Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Nollaig shona dhaoibh

Maybe my age has something to do with it, but there is definitely something different about winter at a more northern latitude.

I was born and grew up in central California and have been working my way toward the North Pole ever since—apart from a year’s sojourn in South America. Other places I’ve lived—France, Ohio, Seattle—have always seemed to be that bit further north. My current location, the Irish republic, is the most northernmost of all. Latitude-wise we are roughly in the neighborhood of Juneau, Alaska. That means nice long days in the summer and long dark nights this time of year.

Because people here tend to stick to traditions more noticeably than in the States (and also because of the age thing I mentioned), one feels a connection going back a long time. One senses the earth whipping around the sun and plunging us through the darkest part of the year—and how that must have felt for people who did not have our modern scientific understanding. It must have been only their faith that the world had always come out the other side and re-entered the light time and time again that sustained them. The defiant artificial lights and colors of the season now seem to me perhaps somewhat desperate but also affirmatively steadfast in the face of the universe. The traditions really bring comfort—even for someone like me who grew up with no particular religious tradition. We reject perfectly good traditions at our own peril.

One speaks of the magic of Christmas, and the longer I live the more that magic seems to be real.

To all those reading this, I wish you the best on this journey through space and time.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Divide and Be Conquered

“When President Obama took office, Iraq was calm, al-Qaeda was weakened and ISIS did not exist. Iran, meanwhile, was under pressure from abroad … and at home … The Obama administration threw it all away.”
 —Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, writing in USA Today
Here is an observation that is guaranteed to please no one. Despite their personal and political differences, President Obama and Donald Trump are strangely more alike than not in their underlying rhetorical strategies.

Trump has clearly mapped out a segment of the electorate to which he wants to appeal, and he is making that appeal by setting up other segments as the enemy. Whether he is slandering Mexicans or Moslems, he is tapping into a rich vein of insecurity among white working class Americans and it has kept him high in the polls—so far.

But hasn’t President Obama has been employing the same tactic, albeit from the other end of the political spectrum? Since he has gotten past the point of needing to contest elections ever again, he has increasingly directed his rhetoric ever more specifically toward his own Democratic base at the expense of the rest of the country. As numerous commentators noted, in his press conference in Turkey, he showed much more passion in his criticism of Republicans—and by extension the majority of voters who sent them to Congress—than he did in condemning ISIS.

This politics of division is not at all appealing in a primary candidate like Trump, but—to tap into John Kerry’s mindset vis-à-vis terrorism—at least it is understandable. He is trying to win a presidential nomination. It is, if anything, even less appealing in a sitting president, who occupies the highest office of the land and is meant to represent all citizens—not just his own party.

When it comes to the issue of admitting refugees, the president certainly has reason and sanity on his side. Yes, taking in Syrians fleeing their homeland’s civil war is the civilized and humane thing to do. Yes, the vast majority of them are people like anybody else who only want to survive and provide safety for themselves and their families. And, it is worth noting, they are fleeing a terrible situation that possibly (of course, we can never know for sure) could have been ameliorated by a firmer grasp of foreign and military policy by the administration. Let us not forget that the vast numbers of refugees are not fleeing ISIS but the onslaught of Syria’s own wanton president, Bashar al-Assad, and that President Obama has deferred to Russia’s lead in that violent civil war—even though Russia’s aim is to keep Assad in power at a terrible cost to the Syrian people.

Two-thirds of Americans, according to polls, are against admitting the refugees. This is because they are fearful—and not completely without reason. One or two of the terrorists who attacked Paris on November 13 apparently slipped in through refugee queues. This represents a drop in the bucket in terms of the numbers involved, but it demonstrates that the fear of terrorists masquerading as refugees is not crazy. And it doesn’t help that the president’s own FBI director told a House committee last month that there is precious little data against which incoming refugees can be scanned.

So how does the president react to this pervasive—and not unreasonable—fear among the American people? When asked about it, rather than explain and reassure, he siezes the opportunity to attack Republicans and, by extension, a majority of the citizens he is supposed to be leading. In other words, he does what Donald Trump does. He divides the country into groups and pits one against the other in an attempt to whip up political support. The mystery is, to what end? It certainly doesn’t help grow support for admitting refugees. It might rally those who already agree with him, but he gains no political advantage because he will not be seeking office again. And it is hard to see how this helps his party. Hillary Clinton already has more than enough to deal with, rationalizing and separating herself from an administration’s foreign policy about which few, if any, have found much to praise.

If the House of Representatives provided a veto-proof majority in voting to cripple the administration’s refugee plan, it might be because they have little confidence in the president’s assurances about the efficacy of its security. They may be remembering other assurances—from the situation in the Middle East to the ongoing execution of the Affordable Care Act—that turned out to be overstated. What is really interesting and, I think, has not gotten the attention it deserved was the president’s stated rationale for not worrying about terrorists coming in through the refugee program. It is much easier, he said, for them to simply come over as tourists. He is certainly right about that. If a terrorist happens to hold a European passport, he or she can travel to the U.S. under the visa waiver program with only cursory scrutiny. What an interesting way to reassure people!

Violence in the Sinai Peninusla, Beirut, Paris and Mali—plus security alerts in France and Belgium and a worldwide travel advisory from the U.S. State Department—have put the western world on edge. And when western Europeans feel on edge, that is good for nativist and isolationist parties—the likes of the UK Independence Party and France’s National Front. Is Donald Trump their American equivalent? That’s very hard to say—at least in terms of political consequences. He hasn’t exactly been consistent ideologically. He may be the only contender of either party for whom it is harder to predict what he would actually do as president than Hillary Clinton.

But on an emotional level, Trump is indeed the equivalent of the anti-immigration parties of Europe. Like them, he is obviously saying things in which a lot of people—whether justifiably or not—find some level of comfort and reassurance, which they are not getting from their current leaders.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Treize Novembre

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”
—President Obama in a January 2014 New Yorker interview, answering a question about advances by ISIS/ISIL in Iraq

“Well, no, I don’t think they’re gaining strength. What is true is that from the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them.”
—President Obama on ABC on Thursday, answering a question about criticism of his ground strategy against ISIS

“I have never been more concerned. I read the intelligence faithfully. ISIL is not contained. ISIL is expanding. They’ve just put out a video saying it is their intent to attack this country.”
—Senator Dianne Feinstein on Monday on MSNBC

“We have the right strategy and we’re going to see it through… What I do not do is take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough or make me look tough.”
—President Obama on Monday in Turkey
It is all so depressingly familiar. And it is all so new and scary and different than before. This is life in 21st century Europe. Add Friday’s outrage in Paris to the list that includes Madrid 2004, London 2005 and Paris January 2015—not to mention the various smaller-scale attacks that have not been large enough to dominate international headlines for days.

It has been interesting to listen to all the media chatter in Ireland in the wake of the mass murder. Paris is geographically close to Ireland. From where I live, as the crow flies, Paris is about the same distance as from Seattle to Eureka, California. Lots of Irish people go to Paris all the time—on a holiday, for a weekend, for business. So an atrocity like this feels as though it has hit very close to home. In the discussions on TV and radio, there is nothing but sympthathy for the victims and condemnation for the perpetrators—at least initially.

After a day or two, though, you start to hear the occasional pundit drawing a lesson. These are what I call the “but” heads, the people who say things like, of course, there is never any justication for this type of violence but…

After the January attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, one began to hear, on both sides of the Atlantic, the usual disclaimers about violence always being wrong followed by the inference that insulting someone’s religion was intolerant and that the violence was, if not justifiable, then at least understandable. Indeed, weren’t the attackers provoked? Weren’t the cartoonists really kind of asking for it? Not that this justifies the violence, one is quick to add.

The November 13 attacks have not facilitated those sorts of rationalizations. You could actually Secretary of State John Kerry struggling with it yesterday at the U.S. embassy in Paris. “There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo,” he said, “and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of—not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘Okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.’ This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate.”

I find those remarks absolutely mind-blowing. Yes, he caught himself and backed away from calling the January attack legitimate, but it was obviously what was in his head. This might help explain why I have heard little, if any, confidence expressed here in the Obama adminstration’s foreign policy.

One point that has been made regularly is that none of this would not be happening if George W. Bush had not decided to invade Iraq in 2003. Like all such assertions, that one is impossible to either prove or disprove. The counter-assertion is that it was the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq that created the vacuum that gave ISIS the opportunity to flourish. That is almost certainly true, but what is unclear is whether keeping U.S. forces in Iraq would have actually deterred ISIS or would have become a quagmire for the U.S. Assigning blame on past actions or inactions may make armchair analysts feel better but, unless you have a time machine handy, it is really only a useful exercise if it provides some wisdom as to what should be done in the short and long term going forward.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq definitely led to the violence that is currently bedeviling Europe. So then what? France’s answer is to double down on bombing ISIS positions in Syria. The usual voices on the left find this counter-productive, but otherwise there is widespread support. It is interesting to note that, when Israel has reacted similarly to attacks on its citizens, many of those now supporting France have criticized Israel. I guess it may come down to how close to home the attacks hit. That may explain why Britain’s new Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reacted by saying the West had “created a situation” that had contributed to the terrorist attacks on Paris and questioned the legality of last week’s strike on the militant dubbed “Jihadi John,” while Socialist Party leader François Hollande was busying ordering the bombs to be dropped.

The problem with merely dropping bombs is that, short of massive carpet bombing, they cannot win a war—and collateral damage is inevitable. And collateral damage can have the effect of growing support—either passive or active—for your enemy.

Any nation has the right to defend itself. But what does that mean in today’s world where the threat comes from individuals who are already inside the country, working at the behest of planners in the Middle East? Americans and Europeans may be loath to put boots on the ground in Syria, but ISIS clearly has more than a few boots on the ground in Europe.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Taxing Sanity

“The difference between death and taxes is death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.”
—Will Rogers
In December 2011 Susan Rice, the United States’ UN representative, took to the floor of that organization in support of a resolution condemning the Eritrea for destabilizing its region of Africa and, specifically, for funding that destabilization by taxing the income of its expatriate citizens (variously called citizenship-based taxation or a diaspora tax) in violation of universal human rights. Eritrea is one of only two countries in the world that impose citizenship-based taxation. Ironically, the other one is the United States.

All governments—excepting those two—collect income tax from residents living within their borders but not from their citizens who have established residency in other countries. If a European citizen lives and works in the U.S. for an extended period of time, she files a tax return with the U.S. government but not with her government back home. On the other hand, an American living and working in Europe must file tax returns with both the government of the country where he is living as well as with the U.S. government. While this is an extra burden, in most cases it does not actually result in having to pay full taxes to both governments. A series of taxation treaties generally allow tax paid in one place to be applied as a credit against tax owed in another place.

What has changed since 2010, however, is a law that was passed by Congress called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Aimed at sniffing out bad guys who are into things like money laundering (including terrorists) or tax evasion, it has made lives of ordinary citizens living abroad much less convenient and, in some cases, nightmarish. As a result, the numbers of American renouncing their citizenship has skyrocketed. In 2014 there were 3,417 such renunciations—well over double the number of just two years earlier.

FATCA is mainly a problem for two categories of Americans. One is the so-called “accidental Americans,” people who do not really consider themselves American but who have U.S citizenship because they happened to be born on U.S. soil while their parents were working or holidaying abroad. A surprising number of people fall into this category including (to name just one random example) London mayor Boris Johnson. These people may have little or no attachment to America, but they have the convenience of being able to travel, live and work in the States without the bother of acquiring a visa. The other category is Americans who, for whatever reason, have elected to live in another country.

The problem is that FATCA requires foreign financial institutions that want to have any dealings with the U.S. (in other words, most or all of them) to collect and pass on a whole bunch of information on any of their account holders who have U.S. citizenship. A lot of banks have decided that they don’t want the hassle and so have chosen to simply not to accept Americans as customers. A report on this topic this week on the BBC World Servce included an interview with a Frenchman who had lived his entire life in France and knew no English but, because he happened to have been born in California, was being required by his bank to either close his account or go through the trouble and expense of formally renouncing his U.S. citizenship. An American woman, who had lived thirty years in France, was being given the same choice of options, and she tearfully told of how she had arrived at the painful decision to give up her U.S. citizenship—despite still identifying as American, as she had all her life—in order to be able to stay in France.

Renouncing American citizenship is not just a simple matter of signing a piece of paper. As a solicitor friend once explained to me, the IRS essentially treats an American renouncing his citizenship more or less the same as if he had died, requiring a big tax settlement before letting him go peacefully into the next life.

This is a classic example of the U.S. government taking aim at a legitimate problem and then punishing multitudes of people, few if any of whom are the actual targets. The fat cats trying to avoid tax by hiding money abroad will always have the resources to locate and exploit a loophole. Criminal money launderers will always find another way to move their money around. Instead it is many of the estimated 8.7 million Americans living abroad who are left to deal with (at best) the annoyances, inconveniences and extra costs of the law or (at worst) are left with no practical choice but to cut ties to their home country. After all, it is pretty hard to function in the modern world when banks do not want to deal with you.

Happily for me personally, FATCA has so far not caused my bank to issue such an ultimatum. There are so many Irish people with U.S. ties, I am not sure Irish banks could afford to bar them from holding accounts. But not all banks operating in Ireland are Irish-based. We have come across at least one Dutch-based bank operating here that would not take customers with U.S. citizenship.

Some clear thinking on this problem was articulated by Pepperdine law professor (and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State) Colleen Graffy, writing last month in The Wall Street Journal: “The best solution is for the U.S. to join the rest of the world in taxing based on residency rather than citizenship. Congress could address both the need for global banking transparency and the negative effects of FATCA by including this in the comprehensive tax reforms likely to take place under the next administration. Doing so would advance American fairness, mobility and economic competitiveness, in addition to protecting the country’s most valuable global asset: its people.”

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Only a Year to Go

“I want to repeat this because the public apparently never believes it. Since I took office, we’ve cut our deficits by two-thirds. The deficit has not been going up; it has been coming down—precipitously. We’ve cut our deficits by two-thirds. They’re below the average deficits over the past 40 years.”
—President Obama on October 2

“The U.S. national debt shot up $339.1 billion Tuesday—the largest daily increase in the national debt in history, according to Treasury Department data.”
USA Today, in a November 5 article about the overall national debt, which is distinct from annual deficits
Republicans like to fall in line, goes the old aphorism, and Democrats like to fall in love.

In the past couple of election cycles, that rule of thumb has turned out to be pretty accurate. Leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Republicans cast about wildly from one new face to another—wanting to fall in love—before eventually coalescing around next-in-line Mitt Romney. Four years earlier, similarly, they passed the polling lead around until settling on next-in-line John McCain. At the same time, Democrats gave every indication of falling in line behind Hillary Clinton—until they fell in love with the much-less-experienced Barack Obama.

Will those patterns hold true this time around? It’s difficult to see how. For one thing, there is no logical next-in-line candidate for the Republicans. They have no incumbent president or vice-president in the field. Nor is there is a clear second-place finisher from the last cycle. In fact, polling so far—whatever it is worth this far out from the actual voting—suggests that Republicans are not only intent on not nominating a next-in-line but prefer to have someone with the least political experience possible. Meanwhile, if Democrats mean to fall in love with their nominee, then they are doing their best to fall in love with the person who is not only clearly next in line but who has been taking aim at the presidency forever. Early on they gave every indication of wanting to fall in love with Elizabeth Warren or even Joe Biden, but they are not running.

Progressives have sort of fallen in love with Bernie Sanders, but they know he is almost certainly not electable. Despite their penchant for liking to fall in love, Democrats mostly want to win, and so they like their candidates to be electable. They only let themselves fall in love with Senator Obama when it became clear that he could win the general election. Four years earlier they nominated John Kerry despite the fact that he was not strong as anyone’s first choice, but they told pollsters that they thought that other people would like him as the nominee. In other words, they saw him as electable.

Hillary Clinton is certainly electable. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she has the intellect, talent and experience to be president. She is much better known than any of the Republican candidates—with the possible exception of Donald Trump. But, while her advantages may seem overwhelming on paper, there are a couple of historical factors working against her. For one, it is rare for a candidate to win a third consecutive presidential term for her party, and it’s unheard of when the incumbent president has less-than-stellar approval ratings, as is the case with President Obama. For another, you have to go back to the 1950s (the wildly popular war hero Dwight Eisenhower) to find a case of a non-incumbent being a front-runner for such a long period and actually winning the office in the end. American political history is littered with “inevitable” presidents who never made it—including Clinton herself in her last bid.

Of course, historical patterns only hold true until they don’t anymore. An awful lot can—and will—happen in the next year, and no one can say how things will look twelve months from now. While the Republican field may look like a clown car to die-hard Democrats, the fact is that there is actually more interest and energy and youth on that side of the political spectrum. And Tuesday’s elections can bring no comfort to Clinton and her team. In the off-year state and local voting across the country, conservatism dominated nationally—just as it has in every election for the past decade or so when the name Barack Obama was nowhere on the ballot. Will young and minority voters turn out for Clinton in the same numbers that they did for Obama? Not only does she not have his natural charisma but it is difficult to maintain grassroot energy levels after the promise of an exciting new leader inevitably doesn’t quite live up to everyone’s highest hopes. In the Democratic debate, the candidates railed against the country’s problems as if they were hoping that voters didn’t remember who was actually in charge of the executive branch for the past seven years.

In the end, the presidency will come down to a choice between two people, so the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses will only matter in comparison to their opponent. So Clinton’s chances are entirely (well except for a very unlikely indictment over her emails or a health problem) up to which candidate the Republicans put forward. The smart brains who have worked it all out going forward seem convinced that it will be a fortysomething Cuban-American. The only question is, which one?

Ted Cruz has been painted as a crazy man in much of the media for years now and, perversely, that could actually be to his advantage. He is articulate and very intelligent and, if voters actually got to know him, he would exceed their expectations. Marco Rubio appears to have no down side whatsoever except perhaps a lack of experience. And didn’t Obama himself cut off that avenue of attack by getting elected (having served an even shorter portion of his Senate term than Rubio) and then getting reelected? In the end, his experience level is a problem only if voters who are unhappy with Obama’s presidency conclude that it was because of his inexperience rather than his political philosophy.

Wait, I forgot about Jeb Bush. Wait, no I didn’t. I don’t think anyone—in either party—really wants to have yet another Bush as president. And the way he’s been campaigning, I’m not sure Jeb Bush really wants it either. I think dynasty fatigue could be a real thing, and that’s another possible problem for Hillary Clinton in the general election.

Needless to say, all bets are off if Donald Trump or Ben Carson were to actually get nominated. Or if Trump or someone like Jim Webb mounted a third-party campaign. And, of course, if war were to break out in the Middle East or somewhere else or if the U.S. were to get hit by a serious terrorist attack, that would definitely scramble things. In other words, there is really no way to know what will happen a year from now.

The only sure thing is that, however it turns out, half the country will wind up more disenchanted and angry than ever.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

October Missiles

“The low-IQ U.S. President and his country’s Secretary of State John Kerry speak of the effectiveness of ‘the U.S. options on the table’ on Iran while this phrase is mocked at and has become a joke among the Iranian nation, especially the children.”
—Iranian General Masoud Jazayeri, as reported by Fars News Agency in March 2014

“We don’t ask anyone’s permission to enhance our defense power or missile capability and will firmly pursue our defense plans, particularly in the field of missiles. And [the long-range missile] Emad is one of the outstanding examples of this.”
—Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, on October 11
Here is a question that intrigues me.

When there is a tragic and senseless outburst of gun violence in the U.S., the president—like many others—is quick to argue for legislation to limit access to weapons. But when it comes to dealing with a nuclear-aspiring country like Iran, he is quite willing to allow it to have nuclear weapons—albeit after an ostensible ten-year delay—in the optimistic hope that, in the absence of sanctions, the country’s character will mature sufficiently to avoid a catastrophic use of those weapons. (Let us note that this question can also be turned around to highlight an apparent inconsistency in Republican positions.)

To be fair, the two problems are very different, and I have deliberately framed my question to provoke thought. Everyone is against mass shootings by mentally disturbed people. Everyone (at least officially) is against Iran getting nuclear weapons. The disagreements are over how to prevent these things from happening.

In the case of domestic gun violence, the president would say that he merely wants to tighten up laws that are too loose. Republicans (and, frankly, a lot of Democrats) would disagree. They would say that there are plenty of gun laws on the books and that they have either shown themselves to be ineffective or that the problem lies in enforcement. Therefore, according to them, adding more laws which, by definition, affect only law-abiding citizens makes no sense.

In the case of Iran, the president does not look at it as a case of keeping dangerous weapons out of irresponsible hands. His argument for striking a deal was that, because sanctions were falling apart (a contention that seemed to me, frankly, more than a little self-fulfilling), the only other alternative was war. This is typical of his frequent rhetorical approach of setting up false choices to make his own position appear unassailable. But he does have a point. When calling for “common sense gun laws,” he is reacting to specific acts of violence. In the case of Iran, Tehran does not actually have nuclear weapons yet, so their use at this point is only speculative. Thus, even if the Iranians do go nuclear, as long as they do not actually use their weapons in anger, the president can claim vindication. As long as they do not, say, attack Israel with them, then there is no problem. A nuclear Iran would definitely change the psychology and balance of power in the region, but as long as there is no war, there is presumably no problem with a nuclear Iran from the president’s point of view.

On the other hand, if those weapons did get used, then the situation would be more analogous to the problem of U.S. gun violence. Whoever is president at that point would be in the position of dealing with an act of violence after the fact. She or he might even feel compelled to call for disarmament in the Middle East. But the chances of that happening would be nil. The greater likelihood from now on is that more states will acquire nukes as a hedge against the Iranians.

President Obama might have found it difficult or impossible to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but it is still always easier to prevent a country from going nuclear than to get that country to de-nuclearize after the fact. But there are examples. A newly independent Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nukes in exchange for security guarantees from the West. Libya voluntarily dropped its nuclear program after the United States invaded Iraq. And let us not forget that Syria could possibly be a nuclear state by now if Israel had not bombed its reactor.

I find it difficult to believe that the administration is naive enough to think that Iran will not go nuclear at some point. After all, the agreement specifically allows it—after a waiting period. So the president must be confident—or else doing a lot of finger-crossing—that Iran will behave responsibly once it has become a nuclear power. Under the agreement the International Atomic Energy Agency is committed to releasing a report by the end of the year on the status of Iran’s alleged weaponization work, but U.S. officials said over the weekend that the IAEA report would have no bearing on moves by the international community to lift sanctions on Tehran. Nor is the agreement affected by the fact that Iran has been conducting ballistic missile tests, since the agreement does not forbid them. The missile tests do, however, violate a United Nations Security Council resolution, but there appear to be no consequences forthcoming for that breach.

A person could stay up at night worrying about all of this, but it is probably better to think positively and hope that everything will turn out fine. Still, it is interesting to note that, after all the fuss made over the Iran nuclear agreement, when the Nobel Peace Prize was handed out recently, despite the expectations of some, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seems not to have even been considered.

Friday, October 16, 2015


“[It] would link markets throughout Asia and the Americas, lowering trade barriers while raising standards on labor, the environment, and intellectual property. As President Obama explained, the goal of the TPP negotiations is to establish ‘a high standard, enforceable, meaningful trade agreement’ that ‘is going to be incredibly powerful for American companies who, up until this point, have often been locked out of those markets.’ It was also important for American workers, who would benefit from competing on a more level playing field. And it was a strategic initiative that would strengthen the position of the United States in Asia… It’s safe to say that the TPP won’t be perfect—no deal negotiated among a dozen countries ever will be—but its higher standards, if implemented and enforced, should benefit American businesses and workers.”
—Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices, 2014

“So for the larger issues and then what I know, and again, I don’t have the text, we don’t yet have all the details, I don’t believe it’s going to meet the high bar I have set.”
—Clinton, in an October 7 PBS interview

“It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards—my standards for more new, good jobs for Americans.”
—Clinton, at the presidential debate on Tuesday
As far as I can see, the big winner in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate was Carly Fiorina.

Why would I say that? Because after Tuesday it became pretty clear that the Democrats have no viable candidate other than Hillary Clinton. The other guys on the stage were not ready for prime time—even Bernie Sanders, whose following is very real and very sincere and very much a minority. And Clinton did well enough that it is increasingly unlikely that Joe Biden would get into the race. So, barring an unlikely event, like a health crisis or an indictment, it looks as though Clinton will get her coronation.

It is worth pondering why such a diverse political party, which is the nation’s largest, can produce only a single viable candidate. The short answer, as far as I can see, is that Democrats have fallen back into old party machine habits. As a result, they do not have as much competition in the marketplace of the ideas. On the positive side, however, they don’t have as much chaos or dissension as the Republicans.

So why is this good news for Ms. Fiorina? Well, because the Democrats are likely to nominate someone who could become the country’s first female president, there will be a strong temptation to put the former Hewlett-Packard CEO on the GOP ticket. Probably not as the presidential nominee, but she would be a very good bet for the vice-presidential slot. Does that seem cynical? Well, we are talking about politicians, aren’t we? But don’t wager any of your own hard-earned money on my say-so. I have a very bad track record of making political predictions. And, for what it’s worth, this particular one assumes that Donald Trump will not be the Republican nominee, since no one would want a ticket consisting of two CEOs.

What kind of president would Clinton be? Probably a pretty good one, but that is based more on her history than on anything she is currently saying. The problem she has to deal with in the next twelve and a half months is that there no particular reason for anybody to believe anything she says. No, I’m not talking about her email server—although pretty much everything she has ever said on that subject has been demonstrably false. I’m talking about things that really matter, like the economy.

Does anybody really believe that, once elected, she would not do whatever was necessary to implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement or its equivalent? And that would be the right thing to do. Free trade is in the world’s interest in general and definitely in America’s interest in the long run. And she was actually involved in negotiating this particular agreement. So her current stance of being against it is not credible. In the debate she said, “in looking at it” she found it wanting. The thing is, though, no one outside of the Obama administration has actually seen it yet—not even her, according to the White House. So she just pretended that she had seen it—just like she pretended in the debate that she had previously “hoped” that it would meet her standards instead of actually having said that it did meet her standards.

Never mind that her current position is a stunning indictment of the competence of the Obama administration—and, by implication, even of herself—but it makes her look like someone who will say anything to get the nomination. Can we look forward to a series of reversals of her reversals once she has clinched the nomination and has to start appealing beyond Democratic constituencies?

In the debate, she countered Bernie Sanders’s populist anti-Wall Street position by noting that, as a senator, she represented Wall Street and that she roundly chewed them out and told them that they had to behave better. Does anybody actually believe that? The Clintons have more friends on Wall Street than anyone. When she talks about reining them in, they surely know to take her no more seriously than, say, gay rights activists took Barack Obama two election cycles ago when he swore that in his heart he believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Does that mean she won’t get elected in the end? No, it probably means she will. But it is really all up to the Republicans and whether they nominate someone who is crazy—no matter how much of a straight talker he might seem to be.

Another interesting question raised by the debate is whether Democrats have written off ever winning the House of Representatives (or, for that matter, a majority of state offices) again. After all, in recent history the party was only successful in gaining that house of Congress after they decided to deemphasize the gun control issue. Yet another good question is whether the days of cross-over voting are well and truly over. Clinton must think so anyway. Otherwise, she might not have answered Anderson Cooper’s question about what enemy she was most proud of making by saying, “Well, in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians; probably the Republicans.”

We certainly have come a long way since a newly elected senator once said in a 2004 Democratic convention keynote address, “[T]here is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fatal Loop

 Here was the recurring tension between Obama the idealist and Obama the politician; between the man who understood that in order to serve and make a difference, you had to be elected, and the one who sometimes resented the compromises that the process required and the advisers who enforced them.
 He repeated that lament at another of our large campaign strategy meetings in November, provoking more than a little anxiety among his team. “There are things I feel strongly about,” he said, “things I’ll want to work on in my second term. Some of them may make you guys nervous. But Axe keeps saying I should be ‘authentic.’ So maybe I should go out there and just let it rip.”
 “Given our situation, sir, I’m not sure we’re in a position to go all Bulworth out there,” Gibbs quipped, referring to the dark comedy in which Warren Beatty plays a despondent senator, on the verge of losing reelection, who goes on a boozy bender of truth telling.
—David Axelrod, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, 2015
Very quickly after the terrible mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, last week, President Obama took to the airwaves to deliver some impassioned, heartfelt and moving words to the nation and the world. His sadness, anger and frustration mirrored what multitudes were feeling.

But there was something unusual about this particular statement, and it took me a while to put my finger on it. At first I thought the striking thing was how engaged and emotional he was. But then, being an analytical sort, I looked at his actual words. A fair way to paraphrase his remarks is as follows: I am very upset that this happened. These shootings have become routine, and everyone will react to this one in their usual routine way. Including me.

By calling for the umpteenth time for “common-sense gun legislation,” he expressed the hope that someone would finally do something that was not routine. The clear implication was that he wanted someone else to respond in a non-routine manner—because he himself was going to respond in his usual, routine manner.

In other words, he gave remarks that were assured of being well received by people who already agreed with him but which would predictably annoy people who did not. His prediction that nothing would change was thus pretty much self-fulfilling. This was not about bringing people together or solving a difficult problem but—at the risk of me sounding overly cynical—having an issue.

British-American staff writer John Cassidy caught the very essence of this in his New Yorker piece called, all too aptly, “Obama, Guns, and the Politics of Hopelessness”: “[R]ather than resigning himself to the situation, he went down to the White House briefing room and issued one of the most powerful statements that he has delivered since taking office. We should be grateful that he did. Even if it doesn’t do much immediate good, it will be there in the record, to remind historians where the primary blame lies for this ongoing national disgrace.”

Do you see the contradiction in Cassidy’s praise? He asserts that the president did not “resign” himself to the situation and then explains that his non-resignation amounts to mere words. He is overly generous when he suggests they may not “do much immediate good.” Zero immediate good would be a harsher but more defensible assessment. Cassidy actually concedes that this was more about assigning blame than about changing things.

So what should the president do, besides give remarks? That depends on whether you think the continuing pattern gun deaths can actually be solved or at least reduced. A lot of people do not—and they are not without logic and facts on their side. Gun rights supporters regularly point out, accurately enough, that mass shootings like the one in Roseburg would not actually be prevented by the new “common-sense” gun laws that keep getting proposed. Besides, in their view, such new laws are no more logical than restricting automobile ownership in response to car crashes. The president points to the examples of Britain and Australia, but gun violence has not disappeared in those countries. Perhaps the incidence of gun violence is lower than it would have been otherwise, but that is difficult to prove or to disprove.

You do hear the argument that more restrictive gun laws should be enacted—even if they are not very effective—because at least we would be doing something about the problem. Well, why not? But given that the president’s previous attempt at new gun laws, in the wake of the Newtown shootings, collapsed in a Senate controlled by his own party, then what hope realistically is there?

To the president’s credit, he may be doing the only thing that he thinks has a prayer of helping—hoping against hope that the mere power of his own words will somehow change things. It’s not very likely, but at least it was a better response than Jeb Bush’s “stuff happens” reaction.

The old line is that definition of insanity is doing the same exact thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Maybe this president—or the next one—could find something new to try instead of following the usual routine? New ideas on ammunition sales? On mental health monitoring and reporting? Not vilifying those who disagree with him? Anything?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Party Name Misnomer

“Voting doesn’t make you a better citizen, comprehending the issues makes you better. Voting without that makes us all suckers.”
 —Actor Richard Dreyfuss, writing in PJ Media
While perusing discussion boards like Democratic Underground after the first Republican debate, I was surprised to detect a running theme of envy.

No, of course, the people posting were not the least bit envious of the caliber and quality of the field of Republican primary candidates. Unsurprisingly, they consistently thought they were all losers. But there was a palpable frustration that the Democrats were not having their own debates and that all the political and media focus was on the GOP and its issues.

Now, that frustration has begun to be noticeable to the mass media, with several outlets reporting that Democratic National Committee Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz was heckled at the New Hampshire state convention over the weekend by people in the audience calling for “more debates.” Currently, the Dems have scheduled six debates—the first on October 3—compared to the Republicans’ eleven.

It’s worth pondering why there is such a groundspell for more debates. After all, presumably the top priority for rank and file Dems, like all politically engaged people, is to see their side victorious. And their frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, is not only a virtual a lock to get the nomination but stands a better than even chance of being being elected president next year. In a situation like that, more debates would mainly benefit her primary opponents—which is almost certainly the reason why so few were scheduled in the first place. So what is more important to these people than a sure-as-possible shot at a rare third consecutive White House term?

Maybe these people take the name of their party seriously and would like to see it be more… democratic. They may see the GOP primary field as a bunch of bozos driving around in a clown car, but the fact is that the two debates so far have revealed a wide diversity in many positions among Republican subgroups, which tend to get obscured in mainstream media coverage. Viewers have also gotten a much better sense of the various personalities and character of the candidates. Yes, mostly one in particular, but even he has a silver lining for Republicans. His mere presence has driven up viewing numbers, thereby making more people aware of the other candidates.

As for the more demographically preocuppied among Dem voters, it cannot be going unnoticed that the debate stage for the supposedly angry-old-white-guy party includes a female (the same exact number as in the Democratic field), an African-American and two Hispanics. Three are under the age of 50 (not counting the departed Scott Walker). Only two are over the age of 65. It has to be grating to see the other side exhibiting more diversity than their own side, and the term “token” tends to sound hollow when it gets hurled too many times. The fact is that all of these candidates have their own followings within the Republican party, and that says more than any of the nativist claptrap bandied about by the current frontrunner.

Why is the Republican field so large while the Democratic race seems preordained? Could it be that the Dems happen to have a candidate who is so far above anyone else in the entire country in terms of talent, intellect and experience that there is no point in having primaries? Yeah, right. If that were true, she would have been nominated eight years ago when she was only running against a freshly elected freshman senator. The inescapable fact is that Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favorite more than a year before the election because she and her husband have exerted their considerable resources and influence to lock potential rivals out of any serious fundraising. Even someone as high-profile as Joe Biden, if he gets in, will have a hard time scraping together enough cash to make a competitive go of it.

Yes, big money donors are crucial on the Republican side as well. But the difference is that virtually anyone currently on the GOP debate stage could actually hypothetically clinch the nomination. Yes, some candidates are more way likely than others, but you cannot say that any of them have virtually no chance. In other words, Republican voters will actually have a say.

Maybe that is why so many Democratic voters are feeling deep down that the way their party works is not all that democatic.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Moral Abdication

“And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”
 —President Obama, in a New Republic interview, January 27, 2013

“I have this remarkable title right now—President of the United States—and yet every day when I wake up, and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria—when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids—and having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment, I think, ‘drop by drop by drop,’ that we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive; that we can tell a different story.”
 —President Obama, addressing the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation dinner on May 7, 2014
Last weekend I came across one of the most devastating indictments of the Obama administration’s foreign policy that I have read in some time. It was all the more notable because it did not come from one of the usual sources of carping about America’s flagging stature in the world, such as The Weekly Standard or other conservative media.

It was a column in The Washington Post by the paper’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt. His thrust, spurred by the current wave of refugees fleeing Syria and other countries, was that the president has been presiding over a period of moral abdication.

“More than a quarter-million [Syrians] have been killed. Yet the ‘Save Darfur’ signs have not given way to ‘Save Syria,’ ” writes Hiatt. “One reason is that Obama—who ran for president on the promise of restoring the United States’ moral stature—has constantly reassured Americans that doing nothing is the smart and moral policy.”

What is particularly interesting about Hiatt’s take is that someone other than a raging neocon is rejecting the notion that America is right to withdraw as much as possible from the region.

He writes, “When Obama pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq, critics worried there would be instability; none envisioned the emergence of a full-blown terrorist state.”

Reflecting back on the president’s assertion four years ago that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” Hiatt observes that “few imagined the extent of the catastrophe: not just the savagery of chemical weapons and ‘barrel bombs,’ but also the Islamic State’s recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, its spread from Libya to Afghanistan, the danger to the U.S. homeland that has alarmed U.S. intelligence officials, the refugees destabilizing Europe.”

He might well have added that Obama’s miscalculated declaration of a “red line” over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons was ultimately resolved by outsourcing the issue to Russia, which has done everything it can to keep its client Assad in power and has thereby prolonged the conflict. Hiatt details the repeated instances of the president pledging action on Syria—training for the opposition, a safe zone on the Turkish border—that fell far short of what was promised. He adds that the presence of people in the administration like Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who have strong records on humanitarian issues, only lends “further moral credibility to U.S. abdication.”

“This may be the most surprising of President Obama’s foreign-policy legacies,” muses Hiatt sadly, “not just that he presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions, but that he soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy.”

Of course, Democrats have a ready answer for those who are dismayed by the chaos in the Middle East and Northern Africa. All the blame, they say, should go to the Bush-Cheney administration. If the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003, goes their reasoning, everything would be fine—or at least much better—in that region. Unfortunately, that argument would stand up better if President Obama and Vice-President Biden had not personally touted Iraq as a great success story as American troops were pulled out of the country four years ago. And, in any event, it is hard to see how the destabilization of Iraq, which strengthened the hand of Assad’s ally Iran led to the civil war in Syria. And it certainly doesn’t explain the chaos in Libya, which is the direct result of an ill-advised U.S./European intervention in 2011.

Would things now be better if the Obama administration had not in 2011 abandoned the status-of-forces negotiations initiated by the Bush administration with Iraq?

We will never know, but it is hard to imagine that it could have turned out any worse.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Money Magnetism

“What’s clear by now is that this family enterprise was set up as a global shakedown operation, designed to finance and nurture the Clintons’ continued political ambitions. It’s a Hillary super PAC that throws in the occasional good deed.”
—Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal column, June 5
In all my ponderings last week of what could explain the Donald Trump phenomenon, I neglected to mention one possible explanation that a lot of people go to immediately. The man is very, very rich.

Presidential campaigns are massively expensive but, as a billionaire, Trump is one of a select few who can credibly finance his presidential quest out of his own deep pockets.

This gives fuel to those who chant continually that there is too much money in politics. You hear the refrain over and over. It is not even a matter of debate. Recently I heard an extended and articulate recital of this view on the BBC World Service. Fordham University law professor—and failed Democratic challenger for New York governor—Zephyr Teachout was a guest on a business program, talking about her book Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United. She is an advocate of public financing for political campaigns.

As I understand the argument for public financing in particular and for campaign reform in general, it goes something like this. Money keeps pouring into political campaigns in ever increasing amounts and this corrupts the process. Some progress was made with the passage of the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which regulated the financing of political campaigns. But then, in a travesty of justice, McCain-Feingold was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2010 in a case called Citizens United and now things are worse than ever. That’s the narrative anyway. You hear Hillary Clinton and lots of other Democrats retell this story often. President Obama even famously chided Supreme Court justices directly to their faces as they sat in the audience of one of his State of the Union addresses.

What exactly did McCain-Feingold do anyway? It basically did two things. First, it limited the amount of money political parties could raise or spend. Second, it banned corporations and organizations from funding issue advocacy ads mentioning a candidate’s name within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

The first of those two things was not affected by the Citizens United vs. FEC decision. Spending by political campaigns is still regulated. But it did strike down the second thing. The reasoning was that the Constitution proclaims a right to free speech and that a right to free speech is pretty meaningless if people are forbidden to pay to get their speech heard. The plaintive, Citizens United, is a non-profit organization that lobbies for conservative causes. It appealed to the Supreme Court because the DC District Court ruled that McCain-Feingold did not allow it to advertise a film it was screening called Hillary: The Movie.

Personally, as a strong free speech supporter and a middling film blogger, I get very, very nervous when the government uses its power to suppress the making or screening of movies.

So is Citizens United the reason—or one of the reasons—that there is too much money in politics? Well, not really, but it is one part of the reason that American politics have gotten so screwy. Because the Supreme Court left one part of McCain-Feingold intact but struck down the other part, we now have a situation where political parties—and by extension candidates—are very limited in how they can raise and spend money. But corporations, unions, organizations and private citizens can spend all they want. This means that campaign money is flowing to people other than the ones who are actually running for office. No wonder it is so hard for the candidates to control their messages when their own resources are dwarfed by super PACs and advocacy groups. In other words, the problem is not so much the Citizens United decision but the fact that McCain-Feingold was passed in the first place.

And, of course, the more money restrictions that are placed directly on candidates, the more advantage it gives to wealthy candidates like Donald Trump who can self-fund.

The McCain whose name figures in the commonly used moniker of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 is Senator John McCain, and it is worth noting how he fared as a presidential candidate. A longtime and sincere campaign finance reformer, he hewed scrupulously to the letter and spirit of the law that bears his name and relied on public financing for his 2008 presidential run. Consequently, he was massively outspent by Barack Obama, who was able to raise much more money by eschewing public funding. In the current election cycle, Hillary Clinton is on track to break all kinds of fund raising reccords. And Obama and Clinton are two of the most vocal complainers about too much money in politics! One suspects that, when people say there is too much money in politics, what they actually mean is that there is too much money supporting candidates and causes they don’t like.

We can see that the McCain-Feingold law and the Citizens United decision have a lot to do with why primary candidates get so much pressure from people with extreme positions, but they don’t really explain why there is so much money in politics in the first place. The answer to that question, though, is pretty obvious. Money in politics has ballooned in proportion to the size, influence and power of government. The more control the government has over the economy and our lives, the more money flows to campaigns and to lobbyists in attempts to influence decisions. You can pass all the campaign laws you want, but the money will find a way to get to the decision makers somehow. If you can’t give the money to the office holder or candidate directly or even to a friendly super PAC, then you will just have to make a big contribution to the politician’s family foundation or pay a horrendously huge fee to the politician’s spouse for giving a speech.

Would completely publicly funded political campaigns, as Professor Teachout advocates, solve the problem?

It all comes down to the golden rule. Those who control the gold… rule. Publicly funded campaigns essentially mean putting all the control over who can run for political office—and how much they can raise and how they can spend it—into the exclusive hands of the government. If you really think that this would be good for democracy, well, then you are living in a completely different reality than I am.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Summer Fling?

“And when President Obama asked Hillary to serve as his secretary of state, she put aside their hard-fought campaign and answered the call to public service once again.”
—“Hillary’s story,”

“The president has indicated that his view that the decision that he made, I guess 7 years ago now, to add Joe Biden to the ticket as his running mate was the smartest decision that he has ever made in politics.”
—White House press secretary Josh Earnest, on Monday

August is a month for catching up with various friends and family. People are on their holidays, making the most of the time before school starts, paying and receiving visits. I am finding that one question that keeps popping up in conversations is, what is the deal with Donald Trump?

I am usually one of those people who always has an answer for everything, but I have to admit, when it comes to Trump… I got nothing.

His unexpected success—at least thus far—in the Republican primary does not add up. What I cannot figure out is, who are all these people telling pollsters that they support The Donald? Are they defecting from other candidates? Or are they people who previously did not even exist for political purposes?

If you spend a lot of time following political journalism and opinion-making, it is easy to fall into the (apparently illusory) security of thinking that you have a clear grasp of the American political landscape. You know what portion of the U.S. electorate are Tea Party, how many are moderate Republicans, the rough number of those in the mushy middle, the general percentage of moderate Democrats and vaguely how many are off in the left-wing/socialist category. Or at least you think you do. And you think you know more or less the positions people in each of those groups support. If one candidate is surging, logically it must be at the expense of one or more other candidates, right?

So how do you explain Donald Trump? His positions are not only all over the place but they change with startling frequency. Are conservatives who found Mitt Romney unacceptable—or voted for him only grudgingly—because of positions he took years ago when running for governor of Massachusetts really going to embrace someone like Trump who can be heard praising a single-payer healthcare system and bragging about giving lots of money to the Clintons? Is there really such a significant portion of the population that is caught up in rampant nativism while blind to the fact that, politically and philosophically, Trump is all over the map? It makes no sense.

Maybe the way I see the world is all wrong. And maybe that is because the people who (mostly) live and work in New York and Washington and who shape our view of politics in the U.S. see it all wrong—or at least incompletely. My confusion over the Trump phenomenon made me remember something that struck me back in May when the Irish elecorate approved same-sex marriage. The referendum passed by 62 percent to 38 percent. That was an impressive and overwhelming victory for the Yes side but, at the same time, 38 percent is not insignificant. That’s well over a third of the electorate. And yet there was no Irish political party that supported the No side. Certainly some parties supported the referendum more enthusiastically than others, but all were on record as being in favor of same-sex marriage. How did people in the No camp feel that there was no political party that gave voice to their side of the issue? Did that not make them feel excluded from the political process? In the end, it did not seem to matter. There was no backlash and the No side accepted the result, for the most part, graciously and moved on.

When it comes to Donald Trump, I have to wonder if there is not some unidentified mass of people out there that people like me do not perceive—mainly because pollsters do not ask the right questions—who do not feel adequately represented by any wing of either of the major U.S. political parties. And, if that mass of people exists, has Donald Trump managed to connect with them? Maybe the exact position he takes on any particular issue does not matter so much as his attitude and his way of talking. Or maybe it is the way he confounds and annoys the usual talking heads on all the cable news channels that endears him to so many souls. Or have we just gotten to the point where you have to be a celebrity to break through all the media chatter and make an impression anymore? After all, Barack Obama won two presidential elections pretty handily and it definitely wasn’t because of a long political track record. He became a phenomenon in his own right that went well beyond simply being a state legislator or a newly-elected U.S. senator. His detractors took to referring to him as the first celebrity presidential candidate.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump has a definite ceiling and, as the Republican field thins, his standing will drop as voters coallesce around the remaining alternatives. That sounds right, but so did the conventional wisdom that said he would be a very temporary flash in the pan—just as he had been in 1988, 2004 and 2012. I have less confidence than ever in being able to anticipate what the American electorate might do. Personally, the idea of Trump winning the nominatation or—heaven forfend—actually getting elected unnerves me. Some commentators have put out the idea that Trump could turn out to be America’s Vladimir Putin. I think that is overstating things, but I do believe that he could have the potential to become America’s Silvio Berlusconi.

New Yorker cartoon

But why worry? Even if he did somehow get nominated, Hillary Clinton would defeat him handily, right? Well, things are starting to look shaky on that side. This past weekend I actually heard a few—though certainly not all—faithful Democratic pundits sound more than a bit worried. Perhaps the most ominous early sign, though, might be a New Yorker cartoon that caught my attention. It was one of the daily cartoons published on the reliably liberal magazine’s web site. A medieval queen in a castle is giving orders to a burly fellow wearing an executioner’s black mask and holding an axe.

She is telling him, “I need you to delete all my messages.”

Monday, July 20, 2015

Persian Tilt

“On the nuclear issue, the United States and European colonialist countries gathered and applied their entire efforts to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees but they could not and they will not.”
—Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, November 25 on his website

“Iran is going to receive a sure path to nuclear weapons. Many of the restrictions that were supposed to prevent it from getting there will be lifted.”
—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 13, as quoted by The Washington Post

“It does not give me pause that Mr. Assad or others in Tehran may be trying to spin the deal in a way that they think is favorable to what their constituencies want to hear. That’s what politicians do.”
—President Obama, answering a question from ABC News’s Jonathan Karl on July 15

Opponents of the arms deal with Iran—including, apparently, the entire Republican Party—have pretty much been dug in against it since long before it became public and any of us knew for sure exactly what was in it. Other people have had no trouble accepting President Obama’s formulation that the choice came down to one between signing a piece of paper or going to war—and they prefer not to go to war.

The fact is that, ultimately, the question of war and peace will not be determined by diplomatic talks or by a piece of paper—which is, after all, in this case not even a formal treaty—but by evolving facts on the ground. When you spend a lot of time listening to politicians and reporters, it is easy to start thinking that diplomacy somehow forms reality. But it’s actually the other way around. Diplomacy has always been a way to formalize facts already on the ground. Yes, diplomats can reduce or avert bloodshed but mainly when that bloodshed would have been unnecessary or pointless, e.g. when one side has no reasonable chance to win a military conflict.

There seems to a popular idea out there that the mere act of talking can avoid conflict, that deep-rooted differences can be overcome by pure power of persuasion or being reasonable. Unfortunately, it is difficult or impossible to find any examples of that actually happening. If, for example, the U.S. and the Soviet Union managed not to destroy each other and the rest of the planet during a half-century of the Cold War, it was not because of the rhetorical prowess of the arms negotiators. It was because the two sides’ arsenals were equivalent enough that neither side could perceive any advantage in engaging in a war. The contribution of the diplomats was essentially to avoid a miscalculation by the other side.

The negotiation with Iran was very different than the U.S.-Soviet situation. The goal was not to balance nuclear arsenals but to prevent one of the sides from building one. Did the U.S. and its partners succeed? Well, only in the short term. The agreement actually concedes Iran’s right to acquire a nuclear weapon after a ten-year waiting period. But more importantly, there is no precedent for a country absolutely determined to get a nuclear weapon not to get one sooner or later. And there is no reason to expect things to be any different with Iran. After all, the whole negotiation exercise has pretty much followed the same approach that was used with North Korea.

President Obama repeatedly framed the talks with Iran as the only alternative to military action. Only time will tell if armed conflict was actually avoided by the talks. Let us hope that it was. But it was dishonest to assert that there was no other approach to the problem, short of war.

It is hard not to think that the best route for preventing Iran from going nuclear was to continue—and even double-down—on the sanction regime. Instead, sanctions will now be lifted and Iran will have more resources free for the sorts of activities that have bedeviled major parts of the Arab world, not to mention the U.S. and Israel. President Obama’s rationale for trading away the sanctions was that the world’s will in maintaining them was inevitably slipping away. He also argued that the sanctions were not preventing Iran from going nuclear. If so, then maybe there was never any hope of avoiding an atomic arms race in the Middle East, which now seems all but inevitable.

But think about this. In the 1980s and 1990s, sanctions eventually convinced the regime in South Africa to end the apartheid system. Would people who cared deeply about that issue have been content to lift sanctions on the apartheid regime in exchange for an agreement that had no more than a ten-year life?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Greeks Burdened with Gifts

In literature class I learned that, in ancient Greek stories when the gods decided they had it in for somebody, that was pretty much it. That guy’s destiny was pretty much sealed—no matter what he did or what he tried to do. The gods always had the last word.

So is modern Greece’s economic destiny sealed by the gods? One wonders. Everything that has happened to that country in the past few years seems to suggest that some malevolently divine hand at work rather than comprehensible human logic. The series of disconnects goes on and on. Let’s review.

Disconnect #1: Everyone knows that Greece does not really meet the stated requirements for entering the Euro Zone, but it is allowed in anyway.

You can sort of understand why Greece might want to fudge its way into the euro. There are economic benefits to having a strong currency managed by a more major power and which is shared by a lot of people to whom you would like to sell stuff and who you would like to have come visit as tourists. Besides, once you are in, the European Union pretty much has to prop you up no matter what. Your economy has become part of something that is too big to fail.

But why would the other European countries look the other way and let Greece in? What is in it for them—besides serious risk down the road? Well, if you are Germany, it eliminates the problem of selling goods produced by your strong economy to countries with weaker currencies. Besides, maybe allowing the Greeks into the grownups’ club will actually encourage them to clean up their economic act.

Disconnect #2: When the Greeks’ fudging of their books finally catches up with them, they vote in a left-wing socialist party.

Why, when you get into trouble by spending and borrowing way more than you are taking in, would you turn over control of the government to a party whose governing philosophy is to do more of the same exact thing that got you into trouble in the first place? I don’t have a good answer to that question except that maybe it’s simply a classic case of hope triumphing over experience. In fairness, it wasn’t Syriza that got Greece into its predicament. Corruption and mismanagement seems to permeate the whole political spectrum in Greece.

Disconnect #3: When Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s strategy of “standing up” to the troika of the EU, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank predictably doesn’t work, he not only rejects their ultimatum for severe austerity but then makes the whole country vote on it—even though he has already rejected it and, by then, it has been withdrawn anyway.

What was the point of holding that election? It served absolutely no purpose—unless it was meant to be some sort of symbolic gesture to the troika. But it accomplished nothing and wasted no small amount of precious Greek money since elections aren’t exactly cheap to conduct. Think about it. The Greek government actually went through the exercise of putting a question on a ballot and then asking voters to vote against it. Who does that?

Disconnect #4: Greeks tell opinion pollsters that they do not want to leave the euro but then vote overwhelming against the measure that was arguably their best chance for staying in the euro.

In fairness, there were conflicting arguments as to what a yes or no vote meant in the election. Some said a no vote meant leaving the euro, others said it didn’t. In any event, they backed their government which asked them to vote against the question that the government itself had put on the ballot.

Disconnect #5: Having secured the public rejection of severe austerity measures as he had wanted, Tsipras then immediately goes back to the troika and… agrees to austerity measures that are, if anything, more severe than what Greek voters had just rejected.

This is the hardest one to figure out. After getting the whole country to reject the austerity route, Tsipras then has to go back to his own parliament and ask it to approve even more severe austerity. This is in spite of the fact that his whole deal has always been that Greece’s problems can be solved without resorting to austerity measures.

Disconnect #6: At the very moment that the troika gets its way and makes Greece submit to even more severe austerity in exchange for aid, a member of the troika criticizes the new bailout deal as inadequate.

The IMF says that the Greek debt should be “restructured,” i.e. at least partially written off by its creditors because the size of the debt has gotten so large that there is no longer any realistic way that Greece can ever pay it back. Of course, the IMF may have a little conflict of interest here since the new bailout will essentially be a transfer of tax monies from other European countries to Greece which can then repay the IMF. Indeed, the best moment in all of the back and forth the past few weeks was when an exasperated Tsipras pointed out that the discussions were all basically about one member of the troika paying back another member so they might as well sort it out among themselves and leave Greece out of it.

Some, including darling of the left French economist Thomas Picketty, have pointed out the irony that Germany’s destroyed economy was turned around 70 years ago by the sort of aid and debt forgiveness it is now loath to extend to Greece. But that debt forgiveness happened because Germany had just been defeated militarily and was occupied by foreign powers. For Greece to be saved, apparently it has to also become occupied. It has now been required to turn over key assets to the control of foreigners.

In all of the strange choices the Greeks have been making lately, they have avoided making the one choice that really matters. They can have their sovereignty and independence or they can avoid financial ruin. But they have gone past the point of being able to do both. In the beginning, joining the euro must have made them feel like King Midas, creating gold out of nothing. But, of course, that story—like so many Greek stories—did not end happily.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Things Change

“Ireland hasn’t just said ‘Yes’ … Ireland has said: F*** YEAAHHHH”
—Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the Irish government’s Equality Minister, in a tweet on Saturday
Last week was an extraordinary one in Ireland.

For me it began on Monday morning when, after dropping off my daughter at school, I met an oncoming phalanx of gardaí (police) in our local village that forced me to the side of the road. I and my fellow motorists sat and watched as a seemingly endless parade of large black vans with gardaí escort passed by.

I knew immediately what is was about. No less a personage than Li Keqiang, the premier of China, was on his way from Ashford Castle to Shannon Airport. The night before he and his entourage had visited a farm here in our parish, in the company of Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny and other Irish government officials. Needless to say, this sort of activity is fairly unusual in our normally quiet corner of the country.

No sooner had Li Keqiang left than the area was visited by Britain’s Prince of Wales and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. (That’s Charles and Camilla to tabloid consumers.) I personally had no roadside encounters with them, but the first day of visiting was based in Galway, just down the road from us, and they stayed in a beautiful lakeside castle that we happen to know because we once attended a wedding there.

The emotional highlight of the royal visit came on the second day when the couple visited Mullaghmore in County Sligo, site of the death of the prince’s beloved grand-uncle Lord Mountbatten. The 79-year-old was killed in 1979 by an IRA bomb blast along with Charles’s 14-year-old godson Nicky Knatchbull, Nicky’s 83-year-old grandmother, Lady Brabourne, and a local boy, Nicky’s friend Paul Maxwell. Three others were badly injured. One version of events is that afterward the IRA received 2 million pounds as a reward from then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad (late father of the current president) at the behest of the Soviet Union. So it must have been very difficult when Charles was to take part in an arranged handshake with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams who, according to some anyway, would have authorized the bomb attack. But that bit of necessary political showmanship paled next to the genuine outpouring of emotion among the local people, who have since lived in the shadow of that day and the fact that the name of their harbor has become synonymous with an atrocity.

But the event last week that drew the most worldwide attention was, of course, the passage of the marriage referendum. Ireland not only became the first country in the world to approve gender-blind marriage by a popular vote, but it is now apparently the only country to have marriage defined in its constitution.

And despite the fact that Ireland is a predominately Catholic country and has always been considered socially conservative, the vote was not even close. Moreover, the public pre-election debate was for the most part civil, polite and respectful. The campaigners for the “no” side were gracious in their defeat.

Given that a mere 23 years ago committing a homosexual act in this country would have been a crime, I find this turnaround in Irish society nothing short of remarkable. Much of the momentum for the change came from the young. Motivated by heartfelt feelings of inclusiveness, my own daughter and her friends were nothing but enthusiastic for the referendum’s passage. But a surprising number of older voters supported it too.

How can we explain this rapid change in the thinking of Irish society? The standard answer is that people starting thinking for themselves because they threw off the repressive yoke of the Catholic Church. And why did that happen? Because people were disgusted about revelations about church scandals, including clerical child abuse. But the abuses had certainly been going on for a long time? What happened specifically in the late 20th century to cause people to view the church and traditions differently?

Obviously, the causes of change are going to involve a lot of factors and will be complex. But here is something that was going on at the same time. For much of its history Ireland was a poor country, but the standard of living went through a marked improvement toward the end of the 20th century. More prosperity results leads to more education and sophistication and independent thought and behavior. And how did Ireland become more prosperous? It was in a position to benefit from the technology boom and it drew employers into the country with a strategy that included, among other things, favorable tax treatment. That would be the same tax treatment that many are now calling a “give away” to greedy businesses and accusing of “robbing” governments of tax revenues.

Yes, the economic boom (dubbed the Celtic Tiger) wound up coming to a dramatic and terrible (but ultimately temporary) halt for various reasons but, before it did, a lot of people’s lives were improved and Ireland became a more socially liberal country. The irony is that many of those cheering the loudest over Ireland’s new marriage law are some of the same ones who dismiss the Celtic Tiger period as mainly being one of greed.

Other people will undoubtedly interpret things differently. But as far as I can see, the change in Ireland is simply additional proof of something I have observed for some time. In good economic times, all other problems tend to improve. In a bad economy, all other problems tend to get worse.

That is why I believe that sound economics should be the first priority of every politician and every voter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Let George Do It

“No one has even come close in recent years to enriching themselves on the scale of the Clintons while they or a spouse continued to serve in public office.”
—Peter Schweizer, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich
When George Stephanopoulis first became a commentator on ABC’s This Week, I found him to be a great source of information and insight. His experience in the Clinton White House gave him the background and sources to illuminate the political process for the benefit of the television audience.

When he made the transition to journalist and anchor, I thought it a bit strange. When I was in journalism school back in the 1970s, it was drilled into us that it was paramount for journalists to be objective and credible and that any serious reporter needed to voluntarily lock up whatever political views he or she might have in a box somewhere.

In the end, though, I found Stephanopoulis to be a credible anchor and interviewer. Although there was never any doubt that he was, at heart, a modern liberal, he generally maintained objectivity on air. He clearly understood arguments on both sides of the political divide and proved to be a decent devil’s advocate when putting conservative arguments to liberals. I was also impressed by how candid and forthright he was in his 1999 book All Too Human: A Political Education, about his experiences in the Clinton White House.

In my view, that even-handedness slipped somewhat during the 2008 presidential cycle. It seemed all too clear that he was mesmerized by Barack Obama, and it showed in his coverage and particularly on the occasions when he interviewed the senator. But, to be fair, much of the establishment press had the same starstruck attitude toward the eventual Democratic nominee.

When it came out recently that Stephanopoulis had donated some $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation. I was surprised—and yet not surprised. It was a surprise that he would make those contributions, given that he had always seemed to understand clearly that he needed to draw a clear line between his previous political life and his new journalistic life. On the other hand, it was easy enough to see why he might have thought the generous contributions should not be a problem. After all, the Clinton Foundation is a charity that has been praised for doing humanitarian work all around the world. Because of this, for years much of the press have treated it as though it were entirely above politics. It was as though it was of a piece with, say, Jimmy Carter going out and selflessly building homes for Habitat for Humanity.

And yet, as Stephanopoulis himself told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show three weeks ago, “[E]verybody also knows when those donors give that money to President Clinton or someone, they get a picture with him; there’s a hope that that’s going to lead to something and that’s what you have to be careful of.” At that point, Stephanopoulis had yet to acknowledge to viewers that he himself was one of those donors.

Some have cited Stephanopoulis’s aggressive interrogation of Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer as an indication that the anchor is in the tank for the Clintons. Frankly, there was nothing wrong with that interview. That was Stephanopoulis’s job: to grill someone hawking a book that makes serious accusations. The real question is whether he will be equally aggressive if and when Hillary Clinton sits down for an interview.

The newly raised questions about Stephanopoulis, i.e. whether he is some sort of “Manchurian candidate” journalist placed to help Democrats from inside the media establishment, have caused me to look back at something odd he did during the 2012 primaries. Moderating a Republican debate, out of the blue he asked Mitt Romney, “[D]o you believe that states have the right to ban contraception? Or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?”

This was an issue that was not on anybody’s radar. No one was suggesting or proposing any kind of ban on contraception. Romney, who was clearly gobsmacked by the question, told him flat out that it was “silly.” But the trap had been sprung. The eventual Republican nominee had engaged (however unwillingly) in talk about banning contraception. When employer funding of contraception under Obamacare subsequently became an issue for some individuals and businesses on religious grounds, Democrats conflated the question of a religious exemption with banning a woman’s right to contraception outright, and the War on Women meme was fully launched.

In hindsight, Stephanopoulis might as well have had the Democratic Party playbook sitting open in front of him. With all the grave issues facing the country, there was absolutely no justifiable journalistic reason to ask that particular question on that particular night.

This is why Stephanopoulis will almost certainly not moderate any Republican debates during this election cycle. He has given the GOP an excuse not to accept him in that role. In fact, some are suggesting that ABC News should be boycotted by Republican candidates entirely, although it is hard to see that actually happening.

As for news consumers, some of us will definitely be applying a heavier filter to George Stephanopoulis’s on-air work for as long as he continues working as a journalist.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Triumph of the Shy

“The Liberal Democrats will add a heart to a Conservative government, and a brain to a Labour one!”
 —Soon-to-resign Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, whose party wound up out of government

For us news consumers, there are three stages to an election.

There is the campaign, the election itself and, finally, the spinning of the results.

In other words, one phase consists of politicians angling for power (four weeks in the British Isles, two years or more in the United States), another consists of a brief moment of the people actually expressing their will, and the third consists of years of politicians telling us what the people actually meant. The interminable spin phase begins as soon as the first election day exit polls are released.

The recent election in the United Kingdom had an interesting beginning to the spin cycle. As the exit polls came in, journalists, commentators, analysts, pundits and spokespersons had to quickly adjust to the fact that pre-election polls had seriously understated the support for the Conservatives. No one had time to get comfortable with that adjustment before actual vote tallies started coming in—only to reveal that even the exit polls had underestimated Conservative support. In the end, the foregone and unquestioned expectation that Parliament would be hung and that weeks of negotiation would be required to cobble together the shakiest of coalitions gave way to the reality that the Conservatives had enough MPs to govern on their own and could jettison all that heart added by the hapless Lib Dems, who found themselves severely punished for occupying the mushy middle of British politics.

Everyone immediately began to spin the new reality to suit their own narratives. Needless to say, conservatives all over the world had the easiest job. They simply portrayed it as a vindication of conservative policies. Everyone else pointed out the complexities of the Tory victory, i.e. it was largely owed to a split among left-of-center voters. In Scotland, Labour had been abandoned in favor of the Scottish National Party. It wasn’t so much a shift rightward as a fracturing of the left/center-left. Still, the combined totals of Labour and the SNP fell short of what the Tories amassed, thereby avoiding the sticky question of that particular potential left-wing coalition, so the Conservatives came by their bragging rights honestly.

The interesting question is, why did the polls so consistently and universally underestimate Conservative strength? If it was just one polling outfit, you could blame shoddy samples and biased questions. But everybody had it wrong and over a sustained period of time. That suggests either that 1) polling industry’s standard sampling practices are flawed or 2) a lot of people are simply not answering polling questions honestly. The latter is actually already a well-documented phenomenon. The “shy Tory factor” is something that has been recognized since the 1990s. In a nutshell, British polling often tends to underestimate support for the Conservative Party.

Why is that? Maybe fewer Tory voters have landlines (traditionally, the standard way of contacting polling subjects)? Maybe Tory voters tend to be less truthful? Or maybe, when contacted by someone representing the journalistic/political establishment, Tory voters have been conditioned to be seen as “uncool” or heterochthonous to the mainstream as it tends to be presented by the BBC? After all, every cool celebrity near a microphone was expressing, if not his or her unadulterated support for Labour, then at least a disdain of Conservatives.

In the end, those sorts of recommendations did not seem to carry as much weight as the fact that Britain, while maybe not exactly flourishing under a Conservative-led government for the past five years, was at least faring better economically than most of the rest of Europe. This is a fact probably better appreciated by the average voter than by the (generally more affluent) celebrities pimping for left-of-center parties.

Is there an equivalent of the shy Tory factor in the United States? The science of polling has gotten pretty good over the years, but there is still the occasional surprise where Republicans do better than they are supposed to. In fact, there are currently historic majorities of the GOP running the two houses of Congress to testify to this.

The Conservative victory in the UK is no doubt giving much encouragement to the sprawling crop of Republican presidential candidates, one of whom will eventually face the poll-leading Hillary Clinton. But there is no particular reason to think that an election held last weeks holds much relevance for one to be held 3,600 miles and 547 days away.

On the other hand, the UK election reminds all pols (including Mrs. Clinton) that they can never rest comfortably on a lead in the polls.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Good Time for Cronies

“We must urgently begin to rebuild the bonds of trust and respect among Americans. Between police and citizens, yes, but also across society, restoring trust in our politics, our press, our markets, between and among neighbors, and even people with whom we disagree politically.”
—Hillary Clinton, at Columbia University on Wednesday
In Ireland there is always a scandal du jour—something that keeps the chattering classes, especially the political press, occupied. Currently, that function is filled by a government probe into the sale of a company called Siteserv, “a leading Infrastructure Support Services Group,” as it describes itself on its web page.

Like a lot of companies, it ran into difficulty during the financial meltdown and found itself owing a lot of money to a bank. The bank also became insolvent and was subsequently taken over by the Irish government. The taxpayer-owned bank then sold off Siteserv at a loss for 100 million euro—plus five million extra euro to be paid to the Siteserv shareholders to give them an incentive to approve the offer.

This is the sort of deal that gives capitalism a bad name. A dark, but necessary, element of capitalism is that there is risk in investing in the marketplace. When the government bails out shareholders, it distorts the market with all kinds of indirect bad results. This is not capitalism. It is what people call crony capitalism: manipulation by people in government and the well-connected to evade the laws of the market for the profit of a few.

One of the main beneficiaries of the Siteserv deal was billionaire Denis O’Brien. Interestingly, one of his other companies has recently gotten some mention in the American press. In the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Bill Clinton (husband of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) was named co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. Haiti legitimately needed all the aid money that poured into the country, but it was also a bonanza for companies that stood to get contracts to do all kinds of infrastructure work and, in some cases, exploit the country’s resources. It turned out that you had a much better chance of getting some of that money if you had a relationship with the Clintons.

One of the main beneficiaries was Denis O’Brien, whose mobile phone company Digicel was hired to build a system of transferring money by cell phones. O’Brien had a history of paying lucrative fees to Bill Clinton for giving speeches and also for generous donations to the Clinton family foundation. (Bill Clinton’s speaking fees skyrocketed while his wife was Secretary of State.) Other companies were invited in to start exploiting Haiti’s mineral resources. Secretary Clinton’s brother was subsequently appointed to the board of a company that got a permit for gold mining.

All of this is currently getting an airing due to the upcoming release of the book Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer. Interestingly, it’s not just the conservative press giving the book exposure. The New York Times and The Washington Post have joined Fox News in making exclusive agreements with Schweizer.

There is nothing illegal about what the Clintons are known to have done, and everyone is quick to point out that the Clinton foundation does many good things. But the coverage certainly undermines her claim to be a champion for “everyday Americans.” As Hillary Clinton famously told an interviewer, when they left the White House in 2001 they were “dead broke.” A dozen years later they were worth 55 million dollars. Bill Clinton is the only living ex-president to make 24/7 Wall St.’s list of the wealthiest U.S. presidents.

In the last presidential election Democrats did a masterful job of turning Mitt Romney’s wealth into a political disadvantage—with no small amount of help, of course, from Romney himself. But at least no one accused him of making his fortune by trading on influence made possible by past, present and future high public office.