Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Pressing Concern


The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been giving some thought to the disturbing fact that Donald Tr*mp has the power to order a nuclear first strike against North Korea — or, perhaps, Venezuela or Iran or Nigeria (having confused it with Niger.)  Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts has proposed legislation that would limit that power to attacks on countries upon which Congress had declared war.

Don't hold your breath awaiting passage.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) protects the United States against nuclear attack just as well today as it did when the Soviets first acquired the bomb — better, since now we can respond with submarine-based missiles even if our ground-based capacity is destroyed in a first strike.  That also means no other country would risk involvement should Our President get it into his head to lob one at Pyongyang.  Kim Jong-un really does need his own bombs and delivery system.

The utility and safety of our submarine-based capacity also makes our ground-based missiles unnecessary and obsolete.  It certainly is not worth replacing them, as proposed, at a cost of $100 billion.  The submarines also make it possible to delay a response to an attack — long enough so that the decision does not have to be made by one person.  The choice to engage in nuclear war, at the very least, should be a decision by a nonpartisan group of trusted individuals.

Yesterday, Gen. John Hyten, head of US Strategic Command, said he would disobey an "illegal order" from the President to launch a first strike.  It's a nice sentiment, but the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs produces plenty of graduates who are both military leaders and Christians eagerly awaiting the Apocalypse.  No matter what Hyten would do, somebody would obey joyfully if an apocalyptic command came from Tr*mp.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Can the Middle East get even worse?


Sure it can — and the cheerful young man you see here is just the one to bring that about.  Now apparently in complete control of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman already has exacerbated regional turmoil, and promises to do more.

For the past four decades, Saudi Arabia was stabilized by oil revenues, religious authority, and gerontocracy.  MbS, as he's known, aims for continued stability, with special emphasis on the stability of monarchical rule.  He very much enjoys being the man in charge — of everything.

Admittedly, keeping Saudi Arabia stable will not be simple for anybody, direct descendant of Ibn Saud or not.  MbS needs to diversify the national economy away from oil and gas while engaged in a complex contest for power with Islamic authorities.  Ultraconservative Islam has been the foundation of his family's rule, but also its most significant rival for power.  Attempts to relax the Kingdom's medieval interpretation of Sharia Law are met with powerful opposition.

The greatest potential for making things "even worse," though, arises from MbS's efforts against regional rival Iran.  After over two years of war crimes in Yemen (with US collusion) and spending many times what Iranians give Houthi rebels, he has produced what the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth, and no sign of resolution of the conflict.

Nobody doubts considerable Saudi pressure on Saad Hariri when he announced his resignation as Prime Minister of Lebanon from Riyadh, nor that the move was intended to delegitimize Iranian ally Hezbollah's role in Lebanese government.  Apparently, MbS thought the pleasure of sticking a finger in Iran's eye was worth the risk of the Syrian Civil War spilling over the border into Lebanon.

The boycott and blockade of Qatar continues, punishing the Qataris for the sin of conducting diplomacy with Iran, with which they share vast natural gas reserves under the Persian Gulf.  The pure, spiteful pique involved is positively Tr*mpian.

Actually, it was just after a sleepover party with First Boy Jared Kushner that MbS seized all police power for himself and had about two hundred potential rivals arrested, including the oft-mentioned eleven princes.  The White House is quite fond of MbS, who exercises the kind of arbitrary authority Our President wishes he could have for himself.  In return for American support, we can expect MbS to weigh in on upcoming Israeli-Palestinian "negotiations," pressuring the Palestinians to accept whatever Bibi deigns to offer them.  (The Tr*mp "negotiating team" consists of three Orthodox Jews and a Coptic Christian.)

Saudi Arabia has potential as a manufacturing center because of its energy resources — including a huge and uninterrupted supply of solar when the oil runs out.  All MbS will need is a reliable pool of cheap labor.  Saudi men are unlikely to take those jobs, so "progress" in allowing women to work outside the home is a strong possibility, provided religious authorities can be brought along.  Failing that, there are bound to be plenty of impoverished Palestinians in the neighborhood.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Tax Plan

It was never a convincing argument, but now we're hearing it again: reduce their tax load, and businesses will create more jobs and pay more in salaries.  It's never happened, and it never will.

Businesses expand based on increased demand for their products; demand increases when consumers (read workers) have more money to spend.  In the absence of increased demand, businesses sink extra cash into stock buybacks, shareholder dividends, and executive bonuses.

Right now, American corporations have a lot of extra cash just sloshing around, providing no economic stimulus at all.  They don't need more cash; they need more affluent customers.  The Republican tax plan may provide a fleeting infusion of cash into some middle-class wallets, but most of the $1.5 trillion addition to the national debt will wind up in the pockets of the very rich — as usual.

Still, there are some features of the plan that make good economic sense: most notably, the cap on mortgage interest deductions.  It is hard to justify subsidizing the McMansions of the "comfortably well-off," their claims to middle-class status notwithstanding.  Builders will complain – McMansions are much more profitable than the kinds of homes families earning less than six figures might afford – but an impetus for builders to provide more affordable starter homes and fewer rococo monstrosities is long overdue.