Friday, November 27, 2015

ISIS? Isis who?

(Sorry, it's another long one — but it had to be.)

The Russians and the Turks are rather upset with each other at the moment, Turkey having shot down a Russian aircraft that was bombing northern Syria.  The Islamist State (as I prefer to call it,) most Americans might be surprised to learn, was not at all involved.

Putin and the Russians support Bashar al-Assad, the Allawite leader of Syria.  Russia has an ongoing deal with Assad which permits Russia to maintain its only military/naval presence in the Middle East.  Turkey under Erdogan is dominated by an authoritarian Sunni Islamist party hostile to Assad and his Allawists, although Erdogan's primary goal in the region is to suppress the Kurds, who have been getting closer to having their own, autonomous state.  To defeat the Kurds, Erdogan has made use of Turkmen rebels, who happened to be be concentrating their own efforts on both Assad and the Kurds, and whom the Russians bombed for being anti-Assad.  The Kurds, of course, have been the only effective US ally in the region.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have been restricting most of their bellicosity to Yemen, where they are trying to destroy the Houthi.  The Houthi have some degree of support from Iran, Saudi Arabia's chief rival in the region.  Iran, its Shi'ite proxy Hezbollah, and Russia are cooperating in support of Assad.

So where does IS come in?  Good question.  And where does the USofA come in?  Better question.

IS offends Western sensibilities in a variety of bloodthirsty ways, so the US is necessarily against it.  Inspired by Salafi Islamists from Saudi Arabia, and probably making use of private Saudi seed money, IS has been endeavoring to create and maintain a Sunni extremist caliphate in Iraq and Syria.  Some of our "allies," though, are far more concerned with Assad and Iran than with IS atrocities.  The USofA is providing Saudi Arabia "logistic support" (telling them where to bomb the most civilians?) in Yemen, thereby helping their proxy war against Iran.  In Iraq, however, the Iranians are our chief allies in protecting what was supposed to be our puppet regime.  In reality, though, it's their puppet regime because we let it be dominated by Shi'ites.,

Turkey, a NATO ally, really has nothing in particular against IS, considering how it is keeping the Kurds from establishing an independent state on Turkey's border.  The Turkish border with Syria restricts the IS supply of weapons, war materiel and foreign fighters about as well as a chain link fence obstructs the flow of water.  Bear in mind that Turkey is part of NATO, and supposedly opposed to IS, but since it started bombing in northern Syria, its primary targets have been the US allied Kurds.

In brief, since the USofA opposes both Assad and IS, and since others in the region have mixed feelings about which other groups present the greatest threat to their own self-interests and different historically and geopolitically based affinities and animosities, there are too damned many sides, and every new development creates more ambiguity.

It's a ridiculous time for anybody to want to be president, which sheds a little light on the general ridiculousness of foreign policy discussions in the current campaign.  If we adopt Hillary's "no-fly zone" idea, who do we enlist to help us and who do we keep out?  If we follow Lindsey Graham's prescription and send in ground forces to eradicate the "State" part of IS, it might turn out much more difficult to contend with a stateless enemy.

We're probably leaning on the Turks and the Saudis and the Iranians and the Russians and anybody else who has a real state as hard as we can, but our diplomatic pressure is spread too thin.  Don't blame Obama (this time) — at least he's not actively making it worse.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Clinton Conundrum

Hillary or Billary?

Hillary and Bill have been a political team from the start.  Remember Bill's "two for the price of one" comment?  We can't be sure how much impact Hillary had on Bill's presidency (except for the health insurance screw-up); similarly, we can't be sure how much influence Bill will have should Hillary become president.  Are they ideologically similar — even interchangeable?  Are they ideological at all, or just political?  Will another Clinton administration be, well, another Clinton administration?  Is there any way to know?

At the most recent Democratic debate, when Bernie questioned Hillary about her financial backing from Wall Street, her "9/11" response was laughable at best — but what would be her relationship to the financial industry?  Would it be Robert Rubin redux, or are her recent leftish gestures for real?

When Bill Clinton climbed into bed with Phil Gramm to create the deregulation that brought us the financial crisis of 2008, was Hillary keeping his feet warm?*  Can "today's" Hillary be trusted to represent the interests of the non-billionaire classes?

I think the best we can hope for is that she will opportunistically take some actions to mollify the liberal Democratic base while never going quite far enough to alienate her plutocratic backers.  While I'm doing my best to stay sworn off predictions, and also doing my best to believe in Bernie as hard as children are asked to believe in Tinkerbell, I'm not especially optimistic about post-Obama America.

*  (Phil's wife Wendy certainly was keeping his feet warm.  She is best remembered for deregulatory agitation from the Mercatus Institute at George Mason University, and as an Enron board member.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Here we go again...

One out of over one million emigrants who arrived in Europe recently may have been involved in the IS attack on Paris.  To right-wing European governments like those in Poland and Hungary, that is ample reason to continue denying entrance to refugees.  To right-wing politicians like Marine LePen of France, it is an opportunity to expand their bases of paranoid xenophobes.

Needless to say, the opportunity has not been overlooked by American politicians who pander to our homegrown paranoid xenophobes.  Our current immigration policy is so rigid that only 1800 Syrians have gained asylum in the USofA over the past two years — half of them children, and only three per cent men of "fighting age" — but that's not good enough for most Republicans.  Fifteen Republican governors and all Republican presidential hopefuls are on the anti-refugee bandwagon (Christie: Not even three-year-old orphans!), and nobody should be surprised if some purple-state Democrats join them.

I can't imagine how it feels to be one of the Americans who inspire such panders; one of the rigid right-wingers who feel so afraid all the time, despite the assault rifles in their bedroom closets; who see every "outsider" (including our "African" President) as an existential threat; whose dark fantasies haunt our politics as much as they haunt their own twisted little psyches.

I'm glad I can't imagine it.  I'm sufficiently upset by what's real.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

An Immodest Proposal

Like just about everybody else who isn't an Islamic extremist, I'm upset and angered by yesterday's attacks in Paris.  At times like these, one's thoughts are inclined to turn towards revenge.

Needless to say, it is very difficult, to say the least, to take revenge on a suicide bomber.  Nevertheless, I've had some thoughts on the matter.  Given that the perpetrators of such attacks are motivated by religion, and assuming that such religionists are generally irrational (not to mention dead), and given that they expect rewards in an "afterlife," I've come up with a means to screw with their religiously inspired brains that might have some sort of impact: ritual pollution.

Gather up the remains of the attackers.  Pack them in lard before dumping them into the ocean, where their bodies cannot be recovered and "purefied."  Surely, the stench of pork grease would be so offensive to their medieval concept of Allah that entry into Paradise would be out of the question.  I have other ideas for any captured alive, involving lard as a lubricant and homosexual rapists, but I suspect the "enlightened" Western world would disapprove; on the other hand, given that the CIA has shown itself to be impervious to Western Enlightenment, I suppose we could get around such disapproval if amply motivated.

Outrageous?  You betcha!  More outrageous than murdering random innocents?  I don't think so.  If such a policy dissuades a few angry, misguided young people from strapping on suicide bombs, I think a dose of political incorrectness would be perfectly okay.  Hell, even if it didn't slow the rate of extremist atrocities one bit, it still would make me feel better.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tax policy

This is a long one.  Read it anyway!

Now that we have a decent idea of where all the presidential candidates stand on federal tax policy, it might be a good time to start thinking about whose plan is best for our future.  I've started, albeit I'm not getting too far, because none of the plans makes any sense.

The Republicans all agree that the rich should be paying less, showing that even a dead horse will attract plenty of riders provided those riders are willing to deny that the horse is dead.  The dead horse, in this instance, is supply-side economics, aka "trickle-down."  Over the past thirty or forty years, it's become abundantly clear that cutting top tax rates does absolutely nothing to stimulate economic growth, so the vast increases in government income predicted by Arthur Laffer and his ideological kindred never have, and never shall, manifest themselves.

Economists who base their analysis on data rather than political cupidity agree that all the Republican plans would lead to sharp increases in the federal deficit and debt, something all Republicans claim to oppose.  Oddly enough, the Republican plan that would increase the deficit least is the one from Rand Paul, but only because he wants to create a value added tax (VAT), which is essentially a sales tax broken up over the various stages of production.  The costs, eventually, are paid by the people who purchase the products, so  like the sales taxes we have now, a VAT would be regressive.  Rich people invest large portions of their income, whereas lower income people spend almost every cent they earn.

Excluding VAT, the main difference among Republican candidates is whether they favor continuing progressive taxation or switching to a flat tax.  Carson, Paul, Cruz, and Fiorina all favor the flat tax, whereas Bush, Trump, Kasich, and Rubio would continue to apply different tax rates to different income levels.  (Rubio calls for greater cuts for families with children, along with total elimination of capital gains taxes — yet another giveaway to the very rich — while both he and Cruz would totally eliminate the payroll tax, which funds Social Security and a few other programs the rich can live without.)

Assuming that all the Republicans (with the possible exception of Carson, who appears more and more to be a genuine ignoramus) recognize that supply-side economics is invalid, we can also assume they all subscribe to Grover Norquist's "starve the beast" plan to shrink government until it is "small enough to drown in the bathtub."  That amounts to a sort of anarchist extremism best described as evil.

As for the Democrats, nothing they say much matters because Republicans will control the well-gerrymandered House at least until the 2020 census, and probably well beyond that unless Democrats figure out how to win state elections in the interim.  Hillary probably would be content to let the tax code remain as it is, while Bernie probably would beat his head against a wall trying to build up public support for genuine income redistribution.

Sadly, the public is unlikely ever to support tax increases for the middle class, which is the only way to genuinely straighten out the budget of the USofA.  Americans might be comfortable with higher taxation if what they get in return seems worth it but, frankly, I don't see how you get there from here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Sports Page

Big sporting news this week!

Well, hearing that the Russians have turned sports cheating into their national passtime is not exactly surprising — and anyway, what's a little doping in sporting circles?  Putin, of course, says the report from the World Anti-Doping Agency (motto: play true, not capitalized) is just another US sponsored cabal designed to demean and belittle Mother Russia (capitalized), and that innately superior Russian athletes don't need performance enhancing drugs.  After all, Putin himself managed to score all those goals in that hockey game without doping!  Okay, there was no goalie, and his opponents were, shall we say, motivated to see him succeed, but what the hell?  Nobody can deny (for many good reasons) he's a real man, and the embodiment of everything wonderful about Russia.

The other sporting news came from the University of Missouri*, where demonstrations by black students and a hunger striker may have, sort of, led to the resignation of the school's president.  Okay, okay, the threatened strike by UM's football team was the clincher.  No, it wasn't just the million dollar cancellation fee UM would have had to pay if it missed its game with Brigham Young, it was something even more important — it was football!  Now if somebody just could sign up the NFL for Black Lives Matter...

*Don't let anybody tell you Missouri is the Midwest.  It's the South.  It's the good ol' barbecue eating down-home racist South.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Ferguson Effect

Due to the proliferation of red light cameras, innocent motorists are slowing down precipitously at intersections, leading to greatly increased instances of rear end collisions.  There is absolutely no evidence to support this conjecture, but it sounds right, so it must be true.

According to FBI Director James Comey and acting DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg, crime is on the increase because police, unhappily confronted with citizen cell phone cameras, are hesitant to get out of their cars for fear of being recorded in the performance of their duties.  Although there is absolutely no evidence to support this idea, it sounds right, so it must be true.

"Well, you know," one hypothetical police officer possibly might say, "it could look bad if a film of me pushing some old black woman's face down on the sidewalk gets on the internet — but if she stops her walker in a no stopping zone, what am I supposed to do?"

Indeed, what is he supposed to do?  Better to stay in his car and lay low, rather than risk embarrassment.  Better yet, he should resign from the police force and stop collecting a salary for not doing his job.

Crime rates, just like death rates for middle aged white Americans, are up — and both probably are up for the same reason: more and more people are leading lives of desperation.  Crime is up, along with suicide, drug abuse, family violence, and a general loss of hope.

Cameras help to slow the rate at which drivers run red lights, and the rate of deaths arising from such behavior.  Cameras help to reduce the rate of police abuse of ordinary people, and the erosion of all our civil liberties.  Let's keep the cameras rolling.

Monday, November 2, 2015


According to today's Times, Ted Cruz believes the Republican nomination will come down to a showdown between himself and Marco Rubio. He may be right, although I suspect John Kasich also might be in the mix. It's becoming increasingly obvious, even to the Republican base, that Ben Carson is a lovely gentleman, a talented neurosurgeon, and a complete idiot; and that Trump is, well, Trump.

There also is talk about Rubio or Cruz attracting some of the "Hispanic" vote. That won't happen. Back in 1969, Alan Arkin starred in "Popi," a charming film about a Puerto Rican single father who tries to pass off his young sons as Cuban refugees to get them access to the special advantages Cubans received from the US government. Well, screenwriters Tina and Lester Pine certainly got that one right, as non-Cuban Latinos are well aware.  There is not a hell of a lot of sympathy for Uncle Sam's favorites out there in Latino America.

If it really does come down to Cruz vs. Rubio, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.  Right now, Cruz has a lot more money, especially from superPACs; but if Jeb! continues to stumble, a lot of his support may go to Rubio.  I also continue to believe that the "guapo factor" (keeping it Latino) could make all the difference.  Rubio is so cute you want to pinch his cheeks; Cruz looks like he'd like to bite off your nose.  Also, as a commentator whose name I can't remember said with regard to Cruz last week, "Everybody hates him."