IPS Blog

The Lineup: Week of July 9-15, 2012

In this week’s OtherWords editorial package, Daphne Wysham says that Washington’s recent storm and heat wave underscored the need for wiser energy choices, and Martha Burk weighs in on what the Supreme Court’s health care ruling means for women. On our blog, Tom Israel offers a creative quiz for Obamacare foes. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. A Perfect and Hot Storm / Daphne Wysham
    It’s time to save ourselves from a climate nightmare of our own making.
  2. Year of the Gaffe / Peter Hart
    We’ve got four more months of this to come.
  3. Drinking MOX-Laced Lemonade / Ryan Alexander
    The government is spending $15 billion to create a nuclear fuel derived from plutonium that we have to bribe companies to take.
  4. Why Women Love John Roberts / Martha Burk
    The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the health care mandate may not stop the war on women, but it surely feels good to win such a decisive battle.
  5. Pennsylvania’s High-Profile Pedophile Scandals / Donald Kaul
    The Penn State and Philadelphia archdiocese cases are parallel examples of two grand, exalted institutions fleeing their moral responsibilities.
  6. Sabotaging Montana’s Campaign Finance Legacy / Jim Hightower
    The Supreme Court has trumped a century-old state law that made the state a model for campaign finance in America.
  7. Our Troops as Cannon Fodder / William A. Collins
    Wars of conquest are most popular if they can be made to appear tidy, safe, just, and relatively cost-free.
  8. Mitt’s Gift of Gaffe / Khalil Bendib
Mitt Romney's Gift of Gaffe, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Mitt Romney’s Gift of Gaffe, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Why Couldn’t the Left Prevail in Mexico?

Enrique Pena Nieto, winner of the recent Mexican presidential election.

Enrique Pena Nieto, winner of the recent Mexican presidential election.

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

In the past dozen years, left parties in a whole lot of Latin America countries—from Argentina to El Salvador—have won elections and taken power. But, so far, Mexico has not joined the list. The country’s most recent presidential elections, held last Sunday, did not change that.

Initial election results show Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) prevailing with approximately 38 percent of the vote. (For non-Mexico watchers: the PRI was the party that governed Mexico for some seven decades before one-party rule was shattered in 2000, and it was subsequently thought to be headed for the trash heap of history.)

Progressive Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) trailed behind Peña Nieto with around 32 percent. Right-wing Josefina Vázquez Mota of the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) garnered only around 29 percent of the vote.

Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research had a nice op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the results reflected nearly a dozen failed years of neoliberal economic policies, enacted by two PAN presidents. Weisbrot wrote:

If ever there were an election preordained as a result of economic performance, it would be Mexico’s election on Sunday.

…Commentators, focused on the six-year-old drug war, have largely neglected to note the depth of Mexico’s economic problems. Let’s start with the basics: Since 2000, when the PAN was first elected, income per person in Mexico has grown by just 0.9 percent annually. This is terrible for a developing country, and less than half the rate of growth of the Latin American region during this period—which was itself not stellar. If we just look at per capita growth since the last election, in 2006, Mexico finishes dead last of all the countries in Latin America.

Between 1980 and 2000, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, lost control of Mexico for the first time in more than 70 years, the country saw a precipitous drop in economic growth. Before the 1980s, Mexico was growing at a rate that would have lifted the country to European living standards, had it continued.

It is not fashionable among observers, in the United States or Mexico, to mention that Mexico’s economy has performed abysmally for more than 30 years. Starting with the recession and Latin American debt crisis in the early 1980s, the PRI shifted toward what economists call “neoliberalism”: abandoning state-led industrial and development policies, tightening monetary and fiscal policies and liberalizing foreign investment and trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994, was only the most visible example of this transformation.

Of course, not all of these policies were mistaken, but the overall result was an unqualified failure. The same thing happened across Latin America from 1980 to 2000, where gross domestic product, per capita, grew by 6 percent, as compared with 92 percent over the prior two decades.

The failure of neoliberalism provides a compelling reason for why the PAN lost big. But it doesn’t account for why the Left was unable to capitalize on the situation, trailing instead behind the PRI.

There are a few things that can be said about this. First, the PRI was never as dead as some imagined. While many voters and officials fled the party after its hold on presidential power was cracked in 2000, the party was still strong in many Mexican states and remained a major presence in the country’s legislature.

As for AMLO’s failure, Weisbrot points to two factors weighing against left candidates:

Part of the answer may be found in Mexico’s electoral institutions, and especially the ownership of the news media. In 1988, the PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas, was declared the winner over a leftist candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, only because of widespread electoral fraud. The 2006 election was too close to call: the PAN candidate, Felipe Calderón, who is now finishing his six-year term as president, was declared the winner by a razor-thin margin, and only after a partial recount, the results of which were never released to the public.

More important, the media, which are essentially owned by a monopoly, were found to have played a significant role in the 2006 elections, more than enough to prevent the most left-wing candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who ran again this year, from winning. With 95 percent of TV broadcasts controlled by just two media outlets with a strong and documented bias against Mr. Obrador’s party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, a true left-of-center candidate has little chance.

The first point, fraud, is one that AMLO [López Obrador] himself has emphasized—steadfastly maintaining that the 2006 election was stolen from him. Now, there’s no question that Cárdenas was robbed in 1988. (He was leading in the count until a notorious power outage occurred. When the computers came back up, Cárdenas was suddenly behind, never to recover.) However, I covered the 2006 elections from Mexico City, and, while generally sympathetic to the PRD, I never found López Obrador’s charges of fraud to be credible. There was nothing like a repeat of the blatant chicanery of 1988. AMLO’s official complaint was an everything-but-the-kitchen sink attempt to show voting irregularities, yet its charges were still not enough to convincingly demonstrate ballot stealing or other such improprieties on a scale that would have swung the election.

In this case of the current elections, AMLO trails Peña Nieto by a much wider margin than in 2006. So, while the PRI is still perfectly capable of using dirty tricks, it is very unlikely that fraud would account for a large portion of the three-million-vote difference.

The charge of media bias against the left is more compelling. Indeed, this issue sparked the mass student movement (the #YoSoy132 movement) that galvanized Mexican politics in the last months of the election. The movement emerged on May 11, when student protesters rattled the PRI’s Peña Nieto—then the dominant frontrunner—at what was supposed to be a friendly and carefully staged event at a private university called Iberoamericana.

#YoSoy132 organizer Valeria Hamel explains:

Thousands of students protested against him and then uploaded their videos on YouTube. Meanwhile, the media said that the people involved in the protest were “acarreados y porros” (recruited and paid participants to protest) and that his visit had actually been a success. In response, the students involved made a video in which 131 students showed their university credential identifying themselves as protestors and denied what the media claimed….After this, we [students at other universities] knew that we couldn’t stay silent and allow Mexico to continue through the road of destruction. We had to organize ourselves and unite with other students in order to fight towards democratizing the media and fighting its dual monopoly.

The movement went viral, throughout May and June it helped chip away at Peña Nieto’s double-digit lead in the polls, and it contributed to a late surge by AMLO. Had the PRI candidate gone down in a last-minute upset, #YoSoy132 would have been a huge international story, drawing a raft of comparisons to the most successful of the Arab Spring revolutions. Alas, the Mexico City–based insurgency was not enough.

While bias on the part of the country’s two media giants can serve as one explanation for the Mexican Left’s defeat, it can also become an excuse. Certainly, negative reception of progressives in dominant corporate media outlets is not a condition unique to Mexico, and yet left-of-center parties in many other parts of the Americas have overcome this disadvantage. Other factors weighed against the PRD: since the 2006 elections, AMLO—forever insisting that fraud had deprived him of his rightful presidency—had become a more and more polarizing figure. The party itself was divided, and this bade ill for its general election prospects. To use an analogy from U.S. politics: yes, John Kerry was swift-boated, but that does not account for all of his weaknesses as a candidate.

Despite disappointment at the top of the ticket, all was not lost. Over at NACLA, Fred Rosen notes:

Despite AMLO’s (apparent) loss, the election left the PRD with several things to celebrate. The party won a resounding victory in the race for governor of Mexico City (PRD candidate Miguel Angel Mancera received some 63% of the vote); it won governorships in the states of Morelos and Tabasco; and it made significant gains in the congressional races, keeping the PRI from winning an absolute majority in either the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies, and positioning itself to become the country’s principal opposition party.

Being in the opposition, of course, is a familiar position for left parties. But it’s helpful to remember that Mexico is a rare case in Latin America right now, and that progressives in far more foreboding circumstances have experienced reversals of fortune in the course of a single presidential term. The hope that this could happen for the United States’s southern neighbors is not entirely fanciful. Here’s looking to 2018.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising. You can follow Mark at his Facebook page.

Fed Up With Obamacare?

People all across America are angry about Obamacare. But the future of our health care is now up to politicians – not judges. It’s not enough to talk about what we don’t like. It’s time to talk about what we do want. Here’s a quiz. Fill it out and send it to your representatives in Congress. Let them know the kind of health care system you want them to fight for.

  1. I want a health care system based on the private sector and the free market, not some government-run system with government doctors.
    Agree/Disagree
  2. I want a health care system where I get to choose my own doctors, I don’t want the government telling me which doctors I have to use.
    Agree/Disagree
  3. I want a health care system where most people get coverage through their employers, like they do now.
    Agree/Disagree
  4. I think small businesses should get tax breaks to make it easier for them to offer health insurance to their own employees, to strengthen our employer based health insurance system.
    Agree/Disagree
  5. I want a guarantee that my health insurance plan can’t drop me, or jack up my rates, just because I get sick.
    Agree/Disagree
  6. Drug costs are too high for retirees; they can’t afford it. Something has to be done to reduce prescription drug costs for people on Medicare.
    Agree/Disagree
  7. When I pay my premiums, I want to know that I’m paying for health care and not for bureaucrats. Insurance plans should have to spend at least 85% of my premiums on actual medical care.
    Agree/Disagree
  8. My kids shouldn’t be kicked off my insurance plan when they turn 18. Kids should be able to stay on their parents’ insurance until they are older, like 26.
    Agree/Disagree
  9. When I’m choosing health insurance plans, it’s hard to tell which is the best deal. I’d be better off if there were a few standard plan options so I could shop around and compare “apples-to-apples.”
    Agree/Disagree
  10. I don’t want anybody rationing my health care. There better not be any “annual caps” or “lifetime caps” on my benefits. When I get sick, I want the health care I need.
    Agree/Disagree
  11. My insurance premiums shouldn’t go up because hospitals have to provide free care to moochers who get sick and haven’t taken responsibility for making sure they can pay for their own health care.
    Agree/Disagree
  12. Just because I have a pre-existing condition, I shouldn’t be denied health insurance.
    Agree/Disagree
  13. The politicians have made a mess of our health care system. We need an American health care system that protects our freedoms to choose our insurance plans and our doctors. Tell your politicians to stand up for what is right for America.
    Agree/Disagree

[Note: If you answered "agree'" to all the above questions, you're in luck. Congress has already approved a bill that would do just what you want. It's called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare."]


Tom Israel is the executive director of the teachers’ union in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Caught Red Handed: Rwanda, Violence in Eastern Congo, and the UN Report

The atmosphere was tense during the DRC Briefing at IPS on June 29, 2012. The audience of 45 squeezed into the conference room to hear the updates on Rwanda’s most recent breach of Congolese sovereignty, and the Q & A session threatened to reach a fever pitch.

The panel, comprised of three Congolese and one Rwandan, represented integral members of panelist and moderatorCongo’s extended civil society family. Each panelist expressed concerns about the future of Eastern DRC, yet convictions about the recent M23 uprising diverged dramatically. Some were convinced the conflict was spurred on by remaining post genocide ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis. Others blamed the Congolese government for its lack of political will to handle conflict. Yet others maintained that the external influence of international actors was muddling the picture and exacerbating the poor image of African nationhood. And, of course, the “corruption card,” omnipresent in conversations of the “dark continent’s” troubles, was placed on the table early on.

Anyone who has heard of the DRC knows it’s a country with some issues but despite the devastating numbers (200,000 displaced), popular media has largely ignored the gravity of the latest mutinies in the Kivu provinces. Perhaps the “resource curse” seems too cliché to make headlines anymore…Or, perhaps the ugly effects of Western involvement are too unpleasant for America’s tender ears.

The US government certainly seems to believe the latter is the case. Portions of a recent leaked UN Report provide implicating evidence that Rwandan leaders have been aiding and abetting mutinous rebel leaders. Furthermore, the US has turned a blind eye to its ally’s behavior, suspiciously delaying the release of the report.

However, the root motivation for Rwanda’s and the State Department’s covert support of violence was largely overlooked by the panel. What the conversation lacked was a focus on the vast amount of valuable minerals in the region and potential succession of the Kivu Provinces. It has been said that Rwanda wishes to see the Eastern DRC break off and form a South Sudan-esque situation. A vulnerable and independent Eastern DRC would make an easily manipulated nation state for the resource hungry Rwanda.

audienceMore troubling was the lack of solutions with real teeth. Increased diplomacy between the Rwandan’s and Congolese has a warm fuzzy feel to it but in a situation driven by layers of greed, it sounds hollow and unlikely. Security sector reform was also mentioned as a potential answer to the problematic mutiny. However, if the Congolese government lacks political will and all of its members are defecting to the M23 in the Kivus, it’s likely that Kabila’s government simply doesn’t have the capacity to undertake such reforms.

The situation is likely to remain sticky if the international community continues to play the role of concerned onlooker.

The Wall Street Journal reported the State Department’s tepid response:

“‘We are deeply concerned about the report’s findings that Rwanda is implicated in the provision of support to Congolese rebel groups,’ said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. The U.S. has ‘asked Rwanda to halt and prevent the provision of such support from its territory.’”

Pentagon, it is time to put your money where your mouth is. Politely asking to cease and desist is3 of the panelists a little too polite with the amount of lives at stake.

One of our panelists, Kambale Musavuli, summed up the situation tidily in a July 3rd Al Jazeera interview:

“We are funding half of the [Rwandan] military. They are being trained by AFRICOM and we are still not holding them accountable… Military aid [to the Rwandan Government] is causing conflict in the Congo, and we are partly responsible in the United States.”

Ultimately, a push for greater corporate responsibility is needed in the mining regions and must take a increased policy priority. In the mean time, the US government must suspend all aid to Rwanda until the Rwandan army discontinues its supply of ammunition, recruits, and weapons to M23. It’s time to stand with the people of the Congo. Let’s talk about an sanctions, not pathetically stand by because we can’t let our corporations suffer from lack of access to minerals. The US has a law that requires the revocation of aid from countries who contribute to violence in the Congo. It’s called Public Law 109-456. Let’s see that it gets enforced.

We Experienced and We Learned: My Journey through Rio+20

Growing up I often heard my parents say the phrase ‘tajrobay shod’ whenever they did something wrong or had an unexpected outcome. In English the phrase means “we experienced and we learned.” It always left me with a feel-good, positive attitude about my mistakes.

Like many, I traveled to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development with high hopes. But midway through the conference, the feeling of dismay and disappointment kicked in. I was ready to be a part of Bjorn Lomborg crew. It was then that I remembered my childhood lesson of ‘tajrobay shod.’ I decided that there was no point in harping about the negative outcomes that most of us predicted anyways. So, why bother getting mad, walking out, banging our heads against the wall — instead I pondered how could I make Rio+20 a positive experience.

In search of lessons from Rio+20, I’ve touched upon three themes that in my opinion would have made Rio+20 effective. I’ve experienced the frustrations of Rio+20, and here is what I’ve learned.

Putting a Human Face to Our Challenges

This point was brought up during one of my discussions with Alfredo Younis, of the Zambuling Institute for Human Transformation, at a side event by Peace Child called “Lets get Mad.” The need for identifying important actors that are at the root of the problems that we are trying to solve is key in raising awareness for a particular issue.

Putting a human face to something simply means identifying the actors that are directly involved in the action and holding them accountable for their actions. By putting a human face to the abstract concept of the green economy, one can frame an issue in a way which is more relatable to an individual. As Alfredo Younis put it, we should not demand a green economy, but we should ask for green economists.

Talking About Our Values and Priorities

There needs to be recognition that the problems and challenges that we are facing are a manifestation of broader value systems. We need to move beyond our campaigns for green energy, food security, deforestation, and so forth to focus on the greater transformation that we need to set the pace for the future we want. Our campaigns for all of these issues are important, however, the majority group and hopefully the citizens of the world do recognize their co-dependence on each other and the need for dialogue about our priorities, actions, and way of life.

Working in silos on our campaigns needs to end. We need greater recognition for a change in our mindset and actions. We cannot keep on patching holes in the fabric of our society — we need to transform the whole fabric. We cannot talk about sustainable development without talking about our consumerist and materialist habits. Similarly, we cannot talk about eradication of poverty without talking about unequal distribution of resources. And we surely cannot talk about sustainable growth without questioning growth itself.

Lets Do Something About It

So Rio+20 wasn’t a success. What can I do? I want everyone to ask themselves this question. Inaction thrives on lack of responsibility and anger — we need to turn our anger into positive lessons and take it upon ourselves to do something that will bring social change in whatever way we can. Inspired by Rio+20 (I know this sounds ironic), I decided to grow a venture I started earlier this year called “Ruminize” (www.ruminize.com), which is going to serve as a story-sharing platform to inspire people and help them form a community of changemakers for local solutions that can go global.

Israeli Border Police Conduct Surveillance on Israeli Protesters and Journalists

Long story short: the Israeli Border Police’s Lebanese listeners have come to Tel Aviv to keep tabs on J14 (July 14 movement) marchers.

Or to paraphrase a paraphrase of Leon Trotsky, “you may not be interested in the Occupation, but the Occupation is interested you.”

As our domestic and international readers know, it is common for metropolitan police forces to videotape and photograph demonstrators, as well as journalists at the protests (and then, following standard post-9/11 counterterrorism procedures, match up faces or license plates with police records and other publicly available information in “data centers“). Anyone who had encountered an “Occupy” protest march since last September has surely seen police officers videotaping the march, and knows that the aforementioned data centers can and have been keeping tabs on Occupiers. Surveillance towers, aircraft and vans are deployed as well, most recently in Chicago, Illinois to surveil anti-NATO demonstrators.

And, it almost goes without saying, the Israeli security services do the same beyond the Green Line and on Israel’s borders day in and day out, monitoring the movements of demonstrators, militants, infiltrators, undocumented immigrants, even shepherds. “The Raccoon,” more widely known as the Israeli-built STALKER system, is merely one of their many tools. War is a mother to innovation, after all.

So what makes its deployment these past nights so unnerving for J14? Because it is clear now that in addition to the police, the Border Police are videotaping and photographing Israeli demonstrators, as well as Israeli journalists at the protests. Protests that are taking place inside the Green Line not at all focused on the Occupation. And yet Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino has reportedly told his subordinates to “to document every ‘involvement of the Arab community in the protests’.”

The already blurred line between the West Bank and Israel proper is getting ever more blurred, +972′s Noam Shezaif notes.

Considering Israel’s national service policies, I wonder if it would be fairly easy for the military to identify most people there based on file photos in their service records using face recognition software. Not a pleasant thought to have as a protestor in any country. Though certainly not one that will deter them.

Trading in Democracy: Why Rights Are Still For Real People

One of us had just landed in Vancouver, Canada, for a huge “Shout Out Against Mining Injustice” when we got the news: A tribunal in Washington, D.C. that nobody elected recently issued a verdict that will potentially constrain the democratic rights of millions of people.

The International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a tribunal located at the World Bank, ruled that Canadian mining company Pacific Rim may continue to sue El Salvador for not letting the company mine gold there. The impoverished Central American country could potentially be forced to pay the foreign company $77 million or more in damages. The anti-democratic ruling has ominous implications for all of us.

We visited El Salvador last year to learn more about this landmark case. A wide vein of gold lies alongside the northern portions of a large river that flows down the country’s middle, providing water for more than half the population. The gold remained relatively untouched until about a decade ago when foreign companies began to apply for mining permits.

Farmers and others told us that they were initially open to gold mining, thinking it would bring jobs to ease the area’s deep poverty. But, as they learned more about the toxic chemicals used to separate gold from the surrounding ore and about the massive amounts of water used in the process, they began to organize a movement that opposed mining. Their simple cry: “We can live without gold, but we can’t live without water.”

By 2007, polls showed close to two-thirds of Salvadorans opposed gold mining. In 2009, Salvadorans elected a president who promised he wouldn’t issue any new mining permits during his five-year term. He has kept this pledge.

But Pacific Rim didn’t sit idly by as democracy worked its way from El Salvador’s northern communities to its national government. The company sought a mining license. When the government rejected its environmental impact assessment, the Canadian company resorted to lobbying Salvadoran officials. And, when its lobbying failed, Pacific Rim lodged a complaint against El Salvador at ICSID in Washington under a U.S-initiated trade agreement and a little-known investment law in El Salvador.

Laws and trade pacts like these grant corporations the right to sue governments over actions—including health, safety, and environmental measures and regulations—that reduce the value of the corporation’s investment.

To the surprise of many observers, the tribunal ruled on June 1 that Pacific Rim can proceed with the lawsuit against El Salvador. Even if the cash-strapped Salvadoran government wins in the end, it will likely have to shell out millions on legal fees to defend an action taken after lengthy democratic deliberations. If it loses in the tribunal’s next ruling, it will cost even more.

Laws and trade agreements that allow corporations to sue governments should worry us all. No international tribunal should have the right to punish countries for laws or measures approved through a democratic process, be it in the United States, El Salvador, or anywhere else. President Barack Obama said this himself in 2008 when he promised, while campaigning, to limit the ability of corporations to use trade agreements to sue over public interest regulations.

Yet the Obama administration is currently negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership with several countries. And it’s pushing for provisions that would allow companies to sue governments under this trade pact.

But an expanding coalition of labor, environmental, religious, and other groups opposes giving Big Business this privilege. A similar coalition in Australia, another country negotiating this trade deal, has convinced its government to oppose such corporate “rights.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership may well prove an opportunity for this outrageous assault on democracy to be defeated.

Democracy belongs to the people. Those of us standing up to defend democracy and counter corporate abuse should strongly oppose any new “rights” for corporations being written into new trade pacts as we try to overturn the existing ones.

In Vancouver, we did not sit by idly when we heard the tribunal’s decision. The day after the decision was announced, 200 of us marched to the headquarters of Pacific Rim where Salvadoran anti-mining activist Vidalina Morales vowed that the broad-based National Roundtable on Metallic Mining would continue to fight to keep Pacific Rim out of El Salvador and asked for international solidarity.

For more information:

The European Financial Transactions Tax: Robin Hood or Sheriff of Nottingham?

The leaders of continental Europe’s four biggest countries agreed at last week’s euro zone summit on the principle that the European Union should move toward imposing a tax on financial transactions. Though it was hardly mentioned in the U.S. press, the agreement was big news in Europe. The leaders say they will raise funds equal to 1 percent of total euro zone gross domestic product through a financial transactions tax (FTT), though no details were forthcoming on just what would be taxed or at what rates.

Robin Hood Tax supporters create a pop-up casino opposite the Mansion House bankers banquet, 15th June 2011. Photo by Robin Hood Tax/ flickr

Robin Hood Tax supporters create a pop-up casino opposite the Mansion House bankers banquet, 15th June 2011. Photo by Robin Hood Tax/ flickr

That President François Hollande of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Mario Monte of Italy and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy should all take time out from acute crisis talks to agree on any long-term policy position is remarkable. That they should agree on a new tax is more remarkable still. Nonetheless, Chancellor Merkel stated flatly that she was “pleased that all four here have committed to a financial transactions tax.”

FFTs are nothing new. They used to be called “stamp duties” and all industrialized countries used to have them. Today, they survive mainly in real estate transfer taxes. Stamp duties on frequently traded financial instruments like stocks and bonds were eliminated in the twentieth century in most countries under pressure from the finance industry.

When the world went off the gold standard in 1971 and modern foreign currency markets came into existence, economist James Tobin recommended that a small transactions tax be applied to foreign exchange transactions as a way to prevent instability in these new markets. He argued that the hyper-efficiency of foreign exchange markets could lead to unwanted volatility that might harm countries’ real economies and that a transactions tax would reduce these tendencies.

If Tobin was right for the foreign currency markets, he was even more right for stock markets. He couldn’t anticipate in 1972 that by 2012 stocks would be traded electronically at such high speed that banks would move their computers physically closer to the exchanges so that their trading orders would be executed faster. Tobin taxes are probably more important today for damping down volatility in share markets than in currency markets.

The goal of a Tobin tax on financial transactions is not to take from the rich and give to the poor. It’s to prevent the rich from destroying the economy for the rest of us. Tobin taxes are meant to slow down runaway markets, to let a little air out of inflating bubbles and in general to give people and governments just a little more time to respond to economic problems before they get out of hand. Tobin taxes give the real economy just a miniscule edge over the speculative economy. Usually, that’s all that’s needed to prevent the speculators from running roughshod over the rest of us.

What turns a Tobin tax into a Robin Hood tax is what you do with the money you collect. President Hollande et compagnie have made no mention of taking from the rich to give to the poor. Their plan, to the extent that they have one, seems to be to use the proceeds of a FFT to fund the European Union budget. At best, the money collected might go to the poor of Europe. There’s certainly no talk of spending it on the poor of the world.

And, yet, the rich countries of the world – including the euro four and the United States – have all agreed to dedicate at least 0.7 percent of their national incomes to official development assistance (ODA) to poor countries. This foreign aid commitment has been in place in various forms since 1970, though it has been met by only a few (mainly Nordic) countries. Since the beginning of the global financial crisis, levels of ODA have actually declined for many countries.

United States ODA to poor countries is only 0.21 percent. The top three recipients are Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, which hardly suggests that our aid money is independent of our foreign policy goals. France, Germany, Italy and Spain give 0.50 percent, 0.39 percent, 0.15 percent and 0.43 percent, respectively (2010 figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

The numbers being mooted for the euro zone FTT are tantalizingly similar to the figures that developed countries have committed to spending on foreign aid. It is, however, highly unlikely that any money raised will be used for this purpose. A new tax imposed during an upturn might go to aid. A new tax imposed during a downturn will inevitably be spent at home.

The best solution might be a threshold split. The first 0.5 percent of gross domestic product raised by an FTT could be spent on national debt relief. Any remaining sum could then go to the aid budget. The advantage of such an arrangement would be to make the tax politically palatable now, but morally palatable later. It would also make the tax anti-cyclical: in a downturn the money raised would stay at home, while in an upturn it would go abroad. Wins all around.

But waiting in the wings is the sheriff of Nottingham. The UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, staunchly opposes a European FFT that might cover British-based companies. Of course, if it doesn’t include the UK, a European FTT would just drive business to London. The City of London is by far the world’s largest offshore financial center, dwarfing other even shadier British territories like Bermuda, the Channel Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Isle of Man and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

To have any hope of helping the ordinary citizens of Europe and the poor people of the rest of the world, a European FTT would have to be coupled with European legislation to prohibit the trading of European financial instruments outside Europe. This is technically feasible, but it would require a higher level of commitment than European leaders have shown to date.

To be morally and politically palatable, a FFT should have a built-in threshold beyond which any funds collected would go straight to official development assistance. On the one hand, it is politically unrealistic to expect a European FTT to be devoted entirely to foreign aid. On the other hand, a narrowly targeted FTT designed only to respond to the current euro crisis might simply be repealed once the crisis passes. A well-designed FTT should serve both purposes.

Throughout this debate it must be remembered that a well-designed FTT will pay for itself. The original Tobin tax idea wasn’t about feeding the poor. It was about improving economic performance by damping down the worst excesses of financial markets. Runaway markets can severely misallocate financial capital. We should all have learned that lesson in 2007, if not in 1929. If we can save the euro while improving the economy and at the same time divert part of the benefit to help the poorest people on Earth … why not?

The sheriff might just have to accept a happy ending after all.

Agreement on Syria Reached Without Syrians

Scene from Homs.

Scene from Homs.

Cross-posted from There Will Be War.

The June 30 round of United Nations–led chats about the Syrian conflict, once again starring envoy Kofi Annan—but not including Iran or Syria—has led to an “agreement” that would “support” a new “transitional body in Syria that would lead a United Nations-backed political transition…that could potentially strip the president of his executive authority” as the Wall Street Journal attempts to put it. The reason anyone should take this seriously is that Russia has pledged its support for this creation. However, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton still verbally jousted over whether this means President Bashar al-Assad actually has to give up power.

I doubt that those in villages besieged by mortar shells or militiamen, as well as those security forces routinely ambushed by the rebels, will be sleeping any more soundly in coming months. No doubt commentators will be skeptical of the agreement’s efficacy in stemming the almost 40-killings-a-day average in the near future.

In all fairness to those trying to stop the bloodshed, it’s hard to imagine a more frustrating situation than the Syrian conflict. For the world to bear YouTube and AlJazeera English witness to the mass murder of innocent men, women and children in the 21st century is both a human tragedy and a tragedy of the nation-state system. (On the bright side, at least the United States didn’t directly cause this one.) But it is clear from the year-plus of international hand-wringing, including this latest quarter-measure, that there is little will or call to stop it by military means.

It’s not only the U.N., whose observers are manipulated by both sides on the ground, that’s having little luck coming up with solutions. Op-ed writers and think-tankers are having a hard time coming up with new angles on this stalemate of death and destruction. Knowledgeable realists can no longer get away with advocating intervention as editors at The New Republic and John McCain once did. Even as recent events, such as the Houla massacre of women and children and the downing of a Turkish jet by Syrian guns, have exacerbated tension with the U.N. and NATO, the echo chamber of condemnation against the Syrian government continues to ring hollow. And debates over whether or not to call it a “civil war,” while ostensibly altering international legal actions, are exercises in semantics.

While speculation about the nature of the opposition and CIA involvement mounts, little has changed in Syria in the last six months aside from the rising death toll and heated rhetoric between Russia and the U.S. There are three main reasons intervention is currently untenable: the fragmented and Islamic nature of the opposition, the Syrian regime’s backers (Iran, Russia and to a lesser extent China), and the war-weary, insolvent West. Without intervention, there is little hope this bloody revolt will not end without at least another 10,000 slaughtered.

It never seems to fail that after the regime gains the upper hand by retaking a rebel stronghold, more high-level military officers defect to the Free Syria Army in Turkey and the insurgents are re-supplied by their regional Sunni benefactors, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The consistent back and forth portends an endlessly even match, piling high civilian atrocities and refugees.

But there is some good news: U.N. observers and Human Rights Council still can’t piece together whether government forces or rebel groups were behind the massacres in Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir. Why is this good? When reports of the Houla massacre first surfaced, media outlets blamed the al-Assad government without question based on a very early report of some U.N. folks—remember all that “tipping point” talk? Eventually stories with eyewitness accounts trickled in from Europe that at least gave the Syrian regime spokesman’s denials some weight. When both the Syrian opposition and the powers-that-be in Damascus have every reason to belch propaganda, the media has a responsibility to admit to itself and its subscribers that the fog of war has descended and that it’s OK to say “We don’t know.”

A Brief Glimpse of Syria Six Months Ago

In mid-December 2011 James Harkin’s report from Homs, the foremost symbol of the decimation wrought by the regime against its own cities, was published in Newsweek.

Homs, where [Mohammed] lives, is home to just over a million people, right in the heartland of Syria. It’s where Syrians go to flee the bustle of Damascus and relax in its cafés and restaurants and to watch soccer (Homs boasts two popular soccer teams, Al-Karamah and Al-Wathba). Not anymore; since March, when its people rose up to complain against economic injustice and demand more political freedom, and its armed forces replied with guns and repression, the city has been under a fierce siege. Most of the city is under total military lockdown, Mohammed tells me. No one can go out; everyone stays at home. “There are tanks in the streets where I live. You can’t really walk around; it’s dangerous.”

Bombs started detonating on the streets of Damascus, which previously had not seen much violence, with increased frequency. On January 6, an explosion killed 26 just two weeks after a bomb targeting security installations killed 44, which had officials believing al-Qaeda had stepped in. The nonstop fighting persuaded Arab League monitors to flee Syria, saying their mission to forestall bloodshed was a failure.

Syrian opposition groups say the monitors, who deployed on December 26 to check whether Syria was respecting an Arab peace plan, have only bought Assad more time to crush protests.

On January 11, 2012, President Bashar al-Assad addressed the public for the first time in six months. Cheering thousands show that his support among the people can still be wielded as a countermeasure to the reams of negative press his regime has received worldwide. He said:

“We do not close the door for solutions or suggestions, and we do not close any door for any Arab initiative, as they respect Syrian sovereignty and the freedom of our decision and care about the unity of our nation.”

“There is no order at any level within the levels of our country to shoot at any civilian.”

The fact that al-Assad needed to come out and say that has its own inferences. In the January 6 Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami, author of a book that came out in June 2012, The Syrian Rebellion, gave a sharp critique of Bashar al-Assad’s regime—overstating his case by comparing Syria to a “North Korea on the Mediterranean”— and the do-nothing West. He bemoaned the fact that the Syrian people are on their own, as they very much are six months later.

The U.S. response has been similarly shameful. From the outset of the Syrian rebellion, the Obama administration has shown remarkable timidity. After all, the Assad dictatorship was a regime that President Obama had set out to “engage” (the theocracy in Tehran being the other). The American response to the struggle for Syria was glacial.

Another voice pushing forceful regime change, according to the Washington Times, is Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Council’s executive board.

Mr. Nashar noted why U.S. officials might be “very hesitant to pursue this particular policy,” citing the recent U.S. military exit from Iraq and upcoming elections. He also suggested they might be “waiting for a certain international coalition spearheaded, not by the U.S., but perhaps more so by Turkey.” “And it’s quite unfortunate because, after all, the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world,” he said, nonetheless adding that a Turkish-led NATO operation with “cover” from Arab states would enjoy the greatest support among Syrians. Mr. Nashar said the U.S. has a “historic opportunity” to improve its image in Syria. “The vast majority of the Syrians I know were completely supportive of what NATO did [in Libya],” he said.

The Syrian opposition and their divided institutions-in-exile were ambivalent about foreign intervention.

The National Coordination Committee had disagreed with the Syrian National Council’s calls for foreign intervention – one of several disputes that had prevented opposition groups agreeing on what a post-Assad Syria should look like.

Under their pact, the two sides “reject any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country, though Arab intervention is not considered foreign.”

Paul Mutter at Salon.com summed up the myriad intervention considerations and comparisons to Libya at the time.

Other prominent voices in the insular but influential world of neoconservative thought include a team of defense specialists at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently issued a report concluding, “Intervention in Syria would be a demanding mission carrying significant risks,” while also asserting that “intervention also presents policy opportunities.”

Michael Quiñones’ latest project, a fizzy look at foreign policy predictions, launched in July 2012 at There Will Be War.

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