31 December 2012

Will Cliffmas be a Christmas Present?

Cliffmas is a clever term coined by blogger Atrios (Duncan Black) combining Christmas with Fiscall Cliff narrative.

The basic idea is that there was never any reason for Democrats (and certainly Obama) to negotiate with Republicans to avert the so called Fiscal Cliff.

If you don't remember what this entailed, basically Bush tax cuts will expire tonight at midnight and taxes will go up on most Americans. We are talking a very modest increase, as the rates will revert back to what they were under Clinton. Estate taxes and capital gains taxes will be significantly higher though (which is why most large corporations distributed their dividends in December this year).

Along with tax increases there will be substantial sending cuts, most notably on the defense budget. Some long term unemployment benefits will be cut and payroll tax holiday will be over.

The media present this as a catastrophe but I am not sure why it has to be. They claim that with higher taxes consumer spending will slow down and this could lead back to a new recession.

What Cliffmas means, instead of negotiating for a modest rate increase for the highest revenue bracket, Obama would wait for the expiration of Bush cuts. Once the taxes are much higher, companies and 1 percenters would put enough pressure on Republicans to make a deal. If not, Obama could simply pass a new tax cut bill that covers the middle classes.

I understand that Obama has been threatening to do just that, except that he has also been making new offers like moving the tax bracket from $250,000 to $450,000. It is now being reported that the White House is convinced they will have no leverage after January and Obama has already blurted out on Sunday that the offers he made to Boehner would make many Democrats mad at him. Needless to add, Boehner rejected those offers.

I hope that Obama calls the GOP's bluff and let the Fiscal Cliff roll.

But I am almost certain that he will make a last minute deal and will give away the house, as I predicted.

In any case, Happy Cliffmas to everyone.

I hope 2013 will be a better year.

29 December 2012

Maybe There is Something to the Mayan Prophecy

I found out about the Mayan Prophecy quite late. It was already mid-December when I realized that hordes of "preppers" were getting ready to survive the end of the world.

I have to admit that I vaguely knew about a Mayan Prophecy but I didn't realize that the clearly marked Mayan Calendar you see below contained a definite prediction that on 21 December 2012 the world would cease to exist.

I assumed that the general idea must be similar to Christian Millennialism which predicts the end of an era and the start of a golden age where Christ would reign for a thousand years before the Day of Final Judgment

It turns out that the whole thing was some kind of misunderstanding and the Calendar was indeed predicting about the end of an era and the start of a new age.
Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Year of the Mayan Prophecy calls 21/12/12 the "hinge point" of the emergence of a new, more enlightened age - not an ending point for all civilisation.
"It is quite clear that the Mayan system envisages a new cycle of the calendar beginning on the 22 December 2012," says Graham Hancock, author of Fingerprints of the Gods. 
What we have here is an extension of the basic Winter Solstice symbolism, from darkness to light, this time to herald a more enlightened epoch.

As you can guess, I don't believe in prophecies of any kind. But, I kind of liked the idea that we might be entering a new and more humane period in our collective history. In fact, I ended my most recent post with the optimistic belief that the Zeitgeist has shifted towards a nicer and warmer perspective and young people do not seem to share the greedy and self-centered ideology of their parents.

So, this being my end of year post, I decided to go with the Mayan flow and enumerate all the signs that seem to indicate that we might be leaving the Gordon Gekko years behind and entering a better era.

A New Age?

I would like to claim that 2012 was the year the forces that dominate the economic and political realms and control the media narrative realized for the first time that the people whose choices and voices they pretend to reflect were a lot more liberal, tolerant and progressive than they have been claiming.

2012 is also the year, reality entered the conservative bubble in a way to make denials hard to maintain.

19 December 2012

Guns and American Conservatives

After the Connecticut massacre where 20 children and 6 adults lost their lives a teary President Obama announced that something had to be done.

Do you believe anything will be done?

In case you are not sure, let me refresh your memory.

The last time something was done, it was Jim Brady, Ronald Reagan's Press Secretary, who succeeded in pushing legislation (with St Ronnie's backing) that established a waiting period before gun purchases and some background checking. That was it. Since 1994, no gun legislation was introduced and Congress refused even to consider limits on automatic assault weapons or specialized ammunitions.

In the intervening years, several high school and college shootings led to the death of hundreds of young people.

A Congresswoman was shot in the head and 6 people around her died and 11 seriously wounded.

A deranged person wearing a mask opened fire during a movie screening, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.

Reactions to all of these incidents? Most commentators said something along the lines of, (a) nobody could have predicted such violent acts, (b) guns don't kill people, people kill people and (c) Americans needed to get more guns to defend themselves against crazy people.

According to some of these conservative voices if school kids were armed in these instances, they could have defended themselves.  Since then, many states are considering allowing guns on campuses. I am not kidding. Feel free to check out www.armedcampuses.org for statistics.

So, the basic answer to mass killings with guns has been more guns, not less.

I never understood why the gun industry and its lobbying arm the National Rifle Association (NRA) were so important, so powerful and so successful in stifling discussion. After all, this is just a $11 billion a year industry.  To put it in perspective, at the height of the banking bubble, Goldman Sachs alumnus John Paulson and a couple of his colleagues made more than that in bonuses in a single year (2007). Surely, this is not an economically significant sector.

But the question remains that, if cigarette manufacturers could be taken down, if mighty bank CEOs can be grilled in Congress or if defense contractors could be criticized, how is it that such a relatively small sector could remain untouchable?

The answer is that a disproportionate number of Americans see guns as an extension of their belief system.

Conservative Mind Set: Fear and Martyrdom

After the Connecticut incident, BBC's Mark Mardell wrote that we do not understand the historic and emotional bond the Americans have with their guns. I am sure there are gun nuts for whom this is a valid observation. But I think guns are important to a large number of Americans for ideological reasons. These are people who share the values and ideas of the modern conservative movement. As such, this group includes -besides conservatives- many independents and some democrats as well.

07 December 2012

Khaled Meshaal: The Prodigal Son Returns

If you belong to my tiny but loyal and erudite readership, you will remember that, back in February, I posted a piece entitled "What is Happening with Hamas" to highlight the serious rift that emerged between Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister in Gaza and Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas in exile.

In that post, I quoted Meshaal making rather conciliatory statements about Israel and the two-state solution. He even insinuated that he would take part in a national unity government led by Abbas.
Israeli analyst Matti Steinberg of Haifa University says Meshaal "quite clearly wants to advance reconciliation with Fatah" and to speak about a Palestinian state within the lines created by the 1967 Middle East war, rather than recovering the Palestine that existed before Israel's creation in 1948. 
He is also ready to suspend the military jihad against Israel and go along with Abbas's idea of "popular resistance" through non-violent mass protests, Steinberg said. Hamas hardliners insist on the right to "armed resistance." 
Analysts speculate that Meshaal's goal may be to end the isolation of his movement and make it an essential partner in Middle East negotiations, one that Israel and the West can no longer afford to ostracize as a terrorist group.
Haniyeh, on the other hand, was firmly against these possibilities.

I concluded that,
Meshaal's recent moves, i.e. announcing his departure, leaving Syria and getting close to Jordan and Qatar make sense if he is getting ready to participate in a peace agreement with Israel. 
That means that Meshaal is anticipating that such a deal is more or less imminent. This is a radical U-turn for an organization that wants to eradicate any trace of Israel from the region using armed struggle. Suddenly, they are talking about 1967 borders and peaceful popular resistance. 
It also means that he realizes that Syria is no longer able to provide cover for Hamas, as it is about to experience a radical regime change and maybe a prolonged civil war. 
It further means that Meshaal does no longer value Hamas' alliance with Iran and is trying to find new sponsors and protectors in the region. That indicates that he believes Iran's ascendancy peaked and regardless of the outcome of its confrontation with the US, Iran will have to accept a secondary power position behind others like Turkey.

03 December 2012

Why the Turkish Model Will Not Work in Egypt

You probably know that Egypt's Islamist president Muhammad Morsi (BBC adopted new spelling) has recently given himself sweeping powers with a simple decree. Although he claimed that he was not seeking unchecked powers for himself, his move triggered a wave of protest in -where else?- the Tahrir Square.

He tried to contain this situation by acknowledging that these new powers would become invalid once the draft constitution is ratified in a referendum. And he rushed the constituent assembly (dominated by Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists) to finish the text and get it ready for a referendum. They complied and had a new draft the following day. The new draft was boycotted by women, secular and Christian members of the assembly.

Since Morsi's new powers prevented Supreme Court judges from ruling on the constitutionality of the constituent assembly they retaliated by refusing to oversee the referendum that will take place in two weeks time.

In other words, in the span of two weeks, Morsi went from a savvy statesman, who brokered a peace deal in Gaza, to a clumsy dictator wannabe pushing an authoritarian Islamist agenda.

The first part earned him a Time Magazine cover as "The Most Important Man in the Middle East."

Ironically, while this issue of Time was still in circulation Morsi became an object of scorn and ridicule and people began calling for his resignation.

This got me thinking.

From the beginning of the Arab Spring, the new Islamist movements in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco professed a desire to emulate what they called the Turkish model. There are four political parties called either Justice and Development Party (as the Turkish AKP) or (in the case of Egypt) Justice and Freedom Party.

The question that springs to mind, is it enough to copy the program of a party and emulate their agenda to duplicate their success in a different setting? Or to put it more bluntly, is the Turkish model applicable to Egypt?

My answer is that there are several elements that set the Turkish model apart and without those, any effort to use it as a blueprint is likely to fail.