Saturday, January 28, 2012

A glimpse into the world of the super-rich: The little help Romney gets from his friends

It’s hard to believe what politicians say when they are seeking election.  Mitt Romney has said that he didn’t inherit his huge wealth but earned it. Strange thing to say of the son of the former President of American Motors, former governor of Michigan, and once a candidate for President of the United States.
Here is an excerpt of what the New York Times says about the financial support that Romney is now getting from his friends.
The securities and investment industry has given more money to Mr. Romney than any other industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and some of its leading figures have donated millions of dollars to Restore Our Future, the “super PAC” bolstering Mr. Romney’s campaign. Goldman employees are also the biggest source of donations to Free & Strong America PAC, a group Mr. Romney founded but no longer controls.
But Mr. Romney’s personal finances are particularly entwined with Goldman.
His federal financial disclosure statements show Mr. Romney and his wife, their blind trusts and their family foundation to be prodigious consumers of the bank’s services. In 2011, Mr. Romney’s blind trust and the couple’s retirement accounts held as much as $36.7 million in at least two dozen Goldman investment vehicles, earning as much as $3 million a year in income. Mrs. Romney’s trust had at least $10.2 million in Goldman funds — possibly much more — earning as much as $6.2 million.
Tax returns released by the campaign this week also highlighted some of the privileges Mr. Romney enjoyed as a friend of Goldman: In May 1999, a few months after he left Bain to run the Salt Lake City Olympics, Goldman allowed Mr. Romney to buy at least 7,000 Goldman shares during the firm’s lucrative initial public offering — a generous allotment even among Goldman clients, according to people with knowledge of the deal. When Mr. Romney’s trusts sold the shares in December 2010, a few months before he formed his presidential exploratory committee for the 2012 race, they returned a profit of $750,000.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Golden Fleece Awards to former members of Congress

Senator Proxmire used to give The Golden Fleece Award to various government expenditures that he believed were a waste of the people's money.  Our Congress now has an approval rate of 11%.  No matter:  it pays to be there if for no other reason than the salaries and benefits they have voted for themselves.  Here are the retirement pay amounts for some former members of Congress:
·        former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt: $106,512 for 28 years as a Missouri congressman;
·        former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle: $105,804 for 33 years as representative from South Dakota;
·        former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole: $144,432 for 40 years as representative from Kansas;
·        former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott: $110,352 after 39 years as a representative of Mississippi
·        Former Vice President Dick Cheney: $125,976, for 28 years as, Wyoming congressman, Secretary of Defense, White House chief of staff, and 8 years as VP;
·        former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: $100,200 for 20 years in Congress. Bloomberg News notes without comment that Gingrich “has argued as a Republican presidential candidate that government employees ought to shoulder more of the burden for planning their retirements.” [Source:]
Remember:  Such amounts they will be taking in every year for the rest of their lives.

Comment by someone serving in American government:
Meanwhile, my pay has been frozen for the last two years and will be for the foreseeable future. Thanks, Congress! Federal employees sure are out to soak the government... it's good you're shaving .005% off the deficit by asking us to take a hit.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Newt’s Outrage and South Carolina’s “moment of enthusiasm”

In the Republican debate in Charleston last night Newt Gingrich scored a standing ovation by his response to a question about the statement by one of his divorced wives that he had asked her to agree to “an open marriage” – that is, to “share him” with his mistress Callista Bisek, who is now his wife.  This was his response:
“I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office.  I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
The response of the audience was the first of two standing ovations. 
Gingrich’s turning the question back on the news media is a familiar political device.  What alarms me is the response of the crowd, who not only accepted his response but endorsed it enthusiastically.  The question was obliterated by Newt’s outrage and the crowd’s enthusiasm. 
Consider the issue raised by the question:  How should the American public respond to a claim by an ex-wife of a candidate for President that he had asked her for “an open marriage” so that he could continue his liaison with a mistress and still retain an appearance of a faithful married man?  Also, how did this private proposal comport with Gingrich’s public behavior at the time?  Could this have been precisely during the time when he was condemning Bill Clinton for his extra-marital liaisons?  Gingrich would keep up appearances while presenting himself as a paragon of virtue. 

That was then.  Now is different, he says:  He has admitted to mistakes and now has reformed:  He is a good Catholic now; he’s got religion.  Now he would have the world understand that it is improper for anyone – and anyone in the media especially – to ask if his behavior in the past is worthy of someone who aspires to be President of the United States.  As he was outraged at the behavior of Bill Clinton he is now outraged at the behavior of the media who want to know more about his own behavior. 

To this outrage there was an audience in South Carolina that would join him enthusiastically in taking offense.  Presumably they agreed that the private behavior of a candidate for President should not be examined, even if it contrasts with the image he even then sought to present of himself. 

Their behavior brings to mind two statements of great nineteenth century social scientists on the behavior of crowds.  One of them said:
[Referring to “a section of civil society [that] emancipates itself and attains universal domination:] No class in society can play this part [of attaining universal domination] unless it can arouse, in itself and in the masses, a moment of enthusiasm in which it associates and mingles with society at large … and is recognized as the general representative of this society”
The author is suggesting that for a “section of civil society” to attain “universal domination” it must “arouse” in the masses “a moment of enthusiasm” through which it “associates and mingles with society at large” and appears to be “the general representative of the society.”  Such a moment of enthusiasm took place last night, when a crowd saw this man Newt Gingrich to be a “general representative” of their sentiments.
The other social scientist who wrote about crowd behavior had this to say:
The great movements of enthusiasm, indignation, and pity in a crowd do not originate in any one of the particular individual consciousness.  They come to each one of us from without and can carry us away in spite of ourselves… Once the crowd has dispersed, that is, once these social influences have ceased to act upon us and we are alone again, the motions which have passed through the mind appear strange to us, and we no longer recognize them as ours. We realize that these feelings have been impressed upon us …  It may even happen that they horrify us, so much were they contrary to our nature.  Thus, a group of individuals, most of whom are perfectly inoffensive, may, when gathered in a crowd, be drawn into acts of atrocity …
I hope that the good people of South Carolina will now, in retrospect, reflect on what happened, what the issues are, and what their response should have been. 

(And who were the social scientists I have quoted above?  And from what publications?)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A proposal to give the tribal areas full representation In Pakistan

Dawn has an article by retired army officer Gulman S. Afridi ["Fata needs a new social contract"that gives us a view conditions in the tribal areas of Pakistan, FATA, that enable us better to understand why so many tribesmen participate in the insurgency.  

Afridi points out that the FATA tribesmen were originally enthusiastic about the founding of Pakistan, and    

[Their enthusiasm] "was reinforced by the Quaid`s announcement of his decision to pull out all military forces from the tribal areas and to allow the people complete freedom of movement.
The successive constitutions of 1956, 1962 and 1973 of Pakistan, ...  retained the colonial-era administrative and legal system enacted in 1872 and embodied in the Frontier Crimes Regulation(FCR) 1901. This system is inherently oppressive, negative in purpose and authoritarian in spirit.
It gave virtually unlimited judicial and administrative powers to the political agents to fine, blockade, detain and seize hostile groups and confiscate or demolish property in the tribal areas.
Fata MNAs did not voice the true feelings of the people as, being themselves no more than glorified maliks, their own interests coincided with the continuation of the system. The larger, dominant state system bears the responsibility for continuing with the outdated parallel legal system for over six decades after Independence.
Lack of effective representation and participation of the tribal population in the decision-making process was always a sore point. At present, they are represented by 12 members in the National Assembly and eight in the Senate but these legislative bodies cannot make any laws for Fata being the absolute domain of the president.
Fata has no representation at a provincial level and no elections are held at the local level. With devolution of powers to the provinces through the 18th Amendment, representation at a provincial level has become critically important.
Neglected for decades, Fata is one of Pakistan`s poorest regions, with reportedly over 60 per cent of the population living below the poverty line.
Huge unemployment, alarmingly low literacy rates, poorhealth services and a badly underdeveloped infrastructure has set Fata apart from the rest of Pakistan. The dismal human development indicators are a clear sign that the state has failed to perform its role in Fata.
Unlike previously, the tribesmen, after some reluctance, welcomed all development initiatives of the government after Independence.
Society was well on its way to progress when it saw its `natural` course of change and development rudely interrupted with the coming of thousands of foreign Mujahideen and recruitment of locals by the US and Pakistan in the 1980s to fight what was then the Soviet Union. The story of how the world abandoned the Mujahideen and Afghanistan, following the end of the Cold War is well known. But what is, perhaps, not known is that Fata too was abandoned, leaving it with a jihadi mindset, an abundance of cheap modern weapons and easy entry and exit of foreign Mujahideen.
The weaponisation of society and the presence of foreign extremist elements has dealt a serious blow to the tribal system. This in large part is responsible for the current imbroglio.
. . . The tribal society, considered classless and egalitarian, has transformed considerably into a class-based society.  Four distinct classes comprising the big maliks, the new rich, the educated and professionals and the common masses can be identified in tribal society. Their overall aspiration and social behaviour towards change and reforms are often characterised by the class to which they belong.
. . . 
No serious effort was ever made by the government to change the FCR, reduce poverty and give effective political representation, basic human rights and a mechanism to redress grievances to this marginalised region of Pakistan.
By failing to fulfil its obligations, the state appears to have abandoned Fata to its fate.
Fata has suffered heavily for being consigned to the backwaters, ignored and exploited for jihadi activities.
The resulting militancy has considerably weakened the tribal structure as well as the old system of governance that cannot be revived.
Afridi is calling for a structural change in way FATA is integrated into Pakistan society:
A paradigm shift is required in approaching governance and socio-economic issues in Fata. It will not be easy but the path to peace and lasting solution lies in ending the isolation of Fata and integrating the region into the mainstream through a new social contract.
[click on the title for a link to the source.]

Friday, January 06, 2012

A view of "Arab spring" in rural Egypt

My students and I have been following affairs in the Middle East with great interest, as it reveals a wholly different image of the Muslim peoples of that region than the Americans have had of them.  That ordinary people will go out on the street day after day to challenge the regimes in power, sometimes in the fact of armed military equipped with live ammunition.  This is what took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria.  And in virtually all of these places the government troops or police killed people for demonstrating on the streets.  How many American young people would do that?  And these demonstrations, in virtually every case, have been animated by calls for democracy and good governance, for governments that would be accountable to the public.  This is what is still going on in Syria:  Now they say the number of those killed has reached 5000.  That is the number killed by the government troops and police when they shot into crowds of unarmed people whose essential demand is the right to choose their own leaders. 
Of all these places the demonstrations in Egypt were no doubt the most significant because Egypt is the most populace of the Arab states and the most strategically located, and the most heavily armed.  It was in last January last year that, owing to the demonstrations President Mubarak resigned from office.  He is now being tried for a long list of crimes while in office.  In recent days, however, the army has become ever more intransigent toward demonstrators.  It looks like there will be another struggle in Egypt, this time between the army and the demonstrators.  Conceivably, this one will be more brutal, more bloody.  We must pray it will not be so.
I have been in correspondence with a recent graduate of American University in Cairo named Keith Whitmire.  What Mr. Whitmire tells me about the situation in Egypt in the last year, especially in the rural areas, is so fascinating that with his permission I reproduce some it here.  I thank him for his help.

[A]side from a few notable exceptions, rural areas were largely left out of coverage [of the Arab Spring activities] during and after the revolution. Hence, very few people seem aware of the ways rural people in Egypt mobilized during the revolution.  [Also,] during and after the revolution, vast amounts of revolution-themed popular culture were created. Moreover, popular culture is something that has always been produced in combination with the countryside.  Singers, poets, actors, and actresses are more often than not from the rural and urban poor.  Yet post-revolution, the interaction between popular culture and popular protest in rural areas in Egypt has gone almost unstudied.  …
It's worth noting that popular culture also has to be defined here, and more importantly defined in a context.  A preliminary working definition for what I am looking at would be music, videos, and chants that are produced by non-elites for the consumption of non-elites.  Such items tend to be distributed by less official channels (i.e., by individuals on youtube, facebook, and twitter instead of via record labels).  In the case of revolution-themed popular culture, the themes tended to be anti-regime, nationalistic, and they tend to emphasize social and economic justice. Needless to say, they also emphasize the downfall of the regime.  The context also has to be located within time, and that time would likely be January 25, 2011 and a few months after.  Mobilization increased in some quarters after Mubarak's resignation and today's poor revolutionary singer could be tomorrow's wealthy friend of the regime, so it is important to view people as they were then, and not as whatever they might be five years from now.

. . . I deeply believe that we cannot begin to understand the world we live in unless we understand not only history, but history as it is seen by other cultures and peoples.  I think the greatest understandings I came to in Egypt were when I could momentarily glimpse history and ordinary life as the Egyptians saw it.  . . . .
The military is much more powerful than most people realized in the beginning.  The military owns a number of factories and a truly shocking amount of land in the countryside, which they farm for their own profits. It's worth noting that my understanding of their ownership is fuzzy.  I don't know where the profits go.  I doubt anybody but the generals themselves know that.  All this is aside of the property, factories, and businesses that high-ranking military officials own privately, which is again, considerable.  Sometimes I think that all the January 25th uprising did was uncover the real power in the country.  Up until now, of course, there have been limitations on the military.

Unlike the police or the central security services, military conscripts in Egypt are drafted by lottery.  Rumor has it you can buy your way out, but that's far beyond the means of most Egyptians.  Central security and police, by contrast, buy their way in with money and connections.  So whereas the central security and the police have a lot invested in the current system, the rank and file conscripts in the military do not. Therefore it's been harder for soldiers to do the same brutal things to citizens because the conscripts are drafted and being ordered, whereas the police and central security are doing things because they're protecting their interests and authority.  You don't wake up one morning torturing people, you lose your humanity by degrees.  Which is of course precisely what's happening with the military right now.  When this started, the military didn't have a lot of people willing to torture, kill, and maim to suppress dissent in the Mubarak fashion.  They had soldiers trained to fight wars.  So they are building a suppressive force by slowly ordering progressive levels of violence and brutality towards protesters.  They couldn't have done this all at once.  Though there are certainly other factors at play, this is part of why violence has been escalating since the military took power.

At any rate, there are more reasons why the military is such a problem right now, . . .  The truth is, some of the things that have happened have shocked even me.  The military plays up the "aww shucks" we're just guardians of the people thing a lot, but it really doesn't hold water.  The grand picture is not one of an inept, well-meaning force trying to right the country (the initial public opinion in Egypt), but rather a focused, ruthless, and very intelligent group trying to consolidate and hold onto power.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The situation in Pakistan is dire [still!], but the American media pays no attention

I guess the American media have to make a horserace out of the Iowa caucus, the preoccupation of recent news reports, but as a consequence a lot has been ignored, as if what goes on elsewhere is less significant for the American people.  Consider the situation in Pakistan, a nation with which we are engaged in the war against the Taliban/Al Qaeda.  It still seems to be on the verge of some kind of melt-down.  Akbar Ahmed [Al Jazeera, Jan 2, 2012], a Pakistani anthropologist, seem to think the situation is serious.  In his recent comment on the problems Imran Khan will face if he succeeds in becoming the Prime Minister there he describes the situation [with each point bulleted separately]:
  • [Pakistan’s] biggest province Baluchistan, which comprises almost half its territory, is in a state of open revolt. Baluchis complain about government's policy of "kill and dump".
  • An entire generation of journalists and professors is being systematically killed.
  • The Tribal Areas of the former Frontier Province is a theatre of war, involving thousands of Pakistani troops.
  • Suicide bombers terrorise Pakistan with impunity.
  • There is no end in sight to the violence.  . . . No one is safe. Kidnapping and killings are commonly reported.
  • The tensions between the military and civilian authorities are barely kept under the surface and the two are often pulling in different directions.
  • Add to this, the woes of the ordinary Pakistani facing unemployment, high prices, shortage of electricity, gas and water who sees his rulers plundering the country and sending their ill-gotten loot abroad and you have Pakistan today.

A nation in such an internal state of confusion and decay, holding nuclear power, engaged rather ambiguously in a war in which Americans put their lives at risk every day – this situation merit’s virtually no notice in the American media.  Try as we might, we cannot avoid being part of an ever compressing world, in which what goes on virtually anywhere can have consequences elsewhere.  And Pakistan’s woes bear directly on what becomes possible for the American government, whoever becomes its President this year. 

Monday, January 02, 2012

Dangers of the Reactionary Mind

Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind [NewYork Review, Jan 12, 2012] provides an insightful discussion of the meanings of the terms “conservative” and “liberal,” as they have changed over time; it also reveals an alarming agenda among at least some folks on the political right.  

Lilla situates the current “conservative” and “liberal” distinctions in their respective historical contexts.  He reminds us that “Like all polemical terms their meaning and usage shifted around in partisan debate, …”  In the early debates [eighteenth century] the contrast in views was about “human nature.”  The conservative view was represented by Edmund Burke [he could have also referred to Herder and Hamann].  “Burke believed that, since human beings are born into a functioning world populated by others, society is … metaphysically prior to the individuals in it. The unit of political life is society, not individuals, who need to be seen as instances of the societies they inhabit.”  On this we can appreciate Burke:  in fact, even now there is a tendency to ignore the powerful significance of the intersubjective world we call society as necessary to our survival, irreducible to the individuals within it.  But what Burke and those who followed him made of this view was somewhat different from my own view:  “Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights.”  The implication, then, is that social conventions should be protected, as if change was dangerous; the conventions of ordinary life should be protected from disruptions of outside influences or innovative ways of behaving.

The term “liberal” as a political perspective had a different origin.  “[T]he term ‘liberal’ was not used as a partisan label until the Spanish constitutionalists took it over in the early nineteenth century … Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, in contrast to conservatives, give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds. They assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action.”  Society and social conventions are thus malleable according to the decisions of individual actors.  Malleable, yes, but sometimes less malleable than some would like:  Consider how much effort had to go into removing the Jim Crow laws.  Changing social orders is not easy.

This kind of difference in viewpoint, conservative versus liberal, was about the question of how to think about culture and individual agency.  This question has vexed anthropologists for generations.  

But this is not the contrast in viewpoints that Corey Robin presents, for he argues that the key issue is over whether the “elite” should govern or whether the “subalterns” should be allowed to govern the country.  
Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite.
This is view of the conservatives now vying for control of the Republic Party?  These folks are “against the agency of the subordinate classes?”  Do they really hold that the “lower orders” should be restrained from governing themselves?  Who believes that the first duty of the subaltern classes is submission?  And that governing should be done by the “elite” classes? 

In fact, from here, it looks pretty much as if those views already prevail in our country, for both parties seem unable to avoid catering to the “elite classes”.  If Robin is correct, how the party of Lincoln has changed!

The debate between “liberals” and “conservatives” in earlier times was over how to understand the relation of individuals to the collective, a much more intellectually challenging question.  But now – if Robin correctly represents the Republican right – the difference is over whether this country should have a real democracy; whether the country should be governed by the “elite” on behalf of the whole or whether the ordinary citizenry can have a real place in the governing process.  As Lilla says, in partisan debate meanings and usages of key categories can be radically changed.