Sunday, June 25, 2006

bumper stickers, part ii

A variety of anti-Bush bumper stickers make the rounds on the east coast, some printable, others not really. A number make implicit puns based on the similarity between the President's name and portions of the female anatomy, which seems unlikely to convince anyone who doesn't agree already with the position; but perhaps that's not the point.

One long-standing favorite is also a rhyme: "When Clinton Lied, Nobody Died." Although hardly a ringing endorsement of the last president, it seems to suggest that Clinton's lies about Lewinsky had not political as opposed to personal consequences, while Bush's alleged misrepresentations about Iraq have resulted in numerous American and Iraqi casualties. The clever phrasing aside, how convincing is this statement on its own terms?

An initial problem is the accusation, now widely accepted, that Bush misrepresented Iraq's possession of WMD before the invasion. But how much of a lie was this? Reports suggest that Saddam's own commanders believed he had chemical if not nuclear weapons, and troops were rigorously prepared to encounter these weapons in combat. With respect to nuclear weapons, there was unquestionably an aggressive program to get ahold of them, although it seems to have been rather less well along--largely thanks to American and British pressure--than was thought at the time. At most, these sound like exaggerations, perhaps taking Iraqi boasts more seriously than we should have, but hardly like intentional lies.

The Clinton half of the statement is also dubious. Clinton's personal problems plainly distracted his attention from Al Qaeda, and much else besides, during the months and years that led up to the 9/11 disaster, much as Watergate distracted the U.S. at the time of Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. This does not make Clinton personally responsible for the deaths, but it casts doubt on the notion that his activity was "harmless" in any meaningful sense. There is also the broader issue of whether, by sending a message that unrestricted sex with multiple partners is acceptable, Clinton did not undermine moral standards in a way that contributes to AIDS (hetero- and homosexual) and other health crises. One suspects that the former President's work on sexually transmitted diseases in Africa, which is entirely admirable on its own terms, is in part an effort to atone for this behavior.

Let us assume the very worst, and that Bush intentionally exaggerated the Iraqi threat so as to gain support for a policy he had already decided upon. Even in this case, the alleged "lie" would have been made to advance a genuinely held conviction regarding the national interest, rather than a purely personal interest like Clinton's. In Dante's scheme, at least, the latter would seem more morally dubious. But Dante doesn't fit on bumper stickers.

Friday, June 23, 2006

the world cup: on to round two

The groups phase of the World Cup has ended with the U.S. out, Italy and most of the remaining European powers still in, and relatively few surprises so far. Probably the biggest of the latter is the survival of Ghana, which beat the Czech Republic and the U.S. to advance into the next round and have the honor of playing--Brazil, winner of five World Cups and a team whose second squad could probably beat most people's first. Still, it is a huge accomplishment, and beating the U.S. makes it that much sweeter.

Ghana notwithstanding, the World Cup is a fairly interesting case study in colonialism (post-colonialism) and its ongoing effects. It is obvious to anyone that the Third World teams have enormous talent but (unless one counts Brazil, which is dubious) almost no chance of winning. I ran through the reasons for this in my mind and came up with the following:

1. Colonialism divided the Third World, and especially Africa, into so many different countries that it is virtually impossible for any of them to compete on their own. Thus, while a combined West African squad would probably demolish most Western teams, countries like Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and so forth are simply too small--in resources if not population--to compete on a level playing field. The linguistic, cultural, and other differences left by colonialism also make it extremely difficult for these countries to band together, sometimes even to stay that way.

2. The superior financial resources of the European countries mean that the same players will become much better and more experienced over time than their Third World counterparts. Indeed, many of the most talented Third Worlders or their families become Europeans altogether, so that the French team (for example) is composed largely of players of Arab or African origin. There is some compensation, in that many Third World players acquire experience in the top European leagues, but not enough to make up for the above.

3. The World Cup is being played in Germany, which is not exactly affordable to most people from poor countries, and has a somewhat mixed record of hospitality to foreigners. In fairness, the next one will be in South Africa, which has problems but of a different type.

One unfortunate aspect of the World Cup has been the TV coverage, which--although highly competent in individual matches--badly overhyped the American team and has frequently missed out on the grace and style of the game which are its most attractive characteristics. One interesting side effect is that many people, including those who don't speak any Spanish, have begun watching the Spanish-language broadcasts which (they feel) convey the tone and excitement of the sport rather more effectively. A welcome respite has been provided by the variety of World Cup blogs, notably that of Roger Cohen at the New York Times who has a keen appreciation of Europe, soccer, and everything that most Americans despise. I'd provide a link, but I think that it's only available to Times subscribers. It is, thankfully, in English.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

an italian summer: taxes, corruption, and (of course) soccer

The Italian soccer team beat the Czech Republic 2-0 today, making up for its weak performance in the 1-1 tie with the United States and advancing to the next World Cup round. The news came at a good time for the country, which has so far had a jarring summer even by Italian standards. Much, although by no means all, of the bad news has involved the judiciary (magistratura) in one form or another.

First off is calciopoli, the budding soccer scandal whose core allegation involves active interference by the dominant teams--most notably Juventus of Turin (Torino)--in choosing referees for important matches. Since the referees can easily control a game, as has been amply demonstrated in the current World Cup, this amounts to an allegation that the most significant matchup are effectively fixed. The scandal has since grown to include allegations of drugs, illegal betting, and manipulation of the market for players, with as many as four teams (Juventus, Milan, Lazio, and Fiorentina) facing the possibility of demotion to Serie B next year, which also means that they could lose all or most of their best players. The scandal has been magnified by the Italian magistrate's reliance on telephone wiretaps, which are subject to fewer limits than those in the U.S. and have become someting of a scandal in themselves; proposals to restrict their use are high on the current legislative agenda.

If not sufficiently sated by the soccer scandal, Italians awoke several days ago to learn that Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia, the son of the last king of Italy, has been arrested for attempting to pay bribes in order to secure interests in gambling and prostitution enterprises--not exactly a crime fit for a king or even for the Savoys, who have become something of a joke for their playboy lifestyle and poor Italian accents but still command respect in some sectors of the population. There is a certain irony in that the male members of the family were until recently forbidden entry into the country under a provision of the Republican Constitution: now at least one of them was effectively forbidden to leave. The would-be king was subsequently released to house arrest by magistrates who cited his cooperative attitude in the investigation.

With all of this going on taxation and fiscal policy has understandably had a hard time getting on the front page of Italian newspapers. An additional package of tax and spending measures is scheduled to be proposed in early July, but the Government has sent conflicting signals as to what it will include. Among the goals cited by the Finance Minister, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, are reducing the budget deficit, increasing annal GNP growth from its current 2 % or so a year, reducing the tax burden associated with the hiring of new employees, and improving equality and social justice--goals that may be difficult to achieve on their own let alone simultaneously. On the bright side, some pundits have suggested that either an Italian or German victory in the World Cup will provide a temporary economic uplift; at the very least the continued stagnation would be somewhat easier to bear.

A note of comic relief, or at least a change of pace, was provided by the Corte di Cassazione, Italy's supreme court, when it ruled that a man was criminally liable for filming his estranged wife in bed with her lover without her official permission. According to the court, the combination of unauthorized filming, together with the man's later forwarding of the video to members of his wife's family, constituted criminal defamation, notwithstanding his arugment that the pictures "were not in the least bit compromising." The couple was separating at the time of the crime, and presumably has remained that way.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Political Science Part II

On Cottman Avenue in Philadelphia today, I saw a bumper sticker with the rather poetic lines

Let's Nuke Their Ass
And Take Their Gas

which I took to be a comment on Middle East policy. What was interesting was that the car bearing this, well, hawkish statement was a rather modest, mid-sized affair and the driver proceeded at a pretty reasonable speed, which is to say, I passed him. Was he compensating for this excess of moderation by proposing an extreme solution to the energy problem? Or was the sticker merely a leftover from the Carter or Bush I administration that he had never quite managed to remove? Given recent developments in Iran, if he plans to implement his solution, he should perhaps consider doing so soon.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

world cup at two days

First five matches of the soccer World Cup and no huge surprises, but a clear sense that the increase in Latin American and Third World at the expense of European strength--a pattern observed in the last two or three such tournaments--is continuing apace. Thus England, second only to Brazil as a cup favorite, had to struggle to a 1-0 win on an own goal by Paraguay; Sweden played to a scoreless tie with tiny Trinidad and Tobago; and even Germany was challenged before putting away Costa Rica 4-2 in the opening match. By contrast Ecuador downed Poland 2-0 and both Argentina and Ivory Coast looked impressive in a match eventually won by the former, 2-1, on Saturday night. The U.S. opens Monday against the Czech Republic and then plays Italy next Saturday afternoon; I'll be rooting aggressively for both sides. (Good thing neither Israel nor India made it. )

One interesting World Cup sidelight: the official FIFA rankings have the Czechs second, after Brazil, and the U.S. tied for fifth, with the Italians down around 13th place. But the oddsmakers have the Italians at 10:1, among the five likeliest winners, while the U.S. are 100:1 and the Czechs not terribly much better. Economists would say that the latter is a better indicator, since people put their money where there mouth, I mean, since people's self-interest suggests they will rank competing choices more efficiently when actual resources are at stake. Does economic theory work at the World Cup? We'll find out next week.

what, me wicked?

My 11-year old has taken an extreme liking to the CD of the musical "Wicked," a Broadway hit of a couple of years back which has finally made it to Philadelphia. The show was adopted from a book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, written by one Gregory Maguire, who apparently did a similar reworking of the Cinderella story. The musical adaptation was headed by Stephen Schwartz, who also did Pippin (which my kids also love), Godspell, and other less famous musicals. As best I can tell from the songs, which I've hard at least 1,000 times each, the story goes something like this:

It seems that the Wicked Witch of the West, the quintessential bad guy of Wizard of Oz fame, didn't start out so bad, after all. She had a real name, Elphaba (derived by Magurie from L. Frank Baum, author of the original Oz stories) and was actually a decent person who had the misfortune to be born ugly and green, in a world that values people who are pretty and white. Her misfortunes multiplied when she became friendly at school with Glinda (originally spelled Galinda), with whom she developed a life-long friendship but also a degree of jealousy since the latter had everything while Elphaba, well, didn't. (There is also something about a disabled sister, who may or may not have been the Witch of the East according to different members of my family, but that's another story).

Eventually, Elphaba finds herself in a castle in the land of Oz, which is ruled by a corrupt and (it goes without saying) white male wizard, who is oppressing the talking animals as part of the general fraud he has committed by pretending to be a wizard when he is really a second rate snake oil salesman from rural Kansas. (One of the brilliant things about the show is that it tries to avoid changing anything in the original Oz story, so that it can pretend to be filling in details left out in the original script.) She tries to help these unfortunate creatures--the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, etc.--but in the process just makes everyone (especially the wizard) angry, until a posse comes and melts her with the now infamous bottle of water that parents have been explaining to confused children since 1939. The show ends with Elphaba falling through a door in the stage . . . but then mysteriously reappearing, leaving open the questions of her future redemption as well as her frienshlip with Glinda, the couple's duet, "Because I Knew You," being one of the show's catchier numbers. There's more, including a lover affair with one Fiero ("proud" in Italian) that gives Elphaba her best line--"for once, I feel really wicked"--but that's the essential story.

"Wicked" is plainly a good show, and it seems churlish to complain about its rather sentimental, politically correct nature, especially if it gets my kids away from video games for a little while. Yet I have to wonder about a few aspects.

For one thing, there is the issue of good and evil and its sidestepping by the Elphaba ruse. The power of the original Oz lay in its confronting the issue of good and bad and the moral dilemmas that it creates. Was it justified for Dorothy to stalk the Witch, who had a deserved reputation for miscreance but had never done anything to her? Was Miss Gulch, the earthly character on whom the Witch in Dorothy's dream is based, really such an evil person, or were the Gales merely jealous of her because she had more money and enforced unpopular legal rules? Was the Wizard--a fraud in the original as well as adjusted versions--really a bad person or just (in his own words) "a good man [who had become] a bad wizard," and what does this even mean if it is true? These issues derive their power precisely from their being unstated or subconscious, forcing the viewer (and especially children) to confront them in the way they perhaps haven't before. By providing a sugary explanation for the whole story, "Wicked" avoids these problems.

A second point relates to "Wicked's" explanation of the Witch's evil tendencies. It is surely reasonable, if not particularly original, to expose children to the dangers of prejudice and the unfairness it creates. But is the notion that "I was born green, therefore nothing is my fault" really the message we want people to carry away from popular entertainment? What would a Black or Asian child, in particular, carry away from this performance? Instead of a confrontation with evil, "Wicked" tends to provide an excuse for it, thereby reinforcing rather than combatting the worst features in our culture.

Finally, there is the simple fact that "Wicked" lacks the Wizard of Oz's artistic and perhaps even musical merit, although this is largely a matter of taste.

I don't want to be hard on the show, which I think is creative and entertaining, and raises a lot of issues left unresolved by the original. (I have always wondered if the Witch wasn't really Auntie Em in disguise--I think the latter morphs into the former in one memorable scene--but maybe we just shouldn't go there.) But if this is what we are teaching our children, it's little wonder that they are so irresponsible. Maybe some of them, upon seeing the imitation, will want to go back for the original, the way I started studying Italy after seeing one too many Italian movies. The real thing is usually more painful; but it is nearly always more instructive.

Friday, June 09, 2006

of gays, estate taxes, and other political surprises

The Senate turned down two conservative agendas this week: a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and the permanent repeal of the estate tax. The first didn't shock anyone very much: the proposal was known to lack adequate support and widely believed to be presented for political reasons. The second was rather more surprising.

At one level the failure of the estate tax regime is simply a matter of party politics. Given President Bush's current popularity, or lack thereof, few Democrats saw much reason to help out on a proposal that (whatever its policy merits) provides economic benefits primarily to people who are likely to vote Republican, anyway. Thus the proposal mustered 57 senators on an essentially party line vote, short of the 60 needed to close off debate on the issue. On a deeper level, the failure says much about current conservatism and its search for broader political appeal.

As anyone who spends fifteen minutes in the Republican Party knows, the party base is today motivated overwhelmingly by noneconomic concerns. Cutting estate or capital gain taxes, albeit enourmously important to the K street elite, simply has very little resonance for these voters, and is likely to bring almost nobody to the polls in what is shaping up as a brutal election year. (The deficit still matters, but mostly for symblic reasons: no one really wants the spending cuts that would be required to correct it) While most Republicans voted in favor of the bill, it is difficult to believe--rhetoric aside--that it was really very high on their priorities as compared to immigration, Iraq, and other more popular issues. They failed to convince many Democrats, I suspect, in part because they weren't trying very hard.

An interesting point here is the confusion of political labels. I have been writing lately about Italy, India, and other countries where there is a budding reaction against globalization, and the related idea that economic growth can solve all political problems. The Republican Party is nominally conservative in nature and favors what these people oppose. Yet its base, if not its elite, seems increasingly devoted to millenarian religious visions and increasingly ambivalent, if indeed it cares at all, about tax cuts, deregulation, the free flow of labor and capital: i.e., the entire globalization agenda. Is it possible that the party of globalization has itself become part of the anti-globalization reaction? Stay tuned.

french court finds state, railroad guilty in deportation of jews

A court in Tolouse, France, has found the French Government and the national railroad (SNCF) liable for damages for their role in deporting Jews to concentration camps during World War II. The court found that "the French administration manifestly could not ignore that their transfer . . . facilitated an operation that must normally have been the prelude to the deportation of the persons involved," adding that "the State and the SNCF did more than was demanded of them by the Germans" with respect to the deportation of Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals during the period concerned. For its part the SNCF "never made any objection or protest regarding the activity of these transports," even continuing to demand payment of the transportation costs after the Liberation of France. (Note: translations are mine but should convey the meaning accurately). The French Government was required to pay a sum of 62,000 Euros to the plaintiffs, led by the European Deputy Alain Lipietz (Green Party) whose parents were among those deported. The case appears to mark the first time that the French Government was held liable in court for its role in the deportations, although politicians have accepted a measure of moral reponsibility in the past. A government commission, headed by Jean Matteoli, presented a lengthy report on the spoilation of Jewish property during the Vichy period five years ago.

india drops controversial tax form

The Indian Government has decided that its new four-page income tax form will not be extended beyond this year. The form was roundly criticized for excess complexity and even called "Nazi" by some observers, indicating (among other things) that the debasement of this particular term now extends to all parts of the globe. The one-page saral (simple) form will remain in effect for most taxpayers.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

iran, iraq, and the future of american policy

Anyone who hasn't been on Mars knows that the United States is threatening Iran with military action if it doesn't abandon its nuclear program, while anyone who hasn't been on Venus knows that the war in Iraq is not going smoothly. Most commentators seem to assume that the second means the first won't happen. I think this is wrong for several reasons.

The underlying facts about Iran are that it (i) is an enemy of the United States and its allies, which openly supports what we believe to be terrorism and calls for the destruction of our principal friend in the region, and (ii) will almost certainly acquire nuclear weapons within the next few years if nothing is done to stop it . To use the language of foreign policy, Iran has both the intention to harm the U.S. and its allies and is rapidly acquiring the capability to do so. The combination of these facts distinguishes Iran from any of the parallels commonly advanced: from the Iraqi situation, because both the enmity of Iraq and its nuclear weapons program were always more hazy than Iran's; from North Korea, which is closer to a blackmail situation than a serious, long-term strategic threat; from India, Pakistan, or other holders of nuclear weapons, which met the second but not the first of the two conditions (although Pakistan's subsequent behavior makes one wonder in this case also). Nor is Iran comparable to Russia, China, or other previous rivals, who were both far larger than Iran and much less likely, on balance, to use any weapons they acquired.

There are many good arguments for attacking Iran, and many good arguments against it, including technical difficulties and the likelihood that an attack will trigger a stream of events even worse than an Iranian bomb. (I tend to believe that the former problem is overstated, but the latter may actually be worse than imagined, although it is hard to see how the bomb would be better). But I simply cannot think of any historic situation in which a country or countries, facing a stated enemy who is intent on acquiring a weapon that it is plainly designed for use against them--and having at least a reasonable opportunity to forego or delay that acquisition without unbearable costs--have permitted them to do so. The language of Bush's critics, who increasingly claim that he lied us into the Iraq war, in a curious way works against them here, much as the rage for DNA evidence has inadvertenty strengthened the death penalty in cases where such evidence is found. If Bush's "lies" mean we shouldn't have invaded Iraq, doesn't the obvious truth about Iran's intentions--a truth which no one (Britain, France, the IAEA) seriously denies--imply the opposite this time?

taxation and fiscal policy: the counterattack continues (or does it?)

Taxation and fiscal policy have lately been in the news in all of the countries that I follow, although it is as always not easy to discern a simple pattern. In Italy the new Government of Premier Romano Prodi is already talking about tax increases, including increased taxes on financial income, estate ("successions") tax reform, and a more assertive war on tax evasion, although the latter has been promised by Italian rulers since about the time of the Caesars. The Government's rhetoric is driven in part by left-wing ideology, but more immediately by the need to get the Italian deficit below 3 percent of GNP as required by international agreeements. The finance minister, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, recently added a new twist by suggesting that regions which exceeded their health expenditure targets might see both their income and IRAP (an unpopular regional tax) rates increased to make up the difference--a combined budget balancer and warning to other regions to control spending at the same time. Italy's political atmosphere has remained tense, with the far left speaker of the house, Fausto Bertinotti, wearing a peace ribbon to the Republic Day military raid while the recently defeated Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, led a group of sympathizers through Rome singing a tune whose chorus asserted that "anyone who doesn't dance is a communist."

Liberal reaction--if there is indeed such a term-- is also the order of the day in Israel, where there is talk of shifting a substantial sum from defense to social spending, a shift made either easier or more difficult (depending whom you ask) by the selection of the Labor party leader, Amir Peretz, as Defense Minister. Peretz's choice of Defense over a "social portfolio" is one of several recent cases in which advocates for the poor, upon attaining power, choose high profile foreign policy positions rather than those directly relating to social policy, which may either be a case of hypocrisy or simply common sense. The Israeli cabinet also allocated 300 million shekels to increased health coverage, and there is talk of restoring some reductions in allowances for large families as well as reversing, or at least slowing down, the recent tax cut momentum.

India, as previously reported, has also been considering various tax reform measures although with the exception of a proposal to increase capital gain taxes--made by the communist party and so far receiving little support elsewhere--most of these have been of an incremental nature. The capital gain proposal was in part a response to increased volatility on the Bombay Stock Exchange which many blame on foreign investors and which, at any rate, captures the sense of inequality/vulnerability that many Indians feel in the face of rapid economic change. The Government also attracted attention by introducing a new tax form four times longer than the previous one, leading people to joke that the saral (simple) form, well, wasn't any more.

If there is a common thread to the news items above, it would appear to be a continuing ambivalence toward--and perhaps a nascent reaction against--the "low-tax, low-wage" model of development sometimes posited as an inevitable concomitant of globalization. Yet this ambivalence/reaction continues to take different forms in different countries, and the underlying pressure toward lower, flatter rates is not necessarily changed by it. The issue of common themes, and some recent academic commentary, will be considered in a future post.