Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 July 2010

Young People, Please Save Us (and Yourselves), Again!

[For comment on the noseless woman and the apparent propaganda war against the President, click here. For a more recent update to that story, click here. For an update on the May 6 “flash crash,” click here.]

A month before the last presidential election, I implored you young people to save us, and yourselves.

You rose to the occasion. You worked your tails off for candidate Obama and made him President.

I know, because my wife and I let one of you stay in our home during the last three weeks of the campaign. We rarely saw our campaign worker, whom we called the “phantom.” He was up before we were and came back from work after we had gone to bed. He and you should be proud of what you accomplished.

Now you have to do the same sort of thing again. It’s going to be harder this time, because the President’s name won’t be on the ballot.

There will be people there whom you barely know, because you’ve rightly focused on your own lives, which are just beginning, not local politics. Unless you live in an unusual congressional district, you won’t be able to vote for a charismatic and admirable figure like the President.

So your motivation will have to come from understanding what’s at stake, not personal admiration. That’s tough, but you can do it.

Make no mistake about it. November’s election is just as important as the presidential election in which you already worked so hard. Why? Because it’s really the very same election continued.

Long before the President’s inauguration, the Republicans settled on a simple strategy. They knew the economy was going in the tank, because their policies caused the collapse, and because it had already started on their watch. They knew things would inevitably get worse for a while, at least two or three years. (No economy, let alone the world’s biggest, has ever turned around on a dime, let alone after a major shock like the 2008 collapse.)

So they decided to block and to ridicule every attempt to make things better and blame the consequences on the President. And that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Don’t believe me? Look at history. Three days after the President’s inauguration, Rush Limbaugh announced the Republicans’ goal. “I hope,” Limbaugh said, “he [the President] fails.”

I just retired last January. I’m 65 years old. In my long life, I can’t remember any public figure ever saying anything of the kind. Whether you agree with him in every instance or not, Barack Obama is our president. Saying that you want him to fail is saying that you want us—America—to fail. What a traitorous, cynical thing for any public figure to say!

But that was the plan. The Republicans didn’t just name their goal. They pursued it with avidity and lockstep discipline.

In eighteen months, in a nation desperate for fundamental change, only three significant new laws have made it through the gauntlet of solid Republican opposition. The stimulus package got through early on, because everyone (including some Republicans) feared there would be a second Great Depression without it. Health-insurance reform got the support of a handful of moderate Republicans, who understood that too many people were suffering and dying because of tricky policies—and even trickier behavior—on the part of private insurers. And financial reform made it through because even Republicans understood that virtually every private citizen blamed Wall Street for the economic collapse, and rightly so.

But every other initiative of the President’s failed due to lockstep Republican opposition. A much-needed second stimulus failed. Comprehensive immigration reform was dead on arrival. Attempts to reduce our suicidal dependence on foreign oil and curb climate change failed. Even attempts to extend unemployment benefits to people out of work for no fault of their own failed, until the GOP began to understand that opposing the extension was political suicide. Most recently, the GOP killed a bill to support small businesses under stress, although the bill earlier had had extensive bipartisan support, including the endorsement of the National Chamber of Commerce and other traditionally Republican organizations.

GOP leaders Boehner and McConnell say these bills all failed because Republicans had better ideas, and the Democrats didn’t listen. But watch what they did, not what they say. Every time one of these bills came up for a decisive vote, the Republicans were unanimous, or nearly so, against it. Can you name any GOP idea, to which the President paid no attention, that was self-evidently so brilliant as to justify that sort of adamant, lock-step opposition?

The final piece of the puzzle is timing. As I’ve outlined in another post, the GOP’s five chief “complaints” today are nothing new. The GOP announced them—every one of them!—before February 2009, one month after the President’s inauguration, before the President had announced his policies or done anything of note, except propose the stimulus (which all competent economists then supported).

Look over the list of five, and you’ll see precisely what the GOP argues today. Their game plan has not changed since the President took office. It is to make him look bad and regain power so they can continue the policies that brought us to this point.

Which brings me back to you. You understand these things, or you will if you pay attention. What you may not understand is that it’s your future at stake.

Whatever happens in November, the Republicans cannot take control of both Houses, and the President will still have veto power. So the only thing a Republican “victory” in November will create is more gridlock in Washington. If the Republicans make substantial gains, nothing serious or substantial will get done during the next two years, and the 2012 presidential campaign will begin almost immediately. Imagine another two years of incessant bickering, negative attacks, and finger pointing, with nothing getting done!

As youth, you’re just starting out on your adult lives and careers. I don’t have to tell you that jobs are scare in America and getting scarcer. We’re falling behind China (which is booming), Europe (which is recovering slowly) and even India and Brazil (which are growing rapidly from a much smaller base than ours).

In jobs, new industries, education and infrastructure, we are falling further and further behind the rest of the world. If this trend continues, you will spend the best years of your life in a once-leading nation struggling to catch up.

The GOP just doesn’t seem to care. It has its agenda: let everything go to hell and take power at the next election. If Republicans really cared about your future and the nation’s, would they act that way?

So once again, I implore you. You’ve got several weeks yet before you go back to school or college. Use them wisely. Contact your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Let them know this coming election is not about race, “socialism,” big government, debt, the right to bear arms, or whether the President is really an American (he is, as much as you or I!). It’s about you and your future.

If the GOP prevails with their “make the country lose so we win” strategy, then you lose, too. You career and your earnings will never recover from the minimum two or three years of economic doldrums that will result. And don’t even think about a “lost decade” like the one Japan just went through.

So tell the people you contact that you love them. Tell them they may not understand, especially if they listen to Fox Propaganda as their principal source of “news.” But ask them to do one thing for you, because they love you, too: get off their duffs and vote for every Democrat on the ballot, whether they recognize the names or not.

Fox Propaganda is good at one thing. It’s the most effective machine of mass disinformation in human history. It’s evident goals are: (1) making lots of money for Rupert Murdoch, an immigrant from Australia, and (2) keeping the GOP in power whatever the consequences.

If Fox wins, you lose. It’s that simple. In the best case you lose just a few years. In the worst, you’ll lose a decade, as the Japanese just did, or you’ll have to to emigrate to get a good job and seek a good future.

So don’t let the propaganda fool you or the ones who love you. This election is not about personalities, race, big government, or debt. It’s about allowing the President to continue trying to make the changes that he promised, and about reducing the adamant, mindless opposition that has nearly fought him to a standstill so far. It’s about continuing to make slow and painful change, or going back to the policies of George W. Bush.

This is a hard one, I know. You worked so hard for the President, and so little has happened so far. Eighteen months can seem like an eternity. But it’s early days yet, and you know in your heart that that Party of No is responsible for the slow pace of reform.

It may be hard to motivate yourselves, or even to vote, when the President is not on the ballot and there’s no one you really admire there. But if you don’t support the President’s party, you’ll be voting against him as surely as if it were 2008 or 2012.

So make one last effort for the nation and yourselves. Work to give the President two more years of a chance to accomplish something, not two more years of impotence. It’s your own future you are fighting for. If enthusiasm doesn’t drive you, then fear of more gridlock and even direr consequences should.

[For another perspective on the upcoming elections, with questions for the right, left, and center, click here.]

Afghanistan: the War Propaganda Machine

Apparently I am one of the favored few. I went to what was then one of the best public high schools in the United States, reputed to be among the top five. In my senior year, our social-studies teacher spent two weeks teaching us how to recognize propaganda.

He was a gifted teacher and an amateur historian. He had collected decades’ worth of Life Magazine, which in the pre-Internet, pre-TV era served as a sort of national chronicle. He showed us one example of wartime propaganda from that chronicle that I still remember 48 years later.

It had come out during the First World War, when the Kaiser’s Germany was our enemy. It showed hand-drawn profiles of two soldiers, top and bottom. The top one had a western profile, with a bulge at the back of the head. A small arrow pointed into the bulge, indicating the location of the “soul.” Underneath was a Prussian solider’s profile, with a straight back of the neck and head running together. The back of the head had no discernible bulge, as is common among that ethnic group. Here a similar arrow ended in empty space, demonstrating how Germans have “no soul.” This bit of propaganda drew particular force from the popularity, at that time, of a pseudo-science called “phrenology,” which taught that the shapes of bulges on people’s skulls could reveal their character.

To a science-oriented student growing up in the fifties and sixties, this patent propaganda was both jarring and memorable. It raised questions in my mind. First, how could the magazine’s publishers have engaged in such obviously fanciful demonization of the enemy? Second, how could they stoop so low in a war that, as far as anyone has been able to determine then or since, had no rational justification besides imperial hubris on all sides?

Most scholars and students of World War I believe it accomplished nothing but massacring the flower of male youth in Western Europe and setting the stage for Germany’s aggression in World War II. In its scale and damage, it may have been history’s most senseless war. Was there some sociopolitical law at work here? Is senseless demonization of the enemy proportional to the senselessness of the war?

All this baggage of memory floated to the surface when I looked at Time magazine’s cover page for this week. (Time Magazine, August 9, 2010.) It shows a photo of an otherwise attractive Afghan woman, in a head scarf, with her nose cut off, reportedly on order from the Taliban. The caption is “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.”

Now there are differences between these two exemplars of propaganda. Life’s examplar from World War I was obviously fanciful and false. In contrast, I cannot believe that an icon of journalism like Time would have falsified the photograph, although it’s easy enough to do these days, and although a noted blogger recently did the equivalent to text. So I start from the presumption that Time is visually telling the truth, i.e., that somewhere in Afghanistan the photographed victim of tribal cruelty actually lives, and that members of the Taliban were partly responsible.

For me, what this comparison illustrates is how much more sophisticated mainstream propaganda has grown since World War I. The story inside even tells more of the truth. The real culprits were the woman’s cruel in-laws, who had kept her as a slave. Her brother-in-law held her down, while her husband actually did the cutting (of both ears, as well as the nose). A Taliban leader merely rendered a tribal-Islamic judgment, with which the cruel in-laws were only too happy to comply. But if you don’t read the story inside and just look at the cover, or the equally horrible image on page 21, you could succumb to overwhelming revulsion for the Taliban, without even thinking whether all, most or even some of them would have acted that same way.

Demonization of the enemy is never an effective strategy, especially in a war like Afghanistan’s, which requires subtlety, finesse and winning hearts and minds over from the enemy. This is not a “total war” like World War II; it is a war against a domestic insurgency that is partly a national liberation movement, partly a combatant in an inter-ethnic civil war (nearly all of the Taliban are Pashtun), and partly a radical religious jihad. The fact that Time’s publishers, who are firmly entrenched in the business wing of our ruling class, released this blatant propaganda suggests that they and the war’s supporters have run out of good reasons for continuing it.

In fact, this sort of propaganda contravenes our current strategy in Afghanistan. No one in our military believes that we have the force, let alone the time, to kill all the Taliban. So we must co-opt some of them, that is, win them over to our or the Afghan government’s side. Afghan President Hamid Karzai supports this strategy even more than we do. Demonizing all of the Taliban, without regard to their beliefs, loyalties and actions, is not the best way to effect this strategy.

The Time story is obvious propaganda. It undermines our strategy in the region and reduces our chances of “winning” (whatever that means) at all, let alone in any reasonable time. So why is one of the principal organs of our ruling class, which used (in my youth) to be far right wing but has become more tolerant and reasonable in recent years, promulgating such propaganda? That is the $64 billion question (about what we’re likely yet to spend in Afghanistan even if we begin to withdraw on the President’s stated schedule.)

Women are the President’s strongest supporters. They put him in the White House. They also happen to be more strongly opposed to the war in Afghanistan than men by a considerable margin. They see no profit or benefit from it, and many males are beginning to agree with them.

The Time cover and cover story are aimed right at women’s guts. All a woman (especially a young one) has to do is look at that noseless woman and put herself in her place, and she will hate the Taliban viscerally and want the war to continue to “victory” (whatever that means) at all costs. She also might want to achieve that “victory” by killing as many Taliban as possible, regardless of their views and actions, and regardless of whether they are “reconcilable” to an Al-Qaeda-less Afghanistan, which is our principal goal.

It’s a propaganda ploy worthy of Tokyo Rose. But one question still remains. Why bother? Why should Time Magazine play the part of Tokyo Rose or Goebbels? What is so important to convince it to forfeit its current image of objectivity and reasonableness, which it has carefully nurtured for years, after abandoning its consistently right-wing stance from the days when the Luce family (its original publishers) were still in control?

It can’t be the war itself. Joe Klein, Time’s best columnist, has consistently questioned the war, its aims, and its prosecution. In fact, some of his columns have been the best analyses of their length available in the mainstream press. Anyway, Time's publishers and editors are surely smart enough to know that the war in Afghanistan is no longer vital to our national security (if it ever was) now that Al Qaeda has metastasized into dozens of countries, some of which (like Somalia) are even more chaotic than Afghanistan.

So again, why stoop so low? Why now? It’s always possible that Time, which seems to be getting thinner every week, is falling toward bankruptcy and has to stoop to Hearst-like sensationalism in order to to sell enough magazines to survive. But another explanation is equally plausible. Maybe Time’s publishers and editors have bought the right-wing propaganda about the President’s “socialist” and “anti-business” tendencies and have declared war, not on the Taliban, but on him.

The immediate effect of this propaganda is to put the President in a vise. If he moves to widen or continue the war, especially after the “deadline” of next July, his left wing will peel off or stay home on election day. If he moves to wind it down, a significant number of women, inflamed by that graphic cover (and an equally revolting picture on page 21), may peel off or stay home. Thus the best the President can do politically is say nothing about Afghanistan until the election is over and let his underlings try to mollify both sides. But even that approach puts a president known for his transparency and honesty in an awkward position, to say the least.

The sheer horrifying impact of the two noseless images make this political motivation, in my view, the more probable one. Time seems to be out to win the election for the right. If that’s the case, it’s an especially depressing and ominous development.

In the Reagan era and before, Time was so consistently and mindlessly right wing that I would not have it in my home. But my wife has had a subscription for several years, I read it fairly regularly, and I find it generally balanced and thoughtful. If, despite all that progress, Time has declared propaganda war on the President, it means our business class may have declared total political war.

No matter that the President, following the bailout policies of Dubya’s administration, has saved our economy from a second Great Depression. No matter that, in achieving modest health-insurance reform, the President has partially removed from industry the health-care millstone around its neck that was dragging it down in international competition. No matter that, in reforming the finance sector that once ate up 41% of all business profits in the nation, the President has cleared the field for a resurgence of real business, including media like Time. No matter that getting American women riled up against the Taliban generically will undermine our stated military strategy and make controlling the insurgency more difficult. For some strange reason—whether instinctual class solidarity or seduction by Fox News’ propaganda—even the sane mainstream media (or their owners) may have turned against the President.

If so, the consequences are four. First, November’s election will be the most expensive and mindlessly rancid in our nation’s history. It will make 2008 look like a cake walk. Second, for the next two years, until 2012, the President can probably expect no help at all from business people who call themselves Republicans or “conservatives,” and precious little help from the very few Republican senators who still consider themselves moderates and care about solving the nation’s problems more than scoring political points. For those few remaining good people will be under even more intense pressure, and subject to even stricter retaliation, for stepping out of the GOP party line.

Third, the President’s supporters will have to dig deep in their pockets and work long and hard if they expect the President’s effort to make needed change to continue, let alone to have any success at all. Finally, if the President’s supporters are not successful, and the Republicans gain substantial ground in November, we can expect needed change to stop cold for the foreseeable future and the likelihood of a double-dip recession to increase dramatically. We might then be a nation in irreversible decline.

UPDATE (8/5/10): The New York Timesreporting on this subject today sheds further light on how specious was Time Magazine’s propaganda.

The disfigured girl’s own father had given her at age 12 (and her sister) to the Taliban fighter who later became her husband. This sale into what became slavery was intended to settle a civil wrong: the girl’s uncle’s murder of the fighter’s relative. The fighter later married her, but as he mostly remained in hiding, his family treated her cruelly as a slave. Her running away, while justified from a Western and humanitarian perspective, “dishonored” the husband in a way that tribal idiom describes as “losing his nose.” So the fighter, with his tribal (and Taliban) commander’s approval, responded in kind.

While primitive and horrific from our point of view, all that happened was in accordance with ancient Pashtun tribal custom. It had nothing to do with Islam, Taliban doctrine (apart from tribal custom) or Taliban politics or military strategy. Yet the Time story, from the cover caption to the somewhat less inflammatory text, implies it does. The not-too-subtle subtext is that this is what will happen to all Afghanistan women if the Taliban win. Maybe, if every woman has an uncle who commits murder and must atone under tribal law.

The Time story has every element of propaganda that I learned to identify so long ago. First, although the disfiguration happened, the two photos and the story are designed to inflame the reader's horror without explaining how or why. Second, the real reason for the disfiguration—a prior murder and an ancient and primitive tribal custom for dealing with it, amounting to selling young girls into slavery to the victim’s family—Time never revealed or explained. The obvious motive for the husband’s and his family’s cruelty—having nothing to do with Islam or Taliban politics or strategy—was the murder that started the whole thing off. Third, the Time story blamed the “Taliban” generically, without the slightest hint of facts or logic to back the allegation.

Somewhere William Randolph Heart’s ghost was smiling, thinking about the war he started with similar lies about the Battleship Maine, which most scholars today believe succumbed to an accident, not sabotage. And lest we forget the long-term consequences of propaganda-motivated wars, recall that the Spanish-American war gave us Cuba, which we freed and neglected, mostly for reasons of racism, and left to reach its present state of grace.

“Flash Crash” Update (8/6/10)

It’s nice to be vindicated, and so soon. On May 18, I published a post entitled “Coming Unglued.” It warned how quickly real-time trading disasters can strike when people who understand neither computers nor electronics create electronic “free markets” to which anyone can connect a trading computer with little or no regulation, adult supervision, or real-time oversight.

Today the Wall Street Journal published [subscription required] a preliminary assessment of the “flash crash” of May 6. That brief disaster took only part of one afternoon to unfold. It caused the Dow to fall nearly one thousand points (and later to recover partly), Apple’s stock to trade briefly near $100,000 per share, and other listed, indexed stocks to trade as low as a penny.

The article quotes John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group of Mutual Funds, as follows:
“The whole system failed. In an era of intense technology, bad things can happen so rapidly. Technology can accelerate things to the point that we lose control.”
Amen, Brother Bogle!

Things can go south even quicker when the whole point of the exercise is to let greed-motivated traders program their computers to outwit each other and the markets, with no one minding the store. As the Journal reports, “high-frequency-trading” firms have strategies that “often involve buying and selling stocks within microseconds—or one-millionth of a second.”

Now there’s a valuable contribution to our real economy! You can’t even blink that fast. So what, prey tell (pun intended), fundamentals of a business, a market or the economy can change perceptibly in that short a time? None, of course.

It would be hard to imagine a better demonstration of how much our financial markets have morphed from investment vehicles supporting real business and industry into gambling casinos. And one of these “high-frequency-trading” firms is even from Kansas City, which most of us associate with old-fashioned Midwestern common sense! Maybe it’s time to invent an anti-fungal agent for our infectious cultural rot.

With ironic understatement, Journal reporter Tom Lauricella concludes: “It may be that such a market is inherently vulnerable to high-speed crashes.” Amen, Brother Lauricella! The question now is what we do about it, besides pray or wait fatalistically for disaster to strike again. Our regulatory agencies had better get busy, before a second “Flash Crash” converts a precarious and slowing recovery into 1929 redux. We are a long way from out of the woods yet.

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