Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, February 28, 2011

Double Your Pleasure, Double your Fun With Double Mint Gum

No one needed Wikileaks to learn about the latest diplomatic flops in the world. Let’s take a minute to amuse ourselves yet again with those consummate diplomats, the French.

French diplomacy, which seemed to enjoy a pretty good reputation as reasoned and measured during the Bush administration, has taken a nose dive. It’s amateurish to the point of cartoonish. Let’s consider recent events.

This weekend, French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie “resigned” her post to be replaced by the once exiled Alain Juppé. Now this is a story that is worth following just for the pleasure of seeing that other nations have screwed up politics. Alliot-Marie had ties to now deposed Tunisian President Ben-Ali. Here is a short list:
· Alliot-Marie had accepted visits to Tunisia in the private plane of a wealthy Tunisian businessman who is connected with Ben-Ali. That created a scandal back in December.
· Her parents and she are involved in a real-estate deal with the same business man, that broke while she was in Tunisia on vacation.
· She offered Ben-Ali the assistance of French security forces in crowd control. Not such a good thing to do in a former colony.

Her replacement, Alan Juppé has been serving as Defense Minister. This has helped re-integrate him into the French political scene after being convicted in 2004 for participation in Chirac’s jobs scandal during Chirac's mayoral tenure in Paris. He was given a 14 month suspended prison sentence and a one year ban from participating in French politics. He was mayor of Bordeaux throughout the whole thing.

Then there was the holiday taken by Prime Minister Francois Fillon to Egypt last fall. Much of his week-long vacation was paid for by the Egyptian government. Oops. Joke in France now is if you want to know which regime will fall next, see where French politicians are going on vacation. As a result of this, Sarko has declared that all French officials had to take their holidays in France. Just take a moment to digest the comic irony in that. Do you get the vision of little Napoleon jumping up and down complaining that none of his ministers like France well enough to vacation in it, so he’ll make them!

If you all recall, it was Sarkozy who tried to launch a Mediterranean Union in 2008. There was one meeting at the launch and nothing since. There was an attempted meeting in November, but it was postponed. The Co-president of the barely-formed Union was none other than Hussny Mubarak. How times have changed.

The most recent and comic blunder is a tit-for-tat with the Turks. There is no love lost between French President Sarkozy and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Again, no need for Wikileaks to know that. But it reached a comic level this weekend.

It all started with Erdogan expressed his disappointment that Sarkozy was coming to Ankara in his capacity as head of the G20 rather than as President of France. Both Erdogan and the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul have both been to France, and I suspect that they expected a reciprocal visit. Back in 2009, when Gul went, Sarko greeted him while chewing gum. Probably not very polite.

The personal rapport between Sarko and Erdogan is sour. Erdogan went on to acknowledge as much when he said, “Relations between political leaders shouldn’t erode relations between two countries.” He was disappointed that the visit was only scheduled for 6 hours. In an expression of his disappointment, he sent a Foreign Ministry Undersecretary and the Mayor of Ankara to greet Sarkozy.

Then, to add insult to injury, Sarko descended down the stairs of his plane openly chopping away on gum. Crude little habit, I’d say.

At the end of the visit, Sarko holds a press conference with Gul rather than the Prime Minister where he says Turkey's accession would “destabilize” the EU. This further offended the Turks. But they got the last word on this trip. The Mayor of Ankara, who was part of the delegation seeing Sarko off at the airport, put a wad of gun in his mouth and chewed away as he said good-bye.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Another Mysogynist

So now some democratically elected office in Georgia wants to make miscarriages illegal. Cobb County Representative Bobby Franklin has proposed a bill that would potentially define a miscarriage as "parental murder".

Now this bill will probably die. But what a tactic to use. What he really wants is to outlaw abortion. So he proposes something outrageous like this, then he "negotiates" away the crazy parts and campaigns on what a "reasonable", "bipartisan" person he is. In the meantime, everyone in the opposition wastes time knocking this crap out of the way rather than focusing on the big stuff.

Who's to say that Walker in Wisconsin isn't using the same tactic against unions? It's good that the Obama Administration isn't getting involved in this type of stuff. It's better for them to stay focused on the big stuff and not get drawn into these fights. They are right to let their state organizations do that fighting.


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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Walker and Union Busting for Benefits

Check this out: Rachel Madow has outed Scott Walker. What a sleaze ball! And when you are done with the video, go for this article where a journalist, posing as David Koch totally bonks Scott.

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The Nature and Quality of American Democracy

A recent comment and tangent to an earlier thread about the Middle East has lead to a request for a new thread on the nature and quality of American democracy. One anonymous commenter argued that the US "Never has, never will be a democracy." This commenter started by implying that anyone who disagreed with this view was suffering from a "delusion." I hesitate to engage such statement but US West would like to discuss it and I respect her so here is my first pass at starting just such a conversation.

First, I think it is important to understand that whether a country is a democracy or not is about the process used to determine policies not about policy outcomes. This is consistent with most of the political science research on the nature of democracy. A good example of this kind of literature is Polyarchy by Robert Dahl. It’s an old book but the definition of “polyarchy” (the term Dahl coins for regimes that are close enough to the democratic ideal as makes little difference), or something very much like it has become the standard working definition of democracy in political science. Dahl’s definition is about process not outcomes. He does not say “democracies have income disparity measures between this and this level” or “anything other than minimal flat taxation is undemocratic” or “democracies have this level of welfare spending” or “democracies have this level of unionization.” Rather he focuses on whether there are free and competitive elections and freedom of the press, speech, association etc. But this view goes far beyond the personal views of Robert Dahl. The process not outcomes definition is the standard in the field.

Second, given the standard definition of democracy, we can say that the United States is clearly a representative democracy (Dahl would call it a “Polyarchy” but that’s just semantic preference on his part really). We enjoy free, competitive elections. We also enjoy a range of rights that support the free competitive nature of those elections namely: freedom of association, freedom of the press, freedom of speech etc. We also enjoy a relatively stable rule of law with an independent judiciary and the right to due process before our life, liberty or property is taken away by the state (with some relatively isolated exceptions which we have complained about on this blog before). Any assertions that the United States is not a democracy are either based exaggerated definitions of democracy that make it an ideal that is impossible to attain (and so not a practical basis for reasoned discussion) or based on erroneous or highly selective use of evidence.

For example, debating about the degree of income inequality in the country, or the level of unionization etc really amounts to a debate about policy outcomes. Framing such a debate in terms of “my view represents democracy and the opposing view does not” is not really productive either for reasoned policy debate or a reasoned discussion of what democracy is.

All that said, there are useful questions about how our processes could be reformed (I might say "improved"). For example, money plays a big role in our elections because of the nature of our campaign finance laws. A reasoned person could argue that the representative quality of our democracy would be improved by instituting something like public financing for campaigns. Another example, commonly raised, is that our primary and secondary electoral rules distort representation. Specifically, some people would prefer that the US adopt a more proportional electoral system such as proportional representation, the single transferable vote or alternative list method for counting votes and assigning seats in the legislature. Others focus on how district shapes are assigned. Still other reform advocates suggest that voting should be made mandatory. But none of these dimensions of possible reform are of the order that we would expect to see if we were to claim that the US is not a democracy.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Future US Role in the Middle East

The measured US response that leaned increasingly towards the pro-democracy demonstrators combined with the stark contrast between the government responses to similar demonstrations in US ally, Bahrain and former Soviet client and pan-arabist dictatorship, Libya may be setting up a new role for the US in the Middle East.

We may be seeing a new US role in the middle east emerge in which our allies are more likely to democratize relatively smoothly if slowly and gradually (with a small number of exceptions like Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen). While Bahrain is showing promising signs of opening up another round of liberalizing reforms, Libya's Gaddafi seems to be intent on killing as many of the protestors as he needs to. He may even be using foreign mercenaries (from other non-US allies like the Sudan) to do it.

For once, the US is not the outside power backing the ruthless dictator. Finally there are signs that the US can be a constructive influence on policies that really matter to Arabs. In the end, for the US to be the moderating restraining influence on dictators under pressure to reform may be more important than if the US were to suddenly abandon Israel. Call me crazy but I am of the opinion that if Israel were surrounded by reasonable, relatively peaceful governments that nevertheless kept the pressure on them it would do more to shift Israeli policy than all the bellicosity and threats of war and extermination that have been the mainstay of Islamist strategies. One possible consequence of this is that if Israel can no longer credibly claim that only unwavering US support prevents the genocide of Levantine Jews, it would allow the US to finally put real pressure on Israel. It would also empower the growing segment of Israeli society that genuinely wants a peaceful solution to the problem.


On Wisconsin!

The situation in Wisconsin is really touching a nerve with me. Governor Walker (R) was elected as part of the Republican victory in 2010. He is now proposing a combination of policies that the country recognizes as a preview of things to come for many state governments. In his first month in office, Governor Walker pushed through a package of tax cuts for corporations. Wisconsin's corporate tax rates are comparable or below those of their main neighbors: Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa (Wisconsin and Michigan share a border along the base of the Upper Peninsula but this is a sparsely populated part of Michigan that depends largely on mining which cannot relocated because of tax rates). Wisconsin's personal income tax rates are slightly higher than those in Illinois and Iowa but somewhat lower than those in Minnesota. Wisconsin's sales taxes are lower than those of Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. I go through these comparisons to suggest that Wisconsin's citizens are not excessively taxed. Wisconsin's tax rates are comparable especially to its neighbors. This is important because a major argument that state leaders put forward for cutting taxes - especially on businesses is to encourage new businesses to relocate to their state and deter old businesses from relocating out of their state. My brief survey of Wisconsin tax rates suggests that this probably not a major problem for the Badger State.

Now, there is a recession on as you know. So by cutting taxes on corporations, Governor Walker is worsening his state's revenue short fall problem. This brings us to the other part of his policy agenda. Walker is proposing significant cuts to public employee benefits and a dramatic curtailment of public employee unions right to collectively bargain. The implication of his rhetoric and policies is that the public sector is over paid at the expense of a long suffering private sector. Walker's proposals have provoked a bitter fight. Wisconsin Democrats have left the state to prevent a quorum in the legislature. Public employees and union activists and sympathizers have hit the streets. Tea Party counter protesters soon followed. The newly elected Republican governor of Iowa is making exactly the same noises and a similar fight is coming for Iowans along with many other states.

But are public employees really over paid?? US West posted about this earlier but it bears repeating. Public employees are not paid more than their private sector counter parts with similar qualifications and responsibilities. In fact, they are paid significantly LESS than their private sector counter parts. In fact, the gap between private and public salaries increases as the qualifications expected of the worker go up. At the level of high school graduates, public employees make about 97% of their private sector counterparts. For college graduates public employees make just 75% of their private sector counterparts. Once you get to the level of professional employees (people with JDs, MDs, and PhDs), public employees make just 63% of the salaries awarded to their private sector counterparts. The only thing that public employees can point to that compensates them somewhat for this gap is their benefits packages. Public employees do tend to have good health and retirement packages that are seen as more secure than those operated by many companies because they are guaranteed by democratically accountable state governments rather than by corporations prone to rob their pension funds as they sink into bankruptcy.

I really hope the Democrats and the unions in Wisconsin can stand up to this. And I'm very glad that President Obama called this for what it is, an assault on unions. But it is also part of a broader assault on non-military public employees.

UPDATE (2/21): I found this video online of a Wisconsin Democratic legislator angrily describing the tricks that the Republicans have been using to ram through the Walker budget bill. What he is describing is tyranny of the majority.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Manah Manah Doo Doooo Doo Doo Doo

Sorry, I can't get that song out of my head (because of the capital of Bahrain). So the revolutions and uprisings against dictators in the Middle East continue. Yemen, Bahrain and Libya are all best with massive demonstrations. Yemen is not that surprising as the country is already fighting two separate civil wars plus dealing with the largest branch of Al Qaeda outside of the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater. All three are deadly serious. But Bahrain and Libya are more interesting because their regimes were not so unstable to begin with.

Bahrain is a wealthy country by world standards but not by the standards of Gulf Kingdoms. Bahrain exports some oil but most of its economy is based on oil processing and especially banking. Bahrain has a ethnically/religiously divided society too. The monarchy and the elite come from the Sunni Islamic group. But a majority of Muslims are Shia Muslims. The news is common reporting that Bahrain is "majority Shia" but this is not exactly true. Shiites are the clear majority among Muslims but only make up about 50% of the total population because of the large non-Muslim communities (mainly Christians, Jews and Hindus). Like many Gulf states, Bahrain has imported laborers from South Asia in large numbers. Bahrain actually has a reputation for being relatively tolerant of different religious groups. And while there are Islamist groups in the country they are divided between Sunni Islamists and Shiite Islamists (and both have recently been rocked by sex scandals involving an unscheduled "fact finding" mission to Bangkok). Bahrain's political situation is such that the monarchy effectively manages a system of nominal competitive democracy characterized by a weak parliament and suspect elections. Bahrain's human rights record is mixed but by the standards of the Middle East it has a good record. The latest news is that the King has asked his son, the Crown Prince, to begin a national dialogue and that Crown Prince has since ordered the military off the streets. So it looks like Bahrain's regime has decided to respond to the crisis by continuing reforms rather than cracking down.

From the US perspective the big issue is that the US 5th Fleet is headquartered there. Some fear that Shiite majority = Pro-Iranian. People with this point of view fear that any reform in Bahrain will lead to the 5th Fleet being expelled from the country. To this I say two things. First, having a large naval facility in a small country like Bahrain means JOBS. Also, the 5th Fleet is there to keep the dangerous, local sea lanes open and open sea lanes are the life blood of this little island nation. So I wouldn't assume that even if there is a significant power shift in Bahrain that it would automatically lead to the US military being asked to leave. Second, if there is a request that we go, I wouldn't see it as anything other than a costly annoyance. The role that the 5th Fleet plays is popular enough with enough of the countries in the region that there would be a home for them nearby. I'm reminded of the "sky is falling" cries from the hawkish right about the fall of the Marcos regime back in the 80s. They said it would lead to the demise of two key US military bases in the Phillipines (Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base). The hawks feared that this would open up the Pacific to the Chinese. In the end, both bases were asked to be removed by the new Democratic government of the Philippines. We still have bases in western Pacific and we are still allies with the Philippines.

Libya has more oil than Bahrain but more people so they are poorer on average. Dictator, Gaddafi, is the often ruthless and increasingly clownish ruler of the country. Gaddafi's willingness to engage in murder and terrorism is combined with an almost absurd ambition to be a relevant world leader. That his regime is in trouble would seem to be a source of great pleasure for American policy makers. Other than a "better the devil you know" view, I can't see a reason not to embrace the anti-regime demonstrations in that country. Gaddafi of course has responded with a military crack down.

So what should the Obama administration do? I think the President should deal with Bahrain and Libya more or less like he dealt with Egypt. Constantly say that these are internal matters for sovereign people while expressing support for peaceful reforms and dialogues and condemnation of violence. I think it is especially important that the US not be seen to deal with these two countries differently. We are especially vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy in the Middle East region and we should take care to be seen to be even handed an consistent when it comes to calls for democracy.

Who's next? My bet would be on Syria. If Gadaffi ends up going down, the Asad dynasty in Syria will be sweating bullets (and probably shooting a lot of them at crowds).


Friday, February 18, 2011

Government Shut Down

So unless a continuing resolution or a budget is passed before March 4th, the government will shut down. Tea Partiers will see just how valuable the 200,000 civil servants who work in the "big government" are to our security and comfort as a nation. Civil Servants aren't paid when on furlough and many of us won't be shopping in our time off. Boehner had the audacity to say that he really didn't care about civil servants being unemployed. That means he doesn't care about the rest of America either. Everything is linked together. So if the government closes, Social Security isn't paid, taxes aren't filed or returns paid, contractors who work for the government aren't paid (many of them small businesses). A shut down would devastate the economy-especially if it goes on 5 days like the last shut down did.

I think this is a game of chicken. The Republicans will blink first. It would look real bad to get a majority in the House and then shutdown government. But then, I am convinced that some of these people care way too little about Americans.

Barbara Boxer co-sponsored a bill today that would prevent the President and Congress from being paid in the event of a shutdown and would prevent them from being retroactively paid. Good for her. Let's hope it doesn't have to be implemented.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The 2012 Budget and Presidential Leadership

President Obama's proposed 2012 budget doesn't bother me as a budget document. It is not a proposal to solve all our growing fiscal crisis, however. It is just a proposed operating budget. The GOP is hammering Obama for lack of leadership. To some extent they have a point. What the Republicans wanted was for the President to propose the unpopular cuts. He didn't; he proposed the easier ones. That was smart. It is a good idea to force the GOP to stop taking potshots from the sidelines as they have done for two years and instead take some responsibility for governing. Want a balanced budget without raising taxes? Make a proposal. Let the country see just how much it will cost them to keep the Bush tax cuts for the super rich. Otherwise, let's talk turkey about how we reduce deficits during a recession without screwing everyone. Republicans need to be forced to admit that they can't solve the problems we face without serious cuts to very popular programs or some tax increases on the wealthiest among us. Until they do, and as long as they insist on claiming that the problem is Obama being a spendthrift, then there is no reason for the President to save their bacon. He needs a partner in Congress. If not, we can wait. I suspect we will have to wait.

On the other hand, I DID want to see the President take a stab at the entitlement issue. I do not mean I want him to adopt the idiotic proposals of his blue-ribbon commission. Those proposals are basically cuts. Good riddance. No. I wanted him to be 100% crystal clear that we are not going to cut or reduce social security, and that we will solve this entitlement problem through other budget spending cuts or raising the social security tax cap. That is leadership on the issue.

He does need to lay down the law on this issue and a few others, not just say "everything's on the table in private back-room negotiations." That's not transparency for you. So yes, President Obama, take the lead. Oppose "entitlement reform" where it means just screwing the taxpayers out of their old-age security. Instead remind the American people that Social Security and Medicare must be paid for, and that means we may need to restore some of the tax rates of the 1990s (the prosperous 1990s) on the wealthiest.


Tax Reforms for the Wealthy

I just had the pleasure of doing my taxes for 2010. Good news, I get a return. Bad news, I thought it would be a bit larger. But welcome to the middle class where 35% of your income is taken off the top. So I start listening to all the budget talk. Most of the proposed cuts I hear about are cuts to things that benefit the poor and middle class: heating assistance, baby formula assistance, community redevelopment funds, etc. All of this while the unemployment rate lingers around 10%, prices for food and fuel are up, people are taking pay freezes and cuts, etc.

So I want to know what the wealthier set will be asked to sacrifice. This is what my search turned up.

  • Ending tax breaks for coal, oil, and gas sectors. Oil, gas and fossil fuel companies would lose tax breaks and subsidies and have to pay more taxes on profits.
  • Re-introducing an environmental corporate tax (Superfund taxes for clean-ups)
  • Ending tax breaks for businesses who transfer profits overseas
  • Increasing taxes on financial partnerships and hedge funds
  • Cap tax deductions on things such as charitable donations and mortgage interest paid by the wealthiest Americans (comes to about a 30% decrease in itemized tax deductions)
  • Allowing Bush tax cuts to lapse for those making over $250K a year.
  • A proposed tax on the largest financial firms and banks (which the Republicans oppose)
These are all good. Other options that should go on the table: hitting farm subsidies and price supports. I wish, however, some of these possibilities were covered along side the more common cuts so that the debate would be more fair. Arguments that Obama isn't "taking a lead" in this debate, are just wrong. When will the media get that we have a low-key president who has to work with the opposition? First they complain he isn't bi-partisan enough, then the complain that he isn't "taking a lead". Two contradictory statements.

The New Yorker had a good article on tax reform. It's worth a look.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gutenberg, Zuckerberg and Egypt

We all remember from our high school history classes (hopefully) how important the invention of the printing press was for the development of modern society – including democracy. Relatively widespread access to printed information made it easier for people to organize politically. They could print books about new political ideas, leaflets about immediate actions or current events, and keep the records needed to maintain a long lasting political organization. The enormous impact of the invention of the printing press is well known. We are almost certainly witnessing a socio-technological change of similar proportions with the emergence of social media as a political resource. Zuckerberg may be the new Guttenberg.

Central to much of the literature on democratization and revolutions is the idea that reaching a certain level of development makes new democracies more stable (see previous post on this blog of Jan 29th for a far from exhaustive sampling). Implicit in these arguments is the belief that economic development makes it easier for likeminded individuals to organize to the point where they become politically effective for a long term. The idea is that people find it easier to organize when they have more economic resources. They have easier access to information and the skills and tools required to communicate with likeminded people and coordinate political action with them.

Access to information is central to political organization. It is impossible to formulate any kind of effective political response to a situation if you do not know what your options are or what the preferences of the other major political players are. In the old days, political scientists and sociologists used to count things like the number of radios, TVs, and newspaper subscriptions per 1000 households. These things cost money and for a long time, access to these things was largely restricted to the wealthiest countries or the elites within developing countries.

Setting up a lasting political movement requires a fair amount of skill. Higher literacy rates help potential political activists circulate information among them. In the old days the thinking was someone with a printing press or mimeograph machine or something would print off thousands of leaflets and distribute them around. These could be simply for propaganda purposes or let people know to show up at this or that square in a few days for a big demonstration or organizing meeting for a new political party. Without these kinds of resources, individual people who want to change their political environment may not be able to coordinate their actions. They may not know how many think like they do or how many are willing to risk a crackdown by the police to challenge the regime.

Egypt may change the thinking on all of this radically. It's fairly well known that Egyptians (and people in lots of other non-democracies) have been using Youtube to circumvent state media censorship for some time. Also, there is a lot of talk in the news that the Egyptian uprising was originally set in motion by a marketing exec for Google-Egypt and group of computer savvy young people who intentionally used social media like Facebook and Twitter to get as many people out on the streets as possible in very short order. These things, combined with relatively inexpensive computer (and smart phone) technology, have revolutionized the thinking about what it takes to overcome the difficulties in coordinating political activities. Now, a really big demonstration can be organized in hours. Emerging political parties can use social media to get the word out to their members and get information back from them about their desires and priorities. I even heard a pundit on CNN talk about how he had heard that the CIA was ordering all their station chiefs located in non-democracies to look into the local availability of social media. The clear implication of the conversation was that the CIA was looking into encouraging the spread of such technology in non-democracies where the US government would like to see more democratization (like Iran, Syria or China).

I personally know of several social scientists who are already studying the political importance of social media. One of them had decided to focus his research on the importance of social media for political revolutions even before things broke in Tunisia and Egypt. Applying this sort of research to revolutions and democratization is about to explode.


Egypt, Israel, and the United States

So I've been engaged in a running debate with a couple of people about what the revolution in Egypt means for Israel. These two both believe that the USA betrayed Mubarak and that this is will end in an Iran-like regime that will dissolve the peace treaty with Israel and support more terrorism. They think Obama is stupid for not having tried to stop this dangerous revolution. Both are Democrats, but make the mistake that some Americans make of viewing everything through the lens of "is it good for Israel?" I've had to read their rants about how Muslims are "animals" who are incapable of democracy. In their view, Israel is completely blameless vis-a-vis the Palestinian - that Israelis are victims, plain and simple. Nevermind that Palestinians live under Israeli rule, and not the other way around. Nevermind that the relative civilian casualty count is more than 100 to 1 against the Palestinians. Nevermind that there hasn't been a car bomb or suicide bomber in Israel proper for years. Nevermind that every day Israel expands its settlements into the West Bank. I'm fed up to here (indicate neck) with this attitude. And I'm an American who is quite sympathetic to the Jewish people and their cause in Israel otherwise. This is exactly the attitude of the Netanyahu government that prevents any meaningful peace agreement.

So let's get a few things straight. The decision of the British in 1916 to conquer rather than liberate the Ottoman Arab territories, then encourage large scale European Jewish immigration into Palestine without the consent or even dialog with the existing mostly Arab colonial population was bound to, and did, cause resentment. It really didn't matter how peaceful and friendly the Jews intended to be or actually were. The British decision to divide the Arab world into various subject countries and install kings in TransJordan, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, was not calculated to win friends either. The third British decision - to ban Jewish immigration halfway through the project and abandon the situation to the same division of territory that has been so successful in Ireland and Kashmir - was equally disastrous. So the table was set really badly by the British. The Cold War made it worse, with the USSR supporting Arab nationalists against "American/Zionist aggressors" and the USA supporting in turn "moderate" dictatorships to keep oil flowing while trying to buttress Israel. All this is before the Israelis and Palestinians themselves made their own messes. Palestinian "leaders" like Arafat committed to a horrific strategy of terrorism and the Israelis began to create permanent settlements in the occupied territories, making it clear they were not leaving. It's now been more than 40 years of Israeli rule over millions of Palestinian Arabs who are not given any political rights in the Israeli state, but not allowed to have a state of their own. It's almost irrelevant that the Israelis have been pretty good rulers all told, permitting more liberty to Palestinian Arabs than they could have had elsewhere. It's almost irrelevant that the vast majority of Palestinians have had no connection to terrorism. Even if you decide that the Arab decision to engage in terrorism and start the 1967 and and 1973 wars make them by far the guiltier party, it does not mean that Israel is blameless, and it certainly does not mean that we should unquestioningly support the continued Israeli policy of occupation and gradual squeeze-out of the Palestinian Arab population denied political rights in their own country.

It is also a big mistake to think that Arabs are incapable of democracy or peaceful coexistence for cultural or religious reasons. First, it is historically idiotic. For most of the time since Mohammed's birth, Jews have been much, much happier in the religiously tolerant Muslim countries than in Christian ones. The holocaust wasn't their doing - it was the product of European/Christian civilization. Second, it is racist. Arabs are people too. Their problems are political, geopolitical, and economic at root, and the cultural stuff is largely epiphenomenal. Third, it's just an attitude designed to be self-fulfilling. Deny people liberty on the theory that they can't handle it and they will not learn how. Fourth, it pisses off everyone in the region to no end.

Israel is our best friend in the region. It ranks with Canada and the UK as our best friends in the world. But just as we tried to make peace in Northern Ireland rather than just supporting the UK (or just opposing it), we need to have get fucking perspective on the situation in Israel.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Watershed Event in Egypt

Hosni Mubarak has officially resigned and left Cairo. His future will now be one of cocktails on beaches and old boy retreats with the Stonecutters. What will this mean?

For Egypt, despite the celebrations a lot is still up in the air. The last thing Mubarak did before he left town was dissolve the parliament and hand all power over to the military high command. So it is far from certain that anything like a democratic regime will emerge in Egypt anytime soon. Still, at a minimum this is the first, high profile, example of a successful, NON-VIOLENT (mostly), political movement in the Arabic Middle East.

If anything poses a threat to continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza it is the example of peacefully demonstrating Palestinians refusing to cooperate with the occupation. Until now, no Palestinian movement has entertained the idea that they could get what they want politically without violence. Given the historic, ideological ties between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, that could be about to change.

Egypt is by far the most populous Arabic country. Its citizens live and work throughout the Middle East, sending checks home as they work abroad. The example of a peaceful political resistance to a dictator (even if he ends up being replaced by another dictator) is going to send shock waves around the region and the world.

A friend of mine told me that Chinese news media are being very mum about what's going on in Egypt. The Chinese government do not want wide coverage of what is going on there. I imagine Iran's government is equally nervous about this. What will Iranians do when they find out that Egypt's people successfully pulled off what they narrowly failed to do a couple of years ago?

This is a big big deal.

And before the Neo-cons start to take credit for it. This happened despite, not because of Neo-con, militarist policies in the region.


Monday, February 07, 2011

Bye-bye, DLC

I'm sure you all are heartbroken.

The Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist Democratic group that once dominated the party and provided much of the core intellectual framework of the Bill Clinton presidency, could be on the verge of demise.

Ben Smith at Politico reports:

The Democratic Leadership Council, the iconic centrist organization of the Clinton years, is out of money and could close its doors as soon as next week, a person familiar with the plans said Monday.

Interestingly, the DLC's associated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, appears to still be alive and well.


Saturday, February 05, 2011

The EU, Turkey and the Emerging New Middle East

A couple of recent threads about Egypt have seen comments/posts by Law Talking Guy and US West about the emerging new Middle East, Turkey's place in it and the EU's possible increased interest in Turkey because of it. This all got me thinking about whether the EU would see Turkish accession to the EU as something that helped the EU in the new Middle East or a risky thing. It also gets wrapped up in the advantages/disadvantages of Turkish membership in the EU regardless of Turkey's geopolitical position or geographical location. I'll start with what we know and then move to a more speculative discussion.

What we, the Turks and the EU know:

The rules the EU uses to approve new members depend on a unanimous vote by the existing member states. There are currently 27 member states. It only takes one government to oppose Turkish membership for any reason they choose to justify that opposition for Turkish accession to be blocked.

Leaving aside any cultural considerations, there are reasons to believe that Turkey would be an economic liability to the EU. The EU's aggregate per capita GDP is $32,900 (see CIA world factbook). About 1.8% of the EU economy comes from agriculture with about 5.6% of the labor force working to produce that 1.8%. The largest share of the EU's budget (48%) goes to agricultural subsidies in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Another 30% or so of the budget goes for cohesion/structural development funds (designed to improve economic development in areas lagging behind the rest of the EU). The CAP funds in particular a heavy and controversial drain on the EU budget.

Turkey's per capita GDP is $12,300 (see CIA world factbook) putting it at about a third of the overall per capital GDP of the EU. Turkey's economy is about 8.8% dependent on agriculture with 29.5% of the population working to produce that 8.8%. This suggests strongly that should Turkey join the EU, its ag sector could prove to a significant additional drain on the EU budget. This might not be a big deal if Turkey were a small country. But Turkey's population is 77.8 million which would make it the second largest (and second poorest, just beating out Romania to avoid being the poorest) member state in the EU. To put this in perspective, Greece is currently causing no end of economic headaches for the EU. Its per capital GDP is $30,200 with a relatively small (compared to Turkey) population of 10.7 million (see CIA world factbook). Another useful comparison for Americans might be that Mexico is somewhat wealthier and considerably less dependent on agriculture than Turkey.

The EU budget is derived from contributions from each member state based on their Gross National Income (a measure similar to but not exactly the same as GDP). Unless the EU dramatically changed the way the budget is paid for and distributed, dramatic change is not the EU's forte, Turkey would be among the largest net beneficiaries of the EU budget. That would mean that Turkey would get far more from the CAP and Structural/Cohesion funds than they contribute to the budget. This alone may be enough for one or more of the major net contributors to the EU (such as Germany, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian members) to balk at Turkish membership. It might even be enough for one or more of the current major beneficiaries of the CAP and Structural funds to see Turkey as an unwelcome addition of countries with their spoons in the soup. Many in the EU look at Turkey and see a shadowy future of endless demands for agricultural and development aid perhaps combined with random shocks brought about by unforeseen bad government interludes (along the lines of Greece). If these fears and uncertainties lead just one out of 27 governments to veto Turkish membership, it won't happen.


But all that might be overlooked (it was for Bulgaria and Romania after all). Turkey's position in the world is unique. It straddles (literally and figuratively) Europe and the Middle East. One might expect that the EU would approach Turkey for membership in an effort to solidify democracy in the region. This motive is commonly put forward as a reason for the EU's rapid expansion in 2004 and 2007 to East Central Europe. This incentive however, has not made the difference so far. Turkey has been trying to to join the EU for a long time and the EU (or rather some governments within the EU) has always been reluctant. Only in the last decade has the process even gotten as far as official applicant status.

But the events in Tunisia and Egypt (and other countries?) may change the calculus. It might be that the case that if two or three new democracies emerge in the Middle East that the EU would see Turkish membership as less risky. They may see Turkey's established diplomatic and economic connections with newly energized (politically and economically) countries in the Muslim world as an opportunity. However, even in this more optimistic scenario the potential gains would have to outweigh fairly large known costs.

Alternatively, the unrest in Egypt could lead to greater instability in the region; either because conservative dictatorships end up being replaced by aggressive revisionist regimes or because the dictatorships are replaced by increased internal instability. In that event, the EU may look at Turkey as a kind of potential gateway to chaos that must remain shut (i.e. not included in the EU).


Thursday, February 03, 2011

Hosni Mubarak: General, Tyrant, and Complete Idiot

Pardon me while I vent...

From the start, Mubarak has been in denial about his true situation. But this latest turn of events is just insane. I think I heard best put by David Gergen on CNN this evening when he said that Mubarak's only chance of staying in office until September was if he had the backing of the US and a coalition of world governments. I had thought that he'd blown any chance of getting that support when he let loose the thugs on the anti-Mubarak demonstrators yesterday. But today he doubled down on crazy, blood thirsty tyrant strategy. He's set his thugs after the journalists from all over the world.

The top story regarding Egypt for half the new agencies on the planet is about to shift from "is it really Mubarak or chaos?" to "Hosni Mubarak Intolerable, Journalist-beating Monster." This may be interspersed with references to the Military Police attack on the Cairo office of Amnesty International and taking of its staff along with staff members of Human Rights Watch and some Egyptian human rights activists (all of whom are still missing as of the night of Feb 3). In very short order he will be confronted with near universal condemnation and demands to immediately resign.

Mubarak is 82 years old. It's been clear for a week that neither he nor his son were going to be running Egypt a year from now. The military is in a very strong bargaining position generally, so I doubt this is about Mubarak thinking this is about keeping the military in charge either. This is about Hosni Mubarak's pride. He's angry that a country he feels owe him so much doesn't love him. In revenge he's going to unleash hell on his countrymen and anyone else he chooses to blame for his situation. Blind rage in an individual is unfortunate enough. When combined with unchecked power, it's unspeakably horrible and tragic.

UPDATE (2/4): I have heard that the three largest opposition parties, the Muslim Brotherhood, New Wafd Party and El-Ghad Party are refusing to talk to Vice President Sulieman because they blame him for directing the attacks by pro-Mubarak thugs. Given what he said about foreign journalists just before the violence was also directed at them, I'm inclined to believe that Suleiman is behind it.

According to CNN, Suleiman said in a nationally televised address: "I actually blame certain friendly nations who have television channels, they're not friendly at all, who have intensified the youth against the nation and the state... They have filled the minds of the youth with wrongdoings, with allegations and this is unacceptable. They should never have done that. They should have never sent this enemy spirt."


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Remaking the Map of the Middle East

What is happening in Egypt today is going to remake the map of the Middle East. Until a couple weeks ago, American policymakers had a particular view of the region. The twin goals, not as compatible as we would like, were to support Israel and protect the flow of oil from the Gulf states. The Egyptian-Israeli peace accord of 1977 and the Iranian revolution of 1979 defined US foreign policy for the last 30 years after the USSR essentially stopped meddling in the region outside of Afghanistan. The Egyptian-Israeli accord pacified Suez (which was repeatedly blocked in the 1947-77 period). The US committed billions of dollars in payments to Egypt tied to the size of the aid packages given annually to Israel. The USA spends several billion a year on Egypt and Israel. We then pursued a policy of making nice to Gulf states, with the lynchpin being Saudi Arabia, and the goal of keeping them from military antagonism with Israel and out of the hands of Iran and its Islamists. The decision to use military force to protect one of the Gulf states in 1990 demonstrated how far the USA was willing to go to keep this structure in place. This still left as big issues, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. The policy on all three was to try to herd them toward "moderation" - which meant no confrontation with Israel and no cozying up to Iran, and no opposing the USA. Success in Jordan, failure in the other two places. The USA finally just invaded Iraq entirely in an effort to deal with its destabilizing potential. Meanwhile the Israeli/Palestinian conflict dragged on, intensified, and created anger in the Arab street against their "moderate" governments like Mubarak and King Hussein who wouldn't really do anything about it.

Now this is about to unravel. We do not know what has been unleashed in Egypt, or what to do about it: only that we want to keep Suez open and the Camp David accords in place. But new governments in Egypt, Tunisia, may be more democratic but will almost certainly be less willing to continue doing nothing about the demands for action involving Israel. This will put pressure on the remaning more fragile dictatorships and kingdoms to take a harder line against Israel. It puts Iraq's fledgling government in a terrible position as the most aligned with the USA and by extension Israel. The specter of newly-democratized states using their oil leverage to squeeze the USA into abandoning Israel is a nightmare that now may loom. A return to the 1967-73 period would be a disaster. Recommendation to Israel: make peace fast and move past this scenario. (Wikileaks has told us that the two sides are not really all that far apart.)


The Scent of Jasmine

So in the news today, other than Egypt:

  • King Abdullah of Jordan disbanded his government and appointed a former General as his new prime minister.
  • On the West Bank, they are rushing to hold municipal elections, the first since 2006.
  • Syrians are trying to organize mass demonstrations for Saturday. One of my Syrian employees was trying to reach her family in Damascus most of the day yesterday and the phone lines were down. You decide why that was the case. She finally got through yesterday evening. Her family had been trying to contact her from their end as well with no success.
  • And there were protest in Lebanon last week when a Hezbollah candidate was selected as Prime Minister.
I am hesitant to speculate on what is going to happen because it seems that so many others are and the situation is changing so quickly. And it this point, it is just amazing to see how fast this has spread. The time is ripe and people are tired of being poor, jobless, and suppressed.