Ron Paul is right a lot Tuesday, Apr 13 2010 

Some readers might not believe it, but there was a period of time when I considered myself a “Ron Paul libertarian.” Paul is who inspired me to explore libertarianism and, indeed, politics in general. His run for presidency last election got me to not only explore political concepts differently but to also be actively engaged in the issues of the day, so he has always been an influential person in my political understandings. However, not long ago, I became disillusioned with Paul and suffice it to say I disagree with Paul on several key issues. There’s no need to go into the details of that transformation, but I should point out that I still agree with Paul on many things.

One thing that I particularly like about Paul is that he’s quick to criticize both of the political parties in the United States (even when he belongs to one of them). I don’t usually like to get involved in party politics, as they are usually inane, but I think Paul raises some great points that are hard to ignore. One salient point that he highlighted at last week’s Southern Republican Leadership Conference, much to the chagrin of many of the conservative Republicans in attendance, was the hypocrisy of mainstream Republicanism. He blasted them for their neoconservative tendencies. In his speech that drew both applause and ire, Paul pointed out, “The conservatives and the liberals, they both like to spend.” He condemned how “Conservatives spend money on different things.” To wit, “They like embassies, and they like occupation. They like the empire. They like to be in 135 countries and 700 bases.”

Certainly the right-wing loves to pay lip service to fiscal conservatism, balancing budgets, and keeping spending to a minimum. In practice, however, they act just the opposite, as the record clearly demonstrates. Paul, despite being a member of the Republican party, has no qualms mentioning this. Paul is right in lambasting them for their costly endeavors, which include the expansionist foreign policy, two wars in the Middle East, Wall Street bailouts, tax cuts without spending cuts, and radical spending on military. This is all okay by Republican standards, and they see no inconsistency in their rhetoric for small government and limited spending.

Republicans actually tend to outspend their Democrat counterparts. It was, after all, Bill Clinton who created a budget surplus and George W. Bush who accumulated more national debt than every other president combined (to use the words of Stephen Frank of the political science department and supported by King Banaian of the economics department). While Democrats do spend, they typically “spend money on different things,” like social programs, science, aide, education, and infrastructure. They also don’t tend go on and on about deficits, limiting spending, and so on.

The pattern is familiar. Ronald Reagan, for example, championed free markets, but very rarely ever adhered to the doctrine. Noam Chomsky refers to this as the “really existing free market doctrine,” namely because it rarely is ever consistent with “the official doctrine that is taught to and by the educated classes, and imposed on the defenceless.” George H. W. Bush railed against taxes—before he raised them. George W. Bush touted “no nation building,” before he began his senseless adventurism in the Middle East. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything else from politicians.

Indeed, to bring it to the present, Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman from Minnesota, claimed yesterday, “we’ve gone from the United States having 100% of the private economy private, to today the federal government effectively owns or controls 51% of the private economy” over the past 15 months of President Obama’s presidency (this is why she believes Obama is “anti-American” and “the most radical president” in U.S. history). Of course, it’s not very difficult to see how patently absurd her claims are. One of her examples is the bank bailouts. However, as FOX News’ Chris Wallace was quick to point out, it was President Bush who started those bailouts, which Bachmann responded was “unfortunate.” Certainly unfortunate for her argument. Even more unfortunate is that Obama’s actions don’t actually constitute “nationalization.”

As Ben Chabot of the Yale economics department keenly pointed out to NPR in 2008, “it’s not nationalization because they didn’t buy common stock with voting rights, so they don’t have a seat at the table.” The business press is in accord, and believe “the Obama plan is working.” But even if it was nationalization, there’s nothing “anti-American” about nationalization, as Harvard’s Richard Parker is quick to point out. He mentions our long history of government intervention and nationalization, beginning with “the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, and then the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.” He continues with mentioning the vast amount of land, airspace, roads, and valuable infrastructure that the U.S. government owns. During the two world wars, the U.S. government took over sizable portions of the economy—one reason for the U.S.’s recuperation from the Great Depression. After 9/11, Bush “effectively nationalized the private-security firms at airports, and replaced them with the federal TSA.” Needless to say, no one moaned about “anti-Americanism.” As I have always liked to mention, the United States has always been heavily involved in markets (having a Republican president or Congress makes no difference); fantasies about the “American free market system” are just that.

In my opinion, all this says something about the intellectual and moral culture of today’s Republicanism and our society in general. The underpinning assumption on which all this works is that what’s wrong for you is right for me. It’s a poor reflection that we cannot rise to even a minimal moral standard.

Apathy kills Wednesday, Mar 31 2010 

WikiLeaks has just released a rather disturbing document. The leaked document comes from the CIA, and it details how the manipulation of public opinion should be used to bolster support for our war in Afghanistan. The CIA is apparently concerned with the possibility of a “Dutch-style debate” in other NATO countries, “notably France and Germany.” The Dutch, of course, made news last month after their government collapsed amid debates as to whether the country should keep its troops in Afghanistan or not. The Dutch will pull their troops out by August.

Naturally, the U.S. government is very concerned about this. If a “Dutch-style debate” spreads to other countries, the mission in Afghanistan could be jeopardized. They know this because they know their war in Afghanistan is overwhelmingly opposed by the public. (You can read my post on why I think the Afghanistan War is fundamentally wrong here.) The CIA acknowledges, “Berlin and Paris currently maintain the third and fourth highest ISAF troop levels, despite the opposition of 80 percent of German and French respondents to increased ISAF deployments, according to INR polling in fall 2009.”

I believe this has something to do with one of the conclusions I came to in a post about the way democracy in the United States functions: the public is supposed to be marginalized and its opinion ignored. I don’t pretend this is limited to the United States. The CIA readily admits “French and German leaders” have been able to “disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).” The CIA notes that Germany and France “have counted on public apathy about Afghanistan to increase their contributions to the mission.” But if a “Dutch-style debate” spreads to these countries, they may not be able to rely on apathy any longer to continue their involvement in Afghanistan. Apathy could quickly “turn into active and politically potent hostility,” and worsening conditions “could become a tipping point in converting passive opposition into active calls for immediate withdrawal.” This is bad news because the CIA fears “politicians elsewhere might cite a precedent for ‘listening to the voters.'” We can’t have politicians listening to voters…

Thus, the report recommends the United States government be involved in a campaign to alter the public’s opinion, or what has been referred to as “the manufacture of consent.” In normal parlance we might refer to this as propaganda. The report mentions, “Western European publics might be better prepared to tolerate a spring and summer of greater military and civilian casualties if they perceive clear connections between outcomes in Afghanistan and their own priorities.” Therefore, there is a need for “A consistent and iterative strategic communication program” that would give “tailored messages” to the public, in order to get them “to support a good and necessary cause despite casualties.” The report suggests the U.S. government “could leverage French (and other European) guilt.” If we monger fear, particularly about “the Taliban rolling back hard-won progress” and “a refugee crisis,” we could “provoke French indignation.”

One of the key resources we have in doing this is President Obama. It’s fairly hard for anyone to ignore how muted the subject of war has become, particularly in left and Democratic circles, after the election of President Obama. Him being a Democrat has helped the hawks in calming the anti-war movement, which has a strong core of Democrats and leftists (though there are also many right-libertarians as well). The CIA recognizes this fact. The CIA is quick to boast about the “confidence of the French and German publics in President Obama’s ability to handle foreign affairs in general and Afghanistan in particular.” They suggest there is a “significant sensitivity to disappointing a president seen as broadly in sync with European concerns.” Therefore, President Obama is a wonderful asset for the U.S. government to sell the war.

If our government being involved in the manipulation of opinion in other countries doesn’t unsettle you in the slightest, perhaps it would be even harder to not be disturbed by how it is actively going after Web sites like WikiLeaks that expose secrets of corrupt governments and corporations. has been described as a “controversial but essential example of what the web does best,” that “takes power away from the powerful and hands it to citizens.” This is precisely what has the U.S. government concerned. Writes The New York Times, “To the list of the enemies threatening the security of the United States, the Pentagon has added, a tiny online source of information and documents that governments and corporations around the world would prefer to keep secret.” This is following WikiLeak’s release of a document prepared by the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center that discusses how it sees WikiLeaks as being a threat to the national government.

I think little else need be said.

American ungenerosity – part I of II Saturday, Feb 20 2010 

In their pompous belief in American exceptionalism, there are some people—typically on the right—who claim that the United States “is the most charitable country on earth.” Next, they try to explain why we’re so generous, and they have plenty of ideas indeed. But, really, what we ought to ask first is whether or not it’s true. Is it really true that the United States is the most generous nation on Earth? It depends.

It depends, first of all, on what we’re measuring and how we measure it. In the first of a two part series examining “American generosity,” I’ll look at how the United States compares as a nation to other nations in terms of its charitable contributions. In the second part, I’ll look at the generosity of the American people through private donations.

On a national scale, how does the United States compare? As a nation, are we the most charitable? If the American people are truly as generous as the believers in American exceptionalism say we are, this should be reflected in the national policies and agendas set by the people we’ve elected to represent us. Is it? Is giving a priority the American people are concerned about? Using some measures, it is. For example, if measure how much Official Development Aid (ODA) the United States gives compared to other nations, the United States far surpasses any other nation according to data compiled by the OECD. In absolute terms, the United States gave away $26.01 billion in ODA in 2008—nearly twice as much as the second most charitable nation (Germany) gave away.

But is this really a good measure of charitableness? The United States is the third most populated country and is by far the richest in the world (more than the next three richest countries combined). We would expect that the United States should have the highest donation rate in absolute terms, based on that fact alone (there is, in fact, a strong positive relationship between the total wealth of a nation and the absolute amount it gives away). How does the United States compare when we look at ODA relative to the nation’s gross national income (GNI)? According to the same OECD data, the United States ranks dead last among industrialized nations in terms of the ODA it gives away as a percent of GNI. In 2008, the United States gave away just 0.18% of its GNI in ODA, while Sweden, the most charitable of industrialized nations, gave away 0.98%. In other words, the United States is the least charitable industrialized nation relative to its wealth, while the Scandinavian countries are the most generous. Looking at the data, there is a slight trend showing the inverse relationship between a nation’s GNI and how much it contributes as a percentage of that GNI (in other words, nations with higher GNIs tend to donate a smaller percentage of it), as shown in the figure below.

By this measure, then, which I find much more reasonable, the United States is not very charitable at all. As you can see in the above graph, the United States is a big outlier, with very high GNI but very low percent of it going toward ODA. As you might have noted in the OECD data, there is a UN target of 0.7% of GNI being donated towards ODA, which only five nations have surpassed. More sobering is the fact that this goal was made 1970—40 years ago. In 1970, the General Assembly passed Resolution 2626, stating, “Each economically advanced country will progressively increase its official development assistance to the developing countries and will exert its best efforts to reach a minimum net amount of 0.7 per cent of its gross national product at market prices by the middle of the Decade.” The Millennium Development Goals, a set of goals 192 nations including the United States have agreed to achieve by 2015 to improve human existence, includes the goal of having rich nations contributing a minimum of 0.7% of GNI towards ODA. By 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals are to be reached, it will have been 45 years since the target was established. While the last administration balked at the pact to fight poverty, the question is now if the Obama administration is going to renew America’s commitment to eradicating global poverty.

However, is simply increasing the amount of aid the answer to all the world’s problems? Clearly not. A lot of people, e.g. William Easterly, argue that foreign aid is ineffective or that we have no moral obligation to extract from our coffers to give to the disadvantaged—and they have strong arguments. Writes Easterly, “It is heart-breaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children.” Indeed, there are many problems that plague foreign aid. If the quality of the aid is not very good, then the quantity won’t make much of a difference. The problem becomes clear when we adjust aid figures for the quality of the aid. When we adjust the aid figures to reflect quality, for example by penalizing proliferation of programs or tying aid, the United States delivers only 0.07% of its GDP in quality aid, according to a paper by to a paper by David Roodman for the Center for Global Development. Similarly, according to a report by Action Aid, “roughly half of global aid is ‘phantom aid’, that is, it is not genuinely available to poor countries to fight poverty.” Argues Pekka Hirvonen in a 2005 paper for the Global Policy Forum, “development assistance is often of dubious quality. In many cases, aid is primarily designed to serve the strategic and economic interests of the donor countries or to benefit powerful domestic interest groups. Aid systems based on the interests of donors instead of the needs of recipients’ make development assistance inefficient. Too little aid reaches countries that most desperately need it, and, all too often, aid is wasted on overpriced goods and services from donor countries.” So, for example, during the Cold War, the superpowers were very “charitable,” and gave a lot of money away to client states that acquiesced to their political and economic interests. But does that promote development or help the people in most need of it? That’s “dubious.”

Clearly, there is both a quantity and a quality issue with foreign aid. To bring it to the present, some commentators, such as Ann-Louise Colgan, have noted, “aid flows are largely dictated by geo-strategic concerns rather than by efforts to reduce poverty.” For example, an overwhelming majority of U.S. aid goes to Israel, a lot more than any other nation. A majority of this is Foreign Military Financing (FMF). In fact, when you look at U.S. FMF, an inordinate amount goes to places like Israel, Egypt, and Colombia—in other words, the leading terrorist states. A lot more could be said about this, but the point should be clear. “Aid” is being to used to bolster strategic and ideological interests, not for the purpose of helping the poor escape their poverty or find a more decent life. Of course, all of this is perfectly transparent. Take, for example, Ronald Regan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, who stated, “our foreign assistance programs are vital to the achievement of our foreign policy goals.”

What should we take from all of this? First, it should be clear that the United States is not nearly as generous as it is touted to be, certainly not “the most charitable country on earth.” We, like most developed and rich countries, continue to fall significantly short of the levels of aid promised. Second, we should also be concerned with the quality of the aid (rather than just the quantity). So long as our “generosity” is guided solely for self-interests, the issues of poverty and despair will continue to be with us well beyond the 2015 marker established to eradicate the world of this blight.

Where I stand Tuesday, Feb 9 2010 

I often get asked about what I actually advocate. People elsewhere say I criticize a lot of things but do not offer any suggestions or alternatives. I admit this is true enough. So, for those interested, here’s a little bit of my personal philosophy, along with links to posts I have written in the past to get a more in-depth understanding.

First of all, let me say I consider myself a libertarian. Particularly, I would say I am strong civil libertarian; I believe firmly in civil liberties and negative rights. For example, I believe it is the right of women to get abortions, that people should be allowed to sell and purchase organs for medical purposes, that the state does not have the right to murder its citizens (e.g. in capital punishment), that people have the right to speak their mind, that pornography should be legal for adults, that the War on Drugs is misguided, that gay rights should be observed, that torture is never right, that social rights are among the most important of our rights, and so on. I believe there are strong deontological justification for these beliefs, though I recognize utilitarians might say the same about their own moral theory (I consider myself a deontologist).

If you look at a political compass such as the one above, I would say I’m close to the bottom on it. As such, I consider myself a libertarian, actually fairly close to anarchist. I find it highly questionable that states contain legitimacy and that “social contract theory” may very well be a bad theory. I believe all authority should be presumed illegitimate and that it is up to those who wield the authority to prove that it is legitimate (including even non-statist authority). So I find states to be illegitimate by assumption, as they are the very essence of an authoritarian institution. Too borrow the words of Marvin Harris, “In many ways, the rise of the state was the descent of the world from freedom to slavery.” In this way I am suspicious of states and their exercise of power.

So how do I reconcile these beliefs with my economic beliefs? First, where do I stand on economic issues? I think it’s hard to say, but I think I might consider myself a centrist. I recognize the limitations that completely free capitalistic markets have (so I’m not far-right), but I am also somewhat suspicious of leftist economic theories (e.g. that workers should own the means of production), particularly for a lack of empirical support (so I’m not far-left). (By “left,” I mean the traditional understanding of leftism, not how “leftism” is defined in American politics, e.g. the Democratic Party. Here I mean the left that opposes both government and completely unregulated and private corporations running the economy.) When it comes to economics, I prefer to observe the way it’s practiced and comment on that. For example, I observe that all modern and highly developed economies (i.e. the West) have achieved this through radical violation of free market principles. I observe that America has never been “free market,” despite claims by some on the right, and that it is actually a strongly state capitalist society that is defined by a sort-of “lemon socialism” and is involved in the market quite heavily. I also believe that decisions guided solely on profit-maximization (i.e. the profit motive) and self-interest (or egoism) are not in the best interest of society and lack moral justification, just as classical economists like Adam Smith and others keenly pointed out in their time. So if free and unregulated markets do not always lead to efficient or desirable outcomes and if the theories of the libertarian left are questionable, what alternative can we turn to? I don’t pretend to know the answer to this. If I were that smart, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog. I recognize that state capitalist systems have become abundantly wealthy, but also that there exist profound inequalities and sharp disparities within these systems, which breed conflict and economic inefficiency. Often, state power is wielded to the benefit of large corporations and the business class; I believe that if state power is to be used, it should be used to correct for obvious market failures (e.g. in climate change) and ensuring the most disadvantaged within society are afforded some protection.

Finally, I strongly support the anti-war movement and believe we ought to follow a non-interventionist foreign policy. I believe the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War were not only mistakes but also fundamentally wrong. I believe that jingoism is dangerous and that we should apply to ourselves the standards we apply to others. As far as Middle Eastern politics are concerned, I believe that we ought not to be so confrontational with Iran and that we should stop supporting Israeli war crimes (and I applaud the efforts of SCSU student Amber Michel and SCSU professor Fouzi Slisli to raise awareness for this issue).

The death of a hero Wednesday, Feb 3 2010 

On January 27, Howard Zinn died of a heart attack at the age of 87. Howard Zinn was a historian and a professor of political science at Boston University and a great inspiration to the anti-war movement. Writing for the New York Times, Bob Herbet writes that Zinn “was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it.” Zinn was an outspoken intellectual who championed liberty and the author of what I consider his magnum opus, A People’s History of the United States.

A People’s History is a revisionist examination of American history, from the perspective of working people, of war resisters, of suffragists, of the black minority, of the indigenous populations—in other words, the people who have shaped America, the people whose voices are often overlooked in history. The painting of America as “exceptional” is replaced by the sober reality of the America’s massacres, invasions, secret bombings, assignations, coups, and brutal domestic repression. It becomes evident that what we call “civilized society” today is a product of popular struggles, won by the efforts of ordinary people. These are “the people who have given this country whatever liberty and democracy we have.”

That’s the central message you can find in Zinn’s The People Speak, which was shown on History and which I had wrote about in December when it aired. The People Speak tells the story of America through the history of dissent and resistance and activism. It examines the role of ordinary people who rose up in opposition to state violence and oppression. It evinces the point that democracy comes from the bottom, not from above. If there’s a message it gives, I think it is that what lies ahead is largely up to us.

In a recent interview with Big Think, Zinn stated that he wants to be remembered “for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality … I want to be remembered as somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power they didn’t have before.” That’s certainly how I’ll remember him.

Haiti Thursday, Jan 14 2010 

Please see this post from The China Rose blog for information about the recent earthquake in Haiti, as well as relevant context to the tragedy and Haiti’s history of poverty and instability. As Haitian streets run with blood and its air fouled by the stench of piled-up corpses, let this tragedy remind us of the human suffering that exists in the world and serve as an opportunity to learn something about the history and lived realities of Haitians, which has got little to do with “bad luck.” For those of us with money, a donation cannot help the hundreds of thousands now feared dead, but it could make a difference for the poor masses of Haiti, who lived in extreme poverty and on less than a dollar a day even before the earthquake struck.

While the tragedy in Haiti is almost universally recognized as such, the response from right-wing extremists (or is it mainstream?) has been rather shocking and saddening. Rush Limbaugh, for example, claims President Obama’s response to the disaster will be used to “burnish” his “credibility in the light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It’s made to order for him. That’s why he could not wait to get out there” to offer support for the those devastated by the disaster. And while the right will continue to decry government spending as “inefficient” and “evil,” the Haitians rummaging through the debris of what was once their homes, their neighborhoods, their schools, or their places of worship, I’m sure, think quite differently of it. Meanwhile, as Limbaugh is busy throwing political jabs at Obama’s offer to provide relief to those enduring the pangs of sudden and utter disaster, Pat Robertson, the voice of conservative Christianity, claims that the earthquake (and the rest of Haiti’s ills) was a consequence of “a pact to the devil” Haitians made over 215 years ago to liberate themselves from France’s colonial rule.

Robertson, who also claims the September 11 attacks were God’s punishment on Americans for being too secular, claimed on the Christian Broadcasting Network‘s The 700 Club, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.”

Mr. Robertson would do good to first read some history. First, the Haitian Revolution of 1791 was well before Napoleon III’s time. Instead, the Haitian slaves spent most of their time fighting the powerful armies of Napoleon Bonaparte (i.e. Napoleon I). Napoleon III was not yet born by the time Haiti gained independence in 1804. Robertson’s ignorance of basic historic facts reflects the level of thinking required to make such bizarre and perverse statements. But, “You know, … whatever.” As for this “pact to the devil,” Robertson again faces a contradictory reality. According to Jean Gelin, a Haitian pastor who commented in 2005 on this supposed pact, “One would agree that such a strong affirmation should be based on solid historical and scriptural ground.” However, Gelin continues, “it is nothing more than a fantasist opinion that ultimately dissipates upon close examination.”

I would like to congratulate Mr. Robertson, however, for making at least one true statement. It’s true “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.” What happened is what’s been described as “the greatest of all the slave revolts,” which “forever altered the fate of black people in the Americas.” This “pact to the devil” that liberated Haiti from its racist overlords was really what normal people call Enlightenment thinking. That the Haitian Revolution closely followed the American and French revolutions is no accident of history. The great leaders of the Haitian Revolution, like Toussaint L’ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, took seriously the idea “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They believed, as their contemporaries in this Age of Reason did, that power lies in the people, not kings and nobility. They challenged the religious orthodoxy of the Divine Right of Kings. These were the true roots of liberation theology—an understanding of Christianity that stresses the scriptural teachings of freedom, social justice, human rights, and supporting community—a striking contrast to Western and conservative understandings of Christianity, to be sure. That Mr. Robertson “might not want to talk about it” is understandable.

However, this Haitian revolution went beyond “the limited definition of freedom adopted by the French and American revolutions,” writes Haitian historian Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. Instead, continues Bellegarde-Smith, the Haitian Revolution that Robertson describes as “a pact to the devil,” was based on the “universal freedom for all humankind.” That slaves could rise up and overthrow the slave regime in the 1790s, the first time in the Western Hemisphere and perhaps in the history of the world, indeed was nothing short of a great inspirational source for those still suffering under the grips of slavery and those wishing to liberate them, from Fredrick Douglass in the United States of America to Simón Bolívar in South America.

Once again, “Even in its hour of utter devastation,” to again quote Cunningham, “Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, teaches the rest of the world some valuable truths.” The question is if anyone’s paying attention.

United States vs. the world Saturday, Dec 26 2009 

It wasn’t very long ago that I saying President Obama would probably be a centrist president. (Maybe not on this blog, but my comments are elsewhere on the Web.) The wild claims about socialism and radical shifts in policy were just that—wild claims. Most of the Republicans are scared out of their boots and most Democrats seem dissatisfied. He’s continued Bush’s Patriot Act, FISA, illegal spying, destruction of the Fourth Amendment, and so on. He’s continued the unwise bailouts of those responsible for our current financial crisis. And perhaps worst of all, he has kept the hawkish policy of his predecessor, now recently expanding the war in Afghanistan and has continued the illegal policy of extraordinary rendition, black sites (including the black jail), and ignoring Israeli crimes. All of this was expected, of course. Putting aside all the wonderful rhetoric (“Hope!” and “Change!”), Obama’s policies were recognized as nothing more than underwhelming. He’s a centrist president. (Here I am keeping myself, of course, to the American political lexicon. In American politics—where Democrats represent the “left” and Republicans represent the “right”—he is “centrist.” To the rest of the world, he remains a rightist.)

(Click for larger image. Author unknown.)

On a more specific level, Obama has continued his racist and imperial policies as they relate to Latin America. I wish to specifically talk about Honduras and the recent military coup that occurred there. For those unaware (which would be unsurprising, given the American educational culture), there was an illegal coup d’état in June of 2009 that ousted the democratically-elected president of Honduras, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya. After the military coup had removed Zelaya from the country, the Honduran congress voted to put Roberto Micheletti in power, with no other government in the world recognizing his presidency.

Naturally, of course, the neoconservative right hailed this military coup as a “defense of democracy,” a “democratic coup,” and so on. Janet from SCSU Scholars acclaimed it as a “legal election.” The rest of the world had no illusions and harshly condemned the illegal takeover of the country. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the historical role of scholars has been to acquiesce to power, authority, state doctrine, and so on.

The rest of the world, that is, with the exception of the United States. While Obama certainly mimicked what the OAS and the UN were saying regarding the illegal coup, he was the only one to keep his ambassador, Hugo Llorens, in the country. This is the same Llorens who called the elections under the illegal coup as “a great celebration of democracy.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Ambassador to the OAS at the time declared Zelaya’s return to his country “foolish and irresponsible.” The British scholar Gordon Connell-Smith aptly points out, “While paying lip-service to the encouragement of representative democracy in Latin America, the United States has a strong interest in just the reverse,” apart from “procedural democracy, especially the holding of elections—which only too often have proved farcical.” While it’s certainly true there were procedural elections, which the U.S. supported in contrast to much of the rest of the world, the U.S. continued to refuse to demand Zelaya’s return to power and still refuses to speak even one word about the human rights abuses occurring under Micheletti.

This isn’t to say the precedent isn’t there. The countless Latin Americans murdered, tortured, or disappeared speaks volumes to the U.S.’s long and historic role in intervening in the region for its own (read: business’s) interests through dismantling left-wing democracies and installing right-wing dictatorships. The history is clear enough that it does not bear repeating here. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Obama administration has opted to support (and played an important role in) the illegal overthrow of the left-wing Zelaya, ignore the atrocities of the current government, and support the right-wing “election” occurring just recently.

Avatar Wednesday, Dec 23 2009 

I just saw Avatar—in 3D. This is a pretty awesome movie. The movie itself was great, but the wonderful visual effects put the movie over the top. It was the icing on the cake, so to speak. It was beautiful, indeed; but don’t let this distract you from the story! Without wanting to spoil much for any of you who have yet to see the film (I suggest you do), I’m making this post because the movie deals with many of the themes that I also discuss on this blog. It explores war, environmental destruction, individualism and collectivism, the egoistic pursuit of profit maximization, and human rights—and does so brilliantly, I might add. Perhaps I’ll discuss the film’s use of these themes in the future. For now, suffice it to say this is a wonderful movie. Go see it.

The people speak Sunday, Dec 13 2009 

Sorry for the relative inactivity as of late. I’ve been busy with finals, and still am, so this will be a short post. I just got finished watching The People Speak shown on the History channel. If you have a chance to watch it, I suggest you do. It was a very moving show of what real and ordinary people have said throughout American history. It wasn’t about what politicians, the elites, or the business class have thought. It was what people who were being affected by the nation’s policies spoke about. And I think it shows just how much Americans have been anti-war, for participatory democracy, social change, equality, and solidarity. It has always been this way and it runs deep in American life, outside of the perverse culture of Washington and Wall Street.

It shows how much American history has been built on the backs of ordinary people who strove for nothing more than a better life. It shows that opposition to state violence and oppression has a long and strong history, and the struggles of people like Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King Jr., J. W. Loguen, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Emma Goldman, and others to fight against it. American history is a history of dissent and resistance and activism. Society has become more civilized due to their contributions. What liberty we have is because of these people who rose up. That is to say, democracy and liberty comes from the bottom up, from the people. When you look at the activist history of the sixties, the seventies, and the eighties, you see that it has a civilizing effect on society. And it continues straight through today, and we see it in the opposition to our fundamentally wrong wars, in the fight to give rights to gays, in the advancement of environmental protection, in the anti-sweatshop movements, and the solidarity with the suppressed in Palestine. That is the source of social progress. That is message I think Howard Zinn is trying to put out in The People Speak (and his A People’s History of the United States). So when we talk about what lies ahead, well, it’s largely up to us.

Globalization. What’s in a name? Saturday, Oct 24 2009 

Today, what we call globalization has become ubiquitous. Needless to say, “globalization” has fierce and unrelenting critics; perhaps chief among them is Joseph Stiglitz. Dr. Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University and the former Chief Economist at the World Bank, won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001 with two others for his contributions to our understanding of asymmetric information in markets. He has also made what I feel are important contributions to our understanding of the inequities that “globalization” bring about around the world, particularly with his two books, Making Globalization Work and Globalization and Its Discontents. While people like Thomas Friedman may write that “The World Is Flat,” in reality, we know that the playing field is not even but is tilted.

But how can we talk about globalization without first knowing what it is? So, what is globalization? Being an international business major, a lot of my courses have dealt with defining and discussing globalization. Probably the most common definition I hear is “the integration of businesses into world markets,” or something along those lines. That’s one particular way to define it. Used neutrally, however, the term globalization means international integration (that is, of any form). The term is not used neutrality, though. The term, in its current usage, “has been appropriated by a narrow sector of power and privilege.”

The term, as appropriated by the neoliberals, is meant to describe an economic order that favors investor rights over the rights of people. Some people refer to it as market fundamentalism, but I disagree. What is being advocated under this appropriated term really has nothing to do with free markets and is, frankly, and affront to markets. In fact, in incorporates very little of what Adam Smith advocated in The Wealth of Nations, the seminal work that neoliberals are always quick to cite. Take, for example, the free circulation of labor. It’s impossible to talk about free markets without the free circulation of labor. Smith wrote, “the policy of Europe, by obstructing the free circulation of labor and stock both from employment to employment, and from place to place, occasions in some cases a very inconvenient inequality in the whole of the advantages and disadvantages of their different employments….Whatever obstructs the free circulation of labor from one employment to another obstructs that of stock likewise.” This is part of the “perfect liberty” that Smith said would lead to “perfect equality.” Instead, there has been great work to limit the free movement of labor. In fact, in 1994, President Clinton went so far as to militarize the border in what was called “Operation Gatekeeper.” Why 1994? Because that was the year of NAFTA.

What is NAFTA? It is touted as a “free trade agreement” between Canada, Mexico, and the United States (it got the “NA” part correct) whereby barriers to trade and investment are eliminated. What does NAFTA really mean? It means Mexico opens it borders to highly subsidized U.S. agribusiness. This drives the peasants off their land because they cannot compete with this U.S. taxpayer-funded agri-exports. Consequently, they flee to urban slums (what’s called urbanization), driving down wages, allowing for large multinational corporations to exploit their cheap labor. That produces what’s called an “Economic Miracle,” where typical economic indicators like GDP, FDI, and corporate profit soar but the masses approach pauperization. That’s what America means by “free trade.”

What has this particular form globalization brought us? In what is hailed as the era of liberalization and globalization, world GDP growth rates have decreased by nearly 38% over the past 24 years (using the 2003 as the latest year with available figures) compared to the 24 years prior to that (the Bretton Woods era), according to data provided by Angus Maddison. Likewise, Americans have seen stagnated wages. The inequality of distribution of wealth has been simply remarkable, everywhere. Poverty in the U.S. saw a steady decline through the ’60s and ’70s; the ’80s, however, saw an incline in poverty and it has remained relatively unchanged since. Meanwhile, speculative capital flows have erupted, bringing with them destabilization, as Stiglitz has argued. It has also had the effect of wiping out domestic production for domestic needs, as we’ve seen in Mexico. Because local producers cannot compete with U.S.-subsidized agribusiness, many Third World nations must rely on what are called cash crops (as opposed to subsistence crops): bananas, cotton, coffee, sugar, etc. But not all the export crops are as innocuous as bananas; they also include coca, marijuana, poppy, and other drugs that fuel the current-day drug war, with Peru’s president calling the cocaine business the “only successful multinational to emerge” from Latin America in the face of globalization. It has certainly only given more credence to dependency theory.

Naturally, anyone that opposes this particular form of globalization gets called “anti-globalization.” It’s unfortunate because it’s not true, with the exception of very tiny minority who are truly anti-globalization, in the neutral sense of the word. International integration is, in fact, a great thing, as the people at the World Social Forum and other places have been espousing for years. It, however, should not be based on the blind faith in the religion of neoliberal markets, but rather should include more awareness for the rights of laborers, corrections for obvious market failures, and environmental protection as proposed by the adherents of alter-globalization.

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