Saturday, January 24, 2009

New Challenges, Old Paradigm

The talk is all about stimulating the economy, getting banks to lend money so people around the world will start buying stuff again. Meanwhile, the Antarctic is melting faster than scientists had ever imagined. How do these two facts, both displayed ad nauseum on TV, fit together?

Elites seems to have a penchant for tacking today’s problems according to yesterday’s paradigms Will the most intelligent, knowledgeable, thoughtful president this country has ever had be able to prevent two runaway locomotives from crashing head-on as they careen down the same track in opposite directions?

Worryingly, the much talked about book by a British Harvard professor called the Ascent of Money is a series of sleights of hand, a paen to Milton Friedman, guru of the Chicago school of economics that Obama’s economic team hails from.

To his credit, Obama’s chief economic advisor, Austen Gooslby believes in nudging people and institutions  into what are deemed desirable behaviors. But he appears to be working on the assumption that the world will continue on as it always has, ignoring the fact that increased consumption by eight billion and more people will accelerate climate change, perhaps irrevocably.

An article called “The Dystopians” in this week’s New Yorker partly addresses the question, and simultaneously, The Economist, in a short piece called ‘The money-go-round’ recognizes the virtue of local currencies and the lesser known idea of taxing money that’s held instead of spent.

The idea of nudging can combine the best of capitalist and socialist systems, as countries with vastly different histories and cultures feel their way in uncharted waters. But how long can leaders afford to ignore the need to close the gap between activity based on profit - whether financial or productive - and planetary processes which we can only nudge so far? Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” comes worryingly to mind.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Of Davids and Goliaths: Letter to Barack Obama

Dear Barack,

I haven’t seen your name linked to its Hebrew meaning: blessed, or its meaning in some Arab cultures: lucky.  But you can capitalize that felicitous association to implement the change your supporters are counting on.

As you take office, beyond the unique financial crisis you have to overcome, two problems stand out, but they are rarely recognized to be linked.

The first is the proposed increase in troop levels and therefore of military engagement, in Afghanistan, a country that eight years ago was run by the Taliban, who gave cover to Al Queda, which attacked the U.S.  The second is the shameful position of the American people with respect to health care.  We are the only citizens of a developed society not to enjoy some form of single payer universal health care.

There appears to be a disturbing consensus in your circle of the need to continue using military means to bring Afghanistan into the twenty-first century, not-withstanding the failed efforts of the British Empire and the Soviet Union to dominate and modernize this rough tribal culture.  Similarly, you appear to take for granted that we cannot move from a for-profit system of health care to one which makes health a right, other than gradually, over time.

Why should the health insurance industry be more willing to convert to other types of activity, or areas of insurance, ten or twenty years from now than today?  The implication that they would sounds tragically like an evasion.

You can put these two challenges together.  Investing in health instead of military solutions to global chaos would bring double dividends.

The problem in Afghanistan - or for that matter Pakistan - is no longer that they harbor Al Queda. At this point, it’s irrelevant whether Bin Lande continues to live in a cave somewhere: the horses are out of the barn.  The problem is that Taliban-like movements continue to exert influence because tribal leaders live in an ancient world.  Not having been been brought up in a modern culture, their only window into the 21st century is a military one.  They still believe that girls should not go to school, and that women are possessions.

The crisis with Islam is less with Sunni as opposed to Shia doctrine (evidenced by the cooperation between a Shia Hezbollah and a Sunni Hamas), as it is with modernity as opposed to solidarity.  Islam is about solidarity, and the confabulation of religion and politics stems from the fact the God commands solidarity.  Capitalist modernity is about competition, a mainstay of profit that keeps the notion of equality of outcomes at arms’ length - as in the provision of health care.

It’s essentially because of equality that the problems in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are linked to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict via the notion of an equal right to statehood. Israel, supported by the United States is now Goliath, while both branches of Islam are Davids fighting its superior forces. Confident in its power, Israel fails to recognize that Shia Hezbolla and Sunni Hamas cooperate not out of some passing tactical agreement, but because they share the fundamental basis of Islam: solidarity vis a vis their respective peoples.  Israeli disinformation would have the world focus on the militants’ use of terror, while Arabs focus on their financial probity and efforts to build hospitals and schools. Similarly, American cold war propaganda focused on the lack of intellectual and travel freedom in the Communist countries, condemning efforts toward economic equality, which many in Eastern Europe miss today.

Barack, if you want to lead meaningful change in America, you must recognize the fundamental conflict between profit and solidarity.  References to a middle class that includes as many lower class families as it does comfortably off families is an obfuscation that you should discard.  You can continue to recognize the role of profit and competition in society, but you must enlarge the area of solidarity created by Franklin Roosevelt.  Only then will you be heard by Muslims across the world, whose culture rests on that principle.

With that premise, you will be able to invest in Afghan and Pakistani education and development instead of fighting the Taliban.  An army that builds roads, schools and hospitals, while agricultural programs replace poppies with foodstuffs, would be a two-fer. The money saved by changing the nature of  the Afghan mission could be used to compensate the health insurance industry for whatever losses it might experience (once deduction is made of funds used for lobbying and advertisements), and finance a reorganization of health care that is not limited to electronic records.

Health care reform limited to saving money by computerizing records will not suffice to buy out the insurance industry.  But real change in our southwest Asian  policy will.   Closing the other hundred plus bases around the world would enable  us to get the economy rolling again.  It would affect people everywhere, whether they read the name Barack as blessed or lucky.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Who's Goliath Now?

The usual historical reference to what is happening in Gaza is the Holocaust. Most Jews resent Israel being compared to Nazis, but there are other historical parallels that are more difficult to dismiss.

Twelve hundred years before Christ, The Israelites were warring with the Philistines. At one point during a deadlock, a giant Philistine named Goliath called for one Israelite to face him. No soldier volunteered but David, a shepherd boy, felled Goliath with a stone from his slingshot and cut off his head.

It turns out that the land occupied by the Philistines was the modern Gaza strip, north to beyond Ashdod in Israel. And in an ironic reversal, the Philistines’ descendants now play the role of David.

Since the end of the second world war the United States has consistently backed the wrong party in the Middle East: Iraq against Iran, the Taliban against the Russians, and Israel against the Palestinians. American (as opposed to European) politicians have insisted for decades that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is irrelevant to other Middle East issues. Our mistake may stem from an unconscious racism inspired by irrational Israeli attitudes toward their fellow Semites.

Recently I learned why Israeli anti-Zionists consider the state of Israel as illegitimate: it’s because the very notion of a Jewish state conflicts with scripture.  Genesis implies that the earth from which Adam was formed was not taken from one place, but from various parts of the globe. Thus human dignity is not limited to one region, and human worth has nothing to do with appearance. Since Adam is the common ancestor of all mankind, the idea of a purely Jewish state is a rebellion against God. The definition of a Jew as anyone who has a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism in conformity with Jewish religious law excludes racism. Moses married a Midianite woman who became Jewish. And Ruth from whom David, the greatest Jewish King, is descended, came from the Moabites, traditional enemies of the Jews.

Anti-Zionists consider that the Jewish nation was not created by Zionists, but was born on Mount Sinai when the Jews adopted the Torah by saying "let us do and let us hear," and God answered: “This day you become a people."

Political Zionism was a reaction to the anti-Semitism embodied in the Dreyfus affair at the turn of the twentieth century. Its founder first proposed to resettle the Jews in Uganda; then he thought they should convert to Catholicism. Finally he hit on the idea of a Judenstaat, an exclusive Jewish state. Both Zionists and Anti-Semites believe all Jews should be confined in one place.

The Israeli state symbol, the menorah or candelabrum declares "not with armed force and not with power, but in My spirit." Anti-Zionists affirm that the Zionist state is the modern "golden calf", where sovereignty replaced Judaism’s lofty ideals, rendering the divine covenant with the Jewish people null and void. Religious obligations became a private matter rather than a duty, with divine law subject to the standards of conduct and ethics set by party and parliament.

Like the founder of political Zionism, Israel’s early prime ministers were non-believers, their claim to the Holy Land based on a Bible which they considered to be mere folklore. Anti-Zionists accuse Israel’s leaders of ignoring the fact that the Jewish people were exiled by God, destined to return only at the coming of the Messiah.

In fact, the birth of Israel came about as an invasion authorized by the international community, represented by the United Nations. But the Israelis have refused to abide by subsequent United Nations resolutions that that it must renounce land conquered in the 1967 war.

Anti-Zionists stress that violence is not a Jewish tradition or value. The Jewish people were chosen, not to set an example of military superiority, but to seek perfection in moral behavior and spiritual purity. How different is that from Mohammed's determination that his people submit to the will of Allah that they adopt high moral standards? For that matter, how different is Hamas “terrorism” from that of early Israeli settlers?

Hamas, the twenty-first century David, embodies the same  socialist principles of service to the people that inspired the Holocaust survivors to colonize Palestine. From the beginning Zionism had a military arm called Irgun, which fought to wrest Palestine from British occupation so that every Jew could enter the Holy Land. Some of Irgun’s better-known attacks were the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on 22 July 1946, and the Deir Yassin massacre of Palestinians (together with the Stern Gang) on April 9, 1948.

To finance its activities, Irgun extorted money from Zionist businessmen and ran bogus robbery scams in the local diamond industry that enabled victims to recoup their losses from insurance companies. Irgun was described as a terrorist organization by The New York Times, The Times of London, the BBC, and prominent world and Jewish figures. In 1946, the World Zionist Congress strongly condemned "the shedding of innocent blood as a means of political warfare".

From 1942 to 1948, Irgun was led by Menachem Begin, and notwithstanding this general opprobrium, it was a predecessor to the Likud party.  As Likud Prime Minister, Begin made peace with Egypt in 1979.

In the late 1980s, during the First Intifada, Israeli governments encouraged the emergence of the Palestinian religious movement, Hamas, hoping to weaken the entrenched secular movement, Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat. Like the United States in its dealings with communist movements across the world, the Israelis discounted the socialist tradition of building schools and hospitals and insisting on clean administration (implemented by the Cuban revolution and eventually emulated in Latin America). Yet these policies made Hamas the strongest Palestinian political party, just as it was with the Lebanese Hezbollah.

The modern Goliath is threatened by two Davids, one on its northern and one on its southern border.  Though there were no journalists to report it, the story of the original David lived down through the ages.  Today’s Goliath does all it can to prevent witnesses from reporting its war with the two Davids, but it too will become history.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Cradle to Grave Television

As our less foresightful politicians cry “socialism” at the prospect of “the taxpayer’s” (sic) money bailing out corporations, we have socialism in action on our tv screens.

Faced with the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, our (collective) deciders have signalled the media to go all-out with advice on how Main Streeters can survive.  There’s everything from how to save on layettes to how to avoid getting laid off (no more talk of getting laid, for the duration).

Interspersed with dire reports from the daily big board, stuck forty percent lower than a year ago, like a fallen horse in an old cowboy movie waiting for the merciful bullet, we’re told to keep buying stocks and bonds, but do it cleverly (like looking for promising companies in China). Saving money has become the primary selling point for many products, and CNN interviewed people who had decided Christmas shouldn’t be about stuff, but about solidarity.

More and more people are realizing that solidarity is what socialism is all about, and that fear of bailing out companies is really fear of where that could lead: from cradle to grave tv to a state devoted to the welfare of its citizens.