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Government As A Dirty Word

In the short span of a generation or two, there was a remarkable change in how we construe the role of government in our lives.  The shift from FDR’s remark that ‘government is ourselves’ to Ronald Reagan’s notorious sound bite, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help”, revealed just how far we traveled.

The political right wing fashions itself as the guardian of individual rights, as if citizens were like naïve and innocent children in need of protection from an army of faceless bureaucrats determined to control the lives of the American people against their will. Government as bogeyman, expressed by Reagan’s quip, represents the animating principle of right wing fear mongering.  But if we demystified what government actually does, could we diminish the political right’s ability to frighten voters?

Here is a list to get us started:  Government is the cop who keeps our streets safe and the soldier who fights wars against those who threaten us.  Government is those who protect us from fire and natural disasters and who educates many of our children. Government keeps our drinking water and the air we breathe safe from harmful levels of pollution. It ensures the medicines we take have been properly tested and that working conditions in factories and fields across the country are not hazardous. It provides our parents and grandparents and great grandparents with medical coverage and financial support. And it subsidizes important scientific research the private sector does and/or would not fund on its own. Government provides subsidies to all types of farmers. It provides security at our airports and harbors. It purchases the military hardware we need to defend our homeland and interests abroad. And it protects our natural resources from development so future generations may know and experience the majestic wonder of nature.

Is there anything nefarious and threatening here? Of course, this list is not exhaustive. And government hardly does any of these things as efficiently as possible.  Moreover, as Edward Snowden and others have shown, our government has the capacity and will to spy on all forms of personal and governmental communication.  But putting this important issue aside, does anything on this brief list interfere with our ability to live and work as free citizens in a vibrant democracy? Does any of this inhibit creative and entrepreneurial activity?  Of course our tax code should be simplified and become more equitable. Of course some governmental regulation may stifle economic innovation.  Of course there is too much red tape.  But technological hubs like Silicon Valley are the envy of the world. And is there a private company anywhere that does not have wasteful bureaucratic procedures that inhibit dynamic activity? Suffocating red tape and organizational inefficiency are features of all modern organizations, public and private. Just ask anyone who deals with an insurance company or a cable provider.

The political right bemoans the existence of governmental waste, but has little or nothing to say about subsidies to wealthy farmers or agribusinesses, or about legendary cost overruns engineered by private companies working with the Department of Defense. And if we are talking about “welfare queens”, why have we not heard anything from the political right about one of the largest recent recipients of governmental aid, Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, and his family, who reputedly squirreled away hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, since the time he assumed office? Why isn’t the political right, or anyone for that matter, talking about prosecuting the Karzai family for defrauding the US taxpayer? And exactly how much money was unaccounted for during the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?  How much American money was wasted and/or siphoned by private contractors hired by a Republican administration to work in these countries?

While we should address waste and inefficiency, our current political discourse dismisses how government enhances individual freedom and quality of life. Take away any of the functions cited above and our lives as citizens would be worse off, even intolerable. In addition, political oversight protects us from private sector excess.  Remember that the near meltdown of 2008-9 was not the result of government spending or the behavior of devious bureaucrats. Massive speculation by the private sector, whose focus was to maximize profit above everything else, precipitated the recent crisis. Without proper governmental oversight, the private financial sector nearly triggered a second economic collapse. And without immediate governmental response, our economy would have fallen off the cliff. The lesson here is that we need more not less political intervention in the financial marketplace.

The recent economic crisis shows that unregulated private markets, rather than governmental action, present the greatest danger to the lives of a majority of Americans and pose the greatest threat to our individual and collective pursuit of happiness. Accordingly, conservative ideology turns things inside out by asserting that government is the enemy of a free and liberal civil society. In truth, their claim functions as a powerful smokescreen. It skillfully presents an argument that benefits the 1% as if it benefitted the other 99%. As long as too many of us remain enthralled by the political right’s fear mongering, asserting that government is the problem rather than an important part of any solution, politicians who promote and defend the interests of a few against the interests of the many will remain in power.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.                                                                                                                Editor of Delano



Donald Trump’s recent incendiary claims that President Obama is the founder of the international terrorist organization known as ISIS and that its followers would like to see Hillary Clinton become our next president, raises the issue of whether an organization like ISIS has an interest in our national election.

As the delusional vision to reestablish an Islamic caliphate wanes, another important objective will become vital to ISIS; namely the desire to foment a fundamental clash of civilizations that results in a holy war between Islam and Western powers.

ISIS wants the West to fear and distrust Islam. It wants us to believe that the terrorist enemy is the Muslim community itself, rather than an organization that perverts the teachings of Islam and attracts criminal elements and/or aimless young people to their ranks. They want us to be afraid of any and all Muslims, recent immigrants and citizens alike, who live among us.

Accordingly, the interests of ISIS are advanced when any Western politician advocates policies that drive a political and cultural wedge between Islam and the West. Their interests are served when any political figure talks about rounding up and deporting Muslims or prohibiting them from entering Western countries. Their interests are served when politicians stoke the flame of suspicion and fear to portray our relationship with Muslim communities and Islam as “us versus them” and threaten to take any action pitting non-Muslim and Muslim communities against one another.

ISIS must and will be defeated militarily in Iraq and Syria. This process has begun. But their ability to orchestrate terror attacks remains a reality. One of the significant challenges before the world is to develop a greater understanding of why disaffected Muslim youth are motivated to join organizations like ISIS and become suicide bombers? In the 20th century, they might have become socialists or perhaps ardent Arab nationalists. Now they are steered towards religious extremism. Why are these radical organizations attractive? And what are the main sources of recruitment? Unemployed youth? Petty criminals?

As always, the way to undermine religious extremism is by establishing alliances that empower moderate leaders. We defeat the extreme by bolstering the center. It is imperative that Western nations reach out to moderate religious and civic leaders in Muslim communities both in the West and around the world. When Western leaders fail to distinguish between moderates and extremists and lump them all together, they promote the clash of civilization ideology adopted by religious extremists and strengthen their ability to recruit foot soldiers bent on generating more terror.

In fact, it seems entirely plausible to assume that during this presidential campaign, the US and other Western nations will be at greater risk for acts of terrorism, as ISIS seeks to goad the US and other Western nations to crackdown on and/or deport Muslims. Their aim is clear: to fuel more hatred towards Muslim communities in the West and towards Islam in general. Reprisals against Muslims would verify, in their eyes, that a clash of civilizations exists and that a holy war between Islam and the West should be pursued. Therefore any political candidate of any party who sows fear of Muslims and Islam, would represent their choice to become the next American president.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.                                                                                                            Editor of Delano

Donald Trump’s Tabloid Campaign for President

The shock of Donald Trump receiving the Republican nomination coupled with widespread ambivalence about Hillary Clinton, generates worry this could be a close election.  And it raises a question about how this unlikely candidate has advanced so far?  We underestimate, I believe, the power of his unorthodox political style.   Trump does not act like a traditional candidate running for president.  The organizational disarray, the virtual absence of campaign advisors and the lack of notable fundraising underscore the fact that he considers himself to be the celebrity star of his own reality TV show, (a cross between Survivor, where challengers like Low Energy Jeb, Liddle Marco and Lyin’ Ted are voted off the island one by one, and The Apprentice, where each episode culminates with Trump telling someone they are fired), rather than a presidential candidate.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the Trump phenomenon is that he says many things that would demolish traditional political campaigns. If anyone else suggested Ted Cruz’s father was linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, raised the issue of Obama’s birthplace or wondered if Vince Foster was murdered, their credibility would plummet with their poll numbers. But unlike traditional candidates, Trump wants to shock as many as possible because his outrageous venomous remarks, delivered like National Enquirer headlines, boost the ratings of his personal reality TV show.  Likewise, Trump’s campaign rallies, filled with outright lies, empty slogans, rhetoric that smears his competition and offends broad swaths of the electorate, and even threats of violence against hecklers or protesters, have more in common with Jerry Springer episodes than traditional political events. On the one hand, the vulgar spectacle of his provocative statements fired off like verbal missiles offer the illusion of news that enables him to secure free press coverage. But at a deeper level, Trump’s inflammatory comments implore the public to stay tuned for the next episode of his tabloid campaign. And we remain riveted, whether appalled or thrilled by what he says, each of us wondering what else will come out of his mouth.

The problem, of course, is that Trump is actually running for president. The virtual absence in his tabloid campaign of any serious discussion about serious issues is unprecedented. Instead, we get bluster about building walls Mexicans will pay for, tough talk about future trade negotiations and bold predictions about the quick destruction of ISIS. Trump never provides details about how any of this will be accomplished. And given his success, why should he? He believes that wading into the minutiae of public policy is not good for ratings. Besides, his supporters experience a vicarious thrill watching him blow off steam. So it remains a better strategy to say whatever comes to mind. Trump keeps his reality TV show “relevant” with provocative free associations based on a canny intuitive feel for what has maximum shock value.

But Trump’s campaign, like any other, does not exist in a vacuum. His tabloid style registers because it responds to something in the air. And the underlying truth of this political year is that both Trump and Sanders, what could be deemed the “Bernie Trump” phenomenon, reflect an enormous rage and uneasiness many feel about their lives, whether marginalized, less educated, older white working class men and women who sign on with Trump or young college educated men and women who face an uncertain future and gravitate to Sanders. Too many people feel left behind or cast aside. So Sanders and Trump offer pushback to those who feel powerless against forces adversely affecting their lives, from globalization and international trade deals to shifting national demographics.

Can Hillary harness the widespread anger, resentment and distrust that many feel? While she might win in a landslide, her eagerness and ability to talk about the intricacies of public policy could lead many to be wary of her, because men still feel threatened by very smart women. While aspects of her personality fuel public discomfort, like her defensiveness and paranoia about the press and lack of warmth and charisma in large public settings, she knows her stuff. As Obama recently noted, she is arguably the most prepared candidate ever to seek the presidency, while even Mitch McConnell recognizes Trump is in over his head. But will it matter? This election should force us to reflect on important distinctions between leadership and demagoguery. Let us hope we have sense enough to vote for the former and to repudiate the latter in this pivotal election, that Hillary will not be the last one voted off the island and that the tabloid headline in November will read: “Nation to Trump: You’re Fired.” The alternative is just unthinkable.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

Saying is Believing: The Fundamentalist Tilt of the Republican Party

Groups that endorse a literal reading of religious texts are characterized as fundamentalist.  For instance, the belief that God created the universe in seven days as written in the Book of Genesis. But any individual or group that remains loyal to an idea despite empirical data that refutes it, when loyalty to that idea supersedes adherence to actual evidence, may be said to hold fundamentalist beliefs.  In the contemporary world,  we associate fundamentalism with radical Islamic groups, but does the phenomenon exist in our political landscape?

Consider the fact that the American Republican Party is the only conservative movement in the world that denies the reality of man-made global warming. Other right-wing parties may differ with their more liberal counterparts about how to respond to climate change, but they recognize there is a grave problem. When discussing this dire threat, it appears that no set of data or degree of scientific consensus will ever persuade most Republican leaders to forsake their belief that man-made climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the scientific community to advance a “liberal” political agenda; one that would undermine the fossil fuel industry and adversely affect macroeconomic growth and cost jobs for American workers.

However, the denial of man-made global warming represents the latest expression of an insidious evolution in the Republican Party that began a generation ago under Ronald Reagan. The heart of the Reagan revolution consisted of a supply-side mantra that tax cuts spur a level of productive activity that generates additional tax revenues greater than those lost by the tax cut. The idea that tax cuts would actually increase revenues and reduce budget deficits represented the infamous voodoo of Reagan’s economic plan decried by George H.W. Bush in 1980.

It is remarkable that Republicans still tout the magical properties of tax cuts as a cure for budget deficits and as a primary policy prescription to restore economic growth, even as considerable historical data clearly refute their proposition. A staunch belief in tax reduction prompted George W. Bush to maintain his signature tax cut even as military spending for two wars and an increase in entitlement spending exploded budget deficits. Accordingly, the Republican Party has not only veered to the right, it has maintained cherished beliefs despite strong empirical evidence challenging their veracity. In this sense, Republican Party ideology has shifted in a fundamentalist direction.

The fundamentalist tilt of the Republican Party has transformed our political culture. While it is commonplace to bemoan intransigent partisanship, increasing levels of intolerance emanates from the fact that Tea Party Republicans and their fellow travelers view themselves as political prophets; as the true guardians of the nation’s future against serious threats to its well being. Believing their ideology to be unassailable, these conservatives maintain that liberal and even moderate opponents espouse views that endanger America’s strength. In this context, political debate becomes a Manichean struggle between good and evil that renders compromise an unreasonable or unthinkable capitulation to those who would harm the nation.

Increasingly dominated by those who espouse views impervious to change and who consider themselves to be the true custodians of the national interest, the Republican Party has become adamantly opposed to the spirit of collaboration that remains an essential feature of any democracy. As a significant factor contributing to the poisonous partisan atmosphere inhibiting the two major parties from working together, the fundamentalist tilt of the Republican Party threatens the health of our democratic system of government.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.

Editor of Delano

The War on Terrorism We Should Be Fighting

America is under attack.  Despite spending $636 billion dollars on homeland security since 9/11, $1 trillion to battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and another $1.7 trillion to fight in Iraq, we are embroiled in a war that claims a life every 16 minutes in cities, towns and suburbs across the country.  This armed struggle does not involve regular or special operation forces.  There are no CIA officers cultivating human assets to secure intelligence about planned or impending actions.  And yet more lives have been claimed during the last four years of this conflict than the combined number of US casualties in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The victims of this war, like those in the recent Paris attacks, are ordinary people simply going about their daily lives.  The battlefront exists in places like fast food restaurants and shopping malls, elementary schools and college campuses, Planned Parenthood clinics and movie theatres.

Americans are killing one another at an alarming rate. Sadly, those who object to Syrian refugees entering the country in the wake of the Paris violence, even though Syrians were not involved in planning or executing those horrific attacks, and want to wage a perpetual war against ISIS, Al Qaeda and their affiliates around the world, stand idly by as the carnage in our communities continues unabated.

Despite a public relations campaign to discredit the data, a recent Harvard study reconfirmed an old statistic that 40% of firearms are purchased in the US without a thorough background check. And the gun lobby resists any legislation that would impose a mandatory background check for anyone purchasing a gun.  And what is simply astonishing and terrifying, a General Accounting Office report noted that between 2004-14, more than 2,000 people on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, about one in thirty-five, purchased firearms. While convicted felons are prevented from obtaining a gun, those on the FBI’s terrorist watch list can legally purchase them. Furthermore, the NRA has opposed legislation preventing such individuals from buying weapons.

If the gun violence in our country was perpetrated by Muslim extremists, we could imagine the unanimous bipartisan support to use overwhelming force to eradicate the problem.  But as the “enemy” involves American citizens wielding handguns and assault weapons, any attempt to introduce effective gun control legislation gets framed as a civil liberties issue, as a threat to our constitutional right to bear arms rather than as an effective measure in a de facto war on terror.  So a considerable majority in Congress blocks every effort to reduce the senseless slaughter of American lives on American soil.

After losing the lives of thousands of brave soldiers and spending trillions to address national security threats from abroad, we have become hostage to an extremist gun lobby that prevents feckless politicians from reducing the dire threat to Americans here at home. While we sanction a tenacious war against foreign terrorists, we remain stubbornly passive about waging one against acts of terror committed every day in our homeland. To our great national shame, it is a war that will continue to claim innocent Americans. It is a war on terrorism we should be fighting.


Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

The Response to Terrorism

As we mourn the dead in Paris and governments formulate strategies to respond to terrorist violence, taking measures to mount lethal counterattacks and to protect their civilian populations, let us remember to ask: what motivates young men and women to sacrifice their own lives by taking the life of so many others? What do these young killers think they are doing?  And what do their murderous deeds reveal about the psychological, social and spiritual dimensions of their lives?

Long after savage movements like ISIS are militarily defeated and their political appeal is eroded and blunted, we will still grapple with a much larger problem; namely,  ingrained alienation among so many young people trying to find meaning and purpose in their lives, anxious to establish themselves as important people to be reckoned with, furious about being ignored or shunted aside to the margins and gutters of the societies in which they live and seething with enormous pent-up frustration ready to explode.  In the early 20th century, they became anarchist agitators, later they swelled the ranks of socialist or communist parties, still later, they joined nationalist and anti-imperialist movements.  Now, many are attracted to jihadist messages offered by fanatical Islamic groups and leaders.   

Ultimately, this will not be a military problem, although our political leaders wanting to flex their muscles to reassure frightened populations will be seduced into presenting it that way.  Nor are we wrestling with a fundamental clash of civilizations, although right-wing nationalist groups will be promoting their own fear and hatred.  It is and will remain far more difficult than all that.  We are confronting a profound existential dilemma:  an enormous failure of our contemporary imagination to organize our economic, social and cultural lives to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to create and establish a meaningful life. 

While many experts understand how extremist groups radicalize recruits, our knowledge about the breeding ground for prospective terrorists remains far more vague and general.  Accordingly, the response to terrorist violence should involve a coordinated international effort involving our best social and behavioral scientists to enable us to precisely comprehend why so many young people are susceptible to jihadist appeals and to develop action plans for political and community leaders to integrate marginalized young people into society.  Understanding and addressing the roots of terrorism will remain a vexing problem for a long time, one that challenges the fabric of our democracy and threatens individual freedom and safety.  It is one of the defining issues of our time, one all civilized nations around the world must endeavor to address.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

Israel Agonistes

Hear these words by Martin Buber:

“You cannot find redemption until you see the flaws in your own soul, and try to efface them. Nor can a people be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them. But whether it be an individual or a people, whoever shuts out the realization of his flaws is shutting out redemption. We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.”

For those who love and cherish Israel as a Jewish homeland, there is cause for grave concern.  The recent acts of violence against a Palestinian family on the West Bank and participants at a gay pride event in Jerusalem, the chronic violence perpetrated by “price tag” terrorists,  the intolerance  of the ultra Orthodox community and the political right and the reticence of the American Jewish community to criticize Israel, compel us to understand the Israeli political landscape as clearly as possible.

Some commentators have used military metaphors to explain the recent violence, suggesting Israel is at war with or under attack by Jewish extremists. We prefer another one that underscores the presence of a serious illness,  a cancer that endangers Israel more than any extremist living in Gaza, Lebanon or Iran.  An initial warning bell sounded some 20 years ago with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, defining Israel’s Gandhi moment.  As a Hindu nationalist murdered India’s founder for allowing the creation of Pakistan, a Jewish terrorist murdered Rabin because it was feared he would pursue peace and endorse the emergence of a Palestinian state.

And the warning continues to sound with the many acts of terrorism perpetrated by the “price tag” movement during the last several years. While it is important to condemn their violence, we must also account for the political climate that breeds extremism. Israel responds swiftly when Palestinians commit atrocities, yet sputters when the terrorists are Jewish, thereby providing a tacit green light for the violence to continue. The ruling right-wing coalition remains trapped in a fundamental contradiction.   It deplores the violence like everyone else but adheres to the underlying belief that incites Jewish terrorism; namely, all West Bank settlements are legitimate and must be protected. This helps explain why extremists have not been vigorously prosecuted. Yet it begs a larger question: how does governmental approval of West Bank settlements, now housing over 350,000 Israelis, affect the viability of a two state solution?

However, the disease corroding Israel’s political culture does not merely stem from the behavior of a radical fringe or intolerance towards gays, women, Israeli Arabs and those on the political left. It derives from the complacency of Israeli citizens surrounded by a wall and shielded by an Iron Dome.  These defenses offer an illusion of safety that removes all sense of urgency to make peace with Palestinian partners and engenders acceptance of the status quo as a good enough solution; a status quo that guarantees future bloodshed and loss of life on both sides.

Currently, no one has the requisite national support to negotiate with the Palestinians. In fact, any statement in favor of the peace process evokes skepticism, even suspicion. The governing coalition assures everyone they are ready to negotiate, but no viable partner exists on the other side. While many Israelis appear to accept this view, the inconvenient reality is that Netanyahu does not want to pursue peace, he wants the other side to capitulate. It is why he vehemently opposes the Iran nuclear deal. He believes anything short of wholesale surrender by the other side threatens Israel. Sadly, Bibi’s view that Israel should get everything it wants, while the other side gets little or nothing in return, represents the dire existential threat he attributes to Israel’s adversaries. His intransigence expresses the view of someone wary of serious dialogue and dooms any realistic prospect for peace.

Bibi’s refusal to negotiate and the absence of serious challengers to his position, means that a new generation will come of age in Israel and Palestine knowing only an uneasy truce shattered by periodic conflict. Parents and grandparents will lose sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters because no one has the courage to secure a lasting peace. We will have the same debate a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now, even fifty years from now, having moved no closer to a durable solution. It will be a national and regional calamity for Israel and its Palestinian neighbors and an international nightmare that will be dreadful to witness.  And the inability to name what endangers Israel’s political culture, defining a tragic flaw in the collective soul of the Jewish people who waited two millennia to reestablish their homeland, will prevent us from experiencing redemption, a vibrant, democratic Jewish state that enjoys peaceful and secure borders recognized and accepted by everyone.


Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

The Greek Debt Crisis, Pt. II

The IMF’s recent statement about the need for Greek debt relief underscores the obvious. But it also highlights a political failure of the Tsipras government, which spent the last several months trying to soften the EU, ECB and IMF’s relentless demand for continued austerity. That was never going to happen. Accordingly, Greece missed a valuable opportunity because it is not the only European nation wrestling with a debt crisis. The governments of Italy, Spain, France and Portugal have all been ordered to get their financial house in order. While the Greeks tried to persuade the troika, it should have also negotiated with other nations to forge a united front against austerity. Instead, they tried to intimidate with intransigence and bravado, culminating in the call for a national referendum. Of course, they wildly miscalculated. Not only did the troika reiterate its implacable demand, it solidified support for its posture from the governments of France, Italy and Spain.

Keynes famously quipped: if I owe you one dollar, it is my problem. If I owe you a million dollars, it is your problem. There was safety for Greece in the political rather than financial numbers, in leveraging the power of a unified response to the troika. If the Greek government spearheaded an effort to establish a joint proposal limiting, say, the amount of austerity undertaken by any nation, demanding some form of debt relief and asserting the need for more stimulus to promote growth, would the troika have simply refused, risking economic instability and perhaps even the collapse of the Eurozone? In the absence of any coalition, Tsipras was widely perceived to be asking for a “special” deal, prompting other European governments, even those sympathetic to Greece, to believe he was trying to get away with something at their expense, e.g., maintaining Greek at the expense of Italian pensions.

What opportunity did the Greeks have to establish a coalition? Well, political developments in other European nations suggested they had a reasonable chance of success. France’s current Prime Minister, François Hollande, was elected opposing austerity and promising to articulate an alternative response to the economic crisis. Members of his Socialist party have strenuously objected to the troika’s policy. Spain’s anti-austerity party, Podemos, garnered 15 seats in a regional parliamentary election earlier this year and there were large protests in major Spanish cities. And Italy’s center-left Prime Minister has also called for a loosening of fiscal austerity. But Tsipras did not capitalize on widespread European disaffection, leaving his government to “hang separately”.

Tsipras and the troika played a fruitless game, the former tried to change the position of the latter and the latter simply wanted to wring more concessions from the former. Nevertheless, we are not suggesting that ongoing reforms, for instance, ensuring more effective tax collection, reducing political favoritism in labor markets and continued pension reform, in Greece and elsewhere, are unnecessary. But as reform efforts are made, we must be mindful that the best outcome for everyone, including creditors, involves renewed economic growth. If the logic of austerity is unchecked, the economies of Greece and other southern Europe nations will remain stagnant with stifling debt levels. And as demands for budget cutbacks and debt repayment continue to strangle prospects for growth and prosperity in these countries, condemning, for instance, a whole generation of young adults to chronic or perhaps even lifetime unemployment, the project of economic union will eventually unravel. In turn, the ranks of more extremist parties and movements on both sides of the spectrum will swell and elevate the risk of political and social instability.


Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

The Greek Debt Crisis, Pt. I

After five years of austerity, the Greek economy remains in crisis. Its national GDP has contracted by about 30%, as much as the American economy during the Great Depression, unemployment levels hover above 25% and pension cuts have totaled as much as 50%, leaving many retirees to live at near poverty levels. Nevertheless, members of the European Union, along with the ECB and the IMF, the so-called troika, remain critical of what it deems the profligate habits of the Greek government. Are they right to be dismissive?

In the last five years, Greece received $252 billion, more than its total GDP for 2013. It is a truly staggering sum. So why does the Greek government still require bailout assistance? Where did all that money go? Is the Greek government simply irresponsible? Remarkably, only about 11% of the funds received by Greece went to pay for the government’s operational needs, for example, its social services and pension contributions. A whopping 50% of the money went to pay creditors and to recapitalize banks because of a high percentage of bad loans.  Another 20% went to pay for interest on outstanding debt.  In other words, more than two thirds of the bailout money Greece received, about $175 billion by my rough calculation, went to creditors and banks, rather than to the Greek government or its citizens.  Most of the bailout money never remained in Greece because many of its creditors are foreign banks and hedge funds.  So much for profligate governmental spending. What we have here is a classic case of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul designed to make creditors whole.

The demand for continued austerity indicates that European officials have forgotten an invaluable lesson dispensed by John Maynard Keynes, the architect of the policies that rescued America from the Great Depression. Keynes argued that the way out of economic recession or depression involved putting more money in the pockets of more people. He reasoned that when the private sector could not create more jobs and raise income levels on its own, the public sector needed to temporarily perform this function. By insisting on balancing budgets during recessionary periods, preventing the public sector from doing what the private sector could not do, there would be less money in the hands of consumers. They would spend less, resulting in further business contraction, and pay fewer taxes, reducing government coffers, creating an ominous downward spiral.

The recent negotiation with the Greek government did not feature a constructive dialogue about sources of economic growth that would increase the population’s disposable income, allowing businesses to expand and government revenues to increase.  Rather, the debate centered on wringing more concessions in exchange for more bailout money.  We want to be clear: continued austerity will stifle future growth rather than promote it.  And if there is no opportunity to generate expansion in the medium and long term, the national economic pie will continue to stagnate or contract.

It should be noted that Greece’s debt totals $354 billion, a phenomenal 177% of its GDP, the second-highest national debt in the world. Interestingly, the IMF released a report after a deal was cut, indicating it would not participate in further negotiations as a member of the troika because it considered current levels of Greek debt to be unsustainable. We shall see if the IMF’s position inflames Greek sentiment against the current deal, that many consider to be tantamount to blackmail with its forced sale of public assets, and/or prompts the EU and ECB to include debt relief in its aid package to Greece.


Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

The Iranian Puzzle

The US and Iran have engaged in a truculent political standoff since the overthrow of the Shah and the onset of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979.  Most Western political leaders view Iran as a cross between Darth Vader and Al Qaeda, a nefarious world leader of state-sponsored terrorism threatening Western interests.  We might be tempted to understand the enmity between these countries as evidence of some anti-Western bias in Persian culture or perhaps a fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.  However, if we are to grasp the source of the conflict, we must acknowledge the inconvenient truth of history.

Many politicians and commentators ignore the fact that prior to 1979, the US and Iran enjoyed close relations for decades. The same holds true for Israel. The US and Israel aided and abetted the Shah’s reviled dictatorship by supplying and training his military and intelligence agencies and providing staunch political support.  And therein lies the problem.  After the revolution, the US and Israel became Iran’s bitter enemies.  Moreover, current Iranian sentiment towards the US reflects anger about the CIA’s overthrow of its nationalist government in 1953 and America’s support for Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran in the 1980’s.  This important history remains essential to understanding the Ayatollah’s profound distrust of the West.

Given Iran’s enormous animosity towards the US, we would expect these countries to oppose one another.  And they often do, most recently in Yemen, where Iran backs rebels while the US supports the Saudi aerial bombardment of rebel positions.  Yet in other situations, like the fight against ISIS, Iran and the US remain allied.  Compounding this curious paradox is the supreme irony that Iran greatly benefited from US military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, which toppled one Iranian enemy, Saddam Hussein, and weakened another, the Taliban.

How can we make sense of the shifting sands of Iran/US relations?  A crucial variable involves the global civil war between Islam’s two rival factions, the Shia and Sunni.  This sectarian conflict helps explain ongoing conflict in such disparate countries as Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  Iran is a powerful Shia nation.  Accordingly, Iran’s support of rebels in Yemen, militias in Iraq and its current fight against ISIS, express its underlying goal to become a regional powerbroker that bolsters the political and military strength of Shia movements and strives to end oppression of the Shia by Sunni dominated governments, like in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.  In addition, Iran seeks to undermine Israeli and Western influence, hence its support for Hamas, a Sunni group in Gaza.

Acknowledging the history between Iran and the US and recognizing the former’s clear political goals, there is nothing mysterious about Iranian objectives:  they remain at odds with Western interests.  So how does the US blunt Iran’s growing political and military influence?  First, we should recognize that Iran’s foreign policy has created problems for its government.  Since its revolution, Iran fashioned itself as a champion of the poor and disenfranchised.  But Iran’s firm support of the Assad regime in Syria because his Alawite movement is connected to the Shia, raised doubts about its mission on the Arab street.  In pursuit of its policy, Iran persuaded Hezbollah, a Shiite group in Lebanon, to support Assad while ties between Iran and Hamas were weakened when the latter sided with Syrian rebels. Iran’s Syria policy suggests that when its goal of supporting disenfranchised and Shia movements collide, Iran will choose to support the latter even if it jeopardizes relations with the former.  And this poses a clear risk to Iran’s aim to become a dominant regional power.

At the same time, we must recognize that the most effective strategy to blunt Iranian political and military influence in the Gulf involves identifying and supporting political movements, parties or leaders capable of establishing governments that integrate the interests of moderate Shia and Sunni factions, perhaps like the Abadi government in Iraq.  The US should also actively encourage and support moderate Shia and Sunni leaders to curtail sectarian violence.  An international conference of such leaders to discuss ways of reducing violence would be a welcome first step and underscore Western support for moderate voices in the Muslim world.  Finally, as Palestinian statehood remains a lightning rod issue, the US should exert greater pressure on Israel and PLO in the West Bank to end their conflict. A durable peace accord would remove a powerful lure extremist groups utilize to recruit new members in their fight against Israel and the West.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano