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Monday, December 22, 2014

CUBA: OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE



President Obama’s announcement of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba was front page news for about two days before being eclipsed by the North Korean computer hack of Sony Entertainment and the internet threats to theaters scheduled to show the movie “The Interview” by an anonymous group or individual calling themselves The Guardians of Peace.  But the Cuba initiative is an important issue.  While it has been difficult over the last six years to find much positive in the disorganized, and generally inept Obama Administration’s foreign policy, the Cuba initiative is a long overdue acknowledgment of the high level of change in the world order and power configurations since the 1961 annulment of diplomatic relations and the 1963 imposition of the U.S. economic embargo on the island nation.

 Although the Marxist Castro brothers Fidel and Raul, who overthrew the corrupt Batista regime in 1959 are still in power in Cuba, the world, the Latin American region and the political context of the U.S. have passed them by.  Their early decades of revolutionary outreach from southern Africa to South and Central America has withered as did their economy and the economic support of the then, Soviet Union and the more recent, and now deceased Leftist Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. 

The isolation of Cuba during the Cold war decades of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s  made sense.  The Castro brother’s founded a communist state in 1959 and found a patron in the Soviet Union who subsidized their economy in return for basing of Soviet military assets. In the face of this intrusion into the Western hemisphere by the Soviet Union and the security implications of having a Soviet proxy operating in the affairs of the Latin American nations, Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations with the Castro regime.  After the Kennedy Administration’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion using American trained anti-Castro forces in 1961, Kennedy imposed the economic embargo.  The installation of nuclear warhead capable missiles within easy reach of the continental U.S. in 1962 and the resulting “Cuban Missile Crisis, brought U.S./Cuban relations to a new low. Armed with Russian weapons and benefitting from Russian training of their growing military, Castro developed regional ambitions and sought global Left wing revolutionary credibility by encouraging and supporting such movements in Latin America and intervening militarily in conflicts in and across  northeastern and southern Africa.

But much has changed since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Soviet aid actually started to unravel in 1989 with Gorbachev’s “reforms” of the Soviet economy.  This aid in the form of under-priced exports of oil and over-priced imports of Cuban sugar which along with other components amounted to 3.5 to 4.5 billion dollars a year dried up. This led Castro to experiment with concessions to foreign investors to attract hard currency.  A deal with a Spanish hotel company created three resorts and a shopping center and brought in tourists from Canada and Europe.  This 1991 venture has been followed by the largest project so far to “internationalize” a sector of the Cuban economy.  Starting in 2013, in the port city of Mariel, thirty miles from Havana, a 900 million dollar port expansion is underway in another of Cuba’s “free trade zones”.  The goal is to attract more foreign investment. The project, being built by a Brazilian company  is scheduled to be operated by a Singapore company. The FTZ in its entirety is meant to attract international companies to Cuba by offering them a low-tax, low-regulation environment in which to manufacture goods.  To accomplish this, the government is instituting reforms to decrease its control over many of the financial and commercial operations of these private companies. The importance of this capitalist outreach in the overall socialist economy is that the reforms are having a spill-over effect on the rest of the economy as the Cuban labor and commercial sectors themselves interact with the foreign enterprises.

 Thus, should the U.S. economic embargo eventually be lifted, it can be expected that the influence of the world’s largest economy and geographical proximity would have a similar affect in even larger order of magnitude.

 Congressional opponents of the President’s initiative to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba led by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have tied both the economic impact of a possible end to the embargo and the opening of an American embassy to requirements that Cuban President Raul Castro implement political reforms that would essentially change the fifty-six year old socialist dictatorship.  Such reforms of that magnitude are not possible in the short term.  A popular movement for democratic change will have to come about to make significant progress. This does not mean that extending diplomatic relations need wait. 

 The purpose of diplomatic relations is not the promotion of democracy nor is it dependent on pre-existing democratic processes in the host nation.  The purpose is to facilitate communications between governments which in turn allows a means to avoid misunderstandings and better cooperation.  There is also an intelligence gathering aspect to a formal government presence in foreign capitals.  With very few exceptions, the most important being North Korea, Iran, and Cuba, the U.S. maintains diplomatic relations with rest of the world.  Obviously, and appropriately, diplomatic relations are not dependent on local democratic structures or even friendly relations. 

 The cancelling of the economic embargo is a different matter.  The embargo was initiated by presidential action under existing laws in 1962 during the Kennedy Administration. The Cuban Democracy Act (1992) prohibited foreign based subsidiaries of U.S. enterprises from engaging in commercial trade with Cuba.  It also prohibited travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba as well as family remittances from the U.S. to Cuba.  In 1996, the Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act which strengthened the embargo and extended the scope of the earlier embargo to foreign nations trading with Cuba by penalizing those companies for “trafficking” in property formerly owned by U.S. citizens but confiscated by the Castro regime as well as by Cubans who became U.S. citizens.

 Finally, in 2000, under the Clinton Administration, the Trade Sanction Reform and Export Enhancement Act was passed that dealt with the trade of agricultural and medical products which had been allowed under previous legislation.

 To fully restore normal economic relationships and trade with Cuba, all of these laws will have to be eliminated by new legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress and signed by the President.  With both house of the incoming Congress in the hands of Republican majorities the outlook is not favorable.  Cuban President Raul Castro didn’t help initially with his comment that the diplomatic initiative would do nothing to affect the permanence of Cuba’s communist system. While these comments have been interpreted as intended for domestic consumption, especially to privileged hardliners in the Cuban government, they are sure to be quoted extensively in the Congressional debate over the funding of the proposed embassy and the approval of an ambassador.  

 In a similar vein, Senator Rubio’s strong opposition is likely reassurance to the large Cuban exile population in his native Florida.  For decades, the political power of this group has reinforced the anti-Castrol politics of conservative politicians in and out of Florida.  Although the views of this group of Cuban-Americans as a whole are modifying somewhat as the children and grandchildren of the former Cuban citizens move away from the stronger feelings of their relatives, because of the importance of Florida in U.S. presidential elections, the perception among potential 2016 Republican candidates, including Rubio, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush may be that opposing both the diplomatic initiative and improved economic ties are the best positions to take.

 However, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations should be considered on its own merits and there is no downside in that for either the Cuban population or U.S. interests.  Simply put, Cuba is not a threat in any way to the wellbeing of the United States. The geo-political dynamics of the Cold War no longer apply. Claiming that putting of diplomatic recognition and blocking economic relations until complete regime change is accomplished benefits the people of Cuba after 53 years of failure makes little sense.

 Over a longer term, economic progress and raising the material comfort of the Cuban citizens will awaken the desire for more political liberty and individual freedom.  This will slowly occur with or without U.S. involvement because of the participation of European and Latin American investment in the context of Cuba’s free trade zones.  The process would be quicker with U.S. involvement which is eagerly awaited by American industry. The modification of economic relations in stages also offers the opportunity for the negotiation of political concessions by the Castro regime.  It has been made clear that President Obama, missed an opportunity to negotiate something in the political realm in return for the “gift” of diplomatic recognition.  It is also clear that this weakness has long been characteristic of his interactions with tough foreign adversaries i.e. Iran, Syria, Iraq, Russia.  The Republican leadership in the new Congress will have an opportunity to do much better if they are willing to take it.

 The future of the hard line Marxist regime in Cuba is uncertain. The only thing predictable is the exit of both Fidel Castro, now 88 and retired, and Raul Castro, 83, President of the Council of State.  Currently the presumed successor to Raul who has said he will retire in 2018, is Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez who at 54 represents a new generation of leadership from the veterans of the 1950’s revolutionaries who still populate the higher levels of the Cuban government.
 
Hopefully, should Diaz-Canel actually succeed Raul Castro he will possess a more ideological and modernist eclecticism that will recognize the need for economic and political reforms to bring Cuba into the 21st Century.  The U.S. need not wait and can commence a cautious but serious process of engagement.
 


Saturday, December 6, 2014

GRIDLOCK EXPLAINED


The phrase “gridlock” has been used a lot over the past few years to imply that political differences in the government in Washington are impeding “legislative progress”, a phrase that itself may be an oxymoron.  Depending on where you went to school an “oxymoron”is either a really dumb cow-like animal with big horns or a self-contradictory phrase, both seem to be common in the nation’s capital.  But either way, “gridlock” may be getting a bad rap. 
 
First of all, “gridlock” comes from the description of a traffic jam, like the ones caused by fourteen year old girls driving their friends to a Justin Beiber concert and being so excited that they pull into busy intersections and stop.  Of course fourteen year old girls shouldn’t be driving, but Justin Beiber shouldn’t be singing, so in a philosophical sense maybe the two balance out.  In any case “gridlock” in Washington isn’t all that bad because it creates a “firewall” against incompetent political leadership. Firewalls are what keep fraternity houses from completely burning down on Saturday nights and the political version has had a similar positive effect over the last six years. 

 Even so,  “gridlock” hasn’t always worked.  The biggest example is ObamaCare which snuck through Congress before the grid was locked.  ObamaCare has never been popular but still, Obama’s supporters, started calling it his “flagship” accomplishment.   “Flagship” is a naval term like “happy hour” and “political correctness”, and denotes something of great importance.  But when Obama’s supporters on the Left received a letter from eight Gender Studies majors at Brown University, complaining that “flagship” had something to do with the “military-industrial complex” they started calling ObamaCare his “signature” accomplishment.   It’s a “signature accomplishment” because he had a big ceremony in which he “signed” it.  Ordinary people can tell when Obama is having a “signature moment” because he shows up all day on CNN  sitting at a desk surrounded by little black kids, signing a piece of paper with a basket full of pens; one for each letter of his name and any doodles he might want to add just for fun.  Occasionally, Nancy Pelosi is standing behind him with her vacant stare and quixotic smile to add enthusiasm to the moment.

The little black kids don’t get  these pens because they are valuable for Democrat fund raisers.  Obama’s fund raisers happen each Wednesday in Beverly Hills, California.  For thirty-five thousand dollars, rich Hollywood liberals will find a “signature pen” between their“non-GMO” tofu and their “organic” Chardonnay while they listen to Obama talk about the evils of financial inequality.

 But back to gridlock. Gridlock happens in Washington when Fox News has a majority in one house of Congress and the New York Times has a majority in the other. In the new Congress that takes over in January, Fox will have majorities in both houses but the New York Times will still control the White House, so grid lock will still be the way legislative business doesn’t get done.

 The list of important issues that qualify for gridlock is long.  There is tax reform, infrastructure rebuilding, immigration, Guantanamo
detainees, the Keystone pipeline and of course Obama’s “signature issue” ObamaCare.  Republicans want to change ObamaCare but whenever the word “ObamaCare” is uttered in the halls of Congress, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz pops up like the AFLAC Duck and starts quacking about repeal of the whole program.  This strategy is a perfect candidate for gridlock.  If Cruz actually got a repeal bill introduced in the Senate it would be filibustered to death by the Democrat minority.  Even if the Democrats were all away that day for election defeat group counseling and it passed, Obama would veto it. So what to do?  Republicans not from Texas want to chip away at various onerous provisions of ObamaCare like grief therapy for people who start to miss their favorite body parts after sex change operations (Sec. 2146 B.), or higher subsidies for the poor for emergency aroma therapy (Sec.3756 D.) To make these changes they would add amendments to important bills that the President won’t want to veto.  He’ll veto them anyway but at least gridlock will then be seen as his fault (except by the New York Times).

 Another issue that seems ripe for gridlock is the Keystone pipeline which would bring a bazillion and a half barrels of oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf coast.  President Obama has refused to make a decision on allowing the pipeline because he can’t decide whether to anger construction unions or environmentalists.  The debate is largely symbolic because the State Department has said it won’t cause any environmental damage or an increase in Left wing hysteria which is already at the top of the scale, and besides much of the pipeline is already in place.  Environmentalists who just don’t like all that nasty, black sticky stuff, want to spray-paint slogans on that part of the pipeline but the Canadians who own it have cleverly hidden it underground. The new Congress in January will probably pass a bill authorizing the remainder of the pipe line which will be gridlocked by a presidential veto.  A Democrat bill to pay for spray-paint, metal detectors, and pipeline sniffing Beagles for environmental groups will also probably be gridlocked.

 So for fans of gridlock, things look pretty good for the final two years of Obama’s White House golfing vacation and if someone with three names and a closet full of pant suits would happen to get elected president in 2016, gridlock could move to a whole new level.

Friday, November 28, 2014

IMMIGRATION: BAD POLICY; BAD POLITICS


President Obama’s threat to the Congress i.e. the Republican controlled House of Representatives, that he would issue “executive orders” to alter existing immigration law unless the Congress passed his preferred version of a “comprehensive “ immigration reform bill has finally happened.  The schedule for such action was of course manipulated to occur after the November mid-term congressional elections in a tacit acknowledgement that the voting public would probably disapprove and take out their displeasure on incumbent Democrats tied to his unpopular policies.  He was right of course, but the temporary delay of his arbitrary and constitutionally questionable action was not enough to offset the broad judgment of voters that the Obama led direction of the nation was on “the wrong track”.  The significant Republican “wave” of victories from state legislatures, to state governors including “blue states” of Massachusetts and Maryland, as well as the U.S. House and Senate, should have been a bright warning light to the President that he was out of touch with the voters.  However, so cynically convinced in his own moral and intellectual superiority is Obama that the message did not penetrate his ideological certainty.  This of course, was supported by the desperate messages of election results denial employed by his supporters in the press and the Congress.  To the President and his supporters, the election outcome was not about the failure of Obmacare to achieve popular support, the failure of the 2009 “fiscal stimulus” to help with middle class job creation, the Administration’s extensive scandal list or his indecisive bungling of important foreign policies.  It was, “geography”, low voter turnout, “not doing a good enough job in getting the Administration’s message out”, and of course, the “evil” Koch brother’s money. 

 Thus Obama’s post-election message was not one of humility but defiance.  Concerned more with his “legacy” and continued popularity among core ideological supporters, he chose not to accept reality and wait to work with the new Republican controlled Congress to compromise on an effective immigration bill.  Instead he challenged the Republicans in the House in the “lame duck” Congress which sits only until January, and in which the Senate remains in control of the Democrats and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, to concede their own vision of effective immigration reform.  Of course, Obama knew that was not going to happen, and their refusal would provide a media based theatrical stage, for his executive action. 

 In policy terms, what exactly has Obama accomplished?

 1. The new policy will affect an estimated 5 million illegals, most of whom are parents of children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents. These individuals will be “shielded from deportation” and get three year work permits, which are renewable.  To be eligible’ these parents must have lived in the U.S. for five years.

 2. Also protected from deportation are any children brought to the U.S. illegally before Jan. 1, 2010.

 Applicants in the two groups must apply and pay “administrative costs” and submit to a background check.

A third group identified only as “professionals”, or “talented entrepreneurs” will be given special status to remain without fear of deportation.

 Obama’s executive order does not include a “path” to permanent residence or citizenship, nor does it provide eligibility for government benefits i.e. welfare, Obamacare.  But in a late announcement the White House now says that those newly protected from deportation but still without permanent residence status or citizenship, will be eligible for Social Security benefits and Medicare.

 This looks like another Obama policy that will create another huge bureaucracy with non-transparent rule making authority.  It raises several important questions.  If the three year work permits are renewable it creates an open ended and permanent condition of temporary legality for millions of people.  If these “temporary” workers are convicted of crimes do they lose their protection from deportation?  The same question applies to the millions of children brought illegally who are now protected from deportation, even as they reach adulthood.

 Is it really feasible to conduct background check on 5 million people all at once.  What will be the standards that define “pass or fail”.  Will those that fail whatever standards are used for the checks be subject to deportation?

 Obama is essentially eradicating the consequences of illegal entry into the U.S. for all immigrants, except a statistically few who fall into the category of “serious criminals” because besides granting work permits to the estimated five million parents of children, legal and illegal, he is ordering Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to not “actively” try to deport the remaining six million illegals who don’t qualify for the new program.

 In addition, ICE will end the Secure Communities Program” which linked federal and local authorities to identify illegals who entered state and local criminal justice systems.  Now, only illegals “convicted of serious crimes” will be referred to ICE.

 With respect border enforcement, only a vague statement of “additional resources” being made available was included.

 Taken together Obama has through executive order cancelled the nation’s immigration policies and encouraged millions of additional immigrants, to enter illegally to take advantage of the next “reform” package. 

 Besides being bad policy, this President who came into office in 2008 promising to work across party lines through compromise and leadership has now culminated six years of blaming Republicans for “doing nothing” by not accepting his policies as stated, and by telling the new Republican majorities in both houses of Congress that he will act without them to “legislate” his preferred agenda.  His empty assertion that if the Congress passes an “acceptable’ Immigration Reform before January 1, 2015, his executive action will no longer apply, fools no one.  The divided “lame duck” Congress will not and cannot act on this, and in any case would not pass legislation that duplicates Obama’s blanket amnesty.

 A Republican led immigration reform effort should be prioritized once the new Congress is convened.  Recognition of the reality that eleven million illegal immigrants spread across the nation cannot be deported will have to be addressed.  Republicans however have stressed that before concessions to the existing group of illegals is made, that first border control must be enforced so that whatever reform policy that follows does not stimulate another surge of illegal immigration.  Granting legal residency to those already here makes sense but including a path to citizenship as a reward for entering the country illegally makes little sense.  Of course, any Republican constructed reform legislation will face an Obama veto as he is content to perpetuate his quasi-reform for the last two years of his administration.

 The political impact of his arbitrary action however will extend to attempts to deal with numerous other important public policy needs.  As Speaker of the House Boehner has stated, the “well has been poisoned”.  Obama has dismissed the constitutionally established  powers of the Congress:

    Article 1. Section. 1.

“All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”

Now a wall of mutual distrust and animosity has been overlaid on an existing level of ideological gridlock.  Budgets, foreign policy and trade initiatives, environmental policies, infrastructure, minimum wage levels and national security policies will all feel the weight of Obama’s indifference and hostility to congressional prerogatives. 

 

Monday, November 10, 2014

THE U.S. CONGRESSIONAL ELECTION


The votes are counted and the Republican Party has gained control of the U.S. Senate, increased its majority in the House of Representatives and won numerous state governorships across the nation.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has again publically demonstrated her microscopic intellect by proclaiming “…..it will mean the end of civilization as we know it.” Since there have been few noticeable runs on food, guns and ammunition, nor are citizens fortifying their homes in anticipation of social chaos, Pelosi seems to once again to be speaking from her very own alternate universe.
But what actually happened?  Obama refuses to take the blame.  He first said it was simply “the map” i.e. a large number of the Senate races were in traditionally conservative states. But these states had elected Democrats in 2008 with help from Obama’s “coat tails”.  Then Obama used the time worn excuse that “We didn’t do a good job of getting our message out.”  But the excitement of “Hope and Change” in 2008 was exposed as the hollow platitude that it was by a coat tail snipping perception of confusion and incompetence over the next eight years which was itself the “message” about Democratic governance.   
Other Democrats and their supporters in the liberal pundit world have blamed the enormity of the loss on the low turnout of the traditional liberal support groups; young voters, single women, minorities, illegal aliens and dead people in Chicago.  But they don’t address the obvious question of “why did these groups stay home”?  Again it is the inescapable conclusion that Obama and his supporters in the Congress were leading the nation on the “wrong track” (66% Rasmussen poll, week ending Nov.2).  Different individuals and groups have different issues underlying this statistic.  The most significant in terms of disapproval has consistently been the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) which affects everyone and which has never had majority public support since 2009.  Confusion, inconsistency and ineptitude in foreign policy has angered both the Left and the Right (Iran, Benghazi, ISIS).  Political cowardice with respect to the approval or rejection of the Keystone Pipeline has had a similar bi-partisan effect as has the proliferation of Obama Administration scandals (VA health care; IRS, NSA domestic electronic surveillance). 
Actually, the election results could have several short term positive effects. It will move current hyper-partisan and pugnacious Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from the podium to the bleachers where he will no longer have control over the Senate’s agenda. Second, it will allow Republican initiatives in the House to gain a hearing, and probable support, in the Senate.  Legislation passed by both houses of Congress becomes law if the President signs it.  Obama would be faced with using his veto to maintain his ideological loyalty to the far Left of his party or giving up his claim that he is saddled with a “do nothing Congress” and “It is all the Republicans fault”.  Faced with an array of new Republican sponsored legislation and blocking it all with vetoes, he could become the “do nothing President”.
So what could, maybe or should,  a Republican Congress do in the two years before the end of the Obama presidency and the 2016 national elections? 
Obamacare as the focus of much criticism and general unpopularity, which was verified in the mid-term election, will be one focus of attention.  Calls to repeal the entire act have been a part of the Republican congressional caucus mantra for several years.  This goal can still be heard in the post-election discussion.  However, the Republican leaders in the new Congress, as well as everyone else in the caucus, know with certainty that wholesale repeal is not possible nor politically wise given the large number of people who would lose their new health insurance policies, whether they like them or not.  The Democrats in the Senate can still filibuster any repeal legislation to death and the additional certainty of an Obama veto serves as a back-up.  However, the two thousand plus page bill created several bureaucratic sub-agencies with limited accountability as well as other restrictions on choice of providers, and  provisions which run up the costs to premium payers, which can and should be changed. Some congressional Democrats and even Obama himself has spoken about the possibility of reform.  Because of the broad lack of approval of Obamacare as a whole among voters, legislation to do this has a decent chance of coming out of the new Congress. President Obama should be hesitant to veto “fixes” to this unpopular program.
“Comprehensive” immigration reform is another “hot button” issue which Obama has made even more controversial with his threat to bypass Congress and change the law by Executive Order by the end of the calendar year unless the current Congress presents him with a bill that satisfies his own preferences.  This is unlikely because the new Republican majority Congress doesn’t take office until January, 2015.   With the Democrats still in control of the Senate until then, the prospects for a compromise on such a bill are very low.  Republicans will be under pressure to pass a bill soon after the new Congress takes office in January to offset  Obama’s arbitrary and possibly unconstitutional action.  He then will be under pressure to sign such a bill if it has broad political support across the nation.  However, as a “lame duck” president in the final two years in office he doesn’t seem to be seeking public approval, an attitude, along with the public’s perception of general incompetence, that was a significant factor in the Republican sweep in the mid-term election.
Other possible/probable legislative initiatives which have been on the Republican wish list include the following:
Tax reform;  Congressional Republicans in general, support lowering the corporate income tax rate to internationally competitive levels. Democrats have made the very word “corporations” an ideologically based pejorative, using it as the basis for ridiculous class warfare conspiracy theories. However, if tax reduction legislation includes closing tax loopholes for corporations it might generate enough Democrat support in the new Congress to be viable. 
Reform of the entire tax code is also a possibility with such things as a “flat tax” vs. the current progressive rate structure, and overall simplification being the most mentioned.
“Fast Track” trade authority which the President wants and which allows him to negotiate trade agreements with the Congress limited to an up or down vote without amendments is a possibility although  unions and their liberal supporters are opposed.

 Infrastructure spending has support among Republicans and has been a constant talking point for Obama and Democrats.

 But there are several issues which are part of the ideological divide which Republican should not hesitate to address and force the president to confront.  Government spending and the related astronomical government debt should be a priority.   These could include:

1.  Cutting all government bureaucracies administrative staffs through attrition by some fixed percentage.

2.  Review and cut selected government agricultural subsidies and crop deferral programs.

3. Review and set an independent oversight board for all research grants.

4. Require all Cabinet Secretaries to review and justify all sub-cabinet agencies within their departments.

5. Make Food Stamps (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).) applications part of federal tax returns to ensure eligibility and make vendors obligated by law to verify the identity of users. Limit use to basic food stuffs and make transfer illegal and punishable by loss of eligibility.

 Republicans will be tempted to push through a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.  An overly simple requirement would be a dangerous requirement by requiring huge immediate cuts which could be recklessly applied.  A staged process based on some objective criteria like a percentage of GDP would be more easily applied. This however would be a long process if even possible, with the requirement of a two thirds vote in both houses of Congress and then approval  by three fourths (38) of state legislatures.  After the election, thirty-three states have Republican governors; twenty-three states have a Republican governor and a Republican controlled legislature.  Only seven states are controlled by Democrats.

 Calls for the impeachment of Obama, even if he pursues possible unconstitutional abuse of Executive Orders would be politically foolish and counter productive.  The votes are probably there in the House which initially votes by simple majority to pass a bill of Impeachment, but Speaker John Boehner has expressed his opposition to introducing such a bill.  The “trial” following the indictment-like impeachment bill occurs in the Senate which also requires a two thirds vote for removal which the Republicans are far from having. Other than being an historical embarrassment for the President, it would further divide the nation and be the subject of accusations of racism when the American people yearn for some level of bi-partisanship and relief from political gridlock. 

 Political leaders on both sides agree that the election gives the Republican Party an opportunity to change their greatly diminished “brand” in a way that will sustain their electoral support and provide an enhanced possibility for success in the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.  This will require a real effort to come together to produce realistic solutions to the nation’s problems and reignite some level of optimism in the electorate.  Some measure of moderation will be critical, keeping in mind that Obama has the power of the veto and approximately one third of the electorate are Independents.
 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

ISLAM: POLITICAL CORRECTNESS & FACTS


The recent televised dust up over the essential character of the Islamic religion and its place in the modern world has probably garnered more attention than it deserves because of its venue, the Bill Maher show on HBO.  Nonetheless, Maher and his guest, author, neuroscientist and atheist philosopher, Sam Harris, voiced the feelings and concerns of many Americans whose opinions of the Islamic religion are heavily influenced by the 9/11 attacks and chaotic violence which has occurred in the Middle East for decades.  The more recent abhorrent brutality of the Islamic State, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan ,and the terrorist acts of Al Qaeda have dominated the news and overwhelmed any public perception that there is indeed a “moderate Muslim” majority.

 Maher, in his usual boorish style, said the following:  Islam  is “the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will [expletive] kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” and “the Muslim world . . . has too much in common with ISIS.   Guest Sam Harris added that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas,” 

 
The discussion owes much of its notoriety to the response of Maher’s other guest, movie personality, “activist” and doctrinaire liberal, Ben Affleck, who in full politically correct attack mode, yelled that Maher’s remarks were   “ gross, racist and stereotyping.“  Of  the three, only stereotyping really fits.  “Gross”, a word with many meanings, was just  Affeck’s  personal  choice of adjectives.  Since Islam is not a “race” Maher’s comments could hardly be “racist”, but in debates over social issues, “racist” like it’s two  tiresome sisters, “sexist” and “homophobic” is one of the first bullets out of the left wing gun.

 While it is difficult to understand why anyone would care what Bill Maher or Ben Affleck  think  about anything , the debate struck a collective nerve in the liberal media establishment probably because both Maher and Affleck are creatures of the political Left.  But since Maher seemed to speak for so many ordinary Americans (the un-rich and un-famous), his comments are worth some analysis.

 To this end, there has been a multitude of condemnation from the expected sources on the Left.  A less excited examination however has been offered by Fareed Zakaria, well known expert on international relations, and known for his political eclecticism although in general a resident of the moderate Left.

 Zakaria first makes the most common argument against characterizing the religion of Islam as violent, intolerant and anti-modern by pointing out that world -wide there are 1.6 billion Muslims. However, he then goes on to weaken the importance of this fact himself.

 
“The places that have trouble accommodating themselves to the modern world are disproportionately Muslim.”

 In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim.”

 “Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority.”

 “The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities. “

 
Still, Zakaria seeks to reject Maher’s wholesale condemnation of Islam with the “moderate Muslim” argument.

 There are; “Places such as Indonesia and India “which “have hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t fit these caricatures.”

 
However, Zakaria, Indian born himself, while basically correct, chooses to ignore the fact that numerous violent acts by Muslim mobs against the Hindu majority have occurred in India , the most common being the destruction of Hindu temples.  With regard to Indonesia, the world’s most populace Muslim nation, A 2012 Op-Ed article in the New York Times, by  Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch, exposes the inaccuracy of this portrayal.

 It is fashionable these days for Western leaders to praise Indonesia as a model Muslim democracy. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has declared, ‘If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.’ And last month Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, lauded Indonesia as showing that ‘religion and democracy need not be in conflict.”

 However the facts tell a different story. Also from Harsono:

 The rights of religious and ethnic minorities are routinely trampled. While Indonesia’s Constitution protects freedom of religion, regulations against blasphemy and proselytizing are routinely used to prosecute atheists, Bahais, Christians, Shiites, Sufis and members of the Ahmadiyya faith — a Muslim sect declared to be deviant in many Islamic countries. By 2010, Indonesia had over 150 religiously motivated regulations restricting minorities’ rights.”

 “In August 2011, for example, Muslim militants burned down three Christian churches on Sumatra. No one was charged and officials have prevented the congregations from rebuilding their churches.”

 “Christians are not the only targets. In June 2008, the Yudhoyono administration issued a decree requiring the Ahmadiyya sect to “stop spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principal teachings of Islam,” including its fundamental belief that there was a prophet after Muhammad.”

 “Mr. Yudhoyono is not simply turning a blind eye; he has actively courted conservative Islamist elements and relies on them to maintain his majority in Parliament, even granting them key cabinet positions. These appointments send a message to Indonesia’s population and embolden Islamist extremists to use violence against minorities.”

 
However, the essence of Zakaria’s argument, and others like President Obama, is the commonly used percentage argument.

 “A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbors deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities.”  Says Zacharia.

Of course when using 1.6 billion as a base it is easy to describe large groups as “”small” based on percentages. This is a valid argument if one is responding to a lazy claim like Maher’s that all practitioners of Islam behave in similar ways.  However, no matter the percentage level of extremists and terrorists who justify their barbarism with their religion, if the real number of such individuals is very large, then as Zarkaria admits, “But let’s be honest. Islam has a problem today.”

In fact, the “small percentage”, “tiny minority” etc. argument becomes irrelevant.  Islamic extremists are operating throughout much of the world.  Current estimates of the number of fighters in the Islamic State alone are in the range of 40,000.  Then of course there is a plethora of other armed militias operating in the battle against the Assad regime in Syria and the search among them for “moderate” Muslims is approaching futility.  Add to this the Hezbollah Shi’ite terrorist organization in Lebanon, the various Sunni extremist groups in Gaza, Libya, and Somalia, the infamous Boka Haram group in Nigeria, and of course al Qaeda and its numerous affiliates across the Middle East, and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Extremists Imams openly preach violence in mosques in Britain, France and even in the United States while “politically correct” apologists led by President Obama continue the “tiny minority” trope.  If only one percent of the world’s Muslims ‘participate in or support the anti-west, fundamentalist’s jihad, their real number would amount to sixteen million and Zakariai’s admission that “Islam has a problem” becomes a serious understatement.  But the problem is in no way exclusively internal to Islam.  Islam’s “problem’ becomes everyone else’s problem. The existence of disparate violent groups united by a common interpretation of their religious teachings promise  permanent conflict, international political and economic instability, and the continuous threat of senseless violence perpetrated against the world’s private citizens . 

The jihadists are Muslims.  They exist in large numbers.  They justify their horrific acts with the same religious texts that the larger Islamic population uses as a basis for their faith:

Zakaria says that “reform” from within coupled with “respect” from outside “will work with Islam over time.”  But who will lead the “reform” from within?  If such an international movement currently exists it is invisible and ineffective and there is no “time”. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

RACE AND JUSTICE


The ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri are a relentless reminder of the racial divisions in the nation.  The entire episode has become as familiar, tragic and repetitive as the annual over crowded ferry boat sinkings in Bangladesh.  The immediate sequence of events has become predictable; the rush to judgment, the hyperbolic accusations, and the general acceptance and exploitation by the media, of the claims.  This is quickly followed by the arrival of the professional race mongers like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who swoop in from afar like  buzzards  on road kill ,to lead the chants, repeat the exaggerations and give the civil disorder in the minds of the disorderly some perverse sense of legitimacy.  But the underlying frustration of the non-involved across the nation lies in the knowledge that there is no remedy, either in law or public policy that will end the inevitability of future similar incidents.

There is much pontificating about alleged “causes” of racial turmoil over interactions with the nation’s police forces.  Some bring up the never ending reference to the “legacy of slavery” and decades of discrimination prior to the civil rights era and the passing of the Civil Rights bill in 1964.  Others cite high unemployment and high levels of poverty among urban blacks.  Still others blame a “history” of police brutality and racial discrimination by law enforcement organizations.  In the case of Ferguson, the media suggested that the lack of local black politicians and police officers created an atmosphere of distrust by the black majority population in this small town of 21,000 people.

Thus the black citizens of Ferguson were presented with a multiple choice set of justifications including “all of the above”, for making snap decisions on the circumstances of the fatal interaction between Michael Brown and police officer DarrenWilson and then taking to the streets to proclaim “No justice. No peace.” and in some cases to loot and destroy their own community’s businesses.  Based on the demands for “vengeance”, the inflammatory words of the Governor of Missouri, and the pandering of the U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, who tried to make himself part of the aggrieved crowds, the definition of “justice” seems to be nothing less than a murder conviction for the police officer involved, no matter what facts the investigations disclose.

The nation cannot go back in history and change the curse of slavery which was brought to our shores by British colonists.  Nor can we go back and change the decades of racial hostility and discrimination following the Civil War.  It took a long time but the nation has tried hard to change the culture with wide ranging legislation like the aforementioned Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, numerous programs of affirmative action and billions in public transfers of wealth to minorities. 








Again, to non-involved observers it appears that most of the protestors and looters are too young to have felt the sting of the overt racial discrimination of the 1950s through the 1960s. Thus, largely immune to the social dysfunction of the past, the 20-40 age cohort currently in the streets seem logically to be motivated by something else.  Is their anger of the shooting of a young black man really increased because of the frustration of high unemployment in their community, especially among black teenagers (currently at 36%)  Perhaps, but that particular frustration’s contribution to their anger is difficult to measure, it is even more difficult for government to change.  High unemployment is related to low educational levels, especially in an era of diminishing low skill manufacturing jobs and the shift to technology which requires higher skills. 

The basic requirement for entry level jobs in the nation is a high school diploma.  The nation wide level for blacks is 69%.  This number includes students of both sexes.  This is important because  across all races, females have a 7% higher graduation rate than males.  Applying this figure to blacks would indicate that young black males have a graduation rate of close to 64%.

Stated differently, close to one in three (33%) young black males drops out of high school before obtaining a diploma.  The devastating impact on black male employment is obvious as is the inability of government at any level to find easy solutions for the problem.

What we are seeing here is an effort to take an incident involving a specific black citizen and a specific police officer, who happens to be white, in a specific set of circumstances and generalize it as a part of a historical and nation-wide set of social and economic conditions which are more relevant to the protests than the shooting itself.

It is genuinely possible that the Brown/Wilson confrontation had nothing to do with race.  Law enforcement in black majority Ferguson, MO would make interaction between white officers and young black men commonplace.  The issues known about the incident so far, walking in the middle of the street, a fight and gun shot in the police car, and the possibility of a threat of further attack on the officer, don’t have obvious racial content.  But as in so many of incidents between blacks and non-blacks, there seems to be an emotional need on the part of various black communities to exploit the incident as an almost cathartic response to wider perceived grievances.  This of course provides grist for the mill of racial demagogues  like Jackon, Sharpton, and various radical activists like the New Black Panthers.

Police concentrate on locations where crime occurs. Crime occurs disproportionately in poor black urban areas.  Police departments will remain mostly white or at least non-black simply because of demographics. The black population in the nation remains at 12-13 percent and recruitment of blacks to become police officers is very difficult.  Thus violent interactions between black men and non-black police will continue.  Given the mindset of much of the urban black population regarding a sense of racial victimization, these interactions will continue to stimulate outrage, protests and occasional urban violence.  The presence of those who depend on such confrontations and outrage for personal status, money, celebrity and influence will contribute to their inevitability.

The only possible solution to this dynamic is a significant change in the black urban sub-culture. Reform of existing racial animus and overreaction on the part of individual police officers and some police departments will help.  But mistrust of police agencies, and the self perpetuating culture of lack of respect for authority generated by the breakdown of two parent families, and the exaggerated machismo of the hip hop and gang  culture that affects so many young black men is generally beyond the scope of government solutions. 

Michael Brown was an exception in some ways but was part of the culture in others.  He had a high school diploma; had a father in the area but with whom he didn’t live, and wasn’t a member of a gang.  Still he felt entitled enough to rob a convenience store, big enough to man handle the black store clerk, defiant enough to walk down the middle of the street and  reject the commands of a police officer to move to the side walk and then tough enough to engage the officer physically in the police car.
 

The investigations will show whether the officer over reacted and violated department guidelines  or whether he was justified in feeling that he was seriously physically threatened by the six foot four, 290 pound teenager who had punched him in the face minutes before.  In either case, there is still room to believe that had Michael Brown been white the events would have played out in the same way.