Two (and a half) critical reforms for America’s polity

American friends tell me they have liked what I had to say in my November 2006 article “American Democracy”,  which may be found elsewhere here.   I continue to think the polity of the United States needs long-term reform for the reasons stated in that article.

Surprisingly enough, the critical reforms would be rather simple and two-fold:

(A) Extending the tenure of the House of Representatives to, say, four years.

(B) Separating the Head of State from the Head of Government.

The former cannot be something very hard to accomplish, relatively speaking, though of course it would need amending the Constitution. Its positive result would be to calm political discussion and behaviour, making them less myopic and nerve-racking than at present.

The latter would be more complicated as there are alternatives possible.  A French model preserves the political power of the Head of State relative to the Head of Government.  Other models, e.g. of Germany or Britain or India, has the Head of State being a mere (but crucial) constitutional figurehead, while the real political business is carried out by the Head of Government.

My own recommendation would be to have an indirectly elected Head of State in the United States (elected, for example, by the House and the Senate as well as the State Legislatures) who maintains the dignity  of the nation and the decorum of the office and is above the fray, while the Head of Government is elected directly much like a President is now (except there need be no Veep running-mate).

Indeed the present nomenclature need not be too hard to modify once it is seen possible for a President as Head of State to be elected indirectly and be a constitutional figurehead, while the Vice-President (?)/Prime Minister (?) could be elected as the Head of Government much in the way a current President is.  The term in office of the Head of State and  that of the Head of Government probably should not coincide.

Politics is a tough and ugly business and it is dismaying  (and destructive) to see, under the present American system, every Head of State inevitably dragged through the mud as has happened since the end of the Eisenhower Administration (coinciding too with the rise of the television age).

Subroto Roy

 

America’s divided economists


America’s divided economists

by

Subroto Roy

First published in

Business Standard 26 October 2008

Future doctoral theses about the Great Tremor of 2008 will ask how it was that the Fed chief, who was an academic economist, came to back so wholeheartedly the proposals of the investment banker heading the US Treasury. If Herbert Hoover and FDR in the 1930s started something called fiscal policy for the first time, George W Bush’s lameduck year has marked the total subjugation of monetary policy.

In his 1945 classic, History of Banking Theory, the University of Chicago’s Lloyd Mints said: “No reorganisation of the Federal Reserve System, while preserving its independence from the Treasury, can offer a satisfactory agency for the implementation of monetary policy. The Reserve banks and their branches should be made agencies of the Treasury and all monetary powers delegated by Congress should be given to the Secretary of the Treasury…. It is not at all certain that Treasury control of the stock of money would always be reasonable… but Treasury influence cannot be excluded by the creation of a speciously independent monetary agency that cannot have adequate powers for the performance of its task…” Years later, Milton Friedman himself took a similar position suggesting legislation “to end the independence of the Fed by converting it into a bureau of the Treasury Department…”(see, for example, Essence of Friedman, p 416).

Ben Bernanke’s Fed has now ended any pretence of monetary policy’s independence from the whims and exigencies of executive power. Yet Dr Bernanke’s fellow academic economists have been unanimous in advising caution, patience and more information and reflection upon the facts. The famous letter of 122 economists to the US Congress was a rare statement of sense and practical wisdom. It agreed the situation was difficult and needed bold action. But it said the Paulson-Bernanke plan was an unfair “subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses. Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise.”

Besides, the plan was unclear and too far-reaching. “Neither the mission of the new agency nor its oversight are clear. If taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards…. If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America’s dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.”

The House’s initial bipartisan “backbench revolt” against “The Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008” (ESSA) followed this academic argument and rejected the Bernanke Fed’s advice. Is there an “emergency”, and if so what is its precise nature? Is this “economic stabilisation”, and if so, how is it going to work? The onus has been on Dr Bernanke and his staff to argue both, not merely to assert them. Even if the House “held its nose” and passed the measure for now, the American electorate is angry and it is anybody’s guess how a new President and Congress will alter all this in a few months.

Several academic economists have argued for specific price-stabilisation of the housing market being the keystone of any large, expensive and risky government intervention. (John McCain has also placed this in the political discussion now.) Roughly speaking, the housing supply-curve has shifted so far to the right that collapsed housing prices need to be dragged back upward by force. Columbia Business School economists Glenn Hubbard and Chris Mayer, both former Bush Administration officials, have proposed allowing “all residential mortgages on primary residences to be refinanced into 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 5.25 per cent…. close to where mortgage rates would be today with normally functioning mortgage markets….Lower interest rates will mean higher overall house prices…” Yale’s Jonathan Koppell and William Goetzmann have argued very similarly the Treasury “could offer to refinance all mortgages issued in the past five years with a fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage at 6 per cent. No credit scores, no questions asked; just pay off the principal of the existing mortgage with a government check. If monthly payments are still too high, homeowners could reduce their indebtedness in exchange for a share of the future price appreciation of the house. That is, the government would take an ownership interest in the house just as it would take an ownership interest in the financial institutions that would be bailed out under the Treasury’s plan.”

Beyond the short run, the US may play the demographic card by inviting in a few million new immigrants (if nativist feelings hostile to the outsider or newcomer can be controlled, especially in employment). Bad mortgages and foreclosures would vanish as people from around the world who long to live in America buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in the most desolate or dismal locations. If the US’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a new wave of immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.

Such proposals seek to address the problem at its source. They might have been expected from the Fed’s economists. Instead, ESSA speaks of massive government purchase and control of bad assets “downriver”, without any attempt to face the problem at its source. This makes it merely wishful to think such assets can be sold for a profit at a later date so taxpayers will eventually gain. It is as likely as not the bad assets remain bad assets.

Indeed the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan has argued there is a financial crisis involving the banking sector but not an economic one: “We’re not entering a second Great Depression.” The marginal product of capital remains high and increasing “far above the historical average. The third-quarter earnings reports from some companies already suggest that America’s non-financial companies are still making plenty of money…. So, if you are not employed by the financial industry (94 per cent of you are not), don’t worry. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent is not alarming, and we should reconsider whether it is worth it to spend $700 billion to bring it down to 5.9 per cent.”

Dr Bernanke has been a close student of A Monetary History of the United States in which Milton Friedman and Anna J Schwartz argued that the Fed inadvertently worsened the Great Contraction of 1929-1933 by not responding to Congress. Let not future historians find that the Fed, at the behest of the Treasury Secretary, worsened the Great Tremor of 2008 by bamboozling Congress into hasty action.

Would not a few million new immigrants solve America’s mortgage crisis?

Author’s note: March 21 2009:  I am glad to see there is new interest in America in this short note I published here back in October.   No American or other Western economist concerned with the financial crisis has apparently said the same thing.  One factor causing this may be that much of what has been made to pass of as “economic research” in American academic economics departments in the last several decades has effectively amounted to being waste-paper.

America was at its best when it was open to mass immigration, and America is at its worst when it treats immigrants with racism and worse (for seeming “uppity”).

All those bad mortgages and foreclosures could vanish within a year or two by playing the demographic card and inviting in a few million new immigrants into the United States.  They would pour in from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, South America,  South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Israel, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan,  India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and yes, Pakistan too, and more.  They would happily buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in all those desolate  dismal locations.  If the USA’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a  new wave of  immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.   But yes, nativist feelings of racism towards the outsider or the newcomer would have to be controlled  especially in employment — racists after all are often rather “sub-prime” themselves and hence unable to accept characters who may be “prime” or at least less “sub-prime” from foreign immigrant communities.   Restoring a worldwide idea of an American dream fuelled by mass immigration may be the surest way for the American economy to restore itself.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata, India

American Democracy

AMERICAN DEMOCRACY

Does America need a Prime Minister and a longer-lived Legislature?

by

Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman

Editorial Page Special Article Nov 5 2006

The politics of the United States in the last few decades has become so opaque, it is hard to see what goes on, beyond the banal superficialities. Competitive commercial television, an American institutional invention, is hardly the most suitable keeper of any nation’s historical and political heritage, nor a source of accurate collective political memory, and without political memory it is not possible to understand the present or anticipate the future. Yet most modern Americans are compelled by circumstances to comprehend the national or state-level politics of their enormous variegated land of 300 million people only through the very coarse filter provided by commercial television.

Television obviously demands passivity, dissipating a viewer’s ability to reason about or reflect on any information being offered. A newspaper report “Plane crash kills 120” in a front-page column, causes the information to be absorbed in context along with the rest of the day’s news. If the radio says “An aeroplane crashed today, and all 120 passengers aboard are feared dead”, the same event is felt through the invisible newsreader’s voice, the listener being left to imagine the awfulness of what happened. But for TV to report the same event requires pompous self-conscious studio-anchors, helicopters at the scene, interviews with weeping relatives, and instant analyses of the crash’s causes, all under a banner of “Breaking News”. The average viewer is left not so much sympathising with the victims as feeling enervated and anxious about air-travel and the world in general — besides being left ignorant of the rest of the day’s happenings.

In reaching mass-audiences with advertisements of commercial products, TV quickly obtained the general surrender of radio in American homes, though radio still controls what modern Americans hear in the time they spend in their automobiles (and they spend a larger fraction there than any other people). Newspapers signalled their abject surrender to TV by “dumbing down” their front-pages with large photographs as pathetic reminders of yesterday’s TV events, or headlines that sound racy, sensational, glamorous or with-it. Given the transient nature of all news and expense of printing it on newsprint, actually reading newspapers (as opposed to looking at advertising supplements) has become in the age of TV a minor middle class indulgence, although the editorial pages of a handful of “national” newspapers remains the last refuge of serious political discussion in the USA and elsewhere.

American politics filtered through commercial television has caused all issues and politicians, whether national, state and/or local, to tend to become like products and brands available to be bought and sold at the right price. Yet American television also produced a serious reaction to its own banalities by starting in the early 1980s news-reporting and analysis on “Public Television” and also on “C-Span”. “Public Television” (as opposed to commercial or cable networks) produced what came to be known as the “MacNeill-Lehrer NewsHour”, which set the benchmark for all political news and commentary in the USA and indeed across the globe to this day. C-Span took the unusual step of sending television cameras to silently record all political events, especially the seemingly least significant and most tedious of legislative committee meetings or political speeches, and then broadcasting these endlessly 24 hours a day along with very dry political analysis and comment. Both provided a little (“highbrow”) sobriety to the otherwise drunken political culture created by American commercial television. Along with a small number of newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, MacNeill-Lehrer and C-Span and the odd Sunday morning news-show on commercial TV, gave America’s politically conscious classes their access to information and analysis about their own country and what was being done in its name in the wider world. At least that was so until the 2003 attack on Iraq — during which acceptance of the US military procedure of “embedded reporters” ruined America’s traditions of a free press. Since 2003, growth of political coverage on the Internet especially via “blogging” has caused more candour to penetrate American politics and to explode the dissimulations of the “mainstream media”.

Besides politics via television, the other main factor affecting the attention-deficit disorder, short time-horizon and lack of perspective and depth afflicting modern American discourse, has been the rigid time-table of a Constitution written for a long gone era. Every even-numbered year is an election year in America, and that election is held in the first week of November. Hence on 7 November 2006 America will go to the polls, as it did in November 2004 and as it will again in November 2008. Each requires the entire lower legislative house to be newly elected.

Now two years may have been a long time in the late 18th Century when the US Constitution was written, and transport and communications between the Capitol and the new States was hazardous or time-consuming. But in modern times two years are over in the blink of an eyelid. Members of the American House of Representatives must then spend their time either talking about public money and how to spend it (as only they are authorized to do), or private money and how to earn it in order to stay elected and be able to talk about how to spend the public money. Inevitably, these two activities get confused with each other. The two year term of the American lower house may well be the shortest anywhere in the world, and may deserve to be doubled at least.

The upper house elects two senior politicians from each of the 50 States (regardless of its size or importance) for a 6 year term each, with one-third of the house returning to face the electorate at each of the biennial national elections. These 100 Senators at any given time have often constituted a fine deliberative body, and, along with the executive governors of the larger States, the pool from which America’s presidents and vice-presidents get to be chosen. Yet the Senate has also often enough palpably failed in its “advice and consent” role vis-à-vis the American President — whether in the matter of America never becoming a member of the League of Nations because of Senate isolationism despite Woodrow Wilson having invented it (something the British and French found so bewildering and frustrating), or the modern Senate caving in to the jingoism unleashed by the father-son Bush Presidencies only to then say “Oops, we’ve made a mistake”.

Another fundamental institutional problem at the root of modern American politics today is the lack of separation between the Head of State and Head of Government. This not merely causes people with the wrong ambitions and abilities to want to become President (because they lust in juvenile fashion to fire cruise missiles or fly onto aircraft carriers), it also causes the business of serious governance to frequently stop getting done because of endless paralysis between the President and Legislature. Churchill perspicaciously observed: “The rigid Constitution of the United States, the gigantic scale and strength of its party machinery, the fixed terms for which public officers and representatives are chosen, invest the President with a greater measure of autocratic power than… by the Head of any great State. The vast size of the country, the diverse types, interests and environments of its enormous population, the safety-valve function of the legislatures of fifty Sovereign States, make the focussing of national public opinion difficult, and confer upon the Federal Government exceptional independence of it except at fixed election times. Few modern Governments need to concern themselves so little with the opinion of the party they have beaten at the polls; none secures to its supreme executive officer, at once the Sovereign and the Party Leader, such direct personal authority.” There is an argument to be made for the American President to become more of a constitutional figurehead representing the thoughtful will of the Union and all the 50 States, while an American Prime Minister comes to be elected by the Legislature as a more subdued, sober and competent Head of Government. It would be a healthy development for America’s domestic and international politics, and hence better for the rest of the world as well.

War or Peace

WAR OR PEACE

By SUBROTO ROY

First published in The Statesman

Editorial Page Special Article, February 23-24, 2006

An American Attack On Iran Will End The Post-1945 System Of Nation-States

The relevance of the Iran-USA conflict to India’s energy, nuclear and strategic future is obvious, yet it appears ill understood by New Delhi’s bureaucrats and politicians, whether neo-communist or neo-fascist. It is understood even less by Islamabad’s army generals, all of whose official brainpower has been perpetually consumed by one subject alone: how to obtain J&K for Pakistan by hook or by crook from India. Yet Iran’s potential nuclear weapons arose entirely thanks to sales by Pakistan’s AQ Khan and the ISI — friends or allies of the USA, just like Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein once had been. We may surmise that a possible war will be quite catastrophic for the world, and India’s and Pakistan’s region of it in particular.

Israel’s piecemeal strategy
The Americans and Israelis may be assumed to have developed over years contingency plans to attack Iran by air and/or sea, though Israel is unlikely to take any offensive role in view of the circumstances of the end of Ariel Sharon’s political career. For one hundred years, the security and prosperity of the Zionist migration to Palestine, which came to be transmuted into the Israeli Republic in the middle of the 20th Century, has been defined as a matter of vital national interest first by Britain and then by America. Badly outnumbered by hostile Muslim countries, Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur war adopted a long-term piecemeal strategy of diplomacy with Egypt, Jordan and North Africa; co-existence with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf; battle with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians leading to co-existence; and indirect war, using the USA and UK as proxies, with Iraq and Iran leading in due course to co-existence.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolution in 1978-1979 caused Iran’s Islamic Republic to start to pose a major ideological threat to Israel. But during the decade of the Iran-Iraq war that started immediately after the Iranian Revolution, neither could pose any possible military threat to Israel. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was a result of the Iran-Iraq war, and since then Saddam has been neutralised by the Americans as a military threat to Israel. A new Iran, torn between a modern future for itself and a return to its revolutionary origins, is the last Muslim nation-state that could possibly threaten Israel. Pakistan would never dare to do so, nor wish to do so in view of its single-minded obsession for almost sixty years with trying to obtain J&K from India, or to dominate India any which way it can. The Pakistanis — having been Indians previously (even A Q Khan was born in Bhopal) — want to rule or dominate Delhi, or at least display their self-styled superiority to Hindus. They are uninterested from a psychological perspective in what happens to European and American Jews in the Middle East because they are mostly of Indian origin themselves.

Pakistanis’ explicit hatred (or implicit love) of India is at least in part a hatred (or love) of themselves. The US State Department and Pentagon have realised that as long as they tilt towards Pakistan on J&K now and then, the Pakistani Government will stay obsessed with its relationship with India alone, and also remain an American ally.

Possible nuclear strike
The questions to be asked now are when the Americans will make an attack on Iran, what manner it will take, and what Iranian and Muslim and world reaction will be. Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear facilities a quarter century ago taught the Iranians to go underground and disperse their facilities around the country. Conventional heavy B52, B2 or Stealth bombing or cruise-missile attacks using ships, submarines and carrier-based aircraft from American forward bases in Diego Garcia, the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Britain, Germany, Turkey or former Soviet Republics will kill at least 10,000 Iranians even if there are American warnings to evacuate human populations. Much physical havoc will be caused to Iran’s two dozen main nuclear installations, delaying or crippling Iran’s ambitions by years. But it is unlikely such attacks will succeed in wiping out Iran’s capacity. America’s warplans may thus include exploding small nuclear warheads on Iran’s suspected installations. If that happens, it would be the first use of atomic weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It is doubtful if the world as a whole will actually condemn American use of heavy bombing or even small nuclear weapons against Iran in anything but words. Permanent changes in the post-1945 system of international institutions will certainly result. Kofi Annan (or his successor) will resign, ending the UN staff’s effete pontificating. Indeed, all the inefficient, corrupt international bureaucracies in New York, Washington, Geneva and elsewhere may come to close down. The Japanese Left will weep and wring their hands while the Right will renew calls for Japan’s re-militarization.  North Korea’s Kim will issue warnings of how crazy he is. India’s PMO and MEA will express deepest concern, sorrow and tears; after the communists bluster about in Delhi and Kolkata, this will be enlarged to unequivocal condemnation. But India’s anti-Muslim brigades will remain silent and smiling and the VHP/Bajrang Dal will say it is revenge for Nadir Shah and assorted other Iranian plunderers in India’s past. JNU, AMU etc. historians and Bollywood and Tollywood showbiz personalities will hold seminars and processions and shake their fists at America. Pakistan’s Government will issue strong condemnations and call in the American Ambassador for a talking to, then explain to the Karachi street-mobs how important it is to continue the alliance with America so that J&K may be gained for Pakistan one day. The Hurriyat and other friends of Pakistan will agree with Pakistan and demonstrate in Srinagar against India and America. Russia will privately regret its impotence while Putin will refuse to turn up at a G-8 meeting in protest. The Chinese will shake their heads, warning Taiwan not to think itself as loved by America as Israel is. Muslim countries will rant and rave Death to America, and recruit thousands of new suicide bombers. France and Britain will look for new reconstruction or weapons contracts once the smoke clears. Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, Canada and New Zealand will hold candle-light peace vigils. South America’s leftists will decry Il Nord from high in the Andes or deep in the Amazon. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama and the Pope will condemn the inhumanity of it all. Australia will agree with America. That may be just about all, except the oil price will reach $200 a barrel momentarily, then settle at $150 for ever, causing large macroeconomic problems for several years in the world economy.

The new ideology
Iran itself will be plunged into greater political and economic disarray than it is in already. It is unlikely to be intimidated into accepting Western conditions straightaway. Nor will it experience any kind of “regime-change” with Non-Resident Iranian-Americans coming back from Los Angeles to try their hand at a little government and money-making at home. Iran would launch conventional war against the 140,000 American infantry in Iraq as well as missiles against Israel, but is unlikely to make much successful war against American or Israeli interests. But Iraq’s Shia majority would join with them, and make America’s departure more prompt from an anarchic, chaotic and disintegrating Iraq, hanging Saddam Hussein before they go. Essentially, Iran’s ability to pose any conceivable military threat to Israel will have been militarily neutralized, just as has happened to Iraq recently, and to Egypt, Jordan etc. by diplomacy and foreign aid ever since Jimmy Carter’s Sadat-Begin summit in 1978. Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah will remain but Israel can on its own battle them defensively anytime.

The cost of having eliminated all possible military threats to Israel permanently will have been rendering chaos and immense destruction upon the erstwhile Republics of Iran and Iraq. But that is not a cost that America’s public cares very much about, and so will not appear much on American TV screens or America’s public memory for very long. Iraq and Iran will have been neutralised and destroyed as legal entities and modern nation-states, being left instead as large oil-fields and chaotic/anarchic polities and societies under sway of American and Western military forces. The return in the 21st Century to the pre-1945 world of imperialism would entail an end of the system of worldwide nation-states that was attempted with the United Nations experiment (the progeny of US President Woodrow Wilson’s “League of Nations”), and the imposition of a new ideology of the West vs. the Rest.

A Mature Israel Is The Key To Averting An American Attack On Iran

It would be better for everyone in the world, including Israel and America, if an American attack against Iran could somehow be averted. Muslim cultures have much long-term patience — a virtue modern American culture most conspicuously lacks. There are Iraqi mothers who have promised their unborn sons for vengeance against America and Iranian mothers may well join them. America’s TV-driven culture can barely remember who said or did what last week, whereas ideological Muslims rehearse and revisit endlessly every day what supposedly happened in Muslim history over 1200 years ago. Indeed ideological Muslims and their orthodox Jewish and Christian fundamentalist adversaries have all tended to be obsessed with the purported ancient histories of the three faiths that arose in the deserts of Palestine and Arabia — though none of these religious histories or any other may be able to withstand very much rigorous academic or scientific scrutiny.

Martin Buber
What has been forgotten too has been the early joint history of Zionists and Palestinians together. Founders of Zionism, including Theodor Herzl himself, who began his campaign in Vienna about 1897 in response to European anti-Jewish behaviour, envisioned “brotherhood” and “cooperation” with the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, where new Jewish immigrants were to find refuge from the decades of tyranny against them in Europe long before Hitler arose. Martin Buber, the profound Hasidic philosopher and Zionist, corresponded with Rabindranath Tagore about the need to build a strong “federative” structure among all the peoples of the East — because the peoples of the West seemed to Buber to have become lost and aimless. (It is not impossible America’s entry into the First World War in 1917, which thwarted a possible German victory, was part of a complicated trade-off in which the Balfour Declaration by Britain promising creation of an Israel, living peacefully with the Arabs in Palestine, was another part.) It was only later revisionist Zionists, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, who proposed a complete separation of Jew from Arab in that small land — which is where we seem to have been headed now decades later. Israel and Pakistan were the only two countries created in the 20th Century, and about the same time, supposedly as “homelands” for people based on religious definitions alone. The Zionist Movement was ongoing by the early 1930s, and young Rahmat Ali, the lonely ideological inventor of the term “PAKSTAN” on the top floor of a London bus in 1934, might well have been influenced by what he heard of it.

The one way war may be preventable today is if Israel’s political centre and right-wing (i.e. the Kadima and Likud parties) came to obtain and declare a clear and justifiable view that (a) an American attack on Iran would be counter- productive; and/or (b) that an Iran, even a nuclear armed Iran, shall not be a tangible threat to Israel. If an American attack on Iran is ultimately premised on the defence of Israel, and if the Israelis themselves come to justifiably believe such an attack overall could be a very bad thing and told the Americans so publicly or privately, there would no longer be reason for the Americans to be preparing to make such an attack, and instead could keep their almost 600 warships and submarines in harbour or on normal patrol around the world.

Israeli security assessment

There may be enough reason on both these points for Israel’s toughest hawks to agree that superior alternatives to war need to be and can be found. On the first, Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, has recently said that Israel may yet come to regret the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. His confidential speech to students preparing for military service came to be secretly recorded and was then broadcast on Israeli TV. “When you dismantle a system in which there is a despot who controls his people by force, you have chaos… I’m not sure we won’t miss Saddam”, saying a strong dictatorship may have been better than the present “chaos” in Iraq. Israeli security assessments are likely to be far more astute than what gets to be produced in America’s East Coast think tanks. The near-chaos the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq in 2003 has caused will be multiplied several fold if there was now a major attack on Iran, let aside use of atomic bombs against it. Such an attack may be in fact wholly counterproductive.

Secondly, Israel needs to abandon her feigned immaturity and coyness with respect to her erstwhile Anglo-American guardians, and instead demonstrate to the world and her neighbours in particular that she is a mature and responsible adult in international politics. Avner Cohen and Thomas Graham Jr. have said in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists May/June 2004 that Israel had promised the USA “it [would] not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East…A taboo was created… By September 1969, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon had reached a new secret understanding of the issue. Meir pledged that Israel would not declare its nuclear status, would not test its weapons, and would not use its nuclear capability for diplomatic gains. Rather, the Israeli bomb would be kept in the basement, for use only as a last resort. Israel would not join the NPT, but it would not defy it either. What had begun as a taboo turned into a symbiotic policy. The United States stopped pressuring Israel and accepted a de facto policy of `don’t ask, don’t tell’. …Today … Israel’s policy of nuclear secrecy stands in profound tension with the basic values upon which the country’s democracy rests: the principles of accountability, oversight, and the public’s right to know. In the absence of public debate (and public debate requires some factual information) the taboo only reinforces and perpetuates itself….By becoming more transparent and by associating itself in some way with the nonproliferation regime — from which it indirectly benefits — Israel could gain an important element of legitimacy for its program and for its security posture…. The basic technology needed to create nuclear weapons is increasingly available. Capabilities once possessed only by a few governments can now be purchased in stores and marketplaces around the world. If nuclear weapon states are ever to achieve deep cuts in their nuclear stockpiles — an important part of the basic bargain of the NPT and essential to the long-term viability of the treaty — some account has to be taken of Israel, India, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. They must be integrated into the non- proliferation regime”.

The road to peace
Israel declaring itself a nuclear weapons power of long-standing with an independent deterrent the size of France or Britain (with perhaps 500 nuclear warheads, more than China, India and Pakistan combined), would be more than enough by way of military warning to its potential adversaries. Indeed even if Iran (having bought from Pakistan’s programme which itself had bought from North Korea and China) was allowed over the next dozen years to crawl towards half a dozen nuclear warheads of its own, recognition and normal diplomatic relations between Israel and Iran, and Israel and Pakistan, could be followed by a new protocol between Israel, India, Pakistan and Iran. Israel, India and Pakistan are not signatories to the existing NPT and Iran has now declared its intent, as a sovereign signatory, to exit the NPT as well. To get Iran and Israel to recognise one another and establish diplomatic relations would be of course a masterly feat of international diplomacy. But it is not impossible if adequate knowledge and determination can be mustered in good time before it becomes too late. Finally of course, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower had warned in his Farewell Address to the American people in 1961, an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” must also rein in America’s “military industrial complex”.

see also https://independentindian.com/2006/04/06/irans-nationalism/

Separation of Powers: India, the USA, Pakistan

SEPARATION OF POWERS

Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws outlined a doctrine that applies to India, the USA and all constitutional democracies: there is no monopoly of political wisdom.

By SUBROTO ROY
First published in The Sunday Statesman, The Statesman Editorial Page, Special Article Feb 12-13 2006

The Speaker’s noble office is that of the single member of the House, traditionally chosen by unanimity, whose task it is to self-effacingly maintain order in Parliamentary debate and proceedings, so that the House’s work gets done. C’est tout. Once chosen Speaker, he ipso facto retires from partisan politics for life. The Speaker neither contributes to the substance of Parliamentary debate (except in the rare case of a tie) nor has to feel personally responsible for Parliament’s conduct.

Our Parliament has tended to become so dysfunctional since Indira Gandhi and her sycophants destroyed its traditions 30 years ago, that supervising its normal work is an onerous enough task for even the finest of Speakers to handle.

The Lok Sabha’s incumbent Speaker has tended to see himself as the champion of Parliament.  He need not.  He does not command a majority in the Lok Sabha; the Government Party does. We have had the oddest peculiarity unfolding in India at present where the person who does command the Lok Sabha’s majority, and therefore who would be normally defined as Prime Minister of India, has chosen to nominate someone who is not a member of the Lok Sabha to act as Prime Minister, i.e. to command the Lok Sabha’s majority. (The Rajya Sabha was and remains irrelevant to most things important to Indian democracy, regardless of its narcissism and vanity). Someone with access to 10 Janpath should have told Sonia Gandhi in May 2004 that if she did not wish to be PM and wanted to gift the job to someone else, she should do so to someone who, like herself, had been elected to the Lok Sabha, like Pranab Mukherjee (elected for the first time) or Kamal Nath or Priya Ranjan (both veterans).

Manmohan Singh, a former Lok Sabha candidate, may as Finance Minister have been able to progress much further with economic reforms. But sycophancy has ruled the roost in the Congress’s higher echelons, and nobody had the guts to tell her that. Indeed as early as December 2001, Congress leaders knew that in the unlikely event they won the polls, Manmohan Singh would likely be PM by Sonia Gandhi’s choice (though he was not expected to last long at the top), and yet he did not contest the Lok Sabha polls in 2004.

The Government of the day, not the Speaker, is Parliament’s champion in any discussion with the Supreme Court over constitutional rights and Separation of Powers. And the Government has in fact quietly and sensibly requested the Supreme Court to set up a Constitutional Bench for this purpose. Such a Constitutional Bench shall have cause to ask itself how far Kesavananda Bharati needs to be tweaked if at all to accommodate the contention that Parliament has a right to judge its own members. The Court may well likely say that of course Parliament has a right to judge its own members but even that right is not an absolute right, (nothing is). Even Parliament’s right to judge its own members must be in accordance with natural law, with principles of justice, with due and clearly defined processes. E.g. the established Privileges Committee and not the ad hoc Bansal Committee had to do the needful.

Imagine a hypothetical case of fantastic fiction where half a dozen independent MPs are elected to a future Lok Sabha, and then take it upon themselves to expose corruption and shenanigans of all major political parties. Our fantastic super-heroes become whistleblowers within Parliament itself while remaining totally incorruptible as individuals — like Eliot Ness’s team who jailed Al Capone and other gangsters, and came to be depicted in Hollywood’s The Untouchables. These Untouchables would come to be feared and despised by everyone from Communists on one side of the political spectrum to Fascists on the other. They would upset everybody precisely because they were so clean and were not purchasable. The Government and Opposition of the day might wellgang up to expel such troublemakers and even fabricate charges to do so. (Now there’s a script for a Bollywood movie!)

What our Supreme Court’s Constitutional Bench decides now in the matter at hand will determine the fate of our super-heroes in such a future fantasia. The present case is a polar opposite — where MPs have been caught on camera with their sordid fingers in the cookie-jar, and then made to walk the plank immediately by their peers. Yet natural law applies here as it will to our fantastic future fighters, and this is what the Bench would have to speak on.

Why the present situation continues to be disconcerting is because the whole country heard all the holier-than-thou protestations, yet everyone continues to take a very dim view of what they see of politicians’ behaviour. There remain strong suspicions that only a few very tiny tips of very large icebergs were or can be caught on camera. Large-scale deals and contracts involve payments into invisible bank accounts, not petty cash into pockets or even suitcases filled with cash sloshing around Delhi.

What we have desperately needed in the situation is modern prime ministerial leadership which could intelligently and boldly guide national debate in the right direction on the whole matter of probity in public life. Why a distinguished parliamentarian like the Speaker has found himself in the limelight is because neither the de jure nor de facto Prime Ministers of India are anywhere to be seen thinking on their feet on these central issues of constitutional procedure and practice. They tend to use prepared scripts and may be temperamentally disinclined to do what has been called for by these unscripted circumstances. (Indeed the much-maligned H. D. Deve Gowda could be alone among the bevy of recent PMs who has been able to think on his feet at all.)

Collapse Before Executive Power

In the meantime, the United States is going through its own Separation of Powers’ crisis. As explained in these columns previously, the American system is distinctly different from the British, and our own system is midway between them. Yet similar principles may be discerned to apply or fail to be applied in all.

Winston Churchill once perspicaciously observed:

“The rigid Constitution of the United States, the gigantic scale and strength of its party machinery, the fixed terms for which public officers and representatives are chosen, invest the President with a greater measure of autocratic power than was possessed before (the First World War) by the Head of any great State. The vast size of the country, the diverse types, interests and environments of its enormous population, the safety-valve function of the legislatures of fifty Sovereign States, make the focussing of national public opinion difficult, and confer upon the Federal Government exceptional independence of it except at fixed election times. Few modern Governments need to concern themselves so little with the opinion of the party they have beaten at the polls; none secures to its supreme executive officer, at once the Sovereign and the Party Leader, such direct personal authority.”

America’s Legislative Branch has, on paper, strong powers of advice and consent to control errors, excesses or abuse of power by the Executive President. But (with rare and courageous exceptions like Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia) the Legislature cravenly collapsed before the father-son Bush presidencies in regard to the Middle East wars of recent years. America’s once-revered federal judiciary has also tended to lose its independence of mind with overt politicisation of judicial appointments in recent decades.

Bush the First went to war against Saddam Hussein (a former American ally against Islamic Iran) at least partly with an eye to winning re-election in 1992 (which he would have done as a result but for a random shock known as Ross Perot; Bill Clinton became the beneficiary). Bush the Second obsessively wished to follow up on the same, to the point of misjudging the real threat to America from Bin Laden and fabricating a false threat from an emasculated Saddam.

America’s Legislature palpably failed to control her Presidents. Now, late in the day, after all the horses have bolted, the Senate Judiciary Committee began tepid hearings on February 5 2006 into whether the President authorized laws to be broken with impunity in regard to wire-tapping some 5,000 citizens (doubtless mostly non-white and Muslim) without judicial warrants. Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the Committee’s Chairman, has said he believes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has been “flatly” violated, and “strained and unrealistic” justifications are now being offered. Bush’s men, from his Vice President and Attorney General to political intelligence operatives, have brazenly placed in the dustbin the traditional principle fiat justitia pereat mundus — let justice be done even if the world perishes — saying that the Sovereign can do just as he pleases to save the realm from external enemies as he might perceive and define them to be.

What this kind of collapse in current American practice reveals is a new aspect unknown at the time of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. In the modern world, Separation of Powers involves not merely constitutional institutions like Executive, Legislature and Judiciary but also the normal civil institutions of a free and open society, especially academic institutions and the press. In America, it has been not merely the Legislature and Judiciary which have tended to collapse before Executive Power in regard to the recent Middle East wars, but the media and academia as well.

“Embedded reporters” and Fox TV set the tone for America’s official thought processes about Iraq and the Muslim world — until it has become too late for America’s mainstream media or academics to recover their own credibility on the subject. On the other hand, unofficial public opinion has, in America’s best traditions, demonstrated using vast numbers of Internet websites and weblogs, a spirited Yankee Doodle individuality against the jingoism and war-mongering of the official polity.

Neither the press nor academia had collapsed the same way during America’s last major foreign wars in Vietnam and Cambodia forty years ago, and it may be fairly said that America’s self-knowledge was rather better then than it is now, except of course there were no Internet websites and weblogs.

Our Pakistani Cousins
Across the border from us, our Pakistani cousins are, from a political and constitutional point of view, cut from the same cloth as ourselves, namely the 1935 Government of India Act, and the Montague-Chelmsford and Morley-Minto reforms earlier. However, ever since Jinnah’s death, they have refused to admit this and instead embarked haplessly on what can only be called an injudicious path of trying to write a Constitution for a new Caliphate. The primary demand of the main scholars influencing this process was “That the sovereignty in Pakistan belongs to God Almighty alone and that the Government of Pakistan shall administer the country as His agent”. By such a view, in the words of Rashid Rida and Maulana Maududi, Islam becomes “the very antithesis of secular Western democracy. The philosophical foundation of Western democracy is the sovereignty of the people. Lawmaking is their prerogative and legislation must correspond to the mood and temper of their opinion… Islam… altogether repudiates the philosophy of popular sovereignty and rears its polity on the foundations of the sovereignty of God and the viceregency (Khilafat) of man.” (Rosenthal, Islam & the Modern National State, Cambridge 1965.) Pakistan’s few modern constitutionalists have been ever since battling impossibly to overcome the ontological error made here of assuming that any mundane government can be in communication with God Almighty. In the meantime, all normal branches of Pakistan’s polity, like the electorate, press, political parties, Legislature and Judiciary, have remained at best in ill-formed inchoate states of being — while the Pakistan Armed Forces stepped in with their own large economic and political interests and agendas to effectively take over the country and the society as a whole, on pretext of protecting Pakistan from India or of gaining J&K for it. Pakistan’s political problems have the ontological error at their root. Pakistan’s political parties, academics and press, have with rare exceptions remained timid in face of the militaristic State — directing their anger and frustration at an easier target instead, namely ourselves in India. The Pakistan Government’s way of silencing its few political, academic or press dissidents has been to send them into comfortable exile abroad.

Sheikh Abdullah Contrasted
Pakistan’s perpetual constitutional confusion deserves to be contrasted with the clarity of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s thinking, e.g. his 5 November 1951 speech to the Constituent Assembly of J&K: “You are the sovereign authority in this State of Jammu & Kashmir; what you decide has the irrevocable force of law. The basic democratic principle of sovereignty of the nation, embodied ably in the American and French Constitutions, is once again given shape in our midst. I shall quote the famous words of Article 3 of the French Constitution of 1791:- ‘The source of all sovereignty resides fundamentally in the nation. Sovereignty is one and indivisible, inalienable and imprescriptable. It belongs to the nation.’ We should be clear about the responsibilities that this power invests us with. In front of us lie decisions of the highest national importance which we shall be called upon to take. Upon the correctness of our decisions depends not only the happiness of our land and people now, but the fate as well of generations to come.”

Contrasting the Pakistani views of constitution-making with those of Sheikh Abdullah may help to explain a great deal about where we are today on the delicate and profound subject of J&K. (See “Solving Kashmir”, The Statesman, December 1—3, 2005)

India’s current debate about Separation of Powers needs to keep at a distance the clear negative examples of our American friends, who have brought upon themselves in recent times a craven collapse of Legislature, Judiciary, press and academia to the Executive President (as Churchill had seemed to predict), as well as of our Pakistani cousins who have continued with general political and civil collapse for half a century. Because our universities are all owned by the State, India’s academics, from Communist to Fascist, have tended to be servile towards it. In respect of the press, the power of independent newspapers has been dwindling, while the new TV anchors have created their own models of obsequiousness and chummery towards New Delhi’s ruling cliques of the day. It thus becomes India’s Supreme Court which remains the ultimate guardian of our Constitution and the safest haven of our very fragile freedoms — besides of course our own minds and hearts.

Unaccountable Delhi: India’s Separation of Powers’ Doctrine

UNACCOUNTABLE DELHI

India’s Separation Of Powers’ Doctrine

First published in The Statesman Jan 13 2006 Editorial Page Special Article,

By Subroto Roy

The Speaker does not like the fact the High Court has issued notices questioning the procedure he followed in expelling MPs from Parliament. Sonia Gandhi’s self-styled “National Advisory Council” has demanded control over disbursement of 100,000,000,000 rupees of public money. The Manmohan Singh Government plans to quietly ignore the Supreme Court’s finding that it had breached India’s Constitution in imposing President’s Rule in Bihar.  All three issues have to do with application of India’s Separation of Powers Doctrine, i.e. the appropriate delimitation of Constitutional powers between our Legislature, Executive and Judiciary.

A constitutional crime was attempted in India during the Indira-Sanjay Gandhi political “Emergency” declared on 26 June 1975. On 10 November 1975 (a time of press censorship) a 13-judge Bench of the Supreme Court met to hear the Government plead for overrule of Kesavananda Bharati (A.I.R. 1973 S.C. 1461), a landmark Nani Palkhivala once called “the greatest contribution of the Republic of India to constitutional jurisprudence”. Within two days, the Government had failed in the Court, and Kesavananda held. What was upheld? That while India’s Parliament was sovereign and could amend the Constitution, the amending power may not be used to alter or destroy “the basic structure or framework of the Constitution”. And the Supreme Court decides for itself whether Parliament has exceeded its legitimate power to amend.

Basic structure
Palkhivala’s description of what constitutes the “basic structure or framework” of India’s Constitution is excellent enough: “the rule of law, the right to personal liberty and freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, the right to dissent which implies the freedom of speech and expression and a free press are… a part of the basic structure of a free democracy, and it is these priceless human freedoms which cannot be destroyed by Parliament in exercise of its amending power. Thus Kesavananda’s case ensures that tyranny and despotism shall not masquerade as constitutionalism.”

Palkhivala argued that, if anything, the aspects of Kesavananda that needed to be set aside were those that had over-ruled Golaknath (A.I.R. 1967 S.C. 1643) which said Parliament should not be held to have the power to abridge any fundamental right, indeed any amended article which abrogates any fundamental right is invalid.

Dicey said “In the principle of the distribution of powers which determines its form, the constitution of the United States is the exact opposite of the English constitution.” Kesavananda Bharati showed the midway point between the two in constitutional jurisprudence anywhere in the world. We are like the Americans and unlike the British first in being a Republic, and secondly in having an explicit written Constitution. We are like the British and unlike the Americans in being a parliamentary democracy where the Executive Branch of Government, namely the Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet is elected from within the Legislative Branch of Government, namely, Parliament, and must at all times retain the confidence of the latter, specifically the Lok Sabha, the House of the People.

The American Executive Branch has a directly-elected President who chooses his administration, and it is commonplace for him to not have the confidence of the Upper or Lower House of the Legislature, to the point that one recent president had to undergo impeachment proceedings and barely survived. There is no constitutional crisis in America if the Legislature loathes the President and wishes him out. The American President and his Executive Branch stay in office until the last minute of his fixed term.

PM answers to Parliament
In our system, the Prime Minister answers at all times to Parliament. Parliament in India’s democracy has normally meant the House of the People — where every member has contested and won a direct vote in his/her constituency. India’s current Lok Sabha has set a constitutional precedent not seen in more than a hundred years anywhere in electing an Executive led by someone not a member. The British Upper House used to have an aristocratic hereditary component which Mr Blair’s New Labour Government has removed, making it more like what the Rajya Sabha was supposed to be — except that by now our Rajya Sabha has tended to become a place for party worthies who have lost normal elections, superannuated cinematic personalities, perpetual bureaucrats still seeking office, and others who really should be at home helping to raise the grandchildren.  Parliament may not have fully recovered its health ever since that constitutional crime committed against the Republic known as the Indira-Sanjay “Emergency” (and at least one member of Sanjay’s coterie wields much power today).

Crimes and misdemeanours
The Supreme Court’s finding that the Government breached the Constitution by imposing President’s Rule in Bihar is a finding not of a constitutional crime but of a constitutional misdemeanour. (For reasons given already in these columns on 20 October 2005, it has nothing to do with the President, who merely embodies the sovereignty of our Republic.)  For an Executive Order or Legislative Act to be found by a competent Court as being unconstitutional means merely that it does not have to be obeyed by citizens. In the Bihar case, the Supreme Court found this consequence irrelevant because new elections were already in process, the result of which would come from the most authentic democratic voice possible, namely, the same people who elect the House of the People in the first place. India’s Executive has been found to have committed a constitutional misdemeanour, for which it needed to apologise to the Court and Parliament (who are its constitutional co-equals) and then ask the latter to renew its confidence — in which event, life goes on. If confidence was not renewed, the Government would fall and a new Government would have to be formed. But we do not have yet the idea of a backbench revolt —mainly because all the front benches themselves have tended to be in such confusion and disarray with regard to parliamentary traditions, processes and functions.

The Supreme Court as the ultimate protector of the Constitution would be well within its prerogative to oversee whether a Parliamentary Speaker has acted appropriately. Consider a hypothetical case. Once elected, a Speaker is supposed to have no party-affiliation ever more for the rest of his/her life. Suppose, hypothetically, a controlled experiment found a Speaker systematically biased in favour of his/her own former party-members and against their opponents. Where but the Courts could such arbitrariness be effectively remonstrated against? Even if the incumbent Speaker impossibly imagines himself the personal embodiment of the Legislative Branch, he is not beyond the Constitution and therefore not beyond India’s Separation of Powers’ Doctrine.

The Opposition had alleged that the Speaker failed to follow procedure which required the culprits in the expulsion case be referred to the Privileges Committee. But beyond that the Opposition was too confused and guilt-ridden to pursue the matter during the dying moments of Parliament’s Winter Session. In the clear light of day, the issue has now ended up in the Courts. If the Supreme Court eventually rules the Speaker had in fact failed to follow Parliament’s own procedures (and hence breached Constitutional practices), the Speaker would need to apologise to the Courts and the House that elected him, and perhaps offer to fall on his sword.

Finally, for the “National Advisory Council”, a wholly unelected body, to demand a say for itself over spending Rs. 100 billion in State and Union Government budget-making, would be another constitutional misdemeanour — unless its members are merely on the personal staff of the Hon’ble Member representing Rae Bareili, who may of course introduce whatever legislation on money-bills that any other Lok Sabha Member may do.