Monday, September 25, 2017

Racial Injustice and the NFL - It Don't Mean Nothin'

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Respect for What Now?
People who know me know I am a football fan and a committed advocate for social justice. So why, they are apparently wondering, have I been silent on the events of the last weekend? Trump's vicious, authoritarian, racist tweets and the overwhelming response of the NFL players, coaches and owners have dominated the news cycle over the last several days, and oddly - it seems - mikey has had nothing to say. I'm going to clear that issue up right here, but you may find yourself unsatisfied with my position. Why? Because it's a nothingburger, a false argument based on rigid idealism, institutional racism and a fundamental unwillingness to face the hard truths about the lived experience of poor African Americans across the US.

Now, of course, people will shriek at this point "mikey, are you saying that the horrific social injustice brought about by hundreds of years of institutional racism is a NOTHINGBURGER??!!11". And of course, that's not at all what I'm saying, but that's a clear insight into the problem. Everybody's lying. They KNOW what this is about, but they refuse to have THAT conversation. So they use this one weird trick to argue against what someone DIDN'T say rather than engage them on the issue honestly. That, of course, would require they accept the fundamental premise. Not. Gonna. Happen.

Think about the wall to wall coverage of the Warrior's statements, the Trump responses, and then the huge outpouring of opinions and vitriol that carried through the football games on Sunday. This all started when Colin Kaepernick decided that he could not stand for an anthem that spoke to American values when the institutional racism in law enforcement and city management in cities and towns all across America were killing children and destroying families. When now, unlike the preceding two hundred years, there was repeated, ubiquitous video evidence of these brutal murders and beatings, and yet, time after time, these uniformed thugs, filled with hate, were repeated absolved of any wrongdoing. Another young person dead, another family destroyed, another cop goes home to his loved ones, smirking at our corrupt system of 'justice'. But when you look at the coverage on TV and social media, you hear about the flag, the anthem, the military, words like "respect" and "patriotism", of soldiers who died protecting the very rights we find ourselves arguing about.

Now, let me tell you why it's all a lie:

1.) The flag is a piece of colored cloth, mass produced by the millions. No one ever died defending a flag - or if they did, they were a mindless tool. 

2.) The national anthem is a song. A crappy song, commemorating the otherwise fairly obscure naval bombardment of Fort McHenry in September 1814, a small part of the larger Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. No one ever died defending it either - or even tried to encourage troops in battle by singing it. 

3.) Black Lives Matter is not a political movement. It is not "Liberal", nor is it "Conservative". It is an anguished cry for justice - a demand that the lives of young African American citizens not be thrown away by angry men who hate the communities they ostensibly serve, and that the people who carry unimaginable power into the heart of cities and towns already racked by a century of poverty and oppression use it with even just a modicum of restraint and humanity. 

So how much did we hear about the actual point of the argument this weekend? I don't know what you heard, but I heard nothing. It was about respecting the flag, standing for a song, slavish mindless love for an overpowered and grossly mis-used military. The dead kids, the free smirking cops, the images of dead children lying facedown a block from home, shot to pieces by a heavily armed, armored, uniformed thug? Yeah, no, I didn't see any of those. I didn't hear any of the voices of the aggrieved mothers, the vacant-eyed siblings, the cops with blood-soaked hands sitting at home retweeting our racist presidents twitter rants. I heard about the military, and some weird kind of childlike 'respect' that sounded more like loyalty demanded by an authoritarian cult leader. In a weird way, it kind of sounded like North Korea, not America.

So no. I've got nothing. I'm not going to lie to help people perpetuate the claim that this was about a flag, or a song, or a soldier. When we're ready to have a real conversation about institutional racism, when we start to hold our law enforcement officers to at least a minimal standard of humanity, when SOMEBODY in power agrees that yes, Black lives DO matter? That's a process I want to participate in. All the hand-waving and misdirection in the name of protecting the status quo? Nope. I'm just not interested.

It's a nothingburger....
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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Syria Gets Serious

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The broadly multi-faction 'civil war' in Syria is moving into a new state. Probably not an end-state, but something more clearly defined, and certainly more dangerous for the rest of the region. The opportunity for things to go sideways in unexpected ways is much greater now than it has been before, with more of the factions fielding well-equipped, militarily capable armies. Russia, Turkey, Iran Saudi Arabia, America, NATO and Israel are just SOME of the factions involved in the existential struggle of the Alawite Ba'ath regime against a wide variety of insurgents and trans-national Islamic rebel militias, all playing out as the huge 'Caliphate' of ISIS is slowly ground into dust by the US/Kurdish coalition. Almost any day offers the chance of a miscalculation that will lead to a major regional conflict involving multiple nuclear powers.

But today I really just want to highlight one particular upcoming problem. It's not something that's getting a lot of discussion, but because of some of the international relationships among the various combatants, it could be the most critical and dangerous problem in the war. Let me show you a map:


In the east you have Iran. In the west, on the Mediterranean, you have Lebanon, and critically, Israel. In between you have Iraq and Syria. Lebanon is dominated by a Shi'ite Islamic political organization called Hezbollah, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran, Inc. And, it should be noted, is deeply hated and feared by Israel as the only military force in the region that can fight the IDF straight up and win. Iraq is, if not a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran, Inc. at least a junior partner. The Persian Shi'ites sheltered and protected the Iraqi Arab Shi'ites who were grossly persecuted by the Saddam Hussein regime, and then when the US helpfully toppled Saddam, they moved back to Iraq and took control of the government, while returning the favor and persecuting the Iraqi Sunnis. Now, as the Syrian army (SAA) is weakened and exhausted by years of bloody war, the Iranian militias under Russian air support are the primary forces available to Assad to hold on to power. The Israelis haven't done anything massive yet because it's been very difficult for Iran to move heavy weapons into Lebanon for Hezbollah to use, but that situation is about to change.

The only thing standing between an easy 1200km road route from Tehran to Beirut is an outpost of American backed rebels and some US 'advisers' in southeast Syria on the Iraq border. That's where all the action was last month, where an American F-16 shot down a Syrian bomber and a couple of drones. Ground Zero is a village called al Tanf. Bear in mind that these are rebel fighters - at war with the Syrian government - and their US benefactors are in Syria illegally, as the Syrian government does not want them there and has not given them permission to enter the country. This makes the whole exercise fraught. Just how hard will the US fight to keep that road route closed?

And if Israel believes that Iran could begin to ship endless truckloads of rockets, missiles, artillery, drones, armored vehicles and other military hardware to Lebanon, what might they do? One suspects the US will be willing to commit major forces and risk major regional conflict to keep Israel from doing something massive that changes the status of the region.

Much of the problem is predicated on the political narrative the west has built around Iran. Israel had to designate a new boogeyman when the Palestinian threat was crushed, and they chose Iran. The US has had an institutional hatred for Iran since the embassy takeover in 1979. This has resulted in the very odd condition of the US officially describing Iran as an authoritarian theocracy, a brutal dictatorship and a global sponsor of terrorism, but not using any of those terms to describe Sunni Wahabbist Saudi Arabia, which arguable fits the description much better.

If the Iranian militias and the Syrian Army want to push the rebels out of southeastern Syria and open up the road route, the Russians will have to decide whether to provide the air support that will bring them into direct conflict with the Americans. And later, if that overland direct route is opened, the Israelis might consider bombing the trucks, which will bring THEM into the range of Russian/Syrian advanced SAMs and once blood is spilled, the outcome is anybody's guess.
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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Healthcare Wars 2017 Part 2 - What Did I Just Tell You About That Pony?

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At least until somebody writes a bill they can read
Single payer. Two words, a simple concept. There are variations, but the core principle is that every citizen is entitled to free health care, and the government sets up a system for paying the costs incurred with public funds. It's really two pieces - there is the insurance, or payment side, and the delivery side. On the payment side, it's easy - mostly. Just like Medicare or Social Security, the government merely sets up a straightforward bureaucracy to make the payments to doctors, hospitals, dentists, nurses, specialists, pharmacies and the rest of the health care delivery infrastructure. Because the government is a monopsony - the only buyer on the market - they can set their payment/reimbursement rates at any level they choose, much like a monopoly can set prices for their goods at any level regardless of market imperatives. The only 'challenging' portion of this part of the process is to raise the funds.

The other side of the Single Payer question in America is how to make the current privatized delivery system work in this new publicly funded process. Private for-profit insurance companies would just die - quickly - because no one would need to purchase insurance anymore, and only wealthy people would buy policies that provided them with access to better service than the public delivery infrastructure. So, somehow, in a free market in a democratic nation, the government would have to take control of virtually every doctor, hospital, pharmacy, dental office - trillions of dollars, millions of people - and then pay them a fraction of what they are used to receiving in the current for-profit private health care world.

So, when you think about it, it's hard to imagine what this single payer legislation would look like. You'd end up with a whole bunch of unemployed people in the private insurance industry, and whole bunch of doctors and hospitals that simply refused the government's mandated payment rates, only accepting patients from the remaining private insurers that paid full freight. And you'd end up with a massive constitutional problem - you can't privatize the health care delivery industry, and you can't force them to take patients they don't want.

And, of course, there's getting the people to buy in. 80% of Americans get their health insurance as part of their employment. That means they pay for insurance with lower wages, but that's baked into the cake by now. So they never see an actual insurance bill, and their only out-of-pocket expenses are deductibles and co-pays to their delivery providers. So now, if we come skipping up with our bright, progressive smiles and tell them that they're going to get a somewhat poorer - but perfectly acceptable - level of coverage, and we're only going to raise their income taxes 35% to give it to them, do you really think they're going to get really excited and tell their representatives to make it so?

See, that's what a pony looks like...
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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Healthcare Wars 2017 Part 1 - No, You May Not Have a Pony

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And everybody gets a vote
The latest political battle over healthcare policy in the US is raging as debate over the Senate healthcare bill is extended through the summer recess. And the outpouring of outrage and resistance from the sane portion of the electorate is wonderful to see. But this bill (like the version the House passed last month) is deeply, desperately unpopular, with favorable polling running at below 20%. That means there are a LOT of Americans who are far from being politically liberal who are concerned for the well-being of their families and fighting just as hard as we are.

All of which gives us an opportunity to think about our political ideology and the belief system in which it operates. Last year, in the presidential primaries, there was a strong liberal cohort that was all in behind Bernie Sanders. Now, I'm not going to go back through all the problems with the Sanders campaign and message, but there is a larger point that is critically important to recognize at this point. That point is simply this - the other side has a vote too. Now, everyone you know might be politically liberal and broadly welcoming of tax increases to improve the lives of our fellow citizens, but that is not true of the population as a whole. Much of the nation is deeply suspicious of liberal economics, 'tax and spend' policies that have been deeply maligned by general consensus over the decades. Everyone from far-right tea party wingnuts to suburban 'social liberal/fiscal conservatives' are going to fight us every step of the way on any movement away from America's very limited activist government and safety net. There are more of them than there are of us.

You can demand single payer healthcare, tuition-free colleges (not even in the federal jurisdiction), Universal Basic Income and humane immigration policies all you want, but you're never going to get them. You do all the work - and get a little luck - you might just get some compromise, watered down version that improves everyone's life. Kind of like the ACA. In America, corporations make a profit by selling you a cure when you're sick or injured. That system is deeply entrenched, which is why American healthcare costs are so much higher than they are elsewhere in the world. Given time, favorable politics and a HUGE effort, President Obama was able to push through the greatest breakthrough in American healthcare in history. But make no mistake, it was a compromise, necessitated by the fact that every stakeholder in the system wasn't a liberal.

Here's the point. Liberals aren't going to get elected in America demanding far left policies, as much as we want them and believe that they are the right thing to do. When liberals DO get elected, they aren't going to be able to force those same policies through a system with as much friction and as many veto points as ours. And don't tell me we just need to take control of both houses of congress - even if the Democrats do that, it won't result in congress being populated by liberals. There will be Democrats from across the political spectrum, and most of them will not be in favor of the kinds of policies that Bernie Sanders championed. We have to recognize reality, accept that we're going to have to negotiate, compromise and accept incremental improvements in the system. There's no magic potion, there's no sparkle, there's no pony. The US is a huge nation with a huge diverse population, a nation that has in recent history elected both GW Bush and Donald fucking Trump.

Pretending is not a strategy. Understanding reality, and working within its constraints is the best we can do. And when we remember that, we do pretty well - from the ACA to the Iran nuclear deal to DACA - and when we forget it we get our political asses handed to us, and we get things like this horrific health care legislation. We can do better when we get serious...
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Saturday, April 22, 2017

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea

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Sorry - could NOT resist...
Well, it didn't take the Trump administration long to wade about neck deep into the geopolitical quagmire that is Korea. The North Korean leadership is such a perfect manifestation of a comic book villain - and always in character - that there's really no kind of common diplomatic ground on which to base a bilateral negotiation. A big part of the problem is that all North Korean press releases are targeted on their own internal audience, and therefore have no basis in reality. Think of some bizarre combination of Sean Spicer and Baghdad Bob. And now, of course there's also the chaos in the South Korean government resulting from the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. It's an especially fraught time on the Korean Peninsula, and that makes Trump's blundering belligerence particularly dangerous.

But what are the real-world options that America and the West actually HAVE in North Korea? When you consider that Kim Jong-un is a third-generation dynastic leader whose primary goal is to retain power and control of the population at any cost, you realize that nothing will change until the regime changes, but conditions are so brutal and there are so many different factions empowered by the military that if the regime did collapse (or were to be removed by external force) the waves of refugees flowing into South Korea, China and Russia would, along with the helpless North Koreans still trapped in a collapsing state without a functioning economy would represent one of the greatest human tragedies of the last century.

Once you are realistic about Kim's goals and intentions, you understand why he would consider a strategic nuclear deterrent so important. It is the thing that innoculates his regime against attack, virtually no matter what provocative actions he chooses to take. And once he has road-mobile solid fuel ICBMs with enough range to reach the US, that deterrent becomes impossible to ignore. North Korea's previous conventional deterrent was to hold Seoul at risk with thousands of artillery tubes just across the border, but while that has been effective, Americans, to be quite frank, are less concerned about a million Korean casualties than they are about one American casualty. Kim's generals always understood that they might have to actually execute on that threat, so they made a perfectly rational decision to move to a nuclear capability. They can now hold Seoul - along with other targets in South Korea and even Japan - at risk with short range nuclear missiles as well as the massed artillery already in place.

Any strike on North Korea runs a very high risk of turning into a horrific regional conflagration, with several cities wiped out and millions of Korean (and possibly Japanese and Chinese) refugees desperate for aid and shelter. It seems perfectly clear that no amount of classic American tough-guy posturing is going to convince the North Korean leadership to do anything but keep pushing the development of their strategic deterrent. They'd literally be crazy to do anything else.

At the end of any thoughtful analysis, the only possible answer is negotiation. If the west can offer North Korea enough benefits - and a credible promise not to attack - perhaps Kim can be convinced to give up his nukes. If he can't, a strategy of containment and a policy to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea is the only viable approach. And while the American military leadership will empahsize that this policy of containment would mean missile defense and a powerful military presence in South Korea, in reality - behind the bluster - it would mean accepting another member of the nuclear club and just trying really hard to prevent further proliferation.
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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Big Dogs Bite with Big Teeth

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A lot of my American and liberal friends are absolutely frantic about Donald Trump and the risk to global peace he represents as president of the United States. In the aftermath of the missile strike on the Syrian airfield, it seems to many of them that he is leading us directly down a path that leads to superpower confrontation, war and nuclear Armageddon. And maybe he is! But I think I need to offer a few thoughts about that path, and what kinds of considerations are being tossed around in capitals from Moscow to Beijing to Brussels.

One of the first things to consider is that nobody really wants to go to war. Stop worrying about Tom Friedman and Bill Kristol. They have no control over the military apparatus, and even Trump will have to make a case for war and accept a scenario acceptable to the likes of Mattis and McMaster, and they are far from suicidal.

But it's actually much more than that. One of the common talking points we lefties always point out is the wildly disproportionate military spending of the United States. We always rush to point out that the US spends more on its military than the next ten nations combined.  It's not even close, and I think we all agree this is an unequivocal waste of money. But it is real, and if you start talking about war, then the calculation changes. How many nations would really want to face that? The simple fact is that the US can rain hell and destruction on any nation that wants to step up to the plate. It's true we've struggled with counter-insurgency and trans-national terrorist groups, but give us a nation's infrastructure and there's simply no better force on earth when it comes to wrecking stuff.

No nation - not Russia, not China, not even the Generals in North Korea - want to face the full wrath of a US in full 'blow 'em to hell' mode. After the F-22s knock out your fighters and the Wild Weasels and cruise missiles wreck your anti-air assets, you get US jets overhead 24x7 just hunting targets, wrecking infrastructure, killing leadership. Anything you put on or under the ocean will be wreckage on the bottom in less than a week, and anything you try to protect will be detected and destroyed because war is nothing less than a gigantic tantrum and the biggest guns always win.

It's also very important to understand why there have been precisely ZERO major power conflicts since 1945. The answer is those pesky nukes. Nobody - not the US, not Russia, not China, not Europe/NATO - wants to risk anything that might lead to out-of-control escalation. The risk of nuclear conflict isn't driven by starting wars - it's driven by ending them. In a major power conflict today, any side that came to recognize that they were losing would be likely to try to avoid such an existential outcome by using tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield and trying desperately to limit the extent of the exchange. But nobody wants to find out if that might be possible without killing a billion people and turning dozens of major metropolitan areas into radioactive wastelands.

(I often gaze up at the stars at night and wonder how many planets are out there that had intelligent, even brilliant populations and now are smoldering ash because their clever denizens figured out how to split the atom.)

In the end, it's most likely that even a blustering ignorant buffoon like Trump can't change the overall global geopolitical calculation. Make no mistake, he'll do some stupid things and people will die as a result, but no other national leader is going to let Trump goad him into national suicide.
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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Better Killing Through Chemistry

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Roaches check in...But they don't check out
Once again, the use of chemical weapons by a Middle Eastern despot has threatened to drive the world into a larger conflict. The red lines drawn around this type of weapon are a hundred years old, and have become a significant part of the conventional wisdom around the laws and ethics of warfare. But why is this, and should it actually be this way? In the case of Syria, for example, the Assad regime has murdered hundreds of thousands of Syrians using traditional weapons - high explosives, barrel bombs, artillery, rifles, torture, execution, famine and disease. So when he suddenly (and inexplicably, but that's another discussion for another day) kills a hundred residents of a Syrian village with four bombs containing Sarin, it's kind of hard to understand the sputtering rage and white-knuckled outrage it generated in the West.

But this is one of the arguments that sounds logical when you hear it, but kind of falls apart the more you think about it. Chemical weapons like Sarin and VX are essentially insecticides scaled up to kill humans instead of bugs. Why do we use insecticides? Because when we have a flea infestation, for example, it makes a lot more sense to use poison on them than it does to burn down the house. Even if there are risks and downsides to poisoning the fleas, the net outcome is a house still standing with no fleas in it.

Now think about a dictator like Bashar al-Assad or Saddam Hussein or Omar al-Bashir or any one of a dozen others. They have the infrastructure - pharmaceutical and insecticide production - to produce chemical weapons cheaply and in volume. They have dissident and/or insurgent populations within their borders. Usually, when they are faced with revolt or civil war they have to destroy a huge amount of their own infrastructure to eliminate the rebels. If they could just spray the towns and villages with human insecticide, wait 48 hours and march in and clean up the mess, these pesky revolutions would be easy to deal with.

Well, why don't they do that? Because ever since the end of World War One the world has had an ironclad convention against their use. Nations still stockpiled them - in the face of an existential defeat, one more bad decision isn't going to be a game changer. But it was clearly understood that to use them (without at least tacit agreement from the appropriate superpowers) was to risk significant punitive attacks from nations not even otherwise a party to the conflict. The idea was global deterrence, and it has worked pretty well. Of course, Saddam Hussein used Sarin gas regularly in the Iran-Iraq war and against Halabja in the al-Anfal campaign, but the US was allied with Saddam's Iraq in that war, and agreed to look the other way.

Now we may begin to see a breakdown in this generally agreed-upon convention. If it begins to be safe, even normalized for dictators to use chemical weapons against their own people in order to retain power, then we won't be seeing 100 dead here or a thousand dead there. We'll be seeing the wholesale slaughter of entire communities because it is faster, cheaper and more efficient than going in and fighting to take those communities back from the rebels. When we argue against an ironclad guaranteed imposition of a high asset cost for any leader who uses poison gas, we are merely helping create a world where the use of poison gas is commonplace.

And I promise you, dear reader, that is not a world you're going to want your kids to live in...
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