Legislating Morality

Who says you can’t legislate morality? We not only do it but cannot, in our complex system, do anything else. The question is: what kind of morality do we legislate?

Government colors every facet of economic life. The frontiersman in us may scream, “Leave me alone,” but government cannot avoid picking winners and losers. Society speaks through government. The alternative is rule of the jungle – individuals alone. When individuals try to work collectively, maybe they can occasionally rally for a boycott or riot, but mostly they speak through that collective organization we call “government.” Government does something or not and either way sends a clear signal. Individuals then make choices in response. Every day we legislate to set options, which impact behavior, and which eventually tends to alter attitudes: utterly arbitrary and perhaps completely irrational, unjust, unfair, biased norms are created and eventually taken for granted as we forget their arbitrary beginnings.

Consider one of the most basic economic decisions that the U.S. government has made: a special very low capital gains tax. If you bake bread or catch criminals or teach our kids or smelt steel or manage a hospital, you pay a tax rate that is some rather substantial percent of your earned income. But if you get your money without earning it, i.e., just by sitting around and watching the value of your property or stocks or the value of your bets derived from whatever other thing you are betting on rise, then you are awarded a privileged and very low tax rate (made even lower by anti-worker Bush), which of course is called the capital gains rate on unearned income. It is called unearned because it is: you don’t do anything but watch your investment’s value change as the result of some independent process that luckily for you happens to be occurring. It is called “capital” gains because your gains are a function of capital–i.e., money–movements rather than physical or mental movements, which would be called “work.”

Graph from Wikipedia.

One could call the government attitude back in the 1970s, when the capital gains tax rate was at 35%, “neutral”–the government more or less avoided punishing or rewarding either of the two alternative means of gaining income (working for it or gambling for it). By (infamously) the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the elitist, anti-worker regime of Bush and Cheney had warped the government’s attitude into a clear pro-gambling stance, heavily penalizing those still clueless enough (including this author) to be working for a living. Although the moral superiority of labor over capital had been recognized in U.S. politics at least as far back as Abraham Lincoln, who–though no economist–had a very clear sense of justice and pointed out that labor should be held in higher regard than capital since labor had to come first (with capital as the result of someone’s hard work), in Washington, a pro-capital, anti-labor bias has long plagued U.S. society.

Thus, the government has made a fundamental value judgement: working to build up the nation (whatever physical or mental, blue-collar or white-collar work you care to do) is punished; gambling with money (most often not even your own money!) is rewarded. Any normally rational person (i.e., a person who chooses to maximize his own personal profit rather than sacrifice personally for the greater good of society) will thus conclude that he should become a financial manipulator. Worse, since the government rewards gambling with other people’s money just as much as gambling with one’s own, why would any rational person choose to risk his own money, when he can get the same reward for putting his neighbor at risk instead. So naturally, people flock to large-scale gambling with other people’s money. And amazingly, even after the 2008 Recession clarified the idiocy of designing a society for the purpose of maximizing financial manipulations rather than investment in real work or actually doing real work, nothing has changed. Citizens who choose to work for a living are still punished and those who gamble with other people’s money are still rewarded.

CBO via Mother Jones

All this has absolutely nothing to do with the size of government. It has to do with the choices that government makes. Financially, the U.S. today probably has the most extreme government of any major country on earth: i.e., the government that legally enforces the most pro-gambling, anti-work rules of any major government. Note that I did not say “the most pro-business.” This bias in favor of financial manipulations has nothing to do with being pro-business. The business of making steal is punished just as much as the work of being a steelmaker is punished. The business of building hospitals is punished just as much as the work of being a surgeon is punished. Only businesses such as  J.P.Morgan and Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, i.e., businesses that make their money primarily from gambling with other people’s money by making idiotic bets that X will change in value (the direction matters not a whit as long as you guess correctly), are rewarded. All businesses and individuals who actually do something, create something, build something are punished.

So there is no surprise that manufacturing is declining and infrastructure is decaying and schools don’t teach as much as they used to. Who wants to repair bridges when the government penalizes you by confiscating an extra 15 – 25 cents out of every dollar you earn, in comparison with its treatment of financial manipulators?

There is no surprise that the JP Morgans are the richest and just about the largest companies in the land, that they are gaining the power to rule, and that politicians will take your tax dollars to provide them as much welfare as they may need. It is no surprise that their employees’ salaries are the highest or that their CEO’s are the richest. Well, to be correct, there is a class of business that is even richer – pure, 100% hedge funds, and that too is only logical, for they do nothing but gamble. After all, JP Morgan and Bank of America still do offer bank accounts to individuals, a distraction that may gain them further government benefits but still amounts to a distraction from their real line of business, so the real rich are not the Jamie Dimons at $25M or so per year but the several hedge fund managers at the top who each pocket a cool billion or so per year. When your annual income is $1B, that 15% tax rate makes a difference!

The decline of everything except finance is neither illogical nor “chance” nor surprising. Our system works as designed–for the benefit of financial manipulators.

Advertisements

Stupid Brutes!

“Stupid brutes?!?” How dare she call them that?

“Stupid brutes?” What was she talking about? Wait a moment. Perhaps the delightful and beautiful Colombian senorita was speaking metaphorically. Could her skills include international relations? Might she have been talking about the long decade of neo-con and neo-con-light U.S. foreign policy based on force? Might she have had the long U.S. focus on the drug war and the poisoning of Colombian crops (be they coca or whatever vegetables might be growing in the vicinity) and the arming of the local military and the expansion of cattle baronies at the expense of cleansed small farmers? Might she have been summarizing the destruction of Iraqi society in the name of removing a dictator? Might she have been advising the White House to change its Afghan policy?

Surely not. I’m sorry; I just do not see her as a specialist in international relations. But she is a self-confessed businesswoman, and the whole sorry episode did revolve around fraud even more than around violence (threatened or real). So…a more judicious analysis suggests she was referring not to U.S. foreign policy but to domestic U.S. economic policy. The stupid brutes were not the soldiers sneaking off base in the middle of the night to commit acts of terrorism or the remote pilots of drones killing possible suspects but the titans of Wall Street sucking the financial lifeblood out of the American worker.

I guess she had more brains than those dim-witted gentlemen bargained for.

Israeli Apartheid in the Spotlight

The struggle against discrimination continues, just changing venue as time passes.

Desmond Tutu has equated Israeli discrimination against Palestinians to apartheid:

A quarter-century ago I barnstormed around the United States encouraging Americans, particularly students, to press for divestment from South Africa. Today, regrettably, the time has come for similar action to force an end to Israel‘s long-standing occupation of Palestinian territory and refusal to extend equal rights to Palestinian citizens who suffer from some 35 discriminatory laws.

Meanwhile, the Methodist Church in the U.S. denounced the Israeli occupation of Palestineand called on “all nations to prohibit the import of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.” [The New York Times 5/2/12.]
The anti-discrimination struggle has to be fought over and over. A century after the U.S. Civil War, the struggle was still raging in the U.S. Tutu’s own struggle in South Africawas long and slow, as well. Now the focus is turning to Israel.

Too Big to Punish

The concept of ethical standards of behavior for either corporate officers or government officials has become something of a joke in this bright, new century. Politicians seem utterly uneducated when it comes to discriminating between right and wrong, the media morally dead, voters hopelessly confused, the powerful cynical and smirking all the way to the bank. Petty offenders feel the full force of the law, but the serious criminals who buy elections, impoverish millions, and provoke wars that undermine society and governance are “too big to punish.” Are ethics and morality really too complicated to think about in our busy modern world? Not really—the answer is staring us in the face.

We are all held up to standards of behavior. Drivers must drive on the right, at least in the U.S.This illustrates an arbitrary but quite valuable standard; head-on collisions are inconvenient. Other standards are less arbitrary yet bizarrely more controversial and far more studiously avoided. Minor bureaucrats are sternly warned to avoid “even the appearance” of conflict of interest while national leaders pursue self-enriching conflicts with few qualms and almost no risk of punishment. Still, at least in some countries, ordering the murder of a political opponent is deemed beyond the pale. Even for the most powerful officials in major democracies, then, at least some standards exist. The question, for those who care about the quality of governance, is how far to carry these standards, how high the standards should be, and how rigorously the most powerful officials should be held to these standards.
No Empire Is Too Big to Fail; No Leader Too Big to Punish

Lawyers can and will debate the details endlessly. More important and most glaringly absent in contemporary American public consciousness is the principle underlying the debate over standards. Why should, for example, a President not be allowed to lie to the people about his reasons for launching a war? Why, for example, should drones not be sent to kill untried individuals who are “suspected” of being either military or civilian adversaries? Why, even if drone attacks are judged appropriate, should the President or some unknown official buried in the bureaucracy of the CIAor the Pentagon not be allowed to make the decision to kill such adversaries in cold blood without a formal judicial finding? Why should a bank official be allowed to evade personal responsibility for “losing” someone’s mortgage papers and then stealing back the house of a homeowner who was faithfully paying his or her mortgage? Why should a corporation that poisons a nation’s prime fishing grounds continue to exist, and why should its officials not contribute every penny of their ill-earned millions in compensation? Where lies any justification for allowing those who commit the most grievous sins against society to evade responsibility simply because they disenfranchised, impoverished, poisoned, or slaughtered an uncounted number of unknown people rather than a single specific individual?

Are these just tedious hair-splitting issues for lawyers to argue behind closed doors, carefully protected from the prying eyes of the foreigners being bombed or the Americans whose mortgages have been stolen? Well, no, they are not; they are, in fact, rather clear-cut examples of a society that has lost its path to the degree that it can no longer recall its own values. These issues rest solidly on a simple principle that has been clearly stated for all to see more than once in our nation’s history. Abraham Lincoln did not “invent” this principle, but he may have stated it best half way through the war “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
That is the essence of “American values,” not slavery (on cotton farms or in Chinese factories), not genocide (of Native Americans or Palestinians), not the propping up of thuggish regimes that host our naval bases, not the protection of corporations that poison our commons, not neo-conservative wars of choice, not neo-liberal economic oppression. By what mental slight-of-hand did “national interest” come to mean the opposite of “the people’s welfare?”


_________________
References:

The Logic of Politically Motivated Violence

Political violence is expensive, with the bills coming in for a long time after the guilty parties (politicians and voters) have vanished from the scene. Political violence is not an act but a process, a vicious cycle, with unforeseen but logical linkages. Israeli policy toward Palestine and Israeli policy toward Iran are a single case in point.



Award-winning journalist, author, daughter of two Holocaust survivors, and herself victim of Israeli government persecution Amira Hass has charged the Israeli government with repressing Palestinians, following the model of the U.S. campaign of near-extermination of Native Americans in the 19th century, for the purpose of “Jewish hegemony and superiority.”

This must be said: For the sake of hegemony, Israel is mortgaging the well-being of its children and the lives of its grandchildren, together with the well-being and lives of children and grandchildren throughout the region. [Haaretz 4/11/12.]



Nobel laureate Gunter Grass has just laid out the other half of the logical circle of politically motivated violence, warning:

The nuclear power Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace….
I am silent no longer
Because I am tired of the West’s hypocrisy
[Translation by The Washington Post.]

Political violence cannot exist in a vacuum, simply occurring and then ending. It necessarily exists as a process that flows both forward, affecting its target, and backward, affecting its perpetrator. American crimes of the 19th century are used to justify Israeli crimes of the 21st, and America’s guilt inhibits Americans from protesting. Israel’s policy of force against Palestinians leads logically to Israel’s policy of force against Iran, sucking in and threatening morally weakened America. Violence engenders violence, in a vicious cycle of widening scope.

City on the Hill?

With the U.S. running the world, unfortunately, everyone else behaves just like us.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Rice has just excoriated Moscow and Beijing in most undiplomatic terms over their refusal to sign up to Washington’s latest attempt to differentiate “good” from “evil” in the Muslim world. Truth be told, in this case, I happen to agree with Washington: Assad does, as Washington claims, deserve to be fired for his horrifying human rights violations. It is, as Ambassador Rice, said, “disgusting” for the world to tolerate such behavior…just as it was “disgusting” for “Washington to tolerate, if not encourage,”  Israel’s slaughter of Lebanese in 2006 …just as is also “disgusting” the complete evasion by Washington decision-makers of any moral judgments concerning their threats to launch (or “allow,” via Tel Aviv) an unprovoked and potentially genocidal military attack on Iran for having the temerity to consider the future possibility of developing weapons that might in the distant future balance the weapons Israel already possesses.

Thus, there is a far larger story here than today’s arbitrary policy by this or that global power toward tiny Syria.  The U.N. spat over Syria reflects lessons learned in Moscow and Beijing over the years watching how the self-appointed leader of the world behaves. Chickens come home to roost, and in this case U.S. chickens have dealt the U.S. a defeat. The U.S. is in fact the big elephant in the room (not overly to mix the metaphorical residents of the international political zoo), and what it does…and says…has vast influence over the world that mankind is creating and thus over the long-term security of both the American people and everyone else. If morality, human rights, and civil rights constitute constraints on U.S. behavior that Washington accepts for long-term moral reasons, that helps create one kind of world. If, instead, they are merely rhetorical swords to be lifted in anger when momentarily convenient, everyone else will get the message, and that will help create a very different kind of world.

The whole idea of human rights comes from the West and even there is only hanging on by its fingernails in the face of demands by rich right-wingers and more than a few fundamentalists to engage in what they, from their mansions or pulpits, are pleased to call “realism.” Bashar al-Assad’s attack on Homs cannot but remind every thinking citizen on this planet of the U.S. attack on Fallujah, the Russian attack on Grozniy, and the Israeli attacks on South Lebanon (2006)--in which Israel effectively practiced ethnic cleansing of the region–and Gaza (2009). In each case, overwhelming force was barbarically employed against a civilian population for arbitrary tactical purposes without regard for morality by whatever power happened to be involved. Washington of course judged some of these events to be “good,” others “evil,” as convenient. Given the resultant absence of any moral consistency in U.S. foreign policy, how can Russians or Chinese be expected to accept American ideals about human rights when those ideals are judged to conflict with the short-term interests of those ruling elites?

________________________ 

Western Morality & Tactical Convenience: The Lebanon Example

The standard Western version is that the July 2006 invasion was justified by legitimate outrage over capture of two Israeli soldiers at the border. The posture is cynical fraud. The US and Israel, and the West generally, have little objection to capture of soldiers, or even to the far more severe crime of kidnapping civilians (or of course to killing civilians). That had been Israeli practice in Lebanon for many years, and no one ever suggested that Israel should therefore be invaded and largely destroyed. [Noam Chomsky, “On the U.S.-Israeli Invasion of Lebanon.”]

__________________________ 

The wealthy, conservative elite–comfortable with the privileges it has stolen through its “realistic” (i.e., calculating, self-serving) two-sided policy of impoverishing the middle class via “globalization” or invasion–does occasionally identify a genuine bad guy to go after. Saddam was obviously one, and Assad, despite certain indications to the contrary after he replaced his father, certainly does at the moment appear to be another. But the nasty behavior of these gentlemen fundamentally has little to do with Washington’s attitude toward them, as is made clear by Washington’s “inability” to see the Saudi-enforced pillage of Bahrain or its failure to make a clear moral judgment about Israel’s barbaric destruction of southern Lebanon during the summer of 2006.

Indeed, the record of U.S. violations of its own principles is now a horrifyingly long one. Financially, under the banner of what is now called “globalization,” which really means the globalization of a financial system designed by and for the benefit of U.S. corporations, the approach focuses on a combination of American manipulation of economics to steal the national wealth of other societies plus physical violence (massacre of protesters, kidnappings, torture) by local lackeys. The historical record extents from the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Iran’s emerging secular democratic movement in the early 1950s through the overthrow of Chile’s democracy in a  U.S.-facilitated coup by the murderous General Pinochet and the exploitation of Mexico in the 1980s and the carefully manipulated fire-sale theft of (ally!) South Korea’s major corporations during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis* up to the takeover of much of Iraq’s oil industry with the aid of U.S.-written laws carefully penned during the short but effect period of U.S. colonization. When the boys on Wall Street and their allies at the IMF fall short, outright invasion (e.g., Iraq) enforces the globalization campaign…which brings us to Iran and the current pressure against Iran’s ally Syria.

Yes, watching Damascus slaughter its citizens is sickening as was watching Israel slaughter the helpless residents of Gaza or South Lebanon, not to mention the crimes of Saddam against the Kurds back when Saddam was a valued lackey of the Reagan Administration. While his slaughter of his own people may be what appals those American citizens who want Washington to overthrow Assad, what gets the goat of Washington decision-makers is Assad’s insistence on supporting Iran’s quest for an independent (Read: anti-globalization) foreign policy. Almost all Americans with the patience to read this far will surely be confused (and angry), so, to get to the point, imagine the confusion of others contemplating Washington’s behavior! How can you possibly expect Moscow and Beijing to understand the moral foundations underpinning Washington’s identification of “good” and “evil?”

Having seen Washington support Israeli barbarism against Lebanon and Palestine and its own financial destruction of one country after another (leaving, for example, some 20,000,000 people unemployed in Asia after 1997 alone and essentially destroying the middle classes of Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, South Korea, and Iraq), if Moscow and Beijing now consider it convenient for strategic reasons to support a murderous Syrian dictator or, in the event, a vicious, fundamentalist Iranian regime looking for fame and fortune, well, our colleagues in Moscow and Beijing are just copying good, old American “realism.” Perhaps the interests of the American people (the 99%) would be better served if their elected representatives would teach the rest of the world a different lesson.


The public debate between the “national security through force” (realism/conservatism/imperialism) advocates and the advocates of a moral foreign policy (human rights/negotiation with adversaries/compromise/equality) is frequently posed in the U.S. as an argument between “realists” and “idealists.” This is a self-defeating misconception that endangers long-term U.S. national security in a world that is getting much too big for the U.S. to control and much too complex for any American to rule wisely. A truly realistic approach to security must begin to recognize that ignoring ideals imposes serious costs and following the rules derived from idealism (be they logical precepts such as “always talk to opponents because when you talk, you learn” or formal rules such as international law) even when adhering to ideals may require relinquishing tactical advantages offers valuable long-term advantages. It is, to be blunt, much cheaper to negotiate a deal with, say, a nuclear-armed Russia or a China that holds hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars that it could dump on the market or an Iran that could drive oil prices through the roof and fight an almost endless asymmetric battle than it is to fight a war (be it a military or a financial conflict).__________________
* On the Asian Financial Crisis, see Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (Picador, New York, 2007), 332-353; Ask A Korean; “How the IMF Helped Create and Worsen the Asian Financial Crisis.

Pakistan Contemplates Iranian Triumph Over U.S.

With the U.S. allegedly already in the midst of a covert war against Iran (most recently suggested by the violation of Iranian airspace by the now-famous captured drone), a Pakistani report illustrates a significant degree of sympathy for Iran. The potential for a Pakistani-Iranian entente rises with every passing day in the face of U.S. intransigence toward both.

In a very serious analytical piece about the implications of Iran’s shoot-down of a U.S. drone that violated Iranian airspace that appeared in Pakistan’s Nation [ Babak Dehghanpisheh, 12/11/11], you can almost hear the gloating. The title says it: “Iran Hits the Jackpot.” It must be easy for Pakistanis to feel some kinship with Iranians these days, with both countries’ airspace being violated by the U.S. military. The author reports that “Russian and Chinese officials have already asked to inspect the drone” and explains how the technology may flow into the hands of others, including Hezbollah. One can hardly help but wonder why the author did not mention the possibility of this technology now getting into Taliban hands as well; with a state of war between the Taliban and the Pakistani regime still in existence despite talk of talks, that may perhaps best be left clearly implied but unstated. The broader point about the leveling process of the U.S. high-tech weapons getting into enemy hands once those weapons are used is the real message, and the author reviews the many precedents illustrating the ability of Iranians and Hezbollah to manipulate such advanced technology to their benefit.

American readers should note the absence in this Pakistani review of any sense of “backwardness” on the part of the various Central Asian or Mideastern adversaries of the U.S. An American military secret, once revealed, can be made use of. The locals can fight back against the empire not just in their own ways but also using the empire’s supposedly unique techniques. Washington is changing how the whole world goes to war and is doing so much faster than it can itself figure out whether or not the ultimate benefit will be to the U.S. or to its adversaries.

Two years ago the U.S. rather shortsightedly took the opportunity to shoot down an Iranian drone over Iraq [Wired Danger Room 3/12/09], evidently without troubling itself to consider how U.S. occupiers might justify firing on an Iranian aircraft that was over Iraq rather than the U.S. Now Iran has paid the U.S. back, but the advantage goes very much to Iran’s benefit – in terms of the flow of valuable technology and the propaganda value. The domestic political position of Iranian hardliners has also surely been solidified; their argument that the world needs to be governed in a new way greatly strengthened.

______________________________
Ahmadinejad Calls for New Global Political Order

2011: Most nations of the world are unhappy with the current international circumstances. And despite the general longing and aspiration to promote peace, progress, and fraternity, wars, mass-murder, widespread poverty, and socioeconomic and political crises continue to infringe upon the rights and sovereignty of nations, leaving behind irreparable damage worldwide.
Approximately, three billion people of the world live on less than 2.5 dollars a day, and over a billion people live without having even one sufficient meal on a daily basis. Forty-percent of the poorest world populations only share five percent of the global income, while twenty percent of the richest people share seventy-five percent of the total global income.
More than twenty thousand innocent and destitute children die every day in the world because of poverty. In the United States, eighty percent of financial resources are controlled by ten percent of its population, while only twenty percent of these resources belong to the ninety percent of the population.
What are the causes and reasons behind these inequalities?…
The rulers of the global management circles divide the social life from ethics and spirituality while claiming the situation is the outcome of the pursuit of the path of divine prophets or the vulnerability of nations or the ill performance of a few groups or individuals. They claim that only their views and approaches can save the human society….
Who provoked and encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade and impose an eight-year war on Iran, and who assisted and equipped him to deploy chemical weapons against our cities and our people?
Who used the mysterious September 11 incident as a pretext to attack Afghanistan and Iraq , killing, injuring, and displacing millions in two countries with the ultimate goal of bringing into its domination the Middle East and its oil resources?…
Who dominates the policy-making establishments of the world economy?
Who are responsible for the world economic recession, and are imposing the consequences on America, Europe and the world in general?
Which governments are always ready to drop thousands of bombs on other countries, but ponder and hesitate to provide aid to famine-stricken people in Somalia or in other places?…
Efforts must be made with a firm resolve and through collective cooperation to map out a new plan, on the basis of principles and the very foundation of universal human values such as Monotheism, justice, freedom, love and the quest for happiness.
The idea of creation of the United Nations remains a great and historical achievement of mankind. Its importance must be appreciated and its capacities must be used to the extent possible for our noble goals.
We should not allow this organization which is the reflection of the collective will and shared aspiration of the community of nations, to deviate from its main course and play into the hands of the world powers.
Conducive ground must be prepared to ensure collective participation and involvement of nations in an effort to promote lasting peace and security.
Shared and collective management of the world must be achieved in its true sense, and based on the underlying principles enshrined in the international law. Justice must serve as the criterion and the basis for all international decisions and actions. [International Business Times 9/22/11.]

2008: He accused the United States of oppressing Iraqis with six years of occupation, saying Americans were “still seeking to solidify their position in the political geography of the region and to dominate oil resources.”[CNN 9/22/11.]

2007: Ahmadinejad invited “all independent, justice-seeking and peace-loving nations” to join Iran in a “coalition for peace.” [CNN 9/22/11.]

______________________________

The more blatant the discriminatory behavior of the U.S. (e.g., asserting the right to violate the borders of other states at will), the more attractive Ahmadinejad’s message becomes in the eyes of all global observers.

If Iran can make such a clarion call for global justice, why not Pakistan? If Iran can hit back at U.S. violations of international law with legitimate force, why not Pakistan? In the context of Pakistan already beefing up its air defense capabilities for the precise purpose of stopping U.S. aerial attacks inside Pakistan (unless permitted by Pakistan), if Iran can do this, might Pakistani generals be tempted to chat with the Iranians about how they did it? If Iran can say this, might Pakistani politicians be tempted to make similar calls for global justice?

Indeed, they already are:

Pakistan should develop relations with Iran and China on permanent basis, former information minister and MNA Syed Sumsam Bukhari urged the government and linked resolution of problems to preservation of national dignity.
“Developing warm relations with Iran and China is need of the hour,” he told party workers and media persons. [The Nation 12/11/11.]

Washington’s outdated two-party Cold War mentality is undermining U.S. national security step-by-step every day as it offers a policy of intransigence toward antagonists and friends alike. If Washington cannot learn how to be sympathetic toward the views and needs of others, then it must at least learn to compromise. Insistence on victory always and everywhere at the expense of others is too difficult and too expensive; it is a policy designed to fail.

Thinking About an Israeli War on Iran

“All options” in U.S.-Iranian relations have in fact never really been on the table. Compromise has not been an option. That would entail the end of the regional nuclear double standard as well as the recognition of Iran as a coming regional power. So Iranian-Israeli war continues to threaten. Does the Tel Aviv war party have a logical case? What, from that perspective, is the “best” that could happen?

Almost anything could happen were Israel to start an unprovoked war against Iran. Let us assume, for the purposes of argument, that it all goes just as the Israeli war party dreams. [Israel’s high-tech war of choice.]With Defense Minister Barak, let us assume that almost no Israelis will die. Let us assume that Israeli planes and missiles hit their targets and that those targets are perfectly selected from among the possible 300 or more Iranian nuclear sites. Let us assume that the bombing sets the Iranian nuclear research program back by an optimistic five years, more than former Mossad chief Meir Dagan  and U.S. intelligence circles seem to think likely. OK, Netanyahu becomes the West’s Cowboy #1 and remains in office. The Palestinians realize they have no hope of justice in our time. Now what?

All Iranians, indeed all Muslims, will have all the justification in the world for using violence anywhere, anytime, in any way they may choose against Israel, and some will. After all, if Israel can start a war and slaughter civilians in the thousands just because it prefers that its adversaries not develop weapons that it has itself possessed for decades in abundance, then exactly what moral constraints can be said to exist on the anti-Israeli actions of others?

More to the point, what political constraints can then be said to exist? What Muslim leader could justify cooperating with or trusting Israel after an Israeli attack on an Iran that has conducted rhetorical war but, in comparison with Israeli attacks on Palestinians and Lebanese, behaved cautiously? Will Ankara submissively shelve its effort to occupy a moderate middle position in regional affairs or start looking for military allies to protect itself from the now unrestrained regional superpower? Would such an attack tip Egypt into an actively anti-Israeli position for the first time in decades? Is Israel prepared to deal with the implications of the termination of Egyptian support for the continued imprisonment of Gazans in their ghetto?

What would be the implications for the U.S. of a collapse of Iraqi government cooperation? Renewed anti-American violence in Iraq, attacks on the Green Zone, Baghdad breaking diplomatic relations on the eve of the U.S. presidential campaign: has Israel considered the degree to which Americans might begin to take seriously the question of whether or not the U.S. can continue to pay the national security price of an alliance with such a violence-prone state?

Will the Iranian quest for national security become such an obsession that all domestic factions unite in the search for a solution, transforming Iran into a far more determined, effective adversary? Israeli politicians seem to spend a lot of time thinking about the Osirak precedent; perhaps they should stop. When Israel bombed Iraq in 1981, no Islamic bomb existed. How many Pakistanis, in today’s vastly different atmosphere, will have sympathy for an Iran under attack for something it does not even yet possess? What bargaining chips might the concentrated thought of Iranian national security thinkers manage to identify for cutting a nuclear deal with Pakistan? Has Tel Aviv thought through the various bilateral Iranian-Pakistani issues (refugees, terrorism, Baluchi independence movement, joint resentment at American treatment, oil pipeline, strategic security advantages of cooperation) that Tehran, its attention focused by the horror and humiliation of an Israeli attack, might use to entice Pakistani cooperation?

In return for all those uncertainties, Israel will have managed to put the Iranian nuclear program back where it was in…2007?!? In 2007, it was believed by some that an Iranian nuclear bomb “could be possible” as soon as 2009. The war scare was so extreme in Israel that Israeli media sources were calling an Israeli attack “inevitable” and predicting that it would occur “in 2007.” Or maybe the Israeli attack will be so successful that, against expectations, it knocks the Iranian program all the way back to 2004, a time of such tension that Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was threatening Iran with “all options,” codeword for a nuclear strike. Or maybe the Israelis would be so lucky as to knock the Iranian program a full 15 years back – to 1997, when Netanyahu was accusing Russia of “endangering the very future of Israel” by providing Iran with missile technology. Setting back the Iranian program by a few years may be crucial to a politician’s career but is of little significance for the long-term security of a state.

Now recall that all these potential pitfalls flowing from an attack offering such modest achievements are premised on the assumption that Netanyahu’s dreams of a quick, easy, 100% successful military strike are realized and, somehow, realized without Israeli recourse to nuclear arms–which would truly establish it as an international criminal enterprise of the first order–and that massive global fallout from exploded Iranian nuclear infrastructure does not result and that Iran does not in response sink a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, etc., etc.. The set of post-attack dangers enumerated in the preceding paragraphs is the situation after the best possible outcome for the Israeli war party.

The Next 100 Years: Incentives

<!–[if !mso]> st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

Today, incentives are structured in the U.S. to avoid thinking about the crucial challenges we face, so we are busy digging deeper the hole we are standing in.

Mankind faces two fundamental challenges that are external to the political system, i.e., not the result of faulty governance: climate change and population growth. Mankinds response might be bottom-up, as suggested by the Occupy movement; all seven billion of us might slowly accept new cultural priorities. However, the behavior of government will surely have a huge impact, and by far the most influential government is that of the U.S. The U.S. government itself faces two constraints on its ability to rise to meet these challenges: its addiction to global military activism and its support of elite financial exploitation. With the natural leader of global governments thus distracted, an effective governmental response to the two major global challenges seems a long shot.
Washingtons international focus on using military force to spread its influence and its domestic focus on facilitating the enrichment of the super-rich at the expense of everyone else undermine its ability to address the two key external challenges. Focusing on the uncritical enrichment of all the rich rather than, say, allowing the enrichment of those who perform socially useful tasks while punishing those who behave irresponsibly is a critical failing. The choice is not between the wealthy and the poor: there is no obvious reason to assume that equality would lead to resolution of global problems. There is no obvious reason why the incentive of becoming rich in return for making greater contributions to society cannot be a socially responsible approach.
Abetting the mindless enrichment of the few, regardless of their behavior, on the other hand, clearly obstructs effective steps to meet common challenges. Playing the stock market using other peoples money with the assurance of government bailouts for all the rich who lose offers an enticing prospect for the rich that will suck away into meaningless financial contortions funds that could be employed for long-term projects of benefit to all, including projects to redesign society to meet the challenges of climatic and demographic change. A foreign policy that frames international issues in terms of military competition similarly drains away funds while simultaneously exacerbating social problems by destroying infrastructure and provoking refugee flows, to cite just two effects. Both financial exploitation and war are socially destructive forms of behavior that simultaneously drain away government resources and distract government from addressing real problems.
More, they create zero-sum psychological contexts that inhibit cooperation between the two sides. Concerning war, one need only note the difficulty of Israelis and Palestinians cooperating on a mutually beneficial program to share scarce water resources or the difficulty of Washington and the Taliban reaching agreement on a mutually beneficial program to develop Afghanistans economy amidst endless violence. Concerning finance, the lack of Wall St. efforts after the 2008 Financial Crisis it did so much to provoke to take responsibility for the damage it caused to the American public and the rapidity with which efforts to call the uber-rich to account were slandered as class warfare betray the same elite zero-sum perspective.
As Paul Krugman said back in 2009 in answer to his own question about why some bankers suddenly began making vast fortunes just before the 2008 collapse:
It was, we were told, a reward for their creativity for financial innovation. At this point, however, its hard to think of any major recent financial innovations that actually aided society, as opposed to being new, improved ways to blow bubbles, evade regulations and implement de facto Ponzi schemes. [New York Times 4/26/09.]
Krugman goes on to point out that the issue concerned not just the bankers but the whole system, in which the government provided vast amounts of corporate welfare to promote their accumulation of wealth:

Wall Street is no longer, in any real sense, part of the private sector. It’s a ward of the state, every bit as dependent on government aid as recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a k a “welfare.”

I’m not just talking about the $600 billion or so already committed under the TARP. There are also the huge credit lines extended by the Federal Reserve; large-scale lending by Federal Home Loan Banks; the taxpayer-financed payoffs of A.I.G. contracts; the vast expansion of F.D.I.C. guarantees; and, more broadly, the implicit backing provided to every financial firm considered too big, or too strategic, to fail.

And, writing in 2009, Krugman of course did not refer to the scandalous bias, reported just recently, built into U.S. tax law permitting many of the richest corporations in the land completely to evade taxes in years when they made billions of dollars of profit.
Yet what has been the performance, three years after the onset of the 2008 Financial Crisis, of Big Finance in thanks for being handed the hard-earned dollars of the 99%, some 20 million of whom are now either officially unemployed, under-employed, or so discouraged they have dropped out of the market? In 2010 Big Finance foreclosed on an all-time record of over 1,000,000 homes. The Republican allies of Big Finance in Congress are advocating that Washington pull back from reforming the fraudulent foreclosure process, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA)who recently called the Occupy Wall St. protesters a mob”—has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign support from Big Finance during 2011. Meanwhile, the acting Comptroller of the Currency John Walsh is telling us that foreclosure reform could take a year, butpending such reformof course the foreclosures conveniently continue [LA Times 9/23/11]. Banks, surprise-surprise, are still fabricating documents to promote foreclosure [America Blog 9/1/11]. As for Wall St. fraud, the possibility of perjury charges against Goldman Sachs CEO Blankfein for 2011 remarks to Congress is emblematic of the attitude of Wall St. [Fierce Finance 4/14/11].
A political focus on the pursuit of short-term military victory that provokes long-term hatred or the accumulation of wealth without concomitant production ofanythingalso has a subtle psychological impact by encouraging short-term thinking. In war, it is hard to get away from the obvious goal of winning the next battle; at the stock market, it is hard to get away from the obvious goal of making profitable short-term investments. To ask a general facing the threat of defeat or an investor facing the threat of financial ruin for a thoughtful assessment of where society will be in a generation is laughable.
Were the general charged instead with guarding a generation-long international effort to construct something or were the trader told his profits would be a function of progress toward some generation-long social goal, those two individuals would have entirely different attitudes toward the future of society. In a word, socially useful thinking and socially productive behavior can be bought. Generals and traders are neither good nor evil: incentives matter.
War and its domestic equivalent, financial exploitation organized by a minority as an institutionalized component of the system, are short-term, zero-sum activities, while the real dangers on mankinds horizon call for century-long programs supported by everyone. U.S. elite priorities do not just miss the target of protecting our future but exacerbate the problems we must address, and the way the system is designedwith incentives for short-term thinking and socially destructive behaviormake it almost impossible to reform those anti-social elite priorities.

Global Leadership Vacuum

If American society is losing the capacity, long assumed, 
to lead the world, then who will?

A debate over the potential for U.S. collapse has intensified since the 2008 financial crisis. Some focus on the collapse of the anti-Islamic imperial project; others focus on the increasingly evident dysfunctionality of the capitalist financial system in its current form, but the negative direction in which the U.S. is headed is quickly becoming evident to almost everyone. Unfortunately, this debate centers on the wrong question.

The core question raised in this debate seems to be: Is the U.S. losing power? The issue at the core of the U.S. slide backwards over the last decade and, more accurately, since the entrance into the White House of Ronald Reagan is not the extent of U.S. power, however, but something more subtle, which one might call vision or leadership quality.
U.S. power remains overwhelming, be it military or economic or cultural or technological. Where the U.S. is slipping is in its capacity to define its place in the world and in its wisdom. The fog of confusion seems to be dimming Americans eyesight at all levels. After all, it was not just Wall St. crime or Federal regulator complicity or even fraud in the mortgage industry in your hometown that brought on the recession: many good, patriotic American citizens were knowingly playing the system as well. All were not stupid. Thousands if not millions were quite happy to buy homes they knew they could not afford in what they knew full well was a massive Ponzi scheme.
In foreign policy as well the guilt for the wave of U.S. imperial overstretch and brutality toward the Muslim world was by no means restricted to Washington politicians. Voters by the millions supported the War Party in its self-defeating hubris. Few cared about the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent  bystanders, the denial of due process to and outright torture of others generated by that wave of hubris.
It is not just the wealthy elite and their political lackeys who are irresponsible and confused but much of the U.S. population. Consensus on what America represents, the kind of society we aspire to creating, the price we are willing to pay to achieve it, and the kind of leadership we are willing to offer the rest of the world appears to be evaporating even faster than our squandered blood and treasure.
Aside from bin Laden, rejected by most Muslims long before his death, and Ahmadinejad, who is not all that popular even in his own country, where are the candidates to lead our planet if the U.S. can no longer be bothered or cant stop tripping over its own feet?