Saturday, August 30, 2008

An unnoticed civil rights breakthrough in the 2008 election

The Onion nails it HERE. --Jeff Weintraub

Friday, August 29, 2008

The US economy since 2000 from the perspective of working families

Brad DeLong offers us a foretaste of some figures from the Economic Policy Institute's upcoming "State of Working America" report. Other estimates will differ in detail, but the basic patterns accord with pretty much all serious analyses. The overall economy has been growing (though not nearly as much as during the Clinton years, perhaps coincidentally), but the benefits have not been widely spread around.





Since 2000, overall national output (GDP) has gone up 18%, productivity has gone up 19%, median weekly earnings of full-time workers have gone up .2%, and median income has gone down 1%. (Meanwhile, as we know, the cost of gasoline has been going up, many families have seen their home equity evaporating, and more and more of them are going deeper into debt--not to mention a pervasive increase in economic insecurity even for people who are doing OK.)

So what is everyone whining about?

=> What happened to median household income since 2000? Here's a graphic summary by Paul Krugman:




















=> Of course, median income is a summary measure which doesn't tell us how that overall national income is distributed. So who has actually been getting the payoff from economic growth? Back in March, Lane Kenworthy summed up the longer-term picture this way:
The chart shows average inflation-adjusted incomes of the poorest 20%, middle 60%, and top 1% of households since the 1970s. The incomes include government transfers and subtract taxes. For the bulk of American households, incomes have increased moderately or minimally. For those at the top, by contrast, they have soared. [pdf version is available here]


The rest of the top 20% have also been doing well, of course--though the gains have been mostly concentrated in the top 10%, and ever more spectacularly as one gets to the top 5%, 1%, and .1%. But those people have been whining, too. (Just read the Wall Street Journal editorial page.)

=> A sober and serious discussion of why all this has been happening, and what should be done about it, ought to be high on the agenda of political discussion. Curiously, it's not.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  Richard Sennett, in an e-mail communication, suggests a useful addendum:
Thanks for this. One thing you want to add to this, a complementary emphasis, is what has happened to work itself over the course of the last 8 years -- the focus of my books The Culture of the New Capitalism and The Corrosion of Character. Inequality is increasing, but so is unease about what people actually do when they go to work. To wit:

Changes in the organisation of modern work have weakened workers' experiences of autonomy and of procedural justice in the work-place; more, American workers are losing the "skills race," in Robert Reich's words, to equally or to more qualified workers in India, Brazil, Israel, and parts of Eastern Europe. Combined, these changes produce increased insecurity on the job. The Bush administration did not cause these changes, but it did weaken the government's willingness to address and redress them; it has done nothing to help reinvent work for American workers, or to provide rights to workers, or to invest in improving their skills. I was saddened to note that the platform of the Democratic Party also avoids engaging these issues; the crisis in the economy is treated simply as a question of finance capital.

If you do feel the issue of labor should be addressed, how could we get this discussion going in the public realm?
An excellent question.

How Tiger Woods does it

See HERE. --Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Update - Our voting systems still urgently need fixing

To repeat some points I made back in December 2006 (Is there really hope that we might start to fix our voting system?) that I think should be fairly uncontroversial:
Among the many urgent problems facing us in the US, let us not lose sight of the fact that our voting system is a dangerous mess--somewhere between Rube Goldberg and banana republic (I don't mean the clothing store).

The 2000 election made it unavoidably clear that there was a drastic problem, and since then the response, incredibly enough, has been to make matters even worse. [....]
So far, despite some spotty improvements, the overall news is not wildly encouraging. In case it's still not clear to some people why we should be urgently worried about our voting systems, including their scandalous susceptibility to computer malfunctions and hacking, here is a useful update from the Washington Post, via Instapundit:
WELL, THIS IS ENCOURAGING: "A voting system used in 34 states contains a critical programming error that can cause votes to be dropped while being electronically transferred from memory cards to a central tallying point, the manufacturer acknowledges." There's an obvious solution, of course.
=> CLARIFICATION (8/25/2008): A helpful e-mail message from Mark Kleiman alerted me to the fact that the post I quoted from Instapundit (aka Glenn Reynolds, for non-blogospheric types) may convey a somewhat misleading impression if left by itself. What Glenn Reynolds proposes as the obvious solution is to return to a system in which voters simply mark paper ballots. The notion does have some obvious appeal, and verifiable paper records are undoubtedly a key part of the answer, but a pure paper ballot system is not the only possible solution, and it can pose some problems of its own.

On the whole, I agree with Mark's conclusion: "The right approach is to have touch-screen machines that print machine-readable, voter-checkable paper ballots. Rush Holt is on the case."

That's Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey, whose bill, first introduced back in 2003, should be passed immediately. Here's what Holt said about it in 2004:
The principal thing my bill would do is to require a voter-verified parallel paper record for votes. The bill is called the Voter Confidence Act [The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003 (H.R. 2239)] [....]

Many jurisdictions are buying electronic voting machines in states and counties. They offer real advantages such as accessibility, particularly for people with physical handicaps, convenience of use, and that sort of thing. People who are visually impaired can have audio guidance through the voting process with these electronic machines. And, for the first time in history, they can vote unaided. And there are other advantages to the electronic machines.

Nevertheless, they have one major disadvantage, which is if there is an error somewhere between the casting of the vote and the recording of the vote, no one will ever know. So if the software is flawed, the computer doesn't do what the voter intends, and no one will ever know. That's why it's really important that there be an opportunity for each voter to verify her or his own vote.

My bill would require a paper record that the voter gets to see. And the voter can say, "Yup, that's my vote." And then when the vote is submitted electronically, that paper record is also stored at the polling place. And that is the vote of record, so that if there is a recount, it will be with that paper record that the voter has personally verified. [....]

[A]s it is now, a recount is meaningless with the electronic machines. I mean, the electronic machine will, for all eternity, say exactly what it did five minutes after the polls closed, and if there were a software error, no one would be the wiser. My bill calls for this paper record.

I avoid the use of the word "receipt" because this is not something that the voter gets to take and keep. For one thing, that would open the door to fraud and vote sale, and various problems. So this is a record that is available for audit. My bill further requires that in one-half of one percent of the machines, there will be a random spot check audit. [....]
As far as I can tell, Holt's bill could cover either a pure paper-ballot system (for die-hard simplificationists) or a paper-verified computerized system. If anyone can find the slightest problem with all that (I can't), please let the rest of us know.

=> Meanwhile ... it's now a little over two months until the national election. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

--Jeff Weintraub

Fungi in motion

Time-lapse videos of the fungoid life force in action, eerily graceful and captivating, via Andrew Sullivan. --Jeff Weintraub

Friday, August 22, 2008

Why the McCain campaign should stop lying about Obama's tax policies ...

... along with a useful socio-economic cartography of American Richistan and its politics, all from the ever-indispensable Paul Krugman.

Let me add that to use the word "lying" here is a straightforward factual statement, not a matter of contestable interpretation. The claim that Obama proposes to raise most people's taxes has become a central theme of the McCain campaign (for just one example, see this ad), but it's simply false (as demonstrated here). Stupid personal attacks on Obama (like the juvenile Paris Hilton/Britney Spears ad), which have constituted a major portion of the McCain campaign's activity for the past month or so, may be a matter of taste; but this amounts to outright, unambiguous dishonesty about a major policy issue. Nor is it the only example.

OK, no campaign is ever completely clean when it comes to distortion, deception, and prevarication. For example, I pointed out back in April that John McCain never said he was willing to fight a hundred-year war in Iraq, and Democrats should stop pretending that he did. (There are plenty of valid grounds on which McCain's actual position might be criticized.) Another dishonest McCain ad about Obama's supposed plans to raise everyone's taxes begins by responding to the Obama campaign's criticisms of McCain in connection with the recent DHL merger, and FactCheck.org has plausibly described those criticisms as misleading.

But there are differences of degree in these matters, which can eventually become qualitative differences, as the Bush II era has demonstrated so pervasively and appallingly. John McCain is not George W. Bush or Karl Rove or Dick Cheney. But over the past several months the McCain campaign has become decisively and undeniably more dishonest than the Obama campaign--and that's even if we ignore the activities of unaffiliated and semi-affiliated swift-boaters. I'm afraid that anyone who pretends otherwise is just not facing reality. This is sad, disgraceful, and bad for the country. I hope it is not a foretaste of an even uglier and more pernicious post-convention campaign, but at all events McCain and his people should stop doing this sort of thing.

Meanwhile, as Krugman and others have correctly pointed out, to help figure out what lies behind these tax-policy scams it makes sense to pay attention both to the internal differences between the various class levels of American Richistan and to the features that distinguish Richistanis as a group from the rest of US society.
In his entertaining book “Richistan,” Robert Frank of The Wall Street Journal declares that the rich aren’t just different from you and me, they live in a different, parallel country. But that country is divided into levels, and only the inhabitants of upper Richistan live like aristocrats; the inhabitants of middle Richistan lead ample but not gilded lives; and lower Richistanis live in McMansions, drive around in S.U.V.’s, and are likely to think of themselves as “affluent” rather than rich.

Even these arguably not-rich, however, live in a different financial universe from that inhabited by ordinary members of the middle class: they have lots of disposable income after paying for the essentials, and they don’t lose sleep over expenses, like insurance co-pays and tuition bills, that can seem daunting to many working American families.

Which brings us to the dispute about tax policy. [....]
--Jeff Weintraub

=========================
New York Times
August 22, 2008
Now That's Rich
By Paul Krugman

Last weekend, Pastor Rick Warren asked both presidential candidates to define the income at which “you move from middle class to rich.” The context of the question was, of course, the difference in the candidates’ tax policies. Barack Obama wants to put tax rates on higher-income Americans more or less back to what they were under Bill Clinton; John McCain, who was against the Bush tax cuts before he was for them, says that means raising taxes on the middle class.

Mr. Obama answered the question seriously, defining middle class as meaning an income below $150,000. Mr. McCain, at first, made it into a joke, saying “how about $5 million?” Then he declared that it didn’t matter because he wouldn’t raise anyone’s taxes. That wasn’t just an evasion, it was a falsehood: Mr. McCain’s health care plan, by limiting the deductibility of employer-paid insurance premiums, would effectively raise taxes on a number of people.

The real problem, however, was with the question itself.

When we think about the middle class, we tend to think of Americans whose lives are decent but not luxurious: they have houses, cars and health insurance, but they still worry about making ends meet, especially when the time comes to send the kids to college.

Meanwhile, when we think about the rich, we tend to think about the handful of people who are really, really rich — people with servants, people with so much money that, like Mr. McCain, they don’t know how many houses they own. (Remember how Republicans jeered at John Kerry for being too rich?)

The trouble with Mr. Warren’s question was that it seemed to imply that everyone except the poor belongs to one of these two categories: either you’re clearly rich, or you’re an ordinary member of the middle class. And that’s just wrong.

In his entertaining book “Richistan,” Robert Frank of The Wall Street Journal declares that the rich aren’t just different from you and me, they live in a different, parallel country. But that country is divided into levels, and only the inhabitants of upper Richistan live like aristocrats; the inhabitants of middle Richistan lead ample but not gilded lives; and lower Richistanis live in McMansions, drive around in S.U.V.’s, and are likely to think of themselves as “affluent” rather than rich.

Even these arguably not-rich, however, live in a different financial universe from that inhabited by ordinary members of the middle class: they have lots of disposable income after paying for the essentials, and they don’t lose sleep over expenses, like insurance co-pays and tuition bills, that can seem daunting to many working American families.

Which brings us to the dispute about tax policy.

Mr. McCain wants to preserve almost all the Bush tax cuts, and add to them by cutting taxes on corporations. Mr. Obama wants to roll back the high-end Bush tax cuts — the cuts in tax rates on the top two income brackets and the cuts in tax rates on income from dividends and capital gains — and use some of that money to reduce taxes lower down the scale.

According to estimates prepared by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, those Obama tax increases would fall overwhelmingly on people with incomes of more than $200,000 a year. Are such people rich? Well, maybe not: some of those Mr. Obama proposes taxing are only denizens of lower Richistan, although the really big tax increases would fall on upper Richistan. But one thing’s for sure: Mr. Obama isn’t planning to raise taxes on the middle class, by any reasonable definition — even that of the Bush administration.

O.K., the Bush administration hasn’t actually offered a definition of “middle class.” But in May, the Treasury Department — which used to do serious tax studies, but these days just churns out Bush administration propaganda — released a report purporting to show, by looking at the tax bills of four hypothetical families, how the middle and working class would be hurt if the Bush tax cuts aren’t made permanent.

And when the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities looked at the report, it made an interesting catch. It turns out that Treasury’s hypothetical families got all their gains from the so-called middle-class provisions of the Bush tax cuts: the Child Tax Credit, the reduced tax bracket for lower incomes and marriage penalty relief.

These all happen to be provisions that Mr. Obama proposes leaving in place. In other words, the Bush administration itself implicitly defines the middle class as consisting of people making too little to end up paying additional taxes under the Obama plan.

Of course, all the evidence in the world won’t stop Republicans from claiming, as they always do, that Democrats are going to impose a crippling tax burden on ordinary hard-working Americans. But it just ain’t so.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lincoln on semi-colons (and slavery)

Andrew Sullivan nicely calls attention to a remark of Abraham Lincoln's on punctuation (quoted from "Personal Reminiscences of Lincoln" in Scribner's Monthly, 1877):
"With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it's a very useful little chap."
Absolutely right.

=> The context is also interesting. Lincoln was discussing how best to punctuate something he had just written, which was a brief account (almost resembling a blog post) of his conversation with a woman from Tennessee; at the top of the sheet of paper on which he wrote this anecdote (for publication), Lincoln himself titled it "The President's last, shortest, and best speech.":
On thursday of last week two ladies from Tennessee came before the President asking the release of their husbands held as prisoners of war at Johnson's Island. They were put off till friday, when they came again and were again put off to saturday. At each of the interviews one of the ladies urged that her husband was a religious man. On saturday the President ordered the release of the prisoners, and then said to the lady: "You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other men's faces, is not the sort of religion on which people can get to heaven!"
A. Lincoln
That judgment sounds plausible to me, too (though I can hardly claim to be "much of a judge of religion" either).

--Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remember Zimbabwe? - An update on the continuing catastrophe

The focus of the world's attention has moved away from Zimbabwe for the past month and a half, but that doesn't mean that the crisis there has gone away. A piece from the British Medical Journal, passed on by Norman Geras, highlights one of the major human dimensions of this very long-term crisis.
Zimbabwe's health system - once among sub-Saharan Africa's finest - is in shambles. [....] [P]ublic health facilities have effectively been gutted and reduced to ghost institutions. Most public health programmes have ground to a halt.
And that's in addition to
state sponsored atrocities and human rights abuses perpetrated by the army, police, and bands of youth militia against the people of Zimbabwe in the run-up to the flawed presidential elections of 27 June [including] abductions, beatings, mutilations, other forms of torture, and political assassinations, all occurring within a short space of three months. [....] The country's National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped reported that "limbs have been severed and mutilated... people have been subjected to such brutal head injuries that their sight and hearing have been affected," thus adding to the country's burden of disabilities. [....] The people of Zimbabwe deserve the support of those who claim to uphold the traditions of healing and caring inherent in the medical profession.
--Jeff Weintraub
=========================
normblog: The weblog of Norman Geras
August 18, 2008
The health situation in Zimbabwe

As the talks to get an agreement between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai run aground, an editorial in the BMJ (subscription required) reminds us of the handiwork of one of the parties to these talks:
Zimbabwe has become a living hell for ordinary Zimbabweans, who have had to endure horrific punishment for voting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to victory in the presidential and parliamentary elections of March 2008. In a comprehensive and meticulously researched report published on 29 July, the faith based, non-profit organisation Solidarity Peace Trust presents a chilling account of state sponsored atrocities and human rights abuses perpetrated by the army, police, and bands of youth militia against the people of Zimbabwe in the run-up to the flawed presidential elections of 27 June. The report documents many abductions, beatings, mutilations, other forms of torture, and political assassinations, all occurring within a short space of three months.

In a plea for an end to political violence, the group known as Specialist Doctors in Zimbabwe noted that some 2900 victims of political violence, some of whom subsequently died from their injuries, had been treated in the nation's hospitals. The country's National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped reported that "limbs have been severed and mutilated... people have been subjected to such brutal head injuries that their sight and hearing have been affected," thus adding to the country's burden of disabilities. Zimbabwe's health system - once among sub-Saharan Africa's finest - is in shambles.

Already in 2007, Zimbabwe was ranked by Médecins Sans Frontières as one of its "top ten" underreported humanitarian crises in the world. Hamstrung by dire shortages of medical supplies and equipment - from sutures and intravenous fluids to HIV testing kits and chemicals for renal dialysis - public health facilities have effectively been gutted and reduced to ghost institutions. Most public health programmes have ground to a halt. In the midst of this mayhem one organisation, the Zimbabwean Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR), has served as the moral conscience of the medical profession, braving the wrath of the Mugabe regime to wage an unequal battle with an autocratic government contemptuous of basic human rights. ZADHR has investigated and documented cases of gross human rights abuses and has consistently raised the alarm to what sometimes seems to be an indifferent or impotent world, particularly in the southern African region. On 26 June 2008, ZADHR issued a statement "to record again the startling brutality of the violence used on increasing number of victims" and to note the "harassment from government agencies or those acting in the name of the government" against the association in an effort to frustrate its campaign.
.....
Even if the current negotiations result in a satisfactory political dispensation, Zimbabwe will still be confronted with the arduous task of rebuilding its moribund health system. Zimbabwe will need money and expertise to recoup even a shred of normality in its health services. The international medical fraternity can support this endeavour through advocacy and, where possible, by individuals volunteering their time and technical expertise to help alleviate the skills gap in the reconstruction of health systems and institutions. The people of Zimbabwe deserve the support of those who claim to uphold the traditions of healing and caring inherent in the medical profession. [footnotes omitted - NG.]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pot calls kettle black (newsflash)

As one of its side-effects, the crisis in Georgia has produced at least one small masterpiece of unintentional humor that deserves to be preserved for posterity.

George W. Bush (Friday, August 15, 2008): "Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century."

It would be nice to think so.

--Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What's happening in Georgia? - A roundup from Mark Kleiman

These days nobody seems to be able to resist the title "Georgia on my mind". Well, the Georgian crisis--along with the world's response to it and its larger long-term significance--ought to be on all of our minds.

I am certainly not going to try to provide ongoing coverage of every angle and emerging development in the crisis ... but, as it happens, Mark Kleiman (of The Reality-Based Community) has been doing a fairly comprehensive and perceptive job of it--and I think what he says is usually right--so I will once again draw on one of his roundups (below).

Mark sensibly begins with a line that I would concur with, "No, I don't know what's going on in Georgia, either. " ... and goes on from there with some usefully informative updates and cogent assessments. Have a look.

=> I can't resist highlighting some of Mark's comments about the outpouring of blather by "Russian apologists in the West" (who in this case, I might add, range all across the political spectrum from far-right paleo-conservatives like Pat Buchanan to various alleged "progressives" and "anti-imperialists" like the Guardian's Seumas Milne) that this crisis has provoked. He focuses in particular on a discouragingly, but not surprisingly, misleading and disingenuous piece in the Nation ("Blood in the Caucasus") by the Editor and Publisher of that journal, Katrina van den Heuvel. After a quick run-through of some of the crucial points that van den Heuvel either distorted or simply left out (which I recommend reviewing), Mark's closing assessment is characteristically tart--and, as anyone who knows the checkered history of the Nation will recognize, right on target:
It's worth noting in passing that those who suspected that The Nation's consistent opposition to any measures taken against the Soviet Union might be due to ideological sympathy owe The Nation an apology. The magazine is just as unreasoning in opposing any measures to contain fascist Russia as it was to any measures to contain the Communist Soviet Union.

Consistency is such a rare thing in journalism that it ought to be treasured. Whether this particular instance reflects what Emerson called "a foolish consistency" is a problem left as an exercise for the reader.
Couldn't have said it better myself. (OK, I wouldn't have used the word "fascist," since I tend to be more finicky than most about using that term in a relatively precise way. But in the usual loose sense of "scary and aggressive right-wing authoritarian," which would be familiar to readers of the Nation, that characterization fits.) The rest is below.

--Jeff Weintraub

=========================
Mark Kleiman
(in The Reality-Based Community)
August 15, 2008
Georgia on my mind

No, I don't know what's going on in Georgia, either.

Apparently the deal Sarkozy imposed on Saakashvili gave the Russians the right, not only to continue to occupy South Ossetia, but to keep troops in Georgia proper, with authority to do whatever they damned will please. What they please turns out to include holding on to Gori, which is mostly a smoking ruin anyway but which sits on the one east-west road across Georgia, setting up a "checkpoint" on the road from Gori to Tbilisi, seizing Poti, the main seaport, and allowing banditti to loot and burn at will not only in South Ossetia (whose Georgian residents are now subject to pillage, and worse, without restraint) but in Georgia proper, while insisting that Georgian soldiers who might stop it return to their barracks.

Rice apparently convinced Sarkozy to "clarify" the deal so that Russia won't have a completely free hand in Georgia proper. No evidence yet that anything the diplomats are doing has any relevance to actual operations on the ground.

The Russians and I both suspect that Bush and Rice had the idea of moving U.S. forces into Georgia under the rubric of "relief and reconstruction," thus giving Russia something less than complete military dominance. However, it turns out that our actual capabilities are far less impressive than Bush's fantasies. (Maybe no one told him that our armed forces are catastrophically overstretched.) A "senior Administration official" put it this way to McClatchy:
The president was writing checks to the Georgians without knowing what he had in the bank.
And as might have been guessed, Turkey, which has to live with Russia, is reluctant to give its permission for U.S. warships to move though the straits from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. U.S. hospital ships, which wouldn't require such clearance, are many days away.

In the meantime, Saakashvili is breathing fire, but apparently knows better than to try to do anything about it militarily. The lack of any actual military opposition hasn't kept the Russians from using cluster bombs, according to Human Rights Watch.

It's now pretty clear that those 1400 or 2000 South Ossetians killed in the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali were fictitious, invented by the Russians; the number of actual corpses brought to the city morgue seems to be 44, not all of them civilians. That invention had two purposes: (1) to give Russian apologists in the West — the sort of people who think, or are willing to pretend to think, that Mikhail Gorbachev is a reliable source of information and analysis rather than a Russian nationalist — something to blame Georgia for and (2) to stimulate ethnic Ossetians to burn the villages of their ethnic-Georgian neighbors.

Meanwhile, even people in Washington have noticed that John McCain has no business play-acting at the Presidency in the midst of a genuine international crisis. Not, of course, the people who wanted to try Nancy Pelosi under the Logan Act for going to Syria and repeating U.S. foreign policy doctrine word-for-word, but some people. That's progress, I guess. No one seems to have asked Loudmouth McCain whether the advice he gave his good friend "Misha," (whose last name he consistently mispronounces) was consistent or inconsistent with the foreign policy of the United States of America, but I suppose that's a detail beneath the attention of political reporters focused on who "won" a given political exchange.

Footnote I don't have the time or the patience for a full fisking of the Katherine vanden Heuvel piece linked to above, but I would like to list some of the facts it omits, and ask any reader, including Ms. vanden Heuvel, to either challenge the facts themselves or explain why their omission does not constitute deception.

1. A substantial minority of the population of South Ossetia is ethnically Georgian.

2. For years, Russian "peacekeepers" have been assisting South Ossetian "irregulars" (the distinction is largely notional) in attacking ethnic Georgians.

3. The pace of those attacks was picked up, on Russian orders, after the declaration of Kosovan independence, as a way of baiting Saakashvili into taking military action to which Russia could "respond."

4. The forces Russia sent into South Ossetia could not have been assembled between the time of the attack on Tskhinvali and the time of the Russian intervention. The operation had been planned well in advance.

5. When the USSR broke up, there was also a large population — perhaps constituting a majority — of ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia. The Russian puppet regime there systematically drove them out in 1990, and there are 200,000 refugees from Abkhazia in Georgia proper.

6. That purge of Georgians from Abkhazia was the only substantial act of ethnic cleansing in the post-Soviet history of Georgia. The post-Soviet Georgian government never engaged in anything resembling the genocide Serbia attempted in Bosnia or the massive ethnic cleansing it carried out in Kosovo.

It's worth noting in passing that those who suspected that The Nation's consistent opposition to any measures taken against the Soviet Union might be due to ideological sympathy owe The Nation an apology. The magazine is just as unreasoning in opposing any measures to contain fascist Russia as it was to any measures to contain the Communist Soviet Union.

Consistency is such a rare thing in journalism that it ought to be treasured. Whether this particular instance reflects what Emerson called "a foolish consistency" is a problem left as an exercise for the reader.

Michael Walzer - What the Georgia disaster means

Some further reflections on the return of the Russian Bear and what that means for the rest of us.

In this on-line piece for Dissent, Michael Walzer responds to the Russian invasion of Georgia, correctly pronounces it a "frightening and depressing" development, and offers "six short contributions to the necessary public debate."

As usual, Walzer's assessment is tough-minded as well as morally serious, recognizing the complexity of the question without slipping into either a one-sided or incoherent perspective, and it cuts through to the key issues in an incisive and usefully thought-provoking way. This piece is short, so it's easy to read the whole thing. But here are Walzer's main points, all of which strike me as broadly correct:
This is an unjust war. That may seem obvious here in the U.S., but the Russians have worked hard to justify their attack, using the humanitarian language that everyone now uses to defend military operations in other people’s countries. It is important to address their claims, especially because they have received some credence in Europe. It is also relatively easy to do that [....] This isn’t a humanitarian intervention, and it isn’t a peacekeeping operation.
For some people, especially of a self-styled "realist" persuasion, the question of whether the Russian invasion of Georgia was "just" or "unjust" is unimportant. Fine. But it's important to begin by dispelling any apparent or manufactured ambiguity on this point.
The argument that Russian soldiers made to journalists—that what they are doing is exactly what the U.S. would have done if Russia had armed and trained the army of a “friendly” Central American country—isn’t a defense of the invasion. [....]

The movement of Georgian soldiers into South Ossetia was reckless, certainly, but it wasn’t the reason—it was only the excuse—for the Russian invasion. [....]
That last point is definitely and unambiguously right. What Walzer then says to elaborate this point strikes me as partly right--not necessarily the whole story, but one significant dimension of it that needs to be carefully thought through. Walzer formulates it with the necessary subtlety:
The reason lies in American policy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the years since 1989, which the Russians have interpreted, not implausibly, as aiming at and achieving a significant reduction in their power and prestige. I don’t think that the policy was necessarily wrong, or wrong at all, but it was, like President Saakashvili’s Ossetian adventure, reckless. We never reckoned on a Russian response or planned for it or consulted with our allies about what might have to be done. Russia’s strategic aggressiveness in Georgia obviously took the Bush administration by surprise. [....]
The next three points strike me as both right and important.
What is happening in Georgia is a major defeat for America and for the EU as well. It demonstrates that these two great powers, publicly committed to the advance of democracy in Europe, are unable to defend the territorial integrity or physical security of democratic Georgia. [....]

The European response has been particularly weak, and we have to worry that the weakness is due to European dependence on Russian oil—which would be greatly heightened if the pipeline across Georgia and Turkey were cut. [....]

We need a better foreign policy debate than this election campaign has yet produced, and the Georgian disaster would be a useful starting point. [....]
And this point may also be right. I hope so.
But the invasion may not turn out to be a victory for Russia. The most heartening moment in the last week was the arrival in Tbilisi on Tuesday of the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, and Poland to stand in solidarity with Saakashvili. They are not ready to accept the reassertion of an old-fashioned Russian “sphere of influence.” And their public presence and resistance are more important than any American or European statements.
--Jeff Weintraub

=========================
Dissent (On-Line)
August 15, 2008
Georgia on my mind
Michael Walzer


The Russian invasion of Georgia, and the inability of Western countries to respond, is frightening and depressing—and it isn’t at all clear what comes next or what should come next. Here are six short contributions to the necessary public debate:

1) This is an unjust war. That may seem obvious here in the U.S., but the Russians have worked hard to justify their attack, using the humanitarian language that everyone now uses to defend military operations in other people’s countries. It is important to address their claims, especially because they have received some credence in Europe. It is also relatively easy to do that since reporters and human rights activists have been allowed into parts of Georgia now under Russian control. As a result, we know that the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali has not been destroyed by the Georgian army. “Fighting appears to have been concentrated in two neighborhoods, while buildings in the rest of the city stood intact,” reports the New York Times (August 13, 2008). “Entire residential neighborhoods appear unscathed.” Nor is the Russian claim that the Georgians killed or injured 2,000 civilians credible. Human Rights Watch, checking the local hospital, has come up with the figure of 44 dead and 273 wounded in clashes between Ossetian separatists and Georgian soldiers—and one doctor told reporters that the majority of the wounded were soldiers (New York Times, August 15, 2008). The Putin government apparently believes that anything less than the Big Lie won’t be persuasive, and this Big Lie may be effective in Russia, where the government dominates the media. It shouldn’t be credited in the rest of the world. This isn’t a humanitarian intervention, and it isn’t a peacekeeping operation.

2) The argument that Russian soldiers made to journalists—that what they are doing is exactly what the U.S. would have done if Russia had armed and trained the army of a “friendly” Central American country—isn’t a defense of the invasion. Imagine the Russians sending equipment and expert help to the Nicaraguan army in the 1980s. Might we have responded with something much bigger than the contra insurrection? Yes, and we might also have justified whatever our armed forces did by talking about human rights and peacekeeping. But we would have been wrong. The military operation would have been unjust, and many Americans would have said that. Imagining this hypothetical invasion, I also imagine the scale and intensity of the protests.

3) The movement of Georgian soldiers into South Ossetia was reckless, certainly, but it wasn’t the reason—it was only the excuse—for the Russian invasion. The reason lies in American policy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the years since 1989, which the Russians have interpreted, not implausibly, as aiming at and achieving a significant reduction in their power and prestige. I don’t think that the policy was necessarily wrong, or wrong at all, but it was, like President Saakashvili’s Ossetian adventure, reckless. We never reckoned on a Russian response or planned for it or consulted with our allies about what might have to be done. Russia’s strategic aggressiveness in Georgia obviously took the Bush administration by surprise. Just like the Iraqi insurgency. Just like the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Just like the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. Just like the fall of Musharraf in Pakistan.

4) What is happening in Georgia is a major defeat for America and for the EU as well. It demonstrates that these two great powers, publicly committed to the advance of democracy in Europe, are unable to defend the territorial integrity or physical security of democratic Georgia. But the invasion may not turn out to be a victory for Russia. The most heartening moment in the last week was the arrival in Tbilisi on Tuesday of the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, and Poland to stand in solidarity with Saakashvili. They are not ready to accept the reassertion of an old-fashioned Russian “sphere of influence.” And their public presence and resistance are more important than any American or European statements.

5) The European response has been particularly weak, and we have to worry that the weakness is due to European dependence on Russian oil—which would be greatly heightened if the pipeline across Georgia and Turkey were cut. I don’t think that the Russians invaded Georgia for the oil; I don’t think that America invaded Iraq for the oil. But oil is a factor in imperial politics, and the EU needs to think about a version of Russian domination that is commercial rather than political or military—an “empire” entirely appropriate to the twenty-first century. One response that the Russians would notice would be a large-scale campaign for conservation and a massive investment in alternative sources of energy.

6)We need a better foreign policy debate than this election campaign has yet produced, and the Georgian disaster would be a useful starting point.

Michael Walzer is the co-editor of Dissent.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The war in Georgia - Let's avoid false analogies and phony rationalizations (Mark Kleiman)

Mark Kleiman cogently demolishes a few of those in a recent post (below).

As I noted in my own post on the "Return of the Russian Bear," making sense of this crisis and figuring out the best response involve some real complexities and dilemmas, and these need to be confronted soberly and intelligently. But superficial sloganeering, ignorance of the facts, pseudo-sophisticated "realist" posturing, and hypocritical fake moralizing won't help. At least, that's is what Mark Kleiman suggests ... and I agree.

Incidentally Mark has posted a number of sensible and thoughtful items on the war in Georgia lately, and this is not the only one worth reading.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

=========================
Mark Kleiman (The Reality-Based Community)
August 12, 2008
Why are these two items not the same?

There's a good case to be made that the U.S. shouldn't have encouraged Georgia to get tough with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The results speak for themselves.

And there's a good case to be made that the U.S. should tell the Georgians they simply have to make the best deal they can with their bigger neighbor, on two grounds: (1) We don't have the military or diplomatic or economic muscle to make the Russians back down; and (2) we need Russian help in dealing with Iran, terrorism, China, and whatever else. Tough on the Georgians, of course, but as the Athenians told the Melians a long time ago, "The question of justice arises only among equals. Among unequals, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must."*

But none of that justifies some of the nonsense being talked over the past few days. In particular, the claim that no one who supported independence for Kosovo from Serbia can consistently reject the claim of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for independence from Georgia, which is being made all over the place, makes sense only in the presence of either ignorance of the facts or moral blindness.

The difference is simple: the Georgians haven't done in South Ossetia or Abkhazia anything like the horrible things the Serbian government — fresh from its attempted genocide in Bosnia — did in Kosovo.

Human Rights Watch:

All told, government forces expelled 862,979 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, and several hundred thousand more were internally displaced, in addition to those displaced prior to March 1999. More than 80 percent of the entire population of Kosovo-90 percent of Kosovar Albanians-were displaced from their homes.
Now I don't think anyone can claim with a straight face that a government which has displaced 80% of the entire population of a province still has a legitimate claim to rule that province. Nor can any claim any comparable act by Georgia against either of its breakaway provinces.

Yes, there's been ethnic cleansing aplenty: the Abkhaz warlord, with Russian support, drove 200,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes, and their return remains a hot issue in Georgian politics. But Georgia has done nothing even remotely comparable.

Also, of course, Kosovo is an independent country; the goal of the South Ossetian and Abkhaz leadership and its sponsors in Moscow is reunification with Russia.

So if you want to take a "realist" perspective and say we just need to tell the Georgians to suck it up, I'll listen respectfully. But don't try to fool yourself, or me, by pretending that Georgia somehow "asked for it" and that the Kosovo precedent means that it's fine for a big power to absorb pieces of its neighbors.
----------
* I'm paraphrasing from memory; the dialogue, almost certainly invented, is in Thucydides.

Return of the Russian Bear

[ Also guest-posted, slightly abridged, on Normblog.]

The war in Georgia--and, more specifically, Russia's invasion of Georgia--may well prove to be a major turning-point in the politics (and geopolitics) of the post-Soviet era.

One of the reasons I have put off writing about this crisis is that the news coming out of the region for the past week has been murky and complicated. And anyone discussing this conflict should begin by acknowledging that its historical background is morally as well as practically complex, with plenty of blame to go around on all sides. That's especially true with respect to the relationships between the Georgian government and the several ethnic-minority regions now dominated by separatist movements (and the Russian army). I am not willing to simply wave away the desires of non-Georgian ethnic groups for greater autonomy and their manifest anxieties about living under Georgian control, though we should also not blindly accept the one-sided picture of these conflicts presented by Russian and pro-Russian propaganda. There have been too many examples of arrogance, injustice, violence, oppression, political stupidity, and atrocities on all sides.

(Since too many people do seem to be swallowing one-sided Russian propaganda about these conflicts, it should be noted that these crimes included the almost complete ethnic cleansing of ethnic Georgians from the breakaway region of Abkhazia a decade and a half ago--over 200,000 of them, roughly half the population of pre-1991 Abkhazia--and ethnic cleansing of Georgian villagers seems to be continuing right now in South Ossetia, too.)

All this has unfolded against the larger background of the tangled and murderous ethnic conflicts of the Caucasus since the Soviet collapse in 1991--the most horrifying example, though far from the only one, being Russia's brutal and devastating wars in Chechnya, marked by the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, massive atrocities both by Russian troops and by Chechen guerrillas (and terrorists), the repeated razing of cities like Grozny, etc.

Furthermore, the current explosion seems to have been touched off most immediately on August 7 by the decision of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to use military force to try to retake control of South Ossetia, including an attack on the regional capital of Tskhinvali. The background to this action remains a little obscure--violence in South Ossetia had already been heating up, and this included escalating attacks on Georgian troops and civilians in South Ossetia, so it's not implausible that Russia and its South Ossetian clients may have been trying to provoke some kind of showdown. But in retrospect it's clear that Saakashvili's move turned out to be a fairly disastrous miscalculation. If one is so inclined, one might even argue that it furnished a half-way plausible pretext for Russia to send large military reinforcements into South Ossetia for "peacekeeping" purposes.

=> At this point, however, we get to the heart of the matter. Putin did not respond by sending Russian troops just into South Ossetia. Russia invaded Georgia proper, crossing an international frontier that everyone recognizes as unambiguously valid. That transformed the character and implications of the war.

Putin clearly hopes to topple the current Georgian government, and at the very least to intimidate all the other neighboring countries previously under Russian (and/or Soviet) control. Furthermore, although Russia's figurehead President Dmitri Medvedev allegedly announced a cease-fire on Wednesday, Russian troops have continued to operate inside Georgia ... and it turns out that, on closer inspection, the "cease-fire" accord negotiated with the Russian government by France's President Sarkozy is actually a bit of a fake, since at Russian insistence a point was added allowing Russian forces to "implement additional security measures." (The Munich analogy has certainly been overworked during the past 70 years, but it's hard to avoid seeing some echoes of 1938 in this bogus "cease-fire" accord.)

Thomas de Waal is probably right to offer the plague-on-both-their-houses judgment that "The immediate trigger of this conflict [was] both Moscow's and Tbilisi's cynical disregard for the well-being of these people" in South Ossetia. But given the way that the war has developed since then, the Presidents of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were also quite right to declare in a joint statement that Russia's attack on Georgia was the latest manifestation of an "imperialist and revisionist" policy aimed at restoring Russian hegemony over what the Russians call their "near abroad." That is the heart of the matter, and discussions about whether Saakashvili is really a good guy or a bad guy, a wise leader or a foolish one, sufficiently or insufficiently democratic (compared to which other leaders in the region?), are really just distractions or evasions.

By itself, none of this tells us what would be the best policies for the US and Europe to follow in response to this crisis and its fallout. The immediate response of many so-called "realists"--spread from left to right across the political spectrum--has been that we should simply let Russia go ahead and re-establish its hegemony over neighboring post-Soviet states, since doing anything else would be more costly and dangerous than it's worth. I disagree, but that's at least an arguable position.

What I find more objectionable are hypocritical efforts to obscure this cynical (but hypothetically realistic and unsentimental) conclusion in clouds of pseudo-sophisticated and pseudo-moralizing rhetoric and sloganeering. The fact that this has been the knee-jerk reaction of too many alleged "progressives" has been depressing, though unfortunately not entirely surprising. Many of the same people who (correctly) condemn great-power bullying and aggression against small countries when the US does it, and who fulminate against "disproportionate" military responses when Israel supposedly undertakes them, jump to make excuses for both when Russia is the one doing it. (An especially disgusting example is Seumas Milne's piece on this subject in the London Guardian, but it would be easy to multiply further examples.)

=> The first step toward a serious consideration of this crisis has to be a willingness to face the central realities of the situation--including the fact that the Russian invasion of Georgia is one especially violent and spectacular incident in the long-term effort by Putin's Russia ("Weimar Russia," as Brad DeLong has aptly termed it) to re-establish its unchallenged hegemony over the former Russian/Soviet empire as part of rebuilding its great-power status. That's what this is ultimately about, and it is not a good thing.

=> Adam LeBor alerts us to a "brilliant dissection" of this crisis and its implications by Gerard Baker in the London Times (below). As Adam correctly observes, Baker's overview gets the big picture right, and in the process Baker cogently demolishes many of the sophistries that have pervaded too much discussion of this crisis (including ridiculously invalid and disingenuous pseudo-analogies with Kosovo and Iraq). Among other things ...
We need to be morally clear about what is going on in Georgia. Perhaps Mr Saakashvili was a little reckless in seeking to stamp out the separatist guerrillas. But to suggest that he somehow got what he deserved is tantamount to saying that a woman who dresses in a miniskirt and high heels and gets drunk in a bar one night is asking to be raped.

If shifting moral blame won't relieve us of our responsibilities then surely defeatism will. Whoever is right or wrong, the critics say, we can't do anything about it. In the past week, the familiar parade of clichés has been rolled out to explain why it is all hopeless. The Russian bear, pumped up by all that oil wealth, is reasserting power in its own backyard. The US and Europe, their energy sapped by endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can only stand by and watch.

There's something odd about listening to European governments speak about the futility of diplomacy. They are the ones who usually insist that military force alone can achieve little and who say that diplomacy must be given a chance. But now they seem to say that, since we can't stop Russia militarily, there is nothing else we can do.

But we can make life very uncomfortable for Mr Putin. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Its recent (relative) prosperity depends on its continuing integration into the global economy. It sets great store by the recognition that it gains from a seat at the high table with the great powers in the G8. [....]

Punitive measures will hurt us too, of course: Russia could cause trouble over Iran and holds an alarmingly large quantity of US official debt. It could play havoc with the West's energy supplies.

The Europeans don't much like the idea of any of this. So this week they demonstrated the same sort of resolve that they showed in the Balkans in the early 1990s, when they stood by as genocide unfolded on their own continent. [....]
is that last bit fair? Unfair? A little of both, I think. But read the whole piece and make up your own minds.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub
=========================
The Times (London)
August 15, 2008
Georgia: Europe wins a gold medal for defeatism
Sarkozy's ‘peace in our time' deal is a reminder of what could happen if the EU wins more clout

Gerard Baker

To some, China's muscular domination of the Olympic medal table is a powerful allegory of the shifting balance of global power. A far better and more literal testimony to the collapse of the West may be seen in the distinctly weak-kneed response to Russian aggression in Georgia by what is still amusingly called the transatlantic alliance.

Once again, the Europeans, and their friends in the pusillanimous wing of the US Left, have demonstrated that, when it come to those postmodern Olympian sports of synchronized self-loathing, team hand-wringing and lightweight posturing, they know how to sweep gold, silver and bronze.

There's a routine now whenever some unspeakable act of aggression is visited upon us or our allies by murderous fanatics or authoritarian regimes. While the enemy takes a victory lap, we compete in a shameful medley relay of apologetics, defeatism and surrender.

The initial reaction is almost always self-blame and an expression of sympathetic explanation for the aggressor's actions. In the Russian case this week, the conventional wisdom is that Moscow was provoked by the hot-headed President Saakashvili of Georgia. It was really all his fault, we are told.

What's more, the argument goes, the US and Europe had already laid the moral framework for Russia's invasion by our own acts of aggression in the past decade. Vladimir Putin was simply following the example of illegal intervention by the US and its allies in Kosovo and Iraq.

It ought not to be necessary to point out the differences between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Mr Saakashvili's Georgia, but for those blinded by moral relativism, here goes - Georgia did not invade its neighbours or use chemical weapons on their people. Georgia did not torture and murder hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. Georgia did not defy international demands for a decade and ignore 18 UN Security Council resolutions to come clean about its weapons programmes.

And unlike Iraq under Saddam, Georgia is led by a democratically elected president who has pushed this once dank backwater of the Soviet Union, birthplace of Stalin and Beria, towards liberal democracy and international engagement.

The Kosovo analogy has a more resonant ring of plausibility to it and has been heavily exploited by the Russians in defence of their actions. But it too is specious. It is true that South Ossetia and Abkhazia, like Kosovo within Serbia, are ethnic-minority-majority regions within a state that they dislike. But that's where the parallel ends.

Unlike Serbia, Georgia has not been conducting a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the people of these provinces. In the 1990s Serbia had firmly established its aggressive intentions towards its minorities with ugly genocidal wars against Croatia and Bosnia. And in any case the two Georgian enclaves have been patrolled by Russian “peacekeepers” for the past 15 years.

We need to be morally clear about what is going on in Georgia. Perhaps Mr Saakashvili was a little reckless in seeking to stamp out the separatist guerrillas. But to suggest that he somehow got what he deserved is tantamount to saying that a woman who dresses in a miniskirt and high heels and gets drunk in a bar one night is asking to be raped.

If shifting moral blame won't relieve us of our responsibilities then surely defeatism will. Whoever is right or wrong, the critics say, we can't do anything about it. In the past week, the familiar parade of clichés has been rolled out to explain why it is all hopeless. The Russian bear, pumped up by all that oil wealth, is reasserting power in its own backyard. The US and Europe, their energy sapped by endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can only stand by and watch.

There's something odd about listening to European governments speak about the futility of diplomacy. They are the ones who usually insist that military force alone can achieve little and who say that diplomacy must be given a chance. But now they seem to say that, since we can't stop Russia militarily, there is nothing else we can do.

But we can make life very uncomfortable for Mr Putin. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Its recent (relative) prosperity depends on its continuing integration into the global economy. It sets great store by the recognition that it gains from a seat at the high table with the great powers in the G8. It wants to elevate that status farther by joining the World Trade Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Punitive measures will hurt us too, of course: Russia could cause trouble over Iran and holds an alarmingly large quantity of US official debt. It could play havoc with the West's energy supplies.

The Europeans don't much like the idea of any of this. So this week they demonstrated the same sort of resolve that they showed in the Balkans in the early 1990s, when they stood by as genocide unfolded on their own continent.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, in his capacity as head pro tempore of the EU, came back from a trip to Moscow and Tbilisi, waving a piece of paper and acclaiming peace in our time.

But the one-sided ceasefire that he negotiated was more or less dictated to him by Mr Putin. It not only left the Russian military in place in the disputed enclaves. It allowed them free rein to continue operations inside the rest of Georgia.

That disastrous piece of European diplomacy finally seems to have stirred the US into tougher action. Goaded by John McCain, who has been brilliantly resolute in his measure of Russian intentions over the past few years, the Bush Administration at last dropped its credulous embrace of Mr Putin and upped the ante with direct military assistance to Georgia and threats of tougher diplomatic action.

But we should never forget what Mr Sarkozy and his EU officials got up to this week. There can be no clearer indication of the perils that threaten the West if the EU gets its way and wins more clout in the world.

This, remember, is the same EU that wants to take over foreign and security policy from member states, an institution that is always eager to pump itself up at the expense of democratic institutions in those member states, but which crumbles into puny submission when faced with authoritarian bullying overseas.

It was a great Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympic movement on the famous principle that “the important thing is not winning but taking part”.

The EU today seems to have adapted that slogan to fit its own desired global role - the important thing is taking part and not winning.