December 30, 2007

California High Speed Rail and other Abstract Theories

Not too long ago, the California High Speed Rail Authority conducted a couple of meetings in Sacramento to make some crucial decisions about the route for the first leg between Anaheim and San Francisco. Along with various dignitaries like Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, the consumer lobbying group, Train Riders Association of California (making for an easily remembered acronym) was there, and of course lots of chamber of commerce types who strenuously argued about whether the line should curve west at Altamont Pass, on a latitude with Oakland, or at Pacheco Pass and head north through San Jose. The latter route was chosen, perhaps reminding us that San Jose, after all, is the largest city in the Bay Area and the only metropolis with more than a million people. San Francisco and Oakland tend to forget this. The Santa Clara Valley is also where all the money is.

The HSRA is headed up by Chairman Quentin Kopp, who in other incarnations was a lawyer in San Francisco, a member of the Board of Supervisors and a Superior Court Judge. At the time of his appointment to the Authority, he was approximately 114 years old, which is a suspicious circumstance vis-a-vis the true level of government support for this project in the Golden State. It is true that the Authority has a younger and more energetic executive director, but still...Nevertheless, so much has been done. Environmental impact reports, mainly, but also acquisition of rights of way, which mostly already existed, of course, and yet - a stunning achievement. Although we also have to admit that not a single rail has been laid...

Once upon a time, the idea was that the high speed rail line, which would whoosh passengers between downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles's Union Station in 2-1/2 hours, would be in operation by 2012, certainly within my reasonably-expected lifetime, and even within Quentin Kopp's, if he stays away from the heavy sauces. Alas, there were delays, as the state fell into financial insolvency following the bust, and the new Govenator decided that this fun toy was not a priority compared to building more jails to provide more jobs for the prison guards union and trying to close the fiscal deficit. The $10 billion bond measure, scheduled for placement on the sacrificial altar of the 2008 general election, will determine whether the first installment on the estimated cost of $40 billion for the whole system will be funded. Schwarzenegger would prefer to delay the bond proposition once again, as it was the last time it came up. I don't think he has to worry much. I suppose it depends on the PR campaign that TRAC and others are able to bring to bear, but don't hold your breath, train lovers. Anyway, the costs now are multiples of the original estimate because of all the delays, and if they started immediately after a favorable vote in 2008, it would probably be 2025 before any trains rolled.

By comparison, the Japanese began operating their first bullet train on the Shinkansen line in 1963. The TGV in France between Lyon and Paris was initiated in 1981, running electrically on nuclear power. Through integration with the Thalys and Eurostar lines, you have been able, for many years, to zoom all over Western Europe on extremely comfortable, very fast (in excess of 200 mph) trains, and when you arrive, as in the Gare du Nord in Paris, you are already downtown. The same would be true of San Francisco to Los Angeles, of course; instead of finding yourself marooned on arrival in some distant outpost a long traffic jam from where you really want to go, you're there when you get there. At any distance up to 400 miles, high speed rail is actually faster than airplanes because of the elimination of all the check-in and strip search stuff, and the endless waiting in the airport and more waiting on the runway, and the vulnerability of planes to fog and heavy weather. In terms of fuel and passenger efficiency (passengers miles per hour), there is no comparison between high speed rail and automobiles, and trains are much safer and less exhausting to the rider.

Yet in California and the United States generally, high speed rail, at speeds and comfort levels comparable to the TGV and German Inter-City Express, has an abstract, theoretical feel to it. It's just something else that the United States lacks the will and the vision to accomplish. TRAC seems like an off-shoot of the Trekkie phenomenon, a group that gathers to argue about whether the transporter was or was not used in Episode 113. All the staff on the HSRA draw salaries, of course, and Mr. Kopp can supplement his five or six pensions with another stipend while he sententiously presides over these make-believe meetings. It all feels a little like string theory, an elegant and internally consistent construct with no actual direct application in the real world. Maybe when the HSRA meets in Sacramento, they roll out a model train diorama, with papier-mache mountains representing the Coastal Range, and plastic train stations, and the beautiful aerodynamic engines. Just like in France! And they huddle around (Quentin gets to run the transformer, of course) and watch the high speed train make a run up the plywood course from Anaheim to San Francisco (look at that cute Golden Gate Bridge someone made! and they put an Apple near San Jose! Get it?). The TRAC people look on; how they'd love to get their hands on that transformer handle! Still, they can cheer the high speed engine on. "Toot! Toot!" they all shout.

December 28, 2007

The Final Great Gift of the Baby Boomers

The satirical blogsite "23/6" has come out with a parody of AARP Magazine, as Generation X might modify it to reflect their true attitudes about this huge demographic bulge made up of Americans born between the years 1946 and 1964. It's very funny, standing on their heads all the well-worn tropes and delusions of this aging cohort, in whose number, admittedly, I myself dwell. Our narcissism; our Peter Pan delusions; our demand for attention. Laid out like a regular cover, there are "special sections," such as "Give It Up," with bullet points like "Stop Jogging." "Delete Your MySpace Page." And "60 Is Not the New 40: It's Old." "Sex: We Don't Want to Hear About It." It ends with a request that we simply die off and stop pestering everyone with our self-obsessions.

I was wondering when this generation would achieve enough life experience and wisdom to get around to looking at things this way. To tell the truth, I don't like my generation either. I like the "Greatest Generation" people, my parents' group. There was something so solid and real about them. They understood that life was inevitably hard work and travail leavened with a little joy. They did not treat every disappointment or down mood like a pathology. I like the generation born in the Thirties and early Forties, the ones who rebelled at encroaching materialism and gave us the Beat outlook, like Henry Miller and Bob Dylan. And today's kids, who recognize so well how we've trashed the place, clogged up the landscape with cars, and too-big houses, and devoured the world's open spaces and natural resources, and set in motion the cataclysm of global warming: I like their precocious world-weariness, their wry and ironic humor, even their patience with us, as we try to talk their lingo while wearing our oversized cargo shorts and texting on our Sidekick cell phones. They seem less inclined to spend their time "processing their emotions," or indulging in the fantasies of the "human potential movement." Sure, a lot of them have been spoiled by us, but they see through it: they know it's a bribe, the product of a guilty conscience. "Here, take all the shit we've cluttered our lives up with. We'd connect with you emotionally, but we don't know how."

That's where my generation went off the rails. It's how we became obsessive consumers alienated from one another and from the natural world we live in. We forgot the ancient cultural teaching that everything depends on human interconnectedness, that material comforts and success will do nothing without it, and that the essential attitude is not "self-assertiveness" but humility and reverence for Mother Earth.

So I think Gen X is right. And I suggest that, for once, we do something self-sacrificial to show we're sincere. I propose that we all die off. It needs to be mass suicide, of course. I do not want any painful reminders of Holocausts of the past. One other point on the AARP cover claimed "All Your Music Sucks." With that I don't agree. Taste in music is strictly a matter of cultural inculcation, and I liked our stuff. So a perfect venue for our mass die-off is a New Woodstock, a final Woodstock. Maybe in the middle of the country, near St. Louis. Every drug our generation devised can be available, to make the whole thing a little less terrifying. Those who want to be organ donors can exit that way (after all, we have a lot to atone for). The rest can enjoy the festival for a week before the Jonestown Moment.

Think of all we'll be accomplishing. An immediate reduction in American population by 80 million. The Social Security and Medicare crises: solved in a twinkling. The freeing up of vast tracts of affordable housing, which can be distributed to Generation X by the government, free of charge, as compensation for the Baby Boom inflation which made owning a house for Gen X a one-in-a-million shot. A solution to the problem of impeaching George W. Bush. But what, you say, of the tremendous loss of intellectual capital and productivity from this highly educated group? No, it's not that big a deal. They're mostly burn-outs at this point. The people born in the Thirties will still be around, and they're a helluva lot smarter than we are.

What remains is a solid waste management problem. I think I can figure some things out here, since I was educated in public schools before the Baby Boomers withdrew all the support for education in favor of buying Toyota Landcruisers and 12,000 square foot houses. Let's say, even in our SuperSizeMe era, where most of the Baby Boomers achieved their final playing weight with the aid of several thousand Double Whoppers with Extra Cheese and 48-oz. Pepsi barrels, that the average weight is 200 lbs., assuming a bloated weight of 250 lbs a man, 150 lbs for his pudgy little woman. So we've got total mass of 80 million x 200 lbs = 16 billion pounds. However, 70% of this mass is water (a little less in their case: I forgot to mention the Pre-KoolAid blood drive, where the donors will be encouraged to give and then give some more), which will evaporate out soon enough with decomposition. Some suggested uses: using the biomass to rebuild coral reefs destroyed by global warming. Incorporating the bulk in bricks for building the fence between Mexico and the United States (although it probably won't be necessary anymore). Repairing the levees in New Orleans. Organic compost. Rocketing the entire Baby Boomer generation in missiles aimed at the sun.

If we have the courage, for once, to take these necessary steps, we will be fondly remembered by those so glad to see us go. And really, we're not giving up much. The years left are the years of arthritic knees and bad backs which never relent, and occluding arteries, and cataracts and dental implants, hip replacements, diverticulitis, prostate cancer, all while trying to live up to our age group's demand for simulating the lifestyle of the young. And the epitaph written over our mass grave by a grateful Gen X: "Never have so many given so much to get the hell out of the way."

December 27, 2007

We interrupt this vacation to bring you late-breaking news

It was certainly brave of Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan. Amazingly so. She didn't have to, after all. She could have stayed in London, in safety, with her children. She had lost two brothers to violence in Pakistan, and her father had been executed by Zia al-Huq following a military coup. Pakistan is perhaps the most unstable and dangerous country on the face of the earth. I imagine Osama bin Laden lives there because he's addicted to chaos; it's his scene, man. Nuclear weapons, the Kashmir flash point poised to spin the world into Armageddon at any moment, an unpopular dictator running the country, 165 million people crowded into a small place. What a mess.

Bhutto's assasination occurred, of course, while Bush was on vacation. W can't buy a break. Nobody respects his time off. One must temper the notion of freak coincidence with the observation that Bush takes a lot of time off. What are the odds that a major world event will occur while Bush is on vacation, if a date is chosen at random? 1 in 3? 50-50? Still, the world should go on red alert when Bush goes to Crawford. While he's been there, the 9-11 hijackers finished up their planning, Katrina destroyed New Orleans, and now this. Bush dutifully put on a blue suit down there in the Western White House (he really should call it the "Southwestern White House" out of respect for the hallowed memory of Richard Nixon) and trooped before the press for a two-minute statement in which he demanded that the "extremists" responsible for this "cowardly act" be "brought to justice." Certainly we've heard that phrase before. The guy most immediately responsible exists now only in an atomized state, so he can be crossed off the list. What he did was certainly "extreme," but if others were behind him, Bush might want to hold off on calling them all "extremists." For example, running a fake democracy, arresting the chief justice of the Pakistani supreme court and rounding up all the lawyers might also be seen as "extreme acts," but Bush would never call the perpetrator an "extremist."

I noted that Mitt Romney cited the attack as further evidence that "radical jihadism" threatens the civilized world, then quickly added he didn't know who had done it, then noted that the attack proves violence is not confined to Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems likely that al-Qaeda will claim responsibility for the murder; it fits their M.O. It's not as if they're concerned about their international reputation. If someone other than the attacker was involved in the assassination, my guess is we'll never really know who those people were. Romney's comments, as incoherent as they are, point the way to the conservative's favored characterization. These events always have a blind-men-with-the-elephant feel to them, of course. Bhutto's supporters, with perhaps a better sense of Pakistani reality, will accuse Pervez Musharraf. The Bush Administration will not entertain such disturbing speculation, and all of the presidential candidates, Republican and Democratic alike, will steer away from such "radical" thinking. Even if it's true.

Meanwhile, a brave and principled woman who dared to lead a Muslim country is dead, and a decent period of mourning will be truncated in favor of using her demise as a political football. Such is the way of the world. It would not have surprised Benazir, I'm sure, which makes her courage all the more poignant.

December 26, 2007

Deconstructionism and the 43rd President

In one of his pre-Christmas orations, the one in question to the Rotary Club in Fredericksburg, Virginia, President Bush emphatically defended his tax cuts and, in his own mind, dismissed once and for all the tiresome liberal canard that his program disproportionately favored the rich. The way he went about this was, in one of Bush's two favorite adjectives, interesting (the other one is "fabulous"). After a few lame, self-deprecatory jokes, W got right to the point:

"Now, sometimes in the nation's capital, they'll say, some people get tax cuts and others don't. That's not my attitude. My attitude was, if you're paying taxes, you ought to get tax relief. And so we cut taxes. And I mean we cut them on everybody. And when you cut them on individuals, it turns out you also are cutting taxes on small business owners. Most small businesses in America are Subchapter-S corporations, or limited liability partnerships, which means that the owners of the companies pay individual taxes. In other words, the company is subject to the individual tax rates. And so cutting individual taxes not only helps consumers and families, but it also helps small businesses."

Bush did cut taxes on everyone; how he went about it, however, does subject him to some suspicion about his true "attitude." The purpose of Bush's tax cuts was very simple. It's not quite what "they say" in Washington, as W frames it (Bush often sounds a little paranoid; who are "they" and why do they keep saying these things?). What "they say" (I've heard them too) is that the main feature, the cornerstone, the sine qua non of the program, was the reduction of the top marginal rate from 39.6% to 35% on income taxes. Junior did not quite convince Congress to reduce the rates as low as GHW Bush's 31%, which must rankle; however, Junior has the psychological compensation of knowing he couldn't because Bush the 41st ran the national debt through the roof with his tax cuts, building on the financial ruin set in motion by Bonzo's playmate.

Now, that may not sound like much. But for W's true constituency, the uber-rich, it is manna from heaven. Suppose you are the CEO of a military contractor, a Fortune 500 company, and Bush&Cheney have made you as rich as Croesus with their constant warfaring in the Middle East. You're bringing home the Fortune 500 CEO average of $400 million per year. Even after the gnomes at the firm's CPA office have worked their legerdemain, that $400 million is still heavily exposed to the nettlesome top rate of (let's round off) 40%. Clinton! First the chubby girl, now this! That's $160 million simoleons, and for what? Look what happens when you lower that marginal rate to a still-confiscatory 35%: total take by Uncle Sam is now $140 million. You just put $20 million in your pocket, enough for another vacation house in Aspen or Montauk, and will also ease the strain of paying your two alimonies and the upkeep on your trophy wife.

Why wouldn't these people love Bush? They do, that's the point. In 1944, the top marginal rate was 94%, but there was a war on, a real one, not one manufactured in order to siphon money from the U.S. Treasury to well-connected defense contractors and oil companies. Besides, people cared about the United States in those days; they didn't see the place as simply a "platform" or a casino. The point now is to pay as little as you can get away with. And that's a lot, because the current forecasts are that by the year 2010, 52% of Bush's tax cuts will redound to the benefit of the richest 1% in the "country."

So what the hell was Bush talking about with Subchapter-S and LLP's and the rest of it? Well, part of it is that Bush loves to use terms like "C corps" and Subchapter-S because it gives the appearance of some depth beyond memorization of the lingo. Very biz school. What he says is technically true; to avoid the problem of "double taxation" (taxation of the corporation and taxation of the income the corp. pays to employees) while retaining the corporate advantage of limited liability, the IRS invented these things, which in effect allow the net income of the corporation to pass through to the individual owners. Not always an unalloyed blessing. However -- so what? What's that got to do with the effect of the tax cuts? If the Sub-S owner is a very successful businessman who owns 50% of the business, and the business nets $10 million, $5 million will be attributed to him. If, say, $4 million of this is exposed to the top rate of 35%, he'll owe $1.4 million. Under Slick Willie, he would have owed $1.6 million, so he just pocketed $200,000 in exchange for becoming a Ranger donor for the Republican Party. Will he hire some more people? Maybe. Maybe he'll just blow it on a Mediterranean cruise. But who thought that "small business owners," whether they did business through a Subchapter-S corporation or out of a roadside fruit stand, didn't pay "individual rates?" Everyone pays individual rates (except for hedge fund managers, thanks to Senator Charles Schumer (Plutocrat-NY)).

What in the world is he talking about? I guess that's my question. "Small businesses" are individuals. That's what makes them "small," as opposed to, say, Halliburton. So let's see if we can analyze Bush algebraically as well as deconstructing this gibberish verbally. "Small business owners" = business run by individuals = individuals. Substituting in the term "individuals" for "small business owners" yields an expression reduced to simplest terms, namely, "it turns out when you lower rates on individuals, you are also lowering rates on individuals." I can live with that. Surviving another year and 25 days is an open question.

On the other Hand, Never Make Big Decisions on Monday

I need to mention this guy Dmitry Orlov, a Russian emigre who's been making a splash in those cultish circles where things like "systemic collapse" and "peak oil" are routinely discussed, those folks, in other words, who conceive of a paradigm shift in the status of American society which comes about by forces beyond our political control. Which are visited upon us, in other words. Born, achieve, thrust upon: as with greatness, other quantum shifts can arrive by any of three routes. The Soviet Union was a bad idea from the jump, then crystallized its badness through the Stalinist Cult of Personality, then had perestroika and glasnost thrust upon it because it was utterly rotted out. Among this pessimistic crew we can also number James Kunstler of the Clusterfuck blog and books, and then, of course, that most scholarly of the doomsday-sayers, my old Berkeley prof Chalmers Johnson.

Orlov on the American presidential "horse race": "It is certainly more fun to watch two Capitalist parties go at each other than just having the one Communist party to vote for. The things they fight over in public are generally symbolic little tokens of social policy, chosen for ease of public posturing. The Communist party offered just one bitter pill. The two Capitalist parties offer a choice of two placebos. The latest innovation is the photo finish election, where each party buys 50% of the vote, and the result is pulled out of statistical noise, like a rabbit out of a hat. The American way of dealing with dissent and with protest is certainly more advanced: why imprison dissidents when you can just let them shout into the wind to their heart's content?"

That should be reassuring to "dissident" bloggers everywhere. Why, indeed, should the executive branch pay any attention to the rantings and ravings of the general populace? By a substantial majority, for example, the American people want the Iraq occupation to end. They so voted in November, 2006. Two months later the war escalated. A Democratic majority in the House had the Constitutional option of refusing to allow a floor vote for war appropriations. This is clear, unambiguous, Constitutionally-prescribed reality. Over one year later, the occupation is in full swing. It has been funded through at least June, 2008. In June it will be "politically" impossible to upset the delicate calculations which produce Orlov's "photo finish" through something as jarring as political courage, i.e., denying Bush his war funding. To come out on the right side of the statistical noise this time, the Democrats merely have to appear as the lesser aspect of the repugnant spectacle known as national electoral politics. They may or may not achieve this. If Hillary Clinton is nominated, we may wind up with a Baptist preacher as President of the United States. Jerzy Kosinksi, who wrote "Being There," could never have dreamed this one up.

I appreciate Orlov's sunny analysis of what he views as a certain American economic collapse. The only question, for him, is when. All of the elements necessary for such a paradigm shift are there, according to Dmitry. Bankruptcy (hard to argue when you're in hock $9 trillion); inflation (artfully concealed by leaving the two main things people need, food and fuel, out of the official calculations); huge foreign debts and trade imbalances (largest in world history, and growing at the rate of $1.3 billion per day); highly unstable dependence on foreign energy sources (20 million bbl of oil per day, of which 14 million must be imported, mostly from countries which hate our guts); a massively inflated military-industrial complex (according to Chalmers, if you add up everything that goes into defense and "security" [all the redundant intelligence services], it comes to about $1 trillion); healthcare as a profit center rather than a social service; a steeply declining quality of public education; and, of course, a representative government which concerns itself with Dmitry's "symbolic little tokens" of gay marriage, flag burning, abortion and other crucial issues which determine whether Americans can keep food on the table and their automobiles running.

December 24, 2007

Wrapping up the Blog

Look, even Thoreau only spent two years and two months at the Pond. It is sometimes incorrectly assumed he always lived there. He wasn't a crank; he was a Harvard educated intellectual who unfortunately could never shake his tuberculosis and died way before his time.

However, more influential even than H.D., in terms of this decision, is Dr. Johnson, who wrote that "nobody but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money." Besides, to everything there is a season. So I want to say to the NSA, and to the CIA, and the FBI, and the Department of Defense, and the Office of Special Plans, and to the Executive Branch, and to those parts of the Executive Branch which apparently aren't, although I thought they were, such as Dick Cheney's office: no hard feelings, right? After all, you never (okay, rarely) saw me get personal with the Decider, like some other writers I could name. In fact, let me name names, in that fine old American paranoid tradition...okay, I won't. I might criticize policy, or certain teensy-weensy inroads on the Bill of Rights which have occurred in the last seven years. But we still have one or two left; let's not get greedy.

Anyway, increasingly I see that the democratic process in America does not quite work the way it used to, even compared to earlier stages of my lifetime. Is it possible that the almighty Framers, in their matchless wisdom and clairvoyance, designed a system that worked okay when there were about 3 million people (not counting slaves, and who was counting them?), 13 colonies, and a large city (like New York) had about 20,000 people, but doesn't work so well when the system is now so huge and complicated, and the issues so complex, and the general quality of education is declining, and incumbents are personally unknown to the electorate and are sent back to office, or defeated, on the basis of PR campaigns? When the system, in other words, has broken down because of its size and complexity?

As a salutatory note, that's what I think. It's the best explanation I can think of for the apparent irrelevance of government to the real problems of everyday Americans. It's not that government doesn't serve interests; it does, but those interests are the ones with the money and access to get the government to do something for them, and with the cash to run successful PR campaigns for public office, all of it mounted on electronic media using the tricks and tropes of the entertainment industry. Mr. Smith doesn't go to Washington anymore; the CEO of Martin Marietta does. That's a cliche, but like many cliches it's unfortunately true. So the same forces that made America an economic colossus are the forces that have locked the system into an ossified senility that cannot react rationally to obvious problems. It makes sense that such a condition would occur here now, in the late stages of the American empire. We can't respond effectively to crises like climate change, oil shortages, the national debt of $9 trillion, the collapsing dollar, the decrepit infrastructure, unaffordable healthcare, the absence of a national rail network worth anything, the shift from a manufacturing base to a "consumerist" economy, the huge and growing disparities between rich and poor - to anything, really, because it is a mistake to identify the interests of so-called "average" Americans with the political process in Washington, D.C. Note to the NSA: I don't mean anything radical by that. Nor do I propose that we do anything about it, in case you're wondering, because the whole point is that nothing can be done. Now I ask you: just how patriotic is that? A fatalist commitment to the status quo: as American as apple pie.

There will be another election season in which a group of candidates anxious for the perks and power of the nation's highest office traffic in a gaudy set of carefully-managed illusions and catch-phrases, promising great change, etc., and then one of them will go to Washington (or return there) and come up against the immovable inertia of vested interests represented tenaciously by America's uniparty; and most of the discretionary budget will go to the military-industrial complex, and the faltering social programs will limp along toward their eventual bankruptcy, and the cost of living will go higher and higher as the dollar falls, as oil grows inexorably more expensive, as Americans compete to buy American food with foreign purchasers anxious to take the country's last remaining export. I think we'll give up on the idea, after a few more years, of controlling foreign producers of oil by occupying them militarily because we just won't be able to afford it nor sustain the army to do so. And then we'll be at the mercy of the market. I think GW Bush will be the last of the great military adventurists in American history.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight.

December 18, 2007

And Everyone Has a Share

In Joseph Heller's masterpiece of World War II satire, Catch-22, Milo Minderbinder, the quintessential capitalist, stood in for war profiteering and amoral corporate business practices generally. Milo followed the profit principle wherever it led, mindlessly, indifferently, relentlessly. Eventually it led to Milo's joint venture with the Germans and to the bombing of his own squadron on the island of Pianosa. It might seem like treason to cooperate with the Luftwaffe, and indeed a court martial was contemplated, but then Milo, with the assistance of able counsel, demonstrated that what was good for business was good for America. The charges were dropped. In the most emotionally searing passage in the book, Yossarian, in his efforts to ease the suffering of the wounded airman Snowden in the tail of a B-25, finds the morphine syringe has been stolen by Milo and replaced by a certificate good for a share in M&M Enterprises, in which all the squadron members "have a share."

I was thinking about Milo when I read today that the United States military is now cooperating with the Turks on cross-border invasions into Northern Iraq in pursuit of PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) rebels. The Turks are flying sorties against Kurdish positions and the U.S. is helping with intelligence. The Bush Administration is quick to point out that the PKK is a "designated terrorist organization," but it's worth noting that the "central" government in Baghdad has protested the Turkish invasion in vehement terms. The U.S., however, has seen its popularity in Turkey fall from a post-9/11 52% to its current 8% and reasons it shouldn't do anything more to alienate this key ally in the Middle East, which, after all, is Israel's one solid ally in the Muslim world.

At this point an objective observer would have to admit that we're practicing a Realpolitik which Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, would have commended . These days we just do what we gotta do. Still, from a strictly formal perspective, one which takes into account the sovereignty of the "nations" involved, even Bush might have to admit that there is something anomalous about supporting an invasion of a country we're occupying, especially where the government we're propping up has gone on record as opposed to the invasion, as indeed Nouri al-Maliki's government has. It would seem (though no one, surprisingly, has even suggested this) that it is the role of the United States to deal with a destabilizing Kurdish separatist movement in the north in the same way that, I suppose, we deal with Sunni insurgents or Mahdi militia or Saudi infiltrators and jihadists who are trying to destabilize the central government.

This seems especially true when one considers that the eruption of a Kurdish separatist movement which would involve the Kurds in eastern Turkey was one of the complications which was earliest foreseen prior to the U.S. invasion. We knew this would happen; in fact, one of the major buyers of Bell and Sikorsky helicopters for decades has been the Turkish government, which has used them to bomb and strafe Kurdish militants on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border (see Spoils of War, by John Tirman, an indispensable book for understanding otherwise mystifying Congressional votes, e.g., Joseph Lieberman and Dianne Feinstein). So now they're doing the same thing but it's while we're occupying the country. Which is ...weird.

Until you consider that the U.S. just doesn't have the manpower to deal with the Kurdish question. We can't hazard the casualties, not with the surge "working," and it would be a PR nightmare for the United States to begin a program of ethnic cleansing in the north of the kind the Turks have been engaged in for a long time. The essential problem is that the Kurds do not see themselves as part of Iraq, and the PKK does not see the Kurds in eastern Turkey as part of Turkey, a position which probably many non-rebel Kurds hold as well. It's the reason that Saddam spent so much time crushing revolts in the north. As Bush reminded us every few minutes before invading Iraq, it was where Saddam Hussein used "poison gas on his own people." Every time the Baghdad central government, whether under Hussein or the current Shiite theocracy, has found itself under siege, the Kurds make a break for the exits and resume efforts to fulfill their ancestral dream of Greater Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, Milo Minderbinder would be proud that America is not a slave to unworkable principle. Maybe it's a fiasco in Iraq, but everyone has a share, and will for decades to come.

December 13, 2007

George Mitchell and the Juice Report

Like you, I have spent several minutes thinking about the steroids report on major league baseball put together by former senator, judge and current certifiable stuffed-shirt George Mitchell. Perhaps unlike you, I have thought about a reasoned response to this tattle-tale document, which names some of the brightest lights in the Bigs as juicers and needlefreaks. We have to come to terms with the idea that it's all over now. There's no sense kidding ourselves. Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte (I think his last name sprouted all those "t's" because of human growth hormone), Albert Pujols, Garry Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Eric Gagne, and of course, the King of Performance Enhancement Hisself, Barry Bonds, who needs a size 12 crown. And, naturally, we know about Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, the Bash Brothers, and as for Sammy Sosa...the asterisks are as the stars in the firmament. One player in the history of major league baseball hit more than 60 home runs in a season without mainlining anabolics, and that was more than 40 years ago.

Americans are by nature addicted to fantasies. For the average baseball fan, the players are just local kids who grew up and kept playing a game they loved and which they happened to be very good at. There's no need to think about the obscene contracts and the obscene ticket prices, the disdain which the players feel for the fans, the transient nature of a player's tenure on the "home" team, the hotel room life, the womanizing, the fist fights in the bars. No, these guys are the local "heroes" of our culture, and for the 3 or 4 years which a player might spend in your city wearing your city's uniform, drawing a $12 million salary and renting a villa right near your home town where he spends nights between home games before going to his real home in the off-season, the golf course hacienda in Florida or Texas where he lives with his third wife, former supermodel Tiffany Krystal, he is absolutely essential to our quality of life.

I think, however, that Reality Therapy has much to say for it. As Thoreau advised, one should "front the essential facts of life" in the most direct way possible. And the truth is, as we have found through such chemical innovators as BALCO and Victor Conte, he of the pencil-moustache and elusive drugs, that the juicers are likely always to be one step ahead of the testers. Thus, the "clear" and other breakthroughs of organic chemistry. Thus, I propose Major Steroids League Baseball (MSLB). The ambivalence of that "major" as a qualifier is, of course, deliberate. I leave nothing to chance, except my life in general. In MSLB ball there will be no testing whatsoever. Players can show up for spring training with bodies that appear to have been formed from molten titanium poured into lost-wax molds. Their feet perhaps have grown four sizes in the off-season and their scrota have disappeared altogether. No matter. The fans will get their money's worth. The power hitters will average over 100 homers a year even though they face pumped-up fireballers throwing 120 mph pitches. As an outlet for all the 'roid rage, the players will carry firearms and those spiked balls on a stick thingies, maces, I think they're called, so that "bench-clearing" brawls will result in body counts like Baghdad suicide bombs.

The fans will love it. Any player entering the league will know that to compete he will have to deal with some of the downsides pointed out in the Mitchell report, like insanity, liver damage and complete disappearance of the gonads. C'est la vie. Attendance at games will skyrocket; MSLB may become a cultural substitute for foreign wars, solving many problems at once. For the traditional athlete who simply wants to play the game, a kind of super-AAA league could be established where drug testing would be used, probably successfully, since the league won't draw flies and salaries will be pathetic. Thus, non-juiced players could be recruited from college, spend a few years in a bucolic pastime, then leave and lead an adult life from that point forward. The freaks in the MSLB, on the other hand, could devote their entire lives, in every sense of the word, to the sport that rewards them so handsomely.

Al Gore in Bali

Can a vice president, even un ancien vice-president, say something like this to an international conference on climate change? And get away with it, I mean?

"Je vais donc vous dire une vérité qui dérange : mon propre pays, les Etats-Unis, est le principal responsable de l'obstruction à tout progrès ici à Bali", a-t-il ajouté sous les applaudissements, lors de la conférence des Nations unies sur le climat.

Note that "sous les applaudissements" bit. The delegates were all applauding while Al said that strange truth about the United States, his own country, being the principal obstacle to progress on a new climate treaty to replace the one the United States never signed in the first place. Naturellement, the first question that comes to my mind is: did Al say all of this in French? That could be the deal-breaker here at home. Here in the "homeland." I'm concerned that Al could wind up on some kind of watch list. He must know as well as anyone that his mea culpa on behalf of his propre pays will not go down well in the West Wing of the White House. President Bush is not given to spasms of self-reflection. If he thinks that American intransigence on international efforts to deal with environmental catastrophe is sound federal policy, that's the way it is. Cooperating would be "bad for the economy."

Now I'm going to dire une vérité qui dérange - Al is suffering from a common side effect of travel abroad. He went directly from the accolades of Oslo to les applaudissements of Bali. While in Europe he was exposed to those deranging features of European life that tend to linger in the memory when an American returns to the blessed homeland: humans with social skills; public amenities, like bathrooms, which are clean and pleasant; trains that actually run on schedule (or, for that matter, trains); roads which are smooth and maintained; good food, good beer; a literate and educated populace; heads of state fluent in their native tongues. By the time he got to Bali, he was entering that Philip Nolan state of mind which haunts the American Europhile after an extended spell abroad.

So I'm inclined to cut Al some slack. As for what he said, it's pretty uncontroversial. Of course the United States is the principal obstacle to international cooperation. But Americans aren't supposed to say that kind of thing while they're traveling abroad. Ask Jane Fonda or Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. We don't pander to foreign opinion, even when we're wrong. Especially when we're wrong.

Al will settle down. He'll come home to a Nashville or Bay Area traffic jam and his limo will bounce along our potholed roadways in the usual bone-jarring style as it rolls past an unending crapscape of Wal-Marts and Targets and strip malls, and the Decider will still be in charge, and Al will order up a bucket of KFC and head down to the multiplex to see the latest teen-boy pop epic, and Oslo and Bali will fade, and then Al will reconsider his conditional promise to the conference delegates that the next election will guarantee a major change in U.S. policy, because he looks at the field of Republican candidates and realizes that almost none of them believes in evolution, let alone something as arcane as anthropogenic climate-forcing, and comes to the realization that, indeed, he might have said, je ne peut pas prometer rien.

December 12, 2007

Why the CIA Destroyed the Torture Tapes

"Notwithstanding the President’s view that the United States was engaged in two separate conflicts in Afghanistan (the common public understanding is to the contrary,see Joan Fitzpatrick, Jurisdiction of Military Commissions and the Ambiguous War on Terrorism, 96 Am. J. Int’l. L. 345, 349(2002) (conflict in Afghanistan was international armed conflict in which Taliban and al Qaeda joined forces against U.S. and its Afghan allies)), the government’s attempt to separate the Taliban from al Qaeda for Geneva Convention purposes finds no support in the structure of the Conventions themselves, which are triggered by the place of the conflict, and not by what particular faction a fighter is associated with."

The citation is from the District Court case of Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, the landmark case which established that Bush's detainees in Guantanamo are entitled to the protections of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which have been the "supreme law" of the United States (through the Treaty Clause) since 1949. The opinion was issued in November, 2004, about a year before the CIA decided to destroy the videotapes of the torture of Abu Zubaydah (and, we should probably assume, others). The Hamdan case then worked its way up the legal food chain to the Supreme Court, where its main points were confirmed in the godawful process which the highest court in the land calls "jurisprudence."

There is a common misconception that the Supreme Court, that august collective of ultimate political appointees and connected insiders, is where the best law happens. This is not the perception of practicing lawyers; to decipher the actual "holding" in one of their decisions, it would help to possess a background in Jesuitical debate and Talmudic exegesis, supplemented by a PhD in electronic circuitry. The actual, useful part of one their decisions must be teased from a blizzard of "concurring" opinions, reflecting the deep political and philosophical divisions among even the justices who "agree" with each other. By contrast, Judge James Robertson's brilliant explication of the application of the Geneva Conventions to Hamdan's case was a model of clarity and concision. On every main point, his opinion anticipates what the Supreme Court, in its muddled, screwed-up way, got around to doing in July, 2006.

Judge Robertson's opinion was a rude wake-up call for the Bush Inquisition. Here was a judge essentially laughing at the White House's moronic interpretation of Common Article 3. According to Alberto ("The Torque") Gonzales, David Addington and John Yoo, Bush and Cheney's legal brain trust, it depended on whom you captured in Afghanistan; if the Taliban, they were entitled to certain rights; if al-Qaeda (meaning: Bush said they were al-Qaeda), then all bets were off. This was always a stupid idea, but with only Congress to oppose him, Bush could get away with this nonsense.

The Supreme Court borrowed all of Judge Robertson's ideas, although they didn't express them nearly so well. Par for the course. The media treated the Supreme Court's decision as a "bombshell," which in a sense it was, but the torture teams had been hyperventilating for nearly two years because of Judge Robertson's holding. Part of the problem was handled by the exoneration provisions of the Detainee Treatment Act passed in 2005, which legalized war crimes in the United States. A compliant and (we now learn) morally compromised Congress, Republican and Democratic alike, were only too eager to forgive torture if it made them look Tough on Terror. But when it comes to serious federal offenses like violation of the War Crimes Act and the Anti-Torture Statute, you can't be too careful. Nothing would be quite as riveting in a court room as a few hundred hours of vidotaped prisoner abuse. So the tapes had to go. Too many "federal officials" had their asses hanging out on this one, and I don't mean just the guys with the water bottles and wash rags.

December 08, 2007

From the Folks Who Brought You the Common Law

From the London Telegraph, December 8, 2007: "Meanwhile, in an interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme, the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith said that whether or not the men were dangerous was less important than the rule of law. 'I don't know [whether they're dangerous or not]', he said. 'I do think that [there is a] principle here which is more important. It is not the question of assessing danger or not, which we have to deal with as we have to deal with other people in this country. The principle is fundamental civil liberties. You cannot have people detained for years on end and with no end in sight on the basis of the philosophy the US uses.' He also said that Guantanamo Bay prison should be closed, as it is a 'recruiting sergeant' for terrorists."

Such were the comments of a learned British lawyer asked to comment on the release of four British subjects from the Guantanamo prison camp. Three of the prisoners (from Algeria, Libya and Jordan) will return to Britain; the fourth will be repatriated to his native Saudi Arabia. Lord Goldsmith refers to the "philosophy the US uses" without explanation, but presumably he means the converse of the philosophy he supports: the question whether the men are dangerous "is less important than the rule of law."

I think that used to be the American position on civil liberties prior to the Bush Administration. I have opined before that the concept of the "presumption of innocence" was an application of the scientific method, and Enlightenment ideas generally, to the field of criminal law. As in science, one begins in common law criminal jurisprudence with the idea that the outcome is unknown, and that therefore, in order to assure fairness and to avoid inflicting punishment in advance of the proof, society hazards a little danger in permitting suspects the presumption of innocence. If, in some cases, the danger of allowing the suspect to remain at large seems too great, the defendant is nevertheless assured, by the Fifth Amendment's due process clause, to a speedy trial and determination of his guilt. Overall, this approach served us well for the first 212 years of our nation's history. Not perfectly, but I would say that in the pre-Bush years, our legal system was second to none in the world.

It does not seem hyperbolic to equate the religiosity of the Bushians with their rejection of such Enlightenment ideas. Indeed, the growing theocratic movement in the U.S. does not bode well for the Bill of Rights. As with the a priori assumptions of religion in general, Bush proceeds on the premise that the arrest of the inmates at Guantanamo implies their guilt; if they weren't guilty, why were they arrested? What are they doing in a prison camp like Guantanamo if they're not dangerous? That's about as far as the U.S. "philosophy" goes. Essentially, it is the philosophy of not caring much one way or the other. Since the war on terror is "generational," and since nothing in the Guantanamo enabling legislation (the Detainee Treatment Act or the Military Commissions Act) actually requires a trial, at any time for anyone, the fact of arrest may mean perpetual incarceration in a prison camp without recourse.

If there is a distinction between this approach to "enemies of the state" and the Stalinist gulags, where prisoners were sent to Siberia forever, it must be very subtle. Perhaps a smart British jurist could figure it out. The silence from Congress, or from the presidential candidates, on these problems is complete. Arguing for civil liberties for prisoners Bush has labeled "terrorists" is a kind of political third rail in America. That's a very dangerous sign for all of us. It is not coincidental that coverage of such matters is found on the front page of a British newspaper, and not here at home.

December 06, 2007

Boumediene under Submission, American Due Process on Trial

Oral arguments were presented yesterday in the Supreme Court case of Boumediene vs. Bush, a case which tests the tenacity of the "Great Writ" of habeas corpus in the wake of Congressional stupidity in passing the Military Commissions Act. Seth Waxman, who was Bill Clinton's Solicitor General back in the era of American Enlightenment, appeared on behalf of six Bosnians who have spent the last six years of their lives in Guantanamo cages, looking for a forum to present the argument that they are not members of al-Qaeda, never fired a shot at an American, and certainly never had plans to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, the putative reason that American government agents gave for kidnapping them in Bosnia and flying them to Guantanamo. As Mr. Waxman stated in his brief, these six Bosnians had been cleared of all charges by a European commission and by Bosnian courts, but were betrayed by Bosnian police acting under pressure from American forces on January 17, 2002, the day of their official, and very short-lived, Bosnian exoneration.

One gets the impression from the indifferent American press and the indifferent American Congress that the inmates at Guantanamo must indeed be the "worst of the worst," as Donald Rumsfeld once described them. In fact, we have no way of knowing if they are or not, and the reason we don't is because the Bush Administration, with the collusion of Congress, has systematically removed the avenues of due process which would lead to a speedy determination of their culpability, if, after six years, one can employ such an adjective without morbid irony.

So that was the question presented: is it Constitutional to maintain a system of indefinite detention in Guantanamo, where the prisoners have no legal recourse other than the kangaroo system of Combatant Status Review Tribunals to test their innocence? Or should they be allowed the writ of habeas corpus in federal court, as provided by the Suspension Clause of Article I, Section 9: "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." The United States is not in rebellion and we're not under invasion, other than in the perfervid nightmares of George W. Bush. So two questions remain: should the Bush Administration be allowed to get away with locating its dungeon in Cuba, outside the supposed territorial reach of American courts? And does the court review provision in the Detainee Treatment Act provide an adequate substitute for habeas corpus, if the answer to the first question is "no?"

Mr. Waxman answers the first question "no," and the earlier case of Rasul vs. Bush seems to back him up; however, his case was made much harder by the excision of habeas corpus by the Military Commissions Act. I recall that Arlen Specter, the self-proclaimed great champion of the Constitution, denounced this move as "unconstitutional," then proceeded to vote for the bill, which makes me wonder about his interpretation of his oath of office. The second question is more difficult and gives the hard Right wing of the Supreme Court (Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts) a way to deny the petitioners any hope without ruling on the habeas corpus question. If a prisoner waits long enough and he eventually gets tried for some "war crime" (a term which has never been exactly defined for the Guanatanamo inmates), then at long last he can appeal the decision to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, who can review, in a limited manner, what the military commission decided. Maybe that's ten years, maybe that's twenty years after initial arrest, and after twenty years of living in a cage on the hot and dusty eastern end of Cuba; and maybe then the D.C. Circuit decides the prisoner never should have been jailed in the first place. Sorry about that; you're a casualty of the Great War on Terror, and after all, you are a Muslim.

Bravo to Mr. Waxman, for his strenuous efforts pro bono publico. He operates in the noble legal tradition of John Adams, who defended the British soldiers tried for the Boston Massacre, as a guarantor of fundamental due process. Sadly, the remedies at this point can never undo the lost six years for those Guantanamo detainees who have been wrongly detained. For make no mistake about it, do not be fooled by the grand references to the "Great Writ," and the eloquent descriptions of "habeas corpus as it existed in 1789," and the august solemnity of litigation in the Supreme Court, with all its "may it please the Court" stuff, and its Roman-numeraled briefs, and the rest of the fancy dress-up. George Bush is running a dungeon in Guantanamo for the same reasons that tyrannical kings in England threw their political opponents in the Tower. As a demonstration of power and to satiate the blood-lust of his foaming-mouth base. It has nothing to do with protecting America; that could be accomplished best by capturing Osama bin Laden and bringing him to trial in a federal court in New York City for crimes against humanity. Osama bin Laden had no right to kill innocent people because of his ideological fantasies; it was a form of collective punishment that is expressly outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. War, to the extent it can ever be legal under international law, is to be fought by the soldiers of one nation against the soldiers of another. But neither should Bush imprison Muslims arbitrarily, forever, without meaningful recourse in American courts, simply to demonstrate that he's "tough on terror," for just as assuredly, that is collective punishment as well.

Mr. Waxman closed his argument (you can hear the recording by going to with a heart-rending description of how this "system" leads to perversions of justice. He discussed a former Guantanamo inmate, named Kurnaz, who was held for two years without charges. He was told at his Combatant Status Review, where he had no counsel (since none is permitted) that he had associated with a German terrorist named Bilgen, who, during Kurnaz's detention, had blown himself up. Kurnaz was lucky; ordinarily the detainees not only have no lawyers, they are not told the names of their "accomplices." Such information is "classified." "Kafka-esque," as Mr. Waxman describes it, is not too strong a word. But a lawyer working for Kurnaz on the outside obtained a transcript of the CSRT hearing and within 24 hours produced Mr. Bilgen, who was not only alive and well in Dresden, but had nothing to do with terrorism. The question that hangs in the hot, humid air over Guantanamo, where perhaps hundreds of men wait to see if the Supreme Court still believes in due process as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson: how many more Mr. Kurnazes are being denied a chance to prove their innocence?

December 04, 2007

Showdown at the Supreme Court

I actually think it works something like this: George W. Bush, whining and petulant, shows up for another day of "hard work" in the Oval Office. He'd rather be on his elliptical trainer, he'd rather be on his custom Trek bike, he'd rather be in a bar in Dallas, he'd rather be just about anywhere than where he is. He's done this job. He has an IQ of about 115, one standard deviation above the population mean, and sure as shootin', that wasn't enough to deal with the complexity of this office. Smart guys like Clinton revel in this whirl of detail and power; it just gives George a headache. He doesn't really like thinking. He never has. He was never a student, never a big reader, and he doesn't like coming up with "creative" ideas. He doesn't write Pulitzer Prize winning histories or paint beautiful watercolors, like his "hero," Winston Churchill. He can't play the sax like Bill Clinton. He is, pure and simple, a bullshitter, and always has been. The reason he was a pretty good jogger and a fair bike rider (when he doesn't fall off) is because the one thing he can do is the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over. Take today's "press conference:" he had to go out there and say that he didn't hear anything about the National Intelligence Estimate declaring Iran's nucular program suspended as of 2003 until one week ago, although the report's been around for a year. He's the President, fer chrissake! Oh, he knows. Karl told him it was best to play it that way, because Fitzgerald is going to wind up giving those Plame transcripts to Henry Waxman, and they're going to be full of Bush's pathetic insistence that although the leakers were his own staff that he met with every day, he still didn't know anything about their identity until...well, you see. You need precedent for the President being treated like a cipher by his own aides. How humiliatin'. But George is good at that, say that for him. Repeating nonsense over and over and over and over and over.

So once in a while, I think Bush just gets fed up with the whole business, storms into the Oval Office, and demands to do something shitty. And the best people to subject to shitty treatment are those Arab-looking people down in Guantanamo, because if there's one group he can beat up on with complete impunity, it's that ragtag bunch of whoever-they-are. So you, Alberto, or John Yoo, or David Addington, or whoever's left around here, get me a goddam memo that says I can throw them in a cage in Cuba and forget about 'em. And, as with torture, black sites and illegal wiretapping, his mouthpieces produced just the authorization he needed.

And then that Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld case. Sheesh. Now they're telling me all these Arabs are human beings with Geneva Convention rights. Which means while we were half-drowning them and beating the shit out of them, we may have committed "war crimes?" What the hell?! We're the war criminals? Okay, get that flighty fat-butt Lindsey Graham on the phone and tell him we need a full-court press on this one. Give these animals their "trial rights" in front of some military brass, but exonerate the hell out of this "war crime" shit, and by the way, get rid of this habeas corpus crap, which another one of these crazy cases, Rasul vs. Bush (how come I wind up in the title of these things?) says these terrists have a right to. And a compliant Senate, wowed by the specious reasoning and sophistry of Lindsey, saw that it was done.

Whew. But now comes Boumediene vs. Bush (me again!). This one says that despite Lindsey's fast one, these ragheads still have a right to habeas corpus. What in the goddam hell? And based on Rasul, and counting noses despite my stacking of the Supreme Court, it looks like Souter, Ginsburg, Stevens, Breyer and Kennedy are going to prevail over Alito, Roberts, Thomas and Scalia. Missed by that much. And you know what happens then? Every one of these untermenschen (Karl taught me that word) is going to have a lawyer, and every one of them is going to file one of the Great Writs (yeah, real great), and then the world's going to know that a whole bunch of 'em, maybe most of 'em, ain't war criminals, ain't terrists, ain't the "worst of the worst" like I done said they were, but were humanitarian aid workers, opium farmers, teachers, tourists, and lots of other people who happened to have an "al" or "bin" in the middle of their names, and suddenly some Kuwaiti cab driver is going to have a high-priced shyster from a white shoe law firm claiming "illegal detention" and lack of probable cause.

Oh Lord. This gets to be too much. I don't even have anyone to bomb. Where'd my Axis of Evil go? Is it January 2009 yet? I'm going down to the gym.

December 03, 2007

Ist es nicht schon zu spät?

The headline is from today's Frankfurter Allgemeine. Is it not already too late?, it asks. Accompanying the front page story are many full color pictures about Klimatforschung, providing detail on global warming patterns in anticipation of the Bali conference on climate change, beginning today.

From the front page of today's Le Monde: "On ne pouvait envoyer un signal plus positif : lundi 3 décembre, le jour même de l'ouverture à Bali (Indonésie) de la conférence des Nations unies sur le changement climatique, le nouveau premier ministre australien, Kevin Rudd, a annoncé que son pays ratifiait le protocole de Kyoto." I rely here upon a rusty French first learned in Dwinelle Hall 41 years ago: "One could not envision a more powerful signal: on Monday, 3 December, the same day as the beginning of the United Nations Bali Conference on climate change, the new premier of Australia, Kevin Rudd, announced that his country ratified the Kyoto Protocol."

You will not find anything on the front pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post about the Bali conference. Although the latest IPCC report confirms that scientists have probably underestimated the speed of global warming, and that mankind may have as little as three years to implement heavy-duty changes to avert serious consequences, the American media are still entranced with the mental problems of Britney Spears. To the extent I can follow along with the German article, the data and analysis presented are of a technical quality which presuppose an educated and numerate reading public. This presumption, of course, makes sense in a country where the president is a theoretical physicist.

I consult the foreign press because it reassures me that someone, somewhere, is taking the problem seriously and endeavoring to do something about it. The Bush Administration has dug itself such a deep hole on climate change that its attendance at these conferences is now simply about warding off the most damning accusations by fainthearted references to half-baked measures which Bush claims to have taken. We have now achieved sole possession of the International Pariah Trophy, given to that industrialized country with its head inserted the farthest up its ass. With Australia's nod toward reason and decency, we are now the only advanced nation on the face of the earth which has failed to cooperate internationally.

So take heart, my fellow Americans. Other adults, in other countries with more mature values and with more concern for their lineal descendants, are trying hard to overcome American resistance to enlightenment. We are officially a "work-around" at this point, a speed bump on the path of progress. Do what you can locally; California, for example, is cited favorably by delegations at the conference, as if it were a separate country from Bushland, which, in every way but legally and constitutionally, it probably is.

November 28, 2007

Chasing the Phantoms of 9/11

It's unfortunate, to say the least, that the 9/11 hijackers chose a suicide route to carry out their horrific act of terrorism. This happens often in the mass murder situation: the "lone gunman" kills a lot of strangers and then in his final act of despair and madness, he turns the gun on himself. Aggrieved humanity is therefore left without a focus for their vengeance and emotional "closure." Something awful has happened and all you can say is that life's like that sometimes.

The United States might have responded differently to 9/11: to do nothing militarily, but to have explored what routes there were for standard police and counter-terrorism work. The hijackers, naturally, are all dead; you can't make them pay any greater price. But if they have living accomplices, let's see if we can track and capture them. I thought that's what Bush meant way back in 2001 when he said he was going to smoke the perps out of their holes, get 'em runnin, and bring 'em to justice. I assumed he was referring to Osama bin Laden and close henchmen, like Zawahiri and Atef, and, as we perhaps didn't know then, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the "Brain" or mastermind behind the attacks. KSM, as he's known in the 9-11 Report, was also instrumental in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The Clinton Administration apprehended and convicted his nephew Ramzi Yousef, who's now doing a life stretch at the Supermax prison in Colorado. KSM is in Guantanamo, and will never see another free day in this life. And bin Laden and Zawahiri...?

After the dust settled at the World Trade Center, a decision was made within the Bush Administration that the Great War on Terror (GWOT) should be 10% anti-terrorism and 90% show biz. Thus and always in the media age. Slowly but surely, as we reduce the world to a set of electronic images, reality loses its familiar feel and internal logic and is reduced to...11110000001100001100001001011101100111111011101100000000111100.

I've been reading "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who served as the Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief during the initial year of the American occupation. By now the ideas are familiar to me, having read "Fiasco" and "Cobra II." These books tightly converge toward an inescapable conclusion that the occupation was completely botched. I was struck by one image early on in the book: in the main mess hall of Saddam's palace in the Green Zone, which had been converted to Coalition Provisional Authority use, giant murals of the Twin Towers were painted on the walls. I suppose, when they were painted, these pictures were to remind the soldiers what they were fighting for - to avenge the attacks of 9/11. I have a feeling this didn't convince many members of the military, at least not after a few months in Iraq. It might serve as an operational definition of cognitive dissonance. Eventually, even their Commander in Chief, weary of the occasional questions at his staged press conferences, simply said Saddam had "nothing" to do with the attacks of 9/11. So from that point, I guess, the murals were just to remind the soldiers of life in New York.

More than six years after 9/11 we're still fighting two military wars in Aghanistan and Iraq to avenge the crimes of 19 Arabs from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen and the UAE. The CIA tells us that the threat of terrorism has increased worldwide as a result. If you board a plane today at Chicago's O'Hare or at Los Angeles International, the chances are less than half that the poorly-paid TSA employees can spot bomb components taken on board in carry-on luggage. The ports, nuclear facilities and chemical plants in the country remain unguarded. The "security tax" added to airline tickets was not used to purchase screening devices for all cargo luggage in every major American airport, as required by legislation. The strength of the military and national guard units has deteriorated because of the unending battles. Because of the very bad ideas of gung-ho lawyers close to Bush and Cheney, the Geneva Conventions were abandoned in the treatment of detainees at Bagram in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and at Guantanamo, leading to the systematic commission of war crimes, including torture and murder. Congress then said that was okay, and exonerated all of it. As a result of all that, America's moral leadership in the world has taken a vicious pounding.

Ah hell -- if we had just caught the 19 Arabs in the act, as they boarded the four planes. As we could have, probably, given that the "lights were blinking red," as George Tenet said. The way we caught the German saboteurs in World War II, the ones tried in ex parte Quirin. All those lives saved, all that money not wasted.

November 27, 2007

Major Sheikh-up at Citigroup

Meet Robert Rubin's new business partner: Sheikh Ahmed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, managing director of...well, Abu Dhabi. Any distinction between the political and business spheres in that richest of all the world's cities is, shall we say, chimerical (today's word, meaning "imaginary, unreal;" from the Greek "chimera," referring to a fire-breathing monster which apparently was part goat, part lion and part serpent. Sounds like something you might see with a bad ouzo hangover, if that resinates with you. No typo there, I simply demand that my readers pay attention; for example, did you miss the pun about "oxen being gored" in yesterday's installment about global warming? Stop sleeping through these things. Part of the mission statement here at the Pond includes waking Americans from their TV-induced stupor). Abu Dhabi decided to invest $7.5 billion in Citigroup on very favorable terms, guaranteeing itself an 11% return on securities convertible to stock at designated strike prices a few years down the road. Abu Dhabi immediately became Citigroup's largest investor. The second largest is an L.A. investment group, which sounds reassuring, but the third is a Saudi prince, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Thus, Citigroup got rid of one prince, Charles Prince, its CEO, but retained a much wealthier and more influential one. But I'm concerned that Alwaleed is going to get pissed off at his demotion and buy some more of America's biggest bank. If he decides to do that, money won't stop him. The United Arab Emirates (of which Abu Dhabi is the "capital") and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia pull in a combined $1.3 billion per day from petroleum sales, and as that light, sweet crude in which they specialize nears one hundred bucks a barrel, I imagine the prince must have a setup like Scrooge McDuck; he has a tower full of gold coins and a steam shovel to move it all around.

By the way, Abu Dhabi recently bought a 7.5 % stake in the privately-held (very privately held) Carlyle Group, that mysterious and politically influential holding company which once employed George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, along with James Baker and lots of other Washington insiders. It's all pretty cozy, isn't it? Senator Charles Schumer (Turncoat,-N.Y.) thinks the Citigroup deal is just dandy. The bank needs money, Abu Dhabi has more money than God, so where's the problem? The stock market sure likes the deal; it went skyward like a Patriot missile closing on a Saudi-financed Pakistani missile. Schumer did get exercised about that "Dubai ports deal;" remember that? The very idea! We were going to turn over our port security to a country which two of the 9/11 hijackers called home! Under this logic, of course, we shouldn't let Prince Alwaleed own anything like the huge stake which he holds in America's biggest bank, since fifteen of the hijackers came from our "ally," Saudi Arabia. And didn't we recently discover that about 40% of the foreign jihadis in Iraq originate in Saudi Arabia, along with lots of money to fund their killing of American soldiers and Iraqi citizens? Why this kid-glove treatment? Oh, now I remember. Still, shouldn't someone organize a "Fair Play for Dubai" committee? Is that idea so chimerical?

It's a neat loop. Citigroup is in deep doo-doo because of all the subprime loans and worthless mortgage-backed securities on its books. It's slowly and grudgingly letting the news out, little by little, about just high deep the poop is piled. All those cheap loans were made possible by all the money invested by China, Japan and "sovereign wealth funds," such as those in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, in U.S Treasuries. All those cheap loans crapped out and Citigroup began going under. Now the "sovereign wealth funds" are back, only instead of buying U.S promises to pay at measly Treasury rates (and then enduring the devaluation of their investment because of the tanking greenback), they're cutting out the middlemen, Henry Paulson and
Ben Bernanke, and just buying the goddam bank, like they shoulda in the first place.

Well, yeah. Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. aren't exactly democracies. And in that thrilling second Inaugural, Bush did promise to transform the world with the "gift of freedom," just like in Iraq. But let's get real here; we have to take on one despotic regime at a time. And man, do we need the money in the meanwhile. So while democracy spreading is a nice idea, it's a little unrealistic to slay all these lion-goat-serpent thingies all at one go. Chimerical, to say the least.

November 26, 2007

Chicken Little vs. the Pipe Smoker

I write more about legal matters than other blog subjects because my education and work life have made me more familiar with the language and concepts of law than, say, economics or neurosurgery. In the age of the blog, however, any subject seems like fair game, especially impressionistic reactions to the "state of society" or the world in general. I read many such mind farts on the blog-aggregating sites such as the Huffington Post or the Daily Kos. To generalize about the generalizations, you can break them down into the Chicken Littles and the Reassuring Realists, or The Pipe Smokers. The Pipe Smokers dislike theories of massive economic collapse or climate crises. Chicken Littles revel in apocaplyptic scenarios and conspiracy theories. One way you can resolve the "controversy" is to settle at a midpoint; each has "something to say." And yet, when you think about it, there is no reason such moderation is necessarily closer to reality when it comes to scientific subjects.

Climate crisis is probably a good case in point. The Realist viewpoint is that global warming is a problem like other human problems and that gradualist responses will work just fine without the social dislocations of a frenzied reordering of energy use in transportation and industry. I see this style epitomized in the relaxed and confident analyses of such pundits as Patrick Buchanan and George Will; they are bemused by the Chicken Littles and their hysterical raving. There is no particular reason that these journalists know a damn thing about climate science; rather, their "conservative" response has been conditioned by the success or vindication of their opinions about other fields of human activity, such as politics and the economy. These metaphors or analogies, of course, have nothing to do with Earth's atmosphere. The presence of heat-trapping gases in the troposphere and the myriad feedback processes which lead to warming of the air and oceans, acidification of the seas, and changing weather patterns are not, in any sense, related to the human psychology which affects the outcomes of political races or economic activities. They think because humans temper their irrational reactions over time and behave in predictable and cyclical patterns that the atmosphere will do the same thing; the Earth will "settle down," see what's best for it, and cooperate with human beings. At base, such thinking is flat-out stupid; it arises from an inability to distinguish factual situations from each other on the basis of their disparate elements.

As an example, if you place a small pan of water on an oven burner, and you know the BTU output of the burner, the conductivity of the the pan, the atmospheric pressure in the room, and the starting temperature and quantity of the water, you can make intelligent estimates about when the water will boil. Chicken Little has no advantage over the Pipe Smoker; there is no "Liberal" or "Conservative" position on this experiment. Multiply this experiment by the complexities of climate change and you essentially have the political situation vis-a-vis global warming. The only difference is that the variables and feedback processes are so complicated that there is room for differences of opinion; how one resolves the difference depends, I would be willing to bet, on two factors: one's natural temperament and the extent to which one is familiar with the science of the subject. Where a pundit or politician (such as Buchanan, George Will or George W. Bush) has no empirical grasp of the problem, the "conservative" attitude that all changes must be incremental and gradual is decisive (in Bush's case we have to add the element of corruption). The same thing, of course, happens on the "liberal" side; a politician or journalist who favors "progressive" positions identifies the "Chicken Little" response as the hip way to think, with or without any handle on atmospheric science.

It isn't difficult to see why climate change presents a scientific challenge distinct from the usual arcane questions posed by the scientific world. If we were dealing with a question of brain surgery, for example, Patrick Buchanan and George Will would not weigh in with the "conservative" position on the right approach to excising a tumor; nor would they inquire into the "liberal" or "conservative" biases of the neurosurgeon, as such troglodytes as James Inhofe (Cretin,-OK) routinely do about climate scientists. But adapting to the problem of greenhouse gases gores the oxen of the conservative lifestyle, which first and foremost favors comfortable affluence based upon the existing state of things. So they have to react, and since there is just enough wiggle room to hem and haw about the "pace" of change, and the relative necessity of Draconian versus gradual adaptation, the "conservative position" on climate change arises.

As I say, none of this posturing has anything whatsoever to do with the greenhouse effect. If we could, in some way, transport ourselves to a high vantage point, looking down upon Earth and its comical dominant species, and listen in on their stupid reactions as they boil themselves alive, we could get some sense of how ridiculous all of this is. Since we can't do that, we'll have to wait till 2009 and then see if the world's largest polluter, in throwing away eight critical years near the tipping point of the change, can lead the world away from the abyss.

November 23, 2007

Quiet Days in Baghdad

It is a right-wing canard that those on the "left" (I love how we use these political designations borrowed directly from the despised French) revel in the daily reports of mass carnage from Iraq. No doubt among the true political die-hards on the liberal side, especially those who in some way have tied their livelihoods to opposition to the Bush regime, there is an element of barely-suppressed glee at a picture of another red and black cloud erupting on a Baghdad street. I have never felt that way myself. I have always hoped that Iraqis might some day live in peace and prosperity. The idea that thousands of Iraqis, men, women, children, have been slaughtered in the anarchy unleashed by the American invasion has always made me sick. As it would be for us, each one of those deaths was endured by someone with one life.

So if things are genuinely quieter in Iraq now, that's okay with me. It might discomfit factions of the Democratic opposition, especially those like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer who have in some sense entangled themselves in the simplistic calculations of Bush himself. If violence has decreased, then the war was always a good idea, according to Bush. I saw this coming a long time ago, if I may say so now. That's what the war had become "about;" Reid insisted the war was "lost," but those words can have only one meaning to the barely-discerning general American public: the mighty U.S. military had been defeated in battle. The conniving George Bush, whose own intellectual limitations place him closer to the general perceptions of average Americans, saw his opening. Of course, we hadn't "lost." There was no combination of Iraqi regular army, home-grown insurgents or foreign jihadists who could actually defeat the American military. And John Q. Public measures success or failure by one "metric," and by one metric only: how many American soldiers are being killed.

I imagine this statistic can be manipulated. For example, the unctuous and importuning little commander on the ground, Gen. David Petraeus, could limit American casualties simply by curtailing street patrols where Americans get blown up. He could use aerial bombing more, and there is evidence this is exactly what he's doing. He could arm and bribe local Sunnis into directing their general antipathy toward changed circumstances against foreign jihadists and "al-Qaeda in Iraq," and this is announced official policy. All of these things dial down the American death-o-meter

Still, things do seem generally quieter in Baghdad and elsewhere, and that's a good thing that may be separate and apart from anything the Americans have done or not done. I would imagine, for example, that a young Iraqi insurgent, Sunni or Shiite, would simply tire of battle. It's been going on for several years, and it's a lousy way to live. It's made thousands of American soldiers completely crazy and dysfunctional, and compared to an Iraqi fighter, Americans have layers and layers of social and medical support. From the Sunni perspective, the ascendancy of the Shia is now a fait accompli; they greatly outnumber the Sunni and they dominate the army, police and militias. One of their number, Nouri al-Maliki, an old anti-Sunni guerrilla fighter, leads the notional Iraqi government, and no progress is being made toward power-sharing. The Sunni, on the other hand, have consolidated their control of western Iraq, and the independence of Kurdistan in the north (where they don't even bother to fly the Iraqi flag over government buildings) is another accomplished fact. So the remaining question, really, is Baghdad, a city which is likely to be embroiled in turmoil much as other multi-ethnic and -sectarian cities in the Middle East, including Jerusalem and Beirut, have been for decades. It's quieter, but it will never be completely quiet.

So maybe before too long we can actually assess the Iraq War as a crystallized experience, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It was a war the true purpose of which, gaining enhanced access to huge oil reserves, was camouflaged behind talk of weapons, al-Qaeda and regime change. After a relatively easy military victory (not unexpected), the occupation was completely botched, leading to the loss of thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and maybe $2 trillion in war-related costs before all is said and done. America, it might be said, has tremendous brute force but little finesse, as can be confirmed in any American parking lot of any NFL football stadium a few hours before kickoff. Loutish? Yes. Competent? No. The opportunity cost to the USA in spending all that money on one project, the true purpose of which has not been realized, is real and gigantic (possibly decisive), but no one will ever bother to measure it. We don't do body counts, and we don't calculate squandered resources.

More likely, in this dumbed-down country of ours, the Iraq war will be chalked up as a "win" for George W. Bush. To figure it out any other way is just too subtle and too mentally taxing. But I'm still glad if an Iraqi family somewhere in Baghdad today can enjoy their Friday as much as I'm enjoying mine.

November 21, 2007

You mean...Bush knew about the Valerie Plame leak?

Knock me over with a feather. Scott McClellan, in his artlessly artful way, appears to imply that President George W. Bush was in on the ground floor of the Plame cover-up. In a careful leak of one excerpt from his new book, which apparently will not be published until April, 2008, McClellan exonerates himself and throws Bush, Cheney, Rove, Libby and Andrew Card under the bus. Then he declined interviews. Thus, McClellan can enjoy his Holiday season with a clear conscience, held in high esteem by his friends and relations once again, while leaving everyone else to pore over one paragraph like the entrails of a perfectly preserved pterodactyl. This is what passes for integrity in high places these days.

In March, 2007, on the Larry King show, McClellan was somewhat easier on Bush. McClellan: "I spoke with those individuals [Libby & Rove], ... and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this. ... said what I believed to be true at the time. It was also what the president believed to be true at the time based on assurances that we were both given. Knowing what I know today, I would have never said that back then." This makes it sound like McClellan was told by Libby and Rove that they played no role in leaking Plame's name to the press, and that Bush was told the same (false) thing. Bush went around the country from July to the end of September, 2003, asserting that he intended to "get to the bottom" of the leak scandal, and assuring everyone that anyone involved in the leak would be fired, although this promise morphed into a threat to can only those "convicted of a crime." So if Bush was genuinely ignorant of the truth, that can only mean that Rove, Libby and Cheney sat mute while the Chief Executive discussed an "investigation" which they knew was completely unnecessary. Then, when the complete truth came out in the context of the Libby prosecution, and it was established that not only were Cheney, Libby and Rove aware of the leak, but in fact had orchestrated it, Bush took no action against the cabal. And these conspirators purposely kept him in the dark and allowed him to make a complete fool of himself at the same time he was looking stupid already for finding no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Huh?

That version of events has never made much sense. Bush has gotten away with it only because the comatose Washington press corps is too lazy to look at clues lying around in plain sight. I sit here this morning possessed only of my native logic, various quotes and a sense of the time line, plus the revelation from a hearing conducted by Henry Waxman, where James Knodell, the White House chief of security, confirmed that no internal investigation of the leak had ever been requested by Bush. How did Bush propose to get to the "bottom" of anything, other than the moral bottom where he and his Administration always dwell?

So when McClellan now writes that Bush was "involved" in McClellan's dissemination of false information about the leak, the logical inference to be drawn is that Bush knew from early on that Libby, Rove and Cheney were involved in the intentional outing of a covert operative. Bush's innocence simply does not make sense. An early decision to make him appear innocent does fit the case, and since he was widely regarded as a simpleton, this possessed an inherent credibility. The general approach of the cover-up was taken directly from the Watergate playbook, to insulate the top man from the shenanigans of his subordinates. But, as with Nixon, Bush wasn't innocent. If Scott McClellan ever expatiates on the subject, I imagine the true extent of Bush's complicity will become more apparent. Maybe Scottie's rehabilitation could follow the lines of John Dean's, il capo di tutti capi among historic whistle blowers.

The astounding thing is that the Washington press corps never figured this thing out, and that Bush was reelected in November, 2004. Dorothy, I don't think we're in 1973 anymore.

November 20, 2007

Sigmund and Marshall

I tend to think of Marshall McLuhan as a visionary in the same style as Sigmund Freud, someone whose ideas were ahead of the physiological neuroscience available to him at the time of his landmark work. As a result, the theories of both tended toward the heuristic and metaphorical rather than the rigorously scientific. I suppose a brain surgeon might plumb around all day in someone's cranium without actually finding the site of an id, or an ego or superego. As a result, Freud has been often dismissed by serious psychologists who are impatient with his references to Greek myths about killing the father as an explanation for a patient's neurosis. Well, he was doing what he could with what he knew; still in all, his hypothesis of an unconscious was extraordinarily fruitful in understanding the mysteries of human mental life, and for that alone he is justly regarded as a pioneering genius.

And McLuhan more than other theorists cast light on the pervasive influence of the electronic "extensions" of human consciousness found in "media," a term which was not widely used until his work. His writing is dense, allusive and elusive, and jargoned-up to the point where it's difficult to make sense of a sentence. Still, you knew something important was contained in his idea that the "medium was the message." I think we're now fully enclosed by the world he described, in fact. He once explained what he meant by saying the "content" of the medium, say a television program, was irrelevant to its effect; we could turn the airwaves over to public television and televise debates, educational programs, Shakespeare's plays or serials of Henry James's books on a 24/7 basis, and the effect on the viewers would be the same as nonstop "American Idol" and "Survivor." That's hard to accept, and given the state of neuroscience at the time, McLuhan seemed like a crackpot. Later research unearthed the reality that brain wave patterns when "consuming light" from a television are different from those when reading. The latter are conducive to retention and synthesis (sometimes called "learning"), whereas TV is a form of hypnotic relaxation. Furthermore, as described by Jerry Mander in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, constant consumption of television images distorts our perceptions of reality, substituting a "mediated world" in place of the real one that sustains our lives. Perhaps as a direct result of this substitution, humans have become increasingly careless about the appearance and health of the natural environment. And maybe you've noticed, as I think I have: you can't go anywhere out in public anymore without finding yourself surrounded by people using the gestures and stock phrases of television and movie characters. "Extensions" of consciousness, indeed; or have we become the extensions of it?

America always leads the way in these degenerate processes, of course. A new study by the National Endowment for the Arts revealed that Americans just don't read books very much anymore, and as a result, they can't write either. 72% of the employers surveyed said that recent high school graduates in their employ lacked basic proficiency in writing English. About half of all Americans aged 18 to 24 read a book "voluntarily" as a form of entertainment or self-improvement. Reading rates for all other Americans, and the amount spent per capita on books, are on steep downward trajectories over the last 20 years. I sometimes think that shows like "Hardball" and the rest of those irritatingly crappy programs should forswear Pat Buchanan and George Will for one afternoon and just bring a panel of public high school teachers and ask them what they think of the future of American democracy. Keep bringing them on, panel after panel, hundreds and hundreds of teachers on the front lines of America's future, until we get the idea. It might put a stop to this silly notion that one more "election cycle" is all that is necessary to transform the American polity into its former vibrant, productive self. It's probably truer to say we ain't seen nothin' yet. We think it can all be done with a conjurer's trick, as wish-fulfillment, instead of looking at the actual architecture of the "electronic village" and seeing how horribly wrong it's all gone while we weren't paying attention.

I gotta run; can't miss "Countdown" with Keith Olbermann. After all, he must have the answer to everything.

November 18, 2007

The IPCC lays it out

As part of my ongoing quest to fulfill the twin goals of my blog, that is, (1) to be as informative and entertaining as possible while (2) being as sharp a thorn in the side of the Bush Administration as possible, I commend to you the report of the Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change, linked right here at the Pond. I continue to think that those guys and gals, 2,000 scientists from relevant disciplines, deserve their Nobel Prize just as much as Al Gore, even though, unlike Al, they do not have seats on the Board of Directors at Google and Apple, and are not partners in a Palo Alto investment banking firm. Nor do they necessarily own a condo in a San Francisco high-rise, as Al and Tipper do, a pied-a-terre convenient for Al's show-and-shine appearances at Silicon Valley Internet events. Forget the "Draft Al Gore" malarkey; the guy is not going to take the pay cut and the step-down in stature. From Patron Saint of the global warming movement to just another sullied politician is a long fall indeed.

This report is such big news that it made the front page of today's San Francisco Chronicle, the Voice of the West. The Chronicle's account ran to a second full page, which, however, contained this puzzling observation: "Despite the exhaustive work by the U.N. Panel, much is still not known, the scientists said. For example, it is not clear whether the planet is more likely to be 2 to 3 degrees, or 10 degrees warmer by the end of the century. Other unknowns are the amount of sea level rise and how precipitation will be affected in different parts of the world."

Just as a style note, I wonder why the writers (Jane Kay and David Perlman) would refer to "the planet." It's Earth we're talking about; it's true we live on a "planet," but for now the only planet where global warming is an issue for us is the one we're trapped on. A cavil, true, but this "planet" stuff, which is intended to sound so Universe-hip, kind of grates on my classicist's nerves. Beyond the trivial, however, I have to say that's a helluva "for example." I assume that the writers are referring to the "scenario table" laid out by the IPCC, where they contrast different outcomes depending on the response of humanity to the crisis. (Of course the Chronicle writers also use constructions like "the data supports" [sic], which also grate on my classicist's nerves, but for different reasons; I think Bush's chronic difficulty with noun-verb agreement has infected common usage.) Back to the scenarios in the IPCC tables, which in fact answer the "mysteries" the Chronicle seems baffled by: Business as usual leads to an outcome known as humans-are-shit-on-toast, e.g., where global average temperatures might be 6 degrees C. higher by 2100. This would represent a continuation of the policies of the Bush Administration, world leaders in seeking human species extinction. White House flacks are busy eviscerating the IPCC Report as we speak, seeking to make it consistent with a world view that holds the Earth (our "planet") is 6,000 years old on which Man was given Dominion over all the beasts of the oceans and the fish of the world (or the other way around, it doesn't really matter), and the best thing that could possibly happen would be to speed up our ascension to Glory. So if those ideas go on...I still continue to maintain that Bush runs a very serious risk with his intransigence on this issue. It is becoming increasingly obvious in places like, oh, Atlanta, that this climate change problem is not some futuristic, sci-fi dystopia, but something you think about now when you turn on the water tap. He keeps talking about the need for more money, huge amounts of it, to send to a desert country busily installing an Islamic theocracy while Bush pays no attention to the imminent collapse of a second major Southern city during his presidency. Where Bush is most obtuse (and it is a characteristic which came back to haunt other rulers who mistook transient invulnerability for lifetime immunity) is in thinking that if things go really, really bad, an aroused American mob won't be looking around for people to blame and punish. Suppose that the good folks of Atlanta are forced, within the next 6 months, to begin dispersing to other parts of the country where they can finally take a shower. Why isn't this a realistic danger? They're down to 80 days of water, and Governor Sonny Perdue is now holding prayer meetings on the state capitol steps. I hope he has better luck with Divine intercession than indicated in all the controlled experiments on the practice. Shouldn't the USA be engaged in yet another "Manhattan Project" (so many Manhattans, so little time) to develop desalination using solar power to run a reverse osmosis system? And figuring out useful ways to handle all the osmotic sludge you pile up from doing so? Atlanta (and Los Angeles and Phoenix and New York City) are not that far from huge reservoirs of water (known as the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans) that are positively brimming with H2O, and which, in fact, are getting deeper every day! Research and industry like that could make the USA a world leader in...something again. Is ensuring a thriving Kurdistan really more important than all that? Do people down in the Peach State know how badly they're being neglected by this regime they, more than most states, put in power?

Another 14 months of this clown. While Atlantans pack up and move to Manitoba, Bush wants to keep sending all the taxpayer money he can get his hands on, and all he can borrow, to Baghdad. Of course, Georgians will have to cross a lot of decrepit bridges and overpasses to get there, and it will cost a fortune, what with $4 or $5 or $6 a gallon for gas, if, in fact, OPEC still accepts the greenback for oil. We may have to start laundering our money through a hard currency, like the Mexican peso.

I suppose one kind of prison for environmental criminals could be built on a remote and low-lying Pacific island. Suppose the jail is built right at (present) sea level. But the sentences are long, 20 or 30 years, and the inmates are told that no matter what happens, they won't be transferred somewhere else. The cells are only a few yards from the surf, and they're all on the ground floor. And what's worse, the world has chosen that very first scenario, business as usual...