That problem from Hell again

I’m no pacifist. Those ISIS fuckers can’t die fast enough. The problem is how it could get done, and at what cost to innocent people.

It feels a bit like a replay of the Kosovo affair. The Clinton Administration cried genocide, and I supported intervention. Not that my support mattered. For the sake of Serb vilification, depredations of the Bosnians and Croatians were downplayed. I was critical of the intervention being confined to aerial bombardment, which in some cases deliberately entailed civilian casualties. The U.S. accepted innocent Serbian casualties for the sake of precluding any American ones that would have resulted from “boots on the ground.” Some moral foreign policy. Afterwards I felt bamboozled. There was no genocide; there were atrocities from both sides. The new Kosovo statelet does not impress as an island of freedom.

ISIS looks like a clearer case. It’s clearly a murderous outfit with no redeeming qualities (Warning, nasty pictures here). Religious/ethnic minorities deserve protection, and the nascent Kurdish state is worth defending, or at least arming to the teeth. Unfortunately the cool weapons in ISIS hands are the result of our arming the Iraqi joke-army. Once you give weapons away it’s hard to get them back. ISIS may not be easy to expunge. They will use civilians as human shields. But if they try to advance in open ground, they are vulnerable to U.S. air power.

The U.S. motives here should not be taken for granted as wise or disinterested. The continuing policy of trying to preserve a unitary Iraq now looks idiotic. Joe Biden, who foresaw the need for partition, looks pretty good. The need to protect our consulate is obvious. I wager that will require “boots on the ground.” I have no idea how it would be possible to protect others without another invasion. The Kurds may be able to defend their region. The fate of others trapped in the savage new “caliphate” is a different matter. A defense of the Administration by Peter Galbraith is here. I might add that PG has business interests in Kurdistan. Other former U.S. foreign policy officials have business interests now in Kosovo. And so it goes. Here’s a good piece by Matt Yglesias explaining Administration policy. As far as I know he doesn’t own any oil futures.

I got an email from the Code Pinkies, whom I like. Their recommendation is the same as the White House — bring the different parties in Iraq together with diplomacy. They’ve been sniffing the peonies too hard. The Iraqi government is incompetent. Who would want to block with them?

There are other mass atrocities in progress that also beg for attention. If we can’t fix them all, can we fix any? I’d say yes, when it’s easy and there is less prospect of entanglement with conflicting U.S. geopolitical machinations. Of course the latter cases are unlikely to command U.S. government interest. John Judis notes the salience of oil in this affair. I don’t think he is saying an intervention is unjustified for that reason.

I can’t get too angry about blowin’ up these particular folks, though it pays to remember that from tens of thousands of feet up, it’s easy to blow up the wrong folks. The U.S. government seems to do it all the time.

Let me pick up the main arguments of Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). Here is an interview with her, here is an article she wrote. Phyllis is always worth consulting on this kind of stuff, and IPS is one of my fave organizations.

1. The slippery slope. PB fears the initiation of bombing will lead to a return of U.S. troops to Iraq and a big new war. This is certainly possible but I think very unlikely. There is too much sentiment against it. Nor is there any money for it. More likely if the bombing is unsuccessful, the end result will be U.S. declarations of victory-and-withdrawal and ongoing chaos in the region. Dangerous, but chaos is the outlook in any case.

2.  Iraq as aircraft carrier. PB suggests Iraq has key significance as a location, in addition to its oil resources, in terms of afffording access to the U.S. military to other parts of the world. I see no conceivable use for any such access, nor any exclusivity to it.

3.  The legal and hypocrisy arguments are irrelevant. There is no law and there is no honor in geopolitics. It’s a jungle out there.

4.  That U.S. personnel on the ground can be easily evacuated is irrelevant. There is no reason the U.S. should let itself be chased out of Erbil by the likes of ISIS. And there are still the folks left behind.

5. Phyllis says ISIS could be undercut by a Sunni-friendly unity government in Iraq. This position is shared by the White House and Code Pink. I am skeptical. At the very least, that would take some time. We’ll probably have some kind of demonstration of the truth of this in any case. In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis remains.

Do we need to say a word about the Foxies? I saw a bit of a panel including George Will, Laura Ingraham, and Ron Fournier, among others. Their game is all about bemoaning how awful things are and why doesn’t Obama do more. Exactly what ‘more’ means is never elaborated. These are not serious people. I also caught remarks from John McCain. He decried the Administration’s lack of strategy. I don’t think they have a strategy either. McCain’s strategy is to turn the whole region into a paradise of democracy by massive use of force. So he’s still nuts. (There is some talk that the anti-Assad militants that Crazy John met with in Syria were actually ISIS folks, or would become such, which points up the futility of trying to intervene in the Syrian/Iraqi civil war on the ground.)

I don’t have a morally satisfactory resolution. Innocent people are under threat and the only conceivable instrument of their salvation is deeply flawed. It (the U.S. government) may be exploiting the human rights cause for ulterior motives and therefore not serve well the ostensible objective. It does that all the time.

Until we have some kind of social movement with a different strategic vision of foreign policy, we’re reduced to coping with the mixed motives of the State in the face of urgent human distress. I am anti-imperialist. I do not think that precludes acquiescence to some kind of U.S. intervention. There are some things worse than imperialism.

Zionist style guide

Zionist-Massacres3We capture or arrest, they kidnap.

We have soldiers; they have fighters.

We are even-tempered; they are militant.

Our bombardments are self-defense; theirs are aggression.

Any civilian that we kill is actually killed by them.

We left Gaza. Blockading it is not an occupation.

Our roads into Gaza are aboveboard; their tunnels into Israel are devious.

They use tunnels to come into Israel and murder soldiers. We use roads to go into Gaza and “mow the lawn.”

We support a two-state solution, as long as the Palestinian state is not a state.


Rick Santelli is a raving loon, Part II



A continuing, endless series. This morning in response to the BLS jobs report, he suggested the numbers were cooked (“We’re all conspiratorial here.”) — in other words not too high, not too low — for the sake of propping up Fed policy of gradual contraction of monetary stimulus. CNBC’s fixed income expert. Right.


Jobs day is just meh

meh-ive-done-worseFirst Friday of every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases data on the previous month’s state of the labor market. The ‘headline number’ is 209,000 net new jobs. This year the numbers of net new jobs have looked good — over 200,000 a month. It could certainly be worse, but we should realize the growth we are getting is along a trend line that is still well under full employment. The unemployment rate is now 6.2 percent, but this actually understates the extent of labor market ‘slack’ (under-utilization of human resources). The reason is that many have dropped out of the labor force and are therefore not included in the unemployment rate. Even so, we know from experience the rate could be much lower, in the low four percents, as it was before 2001.

The more relevant metrics to watch are the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, which are hardly better than they were at the low point in this economic downturn (2009). As Dean reported last month, after a much bigger jobs number came out (298,000), at current rates it still takes three years to get back to full employment.

The go-to people for deep dives on these numbers are Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker. Check with them later today for more analysis.

P.S. Here’s Dean.

P.P.S. Here’s Jason Furman, for the White House. His analyses are always very substantive, though his characterization of the labor force participation rate as ‘stable’ is worth a raised eyebrow.


MaxSpeak vs. VoxSpeak: the reckoning

oldmanyellsatcloud_thumbI’ve said that the Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposal should be read not as a proposal, but as a critique of the really-existing U.S. welfare state. My contention is that it is not a well-founded critique.

Dylan Matthews of Vox responds. He acknowledges the political unlikelihood of a UBI but suggests that a small UBI could be fashioned from the existing Federal income tax benefits, specifically the standard deduction and personal exemption. This is a good place to look, which is why I wrote about how to do that, about 15 years ago. An archive is here.

A proposal I cooked up with my friend Professor Bob Cherry of Brooklyn College made it into two different bills — one from Dennis Kucinich, the other from Rahm Emanuel. You can imagine why they didn’t join together on a single proposal. (Dennis had the better bill, naturally.)

The big difference between what I was up to and a UBI is that the existing individual income tax already provides a vehicle for crafting this pseudo-UBI as a refundable tax credit. This is one example where UBI discourse could be more mindful of the existing system, which already provides a slew of income guarantees, albeit not always well-designed ones.

DM next takes on housing benefits, which he says are screwed up. I quite agree. I talked about them yesterday. You cannot, however, dump these funds into any sort of all-purpose UBI without severely harming current beneficiaries. See the previous paragraph, last sentence. So that’s off the table.

Next DM excoriates in-kind benefits (food stamps, housing, etc.) as paternalistic. Cash is better. I suggest that for all practical purposes, these benefits are no different than cash. The reason is that they are inadequate: the benefits are less than what beneficiaries usually would spend on these same goods and services. So on the margin, if you’ll forgive the expression, there is no obstacle to the choices of beneficiaries–they’re spending their own money at that point. There is overhead with SNAP and housing, but there is as well with cash transfers. There would be with a UBI–perhaps more, since the incentives to claim fraudulently could be greater.

Most means-tested transfers are already provided in cash or near-cash. The big exception is Medicaid. But you don’t want people trying to buy health insurance in an individual market with a voucher. The other exception is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), or just “the welfare.”

I’ve been trying to point UBI folks at TANF, the most dubious part of the safety net. Federal TANF funds that used to be provided as cash in the AFDC program are now spent by state governments for services aimed at getting clients into work. (Note, lots of AFDC recipients worked.) That means high overhead and lots of in-kind benefits (remedial education, vocational education, child care, transportation subsidies, etc.), not necessarily superior to cash.

Nobody rants about subjecting TANF to cost-benefit analysis, nobody inquires as to its “waste, fraud, and abuse.” The reason is that it has been neutered into a block grant. Its value adjusted for inflation since 1997 has fallen by 28 percent. The number of beneficiaries has fallen from by more than half. Since 2000, the poverty rate has gone from 11.3 to 15% (Table 2). It is now higher than in 1996, the year of the glorious enactment of welfare reform. Problem solved! Not the problem of poverty, the problem of poor people getting cash from the Federal government, also known as “dependency.”

The case for a different sort of TANF precedes the UBI by half a century. It used to be called a family allowance. It’s worth considering, though arithmetic will still be a problemffp




Universal Basic Income Recycling

A recent post, prior to the rebirth of MaxSpeak.

UBI will never happen. The justifications for the UBI — which are implicit critiques of the U.S. welfare state — are badly screwed up. My objection to UBI is not about work incentives. It is that UBI advocacy radically misunderstands the problems of anti-poverty assistance and the nature of the current system. Dylan Matthews, who does good work, has another view.