Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Morality Cannot be Found Under a Rock 2: Emotional Responses and the Trolley Problem

I sent Alex Rosenberg an email about my July 19, 2015 post ("Morality Cannot be Found Under Rock") .  He did not say I misread him.  He did direct me to "The Atheist's Guide to Reality" (chapters 6 and 7) for a fuller explanation of his views. I've got it on order at the library. In the meantime, what about the idea as stated in Rosenberg's NYT article: that in order to be right, correct, or well justified, moral claims would have to be based on objective grounds for our emotional responses.

Why do people make such claims? Why would anyone ever suggest that our emotions could act as an objective ground for morality, much less that they should?

Our emotional responses play a mere supporting role to our attempts at morality. Psychologists and philosophers have long run studies and conducted thought-experiments that have confirmed that our emotions are a fickle guide to questions of morality. There is a whole set of situations described as "the trolley problem."

The trolley problem illustrates that we have very different emotional responses to different situations that appear morally equivalent. It doesn't mean we abandon the project.

Rosenberg used the example of honor killing in his article. If we don't have a universally consistent emotional response to honor killings, he asks, how can a claim that "honor killing is wrong" be right, correct or well justified? This non-problem leaves me cold.

We have a strong emotional reactions to soldiers lining up a group of women and children in front of a ditch and shooting them in the woods. On the other hand, our blood does not boil at the thought of flyers in the Enola Gay dropping an atomic bomb on women and children. That's a trolley problem. It doesn't mean that (despite our different emotional responses) we can't bring legal, religious, or philosophic reasoning to bear on these different atrocities. Within our legal, religious, philosophic and cultural traditions we can find well justified reasons to say that--despite our different emotional reactions--executing women and children with machine guns in the woods and dropping an atomic bomb on women and children from an airplane are equally wrong. Through moral reasoning we can reflect on how we would want to behave when confronted with similar problems, what behaviors we should tolerate, encourage, or prohibit and punish as a society... and why.

In the trolley problem we are asked to make on the spot hypothetical moral calculations. Neuroscientists can tell us which parts of our brain are stimulated as we make such calculations, and what the probability distributions are. But probability distributions of our emotional reactions to described situations do not answer how we would want to behave when confronted with a given situation, what behaviors we should tolerate, encourage, or prohibit as a society, ... and why.

We should note that an exception for honor killing (Rosenberg's example) is not so shocking or unusual: it's a kind of trolley problem too. There is nothing unique about such blind spots to our opprobrium and anger. For example, we consider killing o.k. if it's done in self-defense; we consider it o.k. if the state does it as capital punishment; some of us consider it o.k. if it's euthanasia; and most of us consider it o.k. in war. And let's not forget about our double standard when it comes to the killing of animals.

Is an honor killing worse than President Truman authorizing the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  Talk to me.  That's the essence of moral reasoning.

When we reason to determine how we would want to behave in a given circumstance, what behaviors we should tolerate or encourage as a society, and which we should prohibit and punish... and why, we look to our traditions: legal, religious, communal, social, moral. And in our modern world, our ethical judgments will undoubtedly be informed by a combination of these overlapping traditions.

And our traditions and our emotions, of course, speak to each other. In the United States we have a traditional food chain that is built around inhumane treatment and killing of animals. Because that is our tradition, most of us are not affected emotionally by this practice.  But there are people who look to different religious or philosophic traditions to reach the conclusion that the inhumane treatment and killing of animals on an industrial scale is not right, correct, or well justified. A person who has formed that view may start to have an emotional reaction to our inhumane treatment and killing of animals on an industrial scale.

Should same sex partners have the right to marry? That is a moral question. The Supreme Court recently examined this question in light of our two hundred year plus legal tradition. We've been having a public discussion about it. Within that tradition the court found well justified reasons to rule that "Yes, they have that right." That ruling is right and correct in light of the legal tradition in question and the reasons stated therein.

"Right, correct, and well justified," is not the same thing as undisputed and incontestable. Morality is not like that. And emotions are an uncertain guide. But bring on an enlightened legal culture; bring on  thoughtful social policies; bring on education; bring on kind and wise priests, rabbis, pastors, qadhis and imams; bring on non-corrupt politicians; bring on public sector workers dedicated to serving the public; bring on citizens committed to the common welfare. Somewhere in all of that we'll find our morality.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Mya Guarnieri: Love Across the Divide

American/Israeli journalist Mya Guarneieri writes about love across the divide between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.  It's a captivating read. Take a look: 
The Long Road to Bethlehem (Part 3) 
The New Year comes and passes. It’s January 2014 and I’ve been living in the territories for almost a year. But rather than becoming more comfortable in my new surroundings and feeling like my usual curious and adventurous self—I am the woman, after all, who has traveled some 20 countries, mostly alone—I find myself turning inwards. I prefer to stay in Bethlehem, close to home. 
This is not me. 
The occupation and the checkpoints, particularly the flying checkpoints, have something to do with the change: on my way back to Bethlehem from Ramallah one afternoon, a flying checkpoint pops up near Jabaa’. As the soldiers take the IDs of everyone in the service taxi, I don’t know what to do—do I give them my American passport or my Israeli teudat zehut? 
In theory, I could be headed from Qalandia—which is technically part of East Jerusalem—to Hizme, which is in Area B. I’m legal here, I tell myself. Or am I? I try to picture myself on the map that shows the zones: A, B, C. 
Where is Jabaa’? 
Where am I? 
Who am I supposed to be right now? 
It happens again as I’m driving back to Bethlehem from Jerusalem one afternoon. I’m on the little, rolling two-lane road that takes me to Beit Jala. Usually, I glide by the small army base on the edge of Beit Jala and from there, it’s a short drive to Bethlehem and I’m home. But today: when I bank the hill, I see soldiers standing in the middle of the road—a road I’ve never seen them on—checking IDs as Palestinians drive into Beit Jala. But why? If checkpoints are about security, then why would they be scrutinizing Palestinians headed into a Palestinian area? Are they looking for someone? Are they making sure that no Jewish Israelis are headed into Area A? Are they enforcing segregation?
Read on at +972 Magazine

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Danger in Listening Too Much to “Very Serious Persons”

Henry Farrell has an interesting post at Crooked Timber where he worries about the influence that “Very Serious People” or “VSP’s” can have on our public debate. He means people like Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, Benjamin Netanyahu: people whose opinions are widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong.

Back in September 2002, Netanyahu, and Friedman, and Brooks, and Krauthammer, were VSPs making the case that the U.S. must bring about regime change in Iraq because Saddam Husain was on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. Egged on by the media and our inflamed sense of justice we took their advice and went to war.

These VSP’s were manifestly wrong about Iraq, as were all the other VSP’s who were clamoring for war in 2002-2003. Today, many of these same people are urging Congress to reject the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached by the P5+1 with Iran. Can a second calamity be avoided?  

We all have biases, says Farrell. Without some ideological biases we might not be able to see the world at all. What’s more, our ability to reason appears to be geared more for making arguments than for truth seeking. Thus, when Netanyahu, and Boehner, and McConnell, and Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi marshal their reasons for this deal—pro and con—just like we, they are mostly looking for reasons to back up their ideological (and political) biases. They (and we) are all subject to confirmation bias. They (and we) are all prone to make up facts to fit the argument. They (and we) are all prone to be blind to inconvenient truths that undercut the argument.

What leaves room for hope, is that as a collective jury we have the ability to evaluate facts and the quality of arguments, as Farrell says: “to come around to recognizing the advantages of a better perspective, however grudgingly.”  But there’s a catch. In order for this collective truth seeking process to succeed, it is essential that we not systematically entrench particular biases.

“The problem with VSPs is not that they are biased (we all are) – it’s that the systems around them magnify that bias, reinforce it, and reflect it, creating the risk of vicious feedback loops of self-satisfied yet consequential ignorance (as in the Iraq war).”

This strikes me as important. The danger in inviting Netanyahu to speak to joint sessions of Congress while ignoring normal protocol, and the danger in having AIPAC spend $30 million to lobby Congress to torpedo this Iran deal, is that we drown out better arguments and create an echo chamber where people only hear arguments that support what they already believe. The risk is that we short circuit the deliberative evaluation of competing arguments; that we’ll end up with distorted beliefs; that we’ll end up acting on crazy premises. 

For an example of crazy, see Senator and Presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who “on Tuesday told a group of reporters that ‘millions of Americans will be murdered by radical, theocratic zealots (and that) … the deal could eventually mean Iran launches a nuclear weapon from a ship in the Atlantic Ocean.”

The good news is that, despite wing nut arguments from Ted Cruz on the Presidential trail, and from many others in Congress, competing arguments are also being heard in favor of the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action from VSP’s and ordinary mortals alike. This is not 2003. It’s not an echo chamber.

Let’s see what difference this makes.

Congress Must Stand up for American People's Interest over Netanyahu

As Peter Beinart observed in Haaretz (7/15/15), Israel and the United States (and the other members of the P5+1) have conflicting interests at stake when it comes to the Iran deal. Meanwhile, many in Congress are behaving like they represent Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli interest instead of the American People. When will voters get the message?

The bomb

The P5+1 have negotiated with Iran in order to take an Iranian nuclear bomb off the table indefinitely, and to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region. Israel and the Saudis have a different purpose. For Israel and the Saudis the primary goal has been to keep sanctions in place indefinitely in order to cripple Iran as a regional competitor.

The goal established by the P5+1 for these talks (taking an Iranian nuclear bomb off the table indefinitely) seems to have been achieved by the deal that has been negotiated. Iran promises to forego its ability to produce nuclear weapons and to permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor as necessary to verify compliance. Some are raising concerns that Iran might attempt to secretly develop nuclear weapons in breach of the agreement.  But this is not a concern that can be solved by any agreement. Ultimately any agreement must presuppose the good faith of the parties and must rely on the professionalism and skill of the IAEA inspectors to detect cheating if it occurs.

So why all the protest from Israel against this deal which pretty effectively takes the nuclear issue off the table for more than a decade? And why do so many in Congress assume that Israel’s protests are serving the interests of the United States? The key to understanding Israel’s opposition is that when Netanyahu brandished his cartoon nuclear bomb at the UN General Assembly in September 2012, he was not so much concerned with Iran achieving a milestone of enriching enough uranium to be able to build a few nuclear weapons—like North Korea has managed to do. After all, Israel is a nuclear superpower in the Middle East and they are reported to have more than 200 nuclear warheads, which they can launch from hardened land installations, bombers, or submarines. Israel has no realistic fear of an Iran potentially armed with a few nuclear warheads. Netanyahu was more broadly concerned with Iran as a regional rival.

Read the rest at Mondoweiss.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Morality Cannot be Found Under a Rock

Photo from Global Solutions website

Last week (July 13, 2015) Alex Rosenberg, professor of philosophy at Duke University asked Can Moral Disputes be Resolved? in the New York Times “Philosopher’s Stone” series.  He strongly, and in my mind ludicrously, suggested the answer is "No."  

Take honor killings, the killing of a family member—typically a woman—who is seen to have brought disgrace on one’s family. We have a strong revulsion to such killings, yet the practice persists and is considered morally acceptable in some cultures around the world. As we know, the practice also has religious grounding. See, e.g. Leviticus 20:9, 21:9; Exodus 21:17.

Rosenberg cavalierly dismisses 2,500 years of western philosophic and religious tradition and concludes that "honor killing is wrong" is not an objective fact we can find out in the world. It simply registers our emotional response: 

If “honor killing is wrong” reports our emotional horror at the practice, and not its objective wrongness, then even worse moral catastrophes will be hard to condemn. Many people will not find this a satisfactory outcome. They will hope to show that even if moral judgments are expressions of our emotions, nevertheless at least some among these attitudes are objective, right, correct, well justified. But if we can’t find objective grounds for our emotional response to honor killing, our condemnation of it might turn out to just be cultural prejudice.

For the time being, Rosenberg continues to look at human biology and evolution for answers. He doesn’t exude confidence that this will lead him to an answer that “honor killing is wrong.” He implies that "even worse moral catastrophes will be hard to condemn." But …, of course, he’s looking in all the wrong places. He's framing the issue all wrong.

Moral reasoning—reasoning that would show our moral convictions as “right, correct, and well justified”—is not something that can be found under a rock or in biology. Morality is not a question of ontology: it’s a matter of tradition and practice!

The fact that there are different traditions, and that different traditions look at moral questions differently, does not mean that moral questions don’t have answers that are “right, correct, and well justified.”  We don’t throw up our hands in despair and say “it’s just cultural prejudice,” or “it’s all relative” as if this were some devaluation of the enterprise. Tradition and cultures matter, and within a given tradition and culture moral questions will have a “right, correct, and well justified” answer. Even if adherents of a given tradition can disagree about what the answer is! Moreover, traditions and cultures can be compared, and there are reasons to prefer one tradition over another when we examine them side-by-side, and there are reasons for traditions to evolve over time.

In the next two posts I will look, first, at the question of how rights evolve within the context of our U.S. constitutional tradition as explained by Lawrence Tribe (a Harvard constitutional law scholar) at a Chataqua memorial lecture in honor of Justice Robert Jackson, and, second, at Yaacov Yadgar’s just published article about “Traditionism” which examines how tradition forms our identity, helps us to make sense of our world, and how, as bearers of tradition, we must engage in a practical dialogue with our tradition in order to carry it forward.

Tradition is the place to look for “right, correct, and well justified” answers to moral questions. Even if biology can help shed light on moral disputes, biology cannot provide the answers. Or another way to put this: the fact that different traditions reflect different answers to questions about honor killing is not a bug of morality that prevents a “right, correct, and well justified” answer, it’s a feature of morality. The same is true about the fact that different practitioners of a tradition may come up with different answers to a moral question; it is not a bug of morality, it's a feature. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Iran Deal: Good for America, not so much for Israel

Peter Beinart has an important observation (Haaretz 7/15) about the Iran deal we should keep in mind:
America has a vital interest in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon... [a]nd America has a vital interest in avoiding another Middle Eastern war, since the last one cost the U.S. dearly. These aren’t just Barack Obama’s priorities. They would have been Mitt Romney’s too. And this nuclear agreement, while imperfect, achieves them better than any alternative. .... Netanyahu’s proposed alternative to the current deal — increase global economic pressure until Iran capitulates — is utterly detached from reality. 
But ... [the U.S.] does not have a vital interest in keeping Iran weak. Yes, Iran is supporting some nasty organizations and regimes: Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and (along with some Sunni benefactors) Hamas. But none represent a direct threat to the United States. None are likely to commit a terrorist attack on American soil. The people most likely to do that are Sunni Jihadists organized or inspired by groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The groups, in other words, that Iran is fighting against. 
This isn’t to say America wants Iran to dominate the Middle East; it doesn’t. It wants a stable balance of power between Iran and its Sunni (and Jewish) foes. But keeping Iran, and its proxies, weak is not reason enough for America to torpedo a deal that peacefully limits Iran’s path to a bomb. 
Israel’s interests are different. ....  Netanyahu, like most other Jewish Israeli politicians, believes Israel has a vital interest in keeping Iran weak. What scares them about the nuclear deal is that it legitimizes Iran’s regime internationally and ends sanctions, which gives Tehran a lot more cash. If Netanyahu torpedoes the Iran nuclear deal, he may not have a plausible alternative for keeping Iran from the bomb. But at least he denies Iran’s regime the money and legitimacy that enhances its power. 
....When Americans lie awake worrying about terrorism, they think about ISIS and Al Qaeda, which Iran fights. When Israelis lie at night worrying about terrorism, they think about Hezbollah and Hamas, which Iran funds. Netanyahu and his Republican allies can talk all they want about how Iran is the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism. But the terrorist groups that will benefit from Iran’s enhanced power — Hezbollah and Hamas — pose a much greater threat to Israel than to the United States.
As Chemi Shalev (Haaretz Washington correspondent) has noted, Obama understands this very well. In yesterday's news conference, Obama characterized the opposition to this deal as "Netanyahu and the Republican leadership." That is a politically smart characterization for Obama to adopt. First, it has the merit of being correct. Second, it allows him to highlight the fact that the U.S. interest is not aligned with the Israeli interest on this issue. If he can make that case to the American people, the "Republican leadership" will all of a sudden find themselves in an awkward position. 

When John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress last March, behind Obama's back--breaching foreign policy protocol in the process--many noted that this introduced Israel as a partisan wedge issue in American politics. This is a new phenomenon. Since 1967 U.S. Israel policy and Israel advocacy in Congress have been remarkably bi-partisan. This bi-partisanship looks to be coming to a crashing halt. If it turns out that the Republican leadership takes sides with Israel to kill this deal... and, a crucial if, if Obama can convince the American people that the deal is in America's interest, well .... then Wow! 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Who Wants to Deal with a Bully Longterm? What Comes of Germany Imposing its Will on Greece?

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble

So it looks like Germany has imposed its will on the Greeks. For now. It's a shame. 

The Greek banking crisis and the euro have become divisive for the European project. The euro has become divisive, says Barry Eichengreen, because the different economies of different countries in Europe needed the euro to do different things. Since the start of the financial crisis in 2007, poorer countries like Greece needed a much cheaper euro; creditor countries like Germany did not. Peripheral countries like Greece, but also Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland... needed fiscal stimulus (lots of infrastructure projects, government spending) to get back on their feet, and some inflation to help grow out of debts; Germany did not. 

Germany, the largest economy in the euro zone, imposed austerity on all others (no government stimulus,  decrease in government spending, increase in taxes) and a monetary policy that would not allow for inflation. For the last seven years, Germany has been fine...., Greece's economy has imploded; they have unemployment of 25%.  Germany has thrown its weight around and gotten its way. Germany's needs have been met, those of poorer countries have not.

The EU has no mechanism for transfer payments from rich countries to poor. They have no political mechanism to get this done.  Instead of witnessing leadership that would help build Europe, we've had to listen to moralizing lectures from the German press and the German finance minister. [And this from the country that had 50 percent of its debt forgiven in 1953 after it launched the greatest homicidal disaster in the history of the world] 

In the United States, we have banking union (the Fed manages the money supply and interest rates, and the FDIC rescues banks in individual states when they run into trouble) and we have fiscal union (the Federal government collects taxes from all states, reallocates money between the states). Here is a map of the rough magnitude of transfer payments that occur in the U.S. (numbers are per capita).

Net contributions calculated as taxes paid minus narrow transfers received.
For example, Kentucky receives more than $1,800 in benefits from the federal government (over and above what it pays in taxes to the federal government for) for every person in the state. This is helped along by the fact that poor and less populous states in the U.S. are structurally overrepresented in Congress (the least populous and poor states have two senators, just as many as the most populous and  wealthy states). 

In the Europe of today, the bullies rule. The EU has no political mechanism to transfer payments to Greece. It's like expecting California to make transfer payments to Kentucky without the federal government involved--it wouldn't happen.

Transfer payment of 1,800 per capita from Germany to Greece would be $19 billion/year. 

The EU has open borders and labor mobility, but labor is not nearly as mobile in the Eurozone, with its diverse cultures and languages, as it is in the United States. Moving from Greece to Germany to get a job is not like moving from Kentucky to California.

Wolfgang Muenchau at the Financial Times wonders about the fallout. He sees a Europe where the strong (Germany) push around the weak (Greece) and he ventures that others (Italy, Spain, Ireland, Finland, Portugal?) must be observing the same thing. What's their takeaway?  

He speculates that the takeaway will be: Perhaps this Europe thing is not for us? Maybe not right away, but soon. 

1.  For the past 20 years, the glue holding the EU project together has been the political commitment of its members to build a European entity. This has transcended economic interest: they wanted to be part of an ambitious project of European integration. 

2.  But if the strong bully the weak, what happens to this starry eyed aspiration. Does it give way to disillusionment? How are the Greeks feeling today, whether or not their parliament approves this deal.

3.  If Italy, Finland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc. begin to feel that this is a club run by and for the powerful and rich, they will look much more closely at the economic cost/benefits. 

4. Looking at it from a purely economic point of view, says Muenchau, the leadership of Germany does not look so good for the weak. 
"The euro has worked well for Germany. It worked moderately well for The Netherlands and Austria, although it produced quite a degree of financial instability in both. .... But for Italy, it has been an unmitigated economic disaster."  
Similarly, the euro has not worked for Finland, especially as its economy has slumped in wake of Nokia's collapse.  What about Spain, Portugal, Ireland?  Greece is not the only country for whom the euro has not been a blessing.

5.  A few years down the road someone will look at Germany and say.... "You're a bully, we don't want to play this game anymore?" 

"Once you strip the eurozone of any ambitions for a political and economic union, it changes into a utilitarian project in which member states will coldly weigh the benefits and costs, just as Britain is currently assessing the relative advantages or disadvantages of EU membership. In such a system, someone, somewhere, will want to leave sometime. And the strong political commitment to save it will no longer be there either."

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Hillary Clinton and Haim Saban: a Question of Judgement?

In Las Vegas, in early June 2015, pro-Israel billionaire activists, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Hollywood executive Haim Saban, gathered donors willing to pledge at least $1 million over the next two years to fight the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement on college campuses in the United States and Europe. 

Haim Saban has been an important donor to the Democratic Party and the Clintons personally since 2002. He also supports a pro-Israel think tank at the Brookings Institute and various charitable causes in Israel and the U.S. As outlined by Connie Bruck in a New Yorker profile (May 2010), in 2002 he donated $7 million to the Democratic National Committee for construction of its new building, he donated $2 million to the Clinton library; he has contributed at least $5 million to the Clinton foundation; and he apparently has paid hundreds of thousands to the Clintons for speaking fees. 

Where does this money come from?  The New Yorker profile traces Saban's fortune in part to tax fraud.  Saban sold his share of Fox Kids Network to Michael Eisner of Disney in late 2001 for a $1.5 billion profit. The New Yorker profile suggests that Saban failed to pay approximately $405,000,000 in capital gains taxes (27%) due on this transaction in 2001. He used a fraudulent tax shelter to avoid paying this tax. In a subsequent tax investigation in 2009, Saban claimed ignorance that this was wrong and that he relied on the advice of counsel. He paid $250 million to settle with the government, although that seems to be considerably less than the taxes that were owed as characterized by Saban's lawyer in the 2001 transaction and reported in the New Yorker profile. More importantly, according to the Wiki timeline, in the intervening nine years Saban put the money to profitable use.  He acquired ProSieben1, a German media conglomerate at 7.5 Euros/share in 2003 and sold it at 22.4 Euros/share  in 2007; and he purchased Univision television and other interests that form the basis of his $3.5 billion fortune today.  In a lawsuit, Saban's former lawyer alleged: "Haim Saban, believing he is above the law, has spent decades trying to avoid paying taxes on the many billions of dollars in income he has received, evidencing little restraint in his conduct other than seeking a convenient scapegoat.” I believe the man. Ultimately how many of these tax avoidance schemes that Saban took advantage of skirted the law, and how many outright broke the law, we'll never know. Either way, Saban seems to have paid far less in taxes on his riches than is fair or reasonable.

In short, it appears Saban is being "generous" with the People's money! 

The Clintons' are happy to consider Saban a patriot in exchange for some of his loot. Last week Hillary Clinton wrote a fawning letter to Saban, inviting him to "work together" to fight BDS. The letter went on to state that there should be no outside pressure on Israel to solve the Israel/Palestinian issue; that the conflict should be left to the negotiation between the parties; that comparing Israel and South Africa is abhorrent; that the UN report on the 2009 "Operation Cast Lead" Gaza conflict (the "Goldstone Report") was "biased;" and that, of course Israel should have the right to defend itself "like any other country" (which manages in one blow to imply support both for Israel's serial destruction of Gaza and Netanyahu's obsessive raging against Iran).  

According to Peter Beinart  Clinton sent similar letters "to at least two other Jewish organizational officials." The letter hits all the buzz-words that any staunch supporter of Netanyahu, the occupation, and ethnocratic Israel at the expense of Palestinians would want to hear. 

As Beinart notes, Haim Saban is not an expert on Israel/Palestine or the Middle East. He is a guy with a high school education who has made a lot of money, and appears not to have paid his fair share of taxes and who, by his own description is a one issue guy; and that issue is Israel. Or as Beinart puts it: "He’s a mega-donor who thinks Barack Obama has been bad for Israel. .... Saban was so suspicious of Obama’s views on Iran in 2008 that he considered backing John McCain. Saban’s preferred approach: 'I would bomb the daylight out of these sons of bitches.'”

On Israel policy there is no daylight between Saban who supports the Democrats, and Sheldon Adelson who supports the Republicans. They are both in bed with Netanyahu, with military occupation, and with ethnocracy. They are not believers in a democracy that includes Palestinians, they are actively opposed to Palestinian rights, indeed they deny the very existence of Palestinians as a people. On Iran, both men don't want to hear talk of negotiation, they want to hear the sound of bombs falling.

Are Adelson and Saban people that presidents should be looking to for Middle East policy advice? Apparently Hillary Clinton thinks so. It's not a matter of necessity. As Bruck details in her profile of Saban, Obama kept Saban at a distance. He did not rely on Adelson money or on Saban money for his elections. Hillary Clinton is choosing to dance to a different tune.

All of this brings into question Hillary Clinton's judgement when it comes to the Middle East. As we know, she voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the 2008 campaign she refused to acknowledge the vote as a mistake; now she does.  However, this letter to Saban leaves one to wonder whether her judgment has improved.

Beinart thinks Clinton's implicit support of the occupation and the fight against BDS is counterproductive and bad for Israel. Signing up with Saban and Adelson, says Beinart, "is disastrous" because Adelson and Saban are shutting out the very voices and constituencies with whom BDS enjoys credibility.  The Adelson/Saban approach, worries Beinart, will be counter-productive and will ultimately make the BDS movement more potent.  If Hillary Clinton were serious about fighting BDS, says Beinart, Saban would be the last person she'd ask. She'd be looking for ways to impose a two state solution from the outside.

.... Hillary is signaling that she may oppose Obama if he backs a two-state resolution at the UN this fall.  [She implies] that left to their own devices, others in the Obama administration might not have come to Israel’s aid. It all adds up to a hint that if the White House backs a two-state resolution at the Security Council this fall, the woman who says America must “defend Israel at every turn” at the UN will make her opposition known. 
But if Hillary really wants to stop the growth of BDS, she should be thrilled by the prospect of a two-state resolution at the UN. The “outcome [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] can only be achieved through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians,” she writes. “It cannot be imposed from the outside or by unilateral actions.” This is nonsense. An outcome is being imposed, every day, by Israel’s unilateral expropriation of land in the West Bank, much of it owned by individual Palestinians, which Israel then doles out to Jewish settlers, thus making a viable Palestinian state harder and harder to achieve.

The only way to prevent this Israeli unilateralism is through solutions “imposed from the outside.” .... How can direct negotiations possibly succeed when Benjamin Netanyahu has explicitly and repeatedly said that he doesn’t support a Palestinian state anytime soon, and doesn’t support one near the 1967 lines ever? The only way to make direct negotiations meaningful is to force Netanyahu, or some Israeli successor, back into the paradigm outlined by Bill Clinton and the Arab Peace Initiative [in the Oslo process] ....
Unless that framework is “imposed from the outside,” people morally opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will see no hope for ending it without BDS. And they will gradually embrace the movement, even though it goes beyond the two-state solution to question the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state within any borders. 
The Obama administration, by signaling that it may support such a UN framework this fall, is pursuing the best alternative to BDS that exists today. If Hillary helps torpedo that UN initiative, Haim Saban should look forward to more letters from her about BDS in the future. Because the Democratic presidential frontrunner will have done her part to help it grow.
Gershom Gorenberg is similarly left scratching his head. He notes how in 2008 Clinton issued policy paper swearing fealty to Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the Jewish state, how as Secretary of State she jettisoned that myth and failed to register U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem as "born in Israel."  But what will she do as President?
Hillary, I understand that you need to satisfy donors and swing voters. Someone like me, who lives far away and will merely bear the impact of decisions you make as president, hardly matters. Still, I'd like to know: As president, will you draw the distinction between Israel and the settlements, between boycotting one and boycotting the other? Will you treat criticism of Israeli policy as anti-Semitism or as a necessary corrective? Will you be ready to confront Israel's government for the sake of Israel's future, or will you prefer to keep the donors happy for 2020?  Your letter [to Saban] may answer all the questions that Saban has. It doesn't answer mine. Frankly, it makes me nervous.
Over the course of his Presidency Obama has successfully gotten Iran to halt its pursuit of a nuclear weapon and he has made efforts to normalize relations and bring Iran back into the international community. This effort has been shrilly opposed by Israel. Hillary Clinton has at times opposed the Obama administration's approach on Iran. How would she balance her unceasing commitment to Israeli neoconservatives with America's policy interests in the region as president? There are more questions than answers.

In Syria as with Iraq, it's clear Hillary's instincts have been considerably more hawkish than Obama's. Hawkish instincts proved a disaster in the wake of September 9, 2001. The fact that Clinton is unable to distance herself from Saban and Adelson, buffoons who don't know what they're talking about on BDS, leaves room for worry about how Hillary Clinton's hawkish instincts would serve the country if she were president for the next four or eight years.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Greece Strongly Backs Tsirpas! Thoughts for the Way Forward from Thomas Picketty

Greece cheering its Referendum, July 15, 2015
USA Today photo
Today Greece strongly rejected (61% "No" with 90% of votes counted) the deal last offered by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF (the "Troika"). In doing so they have strongly backed Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsirpas in his negotiations with Greece's creditors. 

Three things seem clear: 1) Greece is in a financial pickle largely because of its own doing, and this mostly predates 2009; 2) the debt restructuring deal on offer was full of austerity, and unlikely to allow Greece to grow sufficiently to meet the onerous obligations imposed; and 3) the Northern Europeans don't like Tsirpas and his Syriza governing coalition.

In the United States we have a strong commitment to our bankruptcy laws. We allow people who are unable to repay their debts to default, save their shirt, and start over, debt free. We believe this is efficient for the economy as  whole. We believe it is productive to minimize the stigma of bankruptcy despite the moral hazard of letting people who have mismanaged their finances off the hook. We believe strong bankruptcy protection is healthy for society as a whole.

The reasons for finding a realistic debt relief package for Greece are similar. Europe will not benefit by saddling Greece with a depressed economy, high unemployment, and no light at the end of the tunnel. Not only would this impose tremendous hardship on the youth of Greece--who had nothing to do with the financial abuses but will bear the brunt of the unemployment--but it risks political unrest. It will retard the growth of Europe as a whole.

In voting "No," Greeks have given their acknowledgement that they recognize and are willing to share the risks of the Tsirpas government holding out for a more sensible debt relief package. I say three cheers for the Greeks for involving the democratic process in a crucial national decision.

The Troika, and Europe as a whole, must now decide whether they want to find a solution, which will entail a reduction of austerity and substantial debt relief, or whether they want to jeopardize the European project. The fact that the Northern Europeans find Tsirpas personally distasteful surely must  not be allowed to stand in the way.

They can't dilly dally. Time is short. Greece is almost out of money.

As we await what happens next, Brad DeLong sends us to an enlightening interview with Thomas Picketty (the French star economist who focused Western democracies on inequality with the publication last year of his Capital in the 21st Century).  He was interviewed by the German publication Die Zeit on July 4, 2015.

Here are some highlights from the interview:
DIE ZEIT: Should we Germans be happy that even the French government is aligned with the German dogma of austerity? 
Thomas Piketty: Absolutely not. This is neither a reason for France, nor Germany, and especially not for Europe, to be happy. I am much more afraid that the conservatives, especially in Germany, are about to destroy Europe and the European idea, all because of their shocking ignorance of history. 
ZEIT: But we Germans have already reckoned with our own history. 
Piketty: But not when it comes to repaying debts! Germany’s past, in this respect, should be of great significance to today’s Germans. Look at the history of national debt: Great Britain, Germany, and France were all once in the situation of today’s Greece, and in fact had been far more indebted. The first lesson that we can take from the history of government debt is that we are not facing a brand new problem. There have been many ways to repay debts, and not just one, which is what Berlin and Paris would have the Greeks believe.
ZEIT: But shouldn’t they repay their debts? 
Piketty: My book recounts the history of income and wealth, including that of nations. What struck me while I was writing is that Germany is really the single best example of a country that, throughout its history, has never repaid its external debt. Neither after the First nor the Second World War. However, it has frequently made other nations pay up, such as after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when it demanded massive reparations from France and indeed received them. The French state suffered for decades under this debt. The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice. ....  When I hear the Germans say that they maintain a very moral stance about debt and strongly believe that debts must be repaid, then I think: what a huge joke! Germany is the country that has never repaid its debts. It has no standing to lecture other nations. 

After the war ended in 1945, Germany’s debt amounted to over 200% of its GDP. Ten years later, little of that remained: public debt was less than 20% of GDP. Around the same time, France managed a similarly artful turnaround. We never would have managed this unbelievably fast reduction in debt through the fiscal discipline that we today recommend to Greece. Instead, both of our states employed the second method with the three components that I managed, including debt relief. Think about the London Debt Agreement of 1953, where 60% of German foreign debt was cancelled and its internal debts were restructured. .... [I]t was a rational political and economic decision. They correctly recognized that, after large crises that created huge debt loads, at some point people need to look toward the future. We cannot demand that new generations must pay for decades for the mistakes of their parents. The Greeks have, without a doubt, made big mistakes. Until 2009, the government in Athens forged its books. But despite this, the younger generation of Greeks carries no more responsibility for the mistakes of its elders than the younger generation of Germans did in the 1950s and 1960s. We need to look ahead. Europe was founded on debt forgiveness and investment in the future. Not on the idea of endless penance. We need to remember this.
ZEIT: The German Minister of Finance, on the other hand, seems to believe that a Greek exit from the Eurozone could foster greater unity within Europe. 
Piketty: If we start kicking states out, then the crisis of confidence in which the Eurozone finds itself today will only worsen. Financial markets will immediately turn on the next country. This would be the beginning of a long, drawn-out period of agony, in whose grasp we risk sacrificing Europe’s social model, its democracy, indeed its civilization on the altar of a conservative, irrational austerity policy.
ZEIT: Do you believe that we Germans aren’t generous enough? 
Piketty: What are you talking about? Generous? Currently, Germany is profiting from Greece as it extends loans at comparatively high interest rates. 
ZEIT: What solution would you suggest for this crisis? 
Piketty: We need a conference on all of Europe’s debts, just like after World War II. A restrucutring of all debt, not just in Greece but in several European countries, is inevitable. Just now, we’ve lost six months in the completely intransparent negotiations with Athens. The Eurogroup’s notion that Greece will reach a budgetary surplus of 4% of GDP and will pay back its debts within 30 to 40 years is still on the table. Allegedly, they will reach one percent surplus in 2015, then two percent in 2016, and three and a half percent in 2017. Completely ridiculous! This will never happen. Yet we keep postponing the necessary debate until the cows come home. 
ZEIT: And what would happen after the major debt cuts? 
Piketty: A new European institution would be required to determine the maximum allowable budget deficit in order to prevent the regrowth of debt. For example, this could be a commmittee in the European Parliament consisting of legislators from national parliaments. Budgetary decisions should not be off-limits to legislatures. To undermine European democracy, which is what Germany is doing today by insisting that states remain in penury under mechanisms that Berlin itself is muscling through, is a grievous mistake.
Read the whole thing here.

This is no time for false pride and wounded egos. I hope Europe's leaders and the IMF respond in a positive and productive manner to this referendum.

Friday, July 3, 2015


Allen Ginsburg was born in Newark, New Jersey, June 3, 1926. I think he would not approve of Chris Christie. He graduated high school in 1943 and did not go to war. He enrolled in Montclair State College then Columbia instead.

His poem "America" was finished six months after his mother's death; thirteen years before the Stonewall riots. In his  "Who's Who" entry he listed Peter Orlovsky, his companion from 1954 to the end, as his "spouse." I think he would have been pleased with Windsor, with Obergefell v. Hodgson. 

Ginsberg was a flower child in San Francisco in 1967. There, City Light Books published his "Howl," which includes the poem "America."  

He received a Young Mens Hebrew Association (now JCC) scholarship to attend Columbia in the late 1940's. But he was never a Zionist. His head was with Pound and Eliot, and later with Indian Swamis, not Judaism and Israel, although he and Orlovsky did visit Jerusalem for a month in 1961 from Damascus.  He was a mystic who saw visions of God and William Blake, not burning bushes and promised lands. 

He died April 5, 1997. 

Re-reading "America" I find it remains remarkably undated despite its specific reference points. True, the atomic bomb lacks the hold it had on our psyche. Nothing has that kind of hold now. The NSA? 

We don't have any Trotskyites left. It's possible we don't have a million who know who Trotsky was (Eastern Ukrainian Jew, born in Yanovka near Mariupol). [Thinking of alternative histories; how would things have turned out if Trotsky had beat out Stalin?] Who are the heirs to our million Trotskyites today?  Not the followers of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.  There are none. 

"Shipping eggs to India" refers to the Bengali famine during WWII: 3million people died of starvation.  Today, of course, there are 60 million war refugees, with people drowning in the Mediterranean (1,500 through April of this year), and people getting killed in civil wars in the hundreds of thousands (Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Egypt, Ukraine, Gaza, etc.). 

Time Magazine is not what it was. It didn't have this blog or Don's Basement to contend with back then.... 

We've now had a Catholic President. There is that. And Ginsberg was not, of course...

"America, I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel..."   And so he did!


America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. 
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.   
I can’t stand my own mind. 
America when will we end the human war? 
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb. 
I don’t feel good don’t bother me. 
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind. 
America when will you be angelic? 
When will you take off your clothes? 
When will you look at yourself through the grave? 
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites? 
America why are your libraries full of tears? 
America when will you send your eggs to India? 
I’m sick of your insane demands. 
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks? 
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.   
Your machinery is too much for me. 
You made me want to be a saint. 
There must be some other way to settle this argument.   
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back it’s sinister.   
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?   
I’m trying to come to the point. 
I refuse to give up my obsession. 
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing. 
America the plum blossoms are falling. 
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for murder. 
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies. 
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.   
I smoke marijuana every chance I get. 
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.   
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.   
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble. 
You should have seen me reading Marx. 
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right. 
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer. 
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations. 
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia. 
I’m addressing you. 
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?   
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine. 
I read it every week. 
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.   
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library. 
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.   
It occurs to me that I am America. 
I am talking to myself again. 

Asia is rising against me. 
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance. 
I’d better consider my national resources. 
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals an unpublishable private literature that jetplanes 1400 miles an hour and twentyfive-thousand mental institutions. 
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underprivileged who live in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns. 
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go. 
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic. 

America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood? 
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his automobiles more so they’re all different sexes. 
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe 
America free Tom Mooney 
America save the Spanish Loyalists 
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die 
America I am the Scottsboro boys. 
America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother Bloor the Silk-strikers’ Ewig-Weibliche made me cry I once saw the Yiddish orator Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have been a spy. 
America you don’t really want to go to war. 
America its them bad Russians. 
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.   
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages. 
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations. 
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.   
America this is quite serious. 
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.   
America is this correct? 
I’d better get right down to the job. 
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway. 
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel. 

Berkeley, January 17, 1956

Allen Ginsberg, ca 1956, Peter Orlovsky archive

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Reading List

Brad DeLong has dusted off his reading list for getting oriented in economics:
I will take this list and report here in the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you know any of these works, or read them for yourself, do chime in with a comment or review below.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Greek Debt Crisis: "She Lied to Me"

Thanks to Rafe Stefanini and Erik Hoffman for teaching me this riff.  My guitar playing and singing, as you'll see, is not up to my writing and analytical abilities. But they share something in common with writing and dispute resolution--making yourself vulnerable.

And here is an example of Rafe Stefanini's playing playing some rockin' Oldtime music with his daughter Clelia:

And here is the original Emry Arthur with the original version of "She Lied to Me."