Friday, September 30, 2011

Jon Stewart on Republican "class warfare" in fantasy and reality

And speaking of ridiculous right-wing sloganeering about "class warfare" ... here are some pretty devastating treatments of the subject by John Stewart back in March and August. When he's good, he's really good. The analysis here is entirely on-target, and requires no further commentary, so just watch the three clips below. (Don't worry, the opening ads go by quickly.) —Jeff Weintraub

(For some further thoughts on "class warfare" from Warren Buffet, see here.)

This one from March doesn't explicitly use the phrase "class warfare", but it does an excellent job of explaining what plutocratic class-warfare propaganda is about:

Warren Buffett's latest thoughts on "class warfare"

As Greg Sargent points out, some remarks by the politically incorrect billionaire Warren Buffett in a CNN interview this morning put the ludicrous right-wing sloganeering about "class warfare" in perspective (the boldings are Sargent's):
QUESTIONER: Are you happy seeing your suggestion, this new Buffett Rule, becoming more of a basis of a political battle that really has turned into class warfare?

BUFFETT: Actually, there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won. We’re the ones that have gotten our tax rates reduced dramatically.

If you look at the 400 highest taxpayers in the United States in 1992, the first year for figures, they averaged about $40 million of [income] per person. In the most recent year, they were $227 million per person — five for one. During that period, their taxes went down from 29 percent to 21 percent of income. So, if there’s class warfare, the rich class has won.
And during the past three decades, of course, average earnings for the great majority of the work force remained essentially flat, even before the current economic crash (for example, see Lane Kenworthy's summary in the last graph here). Let's forget about taxes for a moment. The fact that this dramatic increase in income inequality has not become a significant political issue is a scandal, and a sign of deep pathology in our political system.

—Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What can bears do with pumpkins?

The joys of playing with your food (from here). --Jeff Weintraub

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Another self-serving falsehood from Stephen Walt

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, co-authors in 2006 of a famous manifesto blaming the "Israel Lobby" for the 2003 Iraq war and various other sins, are now embroiled in a minor scandal because Mearsheimer warmly endorsed a book by a notorious anti-semitic crackpot, Gilad Atzmon. No, Atzmon is not merely a critic of Israel or even just a hysterical anti-Zionist, but a self-declared "proud self-hating Jew" who has been widely recognized, even by committed anti-Zionists and habitual Israel-bashers, as someone who gleefully recycles and updates the most central themes of late 19th-century and 20th-century European anti-semitism. For example, As'ad AbuKhalil at the Angry Arab News Service unhesitatingly identified Atzmon as "one of those classical anti-Semites" who are the kind of "friends we don't need". Other activists in far-left anti-Zionist circles (whom Atzmon refers to as "Judeo-Marxists"), as well as other authors embarrassed to be associated with the publisher of Atzmon's latest book, have said the same. There is really no ambiguity about it.

This incident falls into the category of unbelievable-but-not-totally-surprising. Let's be clear about what this doesn't mean. To my knowledge, no serious critic of Mearsheimer and Walt has suggested that their "Israel Lobby" manifesto was motivated by anti-semitism (even if some critics did think it contained arguments with potentially anti-semitic implications, which is not the same thing) or that either of them is personally an anti-semite. But being involved in highly emotional controversies can sometimes make it difficult for participants to keep their moral and emotional balance, and Mearsheimer seems to have gotten so disoriented that he can't tell the difference between an extremist anti-Zionist and an outright anti-semite. That's worth exploring, but I won't try to do it now.

For the moment, I just want to respond to a statement by Walt occasioned by this latest controversy, though not directly about it.

=> On September 26 Mearsheimer used Walt's Foreign Policy blog as a venue for replying to some (well-deserved) criticisms by Jeffrey Goldberg. Walt introduced Mearsheimer's defense with a few remarks that included the following:
Ever since John Mearsheimer and I began writing about the Israel lobby, some of our critics have leveled various personal charges against us. These attacks rarely addressed the substance of what we wrote -- a tacit concession that both facts and logic were on our side -- but instead accused us of being anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists.
There is no delicate way to say this, and it needs to be said: The claim that critics of M&W's "Israel Lobby" manifesto have "rarely addressed the substance" of its arguments is total hogwash. Anyone who feels that this judgment is at all debatable is invited to review the actual record. As it happens, I took the trouble to collect Some Rebuttals to Mearsheimer & Walt's "Israel Lobby" that appeared from 2006 to 2010, so quite a few of these critiques are readily available for inspection. Whether or not one agrees with any or all of them—they come at M&W's position from different intellectual and ideological directions—any honest reader will notice that all the pieces collected there engage seriously with the substance of M&W's arguments.

It seems clear to me that the cumulative result of these and other serious critiques is a thorough demolition of M&W's arguments (not the relatively sensible and plausible arguments that many people would have liked them to make, and which some of M&W's defenders and apologists have tried to pretend they made, but the arguments that M&W actually did make). But whether or not we agree about that doesn't affect the main point here.

If Steven Walt genuinely believes that critics of M&W's "Israel Lobby" manifesto have "rarely" tried to address the substance of its arguments, and have thus tacitly conceded that "both facts and logic" were on their side, then he is a man in deep denial. The alternative interpretation is that this claim is simply a conscious falsehood, intended to discredit and evade substantive critiques rather than honestly engaging them. Or, quite possibly, some blending of those two factors is involved. But it's important to make it clear that claims of this sort, whether advanced by M&W themselves or by their apologists, are pure propaganda. They shouldn't be allowed to go uncorrected.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Monday, September 26, 2011

Obama: "I mean, has anybody been watching the debates lately?"

As Andrew Sullivan notes, Obama seems "liberated" by his belated realization that the Republicans "will never compromise on anything in the next fourteen months" (and, I would add, that trying to win over independent voters by looking 'reasonable' just makes him look like a wimp). One result is that he is more willing to talk turkey about the Republican far right, which increasingly dominates and defines the whole party. For example:
At a fundraiser in San Jose, Calif., Obama said that some in the audience might be former Republicans "but are puzzled by what's happening to that party," and voters should back him if they believe in a "fact-based" America.

"I mean, has anybody been watching the debates lately?" Obama said. "You've got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change.

"It's true. You've got audiences cheering at the prospect of somebody dying because they don't have healthcare. And booing a service member in Iraq because they're gay." [*]
And what may turn out to have killed Rick Perry with the Republican primary electorate was not his collection of irresponsible and extremist positions on subjects ranging from basic constitutional principles to Social Security and the Federal Reserve, but the fact that he had the temerity to say something "compassionate" (in the mode of Bush II "compassionate conservatism") about educating children of illegal immigrants. Following the Republican debates is indeed enlightening in certain respects, alarming as that experience may be. (Even for Bill Kristol, whose reaction to the latest debate was "Yikes".)

—Jeff Weintraub

(* With respect to that last incident, Greg Sargent gets it right: The whole audience didn't boo the gay soldier who asked a question—that would be "an overstatement by any measure"—but "the simple fact is that when Hill, who is serving in Iraq, was pelted with scattered boos, none of the GOP candidates rose to his defense." That's significant. Also, Rick Santorum's response to the question was both incoherent and disgraceful.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Obama's jobs plan – Pay now, tax later

In my first reactions to the "jobs speech" that Obama gave on September 8, I mentioned a few of my qualms about the speech itself and about some ambiguous features of the policy proposals Obama was outlining. Some of these qualms had to do with how Obama and his administration intended to offset the costs of his stimulus measures:
Obama and his advisers clearly decided that it was impossible for him to state a central truth about the situation clearly and explicitly (perhaps, in part, because it takes two sentences to state it): (a) In the long run, the federal government and the country as a whole need to find ways to live within their means (a process that will have to include rolling back the Bush tax cuts and further reform of the health care system). But on the other hand, (b) in the short run, until the economy has genuinely recovered from the economic crash of 2007-2009 and unemployment has been significantly reduced, cutting federal spending and trying to eliminate the federal deficit are very bad ideas that can only hamper economic recovery and will almost certainly make matters even worse. [....]

What Obama did was to insist that "The American Jobs Act will not add to the deficit. It will be paid for." Indeed, "everything in this bill will be paid for. Everything. (Applause.)" But Obama avoided saying anything concrete about how it would be paid for. Instead, the Congressional super-committee that's supposed to be finding ways to cut the long-term deficit will be charged with finding additional savings that to cover the cost of this proposal. Presumably, some of Obama's suggestions will be included in the "more ambitious deficit plan" he intends to release in a week and a half—"a plan that will not only cover the cost of this jobs bill, but stabilize our debt in the long run."

I will hope for the best, but I can see both practical and public-relations problems ahead. If Obama's promise that "The American Jobs Act will not add to the deficit" turns out to mean, in practice, that its costs will be offset by future savings over the long run, then in substantive terms that will be fine. In fact, it would make excellent sense in terms of substantive policy. [....] On the other hand, if the costs are supposed to be offset by other spending cuts in the relatively short run, then that would wipe out many of the positive effects of the whole initiative. [....]
Well, on September 12 the Obama administration did offer some concrete proposals, and based on everything I have read about them so far, I am reassured. At least, I am reassured that the overall plan makes sense in substantive terms, and should have a significant positive impact if it gets enacted; whether it can actually be passed in a non-eviscerated form is another question. The idea is, indeed, to inject the needed economic stimulus in the short run and offset the costs in the long run, and to do the latter with tax increases that target upper income brackets. Jonathan Cohn summed it up this way in his New Republic blog:
President Obama this week did exactly what he promised to do last week: He proposed a way to pay for his jobs bill.

In particular, he suggested raising taxes on the wealthy and then using the money to offset the cost of school building, payroll tax breaks, and other expenditures designed to boost the economy. He also invited the congressional super-committee to come up with alternatives, as long as they generate the same amount in combined savings and revenue.

Republicans were quick to pounce: Obama wants to raise taxes! Instead of saving the economy, he's going to kill it! And even less hyperbolic commentators from the right were unhappy. Here, for example, is Megan McArdle, who has actually said some charitable things about Obama's proposal. "Paying for the bill with tax hikes--any tax hikes--is going to substantially reduce the stimulus this bill provides."

Do they have a case? Most economists would agree that raising taxes right now would slow the economy. But let's be clear: That's not what the administration is proposing. As Budget Director Jack Lew confirmed in yesterday's White House press briefing, the tax increases wouldn't take effect until January 2013 -- i.e., sixteen months from now. That's a significant difference.

In addition, most center- to left economists believe that tax increases on the wealthy are far less likely to slow growth than tax increases on the middle class and poor. That's because the wealthy aren't likely to alter their spending habits substantially if their taxes go up. The poor and middle class are. (It's the same reason why so many economists think tax breaks for the poor and middle class provide more stimulus than tax breaks for the rich.)

More broadly, the general consensus among economists is that deficit spending now plus tax increases (and/or spending cuts) later is the best possible policy, since it would help the economy get out of its rut while promoting more balanced budgets in the future. Douglas Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, made this point explicitly during his testimony before the super-committee on Tuesday [....]
As Cohn notes, there is one possible fly in the ointment.
Now, a key question is whether starting to increase taxes in January, 2013, would qualify as "later in the decade." There may be a good argument for waiting at least another year, and starting those tax increases in January 2014, just to give the economy some more room to grow. That's quite possibly what the smarter critics (like McArdle) have in mind. But I suspect most economists would consider the difference to be modest, particularly given the overall scale.

Remember, the administration is talking about spreading the tax increases over the course of ten years, or close to it, so the impact in any one year would be small. By contrast, the vast majority of stimulus spending and tax breaks would go out in that first year -- i.e., it'd be a lot bigger. Unless I'm missing something, the tax increases would have a small negative effect.
Sounds plausible, though I guess much will depend on details. Now the most crucial questions concern whether and in what form Obama's proposal can actually be enacted. Stay tuned.

—Jeff Weintraub

Right-wing economic claptrap about the 2009 "stimulus" – A reality check from Ezra Klein

At one point in Tocqueville's Recollections, his wonderful book about the 1848 revolution in France and his role in the politics of its aftermath, Tocqueville muses that one of the distressing things about being a politician is that you have to keep saying the same things over and over again. Alas, that seems to be true for pundits and bloggers as well as elected officials. And one reason why points that should be obvious need to be repeated endlessly is that one has to keep responding over and over to the same absurd and dishonest propaganda lines, no matter how many times they have been refuted or discredited. For example ...

Most serious economic analysts agree that the 2009 economic "stimulus" (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) helped pull the economy out of its downward spiral and significantly reduce the level of unemployment, which would have been even higher than it is without that intervention. And I'm not just talking about left-liberal neo-Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong and others of that ilk. The list of economists who share this basic assessment includes, for example, Mark Zandi, a quintessential mainstream economist who was an economic adviser for John McCain in 2008.
“[W]e would be in a measurably worse place if not for the stimulus. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the great recession ended [i.e., the economy stopped contracting] at precisely the same time that the stimulus, and in this case when I say stimulus I am talking about the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] ….was providing its maximum economic benefit.” That maximum benefit came in the second and third quarter of 2009, Zandi said.

What would have happened without the Recovery Act's fiscal stimulus? “If we had not had the stimulus, estimates that are put forward for example by the Congressional Budget Office are exactly right. We would have 2-1/2 to 3 million fewer jobs today than we actually have. So employment – payroll employment – is off 8 million jobs from the peak. If we had not had the stimulus we would be off by about 11 million jobs,” Zandi said.

Rather than a national unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, “we would have an 11.5 percent unemployment rate” [....]
A few days ago Ezra Klein reminded us that the list also includes McCain's top economic adviser in 2008, Douglas Holtz-Eakin.
As Doug Holtz-Eakin, chief economic adviser to John McCain during the 2008 campaign and current president of the American Action Forum, told me, “the argument that the stimulus had zero impact and we shouldn’t have done it is intellectually dishonest or wrong. If you throw a trillion dollars at the economy it has an impact, and we needed to do something.”

Holtz-Eakin, of course, is no fan of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He thinks the stimulus was poorly designed and ineffectively managed, and believes it worsened partisan divisions in the Congress by including a grab-bag of dormant ideas that Republicans had long opposed. But that’s a far cry from saying that it pushed growth in the wrong direction.
Bowing to the necessity that Tocqueville complained about, I will repeat something I said last Friday: During a major recession, and especially in the middle of a massive economic crash, the federal government should be running a deficit. Anyone who claims otherwise, 70 years after the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s, is demonstrating either a quasi-theological commitment to certain pre-Keynesian economic dogmas or, more frequently, some combination of economic illiteracy, mindless sloganeering, and/or pure partisan demagoguery.

=> I will not try to guess which of these categories best applies to the Reuters economics columnist James Pethokoukis. In a recent piece he regurgitated one of the silliest talking points that right-wingers keep repeating to 'prove' that the 2009 economic stimulus didn't work. Since we all keep hearing it ad nauseam, it may be worth noting why it is, at best, a total non-sequitur.

Ezra Klein again:
Pethokoukis begins with a big claim: “Instead of saving us from a Greater Depression, the Obama stimulus (together with his health-care plan and financial reforms) was a two-year waste of precious time and money that may actually have impeded economic growth.” [....]

So what evidence does Pethokoukis offer for his position? Almost no evidence, actually. And what he does have calls the rest of the article into question.

Pethokoukis’s first argument is that the White House’s “own economists predicted the stimulus would prevent the unemployment rate from hitting 8 percent. But the rate actually rose as high as 10.1 percent, has settled in above 9 percent now, and even Obama’s own team currently hopes for a rate of, at best, 8.25 percent by the end of 2012.” This is, of course, a reference to the infamous Bernstein-Romer paper (pdf). And though it’s fine as a politician’s dishonest soundbite, it’s disqualifying for a serious economic commentator.

The Bernstein-Romer calculations were conducted in December 2008 and released in January 2009. In December 2008, the Bureau of Economic Analysis was projecting (pdf) that in the fourth quarter of 2008, the economy would contract at a 3.8 percent annualized rate. That would later be upgraded to 6.2 percent, and then, earlier this year, to 8.9 percent [retrospectively]. In other words, Bernstein and Romer were building their estimates — and their policy — off numbers that underestimated the economic contraction in the fourth quarter by 5.1 percent of GDP.

And they weren’t alone. Every private-sector forecaster — from Macroeconomic Advisers to Moody’s to Goldman Sachs — was making the same mistake. In December of 2008, no one had any idea how bad things really were. Indeed, we didn’t really know the depth of the damage until a few months ago, when the BEA updated its estimates.
In other words, in the fall of 2008 most people underestimated how badly the economy was crashing. So Romer et al. anticipated that unemployment might be headed toward 9% or so, and hoped that a major stimulus could bring it down to less than 8%. Instead, we were probably headed toward a peak unemployment rate of 11-13% or more, so by the same logic one would have expected the ARRA to help bring it down to around 9-10% ... which is what happened.

These results probably strengthen the argument, which a number of people made as far back as early 2009, that the economic stimulus should have been even bigger. Even if you don't accept that, the most you can say about the excessively optimistic 8% estimate trumpeted by Pethoukis and others like him is that it is simply irrelevant to the case he wants to make. Does the widespread tendency to underestimate the severity of the recession back in 2008 and 2009 somehow prove, or even imply, that the 2009 economic stimulus was unnecessary or had no effect? That claim can't be taken seriously by anyone acquainted with simple logic.

One might, hypothetically, try to make other arguments, based on different evidence, to try to reach the conclusion that the 2009 economic stimulus was unnecessary or even harmful. But this particular right-wing sound-bite provides no evidence at all for (or, by itself, against) such a conclusion. To pretend that it does is dishonest or, at best, confused.
The bottom line is simple [....] In the fourth quarter of 2008, our economic inputs [i.e., the estimates on which models and predictions were based] were wrong. So forecasts using those inputs to make predictions about the future produced answers that were also wrong. That says nothing about whether the stimulus worked or failed. It’s like questioning modern medicine because a case of pneumonia initially presented as strep throat. The recession could have been more than twice as deep as anyone thought in late-2008 and, separately, stimulus is a failed policy idea. But the fact that the initial projections were wrong can’t form the basis for your case.
OK, but I would suggest a different metaphor. Suppose you realize that your car is headed into a possible accident and you slam on the brakes. Then there's a scary moment when it takes longer to slow down than you expected, and you realize the car was going faster, or the road was more slippery, than you thought. Does that prove there was no point in hitting the brakes at all? If your answer is yes, I suggest you stay away from economic policy.
(In general, I have actually found this to be a useful test: When economic commentators use this argument, I know not to take them seriously, because they either don’t know the facts or aren’t letting them stand in the way of their argument.)

Pethokoukis certainly knows these facts. He just chose not to mention them — even to attempt to refute them — in his article. That calls all the rest of it into question. [....]
In other words, the next time you hear (or read) this particular right-wing cliché, you can assume it's safe to stop listening (or reading), since the rest is likely to be nonsense, too.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Benny Morris on Israel's comprehensive crisis

Right now Israel faces a wide range of serious threats and problems—new and continuing, internal and external—exacerbated by ongoing upheavals in the Middle East whose consequences remain unpredictable and increasingly pervasive hostility toward Israel around the world, including a rising tide of hysterical anti-Zionism that often shades into outright anti-semitism or, at least, increasing acceptance of anti-semitism as "understandable" and respectable. And Israel happens to be confronting this situation under the leadership of a truly disastrous government that is not only committed to wrong-headed, unjust, short-sighted, and self-defeating policies but has also shown itself to be dangerously incompetent, not least in its handling of foreign relations during a time when Israel is threatened by intensifying international isolation.

But in important respects the faults and pathologies of the current governing coalition (Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister!) are the surface manifestations of more profound problems in Israeli society and political culture. That's what the Israeli historian Benny Morris argues in a recent Newsweek piece (below), and he's far from alone.

The title of this piece, "Is Israel Over?", is hyperbolic (at least, I hope it is), and I assume that title was written by the Newsweek editors, not by Morris. But there is plenty of cause for alarm, and this powerful and reflective Jeremiad helps to bring out why. Morris worries whether, despite Israel's undoubted strengths and achievements, long-term developments in Israeli society undermined its capacity to respond effectively and intelligently to the challenges it faces. You don't have to agree with everything that Morris says (here or elsewhere) to find his assessment arresting and illuminating.

=> Of course, it's also true that both the Palestinians and the Arab world as a whole face, to borrow Morris's formulation, their own versions of a "profound, internal, existential crisis". For one take on the comprehensive crisis of the Palestinian national movement, by Aaron David Miller, see here.

—Jeff Weintraub

Sep 11, 2011
Is Israel Over?
No longer the liberal, democratic, egalitarian society it once was, Israel is fighting the Arabs—and itself.

By Benny Morris

Israel is under assault. On Sept. 20 the Palestinian Authority plans to unilaterally declare statehood and go to the United Nations for recognition. This is a rejection of all efforts for a peaceful compromise. In its wake will come waves of Palestinian violence. And yet this is just the latest manifestation of an embattled Israel that is being threatened from the outside—by Muslim Arab states and societies, Egyptians storming the Israeli Embassy, a nuclear-arming Iran (with its local sidekicks, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hizbullah in Lebanon), and a besieged President Bashar al-Assad in Syria—and from the inside by domestic upheaval that led to the largest mass protests in the country’s history.

More than 50 years ago, Israel’s leaders, headed by David Ben-Gurion, believed and hoped that they were creating a social democracy, with all the requisite egalitarian accoutrements (socialized national health care, progressive income tax, child benefits, subsidized cheap housing). Ben-Gurion, who owned almost nothing and retired to a primitive hut in the Negev Desert, typified the austere lifestyle, and greatness, of the state’s founders.

This is no longer Israel. A profound, internal, existential crisis has arrived. It stems in part from the changing nature of the country, more right wing, more restrictive, far less liberal, and far less egalitarian. Many moderate Israelis fear the country is heading for ruin. Indeed, the country’s ruling class, including Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors Ehud Olmert (now on trial for corruption) and Ehud Barak (a former head of the Labor Party and current defense minister), live in opulence, and the feeling is that they are out of touch with reality. In Tel Aviv, where some 350,000 gathered in protest, a widespread chant, set to a popular children’s ditty, was “Bibi has three apartments, which is why we have none.”

Tent cities popped up as the demonstrators — 20- to 45-year-olds, with a healthy contingent of olderpeople — rallied against nonprogressive taxation, low wages, and the high cost of housing and consumer goods, which have made it nigh impossible for families to make ends meet. A full 20 percent of Israelis (and 15 percent of Israeli Jews) live under the poverty line, and the top decile of Israel’s population earns 31 percent of the country’s total net income. The lowest decile earns a mere 1.6 percent. Last year Israel was elected to membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of the world’s 32 most-developed countries. Among them, Israel ranks as one of the worst (alongside Mexico and the United States) in terms of wealth polarization.

Israel suffers from a steady brain drain, with tens of thousands of university graduates and wannabe academics moving abroad for lack of adequate positions or pay. Berlin has a community of more than 10,000 young Israelis, many of them working in the arts, who found creativity in Israel impossible. In a recent interview, one film director said that in Israel her energies were spent on making commercials and fashion trivia in order to subsist; Berlin enabled her to pursue her passion. In Tel Aviv, kindergartens charge $700 to $1,000 per child per month; in Berlin, the cost is $120; a kilo of cucumbers costs $1 in Tel Aviv, half that in Berlin.

In the 1950s, Israel was an under-developed country filled with ideologically motivated Zionists willing to sacrifice for the collective good. Today’s Israel has a burgeoning economy, driven by sophisticated and internationally competitive high-tech industries, and a population driven mainly by individuals who want the good life. They see that too much of the national pie goes both to the West Bank settlers (who tend to be religious and ultranationalist) and to the ultra-Orthodox (who contribute almost nothing to the economy and avoid mandatory military service).

Worse, this hard-core contingent is making babies at a rapid clip; they tend to have five to eight children per family, versus two to three children in secular homes. This gives them disproportionate clout in Parliament. And that translates into political power—and economic benefits. (Paradoxically, the ultra-Orthodox remain the poorest sector in Israeli Jewish society, mainly because most of them don’t work.)

The other side of the coin: Israel’s own Arab minority is emerging as a potential major problem, too. The Israeli Arab landscape is increasingly dominated by minarets and veiled women; and its leaders, identifying with their Palestinian cousins outside, vociferously call for Israel to shed its character as a “Jewish state” and give its Arab citizens collective minority rights and perhaps some form of autonomy.

Israel is a deeply troubled democracy. A democracy it still is, for its citizens—both Jewish and Arab. But Israel is no democracy when it comes to the semi-occupied 2.5 million Arabs of the West Bank and the 1.5 million semi-besieged Arabs of the Gaza Strip. And all this is now congealing.

Since the West Bank and Gaza were conquered in 1967, successive Israeli governments have failed to fully withdraw from them, either unilaterally or with a peace deal. The Arabs may have been largely at fault—in 2000 Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat turned down an Israeli offer to withdraw from 95 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of the Gaza Strip—but Israel retains its stranglehold over these people and continues to expand its settlement enterprise.

Now there looms the even greater threat of resurgent Islam, not just within Israel’s borders or the Palestinian territories, but across the region, where it is spreading like a brushfire. Many in the West have taken heart from the so-called Arab Spring, viewing the upheavals as heralds of democratic transformation. Israelis are less optimistic. The Islamist message that is coming out of Ankara, and moving to center stage in Cairo, includes a hard core of anti-Zionism usually accompanied by anti-Semitic overtones. (Egypt’s deposed president Hosni Mubarak is now denounced as a “stooge of the Zionists.” A photo of Netanyahu, dressed in an SS uniform, with a Hitler mustache, making the Nazi salute, appeared on the cover of the popular Egyptian weekly October on Aug. 28. Inside, the journal carried an article called “The New Nazis”—and it isn’t even an Islamist publication.)

Netanyahu is creating a series of bureaucratic salves for the country’s economic ills. But they will be swamped, and rendered irrelevant, in the tide of Palestinian activism and anti-Zionism that will be set off by the Palestinian statehood bid. It will then trigger shock waves around the Arab and Islamic worlds. Months ago, Ehud Barak predicted that Israel will face a “political tsunami.” Here it comes.

Aaron David Miller on the fragmentation and political incapacity of the Palestinian national movement

This recent piece by Aaron David Miller (Humpty Dumpty Palestine) offers an intelligent, illuminating, and compact analysis of one part of a larger and depressingly complicated problem. I recommend reading the whole thing and thinking about it, so I won't try to summarize his argument. But it might be worth saying a few background words about where Miller is coming from.

Miller is a veteran peace-processor. From 1985-2003, during his time in the State Department, he was actively involved in various US efforts to help broker Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements. For decades he has strongly supported the goal of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on a two-state solution. He would still like to see that outcome, but has become increasingly pessimistic about the likelihood that it will happen any time in the foreseeable future. I hope he is wrong about that, but the analysis underling his pessimism (laid out, for example, in his 2008 book The Much Too Promised Land) is cogent and often convincing.

That's not to say that I always agree with Miller's arguments. But they always warrant careful consideration. Aside from the fact that he's intelligent and well-informed, his moral and intellectual perspective on these issues doesn't share the one-sidedness that (in various forms) tends to characterize most discussions of the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.

The unfortunate reality is that obstacles to a peace settlement are strong on all sides of the conflict—and it's important to recognize that at least three sides are involved, since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never existed in isolation, but has always been bound up in a larger, very complex, Arab-Israeli conflict. And the situation is further complicated by the fact that rejectionist tendencies on all sides have always been very effective in reinforcing each other. Any serious analysis of these matters has to be able to grasp each of these pieces of the puzzle in its own terms while also recognizing the ways that they are comprehensively interconnected and (to mix the metaphor a bit) mutually interacting.

But most discussions of these issues are one-sided in ways that are both morally and analytically distorted. The more common tendency is to place all the blame on the Israelis (or on real or imaginary versions of "Zionism"). Obviously, that's true for people who think that Israel's existence is illegitimate in the first place, and that eliminating Israel is the way to solve the problem. But astonishing numbers of otherwise intelligent people, who believe that they favor some sort of peaceful solution, appear to share the delusion that the Israelis could simply make peace by themselves if they wanted to—and that, therefore, more US pressure on Israel would be sufficient to do the trick). Other people put all the blame on the Palestinians, often without recognizing their legitimate grievances and the impossible features of the situation they have had to face for over a half-century. (For the moment, we'll leave out the role of the larger Arab world in contributing to the problem and its responsibility for helping to solve it, since most discussions give the Arabs a free pass in these respects anyway.)

Neither of these approaches makes sense, either morally or analytically, and one of Miller's virtues is that he doesn't fall into either of those camps. In particular, he regards the Israeli-Palestinian component of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a genuinely tragic conflict between two legitimate national movements that both deserve sympathy and support. (And since that's the way I see it myself, this counts as a strength in my book.) There is no necessary or inherent contradiction between being "pro-Israeli" and "pro-Palestinian", though that kind of perspective is all too rare in practice, And I think Miller offers one example of how one can do this in a realistic and tough-minded way, without succumbing to any kind of mushy can-we-all-just-get-along sentimentality. Again, that doesn't mean he's always right. But it does add to the moral and intellectual credibility of his arguments—at least, in my view.

That may seem like an overly long-winded introduction to a fairly brief item, but I do think it's worth the trouble to put Miller's arguments here in perspective. The focus of this particular discussion is on the Palestinian piece of the puzzle; and given the high-strung character of polemics about the Arab-Israeli conflict, this fact may lead some readers to jump to the conclusion that Miller belongs to the one-sided blame-the-Palestinians-&-exonerate-the-Israelis camp. He doesn't.

Unfortunately, for people who really want to see genuine and durable Israeli-Palestinian peace, the actual and potential obstacles on the Palestinian side can't simply be ignored, whitewashed, or assumed away.

These problems go beyond the fact, which many people try to ignore or obfuscate, and one of the two most powerful forces in Palestinian politics, Hamas. doesn't want to make peace with Israel and rejects the whole notion of a two-state solution. As Miller observes, the disagreements between Hamas and the currently dominant wing of Fatah headed by Mahmoud Abbas "are not over seats in a legislature but over fundamentally different visions of what and where Palestine is." But the power struggles between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are are only one manifestation of deeper rifts in Palestinian society and politics. The most fundamental questions, Miller argues, have to do with whether there exists a coherent and effective Palestinian national movement that is actually capable of building a viable nation-state and making genuine peace with Israel.

Miller is skeptical. Some highlights:
In coming weeks, we're going to hear quite a bit at the United Nations and in world capitals about Palestinian rights, unity, and statehood. [....] But beneath the expressions of solidarity, celebration, and hoopla, a much darker reality looms: The Palestinian national movement has become a fractured Humpty Dumpty, with grave consequences for Israeli-Palestinian peace, regional stability, and Palestinians themselves.

The Palestinians are a people with a compelling and just cause [....] Still, geography, demography, and power politics drive history too, not just ethics, morality, and memory. And here the Palestinian story is much less compelling. Decentralized, dysfunctional, and divided, the Palestinian national movement has long lacked a coherent strategy for realizing its people's nationalist aspirations through either armed struggle or diplomacy. The Israeli occupation, the perfidy of the Arab states, and the Palestinians' own dysfunctional decision-making have left them adrift, without much hope of achieving meaningful statehood.

Over the years, centrifugal forces and history itself have broken the Palestinians into five very uneasy pieces. [....] No national movement can become a successful state without a monopoly over the forces of violence within its society, centralization of resources, and a coherent strategy. Rooted in the West Bank, the PLO lacks all these things. It cannot mobilize the people of Gaza or East Jerusalem; it cannot command their loyalties through money, show of force, or successful diplomacy, let alone marshal those in the diaspora.

And as long as Hamas has the power to trigger a military conflict with Israel through the use of high-trajectory rockets and missiles, Fatah will always be at the mercy of events and never really in control. Finally, President Abbas does not have the kind of legitimate and broad mandate he needs to negotiate a solution to the issues of refugees and Jerusalem on behalf of all Palestinians. [....]

If it looked like the forces of diplomacy, rather than the forces of history, might dictate the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, perhaps these various pieces of the Palestinian puzzle could be worked out and addressed. But today, with no sustainable negotiations on the horizon, that does not appear to be the case. A Palestine in pieces does not bode well for a conflict-ending solution, and no paper resolution or upgrade in status in New York this month will change that.
As I said, I hope this assessment turns out to be excessively pessimistic. But it can't simply be waved away. So read the whole thing (below).

—Jeff Weintraub

Foreign Policy
September 12, 2011
Humpty Dumpty Palestine
Even if the United Nations grants Palestine statehood this September, it's far from looking -- or acting -- like a real, functioning state.

By Aaron David Miller

Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former U.S. Middle East negotiator. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published in 2012.

In coming weeks, we're going to hear quite a bit at the United Nations and in world capitals about Palestinian rights, unity, and statehood. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) -- the original organizational embodiment of Palestinian nationalism -- will either succeed in gaining new status as a nonmember U.N. observer state, or win a General Assembly resolution supporting Palestinian statehood.

But beneath the expressions of solidarity, celebration, and hoopla, a much darker reality looms: The Palestinian national movement has become a fractured Humpty Dumpty, with grave consequences for Israeli-Palestinian peace, regional stability, and Palestinians themselves.

The Palestinians are a people with a compelling and just cause; their nationalism and attachment to Palestine cannot be easily broken or undermined. Just consider the Jews in the diaspora, whose attachment and yearning for the Land of Israel survived centuries of rootlessness, persecution, and even genocide.

Still, geography, demography, and power politics drive history too, not just ethics, morality, and memory. And here the Palestinian story is much less compelling. Decentralized, dysfunctional, and divided, the Palestinian national movement has long lacked a coherent strategy for realizing its people's nationalist aspirations through either armed struggle or diplomacy. The Israeli occupation, the perfidy of the Arab states, and the Palestinians' own dysfunctional decision-making have left them adrift, without much hope of achieving meaningful statehood.

Over the years, centrifugal forces and history itself have broken the Palestinians into five very uneasy pieces. The current unity gambit between Fatah (the largest PLO faction, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) and Hamas (the organizational embodiment of a Palestinian Islamist nationalism) only highlights those divisions, which are not over seats in a legislature but over fundamentally different visions of what and where Palestine is. No U.N. resolution can overcome the reality that it will be hard to put the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty together again.

The first piece is Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians live in political and economic limbo. Here Hamas rules uneasily but supremely. The Israeli blockade, recurring war, restrictions on movement, and absence of real opportunity for economic growth have reinforced a sense of separateness and despair. Gazans are certainly part of the Palestinian family, and they will claim to lead its nationalist vanguard (the first Intifada started there, but Gazans are cut off and seen by West Bankers as less-sophisticated country cousins ill-suited for leading the national movement). How many Palestinians from Gaza have ever risen to positions of leadership in Palestinian national politics? Even Yasir Arafat, the world's most famous Palestinian -- and Gaza resident -- wanted it known that he was born in Jerusalem, whether it was true or not. As long as Hamas is in charge, Gaza will retain its provincial character and move in its own direction -- more traditionalist, more Islamist, and more oriented toward Egypt.

Second, in the West Bank, 2.6 million Palestinians comprise the closest thing to a Palestinian statelet. But here, the PLO doesn't so much rule as preside with the indulgence of the Israelis who still control a large portion of West Bank territory, expand settlements at will, and determine who and what gets in and out. Paradoxically, an improved security situation, some economic growth, and responsible governance and institution-building by Fatah's leadership have produced remarkable stability that has worked to preserve the status quo. The West Bank is hardly in a pre-revolutionary state, and both Abbas and the Israelis have a stake in keeping it that way. Still, tensions within Fatah -- driven by a generational divide, resentment over corruption, and opposition to the Palestinian Authority's (PA's) lack of respect for the rule of law -- abound; and Hamas waits patiently to increase its own leverage. Should Abbas resign or retire, Palestinians in the West Bank would be left with no recognizable national figure to guide the PA, further exacerbating division and dissension.

Third, in East Jerusalem, almost 300,000 Palestinians (roughly 38 percent of the city's population) are an anomaly. Not Israeli citizens, but permanent residents, these Palestinians worry constantly about losing their residency, their daily lives made harder by the separation barrier. They do receive Israeli state benefits, such as health care and education; and they pay taxes for it, though their share and quality of those benefits are hardly equitable to those of Israelis (yet still much better than what West Bankers and certainly Gazans receive). Palestinians here have learned to adjust and to survive -- a great many even to prosper. They resent Israeli restrictions and discrimination; and most would want their own state if it were well-governed. But many Palestinians here are worried that they would lose their right to speak freely under a PA-controlled Palestinian state and are concerned about governmental corruption and lack of respect for human rights.

Fourth, there are 5 million Palestinians registered as refugees -- with roughly a third, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, in 58 recognized camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza. When the PLO was itself in diaspora, these communities held greater sway. Even now, however, they continue to limit and even block what the PLO can do and what it can concede on the issue of right of return -- the Palestinian claim that refugees and their descendants have a right to return to their homes in what is now Israel -- during any negotiations with the Israelis. For all practical purposes, these communities represent a lost world; their options and future are grim. In the absence of a solution, they too will go their own way, vulnerable to radicalization and a continuing source of pressure on host governments. Nor has the Palestinian national movement -- unlike the Zionists -- been able to marshal the power of wealthy and influential expatriates in the United States, Europe, or Latin America.

Even without adding in the fifth piece -- the 1.3 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and want to remain so (though treated equitably) -- the consequences of these divisions are profound. No national movement can become a successful state without a monopoly over the forces of violence within its society, centralization of resources, and a coherent strategy. Rooted in the West Bank, the PLO lacks all these things. It cannot mobilize the people of Gaza or East Jerusalem; it cannot command their loyalties through money, show of force, or successful diplomacy, let alone marshal those in the diaspora.

And as long as Hamas has the power to trigger a military conflict with Israel through the use of high-trajectory rockets and missiles, Fatah will always be at the mercy of events and never really in control. Finally, President Abbas does not have the kind of legitimate and broad mandate he needs to negotiate a solution to the issues of refugees and Jerusalem on behalf of all Palestinians.

An Israeli government less than committed to a meaningful two-state solution -- such as the one led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- would look at the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty as just another reason to be complacent and believe that no conflict-ending solution is possible. Even a government that was serious about a settlement would ask serious questions about making concessions to a Palestinian president who doesn't control all of the people or guns of Palestine.

The fact is, it isn't the Israelis who have a demographic problem; it may actually be the Palestinians who simply cannot marshal enough control over their disparate parts to harness their people power into an effective strategy. Any Israeli government -- even one that was serious about negotiations -- would try to develop separate approaches to deal with these divisions: a military/security policy toward Gaza; a co-optation strategy toward the West Bank; and a border-security approach toward the diaspora.

If it looked like the forces of diplomacy, rather than the forces of history, might dictate the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, perhaps these various pieces of the Palestinian puzzle could be worked out and addressed. But today, with no sustainable negotiations on the horizon, that does not appear to be the case. A Palestine in pieces does not bode well for a conflict-ending solution, and no paper resolution or upgrade in status in New York this month will change that.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Sorry ... we thought you were a Jew."

This report from Cairo is another dog-bites-man story–that is, the central point is precisely that what this BBC reporter, Thomas Dinham, describes here is so routine and unsurprising.
A group of old men slurping tea mixed with incredible quantities of sugar was studying me.

Eventually one of the men struck up a conversation, revolving primarily around what exactly I was doing in Egypt at a time when most foreigners had left.

My answers met with furrowed brows and clearly dissatisfied shakes of the head, when suddenly, raising his hand in front of his mouth in a conspiratorial gesture one man shot, "I bet he's from Israel" into the ear of his friend so quickly as to be barely discernable.

I was shocked. In nearly six months of living in Syria, where orchestrated hysteria about Israel is integral to the very identity of the state, I had never heard the accusation surreptitiously levelled against me.

Neither am I from Israel, nor am I Jewish, but as someone of unmistakably European appearance, I have found myself constantly associated with Israel in Egyptian eyes. [....]

I would hazard a guess that Israel struggles to make it into the top-five political issues discussed in Egypt. [....] Nevertheless, a strong and sometimes violent dislike of Israel is a fact of Egyptian life, something I was unfortunate enough to discover after a cross-border raid by Israel killed several Egyptian security personnel.

The Israelis had been chasing a group of gunmen who had attacked an Israeli bus close to the border between the two countries.

While walking in the street someone pushed me from behind with such force that I nearly fell over.

Turning around, I found myself surrounded by five men, one of whom tried to punch me in the face. I stopped the attack by pointing out how shameful it was for a Muslim to assault a guest in his country, especially during Ramadan.

Relieved that a seemingly random assault was over, I was appalled by the apology offered by one of my assailants. "Sorry," he said contritely, offering his hand, "we thought you were a Jew."

Shaking his head in disbelief on hearing the news, an Egyptian friend sympathised: "That's stupid, you are obviously not a Jew."

The chilling implication I was left with was that, had I been Jewish, the assault would have apparently been justified.
The rest of this piece deals with the pervasive "fondness for conspiracy theories" in Egyptian culture, of which hostile paranoia about Jews and Israel is only one aspect. Again, this account is not surprising for anyone who has been reading anything about Egypt over he past decades, but it's illuminating nevertheless. You can read it here.

Dinham is not Jewish, so the fact that he thinks anti-semitism is actually a problem (and not merely an "understandable" or even justified response to Zionism, imperialism, or whatever) does him credit.

–Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Time to ditch the privatization/contracting delusion (contd.)

This follows up Tuesday's post on the dawning recognition that the vogue for outsourcing government functions to commercial contractors has largely proved be a debacle in the military & national-security fields—David Petraeus & Dianne Feinstein: Time to pull back from another failed experiment in "privatization".

A new report issued by the Project on Government Oversight, a well-respected non-partisan watchdog outfit, offers a systematic assessment of this failed experiment in more comprehensive terms. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.) "For decades," they note,
there have been increasing political pressures to reduce the size of the federal government. In response the government has awarded service contracts, resulting in an expanding “shadow government” that costs hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
With what result? Well, here's the gist of it:
Bad Business: Billions of Taxpayer Dollars Wasted on Hiring Contractors
September 13, 2011

Executive Summary

Based on the current public debate regarding the salary comparisons of federal and private sector employees, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO)[1] decided to take on the task of doing what others have not—comparing total annual compensation for federal and private sector employees with federal contractor billing rates in order to determine whether the current costs of federal service contracting serves the public interest.

The current debate over pay differentials largely relies on the theory that the government pays [standard or low-end] private sector compensation rates when it outsources services. This report proves otherwise: in fact, it shows that the government actually pays service contractors at rates far exceeding the cost of employing federal employees to perform comparable functions.

POGO’s study analyzed the total compensation paid to federal and private sector employees, and annual billing rates for contractor employees across 35 occupational classifications covering over 550 service activities. Our findings were shocking—POGO estimates the government pays billions more annually in taxpayer dollars to hire contractors than it would to hire federal employees to perform comparable services. Specifically, POGO’s study shows that the federal government approves service contract billing rates—deemed fair and reasonable—that pay contractors 1.83 times more than the government pays federal employees in total compensation, and more than 2 times the total compensation paid in the private sector for comparable services.

Additional key findings include:
  • Federal government employees were less expensive than contractors in 33 of the 35 occupational classifications POGO reviewed.
  • In one instance, contractor billing rates were nearly 5 times more than the full compensation paid to federal employees performing comparable services.
  • Private sector compensation was lower than contractor billing rates in all 35 occupational classifications we reviewed.
  • The federal government has failed to determine how much money it saves or wastes by outsourcing, insourcing, or retaining services, and has no system for doing so.
POGO’s investigation highlights two basic facts about outsourcing government work to contractors. First, comparing federal to private sector compensation reveals nothing about what it actually costs the government to outsource services. The only analysis that will shed light on the true costs of government is that of contractor billing rates and the full cost of employing federal employees to perform comparable work. The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan recently completed a fundamental study of costs, and found that, in certain contingency operations, although savings resulted from hiring local or third-country nationals, military and civilian employees cost less than hiring American contractors.

Second, the federal government is not doing a good job of obtaining genuine market prices, and therefore the savings often promised in connection with outsourcing services are not being realized. The argument for outsourcing services is that, by outsourcing services on which the government holds a monopoly, free market competition will result in efficiencies and save taxpayer dollars. But our study showed that using contractors to perform services may actually increase rather than decrease costs to the taxpayers.

POGO found several failures in government procurement, employment, and data systems that limit the government’s and the public’s abilities to assess and correct excessive costs resulting from insourcing or outsourcing federal services. Failures included the lack of standards for calculating cost estimates and justifying insourcing or outsourcing decisions; the lack of data related to negotiated service contract billing rates; not publishing government information about the number of actual contractor employees holding a specific occupational position under any given contract; and that there is no universal job classification system.

For decades there have been increasing political pressures to reduce the size of the federal government. In response the government has awarded service contracts, resulting in an expanding “shadow government” that costs hundreds of billions of dollars annually. The focus on comparing federal and private sector salaries needs to shift because they have nothing to do with what the government actually pays for services. Instead, the focus properly belongs on analyzing the full costs of paying contractors to perform federal services. Given the nation’s ongoing economic problems, this analysis has become even more relevant—approximately one-quarter of all discretionary spending now goes to service contractors. [....]
(The full report is here.)

As I noted on Tuesday, the whole craze for privatizing and subcontracting public functions has been one more exercise in what C. Wright Mills used to call "crackpot realism," pushed along by the strange mixture of pro-market ideological delirium and practical corporate welfarism that has infected so many areas of public policy over the past several decades. With rare exceptions, this approach is a bad idea for all sorts of reasons; but many people believe (largely on faith) that any possible drawbacks must invariably be compensated for by increased efficiencies and lower costs. It's a tempting idea, and it has the additional appeal of seeming "tough-minded" and "realistic," but most of the time it happens to be wrong. Time to start waking up.

Yours for the public interest,
Jeff Weintraub

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

David Petraeus & Dianne Feinstein: Time to pull back from another failed experiment in "privatization"

A long-overdue development, picked up by Susan Crabtree at Talking Points Memo. Over the past decade, there has been a huge increase in the extent to which the US military and intelligent agencies have outsourced all sorts of activities to private contractors—which has involved higher costs, loss of accountability, and various other unpleasant and entirely predictable consequences. This whole venture has been one more exercise in what C. Wright Mills used to call "crackpot realism," abetted by the strange mixture of pro-market ideological delirium and practical corporate welfarism that has infected so many areas of public policy over the past several decades. With luck, this tide may start to get reversed, though I confess I'm not super-optimistic. Some highlights below. —Jeff Weintraub

Feinstein, Petraeus Say Wartime Contractors Must Go
Susan Crabtree | September 13, 2011, 12:46PM (TPM)

After the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the intelligence community, consisting of everything from the CIA to the Homeland Security Department, is outsourcing too much of its work to private contractors and is breaking a pledge to reduce the number of private contractors hired to help conduct, collect and analyze information.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Intelligence Committee, pointed out the broken promise at a hearing Tuesday, noting that the intelligence community is not living up to a commitment to reduce private contractors by 5 percent a year. [....]

"The overall number of contractors is in the tens of thousands - and the number across intelligence, defense, and homeland security is in the hundreds of thousands," she said.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the intelligence community hired thousands of contractors as a matter of convenience and expediency. However, contractor abuses, typified by Blackwater's infamous actions in Iraq, demonstrated just how dangerous it can be to outsource military and intelligence-gathering functions, especially capturing and interrogating detainees.

Feinstein argued that the crucial parts of intelligence operations - the collection, exploitation and analysis of information - are "inherently governmental functions that should be done by government employees at one-third less the cost per employee."

One week into his new role as CIA director, David Petraeus testified Thursday that contractors are at the top of his list of potential cuts in the new era of belt-tightening.

"Contractors - we're looking very hard at that as one of the areas we can achieve some savings," Petraeus said, recognizing the fact that many contractors have been devoted partners and have died in service to their country.

The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan in late August issued a report recommending that the Pentagon phase out its use of private security contractors or find a way to ensure that their presence on the battlefield does not put soldiers in harm's way.

Freedom of expression in Bangladesh

Below are two recent items on this subject from the Weekly Blitz, edited by the admirable and courageous Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. I followed a tip by Ophelia Benson at Butterflies & Wheels, whose post summed up the gist of the matter this way:
Bangladesh enacts new broadcast law: National ideology or characters cannot be criticized. The father of the nation cannot be criticized. Actually pretty much nothing can be criticized.
On the whole, politics in Bangladesh (the former East Pakistan, until the bloody divorce of 1971-1972) are actually less poisonous, and certainly less violent and repressive and marked by fanaticism, than in Pakistan (the former West Pakistan). Its record of representative democracy is stronger than Pakistan's, in the sense that episodes of military rule have been exceptional rather than routine. But everything is relative. Neither democracy nor freedom of expression can be described as solidly secure in Bangladesh, and this does sound like a step in the wrong direction.

(Where I haven't indicated otherwise, phrases in brackets are in the original articles. Bracketed ellipses like this are mine: [....])

–Jeff Weintraub

Weekly Blitz
Bangladesh enacts new broadcast law
by Special Correspondent
September 11, 2011

Ministry of Information in Bangladesh has recently approved a new law for television channels in the country, which will obstruct all foreign movie channels such as Star Movie, Z Movie, HBO, Warner Brothers, Star Gold, AXN etc from being shown on Bangladeshi cable network, as the law strictly bans showing "any kiss scene" in any of the program contents. Totally ignoring the rights of the religious minorities, this new law stops all television channels in Bangladesh in broadcasting any "promotional" or "advertisement" on Christmas, Buddha Purnima [Buddhist Moonlight Night] and Puja [Hindu festival]. The law says "pre-approval should be taken from the Ministry of Information prior to broadcasting any publicity materials on Puja, Christmas, and Buddha Purnima etc."

Imposing a strict censorship on the existing vibrant private television media in Bangladesh, the law contains several clauses, which only is seen in countries governed under dictatorial regimes. Below we are providing details on the law along with our explanations:

[1] Private television channels cannot run direct publicity in favor of any political party [publicity in favor of ruling party is allowed],

[2] Misleading information cannot be incorporated in any talk shows [it stops the participants of the talk shows from delivering any comment criticizing the ruling party or its activities], [....]

[4] The father of the nation [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] cannot be criticized in any of the programs [any of his mistakes during his governance cannot be anymore mentioned in any of the programs],

[5] No individual can be criticized in the programs [this has been initiated as a number of ministers in the ruling government became subject of harsh criticism following their severe failures],

[6] No criticism will be allowed on national ideologies and goals [this law will stop the television channels from scrutinizing and criticizing any of the decisions or policies adopted by the ruling party],

[7] No defense and government information can be leaked in any of the programs on television channels [this was initiated because a number of private television channels are exposing many of the hidden actions as well as corruptions inside ministries],

[8] No program can be aired which would provoke deterioration of law and order situation [this law will stop broadcasting news and contents related to general strikes and demonstration programs of the political opponents of the ruling party. This law has been incorporated to stop the television channels from exposing corruption as well as brutality of the law enforcing agencies in the country. Especially the ruling party turned uncomfortable when the private television channels exposed the physical assault of an opposition member of the Parliament, who was mercilessly beaten by some police officers. It was disclosed by the private television channels that, those police officers were leaders of the student front of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League, during their student life. Television programs containing investigative reports on murder in custody of opposition leader and lawyer Moinuddin Ahmed [M U Ahmed] also caused anger in the minds of the ruling party leaders],

[9] No program can be broadcast against any friendly nation [this will stop Bangladeshi channels to broadcast programs criticizing Palestine, Iran and many other nations, with which Bangladesh maintains 'friendly' relations],

[10] Programs related to trafficking in women, forced prostitution, rape etc will be barred from broadcast under the new law. This law will also stop broadcasting investigative reports on such issues.

[11] Broadcasting 'kiss scene' shall be banned under the new law [this will stop all foreign television channels, especially the movie channels from being connected to Bangladeshi cable television network],

[12] No program or content on mutiny or demonstration can be broadcast on television channels [this will stop the private television channels from showing any of the contents related to massacre inside the Bangladesh Riffles Headquarters], [....]

[14] The private television channels shall be 'bound' to broadcast speeches of the Head of the State, Head of the government [Prime Minister], public announcements, press notes as well as any 'program of national interest'. This law will compel the television channels in continuing to broadcast programs containing political agendas of the ruling party.

The law shall come into affect within next three months. Criticizing the new law, media personalities in Bangladesh say, this new law will close the door to freedom of expression and freedom of media. Such laws can only be passed in any dictatorial regime. By enacting such law, the current government in Bangladesh has clearly exposed its hidden anti-democracy face to the people.

[JW: At the moment] Bangladesh freely allows more than 180 regional and international channels on country's domestic cable network, which includes HBO, ESPN, NGC, Discovery, BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, NDTV, DW, Fox, VOA, France24, MGM, TVC, TNT, Cartoon Network, RAI etc. Currently there are several Bangladeshi channels, which are continuing broadcast mainly via Telstar-10 satellite, while some are also using other satellites. The Bangladeshi channels on satellite are: BTV-World, BTV-Sangshad, Channel-I, ATN-Bangla, ATN-News, Diganta TV, NTV, Boishakhi TV, Bangla Vision, RTV, ETV, DESH TV, Mohona TV, Independent TV, Maasranga TV, My TV, GTV, Channel 9, Shomoy TV, Bijoy TV etc.


"Bangladesh government should be ashamed" – Taslima Nasrin
by Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
August 29, 2011

Taslima Nasrin, an award-wining writer and human rights activist, is known for her powerful writings on women oppression and unflinching criticism of religion, despite forced exile and multiple fatwas, calling for her death. Not many have risked their life to tell the truth as Taslima has been doing for years.

In India, Bangladesh and abroad, Nasrin's fiction, poetry and memoir have topped the best-seller's list.

Taslima Nasrin was born in Mymensing in Bangladesh in 1962. She started writing from the age of 13 and was acclaimed as a major writer in Dhaka in her late 20s. Her writings also won the hearts of people across the border and she landed with the prestigious literary award Ananda Puroskar in 1992 and 2000.

Subsequently, Taslima was acclaimed as a writer in Europe and the USA. She won The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament in 1994. She received the Kurt Tucholsky Literary Award in 1994 and the Simone de Beauvoir Award and Human Rights Award from the government of France in 1995 and 2008 respectively. She got the UNESCO prize for Promotion of the Tolerance and Non-violence in 2005. [....]

Internationally known writer and activist, who has been forced to live in exile since 1994, as the Islamists announced bounty on her head when she criticized Sharia, Islam and Koran as well as pictured the repression and suppression of women in the Muslim societies.

Taslima Nasrin has been trying to return to Bangladesh from 17-years in exile since Bangladesh Awami League [JW: one of Bangladesh's two major dynastic parties, which describes itself as the "secular" and non-Islamist alternative] formed government in 2009. Recently she accorded an exclusive interview to Weekly Blitz. Here are the excerpts:

[....] Q: Awami League government came to power in January 2009 and since then you have been trying to get your Bangladeshi passport renewed. But, almost three years have passed and your passport is not yet renewed. Will you please describe what is happening?

A: They don't renew my passport. I have tried a lot but failed. I have heard that Sheikh Hasina [JW: the Prime Minister] personally does not want me to return to my home. She is behaving like an autocrat. As if she owns the country. As if I don't belong to my country. As if she has the right to decide who should live in the country and who should not. Since 1994, all the governments have been behaving the same. She is no different. Anti-fundamentalist forces voted her to win the election but she is fulfilling fundamentalists' demand not to allow me to enter my country.

She [Sheikh Hasina] cries for her father [JW: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the "father of the nation" mentioned in the other article]. But it's she who did not let me go to my country to see my ailing father in his last days. How cruel one can be! [....]

Q: Most of your publications are banned in Bangladesh. The current government, claiming to be secular, did not lift such ban. What is the reason behind?

A: Khaleda Zia [JW: the leader of the other major party in Bangladesh, Prime Minister from 1991-1996 & 2001-2006] banned many of my books. Sheikh Hasina also banned my book titled 'Amar Meyebela'. The book was translated in many languages and got many awards in many countries. But the book has been banned by the so called 'progressive secular government' in Bangladesh. All my banned books got pirated and sold everywhere. No action was taken against pirate publishers. The governments are just against the author and the people who published the book legally. 'Amar Meyebela' is a story of my girlhood days. Hasina said, the book is 'vulgar'. Actually they are nothing but vulgar jokes who ban books and pretend to support freedom of expression.

Q: Do you consider Awami League to be a secularist party combating the Islamists? Or, they also are appeasing Islamists like their political opponents?

A: Concerning the issue of letting me return to Bangladesh, they are certainly appeasing Islamists. [....] I have the right to go back to my country. I want to get back the right I have. I am grateful to Indian government for letting me stay in India. If Indian government threw me out of India, I would not have a place in the subcontinent. Bangladesh government should be ashamed of being a coward.

Q: Sheikh Hasina for the first time gave important ministries like Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs to females. Do you now believe it is her effort of empowering the women?

A: Gender is not important. Ideological commitments are important to improve the condition of women. If those powerful women don't do anything for women's equal rights, if they don't change the discriminatory family laws that based on religion, if they don't fight anti-women tradition and culture -- then there is no difference between female minister and misogynistic male ministers. [....]

[JW: You can read the whole article HERE]

Monday, September 12, 2011

Cairo demonstrators: "The gas chambers are ready"

The clip below, which I don't think requires much commentary, comes from Al Jazeera via MEMRI (the valuable Middle East Media Research Center). This sort of thing is common enough that one might argue it hardly counts as news. But it's worth actually seeing these images sometimes, because they help provide some contact with reality–not the whole reality, but a significant part of it that shouldn't be ignored or whitewashed away.

I realize that there are people who think the pervasiveness and respectability of murderous anti-semitic rhetoric in some parts of the world today is no big deal (or even "understandable"), but I don't see it that way myself.

–Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Richard Posner, J.M Keynes, & Karl Polanyi – What is “economics” about?

Below is an item that I sent to the students in my seminar on the history of economic thought (Economic Liberalism & Its Critics) in Spring 2011. It may be of more general interest.

(Also available here.)

–Jeff Weintraub

To:  Members of PPE 475-302 (Economic Liberalism & Its Critics)
From:  Jeff Weintraub
Re:  Richard Posner, J.M Keynes, & Karl Polanyi – What is “economics” about? (Optional Extra)

Before we finish saying goodbye to Polanyi, Keynes, Marshall, and Bell and prepare to re-enter the intellectual universe of economic liberalism with Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, here is an item that some of you might find interesting and thought-provoking.

Richard Posner, who is a federal judge as well as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and an almost implausibly prolific author on a wide range of subjects, has been one of the most prominent and influential figures in the so-called "law and economics" tendency of American jurisprudence. The orienting conception of "economics" in this perspective has been the purely formalist and free-market-fundamentalist version associated, in its most doctrinaire form, with University of Chicago economists like George Stigler and Milton Friedman. But after reflecting on the economic crash of 2008-2009 from which we are still recovering, and then reading Keynes for the first time, Posner decided that this whole approach to economics is excessively narrow, misleading, and misguided.

The nature of Posner's intellectual conversion experience, and his reasons for rejecting the perspective on economics he had previously embraced, were outlined in a very interesting and revealing piece he wrote for the New Republic in September 2009, “How I Became a Keynesian”. The piece begins:
Until last September, when the banking industry came crashing down and depression loomed for the first time in my lifetime, I had never thought to read The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, despite my interest in economics. I knew that John Maynard Keynes was widely considered the greatest economist of the twentieth century, and I knew of his book's extraordinary reputation. But it was a work of macroeconomics— the study of economy-wide phenomena such as inflation, the business cycle, and economic growth. Law, and hence the economics of law—my academic field—did not figure largely in the regulation of those phenomena. And I had heard that it was a very difficult book, which I assumed meant it was heavily mathematical; and that Keynes was an old-fashioned liberal, who believed in controlling business ups and downs through heavy-handed fiscal policy (taxing, borrowing, spending); and that the book had been refuted by Milton Friedman, though he admired Keynes's earlier work on monetarism. I would not have been surprised by, or inclined to challenge, the claim made in 1992 by Gregory Mankiw, a prominent macroeconomist at Harvard, that "after fifty years of additional progress in economic science, The General Theory is an outdated book. . . . We are in a much better position than Keynes was to figure out how the economy works."

We have learned since September [2008] that the present generation of economists has not figured out how the economy works. The vast majority of them were blindsided by the housing bubble and the ensuing banking crisis; and misjudged the gravity of the economic downturn that resulted; and were perplexed by the inability of orthodox monetary policy administered by the Federal Reserve to prevent such a steep downturn; and could not agree on what, if anything, the government should do to halt it and put the economy on the road to recovery. By now a majority of economists are in general agreement with the Obama administration's exceedingly Keynesian strategy for digging the economy out of its deep hole. [....]

Baffled by the profession's disarray, I decided I had better read The General Theory. Having done so, I have concluded that, despite its antiquity, it is the best guide we have to the crisis. And I am not alone in this judgment. [....]
And so on. Posner's account of Keynes's economics and its significance strikes me as intelligent and perceptive, though uneven. You can read his whole piece and decide for yourself. But I found one passage especially intriguing and thought-provoking.
It [Keynes's General Theory] is an especially difficult read for present-day academic economists, because it is based on a conception of economics remote from theirs [my bolding]. This is what made the book seem "outdated" to Mankiw—and has made it, indeed, a largely unread classic. (Another very distinguished macroeconomist, Robert Lucas, writing a few years after Mankiw, dismissed The General Theory as "an ideological event.")
I think that's right, or at least it's an important part of the story. And now here is the key point (again, the boldings are mine).
The dominant conception of economics today, and one that has guided my own academic work in the economics of law, is that economics is the study of rational choice. People are assumed to make rational decisions across the entire range of human choice, including but not limited to market transactions, by employing a form (usually truncated and informal) of cost-benefit analysis. The older view was that economics is the study of the economy, employing whatever assumptions seem realistic and whatever analytical methods come to hand. Keynes wanted to be realistic about decision-making rather than explore how far an economist could get by assuming that people really do base decisions on some approximation to cost-benefit analysis.
What is interesting about this passage is that whether or not Posner realized it—and I suspect he didn’t—what he has done here is essentially to restate Karl Polanyi's fundamental analytical distinction between the "formal" and "substantive" conceptions of economics & economic analysis. Polanyi lays out this distinction most explicitly and systematically in his essay on “The Economy as Instituted [i.e., institutionally grounded] Process,” but it’s implicit in much of his other work. Posner's formulation of Polanyi's analytical distinction, intentional or unintentional, happens to be clear and pretty much on-target. So we can use it to help clarify what Polanyi has in mind.

From a “formalist” perspective, what defines “economic” analysis is not a particular empirical subject-matter, but rather a commitment to a specific theoretical perspective on human nature and social action. In this conception, as Posner explains, “economics is the study of rational choice”—based on certain specific (and, I would say, philosophically and historically idiosyncratic) conceptions of “rationality” and “rational” action. That is, “People are assumed to make rational decisions across the entire range of human choice, including but not limited to market transactions, by employing a form (usually truncated and informal) of cost-benefit analysis.” (For example the “Undergraduate Program” web-page for the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Economics characterizes the field as follows: “Economics is the science of choice—the science that explains the choices made by individuals and organizations.”)

On the one hand, under the slogan of “rational choice,” this theoretical perspective can potentially be applied to any social phenomena (yielding “economic” analyses of law, politics, marriage, and so on ad infinitum). On the other hand, it effectively excludes or marginalizes any economically relevant phenomena that cannot easily be reduced to what most economists would regard as the “rational” pursuit of self-interest by individuals.

The alternative perspective views the “economy” in substantive terms as the actual set of arrangements and practices that organize production and distribution, and tries to understand them. In the real world, economic life tends to involve a considerably wider range of institutions, practices, motivations, and relationships than self-regulating markets and the “rational” maximization of self-interest; and, furthermore, modes of economic activity and of socio-economic coordination vary in complex ways that are socially and historically specific. For a “substantive” approach, to borrow Posner’s formulation, “economics is the study of the economy, employing whatever assumptions seem realistic and whatever analytical methods come to hand.” And one feature of such an approach, which Posner correctly attributes to Keynes, is to try “to be realistic about decision-making rather than explore how far an economist could get by assuming that people really do base decisions on some approximation to cost-benefit analysis.” As Polanyi would point out, a more realistic approach to individual motivation and decision-making is only part of what’s required, but it’s a start.

To repeat, I doubt that Posner was aware that he was, in effect, restating Polanyi’s analytical distinction. And there’s something odd about his getting there via Keynes. But there are many routes to enlightenment, after all.