Thursday 18 September 2008

A response to Brendan

Hi Brendan!

Thanks for your comment. I always enjoy receiving your feedback. Here's a partial response to the issues you have raised.

1. Obama’s Health Care Promises
I unfortunately don't believe the Obama Administration will be able to finance its health care plan. At present, Medicare and Medicaid are already creating serious spending problems, as I'm sure you know, even though they are highly flawed systems (in terms of staggered deductibles and lack of government-mandated prices). Although a partial reform of either system would no doubt improve effectiveness, the growing demographic trend of senior citizens and the impending retirement of the baby boomer generation means that there will be a major funding problem in the "paygo" system in the next 25-30 years. Unless, of course, the US admits greater numbers of legal immigrants, increases payroll taxes, increases the minimum wage, or transfers tax income from other revenue sources to pay for these programmes.

Extending public healthcare to the majority of younger and middle aged citizens excerbates the problem, and requires at least three conditions to be successful:

(a) Very high start-up and ramp-up funding commitments, which currently neither the US federal nor state governments have the means to finance given its perilous public debt.

(b) An assumption that the economics of the system work only if employees and insured foresake private sector health insurance, and are content to trade off higher taxes (probably on payroll) in exchange for lower direct insurance costs. In my experience with mandatory public health insurance, most insured are unhappy with the necessity for high mandatory contributions, while they often take out supplemental insurance to cover the gaps in the public system. The US income tax system is already very fragmented and uncompetitive, and the sum total of US taxes (federal and state) are very high. Who is actually going to pay for public healthcare?

(c) A different demographic situation quite unlike the one the United States currently finds itself in. Please look at most objective studies on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid funding projections, and offset these against the rise of US federal and state debt, and particularly unfunded pension liabilities which may amount to more than $ 200 trillion according to some studies. (The US GDP is currently about $ 14 trillion).

I can do some back-of-the-envelop figures if you will, but not this week (my schedule is really busy at the moment). In the same spirit, however, I would ask you to provide me with one example of a public healthcare system that has been developed in a US state, which has been within budget over the first four years of operation.

No public healthcare initiative that I know of, starting from an equivalent situation to that in which the US finds itself, has ever stayed within its public budget. Launching such a system given the current Federal budget situation and the demographic situation in the next 4-8 years will be financially unsustainable and lead to massive debt which cannot be offset by a reduction in the spending on the Iraq war.

If you like, let's revisit this conversation four years from now and see how the public medical insurance situation in the United States has changed. With your permission, I won’t get into analysing the range of other promises made by either candidate, unless you specifically want me to.

2. Foreign Policy
I believe that no major changes in US foreign policy will be made that will contribute to a fundamental solution to most of the current critical challenges we face, let alone emerging challenges. This is regardless of which candidate is elected in November.

Let's take just four critical issues, and leave issues like Guantanamo Bay aside: Guantanamo Bay is a problem solely determined by US decision-making; real foreign policy problems are not - other actors have a say. It is also not of any material importance: lives will not be saved by closing or relocating Guantanamo, which could not be saved by incarcerating prisoners elsewhere. Such a decision is a uniquely American one to make. It is a distraction, although obviously an unwelcome and unconstitutional one.

There is no long-term US strategy for victory in Afghanistan. There is no vision for what a stable, successful Afghanistan might look like, or how it would interact with its neighbours. There is no understanding of how long this might take (in my opinion, it will take at least one generation, or at least 20 years) or cost. There is no comprehensive, detailed or realistic analysis of the drivers, barriers and scenarios for such a vision, or a strategy for achieving it. If you have seen one, I would be very happy to read it.

Take just one factor: there cannot be victory in Aghanistan without a totally different political, economic and social situation in Pakistan. What solutions for helping Pakistan have you heard from the two candidates? The debate used to be about whether President Musharaf was an effective US ally or not, and currently its whether the US should carry out unilateral attacks within the Tribal Areas or not.

This is symptomatic of an extremely superficial approach: attacks on the Tribal Areas are not going to solve the core problem of Al Quaeda's or the Taleban's fundamental attractiveness as a social-political-religious force. If anything, it will increase that attractiveness, building the Taleban's identity as a movement capable of defeating Pakistani and US military forces.

Take another factor: there is abundant evidence to suggest that one main elements motivating the Taleban has been Pakistan's enmity with India. This has led the ISI to support the Taleban as a "fifth column", a potential source of jihadists against Indian troops in Kashmir.

How many times have you heard either the McCain or Obama campaigns mention Kashmir? What is US official policy on Kashmir? Are the tools chosen by the US government for working with the Pakistani and Indian governments at all conducive to regional stability and solving the Kashmiri problem? How would you address the disparity in the US approval for (and funding of) the Indian nuclear programme, and its official disproval of the Pakistani nuclear programme?

Contrary to popular opinion, I consider it highly unlikely that the US will implement a full withdrawal from Iraq. I fail to see the strategic motive for doing so, particularly given the costs and sacrifices of the past seven years. Please consider:

(a) A full withdrawal from Iraq would prompt an almost certain Iranian takeover of parts of the country, and the collapse/secession of others. This amounts of a vast strategic setback to the United States and its allies, since Iranian presence in the oil-rich, Shia heartland can hardly be beneficial. Should this happen, Iran’s influence over Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria will increase, and new targets for Iranian-backed instability will be created.

(b) A US strategic presence will probably be assured by a long-term force profile of about 35-40,000 troops, spread between Iraq’s territory and neighbouring states. This is subject, of course, to having an Iraqi government that makes the right decisions, which currently cannot be assumed.

(c) Although combat operations will gradually decrease, the key approach in the short term will almost certainly be military. Should Obama fully withdraw from Iraq, and should Iraq collapse, the Democratic party will lose all credibility in the area of foreign policy, perhaps similar to the debacle of the failed Special Forces mission outside Tehran during the Carter administration. The damage to US vital interests will be profound.

The military issue notwithstanding, I ask again: what is the US vision for a stable, successful Iraq? Are there any countries in the Middle East where such a vision is present in reality? What will be the long-term costs of our engagement in Iraq, and what impact will these have on other policy areas. If you have any signs that the Obama or McCain campaigns are thinking seriously about Iraq besides the political issue of military withdrawal, I would appreciate your input.

The major challenge of the incoming administration will be dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambition, which can only be addressed in the context of its broader place in the political, religious and economic framework in the Middle East and SE Asia. This issue cannot be solved militarily, and it certainly cannot be solved through the wishful, short-term thinking currently espoused by successive US administrations, as well as the two campaigns. Please consider only the following factors:

(a) Iran has a history of nearly 3,000 years of Persian culture and history, over which is overlain a more recent history of the Islamic faith and its subset, the Shia interpretation of that faith. This is not going to go away anytime soon, but will remain a powerful motivator for national(istic) political mobilisation, identity-building and engagement.

(b) The history of the last 60 years is, if anything, fuel on the fire in terms of nationalism. The US support for the Shah, the 1953 CIA-led coup d’etat against a democratically-elected government, the rise of Khomeini, the Iran-Iraq war, during which Iranians were killed en-masse by US-provided weapons, including chemical weapons. These events, real and re-imagined, are equally not going to disappear because of a UN or IAEA resolution on nuclear weapons. They are, if anything, a powerful reason why Iran should develop nuclear weapons, in the eyes of a certain part of the population.

(c) Given this past history, and given the US’s overwhelming support for Israel and its undeclared nuclear force, it is the utmost hypocrisy for the US to press for an end to the Iranian nuclear programme. Sad, but true. This is not to say I am in favour of Iran developing nuclear weapons: this thought fills me with horror. But the vapid declarations of successive US administrations, apparently marching in lock-step with the Israeli government and various lobby groups, is not a recipe for success.

(d) Iran is one of the most populous countries in the region, and with its present demographic growth rates will continue into the near future. Its major challenge will remain how to trade off religious extremism and economic growth. Its major political challenge is how to break its encirclement by US military power (Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf) to exercise its growing “great power” status/aspiration.

(e) The demographic trends may present the most hope for a future political engagement, and “normalisation”, of Iranian society. The aspirations of the young are very different from the religious-military elites currently in power. Any change in Iran will be a change in the political role of the overwhelmingly younger population, who are concerned with the same issues young people everywhere are: developing their own identity, finding a job and self-respect, experiencing new cultures and influences. Policy tools towards the young and female populations, who are currently excluded from power, should be developed: university exchanges, cultural exchanges, employment opportunities, education, etc. A generational change in perceptions, history and political interaction is required. A bombing campaign will disenfranchise these groups further, and consolidate the current regime’s force through incendiary nationalism.

(f) Iran’s continuing support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and its ability to partner with secular regimes who are both harmful (e.g. Syria) and helpful (e.g. Turkey) to US policy is set to continue. A bombing campaign against Iran will only accelerate this support, since Iran will act in increasingly hostile, covert means.

There needs to be a comprehensive engagement with Iran in order to solve the problem. At this stage, I would argue that the nuclear issue is a non-issue: we have no means of solving the nuclear issue unless we solve the long-term motivating factors which have led Iran to seek nuclear weapons in the first place. The nuclear programme is now a matter of national pride, a last defence against “the Great Satan”, and a potent demonstration of Iranian science and competence.

Does current US policy do anything to solve this issue, besides view the problem through the seductive prism of a military solution? What options do the McCain and Obama campaigns provide, besides blanket statements about Iran’s nuclear weapons?

I’ve left this subject for last. US policy towards Israel remains the single greatest barrier to achieving diplomatic normalcy in relations with the large majority of countries in the Middle East. Israel’s continuing settlement policy, its overwhelming military dominance and willingness to use it in populated areas, the power of its lobbyists in Washington, its treatment of Palestinians and its recent incursion into Lebanon are a barrier to any kind of lasting solution.

The US willingness to back Israel at all costs, even when Israel takes steps that abrogate previous agreements, will cost the US much more in blood, treasure and credibility than we can currently imagine. “What goes around comes around”, I’m afraid to say, and as long as we support policies which are so manifestly detrimental to fundamental human rights and well-being, we should not be surprised when even more dangerous terrorist attacks are unleashed against us.

US foreign policy needs to be re-balanced:

(a) The Arab countries are far greater in importance and population than Israel. A realist foreign policy should focus on developing comprehensive relations with the Arab states, and not only through the prism of weapons sales and oil deals.

(b) US policy towards Israel should be steered away from military assistance towards other forms of assistance. The knee-jerk response of a large annual arms deal needs to be re-thought.

(c) If the US is to be engaged in the peace process, it needs to be a consistently fair partner. The elections in Gaza, for instance, were fully backed by the US: Hamas was elected. When the “Road Map” is repeatedly violated by Israeli settlements, the wall-building and military incursions, Israel needs to be brought to task and there need to be real counter-measures.

(d) A lot more has to be done to support the Palestinian side, either to the elected government or, if necessary, to ordinary people. There are plenty of Palestinians living in the US and Americans of Palestinian descent who would be ideal for this task, and who would be glad to help. Unless the ordinary people “disconnect” from Hamas’ social welfare network, political dominance will pass into the hands of the extremists. What would be the impact on US relations if for every $ 10 given to Israel, $ 10 in non-military aid were given to Palestinian causes?

Until now, both the Obama and McCain campaigns have engaged in the same reflexive bowing and scraping to the AIPAC lobby. There is no new thinking there, no real approach to a comprehensive solution. US foreign policy has been a total failure in this area, and one of the main enablers of the 9/11 attacks and the rise of Al Quaeda. Given the rapid advances in technology and inter-connectedness, we should not be at all surprised if future attacks against the US and our allies are launched, in part motived by the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Please don’t mistake this statement as anti-Israeli, or anti-Semitic. I fully support Israel’s “right to exist”, and I fully support the Jewish religion’s right to free worship. I am against acts of terrorism and violence, against any target, and I am against religious and political extremism in any form.

I look at this issue objectively, and dispassionately: all sides have made grave mistakes in the history of the creation and growth of Israel: Western countries, Arab states, Israelis, Palestinians, the Soviet bloc. If you look at the history of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples in the last 125 years, you would conclude that there are few more shameful episodes in human history.

Yet the answer today is not more of the same, but a fundamentally new approach to solving the problem. This will not be easy, and I certainly don’t have the solution. But unless we approach things differently, you and I will be having the same discussion four years from now. Which I would welcome, of course, but I do wish we could be discussing more positive developments in human achievement!

To come back to your original question: Yes, Barack Obama has engaged in sit-down discussions and speeches and policy documents, as has John McCain. But these are far from offering a comprehensive solution to a series of very intractable problems. The US administration – as the two candidates – are focussing on symptoms, not root causes. They are seduced by the myth of US military power as offering a basic solution to problems which have been, in large part, caused by US military power (or assistance), or a heavy-handed US approach to international law and basic tenets of international law and human rights.

Look at the record of US involvement in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine, and you will see a record of coups d’etat, invasions, overt and covert military assistance, support for “friendly” dictators, support for torture, a preponderance of military assistance, and a range of other behaviours which are questionable, if not shameful.

The American people are apparently not aware of this record, although there are abundant sources from respectable US and international sources for them to find out, if they were truly interested. Things have been done in their name which, if they were done in Peoria or San Fransisco or Santa Fe, would have been inconceivable.

I fail to see how US foreign policy will solve problems if it is conducted against the fundamental values enshrined in our constitution, our national law or international law. We are inflicting our policies on people who have the same basic human motivations and needs that we do.

In a global society, how much longer do you think this can last without serious repercussions? Are we still living in the 1950s, when people had no alternative sources of information, no means of travel, and traditional political elites and family structures dominated? Of course not. We live in a fragmented, constantly-changing, inter-connected world, where everyone has access to the Internet, satellite TV and Western Union, and where the main battle tends to be one for attention rather than territory.

In this milieu, what we see from the US Presidential candidates is the same vapid, empty superficiality and stupidity that has been practised in the last 50 years. Sound bites are not a substitute for an objective, rational look at the facts, and rational solutions. I'm very much afraid that I do not see much cause for hope in “Change we can believe in” – just more empty promises.

This is the reason why although I am voting for Barack Obama in November, I have little hope that things will fundamentally change in the next four years. There is nothing in the record of US foreign policy in the last 25-30 years which gives me any great hope for the future. As demographic trends drive fundamental changes in the US and global economy and society in the next 25-30 years, I must confess I grow even more pessimistic, which is what led me to make the statement you have objected to:

"Neither party offers a comprehensive policy platform that addresses both economic competitiveness (education, tax reform, manufacturing, energy efficiency, legal reform, public sector reform) and social competitiveness (education, health care, environment) in any convincing way.

Neither party, or candidate, offers a credible plan for funding their many promises.

Neither party addresses the paradigm shift in economic, political, demographic, social and technological trends that have been occurring since 1990, and will dominate the next 25-30 years. "

Please, convince me I am wrong. I would like nothing better, believe me!




  1. Man Philip, i have to say, that was a hearty response you wrote there! Don't know if i'll def. be able to respond w/this much again if your response is as long as this one was, just cause i'm feeling crazy busy as i get involved in the election some, but do appreciate the interesting thoughts! Here's a few responses:

    Health care

    * Health care initial and eventual costs: Obama has said they would work to launch the health care program initially by ending the war in Iraq and repealing Bush's tax cuts; eventual costs are to be covered in large part, from my understanding, by people paying a premium as they do for private health care; but the idea is that the premium cost would be lower b/c there would be more focus on prevention, allow less costs associated with: 1. people waiting until they absoultley need care and running to the ER; and 2. eventual disease b/c prevention would catch things a lot earlier for those who haven't been able to afford to have preventive care.

    * I don't know what to say to your question about a state not going over budget, except that people have taken issue w/ways Mass. particularly has done their program, and i imagine approached things differently. The simple related point in my view is that it is not humane what we have now here, and i think if we act as though we can dismiss every solution but not offer an alternative to deal with the inhumane quality of things that we miss what i see as the end goal.

    Foreign policy

    * I don't have much to respond on the details of your thoughts here, as i don't know about some of the various points you bring up, though they sound fair. But i do have to take issue with the way you seem to be assuming that since the candidates have not mentioned an issue, like Kashmir or the disparity between the current US support of India's nuclear program and not Pakistan's (a Bush policy i would note), that they do not have opinions or sensible perspectives on them; they may have sensible approaches to them, they may not, but i don't think the simple fact that they have not appeared to mention them can fairly allow one to conclude that they don't have a sensible approach to them; i think the question has to be asked of how they've approached and discussed some of the other major issues, foreign policy or otherwise, and whether they have addressed them fairly, wisely, etc. (i haven't combed their info on these questions, though perhaps you have, through articles, speeches or their webgsites, but since i haven't it makes me think they may mention them for all i know)

    * With Iraq, Obama has said there would be a residual force of around the # you mention, so there aren't claims that it would be a technically "full withdrawal"; i really have to say though that i find your approach to this a bit unhelpful in terms of Obama's "vision for a successful Iraq"--the idea is not to have some great success, but to have it reasonably under control, and more so, to refocus our attention in Afghanistan. The Obama camp talks about trying to do that through a sort of diplomatic surge, involving more parties in the problem (neighbors and otherwise), pushing for significant humanitarian aid for Iraq and Iraqi refugees, and having enough troops to stamp out resurgences of al-Qaeda in Iraq, etc. But the larger point seems to be one where we say this has gone past our capability to solve and so we need to leave it in as reasonable a state as possible and reprioritize.

    * With Iran, i'd say the same as i said above about assuming that someone (OBama in this case) does not have a nuanced understanding of Iran because he has not talked publically about the nuances that you pointed out (though i undoubtedly agree the nuances are important and even central).I'm sure he's aaware of the things you point out and i feel confident that he would not bomb anywhere unless it was the last resort.

    * With Israel, i do have the same fears that make me think there's too much pandering, though i can't help but think that anyone who has some real sense, as i think Obama has demonstrated, would realize that things are way too complicated to allow for a black and white picture of Israel and the surrounding states.

    Overall, i hear some of where you're coming from and don't have the years of witnessing presidents that you do, but do feel Obama has a fair approach to most things. I think at least in part that this means shifting from a military-first approach to the world, but we will see how much. My main worry is finances, and whether ending the war, repealing tax cuts and looking for other revenue sources will cut it. Man i hope so. But i still hold w/most of what i said and my feeling that there has been a good deal of convincing details and discussion that gives me some of the confidence i've voiced--we'll of course see what happens, but i def. hear where you're coming from.

  2. Hi Brendan,

    Thanks for your courteous response. Please note that I'm not against Obama's foreign policy platform: it's just that I find it lacking detail and taking the same superficial approach than US foreign policy in general.

    We are addressing symptoms of problems, not root causes, and as you say, we are looking at too many things through the military prism. "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like nails."

    Regarding healthcare: The Obama tax plan is set to save about $ 700 billion over 10 years, according to independent reports. That's $ 70 billion per year. It does not include savings from Iraq. However, there are a series of other spending promises Obama has made, at least before the current meltdown, including investments in human capital, renewable energy and infrastructure.

    Any national investment in healthcare is going to have huge ramp-up costs which will not be manageable either through productivity gains or managed costs, at least in the first four years.

    Beyond this, I haven't seen a reasonable plan for reducing the deficit from the approximate $ 10.5 trillion where it will be at the end of this fiscal year, not including the revised EESA currently making its way through the Senate.

    Unless the debt is reduced, all other bets are off.

    I'm going to vote Obama in this election. But if I can offer you a polite word of advice: don't believe everything he is promising you.

    I know from reading your blog that you've come to support Obama in the same way I have: by comparing platforms and policies. The problem I see is that (a) he can't afford all them, even before the current crisis, and (b) he's going to have an extremely difficult time implementing them in their current form.

    Best regards,


  3. Thanks for the word back Phillip, and while i appreciate the point, i definitely don't believe all i here from Obama; some i'm just taking a wait and see approach, as i know Clinton, for instance, promised tax cuts for the low-moderate income folks, but then didn't do it when he came in. I'll be curious to watch though, as i haven't been involved in a presidential campaign before, let alone been in a place to watch the outcome after.

    The only other thing i'd say is that i read what i think was a good point recently on budget issues (from here:

    "Notwithstanding general praise for [Bob] Schieffer, he like all the other debate moderators seemed to be unduly interested in how either of the candidates is going to 'balance the budget.'

    NEITHER OF THEM IS GOING TO BALANCE THE BUDGET -- nor should they be mainly concerned with trying, right at the moment. We're in the middle of a potential economic collapse. One of the lessons Herbert Hoover inadvertently taught is that you shouldn't try to tighten up on public spending during a huge downturn. For details, see the works of JM Keynes, passim."

    So based on that, on think there may be some costs worth paying in increasing the deficit to some degree during this time in order to, as Obama rightly points out i think, invest in some of those areas that are part of the economic problem--health care, infrastructure and energy in order to create jobs, etc. This comes from nothing approaching an economist, but seems like a fair approach, if done in coordination with turning back Bush's tax cuts, gradually ending the war in Iraq to cut spending there, and being judicious with all other spending.