Monday, December 9, 2013

‘Hope Is a Powerful Weapon’

The desire to comment on the passing of a man as great as Nelson Mandela is irresistible. But what to say about him that does him justice and has not already been said in the past several days by so many others more authoritatively and more eloquently?

In Ireland, his death and life have taken over the media in way that, one imagines, could scarcely have been matched if the greatest living Irishman had passed away. The outpouring of love here for the man begs to be compared to that for a revered saint among devout Catholics. His visits to Ireland are being fondly remembered, the last one being ten years ago when this country hosted the Special Olympics. On that occasion he came to Galway to receive an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland. After receiving his award, the Corrs performed and the great man rose to demonstrate his trademark dance, the “Madiba Jive.”

Window of a newspaper office in Galway

His personal charm had a lot to do with why he was so universally loved after he became president of South Africa. But even more important was his unequalled moral courage, his personal constancy and, not least important, his political shrewdness. In the wake of his passing, there is a natural inclination to make Mandela even more of a paragon than any human being could live up to. That is entirely understandable.

There are important lessons to be learned from his life. Some of obvious, others less so. Here are some that I think are worth noting:

The importance of a leader’s personal moral example cannot be overstated. As a national leader, Mandela inherited a post atop a society at a dangerous crossroads. There were ill feelings in communities that, respectively, felt long oppressed or felt at risk after losing its position of privilege. Mandela navigated that explosive situation by his example of reconciliation. And who could challenge his insistence on not seeking revenge—after he himself had spent 27 years of his life in prison? It is rare to have a political leader who has made such an extraordinary personal sacrifice. It is rarer still to have one whose wisdom towers over the injustices he has suffered personally.

Societies who have a well-ingrained democratic culture have a better chance of achieving justice than those that do not. Along with Mohandas K. Gandhi, Mandela may have personally made the most dramatic difference in a large country. Why were they were hugely successful when similarly impressive men and women of conscience were unable to effect changes in countries that ranged from the Soviet Union to Cuba? The difference is that Gandhi opposed the British and Mandela opposed a regime in a country that had been a dominion of the British Empire. Gandhi and Mandela’s non-violent moral campaigns (Mandela wound up renouncing the violent means he had embraced early on) succeeded because those societies had traditions of liberty and rights—despite the fact that those rights had not been extended to all communities.

Sanctions can work. The end of apartheid in South Africa is a fairly clear example of economic sanctions accomplishing their goal. Is there a lesson here for current negotiations with Iran? Well, it may be worth noting that the U.S. did not lift sanctions until after Mandela was released from prison, and other countries did not until after Mandela was in office as president.

When push comes to shove, really smart people put their confidence in free markets. By the time of his death, Mandela was so universally revered that it is easy to forget that in his early days he was, at least in rhetorical terms, pretty darn radical. When he became the leader of the African National Congress’s youth league, the group was espousing Marx, Engels and Lenin. Throughout his life he remained friendly with the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muamar Gadaffi and Fidel Castro. But when he had the responsibility of governing his country, he opted mainly for free-market capitalism as an economic basis. Life is not perfect in South Africa, but it is a heck of lot better than anybody realistically hoped or expected.

The praise around the world for Mandela is clearly heartfelt and deserved—even though one gets the feeling that at least some of the politicians rushing to the microphones are hoping that some of the great man’s magic will rub off on them. And who can blame them? Let them do their best because the wonderful thing about a man like Nelson Mandela is that his gigantic example puts into relief the meagre stature of other politicians.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Today is a day that separates those in their mid-fifties and older from everyone else. We are the ones who can remember the day that John F. Kennedy was murdered. For us he is not simply a figure in a history book. For us November 22, 1963, is the quintessential “Where were you when…?” date.

A half-century later, my memories of the day are vivid enough, although I cannot be sure how much is real memory or how much is a memory of the memory. This is how I recall it. I was a student in Mrs. Hare’s fifth grade class. With no warning another teacher, Mrs. Ganz, popped her head through the classroom door and, to the best of my recollection, exclaimed, “Let’s all pray! The president has been shot!”

We were sent home for the rest of the day. It was a Friday, so our weekend started early. Normally, that would have been a cause for excitement, but the atmosphere in our house—and in every house—was somber. Television provided no escape since the three channels on our black-and-white set were running non-stop coverage of the assassination. I think it was the next day that our neighbor and family friend Elmer decided that he would escape the mourning and head up to his mountain cabin at California Hot Springs. He brought along his kids and some of us neighbor kids. So, unlike much of the country, I did not see Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder on television in real time.

The political tone in our house was set by my father, who was a lifelong Republican. He had not voted for Kennedy. Indeed, he considered the president’s father one of the biggest crooks of all time, whose money had bought—if not outright stolen—JFK’s razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon. But Dad was horrified and disgusted at the president’s murder. Everyone was, regardless of politics.

Given Kennedy’s youth, charisma, aspirational politics and the manner in which he died, it was inevitable that he would become the secular equivalent of a saint. And if he has been the object of hagiography in America, it is nothing compared to the way he is regarded here in Ireland, the land of his ancestors, where he was universally embraced and idolized.

The sad fact is that Kennedy did not have enough time to accomplish most of what he is sometimes credited with. History, in deference, has been more than willing to acknowledge his actual accomplishments (defusing the Cuban missile crisis), to give him full credit for things he set in motion (the Peace Corps, the Apollo space program), to discount embarrassments (the Bay of Pigs) and to give him the benefit of doubt for what he might or might not have done in a second term (Vietnam).

Kennedy’s image looms so large in American history that both major political parties do their best to lay their claim to him. Of course, he has always been held up as a standard bearer for modern liberals but, approaching today’s anniversary, you can also hear others arguing that his policy of tax cuts and tough foreign anti-Soviet policy stance showed that he was really a conservative.

The tug-of-war over JFK’s legacy extends to his death itself. It has been interesting to hear people like Kennedy’s niece Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Secretary of State John Kerry betray their lack of certainty as to whether Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. In the wake of the killing, a theme quickly emerged—and was only amplified by subsequent political assassinations—of collective guilt, that there was something wrong or sick about the country which had made this terrible crime possible.

More than a few people have narrowed down this collective guilt to the city of Dallas. A prime example is a piece by James McAuley in Sunday’s New York Times which carries the head “The City With a Death Wish in Its Eye” and the subhead “Dallas’s Role in Kennedy’s Murder.” After doing a serious hatchet job on a city he knows well and clearly has issues with, McAuley does clarify that “Dallas is not, of course, ‘the city that killed Kennedy’"—before invoking “the environment of extreme hatred the city’s elite actively cultivated before the president’s visit.”

The theme could also be heard on ABC’s This Week on Sunday in an interview with Dan Rather, whose career at CBS was given a boost by his reporting on the assassination. “Everybody knew, if there was going to be trouble anywhere,” said Rather to Byron Pitts, “it would be in Dallas.”

So even people who actually lived though that time—let alone those who know about the murder only as a historical event—might be forgiven for assuming that some rightwing gun nut or a militia guy pulled the trigger. The hardest fact about the murder for people to accept seems to be that it was, in the end, a stupid random mindless act committed by a disturbed individual. It’s as though the lack of apparent political motive—or even a conspiracy—robs JFK of some of his importance. It doesn’t help that the country was denied the opportunity to hear Oswald speak for himself about his reasons in a courtroom.

All we have is what he said in response to questions he was asked after his arrest. The man who had defected to the Soviet Union four years earlier and who had applied for a visa to Cuba a month earlier was asked if he was a Communist. “No,” he replied, “I am not a Communist. I am a Marxist.” He declined all offers of legal representation, saying he wanted to be represented by the chief counsel of the Communist Party USA or by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Beta Tester Revolt

“[W]hat we’re also discovering is that insurance is complicated to buy.”
President Barack Obama, 14 November 2013

I happened to hear last week another in the seemingly endless stream of news reports on Obamacare. It was on National Public Radio and was about a White House promotion that stated that half of people under the age of 35 could get health care for $50 a month or less. As NPR reported, the government’s own numbers say that the number of people who could get insurance that cheap is actually 32 percent.

The most interesting part of the NPR piece was the reporter Chris Arnold’s somewhat blasé summation of the government’s misleading message: “So in other words, it’s like any other marketing campaign. All the pitches aren’t exactly entirely true but they get your attention.”

In a roundabout way, this highlights a fundamental problem that conservatives and libertarians have with the Affordable Care Act. If a major corporation ran high-profile advertisements that were as patently false as the above promotion or the infamous “If you like your insurance, you can keep it” assurances, it would face penalties for fraud. But who protects consumers from fraud when it’s the government committing the fraud?

Normally, that role would fall to the press, but the most pervasive media outlets seem to be acting as surprised as anyone that it has turned out that millions of people cannot keep their insurance policies.

I’ll confess to being taken aback by the furor over the canceled policies. I never considered President Obama’s repeated “If you like your insurance, you can keep it” assertion a lie because it was always so obviously untrue that I assumed no one actually took it seriously. It’s one of those falsehoods where the fault should lie with anyone clueless enough to believe it rather than with the person actually saying it. People have never had any guarantee they could keep their insurance, and nothing in the new healthcare law did anything to change that. In fact, the whole point of the law was to change the system. As NPR’s Mara Liasson cogently describes the law, it was specifically designed to be a disruptor.

But that “If you like your insurance, you can keep it” line apparently served its purpose. The vast majority of Americans, who had insurance and were reasonably happy with it, tuned out, assuming that the new law had absolutely nothing to do with them. They thought it was only about providing health care to those who did not already have it.

One of the questions we kept hearing when the website bombed so badly was, why on earth didn’t they test it before rolling it out? The obvious answer is that it is being tested—now. A general principle that I remember from my days in the software business was that responsible companies do not use their paying customers as beta testers. But the fact is that insurance consumers in the individual market are now beta testers—not just for the website but for the new healthcare system in general.

Remember, originally the new system was meant to roll out for the entire insurance market on October 1. But, in a move that some argue was illegal since it changed the healthcare law without congressional action, the administration decided to delay the implementation of the new system for people who get their insurance through their employer. If not for that, we would be talking about complaints from across the entire insurance market—not just those in the relatively small individual market.

As I’ve said before, the anecdotal reports of people having their policies canceled or having to pay higher rates are not even the real problem. The real problem is that the new system is virtually designed to raise the costs of medical care and will inevitably be a drain on the government budget—on top of Medicare and Social Security, which are already on trajectories toward insolvency.

The trouble with anecdotes is that they can distort things and do not necessarily reflect the larger truth. But we pay attention to anecdotes because we can relate to people’s individual stories more easily than to reams of statistics.

The individual case that has made the biggest impression on me is that of Daily Beast columnist Kirsten Powers. Her comments may be discounted by Obama’s true believers because one of her jobs is as one of Fox News’s token liberal pundits. But she is a Democrat, a consistent Obama supporter and a veteran of the Clinton Administration, and she has gamely defended Obamacare all along, while conceding that she would have preferred a single-payer system. So it was a bit of a stunner when she went off on a rant about losing her own insurance policy canceled.

“If I want to keep the same health insurance, it’s going to cost twice as much,” she said. “There’s nothing substandard about my plan… All of the things they say that are not in my plan are in my plan, all of the things they have listed. There’s no explanation for the doubling of my premiums other than the fact that it’s subsidizing other people.”

But that was always clear—at least to me. That was always the idea of Obamacare: require everyone to buy insurance, subsidize those in the lower income brackets, and highly regulate the industry to spread out the costs.

Why is everyone acting so surprised?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Money Coming Through a Wormhole

It’s official. The U.S. jobs report for October shows that the government shutdown had virtually no impact on the economy—even though pundits and journalists everywhere were telling us that the economic effects of the shutdown would be severe and long-lasting.

As I said at the beginning of the shutdown, everything the media told us about the potential effects of the shutdown—at least in terms of historical precedent—was pretty much wrong. That’s a slight exaggeration, but not by much.

Yes, it did have temporary bad effects for federal workers, businesses dependent on federal spending and people who needed or wanted to use federal services and facilities. But, as far as the general long-term economy was concerned, it was a ripple, not a tsunami.

Democrats had a vested interest in the shutdown-will-ruin-the-economy storyline because that positioned them to blame Republicans for every problem in the economy for the next year or so. I’m not sure why so many journalists went along with it, though. I guess they are just gullible and too lazy to check to see what happened as a result of previous shutdowns.

Meanwhile, all the fuss over shutdown—as well as the less than glorious launch—pretty much overshadowed the news event in October that could actually have more impact on the economy in the long run. That would be the president’s nomination of Janet Yellen to replace Ben Bernanke as chair of the Federal Reserve.

It’s hard to know in advance whether it will really matter that much if Yellen has the job as opposed to, say, Larry Summers, who was apparently the president’s first choice before the left wing of his party put up resistance. The fact is that Yellen is unquestionably fully qualified and, since the Fed works mainly by consensus, it’s not clear if Fed policy will be that much different as a result of the new chair. But the journalistic shorthand on her is that she is more inclined to easy money than Bernanke or Summers.

Is that true and will it make any difference? Well, Bernanke has been trying to tighten up the money supply for ages but, every time he implies in public that he might actually do that at some future point, the markets throw a hissy fit. So it’s not clear if it’s the Fed controlling the money supply or the markets controlling the Fed.

Why would the left-of-center wing of the Democratic Party be so keen on easy money or, as it’s otherwise known, “quantitative easing” or “bond buying.” Typical of the non-financial media’s attitude toward the growth of the money supply was National Public Radio’s report on the Fed meeting on October 30. In the course of his report, Jim Zarroli explained “bond buying” to listeners as being “aimed at keeping interest rates low and, you know, doing good things for the economy.”

Well, that’s one way to look at it. Quantitative easing seems to appeal to people who think that money and the economy is the same thing. The economy is the collective activity of everybody who lives and works in a society and how that activity contributes to everybody’s comfort and wellbeing. Money, as the old gag line goes, is just the way of keeping score.

A nation’s wealth consists of its population’s productivity, not of the amount of currency issued. The more currency issued in relation to productivity, the less the currency is worth. So why has the Fed been doing just that for years now? Because it takes a while for the real economy to catch up with the extra money printed by the Fed, so that extra money acts temporarily as a kind of stimulus. Think of it as a loan to help the country get through a rough patch. Of course, that rough patch has been going on now since before Barack Obama was elected president.

But if quantitative easing can be thought of as a loan, how does it get paid back? Ideally, it gets paid back by increased future productivity on the part of the population. In other words, it’s kind of like using a time machine to borrow money from your future self. What could better than that? Right? The problem comes, though, when the Fed “borrows” too much from the future and the economy doesn’t expand to absorb the extra money. Then you just have money that is worth less, i.e. inflation. People like me (and every German government) worry a fair amount about inflation. The reason we haven’t seen too much inflation so far, despite an awful lot of money printing, is that the economy has just stayed so darn weak.

So who actually gets the all the new money the Fed keeps printing? As I used to tell my daughter before she got too old and smart, it’s complicated. But in general it largely winds up in the stock market. The extra money comes from the government issuing bonds and then buying them back, which puts the money in the hands of investors. And investors invest. That is why, despite a weak economy, the stock market keeps reaching record highs. The economy has been so weak for so long and investors have gotten so used to easy money that we’re in the perverse situation where good economic news actually sends the markets sliding. That’s because investors are now more afraid of the money spigot being turned off than they are of unemployment or slow business expansion.

Has your irony detector gone off yet? That’s right. The very politicians most anxious to see easy Fed money continuing are the same ones who claim to be extremely concerned about “income inequality.” But the main beneficiaries of the Obama economy and the Fed’s resultant easy money policy are not the unemployed or the working poor. The main beneficiaries are investors and speculators—as long as they are savvy enough to get out of the market before the bubble eventually bursts.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Your Parrot Is Dead

There is a small silver lining to the problems that have plagued the rollout of America’s new healthcare exchanges. It has made me feel somewhat better about the Irish healthcare system.

Granted this silver lining is pretty limited and doesn’t apply to the vast majority of Americans, but it’s something.

As someone who wanted to see the U.S. healthcare system reformed to be more affordable and universal but who saw Obamacare as making the problems worse, I could probably be expected to be saying, I told you so. But I can’t. My problem with the Affordable Care Act was that it nearly seemed deliberately designed to make health care more expensive without necessarily expanding it to that many additional people. It never seriously occurred to me that the federal government, with well over half a billion dollars at its disposal, would be incapable of building a viable web portal.

The whole rollout of seems like a classically wicked Monty Python sketch. The chronic political kibitzing, the vendors with no incentive to be efficient because they bill by the hour and the reflexive CYA among various levels of management all bring back vivid memories of my days in the software industry. This kind of mess is endemic in all kinds of large enterprises without clear and strong management—not just the government. But nowhere is it more pervasive than in the federal government, where no one ever seems to be responsible for anything when things go pear-shaped—the pending resignation of the CIO of CMS notwithstanding.

That doesn’t mean that government cannot do anything competently. I have been annoyed at various people comparing the healthcare exchanges to “the DMV.” Personally, I have no complaints about my acquisitions and renewals of driver’s licenses over many years in the states of California and Washington or even in Ireland. And I have done business for years with all kinds of government websites that have worked perfectly well.

In a strange way, the brouhaha over the website—and even the stories about people having policies canceled—may actually be good news for the Affordable Care Act. As long as people are talking about those things, nobody is talking about the real problems with the law, which will become apparent much more gradually than a botched website launch or anecdotes about policyholders being dropped. Those problems can, and probably will be, fixed. What will be more entrenched is the fact that the new healthcare system will have a lot of inefficiencies and waste built in.

The Affordable Health Care Act is perversely named because, as currently devised, it cannot help but raise the cost of health care. This will probably show up over time in higher premiums for everyone and, the more the government tries to combat this with subsidies and Medicaid coverage, the more the costs will be converted into long queues for care and, ultimately, rationing. Maybe fewer people will show up at emergency rooms because of not having coverage, but more are likely to show up because they don’t want to deal with the hassle of getting in to see a GP or scheduling time in a hospital.

There are some ironies in the way things have played out so far. One is hearing Democrats defend the law by noting that the exchanges in least some of the states are working much better than the federal one. Doesn’t that vindicate failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who said that this kind of system should be run by states and not by the federal government?

Another irony is that Democrats up for reelection next year are reportedly pressuring the administration to agree to delay the individual mandate for a year. Isn’t that the very same offer Republicans made to Democrats to avoid the government shutdown—after their initial demand to defund Obamacare went nowhere? If the individual mandate does get delayed, it will mean in hindsight that Democrats could have avoided the shutdown by admitting to Obamacare’s problems just a bit earlier. Now, for Democrats to get the delay they may well have to deal with Republican demands for other concessions to go along with it.

Things could still turn around on this issue for the Democrats, at least in the short to medium term. If the administration can get its website working reasonably well, the media narrative could go from debacle to turn-around. Stories about low-income people getting subsidies could eclipse those of middle-class people getting saddled with higher premiums—at least for a while.

Barring that, the president’s party will have little choice but to double down on its fallback strategy, i.e. heap as much blame as possible on the insurance companies and on “sabotage” by Republicans who, voters will surely remember, opposed the law unanimously and consistently from the very beginning.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Falling on Their Shield

People are surprised if and when they learn that I have a degree in journalism. In fact, I myself am surprised when I remember that I have one.

It so happens that I received a Master of Arts in journalism way back in the 1970s from Ohio State University’s School of Journalism. My professors there seemed amused that they were spending their retirement years lecturing students. Most of them had been working reporters who had acquired their journalistic skills on the job, not in the classroom. The idea of learning to be a journalist in a school seemed quaint to them.

My graduate adviser was an urbane former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Another of my favorite profs was a burly guy who had covered the rough and tumble of Chicago crime and politics. What they all had in a common was a set of principles that guided their reporting.

Most important of all these principles was to get the facts right. You checked and double-checked everything you were told. The old line was, if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out! Another principle was that journalists should be looking out for the interest of the little guy. The admonition here was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. But that didn’t mean that you carried water for any particular political party. When it came to politics, the working assumption was that all politicians were probably corrupt.

One topic that came up sometimes in my classes was the pros and cons of journalist shield laws. These are laws that are meant to protect reporters from being prosecuted for not revealing the names of confidential information sources. Today most states in the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia, have some form of shield law.

To date, there has never been a federal shield law, but there is currently a draft of one in a Senate committee. I have heard a number of working journalists on TV panels saying that this is something that is really needed. They say that is demonstrated by the Obama Administration’s targeting of The New York Times’s James Risen and Fox News’s similarly named James Rosen for talking to government leakers.

Personally, I think that the Justice Department’s actions in these cases are an outrage, especially in the case of Rosen, who was named in a court affadavitt as an unindicted “aider, abettor and co-conspirator” for merely receiving leaked information. So it would make sense for me to be in favor of a federal shield law, right? Wrong.

I side with my old journalism profs on this one and not with the newer, younger crop of reporters.

My Chicago guy argued forcefully that a shield law did not represent protection for journalists but rather a decrease in journalistic freedom. That is because the First Amendment, as written, is pretty absolute. Freedom of the press is not be interfered with by the federal government. What’s more, it’s a right that applies to all citizens, not just to “journalists.” Or, to put it another way, under the Constitution all citizens are journalists or at least potential journalists.

The fact is that the proposed federal shield law would not have been of any benefit to Risen or Rosen. The former was considered a witness to a crime, a situation that is excepted by the law. Nor would it have prevented Rosen’s (or, for that matter, the Associated Press’s) telephone records from being seized by the Justice Department.

What it would do is allow the government decide who does and does not qualify as a journalist. This would put the U.S. closer to many other countries in the world where you actually have to have a government license to practice journalism. Whatever protections the law offers would be limited to employees of major news organizations and/or those accredited by the government. I think it is safe to say that bloggers and self-publishers of the Thomas Paine variety need not apply.

My old profs strongly believed that press freedom should be fought for on constitutional civil liberty grounds for all citizens—not as government-granted protections to a select few. The end result of a federal shield law would effectively be less freedom of expression for everybody.

I guess the people who currently write for The Los Angeles Times, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Online News Association had different journalism professors than I did.

But then that is patently obvious. This current crop of reporters does not seem to approach government with the same skepticism and wariness that journalists used to have. Many of them are happy to take government announcements at face value and spin the same old timeworn narratives over and over, merely inserting new names and details.

When more and more people first began getting their news and information on the internet, many in the establishment press could be heard moaning about losing their traditional role as “gatekeeper.” This eroding of their privileged position may go a long way to explaining why a two-tier system of free speech appeals to many of them.

Yes, it’s true that there is a lot of misinformation—much of it wildly outlandish and even dangerous—out there in the wild, woolly internet. But at least it’s a place where you can still find some skepticism, curiosity and, occasionally, a bit of old-fashioned digging for facts.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Weak Tea?

I must live in a different universe than most other people.

Maybe that universe is Ireland, but I don’t think so. I seem to live in a different universe than most Irish people as well as most American people.

For example, I have been listening for many days to pundits, commentators and regular journalists proclaiming that the recently ended U.S. government shutdown was a huge victory for Democrats and an unmitigated disaster for Republicans—or at least that Republicans were hurt a lot more than Democrats. Democratic operatives I have heard on my various podcasts are wishing that the midterm congressional elections could be held this year instead of next year because of the anticipated wave for the president’s party.

Maybe Republicans will pay a price for what went on, but that’s not what happened after the last government shutdown—even though the Republicans back then, as now, were declared the overwhelming bearers of blame.

If the government giving itself authority to borrow enough additional money to keep running for a few more weeks is a huge victory for the president and his party, so be it.

But this is how I see things. If you judge the so-called Tea Party by how well it did at achieving its stated goals over the past few weeks, it failed miserably. But if you judge it against what probably would have happened if it had simply stayed quiet and gone along with business as usual, it actually did pretty well at its objectives.

Journalists all over the major networks, CNN and NPR have been saying that the Republicans made a major miscalculation because if the government had not shut down, those news organizations insist, they would have been giving full-bore coverage of the botched rollout.


The fact is that Democrats are pretty darn good at driving the media narrative and, absent the shutdown, it’s certain they would have been spinning their own issues leading up to and after the passage of the continuing resolution. They would have been everywhere talking about how much pain the sequester is inflicting. The Democrats would have focused all their energy on building momentum for removing the sequester, and the media coverage would likely have reflected that. But that story never materialized because, frankly, the Dems were licking their chops at the prospect of a government shutdown because they knew it would reflect badly on Republicans.

In fact, the Democrats nearly overplayed their hand. When polls inevitably showed that, as expected, Republicans were getting blamed more for the shutdown, at that point the Democrats did try to press their advantage and propose rolling back the sequester, but by then it was too late. They were then in the position of running the risk that it would look like they were now the ones keeping the government shut down. And Republicans were ready with a quick rejoinder to the last-minute assault on the sequester. “It’s the law of the land!” they chided.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe if the government hadn’t shut down, everyone would have been talking for the past three weeks about what a disaster Obamacare is and how smart the Republicans were to oppose it. But I don’t think so. Even if I am wrong, it probably won’t matter in the long run anyway.

After all, if the new healthcare system works out its kinks and turns into a smashing success, people won’t remember or care that it got off to a rocky start. On the other hand, if Obamacare turns out to be the albatross around Democrats’ necks that Republicans expect it to be a year from now, the fact that poll responders didn’t much like Republican methods a year earlier will not matter very much. They’ll just remember which party was against the discredited system all along.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Zombies and Slashers

Back when I was a supervisor and middle manager in a U.S. corporation, one of the most frustrating things I had to do on a regular basis was employee performance reviews.

It wasn’t just a matter of giving employees feedback on how they were doing at their jobs. Managers were required to list everyone in a ranking of strongest performers to the weakest. Basically, the exercise was: if, over time. you had to let everyone on the team go, in what order would you do it?

Not surprisingly, the fellow who invariably wound up at the bottom of the ranking did not think this was a good system. He had a different idea. The team should be rated as a whole, he said. Everyone should get the same ratings, pay increases and bonuses, based on how well the entire team was doing overall.

Yes, there was something soul-destroying about the ranking system, but that guy’s ideal system wasn’t really fair either. He would have deprived people who did really beyond-the-call-of-duty work the extra recognition and reward they had earned. And he would have rewarded people, like himself, who were basically coasting.

It will be no consolation to him that, when it comes to the U.S. federal government, his ideal system is largely in effect. I don’t mean for individual employees. The civil service has its own structure for deciding who gets promotions, raises, bonuses and all of that stuff. I am referring to the government programs get evaluated—or do not—for increased spending and continued existence.

This was highlighted recently by a not particularly popular tactic of congressional Republicans, which was essentially a round-about attempt at de facto ranking of government programs. After the government—specifically, the 17 percent actually affected by the failure of Congress to pass a continuing resolution by the beginning of October—went into shutdown, House Republicans began passing piecemeal resolutions to fund popular parts of the government, including everything from parks to veterans to children with cancer and even letting the District of Columbia spend its own tax revenues. That Democrats did not take the bait was no surprise.

But imagine if, for some reason, they had. Every agency or department or program with a constituency would have been agitating to get its funding back, and most of them would have. And, it is also true, some would not have.

This is how the government used to get funded—one item at a time. But then the government got so large and complex that it wasn’t feasible for legislators to look at every single item individually, so staffers did the prep work and it was up to lawmakers to look through it all and make changes. The growing complexity of the federal budget meant that, in practice, the budget was largely the same from term to term, with adjustments for inflation—and the occasional addition of some new program or agency.

When Barrack Obama became president the budget process evolved again. During the president’s first term the Senate never even passed a budget—even though it was required to do so by law. It did pass one this year, but it was so different from the one passed by the House of Representatives that the two houses never even bothered to try to reconcile them—which, not that long ago, used to be the normal process of arriving at a budget.

Instead, under Obama the budget has truly been on automatic pilot, with Congress simply passing budget resolutions to extend the previous budget with inflation adjustments. That drove fiscal hawks crazy—not least because the spending baseline was inflated by the stimulus packages passed at the end of the Bush Administration and at the beginning of the Obama Administration. In other words, Congress doesn’t even debate the value of individual programs anymore or whether any of them should receive more or less funding or be eliminated entirely. Programs just continue on, kind of like zombies, but with larger amounts of funds arriving automatically.

In other words, we have arrived at a system where programs within the government are rated exactly the same way my old coasting team member wanted to be rated within his team.

So, for all you pundits gnashing your teeth and demanding, rhetorically, to know how we got to the point where every budget resolution becomes an existential crisis with the threat of the country’s good credit hanging in the balance, this is your answer. A certain number of members of Congress come from districts that elected them to shrink the size of government, and they never get the chance to debate or vote on individual programs. Is it any surprise that the most passionate ones seize the one chance they get to make their point—which also happens to be the point that brings everything to a halt and to the edge of default?

The president has been happy enough with the current autopilot arrangement, but he eventually made a miscalculation. After he got one tax increase out Republicans following his reelection, he wanted another one. An impasse was arrived at, so the White House came up with the idea of the sequester as a “compromise.” The reckoning was that when push came to shove Republicans, although happy with the sequester’s spending cuts, would balk at its slashing of defense spending and would have no choice but to accept more tax increases. A similar bait-and-switch tactic had worked before with the administration’s handling of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson plan for correcting the government’s drift toward eventual insolvency.

But Republicans surprised everyone—perhaps including themselves—by deciding to live with the sequester. No one is really happy with the sequester. Across-the-board spending cuts do not make any more sense than across-the-board spending increases. But for all the gnashing of teeth over those cuts and the problems they have caused, it seems pretty clear that they have contributed somewhat to a modestly improving economy.

There are smarter ways than zombie spending increases and mindless budget slashing to make the government more efficient and to put the economy back on a more sustainable course. That would involve entitlement reform and tax reform—two things to which the president has repeatedly paid lip service since he was first elected nearly five years ago but in which he has never shown any real interest.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Grass Is Always Greener

There is always a segment of America that looks longingly at Europe and wonders why the U.S. cannot get its act together like the Europeans do. I know about this firsthand because I was—and sometimes still am—such an American.

When I came home in 1974 from my year of study in France, I was enthused about the parliamentary system and the wide array of European political parties that represented every shade of political thought and ideology. In contrast, the U.S seemed to be held back by a joint monopoly of two political parties, which were clearly too large and diverse to stand for any clear ideology (back then at least).

Years of living in Europe, however, have since tempered my admiration for its political systems. But I still wonder occasionally how the U.S. might be different under a parliamentary system. So my ears perked up on Saturday when that very question was posed on National Public Radio. “Would The U.S. Be Better Off With A Parliament?” was the title of a report by Ari Shapiro on Weekend Edition. Strangely, though, the piece never actually addressed its titular question.

The piece began with this odd assertion: “[T]he extreme paralysis that has recently become the norm in D.C. almost never happens in Western European democracies.” Huh? Has NPR never heard of Italy? I guess they figured the word “almost” covered that.

What the report was really about was a Harvard task force study of how agreements are negotiated in American politics. One of the working assumptions was apparently that there is less paralysis in European democracies. The conclusions are basically “U.S. Constitution 101.” America has a system of separation of powers, and that makes it harder to pass laws. The task force seems to have regarded this as an inadvertent flaw rather than a deliberate design.

Noting that, in a parliamentary system, the head of government is elected by the parliament and not directly by the people. Shapiro explained helpfully, “It would be as if the American president’s party always controlled Congress.”

Uh, no, Ari, it would be as if the House of Representatives elected the president. In a parliamentary system, the parliament is elected first, district by district, and then that body elects the prime minister. If the U.S. had suddenly switched to a parliamentary system before the 2012 elections, the president today would be John Boehner.

It’s an interesting thought process that would lead someone—it’s not clear whether it was Shapiro or the task force—to conclude that, under a parliamentary system, Democrats would have won a majority of districts in the country as a whole when they didn’t do so under the current system.

But then American politics can be confusing. Why did the same nationwide group of voters elect a Democratic president at the same time as electing a substantial majority of Republican members of Congress? Democratic partisans like to say that gerrymandering skews the district-by-district results, but that alone cannot explain the size of the Republican congressional majority.

The fact is that, at least currently, Democrats do much better in national elections than they do in the aggregate of local elections. So it is hard to argue that they would somehow control the whole government under a parliamentary system.

But, as I mentioned, Shapiro’s report barely discusses the idea of how a parliamentary system would change things in America. It quickly segues to the notion that America would be better off with European-style campaign finance restrictions. The suggestion is that deadlock in the U.S. is a byproduct of too much political spending. And I suppose it’s true that the kind of government controls on political spending in countries like France and the UK do help to avoid deadlock. That’s because, under such a system, the party in power gains a huge advantage.

But the party in power has a huge advantage anyway. That’s because a party with a majority in parliament can pass any law on its own, only needing rubber stamps from the upper house and/or the president or monarch.

In Ireland, even the ineffectual role of the Seanad (Senate) was a bit bothersome for the Taoiseach (Prime Minster) Enda Kenny, as he recently held a referendum to abolish it. Unexpectedly, Irish voters decided to keep their upper house—even though its main role is to give would-be, has-been and never-were politicians a forum for spouting off about all kinds of nonsense. A highlight this past summer was when independent Senator David Norris derided in an over-the-top tirade a Fine Gael senator, who supported abolition of the Seanad, as “talking through her fanny.”

The fact is, when American academics and journalists talk admiringly of how much better things are done in Europe, their gaze across the Atlantic is pretty darn selective. What you do not hear touted on NPR as being better than in America, for example, are things like this. The strongest economy in Europe is in Germany. Right now it is Germany all by itself keeping the rest of Europe afloat economically.

Germany is where right-of-center Chancellor Angela Merkel was recently re-elected handily. One of the main proposals coming from her losing opponent was the institution of a federal minimum wage. Germany has never had one.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Tyrants, Major and Petty

I am nowhere near the point of packing a survival kit and a gun (if I had one) and high-tailing it for the back country. But I do have a healthy nervousness about the size and power of government.

That is not the same thing as having something against people who happen to be employed by the government. The fact is that governments provide many services that are necessary or desirable for our quality of life. And I also understand that many government employees are dedicated professionals who do their best and not always under easy conditions. And in the case of those on the front lines, like police and firefighters, some actually expected to put their lives at risk to protect others.

But I have to admit to a certain amount of nervousness about all the information collected by agencies like the NSA and about abuses of power by the Internal Revenue Service. And, yes, I’m a bit nervous about the centralized government-run information system being built with the aim of accumulating medical information on every person in the country.

This nervousness isn’t born of small things like the inconvenience of waiting in a long queue at the driver’s license office or from the headaches involved in filing a tax return. It comes from reading things like history books and the writings of Franz Kafka. It also comes partly from dealing with bureaucrats and authorities in the various countries where I’ve lived over the years and from hearing the horror stories from others in those countries.

Free and democratic elections and an unfettered and skeptical press are indispensable for keeping a government’s powers in check. I’ve only lived in one place where the government’s power was not held in check. That was in Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s.

As a foreign student who was sponsored by a well-established international organization and who was intent on having no political involvement, I did not feel particularly at risk while there. In fact, as I’ve written before, because of the strict regime of military law and order I actually felt personally safer there than in other countries. But in minor ways I did experience the effects of a government that was unchecked.

I was reminded of this recently when I happened to read of the suicide of General Odlanier Mena. During the year I lived in Chile, he took over the benignly named National Information Center (CNI). This replaced the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), which had been established by Pinochet in 1974. The change had to do partly with the fact that, in the years immediately following the military coup that ousted Salvador Allende, the DINA had acquired a sinister reputation. Not only did it gather and keep information on citizens but it also had a paramilitary wing and secret police force that were associated with disappearances and torture. The CNI, if anything, wielded even more power than the DINA since it also had significant judicial powers.

General Mena ran the CNI from 1977 to 1980. Five years ago his retirement was interrupted when he was tried and convicted because of his role in the killing of three leftists shortly after the coup in 1973 while he was commander of an army regiment in Arica, near the Bolivian border.

The general had been serving his sentence at the Cordillera Detention Center in Santiago, a facility where inmates received preferential treatment. According to The New York Times, Cordillera’s ten inmates—which included Mena’s predecessor, Manuel Contreras Sepúlveda, and other DINA and CNI commanders—lived “in five cabins—each with a private bathroom—on grounds that include a tennis court.” The English-language Santiago Times described Cordillera as “luxurious.”

Mena had recently learned that he would be transferred to a less plush prison because of a decision by President Sebastián Piñera to close the Cordillera facility. During a weekend leave at his home, the 87-year-old prisoner shot himself in the head with his own gun, which was registered to him as “a collector’s item.”

I am sure there are many who feel that Mena and his colleagues got off way too easy. But, beyond the fact that they were eventually convicted of committing murders, there also seems to be at least some kind of cosmic justice in the fact that these men in charge of making other people’s lives hell have been spending the end of their lives as the unwilling guests of government functionaries.

Personally, I had only one brush with the CNI. It came at the end of my year in Chile. To leave the country I had to acquire an exit visa. That required an interview with the CNI. Mostly, they wanted to make sure that I didn’t owe any unpaid taxes, but there really wasn’t a limit on whatever else they wanted to delve into. As I nervously sat down for my interview, four framed photographs of the members of the military junta looked down at me from behind my interrogator.

It turned out there was a hitch, as I have previously written. Weeks earlier a border official had refused to stamp my passport when I had entered Chile from Argentina. For a couple of uncomfortable days, it looked as though I might wind up a prisoner of some kind of bureaucratic nightmare.

When it was finally sorted out, I had a good laugh over how silly the government was with all its rules and its slavish attention to forms and stamps and having all the right signatures. I could afford to laugh because, after all, I was never really in any danger of being locked up with no hope of release. There were plenty of others who were not so lucky.

Still, the experience was nerve-wracking enough that I have never since lost my sense of foreboding when it comes to the power of bureaucrats sitting behind desks who do not answer to anybody other than a chain of command that is unbothered by democratic institutions.

Even when they ostensibly answer to an elected government, bureaucrats can still wield their bit of arbitrary power over you when you are in the uncomfortable position of needing them to use their stamp or signing pen.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Goes Around

Well, it’s the 1990s again.

How do I know it’s the 1990s again? Well, for one thing, the U.S. government has shut down. The last time that happened was during the Clinton Administration.

President Obama has been warning us how bad this will be for the economy. After all, after the last government shutdown, which began in December 1995, there was long-term devastation for the American economy. Remember? Oh, wait. Actually Bill Clinton’s second term saw what were arguably the best economic conditions in living memory. Of course, that wasn’t because of the shutdown. It was because of a number of government reforms that Clinton negotiated and implemented with Republicans after he was reelected.

Yeah, but Republicans will get the blame for this shutdown and be punished in next year’s midterm elections, right? Maybe. After all, Clinton did win reelection handily less than a year after the last shutdown. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that amiable, unexciting, middle-of-the-road Bob Dole would have done much better in that election even if the shutdown hadn’t happened.

In any event, the presidency isn’t on the ballot in the next election, which usually gives the opposition an advantage. And, if we look at the 1996 congressional election, we see that Republicans—although they did lose a few seats in the House of Representatives—controlled both houses before and after that post-shutdown election.

So basically everything the experts in the media keep telling us about what the shutdown means is wrong—at least historically. Even the bit about how federal employees will never get paid for the days of work they will miss. The fact is that, after every previous shutdown, Congress has voted to reimburse out-of-pocket employees for their time off.

Still, this makes the Republicans look really bad, right? Yes, at least in terms of mainstream press coverage. But this whole fight does help energize their base, just as it also energizes the Democrats’ base. But in one key way, this whole train wreck represents something of a triumph for the GOP. All anyone is talking about is Obamacare and whether it will be funded or delayed or how long the Washington Monument will be closed. What seems to be missed in the coverage is that the House continuing resolution (real actual budgets went the way of the passenger pigeon since Obama was first elected) keeps the sequester on spending in place. That actually seems to be the endgame for any final resolution.

How else are these days like the 1990s? Well, the U.S. government is dealing with weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Unlike Barack Obama, President Clinton seemed to have no reluctance in using military force in that part of the world. Among other incursions, he launched missiles into Iraq in 1993 (in retaliation for the attempted assassination of former President George H.W. Bush) and in 1996 (after Saddam Hussein attacked Iraqi Kurdistan). Two years later he signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 establishing regime change as the official policy of the United States.

During this period U.N. weapons inspectors were in and out of Iraq, generally with inconclusive results. U.N. sanctions imposed economic hardship on the country and, to alleviate this, an Oil-for-Food Program was established to allow Iraq to buy food and medicine. This turned out to be rife with corruption, bribery and payoffs, and in the end was of little benefit to the ordinary Iraqi.

To those of us who see modern history unspooling in repeated cycles, it looks as though we are getting back to those days. In what are being portrayed as diplomatic breakthroughs, chemical weapons inspectors have moved into Syria and the Obama Administration is exploring the possibility of talks with Iran about its nuclear program.

Does President Obama understand that negotiations and inspections are sometimes a way of delaying, or maybe even avoiding, action?

I think he most certainly does. After all, I just heard him say that he would be more than happy to negotiate with House Republicans—after they have passed the continuing resolution that he wants.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

National Interest or Disinterest?

Last week I surveyed the various ways that people seemed to be looking at recent events relating to Syria, but I left out one significant group.

That would be the pacifists. But frankly, I’m not sure the pacifist view really registers in all this. When I speak of pacifists, I am referring to people who, on principle, oppose any military action short of defending the United States’ own sovereign territory during an actual invasion—and even then a small number would oppose fighting even in that circumstance.

These people could conceivably also be referred to as non-interventionists, but that term is a bit too slippery for my taste. Many politicians’ opposition to intervention in other countries seems to be situational, i.e. their principles can shift, depending on whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House. True pacifists are consistent, no matter which political leader is pushing for military involvement abroad. In other words, they are driven by principle rather than bald partisanship.

Logically, pacifists would belong on my list of people who are happy with the agreement reached by the U.S. and Russia aiming to relieve Syria’s Assad regime of its chemical weapons. That would be because military action by the U.S. was avoided—if it was ever a serious possibility in the first place. Of course, no one could be happy about the violence and death that continues unabated in Syria, but the pacifist’s view is that the answer to violence is not more violence. Therefore, even though it is terribly regrettable that people continue to die in the Syrian civil war, there is absolutely nothing to be done about it—at least from the pacifist’s point of view.

I am not a pacifist myself, but I am familiar with the pacifist mindset. My mother’s people were Mennonites. They spent centuries migrating from one country to another, in large part to avoid becoming forcibly entangled in other people’s wars. When she came of age, my mother did not stay in her church, and her parents had no trouble welcoming her non-Mennonite husband into the family. The fact that she was nearly the youngest in the family probably had a lot to do with that. Her oldest siblings had actually been excommunicated for marrying non-Mennonites. In hindsight, though, it is amazing that my father was so warmly welcomed by religiously pacifist in-laws when, almost immediately after the marriage, he went off to war in North Africa and Europe.

It is indisputable that, if everyone in the world were a pacifist, it would definitely be a very peaceful world. And it is hard to argue with the proposition that, even if the world is largely full of non-pacifists, it is still harder to have a fight between two people when one of them refuses to take part.

The problem with pacifism is that, if you take it to its logical extreme, you have to be willing to be conquered by whoever wants to take over your country by force. During the early days of the Cold War, some self-described pacifists in America adopted the slogan “better red than dead,” meaning they would rather live under a Communist regime than have to fight invading Soviets.

Some quasi-pacifists would make an exception for situations where a foreign army is actually marching across the border into one’s country. Unfortunately, in the age of nuclear weapons, intercontinental missiles and the 20th century phenomenon of Finland-ization, waiting until invading ground troops actually arrive could be leaving things a bit late if you want to maintain sovereignty.

The ultimate problem with pacifism is best illustrated by the Hitler problem. How does it serve the interest of peace to stand by and watch as six million people are put to death in the name of ethnic purity? That might be exactly the right thing to do according to some people’s religious faith, but if too many people share that philosophy then it’s only a matter of time until you get your own turn in the gas ovens. In that kind of world, evil people and their most loyal enablers are the only ones who survive.

But once you accept the idea that, yes, there are situations in which good people must go to war to fight people who are not attacking one’s own country directly, then it becomes difficult to know when it is right to intervene abroad and when not to. Some people favor intervention on humanitarian grounds, but that position is usually not very popular.

Others feel the need to have a citable “national interest” in the fight, which is the rationale President Obama used when arguing for the military strike against Syria that never materialized. But the U.S. national interest that the president cited only applied to chemical weapons—not to the use of other very lethal weapons and not to the continuance of Bashar al-Assad in power.

“National interest” can be a rather slippery idea when it comes to acting abroad. As we see, it can involve something that might happen sometime well down the road. The geo-strategists that I mentioned last time sometimes argue that the mere fact that non-intervention might put the country at a strategic disadvantage is reason enough to get involved. As was noted in Foreign Policy magazine’s blog The Cable, just three days after the U.S. and Russia announced the agreement to end Syria’s chemical weapons program, the Russian military effected a de facto annexation of Georgian territory for the benefit of the separatist region of pro-Moscow South Ossetia.

That Russia would do this did not really surprise anybody. Vladimir Putin has been obvious about his intentions to expand his country’s influence and control in any direction he can. What did surprise observers, though, was the fact that U.S.—unlike the European Union and NATO—made no protest or comment about this military intrusion into a country that is friendly to America and the West. A request from The Cable for comment on the incursion was ignored by the State Department.

The reason is clear. The Obama Administration now depends on the Russians for any diplomatic progress on the Syrian question and so does not want to anger them. From the Russians’ point of view, this may have been only the first of a number a moves they had been eying on the geopolitical chessboard in the wake of their successful Middle Eastern gambit.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Syrian Glass Half-full?

President Obama deserves credit for speaking forcefully and compassionately about the plight of innocent victims of chemical weapons in his remarks on television last week. He highlighted awareness of and gave urgency to a terrible situation, as only the leader of the Free World can.

And his administration deserves credit for the agreement it reached with Russia to have Syria relinquish its chemical weapons.

So, this is a good thing, right? The short answer to that question is, yes, it is a good thing. So why are so many reacting like it is a bad thing or a potentially bad thing?

A lot of that has to do with how things got to this point. Nobody seems very impressed with the administration’s handling of the Syrian situation—from drawing a red line to threatening military action to requesting congressional authorization to requesting congressional inaction. Fortune’s Nina Easton put it nicely on one of those TV pundit panels when she said that, when it comes to conducting foreign policy, President Obama seems to do his thinking out loud. An even more amusing quote came from Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. When asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about former President Jimmy Carter’s opposition to Obama’s then-plan to attack Syria, she responded, “I think President Carter speaks from experience about diminished stature in an international crisis.”

But in the end, what does it matter how slick the process looked or who comes out of it up or down politically as long as the result is good? Right?

The answer depends on how you’re looking at things. Everybody is coming at this from different perspectives, and that colors whether they see the glass half empty, half full or less than half full. Here is my own personal shorthand for dividing up the various reactions. Note that I am dealing here only with people motivated by sincere beliefs, not pure partisans who take a position solely because it helps or hurts President Obama.

These are the people who are happy with the way things have worked out for Syria in the past couple of weeks:

  • Realpolitickers: This is my term for those who subscribe to Realpolitik, the German word that came into vogue during the Cold War. Its guiding tenets are realism and pragmatism. Realpolitickers prize stability over everything else. A dictator who keeps the peace is always preferable to a messy rebellion with hard-to-foresee consequences. These were the people who were horrified when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and thought he was silly for calling on Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. The current US/Russia agreement validates Bashar al-Assad and negates Obama’s earlier call for regime change and that means some sort of stability—or at least as much as you can have in the middle of a civil war.

  • Ideological Relativists: This is my own term for those who don’t see any particular virtue in one political system over another and who feel that the West has no right to impose its values on other cultures. There is actually a lot of overlap between these people and the Realpolitickers—maybe so much that they could even be considered virtually a single group.

  • Putin, Assad and Iran: Putin is happy because he has come off as a real player globally and he has gotten the U.S. to validate the legitimacy of his client, arms customer and host for his only Mediterranean military base. Heck, he might even win his own Nobel Peace Prize. Assad is happy because this means no support from the U.S. for the people trying to overthrow him. Iran is happy because Assad is one of the Persians’ few friends among Arab nations and this provides a template for avoiding U.S. military action against Iran.

    These are the people who would be unhappy about recent developments over Syria:

  • Idealists: This is my catch-all term for neoconservatives and Wilsonians (if there are any left in the Democratic Party) who have insisted for two and a half years that the rebels in Syria—or at least a significant portion of them—are amenable to friendly relations with the West and could provide more freedom for the Syrian people if they came to power. To believe this, of course, requires a leap of faith that hope can triumph over experience. The fact is, barring an astounding turn of events, we will probably never know in our lifetimes whether Syria could have successfully had a more liberal form of government.

  • Geo-strategists: These are the people who see the world as one big chess board. They are always looking two or three moves ahead and weighing whose national interests and enhanced or diminished by every event. Geo-strategists in the West would be unhappy generally for the same reasons that Putin is happy. They see an American foreign policy that has seen one pro-America dictator (Egypt’s Mubarak) tossed to the wolves while a pro-Russia dictator (Assad) has been cemented in place. They see the U.S.’s influence in the Middle East diminished and Russia’s enhanced. And they see America’s hand with Iran weakened.

  • Cynics: These are people who have long memories and who do not get very excited about any so-called diplomatic breakthrough. They look at the agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons and remember the various agreements over the years that dealt with Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons and the cat-and-mouse games that plagued the Clinton Administration so much that Clinton made regime change the official U.S. policy for Iraq. They remember the various agreements over North Korea’s nuclear development and how those always turned into the U.S. giving food or other aid to Pyongyang only to have the North Koreans commit further provocations—and then provide nuclear technology to Syria (which the Israelis then blew up). Cynics note with a jaundiced eye that the guarantor of Syria’s divestiture of chemical weapons is the same country that is its main arms supplier. They further note that there is no enforcement mechanism in the agreement other than the U.N. Security Council, where Russia has a veto.

  • The Syrian rebels: These are the big losers. A couple of years ago, it was a given that they would topple Assad, just like the other dictators who fell victim to the Arab Spring. Now nobody gives them a chance. Over the weekend Assad was back to relentlessly bombarding the Damascus suburbs—with absolutely no comment or rebuke from the West. That was because he was using conventional—not chemical—weapons.
  • Wednesday, September 11, 2013

    Four Decades On

    Forty years ago today the Chilean military forces violently and bloodily overthrew the duly elected government of Chile. The date September 11 became associated with conflict and tragedy in that country well before the atrocity of 2001 in the U.S.

    In Sunday’s New York Times the writer Ariel Dorfman, who was an adviser to the doomed president Salvador Allende, has provided a moving account of that day. Dorfman is probably best known for his play Death and the Maiden, which was made into a movie in 1994 by Roman Polanski.

    Particularly touching is Dorfman’s palpable sense of survivor guilt. On the night of September 10, he would have been sleeping in the presidential palace, La Moneda, if he had not traded shifts with his friend Claudio Jimeno so that Dorfman could bring his young son to visit La Moneda the previous day. The reason these men were taking turns sleeping in the palace was to provide an early warning in case the military moved against the government.

    So it was Jimeno, and not Dorfman, who was in La Moneda to receive the call that warned of the impending coup and to alert the president. For years it was not clear if Allende had been killed by the military or if he had committed suicide, but eventually his family conceded that he did indeed take his own life. Jimeno was taken prisoner and was presumed to have been killed. His body has never been found.

    When the coup happened, I was studying in France. One of my majors was in Spanish and so I may have known a bit more about Chile than the average North American because of my studies of Latin American literature. Still, it all seemed very far away, and military coups in South America did not seem that rare. What I did not yet appreciate is that they were indeed rare in Chile, which had a long history of democratic government. The last thing that entered my mind was the fact that, within four years, I would be living and studying there. But this indeed came to pass, as I have written before.

    For many people, the story of Chile’s golpe de estado is a simple tale of evil triumphing temporarily over good. As is usually the case in life, though, the story is a bit more complicated. In February, when the Oscar-nominated film No was released in Britain, I heard its star Gael García Bernal interviewed on BBC radio. The movie recounts the 1988 referendum which marked the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s regime, and it was interesting to hear the Mexican actor’s take on those events. García Bernal, who was born five years after the 1973 coup and who was not yet ten years old when the referendum was held, pretty much offered the standard narrative, i.e. that Pinochet had every intention of remaining in power forever but was driven from office when the people rose up and voted in a referendum that he inexplicably decided to hold.

    The fact is that Pinochet had laid out the timetable for a return to democracy very early in his regime. It is true that he tried to prolong his time as president by giving the country the option to retain him in office. And it is also apparently true that, when he saw how things were going, he explored ways to avoid being bound by the referendum. But in the end, he abided by the process he himself had instituted and respected the will of the people.

    The other thing that complicates the narrative of Allende’s admirers is the fact that Chile’s economy, which became a basket case under Allende, positively boomed after several years of strict monetarist management by Pinochet. Dorfman asserts that the economy under the junta “led to a scandalous disparity in income distribution.” This is the trope always hauled out by the left. When an economy is bad, the problem is poverty. When an economy is growing and the overall standard of living is rising, then the problem is income or wealth “inequality.” It may be true that, in a thriving economy, the wealthy do better by all measures than the poor. But apparently, the left would prefer to see the poor even poorer so that the wealthy will be somewhat less wealthy.

    The left-of-center parties that governed Chile from 2000 to 2010 have done their best to take credit for Chile’s continued economic success, and they do in fact deserve credit to the extent that they were smart enough not to tamper too much with what they inherited. It seems likely that the Socialist Party’s Michelle Bachelet will be returned to the presidency in the November election to succeed the conservative Sebastián Piñera. Countries are always better off when economic competence wins over stubborn ideology.

    Something that clearly bothers Dorfman is the idea, expressed in some news organs like Investor’s Business Daily, that Pinochet’s policies should be seen as a model for the military in Egypt. Given how many people were tortured and killed under Pinochet, it is not a happy comparison and certainly not a sensitive one. But IBD was focusing on how Chile’s junta eventually let democracy resume, not on its bloody beginning.

    It echoes a piece written around the same time by Spectator magazine editor Fraser Nelson in the London Telegraph arguing that the only way a country is going to have political freedom, especially when it has not had it before, is for that country to give its citizens economic freedom. As Nelson notes, the so-called Arab Spring was set off not by people demanding democracy but by the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor who could not make a living because a corrupt government kept taking everything he had.

    Nelson is absolutely right. It is no coincidence that the countries that are the most free politically are also the ones that have classically liberal economies. In Chile in 1988, it wasn’t a slick advertising campaign or the power of the mob or the determination of political organizers that sent the generals back to their barracks. It was a thriving and free economy.

    Tuesday, September 3, 2013

    Comedy and Tragedy

    When we were in County Kerry a few weeks ago, I noticed signs along the road touting the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival.

    Inaugurated two years ago, this is an event I keep meaning to attend. It is held in the town of Waterville, a place where Chaplin and his family spent their holidays over many years. He eventually had to abandon it during the Troubles when, as a prominent Englishman, he no longer felt safe in Ireland. There is a statue of him in the town that prominently celebrates his connection to Waterville.

    Three years in a row now I have missed the Chaplin festival. Other plans, duties and commitments always seem to get in the way, and I think of myself as too adult and responsible to bail on prior commitments.

    So imagine how foolish I felt when I learned that the recently appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, managed to make it to the festival—even while the Security Council was having an emergency meeting on chemical gas attacks in Syria.

    Power, who was born in Dublin and lived in Ireland until the age of 9, has a connection to Waterville. She has been a regular visitor for years along with her husband, legal scholar and sometime Obama adviser Cass Sunstein. In fact, the couple were married there. Sunstein was an invited speaker at this year’s Chaplin festival, and their visit had been long planned.

    Those holiday plans made for some amusing comedy of another sort when Fox News decided to find out why a mere assistant was attending the emergency U.N. meeting in Power’s place. With the reflexive stonewalling that has become a trademark of Obama Administration spokespersons, nobody would give out any information—making the reporters even more determined to find out where she was. Eventually, it was learned that she was in, of all places, on the scenic Ring of Kerry.

    Of course, this was all a pretty minor tempest in a teacup. With modern technology, people like Power are never really away from their jobs and, presumably, her assistant is a competent person. Besides, it’s not as though a meeting at the United Nations was really going to make a lot of difference to what was happening on the ground in Syria anyway.

    But the kerfuffle provided an irresistible metaphor to those who feel that, when it comes to foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular, the Obama Administration is just phoning it in.

    But the administration isn’t just phoning it in anymore. Syria is front and center in news headlines in the U.S. and around the world. After two and half years of a civil war that has seen atrocities committed by more than one side—but the most horrific by the Assad regime—the U.S. government is giving every indication that it is going to react militarily—one of these days.

    If the footage of victims of chemical weapons and other forms of violence were not so sickening, the ironies of the situation would actually be humorous. We have President Obama, who rose to power in large part on his consistent opposition to the U.S.’s involvement in Iraq, scrambling for backing of some kind military operation against Syria. Even more striking is Secretary of State John Kerry, who rose to prominence as a young soldier admonishing old men for sending young men off to an ill-advised war and is now an old man himself forcefully arguing that today’s young men should now get involved in a far-off land. This is the same John Kerry who voted against sending troops to liberate Kuwait back in 1991.

    Syria is different than Iraq, we are told. The difference is that, by all accounts, this military action will be so brief and risk-free that it will not actually make any difference. But reports from the BBC today suggest that Republicans, whom Obama will need if he is to have the congressional backing he now wants, are insisting that any action has to be substantial. Senators McCain and Graham want it to be strong enough to shift the war in the rebels’ favor.

    A lifelong Republican and a war veteran, my father always liked to point out that, in modern history, America’s involvement in foreign wars was almost always initiated by Democratic administrations: World War I (Woodrow Wilson), World War II (Franklin Roosevelt), Korea (Harry Truman), Vietnam (JFK/LBJ), Kosovo (Bill Clinton). The 20th century exceptions would be Grenada (Ronald Reagan) and the Gulf War (Bush 41)—both fairly brief affairs. In the 21st century, on the other hand, two rather long wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) were initiated by a Republican administration (Bush 43), which my father did not live to see.

    Dad had an explanation for why, during his lifetime, Democrats were invariably in charge when these foreign wars began—despite the fact that Republicans had the reputation of being the more hawkish party. His explanation was that the more an adversary believes an administration has no stomach for war, the more likely that adversary will miscalculate in its provocations. The paradox, in Dad’s view, was that the best way to avoid a war was to always be ready to go to war.

    If there was anything obvious about Obama as a candidate or as president, it was that he wanted to end the wars Bush had started and to avoid any other wars. And now here he is sort of trying to get the country in the mood for war.

    Maybe there is a method to President Obama’s apparent madness in dealing with Syria, i.e. the switching of gears, changes in plans, broadcasting of intentions and of self-limits, the delay in waiting for seeking symbolic congressional approval after legislators come back from recess. Maybe it will all end well. My personal guess is that the president simply hopes to delay military action so long that, assuming Assad avoids any obvious further use of chemical weapons, Obama can declare a moral victory without actually doing anything. But that almost certainly won’t work because, as Middle East dictators are wont to do, Assad will be loudly declaring that it was he who triumphed by staring down the Americans. And, as the pundits tell us, this will only embolden the nuclear weapon developers in Iran.

    There seems to be no way for a U.S. president to get it right. George W. Bush was eventually vilified for invading Iraq. The web site Iraq Body Count puts the civilian casualty toll since the beginning of that war ten years ago at a minimum of 114,396. (I can find no estimates of how many would have otherwise died under the repressive and sometimes bellicose Saddam Hussein regime or indirectly because of United Nations sanctions.) The lesson learned in the U.S. was to not intervene militarily in the Middle East. And so the U.S. has stayed out of the war in Syria.

    But consider this. The United Nations estimates that, in just two and a half years of the Syrian civil war, more than 100,000 have already died.

    Wednesday, August 28, 2013

    Making Progress?

    Three weeks ago I made the observation that in the 1980s, when conservatives succeeded to a large extent in making the word “liberal” a pejorative, a lot of modern liberals began referring to themselves as progressives.

    That’s how I remember it anyway. I don’t really remember people I actually knew referring to themselves as progressives before that. But maybe that was because I never spent any time in Wisconsin. Anyway, I had certainly heard the word progressive before, but mainly from history books dealing with the early 20th century.

    If you talk to a progressive, she might well tell you that progressives have always been among us and that there is a straight historical line from the progressives of the late 19th century to those of today—and that “progressive” is not merely a synonym for “liberal.”

    Somewhat ironically, the two men most often cited as founders of the progressive movement in America were both Republicans. Many identify the movement’s founder as Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, who represented Wisconsin in both houses of Congress and who was also the state’s governor. He left the Republican Party because he thought it had gotten away from its anti-slavery roots and was mainly in the service of corporate interests. Something of an isolationist, he was opposed to the U.S.’s entry into World War I as well as to its joining the League of Nations.

    The formal Progressive Party, which came to be known as the Bull Moose Party, was founded by former president Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 after he lost the Republican presidential nomination to William Howard Taft. His platform was mainly one of anti-corruption—in both government and business. In the 1912 presidential election, Roosevelt carried six states (with 27 percent of the popular vote), Taft carried only two and Woodrow Wilson was elected with the support of 40 states.

    La Follette did not support Roosevelt as the Progressive candidate. He later formed a new Progressive Party of which he was the presidential nominee in 1924. He carried only Wisconsin but did win 17 percent of the popular vote. Republican Calvin Coolidge was elected with 35 states versus 12 states for Democrat John W. Davis. La Follette’s national Progressive Party soon disbanded—although it did continue to be active in Wisconsin until 1946.

    La Follette’s main legacy to the movement may have been his founding of a publication in 1909 called La Follette’s Weekly. Later the name changed to simply La Follette’s and then, in 1929, to The Progressive. It is still being published today as a monthly magazine, and its back issues may be the best way to track the evolution of the movement through the 20th and 21st centuries. As for the causes that it has promoted in recent times, it pretty much ticks the boxes of feminist, union, environmental and civil rights components of modern liberalism.

    It is also pointedly anti-corporate, anti-military and pacifist—to an extent that arguably takes it out of the mainstream of the Democratic Party. For example, The Progressive was not only against the 2003 invasion of Iraq but also against the 1991 Gulf War, which liberated Kuwait. It has also been critical of President Obama for any number of actions, including continuing the war in Afghanistan and many domestic security policies inherited from the Bush administration and increased reliance on drone warfare.

    It is not difficult to work out where the term “progressive” came from. The word “progress” suggests a journey in which the destination is better than the starting point. The notion of a journey with a promised destination is a very powerful one in the human mind—as far back as Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. It has a rhetorical appeal similar to the formulation that progressives and modern liberals often use when debating specific policies, i.e. that their opponents are “on the wrong side of history.” This implies that the history has already been written and the historical judgments have already made as to who was right or wrong. Therefore, if you are not on “our” side, you are on the losing side.

    Part of the appeal of this formulation is the idea of participating in a cause that will accomplish something great and important. Unfortunately for the people using the “on the right side of history” formulation, it is a device that has also been used by everyone from the imperial Romans to proponents of Manifest Destiny and even by Communists and Fascists. In other words, it is designed to appeal more to the heart than to the head.

    In American politics, progressives have a home in the Democratic Party, and the late progressive Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone famously declared, “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” But the fact is that true, principled progressives (like Wellstone, former Senator Russ Feingold and former Congressman Dennis Kucinich) are actually few and far between at the national level, and they never come anywhere near a presidential nomination.

    Some pundits have described Barack Obama as the most progressive (or liberal or leftwing) president in U.S. history, but they tend to be his critics. True progressives—if The Progressive is any indicator—do not see it that way. His own supporters tend to see him as moderate and centrist.

    With the current Democratic ascendancy at the federal level (in contrast with the trend at the local level) and in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement, are we now on the cusp of a new progressive era? To bet on that would really be, to coin a phrase, swimming against the tide of history. (I’m using the term history here in the sense of past experience rather than a prediction of the future, as described above.) While some social issues championed by progressives (notably same-sex marriage) have become more mainstream, there is no sign that the U.S. or other western countries are going to do anything serious about reining in corporations to the extent that progressives would want.

    And that may be just as well. In terms of the economy, when progressive policies do get tried, people’s overall living standards usually suffer. Then the progressive narrative becomes a complaint of how corporate and wealthy interests have sabotaged the execution of their good intentions.

    Tuesday, August 20, 2013

    Droning On

    Four months ago I tried to be provocative by making a comparison between Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama. This consisted of pointing out that both insisted on treating ideologues bent on violently overthrowing their governments as mere criminals rather than as soldiers in an organized campaign. The example, in Thatcher’s case, was the IRA hunger strikers in Northern Ireland who wanted—but were denied—prisoner of war status.

    At the time, I could have pointed out that President Obama actually had a hunger strike of his own on his hands—and has had for some time now. The news audience in the UK and Ireland was reminded of this recently when BBC and RTÉ journalists reported from Guantánamo, courtesy of a press junket hosted by the U.S. military. Soldiers explained matter-of-factly to the visiting reporters how they are, as gently as possible they say, force-feeding prisoners who have been on a hunger strike for months.

    The first time he was elected, President Obama promised to close Guantánamo within a year. More than four years later, the prison is still in operation and, as he does with so many things, the president blames Republicans. That stance, however, was definitively refuted by Martha Rayner, a lawyer who represents Guantánamo prisoners, in a blistering op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May.

    She chided the president for an April 30 press conference in which he asserted that it was Congress that was blocking the transfer of prisoners. Rayner pointed out that full authority to transfer or release any of the prisoners lies squarely with the president. All Congress did (and in overwhelming bipartisan fashion, it should be noted) was to block transfer of prisoners to the U.S. mainland. This does not prevent the president from transferring them anywhere else in the world.

    Despite the president’s promise to “close Guantánamo,” his problem is that he doesn’t really want to close it—at least not in any meaningful sense. Yes, he would clearly love to close the facility on Cuban soil the name of which has become notorious throughout the world. (And it should be noted that no small part of that notoriety is due to U.S. politicians who, like the president, raised its profile during the Bush administration.) But the president will close Guantánamo only if he can move the prisoners somewhere else. In other words, he doesn’t want to close Guantánamo but to move it.

    He is no doubt aware of the number of prisoners that have already been released and have returned to fight on behalf of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Proponents of closure tend to speak of each and every prisoner as if he is there because of a misunderstanding or an injustice. The president clearly must believe that the remaining prisoners are at least potential threats or he would simply release them—something he has full authority to do entirely on his own.

    The president has, though, made sure that no new prisoners have been brought to Guantánamo under his watch. This is because, once terrorists have been identified and located, they are simply assassinated by drone—along with anybody else unlucky enough to be too nearby. The up side for the U.S. government is that there are no new prisoners for people to protest about. The down side is that there is no opportunity to extract information from the terrorists before they are killed.

    The irony here is breathtaking. The one positive accomplishment the president could boast about in his reelection campaign was the fact that Osama bin Laden had been killed. In the wake of that accomplishment, there was a debate over whether the information that led to the Al Qaeda leader’s killing could or would have been obtained without waterboarding or other rough interrogation methods. But what no one disputes is that the U.S. would never have acquired the information on his location if Al Qaeda prisoners had not been taken prisoner and interrogated. That sort of information will not exist in future hunts for terrorist leaders because there will be no prisoners with current information to interrogate.

    Instead, whatever information security forces will have to work with will come from worldwide monitoring of electronic communications—something that bothers people all over the world, including many within the U.S. The most forceful argument against Guantánamo was always that it was a recruiting tool for terrorists and that it undermined America’s image as a beacon of human values. I think it is safe to say that on the Arab street whatever revulsion remains over Guantánamo has pretty much been eclipsed by the increased use of drone strikes and everywhere else by the NSA monitoring program.

    The point here is not that Barack Obama is somehow unusual in not living up to his promises. (Few politicians do.) The point is that it rarely, if ever, pays to get ones hopes up that a new politician will somehow be different from most of the others that have already come and gone. It just feels worse when a new politician has done a particularly good job of convincing you that he is truly different.

    After the debacle in Benghazi and the recent precautionary closures of American embassies and facilities in the Middle East, the president has been doing some fancy backtracking from last summer’s crowing at the Democratic convention that “Al Qaeda is on the run.” (At least he didn’t declare “Mission accomplished,” countered one of his defenders on TV one recent Sunday.)

    His recent verbal efforts at parsing the difference between “core” Al Qaeda and its offshoots have been kind of painful to watch. To most of us, that kind of finessing is about as relevant as understanding whether our local McDonald’s is corporate-owned or a franchise.