Thursday, April 29, 2010

Do not punish the undocumented!

Do not punish undocumented immigrants!

The State of Arizona recently passed a law which allows police to stop and examine the papers of anyone and to arrest those whose papers are not in order. The law explicitly forbids racial profiling but, in actuality, makes it unavoidable. The police cannot stop everyone. They will be looking for people who might be undocumented and you know what they look like.

But what's wrong with that? The undocumented broke the law against entering the country without a visa. The job of the police is to catch lawbreakers. We should give them the tools they need to do their job.

But as so often, the world is much more complicated than we would like it to be. Breaking the law is sometimes justified.

Consider this. Your farm is thriving. Your cows are fat, giving milk generously. The branches of the trees in your orchard are hanging low with fruit. Your fields are green and promise a rich harvest. Your neighbor's farm, on the contrary, is dry. He has hardly any milk and fruit. When his food runs out and his children go hungry he goes into your storehouse to steal food for his kids. Should he be punished? Suppose that his farm is failing because you took more than your share of the irrigation water and did not leave him the share he is entitled to. Suppose, in other words, that his misery is to a significant extent your fault. What shall we say then about his theft?
Suppose the poverty that drives many Mexicans and Central Americans—the bulk of the undocumented--to literally risk their lives to get to the US, to find work and send money back to their families, is to a significant extent the fault of us North Americans and of our government. How shall we think then about the proper treatment of undocumented immigrants?

The connections between our country and Central and South America extend over several centuries and are very complex. I can only mention some aspects of those relations to suggest that, perhaps, the US is responsible for a good deal of the suffering of our Southern neighbors.

Lets begin with President Thomas Jefferson refusing to recognize the newly established Haitian republic in the early years of the 19th century because Haiti had overcome the regime of its slave owners but Jefferson himself owned slaves. The terrible history of Haiti begins with our refusal to welcome this new republic to our hemisphere.

For US investors, Central and South America have generated huge profits. The history of the United Fruit Company in Central America is an interesting example. In the 1870s Americans became interested in Central America. They built railroads, and later telegraphs and postal services. They also obtained huge tracts of land, 40% of them for free. As the largest landowners in several Central American republics, they were immensely powerful. To be sure, they created jobs, but a good deal of their sizable profits were exported to the US and invested there. The wealth produced by the banana plantations and their workers did not remain in the countries of Central America that produced them but served to raise the standard of living in the US while the people in Costa Rica, Guatemala or Colombia remained mired in poverty.

The huge profits of United Fruit were in part due to low wages, to the fact that they obtained huge landholdings for free or for very low prices, and that they paid minimal taxes. They could achieve all that because they wielded great political influence and in more than one case were instrumental in installing dictators that favored them and kept workers and their organizations terrified and powerless. United Fruit has an appalling record of installing and supporting dictators in Central America thereby entrenching traditions of political corruption, retarding the development of democratic institutions, and keeping the mass of people impoverished.

In some cases, United Fruit or later the US government invaded and occupied one or the other country in order to smooth the path of US companies. In other cases, as in Guatemala in 1954 or in Chile in 1973 the CIA supported military coups to unseat duly elected presidents who were trying to decrease power of the US companies in favor of the citizens of their country.

In recent years the US has pressured Latin American countries to open their markets to US goods. The reason given was that free markets unfettered by import duties or export controls were to everyone's benefit. But at the same time the US government continued to subsidize our farmers so that the corn we export ot Mexico, for instance, is cheaper than what small Mexican farmers can produce. In Haiti, subsidized American rice is cheaper than Haitian grown rice. In both cases US imports have put local farmers out of business, who now are forced to look for work in the big cities, but often cannot find it. At the end, in desperation, they will try to cross into the US to avert their family's starvation.

These are just a few reasons for thinking that we Americans bear a considerable responsibility for the continuing flood of undocumented immigrants. The desperation that drives people to leave home and brave the dangers of the crossing and the hostility and exploitation they experience here is in part of our making. A good portion of the wealth produced by Mexicans and Central Americans ended up in North American pockets.

Expanding police powers is a completely unsuitable reaction to this complex problem.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Vegetarianism and Abortion

Abortion and Vegetarianism.

Nebraska just passed a law making abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy illegal. The reasons given for that limit is that at 20 weeks the fetus feels pain. That's an interesting argument because it is often used as an argument for vegetarianism: we should not slaughter cows or pigs or chicken because animals feel pain.

I am not trying to suggest that the legislature of the Sovereign State of Nebraska are about to make eating meat illegal. But the parallel between the anti-abortion argument and the vegetarian one is interesting for this reason: What would people think if a state legislature were to pass laws making vegetarianism compulsory? People would no doubt protest that their choice of food is a private matter not in the purview of the government. It is not up to the government to tell me to be a vegetarian.

But it is abortion a suitable topic for legislation?

The common answer is: “of course it is because abortion involves killing.”But that answer vastly oversimplifies how we think about killing. In wartime, large numbers of innocent civilians lose their lives and, more often than not we treat the killers as heroes. In our society various substances are manufactured and sold which take a lot of lives. In some cases trading in those substances, for instance cocaine or heroin, is illegal and the traders will, if caught, be punished. In case of other substances such as tobacco and alcohol, which are equally lethal to those who abuse them, no punishments are imposed. On the contrary, the growers of tobacco get agricultural subsidies. (Tobacco subsidies in United States totaled $530 million from 1995-2006.) In some cases, producing and selling dangerous substances is illegal; in others it is not and the producers are subsidized.

In a previous blog I referred to the number of persons who die prematurely because they don't have health insurance. I wrote there “Estimates of people dying prematurely because they have no health insurance range from 22,000 to 45,000 persons a year.” They don't have health insurance because Congress is not willing to raise taxes to pay for the health insurance and citizens are not willing to support such an increase in taxes. Our unwillingness to pay taxes is a cause of many fellow citizens dying prematurely. Stinginess in the tax department kills. But we do not impose any penalties on ourselves for depriving fellow citizens of health care and thus of life.

We are willing to deal very differently with different kinds of killing – of civilians in battle, of drug addicts, alcoholics, of smokers, of people without health insurance. We do not have a rule which says that all killing must be outlawed without exception.

It is not at all clear that abortion is a proper subject for legislation. Yes, abortion is a serious choice. We should admonish anyone not to make that choice lightly. But regulating it by law is coercive and imposes the religious and moral beliefs of some on others who may have different religious or moral beliefs.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tea Parties and Democracy

Tea parties and democracy.

Many people believe that the meetings of tea party members addressed by such media stars as Sara Palin and Glenn Beck are exercises in democracy-- the people telling their representatives what they really want: lower taxes, smaller government, more individual freedom.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

To be sure, momentous changes in our country have been brought about by people demonstrating in the streets, carrying placards and making their displeasure with government policy known in no uncertain terms. But popular opposition to slavery and Jim Crow began in the 1830s when William Lloyd Garrison began to publish The Liberator. It took hundred and thirty years of popular resistance and protest to make a serious dent in racial legislation and practices. 10 years of protests against the Vietnam War were necessary before that war was finally brought to an end by our government. At some points more than 1 million demonstrators crowded the Mall in Washington.
Two things are noteworthy about those two movements: the first is that it takes a long time to change government policy by public complaints and demonstrations, and secondly that the cause argued for must be very clear and precise. Abolitionists wanted to end slavery – a very precise goal. The antiwar movement wanted an end to the war in Vietnam. Compare to that the goals of the tea party: lower taxes, smaller government, more individual freedom. Is there anyone in America who does not want those? It is not clear what the tea parties are protesting.

All of this is interesting because it provides a lesson about American democracy. Democracy, it is often said, means that the people rule. But in America – or in any other reasonably sized country-- the people do not rule. We have a representative system; every congressional district contains 600,000 persons. Each batch of 600,000 people send their representative to Washington, but they do not know exactly what that representative is doing there. Do you know what your Congressman or woman does today, this week, this month?

How many of these 600,000 persons whom the elected candidate is supposed to represent actually have the representative's ear? Imagine yourself as a Congress person. How would you pick the people to listen to and to take seriously? Supposing that you are like most politicians and would like to be reelected, you will pay attention to the people who can help you hold on to your job. Those are the people with money who are willing to give some of it to you. They are the people who are powerful and influential in your district whose endorsement of your candidacy will help you get votes, such as the CEO's of large companies, other politicians who are popular with the electorate. They may be local people who have a large following because they have worked building up organizations for a long time. They have political influence if the members of their organizations are willing to attend demonstrations, write letters to the editor, go to meetings, make signs and contribute money for many years, or sometimes over many generations, with a very precise goal.

Citizens can have influence if they manage to organize a large group to which politicians, once elected, will listen to because there are so many of them, or because they are important people in the Congressional district, or because they have money.

Individually, one by one, you and I do not rule. What is more, the government is not terribly interested in what you and I think or want. Raucous meetings addressed by celebrities have no political influence. If tea party members think that they are affecting the government they deceive themselves because they do not understand how our representative system works..
Instead they are being used for manipulating public opinion. At most tea party meetings there are a few hundred, at big meetings a few thousand attendees. But the media give those meetings big play. Every day there is more news about the tea party. If you don't pay careful attention you might think that there is a mighty ground swell, a national movement of major proportions, objecting to everything the government is doing. So people may begin to think that there is something terribly, terribly wrong going on in Washington. But most of that so-called ground swell of opposition to the current government is manufactured in various newsrooms. We have had eight years of mismanagement in government—two unsuccessful wars, huge deficits, gross incompetence in Washington (remember Katrina!) and pervasive corruption. The tea party “phenomenon” is supposed to make us forget that. The tea party folks may think they are speaking out for their freedom but they are just being used to create the, quite false impression that Americans are disaffected from the current government and want fundamental change.

The media are playing the tea party, and us, for suckers.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How to respond to bullying in schools

How to respond to bullying in schools.

The community of South Hadley, Massachusetts has been in an uproar ever since a junior in high school, a recent immigrant from Ireland, committed suicide after experiencing brutal bullying and harassment. Now the community is, again, erupting in waves of anger and finger-pointing after revelations that school administrators were well aware of the bullying. Some people want to punish the administrators; others want to punish the school board. (So far there are no reports that the voters want to punish themselves for electing that particular school board.)

Bullying has various motives. The fat kid, who is unpopular, may try to gain some status by taking their lunch money from kids who are a lot smaller than he. The Beauty Queen of the school may bully unpopular kids to assert her power. People bully because they are angry, because they are frightened, or because they are just plain mean. But bullying always is pretty much the same. It inflicts pain, public humiliation, and it is merciless.

This is how some of the students in South Hadley treated Phoebe Prince. This is how the South Hadley community seems to be reacting to the events in their school. They are angry; they are out for blood. They need to see someone suffer. It is startling how similar the behavior of the adults is to that of their children. The parents see malfeasance on the part of school administrators or members of the school board and all they can think of is inflicting pain on them.

It is not terribly surprising that in a community where adults meet crises by pointing fingers and calling for the infliction of pain, children will do the same. Both adults and children are prone to bully.

Other communities take a more positive approach by asking themselves what they can do to prevent bullying in the future. Early childhood specialists have developed programs that encourage three-year-olds to engage in positive and affirmative relations with other three-year-olds. Communities that adopt these programs ask themselves not who is guilty and rush to demand punishment, but ask themselves: “What can we do to change our children?”

Such communities recognize that it is our responsibility to see that our children do not bully and the beginning of that is to look for positive solutions, not to look for the guilty parties and to inflict pain on them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More mysteries of Us Policy in Israel

More mysteries of US policy in Israel.

In the previous blog I suggest that that there was more than one face to US policy in Israel. While our government publicly criticizes the Israelis for planning construction of more Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, they give advanced airplanes to the Israeli Air Force as if to take the sting out of the public criticisms.

But now an Iranian-American Reza Aslan, author of Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization, asserts that the two state solution is no longer feasible. For the longest time, many observers argued that separate Israeli and Palestinian states were necessary for peace in the area. According to Aslan that is no longer a viable project. He recently traveled all up and down Israel and the Palestinian areas and found very few people who still regarded a two state solution as a real option.

There are clearly many reasons for that. It is difficult to think of a Palestinian state as long as the Palestinians have two different leaderships, Fatah and Hamas, each of them controlling a portion of the Palestinian lands and neither of them willing to have serious conversations with the other.

In the past, Palestinians have often been extremely hostile to Israel and thereby make it less likely that an Israeli and a Palestinian state should be able to live side-by-side in reasonable peace. The power of the Israelis, in their turn, rests very heavily on the Palestinians.

The Palestinian economy, such as it is, is not only in bad shape but is deteriorating. Unemployment is more than 30% in some areas. The standard of living is deplorably low. It is hard to imagine that a thriving Palestinian state could arise in areas of such utter wretchedness.
The reality on the ground is that Palestinian territories are crisscrossed by roads restricted to use by Israelis, roads linking Israeli settlements that dot the landscape of the West bank everywhere. Suppose a Palestinian state were to be established in that territory, would the Israeli settlements be transformed into Palestinian towns and their inhabitants become citizens of a Palestinian state? Would they be removed from their present housing to Israel?

It is very unclear to what extent Israelis have ever been willing to consider allowing a Palestinian state next to them in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Some people claim that the Israeli leadership, their rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, were from the very beginning committed to founding a Jewish state without Palestinians.

Recent reports suggest that conservative sentiment is growing rapidly in Israel. Various units of the Israeli Defense Force publicly announced that they would never assist in moving Israeli settlers from Palestine back to Israel. Units of the Armed Forces openly take political stands against Palestinian independence. They declare publicly that under certain conditions they would disobey orders from their superior commanders. While the government of Israel complains about that, no one gets punished. Either the Israeli government is not in charge of its military and is therefore unable to repatriate Israeli settlers if that became necessary for the sake of founding a Palestinian state, or the defiant sentiments of the military units actually express the position of the Israeli government. In that case obviously, the push for a two state solution is a complete waste of time.

There are, no doubt, other reasons for being very skeptical of any two state solution helping to bring peace in the Mideast.
But that raises an interesting question: do President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, the Mideast experts in the State Department not know all this and a whole lot more about the future of a Palestinian state? They surely do. Why are they still pushing for a two state solution when they know that the hope for such a two state solution is terribly tenuous at best?

One answer, no doubt, is that there aren't any plausible alternatives. If we drop the two state solution we either make our peace with Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and Israeli oppression of the inhabitants of those lands. Or we can look forward to a multinational state in Palestine with a large Jewish population and an even larger population of Palestinians. There are Palestinian citizens of Israel today but they are, apparently, second-class citizens. An Israeli state with a large Palestinian population could well resembles South Africa before the end of apartheid. According to Reza Aslan neither Israelis nor Palestinians have any enthusiasm for a multinational state even though there are examples of multinational states that function reasonably well, such as South Africa, or Belgium, or Canada. The United States is trying very hard to construct a multinational state in Iraq. In some of the Latin American countries, like Bolivia, the indigenous people are sufficiently self-conscious and organized among themselves to virtually constitute a separate nation in a multinational state they share with the mixed-race descendants of the Spaniards.

The United States has a problem with the face they turn to the world, especially the Arab world. They cannot support Israeli oppression and annexation of Palestine. They would not look much better if they sponsored a solution that nobody even in Israel or Palestine is interested in-- Israel/Palestine as one, multinational state. So they keep supporting a solution which has no future in order to seem reasonable and evenhanded.

That seems a pretty desperate situation to be in for “the most powerful country in the world.” In order to look good in the region, we promote a solution to the Mideast struggles which we know to be totally hopeless. We play “pretend.” It is hard to see how that will make us look good in the long run.

It also, of course, shows what we have always known that having a lot of nuclear tipped warheads in silos all over the Midwest makes us very dangerous, but it doesn't make us powerful. Our impotence in the Mideast shows that very clearly.

Friday, April 9, 2010

US Double Dealing with Israel

US double dealing with Israel.

While VP Joe Biden visited Israel a few weeks ago to promote indirect negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, the Israeli government announced a plan to build new housing for Jews in East Jerusalem. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of the state they are still hoping for. By making this announcement just when VP Biden was there to encourage new negotiations, the Israeli government made it abundantly clear that Israel will not give up any part of Jerusalem, and that Israel is not really interested in an independent Palestinian state.

The United States government took the timing of this announcement, as much as the announcement itself, as a slap in the face. Both the President and the Secretary of State used very harsh language to criticize both Israel's timing of the announcement and the plan for Jewish housing in East Jerusalem itself. But President Netanyahu of Israel, when he was visiting Washington last week, was quite intransigent. Israel, he said, will not give up any part of Jerusalem.

The criticism of Israel by the US was harsher than usual. Netanyahu's language less conciliatory than usual. All that seemed surprising and perhaps an indication that relations between the United States and Israel were about to change.

But now it turns out that all this harsh criticism and stiff necked intransigence was just for public consumption. The relations between the two governments are completely unchanged. While the political leaders of the two countries acted out their drama of threats and obstinate resistance, the Pentagon negotiated the sale of fighter planes to Israel. Correction: the Pentagon negotiated to give the fighter planes to Israel. The American defense establishment will give Israel the money to buy advanced fighter planes from American companies. To sweeten the deal for the Israelis, the planes will incorporate all sorts of systems designed and manufactured by Israeli industries.

While publicly sparring with each other, both the Americans and Israelis knew that they were the best buddies. They were just pretending to have a disagreement. The disagreement was given a big play in the press. The sale of the airplanes was not mentioned in any mass media. A cursory search on Google and did not bring it up either.

Who was this charade for?

It is difficult to resist the temptation to see this as one more example of the two Americas and their two foreign policies. There is the America that goes around the world encouraging democracy and individual liberty; the America that stands for good nutrition, for health care, for education for all and for indoor plumbing. That America is real. In the Mideast it keeps pushing for some kind of justice for the Palestinians.

But once again the other America proves stronger. That America has two motivations: One is to insure stability of governments in order to safeguard American investments. For that reason that other America supported, among many others, the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti and the brutal dictatorship of Mobutu in the Congo. A second motivation is the principle that “the enemies of my enemies are my friends.” It was that America that, in the 1930s, supported the Nazis in Germany because they were anti-communists. (IBM provided the punch card system to quickly make lists of all Jewish Germans. The CEO of IBM, Watson, was friendly with Hitler. During the 1930s both Ford and General Motors produced trucks for the new German army that Hitler was building.) And now we are following the same policy with Israel. The enemies of Iran are our friends. Israel must be supported at all costs – especially costs to the Palestinians – in order to have an ally in possible conflicts with Iran. We do not care what is happening to Israel as it slides into a more and more militarized state in which civil liberties, even for Jews, are valued less and less by the government.

Unfortunately, we have not learned from history. The policies of this second America breed the bin Ladens of this world.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lobbying -- its a crime.

Lobbying – it's a crime.

A few days ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accompanied by the Secretary of Defense, Gates, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Napolitano, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and similarly highly placed administration officials swooped down into Mexico City to talk about the war against the Mexican drug cartel. In recent times, these drug cartels have been said to have killed 18,000 people. But no high-placed US officials took those deaths sufficiently seriously for a hurriedly arranged, high level delegation to visit the Mexican capital. What was different this time was that the drug dealers killed three people connected with the US Consulate in Ciudad Juarez.

A report in the Dallas newspaper stated: “One of the country's [i.e. Mexico's] foremost experts on drug violence and judicial reform said his studies show that cartels now have near total control over 980 communities [ in Mexico], comparing those 'pockets' of lawlessness to 'failed states like Somalia. Inside pockets of these territories, local police corruption and social control [by drug traffickers] make it impossible for the government to have any control in situations marred by the current violence,' said Edgardo Buscaglia of the Metropolitan Autonomous Technical Institute, or ITAM.”

Many people believe that the success of drug dealers in Mexico, as well as, of course, in the United States, depends, in part, on their support by law enforcement agencies who are on the take. Not only do the drug dealers kill many people but they corrupt the government and the judicial system. Not only the weapons but also the money of the drug cartels are genuine threats to the functioning of the Mexican and the US government.
Put that next to data collected about lobbying in Washington DC by the Center for Public Integrity ( According to CBS news: In the run-up to passage of the new health care reform bill, “Makers of pharmaceuticals and health products spent $267 million lobbying, the most ever recorded by a single industry in a year. Business associations spent the second highest total, $183 million. Among individual groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was easily the biggest spender at $145 million. Exxon Mobil Corp. was a distant second at $27 million.”

How is this expenditure by large associations of businesses, labor unions, and universities so very different from the money spread around as bribes by the drug cartels?

You will say: the difference is obvious-- the drug cartels break the law. And that is, of course, perfectly true. But then consider this, lobbyists and their employers in industry and elsewhere, give bribes to the people who make the laws.

If Mexico's government has a tenuous hold on power, what about ours? How close have we come to government of, by, and for thosed private interest groups who can afford to hire lobbyists?