Israel: Illiberal Democracy

The reason liberals are divided over Israel is that Israel is a democracy – but it is not liberal. Democracy and liberalism have distinct histories, and people in the West today are fortunate to have the rare opportunity to enjoy both. Israel, relative to its region, is to be commended for at least being democratic. But it does not get a free pass for establishing a colonial system of apartheid, denying equal protection of the law to 2.2 million Arabs living in the West Bank; or turning Gaza into a ghetto for what it deems to be its region’s undesirables.

47 years ago, Israel defeated Syria, Egypt and Jordan in the 1967 6-Day War. By the end of hostilities, Israel had taken territory from all 3 countries, including the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt. Since then, the residents of the West Bank have been subject to Israeli rule, but have never been granted citizenship, allowed to vote, nor have any voice in Israel’s government, which continues to exert enormous control over many aspects of their lives. Arabs and Israelis are not treated equally under the law. Arabs – some of whom are now third and fourth generation subjects of Israeli rule – are excluded from driving on certain roads, have limited rights of movement, and restricted access to water resources in an especially arid region.

Israel seems intent on treating the West Bank as if it were its very own Louisiana Purchase. Like the US, it shows no regard for the region’s indigenous population, from whom it has stolen land in a grand colonization effort. Since the Oslo Accords 20 years ago, Israel’s colonial population in the West Bank has tripled. The problem is not that Israel has stolen land from another country. (Jordan relinquished its claim on the West Bank years ago.) The problem is that about one-third of the land taken by Israeli colonizers is privately owned by Arabs – Israeli “settlements” constitute a theft committed by the state of Israel, to the detriment of one ethnic group, for the benefit of another.

As America did with its Native American population, Israel continues to shutter up West Bank Arabs into a shrinking territory, which every day more closely resembles a system of reservations – while controlling their movements between designated spaces, and denying them access to water. After attempts to colonize Gaza failed (Gaza is too dense, and Hamas is too incorrigible), it was turned into a ghetto, with Israel straining to control everything and everyone that goes into and comes out, severely harming the economic life and health of its inhabitants. In the cycle of violence of Gaza rocket attacks on Israel, and Israeli retaliation, people in Gaza suffer ten times as many casualties, a large fraction of whom are innocent women and children. Such an analysis must also consider the severe impact of Israel’s blockade on Gazan life expectancy and infant mortality.

Pragmatically, Israel remains a close and vital US ally. But no matter the expedience of maintaining a pro-western government in the heart of the middle-east, the US’s long term interest is in the proliferation of liberty, human rights, and the rule of law – not merely democracy. Israel is an unfortunate example of one problem democracies too often succumb to: tyranny of the majority. Liberals are therefore right to continue their criticism of the state of Israel – until Israel follows rule of law, and treats all people subject to its authority equally.



The Field Guide thanks the US State Dept for furnishing invaluable information and insight toward the composition of this article.




A Cynic’s New Suit

While impeaching Bill Clinton over a blowjob remains the gold standard for absurdity and cynicism, the House GOP plan to sue Obama is impressive. This same House GOP that’s now voted 54 times to repeal the ACA will next sue the president for partially delaying its implementation. You cant make this stuff up.

Starting this year, the ACA requires corporations with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance. Obama unilaterally gave a one-year extension, and will not enforce the provision until 2015. This move was sensible because insurance markets should mature more over that time, making compliance less burdensome on companies in what remains a tepid recovery. It’s the sort of legal fix that Congress would have taken care of itself in years passed – but today’s radical GOP would prefer to see the ACA fail, instead of making uncontentious changes to improve it.

And that’s why the GOP is unhappy to see part of its most hated law put on hold. Of course, procedure is important, and Obama’s changing of the law via executive order merits scrutiny. But one cannot help but note that this is a strange executive act for the House GOP to sue over – the irresistible inference being that they couldnt find anything better; and that they think their constituents are too dumb to pick up on the details.

The lawsuit is emblematic of the GOP’s plan to resist the president on every issue, even on issues they agree on. In 2010, e.g., John McCain was a co-sponsor of a Senate resolution to establish a deficit reduction task force – Mitch McConnell was an outspoken supporter. After some deliberation, President Obama also came out in support of the resolution. At which point, McCain and McConnell did something rather curious – if by “curious” one means “revolting” – they did an about-face, and with their GOP colleagues, they killed the bill. Never mind that they thought it was good law – good for their constituents, good for the country. As long as Obama supported it, they would not, cynically sacrificing a measure they had previously lauded on the Senate floor.*

Then there’s McConnell’s famous remark that – in the face of the worst economic crisis in 80 years – his number one priority was to make Obama a one-term president. And so obstructionism for its own sake has become the GOP’s highest policy objective. Seemingly unsatisfied with sitting on their hands while one crisis after another passes without legislative action, the House GOP would next see to it that the executive branch also does nothing. Or perhaps Boehner cannot resist making literal the metaphor sometimes used to describe him – as he moves ahead with his empty suit….



* this anecdote is discussed in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Mann and Ornstein – a fascinating and infuriating read.





Gaza Futility

There is no side to be taken in the ongoing Israeli-Gaza war. Israel has occupied Gaza in varying degrees for 47 years. Since its 2005 pullout, Israeli has maintained a blockade that severely hinders economic life and health in Gaza. Hamas emerged after 20 years of Israeli occupation, during the first Palestinian uprising in 1987. It has since risen to become Gaza’s dominant political group. Hamas are religious extremists, with little skill for governance, and no regard for human life. Perceiving that their popularity increases with Israeli aggression, Hamas deliberately provokes Israeli attacks by firing rockets into Israel from Gaza.

Israel’s ongoing blockade constitutes an act of war. Firing rockets into Israel is the only way that that Hamas, the democratically elected leadership of Gaza, can fight back – Israel has proven unresponsive in negotiations absent the use of force. Israel, for its part, reasonably insists that it needs to control imports into Gaza to keep out materials used for making rockets. If Israel lifted the blockade, one might reasonably expect armaments to flow into Gaza, to be used on Israelis. Hamas, and practically every other political group in Gaza, is intent on lobbing ordinance onto Israelis. It’s a vicious circle: the blockade, intended to reduce rocket attacks, remains itself a justification for such attacks. The rocket attacks, intended in part to retaliate for the blockade, remain itself a justification for the blockade.

A half-century of Israeli occupation came with the usual perks. For 27 years (1967-94), the Israeli military directly administered most government functions. Israel colonized Gaza with 21 settlements, whose combined population only maxed at about 8000. Those settlements nonetheless controlled 20% of all the land in Gaza – leaving more than 1 million Arabs to share the other 80%. Despite international condemnation of their occupation, Israel would have been content to occupy and colonize Gaza indefinitely. It was Palestinian resistance that brought Israel to the bargaining table in the 90s, and drove them out in 2005.

Israel’s differential treatment of Gaza and the West Bank is driven by demography, geography and history. Gaza, with 1.7 million people living in 139 square miles, has the same size and population of 1960 Detroit. The West Bank is fifteen times larger (about the size of Delaware), with an Arab population of 2.1 million; it also encompasses the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, not to mention East Jerusalem. In short, Gaza is 10 times more densely populated than the West Bank, which is therefore much more attractive for Israeli colonization. While Israel has abandoned its Gaza settlements, it continues to expand its colonization of the West Bank, with 500,000 settlers and direct control of 40% of the territory.

Unlike the West Bank, Gaza is too small and too densely populated with Palestinians to be attractive for Israeli colonization. It will for a long time to come be very poor, and very hostile to Israel. The purpose of Israel’s present incursion is political: the Israeli government hopes to convince Israelis that they’re doing their best to end the rocket attacks out of Gaza. Beyond that, it will accomplish nothing. Hostility toward Israel, whether in the form of suicide bombers or rocket attacks, are the consequence of a political movement, which will never be defeated on the battlefield. It took decades of Israeli occupation to create Hamas. It will takes decades more for them to go away. The US should condemn Israel’s invasion of Gaza – not because it’s unjustified, but because it’s futile.







We’re All Socialists

Once you agree that we’re able to identify economic sectors that are neglected by markets, and furthermore accept the government’s role in allocating resources into those sectors, you have subscribed to two of the most important tenets of socialism, and are left to figure out what kind of socialist you want to be.

Some roles of government are so ancient that people take them for granted. No one is regarded as a socialist for asserting that government should build bridges or maintain a fire and police department. However the economic logic of government activity in these areas is not terribly different from the logic behind public education – or public insurance. The distinction between a “capitalist” who supports the government’s role in education, infrastructure and public safety, and a “socialist” who additionally supports the government’s role in insurance is only a matter of degree.

When western societies started pooling resources to collectively educate children in the 18th century, socialism wasnt even a word. All but the most rabid conservatives accept that collecting taxes and spending them to educate children is a proper role for government. (Conservatives get hysterical over the federal government’s role in education.)  Conservative acceptance of public education is as well their tacit acknowledgement of the failure of markets to fulfill the need.

It helps to be reminded of the chasm between “classical” economics and other economic models. Classical economics has it that markets are self-correcting and self-sustaining – that central planners cannot improve on a free market’s allocations. Anyone who accepts public education necessarily rejects classical economics – because if markets could not be improved upon by central planning, then public education would be unnecessary and wasteful – free markets would see to education privately, leaving no need for public schools.

But education markets suffer from several well-known problems. One is access to capital: a five year old cant go to the bank to secure a loan to pay for his education for the next 10 or 20 years. Even if he could, one’s own education is so rife in positive externalities, that it would suffer from chronic underinvestment. (The benefits of your education accrue significantly to other people – if you could somehow capture all of their benefit too, you would be willing to spend a lot more for your own education.) Parents who pay for their child’s education have the same externality problem.

Public education is a big ticket item, dramatically increasing the size of government. In the US, total annual government education spending on all levels will for the first time exceed $1 trillion in 2014. That’s 50% more than the government spends on defense – and almost as much as government spending on healthcare and pensions.

Once you accept our ability to identify failing market sectors, and subscribe in principle to the government’s ability to correct those failures through regulation or outright government provision, you open up the debate as to which market sectors need attention. Beyond education, infrastructure and security, perhaps the next most obvious market failure is insurance – and it’s no coincidence that governments worldwide have been in the insurance business for 150 years.

As conservatives mindlessly rail against government-provided health insurance as socialism, it’s amusing to chide them on their own socialist beliefs. But it’s no less heartening to appreciate the considerable common ground shared by Americans from both ends of the political spectrum.



Taxing Smokes and Drinks

Smoking is bad for you. Sugar-sweetened sodas are probably bad for you too. But taxes on cigarettes and sugary drinks are dumb and mean-spirited, and liberals should oppose them.

Smoking causes cancer, heart disease and emphysema. Despite this knowledge, some adults still want to smoke – and their decision should be respected, even if most other adults dont understand it. Levying punitive taxes on tobacco – as high as 400% on a pack of cigarettes – as if to help others make the “right” decision, is paternalistic and obnoxious. It’s well known that smoking causes disease – helping it cause poverty too is gratuitous.

Many are familiar with the argument: since society ultimately picks up the tab for the health consequences of smoking, society can rightfully tax it to reduce smoking rates. Milton Friedman rightly critiqued this as a slippery-slope to tyranny – that the sum of such policies will greatly erode liberty. But few realize that the math doesnt work either: smoking probably reduces government spending because smokers live shorter lives, and so collect less social security than they would otherwise. We should be glad to pay a premium for liberty – but it’s nice to know that we can let smokers smoke in peace without fretting over the bill.

Conservatives look stupid when rejecting gay love or marriage – seemingly unable to make the rather simple inference that gays can naturally and normally have romantic feelings for members of the same sex, even though such feelings can seem strange or repugnant to some heterosexuals. The inability to tolerate – much less acknowledge the validity of – preferences different from their own, reveals a fundamental lack of insight and imagination.

But liberals look just as stupid when they beat up on the working-class over their Marlboros and Coke Classic. Driving without a seatbelt is idiotic – but if informed adults want to go that way, they should have at it, free of state intrusion. It is in fact NOT at all obvious how one goes about weighing the trade-offs between unhealthy behaviors and shortened lives. You dont have to understand why someone else is willing to give up 10 or 20 years to smoke, eat badly, ride a motorcycle or skydive – but as a liberal, you must accept their informed decision, else you fall into the same species of error that conservatives make on gay rights.

There’s also a more modern, fancier slippery slope: that since smoking is addictive, we can dismiss the choice of adults to smoke because their decision is not consensual. We might treat smokers as people who have been duped into an addiction, and so disregard their apparent preference, and look for ways to help set them straight. Despite the efficacy of medical models for the treatment of drug abuse and addiction, invalidating the considered, informed decisions of adults is dangerous business. A liberal society demands that adults be given the benefit of the doubt.

Liberals are sometimes rightly critiqued as elites who are so sure they know better than other people, that they’re willing to substitute their judgement for those they deem to be in need of guidance. Smoking and obesity patterns follow class lines, with poor, uneducated working people far more likely to smoke and be overweight. Cigarette taxes thus seem as paternalistic as they are regressive, and feed the perception that liberals are out of touch with the working class.

Respecting other people means, above all, recognizing that their choices on activities that impact their own lives are valid per se. It is the government’s role to disseminate information so people can make the best possible decisions. But manipulating prices through tax policy to impact preferences is simply not a proper role for a liberal government. The decisions of informed adults should be respected, even if they are not understood.



Regulating The Business of Racism

Not all rights in the Bill of Rights are equal. Every right you have depends on your ability to go before an impartial judge to complain of your treatment at the hands of the executive; and your ability to communicate your preferences to other people, including your representatives in the legislature. If all of your other rights were lost, as long as you still had the right to speak your mind and be heard, there’d still be hope. This is why government regulation of expression is so dangerous, no matter how well-intended it may be. The right to speak your mind is the most precious right you have. Reciprocally, the government’s power to censor human expression is its most dangerous.

Many countries have laws against “hate speech.” Depending on where you are, you can be imprisoned for advocating for genocide (Canada); for insulting or disparaging someone’s race, religion, skin color or sexual orientation (Denmark, Iceland), or for denying that the Holocaust happened (France, Belgium) – just to give a few examples. In the US, all such laws would be unconstitutional – leaving Americans relatively free to spew whatever madness or hatred that strikes their fancy.

Then there’s the US Civil Rights Act. While a private citizen can put up racially offensive signs on his front lawn, or publish newsletters denigrating particular ethnic groups, in business he is NOT free to discriminate against customers or employees on the basis of race or religion. This dichotomy is justified because commerce does not get the same protection as civil and political expression. (Up until recently, the US Supreme Court understood the difference between a person and a firm; and between speaking and spending.) Some conservatives complain that this is an overreach of government power – that forcing a restaurant owner, e.g., to serve whites is a denial of his property rights, if not his right to express a particular view by a specific means.

The NFL’s Washington franchise, as a business under US law, cannot discriminate against customers or employees on the basis of race. It is not clear whether a Native American working for the firm could sue the team on the theory that its use of the term Redskins constitutes a form of harassment. For illustration, one might imagine a black supremacist starting a business that prints racially disparaging bumper-stickers. (The Field Guide defers to its readership the imagining of a few especially offensive examples.) Clearly, a white person who applies for employment in such a firm must be treated equally for hiring purposes. But once hired, could he thereafter sue the firm because production of its only product constitutes a denial of his civil rights?

The aim is to demonstrate that several liberal principles are in conflict in this set of issues. Protecting the sensibilities of minorities is important. No less important in a polyglot society is the value of toleration – ensuring individuals a maximum of latitude to live and organize their lives. But free speech – and by free we mean specifically free of government regulation – is paramount. Compared to other western democracies, the US stakes out an extreme position re the government’s power to regulate the content of speech. The Field Guide submits that the US gets it right on this issue – even if in some instances, the result is distasteful.

The Washington franchise has been stripped of its trademarks – this is entirely appropriate and was long overdue. But empowering the government to prevent the firm’s use of a racial slur as its team name; or to forbid its use of a racially inflammatory logo, would be a mistake. One must have faith that liberal values, given time enough, will be borne out – as they always have. Empowering the state to censor the speech of racists – even big racist firms – gives the cause of liberalism a small victory, at too dear a cost. It is nothing more than the majority silencing the expression of a minority it deems unworthy. Though the end may seem attractive, the means, when stripped down to its bare bones, are as ugly as ever.

Consider the best argument against the flag-burning amendment: A flag sheltered by threats to personal liberty can never be a symbol of liberty, and as such, is worthless. Likewise, when liberalism manipulates the apparatus of government to stifle expression it finds noxious, it destroys its core precepts: that the condition of individual liberty will ultimately lead our species to the best of all possible worlds; that given free exchange in the marketplace of ideas, the best ideas will ultimately prevail. Even when progress toward that end is sometimes too slow, empowering the government to pick winners and losers among ideas is itself the worst idea of all.




Note to Field Guide friends and readers: the hazy, crazy, lazy days of summer are upon us, and the Field Guide’s stalwart staff is not immune. CT has commanded a two (2(!)) week cessation of all LFG-related activities, to commence not later than sundown on Friday – encouraging all to use some vacay to nurture the liberal spirit, and if that fails, to drink till inebriation and dialogue members of the opposite (or same) sex till accession.

CT will remain at the home office to oversee the fine-tuning of our trusty LFG woodchipper – and while he’s left open the possibility of reposting hidden gems from the Field Guide’s dusky past, we will return in full freshness on Wednesday July 16th -




NBA, NFL and the Business of Racism

The NBA has revenues of more than $5 billion. Its 30 teams have a collective valuation, per Forbes, of $19 billion – though given recent sales of other sports franchises, that’s probably understated. And so when one owner got caught making racially disparaging remarks, 29 others moved swiftly to excise the canker from the league’s cajillion dollar body. While final, legal closure will likely require years in court (the kind without hoops), it is, as far as fans and players are concerned, largely settled. The league rose to the occasion and cast out a resident racist, allowing the rest to move on.

The case of Donald Sterling is interesting and heartening because it will very likely be put to rest by operation of market forces, with a racist owner dispatched from the NBA because racism is bad for business. When racism is made to go away by private actors, without recourse to the coercive power of the state, that’s a good thing, and a sign of progress.

In contrast, the case of Washington’s NFL franchise is not likely to go away any time soon. Washington has been using a racial slur as its team name since 1933. As far back as 1968, the National Congress of American Indians condemned the team’s use of Redskins; scores of other Native American tribes and organizations have subsequently followed suit – just in case the point had been missed by Washington’s ownership, which was infamous for being among the most racist in professional sports. (In 1962, threatened with eviction from their home stadium by the federal government, they became the last pro football team to integrate – while playing in a city that was more than 50% black.)

Last week, the US Patent and Trademark Office revoked Washington’s team trademarks, deeming the Redskins name and image to be racially disparaging, and thus not entitled to trademark protection. This is the second time that the USPTO has issued such a decision. They did so first in 1999 – a decision that was later reversed.

There can be no serious debate as to whether “Redskins” is a racial slur, Dictionaries are unanimous. Decades of usage may have had a desensitizing effect – but try to Imagine yourself addressing a roomful of Native Americans as Redskins, and any remaining doubt will vanish. A harder question is the proper role of the state in adjudicating, if not remedying, the situation.

Consider that between Sterling’s comments and Washington’s name, the latter case is far more egregious, persisting now for more than 80 years, validated day in and day out by the league, its players and fans; in the mouths of sponsors, announcers and members of the press. The reason the matter persists is simply that Native Americans are not economically significant enough for NFL ownership, its players or fanbase to rethink current practice. Most people dont care – and Native Americans lack the political or economic capital to force them to reconsider.

While Sterling’s comments merited a severe rebuke, the size and swiftness of the response was driven not by the size of the insult, but by the amount of money at stake. Or, as stated above, it was not resolved by justice but by commerce. In Washington’s case, commerce may not be enough to make its ill-conceived team name go away – and justice may not have an answer either.

While trademark revocation is appropriate, it will have some undesirable effects if it stands. Clearly, it will hit the team in the wallet, which was petitioners’ objective. But Washington, with an estimated worth of $1.7 billion, may find the name valuable enough to keep, even in the absence of trademark protection. More perversely, anyone will be able to manufacture and sell merchandise with the Redskins name and logo, without having to get permission or pay licensing fees. According to basic economic theory, this will lead to a significant INCREASE in the supply of Redskins-branded items, and a drop in price. In other words, with its trademark protection revoked, use of the Redskins name and logo on commercial merchandise should become MORE widespread than ever.

Beyond revoking the trademark, it’s not clear what the government can or should do. Liberals must tread carefully in areas involving freedom of expression, including so-called hate speech – of which this matter is a sub-species. The Field Guide will take the issue up when we return on Friday.