Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bad and Worse

“I mean, you know, here’s the difference between us. We are using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles. That’s basically the difference.”
—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Fox News Sunday

The killing in the Gaza Strip is terrible and heartbreaking.

The deaths in Israel are terrible too, but they have been far fewer and, frankly, not as emotionally evocative because, in terms of media, they cannot compete with children on a beach or a hospital being struck.

Yesterday on Ireland’s main morning news radio program, I thought I detected a significant shift in the way things are seen from here. Former President Mary Robinson was being interviewed about her new job as a United Nations special envoy for climate change, but she was first asked about the Gaza situation.

“It’s, I think, unconscionable that Hamas is still firing missiles, continuing to provoke,” she began. Then her sentence quickly moved on to, “and the response of Israel does seem to be out of proportion to the situation.”

The interviewer’s rapid follow-up question perplexed me: “What about the response of the international community? Would you agree, if this were happening in any other country in the world, there would be uproar?”

Has there been no uproar? Does the massive global news focus on the violence not count as uproar? Or the attention of myriad international agencies and bodies? Not to mention the genuinely concerned comments of world leaders?

Without wanting to put words in the RTÉ man’s mouth, I think what he was getting at was that, this time around, there has not been nearly the same level of condemnation of Israel as has been seen in previous violent flare-ups. The fact is that Hamas is rather isolated politically, even within the Arab world. While one might criticize Israel for being “disproportionate” in its response, it is hard to escape the fact that the current round of violence began—and continues—because of a massive missile bombardment of Israel. And it is Hamas that would not accept a ceasefire proposed by Egypt—because it will only accept a ceasefire if its conditions are met. In the way of war, Hamas has it exactly backwards. When one side in a war is so clearly outmatched, any ceasefire would normally be in its interests, and it would be the superior power making demands.

One can certainly condemn Israel for possible overkill in its reaction or in not being more careful to avoid killing innocents. But realistically, that’s a bit like condemning a man wearing a bulletproof vest for firing back at someone who keeps shooting at him. Like it or not, the top priority of any national leader will be the survival of his own nation. Yes, Israel bears its share of responsibility for civilian deaths, but what about the people who could prevent more of those deaths by simply accepting a ceasefire with no conditions?

That is why I saw Mary Robinson’s half-of-a-sentence some kind of tectonic shift. She was not completely engaging in the reflexive response of the Irish academic/progressive establishment to support anything and everything done in the name of liberating Palestine—even to the benefit of groups determine to wiping the Jewish state off the map. As best as I can understand it, Israelis and Palestinians are seen here—and lots of other places—as latter-day proxies for the old European imperialist powers, on one hand, and third-world liberation movements, on the other.

RTÉ Radio is particularly egregious in this area. Morning after morning I have listened to its journalists berate spokespeople for Israel for essentially not having more casualties on the Israeli side. This morning the interviewer essentially suggested that, since the Iron Dome missile defense was proving so effective, Israel should just sit back and take the bombardments from Hamas without response.

But to answer the radio interviewer’s rhetorical question from yesterday—while no one situation in the world is a perfect match for any other—it is indeed possible to think of roughly similar cases. A fair way to currently describe the Gaza Strip is as a failed terrorist state. There is effectively no government, and things are run by a group identified as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, the European Union, Egypt and others. No enemy has ever successfully lobbed missiles onto U.S. soil, but thirteen years ago a designated terrorist group operating from a failed state did succeed in crashing four airliners on American soil, inflicting massive casualties. As a direct result, the U.S. led a NATO invasion of Afghanistan. The authorizing U.S. legislation passed by 420-1 in the House of Representatives and by 98-0 in the Senate.

What makes the Gaza Strip situation especially heartbreaking is that no satisfactory solution appears in sight. And if that is not depressing enough, here’s something else to think about. Reportedly, one of Hamas’s sources for its missiles is Iran, a country that clearly wants nuclear capability. Sanctions were proving fairly effective at bringing pressure on Iran, but the U.S. relaxed them as a precondition for negotiations in Vienna. The Obama Administration indicated that it would work with Congress to reinstate sanctions if an agreement was not reached within six months. With the six months up, the Administration has announced that it will continue talks—without reinstating sanctions. A few days ago President Obama’s former coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction Gary Samore co-authored a statement for a group called United Against Nuclear Iran asserting that “the status quo of Iran’s current nuclear program is not acceptable.” It continued, “Iran’s economy has improved and the regime’s diplomatic isolation has lessened. So far, however, Iran has not shown a willingness to dismantle any of its uranium enrichment capabilities and it continues to research and develop missile delivery systems and advanced centrifuges.”

As bad as things are in Gaza and Israel at the moment, let’s hope we do not wind up looking back longingly on the days when Hamas had only conventional weapons.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Half-full or Half-empty?

“Corporate profits are up, stock market is up, housing is improving. Unemployment is down. The deficits have been cut in half. We’re making progress, but we still have a situation where those at the top are doing as well as ever but middle-class families all across the country are still struggling to get by. There are people who are working hard, they believe in the American Dream—it feels sometimes like the system is rigged against them.”
—President Obama, at the Francis Scott Key Bridge on July 2

Was I too harsh in my previous post about the Obama Adminstration’s performance in managing the U.S. economy? After all, when it came to the most recent economimc data, the majority of the “mainstream” American news outlets I heard were focused on the 288,000 jobs added in June and the drop in unemployment to 6.1 percent. And that is indeed good news.

I instead focused on the contracting of the economy in the year’s first quarter—a worrisome 2.9 percent. Many professional news explainers dismissed that as a fluke caused by unusually harsh winter weather. Even so, it is never a good sign when the economy shrinks and, besides, aren’t these numbers supposed to be “seasonally adjusted” to account for things like winter anyway?

Nevertheless, people are right to put most of their focus on the jobs numbers. While the president—and many others—may be happy to tout the soaring stock market, that is mainly benefiting the investor class. And, to the extent that many middle class Americans have money invested in equities directly or through retirement plans, yes, it is good that those investments are doing well. But the well-being of the country really depends on how many people are usefully participating in the economy. In other words, the best indicator of how people are doing generally is the unemployment rate. Having said that, though, the GDP number for better or worse is one of our best indicators of the overall health of the economy and how it will perform going forward.

As I say, it is great that the unemployment rate has come down from a high around 10 percent five years ago. But the celebratory mood is tempered by the fact that the job participation rate has shrunk a lot (thereby making the unemployment rate look better than it really is), that more people who want full-time work can find only temporary or part-time work, and that some groups—notably African-Americans—still continue to have much higher unemployment than the general population. Let us also not forget that it was not that many years ago that 6.1 percent would have been seen as a really high unemployment rate. It is only because of where we have been that it now seems “low.”

Another thing to consider: some observers have noted that the “better than expected” job numbers coincided with the end of extended unemployment benefits. This is confirmation that the payment of unemployment benefits, while the right and compassionate thing to do, is also inevitably an incentive for some to put off going back to work.

As the president made clear in his remarks at the Key Bridge, he is cognizant of all the negatives persisting in the economy. But he continues to insist or imply that everything would be just fine if only Congress would do things like authorize more money for the Highway Trust Fund. That is fundamentally dishonest. There may well be good reasons to authorize the money, but it will not make a significant difference in most people’s lives. His glib dismissal of deficits as being “cut in half” may be accurate in the short term, but it amounts to wilful disregard of the fact that government programs are still on a trajectory to bankruptcy over the long term, and that will have a lot more to do with real people’s standard of living than any one year’s contentious congressional expenditure.

Instead he sticks to the same script that modern liberals have always followed when campaigning against conservatives. He paints the country’s economic problem as consisting mainly of government stinginess. The other side, on the other hand, too often responds by suggesting that recipients of government spending are undeserving or unworthy. The real issue is that, over the years, the government has made a lot of promises to a lot of people and it has a moral obligation to keep those promises. That means reforming those programs so that they do not run out of money.

The only way to do that in the long haul is to have as many people as possible participating in the economy. The current job numbers show that the country has a very long way to go in that regard and, unfortunately, the president seems content to simply continue what he’s already doing—or, more accurately, not doing.