16 April 2015

Putin on comparative history

President Putin did his annual marathon call-in show today. While reporters around the world were most interested in what he might say about Ukraine, Iran, the murder of Boris Nemtsov, etc., I was intrigued when reading a summary afterward by one caller's historical question. Russia will soon be commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, and one patriotic Russian echoed the common American feeling that Europeans are ingrates. Why does Europe give Russia such attitude, ran the complaint, when if not for us they'd all be goose-stepping in German today? -- or words to that effect. Putin actually gave a sensible answer, telling the caller that Russia itself is partly to blame for European attitudes because the Soviet Union (in the words of a presumably official report) "imposed its model of development by force on the nations it liberated from the Nazis." Of course, Putin then went on to score a rhetorical point against the U.S., claiming that under Bush, Obama et al "Washington is doing about the same thing now, trying to impose their model on almost the entire world....And they will fail too." Americans and liberals around the world will no doubt dispute what they see as an apple-orange comparison. In their view, if the U.S. wishes to "impose" anything, it's the rule of law and civil liberty that's every human being's birthright. Putin can't be talking about a different model of economic development because Russia's a capitalist country now, right? So the only alternative to an American "model" must be one with more power for the leader and less freedom for dissent, right? But if Americans see any deviation from the U.S. "model" as tyranny, the rest of the world may see things with, dare I say, more "nuance" and definitely less idealization of the U.S. as a model for governance.

Putin wasn't done with the topic, however. He went on to say that, while some European criticism of Russia may be historically understandable, it would be going too far to equate Stalin, the man who imposed the Soviet model, with Hitler and Nazi Germany, as those averse to totalitarianism are wont to do. Stalinism contained "ugliness and repressions," Putin acknowledged, but it never aspired to the annihilation of an entire group of people. Here he is judging between mass murderers by intent rather than results. Is it somehow less atrocious to aspire, as Stalin did, to annihilate entire "classes" of people than it is to wipe out people based on their ethnicity or religion? Is Stalin really in a lesser category of evil because he used comparatively made-up categories to decide who should be killed, when he wasn't just slaughtering or torturing anyone whose loyalty was suspect? It's perfectly fair to speak of Hitler and Stalin together, as two of a kind, because both men believed that the good society depended on millions of people being slaughtered. Racism is not a worse crime than murder and racist mass-murder is not worse than plain old mass-murder. Putin's problem is that he wants to salvage something of Stalin for patriotic reasons. There's really little to say for Stalin except that he made the Soviet Union a superpower, for what that's worth, and he played a big role in defeating an enemy who was at least arguably more barbaric than he was. But when that's all you've got you get defensive about it. Just as American knee-jerk superpatriots answer critics of our actions abroad with, "If not for us you'd be speaking German (or Russian) today!" their Russian counterparts say much the same thing. Worse, as we see when the discussion turns to Ukraine, they tend to talk as if to be against Russia is to be a Nazi. At least Americans are more diverse in their delusions. For them, if you're against the U.S. you can be either a Commie or a Muslim. 

To close with a perhaps ironic observation, democracies -- as both the U.S. and Russia more or less claim to be -- seem to have a harder time repudiating "evil" leaders than monarchies. It doesn't reflect on the present queen of England, for instance, or on English culture if you say King John or Richard III or whoever was a bad king, a tyrant, etc. That may be because monarchy comes with a principle of personal responsibility, or else it makes it easier to scapegoat individual monarchs for what otherwise might be considered collective, systemic sins. By comparison, even post-Soviet Russia can't fully repudiate Stalin, while China insists on a hairsplitting "70% good, 30% bad" formula for the comparably vile Mao Zedong, and some Americans will only grudgingly concede that the U.S. or its leaders (recent company excepted) has ever done anything bad. In each case, to concede evil in the past threatens to discredit the principles upon which constitutional republics or people's republics are founded, while to acknowledge and condemn a bad monarch doesn't similarly undermine the monarchic principle, to the extent that it is a principle. Perhaps monarchists were onto something despite the fundamental idiocy of the hereditary idea. They did seem to recognize that despite all rhetoric, and even despite the letter of the law, a leader's character mattered most. If modern political systems can't criticize their pasts from fear of discrediting the present, that's a character flaw for democracies, dictatorships and anything in between.  

14 April 2015

Rubio: yesterday is over

Senator Rubio of Florida yesterday became the third Republican (and the third Senator) to declare for his party's presidential nomination. He claims to be the most forward-looking of all candidates, contrasting himself most starkly with Hillary Clinton, whom he described as "a leader from yesterday ... promising to take us back to yesterday." Rubio's own motto could be, in his own words: "Yesterday is over, and we are never going back." Speaking more generally, he blames enduring hard times and growing doubt of the American Dream on "too many of our leaders and their ideas ... stuck in the twentieth century." Especially old-fashioned in his eyes are New Deal and Great Society style social programs and economic regulations. Those who remain enamored of such policies "do not see how jobs and prosperity today depend on our ability to compete in a global economy" and obviously don't see how "taxing, borrowing and regulating like it's 1999" undermine our competitiveness. In other words, Rubio's big idea of the future is the Free Market. A critic might be excused for thinking that Rubio himself looks backward, only further back: past the mistakes of the 20th century to the 19th century, when "Americans harnessed the power of the Industrial Age and transformed this country into the leading economy in the world." To be fair, the 19th century provides no real model for Rubio. Then, the U.S. became an economic superpower by building things. Rubio promises to restore our economic superpower by cutting taxes, reducing regulations and repealing the Affordable Care Act. Once all this is done, "the American people will create millions of better-paying jobs." Such claims are nothing new. They presume that Americans today are seething with entrepreneurial energies, with products to sell and markets in mind to sell them to, and are held back only by the dead hands of taxes and regulations. Whenever I hear it I say: prove it. Let your business backers tell us how many people they would hire if they were less accountable to the government, and let them promise to hire those people if the Republican gets elected. If Republicans like Rubio and their sponsors can't name specific companies with specific positions that would be filled today if not for taxes and regulations, we'll see their rhetoric for the hot, smelly air it probably is.

Rubio himself knows that the supposedly crippling burden of taxes and regulations is only part of the problem. He acknowledges that many young people are held back not by government but by student-loan debt. He blames "an outdated higher education system that is too inexpensive and inaccessible to those who need it most." Quite reasonably, he calls for "a 21st century system of higher education that provides working Americans the chance to acquire the skills they need, that no longer graduates students with mountains of debt and degrees that do not lead to jobs, and that graduates more students from high school ready to work." I'm all for that, but how exactly do we get there by cutting taxes, reducing regulations and repealing the ACA? If the object is to control costs, isn't that a form of regulation? And if acquiring certain skills is a priority for national competitiveness, would it be unreasonable to subsidize the learning process, given the obvious national interest? If Rubio plans to depend entirely on the Free Market to give our kids the necessary skills, won't he again be the candidate from the day before yesterday? He and his supporters would say that Free Market ideas are timeless and have no expiration date, but that might be more of a moral judgment than the competitive global marketplace will buy.

The big non sequitur of Rubio's speech was his linkage of American economic insecurity with perceived weaknesses of American foreign policy under President Obama. The nearest this comes to making sense is when Rubio assigns a share of blame for our malaise to "global chaos" that comes when "America fails to lead." The world will be more stable, and our nation in particular more prosperous, when the U.S. "accepts the mantle of global leadership." We will be more prosperous by remaining hostile toward Iran; by criticizing dictators; by confronting Russian and Chinese "aggression;" by expanding the military; and by "giving our men and women in uniform the resources, care and gratitude they deserve." Some of these things cost money -- taxpayer dollars, that is -- but in these cases Rubio can claim to be investing in prosperity. Yesterday was an "American Century" but despite his general disregard for yesterday Rubio believes we're entitled to another American Century and thinks we can have it without our major economic competitors getting devastated by war. Good luck with that.

Overall, I do admire the honest egoism of a candidate who says, "I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot." The nation's future will be decided over the next decade, Rubio believes, and he believes he can help the U.S. retain its "exceptional" identity. He thinks we're exceptional in part because he, the son of an immigrant bartender, might become President. Would he think the nation less exceptional if a Clinton vs. Bush general election appeared to prove the American political order less open to outsiders than he thought? Probably he wouldn't, since exceptionalism is still as much about American privilege as a "free" country among others as it is about opportunity and mobility. In any event, if you don't see opportunity and mobility, you can blame that on government as Rubio prefers to do, or you can admit, as he claims to, that "America doesn't owe me anything." Republicanism appeals to the rank and file because it allows them to blame government for their troubles instead of blaming themselves, but if Republicans and their real constituents get their way the rank and file will only have themselves, or the Republicans' real constituents, to blame if their troubles endure. Then they might think differently when Republicans like Rubio say that their country doesn't owe them anything. Then again, that may be why Republicans never cut government as much they promise. For now I'd like Rubio to say more about reforming education, but beyond that he's got nothing.

13 April 2015

Clinton: the deck is stacked

Former Senator Clinton of New York officially declared her second candidacy for President of the United States this weekend. The former Secretary of State has already distinguished herself from her Republican counterparts by eschewing the bombast of a big announcement speech in favor of a statement in a slick commercial. The former First Lady -- who has been treated by some since 2001 as a sort of President Dowager -- appeals to "everyday Americans" to make her their champion. Despite economic recovery, she observes, "the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top." This is standard Jacksonian Democrat rhetoric. The argument is that concentrations of wealth and power effectively deny opportunity to the next generation of competitors. Republicans used to believe this, too, way back in their founding generation, but once they became winners they tended to sympathize with winners. What Clinton will do to lower the stack is unclear, but out of her intended context those words sound ironic, to put it generously, from a candidate considered a preemptive frontrunner, in an environment where anyone who questions her ties to "those at the top," much less holds them against her, is dismissed as an extremist whose criticism will only aid the Republican party. What could be better described as a "stacked deck" then a campaign founded on the premise that whatever Clinton sees fit to do for everyday Americans as their champion is all they're entitled to expect, since she alone stands between them and four years of Republican misrule, and that to demand more will only divide the liberal/progressive movement fatally? Is the deck not stacked when any criticism of Clinton from her left will be condemned as making the "perfect" the enemy of the "good enough?" Clinton wants to be our champion, but in her own mind, or at least in the minds of her lockstep loyalists, she already is the champion, while to the minds of people like Michael Tomasky anyone who challenges her, past a certain point, is a traitor to the poor. Yet we can still ask what Hillary Clinton has done to earn this exalted standing apart from marry Bill. This is not to disparage her legislative and diplomatic achievements but simply to note that ever since 1992 there has been a belief in her entitlement to the Presidency rooted in her presumed entitlement to be co-President with her husband. There is no evading the essentially dynastic nature of such thinking, and it's a sad statement on the situation facing us next year that the Republican party probably has a better chance of repudiating dynastic politics by rejecting Jeb Bush than does the party that claims to champion everyday Americans. But so long as millions of Americans remain convinced that there's only one alternative to Republican rule, the Democrats will do much that may disappoint us but shouldn't surprise us. Everyday Americans need a real champion, but the deck in this game is still stacked against us.

Armenia in the news (slightly embellished)

Turkish officials are angry at Pope Francis for referring to an Armenian genocide during his Easter remarks yesterday. By this point in history I don't know what the Turks are worried about. If the Greeks aren't going to get the reparations for World War II they want from Germany I doubt anyone will want Turkey to pay anything out to Armenia except maybe in the pages of history. Yet for generations the Turks have acted as if they'd get sued the minute they acknowledged what appears to be the historical truth. You'd think it'd be easier to resolve now that Turkey has an Islamist government: blame it all on those Young Turk secular humanists, the same people who made Turks use the Latin alphabet and stop wearing fezzes. But I guess there's something about genocide-deniers everywhere. Their attitude seems toward their victims seems to be: we hate you and wish you were all dead, but we didn't nearly wipe you out back then, though maybe somebody should have.

In a related story, Kanye West, who is Armenian-American by marriage, threw himself into a lake while performing in Armenia, where his in-laws are visiting genocide memorials. Mr. West is reported (here if nowhere else) to have said during his fit that the Armenian genocide was in fact the greatest genocide of all time. Mr. West also reportedly claimed that the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, didn't give a damn about Armenians. This was later confirmed by President Erdogan, who also urged tourists to visit the centennial commemoration of the siege of Gallipoli on April 24 instead of an Armenian genocide commemoration scheduled for the same day. No matter how you look at it, or where you look, the Turks killed a hell of a lot of people in 1915, and some of them were armed. The Turkish government pleads self-defense on all counts.

10 April 2015

One cheer for Pakistan

Pakistan is a country with a lot of problems, but its legislature this week inspired some confidence in representative government by voting against giving themselves another. Saudia Arabia wanted to embroil a fellow Sunni state in the turmoil in Yemen. Sunni propaganda apparently claimed that a consolidation of Houthi (Shiite) power there threatened the security of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. However, many Pakistanis apparently blame the Saudis for inspiring and encouraging the Taliban and other Sunni extremists who've destabilized Pakistan. While they don't approve of Iranian interference in Yemen, they also recognize a need for Iranian cooperation in the ultimate pacification of Afghanistan. Had Pakistan responded positively to the Saudi call, it would have made the Yemen conflict even more of a Sunni-Shiite world war than it already is with not only the Saudis but the Iranians, the Egyptians (Sunni) and others apparently interfering. In many ways Pakistan is still plagued by Islamist excesses, but on this occasion at least it's one Muslim country behaving like a grown-up.

08 April 2015

'I'm Unemployed Rob Lowe, and I have DirecTV'

Perhaps the most stunning news to be heard from the world of entertainment all year is the report that the Better Business Bureau has compelled the DirecTV satellite service provider to discontinue its series of commercials in which Rob Lowe compares his happy life with the product to the misery or madness of various doppelgangers who subscribe to cable television. The series probably was already past its useful lifespan, since the most recent ones seemed to have very little to say against cable TV, the producers being more interested in how they could transform Lowe and the jokes to be drawn from his multiple personalities. But a cable provider -- Comcast, one of the biggest -- actually took offense, and what's more, protested that the commercials were untruthful about the relative merits of cable and satellite. For once, then, an advertiser has been held accountable, if not liable, for the claims made in commercials. Because this is such an exceptional event, cynics are already saying that it only proves that Comcast has more leverage in the trade than it should have. I wouldn't worry about that if today's decision actually set a precedent for holding all advertisers accountable for their more fantastic claims. Does anyone really think that DirecTV is the only advertiser guilty of these offenses, or even the worst offender?  And shouldn't the Better Business Bureau and its advertising division be responsive to consumers (or potential consumers) as well as competitors with dubious advertisers? Imagine how the next election cycle would change if political advertising were held to the same standard that now shames DirecTV. Aren't most negative campaign ads just variations on the Rob Lowe concept anyway? After all, the candidates do tend to look alike after a while....

A smoking gun in South Carolina

The temptation, now that we have some fairly irrefutable evidence, will be to make the policeman arrested for murder in South Carolina a scapegoat for all the other cops who've killed unarmed people. For some he could serve as proof that the system works when the facts fit properly, if not as inverse vindication of all the other killer cops. This time we can all see with our own eyes, in necessarily terrible detail, a fleeing suspect shot in the back by a police officer. It still doesn't prove everyone's points, of course. The video doesn't prove this one a hate crime, for instance. It doesn't let us read the cop's mind, but it does let us see him at work, perhaps most damningly after the victim has gone down. At the barest minimum the video proves that the accused is a bad cop. It should prove to those who now say that "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" was nothing but a big lie that, whatever the facts were in Ferguson, the general thing protested against there does happen. Does the video prove that this could only happen to a black person? No, but for me, at least, the focus on Ferguson and its echoes elsewhere has been more about cops and their power than it has been about blacks and their systematic victimization. Yes, I get "Black Lives Matter" and the need to affirm that specifically, and the point bears repeating again this week, but police power (including firepower above all) and its abuse also matter, regardless of the target, and I'm not sure that it'll be much affected by racial sensitivity training. A white person may well be less likely to find himself at the point where the video begins, but I suspect that if he starts there he ends the same way as the actual victim. Discussions of excessive police force and excessive tactics overall, whether provoked by the blatant outrage in North Charleston or by the possibly more forgivable tragedy triggered by tazing in Albany, should be about procedure as much as they're about prejudice. Police don't just need to change their ways toward blacks; they need to change their ways, period.

07 April 2015

Rand Paul and the Americans left behind

Senator Paul of Kentucky said a mouthful while declaring his candidacy for the presidency today. Here's the mouthful:

We need to go boldly forth under the banner of liberty that clutches the Constitution in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other.

I'm taking this from a transcript and I don't know if the text was provided by the Paul campaign or was copied by a reporter as the Senator spoke. All I know is that I'm a little alarmed by this word-image of a clutching banner. Does he propose to wave a flag that has arms? If so, the redundancy of Paul's imagery may belie his hopes for more efficient government. Since the Bill of Rights is a set of amendments to the Constitution, and thus part of the prior document, the Senator's banner should be able to keep one of its hands free.

On a more serious note, there was little here to distinguish the supposedly more libertarian Paul from the rest of the expected Republican field. A real libertarian would challenge the religious right more than the Senator does here, but the candidate most likely knows his base and trims his sails accordingly. Little of his father's foreign-policy skepticism seems to have survived the son's maturation in office. He's hawkish on Iran and "radical Islam" in general and vows to do "whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind." He wants to cut back foreign aid, especially for "haters of America" who burn our flag in their streets. Apparently leaders who want our money will have to suppress civil liberties somewhat. Careful readers may note that he doesn't condemn the tentative deal with Iran outright, but he insists on Congressional approval of the deal, which in the current climate virtually hands Benjamin Netanyahu a veto on American foreign policy. Paul presumably wants Sheldon Adelson's money as much as any Republican. So much, then, for any hope of real foreign-policy reform from that quarter.

On the domestic front, Paul notes that "Many Americans ... are being left behind. The reward of work seems beyond their grasp." He rightly deplores expanding inequality but blames it on big government, on misguided stimulus policies and generations of failed liberal programs. Like any Republican, not to mention any libertarian, he simply can not bring himself to say that businesses were wrong to take jobs away through outsourcing, whether from one part of the country to another or from this country to another country. How can he rail against Americans being left behind without noting who left them behind? It's not the liberals and the bureaucrats whose wealth is inflating the income gap, after all. Of course, it seems disingenuous to lament anyone being left behind if your libertarian worldview takes for granted that many will be left behind by virtue of their own shortcomings, and assumes that such a result is fair. Understanding that, it's not surprising that he offers no solution to inequality beyond school choice, when if anything the screaming need for certain job skills if more Americans aren't to be left behind should persuade us that less choice, or else more uniformity, is necessary in education. All "school choice" means is that you want to blame teachers' unions for our problems the way Stalin blamed Trotskyites for shortages. It's not a serious answer to an increasingly important issue, and no candidate in any party should be taken seriously if he or she fails to explain how Americans can acquire the skills necessary in an inescapably competitive global economy without risking debt-peonage. Some people probably stopped taking Rand Paul seriously before this point in his speech, or before he started speaking, but I figure these idiots warrant at least one fair hearing apiece once they declare their intent to rule us. Expect more idiocy in the months to come.

Addendum: Here's a more detailed transcript with more typically Paulian notes on foreign policy (i.e. strong defense without interventionism) and more suggestions for reducing inequality. Most of these boil down to cutting someone's taxes, though Paul also proposes reducing foreign aid and using the leftover money to rebuild infrastructure.The Senator also makes a point of saying "work is not punishment," but I'm not sure whose premise he's trying to refute. He notes proudly that two of his sons are working their way through college on minimum wage jobs. He can be proud of his boys but is he as proud of the country that sets such a minimum? Some of his fellow Republicans would like to see the younger Pauls make less money to keep the economy competitive. Would the Senator oppose that or would he advise his sons to get second jobs? I look forward to someone asking him that question.

06 April 2015

Do black lives matter in Albany NY?

For a moment last week I thought my home town of Albany, the New York state capital, would start getting national attention. The first signs were there; as I passed City Hall last Thursday night several dozen people were holding a protest vigil and "Black Lives Matter" signs were out. The night before, a former high school basketball star with a history of mental issues died of a heart attack shortly after being tazed by police under circumstances that remain largely unknown. There hasn't been any real follow-up to the Thursday vigil, however, and local civil-rights activists, who have a good relationship with municipal government compared to Ferguson MO, have appealed for calm and good faith. There's reason for both if you assume that a resort to tasers meant that no one meant to kill the man. Much will depend on what we learn about why police confronted the doomed man, who reportedly sealed his fate by becoming "combative." The worst-case scenario for the cops or from a civic-peace perspective would be if the man appears to have been profiled or if the incident proves to have been a case of petty "broken windows" style policing. But for the moment no one in Albany appears eager to rush to that conclusion. Nevertheless, many will want the cops to show very good reason for confronting the man and precipitating his demise, and this wouldn't be an unreasonable request. Based on what we know now, the incident proves that nearly any existing technique for "stopping" a suspect comes with serious risks to the suspect. From one perspective, people who resist arrest implicitly accept that risk and certainly must share in the responsibility for any bad outcome they suffer. From another, this episode only further underscores the urgent necessity for techniques and training that minimize the risk of death for suspects from those who are neither judges, jurors or executioners yet are empowered to stop crime.  If critics of police appear to downplay the personal responsibility of those who recently have died "tragically," it's because they're careful about assigning responsibility to the dead when cops really aren't supposed to kill. Albanians may show a more forgiving attitude under more arguably "tragic" circumstances, but a dead suspect still means that something went wrong with the suspect and the police, both of whom are accountable to all of us.