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August 14, 2017

North Korea and US provocation

[self-published blog post]

The current tensions concerning North Korea are connected to history, unnecessary, and dangerous. President Trump is playing two games simultaneously. One he understands, one he likely does not.

The former is the game of domestic politics. With record-low approval ratings sitting somewhere around 35 percent, a daily shellacking in the press, increasing tensions with his own party, and a formal investigation that could mean his presidency, Trump knows that war, even the rhetoric of war, is a winner. And the president could use some winning. The population, the press, and the political establishment all share a deep, abiding respect for military power and the use of that power. That one is easy.

The latter game is one of foreign policy. Here he is out of his depth, playing with fire, and could possibly move matters into a conflagration. According to Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and someone familiar with North Korea and its capabilities, "The greatest North Korean threat we face is not from a nuclear-tipped missile hitting the US mainland, but from Washington stumbling into an inadvertent nuclear war on the Korean peninsula."

Looking at recent history, the fire Trump is playing with was started by the George W. Bush administration, and kept alive by Obama.

During the 1990s, the Clinton administration, which was also hawkish on North Korea, eventually engaged in substantive diplomacy with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea’s official appellation. The dialogue, owing much to the efforts of former President Jimmy Carter, produced results. As summarized by historian Bruce Cumings, a leading scholar on Korea, "President Bill Clinton got it [the DPRK] to freeze its plutonium production for eight years (1994-2002).... Clinton also signed an agreement with Gen. Jo Myong-rok stating that henceforth, neither country would bear 'hostile intent' toward the other."

However, the agreements were not to last. "The Bush administration promptly ignored both agreements and set out to destroy the 1994 freeze." "The simple fact," says Cumings, "is that Pyongyang would have no nuclear weapons if Clinton's agreements had been sustained."

When, in 2002, George W. Bush included North Korea in his "axis of evil" formulation in the context of the "war on terror," it is little wonder Pyongyang's interest in joining the "nuclear club" became steadfast. Barack Obama would simply maintain the posture of his predecessor in the form of bomber flights near the North Korean border, cyberwarfare, and the so-called "pivot" to power projection in Asia, to name a few specifics.

The US-DPRK tensions have therefore been induced. If Washington wished, it could with relative ease engage Pyongyang diplomatically, build on the Clinton agreements, and work toward full normalization of peninsular North-South relations and Washington-Pyongyang relations.

The current situation is not a case of the world's policeman being burdened and threatened by a rogue, lunatic dictator. For one: while certainly vicious, power hungry, and creepy, Kim is a rational actor; his broader priorities are economic development and self-preservation—of his country and himself. For another: the United States is not an innocent bystander and has been heavily involved in Korean affairs since 1945. Three points worth taking into consideration:

1. CREATION: At the end of World War II, Washington (with Moscow's agreement) unnecessarily divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel into north and south "spheres of influence." This is something that should never have happened. It also sowed the seeds of future war.

2. DESTRUCTION: Initially a peninsular conflict, Washington played a direct role in the Korean War (1950-53), conducting saturation and incendiary bombing in the north, killing refugees, and contributing to a death toll of approximately 2-3 million Koreans, the majority being civilian. (The numbers for the Korean War, with regard to Korean and American deaths, are eerily close to those of the Vietnam War.)

3. PROVOCATION: Ever since the Korean War, the United States has maintained a strong military presence in and around South Korea. This includes Washington keeping nuclear weapons in South Korea over the course of the Cold War, as well as conducting with South Korea military exercises that continue to present day.

In the meantime, people are following the situation between the White House and North Korea with understandable concern. However, there is as of yet little cause for panic. Though dangerous, the tough talk between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is, so far, just that. At present, there is no physical movement, such as mass mobilization, toward armed conflict. North Korea knows a fight would be devastating, and those who steer US foreign policy know that a nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be catastrophic, with global implications.

Moreover, the United States and North Korea are in diplomatic contact. Referred to as the "New York channel," the US envoy for North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, and a senior North Korean diplomat at the UN, Pak Song-il, have been conducting back-channel meetings since February. Beyond the topic of Americans being held in North Korea, the substance of the meetings is unknown. Even if there is a modicum of discussion of the present tensions, there is value and sanity in both sides, at the very least, engaging in "talk about talks," as it has been put.

North Korea is a country that borders on being dystopian. It is not a place I would want to live. And one can effortlessly point at Kim, who is just as much a cult leader as anything else, and cast judgment. But Americans would be remiss to not include the part their country has played. Simply put, we shouldn't be shaking our heads, lamenting the state of the world; we should be pointing at the White House for its contributions to the state of the world. Its present contributions.

Because, should their be misread signals in the current crisis and a trigger gets pulled, the state of the world would get remarkably worse.

August 7, 2017

Fourth edition

The first book, The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction, has been re-released in a revised and updated fourth edition.

This new edition features the events of the 2012-16 period (spanning Obama’s second term), as well as many small changes throughout the book.

Amazon is now taking orders:

https://www.amazon.com/Palestine-Israel-Conflict-Basic-Introduction/dp/0745399266

The occasion of a new edition is always bittersweet. The title has been in print for 12 years now, and along the way I’ve had the repeated opportunity to bring it up to date and make improvements. In the bitter column, however, the book sadly remains topical. I look forward to it properly becoming, as such, a history book.

Nevertheless, the publisher and I are excited about the new edition, and it’s my hope that it will accommodate those seeking a summary of both the conflict’s history and its recent developments.

Thank you for the continued support and interest.

Gregory



July 20, 2017

Healthcare and the GOP

The Republican Party of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon—even George H. W. Bush, for that matter—has mutated into a purely ideological movement. That ideology, which might be labeled ultra-corporatist, is dedicated to (1) rewarding higher incomes with tax breaks, which many millionaires (and billionaires) have come forward saying are pointless, and (2) reduction and/or sabotage of government-provided services to the citizenry, manufacturing "proof" that the federal government is too big, inefficient, etc.

Readers of this blog will know I'm not being partisan. I am not a Democrat. I do not support the Democratic Party, for the same reason that, were I old enough then, I would not have supported Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Today's Democrats are basically yesterday's Republicans. We now have a Republican Party (called Democrats) and a right-wing-libertarian-evangelical party (called Republicans). The former is bad. The latter is worse.

The literature on the rightward shift of American politics is rich and detailed. Books by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, analyst Thomas Frank, and others provide a handy reference to this recent history. The GOP has successfully enchanted the white working class while pursuing policies that harm the white working class. The tactics are easy and merely involve branding. Appeal to Christian piety is one. Appeal to racist hatred is another. And appeal to cowboy-movie archetypes is another. These three work like, well, a charm. Whether the recent healthcare debacle will help break the spell is hard to say, though there are signs of it.

The efforts to do away with—or "repeal and replace"—the Affordable Care Act have for now ended in failure. And this is good news for lower income people (Medicaid expansion extended coverage to about 10 million people) and those who purchase their own insurance (about 10 million). All in, about 20 million people now have insurance that didn't before. Think the population of Romania or Taiwan.

But the ACA, or Obamacare, is struggling. For one, not enough healthy people have purchased plans through the exchanges, which has driven up premiums and deductibles. If health insurance companies take on more sick enrollees than healthy ones, this then creates greater expense for the provider. The simile of an all-you-can-eat buffet has been used to illustrate the point: the success of a buffet depends on many customers not eating very much. If, however, the preponderance of your clientele are sumo wrestlers, your smorgasbord will likely go under.

However, the GOP has also contributed to market instability. Republicans in both houses have worked very hard—it's interesting to note when they are willing to roll up their sleeves and put in overtime—ensuring that if they can't nullify Obamacare, they will at least do it maximum damage. Trump continues to promise doing what he can to monkeywrench the individual mandate and cost-sharing subsidies (see also here). According to CNN Money: "The uncertainty surrounding the mandate and the subsidies is responsible for up to two-thirds of the 2018 rate hikes, according to consulting firm Oliver Wyman in a June report."

When ideology is placed above all else, this is what one gets. The "conservative" priority is to erase the memory of Barack Obama and his "liberal" legislation by causing chaos at the expense of those who are vulnerable. Members of Congress make a base salary of $174,000 and enjoy heavily subsidized health insurance. The mistreatment of those with little by those with much, it is worth mentioning, is not particularly Christian and contravenes the basic white-hat ethos on display in cowboy movies; racist hatred, of course, remains unperturbed in this scenario. Simply put, what the GOP is doing is not in any way conservative; it is vicious and morally indefensible.

The future of the ACA is a question mark, but it seems here to stay for the time being. As I've mentioned before, it is not a great healthcare system, speaking from experience. But after seven years of attempting and failing to rid the country of an improved system, the GOP could opt to help upgrade the ACA. Choose instead the path of "refine and reform." They did it in the early 2000s with Medicare.

Making the system better would not be hard in the least. Raising subsidies, for a start, would help increase enrollment and lower premiums. For an extensive list of improvement strategies, see Charles Gaba's blog, which I have found helpful.

A vote to repeal only (and replace later) still looms in the Senate next week, though it doesn't appear the requisite 50 GOP votes are in place. Republican senators Susan Collins (ME), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Shelley Moore Capito (WV) have said they won't support repeal without replacement.

Should the repeal-only vote also fail, it is anyone's guess what will be next. Fortunately, we have a lot of say in the matter. Moving forward will require us to think outside the partisan confines in which Capitol Hill—and the healthcare industry—would prefer us remain.

July 7, 2017

Healthcare: graph and primer

Two recommended links: One to a very simple graph illustrating the cost-benefit reality of the US healthcare system. And the other, a very simple breakdown of the five basic forms of health insurance.



The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, in essence, is a mandate for those without health insurance to purchase a plan. The government then contributes to lowering one's monthly premium costs. It's not a great system, but it's a better system. One that needs further improvement, such as greater subsidies or the creation of a "public option," that is, a government-run insurance policy that would compete with the private market. Yet, due to politically generated market instability and health insurance companies operating with little restraint, premiums and deductibles have gone up for many people, sometimes dramatically.

The ACA is a case of the federal government raising (slightly) taxes on higher incomes to provide subsidies and expanded health services. The Republican Party is therefore ideologically opposed—despite the fact that key components of the ACA were originally forged by the Heritage Foundation, a Republican think tank.

Nevertheless, the GOP was incensed by the passage of the ACA into law. They feared its success (which it can boast) and its popularity (likewise), and for that reason the Republicans have arduously sought to destroy it: "repeal and replace." The draft of the replacement healthcare bill recently presented by Senate Republicans—which predictably cuts taxes and services—achieved 17 percent popular approval.

So, for now, we merely have a bad healthcare system, unless the GOP can successfully make it worse. According to the 2016 Bloomberg index on healthcare efficiency, ranking 55 nations, the United States is near the bottom (number 50) nestled between Libya, Belarus, and Serbia above, and Jordan, Colombia, and Azerbaijan below.

Unlike its neighbors in that list, the US population has far easier influence in these matters.

June 15, 2017

NYT: "An overly cautious, centrist ideology"

Yesterday, in a New York Times op-ed piece, Bernie Sanders made a number of sound points concerning where the Democratic Party should be headed. (Basically, to become an actual labor party.) Even before happening upon the piece, I had been thinking for a while about the NYT's treatment of Sanders, his supporters, and policy specifics they champion like single-payer healthcare.

Predictably, the paper has been somewhat dismissive, at times condescending. Recent examples can be found here, here, and here; the first of the three also appeared in yesterday's paper a few pages before the Sanders op-ed.

Sanders's choice of forum was apt, as I am sure he's aware of the NYT's viewpoint. When he states in his essay that "too many in our party cling to an overly cautious, centrist ideology," he chose words certainly appropriate to the Times's orientation.

The NYT prefers its Democrats cut from the Clinton-Obama bolt of fabric. And anything a sixteenth of an inch to the left of what are basically Republicans from a bygone era is treated with a patronizing, avuncular patience.

With 2020 in mind and the 2018 midterms soon in sight, many of the forces working against substantive political progress in the United States will be "liberal." This despite the fact that the policies that Sanders and his supporters are talking about have majority support. They are, in point of fact, centrist.

On the topic of healthcare and the midterm elections, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi recently maintained that "state-level action was more appropriate" as an overall party strategy. "The comfort level with the broader base of the American people," she argued regarding a single-payer system, "is not there yet" (third "here" above).

The polling data for now many years, however, tells a different story. And little by little, especially in places like California, universal healthcare is getting the attention it deserves.

A general leftward drift seems afoot—and not just in the United States. More precisely put, the drift is toward where the population actually stands: the center. Yet, liberal establishment entities like the Times are very mindful of their parameters, especially the left-most edge. When reading the NYT, which I recommend (see Feb. 28 blog post), this is the slant one can expect. And I suspect this ideological rigidity will become more evident as the political conversation in this country moves in a progressive direction.

June 6, 2017

Racism

The 2014 blog piece by writer Reni-Eddo Lodge has been receiving increased attention on the Guardian's site. The essay, entitled "Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race," is a meditation on structural, systemic racism. And one worth reading. (The original blog piece comprises the first dozen paragraphs of this newer, longer piece by Lodge.)

I feel it pairs well with Newsweek's recent cover story on the ongoing problem of school segregation. In contrast, this report provides an investigative analysis of a very specific aspect of structural racism.

And while reading these two essays, I kept mentally returning to the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay, which was released last year and is streaming on Netflix. The film is an incisive and intense exploration of the US prison system, who's in it, and why. The late film critic Roger Ebert said that the film Crash (2005) was one of the few movies that had "the possibility of making their audiences better people." I would say the same applies to 13th.

These three items work well together, and encourage one to consider a reality that frequently doesn't present itself if you are white. Being white and male for 45 years now, I have some experience; there is a long list of things I don't have to think about. This is not to suggest that white people don't have problems or suffer hardship. An appropriate analog would be realities that exist for women, but that are out of sight and/or out of mind for men. A man isn't necessarily sexist because of his obliviousness—an obliviousness that women cannot afford. But by being more conscientious, men can improve the lives of women, bringing to bear a responsibility.

Racism is not limited to explicit language and white supremacy. It can be quite subtle: eye contact, a knowing grin, silence, the sound of car-door locks. And with overtly racist language increasingly frowned upon, racism among whites has in large part gone into a kind of silent mode. Among educated, upper-middle-class whites (to choose a demographic with which I'm familiar), racist language is commonly viewed as being ill-mannered, as being blue collar, and being "low class." Being a racist, the thinking goes, is fine; but one should tend toward refinement.

A corollary to this genteel racism is that it encourages the mindset that "I'm not a bigot." If one doesn't speak or act or comport oneself as such, then one isn't. Complicating this picture further is the fact that people (pick a hue) tend to view themselves as being virtuous, regardless. The result is an admixture of bad-faith mentalities.

Hence the "I work with a black guy" testimony.

Hence the proud avowals of colorblindness, frequently deeming blackness as something akin to being in a wheelchair: "I don't see Kevin as being black."

Hence the fact that I have never personally heard Barack Obama criticized because of his color, when I strongly detect that many whites, especially my age and up, are resentful that an African-American made it to the White House.

Hence "anti-racist" tactics such as asking "Why are they called African-Americans? I don't call myself a German-American. We're all Americans." The intended message: everyone should be equal. "All lives matter." The actual message: "See how they are?" (Note: Obama is precisely a Kenyan/African-American; and the black students I've talked with, mostly college age, don't care, are fine with "black," and would just prefer to not be treated like dirt.)

Hence the age-old axiom that there are black people and there are those deserving of derogatory classification. The mechanism at work here is clear enough: by drawing such a distinction, the racist gives himself an out, and now cannot plausibly be labeled as a racist on account of his finesse. And underlying his argument is the assumption that racism is wrong, or at least vulgar and crude. The unapologetic racist, on the other hand, is also virtuous. And the evidence is his racism: he knows good from bad, and he (good) is not like them (bad).

Non-white frustration with racism among whites—and the corresponding social, political, and economic structures—is understood. Many whites don't know what racism is or how it works. And the degree to which they do, they are either innocent of it or righteous participants.

February 28, 2017

Blog repost: Essay on NYT

One of the recurring themes since election season has been that of fake news. The designation has now mutated from having a specific meaning—news that is fake—to meaning news that some don't like. The label is now being wielded by those who have used, benefitted from, or purveyed fake news.

President Trump has repeatedly accused mainstream organizations such as CNN, the networks, the New York Times, and others of being fake news, or at least of dealing in it. In these instances, the president is using the classification "fake news" as an epithet. It is, however, because the major organizations are reporting on him with some measure of accuracy that he has declared them an "enemy of the people"—curious language for the leader of a democracy. He of course means that they are an enemy of him. And in a sense they are, in the same way light is an enemy of mold.

The New York Times is and has been at the top of the president's list of news sources he strongly does not like. I couldn't say I love it either. So, he and I feel similarly on this matter, but for very, very different reasons.

The Times's coverage of the president, his campaign, and his performance so far in the White House has been reasonable, as one might have expected. The NYT, when it comes to domestic policy, operates around the political center. That is, on matters such as the environment, healthcare, and abortion, its positions approximate where most Americans sit on these issues. The president and his administration being rightwing and stylistically an aberration, a staid, centrist journal such as the Times could be expected to do actual journalism.

Some personal context: I read the NYT every day and have for many years now. I usually carry the day's paper (or days' worth of them) on me just about everywhere I go. During any downtime, I can be found poring over it (or them). A lot of this downtime is spent on college campuses, places of abundant foot traffic. It is noteworthy how often I get questions and comments—mostly the latter—concerning the paper. (I of course read other sources, but I have only the Times delivered in print, to help ensure I read it more thoroughly, among other reasons.)

The comments I receive are invariably negative or dismissive: "The Times is kinda leftist, isn't it?" Or: "I've heard it's pretty biased." Or: "It's elitist." Or: "I have no use for it."

The close attention I pay to the NYT is not based on fondness (I'm rather critical). Nor that it reinforces my worldview (I wouldn't describe myself as liberal). In addition to the Times being a reliable resource, my choice is based to a degree on the paper's prestige and the window it offers into the culture that produces and reads it. But this requires some elaboration.

I've therefore decided to repost an article I published on CounterPunch about four years ago, which examines the NYT and discusses why, despite its flaws, it's my first media port of call.

http://www.gregoryharms.com/harms_2012.01.14.html

Especially in the current atmosphere, being informed is crucial. And just as crucial is understanding that choice and preference are two different things. The goal is to improve our understanding and gain insight, not seek opinion confirmation and judge according to the metric being applied in the Oval Office.

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