“Don’t Do Stupid Things” vs. Having a Strategy

Everyone has been knocking the Obama Administration ever since Hillary Clinton commented critically that “Don’t do stupid things” is not a strategy. Knocking Obama is fine with me, but most of the knockers have got it wrong. The problem is not so much that he has no strategy, as that he is doing stupid things.

Now, some of the stupid things — particularly the invasion of Iraq — were not his doing. But some were:

  • Destabilizing Libya. Look where it got us; in late July 2014 the US had to abandon its own embassy in Tripoli because the staff could not be kept there safely; it is now occupied by an Islamist military group. So we went from a stable but oppressive government to a chaotic ungovernable territory.
  • Destabilizing Syria. Whatever the right thing to do about ISIS is, it seems pretty clear that it would not have been able to grow so strong had it not been for the armed rebellion in Syria, which gave it room to grow.
  • Encouraging a coup in Ukraine. What a great idea! Get the pro-European forces to throw out the elected President, rather than waiting a few months for a special election he’d agreed to. Worked pretty well, didn’t it? Crimea annexed to Russia, much of Eastern Ukraine occupied by opposition forces with Russian support.

I could go on, but that’s probably enough to make my point. The common element of these “stupid things,” even from the viewpoint of US capitalism, is a failure to understand the real limits of US power, and the resources available to US opponents. The result: interventions that made things worse. Stupid things.

False assumptions about political opponents

During the last two days, I have heard complaints from libertarians that the left is slavishly following Barack Obama and not criticizing his escalation of the Iraq War. I have also heard complaints from the left that libertarians are not condemning police racism and brutality in Ferguson MO. Neither complaint is justified.

Rand Paul, perhaps the leading libertarian in electoral politics, published a strong op-ed piece on Ferguson in Time. Among other things, in which he highlighted the racial bias and involved and went on to condemn the militarization of police in Ferguson and elsewhere. He said, among other things:

When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them. Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.

                                                                                  — Rand Paul in Time

Similarly, here is left journalist John Nichols calling for Congress to exercise its Constitutional oversight in the case of Obama’s orders to bomb Iraq.

This is partly a matter of everyone’s tendency to paint their political opponents as totally evil. But even more, it is a lack of focus. There are plenty of liberal to moderate Democrats who do support Obama, but they are not the left. There are plenty or right-wing Republicans who always support police action, racist or not, but they are not libertarians. I think it’s important to understand the distinctions.

Who Is to Blame for Dumbing Down of College Education?

I just read a review of  Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz in the New York Times. You can find the review at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/13/books/excellent-sheep-william-deresiewiczs-manifesto.html?ref=arts&_r=0 (until the Times paywall kicks in). Basically, the book argues that higher ed at elite institutions has become narrowly focused on helping students go into careers in finance, and students (and their parents) have, in turn, become obsessed with grades and resume building. All true. Here at Suffolk, faculty are under increasing serious pressure to focus our teaching on specified, measurable learning objectives, and to tell them which readings, assignments, lectures, and other course components should contribute to which objective. Though many of us are resisting, the idea that somehow students would gain something by thinking about the course as a whole, trying to integrate the different parts — and, most of all, should think for themselves — is out the window.

It’s not just Harvard, and certainly not just Suffolk — much of the dumbing down of higher ed is being demanded by the US Department of Education, with the regional accrediting authorities as its catspaws. But those folks would say it’s really coming from the parents, who demand that the education they are paying so much for be more career-focused, and narrowly so. It’s no good anymore talking about the virtues of the liberal arts, they want their kids to learn specific job skills.

Before we blame the parents, though, we need to ask why they feel this way. When I was a student, my parents’ resources (my father was a pharmacist, with his own store in a small town; my mother didn’t work until the kids were all grown) were enough to get us all through college, and we were free to look around the world and think about what we really wanted to do. Today, everything has changed — at least, lots of things:

1. You have to be filthy rich to afford to pay for college on your own;

2. You will therefore have to have a huge burden of debt when you graduate. (When I graduated, I had a debt under the National Defense Education Act, which provided that 10% of the loan would be written off every year I taught.)

3. You will have to earn oodles of money to pay off the debt; and

4. You will have to earn even more oodles of money if your children will have any chance at all of staying out of poverty.

It all comes back to the growth of inequality, in which the one percent make themselves even richer by cutting their own taxes and making the rest of us pay for formerly public services ourselves.

So we can talk about misplaced values and fight to retain the liberal arts and creative education. We will, and we should. But until we go back to public provision of higher education, reduce inequality by taxing the rich and de-corporatizing public life, our fight will be very much uphill.

A (Partially) Fond Farewell to Fung Wah

It’s looking like the end of the road for the Fung Wah bus company, and rightly so. Their buses were in dangerously bad shape, their drivers notoriously reckless and short on sleep, and the whole operation run with not much concern for safety. The Federal Department of Transportation has ordered all their buses off the road, pending inpsection – and the state of Massachusetts has already inspected and flunked 21 of 28. For the moment, they are running leased buses, but apparently not getting many passengers. I think they’re doomed.

As I said, rightly so; they were endangering the health and lives of their riders, and sometimes of others (a Fung-Wah bus recently struck two pedestrians in New York, injuring them seriously). They should be put out of business.

But I’ll miss them. I remember when I first heard of the “Chinatown Bus” – so named because it then ran from Chinatown in Boston to Chinatown in New York. For a little while, the riders were mostly Chinese, but that didn’t last long as the young people of both cities heard about their incredibly low fares: about $10 one-way if you bought on-line in advance. The normal fare then was $50-60, so Fung Wah’s cheap travel was liberatory. They attracted a huge following, running every hour and moving from the vans of their early days to real buses.

They kept the fares low through a combination of questionable practices. First, they picked up passengers on street corners, avoiding the fees charged to use the bus station. They still do this in New York, but in Boston the big companies (Greyhound/Peter Pan) got the city to force them to use the station. But by then many competitors had sprung up – first Chinatown rivals like Lucky Dragon and Travel Pak, but then Bolt, Megabus, and probably more — and Greyhound and Peter Pan had to drop their own fares significantly.

So, bad as Fung Wah was and is, we owe them for brining down the cost of travel.

Ironic coda: Of course, I’m a beleiver in the regulatory role of government. We rely on it, as in this case, to protect our health and safety. But I’m also a believer in the theory of regulatory capture, first promulgated by Marver Bernstein in his book Regulating Business by Independent Commission. Over time, regulators are won over by those they regulate, and implicitly redefine their purpose as protecting the industry instead of the public. We need the occasional Fung Wahs to break them out of this pattern.

Another Failure of Vision by Boston’s MBTA

The MBTA, the transit authority for the greater Boston area, has  a new policy. From now on, above-ground trolleys on the D branch of the Green Line will not open their rear doors during off-peak hours. All passengers will have to get on and off through the front door. This policy had already been applied to the other three Green Line branches.

The T’s purpose, obviously, is to reduce fare evasion,which they have to do given their current financial problems. But this is the wrong way to go about it. Almost all (maybe all) of the above-ground stations on the D Line have pre-validation machines that let you pay your fare before boarding. They were installed so that riders could pay in advance, use all doors to board, and therefore speed up the trip in. Now the T is going to reduce service, raise fares, and slow down your ride to boot.

The contradiction of this policy is shown by the decision not to apply it during peak travel hours. At off-peak times the lines to pay will be shorter; but it’s during peak travel that riders can get on a train through the rear doors without being seen. At slow times, the driver can see people getting on at the rear and make them pay, if they have not validated their tickets or passes.

There is a better way: inspection. I was in Vienna a couple years ago, and rode public transit a lot. There are no turnstiles, no conductors taking tickets – you just walk into the station and get on the train, having bought a ticket and put it in your pocket. Why don’t people cheat? Because every so often (it happened to me about once a week) an inspector will ask to see your ticket – and if you don’t have it, you have to pay a heavy fine (about $50, as I recall). No one is going to get caught doing this more than once!

The T is able to mobilize teams of inspectors to do random bag searches, in a ridiculous attempt to counter the non-existent threat of terrorism. If they could put the same energy and personnel into checking for valid tickets, they could let people board through all doors, speed up the process, and make us all happier with their service.

Asking the Wrong Question about Secret Service and Prostitution

We’ve just had a best-selling three-volume novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/Who Played with Fire/Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, now a major motion picture, about sex trafficking – a brutal crime in which women are enslaved, brutalized, and sometimes killed. Yet no one seems to be asking about the women in the Cartagena sex scandal.

The New York Times story focuses almost exclusively on whether the prostitutes are a threat to the President’s security. The women themselves are treated as cheerful entrepeneurs, hoping that the publicity will bring in more business. Maybe so – but shouldn’t they at least be asking whether the women are being subjugated and exploited?

The Washington Post’s story does at least ask whether any of the women were minors (no, they say). And the Post does mention trafficking, but only as a reason for the State Department regulation that “employees should not in any way abet sex trafficking or solicit people in prostitution.”

No one seems to be asking whether these 20 or 21 women were the victims of trafficking, and whether that trafficking was “abetted” by the Secret Service and military personnel involved in this scandal. They should be.

Justice Here and There

The good news this week is that George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, has been arrested and charged with second degree murder. In case you have somehow missed this story (vacationing on Mars, perhaps?), here’s the Christian Science Monitor’s story summing it up.

So we now have justice for Trayvon – not in any cosmic sense, since it’s hardly just that he is dead – but in the narrow sense that his killer is facing the legal consequences of his act.

Across the world, though, much injustice remains. In Bahrain – a close ally of the United States, and the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet – a leading human rights activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been in prison for over a year for his part in leading the pro-democracy movement that began February 11, 2011, in that country as part of the Arab Spring. The Daily Beast has the full story here.

Al-Khawaja has been on a hunger strike since early February, protesting his imprisonment, his mistreatment, and the continuing brutal oppression of the government of Bahrain – a supposedly “constitutional” monarchy, but in reality an absolute dictatorship of the self-styled “royal” family.

Activists, human rights advocates, and governments around the world have demanded al-Khawaja’s release. He is a Danish citizen, and Denmark has asked that he be repatriated, but Bahrain has refused. (The law says they should agree, but they have simply stated that the law does not apply in this case.)

Last week al-Khawaja seemed to be near death. He has now been moved to a military hospital and is being fed by an IV tube. Perhaps that will keep him alive – I hope so – but his condition continues to be critical. And the injustice remains. He should be released unconditionally.

Public outcry brought justice for Trayvon. Let’s hope it brings freedom for Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

How Not To Negotiate with Iran

Yesterday, the US and its European allies issued this ultimatum to Iran: the latter must stop enriching uranium to 20% U235 (note: everyone agrees that they are not enriching it to weapons grade, which is 90%) and dismantle its underground enrichment plant, with strong hints that the alternative is war.

The problem: neither the US nor, more to the point, Israel is offering to do the same. Since Israel actually has nuclear weapons, and announces over and over again that it wants to bomb Iran, it’s hard to see why it would make sense for Iran to abandon a bomb-resistant facility – unless the quid pro quo is that Israel gets rid of its nuclear weapons.

More broadly, the US cannot reasonably expect any other country to get rid of nuclear weapons, or to refrain from trying to obtain them, unless we adopt a sincere plan to get rid of our own. Without that, these negotiations are not negotiation at all, but attempted dictation. This attempt is bound to fail.

Cahill Indictment – Let’s Not Condemn Coakley Too Fast

If you’re not in Massachusetts, this may not be of interest, but I’ve got to say something about the indictment yesterday of Tim Cahill, former State Treasurer of Massachusetts, on charges that he tried to use state resources – specifically, the advertising budget of the Mass Lottery – to support his failed campaign for Governor in 2010.

Reaction has been mixed – some have supported it as getting tough on corruption, others have condemned Attorney General Martha Coakley as overreaching. All politicians try to look good before elections, after all, so this seems to be more of the same. Some have even charged that Coakley is doing the same thing herself – prosecuting a politician in order to help her own chances of running for Governor in 2014. (However, she took herself out of that race yesterday, and probably doesn’t need any bolstering to win another term as AG.)

What I say is – let’s not rush too judgment. We haven’t seen the prosecution case yet, but there are hints that there may be specific features of it that move Cahill’s actions from “politics as usual” category to “corruption.” Two of these hints are:

  1. There may be evidence that campaign staff had discussions with Cahill about when and where to run the ads for maximum political effect. If true, this was clearly illegal. Campaign staff should not have any influence over how state resources are used.
  2. The charge is that these ads represented 75% of the budget for the Lottery. If that’s really true, there’s a strong case that Cahill went too far. Even if what is meant is 75% of the advertising budget, rather than the whole Lottery budget, it seems high. Looking good is one thing, distorting state activity is another.

Neither of these charges has been proved. We haven’t seen any evidence yet. But I’d keep an open mind, not condemn Coakley.

Pundits Missing the Point in Trayvon Martin’s Killing

I was going to move on to something else, but so much of the talk about the killing of Trayvon Marting by George Zimmerman, and the state of Florida’s unwillingness to prosecute Zimmerman, is so messed up that I just have to say something.

First example: in today’s (April 2, 2012) New York Times we get this long op-ed piece by Bill Keller about Trayvon and hate crimes. Keller argues that it would be wrong to punish Zimmerman more severely because his action was racially motivated.

Huh? Who’s arguing that? Progressives aren’t saying that Zimmerman should be charged with a hate crime, instead of plain murder. We are arguing that he should be charged! At the moment, he is free as a bird.

To put it another way, the point at issue is not “Is Zimmerman a racist?” — in other words, whether he would have killed Trayvon if Trayvon had been white. The argument is that the law-enforcement system is racis — in other words, that if Zimmerman had killed a white teenager he would probably be sitting in jail now, awaiting trial.

Second example: in today’s Boston Herald, Joe Fitzgerald argues that “history teaches caution.” Fitzgerald reminds us of Charles Stuart, a white man who killed the white woman he was married to, but convinced the police and the media (temporarily) that she had been killed by a roaming black hoodlum.

Again, huh? That was a case where racial stereotyping caused police to arrest the wrong guy. Is Fitzgerald saying that maybe Zimmerman didn’t really kill Trayvon? But – he says he did! There’s really very little doubt about that – so what is history supposed to be teaching us here?

I think what’s happening is that race arouses such strong emotions that this case has ceased to be about the facts, or about guilt and innocence. Instead, it has become something like “what do you think of black people?” For the sake of justice, it needs to be brought back to the facts.