Thursday, October 30, 2014

Israel and the US 2014

Jeffrey's Goldberg's article, The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here The Atlantic 10/28/2014, has touched off a number of responses that review the state of relations between the United States and Israel.

Paul Pillar in U.S.-Israeli Relations: Don't Call It a Crisis The National Interest 10/29/2014 makes this observation in connection with the tensions that Goldberg describes:

One can legitimately question some of the particular accusations by the U.S. officials that Goldberg reports, not to mention the scatological and indecorous terminology employed. But to concentrate on this is to overlook the larger and far more important contours of the relationship. The most fundamental truth about the relationship is that, notwithstanding routine references to Israel as an “ally,” it is not an ally of the United States beyond being the recipient of all that U.S. material and political largesse. An ally is someone who offers something comparably significant and useful in return, particularly on security matters. That this is not true of Israel's relationship with the United States is underscored by the priority that the United States has placed, during some of its own past conflicts in the Middle East such as Operation Desert Storm, on Israel not getting involved because such involvement would be a liability, not an asset. [my emphasis in bold]
Chemi Shalev places much of the blame for the current tensions on Bibi Netanyahu (The 'chickenshit' relationship between Obama and Netanyahu Haaretz 10/29/2014):

Netanyahu earned the White House’s ire not for “standing up for Israel’s interests” behind closed doors, as he claims, but for wagging his finger, thumbing his nose and spitting in Obama’s eye while doing so, for the entire world to see. Despite the steady stream of righteous indignation emanating from Netanyahu and his defenders in both Israel and the the past 24 hours, there are very few red lines that the prime minister has not crossed in recent years in his contentious relationship with the American president. ...

Netanyahu has gleefully dissed Obama and his policies, on and off the record, often sounding no different than any rank and file member of the Republican caucus in Congress and regularly flaunting his intimate ties with their mutual benefactor and Obama nemesis, Sheldon Adelson. [my emphasis]
Israeli dove Gideon Levy (Who's the real chickenshit? Haaretz 10/29/2014) places more of the blame on Obama for letting Bibi push him around up until now, writing, "After six years of supporting the Netanyahu government’s moves with money and backing, support in the UN and weapons deliveries, there’s something pathetic and even aggravating about the insults now being hurled at Netanyahu. They seem more like ego games than policy."

Levy also seems to think the possibility of a two-state solution is gone: "Obama let Netanyahu continue building in the settlements, striking the fatal blow to the two-state solution dead."

Pillar makes some objection to the use of "crisis" about the current situation:

... in this context the word crisis is a misnomer. The term usually indicates a potential for a big turn for the worse, especially the outbreak of a war between whatever two parties are experiencing a crisis. That's not what's involved here. The only reason the term crisis comes up regarding U.S.-Israeli relations is the fictional, deliberately inflated view of the relationship as something qualitatively different that ought to defy any of the usual rules that apply to any patron and client or to any bilateral relationship. Sweep aside the politically-driven fiction about two countries that supposedly have everything in common and nothing in conflict and instead deal with reality, and the concept of crisis does not arise at all. What you have instead is a bilateral relationship that is like many others the United States has, with some parallel interests and objectives along with other objectives that diverge - sometimes sharply - and with honest recognition of the latter being a normal part of business.

Wolfgang Münchau uses the D-word for the eurozone

"Europe suffers from fatal politics." - Joseph Stiglitz, August 2014

"Die Lektion dieser verspäteten Stresstests lautet: Je länger wir an den Symptomen rumfummeln, anstatt die Ursachen zu bekämpfen, desto länger dauert die europäische Wirtschaftsdepression." [my emphasis]

"The lesson of these delayed stress tests [by the ECB of eurozone banks] reads: The longer with fool around with the symptoms, instead of dealing with the causes, the longer the European economic depression will last." [my emphasis]

- Wolfgang Münchau, Den echten Stress haben nicht die Banken Spiegel Online 27.10.2014
Münchau right points out that whatever good results from the stress tests the ECB just did, however many banks boost their capital reserves, it won't do much to boost the economy.

That's because the eurozone is in a depression, with interest rates at the zero lower bound. They are facing the real threat of deflation, if they aren't there already. Münchau notes that the ECB's stress test

Until economic activity picks up and therefore the demand for credit increases, the banks having money to lend won't do much good for the economy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Liberal philosophy and democracy

My reaction to the Isaiah Berlin article I discussed in the previous post is in part based on an idea expressed well by the "1st generation" Frankfurt School scholar Franz Neumann in "Approaches to the Study of Political Power" Political Science Quarterly 65:2 (June 1950).

He describes the negative views on democracy shared by two reactionary philosophers, Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) and Louis-Gabriel-Ambroise, Vicomte de Bonald (1754-1840), who argued that rule by the rabble would lead to dictatorship. He also cites the classical- liberal/libertarian view which "believes bureaucracy to be inimical to liberty and attempts to protect democracy by identifying it with individual liberty against the state."

He responds to those views this way:

Both reactions base themselves on what they call the tradition of Western civilization. the kernel of which is allegedly hostility to political power as expressed in constitutionalism. This is only a partial truth and, therefore, false. The tradition of Western civilization is more complex. Its richness was hinted at when we attempted to classify the various attitudes toward political power. Certainly, one may say that Rousseauism is a more important element in the political tradition of democracy than the essentially self-contradictory and arbitrary doctrines of Locke and of the natural law. That political power (whether democratic, aristocratic, or monarchic) can be abused is beyond doubt; but it is doubtful that abuses can be effectively checked by constitutionalism. The problem of modern democracy is much less the fencing of political power than its rational utilization and provision for effective mass participation in its exercise. [my emphasis]
I'm a little more fond of separation of powers as a guarantee of freedom and stability than Neumann seems to have been.

But it gets to the positive goal articulated by Berlin. He believes that a liberal order that allows dissent has the kind of self-correcting mechanisms that would prevent a slide into dictatorship.

Neumann sees, however, that any political system can fail or be subverted if enough people are determined to do so and enough people are indifferent to that outcome. Something very much like that happened to the Weimar Republic in Germany.

Popular participation and popular rule have to be substantive for democracy to actually be at work. De-politicization can and does happen in democracies.

And in the United States, we see that Congressional war powers have effectively been abolished - for now - by decades of the Long War (Cold War and afterward). So have many Constitutional protections against government spying on citizens. The protections are still on the books, i.e., in the Constitution. Before there has to be enough popular insistence on enforcing them for them to function as they should in reality.

Isaih Berlin and the dream of reason

The New York Review of Books website is running a speech that liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin gave  on 11/25/1994, A Message to the 21st Century 10/23/2014.

I'm not that familiar with Berlin's work. But if this speech is representative, a simplistic anti-Communism was a big part of his worldview.

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997)

I've discussed before the "From Luther to Hitler" position that tries to trace Nazism back to major figures in German intellectual life going back to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. See, e.g., Anthony Quinton on Hegel's metaphysics 10/11/2010.

Berlin's argument in that 1994 speech, he takes what could be called a from Fichte To Hitler And Mao Zedong Too approach:

Men have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon (who introduced mass killings in war), even the Armenian massacres, pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath: the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the systematic falsification of information which prevented knowledge of these horrors for years—these are unparalleled. They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted. ...

They were, in my view, not caused by the ordinary negative human sentiments, as Spinoza called them—fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power—though of course these have played their wicked part. They have been caused, in our time, by ideas; or rather, by one particular idea. It is paradoxical that Karl Marx, who played down the importance of ideas in comparison with impersonal social and economic forces, should, by his writings, have caused the transformation of the twentieth century, both in the direction of what he wanted and, by reaction, against it. ...

[Heinrich Heine] predicted that the armed disciples of the German philosophers — Fichte, Schelling, and the other fathers of German nationalism — would one day destroy the great monuments of Western Europe in a wave of fanatical destruction before which the French Revolution would seem child's play. This may have been unfair to the German metaphysicians, yet Heine’s central idea seems to me valid: in a debased form, the Nazi ideology did have roots in German anti-Enlightenment thought. There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached. [my emphasis]
Much of what Berlin says there fits so well with stock Cold War rhetoric that many of his hearers and readers may take this speech as a statement of the obvious.

But it's worth asking about those "men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience." He's describing psychopaths and sociopaths there, people who seem to have no conscience.

Is there any such evidence that such characteristics emerge "under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached"?

The short answer would be, no.

Psychopaths and sociopaths may gravitate to causes that allow them to exercise power over others. Police departments try as well as they can (or at least they're supposed to!) to screen such people out. But they aren't necessarily especially linked to totalizing ideologies, much less a quest to reach perfection.

Fanaticism can lead people to do ugly things. Cult environments can create conditions in which people set their consciences aside. But those kinds of things typically happen with certain kinds of leadership. Cults are characterized more by the prevalence of an authoritarian (and often psychopathic) type of leadership.

Training in normal national armies focus not only on teaching particular skills but on building team spirit and group cohesion.

If we ask the general question, "Do ideas matter in peoples' conduct?", of course the answer is, yes.

But do they matter in the way Berlin describes in this speech? Let's take one of his bogeymen, Fichte, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814). Fichte was a philosopher who considered himself a disciple of Kant, continuing Kant's work on transcendental idealism. He developed the subjective side of Kant's theory, emphasizing the ways in which the ego constitutes the external world. Put that way, it sounds like a religious mystical dogma. Or a philosophy of autism. But there is much more to it than that. For instance, he had a more radical theory of the social contract than Kant.

But where is there an identifiable train of thought that leads from Fichte to Hitler? Or to Stalin? Fichte was one of the heavies of classical German philosophy, now usually regarded as a transition figure between Kant and Hegel. That classical German philosophical tradition formed the intellectual background for figures as diverse as Bruno Bauer, Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and many others. Around 1850, the leading philosophical trend in Germany was toward materialist philosophies and away from both Hegelians and Romanticism of thinkers like Schelling (Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling).

It's a long and winding road indeed to get from Fichte to Goebbels!

Fichte is probably a good topic on which to ask whether Berlin's notion of a totalizing idea is well-defined enough to be meaningful. Fichte looked for a unifying point for all of scientific knowledge. But does that translated into developing an idea by which people "know perfection can be reached" in the here-and-now? Fichte wrote about political theory. But he was engaged in a philosophical project, not cooking up an ideology for a cult to use to kill people in order to touch of the final struggle that would bring on the Last Days, or whatever.

I'm assuming that Berlin also realized that a variety of material factors - sociological, economic, psychological, military - played an enormous role in those situations he describes. But did the particular ideologies themselves create the brutality he describes?

In Hitler's case, Nazism was a specifically anti-liberal ideology. That is to say that it was a radical, reactionary philosophy that rejected democratic and republican ideas of the modern era and wanted to construct a different kind of modern state and society in the guise of returning to old values and traditions. Those values being the alleged virtue of the Aryan race. Unlike Western democracy or Communism, Nazism specifically valued racial discrimination and glorified brutality and militarism.

However, the horror we now know as the Holocaust took place in the context of war and annexation. The mass roundup of Jews began in Austria after the Anschluss (annexation) of early 1938. Historians like Christopher Browning have combed through the evidence to establish a timeline on the decision to initiate mass killings. And it's clear that the decision came in 1941 around the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Now, Hitler's determination to get rid of the Jews in Europe was one of the two core ideological points the Nazis consistently took seriously, the other being gaining "living space" by invading and conquering the USSR. So ideology played a part. But the fulfillment of the first point was dependent on the conditions of full-blown war mobilization required by the second. And we have to ask if an ideology which had those two points at its core actually counts as one that made its followers think they were reaching for perfection in the immediate future.

Berlin suggests some kind of straight line influence from Karl Marx' thought to mass deaths in the Soviet Union and China in the following century. In Cold War terminology that sounds entirely plausible. Both countries called themselves "Marxist," didn't they?

But here again, we're talking about very particular structures and specific policy decisions. In both cases, the largest number of deaths directly attributable to state policy came from starvation in the wake of reforms affecting agriculture. In the USSR, it was the massive collectivization of farming in parallel to what the Soviets called the de-kulakization campaign, aimed at breaking the power of the dominant class in agriculture. The disruptions involved with that process contributed to the Soviet famine of 1932-33 that hit the Ukraine particularly hard. Similarly, Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward of 1958-60 disrupted Chinese agriculture and resulted in famine, as well.

But do those events trace backward in a clear intellectual history to Marx and Fichte? It's hard to see how. Marx focused on the advanced economies of Western Europe and the US, and didn't write up any blueprints for how a soviet state would collectivize agriculture. (For that matter, the "soviet" or worker's council as a key phenomenon in a socialist revolution didn't emerge until the Russian Revolution of 1905.) And in practice, Mao's Great Leap Forward was more an attempt to jump-start industrial development than it was an agricultural reform, though it diverted many peasant farmers from farming and therefore generated famine. But the whole idea was a rejection of the Soviet blueprint for a socialist country's development. It's hard to see how one could squeeze as simple a tale of continuity out of that set of events as Berlin seems to be doing here.

And what did poor old Fichte have to do with it?

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814)

Berlin's philosophical liberal argument - which shouldn't be confused with the particular American political meaning of "liberal" - is directed against what came to be called totalitarianism, though Berlin doesn't use that still-disputed term here. This portion not only elaborates his idea of that. It also raises an interesting point about the continuity of "German anti-Enlightenment thought" that he sees at work:

If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used — if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any. [my emphasis]
Actually, in the real world, people believe all the time in ideal solutions, particularly religious ones, without resorting to the extreme methods Berlin specifies here as the inevitable result of such a belief. People can and do believe that there are solutions that would produce "an ideal society," or something close to it, without throwing away all moral restraints and all respect for established institutions. It may have been obvious in Cold War terms that the Other Side that "must believe that no price can be too high." Just as now Islamophobes of various sorts believe something similar about all Muslims and all forms of Islam. But it doesn't describe the real world.

The Enlightenment notions of Reason weren't the last word on philosophy, either. Even the Enlightenment had it's dark side, as Goya famously depicted in "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters":

I'd be curious to see the context of Lenin's statement about the effect of Marx's Capital on him. (Another Cold War verbal habit: calling it "Das Kapital" in an English sentence makes it sound more foreign and German.) But it also calls into question the from-Fichte-to-Stalin continuity of which Berlin is complaining. Capital is a work on political economy. And it is an imminent critique of the field it analyzes, with lots of attention paid to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, especially. These were classical liberal thinkers and also Brits. Maybe it was the influence of British liberal political economists more than German Idealists and Romantics that so influenced Lenin in that direction!

Ideas do have consequences. Including liberal ideas. Like those of the economic neoliberalism that wreaks havoc on many developing countries and has imposed brutal costs on the economies of the eurozone, Japan and even the United States. (Paul Krugman, Notes on Japan 10/28/2014)

But we would do much better looking at the dangers of dogmatism and fanaticism than to look for one evil idea to eradicate.

Berlin's broad statement of his perspective sounds good to American ears trained to regard them as truisms: "So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals."

But when it comes to real-world cases on an issue like same-sex marriage or abortion, this live-and-let-live credo often quickly gives way in practice to other forms of dogmatism and fanaticism, many of them all the while declaring their allegiance to ideals of liberal democracy.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More on Dilma's re-election in Brazil

Al Jazeera English reports on the Brazilian election, Dilma Rousseff re-elected Brazil president 10/26/2014:

Euronews also has a brief spot on the election results, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff wins second term 10/26/2014:

Much of the reporting on Dilma Rousseff's re-election Sunday as Brazil's President has understandably stressed the relatively narrow margin of her vote, 51.6% vs. 48.4% for her opponent Aécio Neves, according to a 10/26/2014 Reuters report. Reuters called it "one of the closest, most divisive campaigns in Brazil in decades." (Brian Winter and Alonso Soto, Leftist Rousseff narrowly wins second term in Brazil 10/26/2014)

Then again, a clear majority is a clear majority. And, as Eric Nepomuceno points out, Brazil is not a small country; three percentages points amount to around three million votes. (Brasil reafirmó su confianza en Dilma Página/12 27.10.2014) So it's not as if this election turned on hanging chads in a single Brazilian state or something.

And Martin Granovsky adds further perspective. (Las claves de la alegría y el alivio Página/12 27.10.2014) With 55.5 million votes, Dilma's PT is the most-voted-for left party in the world right now. (Granovsky is presumably excluding the one-party elections in China featuring the Communist Party.) After her second term is done, that will represent 16 consecutive years of the PT as the ruling party. Her Presidency follows the two terms of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. And Dilma's policies are broadly a continuation of Lula's. Neither are thought of fondly be advocates of the neoliberal "Washinton Consensus." Emir Sader writes (Por el camino iniciado por Lula Página/12 27.10.2014):

En el enfrentamiento entre el modelo neoliberal de la oposición y la vía de salida del neoliberalismo del gobierno, por cuarta vez los brasileños han reafirmado el camino que Lula ha empezado. Serán por lo menos 16 años seguidos de gobiernos del PT, el período más largo de continuidad de un partido en el gobierno, en período democrático en Brasil.

[In the confrontation between the neoliberal model of the opposition and the path away from neoliberalism of the government, for the fourth time Brazilians have reaffirmed the path that Lula began. There will be at least 16 successive years of PT governments, the longest period of continuity of a party in the government during a democratic period in Brazil.]
Granovsky also calls attention to outsized role played by major media companies, not least of them TV giant Red Globo and the magazine Veja. The overtly partisan role of major media is a widely-recognized fact of life in various South American countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. In all three countries, the weight of media influence is against the governing party, despite the routine claims in the US media about how the Venezuelan government dominates the press or even controls it.

And he notes that Dilma's re-election was widely seen as a victory for the broader reforms movement (democratic reform, not neoliberal reactionary "reforms") in South America:

El triunfo en Brasil fue recibido como propio en la Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador y Chile, y con satisfacción por el colombiano Juan Manuel Santos, que por Twitter felicitó y dijo que espera “seguir trabajando por el bien de nuestros dos países y la región”.

[The triumph in Brazil was received as their own in Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile, and with satisfaction by the Colombian {President} Juan Manuel Santos, who tweeted congratulations and said that he expects to "keep working for the good of our two countries and the region."]
Presumably because of its physical size, population and economy, Gronovsky argues, "Dilma y Lula consiguieron la victoria electoral más importante de los proyectos de reforma con inclusión en Sudamérica" ("Dilma and Lula have achieved the electoral victory of the reform projects with inclusion in South America"). Inclusion refers to civil rights for minorities, including aboriginal peoples, and for gays and lesbians. Same-sex marriage is legal in Brazil.

This is a Portuguese-language report on Dilma's post-election speech; Portuguese is the main language in Brazil. Discurso de Dilma Rousseff após ser reeleita Presidente do Brasil 10/26/2014:

TV Pública argentina provides this Spanish-language post-election analysis, which also discusses yesterday's Presidential election in Uruguay, Visión 7 - Análisis sobre el resultado de las elecciones en Brasil y Uruguay 10/27/2014:

Nepomuceno writes that Dilma's speech as, ""emotivo, sincero, de compromiso" ("emotional, sincere, in a spirit of engagement"). He notes that she will face a stubborn rightwing opposition. Some of whom are "más que conservadores, son radicalmente conservadores" ("more than conservatives, they are radically conservatives"). He gives an example of far-right sentiment: "En Río, el más votado ha sido un militar retirado que defiende la dictadura y dice que prefiere tener a un hijo muerto que a un hijo homosexual" ("In Río, the candidate winning the most votes was a retired general who defends the [last Brazilian military] dictatorship and says he would prefer a dead son than a homosexual son").

Dilma's Worker's Party alliance (Partido de los Trabajadores/PT) won a majority in both houses of Congress. But one of Dilma's main allies, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB/Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro) may not be consistently reliable. Separate parties in Brazil and Argentina will often combine into an umbrella party or electoral coalition in national elections. Nepomuceno reports that the PMDB was split, with about half supporting Dilma and the other half Neves.

I generally don't attach much significance to stock market changes after elections or disasters. But Brazilian stocks did dip after Dilma defeated Neves, who was conventionally assumed to be more "pro-business." (Maria Tadeo, Brazil elections: Currency and stocks tumble after Dilma Rousseff is re-elected The Independent 10/27/2014) Tadeo gives us a hint of what those "pro-business" policies were:

Neves, a senator and former governor of the state of Minas Gerais, had promised to speed up economic reforms, make the central bank more independent and encourage foreign investment against a backdrop of rising inflation, falling commodity prices and a slowdown in the economy.

"We anticipate that the re-election campaign will act as a wake-up call for Rousseff, helping to recognise the inadequacies of her past policies," said Kunal Ghosh, manager of the Allianz BRIC Stars Fund.

"We will continue to maintain an underweight position in state-owned enterprises and banks in Brazil as policy changes will take time," he added.

On Sunday, Rousseff struck a conciliatory tone and vowed to tame inflation, which is running above six per cent, and "make improvements" when it comes to Brazil's public finances.

Rousseff had previously announced Guido Mantega, the country's finance minister, would be replaced, presumably by a more pro-business minister, if she won a second term.
Dilma carried Minas Gerais, the state where Neves had been governor.

There were notable polarizations along class and regional lines. The less prosperous northeastern states are the main voting base for the PT, and they came through for Dilma in Sunday's runoff. Eric Nepomuceno writes in another article, Dilma otra vez Página/12 27.10.2014:

Al fin y al cabo, ella perdió, y de lejos, en las regiones más ricas del país. En São Paulo, por ejemplo, más desarrollada y poblada provincia del país, Dilma perdió por siete millones de votos. Una tremenda derrota: Eche logró 64 por ciento de los votos de la provincia más industrializada, más rica del país, frente al 36 por ciento de Dilma. Ya en los estados pobres del nordeste su ventaja ha sido aplastante. Un dato importante: en Minas Gerais, provincia natal de los dos adversarios, Dilma ganó con relativa tranquilidad. E igualmente ganó en Río, provincia clave. Todo eso tendrá peso específico de aquí en adelante.

[When all is said and done, she lost by a wide margin in the richest regions of the country. In São Paulo, for instance, the most developed and populous province of the country, Dilma lost by seven million votes. A tremendous defeat: She managed to lose 64% of the votes in the most industrialized province versus 36% for Dilma. Yes, in the poor states of the northeast her window {of victory} was enormous. An important fact: in Minas Gerais, the home province of her two adversaries {in the first round}, Dilma won with relative tranquility. And same won the same way in Río, a key province. All of this will have specific weight going forward from here.]

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dilma wins in Brazilian Presidential runoff

Bloomberg News has an English-language report on Dilma Rousseff's victory in Sunday's election in Brazil that mostly leaves out the nails-on-a-blackboard characterizations that too often characterize articles in the American press on Latin American politics: David Biller and Mario Sergio Lima, Rousseff Re-Elected on Call to Save Brazil’s Social Gains 10/26/2014.

The standard American press filter is that any party or government that doesn't want to let American financial and industrial corporations run wild in their country is deeply suspect.

Reuters' report on the election, Leftist Rousseff narrowly wins second term in Brazil by Brian Winter and Alonso Soto 10/26/2014, is more in line with the standard American press view.

Euronews has a pre-election, 2 1/2 minute report that gives a quick overview of the contest, Brazil: an aristocrat or revolutionary for next president 10/25/2014:

The title refers to Dilma's early political activism, which the Reuters article describes reasonably accurately, "Rousseff, who was jailed and tortured in the early 1970s for opposing that era's military dictatorship, is the country's first woman president."

The McClatchy article gives a good description of the results without a lot of the standard US ideological baggage (Vinod Sreeharsha, Rousseff narrowly wins 2nd term as Brazil’s leader 10/26/2014):

Her triumph came despite a sluggish economy, corruption allegations, discontent over the quality of public services and anger over the government’s handling of two major international sporting events -- last summer’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Still, the victory will place Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party in power for 16 consecutive years, an unprecedented stint at the helm of Latin America’s largest economy.

With 98 percent of the vote counted, Rousseff, 66, an economist who became Brazil’s first female president in 2010, had won 51.45 percent. Her opponent, Aecio Neves, a senator and former governor of Minas Gerais state, an important mining center, received 48.55 percent, according to the country’s electoral officials. ...

As expected, Rousseff performed best in the country’s northeast, which has had an unprecedented economic boom and seen poverty drop and its middle class expand in the 12 years that Rousseff and her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, have been in power.
And, yes, "macho" South American countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile have elected and re-elected female Presidents.

Campaigning over Néstor Kirchner in Argentina

The next Presidential election in Argentina is in 2015, with incumbent President Cristina Fernández stepping down after two terms. There are several potential candidates lining up to be nominated by the Partido Justicialista (PJ), the Peronist party of which Cristina and her late husband and predecessor as President, Néstor Kirchner, are a part. It's not unusual in Argentina now for parties to make electoral coalitions on which they run and organize their voting blocs in Congress. The Peronist party is currently running as the lead party of the Frente para la Victoria (FpV).

Página/12 asked seven leading potential candidates, which they call "precandidates," for the FpV nomination to talk about the legacy of Néstor Kirchner, who died four years ago. (El Néstor Kirchner que yo conocí 26.10.2014)

It's an interesting way to get them to state their general outlook by asking them to focus on a symbolic figure, whose image is in some ways a more important symbol for Peronists now that the party founder Juan Perón or even Evita.

The candidates who contributed to the tributes are Julián Domínguez (President of the Cámara de Diputados, the lower House of Congress), Aníbal Fernández (Senator and former head of Cristina's Cabinet), Florencio Randazzo (Minster of the Interior and Transportation), Agustín Rossi (Defense Minister), Daniel Scioli (Governor of Buenos Aires province), Jorge Taiana (Legislator for Buenos Aires City) and Sergio Urribarri (Governor of Entre Ríos).

Scioli and Urribarri have previously emphasized their adherence to the political direction of kirchnerismo, the term used to describe the social-democratic policies of Néstor and Cristina. (Contra el frente derogador Página/12 20.10.2014)

In this current piece, Scioli makes particular mention of his approval of the economic policies of kirchnerismo that defy the neoliberal orthodoxy. "Sigamos sus políticas de desendeudamiento e inclusión," he says. ("We will continue to follow his policies of debt reduction and inclusion.")

Urribarri goes light on policy, light as in not mentioning any. He focuses instead on an anecdote about Néstor and declares that he won the confidence of both Kirchners.

Dominguez praises Néstor for sticking to his policies in his Presidency in dealing with "un default irresponsablemente generado por las tropelías de los noventa" ("a default irresponsibly generated by the outrages of the 90s"). He also praises Néstor for politicizing young people across the political spectrum, which may a condescending way of dismissing La Campora, the Peronist youth organization that is a pillar of support for kirchnerista policies. But Dominguez also praises Néstor at the end for his promotion of the organization of South American nations UNASUR, for his assertive policy in defending the Malvinas Islands as Argentine territory, and his policy of judicial accountability for criminals of the military dictatorship of 1976-83.

Fernández calls Néstor "el Perón de mi época" ("the Perón of my era"), in politician's style putting the phrase into the mouth of an anonymous young person he heard talking about Néstor's death. And he tells what in America the blogger Digby would call a "Tipnronnie" story, referring to the favorite tale of our Pod Pundits about how Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill and President St. Reagan would argue over policy during the day and then get together and have a friendly beer in the evening. Fernández' message here to the PJ base seems to be: don't hate because I may oppose some favorite policies of kirchnerismo.

Randazzo recounts Néstor's support against the economic cartels.

Rossi praises Néstor in a grandly symbolic way: he made a lot of young people enthusiastic about politics, he was "el dirigente político más importante de la primera década del siglo XXI en la Argentina" ("the most important political leader of the first decade of the 21st century in Argentina"). The latter comes off like a not-too-subtle dig at Cristina. His contribution sounds like a carefully-parsed press release from a politician trying not to irritate the PJ base while avoiding signalling a clear direction.

Taiana emphasizes his participation with Néstor in negotiations with Colombia to get Argentine prisoners of the guerrilla group FARC released, emphasizing Néstor's priority on building regional alliances, which Cristina has continued.

ECB provides a sobering but sunny stress test for eurozone banks #ecbstresstest

The ECB seems to be putting an optimistic spin on the results of a "stress test" applied to the state of major banks for the year 2013. The ECB formally assumes oversight for European banks in November. Euronews reports in One in five major European banks fail ECB's first stress test 10/26/2014:

Claire Jones and Alice Ross report for the Financial Times (ECB says banks overvalued assets by €48bn 10/26/2014):

Of the 25 banks that took the biggest hit under the AQR, Italian banks were the clear laggards with eight members, according to calculations by Strategy&, a consultancy. The worst hit was Monte dei Paschi di Siena.

Four Greek banks, three from Austria and two each from Cyprus, Slovenia, and Spain were among the 25 banks who will face the biggest write downs.

German lenders will have to lower the value of their assets by €6.7bn and their French counterparts by €5.6bn.
Overvaluation of assets is a huge problem. "The central bank blamed poor valuation of commercial loans for a chunk of the adjustments."

One of the major factors in the draconian measures that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted upon in the sovereign-debt aspect of the euro crisis has been based on an unwillingness to face the general weakness of the European big banks, including in Germany.

In Austria, the Österreichische Volksbanken AG (ÖVAG) was the only was that was considered to have failed the stress test. Which means that it was likely to go under in a serious three-year economic decline. Two other major Austrian banks, Erste Bank and Raifeissen, were both found to be significantly under-estimating the risk levels on loans in their portfolios, which overvalued their assets. And with a overestimation of assets, capital reserves can be inadequate to the real, risk-adjusted value of the portfolios.

The Euronews report implies that the worry over weak banks would be that in a downturn, they would have inadequate credit to lend to businesses. Which is true as far as it goes.

But that's kind of a tip-of-the-iceberg way of defining the problem. If major banks start failing, national states are responsible for bailing them out. And that requires huge outlays at a time when the economy is declining and government revenues are falling. That means more debt. Including in a country like Greece, which already has an unpayable level of debt, currently at around 175% of GDP.

It's not an abstract possibility. Not only is the eurozone slipping into a new recession within the depression that began in 2008. This scenario is how Ireland became one of the debt crisis basket cases. When Irish banks started failing after 2008, the Irish government borrowed heavily to bail out their banks. A similar scenario occurred in Spain.

Gerald Braunberger notes that in Germany, the ECB tests raised concerns - presumably he means among banks and in government circles - over the oversight role of the ECB. (Der Test allein macht die Branche nicht gesund Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 26.10.2014) Merkel's nationalistic policy includes Germany having a dominant role in eurozone economic policy but without being subjected to the inconveniences of common responsibility and regulation on the part of the larger eurozone, ECB or EU.

Braunberger argues that the ECB designed its stress test to minimize the bad news:

Das Ergebnis ist in etwa so ausgefallen, wie es zu erwarten war. Die EZB konnte angesichts der fragilen Verfassung vieler Banken nicht alle Institute den Test passieren lassen, ohne sich von Beginn an als Bankenaufseher selbst zu diskreditieren. Hätte sie andererseits zu viele Banken scheitern lassen, wäre möglicherweise große Unruhe unter den Kunden entstanden – mit eventuell drastischen Folgen. Solche Bankentests sind keine reine Übung in angewandter Mathematik. Sie besitzen auch eine politische Dimension und dies schmälert natürlich ihre Aussagekraft.

Gleichwohl kann nicht erstaunen, dass die meisten der durchgefallenen Banken im Süden Europas beheimatet sind. Dennoch sollte sich keine Bank ausruhen, nur weil sie den Test bestanden hat. Dies gilt auch für die deutschen Kreditinstitute, die bei genauerem Hinsehen keineswegs alle sehr gut abgeschnitten haben. Die Bundesbank hat in ihrer Kommentierung der Stresstest-Ergebnisse zurecht auf weiterhin vorhandene Schwächen hingewiesen.

[The result is some ways came out as was to be expected. In light of the fragile constitution of many banks, the ECB could not let all the institutions pass the test without discrediting itself from the start as the overseer of banks. On the other had, if it had made too many banks fail, great unease could have arisen among customers - with possibly drastic consequences. Such bank tests are not a pure mathematical exercise. The also have a political dimension and this diminishes their conclusiveness.

At the same time it cannot be surprising that most of the banks that failed are headquartered in the south of Europe. But it shouldn't comfort any bank just because they passed the test. This is also the case for German institutions, which on closer examination by no means all look good. The [German] Bundesbank in its commentary on the stress test results has rightly emphasized broadly present weaknesses.]
Braunberger is suggesting that the ECB's approach in the stress test was something like this:

Laura Noonan and Eva Taylor report for Rueters in ECB fails 25 banks in health check but problems largely solved 10/26/2014 on the ECB test, the headline accentuating the positive. Their report highlights the southern European banks designated by the ECB as particularly problematic:

Painting a brighter picture than had been expected, the ECB found the biggest problems in Italy, Cyprus and Greece but concluded that banks' capital holes had since chiefly been plugged, leaving only a modest 10 billion euros ($12.7 billion) to be raised.

Italy faces the biggest challenge with nine of its banks falling short and two still needing to raise funds.

The test, designed to mark a clean start before the ECB takes on supervision of the banks next month, said Monte dei Paschi (BMPS.MI) had the largest capital hole to fill at 2.1 billion euros. ...

Alongside Italy, regulators said three Greek banks, three Cypriots, two from both Belgium and Slovenia, and one each from France, Germany, Austria, Ireland and Portugal had also missed the grade as of end-2013.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Early Nixon sleaze politics against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas

I've been learning more about the 1950 Senate campaign of Republican Congressman Richard Nixon against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas.

Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, 1945

Douglas was an actress and the husband of actor Melvyn Douglas. In 1944, she became one of the first women elected to the US Congress. The House history of Douglas presents this summary of her entry to Congress:

Douglas and her husband traveled frequently and witnessed firsthand Japanese militarism and European fascism in the 1930s. With international tensions on the rise, Helen Douglas set entertainment work aside and threw herself into public–service projects, becoming a member of the national advisory committee of the Works Progress Administration and a member of the California state committee of the National Youth Administration. She traveled frequently to the White House to meet with Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1940, she became a California Democratic national committeewoman—a post she held until 1944 - serving as the vice chair of the California Democratic central committee and as head of the women’s division. From 1942 to 1943, she was on the board of the California Housing and Planning Association.

In 1944, when six–term incumbent Democrat Thomas Ford announced he would retire from his seat encompassing downtown Los Angeles, Douglas entered the race to succeed her political ally. With Ford’s endorsement, she prevailed in the primary as the only woman among eight candidates, receiving more than 14,000 votes, versus about 5,200 for the runner–up.4 In the general election, Douglas appealed to African–American voters in her urban district. Her platform called for equal rights, labor rights, food subsidies, unemployment insurance for returning GIs, a revitalized farm security program, and income–based taxation for farmers and small business owners. She also advocated international cooperation. Her candidacy drew attention to equality for women. When asked about a woman’s place in Congress, Douglas replied, “Politics is a job that needs doing—by anyone who is interested enough to train for it and work at it. It’s like housekeeping; someone has to do it. Whether the job is done by men or women is not important—only whether the job is done well or badly.” Douglas ultimately prevailed over her Republican opponent, William D. Campbell, by a slim margin, 51.5 to 48.5 percent. As she established a reputation in the House, Douglas’s electoral support increased. In her subsequent bids for re–election in 1946 and 1948, she defeated her GOP challengers with 54 percent and 65 percent, respectively. [my emphasis]
Douglas was very much a New Deal liberal, in other words. Carey McWilliams wrote in 1945 ("Race Relations on the Pacific Coast" Journal of Educational Sociology Nov 1945):

Racial minorities in the United States have no more effective partisans in Congress today than such Southern California representatives as Helen Gahagan Douglas, Ellis Patterson, Ned Healey, Chet Holafield, Clyde Doyle, Gordon McDonough, and Cecil King (all from Los Angeles County); and George Outland from the Santa Barbara district. [my emphasis]
Greg Mitchell in his book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gagagan Douglas - Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950 (1998) relates this incident, which gives me a new sense of liking for Douglas: "She loudly hissed a colleague on the floor of the House - the powerful John Rankin of Mississippi - when he blamed many U.S. casualties in World War II on the ineptitude of Negro soldiers."

Rankin was one of the most obnoxious among many obnoxious white racists who served in Congress from the states of the former Confederacy. It's nice to hear that someone in Congress was treating him with the level of respect he deserved.

The House history of Nixon gives no information about his political positions in his Congressional years:

... attorney in Office of Emergency Management, Washington, D.C., January 1942 to August 1942; during the Second World War served in the United States Navy from August 1942 to January 1946 and was discharged as a lieutenant commander; elected as a Republican to the Eightieth and Eighty-first Congresses and served from January 3, 1947, until his resignation November 30, 1950; elected to the Senate for the term commencing January 3, 1951; subsequently appointed to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Sheridan Downey and served from December 1, 1950, until his resignation January 1, 1953, to become Vice President ...
As the Cold War got underway, so did the post-Second World War Red Scare, which we know today by the term McCarthyism, after the sleazy, red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

Nixon became an enthusiastic practitioner of the Anti-Communism game, smearing his 1946 opponent, incumbent Democratic Congressman Jerry Voorhis in his 1946 race, Nixon's first political campaign. He continued it from his seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which concentrated on trying to smear Democrats and Communists and un-American more than investigating actual security threats.

And he took it to a new level in his Senate campaign against Douglas. That campaign should a ruthlessness and sleaziness in Nixon's approach to his political image that he would bring with him to the national stage. And would eventually bring him down. Nixon's 1972 opponent George McGovern described his early political career this way ("Nixon: The Last Word" Foreign Policy Autumn 1994):

During most of his political career, Nixon seemed to express himself in a contrived manner. It was never clear that he was speaking with any motivation other than political effect-- either to advance his own political fortune or to diminish a political opponent. He was too intelligent a man not to know that his first campaigns for office against Representatives Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas represented political demagoguery of the worst sort-unscrupulous attacks on the patriotism of deeply devoted public servants of the first rank.
Nixon in the California Senate campaign of 1950

In that 1994 article, a review of Nixon's book Beyond Peace (1994), McGovern reflected on the lasting, toxic effects of the particular brand of anti-Communism that Nixon pursued for much of his career:

There is no recognition in Beyond Peace that Nixon's interest in improving relations with the Soviet Union and China [during his Presidency] came after his quarter of a century of red-baiting against other politicians who had long advocated such a course.

If Beyond Peace has any one recurring and bothersome shortcoming, it is this inability or reluctance to acknowledge earlier errors in judgment.
But he was willing to rewrite the facts, exercising his signature casual relationship with truth. Mitchell relates that Nixon would later claim that Communism had not been "an issue at any time in the 1946 campaign. Few people knew about Communism then [?!?], and even fewer cared."

Mitchell does note that in 1946, Communism as an issue didn't have the salience that it did in 1950: "No candidate could run strictly on anticommunism (as Nixon would do four years later [against Douglas]) and win."

But he also describes some of how Nixon and his supporters actually campaigned against Voorhis:

From the start of the campaign, Nixon repeatedly pointed out that Voorhis had belonged to the Socialist Party in the early 1930s and charged that his voting record in Congress was "more Socialistic and Communistic than Democratic." The turning point in the campaign came, however, when Voorhis agreed to a series of debates. Nixon scored heavily when he falsely charged that his opponent had been endorsed by a "Communist-dominated" political action committee. ...

In the closing weeks of the campaign, anti-Voorhis smears circulated widely, none directly linked to Nixon headquarters and therefore all the more effective. One rumor warned that international Jewry was using Voorhis and other political leaders, such as Helen Douglas, to "destroy Christian America." The weekend before the election, many voters answered their phone to hear a stranger ask, "Did you know that Jerry Voorhis is a Communist?" and then hang up.

When it was over, Nixon had won a smashing victory. A few months afterward he reportedly confided to a former Voorhis aide that "of course" he knew his opponent "wasn't a communist .... I had to win. That's the thing you don't understand. The important thing is to win." [my emphasis]
A high-school classmate of Nixon's, Merton Wray, described his view of Nixon's first two campaigns for office this way (Chapter 5 of The Young Nixon: An Oral Inquiry; Renée Schulte, ed; 1978)

Nixon showed a tremendous ability to sense the situation. He showed that same ability after the [Second World] war when he challenged Voorhis. The people were frustrated with the war. They lost sons in the war, and they wanted things to return to normalcy. They didn't want to make any further sacrifices; they wanted to build a decent society. But Voorhis had advocated the purchase of the Federal Reserve System, so the bankers decided to try to get rid of him. Nixon was sponsored by Mr. [Herman] Perry, the vice-president of what is now the Bank of·America. Hubert Perry's father sponsored Nixon and led the spirit to get rid of Voorhis. Nixon was able to take advantage of all the frustration that came after the war. He took advantage of it more during his campaign with Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was stronger then. There was already beginning to develop a frustration with our allies, the Russians - you know, they were reneging a little bit. Nixon was able to sense that, and he used that against Voorhis. That's where, in the campaign, they got the idea that the Communists were supporting Voorhis, whereas, in reality, the Communists were fighting Voorhis harder than anybody. [my emphasis]
I'm not sure where he got the idea that the Communists "were fighting Voorhis harder than anybody." I'm guessing not a lot of Communists were out there on the Nixon for Congress campaign in 1946. He may have been obliquely referring to criticism directed at Voorhis by critics of the Truman Administration's increasingly harsh foreign policy line against the Soviet Union. Stephen Ambrose cites the Communist Party's paper People's World criticizing Voorhis in 1946 and complaining, "Voorhis is against unity with Communists on any issue under any circumstances." (Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962; 1987) I don't know how hard they were fighting Voorhis, but it certainly doesn't seem like the Communist Party in 1946 was treating Jerry Voorhis as one of their friends! Voorhis had even sponsored what was known as the Voorhis Act of 1940 that required the registration of Communists. He certainly doesn't sound like a Communist, or even much of a civil libertarian.

But Ambrose confirms that Herman Perry was a local kingmaker in the Republican Party in Nixon's district.In fact, Ambrose calls him "the leading banker" and "the most influential man" in Nixon's city of Whittier."Perry had brought Nixon into the Young Republicans before the war and, by Ambrose's account, essentially anointed him to run against Voorhis in 1946. It was also in this campaign that he began working with campaign consultant Murray Chotiner, an important figure in Nixon's later career. Ambrose describes him in unflattering terms. "Chotiner was a sallow-skinned, fat, obsequious man, whose reputation far outstripped his actual influence. Variously described as the Machiavelli of California politics or as a master smear artists, he later became an important adviser to Nixon, and indispensable as a manager," though Chotiner seems to have played a limited role in the 1946 campaign.

Sleazy campaigning worked for Nixon in the Congressional race in 1946. "I had to win. ... The important thing is to win." He would fight dirtier in his campaign against Douglas in 1950.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Highbrow plutocratic advocacy from Francis Fukayama

The famous neo-Hegelian, neoconservative (former neocon?) Francis Fukuyama has an article in the Sept/Oct number of Foreign Affairs, devoted to the Big Think topic, The American Distemper." Fukuyama's piece is called "American in Decay: The Sources of Political Dysfunction," adapted from his new book Political Order and Political Decay: From the French Revolution to the Present (2014).

The argument has its mildly provocative moments. He seems to be advocating (kinda sorta) a unicameral parliamentary government on the model of the French Revolution, an idea dear to European radical democrats in the 19th century, including revolutionary Social Democrats.

But that's just the neoconservative flourish on a stale but persistent Republican argument that ultimately concludes that gridlock in the national government is just what we need, until we can get to a point where we get rid of some of this annoying democracy stuff.

And, no, the radical democracy argument makes no sense in that context, which is why I pass it off as a rhetorical flourish.

Fukuyama is a scholar and he frames his arguments as such. But this article remains a highbrow statement of a stock conservative position.

He argues that the Progressive reforms of the early 20th century were good because they reduced the power of city machines that were often corrupt but also often very effective in responding to the needs of working-class residents.

Part of the idea was that professional management was superior to that of politicians, like in the Forest Service. The Forest Service, in the Fukayama version of history, was no longer influenced by politics or politicians for its first years and decades. Like, you know, the Congress that appropriates its money and writes the laws that govern it.

The Forest Service example is a setup to argue that the Progressive concept was based on "[t]he belief that public administration could be turned into a science" which "now seems naive and misplaced." This looks a lot like a simple rhetorical trick. Because in the same paragraph he warns:

The problem with scientific management is that even the most qualified scientists of the day occasionally get things wrong, and sometimes in a big way. And unfortunately, this is what happened to the Forest Service with regard to what ended up becoming one of its crucial missions, the fighting of forest fires.
So from the "science" of public management, we quickly jump to an example of those silly scientists who, in the conservative worldview, are always getting things wrong, because, heck, what does science know that you can't learn better from Jesus and the Free Market?

Then he provides us a version of the stock highbrow conservative narrative: well-intentioned programs, blah, blah, government just doesn't work that well, selfish voters, blah, blah. He also gives that perennial segregationist favorite, the meddling courts that sometimes protect individual and civil rights instead of the greed of private corporations and hedge-fund billionaires.

Timber companies and mineral extractions companies and developers would love to plunder, privatize and pollute the National Forests, and Republican Administrations in recent decades have been happy to let them do some of that. The neoliberal free-market program would privatize the whole thing, because whatever the Free Market does to them after that is by definition the best of all possible outcomes.

Fukuyama eliudes the fact of Republican obstructionism into the vague of of "powerful interest groups that can block needed change." In conservative demonology, the most dreaded and dangerous "powerful interest groups" include those notorious union bosses, public school teachers and public employee retirees. Plus those deluded environmentalists and the greedy scientists who are sucking in big bucks on the Great Climate Change Hoax.

Disregarding the allegedly sacred notions of American Exceptionalism and the divine origin of our political institutions, Fukuyama writes that "many of [the US'] political institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional. A combination of intellectual rigidity and the power of entrenched political actors is preventing those institutions from being reformed." Lets see, what group of "entrenched political actors" might there be that stand out in recent years for their rigidity and their ability to cause government dysfunction? Well, the group known as the Republican Party comes to mind. But F doesn't specify that particular, easily identifiable group in this scholarly exercise.

As usual, if you take account of the vocabulary and oblique manner of argument, the conservative narrative shows it's true face, sometimes fangs and all. In Fukuyama's case, the problem all this dang democracy nonsense:

What is ironic and peculiar about this phenomenon [governmental dysfunction] is that this crisis of representation has occurred in large part because of reforms designed to make the system more democratic. In fact, these days there is too much law and too much democracy relative to American state capacity.
And, also as usual, you're likely to feel a headache coming on if you try too hard to read this piece as a consistent argument. After complaining about the meddling courts arrogantly assuming that things like the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution were the law of the land or something, when they should have left those librul policy choices to Congress, he then complains about all the laws that Congress passed to enact librul social policies. Go figure.

And those laws give the riff-raff even more opportunity to go to court for justice, something F obviously regards as a bad thing: "Thus, conflicts that in Sweden or Japan would be solved through quiet consultations between interested parties in the bureaucracy are fought out through formal litigation in the U.S. court system."

This, of course, is boilerplate advocacy for "tort reform," aka, protecting private companies from liability for harm caused by their own actions or neglect.

And he's also explicit about who the meddling riff-raff are: "The explosion of opportunities for litigation gave access, and therefore power, to many formerly excluded groups, beginning with African Americans." Yes, even black people are sometimes allowed to go to court! Surely that can't be what our slaveowning Founders had in mind!

Why, things are so out of hand that even disabled children have been able to claim some legal protection:

For example, special-education programs for handicapped and disabled children have mushroomed in size and cost since the mid-1970s as a result of an expansive mandate legislated by Congress in 1974. This mandate was built, however, on earlier findings by federal district courts that special-needs children had rights, which are much harder than mere interests to trade off against other goods or to subject to cost-benefit criteria.
Obviously, this here democracy stuff is way, way out of hand!

But the Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United Supreme Court decisions were good because Tocqueville and Madison. But, hey, courts recognizing rights for special-needs children? Beyond the pale of decency! But at least he doesn't say that such kids have "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." So that's something.

And, well, it's just human nature to take bribes, Fukuyama argues in his oblique highbrow style. (p. 15)

And did you know that some of these here laws that Congress passes take "hundreds of pages of legislation" and require "reams of further detailed rules that will impose huge costs"? For some reason, conservatives pretend to be shocked by this. A typical international trade agreement can run to tens of thousands of pages, though. But conservatives don't bitch and moan about all the pages that requires. (And how long will the dead-tree term "reams" be able to convey any sense? Isn't it time to switch to pixels?)

Fukayama's piece is an academic example of what Paul Krugman writes about today in Plutocrats Against Democracy New York Times 10/23/2014:

For the political right has always been uncomfortable with democracy. No matter how well conservatives do in elections, no matter how thoroughly free-market ideology dominates discourse, there is always an undercurrent of fear that the great unwashed will vote in left-wingers who will tax the rich, hand out largess to the poor, and destroy the economy. ...

And now you understand why there’s so much furor on the right over the alleged but actually almost nonexistent problem of voter fraud, and so much support for voter ID laws that make it hard for the poor and even the working class to cast ballots. American politicians don’t dare say outright that only the wealthy should have political rights — at least not yet. But if you follow the currents of thought now prevalent on the political right to their logical conclusion, that’s where you end up.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Krugman interview on Obama's Presidency

Alyona Minkovski interviewed Paul Krugman recently in this Huffpost Live segment that aired on 10/22/2014:

He's talking about themes he used in his recent Rolling Stone article, In Defense of Obama 10/08/2014.

I read his comments in the article and in the interview as a plea to voters and maybe especially to his fellow members of the punditocracy to be realistic about Obama's actual accomplishments.

He's not making an "Obamabot" argument. His evaluation of Obama's economic policy overall comes down to: at least he's not as bad as Angela Merkel.

That's almost the definition of damning with faint praise!

Leslie Gelb's Obama’s Last Chance to Save His Presidency The National Interest 10/22/2014 probably counts as an example of the kind of commentary Krugman is addressing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Committing our traditional and familiar mistakes in Obama's Non-War War in Iraq and Syria

Über-Realist Stephen Walt is disappointed, though not especially surprised, at the course of Obama's Non-War War in Iraq and Syria.

In Uncle Sucker to the Rescue Foreign Policy 10/16/2014, he writes:

A recurring problem in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been the insistence that no problem can be solved if Uncle Sam isn't leading the charge. ...

The final error -- sadly, one all too typical of recent U.S. foreign policy -- is that we are promising the moon and delivering moon pies. The Bush administration promised that the invasion of Iraq would be short, easy, and would pay for itself. Bush also told us the United States would eliminate all "terrorists of global reach." Trying to eliminate a particular tactic used by many diverse groups was a fool's errand, especially when U.S. military intervention tends to reinforce the extremists' narrative and helps them replenish their ranks with new recruits. The United States is still in Afghanistan today -- and so are the Taliban -- and it is congratulating itself on convincing the Afghan government to let us stay for a few more years. And now we are headed back into Iraq. Osama bin Laden may be dead and gone, but the endless war that he foresaw would sap U.S. strength and weaken existing Arab governments is still underway.  [my emphasis]
He also recalls important aspects of the Cheney-Bush Iraq War, which I've come to think of as Phase 3 in the Thirty Years War in Iraq.


Ever since the first Gulf War, U.S. leaders have routinely exaggerated the threat that the United States faced in Iraq and/or Syria. Even though much of Iraq's military power was destroyed in 1990 to 1991 and was never rebuilt, the Clinton administration continued to portray that country as a dangerous threat to vital U.S. interests. Hence the continuation of sanctions that may have killed as many as 500,000 Iraqis and the misguided strategy of "dual containment," which forced the United States to keep thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia and helped convince Osama bin Laden to order the 9/11 attacks. After 9/11, of course, the Bush administration ratcheted up the threat even more in order to justify a preventive war. Aided by mendacious or gullible journalists, they convinced the American people that Saddam had active WMD programs and was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden, even though neither claim was true. [my emphasis]

George McGovern oral history interview 2009

After my encounter with the ghost of Nixon at the Nixon Library, I discover they have some pretty good YouTube videos there.

Like this one, Nixon Library's Oral History with George McGovern 08/26/2009 interview:

Monday, October 20, 2014

Partisan history at the Nixon library

I visited the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, for the first time this past weekend.

It was definitely interesting to see. The visual displays are good quality. The text of the signage, not so much. And there are life-size statues of world leaders with whom Nixon dealt that to me were the most interesting displays in the main museum. The Library is in the back of the house where Nixon was born. The house itself has been renovated and stocked with much of the furniture that was there at the time Nixon lived there as a child. The graves of Richard and Pat Nixon are also on the grounds near the house.

The docent I heard giving some of his tour added some extra authenticity to the tour. Because he was a guy in his late sixties or so who sounded pretty much like a Nixon partisan from 1969 or 1974. I arrived a little late for the start of the docent's tour. But the main reason I only heard some of it was that his anecdotes were so lightweight and he was so grossly partisan and his presentation was so painfully superficial that I just dropped back from the tour after a few minutes. Also, if I had followed his tour all the way through, I would probably have passed out from hyperventilation.

Nixon, me, Zhou Enlai

When I read the signage on the Alger Hiss display, I thought it was pretty shaky for a serious historical presentation. And I'm one who thinks that Hiss really was a Soviet spy. This signage on the 1950 Senate campaign against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas managed to not even mention the term "pink lady" so far as I could see. And I looked for it. And that is known as the Pink Lady campaign. You wouldn't know that term from this signage:

You also wouldn't know that's where he picked up the nickname "Tricky Dick" that stuck to him ever after. Not that I saw that anywhere at the Nixon Library, either.

Thomas Reeves gave a far better, brief description of the 1950 campaign in The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography (1982):

In California, Congressman Richard Nixon ran against liberal Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas for a Senate seat. Boasting of his own record with HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Committee], Nixon referred to his opponent as the "Pink Lady" and falsely claimed that she was "a member of a small clique which joins the notorious Communist party-liner Vito Marcantonio of New York in voting time after time against measures that are for the security of this country." Douglas fired back, "On every key vote Nixon stood with party-liner Marcantonio against America in its fight to defeat Communism," and she called Nixon and his followers "a backwash of young men in dark shirts." She spoke of"smears" and warned that "McCarthyism has come to California." But the fiery wife of actor Melvin Douglas was no match for Nixon. He distributed more than a half million leaflets (printed on bright pink paper and thus dubbed "pink sheets") titled "Douglas-Marcantonio Voting Record," alleging that the two had voted the same way 354 times. If Mrs. Douglas had had her way, he told audiences, "the Communist conspiracy in the United States would never have been exposed." ...

President [Harry] Truman spoke publicly about the elections only twice during the fall contests, once in defense of Helen Gahagan Douglas during a news conference. In a St. Louis speech a few days before the balloting he charged that those who employed the Communists-in-government issue had "lost all proportion, all sense of restraint, all sense of patriotic decency." Republicans, he said in disgust, were "willing ... to undermine their own government at a time of great international peril." (pp. 332, 334)
This display shows the infamous "pink sheet" ("Douglas-Marcantonio Voting Record"), much of it obscured by two other leaflets. For whatever reason, it comes out looking much pinker in the my photo here than it appeared to me in the case. I knew it was the "pink sheet" because I had read about it before. But the top of it was faded to almost white, and you had to look closely to see the pink tint at the bottom.

This display goes along with the partisan message in the text shown above. The leaflet on the left is pro-Douglas and accused the Nixon campaign of practicing the "big lie" technique: "Hitler invented it/Stalin perfected it/Nixon uses it." (So see, Douglas accused Nixon of being like Stalin, too! Both sides do it! And the Democrats started it!)

That sign is indicative of other aspects of the museum exhibit: it isn't so much that it's wrong - Douglas' Democratic primary opponents red-baited her, too - but it leaves a very incomplete impression of the historical significance of the campaign in Nixon's reputation and career by what it omits.

I'll give the Nixon library website credit for providing a more meaningful sense of the why that campaign made Nixon "Tricky Dick" ever after at the page on "The Senator" as of this writing:

In 1950, he defeated Democratic Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas to win California's vacant Senate seat by more than half a million votes. The campaign was fierce: Nixon, who thought the former actress was too sympathetic to left-wing causes, said Douglas was "pink right down to her underwear;" in response, Douglas labeled Nixon "Tricky Dick."
Even I don't recall having heard the "pink right down to her underwear" line before!

Stephen Ambrose in Nixon: Volume 1 - The Education of a Politician 1913-1962 (1987) described Douglas' politics this way:

Helen Gahagan Douglas, a former opera and Broadway star and the wife of movie actor Melvyn Douglas. An active New Dealer, she was first elected to the House in 1944, after attracting the attention of California liberals in speeches at labor rallies. Although generally regarded as a left-winger, she had spurned Henry Wallace's Progressive Party in the 1948 election, which was a litmus test for fellow travelers. On domestic issues she was a New Deal Democrat. But on foreign affairs her record was mixed. Although she had been critical of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communists, she had voted against the Truman Doctrine program of aid for Greece and Turkey on the grounds that the effort should have been linked to the United Nations. She had also voted against HUAC appropriations, and had been one of its severe critics. One of her supporters was Ronald Reagan, a leader in the Screen Actors Guild and a registered Democrat. [my emphasis]
Yes, St. Reagan himself supported the candidate Nixon called "pink right down to her underwear."

Some basics on the realities of terrorism

Martha Crenshaw of Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies has a brief article, "The Long View of Terrorism," in Current History Jan 2014, that summarizes some of the major characteristics of terrorism as we know it today. Its observations are a reminder of how things could have been different after the 9/11 attacks. And should have been, if the Cheney-Bush Administration had not been so determined to use the Global War on Terror (GWOT) as an excuse to invade Iraq and expand the already massive level of military force and interventions.

As she writes, "Cycles of retaliation and escalation are not inevitable." The United States had choices on how best to respond after the 9/11 attacks. And made some really, really bad ones. And is still making them, with Obama Non-War War in Iraq and Syria a continuation of it.

Here she provides some basics about terrorism that easily get lost in the squawking hysteria over the Islamic State in which our politicians and media are currently indulging themselves - when they aren't in squawking hysteria over Ebola. She defines terrorism specifically as "a form of violence that deliberately rather than inadvertently targets civilians." The definition of terrorism itself is contested, of course. Partisan warfare in support of a conventional war effort has included sabotage of bridges and other facilities, guerrilla attacks on enemy troops and assassination of hostile local officials. But the definition Crenshaw uses is probably close to how most Americans think of terrorism today.

Those basics that she brings forward include:

  • It was an act of terrorism in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that set off the First World War - in that case because "considerations of prestige and reputation augment territorial and resource rivalries among great powers" came into play around it. A nice way of describing the imperialist, bandit mentality of the great powers in Europea at the start of the First World War.
  • Terrorism in her sense was also practiced by radical groups, notably anarchists, in the 19th century. Here her definition perhaps slips a bit as she notes, "Assassination has been a favored tactic from the anarchist terrorism that arose in the 1880s ... to the present day." Heads of government or senior officials like Franz Ferdinand were civilians, but ones with major roles to play in war and the starting of war.
  • Counterterrorism is largely a matter of "effective law enforcement and intelligence cooperation rather than offensive military force."
  • She designates the 1983 attack on US Marine in Lebanon in 1983 as the starting point of suicide attacks. But she notes 19th century precedents, noting that "Russia's early revolutionaries also prided themselves on dying with their bombs or refusing leniency if apprehended." She specifically makes the argument in that connection that it's incorrect to think of suicide bombings as justified only by "radical Islamist beliefs that justify violence by emphasizing the rewards of martyrdom." Other ideologies and causes have served that role as well. Robert Pape in his 2005 study Dying to Win pointed to nationalism in defending one's homeland as the most common factor motivated suicide bombings. And she warns, "There is no reason to think that future terrorists, of whatever ideological persuasion, will abandon suicide missions."
  • The only known terrorist attacks with a "weapon of mass destruction" was the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo's sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways in 1995. That attack was deadly but failed to produce the mass casualties the cult had anticipated. It may be that an anti-government group in the civil war was responsible for the chemical weapons attack on civilian areas in Syria, though Crenshaw states as a fact that the Syrian government was responsible for it. From what's in the public record to date, it's still an unresolved question.
  • It remains important to combat the ideologies used to encourage and justify terrorist acts.

Crenshaw may place too much faith in drone warfare, writing, "Military force is always an option, from the British in Ireland to Russia in Chechnya to the United States in Afghanistan. Drones and special forces are likely to be the measures of choice in future counterterrorism operations, especially if there is worldwide proliferation of drone technology."

The other side is that drone warfare can also create chaos that provides the potential for escalation. And while propaganda against IS may emphasize its terrorist aspects, the Obama Administration has obviously decided that drones aren't enough to combat it. We also have to continue the Thirty Years War in Iraq and have expanded it to Syria.

Crenshaw also notes:

Before 9/11 hardly anyone in the scholarly or policy worlds thought that terrorism posed a serious threat to national or international security, yet its dramatic repercussions during the "global war on terror" included the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq, a profound reorganization of US security institutions, and the implementation of a strategy
of worldwide drone warfare.
Or, in other words, the United States reacted to the 9/11 attacks by adopting what is in practice a policy of permanent war.

The United States is powerful enough to keep up such actions for a while. But, as we should have learned long ago, American power has its limits. And there are costs and many complications associated with war. Every technological innovation that is supposed to make war quick and painless for Americans - drones are the current favorite, as we see in Crenshaw's article - fails to take the risk out of war.

The sooner we adopt a more restrained, realistic foreign policy and manage to significantly reduce our reliance on war as an instrument of foreign policy, the better off we will be.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Argentina's first satellite

Argentina has just joined the geostationary satellite club, which they now share with China, the European Union, India, Israel, Japan, Russia and the United States.

The Buenos Aires Herald reports, Argentina is first country in the region to build and run a geostationary telecom satellite 10/17/2014:

Argentina yesterday became the first Latin American country to build and operate a geostationary satellite, joining a select club of countries with that achievement and marking a seachange in the telecommunications sector for the country and its neighbours. ...

The first in a series of three satellites for the so-called Argentine Geostationary Satellite Telecommunications System, Arsat-1 was developed by state-owned firm Arsat and designed and manufactured by Río Negro province’s INVAP. It will provide television services, Internet access and data and telephone services, for a price tag of US$270 million that includes manufacturing costs from 2006, shipping to French Guiana, launch costs and international insurance.

Rural areas that previously had limited telecommunication coverage will benefit from the satellite’s orbit.
Javier Lewkowicz reports on the successful satellite launch in Al Infinito y más allá Página/12 17.10.2014) "Arsat-1 demandó una inversión de 270 millones de dólares por parte del Estado nacional," he writes ("Arsat-1 required an investment of $270 million on the part of the national government").

President Cristina Fernández claimed the satellite launch as an accomplishment of kirchnerismo, noting that the project stemmed from a decision her late husband and then-President Néstor Kirchner took in 2004. (“Los satélites no se pueden derogar” Página/12 17.10.2014)

The Casa Rosada provides a video of Cristina's statements on the satellite launch, 16 de OCT. Declaraciones de Cristina Fernández tras el lanzamiento del ARSAT-1 16.10.2014:

TV Pública argentina has this series of three video reports on the event from 10/17/2014. They are titled as though there are four installments, but only three seem to be available at this writing on YouTube.

678 - Histórico: Argentina lanzó su primer satélite al espacio - 16-10-14 (1 de 4); this one includes some other news items toward the first:

678 - Histórico: Argentina lanzó su primer satélite al espacio - 16-10-14 (2 de 4):

678 - Histórico: Argentina lanzó su primer satélite al espacio - 16-10-14 (3 de 4):

From Euronews, Argentina launches first satellite 10/17/2014

Germany and the eurozone depression

"I woke up this morning/And none of the news was good" - Steve Earle, "Jerusalem"

The business press is paying more attention lately to the euro crisis. A report by Stefan Riecher and Simon Kennedy, The European Central Bank May Have to Defy Germany Bloomberg Businessweek 10/09/2014 provide an interesting example of reporting stuck in a narrow model - though not as narrow as German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "ordoliberalism." They seem to think that only central bank action counts as legitimate public stimulus:

The ECB boss [Mario Draghi] ended Europe’s sovereign debt crisis by promising in 2012 to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. Investors ask if he’s willing to do the same to save the economy. That leaves Draghi under pressure to introduce a full-bore quantitative easing program, one that would make more money available for cheap lending by having the ECB buy government bonds held by the banks, companies, and others. [my emphasis]
What the ECB ended in the summer of 2012 was an acute phase in the euro debt crisis, not the whole thing. Greece, Portugal, Spain and probably Italy are likely to have to take debt haircuts, in the case of Greece about as certainly as such things can be, with the debt-to-GDP ratio up in the 170%-plus range.

They recognize that an economic solution for the eurozone depression would involve an increase in inflation. Duh! They're on the verge of deflation if not already into it. But Riecher and Kennedy seem to think only the mystical arts of the central bank can bring such needed inflation that would accompany economic growth:

An ECB program of government bond buying, by making even more cheap credit available, would promote spending, which in turn would nudge inflation upward. Because of the lower yields on sovereign debt, ECB bond purchases would encourage a weaker euro as investors seek higher returns elsewhere. A soft euro would make exports more competitive and increase the likelihood of inflation as imported commodities such as oil became pricier. It would also help improve the balance sheets of banks. Draghi may have to act soon: How many more back-to-back recessions can Europe take?
Of course, the main barrier to even that modest kind of effort is Merkel and her Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economics:

The stumbling block is Germany, which doesn’t want the ECB conducting bailouts in disguise. Buying sovereign bonds — as the U.S. Federal Reserve and a string of other central banks have done — is anathema to the Germans. The ECB, by buying sovereign debt from the member states of the European Monetary Union, would come very close to financing individual governments, something the founding treaty of the EMU bans. And if the ECB did buy that debt, it would also likely lessen the pressure on countries such as Greece and France to put their budgets in order and make their economies more productive. , president of Germany’s Bundesbank, has already spoken out against bond purchases and objected to some of the ECB’s recent stimulus steps. If Germany’s economic weakness worsens, the resistance to the program may diminish. The latest data from Germany show a severe contraction in its manufacturing sector. [my emphasis]
Jens Weidmann was an Angie-bot, but he now may be more hardline than Merkel, though not because Merkel has started acknowledging basic macroeconomics.

This is a Euronews report on Germany pressuring France to tighten austerity, EU finance ministers aim to defuse Paris, Berlin row 10/13/2014:

Interest rates on Greek bonds spiked last week, after the ruling New Democratic Party staged a confidence vote as a political stunt to boost their pitiful standing. Niels Kadritzke refers to polls showing that SYRIZA is showing more support right now than the two government parties combined. SYRIZA party leader Alexis Tsipras has made it clear that as head of government he would push for a relief from the draconian economic policies that Merkel has imposed on Greece via the shamelessly compliant EU.

Elaine Moore et al report for the Financial Times (Market turmoil casts further doubt over Europe revival 10/16/2014):

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For the first time this year, Greece’s benchmark bond yields rose above 9 per cent as mounting political instability raised doubts about Athens’ ability to sustain its heavy debt burden. European countries hit hardest by the eurozone debt crisis also saw their borrowing costs jump at rates not seen for a year. ...

Across wider Europe, global investors moved to reallocate their money away from debt issued by countries at the region’s periphery into German bonds, considered the safest and most liquid debt market.

The move sent the yield on 10-year German Bunds to 0.72 per cent during the day – a historic low. Yields on equivalent Italian, Spanish and Portuguese debt rose by about 30 basis points in the morning before falling back.
But Angie loves her some Hoover/Brüning economics, so she's demanding that the eurozone stay the course, as Old Man Bush and Shrub too liked to say when they were Presidents. Stefal Wagstyl and James Politi report (Financial Times 10/16/2014):

“All member states must accept in full the strengthened rules,” she told the German parliament.

As well as rebuffing French president François Hollande and Italian premier Matteo Renzi, who are demanding that Brussels allow them more budget flexibility, Ms Merkel seemed intent on calming the world’s financial markets, which saw some of their sharpest sell-offs of the week on Thursday, including a steep drop in Greek bonds. ...

Paris and Rome have argued that their embrace of structural reforms, such as a recent Italian move to overhaul a sclerotic labour market, should afford them some relief from the fiscal rules.

As the EU’s biggest economy, Berlin has always had the key say in that debate and has privately been urging the European Commission to take a tough line. Ms Merkel said the financial crisis in Europe was “not permanent” but neither had it been “sustainably overcome”.
Merkel is worried about fighting the bond vigilantes and further slam down the purchasing power of eurozone citizens to coax the Confidence Fairy into her long-delayed arrival.

Fighting the eurozone depression? Not so much.

That report gives the Italian debt-to-GDP ratio as 134%. Possibly sustainable with economic recovery, unsupportable in a continued depression.

Horand Knaup and Christian Reiermann write about pressure on Merkel in Out of Balance? Criticism of Germany Grows as Economy Stalls Spiegel International 10/14/2014:

[Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble:] "In Germany, we have shown in recent years that solid finances and better growth are not contradictory -- they are necessary complementary elements," he said on Monday in Luxembourg, where he was for a meeting of euro zone finance ministers. He added that calls for state spending were "old fashioned."

Criticism of Schäuble's position is also mounting in Germany. "The decision to balance the budget is a risky one," says Marcel Fratzscher, the head of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin. "If the economy continues to weaken, that goal will no longer be sustainable."

If the government were to stick to its guns, he argues, it would have to implement budget cuts that would further hasten the crisis. Instead, he argues, the finance minister should take advantage of the "wiggle room" provided in the balanced budget amendment to Germany's constitution "to increase public investments." Under the law, which was approved by parliament in 2009 and goes into full effect in 2016, the federal government is permitted maximum annual borrowing of 0.35 percent of gross domestic product, the equivalent of about €10 billion next year. "That would send a strong message to the German business community and to Europe that Germany takes its responsibility seriously," Fratzscher says.

But Merkel's government seems set on achieving a balanced budget. Even worse, the current government made the very decisions that are now robbing it of the means it would need to counter a possible economic downturn. [my emphasis]