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Newsletter 1-15-2021

Colin Powers
Colin Powers

Hi everyone. Thanks for subscribing. If you have the means, please consider becoming a paying member. If you have the inclination, please pass this newsletter around to others who might enjoy the read. Now, onto this week's special edition of No Craic, Mad Craic, and Great Craic.

No Craic

(1) Scandal has again engulfed Boris Johnson's buffoonish government in the UK. On this occasion, it derives from revelations related to an emergency free schools meals program established this autumn.

That the program was instated at all can in no small way be attributed to the activism of Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford, who has tirelessly advocated for the need to support impoverished British children through his End Child Food Poverty Alliance. By dint of Rashford's and others' efforts, Johnson's coalition of social Darwinists and real estate developers agreed to offer eligible families one of two emergency supports: a £30 voucher or a bag of goods meant to be of equivalent value.

Lacking the bureaucratic will or capacity to internally manage the distribution of food aid through the Department of Education, the Tories farmed out the gig to Chartwells, a private firm and subsidiary of the Compass Group which, at the time of writing, operates the world's largest catering business. Thereby knighted a petty sovereign of a decadent British state, Chartwells proceeded to dole out food packages worth as little as 5-odd quid while pocketing the other £25 for their trouble.

Outsourcing practices such as these have become one of the primary mechanisms through which private interests raid the public coffers, goose their profits, and drive income/wealth polarization under the neoliberal state. The grift of it all has become more apparent than ever in the context of the pandemic and our eternal emergency. In the United States, for instance, at a time when tens of millions of children are going hungry, advertising firms have won contracts for "defeating despair" worth seven to eight figures.

If not for the rest of us, times are good indeed for con artists and cronies who know their way around the golden goose of the state.  

(2) One of the main reasons that direct cash assistance is the best means of helping vulnerable families weather our current crisis is that tax credits, which are tasked with doing the lion's share of social protection in our wee dystopia, do not benefit those in the most desperate need. (The same can also be said of unemployment insurance).

As the research of the People's Policy Project clearly demonstrates, bottom earners in this country derive negligible help from earned income tax credits, child tax credits, and additional child tax credits. The child tax credit is, in fact, deeply deeply regressive, as it passes of our hard-earned dollars to a bunch of welfare kings and queens at the very top of our society.

The discriminatory, upward-oriented nature of these policies is hardly an outlier within an otherwise healthy welfare system. Even if one ignores the endless subsidies and tax exemptions afforded corporate actors in the United States, the dirty truth about our broader social assistance system is that it functions to more generally subsidize the middle and upper classes--principally through a constellation of submerged benefits hidden in the tax code--while leaving the poor little beyond food stamps and shit workfarist job training programs.

These truths are often overlooked, cynically misrepresented, or purposefully neglected, as can be corroborated by the many now pushing the incoming Biden administration to renege upon the electoral promise ($2000 emergency cash transfers in the next next stimulus package) through which the Democrats won the Senate. Indeed, that a Tom Friedman can take no issue with he and his heiress wife walking away with tens of thousands of tax payer dollars each year through property tax write-offs before turning around and denouncing direct cash aid on the grounds that the latter is not sufficiently targeted rather perfectly epitomizes both the perversions of American welfare and its beneficiaries' wanton barbarism.

Regardless of the pearl clutching and non-empirical lines of argumentation that charlatans like Friedman deploy in attacking $2k checks, their delivery is an ethical, political, and social necessity.

(3) Literacy rates in Egypt are tracking downward under the benevolent rule of Pharaoh Sisi, and by a non-insignificant margin. Per Mohammad Fadel, the period between 2013 and 2017 saw adult literacy decline by 4%, and nearly 6% in the case of adult males.

Perhaps more worrisome in terms of education fails is the UAE's infiltration of Egyptian curriculum development. As Zvi Bar'el at Haaretz reports, parents across Egypt have been complaining that textbooks edited by their government's patrons in Abu Dhabi (covering subjects as diverse as geography, history, and religion) are riddled with factual errors, naked propaganda, and theological rubbish.

The thought of handing an Emirati regime animated by a mix of Wahhabism, sectarianism, crass consumerism, authoritarianism, and paranoia control over the collective episteme of future generations is truly horrifying. This is the same Egypt that sold an island off its coast to Saudi Arabia, though, so my horrors are hardly those of surprise.

(4) Speaking of the corrosive effects that the Khalijiun exert outside their borders, the Biden administration looks likely to appoint former American Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Barbara Leaf to the National Security Council!

Leaf checks all the boxes you want to see from someone soon to have enormous responsibility over Middle East foreign policy. She maintains close personal relations with the dreadful sheikhs of the Gulf; she has recently been employed by an AIPAC-adjacent Think Tank founded by neoconservatives (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy); and she publicly supported the Trump administration's attempts to sell $23 billion worth of drones and missiles to one of the world's most prolific purveyors of war crimes (the UAE).

Honor is being restored in Washington, folks. Soon as the Oedipan catharsis of Trump's impeachment washes over us all, the world ought be safe for democracy and justice once again.

Mad Craic

(5) The United States' federal government has spent over $100,000 in order to secure bathroom access for the Secret Service agents tasked with protecting Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. As reporting from The Washington Post details, these two populist darlings refused to allow their security team use one of the 6.5 bathrooms in their home. As a result, the Secret Service wound up paying a neighbor $3000 per month so that they could use the loo in their basement unit.

(6) Oh boy, we have a new announcement out of Muhammad bin Salman's much awaited Neom project. (You may recall from weeks passed that Neom is a plot to build a city in the middle of the Saudi desert, a city where the sand will literally glow in the dark and where a second moon will be perpetually propelled up into the night sky. Mussolini fascist futurism eat your hearts out).

Just this week, MBS and the best and brightest from Yale Business School provided a press release for what they call The Line. From what I can gather from their mishmash of fantasy and marketing speak, The Line is Neom but also extends beyond Neom. It is a line in that it describes a relatively straight transportation corridor extending 170 kilometers and powered by high-speed rail (automobiles, one of the only sources of joy for most Saudis, will not be allowed inside the domains of The Line). More than just a train, though, The Line will also be a "linear urban development of multiple, hyper-connected communities, with walkable neighborhoods integrated with public parks and the natural landscape." In other words, it will be a rolling metropolis in and of itself, within which Neom will constitute but a single hub.

If this is all very confusing, I will remind you that the plans were almost certainly drawn up by management consultants high on captagon or other local amphetamines. These guys are deft at convincing stupid people they are serious wonks, a trick they generally pull through spitting, Eminem-staccato style, as many watchwords from the public policy zeitgeist as they can in as few breaths as possible.

People throw around Orwell's name a lot these days, but if there is something more Orwellian than the House of Saud presented itself as the engine of sustainable, ecologically-friendly development well, I haven't seen it.

(7) Culminating a process long in motion, The Financial Times has issued an official mea culpa prompted by its advocacy for austerity economics in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Though their recollection of errors past is ahistorical and self-serving--in the editorial board's telling, there was nobody arguing that fiscal retrenchment was a bad at the end of last decade and the orthodoxy of the time was universally agreed upon, so, you know, let bygones be bygones--it is undoubtedly a net positive that these blue bloods have returned to Keynes, even belatedly. Fairly or not, theirs are the patrician voices that carry weight with policymakers; having them onside when it comes to pushing for big stimulus can only but be a good thing.  

Great Craic

(8) B'Tselem, Israel's most influential NGO working on issues of human rights, has just published a report acknowledging that theirs is an apartheid state. To be completely fair (and without diminishing all the great work B'Tselem does), it is a bit late in the day to acknowledge something that Palestinians and folks around the world have been arguing since 1967: that there is but a single sovereign from river to sea, a sovereign that rules through different legal regimes depending on the residence and/or ethno-relgious identity of its subjects. Late or not, though, it is good to see the organization use its credibility with audiences inside Israel and the United States to legitimize a fairly obvious truth. Combined with Sheldon Adelson having finally met his demise, we're finally getting a couple W's out in the holy land!

(9) Lydia Assouad at the Carnegie Middle East Center has just published a really great analysis of Lebanon's political and economic crises, and laid a path through which the country could finally extract itself from the elite-authored mess it finds itself in. Well researched and written, she shows how critical fiscal reforms--specifically, the imposition of a one-time wealth tax on the country's richest citizens alongside the institutionalization of a progressive income tax system where all earnings, including capital gains, are taxed at the same rate--could lay the foundations for a more just and stable future.

Let's hope auld Saad Hariri gets around to reading it next time MBS kidnaps him.  

(10) If you click on this link, you will see a puppy climb on top of a swan or goose and then start chilling. It is pretty good.

Have a great weekend.


Colin Powers

Colin received his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 2020. He is a two-time Fulbright Fellow.