Monday, October 14, 2013

It's A Long Way to Al Andalus (But My Heart's Right There)

Once again, domestic political theater has proved an irritating distraction from events that, in a sane world, would come front and center in the mind's eye of the cognoscenti. While Congressional Republicans hold a kangaroo court to decide the fate of the credit of the United States and the short-term growth rate of the global economy, let us not entirely neglect the civil wars and endemic violence that has recently engulfed our good friends in the Near East.

I'd like to stake out a stance that may strike some as controversial but is in fact rooted in the deepest throws of sound reasoning and fact: The United States, and her international sovereign and institutional allies, must decisively oppose the rampant proliferation of Islamist political growth in Egypt and Syria. 

Obama and the broader international community simply refuse to acknowledge the conflicts in the Middle East for what they are: a resurgent and dangerous inflammation of politically-oriented, radical, Islam. Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted from his position as President of Egypt by the army at the behest of the Egyptian people, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and had taken steps while in office to undermine Egypt as a secular state. In the aftermath, pro-Islamist forces have slaughtered both military and civilian targets, especially amongst Egypt's long- beleaguered Coptic minority, whom they wrongly blame for the broadly popular "coup." A sizable and growing portion of the resistance forces in Syria are Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda affiliates. How does the President of the United States react to these situations? He eliminates military aid to Egypt and proposes bombing and ousting the very head of state against which Al-Qaeda is fighting. I would state that in starker terms: He proposed that we enter into a civil war on the side of Al-Qaeda.

Call me a neo-con, call me right-wing intolerant ignoramus, but I have a strong anti- Al-Qaeda bias. I don't want to attend any party they're attending, I don't even want to RSVP. And as I oppose Al-Qaeda, the same logic forms the corollary for my disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian chapter of the Brotherhood has called for the resumption of the jizya or head tax on Christians and Jews, as well as their exclusion from the upper levels of the civil service. The Brotherhood has also advocated outlawing any criticism of Islam by Muslims or non-Muslims, as well as banning alcohol and sun bathing at the beach- two pillars of the Egyptian tourism sector. Oh, and I saved the best for last: the Brotherhood does not believe women should be able to file rape charges against their husbands. Morsi drafted the Brotherhood-designed Constitution AFTER his own election- which, not surprisingly, contained no clause for impeachment. American apologists for the "Brotherhood" need to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves why they support a party of misogynists that promotes discrimination and limits on free speech, all while paving the path to another dictatorship.

Furthermore, apologists for the presence of politicized Islam in the emerging "democracies" of the region are likely to conjure images of a civilization long passed. There was a time and a place (actually several) where Qu'ranic law formed the basis for the government and the results were far from disastrous. The Caliphate of Cordoba (711-1492) originated many pivotal figures such as Avicenna and Arrezzo, and was instrumental in reintroducing the scientific method, algebra, classical philosophy, medicine, and economics to the Western world. Beginning in the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire forged a multi-Continent, cosmopolitan society that, with notable exceptions, successfully coupled internal tolerance with impressive external expansion. A quick anecdote just for fun: Saladin's mentor's father, (Zengi, father of Nur-al Din) and Sultan of Aleppo, met his death at the hands of his own slave. His slave killed him out of fear of being executed for theft. Theft of his master's private stock of high-quality wine. No one thought it was weird for a Muslim Sultan to have a wine cellar in the 12th century. I categorically oppose political parties that want to retard their nations to standards that predate the Middle Ages. The burden of proof rests with my opponents.

The mere fact that a majority of voters in a nation may elect an Islamist party to power does NOT legitimize that actions of that subsequent government. The Jim-Crow state governments of the Deep South in the post-bellum period were elected and supported by the majority of voters. And, to blatantly violate Godwin's Law, You Know Who was likewise elected with a majority of his constituency's votes. Did the United States out step it's bounds when it helped to put an end to that nonsense?

Here in 2013, gone are the doctors, mathematicians, proto-economists, philosophers, and wine aficianados from the Islamist movements of yore. It's infinitely regrettable, because they were an interesting and, I can only presume, affable lot. But in their place has emerged a movement run by the most deplorable, intolerant, and despicable people on this side of reality. The Al-Nursa front in Syria has already instituted public stoning as a form of execution in some northern regions it has occupied, as well as cutting off the fingers of people caught smoking tobacco and forcing women to wear the veil. One telling video shows an Islamist militant who absentmindedly brushed aside a poster with the Muslim declaration of faith on it receiving 40 lashes. With a heavy steel pipe.

The question of whether or not these radical, politicized versions of Islam are a true or fair representation of the religion are irrelevant. I've known many faithful Muslims in my day, and think highly of almost all of them. I once worked a polling station on election day in a local mosque, and was stunned by the hospitality and cordiality of our hosts. Let's just say I spent more than the recommended hour feasting on lunch, to say nothing of the catered breakfast that awaited us when we arrived at 5:30 a.m. My criticisms lie not with the literally hundreds of millions of well meaning Muslims who merely want to live in peace and raise their families. Indeed, I would expect them to be amongst the staunchest opponents of those who would legislate violence and discrimination against their neighbors.

I aspire to a world of equal rights and equality between all people. Christian, Muslim, Jews, Hindus, whatever; man and woman; all citizens of every society, enjoying equal rights, protection, and opportunity under the law. Indeed, I believe this is the only proper aspiration for anyone of any moral conscience to hold. And the Islamist movements that have infected the public spheres of several of our planet's most vulnerable nations stand in stark contrast to this goal. We in the West are not the only ones who deserve equality and individual liberties under the law. Millions of religious minorities and women stand to live in a sub-standard Hell because they happen to have been born on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea; that's not fair.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Platinum is a President's Best Friend

It's day nine of the government shutdown, and the world has not ended. Sure, many services and programs that the desperately poor rely upon are not functioning, and the FDA is no longer able to properly monitor our food supply, but that's small potatoes- at least to hear folks in the media tell it. What's a little salmonella between friends?

But even if I could forgive the shutdown, and the lack of leadership on both sides of the aisle that preceded it (although its almost entirely the Republican's fault, I can't imagine why Obama did not craft some deft political strategy ahead of time), I'd like to call attention to the much bigger issue at hand: the debt ceiling that we are scheduled to hit on October 17.

On the 17th, the Federal government will be legally prohibited form issuing any new bonds to make up the difference between its revenues and expenditures. Currently the Federal government spends about $60 billion per day and collects about $30 billion in revenues. You see where this is going; almost immediately, the government becomes inoperable.

Let's leave aside the stupidity of a law that says Congress must set tax rates, spending commitments, and then have a third vote to allow the implications of the previous two. You can decide to buy three apples and four bananas, but whether or not you end up with seven pieces of fruit afterwards is not really up to you; numbers add up. Full stop.

And let's ignore the fact that there won't be enough money coming in to send out Social Security checks, Medicare payments, soldier's wages, and the budget for the TSA (okay, maybe it's not all bad). The truly terrifying prospect now looming on our collective horizon is that the Treasury may very well miss coupon payments due to holders of our national debt. And that, to understate things dramatically, would be not to our advantage.

The full faith and credit of the United States is the underpinning of not only our financial system but that of the world. If the Treasury department fails to service outstanding debt by remitting coupon payments as they come due, some $16 trillion in global financial assets will suddenly be relegated to junk-bond status, with a corresponding plunge in value and spike in yields. Financial institutions and investment funds the world over with take a massive capital hit, with many becoming insolvent. Think the crisis of 2008-2009 writ large.

Which brings me to the trillion dollar platinum coin. Obama should instruct Jack Lew, the Secretary of the Treasury, to mint the thing tomorrow. It would then be deposited with the Federal Reserve in Uncle Sam's account and presto, more than enough money appears to operate the Federal government. It really is as simple as that; Social Security checks go out, interest gets paid, the whole shebang.

I can here the protests now: "You can't do that; its illegal! Its immoral!" I beg to differ. Due to an arcane but nonetheless legal loophole, the Treasury can mint platinum coins of any denomination, and that includes $1 trillion. Some have argued that this infringes on the independence of the Federal Reserve to conduct monetary policy, and they're correct. But that is a small price to pay, and has legal precedent that predates the creation of the Fed in 1913. From 1862 to 1971 the Treasury issued United States notes directly, which circulated alongside the Federal Reserve notes we all know and (with notable exceptions) love today.

The real questions isn't whether or not the platinum coin is an awkward policy instrument, or whether or not it it will make for some unwanted political theater. It will. But the question facing President Obama and his advisers at the moment is this: Are you willing to save the financial integrity of the United States government, the credibility of the dollar, and our nation's preeminence in the global economy in return for some institutional hurt-feelings and a scathing review on Fox and Friends?

All global hegemons experience a moment when it becomes apparent that they are no longer the powers they once were. For Rome it was the moment Alaric and his Visigoths stormed the Eternal City in 410; for Great Britain the week in 1916 that the Royal Navy could not shake the Sultan's troops from the shores of Gallipoli. The global hegemony of the United States deserves a better end than a few hand-wringing politicians standing around afraid to try an unorthodox financial transaction.