The Huffington Post
Despite their best efforts and the Pledge to America, the Tea Party and the GOP have not produced a coherent platform for fear that they might drive away this or that segment of conservative voters. Yet amidst their purposeful vagueness, they have found it best to stick with the populist theme of Joe the Plumber, first invented by the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008.
So if Joe the Plumber was a real person, he would have looked something like this.
1- Joe the Plumber is White and Christian, unless you think there were African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Muslims or Hindus at the Boston Tea Party in 1773. America was built by the White Man, for the White Man, and it can only regain its supremacy by restoring its White Christian purity.
2- Joe the Plumber believes in the First Amendment as long as free speech means separating State and Mosque, but not so much when this amendment undermines the "Judeo-Christian tradition" on which this country was built.
3- More than the First Amendment, Joe the Plumber adores the Second Amendment and the right to keep and bear guns so that he and his friends can, from time to time, topple America's tyrants. How many tyrants have Joe exactly toppled since 1783 (the Treaty of Paris to end the revolutionary war and recognize America's independence)? The answer is zero.
4- Joe the Plumber drives an SUV. Even though he feels anxious over $13 trillion in national debt, he does not mind the deficit in America's balance of trade driven mainly by the enormous amount of imported oil.
5- Even though he is a plumber with limited resources, Joe hates to see his tax money used for his healthcare. He hates to see his government pay for his retirement or medical bills either. Instead Joe thinks it is more important for the government to shutdown, because that way it will stop taxing the rich, who should be allowed to take their trade freely to China or anywhere else in the world, and shutdown their operations in America, where Joe and his friends might work. At the very least, Joe the Plumber wants to see his healthcare, social security and other entitlements in the hands of private companies that he did not vote into office and that have no regulations on whichever way they decide to handle Joe (or rip him off in return for lousy service).
6- Joe the Plumber does not believe that his vote should count for much. Instead, he loves to see corporate money being spent secretly in elections to influence their outcome. After all, corporate America spends colossal sums of money only to shape elections in favor of the likes of Joe and his friends.
7- Joe the Plumber wants the government to safeguard his right to own a house and live in debt while often irresponsibly maxing out on his credit cards. Joe, however, hates it when government tries to reign in big banks and credit card companies who prey on people they know will eventually default. Yet, as long as Joe has enough money for the first few payments of a mortgage, big banks and brokers can charge their fees and post profit, giving the impression that America's economy is on fire.
8- Despite his love for liberty and freedom, Joe adores it whenever the government eavesdrops on its citizens. He also loves to see people locked up, like in Guantanamo.
9- Joe the Plumber thinks no man can take away the life of a human embryo. Yet Joe supports capital punishment and thinks Man can take away the life of another Man (forget turning the other cheek like in the Bible).
10- Joe the Plumber hates elite people and smart politicians. He thinks this country should be run by like-minded plumbers. Yet those cannot be black, Asian, native, Hispanic or Middle Eastern plumbers. He also thinks police in Arizona can guess whoever is not Joe, and deport them. Forget restoring America's tradition of receiving immigrants. American history counts only when it comes to bearing arms.
11- Joe the Plumber thinks it is easy to jumpstart the economy by shrinking government and allowing the market to do its magic. When China, Japan and most other industrial countries keep their currencies cheap and support their national companies to beat their American counterparts, American companies can rest assured that they will remain above water because they should not worry about taxes, or support from the Department of Commerce.
12- Joe the Plumber thinks the US government should not intervene in what Americans eat (First Lady Michele Obama launched a campaign against child obesity). Yet Joe the Plumber thinks it is alright for the US government to shove pills of democracy down Afghani, Russian, and Egyptian throats.
13- Joe the Plumber hates Washington and wants to shut down its government, but at the same time he is so mobilized to elect hundreds of new politicians on November 2, only because the new lawmakers he plans to elect will be pure, not previously tainted by political ideas and have no clue how Washington, the government or the world operate. Joe the Plumber likes novices, and he wants to see a whole lot of them running America. After all, the future of America and its superpower rests in the hands of Joe the Plumber and his politically and economically amateur friends.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
Monday, September 27, 2010
This book covers the rise and fall of the Progressive movement, a sociopolitical trend that occurred between the 1890s and 1930s. Since then, the division over America’s best system of governance has changed little in the United States.
While big businesses, representing a minority of Americans, use their money to influence the government, supporters of the Progressive movement believe that the power they delegate to this same government should protect the majority against big interests and corporate greed.
In his book’s introduction, Nugent spells out the similarities between the past and the present. “The consistent conviction of virtually all Progressives was that a public interest or common good really existed,” Nugent writes.
“Margret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and conservatives of similar mind have denied that there are such things, and as Reagan famously said, government itself was the problem, not the solution. The result in the post-Reagan years has been legislation and political ideology that is radically individualistic,” he argues.
By revisiting statements by Republican-President-turned-Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, Nugent shows that the Progressives’ battle against Reagan’s school of individualism has remained the same since the early 20th century. “There are many sincere men who now believe in unrestricted individualism in business, just as there were formerly many sincere men who believed in slavery,” according to Roosevelt.
Nugent writes that the boom resulting from post American Civil War construction created a small class of very rich Americans, and while these Americans monopolized sectors and collected colossal revenues, the majority of Americans suffered from poverty, child labor, long labor hours, low wages and minimal government attention.
Farmers and workers started organizing their rank and file into unions and similar groups that wielded political influence. By the time Theodore Roosevelt finished his elected term in office in 1908 he had shifted from the right to the left and inaugurated a wave of Progressive legislations that continued way until the 1930s.
These legislations included the 16th Amendment (ratified in 1913 and giving the government the power to levy taxes) and the 19th Amendment (ratified in 1920 and giving women the right to vote).
However, despite all their Progressivism and justice-seeking, the movement suffered from a skewed understanding of race relations and often argued in favor of White Man supremacy and the necessity of maintaining segregation.
Another Progressivism failure, to an extent, was the support prohibition of alcohol received from a great segment of Progressives. At the, it seems, Progressives failed to distinguish between a government that should protect its citizens against big business greed and one that believes that ethical guidance is part of its role.
Walter Nugent does a magnificent job presenting the debate of the time in his really “Very Short Introduction” to Progressivism, a quick and refreshing read indeed.
Monday, September 20, 2010
This is Washington Hotel, now W Hotel, where Laffer met with Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfled in 1974. He drew a tax curve on a napkin. The Laffer Curve would later become one of the most famous economic theories on governance.
In December 1974, four men dined at the Two Continents restaurant at Hotel Washington, which in the epic movie The God Father features as the residence of Michael Corleone (Al Paccino) as he attended a Senate hearing about his underground mafia world.
The men were Jude Wanniski, an editor with the Wall Street Journal, Arthur Laffer, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, Donald Rumsfeld, Chief of Staff to then President Gerlad Ford, and Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld’s deputy and Laffer’s former classmate at Yale.
The dinner changed the course of America’s history.
Laffer had an idea on how to jumpstart an ailing US economy and he wanted the Ford team – preparing for the 1976 presidential election – to endorse it. Laffer argued that lower taxes would increase the government’s revenues. He picked a napkin and drew a curve to make his point.
Republican Ford lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter, but four years later, GOP’s Ronald Reagan took the White House. The 1974 Laffer Curve, endorsed mainly by his friend and chief Reagan economist Milton Friedman, became Washington’s new economic orthodoxy and was coupled with Reagan’s “the government is the enemy.”
So the American myth has it that through smaller government and lower taxes, Reagan not only jumpstarted a sluggish US economy, but could eventually defeat the Soviet Union and win the Cold War.
The End of Prosperity calls on the United States to repeat the Reagan experience in order to reverse the 2008 financial meltdown. But to understand how useless the views of Laffer, Friedman and co, consider this: Laffer warns that higher taxes (with the 2008 election of Barak Obama), will doom the economy (the book was written few months before Obama was elected). But guess what, by the time of the writing of this review (September 2010), the Bush tax cuts (also Laffer’s idea endorsed by Bush) had not expired yet. Despite the low taxes, the economy was still sluggish in 2010 and unemployment hovered around 10 percent.
What you will find in this book are all the rightwing conservative arguments: Lower taxes, shrink government, ignore the environment, ignore distribution of wealth, etc…
What you will not find in this book is why, if American economy was at its best during the 1980s and 1990s, why did debt balloon to five trillion (it was near zero during Carter’s time) by the time of election of President George Bush in 2000?
Throughout a book crowded with graphs, tables and numbers, you will find only one reference to national debt (which stands at around $13 trillion in Sept 2010) when the authors criticize Bush for his lavish government spending, which added to the $5 trillion debt resulting from Reagan, Bush and Clinton.
More dependence on fossil fuel, more imports, less US manufacture and export, more “financial services” through less regulation on the financial sector are the suggestions Laffer offers to salvage the US economy.
One cannot but wonder where Laffer was when America executed his recipe for the US economy to the word.
The last time America listened to Laffer, the nation woke up on the morning of September 15, 2008, to see its banks on the brink of collapse and national debt at $10 trillion. Eight million Americans lost their jobs overnight while many others saw the worth of their house mortgages decline to their real market value.
After the year 2008, Mr. Laffer and co should have learnt that the American boom that presumably started with Reagan in 1980 was funded by national debt and red ink, usually swept under the carpet of banks whose bosses got away with huge bonuses and whose clients are miserably scratching their heads today wondering where to get enough cash for their next bill.
Hotel Washington is where mafia business took place in the movie The Godfather. It is also where the history of American economy took a turn, to the worst.
Don’t buy Laffer’s books. Don’t buy his arguments that have wreaked havoc on America and Americans.
Monday, September 13, 2010
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post
The Betrayal of American Prosperity is the best book in its genre. Clyde Prestowitz masterfully and meticulously explained the reasons behind an ailing American economy.
The book opens with a theme - recurrent thereafter - that the American economy was in fact not as strong as many Americans believed it to be. Prestowitz captured this in page 139: "The American myth: American analysts often disparage Japan's lost Decade, so I bet you'll be surprised to learn that during the 1990s Japan's 1.4 percent GDP per capita growth rate was only slightly less than America's 1.6 percent."
Taking life expectancy as an indicator of economic prosperity, he added: "In France it's 80.98 while in the United states it's 78.11, despite spending of double the French level on health care."
He concluded: "If Americans know one thing for sure, it is that America is a lot more competitive than France, except that in the wake of the crisis of 2008-9, the French economy has been outperforming the US economy on virtually every measure."
Prestowitz blamed the American understanding of economics for giving a false sense of prosperity over the past couple of decades. "Debt funded boom: As demonstrated by the 2008 financial meltdown, [superficially] the US economy... looked great, but behind the façade was debt piled on debt and a false understanding of how the world was actually working," he wrote [P.134].
"Key among the problems was that the low long-term interest rates which Greenspan thought had resulted from the efficiencies stemming from deregulation and innovative derivative instruments were actually caused by the ever-growing trade imbalance between the United States and the export-led economies of Asia and the Middle East oil producers," he added.
Prestowitz drew a parallel between the demise of the British superpower and its dislocation by America, and the still ongoing decline of the American superpower and its possible replacement by China.
In both cases, Britain and the US, economists argued in favor of moving away from manufacturing as the base of the economy towards a services-based economy. The result for America, like for Britain for it, would certainly be the loss of its world supremacy.
He described China's ascendency at the expense of the US: "China now holds power in its relations with the United States that no other country has had since Great Britain in the earliest days of the Republic. By selling dollars, China could force the US military to withdraw from its far-flung deployments such as those in the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan."
He argued: "China can use its dollar to corner markets of key commodities like copper and molybdenum or soybeans. And of course military might can be ignored. China is using its wealth to build a blue-water navy with quit subs that will be able to counter the US Seventh Fleet, which would have to withdraw from the western Pacific anyhow if the Chinese were to begin dumping dollars". [P.142]
Prestowitz also debunked the rightwing myth that companies compete, while countries don't. He wrote: "For [this school], trade was said always to be cooperative and mutually beneficial... [But] countries most definitely compete for power, and power does not accrue to nations of taxi drivers."
He added: "China had comparative advantages under its old regime, but it was poor and weak. China is powerful today because it changed the composition and structure of its economy, and did so expressly in order to compete." [P.181]
The biggest challenge for America's superpower is that "with industrial decline, America will eventually lose its military superiority." According to Prestowitz: "Do we bit care if China, or Russia, or Iran has leading-edge rocket technology? Such technology involves leading-edge semiconductor, materials, and processing technology. Do we not care if we lose those technologies, which is exactly what happens when US based production and R and D close and move to China or Singapore for better tax breaks or better engineers?" [P.182]
Commenting on the meltdown, the book argued that "measures such as regulation of derivative instruments that could have stopped the 2008-9 economic crisis but would have limited financial sector profits, were prevented... So why did finance become so favored? From 1998 to 2008, the finance industry spent $1.78 billion on political campaign contributions and another $3.4 billion on lobbying." [P.270]
Not to close on a gloomy note, Prestowitz believes that there is still room for America to recover. His recommendations were as such: "We must revitalize the productive base and keep it competitive. But doing so will require that, from the president on down, our leaders declare that they understand that countries do compete and that they are going to ensure that America is competitive in a broad range of key industries."
America's leaders, Prestowitz concluded, should also "declare their intent that America will indeed produce things like advanced batteries, wind turbines, solar cells, computer chips, advanced search engines, cyber systems and much else. They must make it clear that they will match the financial investment incentives, infrastructure investments, and government encouragement of other countries with regard to promising industries and that, in the spirit of Alexander Hamilton, they intend for America to make more than dung." [P.281]
Thursday, September 9, 2010
The picture above was posted on the blog of Syrian Ambassador to the US Imad Mustafa and later removed. It shows Robert Malley and the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh having dinner at Mustafa's residence in Washington.
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post
Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group, and his subordinate Peter Harling, the Damascus-based head of the Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria Project at ICG, co-authored the lead story in the September/October issue of the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine.
In terms of content, the article often reflects several Syrian talking points. In 2008, Mustafa told Al-Jazeera that sometimes it "amazes" him that his "enemy (the US), is so naïve, superficial and stupid." For their part, Malley and Harling wrote: "US policymakers have historically applied yesterday's solutions to today's problems in the Middle East."
Malley and Harling added: ""[T]he Middle East is not what it was five years ago; it has moved on." So what has changed in the Middle East?
During the 1990s, the article argued, Washington had frozen the region's three most critical and volatile arenas of conflict: "the Arab-Persian fault line, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Lebanon." But this regional order "collapsed with the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000."
Meanwhile, "Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah benefited from renewed popular sympathy and were driven together," because of shortsighted US policies, "despite their often ambiguous relations and competing interests."
According to Malley and Harling, America's image was popularly tarnished while Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah won popular sympathy. Never mind that one-third of Lebanon's population took to the streets to protest Syria's occupation of Lebanon in March 2005, or that Hezbollah was defeated in Lebanese parliamentary elections in June 2009, or that a massive anti-Iranian regime protest movement took place that same month and was brutally suppressed by Tehran, or that anti-Syrian Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki won one of the two biggest parliamentary blocs in March 2010.
How Malley and Harling arrived at the conclusion that Iran and Syria had become more popular than America across the Middle East, is a piece of information that cannot be substantiated.
Building on their false premises, Malley and Harling conclude that, over the past five years "with the collapse of the Iraqi state, Iran was free to spread its influence beyond its borders toward the Arab world; Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon unshackled Hezbollah, helping transform it into a more autonomous and powerful actor; and the bankruptcy of the peace process boosted Hamas' fortunes and deflated Fatah's."
Therefore the solution, one is left to conclude, is to reverse the above. Rebuild an Iraqi autocrat, preferably someone who can win Arab (read Syrian) approval, let Syria reoccupy Lebanon to cork Hezbollah back into its bottle, and bring Syria into the peace process to counter the "legitimacy" of Hamas and make up for the "lack of legitimacy" of Fatah.
The article recommends that Washington discuss with Damascus its "future regional role," after a Syrian-Israeli peace deal. America should expect in return, not Syria cutting ties with Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah, but only "relaxing" them, or as Mustafa put it during a lecture at the Middle East Institute in May 2009: "Will making peace with Israel affect Syrian relations with Iran? We don't think so."
The objectivity of Malley and Harling on the Middle East should be also questioned. In the words of Joshua Landis, a confidant of Syria's Ambassador to the US Imad Mustafa: "Malley is one of the few Americans who has taken the time and energy to understand Syria's point of view and make contacts in Damascus when this was not easy to do."
Not only one of the authors, Malley, wins praise from one of the Syrian regime's apologists, coauthor Harling lives in Damascus. In order for Harling to stay in Damascus without risking prison or deportation, whatever he publishes in Western or Arabic press has to conform to the regime's political line.
In a way, the Foreign Affairs piece was indirectly sanctioned by the Syrian regime, or at least later won its approval, since the Damascus-based Harling was not subjected to harassment in retribution.
Syria's vision of a New Middle East made its way to Foreign Policy magazine, months after being printed in the Washington Post by the same authors.
The vision echoes what was put out by a Hezbollah friend, former MI6 agent Alistair Crooke. In a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) publication, Crooke argued that Washington should replace its current alliance with the Saudi-Egyptian-Jordanian coalition with another consisting of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Iran-dominated Iraq and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon.
The Middle East might not be changing as fast as Malley, Harling or Crooke suggest. It is Washington, however -- where "unfriendly" countries have finally learned how to lobby the administration to their own advantages -- that has changed.
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
This book is like the kettle calling the pot black. This is one of its main ideas: Intellectuals are "idea" workers, who often presume special wisdom and insight outside their area of expertise to guide others, while being unaccountable for results.
So Thomas Sowell is angry that intellectuals are unaccountable. But does this accountability theory apply to Sowell himself? Is Sowell and intellectual? And if he is, who is holding him accountable. If he is not, then what does he call his book, a cookbook?
Sowell thinks of himself demi god, and gives himself a license to judge all other intellectuals (and by all, I mean sweepingly all, no exceptions).
Sowell gives the Surge of Troops plan in Iraq as an example. He argues that - during their 2008 presidential campaigns - both then senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton insisted that the plan would not work out. However, the surge proved to be a success, and Obama and Clinton never apologized for their error.
Fair enough. But how about the pundits or intellectuals who actually cheered for the Surge and argued in its favor. Will they be getting any rewards?
Sowell further spews his hatred against intellectuals and describes them as dangerous people because they shape the public view, often in the wrong direction. He compares them to other workers, such as engineers and doctors, and argues that if a construct was to collapse or a patient was to die, an engineer or a doctor can be sued and pay the price for his or her error.
But when pundits go wrong, they cause trouble but are never held responsible for it. Intellectuals have the luxury, unlike engineers or physicians, to move on.
Such an argument does not hold.
First, any worker - whether a physician or an historian - is not held accountable for information they did not possess at the time they decide to say or do whatever they say or do. In the case of pundits, so many times they arrive at conclusions given the information at hand. And so many times, more updated information surfaces and intellectuals, accordingly, change their stances.
Second, while a physician or engineer singlehandedly decide on their course of action, intellectuals do not decide the outcome of public opinion, they only help shape it. Their arguments might be accepted, or rejected or amended and mixed with other ideas to produce better ones.
In this book, Thomas Sowell suggests that we kill the First Amendment, and start holding everyone accountable for their opinions. By doing so, Mr. Sowell will kill debate, that has been the engine of evolution of human sciences and ideas. Perhaps, if all intellectuals shut up, Sowell will be free to decide on behalf of all of us once and for all.