Friday, January 23, 2015

The Iranian Nuclear Threat: What to do

It has been an interesting week for U.S. Israel relations. As is well known, both the U.S. and Israel are extremely concerned about the prospect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. The issue is how to stop the Iranians from pursuing a nuclear bomb, and on this issue, the White House and the Republican-controlled Senate don’t see eye-to-eye. 

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said: 

"New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”

Indeed, the Senate is not of one mind, as differing bills work their way through the legislative process. Here  is a good review of the bidding.

Moreover, Israel does not adhere to only one view of the matter. Prime Minister Netanyahu favors a bill that would impose conditional sanctions on Iran, but at a press conference with European Union foreign policy chief  Federica Mogherini, Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that 

“In Israel, one of the top intelligence –- one of the top intelligence personnel within the Israeli intelligence field –- I won’t name names, but this person was asked directly by a congressional delegation that visited there over the weekend what the effect of sanctions would be. And this person answered that it would be like throwing a grenade into the process”

Perhaps LIndsey Graham heard this Mossad official, because on Meet the Press, Graham said that he would be willing to forego a provisional sanctions bill if the President would submit any agreement with the Iranians to the Senate for ratification. 

This is an idea that, to borrow a phrase from Wolfgang Pauli, is "not even wrong." Any resolution of the problem will require many interim agreements, and submitting each one to the Senate would make progress impossible. This is especially true when one considers that the partisans in the Senate would never aprove of anything that the President negotiated, because they are dedicated to making sure that he fails at everything, regardless of the cost to the country.

To round out this catalogue of difficulties, Speaker of the House John Boehner has invited the Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to address Congress in early March. In a rude breach of protocol the Speaker did not even notify the White House. It has been theorized that this is pay-back for the President acting unilaterally on immigration. If so, it is beyond ironic that the acolytes of Ronald Reagan forget his admonition that “Politics ends at the water’s edge.” (1)

If you want to see the extreme of using Iran to bash the President in a disgusting appeal to the religious right, I give you Ted Cruz. 

Bibi will be standing for early elections on March 17, and he will be speaking to Congress in early March. There is a longstanding norm of international politics that disapproves of any action that smacks of involving one country in the internal politics of another. Although Bibi is arguably guilty of breaching this norm in November of 2012, the White House referred to it in explaining why neither the President nor John Kerry would be meeting with him in advance of the Israeli election.

So, now might be a good time to re-read what I wrote in February of last year, "AIPAC reconsidered."

Of course, today it is difficult to be as sanguine as I was about the Arab Spring when I wrote that. However, I still think that things are a lot better now than they were six years ago. ISIL is a source of great concern but I have it on reliable information that no less an expert than  General Anthony Zinni.opines that the U.S. could defeat this rag-tag non-professional gang of 30,000 fighters in about 2 weeks, if we could only summons the political will to do so. Problem is we can't and therefore, Syria remains an impossible situation, perhaps, because people did not heed the advice I gave here.  

So, there are two questions:

First, where is AIPAC going to come out on the sanctions bill? Will they see the wisdom of the President’s approach, as they did last go-round, or will they defer to Bibi Netanyahu, thereby bolstering him in his election campaign?

Second, what does Big Mitch think we should do?
Regarding the first we can only wait and see. 

As to the second question, I think it is obvious that the U.S. needs to speak with one voice, and that it should be the voice of a grown-up. Sadly, the only one who seems to fit that description is the President of the United States. 

Wish him luck, and, 

“… tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

(1)  It was actually Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg who first uttered these words in 1947. Most of the Gipper's best lines were written by someone else. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Je suis Juif.

While watching the famous liberal media on TV, I saw Ron Allen, a reporter in Paris, talking about the number of Jews leaving France because of the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe in general, and in France in particular. The problem is real and substantial. Then, he used an expression that jangled my ears.  He said that more and more Jews are “going back to Israel.” 

The choice of words rankled because the Jews of France are generally not part of an immigrant community. Jews have lived in the south of France since at least the first century, brought by the Romans as slaves after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, the preeminent commentator on the Jewish Bible and the Oral Law, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known generally as Rashi, was born in Troyes, France in the year 1040.

Jews prospered after the French Revolution, which gave them truly equal citizenship for the first time anywhere in Europe. Their emancipation in 1791 was the signal for ghettos to crumble all over the Continent. This is what French Prime Minister  Manuel Valls referred to when he said, To understand what the idea of the republic is about, you have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews, and, if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.

The endless list of famous French Jews includes two prime ministers, a Secretary of State, and literary giants such as Marcel Proust. Marc Chagall, the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century,” made his home in Paris, having emigrated there as a young man before the first World War.

At least a quarter of the 330,000 Jews in pre-war France were murdered by the Nazi and their sympathizers. After the war, many Jews immigrated to France from Eastern Europe. These Jews were joined in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s by large numbers of Jews from France's predominantly Muslim North African colonies as part of the Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries. The Jewish community is strong in France, and Jews are integrated into all levels of society. Negative attitudes towards Jews in France are less common than in other European countries. One of the victims in the Charlie Habdo was a much-beloved Jewish cartoonist.

And then, it occurred to me. Jews in France are, literally, exiles from the Holy Land, as am I. The Hebrew word for exile is galus. Nearly 2,000 years ago the Jewish nation was driven out of its homeland and sent off into a tear-soaked galus that lasts to this very day. We wait and yearn for the day when our galus and suffering will come to an end, when we will be returned to the Holy Land, with the coming of our redeemer, the Moshiach (Messiah) may it be speedily and in our times.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The race that is too tough to understand.

Here is the final predictions for Senate Races, presented on a handy-dandy scorecard.

And here are the predictions for Governor's races.

Major news media are ignoring an exciting race in Alaska. Is it is too hard to cover because of the time zones and the environment? Or is it too hard to explain? To make the matter worse, people like Sam Wang, of, don’t understand the situation in Alaska; and therefore, their math doesn’t add up.

Here’s what you need to know.

In both the gubernatorial and the senate races, the favored candidate is given a 62% chance of a win because he is ahead by one percentage point (plus or minus 3 or more percentage points.) The surprising prediction is that in the Senate, Dan Sullivan (the Republican) is favored, while in the Governor’s race, the Republican is considered more likely to lose.

For that to happen a LOT of Alaskans would have to split their votes, choosing a Republican senator, and a Governor who ran as an Independent and then formed a fusion ticket with the Democratic nominee, Byron Mallot, a leader the Native Rights movement. Given that former AG, Dan Sullivan is to the Native Rights movement what the bus driver who kicked Rosa Parks off the bus is to the Civil Rights Movement, it’s difficult to imagine anyone who would vote for Native Rights Activist Byron Mallot and Former Attorney General Sullivan, prosecutor of Katy John So much the more so in light of the endorsement given to Begich by the Alaska Federation of Natives.

It follows, that at least one of Sam Wang’s two Alaska predictions is wrong. We don’t know which, so the odds that it could be either is 50-50. Therefore, both races are precisely toss-ups. This sounds like some arithmatic sleight of hand, but it is no different from the process by which Dr. Wang averages polls in a particular race. The novelty is that I am averaging a senate race with a governor’s race: I reject the assumption that the two variables are independent. Do the math,  (But note that Dr. Wang is ever so slightly more sure of Sullivan than he is of Walker/Mallot.)

However, and here’s where subjective feeling enters in, I say it is the prediction that Sullivan will beat Begich that is incorrect. I am betting on Mark Begich and I say, it’s easy money. He is an Alaskan, son of an Alaskan congressman, who done good, and we don't set the bar too high up here. (Just google Sarah Palin, or Don Young.) Factor in women's issues and this ain't as hard to figure as some Sci-Fi movie. It's psephology.

Plus: can you say, "ground game?"

“… and tell ‘em Big Mitch sent ya!”

(Written the night BEFORE the election.)

Friday, June 06, 2014

The cure for predator corporations

If you are a corporation and you pay non-unionized labor so little that they can’t live on their salary without government benefits such as food-stamps, WIC, and TANF, then you are a predator corporation. You are taking profits from the labor of others, and not paying for it. Instead, the government is paying for it, and passing the bill along to the taxpayers. Some might say it is highly immoral to “wring[ your] bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

Anyway, it isn’t illegal.

Now, just about any solution to this problem will undoubtedly be condemned as “income redistribution” or, worse, “socialism.” Never mind that anytime you go into Walmart and pay 25 cents for a trinket that they got from China for 10 cents, your income is being redistributed to the Waltons and the Chinese.

But the Republican fetish for free markets regards the Waltons as geniuses who are simply playing by the rules and making money. Ain’t that what capitalism is supposed to be?

Here’s an idea which is so crazy, it just may work.
Supposed you passed a law that said that anybody who works for a non-union shop with more than 500 employees is ineligible for government benefits unless they are paid $15.00/hr.  The Republican anti-government crowd would have to at least acknowledge that it is not an expansion of the social safety net. 

They might even welcome it as a dismantling of what they see as a “welfare state.” Since, by its terms the law would enable some employers to pay union workers less than non-union workers it might be seen as a blow to the unions.

Most states and localities will see a savings from the reduction of need for social services. They can pass the savings along in reduced taxes. Or they can do a little infrastructure building, producing jobs and higher quality of life. Or they can undo some of the cuts to education that been necessitated by the recent reign of austerity.

But you know who isn’t going to like it? That would be the Walton family. You see, their business model doesn’t work without getting someone else to pay for their workers. What will they do when people refuse to work for them unless they are paid enough to live on? And by “paid enough to live on,” I mean, paid by their employers enough to live on. You see, it is just not worth it to work for the Waltons, without subsidies from the government. 

Maybe they will decide that unions aren’t such a bad thing after all. I doubt it, but as they say, it’s hard to predict the future. After all, unions have the power of numbers with which to negotiate a living wage. Maybe the Walton family will have to tighten their belts, though it is hard to imagine what they will have to do without. Maybe the CEO of McDonalds will have to scrape by 4.1 million a year (as he did in 2011) rather than the $13.8 million he was given this year. I think we can all agree that this is a bummer for him but it is not as bad as working for 30 hours a week and making $217.50.

It may be that prices at Walmart and fast food places have to go up. That’s not so bad, either. According to the laws of supply and demand, people may eat less Mickey D. You got a problem with that? It may be that the trinket that Walmart purchased in China for 10 cents to sell to you, may cost you 27 cents instead of two bits. Think of the two cent difference as the amount your locality saved on costs, and if you didn’t get it back on your tax bill, enjoy your new road, or your kid’s music class. By the way, if you would like to manufacture trinkets in American, to sell in your own trinket boutique, you are two cents closer to being able to compete with Chinese imports.

Talk this over with the next economist you meet,

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Catholic vote

In the last six presidential elections the candidate who won the Catholic vote has won the popular vote. Al Gore won the popular vote handily but lost the Supreme Court case of Bush v Gore. (Held: counting votes is unconstitutional.)
President Obama carried the Catholic vote 50 percent to 48 percent while he won the overall national vote 51 percent to 47 percent. That's the third straight Presidential election where the Catholic vote has been a near-carbon copy of the overall vote.

Many Catholic voters are Latino, a group that gave Obama 71% of their votes. Republican attitudes towards immigration aren’t going to win over many of these voters. Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the GOP shouldn’t even bother to field a presidential candidate in 2016 unless Congress passes immigration reform this year. Spoiler alert: they are not going to do it.

The Catholic vote historically was solidly Democratic, but Richard Nixon undertook to create a “new majority” and enlisted Pat Buchanan to capture the Catholic vote. Buchanan suggested, among other things, appointing Italian-Americans to visible positions, going so far as to suggest that the so-called “black seat” or “Jewish seat” on the Supreme Court be given to an ethnic Catholic when it became available. (He was for quotas before he was against them.) Today, there are no Protestants on the Court, and the only Black on the court is Catholic. There are three “ethnic Catholics” – Alito, Scalia, and Sotomeyor.

In 1972 President Nixon, upon the suggestion of Buchanan, wrote to Cardinal Cooke expressing his opposition to abortion and supporting the effort to repeal the liberal N.Y. law. (Interestingly, in the 1970s, conservative Christian protests against sexual immorality began to surface, largely as a reaction to the “permissive sixties” and an emerging prominence of sexual liberties arising from Roe v Wade and the gay rights movement. Christians began to “wake up” and make sexuality issues a priority political cause, per Wiki. I’ll discuss how these voters can be recaptured at a later date.)

The Republican efforts to appeal to Catholic voters achieved some success. Today, it is still assumed that for many Catholic voters -- especially white Catholics -- abortion is a key issue, that many of these voters went for Romney, and that they may go to the Republican nominee in 2016.

I am not so sure that the issue of abortion has as much salience for Catholics as it once had. In a poll in October 2013, thirty-nine percent of all respondents — and 42 percent of self-identified Catholics – felt abortion should be illegal in either “all” or “most” cases. Catholics are just not that different from Americans as a whole.

Pope Francis is not going to change church doctrine regarding this issue. But he has suggested that the church’s focus on abortion can be re-examined. Here is how he put it:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

It is clear that he prefers to keep the attention on wealth inequality and concern for the poor. His comments on fairness very nearly amount to an open rebuke of Paul Ryan, an early contender for the Republican nomination. For sake of discussion, let’s call the issue of wealth inequality “fairness.”

This is not the place to discuss the many reasons that “fairness” as an issue can be embraced by a huge majority of voters, though they are not necessarily the most motivated. Suffice it to say, that 2016 has the potential to pit populists against plutocrats and Catholics are the natural constituency of the populists. Of course, this is true of Latino Catholics, but it is also true of white Catholics in general, many of whom are blue collars workers including those who are feeling disempowered by the decline of labor union power.

Can the issues of abortion and fairness be linked? It will take more than the formulation that Bill Clinton used, which has been taken up by Hillary Clinton: “Abortion should be safe, legal and rare.”

In point of fact, abortions are down in the United States under President Obama. In 2011, approximately 1.06 million abortions took place in the U.S., down from an estimated 1.21 million abortions in 2008, 1.29 million in 2002, 1.31 million in 2000 and 1.36 million in 1996. The main driver of abortion levels is the economy. Put another way, improving the economic circumstances of the poor is the most effective anti-abortion program available in America.

If this point can be driven home to Catholics, a significant shift in voting patterns can be achieved. “Want to eliminate abortion? Vote Democratic!” “Access to Birth Control means fewer abortions.” “Fairness = fewer abortions.”

One hundred, twenty-seven million voters cast votes in the 2012 election One quarter of the votes (i.e. almost 32 million) were cast by Catholics.

A 51.1 – 47.2 percentage split of the popular vote in favor of Obama produced a margin of victory of 1,053,000 votes, and a decisive victory in the Electoral College. 

If the next Democratic candidate can shift just 2% of the Catholic vote in his or her favor, that’s a 1,280,000 cushion that would virtually guarantee a victory for the Democratic nominee. 

And, if you are listening, Joe Biden, it wouldn’t hurt if the nominee himself was a proud Catholic. And, Joe, if you do decide to run …

“… tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”