November 16, 2007

Passive Aggressive Holidays at Nancy's House

"I'm very upset with the de Mourvailleaus," said Nancy, catching a glimpse of her chic hair flip in the hallway mirror as she walked toward the parlor. She paused for a moment and lifted her head, gently brushing the cross-hatch of fine lines on her neck with her ring-encrusted fingers. They looked a little worse this year. It might be time to call Dr. Alberundian down on Post Street.

"Because it's so hard to pronounce their names?" her husband replied good-naturedly, peering over the top of the Journal from his overstuffed chair. A plume of pipe smoke floated lazily toward the high ceiling.

"No, because they've absolutely refused to move the date for their holiday party. If anything, they've become more intransigent than ever. They know it's too close to mine, but they won't do a thing about it."

"Have you let them know how you feel?" her plump husband said soothingly. He was the picture of relaxation in his bulky cardigan and khakis. Nancy glared at him; he could be so irritatingly nonchalant.

"Of course I have," she snapped. "They know I can't force them to operate on my timetable, but a little common courtesy..."

"Frankly, they've never seemed like the kind who do anything out of common courtesy," interrupted her husband. "They're rather gauche, actually."

"So you always say," Nance retorted coldly. "But that's not how things should be done. I've extended the hand of friendship to them, but I've been bitten for my trouble."

"Fire a shot across their bow," her husband said playfully. "Disinvite them to your party."

"One can't do that," Nancy said. "Such barbarities are simply off the table."

"Well, then, I suppose you go ahead with your party as planned," he said, returning to his stock quotes.

Nancy slumped into the butter-soft leather sofa. She looked across the butler's table, through the bay window to the channel of the Golden Gate.

"I won't do that," she said. "That would give them too much satisfaction. No one is going to turn around and come to a party the very next night. They've ruined my plans."

Her husband rustled the paper as he turned the page. "Um-hmm," he murmured. They'd had this conversation five times over the last few days.

"I'm simply going to postpone any consideration of having a party at all until next year."

"So you'll wait till the holidays are over to have your holiday party?" her husband asked from behind the business page.

"Yes I will," Nancy said fiercely.

"That will show them who's boss," said her husband.

"I think so too," said Nancy, leaning back against the sofa and permitting herself a demure smile. "The de...whatever their name is will learn you can't mess with someone like me and get away with it."

November 15, 2007

Sleazeballs as President

I used to read the Berkeley Barb when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the mid-late Sixties, the roaring years of student activism at this now thoroughly tamed and docile campus. Back in the day, the question was whether it was even ethical to go to class, given the complicity in power-structure abuses which such an act implied. Now the question is whether to major in the hot new field of molecular biology (if you're smart enough) or in business administration (if you're not). Although with respect to the latter field, it might not be a bad idea to double-major in mathematics so you can whore yourself out to a hedge fund and handle all those incredibly complicated algorithms necessary to produce completely incomprehensible "tranched" doo-dads like collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed securities. I'm a member of the alumni association so I can use the library. I keep the books until I get my inevitable postcard informing me that unless the volume is immediately returned, I will be charged with the replacement cost ($150) and subject myself to extraordinary rendition. Times have changed.

Anyway, I used to pick up the Barb from one of the many free newsstands along Telegraph and then take it into a coffee shop at the corner of Telegraph and Channing and have a cup of joe and an old fashioned glazed donut, before (or instead of) heading off to my morning class. Robert Scheer wrote for the Barb in those days, back when Herb Caen used to call him "Berkeley Bob Scheer" in his Chronicle columns. I'm glad to see Bob never lost his radical edge, although it apparently cost him his job at the Los Angeles Times. One day in the spring of 1968 I read a piece about a Berkeley poli sci professor, I forget which one (there were so many great ones in those days), who claimed that every morning he stared into the mirror and said: "Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States." He then explained that he said that "to get used to it." Remarkable story, and completely true.

It gave me a frisson of dread when I read that. I couldn't quite believe that Tricky Dick would be elected, and I chose to think the witty prof was simply indulging in something like ritual incantation to keep the evil spirits away. Nah, he was simply acknowledging the inevitable. The Age of the Sleazeball had arrived.

Nixon was indeed a crook, a criminal mentality who debased the office and threatened to undermine the Constitutional foundation of the country. His assaults on the integrity of the system were, in fact, more dire than those of the current Sleazeball-in-Chief, but they were checked by a Congress that still had vestiges of statesmanship and noble tradition on a bipartisan basis. What made Nixon so scary was that he was very smart and completely unconstrained by any sense of ethics. Bush matches his dishonesty, but lacks the same level of cornered-rat cunning. On the other hand, Bush does not confront any sort of principled opposition; the Congress, on both sides of the aisle, willingly go along with any sort of extra-legal bullshit the president can come up with. Repeal habeas corpus? No problem. Retroactively redefine the Geneva Conventions so the war crimes we committed aren't war crimes anymore? You got it. Violate the Fourth Amendment and then change the law so it's okay anyway? When you want that? Bush does less damage because, when you get right down to it, there's nothing much left of American democracy anyway. The American system of checks and balances, representative government, and civil liberties protecting the minority from the "tyranny of the majority" (de Toqueville) are fond memories that do not exist in the real world anymore.

Nixon began the depredations. It's interesting that his popularity fell to the same Filene's-basement level, at about the same point in his presidency, as W. So the American people usually figure out, at some point, they've been had. The Crook-in-Chief was never looking out for them. He was wrestling with private demons (paranoia, thwarted ambition, stinging defeats of his youth) and needed the widest possible stage to work out his vindication. At our expense, because he brought along his ruthless desire to vindicate his past using the tools at hand -- which, in both their cases, were their criminal propensities.

But they got there because they could look like something else when the occasion demanded. Americans, over and over, elect the candidate with the greatest talent for projecting a false image, and now the only serious candidates left are the ones willing to distort themselves, to become what they think will fool enough of the people to get elected. Is it time to look in the mirror every morning and say: "Rudy Giuliani, President of the United States" ?

November 12, 2007

The Moving Picture

China has apparently "threatened" to diversify its $1.4 trillion stake in U.S. Treasury securities, another in a series of financial body blows offered to explain the 1,000 point fall of the Dow Jones over the last few weeks. Our Commie loan-shark friends only increased their Treasury stake about $13 billion last fiscal year, which was worrying enough. Uncle Sam needs to sell about a quarter trillion of IOU's during the course of a year in order to "balance" the books, or about $20 billion a month. During the seven years of the Bush Administration, this has been accomplished almost entirely by sales to foreign nations and Caribbean "banking centers." The U.S. Treasury pays such a piss-poor return on its debt that only nations with geopolitical aims bother to buy the stuff. China's goal, of course, has been to prop up the American consumer by flooding the Treasury with recycled greenbacks which can be loaned out to cash-strapped Americans through re-fi and lines of credit. They have tolerated the double whammy of a low interest rate and a devaluing dollar (which, acting in tandem, mean that the principal investment of China in America actually loses money in real terms) because of the favorable balance of trade with the U.S. (to say the least).

It's possible that China's veiled "threat" was a shot across Ben Bernanke's bow. The harried Fed Chairman is, like his predecessor, a one-trick pony. When the American economy is flagging, he lowers the interest rate to pump cash into the "consumer" economy. Last time he trotted his little horse around the ring, the dollar sank again and increased Commie losses. The Chinese are letting Ben know that another rate cut (which only provided a temporary boost anyway) might trigger a switch to more stable currencies, such as the Euro. This state of affairs puts Bernanke, and the Bush Administration in general, into a delicate quandary. Bernanke cannot very well explain the real reason he can't do the one thing he knows how to do. If he did that, even the comatose press might think of a tricky question for Bush: was it a good idea to give a bunch of Commies the power to dictate U.S. financial policy? A lot of happy talk about the "flat earth" and the "global economy" isn't going to placate the jingoistic Nascar crowd. It's just better if a subject like that doesn't come up. Yet if Bernanke doesn't lower the rate, the machers on Wall Street who are dying from the liquidity drought are going to scream bloody murder.

When you have arrived at the point where there are no good options, you can reliably guess that the mastodon shit is about to make contact with the helicopter tail rotor. Bernanke can't use the rate panacea without risking a sell-off of the huge Chinese position, which is roughly equal to half the yearly federal budget. Treasury Secretary Paulson will have to find buyers for all that debt to avoid a catastrophic default, which means he will have to increase the interest rate paid, which means raising the Fed rate, which means bringing the moribund American economy into full cardiac arrest.

I notice that the main presidential candidates do not discuss these issues in these terms. The general approach is to talk about "fiscal discipline" with vague references to the trade imbalance and the national debt. The Democratic candidates are making hay with Bernanke's acknowledgment of a slowing economy, and even the possibility of a recession, or two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. However, since the candidates are required, in the main, to be upbeat and respectful of the mighty American economy, talk of dire scenarios is off limits, with the possible exception of the token mavericks, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. However, the very fact that reality is only discussed by the marginal candidates tends to reinforce the idea that they are talking speculative doomsday strictly to attract attention, and that if they were "serious" candidates, they would fall in line with the business-as-usual approach of the leaders.

The drastic slowdown in the re-fi and housing markets is a leading indicator that about half the "income" previously in the economy (according to figures quoted by Kevin Phillips in "American Theocracy") is in the process of evaporation. If the U.S. economy is 70% consumption-driven, which it is, then a first approximation based on simple math would suggest that the economy could contract by 35% in the absence of equity funding. This would tend to add impetus to the Chinese inclination to diversify its oversea investments; Chinese interest in the United States is limited to the ability of the American consumer to buy Chinese imports. In turn, this would leave the U.S. Treasury in a dangerous position. Add to these factors the prospect of $4 per gallon gasoline and rising food prices, and the happy talk and irrelevant posturing about "homeland security" seem bizarrely off topic.

I think this is a further instance of the subject discussed in the last post. It has become impossible, in the political sphere, to discuss real problems in empirical terms. Since these huge problems cannot be addressed honestly, they simply gather force and become less susceptible to solutions. Much of the complacency about this central dilemma of American insolvency is based upon a perception that the United States is the cornerstone of world commerce and therefore the other advanced nations cannot afford to see America founder. I think this is true as a temporary snapshot of geopolitics; the problem is that history is a moving picture. We're not adapting to rapid changes in a timely way (although in theory we could, with enlightened leadership), and American's leading-man role, like an aging star of stage and screen, is giving way to hot new actors from foreign countries.

The disconnect between reality and response in American life: Afghanistan as a case study

One of the things you learn about while writing a blog are the severe limitations of your own certainty, and, in a related way, how much of what is commonly accepted as true is in fact based on nothing. You begin to appreciate, when you routinely lay out your thought processes in written form, that we tentatively accept ideas as true in order to navigate through reality in a coherent way that allows us to communicate with other humans who have also conditionally accepted the same "facts" as verified truths. And what we find, in retrospect (after the rejection of a tentative "truth" on the basis of later-acquired information), is that the reason for the consensual "reality" thus constructed was emotional rather than intellectual.

To place some meat on the bones of these nebulous ideas: consider America's Great War on Terror (GWOT). I can recall during the early days of Air America's broadcasts (when I used to listen) that Al Franken was always careful to distinguish his opposition to the Iraq war from his general support for the war in Afghanistan. The invasion of Afghanistan has always received kid glove treatment in the American media, from both sides of the aisle in Congress, and from conservatives and liberals alike in the general public. It is the "good war" that vindicated America's losses on 9/11, and to the extent that Bush has been criticized for the Afghanistan invasion, it has been on the basis of (a) leaving before the "job was done" to invade Iraq, and (b) [similar, but slightly different from the first point] failing to "capture or kill" Osama bin Laden.

The logical foundation for the Afghanistan invasion was that the Taliban "harbored" bin Laden, and thus in Bush's dichotomous, Manichean world were "with the terrorists" instead of with us. We then began hearing about the oppressive nature of the Taliban regime, the squelching of women's rights, etc., all of which are common features of numerous other Muslim regimes (Saudi Arabia being an excellent example), but which gained a stature of complete intolerability in this target country during the run-up to the war. The cable news networks began running an endless loop of hooded terrorists-in-training going hand over hand on a jungle gym and crawling through a plywood box. This single 10-second film stood in for the "training camps" which had to be eradicated in order to deprive the "terrorists" of a "staging area" under state protection.

Conspiracy theorists came out of the woodwork during this period and pointed out that the Taliban had been in negotiations with Unocal for construction of a pipeline across the country, but that the deal fell through prior to the invasion. Michael Moore aired out this idea in his hit movie "Fahrenheit 9-11." Such ideas, to the extent they were offered as the real reason for attacking the Taliban, were generally considered "loony," and in their own way added credibility to the arguments for the "necessity" of the invasion. Thus, a general consensus developed that Bush had made the right decision in partnering up with the Northern Alliance and driving the Taliban from power.

Occasionally, someone would mention (on PBS, for example) that the main 9-11 conspirators (Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Sheihi, Ziad Jurrah) were from Egypt, the UAE and Lebanon, respectively, and had become radicalized during student days in Hamburg, Germany. About 15 of the 19 conspirators were Saudi nationals (primarily the "muscle.") The four pilots trained extensively in American flight schools, mainly in south Florida. A book by Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, about Saudi sponsorship of terror ("Hatred's Kingdom"), stated in passing that there was no evidence that any of the hijackers had ever been to Afghanistan. I never saw this assertion specifically challenged; the 9-11 Commission Report develops a conclusion, based on testimony from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that some of them did travel to Afghanistan to meet with bin Laden, and that their passports had been "manipulated in ways typical of al-Qaeda" that suggested they were attempting to conceal prior trips to Afghanistan.

To my way of thinking, even if all of the pro-war assertions were true (and as noted, this is highly questionable), it adds up to a very weak case for invading Afghanistan. This would be true whether or not we had successfully neutralized bin Laden, which we obviously have not. There was no need for a nation like Afghanistan as a staging area for the attacks of 9-11. (The final plans, in fact, were put together in the United States.) If the idea was to capture bin Laden, a large-scale military invasion seemed poorly calculated to bring about the result (as indeed proved the case). Nevertheless, politically speaking, no one can challenge the invasion and remain a viable Presidential candidate in the United States. This is a heterodoxy that is beyond the pale, and it is unsupportable precisely because it is at this point that basic emotional factors weigh in decisively. After seeing the towers fall on TV, America "had to do something." It didn't matter if it didn't make any sense. We obviously rounded up a lot of Afghans and other Muslims while we were in Afghanistan and then established a concentration camp in Cuba. No one in public life spends much time wondering out loud who these people are, what "war crimes" they committed, or what they have to do with 9-11. We've never tried any of them for war crimes and we deny them any right to challenge the basis of their incarceration. In simplest terms, they are a "symbol," like the invasion of Afghanistan itself, of our resolve in the GWOT.

I think a society begins to pay a very steep price when its large-scale actions become fundamentally unhooked from empirical reality. Strong forces now hold the country in a state of cathexis which prevents any logical response to perceived threats. As the emotional environment becomes more hysterical, a larger and larger disconnect develops between real-world events and the nature of our reactions. We now live in a country where practically everyone accepts fundamentally false premises, proceeds to base irrelevant responses in ineffectual ways on such beliefs, and then marvels that nothing has changed for the better. The process itself tends to close off any path toward a different way of thinking and acting and thus becomes self-reinforcing. It looks crazy because, in the most fundamental psychiatric sense, it is the very definition of insanity.