What’s in it for Obama?

In the aftermath of Res. 2334, I continue to struggle to understand what Obama intends to accomplish through (in)action.

One possibility is that he hopes to impose a cost on Israel for supposedly jeopardizing the 2SS. If that were the case, though, why not take action months or years ago? How can Obama possibly hope to meaningfully intervene in the conflict when he will be in no position to effectuate his policies in less than a month?

Obama’s status as a lame duck is accentuated by the fact that his successor is manifestly opposed to much of Obama’s vision for the region, or his desire to isolate Israel as a means of achieving that vision. If anything, by sending a strong signal, Obama has motivated Trump to send a strong counter signal, which makes the decision even more counterproductive, if Obama is genuinely interested in effecting change.

Another possibility is that I am overestimating Obama’s coherence and strategy and underestimating his vanity. In other words, Obama may have (in)acted simply because the opportunity presented itself and after years of trying to bend Bibi to his view of the world (which Obama no longer needs to do), Obama decided to let his true feelings show. Obama did not in fact “orchestrate” the resolution (although I find that unlikely), and did not in fact consider its consequences–other than to his own legacy. Regardless of how the resolution would effect the actual conflict, either by motivating Trump or by diminishing the PA’s incentives to negotiate, Obama wanted to make sure the world knew how he really felt. That goal is important to him either to appeal to certain constituencies in anticipation of his ex-presidential career, or simply to show the world the depth of his intelligence, fairness and pragmatism. Under that analysis, Res. 2334 functions effectively an op-ed, based on the delicious conceit that Obama’s observations and wisdom are so clearheaded that the world is better place simply for having them spoken out loud. Obama is, as others have suggested, Jimmy Carter redux.

As I wrote previously, the most charitable interpretation of Obama’s decision is that he wants the inevitable Trump counterpunch. That like Clinton and W. before him, Obama has realized that the PA will not agree to a state for as long as statelessness remains such a profitable enterprise. By waiting for the last minute, he rather brilliantly opens the door for the next administration to make meaningful changes, while preserving his own legacy as a true man of the left. That would make Obama a true political mastermind.

If not that, I’m forced to conclude either that (a) Obama is a moron, i.e. he sincerely prefers the policy set forth by the resolution, but he is incapable of thinking more than one or two steps ahead; or (b) Obama is strategic and vain, first and foremost, who would use the teetering remains of both an institution and policy he actually believes in as a global platform to bask in his own righteousness. Given what Obama has accomplished, I find those two theories difficult to accept, but no easier to accept than the Carrow-esque Great Man of History theory above.

Or maybe he just said “fuck it, I’m tired of being strategic, and this is how I feel and I’m president, so deal with it.”

Game Theory and the UNSC Resolution Re. Settlements

1. As with most things UN/International Law, there is more sound than fury. The practical implications may extend no further than the next news cycle.

2. If one is genuinely interested in a peaceful resolution, taking the question of settlements off the table is a tactical error, albeit one that Obama made many years ago. Settlement expansion is the primary incentive the PA has to negotiate a final agreement, as opposed to simply holdout and enjoy international aid and sympathy. By freezing the settlements, Obama/UN essentially puts the future Palestinian state in escrow, which is ideal for Palestinian leadership because they can enjoy the fruits of perpetual conflict without suffering any costs. It is not a coincidence that the three Palestinian preconditions for negotiation are non-starters for the Israelis: Right of Return; Divided Jerusalem (including the Temple Mount) and ’48 Armistice Lines. That position tailor-made for perpetual conflict. So-called “anti-normalization” efforts, also known as “anti-peace” efforts, fall into the same bucket.

3. The resolution may backfire for the Palestinians (and the UN), insofar as it provokes a response from Trump/US. Sympathy for the Palestinians (correctly) tends to ebb and flow with sympathy for Arab/Muslims generally, and that sympathy is currently quite low. The victims of car-ramming attacks in Berlin are more likely to sympathize with the victims of car-ramming attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem than their perpetrators. The UN’s stature will be harder to erode, but as with the EU, progressive technocracy and its adherents aren’t winning any popularity contests. At the very least, the resolution is a stick Israel no longer has to fear.

4. In general, reference to “international illegality” is specious. Law is made, and not found. When it comes to public international law, there are few (if any) prior rules with sufficient specificity and precedential value that can be reliably applied in any particular case, or shape the reasonable expectations of the parties. There simply isn’t enough case law, and each new case is simply too complex and distinct to be determined by prior cases. Every issue is more or less sui generis. In other words, if there is any “law” to speak of, it is no better than guesswork and there is very little reason it ought to be followed as good or useful law. When international technocrats declare the settlements “illegal” they are simply expressing their preference for their own technocratic authority: “we told you to stay on that side of the line, and you’re not listening to us!” Whether technocratic say-so is or ought to be authoritative, however, is a different question (that I suspect most people answer in the negative, at least when it applies to them). Likewise, when people cite the “international consensus” on the “illegality” of the settlements, it says nothing about whether the “law” ought to be followed. It’s effectively the same as observing the consensus among international technocrats that international technoracts ought to be listened to. That’s what the kids call “Breaking News.”

5. The most charitable interpretation for Obama is that a reaction from Trump is precisely the thing he is counting on. Obama may well understand that perpetual conflict favors the Palestinian leadership, and while he lacks the political capital or courage to change that equilibrium by turning off the international aid spigot, that does not apply to Trump. Properly motivated, Trump may well end the conflict by giving the Palestinians a take-it-or-leave-it state, while supporting partial annexation and incentivizing normalization. At the same time, he (and Putin) can provide cover for Gulf countries, Egypt and Jordan to say “sorry, our hands are tied and we’ve got bigger fish (Iran and ISIS) to fry.” The strongest push back will come from the humanitarian industrial complex in Europe and (to a lesser extent) the US, but again, their cause celebre faces a healthy dose of skepticism from ordinary Westerners who now have firsthand experience with Israel’s neighbors.

The most charitable case for a Trump vote

I drafted this in September, but never posted it. I think much of the analysis remains spot on, so I will revel in the confirmation of my preexisting biases.

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Tyler Cowen offered a number of hypotheses, but none of them seem quite right to me.  This is why I would vote for Trump, if I voted, and if I were to vote for Trump.  This is not an endorsement, just the most charitable account of why one would vote for Trump.

Trump is at worst a buffoon, but maybe that’s a good thing. For most people, government has become more of a hindrance than a help–rarely does one interact with government and come away with the impression “well, that was a worthwhile expense of time, money and effort.”  Put it this way: Trump may be a shoot-from-the-hip blowhard, but at the very least he won’t leave us with a pointless, metastasizing and intricately planned disaster like the Affordable Care Act. (Yes, pointless–if coverage was the goal, then create a subsidy and move on. See Megan McCardle at bloomberg for more details.)  

Trump says he wants to build a wall. I don’t think he’s going to do it, it sounds like an enormous waste of money. Plus he’s sneered often enough at immigrants that if I were Mexican, I’d want to take a %$#! in his pillowcase too. [Update: this is actually not true.] But even if he does build the wall, at least it won’t interfere with my commute, make me apply for four different permits, create more forms for me to fill out, force me to hire a compliance consultant, or lead me to call an accountant twelve times to figure out if I’m going to be penalized for not having coverage or whether I’m actually entitled to a subsidy depending on whether I list my cousin’s puppy as a dependent on my Form 1218T (not to be confused with the Form 1218T-1). Trump may pointlessly waste some of my money and be a jerk to boot, but at least he’s not going to also complicate my life anymore than it already is. Trump’s impotence is comforting.  [Note, that I think idiot-jerk Trump is unlikely to reflect his actual character, so much as the confirmation bias and prejudice of his critics, but that’s the subject for a different post.]

Plus, it would be nice to see Beltway elites taken down a notch. They breathlessly proclaim on this policy and that issue as though the fate of the world turns on their plans for OUR future. Trump is terrible because he didn’t hire me or anyone I know to tell him how to govern!  But here’s the thing: if this hapless goon wins the election and the world-saving new government program never comes to fruition, most people aren’t going to notice, care or remember. Mr. and Ms. Beltway might notice because they’ll need to set aside their superhero costumes for regular work clothes like the rest of us shmoes, but that seems like a good thing. They might actually be able to make a dent against inequality, unemployment, discrimination, microaggressions and global warming by starting a business, hiring whomever they want, paying whatever they want and polluting just as little as they see fit. Or they might start thinking about what the rest of America thinks about, instead of what they personally think is important. In other words, a vote for Trump tells the know-it-alls to “GET %$#-ING A JOB!” Is that nice? No, but it’s cathartic. And they ought to know that despite having a national platform, the nation does not depend on them quite as much as they think. In fact, people prefer a spray-tanned foulmouth to the gold-plated turd sandwich that someone earnestly prepared during their summer internship on the Hill.    

Don’t get me wrong–I care about the poor and the sick and the oppressed as much as anyone else. When I look around, though, I don’t see a shortage of government programs “helping” the poor. I do see huge amounts of government incompetence. And I too am outraged that people can get gunned down just by sitting in their front yard (and I’m persuaded that that kind of stress can have longterm effects). But that seems to happen exclusively in democratically controlled cities–literally controlled by democrats, at every level of government, for decades–that are brimming with public policy goodness. Voting for Trump won’t necessarily solve that problem, but it might persuade the Hillary camp to focus on cleaning up their own mess before moving on to fix someone else’s.    

Trump may actually help some of the problems caused by monoculture, thought-policing and unyielding focus on raising/lowering relative stature of certain group at the expense of others. Over the last eight years, we have been forced to confess our [blank]-ism and wage war on “discrimination” by assiduously discriminating on the basis of race, creed, gender and sexual preference. If there is anyway to make the black guy in accounting feel like part of the team, it’s too remind us daily that he’s a person-of-color with a laundry list of grievances against his white colleagues who are too white to ever understand, but lord knows they will once HR is through with them. To put it mildly, insisting that [blank] people are (uniformly) different and therefore we must adhere to a strict, government-approved code of speech, actions, thoughts, hobbies, clothing, food, rituals and politics–upon threat of legal and professional sanction–is not conducive to healing and togetherness. To the contrary, it’s oppressive, offensive and divisive, and no, I’m not a [blank]-ist for saying so, no matter how shrilly and repeatedly you make the accusation.

A vote for Trump says, “stop the witch hunts and shame campaigns, stop politicizing my day-to-day existence and stop turning my life into your hashtags–your thought-policing is not welcome here, and frankly we think the best way to fight discrimination is to stop discriminating quite so much.” A vote for Trump also says that with all due respect to the trans community, their pronoun-choice is not high on the list of nationwide priorities–I see why it’s important to them, but that doesn’t make it important for all of us. A vote for Trump also says that Progressive virtue-signalling doesn’t matter all that much: I may not like that Trump says crass and boorish things, but I don’t view them as disqualifying, or necessarily definitive of his character as a whole, and frankly I find the MSM fixation on those issues to be annoying and distracting. Even if he’s as bad as everyone says that he is, Trump is not going to issue guidelines on the correct way to mock the disabled. Trump could build ten gold-plated monuments to himself to surround the White House and I would prefer that to another “Dear Colleague” letter from the Justice Department. I’m confident that Trump will not stop me from criticizing his manners; I can’t say the same of Hillary. Plus, Hillary’s multi-million dollar career as a public servant does not impress me, so much as worry me a good deal.

Trump does scare me a bit on foreign policy and trade (where executive power is most leveraged). It makes sense to have someone a little tougher than Obama (and Hillary likely is), but no one likes to play basketball with the kid that argues every foul. The nuclear holocaust stuff is overblown–I’d be more concerned that Obama would fail to prevent a nuclear holocaust than Trump would start one–but tit-for-tat trade disputes (and Trump is a litigious fellow) could do serious long term damage to international cooperation and trade. But on the other hand, is Hillary really going to be any better? It’s a little unfair to judge her based on her predecessor (since they seem to disagree), but she was the SOS and it is her party. On the other hand, while there’s no question the world seems a lot more f-ed up than it did before, Obama’s non-interventionism may be the better bet in the long run. Still, it’s not like Trump is calling for robust regime-changing foreign policy either. Trump’s trade and spending ideas are pretty awful (but likely to be quite popular), although they are shared by many in the Democratic party. If they can be bundled with cuts to corporate taxes and deregulation, however, then there still may be a net upside.

In the end, I suspect that boogeyman Trump is a bit of a myth. Democrats seem to deal exclusively in character attacks these days (more on that in other posts), and Trump is catnip in that regard. OHMYGOD he’s the monster we’ve all be warning about! Save the women and children! To my mind, Trump has been successful for too long to be stupid, mean, or crazy (although that will be little comfort to those that believe success is because of stupidity, meanness and craziness). Trump doesn’t talk good, but that doesn’t mean he lacks judgment or leadership. He may be ineffective in ways that all presidents are, but his ineffectiveness will be far less harmful. And if he’s really a crazy mean coot, then our institutions and general dislike of crazy-meanness will shut him down more ruthlessly than they shutdown a wildly popular president passing his signature healthcare bill.

Identity Politics (Re)redux

White identity politics are so clearly reactionary to non-white identity politics that I’m SMH every time I read a case study in white identity politics that fails to state the obvious. In the zero-sum-game that describes the Progressive state, if you define your coalition as “Not-X” then X will form a counter-coalition, particularly when X comprises the remainder of the voting public. If you tell a room full of people to divide a million dollars among themselves, and someone says “last names A through S come with me,” then the best and obvious description of the “T through Z” coalition (that inevitably follows) is “reactionary.”

The Left has proudly embraced identity politics for decades. In the latest (or ongoing) (re)incarnation of neo-Marxism, People of Color (“POC”) comprise the coalition of the oppressed (and non-POC, i.e. white people, comprise the oppressors). Since the state is primarily responsible for rectifying “injustice,” it follows that the state must transfer wealth, power, rights, etc. from the bad guys to the good gals. Good guys and bad gals only exist within a narrative, which is where our venerable cultural institutions come in. Newspapers, professors, etc. regale us with tales of racism, sexism, islamophobia, and all the other ‘isms and phobias. Some of their work is made easy by actual bigots making qualitative judgments based on ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, etc. But those are too few and far between to substantiate entire constituencies of bad guys and good gals. That’s why the overwhelming majority of their work is an exercise in motivated reasoning–only ‘ist things are worth reporting, ‘ism is the only permissible inference, and isolated ‘ists and ‘isms necessarily define the whole. Structural racism, wage gaps, microagressions, etc. are certainly real(ish) phenomena, but the extent to which they can be explained by bias, and/or the extent to which that bias is uniquely experienced by POC, are besides the point.

I digress. The point is that the Left conceives of the state as a mechanism for moving goodies from pile A to pile B. It has clearly designated POC as representing Pile B, which supports the inference that white people represent Pile A. The Left rationalizes the labels by telling a story of ‘isms and ‘ists, wherein A are the oppressors and B are the oppressed. The Left would probably point out that not all white people are the bad guys, but they don’t try too hard to differentiate. Plus, the best (perhaps only) way for white people to prove they’re one of the good whites, is to agree that POC are the oppressed and (other) white people are the oppressors. Convert or die.

That story is persuasive and/or plausible to most people except of course the alleged oppressors themselves, who know for a fact that they don’t go around oppressing POC and certainly don’t benefit from some POC-oppression surplus that would justify their status as transferors. White identity politics is (re)born. It goes something like this:

POC: “We’re the victims of white racism! Gov’t needs to make amends”
white people: “Well, that’s not me or anyone I know”
POC: “You’re white, aren’t you?”
white people: “I guess, but you’re the only one talking about race”
POC: “If you don’t agree you’re racist then that makes you racist.  Ally or nothing!”
WHITE PEOPLE: “That’s ridiculous. F-you. We’re not voting for that and we’re not your ally!”
POC: “Look–white identity politics! I told you they were racist!”

When credible publications like the New Republic refer to white people as having passively “lost stature,” what they mean is the Left has reduced their stature. The Left has made white people the bad guys, i.e. transferors, and certainly not transferees. It doesn’t require much hand-wringing and speculation to determine the cause of white identity politics, any more than it would to determine the cause of the Negro Leagues (segregation, obviously). That speculation persists is either extraordinary lack of self-awareness, or some kind of straussian cry for help–state everything but the conclusion for fear of retribution from coalition-elite.

Israel-Palestine-Arab Conflict

This is a collection of readings and visuals that I put together for my book club:

History: 
 
1. Reference Timeline (of my own hasty creation).
2. Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life  (Ch. 2-5). [As an alternative (or in addition to), a good short, LA Times review of Nusseibeh’s book.]
3. Six Days of War (Ch. 1 “The Context” and, if you’re up for it, Ch. 11 “Aftershocks” ) The maps are really useful too. [Corny video alternative–still worth watching for atmosphere, and at the very least, wikipedia]
Culture Wars: