June 23, 2007

Americo-Fascism, part 2

The official budget deficit for the American government, for the last fiscal year available, was about $248 billion. Thanks to the diligent research of Hale "Bonddad" Stewart and others who actually study federal balance sheets, we know that this number is a fiction. It was concocted in the same systematically deceitful way that the federal government announces its deficits or "surpluses" every year, by pretending the "excess" FICA money paid into the Social Security "trust fund" and then swiped by Congress for war and other worthy causes is general revenue, and not a desperately needed reserve for ensuring the solvency of the system in future years. When the truth is told, or the federal cover blown, the actual numbers can be calculated by simply measuring the growth of the national debt year over year. When this is done, the calculation looks like this:
09/30/2006 --- $8,506,973,899,215.23 --- $574,264,237,491.73, where the first figure is the total national debt and the second (about $574 billion) is the growth in the debt from the previous year.

Thus, the true deficit is over twice the official, rosy announcement. Since Bush's pledge to "cut the deficit in half" by 2009 depends on lying, however, the real number is never used since it makes him look bad. Again, and since his latest "approval" rating is 26%, there is only so much more bad news he can take. As has been said so many times it has at last become part of the national discourse, the money swiped from Social Security is replaced with IOUs. L'il W, with his microencephalic grasp of Big Issues and congenital case of foot-in-mouth disease, nearly stepped in it big time when he derided the security for Social Security as a bunch of pieces of paper in a filing cabinet in West Virginia, the repository for the government bonds representing the total owed on an "intragovernmental" basis by the Treasury to the Social Security Trust Fund. Since the Chinese, Japanese and many other foreign nations have invested their Wal-Mart and Prius largesse in exactly these same pieces of paper, Bush's puppeteers told him to cool it with the "filing cabinet" talk. What Bush was unwittingly disclosing, of course, is that the federal government has no earthly way to pay back all that money it has been routinely embezzling in order to run the Military-Industrial Complex all the years since Social Security was reformed (about 25 years ago). The federal government is exactly like a stressed-out member of the American booboisie overheating in a double wide in Bullhead City with his credit cards totally maxed out and just able to pay the vig on his monthly payments. The federal government has no way whatsoever to come up with the actual cash it needs to retire all that foreign debt it has borrowed on time (over $2 trillion at this point) nor to catch up with the "intragovernmental" debts it's piled up. To the foreigners and domestic investors in T-Bills and bonds, the U.S. pays interest, to keep the game afloat. On its intragovernmental obligations, such as to Social Security, it adds another piece of paper detailing the interest "accrued but not paid."

A few years ago Bush had the bright idea of "reforming" Social Security in order to eliminate it. He would privatize it, and require investments of "retirement accounts" on Wall Street, thus rescuing his friends in that languishing industry and also getting the Feds out from under all the money that would otherwise be wasted on Social Security when the system tips from green to red in about 2017 or so. Understanding the mentality behind this move is the principal lesson in today's sermon about America's version of Fascism.

Congress is quite content with Social Security and Medicare so long as these two remnants of the New Deal and the Great Society do not interfere with its true purpose, which is serving the interests of corporate lobbyists. When the systems more or less pay for themselves, all is well. Indeed, better than that, because the boost of FICA taxes in the early 1980's meant that a hidden tax, off the top, was imposed on American workers that found its way into the general revenue, where it could be added to the $1 trillion or so that is spent annually on military and intelligence budgets. Social Security, in particular, thus paid for itself. True, it was boring to Congress members because there was no way to use its funding as a way to sell influence for money from lobbyists. But it was not a complete nuisance, either, because it was a stand-alone system that Congress did not have to pay for, and it did produce that little kicker of a surplus every year. And all those grateful AARP members, who are such diligent voters. Congress is not big on financial planning, however, and it became apparent that American demographics, at some point, were going to flip; there would be insufficient Gen-X and -Y workers working to support the leisure-loving Baby Boomers, particularly since Americans as a rule did not make much money anymore; and a system that had produced a surplus was not only NOT going to pay for itself anymore - it was going to require an actual injection of cash from the real budget, the play money that Congress earmarks and pays out to K Street parasites. And that time was coming within the next decade.

Alan Greenspan has disclosed the grim truth, surprisingly enough. There is simply no way, at this point in time, with so little time left, that America can grow or tax its way out of the coming insolvency of Medicare and Social Security. No. Way. Whatsoever. The problem is an order of magnitude removed from fiscal solutions. When the federal government reneges on all of its obligations to Medicare and Social Security, fresh Hell, as Dorothy Parker said, is going to descend on America. The insiders see it coming and are preparing their getaway, in the time-honored manner demonstrated by Fulgencio Batista when he fled Cuba to avoid Castro's retribution. Asked how he had managed to get all that money out of Havana, Fulgencio answered with admirable concision and clarity: "In suitcases."


June 22, 2007

Fascism in America, Part One

fas·cism (American Heritage Dictionary...what a fitting source)

  1. often Fascism
    1. A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.
    2. A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government.
Thus, we have begun by defining our terms in the time-honored style of serious academics everywhere. The first thing to note is that this classical definition of fascism does not appear to work as a description of America's current politics. Disappointing, of course, since it's always reassuring to place one's dysfunctional government on a continuum with failed political movements of the past. Like so much in this ingenious land, America's fascism, if such it is, must be sui generis.

I think the term gets thrown around because certain features of National Socialism and Mussolini's tyranny in Italy appear in play in modern America; to wit, the rise of corporatism and the diminished role of a free press in organizing dissent to a centralized power structure. If Leo Trotsky were still around (I call him Leo because "Leon" makes him sound so bratty), he would make short work of the analytical task. Alas, even if Stalin's hit man had not struck him in the head with an ice axe in Mexico City so long ago, it's doubtful Leo would still be with us. So we're left to our own devices. What to call this peculiar political system in the USA?

I suppose we could draw attention to its salient features and see if that suggests anything. The first thing we should note is that the American system today is totally, completely and absolutely dedicated, consecrated and devoted to the service of Big Business. That is its first and only value. The reason we have the leaders we have today is because they are adept at representing Big Money. Bush is little more than a useful idiot for these purposes, but he was effective, because of his name (mainly) and because Americans are suckers for a kind of moronic folksiness, in getting to the White House. Once enthroned, representatives of Big Money who had used the revolving door between Fortune 500 companies and the federal government to build large personal estates (Cheney and Rumsfeld) could then use him, along with the venal horde known as the Republican Congress, to set things up so that Big Money, and only Big Money, could prosper.

It is not difficult to find evidence for these generalizations. Almost the first order of business was a large-scale repeal of the progressive income tax; followed later by a massive overhaul of the bankruptcy laws on terms which favored banks and credit card companies; and then the piece de resistance, the prescription drug "benefit" law which specifically forbade Medicare from negotiating volume discounts with pharmaceutical companies. I mean: do they have to draw you a picture? The Iraq war, of course, has largely served two functions, to control oil for America's domestic suppliers (if by no other means than making sure it stayed in the ground - see Greg Palast's work on this subject), and to allow the funneling of taxpayer dollars to certain inside war contractors, such as Halliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater, as well as munitions and weapons contractors generally.

So one feature common to both National Socialism and modern America is the essential identity between the interests of Big Money and Big Government; however, we arrived at this position along a path different from Nazi Germany. Nazism grew out of post-World War I desperation in
Germany and conditions of hyper-inflation. Hitler promised a resurgence of the commonweal for everyday Germans. In 2000 by contrast, America's standard of living had been on the decline for some 30 years, and its major difficulty was that it could no longer sustain its own post World War II prosperity. The world had caught up to our manufacturing advantage, and increasingly the U.S. had turned to "service sector" jobs, meaning minimum wage or slightly better, which brought about the destruction of the American middle class. The process, if anything, is accelerating, as the U.S. becomes one of the most stratified societies in modern history, with an ever-increasing percentage of total wealth held by an elite.

What was left in America was the wealth of the super-rich, and most of this was derived from transnational corporations who participate in the global economy. Washington D.C. serves this special interest group, and Congress routinely passes laws, such as "free trade" agreements, which facilitate the international nature of the business they pursue. For those who are successful in international business, the rewards are very high, and more of the capital can now be conserved and reinvested because of tax "relief," and taxes other than for the entitlement programs are redistributed mainly to big business through the military-industrial complex.

Thus, the circle is complete. In a fundamental sense the federal government is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Business which functions as an operative arm of its international business plan. As a further example, the current immigration proposal is solely for the purpose of guaranteeing a cheap and efficient labor pool for agri-business and other users of minimum wage earners. If proposed legislation in Congress is looked at through this lens, many of their more egregiously counter-productive measures (if considered from the viewpoint of the average American) make perfect sense as the result of business lobbying.

Next time I will look at Social Security reform, which had a brief vogue a couple of years ago, then sank beneath the waves. It will be seen again, and the reasons for it are instructive in seeing what America has become.

June 20, 2007

Bush, Fearless Champion of the Frozen Blastocyst

A fun game to play while we wait for January, 2009, is to read the words and consider the "reasoning" of the Occupant-in-Chief in the White House, and to pretend they make sense while knowing all the time they do not. Thus, along the lines of this game, you can consider the "implications" of his "thinking" in an effort to determine his "meaning" and the "principles" which underlie it. You may also wish to count the holes in the acoustic ceiling of the next elementary school classroom you find yourself in. Your choice. The reward is about the same. I have sometimes mused, in accordance with modern pop-psych theory, that the entire United States of America and all its people currently suffer from reality distortion caused by having an untreated alcoholic as their Father Figure. Bush constantly tells us to deny the authority of our senses and to treat inane utterances as deep, revealed wisdom. We're all going nuts because this state of affairs has gone on much too long. As one example among thousands, Bush tells us we must win in Iraq (meaning: kill all the Arabs) or they will all "follow us home," even though we know that they "followed us here" on September 11, 2001, even before we "followed" them over there, thus indicating they know where we are already (although the "there" in Iraq's case was not the "there" they were from, but a different there, and the ones we followed were not the "they" we're at war with but a different "they" we picked out of the Yellow Pages, or something).

So Bush is about to veto another stem cell bill, playing the role, as he always does, of the Vatican to the scientific establishment's Galileo. Bush is the ultimate Choke Point for all scientific progress in the U.S.A. But while we twiddle our thumbs, belching out CO2 and falling behind the rest of the world in cutting edge research, we can play the Bush Game just to pass the time. Bush is the fearless champion of all those frozen blastocysts residing in fertility clinic freezers all over this blessed land. While it is not certain how much time he actually spends with them, he clearly feels that he is the only one standing between them and a kind of Frigidaire Genocide lusted after by all the murderous stem cell researchers who want them for spare parts. Indeed, Bush's main objection to stem cell research is that sacrificing a four-day old clump of cells is "murder." So let's consider that claim.

First, homicide as an everyday kind of crime is within state jurisdiction. The Feds can prosecute murder only when federal issues are involved, such as in an armed robbery of a bank (interstate commerce clause) or assassination of a federal official. California, for example, considered the idea of fetal murder and amended the main Penal Code Section, 187, to conform to general dissatisfaction with the outcome of the Keeler case in 1970, where, up in the mountains of Amador County where Gold Rush customs still reside, the husband of a woman 35 weeks pregnant became enraged upon discovering he was not the father and attacked his wife, resulting in still birth. After the amendment, the statute read like this:

187. (a) Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.

Because legislators are not the most diligent and thorough of public servants, they didn't bother to define "fetus," a kind of obvious oversight, when you think about it. What were the odds a clever defense lawyer would not try to avoid a murder charge by arguing that whatever that clump of cells his client knocked off was, it wasn't yet a "fetus?" Sure enough, in 1994 in People vs. Davis the California Supreme Court was forced to read the tea leaves left behind by the legislature a generation earlier to try to figure out what they meant. After going through cases from all over the map, and doing the usual kind of halfbaked analysis of embryonic science that judges usually do, they came up with "7-8 weeks." That's when all the "bodily structures" are present in nascent form, they said. Davis got off, however, because how was he to know the woman he shot in the chest at the convenience store was farther along than that, and that Justice Stanley Mosk of the Supreme Court was going to pencil in a start-date for feticide after he pulled the trigger? Another glorious day in jurisprudence.

Section 187 excepts from its rule any therapeutic abortion or any "feticide" to which the mother consents (subsection c). So, just to use California for the moment, donation of a blastocyst to research could not be "murder" under California Penal Code Section 187. The blastocysts are not 7-8 weeks along in development, and they lack the "bodily structures" in nascent form which Davis requires. And the mother's consent wipes out the "crime" in any event, maybe because she'd like to see an actual human being reconnect the nervous tissue at C-5 and walk again, and values this outcome more than eternal life for her "offspring" in the Jenn-Air down at the lab.

So what do you say, George, while we're playing this silly little game? You know you don't mean it anyway; I've seen few people in public life who demonstrate their contempt for human life more than you do. How about an exception for any blastocyst where Mom says OK? Win-win? Worried the blastocysts might follow you home?


June 19, 2007

W's Alternative Futures

John the Baptist, after torturing a thief,
Looked up at his hero, the Commander-in-Chief,
Said, 'tell me, Great Hero, but please make it brief,
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?'
-Bob Dylan, "Tombstone Blues"

In January, 2009, the long travail known as the Bush Presidency will at last come to an end. The least interesting, and most grossly incompetent, man to serve as President in living memory will depart the Oval Office and will go --somewhere. He's probably not sure where. I would imagine part of his thinking, if that's the term, will depend on what Laura Bush wants to do at that point, including whether she wants to be anywhere near W. I would surmise that she doesn't. Enough, after all, is enough. If the BBC reports are true, Bush has resumed drinking; the reason suggested by the British investigative reporters (they still do that sort of thing) for Bush's absence with a "stomach ailment" one morning at the G-8 is that he was up late the night before slamming down etwas helles Bier mit Angela Merkel. There are pictures to that effect, dismissed by Bush flacks as nonalcoholic beer. But who would drink nonalcoholic beer in Germany? Angela, the physicist turned national leader, probably egged on the alkie turned world-stage fuckup. "Nur ein Bier, Herr President," she probably teased, seeking some way to steer her one-on-one encounter with this moron in a direction that would at least be perversely fascinating.

So it's possible that one of Bush's fantasies is to resume a true drinking life, and he's in the process now of reactivating his liver enzymes. Probably not, however, down on the "ranch." I think the ranch was a stage prop; most presidents (Clinton was an exception) need some private sanctuary with a pretentious name where they can go and "recharge." W is not going to hang around that place clearing brush and catching bass some Secret Service agent just put in the water, especially if Laura is somewhere else. One alternative future for Bush is to retire some place like Houston and live out a retirement reminiscent of a middle manager from an insurance company. I can't imagine he'll be "consulted" on anything; he's too stupid. The Republican candidates won't mention his name now, and he's still the President. So he'll drink, play golf and watch television. His days as Leader of the Free World will seem like a weird dream, as a life lived by someone else.

That's the optimal outcome for W. The alternative reality is where the world, including the United States, animated by a unmitigable revulsion, rises up against him. I can see that happening too. In that scenario, Bush becomes a criminal defendant, indicted either in U.S. courts or the International Criminal Court, for a long list of war crimes and atrocities. Bush, or his handlers and puppet-masters, have seen that one coming. That was the sole purpose of the exoneration provisions for torture and violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions that we find enshrined today in the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006. Indeed, with respect to the latter statute, we can go further and declare that the sole and only purpose of the Military Commissions Act was to insulate Bush, Cheney and the rest of the gang from the truly scary implications of Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, where the Supreme Court (even this Supreme Court) surprised the High Command with the holding that all these Arabs and Afghans thrown into Guantanamo, or into Abu Ghraib, and forgotten about were human beings with Geneva Convention rights! Ach du Lieber, as Eichmann said before his neck snapped.

Something had to be done. Not the right thing, of course. That isn't how Bush operates. The sneaky, cowardly, unprincipled and self-serving thing had to be done. Fortunately, Hamdan came down with a little time left on the clock for Bush's pet Congress over on Capitol Hill, time enough to neutralize some of Hamdan's more disturbing elements before a gang of Democrats descended on Washington, D.C. and foreclosed the option. Thus, all of a sudden, there in the fall of 2006, it became urgent to get that Military Commissions Act passed. I remember watching Bush on a television in the dining room of a hotel in Lyon, France, listening to his plaintive cry for mercy for America's torturers, who only forced glo-sticks up the asses of Afghan opium farmers because they thought it was the right thing to do. The idea of punishing these loyal American servants for just doing their jobs was "unacceptable," Bush squealed.

Well, of course the exoneration provisions went a little farther than that. Nested within similar get-out-of-jail free provisions found in the Detainee Act, like a set of Russian dolls, the new escape clauses essentially let everyone off the hook all the way back to September 11, 2001, and for some things all the way back to 1997, for anything except what was called a "grave" violation of the Geneva Act, and made acting on the "advice of counsel" a material consideration in determining whether anyone could be held liable for anything. You know, like Bush relying on Alberto Gonzales or John Yoo, who assured him you can torture the shit out of these Untermenschen because no law anywhere protects them from anything.

One thing's a cinch: Bush won't try to live in any foreign country after retirement, unless it's a place like Paraguay. An interesting question will be presented if the exoneration provisions are repealed: if, at the time you tortured or ordered the torture of a prisoner, it was a violation of the U.S. Anti-Torture Statute, for example, as indeed it was; and if that crime was later "exonerated" by an ass-covering piece of dreck that you ordered your Congress to pass; and, if further, at some point an enlightened and perhaps enraged Congress repeals the exoneration - well, does prosecution now violate Ex Post Facto? I think the right answer, in Bush's special case, as a Bill of Attainder all for him: let's treat this tricky Constitutional question the way Bush would handle it. Let's give the matter the same grave and serious respect which Bush has always afforded the supreme law of the land.

June 18, 2007

Founding Fathers Day

Maybe renaming the Fourth of July could revive some of its historic relevance. I get the sense that the holiday has become completely untethered from the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the nation, so that most Americans associate the day with drinking margaritas outside and setting off explosives, but not with the act of treason which got us going. For years on the Fourth of July I used to read the first paragraph or so of the Declaration, along with its stirring call to action at the end, often out loud, sometimes with an audience. It never failed to choke me up. It is without doubt one of the truly great political manifestoes of anytime, anywhere.

It is said, without fear of much contradiction, that every 100 years the Earth is populated with all new people. The United States has thus cycled through about 2.3 complete turnovers. No one who witnessed the Revolutionary War was around to see the Spanish-American War. No one who rode with Roosevelt on Cuba likely watched the impeachment proceedings of Bill Clinton on C-SPAN. The continuity of America, such as it is, resides in the institutions of the country and in its collective memory and adherence to certain salutary traditions.

I sometimes muse about what the Founding Fathers would think about modern America. I suppose it would be generally recognizable to them; they would be pleased that the three-branch system of government was still more or less intact, that the state/federal scheme was still around, and that an indirect method of electing presidents, the electoral college, survived.

I think they would be most surprised that the system ossified into a two-party colossus that cannot be budged or dislodged by any competing political factions. As smart as they were, they couldn't think of everything. Their careful system of checks and balances begins to break down when only two parties always control everything. If, on top of this, one party is almost always in the position of appointing all the judges, as the Republicans will have been for 20 out of the 28 years between 1980 and 2008, then the Supreme Court, that classically neutral arbiter of power, will become another political arm of the entrenched party. I don't think the Founding Fathers foresaw their delicate machine being thus traduced. They also could not have foreseen that the lasting hegemony of just two parties, who have held unchallenged sway over American politics now for at least 100 years, would be reinforced by modern media, and its tendency to reduce consumer choices to one or two dominant brands.

I imagine Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and the rest of the Big Thinkers envisioned something more fluid and responsive than a huge bureaucracy of career politicians, elected for life, insulated from and capable of manipulating the general electorate, and skilled at co-opting the small number of Big Media companies by rationing access to the rulers. They set up a system that worked at the level of the town hall, where the elected had to justify and defend themselves in front of the people who knew them, who elected them on condition they got the job done, on time and on budget. Thirteen small states spread over a manageable territory.

It is now what it is. The forms, the rhetoric, the ideas still exist. The career politicians intone the principles of the Founding Fathers at every turn, especially when the heat is on. Whether that old system still really works under modern conditions is a different question, but it is academic. The powers that be have learned to use it, and they're not going to vote themselves out of power. If big changes come again, they will not result from volitional development, but thrust upon an intransigent body politic.