Monday, October 31, 2011

Oh the hypocrisy!

PJ: Many of us who view American politics from the outside also read publications from the inside. This one, from America's Newsweek magazine, was an 'Only in America' gem.


The Tea Party Pork Binge
Oct 30, 2011 10:00 AM EDT

They brought the nation to the brink of default over spending, but a Newsweek investigation shows Tea Party lawmakers grabbing billions from the government trough. Plus, view the letters submitted by the 'Dirty Dozen.'

By Daniel Stone

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Republican leadership’s tether to the Tea Party, flutters the hearts of the government-bashing, budget-slicing faithful with his relentless attacks on runaway federal spending. To Cantor, an $8 billion high-speed rail connecting Las Vegas to Disneyland is wasteful “pork-barrel spending.” The Virginia Republican set up the “You Cut” Web site to demonstrate how easy it is to slash government programs. And he made the Department of Housing and Urban Development the poster child for waste when he disclosed that the agency was paying for housing for Ph.D.s.

But away from the cameras, Cantor sometimes pulls right up to the spending trough, including the very stimulus law he panned in public. Letters obtained by Newsweek show him pressing the Transportation Department to spend nearly $3 billion in stimulus money on a high-speed-rail project—not the one he derided in Nevada, but another in his home state. “Virginia ... will demonstrate that this historic investment in rail will create jobs, reduce congestion, spur economic growth and improve our environment,” says a letter he signed with other Virginia members in October 2009, cribbing President Obama’s own argument for the stimulus.

Cantor signed several such letters, including an earlier one seeking rail funds a month after he went on national television attacking the Vegas project. He also signed a letter in October 2009 seeking $60 million to build commercial ships, some likely along Virginia’s coastline. As for his bashing of HUD, until last year he owned as much as $50,000 in preferred stock in a real-estate company that receives federal housing assistance from the department.

As the government showdown over debt continues—the so-called congressional supercommittee negotiating cuts has been floundering for weeks—Newsweek found about five dozen of the most fiscally conservative Republicans, from Tea Party freshmen like Allen West to anti-spending presidential candidates like Rick Perry and Ron Paul, trying to gobble up the very largesse they publicly disown, in the time-honored, budget-busting tradition of bringing home the bacon for local constituents.

The stack of spending-request letters between these GOP members and federal agencies stands more than a foot tall, and disheartens some of the activists who sent Republicans to Washington in the last election.

“It’s pretty disturbing,” says Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, when told about the stack of letters from members, many of whom he supported in 2010. “We sent many of these people there, and really, I wish some of our folks would get up and say, you know what, we have to cut the budget, and the budget is never going to get cut if all 535 members of Congress have their hands out all the time.”

Many of the letters seek to tap the stimulus, clean-energy loans, and innovation grants—programs the same Republicans have accused Obama and the Democrats of using to bloat government and jeopardize America’s future. And these fiscal conservatives often used in their private letters the same arguments they pan in public.

Seizing on the Obama administration’s decision to make a risky half-billion-dollar loan to a struggling solar firm named Solyndra, Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa have recently accused Democrats of trying to pick winners and losers and questioned the need for the Energy Department loan-guarantee program at the center of the controversy.

But both Boehner and Issa struck a different tone in requests for help from that program in their home states: Boehner for a uranium project in Ohio, and Issa for an electric-car company in California. “Awarding this opportunity to Aptera Motors will greatly assist a leading developer of electric vehicles in my district,” Issa wrote in January 2010, just 18 months before he began investigating the Solyndra controversy. An Issa spokesman has said the grant was never funded, and that Aptera was on better financial footing than the now-defunct Solyndra. Boehner’s office says the nuclear project had gone through a rigorous vetting process for funding, unlike Solyndra.

Fred Upton, the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, who is currently investigating Solyndra and other parts of the stimulus, himself appealed to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and other Energy officials in 2009 for similar grants. In a series of 10 letters, Upton and colleagues highlighted projects in Michigan that, if granted more than $250 million, could create more than 5,000 jobs.

For Documents: See the Letters From the 'Dirty Dozen' at:

Happy Halloween

PJ: A little Halloween political humor courtesy of Slate Magazine.

The Republican War on Trick-or-Treating
The right doesn't want our kids to take handouts.

By Dahlia Lithwick

This week, Republicans in Congress have decided to take some time off from taking time off to announce a bold new jobs initiative: As part of the effort to reward the nation’s hardest working job creators, and punish the “growing mobs” of whining, entitled, spoiled youngsters who have taken to the streets with their irrational, socialist demands, House GOP Leader Eric Cantor this afternoon announced that America’s problems will be solved by a forward-thinking congressional initiative. Quoting himself in a speech that he almost gave last week, Rep. Cantor explained that “Republicans believe that what is fair is a hand up, not a hand out.” And that’s why Republicans today declared war on trick-or-treaters.

It’s become increasingly clear to the Republican leadership that growing mobs of masked youngsters, overrunning America’s pristine public thoroughfares with their unreasonable demands for free Skittles, are both frightening and disruptive. “If you give a kid a candy corn, he’ll eat for a day,” explained Cantor, in unveiling the new program. “But if you take away his candy corn and make him grow his own sugar cane, he'll grow up to have a job you will eventually send overseas.”

Probably nobody has done a better job of identifying the real villains in this country than Rush Limbaugh, who has taken a strong stand against the “perpetually lazy, spoiled rotten" kids who are out there trick-or-treating each and every year. It’s the “juveniles and spoiled brats” screwing up this country and it’s time to stop giving them free stuff. And make no mistake about it. These roving bands of misfits and thugs want your stuff. Just ask Bill O’Reilly. It starts with those small packets of Smarties, but if you take your eyes off the little succubi for even a nanosecond, they’ll soon be hoofing it down your front walkway with your decorative planters.

Or, as GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain recently put it to the Wall Street Journal, describing these gangs of restless children and their malicious efforts to blackmail the wealthy in exchange for candy: "Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks, if you don't have candy and you're not rich, blame yourself!" Another GOP contender for the presidency, Michele Bachmann, who has, by her latest estimate, been a mother to 30,000 children, spoke out in favor of the new bill this afternoon to say that nobody should be catering to a class of people who are not even able to “pick up their own trash." “When America’s children can do their own taxes, they can get tax credits," Rep Bachmann explained, “until then, they should stop ringing doorbells and get busy putting other American children back to work.”

Cantor’s proposed ban on Halloween will be replaced by a tax cut on candy for any American who eats more than a million pounds of candy per year. Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists who first floated the idea of doing away with Halloween back when they proposed a national ban on global warming, have argued that the best way to ensure that American children get candy is by giving more candy to the Koch brothers. Reached for comment at a super-secret candy conclave full of super-secret guests—including, if we were to name-drop just a few, Willy Wonka, Baby Ruth (in town anyhow for a Federalist Society conference), and the Three Musketeers—the Kochs would not explain their antipathy to trick or treaters. But well-known anti-trick-or-treatist Glenn Beck was on hand to explain the economic theory behind cutting candy to the poor while offering candy breaks to the rich.

“See that chocolate fountain,” explained Beck, pointing delightedly to a chocolate fountain. “See how all the rich creamy chocolate at the top eventually pours down to the bottom? Well that’s what makes America so great. And if America’s youngsters want free candy on Oct. 31, the best way for them to get it is to stand at the bottom of the Koch Brothers’ chocolate fountain with a Dixie cup.”

Cain went further, explaining on Face the Nation that America’s trick-or-treaters are simply “jealous" Americans who "play the victim card" and that their childish efforts to launch a class war by intimidating the honest candied-class into giving them free things should not be rewarded. Sarah Palin, reached for comment at her home in Alaska, had yet another suggestion for America’s greedy young people. “Drill baby drill,” she hollered, explaining to Greta Van Susteren that the United States is doomed unless it can wean itself off its dependence on foreign candy, by drilling into the untapped caramel reserves of places like ANWR. Palin was immediately offered a $20 million endorsement by the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.

In unveiling today’s jobs initiative, known by its official title Defense of Our Tasty Snacks (or DOTS), Cantor went back to his recent talking points about his grandmother’s generation and how American children, by asking their grandmothers for free candy, have slowly corroded the American Dream. It’s only by locking our doors to the freeloaders and the lazy, the spoiled and the entitled, the masked and the sippy-cupped, that America can become great once again.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

UK: Support for the jobs plan that the GOP killed

The Economist

Stimulus thinking
The swimming-pool analogy again

ON TUESDAY Slate sponsored a debate over whether Congress should pass the Obama administration's jobs plan, and at the end of the evening the audience voted 69 to 22 for the side arguing "aye", made up of Mark Zandi, an economist at Moody's Analytics, and Cecilia Rouse, an economics professor at Princeton. (A pre-vote held before the debate to address sample-bias issues showed the "aye" side winning 45 to 16.) The results shouldn't be surprising, since the debate was held in New York. But what caught my eye was the part of the debate where, according to Slate's Melissa Weingarten, the "nay" side, argued by the Cato Institute's Dan Mitchell and Richard Epstein, a law professor at NYU, seemed to be doing well.

Mitchell and Epstein began the debate strongly, especially when Mitchell engaged the audience in a clever "quiz" to show that the American Jobs Plan is simply a repeat of failed economic policy. "Let’s divide this room in half," he began. "Let’s borrow all the money out of the pockets of the people on this side of the room and give it to the people on this side of the room. Now here’s the quiz. Raise your hand if you think there’s more money in the room." The audience chuckled. This stimulus, he explained, is simply a redistribution of national income. "Our goal should be not to redistribute national income; we want to increase national income," Mitchell said. "We want a bigger pie so everyone can get a bigger slice; that’s what economic growth is all about."

This is a version of an analogy that has been circulating for years among conservatives arguing that government spending cannot, by nature, increase economic activity. I think it's best referred to as the "swimming-pool analogy", since that's the way it was deployed by the Cato Institute's Brian Riedl in January of 2010. (I blogged about Mr Riedl's claim at the time.) It's also the way it appears in a widely circulated internet joke, which this Texas high-school economics teacher complained about as early as March of 2009. The claim is that government stimulus spending is like taking water out of one side of a swimming pool and pouring it into the other: it doesn't change the water level. Hence, government spending cannot stimulate the economy.

I think this is a terrible analogy, for reasons I'll detail below. But I'm just some blogger. So I emailed Jared Bernstein, formerly Joe Biden's top economic adviser and now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, for his take. He thinks it's a terrible analogy too. "The swimming pool analogy doesn't work because it's static...the economy has cycles—demand, in particular, is too low right now," he wrote back. He offered his own analogy:

Think of the economy as a car and fuel as the demand that propels the car forward. The gas tank is empty, but we've got a tank of gas sitting on the lawn next to the car. If we put the gas in the tank, the car can get started and go somewhere.

Is there any more gasoline in the world? No. But we took the gas we had and used it to get the engine started.

You can think of gas as the excess savings that won't otherwise be absorbed because of demand contraction/liquidity trap.

The folks who don't get this simply assume that savings always equals investment, oblivious to what's happening around them. It's not just academic. It's a tragic waste of human potential.

It looks to me like the basic error Mr Mitchell's exercise and the swimming-pool analogy make is to confuse money with economic activity or GDP. A swimming pool might be a reasonable analogy for the money supply, and, indeed, if the government takes money from one place and sends it to another, that doesn't change the money supply very much. But the amount of money in the economy is not what we're interested in here. We are interested in economic activity, or GDP: people spending money to buy goods and services. We're interested in how much spending and working is going on, not how much money there is. And when government spends money to buy goods and services, it can certainly increase the amount of economic activity, especially if other individuals and organisations aren't doing much spending.

If you're looking for a good analogy of the economy using fluid, you don't want to compare it to a swimming pool. You want to compare it to an irrigation scheme, or some other kind of hydraulic system. In a hydraulic system, what's important isn't necessarily how much fluid there is, but how fast it's moving and how high the pressure is. And, obviously, taking fluid from one part of the system and moving it to another part of the system increases flow. Indeed, taking fluid from one place and moving it to another is the entire nature of a hydraulic system. That's why back in the 1950s and 60s, before computers became practical, economists used to model the economy using crazy-looking hydraulic machines. The last remaining one appears to be at Cambridge University; it was recently restored to working order as a historical technology project.

To bring things back to the Slate debate, I wouldn't have called Mr Mitchell's argument about redistribution "clever"; I would have called it confusing. Imagine instead that Mr Mitchell had taken all the money out of the pockets of one half of the room, and used it to pay the other half of the room to give the first half of the room backrubs. Would this have increased economic activity in the room for that period? Absolutely: money would be spent and backrubs would be performed, where otherwise people would have been just sitting around doing nothing with cash in their pockets. Would this have been an optimal or desirable use of that money or of those people's time and labour? Probably not, in most cases. But that's a different question, and the government and the economy are too different from a bunch of people sitting in a lecture hall to construct a simple exercise that would say anything useful on that score.

UK: Republican mantra--lower taxes on the 'job creators' and no taxes on investments that the wealthy can afford--let the middle class and poor pay more

The Economist

The craze for flat taxes
Republican candidates are competing to race to the lowest point

“ZERO-zero-zero is better than nine-nine-nine,” claims Rick Santorum, a Republican presidential candidate, trying to outbid the tax plan of his rival Herman Cain. Mr Santorum’s is not the only effort at one-upmanship: “I’ll bump plans with you, brother,” Rick Perry, another contender, told Mr Cain before unveiling a proposal for a flat tax this week (see above). Yet another of the candidates, Newt Gingrich, does not want to be left out. “Bump plans w/ me,” he implored Mr Perry by tweet.

It has been more or less compulsory for Republican presidential candidates to promise a tax cut of some sort—or at least indefatigable opposition to tax increases—ever since Ronald Reagan pledged a 10% reduction in marginal rates every year for three years during the campaign of 1980. Over time, the proposals have been getting bolder. Mike Huckabee, the runner-up for the nomination last time around, suggested replacing the entire federal tax code with a 30% federal sales tax, deftly if misleadingly branded as the “fair tax”. John McCain, the nominee, advocated a two-tier system. Taxpayers could either stick with the present code or switch to a massively simplified alternative, with much lower rates but few exemptions or deductions.

This time around the smorgasbord of tax plans on offer is even more radical. Most undertake not just to lower bills, but to dispense with whole tomes of the 3.4m-word code. Mr Santorum, for example, wants manufacturing firms to pay no corporate tax at all (one of his three zeroes). Ron Paul, a libertarian candidate, wants to do away with federal income tax altogether. Mr Cain denounces the current tax code as “the twenty-first-century version of slavery”. There is a consensus among all the candidates that the federal corporate tax rate of 35%, the highest in the rich world, must be slashed. Most candidates would like to put an end to taxes on capital gains and dividends as well.

Meanwhile, negotiations over a “grand bargain” to eliminate America’s gaping deficits seem to hinge on sweeping tax reform. What with Occupy Wall Street’s protesters railing against the power of America’s plutocrats, and Barack Obama’s insistence that the wealthy must pay more, a row about tax seems likely to dominate the campaign.

Messrs Cain, Gingrich and Perry are all hawking flat taxes, whereby individuals would all pay the same rate, with few exemptions and deductions. The idea is not new: Steve Forbes, a publishing magnate, made a flat tax the centrepiece of two presidential bids, in 1996 and 2000—both resounding flops. But Mr Cain has garnered lots of attention, and a lead in some polls, with his relentless refrain of 9-9-9. He wants to cut personal and corporate income taxes to 9%, abolish most other federal taxes, and make up for the lost revenue with a 10% sales tax (billed as 9% thanks to a mathematical sleight of hand). “If 10% is good enough for God”, he quips, “then 9% should be just fine for the federal government.”

That, by all reckonings but Mr Cain’s, would provide the rich with a whopping tax break (chiefly because tax on capital gains and dividends would be eliminated), paid for by higher taxes on everyone else. It was concerns about how regressive the switch to a flat tax would be that caused Mr Forbes’s campaigns to founder. At the time, a certain Mitt Romney called it “a tax cut for fat cats”.

This time around, however, raising taxes on the poor seems to be a point of pride among Republican candidates, although Mr Cain has modified his original plan slightly to make it less regressive. In launching his campaign, Mr Perry expressed dismay at “the injustice” that 47% of Americans do not pay any federal income taxes. Most of the people Mr Perry is referring to live below the poverty line, and still pay payroll taxes on what little they earn. Yet an indignant campaign called “We are the 53%” has sprung up online, to complain about the loafing remainder. Most of the Republican candidates, including Mr Romney, the erstwhile scourge of the fat cats, argue that more of the poor should pay at least some income tax. Mr Gingrich goes even further, accusing both Mr Perry and Mr Romney of “class warfare” for putting upper limits on certain tax breaks in their plans.

Mr Cain’s rivals do worry, though, that his scheme will introduce a new federal revenue stream, in the form of a sales tax. That would come on top of the already hefty sales taxes levied by many cities and states, they point out, and would inevitably rise over time, much as income tax did until Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s cut the top rate by 21 percentage points. Doing without a sales tax obliges Messrs Gingrich and Perry to propose higher flat taxes, of 15% and 20% respectively. Moreover, both would make their plans optional, like Mr McCain’s, and retain a few cherished tax breaks, on mortgage interest and donations to charity, presumably in an effort to placate suspicious primary voters.

Judging by the polls, such efforts are likely to fall flat. Only 3% of participants in the latest Economist/YouGov sounding said they would leave the tax code as it is, whereas 62% agreed that a big overhaul is needed. But there was no consensus as to what shape reforms should take. Flat taxes, including the 9-9-9 plan, seem to put off far more voters than they attract. Even Mr Romney’s much more modest call to cut the corporate tax rate and extend income-tax cuts dating from George Bush junior’s presidency generates more dismay than enthusiasm among voters.

In fact, the only tax scheme that wins approval from most Americans is the one pushed by Mr Obama and other Democrats, to raise rates for the rich. In support of the idea, Democrats point to studies such as one out this week from the Congressional Budget Office, which found that the share of national income accruing to the richest 1% of Americans has doubled over the past 30 years, to over 20%.

A clear majority supports higher taxes on those earning more than $1m a year to pay for job-creation schemes; a narrower one supports tax increases for those earning more than $200,000. Mr Obama won the presidency while campaigning on a similar proposal, but did not get it enacted when Congress was under Democratic control, and now faces implacable opposition to the idea from Republicans, who dismiss it, as usual, as class warfare. The received wisdom in Washington is that the two parties are so divided on tax that only an election can resolve the impasse. At any rate, Mr Obama says his desire to raise taxes on the rich will be a prominent part of his campaign for re-election.

Yet both parties profess to believe that the tax code should be simplified and the base broadened, chiefly by eliminating most loopholes. This holds out the prospect both of lowering rates, a notion dear to Republicans, and raising revenue, which pleases Democrats.

The idea appeals to populists on the left and the right, as a blow to special interests and corporate welfare. It is the crux of all deficit-reduction schemes that enjoy bipartisan support, and is thought to feature prominently in the discussions of the “super-committee” charged by Congress with deflating the deficit. It was also the basis of the last big overhaul of the tax code, under Reagan. Catchy campaign slogans, in other words, can sometimes evolve into sensible policy.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Germany: A study on income inequality and how the US shapes up against others

PJ: With Occupy Wall Street making headlines, catching the admiration from the left and the admonishment from the right, it is important to stay grounded. This report from Germany's independent research organization: Bertelsmann Stifung, is a good place to start since neither US republicans or US democrats had a hand it its development. Out of 31 countries studied, the US ranks 27th in Social Justice only ahead of Greece, Chili, Mexico and Turkey.

Bertelsmann Stifung

Social Justice in the OECD –
How Do the Member States
Sustainable Governance Indicators 2011

Key Findings:

A cross-national comparison of social justice in the OECD shows considerable variation in the extent to which this principle is developed in these market-based democracies. According to the methodology applied in this study, Iceland and Norway are the most socially just countries.1 Turkey, which ranks among the bottom five in each of the six targeted dimensions, is the OECD’s least socially just country. The findings of the cross-national study can be summarized as follows:

The north European states comprise a league of their own. Leading by far on the Justice Index, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland achieve particularly good results in the dimensions of “access to education,” “social cohesion” and “intergenerational justice.” Yet even in Scandinavia, there are some areas in want of action. Despite its overall strong showing, Sweden, for example, struggles with a rate of youth unemployment three times as high as the general unemployment rate.

Most central and northwestern European states rank in the upper midrange, although the Netherlands (6), Switzerland (7) and France (10) rank higher than Germany (14).
The east-central European OECD members Hungary (17), Poland (20) and Slovakia (24) rank in the lower midrange together with their southern European neighbors. The high-ranking outlier here is the Czech Republic (11) due to its very low poverty levels in cross-national comparison.

All southern European countries lie considerably below the OECD average, with Turkey and Greece in the bottom group of the ranking. In both these countries, fair access to education and intergenerational justice (i.e., equity in burden-sharing across generations) are particularly underdeveloped.

Canada (9) is the top performer among the non-European OECD states. Its high ranking can be attributed to strong results in the areas of education, labor market justice and social cohesion.

Australia (21), despite its relatively inclusive labor market, is struggling with larger problems in poverty prevention and educational justice, and is therefore lagging behind in terms of creating a sound framework for social justice.

Japan (22) and South Korea (25), where income poverty is relatively spread, fail to rank above the bottom third of the Justice Index. Japan also receives particularly low marks for intergenerational justice.

Poverty prevention

The midfield mainly comprises continental European welfare states such as Germany, Belgium or Switzerland. Most Anglo-Saxon welfare states find themselves in the lower midfield followed by Southern European countries. At the bottom of the ranking, we find South Korea, Turkey, Australia, the United States – where 17.3 percent of the population lives on less than 50 percent of the net median
income – Chile and, finally, Mexico bringing up the rear with an overall poverty rate of 21 percent.

In terms of preventing old-age poverty, the picture is mixed. South Korea lands at the bottom of the ranking. Some 45 percent of the country’s citizens over 65 years of age must survive on incomes less than one-half of the national median income. According to the latest available OECD figures (see appendix p. 49), old-age poverty rates are also high in Australia (39.2 percent), Mexico (29
percent), New Zealand (23.5 percent), Chile (22.8 percent), Greece (22.7 percent) and the United States (22.2 percent), all of which lie far above the 31 countries’ average of 14.5 percent. In the United States, which still represents the largest economy in the world, poverty rates among children and the old are above 20 percent. These high rates are a crushing burden for the country to
bear, particularly in the face of its drastically high level of national debt and stagnating economy. In contrast, old-age poverty seems to be barely relevant in the Netherlands (2.1 percent) and Luxembourg (2.3 percent).

Friday, October 28, 2011

Middle East: Opinion: Romney's hawkish advisor

Al Jazeera


Romney's indiscreet adviser
In an effort to boost foreign policy credentials, US presidential candidate hires US-Lebanese neoconservative hawk.
By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

Obligatory statements about commitment to friends and aversion to foes not withstanding, foreign policy hasn't figured much in the 2012 Republican primary. Questions about the threat posed by Iran have given candidates the occasion to grandstand, but the memory of Iraq is still too fresh and the economy too fragile for anyone to hard-sell a new foreign adventure. Proponents of radical transformation in the Middle East have been hitherto frustrated in their expectations.

But all of this might soon change.

Earlier this month, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney rekindled the neoconservatives' hopes by nominating Walid Phares to chair the Middle East and North Africa working group of his Foreign Policy and National Security Advisory Team. Since the convergence of neoconservative militarism and Arab exile politics has already played a part in dragging the US into a disastrous war in Iraq, it is worth understanding why this appointment bodes ill for the future of American foreign policy.

Controversial figure

Walid Phares may be many things - articulate, ingenious, resourceful, shrewd - but discreet he is not. As a "terrorism expert" for Fox News and Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, he hasn't shied away from sharing his radical vision of total war. A global jihad is already underway, he contends, with "three generations of jihadists [having] penetrated the social and defence layers of Western Europe and the United States". Left unchecked, he predicts, in a few years "jihadists "would deploy ten million suicide bombers and seize five regimes equipped with the final weapon" forcing the next president "to arm the doom day devices [sic] for the first time in this century".

In 2008, when he first endorsed Romney, he stressed that it was no time for a Democrat - as under them "jihadophilia would prevail". But it wasn't a time for just any Republican either. John McCain was tough, but he lacked vision: "He will continue to fight 'till there are no more enemies to fight. To me that is a trenches battlefield". The times called for something bolder, someone like Romney, for whom "the enemy is global jihadism, and it has more than the one battlefield of Iraq". The US response should therefore "not be limited to 'entrenchment' but to counter attacks, preemptive moves and putting allies forces [sic] on the existing and new battlefields".

Phares' Manichean worldview is perhaps informed by his biography. He is a one-time member of the notorious Lebanese Forces - the sectarian Christian militia which played a leading role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre (though there is no evidence that he personally played a part). It is an experience he now wisely leaves out of his resume. Nor does he include his association with Etienne Saqr, the head of the Guardians of the Cedars, an outfit the Congressional Research Service described as "[a]n extremist Maronite militia and terrorist organisation". Saqr played a prominent role in Phares' World Lebanese Organisation long after he was exiled to Israeli-occupied south Lebanon for his crimes against the Lebanese and Palestinian people.

But it is not this association with the Lebanese Forces and Etienne Saqr that grants Phares his expert's cache. He is an Arab with bona fide academic credentials who validates proponents of military intervention in the Middle East the same way that Ahmed Chalabi once did. Indeed, both once shared the same publicist, Benador Associates, a neoconservative favourite. Phares can make the aspirations of the Arabs and Iranians sound remarkably consonant with the interests of Tel Aviv. For someone who wrote papers for Israeli think tanks urging continued occupation of Southern Lebanon ("the only place in the world where Christian and Jewish blood is shed together for the defence of two Judeo-Christian nations") this might not be too big an imaginative leap. But his capacity to divine the real yearnings of the Middle East's Muslims is perhaps less certain.

Too early to judge

All the same, in Washington's current political climate such oversight rarely goes unrewarded. By any measure, Phares' career has been an unmitigated success: He has found rare exalted space in the Israel lobby's firmament, which has helped elevate him into various government advisory positions. He is promoted as a featured expert by the David Project, the Israel on Campus Coalition, David Horowitz's FrontPage Magazine, Robert Spencer's Jihad Watch, and Daniel Pipes' Middle East Forum. He is also an associate of Israel's Ariel Center for Policy Research and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He serves on the board of ACT! For America, a pressure group that Politico described as part of an "effort to transform anti-Islam crusading into a mainstream lobbying effort". The group was established by Brigitte Gabriel, whom Deborah Solomon of the New York Times Magazine has described as a "radical Islamophobe". Like Phares, Gabriel emerged from the sectarian milieu of the Lebanese civil war, whose prejudices both now seek to foist on the wider world.

Phares also serves on the advisory board of the Clarion Fund, a production company associated with the radical Israeli settler group Aish HaTorah, which Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has described as "just about the most fundamentalist movement in Judaism today". The Clarion Fund came to prominence with the anti-Islam film Obsession, 28 million copies of which were distributed during the 2008 presidential campaign in an attempt to inflame Middle America's suspicion of the "Muslim Manchurian candidate" Barack Hussein Obama. Phares has appeared in at least two of Clarion's films, The Third Jihad and Iranium, the latter an unabashed call for regime change in Iran, including the use of military action. In an extended appearance on Fox's Hannity, Phares joined the film's producer, Rabbi Raphael Shore of Aish HaTorah, to stress the implacability of the Iranian regime and the menace of radical Islam. Both denounced successive US administrations as appeasers. They also cast aspersions on the Arab Spring, declaring it a replay of the Iranian revolution, a prelude to an Islamist takeover.

So eccentric are Phares' views that, earlier this year, even Republican Chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Representative Peter King had to drop him from his controversial "Muslim radicalisation" hearings. This prompted a spirited defence from Robert Spencer, who accused King of "shrinking-violet delicacy". Spencer serves with Phares on the board of Gabriel's ACT! and, like Phares, is fighting his own holy war. In The Post-American Presidency, a book co-authored with Pamela Geller (featuring a foreword by John Bolton), he exposes the Obama Administration's "war on America" which includes inflicting universal healthcare and public education on its people and eroding its commitment to Israel. In a promotional video posted online, Spencer and Geller exhort viewers to stop "the anti-Semite in the White House, and his useful idiots in the Congress", before they bring about "a second Holocaust".

But the most significant of Phares' affiliations are with FDD and the Center for Security Policy (CSP), two think-tanks that played a leading role in pushing the war against Iraq. In April 2002, in a seemingly coordinated campaign, the two think-tanks ran ads which lumped Yasir Arafat, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein into a single unified threat menacing the US and Israel. It is the same dissolving of differences that Phares trades in today. Like Ahmed Chalabi, Phares has proved himself indispensable to the neoconservatives whose militarist momentum he fuels with his "native" credentials and apocalyptic fantasies. He seems bent on using US muscle to resolve confessional battles from years past, and on a global scale. But, unlike Chalabi, Phares appears to have gained unmediated access far earlier in the game. In a time of terror plots and great paranoia, it is voices like his that can magnify routine threats into global emergencies. The future as seen by Walid Phares is the Lebanese Civil War writ large, with the whole globe as the battlefield. Americans, however, will have to determine if they are comfortable assuming the role of the Phalange.

If the new millennium was inaugurated in the twin terrors of 9/11 and shock-and-awe, its second decade has yielded to the bracing winds of the Arab spring. From Cairo to Sanaa, the Arab masses are asserting their preferences, and their interests are not likely to always align with those of the US. This is a fact Washington has yet to acknowledge. The times demand nuance and humility, yet a contender for America's top job appears determined to bait armageddon. He has turned to a radical with apocalyptic visions for advice on the world's most volatile region - this at a time of unprecedented turmoil. As the Massachusetts governor surges forth with more than a long-shot at the presidency, it is vital that we paid attention.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a Glasgow-based sociologist and the co-editor of He can be reached at

You can also follow him on Twitter: @im_pulse.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Who has the most upward mobility?

PJ: This may shock a few Americans but the countries with the most upward mobility for their citizens also have the most 'socialized' services.

Take a look:

Canada: Looking for anti-Semitism and not finding it at OWS

National Post

How the Internet makes us dumb
By Jonathan Kay

Back in late 2009, when many still believed that Sarah Palin was the future of American politics, left-wing filmmakers Chase Whiteside and Erick Stoll took their camera to a Borders book store in Columbus, Ohio, where the former Alaska governor was signing copies of her book Going Rogue. Whiteside and Stoll went up and down the line-up of Palin fans, conducting brief interviews, and then uploaded edited snippets to YouTube.

Surprise, surprise: The interviewees all sound like idiots. "She's the epi - epitome of conservative-ness," says one dazed-seeming fellow in a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket. "She gonna get the presidency!"

Another woman added that Palin stood for "cutting taxes, making a more, um, you know, entre-pe-noorial, um, just, um, like, conducive environment for our country, you know?"

The video went on for eight minutes like this. It quickly got tedious. And we didn't really learn anything from it: No matter our place on the political spectrum, most of us sound dumb when someone suddenly puts a microphone in front of us and asks for our opinion. Palin fans aren't special in this respect.

Nevertheless, the Borders video got almost two million hits. And the reason is obvious: It confirmed, in capsule form, the stereotypes that tens of millions of liberals have about Sarah Palin.

The political act of explaining why one likes, or doesn't like, a particular politician or policy once required thought and argument - effort, in other words. Now, it's so much easier: You just paste a single YouTube link to your Facebook page, and you're done. On to the next issue.

Two years later, exactly the same trick is underway on the other side of the political spectrum: Lazy conservatives who instinctively are repelled by the Occupy Wall Street movement, but can't be bothered to intellectually engage with the issue, are circulating their own YouTube hits - alleging not just stupidity and bad hygiene, but also anti-Semitism. A popular one (200,000 hits so far) called "Anti-Semitic Protester at Occupy Wall Street - LA" features a woman who declares: "The Zionist Jews who are running these big banks and our Federal Reserve - they need to be run out of this country."

Armed with video snippets such as these, an American conservative group is running a slick ad suggesting that the Occupy movement is basically just one big Democratic-supported anti-Semitic jamboree. Links to their ad, and the accompanying anti-Semitism claim, are all over my Twitter feed. Opponents of Occupy don't even have to watch the video: They can confirm all their pre-existing biases about the movement in 140 characters or less.

The reality about Occupy? That's more boring. This week, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen - one of those Zionist Jews who supposedly are in danger of getting lynched by Occupy protesters - made his way to Lower Manhattan to observe the pogroms. He sums up his experience thusly: "Projecting an unvarnished Semitism, I circled the place, encountering nothing and no one to suggest bigotry - not a sign, not a book and not even the guy who some weeks ago held up a placard with the instruction to Google the phrase 'Zionists control Wall St.' Google 'nut case' instead."

Cohen isn't arguing that the anti-Semitic nuts who occasionally pop up at Occupy movements aren't despicable. And neither am I. But all recent mass movements, from trade unions and anti-globalization protests to Tea Party rallies and Canada's Reform Party, have attracted bigots. Intelligent people don't judge a movement on the basis of the fringe haters they inevitably attract.

I'm old enough to remember the early 1990s, a time when starry-eyed futurists believed the Internet would make all of us smarter. We would learn new languages, surf newspapers from around the world, cultivate international pen pals, become more enlightened people by exposing ourselves to different opinions. Twenty years later, it turns out that all this was starry-eyed nonsense: All we want from the web is to have our own ideological biases read back to us in the most hysterical and entertaining form possible - preferably with neat little YouTube links that we can pass around to our friends.

Experts call it the "confirmation bias" - our natural psychological attraction toward data or anecdotes that serve to support our pre-existing attitudes and bigotries. It's something that always has been part of human nature. But the combination of social media with cheap online video technology has turbocharged the confirmation bias to the point where rational political dialogue is in danger of extinction.

In its place: rank partisans sending out links to the like-minded, along with the mantra for this new age: "Watch the video! I was right all along."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Middle East: Positive outlook for US North Korean talks

Al Jazeera

US and N Korea conclude 'positive' talks
Chief US envoy says he is confident Pyongyang will return to full nuclear negotiations after bilateral talks in Geneva.

The US's chief negotiator with North Korea says he is confident Pyongyang will resume full negotiations over its nuclear programme following two days of talks in Switzerland.

"It has been a very useful meeting," Stephen Bosworth told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.

"The tone was positive and generally constructive," he added. "I am confident that with continued effort on both sides we can reach a reasonable basis of departure for formal negotiations for a return to the six-party process."

The US and North Korea held bilateral talks in New York in late July, the first since six-party talks collapsed in 2009 after the UN censured Pyongyang over a long-range missile test.

South Korea, Japan, Russia and China make up the other parties involved in the talks.

Bosworth was accompanied by Glyn Davies, the outgoing US ambassador to the UN nuclear watchdog agency who has been named his successor, in the Geneva talks with North Korean first vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan.

Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, told Li Keqiang, the Chinese vice-prime minister, that a moribund 2005 deal should be the basis for new talks about Pyongyang's nuclear activity, Chinese state media reports said on Tuesday.

"Kim said North Korea hopes the six-party talks should be restarted as soon as possible," said the Xinhua news agency report on Tuesday of the meeting between Kim and Li in North Korea on Monday night.

But the reports left unanswered a key question on uranium enrichment, a possible pathway to nuclear weapons.

The US and South Korea insist that North Korea must immediately halt its uranium enrichment work as a precursor to restarting the talks, which offer economic aid in return for denuclearisation.

North Korea's uranium enrichment programme, which opens a second route to developing nuclear weapons along with its plutonium programme, is not specifically referred to in the 2005 pact.

North Korea says that it is enriching uranium only for power generation and argues that the 2005 agreement respects its right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

With Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! in the forefront of what American's want, what exactly is the American Congress doing about it?

The Daily Kos

Republican's score on job creation!

Stonewalling the President's program, and offering none of their own, gives them a zero score on job creation legislation. And America is the loser.

What concerns American most today? Very simply…jobs! By a whopping margin, all the polls show this to be true. The most recent CBS News poll showed that “jobs” are the top priority of 54% of all Americans. Way behind in second place was the national debt (6%); and as an interesting side note, at 2% was “moral/family values”.

But, this is not just a statistical conclusion; it is one of severe pain for millions of Americans out of work and unable to support themselves or their families. In short, it is a tragedy and one the needs remediation quickly. Moreover, that was largely what the 2010 election was all about, so now a year later, what have those who were elected on this critical issue done to make things better? I would suggest their score at…zero!

Thus far there is one comprehensive jobs bill on the table: the Obama American Jobs Act. Like it or not, it is comprehensive, detailed, and immediate. The president’s bill is a mix of public works spending, and temporary tax cuts, intended to respond to what Mr. Obama calls an economic crisis and an emergency. So, what has been the congressional response?

First the Senate. Republicans would not even permit a vote on the bill, or even parts of it (which would at least allow some debate and possible compromise). They employed their old procedural tactic which would require the bill to obtain 60 votes. Aware that simply rejecting the Obama plan would cause criticism, they then came up with their own bill, neatly named: “Jobs through Growth Act”. The plan is a hackneyed regurgitation of old, failed and ideological ideas, which certainly would create no new jobs now, and likely none later. Crux of the plan includes steps to: require a balanced budget; repeal Obama's healthcare plan; lift prohibitions on offshore energy exploration, and promote U.S. trade. Summing up this approach was Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ore) who stated: "This is a pro-growth proposal to create the environment for jobs, and that's as opposed to the short-term, sweetener approach of the Obama administration that simply hasn't worked." But, it is precisely the “short term sweetener approach” that is urgently needed now!

Well, frankly the Republicans in the Senate were not going to get much done anyway because the Democratic majority is pretty much wedded to the Obama plan. However the situation in the House is different, and that is where the GOP majority has an opportunity to propose serious job creation legislation. But here again, the score is zero. They too have proposed legislation they label “job creation”, but none of these bills have passed, and again they are rehashed Republican ideas that have no history of creating new jobs. Among them are 11 bills to ease regulations on business and make it easier to drill for oil and gas. None have even gotten to the Senate.

Given that these Representatives were elected to pass job creation bills so needed by our country, what has the House been doing this past year? Well, mostly they have occupied themselves with a variety of social, moral, and value issues that concern (as noted above) only 2% of the American people. The Congressional Research Service ( CRS a non-partisan arm of Congress that tracks such things) offers an appalling look at our current Congress’ activities.

They have introduced 44 bills on abortion (one just the other day reaffirming existing legislation on this subject). 99 on religion. 71 on family relationships. 36 on marriage. 67 on firearms and gun control. 552 on taxation—and though most were to reduce taxes, there have been no significant changes on tax law with all time invested and bills introduced. And finally a massive 445 bills on “government investigations”. There is a category labeled “job creation legislation” originated by Congress, and tracked by the CRS. In that category the CRS reported: “No bills at this time. The Congressional Research Service has not tagged any bills in the current session of Congress with this issue area”. If ever the analogy of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” was apt, this is it!

This discussion started with a poll showing the issue that most concerned Americans. The issue that is having profound effects on the lives of American families. The issue that needs most immediate remediation. In a word: jobs. To that, what has Congress done to find fast, cogent solutions to this issue? Also in a word: nothing. While acknowledging that it takes “two to tango” to get bi-partisan legislation passed, continuing to filibuster any new jobs legislation in the Senate, and refusing to initiate any new jobs legislation in the House, means no new meaningful job creation solutions will be forthcoming from the Congress.

So, we end with another poll, the recent Rasmussen poll rating the 112th Congress. Those who rated Congress “good” or “excellent”: 9 percent.

Middle East: Opinion: The political discourse that stalled America's economic recovery

Al Jazeera


America at stall speed?
The longer politicians argue about how to solve the economic crisis, the smaller the chance of recovery becomes.
By Mohamed A El-Erian

Judging from the skittishness of both markets and "consensus expectations", the United States' economic prospects are confusing.

One day, the country is on the brink of a double-dip recession; the next, it is on the verge of a turbo-charged recovery, powered by resilient consumers and US multinationals starting to deploy, at long last, their massive cash reserves. In the process, markets take investors on a wild rollercoaster ride, with the European crisis (riddled with even more confusion and volatility) serving to aggravate the queasiness.

This situation is both understandable and increasingly unsettling for the United States' well-being and that of the global economy. It reflects the impact of fundamental (and historic) economic and financial re-alignments, insufficient policy responses, and system-wide rigidities that frustrate structural change. As a result, there are now legitimate questions about the underlying functioning of the US economy and, therefore, its evolution in the months and years ahead.

One way to understand current conditions - and what is needed to improve them - is to consider two events that recently attracted considerable worldwide attention: the launch of Boeing's Dreamliner passenger jet and the tragic death of Apple's Steve Jobs.

Let us start with some simple aeronautic dynamics, using an analogy that my PIMCO colleague, Bill Gross, came up with to describe the economic risks facing the American economy. For the Dreamliner to take off, ascend, and maintain a steady altitude, it must do more than move forward. It has to move forward fast enough to exceed critical physical thresholds, which are significantly higher than those for most of Boeing's other (smaller) planes.

Failure would mean succumbing to a mid-air stall, with tepid forward motion giving way to a sudden loss of altitude. Unless we are convinced of the Dreamliner's ability to avoid stall speed, it makes no sense to talk about all the ways in which it will enhance the travel experience for millions of people around the world.

The US economy today risks stall speed. Specifically, the question is not whether it can grow, but whether it can grow fast enough to propel a large economy that, according to the US Federal Reserve, faces "balance-sheet deleveraging, credit constraints, and household and business uncertainty about the economic outlook". And remember, it is just over a year since certain US officials were proclaiming the economy's "summer of recovery" - a view underpinned by the erroneous belief that the US was reaching "escape velocity".

Risks of stall speed

Stall speed is a terrifying risk for an economy like that of the US, which desperately needs to grow robustly. Without rapid growth, there is no way to reverse persistently high and increasingly structural (and therefore protracted) unemployment; safely de-leverage over-indebted balance sheets; and prevent already-disturbing income and wealth inequalities from growing worse.

US economy struggles to regain footing

The private sector alone cannot and will not counter the risk of stall speed. What is desperately needed is better policymaking. Specifically, policymakers must be open and willing to understand the unusual challenges facing the US economy, react accordingly, and possess sufficiently potent policy instruments.

Unfortunately, this has been far from the case in the United States (and in Europe, where the situation is worse). Moreover, US policymakers in the last few weeks have been more interested in pointing fingers at Europe and China than in recognising and responding to the paradigm shifts that are at the root of the country's economic problems and mounting social challenges.

This is where the insights of Steve Jobs, one of the world's best innovators and entrepreneurs, come in. Jobs did more than navigate paradigm shifts; he essentially created them. He was a master at converting the complicated into the simple, and rather than being paralysed by complexity, he found new ways to deconstruct and overcome it. Teamwork was an obligation, not a choice. And he eschewed the search for the single "big bang" in favour of aiming for multiple breakthroughs.

Underlying it all was a willingness to evolve - a drive for perfection through experimentation. Moreover, he excelled at selling to audiences worldwide both his vision and his strategy for realising it.

So far, US economic policymakers have fallen short on all of these fronts. Rather than committing to a comprehensive set of urgently-needed reinforcing measures, they seem obsessed with the futile search for the one "killer app" that will solve all of the country's economic problems. No surprise that they have yet to find it.

Teamwork has repeatedly fallen hostage to turf wars and political bickering. Little has been done to deconstruct structural complexity, let alone win sufficient public support for a medium-term vision, a credible implementation strategy, and a set of measures that is adequate to the task at hand.

The longer the policymaking impasse persists, the greater the stall-speed risk for an economy that already has an unemployment crisis, a large budget deficit, many underwater mortgages, and policy interest rates floored at zero. This is an atmosphere in which unhealthy balance sheets come under even greater pressure, and healthy investors refuse to engage. In the process, the risk of recession remains uncomfortably high, the unemployment crisis deepens, and inequities rise as already-stretched social safety nets prove even more porous.

Mohamed A El-Erian is CEO of PIMCO, and author of When Markets Collide.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

A version of this article was first published on Project Syndicate.

UK: Florida's short sighted education goal

The Economist

"More anthropologists on Wall Street please "

APPARENTLY Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, called two weeks ago for reducing funding for liberal-arts disciplines at state universities and shifting the money to science, technology, engineering and math, which he abbreviates to STEM. (Amusingly, if you Google "Rick Scott STEM" you end up getting multiple references to Mr Scott's apparently non-operative campaign pledge to ban stem-cell research in Florida. Between the two issues, you've got a sort of operatic treatment of the modern Republican love-hate relationship with science.) Mr Scott seems to have repeatedly singled out the discipline of anthropology for derision. On one occasion, he apparently told a right-wing radio host: "You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math when they get out of school, they can get a job." On another occasion, he's quoted as telling a business group in Tallahassee: "Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can't get jobs in anthropology? I don't."

Few would defend deliberately educating more people who can't get jobs in anthropology, as such. (Of course, giving people math degrees rather than anthropology degrees will render them even less able to get jobs in anthropology.) Many, however, would defend educating more people in anthropology, regardless of what they wind up getting jobs in. In Slate on Friday, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, gave the traditional and entirely accurate pitch:

[R]esolving the complex challenges that confront our nation and the world requires more than expertise in science and technology. We must also educate individuals capable of meaningful civic participation, creative expression, and communicating insights across borders. The potential for graduates in any field to achieve professional success and to contribute significantly to our economy depends on an education that entails more than calculus.

Curricula expressly tailored in response to the demands of the workforce must be balanced with opportunities for students to develop their capacity for critical thinking, analytical reasoning, creativity, and leadership—all of which we learn from the full spectrum of disciplines associated with a liberal arts education. Taken together with the rigorous training provided in the STEM fields, the opportunities for exploration and learning that Gov. Scott is intent on marginalizing are those that have defined our national approach to higher education.

This is a solid response. What it lacks are rhetorical oomph and concrete examples. So here's a concrete example with a little oomph. Some of the best analysis of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and of the ongoing follies on Wall Street these days, has been produced by the Financial Times' Gillian Tett. Ms Tett began warning that collateralised debt obligations and credit-default swaps were likely to lead to a major financial implosion in 2005 or so. The people who devise such complex derivatives are generally trained in physics or math. Ms Tett has a PhD in anthropology. Here's a 2008 profile of Ms Tett by the Guardian's Laurie Barton.

Tett began looking at the subject of credit five years ago. "Everyone was looking at the City and talking about M&A [mergers and acquisitions] and equity markets, and all the traditional high-glamour, high-status parts of the City. I got into this corner of the market because I passionately believed there was a revolution happening that had been almost entirely ignored. And I got really excited about trying to actually illustrate what was happening."

Not that anyone particularly wanted to listen. "You could see everyone's eyes glazing over ... But my team, not just me, we very much warned of the dangers. Though I don't think we expected the full scale of the disaster that's unfolded."

There is something exceedingly calm and thorough about Tett. She talks with the patient enthusiasm of a Tomorrow's World presenter—a throwback, perhaps, to her days studying social anthropology, in which she has a PhD from Cambridge. "I happen to think anthropology is a brilliant background for looking at finance," she reasons. "Firstly, you're trained to look at how societies or cultures operate holistically, so you look at how all the bits move together. And most people in the City don't do that. They are so specialised, so busy, that they just look at their own little silos. And one of the reasons we got into the mess we are in is because they were all so busy looking at their own little bit that they totally failed to understand how it interacted with the rest of society.

"But the other thing is, if you come from an anthropology background, you also try and put finance in a cultural context. Bankers like to imagine that money and the profit motive is as universal as gravity. They think it's basically a given and they think it's completely apersonal. And it's not. What they do in finance is all about culture and interaction."

Another person with an anthropology degree who's been doing terrific work in recent years in a somewhat-related field is the Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk, who produced a fantastic short book last year analysing the tribal culture of the Dutch parliament and the media circles that cover it. He's currently working on a study of the City as well. Anyway, the general point is that while studying human behaviour through complex derivatives has its uses, there's something to be said for the more rigorous and less egocentric analytical tools that anthropology brings to play, and it might be worth Mr Scott's time to take a course or two. It's never too late to learn.

UK: A presidential helping hand

PJ: Wait for it...Republicans will likely attack the act of compassion and generosity exhibited by President Obama when he admitted to helping those in need. They would be wise to wait, however, since Reagan did it too.

The Independent

Hey, Mr President, can you spare a dime?

Barack Obama often gets asked for money, and sometimes he gets his personal chequebook out
By Guy Adams

If you have a problem, and if no-one else can help, maybe you should sit down, dig out your best fountain pen, and compose a letter to the President of the United States.

Troubled by their hard-luck stories, Barack Obama has revealed he occasionally decides to respond to cash-strapped citizens who write seeking assistance the old-fashioned way: by cutting them a personal cheque.

He won't say exactly how many he has helped financially; neither will he reveal how much he gave them. But he told The Washington Post that charity was sometimes the only way.

"It's not something I should advertise, but it has happened," he said. "[But] some of these letters you read and you say, 'Gosh, I really want to help'".

Obama is not the first President to lend a helping hand. Ronald Reagan, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D Roosevelt were prepared to dig into their own pockets when required.

President Obama's handouts were revealed at the weekend by Eli Saslow, a Washington Post correspondent who interviewed Obama.

People the President has recently helped include a woman facing bankruptcy, a fourth-grade student at one of the country's worst schools, and a cleaning woman with leukaemia who was worried about medical bills. Mr Saslow says President Obama only sends cheques to correspondents when a small injection of cash can provide a quick-fix, which would take months or even years to solve through official channels.

Ever since taking office, Obama has made a point of reading a cross-section of letters from concerned citizens which end up in the White House's mailbag, believing that it helps him stay in touch with everyday Americans.

Before going to bed each night, he tells staff to select 10 letters at random, from the thousands which are sent to him each day. Some are naturally unflattering – usually they are the ones addressed to "Dear Jackass", "Dear Moron", or "Dear Socialist"– but others give him valuable insight into the realities of life outside high office.

It isn't always a heart-warming process, though. "You start thinking about the fact that for every one person that wrote describing their story, there might be another hundred thousand going through the same thing," President Obama told Mr Saslow.

Presidential Aid

Herbert Hoover

During the Great Depression, the White House received thousands of letters from Americans in need of cash. In a typical letter, a Mississippi farmer asked for "money to make this year's crop". In another, a girl of 14 from Maine wrote that her "Papa is poor and sick" and needed help. Both received a sympathetic reply from the Oval Office.

Ronald Reagan

A sucker for a good begging letter, Reagan diligently replied to requests when he was an actor. "His advisers found this both extraordinary and frightening," said his biographer James B Sutherland. "They didn't want people taking advantage."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Middle East: Opinion: American deregulation

PJ: After the great depression the US government passed laws to make sure that a melt-down of financial markets would not happen again. The system worked and the economy was safe from the devastating results of a financial meltdown. That is, it was safe until conservatives used their rallying cry to 'get government out of the way' and successfully pushed their agenda of deregulation.

During the Bush administration, most of those post-depression safeguard laws were repealed and at the end of the Bush era the US, followed by European economies, melted down as a result of the unbridled greed on Wall Street. One of President Obama's first challenges was to put back some of those same safeguards to prevent another collapse. And once again, conservatives are fighting to repeal them.

America's animal farm
Deregulation mania has led to unsafe drugs, a financial crisis, and even a mass escape of dangerous animals in Ohio.
By Cliff Schecter

I write this during what might well be the final days of our existence, as it seems the good Reverend Harold Camping has revised his earlier prediction of The End Of Times. As his views would place him comfortably in front of a podium and in the mainstream of any of the every-hour-on-the-hour Republican presidential debates, I'm not entirely convinced he's wrong about a coming apocalypse.

It's also hard to question a general prognostication of doom a day after 56 exotic animals were released into the countryside by the owner of a "private zoo" in Ohio, just before he shot himself to death. In a scene that Director Emeritus of the Columbus, Ohio Zoo and television personality Jack Hanna compared to "Noah's Ark", endangered Bengal tigers, grizzly bears, monkeys, and a variety of other animals - 49 in all - were killed en masse by law enforcement.

Make no mistake - this happened because Ohio is one of a handful of states that does not regulate the sale and ownership of exotic animals, and it has been purposefully made that way. Tea Party-sympathiser-cum-Governor John Kasich, upon his election to that office, began his assault on government by letting an executive order expire that had provided actual restrictions concerning who could own and sell these animals in the Buckeye State.

To Kasich, this kind of crazy Hobbesianism would "hurt small business", which presumably includes the particular lunatic who had done jail time for illegal possession of firearms and was cited multiple times for animal abuse - but still had his Animal Farm up and running in Ohio - until he granted his boarders amnesty. Because of the anti-regulation zealots who have taken control of our political culture and institutions, this was the profile of someone still fit to continue to lord over a coterie of dangerous and endangered species, in his own little Jurassic Park.

As Darth Vader would say, "Impressive. Most impressive."

Now if you were to ask the Don King of pizza, Herman Cain, I'm sure he'd have a simple plan to solve this problem, which would probably include a number of 9s and the assumption that Zanesville, Ohio is somewhere in the vicinity of Chiang Mai. But for those of us with a beyond-Perry intellect, the story is as simple as it is sadly quotidian. What led to the death of these exotic animals is the same insanity that crashed Wall Street and allows drug companies to lie to people while killing them: the mass deregulation of America.

If you think the animals have run wild in eastern Ohio, then take a look at what a-not-quite-as-evolved species did on Wall Street, resulting in thousands of zookeepers finally showing up to occupy this land those on "The Street" thought was theirs to defile and despoil.

From the 1980s onward, when we started to "get government of our backs", as Ronnie liked to say, we created a mess that now has awoken 99 per cent of the people who generally can't spare the pocket change for a $10,000 Tiffany towel rod. The apogee of this idiocy was the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which in 1999 repealed one of the great accomplishments of the New Deal, the Glass-Steagall legislation separating commercial and investment banks.

Led by muppet look-alike former Senator Phil Gramm, his right-wing brethren on Capitol Hill, and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin and his band of merry Rubinites (the same economic team advising President Barack Obama), this legislation, perhaps more than any other, created a Celebrity Poker atmosphere on Wall Street. The Securities and Exchange Commission, as a result, pretty much became a stop in the revolving door for Wall Streeters left to self-govern.

That may or may not have something to do with why the Bush and Obama administrations have worked hard not to make anyone not named Madoff pay for their extraordinary crime of destroying our economy. For that, in common Washington parlance, would be "looking backwards".

Dangerous drugs

And of course, no deregulation horror story would be complete unless a big pharmaceutical company was poisoning people due to the Federal Drug Administration's (FDA's) lack of a will or a way. For that we have Bayer, the makers of birth-control pill Yaz, to thank.

This past week Nightline ran a scathing report on the company's over-marketed, under-tested (which is to say, not much at all) birth-control product, which increases a woman's chance of getting an embolism by a healthy 630 per cent. In the past, only listening to Rush Limbaugh could accomplish that.

Preeminent plaintiff's lawyer Mike Papantonio (of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor), who is fighting for many of the victims of this corporation (or person or whatever status we're granting them this week) pointed out to me that Yaz spent "10 times the amount marketing this pill than they did testing whether it would kill people, and even committed such marketing fraud in the process that the toothless FDA ordered them to stop lying in their ads."

The problem is that massive deregulation has turned the project of letting the FDA regulate pharmaceuticals into something that is pretty much akin to paying Alex Rodriguez to hit a ball in the playoffs, or electing Rick Santorum the mayor of Fire Island.

Until 1997, the FDA did not even allow broadcast advertisements for prescription drugs, and the US is one of only two countries in the world (New Zealand being the other) that even allows this type of advertising. It seems that other developed nations have this crazy idea that you should decide what prescriptions you need based on a doctor's advice, and not that of a talking bee on television.

As of 2003, over $3bn per year was being spent on mass media pharmaceutical advertising. It is almost enough to make you puke - if one of their pills is not already causing you to do that.

For just like Wall Steet's nefarious machinations and lions, tigers, and bears running rampant through Ohio, this is the result of a generation of madness: The Right has continued to decry all regulation as the body count has mounted. Meanwhile, the Left has often simply kept quiet, or even joined the parade.

As Papantonio told me about Yaz, "Here is the simple fact: You've made something that is killing people pay off. Bayer has been found guilty of multiple felonies and they are still treated as if they are credible - because we simply slap them on the wrist for the carnage they cause."

While Papantonio was only speaking about a drug company here, that seems like a pretty solid overall summary of what the deregulation of America has achieved over the past generation.

Cliff Schecter is the President of Libertas, LLC, a progressive public relations firm, the author of the 2008
bestseller The Real McCain, and a regular contributor to The Huffington Post.

Follow Cliff Schecter On Twitter: @Cliffschecter

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

UK: With the growing disconnect between rich and poor, OWS was inevitable

The Economist

Occupy Wall Street
Leaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy and its discontents

OCCUPY WALL STREET is not only a mass protest movement intended to draw attention to economic injustice and political corruption. It seeks to embody and thereby to demonstrate the feasibility of certain ideals of participatory democracy. This is, to my mind, what makes OWS so interesting, and so unlike a tea-party protest. OWS is not simply a group of like-minded people gathered together to make a point with a show of collective force, though it is that. The difference is that it has developed into an ongoing micro-society with a micro-government that directly exemplifies a principled alternative to the prevailing American order. The complaint that OWS has failed to produce a coherent list of demands seems to me to miss much of the point of the encampment in Zuccotti Park. The demand is a society more like the little one OWS protestors have mocked up in the park. The mode of governance is the message.

And what is the message of the "General Assembly", the governing body of the original financial-district occupation? According its website:

New York City General Assemblies are an open, participatory and horizontally organized process through which we are building the capacity to constitute ourselves in public as autonomous collective forces within and against the constant crises of our times.

Got that? If this sounds a bit academic, that's because it is. Whether you're having trouble parsing this or not, this piece by Dan Berrett on the academic roots of OWS's governing ideology is incredibly helpful.

Mr Berrett focuses on the influence of David Graeber, "an ethnographer, anarchist, and reader in anthropology at the University of London's Goldsmiths campus." Mr Graeber was impressed by the people of Betafo, in Madagascar, who ruled themselves through a process of "consensus decision-making" demonstrating the left-anarchist ideal of "democracy without government". Mr Graeber applied what he learned in his ethnographic work in some of the left-wing anti-globalisation protests of the 1990s, and has now brought his experience to bear on Wall Street, laying the groundwork for OWS's experiment in participatory democracy. As Mr Berrett reports:

Soon after the magazine Adbusters published an appeal to set up a "peaceful barricade" on Wall Street, Mr. Graeber spent six weeks in New York helping to plan the demonstrations before an initial march by protesters on September 17, which culminated in the occupation.

Spontaneous order can take a bit of planning. But it seems Mr Graeber's planning has born fruit:

The defining aspect of Occupy Wall Street, its emphasis on direct action and leaderless, consensus-based decision-making, is most clearly embodied by its General Assembly, in which participants in the protest make group decisions both large and small, like adopting principles of solidarity and deciding how best to stay warm at night.

This intensive and egalitarian process is important both procedurally and substantively, Mr. Graeber says. "One of the things that revolutionaries have learned over the course of the 20th century is that the idea of the ends justifying the means is deeply problematic," he says. "You can't create a just society through violence, or freedom through a tight revolutionary cadre. You can't establish a big state and hope it will go away. The means and ends have to be the same."

When 2,000 people make a decision jointly, it is an example of direct action, or direct democracy, Mr. Graeber says. "It makes you feel different to go to a meeting where your opinions are really respected." Or, as an editorial in the protest's house publication, Occupied Wall Street Journal, put it, "This occupation is first about participation."

It is hard to deny the romance of this, and part of me would like to camp out in Zuccotti Park and pitch in. But I wouldn't expect it to last. Not only is it hard to see how this worthwhile little experiment in leaderless, consensus-based decision-making is a realistic means to the end of a whole society governed by leaderless, consensus-based decision-making, it's hard see why this is a desirable end.

Because the participatory democracy of OWS is an ideological endeavour, it can avoid the hard problem of liberal society: the ineradicable diversity of moral belief and the impossibility of consensus. Consensus-based communes composed of individuals who opt in specifically because they already agree with the commune's founding values can work precisely because the people who would make consensus impossible—people with very different opinions and values—stay away. But not only does the OWS experiment skirt the problem of pluralism through self-selection, the ideological homogeneity of self-selection may make deliberation tend toward extremism, as Cass Sunstein's important work on deliberation and group polarisation shows. He writes: "When like-minded people are participating in 'iterated polarization games'—when they meet regularly, without sustained exposure to competing views—extreme movements are all the more likely."

Even given a climate of ideological similarity, this mode of communal egalitarian living doesn't tend to scale up well beyond a few hundred people, and requires intense and often invasive surveillance and monitoring to minimise free-riding, as well as heavy communal pressure to maintain the kind of conformity of belief necessary to maintain ongoing consensus. This is not, to my mind, a beautiful dream. Anyway, insofar as people are serious about it, egalitarian participatory democracy points in the direction of radical decentralisation and hyper-local control. The immense scope and diversity of the American territory and population, as well as the vast scale of the American state and the number and complexity of its activities, are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of society now being performed by the romantics in Zuccotti Park.

Moreover, direct deliberative democracy by its very nature puts effective power disproportionately in the hands of extroverted, energetic, and charismatic individuals with a knack for persuasion. The opinions of introverts and those of us who need a good deal of time to mull things over tend not to be fully included into the decision-making process. So these people (most of us, I think) must go along, their views systematically underrepresented until the rule of the pushy yammerers becomes too intolerable and they leave. Exit is more powerful than voice if voice is not your strong suit.

There is a great deal wrong with American governance, and not only within government. I think that the concentrated management and diffuse ownership of public corporations has left a relatively small numbers of corporate managers with insufficiently checked control over trillions of other people's property. And I think that the relatively unchecked power of government to make or break fortunes has made it more or less inevitable that corporations would in time end up writing their own regulations to their own advantage. Occupy Wall Street is a great boon to the extent that it helps draw attention and build effective opposition to the unjust mechanisms of upward redistribution and to the many flaws in our political economy responsible for the disproportionate influence of the wealthy and powerful over the rules that profoundly affect us all. However, insofar as OWS is meant to persuade Americans to adopt a wholly different and better way to live with one another, it is bound to fail. Even if consensus-based, leaderless participatory democracy could work on a grand scale, Americans aren't interested. And face it: sooner or later, Brookfield Properties is going to get it's park back. So for those deeply committed to realising a lasting community governed by the ideals of OWS, let me recommend a seastead.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Has the far right destroyed the moderates?

PJ: It seemed so obvious to those of us watching US politics from afar. If Huntsman entered the presidential race, he would be the most qualified Republican to go against Obama in the general election. At the time, we knew that a debate between Huntsman and Palin would be laughable, with her looking increasing bewildered as he exhibited a command of the issues. We knew that Bachmann would flounder, Trump would embarrass and Newt would be too Newt when compared to the statesman Huntsman. What we hadn't realized is that the current GOP had shifted dangerously to the fringes of the right, where purity to religious and Tea Party principals outweigh knowledge, integrity and intellect.

Washington Post

Jon Huntsman, the reasonable Republican
By Dana Milbank

As Republican presidential aspirants assembled Tuesday night in Nevada for their umpteenth debate, it was clearer than ever that Republicans have gotten exactly what they had coming.

Their nominating process, controlled by the religious warriors and anti-government agitators who dominate straw polls, has reached its logical conclusion: The hottest candidate in the field is Herman Cain, a fast-food tycoon who never heard of neoconservatism, has never held office, has no foreign policy and a three-digit number for a domestic policy, and likes to joke about electrocuting illegal immigrants. By contrast, Jon Huntsman, governor, ambassador, the man who in a normal political environment would be the most qualified and formidable candidate in the race, wasn’t even on the stage.

A system that rejects a Jon Huntsman in favor of a Herman Cain isn’t a primary process. It is a primal scream.

Facing the humiliation of being topped by the pizza man, Huntsman boycotted the Nevada debate (given his poor standing in the polls, he might not have been invited anyway) and retreated here to New Hampshire to make his last stand.

It says a great deal about the state of the Republican nominating process that Huntsman is floundering while Mr. Pizza soars. “It’s a new world,” Huntsman told me as we spoke Tuesday in the lobby of his Manchester hotel. “You throw out anyone with any connection to real-world experience in government.”

Huntsman will almost certainly fail, but that doesn’t make what he is doing any less important. He’s betting everything — “a Vegas move,” he called it — that there is still some constituency in the Republican Party for reason and moderation. While Mitt Romney has found success by running away from the moderate indiscretions of his past, Huntsman is begging the voters who chose John McCain over George W. Bush in 2000, not to mention Henry Cabot Lodge over Barry Goldwater in 1964, to reestablish the political center.

I detected some bitterness as he spoke of being hobbled by his impressive resume and getting no credit for his solid record of conservatism on guns, abortion and economics. “If you don’t shove people away and stay in your little corner of Republican Party ideology, you’re seen as something other than pure,” he told me. “If you’ve worked on some of the so-called nontraditional issues like the environment, if you’ve crossed party lines to serve your country . . . that can be seen as an easy strike against you — whereas in a perfect world that would be seen as a strength.”

Certainly this is not a perfect world.

As Cain and the others in Las Vegas prepared for a debate that would potentially reach millions, Huntsman was in New Hampshire, reaching dozens. The man introducing Huntsman at a law-firm-hosted forum read the bio haltingly, as if unfamiliar with it.

Huntsman labored to project momentum. “I came in as a margin-of-error candidate,” he said. “We’re now up to the low double-digits.”

(Actually, he’s at 8 percent in a recent WMUR New Hampshire poll, vs. Romney’s 37 percent.)

He spoke for 12 minutes. The lawyers fidgeted. “Questions?” he asked. Silence. “Please,” he said. “Lawyers are never shy.”

It’s probably too late for Huntsman. His campaign is in debt and he’s getting 1 to 2 percent in national polls. But in New Hampshire, Huntsman has finally found a compelling message. He has shifted from his initial dubious theme — the need for civility — to the worthier goal of fighting for the political center. He said he would not join his rivals in going to pander to Donald Trump. He bravely proclaimed: “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

In theory, a call to reason could work in New Hampshire, where the far right commands less than a third of the GOP electorate. At least two-thirds of voters here haven’t yet made up their minds, and Huntsman strategist John Weaver thinks they can be persuaded. “It’s a fork in the road between seriousness and circus,” he said. Weaver has some credibility on this point: He was the architect of McCain’s upset here in 2000.

Huntsman, already out of money, is running out of time. But at least he has a message. “The work of the nation isn’t getting done because we’ve got the extreme elements on both sides that are barking at each other, and the entire middle has been hollowed out,” he said. His task: “You put forward a message that addresses that, and you wonder if people are ready for that.”

I suspect he already knows the answer. But it’s still a stand worth taking.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

UK: For the People...or for the party?

The Economist

Rules of engagement
An arcane row with big negative consequences

THE Senate likes to think of itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body. Of late, however, much of that deliberation has been devoted to its own rules. On October 6th Harry Reid, the leader of the Democratic majority, set tongues wagging with an unexpected manoeuvre that limited the minority’s ability to demand symbolic votes on doomed amendments. This, wailed Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, risked turning the Senate into the House of Representatives—a very bad thing, in senators’ eyes. He hinted at dire retaliation, should the Republicans win a majority at the next election. In short, the Senate’s usual procedural trench warfare has resumed.

The trigger for the latest barrage was the jobs bill Barack Obama submitted to Congress last month. The Republicans were trying to force the Democrats to put it to a vote in its original form, presenting it as an amendment to a completely unrelated bill, in the hope that many of them would shy away from it, thus embarrassing the president. The Democrats, in turn, wanted to embarrass the Republicans by forcing them to use a different procedural manoeuvre, the notorious filibuster, to block a slightly different version of the jobs bill that had more Democratic support. (They got their wish this week.) All of this, naturally, is mere posturing, since neither jobs bill stands any chance in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.
In this section

Rising Cain
An Iranian bomb plot in America?
Don’t hold your breath
Down or out
»Rules of engagement
Who’s afraid of the dragon?
Dead or alive?
Top dog for ever

Related topics

Democratic Party (United States)
Republican Party (United States)
Harry Reid

In foiling the Republican scheme, Mr Reid, by a simple majority vote, established a precedent that will make it harder to attempt such ruses in the future. That, Republicans complain, goes against the spirit of the Senate’s rules. But Mr Reid argues that it is the Republicans who are undermining the Senate’s long-established ways by obstructing the majority at every turn. Some frustrated Democrats have even suggested doing away with the filibuster, a much bigger step towards simple majority rule. The Republicans retort that Mr Reid has often prevented them from submitting amendments, leaving them with no other means to be heard.

The dysfunction is likely to persist, argues Sarah Binder of George Washington University. In the past, she says, the Senate has overhauled its rules dramatically only when under immense popular pressure, or when a big bipartisan majority gets fed up with the chamber’s slow pace. Few protesters are burning senators in effigy, as they were a century ago, and a voluntary armistice between the two parties seems an even more remote prospect than that.

UK: Herman Cain's economic fail

The Economist

Dial 9-9-9 for nonsense

HERMAN CAIN is riding high in the polls. Among other things, his ascent is based upon a charming sense of humour, rousing oratorical skills, a story of moderate achievement in business, zero experience in elected office, which has allowed him to mould a perfectly zeitgest-matching conservative platform untainted by a record of no-longer zeitgest-matching political decisions, and, finally, the bold, clear proposition of the 9-9-9 tax plan. Now that Mr Cain is having a moment in the sun, what had seemed a gimmicky ploy is undergoing serious scrutiny, and we can expect Mr Cain to get hammered on the details of the 9-9-9 plan in tomorrow night's Republican debate.

Mr Cain touts the simplicity of the 9-9-9 plan, but it is anything but simple. Even after reading about it on Mr Cain's campaign site, I'm still not sure I understand it. I thought I knew that the plan proposed 9% income, sales, and corporate tax rates. But the corporate tax is not a simple reduction in the corporate tax rate, as I had thought, but a value-added-tax on "Gross income less all purchases from other U.S. located businesses, all capital investment, and net exports." Anyway, the 9-9-9 plan is not what Mr Cain ultimately has in mind for American tax policy. It is but the first step of a two-step process to replace most federal taxes with a 30% national sales tax, a version of the so-called "Fair Tax". Why not go directly to the Fair Tax, then? Why the transitional step? Mr Cain's statement doesn't really say, though it does seem to imply that the Fair Tax is at present too unpopular to implement. "Amidst a backdrop of the economic renewal created by the 9-9-9 Plan," Mr Cain says "I will begin the process of educating the American people on the benefits of continuing the next step to the Fair Tax."

Mike Huckabee, a Fox News presenter and former governor of Arkansas, plumped for the Fair Tax during the 2008 race for the Republican nomination and the plan came in for a lot of abuse by economists and commentators across the ideological continuum. Perhaps Mr Huckabee's failure to get far with the Fair Tax explains Mr Cain's choice to campaign on an altogether different tax plan. Perhaps the idea is that he can capture the allegiance of the Fair Tax's many conservative fans while ducking the criticisms of the Fair Tax by pushing a fresh plan with a catchy name implying super-low rates. But this can only work if (a) the media and Mr Cain's competition let him get away with advocating the Fair Tax while running on his transitional plan, and (b) the transitional plan stands up to scrutiny better than the Fair Tax has. And this seems unlikely.

The National Review today ran a blistering critique of Mr Cain's 9-9-9 plan. A selection:

This tripartite scheme makes for a succinct slogan but has little else to recommend it. In particular Cain’s inability to choose between a sales tax and a VAT is puzzling. The two are very similar in their economic effects. The chief advantage of the sales tax over a VAT is that the latter is considered easier for governments to raise, because it is hidden. The chief advantage of the VAT over the sales tax is that it is easier to enforce without stimulating black markets. (Another is that it reduces the risk of taxing business-to-business purchases.) Opting for both as a transitional step means courting the danger of a VAT with none of its rewards: In the first stage, the government would get a new money machine, and in the second it would supposedly destroy that machine and opt for something hard to enforce.

The two-stage scheme is self-defeating in another respect as well. The 30 percent national sales tax, whatever its other merits, would be significantly softer on the poor than the 9-9-9 transitional step, since the larger sales tax includes a “prebate” check to all Americans to exempt the basic necessities of life from being taxed, while 9-9-9 includes no similar provision. Leaving aside whether a major tax increase on people at the bottom of the income scale is a good idea, what is the point of first raising their taxes and then cutting them?

In the last debate, only Rick Santorum noted that Mr Cain's plan involves the danger of even temporarily handing the government "a new money machine", a point one would expect to resonate with conservative voters. I expect we'll hear a lot more of this line of argument in upcoming debates. More generally, the fact that Mr Cain apparently believes it is politically feasible to wipe out the entire status-quo federal tax system in order to move to the 9-9-9 scheme, and then wipe out the entire 9-9-9 scheme in order move to a 30% national sales tax seems to me to draw attention to Mr Cain's policy inexperience and dazzling political naivete.

That the 9-9-9 plan would cut taxes on the rich while raising them on the poor led Bruce Bartlett to call the proposal "a distributional monstrosity", a phrase you could imagine Barack Obama using to good effect in a general election. Why would you propose to raise taxes on the poor, making yourself vulnerable to charges of monstrous callousness, when, as the NR editors note, your ultimate plan would only cut them later? Well, you wouldn't, if you knew what you were doing. It requires only superficial examination to see that Mr Cain's 9-9-9/Fair Tax scheme is more an ill-considered, hand-waving improvisation than a serious plan from a serious policymaker. He's winging it, which I supposed makes it all the more impressive that he's been able to wing it all the way to preeminence in a few polls. But now he's made himself a target, and an easy one at that, so I doubt Mr Cain will wing it all the way to the nomination.