Monthly Archives: December 2017

Death of the Nile: destruction of the origin of our species

Peter Schwartzstein writes about how climate change, rising populations and the understudied construction of dams are destroying the longest river in the world. The source of the Blue section of the Nile in Lake Tana is the river’s engine. It is there, in the East African Rift Valley of both Lake Tana and Lake Victoria (the source of the White Nile) that the hominid/human species first developed. The river’s creeping destruction is thus symbolic of our current species-level suicide project.

2017 film “The Square”: Art as the religion of the rich

Early in the film “The Square,” a reporter called Anne asks a museum curator about the  challenges of running a museum. The museum in question is a modern art museum, the butt of much social criticism. Ruben Östlund is the film’s director. and his film asks the question about the function of the modern art museum and its exhibitions and performances. Is the art market, classical or modern, with its exhibitions and organised art-performances, anything other than a safe haven for the extremely rich where they can park their money whilst waiting for other opportunities? Are we all that surprised that a Saudi prince (Mohamed bin Salman or MbS) may not know what to do with his extra cash and invests it in one of those objects (Salvatore Mundi) that can hold so much sheer monetary value in excess of its physical worth?

The curator of this museum (called Christian) is the main protagonist. In answer to all the criticism he faces about art, he responds by mounting an exhibition involving just a square painted on the ground before the museum. This is supposed to represent a “space of safety”, or safe haven. Muslim viewers could draw  parallels with the 3-D cube at the center of their worship and their relationship with the Universe (the Ka’aba). Designating a specific area as a sanctuary goes back a long way in terms of religious practice, and the square Christian places at the center of this film proposes the idea that modern art is the new religious experience for an atheist liberal elite.

Östlund slowly chips away at the protective layers that Christian, a priest of the liberal religion, surrounds himself with. Accidents throw him into the lives of ordinary people who would never normally visit his museum, yet after each event he becomes obsessed with the people he meets. In a desperate attempt to find someone he lost contact with, Christian finds himself in a garbage dump on a rainy night trying to recover a piece of paper with the person’s phone number. Many scenes in the film explore the complacency of the art world in a radical way. In the film’s poster (above), an art-performance event is depicted where an “artist” acts like an ape to entertain the elite who, elegantly dressed, are dining in an ornate hall. The performer is supposed to test the boundaries of what his polite audience will endure in order to protect their investment in this act of modern art. Here, Östlund explores how much artistic license we are prepared to give the artist, on the basis that all art is a dare.

What the religion of the rich clearly indicates is the disdain and fear of lesser mortals felt by rich individuals and their search for safety through a sense of mutual reinforcement which the art market provides. A similar “religion of the nobility” existed in Zoroastrian fire worship in the period of Sassanian Iran, which held that all craftsmen, or people who worked with their hands, were unholy. It would be these craftsmen, who eventually locked in their tens of thousands to become Muslims in 7th century Iraq, which revolutionised Islam, turning it from an Arabic into a world religion.

Jerusalem: UN resolution rejects Trump’s declaration

Resolution no.: A/RES/ES-10/19 on 12/21/2017 (21st Dec) at 12:13:55 PM. Jerusalem motion at UNGC (two weeks after the Trump declaration) passed with overwhelming majority for the resolution and against the position of the United States. 128 states voted for the resolution, including all members of the UNSC except the United States.

9 countries out of 193 UN member states voted against the resolution: Canada, Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, the United States and Israel. 35 countries abstained from the resolution including: Australia, Cameroon, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Rwanda, Solomon Islands, South Sudan and Togo. Canada and Australia clearly did nothing for their white colonial settler image in this vote, although both Canada and Mexico are clearly in the throes of NAFTA renegotiations with Trump at the moment.

Others, significantly the ‘NATO’ front line in Eastern Europe (Latvia, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania) also abstained, although plucky Estonia and Lithuania voted yes with the resolution.

21 states were absent.

Turkey and Yemen: draft resolution

Status of Jerusalem

The General Assembly,

Reaffirming its relevant resolutions, including resolution 72/15 of 30 November 2017 on Jerusalem,

Reaffirming also the relevant resolutions of the Security Council, including resolutions 242 (1967) of 22 November 1967, 252 (1968) of 21 May 1968, 267 (1969) of 3 July 1969, 298 (1971) of 25 September 1971, 338 (1973) of 22 October 1973, 446 (1979) of 22 March 1979, 465 (1980) of 1 March 1980, 476 (1980) of 30 June 1980, 478 (1980) of 20 August 1980 and 2334 (2016) of 23 December 2016,

Guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and reaffirming, inter alia, the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force,

Bearing in mind the specific status of the Holy City of Jerusalem and, in particular, the need for the protection and preservation of the unique spiritual, religious and cultural dimensions of the city, as foreseen in relevant United Nations resolutions,

Stressing that Jerusalem is a final status issue to be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant United Nations resolutions,

Expressing, in this regard, its deep regret at recent decisions concerning the status of Jerusalem,

  1. Affirms that any decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded in compliance with relevant resolutions of the Security Council, and in this regard calls upon all States to refrain from the establishment of diplomatic missions in the Holy City of Jerusalem, pursuant to Security Council resolution 478 (1980);
  2. Demands that all States comply with Security Council resolutions regarding the Holy City of Jerusalem, and not recognize any actions or measures contrary to those resolutions;
  3. Reiterates its call for the reversal of the negative trends on the ground that are imperilling the two-State solution and for the intensification and acceleration of international and regional efforts and support aimed at achieving, without delay, a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East on the basis of the relevant United Nations resolutions, the Madrid terms of reference, including the principle of land for peace, the Arab Peace Initiative1 and the Quartet road map,2 and an end to the Israeli occupation that began in 1967;
  4. Decides to adjourn the tenth emergency special session temporarily and to authorize the President of the General Assembly at its most recent session to resume its meeting upon request from Member States.

 

 

For MbS, Saudi Arabia will be just another possession

Mohamed bin Salman it has been revealed is the owner of the Château de Louveciennes, in western suburbs of Paris, which he bought for $300m two years ago. Added to his purchase of a $450m yacht and most recently the Leonardo painting of Christ for similar amount, bought through a minor prince in his household (Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud), this completes a fairly complete psychological profile of the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

Given what we know of MbS from these facts, a clear avaricious streak in his personality allows us to interpret recent actions taken against the rich in his country, including members of his family, as a desire to “own” Saudi Arabia singly. Together with his vicious launching of the Yemen War and his ill treatment of the Yemeni population, it is also clear he has little or no empathy. With no counter-balancing forces within the atavistic Saudi polity a ruthless and coercive tyranny is unfolding, which is unlikely to garner legitimacy whether by sticking to traditional Islamic modalities or indeed attempting to move on to more “secular” modalities.

In fact, the announcement that MbS seeks a more secular Saudi Arabia is tied to his wish to sideline resistance, but as the Wahhabi establishment will merely now roll over and do whatever he wishes, it is likely that the potentially destabilising effects of a move towards secularism, will be followed by a harsh return to such traditional Saudi-Islamic mores that help reinforce tyranny. Instinctively MbS is expecting the US and Israel to provide the support for his rule, where legitimacy will be absent. This will reinforce the decline of American influence in the region and reaffirm the continuing rise of Iran.

The OIC in Istanbul: when a cat screeches…

Times are changing, and most reporting on the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is stuck in the past. The OIC was founded when a group of Israeli extremists started a fire at al-Aqsa mosque on 21 August 1969 with the hope of destroying it. It is based in Saudi-Arabia (and its current Secretary-General is Saudi: Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen), and so in the past proceedings have predictably been dominated by Saudi politics.

It has, therefore, invariably issued fairly lame statements in reaction to Israeli infractions and atrocities, with little action ever displayed. The image that comes to mind is of an old Arab proverb said to originate with Imam Shafi’i: the dogs bark but the caravan moves on – الكلاب تنبح والقافلة تسير (which actually rhymes in Turkish it ürür, kervan yürür), where the caravan is the Israeli colonial project (and you know who the dogs are).

This year, however, the Presidency happened to be held by Turkey, and Erdoğan, who rarely misses a trick, took the opportunity of convening an emergency meeting of the OIC to Istanbul to respond to Trump’s outrageous infraction of international law in his unilateral US announcement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel: 48 states responded to Erdoğan’s call within 7 days. The change of venue seems to have brought with it a change of mood. Dogs are second class citizens in Turkey – Turks, and Istanbulites in particular are crazy about cats. The metaphor of the barking dog therefore no longer applies. Erdoğan’s performance was more like a cat screeching. So what happens when a cat screeches?

Aside from Turkey leading the OIC conference to officially declare East Jerusalem the capital of Palestine, the Turks vowed to establish an embassy to Palestine there. Erdoğan is also using these declarations as the beginning of a major initiative in the UN both to support Palestinian rights and to sideline the US from any involvement in future Middle East peace talks. Mahmoud Abbas surprisingly echoed this demand, despite the normally supine attitude of the Palestinian Authority towards the US.

But there were a number of extremely important subtexts to the meeting, entirely missed or misunderstood by both Western and Arabic media. Iranian President Rouhani was grinning like a Cheshire cat, pleased that Turkey is in the front like diplomatically on this matter, whilst the overt confrontation in the Middle East is between the Trump administration and his country. The unprecedentedly close relationship between Turkey and Iran forged in the course of the Astana peace process was gaining even more oxygen.

The Trump administration’s irrationality in regard to the Jerusalem declaration has all but scuppered  US diplomatic credibility in the Middle East, irrespective of its purported ties to the Saudi and Emirati regimes. Now, its collapsing relations with Turkey (after the YPG problem and the Zarrab case, the Jerusalem declaration was the straw that broke the camel’s back) means that any hope of putting any kind of regional pressure on Iran, military or otherwise, is totally out of reach.

Some reporters pointed to the absence of the Saudi King at the OIC meeting, tarring the whole enterprise and the conference proceedings with the old ‘dogs barking’ brush. Mahmoud Abbas spent the day before with King Salman, who, under Trumpist influence, tried to bully him into withdrawing from the conference. It’s a surprise Salman’s son (MbS) didn’t try to kidnap Abbas, to force him to do his bidding, as he did recently in the case of a number senior Saudi royals, and the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad el-Hariri. But Abbas left promptly and backed Erdoğan’s call.

This in fact forced Salman’s hand. He couldn’t as Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques (Mecca and Medina) find himself at odds with the OIC decision, so he pre-empted it, by announcing his backing for the idea of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Abbas revelled in announcing this fact to the OIC conference. Some Arab reporters accused him of being undignified in – as it were – carrying Salman’s message for him. However, what Abbas in fact did was to highlight the impotence of the Saudi King before the determination of the other members of the OIC conference. It is a deep stain on the al-Saud that they didn’t attend, and yet still had to go along with the decisions of the conference.

What is worse for the Saudi King, is that Jordan’s King Abdulla, a long-time Saudi ally, took an independent line like Abbas. He also visited Salman prior to the OIC conference, was bullied just like Abbas, and wasn’t kidnapped by MbS. In his speech at the conference, Abdulla confirmed the Hashemite dynasty’s commitment to the protection of the Islamic Holy Places, and in doing so, upstaged the al-Saud. Abdulla’s Hashemite ancestors had traditionally been the guardians of the shrines in Mecca and Medina, only for the British to put the al-Saud in charge instead. Abdulla’s speech, quiet and balanced as it was, finally ripped apart the Islamic credentials of the Saudi upstarts.

So when a cat screeches… a bloody scratch follows

 

Trump just gave a massive gift to Iran: the Arab autocrats should fear their street

 

Until now Iran had lost its credibility on the Arab Street, because of its rescue of the Assad regime. All will now be forgiven as the penny drops. The Iranians were perhaps right to support Bashar, despite his despicable character and his Neanderthal régime.

Trump’s move is -woefully, blatantly – in contempt of international law and UNSC resolutions, which the UNSC itself didn’t fail to point out to its US representative. The US has lost it’s position as a fair arbiter in the Middle East process – some say it has finally shown its hand – and now its international reputation is as sullied as Israel’s.

Liberal Jewish groups in the US see this danger clearly. The Union of Reform Judaism stated: ‘… any relocation of the American Embassy to West Jerusalem should be done in the broader context reflecting Jerusalem’s status as a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike…the White House should not undermine these efforts by making unilateral decisions that are all but certain to exacerbate the conflict.’

J- Street released a statement saying that a Palestinian capital must also be established in the East Jerusalem: ‘… the effect of moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or of declaring that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital prior to a negotiated agreement will be to anger key Arab allies, foment regional instability and undermine nascent US diplomatic efforts to resolve the larger conflict.’

New Israel Fund also criticized the decision in a statement: ‘President Trump many not understand what’s at stake here, but we do. Moving the embassy risks igniting the tinderbox of anger, frustration and hopelessness that already exists in Jerusalem. Throwing…balance off with this unilateral gesture could have grave consequences.’

The US has either been sowing discord or waging war directly in the Middle East for 35 years. So far Iran won the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, the 2003-9 Iraq war, and the 2011-7 Syrian war. Let’s see what happens in the next war. Ali Abdulla al-Saleh supporter and funder of violence and militancy across the board is dead. Yemen is open. What will the Arab autocrats, who are the allies of the US, do apart from buy paintings by Leonardo for $450m, and yachts for $500m, all the while mistreating former Gulf allies?

Saudi Arabia’s formal statement denouncing the Trump decision belies their co-operation with him over this new roughing-up of the Palestinians. It smells of fear and double-dealing. The news from Jerusalem is being “managed” by Saudi authorities.

Hopefully, the liberal voices in America above will help undo Trump’s idiocy and the influence of the Christian right on US Middle East policy. Turkey’s efforts to create international consensus against this move will definitely help to keep the pressure on. Erdoğan calling the OIC to a conference on the matter of Jerusalem is a symbolic move, although welcome of course. What people don’t recognise, on the other hand, is the crucial importance of Turkey’s position as the energy transit hub for Mediterranean gas, offering the cheapest route to Europe, which Israel is banking on for its future.

Certainly Abbas has kicked the so-called peace process into the long grass. He doesn’t look too phased by the events and Mike Pence will be disappointed if he thinks he can restart peace talks on his visit to Israel next month.

Although the Palestinian Authority has continually disappointed in the prime task of keeping the Palestinians united and resisting pressure, Abbas has shown more mettle recently in taking Israel to the ICC.

 

Trickle-down economics and the Trump tax cut: people don’t get the joke

When U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke about the Trump administration’s tax plan at the Institute of International Finance, he said the plan would pay for itself without adding to the national debt. This, he said, would be based on what he called “dynamic scoring”, and their projections would show ‘a $2 trillion increase in revenues over a 10-year period. So the plan will pay for itself with growth.’

But the tax plan that has just passed Congress and the Senate in (unbelievably) two different forms, which are going to have somehow to be merged, shows (without all the dynamic scoring) a $1.5 trillion extra deficit, according to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT).

In the past fiscal year, the U.S. deficit was $666 billion. That follows deficits of $585 billion in 2016, $438 billion in 2015, $485 billion in 2014, $679 billion in 2013 and more than $1 trillion in deficits in each year from 2009 through 2012 despite extraordinary efforts to stimulate the economy following the 2008 Wall Street financial collapse.

The JCT study found, on the other hand, would only return  $458 billion of the $1.5 trillion cost over the 10 year period. Meanwhile, as Senator Elizabeth Warren noted in a letter to the Inspector General of the Treasury Department, there is no study AT ALL coming from the Treasury on the subject.

Mnuchin’s “Goldman Sachs bluster”, which is being trumpeted (excuse the pun) all over the media, with its so-called “dynamic scoring”, is intentionally deceptive. As Professor Ha-Joon Chang at Cambridge University tells us, “trickle down” – the theory that making a few rich creates wealth across the board for everybody – is a totally broken theory.  See him also in the short clip below.

Mnuchin’s deception is not limited to the usual rubbish about ‘trickle-down’, however. The bill he has rammed through Congress and the Senate, which Republicans jumped at and turned into law in record time simply because they’re scared of the upcoming 2018 mid-term elections, is actually a massive $6 trillion tax-cut over the coming decade, funded by tax rises which will destroy local economies across the US.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pictured above, said the tax-cut raises $4.5 trillion in taxes on ordinary people, so that the rich can get the $6 trillion, which is the actual full amount of the scam for the corporations and the 1%: a historic figure both Reagan and Bush would have flinched at.

The Tax Policy Center estimated that about 80 percent of the benefit of the tax plan will go to the top 1 percent, with $1.5 trillion going to slash the corporate tax rate, $700bn going to cancel the ‘alternative minimum tax’, paid almost exclusively by the rich, and $150 billion going to repealing the estate tax, which currently exempts the first $11 million of the deceased’s estate, so nobody even remotely middle class pays it.

Furthermore, more than $200 billion in cuts goes to a provision that allows a greater deduction for dividends on foreign earnings, and $600 billion goes to reducing taxes on “pass-throughs” and other businesses not set up as corporations -such as law firms, lobby shops, and doctors’ surgeries.

If some $200bn will be going to allow higher income bands to claim tax credits, whilst individual and family tax rates are cut by about $1 trillion, these are the only elements in the package likely to filter through to the middle classes. As the New York Times noted, by 2027, people making between $40,000 and $50,000 would see a combined increase of $5.3 billion in taxes, whilst, on the other hand, people earning more than $1 million would see their taxes collectively cut by $5.8 billion a year.

The tax rises made to underwrite the $6 trillion giveaway

(1) The tax rises include some $300 billion allowances for companies with offshore profits to repatriate them at a lower rate. Although that cash goes straight to dividends for shareholders and stock buybacks, it gets counted as a tax increase.

(2) Unbelievably $1.6 trillion is raised by repealing the personal exemption everybody gets on their tax returns.

(3) Another $1.3 trillion is raised by going after deductions for state and local taxes, mortgage interest, charitable contributions, interest on student loans, medical expenses, teachers’ out-of-pocket expenses (e.g. for paper and pencils for students). This will devastate local economies.

(4) The new law gradually raises $128 billion in (stealth) taxes by changing the way inflation is calculated, so that your taxes slowly creep up over the years as the brackets come down.

(5) Finally, the law adds about $1.5 trillion to the already eyewatering debt over the next 10 years, and the interest payments that will entail.

What Great Depression comedian Will Rogers meant by “trickle-down”

Appropriately for the round of pre-mid-term election madness in 2017 Will Rogers said back in 1932, commenting on Hoover’s defeat at the hand of Roosevelt:

“The Republicans didn’t start thinking of the old common fellow till just as they started out on the election tour. The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellows hands. They saved the big banks, but the little ones went up the flue.”

Will Rogers was just telling us what Ha-Joon Chang is trying to say.

Stock market rise fuelled over time by increasing levels of margin debt

This is a market feeding on itself. The chart above shows by how much US margin debt has accelerated away from norms, compared to the S&P 500 index in the past twenty years. The accelerating gap explains why the stock market began levitating away from earning growth from 2013 onwards (see second chart below on earnings). Note how the 2000 acceleration led to the immediate crash afterwards and how the 2003 acceleration was followed by the crash of 2007/8. That was before QE. Note then how in 2013, as QE began to be a worldwide programme, it accelerated again. The market now is entirely dependent on QE.

Ultimately, pumping cash into the economy by the Fed (note that gross national debt jumped $723 billion over just the past 12 weeks since Congress suspended the “debt ceiling” to $20.57 trillion, or 105% of GDP) has to go on at an accelerating rate to keep the market going. So the trap for QE is the exponential factor. If the market can’t be fuelled by debt exponentially it will reverse, and the higher it goes, the harder it will fall.

On the real side of the economy, Trump’s tax reduction plan (currently going through Congress)will not only backfire on the economy, but has scuttled the infrastructure plan (which is not going through Congress, nor will it), which was the idea that started the Trump stock market bull run in the first place.

The point about mania has always been that, from the perspective of all us mortals just standing by looking, it has the quality to last so long it draws everybody in.