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January 2022

Understanding Putin and Russia

Understanding Putin and Russia                                                                                                                            Robert A. Levine

When the Soviet Union and Communism dissolved in 1989-90, Russian citizens were shell shocked. They had no concept of how democracy and capitalism actually worked when it appeared that these were Russia’s next steps. The Russians had been fed a steady diet of propaganda for over 70 years, demonizing liberal capitalist democracy, lauding Marxist economics, the Soviet empire and praising Russian exceptionalism and greatness. When parliamentary elections took place in December 1993, the populist and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his party were the winners with 22 percent of the vote. Russia’s Choice Party, whose goals were democratic and western oriented, avoiding populist promises that could not be fulfilled, received only 15 percent of the vote.

Without a background or education in democratic principles, Russians were politically illiterate and unprepared for the advent of democracy. Having also been inculcated with the idea that they were one of the world’s great powers and rulers of the Soviet Empire, Russians were unaccepting of a lesser role. President George H.W. Bush’s comment that America had won the Cold War also stuck in the craw of many Russian citizens to whom Russian power was important. It was as if America and the west had stolen their dignity and dishonored them.

In 1996, Boris Yeltsin was elected president of Russian against a communist opponent, Gennady Zyuganov, in a campaign controlled and directed by Russian oligarchs and media tycoons. Yeltsin was perceived as a weak leader whom the oligarchs could manipulate and exploit. And they were largely right. It was not a victory for liberal democracy or the Russian people, allowing the oligarchs to acquire previously state owned resources and properties at cut-rate prices, then using capitalist techniques to grow their wealth. Youthful reformers in the government who favored liberal democracy and western ideals were forced out of their jobs, tarnished by the media, money and prostitutes. And some like Boris Nemtsov, who was fighting for a liberal democracy, were assassinated by those afraid of his ideas and charisma.

The liberal media was also destroyed by the oligarchs, with western values derided and a nostalgia for Soviet times and a leading place in the world. The siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian-Serbian war and the bombing of Serbia, a long-time ally of Russia sharing the Orthodox religion, also soured the Russian public on NATO, America and the west. Nationalist sentiment greatly increased just as Putin’s star began to rise. While Yeltsin was still president, he and the oligarchs supported Putin, a former KGB agent. TV and the media fawned over Putin, a young, sharp and dynamic man, energetic and healthy.  In August of 1999, Yeltsin appointed Putin as prime minister and backed Putin to succeed him as president when he resigned on New Year’s Eve 1999.

Subsequently, Putin consolidated his power while keeping the outer vestiges of democracy intact. With the price of oil rising, the Russian economy thrived and Putin was able to increase consumer goods, build up the military and satisfy most of the Russian population. He limited his presidency to two terms initially, making Dimitri Medvedev president while Putin became prime minister. But there was no question of who really held the reins of power. After Medvedev served four years, Putin was re-elect president again. In a referendum in 2020, Putin was elected as president until 2036 when he will be 83 years old. Thus he is essentially president for life.

There has been some opposition to Putin from a small coterie of liberals who do not want Russia run by a dictator for life. Recently, the opposition has been led by Alex Navalny, who was poisoned in Siberia, most likely by the FSB, and almost died. He is now back in Russia and was sent to prison. All the media outlets that criticize Putin have been shut down, and liberals and human rights supporters have been labeled as enemy agents, many of them also thrown in prison. Thus, Russia isn’t even a pseudo-democratic state at this point.

Under Putin’s guidance, Russia has been involved in multiple military ventures, to assuage the nationalists and restore the nation’s great power status, at least in Putin’s mind. There was the second Chechen war, the war with Georgia, Russian intervention in Syria, the annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine, the intervention in Khazachstan, and now the threat to invade Ukraine. Putin wants Russia to be recognized again as a great power and himself as a great leader. He wants to restore some of the dignity and honor that Russia lost when the Soviet Union imploded. Putin feels that he and Russia are disrespected by the west and wants to display his nation’s power, which will help him at home as well as abroad. He is the longest serving Russian leader since Stalin.                                                                                                                                                                                                             Buy The Uninformed Voter on Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Wealth and Inequality

Wealth and Inequality                                                                                                                                                                                                 Robert A. Levine

One may ask why a nation of such great wealth allows so much inequality and suffering among its population. The simple answer is that wealthy people, corporations and special interests have the power to control politicians and government bodies through lobbying, contributions and job offers. This results in skewed laws being passed that favor the most affluent individuals and corporate interests. The voices of impoverished citizens are muted in Washington and the state capitals. Tax laws in particular are structured to allow the ultra-wealthy and corporations to pay lower taxes than their income should require. This is done through tax shelters and tax avoidance schemes dreamed up by tax lawyers and accountants who specialize in finding ways to lower tax obligations to the federal and state governments. Of course, this places a greater tax burden on the middle class and salaried workers and means less funding available for various programs that would help lift the poor out of poverty. America is supposed to have a progressive tax system, where those who earn more pay more in taxes. But thanks to corrupt politicians, that is not how the tax system works.                

Aside from the legal tax breaks that the ultra-wealthy are provided by politicians in thrall to them, the Panama Papers and the Pandora Papers revealed how the super-rich in many nations use secret off-shore accounts to hide money. The leaks that showed ‘predatory capitalism’ for what it really is released nearly 12 million files in the Pandora Papers alone. Investigative journalists were able to see private emails, secret contracts and bank accounts of more than 100 billionaires, business leaders, celebrities, world leaders and rock stars obtained in a two year investigation by more than 600 journalists in 117 countries. Shell corporations were employed to hold cash as well as luxury items like extra homes, property, yachts, jewelry, art and so forth.            

Participants in these tax schemes included Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, and King Abdullah of Jordan, and a number of affluent Americans. Certain states in the United States also provide tax havens for some of the super-rich, but South Dakota is by far the champion. For instance, South Dakota trusts have hundreds of billions of dollars in funds that generate no taxes and are safe from anyone who might have a legitimate claim on them. The state has no income tax, no inheritance tax and no capital gains tax. There is also extreme secrecy even from law enforcement agencies. Many affluent foreigners use South Dakota as a tax haven because of the protection it affords them.                                                                                                                        

Top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, many of them billionaires, also find other ways to dodge federal and state taxes and gift and estate taxes. In a law devised to help start-ups, long-time tech executives have discovered techniques to use this law to avoid taxes. Before their companies go public, they give shares to relatives or friends who have not invested money in the company, but who are able to receive these tax breaks. Tens of millions of dollars legally can be saved by individuals who use these tax avoidance mechanisms called stacking. Venture capital firms have also benefited by early investments in successful firms by stacking before the companies go public.                                                                                                                                   

Besides an unfair tax system, government support for social programs that would help the poor are severely underfunded, especially those involving impoverished children. Evictions in the United States have increased significantly in the months after the moratorium ended, even though some federal rental assistance and expanded child tax credit payments remained in place. Obviously, more aid is needed. Education, apprenticeships and a truly progressive tax system with more financial support for the poor are the pathways out of poverty. An unanswered question is whether the level of inequality can be maintained indefinitely or at some point will result in riots and revolt. The current situation is unfair and will people continue to peacefully accept the status quo? Many of those who are extremely wealthy will go to any lengths to hold onto their wealth and accumulate more, unwilling to give proportionately to the common good. Some may be philanthropic and contribute huge sums to charities or causes that they deem worthy, but avoid their fair share of taxes to allow elected officials decide where funding is needed. To reduce inequality, a fair, equitable and enforceable tax system is needed.                                                                                                                                                           Buy The Uninformed Voter on Amazon or Barnes and Noble                                                                                                                                   

Covid 19, Vaccines and Mitigation

Covid 19, Vaccines and Mitigation                                                                                                                                                                                     Robert A. Levine

With the Covid 19 pandemic remaining a major world problem, many people who accept misinformation and believe conspiracy theories refuse to be vaccinated or wear masks, though these measures have been shown to significantly reduce the spread and severity of the disease. The reasons they give for their lack of compliance with measures that have been scientifically proven are senseless and based on misinformation, bizarre conjectures and their political alignment. They claim that they should have the freedom to choose what should be done to their bodies (though many of them will not agree to give women the choice of whether or not to have abortions). These holdouts also reveal selfishness in their unwillingness to protect their families, others in their communities as well as themselves by taking the necessary measures. The persistence of the Covid pandemic and its mutated variants are largely the result of their lack of acquiescence to the standards set by government health care regulatory bodies established by scientific data. Though new agents have been developed by pharmaceutical companies to combat the virus such as Paxlovid, vaccination remains the most important way to prevent severe cases of the disease. Paxlovid, if taken early after the onset of symptoms, reduces hospitalizations and death by 88 percent in clinical studies.      

 However, it has been shown that vaccination is not as effective against the Omicron variant as it has been against delta, beta and other variants. While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were found to be about 90 percent effective against previous variants, against Omicron the effectiveness is reduced to 30-40 percent. Fortunately, a third booster dose increases its effectiveness to 70-75 percent raising the immune system’s response to Omicron. It also appears that while Omicron is more contagious than other variants, it generally tends to produce milder disease.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   The time has come, however, for nations to accept that Covid is going to remain a fact in our lives. Hopefully, with vaccines, mitigation and new treatments, Covid 19 and its variants will become endemic instead of a pandemic and will be controlled for the most part. This means that we will be able to live our lives as normally as possible, taking the presence of the virus into consideration. Testing for the virus should be able to be done at home with tests paid for by the government. This would allow schools to stay open and large gatherings to take place, while those infected could be treated quickly. Vaccinations should be continued with boosters when necessary. And we should be ready for periodic surges with new variants of Covid.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Though many Americans and Europeans have refused to take any of the Covid vaccines, it is not because the vaccines are unavailable. However, in the poorer nations of the world, vaccine usage is at a low level because they do not have sufficient vaccines for their population, even if people would be willing to take them. There are also problems with infrastructure and the ability to get the vaccine to their entire population. This is obviously not good for their nations, but also for the remainder of the world. Because large numbers of people in these impoverished countries remain unvaccinated, they are a continuous reservoir for the virus, as they can become infected over and over with different variants and spread the disease to others. And the more people that are infected, the greater chances there are that the virus will mutate, with the possibility that new mutations will be more contagious and more lethal and be able to evade the vaccine and antibodies. It is not purely charity but in the advanced world’s interest that the vaccines be distributed to these Third World countries to help keep the virus under control.                      

While the reluctance to follow scientific guidelines remains a problem with Covid, it could be devastating if new pandemics arise that are even more contagious and lethal. In the United States as of December 2021, the number of Covid deaths were reported to exceed 800,000, though the true numbers were undoubtedly much higher because of uncounted deaths from Covid attributed to other causes. Deaths have continued to increase and are likely to pass a million in the U.S. in the near future. Throughout numerous nations in Europe in November 2021, mass demonstrations occurred objecting to government restrictions because of Covid 19, including mask mandates, vaccinations needed to access certain indoor venues, and some lockdowns. These objections are mainly from right-wing groups, ignoring statistics such as a tripling of Covid deaths in Austria in November and early December 2021. T

There is also a possibility that at some point in the future, nations may resort to biological warfare, unleashing novel lethal organisms against an enemy that does not have appropriate defenses manufactured and ready, and mitigation efforts are dismissed by the populace. The Covid pandemic can be considered as a dress rehearsal for a more lethal virus that could attack mankind in the future, and thus far if the play was ever produced it would likely be a flop.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Buy The Uninformed Voter on Amazon and Barnes and Noble