Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How the financial sector swallowed up the economy (continued)

That cancerous growth of the financial sector has been, and remains, a big and multi-faceted problem. Brad DeLong directs us to a brief but illuminating piece by economist Robert Shiller, "The Best, Brightest, and Least Productive?", that deals with one aspect of this larger pathology.

Shiller's piece is written in a scrupulously balanced way, almost to a fault, and its strongest points are hedged with careful qualifications and some excessively tentative formulations.  But the central thrust of the analysis comes through clearly enough:
Are too many of our most talented people choosing careers in finance – and, more specifically, in trading, speculating, and other allegedly “unproductive” activities?
The short, and basic, answer to that question is yes. But Shiller's discussion works up to it.
In the United States, 7.4% of total compensation of employees in 2012 went to people working in the finance and insurance industries. Whether or not that percentage is too high, the real issue is that the share is even higher among the most educated and accomplished people, whose activities may be economically and socially useless, if not harmful.

In a survey of elite US universities, Catherine Rampell found that in 2006, just before the financial crisis, 25% of graduating seniors at Harvard University, 24% at Yale, and a whopping 46% at Princeton were starting their careers in financial services. Those percentages have fallen somewhat since, but this might be only a temporary effect of the crisis.

According to a study by Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef, much of the increase in financial activity has taken place in the more speculative fields, at the expense of traditional finance. From 1950 to 2006, credit intermediation (lending, including traditional banking) declined relative to “other finance” (including securities, commodities, venture capital, private equity, hedge funds, trusts, and other investment activities like investment banking). Moreover, wages in “other finance” skyrocketed relative to those in credit intermediation.

We surely need some people in trading and speculation. But how do we know whether we have too many?  [....]

[A] 2011 paper by Patrick Bolton, Tano Santos, and José Scheinkman argues that a significant amount of speculation and deal-making is pure rent-seeking. In other words, it is wasteful activity that achieves nothing more than enabling the collection of rents on items that might otherwise be free.  [....]
In retrospect, it seems clear that one of the factors which helped restrain these tendencies for four decades between the New Deal and the Reagan administration (a period when, for the first time in American history, the US had no significant financial crises) was the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. Glass-Steagall was part of a remarkably intelligent framework of regulations enacted to cover banking and the rest of the financial sector, and it worked. Then, starting in the 1980s, this valuable and highly successful framework of financial regulation was increasingly dismantled—not sensibly updated and adapted to new conditions, but heedlessly dismantled—in a process that combined free-market-fundamentalist ideological illusions with substantial amounts of irresponsibility, plutocratic muscle, political corruption, and simple greed. And it so happens that during the same period, starting in the 1980s, we have once again experienced recurrent financial crises (and massive bailouts), escalating most recently into the great financial crash of 2007-2009 from which we are still recovering.

The repeal of Glass-Steagall was part of that dismantling. It was a mistake, and one that should now be rectified.
In a forthcoming paper, Patrick Bolton extends this view to look at bankers and at the Glass-Steagall Act, which forbade commercial banks from engaging in a wide variety of activities classified as “investment banking.” Ever since the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 repealed Glass-Steagall, bankers have acted increasingly like feudal lords.  [JW: That is, like robber barons—in ways that are predatory, unproductively wasteful, and socially harmful, but highly profitable until an excessively risky gamble goes wrong.]  The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 introduced a measure somewhat similar to the Glass-Steagall prohibition by imposing the Volcker Rule, which bars proprietary trading by commercial banks, but much more could be done.

[JW:  Instead, of course, the financial industry, along with its lobbyists & propagandists & political allies, is doing everything it can to insure that even the half-measures included in Dodd-Frank are blocked or watered down.]

To many observers, Glass-Steagall made no sense. Why shouldn’t banks be allowed to engage in any business they want, at least as long as we have regulators to ensure that the banks’ activities do not jeopardize the entire financial infrastructure?

In fact, the main advantages of the original Glass-Steagall Act may have been more sociological than technical, changing the business culture and environment in subtle ways. By keeping the deal-making business separate, banks may have focused more on their traditional core business. [....]
Over the last generation, on the other hand, a business culture of casino capitalism has prevailed.  For some further explanation and elaboration, read Shiller's whole piece (which, again, is concise).

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  And for some further discussion of some relevant issues, see here.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Andy Markovits's final assessments & predictions for the German national election

This guest-post by my friend Andy Markovits follows up one from last week: Andy Markovits & Joseph Klaver explain Germany's "boring" election and predict its likely outcome. (Like the previous guest-post, this one is also available at the Huffington Post.)

The policies of the German government have had, and will continue to have, enormous consequences for the rest of Europe, not only for Germany itself.  But in following the election campaign leading up to the vote this Sunday, Andy and his collaborator Joseph Klaver have been struck by the extent to which it has exemplified, at a national level, Tip O'Neill's adage that all politics are local.  That is, they have been struck "by the virtual absence of any serious debate about the certain effects that German policies -- or their non-existence -- will have on Germany's European partners and neighbors over the next four years."  Under the circumstances, that absence seems both odd and a bit irresponsible—especially since the current ruling coalition and the opposition parties are advocating different economic policies that would have different ramifications for the rest of Europe.  For some details, see below.

—Jeff Weintraub

Huffington Post
September 9, 2013
The Virtual Absence of Germany's Concrete Effects on Europe in the Current Campaign for the Bundestag
By Andrei Markovits

Co-authored by Joseph Klaver (University of Michigan)

In our following the current electoral campaign culminating in the vote on Sunday, September 22, we have been struck by the virtual absence of any serious debate about the certain effects that German policies -- or their non-existence -- will have on Germany's European partners and neighbors over the next four years. There exists a broad pro-European consensus among all six (counting the CSU as its own player) political parties that currently occupy Parliament. In contrast to other European countries, none of the German contestants likely to enter the Bundestag are running against Europe or exhibit any Europhobia of note. To be sure, the degree of Europhilia varies among the parties; most important, the very texture of this Europhilia has different meanings to the parties of the center-right and the center-left with the former much less skeptical of a Europe dominated by multinational corporations than the latter which prefers a Europe ruled by grass-roots participation of its citizens. This broad pro-Europe consensus reflects by and large the German public's continued support of the idea of Europe even if the intensity of this support has declined notably in the wake of the crises of the past five years and appears to exist only as long as the German public perceives Europe as in no way intruding on Germans' privileges and decided advantages derived from it. The operative term here, of course, is that of the "idea" of Europe in contrast to its actual physical existence and material being which remains distant and ill-defined in this electoral campaign and German politics much more broadly.

Germany, after all, is far and away Europe's most powerful country particularly because Europe's comparative advantage and its very calling card -- in explicit and proud contrast to the United States -- has become its wielding of "soft" power in which Germany excels and which renders France's and Britain's military superiority compared to Germany's rather ephemeral, if not meaningless. Indeed, to apply Madeleine Albright's apt characterization of the United States to the situation at hand, Germany is Europe's "indispensable nation". Alas, just like the American left felt uncomfortable with this assignation and continues to oppose all that it entails, so, too, does the German left dislike the notion of Germany's being Europe's dominant power. The reasons for most Western lefts' - and the German's in particular -- reticence towards state power are manifold and often legitimate but not germane to this short essay. For us, the fact remains that - to use the old adage - when Germany has a cold, the rest of Europe catches pneumonia.

Whether one likes it or not, the fact remains that Germany has immense power in Europe. As the world's fourth largest economy and far and away the largest national economy and exporter in Europe, Germany is integral to the functioning of the European economy's every facet. And yet, nary a discussion occurred in this campaign as to what the concrete effects of Germany's economic policies would inevitably have on its European neighbors. Germany's economy does not exist in isolation, so the lack of discussion relating to the continent-wide economy is short-sighted, especially in relation to austerity measures both in Germany and abroad.

As it is integrally related to the wide-reaching salience of precisely such extant austerity posture, let's examine the issue of how the competing parties propose to deal with Germany's debt. The CDU/CSU sees it as a serious problem and wants to confront it aggressively but demands that this be done without raising any taxes and only by cutting expenditure thus, by extension, leading to an intensification of the extant austerity regime. Concretely, the union parties want to act expeditiously and pass the next federal budget without incurring any debt whatsoever. Not surprisingly, the pro-business FDP, currently the union parties' junior partner comprising the German government and their preferred candidate for a similar role in the next one, also oppose raising taxes but plead for an abolition of Germany's so called solidarity contribution in support of the five states that joined the federation in the wake of East Germany's demise which it perceives as a long-obsolete waste of money. The party also advocates the cutting of various state-led subsidies and the thinning of the work force in public bureaucracies in the quest of an eventual eradication of Germany's debt. All three government parties oppose the legally binding introduction of a (federal) minimum wage, although the CDU favors such a mechanism provided it emerges through the collective bargaining process between the unions and management.

In contrast, all three opposition parties of the left advocate serious tax increases as well as a legally binding minimum wage. They only differ in the magnitude and means that each prefers. Thus, the Social Democrats would like to raise the income tax for individuals earning 100,000 Euros (200,000 Euros for spouses) per annum from the current 42 percent to 49 percent and would like to see the current capital gains tax rate of 25 percent raised to 32 percent. The SPD wants the legally binding minimum wage to amount to 8.50 Euros per hour. Among other drastic forms of enhancing social equality and stimulating domestic demand, the Left Party desires to impose a 75 percent tax rate on any annual income of one million Euros; desires to increase the extant inheritance tax; and hopes to install a financial transaction tax -- where a 0.1 percent levy of the transaction's value is applied on any and all financial transactions -- in which all proceeds would accrue to the common good. Moreover, the party wants the legally binding minimum wage to be 10 Euros an hour throughout Germany. With very similar policies, the Greens, too, aim to introduce economic reforms under their motto of "social justice". Additionally, the core of their reform plans features -- behooving this party's ecological bent -- a demand to cease all current exemptions to the ecology tax and to enact a more stringent regulation of the taxing of Diesel and other fuels, especially concerning their use by vehicles used in any official capacities. Though discussed purely in a domestic context throughout this election campaign, all of these policy reforms, if implemented, would have Europe-wide ramifications. They would enhance demand in Germany thereby leading to a loosening of the current German-imposed austerity regime in Europe.

While Tip O'Neill's statement that all politics is local pertains as much to Germany as it has to the United States (or any place else in the world), the disregard for the probable implications of this local onto a much larger entity is not only a tad provincial but potentially irresponsible, especially if one is accorded the role of chief architect in the building of a new entity as has been Germany's task in the continued construction of the European edifice. Even though the word "Europe" appeared prolifically in Germany's now concluding electoral campaign and was invoked almost always in a positive context, the concept itself remained by and large an illusory intellectual abstraction rather than a lived experience in a concrete reality.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Still doubt Assad’s forces were behind Syria’s chemical attack? Look at this map. (Max Fisher)

Who carried out the large-scale poison gas attacks around Damascus on August 21?  As I've noted in some previous posts (here & here & here) it seemed most likely, not to say almost obvious, from the start that these poison gas attacks were carried out by Syrian government forces, as part of an ongoing offensive to drive rebel forces from areas on the outskirts of the capital—and evidence continues to accumulate in support of this conclusion.

Some of the latest evidence was explained clearly on Tuesday by Max Fisher of the Washington Post:
The United Nations finally released, on Monday, the results of its investigation into the deadly Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria. While the team was legally barred from assigning blame for the attack, their report catalogued a number of details that seem to point an awfully large finger at the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
[JW: Actually, "Syrian ruler" or "Syrian dictator" would be a more accurate and less mealy-mouthed formulation than "Syrian leader", and would also be a completely objective characterization of Assad's role. But OK.]
One of the most damning details from the United Nations investigation has to do with where the the sarin-filled artillery shells appear to have been fired from. They appeared to sail in from the northwest – from a part of Damascus that just happens to be tightly controlled by Syrian regime forces and to contain a large Republican Guard base. Human Rights Watch, which conducted its own investigation that concluded that the Assad regime was likely responsible, actually put together this map of the attacks based on the U.N. data. It seems to point pretty squarely to the Assad regime:

 This is where the chemical weapons attack likely came from, according to a U.N. investigation (Human Rights Watch)

As you can see, the chemical weapons appear to have been launched not just from a regime-controlled area but from within a Republican Guard military base. That's tough to argue with. [....]

If the chemical weapons had been fired by rebels, presumably they would have come from the rebel-held southeast rather than the regime-controlled northwest. New York Times conflict reporter C.J. Chivers, writing on his personal blog, concluded that the theory that the rebels may have launched the chemical weapons "essentially evaporates" with this new evidence. "Viewed through a common-sense understanding of the limits and conditions of the battlefield, the rebels could not have done this," he writes. "Claims of rebel culpability are now specious; technically and tactically implausible, they are too outlandish for even a sci-fi script."

This is not conclusive proof that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack – we don't have a video of Assad holding up an Aug. 21 newspaper and a copy of his birth certificate while he orders Republican Guard troops to blanket a civilian neighborhood with sarin gas. And, to be fair, it is still possible that the attack may have been fired by a rogue contingent of troops or ordered by a freelancing general. But this map makes the official Russian claim — that rebels launched sarin gas at Syrian civilians to provoke a Western response — look a lot harder to defend.
Of course, that hasn't stopped the Russian government and its propaganda apparatus from claiming to have evidence that rebels forces really were responsible for the poison gas attack. This gambit by Putin calls for a Mandy Rice-Davies response.

–Jeff Weintraub

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Syria's civil war seen through the eyes of Iranian military "advisers"

An Iranian video captured by Syrian rebel forces near Aleppo offers an unusual and intriguing perspective on the war, since it focuses on the role of Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting with, as well as training and advising, pro-regime forces.  (In addition to regular government forces, these include shabiha militias drawn largely from Syria's Alawite minority, Hizbullah fighters from Lebanon, and other Shiite militias from outside Syria.)  The film-maker, who was embedded with a unit of Revolutionary Guards operating in Syria, was apparently shooting a documentary to be shown back in Iran—possibly for public propaganda, possibly for internal Revolutionary Guard training purposes.  According to Syrian opposition sources, the footage was captured when the Iranian unit was overrun by rebel forces in or around Aleppo and the film-maker and some of the other Iranians were killed.

You can see part of the video footage below, broadcast in a TV news report in the Netherlands.  (There are English-language subtitles.)  According to Gene at Harry's Place, where I found it, "The video was shot by an Iranian cameraman who was killed in a clash with rebels, and the rebels turned over the video to journalist Roozbeh Kaboly of the Dutch National Television program Nieuwsuur (Newshour)." (More on this story from the BBC here.)

=> Starting around 2:15 there are some especially illuminating claims by one of the Iranians:
The front we're fighting at now is not a front where the Syrian army is at war with the people. [....] The current war in Syria is that of Islam versus the nonbelievers. Good versus evil. We are ‘good’ because Iran’s supreme leader is on our side. The front is supported by Hezbollah. The fighters are Iranian, Hezbollah, the Iraqi and Afghan mujahadeen and others. The opponents are Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, funded by the Emirates. Plus America, England, France and Europe.
I couldn't help reflecting that the way this guy frames the conflict brings out two key beliefs that are no doubt shared by theocratic fanatics on both sides of the Syrian war, Shiite jihadists from Hizbullah and Iran's Revolutionary Guards as well as the Sunni jihadists fighting against them:

(1)  This is a war between (real) Muslims and unbelievers.
(2)  Israel is on the other side.

 As Gene notes:
Leftwing and rightwing apologists for the Syrian regime – who see Bashar al-Assad as a secular stalwart fighting to rid his country of Islamist radicals – may be interested to learn that some of his brothers in arms don’t view it that way at all.
Well, life is complicated.

=> Another moment in the film probably brings out the kinds of ambivalence toward the locals often felt by foreign "advisers" in so many wars of this sort. (Also the ways Iranians and Arabs often talk about each other when requirements of political correctness don't mandate otherwise.) In the video footage, the Iranians speak constantly about how they treat their Syrian comrades with respect and how much the Syrians appreciate this ("when we work with guys from the army, they're so happy that they just keep coming back to us").  On the other hand, at one point there is this exchange:
And at 4:19 (after much talk about how they treat their Syrian allies with respect), one Iranian says, while driving through a village:
“When we came, there was no human being. They deserted the village.”
To which another Iranian replies:
“There are still no humans now, only Arabs.”
Presumably, that last remark would have been edited out of the final version of the documentary.

=> I was also struck by a statement from one of the Iranians, starting about 0:49, explaining that the Syrian units they work with, from the regular army or paramilitary militias, are never kept in one place more than 25 days, but instead are constantly being rotated.  That bears pondering.  This is pretty much the opposite of the approach recommended by standard "counter-insurgency" doctrine in order to build up ties with and win the trust of the civilian population.  It's the approach one takes in order to crush the resistance of a population regarded as irremediably hostile, so that establishing connections between your forces and that population serves no useful purpose and can only bring dangers and complications.

—Jeff Weintraub

Why British prosecutor Nazir Afzal, a Muslim man with Pakistani roots, doesn't think that forced marriages and honor killings are phony xenophobic or Islamophobic issues

I noticed a New York Times profile of Nazir Afzal, one of 13 Chief Crown Prosecutors in Britain.  It seems he was "the first minority chief prosecutor ever appointed and remains the most senior Muslim lawyer in the country."  Afzal has become prominent as an advocate of gender equality and an active and outspoken opponent of culturally-sanctioned crimes against women.

The article is worth reading, both illuminating and usefully thought-provoking, because it raises issues that go well beyond Nazir Afzal in particular.  It touches on some important moral and political controversies in contemporary Britain, in other European societies, and in academic and intellectual circles on both sides of the Atlantic. What's most significant, and worth pondering, is precisely the fact that Afzal's views on these matters are controversial.

You might want to read the whole thing, but most of it follows here.

—Jeff Weintraub

Feminism a Good Fit for One 'Good Muslim Boy'
By Katrin Bennhold

Nazir Afzal’s enemies are a diverse lot.

Some are Muslim men like him, men with British passports and roots in Pakistan who can’t get their head around one of their own pointing the finger at forced marriages and honor crimes and “giving racists another stick to beat us with.” Others come from Britain’s far-right fringe and can’t get their head around a Muslim being a chief prosecutor for “their” queen and “their” country. They once wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, demanding that he fire and deport Mr. Afzal.

Mr. Afzal, 51, chuckles. “I was born in Birmingham, England, and I’m not going back there.”  [....]

Mr. Afzal has prosecuted ordinary thieves, white-collar criminals and hooligans. But this fast-talking man with spiky salt-and-pepper hair and a slightly restless manner is also Britain’s national czar on violence against women. He has perhaps made his biggest mark in aggressively prosecuting crimes against women in minority communities.

Before Mr. Afzal came along, few in multicultural Britain talked openly about the 10,000 girls married off against their will every year, let alone the dozen or so murdered each year in the name of family honor.  [JW: Let's say, more precisely, that too few talked about it, especially public figures from Britain's Muslim communities.]  He has helped set up a national hot line for women at risk of forced marriage — something the U.S. government is currently talking to him about — and is working with the Home Office to criminalize the practice (a law is expected next spring). Last year, he prosecuted nine South Asian men for raping and trafficking white girls in the former mill town of Rochdale in a high-profile case that was branded a “wake-up call” by many in the community.

Human rights, he says, must always trump cultural rights: “There are problems in minority communities that can’t be taboo.”

Being a man, a practicing Muslim and the son of immigrants from the conservative tribal area in northwestern Pakistan might make him an unlikely feminist in the eyes of some. But that’s just what Mr. Afzal calls himself — and his gender, he says, is by far his biggest asset.

“I’m not the first person to take up this fight in Britain; I’m just the first man, and that makes it a lot easier,” he said.

Women’s rights campaigners have gladly welcomed Mr. Afzal into their sisterhood. Efua Dorkenoo, advocacy director on female genital mutilation for Equality Now, said male allies were “critical” for the success of gender equality campaigns, especially where abuses are cloaked in cultural terms. “When men like Afzal speak up about violence against women, it has much more resonance in Asian and African communities,” Ms. Dorkenoo said.

It was in 2004 that Mr. Afzal, a father of four, had his own wake-up call. A group of women came to see him. One told of a girl who had burned herself to death to avoid a forced marriage; she had been 17, the same age as his daughter is now. Another recounted how a woman had been on the run from her family for more than eight years after refusing to marry a man she didn’t know.

“I didn’t know this was happening in this country,” Mr. Afzal said. That same year, he organized a conference in London to learn more. Shortly after, he sat down with the police to create a national database of so-called honor crimes. “Before I knew it we had dozens and dozens of cases,” he said.

Two years later, he successfully prosecuted the cousin and brother of Samaira Nazir for her murder. She had wanted to marry someone her family objected to. They stabbed her 18 times in front of two infant nieces who were splattered with her blood.

It was one of the first occasions that an honor killing entered public consciousness.

In 2008, one of Mr. Afzal’s own relatives in Peshawar was killed by her husband’s family for demanding a divorce. But Mr. Afzal’s crusade for women’s rights is even more personal than that. Born a “brown boy” in middle England a year after his parents arrived in 1961, he, too, bears the scars of inequality. He was bullied and beaten at school often. His father, a caterer for the British, told him: “Get used to it.” And he did.

“I thought this was how it was, and I put up with it, and I think a lot of women feel the same about the abuse they suffer,” he said.

His work on gender equality often intersects with his efforts to be a bridge between white Britons and the South Asian community, particularly after suicide bombers attacked the London transport system on July 7, 2005, killing 52 and injuring nearly 800.

Mr. Afzal remembers speaking at London City Hall a few weeks later. The mood in the country was tense, Islamophobia on the rise. Mr. Afzal, then deputy chief prosecutor in London, had been asked to help engage the Muslim community, but his comments on gender-based violence irked some. A man stood up in the audience and said: “Nazir, why are you giving these racists another stick to beat us with?” His response: “The community should carry their own stick.”  [....]

Who carried out those poison gas attacks around Damascus? (continued)

Accumulating evidence continues to support the answer that seemed most likely, in fact almost certain, from the beginningnamely, that these poison gas attacks were carried out by the armed forces of the Assad regime, as part of an ongoing offensive to drive rebel forces from areas on the outskirts of the capital.

The latest evidence comes from the UN inspector's report, which was just released. The report does not explicitly finger the Syrian regime, since assigning blame was not part of the inspectors' mandate. But as the Washington Post's Max Fisher and other analysts have explained, "a number of details in the report seem to strongly suggest that the government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was likely responsible."   For some of those details, see below.  (And for a somewhat more extensive account, see here.)

Jeff Weintraub

New York Times (WorldViews)
September 16, 2013
The U.N. chemical weapons report is pretty damning for Assad
By Max Fisher

The United Nations has released a report on its formal investigation into the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian city of Damascus. The report appears to strongly confirm that chemical weapons, including notoriously deadly sarin gas, were used against civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21. The investigation found that a disturbing 85 percent of blood samples and 91 percent of urine samples taken in the area tested positive for sarin.

While the investigation was barred from assigning blame, a number of details in the report seem to strongly suggest that the government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was likely responsible. Here are a few:

1. Chemical weapons were delivered with munitions not used by rebels.

The report concluded that whoever blanketed the Damascus neighborhood in chemical weapons did it with a specific kind of artillery shell designed for delivering chemical weapons. (Isn't technology grand?) The Syrian government is known to possess these shells. Syria-watchers say there is no evidence that rebels have ever used these munitions or even have access to the technology needed to launch them.

2. The sarin was fired from a regime-controlled area.

The report concludes that the shells came from the northwest of the targeted neighborhood. That area was and is controlled by Syrian regime forces and is awfully close to a Syrian military base. If the shells had been fired by Syrian rebels, they likely would have come from the rebel-held southeast. Human Rights Watch, which reached a similar conclusion, put together this map indicating where the shells came from:  [....]

3. Chemical analysis suggests sarin likely came from controlled supply.

The U.N. investigators analyzed 30 samples, which they found contained not just sarin but also "relevant chemicals, such as stabilizers." That suggests that the chemical weapons were taken from a controlled storage environment, where they could have been processed for use by troops trained in their use. This would seem to downplay the possibility that the chemical weapons were, as some speculated, fired by rebels who had stolen them from government stockpiles.

4. Cyrillic characters on the sides of the shells

The Russian lettering on the artillery rounds strongly suggests they were Russian-manufactured. Russia is a major supplier of arms to the Syrian government, of course, but more to the point they are not a direct or indirect supplier of arms to the rebels. Rebels have typically been supplied with arms purchased from, most famously, Croatian manufacturers. The Croatian language uses a form of Latin rather than Cyrillic lettering.

5. The UN Secretary General's comments on the report

This is perhaps the most circumstantial case at all, but it's difficult to ignore the apparent subtext in Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's news conference discussing the report. While he made it clear that the investigation was not charged with determining responsibility, and that he would not name a likely culprit, he acknowledged that "we all have our thoughts on this." He certainly seemed to.

Ban repeatedly stressed that "there must be accountability" and "no impunity" for the use of chemical weapons, which he said constituted a "war crime." He added that the "perpetrators ... will have to be brought to justice" and suggested referring them to the International Criminal Court. While it's possible that Ban meant for these comments to apply to rebel or regime perpetrators, his language and policy proscriptions would apply far more suitably to senior Syrian government officials than to informal rebel groups.

Jonathan Chait explains the curious mixture of dismissive contempt and intensifying panic in the right-wing crusade against Obamacare

Last week Paul Krugman posted an item on his blog that cuts to the heart of current right-wing doublethink about Obamacare:
I’m sure someone else has pointed this out, but there’s a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the right’s anti-Obamacare strategy — I mean, aside from the fact that it isn’t going to work, and may do immense damage both to America and to the Republican brand.

On one side, as Jonathan Cohn points out, inside the right-wing bubble it’s taken as gospel that Obamacare will be an utter, obvious disaster [....]

But if the right really believed this, it should be happy to let Obamacare come into existence, then collapse. The last thing Republicans should want is to let Democrats snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by provoking confrontations over the budget and the debt ceiling before the American people get to experience the nightmare of expanded insurance coverage.

In fact, politically the right is acting as if it fears that Obamacare will, in reality, be highly popular — that once the exchanges and the Medicare Medicaid expansion go into effect, people will decide that they like the new system, and strongly oppose efforts to reverse course. (This is almost surely the more realistic view.) So the law must be stopped at any cost before it goes into effect, and people learn first-hand that the anti-Obamacare propaganda was false.

So which is it? Are Republicans sure that disaster looms, or are they terrified because they suspect that things will be OK? My guess is, both: clear thinking is not exactly a hallmark of the modern GOP, and may indeed be a positive disqualification for career success.

Unfortunately, fear of Obamacare success is in the driving seat right now, and may well lead to government shutdown, debt default, or both.
(The argument here was foreshadowed in a column that Krugman wrote back in July, which has turned out to be very prescient and thus bears re-reading: "Republican Health Care Panic".)

=> One person who has laid out an especially clear and illuminating explanation of these political and ideological dynamics, as well as their practical implications, is the ever-perceptive Jonathan Chait. He did this in his September 15 New York Magazine article titled "The Plot to Kill Obamacare: Why it continues to drive many Republicans to madness". I recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some highlights for a start:
The Republican party has voted unanimously against establishing the Affordable Care Act in the Senate and then in the House of Representatives, then voted some 40 times to repeal or cripple it; it has mounted a nearly successful campaign to nullify it through the courts and a failed presidential campaign that promised to repeal it; and it has used its control of state governments to block the law’s implementation across vast swaths of the country, at enormous economic cost to those states. Yet somehow, in the wake of all this, the party is consumed with the question Have we done enough to stop Obamacare?

This peculiar subject of introspection, as if Joe Francis were lying awake at night cursing himself for his prudery, reflects the deepening mix of terror and rage with which conservatives await the enrollment of millions of uninsured Americans beginning in October. On the substantive merits of the law, only the subtlest variations can be detected in the GOP’s evaluation. Mitch McConnell calls it the “single worst piece of legislation passed in the last 50 years in the country.” Representative John Fleming of Louisiana calls it “the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed by a Congress” and “the most existential threat to our economy … since the Great Depression.” Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli harks back to the Fugitive Slave Acts for a comparative affront to liberty.

Having achieved near consensus on the policy, the party has fallen into intramural squabbling over which extraordinary threats to deploy. Shut down the government? Default on the national debt? (House leaders have wriggled out of demands to do the former by promising to do the latter.) Conservative activists have turned on their leaders as traitors for hesitating to employ the most obviously suicidal methods, affixing John Boehner’s name to the hated program (“Boehnercare”) or accusing McConnell of “empty rhetoric … about ending Obamacare.” These recriminations reprise the hallucinatory attacks by Cold War conservatives like Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society, which over time migrated from their original targets onto such figures as President Eisenhower and the Army.

The historical echo is fitting in the sense that Obamacare has come to fill the place in the conservative psyche once occupied by communism and later by taxes: the main point of doctrinal agreement. (In constituent meetings, “this is the overriding issue that is being discussed,” one Republican member of Congress explained late last month. “Way more than immigration, way more than the debt.”) The transformation of Obamacare from a close relative of Republicans’ own health-care ideas to the locus of evil in modern life is owing to several things, including the almost tautological political fact that its success would be Obama’s: Permanent health-care reform would define Obama as a Reaganesque transformative figure, rather than the failure conservatives still hope him to be remembered as. The law’s slow rollout has made it a live issue, unlike the already-expired stimulus, and thus the main receptacle for simmering concerns over unemployment and the tepid economic recovery.

Most important, the law has, in its direct impact, opened a fissure over the role of government deeper than any since the New Deal. Obamacare threatens America’s unique status among advanced economies as a country where access to regular medical care is a privilege that generally must be earned. In a few weeks, the United States government, like those of France, or Australia, or Israel, will begin to regard health insurance as something to be handed out to one and all, however poor, lazy, or otherwise undeserving each recipient may be. “We can’t afford everything we do now, let alone provide free medical care to able-bodied adults,” as Missouri Republican Rob Schaaf, author of the state’s harsh anti-Obamacare initiative, put it. “I have a philosophical problem with doing that.”

The Obamacare wars have progressed from the legislative to the judicial to the electoral fronts, gaining intensity at every step. Now they move to a new battleground to secure the law and all it represents, or provoke its collapse. That an implementation battle is taking place at all is a highly unusual circumstance. Major new laws often stagger into operation with glitches, confusion, and hasty revisions, but not sabotage. Obamacare will come online in the midst of an unprecedented quasi-campaign atmosphere, with Republicans waging a desperate political and cultural war to destroy it. [....]
And this brings us to Chait's key points:

Right-wingers may be saying that Obamacare is guaranteed to fail, and that its implementation is a looming "train wreck". But what really frightens them is the prospect that, once it is implemented, it will actually work successfully and will prove to be too popular to roll back. That fear, Chait suggests, is not unfounded.

On the other hand, many people who support health care reform have found it hard to muster a level of enthusiasm for Obamacare that matches the passionate intensity of opposition on the right. And part of the reason is that many of them regard Obamacare—which is really, at heart, a modified and nationalized version of RomneyCare—as an inadequate and hopelessly compromised half-Republican half-solution. They would prefer to see something along the lines of a less complicated and more straightforwardly universalistic single-payer system. (I am one of the people who believes that, if it were a realistically available option, some sort of single-payer system would be better than the Obamacare compromise—not to mention a huge improvement over the existing situation.) Chait argues that many of these skeptics are actually selling Obamacare short. It's certainly imperfect, but it's a valuable step in the right direction that looks workable and promising. He also provides some good reasons to agree with that assessment.
The transformative potential of Obamacare is not a conservative hallucination. It is the resolution of a confounding dilemma decades in the making. The American health-care system is not merely the only one in the advanced world that’s closed off to a large share of the population; it’s also the most expensive by far. The normal structure of a public problem is that the worse the problem, the easier it is to solve—as traffic gets worse, more people support mass transit; the more soldiers die, the more pressure to end the war. American health care has long defied that dynamic. The worse the problem grows, the harder it has gotten to solve. The more waste and inefficiency that sprout through the medical system, the more of an interest doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies have in maintaining the status quo. The uninsured are diffuse and disorganized, unable to marshal any substantial political support, and the effect of their plight has largely been to make people with insurance fearful of any change lest they join them. [....]

The Affordable Care Act broke through the policy trap by combining solutions to the cost-inflation problem with solutions to the access problem. The medical industry would undergo painful reforms, but in return Washington would supply it with some 25 million new customers.

At the time of its passage, the received wisdom in Washington (and not just among partisan Republicans) deemed Obamacare’s cost reforms pitifully inadequate. [....] In the three years since, a steady accumulation of evidence has amassed to the contrary. Through a thousand tiny nudges, the law has transformed the entire medical field from one that encouraged more, and more expensive, care with no regard for outcome into one geared toward paying for quality. Some of the changes have been blunt and simple. The old pay-for-quantity system rewarded hospitals for doing a bad job, since patients who contracted an infection or received poor treatment would come back for more treatment, bringing in a second Medicare reimbursement. Obamacare created penalties for hospitals with high rates of infection or patient readmission. Lo and behold, this year, Medicare announced that its patient-readmission rates fell—“a feat that long seemed beyond reach,” the Washington Post reported.

Obamacare also imposed a tax on the most expensive insurance plans, and though the tax does not take effect until 2018, employers have already started shopping around to avoid its bite.  [....]  The most dramatic change underfoot is an entrepreneurial wave encouraged in sundry ways by Obamacare.  [....]

All these reforms have added up to a revolution in modern medical economics. Health-care inflation since 2011 has fallen to its lowest level in half a century. The Congressional Budget Office estimates of Obamacare’s costs, widely derided at the time of its passage as too optimistic, have thus far proven too pessimistic. The agency has already cut $600 billion off the expected ten-year spending total for Medicare and Medicaid. If the reforms continue to bear fruit, costs will come in even lower.

And health experts increasingly expect the reforms will bear fruit. “The ongoing slowdown in the health-care growth rate defies historical post-­recession patterns and is likely to be ­sustained,” concluded Price­water­house­Coopers in June. “It appears that the reforms will stick and health-care exchanges and other policies will bring competitive pressure to markets,” says Randall Ellis, a professor of health-care economics. “Although the proof for this point of view is not yet definitive,” reports the Health Affairs blog, “the depth and breadth of change suggest that significant transformation in the nation’s delivery system is under way.” Among health-care wonks, this is no longer a controversial assertion: The evidence thus far suggests Obamacare’s cost reforms are a staggering success.

Now look back at all the quotes in the last paragraph. Every one of them has qualifiers attached: likely, appears, not yet definitive. That, appropriately, is how people in the worlds of academia and economic forecasting express themselves. The future is uncertain by definition.  [....]
And one reason this particular future is uncertain is that the long-term outcomes will depend, in part, on whether the right-wing opponents of health care reform are successful in their efforts to sabotage and derail it.
That Obamacare is both bound to fail and must be destroyed is the premise of conservative-movement thought, the A=A from which every other conclusion springs. In 2010, the American Enterprise Institute fired David Frum after he wrote a blog post questioning the Republican strategy of total opposition to Obamacare. Fealty to the cause of repeal is a sine qua non for any effective participation in the movement. The e-mail ­listserv where conservative health-care-policy wonks gather is called the “Repeal Coalition”—which is to say, anybody not fully dedicated to repeal cannot ­participate in conservative health-care-policy deliberations.  [....]

You might think that this all represents nothing more than another episode of conservative self-delusion of the sort that ended in a dumbfounded Mitt Romney campaign beholding the election returns last November and Karl Rove bleating helplessly at the Fox News decision desk. But unlike with the election, perception and reality cannot be so neatly separated. The final, decisive stage of the Obamacare wars is one in which perception can ­create its own reality. The predictions of a train wreck are intended to precipitate one. [....]
So the political and and ideological wars over health care reform during the next six months or so may turn out to have very significant consequences, one way or another.
It is hard to imagine that the news about Obamacare over the next few months will be good. The rollout of Medicare, and the addition of prescription-drug coverage under George W. Bush, both provoked mass confusion and complaint, and those laws were not fighting off an angry rearguard insurgency. The question is whether the glitches and failures amount, in either reality or perception, to the sort of catastrophic failure that leads panicked insurance companies, potential customers, governors, and state legislatures to pull out.

Conservatives have portrayed their war against the exchanges as a desperate last stand against Obamacare and for freedom as we know it. History is replete with previous examples of last stands. Ronald Reagan warned conservatives in 1961 that if Medicare passed into law, “one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” The conservative movement sustains itself by constantly disregarding its warnings of the last mortal threat to liberty and redirecting itself onto the next one. Yet it has made opposition to Obamacare completely central to its identity. If the Obamacare train does not wreck—or, to put it more accurately, if conservatives fail to wreck the train—it will be fascinating to see: What will they do next?
With luck, we may get a chance to see. Meanwhile, read the whole piece ... and stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Monday, September 16, 2013

Philosophical passions run high in Rostov

An article passed along to me by my friend Sam Fleischacker suggests that some aspects of the historic culture of the Russian intelligentsia have not changed.  At least some of them still take theoretical ideas, and arguments about them, very seriously.
Russian shot in quarrel over Kant’s philosophy
(Associated Press)

MOSCOW – An argument in southern Russia over philosopher Immanuel Kant, the author of “Critique of Pure Reason,” devolved into pure mayhem when one debater shot the other.

A police spokeswoman in Rostov-on Don, Viktoria Safarova, said two men in their 20s were discussing Kant as they stood in line to buy beer at a small store on Sunday. The discussion deteriorated into a fistfight and one participant pulled out a small nonlethal pistol and fired repeatedly.

The victim was hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening. Neither person was identified.

It was not clear which of Kant’s ideas may have triggered the violence.
Wouldn't it be interesting to know?  As the person who forwarded the item to Sam remarked, "Imagine when they get to Hegel or Marx."

—Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Putting foreign-policy incompetence into some perspective

One distressing feature of the political and diplomatic uproar over Syria during the past three weeks or so has been the amount of bungling, miscalculation, unpreparedness, and clumsy improvisation displayed by Obama and his administration in their handling of this crisis. (Also their bad luck, which is something that—fairly or not—leaders and other public figures often get blamed for. Napoleon once said that the most important qualification for a general was that he had to be lucky, and that quip may have had a grain of truth in it. But then again, Obama may have lucked out by having Putin save him, sort of, from what looked like the almost certain prospect of a humiliating political debacle.)

However, I confess that I'm getting a little tired of the constant yammering from pundits and politicians, especially but not exclusively on the right, about how the mishandling of the crisis demonstrates the uniquely extreme and uniquely disastrous foreign-policy incompetence of the Obama administration. Let's put this in some perspective. So far, as a few calmer voices have noted, the incompetence displayed by the Obama administration in this crisis doesn't begin to approach, in either its scale or its damaging consequences, the incompetence displayed in Reagan's Lebanese adventure, the Bush I/Clinton intervention in Somalia, Carter's handling of the Iran hostage crisis, Bush II's catastrophic mismanagement of the post-Saddam occupation & non-reconstruction of Iraq ... and one could go on.

Of course, this contextualization shouldn't let Obama and his team off the hook (especially in terms of their long-term policy, or more precisely non-policy, for dealing with the larger problems posed by the Syrian civil war). And this crisis isn't really over yet, so it may turn out a lot more badly than it now appears (which is bad enough). But some of the people hyperventilating about this particular incident should calm down a bit. When foreign-policy crises are examined carefully and in detail (even ones that seem to have turned out relatively successfully, like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis), they always involve a lot of bungling, miscalculation, and improvisation. In this case, criticism is called for, but we can do without some of the hysterical over-reactions (whether genuine or feigned) and partisan propaganda.

—Jeff Weintraub

Will Congressional Republicans shut down the US government or blow up the economy?

A third possible alternative might be, or neither?  But right now, one of the first two alternatives looks more likely.

As I noted yesterday, there is a very strong possibility that the near future the Congressional Republicans, not content with doing everything they can to sabotage the painfully slow recovery from the economic crash of 2008, will once again threaten to send the US government into default and disrupt the world economy by using a manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling for purposes of crude and irresponsible political extortion.  Some analysts are predicting that this time around the Republican leadership will find a way to avoid a destructive full-scale crisis—not because it would be harmful to the country, but because they worry that it might be politically damaging to the Republican Party.  But as I also noted, there are good reasons to worry that those predictions will turn out to be wishful thinking.

On Thursday Jonathan Chait explained some of those reasons (and there are more) in a clear and pretty convincing way.  It's worth reading his whole piece, but most of it is below.  We'll see what actually happens soon ...

—Jeff Weintraub

New York Magazine
September 12, 2013
House Republican Anarchy Update

The House was scheduled to vote yesterday on a continuing resolution, which is a measure to not shut down the government. Ultraconservatives have been demanding that the House refuse to continue funding the government unless President Obama agrees to defund Obamacare. House leaders have pleaded that this approach is doomed. Instead they came up with a plan to keep the government open, attached to a separate bill defunding Obamacare. Or, as Senator Mike Lee succinctly and correctly explains, “It is not a plan to defund Obamacare — it’s a plan to facilitate the passage of a CR [continuing resolution] in a way that allows people to claim that they’re defunding Obamacare without actually doing so.”

But some ultraconservatives still want to go with the defund-Obamacare-or-shut-down-the-government plan, as opposed to the pretend-to-defund-Obamacare-or-shut-down-the-government plan. It only takes about seventeen of them to defect to dent the Republicans majority, which gives a tiny fringe enormous power. What does the vote delay mean? Three things:

1. A government shutdown is more likely now. There’s just not much time available. A bill needs to pass by September 30, and Congress has a rigorous vacation schedule to adhere to, giving it precious little time to accomplish the goal of not shutting down the government.

Some House Republican leaders are trying to put on a brave face. One aide tells National Review’s Jonathan Strong, “Getting anything this big accomplished in 72 hours is always tough and we just need a couple extra days to dot the is and cross the ts.” (Note that the aide defines “anything this big” not as a major reform but as the simple continuation of government functions.)

More candid appraisals can be found elsewhere. When reporters asked John Boehner if he had any ideas to keep the government open, he replied, “Do you have an idea? They’ll just shoot it down anyway.” One aide privately seethed of the ultraconservatives, “They’re screwing us.” [....]  It’s not a confidence-building state of affairs. [....]
[JW:  Let's just observe in passing that when things have reached the point where people like John Boehner or Eric Cantor (or even Paul Ryan) start to look like the responsible adults and the voices of reason, the situation is already pretty disastrous.]
2. If the House plan does not pass, it could reduce the House’s bargaining leverage. As Jonathan Cohn and Brian Beutler have pointed out, the real goal of the House Republicans is to win the fight over government spending. Their plan to “continue” government spending would lock in sequestration cuts on the domestic side, while easing the cuts on defense. That would reduce the pressure on conservatives to — ultimately? Someday? — compromise on the budget.

Because they’re structuring their spending plan this way, and writing a bill to shift spending levels their way rather than just keep the government going, the House is foregoing any Democratic support. Therefore, they need all the Republicans on their side, which forces them to round up almost every last wingnut out there.

3. Debt-ceiling threats now appear more likely, too. One of the things the ultraconservatives are demanding, in addition to their plan to shut down the government over Obamacare, is that the leadership go along with a backup plan to default on the national debt over Obamacare. And the more House leaders have had to wrangle votes for its fake-Obamacare-defunding plan to not shut down the government, the more they’ve had to pledge to use the debt ceiling instead.

Of course, defaulting on the debt would be far more dangerous than shutting down the government. House leaders don’t want to do that, but they don’t seem to have any plan beyond getting past the next obstacle in front of their face. As Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan report, “In private discussions, GOP leadership aides acknowledge they have absolutely no idea how they’ll lift the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling.”

That part is actually easy — all they need to do is let all the Democrats and a few of the least-deranged Republicans vote to lift the debt ceiling. But doing that without provoking a coup against the leadership is hard.

Economic hubris in retrospect – Robert Lucas explains (in 2003) that the problem of avoiding depressions "has been solved"

I suppose this post might have been headed, more specifically, "Anti-Keynesian economic hubris in retrospect" or "How the discredited pre-Keynesian dogmas of economic liberalism came back from the dead".  Well, we all make mistakes. But some are more significant, illuminating, and consequential than others, and thus worth revisiting. Johann Koehler (at The Reality-Based Community) offers this thought-provoking Quote of the Day.   —Jeff Weintraub

Quote of the Day
Sunday, September 15, 2013
by Johann Koehler

Five years ago today, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. In contemplation of what followed, today’s Quote of the Day comes from a speech delivered a little over five years earlier:
Macroeconomics was born as a distinct field in the 1940’s, as a part of the intellectual response to the Great Depression. The term then referred to the body of knowledge and expertise that we hoped would prevent the recurrence of that economic disaster. My thesis in this lecture is that macroeconomics in this original sense has succeeded: Its central problem of depression prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes, and has in fact been solved for many decades. There remain important gains in welfare from better fiscal policies, but I argue that these are gains from providing people with better incentives to work and to save, not from better fine-tuning of spending flows. Taking U.S. performance over the past 50 years as a benchmark, the potential for welfare gains from better long-run, supply-side policies exceeds by far the potential from further improvements in short-run demand management.
–Robert Lucas, in his 2003 Presidential Address to the American Economic Association.

Where laws against "apostasy" have teeth – The case of Shahin Lahouti

No society can claim to have religious freedom unless it is possible for individuals to decide to change from one religion to another without having to fear significant penalties. Now, it so happens that in a large number of Muslim-majority countries it is perfectly OK to convert from a non-Muslim religion to Islam, but converting from Islam to another religion can get you into serious legal trouble (here's one relatively mild example) and/or make you a target for unofficial violence (which is likely to go unpunished).

It's true that few Muslim-dominated countries match the extreme levels of religious intolerance found Saudi Arabia, where the public manifestations of any non-Muslim religion are strictly prohibited and apostasy is a crime punishable by execution. But in a sizable proportion of these countries (not all of them, but a lot of them) converting from Islam to another religion is, at the very least, legally problematic (as carefully documented, for example, in Ann Mayer's excellent and totally non-Islamophobic book Islam and Human Rights). And in several of them, including Iran (which is much more religiously tolerant than Saudi Arabia—but that's an easy standard to meet), Muslims who convert to Christianity may be charged with apostasy and face possible execution.

That possibility is by no means purely formal or hypothetical—as demonstrated, for example, by the case of the Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani. But sometimes converting to Christianity just gets you put in prison, either on explicit charges of apostasy or on some other pretext. Christian Solidarity Worldwide is currently trying to make world opinion aware of one such case, the imprisonment of Iranian musician Shahin Lahouti. This is just one example among many, but worth noticing. International pressure can make a difference in such cases—as the example of Youcef Nadarkhani also helps to demonstrate.

The report below comes via Sarah AB at Harry's Place.

—Jeff Weintraub

(P.S. In a number of these countries, even those where official and popular anti-semitism are intense, one finds fewer cases of active persecution of Jews—because their historic Jewish communities are gone, having fled or been expelled, so there are very few actual Jews left, or in some cases none at all, zero. The situation of Christian minorities in the Middle East is more complicated, but not very promising overall. Throughout the Islamic Middle East, including for this purpose Turkey and Iran as well as the Arab world, the Christian minorities have been steadily shrinking or disappearing for a century. And in those countries that still have noticeable Christian minorities, such as Iraq or Syria or Egypt, this process is still going on. There might be a few places, like Lebanon, where Christian minorities may endure for a while, despite gradually shrinking in both relative and absolute terms. Elsewhere, it doesn't seem unlikely that Middle Eastern Christians may wind up going the way of the Middle Eastern Jews.)

Sarah AB (at Harry's Place)
September 13, 2013
Support Shahin Lahouti

Christian Solidarity Worldwide is calling on people to show their support for Shahin Lahouti, an Iranian musician who has converted to Christianity, and was arrested last year on ‘political’ charges. He is currently serving a two and a half year prison sentence:
Shahin Lahouti is well known for his generous heart – he’s played concerts for autistic children, and regularly performs for charity. So despite the dangers he knew he faced after becoming a Christian last year, he decided to stay in Iran so he could continue helping people through his music.

But last October everything changed. Police raided a prayer meeting and arrested Shahin along with seven other Christians, on trumped up political charges. This is a cover up for the fact that they were really arrested because of their conversion to Christianity.

While the others were released after making extortionate bail payments, and have appealed their unjust sentences, Shahin is still in jail, serving a two and a half year sentence for “action against national security”.

But the political wind may be changing in Iran – the new president, Hassan Rouhani, has promised to free political prisoners like Shahin. We need to show Iran that the world is watching.
Here is a link to the petition calling for him to be released.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Another debt ceiling crisis coming up?

While we worry about Syria and other such matters ...

... we should not lose sight of the very strong possibility that the near future the Congressional Republicans, not content with doing everything they can to sabotage the economic recovery, will once again threaten to send the US government into default and disrupt the world economy by using a manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling for purposes of crude and irresponsible political extortion.  (This would be one more installment in a long-running series that might be titled "Why the US Republican Party Has Become a Threat to the Republic" ... or perhaps, more mildly, " Let's Face It, The Republicans Are the Problem".)  As Paul Krugman noted recently:
So, are we going to have a crisis over the debt ceiling again? Everyone seems to assume that we won’t, that Republicans have learned their lesson, and that they’ll huff and puff before slinking away into the shadows. But there’s a problem: the GOP leadership has been telling the base to chill on the idea of shutting down the government to defund Obamacare, that they’ll use the debt limit instead. And so far nobody seems to have been willing to admit that this won’t work either. [....]
Lately I have seen some analyses suggesting that the Congressional Republicans will indeed pull back from the brink this time around, and maybe those analyses will turn out to be correct. On the other hand, there are also plausible reasons to think that such predictions might turn out to be wishful thinking, especially considering the extent to which the House Republican caucus, in particular, is increasingly dominated by its most deranged and extremist Tea Party elements. Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Playing the Al Qaeda card on Syria (continued)

As I noted a few days ago:
Following western debates about the ongoing Syrian catastrophe, I find it interesting that many of the same people who usually go out of their way to make excuses for jihadist violence by murderous theocratic fanatics (whose actions, after all, are just understandable "blowback" provoked by western violence against Muslims) reject any measures to assist Syrian opponents of the Assad regime on the grounds that the rebels are ... murderous theocratic jihadist fanatics.
Of course, such people are not the only ones playing this rhetorical game in connection with Syria.  The Al Qaeda card is also being flourished by plenty of other people who consistently denounce Islamist fanatics and jihadist violence.  For example, there is world-stateman-of-the-hour Vladimir Putin (whose incredibly brutal war in Chechnya has helped to motivate a lot of jihadist fanatics around the world).

In fact, this theme has brought together an unusually wide assortment of figures from all over the ideological spectrum, in the US and elsewhere, ranging from right-wing isolationists to figures from the "anti-imperialist" (or simply anti-American) left.  No, it's not unheard-of for those different tendencies to find themselves in accord on some issues.  But they don't often sound so indistinguishable.

A few random examples:

Robert Fisk:
If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime, he has ensured – for the very first time in history – that the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida.
George Galloway:
The relatives of those who were lost on 9/11, who were cruelly murdered in their thousands, must be asking themselves how their country ended up in bed with Al Qaeda.  And not just in bed, but arming them to the teeth, acting as their air force and their armorer and their financier.
Rand Paul:
Twelve years after we were attacked by Al Qaeda, 12 years after 3,000 Americans were killed by Al Qaeda, President Obama now asks us to be allies with Al Qaeda.
Glenn Beck:
Twelve years ago we stood united against a common enemy. And that enemy was killed. [Photos of Bin Laden.]  And why are we still fighting? Last night American watched as the President of the United States actually argued something that I believe is treason—that we should join forces with that very same enemy!
Rush Limbaugh:
Anyway, here's the point, folks: Four different people now, and the third one was just this morning, are asking, "What if Bashar didn't do it? What if Bashar is being framed? What if Al-Qaeda is setting off their own chemical weapons on their own people, if the rebels are nerve gassing their own people to create exactly what is happening, us mobilizing to get rid of Bashar because they can't for some reason." So they use chemical weapons on their people, it gets blamed on Bashar, we go in and take Bashar out or do something and end up on the same side as "the rebels," in this case Al-Qaeda. [....]

[W]hat is Obama doing in the Middle East? The [Obama} regime's agenda appears to be eliminating dictators in favor of Muslim radicals. He got rid of Mubarak. He's a dictator. He might have been a horrible guy, but he was stable. Khadafy may have been a horrible guy, but he was stable. We're getting rid of all of these dictators — which, of course, sounds great — but they're being replaced with Muslim radicals, i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Al-Qaeda is basically who's in Syria. If they get rid of Bashar in Syria, it will be Al-Qaeda. Muslim radicals. Sharia is on the march in the Middle East is what's taking place here.

Further examples would be easy to multiply, but why bother?

One other point does strike me, though, concerning the US right-wingers in this drama.  Rand Paul is a long-term, consistent, and principled isolationist, so it's not surprising that he should be reaching for any propaganda lines he can find to help increase public opposition to US involvement in Syria (military or otherwise).  But people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as well as other right-wingers now singing the same tune, have no record as dyed-in-the-wool isolationists.  It's pretty clear that their positions on Syria are based simply on reflexive opposition to anything Obama proposes and an across-the-board commitment to demonizing Obama whatever the circumstances or issues involved, whatever the repercussions, and whatever company it puts them in.  As Glenn Beck put it (sounding remarkably like the obsessively anti-American Australian/British ranter and one-time journalist John Pilger):  Nowadays Vladimir Putin "looks like the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and our President looks like the mad killer."

=> In this crowd, Putin's formulation of the Al Qaeda theme in his New York Times op-ed looks measured and nuanced by comparison.  True, Putin's piece is full of claims that are misleading or demonstrably false; tendentious and hypocritical arguments (e.g.,"We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law."); and laughably implausible speculations presented as verified assessments.  But I'm speaking in comparative terms.
There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. [....] This threatens us all. [....]

[JW: In themselves, those statements are not incorrect. Putin then moves into a series of increasingly misleading and dishonest claims, about Syria and about Russian policy, and arrives at the punch-line.]

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored. [....]
As far as I'm aware, no serious analysts would agree "there is every reason to believe" that rebel forces, rather than the Syrian army, were the ones who launched the poison gas attacks around Damascus on August 21. (On the contrary.) But I'm pleased to see that Putin has suddenly become so solicitous about the safety and well-being of Israelis. Maybe he should communicate these humanitarian sentiments to his allies in Iran and in Lebanese Hizbullah?

=> At all events, we know that politics often makes for strange bedfellows. Is this a stranger collection than most, or nothing out of the ordinary?

—Jeff Weintraub

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The threat that worked—in an unexpected and indirect way (Nick Kristof)

According to various old sayings, God and fate often move in mysterious ways.  The same is often true of politics, both domestic and international.

After the August 12 poison gas attacks in the outskirts of Damascus, which were almost certainly carried out by the Syrian regime, Obama and his administration were quite right to insist that there had to be a serious international response.  Contrary to some suggestions that gassing civilians is really not such a big deal, this was a serious and blatant violation of a broadly accepted taboo prohibiting the use of poison gas in warfare, against either soldiers or civilians, that has been built up and maintained with considerable success (despite some conspicuous and reprehensible exceptions) over the past century.  Maintaining that taboo ought to be an important and urgent priority, not just for the US, but for the so-called "international community" as a whole.

That's true whichever side different governments support in the Syrian civil war.  I want to emphasize this point, because a lot of current discussions seem to miss it.  The problem of maintaining the taboo against the use of poison gas is in some ways distinct from, and broader than, questions having to do with the outcome of the Syrian civil war.  Deterring further use of poison gas by the Assad regime (or, hypothetically, by its opponents) and reinforcing the international ban against poison gas will not, by themselves, offer a solution to the ongoing Syrian catastrophe.  But that's not the point here.

However, as soon as the Obama administration announced that it was putting together a US-led coalition for punitive military strikes against the Assad regime, everything began to go wrong.  The US lost its most significant European partner in this enterprise when the British Parliament unexpectedly rejected Prime Minister Cameron's request for authorization.  And although the French government is still committed to taking action, nobody else agreed to join in or offer explicit public support, and it looked increasingly likely that the US would be isolated (except for France) if it took military action.  Then Obama, correctly in my opinion, decided to go to Congress for authorization before acting.  But it seemed increasingly likely that his request would be decisively rejected when it came to a vote.  The whole enterprise appeared to be headed for a humiliating debacle, with unfortunate consequences for the Obama presidency and, both directly and indirectly, for the US role in the world and the prospects for limiting or deterring the future use of poison gas.

Then the Russian government, picking up on what seems to have been a gaffe by Kerry, launched a diplomatic initiative that may, bizarrely enough, have saved Obama from a humiliating political defeat and may also, even more bizarrely, turn a bungled initiative headed for disaster into a major triumph for international diplomacy.  I have to emphasize the word "may" here, because at the moment everything is speculative and uncertain.  And I'm still trying to figure out (along with a lot of other people) just what Putin is up to. But it seems clear that both the Assad regime and the Russian government were genuinely worried about the prospect of a US military strike, with its potentially unpredictable consequences.  As Foreign Policy reported on Tuesday:
[On Monday] Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American military strike by giving up his chemical weapons, an unscripted and off-handed remark that triggered a mad day of diplomatic scrambling and raised the first real prospect of a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis. [....]

A few hours after Kerry spoke, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that Russia would support putting Syria's chemical weapon storage sites under international control before "their subsequent destruction."  "We don't know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus," Lavrov said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, appearing with Lavrov in Moscow, said his country welcomed the Russian proposal and was prepared to act on it "to avert American aggression against out people."

The Obama administration reacted much more cautiously, noting that Lavrov had provided no timetables or details about how his idea would work in practice, but White House officials didn't dismiss the Russian plan out of hand.  [....]  By this evening, President Obama seemed receptive to the Russian proposal. In a series of interviews, he called it  a "modestly positive development" and said he would hold off on a strike if Assad relinquished his chemical weapons.  [....]
We can presume that Putin's agenda here is primarily to protect the Assad regime with a strategy of delay and distraction.  And although the Syrian regime now claims that it will agree to dismantle its chemical-weapons stockpile under international supervision (which is a pretty big deal for a regime that previously refused to admit that it even had a chemical-weapons stockpile), there are good reasons to be skeptical about whether this will actually happen (in whole or in part). People who raise those doubts are probably right, but they're missing the main point.

The main point is that it doesn't seem entirely implausible that (a) while this whole diplomatic game is being dragged out, the Syrian regime will be deterred from further use of poison gas, and (b) in the process, the international taboo against the use of poison gas would be strongly reinforced.  So Putin gets to play the part of an important and constructive actor on the world stage, and at the same time Obama may wind up getting essentially what he wanted—without actually bombing Syrian targets. IF that happens (and again, that's a big if), it would be a very lucky break for Obama & Kerry and very good news for all of us.  One complication—and there are many—is that Putin and Assad will continue to go through the motions of acting responsibly only as long as a credible threat of US military action remains, and maintaining that threat while the diplomatic horse-trading goes on may be tricky.

It's also possible (I'm just speculating) that Assad's main backers, Russia and Iran, have their own reasons for preferring to see him stick to "conventional" weapons and avoid using poison gas.  (After all, the Russians were able to totally devastate Chechnya, and crush the rebellion there, without poison gas.) We know poison gas is a sensitive issue for the Iranians, who were the target of massive poison gas attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, and some prominent figures in Iran have expressed public qualms about the use of poison gas in Syria.  And Putin may worry that the spectacle of a Ba'athist dictatorship conspicuously gassing civilians in large numbers could generate public-relations problems with international public opinion.  If so  then Putin may have seen this situation as giving him some leverage to pressure Assad away from the use of chemical weapons.  At all events, we still have to see how all this works out.

=>  I was planning to write a more extensive post about these (peculiar) developments and their (still uncertain) implications.  But when I read Nick Kristof's column in today's New York Times, I saw that he had beaten me to it.  So mostly I'll just quote from his column.  The title gets right to the key point:  "That Threat Worked":
For all you innumerable skeptics of President Obama’s calls for military strikes on Syria, consider this:

For decades, Syria has refused to confirm that it has chemical weapons. Now, facing a limited strike, its position abruptly changed to: Oh! We do have them after all! And we want to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention! We want to show them to United Nations inspectors.

In short, the mere flexing of military power worked — initially and tentatively. And while it seems that neither Congress nor the public has any appetite for cruise missile strikes on Syria, it will be critical to keep the military option alive in the coming weeks or Russia and Syria will play us like a yo-yo.

Frankly, I’m skeptical that a deal can be worked out in which Syria hands over its chemical weaponry, and President Obama may have exchanged a losing struggle with Congress with a Sisyphean struggle with Russia. But it’s not impossible. And even if Syria cheated and stalled and eventually handed over only half of its chemical arsenal and none of its biological arsenal, that would still be a huge win for global security.

So here’s a three-track strategy for Syria going forward:

• Negotiate with Moscow on removal of Syrian chemical weapons and insist on conditions to ensure we’re not being played, including immediate disclosure to the United Nations of chemical weapons stockpiles, a binding Security Council resolution confirming the deal, a reference in the resolution to “serious consequences” for noncompliance, and immediate installation of camera monitors on at least a few locations.

• Groundwork in Congress to authorize a limited missile strike if Syria does not comply, partly to retain leverage with Moscow.

• Expansion of efforts to arm and support moderate Syrian rebels, accompanied by covert cyberwarfare on the Syrian regime, to try to change the momentum on the ground. [....]
That third point is different from the first two, since it has to do with overall US (and western) policies concerning the Syrian civil war rather than the more specific question of chemical weapons—an issue that, as I noted earlier, has implications not restricted to Syria. So in some ways Kristof's first two points can stand on their own, and they're correct whether or not one agrees with his third point.

However, I do want to add that I've become increasingly convinced that the strategy indicated in Kristof's third point is probably the one that the US and other western countries should have been following from the earliest stages of Syria's civil war—even though, in this context, the word "moderate" has to be treated in skeptical and very relative terms. (Some of the reasons why that was probably the best policy, considering the realistically available alternatives, are explained here & here & here & here.)  It's worth considering the possibility that this (potential) opportunity has been missed, and it's now too late to pursue that strategy effectively.  But it still looks like the least bad option available.

=> Meanwhile, Kristof adds some intelligent remarks on how we should think about the relationship between military force and diplomacy ... and reminds some of his correspondents that it's simply not true that humanitarian interventions never work:
Longtime readers know that I adamantly opposed the Iraq war and Afghan surge, oppose strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, and tend to think we overinvest in military tools and underinvest in diplomatic ones. So many readers were stunned that I’ve endorsed missile strikes on Syria — and I’m hearing screams of betrayal.

“You can’t kill people to show that it’s wrong to kill people,” Christine protested on my Facebook page.

“When has violence, killing and aggression helped anything,” demanded Jan, also on Facebook.

The answer is: Sierra Leone, Mali, Ivory Coast, Bosnia and Kosovo. In each of those countries, an outside military force intervened at minimal cost and saved large numbers of lives. In several (as Clausewitz would have predicted), war buttressed diplomacy and helped achieve peace agreements.

We think of warfare in binary terms, as if our options are invasions or nothing at all, but that’s misleading. All-out wars have a poor record, but modest interventions of the kind President Obama is talking about in Syria have a more successful (though still mixed) history.

That’s even true in Iraq, although I hate to mention the word because it sends a shudder up every reader’s spine. While the war that began in 2003 was a disaster, two limited interventions succeeded in Iraq. One was President Clinton’s 1998 bombing of Iraqi military sites for a few days (maybe the closest parallel to Obama’s plan for Syria); it may have convinced Saddam Hussein to abandon W.M.D. programs. The other is the no-fly zone over Iraq’s Kurdish areas in the 1990s to prevent a genocide there. They were limited uses of force that proceeded so smoothly that they are hardly remembered.

“War is obviously terrible, but it’s not the ultimate evil,” notes Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Some things are worse, and one is the deliberate slaughter of civilians.”

Human Rights Watch doesn’t take a position on a strike on Syria, and Roth notes that military intervention isn’t the first tool to reach for to prevent mass atrocities. Sometimes armed intervention hurts. Sometimes it helps. We’re left to decide on a case-by-case basis.

In Syria, for two-and-a-half years, we’ve given the regime a green light, and the killing has escalated from 5,000 a year to 5,000 a month — and, last month, to a poison gas attack that was perhaps the biggest massacre in the war. Now Obama’s threat of military strikes has turned the light yellow, Syria is scrambling to adjust, and there is some hope of a diplomatic solution.

Let’s not allow the light to go green again.
One caveat:  Developments over the past week may offer "some hope for a diplomatic solution" regarding the issue of poison gas, and the very important agenda of maintaining the taboo against using poison gas in warfare. I see no reason to expect that this opens up any prospects for a "diplomatic solution" to Syria's civil war. That's a separate matter. But something is better than nothing.

Otherwise, almost everything else Kristof says here strikes me as right and well put (and I'll just let the exceptions go).

—Jeff Weintraub