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Friday, May 13, 2016

The Dangers of this Election

For at least 35 years, our two parties have collaborated in favoring the rich over the poor.  Jointly they have repeatedly cut taxes (except under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and, in a small way, in 2013 under Barack Obama),  eliminated Glass-Steagall, cut back IRS enforcement drastically, and watched or encouraged the continual erosion of the rights of labor.  They have put through trade deals that obviously favored corporations over American workers, and they plan to do so again.  Above all, they have shut their eyes to the basic fact of capitalism, as elucidated two years ago by Thomas Piketty: that the natural processes of capitalism make capital grow faster than the economy as a whole.  That is the biggest single reason why inequality has been increasing in the United States, and it will continue to increase, as Bernie Sanders alone among the major candidates understands, unless the government intervenes drastically in the economy, most notably by increasing marginal tax rates.

Donald Trump, of course, claims that he is magically going to turn this situation around by virtue of his talents as a negotiator.  Somehow he will not only stop corporations from shipping more jobs abroad, but persuade them to bring jobs back.  I personally don't see how voters can take this seriously from some one who has never done much for working people in his life, but apparently, a good many voters do.  It is not so clear, however, that Trump is in fact drawing mainly upon the white working class--Nate Silver has pointed out that his voters are not significantly poorer than Ted Cruz's, for instance, although they are a lot worse off than John Kasich's.  Last night, on a chilling note, I watched Silver tell Trevor Noah that the strongest correlation his team has found for Trump's strongest showings is the number of "racist google searches" coming from that area.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, claims that she will go on fighting for the less well off, although she can't seem to make up her mind whether that refers mainly to women, minorities, and the LGBT community on the one hand, or to the economic lower half of the population on the other.  The New York Times recently reported, in a story based upon talks with her staffers, that she plans to pivot rightward in the fall to pick up disaffected Trump voters.  Knowledgeable analysts are arguing that she is almost sure to win by a wide margin, although Silver, who is clearly still shaken by his failure to take Trump's candidacy seriously, offered up a frightening scenario.  If the polls are reasonably close in October, worldwide fear of Trump's election could trigger a panic in the markets--and that panic in turn could turn the country against the Democrats and elect him.  Still, she is a big favorite in the betting markets at the moment, despite some disturbingly close polls in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio.

Establishment Democrats like to argue that Sanders should be shunned because he has no chance of having any of his sweeping proposals enacted.  Certainly what he wants could not pass overnight, but those who take that line have to face that they are essentially accepting the direction that our country has been going in economically since the 1970s and allowing it to continue.  And too few people, especially of course in the mainstream media, are asking a critical question: if present trends continue under another Democrat, what will the consequences be?

The premise of establishment Democratic strategy is that the party can safely rely on demographics--but in one crucial sense, demographics are turning against them.  While a great many older white voters are going for Donald Trump, a great many younger white and black voters are going for Bernie Sanders.  While there have not been enough to win more delegates than Hillary, there are a great many, and the activists among them--as I know from a Sanders Facebook page I am on--are as disgusted with establishment politics as any conservative Republican.  Young people like Sanders because they know that he is identifying very real issues: the cost of college, which has left many of them with tens of thousands of dollars in debt; the difficulty of access to health care; and the housing market, which here in the metropolitan Boston area is making it very difficult for young people in prestigious careers to afford a house.  How will they feel in four more years if Clinton has been elected and we are still going in the same direction--and perhaps are fighting a new war in the Middle East as well?

About a year ago, listening to NPR, I heard Robert Reich, who has known Hillary Clinton longer, I believe, than Bill Clinton has, suggest that, given sufficient pressure from the American public, she would move in a genuinely leftward election.  I managed to get through to the show to ask him, in more polite language, what he had been smoking, and I was gratified when he apparently reconsidered and endorsed Sanders.  Even if Clinton does try to shift leftward, however--perhaps in response to a new economic downturn, which seems bound to come sooner or later--the Congress remains so under the thumb of corporations that she probably can't get very far.  The most depressing aspect of our politics today, in my opinion, is the lack of serous left wing Senators and Congressmen--much worse than in 1930, say.   And thus, by 2020,. the Democratic Party could face an insurgency comparable to what the Republicans faced this year, and the destruction of our political establishment might be complete.

Since at least 1828, every major party has claimed to stand for the interests of the common man and woman, and parties have lost favor when their promises seemed to be completely empty.  This happened to the Republican establishment this year--and it nearly happened to the Democratic one as well.  If one believes, as I do, that the disaffection with our leaders is rooted in very real grievances, it will not go away.  The shape of a new era in our politics may not yet be clear.

[p.s.  This post has been written rather quickly, because I did not think it would have to be written at all.  Another one is ready for time.com, but the editors do not want to put it up until next week.   Since I know many readers have come to count on something here every weekend, I shared some of the week's thoughts. I shall of course post the link here when Time posts the new one.]

Friday, May 06, 2016

The New World Disorder

 Last week I attended a festival showing of a documentary film, The Peacemaker, about a remarkable Irishman named Padraig O'Malley.  O'Malley (who pronounces his first name without the "d") attended the screening and took one afterwards.  There were astonishing moments in the movie for me because of the parallels between our lives.  We both appear to have started graduate school at Harvard in 1971 (although he seems to have abandoned his studies not long afterwards), and he lives in, and has owned, a building on Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge that is nearly across the street from my home from 1973 until 1976.  But our lives have taken very different paths.  While I stayed in academia, he involved himself in the civil war in his home country, trying to bring Protestants and Catholics together starting in the 1970s to at least talk enough to begin to understand one another.  Many of those initial conversations, he explains in the film, took place in bars, not only because of the traditional Irish fondness for drink, but also because he was himself an alcoholic who did not join AA and get sober until many years later, when he had collapsed completely.  But subsequently he has done similar work all over the world, including in South Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans   Indeed, he now hosts seminars at neutral sites that bring together participants on both sides of many different conflicts, so that they may learn from one another.

The movie chose to focus on his struggle with his personal demons and its relationship to his work.  At one point the camera follows him into an AA meeting, although the scene was carefully shot to avoid showing any face but his own.  O'Malley frankly acknowledges that his experience with addiction and recovery has influenced his approach to peacemaking.  Just as AA was founded on the idea that addicts could best help other addicts, his work, his enterprise depends on the idea that adversaries from South Africa, for instance, can give good advice to Israelis and Palestinians.  He also acknowledges, it seemed to me, that he has replaced addiction to alcohol with addiction to his work.  Since I think such connections are very important to understanding the human condition, I appreciated them.  But I was disappointed that the film never went deeply into what he had actually managed to accomplish, or into his views of various world conflicts.  That was a serious gap,. because O'Malley has not only thought about, but written a book about, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, entitled The Two-State Delusion, which appears to be far more realistic than 90% of what is said about that issue. But O'Malley attended the showing and took questions, and I took the opportunity to pose a big one.

"You have been doing this work for a very long time," I said, "and you have participated in some important successes.  But looking around the world, would you say that the problems that you have been working on are getting better, getting worse, or staying about the same?"

I cannot reproduce his answer in full, but it was very clear that he had spent plenty of time thinking about this question himself.  He began on an optimistic note, doubting that we were going to experience anything comparable to the two world wars--a position with which I agree.  But he quickly added that the population of disaffected youth in many parts of the world was growing, and that the opportunities for perpetrating acts of terror were bigger than ever, partly because of the internet, where anyone--like the Tsarnaev brothers--can learn to make a bomb.  And he spoke at some length about how a "dirty bomb" could make an entire city uninhabitable in minutes, creating incredible chaos as hundreds of thousands or even millions of people tried to evacuate it, with unforeseeable consequences later on.  He specifically referred, as I have many times, to the Shi'ite-Sunni conflict in the Middle East, which like the Protestant-Catholic struggle in 17th-century Germany, might easily last for at least a generation.  In short, while he did not specifically answer my question in so many words, his long and careful answer left me with the impression that he did, in fact, think things were getting worse, and that there was no point in pretending otherwise.  That is the same spirit, apparently, that he brought to his analysis of Israel and Palestine.

That in turn fed into an aspect of my own thinking that has been percolating for some months.  No, we are not about to see a conflict parallel to the Second World War, which takes the lives of tens of millions of people.  Looking at conflict from a purely US perspective, it is fact that even now, all the casualties from our Middle East wars since 2001 do not add up to half the casualties in Vietnam during the single year 1968.  But on the flip side of the coin, we seem utterly unable to bring any of these conflicts to an end.  We live in an age of endless war.

The US involvement in the Second World War lasted less than four years.  Had the "war on terror" lasted just as long, it would have been over in 2006.  Even the Vietnam involvement, which seemed endless at the time, lasted only 11 years (1962-72, basically), and thus, on that timetable, the war in the Middle East would have been over in about 2012.  But our war in the Middle East is now beginning to escalate again (and may escalate a lot more under a new President.) It has also spread into various parts of Africa.

Taking an even broader view, the era of the two world wars in Europe has been described as the second Thirty Years War, lasting from 1914 through 1945.  A similarly broad view of the conflict in the Middle East would go back at least to the fall of the Shah in 1979, as Andrew Bacevich's new book does--and 30 years from 1979 would have brought us to 2009.  I think it would very optimistic to suggest that the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia will be at peace by 2029.

Yes, despite the great horrors of the world wars, they served a purpose.  In the end, the United States, the USSR and the British Empire mobilized resources sufficient to completely defeat their enemies--the goal laid down by Franklin Roosevelt, as I showed in No End Save Victory, in the first week of July 1941.  That enabled them to establish peace in Europe.  They could not do the same in Asia, but the Chinese Revolution--another extraordinarily brutal episode--completed that task. By 1960 the power of governments world wide was at an all-time high--both as regards their power to oppress, and to increase the general welfare.  Within ten years, however, a decline had begun, and it has continued ever since.  The prestige both of governments and of the Enlightenment principles upon which they are based has fallen precipitously,and endless war is one result.

About four years ago, I gave my last lecture at the Naval War College, which can still be viewed here. It dealt primarily with US policy in the Third World during the Cold War, but at the end, after taking questions, I made some comments on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.  And as my last slide, I used a quote from Clausewitz, by far the greatest theorist of war, that posed the problem that we faced then, and still seem likely to face for a long time.

    "In war, as in life generally, all parts of a whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all subsequent military operations. . . .In the same way, every means must influence even the ultimate purpose. . .thus we can follow a chain of sequential objectives until we reach one that requires no justification, because its necessity is self-evident. In many cases, particularly those involving great and decisive actions, the analysis myust extend to the ultimate objective, which is to bring about peace."

That, clearly, has become Padraig O'Malley's philosophy too, but it seems to be absent from the calculations of world leaders today.  They need to re-establish that objective, and to begin thinking about how to reach it, before there is any hope of bringing our era of endless war to an end.