Barack Obama: America’s First Tea Party President

Reprinted from New Economic Perspectives

by Marshall Auerback

His Base?

For all his talk of the importance of averting a debt default, Barack Obama.is increasingly signaling that major deficit reduction has become more than just a bargaining chip to bring Republicans aboard on a debt deal. He actually believes that cutting entitlements and reducing the deficit are laudable goals, which would mark “transformational” moments in his President. Let’s face it: the man is not a progressive in any sense of the word; he’s a Tea Party President through and through.

To be sure, it’s tough to make the case that the Tea Party has anything like a genuinely coherent political platform. They hate entitlements, but one of their leading voices in the Senate, Rand Paul, conspicuously avoided any talk of cutting Medicare during his campaign (unsurprising, given how much of his income as an ophthalmologist involved treating Medicare patients). They also have a Presidential candidate, Michelle Bachmann, pledging never to raise the debt ceiling, yet proposing to slash the federal corporate income tax and eliminate the capital gains and estate taxes.

But for the most part, a common thread amongst the Tea Party is a visceral dislike of “excessive” government spending. Virtually all buy into the notion that the federal debt levels are “unsustainable” and that entitlements, really need to be “reformed” (i.e. cut back). In that regard, their aspirations appear to be more in line with the President, than their ostensible GOP allies, one of whom is, Senator Mitch McConnell. The Senate Minority Leader has proposed giving President Obama the power to raise the debt limit on his own through the end of his first term, but to force Democrats to take a series of votes on the debt limit in the months leading up to the election. This would stave off the threat of defaulting on national obligations, but would make the President politically responsible for all subsequent spending cuts and/or tax increases.

On the surface, this would seem to be a great deal for President Obama. He could in theory simply take up Senator McConnell’s offer, raise the debt ceiling and avoid the self-inflicted insanity of draining $4 trillion of aggregate demand from an economy still reeling from massive underemployment and wasted resources. Or the President could, as we and others have suggested in the past, simply invoke the 14th amendment and refuse to enforce a statute that he believes violates the Constitution.

Professor Scott Fullwiler has suggested an even more creative way around the debt ceiling: Fullwiler notes that Fed is the monopoly supplier of reserve balances, but that the US Constitution bestows upon the US Treasury the authority to mint coins (particularly platinum coins). Future deficit spending by the federal government could thereby continue to be carried out by minting coins and depositing them in the Treasury’s account at the Fed (for more details see here). Curiously, the President won’t pursue any of these options. What’s the problem?

If, for example, the President genuinely believes that the 14th Amendment does not give him the right to ignore the debt ceiling, he has been loath to give any reasoning for this publicly. Why not? He is, after all, a constitutional law professor. Yet, much like the single payer option during the health care debate, the President refuses to put the legal argument on the table, even as a negotiating posture. Is it caution, or does the President genuinely believe this guff about the deficit?

By the same token, the President might well dismiss Scott Fullwiler’s idea as nothing more than a “gimmick”. But if the alternative is something which (in the words of Mr Geithner), could create “catastrophic damage across the American economy and across the global economy”, then why not deploy this “gimmick” to avert a default?

After all, as Bill Mitchell has pointed out:

“[T]he whole edifice surrounding government spending and bond-issuance is also ‘just an accounting gimmick’. The mainstream make much of what they call the government budget constraint as if it is an a priori financial constraint when in fact it is just an accounting statement of the monetary operations surrounding government spending and taxation and debt-issuance.

There are political gimmicks too that lead to the US government issuing debt to match their net public spending. These just hide the fact that in terms of the intrinsic characteristics of the monetary system the US government is never revenue constrained because it is the monopoly issuer of the currency. Which makes the whole debt ceiling debate a political and accounting gimmick.”

The fact is that when a President really wants to spend money, he can almost always find a way to do so. During the Clinton Administration, Treasury Secretary Rubin and Deputy Treasury Secretary Summers did an end-around Congress (which was seeking to prevent the use of government money as support for a bailout of Mexico – or more accurately, a bailout for Wall Street banks which had foolishly lost money investing in Mexico) through the deployment of the little known “Exchange Stabilization Fund”.

Until then, the ESF had been an obscure entity, the Treasury’s own honey pot, established by a long-forgotten provision in the Gold Reserve Act of January 31, 1934 for the purpose of stabilizing the exchange value of the dollar. The ESF was certainly not created simply to help the President go around the backs of Congress. Yet the President did it and in effect called the GOP’s bluff (and, for the record, the Republicans never went to the courts to challenge the decision; they waited for the far more important event of the President having sexual relations in the White House with Monica Lewinsky before going the legal route).

To be sure, one can argue that Mr. Clinton was serving his patrons on Wall Street, when he performed this action. But whatever the motivations underlying the use of the ESF, it made clear that Bill Clinton wanted to spend government money and got his Administration to find ways around the opposition of Congress. Call it a gimmick, but however questionable the motives underlying the action, it showed a President prepared to fight for what he thought was an important objective. Clinton certainly didn’t try to jump ahead of Congress on this issue. He fought them. Arguably, it set the stage for the more aggressive fight to keep the US from defaulting in 1995, during which the Gingrich-led Congress sought to shut down the government by initially refusing to sanction an increase in the debt ceiling.

By contrast, this President has apparently fallen in love with the idea of being the biggest deficit hawk in Washington, DC. In fact, last Sunday, the White House chief of staff, William M. Daley, said on “This Week” on ABC that Mr. Obama would continue to push for a major deal to reduce the deficit. “Everyone agrees that a number around $4 trillion is the number that will make a serious dent in our deficit,” Mr. Daley said. “He didn’t come to this town to do little things. He came to do big things.”

“Big things” – like destroying the New Deal and what’s left of The Great Society. Who knew this is what Obama meant when he said he wanted to be a “transformational President” like Ronald Reagan? He’s gone a lot further than Reagan dared to contemplate on the issue of entitlement cuts. President Obama actually believes this poisonous nonsense about the US on the verge of becoming “the next Greece”. This was confirmed yesterday by Press Secretary Jay Carney, who said of McConnell’s proposal that it was not the President’s “preferred option.”  McConnell’s proposal for avoiding debt default — to transfer full power to raise the debt ceiling to the White House for the remainder of Obama’s current term, cutting Congress out of the process — does nothing to address deficit reduction, Carney said. And Obama is set on making sizable cuts.

Yet again, the President shows profound confusion on the issue of the deficit. He fails to understand that if private spending is lagging then public spending has to fill the gap. Otherwise output and employment growth will be sluggish if not negative. To cut into the huge pool of unemployed and underemployed labor, employment growth has to be faster than labor force growth, which means that real GDP growth has to be faster than the sum of labor force and labor productivity growth.

These facts are very simple and indisputable. Cutting public spending at this juncture is the last thing the US government should be doing. Yet this President is pushing for the largest possible cuts that he can on the Federal government debt. He is out-Hoovering the GOP on this issue. He is providing “leadership” of the sort which is infuriating his base, but should endear him to the Tea Party. This is “the big thing” for Barack Obama, as opposed to maximizing the potential of his fellow Americans by seeking to eliminate the scourge of unemployment. Instead, his big idea is to become the president who did what George Bush could not, or did not, dare to do: cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. What more could the Tea Party possibly want?


Marshall Auerback is Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He has 28 years of experience in the investment management business, currently serving as a global portfolio strategist for Madison Street Partners, LLC, a Denver-based hedge fund, and as corporate spokesman and director for Pinetree Capital, a Canadian-based investment, financial advisory and merchant banking firm focused on investing in early stage micro and small cap resource companies. He is also a fellow at Economists for Peace and Security. From 1983-1987, he was an investment manager at GT Management (Asia) Limited in Hong Kong, where he focused on the markets of Hong Kong, the ASEAN countries (Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand), New Zealand and Australia. From 1988-91, Mr. Auerback was based in Tokyo, where his Pacific Rim expertise was broadened to include the Japanese stock market. From 1992-95, Mr. Auerback worked in New York for the Tiedemann Investment Group, where he ran an emerging markets hedge fund. From 1996-99, he worked as an international economics strategist for Veneroso Associates, which provided macroeconomic strategy to a number of leading institutional investors. From 1999-2002, he managed the Prudent Global Fixed Income Fund for David W. Tice & Associates, an investment management firm, and assisted with the management of the Prudent Bear Fund. Mr. Auerback graduated magna cum laude from Queen’s University in 1981 and received a law degree from Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, in 1983.

Richard Reeves: “I Missed My Chance to Pee on Rupert Murdoch”

By Richard Reeves

“NEW YORK—I first met Rupert Murdoch at the urinal in the men’s room. It was 1976 in an office building somewhere in Manhattan. We were both about to go into a meeting about the fate of New York magazine, then a wild sort of publication staffed with street people—the people put on the street by the folding of the New York Herald Tribune.

” The meeting was at a long table of directors, lawyers, financial people and a couple of old Trib scribblers like me. It was quickly apparent that the fix was in, that Murdoch had already won over a majority of the money people on the board, and he was going to leave the room the owner of the magazine we had made. Like many of us—Ken Auletta, Gail Sheehy, Pete Hamill, Gloria Steinem, Steve Brill, I can’t remember them all—I quit on the spot. We all knew we could not work for this man.”

Read full article here.

Has Roger Ailes Hacked American Phones for Fox News?

by Leslie Savan

“ ‘Has Roger Ailes been keeping tabs on your phone calls?’ ”

“That’s how Portfolio.com began a post back in 2008, when a former Fox News producer charged that Ailes had outfitted a highly secured “brain room” in Fox’s New York headquarters for “counterintelligence” and may have used it to hack into private phone records.

“All this week people have been looking for links between the Murdoch empire’s burgeoning phone-hacking scandal in Britain and News Corp.’s sprawling political/communications juggernaut in the United States. The links so far include a former New York City cop alleging that Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World offered to pay him to hack into 9/11 victims’ phone records, and a News Corp. U.S. shareholders’ suit in Delaware already targeting the company for nepotism adding British phone hacking as evidence of a corporate culture “run amuck.”

“But rumors have floated in the press and on the Internet about possible phone hacking in that special-security-clearance-only bunker at Fox HQ for years.”

Read full article here.

Panel Discussion and Movie: “The Last Mountain”

Ben Emery of the Nevada County Green Party has organized a panel discussion about the Idaho-Maryland Mine, and a showing of the documentary, “The Last Mountain,” to take place Wednesday July 27, 2011 at the Nevada Theatre on Broad Street in Nevada City. The panel discussion will begin at 6 PM, followed by the movie at 7 PM.

Panelists will include members of APPLE (Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy), CLAIM-GV (Citizens Looking at the Impact of Mining, Grass Valley), WCCA (Wolf Creek Community Alliance), Sierra Fund, Yubanet and NCGP (Nevada County Green Party).

Tickets on sale starting Thursday July 14th at Briar Patch and Booksellers in Grass Valley. $5 advance $7 at the door.

Will Murdoch Scandal Spread to the United States?

Will the News Corp meltdown in the UK spread to the Murdoch empire in the United States?

Here Thom Hartmann discusses this possibility with Stephen Webster, Senior Editor with Raw Story.

American Family Income, Before and After Reagan

Mortgage Company Completely Trashes Man’s Home, Steals All His Belongings – Cops Decline To Investigate

“The victim had fallen behind on his house payments but was NOT in foreclosure.  His mortgage company, thinking Florida was a so-called self-help state (it is not), hired paid thugs to destroy his home and steal his belongings.  The local sheriff called it a civil case and has declined to investigate.”

See full article here.

Deficit Predators: Everything You Need to Know About the Twisted, Dangerous Debt Ceiling Fight

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

by James Galbraith

The debt ceiling is an exercise in bad faith. And any deal that cuts social programs, a disastrous solution to an imaginary fiscal crisis, will be catastrophic for millions of Americans.

News reports hold that President Obama scored a political victory by agreeing to put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block to achieve a “go-big” $4 trillion deficit reduction. Speaker Boehner had to concede that Republicans won’t vote for any package that includes tax increases – and the deal died. So the gambit worked and the President emerged with a solid image as the alpha deficit hawk.

To which one can only say: how nice for him.

We’re in a summer that only Salvador Dali could paint, a reality so twisted that one almost yearns for the simple verities of the War on Terror or even the invasion of Iraq. Then as now, to be serious one must be a “hawk.” (The dove is a weakling, a loser, and the owl for practical purposes does not exist.) So let’s review some of the strange and mysterious faces of this ugly, vicious bird.

The debt ceiling was first enacted in 1917. Why? The date tells all: we were about to enter the Great War. To fund that effort, the Wilson government needed to issue Liberty Bonds. This was controversial, and the debt ceiling was cover, passed to reassure the rubes that Congress would be “responsible” even while the country went to war. It was, from the beginning, an exercise in bad faith and has remained so every single second to the present day.

Today this bad-faith law is pressed to its absurd extreme, to force massive cuts in public programs as the price of not-reneging on the public debts of the United States. Never mind that to force default on the public obligations of the United States is plainly unconstitutional. Section 4 of the 14th amendment says in simple language that public debts, once duly authorized by law and including pensions, by the way, “shall not be questioned.” The purpose of this language was to foreclose, to put beyond politics, any possibility that the Union would renege on debts and pensions and bounties incurred to win the Civil War. But the application is very general and the courts have ruled that the principle extends to the present day.

What is going on in Congress at this moment already violates that mandate. It is an effort to subvert the authority of the government to meet and therefore to incur obligations of every possible stripe. It is an attack on the concept of government itself – as the “Tea Party” by its very name would no doubt agree. It therefore paints those deficit hawks who are using the debt ceiling to take budget hostages as enemies of the United States Constitution.

The President, though supposedly a constitutional expert and though sworn to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution, will not say this. Instead he appears to treat the Constitution as an optional matter, to which he will not resort, in the hope that by negotiating with the hostage- takers he can reach some reasonable outcome that will preserve everyone’s good name. (The great Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe recently argued that the President cannot defy the debt ceiling on his own. That’s a debatable point.) It is as though Lincoln in 1861 faced with the siege of Sumter had sat down with Confederate commissioners to see what could be worked out.

In Washington it appears that this assault on government has a large measure of elite and media support, if not on the crass details or vulgar personalities but because it could conceivably force the parties to do “what they should do anyway” – namely come to a long-term deficit and debt agreement. Such an agreement would cut spending, raise some taxes, put the projected debt-to-GDP ratio on a declining track, and solve the “government’s fiscal crisis.”

What fiscal crisis? The great unasked question in this summer of sound-and-fury is “why?” The United States has many problems at the moment: a high-and-stubborn unemployment rate, a foreclosure catastrophe, a slowing economy that has not recovered and will not recover from the Great Crisis, and the ongoing challenges of infrastructure, energy and climate change. Fiscal crisis? The entire thing is a figment, made up of wise-men’s warnings repeated endlessly and linked to the projections of technicians at the Congressional Budget Office and elsewhere.

The projections, as I’ve written here, are made up of two economically impossible arguments. One is that there will be a big economic rebound, restoring near-full employment by 2013 or so. We’re already off that track, as some of us warned from the beginning. Of course, a recovery would reduce the deficit even if nothing were done. But CBO then recreates the exploding debt by assumptions, which include steady growth and low inflation, but sharply higher health-care costs and much higher short-term interest rates. These lead the projected debt to compound skyward, soon surpassing all previous records in relation to GDP.

Is this possible? No it is not. The Federal Reserve would never raise the short-term interest rate as CBO projects, without a prior increase of inflation, which CBO assumes will not occur. If they did, the economy would collapse! And if they don’t, the debt does not compound out of control. I have presented these simple numbers here. For what it’s worth, if you believe the capital markets signal anything, they signal their disbelief in doomsday forecasts, in the long-term interest rate on US government bonds, every single day.

Is it possible that cutting government is, by some other path, the way to economic recovery?

There are many people who believe fervently in the resilience of the private sector and for whom government is just a burden. Some of those people are pure predators: resource magnates, media magnates, banking magnates. Others have blinded themselves to the role government actually plays in sustaining the advanced networks, human protections and social systems that make up our lives, and imagine that one can go back to the world of subsistence farming, church charity and credit from the corner store. But there were many fewer people in that world, they didn’t do what we do, and they didn’t live nearly so long.

In broad terms, today’s government does four major things:

– it provides for the national defense.

– it purchases goods and services from the private economy for a wide range of public purposes, most of them individually quite small-scale in relation to GDP.

– it regulates a wide range of private-sector activity, for safety, health, environmental and other purposes, including financial stability – or so one should hope.

– it administers Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as other pension and health benefit programs.

On what grounds are any of these functions too large? As an economist concerned with peace and security issues, I do believe we would be better off ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan quickly, that we could dispense with the real resource costs of many foreign bases, aircraft carrier groups, fighter aircraft and submarines and nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War. But these are security judgments, not broad economic ones. In other words, I would not cut a single dime of Pentagon spending that was actually necessary to defend the United States, in order supposedly to lower the interest rate on federal debt.

By the same reasoning, why should we cut transportation, or public health, or environmental protection, or scientific research, or bank inspectors or funds that support the public schools? One can argue these matters program by program – and one should. (I would happily cut ethanol subsidies and oil company tax breaks, for starters.) But there is no economic case for placing an overall limit, and it is obvious that the 500,000 public sector workers – including many teachers, police, fire and park rangers and librarians – who have lost their jobs since 2009 were doing good and useful things that are now missed. If sacking them had been good for the economy, we would be having a stronger recovery than we are.

Finally there are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Unlike the military or the transportation program, Social Security is not a government purchasing program. It therefore takes nothing directly from the private sector. What it does, is provide insurance: it protects workers from poverty in old age, whether or not their families would otherwise be willing and able to support them. And it taxes all workers, whether or not they would otherwise be burdened with elderly parents, or survivors, or the disabled, to support. Along with Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security is a powerful protector of the entire working population – young and old. It redistributes purchasing power, in loose relation to past earnings, in a way that meets the basic needs of a large number of Americans who would otherwise, in many millions of cases, be destitute or medically bankrupt.

What economic purpose would cutting such programs serve? To do so would again redistribute incomes. Many of the future elderly would be much worse off, and of course many would die younger than they otherwise would. Survivors and the disabled would suffer as well. In return, what would the federal government and the country gain? A release of real resources to the private sector? Social Security does not take real resources from the private sector! Lower interest rates? The idea is absurd, and not just because interest rates are low today. The notion that cutting Social Security would help keep interest rates down is absurd because interest rates are set in a way that has no relationship at all to the scale of Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.*

This argument has nothing to do with the trope, oft-repeated and perfectly true, that the Social Security system does not contribute to the deficit. It would not matter if it did. The important question is: are benefits too high? Obviously not. How about payroll taxes – are they too low? There is no case for that either. One of the very few bright spots in recent policy was the decision to reduce payroll taxes on employees, temporarily, while leaving Social Security benefits alone.

If you wanted to build on that, the right steps would be to lower – not raise – the Social Security early retirement age, permitting for a few years older workers to exit the labor force permanently on better terms than are available to them today. This together with a lower age of access to Medicare would work quickly to rebalance the labor force, reducing unemployment and futile job search among older workers while increasing job openings for the young. It is the application of plain common sense. And unlike all the pressures to enact long-term cuts in these programs, it would help solve one of today’s important problems right away.

Instead of this, what do we have, from a President who claims to be a member of the Democratic Party? First, there is the claim that we face a fiscal crisis, which is a big untruth. Second, a concession in principle that we should deal with that crisis by enacting massive cuts in public services on one hand and in vital social insurance programs on the other. This is an arbitrary cruelty. Third, a refusal to stand on the strong ground of the Constitution, against those whose open and declared purpose is tear that document and the public credit to shreds.

In the Daily Beast on Sunday, Howard Kurtz wrote in optimistic terms of the prospects for a deficit bargain: “But away from the cameras, even sharp-tongued politicians recognize the imperative of avoiding the fate of Greece. It is a sign of the times that the Kabuki players of Washington may take a bow simply for averting catastrophe.”

Kurtz did not say that the big Kabuki here was his own notion that somehow the United States might face the fate of Greece – a small and overmatched member of a currency zone it cannot control. He did not say that the catastrophe he fears – a default on US government obligations – was entirely the product of treacherous politics, abetted by an irresolute President who seems not to grasp the danger of allowing the Constitution to fail.

And he did not say, that the deal he would applaud, with cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and all the legitimate and necessary functions of government — would be for millions of Americans the catastrophe itself.

* Short-term rates are whatever the Federal Open Market Committee dictates they should be. And if the Treasury wants to pay low interest rates on the debt, it can always issue short-term debt only — or it can issue long bonds and the Federal Reserve can buy them back, maintaining the structure of interest rates it prefers. There is no market default risk, no threat to “solvency” from a “loss of confidence” – nothing the private sector can do to make the US government pay more than it wants do – a point that should be obvious from the fact that the Federal Reserve’s interest rate decisions are never overruled by the market. The only way the United States government can default is if it makes a political decision to do so – which is what the debt-ceiling hostage-takers threaten and what the Constitution forbids.


James K. Galbraith is a deficit owl. He is the author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should TooHe teaches at The University of Texas at Austin.

10 Ways Arab Democracies Can Avoid American Mistakes

By Juan Cole (reprinted with permission from Informed Comment).

Dear Arab World:

Your peoples have demonstrated enormous courage and idealism in challenging a whole series of seedy police states throughout the Middle East. In two instances, Tunisia and Egypt, you have managed to overthrow dictators who had ruled through fear, intimidation and massive theft of public resources for decades. In Yemen, you are keeping pressure on the regime of wounded President Ali Abdullah Saleh, rejecting the attempt of his son to succeed him or of his relatives and cronies to retain control of the state and the economy. In Libya, you have fought off vicious bombardments of civilian populations in Ajdabiya, Misrata and the Western Mountain towns, and have a good chance of moving to parliamentary rule once the Qaddafi mafia flees. In Syria, you have stood up to tanks, snipers and secret police mass arrests, keeping the pressure on week after week despite vicious repression that has left an estimated 1400 dead. In Bahrain, despite the crushing of your street protests, you have continued to mount demonstrations, to speak out, and to seek negotiations with the hard line monarchy. In Morocco you have impelled the king to give up some prerogatives in favor of the majority party in parliament, such that a small step toward popular sovereignty has been taken.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the next step is to move to parliamentary elections, a move that may come in some of the other countries of the 2011 revolutions in time. But let me just warn you about democracy. It is a vague ideal and the old-established democracies like the United States are seeing it undermined by a whole host of undemocratic practices that are reminiscent of the police states you just challenged. Here is some advice on how to avoid the mistakes of my generation of Americans, who have perhaps fatally undermined our constitution and turned ourselves into a corporation-dominated national security state. From a twilight democracy heading toward being a large Company town where the workers are deprived of any right to privacy or a fair share of national income to a young vibrant set of democratic movements in the Arab world, I send you this dire warning.

1. Contemporary political campaigns in the US depend heavily on television commercials. In the UK these ads are restricted, and in Norway they are banned. Consider banning them. But whatever you do, do not let your private television channels charge money for campaign advertisements. Television advertisements account for 80-90 percent of the cost of a senate or presidential campaign in the US, and the next presidential campaign will cost each candidate $1 billion. The only way a candidate can win is to fall captive to the billionaires and their corporations, leaving the people powerless and victimized by the ultra-wealthy. Consider putting a ban on paid radio and television political ads in the constitution, because otherwise if it is only a statute, the wealthy will try to buy the legislature so as to overturn it.

2. Do not hold your elections on work days. America’s robber barons put elections on Tuesdays in order to discourage workers, including the working poor, from voting. In many democracies, the poor do vote, as in India, but in the US they have been largely successfully discouraged from doing so. Policies are therefore mainly made for the wealthy few, ruining the lives of millions of workers. France, in contrast, holds its elections on Sundays. In the first round of the 2007 French presidential election, 84% of the electorate turned out. In contrast, in the hotly contested and epochal 2008 presidential election in the US, the turnout was only 64%.

3. Have compulsory, government-run voter registration at age 18 or whatever the voting age is. Voluntary voter registration, especially when it must be undertaken months before the polls, is just a way of discouraging citizens from voting. This voluntary system is favored by the wealthy and the racists in the United States, who consistently oppose efforts to make it easier to register. Compulsory voter registration is correlated with high electoral turnout.

4. About 32 countries in the world have enforced compulsory voting. In Australia, for instance, you have to pay a small fine if you do not vote in certain elections. Although the sum is small, apparently people don’t want to pay it, and Australia has turnouts as high as 95%. It is important not only to make voting compulsory, but to have some enforcement mechanism such as a fine. It is desirable that as many people vote as possible, and for voting to be compulsory is no more coercive than for military service to be.

5. Make a bill of rights central to your new constitutions, and be specific about what rights people have and what actions infringe against those rights. Include electronic rights to privacy, such as freedom from snooping in private emails or warrantless GPS tracking. You have suffered from intensive secret police spying on your populations, and should know that rights to freedom of speech, worship, press and publication, privacy, a fair and speedy trial, and protection from torture are hallmarks of any democratic system. We have given up most of these essential rights to our secret police, without admitting we have done so and without calling them secret police. But you have lived through domestic surveillance and would easily recognized the violations of individual rights that have become routine in the United States and which are defended by our increasingly corrupt judicial authorities, including a whole series of attorneys-general. Abolish your secret police where they still exist and consider abolishing your intelligence agencies. It is not clear that government intelligence agencies even are very good at gathering intelligence beyond what an intelligent person could conclude from reading the newspapers and maybe doing some site visits. Intelligence agencies have a strong motivation to spy on your own citizens and to violate individual rights to privacy. You’re better off without them, but keep them small and poorly funded if you have to have them.

6. Put separation of religion and state in your national constitutions and make it hard to amend the constitution. I know this piece of advice will probably fall on deaf ears in the Muslim world, but really, you’d be doing yourselves a big favor. If we did not have our First Amendment, our fundamentalists would long since have passed blasphemy and other laws and deprived us of freedom of speech (which they consider a ‘provocation’ just as your fundamentalists do). One of the reasons that Algeria went into civil war from 1992 was that the fundamentalists won a 2/3s majority in that country’s unicameral legislature, which would have been enough to amend the constitution in a theocratic direction. That prospect caused the secular generals to intervene to cancel the election results, which provoked long-term violence. Have elected provincial legislatures and governors, and require that super-majorities of them approve constitutional changes along with supermajorities of the national legislature. Your constituent assemblies have a unique opportunity to fashion new constitutions. Avoid pandering to the fundamentalists, and just make it so the state is neutral on religion and all laws must have a secular purpose. Tunisia, you have the best opportunity here. You only have one chance to put this principle in the foundational document, and to make it as hard as possible to overturn.

7. Keep your defense ministry spending as low as possible consistent with being able to defend your borders. Tunisia, you get this one right. The more you spend on “defense,” the more you create an military-industrial complex that lobbies the government to spend ever more on “defense,” creating a feed-back loop that is almost impossible to disrupt. The US has been at war most of the time since 1941 because it created a vast military-industrial complex from that point forward. We spend more on war-related things than the next 20 or so countries. Not only is that level of expenditure on weaponry wasteful and unnecessary, it is actively pernicious. If you have a lot of nice new shiny weapons, there is an incentive to use them before they become outmoded or before your neighbors catch up. Your militaries have often been dominant and dictatorial forces in your societies. Put them back in their place. Most of you do not even face a credible military threat, and the rest of you could easily make peace with your enemies, which your officer corps have often opposed for selfish reasons. Small armies are the way to go.

8. Avoid allowing your judiciaries to become politicized. Having party-dominated executives and legislatures approve judicial appointments has real drawbacks. In India and now in Pakistan, justices are appointed by other justices. This way of doing things perhaps goes too far in the direction of judicial power, but give some thought to a way of protecting the appointment of judges from party interest. In the US, we now have a Republican-majority Supreme Court, and since the Republican Party mainly looks out for the interests of our 400 billionaires, our constitution is being profoundly distorted. They even declared the billionaires’ corporations to be persons under the law. Never, ever, ever recognize your corporations as persons under the law. You’ll be really sorry if you do.

9. Protect your workers’ unions. Make it illegal to fire workers for trying to unionize. Remove obstacles to unionization. Unions are key to a healthy democracy, and to ensuring that workers get their fair share of the nation’s economic progress. Since about 1970 our unions have gone into a tail-spin and I think only 9% of workers are now unionized in the US. This decline has come from Reagan’s and his successors’ having given implicit permission for corporations to de-unionize. Not coincidentally, since 1970 the average wage of the average American worker in real terms has been just about flat. That means that the super-wealthy have gobbled up all the economic increases in the American economy for the past 40 years. Having a high gini coefficient, that is to say, extremes of wealth and poverty, is highly undemocratic, and we have seen in the US a ratcheting motion whereby the wealthier the top one percent is, the more they are able to engineer further increases in the proportion they hold of the national wealth.

10. Find a way to fight monopoly practices with strong antitrust legislation and enforcement. If you can implement principle #1 above and keep big money out of political campaigns, you might have a chance at good antitrust practices. The US is now ruled by a small number of semi-monopolies, and the Justice Department almost never actually intervenes against monopolistic practices. Recently Comcast, a cable-provision company, was allowed to buy NBC Universal, which is a clear conflict of interest. One of the FCC commissioners who voted for it was only a little while later given a cushy job…at Comcast. Laws against legislators and regulators being hired by the companies they used to regulate would help tell against the entrenchment of the monopolies.

It is probably too late for us. The aggregate of changes in US law and practice in favor of corporatocracy and the national security state is so extensive and powerful that our constitution has been overwhelmed. We have 2 million people in jail, in a vast gulag, some of them for minor offenses and others for being the wrong color. We are nearly always fighting a ground war with our troops for some murky economic interest. The government is reading our electronic mail and tracking us in various ways, and wants to grope us at airports. Our workers are virtually without rights and until until recently without basic health care (bestowing the latter on them has angered the billionaires against Obama, causing them to create phony ‘movements’ like the Tea Party, which are just crony facades for people like the Koch brothers. Never heard of the Koch brothers? If you don’t take the steps I’ve advised, you’ll be hearing about your own versions.

The blood of your martyrs for revolution is too recent and too precious, and too often belonged to young people who sacrificed a bright future, for you to squander this once-in-a-century opportunity to put liberty and democracy on a firm foundation in your countries. You are young, and you still weep at the thought of freedom, and of those who died for it. You are having your weddings at Tahrir Square to celebrate a new beginning. Be careful. Be very careful. In my lifetime I have seen the American state spiral down into a brutal tyranny that tortures, spies, union-busts, engages in illegal wars, and plays dirty tricks on dissidents. We used to have something much more like a democracy. Maybe we can learn from you how to safeguard something so precious.


Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, March, 2009) and he also recently authored Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). He has been a regular guest on PBS’s Lehrer News Hour, and has also appeared on ABC Nightly News, Nightline, the Today Show, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper 360, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, the Colbert Report, Democracy Now! and many others. He has given many radio and press interviews. He has written widely about Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and South Asia. He has commented extensively on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Iraq War, the politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Iranian domestic struggles and foreign affairs. He has a regular column at Truthdig. He continues to study and write about contemporary Islamic movements, whether mainstream or radical, whether Sunni and Salafi or Shi`ite. Cole commands Arabic, Persian and Urdu and reads some Turkish, knows both Middle Eastern and South Asian Islam. He lived in various parts of the Muslim world for nearly 10 years, and continues to travel widely there. A bibliography of his writings may be found here.

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