Wednesday, November 30, 2011


December 1, 2011

"Barry, whom shall we get to play Santa for the White House Christmas party this year? Last year's guy turned out to be a Tea Party operative who told all the kids you were playing Santa Claus with their parents' money. I should've known. I thought I smelled Darjeeling on his breath."

"How about Newt Gingrich? He's got the girth and the hair. I wonder if he can grow a beard in a couple weeks."

"He's grown noses in less time than that."

"Forget it. He's too erratic. We need a stable Santa. Besides, his name sounds too much like ‘Grinch.'"

"What about Romney? That chameleon could morph into a Santa in the space of a debate cycle. The only problem is, not even Republican kids would believe in him. His name fits, though — every all-American boy and girl wants to find a mitt under the tree. Who else? Clinton?"

"Michelle, you've hit on it! Clinton's got global qualifications and I love that disheveled white hair. Add a red pant-suit, and . . ."

"Not Hillary, sillery. I meant Bill."

"Oh, Bill! Never think of him. But he sure fits the part, a right jolly old elf. Twinkling eyes and red nose to boot."

"Let's text him. See what he says."

"Too bad. He's busy that day. Playing Santa in Africa somewhere."

"Excuse me, Mr. and Mrs. Obama. I'd like to offer my services for your party."

"Who are you?"

"I'm Nicholas de Myra."

"How'd you get in here?"

"I have to advise you that your chimneys are not secure. You should alert the Secret Service about that."

"How'd you find out that we're looking for a Santa?"

"I hacked you in the Cloud. Gotta keep up with the times, you know. Parents don't want their kids sitting on Santa's lap anymore — can't be too careful. And kids don't know how to write letters anymore either. Facebook and Twitter are helpful, but it's that secret texting between parents that tells me what their kids really want — and what they'll really get."

"You do look authentic, right down to the ashes and soot. But I think we need a second opinion. Sasha, come here! Who is this man?"

"He's Santa Claus!"

"Now be sensible, girl. If you want to be a lawyer like your daddy and me, you've got to prove that this man really is Santa Claus."

"That depends on what your definition of ‘is' is."

"You'll be a good lawyer. Maybe even a President."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"I can't believe it, Michelle. At the party, that guy worked the room even better than Bill could have. He actually had Boehner and Reid talking with each other instead of at each other. Even the worst ideologues left shaking hands, just like Macy and Gimble. And he got results, too. Before the Christmas recess, Congress passed a progressive tax, cut the defense budget, gave immigrants a path to citizenship, authorized high- speed trains. Of course a Santa would think of trains. I'm glad he likes drones, too, the naif. He thinks they're just oversized model airplanes."

"But I knew it wouldn't last. The Senate Homeland Security Committee just subpoenaed him."

* * * * * * * * * *

"Please state your name."

"Senator McCain, it's a pleasure to meet you. My full name is Nicholas de Myra, but most Americans call me Santa Claus. That's what comes out when you say ‘Saint Nicholas' really fast."

"It's nice to meet you too at last. Where were you born?"

"In the region of Lycia, which is now part of Turkey."

"Do you still live there?"

"Not for many years. The place got a little too hot for me, so I moved farther north."

"Are you a Muslim?"

"I used to be a Christian, but I've transcended that. I bring gifts to all children. I bring good will to all believers, including atheists."

"You're a citizen of . . ."

"The world."

"State your age."

"I'm not sure. Close to 1,700, I think."

"Don't make light of these proceedings. Can you produce a birth certificate?"

"Mr. McCain, have you become a birther too? To find out my age, you'd have to carbon-date me. Just be sure to clean off the ashes and soot."

"Mr. de Myra, you're undermining your credibility already, and you know that your credibility is why you are before us today. Don't get me wrong. I admire all the good you've done around here lately. The Congressional approval rating has jumped into double digits. Consumer confidence — and I know that seems to be your specialty — is bouncing back."

"So I see. In fact, I've written a little song about it:

     I'm dreaming of a Black Friday,
     Just like the ones I used to know.
     Where the midnight spending is never-ending,
     With Wal-Mart raking in the dough.
     I'm dreaming of a Black Friday,
     With Nooks and Kindles in my sack.
     May your bank card never be hacked,
     And may all your Fridays be as black.

"That's beautiful. Almost makes me believe."

"Oh, don't believe because of that; that's just economics. Believe the intangibles. Years ago at a similar hearing, my lawyer brought in sacks and sacks of mail addressed to Santa Claus, and the judge took that as proof enough of my identity. Those were the days, when the Postal Service was solvent. Have you checked your iPhone lately?"

"OMG, Facebook is full, and there's tons of tweets! Kids all over the world are threatening to occupy the Senate if we don't clear you. What do you say, colleagues?"

"Thank you for your vote of confidence, esteemed Senators. I'll head back north now; the reindeer are restless. And please don't forget the intangibles."


November 10, 2011
I'd like to say a few words about the relation of Greece to world economies. I don't understand it fully, but that doesn't deter me because I'm not sure that many politicians and even economists understand it fully either. In fact, I'm not sure that anybody anywhere really understands international economics, which have gotten so complex from globalization over the last several decades that "complex" is hardly descriptive of the magnitude. It's not Adam Smith's world anymore.

In ECON 101, the eye-opener in the first class is the revelation of the obvious — that all economies are driven by countless individual decisions about what to do with money, from whether to buy that candy bar to whether to buy that house, from whether to put your earnings into stocks or under the mattress. Suddenly students recognize they're the muscles and sinews of the Invisible Hand. Today, however, so many of these individual decisions are no longer made by individuals at all but by computers, which is why radical swings in the stock market, attributed daily by the media to tiny upticks in employment and tiny downticks in industrial production, are actually automatically triggered by logarithm, trading billions of shares with little or no human intervention. My so-called portfolio doesn't stand a chance against those forces.

The play of great economic forces on the small includes small countries as well, most poignantly illustrated by the case of Greece. Since adopting the euro as its currency a decade ago, Greece has become a groveling debtor to the big banks. Thinking their loans on the euro standard were ironclad, the banks shoveled money to Greece, despite its history of corruption and political unrest, its top-heavy state bureaucracy, and its lavish social-service spending.

After the world crash of 2008, things turned sour indeed, as Greece's own economy lagged in the euro-zone and the bonds kept coming due. Pressured for "fiscal responsibility" by the European Union, the government imposed "austerity measures" on the country in February of 2010 — salary freezes, benefit reductions, and layoffs of government workers — setting off mass demonstrations and strikes. Those measures weren't austere enough to satisfy the Big Guns of the E.U., notably Germany and France, and over the course of a year, more were imposed, including enormous tax increases coupled with steep decreases in salaries, pensions, and social services. Less money earned and more money taxed — even before taking ECON 101, anybody with common sense sees that's no way to spark an economy. As Keynes turned restlessly in his grave, Greece's GDP declined and the budget remained grossly out of balance, while the public debt continued to grow.

Yet now the E.U. is insisting on still more austerity in return for infusions of cash from its Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and for negotiating a 50-percent "haircut" — now there's a term — in outstanding loans from private banks, supposedly to prevent complete default.

Meanwhile, the demonstrations continue with ferocity. The entire country is angry at everybody — the E.U. as instigator, the government as implementor, the banks as the wolf at the door. It's an anger born of impotence, a feeling that Greece's identity as a sovereign state is being swallowed whole by Germany, France, the IMF, and the big banks. Jean-Paul Fitoussi, an economics professor in Paris, told the New York Times that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicholas Sarkozy of France "were acting as if they were the real government of Greece."

Several weeks ago, as I read about these unfolding events, I thought: Wouldn't the citizens of Greece regain at least a shred of their self-esteem and even embrace some austerities if they were consulted on these matters, drawn into dialogue with their government, invited to work collaboratively to share both present sacrifice and future benefit? Thus I was pleasantly surprised last week when the American-educated Prime Minister, George Papandreou, proposed just that: a referendum on the E.U. bailout plan. Whatever his motivations — and the speculations on them were diverse, from sheer stupidity to a crafty way to garner votes for the bailout in Parliament — I'd like to trust his own explanation: "Let us allow the people to have the last word; let them decide the country's fate."

Of course, Merkel and Sarkozy, enraged at his ungrateful impudence, immediately and almost literally took him to the woodshed, publicly humiliating him and forcing him to recant.

What a pity. In a land that coined the term 2500 years ago, demos-kratia — the people's rule — was quashed by foreign powers. Who knows how the people might have spoken?

One way for Greece to throw off the yoke of the banks and reassert its sovereignty would be to throw off the euro and return to its own currency, the drachma. There are as many projected outcomes of this move as there are economists who make them — which proves my point about complexity, above — but the most hopeful one to me is the comparison with Argentina, which released its peg on the U.S. dollar and reinstated the peso in 2002. After a period of disruption, bank runs, and inflation, export goods selling at devalued prices became attractive, foreign investment returned, conditions stabilized, and Argentina's economy is now growing steadily.

The big banks are petrified at this prospect, and Chancellor Merkel herself recently remarked that the bailout has been fashioned not to save Greece but to save the euro.

Regaining control of the small from the big is the overarching theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupying Athens, the original seat of democracy, would not be a bad idea at all.


November 3, 2011
One of the most remarkable things about the "Arab Spring," besides that it happened at all, is the unique ways in which it happened, country by country. Spontaneously generated and developing more organically than systematically, each of these revolutions will be analyzed by historians and social scientists as models of the dynamics of power and their ultimate results. Such analysis is exceedingly complex, involving a host of factors, including the extent and depth of popular and political grievances, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposed government and its successors, the role of the military and police, the cohesion or fragmentation of the society, the level of education and the grip of indoctrination, the tactics of resistance, and the intervention by foreign powers.

A distinguishing feature of the Arab Spring is the use or rejection of violence as a tool of revolution. On one end of the spectrum is Tunisia, whose protests remained largely peaceful despite police crackdowns and the deaths of over 200 protesters. Less than a month after the demonstrations began, the aged president Ben Ali abdicated. Several interim governments rose and fell until the vestiges of Ben Ali's political apparatus were purged and the secret police force was dissolved. Last week, ten months into the revolution, elections were held for a Constituent Assembly to frame a new constitution, with 90 percent voter turnout. The Nahdah party, considered "moderate Islamist," won a plurality of the seats. The social and political situation seems to have stabilized, but questions remain about the ongoing freedom of the country under Nahdah rule.

In the middle of the spectrum of violence is Egypt, whose protests also remained predominantly nonviolent and resulted in the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, also within a month. Unlike in Tunisia, however, the cronies of the deposed dictator have held on to power, postponing elections and reimposing limits on free speech and assembly. Insidiously, they are attempting to undermine the effectiveness of the protesters by diversion and division along religious fault-lines. On October 9, a peaceful march for the civil rights of the Coptic Christian minority, formerly protected by Mubarak but now assailed by Islamist elements, was attacked by a mob possibly summoned by the police; it took the army, once considered sympathetic to the protest movement, six hours to respond and restore order. By then, 27 were dead, both Copts and supporting Muslims. Will the goals of the revolution be subverted by infiltration?

At the other end of the spectrum of violence is Libya. In this case, peaceful protests lasted but a few weeks before being supplanted by disaffected soldiers in remote areas who commandeered stockpiles of government weapons. This action not only played into the hand of dictator Muamar Qaddafi, flush with weapons supplied by the arms merchants of Europe, but drew the Western powers into the conflict like a magnet. Nonviolent opposition is a mystery to the military mind, which is why if resistance to Qaddafi had remained peaceful, the United States and Europe might have refrained from intervention and let the internal dynamic take its own course, as they did with Tunisia and Egypt and are now doing with Syria and Yemen. Once the revolution had become a war, it was easy for military powers to understand and thus to intervene under the pretext of protecting civilians (having made no effort to protect civilians in the other revolutions) and forestalling "genocide" (of which there was in fact no evidence). The NATO mission was a nice live-fire exercise for an organization that for decades has had virtually nothing to do. For reasons still unclear — brainwashing? fear? Qaddafi's total control of all institutions? genuine support? — loyalty to the dictator perdured; his was not the house of cards they had expected. It took seven months, 9,600 bombing sorties, and a cost of $2 billion for the U.S. alone and billions more for the other participating nations to dislodge him.

The barbaric assassination of Qaddafi, along with the claim of the interim government that he was "caught in the crossfire" (a prevarication lifted directly from the CIA playbook for the assassination of Osama bin Laden) continued the cycle of violence and lies. Despite the wanton expenditure of firepower between Qaddafi and the rebels, the cache of armaments and munitions amassed by the dictator was so enormous that there still are plenty left to fuel factional wars and/or terrorist insurgencies. The present government's rhetoric of liberation and promises of free elections and a stable society, even if honest, may be vaporized in the atmosphere of arms.

Still moving fluidly along the spectrum of violence are the protests in Syria and Yemen. What their ultimate model of revolution will be remains to be seen.


October 27, 2011

The following column appeared in the Easy Reader on March 31, shortly after NATO forces began their air campaign over Libya. I reprint it here to remind you of my early take on the situation in Libya; next week, I'll offer an update.

On the cover of The New Yorker magazine for March 14, a drawing by Barry Blitt depicts Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, as a scarecrow, dressed in military finery, stuffed with straw, and mounted on a stick, with a desert landscape below. Flying around the scarecrow is a flock of white doves, several of them pulling tufts of straw protruding from its arms and head, another unraveling the braids on the uniform, gathering nesting material for spring.

The drawing is entitled, "Hope is the thing with feathers."

How quickly hawks snatch doves in flight, scattering their feathers in the wind.

Barely a month ago, as Blitt was pitching his idea to The New Yorker's editors, it seemed to much of the watching world that the near-miracle of peaceful revolution wrought in Tunisia and Egypt would replicate itself in Libya. Mass protests calling for Qaddafi's resignation were met with a waffling similar to that of those aged dictators to his east and west: a show of force followed by the promise of concessions. Qaddafi's brutal crackdown against the demonstrators in mid-February shocked even his own government, with two of his air force pilots flying their French-built Mirage jets to asylum in Malta and several of his ambassadors and diplomatic staff resigning their posts.

A few more days of demonstration might have toppled the regime. But for reasons as yet unclear, the center of nonviolent opposition did not hold. Disaffected military personnel seized arms and munitions in outlying regions and persuaded some of the citizens to join them in battle. Quick as that, protesters had become rebels; civil resistance had become civil war.

Thus allowed to play the game the way he liked it, Qaddafi set about smashing the revolt with attacks from air and ground — and almost immediately drew much of Europe into the vortex of violence. This crazy-as-a-fox colonel had been pushing the buttons of the West for 40 years, now threatening, now cozying up, back and forth — first a Communist and then an anti- Communist, first a terrorist and then an anti-terrorist. Having blown up the Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and then having initiated a chemical and nuclear weapons program, he turned right around and apologized, proffering reparations to the Lockerbie survivors and dismantling his WMD's, hoodwinking none other than George W. Bush in 2004 to rescind Libya's terrorist status, thus clearing the path for multi-billion-dollar arms deals with France, Italy, Germany, and Russia, among others. It is those very weapons, so readily supplied to a country lacking a single external threat, that he's now using against the rebels, and that the U.S. and NATO are now firing their missiles at to take out.

So here we go again.

Another megalomaniac Little Caesar twirling the great powers around his finger. Another internal conflict inflated into an international one. Another military intervention in the name of protecting civilians with so-called "pinpoint bombing" that inevitably results in the death of civilians they are bombing to protect. Another commitment to topple — or not to topple, can't get quite clear on that one yet — the dictator with only the vaguest knowledge of who will take his place. Another rejection of Colin Powell's doctrine that every entrance strategy must have an exit strategy.

And thus far, despite it all, the latest Little Caesar remains, laughing at the world while his country goes up in smoke.

How can this be, and so soon, too, with Iraq so fresh in the mind?

President Obama's defense of military action in Libya, outlined in his address to the nation on Monday, is based on would-have's and could-have's: "We knew if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. ... A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders .... The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship .... A failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America."

Preemptive war is a war of would-have's.

But since we're speculating, there is another set of would- have's to consider: What would have happened had the Libyan resistance remained nonviolent? What would have happened had the militants been left without external assistance? Would those democratic impulses dawning across the region have been strengthened or diminished had the "international community" opted against force?

Oh yes, and one could-it-be: Could it yet be that in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and even Palestine, those things with feathers will continue to pick at their respective scarecrows?