Friday, July 14, 2006

The Weekly Wash (Premier)

I have an acquaintance, who shall remain nameless until permission to reveal is granted, who sends me weekly week-end op-ed roundups he/she calls the "wash". I intend to make it part of this blog, beginning today. It is usually comprised of New York Times columnists, which is the case today. Note these opinions do not always reflect my own (especially Mr. F):

July 14, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
Left Behind Economics
I’d like to say that there’s a real dialogue taking place about the state of the U.S. economy, but the discussion leaves a lot to be desired. In general, the conversation sounds like this:
Bush supporter: “Why doesn’t President Bush get credit for a great economy? I blame liberal media bias.”
Informed economist: “But it’s not a great economy for most Americans. Many families are actually losing ground, and only a very few affluent people are doing really well.”
Bush supporter: “Why doesn’t President Bush get credit for a great economy? I blame liberal media bias.”
To a large extent, this dialogue of the deaf reflects Upton Sinclair’s principle: it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. But there’s also an element of genuine incredulity. Many observers, even if they acknowledge the growing concentration of income in the hands of the few, find it hard to believe that this concentration could be proceeding so rapidly as to deny most Americans any gains from economic growth.
Yet newly available data show that that’s exactly what happened in 2004.
Why talk about 2004, rather than more recent experience? Unfortunately, data on the distribution of income arrive with a substantial lag; the full story of what happened in 2004 has only just become available, and we won’t be able to tell the full story of what’s happening right now until the last year of the Bush administration. But it’s reasonably clear that what’s happening now is the same as what happened then: growth in the economy as a whole is mainly benefiting a small elite, while bypassing most families.
Here’s what happened in 2004. The U.S. economy grew 4.2 percent, a very good number. Yet last August the Census Bureau reported that real median family income — the purchasing power of the typical family — actually fell. Meanwhile, poverty increased, as did the number of Americans without health insurance. So where did the growth go?
The answer comes from the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, whose long-term estimates of income equality have become the gold standard for research on this topic, and who have recently updated their estimates to include 2004. They show that even if you exclude capital gains from a rising stock market, in 2004 the real income of the richest 1 percent of Americans surged by almost 12.5 percent. Meanwhile, the average real income of the bottom 99 percent of the population rose only 1.5 percent. In other words, a relative handful of people received most of the benefits of growth.
There are a couple of additional revelations in the 2004 data. One is that growth didn’t just bypass the poor and the lower middle class, it bypassed the upper middle class too. Even people at the 95th percentile of the income distribution — that is, people richer than 19 out of 20 Americans — gained only modestly. The big increases went only to people who were already in the economic stratosphere.
The other revelation is that being highly educated was no guarantee of sharing in the benefits of economic growth. There’s a persistent myth, perpetuated by economists who should know better — like Edward Lazear, the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers — that rising inequality in the United States is mainly a matter of a rising gap between those with a lot of education and those without. But census data show that the real earnings of the typical college graduate actually fell in 2004.
In short, it’s a great economy if you’re a high-level corporate executive or someone who owns a lot of stock. For most other Americans, economic growth is a spectator sport.
Can anything be done to spread the benefits of a growing economy more widely? Of course. A good start would be to increase the minimum wage, which in real terms is at its lowest level in half a century.
But don’t expect this administration or this Congress to do anything to limit the growing concentration of income. Sometimes I even feel sorry for these people and their apologists, who are prevented from acknowledging that inequality is a problem by both their political philosophy and their dependence on financial support from the wealthy. That leaves them no choice but to keep insisting that ordinary Americans — who have, in fact, been bypassed by economic growth — just don’t understand how well they’re doing.

July 14, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
The Kidnapping of Democracy
When you watch the violence unfolding in the Middle East today it is easy to feel that you’ve been to this movie before and that you know how it ends — badly. But we actually have not seen this movie before. Something new is unfolding, and we’d better understand it.
What we are seeing in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon is an effort by Islamist parties to use elections to pursue their long-term aim of Islamizing the Arab-Muslim world. This is not a conflict about Palestinian or Lebanese prisoners in Israel. This is a power struggle within Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq over who will call the shots in their newly elected “democratic’’ governments and whether they will be real democracies.
The tiny militant wing of Hamas today is pulling all the strings of Palestinian politics, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah Shiite Islamic party is doing the same in Lebanon, even though it is a small minority in the cabinet, and so, too, are the Iranian-backed Shiite parties and militias in Iraq. They are not only showing who is boss inside each new democracy, but they are also competing with one another for regional influence.
As a result, the post-9/11 democracy experiment in the Arab-Muslim world is being hijacked. Yes, basically free and fair elections were held in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. Yes, millions turned out to vote because the people of the Arab-Muslim world really do want to shape their own futures.
But the roots of democracy are so shallow in these places and the moderate majorities so weak and intimidated that we are getting the worst of all worlds. We are getting Islamist parties who are elected to power, but who insist on maintaining their own private militias and refuse to assume all the responsibilities of a sovereign government. They refuse to let their governments have control over all weapons. They refuse to be accountable to international law (the Lebanese-Israeli border was ratified by the U.N.), and they refuse to submit to the principle that one party in the cabinet cannot drag a whole country into war.
“Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinians all held democratic elections,’’ said the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi, “and the Western expectation was that these elections would produce legitimate governments that had the power to control violence and would assume the burden of responsibility of governing. ... But what happened in all three places is that we [produced] governments which are sovereign only on paper, but not over a territory.’’
Then why do parties like Hamas and Hezbollah get elected? Often because they effectively run against the corruption of the old secular state-controlled parties, noted Mr. Ezrahi. But once these Islamists are in office they revert to serving their own factional interests, not those of the broad community.
Boutros Harb, a Christian Lebanese parliamentarian, said: “We must decide who has the right to make decisions on war and peace in Lebanon. Is that right reserved for the Lebanese people and its legal institutions, or is the choice in the hands of a small minority of Lebanese people?”
Ditto in the fledgling democracies of Palestine and Iraq. When cabinet ministers can maintain their own militias and act outside of state authority, said Mr. Ezrahi, you’re left with a “meaningless exercise’’ in democracy/state building.
Why don’t the silent majorities punish these elected Islamist parties for working against the real interests of their people? Because those who speak against Hamas or Hezbollah are either delegitimized as “American lackeys’’ or just murdered, like Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.
The world needs to understand what is going on here: the little flowers of democracy that were planted in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories are being crushed by the boots of Syrian-backed Islamist militias who are desperate to keep real democracy from taking hold in this region and Iranian-backed Islamist militias desperate to keep modernism from taking hold.
It may be the skeptics are right: maybe democracy, while it is the most powerful form of legitimate government, simply can’t be implemented everywhere. It certainly is never going to work in the Arab-Muslim world if the U.S. and Britain are alone in pushing it in Iraq, if Europe dithers on the fence, if the moderate Arabs cannot come together and make a fist, and if Islamist parties are allowed to sit in governments and be treated with respect — while maintaining private armies.
The whole democracy experiment in the Arab-Muslim world is at stake here, and right now it’s going up in smoke.
And another view. I still believe that Iz has gone too far, but it has become clear to me that I do not have a firm understanding of all the factions and forces at work in the Middle East.

July 14, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
Israel’s Invasion, Syria’s War
Beirut, Lebanon
ISRAEL’S incursion into Lebanon after the kidnapping on Wednesday of two Israeli soldiers by the militant group Hezbollah is far more than another flare-up on a tense border. It must also be seen as a spinoff of a general counterattack against American and Israeli power in the region by Iran and Syria, operating through sub-state actors like Hezbollah and the Palestinian organization Hamas.
If America and its Security Council partners are smart, however, they may be able to use this crisis to further their security goals in the Middle East, and to help Lebanon climb out of its political morass.
This is not to say that the cycle of attack and retaliation between Hezbollah and Israel is merely a proxy war. The two sides have long engaged in a conflict in southern Lebanon — albeit, since Israel’s pullout in 2000, one mostly limited to a disputed territory known as the Shebaa Farms and contained by unwritten rules. This week, however, Hezbollah transgressed three political lines.
The first was its expansion of military operations outside the Shebaa area. While Hezbollah has done this before — even killing some Israeli troops — the latest operation was certain to be intolerable to an Israeli government already dealing with the kidnapping of another soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, by Hamas in Gaza.
A second line that Hezbollah crossed was its evident coordination of strategy with Hamas; this went well beyond its stated aim of simply defending Lebanon and left Israel feeling it was fighting a war on two fronts.
The third line crossed was domestic. By unilaterally taking Lebanon into a conflict with Israel, Hezbollah sought to stage a coup d’├ętat against the anti-Syrian parliamentary and government majority, which opposes the militant group’s adventurism.
Hezbollah holds seats in the 128-member Parliament but has an uneasy relationship with the majority, which has been on the defensive as Syria has tried to reassert control over Lebanon after its military withdrawal last year. Hezbollah hoped to humiliate the anti-Syrian politicians by forcing them to endorse the kidnappings and showing how little control the government has over the party.
Israel wants Lebanon to pay an onerous price for its ambiguity on Hezbollah: it has imposed an air and sea blockade and is launching air attacks well into Lebanon, including several on the Beirut airport. Pointedly, however, Israel has failed to mention the regional facet of the crisis. Israeli officials have left Syria out of their condemnations, in jarring contrast to the Bush administration’s statements that have rightly highlighted Iranian and Syrian responsibility for Hezbollah’s behavior.
Iran, of course, has long bankrolled Hezbollah, and the Israeli government said yesterday it feared the two kidnapped soldiers were being taken to Tehran. But Syria is the nexus of regional instability, giving shelter to several of the most intransigent Palestinian militants, transferring arms to Hezbollah, and undermining Lebanon’s frail sovereignty.
Israel can brutalize Lebanon all it wants, but unless something is done to stop Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, from exporting instability to buttress his despotic regime, little will change.
Once the Israelis end their offensive, Hezbollah will regroup and continue to hold Lebanon hostage through its militia, arguably the most effective force in the country. Hamas leaders in Damascus will continue derailing any negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. And Syria will continue to eat away at Lebanese independence, reversing the gains of last year when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese marched against Syrian hegemony.
It would be far smarter for Israel, and America, to profit from Hezbollah’s having perhaps overplayed its hand. The popular mood here is one of extreme anger that the group has provoked a conflict Lebanon cannot win. The summer tourism season, a rare source of revenue for a country on the financial ropes, has been ruined. Even Hezbollah’s core supporters, the Shiite Muslims in the south, cannot be happy at seeing their towns and villages turned again into a killing field.
What to do? While the United Nations has been ineffective in its efforts toward Middle East peace, it may be the right body to intervene here, if only because it has the cudgel of Security Council Resolution 1559, which was approved in 2004 and, among other things, calls for Hezbollah’s disarmament.
The five permanent Security Council members, perhaps at this weekend’s Group of 8 meeting, should consider a larger initiative based on the resolution that would include: a proposal for the gradual collection of Hezbollah’s weapons; written guarantees by Israel that it will respect Lebanese sovereignty and pull its forces out of the contested Lebanese land in the Shebaa Farms; and the release of prisoners on both sides. Such a deal could find support among Lebanon’s anti-Syrian politicians, would substantially narrow Hezbollah’s ability to justify retaining its arms, and also send a signal to Syria and particularly Iran that the region is not theirs for the taking.
One important thing: No Lebanese government could legitimately help to advance such a plan if Israel were to try to, as its army chief of staff put it this week, “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years.” Israel must cease its attacks and let diplomacy take over.
Michael Young is the opinion editor of The Daily Star in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine.
A reasonable voice:
To the Editor:
Israel’s bombings of Gaza and Lebanon are an irrational and disproportionate reaction to the capture of three Israeli soldiers and the killing of three others.
So far, more than 50 Palestinians in Gaza and nearly as many Lebanese have been killed, hundreds have been wounded, and the bombing of critical infrastructure will surely kill far more.
This incredibly disproportionate use of force demonstrates a macabre equation where each Israeli life appears to be worth the lives of dozens of innocent Palestinians and Lebanese.
By threatening to “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years,” Israel appears willing to punish millions of Lebanese for the actions of a few militants.
The time has come to end United States support for the oppressive, out-of-control government of Israel.
Eric Ettlinger
Berkeley, Calif., July 13, 2006

1 comment:

Endorendil said...

"They refuse to be accountable to international law (the Lebanese-Israeli border was ratified by the U.N.), and they refuse to submit to the principle that one party in the cabinet cannot drag a whole country into war."

Thomas Friedman must be high. The USA was dragged into its last few wars by executive order, i.e. by a single person, supported by only one party. And let's not get into the "obeying international law" issue either...

Democracy in the Middle East (and anywhere else) won't be had easily. It will take a long while before the administrative entities that the colonizing powers declared "countries" will really be governable by non-violent compromise politics. And there is no doubt in my mind that Arab democracies will remain anti-Israel and anti-Western for generations to come. This is the result of the last few centuries of history, and particularly the last 50 years.