Archive for March, 2013

Canticle of the Creatures

March 31, 2013

Hat tip to The Dish.

Consumerism

March 30, 2013

consumerism

Click on Leftycartoons for more like this.

Some music for Good Friday 2013

March 29, 2013

This is the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, singing “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” from J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Hat tip to Ed Kilgore of The Washington Monthly.

A religious pilgrimage of upstate New York

March 29, 2013

The newest addition to my Blogroll page is Chris and Luke Explore the Burned Over DistrictIt is by a couple of young men who go around visiting places of worship and other religious sites in and around Rochester, N.Y., and reporting on what they see and hear.  Their blog is well worth following if you’re interested in the diversity of religion.  They visited my church, First Universalist Church of Rochestersome weeks ago.  

The Burned Over District

The Burned Over District

Western and central New York came to be called the Burned Over District after a series of powerful religious revivals in the early 19th century.  Revival preachers said the area was burned over because there was no more fuel (unsaved souls) to feed the fire of religious fervor.  But that was just the beginning of religious movements in this part of New York state.   At least two religions, Mormonism and Spiritualism, have roots here.

Joseph Smith Jr. lived in Palmyra, N.Y., just to the east of Rochester, and stated he was led by the Angel Moroni to the golden plates, whose inscriptions he translated into the Book of Mormon.  Each year the events of the Book of Mormon are enacted in the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant on the original site.  It is as if the events of the Book of Exodus were annually reenacted in a pageant at the real Mount Sinai.

The Fox sisters of Hydesville, N.Y., conducted their first table-rapping seánces in the area to communicate with the dead, leading to the Spiritualist movement, whose centers include the Lily Dale retreat center in Chautauqua County, NY, and Plymouth Spiritualist Church here in Rochester.

The Oneida Society was a successful communal utopian society in central New York, led by the prophet John Humphrey Noyes who said it is possible to live without sin in this world.  His most striking teaching was “complex marriage,” which included no unique partners, adolescent boys and girls being initiated into sex by older women and men and distinctive practices on birth control and eugenics.  After Noyes abdicated leadership in old age, the society reorganized as the Oneida silverware company.  The <Shakers were also an important part of upstate New York’s 19th century religious ferment.

First Universalist Church

First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY

People of diverse religions are good neighbors here.  In 1874, Unitarians, Universalists and Jews began a Union Thanksgiving Service which has been held annually since then, and now includes Catholics, Protestants and Muslims.

Roshi Philip Kapleau started his Zen Center, one of the first American Buddhist communities, in Rochester in 1966.  He had never before visited the city, but his reading led him to believe the area had spiritual significance.  Chris and Luke haven’t visited the Zen Center as yet, but they have visited three other Buddhist places of worship as well as the local Hindu temple and the Islamic Center

As for myself, I do not believe in the doctrines of any one religion, and I think some religions at some periods of history have fostered hatred and oppression, but I think the teachings of most religions contain valuable wisdom, and I think all religions express the yearnings and creativity of the human spirit.

Why don’t politicians care about working people?

March 28, 2013
Mark Thoma

Mark Thoma

Mark Thoma, professor of economics at the University of Oregon and host of the Economist’s View web page, wonders why politicians in general and Democrats in particular are so little concerned about the plight of American working people.

Consider… four facts from a recent speech by Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Raskin.

  • First, around two-thirds of the jobs lost during the recession were in moderate-wage occupations, but more than one-half of subsequent job gains have been in low wage jobs.  As she says, recent job gains have been largely concentrated in lower-wage occupations.
  • Second, since 2010 the average wage for new hires has actually declined.
  • Third, about one-quarter of all workers are “low wage” (just over $23,005 per year in 2011 dollars).
  • Finally, involuntary part-time work is increasing, and more than a quarter of the net employment gains since the end of the recession involve part-time work.

[snip]

I don’t blame Republicans for their efforts.  I wish the working class was more important to Republicans, and I cannot understand their indifference to the struggles of so many people.  But that’s not who Republicans are.  Fundamentally, it’s the party of the rich and this is a chance to lower government spending and reduce the pressure for tax increases on high-income households.

I do, however, blame Democrats for allowing them to be successful.  Even though unemployment is extraordinarily high and job opportunities, when they exist at all, are mostly at reduced wages, and even though the future for the working class looks increasingly bleak, too many Democrats have aided and abetted Republicans in this diversion of attention from jobs to the national debt.

Click on Why Don’t Politicians Care about the Working Class? for Thoma’s entire article.

Click on Focusing on Low- and Moderate-Income Working Americans for Sarah Raskin’s speech.

Hat tip to occasional links & commentary

The geography of pipelineistan

March 28, 2013

Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times in Hong Kong writes about what he calls “Pipelineistan”—the region in the heartland of the Eurasian continent where China, Russia, the USA and other powers are jockeying for control of oil and gas resources and pipeline routes.   I like maps, and spent a couple of hours yesterday doing Google Image searches of maps of the region, and here is what I found.

The first map shows the recently-opened 5,400-mile natural gas pipeline, connecting China’s resource-rich, majority-Muslim Xinjiang western region with its manufacturing centers in the east.  It is the longest natural gas pipeline in the world.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Next is a map of China’s oil and gas pipelines reaching into Central Asia.   The longest is 1,100 miles, and their combined reach is 2,000 miles.  Notice the extension to the border of Iran.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

While China’s economic expansion in the post-Mao era has been mostly peaceful, the Chinese in Central Asia work with some of the most vicious tyrannies on the planet, as do the governments of Russia and the USA.  Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, for example, is a killer and torturer on a scale exceeding Saddam Hussein.

Next is a map showing China’s land and sea access to energy resources, which shows why the Chinese government prefers pipelines to vulnerable sea routes.

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U.S. strategists ponder Syrian intervention

March 28, 2013

catfail

Click on US Training Rebels in Jordan: Get the Story Straight.

The changing world economic balance of power

March 27, 2013

The BRICS nations—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—are in the process of organizing a new economic bloc that could rival the European Union and the North American free trade area.   They are holding a summit meeting which began yesterday in Durban, South Africa.

Financial Times 2010.  Double click to enlarge.

Financial Times 2010. Double click to enlarge.

Pepe Escobar, the intrepid foreign correspondent of Asia Times in Hong KongSingapore, explained the significance of the BRICS summit meeting.

The BRICS push is part of an irresistible global trend. Most of it is decoded here, in a new United Nations Development Programme report. The bottom line; the North is being overtaken in the economic race by the global South at a dizzying speed.

According to the report, “for the first time in 150 years, the combined output of the developing world’s three leading economies – Brazil, China and India – is about equal to the combined GDP of the long-standing industrial powers of the North”.

The obvious conclusion is that, “the rise of the South is radically reshaping the world of the 21st century, with developing nations driving economic growth, lifting hundreds of millions of people from poverty, and propelling billions more into a new global middle class.”

via Asia Times Online.

The Economist.  Click to enlarge.

The Economist. Click to enlarge.

The BRICS economies are diverse but complementary.  China and India are important and growing manufacturing nations.  Brazil, Russia and South Africa are important producers of raw materials.

If present trends continue (which may not happen) they could dominate the world economy in a few decades.   RT News reported that the governments of Egypt, Mexico and Indonesia have expressed interest in joining the BRICS bloc.

BRICS representatives at the South African summit discussed creating a new Bank of the South that would give Third World nations an alternative to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, and pledged $10 billion to the new BRICS bank.   They also discussed creating their own credit rating agency, so that their finances won’t be subject to the opinions of Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s.

China and Brazil signed an $80 billion trade agreement in which they’ll trade in their own currencies rather than dollars.  China recently replaced the United States as Brazil’s largest trading partner.

President Obama’s secret negotiations to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which would lock governments in to current rules concerning corporations and finance, can be seen as an attempt to head off the emergence of a new bloc in which the United States would play no part.

I don’t see that I, as a middle-class American, am threatened in any way by the emergence of BRICS.   I don’t think that the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization operate in my interest or the interests of American working people.  We Americans can thrive if we as a nation turn away from military dominance and devote ourselves to creating a productive economy.

The key BRICS relationship is the one between China and Russia.  It brings to mind my reading about geopolitics years ago—whether world power came from dominating the Eurasian Heartland or from dominating the world’s sea lanes.  The nuclear-powered U.S. Navy commands the seas, but doesn’t affect the present-day equivalents of China’s overland Silk Road.

China is turning to Russia for the oil and natural gas it needs to fuel its economic growth.  Since Russia’s own reserves of oil and gas are dwindling, this means Russia must develop new supplies in the warming Arctic in the long run and control the oil and gas of Central Asia—what Pepe Escobar calls Pipelineistan—in the short run.

Last week Chinese President Xi Jinpin met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.  Escobar reported that the result is an agreement by China to pay in advance for Russian oil, in return for a share in Russian oil development projects in Siberia and offshore.  Pipelines across Central Asia will give China access to Iranian oil by land, which would negate any U.S. naval blockade of Iran.  Pepe Escobar explained the significance.

The geopolitical ramifications are immense; importing more gas from Russia helps Beijing to gradually escape its Malacca and Hormuz dilemma – not to mention industrialize the immense, highly populated and heavily dependent on agriculture interior provinces left behind in the economic boom.

That’s how Russian gas fits into the Chinese Communist Party’s master plan; configuring the internal provinces as a supply base for the increasingly wealthy, urban, based in the east coast, 400 million-strong Chinese middle class.

When Putin stressed that he does not see the BRICS as a “geopolitical competitor” to the West, it was the clincher; the official denial that confirms it’s true.

via Asia Times Online.

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The beauty of blackletter calligraphy

March 27, 2013

The fragility of domination

March 26, 2013

ALBERT WOHLSTETTER’S PRECEPTS

1.  Liberal internationalism is an illusion

2.  The system that replaces liberal internationalism must address the ever-present (and growing) danger posed by catastrophic surprise.

3.  The key to averting or at least minimizing surprise is to act preventively.

4.  The ultimate in preventive action is domination

5.  Information technology brings outright supremacy within reach.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

The late Albert Wohlstetter was an influential “defense intellectual,” a scholar little known to the public but highly influential in shaping U.S. military policy.  His philosophy was summarized in these five precepts by Andrew J. Bacevich in an article in the March issue of Harper’s magazine, which was about the efforts of Paul Wolfowitz, one of Wohlstetter’s chief disciples, to turn these precepts into U.S. government policy.

Wolfowitz, serving as an adviser to the Pentagon in 1992, drafted the controversial Defense Planning Guidance document.  According to Basevich, it said the “first objective” of U.S. policy is to maintain unquestioned military supremacy and “prevent the emergence of a new rival, by, if necessary, employing force unilaterally with an eye to “deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”   Unfortunately for Wolfowitz, the document was leaked before the White House had a chance to review it, President George H.W.  Bush disavowed it, and Wolfowitz left the government.

He served on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University until he returned to government in 2001 as deputy to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  He advocated preventive war against Iraq.  “We cannot wait until the threat is imminent,” he wrote.   This policy failed.  But why did it fail?  The answer is that domination does not make you stronger.  Rather the effort to maintain domination saps your strength.

I’ve written posts about the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb on fragility and antifragility.  The high-technology U.S. military is fragile, according to Taleb’s definition.  U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan depended on a long supply chain and complex technologies which could fail at any point.  The insurgency, by Taleb’s definition, was antifragile.  The insurgents fought on their home ground, used simple technologies (explosives set off by garage door openers and TV remotes) and were embedded in the population of the country, not in walled outposts.  Every U.S. victory in battle or drone attack raised up more insurgents for every one that was killed.

The Roman Empire was strong as long as Roman citizens throughout the empire thought it was worth defending.  When the empire came to rest on mere domination, the very extent of the empire made it harder to defend.  Every attack in the West made it necessary to weaken defenses in the East, and vice versa.  Eventually it became necessary to create co-emperors, for West and East, and this made it possible for the eastern half to survive after the western half fell.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers wrote about how strong nations have been weakened by “imperial overstretch.”  Great Britain in World War Two was weakened, not strengthened, by the need to keep troops in India.  The British Empire’s strength came from Canada, Australia and other territories that did not rest on domination.

By occupying Afghanistan, the United States has made its forces vulnerable to attacks from the tribal areas of Pakistan, which would otherwise be of no concern.  To safeguard the new government in Libya, U.S. policy-makers now seek to prevent unfriendly forces from controlling Mali.  Rather than creating security, our government has created a wider circle of threats.   And in so doing, it has sapped American strength and left us less able to cope with urgent problems at home.

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What Washington should be concerned about

March 25, 2013

Total-New-US-Jobs-By-Decade

Not-in-Labor-Force-Demographics

315-Million

While I’ve been writing about Social Security and minimum wage, employment and unemployment are much more important questions.  These charts are from a web site called Jobenomics by a blogger named Chuck Vollmer.  I think his information is reliable, with the caveat that his “can work – not working” category includes a lot of us retirees who are well past our prime working years (and many of whom do unpaid volunteer work).

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Where to sit at a restaurant table

March 25, 2013
Click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

Hat tip to kottke.org

Nassin Nicholas Taleb explains antifragility

March 24, 2013

Nassim Nicholas Taleb spoke about his book, Antifragile, to the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in Britain.   He summarized the core ideas in his book in a little over six minutes and spent another 12 or so minutes talking with a couple of young Britishers.  One is Rohan Silva, senior policy adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron, and the other is Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator magazine and columnist for the Daily Telegraph.

Silva spoke of tax breaks for “angel” investors.  These are people who provide money for start-up businesses, similar to the “angels” for Broadway shows, usually in return for a share of the stock.  They come in at an earlier stage of the business than venture capitalists, and they almost always risk their own money, unlike the administers of venture capital funds.   Since most angel investors are doomed to lose their money, it is right that the few who are successful should get rich.   If you’re going to give tax breaks to investors, they’re the ones who should get them.

Equity investing fits Taleb’s ideas of optionality and “skin in the game.”  An equity investor risks his or her money, but only the amount invested.  The potential gains have no fixed limit, but the equity investor only gains if the business gains.  This is different from a leveraged buyout, in which a company is loaded with debt and the financier gains even if the business fails.

I find Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ideas always interesting, mostly plausible and valuable not because he provides the key to every problem, which nobody can, but because he sees things that other people don’t notice.

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The necessity for error, stress and risk

March 23, 2013

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a successful options trader on Wall Street, is one of the most interesting and original writers of our time.  In Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, he wrote of how luck is mistaken for skill.  In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, he wrote about how frequently people are blindsided by the unpredictable, which is important precisely because people don’t prepare for it.

antifragile-book-coverHow do you prepare for the unpredictable?  In his newest book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, he tells how.   Antifragile sparkles with wit and is a delight to read.  Taleb invents dialogues about life and high finance between two fictional characters, the intellectual Nero Tulip and the street-smart Fat Tony.  He tells fascinating anecdotes about his personal life, starting with his boyhood in the Christian community in Lebanon and continuing to the present day.  He insults his enemies and boasts of his accomplishments with readable gusto.

In his philosophy, everything falls into one of three categories—fragile, robust and anti-fragile.  A delicate wine glass is fragile.  In mythology, the fragile is symbolized by the Sword of Damocles.  Nobody knows when it is going to fall, but it can fall at any time.  The robust is symbolized by the Phoenix.  No matter what you do to the Phoenix, it keeps being reborn.  The anti-fragile is Taleb’s original idea.  It is symbolized by the Hydra.  When you whack off its head or limbs, it grows more.  Attacking the Hydra makes it stronger.

A delicate wine glass is fragile.  You don’t know if it will break tomorrow or last a thousand years, but you do know that any little thing can break it.  A granite block is robust.  Few things can damage it, but over time it is going to be ground down.  A roaring fire is antifragile.  Whatever you throw into it or do to it (within limits), it is going to grow stronger.

The reputation of writers is antifragile.  Any attack on a writer’s book will stimulate interest in the book.  It doesn’t matter how many people dislike a writer, only how many are admirers.  Taleb noted that few people saw any merit in the work of the young Ludwig Wittgenstein, but it didn’t matter, because two who did were Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes.

Living things are antifragile (up to a point).  Exposing yourself to error, stress and risk can make you smarter, stronger and safer.  If you spend a month in bed, you grow weaker.  If you spend a month doing hard physical work in the out of doors, you grow stronger.

Taleb tells of twin Greek Cypriot brothers who settled in London at the same time.  One became a taxi driver, the other went to work for a bank.  The taxi driver’s income varied quite a bit from day to day, week to week and month to month, while the bank employee’s income was completely predictable.  Although over time, they earned roughly the same amount of money, it would have seemed that the taxi driver was less secure—that is, until the current banking crisis, which has left the bank employee in jeopardy of being laid off and having to start over in middle age.

turkey.predict

Click to enlarge.

The banker brother is an example of what Taleb calls the turkey problem—inspired by the empirical chicken in Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy.  The turkey, noting that it is fed every day at 9 a.m., decides this is a law of nature, right up until the day before Thanksgiving.

The problem with the modern world, according to Taleb, is the illusion that life can be planned and controlled.  The result is fewer minor setbacks and more big crises.  Putting out every little forest fire allows flammable material to accumulate until there is enough for a really big fire that goes out of control.  The illusion by “fragilista” Alan Greenspan and others that they could eliminate the boom-and-bust economic cycle resulted in problems building up into a major economic crisis.

The alternative is trial and error, provided the errors are small and the potential gains are great.  Taleb, an immigrant said the greatness of the United States is that it encourages people to attempt new enterprises, with little penalty and no disgrace for failure, but big rewards for success.

Intellectuals put too much stress on the ability to articulate knowledge, Taleb says.  He wrote a Platonic dialogue between Socrates and Fat Tony, in which Fat Tony refutes Socrates’ contention that he lacks understanding unless his actions are based on clearly-defined terms and theory.  Taleb says the fact is that practice is seldom based on theory, but rather theory is an attempt to explain practice after the fact.  Theorists want to “teach birds how to fly.”

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s five rules for policy

March 23, 2013

Rule 1.  Think of the economy as more like a cat than a washing machine.

Rule 2.  Favor businesses that benefit from their own mistakes, not those whose mistakes percolate into the system.

Rule 3.  Small is beautiful, but it is also efficient.

Rule 4.  Trial and error beats academic knowledge.

Rule 5.  Decision-makers must have skin in the game.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a successful Wall Street options trader and author of a new book, ANTIFRAGILE: Things That Gain from Disorder.  In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, he laid down those five wise rules for economic policy-makers.

The economy is organic, like a cat, and not mechanical, like a washing machine.  Every kind of stress on a machine causes it to wear out faster.  But a living animal thrives on stress, up to a point.  Animals and other organic systems are best left alone, except in dire emergency.

One of Taleb’s examples of businesses that learn from their own mistakes is the airline industry.  Every time there is an airplane crash, the airline companies study the causes of the crash and incorporate that information into their practices.  In a sense, every airline crash makes the airlines safer.  Another example is Silicon Valley, where failure is not regarded as a disgrace and the idea is to “fail quickly” so you can go on to try something.   The opposite of this is the Wall Street banking industry, where every bank failure weakens the overall system.

An industry is strongest when it consists of many small units, where the failure of an individual business makes the survivors stronger.  Taleb cited the restaurant business, in which the failure of an individual restaurant is common but the failure of the restaurant industry as a whole is unimaginable.  Failures mean the best restaurants survive, and so the industry is ever-improving (assuming, I would add, that the big chain restaurants don’t drive the individually-owned restaurants out of business).  Government is least harmful, he wrote, when it is vested in the lowest and possible unit, as in Switzerland.

We should honor failed entrepreneurs in the same spirit that we honor warriors who fall in battle.  It is through their individual sacrifice contributes that society as a whole survives and prospers.

He is skeptical of top-down planning, whether done by government, corporations or some other form of corporation.  The best economic and social system is one that allows trial and error in which the errors are small and are a source of knowledge and improvement.  Experimentation and tinkering, not theory, is the source of technological and economic progress.

The trouble with most journalists, academics and government policy-makers is that they suffer no penalty for being wrong, not even a loss of reputation.  Even worse are Wall Street bankers, who are able to pocket the gains from their successes and push their losses onto the taxpayers.   He said the government in a humane society ought to provide for the weak and help the unlucky get back on their feet, but it should never bail out a failed business.  If a business is too big to fail, he said, nobody in that business should receive greater compensation than the most highly-paid civil servant.

Taleb admires Ralph Nader because he is the opposite of a Wall Street banker.  Nader accepts personal risks and sacrifices in order to confer benefits on society as a whole.

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How to live in a world you don’t understand

March 23, 2013

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the author of  ANTIFRAGILE: Things That Gain From Disorder,  which is about how to thrive in a world that is basically unpredictable.  Taleb said that individuals and societies become stronger when they expose themselves to moderate amounts of stress and risk, and become vulnerable when they try to eliminate stress and risk.   He said it is impossible and unnecessary to predict the future.  What is possible, on an individual and societal level, is to arrange things so that you have more to gain than to lose from change.

In this video he talks about his ideas to his friend Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is about how people make most of their decisions on the basis of intuition, and how thing can lead us astray, particularly when thinking about risk.

I give you fair warning that this video is an hour and nearly 20 minutes long.  I thought it was interesting and maybe you will, too.   Here are some quotes from the book which I hope will pique your interest.

My characterization of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on.

He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has only sinned once.  And someone who has made plenty of errors—though never the same error more than once—is more reliable than someone who has never made any.

As a rule, intervening to limit size (of companies, airports, or sources of pollution), concentrations and speed are beneficial in reducing Black Swan risks.  These actions may be devoid of iatrogenics—but it is hard to get governments to limit the size of government.

My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.

The true hero in the Black Swan world is someone who prevents a calamity and, naturally, because the calamity did not happen, does not get recognition—or a bonus—for it.

Anything that needs to be marketed heavily is necessarily either an inferior product or an evil one.

If there is something in nature you don’t understand, odds are it makes sense in a deeper way that is beyond your understanding.

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The power of passive aggression (2)

March 23, 2013

ME_530_SorryClick on Mimi and Eunice for more Nina Paley cartoons.  She wrote that the above line was something her boyfriend said; he, to his credit, intended it to be funny.

Obama speaks plainly in Israel about Palestinians

March 22, 2013

President Obama said in a speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center yesterday that President Bashir of Syria “must go” and that “all options are on the table” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.  He also said that the Palestinian people have as much right as the Israelis to be “a free people in their own land.”  The latter is something that needed to be said by a President of the United States.

Like most of Barack Obama’s speeches, his talk in Jerusalem was carefully balanced and can be taken in different ways by different people.  It is clear that he does not intend to try to force the Israeli government to change its policies by reducing military aid or any other form of pressure.  But words do mean something.  They widen the range of what is acceptable to discuss.

Here are some excerpts from the talk.

President Obama in Israel

President Obama in Israel

I’ve made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. The world is watching. We will hold you accountable. (Cheers, applause.)

The Syrian people have the right to be freed from the grip of a dictator who would rather kill his own people than relinquish power.

(Cheers, applause.)  Assad must go so that Syria’s future can begin, because true stability in Syria depends upon establishing a government that is responsible to its people, one that protects all communities within its borders, while making peace with countries beyond them.

He went on to say that he hoped that sanctions and negotiations with Iran would succeed, but … …

Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained — (applause) — and as president, I’ve said all options are on the table for achieving our objectives.  America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

He said that Israel has the right to be free of terrorist attacks.  He said he favors negotiations between the Israeli government and Palestinian leaders for a two-state solution, without intervention by the United Nations or other third parties, but … …

It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own — (cheers, applause) — living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements, not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day.  It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. (Applause.)  It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank — (applause) — or displace Palestinian families from their homes.

Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer.  (Cheers, applause.)  Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land. (Applause.)

But I — I’m going off script here for a second, but before I — before I came here, I — I met with a — a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons.

I honestly believe that if — if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed. (Applause.)  I want them to prosper.  I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. (Applause.)  I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. (Cheers, applause.)  I believe that. (Cheers, applause.)

It’s true that the statements about Syria and Iran are action items, while the statement about a Palestinian state is only an exhortation.  But I don’t think that negates the value of his speech.  Progress has to begin somewhere.  Changes in policy begin with changes of attitude.

Click on New York Times transcript or The Guardian transcript for President Obama’s full speech.

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What not to do about Social Security

March 22, 2013

social-security-hemsley-ceo

Recently the Institute for Policy Studies ran a comparison of how proposed reductions in Social Security benefits—raising the retirement age, and lowering cost of living adjustments by means of the Chained CPI—would affect a home health aide, 51-year-old Rhonda Straw, and corporate CEOs Stephen Hemsley of UnitedHealth Group, the largest U.S. health insurer, and Larry Merlo of CVS Caremark, the largest U.S. drug retailer.

inequality

Click on Inequality in the Social Security Debate for the full IPS article.

What to do about Social Security

March 22, 2013

berniesanders

Sometime within the next couple of decades, barring surprises, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted.  That doesn’t mean there will be no money to pay Social Security benefits.  It means that the accumulated surplus funds earmarked to pay for the Baby Boom generation’s retirement will be exhausted, and payroll taxes won’t be enough to cover full benefits.

One way to deal with this is to raise the cap on payroll taxes, as proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont.  Neither President Obama nor the Democratic and Republican leadership in Congress is considering this.  Instead, their method of heading off a future reduction in benefits is a present reduction in benefits, either through raising the retirement age or reducing cost-of-living increases by calculating them with the Chained CPI.

Counting the costs of the Iraq war

March 21, 2013

Bush administration spokesmen said the invasion of Iraq was going to be a cakewalk, and the cost would be paid out of Iraq oil revenues.  Ten years later, we know the true costs.

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IraqWar_fig2

Click to enlarge.

For details, click on The Iraq War Ledger by the Center for American Progress.

Also click on Invading Iraq: What We Were Told at the Time by James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly.

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A politician who was right about the Iraq invasion

March 20, 2013

The invasion of Iraq by U.S. troops and allies began 10 years ago today. Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry voted in favor of the resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to use force, and ex-President Bill Clinton heartily supported the invasion.   One person who spoke out against the invasion was Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, who said the following in a speech in October, 2002.

I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein.  He is a brutal man.  A ruthless man.  A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power…. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors … and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.

I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

via Speech by Illinois State Senator Barack Obama in October, 2002.

I read a lot of complaints about how pundits, politicians and government officials who were wrong about Iraq are still as powerful and influential as they were before, while those who were right about Iraq are still marginalized.  Barack Obama is the exception to this.  If he had not spoken out against the Iraq invasion, he would not be President today.

Obama, the state legislator, manifested a lot of wisdom about the dangers of open-ended Presidential authority to engage in military action, and about why the United States should not start wars with countries that are not a threat to us.  I hope that President Obama can recapture some of that wisdom.

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Why I was wrong about the Iraq invasion

March 20, 2013

George Orwell wrote somewhere that a good way to maintain a sense of humility is to keep a diary of your political opinions.  Looking back on what you thought five or ten years before will remind you of your fallibility.

Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein

The United States and its Coalition partners began military operations against Iraq 10 years ago today.  I didn’t keep a diary, but I well remember what I thought then.

I was aware that the claims that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction were based on faked evidence.  I knew that far from being implicated in the 9/11 attacks, the secular nationalist Saddam was hated by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.  I feared that starting a war on the basis of a lie could come back to haunt us Americans, and yet I hoped it might turn out well.

This would not have been the first war launched by the United States on the basis of a lie.  The Mexican War was started on the basis of the lie that Mexican troops had fired on American troops on American soil.  The Spanish-American War was started on the basis of the lie that the Spanish blew up the battleship Maine in Havana harbor.  The Vietnam intervention was authorized on the basis of the lie that the North Vietnamese had attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.  Yet the first two of these wars turned out well—that is, well from the American perspective, not from the point of view of the victims of aggression.

iraq_oil_map485I thought it possible that the Iraq invasion would turn out well for all concerned.  Iraq was ruled by a cruel and hated dictator.  I thought that after U.S. forces liberated Iraq from the dictator, Iraq would become a country whose people were friendly to the United States, and whose rulers would be more dependable military allies and oil suppliers than the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

In addition, the United States had been waging a low-level war against Iraq for more than 10 years, following Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  All through the Clinton administration, Iraq was under economic blockade, with intermittent bombing, which had caused enormous hardship and suffering.  I thought that the human suffering from a quick invasion.

The George W. Bush administration quickly proved me wrong.  Military forces occupied the Iraqi oil ministry and oil fields, and let the rest of the country sink into chaos.  Local Iraqi leaders were pushed aside, and U.S. appointees installed in their place.  For some reason, the Iraqi military was disbanded, but individual soldiers were allowed to keep their weapons, when the obviously sensible thing to do would have been to confiscate the weapons but keep the soldiers on a payroll and under control.  American commanders installed themselves in some of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces, and sent prisoners to his old torture chamber in Abu Ghraib.

But even if the Bush administration had been sincerely interested in creating a democratic Iraq, this probably would not have been feasible for a foreign invading army to do.  I went through the same stages in my thinking about Iraq that I did about Vietnam, but over a shorter period of time—from thinking U.S. policy was flawed but justified to thinking that U.S. policy was a big mistake to thinking that U.S. policy was a crime. Of course it should have been obvious in both cases that unleashing total war on a small country that does not threaten you is a crime.

I was wrong about Iraq, and wiser friends of mine were right.  Now I was not a decision-maker, or even, in those days, a blogger.  My wrongness had few consequences.  But I am an American citizen.  Politicians ultimately answer to the citizens.  I have my small share of the responsibility for the Iraq tragedy.

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Obama sells GOP agenda to Democrats

March 20, 2013

The battle now going on in Washington over taxes and entitlements is a fixed fight.  Democratic and Republic leaders now agree that crucial safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare would be cut.  The only question is whether reductions in entitlements will be accompanied by moderate tax increases on the upper-income brackets, as the Democrats propose, or not, as the Republicans insists.

Shared SacrificeI blame President Barack Obama more than I blame right-wing Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan.  It is obvious what Ryan’s objective is—to destroy the social safety net, minimize taxes on rich people and give free rein to corporations.  And his supporters are in full agreement with his objective.

Obama’s actions are the opposite of his rhetoric, and, unlike with Ryan, the opposite of what his core supporters want.   I oppose the whole right-wing corporatist coalition—Ryan, Scott Walker the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council and all the rest.  But I feel betrayed by Obama.

When it comes to the Bill of Rights, President Obama lacks the courage to do what’s right in the face of public opinion.  But when it comes to going against the economic interests of his core supporters, he does possess the courage, as well as the political skill, to enact unpopular policies that are deeply wrong.

I forget who said that if Barack Obama is a liberal, he is an idiot, but that if he is a conservative, he is a genius.   I think he’s a genius.  Who else could have created a situation in which Democrats regard attacks on Social Security and Medicare as the moderate liberal position?

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Washington’s elite vs. the American public

March 19, 2013

Thomas B. Edsall wrote a good article in the New York Times earlier this weekmonth about how the consensus of the Washington elite goes against the views of the majority of American voters.

06edsall-majorityimg-tmagArticle

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Public opinion polls indicate that most Americans want to protect the social safety net by, if necessary, raising taxes on rich people, while the Washington consensus, including both Democrats and Republicans, is that taxes should be kept low and the social safety net should be reduced.

Social Security and Medicare policy are a good example.

Cutting benefits is frequently discussed in the halls of Congress, in research institutes and by analysts and columnists. The idea of subjecting earned income over $113,700 to the Social Security payroll tax and making the Medicare tax more progressive – steps that would affect only the relatively affluent — is largely missing from the policy conversation.

The Washington cognoscenti are more inclined to discuss two main approaches that are far less costly for the affluent: means-testing of benefits and raising the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare.  Sidenote: policy makers and national journalists who weigh in on this issue generally earn more than $113,700 a year.

via NYTimes.com.

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Click to enlarge

Raising the age of eligibility for Social Security is a bad idea.   It means a net cut in Social Security benefits.   It especially hurts poor people because they don’t live as long, on average, as rich people.  In today’s USA, if you’re laid off from work in your 50s, it is going to be exceedingly difficult to get a new job that pays a middle-class salary.

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Double click to enlarge

Means-testing Social Security—that is, denying Social Security benefits to people who are well off—is a bad idea.  It would penalize people for saving and trying to provide for themselves, which would be bad in itself and also provide ammunition for those who want to get rid of Social Security altogether.

Another popular proposal is the tinker with the cost-of-living adjustment by tying it to something called the Chained Consumer Price Index, which would rise more slowly than actual prices.  As I argued in a previous post, this would be a stealth cut in Social Security benefits and all other programs that are tied to the existing CPI.

Edsall said that raising the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes would solve the problem.  With an increase in payroll taxes amounting to 0.6 of a percentage point of Gross Domestic Product, the Congressional Budget Office projects that the Social Security trust fund would be in surplus for 75 years.  Federal taxes in 2009, 2010 and 2011 were 15.1, 15.1 and 15.4 percent of GDP, which is the lowest since 1950, Edsall said.  While this is off the table for discussion in Washington, public opinion polls indicate that this is the solution favored by a majority of the American public.

Elite anxiety over entitlement-driven budget deficits and accumulating national debt has created a powerful class in the nation’s capital.  The agenda of this class is in many respects on a collision course with mounting demands for action by those lower down the ladder to address the threat to government social insurance programs.  Intransigent opposition by the better off and their representatives to raising the necessary revenue means that not only Social Security and Medicare face a budgetary ax.

Among the additional likely casualties: WIC, which provides free nutrition for women, infants and children; long-term and emergency unemployment compensation benefits; low-income housing vouchers; vaccines for poor children; schooling for children with disabilities; special education; preschool programs; child care for disadvantaged and vulnerable children; after-school programs; treatment of the mentally ill; and meals for sick and homebound seniors.

This conflict could not have come at a more difficult time: the United States is in the midst of a zero sum struggle requiring politicians to pick losers, not winners.  The population of those over 65 is set to multiply, with longevity steadily increasing even as median annual household income for the population at large has shrunk to $51,584 in January 2013 from $54,000 in 2008.

In this kind of conflict over limited goods, one of the most valuable resources that can get lost in the fray is the wisdom of the electorate at large. In this case, the electorate is pointing toward progressive tax increases for those closer to the top far more readily than members of the political class, for whom high-earners are a crucial source of campaign contributions.

via NYTimes.com.

Edsall wrote a book published last year called The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Reshape American Politics.  I have skimmed it but not studied it, but I can say that his general assumption is that the age of shared prosperity is over, and that no group of Americans can now gain except at the expense of someone else.  The rich are going to cling to their riches, we senior citizens are going to cling to Social Security and Medicare, nobody else is going to give up anything either, and American politics is going to be increasingly bitter.

It’s very true that many social and economic problems would go away, or become a lot easier to deal with, if we had a full-employment, high-wage economy as in the 1950s and 1960s.  Our political debate would be over who is going to gain the most rather than who is going to have to sacrifice the most.  Edsall doesn’t think these days are coming back.  He is an astute observer and he could be right.

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