“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.

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.

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.

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and Justice

The public discussion of the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman – basic facts here, if you have somehow missed this – grow more and more bizarre. Various supporters of the killer have told stories that he was attacked by the victim, in fear for his life, etc., while others have pointed out that various video and audio recordings show that these stories cannot be true.

You can’t blame the average American for feeling confused. How are we supposed to sort out all this conflicting testimony? The answer is: we aren’t. That’s what juries are for! If the Sanford, Florida, prosecutors did their job and charged Zimmerman for the killing, it could go to trial, and the conflicting testimony could be evaluated by a jury of people who actually heard the testimony live, in person, without being distracted by everything else they were doing (since they wouldn’t be doing those things while they were on a jury.)

I think we could usefully borrow a procedure from the English. When someone dies by violence, they hold a coroner’s inquest; the jury, not the local police superintendent, decided whether it’s murder, an accident, or self-defense. If it’s murder, it eventually goes to trial, and another jury decides if the accused is guilty. (I may be a little off on the details here – I learned about coroner’s inquests by reading those great scholars Agatha Christe and Dorothy L. Sayers.)

I have an opinion, based on reading the papers, Twitter, and Facebook – but the real decision should be made by a jury of people who have studied the evidence in person, not by a media audience.

That’s why Zimmerman should be charged. Then he could offer his defense to the jury, and they could evaluate it.

So What if Zimmerman is Racist or Not? He Still Killed Trayvon Martin, and Should Be Charged

Over the last few days, the political right has taken one of two positions on the killing of Trayvon Martin. Most actual politicians – Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum for example – have condemned the killing and argued that the “Stand Your Ground” law doesn’t apply (since the evidence seems to be that Zimmerman chased down and killed a young man who was trying to run away).

The loonier fringe element, however, has focused on claims that Zimmerman is not racist. This seems truly bizarre. Are they saying that it’s OK to pursue and kill an unarmed teenager as long as the killing is not racially motivated? It’s just irrlevant to the question of whether Zimmerman should be prosecuted – of course he should be.

Of course his actions were racist, too, I’m not saying otherwise – I’m just saying that is not the point at issue. Moreover, the real systemic racism lies in the failure of local law enforcements to arrest and charge Zimmerman.

Standing One’s Ground?

The horrific and unjustified killing of Trayvon Martin has naturally touched off a lot of discussion of whether the killing was racially motivated, with comments ranging from ‘but Zimmerman is Hispanic!’ to ‘the audio sounds like “f…..ing c..n” to me.’ There’s a good summary of the case and the protests in the Guardian, here.

Not to downplay this debate about motivations, it seems to me that the real, structural racism can be found in Florida’s “stand your ground” law. In case you missed it, here’s a quick summary. In most states (but fewer all the time!), you can only plead that you killed someone in self-defense if you could not have safely run away. In Florida, though – and, I hear, in 22 other states – you have no obligation to try to escape. Instead, you can “stand your ground,” and kill your assailant, even if you could easily have escaped.

The problems with this are obvious – and gruesomely illustrated by Martin’s death. The law puts life-and-death decisions in the hands of people who may not have the capacity to make such decisions wisely. In this case, the most favorable interpretation of Zimmerman’s actions is that he made a mistake and thought he was in danger when he was not.

That’s way too favorable, by the way. The story seems to be that Zimmerman chased Martin in his car, than got out, confronted him, and shot him dead. That doesn’t qualify even as standing his ground.

The more general issue is – why are such laws being passed? The only reason I can imagine is what Stuart Hall called a “moral panic.” (See his book Policing the Crisis.) In this case, the belief – fundamentally racist, but deeply embedded in American culture – that we are besieged by a hoard of violent black criminals creates uncritical public support for the feeling that we ought to be able to shoot someone who threatens us. Of course, it also makes nutcases like Zimmerman feel threatened because a black kid is wearing a hoodie.

Of course Zimmerman should be charged, and the local authorities failure to charge him should be investigated. Beyond that, though, it’s time to repeal these “stand your ground” laws.

He’s Baaaack! The Ryan Budget Returns, to the Democrats’ Delight

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) is at it again. He has produced a budget resolution that calls for the end of Medicare-as-we-know-it, replacing it with coupons that can be used to buy private health insurance. This has been introduced as the House version of the Congressional Budget Resolution, and is certain to a) pass the House, and b) be rejected by the Senate.

With the Ryan Budget, the Republicans have now defined two key planks in their platform for the next election:

  1. Ending Medicare
  2. Attacking birth control

Sound a little nuts? After all, most people support both Medicare and birth control. So why are they giving Barack Obama this nice present?

There are two possible explanations, as I see it:

  1. In what should be a Republican election year, the Tea Party is forcing the GOP to commit political suicide, handing Obama an election that he could not otherwise win, because of their fanatical commitment to hating both government and women. Or …
  2. The continuting recession makes it so unlikely that Obama will be reelected that the GOP has decided to implement the program that they really believe in: reducing the working class to poverty so that the capitalist class can get even richer.

Which do you think it is?

Iran: Not Only Is War not the Answer, but It’s the Wrong Question

Sadly, Barack Obama seems to be just as crazy as his predecessor when it comes to the Middle East; witness all his tough talk about war with Iran. So let’s be clear:

  1. All intelligence agencies agree that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, and does not plan to have one.
  2. The US, on the other hand, has thousands of nuclear weapons.
  3. Israel, which has a much more aggressive history of making war on its neighbors than Iran, has nuclear weapons but Obama won’t even talk about them,
  4. Eight years ago, the US went to war with Iraq based on a lot of lies; the result was disastrous. Now they’re telling the same lies and trying to go to war again.

From all this, I’d say that the question is not how to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons – it is why the national security establishment is so eager to destroy Iran.

Occupy Movement Fights Foreclosures, Confronts “Big Lie” about Causes of Crisis

With the launching of several actions to “Occupy Our Homes,” the Occupy movement once again has shown its ability to cut to the heart of the crisis.

First they occupied Wall Street and other financial centers, highlighting who really holds power in America: the big investment banks that took huge bailout payments even while continuing to destroy the economy for the rest of us. By targeting Wall Street, not Congress, the movement avoided partisan wrangling and evoked widespread sympathy across the country.

The occupations were inspired in part by the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo. But this is America, not Egypt, and despite some notable successes (such as the general strike in Oakland), it is clear that the movement does not yet have enough active supporters to prevent police from violently closing all their camps.

Making this negative into a positive, the occupiers are now throwing themselves into the struggle against mortgage foreclosures. In some places occupiers are accompanying homeless people as they move into vacant foreclosed homes. In others, they are setting up tents in the front yards of families threatened with foreclosure.

The great thing about this move – besides that they are helping people stay in their homes – is that Occupy is making a head-on attack against the central myth of the Tea Party, namely that the economic crisis was caused by irresponsible mortgage borrowers. As I pointed out here, this is simply not true. The market in mortgage-based derivatives did not collapse because some borrowers defaulted; it collapsed because high-risk mortgages had been rated, fraudulently, as prime investment grade. You can get the details in this column by Barry Ritholtz, who calls the claim that home mortgage borrowers caused the crisis “the Big Lie.”

But the Tea Party has been making the opposite argument at the top of its collective lungs. They were inspired, in part by Rick Santelli’s televised rant on the floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange, which concluded with Santelli’s rhetorical question, “This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” This video was immediately posted on the FreedomWorks website, and used to organize local Tea Party groups around the country.

Now Occupy is confronting this story head-on with its own narrative. The foreclosed-upon are victims, not perpetrators of the crisis. In many cases, the people threatened with loss of their homes have been making payments regularly but now have negative equity because the banks have destroyed the market in real estate. They are not asking the taxpayer for a handout; they are asking the banks, which did get handouts, to share the losses from the cisis they caused.

One year ago, the Tea Party was winning the war of stories. With this important move, the Occupiers are beginning to turn things around.

Poor Mitt Romney

I didn’t want to write the following – Romney was a terrible governor, he’d be a terrible president, and I hate to defend him. But fair is fair, and he’s taking a bum rap on this one. Read on for the details.


Poor Mitt! Everybody’s beating up on him for supposedly flip-flopping on health care, because the plan he helped negotiate – and still supports – in Massachusetts works the same way as the federal Affordable Care Act, aka “ObamaCare.” Both the Massachusetts and federal plans contain an individual mandate: a requirement that any individual not covered by some other health insurance must purchase an individual policy, or else pay a fine.

Without such a mandate, it would be very difficult to include an important feature of each plan, the rule that insurance companies may not exclude preexisting conditions from their coverage. The logic of this is simple: if you can’t be denied coverage for a preexisting condition, it would make sense to not buy any insurance until you get sick. Once you got sick, you could pick up a policy, as the insurer would not be allowed to refuse you.

The net effect would be that only people with high medical expenses would get coverage, which would therefore cost just as much as paying for treatment directly. The system would collapse under its own weight.

There are two ways to design a program to avoid this contradiction: either a single-payer system, where everyone is covered all the time by a government plan; or an individual mandate, which basically forces healthy people to get insurance.

So that’s why Romney’s plan included the individual mandate, and it is similar to Obama’s in that way. But there is a crucial difference all the same:

Romney’s plan individual mandate was an order from the state; Obama’s is an order from the federal government.

The issue is the Tenth Amendment, which says that any powers not expressly given to the federal government belong to the states. States clearly have the power to make people do things: wear motorcycle helmets, get immunizations, obey quarantine laws. The federal government has such power only when it is part of another power.

Now, I firmly believe that the Affordable Care Act is legitimate under the interstate commerce clause. There are 100 years of precedent for this, and only the right-wing nuts currently on the Supreme Court would quesion it. But that’s not what the Tea Party thinks: they maintain that the Tenth Amendement prohibits a federal individual mandate. That’s the basis of most of the pending lawsuits on ACA.

Romney’s position – and he did spell it out early in the campaign – is that the state of Massachusetts wanted to impose an individual mandate, and it had the power to do so. The federal government, in his opinion, does not. No flip flop there, just straightforward (albeit incorrect) constitutional reasoning.

Unfortunately, that argument is too sophisticated for the Tea Party folks to grasp.