Thursday, April 28, 2011

Budget in Context

What's the budget debate about? Obama put the question of "how to balance the budget" in the context of "what kind of country will we be?"

The GOP puts the issue as entirely a matter of "living within our means"; it is strikingly silent on what kind of America will come out of the process. Despite Obama's recent speech, the predominant approach from the Democrats has also not really come to grips with what's happening to America and what to do about it.

The America of 2011is not the country some thought it would be a decade ago when Washington and Wall Street prematurely laid claim to a "New American Century". Far from triumphalism, the mood and reality today define a country that is deeply troubled. The stock market is back and profits are at record highs, but the economy is very sick. No remedy is emerging to deal with chronic high unemployment and underemployment; disparity in wealth distribution has never been as great; health care costs are galloping out of sight and poverty is expanding apace; educational opportunity is eroding and the infrastructure of the country is descending into potholes.

The structure of the economy has undergone drastic changes: its manufacturing base has been decimated, unions have shrunk, jobs have gone overseas and multinational corporations are evading taxes on a grand scale. On top of all this is the cruel burden of unending and unwinnable wars, the unbearable cost of maintaining a gargantuan military establishment with thousands of overseas bases policing the world.

America remains powerful on the world stage, but it is not the superpower whose strength can dominate the course of international developments. There are self-confident rivals who act with independence in economic and political affairs. Moreover, in a world that is undergoing epic economic and environmental crises, we are failing even to face up to the existential problem of climate change.

All in all, our problems are not a matter of a temporary glitch that can be resolved by cutting social programs or waiting for an upturn in the economy. Any meaningful remedies require taking account of the dimensions of the crisis and decline that grips the country. It also requires, as Obama said, a vision of what kind of America will be shaped by the way in which our crisis is confronted.

The Ryan budget ignores everything about the present crisis but the federal deficit. The GOP says absolutely nothing about what America would look like if it were to get everything it’s asking for: slashing education and basic services at every level, gutting Medicare and Medicaid, while shrinking revenue by cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

There may be no magical solution to all our problems, but we can achieve a great deal by practical and humane alternatives in the way we budget and allocate the government’s resources. There is no mystery to the essential approaches that would both improve life for most Americans while reducing the federal deficit. (What’s not simple is how the people can overcome the obstacles to progress manipulated by corporate wealth with all its lobbyists, politicians, and largely controlled media.)

The “People’s Budget” put forward by over 80 members of the Progressive Congressional caucus points the way. It shows how to reduce the deficit while dealing more effectively with the nation’s crucial needs. The remedy is threefold: increasing revenue by raising (rather than lowering) taxes on the wealthy, especially the extremely wealthy, and closing tax loopholes; gaining control of and reducing the costs of heath care; getting out and staying out of wars, and sharply reducing the bloated military establishment. How far we go in dealing with these three problem areas will influence what we can do to stimulate the economy, generate jobs, expand education, renew infrastructure, and become serious about developing alternative energy and confronting climate change.

Rightist and corporate resistance to both healthcare reform and significant retrenchment of the military-industrial complex threatens to dig the nation into an ever-deepening hole. On healthcare, necessary control over costs is impossible without placing the public interest over the profits of the mega health insurance and drug corporations. Medicare for all, cutting out the role of private greed, is the ideal solution, but at least some significant measures to strengthen the public’s hand are essential.

As for the colossal “defense” budget, it was shaped by exploiting the exaggerated paranoia that marked the Cold War and it has continued to expand out of any reasonable relationship to present reality. As Defense Secretary Gates recently acknowledged, “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Particularly irrational and dangerous is the hugely costly nuclear weapons arsenal. Beyond that, the vast network of bases abroad serves no worthwhile purpose since notions of “policing” the world prove illusory as well as provocative.

So there is an effective and humane way forward. Ryan’s corporate backers tout his “courage” in putting on the table so-called “entitlements”, the privileged set’s euphemism for programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that meet fundamental human needs. The courage that’s needed is what the Congressional Progressive Caucus has urged. One has to hope that the negative public response to the GOP-Ryan Plan, the overwhelming nationwide opposition to gutting Medicare, will encourage a demand to go after the real “entitlements” of the corporate world: tax evasion, profiteering at the expense of public health, and the sacred cow that is the military-industrial complex.

Better than hope, what’s called for is a lot more of the outpouring of anger and protest that Governor Walker has encountered in Wisconsin. It’s time for the people to get into the debate.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


A week or two ago, the most urgent and contentious question was whether or not the US and its Western allies should intervene militarily in Libya. Now the missiles have rained down and a “no fly” blanket covers Libya. The possible massacre in Benghazi that Qaddafi threatened may have been averted, but events quickly made it clear that US/ NATO military power is not a solution for Libya any more than “shock and awe” was for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now the urgent question is, can the course of events be altered soon enough to prevent another prolonged war of intervention in the Middle East. How, for the sake of the Libyan people and a war-weary world, can we avoid sinking deeper into the morass of unending wars?

What’s called for, it seems to me, is international intervention, but intervention of a different kind than has been the sad pattern of the past. The UN has been bullied and bribed time and again into providing “sanction” for interventionist “holy” wars. Can that be different now? Can there be intervention for a cease-fire that protects the ability of the Libyan people to pursue their own democratic struggle as part of the “Arab Spring”? I think there are reasons why it can be different now.

Before looking at the reasons, a positive change in the character of international response to the Libyan crisis would have to involve urgent diplomacy efforts by the UN, shifting initiative toward members of the Security Council that abstained from supporting military action. The immediate aim would be a cease-fire that would halt Qaddafi’s military assaults and bombing by NATO. The longer-range outlook would be to secure conditions in which the Libyan people can bring about social change on their own terms without the tragic consequences of foreign military intervention and another prolonged war. However events develop, world opinion and effective international solidarity will be a force in support of the Libyan people against Qaddafi’s tyranny, as it was in the heroic struggle of the South African majority that finally ended the Apartheid regime.

Circumstances are far different today than they were when a triumphalist Bush Administration invaded Iraq in defiance of opposition at home and abroad. Iraq and Afghanistan destroyed the conceit that the US government can determine outcomes and force “solutions” by virtue of its overwhelming military superiority. The American people, like people everywhere, want no part of a third war in the Middle East. Moreover, Barak Obama and Robert Gates have shown great reluctance about being drawn into another disastrous military adventure. (While they are decidedly leery of more land wars, their reluctance does not extend to the widespread use of missiles and drones, as well as the CIA, Special Forces, and killer contractors.)

While views on the intervention in Libya have differed widely, including on the left, UN Resolution 1973 cannot be ascribed primarily to “same-old, same-old” imperialist motivation. Humanitarian concerns about Qaddafi’s brutality were real, regardless of mixed and ulterior motives among “Western” and Arab governments. Strong public support for prompt UN intervention came not only through the pleas of Libyan rebels facing imminent massacre, but from veteran anti-imperialists like Uri Avreny, Israeli leftist, and Juan Cole, analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. At the same time, it would be foolish to ignore the dangers inherent in unleashing US and NATO military power in Libya and possibly wading into another hopeless quagmire. The important governments that abstained in the Security Council vote had good reason to worry about potential “humanitarian” considerations as a formula for intervening militarily in the internal affairs of nations.

As for the United States, its greatest contribution to peace and democracy in the Middle East would be to sharply curtail its military presence. That should be the demand, in the interest of the beleaguered American people as much as in support of new generations of Arabs striving courageously to shape their own democratic destiny. The weapons that we sell and supply are the main instruments of tyranny and violence in country after country in the Middle East.

The uncertainty about Libya and what is happening in the Middle East brings America’s changing place in the world into focus. The US is powerful, but it is not the almighty superpower Bush and Cheney thought it was. The McCann and Lieberman hawks still cling to the deadly illusion, but reality is beyond denial. The serious economic and political decline, pushed into a deepening spiral by the political right and its corporate bosses, limits US influence despite the fact that we still have far more weapons of war than all other nations combined. Ending wars and keeping out of new ones is the imperative for any improvement in the lives and fortunes of most Americans. It would also be the biggest boon to worldwide aspirations for peace and democracy. That’s the big picture, the goal that shouldn’t be compromised in Libya or anywhere else.

Monday, February 28, 2011


Egypt’s upheaval, following the one in Tunisia, is not just a regional earthquake with aftershocks rumbling throughout the Middle East. It reveals much about the contemporary world, in which new realities are evolving that impact popular struggles for social progress. Here, I don’t mean primarily the technological tools of social networking, remarkable as they are.

Egypt is the latest example that relatively peaceful popular democratic revolts can arise even under conditions of severe repression and dictatorship. It’s not that the dictatorial regime shies away from using violence to the maximum extent feasible: the Egyptian Health Ministry reports a toll of 365 deaths during the uprising. It’s that it may not be feasible to unleash its full arsenal of violence against a united, courageous and determined mass opposition while the whole world is watching. Such revolts have ousted tyrants and toppled their governments, although they have usually fallen short of achieving fundamental social change.

As revealed so clearly in Egypt, the great tension of our time is between entrenched political and economic systems on one hand and the powerfully growing pressures within society for social change. People everywhere who struggle for social justice and a better world need to recognize both sides of that tension. To lose sight of the first permits optimism and illusions that can’t be sustained; failure to appreciate the second nurtures pessimism and despair, a mood that is paralyzing in trying times.

Despite the dominance of finance capital in the global economy and over most governments, there is a river of social and cultural progress that cannot be diverted or effectively contained. In Egypt, a new generation of youth sparked an uprising that gave voice and power to labor and all sections of society no longer willing to tolerate Mubarak’s dictatorship. But it isn’t only Mubarak’s regime that failed to stem the rising tide of social change. The failure also belongs to the foreign policy establishment of the United States, which not only underwrote the dictatorship with massive military and financial investments, but which played catch-up so reluctantly as the Egyptian resistance inspired worldwide admiration. The failure belongs to a foreign policy that supports anti-democratic regimes so long as they serve as “allies” in unending wars and in pursuit of “our strategic interests” that are enforced by military bases all over the globe.

We don’t yet know the scope of change that the Egyptian people will be able to bring about. We can bet that the military government and its patrons in the Pentagon and US State Department aim to keep control of the transition and manage its outcome. We also don’t know the full impact of spreading resistance to authority in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and throughout the Middle East as desperate monarchs and dictators resort to greater violence to try to escape Mubarak’s fate. In Libya, where Qaddafi has insanely unleashed all the military force he can muster against mass protests, the protests have become an armed revolution that is sweeping his regime away.

The story is ongoing, yet it gives much food for thought about the struggle for democracy and social progress. What moves the process forward?

Even though reactionary or neoliberal administrations have dominated politics in the United States and most countries of the “West” for decades, and despite the dire effects of unfettered capitalist globalization, important currents of social and cultural progress have gained strength within the USA and worldwide. For example, struggles for the rights and equality of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and people of diverse sexual orientations have advanced and won popular support, among youth most of all. For the most part, the structures of government initially resist every new step forward, and then tail along behind as it becomes necessary to adjust to changing reality.

It is painfully clear that changes in the realm of public opinion are far from uniformly progressive. The ultra-right, which owns a lion’s share of the US media, exploits public anger over the economic crisis and failures of the government to amplify hatred and violence against immigrants, unions, racial and religious minorities, women, gays, liberals and progressives. That’s all the more reason to consider the sources and potential of factors that generate pressure for progressive social change.

The revolutionary expansion of technology for instant communication and access to information is changing just about everything. Like almost all technological advances, it has its downside: exploited by mega media and advertising agents of corporate power, it magnifies influences that erode cultural values and educational standards. Yet it has a truly historic upside: no longer can billions of people on all continents be kept in ignorance. It is too vast and multifaceted to be entirely controlled or silenced by political elites, oligarchs, or billionaires. The secrets of corruption and abuse of power are no longer secure. Increasingly knowledge of how societies function and how people live in any part of the world circulates everywhere. And in the hands of creative people, especially the young, the varied instruments of information can become clarions of freedom, remarkably practical weapons of protest and rebellion against oppression.

Within the United States and in other countries of the “West”, there are large-scale demographic changes that also press against an old order dominated by wealthy white elites. Immigration by poorer masses to the richer countries has changed the political landscape despite frenzied, often racist, opposition. Within the USA, the flow of immigrants in recent decades, particularly from Latin American and Asian countries, has penetrated all parts of the country. That — together with the historic internal migration of African-Americans (documented in Elizabeth Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” [2010, Random House]) — is changing America dramatically. People of color are now a majority, or close to it, in some states. Children of mixed color and ethnic backgrounds are a growing presence everywhere.

Perhaps the most important factor in rising pressures for social change, although its eventual consequences are uncertain, is the multi-dimensional crisis of the existing world order. In this still young century it appears that the era of effective domination by one or two “superpowers” may be over. The power of Washington to control events on a world scale is diminished. Other sources of economic and political influence are rising, but it is unlikely that any power will achieve the degree of imperial and military dominance that the USA has exercised. Moreover, the economic and environmental crises are beyond the capacity of any single or small group of nations to resolve.

An epochal change may be taking place on the role of war as a viable instrument in world politics. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stubbornly pursued by the US government, are the crowning evidence through decades of wars that have proved unwinnable despite overwhelming military superiority. Coming on the heels of retreat from the “crucial” Pech Valley in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Gates has made a remarkably sweeping acknowledgment of war’s folly. As reported in the New York Times (2/25/2911):

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates bluntly told an audience of West Point cadets on Friday that it would be unwise for the United States to ever fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the chances of carrying out a change of government in that fashion again were slim.

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” Mr. Gates told an assembly of Army cadets here.

It is hardly likely that the military-industrial complex will fold up after Gates’ confession of failure, give up its bloated budget and worldwide bases, and cease its high-tech assassinations and far-flung interventions via “special forces”. Nevertheless, historic constraints are emerging against interventionist wars and occupation of foreign lands. These constraints arise fundamentally because the great majority of the people of the world oppose war. No matter how much destructive power the military may have at its disposal, unbridgeable political and moral limits on war have been evolving since it first became evident that modern war could destroy humanity.

The waters of social progress are not passive. Whether in Cairo, Benghazi, or Madison, the current is driven by actions and uprisings of people when they are ready to resist oppression and intolerable living conditions. One can’t predict the outcome of every battle, or even of the overall war for earthly survival. Unwarranted optimism (rare as it has become) can be balanced out with awareness of reactionary countercurrents so apparent in the USA today: the unaltered grip of Wall Street on our economy and political institutions, the emergence of racist and fascist–style movements, the assault on weakened trade unions and collective bargaining rights.

But the poor and long oppressed of the Arab world are reminding us that “people power” is inextinguishable. When masses awake, the walls of tyranny and elite privilege begin to crack. And when a new generation of youth unexpectedly kicks over the traces, we remember never to say “Never.”

Saturday, January 1, 2011


Where do we go from here?

That's the question Paul Krugman and Robin Wells ask in the New York Review of Books, 1/13/11. That's the question that grips everyone on the left of American politics.

On many domestic issues there is a broad progressive consensus, the need to fight like hell to convince and rally people to push back against the corporate billionaires and their shameless political front men in Congress. Only greater public understanding — the will to confront those making out like bandits while masses face long-term joblessness and poverty — can turn things around and revitalize momentum for progressive change. There is no lack of serious programmatic ideas, nor is there serious disagreement on most issues.

It's a different matter when it comes to analysis of why things turned sour and of strategy going forward. Here frustration and differences are rife. Argument often divides over estimates and attitudes toward Obama and his administration.

Krugman/Wells, while acknowledging objective difficulties imposed by the severe economic crisis and the ultra-right's dominance in mis-shaping "public opinion", put the onus for the startling rightward political shift on Obama's political mistakes and leadership failures. Echoed by Jeffrey Sachs, Michael Lerner, and many others after the 2010 election debacle, Krugman/Wells essentially write off Obama and admonish Democrats to "to delink their political fate from Obama". Lerner and a few others call for a candidate to challenge Obama in the primaries before the 2012 elections.

In contrast, a minority left view is offered by Sam Webb in the People's World, 12/31/10. His criticism of Obama is muted, and he admonishes the left to recognize its own responsibilities: "For too long we have assumed that the American people are ready to wholeheartedly embrace left solutions. If we, and especially the Democrats, project them, 'the people will come.' Tell that to Russ Feingold!"

My intent in this brief commentary is not to try to pull together a direct answer to the question posed by Krugman/Wells: "where do we go from here?" As noted, prescriptions on issues and the need for resolute action are similar across the left spectrum. Emphasis does vary, and it is striking that an anti-war thrust is ignored in the Krugman/Wells projections. I just want to express a few reactions and concerns.

First, a positive note: Krugman deserves a medal to go along with his Nobel for his relentless debunking of prevailing rightwing economic nonsense and exposure of the GOP's venal assault on the interests of all but the wealthiest Americans. In tandem with Bob Herbert, who focuses on Americans living in poverty and on the human costs of war, Krugman provides an exceptional contrast to the norm in mainstream journalism.

The Krugman/Wells (Sachs, Lerner) extreme condemnation and virtual dismissal of Obama is another matter. Here things are not so simple. To accept that analysis whole and to act on it strategically could prove counter-productive. Yes, I think progressives must be independent and critical, exerting pressure to its maximum without being bound by what Obama may or may not do. In that sense, "delinking" is necessary. But that doesn't mean indifference to the political fate of Obama's presidency and what it means for the American people. It doesn't mean writing off Obama and the many who continue to support him as representing the best in the current sorry mess of American politics. That raises the question of Obama's base, often glibly assumed to be "the left" that claims credit for his election and now feels abandoned. Actually the base goes far beyond ideological boundaries, including the large majority of African-Americans, of Latinos and recent immigrants, of Gays and others who feel that Obama is on their side and resent the racist backlash against him. Those on the left who feel cavalier about closing the book on Obama, should think twice about alienating themselves from the largest part of his base.

Obama has achieved some social and legislative gains against enormous counter pressures, but his chosen course and political decisions have contributed significantly to the dramatic rightward shift in political power during 2009-10. Whether or not there was an alternative to his "deal" with the GOP in the lame duck Congress, much of what was done or not done in 2009 and 2010 made the electoral "shellacking" a foregone conclusion. His cabinet choices and policy decisions were conditioned by avoidance of conflict with the rich and powerful, the generals and the military, and even the defeated GOP. He correctly read the desire of most Americans for a different spirit of cooperation in Washington — he felt that if he offered his hand to the Republicans and they spurned it, they would pay the price in public opinion; instead, their consistent obstructionism made him the fall-guy for the ever worsening situation. Despite his elevation of massive community organizing in his victorious 2008 presidential campaign, he relied in office on personal negotiating approaches, to the virtual exclusion of mobilizing public support for the necessary scale of stimulus and jobs programs. Unlike FDR, he largely neglected to reach out directly to the people through his "bully-pulpit".

Given how thing have turned out so far, it's comfortable for some on the left to pass off the Obama phenomenon as all myth and illusion from the very beginning. The "neo-liberal" label is pinned on him, he's 'always been a conservative', 'he's really pro Wall Street'. Such stereotyping and assignment of an individual to a closed political box runs counter to much historical experience. Movements and the flow of events can change how individuals see things and how they act. All things considered, there can be little doubt that Obama views himself as on the side of struggling Americans — nor is there any doubt that defeating him and "taking back the country" is the prime objective of the neo-fascist mob.

As Krugman/Wells remind us: "American politics have proved astonishingly mutable, with not one but two supposedly permanent majorities quickly collapsing in 2006 and 2010. Things may turn again, as long as progressives fight on."