Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Energizer Bunny of Punditry

Just wake me up when it's over, when Western press rooms shut the f*ck up on Iraq. I can't handle it. I can't handle another wave of idiots risking monumental misunderstanding of the conflict - with such dire consequences - because a) it benefits them and their careers, or b) they don't give a shit and it's fun.

As violence escalates in Iraq, so does the level of misinformation.

The policy wonks, the self-appointed experts, the corporate media shills, the retired generals, the warhawks and chickenhawks, and millionaire politicians - their love affair with error dies hard, hence the festering, never-ending coverage of a festering, never-ending war that did not conclude with the withdrawal of US troops in 2011.

Iraq was never "stabilized" or "won." Peace has remained elusive since the first bomb was dropped in 2003.

Not a single day has passed since our original experiment with "shock and awe" that has not seen dozens of Iraqis die either by political violence or disease due to the virtual collapse of the Iraqi state (via our massive military campaigns and disastrous occupation policies like Bremer's de-Ba'athification). 

Recent events are not a bolt from the blue but part of a continuum, as Raed Jarrar, who survived the war, points out: 

The deterioration we see today didn’t happen in a few months. It happened over a long, long period of time. There was so much destruction and death and displacement and ethnic cleansing imposed upon Iraqis before we reached this week of actual sectarian civil war.

Iraq was once one of the most developed countries in the region (orientalist archives hardly do its beauty justice). But our repeated aggressions, wars, and sanctions have laid waste to a proud civilization and made events there painfully analogous to some of the world's bloodiest, most prolonged conflicts, from the Balkans to Afghanistan to Somalia.

Coverage of Iraq has always been dismal. In 2011 (9 years after the war started) I wrote this to the editor of a local newspaper:

IRAQ: Where’s context for all those statistics:
The Associated Press article about Camp Victory (TNT, 12-3) notes Saddam Hussein’s “convoluted” view of the world. I agree with that sentiment entirely, but in kind, I ask you to take note of the convoluted view your paper inadvertently promotes.
You print statistics with questionable sources (from the Brookings Institute that peddled the war and the Pentagon that fought the war), quote incomplete figures (the electricity statistic), and use curiously evasive language (why are only Iraqis displaced within Iraq called refugees, and not those who fled its borders?). Even worse, you printed these statistics without context.
I am disturbed that the shoddy reporting that got us into the ill-gotten Iraq war in the first place continues to this day. So let me make a suggestion: Don’t print volleys of statistics concerning real human beings without context
Iraq, a nation we devastated though decades of U.S.-led sanctions, two U.S.-led invasions and nine years of occupation, deserves better.
Here’s some honest-to-goodness context for you: According to the reputable Mercer 2011 Quality of Living Survey, of more than 220 cities around the world, Vienna is the best place to live, and Baghdad is the worst.
Yes, Baghdad – a place we liberated – is the worst place to live in the world.
Baghdad is still waiting. And so am I – for solid, contextualized, honest reporting on a nation we’ve utterly destroyed.

Saddest of all is that this misery and strife could have been avoided had well-informed, independent voices been listened to from the start. Instead, their careful analysis was systematically sidelined by those inside the Beltway. 

Prof. Juan Cole's website Informed Comment has been my go-to source on the topic for over a decade now. Due to the historical breadth of his knowledge and his consistently clear-eyed analysis, I can't recommend him enough. Anyone studying this conflict will have to dive into the archives of his writings if they hope to grasp its complexity, especially in "real time." In its initial stages (first 4-5 yrs) he wrote about the war nearly every day, and has since continued to devote considerable time and energy to it. 

And unlike most commentators on the scene, Cole is fluent in several of the region's languages, a basic requirement for understanding its people and politics, you'd think:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Unite! Rewrite!

What does revolution look like?

Is it the overthrow of a single leader? The upending of a corrupt system? The total elimination of the state?

Or the birth of a new social order?

Is it romantic?


Maybe it's all those things or none of those things. Or maybe it's something much more unassuming, like tax reform.

Don't be fooled by its dull, prosaic exterior. At its core, progressive tax reform is calling for something truly radical: the redistribution of wealth.

Ask yourself: What would society look like if billions of billions of billions, okay trillions, of offshore corporate profits were properly taxed or taxed at all? How would our national priorities shift if bad behavior, like polluting the earth, instead of good behavior like working, were heavily taxed?

What would happen if tax avoidance loopholes were sutured shut? if capital gains and working class wages were taxed fairly in relation to one another?

What would such a major recalibration look like?

I am wagering that working class Americans would for once stand a decent chance at obtaining the full reward of their labor, that the toxic, pervasive atmosphere of crisis defining the lives of 50 million poor Americans would relent, that the devastating economic disparities setting us apart from all other advanced nations would finally, courageously be confronted, that genuine democracy, in an era of growing plutocracy, would actually stand a chance.

Of course the only thing standing in the way of major policy changes like the rewriting of our backwards tax code is the policy makers themselves because Congress has been effectively purchased by corporate America.

However, what's most exciting about the prospect of tax reform is that it is possible. It is doable. Maybe that's what makes its so boring. Because it's the reform of - rather than dismantling of - the institution we love to hate. Yet real reform would be a huge victory for economic justice in this country. A majority of households would be positively affected.

But like all revolutionary change, it needs no small thing: a movement.

Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, is calling for tax reform as a practical answer to the current era of unprecedented corporate welfare in his recent white paper: "Reforming Taxation to Promote Growth and Equity." I was happy to catch a portion of his interview with Bill Moyers on TV today:

A new report by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz for the Roosevelt Institute suggests that paying our fair share of taxes and cracking down on corporate tax dodgers could be a cure for inequality and a faltering economy.

This week on Moyers & Company, Stiglitz tells Bill that Apple, Google, GE and a host of other Fortune 500 companies are creating what amounts to “an unlimited IRA for corporations.” The result? Vast amounts of lost revenue for our treasury and the exporting of much-needed jobs to other countries.

“I think we can use our tax system to create a better society, to be an expression of our true values.” Stiglitz says. “But if people don’t think that their tax system is fair, they’re not going to want to contribute. It’s going to be difficult to get them to pay. And, unfortunately, right now, our tax system is neither fair nor efficient.”