(for the other 95% of America)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Will Replace Egyptian, Tunisian, Bahraini, Jordanian, Syrian, and Yemeni Tyrants? Democracy, If You Can Keep It

Protests in Tahir Square, Cairo, Egypt

Over the past month, US officials seem to have one central, overarching theme in their message to the people of the Middle East: “we will ambiguously and half-heartedly support your democratic aspirations.” When it is politically easy to support protest movements, like in Iran, we will show our support. When it seems we have no choice, we will do the politically expedient thing and begrudgingly throw our lot behind the people, like in Tunisia and especially Egypt. But when it isn’t politically expedient and some sort of national security or business interest stands in the way, we keep our mouths shut, like in Jordan, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. While it is frustrating that freedom and democracy take a backseat to oil and counterterrorism, a more serious concern for democracy-enthusiasts is the fragility that these new governments are often built upon.

Consider this statement by political scientist Jack Snyder: “The experiment with democracy in [the Middle East] is just the latest chapter in a turbulent story that begun with the French Revolution.” Now, that was written in 2004 with regards to Iraq, but the basic context of a nascent democracy and rival groups pulling the country into discord can apply to almost any country that has seen unrest over the last month. While nobody disagrees that the French Revolution was a noble cause, or that democracies are essentially good, getting there is often turbulent, violent, and in no way pre-determined.

Snyder continues to say that, “More fundamental, emerging democracies often have nascent political institutions that cannot channel popular demands in constructive directions or credibly enforce compromises among rival groups.” The lack of political institutions alone could be devastating for the new Middle Eastern democracies. NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote yesterday about the lack of development in the Arab region over the last 30 years, which does not bode well for their chances of keeping democracy. “The United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report,” he writes “stated that the Arab world is suffering from three huge deficits — a deficit of education, a deficit of freedom and a deficit of women’s empowerment. A summary of the report in Middle East Quarterly in the Fall of 2002 detailed the key evidence: the gross domestic product of the entire Arab world combined was less than that of Spain. Per capita expenditure on education in Arab countries dropped from 20 percent of that in industrialized countries in 1980 to 10 percent in the mid-1990s. In terms of the number of scientific papers per unit of population, the average output of the Arab world per million inhabitants was roughly 2 percent of that of an industrialized country.” This report reveals that there will be many hindrances to a strong civil society that democracies demand, and in some respects 19th century France was in a more conducive situation for democracy than the 21st century Middle East.

Another hindrance, especially to countries with multi-ethnic societies is that “Countries transitioning to democracy… are more likely than other states to get into international and civil wars. In the last 15 years, wars or large-scale civil violence followed experiments with mass electoral democracy in countries including Armenia, Burundi, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Russia, and the former Yugoslavia. In part, this violence is caused by ethnic groups’ competing demands for national self-determination, often a problem in new, multiethnic democracies” (Snyder again). Americans know all-too-much about how deep sectarian fault lines run in this region, as our war in Iraq nearly exploded in civil war between the outgoing Sunni government and the ingoing Shia government. Even more devastating is the countries ruled by an ethnic or religious minority groups (think Bahrain, Syria, and Jordan). These are also, perhaps not surprisingly, countries that the Obama Administration is publicly treading cautiously with in regards to supporting the democratic movements over the tyrants who suppress them.

No one is rooting for the success of Arab self-determination more than I am, although, if history is any guide, this will be an extremely difficult process -- one in which I will probably be still cheering for in my old age. It reminds me of that Ben Franklin quote, when he responded to a woman asking what kind of government had been decided upon in America, he said “A republic, if you can keep it.” The truth is, nobody knows what the outcome in the newly emerging Arab governments will be. They could be like the French Revolution of 1789, or 1848, or maybe 1879, when the French Republicans finally wrested control of the government from the Monarch. What is clear is that things will never be the same.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

White House Backpedals in Support of Democratic Transition in Egypt

Just a week ago, White House Officials made a stunning policy decision to reverse decades of support for brutal dictator and strategic ally, Hosni Mubarak. Many commentators, myself included, were elated that after 30 years of collaborating with the Egyptian government, America might finally cast itself on the right side of history.

But, in a de facto 180-policy reversal, Hilary Clinton and other US officials have begun to backpedal from their initial decision to call for Mubarak’s immediate departure over the last few days. Mrs. Clinton claimed on Sunday that removing Mubarak too hastily would threaten the country’s transition to democracy, since there’s not enough time for the opposition to prepare and for government election policies to be revamped. The White House seems to be getting closer and closer to Frank Wisner’s comments that Mubarak should remain in the picture a while longer, even though officials have distanced themselves from the former diplomat’s remarks.

The sincerity of US statements regarding the future Egyptian government will, unfortunately, only be determined by time. For now, though, the mixed signals from public officials can only cause doubt with regards to whether or not we expressed our support of the Egyptian people because it was politically expedient, or because we truly do stand behind the democratic aspirations of all people (which is what Obama claimed in his State of the Union). Maybe we are beginning to see why that speech was utterly lacking in specifics.

Last weeks remarks were markedly different from this week. I was initially proud of Obama’s speech last Tuesday, when he said, “an orderly transition [in Egypt] must begin now.” And if that wasn’t enough, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs the next day clarified that “’now’ started yesterday.” It seemed that the US was truly ready to radically alter our approach to the Middle East and support the idea that the Egyptian people’s future, and the future of all people, should be up to the people themselves.

Perhaps the most conspicuous part of Mrs. Clinton’s speech Sunday was this: “’It’s striking that in Tunisia, Ben Ali, who’d been in power so long, got out of town,’ she said, referring to…the ousted president. ‘He didn’t have the depth of support within the institutions of his government that would have enabled him even to attempt to hang on, so he left.’ Other Arab leaders, she said, believe they can ride out the unrest by taking steps to improve the lives of their people. King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Saleh of Yemen appeared to fit that description. Mrs. Clinton did not say in which category Mr. Mubarak fit.” (Reported by the Washington Post; italics are mine.)

Last week, my reporting was filled with optimism that, not only would Egyptians soon experience democracy, but also that Obama would finally bring the United States onto the right side of history in the Middle East. I received several comments saying that it was naïve thinking since Islamic Fascists would probably hijack the process anyways – which is, admittedly, stupid and devoid of the facts on the ground. But what I realize this week is that I was naïve, but only because I believed the US had the courage to actually live up to the values we profess to uphold. I can now only wait lamely in hope that the US will sincerely press for change, and not just a façade of change.

Further Reading:

Friday, February 4, 2011

Banks Phase Out Free Checking in Response to Financial Reforms

The era of free checking accounts is officially over, may they rest in peace. Originally started by Washington Mutual in the mid-1990’s and later adopted by major banks in the early 2000’s, banks are now preparing to phase that out, and start charge customers roughly $100 dollars every year in monthly installments to maintain a checking account -- if you don’t regularly have anywhere from $500 to a few thousand dollars, depending on who you bank with.

Claiming that new financial regulations regarding the use of ‘hidden fees’ (credit card payment and overdraft fees) will cost them billions of dollars a year, the new checking account fees will partly make up for the loss. Basically, it is another way banks have managed to put even more strain on their least-profitable customers – the poor, even in the face of growing public scrutiny. But, alas, gone are the days when banks can rake in hundreds of billions of dollars a year by essentially praying on and exploiting the weakest members of our society. Critics called the fees ‘hidden’ because the most successful firms that put these fees into place were the ones that most successfully hide the extra fees from consumers.

The bigger story here is this: a company makes profit by producing a product that will somehow make peoples lives better, and, ipso facto, people will buy the product. GE produces appliances, Apple produces computers, and Tropicana produces juice; people need these things, and they buy them. Right?

But a hidden fee is not a product. Nobody is rushing to the stores because they just really need some hidden fees. There were no ‘innovative’ ideas that would make people’s lives easier or more efficient. It’s just a way banking executives can line their pockets with fat bonuses. The worst part is that the fees predominantly hurt the most vulnerable members of our society, many of which have already stopped using banks altogether, and have resorted to using check cashing stores – which in many ways are even more predatory towards the poor.

The bottom line is that commercial banking should be boring, as Joseph Stiglitz put it. If you want to make multi-million dollar bonuses than you should work for an investment firm or a hedge fund. Or, try this: actually come up with a good idea! The success of any sector should be decided by the benefits to our society. Money, instead of being a means to an end, has become an end in itself.

Further Reading:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

House Republicans Unveil Plans to Boost Greenhouse Gases, Leaving Mandate on Jobs and Economy Behind

Representative Darrell Issa, from California

House Republicans yesterday unveiled draft legislation yesterday that bans the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The legislation, which will easily pass in the House, is another sharp rebuke to the Obama Administration, just days after Representative Darrel Issa reportedly was asked by the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank) to attack decades of regulations and consumer protections.

Perhaps the more scary part of this story is that Democratic lawmakers might just go along with it. Already a handful of Senators are supporting plans to impose a two-year moratorium on EPA attempts to, essentially, do its job. It's almost as if Republicans, so intent on proving that government is inefficient, will go to the extraordinarily length of sabotaging efforts to take practical and necessary steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, just to prove their point.

Daily Kos author Jed Lewison pointed out today that, "Conservatives can claim climate science is a hoax until they go blue in the face, but that won't change the immutable fact that dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere traps solar energy."And while he's completely right, there is another reason why conservatives should be going blue in the face -- this bill would also be bad for the economy. In fifty to a hundred years from now, there simply won't be much oil or gas to go around. With the explosion in the use of energy, especially in China and India, it's imperative that we continue to capitalize on the benefits that clean energy will give us now, but more importantly in the future.

China already understands this, and in many respects they are already ahead of us. Reversing decades of energy policy is not only bad environmentally, but economically as well. But I suppose it's not news that Republicans are proposing yet another bill that has nothing to do with their mandate on jobs and the economy.

Further Reading:

Huffington Post: House GOP Readies Severe New Restrictions on EPA
Daily Kos: GOP Unveils Pro Greenhouse Gas Legislation

Health-Care Repeal Fails in Senate, Next Course: Incrementally Defeat Individual Sections of Health Care -- Promising Long, Drawn-Out Debate

We all read yesterday that the Senate struck down the bill to repeal health care reform, which, of course, was not really news. The House vote to strike down job-killing Obamacare was largely a symbolic measure. The real news came out today, which is that after weeks of wrangling about a bill that actually has a negative impact on the economy, House Republicans announced they will dedicate many more weeks and possibly months attempting to incrementally defeat the most unpopular elements of the bill.

Americans are, according to polls (poll analysis), increasingly flocking towards the President as Republicans continue to bungle their mandate to focus on jobs and the economy. Obama’s approval ratings are the highest they’ve been for years, largely due to an increase in support from independents (36% approval rate last July, compared to 48% now). Not only are Republicans over-focusing on the outright repeal of health care, they're also focusing more on ‘family values’ issues like abortion. Just today Republican lawmakers, after massive outcries from women’s groups and days of dragging their feet, finally removed the term “forcible rape” from the antiabortion bill being debated in Congress. Critics argue that rape is by definition forced, as it seemed lawmakers were trying to make some cases of rape except – like in cases where the victim is unconscious.

But back to health care, Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, prepared Americans for a long fight on repealing individual parts of the law, saying “These are the first steps in a long road that will culminate in 2012. We will continue to expose flaws and faults in this legislation… and the courts will continue to review it.” Democrats and Republicans alike are both hoping the Supreme Court will quickly take up the case to put an end to the debate.

Also coincidentally in the news today Virginia’s attorney general announced that he wanted to bypass the lower court system by asking the Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of the health care law on a more expedited basis. But, historically at least, Democrats have a lot more precedents to point towards in arguing that the health care law is constitutional. As Senator Richard Lugar, Democrat of Illinois, said, “This is not the first major law that’s been challenged in the courts, even challenged successfully in the lower courts.” He then cited the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Federal Minimum Wage law – all of which were challenged, sometimes successfully in lower courts, and ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court.

Further Reading:

CS Monitor: Health-care repeal fails in Senate
NY Times: VA. to ask supreme court to rule on health law