Tuesday, June 19, 2018

WaPo goes after AMLO

US reporting about Latin American politics, even in Mexico, can be painfully bad. This editorial from the Very Serious Washington Post is an example, Mexico’s could-be president is a lot like Trump. That doesn’t mean they’d get along. 06/17/2018

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly referred to as AMLO from his initials, is a center-left candidate with a long record as a political reformer, an opponent of corruption, and five years as a successful head of Mexico City's government. Polls are showing him with a strong lead in Mexico's presidential race a week from this Sunday.

How the WaPo editorial board decided he has a "reactionary agenda" is hard to fathom. Especially since they also bizarrely claim he intends to implement "the catastrophic '21st-century socialism' of Venezuela." (Or, technically, strongly imply it as a live possibility.) What the Venezuela reference is supposed to mean other than "bad" and "scary" isn't clear and it makes no sense anyway.

And despite the title, AMLO has shown no tendencies for incoherent tweets, recklessly threatening war, or kidnapping small children from immigrants and sticking them in cages. The WaPo could just say they prefer a corrupt president for Mexico who will do whatever Washington and corporate lobbyists tell him to, without the strange fantasies about AMLO in this editorial.

This is a goofy piece.

On the other hand, Nathaniel Parish Flannery's piece, Mexico's 2018 Election: Populism Vs. Prudence Forbes (!!), is notably more sober:
The 2018 election will have a big impact, not just for Mexico but also for multinational companies that operate in Mexico and north of the border in the US. Companies such as GE, IBM, Ford, Citi and Wal-Mart have invested heavily in Mexico over the last twenty plus years. Mexico’s economy has grown in fits and bursts during the NAFTA era but recent governments have done little to address the longstanding woes of a deeply divided society. In the 2018 election many parts of the country citizens tired with rampant corruption, brutal inequality, and decades of sluggish growth will have to decide between trying to persevere and preserve the nascent gains from the export-focused NAFTA era or shift to re-embrace a populist model that wants to at least partially reject the export-led development model and focus on boosting local industrial and agricultural output. During the NAFTA era presidents from Mexico’s centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and right-of-center National Action Party (PAN) have embraced a corrupt form of neoliberal capitalism that has focused on investing heavily in industry in export sectors in the north of the country but has done substantially less to foster real development initiatives in the country’s impoverished south. [my emphasis; internal links not included]
Flannery interviews Patrick Iber, a Latin American history scholar, who addresses the kind of propaganda in WaPo's silly editorial:

Ever since his first presidential campaign, there has been a sector of Mexican opinion that fears that AMLO would turn Mexico into a kind of Venezuela. This kind of insinuation contributed to the results of 2006—officially a very narrow loss for AMLO. Former president Vicente Fox has said that AMLO doesn’t respect Mexico’s democratic institutions, and the writer Enrique Krauze imagined in The New York Times that Lopez Obrador could "move toward annulling the division of powers and subordinating the Supreme Court and other autonomous institutions after restricting the freedom of the media and silencing any dissenting voices.” To me this seems extremely far-fetched.

There are all kinds of ways that AMLO communicates respect for democracy and the rule of law. One of his rivals, Ricardo Anaya, has suggested that he would arrest the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, if he were found guilty of corruption. AMLO has said it isn’t the president’s job to make such determinations. Other times, AMLO says he can’t commit to unilateral changes his supporters want, as they are the responsibility of Congress.

It is true that AMLO frequently makes reference to popular plebiscites, as have some of the other left-wing leaders in Latin America of recent vintage. But when pressed, he describes them as another democratic mechanism, not as a replacement for the authority of the legislature. Furthermore, the results of plebiscites would not necessarily lead to radical change. For example: abortion, same-sex marriage and adoption are legal in Mexico City. When asked if he would he would extend those rights to the rest of the country, he says he carry out a popular consultation because it’s a diverse country. The likely result of such a plebiscite would be to deny those rights on a country-wide basis, so this is probably a way of holding together his left-right MORENA-PES coalition. [my emphasis]
Iber has a differently kind of comparison for AMLO, "People always want to compare Latin American leaders to each other, but the political personality that AMLO most reminds me of is Jimmy Carter. Like Carter, he is promising moral renewal after a corrupt and unpopular administration."

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Aquarius and its refugees headed for Spain

The anti-immigrant fanaticism in the EU, facilitated by the irresponsible nationalism that has left both the euro crisis and the long-running refugees crisis unsolved for years with effective solutions still not on the horizon, is putting more lives of desperate refugees at risk in the Mediterranean.

Chris Stephen reports in Italy bars two more refugee ships from ports Guardian 06/16/2018:

Charities say the NGO boats are a vital lifeline, rescuing more than 88,000 people in the past two years, but critics say they are a pull factor, encouraging people to make the dangerous sea journey.

More than 600,000 migrants have made the crossing from Libya to Italy in the past four years, and Salvini’s stance reflects frustration that the rest of Europe refuses to take its share of arrivals. At least 13,000 people have drowned trying to reach European shores. ...

If the NGO boats are unable to land the people they rescue and cease to operate, Operation Sophia, an EU anti-smuggler mission patrolling the Mediterranean, may take up some of the slack. NGOs, however, say its warships operate too far out to sea, given that people traffickers favour towing rubber boats full of migrants to the edge of Libya’s 12-mile territorial waters before setting them adrift.
It's a key talking point for the xenophobes in the EU is that all the refugees are "migrants," and their preferred term is "migration crisis" rather than "refugee crisis" or even "immigration crisis." The "migrant" label is taken to be more favorable to portraying the refugees as freeloaders coming to live high on the hog off the benefits provided in western Europe by worthy Christian white people.

There is a huge amount of cynicism in the anti-immigrant agitation, of course. People don't undertake a trip like that without being desperate. Letting further thousands or tens of thousands of them to drown in the sea is not an acceptable solution for any "European values" or any Christianity worth the names. And it's a very serious business for Italy to turn away ships carrying refugees in violation of the international laws made to deal with such emergencies.

During the acute phase of the refugee crisis in 2015, around 1,000 refugees drowned at sea in 10-day period. (Factsheet Mittelmeerroute OGPP 2017)

If we had a normal government in the US instead of one intent on running a campaign of state terror even against perfectly legal immigrants, they might be expected to object to this, as well: "Sea Watch refused last week to take 40 migrants rescued by the US navy ship Trenton off Libya, fearing a fate similar to that of the Aquarius. Trenton waited four days before being allowed to dock in Sicily." (my emphasis)

Presumably the US Navy registered some kind of protest. But Stephen doesn't provide further information on the US response.

The Aquarius is on its way to Valencia, Spain, after the new social-democratic government there agree to accept the 629 immigrants. The plan is to resettle them in various parts of Spain. France has also agreed to take some of them. (Francia ofrece acoger a los migrantes del ‘Aquarius’ que quieran ir a ese país El País 16.06.2018)

Friday, June 15, 2018

Trying to be real about Trump's weird North Korea show

The Democratic response to Trump has unfortunately been plagued by a chronic tendency by the Democratic leadership to accept Republican framing of issues and thereby trying to present liberal positions in as conservative-sounding a way as possible. Up until 1992, when California voted for Clinton over Old Man Bush, that might have made some practical sense. California is a powerhouse on electoral votes and since the Second World War had been a reliable supporter of Republican Presidential candidates, despite the very strong liberal presence in state government. Up until that time, the Democrats had a much bigger need to have some ability to capture Presidential votes in the South. And conservative Democrats were far more prominent in Southern states legislatures where the Party still held a legislative majority than in Congress.

That conservative framing extended to foreign policy, where antiwar sentiment struggled to find a voice. But even during the Reagan Administration, Democrats were far more critical about military adventurism than they would be later, even under the two Bush Administrations.

But after the 9/11 attack in 2001, the Democratic establishment was dominated by a defensiveness in the face of Republican belligerence. Obama struck a more moderate tone on foreign policy, but was unwilling to draw back from military involvements in a major way. He showed more restraint on Syria than the Republicans in Congress were showing. But his intervention in Libya was not only a disaster on the ground, it also was a major blow to major nonproliferation efforts. To his credit, he was able to negotiate a meaningful nonproliferation agreement with Iran, which his successor is eagerly trying to destroy.

What's so striking is that even in the face of Trump-style radicalism, corruption, and heavy-handed blundering, the Democrats are sticking with the script of criticizing the Trump Administration for not being hawkish enough.

This presents a new situation for the peace movement - to the extent that antiwar sentiment in the US right now can be said to rise to the level of a movement. Leading nuclear nonproliferation leaders by Joe Cirincione ‏of Ploughshares welcomed the fact that the US was focusing more on talking to North Korea than on trading juvenile taunts and hair-raising threats of nuclear war:

But that didn't make him an uncritical supporter of Trump's North Korea diplomacy, either:

If there were any doubts that Donald Trump is permanently booked at The Grand Delusion Hotel, his early Wednesday morning tweet erased them.

The president claimed, “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” If only that were true.

There is not a single, credible nuclear-security expert who would agree that the bizarre Singapore summit and the vague communiqué it produced has eliminated the dozens of nuclear weapons, hundreds of missiles and the vast nuclear weapon complex North Korea has constructed over the past five decades. (Cironcione in The Surreal Summit in Singapore The National Interest 06/13/2018)

Sarah Lazare harshes on the Dems for how they've been approaching Trump's bizarre North Korean summit show in Liberals Are Criticizing the Korea Summit From the Right. Here’s Why They Have it All Wrong. In These Times 06/13/2018. She was bothered by these examples (internal links omitted):
Yet, there is a yawning gap between the optimistic mood in South Korea and the response among liberal media circles in the United States, where many are reacting with a mix of sanctimony and scorn. On June 12, Kevin Drum published a piece in Mother Jones in which he accused Trump of “abandoning” South Korea and agreeing to a weak deal. Vox echoed this line with rebukes of a “shockingly weak” agreement that includes “huge concessions to Kim for little in return.” MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson accused Trump of complicity in the public relations makeover of a dictator. And popular host Rachel Maddow released an episode on June 12 arguing that Trump's pledge to halt war games in South Korea is a “giveaway to N. Korea” that “suits Putin's goals”—disregarding that robust social movements in South Korea have protested the U.S. military presence for decades.

These refrains were repeated by Democratic leaders, including Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, who released a joint declaration ahead of the summit criticizing Trump from the right by accusing him of not being a tough enough negotiator. In this climate, the “liberal” line is virtually indistinguishable from the hand-wringing of officials from pro-war “think tanks” like the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which receives major funding from weapons manufacturers. [my emphasis]
Lazare interviews South Korean-born peace activist Christine Ahn. This is the criticism she elicits from Ahn:
Sarah: Given how volatile and dangerous Trump is, it seems to me that if you don’t trust him, you should do everything you can to make sure that he doesn’t derail the peace process. This is the same person who casually threatened to annihilate the entire Korean peninsula with nuclear weapons, yet now some Democrats are pressuring him from the right. Do you think this is dangerous?

Christine: It is very dangerous to pressure Trump to be hardline. We have to put all of our efforts into ensuring this goes well and is not undermined. Look who's in Trump’s cabinet: John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and tomorrow is the confirmation meeting for Harry Harris, the former head of Pacific Command — a military man with a hardline position against China and North Korea, now likely the new ambassador to South Korea.

If things don't go well, we are in an incredibly dangerous situation. We saw that Lindsey Graham ask the seven Democratic senators to join him in authorizing the use of military force against North Korea if this process does not succeeed.

Talking with various members of Congress on the Hill, I got the message that they oppose this but they don’t have any path to success - and they oppose this because they don’t trust Trump. There’s this trope that we don’t engage with dictators. Really - we don’t engage with oppressive regimes? What about Saudi Arabia and Israel? The hypocrisy is just beyond the pale.

Democrats are attacking Trump from the right and sticking to this hard line of no dialogue, no engagement. This is the same line that was used against the Iran Deal. When I went to meet with Nancy Pelosi's office, I felt like I was dealing with the Obama administration. They had this line of, “We're not going to engage until there's complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.” That approach of strategic patience got us nowhere except a nuclear armed North Korea. [my emphasis in italics]
As far as it goes, this seems like a reasonable set of cautions to me.

Human-rights advocate Scott Horton, though, was very negatively impressed with Lazare's piece, writing in Facebook 06/15/2018 that it is:
A typical piece of infantile leftist analysis of the criticism of Trump's dealings with the DPRK leadership. What's the matter with it? These critics are not in fact "attacking from the right." They are almost without exception critics who favor a negotiated settlement. They want to see an agreement which is credible, verifiable and sustainable. They are exposing an effort by Trump which is all PR glitz and no substance, and pointing to steps Trump has taken which will likely undermine a long-term effort to broker a serious deal. They are also exposing the hypocrisy of the Murdoch media which vehemently attacks negotiations by Clinton or Obama and uncritically supports them by Trump. None of these supposed liberal critics are attacking the idea of negotiations by Trump, all of them are in fact embracing the idea of negotiations. We can't allow ourselves to be trapped in the ludicrously binary framing that Sarah Lazare accepts, which is that our options are Donald Trump waging preemptive nuclear war against the DPRK, or Donald Trump giving away the shop without concessions from the DPRK in uninformed discussions. Public criticism of flaws and errors in the negotiating process is a part of the democratic process and should help press Trump to address these flaws. [my emphasis]
I have great respect for Scott Horton. But here I'm afraid he slipped into typical liberal hippie-punching. For some people, it never goes out of style. I find it hard to see how he could read Lazare's article that way.

(For those not so familiar with leftie lore, one of Lenin's most famous works was a polemic called “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder [1920]).

Gershom Gorenberg focuses on the wider picture on nuclear nonproliferation and points to a real problem with the kind of slapdash, reality-show diplomacy Trump has played the last few weeks with North Korea (The Trump-Kim Show Should Teach Israel How Little Trump's Support Is Worth The American Prospect 06/13/2018):
A few weeks ago, Trump pulled the United States out of the JCPOA, the accord meant to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It included strict inspections to make sure Iran was keeping the deal. It took years of sanctions and diplomacy to reach.

Trump trashed it.

Now Trump meets with the North Korean dictator, and signs a joint statement that vaguely calls for “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” With no clarity about what that means, no mechanism to make it happen, and certainly no verification process, Trump treats Kim as his new bestie and announces, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

One potential lesson for Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is that he should immediately offer a “historic meeting” with Trump, praise the Great Dealmaker in the one-on-one, and be on his way to a new accord with no irksome inspections. As Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment points out, Khamenei is probably too proud and dogmatic for that.

The other possible lesson for Iran is that when you make an agreement with America before you have a bomb, America won't honor it. On the other hand, if you make an agreement on nukes after you already have a bomb, you yourself don't need to honor it. From an Iranian perspective, the logical thing to do is to work as quickly as possible to go nuclear.
It's possible to walk and talk at the same time when it comes to North Korean nukes. There are also people who prefer to see a continuing threat of war with North Korea as a beneficial thing from the point of few of their ideology and/or the lobbies with which they sympathize. People need to pay attention and think critically, like with every important issue.

And Joe Cirincione and Guy Saperstein are right when they said a month ago, "Bipartisanship does not have to mean Democrats agreeing to right-wing positions and budgets. Democrats do not need to continue as Republicans-lite on defense. They can stand up for tough, realistic national-security policies that protect America while cutting excessive spending and excessive weapons. By doing so, they will gain, not lose, voters." (Progressives Need a New Way to Talk About National Security The Nation 05/11/2018)

And there's no inherent conflict between being serious about nuclear nonproliferation and being realistic about the actual situation. On the contrary, the latter is necessary for the first. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editorializes (06/13/2018):
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists favors all dialogue aimed at reducing nuclear risks, and it therefore supports US President Donald Trump’s decision to engage with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un in Singapore.

But media pomp and video symbolism cannot substitute for arms control substance. The high-level goals listed in the joint statement Trump and Kim issued after their meeting are extremely vague, but concrete steps are required, if the nuclear risk that North Korea poses to the United States and the international community is to be reduced. The vagueness of the joint statement creates a distinct possibility that it will quickly evaporate, with regrettable — and possibly catastrophic — results for the region and the world.

The Bulletin is deeply concerned the United States has already committed to cease large-scale military exercises in Northeast Asia without, apparently, first consulting its South Korean allies. This move is part of a deeply problematic pattern, in which the Trump administration aligns with dictators at the expense of longtime US allies and important multinational agreements. It is a pattern that must end, if negotiations with North Korea are to have any chance of succeeding.

As a next step, the United States and North Korea need to agree in specific terms on the characteristics of a “freeze” in activities that would continue during negotiations that could well take years to complete. The United States should insist that the North formally agree to cease all nuclear weapons tests, missile launches, and fissile material production while talks continue. Without such an agreement, talks could drag on fruitlessly for years, perhaps even acting as a cover for continued development of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. [my emphasis]

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Note to the Dem establishment "Resistance": tired and bored is not the right tone

Nancy Pelosi, The putative leader of the Democratic "Resistance" to Trumpism gave her weekly news conference today. It's safe to say it will send no one rushing to the barracades. Rep. Pelosi holds weekly news conference 06/14/2018:

She's still using the "Better Deal" slogan that apparently some Democratic marketing consultants came up with, presumably on the theory that boring voters to sleep is the best way to inspire midterm turnout this year.

Pelosi generally comes off as tired and bored. "Phoning it in" comes to mind when I hear her speak.

It's not so much that what she is advocating is bad. It's just that it's the stock conservative (yes, conservative) Democratic rhetoric that has become the standard language of the corporate Democrats. You won't hear any phrase like "single payer" or "Medicare for all" in this press conference. But she wants to give us a Better Deal on healthcare, somehow.

But even when she's talking about the scandalous separation of children from their asylum-seeking parents at the border and calling it "barbaric," she sounds like she's reciting dull talking points that really don't make much difference to her one way or the other. She'd rather be schmoozing with mega-donors.

She even sounds dull and unserious when she says, "I just don't even know why they aren't uprisings all over the country and maybe there will be, when people realize that this is a policy." (Just after 13:40)

In the real world, her response and that of her House Democratic Campaign Committee to the popular uprising against Trumpism in the surge of activist candidates has been ... to try to get more conservative, owned-by-corporate-donors candidates elected instead of people involved in "uprising."

But she does talk about "reducing the deficit" and "infrastructure." Both of which have been reduced to meaningless by endless and vapid repetition. And nobody really cares about the deficit anyway. Nor is there any particular reason to.

Howie Klein gives a good look at the state as the Democratic "Resistance" as embodied in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC, aka, "D-Triple-C") in Imagine How Brilliant The DCCC Would Be If It Could Learn From Its Mistakes! Down With Tyranny! 06/13/2018.

Italy and the refugees rescued from the Mediterranean Sea on the Aquarius ship

Italy is still refusing to let the ship Aquarius with refugees rescued from the Mediterranean dock in Italy. (Steve Scherer and Massimiliano Di Giorgio, Italy and France try to patch up migrant row, draw papal rebuke Reuters 06/14/2018)

This is the new Italian face on immigration, and a grim, ugly start for the new left/right coalition government of Five Stars and the League. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the League is the public face of the policy. But the new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is going along with it. And, as reported by Dominik Straub und Irene Brickner in Nach geschlossenen Grenzen nun auch gesperrte Häfen Standard 13.06.2018, the ban on letting the ship with people in distress rescued from the ocean, a illegal position in international law that is the way it is for good reasons, could not have been implemented without the consent of the Five Stars Transportation Minister.

This is not a question of national security at all. It's a very cynical, bad-faith posture by the Italian government seeking to exploit nationalist hatreds as a basic part of its political project. As Reuters notes, "The [Italian Prime Minister and the French President] confirmed a lunch meeting on Friday to discuss 'new initiatives' on immigration, a day after Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini announced an 'axis' with Germany and Austria to fight illegal migration." (my emphasis)

Salvini's talk has to be taken seriously, though like our American xenophobes, we can't assume they have any particular devotion to accuracy in their public claims. Austria does have an anti-immigrant government, a coalition of conservative Christian Democrats and hard-right Putinists, i.e, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), which has a formal "working agreement" with Putin's Russia United party. (Rechtspopulisten und Putin-Partei rücken enger zusammen FAZ 19.12.2016) The FPÖ/Russia United agreement commits them to the "strenthening of friendship and raising the young generation in the spirit of patriotism and joy in labor." Kind of an "Arbeit macht Frei" kind of thing, apparently.

But whatever political "axis" there may be among the Italian League and the Austrian governing parties, both Italy and Austria are EU members and both are still bound by general international law. In Germany, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a rightwing leader from Bavaria who is from the CSU, one of the parties in Angela Merkel's national coalition, has been playing footsie lately with Austria's Christian Democratic Chancellor Sebastian "Babyface" Kurz on anti-foreign politics. But, for all of her government's failings on immigration issues - and the general impression in the US that Merkel is very pro-immigration is a mistaken one - she isn't making a "axis" with Italy to drown immigrants in the Mediterranean Sea. The strange courtship between Chancellor Babyface and is actually aimed politically against Merkel.

(Dont' even try to shoehorn the mixing of internal and external policies in the EU into the framwork of the discussion on the Russian meddling in the US elecitons; you'll just give yourself a headache.)

Not to understate what a prick Seehofer is being on the subject. He is claiming that as Interior Minister, he has the authority to turn back refugees at the border, Angela Merkel and international law be damned. (Asylstreit: CSU droht mit Alleingang und Ultimatum ORF 147.06.2018) So far, this looks more like a weird political stunt than an actual move on immigration policy. But I wouldn't want to underestimate the possibility of it turning into something worse.

Immigration and the eurozone are currently the two biggest threats to the future of the EU. Both have been hampered by nationalist posturing by EU countries. Although as the de facto leader of the EU, Germany, and Angela's Merkel's governments in particular, bear the heaviest responsibility for it. I think of the both as chronic crises, both of which hit acute turns in 2015. Both are currently "solved" by classic Merkel extend-and-pretend non-solutions, forcing Greece to become Bangladesh via draconian austerity policies, on the euro front, and by contracting out the solution of the Mediterranean refugee problem to Turkey, Italy, and Greece. Both are highly unstable solutions.

The sad part is that the general shape of realistic solutions are very clear. The eurozone either has to be unwound with a return to national currencies, or change it into an optimal currency area with a common budget, shared public debt obligations, and "transfer union" structures.

With immigration, the broad solution is also clear: stop supporting wars in the Middle East, whether by direct intervention, facilitating American or Russian intervention, or selling arms to belligerent parties; get real about the fact that mass immigration to Europe is for all practical purposes a permanent situation that requires a structured, systematic sharing of burdens, i.e., accepting refugees, including, yes, the richer countries like Germany and Austria; and, systematic development work in North Africa to provide safer conditions and better opportunities there. Did I mention that to stop supporting wars in the Middle East is a critical part of this? Oh, and getting emergency services in shape to handle entirely predictable future surges in immigration.

But the obvious eurozone and refugee solutions aren't being undertaken as they should be, largely because too many political parties and groups and business lobbies like weapons manufacturers in particular find it advantageous to demagogue the issues.

But reality does have a nasty way of catching up with wishful thinking and flat-out denial. Facts do matter, despite being singularly inconvenient for narrow nationalists and xenophobes. Turkey, Italy, or Greece could change the calculation overnight by just sending a bunch of the refugees they are holding to parts northward. That would be irresponsible in itself absent real practical agreements on how to do it. But Hungarian, Austrian, and German politicians would have to respond with more than slogans about "close the borders." Austrian Chancellor Babyface likes to claim credit for "closing the Balkan route," but that's a joke. Angela Merkel's agreement with Turkey is what mitigated the acute phase of the immigration crisis of 2015, not any whizbang diplomacy by Austria.

And there's this fact-based reporting from Straub und Irene Brickner, illustrating how cynical and dishonest it is for the Matteo Salvinis of the world to conjure up phony claims to justify xenophobic cruelty:

Frage: Wie viele Flüchtlinge haben die Mittelmeerstaaten heuer bisher aufgenommen?

Antwort: Italien hat in diesem Jahr bis zum 12. Juni insgesamt 14.441 Bootsflüchtlinge aufgenommen; hinzu kommen die 932 Migranten, die am Mittwoch von der italienischen Küstenwache in Catania an Land gebracht wurden. Insgesamt knapp 80 Prozent weniger als im Vorjahr. Spanien hat im laufenden Jahr bisher 11.308 Flüchtlinge aufgenommen, Griechenland 12.065. Es kann also keine Rede davon sein, dass Italien die ganze Immigration allein schultere. Wahr ist aber, dass die nördlichen Grenzen Italiens – jene nach Frankreich, in die Schweiz, nach Österreich und Slowenien – für Flüchtlinge seit langem faktisch geschlossen sind.

[Question: How many refugees have the Mediterranean states taken on up until now?

Answer: Italy has taken 14,441 boat refugees; that includes 932 migrants who were brought to land by the Italian Coast Guard in Catania on Wednesday. In all, 80% less than in the previous year. In the current year, Spain has accepted 11,308 refugees, Greece 12,1065. So that can be no claim that Italy is shouldering the whole immigration alone. But what is [true], is that the borders north of Italy - that to France, in Switzerland, to Austria and Slovenia - have in fact been closed to refugees for a long time. [my emphasis in italics]

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Democratic "wave" may happen, despite the best efforts of the Democratic leadership

Sam Seder and one of his informed callers took an upbeat tone in talking about the possibility of high Democratic turnout in November, with particular reference to the June primaries in California, Republicans Should Be Terrified Of The Incoming Blue Wave Majority Report 06/12/2018:

But I must admit that the national Democratic establishment's unrepentent conservatism in the 2018 - and conservatism is the right word in this context - makes me dread that they will blow the chance for the much-discussed "blue wave" in November.

the single most discouraging sign to me was this: Pelosi, Hoyer Letter to Budget Committee Conferees on PAYGO 04/28/2018. Trump and his loyal Republicans passed a huge and unnecessary increase in the military budget without any "pay as you go" actions pared with it. And they spent even more on a gigantic tax cut for plutocrats, also without any "pay as you go" actions pared with it. Then the Republicans immediately started talking up cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid ("entitlements" in RepublicanSpeak) in order to deal with the looming budget deficit.

And what do the Democratic leaders in the House who style themselves as part of the "Resistance" to Trump do? They go full Simpson-Bowles and demand an end to deficit spending! from the Pelosi/Hoyer letter:
The House is strongly committed to passing statutory PAYGO. The President asked the Congress “to develop a PAYGO law that would help return the nation to a path of fiscal responsibility.” To achieve this objective, the House will attach statutory PAYGO to each of the four bills mentioned above or follow the House PAYGO rule. The House will not consider any conference reports on these four bills or any of them directly from the Senate unless these conference reports or bills include statutory PAYGO, the bills are fully offset under traditional scorekeeping, or statutory PAYGO has already been enacted into law.
Awesome. Awesomely conservative, that is. And remarkable politically-tone deaf. Because there aren't mobs in the street demanding cutting the deficit by flushing Social Security and Medicare down the toilet. Voters don't care about the deficit! Neither to Republicans politicians, who now only bother to pretend they do when they want to cut some program that doesn't primarily benefit the very wealthiest.

Look, and marvel at the leaders of the "Resistance" (Mike Lillis, Dem leaders embrace pay-go The Hill 06/06/18 06:00 AM EDT):
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other top Democrats are vowing to abide by fiscally hawkish pay-as-you-go rules if they seize the majority next year, rejecting calls from liberals who feel they’d be an impediment to big legislative gains.

Pelosi, who adopted “pay-go” rules when she held the Speaker’s gavel more than a decade ago, says she’ll push to do it again if the Democrats win the House in November’s midterm elections.

“Democrats are committed to pay-as-you-go,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Tuesday, affirming the policy would be a 2019 priority. [my emphasis]
I internally flinch a bit when I hear Cenk Uygar say that the establishment Democrats are "paid to LOSE," paid by major campaign donors, that is. I always think he may be underestimating the fecklessness of the Democratic leaders when he says that.

But I have to admit, "they're paid to lose" fits the Occam's Razor criteria for explaining why the Democrats would choose to emphasize this in the middle of what is potentially a Democratic wave election this year.

Charlie Pierce, as he often does, gets what a bad idea this is (Pelosi's 'Pay-Go' Rule Is Entirely Counter-Productive to Progressive Policy Goals Esquire Politics Blog 06/08/2018):
In fact, it’s a stupid rule. It is entirely counter-productive to progressive policy goals. It puts the Democratic Party in conflict with the blog’s First Law Of Economics – Fck The Deficit. People Got No Jobs. People Got No Money – and it revives Zombie Simpson-Bowles to stalk the halls of Congress again. In case nobody in the Democratic leadership has noticed, the rising energy in the party is not coming out of the budget-hawk cryptkeepers. This takes seriously the laughable fiction that the Republicans care about deficits and will use them as an effective club on the Democrats. Right now, the country is giving serious consideration to things like Medicare-for-all and some sort of free college. This isn’t the time to go all Al From again. It also guarantees a serious intraparty skirmish that’s already underway.
As Jamie Galbraith explained in his 2008 book The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, the Keynesian notion that federal budgets need to be balanced over time, or over a business cycle, became obsolete with the end of the Bretton Woods system in 1973. Aside from the fact that a country borrowing in its own currency can't go bankrupt, US budget deficits are a result of the dollar's status as the world's reserve currency and the surplus recycling mechanisms in the world eocnomic system that developed after the end of Bretton Woods.

But instead of looking at the real world of the last 45 years, "Resistance" leaders Pelosi and Hoyer think Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economics policies are the way to go.

Even a 2018 wave election won't save a Democratic Party with this kind of leadership.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Democratic wave in California? Or not?

This is a reminder of the risk in Democrats assuming that they will have a "wave" election in Novevmber in their favor without any special new efforts to make it happen (John Woofolk, Did Trump spur Latinos to California’s primary polls? San Jose Mercury News).
Overall statewide turnout in the June primary appears unimpressive based on available returns. The Secretary of State’s office was reporting estimated turnout at 22.7 percent by the end of the week, slightly less than the 25.14 percent in 2014, the last primary election for governor.

Turnout in some big counties with large Latino populations was reported even lower. It was 18 percent in Los Angeles, home base for both [Latino gubernatorial candidates] Villaraigosa and de León.

Political Data Inc., which analyzes election data, won’t have a good picture of statewide voting patterns for another 40 days or so after county elections officials certify results, said the firm’s vice president Paul Mitchell.
The Sacramento Bee's Dan Schnur echoes the report in Marches didn't mean voters: Influencers weigh in on turnout in California's primary 06/141/2018

Also, Dan Walters has a different view of the turnout, presumably referring to California's vote last week:

Both the articles cited above strike me as superficial, heavy on horse-race claims and light on the kind of facts Walters cites.

CALmatters, with which Walters is associated, seems to have more substantive coverage. Byrhonda Lyons reports in With voter turnout up statewide, five California counties find new mail-in ballot system slows count 06/08/2018:
The numbers suggest that voter turnout statewide will reach 36 percent—a big improvement over the record-low turnout of 25 percent statewide in the last primary midterms, in 2014.

Tuesday’s turnout was similarly higher in the five counties using the new vote-center model: Sacramento, San Mateo, Nevada, Napa and Madera. Sacramento County, the largest, had a 30 percent turnout in 2014 and appears headed for a 46 percent turnout in Tuesday’s primary.
Here's Ben Christopher, California’s Blue Wave watch: Why this graphic should worry Republicans 06/11/2018:
Not only did the party steer clear of its dreaded “shutout scenario,” in which an oversupply of candidates in some of the state’s most competitive races threatened to divide up the Democratic vote, leaving only Republicans to advance to the general election. The preliminary count also suggests that primary voters in certain high profile districts are much more inclined toward Democrats than they were in 2014.

That may or may not foretell a “blue wave” in California, but it does show that Republicans have their work cut out for them.
But these two pieces, like the ones cited above, don't bother to give numbers of votes, which Walters mentions in his tweet. Isn't that kind of a basic fact needed to make sense of the percentages?

Monday, June 11, 2018

Xenophobia, the Austrian right, and the rescue ship Aquarius

I'm not sure whether this is more silly than it is obnoxious, although it was presumably meant to be the latter: FPÖ will "Heimat" in Oberösterreichs Landesverfassung verankern Die Presse 08.06.2018.

The state government in the Austrian state of Upper Austria is run by a coalition of the conservative, Christian Democratic People's Party (ÖVP) and the far right, anti-immigrant "Freedom" Party (FPÖ), the same party combination currently running the national government. This proposal was announced by Vice Governor Manfred Haimbuchner (FPÖ) aund FPÖ state party leader Herwig Mahr.

The language they are proposing to be included in the state constitution reads, "Das Land OÖ bekennt sich zur Heimatpflege durch das Bewahren der landestypischen Brauchtümer und Traditionen" ("The state of Upper Austria commits itself to preserve the Heimat through guarding the customs and traditions typical to the state.") Haimbuchner suggested that handshaking would be protected by the provision. And also would prevent pork from being banned.

We aren't exactly talking high constitutional theory here.

As you might guess, protecting pork against being banned is a dumb-as-dirt Islamophobic pitch. If there is any proposal in the Austrian Parliament or the Upper Austrian Landtag to ban pork, it has somehow escaped my notice. And, I'm guessing, everyone else's, too. It a non-solution to a non-problem.

The wording cited is so vague I wonder if it would have any definable effect at all. But putting dumb and irrelevant stuff is always a bad idea. Because some judge may seize on it as a way to make an absurdly political decision that makes no sense. Like, say, ruling that a health-food grocery has to close because it doesn't sell pork there. Or whatever.

Really, it's just cheap publicity for Islamophobic hate propaganda.

This, on the other hand is considerably more serious. Austrian Vice Chancellor and head of the xenophobic FPÖ, H.C. Strache

The Strache statement says, "Under the new Italian Interior Minister Salvini, illegal migration will no longer be tolerated. Good so!" The Austrian anti-foreigner right use "migrant" to refer to desperate refugees from war zones being rescued from drowning to suggest they are just trying to come mooch off good Christian white Europeans.

He's talking about the ship Aquarius, a humanitarian rescue ship that saves people from being drowned in the Mediterranean trying to flee from the Libyan coast on often unsafe boats. The rescue ship has been stranded mid-way between Italy and Malta, with both countries refusing it permission to land. Angela Giuffrida reports in Mediterranean rescue vessel crew keep migrants calm during standoff Guardian 06/11/2018:

Onboard the vessel are 629 people, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 babies and seven pregnant woman. The ship is operated by the French-German charity SOS Méditerranée and has been undertaking risky year-round, search-and-rescue missions in waters north of Libya since 2015.

Victoria Russell, a spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has staff working on the boat, said the situation was under control but could change at any moment.

“None of the people on board have any idea about this whole diplomatic standoff that is unfolding around them, but they are starting to ask questions: why has the ship stopped?” she said. ...

More than 15 people onboard have serious chemical fuel burns requiring regular care, due to oil spills from the cheaply made rubber boats they travelled in from Libya. There are also a number of cases that require orthopaedic surgery.

Some of the passengers had to be resuscitated after almost drowning during a challenging overnight rescue operation on Saturday.

“They have sea water on their lungs … they’re stable right now, but it could change at any moment, and they would need assistance that we can’t provide on the boat,” said Russell.
So, seriously, do Strache and his Burschenscaften party have any actual solutions to refugee problems like this other than to bitch and moan about foreigners?

What do they suggest that Italy and/or Malta do with this boat? Just sink it? Let all the people on it drown? It's a serious question.

The new social-democratic Prime Minister of Spain has a more human response:

Demagogic anti-immigrant rhetoric leads to this eventually leads to callousness and brutality.

It always worth remembering in connection with news about the chronic refugee crisis in Europe that a major contributor, currently most likely the main cause, is the wars in the Greater Middle East the last two decades, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Yemen and Syria, mightily encouraged by the US and other NATO powers not just diplomatically but by direct intervention and massive arms sales to the belligerent parties. A war against Iran would add yet another major source of refugees.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Anti-immigration sentiment in Italy and Austria

The European Union is facing a new round of the Greek debt crisis of 2015, only this time with Italy. Anti-immigrant sentiment is also intensifying, with the new Italian government saying they want to expel hundreds of thousands of refugees. There has not been any new upsurge in refugees like that wave of 2015. But mass migration would be a longterm reality for Europe just from the effects of climate change alone. But military conflicts in the Middle East, fed and sometimes initiated by outside powers, including massive arms sales.The US, Russia, and various European countries are in on this ugly and destructive game.

Angela Merkel became known for her extend-and-pretend solutions on the euro crisis, especially with Greece, where the unsuccessful anti-austerity pushback from Greece in 2015 highlighted. Piling on unpayable debt burdens to the eurozone "periphery" countries was the core of her economic extend-and-pretend approach. In immigration, the main extend-and-pretend solution was an agreement with Turkey to house refugees coming their direction. Ironically, they also rely on Greece for the same thing. And Italy to a smaller but significant degree as well..

Meanwhile, there has been no meaningful progress on practical intra-EU arrangements in meaningfully dealing with refugees on a fair burden-sharing basis. (The xenophobic politicians in Germany and Austria prefer to call them all "migrants," to more easily brand them as moochers coming live high on the hog in good white Christian countries.) Meanwhile, Greece has knuckled under to enduring a permanent depression on the orders of the EU establishment, and of Germany more particularly, and is in chronically desperate states. Italy is also fighting the austerity trap. And name-calling and hostile statements against Turkey are popular favorites for conservative politicians in Germany and Austria. Plus, Germany has known for years that BAMF, its own refugee-resettlement agency, had severe management problems and wasn't prepared for the 2015 upsurge. And still isn't prepared. (How Germany's BAMF refugee agency became a 'political scapegoat' Deutsche Welle 30.05.2018)

So this is an inherently unstable situation. And Greece, Italy, and Turkey can threaten to send large groups on their way north.

In Italy, the new Interior Minister, the national official in charge of law-enforcement - not natural resources like the Interior in the US - is Matteo Salvini, a toxic xenophobe from the far-right League party, which is the junior partner in the new national coalition government. Chico Harlan writes (The torchbearer of Italy’s far right is now in power and wants to make good on anti-migrant promises Washington Post 06/04/20118):
With an Italy-first message, Salvini has rocketed into the center of Europe’s battle over migration. He is recasting the cultural debate about how to treat those fleeing the Middle East and Africa, highlighting examples of migrant criminality and describing the influx as an “invasion.” And now, in his first week in control of Italy’s interior ministry, he has power to do what he has pledged: more tightly close the doors of a country that, several years ago, ranked among the most welcoming in Europe.

Salvini has risen to power on a mix of grass-roots anxiety and his own political acumen. He is the leader of Italy’s far-right League, a once-fringe regional secessionist party that polls now show is on the brink of becoming the country’s most popular party. He styles himself as a friend of Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and a thorn in the side of Brussels bureaucrats. He is an irrepressible social media user. He has a public profile far larger than that of ­Italy’s new prime minister, an academic with little political experience. ...

Among those who crossed the Mediterranean last year, 64 percent landed in Italy. Some 400,000 have applied for asylum here [Italy] over the past four years ...

What makes Salvini stand apart, though, is that he so unsparingly highlights what he sees as the problems with migration. When a Nigerian immigrant was arrested this year in the killing of an 18-year-old, Salvini wrote on Facebook, “What was this maggot still doing in Italy?” Last week, during negotiations to form a government, Salvini posted video footage of what he said was a supposed migrant plucking the feathers of a pigeon. “In broad daylight in the middle of the street,” he wrote. “Go home!!!”

Michael Brooks gives a good summary of the Italian coalition in the first 12 minutes or so of this video, TMBS - 43 - How Not To Do Identity Politics 06/06/2018 (?):

Monday, June 04, 2018

Italy and the ghost of 2015

Frances Coppola in a piece from last Thursday, The Eurocrisis Is Back And It Could Be Uglier Than The Last One Forbes 05/31/2018, comments on the looming clash between the Italian government coalition of Five Stars and the League, on the one hand, and the EU establishment, on the other.

She judges that the coalition's political program amounts to "a toxic mix of right-wing and left-wing handouts, with a hefty dose of xenophobia and Euroscepticism" that represents "a major attack on the Eurozone’s governance model."
The coalition is demanding that the fiscal and monetary rules that hold the euro together be reformed to suit its own agenda. This is not going to go down well in Brussels. Even more importantly, it is not going to go down well in Germany. The new finance minister, Olaf Scholz, is every bit as committed to fiscal discipline and austerity as his formidable predecessor, Wolfgang Schaueble.
They are right to demand an end to Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning austerity policies. But the somewhat vague left policies of Five Star and the nationalist/xenophobia orientation of the League are likely to be an unstable mix. And maybe downright toxic.

And they are likely headed sooner rather than later to a conflict with the EU and Angela Merkel in the lead that will be a lot like the one in Greece in 2015. Like Greece, it has a debt load that it cannot indefinitely support under the current eurozone arrangements. And austerity policies imposed by the Troika have left Italy with a stagnant growth rate for years:
Since 2001, Italy’s GDP growth rate has averaged less than 1% per annum, and it has several times dropped below zero. When GDP growth is very low, debt/GDP does not fall even if the country runs primary surpluses. This is what is happening to Italy. It has a huge historic debt burden that it is unable to reduce, and the Eurozone’s fiscal rules actually make matters worse, since persistent austerity tends to depress GDP growth.
It's going to be a bumpy ride.

They will never stop talking about it ...

Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, I mean. In this segment from today's Morning Joe, Miki grumps about Bill Clinton in a current interview responding to questions about the Lewinsky affair. This interview doesn't sound to me like he's ducking the issue, he engaged with the questions the reporter, Craig Melvin, was asked. Until it was obvious that that Melvin wasn't going to stop asking about it.

Miki seems to think anything less than permanently banning Bill Clinton from public life is insufficient punishment for him. Melvin seems to be outraged that Clinton didn't make a private apology to Monica. Even though the clip shows him very publicly apologized to her by name. And, of course, if he had spoken to her privately after the scandal, the media would still be drooling over it.

Mika: We've Been Waiting Decades For This Bill Clinton Interview 06/04/2018:

The scandal and Clinton's impeachment were two decades ago. But the national press got such a thrill out of it they keep going back to it at every opportunity.

For a reminder of how thoroughly Bill Clinton was investigated on the Lewinsky affair and other sex and sexual-assault allegations, Joe Conason's A ‘Reckoning’ For Bill Clinton? Don’t Forget Starr’s $70 Million Probe National Memo 11/17/2018.

I know I'm doing my own tiny bit to give extra visibility to these reports. But here is a Velshi & Ruhle clip on the same topic, Steve Kornacki: Bill Clinton’s Script On Lewinsky Hasn’t Changed 06/04/2018:

This, like the Morning Joe clip, is a weird flashback to 1998-2000. And, astonishingly, the reporting is just as bad

Friday, June 01, 2018

Italy's new government

After being stymied by the Italian President in their first attempt to form a government, the two coalition parties, the Five Stars Movement (Cinque Stelle) and the League, are making another attempt. (Jason Horowitz, Italy’s Populist Parties Win Approval to Form Government New York Times 05/31/2018) Giuseppe Conte is still their candidate for Prime Minister. Sergio Mattarella accepted the new government and cabinet Thursday evening. (Dominik Straub, Machtwechsel in Italien: Mattarella akzeptiert populistische Regierung Standard 01.06.2018)

Italy's new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte
Unfortunately, the reporting on this one strikes me as a bit lazy (from the Times article):
... the newly constituted government, of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant League, still left open the question of whether the reaction of financial markets to Italy’s political chaos this week had chastened them, or whether it simply had led them to disguise their hostility as the price of admission into power.

Populist leaders in Europe and across the Atlantic looked on with delight as they gained a powerful ally in the heart of Western Europe. European leaders in Brussels, already worried about Poland and Hungary, now fear a threat to European unity from within its core. [my emphasis]
For good measure, or to conform to superficial reporting conventions, he adds that the coalition parties "also want to lift sanctions against Russia and for Italy to move closer to its president, Vladimir V. Putin, who once said he didn’t need to meddle in the Italian elections because it was all going his way."

That treatment carelessly conflates the Italian coalition with the authoritarian regimes in Poland and Hungary and makes them sound like stooges of Vladimir Putin. It's a sloppy presentation.

And does the "paper of record" now just assume that it's the role of "financial markets" to "chasten democratically elected governments? Any lazy formulation.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made it clear to Italians what the attitude of the EU leadership is, speaking like an English colonial viceroy (Stephanie Kirchgaessner Daniel Boffey, Juncker: Italians need to work harder and be less corrupt Guardian 05/31/2018):
Days after the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, defended Italy’s place in the eurozone against the country’s populist leaders, the president of the European commission said he was in “deep love” with “bella Italia”, but could not accept that all the country’s problems should be blamed on the EU or the commission.

“Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy. That means more work; less corruption; seriousness,” Juncker said. “We will help them as we always did. But don’t play this game of loading with responsibility the EU. A country is a country, a nation is a nation. Countries first, Europe second.”
Believe it or not, that actually is diplomatic wording! Translated from EU-speak, it basically means: "Italy will do what the EU Commission, Angela Merkel, and the financial markets order them to do. Everybody knows that Italians (and Greeks and Spaniards and Portuguese and Irish people) are lazy and corrupt. More importantly, if you try to depart one iota from Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economic policies in good times or bad, we will crush your miserable, inferior little country."

Although Italy's not so little.

The new Italian government faces the same basic dilemma that the Syriza government faced in Greece in 2015. To provide Angela Merkel and the EU to release them from stone-conservative neoliberal economic policies, they have to be willing to credibly threaten to leave the eurozone. Which means that if Merkel and the EU refuse to make reasonable concessions, the Italian government really would have to be willing to take Italy out of the eurozone.

But there's definitely a dark side to the new Italian government. They are taking a xenophobic line, like the governments in Hungary and Austria, among others.

So they are supposedly prepared to take a run at forcing a realistic adjustment of one of the EU's two chronic problems, the poor construction of the eurozone, which falls seriously short of being an "optimal currency area." Given the stubborn resistance of Germany and other northern European governments, that's not likely to happen, sad to say.

Bill Mitchell explains why the Financial Markets as such are not the cause of the euro's problems in (The assault on democracy in Italy Billy Blog 05/30/2018). He explains that the EU has a mechanism to save bondholders from taking a bad on their bond holdings, he writes:
The ECB clearly signalled a willingness to buy unlimited quantities of government bonds if there was the risk of insolvency.

But this intervention required that the countries succumb to a fiscal austerity package that ensured their growth prospects were minimal.

And the combination just meant that the next crisis was just around the corner.

The SMP gave way to the more recent asset-buying programs, which have seen huge volumes of government debt (other than Greece) accumulate on the ECB’s balance sheet, which have funded fiscal deficits and kept the Eurozone intact.

The interesting point is that while the ECB eventually dealt the private bond dealers out of the game they waited a time (in each episode) for those dealers to express their market preferences.

Why? It is obvious. They wanted to create a sense of public debt crisis – let the spreads of the Member State bonds rise against the German bund – to make it clear that Germany’s position was sound and the example and the rest were out of control rabble with excessive deficits.

Then they could have it both ways.
But the other chronic EU crisis, mass immigration of refugees, which also had an acute moment in 2015, is still there. The immigration wave isn't stopping. The EU countries badly, badly need an EU-wide plan for processing, housing, and integrating refugees, a plan based on some kind of reasonable burden-sharing among the member states. They also need to have adequate emergency services for refugee waves like the one that came in 2015. Xenophobic governments aren't going to get there.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Interesting set of headlines from the "New York Times" the last couple of days

A real sign of the times. Specifically, headline from May 30 and May 31 from the New York Times.

Because big banks would never do anything to steal money from their customers or take risks that might bring on a financial crash, amirite?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Italy, the euro, and the democracy deficit

Former German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäauble during the 2015 Greek crisis delivered a succinct statement of the conflict between neoliberal Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economic policy: "Elections cannot be allowed to change economic policy."

His then Greek counterpart Yanis Varoufakis rightly called that attitude "a great gift to those who don't believe in democracy."

Unfortunately, the European establishment is still singing from the same hymnbook:
European Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger apologized on Tuesday after facing criticism for suggesting that financial markets would show Italians how to vote.

Oettinger told broadcaster Deutsche Welle in an interview conducted in German that the reaction of financial markets would give Italian voters a signal not to vote for populists.

“My concern and expectation is that the coming weeks will show that the development of the markets, government bonds and the economy of Italy will be so far-reaching that this will be a possible signal to voters not to vote for populists on the right or left,” Oettinger said.

“Already the developments of the government bonds, the market value of banks, the general course of the Italian economy is clearly overcast, is negative. This has to do with the possible government formation.” (Emma Anderson, Oettinger apologizes after Italy remarks spark storm Politico EU 05/29/2018; my emphasis)
EU Commission President felt compelled to distance himself (publicly) from that comment, saying, "President Jean-Claude Juncker, saying that “Italy’s fate does not lie in the hands of the financial markets."

But in substance, Italian voters have every reason to believe that it's no more than lip service. The article quoted doesn't mention any criticism of the Italian President's decision that effectively blocked the seating of the duly elected national government and instead proposed to install as President a former IMF official who is (of course!) devoted to austerity economics. Anderson also reports:
Juncker’s own comments before the Italian election seemed to impact financial markets in February when he said that the EU should “brace ourselves for the worst scenario and the worst scenario could be no operational government.”

The Commission president later tried to smooth things over, by saying “whatever the outcome, I am confident that we will have a government that makes sure that Italy remains a central player in Europe and in shaping its future.”
But in case there is any doubt that the Schäuble Principle of Eurozone Government remains in effect, Vítor Constâncio, vice president of the European Central Bank (ECB) explained how things are in an interview with Spiegel Online ('Italy Knows the Rules' 05/29/2018):
SPIEGEL ONLINE: These achievements are now hanging in the balance because one country may no longer want to do its part. Even if their attempt to form a government has failed for now, Italy's two dominant parties are both skeptical of the common currency. They want to push through massive tax cuts and increase spending dramatically, despite that fact that, at 132 percent of gross domestic product, Italy has one of the highest levels of sovereign debt in the world.

Constâncio: It is certainly a challenge, first and foremost for Italy itself. When financial markets attacked Italy in 2012, it demonstrated that perceptions on the financial markets can be volatile and the risk assessment of a given debtor can change abruptly, sometimes with severe consequences - and this even though Italy already had a primary surplus at the time. We will have to see what happens now.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Risk premiums for Italian government bonds have risen sharply again recently. At what point would the ECB intervene again, as it did in 2012?

Constâncio: I would like to stress that every intervention has to contribute to the fulfilment of our mandate and is also subject to conditionality. The Outright Monetary Transactions program for intervening in national sovereign bond markets of vulnerable countries can only be used if the country in question also agrees to an adjustment program. The rules are very clear on this. Everyone should remember that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So if Italy wants to circumvent the EU's fiscal rules, it can't necessarily count on the ECB's help?

Constâncio: I will only say that Italy knows the rules. They should perhaps take another close look at them. [my emphasis in italics]
I guess the latter is a sort of Italian version of the stereotypical American-movie German who says, "Ve haf vays of making zis happen."

This is how the EU's Very Serious People see things.

Wolfgang Münchau in his May 29 Eurointelligence public site writes:
But what we found most remarkable about the quality of the [German press'] discussion [about Italy's increasing resistance to austerity economics] is the opening paragraph of this story by Frankfurter Allgemeine. Apparently, the reason why Emmanuel Macron has been pressing for a deal on a European deposit insurance scheme by June this year is so that Germany rescues French banks from their Italian exposure. With such a framing in the paper of record of the largest member state, abandon all hope ye who enter the eurozone debate.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Italy's political drama and the EU

Italy's left-populist 5Stars Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle) and the right-populist League (Liga), formerly called the Northern League, had agreed on a government. 5Stars got the largest percentage in the March national election with 32%, with the Liga third with 18%.

But the President and head of state of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, a former Christian Democrat and now Independent, refused to accept the proposed Finance Minister.

Alberto Mingardi reports (Italian voters head for euro showdown Politico EU 05/28/2018)
The two parties wanted Paolo Savona, an 82-year-old technocrat who has fantasized in public about a “secret plan to leave the euro,” as the all-powerful economy minister. And they refused to back down when Mattarella pushed back. The Italian president probably feared the effect of Savona’s appointment on a number of treasury auctions this week, and that Italy losing access to the bond markets was a very concrete possibility.
Politico identifies Mingardi as "director general of Istituto Bruno Leoni, Italy’s free-market think tank, and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute." So it's safe to assume that he's likely to be very sympathetic to ultra-conservative economic policies that have led so many Italian voters to reject the more mainstream center-left and center-right.

The coalition's Prime Minister candidate, whom Mattarella was willing to accept, refused to accept the job unless Mattarella was willing to accept a Finance Minister that the coalition wanted. The coalition parties are contesting the austerity policy required by the EU leadership, Angela Merkel in particular.

One thing I'm noticing on the reporting about this latest turn is that the distinction between "euorskeptic" and "eurocritical" seems to be getting blurred in the news. A euroskeptic has long been considered to be a person opposed to their country's membership in the EU, while eurocritics were pro-EU but insistent on reforms to reduced the much-discussed "democratic deficit" and the EU's Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economic policies. Given the current death-lock that neoliberal economic assumptions have on the European establishment, any country that seriously wants to reform the eurozone to make it into an optimal currency zone, which it has never been, will have to be willing to leave the eurozone if their minimal demands aren't met, maybe the distinction between euroskeptic and eurocritical is becoming less relevant.

Now President Mattarella has appointed an interim Prime Minister. "Carlo Cottarelli became known as 'Mr Scissors' for his cuts to public spending in Italy." (Carlo Cottarelli: Italy president names stop-gap PM BBC News 05/28/2018) Cottarelli was a former IMF official, making both the optics even worse. The IMF website notes that "served as Director of the Fiscal Affairs Department from November 2008 to October 22, 2013."

This is another kick in the face to the electorate, for whom the austerity policies are clearly a major problem. And they are right to consider them a problem. As the BBC explains:
After meeting the president, Mr Cottarelli said he would present a programme to parliament, including a budget, to take Italy into new elections "at the beginning of 2019".

If he was unable to pass a programme, which appears likely at this stage, "the government would resign immediately... until elections are held after the month of August", he added.

The BBC's James Reynolds in Rome says early elections are exactly what the two populist parties want, giving them a chance to rally support behind their claim that the Italian and the wider European establishments are getting in the way of the will of the people.

A source from Five Star told Reuters the party could campaign with the League in a fresh vote.
If Parliament refuses to approve the government, which is a real possibility, it will be a Presidentially-imposed technocratic government. And Italian voters will have very good reason to object to that.

To be clear, I have little confidence in the rightwing, xenophobic Liga as a governing party. But Liga leader Matteo Salvini is unfortunately correct in calling Mattarella's course an attack on democracy.

This editorial from The Independent is Italy's political crisis could have devastating effects on the European economy reinforces the stone-conservative narrative on economic policy that currently dominates the EU, Italy's political crisis could have devastating effects on the European economy 05/28/2018:
One of the few things the fractious putative coalition of the League, formerly the near-separatist Northern League, and the Five Star Movement agree on is that Italy should be allowed much more financial freedom, either within the euro or, if needs be, outside it. This is because they need to be able to print huge sums of money on an irresponsible programme, popular or not. The scale of the public spending required to satisfy their populist promises amounts to around 10 per cent of Italian GDP, a figure usually reached only during an extreme economic crisis. They can do that only by a vast increase in borrowing and taking grave risks with the viability of the euro and Italy’s membership of the system.
Ending the Hoover/Brüning is a necessity in order to fix the eurozone. But no one exactly knows what the effect would be of a eurozone member leaving the eurozone. But it will be very disruptive, almost certainly worse for all sides in the short run.

But if staying in the eurozone means that in Italy or other countries means that the bankers, the IMF, EU operatives, and Germany can dismiss the results of legitimate democratic elections and install a Hoover/Brüning "technocrat" instead, then Italy and other countries really are facing a choice between eurozone membership and democracy in their countries.

Wolfgang Münchau for years has been a perceptive critic of the eurozone construction and the EU response to the Greek debt crisis. He mentions again in his current column for the Financial Times his thoughts on what needs to be done with the eurozone (Euro must be made more robust to rival the dollar 05/27/2018):
Before the financial crisis the eurozone ran a small current account surplus. By last year, it reached 3.5 per cent of economic output. The larger the surpluses became, the more dependent the eurozone had become on the rest of the world.

Instead of hyperventilating about Mr Trump, Europeans might want to reflect on what got them into this mess. The EU would be more resilient today if it had not handled the eurozone crisis the way it did, and if its founders had made the euro more robust from the outset. Technically, it would still be possible for the EU to fix the problem, but that would require a degree of political union that goes far beyond even what Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has proposed. It requires at its core a mutualised debt instrument, a euro bond, as a financial instrument to underpin a large sovereign debt market. It would also require a broader mandate for the European Central Bank.

Friday, May 25, 2018

"Framing" Trump's tweets

Medium just reposted (05/25/2018) an essay by linguist George Lakoff from December 2016 with advice for Democrats in particular on how to respond to Trump. It was posted at his blog as How to Help Trump 12/15/2016.

Lakoff is famous for his work on political "framing," how political actors define issues and narratives. Usually whenever I mention him, I say that while I have some reservations about parts of his argument, he's basically right about the Democratic Party's problems in framing political issues in ways that are most likely to win support for them. So I've now made that ritual qualification for this post.

His 12/15/2016 piece falls more in my "reservations" category. Because he seems to be arguing there that Democrats should try to ignore what Trump says:

Without knowing it, many Democrats, progressives and members of the news media help Donald Trump every day. The way they help him is simple: they spread his message.
Think about it: every time Trump issues a mean tweet or utters a shocking statement, millions of people begin to obsess over his words. Reporters make it the top headline. Cable TV panels talk about it for hours. Horrified Democrats and progressives share the stories online, making sure to repeat the nastiest statements in order to refute them. While this response is understandable, it works in favor of Trump.

When you repeat Trump, you help Trump. You do this by spreading his message wide and far.

Nobody knows this better than Trump. Trump, as a media master, knows how to frame a debate. When he picks a fight, he does so deliberately. He tweets or says outrageous things, knowing they will be repeated millions and millions of times. When the news media and Democrats repeat Trump’s frames, they are strengthening those frames by ensuring that tens of millions of Americans hear them repeated over and over again.
Phrased like that, it sounds suspiciously like a concern-troll argument trying to get Democrats to shut up. That's not what he's trying to do. But this is one of his weaker pitches.

This clip from Sam Seder's Majority Report features Sam and Henry Farrell talking about the posturing of conservative intellectuals on political ideology, What The 'Intellectual Dark Web' Fears The Most 05/24/2018. They also discuss the argument that criticizing rightwingers' ideas and policies just makes them even more rightwing, a variation on the undying "things will be worse if you protest" argument.

Lakoff is on much firmer ground in other posts on his blog, like The President Is The Nation: The Central Metaphor Trump Lives By 08/01/2017, where he analyzes some of Trump's own self-framing. "From all of these considerations, it seems clear that the President is living by the metaphor, with enormous repercussions for our nation and the world. We see this in his speeches, his tweets, and his official actions."

And he elaborates his idea about how Democrats can do positive framing on the issues of press freedom in A Modest Proposal: #ProtectTheTruth 01/03/2018.
So when the president attacks the press ..., don’t take the bait. Instead, focus on truth and its moral context. Truth is under attack. Let’s protect it, and express our appreciation for those brave journalists whose job is to spotlight it.
Some ground rules:
  • Don’t use any of his terms, images, or hashtags.
  • Ignore his antics — if you retweet it you can’t defeat it, and when you embed it you spread it. Deny him the virality he craves. Ignore his antics.
  • Shift the frame to focus on powerful, truthful reporting.
And he cites three examples that he considers good instances of framing by the left/center-left while staying true to factual reporting: Mother Jones' reporting on The Russian Connection; "Rachel Maddow’s steely-eyed focus on the Republican Party’s culpability in this mess and the need to hold them accountable" (although good framing in her case doesn't necessarily equate to the best reporting, given her frequent perkiness in reporting very serious material; and, Mark Hertsgaard's reporting on the climate crisis, e.g., Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch Have Set Our Future on Fire The Nation 12/11/2017.

But I don't think it's realistic to ask people to ignore Trump's tweets. He is the President of the United States, and his tweets can have major effects on how domestic and international issues are understood. I'm reminded of someone years ago writing to Miss Manners (Judith Martin) relating an instance of being at a party and the hostess tripped and fell onto the food table and the punch bowl. The question was whether guests should comment on it, or just pretend to ignore it. Her response was that if you consider it normal for a hostess to fall face-first into the punch bowl, in that case it would be appropriate to ignore it. Trump's tweets are pretty much face-down-in-the-punch-bowl every day.