December 12, 2011

Syrian Dictatorship, Israeli Occupation and Civil Disobedience

It can be argued that dictatorship is not that different than outright occupation by a foreign military. Actually it has been suggested by many commentators that occupation is the ultimate dictatorship. What is important for us in this column is the similarity between the two forms of rule. Both deprive the people of their personal rights, both are non democratic, both are not elected, both maintain control through armed forces and both violate the most fundamental principles of human rights as expressed by the Human Declaration of Human Rights. It is rather obvious that both occupation and dictatorship are two different forms that accomplish the same end: rule against the consent of the governed. Whenever such rule is present then it is an invitation to rebellion and revolution. The above describes very well at least two political entities in the Arab world; Syria and The West Bank, the former is occupied by the Assad family and the latter by Israel. Both of these forms of government are cruel, discriminatory and exploitative.

The Palestinians have resisted occupation and have tried a number of policies over the past 44 years but they have not succeeded in attaining their objective yet. They are possibly the last remaining colony in the whole world unless one considers China a colonizer of Tibet and the Russians as colonizers of Chechnya. The valiant Palestinians have not however committed themselves to the principle of non violence through organized and wide spread civil disobedience. I, and many others, have often argued that the Palestinians have no choice but to adopt the Gandhian method of civil resistance. That is the only way to “disarm” the cruel Israeli machine of occupation and deliver the Palestinian people to the “promised land”, the land of self determination, sovereignty and democracy.

It must be also very clear that the same methodology suggested to the occupied Palestinians on the West Bank is also the one that promises to be very effective in delivering Syria out of the clutches of the Assad regime and into the phase of representative democracy and self respect. The current Syrian regime has resisted the legitimate demands of its populace by constantly denying the facts on the grounds. The whole administration has acted over the past ten months exactly as one would have expected dictators to act. Deny, obfuscate and pretend that the unelected rulers, those that impose themselves by the power of hired thugs otherwise known as “security forces” are the only ones that know what is good for the country.

This irrational logic is so wanting that it does not deserve to be addressed except to say that if pretenders were so sure that they have the good of the people at heart then why fear an open and free election? Why insist on a system that depends on random fear and on expropriating everything of value to the integrity of the individual. Obviously dictators, all throughout history, have dreaded the moment that the oppressed find the strength to stand up and claim their stolen rights. Dictators have always lived in fear of the moment when the regular citizens will shout that the emperor has no cloths, that the regime is bankrupt and illegitimate.

The Syrian uprising that started nine months ago is all of the above and then some. The Syrian people have demonstrated great courage in standing up to the might of the dictatorship thugs and have offered the greatest of sacrifices without any hesitation. The Syrian people have given all of us, the world over, a lesson in sacrifice and commitment. They have faced the organized “shabiha” hoodlums and their supporting tanks with smiles on their bare breasts, bravery and heroism. They have already offered over 400 martyrs, many of whom are children and women and they have managed to keep up the pressure on the killers and criminals in power. They have simply set an example of audacity and boldness that has rarely been seen, if ever.

Yet the regime continues with its lies and distortions. It fabricates stories about undisciplined armed gangs that are in the employ of foreign powers when arguably it is the present regime that has often served the Israeli occupation of the Golan best. An excellent example of the cluelessness of Bashar Assad, the head of the ruling pyramid, was demonstrated in his disastrous interview with ABC where he claimed that he has never ordered any killings and that he is not in charge of the armed forces in Syria. Isn’t this a perfect fit for what is a psychopath?

"Superficially charming, psychopaths tend to make a good first impression on others and often strike observers as remarkably normal. Yet they are self-centered, dishonest and undependable, and at times they engage in irresponsible behavior for no apparent reason other than the sheer fun of it. Largely devoid of guilt, empathy and love, ...psychopaths routinely offer excuses for their reckless and often outrageous actions, placing blame on others instead. They rarely learn from their mistakes or benefit from negative feedback, and they have difficulty inhibiting their impulses."

The current monstrous regime in Syria is intent on showing that the uprising is essentially driven by petty religious rivalries and revengeful acts. That is why the present Syrian dictatorship will stop at nothing that will help it provoke a violent uprising. The courageous Syrians will commit a fatal error if they fall for this trap that is being set up for them. They should spare no effort to show both the depraved Syrian regime and the world that they are above sectarian hatreds, petty politics and random violence. What better way to show that they are cut from a different cloth than the present killers and exploiters of the Syrian people than to adopt wide scale acts of civil disobedience and non violence. Let the authorities arrest, if they dare hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of citizens, let the few thugs run the schools, the factories and the shops. Civil disobedience has worked wonders in India, South Africa, the Czech Republic, the Ukraine and has even partially succeeded in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and even Lebanon among other places.

Syria is obviously in need of a revolution and there is nothing better than what Henry David Thoreau called “peaceable revolution” in his essay about Civil disobedience. A peaceful and non violent Syrian revolution is the best option for the Syrian uprising. I am certain that it will succeed and once it does then it would have set up another example of the efficacy and attractiveness of “civil disobedience” for the whole world in general and for the West Bank in particular. When the people ask for freedom, respect and integrity then no dictatorship can possibly deny them their intrinsic rights.

August 28, 2011

Invalidity of the Arguments that defend the Syrian Regime.

The fall of the USSR and the official establishment of the Russian federation in 1991 was a major turning point in the political make up of what was known as the Soviet Union and all its European and Asian satellites. The rise of Boris Yeltsin to power of a free, and independent Russia that has renounced 70 years of Communism effectively marked the end of the Cold War. The occasion was welcomed by most people all over the globe if for nothing else but for the potential peace dividend that it carried and for the apparent freedom and liberty that it had bestowed on the people of Russia as well as all the Soviet satellites from Kazakhstan to Latvia, Georgia, the Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, the unification of Germany… Yet some people on the extreme left blamed the Russian citizens and the residents of each of the satellites for wanting a better life. They blamed them for their uprising and for throwing the yoke of their exploiters and corrupt politicians who deprived the citizenry of its rights but made sure to bestow all kinds of privileges upon themselves. Many leftist party members in the West argued that the citizens of the ex Soviet Union should have never demanded what is rightfully theirs but should have allowed the oligarchs and their security forces to go on abusing them for personal gain. Obviously that line of thinking is laughable as any visitor to any of the liberated countries can document.

Move forward twenty years and in particular to the uprising that started in Syria over 5 months ago and you run against the same tired, self serving, hackneyed and superficial logic. Many of the Syrian regimes supporters know better than to make a straight forward argument in favour of a brutal dictatorship and so they twist themselves into unwieldy shapes trying to argue that the regime is needed because without it then Syria would degenerate into sectarian warfare. Obviously none of those that advance this line of thinking would provide any shred of evidence why such an outcome is inevitable. We are also told that Bashar Assad the scion of the cruel dictatorship that has been ruling under an emergency law and through a single political party rule for over 40 years need more time to introduce the legitimate reforms that the unarmed civilian protestors are calling for. Isn’t almost half a century long enough to come up with a package of reforms? And if it is true that the current regime is intent on reforms then isn’t it a coincidence that this matter became apparent only when its monopoly on power was challenged. Is it rational then to question the sincerity of such reform proposals while the tanks are demolishing neighborhoods and the prisons are full of political detainees? It is very clear that all of these are nothing else but excuses for those that are happy with the status quo of no elections, one party rule and promotion of Soviet style personal celebrity rule.

This unfortunate use of inverted logic is not left only for the domestic supporters of the dictatorship. Similar logic has been used by Egyptian thinkers as well as Lebanese writers. The most glaring such example, however, is that taken by Hezbollah. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah has stated the position of his party clearly one more time in his latest speech on the occasion of the International Day of Jerusalem. He, as expected, lavished nothing but praise on the Syrian regime but was sure to justify that by highlighting the steadfastness of the Syrian government against Israel. His premise is that the single most important issue in the Arab society is the position against Israel and in favour of the Resistance movements and since the Syrian Baath has supported Hezbollah, Hamas and PFLP-GC then any movement by the people against this regime is suspect and must be defeated. The very clear weakness of the above, even for those that share the believe in the preeminence of the Arab-Israeli position is the fact that Mr. Nasrallah assumes that the replacement government will not take the same position against Israel. He makes that assumption and asks the listeners to accept it on faith. That is purely an exercise in tautological thinking. The other weakness in this strange logic is the assumption that Mr. Nasrallah knows best what is good for the Syrian people. They do not have a say in self determination. Could that kind of thinking be influenced by the principles of Welayat Al Faqih?

What is especially pernicious about the above illogic is that its promoters were very highly critical of the doctrine of "preemptive strikes" as articulated by George W Bush. That principle allowed the US to take action/wage war based on suspicion that an act was being planned, no proof was necessary. That is identical to what supporters of the Syrian regime are claiming, deprive civilians of their rights, use ruthless force to put them down only because you suspect that they will propose a policy that you disagree with, no proof needed and their rights be damned even if they chose to enact such a policy. What imperious hubris.

As if all of the above is not enough, many of the same groups that are defending the Syrian killing machine are applying the same logic to downplay the tremendous accomplishments of the Libyan revolutionaries that have spared no cost to free themselves from the dictates of the mad man Qadaffi. Obviously it would be unacceptable to defend such a mad person and his entourage directly and so it has become common for this group to apply its strange logic by claiming, that the courageous and brave Libyan people were manipulated by foreign powers. That is simply just as grotesque of an insult to the intelligence of the Libyan as the above thinking was an insult to the intelligence of the Syrian people.

Why cannot we accept the simple fact that the Soviet masses as well as the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Yemeni and Syrian have risen against their exploiters because they have had enough. They prefer to live in dignity rather than be used and mistreated by oligarchs bent on accumulating personal wealth and power?

The days of the Syrian dictatorship, like all other dictatorships, are numbered irrespective of its disingenuous efforts to save itself.

August 21, 2011

Bashar must go: No Legitimacy for the Illegitimate

One of the most popular expressions of the Lockian idea of “natural rights” can be seen in the preamble to the US declaration of independence written by Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The above simply means that it is not up to government to offer its populace personal rights since these are among the bundle of rights that cannot be alienated from the individual. No government can take away that which is embedded into citizens by virtue of birth and to act otherwise is a gross act of hubris and egregious exploitation. When the state adopts policies to take away from people part or all of their natural rights then the state is acting against the will of the governed whose welfare it is supposed to enhance. Such acts of diminution of the rights of citizens are best described as immoral, unethical, exploitative and constitute justifiable uprisings against the ruler whose acts have violated all accepted responsibilities of a governor.

Unfortunately, history is replete with states that have acted as authoritarian rulers, absolute monarchs, brutal dictators and autocrats. Yet the movement towards more democracy and responsible government got its biggest boost with the American and French revolutions of over 235 years ago. Many philosophers and political scientists have argued that the spread of democracy is probably the single best achievement of the 20th century. Alas this glorious trend was not able to find even a toe hold in the Arab world until the onset of the Arab Spring that started in Tunis, spread to Egypt, Libya and Yemen then Bahrain and Syria not to mention the defensive moves in Morocco, Jordan and possibly Iraq and Palestine.

Tunis and Egypt have already started the hard work of establishing working democracies as soon as their previously strong autocratic regimes collapsed, Yemen and Libya seem to be close to uprooting the dictatorial regimes of Qaddafi and Saleh while the Bahraini demand for reform appears to have been squashed by the Saudi monarchy with the acquiescence of the rest of the GCC. But besides Bahrain, the real paradox so far has been the courageous and popular Syrian uprising. It has been over 5 months since the people of Dara’a took to the streets to send a message to the Syrian Ba’ath that forty years of suppression, exploitation and expropriation of natural rights is enough. The spark of Dara’a spread like a wild fire to the suburbs of Damascus, to Homs , Hama and their environs, to Deir Ezorr, Jisr Alshughur, Banias and Latakia among other places. The civilian protestors were met in all cases with the full force of the Syrian army whose tanks have demolished many residential quarters and whose snipers and military have already killed over 2000 civilians; men women and children, not to mention the tens of thousands of injured and the over 10,000 rounded up for interrogation and torture. It is ironic that the same army that has failed to fire one bullet in almost forty years to liberate the Golan Heights was willing to butcher its own citizens in the name of resistance. As all this blatant brutality by the Syrian dictatorship was going on not one of the Arab governments issued as much as a statement of moral support to the insurgents when each of these regimes did not hesitate to support the Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni and Libyan uprisings. The deafening Arab silence was finally broken a fortnight ago when Saudi Arabia issued a statement asking the Syrian authorities to stop the bloodshed. This lukewarm support by Saudi Arabia was followed by expressions of support for the Syrian insurgents by other Arab governments and the Arab League but not by Lebanon. The West on the other hand has continued to pressure Syria to stop the killing through the Presidential Statements of the Security Council, through more severe economic sanctions and through an outright call for Mr. Assad to step down.

The official Lebanese position vis a vis the Syrian uprising will come back to haunt it but it was to be expected from a country whose President was unconstitutionally elected and who has often made it clear that his allegiance to Damascus is his priority. In addition to the above the current PM, Najib Mikati and his brother Taha, are known to have strong financial ties to the Syrian regime through Syriatel and Sami Makhlouf president Bashars’ cousin. Obviously no one needs to be reminded that Mr. Mikati is the symbolic head of a cabinet that came to power through the machinations of Hezbollah whose military and financial strength depend on smuggled missiles and other ammunition originating in Iran through Syria.

Despite all of this less than overwhelming support of the Arab regimes for the Syrian people in their greatest hour of need the Syrian Revolution is still gaining strength and the autocratic and brutal dictatorship led by Bashar Assad is struggling to find a way to survive by promising all sorts of reforms including a multiparty political system. How convenient to become a reformer when your survival depends on it, this is political expediency par excellence. Mr. Assad fails to understand that there is no such thing as legitimacy of the illegitimate. Dictatorships are often born in blood, fear, exploitation and usurpation of that which cannot be stolen since it is inalienable. Every single dictatorship will eventually end ignominiously simply because all are rooted in illegitimacy and sooner or later the people will lose the fear of the ruthless security machine that is set up to protect the dictator by pretending that the authoritarian regime knows best what is good for the multitudes when in effect all of the states’ acts are dedicated to the glory of the dictator and his entourage. Mr. Assad is not loosing legitimacy since he never had it to begin with and the governed have the legal right and the moral authority to establish a regime that respects their “natural rights”

It is a foregone conclusion that the Syrian uprising will eventually free itself from the inhumane grip of the Syrian Ba’ath but the price of that liberty is subject to the acts of Bashar Assad. He will either drag Syria into a Libyan style conflagration or he will decide that it is time for the Syrian people to rule themselves. Bashar Assad must go, all dictatorships must end and this is the time to end a forty years old cruel dictatorship.

August 02, 2011

The President's Cave in & Miscalculations. Is Leading From the Rear Obama's Style?

Update, Aug. 2nd: Jon Stewart: "You're not pinning this turd on us..."

The manufactured crisis of the debt ceiling theater is coming to a close, though the damage will last a long time. Even if the US averted default on its obligations, its credibility has taken a hit. Progressives think that Obama was diminished by this process, and his popularity is also decreasing. Even though the majority of Americans like him, and are more in favor of his proposals than those of the GOP, he's considered a weak leader. Remember, the country has shown that it prefers a strong, effective leader even if he's wrong, to a weak leader even if he's right on the issues! 

Maybe Obama is gambling on the possibility the Republicans will nominate someone worse to run against him next year. The economy won't be much better before the next election, because this president failed to take action and the GOP has done everything it could to damage it.

Read Paul Krugman's "The President Surrenders" editorial.

Here's something to remember: One of the biggest differences between progressives and the American conservatives is that progressives want an active government to mitigate social darwinism the Republicans are in favor of. 

Every time there's a failure of government, the conservatives win points! They seem to be winning the narrative on this one too. They come into government with an intent of making the government worse! They create deficits, slush social services, and remove consumer protections. They love gridlock, because this increases the public's cynicism of their government!  Sadly, the person with the bigger, loudest megaphone is not disputing this narrative!

I'm with Senator Bernie Sanders on the need to issue a serious primary challenge to Obama. Not the Nader type, or a foolish preacher, or some leftist fringe, but a good, sensible progressive like Feingold. I'm sure Obama will prevail but he will have to understand that there's an activist base out there and elections (especially close one) depend on getting the base excited and to the polls. Besides, we have to publicly discuss a few important issues and highlight the importance of good government, for the benefit of the people.

I argue that the narrative is extremely important in shaping our political discourse. Most Americans support progressive positions but it's the conservative narrative that often prevails. The more we spend time discussing the ridiculous [or, the artificial crisis of the debt ceiling] the more time, energy, and money we're wasting, instead of tackling serious problems.

There are going to be lots of polls following this manufactured crisis. As of now, the public blames the GOP more, but Obama's ratings are looking more and more Bush-like.

Here's a snapshot:
Q: If negotiations between President Obama and Congressional Republicans on the federal debt ceiling fail, and it leads to an economic crisis, would you place more blame on the President or on Congressional Republicans, or would you blame both equally?  
President Obama: 35
Congressional Republicans: 46
Both equally: 18
Not sure: 1

Here's a slew of numbers from DK/SEIU weekly poll.

This president hasn't learned yet that he can't trust this Republican party. When asked back in December--when he caved in regarding the Bush tax breaks to the super rich--why he didn't make the looming debt ceiling part of the deal, he said the Republicans would do the responsible thing when needed. Great call...t. Probably he forgot how the GOP negotiated on health care reform.... 

July 23, 2011

Standards in Higher Education In Question

Did you hear about the recent experience of an NYU professor who caught 20% of his class cheating? [Read this account here, and here, "Why I will never pursue cheating again"; Here's the NYU prof's points for debate as he sees them.]

Well, that's not news, but what most people may not know is how higher-ed institutions deal with cheating. It's a problem but it's hush-hush. Obviously, like many other trespasses in life, not all (cheating) is the same. Looking over the shoulder of a classmate to sneak in a look at a multiple choice answer isn't the same as submitting a plagiarized major research paper, or using a smart phone to write paragraph after paragraph in verbatim during a final exam.

You'd think cheaters are punished, and their transcript would indicate the serious violation, or that there's a record somewhere, etc. Not so. Actually, there's little risk in cheating, because of several factors. One is that many instructors aren't interested in catching cheaters, while others willfully believe their students would never cheat.

Catching cheaters creates a headache, paperwork, and may reduce the number of majors/minors in the department!  It hurts student-teacher evaluations too. Just as it hurts if the instructor is "too demanding." Usually, such instructors are labeled "hard" and "unreasonable," best to be avoided. Confidentiality about a student's record means that if a teacher catches a cheater, and if he decides to assess a penalty, the student can avoid taking any courses with that teacher again. That's all. And, this student isn't prevented from saying anything he wants about the teacher on the evaluation form at the end of the semester.

The situation has gotten so bad that there's a prevailing audacity among some students; they get indignant when caught cheating. "At least I didn't copy from others like several students did during your final exam," was the response I got from a student who had used his smart phone to copy paragraphs from Wikipedia when I confronted him!

"Did the instructor make you interested in the subject matter?" asks one of evaluation questions. This means that if a student takes a course for which they have no interest (and usually aren't likely to put some effort into it), the instructor can be at fault for not managing to raise the excitement level. I've seen this in my Rate My Professor comments: "The course was boring, it was all over the place, about politics and stuff, not my major anyways." Well, I'm sorry I didn't play a movie and provide popcorn but lectured instead.

The institution also shies away from supporting the instructor fearing lawsuits from the students who are accused of cheating. So, unless you catch someone cheating during the exam (and even so, you'll probably need another student willing to ..testify), there isn't any circumstantial evidence that would suffice!  Let's throw out all the forensic science, because, unless you see someone pulling the trigger, such person is innocent regardless of the overwhelming evidence. It matters less and less whether the instructor can safely ascertain whether the student has learned anything from taking a course...

I've had a student who wrote paragraph after paragraph in verbatim from the textbook during a proctored exam. When I confronted this student, I was told that it was their way of learning (by memorizing word for word, paragraph after paragraph). OK, fair enough. Perhaps the student could then recite something for me to demonstrate acquired knowledge.

Guess what? That student couldn't recite anything just one day after the exam, because he had "dumped" his memory after the final! Yes, this is how he.. reasoned with me. I'm probably not shocking anyone if I also mention that this student couldn't use his own words to show me he had understood at least enough to pass the course.

Further, my esteemed colleagues lectured me that unless I had ..absolute proof, I couldn't accuse that student of cheating! They reminded me that if the student decided to sue the university, I would be on my own, not supported by the school and would have to get my own lawyer!  Needless to say that this whole matter was draining--in time and energy--and it's not something teachers want to experience. Thus, most teachers just look the other way and reason that if they students don't want to learn it's their problem. I guess it's true that attitudes and habits stay with a person; eventually they'll shape a person's success in life. Meanwhile we certify and pass young people along down a road of higher life expectations with lower standards and skills.

That NYU professor mentioned earlier was a tenured one, so he thought he could be a bit stricter. What, then, should the other non-tenured and adjunct instructors do? Silence is probably golden here. The lower(ing) standards are a matter of concern for many teachers, however, for the non-tenured ones, at least, if they want to advance, they should avoid making too much noise catching serious cheaters, and avoid creating headaches for their institution. A few pats on the back by understanding colleagues are nice but can't offset the real danger of stirring trouble in an institution.

Teaching is intertwined with the economic realities of life--realities for the school and the faculty--they both need income to survive. Higher-ed schools are lowering their standards. It's a numbers game. I see that the marketing to attract students has changed too. College is now more about "a fun experience" with emphasis on non-curriculum activities and less on academics, or the value of knowledge and fostering a critical mind. It's increasingly more vocational training and less of a well-rounded education. This is attitude-forming too. Courses outside a major are considered a nuisance by students.

Again, as for dealing with the problem of cheating, proper class decorum, and maintaining high academic standards, things are getting worse. It seems that if an institution (or a person) doesn't want to hear unpleasantries, then it's no use pointing them out; it's not advisable to throw salt into a wound. Once a dynamic is created, it's hard to change, and looking the other way is standard practice. Kill the messenger is a safer practice in many places. Maybe the tenured senior faculty at the edge of retirement can do something about this problem by speaking out. You'd hope.

Yet, even these senior faculty don't want "to get dirty"as they feel such concerns are for the younger faculty to consider. These seniors exhibit a mindset like, I'm soon retiring so I'd rather not get too upset now; let the ..others worry about it. Except "the others" are either non-tenured or they've understood that advancement does not depend on pointing out endemic problems. Heck it's not even teaching that counts anymore. Being a recluse doing research and being published is where the institutional rewards come from.

Meanwhile, I'm witnessing the rapid increase in pages of my course syllabi. I'm adding stuff I didn't think as necessary before in order to guard myself against possible problems. For example, I now clarify that if a student doesn't use his/her own words to write an essay to answer an exam question, it won't be acceptable.  This is so, because if I don't catch a student cheating during an exam, at least the plagiarized material won't be demanded as an acceptable answer.

Some of my colleagues include warnings in the syllabus, like, no chewing gum, eating, sleeping, surfing, texting/talking on the phone in class. It seems that there's no common sense anymore. Maybe soon I'll have to include, no pissing in class, can't start a fire, etc....

PS> Let me clear: Except for the NYU case, which is now viral on the internet(s), the rest of the material here is fictional, as I'm practicing writing a sitcom script for life in the academia. It's for entertainment purposes only.

May 16, 2011

Need for Serious Immigration Reform But it Won't Happen Before 2013

President Obama gave a speech recently about the need to reform the immigration system, but I think it was mostly political theater. I'm sure he knows that the Republican-controlled House will not agree to give such a policy initiative to the president. Even when the Dems were in control, they couldn't pass any immigration reform despite former president Bush supporting it.

Senator Durbin re-introduced the DREAM Act but even this very sensible improvement of a tiny part of immigration law won't probably go through. The Republican Party today is much more conservative and is catering to the extremist elements within (Southern states) and in its proximity (Tea parties). As a salt lake shrinks, the water becomes more saline, so it's the same with the shrinking base of the Conservatives. Don't be fooled by the last election gains of the GOP. It had to do with other factors than rising popularity for the GOP, and, most importantly, its policy proposals.

See where the country is today and where it's moving. What was radical just a generation ago, it's mainstream today: DOMA, DADT, same-sex marriage, Immigration (yes, over 70% of Americans favor Obama's ideas on immigration reform), legalization of marijuana, etc, etc. Unfortunately, the second largest political party in the US is hostage to its conservative base and its extreme activists and won't move where the rest of the country is moving.

As for the political theater, it will go on. Obama has been criticized by the pro-reform groups for not doing enough, and support from the Hispanic community is eroding. He'll use the immigration rhetoric to bring attention to the fact that it's the Republicans who don't want reform, but not much else will happen before 2013, when the new Congress will be in place.

April 24, 2011

Green Capitalism: A Failure

The following is a powerpoint of a presentation that I did at the Left Forum 2011.
The outline is very condensed and I will be glad to respond to any requests for additional information.

April 16, 2011

What Happened to the Arab Spring? Ask Saudi Arabia.

The Arab countries, each and every one, have the distinction of being ruled by undemocratic and illiberal regimes. This has been the case at least since the era of independence that started almost a century ago. Even prior to WWI the Arab Middle East, under the Ottoman rule, did not experience a major revolutionary movement demanding sovereignty, and personal liberty despite the fact the Turkish rule was ruthless and exploitative.

Many a study has concluded that the Arab countries have failed to actualize their potential and that the region as a whole has trailed practically all parts of the world in economic, political and social development save for sub Saharan Africa. This is why so many in the region as a whole and in the rest of the world were elated when the Tunisian popular uprising was followed by the one in Egypt. These promising and exciting developments led so many to talk about an Arab Spring that has finally arrived to transform the region and deliver on the promise of economic, social and possibly environmental development.

The euphoria was contagious. Demonstrators went to the streets of Yemen, Bahrain and Libya. The last four weeks have even witnessed popular movements all across Syria. Is the Arab Spring here to stay? Is it a historical moment similar to the annus mirabilis of 1848 in Europe?

The Arab Spring appears to have been overwhelmed by a deep frost that might just kill all of the revolutionary buds. With the exception of Tunisia the revolutionary zeal has been either co-opted by the old established ruling class, Egypt is currently ruled by a 75 year old general who has never shown any predilection for democracy and individual freedom. The army has actually imprisoned a blogger for having assumed that it was his natural right to express his point of view.
In Libya it is even worse, much worse. The Libyan dictator or mad man Qaddafi would rather carry a civil war, orders the army to strafe civilian protestors and unleash savage artillery bombardments of those that dare ask for an end to the cult of personality rule. Colonel Qaddafi’s efforts to subdue brutally civilian demonstrators were halted, at least temporarily, by the United Nations Security Council who came to the rescue of the besieged civilians. The French, British and US aerial support has given way two weeks ago to NATO who has not been able to keep up the pressure on the Qaddafi loyalists. It appears currently that what looked to be another victory for the popular masses has been brought to a standstill. Qaddafi might still be defeated but this does not mean that democracy and freedom are about to follow.

Then there is Syria and Bahrain. Two nascent revolutionary movements struggling with established dictatorships. In Syria the Assad regime of the Baath party has promised a modicum of reforms, not the least of which is the lifting of the emergency rules that have been established almost half a century ago. The demonstrators in Syria were initially encouraged by the UNSC resolution on Libya calling for the protection of the peaceful demonstrators. These hopes were squashed when Saudi Arabia in conjunction with Hillary Clinton gave the present regime in Syria the moral support that it needed to deal brutally with the demonstrators. Thanks to the efforts of the Saudi King, the world s’ sole absolute monarchy, the aspirations of the people of Bahrain and Syria have been dealt a serious setback.

Under the best of circumstances, the chances for an Arab Spring were never overwhelming. But the possibility of success has been dealt a major blow by the unholy union of reactionary forces led by Saudi Arabia whose king was not in favour of even allowing the Egyptian masses to remove the corrupt Mubarak regime in Egypt. Unfortunately these reactionary forces cannot be dismissed since Saudi Arabia controls the daily production of 10 million barrels of oil in a world described best by Peak Oil scarcities.

Yet, despite all of this, the blame for the failure of the Arab Spring does not lie totally on the shoulders of the reactionary Saudi regime and the dictatorships that it supports. How can the Saudis support democratic representation when they are the antithesis of such societal make ups? The real ultimate reason for an Arab Spring is the same one that has haunted the Arab world for centuries. It is the lack of a strong personal commitment to the ideas of personal liberty, freedom, equality and secularism. It seems that we are destined to continue offering our allegiances to local tribes instead of cultivating the notion of citizenship and equality.

April 04, 2011

Ecological Footprint of the Arab World: Disasterous.

It is so common to speak about environmental degradation but unfortunately no country or group of people seem to be willing to do anything meaningful about the single most important challenge that humanity has ever faced. The problem does not manifest itself in the area of prognosis. A large number of studies by individuals, universities, governments and the UN have concluded as a result of numerous detailed studies that the world is full and that business as usual will only lead to disastrous outcomes, possibly collapse, and total collapse of civilization.
Furthermore if collapse is to be the outcome then it would not be the first time that the human inability to take decisive corrective action has resulted in ruin. Just ask the Incas , the Mayans and the inhabitants of Easter Island..
Obviously the adoption of meaningful sustainable measures is in everyone’s interest. But yet we have failed to undertake a single measure anywhere in the world that would move us in the right direction. Why? The answer is very simple. Capitalism cannot accept a no growth economy irrespective of the fact that all our studies tell us that the world is full and cannot accommodate any more growth. Actually we know that the present level of economic activity is beyond the carrying capacity of the globe and so sustainability demands major significant cuts in the level of economic activity if we are to have a shot at preventing a climate change of over 2 degrees Celsius.

One of the most common measures of sustainability is that of the ecological footprint. That is simply an estimate of the resources consumed by each person in order to lead the average life style in each country. Studies have shown that at the present the global resources available per person are less than 2 hectares. It follows therefore, that whenever the average footprint per capita of the citizens of a nation is above 2 hectares then that country is operating at a global deficit. This simply means that these citizens are maintaining a life style that we cannot afford, as a planet and that this state of affairs can only result in disastrous outcomes for everyone. That is the message of the Tragedy of the Commons that Hardin has popularized almost fifty years ago .

The Arab world appears to be split into groups. The oil producers in addition to Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia consume at a level that much above the global average. Ironically, the largest ecological footprint in the world belongs to the UAE with approximately about 16 hectares per person. The 3rd highest footprint belongs to Kuwait with 10.31 hectares per person then Saudi Arabia ranks 17th in the world with 6.15 hectares per capita. Lebanon ranks 52nd in the world with a footprint of 3.19 hectares per capita.

Not all of the Arab countries belong to the group of overconsumption. Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco have a per capita ecological footprint that ranges between 1.79 and 1.56 hectares. This implies that each of these countries could increase slightly its level of consumption and yet stay within the global carrying capacity. Sudan on the other hand has an ecological footprint of only 1.14 hectares per capita.
A simple calculation of the total deficit created by the Arab world as a whole reveals the uncomfortable fact that we are in a deficit of about 200 million hectares annually. If we , as a region, are to take our responsibilities towards a sustainable world seriously then we have no choice but to :
(1) adopt strict population policies that would result in decreasing the size of the human population of the region. Stabilizing the population is not acceptable and to continue , unchecked, the current rates of growth in population are immoral and irresponsible.
(2) The level of consumption in the region as a whole is excessive and steps must be taken to limit it to levels that would correspond to a sustainable level.
(3) No doubt that a few are consuming too much and many do not have enough and this calls for strong redistribution efforts.
(4) And lastly we have to confront head on the question of whether any of the above can be realistically achieved under capitalism?

Since it should be clear that the answer to #4 is clearly a resounding no and since we will not change the current societal structure then we should not be surprised when the inevitable collapse takes place. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

February 22, 2011

Arab re Awakening, Lebanon and Economics

Joseph Schumpeter one of the greatest minds in economics coined the term “creative destruction” in an effort to describe how capitalism moves forward by encouraging innovation and creativity. I believe , rather strongly that this idea applies rather neatly to the field of political science in general and to what is taking place in the Middle East in particular. What appeared to be hooliganism to Mr. Mubarak and his entourage and what is described as mobs and criminals by Saif Al Islam are anything but. This apparent spontaneous chaos is in effect nothing but the most creative of destructions that could give birth to a new free and democratic MENA.
Two down and seven to go might soon become three down and six to go. Wouldn’t it be grand if the move towards democracy, diversity and freedom is to finally take root in the Arab world?

Many of us have been calling for an “Arab awakening” a Gdansk moment or an Arab Berlin wall for a while. But if the revolution is to uproot the ruling structures in each of the Arab countries then why do we count only 9 dictators instead of 21? Well, in my case, at least, I think a radical change in the big 9 will force the others in the Gulf including Iraq and Lebanon to change also. The smaller countries are more dependent on their surroundings and none of them is strong enough to impose its beliefs but each of them will not be able to resist the tide to change and reform once that becomes the dominant form in the region.

Yet in spite of all of this I have been struggling to explain the difference between what is going on in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and the lack of any change in Lebanon. After a lot of soul searching I believe that to a large extent one can explain the respective differences between any of the major players and Lebanon in terms of another economic principle. In a major country such as Egypt or possibly Libya the power is concentrated in one person at the top of the pyramid. That single person embodies all powers in the country. This concentration of power is akin to that of a pure monopolist who is free to exploit and abuse the consumers/citizens. Lebanon on the other hand is closer to what Galbraith called the “counter vailing power” structure. This would be the fact when a pure monopolist in one field is not free to exploit, restrict and abuse since this monopolist faces an equally powerful monopolist on the other side of the enterprise. The interaction between these two monopolists will result in a solution somewhere in between what each of them would have liked to do. Theoretically the solution could be a total negation of the power of each and thus the citizen/consumer will contend with a solution that could be rather beneficial. A good example of this would be say an automotive giant who would have liked to impose its will on tire manufacturers but if the automotive giant faces a rubber giant then none of them would be in a position to exploit the other and the consumer will benefit.

Michael Young, of the Daily Star, has dealt with the issue of relative personal freedom in the Lebanese public square by attributing that relative freedom to the inability of any of the major sects to impose its own will unhindered. That is exactly what a counterveiling power does. This argument , however, is not to be construed as one in favour of sectarianism.

But this above argument, although it does lead to good outcomes, is just as badly in need of reform as any of the other single power dictatorships for the simple reason that the solution of the interaction between the oligopolists can never be determined in advance and if it does turn out to be efficient then that would be purely accidental. The system cannot guarantee efficiency/freedom and so the need to change and the need to adopt a fairer more competitive system are just as acute as in the case of a pure monopolist/dicatorship. As a result the revolutionary task in Lebanon is even more difficult than it was for the Tunisians and the Egyptians who had to organize against the person on top of the pyramid in an effort to uproot the regime that he represents. In Lebanon, we do not have that luxury, we have to organize against and get rid of the people at the top of a number of smaller pyramids whose individual constituents regard only the opposing pyramids as corrupt and inefficient. Each constituency appears to be relatively satisfied with its own mini pyramid and concentrates on blaming the opposing power structures. This problem fits very well the line from Luke:

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite”. Is there any hope for a radical revolutionary reform in Lebanon? Only if we can shed our religious tribal affiliations and act as one. Unfortunately for us in Lebanon, Mouwatinieah and secularism are alien ideas.

February 05, 2011

How Do We Provide Health Care to All Americans?

A recent decision by a federal judge to invalidate a portion of the new health care mandate has re-opened the discussion about the US being the only advanced country that leaves so many of its people without proper medical care while spending the most as part of its GDP.

The government requires that everybody gets insurance, most of us from a private insurance company, otherwise there are penalties. It is this provision of mandatory insurance that is the problem. Many Americans cannot afford to buy insurance, and some others will take the penalty instead since buying insurance costs a lot more. 

Health care insurance, coverage, and accessibility may be a bit complicated, but the underlying principles are simple. Should a wealthy liberal democracy give quality health care to all its people? I don't see this as any different that national defense. As a matter of fact, more Americans have died due to lack of health care than from attacks from our enemies.

Like defense, the federal budget should provide everyone with health care coverage, and everybody pays into the system through taxes and, perhaps, a small premium (a deductible?) to control the cost for the little expenses. Same with other insurance policies.

Speaking of costs, the US is probably the most expensive country when it comes to medical costs. This has to change. Why do the Japanese pay $150 for an MRI whereas we pay $2,000? Same with medicine. The pharma lobby successfully prevents the government from negotiating better prices for bulk purchases. 

Bureaucracy has to be controlled. Up to 1/3 of hospital expenses go to deal with the complex, litigious, adversarial, and inefficient system. Legal reform also has to be introduced into the system. Of course, quality controls, regulation, and oversight have to be in place, but lawsuits and the very high insurance premiums for doctors have to be checked. 

Some tough decisions also have to be made, like when should we spend and to what end.

Having a public option, whereas the system is non-for-profit makes a lot of sense. Perhaps we can start by allowing people to buy into Medicare, or, my choice, to extend Medicare to all. Those who may want additional benefits, or a suite during their hospital stay, they can purchase additional coverage.

How can we claim to have the best health care system in the world when it is not available to all, and, if present trends continue, it will become even less affordable due to the rapid cost increases. 

Ah, politics! This year is the staging area for the next presidential race due to commence in January of 2012. How knows, maybe some states would jump ahead and hold their primaries/caucuses this year!  Is health care and immigration something the president and the Dems would like to debate? We'll see...