Friday, August 29, 2014

Network News

After watching most of the network news shows, I think the PBS News Hour and Aljazeera’s John Seigenthaler are the best.  ABC, CBS and NBC are abysmal in covering foreign events.  They have two or three foreign correspondents that they stick on planes to report from some recognizable building near where the event occurred, often not in the same country, but maybe in the same continent, e.g., reporting about Greece from London or about Libya from Lebanon.  Aljazeera actually has some foreign correspondents who report from where the news is happening, e.g., from eastern Ukraine where fighting is going on.  No one can top Margaret Warner of PBS for her foreign reporting, often from dangerous places that the big networks appear afraid send correspondents to, or are unwilling to spend the money to send correspondents there.

Money appears to be a big issue.  ABC, NBC and CBS have clearly decided to cut spending on news coverage.  Scott Pelley, Brian Williams, and Diane Sawyer appear lazy or stupid.  Diane Sawyer has apparently embarrassed herself so badly that she is leaving ABC news to do something easier.  The morning news shows (Today, etc.) have almost no news; they are mainly extended weather reports and stories about celebrities, often just pulled straight off the Internet.  Charlie Rose was supposed to add gravitas to CBS, and he has helped, but the CBS news division appears to be so worthless that he has nothing to work with.

The networks would probably say that their flagship news shows can’t compete with the 24 hour coverage of the cable channels, but the Daily Show and Colbert Report frequently ridicule CNN and FOX for their terrible reporting.  The networks, particularly MSNBC, have decided that it’s a lot cheaper to pay some talking heads to argue about politics and what’s been reported the New York Times than it is to do actual reporting.  Cable news is just nonstop screaming at each other by the same mindless ideologues.  Here, Seigenthaler has again excelled by having some interesting guests who are not on all the other talk shows, including people like Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter.  Whether it is correct or not, she made the interesting point that today, as in World War II and may wars before that, the Russian people are willing to make great sacrifices, including giving their lives, for Russian greatness.  The lesson is: don’t be too optimistic that sanctions on Russia will work.

The other cable news exception is Fareed Zakaria on CNN.  His Sunday morning program is the best news show on television.  It shows what it is possible to do with a talk show.  He has interesting, intelligent guests and he asks them interesting, intelligent questions.  NBC finally realized that Zakaria made David Gregory of “Meet the Press” look uninformed and incurious, and got rid of him.  Brian Stelter of CNN’s Reliable Sources is another exception.  I had enjoyed the show under Howard Kurtz and was disappointed when he left, but the show has gotten even better under Stelter.  Meanwhile Kurtz at Fox has gone completely off the rails.  I tried to watch him for several weeks, but he has apparently swallowed the Fox line completely.  In addition he has the usual blond Fox minders to make sure he hews the party line.  What a disappointment!  I hope Kurtz is getting a lot of money because he has certainly embarrassed himself by becoming a whore for Fox News.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Return of the Neocons

I finally read Bret Stephens’ editorial in the WSJ that drove Joe on "Morning Joe" so crazy this morning --”The Neo-Neocons.”  Stephens says Obama’s decision to attack ISIS is proof that the old neocons -- Wolfowitz, Cheney, Libby and Perle -- were right all along.  Joe said that was a stupid argument and I agree.  ISIS is not Iraq, and Iraq in 2014 is not the Iraq that George W. Bush invaded.  One reason Obama may have to fight ISIS is because the Bush team botched the Iraq war so badly.

George H.W. Bush fought an excellent war against Iraq and won.  The right wing Republicans were not happy, however, because he did not kill Saddam Hussein.  The Republicans and the American public could not stomach a reasonable, victorious war, and they voted Bush I out of office, the only president since World War II who actually won a war.  Of course, they say it was because of the “No new taxes” pledge, but that’s just spin.  Bush raised taxes for the same reason he won the war: he was an intelligent, honest, honorable man, unlike his successors.  Bush II, Cheney and company could not wait to prove him wrong.  They proved themselves wrong, and did great damage to the country in the bargain.

The Stephens article is primarily an attack on the New Yorker magazine, as a mouthpiece of liberal Democrats.  It disturbs me that to some extent it comes down to Jews versus Jews.  I don’t know if George Packer, the author of the Iraq article that he attacks is Jewish, but David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker is.  Wikipedia says one of Packer’s parents was Jewish.  Stevens’ old neocons are predominately Jewish.  Wolfowitz, Libby, and Perle are; Cheney is not.  Wikipedia says Bret Stephens is Mexican, but since he used to be the editor of the Jerusalem Post, he must have some Jewish connection.

I just don’t believe that most Jews can be unbiased about the Middle East.  Israel is always uppermost in their thoughts.  For them any debate about the Middle East is at least as much about the security of Israel as it is about the security of the United States.  I am worried that whatever happens regarding ISIS will be significantly influenced by Israeli and Jewish parochial concerns, rather than the US national interest.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

American Assassins

I have about had it with the lust of the Republicans and Hillary Clinton for the blood of Arab leaders.  America killed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Kaddafi.  It didn’t kill Egypt’s Mubarak, at least not yet, but it has gotten him locked up as a political prisoner.  Now they want to kill Syria’s Assad in the worst possible way, but the rise of ISIS has thrown a monkey-wrench into those plans.  Everywhere they depose a leader, they leave a horrendous mess of a political vacuum.  If they succeed in deposing Assad, they will most likely turn Syria over the wild men of ISIS.  We are still in Afghanistan, but the latest reports indicate that there really was significant electoral fraud in the presidential election and that after Karzai’s corrupt rule, Afghanistan will once again sink into feudal tribal warfare in which the Taliban will have the upper hand. 

Everywhere we intervene, it is the kiss of death for civil society.  These are wars led by fools, by idiotic, incompetent jerks.  They have fouled the reputation of the US military and the Foreign Service.  Monkeys in a barrel could do better.  The biggest incompetent jerk was George W. Bush, aided by his devilish buffoon of a sidekick, Dick Cheney.  General Tommy Franks, who failed to catch Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan and then utterly botched the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq certainly takes the prize for being one of the most incompetent generals in American history.  It’s becoming more and more clear that David Petraeus’ surge was not a military victory, but just a victory for American money buying off corrupt Sunni sheiks.  It was a Potemkin village that has now collapsed.  In Syria, we claimed we only wanted to arm the Free Syrian Army to fight Assad, but the Free Syrian Army is too poor an army to win against Assad or ISIS.  What aid we have provided the Syrian rebels has probably had the principle effect of strengthening ISIS, just as we created Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan during its war with the Soviet Union. 

ISIS appears to be a terrible organization.  Let’s kill some of them, but don’t try to do any nation building.  In fact, it appears that Iraq is a lost cause.  The government in Baghdad will not represent all of the Iraqi people.  It’s worthless.  If the peshmerga can lead the fight against ISIS, let’s help them, without trying to get involved in Kurdish politics.  In their hearts, the Kurds still want a Kurdistan nation that would include parts of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, a NATO ally.  Let’s don’t encourage or arm the Kurds to start fighting Turkey.  Just kill some ISIS guys and get out.  Kill the guy who beheaded the journalist James Foley if you can.  But please don’t do any nation building, which has turned out to be nation destroying.  

Churchill and Zionism

Last week’s NYT review by Geoffrey Wheatcroft of Churchill and Empire gave the impression that the most important aspect of the British Empire to Churchill was the creation of Israel.  I can’t believe that Churchill cared more about Israel than India.  Discussing Churchill’s reaction to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the review says, “Although his own sympathies were with the Zionist settlers, he soon realized what a thankless burden this Palestine was, and toyed with the idea of handing it over to the United States, a teasing ‘what if’ of history….”  Later in the article, which devotes about a quarter of its discussion to Churchill’s Zionism, Wheatcroft states:
Churchill’s friend and colleague Lord Moyne, who was assassinated by Zionist extremists in 1944, was not a viscount; and the dinner in London for Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, in June 1937 was at the house of Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Liberal leader, not that of the Labour leader Clement Attlee, as James says.
 That evening was memorably reported by Blanche (Baffy) Dugdale, niece of A. J. Balfour, a former prime minister and the signer of the declaration, who was herself an active gentile Zionist: “Winston in his most brilliant style, but very drunk.” And here’s something James might have made more of. Benjamin Netanyahu keeps a portrait in his office of his hero Churchill, who was certainly a Zionist and supporter of Israel, but Netanyahu should be careful. He is perhaps unaware that Churchill’s commitment to Zionism was based on his belief that the Jews were a “higher grade race” than the Arabs they were supplanting.
We are left with two great paradoxes. The man who, at one extraordinary moment, heroically defied the vilest racial tyranny in history was himself not only an intransigent imperialist but a racist, by the standards of his own age as well as ours.
The reviewer did not like the book.  I didn’t like the review.  Churchill’s greatest concern about the decline of the British Empires was certainly not what would happen to Palestine.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What Is Wrong with American Financial Policy?

Two interesting articles in the NYT point out some ideas that contradict the conventional wisdom about the US economy.  Robert Shiller writes that the stock market looks overvalued according to a stock index that he developed.  The CAPE index is at 25, a level it has reached only three times since 1881, each of those three just before a steep market drop.  Shiller looks for reason to say, “This time is different,” and says the answer could be low interest rates on bonds.  But he doesn’t entirely buy his own explanation.  He thinks the real reason may be psychology and what the common perception of the market is, rather than an economic explanation. 

I think another reason may be the disappearance of traditional company provided retirement plans.  People are under the gun to amass their own nest egg to support them during retirement.  To do this they are almost forced into risker, higher yielding investments.  In the old days, when interest rates were higher, companies would probably have invested in bonds.  Today there is a huge influx of money into the markets to pay for IRAs, 401(k)s, etc.  This new money is going to drive up stock prices.  But as Shiller says, if the psychology changes and people perceive that their stock investments are too risky, they may pull their money out.  You can lose money in the stock market; you won’t lose it if you hide it in your mattress, in government bonds, or some other very safe investment.  That happened to some extend after the 2008 Great Recession. 

The other article with an unconventional twist is AndrewSorkin’s reporting that actual corporate tax rates paid by US companies are not uncompetitive with corporate taxes levied by foreign countries.  Although the maximum tax rate is 35%, almost no company pays that rate.  There are so many loopholes and special tax breaks that the actual tax raid paid is about 12%, which is lower than the maximum rate that companies say are so appealing overseas.  Sorkin says the real reason for tax “inversions” in which companies reincorporate overseas is the piles of cash American companies are holding overseas that which they do not what to repatriate.  In any case, the screams of corporate CEOs about the high corporate tax rates are insincere and not based on facts.  Corporate CEOs love money and don’t care about America.  They are unwilling to pay taxes to support the military troops, the police, the firemen, or pave roads.  They just want their New York City penthouses, their Hamptons beach houses, and their Aspen ski chalets.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Letter to Sen. Bennet re Social Security

I received your email and signed your petition about Social Security, but it is a sore point for me.

I am retired from the State Department Foreign Service.  I also earned enough quarters working in the private sector to qualify for Social Security.

Because of my Foreign Service retirement, my Social Security is reduced from a normal benefit of over $400 per month to an actual $48 per month that I receive from Social Security.  This amounts to a tax of about 90% on my Social Security benefits because I served my country in the US Foreign Service.

I am willing to sacrifice for my country.  I am also a Vietnam veteran who served in the Army artillery on the DMZ from 1969-1970.  I know that Social Security is underfunded, and am willing to do my part to preserve it.

But it makes me mad that rich people pay only a small part of their income into Social Security.  Contributions are capped at the first $117,000 of earnings.  For many rich people, this means that the Social Security tax is negligible, while for poor people, the Social Security tax is much higher than their income tax.  Meanwhile, for many investors, such as hedge fund managers, even income tax is capped at 20%, which may be a lower rate than the Social Security tax on the working poor.  Wall Street investors would scream bloody murder if they were taxed at 90%, as my Social Security is.

This is an example of extreme income inequality legally established by the United States Government.  I am happy to do my part to help save Social Security, but why should I contribute to government welfare programs for billionaires on Wall Street?

Something is rotten in Washington!

Friday, August 08, 2014

Middle East Policy Failures

ISIS’ success against the Kurdish Peshmerga highlights the failure of US Middle Eastern policy.  Our actions may have been better than nothing, or in some cases worse than nothing, but in any case they were not worth the cost.  Iraq and Afghanistan, where we fought hot wars, are absolute disasters.  We destroyed Iraq when we killed Saddam Hussein and Paul Bremmer disbanded the Iraqi army and ordered the de-Baathification of the Iraqi government.  In our Congress, Republicans have been screaming to do the same thing to Syria’s Assad.  They want to kill Assad and give military aid to his ISIS enemy which is killing everyone it doesn’t like in Iraq.  The Republicans and Obama worked together with the Europeans to kill Kaddafi and shove Libya into a rapid descent into a chaotic hell, killing an American ambassador in the process.  We didn’t kill Egypt’s Mubarek, but we did get him deposed, putting Egypt through years of turmoil, first under the Muslim Brotherhood and now under al-Sisi.

We didn’t create all of this instability.  Saddam, Mubarek and Kaddafi were all getting old and were going to have to leave in a few years.  We moved up that transition, but in retrospect we did not provide for a good transition; they have all gotten worse rather than better.  If we had left these leaders to their own devices, they might have arranged for a more stable government succession, or maybe not.  But for us, trillions of dollars and thousands of lives have been largely wasted.    The country that has probably gone through its transition better than the others is Tunisia, where we have been the least active.

ISIS’ savage, inhuman conduct in Iraq and Syria illustrate how awful our opponents in the Middle East are, but maybe this is neither the time nor the place for us to intervene in what is a regional conflict.

Of course, while all this is going on, the Israelis and Gazans are still fighting each other.  The Israelis face the same moral dilemma that the US does in trying to deal with this Middle East problem.  The more children and non-combatants Israel kills, the more horrendous it , and Jews in general, appear to the world.  The real anti-Semites are the Israelis; they are besmirching the reputations of all Jews everywhere.  When Jews invoke the Holocaust on behalf of Israel, it is an insult to the Holocaust, and makes Israelis look like foul hypocrites.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Oren WSJ Op-Ed on Zionism

I am not convinced by the WSJ op-ed of former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren that Zionism is or was a good thing.  He has a lot to say about how wonderful Israel is economically and politically, but he ignores the most important aspect of Zionism, the creation of Israel.  He also glosses over the fact that Israel’s wonderful democracy treats a number of people very badly, starting with the Palestinians in Gaza.  Gaza is not a country, but most Gazans are not Israeli citizens.  This is a “democracy” with a heavy strain of apartheid or at least very poor treatment of second class residents.

The problem goes back to Israel’s founding.  It was one of the first acts of the new United Nations after World War II, but I think it has turned out to be one of the worst UN mistakes.  The Palestinians were living in Palestine, albeit under some kind of British protectorate, rather than as an independent nation.  Nevertheless, the Jews had not lived in Palestine as a nation for at least 1,000 years.  It is as if someone came to your house and said, “My great-grandfather used to live in this house 100 years ago; I’m taking it back.  Get out!”  The Jews claim they have title to the land because God gave it to them 4,000 years ago, but I’m not sure that non-Jews have to take this title at face value.  Jesus, Paul and Peter made the Jewish God available to Christians; so, it’s not clear that the Jews are still the only people chosen by God.  And what about other gods, the Muslim God for example?   I don’t think the Palestinians agree that the Jews are God’s only chosen people, even if the United Nations said they were.

If the Jews are God’s chosen people and the Palestinians (and everybody else) are not, they have God’s approval to slaughter non-Jews occupying the Promised Land, and that’s what they have been doing.  But if this is truly a racial thing, how many Jews today are blood descendants of Abraham?  Do converts also acquire God’s permission to slaughter infidels on the Promised Land?  Is the right to slaughter non-Jews in the Promised Land acquired by race or religion?  Or was it simply granted by the UN’s creation of the state of Israel?

Zionism predates the Holocaust, but Israel is inextricable tied to the Holocaust.  It’s unlikely that the UN would have created Israel if it had not been for the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust.  To some extent the UN said, “Let the Palestinians make reparations for what Hitler did to the Jews.”  Not surprisingly, the Palestinians were not too happy about being designated to pay Europe’s debt.

The bottom line: I’m not convinced that Zionism is/was a good thing.  Israel may be the most democratic country in the Middle East, but given the Jews history, it should be more  understanding and forgiving of the hardships of the countries surrounding it.  The Jews are criticized (with justification) for meekly walking into the death camps, with some exceptions, such as the Warsaw ghetto uprising.  In Israel they fought to preserve Israel from Arab attacks like they never did to defend themselves in Europe.  But now they begin to become the oppressors, appearing to be getting revenge for being oppressed in Europe.  Thus Zionism begins to look like a way to get revenge, not a way to establish a Jewish nation.  And as the Israeli Jews lose the high moral ground, Zionism loses the high moral ground and becomes just some kind of racist, oppressive regime like those under which the Jews suffered for centuries in Europe.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Putin, Obama, Reagan, Gorbachev and the INF Treaty

The US allegation that Russia is violating the INF Treaty limiting intermediate nuclear forces comes at a worrisome time with the unrest in Ukraine already roiling European waters.  From Russia, intermediate range weapons threaten Europe rather than the US, which can only be reached by longer range, strategic weapons.  It is probably to Putin’s advantage to make Western Europe think twice about whether he is really serious about building a new cruise missile that threatens them, and puts Obama in the position of possibly looking weak if he doesn’t react strongly.

No doubt the Republicans will wax nostalgic for Reagan who negotiated the INF agreement with Gorbachev.  However, in Putin, Obama has a much stronger and wilier opponent than Reagan had in Gorbachev.  Gorbachev was interested in bringing Russia in from the cold and warming up to the West.  He responded when Reagan taunted him with “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  Would Reagan have gotten the same response if he had said in earlier years, “Mr. Stalin, tear down this wall,” or today, “Mr. Putin, tear down this wall.”  Putin sees Gorbachev as a failed, wimpy leader who gave away Russia’s international position.  He doesn’t want to give away Ukraine, as Gorbachev gave away most Soviet satellite countries.  The losses of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are particularly grating to Putin.  If Putin thinks Gorbachev gave away the store, he may be strongly opposed to doing the same thing in Ukraine.

The desire of the majority of Ukrainians, and particularly those of western Ukraine to join the West and the EU is understandable and laudatory.  However, they may be victims of the history of Ukraine and Russia, just as are many Russians who desire stronger ties with the West than Putin does.  It is not irrelevant that the Russian nation was created in Kiev about 1,000 years ago, before the rise of Moscow and St. Petersburg.  While the loss of some former Soviet satellites, particularly some of the “stans” to the south is more like the UK’s loss of its colonies, the loss of Ukraine is more like the UK’s loss of Scotland.  The divorce may come, but not without some wailing and gnashing of teeth, in both cases.  Although a replay of “Braveheart” is unlikely in Scotland, war remains a possibility in Ukraine.  Putin would no doubt like to keep control of Kiev, the birthplace of mother Russia, but if he finds this too challenging, he try for a land corridor to Crimea by annexing some of eastern Ukraine which favors Russian over the West.  On one of the political talk shows this morning, New Yorker editor David Remnick pointed out that there is still a lot of old Soviet heavy industry left in eastern Ukraine, another incentive for Putin to try to hang on to it.  

In any case, Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech is largely irrelevant.  It was made to a weaker Russian leader at a time when Russia was in great turmoil.  Russia may have lost ground economically and industrially since Gorbachev’s time, but Putin wants to reverse that trend, and keeping at least part of Ukraine may be important to that objective.  Obama has a much more formidable opponent.