bernardino, I ask myself – what the f— do these people think they’re accomplishing?

The objective in war is to subdue the enemy by destroying his capacity to fight. ISIS and other Islamic radicals can do nothing of the kind. So instead they do terrorism. To what end? To hurt us? Yes. To subdue us? Seriously?

If they’re deluded enough to actually believe in the God they purport to worship – a God who bizarrely approves such horror – then maybe they’re deluded enough to imagine this is a path to . . . something.

But these outrages won’t bring down our society. A San Bernardino every day would get no closer toward that end. Fourteen dead? Why, we Americans murder an average of almost 100 a day, just being our normal selves; in fact, there’s already a daily mass shooting, on average. ISIS would have to up its game by orders of magnitude to have much true impact.

images-4Oh, but they do have impact – only because we behave as though they do. Notwithstanding 100 daily murders, and San Bernardino being a drop in the bucket, we behave like it’s an apocalypse. The President gives a rare oval office address. We get our knickers all in twist, and talk about extreme actions (like Trump now proposing to ban all Muslims from America).  images-6As if that would protect us from terrorism. (While we eschew common sense measures that would curb the vastly greater death toll from gun culture.)

Such irrational craziness can only make terrorists think they’re actually accomplishing something.

Well, it’s called terrorism because it’s aimed at terrifying us. And we obligingly act all terrified. What if, instead, we just shrugged it off and went about our business, treating terrorism as the mere minor nuisance which, in the big scheme of things, it actually is? images-7Making clear that it achieves nothing. That’s how to defeat it.

China versus America: the candid truth

December 3, 2015

I was recently on panel, with two Chinese natives, comparing our respective countries’ cultures. Here (a bit condensed) is my presentation:

UnknownChina is a great civilization with many accomplishments, a rich history and culture, and much to admire. I’m saying this because the rest of my comments won’t be so complimentary.

When I got the phone call to do this, I happened to be reading David Brooks’s book, The Road to Character. And I asked myself, would such a book be written in China? Because its approach is very humanistic, a book written for a society of individuals. Then I recalled the phrase “Asian Values” popularized by the late leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew: an attempt to dress up authoritarianism and paternalism as reflecting deep cultural traditions, as an alternative to Western values that emphasize democracy, human rights, the worth of the individual, and so forth.

Unknown-1We hear a lot of nonsense that America is not really a democracy. But there’s really no voting at all in China, certainly no political competition, no opposition allowed, no freedom of speech and press. And this does reflect a cultural difference. We Americans do value people as individuals, whereas in China what’s most important is one’s role as a part of a group – the family, and, more broadly, the whole society. Compared to America, Chinese society is more like an ant colony or beehive, which biologist E.O. Wilson has likened to “superorganisms,” with the role of the individual ant or bee equivalent to that of a cell in a human body.images-1

One important element of human rights is the rule of law. President, Xi Jinping talks a lot about this, but it means something different to him than to us. It’s not a restraint on government, it’s a tool for government to restrain citizens. The government and the Communist party (pretty much the same thing) are still above the law.

China does have a constitution, full of worthy platitudes, yet the word “constitutionalism” is seen as a subversive Western idea. People have been jailed simply for voicing the radical concept that the constitution should be obeyed.

images-2I was one of those optimists believing that as China grew richer it would evolve toward democracy. For a while that seemed to be happening, albeit at a glacial pace. But now it’s gone into reverse. President Xi is consolidating power to a degree unmatched since Mao, cracking down on anyone and anything seen as remotely challenging to the party’s control. Recently all the country’s human rights lawyers were arrested.

Speaking of control, you probably know about China’s one-child policy, which just became a two-child policy. A long overdue change, but it’s still an unjustifiably cruel, coercive approach. It’s given China a big labor shortage, with not enough working age people to support a growing population of elderly pensioners. And because of a strong cultural preference for male children, people often made sure their one child would be a boy. So males outnumber females, and many of those pampered little princes won’t be able to find princesses to marry. This is a societal time-bomb.

Unknown-2Then there’s the hukou system. A hukou is a sort of internal passport and residence permit. It’s a very big deal. You can go from the countryside to the city to get a factory job, but you cannot get a city hukou. Without it you’re you’re barred from local public services, like health care, and your children can’t even go to school. One consequence is that an estimated 70 million children are left behind with other relatives, growing up with all kinds of psychological and adjustment problems. Another societal time-bomb.

Now, Americans are very patriotic, we love our country. Chinese love theirs, but with a difference. It’s perhaps explainable in light of China’s past history of depredation by other powers. Chinese are highly nationalistic and obsess about their global standing, with a chip on their shoulders. This is seen in China’s aggressive claims to vast ocean regions.

But here’s some good news: since Mao and his mad policies were buried, China has experienced phenomenal economic growth. In 35 years its average income has increased by 3000% — thirty-fold. Some would say this shows authoritarianism works. That would be wrong.

China is really two economies: the communist sector of state-owned businesses, and the private sector, which is in fact the closest thing ever to that mythical beast, “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” And virtually all of China’s economic growth has come from that sector. The lesson is not that authoritarianism works, it’s that free market capitalism works.

My final point: compared to America, China is a profoundly corrupt society.

images-3We’re often told the U.S. Senate is a millionaire’s club. Well, China’s legislature – with much less real power – is packed with billionaires. And whereas our Senatorial millionaires in general earned their money outside of politics, most in China got theirs by abusing their official positions. American political corruption is mostly politicians catering to private interests to get campaign money, not personal wealth. In China it’s the latter. Being a high official is a license to steal.

Now, President Xi is crusading against corruption, and some big fish have been caught, like Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. But this is really less a clean-up than a political purge, aimed mainly at tightening Xi’s control. China’s apologists like to point out that Western democracies are not immune to abuses of power, citing Watergate as a prime example. But Nixon fell because of checks and balances within the American political system – notably a strong opposition party and a free press. Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang fell to the power of an even bigger fish. And what will constrain that bigger fish’s power?

China’s culture of corruption goes beyond politics. Ironically, for a country that actually invented civil service examinations centuries ago, today it’s based not on what you know but who you know; the greasing of palms and disingenuousness. Yale University had a bad experience trying to set up branches in China. Of course there’s cheating in American schools, but Chinese students took it to a new level. Yale gave up and left. A New York Times essay quoted Chinese author Wang Xiaofang: “The habit of falsehood is fatal to a culture. But to us, falsehood is the essence.”

Unknown-3Recently we learned about China’s cyber-hacking, stealing corporate secrets. Here again, of course such things happen in the West. But for the government to set up a whole bureaucracy to carry it out? David Brooks has commented that this shows China sees world economic competition as equivalent to war, with all weapons allowed. But this destroys the trust that lubricates free exchange and international commerce. This is not how you become a global economic leader.

I recognize that, compared to China, American government has become dysfunctional and paralyzed. It’s mainly down to our partisan political polarization. But Francis Fukuyama wrote a book in 1992, titled The End of History, arguing that the classically liberal Western model of democratic government under rule of law, accountable to the governed, is bound to prevail because it satisfies a basic human hunger for personal dignity and self worth. America may be in decline relative to a rising China; but I’d rather live in a declining democracy than in a rising authoritarian state.

Do you believe poverty is worsening?

November 28, 2015

UnknownThe global population living in extreme poverty has risen in the last 20 years – indeed has almost doubled – say two-thirds of Americans in a recent survey. Nearly all the rest guessed poverty has merely stayed the same.

“Rising poverty” is a pessimist idee fixe, so ubiquitous that most folks unthinkingly consider it an obvious truism, to be sanctimoniously deplored. I have actually seen people’s eyes sparkle when talking of “rising poverty;” puffing up one’s moral vanity feels good.

Unknown-1Well, sorry to be a killjoy, but global poverty has in fact plummeted in recent decades. If world poverty were a stock, you’d have lost your shirt on it. The 95% of Americans who believe otherwise are misinformed.

This little known secret was revealed by Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times op-ed, citing World Bank figures: since 1993, the proportion of world population living in extreme poverty (defined as earning less than $1.00-$1.25 daily) fell by more than half, from 35% to 14%. Adding insult to injury, Kristof also noted the child death rate, before age five, dropped by more than half since 1990.* And whereas in the ‘80s only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school, now 80% do. Literacy is rising and disease rates are falling. And so on. (Bill and Melinda Gates similarly argued in the Wall Street Journal in 2014 that pessimists are wrong and global conditions are improving markedly.)

imagesYet still there’s rising inequality, we’ve still got that for moralizing lamentation, no? Well – Kristof’s data refute that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The rich are getting richer, yes, but so are the poor, though not as fast, which does increase wealth gaps. However, globally, inequality between poor countries and rich ones is indisputably lessening, simply because the former have higher economic growth. (Even with today’s big slowdown, the Asian Development Bank projects 5.8% 2015 growth for the region, minus Japan. For advanced countries, 3% is considered sizzling.)

images-1The left, wedded to a mantra of rising poverty and inequality, is all about wealth and income redistribution to fix it. But part of why developing economies are growing faster than advanced ones, reducing the gap between them, is because wealth is in fact being redistributed from the latter to the former. This is what Trump yaps about with his China bashing. And, ironically, the left hates it too – all the whining about “shipping jobs overseas.” That redistributes wealth from richer to poorer people. Shouldn’t the left love it?

Unknown-2But of course poorer countries aren’t simply sucking our wealth away. To the contrary, a more integrated global economy with fewer artificial barriers enables goods and services to be produced where it is cheapest and most efficient, and this makes the whole world richer – including us. Cheaper production in China or India or Vietnam reduces prices for U.S. consumers (to the tune of trillions of dollars in fact), enabling more spending on other things, which stimulates job creation, making up for jobs lost. Everybody wins.

Further illuminating what is happening and why, author Ronald Bailey provided a commentary (on Reason.comon Kristof’s piece. What has enabled many developing countries to improve by taking advantage of global trade opportunities is better economic policies – in a nutshell, more economic freedom for their people to do so – phasing out dysfunctional old socialist nostrums (this is the “neoliberalism” lefties condemn). Bailey cites a 2015 Fraser Institute report giving countries economic freedom ratings, based on various measures. The 102 countries continuously rated averaged 5.31 in 1980, rising to 5.77 in 1990, 6.74 in 2000, and 6.86 in 2013.

Bailey notes that such economic freedom, and its handmaid, rule of law, tend to flourish in politically and economically stable countries. And it should be no surprise that all those conditions combine to unleash human ingenuity and enterprise, creating wealth and reducing poverty. Bailey also cited data showing that such nations tend to have markedly reduced fertility rates (thus controlling population growth), better environmental stewardship, and higher life expectancies than in more repressive and misgoverned lands.

Bailey concludes by saying that it is in “democratic capitalist countries that the air and water are becoming cleaner, forests are expanding, food is abundant, education is universal, and women’s rights respected.”

images-2Free market capitalism admittedly produces uneven results – as will any economic system – but is far better than any alternative for giving the greatest number of people the best opportunities and quality of life. The gigantic poverty reduction and welfare improvement of recent decades was not the product of socialism, but of getting away from such economic folly. And a market economy is also ethically superior because it works by increasing freedom rather than restricting it. That’s what I call social justice.

(All of this was already covered in my own very excellent 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism. I thank Scott Perlman for pointing me to the cited articles.)

*Meantime, Bernie Sanders saying America has the world’s highest child poverty rate is ridiculous. We measure it in relation to average U.S. incomes – which top worldwide scales. Of course child poverty is much worse in many countries that still are much poorer.

The End of the Man on the White Horse

October 2, 2015

imagesThe Man on the White Horse is a hoary staple of the political imagination. The hero, with integrity, ideals, and vision, the leader who will put things right. We all fall for it, at different times. And then wind up disillusioned.

Exhibit A is, of course, Barack Obama. I didn’t vote for him (my 2008 evaluation seems prescient now) yet grasped what his election meant to so many – who hoped he’d be a transformational leader. He is not that; not even an effective one.

But this is not just about Obama, it’s larger than him. The hopes we put in political leaders seem systemically doomed to disillusionment.

Widodo

Widodo

I was prompted here by reading about Indonesia’s still fairly new president, Joko Widodo. Seemed a really good guy, decent, honest, able. It was hugely encouraging that he beat a military blowhard cut from a mold that’s proven awful elsewhere. Alas Widodo so far seems a lackluster president and disillusionment is fast setting in.

I’ve written of Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, who also raised great hopes and started strongly. His administration is now floundering. And of a wonderful election in Sri Lanka unexpectedly throwing out an autocrat; but the new administration is floundering there as well.

Modi

Modi

And I wrote of Narendra Modi, with potential to lift India from its daft economic policies. But he seems to be operating on the theory that just being Modi will energize India’s economy, without his actually doing much; certainly not anything politically hard.

images-2Yet another Man on a White Horse who will probably go out on a donkey.

Now many U.S. voters are bedazzled by some truly ridiculous candidates (Trump, Carson, Sanders – yes, anyone labeling himself “socialist” today is ridiculous), imagining they could somehow march in and set the country right. How very silly.

*     *     *

The syndrome does appear systemic. Francis Fukuyama’s recent book, Political Order and Political Decay (see my commentary) sheds some light.

Bismarck

Bismarck

In past epochs leaders had scope to be more radical and achieve big things. But modern states do not allow for Napoleons or Bismarcks.

There are two big factors. The first is political structure. Some see today a concentration of political power, undermining democracy (the false notion of “buying elections”). But the greater truth is exactly the opposite. Advanced modern democracies disperse power so widely that nobody can get very much of it, including presidents. Proliferating opportunities for some interests to block others produce what Fukuyama called a “vetocracy.” So a president does not run the government, he’s merely an administrator. Obamacare was really just a modest tweak of our healthcare system, not a fundamental overhaul.

And voters may profess anger at the status quo but actually vote very conservatively to lock it in, timorous toward any real change, lacking imagination, and suckered by tired old formulas. Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Juncker famously said, “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it.” So Brazilian voters last year confirmed a dysfunctional statist model, rejecting a classically liberal alternative, and the nation’s rot predictably deepens.

The second factor is the nature of government itself in advanced modern states, its sheer hugeness and complexity, forming a political interest and power center in its own right which is also, by nature, highly resistant to any reform or change.

Unknown-1The combination of these two factors makes any major policy effort like trying to turn around the Titanic. (Worse – the Titanic’s captain could change its course, slowly.) Already six decades ago, Truman said, “Poor Ike. He’ll sit there and say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ and nothing will happen. It won’t be a bit like the army.”

Government has a role in a modern society. We cannot get rid of it. Yet it is a fundamental mistake to look to government for solutions to societal problems today. Once that was reasonable, but no longer. We need ways of addressing issues that bypass government. Unfortunately, those are far from obvious.

images-4Well — at least no one can have any illusions about Hillary as a Woman on a White Horse.

Telling It Like It Is: My Presidential Campaign Speech

September 12, 2015

Unknown-1My fellow Americans:

I didn’t want to run for president, but alas now I must. Mr. Trump supposedly “tells it like it is.” Unfortunately he – and other candidates – tell it like it isn’t. But I believe Americans can face reality.

This is a great country, but it wasn’t anointed by God to be that always. It requires work and even sacrifice. It’s not “morning in America” now – it’s getting late in the day.

Problem One: we face financial ruin. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were great programs, as long as three or four times as many people were working (and paying taxes) as collecting benefits. Unknown-2But that ratio is inexorably falling as lifespans rise. If nothing is done, these programs will swallow up the entire federal budget, leaving no money for anything else.

As a nation, we’ve actually been spending way more than our income for years, borrowing the difference (much from China). We could do this thanks to historically low interest rates. But at some point the debt’s size will outgrow what the financial markets can tolerate, causing our interest costs to balloon. Then we’re fucked.

Ignoring all this is the Obama administration’s seminal, historic failure.

Like Winston Churchill, I offer nothing but blood, sweat, toil, and tears. However, we remain a very rich people, who can afford to take care of the less fortunate. What we cannot afford is welfare for the better off. Social Security and Medicare will be phased out for higher income people. Taxes will rise too.

imagesSome of that money will go to infrastructure, on which we’re way behind, threatening our status as a world-class country. That spending will create a lot of jobs. I call the program “America Works.”

Another reality is that we cannot insulate ourselves from global economic competition. But free trade benefits more Americans than it hurts. No more stupid whining about “shipping jobs overseas.” If a product or service can be produced better and/or cheaper in India or China, that’s where it will be produced. American businesses that cannot match them will fail and won’t be able to employ anybody.

And did you know our rate of creation of small businesses (responsible for most job growth) is way down? images-1We’ve made it increasingly hard for businesses to operate, what with all the taxation and regulatory hassles. For starters, Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank must be repealed.

A lot of folks, concerned about inequality, think businesses make people poorer, with “profit” a dirty word. That thinking must end. It’s successful, thriving businesses, making money by producing things people want, that make everybody richer. Otherwise nobody has a job.

images-2But job skills that used to assure a good life increasingly don’t cut it in today’s world. The real inequality problem is not the 1% versus the 99%, it’s the well educated versus the less educated. I know, people have been yakking about education forever, and there’s no magic bullet. But a quarter of Americans dropping out of high school cannot be tolerated. A great expansion of school choice would inject a much needed competitive ethos. And we need a rethink on college costs, because subsidizing tuition only enables colleges to raise it.

On all these issues, I will work with both parties, seeking compromise and consensus. We must end the culture of partisan demonizing, and recognize that Americans of all political stripes all sincerely want what’s best for everyone, disagreeing only on how to achieve it. Nobody’s evil (or very few).

Unknown-3Foreign Affairs: no more “leading from behind.” That doesn’t mean rushing into wars. But President Obama got the balance wrong between caution and assertiveness, shredding American credibility and making a world much more disorderly and dangerous. America must take the lead and act resolutely to nip conflicts in the bud. There must be no reprise of Ukraine. And if we decide ISIS must indeed be fought, then Heaven help ISIS.

The UN, as a vehicle for international order, has long been broken, due to bad guy vetoes. I will push to create a new “League of Democratic Societies,” with strict membership criteria (like the EU’s), to assume the role the UN cannot.

One last thing.

On May 14, 1938, my mother stood on the deck of a ship as it passed the Statue of Liberty. She was a refugee from a murderous tyranny. America has always been the go-to place for people seeking better lives; and that’s been one of the key things that has made America great. images-3Because such people, willing to give up everything comfortable and familiar, with the ambition to start life anew, even risking their lives to get here – those are the best people. We need more of them.

Elect me and we’ll keep America great.

Michael Gerson on Obama’s Syria Disgrace

September 7, 2015

I don’t normally “re-blog,” preferring my own words. But Michael Gerson’s latest column about Syria says it better than I could (click here).

Unknown-1That photo of the dead child grabbed our hearts. As if we never knew of the tens of thousands of other child Syrian victims — some literally tortured to death by Assad’s regime.

Gerson’s eloquent indictment of American passivity is not mere hindsight. At every stage, the poor decisions seemed clear to many observers (me included, as my blog readers may remember). And this isn’t just about fuzzy humanitarianism (not to disparage that); less pusillanimous policies would have better served our hard-nosed geopolitical interests.

Unknown-2On top of it all, as Gerson notes, Germany has thrown open its doors to all Syrian refugees, taking in hundreds of thousands, while America has taken very few. Shame on us.

POSTSCRIPT: When I mentioned this to my daughter — working in Jordan for an NGO helping Syrian refugees — she replied, “The United States takes in more refugees than any other country.”

Iran: The Deal

July 19, 2015

20150718_FBP005_0Better had we never negotiated. This deal makes Iran a more empowered adversary than a nuclear-armed Iran would have been. How nukes could have actually strengthened Iran is far from clear, since using them would be suicidal. So Iran traded something it doesn’t need for something it does: sanctions relief and unfreezing $100+ billion of assets. That makes Iran a more dangerous enemy.

But, if we had to have a deal, this one isn’t too bad; not the cave-in that might have been expected from President Obama’s desperation to avoid the unpalatable no-deal scenario – definitive failure, and having his military bluff called. And bluff it always was: no president (least of all this one) would incur the immense costs (not just in money) and risks of an attack likely to prove futile.

The Iranians knew this, yet we did have them by the balls on sanctions; and the five other negotiating powers were not constrained by Obama’s above-described calculus. So Iran, finally, did what it must to end sanctions, and the deal will pretty much, probably, put a 10-15 year hold on nuclear weapons development.

Unknown-1I will not use the cliché “the devil’s in the details.” My instinct is to call the deal’s inspection regime bullshit due to a cumbersome process before inspectors can go in; and likewise for the supposed “snap-back” of sanctions in case of a violation, which would seem problematical in an always messy world. However, the committee deciding these things will have a Western majority; and while snap-back would ultimately be a UN Security Council matter, Russia cannot veto it; instead, America could veto stopping the snap-back.

(The Economist has supplied a fairly lucid explication of the deal: click here.)

Unknown-3Again, I think we’d have been better off never negotiating. But that’s not the world that exists; and in the world that now does, Obama is right that we have little choice but to accept the deal. Opponents really offer no alternative; certainly not military (get real). Having gone through what we went through to get where we are, we can’t just blow it all up now by scuppering the deal. That’s not how grown-up nations behave.

Moreover, I’m an optimist and believer in progress. The world can change. In fact, it always does. And this deal may possibly be a catalyst for positive change. Iran today is a bad actor, but many countries have gone from bad to good. Lord Palmerston said nations don’t have permanent allies or foes – only permanent interests. Why Iran should be our enemy is not, from Iran’s perspective, necessarily obvious (ancient history does not control us). To me it seems obvious instead that behaving differently, and cooperating with America, would be very much in Iran’s true best interests.images-1

What a drama the world presents. I wish I could see the denouement.

Greece At The Rubicon

July 7, 2015

UnknownWhen the Euro was set up, they knew it was a fraught proposition, binding themselves to each other financially. The Germans in particular, fearful about giving up the strong Deutschemark, insisted on strict penalties for any country whose deficit breached 3% of GDP. Of course it was Germany itself, and France, that soon violated this, but the matter was fudged. Not a good precedent.

Meantime, there were also stringent fiscal criteria for admission to the Euro. So how did Greece get in?Unknown-1 It cooked its books, and lied.

Greece’s economy has long been weighed down by clientelistic politics producing an over-bloated state sector, with lots of well-paid unneeded government jobs, fat pensions and benefits, while tax avoidance became endemic, and red tape (giving all those government workers something to do) strangled business. Thus Greece could not pay its bills, borrowing heavily to close the gap. This is what was covered up. But about five years ago the retsina hit the fan when the hole became too deep, requiring a bail-out.

Reasonably enough, the Europeans (mainly Germany) insisted that Greece clean up its act as a condition for the bail-out – the “austerity” we hear so much about. In hindsight, they may have overdone it. You’d want to wean the country away from profligacy, but not crush its economy, because economic growth is the only hope for ever paying Greece’s debts. Greece did accept some reforms, but did suffer a pretty severe economic contraction, with 25% unemployment, which didn’t help matters.

Unknown-2Part of the problem is that lefty Greeks just don’t get it that, to support the lavish government salaries and other spending, you need an economy that actually produces something that earns money. Of course, that’s dirty capitalism. Feh. So Greece’s reforms did little to improve economic productiveness.

And the reforms in question, the so-called “austerity,” merely moved Greece from extreme profligacy to moderate profligacy. This shows just how deep the hole is, and suggests the Europeans probably also erred in failing to bite the bullet of just writing off a major part of Greece’s debt.

Unknown-3Through all this, Greeks have cast the Germans as villains, seeing no reason why they shouldn’t go back to the old ways of living high on the hog on borrowed money they can’t pay back. The Germans see no reason why, having themselves undergone, a decade ago, the same sort of painful reforms now asked of the Greeks, they should have to work to age 65 and pay taxes so the Greeks can retire at 57 with fat pensions and avoid taxes. A classic grasshopper-and-ant story.

Then in January the Greeks elected the Syriza party, a bunch of irresponsible leftists with a platform of rejecting “austerity” and restoring the days of wine and roses. images-1They danced in the streets exulting in this triumph of wishful thinking. The new government, led by Alexis Tspiras, proceeded to make a hash of further bail-out negotiations and to shred any vestige of trust by Europeans. And then, just as it seemed possible that a deal might nevertheless be struck, Tsipras kicked over the table by calling a snap referendum on whether to accept the bail-out terms.

He urged Greeks to vote No, saying they could have their cake and eat it too – twice over – that they could reject Europe’s terms yet stay in the Euro – and, indeed, could reject the deal and see off austerity, returning to their old cushy clientelistic habits. With what money? Who knows.

This insane fantasy Tsipras cast as a matter of national pride – standing up against European (mainly German) blackmail!

Unknown-5Two things happened in the week before the vote. First, Greece defaulted on a scheduled debt payment; a first for a “developed” country. And Greece’s banks all but closed (for lack of money), allowing only small ATM withdrawals, throwing much of the economy and many people’s lives for a loop.

You might think this foretaste of what could lay in store would give the Greeks pause in the referendum vote. You’d be wrong. This vote was a matter of pride, remember. The Greeks are a proud people – proud enough to borrow billions and tell the lenders “Fuck You.” Unknown-4And so they did – a resounding 61% voted No. And again the grasshoppers danced in the streets to celebrate their courage.

What happens now? Tsipras justified the referendum “No” as strengthening his hand to get a better deal from the ants who, of course, lacking backbones, might just cave. But the Europeans had said they’d construe a “No” as a vote to exit the Euro. Greeks have indeed made a courageous bet, and if it comes wrong, those who thought “austerity” was rough ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

It’s not really clear how a country can be kicked out of the Euro. But perhaps it would be as simple as the European Central Bank supplying no fresh Euros; after a time Greece would effectively be forced into a different currency.

The Economist believes Europe should think twice before such a drastic step into uncharted territory. It could pull a thread that unravels the whole fabric. And you wouldn’t want a failed state in the continent, with all the potential tsuris that could entail. Furthermore, Greece could be thrown into the arms of Putin, with whom Tsipras has been playing footsie. But The Economist also thinks that if Greece stays in the Euro, the kinds of crises we’ve seen will keep repeating basically forever.images

My view, FWIW, is that Europe should cut off this gangrenous limb once and for all. A Greece-free Euro zone should ultimately be stronger and more stable. And there’s the issue of moral hazard; Greekish behavior should be seen to have consequences, lest others (like Spain) be tempted to follow it.

But Europe should also ready humanitarian aid packages for Greece. We’ll see if the Greeks spit in their faces then.

The Middle East: The Case for Not Doing

June 1, 2015

A previous post critiqued Andrew Bacevich’s “limits of power” take on world affairs. He derided what he saw as vain attempts to control history, which can’t be done – so don’t even try. It’s true that do-gooder efforts may, for numerous reasons, fail. But I prefer a proactive approach to life rather than a passive fatalism, hence trying to make the world better. And people, throughout the ages, have succeeded at it.

UnknownYet regarding today’s Middle East – I throw up my hands (and my lunch).

The conventional wisdom now is that America’s 2003 Iraq venture upended a hornets’ nest, causing today’s tsuris, and we should have left well enough alone. A seeming vindication of Bacevich. Well, maybe; but I’m reminded of when Chou En-lai was asked to evaluate the French Revolution. “Too soon to tell,” he replied.

(We did not invade Iraq based on “lies” or manipulated intelligence. All major intelligence services believed Saddam likely had weapons of mass destruction – he was trying hard to make it seem so. The true issue was: did we dare risk that he had them? Yet, to the “knowing what you know now” question, I’d say don’t invade – knowing now how botched it would be, particularly in disbanding the Iraqi army.)

Cartoon by Danziger

Cartoon by Danziger

Bush 43’s real Iraq sin was willing the ends but not the means – imagining it could be done cheaply and easily. I still think Bacevich is wrong, and we could have succeeded; but if you do aim to alter history, please be prepared for some heavy lifting.

images-1Of course, President Obama, who forswore repeating Bush’s Iraq mistake, is now doing exactly that – willing the ends but not the means – declaring that we will destroy ISIS (or is it now just containment?) but without actually going to war. As if some cheap airstrikes will do the trick. The results so far add yet more color to the picture of feckless American impotence Obama has painted.

My instincts are hawkish. However, the problem with Obama’s ISIS strategy is not just that it’s ineffectual but it isn’t a strategy at all, more like striking out blindly. ISIS is horrible, yes, but we must weigh the ramifications of battling it. images-3We’re relying on Shiite militias, almost as nasty (at least one is actually on our official list of terrorist organizations), and likely to exacerbate sectarian hostilities. And this war puts us in bed with the Iranians, and even with Bashar Assad*, not to mention Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorists also fighting ISIS for Assad’s sake. Be careful what you wish for — is the triumph of all those forces really desirable?

Maybe we don’t have a dog in this fight, and should just let all these bad guys beat each other to exhaustion, which probably now has to happen, before some halfway sane alternative can possibly, eventually emerge in that afflicted terrain. As columnist Thomas Friedman suggests, we cannot impose a resolution absent a stupendous commitment that isn’t going to happen; Middle Easterners must work this out for themselves, bloody though that may be. Meantime, Iraq’s nationhood is now a lost cause; the Kurds deserve their own state anyway. We should fight only for something that is really worthy of defending, and is defensible – e.g., Kurdistan, or Jordan, if threatened. It was different at the start of Syria’s conflict when we could have gained real strategic advantage by backing the good guys. But Obama funked it, and now there aren’t any good guys.

images-2Let’s understand what’s really going on with ISIS. This is not mainly about religion or theology (nor some sort of arguably legitimate “grievances”). The violence itself attracts certain people; while the normal well-adjusted human being is decidedly not violent (contrary to cynical stereotypes), some alas don’t meet that description. There are always enough young men to staff the ranks of storm troopers or beheaders or whatever. But – more broadly – for its recruits and loyalists, ISIS is mainly about personal identity. The transition to modernity can leave people unmoored from traditional cultural sources of identity and personal meaning (“who am I?”) – the “loneliness of the crowd.” Today’s Middle East is so messed up that it’s natural to cling desperately to whatever sources of seeming identity (and security) people can. In some societies this hunger for identity and meaning may manifest itself in nationalism; but the Middle East lacks nation states to which intense feelings can attach. So, instead, that hook is provided by tribalism, Islam, and jihad. This also attracts young people from outside the region with similar personal voids and cravings.

A recent PBS Frontline program showed that ISIS really started flourishing to fill the vacuum in Syria, defending civilians against Assad, once it became clear that America would not. Local people who support it aren’t crazy. For all these reasons ISIS is a powerful force that won’t melt away with some aerial bombardment. If anything, being under attack by their fetishized enemy feeds their narrative and intensifies loyalty – another reason why our half-baked military campaign seems worse than useless.

Unknown-1Then we have the Iran nuclear negotiations. Getting whatever promises we can out of Iran might sound good, inasmuch as the military option, no matter how much Obama pretends otherwise, is unthinkable. Delaying Iran’s nuclear weapons capability also may seem desirable, hoping the landscape might change in a decade. However, the very fact of a deal with America would be a big boost to Iran’s international stature, and sanctions relief would be a big economic boost, all of which would serve to further entrench Iran’s mullahs in power, and to strengthen a country that will still fundamentally be our geopolitical competitor and enemy. On the other hand, if Iran did get the bomb, what could they do with it that wouldn’t be suicidal? So here too I lean more and more to the desirability of doing nothing. I’d rather see Iran with unusable nukes left stewing in its shit-hole than an Iran without nukes but empowered in ways that really matter.

* Remember when Obama sought Congressional authorization to bomb Assad’s forces for chemical weapons use? We are now finally bombing in Syria — without Congressional authorization — striking Assad’s enemies. Does this make sense?

 

Waiting For Snow in Havana

May 28, 2015

Unknown-5Carlos Eire was eight, with normal childhood concerns, a love for fireworks and pools, and a loathing for lizards, until Fidel Castro came along and ruined everything. Eire’s memoir, Waiting For Snow in Havana – Confessions of a Cuban Boy, gives a mordant child’s-eye-view of “the Revolution.”

OK, his was an affluent family (his father a judge), with more to lose than most Cubans, for whom the ousted Batista regime sucked. But Eire’s book belies Castro’s “Revolution” being an advancement of social justice, exposing its dark reality.

UnknownThe judge was a peculiar man; believing himself the reincarnation of France’s King Louis XVI, the book always refers to him thusly; his wife was “Marie Antoinette.” He put his shoes on before his pants. He insisted on adopting a quasi-pedophile who tried to molest the judge’s natural sons. And he remained in Cuba with that adoptee after the rest of the family escaped to America, even though from the start he despised “the Revolution.”

I myself was suckered in by its romanticism in 1959’s heady days. Then again, I was only eleven, and soon enough repented. Many on the left never did.

Unknown-3This is a litmus test of one’s political seriousness. The left talks a good game of Enlightenment human values but often falls for empty labels and slogans in place of the real deal, and otherwise readily trashes those values (especially freedom of thought and expression). Thus the enduring idealization of Castro  – a megalomaniacal dictator who cemented his power by imprisoning, torturing, and shooting great numbers of Cubans who did not kiss his feet.*

I am sick of palaver about the wonderfulness of Cuba’s education and health care. Truth is, the regime schools and doctors its serfs sufficiently for them to function at work – for which it pays them a pittance. Thus the economy manages to creak along, just. “The Revolution” was quite good at destroying the wealth of the rich and successful – much simply confiscated – yet the average Cuban is as poor as ever, and in fact, inequality is if anything worse. But don’t ever dare complain.

Social justice? One weeps to think how much better off those poor people would be with a normal government that allowed their enterprise to flourish, rather than crushing it with an oppressive, dysfunctional, crackpot economic model crafted only to perpetuate total societal control by the masters.

Unknown-4The hip political satirist Mort Sahl, asked to name the personage he admired most, said “Fidel Castro.” This was long past the time when any sentient being should have grasped the reality. (We’ve seen the same syndrome with Venezuela and Chavez.)

It’s now been 56 years, but in Cuba, as Carlos Eire put it, everything is still “Revolution this” and “Revolution that.” Seems to me 56 years should have been time enough to complete a revolution (especially with all dissension obliterated) and get on with normal life (not to mention actually making it better). If Cuba did need a revolution in 1959, it needs one far more now. The book’s title is never explained, but that’s probably the “snow in Havana” Carlos Eire has waited for, in vain. He never returned.

* Batista was often called a brutal dictator. True; yet he was toppled with relative ease. Why haven’t the Castros been toppled? Such regimes (and Venezuela’s, Iran’s, etc.) are far more repressive than old style “right wing” dictators ever were, thus far harder to get rid of.


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