Sunday, January 31, 2010

Triumph Of The Will

Imagine a state in Palestine to which the Jews of the world are gathered, but in which they have individual rights no greater than its Arab inhabitants. Imagine a country with no privileged religion: everyone goes to his or her house of prayer in freedom and peace. Imagine a state in which individual human rights are paramount; a state that is full of different languages, reflecting the cultural richness of its many immigrants. Imagine that such a state would have no army, but would depend for its peace and order on the Western powers. Imagine that this state called itself merely the "new society." A hydroelectric canal would join the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean.

Imagine that, in such a society, an Arab citizen could say something like this: "Would you call a man or a robber who takes nothing from you but brings you something instead? The Jews have enriched us, why should we be angry with them? They dwell among us like brothers, why should we not love them? Our houses of worship stand side by side...our prayers, when they rise, mingle somewhere up above, and then continue on their way together until they appeared before our Father."

Imagine a Jew adding: "Nothing on earth is perfect, not even our new society. But we are merely a society of citizens seeking to enjoy life through work and culture."

A leftist fantasy? Bound to undermine Israel? Actually, this is more or less exactly the vision of the Jewish state set out in Theodore Herzl's novel Old-New Land. (The dialogue is taken from the book verbatim; Herzl also wanted "athletic and rifle clubs" for once "pale, weak and timid" Jewish children.) Old-New Land's famous epigraph, "Im tirzu, ein zu agaddah," "If you will it, it is no dream," almost immediately entered Zionist lore, though few Zionists at the time were so liberal and cosmopolitan that they were prepared for a vision in which Hebrew had been effaced. Nevertheless, when people invoke the phrase "Im tirzu, etc.," this is the dream Herzl supposed Jewish will would attach to.

I AM THINKING about the origin of that phrase today because of a surreal ad recently taken out in the Jerusalem Post by an organization called Im Tirzu, which gives the will's triumph a rather different cast. The ad attacks the New Israel Fund, and its current president, former Member of Knesset (and dear friend) Naomi Chazan, for supporting various human rights organizations whose meticulous data and reporting contributed to the Goldstone Report.

Now that Alan Dershowitz has exposed that report as tantamount to reissuing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, presumably all contributions to it, like the stringently liberal principles animating them, must be thought "anti-Zionist." (This morning, on Israeli radio, there was another attack on the New Israel Fund for supporting an organization, "Breaking The Silence," which documented over 70 anonymous reports by soldiers of harassment of Palestinians at checkpoints.)

Anyone with a sense of history knows where this is going. Israel can't have an increasingly repressive and brazen occupation without eventually getting around to repressing Israeli voices who oppose it. Anyway, if he were alive, and were solicited by the New Israel Fund and Im Tirzu, who would the witness to the Dreyfus case write his check to?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sheikh Jarrah: 'Ground Zero'

Yesterday's vigil did not grow in numbers, but it was clear from the people who turned out that it is growing in moral prestige. During the week, J Street issued a statement of support. The world press has begun to take notice. CNN put it well, calling Sheikh Jarrah "ground zero." More important, perhaps, this week's demonstration drew two new supporters, the novelist David Grossman and the head of the Peres Center (and Oslo negotiator) Ron Pundak. Larger scale mobilization is at hand.

And how could it not be? Throwing out Jerusalem Arab families from their homes of more than 50 years, and making way for Jews affiliated with Ateret Kohanim, could not be more revealing of the ethical autism Israelis in Jerusalem have suffered from and the political dangers we are sliding toward. The demonstrations against this are the most perfect way to oxygenate the embers of the peace process.

What other issue so exposes how the security rhetoric justifying military occupation of Palestinian territory since June, 1967 eventually came to cover for a romantic scheme, whose signal event was the annexation of Jerusalem in June, 1967, and the quadrupling of its municipal boundaries? What other stand focuses on the collusion between the Jerusalem and national police and settlement organizations? What stand so dramatizes the importance of East Jerusalem, Palestine's largest city, and its historic commercial hub, as the capital of a Palestinian state? What stand so reveals the pathos of refugees losing property on both sides during this awful century of war, and the importance of moving forward with a sense of reciprocal fairness--the importance of not opening up pre-1948 land claims on either side of the green line? The demonstrators may be a minority in Jewish Jerusalem, but their views still command a majority in Israel as a whole, and they have the world at their back.

EARLIER IN THE week, another event in Jerusalem reinforced the urgency of mobilization. About 100 people came out to the Van Leer Institute to hear a panel of Palestinian entrepreneurs and managers, who explained their frustrations trying to build sustainable businesses under the strictures of occupation. But perhaps the most chilling thing said in an otherwise engaging and cordial exchange between panelists and audience was the point made by both Basim Khoury, the CEO of Pharmacare, and Sami Abu Dayyeh, the CEO of Net Tours: that East Jerusalem is slowly being reduced to another Gaza.

Half the city is under the poverty line, unemployment is unimaginably high among young people, who are dropping out of school in large numbers; street gangs are forming on Mount of Olives neighborhoods; educated people, the sons and daughters of the traditional merchant class, or leaving for Jordan and Dubai. Little by little, Israel is turning the 230,000 Arab residents of Jerusalem into an unexploded bomb looking for a blasting cap. And the explosion, when it comes, will quickly spread to the Israeli Arabs of the Little Triangle, and sweep away the people who were talking to us, by providing Hamas the perfect conditions to grow.

So the demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah are about many things. First and foremost, they are calling for sanity.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Talking Heads: Israel Television

For those interested, I debated (if that's the word for it) a number of contentious issues on Israeli English television last night (click, and then click "IBA CLOSEUP," to the left). Nobody interrupted anyone; this was in English after all. My thanks to the program's producer, Lea Zinder, for her invitation and generosity.

Sheikh Jarrah: Mr. Speaker Speaks

Above, coffee is served to demonstrators by evacuated families

The former speaker of the Knesset, Avrum Burg, on Galie Tzahal's (IDF Radio), morning show, Ma Boer, with Razi Bakai, 24 January, 2010:

Anchor Razi Barkai: Good morning, former Knesset Speaker Avraham (Avrum) Burg.

Burg: Good morning.

Barkai: How long has it been since you last took part in a demonstration?

Burg: Many, very many years.

Barkai: The last famous demonstration you attended was the one in which you marched alongside Emil Grunzweig, who was killed then by a hand grenade.

Burg: That is possible. I do not remember, but it must have been decades since I last attended such a demonstration.

Barkai: What made you show up last weekend?

Burg: I came because I felt something was evolving here in Jerusalem that is of much greater significance than a single building and a few tenants. This is a huge symbol of Jerusalem as a powder keg that is about to explode right in everyone's faces here. A man cannot stay at home when this is happening.

Barkai: There are two formalistic arguments that you have to deal with. First, the fact that this demonstration was staged without a permit and you, who have observed the law for many years and as former Knesset speaker, must be aware of that. Second, the buildings you were protesting against were bought by Jews in a completely legal deal.

Burg: Regarding the legality or illegality of this demonstration, the way I understand the law, when people stand around and no speeches are made, it is a rally and people may assemble and rally all they want. Still, I would not want to debate this question because a normal, reasonable state should know that when such a burning issue is on the agenda, it cannot silence it with technicalities. This issue is too urgent, too troubling to be swept under the rug with formalistic arguments.

Barkai: Who do you think made the call and decided that the demonstration was illegal -- the Israel Police or, as Yosi Sarid wrote in Haaretz this morning, the Israel Beitenu police?

Burg: The police did. The police officers, whether they are simple cops or the police commissioner, are not my enemies. The person on the other side is actually the Israeli prime minister. I feel that two systems failed here. First, the legal system, the justice system. There are rules in Israel and the citizens have citizens' rights.

Barkai: Just a second. I still want you, Avrum Burg, to address the second argument too.

Burg: The Jewish property issue?

Barkai: That's right.

Burg: I will address it very briefly. There are open cases of Jewish property that was in Arab hands and Arab property that was in Jewish hands. When Jerusalem one-sidedly contains the return of Jewish property to Jewish hands, and having a normal justice system and courts, it would be impossible to reject Arab claims to their houses in Talbiya, Katamon, and Tel Aviv.

Barkai: Are you saying that, actually, the right-wing arguments actually uphold the [Palestinian] right of return?

Burg: Of course they do. With his flaccidity, escapism, and keeping away from the issue, Benjamin Netanyahu is actually absent from it, even though it is a burning issue from both the humanitarian and political perspectives. He dumped the concept of two states for two nations on our heads, but by promoting Jerusalem, Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah, and Shimon Hatzadik, he is actually promoting the Arab claims that we want our property where the Palestinians want to return. We cannot allow an anecdotal situation where a single house and a few settlers, or a judge who fails to see the big picture, or who is trapped because, when applied to East Jerusalem, the law is distorted, discriminating, and aggressive. I cannot accept a situation in which an incident that comes from below dictates the strategic policy of the State of Israel.

Barkai: Listen, you mentioned the fact that a court had handed out a ruling in this matter, which makes the remarks you are making a bit problematic. You were there with Yosi Sarid and Uri Avneri, veteran warriors and demonstrators who have always fought for the rule of law and for the independence of the courts, but only up to the point, only until court rulings conflict with your worldviews. Suddenly, you make different arguments.

Burg: My struggle is against the law -- [I'd explain this] if we had time, which we don’t -- because this is the nature of a plan that introduces wrongs that the law allows in Jerusalem. In de jure terms, the very legislation would have shocked us and we would cry against such discrimination among us, but we will address the judicial system too. The judicial and law-enforcement systems are so selective. Jonathan House in Silwan will never be evacuated, but a house in Sheikh Jarrah was evacuated immediately, and its residents, who are now second-time refugees, live in a tent outside their home. When settlers move in and are not evacuated, it means that the law or its application is discriminatory. The law cannot be applied this way. This is wrongdoing.

Barkai: As one of the tribe elders -- and forgive me for giving you this title -- I would say that you are experiencing a second wind. I wish to address the cynical remarks that Yosi Sarid made in his Haaretz article this morning. He spoke about the absence of MKs, those who were supposed to pick up your struggle. He even mentioned names of MKs who are mainly involved in social struggles, which he cynically qualified, and are not involved in the Palestinians' struggle. What do you think about that absence?

Burg: Yosi Sarid is 100% right. His Haaretz article expressed what many people feel. All that was once the Israeli left, the peace camp, from Haim Oron down, the three Meretz MKs and the Labor leftover MKs who fail to stand up and show up there and in other places that the civil society has taken upon itself, are practically making themselves redundant. Presently, these parties represent none of us. If they returned to the streets, rejoined the struggle, stopped fearing of making a stand wherever it is needed, and start backing up the detainees, the people on the streets, my children, my family members who have been demonstrating there for many weeks, and all of us who go there and are not protected by immunity or anything else -- then they would be parties that represent us. Otherwise, they have no meaning.

Barkai: Avraham Burg, thank you very much.

Burg: Shalom.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Perfect Symmetry

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Late last year, in early October, Sidra and I visited Poland for the first time, and among our stops, inevitably, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. Walking the pathway, smack down the middle of the camp, I decided not to write about the experience until today, not out of any sense of decorum, but because I knew I would need some time to see what faded and what stuck. Four months seemed about the minimum one needed to let first impressions ripen.

And now, having let time pass, I feel nearly as dumbstruck as I did then. For the overwhelming first impression I had in Auschwitz-Birkenau, which I still fear bringing to consciousness, was the terrible beauty of the place. And this, of all things, has stuck. I don't mean the beauty of the meadow and forest, about which much has been written: the pathos of the birdsong, the mocking of the seasons. I have enough imagination to assume that the sounds of captivity and stench of murder would put the idyll of any countryside into a dark eclipse. I mean the perfect symmetry and elegant architectural touches of the camp itself: the deco curves in the pylons holding the electrified wires, the broad-shouldered grandeur of the masonry walls, the angular roof-lines over the receiving gates. Now, 60 years later, it looked to me like a flattened, transplanted Brooklyn Bridge gone to seed.

All of which put another thought in my head: what I am seeing now in my mind's eye is very nearly how the camp must have looked to the architect, one Lothar Hartjenstein, before any structure actually went up. I can see him fussing over his blue-prints at 3 AM, perhaps tamping out his last cigarette, finally putting down his pencil. "Ya...," I can hear him whispering to himself, the goose-flesh rising on his arms. It dawned on me that, perhaps, the most devilish Nazis after all were the Speers and the Hartjensteins, the purveyors of perfect symmetry. How magnificent was the world they dreamed up, which so many young Germans could only fall in love with; a world as beautiful as an F-16 in flight or a Victoria Secret model after Photoshop.

"Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made," Immanuel Kant, once remarked. But would he have bothered issuing this supreme warning had he not known that a big part of what made us so crooked was our yearning for straight things? And what of the inmates themselves? Did they not, too, yearn? The thing that pains me the most is the thought that any number of Birkenau's victims might have disembarked and, in spite of their terror and hatred, been struck by its grandeur, too; that among the burdens they had to bear, having lost their lives even before they were killed, was the thought, however fleeting, that the camp architecture was somehow proof of their being dispatched by what could only be thought civilization.

My dear friend, the late Ilona Karmel, survived the Plashow camp a few miles away. Sidra and I visited that site, too, and walked its gentle hill. Ila never told me this, but it was clear from the camp's vantage point that she could see the low-slung, stately buildings of downtown Krakow in the distance, the way one sees downtown Boston from Farlow Hill in Newton Corner. She told me once that she strangely missed the camp now and then, because it was the only moment in her life when she knew, exactly, right from wrong. Another symmetry Nazis--but not only Nazis--achieved.

Monday, January 25, 2010

An Important Evening: Pass The Word


An open invitation to a panel discussion (in English)

Economic Peace:
Foundation or Distraction

Introductory Remarks: Bernard Avishai, author, The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy And Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last, adjunct professor of business, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Chair: Sam Bahour, Consultant and entrepreneur, CEO, Applied Information Management

Participants:
Bassem Khoury, CEO of Pharmacare and former Economics Minister of the PA
Amal Masri, General Manager of Ougarit Co. for Marketing, Communications, and Media
Ammar Aker, CEO of Jawal, Palestine’s major cell phone company
Sami Abu-Dayyeh, CEO of Netours, East Jerusalem’s largest tourist company

The term, “economic peace,” has often been used to imply that Palestinians under occupation might be more tranquil if they had fuller bellies and fatter wallets. But the term also suggests a reasonable question: Can a Palestinian state rise peacefully if Palestinian civil society does not now engender a globally competitive community of entrepreneurs and professionals? If the answer is no, then the state of Israel has an obvious interest in helping this community advance, or at least in not getting in its way. Is Israel taking advantage of this opportunity, or adding burdens to Palestinian commercial life? The extraordinary panel we have assembled will speak to these issues in detail.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010, 19:00
The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, 43 Jabotinsky Street, Jerusalem
Tel. 02-5605222 / www.vanleer.org.il
Admission is free

Parking is not available at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sheikh Jarrah: Going Mainstream

This past Friday, the weekly protest at Sheikh Jarrah grew to about 800. It is going mainstream, as the young organizers had hoped.

The atmosphere was electric, owing to the police's denial of a permit last week and its subsequent arrest of 17 demonstrators, including Association for Civil Rights in Israel director Hagai El-Ad. The arrested were summarily released late Saturday night, Jaunuary 16, by Judge Eilata Ziskind; she ruled that, within certain guidelines, protest did not require a police permit at all. Standing vigil outside the jail were a group of civil rights activists (including, I am proud to say, my wife, Prof. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi) who stayed until all protesters were freed. Among the arrested was also Didi Remez, the managing partner of the consulting firm Benor.

In spite of the ruling, the police responded defiantly, again denying the protest group a permit to march from the center of town, and threatening to arrest the leaders if they gathered at all. (Eventually, 20 more were indeed arrested. Their fate is going to be determined in court on Tuesday.) Not coincidentally, the police now answer to Public Security Minister Yitzchak Aharonovich, from Avigdor Lieberman's ultra Yisrael Beiteinu Party; and to Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, who's long been connected to reactionary groups funded by, among others, Sheldon Adelson.

Friday's 3:00 PM newscast on Reshet Bet, the dominant radio outlet, led with the story, just as the protest took shape. Former Education Minister and Meretz leader Yossi Sarid came out, as did the former Speaker of the Knesset, Avrum Burg, and the old lion of the peace movement, Gush Shalom's Uri Avneri. Peace Now's old guard leadership finally came out in large numbers, and were joined by people who could hardly be characterized as a left fringe (though the Israeli press persists in calling the demonstration one of "leftists," apparently for no other reason than because the rights of all people, not only Jews, are at stake). Among the protesters this week were Prof. Yaron Ezrahi, formerly a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, and Prof. Moshe Halbertal, who helped write the IDF's Code of Ethics, and who's been getting a lot of attention lately for his anguished response to the Goldstone Report.

I MENTIONED THE protest's young organizers. Perhaps the most heartening feature of this growing movement is its leadership group, about 75 young people, who came out last Tuesday to plan for the future. They are articulate, calm, nuanced. They are very much aware that their protest symbolizes something much larger than one dreadful injustice in a sea of injustices: the need to see East Jerusalem as the future capital of Palestine, the insanity of continuing Jewish settlement across the Green Line through the prostitution of Israeli land law (we look at pre-1948 deeds on their side of the Line, but not at deeds on our side), the insanity of the Ateret Kohanim settlers themselves, the defiance of the Geneva Conventions by the police of a state that depends utterly on a globalized economy, the immanent dangers to freedom of speech in country that wins friends, if at all, for its residual democratic freedoms. The torch is being passed to another generation, who are carrying it with courage and grace.

Yossi Sarid adds:

In my long years of demonstrating I have never seen a protest so restrained, so not in need of a permit according to any rational interpretation of the law. Not every police officer - yea, not even every brigadier general - is authorized to declare it illegal. If the police views Friday's demonstration as a criminal act then the democratic right to demonstrate has been destroyed and Jerusalem begins resembling Tehran. Already it is not entirely clear whether what we have is the Israel Police or the Yisrael Beiteinu Police.

Since leaving active political life I have not attended demonstrations despite repeated requests; after all, there is no shortage of reasons to demonstrate in these parts. I told myself - I've paid my protesting dues, time to make way for the next generation. But Nitzan Horowitz and Ilan Ghilon and Shelly Yachimovich and Daniel Ben Simon are social-welfare-oriented MKs, and the removal of Palestinian families from their homes is not a social-welfare issue.

This time I could not refuse. All citizens, not just public figures, have a duty to resist. And so, on Friday afternoon the retired demonstrators came and filled the little square. The struggle in Sheikh Jarrah isn't over, it's just beginning. More Palestinian families are slated for transfer, and one cannot trust this government, the mayor of Jerusalem or even the city's judges to do the right thing.

When the judges rule in favor of the settlers the latter stop mocking them and celebrate the confirmation of their position; but when they rule against them, they blow them a giant raspberry. Months ago the High Court of Justice ordered the demolition of Beit Yonatan, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, and it is as if it never happened. It's only when they agree with the decision that they follow it.

The cabinet ministers may be unaware that in their folly they are affirming the Palestinian right of return de facto. If Palestinians who have been in their homes since 1948 can be driven out and replaced with Jewish families on the grounds of ownership from time immemorial, then Nasser Gawi can return to his home in Sarafind (Tzrifin), using the same argument. Now Gawi sits in a tent with his large family next to the home in Sheikh Jarrah they were thrown out of. As a two-time refugee he watches the settlers in the rooms that still hold the smell of his family's means - and Sarafind calls to him.

He is not alone: The Arabs of Jerusalem, too, would be glad to return to their homes in the West Jerusalem neighborhoods of Talbieh, Bak'a and Katamon.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Who's To Blame?--The Sequel

The little fire-storm set off by my post of a couple of days ago on TPM Cafe produced a great many angry rebuttals, some of them curiously personal; but most were written with seriousness and, like my post, occasion diagnosis, not catharsis. They deserve a response. For starters, some cruel facts of life.

One
. The US Senate, as Rick Hertzberg tirelessly reminds us, currently puts an effective veto in the hands of 41 elected officials representing perhaps a sixth of the population.

Two
. The top 10% of the population own about 80% to 90% of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75% of non-home real estate; the top 1% about 42% of financial wealth, that is, money for new investment. Quite apart from their direct influence over legislators who believe in the amazing grace of the invisible hand, their attitudes toward the economy more generally are a big part of what macro-economists mean by "confidence."

Three. The private sector is about 10 times bigger than the public, so that getting the economy "moving" in a crisis like the one we just experienced means, if you have digested One, first reassuring and inspiring this 10% of the population, regardless of how fairly a subset of them made their money in the first place.

Four. The approximately 40% of people with higher education map more or less perfectly onto the 40% at the top of the wealth distribution. In a knowledge economy, haves and have-nots map roughly to knows and know-nots. The gap will only widen in the years ahead. This means phrases like "taking on the elites" can mean anything from making taxation progressive to teaching Creationism; making heroes of Michael Moore or of Sarah Palin.

Five
. On the whole, the people feeling the most financial stress also tend to be people who are least educated, most "religious," most isolationist, most flagwaving, most NRAish, most cable newsish--you get the idea. This is not to demean or caricature anyone; I live in New Hampshire part of the year and have friends who voted McCain. But to unleash their anger against the "elites" and hope for Sweden is to ignore much of what made the fascism of the 20th. century so memorable.

Six
. Changing One through Five means working for a generation to change political structures, commercial standards, a strong social safety net, and educational infrastructure. But change requires growth, or budgets get busted, inflation takes over, and private sector investors go back into a panic.

NOW TO HEALTH care, the Massachusetts vote, and so forth. The draft reform that took shape since last May, like the law currently working (and covering my son, his wife, and their daughter) in, of all places, Massachusetts, would cover virtually everybody. It would force insurers, HMOs, community coops, etc., to compete on service, not on cherry picking. And it would do so by regulating the industry and subsidizing the poor, gaining revenue for extending coverage by raising about $200 billion in progressive taxation of various kinds. This is what we stand to lose, and it is not a little thing. How did we get here?

Some say blame the White House. Perhaps the most trenchant argument along these lines comes from my old friend Bob Kuttner; you can read his analysis here. Basically, Bob says that the bill itself is manifestly not what it could be because it accommodates Blue Dogs, who in turn were accommodating insurers and big pharma, all the while insisting that this was not a "government-run" plan--that is, the White House plan was not only inadequate, but its defenders seemed to be attacking government action while asking all to depend on it.

Bob is not against the plan, since there was never any question that most of health insurance would remain private and employer-based. But the politics of the plan's framing was wrong, he insists. And it had to be. Because the White House's critical mistake was dealing with health care before the economy turned around. Presumably, so long as there is high unemployment, health care must seem a secondary matter. Besides, the administration had been meanwhile been "playing inside games with bankers." Ordinary people were bound to smell a rat.

Obama, besides, made the mistake of letting the legislative branch write the bill, where lobbyists would load it up. And by mandating insurance, or prospectively using savings from Medicare to help pay for the uninsured, he also scared people already with insurance by proposing graduated taxes and union members who were doing quite well, thank-you.

MUCH OF WHAT Bob says is reasonable, but I disagree with its thrust. It alleges that, at bottom, by the time health care became front and center, Obama was already so associated with Wall Street--you know, the Geithner and Summers crowd, the "elites" who screwed the "people"--that he didn't have the political capital to get the Blue Dogs in line.

Okay, there is some question about whether Obama was right to let the Congress write the bill, although intuitively it still seemed a good idea to have let the leadership that had to corral the votes "own it"; once the bill got to Congress, the lobbyists would be activated in any case. And there was something to be said for waiting until unemployment numbers looked better before trying any social policy, though I'm not sure that would have satisfied Obama's "base."

But the rest of this case against Obama makes no sense--and never did. If the key to the politics of health care was that Obama had to come into the debate about it without having become the target of a populist insurrection against Wall Street and "government give aways," well, how did that insurrection get fueled? What he did to save the economy inevitably meant first, bailing out the banking system, and reassuring people who were rich.

More important, the people who publicly and relentlessly tarred the Obama administration with Wall Street associations were not Republicans--how could they be?--but "progressives." First it was the size of the stimulus, which should have been--what?--20% bigger? Then it was the treatment of the big banks which, for anyone who studied the 1930s--so the argument went--were all bankrupt, because recovery would be a 2-3 year slog--as if we still communicated by short-wave, telegraph, and surface mail. Geithner--so the argument continued--invited investment funds to profit from acquiring toxic assets, or let bankers overpay themselves too much. All of which made Obama seem responsible, or at least cavalier about, AIG's bonuses, and so on.

But the progressives' alternative was some form of bank nationalization, a step that certainly doesn't look so wise in retrospect and was arguable even then. By the beginning of April, the most powerful public criticisms of Obama were coming from, of all people, Nobel lauriate Paul Krugman--the "loyal opposition" to the White House, Newsweek told us, though loyalty was obviously particularly strained when Larry Summers was the target. Who, if not Robert Rubin's boys, were responsible for the regulatory problems in the first place?

LET ME BE clear. I am not saying progressives like Krugman wield great power in the halls of Congress, or that the people who joined the "tea party" movement were reading The New York Times, or TPM, for that matter. I am saying that progressives were able to seriously discredit the administration as no Republicans could, especially on television, where their skepticism was ramified by cable news anchors and ditzes, who were watched by you-know-who; skepticism implying that Obama and all those smarty-pants intellectuals, who looked so much like smarty-pants investment bankers anyway, were not on the side of the "common man"; that government was becoming a give way to big shots. As I said a couple of days ago, the story was that Obama's own people had turned on him for being against the people.

This was catnip to the right. Obama came into office with an economy on the verge of a meltdown. He stopped the chain reaction, and by the summer had a little power back up. In stopping the decline in the stock market, say, he of course allowed wealthy people with stock, pensioners, etc., to breathe easier before the unemployed could. He did not immediately stop job losses, or create enough new jobs; more public sector stimulus might be best, though nobody has ever proven Obama could have gotten more through the Senate last winter.

But Obama did restore a climate for future investment, which meant less panic, fewer mortgages going "under water," hence, less toxicity in bank assets. Jobs, "consumer confidence," and so forth, always lag these achievements. And, yes, by saving the banking system he had to save bankers, too, alas. Did the people on his left have his back?

ALL OF WHICH brings us to health care itself. Since early last spring, clearly, the White House knew they did not have the Senate votes for anything like single-payer or enlarging a Medicare-like government agency, irrespective of its merits. "Democracy" is not always winner takes all. Sometimes its is loser foils a great deal. The idea that Obama could have changed this Senate reality (got something closer to single-payer) with "political capital," presumably cowing Blue Dog Democrats from Montana and Nebraska, or the Senator from Aetna who supported McCain, is, shall we say, not persuasive.

But the merits of a Medicare-like plan were not so obvious in any case. Obama saw his main chance was to begin turning the economy around, and make health care reform a part of movement toward a knowledge-based economy, along with the educational and green investments contained in the stimulus; to get the best deal he could from the senators he needed for the last mile. That's why he signaled early on that he'd be open to creative ways to provide a "public option"--a market force to compete with private insurers--such as non-profit cooperatives.

Moreover, there were reasons to like that idea irrespective of whether one could get a big Medicare-like plan through the little funnel called the Senate, which one could not: reasons that are not about being a gutless and bought "centrist," but about trying to apply the lessons of the information revolution to medical provision, drug development and claims processing. (As in every other industry, the new information platforms tend to increase the power of individual enterprises, and syndicates of small enterprises, in ways only big corporations and big bureaucracies could have enjoyed a generation ago; it also makes therapies more genetically personal and expensive. As Atul Gawande wrote when the health care process was launched, counter-intuitively, small scale non-profit providers could be the best way to increase quality and reduce costs; the key to reform was first to get virtually everyone covered.)

Progressives, for their part, insisted again and again that the Obama plan would not control costs--more catnip, given that the only card Republicans had left was "deficits." But the alternative proposed was dubious on this score, too, since, as Arnold Relman, Gawande, and others have shown, Medicare-style plans were as guilty as private insurers for the fee-for-service medicine that balloons costs.

No, no, was the refrain on the left, cost control depended mainly on the "buying power" of a big government agency. This was a give away to the insurance companies. As if Walmart does not bid down suppliers. As if syndicates of buyers cannot now form as easily on the web as Facebook groups. As if giving people interest free university loans is nothing but a give away to book publishers and private universities. As if costs are not going to be brought down, if at all (given the high cost of the science that extends life), by systems that reward outcomes, digital medical records and legally mandated standards for claims processing, hospitals that specialize in particular problems and surgeries--in all, a medical industry fit for a knowledge economy.

THE BOTTOM LINE is this. Some Democrats--"progressives" seems the wrong moniker, since how many recognize the commercial and technological progress all around them?--worked inadvertently, but conspicuously, to discredit the Obama administration all spring, when it did the dirty work of saving all of our bacon. They helped fuel the "populist backlash" against Obama last summer. More recently, they opposed taxing the plans of unions as if they were defending "the proletariat." When people asked, not what is the right thing for the commonwealth, but what's in it for them, the left made this seem only natural. Then--as the wave of criticism mounted against Obama, and elections fell to Republicans--they accused him of political incompetence, faulting him for his effort at "bipartisanship," insisting that he should "fought for us."

Well, what about us fighting for him? He can't just frame things in terms of "democracy" vs. "elites." He is the president, one-third of the government, but commander-in-chief and cultural-icon-in-chief. Elites matter to a democracy more than ever. He orders people of all political views into battle. He is trying to help young benighted kids in lousy schools and a coarse, violent culture learn civility. The people who should have been reminding America incessantly where the mess came from, and the difficult work of fixing things, are us.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Who's To Blame?

I am mostly living far from Massachusetts these days, but I've marinated in its politics for 25 years, and seen my share of reactionaries voted into office. The idea that the state's undecideds are breaking for Brown because of some generalized economic anger that Obama failed to tap is ridiculous. Think Sean Hannity, not Sacco and Vanzetti.

The "undecideds" in South Boston and working class suburbs like Lynn don't like Cambridge and Back Bay, but they respect its winners, when they act like winners. They watch hockey for the fights. Like most of us, they have a certain humility and expect famous people and experts to tell them what to think. But they haven't heard of Uwe Reinhardt; and they smell insincerity a mile away. I wish I had a bluefish dinner for every time Coakley referred to the health package as "not perfect." It all came out so forced and fake.

The real question Democrats have to ask themselves is: how come the greatest piece of social legislation since Medicare is something a progressive Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy's seat has to speak so defensively about?

And we can look no further than Howard Dean, and MSNBC, and Arianna Huffington, and, yes, some columnists at the Times and bloggers at TPM--you know, real progressives--who have lambasted Obama again and again since last March over arguable need-to-haves like the "public option," as if nobody else was listening. They've been thinking: "Oh, if only we ran things, how much more subtle would the legislation be," as if 41 senators add up to subtle. Meanwhile the undecideds are thinking: "Hell, if his own people think he's a sell-out and jerk, why should we support this?"

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Ecosystem Of The Electric Car

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a lecture at Tel Aviv University's international English MBA program, the Sofaer program, on the ecosystem of the electric car. The lecture does a mandatory deep dive into the changes in automotive supplier networks before getting into the car, its problems, novelties, and huge opportunities. But if you have an hour, this is a pretty full picture of a critical new direction for American industrial renewal. You can watch the entire lecture here. The original Inc. Magazine article that the lecture is based on is here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Back To Sheikh Jarrah

This past Friday, the demonstration grew by about 50 over the week before: about 350 people in all. No breakthrough yet, but I am still convinced that this cause is so simple, pure, and emblematic that it has the potential to become a catalyst for Israelis determined to make a stand against the systematic absorption of East Jerusalem into Israel. It would probably help to focus on slogans that all Israeli progressives can rally to, like "East Jerusalem, the Capital of a Palestinian State," or, "Jews and Arabs don't have to be enemies" (the latter has a nice ring in Hebrew: trust me). It would probably also help to lose the red flags, and bring Israeli flags to wave along with those of Palestine. The young organizers are serious, smart--and learning.

video

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Nod, nod. Wink, wink.

I have been reading Adam LeBor's absorbing, chilling book about Bernard Madoff's fraud, The Believers: How America Fell For Bernard Madoff's $65 billion Investment Scam, published a few months ago in the UK, but not yet in the US. The book fills us in on some of the details we otherwise only imagine about Madoff's affinity scam: the way he worked his Jewish network, cultivating the seemingly impeccable Ezra Merkin, for example; the importance of maintaining his facade, from Nasdaq to Palm Beach. Too often, the word "sordid" comes along with the word "details" in such books. In this case, the modifier seems about right.

LeBor makes much of (but cannot really explain) Madoff's personality. You have to have something like the numbed nerves of a professional killer to be mishpocha to Mr. and Mrs. Simon Levy for thirty years, share bouillabaisse with them every few months, and knowingly position them to lose their life's savings just when they are growing old. ("What interests me," LeBor wrote me recently, "is how he lived with it for so many years, knowing that he could be blown open literally at any moment.") LeBor believes Madoff may have been warped somewhat by class animosity, the century old hatred of insurgent, immigrant Polish and Russian Jewish shtarkers for the well-heeled snobs, the Yekkes, who had come from Germany before them and dominated Jewish social life in midtown. Perhaps.

The gullibility of investors like the Levys is easier to explain. Most of business is following up with people who come highly recommended, precisely because most of us are so risk averse. Recently, in Tel Aviv, dozens of Chinese temporary workers lost tens of thousands of dollars to a scam artist who promised to save them the trouble of sending wages home to their families. I'll take care of everything, he said. One worker brought in another.

Nor can you assume greed among the victims. If a deadly sin must be attributed, it is more reasonable to attribute sloth, the desire not to have to think about something too much. One of Madoff's most conspicuous British victims, Lord Anthony Jacobs, put is this way: "The first thing to recognise," he said, "is that the description of Madoff investors as rather greedy and going for a high return is the opposite of the truth. When I started investing ten years ago, the return was about ten or 11 per cent. Ten per cent was relatively modest." He was looking "for consistency, not fireworks."

OF COURSE, THIS is a "relatively modest" return only if you assume that some years you will make much less, or even lose something. Professional fund managers know that to make 10 or 11 per cent every year for a generation is an absurdly handsome return. Which raises the really interesting question of the book: not why investors were taken in, but why professional investment fund managers and bankers could believe that something like Madoff's fund was not a scam. After all, the fellow who eventually exposed Madoff, Harry Markopolis, was nothing but a Boston fund manager who knew his business. Why didn't more brokers and fund managers smell a rat right away, the way a Las Vegas casino's sharks home-in on the card counters at blackjack tables?

The answer, LeBor's insiders think, suggests what it really means to be, well, inside. Madoff's company, BLMIS, had two arms: a trading arm, buying and selling equities, and an investment and advisory arm, taking other people's money and (ostensibly) holding positions for them and managing their money more generally--the latter being the home of the now exposed Ponzi scheme. What enough Wall Street people told LeBor to be statistically significant is that they assumed the trading arm of BMLIS was subsidizing the investment arm in some way: that Madoff was benefiting from his vast network of connections--not only Jewish connections, but all the aforementioned social connections from Nasdaq to his country clubs--to gain insider information for stock trades; that trading in insider knowledge, itself illegal, was so profitable BLMIS could afford to keep its investment clients happy.

Why, you may ask, did not Wall Street pros then blow the whistle on trading irregularities? Here is where the nods and winks come in. You have to believe that insider trading is, to some extent, so ingrained in the culture of Wall Street that to have suspicions about it is itself unremarkable. Who wants to look pathetically naive?

LeBor notes that there is something of a contradiction here, for if you did believe Madoff could make so much from insider trades, what would be the point of his running an investment house at all? He might just as well have used only his own money, or borrowed money, and saved himself the trouble of maintaining thousands of accounts at his Potemkin village in the Lipstick Building. Then again, how would you maintain your information network if you did not run an investment fund? Which about exhausts my ability to see what's fishy, and what's just water, the way a Wall Street swell might.