Archive for the 'House Red: Politics & Current Affairs' Category

IS/ISIL/ISIS: The Khmer Rouge come to mind, among others…

The Khmer Rouge came to mind when the horrific acts of Islamic State (IS)/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)/Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) first drew our attention. In 1975, not all that long ago, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire population of Phnom Penh, more than 2.5 million people, to camps in the countryside after capturing the Cambodian capital.

It’s impossible to tally the total number dead with any precision, but it is generally assumed that the Khmer Rouge killed between one million and two million people during their reign. Thousands more died of malnutrition or disease, and the upper classes of Cambodian society were all but wiped out. The killing continued unabated until Vietnamese troops, tired of border skirmishes with the Khmer Rouge, invaded in 1979 and sent the Khmer Rouge back to the jungles. (Fletcher, A Brief History Of The Khmer Rouge)

The beheadings of a few Westerners that have galvanized public and political opinion in this country, awful as they are for individuals and families involved, amount to a minor item in the IS portfolio. An Amnesty International report describes the Islamic State’s “systematic targeting of minorities in northern Iraq” as “[e]thnic cleansing on historic scale.” Thousands of refugees have fled their homes in the face of massacres, abductions, and other persecution, their number including Kurds, Christians, Shiites, and other Muslims whose practice of their religion is insufficiently pure.

IS public relations videos portray gruesome celebration of brutal and heinous acts that almost defy comprehension until we recognize that we have seen them before. This is far from the first time people have done ungodly things to one another, and on a grand scale, in the name of religion or some utopian ideal. Perhaps there is a religion somewhere that does not have buckets of blood on its hands, whatever its professed tenets. It is easier to find examples of behavior we all wish was behind us. The inquisition. Europe’s wars of religion. Israel in Gaza. Hindu violence against Muslims and Christians, not to mention domestic violence against women. Buddhism in Japan during World War II, exposed for the West in 1997 by Brian Daizen Victoria in Zen at War, a book that

… sent shock waves through Zen circles. Even those previously aware that the Japanese Buddhist establishment had supported the nation’s militarist and imperialist policies before and during World War II were surprised to learn how thoroughly Zen leaders and institutions had colluded in the war effort. (Foster and Snyder, The Fog of World War II: Setting the Record Straight on D.T. Suzuki)

There is a sense of moral obligation that one not stand idly by and watch the parade of atrocities without making an effort to put a stop to it. There is an impulse to do something, maybe almost anything. Who among us is inclined to say it is wrong to intervene in the face of what we now witness in Syria and Iraq? The utter vileness and awful scale of acts that lie beyond any conceivable  justification make it all the more difficult to stand up to the hysteria that has much of Washington and the punditocracy in its grip.

We do well to ask, before we act, what in the world might the US do that is even marginally more likely to have an outcome for good than for ill. Barack Obama is anything but an eager warrior, for which we should be grateful. Nonetheless he bends under tremendous pressure from within his administration and outside. Samantha Power and Susan Rice, no less than John McCain and Lindsey Graham, learned nothing from the ill-advised invasion and hamhanded occupation of Iraq, which contributed mightily to the conditions under which IS came about. Obama’s reluctance and Chuck Hagel’s presence on the national security team are not much by way of reassurance, but that is what we have. The administration throws stuff at the wall hoping something will stick. Find some so-called friendly group to arm. Lob a few bombs. Call out the drones. None of it inspires confidence.

Meantime, the Senator from South Carolina screeches like a peacock with his tail feathers in a vise. He and McCain, with not a doubt in their military minds, would have American boots on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, who knows where else, for ten, twenty, thirty years. We will need more boots if they have their way.

There are people with experience and expertise in these matters who are critical of the conventional wisdom. Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, and W. Patrick Lang, retired senior officer of U.S. Military Intelligence and U.S. Army Special Forces, are two to whom I turn regularly, not to be taken as to gospel, but for fresh and informed perspective. Lang offers this view:

No western policy or strategy will be able to stop this process [development of a new state, the Sunni Islamic Caliphate, over which there appear to be many contenders for control, not just IS] because the idea has reached maturity within the mental genes of too many young Sunnis to be derailed. Western policy should be fashioned to treat the problem as a problem of balances of power between the competing regional powers and to reap whatever advantages that can be obtained by playing the competitors against each other, while staying out of the heart of the conflict as much as possible.

As I see it, the only policy that may be viewed 25 years hence as a wise and successful one will be a policy where the west stands back and lets the Islamic players slug it out among themselves. If the West continues its current R2P [responsibility to protect] policies, when we look back from 2040 (if the human race survives that long) the current western policy will be seen simply as stupid and suicidal.

Somehow, the language of the western meme covering this thing needs to be modified to permit US to step back and watch the upcoming gory show without wading in too deep into the sucking quicksand. (Lang, Should Br’er Bear be takin a tear in the bri’rpatch wit Br’er Rabbit? – Origin)

Colonel Lang’s assessment is a good antidote to the cocksure proponents of American intervention, from the neocon cabal that called the shots during the Bush-Cheney era to Powers-Rice and McCain-Graham, bedfellows whatever their differences in semantics and style.


Govind Acharya, Fear and Injustice Continues 10 Years After Gujarat Riots, Amnesty International Human Rights Now Blog, 1 March 2012.

Amnesty International, Gruesome evidence of ethnic cleansing in northern Iraq as Islamic State moves to wipe out minorities, 1 September 2014

BBC, Syria Iraq: The Islamic State militant group, 2 August 2014

Juan Cole, The Arab Political Crisis: It isn’t a Matter of Civilization and it isn’t Unique, Informed Comment, 21 September 2014

Dan Fletcher, “A Brief History Of The Khmer Rouge,” Time, 17 February 2009

W. Patrick Lang, Should Br’er Bear be takin a tear in the bri’rpatch wit Br’er Rabbit? – Origin, Sic Semper Tyrannis, 15 September 2014

Human Rights Watch, India: Stop Hindu-Christian Violence in Orissa, 30 December 2007

Allan M. Jallon, Meditating On War And Guilt, Zen Says It’s Sorry, The New York Times, 11 January 2003

Simon Maloy, America’s most terrified senator: Lindsey Graham’s never-ending doomsday visions, Salon, 15 September 2014

Hisham Melhem, The Barbarians Within Our Gates: Arab civilization has collapsed. It won’t recover in my lifetime, POLITICO Magazine, 18 September 2014

Robert Whymant, From the archive, 11 December 1979: Deposed Pol Pot gives interview in the jungleilThe Guardian, 11 December 2013

Around the Web as August and Summer Draw to a Close

The troubles in Ferguson made the militarization of American police forces a headline topic. Max Blumenthal was writing about the subject in 2011.

In October [2011], the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department turned parts of the campus of the University of California in Berkeley into an urban battlefield. The occasion was Urban Shield 2011, an annual SWAT team exposition organized to promote “mutual response,” collaboration and competition between heavily militarized police strike forces representing law enforcement departments across the United States and foreign nations….

Training alongside the American police departments at Urban Shield was the Yamam, an Israeli Border Police unit that claims to specialize in “counter-terror” operations but is better known for its extra-judicial assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders and long record of repression and abuses in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. (Max Blumenthal, From Occupation to “Occupy”: The Israelification of American Domestic Security, Al Akhbar, 2 December 2011)

From the website of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA):

JINSA’s Law Enforcement Exchange Program [LEEP] has supported the American law enforcement community with this important program since 2002. To date more than 100 law enforcement officials on the federal, state, and local levels have traveled to Israel with the program. Additionally, 11,000 Americans from the law enforcement community have attended nationwide LEEP conferences held in U.S. cities across the country. (Top Law Enforcement Officials Return from Israel, 4 August 2011)

In the popular mind and press atheism tends to be equated with a crude scientism, positivism, or materialism, a view to which contemporary neo-atheist writers have contributed. Frank Bruni’s review of Sam Harris’s new book presents a coherently argued counterpoint.

Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed? (Frank Bruni, Between Godliness and Godlessness, The New York Times, 30 August 2014)

Colonel W. Patrick Lang is a retired senior officer of U.S. Military Intelligence and U.S. Army Special Forces. The colonel pulls no punches about his low regard for President Obama’s foreign policy team or for the president’s neocon critics.

“Lordy, Lordy,” as the “Old Lady from South Carolina might say.” (copyright pending) “It gives one the vaypuhs. What to do? What to do? That nasty, tricky Assad man, and his Rooshun friends… Why wasn’t Assad gone three yeahs ago? (Colonel Patrick Lang, A – C minus for the Children’s Crusade this week, Sic Semper Tyrannis, 26 August 2014)

Alexander Hamilton’s advocacy for a strong and active central government runs distinctly afoul of the temper of our time, while his rival Thomas Jefferson remains the darling of libertarians, Tea Partiers, and not a few progressives. Christian Parenti makes a case for Hamilton.

In the American political imagination, Jefferson is rural, idealistic, and democratic, while [Alexander] Hamilton is urban, pessimistic, and authoritarian. So, too, on the US left, where Jefferson gets the better billing….

Hamilton was alone among the “founding fathers” in understanding that the world was witnessing two revolutions simultaneously. One was the political transformation, embodied in the rise of republican government. The other was the economic rise of modern capitalism, with its globalizing networks of production, trade, and finance. (Christian Parenti, Reading Hamilton from the Left, Jacobin, 26 August 2014)

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a clever marketing gimmick that went viral. I find this kind of thing annoying and manipulative even when utilized by organizations I support, such as  when Amnesty International sends a sheet of return address labels along with a donation pitch. More to the point is the matter of our  reliance on nonprofits to fund the public good.

When I saw my first ALS Ice Bucket video, I got the same knot in my stomach as when public school teacher friends post classroom supply fundraisers on Why must professionals beg for our sympathy and attention in order to properly fund their work? (Kate Redburn, The Master’s Pools, Jacobin, 25 August 2014)

300 advisers

July 1959 saw the deaths of the first U.S. advisers killed in South Vietnam. Six communist “terrorists” surrounded a mess hall in the residential compound in Bien Hoa where eight Americans lived.

Two positioned a French MAT machine gun in the rear window, two pushed gun muzzles through the pantry screen, the other two went to the front of the building to cover the Vietnamese guard….

In the first murderous hail of bullets, [Master Sergeant Chester] Ovnand and Major [Dale] Buis fell and died within minutes. Captain Howard Boston…was seriously wounded, and two Vietnamese guards were killed. (“Death at Intermission Time,” Time, 20 July 1959, in Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959 – 1975, The Library of America)

On 19 June the President announced that he would deploy up to 300 military advisers to Iraq. The circumstances are not the same. Among other things the U.S. has already been to Iraq, declared victory, and left. We should be wary of superficial parallels between the two conflicts. Nonetheless, for some of us, the echo sounds down through the years with a profound resonance. I do not see this turning out well.

Mark Landler And Michael R. Gordon, U.S. to Send Up to 300 Military Advisers to Iraq, The New York Times, 19 June 2014

Running and injuries; and a brief note on the Sterling affair

Running and injuries go together like baseball and hot dogs, barbecue on the fourth of July…Dick Cheney and enhanced interrogation techniques, the NRA and guns in bars, schools, churches, cemeteries…ah, but I digress…

My right calf came up with some bad attitude about four miles into what had been a fine run on a lovely spring afternoon. What began as a little soreness in the lower calf progressed to something that felt almost like a spasm or cramp, though not exactly that, at times in the lower calf, other times more midcalf. There was no sharp pain, just soreness pronounced enough to affect my stride. I geared down my customarily slow pace to even slower and finished out the six-miler. Afterward, that evening and for the next few days, the calf remained quite sore, somewhat like it feels for a brief period after a bad cramp.

Injury and anxiety are two more things that go together. Can I continue to run while rehabbing? If I have to cut back, how much? Will I have to shut down altogether for a time? How long before I can get back to where I was? For next three weeks I skipped runs, reduced mileage when I did run, stretched and stretched and stretched some more, and purchased an Addaday massage roller from a helpful young woman at Portland Running Company. My brother, Trani at Tulsa Runner, suggested that I find a good sports massage therapist. Any recommendation along that line would be appreciated.

Yesterday morning’s run went just shy of 10.5 miles, wrapping up a 27-mile week that put me back into the routine. With this comes a profound sense of relief. After running through the winter in cold and rain, I am eager to ratchet up the mileage on these lovely spring days when it is just a pleasure to lace up the Mizunos and hit the road.

The calf is much better, although I still feel a little something where I would expect to feel nothing, so not quite completely okay. That puts it in company with the cranky ankle and occasionally creaky knees. At my age nothing is completely okay. Just run.

Meantime, in the news…

L’affaire Donald Sterling has quite rightly provoked outrage and a strong response by the National Basketball Association along with a predictable flood of blathering on all sides. The most perceptive take on it that I have seen comes from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who points out that Sterling has a documented history of racial discrimination, not just words but actions that are a matter of public record, while expressing unease that what brought Sterling down was not a public act but a recording of a private conversation leaked to the press, a recording that sounds more than a little like two very bad actors reading a script. As Abdul-Jabbar suggests, Ms. Stiviano seems to be leading him on, not that it took much leading.

That the revelation came while the eye of the sports world is on the NBA playoffs and with a built-in titillation factor—young girlfriend who appears to be about one-third the age of the 80-year-old married billionaire—played into the foofaraw. One need not feel an iota of sympathy for Sterling, one may quite agree that he got his just due, while nonetheless having reservations as to how it came about. The readiness to accept the recording and disclosure of a private conversation is disquieting and in its way as tawdry as Sterling’s comments and actions.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Welcome to the Finger-Wagging Olympics, Time, 28 April 2014:

I used to work for him [Sterling], back in 2000 when I coached for the Clippers for three months. He was congenial, even inviting me to his daughter’s wedding…. Since then, a lot has been revealed about Sterling’s business practices…

All this other stuff I listed above [re: Sterling's business practices] has been going on for years and this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend is what puts you over the edge? That’s the smoking gun?

They Style Themselves Patriots

Republicans are just a fount of amusement, aren’t they. Once again we are treated to a ritual dance of embrace and denunciation played out whenever some blockhead thumbs his nose at the federal government only to reveal in the glare of his fifteen minutes of fame that he is indeed, well, a blockhead.

Rancher and organic melon farmer Cliven Bundy is a hero in some quarters for racking up close to $1 million dollars in unpaid fees for grazing his cattle on public land, sucking on the public teat, as it were, and taking up arms against government agents trying to do their duty to uphold the law of the land. In the latter the rancher and his family were predictably joined by a ragtag array of militias and camp followers in a spectacle that might be farcical were they something other than a well-armed bunch of loose cannons.

Bundy’s remarks about blacks got most of the play in the press and accounted for the quick backtracking by Republicans, accompanied by the de rigueur Republican plaint that liberals are unfairly using the incident to cast the party as racist. Josh Marshall’s observations on this issue are to the point: “The GOP is not racist. But it sure is popular with racists.” (Sometimes Only the Onion Will Do, Talking Points Memo, 25 April 2014, )

Bundy and his allies portray themselves as victims of government oppression. Never mind that federal employees in Nevada are routinely threatened and their children harassed in school. Never mind that Bundy has had multiple days in court and been ruled against each time.

Getting less attention and no pushback from conservatives is Bundy’s forthright statement that he does not recognize the existence of the United States government. These self-styled patriots swathe themselves in the Constitution that created the federal government, a government of laws, not of men. Patriotism is not the word that comes to mind when considering the rhetoric and acts that came out of Nevada these past few weeks.

Memo from the editorial desk

A few minor, nonsubstantive edits were made after this piece was posted.

References and recommended reading

Josh Barrro, Cliven Bundy Accidentally Explained What’s Wrong With the Republican Party, New York Times: The Upshot, 14 April 2014:

“Where is our colored brother? Where is our Mexican brother? Where is our Chinese? Where are they? They’re just as much American as we are, and they’re not with us. If they’re not with us, they’re going to be against us.”

Mr. Bundy, weirdly, is onto something here. The rush to stand with Mr. Bundy against the Bureau of Land Management is the latest incarnation of conservative antigovernment messaging. And nonwhites are not interested, because a gut-level aversion to the government is almost exclusively a white phenomenon.

BLM news release 5 April 2014, Cattle Removal Begins Today in Southern Nevada

Jaime Fuller, Everything you need to know about the long fight between Cliven Bundy and the federal government, Washington Post Blogs15 April 2014

John M. Glionna, BLM seizes cattle in range war with stubborn Nevada rancher, Los Angeles Times, 7 April 2014

“I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws.”

Hadas Gold, The story behind the Bundy quote, Politico, 24 April 2014

PBS Newshour, Land dispute between rancher and government inspires ideological standoff with armed protesters, 18 April 2014


recommended reading on a cold, rainy day

Marcia Angell, The Women at the Top, review of Alison Wolf, The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World

A thought-provoking essay based on what looks to be an intriguing book. Angell and Wolf zero in on “roughly 15 to 20 percent of working women in advanced countries” who in the past few decades

in more than token numbers have taken their place alongside men at the upper levels of government, the professions, and business. While they still account for only a small minority of political and business leaders, that, too, is changing. The rapid ascension of women to the most influential sectors of society…is likely to have profound implications for public policy, and perhaps even more for the way families construct their lives and raise their children.”

That women now enjoy options and opportunities previously closed off to them is to the good, but as Angell persuasively argues, not necessarily all to the good. Among other observations, she notes that these women tend to marry men very much like themselves, “well educated and fully engaged in their own high-powered careers.” For these “power couples,” women no less nor more than men, “their sense of identity is tied to their professions. They are full participants in what James Surowiecki recently called ‘the cult of overwork.'”

Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were. By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that ninety-four per cent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity. (James Surowiecki, The Cult of Overwork )

Angell writes of her childhood, growing up in a middle-class family in the 1940s and 1950s, when her father, a civil engineer, “went off to work at 8:30 AM and came home at 5:30 PM. I had not idea what he was doing during that time. I don’t think my mother did either. Like every other women in the neighborhood, she was a housewife.”

Both essays touch on themes of interest to which I hope to return.

Angell is a Senior Lecturer in Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. The full text of Angell’s article is available to subscribers of The New York Review of Books.

Surowiecki is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His piece can be read in full online.



a fickle beast

The conventional wisdom is a fickle beast. Seems only yesterday the cognoscenti were drafting obits for a Republican Party geared to alienate women, immigrants, and homosexuals, among others, while going out of their way to tick off self-styled moderates by shutting down the government. Things were looking up for Democrats. Then came the rollout debacle in tandem with the revelation that President Obama’s claim that under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) people would be able to keep their current health insurance if they desired to do so was not exactly 100 percent accurate. It has generally escaped mention that overblown and boneheaded promises of this sort, claims that are at most, and least, more or less accurate, are routinely made by politicians of all political stripes, on both wings of the political bird, including those silly-hatted loons of the Tea Party persuasion. Not that this lets the president off the hook.

Each party has its factions and blocs that endorse their own measure of delusional thinking. The propagandists of the right have to a large extent won the day in terms of framing the debate. Policies and programs once considered mainstream or at most moderately liberal are now branded extreme, radical, far left. Democrats generally and the president in particular have not only failed to offer an effective counter-narrative, they have to a large extent rolled over and bought into the right’s storyline. Barack Obama pushed through health care legislation that redounds to the benefit of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and under his administration “not a single high-level executive has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the recent financial crisis, and given the fact that most of the relevant criminal provisions are governed by a five-year statute of limitations, it appears likely that none will be.” (Jed S. Rakoff, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?, The New York Review of Books, 9 January 2014, ). Yet his agenda is branded hard-left, socialist, communist, by all manner of right-wing politicos, commentators, think-tankers, and the usual blowhards, aided and abetted by the centrist bloc. Only a pinhead armed with a comic-book acquaintance with socialism could make such a claim. Ezra Klein got it right on his Washingon Post blog: Barack Obama: Worst. Socialist. Ever.

A lot will happen between now and November 2014. Only a greater fool than I would predict how the worm might turn in the days ahead. A few months ago we might have wishfully thought of a Democratic majority in the House for the concluding years of the Obama presidency. The key note for that kind of thinking is “wishful.” Democratic gains in the House joined by Republicans of a more moderate stripe, “moderate” as always an exceedingly relative term when speaking of Republicans, was a more reasonable hope. Now even that looks to be a reach, while the specter of a Republican takeover of the Senate casts a darkening shadow over the landscape.

Andrew Hacker nutshells the Democrats’ dilemma in an essay in the current issue of The New York Review of Books:

On the Democratic side, the problem is that the party itself has a relatively small core of voters who will always turn out when needed…. most [who voted for Obama] are not willing to make the effort to vote in off-year elections. Nationally, Republicans may be the minority party, but politics is a more important part of their lives, and not just for the Tea Party fringe. (2014: Another Democratic Debacle?)

I may not be atypical on this one. I am not and have never been a member of the Democratic Party. There are few Democrats for whom I have any enthusiasm—Elizabeth Warren an obvious exception—and any number of them make me wince, Anthony Weiner the equally obvious example here. I vote for Democratic candidates not because I have any illusion about them or their party but because the Republican alternative is beyond awful. The doctrinaire left’s analysis holds that it does not matter which party is in power because when push comes to shove business and moneyed interests call the shots for both; or as Bill Moyers, I believe it was, put it, we have one political party in this country, the business party, with the Democrats making up the moderate faction and the Republicans the right wing. There is something to this in a broad, ideological sense. In terms of concrete policies that affect individuals in their daily lives, however, the differences between the two parties are stark. Torn, tattered, and inadequate as the social safety net is, Democrats believe there should be one. The same holds for government’s role in protecting the environment, education, and so on pretty much across the board. Democratic officeholders believe they have been elected to govern. Some may even hope to govern well and wisely. That they will fall short is a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless it is a standard to which they may be held. Too many Republicans believe they have been elected to dismantle the government. One need not be a Nostradamus to predict the outcome.

The prospect of Republican majorities in House and Senate is sufficient to consider reaching for the rat poison, though it is hard to see how it could be much worse than the status quo. There is little prospect for good government either way; even that qualifier “little” may be wishful thinking.

* * * * *

Mark Shields made an interesting observation recently on the PBS Newshour, 20 December 2013:

There were 196 million Americans in 1966…at that time, there were 2,721,000 Americans working for the federal government. Today, with 316 million Americans, there are 2,000 more  [federal employees]…

… Rand Paul…when he found this out was just rather amazed…because he had bought into the idea that this was—they were hiring and hiring and hiring and spending and spending.

recommended reading

Former GOPer: How Republicans Went Crazy, Dems Lost Their Mojo, and the Middle Class Got Shafted

Bill Moyers interviews Mike Lofgren, life-long Republican, former senior staff member of House and Senate budget committees, and author of The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middleclass Got Shafted

Lofgren tells Moyers he left the Republican Party “because it was becoming an apocalyptic cult. Because you cannot govern a country of 310 million people that is the greatest economic power on earth and the greatest military power on earth as if it’s a banana republic. You can’t govern it with people who think that Obama was born overseas or who believe in all manner of nonsense about climate change….”

He thinks the Republicans went crazy “when they started identifying Obama as the Antichrist…. Meaning, ‘He’s not a legitimate president. We must do everything we can to obstruct him.'”

As for the Democrats,

…they got complacent during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And then finally after that period, they woke up, found they had lost three straight presidential elections. So they had to retool and make themselves more corporate friendly…. And it certainly helped Bill Clinton get elected. And while he did some good things like balancing the budget, he also unleashed Wall Street by repealing Glass-Steagall, and he signed bills that would end regulation on derivatives. So he is at least to some degree responsible for the Wall Street debacle.

This is good stuff.


Comparing the US health system with others: recommended reading

recommended reading

Bruce Bartlett, How America’s Health System Stacks Up Against Other Developed Countries, Fiscal Times, 15 November 2013

Cathy Schoen, Robin Osborn, David Squires, and Michelle M. Doty, Access, Affordability, and Insurance Complexity Are Often Worse in the United States Compared to 10 Other Countries, The Commonwealth Fund, 13 November 2013


Stirring up the wacko birds; or, speechless and in despair

An old college pal recently shared an email string that erupted when he stirred up a nest of wacko birds with the statement “You don’t realize what a good job this guy [Barack Obama] is doing for working stiffs like you and me.” Now there are those on both wings of the political bird, among whom some I respect and count as friends, who would take issue with this proposition. Fair enough. As a general principle it is fitting for such matters to be subject to examination, debate, and reasoned argument. How though is debate and reasoned argument possible when the most basic facts are bones of bitter contention and accepted opinion is a vaporous will-o’-the-wisp? Fuses are lit. Blood boils. Such is the temper of our time.

I thought it might be interesting to reflect on the exchange, which ran to customary gibberish about a plot to make self-sufficient Americans dependent on the government and circumvention of the constitution. The project soon grew tedious, its futility beyond question. This kind of thing leaves me speechless and in despair. I can think of no argument or line of thought that might bridge the divide between my friend’s respondents and those of us who see things quite differently, a divide between those who view the nation as in some sense a community and those who see only a loose aggregation of self-sufficient individuals, each out for his own, obliged to or dependent on the others in only the most minimal fashion, little more than a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all. Aristotle gives an expression of the former view in the opening of his Politics:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.

The founders of our nation put it this way:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It seems that for those guys the blessings of liberty are secured not in isolation but in conjunction with union, justice, and the general welfare, if you were of the white and male persuasion at any rate, maybe not so much otherwise.

memo from the editorial desk

Several minor revisions were made to this piece in the hours after it was initially posted.


White House Reeling

The kindest of critics must acknowledge that the Obama presidency is floundering if not on the verge of unraveling altogether. The flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) website is today’s poster child for a whole slew of crises bedeviling an administration that exhibits a lamentable knack for stepping smack in the middle of every pile of fresh manure it comes across, among them the surveillance state, drones and targeted assassination, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel and Palestine, not to the mention the economy. Directionless and under attack from every side, the Obamites seem able only to react ineffectually to the blows that rain down upon them.

The media and punditocracy mob somberly report every misstep with casual disregard for context and reasoned analysis. Zealots on both wings of the political bird are relentless. Obama is either a socialist, Islamist, jihadi Maxist or a toady to Wall Street bent on the same neoliberal agenda as George Bush and guilty of crimes against humanity to boot. Republicans in Congress seize each opportunity to further the scorched-earth campaign to make this a failed presidency, which has been pretty much the sum of their legislative agenda the past five years. Meantime, Democrats, feckless as ever, scurry for cover by endorsing faux populist legislation that will further undermine the ACA and the president.

Obama and his folks have bungled aplenty and gone along with all manner of policy that is dubious at best. Failure to anticipate and prepare for problems with rollout of the health care website and the insurance policy cancellations that followed on its heels is baffling. The mind boggles considering how they could not have seen at least some of this coming and recognize that they would be hammered mercilessly by political foes and by the press across the board. Nor should they have been blindsided by the desertion of more than a few on the Democratic side of the aisle, though I must say I expected better from some of them.

All of this garbage notwithstanding, I confess to a residual sympathy for Barack Obama, a decent and intelligent man whom I can imagine in other circumstances pursuing desirable social, environmental, and other ends, albeit without going far enough to my way of thinking, while reaching some accommodation with Republicans on issues surrounding the federal budget, taxation, and size of government, here likely going too far to my way of thinking. The technical term for that kind of thing is governing. Alas, circumstances are not other than they are. I am not sure that Obama can be much blamed for failing to find an effective way to deal with an opposition that shows no interest in governing.

One need not be a man of the left, and Obama clearly is not of the left, to hold that our government is in principle we the people acting together to secure the blessings of liberty and prosperity for each of us insofar as that is possible in an uncertain world subject to chance and contingency. Now we all know that things seldom, maybe hardly ever, work out exactly in accordance with this ideal. The ideal nonetheless matters, not least in that it serves as a counterweight to the opposing view that government is in essence an agent of oppression that stifles individual liberty and opportunity, primarily the opportunity to get filthy rich. Obama inclines to the former view, his idealism tempered by a strong pragmatic streak and a willingness to accept that people of good will can hold different views even on the most fundamental issues.

I spoke earlier of context. The supposition that public debt is the greatest challenge and threat our nation faces has been effectively propagandized into self-evident wisdom by those who use it as a rationale to dismantle government programs — Medicare and social security, environmental and workplace regulations, the ACA — that they oppose for philosophical and other, less noble reasons that boil down in considerable measure to naked greed. The case for health care reform rested only in part on the moral imperative that in a civilized country every citizen should have some minimum access to health care. That was if anything the lesser argument. The emphasis was on the spiraling cost of health care under the existing system, or rather absence of any system, and its effect on public debt. That had to be addressed if the president was to make a case for spending in other areas, including badly needed infrastructure, highways, airports, public transportation, along with education, social programs, and so on.

The ACA took the form that it did — complicated, cumbersome, flawed in so many ways— because that was what Congress, which is to say, the Democrats in Congress, could pass. The option was never then, and is not now, a system preserving private-sector insurance but with a robust public option, much less a single-payer system. Nevertheless, the ACA establishes the principle that all citizens should have access to affordable health care. Preexisting conditions are no longer grounds for denial of coverage. Young people can remain covered on their parents’ insurance until age 26. These things make a difference in people’s lives. This is no small matter.

If the ACA collapses, a very real possibility but not yet a foregone conclusion, it cannot be entirely attributed to the act’s flaws and administration bungling. The ACA has been opposed, hampered, hamstrung, and sabotaged from the get-go by an opposition determined to prevent implementation of a successful new federal program. There is a minor irony here in that the Republicans are not rushing to take credit for their part in waylaying the ACA. Everything is Obama’s fault. If the ACA goes forward, we must roll up our collective, commie sleeves and battle to address the flaws. If the act is laid low, it will not be replaced by something better. Those who believe we can do better will take up the Sisyphean task yet again.

memo from the editorial desk

Minor revisions were made to this essay in the hours after it was first posted.


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