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Archive for August, 2012

This is—no joke—the title of a serious little book on Clint Eastwood published in France earlier this year (if you don’t believe me, see here), which I was reminded of this morning after hearing the news reports of Eastwood’s skit at the RNC last night (which fell flat, so it seems). The book, which I have admittedly not read, is authored by former Cahiers du Cinéma critic Stéphane Bouquet and takes up a matter that I have been puzzling over for many years now, which is Eastwood’s outsized reputation and popularity in France (Télérama—the French TV Guide for lefties—called Bouquet’s book “un bon fucking livre“). Americans have this cliché about the supposed French love for Jerry Lewis—a notion that exists only in the American imagination (and that I have written about here)—but it really is the case when it comes to Clint Eastwood, whose films invariably receive stellar reviews from Paris critics and are box office hits from Dunkerque to Perpignan.

I first became aware of the French Eastwood phenomenon in 1995, with the release of ‘The Bridges of Madison County’, which French critics praised to the high heavens, calling it a chef d’œuvre almost on a par with ‘La Règle du jeu’ and ‘Citizen Kane’, and whose gushing sentiments were shared by the film-going public (US reviews were mostly positive, though some were tepid, indeed mixed). Personally speaking, I thought the pic was cringeworthy schlock. I likewise found ‘Million Dollar Baby’ schlocky, disliked ‘Changeling’, and gave the thumbs down to ‘Gran Torino’. French audiences—including friends and family—loved all, needless to say (and particularly ‘Gran Torino’, which was systematically applauded at the end in Parisian salles).

In his book, Bouquet, who is not a fan of Eastwood, seeks to understand and analyze why his films so resonate in France. In an interview in January, he thus explained

 L’idolâtrie partagée tant par le public que la critique est un phénomène typiquement français, c’est vrai. Malgré son image de conservateur, Clint Eastwood s’est construit une figure mythique d’anti-héros, ou plutôt de héros résolument anti-macho et anti-raciste. Tous ses films accueillent des gens appartenant à des minorités défavorisées. Il va jusqu’à recueillir dans son propre corps de transplanté cardiaque le cœur d’une femme appartenant à la communauté latino. En ce sens, Eastwood apparaît comme une figure de réconciliation nationale, auxquels les Français sont sensibles.

For the French, Clint Eastwood in effect incarnates l’Amérique qu’on aime… The French, in their majority, like America, or at least admire it, and when America gives a less than positive image, Clint Eastwood, via his films, brings that positive image back. The fact that he likes France in return also helps.

I don’t dislike all of Eastwood’s films, il faut le dire, at least those he directed (as an actor, he’s one-dimensional, sans intérêt). I thought ‘Mystic River’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ were excellent and liked ‘Heartbreak Ridge’ (which was a hoot), ‘A Perfect World’, and ‘Flags of Our Fathers’. ‘Play Misty for Me’ was creepy but not bad as a film. ‘Unforgiven’ was entertaining, as was ‘Invictus’. I never did see ‘Bird’ and deliberately skipped ‘J.Edgar’. As for Eastwood’s politics, who cares?

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Grand old Marxists

Timothy Snyder, the brilliant historian of Central and Eastern Europe, has a great post on the NYRB’s blog on how Paul Ryan’s intellectual idols, Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, were strikingly Marxist in their way of thinking.

The irony of today is that these two thinkers [Hayek and Rand], in their struggle against the Marxist left of the mid-twentieth century, relied on some of the same underlying assumptions as Marxism itself: that politics is a matter of one simple truth, that the state will eventually cease to matter, and that a vanguard of intellectuals is needed to bring about a utopia that can be known in advance. The paradoxical result is a Republican Party ticket that embraces outdated ideology, taking some of the worst from the twentieth century and presenting it as a plan for the twenty-first.

Snyder notes the economic determinism of the Hayek-Randians (which, when expressed by Marxists, was labeled “vulgar Marxism”)

Romney provides the practice, Ryan the theory. Romney has lots of money, but has never managed to present the storyline of his career as a moral triumph. Ryan, with his credibility as an ideas politician, seems to solve that problem. In the right-wing anarchism that arises from the marriage of Rand and Hayek, Romney’s wealth is proof that all is well for the rest of us, since the laws of economics are such that the unhindered capitalism represented by chop-shops such as Bain must in the end be good for everyone.

The problem with this sort of economic determinism is that it is Marxism in reverse, with the problems of the original kind. Planning by finance capitalists replaces planning by the party elite. Marx’s old dream, the “withering away” of the state, is the centerpiece of the Ryan budget: cut taxes on the rich, claim that cutting government functions and the closing of unspecified loopholes will balance budgets, and thereby make the state shrink. Just like the Marxists of another era, the Republican ticket substitutes mythical thinking about the economy for loyalty to the nation.

In arguing with a fanatical right-wing Republican back in the mid-90s I remember telling him how he reminded me of the Marxists of my college days (and which included myself), in that he had an explanation for everything and an opinion on everything and anything the slightest bit political. Snyder makes the same observation

Like Marxism, the Hayekian ideology is a theory of everything, which has an answer for everything. Like Marxism, it allows politicians who accept the theory to predict the future, using their purported total knowledge to create and to justify suffering among those who do not hold power.

On the matter of Hayek, Bruce Bartlett has a column in the NYT explaining why he is, in fact, a problematic intellectual reference for Ryan, as Hayek was not opposed to mandatory social insurance schemes (which I have pointed out more than once on this blog). Read it here.

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Paul Ryan: liar

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

I did not see Paul Ryan’s speech last night—which aired after 4 AM chez moi—and have no intention of catching it on the Internet. Several commentaries today have pointed out the brazen falsehoods Ryan recounted. Jonathan Cohn in TNR, who called Ryan’s rhetoric “positively galling,” scrutinized five of them.  In addition to grossly distorting Obama’s record and demagoguing things he said (“you didn’t build that” blah blah), the Republicans are lying about their intentions if elected, notably in regard to Medicare. It’s the only way they can win and they know it.

Michael Tomasky in The Daily Beast, who was equally appalled by Ryan’s demagoguery, offered this

Analysis of the fact that Ryan can lie the way he does requires the skills of a psychologist. All I can say is that we’re in new territory—a Republican trying to own a Democratic issue, and doing so on the basis of a couple of lies so blatant that he’s practically saying to the Democrats and the media: “Fuck you, come and get me. You can’t touch me.”

Will the Dems get him? I think they will. Well, I certainly hope they will.

UPDATE: Johathan Chait in New York magazine has an on target commentary on “Paul Ryan’s large lies and one big truth.” This passage nails it

I have been writing about his dishonesty for three years. I have the equivalent of a master’s degree in Ryan lie-ology. I’ve heard many of his lurid fantasies innumerable times and I haven’t got it in me to go through it all again — his deep dishonesty largely reflects the fundamental gap between the radicalism of his agenda and his need for public acceptance.

Ryan and his ilk know that if they are honest about their agenda and tell it exactly as it is, they will have no chance of being elected. So they are dishonest and they lie. Will they get away with it? Chait thinks they might. Call me naïve but I don’t think they will.

2nd UPDATE: Joan Walsh slammed “Paul Ryan’s brazen lies” in Salon. And Steve Kornacki, also in Salon, explained how Ryan “gets away with BS.”

3rd UPDATE: Kevin Drum of Mother Jones examines “Paul Ryan’s grim vision for America.”

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A Washington friend sent me this NYT op-ed by Lee Siegel from last January, in which Siegel asserts that “Mitt Romney is the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” My friend said that he was reminded of the op-ed while watching the GOP convention in Tampa last night. Siegel is spot on, IMO.

In this vein—but with a different approach—, David Frum speculated in The Daily Beast on what goes on “inside the mind of a Republican delegate.”

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The real Romney

I normally do not deign to read David Brooks but as his latest column is currently the NYT’s most emailed article, I decided to take a look at it. It’s quite good, actually. And funny.

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He’s a Republican.

I’ve been on vacation the past week in a beautiful part of France, where the weather has been particularly hot (high 90s F/mid-high 30s C), with air conditioning only in the car, and not regular access to the Internet. Life (and blogging) will be back to normal next week.

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In my post yesterday on the Amiens riot I linked to a report from the ground in Mediapart, in which the residents of the cité pointed the finger at the police—specifically the BAC and CRS—and its behavior, but also contrasted this with the agents of the Gendarmerie Nationale, who earned praise from the residents—adults and youths—for their comportment during a recent two-week patrol of the cité. Now Le Monde, in a dispatch from Amiens, echoed Mediapart’s report, of the cité residents being angry at the police—BAC and CRS—and its “cowboy” behavior, and making favorable reference to the agents of the Gendarmerie. Here’s the report, with noteworthy passages highlighted

“Ce soir-là, ils sont venus nous provoquer comme des cow-boys”
LE MONDE | 15.08.2012 à 14h11
Par Faïza Zeroual

Dans le quartier de la Briquetterie à Amiens-Nord, les stigmates des violences des nuits des 12 et 13 août sont encore visibles. Les cadavres de poubelles fondues collent au bitume. La salle de musculation a été incendiée, tout comme l’école maternelle Balzac, dont les fenêtres sont condamnées par des planches. Ici et là, des voitures calcinées ou du mobilier urbain dégradé. Mardi 14 août, quelques habitants sont réunis autour du kiosque, sous les arbres, et la tension est palpable. Un adolescent trouble ce calme fragile en traversant l’esplanade sur sa mini-moto.

Le quartier est en ébullition depuis le début du mois d’août. Mais la situation s’est brutalement dégradée après des incidents survenus lors d’un repas de deuil organisé dimanche par la famille de Nadir, 20 ans, mort jeudi 9 août dans un accident de moto. Assise dans le salon familial, la soeur de Nadir, Sabrina, 22 ans, raconte comment cette cérémonie a été troublée par les forces de l’ordre :“Nous étions tous réunis sur la terrasse de la maison de ma grand-mère lorsque les CRS sont arrivés. Tout l’après-midi, ils rôdaient ici, mais nous n’avons pas fait attention à eux.”

Les policiers contrôlaient un jeune homme qui conduisait en sens interdit. “Le contrôle a été très agressif. Mon père et mon oncle sont sortis pour leur demander de partir et de respecter notre deuil. Puis ça a dégénéré, la brigade anticriminalité nous a gazés avec des bombes lacrymogènes alors qu’il y avait des femmes et des enfants.”

L’un des invités montre sa blessure à la tempe, une bosse rouge et bleue, à la suite, assure-t-il, d’un tir de flash-ball. Les allées et venues des amis, de la famille, sont incessantes dans cette maisonnette au milieu des tours. Tous confirment la version de la famille. Fatma Hadji, la mère de Nadir, ne décolère pas. “Avec les gendarmes mobiles, tout se passait très bien. Ce soir-là il n’y avait pas lieu de faire un contrôle. Ils sont venus nous provoquer comme des cow-boys.”

DIALOGUE DE SOURDS

Les quartiers d’Amiens-Nord sont fragiles, ce qui a justifié leur classement dans les quinze zones prioritaires de sécurité, annoncées par Manuel Valls, le 4 août. Amiens-Nord est aussi une zone urbaine sensible (ZUS) et rassemble les critères des quartiers en difficulté : dans les ZUS de la ville le revenu fiscal moyen est inférieur à 9 000 euros, le taux de chômage dépasse 24 %, et la part des ménages non imposables tourne autour de 63 %.

Mme Hadji retrace en quelques phrases la vie de son fils. Il travaillait dans la restauration et aimait passer du temps dans la salle de sport incendiée. Elle reconnaît qu’il a eu affaire à la justice. Mais jure-t-elle, il s’était assagi.

Mardi, Mme Hadji et sa fille ont été reçues par Manuel Valls, le ministre de l’intérieur à l’Atrium, l’antenne de la mairie de quartier au coeur d’Amiens-Nord. Une rencontre décevante et “injuste” : “C’était un dialogue de sourds. Les forces de l’ordre ont commis l’irréparable, mais il n’est pas question pour le ministre d’y toucher. Il oublie la nuit de dimanche. On a été gazés comme des sauvages, comme des bêtes.”

Lors de la visite du ministre de l’intérieur, une centaine de personnes s’est massée aux abords de l’Atrium. Les jeunes sont remontés, peu enclins à parler. L’un d’eux, amer, raconte les contrôles de police incessants, le sentiment de ne pas être respecté, le manque de dialogue avec la police, l’absence de perspectives, le chômage…

Nawel, une amie de la famille qui “considérait Nadir comme son fils”, est consternée par les scènes de violence : Ceux qui ont brûlé la salle de musculation ce ne sont pas nos jeunes. Ils y sont tous abonnés car il n’y a rien d’autre pour eux.”

Les jeunes des quartiers alentours se sont greffés aux affrontements. Amiens-Nord est régulièrement sujet à des pics de tension. En octobre 2010, une dizaine d’habitants avaient caillassé les policiers pendant une nuit, sans raison précise, ou connue. Un an plus tôt, en mai 2009, ce même quartier avait déjà été le théâtre de violences après la mort d’un jeune motard pourchassé par la police. En février, une voiture de la police municipale a été incendiée, puis un second véhicule a subi le même traitement, et une quinzaine d’habitants du quartier ont affronté les policiers à coup de projectiles.

Aujourd’hui, Fatma Hadji ne croit pas que ces troubles vont s’apaiser : “La France va bouger. On n’est rien ici. Les jeunes sont déjà mal dans leur peau, ils n’ont rien à perdre”, prophétise-t-elle. Mardi soir, 250 agents étaient déployés sur le terrain pour tenter de ramener le calme à Amiens-Nord.

Faïza Zerouala

The contrast between the services of the Police Nationale (BAC, CRS)—which come under the authority of the Ministry of Interior—and the Gendarmerie Natonale—a paramilitary police force under the exclusive tutelary authority of the Ministry of Defense until 2009—is striking. This reminded me of Mathieu Kassovitz’s fine 2011 film ‘L’Ordre et la morale’, that reenacts the 1988 Ouvéa hostage crisis in New Caledonia and where a distinction was made between the behavior of the regular military (bad) and that of the Gendarmerie (good). I will come back to this at a later date (perhaps when I get around to writing about Kassovitz’s film). What Mme Hadji said above about the meeting with Manuel Valls is revealing. Valls is certainly more than aware of the “cowboy” behavior of the police—and of its share of responsibility in provoking the clashes—but, as interior minister, he can hardly acknowledge it publicly, or even privately to a citizen. It is a difficult and delicate matter for a government minister to take on the corps of fonctionnaires under his authority. Or, rather, under his temporary, fleeting authority, as ministers come and go but the corps de l’État remain (and collectively they know their corps and its tutelary ministry better than just about any minister). Valls has already been backpedaling on the Ayrault government’s proposal to have the police issue a récépisée to any person subjected to an identity check (see here), as the reaction of the police syndicats to this was negative in the extreme.

One of the cité residents interviewed in the dispatch said that the torching of the gym facility during the riot could not have been the doing of the youths in the cité, as they are all members and users of it, further adding that youths from outside the area came to participate in the clashes. This has been reported in numerous riots over the years: of gangs of youths from other cités—and who are often rivals of the youths in the cité where the clash with the police is occurring—rushing to participate in the bedlam, but also to settle scores and commit arson in an area that is outside their territory. Another factor. A reportage in the 11 March 2010 issue of Le Monde—following a violent incident in a cité in Epernay—focused on the outsized responsibility for a lot of the violence, vandalism, and arson of small groups of sociopathic youths—sometimes only a dozen youths in number—that are at the margins even in the cité, not to mention society at large. The youths, the Le Monde report specified, are mainly of black African origin, all school dropouts (often with only an 8th or 9th grade education) and unskilled, unemployed for the most part, and come from homes where the father is absent and the mother has several children in her charge. For these youths, acts of violence and vandalism are less an inchoate expression of rage against the system than a simple engagement in violence and vandalism for the sake of it, or in a surenchère with other gangs, and whose action is fueled, as it were, by gangsta rappers (which has become a French musical sub-genre). For Americans, this will sound familiar. One thing is for sure. In view of the economic situation in France, the problems in the cités are not going to go away any time soon. And governments—of the left or right—will continue to have no good idea of what to do about them.

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The Amiens riot

For those who haven’t been following the news the past few days, there was yet another riot in a French banlieue cité (yawn, what else is new?), this one on Monday night in Amiens. It was the same dreary story: a pack of policemen have an encounter with one or several Maghrebi or African immigrant origin young males—usually a demand for the latter to produce their ID cards—, the young males react badly, the police get nervous and call in the reinforcements, packs of young Maghrebi and/or African immigrant origin males from the cité gather and pelt the packs of policemen with projectiles, the more thuggish elements among the youths profit from the disorder to vandalize or torch public establishments (notably schools) or other symbols of the state—and do a little pillaging of stores while they’re at it—, all hell breaks out—though in a circumscribed area and with firearms and violent deaths extremely rare; we’re not talking about South Central L.A.-style riots here—, the Minister of Interior arrives the next day and praises the action of the police, residents of the cité complain to TV reporters about drug dealing gangs but also the behavior of the police, the situation calms down after a day or two, until the next riot breaks out somewhere else in the country and that follows more or less the same script…

Another constant here is the reaction of foreign observers, who misunderstand the situation in France, misinterpret the causes of the riots, and/or ask the wrong questions (e.g. see this commentary on Amiens and with my reaction in the comments thread).

But if there is a commonality to French riots, each one is set off by a particular spark and may have a specificity or two. This report on Amiens in Mediapart is particularly interesting I think. Note the anger of the residents of the cité toward the police—and which was abundant in last night’s France 2 news report on the riot—but also how they and the jeunes differentiate the behavior of the gendarmes from that of the CRS riot police. The gendarmes who enter the cité behave correctly: they are polite and say hello. This makes all the difference. 

À Amiens, Valls demande «l’ordre républicain» et les habitants une police moins «provocatrice»
15 août 2012 | Par Louise Fessard

Amiens, de notre envoyée spéciale

Après une nuit d’émeutes dans les quartiers Nord d’Amiens, le ministre de l’intérieur, Manuel Valls, est arrivé mardi 14 août en milieu d’après-midi à l’Atrium, la mairie annexe, pour rencontrer (more…)

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My last few posts have been on Paul Ryan, who incarnates in his person the anti-statism of the contemporary GOP, of its will to eviscerate the American welfare state—such as it exists—and turn the economic and social policy clock back to the pre-New Deal era, if not to the 19th century. It needs to be recalled that there are smart conservatives out there who think this is cockamamie nonsense, who believe that being conservative and favoring robust government are not antinomic. One of these conservatives, Francis Fukuyama, laid out his ideas on the matter in The American Interest last month. Into the essay he made the rather obvious point that

If contemporary conservatives could get over their ideological aversion to the state, they would recognise that American government is both necessary and in great need of reform rather than abolition.

Invoking the vision of Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt, he said that

Recovery of a Hamiltonian-Rooseveltian conservatism would require junking a lot of the ideas that have animated the right since the rise of Ronald Reagan, such as the willingness to tolerate deficits as long as this meant lower taxes. But while this older tradition is in certain respects similar to strands of European conservatism, it is also profoundly American.

Both Hamilton and Roosevelt believed strongly both in the exceptional character of the American regime and in the idea of progress. Hamilton foresaw that a centralised state would be necessary to create a national market, and an economy based on manufacturing. Roosevelt understood that the industrial economy had unleashed forces that needed to be tamed. They saw national power as a tool to achieve their ends, something to be nurtured and built rather than demonised as something to be drowned in a bathtub.

But alas

The chance, of course, that any version of this conservative vision will be adopted by the contemporary Republican Party is close to zero.  If Mitt Romney is defeated in November, we will not see an internal soul-searching over the basic agenda, but rather the argument that he lost because he wasn’t conservative enough.

Moreover, what ties many Republican legislators to their libertarian views has less to do with strong ideological conviction than where their bread is buttered.  When Jamie Dimon  was called to testify on JP Morgan Chase’s multi-billion dollar loss before the Senate Banking Committee, the Republican members put on an appalling performance, unctuously flattering him and asking him to confirm that we didn’t need more bank regulation.   My reaction was that they couldn’t possibly be such big idiots; they were simply following the money trail.  So if you want to change the nature of conservatism, you’ve also got to change the flow of resources and the way that they affect American politics.

Read the whole thing here.

Another conservative—or, rather, a one-time conservative—, the always interesting Michael Lind, had an essay in Salon last month on “the conservative welfare state,” where he discussed the failed efforts of the right over the past century to develop a conservative welfare state that would be both more efficient and equally fair to models proposed by progressives. The fight is not over, he says, though he concludes with the assertion that

universal public social insurance is by far the most efficient and least corrupt way to design a modern economic safety net.

Read his essay here.

(From 1913: The Empire cares for working people; conservative Bismarckian Germany having pioneered social insurance schemes in the late 19th century)

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Stockman on Ryan

[update below]

Wow, now this is interesting. David Stockman—of Reagan administration OMB fame—shreds Paul Ryan in today’s NYT. He calls Ryan’s budget plan a “fairy-tale.” Here’s the entire op-ed, with notable passages highlighted.

PAUL D. RYAN is the most articulate and intellectually imposing Republican of the moment, but that doesn’t alter the fact that this earnest congressman from Wisconsin is preaching the same empty conservative sermon.

Thirty years of Republican apostasy — a once grand party’s embrace of the welfare state, the warfare state and the Wall Street-coddling bailout state — have crippled the engines of capitalism and buried us in debt. Mr. Ryan’s sonorous campaign rhetoric about shrinking Big Government and giving tax cuts to “job creators” (read: the top 2 percent) will do nothing to reverse the nation’s economic decline and arrest its fiscal collapse.

Mr. Ryan professes to be a defense hawk, though the true conservatives of modern times — Calvin Coolidge, Herbert C. Hoover, Robert A. Taft, Dwight D. Eisenhower, even Gerald R. Ford — would have had no use for the neoconconservative imperialism that the G.O.P. cobbled from policy salons run by Irving Kristol’s ex-Trotskyites three decades ago. These doctrines now saddle our bankrupt nation with a roughly $775 billion “defense” budget in a world where we have no advanced industrial state enemies and have been fired (appropriately) as the global policeman.

Indeed, adjusted for inflation, today’s national security budget is nearly double Eisenhower’s when he left office in 1961 (about $400 billion in today’s dollars) — a level Ike deemed sufficient to contain the very real Soviet nuclear threat in the era just after Sputnik. By contrast, the Romney-Ryan version of shrinking Big Government is to increase our already outlandish warfare-state budget and risk even more spending by saber-rattling at a benighted but irrelevant Iran.

Similarly, there can be no hope of a return to vibrant capitalism unless there is a sweeping housecleaning at the Federal Reserve and a thorough renunciation of its interest-rate fixing, bond buying and recurring bailouts of Wall Street speculators. The Greenspan-Bernanke campaigns to repress interest rates have crushed savers, mocked thrift and fueled enormous overconsumption and trade deficits.

The greatest regulatory problem — far more urgent that the environmental marginalia Mitt Romney has fumed about — is that the giant Wall Street banks remain dangerous quasi-wards of the state and are inexorably prone to speculative abuse of taxpayer-insured deposits and the Fed’s cheap money. Forget about “too big to fail.” These banks are too big to exist — too big to manage internally and to regulate externally. They need to be broken up by regulatory decree. Instead, the Romney-Ryan ticket attacks the pointless Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul, when what’s needed is a restoration of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era legislation that separated commercial and investment banking.

Mr. Ryan showed his conservative mettle in 2008 when he folded like a lawn chair on the auto bailout and the Wall Street bailout. But the greater hypocrisy is his phony “plan” to solve the entitlements mess by deferring changes to social insurance by at least a decade.

A true agenda to reform the welfare state would require a sweeping, income-based eligibility test, which would reduce or eliminate social insurance benefits for millions of affluent retirees. Without it, there is no math that can avoid giant tax increases or vast new borrowing. Yet the supposedly courageous Ryan plan would not cut one dime over the next decade from the $1.3 trillion-per-year cost of Social Security and Medicare.

Instead, it shreds the measly means-tested safety net for the vulnerable: the roughly $100 billion per year for food stamps and cash assistance for needy families and the $300 billion budget for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled. Shifting more Medicaid costs to the states will be mere make-believe if federal financing is drastically cut.

Likewise, hacking away at the roughly $400 billion domestic discretionary budget (what’s left of the federal budget after defense, Social Security, health and safety-net spending and interest on the national debt) will yield only a rounding error’s worth of savings after popular programs (which Republicans heartily favor) like cancer research, national parks, veterans’ benefits, farm aid, highway subsidies, education grants and small-business loans are accommodated.

Like his new boss, Mr. Ryan has no serious plan to create jobs. America has some of the highest labor costs in the world, and saddles workers and businesses with $1 trillion per year in job-destroying payroll taxes. We need a national sales tax — a consumption tax, like the dreaded but efficient value-added tax — but Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan don’t have the gumption to support it.

The Ryan Plan boils down to a fetish for cutting the top marginal income-tax rate for “job creators” — i.e. the superwealthy — to 25 percent and paying for it with an as-yet-undisclosed plan to broaden the tax base. Of the $1 trillion in so-called tax expenditures that the plan would attack, the vast majority would come from slashing popular tax breaks for employer-provided health insurance, mortgage interest, 401(k) accounts, state and local taxes, charitable giving and the like, not to mention low rates on capital gains and dividends. The crony capitalists of K Street already own more than enough Republican votes to stop that train before it leaves the station.

In short, Mr. Ryan’s plan is devoid of credible math or hard policy choices. And it couldn’t pass even if Republicans were to take the presidency and both houses of Congress. Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan have no plan to take on Wall Street, the Fed, the military-industrial complex, social insurance or the nation’s fiscal calamity and no plan to revive capitalist prosperity — just empty sermons.

Now as a liberal I don’t agree with all of Stockman’s prescriptions—and I was not exactly a fan of his three decades back—but he is a reasonable, serious conservative, with whom one can have a serious debate and make reasonable compromises. Republicans like him are now a nearly dead species and America is far worse off for it.

For the CNBC interview from which the above image is taken—which looks to be from July 2011—watch here. He says, entre autres, that we need to raise revenue and let the Bush tax cuts expire for everyone. Évidemment.

UPDATE: The NYT has an article on Ryan’s crony ties to donors on the libertarian right (Koch brothers et al).

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Shrum on Ryan-Romney

Robert Shrum—longtime Democratic political consultant, now a fellow at NYU—weighs in on the Ryan-Romney ticket. He thinks the Obama campaign will have a field day taking it apart.

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Krugman on Ryan

Paul Krugman, who has been out front in exposing Paul Ryan’s voodoo budget proposal from day one—and expressing disgust at the flattery showered on Ryan by the Washington press corps—, weighs in on his VP nomination here and here. In his initial post Krugman links to a summary of his commentaries over the past year-and-a-half on how Ryan’s budget is “the most fraudulent proposal in American history.”

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More on Ryan

Since yesterday I have read two lengthy and informative reportages on Paul Ryan, one by Jonathan Chait in the April 29th issue of New York magazine, “The Legendary Paul Ryan”; the other by Ryan Lizza in the August 6th New Yorker, “How Paul Ryan captured the G.O.P.”

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The Ryan pick

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

Repubs are ecstatic and Dems are happy, though obviously not for the same reasons. I’m with the Dems on this (duh). I think it was a good pick, as it clarifies what this election is all about. It’s finally not about the economy, stupid, but ideology. Or, as they say here, about projets de société. There are a number of good instant analyses out there—that I will post as updates—but I think this one by David Frum, GOPer brebis galeuse, is particularly interesting. In asking why Romney would make such “an awesome ideological gamble,” he lays out five hypotheses, none of which put the Mittster in a particularly good light. Frum’s conclusion

Yet it’s also true that Ryan has been pushed forward by people who do not much like or respect Mitt Romney, precisely with a view to constraining and controlling a Romney presidency. By acceding to that pressure—for whichever of the five reasons above, or for some sixth or seventh reason—Romney has transformed a campaign about jobs and growth into a campaign about entitlements and Medicare. Romney will now have to spend the next months explaining how and why shrinking Medicare after 2023 will create prosperity in 2013. Economic conditions are so tough—the Obama reelection proposition is so weak—that Romney may win anyway. But wow, the job just got harder.

Romney chose Paul Ryan for the same reason McCain chose Palin in 2008: to lock in and energize the conservative base of the GOP that doesn’t trust him. Palin didn’t work for McCain (on account her personality) and I doubt Ryan will work for Romney, though for different reasons. It’s the projet de société, stupid.

UPDATE: Here are some of the instant analyses on the Ryan pick. Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast is not impressed with “Romney’s stunning, terrible choice of Ryan for VP.” Noam Scheiber of TNR, who calls the Ryan pick “lunacy,” thinks Romney did it so that one will be able to “blame the loss on conservatives.” Jonathan Cohn, also of TNR, says that there are “six things [that everyone] should know about Ryan.” James Fallows, writing in The Atlantic, asserts that Paul Ryan is “a good choice, but please, [is] not a ‘serious’ one.” For his part, David Corn of Mother Jones writes that “with Paul Ryan, Romney makes the VP pick Obama wanted.” And John Cassidy in The New Yorker thinks that Romney picked Ryan to “change the subject from [himself].”

2nd UPDATE: James Downie of WaPo says it loud and clear: “No, Paul Ryan is not ‘courageous’.” Money quote

As for Ryan himself, to begin with, what policies turned Clinton-era surpluses into Bush-era deficits? In large part, two tax cuts, two wars and a massive prescription drug benefit, and Ryan voted for all of them. (He also voted for TARP, by the way; his fiscal rectitude only included actually voting against massive expenditures once President Obama took office.) His “serious” debt-reduction plan doesn’t balance the budget until 2040. By contrast, the House Progressive Caucus budget, whatever else you think of it, balances the budget within a decade.(Note: In both cases, those are the budgets’ authors’ projections; your math may vary.) Furthermore, no doubt in fear of the senior vote, Ryan dropped the Social Security privatization aspect from his debt plan and now only guts Medicare for people 55 and younger. Finally, Ryan refuses to touch defense spending, retains tax breaks for oil companies that don’t need them, zeroes out the capital gains tax and finds his savings in programs by shredding the already hole-ridden safety net. For a Republican, this is smart politics. But how exactly is it “courageous” or “serious” to protect the interests to some of the most powerful (and wealthiest) lobbies in Washington — Wall Street, oil companies and the defense industry — while heaping painful cuts on the poor? No, the idea that Ryan or Romney’s nomination of him as his vice president is courageous is simply wrong.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

3rd UPDATE: Political scientist Thomas Schaller, writing in Salon, analyzes the five reasons “why Romney chose [Ryan] — and what to expect in the months ahead.”

4th UPDATE: Emily Bazelon of Slate wonders if “Romney just [gave] away Florida” in naming Ryan.

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I didn’t write anything about the controversy over the IOC’s refusal to mark the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympics massacre with a moment of silence at the opening ceremony of the London games—a refusal that, entre autres, earned the IOC a thank you note from the Palestinian Authority, which seemed to feel that such a commemoration would “be a cause for divisiveness and for the spreading of racism.” No joke. It’s now old news, so two weeks ago. Except that yesterday I was on Alain Gresh’s blog on the Le Monde Diplomatique website and came across a post of his dated July 25th, “Jeux olympiques : Munich, quarante ans après,” where he offered his commentary and then posted the entirety of an article that LMD published in October 1972 on Black September’s Munich operation, by Lebanese intellectual Samir Frangieh—then a leftist, nowadays a leading figure in the March 14 alliance—, where Frangieh described the collective “état d’esprit” of the Arab population in the aftermath of the operation and with an analysis of its significance for the Palestinian movement. An interesting read. This passage caught my attention

Pendant vingt-quatre heures, les masses arabes, profondément traumatisées par l’échec de la tentative de détournement de l’avion de la Sabena en mai 1972 et par les commentaires suscités en Israël, ont vécu dans l’angoisse. Et quand la nouvelle de la mort des otages israéliens a été connue, une explosion de joie a secoué le monde arabe. A Damas, les gens se félicitaient dans la rue du succès de l’opération. A Tripoli, dans le nord du Liban, une collecte de fonds, organisée en faveur de la résistance, a permis de ramasser des sommes d’argent considérables. Septembre noir venait de porter un coup au mythe de l’invincibilité d’Israël, savamment entretenu par les théoriciens des régimes arabes et qui représentait certainement un des blocages idéologiques les plus forts au niveau des masses.

In short, the news of the death of the Israeli athletes was greeted with an explosion of joy across the Arab world, with people congratulating each other on the street, doing high fives, and the like. How nice. Well, I guess one understands why the PA was so hostile to marking Munich with a minute of silence…

This reminded me of one of the many interesting things I learned in Yezid Sayigh’s Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993, which I read a couple of years ago (an essential book on the subject, though hard to come by; at 1000 pages w/small print, it was not exactly a best-seller). In discussing the Palestinian fedayeen operations launched from Lebanon into Israel in the 1970s—Kiryat Shmona, Maalot, etc—and that targeted civilians, Sayigh informs the reader that the Lebanese offices of the groups that carried them out (PFLP, DFLP, etc) were besieged with potential recruits in the aftermath of the operations, thereby encouraging other groups to emulate them. The base, as it were, thought terrorism was great. They loved it. Hey, Sayigh said it—in so many words—, not me.

Back to the Munich massacre, after Steven Spielberg’s film came out in 2006, a Paris theater screened the 1999 documentary on the event, ‘One Day in September‘, which won the Oscar for best documentary that year. It’s a very interesting film, where one learns that the German state—the government and police—was blindsided by Black September’s operation and was utterly unprepared and unequipped to deal with it. International terrorism of the sort inaugurated by the Palestinians—and with the complicity of states—was a new phenomenon and that had Europe entirely exposed. Thus the confused reaction of the German authorities and the incredible incompetence of its police (which adapted and got smart after the event, as witnessed, e.g., in the 1977 Lufthansa hijacking). A documentary worth seeing.

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Le Monde‘s Florence Aubenas has an exceptional reportage from northern Syria on the “shabiha” (ghosts), the pro-regime militias—auxilliaries of the Syrian army, in effect—that have been spreading terror in Aleppo and other towns and cities throughout the country. The shabiha militias—which are family/clan-based and mainly Alawite but also Sunni—have been Ba’athist regime enforcers since the 1970s, and heavily involved in criminal/mafia activity (with the benediction of the regime). Many, if not most, of the exactions carried out by rebel forces against pro-regime elements have been score settling with shabiha thugs. In the higher interest of my readers, here is Aubenas’s reportage (which is behind LM’s wall), followed by a shorter piece by Benjamin Barthe on the shabiha.

Dans Alep, à l’heure de la terreur des chabiha
LE MONDE | 06.08.2012
Par Florence Aubenas (Nord d’Alep, Syrie, envoyée spéciale)

C’était une demande de renfort, banale, lancée le 30 juillet dans la nuit par un groupe de soldats rebelles : ils viennent de s’accrocher avec l’armée régulière, du côté de l’aéroport d’Alep. Quand vingt-cinq hommes démarrent pour leur venir en aide, la demande est déjà devenue un appel au secours, de plus en plus pressant.

Pour les insurgés, la seule manière d’arriver à temps serait de traverser le quartier de Nerab, du côté du pont. Impossible. La zone est contrôlée par les Berri, une famille ou plutôt une armée, près de 100 hommes du même (more…)

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Robert Fisk has an article in The Independent on an aspect of the civil war in Syria that has been preoccupying me since last year—and particularly of late—, which is the danger posed to Syria’s priceless historical patrimony by the fighting, and particularly the old cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Fisk details the extensive looting and destruction of archaeological and other sites that has already occurred, and which is far from over. And last week the Le Monde website had a slide show on the threat to the old city of Aleppo. Le Monde also reported last week of heavy fighting in the Bab Touma and Bab Sharqi quarters of Damascus’s old city. This is a nightmare. I love these two cities. Their historical patrimony is equivalent to that of Paris, Rome, Prague, and Jerusalem, to name a few, and one can hardly imagine that warring parties would risk the destruction of these cities (pour mémoire, Paris and Rome were declared open cities during WWII; the French deliberately did not defend Paris in 1940 and the Germans did likewise in Rome four years later). The prospect of heavy damage in the centers of Damascus and Aleppo—such as happened in Beirut during the civil war there—makes me so sick that I hardly bear to write about it. But if it does happen, both the regime and the rebels will be at fault, let there be no mistake about that.

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Michael V. Hayden, CIA director in the last Bush administration, has a commentary on Syria that is worth reading. His conclusion

We would do well to keep that in mind as the Syrian end game approaches. We should accelerate work to get the minorities into the game against the regime, hastening its end and broadening its opposition. The Christian and Kurdish communities have historic ties to the West that should play to our advantage in this.

We should also meter our support to the opposition based on its inclusiveness. Syrians before the Assads lived in relative religious and ethnic harmony under largely Sunni rule. It could be so again, but Lebanon and Bosnia offer examples where historic harmonies have fractured.

The fall of the House of Assad is now as inevitable as it is welcome. But if this means a successor regime that is exclusively Sunni, trending fundamentalist and opposed by a third of the Syrian population, it could actually make things worse. And that would be a sad outcome indeed.

This outcome would not be sad. It would be a disaster. A catastrophe. The US and Europeans should—indeed must—press the Syrian opposition on the issue of minorities, not that this will likely have much effect on the ground. Outsiders have little influence over internal dynamics in that part of the world, as the US has learned the hard way in Iraq. But whatever influence they can bring to bear, they need to exercise it.

UPDATE: Indian journalist Kapil Komireddi has an op-ed in the NYT on “Syria’s crumbling pluralism,” where he says that otherwise anti-regime Christians are fleeing into Bashar’s arms due to the exactions of rebel forces.

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Gore Vidal

[update below]

I hadn’t planned to write a thing about Gore Vidal’s death, as I never read any of his books or followed him in any way. He didn’t interest me. And whenever I did read something by or about him, the subject was usually his flaky political views, and specifically his predilection for conspiracy theories—e.g. 9/11 “trutherism” and FDR willingly letting the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor—, which will definitively get someone labeled a crackpot in my book. And on the personal level, the man really did seem to be—pardon the expression—an asshole. But I’ve come across this piece in Slate by David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers, that is worth posting. Greenberg argues that Vidal should not be eulogized, as “he was a racist and an elitist, forever mourning the decline of his era of aristocratic privilege.” Ouch! I’ll post anything else of interest I come across on him.

UPDATE: In characterizing Vidal as an “asshole” I should give an example of this. Here’s one, from an interview with him in The Atlantic in October 2009

In September, director Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland for leaving the U.S. in 1978 before being sentenced to prison for raping a 13-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson’s house in Hollywood. During the time of the original incident, you were working in the industry, and you and Polanski had a common friend in theater critic and producer Kenneth Tynan. So what’s your take on Polanski, this many years later?

I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?

I rest my case.

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Romney and Diamond

[mise à jour en français ci-dessous]

Mitt Romney, in explaining the reasons for Israel’s apparent superiority over the Palestinians during his Jerusalem visit last week, referred to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond, writing in today’s NYT, says that Mitt’s description of his book is “so different from what [the] book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it.” And Diamond then goes on to summarize the book’s arguments.

Diamond’s book is on the list of the most important books I’ve ever read, as I learned something new from it—not just mere facts but about the Big Picture—and it changed the way I think about things. It really is a must read. Hopefully Mitt Romney will get around to it one of these days.

MISE À JOUR: Le livre de Jared Diamond a été traduit en français sous le titre De l’inégalité parmi les sociétés – Essai sur l’homme et l’environnement dans l’histoire (Gallimard, 2000). Il n’a malheureusement pas eu le même retentissement en France que dans le monde anglophone.

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