Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Increase of Economic Inequality in America

The Financial Times website is reporting the recent comments of Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, who "on Friday called on global policymakers to do more to ensure the benefits of globalisation are widely spread within their countries." More interesting is an older article that the FT has paired with this one, entitled "Out on a limb: why blue-collar Americans see their future as precarious." In this piece from May, Edward Luce traces the grim economic state of the working class in America, noting that while average income has increased, median income (that of the middle fifth of American earners) has declined. As one would expect, "Stagnating wages have been accompanied by soaring inequality. According to Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, since 1973 the annual income growth of the top 1 per cent of Americans was 3.4 per cent. For the top 0.1 per cent of Americans it was 5.2 per cent. But for the bottom 90 per cent it grew by just 0.3 per cent a year. The difference between the earnings of chief executives and the average American rose from a multiple of 26 in 1973 to more than 300 in 2004."

This severe inequality in a nominally democratic country should be fertile ground for populist mobilization, but mainstream politicians have stymied this course by poisoning public consciousness with deceptions. As Luce goes on to note, "in terms of politics, Democrats are still reluctant to talk about inequality or strengthening the role of the state. 'There is a deep-seated Democrat fear of being accused of class warfare by the Republicans,' says Mr Schoen," a Democratic pollster. The Republican control of discourse has allowed them to pursue unseemly policies, for example the repeal of the estate tax, which they cynically refer to as a "death tax." Though it only affects inheritances worth $1.5 million or more, the Republican blitz about the "death tax" and its phantom threat to family farms had gotten a sizable proportion of the public to be in favor of its abolition. It is apparently more important that the wealthiest Americans should receive an extra tax break than that this surplus wealth should go to fund human needs. Needless to say, if most Americans knew the truth, the Republicans would not be able to get away with such cynicism.

Of course, mainstream politicians (Republicans and Democrats alike) often have little to gain from discoursing in terms of justice, truth, or real democratic principles. It is much safer and affective to pursue a politics of fear, whether the object of that fear is Soviet communism, dubious terrorist plots, or a too-powerful state. Citizens of our country should be outraged by the rampant inequality, but as "leading Republican pollster" Frank Luntz points out in the Luce article, "The one emotion that trumps anger among voters is fear. The best Republican strategy would be to work on fear." One appreciates the honesty of this comment, if not its moral depravity.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Idealistic Love of Democracy

A front-page article in today's New York Times contains a comment so preposterous and indicative of the paper's doctrinal assumptions that it demands attention. In a piece entitled "Rice Admits U.S. Underestimated Hamas Strength," Steven Weisman writes, "Indeed, Hamas's victory has set off a debate whether the administration was so wedded to its belief in democracy that it could not see the dangers of holding elections in regions where Islamist groups were strong and democratic institutions weak."

One cannot help but be astounded by this remark, especially since one finds it in a hard news article rather than an op-ed. It is reported as if it were indisputable fact that the Bush administration sincerely loves democracy, even to the point of naively assuming that uncultivated tribes--e.g. Palestinians--are capable of appreciating its proper uses and virtues. Our rulers are cast as idealistic dreamers whose sole concern is to dispense freedom to the world--and never mind that that freedom so consistently corresponds to the interests of the powerful and the miseries of the masses.

As the Weisman piece would have it, the crucial issue to be debated is whether Palestinians and other peoples with "weak" "democratic institutions" are capable and worthy of being granted the US's sublime gift of democracy. There are two sides to this debate: idealists like those in the Bush camp who virtuously want to export democracy abroad no matter the cost to ourselves, and the realists who hold that democracy is too dangerous a responsibility in the hands of the undeserving (in this case, "Islamist groups"). In opposition to the "messianic" Bush stand "realists" like Martin Indyk--a negotiator in the Clinton administration--who think that "the conceptual failure that contributed to disaster was the president's belief that democracy and elections solve everything."

The Times has effectively ended serious debate with this framework they have constructed (or accepted). One can either side with the "democratic" visionaries and risk naivete, or one can assume with the realists that some peoples are not fit for self-determination. Any other position is too radical to merit consideration.

The absurdity of articles like this presents itself in the dogmatic belief that the Bush administration values democracy, a belief that results from taking seriously the administration's rhetoric while ignoring its actions. If one looks no further than the gratuitous use of words like "freedom" and "democracy" in the speeches of administration figures, then it is understandable how one might be duped into thinking they care something for those ends. A glance at their record, however, will immediately cause one to change her stance. Consider a few examples of the regard these "idealists" have for democracy: supporting the 2002 coup against the democratically elected president of Venezuela; opposing Iraqi elections in favor of caucuses, changing course only when popular resistance forced them; "negotiating" the economic plunder of Iraq, not with the Iraqi people but with the Bremer regime they themselves appointed; maintaining thousands of troops in Iraq despite 82% of Iraqis being "strongly opposed" to their presence (according to the British military poll leaked to the Telegraph); etc.

But articles like this are perhaps most troubling for their half-hearted endorsement of democracy. As anyone who has access to a dictionary knows, democracy is tantamount to popular self-determination--and nothing else. One who respects democracy necessarily recognizes the right of peoples to make decisions with which he disagrees. In fact, the crucial test comes when democracy is used in a manner with which we disagree. If we rescind our respect for democracy in this instance, then we were not serious about it in the first place. And this is precisely the course the Times has taken, assuming that democracy is not safe in the hands of those who will not use it in what they deem the right way (the backward Palestinians, for example). The Times therefore does not respect democracy--which is very fine for those who currently have all they need (and more) but does not bode well for those who continue to be crushed by the Bush administration's hatred of democracy, especially so long as the media continue to cast the political world in such an absurd and dangerous manner.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Hamas

Today's New York Times (27 January) runs an editorial on the recent Palestinian elections. The paper laments Hamas' victory, noting that Israel missed its chance with Fatah in terms of having a reasonable partner for peace negotiations. The Times calls on Hamas to disarm and rescind its call for Israel's destruction.

Both these ends are desirable, though the Times ignores the other half of the relevant issue, namely the terrorism of Israel. It is true that Hamas is a terrorist organization that has carried out atrocities. It also happens to be true that the Israeli government has used its security forces to kill far more Palestinians than Hamas has Israelis. That the Israeli government is the region's leading terrorist organization should not be forgotten. When one remembers this, the hypocrisy of the press is evident.

If we wish to be fair and rational, we should recognize that all distributors of unjust violence ought to disarm and amend their behavior. Calls for the demilitarization of Hamas are appropriate, and they ought to be accompanied by simultaneous calls for the demilitarization of Israel and an end to its occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Of course, all this applies only if we wish to be honest, fair, and logical. If we prefer to suppress the facts and utilize double standards, then it makes sense to chastise Hamas for its violence while ignoring Israel's terrorism against the Palestinians. We might also take a lesson from this exercise in willful ignorance and disdain for logic by continuing to pronounce Iran evil for seeking nuclear weapons, all the while pretending to forget that Israel has had them for years.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Iraq War Not Just a "Mistake"

A version of this op-ed (with a misleading headline and the sources suppressed) appeared in the 19 January issue of the Marquette Tribune.

As criticism of the Iraq war and calls for troop withdrawal become commonplace, it is important to remember that the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq was not a mere mistake made by a well-meaning administration. The war remains what it always has been: a blatant moral atrocity.

The Bush administration's high-flown rhetoric about freedom and democracy clearly contradicts its actions. Consider the fact that the US was originally opposed to elections—preferring a complex system of caucuses designed to appoint Iraq's government—until Iraqi resistance (led by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani) forced that option off the table (Osnos, Chicago Tribune, 20 February 2004). The administration and its allies in the press quickly took credit for the subsequent elections, citing them as evidence of their commitment to democracy.

One might also note a secret British military poll, conducted last August, that was leaked to the British press (Sean Rayment, Sunday Telegraph, 23 October 2005). The poll found that 82% of Iraqis are "strongly opposed" to the presence of foreign troops in their country. If the US were serious about democracy, it would honor the wishes of the populace and withdraw.

The US always planned to keep multiple military bases in Iraq well after "full" withdrawal of its troops (Shanker and Schmitt, New York Times, 20 April 2003). Nor is it an accident that the occupation regime opened Iraq's economy to exploitation by foreign corporations bent on depriving Iraqis of their own resources (Madrick, New York Times, 2 October 2003; Crampton, New York Times, 14 October 2003; Beattie and Clover, Financial Times, 22 September 2003). A majority of Iraqis would never approve either the long-term presence of US military bases or the exposing of its economy to foreign plunder.

These anti-democratic measures demonstrate why Iraq rather than some other oppressed country was the Bush administration's choice for invasion. It is not by mere chance that Iraq happens to possess an abundance of natural resources, control of which offers the US considerable leverage over rival countries.

For those who are able to ignore this evidence and wish to believe the US claims of benevolence, a simple question might be asked: would our country tolerate the same situation if the roles were reversed? Would American citizens accept a foreign power establishing permanent military bases on their soil, opening their economy to extreme free-market measures without their consent, and continuing to maintain thousands of foreign troops in their country? The answer is obvious. We should extend the same respect to Iraqis as we would desire for ourselves—if we are serious about democracy, at least.

If we disregard the evidence and fail to identify the Iraq war (28,000 – 100,000+ Iraqi civilians dead) as a moral catastrophe, instead labeling it as a blunder or a miscalculation, then we not only excuse war criminals of their crimes, but we also set the stage for similar atrocities to be committed in the future. The Iraq war is not just a mistake—it is fundamentally immoral, and we ought to condemn it as such.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Americans Favor International Cooperation

Judging according to the bipartisan consensus in favor of American unilateralism, one might suppose that US citizens are themselves vehemently opposed to international cooperation, as our leaders commonly suggest. On this point, it may be instructive to recall a 2004 survey administered by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, mentioned by Fareed Zakaria in the 11 October 2004 issue of Newsweek. The survey discovered that "sixty-six percent of Americans favor working within the United Nations, even when it adopts policies that the U.S. does not like. Fifty-nine percent want to do away with all vetoes in the Security Council, including America's. Seventy-four percent want a standing U.N. peacekeeping force, commanded by the U.N., not the U.S. Forty-nine percent approve of a tax on oil and arms that would fund U.N. activities." The survey also found that seventy-six percent of Americans favor the International Criminal Court. "Seventy-one percent support the Kyoto accords. Eighty-seven percent support the treaty banning nuclear testing. And 80 percent support the treaty banning land mines," and the list continues. As Zakaria notes, "Washington is not a signatory to any of these agreements."

These results clearly demonstrate that a majority of Americans are far more decent and cooperative than their "representatives," who brazenly dispose of international law in their quest for military and economic hegemony. When media and government figures inform us that America favors unilateralism over cooperation, it may be wise to note what "America" means to them: elite policy-makers, not the people.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

"Democracy" Promotion

Yifat Susskind has an interesting article on ZNet that examines the U.S. government's attitude towards democracy in Haiti, Venezuela and Bolivia. The article chronicles U.S. support for anti-democratic practices in those countries, such as its backing coups against popularly elected leaders in Venezuela and Haiti. Knowing the history of U.S. intervention in Latin American, it is extremely difficult to take seriously the Bush administration's professed love for democracy and self-determination on the part of peoples. The conflict between the government's rhetoric and its behavior reveals its operative assumption, namely that democracy is good only when it happens to serve U.S. government interests.
Susskind concludes with some comments on Iraq: "Bush's two most important objectives in Iraq--creating an extreme free-market state and maintaining a long-term military presence--have been placed well beyond the reach of Iraqi voters." With Iraqi voters effectively defanged, one can permit them the symbolic function of choosing representatives to act within the U.S.-articulated political-economic framework. Haiti and Venezuela, however, are not sufficiently subjected to U.S. control to be trusted with democracy. Hence U.S. "democracy" promotion, the aim of which is to back anti-popular, pro-business factions that will carry out U.S. wishes.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Iraqi Casualties

Media inattention to Iraqi casualties is troubling. While American casualties sometimes merit front-page news, Iraqi deaths and injuries are usually relegated to newspapers' depths. At current count, over 2,000 American soldiers have died in the war--at least 28,000 Iraqis have been killed, with some estimates ranging over 100,000. The number of Iraqi injured cannot be known with certainity, but it must be many tens of thousands. While American casualties already receive too little notice, the near absence of concern for Iraqi suffering demonstrates the obvious assumption on the part of media figures and government officials: an American life is worth more than an Iraqi life. Given our government's reckless disregard for the lives of Americans (as evidenced by its terrorism-encouraging conduct and its willingness to send poorly equipped soldiers to fight for unjust causes), its estimate of the worth of the lives of Iraqis is abysmally low.

President Bush, breaking with his usual silence on the issue, recently put the number of Iraqi dead at about 30,000. His sudden candidness is, of course, insincere. It is meant to stymie opposition to the war by establishing the low-end estimate. This sudden shift in strategy, however, speaks to the effectiveness of popular opposition to the illegal/immoral war on Iraq. A year ago, the administration would have simply ignored the issue of Iraqi deaths. That appears to no longer be an option.