Friday, June 30, 2017

We Should be Working to Improve the UN, not Walking Away from it . . .

Source: Wikipedia
The United States contributes roughly 22 percent of the United Nations' general budget.  This is an appropriate and fair amount given our share of the world's economy.  The U.S. economy ($18.6 trillion 2016) remains the largest economy in the world, comprising nearly 25% of world economic output. The European Union ($16.4 trillion 2016) makes up a little under 22% of the world economy, and China ($11.2 trillion 2016) is in third place at 15%.

The Trump administration, however, wants to back away from our leadership role in the world community. Trump has turned his back on the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement; he wants to renegotiate NAFTA; he wants to weaken our NATO commitments; he wants to exit the Paris Climate Accords; he wants to keep out refugees and immigrants; he wants to move towards autarky; and he wants to cut our commitment to the UN in half.

Returning to Our Isolationist Roots

After World War One, President Woodrow Wilson suggested a 14 point plan for an equitable peace in Europe. This included a League of Nations to help put an end to an era of hostile armies crossing the Rhine every 20 years, to borrow a DeLong meme. In the end, to the world's loss, the United States stayed out of the League of Nations, and a mere 21 years later civilized nations were at each other's throats once more. The world would have been better off had the U.S. engaged with the League of Nations after World War I. Would the infamous Munich conference have gone differently had the U.S. been involved? If God could play dice with alternate histories in a parallel universe, he would be tempted to do it in light of the catastrophe that followed.

Following World War II, the nations of the world got together once more to form the United Nations on October 24, 1945. The original 51 countries of the UN came together to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, and to promote social progress, better living standards and human rights across the globe.  What's not to like?

Today the UN has 193 member states who have submitted to the founding charter and its amendments. Individual countries can express their views through the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council and other bodies and committees. It's a democracy of sorts, even if some members are more equal than others. The United States, of course, is more equal than anyone. So what's not to like?

The work of the United Nations reaches every corner of the globe. The core mission is peacekeeping, peacebuilding, conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance, but there are many other ways in which the UN works to help make our lives and the world a better place. UN agencies work on sustainable development, the environment, refugee protection, disaster relief, counter terrorism, disarmament and non-proliferation, the promotion of  democracy, human rights, gender equality and the advancement of women. The UN works on improving governance, economic and social development and international health, clearing landmines, expanding food production, and more, all in order to achieve a safer, better world for this and future generations.  What's not to like?

The isolationist forces that have taken over our government don't like the United Nations.  And it's true, the UN is not a perfect body.  In fact it is deeply flawed. The body needs to become more democratic. Stronger. More independent. Many of its member states need to become more responsible. The body needs to become more effective. Still, we should be working to make it better, not turn our back on it.

How do we work to improve anything? Through leadership. And who is in a better position to lead the UN than the United States? No one. And is the United States better off if someone else steps up to take the leadership mantle? I don't think so. Is the world better off if the United States walks away from its leadership role? I don't think so.

But this is not apparent to all. "America, we pay way too much for the United Nations" lamented Brett Shaefer at Fox News a year ago:
Over the last six decades, the share of the U.N. expenses borne by poor or small member states has steadily ratcheted downward to near- microscopic levels. From 1974 to 1998, the minimum mandatory payment for the regular budget for example, fell from 0.04 percent to 0.001 percent. For the peacekeeping budget, the minimum is 0.0001 percent.
The end result is a hugely skewed bill for U.N. expenses.

In 2015, 35 countries will be charged the minimum regular budget assessment of 0.001 percent which works out to approximately$28,269 each. Twenty countries will be charged the minimum peacekeeping assessment of 0.0001 percent or approximately $8,470 apiece. By contrast, the U.S. is assessed 22 percent of the regular budget (approximately $622 million) and over 28 percent of the peacekeeping budget (approximately $2.402 billion). 
But spare us the crocodile tears.  The nation of Tuvalu with a GDP of $36 million, admitted as the 189th member of the UN in 2000, is charged the minimum $8,470 for world peacekeeping.  In other words, Tuvalu is assessed .01 basis points for world defense and their share of world GDP is .0036 basis points.  By comparison, the United States with 25 percent of world GDP is contributing 28 percent of the UN defense budget, AND the U.S. gets to be the world leader. We get to have a veto over Security Council resolutions.  What does Tuvalu get?

In March, reports CNN, instead of stepping to the head of the line and leading by example, the White House instructed our UN mission to gut our contributions to the UN. Instead of having the US shoulder a proportionate to GDP share of the UN Budget, the current administration wants to pay much less. If they could, it appears, they would follow our League of Nations example and  quit the UN altogether.

So yesterday, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, celebrated a $500 million cut from the UN peacekeeping budget: "Just 5 months into our time here, we've cut over half a billion $$$ from the UN peacekeeping budget & we're only getting started," tweeted Haley. Oh Boy! Isn't that great?  No it's not.

Turning our back on the UN is nothing to celebrate. Let's never forget what happened when we turned our back on the League of Nations. We should be leading by example. We should be engaged with the world body; we should be working hard to improve it. We should not be walking away from it. . .

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

An Economist's High Level Take on WW II

Bundesarchiv: l-r Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Deladier,
Adolf HitlerBenito Mussolini, and Galeazzo Ciano
before signing of Munich Accord Sept. 30, 1938
For Alan Furst fans, World War II buffs, and anyone else interested in understanding our world, Brad DeLong's Very Short Take on World War II  is worth your 20 minutes.

Here's Brad . . .
To Munich 
While most other countries continued to stagnate in the Great Depression, the German economy recovered rapidly. But peaceful spending-fueled recovery was not what Hitler thought his regime was about. His regime was about German rearmament: the breaking of the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles that restricted the German military to a total strength of 100,000; and eventually aggressive war with the Soviet Union and the other powers to Germany's east with the aim of increasing the “living space” of the German people. 
Hitler announced that Germany was rearming, and met with no complaints. The victorious allies of World War I faced a knotty foreign policy problem. The isolationist United States was uninterested in sending soldiers and garrisons to Europe. The British and French electorates definitely did not want to do World War I again. And Hitler’s program of rearmament and national self-assertion demanded that Britain and France make a choice. 
The treaties of Muenster and Osnabrueck in 1648—the Peace of Westphalia—and the earlier peace of Augsburg in 1555 established the principle in European international law that internal affairs were nobody else’s business. Not all rulers agreed. Pope Leo X condemned the Peace of Westphalia. The French revolutionaries sought the overthrow of kings and oppressors and the creation of sister republics all across Europe—until Napoleon taught them the joys of conquest and empire. (The American republic, by contrast, positioned itself as, in the words of John Quincy Adams: “the friend of liberty everywhere but the guarantor only of our own.”) Nevertheless, the idea that it was no concern on one duly recognized government what another did within its borders became one of the strongest taboos of European international law: freedom from nosy oversight was something all governments could agree on. 
When you combine this Westphalian sovereignty principle with the particular features of the post-World War I settlement, you brewed an explosive cocktail. World War I ended with a settlement notionally based on the Fourteen Points of Woodrow Wilson. Most important, there was supposed to be: 
  • Universal disarmament.
  • The abolition of offensive war—international disputes to be settled by arbitration in the League of Nations.
  • Adjustment of national borders to correspond to linguistic groupings: people should be ruled from a capital where people spoke the same language that they did.
When Hitler began his diplomatic campaign he thus had a powerful array of arguments on his side. The Versailles Treaty that had ended World War I had restricted the size of the German army to 100,000. But the other nations of the world had never cut back their own armies. Was Germany to be the only great power to fear invasion from Denmark or Yugoslavia? That was not fair. . . . 
The Versailles Treaty and the other aspects of the post-World War I settlement had tried, imperfectly but as much as was possible, to redraw national borders along linguistic lines. . . .  As long as Hitler restricted his foreign policy goals to (a) removing the restrictions on German armaments that made Germany a less than equal nation, and (b) trying to “settle” national minority problems by redrawing borders to more closely match linguistic lines, it was hard for Britain and France and others to say no. . . . 
In the middle of the Great Depression, French and British political leaders believed that they had bigger problems than enforcing every jot and tittle provision of the Treaty of Versailles, and that they wished to see Germany rejoin the community of western European nations. . . .  
Read on at Grasping Reality with All Tentacles:

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Qatar is the Home of Al Jezeera: we should be standing up for press freedom

A flat, desert country in the Persian Gulf
The nation of Qatar consists of a handful of families, living high on the hog off oil riches, and the world's third largest deposits of natural gas. This clannish tribal nation, known for horse and camel breeding during the Umayaad period (661-750 CE), is ruled by an absolute monarchy (the House of Thanis) which has ruled the peninsula since the early 19th century.  The immediate family of princelings is said to number maybe 6,000. The exact number of Qatari nationals is kept a state secret, but according to the Middle East Quarterly, there are a little over 240,000 Qatari nationals. The GDP of the country measured by citizens is $690,000/person. It's an exclusive club, and they like to keep it that way. Citizenship is passed through Qatari fathers.  Foreigners are not considered unless they speak Arabic and have lived on the peninsula for 25 years, and the law provides that no more than 50 may be naturalized in any given year.  

Oil was discovered in 1939, but development of the oil industry was delayed until after World War II. In the 1950's oil revenue began to replace pearl harvesting as the major source of revenue. Oil earnings funded the development of infrastructure.  Over the last 25 years, Doha, the country's capital and largest city has gone from this . . . 

to this . . . 

And all that construction requires many workers. As a result, the population of the country has recently ballooned to more than 2 million. No foreign workers are granted permanent residency. They must renew their residency permits frequently, and not infrequently their papers are confiscated upon entry and they are kept in slave like conditions. It's despicable, and it's a stark reminder that a lack of political power has consequences.  

The result is a surreal country with untold riches for the 12% of citizens and an exploited underclass of foreign workers without political rights, mostly men. The temporary guest workers have skewed the population so it is 75 percent male!  

Much of the oil and gas riches are funding this building boom. Large amounts are spent in lives of luxury in Europe. Some Qataris, as indeed many Saudis, have taken to funding extremist Islamist movements in the Middle East. Some of these riches have gone to bribing FIFA officials until Qatar was named host nation for the World Cup in 2022. Some of it has gone to fund the world wide media network Al Jezeera

Among all those efforts and accomplishments, establishing a robust news organization centered in the heart of the Middle East, may be the Qatari's most admirable accomplishment. Al Jezeera is credible, broad, and hard hitting. The Saudis and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council don't like it one bit. 

Here is Zeeshan Aleem, at Vox
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain abruptly severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and suspended all air, land, and sea travel to and from the country. Almost overnight, Qatar found itself totally cut off from the neighbors it relies on for a huge portion share of its trade and travel in and out of the country, triggering panic among Qataris over how long they could survive without access to basic things like food imports.
Riyadh’s stated reason for the drastic move was Qatar’s alleged funding of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. But few analysts actually bought that explanation. Most believed Saudi Arabia’s anger at Qatar had far more to do with Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate Islamist groups, its chummy relations with Saudi’s regional rivals Turkey and Iran, and its powerful and far-reaching media network Al Jazeera, which Saudi Arabia and the others see as a propaganda outlet for Islamist political movements that threaten their governments.
It's no accident that a demand to close down Al Jezeera was prominently on the list of 13 Saudi and GCC country demands to Qatar this week as a condition for lifting the blockade. 

Whatever else one can say, or question, about the GCC air and land blockade of Qatar, the demand to Qatar that it shutter Al Jezeera is clearly wrong. The Trump administration, and Western governments in general, should be speaking with one voice to defend the press freedoms of Al Jezeera. 

We don't shut down RT (the Russian propaganda media) in the U.S. because we value a free press. Al Jezeera is a much more important voice in the world than RT, all countries who believe in an Enlightenment tradition should stand up for it. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Obama's Statement on the Senate Health Care Act

Obama's statement on the GOP Health bill released by the Senate today, which he posted on Facebook, is worth reading:
Our politics are divided. They have been for a long time. And while I know that division makes it difficult to listen to Americans with whom we disagree, that’s what we need to do today.  . . .  
[W]e fought for (the ACA) because we knew it would save lives, prevent financial misery, and ultimately set this country we love on a better, healthier course. . . .  
Thousands upon thousands of Americans, including Republicans, threw themselves into that collective effort, not for political reasons, but for intensely personal ones – a sick child, a parent lost to cancer, the memory of medical bills that threatened to derail their dreams. . . . 
For the first time, more than ninety percent of Americans know the security of health insurance. Health care costs, while still rising, have been rising at the slowest pace in fifty years. Women can’t be charged more for their insurance, young adults can stay on their parents’ plan until they turn 26, contraceptive care and preventive care are now free. Paying more, or being denied insurance altogether due to a preexisting condition – we made that a thing of the past.

. . . .  So I still hope that there are enough Republicans in Congress who remember that public service is not about sport or notching a political win, that there’s a reason we all chose to serve in the first place, and that hopefully, it’s to make people’s lives better, not worse.

But right now, after eight years, the legislation rushed through the House and the Senate without public hearings or debate would do the opposite. It would raise costs, reduce coverage, roll back protections, and ruin Medicaid as we know it. That’s not my opinion, but rather the conclusion of all objective analyses, from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which found that 23 million Americans would lose insurance, to America’s doctors, nurses, and hospitals on the front lines of our health care system.
The Senate bill, unveiled today, is not a health care bill. It’s a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America. . . . Discrimination based on pre-existing conditions could become the norm again. Millions of families will lose coverage entirely.

Simply put, if there’s a chance you might get sick, get old, or start a family – this bill will do you harm. . . .  
I hope our Senators ask themselves – what will happen to the Americans grappling with opioid addiction who suddenly lose their coverage? What will happen to pregnant mothers, children with disabilities, poor adults and seniors who need long-term care once they can no longer count on Medicaid? What will happen if you have a medical emergency when insurance companies are once again allowed to exclude the benefits you need, send you unlimited bills, or set unaffordable deductibles? What impossible choices will working parents be forced to make if their child’s cancer treatment costs them more than their life savings? 
To put the American people through that pain – while giving billionaires and corporations a massive tax cut in return – that’s tough to fathom. But it’s what’s at stake right now. So it remains my fervent hope that we step back and try to deliver on what the American people need.
Elections have consequences, and Republicans campaigned on wrecking Obamacare, and reducing the federal governments role in healthcare. Ominously, the Senate bill would effect long term cuts in Medicaid.  Medicaid provides health care for the nation's neediest.

The chart of who benefits from Medicaid prepared by the New York Times today, is also worth contemplating.

This is the population that will be harmed the most by the proposed cuts to Medicare. We don't have universal health care in this country. The ideology that says we should reduce the health care we provide to poor children, children with disabilities, poor adults, and nursing home residents is an ideology of cruelty. It's shameful.


And here is Ezra Klein at Vox about the core part of the bill:
[W]hat this bill does, [i]n fact, it does it over and over again; policy after policy in the bill is built to achieve the same goal: making poor people pay more for less health insurance. . . 
Reading the bill, I keep thinking about what Sen. Mitch McConnell said about the Affordable Care Act in January:
----MCCONNELL: "Well, what you need to understand is that there are 25 million Americans who aren’t covered now. If the idea behind Obamacare was to get everyone covered, that’s one of the many failures. In addition to premiums going up, copayments going up, deductibles going up. And many Americans who actually did get insurance when they did not have it before have really bad insurance that they have to pay for, and the deductibles are so high that it’s really not worth much to them. So it is chaotic. The status quo is simply unacceptable."
McConnell was right in every criticism he made of the ACA. Then he turned around and wrote a bill that made every single problem he identified worse. 
The bill he has written leads to more people who aren’t covered. The premiums, deductibles, and copays people actually pay for their care will skyrocket. More people will end up in bad insurance that has deductibles so high that it’s really not worth much to them. In a particularly Orwellian flourish, the name of this bill dedicated to diminishing the quality of the insurance coverage Americans can afford is “The Better Care Act.”
Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Partisanship Model of Representation is not Democracy

Sen. Maj. Leader, Mitch McConnell/The Hill
A small committee of Republicans in the Senate has been crafting health care legislation in secret,  behind closed doors.  Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell hopes to achieve a one vote partisan majority for the GOP American Health Care Act, possibly with the help of the Vice President, by the end of this month.  McConnell appears to believe that his chances of passing such contentious legislation is enhanced if there is no adequate opportunity for review by the press, members of his own caucus, Democrats, or the public. He may be correct insofar as this prevents normal political pressures from building up.  There is talk that tax reform will be tackled the same way. "The White House plans to privately negotiate a massive overhaul of the tax system with Republican leaders in Congress," the New York Times reports today, "possibly giving rank-and-file members little if any say over the finished product." 

This crafting of legislation behind closed doors, effective though it may be, is dangerous for our democracy. The idea that Senators would approve bills crafted in secret, without adequate public hearings, and without either the public or their elected representatives having an opportunity to absorb, understand, and evaluate proposed legislation should set off alarm bells. It runs counter to any plausible notion of representative government. 

Styles of representation differ among members of Congress, says Eric Petersen in a report by the Congressional Research Service (Roles and Duties of a Member of Congress, 2010). Some members see themselves as responding to instructions from their constituents back home (a "delegate" model of representation). Others prefer to act on their own initiative and exercise their own judgment (a "trustee" model of representation). But both the delegate model of representation and the trustee model of representation requires members of Congress to act in the best interest of their constituents, and this requires that major pieces of legislation be open, transparent, and understood by the elected representatives and/or the public before a vote takes place. 

In order for a senator to follow the instructions of constituents back home (the delegate model), a major piece of legislation like the American Health Care Act must be presented, reported on by the press, scored by the Congressional Budget Office, discussed, and sufficiently absorbed by constituents so Senators and members of the House can get a sense of what the "instructions" of their constituents might be. In order for any member of Congress to act on his or her own initiative and exercise his or her own judgment (the trustee model), an important piece of legislation like the American Health Care Act, or the tax reform bill to come, must be presented, discussed and sufficiently absorbed in order for each member of Congress to be able to exercise his or her own judgment. 

The American Health Care Act bill passed by the House last month is politically unpopular. This bill proposes to substantially dismantle Obamacare's modest improvements to our dysfunctional health care system: the House bill provides a large tax cut (nearly $600 billion over ten years), and a substantial reduction in health insurance premium subsidies for those unable to afford health insurance. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 24 million Americans would lose health insurance as a result of the House bill.

As a result, McConnell has sought to duck the political heat that would come from further exposing the GOP ideas to daylight. The GOP leadership in the Senate has opted to craft their version of the health care bill in secret. Mitch McConnell has convened thirteen senators behind closed doors, and he hopes to force a vote and pass a bill with 50 GOP Senators plus the Vice President, essentially without debate.  

"There will be plenty of opportunity to read and amend the bill," McConnell promises. Apparently a "discussion draft" will be made available this Thursday. It remains to be seen what "discussion draft" means, and how much opportunity for study and amendment of the actual bill will be afforded. 

The thirteen senators that make up McConnell's health care cabal are all Republicans, all white, all male, and mostly from red states. Here's the list: 
  • Mitch McConnell (Majority leader, Kentucky) 
  • John Cornyn (Majority whip, Texas) 
  • Ted Cruz (Texas)
  • John Thune (GOP Senate conference chair, South Dakota)
  • John Barasso (GOP policy committee chair, Wyoming)
  • Orin Hatch (Utah)
  • Mike Lee (Utah)
  • Lamar Alexander (Senate health committee chair, Tennessee)
  • Michael Enzi (Budget committee chair, Wyoming)
  • Tom Cotton (Arkansas)
  • Cory Gardener (Colorado)
  • Rob Portman (Ohio)
  • Patrick Toomey (Pennsylvania)
These white men represent 20 percent of states and 24 percent of the population of the country. It's hard to square this with a delegate model of representation. And since there is no word yet on when the actual bill will be released, and McConnell has vowed to bring it up for a vote next week, it's impossible to square this process with a trustee model of representation. 

So we ask: what is the duty of the 87 Senators who have been shut out of this process, who don't know what's in the bill, whose first glimpse will be a "discussion draft" to be released on Thursday?  Do they have a duty to study and to understand this bill before they vote for it? To get feedback from their constituents before they vote for it? And how much time does this take for a complicated piece of legislation? 

When Senators enter Congress they take an oath of office: they swear to uphold the constitution of the United States and to faithfully discharge their duties of office. What are those duties of office? Do they include taking responsibility for individual votes? Do our elected representatives have a duty to make best efforts to act as our delegates and/or our trustees? Would our representatives be discharging their duties of office if they absented themselves from Congress while their colleagues study and debate a measure, flying in at the last moment to cast a vote for something they do not understand and have paid no attention to? Perhaps they might do so on a purely partisan basis?

A partisanship model of representation, however, suggests that the duty of a Congress person is to vote the party line, irrespective of the merit or wisdom of legislation. The merit or wisdom of legislation has nothing to do with it. There is no duty to act as our delegate and/or our trustee; our elected representative's duty is simply to vote the party line, holding their nose if need be. That and to show us around when we visit Washington DC, and to raise money to get re-elected. The partisanship model denies that there is a duty to make efforts to sense our "instructions" as constituents on a major piece of legislation; all that matters is to vote the party line. It matters not that 70 percent of constituents are opposed to a piece of legislation like the GOP American Health Care Act. All that matters is that our representative vote the party line. 

But this partisanship model of representation is a disaster. The moment we are prepared to let our representatives outsource policy on a major piece of legislation to 13 white males from 10 states, representing 24 percent of the population, and blindly follow whatever is put before them without understanding or discussion, then we have truly severed any tie between us and our representatives: it's no longer the delegated will of the people on this piece of legislation that matters, it's no longer the independent initiative and judgment of our representative (exercised in our best interest) that matters; it's the will of these 13 white men from 10 states acting behind closed doors that matters. 

Whatever we call that, it is not democracy. . . 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Monday, June 12, 2017

Wonder Woman

Ayalet Gadot as Wonder Woman
In the 1998 American film The Truman Show, Truman Burbank unwittingly lives 30 years in a made for television ecosphere, an artificial bubble of small town America. Truman is the star of a reality TV show; the joke's on him.

The drama of the film plays out as the wheels slowly come off this charade. The producer (Ed Harris) pleads with Truman (Jim Carrey) to stay. But finally, Truman manages to break out of this created world, and to escape the grasp of his creator.

In the 1997 film Contact, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodi Foster) temporarily travels through wormholes  to the Vega star system, 25 light years removed. She lands on a beach, where she touches the membrane of an ecosphere bubble created just for her.  A man, or some type of digital projection--or is it an angel figure--walks towards her.  It turns out to be her father. And the beach is a Florida beach from her childhood. What is reality here, and what is the bubble.  Are we living in Bubble earth?

Like Truman's world, Ellie Arroway visits a slice of made up heaven.

1997 was also the year Men in Black was released, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as G-men whose mission, like that of the Amazons in Wonder Woman, is to seek out and protect mankind from giant cockroaches and other unsavory alien characters disguised as humans. The film has a great opening credits scene, starring dragonflies, alien-like creatures buzzing in their own ecosphere: a dangerous corner of the universe along a busy freeway.  "God damned bugs," observe the G-men as the dragon fly goes splat on the window.

Wonder Woman (released June 2, 2017), the Steven Mnuchin (Trump's treasury secretary) produced film, starring Israel Defense Forces hottie Ayalet Gadot, and directed by Patti Jenkins, also hails from an ecosphere--this time unequivocally an ecosphere of the gods.  It's a paradise of  blue-green ocean, white sand beaches, digitally added cliffs and waterfalls, and a medieval setting.  [Filmed on the Amalfie coast in Italy] We meet young (~7 y.o.?) Diana, an Amazon princess, a demigod off-spring of Zeus and the Amazon queen Hyppolita, or perhaps sculpted from clay and made beautiful flesh, like Adam.

Just off-shore, the island is hidden from view by a permanent fog, and there is a membrane, like the the one that limits Truman Burbank's world, like the invisible membrane that contains Ellie Arroway's Floridian beach in Contact. You poke it, and it gives: like a clear balloon, like a jellyfish that doesn't sting, like a giant latex tent.

Inside this isolated ecosphere, young Diana lustily watches the Amazons in martial training. This war business looks like spring training.

Toronto Blue-Jays fan at Spring-Training
Unlike our nuclear ICBM force, which has suffered from a lack of adrenalin focused attention in the absence of an active military threat, these Amazons are in top form despite millennia of peace.

Unlike the Amazons from Greek mythology, whose main concern in life was war, who were aggressive manslayers, who loathed all men according to Aeschylus, the Amazons of Wonder Woman are guardians of peace. For thousands of years they have trained on their Island to stand up to Ares, the God of war, in order to protect mankind from his ravages.  Hyppolyta, the offspring of Zeus in this movie, even if the off-spring of Ares in the Greek versions of the legend, has a vague notion that Ares will be kept at a distance if only she keeps her daughter away from the martial arts. It's the talisman fantasy of Ora (the mother) in David Grossman's novel To the End of the Land.  In this case, Hyppolyta's sister Antiope, the most skilled of the Amazon warriors, knows better. Antiope secretly starts training young Diana, developing her godly powers.

They've been asleep at the switch, of course, these immortal Amazons; "immortal," it seems, except as needed for dramatic effect of the movie. They've been happily living in their fantasy Spring Training bubble while Ares has run amok in Asia, Alexander the Great conquered, the Roman Empire rose and fell, the Arabs conquered North Africa, the crusaders sacked Constantinople and Jerusalem, the Mongolians swept across the Asian plains into Europe, and Europeans decimated the Americas.

These Amazons have evidently lacked a decent intelligence service. They've lost track of what Ares has been up to in the world. So it's not until a handsome "above average" spy, Steve Trevor (played by Nick Price), crash lands in Diana's lap in this martial paradise, with nasty Germans in hot pursuit, that the Amazons get a whiff of what Ares has been up to while they've frolicked in their bubble.

Steve Trevor has a soft landing. There's nothing quite like a bonding battle with nasty Germans to get the romantic juices flowing.

Diana and Steve leave this Paradise to set off on a heroic journey to end World War One, in November 1918. And (surprise, surprise) they manage to end the war, with a bit of fun along the way. Too bad Diana's understanding of Ares was all washed up. It would have been nice to avoid World War Two, the Holocaust, and all that business.

Ayalet Gadot is very pleasant to look at. She creates plausible chemistry with Nick Price.  She looks very cool in her Annie Hall outfit, and is pleasingly sexy in her Wonder Woman garb. Visualizing and grabbing bullets is pretty cool, if not novel. To my eyes, Gadot's IDF creds notwithstanding, this Wonder Woman is less convincing in her martial role than Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Apparently Gadot gained 17 pounds of muscle in training for her role, she still looks rather thin when holding up a shield running into a hail of bullets.

The film makes evident efforts to dig below the surface of its DC Comic book surface. As A.O. Scott puts it, Wonder Woman tries to be a real movie. I think it succeeds enough to make it a worthwhile summer diversion. The movie is fun. And, as a bonus, there are all the cultural sideshows: the boycott of the film by Lebanon and Tunisia (so far)--because of Gadot; the "mean against men" all women's screenings being conducted around the country; and the angst of sexual fetishization.

For discussion on Wonder Woman's origins see Alex Abad-Santos at Vox.  For a discussion about the age old fantasy of hot lady warriors, see Christian Georges-Schwentzel at Alternet.

For a good time, go see Wonder Woman. 

Follow me on Twitter @Roland Nikles

Friday, June 9, 2017

From Each According to His Ability, to Each According to his Need: as true today as in 1875

Government raises tax money to pay for essential goods and services. How should it get the money?

Disparities in intellect, physical abilities, education, opportunities, motivations, power and luck result in vast inequalities of income and wealth.  Should we collect more taxes from those who have less (because there are more of them), or should we collect more taxes from those who have more (collecting more from the fewer who are able to bear the burden)?

We have a social consensus that taxes should be efficient, universal, progressive, and fair. But "fair" is an elusive and unstable concept, and it's especially wobbly in the hands of people like Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, or the GOP majority in Congress today.

In ancient Egypt, tax collectors were known as scribes and they collected taxes on such things as cooking oil. Scribes audited the use of cooking oil by households and required the use of certain cooking oils. In classical Greece the Athenians attempted to foist their tax burden on foreigners through a poll tax on non-Athenians, called a metoikion. They imposed a universal tax on all Athenians, called an eisphora, only in times of war. The Romans levied customs duties on imports and exports, a portoria.  Ceasar Augustus delegated the burden of tax collection to cities and provincial governors, making many of them rich. He also imposed an inheritance tax to pay for the retirement of soldiers. The tax was five percent of all inheritances, except gifts to children and spouses.  Julius Ceaser imposed a one percent sales tax.

In England, the King's Writ (a letter dated June 20, 1215 from King John to the Sheriff of Gloucester, announcing the signing of the Magna Carta) stated that individuals should be taxed according to their status and means--embodying an early expression of the principle of progressive taxation.

During the English Civil War, Parliament imposed excise taxes on grains, meats, and vegetables in order to pay for Oliver Cromwell's army.  These taxes were very regressive and fell mostly on the poor, leading to riots in 1647.  An early income tax was introduced by Britain in 1800 to pay for the Napoleonic wars.

In the United States, Congress imposed its first income tax in 1861 to fund the Northern Armies in the Civil War (3% of all income over $800.00). This tax was rescinded in 1872. A new income tax was introduced in 1894, but the following year, in Pollock v. Farmers Loan & Trust Co., the Supreme Court struck down all unapportioned direct taxes (according to political representation in Congress) on income, bonds, and dividends as unconstitutional.  The decision was overturned by the adoption of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913, and the Federal government has relied heavily on income taxation to fund its operations ever since.

States, by contrast, even though they have had the power to directly tax citizens from the start, have relied more on property taxes and sales taxes. 

One of the advantages of sales taxes and property taxes over income taxes is they are a more stable sources of revenue.  At the regional (state level) economic performance and individual income can fluctuate significantly, and this poses budgeting difficulties for states.  On the other hand, a heavy reliance on property and sales taxes is regressive--the burden falls more on the poor. 

In Kansas, the less money you earn, the more you pay to the state in taxes as a percentage of your income. The bottom 20% of earners pay approximately 11.8 percent of their income to the state in taxes; the richest 20% of earners pay approximately 4.8 percent of their income to the state in taxes.

Take a look at this chart in today's Washington Post.

A large factor in this, of course, is that a lot of state tax revenues (and in Kansas more so than in other states) is based on sales taxes on essential goods and services.  Poor people and rich people pay a similar amount to purchase food, but this represents a much bigger portion of income for someone with $20,000 of income than for someone with $400,000 of income.

Under governor Brownback, in 2012 Kansas enacted large cuts in the income tax, and it eliminated state income taxes for business profits realized as non-wage income, both reducing state revenues and making Kansas taxation more regressive.  These income tax cuts resulted in substantial budget deficits, affecting core government service, particularly in education. Those who were able did not pay, and the needs of many went unmet.

The rationale offered for these tax cuts was a fiction: that they would serve as an elixir for the Kansas economy. But that elixir had no buzz. From the end of 2012 to early 2016, the Kansas GSP grew at half the national rate, K-12 schools were forced to close early due to lack of funds, and universities suffered under funding cuts. In order to balance the budget, the state was forced to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from state highway funds. Pot holes went unfilled. The state's credit rating was  downgraded twice. And after all that, as of March 2017, Kansas was staring down a $1.1 billion budget hole. That is a deep hole in light of expected tax revenues for fiscal year 2017 of just $5.6 billion.

Sam Brownback is no Pol Pot, but he is bad news for Kansas.

Kansas is not getting economic growth from its regressive taxation scheme. Mostly what it gets is greater income inequality, and poor levels of care for the bottom half of society.  Brownback didn't help matters when, for ideological reasons, he turned down the federal expansion of Medicare, leaving 10 percent of the Kansas population without health insurance, four percent higher (126,000 in total pop. of 2.9 mill.) than if Kansas had accepted the Medicare expansion under Obamacare.

The Kansas experiment in regressive taxation didn't work out so well.

At the national level, reports the Congressional Budget Office, "federal taxes are progressive, meaning that average tax rates generally rise as income increases."  Households in the lowest income quintile paid about 3 percent of their income in taxes, the middle quintile paid about 13 percent, and households in the highest quintile paid about 26 percent.

These rates are not so high for what we get. We have the ability. 

We may live in a post-communist world, but "(to collect) from each according to his ability, (and to provide) to each according to his need" is and will always be a primary function of government. It's as true today as it was in 1875 when Karl Marx coined the phrase.

It's a concept that Kansas seems to have lost track of.  

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Trading the mythology of Judaism for a Muscular, Racist, Secure Nation State: Good Deal or Bad?

A view from Mt. Nebo/Wikicommons
That is essentially the question Yehuda Kurtzer asks himself in a very interesting essay, Unsettled, published in Tablet Magazine to commemorate the June 1967 Six Day War. Kurtzer seems to come down on the side of "worth it!" but with reservations. "For the Jewish people," he says, "(if) the Six-Day War entailed a trade of mythology for security—well, that is a choice most Jews who live in and care about the State of Israel would happily make over and over again."

What is this trade-off?  The canonical stories of Judaism, says Kurtzer, are stories of wandering and dislocation, praying for a return to Jerusalem but never actually expecting to concretize those prayers. He recently observed this Jewish story reflected back at him in a Palestinian novel,  Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan. Alyan's story describes the Palestinian people as on a journey to become A People, forming a collective consciousness, and pining for a return to the land inspite of political circumstances. The land has taken on symbolic power for these people too; these people also have anxiety about assimilation and a sense of incompleteness in diaspora.

The success of Zionism has cost Jews this central mythology. "We gave it as a pyrrhic concessionary gift to the Palestinians," says Kurtzer.

The Jews traded their 2000 year old mythology for security. [How much security, of course, is uncertain] The muscular Zionism that established the Jewish state, suggests Kurtzer, asks of Jews that the Judaism of wandering that is such a central part of their tradition and history come to an end. Now that the stories of wandering and dislocation, of praying for a return to Jerusalem but never actually expecting to concretize those prayers are at an end, now what?

Kurtzer says he would not trade the Zionism that comes with winning wars for the nostalgia of the older, better Jewish story, but he worries that something has been lost. There is something deeply lacking in the new story of a muscular, racist, and secure nation state. The Temple Mount is "[i]n our hands! The end of our brokenness, the end of our history is in our hands!" says Kurtzer.  "And now, once in our hands, how sometimes very small it actually seems."

Kurtzer is being poetic, but what does this smallness actually mean? Kurtzer suggests Jews are left with two competing visions of Zionism: (1) a religious Zionism that wants to bridge the traditional, lived Judaism to the modern political Zionism by "correcting" Judaism; and (2) a second-chance Zionism that holds out the possibility of the fulfillment of a story that the Jewish people never got right the first time around.

Kurtzer does not explain here what this second-chance Zionism might mean for the state of Israel, much less Judaism.  I infer he is thinking of the Jewish state as a kinder gentler Jewish ethnocracy--one with liberal democratic values, due process of law, and a sense of equal rights for all its citizens; a state that does not occupy another people.

Kurtzer does not admit that a muscular, secure, Jewish nation state must of necessity (by definition) be racist. Not even after 50 years of occupation over another people without granting them political or legal rights. There was a "Shitshow" that  immediately followed the first Jewish state--after the Davidic kings--is as much as he allows. But his implication is clear: what has followed the Six Day War is its own Shitshow. The "correction" of Judaism that religious Zionism offers is to accept the concretization of prayers answered; to correct Judaism by accommodating it to this permanent occupation of another People.  Kurtzer would prefer to see a correction of Zionism that mitigates the Shitshow, but that keeps the canonical stories of Judaism intact.

But Zionism seems incompatible with keeping the stories of rabbinic Judaism intact. Kurtzer admits as much when he says "I wouldn’t trade the Zionism that comes with winning the war for the nostalgia of the older and better Jewish story." These old stories of Judaism are "nostalgia" today only because they have been obliterated by Zionism. They were not "nostalgia" in 1900.

Kurtzer worries that "this new story that has replaced the old mythology of journey is deeply lacking." He is admitting that Judaism cannot have its Zionist cake and eat it too. . . .

There is a choice to be made between a Zionism that swallows Judaism (and its stories of wandering and dislocation and praying for a return to Jerusalem) whole by embracing the Shitshow, or a Judaism that preserves the older, better stories by rejecting Zionism.  Both of these choices represents an upheaval of Judaism that Jews have only begun to grapple with.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Are we at Full Employment

The official unemployment rate is very low. It has fallen from a high of 10 percent in 2009 to approximately 4.4 percent.

But above is the graph of adults of working age in the work force, i.e. adults employed, from 1990 to 2017.  This represents a population of approximately 120 million people. So a fluctuation from a high of nearly 82 percent to a low of 75 percent  represents a swing of 8.4 million workers.

In other words there were 8.4 million fewer working in 2009-11 than a decade before in 2000.

There remain 3 million fewer adults unemployed than we should expect compared to adult employment rate in 2000.

So we should be very skeptical of anyone who claims our economy is at full employment, says Brad DeLong. And we should not be surprised that inflation continues to fall below the Feds 2 percent target rate. Read more HERE.

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