Category Archives: Politics/ Political Economy

Brexit and austerity

In the hours following Brexit I wrote on social media:

Dear Britain,

I have no standing on this issue and fully respect your democratic process, which is certainly more transparent than what we’ve got going on here right now. Furthermore, I will likely be visiting you to take advantage of the most enticing exchange rate since my childhood, and whilst there may apply for a job for which EU citizens are no longer prioritized.

But holy sh*t, what the f*ck did you just do?!? Did you vote on the basis of most toupée-like hair of the best known proponent? That may bode ill for our presidential contest if we follow suit. Perhaps you can now blow up the Chunnel and charge the French for demolition costs, Trump-style.

But truth, yo, once you’ve recovered from your hangover, we need to talk. Basically all pluralistic societies need to have a few deep-and-meaningfuls.

In the wake of the vote, the following observations seemed so banal, so simple, so utterly self-evident, that I had not bothered posting them anywhere — they didn’t seem so deep or meaningful. However, considering that well-educated, fairly intelligent, and even arguably well-meaning people like David Cameron can so dramatically fail to grasp the situation, I’ll have a go anyway.

Economic globalization involves the movement across national borders of any or all production factors – capital, goods, and, yes, people. Even though there are almost always overall societal gains from trade, the lower and middle classes of many countries suffer from economic globalization. That is because their particular local combination of production factors produces goods and services that may be more expensive than those produced by other local combinations of production factors plus ever-dropping transportation costs.

Okay, so when people are put out of work, they need to gain the skills they will need for a new line of work that promises to be more competitive, or which is naturally less vulnerable to international competition. They will need to go back to school. In the meanwhile, will need to have a place to live and study, food to eat, and decent healthcare so that they don’t, you know, suffer mental breakdowns, get stuck in healthcare debt-spirals, resort to self-medication, fail to raise their kids to be decent people, etc. This has led to the long-established observation, perhaps most famously made by Dani Rodrik back in 1998, that increasing openness to trade requires increased government spending as a percentage of GDP. Here is a bad copy of his original graph. (Note, by the way, fellow Americans, that the US is the least open economy in his sample. Small countries in Europe, by contrast, are extremely open, and thus require more spending.)


A country whose lower and middle classes are suffering from the effects of globalization may in turn suffer fiscally. That is because the bulk of their tax payers are, well, not billionaires. At this point, they have two basic options: First, they can spend more money on retraining and education, healthcare, nutrition, and affordable housing programs in the hopes of boosting long-term competitiveness. But that will require either raising taxes on the rich (eek!) or borrowing.

Second, they can claim that, given the fiscal crisis, they need to go into austerity mode and stop social spending. If they choose Door No. 2, to make themselves feel and look less like assholes, politicians will (a) blame the poor and then wind up policing them rather than supporting them; (b) extol the virtues of the rich (“The rich already pay most of the taxes!” – leaving off the part about how the system precludes lower and middle income growth); (c) try to convince themselves and others that the rich will eventually come to the aid of government and make more jobs, perhaps in the yacht-making industry; and if/when the first three approaches wind up sounding insufferably condescending and alienating what is turning out to be a growing segment of the electorate, (d) pretend that the problem is all about the one globalizing factor of production that you can easily put a (dark-skinned) face to: immigrants. (Of course, tactic (d) makes them look more, not less, like assholes.)

The problem in the US, as in Britain, is not about immigrants. At all. It does not come from abroad. It is about economic redistribution within our respective countries so that gains of globalization can be shared.

The uncomfortable compromise between the Left and the Right in America in recent decades has basically involved funding what social programs have been grandfathered in during more generous eras (the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, SNAP) at least partially via borrowing, whilst lowering taxes on the rich (as in 2007). This is because Democratic politicians intermittently fought rearguard actions against conservatives defending progressive taxes, and then were totally bought off by Wall Street anyway. The Obama Administration has thankfully eschewed talk of austerity, thereby helping the US economy to hobble ever so slowly toward recovery, and now even the Right can’t muster under that banner. In the UK, Osbourne’s austerity package has had a similarly repelling effect on voters, and UKIP has taken up the slack. The fact that Cameron presided simultaneously over an embrace of austerity and the Brexit vote manifests a strange disconnect in his thinking between the two.

So, yes, there are important discussions that we as pluralistic societies need to have about what it means to be humane, respectful, open-minded, tolerant, and life-affirming in the face of diversity. But that conversation needs to extend not just to migrants, but also to *all* those who need tools and support to make the future something to look forward to, rather than fear.


Response to the question “how much of it is intentional (e.g. Zinn’s contention that the wealthy interests pit lower classes/races/threats to power against one another to preserve their elite status) or Hanlon’s Razor in action?”:

In some ways, the problem, in the narrow, technical sense, is infinitely more diagnosable than the reasons we are stymied in addressing the problem.

But I don’t think that I can really be binary about the choice you set out: I think it’s defensible to assert that our social, economic, and political systems are fundamentally geared to disfavor minorities, the poor, and migrants (with disproportionate risks at intersectionalities). But I also think nuances abound in this space and worry that it’s too facile to inculpate all beneficiaries of the system as “little Eichmanns” — many politicians on both sides of the aisle (but probably preponderantly Democratic) I would characterize as simply out of touch, and Skinner-conditioned not to bite the hands that feed in our highly monetized electoral system.

I find it generally more difficult to defend Republicans, since their ideology is really founded upon a refusal to acknowledge redistribution as a necessary part of meritocracy. Take their attacks on the estate tax, for instance — in order to concurrently uphold the values of the free market *and* wish to abolish the estate tax, you must believe that the karmic credit of one person’s work ethic should roll-over to their next of kin. That starts to look an awful lot like a tacit assertion that the current economic status quo is indicative of a normative eugenic hierarchy.

Aside: This isn’t to defend the Democratic party, though. The Clintons, in particular, were disastrous in a lot of ways — for developing countries probably to an even greater extent than the US. But perhaps the most pathological part about them was the extent to which they redefined what it meant to be Democratic. I think a lot of people my age who grew up with Clinton as the first Democratic president in their lifetimes thought that must be what progressivism looked like, when it was really just an opportunistic hodgepodge: an unholy matrimony of politics and deregulated financial markets; progressive-ish income tax policy but regressive capital gains taxes; more appointments of women and minorities to cabinet positions than during any previous presidency, but also passed DOMA and the Violent Crime Act. His legacy was in some ways one of moral hazard vis-a-vis the Republicans (they were just rewarded and emboldened by Clinton’s easy centrism) and a tendency toward “rational” accomodationism.

But at the extremes, I think it would be hard to argue that both Farage and Trump aren’t making conscious and explicit attempts at race-baiting. Trump doesn’t even try for plausible deniability any longer — bare bones legal deniability suits him just fine.


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Filed under Culture/ squishy stuff, Politics/ Political Economy, Uncategorized

Dynamic Duo: Budget Austerity & Bigotry

Anti-US protests continue to spread across the Muslim world, and Mitt Romney continues his campaign-long series of tacks to the right, remaining steadfast in his misleading condemnation of the Obama administration’s “sympathizing” with Egyptian embassy attackers.  Steve Klein, the promoter of the film that sparked the unrest, small-town insurance salesman, and founder of the right-wing (some say hate-mongering) group Courageous Christians United, is just the sort of “Republican base” voter that Mitt Romney is trying so desperately to win over.  And while some would contend that fiscal and social conservatives have an uneasy marriage in the GOP, I’m more interested here specifically in what budget austerity and bigotry might have to do with one another.  More than you might imagine, I would argue.

Over the course of the two parties’ national conventions, I have found myself in a number of conversations with fellow democrats who complain about two ostensibly irreconcilable characteristics of the Right.  On the one hand, it’s clear that Republicans, Libertarians, and Tea-Partiers share an ever-shrinking Big Tent, increasingly inhospitable towards a proliferating number of scapegoat groups, both foreign and domestic, including gays, poor Blacks, Hispanics, women, Muslims (terrorists!), public transit-goers (get a car!), Labor, the Northeast generally (Wall Street and, sporadically, New Hampshire excepted), France (wusses), China (currency manipulator!), and Russia (reprise!).  The result looks like a party of white males, increasingly out of sync with the modern world, and clinging to a kind of minority Apartheid rule through voter ID laws (ahem… South Carolina) and redistricting schemes (looking at you, Texas).

On the other hand, the GOP polls well in states like Alaska, Arizona, and Mississippi, where federal government spending outstrips tax dollars collected – despite party rhetoric castigating government for its profligacy and indebtedness.  By contrast, states like New York, Connecticut, Illinois, and California are solidly Democratic, and receive less than they contribute to the federal coffers in tax dollars.  On average, “Red States” receive more than 30 cents more per tax dollar from the feds than “Blue States.”  The phrase “We built it!” doesn’t accurately reflect, say, Alabama’s fiscal contribution to a federal highway, bridge or rail system; Alabamans can credibly claim to have paid for around 49% of it.

Imagine a scenario in which the North (and the West Coast for good measure) reneged, 150 years later, on its Civil War-era decision to insist on a union, and unilaterally kicked out all Red states.  The new Blue State Union (BSU) is more densely urbanized (and therefore more productive and energy efficient) than the Red State Confederacy (RSC), more supportive of public goods and services, hosts the lion’s share of the former nation’s top universities, and far outstrips the RSC in technology patents in innovation clusters like Silicon Valley and Route 128.  Under current spending patterns, the BSU would run a budget surplus, while the RSC, for all its austerity-loving budget hawks, would run a massive deficit.

So here’s the conundrum: if only Blue states have this powerful economic incentive to be exclusionary and kick out the Reds, why then is it the Red states where we witness the rise of out-group hostility?  While the answers to this question are probably as numerous as they are complex, the most powerful answer to my mind is an economic one.  When investment grows the size of the total economic pie, people are more willing to spend their own resources on it, knowing their own piece of it will grow, too.  Modern, urban, knowledge-based economies are the paragons of this scenario because their production growth increases with investment and depends to a large extent on public goods – e.g., spatial proximity that reduces transactions costs in intermediate goods, “thick” labor markets of the well-educated allowing less costly private sector scale-ups, and knowledge spillovers that produce greater innovation.

When investment doesn’t grow the collective pie as much, though (as in rural areas and sprawling suburbia), people are more likely to attempt to enlarge their allocations by redistributing the pie, taking pieces from others.  It might seem difficult to square the all-American virtue of self-sufficiency with the fact of taking more from society than you contribute to it.  But if you redraw the boundaries of your “society” by (just to take an example out of the hat) preventing tax-paying Mexican workers from becoming citizens, collecting social security, and getting health care, then what was manifestly an intentional social injustice starts to look – if you squint at it just right – like a unintentional trade surplus vis-à-vis Mexico.

So it shouldn’t be surprising to note that economies forced to undergo austerity measures, shrinking the size of the collective economic pies, experience rises in xenophobia, bigotry, and ethnic nationalism.  The Nazi party arose in a period of forced austerity (and resultant hyperinflation caused by the flight of gold for reparations) that wiped out German purchasing power, and spread during the consequent period of economic stagnation.  More recently, austerity measures in Greece have coincided with the rise of that country’s right-wing “Golden Dawn” party and an uptick in hate crimes against immigrants.  Far-right nationalist parties in EU countries as diverse as France, Spain, and the Netherlands have gained in popularity as fears of austerity measures have risen.

Golden Dawn

Golden Dawn supporters in Greece.

The difference in the case of the GOP is that its own politicians actually advocate the same “pro-growth” austerity measures that will so damage the life chances of their own constituents.  (The military is, of course, exempted, as it is needed to deal with the ever-expanding list of enemies.)  The GOP brand of economics, far more ideology than empirically-based social science, encourages us to “starve the cold” of stagnation – but when that fails, blame some shirker or some “enemy of freedom” somewhere.  And scapegoating is a slippery slope, inclined towards intolerance.

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September 13, 2012 · 7:23 am

GOLD! (and other Haitian liabilities)

Haitian road worker near Trou-du-Nord

So for those who don’t keep up with the news on Haiti, gold and copper have been found in promising sample quantities following test drilling in the north.  Estimates for the total recoverable value of the find range up to $20B.  Ironically, this sum is almost identical to the inflation-adjusted $21B that Haiti’s former president and international gadfly, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, demanded from France in 2003 as reparations for a 19th-century debt imposed upon the Haitian government for having stolen French property, including themselves, as they had been slaves.   (Many speculate that Aristide’s importunate demand may have piqued the international community into supporting the “revolt” that toppled the government early the following year.)

Responses to the find have ranged from the naively enthusiastic (“[h]ere’s praying this recent find of precious metals will be the long-awaited windfall the country needs to finally get on its feet”) to the skepticism underpinned by the phenomenon that is the namesake of this blog.  Falling into the latter category is the well-researched AP news story which, of necessity, quotes UCLA’s Michael Ross (“The great irony of mineral wealth is that those countries that most desperately need infusions of mineral revenue — low-income countries with weak governments — are also least likely to manage these resources wisely”), and dwells quite a lot on the question of corruption in the Haitian government and how it might affect the likelihood of environmental disasters and the benefit ordinary Haitians will see from the mining boom.  To its credit, the AP story even makes allusion to the gold trinkets that the native Tainos (called Arawaks in the article) wore when the Spanish arrived, and the brutal genocide brought about largely as a result of forced labor in gold mines.

Strikingly, a Canadian mineral exploration firm was able to buy on the cheap all the shares in the Haitian mining company with the appropriate permits in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.  The AP article cites an almost unbelievably bald statement by the company’s president:

“Investors want to get in at the bottom,” said Dan Hachey, president of Majescor Resources, the Canadian company, “and I figured after that earthquake, Haiti was as low as it could get.”

The media emphasis has been on the economic improvements that Haitians may see, or even have already seen, in terms of construction jobs and new roads – even though many of these “new roads” presumably lead only to remote mountains, soon to be turned into remote, heavy metal-contaminated lakes upstream of less-remote tailings dams.  And though that may sound cynical, the lack of regulatory environmental protections (or even the officials and agencies to enforce them) in Haiti is worrisome.  Dan Hachey believes that the earthquake will have the effect of tightening regulatory corporate oversight and improving government accountability, because of the “$10B” in aid that the international community has pledged to the country for recovery efforts.  That argument might hold if (a) the $10B in aid were actually going to the government of Haiti in the first place, and (b) the international community had ever cared about the Haitian government’s accountability (at least in the sense of being accountable to its own citizens).

On the first point, see this.  Basically, the World Bank is the arbiter of how, and on what projects, those monies get spent.  The disbursements are made through a majority-foreign Commission Intérimaire pour la Reconstruction d’Haïti.  The country that came to be known in the 1990s as “the Republic of NGOs” is now “the Republic of NGOs and Other Republics,” its sovereignty once more trampled beneath the heavy hooves of foreign interests.  This time, though, the international community can feel better about itself for having done so: after all, it was a natural disaster (bad luck!), and it crippled the (already weak/ corrupt/ inept) government.  It’s just lucky Haiti could count on us!

On the second point, the “international community” has always cared far more about having a Haitian government that was favorable to ownership of Haitian property by foreign corporations, low or no corporate taxes and import tariffs, and low minimum wages, than about accountability to the people of Haiti.  These were the motivating factors behind the blatantly racist US occupation of 1915-1934 (during which time the 1918 law rescinding the ban on foreign property ownership was passed by way of a “plebiscite”), and they were the same in the decades of US support for the Duvaliers, père and fils.  How else to explain that regular and substantial embezzlement of state funds that occurred under both regimes and with the knowledge of the international community, went completely without remonstrance.  For instance, of a 1981 IMF disbursement of $22M, $20M was withdrawn for the personal use of “Baby Doc.”  A US Department of Commerce report once indicated that fully 63% of Haitian government revenues were misappropriated each year, and yet the US continued to support Baby Doc right up to the point of facilitating his sumptuous 1986 exile in the south of France.

The same motivations underpinned the US’s 1994 reinstatement of Aristide on the conditions of government retrenchment, “flexible fuel pricing,” and overall “structural adjustment” that, in combination with domestic American agricultural subsidies, so predictably and entirely devastated Haiti’s rice agriculture, drove up consumer inflation, and deepened the already-grave poverty in the country.  Aristide eventually proved too troublesome, however, refusing to budge on the World Bank’s privatization scheme for nationally-owned companies, and later embarrassing France with his call for reparations, and so was dismissed.  After a 7-year exile, he is now finally back in his country, but too late to have run for office in 2010.  In his place is a man called a “stealth Duvalierist,” accused by the Left of supporting the Doc-era military and the  reactionary groups that carried out the 1991 coup and cracked down so brutally on Aristide supporters and the populace at large, and obviously favorable to the idea of inviting foreign corporations to “help” in the wake of the earthquake.

So is the exploitation of Haiti’s new found gold by foreign corporations going to change things in Haiti for the better?  Here’s praying.

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Filed under Economics/ Economic Development, Politics/ Political Economy

Abyei, Kony 2012, & America’s Devil

I have really made an effort not to write about the Kony 2012 campaign.  Mostly this is because others have written it to death – especially the debate between the starry-eyed activists and the cynical experts.  There were those who celebrated the campaign’s tech-savvy ability to raise awareness of “the issue.”  And of course, there were those scholarly voices who coldly pointed out those pesky facts – that Joseph Kony left Northern Uganda in 2006, that the region has been in a process of reconstruction and recovery for the past six years, that the child soldiery statistics alluded to in the campaign’s film were cumulative totals of the LRA’s history, that the LRA inflicts a far smaller human toll than many other non-“brand name” militias in the region – that the campaign seemed to gloss over so blithely.  Some respectable voices, such as Chris Blattman’s, generously pointed out that, regardless of the fact-check score card, Invisible Children seems to do good work in country.  But when the advocacy group’s co-founder, Jason Russell, enrobed the whole shoot-and-match in seven layers of delicious irony even as he maniacally disrobed himself just a couple of miles from here, the debate sank to the level of tabloid fodder and I fully divested.

So why bring it up at all, now?  There have been reports today of forced (and uncoerced) recruitment of men and boys into an armed group presumed to be the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – and concomitantly displacing 100,000 more – in the contested Abyei region of the newly created national frontier between Sudan and South Sudan.  The development threatens to bring all-out war to the world’s newest nation-state – one whose people have experienced numerous complex and overlapping conflicts over the last half century.  And while this is happening literally hundreds of miles from Northern Uganda, it is an example of the same type of violence – roving bandit militias that use local populations against themselves to clear or claim territory – that has come to characterize armed conflict in the entire East-Central Africa region.

There are persistent social and economic dynamics at work in the region, including, but certainly not limited to, grinding poverty and widespread lack of employment, underdeveloped communications infrastructure, oil dependency and soaring oil prices, and a weakened social fabric.  The most insightful pundits have already made the point: the Kony 2012 campaign focuses with laser precision on the vilification of a single man, while inexplicably ignoring the structural causes of violent conflict in East-Central Africa.  The campaign places Kony’s stylized image alongside those Adolf Hitler and Osama bin-Laden, both of whom became personifications of unalloyed evil in the American popular consciousness, both of whom were brought low by American military might in the end.  But Kony, like Hitler and bin Laden, is a product of his environment, and the Kony 2012 campaign succeeds in obfuscating reality and entrenching the American myth of the Devil Without.  If you think that evoking the Devil incarnate is hyperbolic, read this.  Russell himself is a passionate Christian who has spoken about his faith at a university founded by Evangelical Jerry Fallwell – and during his meltdown rant, accused a passerby of being the Devil.  Indeed, one of the reasons that the Kony 2012 campaign resonated so deeply may have been the very lack of a national scapegoat in the wake of bin Laden’s killing, in the context of a protracted economic crisis, the US’ inextricable engagement in the broader Middle East and increasingly North and sub-Saharan Africa, the loss of Mexico as a Spring Break destination to the cartels, etc, etc.

We have the sense that the world is becoming less hospitable to us, and why shouldn’t it just be pinned on this dude we’ve heard has massed an army of 30,000 child soldiers and slouches toward Bethlehem?  Because responsible engagement in the region is harder than arresting one man.  It may even require some introspection.

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Filed under Africa, Culture/ squishy stuff, International Development Policy, Politics/ Political Economy

An Obvious Point

A bumber sticker/ facebook photo that has been making the rounds of late says, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”  Of course, it’s making reference to the January 2010 Supreme Court case that struck down the notion of corporate limits on campaign contributions to “electioneering communications” on the grounds that it would limit corporations’ right to free speech.  Many worried (including me) that the legal system was inviting interest groups to trounce the democratic process.

But that irony was apparently just a tiny foretaste of things to come.  For now, not only do corporation enjoy MORE “freedom of speech” than real flesh-and-blood people, but may also NOT be held responsible for their crimes.  Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear a couple of cases having to do with whether or not corporations could be tried as individuals for human rights abuses abroad.   The most notably egregious case involves Royal Dutch Shell’s complicity with torture and executions allegedly carried out by the Nigerian government in the 1990s in the Ogoni region.  (See The Politics of Bones, for a version of the story.)  Many observers believe that, once again by a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court will fully roll back the Alien Tort Statute of 1789, extend the 2004 Sosa decision, and grant corporations a kind of impunity, allowing them to continue to find “fall guys” in lower positions.  If that happens, our legal system will have officially sanctioned a view of corporations as coordinated, intentional bodies when it comes to granting them rights, but uncoordinated, unintentional bodies when it comes to demanding responsible behavior of them.

And when it comes to timing, hats off, Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Kennedy.  The Occupy movement thanks you for the fuel.  That should keep them warm through a cold winter.

A welcome coda:,b=facebook

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Filed under Politics/ Political Economy

Guest Charles Reilly on Israeli Settlements: Who’s Obsessing?

Banksy’s peace dove on a section of the Israel-Palestine wall.

Who’s Obsessing? Reflections on Elliott Abrams’ “The Settlement Obsession” in Foreign Affairs

By Guest Blogger Charles Reilly, Kroc School of Peace Studies, San Diego

Elliott Abrams is better known for delivering justificatory words and lethal weaponry than for treating compulsive disorders or resolving Middle Eastern disputes.   His early cold war crusade justified terrorist military regimes in Central America, less than forthright Congressional testimony on Iran – Contra funding and denied a major  Salvadoran military massacre in El Mazote, El Salvador.  He celebrated the U.S. record in El Salvador as a “fabulous achievement”, although the 1993 Secretary of State’s review panel “concluded that the Department’s massacre investigation undermined the Department’s credibility…. “a massacre had indeed occurred and U.S. statements on the case were wrong”. (Donner, 1993).  He next conflated U.S. and Israeli interests during his national security work for President Bush.  Today, like Prime Minister Netanyahu, Abrams again exercises chutzpah by lecturing  President  Obama for his  “obsession” with “Israeli settlements” (and, I suppose, the 44 year occupation as well).  Abrams finds such “facts on the ground” are hardly “obstacles to peace” and declares that in no way should they be central to US policy in the Middle East.  I disagree.  In fact, given changes in the region, I suggest that Israelis, members of the Jewish diaspora like Abrams, and all Palestinians should tone down their  temerity, dig deeper into Jewish (Muslim and Christian) traditions, and build their regional  future less on words and weaponry and more on moral principle such as tzedakah, or “justice with charity”.

Abrams’s FOREIGN AFFAIRS “review essay ” treats two books: – Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies 2000-2010, and The Settlers And the Struggle Over the Meaning of Zionism, by Gadi Taub. Occupation, written by “Breaking the Silence”, draws from IDF soldiers’ testimonies of the occupation of Palestine.  They depart from prevailing Israeli and diaspora narratives regarding the conflict and search for peace and criticize the IDF.  Abrams summarily dismisses the soldiers’ argument that this occupation produced a “deterioration of moral standards (that) finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of Israel’s security” (p.143).  He admits many of the testimonies are moving, but rapidly reminds readers of bad things done by U.S. occupiers after WWII.  Abrams finds the volume “ideological”, faulting its authors for making “political points”.  Imagine!  He particularly faults the sampling of former IDF soldiers’ as unduly weighted towards the early 2000’s, suggesting, by his own “logical inference” that “things must have gotten better since”. Like in Gaza, or Abu Graib or example?

Palestinians plant their flag on the fence of an Israeli settlement.

It occurs to me that, if updating be needed, Mr. Abrams could well have included in his essay current Israeli “breakers of silence”, whether the gathering of Israeli artists who demonstrated against the occupation in Tel Aviv in early May, 2010, the protests in July against Knesset laws further constricting free speech in not so democratic Israel, or the attached list in ads placed in Israeli newspapers and the New York Times signed by 21 former IDF officers (most of them generals), as well as dozens of Israeli Prize laureates, university presidents and security officials.  HAARETZ carried the text from the May New York Times ad which reads: “We, the citizens of Israel, call on the public to support the recognition of a democratic Palestinian state as a condition for ending the conflict, and reaching agreed borders on the basis of the 1967 borders. Recognition of such a Palestinian state is vital for Israel’s existence.  It is the only way to guarantee the resolution of the conflict….”. (Ilan Lior,, published 02:11, 20.05.1).

The Gadi Taub volume Abrams engages with insight, gusto, and copious citations despite it being a profoundly, if not exclusively “ideological” study.  Why did this merit a serious review, not like his curt dismissal with no citations like with the Israeli soldiers?  My guess – the ideology this time is Zionism, which makes all the difference – in fact, the volume is all about current and historical differences between religious, land-based versions of the 19th century ideology versus secular, “statist” versions that continue to divide Israeli Jews, and perhaps more acutely, members of the Jewish diaspora in the United States. Taub and to a degree Abrams see that resolving tensions between those two versions is the challenge before Israelis if they are to sustain their state, (and permit one to Palestine?) in the future.  Clearly, Abrams learned a lot from Taub, while he brusquely turned off the soldiers – even generals.

Abrams, President Bush’s former adviser, compulsively recycles George W. Bush’s words here with scant recognition of facts on the ground and unconvincing argument that the settlements will simply fade away.  Such recollections and speculation fit better in  memoires than in book reviews.  Like he did in El Salvador praising U.S. policy and the Salvadoran army, Abrams celebrates some dubious outputs in Israel of the Bush years and before.  My balance sheet is quite different than his.  I question nine U.S. vetoes of United Nations resolutions criticizing Israeli policies, $30 billion poorly regulated commitments of U.S. weapons to Israel, the Lebanon war debacle, Bush’s mouthing of Ariel Sharon’s “new realities on the ground” rhetoric and practice, the radical shift to the right and disproportionate influence of armed settlers in Israeli politics, intermittent fruitless negotiations and, if you please, dramatic escalation in settlements and all the soldiers and U.S. military hardware that accompany them.  Sorry, but these don’t register for me as peacebuilding achievements worthy of celebration.

Abrams tilts more towards what historian Charles Beard called “perpetual war for perpetual peace”.  The Middle East is going through rapid changes.  Israel faces new, as yet undefined neighbors as well as its own restive peaceniks and peace advocates at home and among the American and European Jewish diaspora.  It must adapt.  Friends of Israel (as real friends are wont to do) will question and criticize particular Israeli actions, often resulting in reprisals or accusations of Anti-Semitism.  Dissent seems increasingly stifled by “democratic” Israel’s Knesset that is, usually, like with Abrams, couched in anti-terrorism rhetoric.  Without spaces carved out for conversation and nonviolent peacebuilding by the many sides of this conflict, the future holds nothing but perpetual war, with or without the fig leaves of rhetorical peace processes.  In Northern Ireland, Paisley and Adams talked less, but risked a great deal for peace.  The Irish diaspora in the United States were among the last to buy into peace for Northern Ireland. The American Jewish diaspora, with Elliott Abrams among its pugnacious leaders, runs the same risk.  Why not listen to “breakers of silence”, voices for peace.

Billed by some as a Neo-con’s Neo-Con, Abrams didactic lectures to readers and to president Obama in this review essay are self-serving chutzpah, mixing gall with temerity.  These are the stuff of tragedy when driven by one-sided, dehumanizing narratives that concede nothing to the other parties.  For Abrams, it is all much too simple.  Terrorism is the only issue, occupation the only solution. Abrams even asserts that an eventual Palestinian state will continue occupied by Israeli defense forces!  Forget any vestige of Palestinian sovereignty if Israel controls land, sea, air, even water rights and aquifers, with no room for non-violent protest, not even for Israeli citizens. Why in the world should  Palestinians settle for that?  That’s why much of the world supports their turn to the same UN that endorsed the creation of both states so many years ago.  Can Abrams not recognize that Israel’s quest, if not obsession for security through military means alone is unsustainable in the region for the long run, with or without a compliant U.S. sponsor?  Why no hint of Marc Gopin’s profound cultural Jewish vision of peacebuilding, why so little interest in helping to restore a broader Abrahamic base for believers and a moral grounding for secular humanitarians on all sides of the many divides?  Sustainable peace as an end does not come by means of weaponry nor through grossly unequal power negotiations.  A nuclear arsenal, the IDF forces, $3 billion per year in American military aid, the short range missile shield that fascinates Abrams (he wants the U.S. to buy into it), the wall, the occupation, US white phosphorous shells, and least of all, phantom “negotiations”, have brought neither security nor peace to the Middle East.

And yet, there may be hope.  Abrams could change as Paisley did.  Abrams clearly learned much from reading Taub.  He could learn even more from Michael Walzer’s commentary on Maimonides in the July / August edition of Foreign Affairs. Despite Abram’s “human rights and humanitarian affairs” government trajectory, I hope that he would find Walzer’s treatment of  Jewish tzedepah  “humanitarianism” stimulating, culturally resonant, and a welcome alternative for re-imagining relationships of Jewish and Palestinian peoples. Abrams recognizes that Israel’s security policies have dramatically separated both groups on this narrow strip of land. He concedes that the “occupation has more and more become the only prism through which Palestinians see Israelis”, p.151.  How about a shared future?

That hope must work through painful histories of violence and terrorist targeting of civilians on both sides – going way back to the Nakba, the King David Hotel bombing led by Menachem Begin’s Irgun guerrillas, Hamas rocket shots and suicide bombers, U.S. made white phosphorous shells and a 100 to 1 body count killed in the Gaza attack, invasions of and by Israel of immediate neighbors to the north, east and south over many decades, etc..  What a heavy history of violence, and how little the United States has helped with all its military hardware and reluctance to be an independent third party willing to criticize when Israel or Palestine does wrong!  Like other prolonged conflicts, this one is driven by narratives, obsession with past injuries, cramped by self-fulfilling prophecies. Yet, like other conflicts, there are undercurrents of peace-builders unwilling to demonize the other. War has become more and more obsolete.  If so little progress through violence in sixty plus years, why couldn’t Abrams market something different.  Rather than donate more weapons and missile shields, why not adapt Maimonides?

Walzer draws on this medieval Talmudic scholar’s reflections on ancient Jewish humanitarianism, the imaginative exercise of moral obligation created by “stateless Jewish peoples”.  Built on the Hebrew word tzedekah, commonly translated as “charity”, it comes from the same root as the word for “justice”.  It is a two-in-one, charity and justice principle that emerged over centuries, echoing Isaiah, and codified by the great medieval philosopher. Walzer recognizes that the two-in-one principle comes in Christian and Muslim versions such as tithing or zakat, “but the centuries of Jewish statelessness give the Jewish version a special force”, ( p. 72).  Lacking state services and safety nets, charity / justice necessarily came in to play.  It required special attention to the poor and needy, as to their neighbors, considering it an obligation.  It updated Abrahamic legends of tolerance for others and adapted it to diverse settings. It recalled the way Hillel summarized the entire Torah: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man”.

Walzer suggests this tzedekah approach might today ground international humanitarianism, even be a core principle for state building.  I’d like to stretch the principle further, and suggest that Abrams should dare to imagine shifting from arms advocacy to tzedekah bridgebuilding, done by both Israelis and Palestinians, offering nonviolent alternatives to security obsessed Middle East neighbors, and capable, as in Northern Ireland, to at least partially neutralize the spoiler extremists on both sides. Walzer recognizes the difficulty of humanitarian intervention which involves “the use of force in someone else’s country”.  Yet there have been and continue to be Jews and Palestinians, Christians and Arabs, ready and willing to talk, cooperate, even if their political leadership does not.  Israel could even actually contribute to Palestinian state-building and no longer prevent it, just as Arab and Christian Israelis could help improve Israel, still very much a democratic “work in progress”.

The Walzer argument is nuanced and profound, rooted in his work on the series The Jewish Political Tradition. He explores humanitarianism’s “relief and repair” driven by justice and charity.  He asks: “What ought to be done right now?  The answer will change depending on the existing needs, the political circumstances, the resources that benevolence can provide, and the requirements of justice. As individual men and women, as members of or contributors to nongovernmental organizations, as citizens of powerful states, it invites us to choose to do what we are absolutely bound to do”. P. 80.

I ask whether such a justice / charity humanitarianism might propel us beyond narratives of past grief and present rage, to inspire hopes for a shared future, whether two state, one state, federated states, or even, as in the Jewish past, no state.  (I believe Christianity blundered badly when it identified with the Constantinian, then subsequent states). In the rapidly changing Middle Eastern context, would not tzedekah offer a broader and more effective framework for just peace than has weaponry, preventive wars and security-justifies-whatever.  Couldn’t  tzedekah offer all of us, especially Israelis and Palestinians who seek a just and lasting peace, a north star that beckons well beyond chutzpah and military aid.  Couldn’t Elliott Abrams help Israelis and the Jewish diaspora in the United States not only “break the silence” when needed, but even help “to choose to do what we are absolutely bound to do”?  That would mean different priorities than we once chose in Central America or now in the Middle East.  Walzer insists: “The governing principle of humanitarian intervention is “Whoever can, should”. p.79.

Any takers?


Breaking the Silence”, Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies 2000-2010.  2010, 431 pp. Free Online.

Bonner, Ray, “Massacre of Hundreds Reported in Salvador Village..  New York Times, (Photos by Susan Meiselas).  January 27, 1982.

Donner, Mark. “The Truth of El Mozote”. New Yorker, December 6, 1993.

Commission for the Truth in El Salvador. Final report, March 15, 1993.  “From Madness to Hope: The 12 year War in El Salvador.”.  “more than 500 identified victims perished at El Mozote and other villages”, see Donner, New Yorker, final page.

Gopin, Marc,2002. Holy War, Holy Peace . Oxford University Press.

Gafni, Isaiah M. 2003. Great World Religions: Judaism.

Guillermoprieto, Alma.  Washington Post, “El Mozote”, Jan. 27, 1982

“Shedding Light on Humanity’s Dark Side”, Washington Post, March 14, 2007.

Kurtzer, Daniel and Scott Lasensky. 2008. Negotiating Arab-Israel Peace. Washington


Mearsheimer, John J. and Stephen M. Walt. 2007. The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Peri, Yoram. 2006. Generals in the Cabinet Room. Washington D.C.: USIP.

Rohter, Larry. New York Times, February 2, 1996,  pp. A1 and A4.

Secretary of State’s Panel on El Salvador, July, 1993. “…. The Department’s massacre investigation undermined the Department’s credibility….. The panel concluded that “a massacre had indeed occurred and the U.S. statements on the case were wrong.  On December 11, 2002, two embassy officers went to a memorial ceremony in El Mozote”. (cited in Donner’s New Yorker article).

Taub, Gadi. 2010. The Settlers: And the Struggle Over the Meaning of Zionism.  Yale University Press, 2010, 240 pp.

Tutela Legal, San Salvador Catholic Church Human Rights Office.  Its first investigation published in November 1991, listed 794 victims in Mozote and nearby villages.

Walzer, Michael. “On Humanitarianism” in FOREIGN AFFAIRS, July/August, 2011, pp. 69-80.

Whitfield, Teresa. 1994. p. 390, fn. 28. Paying the Price. Temple University Press.  Cites Abrams  re “fabulous achievement” of the administration in El Salvador.

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Riots, righteousness and the Right

Academics almost always come late to whatever game is being played, and I certainly won’t disappoint on that count.  It’s been over a week since the UK riots petered out (beginning in Tottenham outside London, and spreading to a number of predominantly northern cities), along with a string of apparent “contagion riots” in Philly, Milwaukee and Cleveland.  And in this perverse political climate, in which it has somehow become acceptable for the increasingly disproportionately wealthy to blame the poor for the threat posed by debt crises to the world’s leading economies (notwithstanding a few good men), I suppose it should also come as no surprise that a chorus of ostensibly educated voices has managed to pin the blame for the riots right where it belongs: on the lazy, violent, welfare-grubbing underclass.

Such sage pundits can’t stop at saying that unemployed youth can’t get good jobs because they are uneducated because that would somehow place the responsibility back on the welfare state.   Instead, they must make the case that everything is already provided for these wrecks, but that they’re just too incorrigibly and thoroughly venal to be made into decent, hardworking members of society.  Theodore Dalrymple recently excoriated the “Barbarians Inside Britain’s Gates” in such terms, noting that they “have nothing”…

nothing, that is, except an education that has cost $80,000, a roof over their head, clothes on their back and shoes on their feet, food in their stomachs, a cellphone, a flat-screen TV, a refrigerator, an electric stove, heating and lighting, hot and cold running water, a guaranteed income, free medical care, and all of the same for any of the children that they might care to propagate.

(And yes, he really did just choose to use the word “propagate,” recalling the great eugenicists of old.)

The sentiment is strikingly similar to a recent interview with the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector (replayed on the Daily Show), citing a string of ridiculous statistics (99.6% of “poor” households have a refrigerator, 25% have a dishwasher, etc.) that seem to suggest that the poor just should shut up and be grateful for what they – undeservingly – have already.  We hear the word “moral” bandied about a lot: “moral decay,” “(no) moral compass,” “moral decadence,” and even on occasion “moral hazard.”

What these pundits usually (willfully, it seems) ignore is a little thing I like to call… (wait for it)… “Economics.”  The latter is an often-wrong-headed social science that nevertheless sometimes produces good ideas and which stumbled on a truly revolutionary one in Marginalism.  For the present purposes, let’s just say that possessing a refrigerator or a dishwasher is not really what matters when it comes to individual decisions to participate or not in riots; a much more salient factor is the declining economic mobility for the poor across the “developed world.”  It doesn’t take Grossman’s formal model to make an intuitive guess that the relatively poor will have greater incentive to erode property rights when inequality – and especially inequality between social groups – is high.

Nor am I being hyperbolic or oxymoronic when I pit cultural bigots  and plutocrats against economists – though popular culture tends to conflate “economics” with “finance” and, by extension, “Wall Street.”  It was the Scot Thomas Carlyle who coined the phrase “the Dismal Science” to describe Economics – not in order to deride Malthus’ gloomy predictions of population collapse (as is often thought), but rather to deplore the new utilitarianism that was increasingly tied (notably by J.S. Mill) to the notion of universal human equality.  Levy and Peart, in an excellent essay on this subject, discuss the Carlyle’s disdain for what he believed was the inveterate laziness of the Irish.  It was this same idea – that some “types” of people are too primitive or depraved to respond rationally to economic incentives – that birthed the idea of the backwards-bending labor supply curve and essentially justified such brutal imperial economic policies as forced labor and the rural taxes that drove African peasants off their lands and into mines.  Levy and Peart also note that 19th century cultural critic John Ruskin published a little volume ridiculing the evils of capitalism with the following cover depicting Ruskin himself jousting (?) with an “uppity” man of non-European genetic makeup who happens to be carrying a bag of money and a book entitled “The Dismal Science.”

Unfortunately, even economists sometimes forget their origins and lapse into the same morally charged language.  Paul Collier, for instance, who has done more to bring the plight of “The Bottom Billion” to the attention of policymakers than anyone, argues that rebels in African civil wars are motivated by “greed” and not “grievances.”  These moralistic terms are bizarre coming from a dyed-in-the-wool economist: shouldn’t he assume that rational people everywhere act based on their calculations of payoff and risk, and not on sunk costs (since “sunk costs” are what most grievances boil down to for an economist)?  Why accentuate rebel “greed” rather than the economic systems that implicitly reward  violence by not providing any meaningful or productive alternatives?

Ed Glaeser, an urban economist, co-wrote an article back in the day (1998) on urban riots, and determined they were poorly predicted by poverty, but were well-predicted by the opportunity costs of time (i.e., whether or not people have jobs) and the potential costs of punishment (i.e., the likelihood of getting caught by the police).  This would imply that if Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor, is right and riots are more likely to occur when government cutbacks are taking effect, it is either because (a) the government is no longer helping people get jobs that exist, (b) the government is no longer helping the economy create jobs that don’t, or (c) the government is not whacking delinquents with big enough sticks.  The moralistas would love us to focus on possibility (c) exclusively, and in fact often invoke Hayek’s name in denying the feasibility of (b) at all.  The overall effect is a bit like saying that the punishments will continue until morale improves.

A final note on strange interconnections: Ed Glaeser sits, for some reason that I cannot comprehend unless he is unaware of it himself, on the Editorial Board of the City Journal… along with the aforementioned Theodore Dalrymple, of Wall Street Journal Op-Ed fame.  The City Journal is a strident and sanctimoniously right-leaning political rag which recently specializes in publishing articles on the riots like “Lock People Up? Not in Britain!”  and “Government-Sponsored Looting.”  The journal also happened to run an article called “The Peace Racket” back in 2007 which rather inanely accused Peace Studies adherents of being anti-American, freedom-hating communists (which is particularly ironic in light of the above history of “social conservatism” (i.e., racism) waging a rhetorical war on capitalism).  And I sit on the faculty of a School of Peace Studies, so I guess that’s full circle.

Pinko out.

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Filed under Economics/ Economic Development, Politics/ Political Economy, Urban Studies