Uganda? Really?

I have an early appointment, and don’t have time to say much – a longer post on Occupy Wall Street will have to wait – but I have to say something about President Obama’s announcement that he is sending 100 combat troops to Uganda to help capture or kill Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) (and the still more shocking disclosure that there are already “some” US troops there).

This action has been endorsed by some people I respect, notably Nick Kristof and Representative James McGovern. I think the reasoning is the same in both cases. Innocent people are being killed by the LRA, and they are happy to see our country acting to protect those people.

My objection is simple. I don’t think the US military ever ends up improving things for civilian populations. We intervened in Haiti and reduced that country to near chaos (only made worse by the earthquake); we intervened in Somalia with similar results (we got rid of the Islamic Courts, which were keeping things stable, on the ground that they were Islamists – instead, we got a haven for piracy and now famine). We intervened in Libya, supposedly to protect civilians, and ended up flying reconnaissance as those we supported destroyed the city of Sirte, block by block.

There’s a lot more to be said. For example, there are places in Africa (Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe) or nearby (Bahrain) where things are a lot worse than in Uganda. But I don’t want to give the impression that I think we should send troops to those countries, either. I could also point out the strange coincidence that oil has been discovered in Uganda, and to growing Chinese influence in the region. And I could criticize the growing extent to which the Obama foreign policy consists of finding particular individuals to assassinate. But as I said, I only have a litte time this morning, so I will leave those topics for later.

Why Greece Is in Trouble

I just finished a terrific article from the latest (July 2011) issue of the journal Socialism & Democracy. It’s called “Bloodless Coup D’Etat: The European Union’s Response to the Eurozone Crisis,” by Steve McGiffen. If you have access to an academic library, you may be able to get it free online; if not, it’s here, but behind a ridiculously high paywall (you can but a subscription, at the “member rate” – open to anyone – for the price they charge for one article). So I’ll save you money by summing up the main points, but it’s well worth reading if you get a chance.

McGiffen’s basic point is that the crisis is caused by the conditions for joining the Eurozone, and is being used by finance capital to force all the member states to adopt neoliberal policies: reduced social security, an end to stable jobs, fewer government services, and everything we have come to know and love as “austerity.”

The euro has caused the Greek crisis (as well as the Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, Italian, and other crises) in two ways:

1. Immediately, by denying Greece the normal tool countries use to resolve balance-of-payments problems: devaluation of their currency. If Greece was still using the drachma, they could devalue it and pay off their debts. But they can’t devalue the euro.

2. More essentially, Greece was brought into the eurozone at a drachma-to-euro conversion rate that overvalued the drachma. The result was that exports from Greece to other countries in the zone became more expensive, and imports to Greece from Germany (in particular) became cheaper. So naturally Greeks began to use a lot of German imports, and stopped buying locally.

The whole history of the European Union is that countries sign treaties and sell them to their people on the basis of a feeling that Europe is a good thing, and that it will be convenient to travel without having to change money all the time. But the treaties always turn out to have economic restrictions built into them. Most basically, they take more and more policy decisions out of the hands of elected national governments and put them into the hands of the bankers – specifically, the European Central Bank, backed up by the non-elected European commission.

The “democratic deficit” in the EU is well-known; the European Parliament, the only elected part of the governing structure, has little power. But even the other parts of the governing structure have their hands tied by the treaties and the rules of the eurozone.

Yesterday the Greek finance minister made one of the points I make above – you can’t have a currency union without an economic union. Unfortunately, his solution was to turn over control of his country’s economy, as well as his currency, to the European Central Bank. That would mean the bank would be free to impose austerity everywhere – just what the neoliberals (and, more importantly, finance capital) want. Less for the workers, more for the capitalists – it’s that simple.

There is another solution — Greece could leave the eurozone and default on its external debt. That would be a good thing for the people of Greece; but then, that’s not really whom the Greek government seeks to serve. Instead, the EU will continue the losing struggle to bail out Greece in order to bail out the bankers, and they will continue to drag the world economy down.

The US Should Support Democracy in Bahrain, Not Only in Syria and Libya

This past week saw two ominous delements in the small Arab monarchy of Bahrain, home base of the US fifth fleet.

On Saturday, September 24, the regime held a by-election for 18 seats in the lower house of its parliament. These 18 seats (out of 40) head been held by the main opposition party, al-Wefaq. The al-Wefaq members had resigned en bloc when massive pro-democracy protests broke out in February of this year.

The opposition argued, with justice, that their seats were meaningless for two reasons. First, the parliament had been gerrymandered so that they won only a minority of the seats, even though they received a majority of the total vote. And second, the seats would have been meaningless anyway, because parliament had no power. The prime minister was appointed by the king, and the appointed upper house of the legislature had the only power to limit executive actions. In practice, both prime minister and upper house were simply tools of the royal family (which the prime minister belongs to).

The massive, militant, nonviolent popular protests have continued until today, although the occupation of the Pearl Roundabout – a central location in the capital city, Manama – was dispersed by troops sent in from the neighboring, larger absolutist monarchy, Saudi Arabia. I wrote about these protests in an earlier post, so I won’t repeat the details here.

A complicating factor is that the majority of the population are Shi’a, while the royal family and most of their supporters are Sunni. The king uses this to claim that the protesters are really Iranian agents; however, there are many Sunni in the democracy movement, and a recurrent slogan in the protests was “No Sunni, No Shi’a, only Bahraini.” Protesters have consistently denounced Iranian efforts to influence them.

Ever since the Saudi suppression of the protests, the Bahrain monarchy has tried to maintain that things are back to normal. They had an ersatz “national dialogue” this summer, which made weak recommendations now being “considered” by the king; and they attempted, unsuccessfully, to bring back both Formual 1 racing and professional golf. No one has been convinced; there is a tacit internationa boycott of Bahraini sporting events.

The elections yesterday were part of this pretense. The parliament remains toothless, it is still gerrymandered against the opposition, al-Wefaq boycotted the election, and all independent observers have described voter turnout as “light.” The government, however, declares that the turnout was “massive” and that the opposition was repudiated. Presumably they will now have a parliament that supports the king’s dictates unanimously.

Meanwhile, ominously, the US Department of Defence proposed earlier this week to sell $53 million worth of weapons to the monarchist government. These weapons would include wire-guided missiles, high-tech armored cars, and a lot of other weapons designed for the repression of urban insurgency. Arms sales to Bahrain had been suspended, at least de facto, while President Obama declared that he supported democray and human rights in Bahrain. However, he never acted on that position, and now seems poised to resume arming the tyrant, rather than supporting the democratic forces.

The US, and President Obama, should get on the right side of history. Democracy is more important than oil (especially since oil is destroying the earth’s climate!); if the US doesn’t align itself with democracy, it will become increasingly isolated in the world. This is just the opposite of what so many hoped that an Obama presidency would bring. What is shows, more than anything else, is that in America today oil companies are more important than people.

Why Universities Should Not Be Training Military Officers

On April 9, 1969, a group of us marched into University Hall, the main administration building at Harvard, demanding that Harvard abolish its ROTC program and stop evicting working class people as it expanded. An additional demand, to create a Black Studies program, was added later.

We took over the building, evicting the deans and their staff, and mobilized thousands of other students to either join us inside or to rally on the steps outside. We remained in possession until about 3 AM; by that time Harvard had mobilized 10,000 police officers from around the region who massed outside,stormed the building (we had voted to resist nonviolently, by locking arms),and hauled 180 of us out to jail (we were booked for trespassing and released 6 or 7 hours later). The arrests, in turn, triggered a student strike which went on for a few weeks.

One result of these events was that I was convicted of assault and battery on the Dean of the College (testimony showed that I had held his elbow as we escorted him out of the building) and sentence to 9 months in prison. Other results were more positive: Harvard did establish a Black Studies program, it became at least a little more sensitive to its working class neighbors in Allston, Cambridge, and Roxbury. And it abolished ROTC.

So you can see why I might take it personally that Harvard ROTC is now coming back. Congress passed a law some years back requiring colleges to allow ROTC in order to qualify for federal funds. Harvard had resisted on the ground that ROTC discriminated against lesbian and gay people; but with the repeal of Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell, effective today, Harvard has decided to welcome the program back.

1969 was a long time ago – my daughter emailed me this morning, “Well, I guess 40 years is pretty good” – and I don’t want to become obsessed, particularly since I am not at Harvard anymore. But I do want to say that all the reasons we were against ROTC then, at Harvard or at any other campus, are still valid.

What were those reasons?

  1. All over the world, the US military is used to repress people’s struggles for democracy and control of their own economies. They sometimes pretend the opposite – that’s what they are pretending now in Libya; but in the long run, it never turns out that way. When the US military intervenes, democracy does not ensue. What does follow is that repressive governments are propped up and popular movements are repressed violently. This used to be excused as ‘fighting communism;’ now it’s more likely to be ‘fighting terrorism,’ or ‘fighting drugs.’ But it comes down to the same thing. Universities should not cooperate with the military; for that matter, neither should anyone else.
  2. More and more, the military is populated through what is known as the “economic draft.” That is, while no one is drafted any more, the people who end up in the military choose it because they cannot find another way to make a living. ROTC is part of that economic draft – people become cadets because they can’t finance their education any other way. Instead of forcing them to fight, the government should spend the money on lowering the cost of college for everyone. One of our demands at Harvard was that the university should take over the scholarships ROTC cadets were receiving. Let’s scale that up to the national level.
  3. ROTC distorts the purposes of liberal arts education. We are supposed to be teaching students to think critically; ROTC teaches them to follow (and then later to give) orders. This is fundamentally out of place in a university.
  4. Abolishing ROTC is not just a symbolic gesture – the military really needs it to get enough officers. So abolishing ROTC on campuses will impede their ability to start even more wars.

OK – I know Harvard University is not listening to me, and I really don’t want it to become an obsession. I just had to get that off my chest.

Health Care and the Spirit of the Constitution

Yesterday I posted a schematic version of the argument that the Obama health law is constitutional. I want to fill that out today by seeing how it fits in with the original spirit of the Constitution.

A big part of the framers’ motivation for writing a Constitution was to prevent destructive competition among the states. Congress was given the exclusive power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce so that states could not try to gain advantage by taxing imports from other states, or by imposing what today we would call non-tariff barriers: e.g., regulations that only goods from your own state will meet.

In the course of time, Congress decided that the regulation of interstate commerce should extend to such things as child labor, the health of workers, wages and hours generally, and later to protecting the environment. The argument for each was the same: if these matters were left solely to individual states, the latter would have an incentive to compete for business through a race to the bottom.

Consider child labor, for example. Young children were employed in factories (and for long days, 12-14 hours) because they were cheaper than adults. Individual states always had the power to regulate child labor – but doing so would make goods from that state more expensive than competing goods from other states where child labor was permitted. So Congress adopted a national child labor law, and the Supreme Court ultimately accepted it as constitutional.

Today, that is the situation with health care. The cost of health care is a major obstacle to doing business; and states cannot really afford to take it on. Massachusetts is trying – but it’s questionable if it would succeed in the long run if the federal government did not step in in 2014. So providing a national health care plan is a legitimate exercis of the commerce power.

Conservatives who are railing against the health care plan – and other federal regulation – are really not basing themselves on the Constitution. They are using the arguments made against the Constitution by the Antifederalists. That battle was lost in 1787.

Principle vs. Politics

Obviously, I need to blog in the morning. Posting at 9 PM Friday seems to have knocked me out for Saturday; so I’ll put up something fast, in case Irene knocks out my power later.

Lately I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend among progressives. Some people have been hailing Obama for things they would normally have opposed, because it gives them a chance to put down the Republicans. Here are two examples:

  1. Libya. I don’t know how many people I’ve seen mocking the Republicans because they said the war was illegal. The basic argument is that the US-backed side won, Obama did it, many Republicans opposed it, so nyah-nyah, GOP! I’m sorry, but the war was illegal, in my opinion. The War Powers Act doesn’t say that the President needs Congressional approval “unless the US wins.” It says he needs Congressional approval, period. There’s a lot more to be said about Libya (were there really no US ‘boots on the ground,’ or were there actually hundreds of CIA agents involved? Will the result be democracy, or control of the Libyan oil fields by the big oil companies? Or maybe years of civil war, as in Iraq? Are we going to send in ‘peacekeeping’ forces now that the serious fighting may be over – and will that become another quagmire?) But that’s a topic for another day; all I am saying here is that the War Powers Act was, indeed, violated.
  2. Extending the “payroll tax holiday.” Currently, Obama supports this, and some Republicans are opposed, so some progressives are chastizing the GOP. But it’s a bad thing! It would be clearer if we called it by its name, “social security tax.” These are the funds that go into the Social Security trust fund (and related trust funds) to be used to pay out benefits. We actually need more money in these funds, not less. Bernie Sanders has filed a bill to put more money in, by extending the tax to those who make more than $250,000 a year. What we don’t need is to cut the revenue. This cut is going to come back to haunt us in a few years, when the right will point out that the trust fund is running low, so that there is a “crisis” in social security. (See my earlier post on this).

Don’t get me wrong, I hope that Obama gets re-elected. But I don’t think we should endorse bad policies just in order to help him do so.

Social Security is NOT in Crisis!

I’m posting very late today, as I had to finish my paper for the American Political Science Association next week (comparing the Tea Party to the labor insurgencies in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere). I could skip it, but I want to make just a few points about social security.

  1. It’s not in crisis! There is a minor imbalance, between incoming revenue and outgoing benefit payments in about 30 years, but it’s easy to fix. Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill yesterday that would fix the imbalance completely, by one simple device: lifting the income cap. Right now, you only pay the social security tax on your income up to a limit – about $90,000. After that, you don’t pay it. I benefit from this myself- my pay goes up in December each year, because I am over the limit – but it’s no big deal. Bernie’s proposal is simply that everyone should pay. It’s already a fixed rate – i.e., not progressive – but with the income cap, it’s actually a regressive tax! That’s crazy. More important, Sanders’s proposal would fix the problem completely – we don’t have to do anything else! That’s how small the problem is.
  2. The idea that young people today will never get social security is nonsense. The people who might have a problem are not young people, but the baby boomers. Social security taxes people who are working to provid benefits to those who are over 65 (more or less). The problem with the boomers is that there are too many of them – sometime around 2050 there will be one person collecting for every 2 people working. But that problem goes away, it’s just a demographic bulge. By the time young people are old, there will be 5 or 6 people working for everyone collecting. The only problem is getting through the boomer-benefit years without ending the program.
  3. Finally, I’m kind of dismayed that progressives, including President Obama, now want to extend the cut in social security taxes that was enacted as part of the budget compromise made in the 2009 lame-duck session of Congress. While it would be nice to have more money – who wouldn’t like that – social security benefits are financed by what people pay into the fund. It’s not in crisis now – but it WILL be in crisis if we keep cutting what people pay in social security taxes (FICA on your paystub). Congress could always appropriate more money for the program – but the strength of social security has always been that Congress doesn’t have to do that. You saw what it was like a couple weeks ago when they needed to raise the debt ceiling – do we want them using that kind of gamesmanship on our social security payments? The President likes to call this the “payroll tax,” but it’s social security – we should be happy to pay it to keep the program healthy. (In case that didn’t convince you, imagine your boss coming to you and saying, “Good news! We’re not going to take out as much money for your pension fund from now on!” That’s just another way of saying they’re cutting your pension!).

Congress is not going to pass the Sanders bill, though they should – but I hope it gets talked up enough to add to our understanding of the issue.

For more information about social security and Medicare, see the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Did the Wisconsin Protests Begin a Progressive Equivalent of the Tea Party?

Progressives got pretty excited when the Madison protests  broke out last winter. It seemed that the left was finally able to arouse the same kind of enthusiastic protest that had made the Tea Party so influential; perhaps this was the beginning of a move away from ultra-right politics. Now, about six months later and with some elections under our belt, let’s look at the similarities and differences between the two movements.

First, the Tea Party. In my opinion, the Tea Party rose so fast and became so influential because it had the following characteristics:

  • A good story to tell. Government was taking your hard-earned money and giving it to a) undeserving bankers, and b) undeserving poor people. See the famous Rick Santelli rant for a good example of this. Moreover, it was violating the Constitution and trampling on your rights, as characterized by the individual mandate in the health care law.
  • Greater commitment to principles than to partisanship. Sure, they were very partisan principles! But the Tea Party seemed never to back down for the purpose of winning a Republican victory. Their first big success was the special election in the New York 23d House district in 2009. The result was the loss of a Republican seat to the Democrats (who still hold it), but the Tea Party considered it a victory because they showed the Republican Party that it couldn’t win with moderates. Similarly their primary victories in the Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada Senate elections led to Democratic victories in November – but they didn’t care, they had established their power.
  • Substantial outside support. As Kate Zernike relates in her book Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, staff of the right-libertarian PAC FreedomWorks saw the Santelli rant live and immediately started pouring resources into building the Tea Party. Similarly, Fox News effectively became the Tea Party’s media arm, publicizing it widely. Without these two sources of resources, the movement would not have grown the way it did.

How does the progressive movement compare?

  • Progressives have a good story as well: the American way of life is under attack from greedy rich people (sometimes personified in the Koch brothers), the ones who caused the crisis by selling fraudulent mortgage-backed securities. We have to defend that way of life through strong government action.
  • Progressives have been willing to go after Democrats, as with the successful primary campaigns against Joe Lieberman (who was defeated in the Democratic primary but then won reelection as an independent) and Blanche Lincoln (who won the primary, narrowly, but lost the general election). However, they have not done this as much as the Tea Party has, out of a justified belief that they don’t want to undermine President Obama’s reelection, or the chance for a Democratic majority in the House. This is a dilemma the left has not resolved.
  • The main source of outside resources for progressives has been the labor movement. This was certainly the case in Wisconsin. However, more is needed, and the labor movement itself is under attack, and shrinking.

Conclusion: there is hope for a continuing progressive revival. The Wisconsin recalls were promising, though not conclusive, and the coming Ohio referendum will help to mobilize progressive voters further. But much more needs to be done.

Egypt, Obama, and the Rest of Us

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I know very little about Egypt, and even less about Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. What I do know something about is the United States and its role in the world; or rather, its role as that role is perceived by our leaders of both major parties.

To understand that role, we have to consider a puzzle: at a time when it is glaringly obvious to everyone that the people of Egypt want the immediate departure from office of not only President Mubarak, but all his friends, relatives, and associates – why has the US government been so reluctant to endorse those people’s right to have a government of their own choosing?

For example, why did Vice President Biden, asked late last week by Jim Lehrer of NewsHour if it was time for Mubarak to go reply “No?” Why did the White House make it known midday on February 1 that a special envoy had been sent to advise Mubarak to leave only after the next election? It was only late on the same day that President Obama finally said, vaguely, that the transition to democracy should “begin now.” (See the Feb. 2 New York Times for a summary of these developments.

The answer, sadly, is that American foreign policy is not based on American principles. Is is based on interests, but not American interests – that is, not the interests of the people of America – but on the interests of the corporate elite, the multi-billionaires who have been enriching themselves at our expense for the past 30 years. (Before that, too, but with more resistance from government and the labor movement.) What those interess want is not freedom and democracy for the people of Egypt (or the people of Tunisia, the people of Yemen, the people of Jordan, or for that matter the people of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or anywhere else – and certainly not for the people of Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States!) What they want is the freedom for themselves to buy, sell, invest, and reap profits anywhere in the world. Mubarak has given them that in Egypt, and impoverished a large proportion of the Egyptian people as a result. So the US is using delaying tactics, hoping that they can keep Mubarak in place until they have assured themselves that his replacement will follow similar policies.

Personally, I think they are going to fail. People Power is too much for them. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the movement will win in Egypt and go on to inspire similar protests elsewhere in the region. (For an excellent analysis of how protests inspire each other, see George Katsiaficas’s book about the “eros effect,” The Imagination of the New Left: a Global Analysis of 1968.)

It’s important to understand that, given these motivations, there is no constructive positive role for the US government to play. What it should do is negative: condemn the use of violence by Mubarak, and suspend military aid to Egypt. If we demand that, we can help free up the space for the people of Egypt to determine their own future.

p.s. As I said at the start, I don’t know much about Egypt. For an analysis from those who do, see the excellent reports from MERIP, the Middle East Research and Information Project.