Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Do Republicans Have Any Ideas?

President Obama’s economic stimulus package passed the House today, 244 to 188, without a single Republican vote. Not one.

I find that remarkable. The president has openly talked up his desire for more bipartisan government, and he made a big display of going up to the Hill to jawbone the Republicans.

Yet the Republicans all, to a person, essentially said, “Go soak your head.” They appear as juvenile, spiteful, self-destructive poseurs obsessed with game-playing, all while the American economy goes down the tubes. How can the whole batch of them be so consistently small, mean-spirited, selfish, and immature? Isn’t there a single statesman among them?

I try to stick to rational analysis of the facts, but these people make it very difficult to remain unemotional.

“Principles!” the Republicans cry. "Of course we want to do what’s best for America, but this stimulus package is so worthless, if not downright harmful or evil, that no conscionable person could vote for it."

That is an implausible argument under the circumstances, but at least conceivable. Is there any truth behind it? I can’t find it.

Republicans have only a single concept of governance: elimination of taxes. It does not seem to bother them, or occur to them, that if we were to eliminate taxes, there would be no government and no Republicans either. But they apparently get a “tax-cut” chip implanted in their brain as a condition of joining the party. Anything other than massive tax cuts, especially those that benefit the wealthy, is considered utterly unacceptable to them.

This is notwithstanding actual facts, such as,

1. The economic stimulus package is made up of about 1/3 tax cuts and 2/3 new spending. So it is simply not the case that the legislation does not accommodate the Republican desire for tax cuts. One third of 800 billion dollars is $260 billion in tax cuts, not a trivial amount. The Republicans’ “principled” objection to the legislation rings hollow.

2. Tax cuts don’t do much good for individuals or business that aren’t paying much in taxes. Especially for small businesses (under 100 employees), projected near-term profits are expected to be small to zero, so tax cuts on nonexistent profits wouldn't be much of an economic stimulus.

3. The Republicans had eight years to play around with tax cuts, which they did, and the result has not turned out well. The “trickle-down” mythology has been thoroughly repudiated in fact and theory. What legitimate justification could there be for clinging to the tax-cut mantra in the face of evidence? One is tempted to suspect that the motivations are less than noble.

Try this simple test. Watch any television news show that interviews a Republican about the stimulus package. Clock how much time passes before the Republican says the phrase “tax cuts.” I have done this and the mean elapsed time is 15 seconds. These people must be possessed by an evil spirit. Or have a brain implant. I am not aware of any alternative economic stimulus proposal from the Republicans that involves anything other than “Tax cuts!”

Another Republican criticism of the stimulus package is that it spends too much on non-economic items, such as health, education, and safety. In what alternate universe is education NOT the basic engine of economic growth? For a Republican, economic growth apparently only means more cash, today! No doubt there are some stupid or irrelevant line items buried in the package and I'm sure we will hear all about them soon. That kind of idiocy is not a particularly Democratic problem. If we look at the largest 80% of the stimulus package, not the 20% chaff, it looks eminently reasonable.

Yet another Republican criticism is that they did not have sufficient “input” to the drafting of the legislation. From what I can gather, that is because they declined to participate when invited. Their complaint is at best disingenuous, more likely, misdirection and petulant whining.

Finally, consider that even if the economic stimulus package was a bitter pill for any Republican to swallow, on principle, why not support it anyway, for Heaven’s sake? The country is going down! What kind of high and mighty “principles of governance” are so sacred that you would choose ashes in everyone’s mouth instead of compromise? I think “principles” are not the issue here at all. Republican behavior points to psychological immaturity and a paucity of ideas badly papered over by tawdry egos.

Maybe I was wrong in my criticism of Krugman’s book, “The Conscience of a Liberal.” (Halfway down the page at

I said Krugman was unjustifiably hostile toward conservatives and had devolved to mere name-calling. But maybe he was more perceptive than I realized. Unless the Republicans come up with some reasoned, evidence-based explanations for their behavior, I think the Democrats should just ignore them because they can’t be spoken to.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Inaugural Address

The Inaugural Address

It almost didn’t matter what he said. The very fact of him, a young African-American, standing there, said it all. The speech was a success before he opened his mouth.

Nevertheless, I was disappointed. I wanted the soaring rhetoric he is famous for, something that acknowledged the significance of the moment. Instead, we got a fairly pedestrian speech, albeit finely crafted.

Mr. Obama opened with thinly veiled words of criticism for G.W. Bush’s administration, as if he, Obama had been holding back a steaming kettle of Pelosi-esque disgust and derision until the very first moment when he could let the whistle sound without being inappropriate. He emphasized that his administration, only minutes old, was an about face. “From this moment on,” he would reject the idea that our ideals (e.g., constitutional rights) must be sacrificed for safety. He would replace the politics of fear-mongering with the politics of hope. He pointed a blaming finger at the "greed and irresponsibility of some" and said that a free market economy must be well-regulated if there is to be prosperity for more than the prosperous few. He will "restore science to its rightful place." And so on. It was a scathing indictment delivered with feeling.

Abruptly, Mr. Obama changed direction and spoke about his awareness of the many sacrifices that have gone before us. He spoke of George Washington, our forefathers, the defenders of American freedom through history, and so on. It was standard history book stuff, although he alluded to the fact that our history has a dark side too. Slavery and the civil war were mentioned. He asked us to choose “our better history,” a strange request. Wouldn't that be intentional biasing of the facts?

He paused to issue a statement to worldwide Islamist extremists: “You can’t outlast us and we will get you,” he averred. I am young but no milquetoast.

Then he segued into the need for personal responsibility among all Americans. But this was an unclear admonition. We should all work at a soup kitchen once in a while? Ok, fine, but what is the political point? People should be nicer? Of course they should. It was a nonspecific argument he was trying to sell. We should drive smaller cars? Maybe, but also, he said “Americans do not apologize for our way of life.” So I guess SUVs are ok after all. I thought the implication might have been, if you want to partake of the forthcoming government largesse, you must sacrifice something, in some unspecified way. But what? How? That part of the speech went past me.

Just as vaguely, Mr. Obama emphasized that we are now in the era of post-partisan politics. It does not matter whether you think government is too big or too small, he said, only what actually works. Well, sure. But “what works” is as much a matter of ideology as of empiricism. Do massive government bureaucracies, such as government-sponsored health care, “work,” or do they only lead to involuted “big gummint”? Do large, permanent tax cuts “work” or are they only subsidies for the rich? Obama cannot be described as na├»ve, so his rhetoric of post-partisan politics must be seen as partisan populist positioning ahead of what he knows are going to be tough ideological battles.

Taken as a whole, the speech seemed flat to me, full of platitudes, and maybe even a little dishonest in the sense that it was ostensibly addressed to the 2 million people standing in front of him, but actually addressed to the politicians sitting near him, and listening to him around the world.

On the other hand, the speech had the artistic quality of deicticism, meaning it demonstrated in fact what it was about in content. The speech began with burning criticism of the past administration and arced forward to glowing terms of hope and bipartisanship. That verbal change of scenery echoed the transition between the two administrations in front of our eyes, and the facticity of Obama standing there, confidently addressing millions of screaming followers, while G.W. Bush sat beside him with a blank expression. So the speech expressed its own gesture.

Nevertheless, I thought I could read the thoughts on Bush’s forehead: “He has no idea. A rude shock awaits.”

Friday, January 9, 2009

The End of Israel?

Israel’s current attack on Gaza has several objectives, according to news reports:
1. Stop Hamas rockets being fired into Israel.
2. Destroy Hamas as a governing body
3. Get the Kadima party re-elected in Israel.

Of these, only the third is achievable.

The rocket materials and other weapons are coming in from Iran, Syria, and elsewhere via Egypt. It is unclear to me why it is impossible for Israel to seal the borders of Gaza. All they would need is a strip a few kilometers wide on the Gaza side of Egypt. Tunnels could be closed. The rest of the borders are easy. No more rockets.

Border monitoring must be more difficult than I realize. I never could understand why the U.S. did not seal the Iraqi borders early on, either. Sure, it’s expensive; sure it takes a lot of manpower. But it has got to be cheaper than war. Whatever the reasons, it apparently cannot be done so the rockets will continue to come in and be fired into Israel.

It may be possible to disable Hamas in Gaza for a while by disrupting their operations. But already Hamas leaders are pronouncing eternal revenge from Syria and elsewhere. Hamas will be around for a long time.

Israel does have the moral and legal right to defend itself against rocket attacks, of course. If Mexico started lobbing rockets into Texas, there is no question that a vigorous response would follow. It is no different for Israel.

However, bombing Gaza is a knee-jerk reaction. Since Hamas locates its weapons and military centers inside schools, hospitals, and universities (with callous indifference to its own people!), then attacks on Hamas have high collateral civilian damage. Then, since the news media are born to sell news, the desperate plight of the civilians is highlighted without consideration of the underlying causes.

Israel cannot hope to overcome the negative public opinion that results from biased news reporting. They have barred reporters from Gaza for that reason, but it is futile to attempt a news blackout. So they are losing, and will continue to lose international goodwill. Even in the U.S. it is not inconceivable that the “Special Relationship” between the U.S. and Israel could disintegrate rather quickly, due to changing public sentiment, however unjustified it might be in military terms.
(Photo Welt Online)

But let’s just suppose that some kind of ceasefire is called, say around January 20, 2009. Some clever diplomatic language will be found to allow Israel to monitor smuggling into Gaza while declaring that the borders are “open.” Hospitals are rebuilt, bandages changed, food supplies restored.

How long is it going to take for the Palestinians to forget about the attack? How long will it take Gazans and their compatriots in the West Bank to forgive? A couple hundred years might not be enough. Israel should not imagine it could ever achieve peace with the Palestinians after something like this attack. It is self-destructive behavior, no matter how righteous it feels at the moment.
(Photo Welt Online)

Then there is the problem of demographics in Israel. Palestinians out-breed the Israelis, and soon will be a majority of the population, certainly in the West Bank, and probably in most other parts of Israel as well. This could happen within 50 years. What will Israel do? Will it maintain a minority – rule, apartheid government? As we know, that solution has little long term viability. But a fully open democracy would lead to the obvious outcome of Palestinian rule, and it would not take long after that to replace the flag.

The Israelis could establish an iron-fisted dictatorship. That could work for a while, but in the long run, would surely cost the economic support of the U.S. There would be no Israel today without U.S. foreign aid, and that would be withdrawn from a dictatorship. Maybe some other country would be willing to pick up the slack. But it would be the end of Israel, the idea, leaving only Israel, the junta.

There is no apparent scenario under which Israel survives and prospers for another century as a democracy, and perhaps not at all. So maybe we should start adjusting our thinking now.

Maybe it was not such a good idea for the Western powers to arbitrarily carve an artificial country out of Palestine in 1948. It was an experiment; it didn’t work. Maybe the U.S. should start tilting its foreign policy to the Arab/Muslim world, which is the Next Big Thing.

With the demise of Israel as a state, what would become of the 7 million Israelis? Some might choose to live under a benign Palestinian government. It is sort of working like that in South Africa. Some could emigrate to America. Look how enormously we benefitted from the last great Jewish immigration. We could do it again. Some probably would want to set up another theocracy somewhere, like Somalia maybe? They need a government.

This Gaza war is more than a symptom. It is a signal that we may need to start imagining a world without Israel.