Thursday, July 7, 2011

Weimar South Africa

One of the most important elections of this century may have recently  taken place in South Africa – Julius Melema was re-elected as head of the ruling ANC’s Youth Branch.  History may well look back upon that as the missed opportunity to stop the man who is on his way to becoming the black Hitler of Southern Africa. 
To most in America the story of South Africa concludes with the happy ending of Mandela rising out of Robbin Island to become President – ending Apartheid and leading the nation forward in racial harmony.   Although there some truth to that, it is not the end of the story.  What the ANC and Mandela accomplished was truly amazing.  Considering that we are at the 150th anniversary of our Civil War in which 600,000 soldiers died and we still had to have the civil rights movement a hundred years later to make the kind of racial progress that South Africa had in the 1990’s.
South Africa’s economic accomplishments are only slightly less amazing.  They are in their fifteen year of growth, growing even through the economic downturn.   South Africa is the next Brazil.  They have built a solid black middle class and are making great strides in brining services and a better life to everyone.  But the country is still a first world archipelago in third world sea.  Although the upper and middle classes are now integrated, the poor are black.  South Africa still has one of the largest income disparities in the world.
There are two ways to solve the income gap problem.  You could try to bring the bottom up through development and providing services like education while taxing the top to bring it more into balance.  Or you can take everything from the top and bring them crashing down.  This is what Mugabe has done in Zimbabwe and it has turned one of the richest countries in Africa into one of the poorest. 
Malema admires Mugabe, even flying to Harare during to praise him and show his support.  Malema has openly called for trying his solutions in South Africa.  In Malema’s victory speech on Sunday he called for whites to be thrown off the land that the stole from the blacks during the course of the four hundred years of expanding white control.  He has long called for South Africa’s mines to be seized and on Sunday added the banks for good measure.  Nor is he ignorant of what it would take – he was tried for “Hate Speech” for singing the songs from the struggle calling for the blacks to “kill the Boer” (Boer being the Afrikaner white people) and to take up the machine gun.
And Melema is now very very popular, especially among the young blacks – who face 60% unemployment.  The problem with trying to develop your way out of a huge income gap is that it requires decades or patience from the group of people least able to be patient – the desperately poor.  Up to now, the South African masses have shown amazing patience.  But up to now they haven’t had a master orator inciting them not to be patient.
Melema’s positions in no way represent the official position of the ANC.  And at their heart his militant Black Power is the exact opposite of the Rainbow Nation that Mandela devoted his life to building.   In fact, every time Melema makes a statement calling for nationalizing the mines or taking land, the ANC official scurry around the country and around the world to reassure the business community, the white community and the colored community that what he says is not the position of the ANC or the government it controls.  (In South Africa, people of mixed race are called and refer to themselves as “colored” --- now they worry that after not being white enough under Apartheid, they are not going to be black enough.  In South Africa, the minorities are the whites and coloreds.  And our summer is their winter.)
But when Malema lines the current ANC officials against the wall and shots them – which is where this roller coaster ride inevitably ends – he will not be entirely innocent bystanders.   The ANC has been willing to see Melema as a useful idiot, an unruly child they could control.  They have also been willing to reap the benefits a Melema can bring.  Until now, Melema has dutifully marched his supporters to the ballot boxes to check the ANC box.   That way the ANC can receive both votes of those satisfied with South Africa’s direction and those who have lost patience and want radical change.
But that amazingly neat trick has created a monster they are struggling to control.  In their rhetoric the other ANC officials have lulled themselves into acceptance by ascribing Melema’s actions to youth.  But at 30 years old, he is now three years older than Quaddafi was when he seized power.  He is not in a phase that he will grow out of.   Since his latest rants involve supposed plots on his life by ANC officials, he may in fact be entering the phase where he turns to violence “in his own defense.” 
There is no easy answer for the ANC.  I don’t see any answer that does not split the party.  Either the party becomes Melema and anyone who still clings to hope for a non-racial South Africa is forced out, or Melema is forced out and those who believe in Black supremacy go with him.  Then perhaps he can be defeated.  The one thing that ANC officials who do not support Melema cannot do is expect that opposing him but not destroying  ends with them anywhere but in front of the firing squad with their country in ruins behind them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

He could have been a Contender

Before lapsing into a self defeating orgy of birtherism and buffoonery,  Donald Trump was actually enunciating some positions that could have resonated with the Republicans and then with the general public.  They might have formed the basis for a successful candidacy.  They also provide insight into what someone not steeped in conventional beltway wisdom but with a P.T. Barumesque feel for what people are actually feeling comes up with.

On the actual real issues, The Donald has been the only one saying some of the things that need to be said. Things that someone on our side should be saying, but isn't. And frankly, he hit on some things that could have been a winning message.

Economic Nationalism: Trump first made headlines with his attacks on China.  The Chinese were playing us for chumps and taking our jobs and he was going to stop it.  Later he broadened the attack to include OPEC and others.  And we didn't just need jobs, we needed industrial jobs, we needed to make things again. Although simplistic, this message had more truth and much more resonance among the public than the Beltway Villagers realize.

It's not the Deficit, it's Jobs: Trump answered every question about the deficit by saying we needed to fix the economy and get jobs.  He would absolutely refuse to discuss any other steps on the deficit.  To the Villagers, this was of course the ultimate demonstration of his lack of seriousness.  Except, as the last two years of Paul Krugman's columns demonstrate -- restarting the economy is the correct answer to the question of what we need to do NOW.

He rejected Paul Ryan's budget, especially cutting Medicare out of hand:  Although even Newt Gingrich seems to be realizing what a loser the Ryan Budget's destruction of Medicare is, Trump was the first Republican candidate to say so.

Get Out of Afghanistan:  Trump said we needed to pull our troops out and control any resurgence of terrorism with drones.  With the Obama administration stuck in a Vietnam Syndrome of "We're there because we're there, because we're there", getting out of Afghanistan is 2012's sleeper issue.   If the Republicans realize how unpopular this war is, Obama could be in real trouble.  And again (except for Ron Paul) Trump was there first.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Class Genocide

The thirty year long subterranean class warfare of rich and the super-rich against the middle class is entering its final phase – Class Genocide.

Until now, the top 1% has appropriated to itself the benefits of the country’s economic growth, while the middle class stagnated. While making the tax code more regressive, they wealthy have also cut programs that helped people out of poverty and into the middle class. In part they rich were enabled by the American middle classes’ dreams of moving up. Particularly during the booms, entering the top 10% seemed just one stock pick or house flip away for many people, so with a little luck that low-upper bracket could soon be theirs. Since the first government programs cut helped move poor people into the middle class, cutting them did not hurt already middle class Americans. There was always a racial and ethnic component to shutting down entry into the middle class that the politicians subtly played off of.

That was the old class warfare. It unfolded so slowly that for years it just seemed coincidence that the rich always won and the middle class always lost. Even then, the middle class was at least running in place and not losing ground, it just wasn’t gaining. The rich were getting more, but the middle class remained stable and reasonably secure in their ability to remain in the middle class, and they had reasonable confidence that their children and grandchildren would also enjoy middle class status. That is what made it a class – a status that could be maintained for your lifetime and passed along to your descendants.

Now everything that defined the middle class is being dismantled. In America, you are middle class if you have a white collar job requiring a college education, or a union blue collar job, own your own home, are secure in retirement and able to pass along at least a little something to your kids. It’s pretty much what most of us grew up expecting.

With the Ryan budget, and the radical actions Republicans governors are taking in the various states, the GOP is destroying the foundations of middle class security and its ability to ensure that middle class children can become middle class adults. Starting with the land grant colleges of the nineteenth century, public schools, the GI Bills and student aid, the state and federal governments have built the middle class through access to education. When I attended the University of California, a world class education cost $750 a quarter in in-state tuition. My father was the first in his family to attend college and the GI Bill paid for it. I hesitate to think of the state of education and student aid in ten years, when my kids are ready for college, if Paul Ryan has his way.

The Ryan budget put a fear into me, for the very first time in my life, that in retirement I could go broke from medical bills. This is a real fear for those of us on the downside of the baby boom who are not grandfathered into Medicare as we know it. It is also a fear for those in Medicare, or soon to be, because they would be one line of legislation away from being swept into fending for themselves in the insurance market – where insurers will not fall all over themselves to offer good coverage at reasonable prices to eighty-year old diabetic cardiac patients.

It is so much more than the “safety net” that is currently being lost. The continued fallout from the housing bubble/mortgage crisis is going to end the 30 year mortgage for good. Along with the bottomless cup of coffee, the 30 year mortgage is one of America’s great contributions to civilization. The 30 year mortgage exists because of Federal support and regulation. The 30 year mortgage turned America into a nation of homeowners. It also turned every home into a piggy bank where each mortgage payment represented a deposit, and this increasing equity provided an emergency fund, a college fund, retirement savings and the ability to pass something along to the next generation. Think what losing all of that will mean to what we now think of as the middle class.

Without home-ownership, retirement security and college education, what then is left of the middle class?

The effect of all these changes cumulatively ending the middle class as we know it is not an accident. As they say about software – this is not a bug, but a feature. In some of my next posts I will look at why changing the nature of America’s class structure (what we lulled ourselves into thinking was a practically classless society because the middle class seemed to embrace almost everyone) is not a byproduct of what is happening, but the purpose of what they are doing.

The cumulative effect of all of these changes is not simply that millions will be moved out of the middle class, it is the end of the middle class as we have known it all of our lives. There simply will not be a middle class – there will be haves and have not’s. It will not be the America we want or knew.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Being Played in the Great Game

There is a saying among professional gamblers that if you sit down to the table and you don't know who the sucker is, it's you.

Every major power has a real, vital national interest in Afghanistan – except the U.S. and NATO – and the rest of them are all playing us for the fool. Afghan history did not begin on Sept. 11 2001. In Victorian times, playing power politics there was known as the Great Game because it played Great Britain, with its colonies in modern Pakistan and India, against Russia with China and Persia all involved, and the game pieces were local actors of unknown loyalties and shadowy motivations. Here are just some of the folks who are playing us:

Pakistan: Pakistan is India’s evil twin. Whereas India is stable, prosperous and has a long democratic tradition, Pakistan is/does not. Since splitting apart at independence in 1948, they have fought four wars -- and to Pakistan, the question is not will there be another, but when. Pakistan’s worst nightmare is an Afghanistan allied with India against them. They want Afghanistan as their client state, not India’s. And their tool for accomplishing this has been the Taliban. Pakistani intelligence helped create and promote the Taliban originally. Their support for the Taliban continued until 9/11, and it is no coincidence that India supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.

After 9/11, Pakistan had to choose between the Taliban and its longtime alliance with the U.S. America backed Pakistan in the cold war because India’s non-aligned status was seen as titling towards Russia. After the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. flooded Pakistan, and especially the Pakistani military, with aid and other goodies. Now they are profiting from their part in the war on terror.

Continued war is in Pakistan’s best interest. Pakistan saw after the Russians withdrew how soon America’s interest in helping them dropped off. The war also keeps Afghanistan so self involved and weak that it could not think of turning to India. And with deep contacts on both sides, Pakistan is able to keep the pot boiling.

China: I’m surprised our troops can’t hear the laughter coming at us all the way from China. We are spending a hundred billion a year making Afghanistan safe for Chinese mineral concessions. Mountains have minerals, and because of the decades of chaos, Afghanistan has the most unprospected, undeveloped mountains in the world. The value of Afghan mineral wealth has been estimated at over a trillion dollars – a fact trotted out to justify our surge, even though the Chinese are the ones profiting from our military venture.

And boy is China snapping it up. In 2007, China paid $3 billion dollars to lock up the largest unexploited copper reserves in the world south of Kabul. Found by Soviet geologists, we chased them out before they could exploit it and now it is part of China’s increasing influence in Central Asia. China is building Afghanistan’s first major railroad – which will connect this mine and future mines back to China, while providing a captive market for Chinese goods. This railroad will connect to a deep water port being built in Pakistan. (Having read this far, you probably won’t be surprised that the Indians are building a deepwater port in Iran and financing transport that would allow Afghan minerals to flow out in a way that bypasses Pakistan).

The Afghans: Let’s put it in macro-economic terms – the civilian Afghan GNP is $16.6 billion. We spend a hundred billion a year on our war there, and war is their biggest cash crop. It dwarfs opium and rug production. And it is income that Afghans wouldn’t want to lose.

I got a great insight into how we are being played by the Afghans by a New York Times piece I almost didn’t read. It was about the problems we are having with security for transport around Afghanistan, which didn’t seem a particularly interesting topic – but it was. Seems that we are spending billions and billions on private Afghan security firms to guard our shipments as they make their way through the country. Those firms have discovered that the most cost effective way to insure safe arrival of their shipments is to pay off the local Taliban not to attack them. Furthermore if the U.S. gives the contract to a different firm, they pay the Taliban to attack those shipments, or they stage the attack themselves with their now unemployed guards. Draw your own conclusions from the fact that President Karzai’s brother owns the largest of these firms.

Afghanistan can’t afford peace. And the newly minted millionaires buying mansions in Kabul, and just-in-case mansions in Abu Dhabi, certainly can’t afford for peace to break out. This explains why Karzai would promote chaos by denouncing the Florida pastor who burned a Koran. Chaos is his friend because it keeps the dollars flowing into Afghanistan.

The U.S. : The war on terror is over. We won. And we won in spite of our best efforts. The war was for the hearts and mind of the young of the Muslim world. The choice we presented to them was between the Mubaraks we were supporting and Osama bin Laden. But now the choice is between Tarir Square and suicide bombing, and we know what they are choosing now. Zawahiri tried for decades to overthrow the Egyptian government, that was his main aim, and he made not a dent. His way – the way of Islamic extremist terror – has been now totally supplanted by something that actually works.

And what of the $100 billion we spend in Afghanistan? We can no longer make that decision in some off-budget dreamland that pretends the money doesn’t come from somewhere. If we are spending that money there, then it is money we are not spending elsewhere. So the question isn’t a black and white "should we be in Afghanistan?", but rather, "what is the best place to spend that $100 billion?" Can we really say that we wouldn’t be more secure spending the hundred billion on alternative energy or education? In every discussion of the budget, and every mention of various cuts to social programs, end your response with “and we’re spending $100 billion in Afghanistan.”

The Most Cost Effective Solution: The best solution I’ve heard is to take what we can and leave the rest. In the Taliban heartland, the Pastun area centered around Kandahar we will never control anything more than the ground we are standing on. We can take any area we want and it will revert to Taliban control the second we leave. That is 40% of the country. Just leave it be. Life there will suck, but it sucks in lots of places in the world, and we don’t send troops. If they set up any terrorist training camps, we destroy them with drones. The rest of the country -- including Kabul, as well as most of the recently discovered mineral wealth -- supports us, out of hatred for the Pashtuns and the Taliban. We should be able to empower the people there with weapons and training to keep the Taliban out.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Correlation is not Causation

Researchers in the 1950s found that children who had nightlights in their rooms tended to have bad night vision when they grew up. So for decades standard parenting advices warned against purchasing your children nightlights. But then upon reexamination, they discovered that parents who had bad night vision had trouble seeing checking on their children in the dark – so they bought nightlights. And of course parents with bad eyes tend to have children with bad eyes.

Two clocks striking midnight ten seconds apart every day – the first does not cause the other. An incumbent who has so angered his base that he is primaried would be in trouble in general election regardless of the primary challenge. So yes, Jimmy Carter was primaried and lost the general election, and the same happened to Jerry Ford. But does anyone think that had Carter not been primaried he would have beaten Reagan, or that Ford could have been elected after pardoning Nixon? Or even that George Bush Sr. could have beaten Clinton if only he had not been challenged by Buchannan.

Primary challenges are a very different animal than third party candidates. Third party candidates can and do act as spoilers taking votes away from what would otherwise have been a less of two evils. So although there were plenty of other reasons Al Gore lost in 2000, had Ralph Nader not been on the ballot, Gore would have won. That is a provable mathematical fact.

The “primarying Obama will get us President Bachman” argument is the same type of chicken game as the Republicans are playing with the debt ceiling. Threaten the apocalypse and then settle for complete surrender. We are not going to have President Bachman. The policies the Republicans are pushing are anathema to average Americans, and polling proves that. Regardless of whether Obama is the nominee, we will win if we can make a clear contrast to the voters. In fact, we would be better able to make that contrast with a different nominee.

Primarying Obama will be good for the Party and the Eventual Nominee
Without a primary challenge, the news cycle for the next fifteen months will be the many Republican candidates tearing down the Democrats and the administration. Given the Administration’s above it all approach to anything even slightly partisan, expect no effective response. But image a primary challenger out there 24/seven attacking the Republicans and putting forward a coherent Progressive vision. In the 2004 election, while Kerry, Dean, Edwards and the others were all out there bashing Bush, his ratings went into free fall. Bush only recovered when Kerry locked up the nomination and disappeared from public consciousness until the Convention – by which time it was too late.

Primaries build organizations and parties. Had Obama won in New Hampshire and eliminated Clinton and all the others with the first primary he would never have built the nationwide grassroots organization that propelled him to victory. He had to campaign in states that Democrats had written off in the general for years and found surprising strength – with the result that they put the resources into places like North Carolina and Indiana and turned them blue. It was also a time when he found some of the problems in his message and tried to fix them. My opinion is that his campaign advisors assume a level of grassroots activism that they can simply call forth and which is not in fact there. If that is true, we are much better off if we discover that now.

But the most important result of this primary challenge will be the building of a nationwide progressive grassroots movement that will continue on after 2012 regardless of the outcome. If that movement does not nominate its choice in 2012, so be it. But consider what 2013 would look like if Obama where not primaried and lost anyway, we would not have built the infrastructure we’d need to oppose the ruling tea party conservatives. In 2016, our standard bearer would start out as the prohibitive favorite. Remember that the conservative movement we are still fighting came together out of Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Ford in 1976.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The One Who Primaries Obama Will be the Next Democratic President

                During the Seventies, we had two ineffectual presidents unable to deal with the economic and other hard times that confronted them.   Both were primaried and both went on to lose the general election.  However, their parties had very different fates after those elections.

After Ronald Reagan lost to Gerald Ford, he did not stop campaigning and organizing.  Not only did he go on to win the next time, but his 1976 campaign is basis of the Conservative Movement that has dominated American politics ever since.  In retrospect, conservatives would surely say that the Regan Revolution and all that followed was worth it to suffer through four years of Carter.  Additionally, what most people remember of Gerald Ford is Chevy Chase’s imitation, and no one brands his failures onto the Republican Party.

Even thirty years after Carter’s defeat, we can’t use the word Liberal because the Republicans succeeded in branding him a “Liberal.”  Of course, Carter was a moderate at best and actually started the country on the road to de-regulation.  But for anyone old enough, his feckless “malaise” is forever mixed up with the word “liberal” and the Democratic Brand.

The question with Obama is, can we afford not to primary him?  If Obama continues on his present course and does not show real strength and leadership, he will lose.  In losing, his ineffectualness and lack of spine will become that of the Democratic Party and Progressives.  The Left will be redefined in terms of Obama’s positions, as the Republicans try to roll back even those small accomplishments.  And we will be out of power for another generation.

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, a far-sighted scientist can see that the Galactic Empire is crumbling and is to be followed by a thirty-thousand-year-long dark age, but with the right steps, the darkness can be limited to only a thousand years.  There is probably no saving an Obama Presidency that stubbornly refuses to save the country and itself.  There may even be no way of preventing the Republicans from taking the White House.  But conducted properly, a primary challenge now can result in victory: if not in 2012, then in 2016.

Frankly, a 2012 challenge has a better chance of winning than conventional wisdom gives it.  The fight for a nomination is about the base and appealing to its parts.  At this point, what part of the base has Obama not disappointed and angered?  Challenging Obama may be like pushing on a partially opened door.

We saw in 2008 that organizing a primary campaign apart from the built-in support of the established party can create a national movement for change.  A successful campaign has to recruit and organize supporters around the country, it must create its own message machine and rapid response team, and it must create donors and fundraise successfully in order to support all of these efforts.  Modern technologies make this even easier than it was in the days of Reagan’s 1976 campaign.  But, to really succeed, the movement cannot be discarded at the moment of the Inauguration (just ask the poor folks trapped in the tunnel with the Purple tickets).