Symbolic Troop Reduction, Bonuses amid Bailouts, and the West Bank
In a move rather similar to President Bush’s withdrawal of 5,000 troops after his party’s rout in 2006, the Obama Administration has seen fit to send 15,000 of our soldiers home at the end of the year. This, of course, leaves about 150,000 still unaccounted for, but the number will be reduced to 50,000 within two years if Mr. Obama can be taken at his word. Those poor fellows will remain in the desert for the foreseeable future, ‘providing assistance’ and generally ensuring the unfettered flow of oil. Should the insurgency kick up once again the possibility of re-insertion is always available. One can assume, however, that our administration will be happy to wash its hands of this catastrophe.
Yet they may not be let off so easily. For all of our talk of “progress” on the Iraqi front, the central dilemmas of the new Iraqi state – how to fairly distribute oil revenue amongst the provinces and how to reconcile a centuries-old religious rivalry – have not even had the pretense of an address. The current lull in violence (more feigned than real, if the weekly bombings in Baghdad are any indication) can be largely attributed to two factors: an increased US military presence via the “surge”, and the wholesale bribery of Iraq’s warring factions. Currently, we pay the Sunni Awakening quite a hefty sum, all cash, in order for them not to exercise violence. With only cobwebs in our coffers, it does not appear likely that those payments can continue indefinitely. And then we’ll decide we need another “surge”, and then another round of inflationary spending and “wartime stimulus”, and repeat until China calls in their loans.
Speaking of the red dragon, I’m sure they were none too pleased about this article on the NYT front page. Apparently 5,000 Wall Streeters from bailed-out banks received more than $1 million in bonuses. I am aware that these guys live off of their bonuses and that their base salary is comparatively quite low (on the order of 36,000), but still this smacks of absurdity. The only defense I have heard of the surreal compensation members of the financial industry receive is that “they worked very hard to get where they are” (or alternately, “they work very hard – it’s not all fun and games for them”)
Neither of these arguments stand to much scrutiny. Taking aside the problem of assigning a quantitative value to different types of work – when exactly did they perform it? In university? On the job? At their desk? Certainly one needs attributes of a particular sort to perform well as an investment banker – a degree in business, a sort of ruthlessness, a lust and fascination for money, a nose for what makes it – but these are either innate or do not require much real labor to acquire. And going back to the problem of quantifying work – how much, in a real sense, does Wall Street really do? They neither produce raw material, nor furnish product, nor advertise it, nor distribute. They perform intellectual labor of a low sort, but the true ideas upon which our society bases itself did not arise from bankers. The philanthropic value of their work is remarkably low – they cannot be said to perform a task for society as one could say of a street cleaner, a teacher, a doctor or a scientist. They are parasites, in short: about as useful to society as his corns are to a man’s feet. That we choose to reward their function higher than any other speaks more, I think, about our admiration for wealth and the mystical, unquestionable status it has in our culture than about the actual value of these unfortunate specimens of humanity.
In other news, The settlers in the West Bank have sent a decisive message to the Obama Administration: we are here to stay. It figures that when we finally have a leader who at least is willing to suggest a settlement freeze we would encounter defiance. A freeze of settlements at the West Bank is, of course, the first step on the road to a Palestinian state. This latest action from Israel no doubt constitutes a test for the Obama Administration, but it is one on which I’m afraid he’s going to pass. After his Cairo speech our President has had to walk a fine line. He clearly wishes to improve our image abroad – and this necessarily means he must make some gesture regarding Israel’s illegal expansion into the West Bank – but at the same time he must keep his constituents in mind, millions of whom happen to be Jewish or actively pro-settlement. Obviously he’s going to stall on this issue for as long as he can. Any real objections to the settlements (in the form of a moratorium on aid to Israel for instance) will likely not be forthcoming in the near or even distant future. The political costs would outweigh any benefits, justice be damned.