Friday, August 26, 2011

Some Million

While understanding why Israelis might justifiably be nervous about the new government in Cairo, I've always been dubious that Egypt actually was going to repudiate its peace treaty with Israel. First, the minds of most Egyptians are primarily on other things right now. Second, one generally doesn't repudiate a peace treaty unless one is willing to go to war (otherwise, what's the point?), and I don't think the Egyptian people are in any mood for an actual full-blown armed conflict, nor do I imagine the Egyptian military is currently prepared to engage in such hostilities even if the populace were. Finally, and not insignificantly, there is massive international pressure against Egypt repudiating its peace agreement with Israel -- meaning that the Egyptian government won't take that step without some very strong reason (be it irresistible domestic pressure or provocation or what have you).

But one always can worry (and I do think it is notable that, reputation for rabid warmongering aside, there is no political constituency of note in Israel that has called for a repudiation of peace with Egypt. It seems that once Israel makes a final agreement with one of its neighbors, it is capable of keeping it with little fuss from its citizens' end). So I was gratified to find out that the planned "million man march" in Cairo calling for an end to peace with Israel apparently only attracted a few bare hundreds. This doesn't surprise me -- while I imagine the Egyptian street is probably rather cool towards Israel, I also, to reiterate, think they're mostly concerned about other issues right now, and are not keen on reverting back to old patterns where mad gesticulations towards Israel are used to distract them from necessary reforms at home. There, now, that playbook isn't going to fly.

The Difference Between Winning and Not Losing

Caroline Glick has a whiny column up blaming the Israeli media for sabotaging "American media superstar" Glenn Beck's trip through Israel. Her breathless account of Beck's boundless influence ("His calls for action are answered by hundreds of thousands of people. His statements are a guidepost for millions of Americans. Aside from radio host Rush Limbaugh, no media personality in the US has such influence.") manages to omit the fact that he got himself axed from Fox for being just too crazy. But whatever -- Glick is of the persuasion that the vast majority of Israel's "friends" are really enemies, and that the only friends worth having are the one's that cheer alongside whatever policy Avigdor Lieberman bumbles into next (Tzipi Livni, in Glick's telling, is clearly not among Israel's friends). What Israel needs, she said, is for folks to "empower it to defeat its enemies and to stand up to an increasingly hostile world."

Glick's ideological blinders are doing more than deluding her into thinking that Glenn Beck is anything but a deranged nutjob. It also is causing her to seriously misappraise Israel's security situation. Israel can't win its battle by military force. It can lose it that way, to be sure. And that's important to remember. Losing is bad, and the sort of losing we're talking about -- where the state gets wiped off the map and Jewish communal self-determination is extinguished -- would be exceptionally bad. That's why you won't see me get behind notions of throwing up an arms boycott against Israel. We're talking about a country that has been at war a half dozen times in barely 60 years of existence, that is still technically in a state of war with two of its immediate neighbors, that has another regional power promisng to "eradicate" it ... I could go on. Given that, I fully subscribe to the notion that Israel needs an armed forces able to, paraphrasing Sergeant Johnson, "blow up any son-of-a-bitch dumb enough" to try and mess them up.

But that's simply a case of "not losing". Successfully not being destroyed is certainly important, but it's not the end goal. The end goal is for Israel to not have to fight such wars. It's for Israel to be a recognized part of the region, stable and secure as a Jewish, democratic state. And that's something that force can't accomplish. Force can defend against hostile action, but it can't stop hostile sentiment. Force can respond to military incursions, but it can't stop demographic realities. Force can defend democratic institutions, but it can't create universal suffrage. All of these things have to be resolved with political courage, not military might.

These political reforms and negotiations and compromises -- jumping into an unknown future in the hopes that former enemies can become peaceful neighbors -- can be frightening. They are risks. Luckily, Glick and Beck are correct that there exists against many Israelis an incredible reserve of courage that often has been called upon to make these deals. It is just a shame that Glick and Beck seem not to have kept any for themselves.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Criticize This!

A St. Andrews University student was expelled, and convicted under a racial abuse statute, after placing his hands in his trousers, grabbing his genitals, then rubbing it over an Israeli flag a fellow student had in his own room. The student also allegedly made remarks to the effect that Jews had no claim on the state of Israel and that the student was a "terrorist". Another student was acquitted of the criminal charges, but an internal university investigation suspended him for a year.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

O'Malley Renews the Push

After Maryland came tantalizing close to instituting marriage equality this past year, Governor Martin O'Malley (D) is gearing up for a renewed push.

It's unclear how, if at all, the political dynamic has changed in Annapolis. O'Malley has some boilerplate about how the trendlines are in our favor (and they are), but there's no word on movement by any particular state legislator. Of course, the bill really just failed to pass last time, so even assuming no change we're still in toss-up territory.

I have to add my kudos to Governor O'Malley, who is starting to demonstrate real leadership on the issue. It isn't just "if it passes, I'm willing to sign it" -- he's made it known that he completely and unambiguously supports the legislation, and thinks it should pass. So good for him. And hopefully, this time Maryland will indeed do the right thing.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A War They Can Get Onboard With

Lauren Booth is a journalist for Iran's Press TV and a pro-Palestinian activist (in much the same way that the Kach Party consists of "pro-Israel activists"). She's mostly known for being the half-sister-in-law of Tony Blair. Like many folks of her particular political bent, she is affiliated with various putatively "anti-war" groups: Stop the War Coalition, Media Workers Against the War, etc..

But let it never be said she's not a pragmatist about it. For Lauren Booth appears to have found a war she can support: Urging Israel's Arab neighbors to attack it (again):
It is time, Brothers and Sisters, for Al Quds to be liberated. For Islam and people of the world who wish to pray there to the one God. And we say here today to you Israel, we see your crimes and we loathe your crimes. And to us your nation does not exist, because it is a criminal injustice against humanity. We want to see Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt go to the borders and stop this now. Liberate Al Quds! March to Al Quds!

If asking Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt to "march to [Jerusalem]" (Al Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem) isn't simply a pro-war rallying cry, I don't know what is. Other speakers clarified that, yes, they were talking about sending in the army:
You can’t take an army, which is a nation’s army, a terrorist nation’s army, and defeat it with sincere small fighters. It needs some of those states around to release their armies to burn that land and then that region will see peace like it had in the past. Because the only time that land has seen peace between Muslim, Christian and Jew living side by side was when sincere Islamic rulers ruled with justice.

The point is that the "anti-war" commitments of folks like Booth extend precisely as far as their realization that sometimes war has the salutary impact of killing Israeli Jews.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Want a Broader Tax Base? Reduce Income Inequality

The current tax orthodoxy amongst congressional Republicans has been simple: no more taxes, period. But some Republican presidential contenders realize that's unsustainable. And they've finally hit on a tax increase they can support: raising taxes on the bottom 50% of American workers. The language is "broadening the tax base", and the argument is that these are Americans who pay no income tax at all (though of course they pay other taxes, such as social security and sales taxes), because their incomes fall below the minimum required to trigger tax liability.

Libertarian blogger Radley Balko* concurs with those who find it worrisome that half the country pays nothing in income taxes. The problem, as he sees it, is that "an increasingly small percentage of earners fund the government, we’ll soon have a majority of people who pay no tax voting for more and more government services they benefit from, but don’t have to pay for." The reason we want to broaden the tax base is to ensure that everybody (or at least as many people as is feasible) have "skin in the game", that is, have an incentive to care about governmental expenditures.

The concern is legitimate, but it doesn't necessarily take us where Balko thinks it does. Let's put aside for the moment the fact that just because a majority of Americans don't pay income taxes doesn't actually mean that majority controls policy (both because of apportionment issues, and also because of structural concerns which disproportionately reduce the influence the bottom 50% have in political institutions). And also put aside the fact that taxation is not the only way that one can have "skin in the game" -- poorer Americans are more likely to be dependent on governmental services for the provision of basic needs, and thus have every reason to care about the efficacy of such services (Balko's main concern is less effected by this, because his primary worry is that government will do more, not that it will do what it does poorly -- though he suspects it will).

That fifty percent of Americans don't pay income tax is not because our tax code is set up to say "the poorest half of Americans pay nothing". Rather, the income tax system simply decrees that people who make below a certain threshold pay nothing income taxes, presumably because we feel that taking money away from people who earn that little represents too much of a hardship. And, as income inequality continues to skyrocket, the number of people who fall below that demarcation is now hovering around 50%.

But if we started seeing rising wages and earnings amongst the working class, that number would drop as more Americans earn enough to join the ranks of taxpayers. In other words, to the extent conservatives are really concerned that as many people as possible have "skin in the game", the current income tax structure in turn gives conservatives an incentive to care about an issue important to liberals: income inequality. One can broaden the tax base by taking more away from the already-poor. But it seems the better option is to broaden the income tax base by broadening the income base -- rendering fewer people poor in the first place.

And aside from the fact that this is simply more humane -- there is a threshold level of income below which we don't think a family is earning enough to support itself to a standard commensurate with our status as the greatest country in the world -- I think the incentive question cuts in its favor as well. I already explained above that the poor already have lots of incentives to care about how government works, and, regardless, it's far cheaper to incentivize them to act anyway. By contrast, there are very few notable points of leverage society has on the rich to get them to care about the living standards of the poor. To the extent that they are genuinely concerned over an emergent democratic majority which pays no taxes (to be honest, I'm dubious that they're actually that concerned), that's a very rare opportunity to make a trade.

* I want to say that, while obviously I strongly disagree with Balko on issues such as this, I have a lot of respect for him as a libertarian who actually puts his money where his mouth is -- he devotes as much if not more attention to aspects of governmental power which harm the poor and marginalized as he does to decrying regulations which hurt primarily the rich and powerful. His work on police brutality and the death penalty, in particular, has been stellar and admirable.

The End May Be Nigh in Libya

If there is one name I trust for useful, clear-eyed, non-biased descriptive evaluations of what is going in a military conflict, it's Robert Farley of LGM (see, e.g., his early appraisal of Cast Lead, which I drew on heavily). What makes him distinct from so many other commentators is that he doesn't seem tied to a particular normative agenda regarding warfare -- he's neither a gun-toting neoconservative cheerleader, nor a reflexive anti-war peace protestor. That doesn't mean he doesn't have normative opinions, only that when he gives his predictions, I feel comfortable he's not molding them to craft a narrative either in support or against "war" as a concept.

Anyway, in that vein his thoughts on where Libya seems to be headed are well worth reading. Of particular interest is the evaluation of the "Afghan model" of military intervention (special forces logistical support combined with air power used to support indigenous forces on the ground) which, he claims, may be vindicated in the military sense while showing its fragility in the political sense. Avoiding real boots on the ground didn't seem to stop any flack aimed Obama's way (which was much of the point). But it does look like the rebels will be victorious and, Farley argues, there are real benefits to it being the rebel forces themselves who are seen as toppling the regime (and had to work together to do so), rather than it being swept away by a Western expeditionary force.