Monday, July 28, 2014

The Real Grounds for Impeaching Obama

Among Republicans, impeachment seems to be a pretty popular idea nowadays—supposedly, President Obama has overstepped his authority with excessive executive orders, for which Speaker of the House John Boehner is already suing him. This is all pretty predictable, given how the Republicans have behaved over the past years (or decades, even). Among mainstream liberals, the response is, equally unsurprisingly, that Obama has done nothing to deserve impeachment. While I never identify with either group, there are few issues where they both succeed in being so utterly wrong.

The charge against Obama, in regards to executive orders, is nonsense. He hasn’t issued an extraordinary number of executive orders by any stretch of the imagination, and they don’t really extend beyond the reasonable parameters of executive power. Further, even if Obama had overstepped his authority, it’s weak grounds for impeachment. The constitution states the necessary offenses for impeachment are “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” It’s hard to argue that Obama’s issuance of executive orders—at least those the Republicans are complaining about—honestly constitutes a crime. So even if the Republicans’ charge were true—and it isn’t—it wouldn’t be grounds for impeachment.

Contrary to what the mainstream liberals believe, however, there are plenty of entirely legitimate grounds to impeach Obama. There’s the NSA scandal, for starters, which constitutes numerous violations of the Fourth Amendment. Or there’s the fact that he’s authorized the extrajudicial killing of at least one American citizen—an offense probably far more extreme than what the Founders (specifically Benjamin Franklin, who championed the impeachment provision) had in mind. It’s hard to think of something that better constitutes a “high Crime” than murder, which is what Obama was, doubtless, involved in, when authorizing a drone strike against Anwar al-Awlaki—a man who had not been so much as indicted, let alone convicted, of any crime. Or, for that matter, there was the killing of Osama bin Laden in front of his family, violating norms of the law of war going back to Abraham Lincoln. In violation of US law, the Obama administration has also given aid to the Egyptian dictatorship, which quickly ended the nascent democracy there by coming to power through a coup, and has violently suppressed the population since.

And these are mostly just offenses that violate American law—if we take “high Crimes” to be applicable to international law, the issue becomes even easier. Obama’s enormous reliance on drone warfare has been criticized by foreign policy experts, human rights groups, and even the UN (to some extent) as being in violation (or at least, possibly in violation, depending on circumstances) of international law. Likewise in violation of international law was the Obama administration’s threat of force against Syria. Then, of course, there’s Obama’s continuation—escalation, even—of the war in Afghanistan, a war whose legality was always dubious, as it was neither UN-approved nor for self-defense, strictly speaking (the Taliban never attacked the US, after all). Certainly, there are grounds at least for impeachment, if not conviction, again assuming that war crimes count among the “high Crimes” mentioned in the constitution.

In fairness, there are Republicans who have criticized Obama on these fronts, but the leadership of the party seems rather disinterested. One can’t help but note the irony that the political party supposedly championing freedom from government intrusion overlooks these grave breaches of law to focus on trivial issues like the immigration reforms Obama promulgated, or his delay of his own healthcare law’s provisions. Unlike the impeachment the Republicans are calling for—which would be a political stunt and nothing else—an impeachment for the charges I mentioned would be enormously healthy for the country as a whole. It would demonstrate that we actually expect the president to obey the same laws the rest of us have to, and the international laws that our country has agreed to. Obama is anything but unique in his lawlessness—Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Truman were all similar, many of them much worse. But perhaps if Obama were impeached and convicted for his actual crimes, rather than his imaginary ones, it would send a message to all future presidents. Instead we’re stuck with the usual political games. Benjamin Franklin would be disappointed.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why Israel's "Self-Defense" Argument Fails

Without a doubt, discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is entering into a subject area that is decades old and includes a great deal of hatred and ugliness on both sides. Nonetheless, it’s a topic I figured I’d address sooner or later, and the ongoing incursion into Gaza certainly provides ample opportunity. To some, I suppose my opinion may come off as a bit one-sided, but I would do no one any favors by inserting more uncertainty into a situation as confused and horrific as the current one.

The justification for Israel’s airstrikes on, and now ground invasion of, Gaza, is the continuing barrage of rockets from Gaza, shot off by Hamas. Because of Israel’s defense system, these rockets have largely failed to find their targets, and have an extremely low casualty count—certainly no excuse for Hamas’s actions, but something to keep in mind when realizing that Israel’s justification for its actions hinges on the idea that they are necessary for self-defense.

In contrast to the rocket strikes, Israel’s response has killed hundreds of Palestinians—and, ironically, far more Israelis (in the form of soldiers—who are often not serving voluntarily, given Israel’s mandatory military service) than the rockets—and has had ghastly effects on Gaza, leaving 1.2 million with little or no water, and the entire (badly overcrowded) population utterly terrorized. That would be the first problem with the self-defense justification; unless we value Palestinian lives vastly less than Israeli ones, we must see that the Israeli response has done far more harm than good.

That purely utilitarian calculation is far from the only problem with Israel’s self-defense claim. While supporters of Israel may make excuses for the large number of civilian casualties due to the fact that Hamas has located its members and supplies in close quarters with innocents, it’s hard to see how this would justify targets such as the recently shelled al-Aqsa hospital. This incident isn’t exactly an outlier either, since it’s at least the third such strike on a hospital since the ground invasion began. It’s hard to imagine that, even if these hospitals weren’t deliberately targeted, the Israeli forces are exactly taking great care to minimize civilian deaths. Given the areas that have been hit as well as the overall gross inequality between the Israelis killed by Hamas versus the Palestinians killed by the Israeli forces, it seems entirely believable that collective punishment is perhaps the real motivation.

Even a generous assessment must conclude that Israel is essentially enforcing its longstanding siege on Gaza—an area many have described as an open-air prison, as a result of Israel’s oppressive polices. Hamas’s refusal to agree to a ceasefire largely hinges on the blockade Israel has imposed against Gaza for years now—a blockade that has been widely criticized for its damage to everyday Gaza residents, and may very well be (in my view, indeed, with little doubt is) yet another example of Israeli collective punishment against the Palestinians. Israel’s justification for the blockade is partly in order to keep Hamas from acquiring rockets—I don’t feel the need to explain how profoundly nonsensical it is to allow rocket attacks to continue in order to keep such a blockade in place.

While Hamas and the Israeli government both seem to have adopted the appalling policy that any number of civilian deaths is permissible to achieve their goals, one can say in Hamas’s favor that at least some of their goals are reasonable. Hamas has previously offered a ten-year truce if Israel withdraws to pre-1967 borders—something that even President Obama (now busy assuring Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that he supports Israel’s right to “self-defense”) has spoken out in favor of. According to recent reports, Hamas has presented a new offer for such a truce, on ten conditions, which largely ask for an easing of the blockade and greater freedom for Gaza. (Whether Hamas would really abide by such a truce is a different matter, but one would hope the Israeli government would see greater reason to respect the Palestinians’ basic rights rather than just to end the rocket attacks.) Israel’s goals, one can only assume, are to continue its blockade and general mistreatment of the Palestinians. There may be no good guy between the two, but it’s not hard to see which one is worse, when the facts have been laid out. Naturally, one’s sympathies should fall with neither, but rather with the general well-being of both the Israelis and the Palestinians—but it’s pretty clear which of those two is worse off, and why that is.

It’s time for the United States to completely end its support of the Israeli government. No more money, nor military equipment, nor diplomatic encouragement, should be given to Netanyahu and friends—the ones who most deserve to have the label “terrorist” applied to them, if not far worse labels. Israel has consistently demonstrated utter disregard for both the well-being of the Palestinians and for international law. It’s disgusting, if unsurprising, that they’ve so long enjoyed our support. It’s time for that to end. What should be demanded of them is obedience to the Geneva conventions (which they’ve consistently ignored) as well as all other elements of international law, such as the ban on chemical weapons—which they never ratified, and also haven’t obeyed. It’s time for Israel to withdraw to the borders it occupied before the Six Days’ War, as many have called on them to do—a pretty generous offer, considering from the early days they displaced Palestinians with little concern for the result. Israel’s government is a terrorist organization far more effective and sinister than Hamas; the people of Israel shouldn’t be made to suffer for that fact, but it’s time that terrorist organization at least lost our backing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Nothing is Joke-proof

So, very recently, Jason Biggs—from American Pie and, more currently, Orange is the New Black—caused a predictable uproar because he made a joke about the Malaysian airline plane that was shot down. The joke in question? He asked if anyone wanted to buy his Malaysian airline frequent flyer miles. If you’re like me, that’s worth a brief smirk and pretty much nothing else. If you’re like a huge number of other people on Twitter, that’s some kind of hideous crime against humanity. It’s borderline exasperating that I honestly feel obligated to explain why that attitude is ridiculous, but at this point I think it’s an issue worth addressing.

No one would have cared if Biggs had made some unrelated joke that just happened to occur after the plane was hit. No one would care if Biggs had known about the tragedy before making said unrelated joke. But in effect, what’s the big difference? Either way, the goal would be to make you laugh when a tragedy had just occurred. And it isn’t as if Biggs’s joke makes people care less about what happened; it made a lot of people care far more, since they would have probably gone on with their lives as usual, had they not suddenly felt the need to raise some sort of moral outrage about how Jason Biggs is an insensitive monster.

So what’s so offensive about the joke in question, then? The fact that it reflects the fact that Jason Biggs doesn’t care all that much that a bunch of people he never met got killed? I don’t either. Neither do you. Sure, we all think it’s awful, but is anyone outside of the friends and family of the victims really going to do anything other than give some acknowledgment that it was tragic, and horrible, etc., and then move on? They shouldn’t—this event is no more tragic than the sort of things that happen every day. Just more unexpected. If you don’t spend a lot of your life mourning the fact that millions of children die each year of starvation—and again, you shouldn’t, because it accomplishes nothing to sit around and feel bad about it—then you have no right to expect anyone else to enter some mourning period for a couple hundred complete strangers on a plane somewhere thousands of miles away.

And let’s state the obvious here: the people who raised the moral outrage are no different than you or me in this respect. Had they not seen this joke, they would have gone on with their lives as usual, putting the thought of the Malaysian airline tragedy out of mind. Thanks to Jason Biggs and their own self-righteousness, one Tweet has caused them to focus far more on this tragedy than they otherwise would have. So why are they throwing a hissy fit about it? Who did the joke honestly hurt? The victims are dead. Their families probably weren’t paying attention to the Twitter feed of some random actor at the time. In fact, if the families of the victims are now aware of Jason Biggs’s joke, the bold moral crusaders who stirred up so much controversy about it have themselves to blame for that; it would have gone completely under the radar had they not chosen to act like some grave breach of human decency had been committed.

The people who have gotten outraged about this and a thousand other “tasteless” jokes live in a fantasy world where keeping grieving families “in your thoughts and prayers” actually achieves something and where humor is only acceptable for things that upset no one. That’s not the world we live in. We live in a world where every day is a tragedy for someone somewhere—many people, in fact. More than one philosopher throughout history has posited that life itself is suffering, and that view has a lot to back it up. With that in mind, drawing some sort of line between what is and isn’t acceptable to joke about is beyond senseless.

I’m not going to whitewash the reason I think it’s okay to laugh at—and make—jokes about plague, genocide, rape, or pretty much anything else. It’s not because “it helps us deal with tragedy” or something innocuous-sounding like that. It’s because all of those are part of human existence, and so when they happen to someone I never knew and who played no part in my life, I’m not deeply saddened, even though I sympathize with those who are. And even some things that have deeply saddened me, I’m willing to joke about. Humor is based on existence as we know it. As such, it can either be okay to joke about every part of that existence, or none of it at all. That doesn’t mean that every joke has to be funny, but it does mean that no jokes can rightly be offensive—only the message sent by a joke can be offensive. The message sent by Biggs’s joke is that all of us might want to avoid flying Malaysian airlines. I’d tend to agree. Those who want to act like the joke is insensitive need to admit to themselves that deep down, they’re really no more upset by the Malaysian airline crash than Jason Biggs is. If they really are, they might want to read some statistics on world hunger, disease, crime, etc. Then they might want to consider if they could find better uses for their time than getting outraged at a joke.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Neocons Are Useless Idiots

With a crisis continuing in Iraq, President Obama has already chosen to intervene, at least on a small scale, with “advisors” and security for the embassy—troops that may see combat, but are certainly not (perish the thought!) the dreaded combat troops. Why in God’s name this seems like a good idea to him is beyond me, but sadly—as usual—Obama isn’t the worst one on the issue. That title would have to go to neocons like John McCain, Dick Cheney, and Rick Perry, all three of whom are blaming the fact that Obama left Iraq at all for the current situation, and naturally, advocating a new intervention—Iraq War III, if you will (because weren’t the first two fun?).

According to these three—two of whom are war criminals and one of whom is possibly the stupidest person to ever be elected to any office, ever—keeping out of Iraq, like Rand Paul proposes, is “isolationism” and a threat to our national security. As others have pointed out, it’s our readiness to invade other countries and involve ourselves in matters where we don’t belong that truly isolates us from the rest of the world. The second claim is even more absurd. As any number of foreign policy analysts could tell you, our “national security”—assuming that means the security of everyday Americans—is threatened not by “isolationism,” but by the fact that we constantly give Middle Easterners quite legitimate reasons to despise us.

In an op-ed so painfully stupid it borders on unreadable, Perry argues that the rise of a group calling itself the Islamic State poses a “real threat.” His piece then hilariously links to an article that notes that the Islamic State does not seem to want to attack the United States. I’ll let that speak for itself.

Of course, the “national security” that is threatened is not that of ordinary American citizens, but that of the interests of the powerful; Cheney certainly knows this. McCain and Perry may be too senile and brainless, respectively, to know it, but they’re certainly performing a valuable service to the elite interests that want to keep Iraq friendly to the west. If anyone should doubt that that’s the ultimate goal of the interventions being looked at, consider the talk of ousting Iraq PM Maliki and replacing him, potentially, with Ahmad Chalabi—a fabricator who helped lead us into the war that created the current nightmare.  

It’s a complete disgrace that people like McCain and Perry actually hold elected office, but not surprising when one considers the electorates they represent. The presence of buffoons like this, though, should not keep us from focusing on what has already been done. We have seen nearly eight hundred troops deployed already. The neocons may not be getting the intervention they want, but we “isolationists” haven’t exactly been getting what we want, either. The difference is that, unlike the neocons, we have real reason to think the departure from our principles does threaten American lives.

Later note (11/27/2017): Looking back on this blog post a few years later, I think it was probably quite a bit more vitriolic than it really should have been. I particularly regret labelling John McCain a war criminal--not because I think the accusation was false, but because it was done in a very blithe, ad hominem sort of way, which trivializes the accusation; also, as we are all aware of the grave ordeal that McCain suffered as a POW, it seems cruel to try to discredit him based on the actions that resulted in far more suffering for him than anyone should have to go through. It is not a remark I would include if I were writing the piece today, without a doubt.

UPDATE: I've corrected this post to note that Rick Perry himself may not have inserted the hyperlink I mentioned. I apologize to Mr. Perry for the potential inaccuracy.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Capitalism Kind Of Is The Problem

In the course of browsing the interwebs, I’ve again found an article that I think is worth responding to, though this one is a great deal more thought provoking and better written than my previous target. It’s a sort of open memo from Nick Hanauer, an ultra-rich investor/businessman, directed to his fellow multimillionaires and billionaires. If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend it—it’s certainly interesting enough. Hanauer’s thesis is basically that for the rich to continue to enjoy their prosperity, a strong middle class must exist. Fair enough.

Unfortunately, though, we end up being reminded that the mythical super-rich guy looking out for the less fortunate is a pretty rare species, and Hanauer is not really a member of it. He might think he is, but that image doesn’t hold up after a close reading of his article. He admits early on, “I’m not the smartest guy you’ve ever met, or the hardest-working. I was a mediocre student. I’m not technical at all—I can’t write a word of code.” Yet he’s not trying to overhaul the economic system that allows people like him to get obscenely rich because bets they make on companies pay off—quite the contrary; he’s trying to preserve the wealth and power of those like him. I suppose that’s understandable—who would really surrender that sort of advantage willingly? But it’s not exactly doing much good for the rest of us.

Hanauer’s support for reforming the current capitalist system is based on fear of rebellion and/or revolution (not an unfounded one, at that). But that his fear is ultimately self-interested is a fact he’d like to gloss over, as he talks about how the rich can “help the 99 percent and preempt the revolutionaries and crazies”—the “crazies” being, presumably, anyone who calls for some fundamental challenge to the system of corporate capitalism we’ve all come to know and Nick Hanauer and his friends have come to love. Interesting that helping the 99 percent involves preempting the people who most fervently champion their cause. Of course, in Hanauer’s view abandoning corporate capitalism would probably mean the downfall of the United States or something like that, because clearly allowing immense concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few is best for everyone (as long as workers are paid enough to keep them from revolting, of course).

Hanauer then goes on to praise Henry Ford, observing correctly that his high wage policy allowed his workers to buy the cars they made, fueling his business (no pun intended). Left unsaid, unsurprisingly, is how Ford had hired goons use violence against labor activists, and considered unionization the “greatest disappointment” of his business. Naturally, these facts would make Hanauer’s talk of how trickle-down economics has “so screwed the American middle class” seem slightly less than sincere.

Hanauer goes out of his way to make the fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage he proposed in an older article seem like some radical new idea, despite the fact that fifteen dollars is actually about two-thirds of what the minimum wage would be if it had kept up with productivity over the years. His case for raising the minimum is convincing enough, but it’s laced with a pretty substantial amount of intellectual dishonesty, as Hanauer talks about how “the capitalists” have always been opposed to higher wages—unlike Henry Ford and Nick Hanauer, who are clearly not part of that class at all, since they’re on your side and want higher wages. They’re practically socialists, even (but of course they’re not socialists because capitalism is the only economic system that works, obviously). In talking about companies that set a “bad example” by paying their employees low wages, Hanauer undermines his point even further when he notes that two offenders, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, “thankfully” have said they wouldn’t oppose a minimum wage hike. So where are “the capitalists” that Nick Hanauer is talking about? It’s almost like he made them up so he could look pro-worker in comparison—but that’s crazy.

After talking about how many Wal-Mart employees are so poor that they have to depend on government programs, Hanauer comments that “Wal-Mart won’t (and shouldn’t) volunteer to pay its workers more than their competitors.” Why they “shouldn’t” isn’t explained, and that idea is particularly baffling when one considers how shrewd Henry Ford was to pay his workers higher, by Hanauer’s own account (among others). In fact, the sentence I quoted comes immediately after he makes the same point, essentially. Hanauer goes from being a champion of “middle-out economics” to an apologist for underpaying workers and then back again, all within a paragraph. Apparently even the façade of being pro-worker is too hard to maintain.

Still harping on his fifteen dollar minimum wage proposal as if it’s some magic cure for every ill of modern capitalism, Hanauer talks about how many government programs would be unnecessary with it: “If people are getting $15 an hour or more, they don’t need food stamps…rent assistance. They don’t need you and me to pay for their medical care.” A person working a forty-hour week at a fifteen-dollar wage would make around 31k a year (not taking taxes into account). Based on the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator, a family of four in a major city would quite possibly barely be kept out of poverty, assuming both parents made this amount. Single parents wouldn’t be so lucky. But these facts—which take a few minutes of research to ascertain—don’t stop Hanauer from talking as if his minimum wage proposal would virtually eliminate the need for welfare programs, as he cheerfully adds that the higher wages would also help reduce the deficit through payroll and sales taxes (two taxes that overwhelmingly hit the poor).

Hanauer faults the Democrats for failing to emphasize the economic growth policies like his would create, claiming that they’ve used social justice as their talking point, allowing the Republicans to promise growth and win. This claim, like his minimum wage claims, is pretty out of touch with reality. In 2012, Barack Obama won reelection over Mitt Romney—who promised better economic growth than had been seen under Obama—by appealing to the desire for a more fair economy. In the nineties, Bill Clinton had similar success in talking about how he felt the pain of those struggling to pay their bills. In contrast, George W. Bush won reelection after a campaign mostly focusing on foreign policy. Perhaps Hanauer’s understanding is approximately what happened in the Reagan years, but the American people have long ago begun to recognize the economy isn’t serving them. Trying to shift the debate to economic growth is doing them a disservice at this point.

In wrapping up his argument, Hanauer asserts that capitalism is not the problem, but actually “the greatest social technology ever invented to create prosperity in human societies.” But why shouldn’t we blame capitalism—using that term to refer to the state-corporate capitalism we’ve had for many decades—for the problems we see? Do we really have to settle for a system that lets people get filthy rich off of successful investments, while we have inner cities rank with poverty and violence? “Capitalism,” as Hanauer is using the term, refers to a system that concentrates control of the economy in the hands of a small elite—people like himself, not coincidentally. This system allows the few to live off of the work of the many; their fortunes have to come from somewhere, after all. Why not aim for a system that actually lets the workers keep the fruits of their labor, and manage their businesses cooperatively?

Hanauer’s article is a very interesting one, and it’s all very shrewd advice if one takes it to be only what it explicitly claims to be—a memo to his fellow super-capitalists. But if you read between the lines, it becomes pretty clear that isn’t all it’s intended to be. Hanauer talks about a “New Deal” and appeals to the memory of FDR—not exactly great ways to win over CEOs and investors, but a great way to convince liberals he’s on their side—and not surprisingly, they’ve already fallen for it. Perhaps Nick Hanauer and the liberals happily agreeing with him think that higher wages really are a solution to the problems we face, but the logic is ultimately not convincing. Until they are given real control, the workers of America remain, essentially, slaves. Hanauer’s solution is not to abolish slavery, but rather for plantation-owners to treat their slaves a little more nicely—after all, we don’t want any of the “crazies” convincing the slaves they could be better off free.

It’s time for those who really are devoted to the cause of the middle class and the workers to wake up to a simple fact: their interests are not in alignment with people like Nick Hanauer’s. As long as investors and businessman like Hanauer remain extremely rich, the rest of us have to settle for less. Only when we wake up to the fact that we don’t need billionaires and multi-millionaires can we really address the problems of capitalism. Some may call that class warfare, but I call it simple economics.