Friday, August 30, 2013

Obama and the Middle East

President's Obama has no unified foreign policy for the Middle East. Instead he has a piecemeal approach that is not working.

Let's start with Israel. Like most liberals, Obama and current Secretary of State, Kerry think that most of the violence in the Middle East is caused by frustration at the plight of the Palestinians and that the only obstacle to peace is for Israel to stop its settlements. I could go on at length about these beliefs but the short version is that he is completely wrong on both counts.

Obama's Egypt policy appears to be to support whoever is in charge regardless of what they do right up until they are about to fall. He supported Mubarak at first. When The Muslim Brotherhood took over, he supported them which would have been fine if he had tempered his support. Yes, they were duly elected but they did not respect human rights and had no economic plan. Instead they spent their time consolidating power and trying to assure that there would be no further elections. Obama was silent about all of this until the military staged a coup. Then the administration threw its support behind the military and turned a blind eye to the fact that a coup had happened.

How can we explain this? One possibility is that Obama is too lazy to do more. He has never been very interested in foreign policy and it's hard to knock off work and have dinner with the family at 6 when you have to meet with foreign policy experts.

Another possibility is the one from last year about Obama and anti-colonialism. Obama spent some of his formative years overseas at a time when anti-colonialism was a major theme. The anti-colonialists believe that any outside action by the western powers is likely to be worse than no action at all. This theory at least puts Obama in a better light. The trouble is that the Egyptians don't believe it. Both sides expect more from the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize than a hands-off approach.

Obama's policy for the rest of the Middle East has consisted mainly of drone strikes. No question of his being engaged there. He is supposed to be personally involved in picking targets, putting almost as much effort into it as he spent drawing up the basketball teams for his 50th birthday celebration. Areas where there are no drone strikes he ignores. That includes Iran's nuclear ambitions and the growing unrest in Iraq.

Syria has become the one place that he cannot ignore. When the civil war began he distanced himself from it, essentially saying that the government could kill as many rebels as it wanted as long as it used conventional weapons.

At various times Obama has called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a reformer, then said that he had to go, then implied that he could continue to rule part of a divided state. When the body count rose, he promised small arms but so far has failed to deliver.

But Syria crossed the red line that Obama drew and used WMDs. There are reports that they have been using poison gas on rebels on a small scale for months but this time it made the news.

So, Obama is obligated to act but has failed to outline what his intentions are. Will he launch a limited, symbolic missile strike? Will he engage in a lengthy air war? Does he intent to leave Basar al-Assad in office? Over a week later and he says that he is still unsure if he even will attack to say nothing of what his objectives are?

The country is split over this but on unusual lines. Many, mainly on the right, believe that the US needs to follow up on Obama's red line in order to establish US credibility. They reason that allowing Syria to use WMDs will tell the rest of the world that they are free to ignore Obama. With Iran likely to have nuclear weapons in the near future, that is a bad precedent. The remainder of the right and most of the left is tired of war and wants Obama to make his case to the country before moving ahead.

At this rate, Obama might have to be late to dinner a few times.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Recreating the Depression

There is a movement among the left to push for higher wages for traditionally low-paying jobs such as fast food or Wal-Mart. A recent column by Harold Meyerson typifies this. At the same time, Mayerson's column is so goofy that it deserves some close examination.

He begins by reciting sales figures for retail chains. They are not good. Wal-Mart's same-store sales have declined slightly. Other chains have reduced their forecasts as well. But Meyerson has a simple solution - give everyone at these stores a big raise. The extra money will boost the economy.

He even has a historic precedent for this. He quotes Edward Filene, whose family owned the Filene's department store. In the 1920s, Filene pushed for a wide list of economic reforms. Meyerson goes on to say:

They were well compensated for their clear understanding of how to make an economy thrive: During the 30 years of broadly shared prosperity that the New Deal reforms made possible, department stores catering to the vast middle class were a smashing success.

So, what's wrong here? A lot. To start with, Filene was ousted from the management of his family's business by the time he was pushing for these reforms. This column has to the the first I've ever seen that calls for a return to the good old days of the 1920s economy. Everyone else uses the 1920s as a cautionary tale since it led to the 1929 crash and the Great Depression. Meyerson ignores the fact that the New Deal and the Great Depression go hand in hand and that the 30 years of broadly shared prosperity happened after most of the New Deal was dismantled during WWII.

The 1930s provide a valuable lesson for those who want to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour. In the early days of the Depression, the country actually suffered from deflation - the value of the dollar went up instead of down over time. By all rights, wages should have dropped to match the new buying power. Instead the government intervened and kept employers from lowering wages. Since the dollar was worth more, that gave them a huge increase in buying power - something like 50%. But it also raised labor costs that much and acted as a long-term inhibition on employment. Employers just couldn't afford to hire people at the new rate so they didn't.

That is what Meyerson and the others would cause in today's economy. They see corporate profits going up and see it as money that rightfully belongs to the workers (a very Marxist view) but they don't bother to do the math. There isn't enough corporate profits to pay for the pay increases they want. Product costs would have to go up and sales would go down. The people on the bottom might find themselves marginally better off but everyone else would be squeezed. At best, we would see a return of the inflation of the late 1970s were price increases wiped out wage increases. At worst we would see a second Great Depression where those who have a job would be fine but a large portion of the population would be unemployed.

Meyerson needs to look further than low-wage workers. Except for health care, the economy is not really growing. Instead of trying to turn all jobs into good jobs, we need to see what is impeding the growth of good jobs. This might be painful for Meyerson since he supports Obamacare.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Oprah and Race

Oprah Winfrey is one of the world's richest and most successful women. Despite this, she sees herself as a victim of racism. The most recent example involved a shopping trip in Switzerland. She went into a high-end store and asked to see a purse. According to Oprah, the clerk didn't want to get down the expensive bag that Oprah asked for and instead kept showing her cheaper ones. Oprah is sure that this was because of international racism.

Let's look a little more closely at this story.

First, Oprah says she was shopping alone but that she had dressed up first because she knows that these stores get snobby. Now, the handbag in question (which is rather ugly) cost $38,000. The poverty level in the US is defined to be $23,000 so that bag cost enough to lift one and a half people above the poverty level. This is not a bag aimed at the 1% or even the 0.1%. It is aimed at the .00001%. As it happens, Oprah happens to be in that group but without recognizing her and without a retinue to signal that she is rich and important, the clerk can be forgiven for thinking that the purse was out of Oprah's price range. In fact, even Oprah admits that she would not have spent that much on a handbag. I suspect that the purse was never even meant to be sold. It was there as a status item to impress customers and make the rest of the over-priced merchandise seem inexpensive.

But Oprah doesn't see it that way. In her mind, the only reason a clerk would ever be reluctant to show an insanely over-priced bag to someone is because of race.

I should note that the clerk insists that she did not refuse to show the bag and that Oprah had someone - either a friend or bodyguard - with her. The clerk is at a loss for why one of the richest and most powerful women in the world attacked her like that. Some suspect that Oprah was trying to get publicity for her new movie about race in America. Being able to point to an example of racism affecting her helps Oprah sell the movie.

I have never paid much attention to Oprah (or any other talk show hosts) but this does remind me about the one episode of her show that I watched.

Around 10 years ago PBS had a reality show called Colonial House in which a group of people were trying to live as 17th century, New England colonists. Oprah was a fan of the series and decided to make an appearance. She had a brief orientation during which she asked if there were any blacks among the colonists. She was told that there had been two but they left for personal reasons. Oprah then suggested that the group didn't like black people and wondered if she would be safe among them.

In fact, the cast was huge fans and she was more than welcome.

This whole bit was important in showing Oprah's world view and the image she projects. She never asked what the personal reasons were for the black members leaving. As I remember, one had other commitments and only signed on for half the show and the other left because she felt guilty about the subjugation of the Indians by the colonists she was portraying. Neither left because of race but that was Oprah's assumption.

Oprah's speculation about her safety was worse because she knew perfectly well that she would be accompanied by a production crew. Her worries about being alone (with her friend) among whites who had reverted to their racist roots simply were not based on reality.

Finally, this speculation was left in the clip even though she knew when it was edited that she had been welcomed. There was never a clip where she admitted that she had been wrong to worry. This tells us that Oprah is quick to see things in the worst possible light and slow to admit mistakes.

She also recently compared the death of Travon Martin to the murder of Emmett Till and again, used the incident to promote her movie.