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Monday, January 31, 2011

On The View From Egypt, Part Six, Or, Let's Review Where We Are

We’re a week into the Egyptian uprising now, and it’s time to reassess what has taken place so far and what might come next.

We know a few things, and we don’t know a lot—and from what we can tell, the folks on the ground are also not sure what might happen. That said, we do know enough to begin to figure out the right questions to be asking.

As was true Friday, things are moving fast, so let’s jump right in.

You know, David, there, there is a joke that went around Egypt for many years about Mubarak that he was on his death bed and an Egyptian delegation came to see him of the people. The nurse came in, said, "Mr. President, the people are here to say goodbye." And Mubarak said, "Oh, really? Where are they going?" So, you know, Egyptians have been telling this joke for a long time. It isn't funny anymore.

--Thomas Friedman, on Meet the Press, January 30, 2011

So let’s start with what we know: Friday and Saturday were indeed epic days for Egyptians as they hit the streets in such massive numbers that the Mubarak Government has appointed (NDP insider, chief of the Intelligence service, and “chief rendition manager”) Omar Suleiman as his first Vice-President in 30 years.

It was an attempt to try the “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” strategy, and it looks like it did not go well.

The wrath of the crowds were most particularly directed at the police who have been robbing them blind for decades (not to mention all the “tenderizing” and other forms of political repression we’ve talked about before), and police stations across the country were first stormed, then looted, then burned.

In response...the police disappeared, and they have not been seen on the streets since. (That may not be entirely true, however, which we’ll get to as we go along.)

A Fort Apache, the Bronx moment occurred as a standoff took place at the Interior Ministry (the headquarters of those same hated police), and it may be crucial to understanding how this entire crisis plays out:

Crowds were swarming the place, trying to get inside, presumably to loot and burn, and the police were shooting back, with rubber-coated bullets and clouds of tear gas.

The Army then arrived, with armored personnel carriers, and took up positions that seemed to be intended to protect...the protesters.

There are accounts that report that the Army attempted to negotiate a solution, which failed, after which police again began opening fire on the crowd.

The headquarters of President Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) was burned.

Vandalism occurred at the National Museum.

Since then the Army has taken up positions across the country (the Museum included), and they seem to be protecting Government buildings—but they are not attempting to enforce curfews or to stop the protests in any other way.

Something else the Army has not been doing is acting as a police force: looting is taking place, and it’s affecting homes and businesses alike. Communities have been responding by defending themselves, which is obviously going to create its own problems.

All this is already impacting daily life: the banks are closed, which means you better have cash, but many stores are closed, which means cash is of somewhat limited value. It is exceedingly difficult to move around the city as ad hoc roadblocks controlled by neighborhood residents go up around town

Along the way the Government tried to shut down information flow by disabling “device telecommunications” and broadband Internet access...even to the point of blocking access to the Egyptian Constitution’s web site (this according to the El Badeel newspaper)...and people have responded by downloading certain programs that might provide workarounds.

That modem you never use has suddenly become vastly more important as dialup and DSL services provide what access they can through the phone lines. (This obviously has its limits, and it’s hard to imagine how long it could take to upload video with a 56k connection.)

It’s like something out of “Casablanca” as tons of people try to get on whatever flight out of town might be available; numerous countries are or soon will be flying out their own citizens on charter aircraft, and the same is true for various private entities who maintain staff in the country.

Mohamed El Baradei is emerging as a potential interim leader; we’ll talk more about that in a minute.

The police are now trying to return to the streets.

As Donald Rumsfeld would say, there are “known unknowns”:

The police, as we said, are trying to return...but considering that they were the target of much of the anger in the first place, who knows how that’s going to work out?

That question becomes more interesting when you consider that there are many who believe that the police themselves have been “arranging” some portion of the looting and vandalism, either themselves, personally, or by releasing prisoners into the community who will do the looting themselves.

The Muslim Brotherhood, who represent the interests of something like a quarter to a third of all Egyptians, will be a part of the political conversation going forward (absent some incredible crackdown), and that could be a moderating or a highly negative influence: it is possible that the Brotherhood could restrain those who are far more radical—or the far more radical could be the Brotherhood themselves.

You should also know that a "split decision" is possible: there has been a movement by the Mubarak Government over the years to allow religious groups to have some say over certain elements of "civil law" that used to be enforced in a strictly secular manner; this to prevent the very type of unrest that we're seeing today.

There could be an outcome that makes that arrangement permanent--and considering how much religious diversity there is in Egypt today, that could be a source of future conflict as well.

The Suez Canal is important inside and outside of Egypt, and obviously we cannot say with certainty whether its operations will be affected. There have been threats made against the Canal by Bedouin in the Sinai—but the Army would be expected to be very aggressive in defending the facility, and attacking the Army is probably going to be much different than attacking the local police.

The Army is itself associated with some great big unknowns:

--will they side with the demonstrators and against the current Government?

--will they assist the police in reimposing their particular brand of “law and order”—or will they stop the police from abusing the citizens?

--will they (or the police) be unable to reestablish any form of law and order in certain neighborhoods, now that “community policing” has taken over?

Another big unknown: how does the business community deal with all this? Some (“...same as the old boss...”) may see the changes as detrimental; others may find great opportunity in a new Egypt.

Keeping in mind how we have related to Egypt over the years, will Egypt be less friendly to Israel and the United States after this? (My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that virtually any outcome is going to lead to a “yes” answer.)

How far beyond Egypt does this spread—and could events in Yemen or Lebanon or Jordan push Egypt in a way not considered likely today?

The last unknown is one I don’t hear others talking about: what happens if the NDP tries to stay in power without any Mubaraks as President?

“...this is a...a corpse in oaken oblong coffin, silky’s a dead body, Patsy.”

“Yeah, but is it art, Eddie?”

--“Pasty” and “Edwina”, from the television show Absolutely Fabulous

To finish out today’s story, let’s just toss out a final thought about what we’ve seen so far—and then let’s break all the rules and bury the lead, by ending the story with some “new” news:

As the crisis in Egypt unfolded CNN had 24-hour “all hands on deck” coverage with multiple reporters in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, Fox News was on the air with news, commentary, and some odd “happy talk”, Al Jazeera had the pictures everyone else was showing on their coverage—and MSNBC had some very special episodes of Lockup and Predator Raw: The Unseen Tapes (iced tea and cookies, anyone?) to supplement Alex Witt and the hourly Richard Engle stand ups.

(I’m a big fan, Mr. Engle, but you can’t be expected to do it all by yourself...)

Is it possible that MSNBC suffered a “credibility uprising” as damaging as Mubarak’s this weekend? And how much of that, if any, can be spelled C-O-M-C-A-S-T?

And what do you think are the odds that Jon Stewart, Aasif Mandvi, and Jason Jones will notice any of this on Monday?

Now for the “new” news: there has been a lot of talk about whether anyone outside of the Muslim Brotherhood could muster an organization that could govern, and it appears that Mohamed El Baradei is doing exactly that: Wa’el Nawara is reporting from his weekite blog that a ten member committee has gathered around Dr. El Baradei that includes:

Dr Baltagi from the Muslim Brotherhood, Ayman Nour from El Ghad Party, Dr Osama El Ghazaly Harb from DFP, George Ishak and Dr. Abdel Gileel Mostafa (NAC), Hamden Sabahi from Karama, and Abou El Ezz El Haariri representing the leftists.

They intend to start by negotiating with the Army or the Government (or both) to move to a unity Government first, then elections—and if I get my Egyptian politics right, that’s a pretty inclusive group.

As we said Friday, however, coalitions have a history of breaking down, and there is no way to know, today, how things will work out for this group.

So there you go: lots of knowns, big giant unknowns, and a network that has to figure out if they’re going to become a real 24-hour news network—or if they can find a better news scheduleler, so that less of the news takes place on the days they take off.

Today is likely to be another important day—in fact, there’s likely to be a bunch of them in a row—and if there is one thing I’m willing to predict it’s that whatever we’re seeing today, it won’t be what we see in a week, which could be either incredibly inspiring...or incredibly depressing.

Stay tuned to Egypt, folks—and to the rest of the neighborhood, as well—because big things are afoot, and if they come to fruition it could happen very, very fast.

Friday, January 28, 2011

On The View From Egypt, Part Five, Or, The Emergency Is Here

It has been a couple of years since we first started writing about Egypt; at that time we did a series of stories that described how the country’s Constitution is designed to ensure that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) remains the ruling party, how corruption and torture and rape are part of the justice system, how there’s a looming Presidential succession crisis, and how we better pay attention, because one day all of this was going to blow up into a national emergency, with the potential for disastrous consequences that ripple all the way from Turkey to Morocco to Pakistan.

And now...that day has arrived.

After protests that led to a change of government (sort of) in Tunisia, rioting is spreading across Egypt, quickly, the ISI (Egypt’s internal security police) is out grabbing citizens and doing what they do (we’ll talk more about that later), and the question of Presidential succession, which many people thought was headed in one direction, may now be headed off to a place that outside observers might not have previously considered.

Lucky for you, I have some reach inside Egypt, and we’re going to get a peek inside the story that you might not have seen otherwise.

“My grandfather knew the exact time of the exact day of the exact year that he would die.”

“Wow, what an evolved soul! How did it come to him?”

“The judge told him.”

--From Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar..., Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Time is short, and this story is moving fast, so here’s the short and sweet version of the background that you “need to know”: since the Republic of Egypt was founded (in 1956), only the NDP has held power. Hosni Mubarak, the fourth and current President, has ruled since 1981, when he took over after the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

He’s thinking about succession plans more and more these days (for the NDP, Government corruption is a business, and everyone with a hand in the till wants the business to keep running smoothly), and if he had his wish his son, Gamal, would step into the job—and it looks like Gamal is trying to do just that: he makes public appearances where he looks Presidential, and it is reported by our State Department that he is involved in the formulation of legislation and Government policy.

Because the Egyptian Constitution’s famous Article 76 is designed to ensure that the NDP retains its stranglehold on power, there is no single opposition figure outside the NDP who commands enough public support and party infrastructure to really mount an electoral challenge.

(Ensure, you say? The Constitution’s intent is to “protect national unity”; to that end it requires all political parties to be licensed by the Government...which, of course, is run by the NDP

Political parties are barred from forming coalitions amongst themselves, and all candidates for Parliament or President must be approved by the Government before they can appear on the ballot—and should the authorities choose, that permission can be withdrawn during an election campaign.

A party can be ordered to disband. The Government can also, at any time, order parties not to accept any funds from any sources.)

The last candidate allowed to run against Mubarak in any serious way was Ayman Nour, of the El Ghad Party, in 2005; for his trouble he first received about 8% of the vote in a heavily rigged Egyptian election and then, soon after, a nice long sentence in a heavily guarded Egyptian prison. (He’s since been released.)

The ISI, acting in their capacity as one of the guardians of State Security, are recognized worldwide for their willingness to go “above and beyond” to make sure Egyptians stay unified in their support of the NDP; their motivational tactics have included everything from attempting to take over an opposition party to organizing a well-timed riot to raping bloggers the Government doesn’t like all the way up to “disappearing” and killing those who get too far out of line.

(The USA has “leveraged” Egypt’s expertise in torture throughout the “War on Terror”, and the place has been a popular destination for those being “renditioned”.)

Here’s an example: The Guardian (the UK newspaper) has an amazing audio recording on their website that was made by one of their reporters who was grabbed by riot police in Cairo during a street demonstration in the past day or so (along with about 50 others) and driven around in a police truck for several hours. The idea was to slam them into each other and the metal walls of the truck so as to “tenderize” them a bit, they were then driven out into the desert, presumably with the intent of making them think they were about to be killed.

Among those thrown in the truck was Ayman Nour’s son...which adds another dimension to how the intimidation can work, doesn’t it?

Egypt is officially a secular nation, but many Egyptians would like to see an Islamic Republic; their interests were represented by the Muslim Brotherhood until the Party was officially banned.

Today there is an underground alliance of politicians, some of whom serve in Parliament, that represent the same interests—which scares the NDP to no end.

(Other noteworthy religious sects within the population include Sufis, Copts, and Orthodox Christians, and there have been tensions between the various groups that have recently led to numerous incidents of violence.)

Poverty, unemployment, concerns over the potential withdrawal of certain government subsidies, and issues related to food security have also rocked the country over the past few years.

The Army has always served (as is the case in Turkey) as a guardian of secular interests and as a guarantor of “stability”. All of the Republic’s Presidents have served in the Army, and Gamal Mubarak, if he were to advance to the Presidency, would be the first to break that rule.

The other thing you need to know is that Tunisia, which is right next door, is going through the exact same thing: they have also had one-party rule forever, and popular discontent with government corruption, combined with an unemployment rate that makes Detroit look like a city “on the...grow!”, has led to so much rioting and changing of Governments that the country actually had three heads of state in 24 hours.

Of course, when you’ve always had one party rule and any political opposition is aggressively stamped out, that means any change in Government is likely to be a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” kind of a deal—and that’s precisely what’s happening in Tunisia.

(If you want to explore the Egyptian parts of this story in a lot more detail, have a look here, here, here, and here.)

History lesson done, it’s time to consider the present: just like in Tunisia, the rioting has begun.

There are reports of demonstrations involving thousands of protesters in Cairo, Alexandria, and in the Suez; among those reports are details that include the burning and blockading of police stations, mass detainments, and the firing of live bullets and rocket propelled grenades on the crowds. There are also reports of numerous deaths among the demonstrators.

There are reports that “Muslims and Christians together” are out demonstrating against the Government in Cairo, and it’s Bedouins who are protesting out in the Sinai. All of this is much different than the typical protests that have occurred in the past, which seem to have been of a more secular nature.

Prisoners at the Fayoum Prison (many of whom are there without trial or charges filed; many of whom have been tortured) are engaging in hunger strikes and security officials are concerned that the strikes could spread across all the country’s prisons, according to the El Badeel newspaper.

Former International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed El Baradei is attempting to mobilize a “National Assembly for Change”...and today the group issued a statement in Arabic that appears to describe the opposition’s efforts to achieve power as an “intifada” and seems to demand the “renunciation of President Mubarak’s rule”.

El Baradei himself is in the country; The Times of India quotes him as saying: "Mubarak has served the country for 30 years and it is about time for him to retire...”, which is an enormously brave thing to say inside Egypt, considering that he could either end up as the next leader of a unity Government or “tenderized” by the security services.

Today, January 28th, is intended to be what’s described as another “Day of Wrath”; Islamic weekends also begin on Fridays, so the demonstrations could become enormously large, and it’s unknown what could happen.

If the Mubaraks had to go, there are a few others beside El Baradei that might be in line to take the job:

--First, let’s assume a scenario like Tunisia’s, where Mubarak leaves but the NDP stays, and the “same as the old boss” deal plays out; the candidate to watch in that situation might be General Omar Suleiman (notice I said “General”...unlike Gamal Mubarak). He’s the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS), and I think it’s fair to say that the US Government views him as, shall we say, cooperative.

Another man to watch would be Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid—but he got himself caught up in some serious political trouble last year when the Nation’s wheat imports were threatened (50% of Egypt’s wheat is imported), and that may come back to haunt him now.

--If the NDP were to lose control of the situation, you could have someone like Ayman Nour or Saad Eddin Ibrahim step in, so the question becomes whether the National Assembly for Change coalition can either hold together for the long term or form a “caretaker” Government that might include several opposition leaders with elections to follow shortly thereafter.

Nour’s El Ghad Party and many others appear to be cooperating with the National Assembly for Change, at least for now—but the history of coalitions often involves the rapid dissolution of the group after victory is achieved, and there’s no way to know if that might happen down the road.

--Could the Muslim Brotherhood establish a theocracy, or something like one—and would they want to?

That is the big question...and I honestly do not know the answer. However, they are currently involved in the National Assembly for Change, and a representative of the Brotherhood (who, of course, doesn’t “officially” exist) was quoted as saying that joining the movement:

“..does not mean that we support for Dr. ElBaradei, as a candidate for president.”

One thing I do know: the Army has stepped in to maintain political order, more than once, and the Muslim Brotherhood would have to consider how far they could go before they caused a clash that would be bad for everyone.

They also would have to deal with the “jobs and economy” and systemic corruption issues, as any secular government would, otherwise any potential victory might be a short-lived one.

--Speaking of the Army stepping in...that could indeed happen, and a military Government would not be that surprising an outcome if things were to really start getting crazy and basic order were to collapse in a big big way.

The close relationship between the Mubarak government and the US security apparatus is something that is not well received at home, and we should expect that any new President not named Gamal would display a less warm public image toward the United States—even if they act differently in private.

So that’s what I know so far, and I’ll try to find out more as I can—but the big story today is that today might look something like Iran last June, with lots of sound and fury and repression to follow—or it might look like Tunisia, where “government du jour” is the order of the day.

Various Internet services are being blocked in Egypt, but here’s a Twitter page to check during the day...and if there’s more to tell, we’ll come back and tell it.

OK, there’s more already: The Times of India is reporting that Gamal Mubarak took his family and left for London Wednesday morning—and now it’s looking like the troubles might be spreading to Lebanon, where a coalition Government with Hezbollah as one of the partners...despite their losing a 2009 election...has the country’s Sunnis out in the streets.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On Done Deals, Or, Sometimes Losing Is How You Win

We have been talking a lot about Social Security these past few weeks, even to the point where I’ve missed out on talking about things that I also wanted to bring to the table, particularly the effort to reform Senate rules.

We’ll make up for that today with a conversation that bears upon both of those issues, and a lot of others besides, by getting back to one of the fundamentals in a very real way...and today’s fundamental involves the question of whether it’s a good idea to keep pushing for what you want, even if it seems pointless at the time.

To put it another way: when it comes to this Administration and this Congress and trying to influence policy...if Elvis has already left the building, what’s the point?

Bachmann response now on CNN. Turn to SAP Channel 3 for English captions.

--A Tweet posted by pourmecoffee, immediately following the 2011 State of the Union address

If you have been in any way awake and alert over the past 18 months or so, you’ve noticed that this President is having some trouble with the most fervent of his November ‘08 supporters, who feel—with some considerable justification—that they’ve either been sold short, used as a target of political convenience, or ignored altogether in their calls for a more Progressive agenda.

It has come to the point where many who gave money to Democrats in the ’08 cycle did not donate in ’10—and it’s also suggested that many of that ‘08 voting coalition chose not to vote Democratic as well, exacerbating the Party’s electoral troubles in this cycle’s contests.

And there are numbers to back this up: I’ve been looking at a CAF/Greenberg poll that’s about a week old, and even as those who oppose Obama’s policies (particularly his most strident opponents) have been warming to his approach over the past six months or so, the number of voters who support him the most strongly has never been lower—and it’s stayed that way since about June of ’10.

So a long-running theme of my work is that this is the time to try to influence one thing or another; most recently that’s been an effort directed at trying to impact the discussion around what might happen with Social Security.

A long-running response to that work, in the comments that some of my friends post on the sites where these stories appear, is that there is just no purpose in trying to change the direction of this particular Ship of State, as it has already sailed. This Administration is too corrupt and too feckless to be forced into change, they will tell you, and anyone who thinks otherwise is either deluded or carrying water for the DCCC.

But I don’t agree, and I’ll tell you why:

Right off the bat, you might be surprised how often you can win, even when you did not think you would; the fights over DADT and Elizabeth Warren’s nomination are a couple of recent examples that come to mind.

Beyond that, losing a political fight, and doing it well, helps to move the conversation incrementally over the longer term; I would suggest that it took two political cycles before the tide turned on the war in Iraq, and now it’s beginning to look like the military’s plan for “Victory In Afghanistan Through Massive Force” is a proposition that’s tougher and tougher to sell every day—even within the White House.

Conservatives know this well, and efforts to advocate for gun rights, to advance “pro-life” policies, and to radically change the form and function of government have extended over decades, with incremental changes often being the incremental goal (“let’s create these temporary tax cuts today...and let’s try to extend them forever another day...”).

Ironically, another good reason to “fight the good fight”, even in an environment where you might not see victory as possible, is one that is very familiar to the most fervent of Obama’s ’08 supporters: the very fight, in and of itself, is often a way to create political capital—even if you lose.

How many of us have wished this very President would have stood up and fought for things that he might not have thought he would get?

Would you support this President more if he had demanded that Congress pass a single-payer plan, or if he was pushing harder to end renditions and close Guantanamo, even if Congress was blocking him? I bet you would.

And it makes sense: if you support single-payer, and you see someone out there fighting hard for the idea...that’s a good thing, and that’s someone you’re likely to come back and support later.

It worked for three Congressional Democrats who lost elections this fall: Feingold, Grayson, and Patrick Murphy are all in a great position to seek support from the very people who are the most frustrated with pretty much all the other Democrats today.

Some of those supporters aren’t even waiting for the future candidates; the “Draft Feingold for President” movement goes back to at least 2004, Grayson and Murphy also have supporters ready and willing to go.

So...if it’s true that if this President would fight like Bernie Sanders, even in a losing cause, then we would treat him with the same degree of affection and respect we feel toward Bernie it also true that we should, maybe, apply that lesson to ourselves?

There is an argument to be made that trying to move your opponent when you don’t think you can, and in the process showing how they appear to be either intransigent, or ignorant, or corrupt by comparison...or just plain wrong about something...can regularly end up moving voters, instead—and that the result of that movement is that your opponent sometimes has to move your way as well.

I would submit that the 2005 effort to “reform” Social Security, when we had a Republican President, House, and Senate, went exactly nowhere fast because being wrong did move a bunch of voters to say...well, to say that all those Republicans were wrong.

So there you go, folks: I’m here today to suggest that, even when we might not feel we have a good chance of winning a political fight—or even a fair chance—you still have to get out and fight the fight, if only to advance the cause for another day.

It’s also a great way to accrue political capital that can be used to your advantage later—and if the resistance from the other side is perceived as being too heavy-handed, they can suffer from a sort of “attrition”, as their own political capital is diminished.

And even if you lose, there’s still a lot to be gained in the effort, although you might not see the results until further down the road.

As we said at the top of the story, there are lots of battles left over, including what is going to happen to Social Security and the potential for reforming Senate rules; but win or lose, it’s probably a better idea to be trying to fight these fights, loudly and logically, just as we wish the President would, then to find ourselves hanging back and doing nothing at all today...and then voting for Jack Box for President 2012 as a way of expressing our frustration.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Contradiction, Or, Will Obama Lose An Argument With Himself?

There have been many unlikely things that have happened this past month or so: some of them appearing as legislation, some of them appearing in the form of Republicans who set new records for running away from the words they used to get elected—and some of them appearing in the markets, where, believe it or not, many Europeans finds themselves wishing for our economic situation right about now.

There are even improbable sports stories: our frequently hapless Seattle Seahawks, the only team to ever make the NFL Playoffs with a losing record, are today preparing to knock the Chicago Bears out of their bid to play in the Super Bowl, having crushed the defending holders of the Lombardi Trophy just last week before the 12th Man in Seattle.

But as improbable as all that is, the one thing I never thought I would see is Barack Obama getting into a political argument with himself over Social Security—and then losing the argument.

Even more improbably, it looks like there’s just about a week left for him to come to a decision...and it looks like you’re going to have to help him make up his mind.

“He who was prepared to help the escaping murderer or to embrace the impenitent thief, found, to the overthrow of all his logic, that he objected to the use of dynamite”

--From The Dynamiter, by Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson

So we’ll keep this all just between you and me, but I’ve been hearing a few things this past week, and I figured we’d start by filling you in on the inside dirt:

The State of the Union address is coming up fast (January 25th, in fact); obviously Social Security could become a hot topic during the speech. If it does, here’s what’s potentially going to occur:

--The President will announce a spirited defense of the program, and tell the world that he will not support any cuts in your benefits, and that we’ll clear up the funding issues by raising the cap on the payroll tax.

--He’ll announce that he has decided to support cutting your benefits by backing proposals that would again raise the retirement age and would cause the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to go up by less than the actual cost of living...which is just another way of sneaking in a cut to your eventual benefits.

I’m told that option number one is the least likely of the two...which is something you might not expect—especially if you were paying attention to what Obama was saying about Social Security when he was out looking for our votes in 2007 and 2008.

Here’s a good example: in November of 2007 he appeared on Meet the Press

“...and when you look at, how we should approach Social Security, I believe, that, uh, cutting retire--, uh, cutting benefits, is not the right answer...I meet too many seniors all across the country who are struggling with the limited Social Security benefits that they have...that raising the retirement age is not the best option, particularly when we’ve got people who ware [sic] still in manufacturing...”

There’s more: Candidate Obama wrote an op-ed piece (Fixed-income seniors can expect a tax cut) in September of 2007 for the Quad City Times that was designed to influence the way Iowa voters thought about his chances of being President one day. Here’s what he had to say then:

“Second, I do not want to cut benefits or raise the retirement age. I believe there are a number of ways we can make Social Security solvent that do not involve placing these added burdens on our seniors. One possible option, for example, is to raise the cap on the amount of income subject to the Social Security tax. If we kept the payroll tax rate exactly the same but applied it to all earnings and not just the first $97,500, we could virtually eliminate the entire Social Security shortfall.”

This is what he told the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) on the occasion of the group’s 50th anniversary, just about two months before the ’08 election:

“...but John McCain’s campaign has gone even further, suggesting that the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be to cut...cost of living adjustments or raise the retirement age. Now let me be clear: I will not do either.

...I think that’s why the best way forward is to first look to adjust the cap on the payroll tax. 97% of Americans will see absolutely no change in their taxes under my proposal. 97%. What it does allow us to do is to extend the life of Social Security without cutting benefits or raising the retirement age.”

Naturally, if you looked at all this and said: ”Well, what’s the big deal, exactly?” you’d be making a reasonable point...but the problem, from what “background” conversations are suggesting, is that there is an effort afoot to get the President to agree to these cuts as part of a “Grand Bargain” that might include an extension of the debt ceiling, which is going to have to be voted on before March, and possibly other elements of dealmaking as well.

And naturally, if you watched how the President negotiated issues like the “public option” and the tax cuts last December...well, a reasonable person might worry that the same kind of deal is about to be made right now.

To make things worse, there are stories afoot that suggest this President is looking to cement a legacy here—and a legacy that consists of “I rescued Social Security” would be a fine narrative for the ’12 long as the “rescue” isn‘t accomplished on the backs of those who can afford cuts the least.

“But what I’m going to continue to insist on is that the reason we need to fix it now is precisely to protect our senior citizens and maintain not only Social Security as a social insurance program, but also make sure that the benefits are sufficient so that we don’t have seniors in need.”

--Barack Obama, on Meet the Press, November 11, 2007

So what’s to be done?

As you can imagine, this is the time to start flooding the White House switchboard (202 456 1212) to let them know that you want the President to listen to his own best arguments and stick with raising the payroll tax cap.

This is also the time to get your Members of Congress and Senators on the phone—and whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, it’s not going to be hard to remind them that if they screw this one up...they’re going to make permanent enemies out of...millions of registered voters.

So get to it.

We have about a week—and if you want to save your own Social Security better get up and make it happen.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

On Rugged Individualism, Or, Meet The Ghost Of Government Past

It is about time for the 112th House to come back into session, and the first thing on the agenda appears to be an effort to take away any healthcare reform that have been passed by this Administration.

Next comes an effort to slash Social Security and Medicare, an effort to reverse financial reforms, and proposals to “slash” spending—but only on domestic discretionary items.

If the House majority had its way there would be no restrictions on offshore drilling, no rules designed to prevent climate change—in fact, few if any environmental protections at all...and all of this is intended to bring to life the philosophy that government, for all intents and purposes, should just go away and leave us all alone.

I don’t buy into that kind of thinking—not even a little bit—and today we’re going to look around the world and see if we can’t figure out why.

There is an unalterable rightness about the best Florentine paintings of the period. It is wholly lacking from the late works of Tintoretto. In the schoolmasterly phase, even his greatest pictures could be improved. Only it would need another Tintoretto to do the improving.

--From Old Masters: Great Artists In Old Age, by Dr. Thomas Dormandy, RSM

So when it becomes tougher and tougher for old folks to get by on whatever the national pension system can provide...what do you suppose they do?

As it turns out, they turn to crime to supplement their incomes—and they’re doing it all over the world.

In the UK, local officials in Croyden saw a 15% jump in elderly crime in 2008-2009, Japan has had a multi-year elderly shoplifting problem that tripled in size from 1999 to 2008 (nearly 50,000 elderly Japanese were arrested that year—and a third of them were repeat offenders). Even in Germany, about three times as many elderly people are charged with committing crimes as report that they are the victims of crimes.

Then there’s Elizabeth Grube, 70, and her sister, Elaine Volkert, 65, both of Stroudsburg, Pa, who had been dealing about $10,000 worth of heroin a week when they were busted.

What happens when you give up on urban planning, and you empower the market to decide where people should build their homes? about Bhopal?

Nobody should have been allowed to build homes next to a chemical plant—but in India, there’s not really a lot of control over that sort of the poor folks built around the plant, and one night, at least 3700 people died from a toxic leak.

In Haiti, lots of “empowerment” combined with lots of poverty has led to so much deforestation that it is possible, from space, to easily discern Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic...because the Dominicans have trees. As often happens, however, the market addresses imbalances, and now the Haitians have a surplus of a new natural resource that the Dominicans don’t: landslides.

Building codes are such a pain, aren’t they?

Not so much in China, where, in one survey, nearly half of apartment dwellers said they fear the buildings they live in might fall over or something...which they sometimes do. Poor school construction kills Chinese schoolchildren, too—by the thousands—which even the Chinese Government now acknowledges.

Now all of this is theoretical and much of it takes place overseas...but what about right here in the USA?

Consider Detroit: there is a lot less of it these days, for a variety of reasons both economic and social, and what with giving another $4 trillion in tax cuts to the rich...well, there’s just not much money available to help Detroit out.

As a result, the city is considering something that sounds like the prequel to Robocop: withdrawing services from about 25% of “Old Detroit”, tearing down thousands of abandoned buildings, and turning the open space into a sort of “urban prairie”.

In fact, “undevelopment” has become so bad that, within the city, wildlife is now abundant: pheasants roam the streets, a coyote was “arrested” inside the Federal Courthouse, and Glemie Dean Beasley makes a fair bit of money selling raccoon (fur or meat, take your choice) to Detroit’s chapeau and soul food connoisseurs.

And finally, a few words about the Second Amendment:

There are those among us who wish to advance the concept that anyone can own any weapon they choose, and that, if you carry it to the right political event, it makes the perfect “accessory of intimidation”.

To them I would say: “There are lots of examples, already, of countries where that is a part of the culture...and those countries are Somalia, and Afghanistan, and Yemen, and Columbia...and if I’m looking for examples of what I want my own country to be ain’t Afghanistan, or Yemen, or Somalia, or Columbia.”

I believe in the necessity of Government, just as Thomas Paine did...because it’s just plain Common Sense...and I do not believe that “this is my land, and all that matters is me and mine...” is going to work as a substitute for a United States of America...and if you believe in a vision of this country that looks like mine, you’re going to have to stand up for it, right now, as this Congress gets its crazy on, and make it real clear to those folks that extremism in the defense of liberty, misdirected, is not only a vice—but a good way to lose your liberty altogether.

Those of you who are discouraged are going to have to get up off the proverbial floor and start over, those of you who think you can’t win a political fight anymore are going to have to constantly remind themselves that we can and do win in this environment...and those of you who think the only thing left is to grab your guns, hunker down in the bunker, and wait for Jesus to save need to have a cookie.

Or go play in the snow.

Or spend some time fingerpainting with the kids.

Or maybe you just need to knit something.

Whatever it is, do something that reminds you that we’re all OK here, and that things aren’t really that desperate, and that all that snow, and the yarn, and the kids and the fingerpaints...that is Jesus, right here on Earth, saving you right this very second, and if you’re not enjoying it every day for all it’s worth, then you will have missed out on your real Earthly reward...and your Heavenly one as well.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Shame As A Tactic, Or, Betsie Gallardo: She Won...And So Can You!

We have been following the story of Betsie Gallardo lately, she being the woman that, due to a medial decision, was being starved to death in a Florida prison.

She has inoperable cancer, her death is imminent, and her mother was working hard to make it possible for Betsie to die at home with some dignity.

As we reported just a couple days ago, half the battle was already won, as the Florida Department of Corrections had agreed to place her in a hospital so that she could again go back on nutritional support.

On January 5th, the Florida Parole Commission voted to allow her to end her life at home—and that means you spoke out, made a difference, and achieved a complete victory for the effort.

But even as we celebrate that victory, I think we should take a moment to realize that there is a bigger lesson here: the lesson that the fights over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), benefits for 9/11 first responders (the Zadroga Bill), and Betsie Gallardo’s imminent release are all actually pointing us to a political strategy that works, over and over, if we are willing to understand the wisdom that’s been laid before us.

Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff.
Under heaven everyone knows this,
Yet no one puts it into practice.

-- From chapter 78 of the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu

So what do all three of those victories have in common?

Well, how about this: in every case, Those Proud And Courageous Conservatives found themselves too embarrassed to hold their ground, and once the bright light of public shame fell upon them, their high-minded opposition to three good things simply collapsed.

And that’s my underlying thesis for 2011 and the 112th Congress: shame and embarrassment, which don’t really seem like weapons at all, are in fact fantastically powerful when focused upon those who are trying to do wrong—and a small group of people, combining shame with a bit of imagination and effort, can crack apart even the most unyielding opposition when they embarrass the hell out of those on the other side.

Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” can very honestly point to the “weapon of mass embarrassment” they delivered just before Christmas as the final straw that broke the back of Republican obstructionism around the Zadroga Bill—and how many of you look at DADT and John McCain and see not a principled fighter for military tradition, but a sad old man who didn’t know when to go home to Arizona and take up sitting on the front porch?

For the next two years we are going to have the chance to apply this tactic over and over and over again—and we already have Republicans and Democrats alike lining up to cut your Social Security...even as they make sure their own "defined benefit" retirement is fully funded, at your expense...and that’s a great place from which to start hitting back.

And in this Congress, embarrassment and shame actually pile up, layer upon layer, to create an amazingly target-rich environment.

Here’s a great example: Fred Upton is the new Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees things like the regulation of offshore drilling and healthcare—and that’s because it was just too embarrassing to give the job to Texas’ Joe Barton...especially after he publicly apologized to BP for how tough we’ve been on them after that giant oil spill last summer.

So Fred has the new gig, and he’s all happy about that, and he’s appointed himself a Staff Director, a fella named Gary Andres.

Now there’s been a lot of talk that some of these Members of Congress might be a bit too associated with lobbyists...and the name seemed awfully I decided to Google Andres...and sure enough, not only is he a healthcare lobbyist, in 2007 he was named by Politico as the Top Lobbyist In Washington, making him the first “Top Lobbyist” of the post-Abramoff era.

Andres, just to add to the layering, is upset that Obama is deploying an “Army of Lobbyists”, even though he himself wrote the book on lobbying, literally: “Lobbying Reconsidered: Politics Under the Influence” is available in many fine bookstores.

This seems like as good a time as any to bring today’s conversation to a close, so let’s see where we are:

Even as we celebrate Betsie Gallardo’s victory, which was at least partially obtained through the timely and well-directed application of shame and embarrassment, Conservatives are feeling awfully full of themselves, despite the fact that they were embarrassed into caving on so many things so quickly in the past month.

They will set themselves up for lots more shame and scorn...I promise...and if we step up and focus the larger public on how shameful these folks are going to be, day after day after day, we can stop things like the upcoming raping of your Social Security in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, or any of the other 100 similar kinds of changes our opponents hope to enact, by hook or by crook.

So there you go, America: we have fish, and we have barrels, and if we can’t shut these folks down, then we have only ourselves to blame—and if that were to happen, then the only people who should truly be ashamed and embarrassed...will be us.