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He’s Baaaack! The Ryan Budget Returns, to the Democrats’ Delight

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) is at it again. He has produced a budget resolution that calls for the end of Medicare-as-we-know-it, replacing it with coupons that can be used to buy private health insurance. This has been introduced as the House version of the Congressional Budget Resolution, and is certain to a) pass the House, and b) be rejected by the Senate.

With the Ryan Budget, the Republicans have now defined two key planks in their platform for the next election:

  1. Ending Medicare
  2. Attacking birth control

Sound a little nuts? After all, most people support both Medicare and birth control. So why are they giving Barack Obama this nice present?

There are two possible explanations, as I see it:

  1. In what should be a Republican election year, the Tea Party is forcing the GOP to commit political suicide, handing Obama an election that he could not otherwise win, because of their fanatical commitment to hating both government and women. Or …
  2. The continuting recession makes it so unlikely that Obama will be reelected that the GOP has decided to implement the program that they really believe in: reducing the working class to poverty so that the capitalist class can get even richer.

Which do you think it is?

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Lots of Problems with Kony2012, But Let’s Give Jason Russell a Break

No sooner had I posted my second piece about the problems with the Kony2012 video than I started hearing that Jason Russell, co-leader of Invisible Children and star of the video, in which he explains Joseph Kony to his 5-year-old son, than I started hearing that Russell had been arrested for public masturbation. Apparently, he broke under the pressure generated by the video and the criticism it invoked, and reacted by taking off his clothes and otherwise misbehaving in public. You can read a pretty objective account of this, with quotations from both sides and a link to a video apparently of the naked Russell, in the Guardian, here.

In today’s political climate of bitterness and invective, it’s tempting to use the opportunity to ridicule Russell, and by extension his approach to world politics (“get the bad guys”), and many critics have not been able to resist this temptation. Sarcastic remarks are flying through twitterspace (e.g., “Now Jason Russell has another difficult thing to explain to his 5-year-old).

It’s also true that the incident has made us more aware of some of the relevant facts: that Russell is an evangelical Protestant, backed by right-wing religious groups, for example.

That said, I think it’s time to give him a break. The video was superficial, insulted people in Uganda (in fact, in all of Africa), and treated the public as if we were all five years old. That was true before he broke down, and it’s true today. But Jason Russell is a troubled human being who needs some space, and some medical care. Let’s let him have it, while we concentrate on the real issue: how to end the system of land grabs, mineral exploitation, and wars, all sponsored by giant capitalist corporations, that is causing so many problems in Africa.

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Clarifying the Kony Video Debate

As the debate over the Kony 2012 video released by Invisible Children continues, the issues are becoming clearer. On one side, this March 14 column by Nick Kristof – a journalist with a strong record for supporting human rights – gives the video a “bravo. . .for galvanizing young Americans to look up from their iPhones and seek to make a difference for villagers in central Africa who continue to be murdered, raped and mutilated by Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.” Kristof characterizes the negative reaction as “the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.”

On the other side, writing from Uganda, Adam Branch – who has worked in Uganda for 10 years, mostly with a Gulu-based human rights organization – writes an opinion piece for Al-Jazeera English in which he argues that “As a result of Invisible Children’s irresponsible advocacy, civilians in Uganda and central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money.” Al-Jazeera also shows this video from Lira, in which a crowd of Kony’s victims are so angered by the video that they hurl rocks at the screen and force its showing to stop.

In this press release from the Institute for Public Accuracy, Kambale Musavuli of Friends of the Congo criticizes the video for supporting the government of Uganda – an oppressive dicatorship – and promoting US military intervention.

Reading and viewing these articles and videos, I’ve come to the conclusion that the real issue is what we think of the US role in the world. For Kristof that role is unproblematically benign. He expects that, if the US intervenes militarily to support human rights, that intervention actually will support human rights. He does criticize our government, but mostly for not intervening (Bahrain) or for intervening too late (Bosnia, Sudan).

For the critics, on the other hand, US intervention is always suspect. Far too often – in fact, almost always – such intervention turns out to be deadly for the people it was supposedly going to help. This has been the case in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – to name the big ones – but also in Somalia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and many smaller cases. Even the supposed successes are ambiguous: our intervention freed Kosovo from Serbian rule, but installed a fundamentalist government that commits regular atrocities against those Serbs still living in Kosovo.

The US has already sent a couple hundred troops to Uganda, months before this video was released. It’s hard to see the video as much more than an attempt to whitewash this intervention.

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Joseph Kony: Getting the Bad Guy, or Stopping Imperialism?

In case you haven’t seen it, an organization named Invisible Children has releaed a video which has about 70 million hits in its first week. Impressive, even if many of them watched only a few minutes of the half-hour video.

The video is about Joseph Kony, leader of a paramilitary group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA began in Uganda; they were driven out of that country, but are still operating elsewhere in Central Africa. Their truly horrible modus operandi involves kidnaping children, the boys for child soldiers and the girls for sex slaves.

It has aroused a lot of controversy. The video frames the issue as a father explaining to his young son (5 or 6 years old) what the issue is all about. In sum, it is that Kony is a “bad guy” and should be arrested.

Yes, he is a bad guy. Yes, he should be arrested. But what the video does not mention is that arresting Kony would not change anyting. Just as killing Obama Bin Laden did not mean we could get on airplanes without having full body scans, arresting or killing Kony would not end the exploitation of children as soldiers and sex slaves. The roots are far deeped than that.

The basic problem of Central Africa is imperiailism: not the direct rule of subjugated people, but the indirect rule which takes their resources for the benefit of giant corporations. At this point, the major function of central Africa in the world economy is to supply minerals: oil, uranium, coltan, copper, etc. To get these minerals cheaply, the corporations involved have created chaos in African political and social life. Probably 5 million people have been killed in Congo in resource-driven conflicts, financed by corporations based in the US and the EU. The reason that there are warlords and child soldiers is that this business is so profitable.

Kony deserves severe punishment, but it is important to realize that arresting, trying, and punishing Kony will not change anything at all.

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Human Rights and the New Cold War

I saw a comment on Twitter this morning from some Syrian revolutionaries. They said that they consider themselves Syria’s link to the West, and that they reject any contact with Russia and Iran.

I don’t know how widespread that attitutde is among the Syrian revolutionaries; but if it is widespread, I think it will make it harder for them to improve the human rights situation in Syria. Human rights is a just cause, and gets a lot of support from people everywhere; but if the issue is seen as taking one side or another in international politics, that support will drop.

For example, the US opposes human rights movement in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia because the foreign policy establishment sees those movements – incorrectly – as linked to Iran. Russia and Iran do oppose the human rights movement in Syria, because they see it linked to the US. If it really is linked to the US, they will oppose it even more.

The difference between the US on the one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other, is that the latter restrict the human rights of their own citizens, while the US, aside from the occasional assassination, focuses its attack on human rights on the rest of the world, from Bahrain to Nicaragua to Honduras to …. well, you get the idea.

During the old Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union not only allied themselves with dictators, but encouraged those allies to be more repressive (e.g., in Chile for the US, Hungary for the Soviets). If a new Cold War escalates, that will happen again. The best way to get human rights is to be non-aligned.

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Democrats: Be Careful What You Wish For

There are convincing reports that Democrats in both Michigan and Ohio took Republican primary ballots in order to vote for Rick Santorum, who had solicited their votes in Ohio. Since it seems unlikely that many Democrats actually prefer Santorum to Romney, they were probably being mischievous – trying to stick the GOP with a weaker candidate in order to make an Obama victory more likely.

What a high risk strategy! Just suppose it works, that Santorum becomes the Republican nominee for President. Then suppose that, as seems very likely, Greece defaults after all, and the European economy collapses, bringing on a second wave of the Great Recession. We might well find ourselves looking at President Santorum and several steps closer to authoritarian rule in America.

Democrats, be careful!

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Iran: Not Only Is War not the Answer, but It’s the Wrong Question

Sadly, Barack Obama seems to be just as crazy as his predecessor when it comes to the Middle East; witness all his tough talk about war with Iran. So let’s be clear:

  1. All intelligence agencies agree that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, and does not plan to have one.
  2. The US, on the other hand, has thousands of nuclear weapons.
  3. Israel, which has a much more aggressive history of making war on its neighbors than Iran, has nuclear weapons but Obama won’t even talk about them,
  4. Eight years ago, the US went to war with Iraq based on a lot of lies; the result was disastrous. Now they’re telling the same lies and trying to go to war again.

From all this, I’d say that the question is not how to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons – it is why the national security establishment is so eager to destroy Iran.

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Sandra Fluke, Birth Control, and the Catholic Church

I’ve never heard of Dan Mitchell before, but apparently he’s a libertarian blogger. He’s also, apparently, an idiot. In this post he characterizes Sandra Fluke as wanting the government to pay for her birth control.

That might be a good idea, but it’s not what this controversy is about. Anuone who thought for 10 seconds would realize that this has nothing to do with the government’s paying for birth control. To sum up the obvious:

  1. Sandra Fluke is a student. Students are required to pay for health insurance as a condition of enrollment. That’s true today in Massachusetts, under Romneycare, and it will be true for the whole country once Obamacare is fully in effect.
  2. The Catholic Church, which owns Georgetown University, wants to take Sandra Fluke’s premium money, but deny her birth-control coverage. Note that this does not lead to a premium reduction, since covering birth control lowers health care costs rather than raising them.
  3. So what the church is saying is that it should be able to force its own beliefs on the students and employees of the universities (and hospitals) it owns, and should still be subsidized by our tax money (and universities are heavily subsidized – not just by grants, but federal financial aid and tax exemption for all their real estate).

A more intelligent libertarian view would be that our tax dollars should not go to subsidize sectarian institutions. If Catholic (or other religious) universities want to get all that federal aid, they should follow the same rules as everyone else.


Fukushima – Eve of Destruction?

I’ve always said the real problem with nuclear power is the radioactive waste. Nuclear plants produce tons of highly toxic, hard to contain materials that remain intensely radioactive and dangerous for about 250,000 years, and nobody knows what to do with it. Let me repeat that: no one has any idea how this waste can be dealt with safely, yet we continue to produce it, and governments have plans to produce even more. That’s insane.

I guess I still think that; but today’s release of an investigative report on the Fukushima meltdown in Japan has to make anyone stop and think. The report condemns the lack of preparedness of the company running the plant and the blunders of both company executives and government officials in trying to handle the disaster. But the scary point is that we came very close to an unthinkable catastrophe, “a series of massive chain reactions” that would have destroyed the heart of Japan. Officials considered an evacuation of Tokyo – a city of 35 million people.

In this case, the determination of the heroic Tsukushima 50, who continued working far beyond their safe radiation allowances, and a few lucky breaks pulled us back from the brink on that one. But what will happen next time? As I said, this is insane.

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Europe and the US – A Natural Experiment in Economic Policy

Three years ago, as a new president took office in the depths of a staggering, world-wide recession, the US passed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), better known as the “stimulus.” The idea was for the government to spend money on job-creating projects, even if that increased the federal government’s budget deficit. While many economists argued that the stimulus was a good idea but too small, those on the right called it the “porkulus,” and helped stir up the Tea Party protest movement against it.

In Europe, virtually every country took the opposite course. Instead of stimulating their economies with more spending, they turned to cuts to bring their budgets closer to being balanced.

Now, three years later, we can begin to see the results. The US economy has begun a modest recovery, with unemployment creeping down as sales begin to increase. In Europe, by contast, Greece is in a state of near collapse – and is having devastating budget cuts imposed on it – with serious worries about the fiscal stability of Spain, Italy, and France, and a real prospect that the entire Eurozone will collapse.

The US stimulated the economy by increasing its budget deficit, and is now experiencing a modest recovery. The nations of Europe sought to decrease their deficits by cutting spending, and is now threatened with economic collapse.

Which policy do you think was better?

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