Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Romance of Maps

[The range between the blue and pink areas of West Africa are the 'Mountains of Kong', which appeared on maps for 60 years until discovered not to exist in 1889.]

The "romance of maps" is hokum. Twenty years ago I was on a bicycle trip in Patagonia and riding along the South Atlantic coast of Tierra del Fuego. There was a whale skeleton on an empty beach. I let go of my usual skepticism and allowed myself some self-congratulation on having reached a genuinely remote and exotic place. Until I came to a tiny town somewhat away from the main road.

There were teenagers hanging around, clearly bored out of their minds, and counting the days until they could graduate from high school and get out of this boring dump of a town and leave for the Big Apple, Buenos Aires. Which showed that no matter how exotic a place may seem to travelers, to people who live there, it is always same-old, same-old.

The concepts of "romantic", "remote", and "exotic" are all failures of perspective and imagination.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

How the UN Works

What if there is no fiscal cliff?

[John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), founder of the conventional wisdom]

We have been led to believe that the sequester, the tax increases and spending cuts known collectively as the  fiscal cliff, will devour not only the US economy but also the world economy.  We cheer when Washington figures show themselves willing to negotiate to avoid it, as though they were warring Middle Easterners, almost without regard to the substance of the compromises reached.

The theory is that the sequester's tax cuts and spending increases will jointly cut demand so sharply that it will lead to falling sales and production and that will lead to supply chain layoffs, to workers losing jobs.   Marginal and even otherwise healthy businesses will go out of business, profits will fall and the stock market will tank.  The business climate will darken and the economic contraction will feed on itself.  There will be a serious recession or worse.  Falling on the heels of the Great Recession of 2008-2010, the two together will become a double-dip recession.

The Democrats will complain of the suffering of ordinary people in their tens of millions losing their livelihoods, of millions forced into destitution, tens of millions forced into desperation, hundreds of millions into uneasiness.  

The Republicans will complain of the suffering of hundreds of thousands of millionaires postponing purchases of yachts, limousines, summer villas, huge corporate bonuses, and all the other trappings of life to which respectable people of their class are entitled.  The way they will phrase it will characterize plutocrats as job-creators, never mind that their policies have un-created tens of millions of jobs during the past five years.

But is it true?   For the fiscal cliff to have all these terrible consequences requires that Keynesian economics work as it is expected to.  But it has not been working and has not worked in quite a long time.  If Keynesian economics worked, the one-and-a-half trillion dollars in stimulus money the administration pumped into the economy in various forms would have ended the recession years ago.  One could argue that the 1.5 trillion did indeed end the recession - now at the end of 2012 the stock market is up, unemployment is still high but at last decreasing.

The government's reflationary policy started in the latter part of the second Bush administration in mid-2008, almost five years ago.  Yet the Great Recession has lasted longer and has been more severe in both unemployment and reduction of gross domestic product than any since World War II and arguably is not yet over.  From which we conclude at least that Keynesian reflationary policy, i.e. large government deficits and other spending, either doesn't work or is counter-productive.  To the argument that the Obama administration's spend-and-lend policies have worked to end the recession, the obvious reply is that it has been five years now and that the recovery from the recession would likely have happened by now anyway, in the normal course of the business cycle.  Earlier recessions have ended sooner and without this much government intervention.

The textbook example of Keynesian economics not working is Japan.  In the 1990's Japan fell into a deflationary spiral from which it has not yet recovered.  The American government and others publicly demanded that Japan borrow and spend more to deal with the problem.  Japan did, and now in addition to chronic deflation (which has pushed the yen to all time highs against the dollar), they now also have a colossal debt, by far the highest in proportion to GDP of any developed economy - almost twice as high as Greece.

Japanese voters, discouraged by the persistent failure of government policies, have changed parties on an enormous scale and put the Liberal-Democrats back in power with a near-two-thirds majority in the parliament.  The LD's in spite of their name are neither liberal nor particularly democratic, for forty years they represented business, business-as-usual, and the US alliance, and presided over the post-war economic recovery.  

The new prime minister, Shenzo Abe, is a new kind of LD, nationalistic, anti-Chinese, and not particularly impressed by the United States as an ally.  He is talking about revising the pacifist post-war constitution and re-militarizing Japan.  He is also a hawk on the economy and proposes borrowing and spending even more aggressively than recent governments.  

Insanity they say is repeating the same things that didn't work before.  A fully militarized Japan was unable to completely defeat the backward, impoverished, anarchic China of the 1930's and '40's.  That they would want to confront the resurgent, nuclear-armed China of the 21st Century seems a fool's errand.  Similarly, even more aggressive borrowing-and-spending when it hasn't worked so far is also not clearly a great policy.  The problem for Japan is that there is as yet no better theory than Keynesianism, even though it seems not to work any more. 

Britain in the 1970's and 1980's experienced an economic condition known as "stagflation", a combination of stagnation and inflation.  In the Keynesian model that should not have been possible - moderate inflation should have encouraged investors and businesses to invest in new plant and equipment to protect the value of their dwindled-by-inflation cash assets, and that should have led to economic growth.  But it didn't.  It was not until the structural reforms of the Thatcher era that the British economy began to thrive.  That the Thatcher reforms were imposed brutally, even cruelly, is beyond question.  But they did eventually work.  

The point is that more radical and structural changes are needed to repair a dysfunctional economy.  Mere Keynsian or monetarist tinkering have not worked in Japan, nor in Britain nor now in the US , and in all likelihood will not work in the future.  

The reason to spend money on the poor is to relieve their hardships, which are especially severe in hard times.  The government should spend money on the poor because it is the right thing to do.  But giving the poor money in hope that their increased spending power will reflate the economy has not worked and apparently will not work.

The reason to save the automobile industry was that it was the right thing to do, not because it saved the economy.  It probably didn't.  Lending vast sums to banks at effectively zero interest probably achieved less than nothing because the banks refused to lend it to the public.

Which brings us back to the sequester.  Keynesian theory says that simultaneous tax increases and spending cuts should be sharply deflationary.  Which is why it is called the fiscal cliff that Keynesianism tells us we will fall off if the sequester goes into effect.  

What if it isn't true?  What if there is no fiscal cliff?  If the parties in Washington are unable to agree, the tax increases and spending cuts will substantially reduce the government's 2013 deficit.  If I were an investor or was making expansion and hiring decisions for a corporation, the optimum environment in which to invest would be one of stability, of a long series of balanced or nearly balanced budgets.  If I were planning for the future - the likely future return on my investment on new plant, equipment, and hiring - I would want clarity and predictability.  

Government spending and interest rates would interest me only for short term investments.  For long term investments that would become the infrastructure of the future economy, I would want stability and predictability more than anything else.  The same would be at least as true if I were a foreign investor.  A stable low-deficit policy would likely attract a flood of foreign capital which would force interest rates still lower.  

Investors want sustainable economic policies.  Without a foreseeable future, an investment is always a pig in a poke.  When investing millions or billions that is not what one wants.  The fact is that none but the smallest deficits are endlessly sustainable and even those only so long as there is at least commensurate growth.  An unsustainable policy is one that must inevitably change or become ruinous.  Whether the future is ruin or unforeseeable, it is not a hospitable climate for investing or hiring.

If I were making decisions about expansion and hiring, I would want to see government deficits reduced and government economic policy predictable.  The sequester will do that more than any policy either party is proposing.   Judging by history, if no agreement is reached and the sequester goes into effect, not only will the sky not fall nor the economy fall off a cliff,  it might be the best thing that could happen to us.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Thursday, December 06, 2012

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

                                                                                John Magee (1922-1941)


Saturday, December 01, 2012

Monday, November 19, 2012

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Who won the election?

Nobody is born a Republican or a Democrat.  People are born rich or poor.  People are born men or women.  People are born black or white or Latino.  Having been born one way or another, we collect various social images of ourselves and of others, and those collected images we call being Republican or Democrat.

A majority of men voted for Romney but a larger majority of women voted for Obama.   Women, not Democrats, won the election.

A majority of whites voted for Romney but a larger majority of everybody else voted for Obama.  Colored people, not Democrats won the election.  (Why is 'colored people' retrograde and racist, while 'people of color' is radical and right on?  What's the difference?)

A majority of rural and suburban voters voted for Romney but a larger majority of urban voters voted for Obama.  The cities, not the Democrats won the election.

This is an interesting series of factoids considering that most of the people who just won the election weren't even allowed to vote or hold office not that long ago.

Which make an interesting aside about being here is Australia.  Here, the Prime Minister is a woman, Julia Guillard, her finance minister is Penny Wong, the deputy leader of the parliamentary opposition is a woman, Julie Something, several premiers of the six Australian states are women.  The camera panning the benches of parliament during question time shows that about half of the members of parliament are women.

Question time is when the opposition puts questions to the prime minister and the other government ministers.  Of course the questions are tendentious, as are the answers, but they put the political debate out in the open and keep both the government and the opposition responsive to criticism.  In the US, the Congress cannot unseat the President by a mere majority vote, nor can the caucus of the majority party remove her, as happened recently when the Labor Party undid a sitting Prime Minister, Paul Rudd.

Here in Australia voting is mandatory.  Failure to vote carries a $100 fine.  I would have thought people would find that oppressive and absuord.  But they don't.  Every Australian we have spoken to, from cab drivers to prosperous guests at fancy hotels, has said it is a better system than our lackadaisical vote-if-you-feel-like-it practice.  I suppose it is worth that much compulsion to ensure that the government has the legitimacy of having been elected by the majority of Australian adults, not by the majority of those who got around to voting, invariably a minority of American adults.

The US could learn a lot from Australia.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Who are the Free Syrian Army?

Right now, as we speak, attack bombers of the Syrian air force are massacring civilians all over Syria. Just over the hill, on the other side of the Golan Heights, is a powerful and sophisticated air force that could blow the Syrian air force out of the air in hours - the IAF, the Israel Air Force. One can imagine that in return for a guarantee of a peace treaty and normalization of relations, that Israel would be glad to help the FSA, the Free Syrian Army, unseat Assad.

The fact that no such thing has happened nor will happen, in and of itself shows who the Free Syrian Army are and what they are fighting for. The fact that the regime they are fighting is despicable does not make them the good guys by any stretch of the imagination. 

Most of what we have read about the FSA is that they are fighting the Assad regime for two reasons - that it is secular and that it is run by Alawite Shi'ites, not Sunnis. Neither reason has anything to do with the freedom and democracy they tell Western media they are fighting for.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Class warfare hidden in plain sight on the California ballot

Daniel Shays - leader of Shays' Rebellion 1787

Proposition 30 and Proposition 38 both raise the rates of the California State Income Tax to cover the current state budget shortfalls.  Please stay with me during the numbers to see what they mean politically.

Here is the Prop 30 income tax increase table from page 13 of the Official Voter Guide -  

Joint filers                Additional Prop 30 tax                  
$0 - $500,000                       0%

$500,000 - $600,000            1%
$600,000 - $1,000,00           2%
over $1,000,000                   3%

This is clearly a soak-the-rich plan.  The rich pay 1% or 2%.  The filthy rich pay 3%.  Nobody else pays.

Here is the Prop 38 income tax increase table from page 59 of the Official Voter Guide -  -

Joint filers                Additional Prop 38 tax     Difference from Prop 30
           $0 - $14,600                       0%                         same

$14,600 - $34,600             0.4%                        pay more
$34,600 - $54,700             0.7%                        California median $53,367
$54,700 - $76,000             1.1%                        pay more
$76,000 - $96,000             1.4%                        pay more
$96,000 - $200,000           1.6%                        pay more
$200,000 - $500,000         1.8%                        pay more
$500,000 - $1,000,000      1.9%                        pay more

$1,000,000 - $2,000,000   2.0%                        pay less
$2,000,000 - $5,000,000   2.1%                        pay less
over $5,000,000                2.2%                        pay less

This is what class warfare looks like - columns of figures.

But the numbers come out to this - under Proposition 38 everyone pays more up to incomes of $1,000,000.  Incomes above $1,000,000 pay less.  Proposition 30 will tax the rich and only the rich.  Proposition 38 will tax people with household incomes of $14,700 more in order to tax households with incomes over $1,000,000 less.

The only way that such a regressive tax could even be considered would be if those who wrote it were reasonably sure that you would not find your way through the tables of numbers.

If both 30 and 38 pass the one with the greater number of 'yes' votes becomes law.  So it is important not only to vote 'yes' on 30 but also to vote 'no' on 38.

What is especially interesting about this divide is that it shows how the rich and powerful define themselves.  One would have thought that an income of $500,000 to $1,000,000 would qualify.  It doesn't.  

The authors of Proposition 38 wrote it in favor of those with incomes of a million and more and adversely to everyone with less.  To them, those with incomes of half a million are the working poor.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Trial of Osama bin Laden

The current issue of 'Vanity Fair' magazine has an article titled, "The Hunt for Geronimo" about the White House process leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  The article is adapted by Mark Bowden from his book of the same title.  Bowden personally interviewed most of the participants, including President Obama.

On page 190 Bowden writes, "In the unlikely event that Bin Laden surrendered, Obama saw the opportunity to resurrect the idea of a criminal trial.  He was ready to bring him back and put  him on trial in a federal court."

Then follows a direct quote which Bowden attributes to President Obama in double quotes on page 190.
We worked though the legal and political issues that would have been involved, and Congress and the desire to send him to Guantanamo and to not try him and Article III [of the Constitution].  I mean, we had worked through a whole bunch of those scenarios,  But, frankly, my belief was, if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and the rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaeda, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr.
Whether one supports President Obama's re-election or not, this remark should give one pause.  It is astonishingly naive to think that the message the Muslim world would take away from a public trial of Osama bin Laden in an American court would be to respect us for due process and the rule of law.   That the President could be so wildly wrong cannot help but make one question his judgment.  This is not a partisan issue, it is a matter of simple competence.

A much lesser note is that it illuminates the 2009 fuss when we were told that Attorney-General Eric Holder wanted to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was immediately responsible for planning 9/11, in federal court in Manhattan.  Pretty much every single person in New York thought that was a bad idea and said so.  The plan was withdrawn and Holder wound up with egg on his face for having proposed it.

The President's remark suggests that trial in Manhattan was only one of several option Holder presented to the President and was the one President Obama chose.  It appears to me that when it blew up in their faces, the Attorney-General fell on his sword as ordered, and the President could semi-truthfully claim that Holder had suggested the idea to him.  Taking the hit to deflect flak from the boss is to be expected, so that in itself does not reflect badly on either man. Indeed, it reflects well on Holder.

Two years later, in May 2011 President Obama, unchastened, thought trying Osama bin Laden, a vastly bigger fish than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in federal court was a good idea.  We have just seen how the faithful in the Muslim world reacted to a two-bit Youtube video.  Four of our people died in that.  Imagine what the reaction would have been to a lengthy public trial of the charismatic central figure of the Salafist movement.  Or even just the reaction to the inevitable sermons and exhortations to revenge for his coming death that bin Laden would have delivered in Arabic from the dock and had broadcast around the world.  Not a US embassy, consulate, school, or other American institution anywhere in the Muslim world (the 57 countries in the OIC, the Organization of Islamic Countries) would have survived.

Sure, I have the advantage of hindsight but I do not have the advantages of the resources of the entire federal government and all day every day to think about these things and every smart person in the country to ask advice of.  In any case, President Obama also had the advantage of hindsight.

That. two years after the Holder-Khalid fiasco, President Obama still thought trying Osama bin Laden in federal court was a good idea makes me wonder about his judgment.  It might make you wonder too.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The new iPhone 5

Saw KRON-TV reporting of riots at a Foxconn factory in China last night.  The sole significance KRON assigned to the events was whether and how long it would delay when customers would get their iPhone 5's.  Not a word about what was going on that the Chinese workers were rioting, not a word.

Today's Wall Street Journal reported that Foxconn employs a million people, which makes that one company 40% as large as the US government.  The Taiyuan plant where the riots took place employs 79,000 people, which makes that factory alone bigger than GM's US operations combined.  There are bigger Foxconn plants than that in Shenzhen and Zhengzhou.

The riots and the 2009 wave of suicides in the Taiyuan plant raise the possibility that China may  be reaching the human limits of its ability to increase factory production.  Aside from the catastrophic effects on endless numbers of individual Chinese lives, that might point to a significant veer in the road to be traveled by China's and the world's economies.

Which is almost as important as whether you get your iPhone 5 as soon as you had hoped.


An Appeal to Public-Spirited Trolls in Every Country

from Wikipedia -

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory,[3]extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[4] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

We have just seen incoherently angry Arab mobs attack consulates and other Western institutions because of something they saw on the internet.  That makes them the mother lode of trollable newbies.  Unlike Danish newspapers, the internet is limitless in what and how much can be presented and, if one likes, presented anonymously.  The opportunities for trolling are limited only by the imaginations of the trolls.  Usually the most a troll can hope for is to provoke flame wars.  Here is an opportunity to provoke real wars.

What are a troll's motives?  Why do it?  Generally it is a smarmy destructiveness and manipulativeness coupled with a sense of superiority at having fooled and manipulated other people who didn't see that one's trolling remarks weren't sincere. 

Imagine the sense of superiority of getting literally tens of thousands of fools to go crazy in the streets because of what you made.  Anyone who has some computer skills and software can go platinum viral whenever they want.  It is not a pipe dream - it is available to do right now.  And it is the right thing to do.

The Muhammad (pbuh) trolling heretofore has been done accidentally and therefore without any real thought put into it.  The Danish newspapers cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were on newsprint in a newspaper and were openly and completely traceable to their source.  The recent video by Nedoula Nedoula (pbuh) was similarly clueless.  It used real actors in a live action video.  The actors were recognizable people who were neither willing nor able to conceal the source of  the video, plus the thing cost thousands of dollars to produce.  Even less thought went into 'The Satanic Verses' .  It had the author's name and his publisher's name and address right on the book.   Stupid.

The way to do this is with animation.  The folks storming the consulates were not the intellectual elite even of their dungheap countries, so cartoons are the way to communicate with them.  One can create all sorts of characters and situations not available in live action, plus it is dead cheap compared to Nedoula Nedoula's hokey live action short which included paid actors, sets, costumes, cameras, and lighting.  Not necessary.  If one is rolling in cash one can buy Adobe Flash Pro for $700, less for students or teachers, or Anime Pro for $150, or, if one is planning on fucking up the world on a shoestring,, there is Anime Debut for $30.  Here one has both frugality and anonymity shrink-wrapped into the same box.

But why should an aspiring troll want to go to the trouble to piss off a bazillion Muslims and set off riots all over the Middle East?  The obvious answer is 'Because one can'.  But there is a deeper reason as well.  It needs to be done.  So long as the provocations are hard and expensive to do, they will necessarily be few.  If the illiterate and highly religious Muslim underclass come out to riot only every few years or even every few months, they will have the time and energy to do it.  

Even a few dozen trolls in several countries would soon inundate the net with videos featuring the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) or other subjects of Muslim sensitivity.  Soon, very soon, even the most pious and excitable of Muslims wouldn't be able to respond to all of them.  It would soon come to pass that the fellahin would come out to loot and burn for only the most ingeniously offensive videos.  The underclass of the entire Arab world would become the jury on "The Internet's Got Talent", "So You Think You Can Troll", and if one screwed up the anonymity, "Survivor".

Consider what happens among Christians and Jews when they see blasphemies against their religions, like Mapplethorpe's 'Piss Christ', a crucifix immersed in urine, a number of years ago.  There was an effort to get his grant from the National Foundation for the Humanities, or whatever it was, withdrawn.  There were loud public complaints against even that, on the ground that it was censorship.  But there is a vast distance between refusing to pay for 'Piss Christ', and personally murdering Mapplethorpe, which is exactly what would have happened had it been 'Piss Mohammed' (piss be upon him) instead.  The vast majority of Christians who read about and saw pictures of 'Piss Christ' shrugged, muttered something about Mapplethorpe being an asshole, and left it at that.  

Trolls can help Muslims achieve that same sort of weary tolerance that we in the West have long since come to accept.  The whole point of trolling is to locate someone's emotional buttons and to push them.  Here the Arabs have advertised in the headlines of every newspaper the location of their buttons and how to push them.  The Arab Street is paved with trolling gold.  Only when the button has been pushed hundreds of times will the Arab Street get over going beserk every time they see something they don''t like.  It should be the mission of every troll to produce one or several videos offensive to Muslims.  Trolls from countries not conventionally identified as the Great Satan or the Little Satan in languages other than English can be especially valuable here.

The Arab underclass would be better off if they stopped reacting that way.  The various Arab overclasses would be better off too.  And it goes without saying, so would everyone else.  It is the single most important thing one can do to make the world a better place.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Longer View of the Middle East

[The Salafist flag - expect to see more of it]

There are two fundamental processes emerging in the Middle East - one is the emergence of a prolonged war between Sunnis and Shi'ites.  The other is the Muslim anti-Western reaction.

The war in Iraq has become a series of attacks by the formerly ruling Sunni minority against the Shi'ite majority.  In Syria, the war has become a sectarian struggle between the ruling Alawite minority and the Sunni majority.  Alawitism is a sect of Shi'ism.  The primary Muslim support for the Alawite regime comes from Shi'ite Iran.  The recent demonstrations in Bahrain were the Shi'ite majority protesting against the ruling Sunnis and the absolute rule of the Sunni emir.  The tensions in Lebanon are spread among the large Sunni minority and the even larger Shi'ite minority.  Both minorities are armed, the armed Sunnis are led by the Palestinians in their "refugee camps" and the Shi'ite Hezbollah militia, armed and funded by Shi'ite Iran.

The rivalry across the Persian Gulf is between the ultra-Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the great Shi'ite power, Iran.  Until the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein, Iran and Syria were the only Shi'ite governments in the world.  Now Iraq is the third.

The Shi'te part of the world is Iran, the eastern and southern parts of Iraq, and the southern shore of the Persian Gulf, Syria, and parts of Lebanon.  Except for Iran itself, everywhere there are Shi'ites there are also Sunnis.  West of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf, the Muslim world is Sunni.

The great Shi'ite power is Iran.  Its proxies are Syria and Hezbollah.  The two great Sunni powers are Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  Their allies are the emirates and sheikdoms on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf.  The struggles between these power blocs were until relatively recently submerged under the Ottoman rule, then British and French rule, and American influence (five of the Seven Sisters global oil companies are American).  Even afterwards, loyalties to the West or the Soviet Bloc loomed large.  Since the departure of Saddam Hussein, the chasm between Sunni and Shi'ite has grown ever larger and more contentious.

The arc of conflict runs through Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and all the Gulf States including Saudi Arabia.   The Shi'ites though traditionally downtrodden ignorant impoverished masses, live over most of the world's oil reserves.  But only in Iran, and now in Iraq, do they control the oil under the ground they live on.  The various national states and the specifics of their politics merely obscure the fundamentals of the situation but do not greatly change it.

Turkey is also a great Middle Eastern power and technically Sunni, but it is relatively secular and, until recently, has been relatively aloof from the struggles among its Shi'ite and Sunni neighbors.

What is provoking the disorder throughout the Muslim world is the same problem we see in so many countries - how to deal with the West.  Almost everything we think of as modernity is seen, perhaps correctly, as both the fruits and instruments of Western cultural and economic penetration of Muslim countries.

A number of countries have gone through a similar series of stages.  The initial situation was to struggle to be rid of the British, French, and Italian colonial empires.  The British set sail for home from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Iraq in the 1940's and 50's.  The French bade adieu to Morocco, Tunisia, Djibouti, Lebanon and Syria about the same time.  Their departure from Algeria, which had a substantial French minority, was more traumatic and more violent.   Italy had been driven out of Libya, Ethiopia, and Somalia by the Allies during the Second World War.

For a long time, in most of these countries, independence meant little except a flag and local faces in the government instead of European ones.  Economic relations now included a local elite but were generally unchanged.  European and American companies controlled narrow specialized economies.  Whole economies were based on the export of a handful of commodities, like Egyptian cotton and dates, plus tourism, in other countries, only oil.  This neo-colonial situation, as it was called by its opponents, came under pressure with the rise of the Soviet Union's funding of revolutionary movements, particularly among military officers.  The 1960's and '70's saw the rise of leftist-nationalist military dictators across the Middle East - Nasser in Egypt, Gadaffi in Libya, Suleiman in Sudan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hafez-al-Assad in Syria, Boumedienne in Algeria, Yasser Arafat among the Palestinians.

But each of these governments and their successor regimes got caught up in Cold War politics.  Each tried to milk both sides for as much aid and support as they could get.  In doing so they welshed on their nationalist commitments to keep foreign influence out and foreign capital out.  The classic example is the Aswan Dam, begun by the Soviets, completed by the US.  As the US and Europe slowly prevailed in the Cold War, Western economic and political penetration increased.  Western goods, Western businesses, Western clothing, production for Western markets, Western media - movies, television, music, and lately the Web and everything on it, spread out, primarily in the cities.

With the expansion of Western businesses and trade came enormous opportunities for baksheesh, corruption, bribery, "commissions", and so on.  The ruling elites grew wealthy, particularly galling in countries where everyone else was grindingly poor.  But such is the depth of Islamic devotion and primitive xenophobia, that the great masses of the people of these countries objected, not to the corrupt concentration of wealth, but to the foreign connections it was based on.

The dictators were generally relatively secular and gave only lip service to religions as politicians do in Western countries too.  Only Gadaffi made a real attempt to combine military rule and Islam and with mixed success at best.  As the dictators became old and their regimes more clearly associated not with rebellion against foreign influences and modernity, but with participation in it, they lost legitimacy in the eyes of the populations.  They had lost their raison d'etre.

Which led to the Arab Spring, the widespread overthrow of these dictatorial regimes.  We in the West confused what we would have hoped for, had we lived under these regimes, for what the Arabs actually wanted, which was quite different.  We assumed that they would want democracy and freedom because that is what we would have wanted.  When we say "corrupt" we mean taking of money in shady dishonest ways. To Muslims, "corrupt" means something more like, "impure, un-Islamic, foreign/infidel connected, alien to Islam."  Revolution was in the air.

Now let us think back to the time of the Russian Revolution for a lesson in how revolutions work.  The initial revolution, in March 1917, led to just what the Western countries wanted, a parliament - the Duma, run initially by the Constitutional Democrat party, the so-called Cadets, led by Alexander Kerensky.  Within months the Cadets found themselves out-numbered and out-maneuvered by the bigger parties, the Socialist Revolutionary Party, the party of most of the peasants, and the Bolshevik Party, the party of the urban workers.  The new revolutionary government was soon overwhelmed by its own more radical elements and revolution broke out within the revolution.  The Bolsheviks staged a coup against the new, not-yet-well-established Kerensky government and won the ensuing civil war.  They remained in power for 72 years.

It begins to seem like much the same thing is happening in the Arab Spring countries.  The leaders of the initial revolutions were relatively secular people wanting liberal democracy, and moderate Islamists (moderate for Islamists) like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  They staged and won elections, that led to among other things, the election of Mohammed Morsi, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, as president of Egypt.  Provisional Western-oriented governments were constituted in Libya and Tunisia.

These governments sought to normalize relations with the West.  Implicit in this normalization was the assumption that the leaders of the moderate revolutions would assume the gravy train positions until recently held by the personnel of the deposed dictatorships.  Notably the assault on our embassy in Cairo came while a delegation of CEO's and diplomats from the West were there to discuss investment opportunities with the Mohammed Morsi government.  

Instead of Russia's Socialist Revolutionaries and Bolsheviks, the Arab countries have the Salafists, puritans who want to resurrect the Eighth Century Islamic society and empire of the earliest years of Islam, of the time of Muhammad and the first four Caliphs.  In terms of how modern societies and economies work, they are effectively anarchists.  While their intention is to return to the imagined purities of the founders of Islam, in order to do it they would have to reject everything Western which includes almost everything that modern life is based on.  Shari'a would become the legal and social system.  Not least, the large populations of many countries, most notably Egypt, would starve without trade with the non-Muslim countries.  Without export markets for oil, Muslim countries from Borneo to Nigeria would wither economically.   

Yet the Salafists have unlimited legitimacy among have-not Muslims, the so-called Arab street, both because of, and in spite of, their eagerness for jihadi violence.  The Salafists represent Islam unsullied by a hated modern reality in which the great powers of the world are non-Muslim.  The willingness of Morsi's government to continue the peace treaty with Israel and the $1.2 billion in annual aid that goes with it, and the killing of the 25 Salafists in Sinai after they killed 16 Egyptian policemen, Morsi's willingness to maintain outwardly friendly relations with the United States, have all painted him to many Egyptians, as just another corrupt Westernizer, another Mubarak.

The ultimate aim of the Salafists is exactly what the critics of extremist Islam have said it is - to overthrow all the Muslim governments and to re-establish the Caliphate as it was in the Eighth Century when it ruled from India to Spain.  That the re-established Caliphate would soon overcome all the non-Muslim countries and establish a global Muslim state is regarded as a millennialist certainty.

But, as one newscaster, put it, Mubarak could and would have dealt with the revolutionary protests by simply shooting the protestors.  Having alienated the military by firing Field Marshal Tantawi a few weeks ago, Mohammed Morsi does not have that luxury.  Mohammed Morsi must either find a way to suppress the Salafists - good luck with that, or to mollify and co-opt them.  In any scheme to co-opt a powerful opponent, there is always the question of who is actually co-opting whom.

In the long run, the Salafists have an unlimitedly large potential audience and an endlessly fervent one.   On the one hand it is not clear how a bunch of irrational semi-illiterate religious fanatics can prevail against a sophisticated modern regime.  But if they can prevail, it would be at a time of transition when the regime is new and weak, not yet fully organized and entrenched.  Like now.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How to Help the Republicans (of Missouri)

[Fortunately this can't happen in cases of "legitimate rape"]

In case you haven't heard, Congressman Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for US Senator from Missouri,  has recently opined in response to a TV reporter's question about abortion in rape cases,
It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare.  If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

Which of course means that if a rape victim gets pregnant that is proof that it was not "a legitimate rape" and that the slut consented.  Curiously, instead of being grateful for learning about this previously unknown capacity of their bodies, women in Missouri and elsewhere were not amused. 

State and national Republican party leaders, from Romney on down, have called on Akin to withdraw from the Senate race.  Donors who have pledged money to him have withdrawn their pledges of about $5 million.  Even the Missouri Tea Party has called on him to withdraw.

Akin has withdrawn his remarks and apologized.  But apparently on the theory that if a rapist apologizes that he should still go to a jail, Missouri women aren't mollified.

Akin has refused to withdraw from the race.  He went on Sean Hannity's talk show, and was defiant and insists on running anyway in spite of  Hannity, ever the dutiful Republican stooge, insisting he shouldn't.

The sea-change is staggering.  Akin had been polling substantially ahead of incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskell and figured to roll on into the Senate so long as he didn't do anything stupid.  Which he did.

Which creates a wonderful situation.  All that now stands between the Democrats and winning the Missouri Senate seat is Todd Akin's refusal to withdraw.  If the Democrats can't win against a candidate who is an apologist for rape and who has been disowned by his own party, by the Tea Party, by Sean Hannity/Fox, and whose money has been withdrawn, they don't deserve to win.

I think we all should take this opportunity to help out.  Send an email to encourage Todd Akin to stay in the race.  Write to him and speak of not letting down the people of Missouri who voted for him.  Mention that the voters, not the media, should choose the nominee.  Assure him of your support.  Avoid all sarcasm.  Do not parody right-wing phrases like "elite liberal media".  Just say "media".  Keep a straight face.

Some people have assumed I am joking.  I am not.  If we can keep this fool in the race we can pick up a US Senate seat just like that.  Do it.  Write and encourage him to stay in the race.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Time Lapse of the Earth from the International Space Station

[click four outward-pointing arrows for full screen]

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael K├Ânig on Vimeo.

Why does Obama's foreign policy mirror the Arab League's?

[President Obama's prescription for Middle East negotiations just happens to be the same as King Abdullah's]

One indication of who the President's constituency for the policy he announced in his May 21, 2001 speech in the White House might be is that it is identical with the so-called Saudi peace plan of 2002 which was endorsed by the Arab League Summit of 2002 in Beirut and again by the Arab League Summit of 2007 in Riyadh.    [See yesterday's blog here.]

These are the "fair-minded neutral parties" who have twice invaded Israel, in 1947 and 1967, with the intention to destroy her.  The President has picked a side and it is not Israel's. 

Having adopted the Arab League's plan as his own, it is hard to describe the situation as other than that the President has sided with the Arabs against Israel.  That is a reversal of  American Middle East policy for the past 60 years, a reversal of the policy of every President since FDR.

Calling this President a radical in domestic policy is wildly, unforgiveably, wrong, but calling him a radical for reversing a long-standing pillar of American foreign policy without debate, while denying he is doing it, is radical - and devious.


Friday, August 10, 2012

The President's Remarks of May 21, 2011 and why I am not voting for him

[a one-term President?]

This is an excerpt from a longer speech by Barack Obama.  Source is the White House website,  Emphases are of course mine.
We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.  And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations.  Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met.  I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain:  the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. 

Now, let me say this:  Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table.  In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel. 
How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?  And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. 
The United States and our Quartet partners and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.  

[End of quote]

Note that most of what this President said were generalities but not proposals for any action.  

The concrete proposals he made for doing something were 
a) a return to the 1967 lines, 
b) phased withdrawal of Israeli forces, and 
c) that negotiations be under the aegis of the Quartet (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN) and the Arab states.

One indication of who the President's constituency for this policy might be is that it is identical with the so-called Saudi peace plan of 2002 which was endorsed by the Arab League Summit of 2002 and again by the Arab League Summit of 2007.    These are the "fair-minded neutral parties" who have twice invaded Israel, in 1947 and 1967, with the intention to destroy her.  The President has picked a side and it is not Israel's. 

Having adopted the Arab League's plan as his Middle East policy, it is hard to describe the situation as other than that the President has sided with the Arabs against Israel.  That is a reversal of the American Middle East policy for the past 65 years, a reversal of the policy of every President since FDR.

Calling this President a radical in domestic policy is wildly, unforgiveably, wrong, but calling him a radical for reversing a long-standing pillar of American foreign policy without debate, without even admitting he is doing it, is radical - and devious.

Two questions about a return to the 1967 lines - 

Why?  The Green Line, the demarcation line of the West Bank is not and never has been a border. It is merely the armistice line between the Royal Jordanian Army and Israeli forces in 1948.   The Palestinians weren't even involved.   The line was erased when Israel defeated the Arab invasion of 1967.  Why should that be the border?

More than 350,000 Israelis live in the West Bank.  How would driving them from their homes not be ethnic cleansing?  Wouldn't it be just as good a solution to drive the West Bank Palestinians out of their homes instead?  If expelling the West Bank Palestinians  would be ethnic cleansing, why wouldn't expelling West Bank Israelis also be?  Are Palestinians born with more rights than Israelis?

A “contiguous” Palestinian state - 

The two parts of Palestinian controlled territory, Gaza and the West Bank, have Israel between them.  Any corridor of land that connected them would necessarily divide Israel into two non-contiguous parts.   It would appear that this President believes that a future Palestinian state has a right to be contiguous, but Israel does not.

Presumably this is of a piece with the President’s notion that expelling Palestinians or anyone else from their homes en masse is ethnic cleansing, but expelling 350,000 Israelis from their homes somehow is not.

"Phased Withdrawal" -

Gaza - 

There has been a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces ever since the Oslo Accords in 1993.  Israel completely withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005.  Since then Gaza has been seized by Hamas, a fundamentalist Muslim group listed as a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union.  So far from getting peace and security in return for its withdrawal, Israel has been bombarded by tens of thousands of rockets launched from Gaza and aimed at civilians in its southern towns. 

To use this President's own language, "the effectiveness of security arrangements" has already been demonstrated and found wanting.  Gaza had been under Hamas rule for six years when the President made these remarks.  

No one living in southern Israel can see the President's policies as based on facts.  Clearly the President’s intention is political, not rational.  What is the constituency for whom the President’s remarks are intended?  It is certainly not Israel nor its friends.  

West Bank - 
There have long-since been phased Israeli withdrawals from large areas of the West Bank as well, particularly from heavily populated areas since the 1993 Oslo Accords.  This resulted in repeated suicide bombings in Israeli market places, on buses, at crowded restaurants, and even at family gatherings in which dozens of people were murdered.   

Having thus demonstrated the "effectiveness of security arrangements", the Palestinians and their friends abroad complained bitterly when Israel built a security barrier to funnel Palestinians seeking to enter Israeli-populated areas through checkpoints.   Since the completion of the security barrier, suicide bombings in Israel have almost stopped.  That is, "effectiveness of security arrangements has been demonstrated", not by cooperation with the Palestinians, but in spite of them. 

Palestinian intentions to destroy Israel - 

The President aptly phrased the issue as a question.  And supplied no answer.  He left it to the Palestinians to answer.  So far the answer from Hamas has been mass rallies in Gaza in which thousands of Palestinians shouted in unison, "Death to the Jews!" 

The answer from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has been to honor and give subsidies to the families of suicide bombers who murdered Israelis.  The town square in the city of Jenin has been named for a suicide bomber who murdered six Israelis. 

Finally, our Quartet Partners - 

One of our Quartet Partners, Russia, is currently defending the wanton massacres of the Syrian population by the regime of the dictator Bashar Al-Assad.  Moscow has stubbornly cast UN veto after UN veto to defend its client regime.  How much morality and justice is to be expected from Moscow is self-evident from that fact alone.   

A second member of the Justice League Four is another figure out of a comic book, the United Nations.  The General Assembly has over the years passed literally dozens of resolutions condemning Israel for everything and anything and for nothing.  During the same period, persistent Muslim regimes' support for terrorist attacks on Israel, Spain, Britain, Australia, Russia, the United States, the Philippines, Kenya, Tanzania, Argentina, and many other countries have gone literally without remark at the UN.   

The United Nations itself maintains the UNRRA, an organization devoted to keeping hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in refugee camps for decades.  The UNRRA has stubbornly resisted all attempts to resettle the now fourth-generation "refugees" of a war that ended in 1948. 

The United Nations sponsored the scandalous Durban I and Durban II conferences which dropped the gossamer-thin pretense that the endless campaign against Israel is based on anything but hatred of Jews.  Their Jew-hatred became so explicit and reached such extremes that the UN official who organized the conferences was obliged to disown them.  The United States, Canada, and all the Western European countries walked out in protest.  Neither Russia nor China did. 

That is the UN and Russia.  It is not clear on what basis this President considers the Arab governments to be legitimate arbiters of peace between Israel and her enemies.  They ARE her enemies.  And that is where this President got his policies.  

Every word and every fact I have brought up here was well-known to President Obama as he delivered his remarks in the White House briefing room on May 21, 2011.  There is no reason to believe he has altered any of his positions. 

No one who loves peace or who loves justice should vote for his re-election.  I won't and you shouldn't.