The Deaths of Innocents: How to Understand “Collateral Damage”

Today, TransEx guest blogger Robert Prasch weighs in on the moral debate over the ethics of  US-led drone strikes and “unintended” casualties. He offers a provocative analogy that sheds some insight on the rhetoric of collateral damage.

 

Robert E. Prasch

By Robert E. Prasch

The devastating massacre that took place a few short weeks ago in Newtown moved hearts across the world.  It also rekindled several debates, one of which had  to do with the contrast between the West’s – fully understandable — horror at the mass death of children in Newtown, and the striking absence of an emotional response to the deaths of children “mistakenly” killed in U.S.-directed drone strikes.  This debate has received a significant amount of attention in the blogosphere, and less attention in the overseas press.  It has not been taken up at all by the United States mainstream press.  Moreover, in contrast to gun control, no major political party is interested in curtailing the United States’ several drone wars, despite its highly dubious ethical and legal foundations.

This debate turns, then, on how we in the West perceive the violent deaths of these non-Western children.  Two possible answers emerge.  The first is to maintain that “their” children simply aren’t worth that much anyway.  Hence, their deaths are insufficient grounds for concern.  It is a racist perspective, but it is consistent.  The second answer agrees that the violent death of any child, anywhere, is an equally terrible tragedy, as Falguni Sheth and Glenn Greenwald have argued.  Yet, many holding this view also contend that while they would agree that a tragedy occurred in Newtown, a similar moral status should not be ascribed to the many children who are the “accidental” casualties—even when these are the routine and predictable consequence of drone strikes.  To this line of thinking, the perception that a tragedy has occurred must turn upon the context of the death of the child and the motivation behind the killing.  The mere fact that one or more children have died by violence is insufficient to establish that a tragedy has occurred.  Consequently, the name ‘Adam Lanza’ is reviled for being the perpetrator of the Newtown massacre, but to suggest anything even remotely like a similar condemnation of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is to associate oneself with a “lunatic fringe.”  Why is that?

The oft-repeated answer is that Adam Lanza intended to massacre children, whereas the approximately 200 children killed by President Barack Obama’s predator drone strikes were inadvertent.  In the military parlance that has been all-too-willingly adopted in this country, the latter were collateral damage (even when the term does not legally describe CIA-led drone strikes).  This answer suggests that the mere fact of a child’s death should have little relevance in our evaluation of the ethics of an action taken if killing a child was not the set priority of the person taking that action.  It just happened.  Bummer.

As an aside, I would, like to believe that even those who support the predator drone program might want the president to apologize, or at least offer condolences, to the families who have lost children in these strikes (Please do not tell me that he has not done so because the program is “secret.” Most people living outside the US know exactly which government is organizing and executing these attacks).

Let’s return to the ethical calculation implicit in the ascription of the deaths of 200 children to collateral damage:  To highlight the salient characteristics, I will draw upon an analogy:  the decision to use a pharmaceutical drug.  We have all been exposed to the advertising of drugs that – we are told — can cure one or more ailments.  We are also aware that each drug advertisement concludes with a list of warnings about known “side-effects.”  However, as a matter of simple biology, drugs do not have “side-effects.”  They only have “effects.”  Calling the positive outcomes “effects,” and the bad outcomes “side effects,” is simply a spin by the drug manufacturer’s marketing department that is designed to appeal to our hopes of a positive result.

In an organism as complex as the human body, the effects of a drug are probabilistic.  That is to say that, after an adequate number of clinical trials, researchers can acquire a defensible estimate that a given drug–let us call it N–will have the effects A, B, and C, with the probabilities x, y, and z.  Let us suppose that effect A, which occurs with probability x, is a highly desirable outcome.  Perhaps it can save a patient from death by heart disease.  However, as mature and informed adults, we also understand that if drug N is used often enough, by enough people, the undesirable effects B and C will occur with probabilities y and z.  This latter reality is the basis for the government-mandated warnings on TV (Obviously, any given person using N might be “lucky” and only experience A, or they might be “unlucky” and only experience B and C without the benefit of A occurring).

Every society and adult considering the use of N must weigh the benefit of A, subject to the probability of it occurring, against the risk-adjusted damage to society and ourselves that may be anticipated in the event that B and/or C occurs.  In some cases, such as curing a heart condition, we may calculate that the risk is worth taking.  But what if A is simply a cure for teenage acne?  We may decide that the risks outweigh the benefits, although we can be sure that teenagers, famously known for undervaluing risks, will protest.

Drawing upon the above, let us return to the matter of missiles launched by predator drones into someone else’s country.  Even if we assume (although we have little reason to do so) that such strikes support good outcomes, it’s still the case that – as with the drug described above – the destruction wreaked by these missiles cannot be nicely codified into intended targets (good) and collateral damage (bad).  On the contrary, they destroy everything and everyone around them upon detonation.  Period.  In a manner parallel to a drug company’s sales pitch, the U.S. government classifies some deaths as “good” if it exclusively kills “targeted terrorists” (how this term has come to encompass all military age males has been much discussed by others).  Anyone else killed, whether a group en route to a wedding party or children who happened to be nearby, are subject to a cover-up or labeled “collateral damage.”

The difficulty with this naïve classification is that we now – for better or worse — have observed an enormous number of missile strikes, so we have a good idea of the likely distribution of effects.  Even if we accept the government’s own classification which, as we know, is overwhelmingly biased against concluding that innocents died (again, assuming that the government has legitimate grounds to conduct these attacks), then we must acknowledge that those ordering further attacks have found the death rate of innocent persons and other people’s children to be within the zone of predictable but tolerable outcomes.  Why tolerable?  Because we have enough information to estimate the rate of innocent deaths to be expected per-missile-launched and the program is still continuing.  It follows that such a calculation has been made, if only implicitly, and the calculus – at least to those making the decision – has been found to be within an acceptable range.

I also want to highlight an important disanalogy with the pharmacological example given above.  If I decide to ingest drug N in the hopes of effect A, but end up suffering from results B and C, the decision and its consequences all accrue to me and those who care about me.  A most notable quality of the drone program is that its benefits (if any) accrue almost exclusively to Americans, while the associated costs and risks (which are known to be substantial) are being borne almost exclusively by “Foreign Others.”  Moreover, it is not a stretch to suppose that these latter persons may not wish to live every minute of every day worrying about the chances that someone very far away – oops! – mistook the “disposition” of themselves or their loved ones to be correlated with actual or potential hostility towards a faraway nation. (Also neglected by the Administration and the mainstream media is any consideration that the hostility of the communities being bombed may grow in tandem with the size and duration of this missile program).

In light of the above, American citizens have a right to know the explicit or implicit formula that validates the “costs” of killing a certain number of other people’s children per-missile-launched as weighed against the (presumptive) “benefits” of killing a certain number of persons who have exhibited a subset of the as-yet-still-secret “dispositions.”  The contours of this calculus are something that should be, at a minimum, the subject of a substantial public discussion and full accounting by the highest echelons of our government.  Are four persons of “bad disposition” worth the life of one innocent child?  Is the break-even number six?  Perhaps it is ten?   We are entitled to this answer and its underlying logic.

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The Business of Health Insurance and “Obamacare”: What Can We Expect?

Pretty dangerous to be over at Hofstra last night; there were alot of reckless numbers and false statements flying around.  I’m sure there are plenty of excellent rehashes that will be posted, if they haven’t been already. So instead of rehashing the spectacle or valorizing the aggression, I’m just going to post a relevant piece by TransEx‘s very own Robert E. Prasch, who also blogs at New Economics Perspectives and Huffington Post.

Prasch breaks down the myth that Obamacare is about health-care reform. Originally posted over at New Economic Perspectives (the website for the Kansas City School of Economics) yesterday, his column is a clear description of what the ACA in fact is.  It can be printed out and put in your back pocket for easy reference the next time you run across Nicholas Kristof or Andrew Sullivan. Check it out.

And if you want to read some other analyses by Prasch on some of the issues discussed during the debate, links are below.

By Robert E. Prasch

Over the past couple of years there has been considerable back-and-forth over what has been accomplished by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA).  While a short post cannot survey the entirety of this multifaceted law, several elementary confusions have been repeated in public discussions and should be addressed in the interest of clarification.  The most urgent of these is to point out that, despite the Act’s (deliberately misleading?) title, it addresses neither the practice of medicine nor its cost.  At most a government-sponsored institute has been authorized to find and make suggestions.  The Act, then, is not about making health care affordable, but an effort to make health-care insurance affordable – a related but separate topic.  To understand the implications of this, we must consider the business of health insurance.

Private Health Insurance is a Business

The health insurance business is–it cannot be overemphasized–a business.  While its advertising may suggest otherwise, we would do well to remember that business differs from charity in ways that matter.  Being private for-profit businesses, health insurance companies are engaged in the pursuit of profit.  If the health insurer is a corporation, and many of them are, their profits are expected to show steady growth over time so as to satisfy “Wall Street expectations.”  This is not always easy, and firms must be vigilant if they are to achieve these targets.  As is the case for any and all businesses, revenues must be greater than expenses if health insurance companies are to show a profit.  Without profits they will soon cease to exist.  But before this occurs, senior management will be fired.  As they understand this, we should expect these managers to make every effort to avoid this outcome. None of this, it should be noted, implies that health insurers are more or less moral than other firms.  Business is business.  With that point cleared up, let us turn to specifics.

The revenues of health insurers come from customer premiums and the returns on their portfolio of earlier premiums that have been invested.  Their usual portfolio can vary, but it generally consists of government and corporate bonds (about 65%), corporate stock (about 10%), mortgages (including some mortgage-backed securities), cash and other liquid items, and other assets.  Expenses can be broken down into essentially three components.  The first includes all marketing costs, paperwork, and related overheads.  The second is wages for workers and bonuses for bosses.  The third, and by far the largest expense, is the payment of claims.

From the above list it is evident that insurance company profits can rise in one of four ways: (1) revenues from current premiums or past investments can rise (which may imply higher premiums and/or riskier investments),  (2) marketing, paperwork and overhead costs can be reduced, (3) wages and bonuses can be reduced, or (4) payments for claims can be reduced (or at least rise more slowly than revenues).

Given that the payment of claims are, by far, an insurance company’s largest single expense, it is reasonable to suppose that they will work diligently to control or even reduce them.  To this end, they hire staff to negotiate with hospitals and others over the appropriate charges for services provided.  Similarly, they employ a staff to direct customers into lower cost options, assert that the “normal and standard cost” for a given procedure is lower than the bill presented (which means that the patient must shoulder a disproportionate share of the payment even if their insurance contract suggests that they always pay a fixed percentage), or find some grounds to decline care altogether which in the past has included finding grounds for cancelling the policy.

For patients and their families, these cost-reducing decisions can be, as innumerable stories and research has shown, medically and financially devastating.  It is clear to everyone with a beating heart that these – essentially business decisions — are fraught with moral implications.  Yet, of necessity, insurance companies must think of them as part of their normal business operations.  One is reminded of the cliché line uttered by mafia movie assassins, “Sorry man, it ain’t personal, its just business.”

This difference in perspective raises a crucial observation.  Every society must decide, by some process, how goods and services are to be distributed amongst the population.  Most of us would agree that some items, such as ice cream or the vagaries of current fashions in clothing, are best left to markets.  The difficulty, and this is the largely unmentioned issue, is that most of us also believe that decisions fraught with profound moral implications – such as life and death — should not be left to the vagaries of the market.

If this supposition is correct, then the problem with privately-provided health insurance is less with the specific performance of the firms involved than with the fact that many, if not most, of us consider basic health care to be closer to a right than a commodity to be distributed according to the contingencies of price and income.  As such, we find the normal business decisions of health insurance firms, decisions that are necessary and essential to their business operations, to be at best amoral if not immoral.  That people are awarded bonuses for denying care to people they have not met, and on the basis of little more than a cursory look at a chart and some statistics based on national averages, strikes most people as wrong.  Again, if this were the market for ice cream or fashionable clothing, our response to the cost control efforts of for-profit health insurance companies would be very different.  But it is evident that firms are routinely making decisions that are fraught with the deepest moral significance.

Obamacare: What Does It Do?

As mentioned, when reading popular discussions, blogs, and more than a few newspapers, one is left with the impression that many people are confused about the distinction between health care and health insurance.  Stated simply, the PPACA does not grant anyone, anywhere, a guarantee of adequate health care.  The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute that has been founded as part of the Act may, at best, fund investigations designed to uncover and publicize inefficiencies in the delivery and cost of health care.  But they cannot mandate changed practices.  At best, these revelations can be accompanied by exhortatory language.  Someone, somewhere, somehow, is then supposed to do something.

What PPACA does do is require that every American find a way to acquire health insurance.  Most likely, as in Massachusetts, this will be enforced through the tax code.  This suggests that those without health insurance will have to pay for insurance out of pocket and then await compensation in the form of a tax rebate.  If this is indeed the plan, it should raise important questions concerning the liquidity or credit-worthiness of America’s poorer households and the many well-known issues surrounding predatory lending that were not addressed in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.

Perhaps it is obvious, but it also needs to be stated, that on its own the health insurance mandate modifies neither the incentives nor the profit motives of private health insurers.  That said, some useful changes are embodied in the Act.  For example, in exchange for the law’s producing just under 50 million new health insurance customers through its mandate, health insurance companies will be required to spend 80-85% of the premiums they receive (depending upon the firm’s size) paying for health care and, additionally, to cease terminating contracts after the disclosure or revelation of “pre-existing conditions.”  Now, with the additional revenues anticipated from millions of new customers, the first of these requirements may or may not prove to be an imposition.  I would, however, caution everyone to be wary of the accounting rules used in calculating what is known in the industry as the Medical Loss Ratio.  It is often, and correctly, said that the devil is in the details (this is especially the case when an industry can employ legions of lobbyists).

As to the second requirement, it speaks only to the grounds by which a proposed course of care may be refused.  Let us consider the problem logically and from the perspective of a profit-seeking firm.  If there are potentially grounds, from A to Z, by which to deny or modify a proposed course of care, and grounds A are excluded, that still leaves grounds B to Z.  Perhaps none will be found applicable and the care in question will be duly authorized.  But perhaps alternative grounds can be identified, and it should be evident that the incentive to find such grounds remains.  Maybe the insurance company will find the course of care proposed by a patient’s doctor to be “overly experimental” or “unlikely to be effective” in light of statistics based on national averages that they may have on hand but whose source or author they will refuse to disclosure (believe me, I have tried).  Alternatively, they may declare that the “normal and standard cost” of the course of care proposed is one-half of what the hospital charges, thereby forcing a family to “chose” between a course of care and penury.  These problems can be expected to remain.

According to the American Journal of Medicine, 62% of all the people who declared bankruptcy in the year prior to the financial crisis, 2007, were ruined by an illness they could not afford.  Worse, the majority of those who declared bankruptcy that year were covered by heath insurance.  Stated simply, health insurance, even assuming that it actually becomes affordable to everyone, will not end of the dread of financial ruin in the event of a severe illness.

This brings us to the matter of the how much assistance will be provided to help families meet the mandate.  We are told that everyone up to 400% of the poverty level will be eligible for a subsidy (based on a sliding scale).  Given the current political environment, with its bi-partisan vogue in favor of austerity, I will leave it to the reader to speculate whether or not these subsidies will remain adequate as health costs and thereby health insurance premiums continue to rise.  We can be certain, however, that the mandate will remain in place long after the subsidies become inadequate.  And, what of the days when American families had to chose between adequate care and penury?  Such dire choices will remain a part of our reality the day after the PPACA has become fully operative and every day thereafter.

****************************

Other relevant posts by Robert E. Prasch:

“What to Look for After the Election: Social Security Under Assault”

“The Obama Administration, the 49 State Mortgage Settlement, and the Spin: A Study in Shamelessness”

“Dealing With the Unemployment Problem”

Guest Post: The Middle Class Makes $200k Annually? Romney’s Wall Street Perspective

By Robert E. Prasch

Contempt can take many forms, but one of the most vicious is ignorance.  It suggests that the reality of a large group of persons is unworthy of reflection.  Unsurprisingly, as this nation takes on more and more of the characteristics of a plutocracy, we see this contempt-as-ignorance exhibited in more and more fora.  The latest installment occurred in the course of a much-touted September 12th dialogue between the former Democratic Party operative and now TV personality George Stephanopoulos and the Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney.  Context is important:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But his [Martin Feldstein’s] study, which you’ve cited, says it [Romney’s tax proposal] can only work if you take away those deductions for everyone earning more than $100,000.
 
MITT ROMNEY: Well, it doesn’t necessarily show the same growth that we’re anticipating.  And I haven’t seen his precise study.  But I can tell you that we can lower our rates–
 
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, you cited the study, though.
 
MITT ROMNEY: Well, I said that there are five different studies that point out that we can get to a balanced budget without raising taxes on middle income people.  Let me tell you, George, the fundamentals of my tax policy are these.  Number one, reduce tax burdens on middle-income people.  So no one can say my plan is going to raise taxes on middle-income people, because principle number one is keep the burden down on middle-income taxpayers.
 
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Is $100,000 middle income?
 
MITT ROMNEY: No, middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less.  So number one, don’t reduce– or excuse me, don’t raise taxes on middle-income people, lower them.
 

 Let’s grant George Stephanopoulos and Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they mean household instead of individual income.  According to the Tax Policy Center, the median income of an American family in 2011, i.e. the earnings of the family in the exact middle, the 50th percentile of the distribution, is $42,372 (this is cash income, excluding non-wage benefits).

$100,000 would place a family just above the 90th percentile and $250,000 would put one at the 94th percentile.  So, in fact the back-and-forth between Stephanopoulos and Romney really is a discussion about whether the latter’s tax policy proposals are of concern to the upper 6% or 10% of the income distribution.

Ah, but perhaps the Tax Policy Center has calculated the numbers in a biased way?  Happily, we can garner another perspective by examining the 2012 edition of the annual report compiled by the Council of Economic Advisors, what is called the Economic Report of the President.  There, in Appendix B-33, one will find a data series on Median Money Income in 2010.  Calculated upon a broader and more inclusive basis, it shows that 2010 median income for a household was $60,395 – still substantially less than $250,000.

This chart reveals another trend that speaks to the ignorance and complacency exhibited above.  It shows that household income peaked at $64,518 in 2007.  This means that the income of the median American household has fallen 6.4% since the peak of the housing bubble and as yet shows no sign of stopping.  This decline in American household income is both fascinating and disturbing because, according to the authoritative National Bureau of Economic Research, the recession that began in December 2007 ended in June 2009.  If the U.S. Gross Domestic Product has been rising for all but the first four months of the time that the Obama Administration has been in power, and the median household income is continuing to decline, then the revenues associated with the economic revival must be going somewhere.  The answer isn’t too surprising.   Corporate profits have hit new highs this summer.

Guest Column by Marcellus Andrews: “About What is Coming Down the Road”

Today’s column is by one of Translation Exercises guest bloggers, Marcellus Andrews, who recently appeared on Up with Chris Hayes this past Saturday. Andrews raised some important questions of capital markets, plutocracy, dubious economic policies of the Oama Administration, and those of Mitt Romney.

In this column, Andrews continues to force us to address some serious questions about what the last few years portend.  Read on and do comment on his points. A friendly request: please keep your comments on the topics at hand, and refrain from directing us to your website or other personal essays.

About What is Coming Down the Road

Prof. Marcellus Andrews, Barnard College, Columbia

With today’s unemployment report (June 1, 2012) — not good, though not as bad as the next few, I think — Obama is finished, and we can look forward (if that is the word) to a Romney presidency with a neo-fascist (sorry, Republican) House and Senate.  In a way, Romney’s win will be Obama’s own fault — he tried to form a national unity government to deal with a national emergency when the other side just wanted to kick his niggah behind.  He pursued a “conservative” economic policy approach in the specific sense of policies that could and have staved off complete collapse but that were also too small to really revive the system, because he was unwilling (or given the right-wing of his own party, unable) to push through the kind of structural reforms linked to sensible expenditure plans that could not just end the depression but begin the reconstruction of this country.  So, here we are, facing a Romney regime that is likely to be extremely bad news for lots of people, especially the working class white people who vote for him.

I have some thoughts on what this means for so-called “minority” American now that everyone realizes that the majority of babies and now the under 5’s are black, brown, yellow and mixed-up chillun.  The Romney years will be decisive for the future of what I will call the real “Colored” American majority (I think that old, nasty word should be revived as an alternative to “multicultural” and even “multi-racial”).  The austerity program that is destroying the British economy — savage budget cuts that are gutting the social safety net and ending redistributive economic policy, abandoning poor and working people to the untender ways of radical predatory capitalism combined with equally savage tax cuts for the wealthy, all with the assistance of the so-called Liberal Democrats — is just the UK version of the Ryan budget.  The Ryan program will be implemented here under Romney and will destroy the futures of young Colored America.  Policies aimed at promoting human development, particularly the capabilities of Colored young people at or near the bottom of society — nutrition, education, basic health care, basic public health, basic housing, even public safety — will be gutted in favor of reverse Robin Hood approaches that increase the well-being of the rich, and the old and white.  In essence, the Romney program, when you really look at it — to the extent that it has been announced — deliberately under-invests in the children of Colored America in favor of incumbent old white America.

I think it is time for Colored America to recognize that American conservatism seeks nothing less that the crippling of the our future, and that Obama’s failure — again, in trying to build a coalition government when the conservative program was nothing less than the restoration of white power, the modern version of the Redeemer governments in the post-Reconstruction South — signals the end of any prospects for conciliation in this country.  I also think that it is time for Colored America — of all colors, including those whites who seek to live in a decent place — to think carefully about how we build a good society when our white nationalist enemies control the White House, Congress, Wall Street, the Federal courts and too many states.

I think the Romney government will be a savage thing that lays waste to the economic lives of so many of our of children, perhaps at the cost of many premature deaths.  We have to think practically about how to educate our kids, how to keep them happy, healthy and safe, and how to keep ourselves fit and build some sort of prosperity, when our Redeemer foes implement their program. We have to think about how to raise and allocate resources to support human development when the states and Federal government deliberately crush opportunity for our children; we have to find ways to build a durable and effective political and cultural resistance to the attacks that white conservatism makes on our lives and liberties via the Supreme Court and state courts, where the rule of law is transformed into yet more iron cages to trap and limit our freedom; we have to build institutions — everything from schools to newspapers and ways to disseminate vital information to museums to forums for art in all its forms, both brick and mortar institutions and the virtual gatherings in cyberspace — that can escape the reach of white restorationism while feeding our souls (example: I see Arizona attacking Chicano intellectual and cultural life with Klan style glee and know that these attacks will widen, deepen and gain force under a Romney presidency).

I guess I am saying that I think it is high time for us to see this election, and, frankly, the trials and failures of Obama, as the opening phase in a low-level civil war about race and the future of the United States.  This “War About Race” is not a racial war in the usual sense — with whites on one side and everybody else on the other; no Turner Diaries craziness.  Instead, this “War About Race” is a fight between a dying but still rich and powerful old white republic that will never accept the plain fact that the future of the United States is Colored and so will instead deliberately create an economic partition between itself and that Other, disgusting America defined by either not-being-white or by being the wrong kind of white — whites who have rejected racism in personal and family life. So how do we go about preventing conservatism from killing the future of Colored America and thereby preserving, protecting and defending the future of the United States from the racial animosity of the white Right?  This, I think, is the most important question of our time, because the white Right is coming back into power and, if we are honest, seeks to cripple us.

So here’s my question: Am I a bit premature in thinking that the white Right is just the modern version of the Redeemers?  Am I wrong to think that white conservatism will pursue a program of economic partition along racial lines as part of a white unity program in the same way that Southern elites managed to create white unity?

Guest Post: Syria and the International Left

Today’s post responds to an urgent question that has re-emerged in the wake of the uprisings of the last year: how should we understand what it means to support the efforts of a people to resist an autocratic government even as we are suspicious of foreign intervention, given its deleterious and devastating patterns of destruction? In a sobering and insightful column, Prof. Omar Dahi offers some important reflections as the question of intervention in Syria becomes immediate. I encourage you to continue to reflect constructively in the comments section.–FS

Guest Post: Syria and the International Left

by

Omar Dahi, Hampshire College

When the uprisings began in Tunisia and Egypt, Arab and International Left groups rallied to the cause of the protestors. These groups emphasized the role that the US, EU and their regional allies had in propping up and supporting these authoritarian regimes. However, the US government and its allies, caught off guard, tried assertively to manage the uprisings so as to preserve or further their own interests. By “they,” I refer to the US, the EU and the Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This aggressiveness manifested itself in three primary ways: 1) They established and sustained financial and military ties with friendly remnants of the old regimes in those countries and cultivated ties with new ones, in particular Islamist political parties. 2) They consolidated their cooperation with existing pro-US regimes, such as Morocco and Jordan, in an attempt to head off revolutionary movements in those countries. 3) The Gulf countries moved assertively to re-spin the uprisings from their initial form as movements demanding civil rights, social justice, and democracy into a false picture of a sectarian Sunni-Shia battle. This shift had the double benefit of shielding themselves from domestic demands for radical reform and ensuring that a Sunni ally would come to power in those countries, such as Syria, undergoing mass upheaval.

In Syria, the Left has much to be suspicious about, including the following: the proclaimed support for Syrian freedom and human rights by some of the worst human rights abusers in the world; the fact that the largest exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC) consists of pro-Western allies who race to please and appease the West by promising to cut off ties with Iran and Hizbullah and demand western military intervention; and that the uprising has been at best poorly covered by the Western media, or at worst, fabricated to make the Syrian government appear a lot more brutal than it really is and to cover the brutality and crimes of its opponents.

Why should the International Left care about what happens in Syria? Should it do anything other than oppose cynical US efforts to overthrow an official enemy? The answer depends on how one answers a basic question: Is the Syrian uprising part of the revolts and uprisings sweeping across the Arab world, demanding freedom and denouncing oppression and corruption, or is it a separate case to be evaluated on its own? This question has been asked many times since March 15th 2011. But it needs to be emphasized that the answer, whichever it is, carries ethical, analytical, and organizational implications: Ethical, because it conditions whether one supports a people’s aspirations for freedom; Analytical, because it conditions one’s understanding of the motives of the protestors; Organizational, because it conditions who the Left believes to be its allies in this struggle.

At the political level, the Syrian uprisings were a militant civil rights movement against the Security-Party-Military nexus. As recently as a year ago, merely signing a petition that called for some more freedoms made Syrians vulnerable to punishment of several years in prisons under charges such as ‘weakening national morale’ and other Orwellian phrases. In the first scattered demonstrations that took place in Damascus, even before the incidents at Dar’aa, the main slogan chanted by the demonstrators was “the Syrian people cannot be humiliated.” Political debate was stifled and discussions in public were guarded and reserved. Syria’s authoritarian regime was not just a danger for political dissidents; navigating daily life in Syria was a struggle for most ordinary and lower-class Syrians. The state-security apparatus had extended its tentacles to all aspects of Syria’s political economy. Everyone from the taxi driver, street vendor–all the way up to businessmen– had to curry favor, and bribe and appease the mukhabarat (the notorious secret service apparatus) to get the simplest task done, or simply to be left alone.

However these grievances against the Syrian state have been well-documented; some aspects of the regime, including the more claustrophobic side of daily life in Syria-with ubiquitous security presence- have lessened or improved in the last decade. Many aspects of this corruption became worse, not better, under the rule of Bashar Al-Asad. That is because the revolts were an expression of anger against economic deprivations, corruption and inequality, and poverty. Jamal Barout found that according to some measures of poverty, the percentage of Syrians living under the poverty line rose from 11% in 2000 to 33% in 2010; . That is to say, about 7 million Syrians live around the poverty line. The last decade has seen the increasing marginalization of Syrians, especially in the rural areas. This marginalization has exacerbated the increasing desertification of the country, most notably the devastating drought. The International Crisis Group reported that the dispossession of the several hundred thousand farmers in the Northeast as a result of the drought should not be thought of as merely a natural disaster. The increase and intensive use by agro-businessmen (including land previously kept for grazing), as well as the illegal drilling of water wells (by whom?) (facilitated by paying off local administration) have contributed to the crisis of agriculture. Both of these practices are a manifestation of the inability of the Syrian government under Bashar Al-Asad to check the power of influential businessmen or to perform basic regulatory functions.[1]

Fundamentally, this means that the protests denounced the capture of the state by a few oligarchs. This can be best seen by the level of anger against Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of the President. Makhlouf and his close associates, who turned Syria into their private fiefdom over the past decade. They did so by building a large economic empire through a mixture of coercion and intimidation, instrumental use of state power (including the judiciary) and outright fraud.[2] As Bassam Haddad argued in a recent article, the “private sector’s march in Syria is undermining both state and market” due to extreme cronyism and patronage networks which are unable or unwilling to change despite the fast changing pace of events in the country.[3]

In other words, the Syrian regime is a corrupt and authoritarian power that a very large sector of Syrian society no longer supports and to and which it refuses to acquiesce to. The regime continues to enjoy the support of many sectors of society, including from minority populations and those who have been traumatized by the destructive legacy of US invasion of Iraq. The invasion has killed hundreds of thousands and contributed to the ethnic and sectarian cleansing that occurred in Syria. However the fact that the Syrian uprising is being manipulated and highjacked by imperialism and its allies does not mean the regime is worth supporting or simply opposing any intervention or help for Syrians. It also does not mean that the brutality of the regime is not real and in fact, the casualty rate may be in fact worse than is being reported.

We can challenge military intervention in Syria—an intervention that is likely to have disastrous consequences there as well as in Iraq, in terms of the actual destruction caused by the invasion. We can also anticipate as a certainty that the invading powers will ‘pick winners’ and install their own allies, further destroying the fabric of Syrian society. The International Left, as well as the broader International civil society, must intervene in a way that sustains (through education, solidarity, and aid) the uprising. It must also, as much as possible, attempt to sustain and protect the agency of the Syrians themselves, while opposing armed intervention. We must choose among the least worst options, since doing nothing will ensure that that the crisis continues to be manipulated by cynical powers.


[1] Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People’s Slow-motion Revolution. Middle East/North Africa Report N°108, 6 Jul 2011.

[2] Carsten Wieland. 2011. “Asad’s Lost Chances.” Middle East Report Online.

[3] Bassam Haddad. 2011. The Political Economy of Syria: Realities and Challenges, Middle East Policy, 17(2): 46-61. See also Bassam Haddad, “Dictatorship, Military Intervention, and False Binaries on Syria.”

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Omar S. Dahi is assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of economic development and international trade, with a special focus on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa and on South-South economic cooperation. His publications include articles in the Journal of Development Economics, The Middle East Report, and the Review of Radical Political Economics.

Guest Post: Race, Conservatism and Economic Panic

The intense interest that folks have taken in this blog for the last few weeks has convinced me that people want to hear from a variety of progressive voices. To that end, today’s post is by economist Marcellus Andrews,* from whose writing I always learn and whose critical voice gives me hope.  Here are his thoughts on the economic future of US society during this year of the presidential election.

Race, Conservatism and Economic Panic

Marcellus Andrews
Department of Economics, Barnard College

The Republican presidential primary has been an entertaining, if ultimately baffling carnival from the perspective of an economist.  What we are witnessing is the collapse of conservatism as the governing principle of public life in the United States. It is collapsing under the pressure of economic panic – the collapse of the housing market, high and sustained long-term unemployment, falling real wages for most American workers, and the greatest degree of economic inequality in a century, among others.  This panic — born of the self-destruction of the Reagan program that led directly to the Lesser Depression of 2007-2009 and its aftermath has inspired the return of the racist and xenophobic politics of the 1990’s associated with the Republican capture of Congress [Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has provided a superb, if depressing, analysis of how the Reagan program led directly to the crisis in a number of places, including his regular column, Unconventional Economic Wisdom].  Newt Gingrich’s heated rhetoric  about Obama as the “food stamp” president are the sullen insults of a failed political movement that has disgraced itself and ruined the nation.  Though Gingrich, with Bill Clinton’s help, ended “welfare as we know it” in the 1990’s, the political reflex of blaming the black and poor for the nation’s woes is always a sure way to win the votes of a portion of the Republican electorate, as demonstrated this past weekend in the South Carolina primary.

The collapse of the Reagan program means that the older white population of the US, which owns most of the nation’s wealth and forms the core of the Republican Party, has benefited from policies that threaten to cripple the American future.  But rather than think seriously about how to rebuild middle class capitalism in America – albeit along conservative lines – the Right has opted to double down on Reaganism and revisit all the old racist rants. Thomas Byrne Edsall’s reporting on the racial conflicts at the heart of conservative economic policy in his books Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics and most recently The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics demonstrate why this nasty but frequently unacknowledged fight over the racial distribution of income, wealth and opportunity across color lines could prevent the reform of American capitalism.  Edsall’s deep point – that all modern economic policy invariably involves the redistribution of economic resources and opportunity across color lines – is the key to understanding the otherwise irrational political economy of contemporary conservatism.

The next model of middle class American capitalism requires conservatives to abandon the quest to restore the Old White Republic as population trends transform the US into a genuine “rainbow” society without a racial majority. The people of this country know that the era of small government not only led to the financial crisis and crash, but that the government rescue of finance proves, beyond any doubt, the utility and necessity for a large role for very big and intrusive government on modern economic life.  Logic and evidence suggest that the important debate we face in this country is not whether the state should play a big role in economic life but what that role should be, for whose benefit, at what cost to whom.

The answer to that question is really very clear: government should pursue policies that maximize the economic wellbeing of the working majority by combining regulation, smart and progressive taxation and well thought through investments in the health, education and development of the citizens to promote genuine equal opportunity for all.  The substantive fight between left and right in this country should be over the nature of the mixed economy, not over whether we need a mixed economy.  What types of taxes do we need and how much should the total tax take rise to reduce our debt, pay for better schools, fixing our infrastructure and financing guaranteed health care for all?  How do we share the burden of higher taxes and changing priorities in ways that are both fair and efficient?  What is the balance between the needs of the young and the old in an economy that has save and invest more while consuming and borrowing less, all the while becoming smarter and fairer?

The American middle class has been and always will be the end point of government social engineering that insures that economic opportunity is available to all on the basis of effort and ambition, without regard to a family’s wealth, race, ethnicity, region or religion. Most middle class Americans are nowhere near rich enough to detach themselves from public goods or the many subtle middle class subsidies that form the basis of our odd welfare state.   Mass homeownership, the opportunity to attend college and guaranteed retirement benefits are all the result of government social engineering.  The entitlements so zealously and rightly defended by older whites against budget cuts – Social Security and Medicare – are financed by young workers who pay for the health care and retirement benefits of retirees.  Economic arithmetic tells us that the only way these benefits can exist is if workers produce so much that they can satisfy their own needs as consumers and parents while paying taxes for themselves and their children to attend good schools, buy homes, rely on decent roads and bridges, and pay the retirement benefits of their aging parents.

Basic arithmetic puts modern conservatism in a terrible bind given its racial commitments.  The Census Bureau estimates that the majority of children born in the United States from now on are more likely to be raised in black, Latino or Asian or interracial families than non-Latino white families.  In time, these children will be the talent pool from which the future labor force and military will emerge. The strategy of inequality  — low taxes, big budget deficits, a strangled and incompetent public sector — will insure that American workers are poorly educated, that the nation’s infrastructure remains broken and therefore that the nation’s intellectual and economic prowess as well as its productivity and competitiveness slips relative to the rest of the world. The pretense that our nation can restore its long-term economic health by savage cuts in education, public investment and the health of the young is economic folly. If the modern Right gets its way, the ever more diverse American labor force will be deprived of the skills and tools to join the ranks of the world’s most productive workers making the US an ever less prosperous and competent society.

Where is the rationalist business class that sees the need to repair the American economy and the social fabric in ways that extend markets and opportunity across all lines?  Where is the conservative reformer who sees the need to quietly engineer a divorce between racism and conservatism in favor of a robust, post-racial capitalism? Of course, those among us who hope for a just and decent society will work for a post-capitalist as well as post-racial society, but one would want practical business people to see that their alliance with racial conservatives is a losing proposition.



*Marcellus Andrews teaches economics at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of The Political Economy of Hope and Fear. Andrews’ current book projects include Realism, Violence and Economic Order: Economic Analysis and the Problem of Justice and Economic Policy and the Decent Society.

Guest Post: “Where is My Half Glass?”

The brilliant Robert E. Prasch, an economist at Middlebury College, reflects on the Obama Presidency.

President Obama, Where Is My “Half Glass”?

By Robert E. Prasch

Since deftly managing the Congressional “debate” over health care to eliminate the public option, the White House has found itself criticized increasingly by voices from within the Democratic Party. President Obama and his spokespersons were irritated to discover the following: those Democrats who wrote the checks, pounded the pavement, and got out the vote for “Change You Can Believe In,” really wanted change.  Who knew?  Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod and the President himself have all made it clear that they view such critics as childish “purists” unsatisfied with a “glass half full.”  I have only one question.  “Where is my half glass”?

Let us briefly review the administration’s performance on four areas of great concern to those who supported Barak Obama in 2008.  These include the financial crisis & economy, the endless Bush wars, the shocking erosion of civil liberties, and increasing unaffordable health care.

Less than one month after the historic November 2008 election, we were informed that “Hope and Change” would include neither the financial sector nor the economy. This occurred on November 28th with the announcement of two critical appointments.  The first was that of former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, a chief architect of the policies that set the groundwork for the 2007-2009 financial crisis, to head President Obama’s National Economic Council.  The second was that of Timothy Geithner, former Clinton Undersecretary of the Treasury and then President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (NYFRB), as the new US. Treasury Secretary.  Geithner informed the US. House of Representatives –very truthfully– that he “had never been a regulator.”  The sad part is that the Federal Reserve and specifically the NYFRB has a substantial role in bank regulation and regulatory policy, a role in which he clearly and most publically failed. Several months after taking office, President Obama declared that he would reappoint Ben Bernanke to chair the Federal Reserve System.  With these three leading the way, can we be surprised that the Obama Administration never devised serious policies or took substantial action on financial reform, Too Big To Fail banks, rampant mortgage and bank fraud, high and persistent unemployment, or mortgage relief?.  Can we be surprised to learn that his idea of a jobs program was to push through President Bush’s “Free Trade” agreements?  Is anyone surprised to learn that he is now considering cuts to Social Security?

By contrast to the economy, candidate Obama frequently stated his commitment to Bush’s Middle East wars.  His attachment to the status quo was signaled the day after the Summers/Geithner announcement when it was revealed that he would reappoint Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates (This, of course, was the same Robert Gates who narrowly avoided indictment for lying to Congress over his role in the Reagan Administration’s Iran-Contra Affair).  Officially, the US war on Iraq ended this past summer, but that event occurred according to a timetable set up by Bush–and only because Obama could not negotiate blanket immunity for US soldiers in the wake of the Wikileaks revelations.   Before shifting to another topic, I would also advise readers to take a moment to review the size of the “training” and “security staff” that have been left behind in Iraq, along with the size of the forces stationed in Kuwait and the other Gulf States.  Do not think for a millisecond that anyone in the Middle East is unaware of the size and lethality of the army and naval armada the US has stationed in their midst.  (For those who may imagine that this is about “promoting democracy” in the region, I have a one-word refutation – Bahrain.  YouTube has numerous videos featuring Bahraini police, and their ally, the Saudi Arabian army, shooting peaceful protestors.  And let us refrain from discussing the almost daily atrocities occurring in Egypt, or the out-of-control predator drone program).

What of civil liberties?  Here the record is genuinely appalling.  The prisoners of Guantanamo Bay continue to languish without proper judicial hearings, and the extended pre-trial treatment of Bradley Manning is criminal by any standard of measure.  Obama’s vigorous attack on whistleblowers who shed light on the idiocy and mendacity of the bloated bureaucracies associated with the national security apparatus is an ongoing scandal.  In fairness, candidate Obama did “tip his hand” on these issues when he suspended his campaign so that he could fly to Washington to vote in favor of retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies that violated the law, and profited mightily from, working with Bush and Cheney on illegal wiretapping programs.  Moreover, he has never deviated from Nancy Pelosi’s early insistence on blanket immunity for all Bush administration officials who lied to Congress, promoted or engaged in torture, war crimes, etc. The record, apparently, is not sordid enough.  On December 23rd 2011 Obama signed a bill co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain granting the President, on his own whim, the ability to imprison anyone, anywhere — American citizen or not — for an indefinite period without an attorney, charge, jury trial, or any other kind or variety of review.  Goodbye 4th Amendment, you will be missed.

Finally, a word about “health care reform.”  This bill neither “gives” nor “provides” anyone with health care or health insurance.  On the contrary, it mandates that everyone purchase his or her own policy.  There is a some commitment to providing subsidies to those who cannot afford a policy – but anyone who has ever followed politics knows what will happen to it when budget cutting season returns (they also know that when the subsidies go, the mandate will surely stay).  The bill also embodies a vague commitment to reducing health care costs that is not worth the paper upon which it was written.  Elementary economics tells us that if health insurance policies are subsidized they will rise in price.  This tendency will be even more pronounced if people are forbidden from deploying their single greatest negotiating tool – the threat to leave the market altogether.  Obama’s “accomplishment,” if we can call it that, is to provide even more money and market power to the single largest obstacle to affordable health care – the private insurance companies.

Alarmed by trends in the then-new administration, columnist Bob Herbert called attention to them while identifying a core flaw in the thought processes of its apologists, “Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barak Obama is in the White House” (New York Times, June 22nd, 2009).  Two years have passed since Herbert wrote these words.  So I ask again, if Obama’s 2008 supporters have received a “half glass” on the four issues summarized above, then where is it?  At this point, I can’t even see the glass.

Robert E. Prasch is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College where he teaches courses on Monetary Theory and Policy, Macroeconomics, the History of Economic Thought, and American Economic History.  His latest book is How Markets Work: Supply, Demand and the ‘Real World’ (Edward Elgar, 2008)