IPS Blog

A Quick Look at the Ecological State of the Union

Hurricane Sandy Climate Change Obama Executive ActionsIn the last year, climate change has come home to the United States in a visceral way. During his State of the Union address, Obama should lay out bold plans for the transition to an ecologically sane economy that reduces inequality.

Images of waves crashing into the Statue of Liberty, wildfires engulfing homes in Colorado, and flood water shutting down the Louisiana interstate have rocked the American psyche over the past twelve months.

For me, 2012 meant living through record-breaking heat waves that buckled metro tracks and derailed commuter trains in my adopted home of Washington, DC. Sadly it also meant saying good-bye to the beach on the Jersey shore where my brother and I played as kids.

Since Obama committed the United States to responding to climate change in his inaugural address, saying that a “the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” American families in the Southeast were hit by severe tornados and in the Northeast by crippling snowstorms.

Of course, dealing with climate change in our country is about more than bad weather. We’ve heard about how battered infrastructure and closed businesses strain on national and local coffers. We hear less about how climate change exacerbates inequality — disproportionately impacting the lives and livelihoods of people living in poverty and low-income communities.

A shot at a better life for everyone has to entail a shift away from an “all of the above” energy plan that includes sources that poison people, pollute the environment, and lock us into decades of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The expansion of fossil fuels and the increasingly extreme ways of getting at it — through fracking, deepwater drilling and blasting the tops off mountains — has got to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Obama said that “the path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult” — no less because the fossil fuel industry and the members of Congress to whom they contribute continue to undermine legislative action on climate. But the transition to shared prosperity and a vibrant clean economy can be made easier with sustained leadership from the president and his administration.

Here are a few actions Obama can take without Congress that he can highlight in tonight’s State of the Union address to show he’s serious about the fight against global warming:

  • Say no to the Keystone XL pipeline. Without waiting for Congress the State Department can deny TransCanada’s request for permission to build a pipeline across the United States carrying toxic tar sand oil to polluting refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Regulate power plants. Since the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants in 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to put controls on carbon emissions. This means the EPA has tools to regulate new and existing power plants and industrial sources that are spewing methane, nitrous oxide and soot into the air.
  • Curb natural gas exports. The Department of Energy can reject licenses for oil and gas industry to expand their export of liquid natural gas to countries with which we don’t already have free trade agreements. And Obama could direct the U.S. Trade Representative to withdraw from negotiations on the TransPacific Partnership, which would fling the doors wide open to LNG export to countries in Asia.
  • Negotiate a global climate deal in good faith. Obama should instruct the climate team at the State Department to return to the negotiating table ready to compromise in order to reach international consensus for a strong and equitable 2015 climate treaty.

Obama doesn’t have to wait for Congress to act — and we don’t have to wait for Obama, either.

People have already started. They’re putting their bodies in the path of Keystone’s southern leg to halt construction. They’re closing down dirty power plants in the cities where they live and work, and meeting with neighbors to create plans to make their communities climate resilient. And thousands of people from around the country will gather in Washington, DC this weekend to call on Obama to push forward on climate in his second term.

Tonight, as Obama addresses the nation he’ll be laying the groundwork for his climate legacy. His comments will also shape how the growing majority of Americans who care about global warming perceive him — as a climate champion or an agent of politics as usual.

A Tiny Tax in Europe, a Big Win for Climate?

Europe has taken a bold leap forward to implement an innovative plan that could help protect people and the planet. Poised to set an example of climate leadership for the developed world, will countries like the United States come along?

At the end of January European Union finance ministers approved a proposal by eleven EU member states[1] to implement a coordinated financial transaction tax (FTT) — a tiny tax on trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives. Through a process known as “enhanced cooperation,” this subset of EU countries (dubbed the EU11) was able to move forward with a common tax policy without having to include all 27 EU member states. The European Parliament gave the proposal a green light in December 2012, and the EU Council waved it forward at their meeting last month without a vote because of overwhelming support among member states.

EU tax commissioner and FTT proponent Algirdas Šemeta called it “a major milestone.”

The next step in making the FTT proposal a reality is for the eleven member states in the “coalition of the willing” to agree to details of the common tax. Negotiations are expected to wrap up and a formal agreement officially approved by the European Parliament in 2013.

The implications are potentially huge for climate finance. That’s the money that communities in developing countries need to make the transition from climate-vulnerable to climate-resilient, and from dirty energy development to low-carbon development.

The cost of that shift is measured in the hundreds of billions (some say trillions) of dollars. Rich industrialized countries have promised to deliver $100 billion a year by 2020. A fraction of what’s needed, but still a big lift compared to today’s levels of around $10 billion a year (if you count generously).

At the tax rate originally proposed by the EU Commission of a harmonized minimum 0.1 percent for stocks and bonds and 0.01 percent on derivatives, the EU11 FTT has the potential to raise up to €37 billion (nearly $50 billion in US dollars) every year.

France, which implemented a financial transaction tax in August 2012, has already made a commitment to direct 10 percent of the tax revenue to global public goods like development, health, and climate change (3.7 percent is destined for the Green Climate Fund). Members of Germany’s Social Democrat party have made general political murmurs that if they succeed in upcoming elections they will send revenue from an FTT to development to help meet the country’s 0.7 percent ODA goal.

Global campaigners are pushing the EU11 to be ambitious in targeting a significant portion of their FTT revenue to fight climate chaos. Members of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance used the recent 2012 global climate summit to call for the eleven countries to deposit 25 percent of the money raised into the Green Climate Fund. Representatives in the EU parliament and from developing countries are also calling for FTT revenue to be used by developed countries to meet their mid-term and long-term financing obligations.

With Timothy Geithner stepping down as Secretary of Treasury there’s renewed optimism that the Obama administration might support an FTT under Jack Lew’s leadership of the Department. Supporters of the tax are planning to raise the issue at Lew’s confirmation hearing in Washington DC tomorrow.

This would be a move that experts like Joseph Stiglitz endorse, who said, “as Mr. Obama’s second term begins, we must all face the fact that our country cannot quickly, meaningfully recover without policies that directly address inequality. What’s needed is… a more progressive tax system and a tax on financial speculation.”

An FTT that raises revenue for a fund that supports developing countries in dealing with the disproportionate impacts visited upon them by climate change is an important step in fighting global inequality. Here, the EU11 can be a global leader.


[1] The 11 EU member states that have entered into enhanced cooperation are Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia and Slovakia. Any other member state may join the enhanced cooperation if they wish.

Low Fertility and Labor Shortages Might Save the World

There has been much discussion very recently about the rapid and deep fall of global fertility rates. The conversation is not new, but has become more intense recently as more evidence has emerged of the depth and scope of the worldwide trend. One factor remains consistent: commentators nearly always assume that this is largely a problem, even a crisis, due to aging populations, shrinking labor forces, and unsustainable government initiatives. At times, increased global migration is mentioned as a coping mechanism, but is usually dismissed as inadequate for various reasons.

In contrast, it looks very likely that a massive increase in global migration, mostly temporary but often permanent, will emerge as the only method of compensating for this situation. Capitalists will not tolerate labor shortages if they can help it, in fact they are willing to bend and break the law in order to get around them, and thus they will inevitably and increasingly push for greater access to the world’s available workers. Government after government will likely bow to the pressure, because, faced with the power of business lobbies and the prospect of companies shutting down due to lack of workers, they will not have a choice. This state of affairs might just save the world.

From 1948 until 1962, it was possible for roughly one-quarter of the world’s population to migrate freely to the United Kingdom. In response to labor shortages resulting from high levels of death and disability inflicted upon two generations by two world wars, along with some geopolitical maneuvering in the face of strong anti-colonial movements, the British Nationality Act of 1948 enabled all residents of the British Commonwealth (consisting mostly of the then-current and former nations of the British Empire) to migrate to the UK without legal restrictions. In practice, this meant that British companies were free to seek out workers from throughout the Commonwealth. Additionally, the relatively tiny numbers of upwardly-mobile Commonwealth residents who were aware of this new opportunity and had the wherewithal to pursue it began migrating on their own to the UK.

Such were the beginnings of the modern, diverse, multicultural UK. Though immigration restrictions began in 1962 and have been refined over the years, the United Kingdom remains a destination for migrants from around the world. In contrast to the perennial worries of nativists and restrictionists, nowhere close to one-quarter of the world’s population migrated to the UK as long as they had the opportunity. It is an empirical fact, routinely stated and re-stated by economists across the spectrum, that immigrants by and large only bother to travel when jobs are available, and the net effect is largely positive for both sides. This can be observed within free-migration zones such as the United States and European Union. Massive hordes of people did not arrive to leech off of the National Health Service; in contrast, the British economy got the workers it needed to shake off its deep post-war doldrums and rebound strongly.

It cannot be stated conclusively (and may be unlikely) that a continued open immigration policy would have prevented subsequent economic troubles, but the ensuing restrictions cannot have helped. In any case, taking the long view, the economic results have been good for the UK and good for the world. Besides the stimulus to to the United Kingdom (whose citizens were able to buy more of the world’s products and invest more heavily elsewhere), immigrants took pressure off of the markets for jobs and public goods in their home countries, and, much more importantly, sent (and continue to send) home financial remittances. More recently, immigrants commonly invest in businesses and other ventures in their countries of origin. All of this activity alleviates poverty and increases access to education, among other factors which contribute to the ongoing decline in fertility in most of the poorer countries of the world. Such is the immigrant experience around the world, and it only looks likely to replicate itself in more and more countries.

One important caveat must be made here, in that it is entirely possible for a country to have low fertility and high rates of unemployment -underemployment-poverty-etc. At the moment, this is true on both sides of the Mediterranean. Forgetting this would be succumbing to the “lump of labor” fallacy, in this case the mirror-image of complaining that immigrants “take” jobs from locals. The upshot of this is that, as labor shortages do inevitably develop in certain sectors of many economies, this will create more opportunities for people from areas with fertility above the job-creation capacity of the local market, and from areas that are simply stagnant for other reasons.

To reiterate, as long as one solution exists, business leaders are going to do all they can to pursue it, and their governments are almost certain to oblige them. Singapore, long a nation of immigrants, seems to be ahead of the curve. The prosperous island nation’s government has been filling its labor shortages with large numbers of migrants for years, and they may have recently learned the hard way that there might not be anything else they can do. This cannot have gone unnoticed in another island nation on the other end of East Asia: Japan. Xenophobic stereotypes (and realities) notwithstanding, Japanese business leaders have been agitating for increased access to foreign workers for years, and a bloc of legislators agrees with them.

Speaking of xenophobia, nativist backlashes are a guaranteed sure thing, and the results can be ghastly. In any case, those who would prevent the movement of labor to fill vacancies are transparently on the wrong side of history. With prevention of cultural conflict in mind, look for governments to rush to broker bilateral deals with nations with cultural similarities (however tenuous), or, failing that, with societies that lack any particular seemingly irreconcilable differences. Specifically, look for European countries to look first towards the Philippines and parts of Latin America, before eventually turning elsewhere. Look for Bangladesh’s leaders to promote their population’s secularism, relatively tolerant atmosphere, and common use of English to lure recruiters. Look for China’s government to encourage its millions of surplus men to emigrate to nations with longstanding Chinese communities, even as China paradoxically is already suffering from labor shortages of its own.

Migration is one of the best mechanisms for reducing poverty, and the inexorable decline of global fertility rates will just as inexorably lead to more migration of the world’s people. As the pool of available labor gradually becomes dry, a world becoming gradually much wealthier (and producing less carbon!) will be in a far better position to deal with aging, shrinking populations, along with all the other problems feared by today’s chroniclers of falling fertility.

Scott Ryan Charney received an M.A. in U.S. Foreign Policy from American University.

The West Must Help Syria’s Neighbors Absorb the Impact of Its Refugee Crisis

At a donor conference in Kuwait last week addressing the ongoing humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria, more than 1.5 billion dollars was pledged to aid Syrians affected by the conflict. UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), in conjunction with Mid-East countries hosting the onslaught of refugees, have been calling for donors to ward off an international disaster in the region.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates each pledged 300 million dollars to assist in funding efforts, alongside the total pledge of 300 million promised by the US and the EU. These pledges must materialize in coming weeks to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. Will other countries step forward to provide assistance?

The mass exodus of refugees to countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and even Egypt, shows no signs of relenting—in fact, the reverse is true—the numbers of refugees have ballooned in past weeks. Syrians fleeing violence, rape, and death are met with open arms by friendly neighboring countries, but the sheer number of refugees seeking safe haven is taking a toll on these countries.

In Jordan, for example, nearly 3 percent of its GDP has gone to addressing basic needs of the 340 thousand refugees living inside its borders—and supplies are running out. Jordan’s King Abdullah stated recently, “We have reached the end of the line, we have exhausted our resources.” With Jordan buckling under the economic strain of the situation, other countries need to step up to the plate.

A majority of refugees in the region are registered with UNHCR or are awaiting processing but many go undocumented in their haste to reach safety and also due to the lack of staff on the ground assisting in the process. The conflict, and resulting refugee problem, has created dire circumstances in many countries hosting Syrian refugees and this will only continue as long as Syria remains engulfed in conflict.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Administration Appoints Itself Judge and Jury on Death by Drone

A Department of Justice memorandum leaked by NBC News has garnered considerable controversy this week, renewing the ongoing discussion over the legality—and morality—of the Obama administration’s targeted killing program. The disclosure comes as John Brennan goes before the Senate as President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA.

The sixteen-page legal memo—a white paper composed by the DOJ for Congress—outlines the supposedly “lawful” justifications for the targeted killing of U.S. citizens: reasons which, as many commentators have observed, are disturbingly vague. The memo states that first, the citizen must be a senior member of Al-Qaeda; second, that this person must pose an “imminent threat” to the U.S.; and third, that the capture of the individual in question must be “infeasible.”

However, as Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian aptly observes:

The most vital fact to note about this memorandum is that it is not purporting to impose requirements on the president’s power to assassinate US citizens. When it concludes that the president has the authority to assassinate “a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US” where capture is “infeasible”, it is not concluding that assassinations are permissible only in those circumstances.

Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitor elaborates on this problem:

All that’s required, under the memo’s wording, is for a well-informed top official of the US government to decide that the person in question is a top terrorist. As for “imminent,” that does not mean “about to happen” in this case. It means only that the alleged terrorist must have recently been involved in activities posing a threat of violent attack and that there is no evidence they’ve renounced those activities.

Other criticisms of the memo have primarily repeated the unlawful and immoral nature of the drone strike program in general, namely that there is no judicial process involved for the target; that the president acts as judge, jury, and executioner in this matter; that such strikes completely violate sovereignty and international law; and that the very notion of drone strike killings, for many of the reasons above, is forthrightly unconstitutional.

Essentially, as Juan Cole explains on his blog Informed Consent, the president derives the power for the drone strike program from a 2001 legislative act, specifically the Congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF.) However, Cole asserts that this act fits the description of a “bill of attainder,” which is a “legislative act that singled out one or more persons and imposed punishment on them, without benefit of trial.” The framers of the Constitution rather smartly decided to forbid bills of attainder for this very reason in Article I, Section 9, paragraph three of the Constitution, which states, “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law will be passed.”

Thus, the AUMF “in singling out all members of al-Qaeda wherever they are and regardless of nationality or of actual criminal action, as objects of legitimate lethal force,” Cole explains, makes it precisely a bill of attainder—and therefore, explicitly unconstitutional.

The leaked memo, in the very least, has placed more public pressure on the Obama administration to address the drone strike program transparently, an issue it has so far avoided or ignored. Yet the administration cannot hope to conceal the program indefinitely: already, the United Nations is conducting an inquiry into both the U.S. and U.K. drone programs, and—since the release of the leaked DOJ memo—President Obama’s nominee for the CIA director, John Brennan, will likely be grilled on the subject as well in his confirmation hearing.

One can only hope that holding the administration’s feet to the fire on this issue will prompt meaningful, lawful change to the drone strike program—yet the United States’ poor track record of respecting the judicial process and international law perhaps makes such expectations altogether too optimistic to hold.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Washington Post Keeps Administration’s Secret About Drone Base in Saudi Arabia

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Abdulrahman al-Alawki

Abdulrahman al-Alawki

The Washington Post, among “several” other unnamed news outlets, has reportedly known of a US airstrip in Saudi Arabia that, aside from the apparent distinction of being the first new US base opened on Saudi soil since the 2003 troop withdrawals, was the airstrip that participated in the 2011 raid(s) that killed Anwar al-Awlaki.

According to the Post, it and those outlets have sat on the information for a year at the administration’s request for fear it would jeopardize the base’s security and the secrecy of US combat operations in Yemen, which are also supported by the Saudi Air Force. It is also notable that the US has set up this while still retaining its heaviest aerial assets (which are reserved for contingencies against the Islamic Republic of Iran) in the region in Qatar, so this is solely an anti-AQAP program that’s been set up.

One of the outlets — not the Post — was going to break the self-observed gag order on the basing details, so the details have begun to emerge, which for presumptive CIA Director John Brennan is hardly pleasant news since his Senate confirmation hearings have begun and there is much talk of him throwing a wet towel on the campaign. However, as Matt Appuzo points out, this is not the first we’ve heard of this base. “In addition to Seychelles and Ethiopia, the senior U.S. military official said the United States got permission to fly armed drones from Djibouti, and confirmed the construction of a new airstrip in Saudi Arabia” was what Fox News reported in 2011, citing a Washington Post report on the expansion of drone efforts worldwide, though the remarks quoted above came from Fox’s own source.

Considering how contentious US basing in the Kingdom was when it began in the 1990s (and, we thought, largely came to an end in the 2000s except for the two military training/modernization programs run for the Saudi military and National Guard), one really has to marvel at how this White House earned the accolade of “transparency” in its first term with actions such as these. It’s worth noting that while detailed explanations — but not material evidence or witnesses — have been offered for targeting him as an active AQAP member, there have been no such specifics with regards to the death of his 16-year old son, Abdulrahman, who was killed in an operation against another target few days later — though unlike his father, he had not been deliberately targeted (the operation was targeting an Egyptian national). Bad parenting has even been offered as an explanation — well, justification — by one official for the son’s death once it became clear he was a minor and therefore not subject to the “signature strikes” that treat all adult males in the targeted areas as militant until proven innocent. (NB: Brennan convinced Obama to maintain this policy and have the CIA “tighten its targeting standards,” according to the Daily Beast.)

But if we are talking in terms of leaks, then yes, this has been a very “Sunshine Week” for the Administration. Since I’m on the subject of drones — though as Gregory D. Johnson points out drones are not the only weapons the US deploys in the Yemeni and Pakistani highlands — there have been some important new stories out about the US’s national counterterrorism strategy here in the Middle East:

1. The black sites legacy of the Bush Administration detailed in a new OSI report, though as OSI itself notes, “it appears that the Obama administration did not end extraordinary rendition,” though it has been much-scaled back. Both Eli Lake and Jeremy Scahill have been to Somalia in the past two years to report on these alleged CIA black sites and the local prisons that feed into them. However, it is clear that the administration has shied away from the sites in favor of drone operations.

2. Not a leak, but Micah Zenko’s discussion of outgoing SecDef Leon Panetta’s recent remarks on drones is still illuminating into the debate that goes on at these levels.

3. A leaked white paper released by NBC’s Michael Isikoff — perhaps from a White House source not happy with John Brennan (finally) moving (back) to the CIA in Obama’s second term? — that providers more detail on the speeches given by Brennan and others about the criteria for putting people, including US citizens, in the sights. Again, this isn’t the official policy document, but as a white paper signed off on by lawyers within the Administration, it is as good as we are going to get bar the Times or the Post releasing audiotape of a “Terror Tuesday” briefing. Glenn Greenwald details the implications in greater detail here.

Pathway to Progress in Israel Runs through International Law, Local and Global Action

Yair Lapid - Israeli Elections

The results weren’t nearly as dire as many predicted. The Israeli elections last month didn’t bring about a complete victory for the far right (and Israel’s far-right is very far indeed!). Right-wing prime minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s Likud Party, in alliance with the right-wing extremist Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party, lost at least 10 seats.

The biggest victor was the new centrist party Yesh Atid, led by charismatic television personality Yair Lapid. He ran on the basis of personality and a claim to represent Israel’s middle-class interests, from the price of cheese to affordable housing to his most popular call, for “sharing the burden”—a euphemism for drafting ultra-Orthodox young Jewish Israelis into the military. Israeli commentators described the new Knesset as divided almost down the middle between center-right and center-left blocs.

That’s all good. But. The campaign was waged virtually entirely on economic and social issues affecting the 80 percent Jewish population of Israel; the needs of the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians were largely ignored. Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the besieged Gaza Strip were off the agenda, let alone its violations of international law and human rights. On the question of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the elections represented a clear victory for Israel’s status quo: the occupation will be left in place.

Read the rest of this article on Yes! Magazine’s website. Yes! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions, published it on February 6, 2013.

A Valentine’s Day Gift That Keeps on Giving

Cross-posted from Other Words.

This year I came up with the best Valentine’s Day gift ever for my wife and daughter. It’s inexpensive and, unlike a bouquet of flowers, should last beyond their lifetimes. They’ll love it! I can’t think of a better way to express how much I love them.

Rather than chocolates or jewelry, I am going to join a One Billion Rising rally to end the violence against women that has shattered lives and torn the fabric of societies around the world.

A billion women — one out of every three on the planet — will be raped or beaten sometime in their lifetime. That’s one billion moms, sisters, daughters, and friends violated, one billion lives shattered, one billion hearts broken, and one billion reasons to rise up and put an end to this violence.

On February 14, rallies around the world are giving a billion women, and those who love them, an opportunity to dance, speak out, and say, “Enough!” There are many ways to make a difference, but here in the United States we have a 32-year-old obligation that I’m focused on: Senate passage of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

This landmark international agreement affirms principles of fundamental human rights and equality for women around the world, including the rights not to be raped or beaten. But ours is one of only seven countries — including Iran, Sudan, and Somalia —that haven’t ratified this treaty.

This accord offers countries a practical blueprint to achieve progress for women and girls by calling on each ratifying country to overcome barriers of discrimination. Around the world it has been used to reduce sex trafficking and domestic abuse, provide access to education and vocational training, guarantee the right to vote, ensure the ability to work and own a business without discrimination, improve maternal health care, end forced marriage and child marriage, and ensure inheritance rights.

Although the Obama administration strongly supports its ratification and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has voted in favor of it twice with bipartisan support (in 1994 and 2002), it has never been brought to the Senate floor for a vote. It’s time to change that.

Why? Joining this convention would continue our nation’s proud bipartisan tradition of promoting and protecting human rights. Ratification requires two-thirds of the Senate to stand together. The good news is that in this time of tight budgets, it would cost us absolutely nothing.

Ratifying it would strengthen the United States as a global leader in standing up for women and girls around the world. Unfortunately today, our diplomats who speak out to end violence against women are too often told that since we are not part of the women’s treaty, we should mind our own business. Under the leadership of Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, we ratified similar treaties on genocide, torture, and race.

Finally, bringing it to a full Senate vote would open up important conversations. While American women enjoy opportunities and status not available to most of the world’s women, few would dispute that more progress is needed. A Senate vote would provide an opportunity for a national dialogue on how to address persistent gaps in women’s full equality regarding closing the pay gap, reducing domestic violence, and stopping human trafficking.

This is something that I know my wife and daughter would love. So I’m speaking out to end violence against women. It will be the very best Valentine’s Day gift ever.

Don Kraus is the chief executive officer of Citizens for Global Solutions.

Escape From Ignorance and Chalga (Part 3)

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Read Parts 1 and 2.

So, you arrive in Canada and you make a decision not to pursue journalism…

I thought about becoming a journalist in Canada. But I was told at the National Institute of Broadcasting that I would have to take a training course. It would cost about $10,000. That was a lot of money for me, basically all the money that I’d brought with me. I had to think of my daughter and the cost of her education. But I said, okay, if I take this course, then I will be able to get a job as a journalist here in Canada. And they said, no, there was no such guarantee. They would try to help me. I thought that I just couldn’t take that risk. Same thing with teaching English as a second language in Toronto. One has to spend years to get their credentials acknowledged. Professionals trained outside of Canada, including teachers, have a very hard time to get certified to become even supply [substitute] teachers, to get their foot in the door. And still there is no guarantee you would get a steady job. However, I really needed to get a job. And, of course, the other experience I had in Bulgaria was driving a bus, so…

The very first year, before I joined the Toronto Transit Commission as a bus driver, it was difficult. I didn’t have money. The $10,000 in my pocket melts very quickly. The rent alone is $1200 a month. If you don’t work, you can spend it on rent alone in less than a year. Toronto, it’s not as expensive as New York, but it’s close. I worked two jobs for a year. One of them was as an interpreter for the Immigration and Refugee Board in downtown Toronto, and sometimes I was sent to courts or the airport. Lots of people wanted to immigrate to Canada, and Canada has a somewhat loose immigration policy. They need people, but being Canadian, they do not openly say, “we’ll take anybody because we need young blood to support the pension plan, decent people who will work and pay taxes.” They can’t do that, so instead they have a system of criteria and evaluation.

Some people are eager to get to Canada sooner rather than wait 2-3 years. They also maybe don’t clearly meet the criteria — the point system where you have to have education or language skills or be in one of those occupations that are required. If you don’t meet those criteria, you don’t have a chance. There were lots of people from Bulgaria who wanted to escape ignorance and chalga, from the late 1990s until 2007 when Bulgaria joined the EU. Hundreds of people from former communist countries would arrive and declare themselves political refugees or seek refugee status. Canada in that respect is very generous. You’re given social support, housing, medical support, until your case is heard. It goes to a kind of tribunal.

You know that a lot of these people are lying, and the judge knows that they’re lying and the ministry of immigration knows they’re lying. Many claimed that they were persecuted for being Roma (and organizations were regularly writing reports about the condition of the Bulgarian Roma). Or they said they were gay. Some people were obviously not Roma or gay. They had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to corrupt lawyers and interpreters who wrote them a story and worked with them on how to present the story, and produced counterfeit photographs or facts. I interpreted cases where the judge humiliated them by telling them that s/he didn’t believe them, and then the judge allowed them to remain in Canada anyway because they were needed.

I had a case where two pilots and a stewardess arrived together. They said that they were Roma and had been deprived of education. The judge told them, “There’s no way you’re not educated and you fly a plane!” At the same time, these people would probably find a job, get a good salary, and pay a lot of taxes.

So I spent a year working there. When I wasn’t working there, I was a mover, moving furniture and driving a truck, I learned the province of Ontario. Then I went to the Toronto Transit Commission, a.k.a. TTC, and they hired me first as a driver. You can become the chief general manager one day, but you have to start at the bottom first.

Two years later, I became a route supervisor where my job was to ”keep TTC on track.” In a nutshell, if and when one or more of the thousands of vehicles moving Torontonians around fell behind schedule due to construction, an accident, traffic or the weather, thus resulting in bunching on a line, and/or when delays to service happen during bad weather conditions or because of construction or traffic congestion, a decision is made and instructions are communicated, accordingly, by supervisory staff to make a service adjustment. A typical and easiest example of a service adjustment would be a short turn. That is when a vehicle will not continue to the end of the scheduled route but will be turned to travel in the opposite direction to balance service on the route.

There are dozens of other tricks, a.k.a. service adjustments, that route supervisors have up their sleeves to expediently ensure the provision of consistent service and uninterrupted flow of vehicles along all routes. One could compare the job of a route supervisor to that of air traffic controllers. Additionally, supervisors are middle management and are in charge of supervising the performance of hourly-paid staff (union positions, almost all operators – a total of some 10,000 – and maintenance workers). They are also first responders to all accidents, incidents and occurrences throughout the system, such as collisions – both property damage and personal injuries, all possible kinds of medical emergencies, assaults, fires, vandalism, loitering, sleepers, thefts, robberies, lost and found articles, lost children separated from their parents, lost and disoriented elderly, inebriated persons, mentally disturbed persons, counterfeit fares, various mishaps, all imaginable kinds of technical issues and equipment failures. It would take a multi-volume book to retell all the “usual, normal stuff” and weird things I have seen and dealt with as a supervisor.

My last position at the Toronto Transit Commission, which I held for some 7 years until I retired, was an instructor with their Operations Training Centre, which is a sort of vocational adult training facility where new hires are initially trained and the unionized workforce are regularly retrained in customer service, professional communications, safety at work, vehicle operation, defensive driving, various work skills and qualifications, etc. If I had stayed, I might have possibly become the chief general manager someday in the 22nd century, but I just got too old and tired and decided to return here: back to chalga and ignorance.

Varna, September 29, 2012

Interview (1990)

Vihar Krastev is an editor of Vek 21 (Century 21), the newspaper of the Radical Democratic party, which is a founding member of the UDF. The paper has a circulation of 40,000 and caters mostly to intellectuals. Krastev was recently chosen to participate in Tuft’s Fletcher School journalism program and will spending six weeks in the U.S. working at a local paper. Although quite busy, he was eager to sit down and tell me what distinguishes the Radical Democrats from other parties.

What does the Radical Democratic party stand for?

The RDP actually was reorganized 42 years after it was demolished by the Communists. The party branched from the Democratic party in 1904 by some famous intellectuals of that era who had decided that the Democrats were too close to the King’s regime. They were for a parliamentarian type of republic. They decided not to go deep into government: you should create the laws and not go into executive power. It happened that most of the people who founded the party at the beginning of the century were intellectuals–poets, playwrights, critics–it was considered to be a party only of intellectuals, too small in membership. When a year ago this party was reorganized by Elka Konstantinova, people again started thinking that this will be a party of intellectuals and it would not be easy for common people to be members of the party. This is not so true. The RDP does insist that members all have their own personal performance in society, to be good enough to stand by themselves without being a member of a large group of people, taking strength from a large party like the Communists do. We stand for radical democracy, for democracy that has no alternative, that makes no compromise.

How large is the party’s membership?

Difficult to answer. Maybe because everyone is too personal in this party, we haven’t made a serious effort to find out our membership. We view the party in horizontal principles. There is no hierarchy. There are branches based on the local principle. Some are even organized on a professional basis. There might be a club of doctors or a club of musicians in the RDP. We don’t want hundreds of thousands of members who are officially coordinated, who have cards, etc. Approximately, to my knowledge, somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 members in the country right now.

The difference between RDP and other parties?

Again, the idea of the role of the personality in the process of democratization. The Social Democrats, for instance, work to make society democratic but they have the socialist idea that society is something organic and you should made the organic body democratic. We think that society will be more democratic when everyone of us is happy.

I need a concrete example of this.

Our party has never wanted to grasp, as I told you, executive power. We would like to make society more democratic through taking part in parliament, by making more democratic and just laws. We don’t want to become ministers.

A perpetual opposition?

Yes.

Are there any particular pieces of legislation that the RDP is pushing for?

Perhaps because of our tradition and the fact that most of our members are highly intelligent people, people believe that it is the RDP’s job to reorganize all the laws having to do with education, culture, law. More or less, we like this sort of work. We also have ideas about reorganizing the military. For example, our president, Ms. Konstaninova has been chosen to be chairman of the committee dealing with education, culture, and science.

What relations does an ostensibly intellectual group have with a trade union like Podkrepa?

I’ll tell you about something which will come out in the next issue of Vek 21. It is an interview with the president of Podkrepa, Mr. Krenchev. He says, and I totally agree: in times like ours, any kind of social organization, even a trade union, cannot help but be involved politically. If you are politically honest, you can’t be but anti-Communist. And if you are anti-Communist, you should be involved on the political level. Right now, we are all together. But when the Communist idea is gone, we will go our separate ways. A trade union will do trade union work and we will do our job in culture and the Social Democrats will try to organize society in smaller groups.

I ask because, in the region I’m travelling, intellectuals are the first to benefit from the changes in terms of culture and freedom. Austerity packages, meanwhile, hurt workers and farmers disproportionately. And the workers are now saying, heck, reform was great when we were all anti-Communists but now it seems that reform only helped intellectuals and we are the ones who have to pay for it.

This is a difficult question but this process is still in front of us: we have not come to the bottom of the crisis. The workers have not come to see the situation as the sin of the intellectuals.

In the elections, the intellectuals supported the opposition and the rest of the country voted for the BSP. Whether the workers blame the intellectuals or not, they certainly voted that way. Are intellectuals trying to bridge this gap?

Personally, I myself have been a worker as well as an intellectual. I started as a teacher, then I worked in TV. Then I was not allowed to do anything in the field of ideology any more. I was good enough to do ideology because I did not have the right thinking. So I had to do other work. My last work was as a city bus driver. I wouldn’t say that I know completely the psychology of the worker. But I more or less think that the mounting crisis will open the eyes of the worker because what has happened in Poland will be felt here in time, in the next couple of months. They have not come to see who their real enemies are. The Communists have managed to make them the spoiled children of the nation. They were given more care, more attention. Now, they will come to realize what they were being used for. They will now come to realize that the artificially created large industrial cities were needed to reproduce the proletariat.

Everyone in the opposition says that they won’t compromise with the Communists. Then, sotto voce, they say that some form of coalition will be formed although no one will call it a coalition.

I think that the Communists are not fit for negotiating because they have never negotiated in their past. If you talk with a Communist on a matter on which you don’t agree about. He might listen to you and not agree. The next day, he’ll come out with nearly your version of the matter as his own. This is their favorite style.

Let me be cynical, for a moment. What you describe as the Communist style could be called, simply, the style of a politician. It is the style of a politician to be manipulative, dishonest, to steal the opinion of others to make it their own.

I get the point. But, I’ll tell you one thing. Politicians in America and Western Europe are actually politicians and try to make the cosmetic effect on a beautiful or healthy body. They will oppose each other to make the surface look better because the body is strong enough. Here, we have to change something much deeper. We have to make the foundations healthy and strong. It’s not politics here.

At first, it seemed as though the opposition was united on the issue of equal rights for ethnic Turks. Now we have two separate movements. Do you think reconciliation is possible?

I think reconciliation is possible though it won’t be soon. You know, when I was a small child, growing up in a region where many Turks lived, we knew in school that some of our classmates were Turks. They got some additional lessons: they studied Turkish, they had Turkish books, they even had a culture house. They knew they were Turks and we knew they were Turks. We studied history and we knew about the Turkish yoke but we did not say that it was the most tragic period of our history. But sometime in the late 1960s, for the first time, the Communists had to do something after Czechoslovakia. They thought that what had happened in Poland and Hungary might happen here. So they tried to do something to release the tension here. Someone here actually created the problem then, here. It was not difficult to make a nation that has suffered under the yoke to feel angry. It was a small beginning, hardly noticed, but the virus was implanted. 1984 when they forced the name changes–this was the final move, the final recourse. They didn’t know what else to do so they used this card. This makes reconciliation difficult: a virus is a virus.

Why did the Bulgarian opposition fall for it? The Polish opposition learned not to be anti-Semitic after 1968 expulsion of 20,000 Jews by the government.

The opposition here was not so undoubtedly popular within the nation. The opposition was not so certain that it was popular within the nation. It felt unsafe, it felt that it might lose position if it stuck to it. Last year, on New Years Eve, the opposition was actually bound together. But the nation responded and said that the opposition was a traitor to the nation. And some people in the opposition did not feel certain enough that they could persuade the nation. We did not have any one of the opposition leaders so popular that he or she could come out in front of the nation and the nation would forget its hatred of the Turks because of their love of this person.

So you didn’t have a Vaclav Havel.

At that time, there wasn’t this someone who could say, “you shouldn’t believe what’s happening” and you should believe the nationalistic demonstrations.

Someone in the opposition told me that they didn’t want Bulgaria to be the path by which Islamic fundamentalism enters Europe.

That’s nonsense if you ask me. I don’t think Europe will need a road for Islamic fundamentalism: it won’t take it. And the best way, actually, to hold Turkey, if at all Turkish fundamentalism is aggressive, is through NATO. My personal opinion is that this nationalistic and chauvinistic remains in our way of thinking in this part of the world is directly proportional to the level of development of our country. Quarrels come with poverty.

And the Macedonian situation?

When Yugoslavia and Bulgaria become normal, well-developed economic countries, there will be no problems. Macedonia will become just another part of the world.

Economic reform will necessarily affect different parts of society differently. What kind of social guarantees, given your individualistic bent, do you support, if any?

It seems to me that the situation as it is depicted at times–with people dying in the streets and mass unemployment–is a portion of the Big Lie. When I am sick, I don’t want the cure to be slow. I want it to be quick. If it has to come, why can’t it be faster. I think everyone will find his or her best way to cushion the crisis.

End Part 3.

Torture Covers a Multitude of Sins

Torture comes in many forms from excruciating pain to death — of the soul, if not the body — by a thousand cuts.

Recently the conservative American Enterprise Institute held a forum on the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Its panel was composed of veterans of the Bush torture years: then CIA director Michael Hayden led the panel and was joined by Jose Rodriguez, then head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, and John Rizzo, then the CIA’s chief legal officer.

I intend to read the transcript in full, but, in the interim, will respond to William Saletan provocatively titled analysis at Slate, The Case for Torture. The forum on “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) was, he writes

… a chance to examine our own thinking. Do we really understand what the CIA did and why? Was the payoff worth the moral cost? And what can we learn from it? … The stories [Hayden, Rodriguez, and Rizzo] told, and the reasons they offered, shook up my assumptions about the interrogation program. They might shake up yours, too.

Assumptions about the validity of torture were not shaken up on this author’s part. But the forum did provide information about torture to which the public might not hitherto have been privy and which might prompt us to fine-tune our arguments against “EITs.” For starters, you may have heard this one.

If you refuse to exploit prisoners, you’ll end up killing your enemies instead. All three panelists trashed the Obama-era conceit that we’re a better country because we’ve scrapped the interrogation program. What we’ve really done, they argued, is replace interrogations with drone strikes. “We have made it so legally difficult and so politically dangerous to capture,” said Hayden, “that it seems, from the outside looking in, that the default option is to take the terrorists off the battlefield in another sort of way.”

“Default option?” Why, exactly, are we stuck with one or the other: torture or drone strikes? Talk about your false equivalencies. As for sidestepping the “legal difficulties and political dangers” of torture, the answer isn’t drone strikes, but inundating drone strikes, too, with “legal difficulties and political dangers.”

Meanwhile, even for someone who has read as much about torture as I have, what follows was news to me. Hayden said that interrogators “never asked anybody anything we didn’t know the answer to, while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques. The techniques were not designed to elicit truth in the moment.” (Emphasis added.)

What, you ask, was the objective then? Saletan writes that “EITs were used in a controlled setting, in which interrogators [inflicted] misery only when the prisoner said something false.”

The point was to create an illusion of godlike omniscience and omnipotence so that the prisoner would infer, falsely, that his captors always knew when he was lying or withholding information. More broadly, said Hayden, the goal was “to take someone who had come into our custody absolutely defiant and move them into a state or a zone of cooperation” by convincing them that “you are no longer in control of your destiny. You are in our hands.” Thereafter, the prisoner would cooperate without need for EITs. Rodriguez explained: “Once you got through the enhanced interrogation process, then the real interrogation began. … The knowledge base was so good that these people knew that we actually were not going to be fooled. It was an essential tool to validate that the people were being truthful.”

To say that torture was intended to tune up (as they say in crime dramas) the suspect for a later interrogation instead of during the “EIT” itself is to put too fine a point on it. In truth, no qualitative difference exists.

Meanwhile, I always wondered how Abu Zubaydah could withstand 83 waterboarding sessions and Khalid Seikh Mohammed (KSM) 183. (See my recent post: Who’s Degraded More: the Torture Victim or the Torturer?) The disturbing symmetry in the figures aside, wouldn’t a suspect subjected to such torture suffer either a psychotic break, or — the presence of a doctor notwithstanding — brain damage? Saletan sheds light on why this apparently didn’t occur.

While citing the program’s rules as a moral defense, the panelists also groused that the rules cost them leverage. KSM, for instance, noticed a time limit on waterboarding. “Pretty quickly, he recognized that within 10 seconds we would stop pouring water,” said Rodriguez. “He started to count with his fingers, up to 10, just to let us know that the time was up.”

If Rodriguez is telling the truth, what Zubaydah and Mohammed were subjected to might strike some as less like torture and more like extreme discomfort. We’ve been accustomed to thinking of waterboarding as existentially frightening — a near-death experience. Now it seems less like peeling off fingernails or chopping off digits (the film torture du jour) and more like forcing a prisoner to stand, or subjecting him to loud music, cold, or round-the-clock lighting.

In fact, waterboarding for 10 seconds, as with the other practices mentioned, still falls under the heading of torture. But rather than a dramatic act of excruciating pain, torture becomes the accumulation of lesser agonies, not the least of which is the anticipation of the frequent episodes.

Unfortunately, there are those who would react to KSM’s torture thusly: “Everyone knows he was responsible for 9/11 and we’re supposed to care because he has to hold his breath for 10 seconds?”

If we want to present a credible argument to rebut proponents of torture, we need to be able to differentiate the different levels of torture from a near-death experience to death (of the soul, anyway) by a thousand cuts.

It might seem that, as with the word “genocide,” we need to guard against applying the term “torture” with sweeping strokes lest the impact of the concept be diluted. In fact, though, torture is a large umbrella sheltering a world of torments.

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