The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Erasing the Mistake of Gaza

As the current Israeli offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip continues, with any hopes for a cease-fire now dashed, bewailing over the breakdown of the six-month Egyptian-brokered truce was universal. Finger pointing quickly followed by both camps involved, each placing the brunt of the blame on the other.

Israel and its supporters condemn the long-standing practice by Hamas of launching rocket attacks against civilian targets and argue their neutralization is paramount for Israel’s safety. The Arab world and others counter the Israeli response to defend itself is disproportional to the threat Hamas represents.

The accusations and justifications of both sides crumble under scrutiny. More to the point, this entire episode is no breakdown or retreat but merely more of the same, sad stalemate that is the Middle East peace process. The only difference is that political concerns regarding their respective constituencies have caused leaders on both sides to redirect their focus inwards. Both have found war a more expedient solution for their present situations.

The massive Israeli air strikes over the past four days certainly do dwarf the two or three hundred rockets launched by Hamas during the same period. Israeli forces have killed over three hundred and fifty Palestinians and wounded nearly fifteen hundred more, many of them civilians, as opposed to only four Israeli casualties, three of which were civilians.

Yet this snapshot comparison fails to consider the protracted period of months and years over which Hamas rockets fired from Gaza have been harassing southern Israel. As many as 700,000 civilians are in rocket range. Seventeen Israelis died this year from attacks originating out of Gaza.

True, the accuracy and effectiveness of the rockets is questionable but the very randomness of their trajectories suggests that Hamas would be quite pleased if every one fired killed civilians. Intent and not results are the litmus for judging them on this matter. They have directed over ten thousand such missiles against Israel since 2001. The relatively passive responses used by Israel prior to this point, such as blockades, were having no effect.

At the same time, Israeli sentiments that the army “should keep pounding [Hamas] until they beg for mercy . . . all of Gaza can be erased” are equally misplaced.

It would be difficult for Israel to mobilize the forces necessary for a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza and even if they could, the success of such an assault is doubtful. Indeed, some theorize Hamas would like nothing better than an invasion of Gaza. Hamas has smuggled weapons in through tunnels from the Sinai for the past eighteen months and this would provide an opportunity to use them against Israeli soldiers.

Even if Israel could “erase” Hamas from Gaza, it still would be a long way from being safe, as Benny Morris, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Ben-Gurion University, pointed out Monday in the New York Times.

In Lebanon, analysts believe Hezbollah now has thirty to forty thousand Russian-made rockets – twice the number it possessed for its 2006 war with Israel – and could re-commence doing to northern Israeli towns and cities what Hamas has been doing in the south.

However, most intimidating to Israeli Jews, is the fact that ethnic Arabs will likely make up the majority of Israel’s citizens by no later than 2050. Combined Arabs living in Israel and the Palestinian territories could outnumber Israeli Jews in as little as five years.

Conversely, a victory by Hamas is far from a guarantee of its continued hegemony in the region. Egyptian President Mubarak looks askance at the prospect of a neighboring Islamic State in Gaza. He has blockaded the territory from its southern end, even as other Arab nations have pressured him to open borders.

That war is politically advantageous at present for Israel’s leaders is obvious. The country holds elections in February and polls indicated a likely victory for the hard-line Likud Party. Current Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the Kamid Party are both vying to be the next Prime Minister and war helps move their image right of center. Polls taken since the Gaza offensive began show them closing the gap with Likud.

However, war may well also be politically advantageous for Hamas, as Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and a former Princeton professor, pointed out yesterday in the Washington Post. Hamas “has been losing support internally and externally” among Palestinians for the past two years, according to him.

By their acceptance of a truce, Hamas acted counter to their credo and tradition of armed resistance. It caused them to become less distinguishable from the rival Fatah Party, particularly since the truce yielded no specific benefits, such as freed prisoners or an end to blockades. While war may not cause everyday Palestinians to view them as heroic freedom fighters, Hamas might well have been doomed to political mediocrity without it.

The current Israeli offensive against Gaza means no real reversal in the Middle East peace process, just as its end, however that may come about, will signify no real progress either.

For any real change to happen, the first step is for Hamas to dismantle its rocket launchers and desist in any further attacks against Israel. The pilots in the military jets currently raining death and destruction on Gaza may be Israeli but Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey was on the mark when he said, “Hamas is abusing the people of Gaza by using their homes as a base for terror operations.”

For real long-term change, the international community largely accepts the idea that a “two-state solution is the right way forward,” as expressed by White House spokesperson Gordon Johndroe. “Two states” implies that Israel must recognize the right of Palestinians to a homeland and self-government. However, it also implies the long-overdue recognition of Israel’s right to exist by the vast majority of the Arab world.

Neither fighting nor ending this war will constitute real change in the Middle East but it does represent real death and suffering by innocents on both sides. Erasing Gaza is not going to happen; nor is erasing Israel. Israel and Hamas both need to get busy erasing mistakes drawn by political expediency instead.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Enslaved by Free Markets

The Associated Press ran a horrifying story this morning about domestic child labor (i.e. child slavery) that sounds like something out of a Nineteenth Century novel by Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo.

Nine-year-old Shyima Mahmoud lived with her parents and ten siblings in the poor Egyptian coastal town of Agami. When her father became sick and lost his job, her mother “sold” Shyima as a maid to a wealthy family, the Ibrahims.

For a salary of $45 per month, Shyima worked up to twenty hours each day, without breaks or any time off, cleaning the family’s Cairo apartment and caring for their five children. When the family moved to the United States and settled in California, Shyima went with them. Her family was indebted to the Ibrahims, having acquired multiple loans from them to pay for the father’s ongoing medical expenses.

The Ibrahims lived in what was literally a small mansion. Shyima lived in a garage without windows, heat and air conditioning, or lighting.

She was completely de-humanized. Her employers referred to her only as shaghala or “servant” rather than by her given name. She washed her hand-me-down clothes in a bucket because the Ibrahims considered them too dirty to mix with those of their own.

The family took her along on a vacation to Disneyland – where they forbade the now ten-year-old girl to ride any of the attractions and instead required her to carry the family’s baggage.

It took two long years but eventually neighbors became suspicious of a girl they sometimes saw through the windows of the Ibrahims’ house but who was never mentioned by them. They called the police and social services.

Authorities placed Shyima in foster homes and a loving family eventually adopted her. A federal court ordered the Ibrahims to pay Shyima $76,000, the amount she would have earned at minimum wage. It sentenced the couple to several years in prison and deported them after each had served their respective jail time.

Although it is officially illegal, child slavery is both commonplace and socially acceptable in at least thirty-three African countries. The practice has begun to proliferate here in America as affluent Africans, accustomed to employing children, immigrate to the United States. A study by the National Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley and Free the Slaves, a nonprofit group, suggests they may number in the thousands within this country.

It is all outrageous and deplorable but perhaps most shocking is the attitude of parents regarding the fate of their children. Traffickers have not tricked them into thinking minors face anything less than endless, backbreaking toil. Nor are parents sadly resigned to the practice.

On the contrary, many see themselves as doing a wonderful thing for their children by selling them into servitude. What most of us would view as cruel and abusive treatment, they view as opportunity. When facing a life of abject poverty and hopelessness, hard labor and separation from parents in exchange for food, clothing, shelter, and even a salary seems an almost luxurious alternative.

As the AP article states, “. . . the garage where Shyima slept . . . would pass for the best home in [her family’s] neighborhood.” When shown a snapshot of the windowless garage, Shyima’s mother “made a clucking sound of approval” rather than gasping in horror.

Shyima refused to admit anything against the Ibrahims at first but eventually her fear of them turned to anger and she ultimately testified at their trials. For this, she earned estrangement from her parents, who told her anything bad that had happened to her was her fault and she was shaming them by speaking out against “good people.”

Such a reaction is sadly all too common from African families. In a similar case, the mother of a Cameroon girl flew to Detroit to testify in court against her own daughter, saying the child was “ungrateful” for the “good life” her employers had provided her.

Shyima, now seventeen, admits she never attempted to run away from the Ibrahims and their treatment of her because, at the time, “I thought this was normal.”

The cautionary tale I see in all this is the danger of globalization to bring down all to the lowest common denominator, especially in matters regarding money.

In truth, Shyima’s tale is most shocking to us not because it involves slavery or even a child but because it happened right here on U.S. soil. If Shymia’s family forced her to work as hard to benefit a California couple without leaving Egypt, some would laud the situation as a triumph of free trade. If a mature Shyima came to the U.S. voluntarily seeking work to help her struggling family, many would join in condemning her as an “ungrateful immigrant” when she complained about her situation.

When a huge gap is allowed to develop between haves and have-nots, such as exists in Egypt and is rapidly occurring in this country, it is extraordinary both how much wealth can manipulate poverty to its will and how much the impoverished are willing to accept for how little return. We saw the same thing in this country’s Nineteenth Century factory sweatshops. It led us to permit organized labor and federal regulation over industries.

Are we really going to continue taking steps backwards because markets dictate lowest cost equals the lowest accepted standard of living as the only way to compete?

It sounds ridiculous but Congresspersons who insisted that an auto industry bailout should not go forward without first busting the UAW might disagree with imprisoning the Ibrahims as the correct solution to Shyima’s situation. Instead, they might insist that every adult maid in the U.S. be willing to work for what any African child would accept (or forced to accept by their parents), less they risk losing their jobs to “smarter, harder-working, more competitive” overseas labor.

The free market may have an invisible self-correcting hand but it has no conscience. It is not the job of government to give everybody a free ride but it should protect “the little guys” from abuses power by wealth, exercised through economic means. You see, sometime “the little guys” are not fat, lazy, overpaid Detroit autoworker. Sometimes “the little guys” are little girls and we owe the Shyimas of this world more than they have gotten from free trade so far.

This nation needs to fight for better regulation over domestic child labor all over this planet, just as we abolished the practice of factory child labor within our own borders a century ago. America needs to lead within the global economy, not enslave ourselves to its worst impulses for lowest-cost goods.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Jesus, What's Your 20?

We are all familiar with the employment of modern technology for an imaginary purpose every Christmas Eve to “track” the journey of Santa and his sleigh around the world. Local newscaster once liked to announce the occurrence with faux gravitas at the end of their December 24 broadcasts. These days, websites allow one to trace the Jolly Old Elf’s route all evening long “in real time.”

Just when we all thought there was nowhere further to go with such escapades, engineers are now able to extend the same convenience to Jesus, as millions of Christians mark the annual remembrance of his journey from heaven to join the rest of us poor slobs here on Earth. Specifically, high tech is now helping to keep vandals from carrying off Jesus’ likeness from outdoor Nativity displays.

In my part of the world, that is good news indeed for the city of Cheviot Ohio.

Cheviot is, in itself, something of a miraculous conception. First settled by a single farmer in 1796, it grew to village size in 1818. John Craig, a prominent early resident, named it after a town somewhere in southern Scotland. One can still see headstones dating back to the 1830s in the Baptist Cemetery, located alongside Harrison Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare.

Incorporated as a municipality in 1901, Cheviot is like a small island surrounded by the ocean that is larger city of Cincinnati. At a mere 1.2 square miles in size, it is tiny. Many consider it the symbolic heart of western Hamilton County – home to a little over nine thousand folks, all solidly blue-collar middle class and 96.9% white.

For its small size, it attracts a lot of attention each fall with the Harvest Home Festival, a small fair held every year the weekend after Labor Day since the early 1800s and reflecting a rural heritage that Cheviot now entirely lacks.

But back to Jesus.

The city began promoting another tradition, going back forty-five years this year, in the form of a large outdoor nativity display, sponsored by the Cheviot Westwood Community Association and also located along Harrison Avenue.

In recent years, another somewhat more notorious tradition commenced of stealing figurines from this display, with the baby Jesus as the most commonly purloined character. Objections to religious displays in public spaces are not at play here (you would have to visit Cheviot to understand how unlikely that motivation) and simple vandalism is the main reason behind the thefts.

The 2005 Christmas season was particularly bad, when the Jesus figure disappeared not once but twice. A local twelve-year-old girl saved the day when she temporarily loaned Cheviot a life-sized statue of the baby Jesus that had adorned her bedroom each Christmas holiday since she was six. (See what I mean about Separation of Church and State not being much of an issue for this particular burg?)

In 2007, thieves made off with the Jesus character again. It turned up a few days later but too badly damaged for continued display.

This year, for the forty-fifty anniversary, Cheviot officials decided enough was enough and employed technology to help ward off would-be hooligans. A surveillance camera now sits nestled in the display among the wise men, shepherds, and friendly animals. So far, it seems to have worked.

However, BrickHouse Security, a New York-based company, can go this one further. They have begun lending out GPS devices and providing tracking service free of charge to schools and places of worship with holiday displays. The device is only the size of a pack of cigarettes and thus easily hidden inside the baby Jesus or other Nativity figurines. It sends a text message and e-mail in the event somebody attempts to make off with a statue.

With such devices selling for $300 to $800 apiece, this gesture by BrickHouse is not insignificant. There is no word yet if any thieves have ever found the devices and ditched Jesus in hopes of pawning the expensive GPS equipment instead.

In any case, the story struck me sentimentally as an example in which science and faith have found a way to coexist, with the former even acting to benefit the latter. If this trend keeps up, can co-dependence be far behind? Ah, then religion will have relevance in our modern world indeed.

Until then, we can all say our prayers and rest our heads serenely tonight, knowing that, at least in the tiny city of Cheviot, much like in Bethlehem before it, a (fiberglass) child remains lying secure in its manager. Yea, let us join the Heavenly Host in praising what has come to pass, saying, “Peace on Earth (at exactly 39° 9’ 28” North and 84° 36’ 45” West), Goodwill Among Men (or else the police will track you down and throw your burgling ass in jail).”

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Red and Green Christmas

The Washington Post reports today that President-elect Obama and his Administration are facing competing claims on how best to spend dollars in an economic stimulus package. Obama has increased his goal from creating 2.5 million new jobs to 3.0 million. However, environmentalists and smart-growth advocates oppose the desire to “act fast,” instead shifting funds from traditional infrastructure, such as highways and bridges, to more environmentally friendly “green” jobs.

Many lawmakers, not the least of which are incoming Democratic fiscal conservatives, oppose such a shift. In addition to arguing that any stimulus “has to be stimulating now,” Representative Baron Hill of Indianan, co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, worries about running up more red ink. “I think there are [Democrats] who are trying to create a Christmas tree out of this," he said.

(I suppose that is exactly what we could expect “tree huggers” to do during this festive season.)

Vice-President-elect Joe Biden, following Hill’s metaphoric lead, vowed that the stimulus package would not become a Christmas tree for earmarks. He defended the importance of investing in traditional infrastructure projects.

If this Christmas tree has a star, it appears to be Democratic Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who recently proposed spending $85 billion over the next two years.

Environmentalists are pleased that federal highways and local transportation systems, which usually receive 80% of the funding in such bills, receive only 49.6% of the money in Oberstar’s proposal. On the other hand, the only large chunk of green spending identified so far – for “environmental infrastructure” improvements, such as clean-water funds – represents only 16.8% of proposed outlays.

Green advocates contend that improving existing highways will only encourage commuting, increasing pollution and discouraging use of any public transportation projects built. This argument, while with merit, often raises hackles and an insistence that government should not engage in social engineering through economic coercion and reward.

Whether you agree or disagree with the green line of reasoning, others make core economic cases for spending big now and investing for the long-term.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedmam, yesterday compared the transportation and communications networks of Hong Kong to those of New York, only to find himself lamenting, “If [America is] so smart, why are other people living so much better than us?” The solution, he decides, is more than a mere bailout but a “reboot” and “national makeover.”

Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey writes in today’s Washington Post that the incoming Obama Administration must follow the example of FDR’s New Deal and be “$1 trillion bold” in stimulating the economy.

These two erstwhile prophets differ on timeframe, with Corzine more focused on immediate needs (i.e. where we are) and Friedman stressing the future (i.e. where we need to be). They also differ on the method of stimulation. Corzine favors direct and massive spending by the federal government, including a substantial chuck for state and local governments facing their own budget crunches. Friedman prefers “creative tax incentives to stimulate the private sector to catalyze new industries and new markets.”

Yet for all their differences, there is surprising commonality between their competing visions. Corzine admits the need to “think broadly about the idea of infrastructure.” As an example, he proposes that improving transportation infrastructure means more than highways projects and includes investment in the nation’s “energy grid, Internet technology, ports, public housing, and school facilities.”

Most notably, both understand the importance of education. Friedman calls for “training teachers, educating scientists and engineers, paying for research and building the most productivity-enhancing infrastructure — without building white elephants.” Corzine concludes it is “essential that we continue developing a workforce that is able to meet the demands of the Twenty-First Century economy.”

During the campaign, Obama identified investment in green industries as the cornerstone of not only his environmental policy but also his energy and economic policies. While his newly emerging emphasis on short-term stimulation is a pragmatic response to the current financial crisis, it must not allow green investment to drown in a sea of worries over red ink.

After all, there is always some crisis on the immediate horizon and it has long served as a rationale – or excuse – to defer green investments. This is exactly why alternative fuels that could break our dependence on foreign oil perpetually remain “futuristic abstractions” we cannot afford. Somebody has to break the vicious cycle and that means spending money, even at the risk of running up more, unprecedented red ink.

Everybody wants a green Christmas this year, whether environmentalists, with their dream of a rescued planet, or fiscal conservatives, with their visions of more greenbacks dancing into everyone’s wallets.

Obama, in his usual manner, is currently attempting to downplay expectations of how much his Administration can do to turn around the economy as well as how quickly, saying, “It will get worse before it can get better.” Perhaps the truth lies in the realization that getting worse may be the only way it will ever get better. That is something he had better keep in mind as he contemplates how to give everybody what they want this Christmas.

Christmas green without red is not very festive. It seems like now is the time to start planting the seeds of those Christmas trees that some seem to fear so much.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Room at the Table

President-elect Obama’s choice of evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his Inauguration has drawn criticism from many progressive and especially harsh words from gays and lesbians. They view the selection of Warren as an affront to gay rights by Obama. The argue Obama is betraying a group that worked hard and donated generously to elect him.

Writing today in the Washington Post, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, seethes, “It is difficult to comprehend how [Obama] . . . could fail to grasp the symbolism of inviting an anti-gay theologian to deliver his Inaugural invocation.”

The chief or at least most-cited reason by Solmonese and other gay groups that Warren is fanatically homophobic is his role as “a general in the campaign to pass California's Proposition 8, which dissolved the legal marriage rights of loving, committed same-sex couples.”

I have posted repeatedly over the years in support of gay rights and I have recently posted that I believe the overturn of gay marriage by Californians was a mistake that changing social mores and laws will inevitably correct. Nevertheless, I must go on record that condemnation of Warren’s role in the Inauguration is hyperbolized over-reaction by the gay community and others.

Andrew Sullivan best exemplifies this over-the-top attitude. In his online column for The Atlantic, Sullivan announces, with the voice of doom, “. . . if anyone is under any illusion that Obama is interested in advancing gay equality, they should probably sober up now.”

Ron Chusid writes slightly more reasonably on the website Liberal Thought, “There is a time for trying to get along with those you disagree with but there are also times when it is best to marginalize those with extremist beliefs rather than to help provide them credibility.”

Despite its current hot button status, gay marriage is not the sum total of gay rights. Many Americans who favor equal treatment for homosexuals are ambivalent at best toward gay marriage. In truth, poll after poll finds that those favoring full recognition of gay couples as “married,” such as myself, are the ones on the extremist fringe at present.

Granted, Warren’s regrettable attitudes toward homosexuality go beyond opposition to gay marriage. Many point disgustedly to a recent interview with Beliefnet Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman, in which Warren compared gay unions as comparable to those with incestuous or pedophilic elements. His concession that “in the hierarchy of evil . . . homosexuality is not the worst sin” is faint praise at best.

Yet in the same interview, Warren identified divorce as a greater threat to the American family than gay marriage, calling the choice a “no-brainer.” When then asked why many religious conservatives spend more time demonizing gay marriage rather than divorce, Warren replied, with self-deprecating honesty, “Oh we always love to talk about other sins more than ours.”

Moreover, when Waldman pressed him about whether his opposition to California’s Proposition 8 meant he was also against civil unions or domestic partnerships for gays, Warren responded, “I support full equal rights for everybody in America. I don’t believe we should have unequal rights depending on particular lifestyles.”

Both Warren personally as well as his church are leading advocates for people with HIV/AIDS. He has begun similar initiatives to fight poverty and illiteracy. He has spoken out on the needs of Christians to address topics like global warming and genocide in Darfur.

If it is a stretch to say Warren’s opposition to gay marriage makes him a full-fledged, hate-mongering Christian fundamentalist, then deducing from an invitation for him to speak at the Inauguration that Obama is no supporter of gay rights or even anti-gay is positively super-elastic.

Obama said he is a “fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans” at a news conference yesterday. In spite of this, both he and Vice-President-elect Biden made it clear throughout the campaign that they did not favor a Constitutional Amendment supporting gay marriage, arguing such decisions belong with the states. Why apparently this is such a sudden shock to some of his supporters is not clear to me.

The Obama Administration is actively considering William White, an openly gay man to be the next Secretary of the Navy. Perhaps they should withdraw him from consideration, since the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes gays serving in the military, has issued a statement saying such a choice “would be very demoralizing to the troops,” just as gays find the choice of Warren to be a sign of disrespect to them.

For that matter, perhaps Obama should also rescind his invitation to the Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery to deliver the Inaugural benediction. Lowery is certainly an undisputed civil-rights champion but he once gave a speech in front of President Bush condemning the Iraq war and poverty in the U.S. that many in the crowd found offensive.

David Bordy, a senior national news correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, reports that for all the angry email and letter sent to Obama by gays and lesbians, CBN has received an equal number of messages from right-wing Christians outraged that Warren would have anything to do with the pro-abortion Obama.

The fact that the attitudes and tactics of the left look so much like those of the right in this instance ought to be telling us something.

One of those letters to Obama comes from Solmonese, who writes, “By inviting Rick Warren to your Inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table.”

Almost every family has at least one horror story of a fight that begins at a holiday dinner and ends with someone storming from the table in angry tears. It takes courage to walk away from our loved ones in a declaration of personal principle. In contemporary American politics, it has become almost a shibboleth of leadership to not merely reject but also condemn and break with those holding objectionable views.

One reason Obama sought out Warren to speak is that he renounced his own long-time pastor during the campaign, after most Republicans and many Democrats found that man’s views contained too much anti-white racism to suffer toleration.

Yes, it takes courage to walk away from the table. Even so, sometimes, it takes still greater courage to walk back and sit down at it again with the person(s) toward whom we feel hostile, especially when we know they return that hostility, if only for the sake of others we love and respect in common.

Tolerance that will not endure dissent is no tolerance. Tolerance does not mean agreeing with opposing viewpoints but accepting the right of others to hold them and still be able to sit at the table.

As Warren himself has said of this matter, “Hopefully, individuals passionately expressing opinions from the left and the right will recognize that both of us have shown a commitment to model civility in America.”

Should they come to the table of the Inauguration, gays and their supporters have every right to tell Warren they believe he is wrong-headed in his beliefs and that they find his pronouncements against them hurtful. But they are wrong to insist there is no longer room at the table for them. Instead, they have chosen to walk away from the table in a moment of understandable hurt pride.

They need to find the courage to walk back and sit down again, lest they look far too much like those conservatives who refuse to respect their right to stand in the same line with them for marriage licenses.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tough All Over

The Washington Post has yet another article of the sort we have been reading all too often these days, profiling America’s beleaguered and disillusioned middle class. The article describes their frustration over diminished purchasing power. People living in cities, with good educations and professional jobs are worried about “being unable to pay for their children's college education, missing payments on car loans, and not having enough money left each month to dine out with friends or go on vacation.”

This is a generation of workers, after all, who “have come to see these things not as a luxury of modern life but as a right.” They are frustrated over government’s lack of help and they view some individuals within it as inordinately hostile toward organized labor.

It all sounds depressingly familiar but – whoops! – the country in question is China rather than the United States.

Within the past month, nine thousand taxi drivers went on strike in Sichuan province, bringing several large cities to a standstill and sometimes engaging in violence. Police officers demanded reinstatement of a bonus in Hunan province. A thousand teachers in Longhui county struck over unpaid allowances. Fellow teachers in Shaanxi and Liaoning provinces protested earning less pay than that received by other government employees with commensurate experience.

Rural protests by impoverished farmers have been common over the past decade. However, strikes by richer, educated urban Chinese are a more recent phenomenon. Communist officials have been officially sympathetic and responsive to these strikers even as they quietly hunt for organizers and try to ferret out union infrastructure at the same time.

It is not surprising that the Washington Post also reports a poll taken among the Chinese middle class reflects a general pessimism.

In that survey, sixty-six percent are worried about maintaining their standard of living. Nearly two in ten, or someone living in their households, lost a job in the past few months and more than a quarter had their pay or hours reduced. Fifteen percent fell behind on their rent or mortgage at some point in the past year. More than half worry about being able to afford medical care for a sick family member and nearly four in ten are concerned about making house payments and heating their homes this winter.

Overall, eight-two percent saw their country as headed on the wrong track and fifty-four percent characterized its financial predicament a “crisis.” Whoops! again – the survey in question is not about China but rather the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll of the U.S. middle class.

Communism is not a form a government for which conservatives typically endorse emulation and yet Republican Senators have been following the Chinese lead of late as regards hostility to unions.

Following the scuttling of an auto industry bailout deal, when Republicans could not win sufficient “concessions” from the UAW, the Los Angeles Times published a memo it obtained, entitled “Action Alert – Auto Bailout,” and allegedly distributed among GOP Senators. The memo urged them to “stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it.”

During an interview, National Public Radio asked Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina to address the charges of union busting made against his Party. “Well, I’m not trying to get rid of the unions,” DeMint replied, “but I am saying that they appear to be an antiquated concept in today’s economy.”

“What I want to do is make sure we have jobs for [auto] workers and we have first-class American automobile companies,” DeMint went on to explain. “And we’re not going to do it with the barnacles of unionism wrapped around their necks.”

New York Times columnist William Kristol has been harshly critical of Republicans for failing to support the automotive bailout on this basis. “I don't think it's very smart for a bunch of Southern Republicans to decide that the future of the Republican Party is to beat up working class union members in states like Michigan, Indiana and Ohio,” he said on FOX News Sunday this past weekend.

That is good advice for conservatives, in my opinion. However, today’s Washington Post stories which highlight, presumably unintentionally, similarities between Chinese and U.S. middle classes, also hold a lesson for liberals pushing President-elect Obama to adopt protectionist trade policies.

The enemy here is poorly negotiated and under-regulated trade deals, not globalization in general. While America often drew short shrift during the global economic boom, it is all too clear that when economic times are tough they are equally tough all over. It matters not whether your markets are free or government-sponsored, whether your government is socialist, democratic, Islamic theocracy or right-wing dictatorship.

Recession in the U.S. results in Americans with fewer dollars to purchase Chinese imports. This hurts China’s economy and Chinese consumption, which, in turn, hurts U.S. exports.

This vicious cyclical nature of the downturn has caused more than a few countries to appreciate that for all its industry, technology, and natural resources, the United States is not boundless in its wealth and power. Economic policies regarding trade and other matters that consistently attempt to plunder its bounty only end up hurting everyone.

This growing realization by our trading partners presents our government with a unique opportunity to bargain in good faith with other nations to replace the unrestricted free trade of the past two decades with equitable fair trade.

Yet this can only happen if certain members of our own government find the self-honesty to reach similar conclusions about our country’s limitations and its role within the world. And, of course, they must understand that, like globalization, the real problem is poor bargaining by management with unions rather than the basic right of workers to organize.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

We have all heard by now that President Bush had a pair of shoes thrown at him by a Shi’ite journalist during an impromptu visit to Iraq. Bush might have been hurt, albeit trivially, had either of the podiatric projectiles connected with their intended targets. It has since emerged that the attacker, Muntadar al-Zeidi, intended insult on top of injury with his choice of weapon.

It turns out throwing shoes is a severe offense in Arab cultures. The Christian Science Monitor and Associated Press both describe it as a “sign of contempt,” characterizes it as a “grave show of disrespect,” and Reuters calls it the “supreme insult.”

For Arabs, the sole of the foot is the most unclean part of the body. Even pointing the soles of one’s shoes at another person’s head is considered insulting. Touching another person with the soles of one’s shoes is sufficient to set off a blood feud.

After the 1990 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had George Bush Senior’s face laid out in a tile mosaic at the entrance to Baghdad's Al-Rashid Hotel so people would trod on his visage with the soles of their shoes all day. When coalition forces toppled Hussein’s own Baghdad statue in April 2003, many spectators beat the statue’s face with the soles of their sandals. During an anti-American demonstration marking the four-year anniversary of Baghdad’s fall to coalition forces in April 2007, many in the crowds trampled on and struck U.S. flags painted on the ground with their shoes.

Three Muslim men taken captive and abused by U.S. troops in May 2004 equated being forced to place the soles of shoes in their mouths degrading as placing their fingers in their anuses and then licking them. Thus, an Arab reporter throwing his own shoes at President Bush is rather like a Western reporter throwing his own feces at him.

In some cases, the nature of insults is ubiquitous across cultures. Most non-Arabs would also find forced sucking on another person’s shoe as disgusting. Likewise, anything to do with defecation and sexual organs has generally offensive connotations in most polite societies.

Other times, the object of comparison in foreign insults lacks any point of reference to our Western sensibilities.

For example, in China it would not be a good idea to go around wearing a green hat or give one as a gift. During the Tang dynasty, green hats were part of the standard uniform for male brothel workers. As such, references to them can suggest a man’s wife is unfaithful or their father a person of less than great esteem.

The same is true for turtles. Since the females lay eggs, baby turtles never know their fathers. Of course, since many female turtles then abandon the nest and/or die, the babies usually do not know their mothers either, although this never comes into play for some reason. It is also unclear why the Chinese do not view other amphibians, as well as reptiles and birds, with similar disdain.

During his second inaugural, President Bush held up a fist with the forefinger and little finger extended – the “hook ’em horns” salute of the University of Texas Longhorns. If he had done so in Italy, he would be identifying himself as a cuckold. In Norway, he would be making the sign of the devil.

Likewise, giving an “OK” sign with forefinger meeting thumb in a circle to Greek or Portuguese emissaries is a sign that something is no good. Even worse, it would be comparing them to a part of their anatomy in Turkey, Malta, and Brazil. In Iran, a hearty “thumbs up” sign means, “Sit on this!”

Patting somebody on the head in many Asian countries is the ultimate physical taboo, as Buddhists consider the head the seat of the soul.

Blowing your nose into a handkerchief will likely mortally offend Japanese hosts, who consider it comparable to defecating in a napkin and then carrying it around in your pocket for the rest of the day.

Many in Africa or India will take similar offense if you eat with your fingers using your left hand. The right hand is the “clean hand.” The left hand is the “unclean hand” and is reserved for another basic physiological function separate from but initiated by eating.

On the other hand, so to speak, the worst offense for Scandinavians is when you look at your own feet rather than their eyes when drinking a toast together. Germans are not exactly insulted if you fail to down your drink in a single swallow but they do predict seven years of bad sex will follow. It makes a broken mirror sound almost desirable.

However, no linguist, anthropologist, or etiquette expert seems able to explain why the ultimate affront to a Bulgarian is to tell them, “You're as ugly as a salad.”

It is typical that insults, like many customs, have their roots in long-past relevancies that remain in common use, even if having lost their significance. However, I note that some insults have evolved out of our modern world.

For example, piss off a Finn sufficiently and they are liable to tell you to go “Piss on a transformer.”

However, for sheer imaginative imagery, my favorites have to be the Serbians. They have augmented traditional swears, such as “May you f__k a hedgehog,” with contemporary invective, such as “May your house be on CNN” (meaning “May NATO bomb your house”) and my personal favorite, “May God give you to search for your children with a Geiger counter.”

Bush understandably attempted to downplay the attack against him with reporters afterwards. He called it a “bizarre incident.” He insisted, “It doesn't bother me . . . I didn't feel the least threatened by it.” He even joked, “I didn't know what the guy said, but I saw his ‘sole’.”

These are all unremarkable, even admirable, reactions from our Western viewpoint. But precisely by failing to understand the unique insult of shoe throwing in Arab culture, Bush trivialized the attack and the reasons why it was made – “a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people . . . from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq” – in the eyes of many Iraqis and made the attacker into a national hero.

We have suffered from this failing in more significant settings far too often in the war on terror. We think we are leading the way when we have actually committed a grand faux pas and the international community is left shocked and breathlessly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In that sense, we need to become more culturally conscious when we attempt to engage with the world. When we tell foreign nations that we want to try walking a mile in their shoes and ask them to do the same with our own, we see ourselves as engaging in outreach. In some cases, we may have just issued a horrible affront.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Walking Away from Globalization

Republican and blue-dog Democratic Senators killed a $14 billion bailout package for the U.S. auto industry last night. The lawmakers in question insist the real villain in all this, unsurprisingly, is labor unions. The Senators wanted a guarantee from the United Auto Workers for wage cuts to bring their pay into line with U.S. plants of Japanese carmakers by the end of 2009. The UAW refused to do so before its current contract with automakers expires in 2011.

The collapse of the deal was probably fine with many conservative lawmakers, who believe Detroit’s sole hope is for the Big 3 automakers to declare bankruptcy and bust the unions altogether. They contend only free market forces will allow U.S. companies to be competitive in a free trade global economy.

Both sides lamented the deal’s collapse and each blamed the other for its failure. But, for me, the most insightful quote came from Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, the Banking Committee Chairman.

“In the midst of already deep and troubling economic times, we are about to add to that by walking away.”

Of course we are. It is how the United States government has been dealing with the global economy – in good times or bad – for the past thirty years. The Republicans preach that any government involvement in business is always bad; the market is always smarter, faster, and more efficient when left alone. Anything less than total deregulation and total noninvolvement is a slippery slope to big, costly, ineffective bureaucracy and – gasp! – socialism.

There is truth to that assertion if we are talking about managing day-to-day operations. However, there are broader economic factors within which businesses operate, and this is even truer in the era of globalization, which only government can address. Government may not be the tool to make things right in the long-term but it the only tool that can correct what is wrong in the here and now.

Government’s current non-involvement lies at the root of the problem. Conservative thought insisted that free trade would force the whole world to adopt capitalistic free markets or suffer the consequences. Quite the opposite actually occurred and our failure to recognize and adapt to this reality has brought us to the brink of folding ourselves.

Perhaps the conservatives have a point about government inefficiency because their politicians still adamantly avow the solution is not for us to either fight, reform, or adopt the state-sponsored version of capitalism practiced by most of the rest of the international community. Instead, they insist removing restrictions and directly exposing domestic business to raw market forces is the answer.

The call by Republicans and some Democrats for UAW “wage cuts” is pure crap. Hourly wages for UAW workers at GM factories are about equal to those paid by Toyota at its older U.S. factories, according to the companies. Per GM, the average UAW laborer makes $29.78 per hour. In comparison, Toyota says it pays about $30 per hour.

The real difference between the two groups is benefits, led by healthcare and pensions. (The latter is particularly significant, since foreign-owned U.S. auto plants are newer and have fewer retirees.) This drives total costs up to $69 per hour for UAW workers versus Toyota’s total cost of only $48 per hour.

So Senators do not want union workers to accept a market-competitive “fair wage.” Instead, they want them to gut their health benefits and pensions. These are not luxuries or premiums but rather basic comforts that all workers in a nation with a thriving economy should reasonably expect to earn. Many foreign workers need not win such basics from employers because their governments supply them.

In addition to providing workers with benefits, many foreign governments practice protectionism that our own government decries as anathema. The U.S. has become like the one kid in a class taking an exam fairly while all those around him are cheating. We have the satisfaction of feeling we are doing the right thing but it is not stopping us from flunking. Markets, I am afraid, are graded strictly on a curve.

Chinese exports registered their largest drop in nearly a decade last month. This shocked analysts, who expected a slowdown but not a reversal. Decreased U.S. imports of foreign automobile and auto parts led the decline, spurred by our current recession.

In spite of this, China’s trade surplus increased to $28 billion in the same period. The reason was simple enough. While exports fell 2.2 percent, Chinese imports took an even steeper drop, falling 17.9 percent. This meant weaker sales back home for commodities, such as corn, wheat and meat, and manufactured goods, including aircraft, semiconductors and heavy machinery.

The Chinese government exerted its control over industry and ordered its airlines not to buy new aircraft, as expected, because it anticipated less tourism. Their manipulation of the yuan is legendary, keeping it undervalued in relation to the dollar so that Chinese goods are less expensive for American consumers and U.S. products more expensive in China.

The Chinese government had allowed the yuan to appreciate against the dollar for many consecutive months and U.S. Treasury Secretary Paulson is urging them to maintain a strong currency. In recent weeks, however, the Chinese once again began forcing the value of the yuan to drop.

Analysts had hoped recession and high unemployment would result in less American spending on foreign goods, causing the trade deficit to fall from $56.6 billion in September to $53.5 billion in October. Instead, it rose to $57.2 billion.

Continued pushdowns on U.S. imports by China and other countries “is having a direct impact on top-line revenue growth at multinational corporations,” said Steven Ricchiuto, an economist at Mizuho Securities USA. “That is going to help exacerbate the layoff problem.”

“The trade deficit with China is not a product of market forces,” said Scott Paul, Executive Director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. “It is the result of Beijing’s mercantilist policies and Washington’s unwillingness to respond.”

The answer here is not Washington politicians using their power to quash U.S. labor unions. Instead, those same individuals need to open their eyes and step up to dealing with the realities underlying the powerful and intricate union that comprises the modern global economy.

Competitive markets are more important than free markets, fair trade is more important than free trade. There was a time when those things were equivalent but this is no longer that time.

We keep walking away from globalization in this country. We need to be driving at full speed to join it.

The U.S. auto industry would be a good place to start.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blag "the For Saler"

Vlad “the Impaler,” a Fifteenth Century Romanian prince, was so vile in the treatment of his subjects and political enemies – so shocking, so appalling in a seemingly insatiable vampiric lust for ever more fresh blood – that Bram Stoker used him as the model for his monster creation, Dracula. It now appears that modern U.S. politics has created it own monster, with the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich by federal authorities on corruption charges.

Illinois law stipulates that when a U.S. Senator from that state resigns their seat – as Barack Obama recently did in preparation to assume the Presidency – it falls to the Governor to appoint their replacement. A seventy-six page indictment contains hours of wiretapped conversations repeatedly demonstrating Blagojevich’s determination to auction off the appointment to the highest bidder.

Even long-time Chicago politicos, used to corruption and bribes within government, are amazed not only by the extent of Blagojevich’s dishonesty but also the brazenness by which he went about it.

He crowed his appointment power was a “golden” opportunity for him. He called the open Senate seat a “valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing.”

The Governor’s behavior was so outrageous it “would make Lincoln roll over in his grave”, according to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who brought the indictment. “Blagojevich put a ‘for sale’ sign on the naming of a United States Senator.”

Vlad the Impaler . . . meet Blag “the For Saler”.

Indeed, Blagojevich’s conduct was so bizarrely and blatantly uncharacteristic that those who know him speculate he is suffering from some type of mental breakdown.

“We're talking about something clinical here,” assert Don Rose, a longtime political strategist in Chicago. “This is beyond logic. It's beyond greed as we know it.”

Mike Jacobs, a Democratic State Senator and former friend of Blagojevich agrees. “I’m not sure he’s playing with a full deck anymore,” he said.

Blagojevich was fully aware his administration was the focus of a federal investigation involving an alleged $7 million scheme aimed at squeezing kickbacks out of companies seeking business from the state. Federal prosecutors were also investigating “serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud.” Tony Rezko, who raised money for Blagojevich, already faces jail time for fraud and other charges. Blagojevich's chief fundraiser, Christopher Kelly, is due to stand trial early next year on charges of obstructing the Internal Revenue Service.

What is more, Blagojevich openly dared authorities to monitor his conversations, vowing they would only hear him trying to help the citizens of Illinois. “I don't care whether you tape me privately or publicly,” he sniffed.

What he did not know is that Fitzgerald had already gotten permission to bug both Blagojevich’s campaign headquarters and private home phone.

There appears to be no involvement by President-elect Obama in Blagojevich’s schemes. In fact, the Governor gripped with obvious disgust at one point that naming Obama’s preference to fill his seat would not “give me anything except appreciation.”

Yet there is an unmistakable connection between Blagojevich and Obama. Blagojevich swept into office as a reformer and change agent, promising to clean up and correct the mistakes of his predecessor, the dismally corrupt administration of George Ryan. “Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, Illinois has voted for change,” he told a crowd at his victory party on election night in 2002.

Sounds familiar. So does this profile of Blagojevich by Susan Saulny in today’s New York Times. “As a young congressman representing the North Side of Chicago, [he] was pegged as a rising star with a populist touch. Undistinguished as a lawmaker but with proven likeability in and out of Chicago . . .”

Then again, Blagojevich appears to have (unintentionally) followed another Presidential model in addition to Obama. Political observers report the Governor rarely visits his offices in Chicago and Springfield, almost becoming a prison in his own home on the North Side. He increasingly cut himself off from the state legislature as well as his father-in-law and political mentor, Dick Mell, a powerful longtime Chicago alderman.

This combination of Obama’s flashiness and George W. Bush’s insularity created a self-sustaining feedback loop that blinded Blagojevich to his own self-destructive behavior, according to Kent Redfield, a Political Science Professor at the University of Illinois. He believes Blagojevich came into office believing he was destined for bigger things, and became tripped up by ambition and impatience.

Simple greed was a factor – “I want to make money,” Blagojevich explicitly declares in one taped conversation – but it goes beyond that. Blagojevich also wanted power, influence, and, above all, upward mobility, in exchange for a Senate appointment.

After six years in the Governor’s seat, he saw himself as “stuck” and unappreciated, with his image in desperate need of restoration. He desired not only wealth but also a high-profile job in the public or private sector, even an ambassadorship. He daydreamed about a Cabinet job (Secretary of Health and Human Services) in the Obama Administration and toyed with the idea of running for President in 2016.

Blagojevich planned to create his own stepping stone if nobody would provide one for him by appointing himself to the vacant Senate seat if none of the bribes he hoped to receive were sufficiently satisfying. “I'm going to keep this Senate option for me a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain.”

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has called for voters to choose Obama’s replacement by a special election, in case Blagojevich decides to blatantly fight the charges against him and remain in office.

In this event, “Certainly no self-respecting candidate should accept an appointment by Mr. Blagojevich” opines today’s lead editorial in the New York Times. Yet too much self-respect is exactly what got the Illinois Governor into his current mess. It is also behind President Bush making and then stubbornly sticking with his most regrettable decisions.

It is something for both Parties to think about, as first Republicans and subsequently Democrats begin casting about for “the next Obama” to win back or retain control of the White House. Whatever else he may accomplish, Obama has already set the bar very high regarding expectations for charismatic young politicians with Presidential ambitions. Blagojevich demonstrates the regrettable outcome when a black heart lies beneath the shiny facade.

It turned Blag “the Impatient” into Blag “the For Saler” and its insatiable vampiric lust for ever more fresh blood may soon turn him into Blag “the In Jailer.”

Monday, December 8, 2008

Valiant or Vigilante?

The Associated Press has taken note of an article, entitled “Mother Justice,” written by Christopher Ketcham in the January 2009 issue of Vanity Fair. It tells the story of Doreen Giuliano and her extraordinary efforts to save her son from a life behind bars for a murder conviction. The background of the case is as follows.

John Giuca was a twenty-year-old kid from Brooklyn with a high-school diploma and looks good enough to land him bit parts in several movies. He also had a history of questionable run-ins with police. He hung out with a tough crowd, self-styled as the “Ghetto Mafia.”

One night in 2003, Giuca met nineteen-year-old Mark Fisher during a party Giuca hosted while his parents were out of town. Fisher was found dead on the street nearby at 7 AM the next morning, shot five times and wrapped in a blanket owned by Giuca’s parents.

Giuca claimed he gave Fisher the blanket and offered him a place to sleep because he was drunk. He did not know why Fisher went outside or who shot him. The Brooklyn District Attorney maintained Giuca took offense at Fisher’s behavior during the party and gave fellow gang member Antonio Russo a .22-caliber handgun, ordering him “to go show that guy [Fisher] what's up.”

During Giuca’s and Russo’s trials, prosecutors produced four witnesses, each of whom told differing stories. One said Giuca confessed to him that he had directed Russo to commit the crime. Another said Giuca told her he had lent the gun to Russo but did not order the killing. Still another, a jailhouse informant, said Giuca admitted to pistol-whipping Fisher and standing by as one of his friends pulled the trigger.

The jury in the Russo case took two days to find him guilty as the triggerman, nearly deadlocking. Giuca’s jury took only two hours to convict him. Both defendants received twenty-five years to life in prison.

Doreen Giuliano, Giuca’s mother, sat in the courtroom listening, day after day, and what she heard did not add up to a guilty verdict. Giuliano found she could not let go of her misgivings. Over her husband’s initial objections and finally with his support and aid, she decided to “go undercover” and see if she could learn about possible inappropriate behavior among the jurors in her son’s trial.

Since most of her potential targets were men, the forty-six-year-old Giuliano set about to transform herself. She slimmed down at the gym, dyed her hair blonde, and acquired a tan and sexy wardrobe.

She assumed a fake identity, Dee Madison Quinn, a recent California transplant to Brooklyn, replete with a fake ID, phony business cards and a cell-phone account. Then Giuliano rented an apartment that she furnished sparsely but plausibly and there installed an expensive hidden recording device procured from an espionage-supply store in Manhattan.

After a couple false starts with other jurors, Giuliano honed in on Jason Allo, a thirty-one-year-old construction worker. Two things made her suspicious. During the trial, Giuliano’s brother reported he overheard Allo telling fellow jurors he really wanted to smoke a joint. That did not strike her as someone taking his responsibilities seriously. More significantly, she recognized him as someone she had previously seen in her neighborhood. If he knew her son, he should have been ineligible to serve as a juror.

Giuliano began riding a bike near places she knew Allo hung out. They soon met, seemingly by chance, and she charmed her way into a relationship with him.

A pattern emerged in which Giuliano invited Allo to her phony apartment, where she cooked him dinner and the two would talk and drink wine late into the night. She knew he liked pot, so she bought pot from him, bought pot for him, and smoked pot with him.

Their romantic involvement never escalated beyond flirting because Allo felt no strong sexual attraction to her. However, Giuliano is clear she would have done anything required to help win a new trial for her son.

Over many months, Giuliano learned three key things that called the appropriateness of Allo as a juror into question.

Allo admitted he knew Giuca by reputation and that he hung with a “bad gang,” despite filling out a pre-trial questionnaire in which he swore the defendant and witness were unknown to him. He defied the judge’s orders to avoid news coverage about the case and went out of his way to learn more about Giuca. Most important, his prior knowledge and the additional information he obtained had prejudiced him again Giuca.

Allo told Giuliano he had “been the first” to vote guilty, when many of the other jurors were still expressing doubts over the conflicting evidence. “Technically, by law, I shouldn’t have even been in that jury,” Allo bragged. And Giuliano got it all on tape.

At this point, Giuliano came out from undercover, hired a lawyer, and filed a motion demanding that the verdict in her son’s trial be set aside. The Brooklyn District Attorney is reviewing the motion.

The chances of ultimately overturning Giuca’s conviction remain slim but they would be nonexistent if not for his mother’s astounding efforts. That is at the core of the issues I see this story raising. No one can deny she is an amazingly dedicated parent but did she cross ethical and legal lines in her zeal to exonerate her son? I see several compelling issues arising from Giuliano’s motivations and actions.

First, there is the question whether Giuliano had the right to tape her conversations with Allo? The legal standard, as I understand it, allows recording public conversations because, by their nature, they are subject to others overhearing them, while private conversations, by their nature, require consent to be recorded.

In at least one instance, Giuliano got Allo to admit wrongdoing to another person, in addition to herself, at a bar. However, she recorded most of his confessions at her apartment when they were alone together.

New York is among the thirty-eight states that allow single-party consent to tape a private conversation. Giuliano’s lawyer insists she “had a right to record those conversations” under state law.

It is beyond dispute that Allo conducted himself unethically, perhaps criminally, as a juror but I wonder if his lawyers could make a plausible argument that Giuliano did the same obtaining information from him. The objection here is not the presence of a wire as a violation of privacy but the degree to which Giuliano went to create an atmosphere of intimacy and trust between them.

She spent months plying Allo with food, alcohol, and drugs, as well as sympathetic personna, to create the illusion of herself as a sounding board. He told her things not simply because they were alone but because he saw her as loyal to his confidences.

“I'll tell you this but I would never tell anybody else,” he began when he first opened up to her about his misbehavior as a juror.

There is also Giuliano’s use of sex as a lever to obtain information. Allo may well have been more willing to strike up a friendship with an older but sexy “party girl” – the image Giuliano assumed – rather than with an sympathetic mother figure but this also calls into question how much more he might have engaged in bragging and exaggeration about his jury exploits. Although he did not want to sleep with Giuliano, there was sexual tension between them. He clearly enjoyed and felt flattered by her attentions to him.

Much of the objections raised above can be countered by pointing out they are no different from methods routinely used by undercover police officers. This is true but raises the second serious issue in this affair. Did Giuliano cross the line from investigation into vigilantism with her pursuit of jurors?

Granted, she did not start from a desire to extract vengeance on Allo but she was determined to override the guilty verdict obtained by authorities. In some ways, the non- specific nature of her suspicions makes the extensiveness and fanaticism of her measures unusually unsettling. Were her attempts to win another trial for her son motivated by a desire for justice or to circumvent justice by any means necessary? The results she obtained were serendipitously fortunate for her cause but did they justify her means?

Giuliano said there was nothing she would not do and her actions appear to bear out her commitment on this point. How far might she have gone? The possibilities here are not limited to how much she did or might have harmed Allo or anyone else in her quest, physically or psychologically, but include her own welfare too.

A third issue is that Allo is not the sole reason for Giuca’s conviction. Eleven other assumedly unbiased jurors voted against him too. During closing arguments, the District Attorney argued, “This case begins, continues, and ends with John Giuca. All roads in this case lead back to this defendant. If it were not for this defendant, Mark Fisher would still be alive today.”

If Giuca gave Russo a gun or told him to murder Fisher or both, then he is guilty of far more serious wrongdoing than Allo lying on a pre-trial questionnaire and deserves to remain in prison. Given the publicity generated by this case and sympathy felt toward Giuliano, Giuca might receive as much positive jury bias at retrial as he did negative bias from Allo the first time around. It would be unfortunate should he win release in a retrial based on this, rather than the facts of his case.

Finally, the crux of Giuliano’s evidence is that Allo committed misdeeds while attempting to judge the guilt or innocence of her son. Turnabout is fair play. Should the Brooklyn D.A. charge Giuliano with possession of marijuana, since she admits to purchasing it and smoking it with Allo during the course of her sting operation?

The bottom line is that Allo admitted to biased behavior as a juror and this ought to be enough to win Giuca a new trial. Giuliano should feel happiness for her son’s second chance and pride in her ability to prevail against daunting odds. Then, she ought to seek psychological help dealing with what is an understandably stressful ongoing event in her life. Despite the eventual validation of her suspicions, she proceeded more from a sense of obsession than objectivity, more under a force of compulsion than control.

Getting the right treatment/support might turn out to be especially critical for Giuliano if Giuca fails to receive a second trial or is given one and then loses it as well. How will she ever be able to finally let go and find acceptance, given the exceptional degree to which vindicating her son has already driven her?

Perhaps there is yet one more issue to consider. The question will inevitably arise whether this yet another empowered woman being denigrated when she ought to be congratulated, especially since she used her own sexuality as a means to bring down a male target? Would anyone raise similar issues to the ones I have in this post about a father driven to similar ends and employing similar means?

I have to admit that I think there is a good chance a man might not be subject to the same scrutiny and culpability. However, I must counter in response that shouldn’t he ought to be? I think the answer to that question is “yes.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Luxury of Giving

“Greed is good,” as Michael Douglas’s character reassures a room of sycophantic followers in the film Wall Street. And he is correct in his pronouncement. In our capitalist society, enlightened self-interest is the catalyst for everything, including “the upward surge of mankind.” Yet the positive qualities imbued in the noun form of this particular word fail to carry to the adjective form. While many may perceive “greed” as good, nobody finds anything honorable about “greedy.”

The current issue of Newsweek reports on yet another troubled American industry – the luxury industry. Have the affluent been hit as hard as the rest of us by the financial crisis? The short answer is “no.” We are talking about individuals whose personal wealth is so great they can afford to lose millions – sometimes even hundreds of millions or billions – in the market on a given day without requiring the slightest adjustment to their lifestyles.

There is a relationship between the sudden downturn in luxury purchases and the bad economy but the spending cutoff is voluntary. The wealthy are suffering from the phenomenon of “luxury shame.”

“I could walk downstairs now and buy a Ferrari,” says multimillionaire Michael Hirtenstein. “But all of my friends are hurting. I don't feel like buying random toys.”

“Would I go out and buy something showy? Not at a time like this,” agrees one of Hollywood's richest moguls. “It would be like bragging.”

In the current recession, it strikes the rich as vulgar to flaunt their personal capacity for luxury. Yet as G.K. Chesterton once wryly observed, “The vulgar man is always the most distinguished, for the very desire to be distinguished is vulgar.” We are all the products of a society that worships material possessions and in which everyone struggles for their fifteen minutes of fame.

The Newsweek article quotes Coco Chanel, yesteryear’s leading light of fashion, who once told Life magazine in 1957, “Luxury lies not in richness and ornateness but in the absence of vulgarity.”

Chanel draws an interesting comparison. The English words “vulgar” and “luxury” both originated in the Fourteenth Century. However, while the former started with a neutral connotation and shifted to a negative one, the latter began as a negative and slowly morphed to a neutral, even positive, meaning.

“Vulgar” comes from the Latin vulgāris, meaning “from the common people or ordinary classes.” It kept this simple meaning for several centuries, only taking on the negative associations of rudeness and boorishness in the Seventeenth Century.

“Luxury” comes from the Latin luxuria, meaning “excess.” Its original use was to suggest lasciviousness or sinful self-indulgence. It lost this denotation in the Seventeenth Century and instead began describing something costly. By the Eighteenth Century, it settled on its current common form, meaning a pleasure beyond life’s necessities.

Americans have long viewed achieving excess wealth enabling one to live a luxurious lifestyle as a virtue. In Europe, poorer classes historically saw resources and opportunities as limited and thus viewed the wealthy has having acquired their disproportionate shares of both by iniquitous means. The United States, with seemingly limitless resources and opportunities, not to mention cutting-edge technologies, bred a completely new mindset, in which growth improved the fortunes of all.

The wealthy generally win admiration in the U.S. for their diligence, productivity, and financial prudence precisely because poorer classes see themselves as capable of aspiring to the same. This attitude has begun shifting in recent decades, due to the concentration of wealth.

Since the 1980s, most of our economy’s net financial gains have flowed to the richest five percent of Americans. Even the majority of this goes to the richest one percent and more than half goes to the richest one-tenth of one percent. According to the Census Bureau, the top tenth of U.S. households now earn an average of 11.2 times what those in the bottom tenth make, up from a ratio of 8.7 thirty years ago. The wealthiest fifth of U.S. households now take in fifty percent of all income, up from forty-four percent.

“The income gap between the rich and the rest of the U.S. population has become so wide and is growing so fast that it might eventually threaten the stability of democratic capitalism itself,” warned former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in 2005.

As a result, arguments that taxation stifles creativity and growth as well as limiting opportunities, now has less impact on middle and working-class Americans. An April Gallup poll found sixty-eight percent believe in a more fair distribution of money and wealth. What is more, fifty-one percent support heavy taxes on the rich to redistribute wealth. A 2003 survey of U.S. economists found most endorse policies resulting in redistribution of wealth.

In trying to resolve the seemingly conflicting observations of Chanel and Chesterton, it becomes apparent that less important than how much wealth a person has is how they choose to use their wealth. After all, only a finite amount is required to satisfy one’s basic physiological needs. People also have socialization and self-actualization needs and luxury purchases create an aura of distinction that fills them.

People also spend wealth to the benefit of the greater good. Most people do not object to a national defense budget, although they often quibble over exact amounts, because this satisfies our common need for safety. Likewise, spending and investment by the wealthy can help provide opportunities for others.

Nonetheless, something else has changed over the past thirty years as well. If pursuing opportunities and wealth through one’s own initiative and efforts has always earned admiration, it has lately become disreputable to the point of taboo providing opportunity for others, save through the auspices of the market. Turning Barack Obama’s remark to Joe the Plumber about “sharing the wealth” into accusations of socialism by his political opponents is the most recent high-profile example.

It was not always so. When oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller decided to put his vast fortune to public use, he created the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913 with two gifts totaling $100 million. That organization led the way in the eradication of hookworm in the South, helping pave the way for the region's economic development. It supported scientific research that led to a yellow-fever vaccine. It helped Brazil eliminate a malaria-transmitting strain of mosquito. It funded the Asian Green Revolution, which enabled India and other countries to escape endless cycles of famine and poverty.

Nor are all such efforts gone today. Bill and Melinda Gates, backed by more than $30 billion of their own funds and an additional $31 billion of Warren Buffett's, seek to exploit technological breakthroughs to end extreme poverty on a global basis in such areas as healthcare, agriculture, and water. George Soros funded efforts in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union that helped bring about the end of communism. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin want to employ information technologies to benefit society.

This is not merely charity but also transformative change. Unfortunately, conservatives are as likely to meet contemporary billionaire altruism with jeers as with cheers. When the aim is feeding and nursing impoverished children, all is well. When the focus turns to ensuring the parents of those children have jobs with good wages and benefits, support turns to skepticism. Change the funding method from charity to taxation and outright hostility ensues.

Many Baby Boomers aspire to the moral fiber of their “Greatest Generation” parents. That generation forged its character through the shared sacrifices of the Great Depression and World War II.

Boomers have largely thrown away the opportunity for such sacrifice in our most recent wars. The economic downturn presents another opportunity and we need better advice from our leaders than the Bush Administration’s pathetic admonitions to display our patriotism through conspicuous consumption.

President-elect Obama has proposed a far-reaching set of programs to repair and expand inadequate infrastructure and convert the U.S. to a green energy economy. The expense is great, estimated to cost from $200 to $500 billion.

Under a traditional, jingoist mindset, this will be catalyzed by struggling but brilliant and diligent individuals, working in garages, basements, ill-equipped laboratories, and obsolete factories. Imagine how much more could be done and how much more quickly, if this creativity and can-do spirit received funding from the wealthy, vigilantly collected and funneled to the right places by the federal government. According to Forbes magazine, there are nearly a thousand billionaires in the world, with an estimated combined wealth of $3.5 trillion.

Granted, it is a long evolution from “luxury shame” – a temporary condition that has occurred previously, only to see Americans return to their profligate ways – to a transformative social change that re-embraces the lost virtue of shared sacrifice. Still, it is a start and it draws upon a deeper wisdom in the American consciousness.

It is the wisdom embodied by John Crisp of Del Mar College in Corpus Christi Texas. He holds societies to be more than collections of individuals, each competing for the greatest wealth. “A society can also be rich or poor as a whole, and its economic health depends on its attitude toward the wealth that it holds in common; that is, its natural resources and the labor and ingenuity of ordinary people. Without these . . . no one in our culture could be rich.”

It is the wisdom that allowed Andrew Carnegie to write presciently in 1889 that “the day is not far distant when the man who dies leaving behind him millions of available wealth, which was free for him to administer during life, will pass away unwept, unhonored, and unsung.”

It is the wisdom that caused FDR to observe in the 1930s, “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”

But perhaps the best wisdom that brings home Chanel’s distinction of luxury as the opposite of poverty comes from a fellow woman, Mary Ann Evans (a.k.a. George Eliot), who exclaimed in her epic 1872 novel Middlemarch, “One must be poor to truly appreciate the luxury of giving!”

Let this nation use the luxuries given us for the betterment of the world as our chosen mark of distinction upon history.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Lessons From and For Mumbai

The lesson for the United States from Mumbai India is that the specter of terrorism never rests, even during a world economic crisis. Yet contemporary U.S. history regarding terrorism holds valuable lessons for both India and Pakistan in their immediate crisis.

Some are already calling these attacks the “September 11 of India” and with good reason. A mere nine or ten men, armed with automatic weapons, carried out a rampage that lasted three days and ended with one hundred seventy-two dead and two hundred thirty-nine wounded.

The one terrorist captured by India police, Pakistani national Azam Amir Kasab, claimed he and his comrades received commando-style training in a camp run by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group. Kasab further claimed the group launched their operations, via boat, from the Pakistan port city of Karachi.

These revelations led to heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, despite recent concord between the two nations following a long-standing bitter dispute over the border province of Kashmir.

India has three lessons to learn from the United States. The first is that terrorists do not succeed because homeland security cannot prevent attacks by a well-prepared commando cell. Al-Qaida succeeded on September 11 because the U.S. was ill prepared, not the least of which was the inability of most citizens to even imagine a crime of such magnitude.

Likewise, the lack of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since then has less to do with wars in Afghanistan or Iraq and more with better homeland security. This includes significant security restrictions for commercial airline flights as well as general increased vigilance by most Americans, albeit sometimes at the cost of (unintentional) racist profiling against young Arabic-looking men.

Granted, the attackers of Mumbai clearly knew what they were doing. Upon entering the city, they quickly fanned out in small groups of two or three. They attacked numerous secondary targets as diversions, in order to allow them to converge on their three primary targets – a Jewish center and two luxury hotels.

Yet much of the relative ease with which they struck Mumbai was due to the woeful lack of preparedness among its security forces, sometimes shockingly so.

The terrorists infiltrated the city not by land but by sea, along India’s poorly guarded coast. Their landing spot at a fishing colony near Badhwar Park was well chosen. “It's a slum area. We didn't think to protect it,” admitted a police officer.

Once the shooting began, city police, the first responders, had mainly batons or antiquated rifles as weapons. They wore ill-fitting bulletproof vests, improperly fastened, that terrorist bullets easily penetrated. Few had two-way radios to communicate.

Despite a population of eighteen million, Mumbai lacked a SWAT team. The nearest such unit, the National Security Guards in New Delhi, took nearly ten hours to reach the scene once contacted. Even these commandos lacked proper equipment, such as night vision goggles and thermal sensors that would have allowed them to locate the hostages and gunmen inside buildings. As a result, their sorties against the terrorist strongholds were arduously slow and costly, rather than swift and effective.

The bottom line – “These guys could do it next week again in Mumbai and our responses would be exactly the same,” said Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. India must fix its home defenses before going on the offense.

The second lesson for India from recent U.S. experience is to understand the terrorist’s true motivations. Al-Qaida did not pick its targets on September 11 for reasons so simplistic as “they hate our freedoms.” Instead, Washington D.C. and New York, in particular, were selected because they represented the epitome of what Islamic fundamentalists see as the worst of the West’s vices and excesses.

Similarly, terrorists have targeted Mumbai frequently because, like New York, it is a highly cosmopolitan city, in which people satisfy and indulge their wants and needs both openly and with little remorse. This does not excuse the terrorists for their crimes but it is foolish to believe we can combat the sources of extremist-inspired violence and reform its (potential) practitioners without correctly understanding the true nature of their discontents and motivations.

The third lesson for India from the U.S. is to avoid confusing threat containment with a desire for vengeance. Terrorists trained in Pakistan are a serious situation that warrants further investigation and possible response. However, they are not necessarily synonymous with state-sponsored terrorism against India by Pakistan.

It is common knowledge the Pakistani intelligence service first created Lashkar-e-Taiba to help fight India in Kashmir Province. However, Pakistan also banned the organization in 2002 after the U.S. and Britain listed it as a terrorist group.

Although subsequently emerging under another name, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, this faction has denied links to the Mumbai attack. The possibility of a splinter group, separate from Pakistan control or proxy is not beyond question.

What is more, even in its grief and outrage, India must look hard within during its investigations. As the subway bombers in Great Britain demonstrate, foreign extremists may be the catalysts but terrorists are all too often homegrown creations. India has a population of 140 million Muslims, many of whom suffer from under-representation at economic, political and social levels, leaving them disaffected and vulnerable to manipulation.

The fact that at least some of the terrorists spoke Hindi suggests they may have lived in India for some time at a minimum.

There are lessons for Pakistan too. The first comes from Iraq and involves the need for candidness and cooperation. Despite public outcry, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has so far shown gratifying restraint by not formally connecting Pakistan’s government to the attacks or launching retaliatory measures against it.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, dispatched by President Bush to help mediate the situation, warned Pakistan to provide complete cooperation with India’s investigations. Pakistan’s initial response was equally gratifying, promising to send the new chief of their powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, to India.

Unfortunately, Pakistan quickly withdrew their offer and announced a lower-level intelligence official would go to India “at some point.” Since then, they have taken to sputtering defensive denials. “We have demanded evidence of the complicity of any Pakistani group. No evidence has yet been provided,” said a spokesman for Pakistani President Asif Zardari.

Pakistan may be as innocent as it claims but that only increases the need for its openness, no mater how hostile India’s posturing. Failure to assist investigations, regardless of where they may lead, will only cause the international community to look upon Pakistan skeptically and perhaps even provocatively.

The second lesson for Pakistan comes from the U.S. and involves not losing sight of the real enemy through the diversion of a second (unnecessary) war. Despite ongoing efforts there, the U.S. practically deserted Afghanistan in order to divert troops to Iraq. If Pakistan increases troop levels at their border with India, it only comes at the cost of weakening the troops attempting to root out and destroy Taliban and al-Qaida forces on their border with Afghanistan.

In the high emotions of coming days following the Mumbai massacre, India must shore up its defenses as well as practice fairness and restraint, while Pakistan must practice transparency and cooperation. The United States and Iraq both failed in our own practice of these roles during UN weapons inspections, at great cost to both nations.

If investigations reveal the Pakistan government had a formal, official role in these attacks, a very new situation will emerge, requiring a very different type and level of response by India and the U.S. as it’s ally.

However, while such worse-case scenarios remain speculation rather than proven fact, it is better to proceed with the model put forth by Princeton professor and former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach, who holds we must consider the Mumbai attack “not as an act of war but as an act of barbarism.” These two long-standing adversaries now share a common enemy. They must team up to defeat it rather than fight among themselves.

There is no better example than the lesson of the U.S. in Iraq to demonstrate that obliterating even a genuinely evil regime results in few gains, dearly paid for, when it causes us to lose sight of the core battle.