Sunday, March 11, 2018

Upside Down Italian Politics


To most outside observers and many inside the country, Italian politics have always seemed anarchic. I've often lamented the use of the terms “conservative” and “liberal” because there's little conservative about about present day conservatives, while “liberal” has economic connotations usually at odds with social issue applications of the term. “Progressive” is even more problematic in that one woman's progress may be seen as regression by another. I've tended to favor the old French idea of the left and the right, with the right looking after the interests of the rich and powerful while the left tends to the needs of the poor, the workers and the powerless.

Alas, current Italian politics has thrown all the categories into a hat, shaken them and dumped out the random bits into scarcely recognizable units. We've just had parliamentary elections and journalists continue to write in abeyance to their historic allegiances. A recent electoral law, crafted by the Partito Democratico, assigns extra seats in Parliament to the coalition of parties garnering the most votes so that the possibility that a ruling coalition can be formed is enhanced. It also enhances the possibility that the powers-that-be hold on to their power. In the recent election there were three main groups in contention.

Silvio Berlusconi
The Center-Right was formed by Forza Italia, the party created by Silvio Berlusconi prior to his first term as premier, and with which he was attempting a political comeback, and by La Lega (the League) which was formerly La Lega Nord, when its objective was secession from the decadent, parasitic south. Berlusconi is the prototype for Donald Trump, a vulgar, corrupt, misogynist, hard-driving business man, who by hook or crook, became Italy's richest man, and has parlayed his economic success and domination of the media into political power. His success in ignoring the concept of conflict of interest changed those standards throughout the western world enough to allow Trump's conduct, previously unimaginable in the United States, to go unhindered. Ineligible to run as a candidate himself due to a conviction for tax fraud, Berlusconi hoped to be the de facto head of a new government. In the recent political campaign he seemed to take scripts verbatim from Ronald Reagan's 1980 speeches promoting tax cuts to raise tax revenues, described at the time by Big George Bush as voodoo economics. In this case, Berlusconi was pushing his own proposal for a flat tax, which would net him a personal gain not unlike the gift Trump has given himself with his huge tax cuts for the very rich. Despite being as fast and loose with the truth as some of his US counterparts, Berlusconi has had some good ideas. As premier, he made an agreement with Col. Gaddafi to halt the departure of illegal migrants from Libyan shores. Now, with Gaddafi murdered and the flow of migrants swamping Italy, he proposes to repatriate the majority of them and to start what he refers to as a “Marshall Plan” for Africa to improve conditions there. It's probably the most reasonable proposal on the issue heard during the campaign but Italians have probably seen enough of Berlusconi. His party came in behind that of Salvini, a humiliation he did not really expect. La Lega will have about 3% more seats in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies than Forza Italia but the coalition will have about 31-32% of the total seats in the two houses of Parliament.

Matteo Salvini
His main partner in the center-right coalition is Matteo Salvini, the brusque forty-four-year-old leader of the Lega, whose truculent manner and anti-EU stance, along with his fierce objection to uncontrolled immigration, has convinced the foreign press to label him a neo-fascist threat. His early political career in 1998 was as a leader of the “comunisti padani” and member of the governing town council of Milan, most notably promoting the legalization of marijuana. Salvini has reversed his stance on that while moving from one end of the political spectrum to the other. The Northern League's policy of advocating secession of the north switched to advocacy of secession from the EU, necessitating a change of name, as the League moved to garner support from all parts of the country, especially the disaffected south. In light of such changes of course, his reputation for intransigence may be overstated. He has little depth but his plain-spoken advocacy seems to be in the service of the people of his region, rather than at the bidding of the international oligarchs who employ his American GOP counterparts. While Salvini and Berlusconi have pledged to get along, Berlusconi is strongly pro-Europe while Salvini has advocated leaving both the Euro and the EU. Called neo-fascist by the nervous foreign press, and by much of the Italian press, Salvini has proposed returning the illegal (i.e. undocumented in today's terminology) immigrants to where they came from, much like virtually the entire US Republican congressional contingent, but unlike Senator Marco Rubio, who very recently advocated publicly the military overthrow of the elected Venezuelan Government, he has advocated no invasions of other countries. If the NYT has labeled Senator Rubio a dangerous neo-fascist, I missed it. The actual neo-fascists available to Italian voters were in two other parties, Fratelli d'Italia, which is the latest name for the group of far right people whose grandfathers were supporters of Mussolini but who have evolved into something considerably less right-wing than any Republican in public office in Ohio or Kansas. They ran within the center-right coalition and took just over 4% of the vote. The unapologetic fascists, running independently as Casapound Italia, took a small percentage of the vote, not even close to the 4% threshold required to be assigned any seats in Parliament.

Matteo Renzi
The center-left coalition was headed up by Matteo Renzi, who served as Prime Minister until he called for a referendum to alter the Italian Constitution, replacing it with a new one drawn up by JP Morgan with the help of Tony Blair. Ostensibly, the new Constitution would have made governing easier by placing control of the country in the hands of fewer people. The Senate would be eliminated as an elective body and as a voting entity. It would live on as a figurehead institution housing elder statesmen with a nice salary and benefits. Former heads of the Partito Democratico such as Massimo D'Alema and Pier Luigi Bersani openly opposed this referendum, even publicly warning that the proposed constitution was dangerous, yet Renzi prevailed in the party, echoing the success of the right wing of the Democratic Party in the US, on which he has modeled his career. The referendum failed badly and while Renzi resigned as Prime Minister in favor of his colleague Paolo Gentiloni, he retained control of the PD. While Matteo Salvini could be faulted for his many radical shifts of program, the same could not be said about Matteo Renzi. He has been steadfast in advocating measures, including all manner of privatization, that would take political decisions out of the hands of the voting public, assigning ever greater power to bankers and corporations. Prior to his attempt to replace the constitution, he unapologetically supported the TTIP, a trade agreement designed to end the legislative sovereignty of both the EU and its member nations.

A good deal of false information comes out during political campaigns. When it is not challenged, the silence tends to serve as confirmation, but certainly not a reliable one. Throughout the campaign, it was routinely stated that 15 million Italians live in poverty. I never heard that denied or refuted. This is a country of about sixty million people! Has any other country in the world been damaged as much or more by globalization? I don't know but in 1982, Italy's GNP surpassed that of the UK and Italy became the second largest economy in Europe and the fifth, or even fourth, largest in the world. It didn't last long. Corruption, which exploded in the Mani Pulite scandals of1992, devastated the country, but globalization possibly did as much. Italians had made just about everything, often the very best goods in any number of sectors, from food to textiles, fashion, leather goods, steel, glass, ceramics, optics, high performance automobiles. Food remains an important part of the economy but much of the rest is gone. Some Italian companies have survived by moving their production to low wage countries. Italian workers have simply been dumped. Italy is widely perceived as an idyllic countryside with great food, splendid monuments and art. That's all true but many cities off the tourist path have been reduced to a rather grim state with high unemployment, especially among the young. University enrollments expanded throughout the post-WWII era but in the past few years university enrollments have declined dramatically and large numbers of recent graduates have been leaving to find more opportunities in other countries. None of this augurs well for the future of the country.

Another unchallenged statement, emanating from Silvio Berlusconi, during the campaign was that the government had acquiesced to EU pressure to take in all the refugees that washed up on the shores of Sicily. While Berlusconi may be almost as fast and loose with the truth as Donald Trump, how else does one explain the supernatural passivity of the Italian Government in maintaining its borders? In the last few months before the election, the minister of the Interior did take effective action, but it was too little, too late. I often suggest that the bombing of Libya by France, the UK and the US would be comparable to the bombing of all US border crossing points by a foreign power. Many of us in Italy wondered what was wrong with the Italian police and military? They're not stopping this invasion. I stand by my comparison. However, if this accord was reached by the Italian Government, a more accurate paragon would be the US, under pressure from a foreign power, let's say Canada, simply closing all crossing stations along its southern borders and allowing traffic to flow unhindered and uncontrolled. I realize that there are many people who would consider that a noble goal. After all, look at the borders of Holland and Belgium for example. I would urge such people to go into an induced deep sleep and wake up in a new and better era.

Yet another bit of information, this time from Bloomberg News, slipped in under the radar. The announcement that the PD government had introduced a policy allowing wealthy individuals willing to establish residency in Italy to receive a flat income tax bill of €100,000 per year. This is not without precedent. Small countries around the world give outrageous tax breaks to lure rich residents. US states bankrupt themselves through tax giveaways to big corporations in exchange for their moving factories there. Still, while Berlusconi's self-enriching flat tax is consistent with the traditional values of the right, this proposal is not a flat tax rate but a flat tax amount, i.e. a regressive variable tax rate, with the rate growing ever lower as the wealth of the newly recruited immigrant grows higher. Yes, an annual tax bill of €100,000 seems almost like science fiction to most of us but for someone with a million Euro income, that's only 10%. Even some NFL back-up quarterbacks are making $5 M per year. Policies sometimes have unintended consequences. If Donald Trump hears about this, he might resign his office and move to Florence. Even the tax policies he's enacted himself couldn't help him that much. This policy comes from the Democratic Party (PD), not the one of Andrew Jackson, but the one derived from the Partito Democratico dell Sinistra, the workers' party, which in turn was the new name taken by the old Partito Comunista Italiano after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of most of the major parties in the fallout from Mani Pulite.

Following his role models, Tony Blair and Obama/Clinton, in taking the major party of the left to the hyper-capitalist right, Matteo Renzi led the Partito Democratico to a catastrophic loss in the recent elections. From number one, the party has slipped to number two, with about 19% of the seats in Parliament, a percentage dwarfed by the combined totals of the two principal parties of the center-right coalition. That brings us to the third ingredient in the electoral pot.

Beppe Grillo
Beppe Grillo was a very successful Italian comedian who developed a large popular following but whose irreverence for the ruling class came to get him banished from Italian TV. He continued to perform for large live audiences. His comedy, sharp and bitter but engaged, was reminiscent of that of Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory.. I tend to think of him as the Italian George Carlin, but he's more than that. He apparently tired of simply railing at the political establishment and decided to do something, and like Berlusconi, he founded his own party, the Five Star Movement, in 2009 He considered it a movement, not a party. Also like Berlusconi, he was ineligible to run for public office himself, having been convicted for his responsibility in a traffic accident which resulted in the death of a person. Berlusconi's crime was tax fraud, which happened after his entry into politics, although he has been indicted on a number of other charges. Grillo based his movement, and its name, on five principal themes: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable politics, the right to internet access, and environmentalism. He also insisted that anyone running under the M5S banner pledge to give back half of his or her salary to the government, based on his widely shared belief that Italian parliamentarians are over paid and too many in number (e.g. 968 vs 535 in the US Congress). Much like Bernie Sanders in the US, his campaign has attracted many young and enthusiastic people, fed up with the corrupt and inept political establishment. The M5S got the most votes in the 2013 election for the Chamber of Deputies, but not being in a coalition meant they were assigned only 109 of the 630 seats. This year they swept Italy south of Rome, where the problems of poverty and the wave of migrants have hit the hardest. The M5S is now the largest party in Italy with over 32% of the seats in Parliament but still outnumbered by the center-right coalition with 36% of the seats.
Luigi Di Maio

The Grillini, as they're often called, have been much criticized for being inexperienced in politics. The criticism is valid but their response is concentrated on their integrity. Many of their candidates have been recruited from positions in various professions, from medicine to scientific research, law, information technology and economics. While they may be good in their fields, most of them have little experience in political office. Luigi Di Maio, the new head of the party, and candidate for premier, via an on-line primary, is only thirty-one years old. While he studied engineering and law at the university, he left before obtaining a degree to join the newly formed M5S and at twenty-six became the youngest parliamentarian to become the vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies. His elevation in the party may be somewhat due to having more political experience than most of the candidates in the party, despite his youth, but he really hasn't worked at anything else. M5S internet ads have shown the faces and resum├Ęs of some of their young recruits alongside those of their direct electoral opponents, most of them right out of central casting for classic villains. They have also pointed out that among the hundreds of candidates put up by the two large coalitions, each slate has about a score of convicted felons in its ranks, while the M5S has none. Given the election results, many Italians apparently preferred to take their chances with inexperienced bright young people rather than with entrenched veterans of the political swamp.

The party proposes a minimum income for all citizens, a controversial stand but one that addresses a problem rarely talked about anywhere in the modern world. Research and technology are working madly to eliminate jobs. Artificial intelligence is thought to be the wave of the future, eliminating vast swaths of jobs, but little attention is devoted to how people will survive if work is eliminated.

The M5S has been described as anti-Europe or anti-EU but it might be more accurate to describe the EU as being anti-Europe. It was the French, English and Americans, not the EU, that attacked Libya, unleashing the flood of refugees. The EU did nothing. Just imagine the militias of Kansas and Utah joining up with the Argentine military to bomb Juarez, while the US Government did nothing about it. Would it be Mississippi, or California this time, to consider the idea of secession? Once the damage had been done, Italy asked the EU for help with the migrant problem but was told by Germany that the Italian borders and the refugees entering were Italy's problem. When the migrants started crossing from Italy into France, the French who, under Sarkozy, had precipitated the crisis, closed their borders in violation of the basic tenets of the European Union. When the EU was formed, Italy was among the most enthusiastic of all the original members. Most Italians still appreciate the convenience of the single currency, whether they are tourists or businessmen, but many are also realizing that the economic union is badly flawed and favors some of the more prosperous members at the expense of the poorer ones to the south. Another common view is that the EU is a center of smug, out-of-touch highly paid bureaucrats responsible to no one. I would add that they intervene in local rules and regulations without hesitation but barely manage a whimper in response to the most egregious examples of American imperialism. The NYT may see the winners of the election as pro-Putin but the reality that US regime media don't want to acknowledge is that sanctions imposed by the US on Russia and Iran have damaged Italy and other EU members almost as much as they have harmed the targeted countries.

What lies ahead? Renzi has said he would resign but not until a new government is formed and he's determined that the PD will not cooperate with any party outside his coalition, more or less guaranteeing that a new government cannot be formed. He sounds like a petulant child, combining the worst traits of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. That leaves it up to President Sergio Mattarella to figure out a solution. Good luck Mr. President! As I prepare to distribute this post, I've heard that the PD has told Renzi to leave, now. That may be the best news of the week.

Once, all roads led to Rome. Now, nobody knows which way is right, which way is left, which way is up? Do all paths lead downward? Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Meeting the Challenges


The eminent British historian Arnold Toynbee devoted the twelve massive volumes of his epic work, A Study of History, to showing how his theory of history applied to twenty-three civilizations. In essence, his theory was that civilizations rise or fall in response to major challenges. If they face no major challenges, they don't rise very far and if they fail to respond to major challenges, they collapse and die.

I wouldn't presume to challenge Professor Toynbee's theory but if he was right, it looks like we're up the creek without a paddle. Rising to overcome a major challenge is difficult but if those threats are not acknowledged, it is all but impossible to overcome them.

There are two existential challenges to our civilization right now, starting with climate change and moving on to the accelerating gap between rich and poor. The first threatens to make large portions of currently inhabited parts of the world uninhabitable while the second will end democracy as the form of society which has characterized our recent civilization, returning us to some new variety of feudalism akin to that of the medieval world. American President Trump has appointed cabinet officials dedicated to cutting back all regulation aimed at protecting the environment and dealing with climate change, as if telling the musicians playing on the top deck of the Titanic to play louder will make everything better. He is also currently engaged in an effort to loot the Treasury on behalf of his fellow oligarchs. The heist, which goes under the innocent sounding name of “tax reform”, is being conducted under cover of an endless stream of public insults of everyone from foreign and domestic leaders to gold star mothers.

While these two challenges may prove to be life-threatening for our civilization, there are others which might provide a start in our efforts to save ourselves. We badly need some good news and if you look really hard, from time to time you can find it.

Sometimes problems are identified that many of us never knew the existence of. Climate skeptics are still saying that about climate change. In March of 2016 the Governor of North Carolina signed a bill into law blocking cities from allowing transgender individuals from using public bathrooms of the sex they identify with. Who knew that there was a problem? Many of us were not even aware of the growing legion of transgender people or, for that matter, what a transgender person is. Not completely unaware perhaps. I recall a person named Christine Jorgensen being prominently in the news in 1952 as an early recipient of sex change operations. She had started life as George. In 2015, Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon winner, revealed that he had always felt like he was supposed to be a woman and had recently completed a transformation into a woman, now known as Caitlin. Is this recent surge of confusion over sexual identity Nature's way, or God's way, of responding to the impending population explosion? If so, it doesn't seem to have worked, at least in the case of Jenner, who fathered six children during his three marriages, some even after he had started his transformative treatment.

Then again, we're not interested in divine solutions. We're looking to find human solutions. President Trump's recent toying with the possibility of nuclear war may be a subtle attempt to seek an answer to the problems of overpopulation and mass migration but we can do better than that.

The gender confusion issue is apparently more real than some of us thought. Much has been written about it without shedding much light. The most interesting writing on the subject that I've seen is Sons and Daughters, the village where girls turn into boys, by Susan Topol in the August 2017 issue of Harper's Magazine. For those mystified by the whole subject, it's worth reading. There also seems to be a growing movement involved in promoting the confusion. Some might see the phenomenon as a problem that needs attention as such, but that's not our aim in this piece. We're looking for good news and signs of hope.

In March of 2017, just a year after the Governor had signed the NC toilet bill into law, the law was repealed. What happened? Did the citizens of North Carolina have a change of heart or did all the men there harbor a wish to try out women's rest rooms? Not likely. Instead, groups all around the country, seizing the opportunity to speak out against discrimination against another beleaguered minority, rallied to protest the outrage perpetrated by the NC legislature. Entertainers canceled concerts, sport teams canceled All-Star contests, conventions were relocated out of state and corporations canceled plans to move their headquarters to North Carolina. In Charlotte alone, the Chamber of Commerce estimated losses to the city of $285 million and 1,300 jobs. Money talks! We will deal with the deification of the market at another time. For now, we'll just look at the upside.

On October 1st of this year, a disgruntled white male American brought twenty-three weapons, some of them automatic or semi-automatic, into his hotel suite in Las Vegas and opened fire on a crowd at a concert thirty-two floors below, killing fifty-nine people. More than 500 others were wounded or injured. Thirty-five days later another troubled native-born white American walked into a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and fired on the congregation, killing twenty-six people. Both of these incidents were horrifying and shocking but not altogether surprising. The US has been averaging about one multiple shooting (defined as at least four people shot) per day throughout the year.

We don't know how many gender confused children were traumatized by public toilet incidents in Charlotte but a huge effort went into saving them from further discomfort. Couldn't a proportional effort be made on behalf of the eighty-five dead people in Las Vegas and Texas and the ones sure to follow? Both places proclaim themselves to be radically pro-gun. Open carry laws proliferate as do military style weapons. All you entertainers who boycotted Charlotte, where are you now? Athletes? I doubt that any of you would want to play in an open carry stadium, and the stadium owners probably don't want to risk damage to their property (including their players) but how about getting to and from the stadium? The Oakland Raiders are scheduled to move to Las Vegas in two or three years. Put your national anthem protests aside and get your agents to stipulate in your next contract that you won't play in an open carry city. Convention organizers, how about crossing open carry places off your list of potential venues. Thousands of people flock to Las Vegas for gambling, divorces and other types of “fun”. Some of them go there for the chance to shoot military style weapons at shooting ranges but if the more normal people all got together and said thanks but we'll do our debauchery in a safer environment, things might change almost as quickly as they did in Charlotte. Ironically, some of us signed petitions requesting that the GOP National Convention of 2016 in Cleveland be an open-carry convention but the politicians, with their own asses on the line, would have none of it. Why should they be more secure than singers, athletes or the general public?

Our prayers can go to the families of the dead, our letters to the newspapers, and our petitions to our Congressmen. We'll feel better for our good intentions and that will soften our resignation. Maybe Putin can do something to help, as he's credited with guiding most outcomes in the US, but don't hold your breath. Do you have college age children? Don't let them attend any school in an open carry state, much less exposing them to an open carry campus. Money talks. Make it clear to all these places that they can have their guns, or some of your money, but not both.

After the gun epidemic is cured, maybe we can move on to the vital issues of climate change and the new feudalism.




Friday, July 28, 2017

The Punditalia Enemies List

While the term “Enemies List” conjures up memories of Richard Nixon, tempting us to avoid making such a compilation, the critical lack of enemies is such that we feel a duty find an answer. National Football League teams have difficulty paring down their rosters to the fifty-three player maximum. Identifying the ten people who constitute the most serious threats to our well-being is a far more onerous task, so much so that we've cheated a little, including twelve people* to the top ten list. So many players, so few positions available

Our readers have not been helpful, offering no suggestions of what we should do to find useful enemies. As to who the real enemies of the moment are, we will admit that it may be nationalistic hubris on our part, together with a lack of extensive knowledge of the villains lurking in other parts of the world, but we simply cannot think of anyone outside the USA who poses as great a threat to the world as do a large number of people operating within the country.

In ascending order, here are our choices for the ten foremost enemies of the American people and, in a variant of trickle down theory, of the peace and prosperity of the world:

10. Betsy DeVos- US Secretary of Education. Betsy De Vos has devoted a significant amount of her life and much of her considerable wealth to destroying public education in the US and now she is in a position to wreak ever more havoc. She might be too clueless to make this list but she gets extra points for being the sister of Eric Prince, founder of Blackwater.  In a tight race she was named worst of the worst of the Swamp Cabinet by NYT readers.   If American education should fail, other countries, from Finland to China, will continue to provide quality education, but a further rapid decline in knowledge in the USA does not bode well for the future of the planet.

9. Scott Pruitt- Head of the Environmental Protection Agency- The entire swamp cabinet is a vast collective threat to the security of the world. It's hard to pick the worst of the bunch (see the link above- Pruitt was runner-up) but putting a dedicated enemy of the environment in charge of the EPA, an agency he has sued on multiple occasions, would seem a sure path to creating an important world-class enemy.

8. Paul Singer- vulture capitalist. A public enemy who works mostly outside the public scrutiny, the world's leading vulture capitalist has brought misery to a number of nations from Congo to Argentina and most recently has been involved in creating and/or exploiting the economic crisis in Puerto Rico.

7. Rupert Murdoch- He's getting old and possibly mellower, considering that Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly and Megyn Kelly have all departed his realm, but Murdoch still controls a vast media network, which has been responsible for lowering the standards of public discourse, and of journalism, on at least three continents. Decades ago, few could imagine how an ultra right wing agenda could be promoted with the success he's had at it.

6. David and Charles Koch*- Their private lives may feature different favorite charities, but in their efforts to buy up the US Congress they act in tandem. Whereas there are other oligarchs motivated in part by a desire to bring about their own “better” vision of the future, these two consistently seek to further enrich themselves by ruinously exploiting natural resources and to do so they have no scruples about corrupting elected officials.

5. a tie*: Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader and Tom Price, the new Head of the Department of Health and Human Resources. While McConnell would make many lists as public enemy number one, he may be on the way out. Both men are determined to limit health care in America to the wealthy, while diverting the savings from withheld care to tax giveaways to the super rich. Rumor has it that as a young member of Congress, McConnell served his constituents reasonably well. As so often happens in politics, venality grows with seniority and today there is no corporate lobbying effort that McConnell will turn away, no tactic too sleazy, no hypocrisy by which he can be embarrassed. Greed having replaced any moral compass he may have ever possessed, he is a dangerous man to have leading the US Senate. If he succeeds in passing either the umpteenth version of Trump Care or the anarchy-producing Affordable Care Act Repeal, his political future will end as soon as a large percentage of his Kentucky constituents realize that he has eliminated their health care. Win or lose, Tom Price will be there to reduce and even terminate health care for vast swaths of American citizens.  We have heard no rumors that in his youth Price was burdened by good intentions.

4. Grover Norquist- Another enemy of democracy who flies under the radar. In an earlier cartoon, I summarized the similar backgrounds, ideology and careers of Grover Norquist and Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was eliminated by Navy seals but Norquist is still at large, conducting weekly breakfasts for members of Congress where he induces them to take a sworn oath, in violation of their oath to protect the people and the Constitution of the United States, to never raise taxes. This could reasonably be seen as fomenting treason but it's been going on for years without prosecution. People often wonder how could a rich country such as the USA allow its infrastructure to decay to third world levels. Grover Norquist is a major factor.

3. Donald Trump- President of the USA. More than enough has been said about this man but as America's own Kim Jong Un, he does pose a credible threat to the peace and stability of the world.

2. Paul Ryan- While serial liars are not necessarily a threat to the Republic, when one becomes Speaker of the House and therefore right behind the Vice-President in line of succession to the presidency, it is time for concern. Apparently, the lies of Trump are accepted by friends and foes alike as the egocentric, mindless bluster of an adolescent bully. His speech is almost completely content-free. Ryan instead has the ability to recite endless sequences of verifiable non-facts, without embarrassment, as he charms countless grandmothers across the Midwest with his watery blue eyes, all the while doing contortions to deprive them of social security and medicare. Even the venerable New York Times describes him as a “policy wonk” despite his having proposed a total government budget less than the current military budget, but which increases military spending and slashes taxes, and the whole thing would be balanced. He doesn't appear to be very bright but his enviable acting skills have allowed him to synthesize the two books he's read, 1984 and Atlas Shrugged into his public persona of devout Roman Catholic who proclaims that greed is good and the rich shall inherit the earth.

1. Kris Kobach- A rising star on the enemies list, Kobach bears a greater responsibility for Donald Trump's entry into the White House than the collective effect of all the others blamed for it, from Putin to Hillary, James Comey to Debbie Wassermann Schultz. As inventor and administrator of Operation Crosscheck, Kobach was responsible for the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of US citizens, most of them from the African-American, Latino, and Asian-American communities. The suppressed vote in several decisive states was up to ten times the winning margin in those states. He has now been appointed to oversee the bogus prosecution of voter fraud, much as the leading proponent of environmental degradation has been appointed to oversee the EPA. Kobach and his GOP accomplices have built an electoral system whose corruption may be insurmountable. Trump could prove to be the most unpopular President in US history and the Republican Congress may be reviled, but the chances of their being removed by election grow ever more remote. Kobach embodies intelligence in combination with pure evil. More than Trump, he may become the face of American Fascism.

We don't mean to slight our European friends or others but who is there outside the US with both the will and the means to inflict as much damage as the people on the above list. The EU and its members states have no shortage of politicians who are foolish, incompetent, misguided, venal or corrupt but few are infused with enthusiasm for the New Feudalism, i.e. the endgame of the Neo-con lust for upward redistribution of wealth and elimination of the middle class.

Ms. Le Pen might have made the cut had she been elected to rule France but even she responded to real problems, not of her own making, no matter how odious some of her views may appear. In Europe there are still political opponents, no matter how contrasting their positions. In the US today, the big battles are with enemies, not opponents.

Perhaps confining the enemies list to individuals was a mistake. Nations qualified as military enemies in the past, but in today's globalized world where nations have lost their clout, various other non-governmental entities have stepped up to fill the void. A short list of groups justifying surveillance and possible action by the Department of Defense would surely include ALEC, the US Chamber of Commerce, Goldman Sachs, Macquarie, Monsanto and AIPAC to join the already singled out ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Our list also excludes people still living who have inflicted more damage on the world than most of our current finalists. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney may have done more than any other living humans to promote the New Feudalism but Bush now confines himself to painting oil portraits of his pets,
his acquaintances and himself, while Cheney mostly listens to the ticking of his mechanical heart between guest appearances on Fox News. Barack Obama came close to ending the rule of legislative democracy with his ISDS courts poisoning his proposed trade agreements but, alas, like so many others, those plans fell short. Hillary Clinton did enduring damage as Secretary of State, most evident here in Italy, but her current opportunities in mischief-making lie essentially in keeping the Democratic Party in the hands of its Neo-con wing to assure continued control of the US Government by the now openly Fascistic Republican Party.

What are the solutions to the enemy crisis? The Military Industrial Complex exists, ostensibly, to combat the enemies of the nation, but if the enemies reside mostly within the nation, and mostly in government itself, how can it fulfill its mission? If drone attacks can eliminate obscure potential terrorists in Pakistan, how difficult would surgical strikes be in Washington DC? Not difficult at all, but no doubt unconstitutional. Whether it's the nostalgia of old age for the discarded Constitution or simply our inherent conservatism, we do not yet recommend that our armed forces be turned on our internal enemies.

Given that our military services have no legitimate function without plausible enemies, as a moderate alternative to using them against our internal enemies, we would propose supporting our troops by bringing them home and helping them to find real jobs. Slash the military budget by 60 or 70 % immediately, end foreign occupations, ban the sale of weapons abroad, and curtail all military foreign aid. This would create a momentary surge of unemployment and put severe downward pressure on MIC stocks but it would free up vast amounts of money for useful things currently underfunded, such as health care, education and infrastructure. We could even rehabilitate the Peace Corps. It would spread good will and improve foreign relations in most of the world.

Alas, neither solution is likely to be adopted, although the militarization of municipal police forces during the Bush years shows that there was consideration of diverting the military mission to combating perceived domestic enemies. Over the past century that approach has been tried all around the world, from Russia, China, and Germany to most of Latin America. The outcomes have been nothing we would want to emulate.


In an effort to generate useful enemies, the US Congress has voted additional sanctions against Russia and is attempting, in a rare bi-partisan effort, to make it a felony, with draconian penalties, to support Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions campaigns in protest of Israel's violations of international law. Well, so much for the First Amendment protections of free speech. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the rest of the world will unite to impose sanctions on the USA until it modifies its rogue state demeanor. If not, the world may just have to wait for the US to self-destruct, praying that it does not take the entire planet down with it.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Enemies

We had clear-cut enemies when I grew up.   Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were the faces of evil. 
Our troops did their job, liberating Europe from the Nazis and smashing the Japanese war machine.   Uncle George sent home cartons full of military insignia, captured Japanese stationery and other items taken off dead Japanese soldiers, and later he returned with stories of the war in New Guinea. Those enemies served us well, creating a sense of national purpose and solidarity.


After the war, we always had enemies to unite against, if only in comic books and movies. The cinematic enemies were often Indians (before their mystical transformation into ecologically-correct Native Americans), sometimes gangsters, but more often, black-hatted Western villains.

Hollywood prototype

However, soon after the war ended, new enemies appeared in the real world. Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union emerged as our principal foes, with Mao Tse Tong lurking ominously in far away China. The Cold War lasted far longer than WWII had and it spawned surrogate wars, such as those in Korea and Vietnam, while starting a nuclear arms race and later a space race. Fear joined with competitive zeal to stimulate human energy, boosting the economy, especially in the military sector,  in the process.
















Stalin's numerous successors, Malenkov, Krushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chemenko proved to be serviceable and credible enemies but the last, Michele Gorbachev, often appeared to be more rational and reasonable than our own leaders. With enemies like that we were in trouble, as confusion set in and the national will lost unity. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the presumable end of the Cold War, things began to get murkier.

In truth, confusion had set in much earlier. Our anti-Soviet, anti-communist passion boiled over under the witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy, setting Americans against Americans. While the Nazi and Soviet threats had been tangible enough to unify the populace, the Viet Cong rice farmers failed to convince growing numbers of Americans that they constituted an existential threat.
 










Arabs were called upon to fill the void. The Arab oil crises of the 70's helped but the emergence of Osama bin Laden, the renegade heir to a Saudi fortune and self-appointed purveyor of Islamic fundamentalist terror, filled the traditional role of enemy more convincingly than the various Arab sheiks, kings and dictators available. The problem was that while his actions were effective, he was in essence a stateless person, so his plots, while clearly acts of terror, were criminal acts, not acts of war. That was too confusing for the easily confused George W. Bush, who therefore decided to invade and destroy an unrelated country, actually one rather hostile to Osama bin Laden and his ideology, but which was ruled by another verifiably villainous Arab.

Hero?
Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, even repentant Col Gaddafi have all been dispatched. Hugo Chavez is dead of causes we may never fully know, and Fidel Castro has finally succumbed to Father Time. What's to be done? Who's left?
or Arch-Enemy?


For the past decade there has been a bipartisan campaign to make Vladimir Putin the rising star of international villainy. Perhaps it's his resemblance to the latest incarnation of James Bond that confuses me but something here just doesn't pass the smell test.

Meanwhile, the US military budget, larger than ever, just keeps growing, despite a lack of any credible military threat. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, like me, grew up in the Cold War but it would appear that their brains were frozen in time. Graham insists, every time that there appears to be an international crisis, that we immediately send the good guys more weapons. All sixteen US intelligence agencies are insufficient to accurately locate and identify “good guys” in most of these places but the arms shipments never let up. If credible enemies can't be found, sooner or later our military industrial complex runs the risk of going the way of the steel industry, the automobile industry or even of Enron.
Lest someone think I don't take military threats seriously, I do acknowledge that North Korea is talking and acting like an enemy, although given the immense asymmetry in weaponry, under normal circumstances, it wouldn't ever be regarded as any sort of threat. MAD, the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, worked for decades because both sides, with roughly similar nuclear arsenals, correctly assumed the fundamental rationality of their opponents. At the moment North Korea and the USA are led by individuals of a very similar personality type (or disorder if you will) so all bets are off. Several decades of terrorist “successes” have shown that the instinct for self-preservation does not universally prevail over other human passions or neuroses. Furthermore, checks and balances are no longer operational in the US and have never existed in North Korea.
Like North Korea, Israel is a small country with a nuclear arsenal, which also threatens to set off a nuclear holocaust. Benjamin Netanyahu might be a candidate to assume the role of world's leading enemy, except for the fact that he enjoys the support of nearly 100% of both houses of the US Congress. We don't really need to build up our military resources to offset this threat since we provide most of the resources that constitute the threat, although arming both sides in regional conflicts has been the key to the growth of the MIC for decades.

Still, in light of the desperate shortage of meaningful enemies, I would ask my readers to compile answers to two questions:

1. Assuming you are citizens and/or residents of the USA or the EU, please name ten individuals you regard as posing the greatest threat to your countrymen and/or to citizens of the world.*
* Please don't submit one or two names, such as Putin, Hillary or Trump, or generic ones, such as Arabs, terrorists or Neo-cons.   If you can't think of at least ten individuals and describe the threat they pose, you are not paying attention to the world around you.

2. In the interests of finding a solution to this crisis, we would ask how many of these persons are residents of countries other than the USA?


You can send your answers to: rpdg2001yahoo.com or respond on Facebook if that's where you're reading this. Next time I'll summarize the results and provide my own list along with suggestions for dealing with the crisis. Thanks in advance for your participation.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Walls

The Great Wall of America is in the news again, after a series of distractions regarding Russian influence in the election and poisoned gas in Syria. President Trump started clamoring for funds for the Wall. That didn't happen and emergency funding to keep the Government running until September was passed without money for the Wall. The Mexicans haven't stepped up to fund it.

New distractions have emerged in the French elections, the push for Trumpcare in the House of Representatives, and the firing of Comey, but talk of the Wall may not go away for the next three years.

Walls have been around for a long time. While there is common agreement that prostitutes comprise the world's oldest profession, second place being contested between spies and pimps, coming from a related profession, I would argue that wall makers constitute the third oldest profession. Walls keep out the elements and provide for support for roofs in the case of building walls, as well as keeping out unwanted guests and other pests. Walls divide properties from adjacent ones, public from private spaces and sometimes define political boundaries. Low walls are largely symbolic but no less important in that they provide strong visual identities to some of those borders and boundaries in a less absolutist gesture.

Robert Frost is known for saying “good fences make good neighbors”. Oops, I think that was “fences” not “walls”. Actually he was arguing against both walls and fences with a neighbor who liked them. Fences are more or less lighter, more permeable versions of walls. Bill Clinton and George Bush built a big one along 831 miles (almost half) of the 1,954 mile long Mexican border. Preliminary estimates of the cost of the wall for the entire border are $21 billion but we all know what happens to preliminary estimates.

My granddaughter, her father and friends
 visiting the Great Wall of China last winter.
The Great Wall of China was built over several dynasties but much of it between 221 BC and 206 BC to keep out Mongolian nomads who were stealing the crops of Chinese farmers. Some of it was built by paid labor but slave labor and prisoners also contributed to its construction. A million workers died in the process. Depending on what source you consult, the wall extends for 13,000 miles or 31,000 miles. Whatever figure you accept, that's a lot of wall. Much of the wall is still there and it may have worked, or perhaps the Mongolians just renounced their nomadic ways.

A remaining fragment of the
wall around Acqualoreto
Walls abound in Europe. Here in Italy remnants of them are everywhere. When my brother first visited us in Umbria and saw Todi, I expected the usual tourist reaction, such as “how lovely!” Instead, his first comment was “My God, what awful lives those people must have lived”. Todi, like most old Italian cities, had many large portals, whose enormous doors were closed at night to keep out invaders from nearby Orvieto.


Porta Orvietana
in Todi
Thinking it over for a moment, I realized there was some truth in his observation but I also took note of the irony in his saying it since he lived in a gated community on Hilton Head Island where the gates were always closed and protected by armed guards. All the world's a village, as they say here, but at least the portals of Todi, Rome and everywhere else in Italy, have had the big doors removed. They've been replaced by cameras which record the presence of cars which have no right to enter. Intruders are dealt with, not by the sword or boiling oil, but with exorbitant fines.

seriously guarded gates
on Hilton Head Island
The Chinese may have been among the first to define a national border with a large wall but in more recent times we usually associate that sort of wall building with Berlin and East Germany. Such walls can be effective. The Berlin Wall certainly was. It penned in half of a major European capital for nearly three decades, necessitating a major airlift to provide food and other staples of life to the walled-in residents. 239 people died trying to get over or through the wall but it did staunch the flow of refugees from East to West Germany. The wall did not come down until the regime that had built it collapsed. Will the US effort be as successful?

President Trump wants a wall, a big one, to divide Mexico from the US. This can be dismissed as overly extravagant, impractical, ecologically and aesthetically horrible but the idea of a secure national border is not really outrageous. The US, like virtually all other countries, does have border guards at airports and crossing points to control who is entering the country. At Newark's Liberty Airport, the guards have apparently been indoctrinated and trained at the “rape table” to develop a properly truculent demeanor. This came out in one of the many recent daily scandals so their function may now be fully privatized, with United Airlines a leading candidate to provide future airport security.

in the wake of the invasion of Libya 
While the government of the USA may now favor an absolutist approach to border security on its own borders, it seems remarkably oblivious to the sanctity of other country's borders. In joining with France and England in bombing Libya into medieval anarchy, it committed the equivalent of bombing the border crossing points at Tijuana, Nogales, Juarez and Laredo and opening up the roads into California, New Mexico and Texas. No apologies, reparations or remedial suggestions have come from either the Obama or Trump Administrations. What the French and English were thinking defies imagination. They didn't recognize their own feet when they started shooting. The Democratic half of the American public seems shocked by the isolationist implications of the Brexit and the Trump victories yet, along with the other half of the population, seems totally unmindful of the consequences of American policies.

Berlin wall and no-man's land
During the presidential campaign Donald Trump kept insisting not only that he would build a really big wall but that he'd make the Mexicans pay for it. Such talk was met with derision by the media and most of the population. Where did he get such a bizarre idea?
divided Berlin


The Walled Off Hotel facing
 the wall in the occupied
West Bank and run by the
artist Banksy.
He may have been thinking of Berlin, where the Soviets ordered the wall and got the East Germans to pay for it. 

Another precedent comes to mind. In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli Government has continued to build walls to separate and protect its ever-expanding settlements, which the world entire, even the US Government, acknowledges as illegal. Have they gotten the Palestinians to pay for those walls? No, but Israel, with its population of less than 9 million people and its territory slightly larger than New Jersey and slightly smaller than Massachusetts, gets more US foreign aid than any other country. Much of that aid comes in the form of military support but all that aid allows Israel to devote its resources to wall-building on stolen land, so it's not much of a stretch to say that the US is paying for those walls.
an Israeli wall in Palestine

Yes, walls can and do achieve some goals. Those in the West Bank by now have probably ended the possibility of a two state solution for Palestine and guaranteed that Israel will not survive as a democratic nation.

What will become of the Great Mexican Wall? Let's look for its advantages. It may bankrupt the United States enough to limit its ability to invade and occupy other nations around the world. Perhaps in a century or two it will become as much of a tourist attraction as the Great Wall of China. Remnants of the Berlin Wall now fetch a good price as people seek to keep a piece of history.


We always need to look on the bright side. Everything has its unintended consequences, occasionally positive ones. It's just that sometimes it takes more time for good things to emerge than most of us have left.