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

22 February 2014

Украина --- Свободна (Ukraine is Free)

[For a note on why what happens in Ukraine matters, click here.]

Today, for the first time in a century, maybe its whole history, Ukraine became a free country.

Ukranians freed themselves as every people must: by their own acts, deeds and restraint. The Ukrainian people, their Parliament, their Army and their Interior Ministry all acted (or didn’t act) together to remove Yanukovych from power peacefully. Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed opposition leader, was released, and new elections are scheduled for May 25.

Refusing bribes, Ukrainian authorities prevented Yanukovych from leaving the country. But they did not detain him. Presumably he will have to answer at some future date for the sniping murders of protesters during the last several days, as well as any economic crimes he may have committed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s claim that today’s events were a “coup” by “armed extremists and thugs” is little more than a poor, sick joke. It is also a spectacular feat of historical amnesia.

In 1991, when Boris Yeltsin stood atop the tank in front of the Russian Parliament building and faced down the putschers, a sniper like those in the Maidan could easily have killed him. If that had happened, Russia’s recent history might have been far different, and far darker. Putin, who owes his power to Yeltsin, might never have become leader of Russia.

In both Russia and Ukraine, the secret of the transition to a form of democracy was precisely the same. The Army and Interior Ministry refused to open fire on their own people. In both nations, the armed forces did their jobs: protecting their people, not oppressing them.

It’s no accident that Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, working with the EU, helped negotiate the peaceful transition. It was Poland, with its Solidarity movement, that helped liberate Eastern Europe and later Russia itself. And it was Pope John Paul II, a Pole, who fostered the movement and help set Eastern Europe free.

The Polish people should be immensely proud of what they and their leaders have accomplished. They have advanced the cause of freedom in Europe and have given their neighbor and chief trading partner a chance to become strong, happy and free.

But Ukrainians have no time to celebrate, congratulate themselves, or rest. The work of freedom is hardly done. It’s just beginning.

The whole world is watching. Russia is, too. So Ukraine must be careful not to tempt Russia into counterproductive economic pressure, let alone military intervention.

Here, in order of importance, are the things Ukraine, its Parliament and a any new leader must do to secure the blessings of liberty for all Ukrainians:

1. They must disavow and refrain from any hint of revenge or reprisal against Russian interests or innocent Russian-speaking people in Ukraine. Nelson Mandela showed us all what political miracles can happen when peaceful revolutionaries forswear revenge. Ukraine cannot ignore his legacy; it must learn and apply his lesson. The last thing the world needs is another Egypt.

2. Ukraine must protect all its people, including Russian speakers, without favor, fear or prejudice. It should process applications for citizenship impartially. It would do well to make both Russian and Ukrainian official state languages, like French and English in Canada. The goal of Ukraine’s leaders should be to make Russian speakers happy that they live in Ukraine and not in Russia and examples to Russians.

3. Ukraine must honor all of its international obligations, whether under treaty or commercial contract, especially those to Russia. Politics is politics, but business is business. If Ukraine can learn that lesson, it will have something valuable to teach Vladimir Putin.

4. If Ukraine wishes to prosecute those who ordered the murderous sniping in the Maidan, it should do so only under the must scrupulously careful legal procedures, in accordance with international standards. It could do worse than turn suspected criminals of this sort over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution under global standards (and with global publicity) by neutral judges with no axes to grind.

5. Ukraine should condemn (confiscate) Yanukovych’s hideously posh personal residence, with fair compensation for the part (if any) of its price that Yanukovych gained fairly and honestly, without corruption, duress or embezzlement. It should then convert this ghastly palace into a public museum, as an example to all people of the evils of excessive power.

6. Ukraine should build a respectable but much more modest official residence and office for Ukraine’s new leaders, whether presidents or prime ministers, analogous to our White House or Britain’s 10 Downing Street. No one owns the White House or the Kremlin; each is on loan to a leader only as long as he or she lawfully serves the people.

If Ukraine’s people and leaders take these and similar steps, they can show the world how people power can work, peacefully, gradually and respectfully to all concerned. If they do so, they will secure their freedom, and maybe even Putin will follow their example.

Why Ukraine is Important

Let’s face it. Most of us Yanks think about Ukraine as much as we think about the novels of Proust. We pay attention only when there’s an abortive Orange Revolution or blood on the Maidan.

But we ought to pay a lot more attention, starting now. Why? Because Ukraine could be the key to a final, conclusive end to the Cold War. It could also be a model for global peace, prosperity, security and harmony.

Why is Ukraine so important? Because of its geographic, historical, linguistic and demographic position.

For most of the last millennium, Ukraine was a trading crossroads between Western and Eastern Europe, including Russia. It self-evidently wants to be so again.

Ukraine can never “get away” from Russia. They’re neighbors. They share the Black Sea, with all its ecological problems and opportunities for development and trade. Russia is Ukraine’s largest trading partner and supplies a critical part of Ukraine’s energy.

Ukraine is also bound to Russia by language and history. It’s Russia’s “mother country.” The two nations speak closely related Slavic languages. Both use the Cyrillic alphabet, although each has some unique letters of its own.

Ukrainian and Russian have much more in common than French and English—the twin official languages of Canada. Their pronunciation is especially similar. Even a non-native Russian speaker like me can understand some Ukrainian if it’s spoken slowly enough. About a quarter of Ukraine’s population speaks Russian. [search for “minorities”]

So the notion that Russia and the West are fighting to draw Ukraine into their respective “spheres of influence” is utter nonsense. Ukraine and Russia are already joined at the hip and always will be.

The question is not whether the West can perform unnecessary surgery and divide the Siamese twins. It’s whether Ukraine can restore its traditional role as a cultural and trading bridge among Russia, the broader Slavic community, and the West.

Trade is not a zero-sum game. It enriches all participants, both financially and culturally. That’s why the West should have no objection to whatever trade deals Russia and Ukraine can strike. Likewise, Russia (and Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority) should have no objection to Ukraine’s forging closer ties with Europe.

The EU’s fundamental principle is inclusion, not exclusion. Its only relevant condition is “most favored nation” status. If Ukraine offers trade concessions to Russia, then if it joins the EU it must offer the same concessions to the rest of Europe. That rule doesn’t foster “spheres of influence.” It fosters fairness, openness and a level playing field among nations.

Russian needs more, not fewer, bridges and windows to the West. Peter the Great understood that over three centuries ago.

Both Russia and Ukraine need more, not fewer, trading partners. Russia’s chief trading partner now is Germany—a nation that invaded Russia twice in the last century and caused catastrophic losses. If Russia can trade so profitably with the most harmful enemy in its history, then it can let Ukraine get more prosperous and happy by trading with Europe. Some of the resulting wealth will inevitably find its way back to Russia.

In 2009, I wrote an essay about NATO, suggesting that, with the Soviet Union’s collapse, it had fulfilled its purpose and could peacefully fade away. Its mission in Afghanistan, now coming to a close, may be its last hurrah. What geopolitics now needs is not a Western alliance designed to encircle and contain a hostile empire that no longer exists, but an inclusive organization designed to foster trade, cultural exchange, and open borders.

That is what the twenty-first century requires, if our species is to enjoy the peace and prosperity that the global economy now promises. Already trade has lifted almost a billion people worldwide out of extreme poverty. We want to continue that trend, not retard it by fighting among ourselves as if the last century had never happened and Metternich were the world’s leading political philosopher.

The world already has a brilliant organization designed for that purpose. It’s called the European Union. If Poland can join, why not Ukraine and eventually Russia itself? The EU, not NATO, is the future of Europe, and Ukraine can help make this point.

The last reason why Ukraine is important is its big Russian-speaking minority. Slavic societies have not had much success in dealing fairly with minorities. The former Yugoslavia exploded in agony. Old Czechoslovakia split up into the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Bosnia is still a bleeding sore.

But there are lots of places for Ukraine to learn. Malaysia has big minorities of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians. So far, it has accommodated and treated them fairly well. But recently excessive affirmative action for native Malays, coupled with linguistic chauvinism, has set Malaysia back in international competition and caused many minority Malaysians to emigrate. Now smart Malaysians, including ethnic Malays, are talking about restoring everybody’s favorite second language—English—to its former place of prominence in schools and universities.

There are lessons for Ukraine here. Ukrainian is a minority language, spoken only in Ukraine. Just so, the “official” national language of Malaysia, Bahasa Malaysia, is spoken only in Malaysia and (in a slightly different form) Indonesia. So before continuing to exclude Russian speakers by retaining Ukrainian as the sole official language, New Ukraine’s leaders might want to speak with Malaysians (and Indonesians, with their philosophy of Pancasila) about working with minorities.

For better or for worse, Russian is the Lingua Franca of the Slavic world. It wouldn’t hurt Ukrainian children to learn it, as well as English, or to make Russian a co-official language. It would only broaden their minds.

The world—and Russia—will be watching how newly free Ukraine deals with its large Russian-speaking minority. It it wants to be part of the EU eventually, and to maintain good relations with its chief trading partner, it had better deal with that minority fairly, humanely and equally.

The sniper murders on the Maidan were tragic and unnecessary, but now they are over. Ukrainians rose as one against the violence and took charge of their collective destiny. Now the task of Ukraine’s new leaders is to make sure that such violence and the motivation for it never recur.

Josef Stalin once said that the greatest human feeling is not love, but revenge. He crushed Ukraine. He also set the stage for pogroms and ethnic unrest all over the Eurasian land mass by deporting minorities, in their millions, hither and yon. Slavic people everywhere still have to throw off the yoke of Stalin’s terrible legacy and return to love.

In Ukraine, that’s going to take an extraordinary feat of leadership, healing, inclusiveness and cooperation. Yulia Tymoshenko had a chance to perform such feats during her short stint as prime minister in 2005. She was not self-evidently successful the first time.

Now she may have a second chance. If she does, she cannot fail this time. Or Ukraine must find someone better and more skilled. The opportunities that this second, mostly peaceful Ukrainian revolution presents are simply too tempting to pass up, for Ukraine, for the nascent Slavic commonwealth, and for our common species.

P.S. After thinking more about it, I would elevate my suggestion for dealing with the villains, including Yanukovych, from a suggestion to a strong recommendation. Ukraine should turn them all over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution under international standards.

Doing so would have two vital benefits. First, it would allow Ukraine to look forward, not back. Ukraine’s economy is not in good shape. The whole nation needs to focus on an economic renaissance, with both Russia and the West as midwives.

Second, trying and punishing criminals is too much like Stalin’s revenge. Let skilled foreigners, who have no bias but justice and have made careers out of trying and punishing tyrants and their murderous minions, do that job.

Now-free Ukrainians should focus on getting rich and living well, not getting even. The Slavic world has seen far too much getting even in its long and sorrowful history. It’s now time to cooperate, with each other and the West.

Footnote: Most of the facts about Ukraine in this essay derive from my earlier essay and the CIA’s online factbook page on Ukraine.


19 February 2014

Putin at the Crossroads

It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. Right now, today.

The Sochi Winter Olympic Games are going stupendously. Contrary to the fears and warnings of many, there has been no terrorist attack. The Games are not over yet, but the athletes, the crowds and the many reporters increasingly feel safe and secure behind the ring of Russian steel.

The West is coming to learn the value of having a silovik in charge, at least in a nation that has suffered as much and as recently from invasion, war and revolution as any on this planet. At last internal stability has blessed Russia, after the most brutal century of revolution and war in human history.

With little fear of internal unrest, and no fear of external invasion, Russia is relaxing and becoming a normal country. The timeless art of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Balanchine, so evident in the skating rink, has replaced the grim arts of war and survival. Eastern and classical music mix seamlessly with modern and Western music, as both Russian and foreign skaters perform to each.

There is still rivalry, to be sure, especially on hockey ice. But there is much more. People who once thought the Soviet Union and America would destroy each other—and our species—are watching their sons and daughters fall or rise spectacularly—and peacefully—on the field of sport. They are actually having fun.

Gone are the biased judges and the block voting of the Warsaw Bloc. With the aid of new technology, including superb slow-motion video, judged competition is fairer and better than it has ever been. The contestants have risen to the occasion, with flawless technical performances that force judges to assess intangible and subjective factors like artistry and overall impression. And spectators of all nations heartily cheer the best, whatever their national origins.

So far, the Sochi Olympics has been exactly what every Olympics should be. It has taught us to admire and respect the best in each other, even as we compete. It has taught us Yanks that the Russians we feared for so many decades are human, just like us.

More important, it has taught us how imperfect we all are as a species. The Bible said it best:
“[T]the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
How could you not watch the triumph and tragedy at the Games—especially in the half pipe and speed-skating rink, or on the steep slopes with melted and refrozen snow—and not think of that timeless verse? Individually, we are awkward, stupid, slow, ungainly and unreliable creatures, as the Bible says. We succeed best when we work together.

The Games are an inspiring example of global cooperation and peaceful human achievement. They are the best of times.

But outside the ring of steel, things are not going nearly so well. There, in not-so-isolated pockets, we have the worst of times.

The Syrian peace talks have broken down, as everyone expected. Assad continues his brutal plan to go for broke, literally. He wants to break his nation even more so he still can rule it.

If he wins—as looks increasingly likely—he will preside over rubble, a few loyal Alawites and a people too poor, weak, weary, dumb and beaten not to mind being slaves. All his people with independence or initiative are dead, fighting valiantly against him, or refugees. The notion that they are all terrorists is so absurd as not to merit the ink to refute it.

The best of them will eventually find their way to America and become Yanks. They will bring their brutal experience into Yankee politics, just as did rabid anti-Communists like Ayn Rand, less rabid ones like Madeleine Albright, and the once rabid but now more reasonable anti-Castro Cubans. The best of the Syrian refugees, or their descendants, will become Arabic Marco Rubios.

Syrian politics will come unbidden to America and to Europe (especially if Turkey joins it). Syria itself may become a wasteland.

Unfortunately, Syria is not all. Mother Russia’s mother country, Ukraine, is becoming combustible. Peaceful protests are turning violent. The Maidan is in flames.

It doesn’t matter which side started it. What matters is how it ends. Will Russia crush its mother once again, as Stalin did a century ago? Will the tanks roll on the streets of Kiev as in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the fifties and sixties?

Will Russia repeat its historic pattern of battle, Pyrrhic victory and desultory conquest? Will its neighbors continue to be beaten and sullen, looking for any outside power to help make them strong and happy, no matter how unlikely help may be? Or will Russia learn at last that strong, prosperous and happy neighbors are the best path to secure borders and internal peace and prosperity?

There is only one man who can answer these questions: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. He does not have absolute power in Russia, but the power he has is close enough.

No external power, including us, can force his hand. We Yanks are not going to start another war, even a Cold War, to influence what happens in Syria or in Kiev. We’ve been there and done that, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve had much sacrifice, little success, and no gratitude.

So we can only reason, argue, and influence what goes on in Ukraine and Syria. We can’t dictate it.

And if the truth be told, we Yanks have no surefire answers, either. What’s happening in Syria and Ukraine is not entirely unique. Similar things are happening in Thailand, Egypt, the Congo, and even sullen Venezuela.

What’s happening in Syria and Ukraine differs only in magnitude and danger. In Syria’s case it’s vastly more horrible, comparable to the self-immolation of Cambodia decades ago. In Ukraine’s case, it’s more dangerous, both to geopolitical stability and to peace and progress within the Slavic community.

But Ukraine’s problem is not so hard to solve. Ukraine has always been the trading crossroads of Eastern Europe. After a century of agony, it wants to resume its historic role.

Ukraine wants a window to the West. So did Peter the Great. Is that so hard for Putin, Russia’s most effective leader since Peter, to understand?

Ukraine is bound to Russia forever by ties of geography, culture, language, history and commerce. But its people want more than that. They want a future not with Russia or Europe, but with both.

If Putin and Yanukovych can make clear that they understand and accept that simple point, and if they grant a real and fair amnesty, the protests eventually will subside and, with them, this crisis. The longer they wait, the more protesters and police will get injured and die, and the harder securing civil peace will become.

Syria is a much harder knot to untie, precisely because it has degenerated into not just violence, but utter devastation. Putin must make every effort to keep Ukraine from becoming Syria, and to lance the geopolitical boil of Assad.

Since Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia has made enormous progress under Putin and his predecessors. It has voluntarily abandoned Communism. It has reformed its entire economy with minimal internal discord and almost no violence. It has moderated a globally-feared, aggressive foreign policy and become a respected member of the community of nations. Except for its brief and successful incursion into Georgia, it has kept its hands to itself.

Russia’s people today are freer, richer, and happier then they have ever been in Russia’s long and mostly miserable history. The Cold War’s end and Putin’s long rule have given them peace, stability and order.

Now, with the Sochi Olympics, the New Russia has made its debut. Tens of thousands of visitors have seen it first hand, and hundreds of millions on TV. The so far normal Olympics have given Russia and Putin the global respect they long craved.

But with power and respect comes responsibility. For better or for worse, no other major power has Russia’s influence in Ukraine and Syria, let alone its influence on Iran. For what may be the first time in history, the world looks to Russia not in perplexity or in fear, but for answers.

So, as the Olympics end, the victors take their medals home, and the warm glow fades, all eyes will be on Vladimir Putin.

Will he be the man who once promised a peaceful trading zone from the Atlantic to the Urals? Or will he be Stalin’s successor?

Will he be the silovik bully whom the West and many Russians fear? Or will he be a twenty-first century leader who solves difficult problems with minimal violence, using his self-evident intelligence, finesse and skill?

Will he lead Syria into a cease-fire and a slow but steady resurrection? Or will he stick by Assad and oversee its conversion into a wasteland of slaves and its neighbors into vast refugee camps?

Will he make Ukraine into the gem of a Slavic commonwealth that it can be? Or will he force it into turmoil, civil war, or even a Soviet-style breakup?

Will he be the Mao who knitted his country together in skillful revolution? Or will he be the aging Mao who destroyed his country’s economy for generations with disastrous caprice like the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap forward?

Will he be a truly modern leader or a throwback to Metternich?

In the immortal verse of Bob Dylan, the answers are blowin’ in the wind.


14 February 2014

A Terrible Price

[For an essay on how the coming movie “Noah” may prefigure our species’ near-term climate experience, click here. For a brief note on how John Cornyn just confirmed my analysis in the first post below, click here.]

We Yanks have paid a terrible price. We have paid it in economic progress foregone, social cohesion destroyed, and minds and lives wasted. We have paid it in blood, in our Civil War and innumerable lynchings and shootings before, during and since. That bloodletting continues today, in two notorious shootings of innocent youth in Florida.

We are paying a huge price right now. We pay with respect to Hispanic immigrants who, like every other immigrant group in our history, came to us seeking a more rational social order and better lives. We pay every time a law-abiding hard worker gets deported.

Our business loses a good worker. The community loses a father or mother. Innocent children lose a parent, and the fisc loses a reliable taxpayer. There is no upside but the smug and transient satisfaction of racists.

In its effect on communities, mass deportation differs little from war. The biggest difference is that each victim still lives, somewhere, out of sight, mind and the help of his loved ones and erstwhile community. The deportee is forced to sink or swim in a now-foreign culture with which he may have lost contact for years or decades. This is America?

Some day an aspiring doctoral student in economics should attempt to quantify all our losses from the insanity that is racism. The total dollar amount would be speculative and difficult to pin down. But the number would be astronomical. It would dwarf the losses in all the other wars in our history, including our War of Independence, the Great War, and the Wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

More recently, we have paid a huge price in governmental paralysis and economic stagnation. Just when we most needed government—because our markets and private sector had become broken almost beyond repair—racism raised its ugly head. A smart, empathetic and quintessentially moderate president has been tied down like Gulliver by racist Lilliputians for five whole years.

There have been other excuses, to be sure. We have a big deficit, but it started and was foreordained by the acts and policies of our “black” President’s predecessor. We have a thirty-year-old national ideology of selfishness, masquerading as “conservatism,” which we still have to grow out of.

But it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that much of our current self-imposed national agony comes from racism, conscious or unconscious. The agony long antedates President Obama’s tenure. His own trials are a symptom, not a cause.

The most recent epoch began precisely half a century ago this year. With social progress in his heart and a lot of arm-twisting, President Lyndon Johnson managed to get a recalcitrant Congress to pass the first of our modern civil-rights laws. He got another passed the following year.

With a few strokes of his presidential pen, the legal part of Jim Crow vanished into history. African-Americans in our South suddenly found themselves able to eat, sleep, pee, and poo in the same facilities as the rest of us.

They do all these things just as the rest of us do, because (like all humans) they are 98% genetically identical to the rest of us. But it took the bloodiest war in our history and another century of political struggle to begin to recognize this simple biological fact.

And that was just the law. Unlike law, culture and social attitudes don’t change with the stroke of a pen. They persist for decades or centuries. Just two years before our first modern civil-rights law, racist Democratic governor George Wallace stood on the steps of Alabama’s state capital and declared, “Segregation today . . . Segregation tomorrow . . . Segregation forever!”

Neither the political support that this experienced Southern pol expected nor the underlying social attitudes could change overnight. They didn’t and they haven’t.

Lyndon Johnson knew the score. After signing our new civil rights laws, he said the Democrats had lost our South for two generations.

But even Johnson underestimated the time required to come to our senses. Another half-generation has passed, and we still are not there.

Doubt this? Well, just consider a few facts. Our President is one of the most moderate and self-restrained men ever to hold his office. He never raises his voice. He is always polite, tactful and understated. His policies are as moderate—wimpy to some—as moderate can be.

As a former constitutional law professor, he understands the limits of his office. When his own supporters jeered him for failing to stop mass deportation, he replied, honestly and simply, “Actually, I can’t.” Like the rest of us, he has to obey the laws that Congress passes, no matter how misguided they may be.

Few presidents in our history have shown the moderation in character and policy of this President. Yet they called him a socialist, Communist, fascist, Marxist, terrorist sympathizer, radical Muslim, alien, redistributor, and every other name in the book. They invented new names just for him and his supporters, such as “takers.” The torrent of invectives only slowed down, but didn’t stop, after he killed mass murderer bin Laden, something neither of his predecessors could do.

A House member shouted at him, “You lie!” in a joint session of Congress, during his State of the Union speech. This happened at about the same time that Tea Party zealots were spitting on venerable African-American lions of our civil rights movement in Congress.

Do you really think all this would have happened to a 100% white man otherwise just like him? The voters would have laughed the name-callers off the podium and stoned the spitters. And this was the guy who, eighteen months before first being elected, disavowed single-payer health insurance as politically impossible. Such a radical!

Who paid the heaviest price for all this insanity? It was not our President. It was all of us. In the deepest economic crisis in nearly a century, our federal government did next to nothing. The GOP deigned to support a miserly stimulus package because every economist in the nation said our economy would implode without it. A few GOP renegades (mostly females) provided the votes to pass the Affordable Care Act.

After that, the opposition dug in its heels. Virtually nothing else of any consequence has passed Congress in five years. Until recently, Congress couldn’t even pass a budget, its most basic task.

A rump minority, mostly from the Old South and border states, shut the government down twice. Twice it threatened an unprecedented national default. The party that claims to represent business kept our government from helping business fix broken markets and a broken economy for five long years.

But no agony lasts forever. Even bouts of collective insanity end, eventually. And so we have, at last, a clean debt-ceiling bill, like the dozens that passed Congress without dissent before this President took office.

The GOP, apparently, is finally beginning to understand that most of us, unlike the racists in their ranks, don’t want to emasculate our President, paralyze our government, weaken our economy, make millions suffer, and let our infrastructure and education decay just to prove that a “black” man and his party can’t govern us, deprive him of credit or make him seem a wimp.

Barack Obama is a reasonable and thoughtful leader. He’s no wimp. He said he wanted a clean debt-ceiling bill, and he got it. The other guys blinked. So now can we drop all this racist posturing and get on with our collective lives?

The core Tea Party members—at least the ones proud of that affiliation—constitute about 7.3% of our House membership. About two-thirds of them are from the Old South and the Border States. When John Boehner finally let both Democrats and reasonable Republicans vote, the clean debt-ceiling bill sailed through, as it should have, every time, in any rational democracy that honors majority rule.

The GOP is just beginning to understand that the politics of racism is a loser. A clear popular majority of us voted for Obama for President, twice. That’s the first time we did so for any president since Ike.

We voted for Obama twice because we like him and respect him, and because he is far better than either alternative. We want him and our nation to succeed, not fail. We are tired of shooting ourselves in our collective feet for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with rational policy.

The GOP is also coming to understand that a party of old white male throwbacks is a loser in twenty-first century America. Hispanics alone will bury the party if it can’t come to grips with our ongoing immigration travesty. In the last presidential election, the GOP lost every non-white, non-male, and non-Christian ethnic group, from African-Americans and Hispanics to women, Asians to Jews. And it lost them by landslide proportions.

None of these groups—especially women—is going anywhere. They are only going to increase in number and political power as they gain political savvy and register more voters. Vote suppression is a despicable, desperate tactic of losers willing to see our democracy go down with them, like rats leaving a sinking ship.

Fear and hate have been effective tools of demagoguery now for more than Johnson’s two generations. But they are losing their luster. Selfishness may have a bit longer legs, but it is tiring, too.

Now the GOP has to come up with real policies to solve real and longstanding problems, lest our nation lapse into the third-world status toward which it is demonstrably headed. As the GOP does so, the rest of us should welcome its rational members back into the fold.

We on the left can’t afford to bear grudges, any more than we Yanks did after the Nazi psychosis. Our collective unsolved problems are many. International competition is stiff. And time is short.

We are a practical nation. Although we may trust in God, we have always built our strength and prosperity on rational social engineering and working together.

But ever since our Founding, we have paid a terrible price for racism. We haven’t begun to stop paying yet. Isn’t is time we stopped paying for insanity and started building again, together?

Confirmation: John Cornyn and His Big Lie

Most of the time, I love it when immediately subsequent events confirm my analaysis. But there can be no loving racist lies. Ever.

Last Friday Gwen Ifill aired a clip of Texas’ right-wing Senator John Cornyn accusing the President of being lawless, apparently for failing to enforce our immigration laws. There was some hatred—real or feigned—in Cornyn’s voice as he spoke.

I doubt Cornyn was unaware that the President had said, “Actually, I can’t,” just a few months before when asked by his own supporters to stop mass deportation. The President made that confession precisely because he knows he must enforce the law even if he doesn’t agree with it. If Cornyn was aware of that remark, his rant was as close to a deliberate lie as one ever catches any pol in making, let alone a US senator.

The probable motivation for such a big lie was as utterly transparent as its unfairness. Cornyn wants to avoid being “Tea Partied.”

Should we sympathize with him? Is he a good man, like Dick Lugar, whose departure from our Senate would be a loss for all of us?

Not hardly. If Cornyn ever sponsored or pushed any significant legislation that made this nation a better place, I’m unaware of it. He’s one the meanest, most demagogic, sorriest excuses for an American pol that ever stained the hallowed floors of our Senate just by walking on them. He’s one of the reasons why people like me, if asked to vote to let Texas (in its present demented state) secede, would shout, “Go, with my blessing!”

Cornyn was smart enough to get through law school and make it to the US Senate. Surely he knows that it’s not an easy or simple thing—or economically rational, for that matter—to deport 11.7 million people living and working peacefully among us. Surely he knows that any executive, required by his office to enforce a mean and evil law, would start by deporting criminals and misfits, and leave the most promising and innocent for last. Surely he, as someone who somehow graduated from St. Mary’s School of Law despite his self-evident lack of character and humanity, has heard of prosecutorial discretion.

But all these things mean nothing to Cornyn in his lifelong quest to retain a job he never deserved by feeding fear and hate. If I were Texan, I would switch parties and vote for his most successful primary opponent, however crazy, just to get rid of him, and to reduce the seniority of his successor.

The less power Texas has in our Senate’s committees, the better off we all will be. It alone accounts for six of the Tea Party’s hard-core House members, or nearly one-fifth. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Texas’ pols hatched the Tea Party, including its attempt to steal the reputation of Boston and our Founding.

Unlike the rest of our nation, Texas and its short-sighted pols are striving to make a mockery of Lyndon Johnson’s “two generations” forecast. Apparently they’re shooting (literally!) for another century of racism. Lyndon Johnson would cry to see what the state he catapulted into national visibility—and gave the Houston Space Center that bears his name—has become.

Footnote: To watch the clip, set the timer at about 2:10 and be patient. For the words alone, search the transcript (after it comes out on Monday) for “Cornyn.”

Get Ready for Noah

For all its faults—and there are many!—Hollywood sometimes is prescient. I’ve already written how the great racial metaphor from “The Defiant Ones” prefigured and helped spark our civil-rights revolution of the sixties. This year we may have another such film, when the movie “Noah” is released.

Head-in-the-sanders persist in seeing the recent record cold and snow in our east as just more evidence that global warming is a hoax. But they’re precisely wrong. Together with Australia’s record heat wave, Britain’s Biblical flooding, and California’s several-century drought, they are compelling evidence that what global weather is doing is hardly business as usual.

I’m a word guy. Like my father before me, who left me a binder of odd words you can’t find in anything but the Oxford unabridged, I love words. When I discover new ones, I try to remember them. As a one-time scientist, I pay special attention to scientific terms.

But I don’t believe I ever heard the term “Polar Vortex” before this winter. That could be just an over-fifty moment. But I’m virtually certain I never heard of a whole quadrant of our nation, including parts of our usually warm South, being stuck in a way below zero freeze for about a week.

That’s not just freak weather. It’s Biblical-Plague freak weather. It’s the kind of thing you’re going to see on the big screen in late March when the movie “Noah” comes out.

Unlike the movie, the Polar Vortex and the other freak weather events are real. What do they mean? What do they portend?

First of all, you have to take all the several freak weather events this winter together. While we North Americans were having record cold and snows, Australia was having a record heat wave. Remember the week of near 115 ˚F heat Down Under? A seasoned tennis pro, in top physical shape, fainted on the court, and the games had to be postponed. On top of that, there were/are record floods in Britain, overflowing the Thames and Avon. And Malaysia, normally a tropical country, had an unusual cold snap (for it) just about the same time as our Big Chill.

So the first thing to notice is that whatever is happening is a global, not local, phenomenon. Freak weather events were and are happening all over the globe, at about the same time. A milder example is the unusual heat at the Sochi Winter Olympics, where melting snow down close to the Black Sea is making ski runs slushy and tricky.

When strange things happen all over the globe, that’s climate, not weather.

The second thing to notice is that, contrary to what the head-in-the-sanders think, the big picture is quite consistent. Our planet is still heating up, raising ocean surface temperatures and putting more water vapor into our atmosphere. That’s the reason for the heavy snows in our east and the Biblical flooding in Southern Britain. When water vapor condenses and gets cold, it falls as snow, hail or sleet. And water vapor, like carbon dioxide, has a greenhouse effect, just not as much.

So the same phenomenon explains the floods in Britain and the record snows east of our Mississippi. More water vapor in the air means more precipitation. Duh!

The third thing to notice is that weather and climate are going unstable. In our modern scientific era, we’ve never seen anything like this before. Our species has been measuring temperature and weather accurately for a few hundred years only, and not equally everywhere on the globe. But as far as we know from our sorely limited records, we’ve never experienced anything like this before, at least at a time when anyone could make an enduring record of it.

There is one possible exception: Noah and his Ark. Like the Legend of King Arthur, many legends and myths have a basis in historical fact. Could it be that the movie we’re about to see has some factual basis, preserved for centuries or millennia in an oral or artistic tradition, so-called “race memory”?

If so, the best candidate for speculation is the end of the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago. That’s just long enough ago not to have any written record, but close enough to today that persistent legend or “race memory” might have some weak correspondence with fact.

The end of the last Ice Age is also a phenomenon that scientists are just now beginning to think they can explain. Some of them think that an episode of positive global-warming feedback caused that phenomenon, and that it happened mind-bendingly quickly. Some estimate that it took just a few decades for average global surface temperatures to rise between 30˚ and 60˚F. If indeed that happened, there surely would have been Noah-like floods, and our species might have somehow remembered them.

Weather events this year—especially the unprecedented Polar Vortex—suggest that our global weather/climate system is going unstable. That’s precisely what happens with positive feedback. Things go unstable. The next moment becomes harder and harder to predict from the last. Nonlinear math applies, and so-called “chaos theory” justifies its name. Things get very nasty and unpredictable very quickly (for a global phenomenon). They stay that way for a while, until eventually a new and vastly different steady state emerges.

Are we moving into the nonlinear maelstrom? It certainly seems so. No one can be sure yet. But by the time we can be sure our entire species will be in the middle of a monstrous global calamity that will likely last at least a decade or two before it ends. When it finally ends, our global temperatures and climate, and our sea levels, might be very different from today’s.

What will be the consequences? I think we’re seeing them already. Places like Southern England and the Eastern US will experience unprecedented snows and, in the summer, unprecedented rains. When global temperatures rise enough to make snow unlikely, there will be only rains, many torrential.

Monsoons may become familiar to much of the English-speaking world outside of India. At the same time, other parts of the globe may experience devastating persistent drought. Some now densely inhabited places may become deserts. California may be one of them.

On the other hand, California may get lucky and experience monsoons, too, at least during the summer. Although big for our nation, on a global scale California is so small that a slight fluctuation in the coming nonlinear climate chaos could fix its fate.

The butterfly of fortune (a small term in the chaos equation) could make the difference between catastrophic drought and regular but manageable flooding for California. The state might even ride the line of chaos and experience drought one year and torrential flooding the next.

If California is lucky enough to get flooding instead of drought, or both alternately, it will not be too badly hurt. With its hardy water infrastructure, it is well positioned to store the monsoons for drinking and growing crops during dry seasons or drought.

But vast swatches of South and Southeast Asia might not be so lucky. Many of them are going to be out of luck and even out of life unless they get to work quickly building a hardy fresh-water infrastructure like California’s.

Why is this so? Because much of that region depends for fresh water on the great glaciers of the Himalayas and the great rivers, such as the Ganges, that flow from them.

Glaciers and snow are convenient, God given fresh-water storage devices. During the winter, they pile up. During the summers and dry seasons they melt and flow downstream to the ocean, providing fresh water to hundreds of millions who live on or near the world’s great rivers.

As climate warms, glaciers are disappearing. So, eventually, will deep snows. We will still have fresh water coming from the sky. In fact, global warming will give us more of it. But it will all be liquid. We will no longer have the natural storage of freezing in winter and water release during the dry seasons.

We humans will have to build our own means of trapping rains and storing them for ourselves. Nature no longer will.

So if you want to make a good long-term investment, invest in builders of dams, reservoirs and cisterns. Umbrellas and raincoats might be good investments, too. We humans are going to need a lot of all of these things as we enter a regime of unprecedentedly wet climate—largely of our own making.

Anyway, be sure to see the movie “Noah.” No matter how good or bad it may be artistically, it will probably give you a good idea of what your children’s and grandchildren’s lives will be like, almost anywhere in the world except the coming deserts.


10 February 2014

A Snide Slander Unbefitting an Economist

[For recent brief comment on the tone and mood of opening day at Sochi, click here.]

I had not planned a eulogy for Pete Seeger. He was never an idol of mine, although I admired both the man and his music. Cynical Bob Dylan was more my speed.

But Seeger made an impact. He wrote his masterpiece on war and renewal—“Where have all the flowers gone?”—early in the Atomic Age. The Cold War turned it into an existential question: what kind of renewal might emerge from a radioactive wasteland?

It was not Pete Seeger who answered that question. It was two Russians and an American, whose cool judgment under immense pressure saved our species from self-extinction. Their names were Khrushchev, Arkhipov, and Kennedy. I like to think that Seeger’s song helped motivate at least one of them to keep his twitching finger off the button and let us live.

Seeger wrote other songs that inspired the American labor movement. For several decades, that movement produced the most equitable and widely prosperous society the world has ever known. In the last two decades, along with what is left of British industry, it has helped lift nearly a billion people out of extreme poverty. (If you want to know what difference a strong labor movement makes, just look at Bangladesh and its tragic garment workers today.)

The plutocrats and pols who accommodated the US movement were smart enough to consider workers’ welfare a means to their own prosperity. And they, including Henry Ford, were right. Today their successors struggle just to see the problem of inequality. They are too preoccupied, as they travel the world in their private jets, trading their derivatives and regaling the press with Marie-Antionette-like bon mots about doing “God’s work.”

Seeger’s lyrics also inspired generations of African-Americans and their sympathizers. Not only did they help reduce racism here and abroad. They ultimately helped give us an African-American leader of the free world, who incidentally does not treat Britain as his poodle.

No, I didn’t idolize Seeger. But when I read in the British newsweekly The Economist that he had been a “Bolshie with a banjo,” I saw red, and not in Seeger.

Only an arrogant pipspeak of a British twit, in complete ignorance of American culture, and with pretensions toward nobility that he could never attain, could have written that caption. Real British nobility—of which precious few remain today—kept the people’s feelings and their welfare at least marginally in view. They also had some manners and knew Latin, including “de mortuis, nihil nisi bonum.”

The bilious obit continued with slander after slander, which the safely anonymous author no doubt considered “cute.” It ended by dinging Seeger for renouncing Communism late, and so for failing to “Turn, Turn Turn.” All in all, the obit was brutally and obnoxiously dismissive.

Just a few years ago, The Economist had been a paragon of journalism. It did its best to mimic the dismal science from which it drew its name. It put data first, calculations second, and ideology a distant third. That’s why I subscribed to it, beginning about two decades ago (with a long hiatus).

Now, The Economist’s order of precedence appears to have been reversed. Ideology comes first, calculation second, and facts a distant third. In this respect it appears to be reliving the process by which Rupert Murdoch annihilated the Wall Street Journal as a serious newspaper.

It all started, in my view, with a nauseatingly triumphalist issue, in June-July 2012, lauding London as the best city in Europe for its banking and real-estate bubbles. When I read that, I wondered why The Economist didn’t also tout Russian spooks’ plain-view murder (albeit delayed) of Litvinenko by polonium in 2006. If you’re going to sell your soul and your open society to the highest bidder, why not go all the way?

The snarky Seeger obit was not enough, by itself, to get me to cancel my subscription. Not yet, anyway. But the writing appears to be on the rest-room wall. And not just for British news media.

While on fellowship in Cambridge four decades ago, I rode the Tube every chance I got. I loved it for its convenience, speed, reliability, cleanliness, and quiet.

Now all those things, apparently, are gone. The last time I rode the Tube, several years ago, huge crowds were waiting at our station. The trains on the line we were to use were over half an hour late. We waited outside, in the rain, as clueless clerks tried to line the crowd up so exiting passengers could leave a dangerously overcrowded platform.

We finally made it to our destination, about an hour late. When we returned home in the late evening, the trains were full of drunk, rowdy and obnoxious youth. As I exited our train with my Asian-origin wife, walking next to a drunk and grinning spitting image of a skinhead, I steeled myself to deliver a swift kick to his crotch.

Fortunately, the youth limited his lack of civility to drunkenness. We exited the Tube without incident, though not without the type of unease that I had never felt on any subway in New York or Moscow.

Maybe if the Brits had had a Pete Seeger of their own, their twits’ knees might jerk a little less violently for conservative pablum. They might show a little respect for, if not insight into, foreign cultures divided by a common language, let alone the perpetual struggle of working people for a fair shake. And with a Pete Seeger to give their aimless louts a bit of hope for the future, the Tube might regain its impressive order from the seventies, if not run on time.

Footnote 1: If you like slow, lugubrious singing, you can watch and listen to a young Seeger singing the song here. Like many great song writers, Seeger was not the best performer of his own tunes. If you want a more effective performance, try the one by Bob Dylan or by Peter, Paul and Mary, for which you’ll have to pay.

Footnote 2: The very same issue with the nasty Seeger obit had a slanted story on just the previous page. Summarizing recent academic research on US economic inequality and social mobility from Harvard and Berkeley, its subhead read “America is no less socially mobile than it was a generation ago.”

But the penultimate paragraph reported enormous geographic disparities in social mobility within the US. And its anonymous writer failed to point out (or perhaps even to notice) that the data reported ended more than a generation ago, years before the more recent inflection point at which US inequality took off.

Murdoch, who has been notorious for rewriting his minions’ headlines, could not have done a better job of slanting the story and distorting its conclusion if he had rewritten it himself. And this bit of pro-plutocrat propaganda is no doubt the source of what has become conventional Yankee wisdom: that US social mobility has not changed, at least up to 1983! [see the graph on printed page 23]

Epitaph (to Journalism, not Seeger!): Rewrite the headline, and you control the lead. Control the lead, and you control the story. Control the story and control the thought. Control the thought, and you control the mind.

This is Murdoch’s Orwellian formula. This is what gave us Yanks Fox, destroyed the Wall Street Journal, and has turned our Yankee politics into a farce that precocious three-year-olds would laugh at.

I canceled my Journal subscription after reading too many stories whose real meaning became clear only after two or three readings. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen to The Economist, or to our Mother Country.

Despite its economic shortcomings, Britain has always seemed to meet or exceed us Yanks in taste and intelligence. But just read the story on page 23 of The Economist’s February 1, 2014 issue. Then read the subhead and scrutinize the graph. If an Orwellian shiver doesn’t crawl down your spine as one did mine, then you’re a better (or more sanguine) man than I am, Gunga Din. You can’t take frequent error for mere sloppiness, not when it consistently points in a rightward direction.


08 February 2014

A Chasm of Misunderstanding: Thoughts on Opening Day at Sochi

      “The host [of peasant-soldiers] rose up, uncountable, the strength in it said to be unconquerable . . .” Nikolai Alekseevich Nekrasov, “Little Mother Russia”
During my Fulbright Fellowship in Moscow, a Russian colleague took me to the monastery at Sergiev Posad, Saint Sergius’ Settlement outside Moscow. For Russians, it’s an historical icon. It’s like a combination of Monticello, Independence Hall, and the Alamo for us Yanks.

But Sergiev Posad has three things our Yankee icons lack. First, it’s a venerable religious institution, built by Monks and defended by them for centuries. Unlike the Alamo, it’s only partly a museum; it’s still in religious use today. Second, because its origins go back well over half a millennium, its aura today is semi-mythical. Third, its walls are over a meter thick.

My colleague took me there for a reason. Nothing that I saw in Russia so brilliantly encapsulated the essential character of historical Russia: isolation, invasion, suffering, resistance, and occasional Pyrrhic conquest.

No other modern nation has been invaded like Russia. In the last two centuries alone, it has suffered six invasions, twice each by Napoleonic France, Japan and Germany. In a single city—once Leningrad and now again St. Petersburg—more people died in the Siege than in all our Yankee battles in the Second World War, on both the Western and Eastern fronts. In fact, more people died in the Siege of that single city than in all of our Civil War, the bloodiest single conflict in our own Yankee history.

So as the Great War and the Cold War fade into distant memories, we Yanks and the Russians just can’t understand each other. History’s most fortunate people look blankly, with incomprehension, across the chasm of history at its most unfortunate victims.

The grand opening pageant at the Sochi Winter Olympics didn’t help much. On display were the exquisite ballet of a nation of masters, Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music, brilliant audiovisual technology, and an impressive feat of historical amnesia.

Of course Putin and the Russians wanted to put their best foot forward. Of course they didn’t want to wallow in the suffering of their “Great Patriotic War” or Stalin’s Terror. Of course they wanted to focus on the slave-like forced industrialization that met the challenge of Nazi aggression just in time.

But edgier art might have given the rest of the world a tiny emotional glimpse into the vast historical suffering that made Russia and Putin what they are today. It might have thrown a tiny bridge over that great chasm of misunderstanding that now prolongs a spent and utterly pointless Cold War, and that still threatens to bring a deadly anachronism—the imperial age—back into our hopeful twenty-first century.

NBC’s guest commentator David Remnick (on loan from The New Yorker) tried to help. He reminded us briefly of the suffering in Leningrad, but without using the word “Siege.” He told us about Russians’ vast suffering in their Great Patriotic War against the Nazis, in which one out of seven Russians died. That’s the equivalent of 44 million of us Yanks today, more than everyone in California, or nearly as many as now live in New York state and Texas combined.

But Remnick also fed the flames of post-Cold-War rivalry. He painted Putin as a power-hungry autocrat with his glance fixed backward on Metternich.

I lost count of the times Remnick used the word “power” in referring to Putin or modern Russia. You could almost imagine the czarist double-eagle crest rising over the stadium as he spoke.

If Remnick and the rest of us Yanks need to understand anything about Russia, it is this. Putin is a “strongman” (silovik) because he is a Russian. He leads the most unfortunate developed nation on Earth. His people live in the middle of a vast Eurasian continent, with few natural barriers, across which hostile armies have been marching since long before the Mongol hordes. Islamic people in the south are still on the march today.

Even the weather is hostile to Russians. The southern city of Sochi—the erstwhile Black Sea beach resort of Soviet Commissars—is, after all, the site of the Winter Olympics. Imagine holding a winter Olympics in San Diego, Houston, or Miami.

Russia’s nuclear arsenal will never be used in anger. Like the meter-thick walls of Sergiev Posad, it is there for defense. As their incomparably bloody and tragic history reveals, there is no people on this Earth more in need of defending than Russians.

So let us keep our rivalry on the field of sport. Let both Yanks and Russians strain to understand each other. Let it dawn on both nations that cooperation, not anachronistic imperial rivalry, is the future of our species, whether in fighting terrorism or building a more prosperous Eurasia.

Ukraine is Mother Russia’s mother. Putin has taken a monumental step forward in trying to buy her, rather than crush her as Stalin did.

Maybe soon he will take then next step and foster her independent living. Maybe he will understand that Ukraine’s future is not with Russia or the EU, but with both. Maybe the man who once spoke before the German Bundestag (in fluent German!) about a peaceful free-trade zone from the Atlantic to the Urals will recapture the idealism of his first days as leader.

Ukraine was once the crossroads market of Eurasia. Some day it may be so again.

If we Yanks have any dreams for the Sochi Olympics, they should be these. Let Russia complete the process of becoming a normal country, no longer punch drunk with defending itself, and contribute to the progress and advancement of our species. The opening ceremonies’ high ballet and brilliant software, not to mention the huge “Google maps” on the stadium floor, showed just how much Russia has to contribute.

And for God’s sake, Remnick, strike the word “power” from your vocabulary, except when referring to feats on the field of sport! Use more appropriate terms, like “grandeur,” “high technology,” “beauty” and “pageantry.” The word “power” only scares us Yanks and brings out the silovikis’ worst instincts.

If the Olympics can’t inspire us humans to be all that we can be, what can? Let the games begin!


02 February 2014

Tax Phobia

How we contracted tax phobia
“Obamacare” is a tax
The big lie: wasteful government

How we contracted tax phobia

Many people think Dubya—George W. Bush—coined the phrase “It’s your money.” But if he ever had an original idea in his life, I can’t find any record of it.

In fact, the chief vector for our three-decade-long national disease of selfishness was Ronald Reagan. He first used the phrase 33 years ago, in 1981.

He got the idea from California’s infamous Proposition 13, a “tax revolt” of real-property owners. Then he generalized it to national income taxes. That bit of demagogic originality was well within his mental capacity.

Ever since, we Yanks have suffered from tax phobia.

The symptoms are legion. Our physical infrastructure is decaying, to the tune of over two trillion dollars. Our primary-education system, once second to none, is in the middle of the pack of developed nations’ and falling behind. Our basic science and space science are lagging, while Europe and China get the glory and the results.

Our cohesive social fabric is fraying. Even conservatives lament the return of economic inequality, low social mobility and suffering not seen since our Gilded Age. While China builds a middle-class consumer society faster than ever in history, ours is falling down, if not apart.

The comfortable and wealthy among us notice this phenomenon briefly as we step over beggars and the homeless on the way to our banks and stock brokers. Those who bank and trade online never notice it at all.

All this is passing strange. Doesn’t the society that styles itself the apostle of capitalism understand that making money requires investment? Why do we apotheosize our small businesses—our neighborhood dry cleaners, auto shops, and diners—and neglect the greatest enterprise of all, our nation? Have we become the logical conclusion of the French Revolution, a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie?

There are signs that we may be convalescing. A bipartisan consensus is forming on investing in our decaying infrastructure. The final farm bill still cut food stamps, but it cut them much less than had been originally proposed. And there is hope that a much-needed extension of long-term unemployment insurance might be a bargaining chip in the debt-ceiling negotiations beginning now. The GOP is slowly realizing that “just say no” is a formula for neither economic nor electoral success.

While a strong phobia holds sway, rational thought is impossible. But as it wanes, victims can begin to think again. In the hope that we Yanks are now passing though that phase, I offer this essay, which explains why “Obamacare” has been so controversial and debunks a key myth about taxes.

“Obamacare” is a tax

Why don’t we Yanks have a single-payer system? Most of our developed-country rivals do. In poll after poll, our people say they would like one too.

Single-payer systems minimize premiums by maximizing the size of the risk pool. They also minimize administrative expense by standardizing computer systems, interfaces, and claim and accounting rules and procedures.

Yet we stick with a system in which 37.5% of the visible employees in my local medical laboratory do nothing productive, at least as far as medicine is concerned. Instead, they verify private insurance and help process the claims on, and account for the private profit of, many different insurers, with differing systems, interfaces, procedures and rules.

As I have pointed out in two essays (1 and 2), the whole enterprise is madness. Its only conceivable advantage is employing a myriad of low-level clerks who otherwise might be unemployable, and none of whom is trained in care giving.

So why do we have it? There are three reasons. First, health-insurance executives’ big bucks depend on not having to compete with an efficient single payer with a much larger risk pool. Second, our broken system provides gainful employment for all those clerks doing nothing in medicine, but helping private insurance firms to process claims and account for their profit.

But the third reason is the crucial one. The tax phobia that Saint Reagan infected us with made clear thinking about single-payer systems impossible.

Whatever you may think of our current President, you have to admire his political instincts. Not only did they get a half-black man twice elected president in a still-racist country. They also beat Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Mitt Romney. And they helped paint the mindless GOP opposition into such an extremist corner that even the dimmest witted of its leaders (including John B.) are beginning to understand that their party’s future as a serious alternative is in jeopardy.

Like Lincoln, Obama may not be able to change things without a lot of struggle and suffering. But also like Lincoln, he knows exactly where we are and where we have to go.

So in early spring 2007, he wrote single payer off. He genuflected to Harry Truman, and he lauded the idea. Then he said, in essence, that it was politically impossible. Long before he even got his party’s nomination, he knew it just wasn’t going to happen during his presidency.

Why? Because a single-payer system could not arise in a nation beset by tax phobia, let alone the over-my-dead-body opposition of insurance companies and their legions of otherwise unemployable insurance clerks.

That’s why Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion upholding the guts of “Obamacare” was so brilliant. He called health-insurance mandates a tax, and therefore within Congress’ constitutional power. In doing so, he reminded us subtly how the rest of the world gets better public-health results than we for less money, and how our tax phobia has kept us laboring under a wildly dysfunctional health-insurance system.

Of course Roberts called it a “tax” just for purposes of constitutional analysis. And we all know that the law, especially constitutional law, speaks its own language.

But in fact “Obamacare’s” mandates bear every earmark of a tax. They cost money. You have to pay a penalty (but bear no criminal liability) if you don’t fulfill them.

And you get some social benefit if you do. Businesses get healthier employees, and individuals get access to health care. And if you think all this sounds more like a user fee, just compare gasoline taxes for those who drive, or excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco for those who drink or smoke.

So “Obamacare” ran headlong into two buzz saws of demagoguery. First, it contained mandates in a country imbued with a “Don’t Tread on Me” culture from its very foundation. No Yank likes to be told what to do. Second, it tried to row upstream against a “Reagan Revolution” of selfishness and tax phobia in full flood.

Whether you saw it as a “mandate” or a “tax,” you ran into one buzz saw or another.

Now “Obamacare” is a fact. As it kicks in, millions who didn’t have health insurance will get it. And those who did will see better terms and lower premiums, or at least not too big increases. And if the next pandemic waits long enough, even the well-off will see “Obamacare’s” primary benefit: not having uninsured servants and contractors bring deadly bacteria or viruses into their offices, kitchens, beds and children’s cribs. President Obama’s end run around tax phobia may have been awkward, but it has reached the end zone.

The big lie: wasteful government

For three decades, the dominant theme of our national political culture has been tax phobia. The motivation, of course, was pure selfishness, especially among the economic elite.

A recent analysis of the flood of campaign contributions that Citizens United foisted on our political systems says so [Search in transcript for “investing in candidates”]. Apparently big donors see their “gifts” not as promoting a better society or philosophy, but as investments in their own businesses.

If their donations result in lower taxes and less regulation, they make more money. It’s that simple. The rest is all smoke and mirrors.

Why else would Sheldon Adelson, who owns casinos in Macao, care so deeply about so-called “conservative” thinking? Is he really so solicitous for the dry-cleaner in Peoria—or for philosophical abstractions—as to give up millions of his own dollars? I don’t think so. More likely, he wants to retain more of the much larger amounts of money Chinese lose in his casinos.

Pure selfishness is not hard to sell, especially to the most individualistic and narcissistic culture in human history. But it doesn’t sound “cool.” And we still have people who recall our once-Calvinist culture and would recoil from a direct appeal to selfishness.

So the rich folk who wanted lower taxes to increase their already high incomes invented two bits of auxiliary demagoguery. Taxes, they said, are not bad just because they take money out of your own pocket. They are also bad because government wastes the money.

Really???!!! And business doesn’t? As The Economist recently reported [subscription required], NRG Energy, a big Texas utility, wasted $331 million in 2011 before figuring out that two new nuclear reactors would be uneconomic. Blackberry appears to be going under, and taking many enterprise, individual and government users with it, for failure to keep pace with progress in mobile devices.

And what about our finance sector? The economic waste from its orgy of liars’ loans and their security and derivative packages brought down the whole global economy, to the tune of several trillion dollars. Next to that, alleged Medicare fraud is so small as to be invisible.

The GOP loves to blame the government for lax regulation. But who were most responsible: the elite professional bankers who created the whole cockamamie scheme for their own profit, massively violating their own credit standards, or the feds who failed to stop them in time? (And please don’t tell me government wasted money in the bailouts. Every expert in either party agrees they were necessary, at least in retrospect, and arch-Republican and once-private-banker Hank Paulson started them.)

You would have to wait several decades, maybe a century, to see an economic waste by government anywhere near that big, let alone that disastrous. So when tax phobics talk about government waste to get you to lower their taxes so they can get richer, you really have to take their demagoguery with a grain of salt.

So much for the substance, the words. The music is a second bit of auxiliary demagoguery that the rich find useful when sheer selfishness doesn’t work. Ever since Nixon’s disgraceful “Southern Strategy,” tax phobics have tried to advance their cause by setting one ethnic group against another.

The gist of their lie was simple and powerful: minority freeloaders are taking your tax money (and sometimes your job) and living high, giving nothing back. First it was African-Americans. Now, with an African-American in the White House (and elected fairly and decisively, twice!), it’s more about undocumented Hispanic immigrants.

The demagogues aren’t really racists. They just want lower taxes so much that they’ll steamroller anything that gets in their way, including racial and ethnic harmony. Now that tactic is coming home to roost, as they seek to pass immigration reform over the dead bodies of their “Deport them all!” crowd, in a probably vain a quest for Hispanic votes.

Anyway, the message is always the same. Undeserving freeloaders are taking your tax money and wasting it. They can even take your job.

What bunk! If it’s poor people the demagogues have in mind, any money they get doesn’t stay in their hands long. It goes right back into the economy, for food, clothing, housing, and transportation. Since poor people don’t get about much beyond their own neighborhoods, their money goes right back into the small, local businesses that (according to GOP dogma) are the acme of capitalism.

Cut their food stamps, and you cut the income of grocery stores, drugstores, and five-and-dimes directly, almost dollar for dollar.


There’s a reason why I will probably not vote for a Republican for anything as long as I live. It’s as simple as GOP propaganda. I like to solve problems. But unlike most problem solvers, the GOP starts with a canned answer and then poses the question.

The canned answer always starts with lower taxes and less regulation, because that’s what the big donors want most. Whatever the problem. Slow economy? Cut taxes and regulation and throw government workers out of jobs. Crumbling infrastructure? Cut taxes and sell our roads, bridges and airports to private firms that will take care of them. Poor education? Cut taxes and privatize our schools. Expensive military? Cut taxes and privatize it, or at least its supply chain.

The question is never how best to solve the problem as such. It’s always how to reach the primary goal: cutting taxes and regulation. Usually, the analysis becomes: “how can our PR geniuses get voters to go for lower taxes and less regulation, whether or not they are in their own natural economic interest?”

Republicans are nothing if not masters of image making. But sometimes the image gets so far away from reality that no one can help but notice. That’s what happening to Hispanic immigrants who’ve been here, working hard, for years or decades, but who still feel like surfs and hide in the shadows when a government car drives by.

To a lesser extent, the same thing is happening to the rest of us. We’re beginning to recognize that cutting taxes won’t rebuild our collapsing bridges, improve our secondary education system (the vast majority of which is public), help our struggling state universities and colleges, protect us from industrial accidents (like the recent chemical spill in West Virginia), ride herd on rogue bankers who still resist meaningful restraint, reduce pollution, bring basic scientific research back from Europe and China, integrate our many newcomers effectively into our melting pot, or protect us from increasingly frequent unprecedented hurricanes, droughts, and storms, which may be partly of our own making.

There are cycles in human affairs. Tax phobia is one. It probably reached its apex under Dubya’s catastrophic rule. Now it appears to be waning.

It won’t go away overnight. There are still many vocal and aggressive true believers, and the self-interest of the unenlightened rich is as strong as ever. (Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers come to mind.)

But an increasing number of voters recognizes that we could banish our big deficits in mere years, not decades, if we just raised federal tax rates a few percent, just for a few years. And we could do all the other things that we must do to stem our national decline, too.

I expect that recognition to reach a critical mass, and to cure our tax phobia, within the next decade. Youth maturing in an era of underemployment and massive student debt will help.

Footnote: I write “probably” because politics has been so bizarre, even just in my lifetime, that I can’t exclude any possibility. There are circumstances under which I might vote for Republican Jon Huntsman, Jr. for president. In my view he is the only GOP candidate since the Senior Bush actually qualified by experience and temperament to hold that office. (McCain had the experience but not the temperament.) Like Saint Reagan, Chris Chistie is just a good actor, with woefully inadequate experience for the job. And now his much-touted temperament is going down in flames.