• Trying to Understand the Arab Spring


    As a non-expert on the Arab world, how is one to understand the different clashes taking place in North Africa and the Middle East? Perhaps the easiest answer would be to say that each scene of rebellion, discontent and uprising is very different and highly contextual. Each country has its own history; Tunisia is not Egypt, Egypt is not Syria, Syria is not Libya, Libya is not Yemen. Yet, outbreaks have taken place across the region, with striking similarities beyond the obvious. Autocratic rulers have been removed; others are being challenged with varying degrees of success and violence. There is something going on here that is profound.

    Can we in the West understand? One wishes to say that a new wave of modernization if not democratization is sweeping the region. Having been exposed via technology to advancements in the West and perhaps even the idealism of Barack Obama's famous Cairo speech, the Arab world is demanding the same kinds of freedoms we enjoy. Chauvinism would lead us to say that the Arab world is now trying to follow our democratic/free market example. That would be a wishful thought since there is a great deal of anti-Western antagonism shown by many demonstrators as well as keen observations about the economic catastrophes witnessed in many Western if not European countries. Would anyone really want to follow the economic examples of Greece, Iceland and Portugal with national bankruptcies barely avoided? (Notice I politely exclude the United States debt problem here.) Would anyone really want to follow the democratic examples of Finland or France with the rise of extreme right-wing parties? (Notice I politely exclude the Swiss minaret problem here.)

    I certainly does not help our understanding that a religious belief outside the Judeo/Christian tradition is playing a prominent role in much of the region. Is Islam compatible with democratization and modernity, if not a modern state system? This question has been debated and will continue to be debated within European countries, but it is now coming to the fore in the Maghreb and Middle East. Turkey is being frequently cited as the best example of a solution. Our secular societies are firmly based on the separation of Church and State, besides some obvious references in Constitutions and on dollar bills. Easter, like Christmas, has become more a holiday than a religious celebration.

    We observe what is going on; we try to understand. Perhaps we even try to interfere to save lives or to help a group that is favorable to us. But, for the moment, we are watching waves of activity that are like a tsunami causing huge destruction, and hoping that when the wave recedes the reconstruction will have something better than what was there before. It may even be more satisfying to ponder the tsunami "over there" than examine the potential earthquake ready to shake our economic basis at home.

    April 26, 2011



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  • Local Geneva Elections From the Outside II


    The citizens of the Republic and Canton of Geneva have spoken. Having made some comments on the campaign, which had most interesting feedback, I will now venture some comments on the results:

    The mood at Uni Mail on Sunday was festive in the sense of a large gathering of citizens celebrating the democratic process. The hall of the University was like a large town meeting - or in the classic American equivalent village green - with people of different parties mingling with journalists and concerned citizens. It was all extremely informal, face-to-face, with Pascal Decaillets and the team of Leman Bleu playing their role as public broadcasters. It appeared to be direct democracy at its best.

    The pronouncements by the winners and losers were less than inspired. Once again, as with the campaign, emphasis was placed on the political parties, alliances, winners and losers. Very little was said about competence or accountability. If the majority of the executive of the City of Geneva is on the left, how should they be judged before the next election? They are in power, and thus responsible. Who will get what department? It is one thing to talk of campaign slogans, it is another to hold those elected to their words. American pragmatism says that Candidate Obama promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay; President Obama has not done that, and there are people who remember. Officials should be judged on bottom-line results, not slogans, ideological pronouncements or impressions. Having a majority, such as the left in Carouge, means that the electors expect performance. There are fewer excuses now. The Democratic Party in the United States was not able to pass a national budget when they controlled the Parliament and the Executive and they were punished by the Republicans in the new Congress. Victory has a price.

    I attended a celebration of one of the parties Sunday evening. Lots of joy and congratulations. I was reminded of the famous line by Robert Redford at the end of the movie "The Candidate" just after he had won. He turns to an assistant and asks, "What do we do now?" Campaigning and governing are not the same thing. There are excellent campaigners who are poor administrators and vice-versa. Those concerned citizens who were at Uni Mail on Sunday would do well to be vigilant towards those in power. Direct democracy involves not just voting, but holding those in office accountable. I am surprised that the local papers do not analyze the votes of Geneva's representatives in Bern. Vigilance towards those in office is as important to a direct democracy as the voting procedure. Let the process of accountability begin.

    April 18, 2011


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  • Taxes and Obama’s Deficit Reduction Plan


    We know that the only two definite things in life are death and taxes. The first is perhaps easier to avoid than the second. For most Americans, April 15 is the day of doom, the day that tax returns must be filed and payments started. Even Americans living abroad must file and those earning above a certain amount must pay as well. The United States is the only industrialized country in the world with a system of double taxation; possess an American passport and you are liable for taxes.

    President Obama went before the American public on Wednesday to lay out his plan for reducing the spiraling U.S. deficit. While partisan politics had almost shut down the government the week before, he called for bipartisan cooperation to stop the rapid growth of the national debt. He soberly described his proposals for long-term spending cuts, tax increases and some changes to the social welfare programs that make up a large percentage of government spending.

    Having recently announced his plans for running for re-election, the President clearly targeted middle class families in his warnings about wealthy individuals benefitting from tax cuts and corporations having little or no capital gains taxes. We have been shown over and over again that the wealthy have benefitted from tax a cut, something that Obama promised to stop but hasn’t yet changed. A front page NY Times article on March 25 asserting that General Electric, which made $5.1 billion last year, did not pay any income tax set off a national debate and outcry. Whether or not the story was entirely accurate is beside the point; it merely pointed to two fundamentally different positions on economic growth.

    By and large, the Republicans are arguing that cutting taxes will increase private spending and hence stimulate growth and job creation, even with the social programs. As a result, they claim, more money will come back to the government through taxes after the initial cuts. Democrats are arguing for greater redistribution and trying to keep government spending for social welfare programs as government guarantees. President Obama continually referred to the elderly and handicapped as his responsibility as well as the comparatively low investment in infrastructure in the U.S. compared to China, India and Brazil. He made several moral claims about the injustice of the growing wealth distribution curve in the United States, harkening back to core Democratic values and distancing himself from a Republican proposal to privatize basic social programs. He even went so far as to quote a high-ranking military officer saying that the national debt is the greatest threat to American security.

    I am neither a tax expert nor an economist. I am merely a dual citizen who just sent off his U.S. tax return and began payments. Despite the Obama rhetoric of shared sacrifice, I still don’t see why I should pay taxes to Washington when I earn my living in Switzerland; I still don’t see why I should pay more taxes than wealthy individuals or corporations who have tax shelters; and I certainly don’t see why the U.S. military budget is so out of proportion compared to all other countries in the world. I thought President Obama was trying to speak to me, but then again I have no direct representation in Washington to defend me and resent the unfairness of the “taxation without representation” situation for overseas Americans.

    As I said, April 15 is a gloomy day for most Americans.

    April 14, 2011



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  • Local Geneva Elections From the Outside


    Mairie de Genève 2011 10 candidats.jpgRecently, Barack Obama announced the beginning of his campaign for the 2012 US Presidential election, 19 months before the election itself. Many in Switzerland were surprised that the announcement was made so early. People were also surprised when experts predicted that this would be the first campaign to cost over one billion dollars; Obama's 2008 campaign cost approximately $750 million, a record at the time.

    The elections for communal executives in the Canton of Geneva are scheduled for April 17. Last Saturday I made some observations at the market in Carouge and Place de Molard, fascinated by the low-key aspects of the campaigns. I have participated in several political campaigns in the United States, and am always impressed by the Swiss system. Several people asked me to compare the two campaign styles and I will make some short observations, acutely aware of differences in size and my lack of professional expertise here.

    A great deal of time and energy is spent on discussing the political parties positioning and alliances. The situation in Vernier seems to be a flagrant example. However, much less time is spent talking about the competence of the candidates to direct certain departments. Since departments are chosen among the elected, it would make more sense to see how competent people direct specific departments. This is certainly true as well at the cantonal and national levels.

    The actual division of departments also is intriguing to a foreigner. On the cantonal level, department titles and responsibilities change with the elections. Again, one would assume that departments are assigned logically. One would also assume that not all executives are competent to run all departments.

    Although I presume there is complete transparency behind campaign funding, little attention seems to be given to making public where the money comes from. Elaborate signs on trams from one party may indicate more resources, although it is not necessary that more money spent will win an election.

    The United States has two major parties and the differences are generally clear. The proliferation of parties here makes it difficult to fully comprehend what each party stands for. In addition, a party's position in one canton is not necessarily the same as in another.

    Finally, the idea of a militia government means that executives have other jobs. Does that affect their decisions? There are ethical questions here that are not at all evident.

    In general, I find the campaigning extremely low-key, with the population having easy access to the candidates. I find the public debates on television such as Leman Bleu and in the media somewhat helpful, but the level of discourse, like in so many other places, often strident and unnecessarily personal. I am often asked to explain the American electoral system here in Switzerland. Since there are many foreigners in Switzerland, it would be interesting to see if clear explanations of the voting system here were available to the large foreign population.

    There is little polling before the vote so we will all watch if there are major surprises April 17. Because of extensive polling in the United States, there are few surprises.

    April 11, 2011



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  • President Obama Announces His Candidacy for Re-election


    "Civil War in the Ivory Coast," "Unclear Results in Libyan Intervention," "UN Officials Killed in Afghanistan Amid Outrage Over Burning Of Koran by Florida Preacher," "Nuclear Contamination Not Yet Under Control in Japan". These are just some of the headlines summarizing foreign events recently, not even mentioning unrest in Yemen or Syria.

    Amid the stark foreign headlines, Americans woke up to discover that President Obama had sent out a short Internet video announcing his intention to be a candidate for the presidency in 2012. 19 months before the actual election, the Obama campaign has officially begun with the video showing a diverse group of supporters explaining the reasons for their backing. "It Begins With US" does not show the President himself, but directs viewers to the site of the new campaign.

    There is no surprise that Barack Obama will be running for re-election. The only surprise might be the timing of the announcement. With all the turmoil internationally and the White House playing catch- up to the evolving events, why make the announcement now?

    The simple answer, I believe, is in the question. Because events are evolving rapidly, the incumbent has a tremendous advantage. Why vote for a newcomer who is not familiar with the major events? Stability is always a powerful argument in a time of crisis.

    At the moment, Barack Obama has several advantages in addition to stability. Unemployment has dipped under 9% and the economy has seen job growth for more than one year. His approval ratings are just over 50 percent in most polls. Health care reform has been passed; limits have been put on banks.

    Progressives will argue about all of the above. Guantanamo Bay prison has not been closed. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been stopped. The deficit problem has not been solved; politics has not fundamentally changed in Washington.

    The arguments will go on and on up until the election. Perhaps the biggest advantage President Obama has right now is that the Republican Party is divided without a major viable candidate. Many independents are saying that they are not as enthusiastic as they were for Obama in 2008, but that for the moment there is no viable alternative.

    Obama's strength is the opposition's weakness. And, we should add, campaign financing is beginning as well. In the last campaign, Obama raised over $700 million, a record. This time, people are talking about the first $1 billion campaign. Why start now? Perhaps, to raise that kind of money requires a good deal of time.

    April 5, 2011


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