December 31, 2008

Bush Administration's Greatest Hits

It is that time of year when columnists, pundits, movie critics and even bloggers tend to write "Best" lists for the preceding 12 months.  This particular New Year's Eve we stand at the juncture of a truly great event, the End of the Bush Era in American Life.  Perhaps then it is fitting to reflect on some of the singular accomplishments of the Bushian National Nightmare not only of this past year, but of the preceding seven as well.

1.  The Complete Absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq:  We all have our personal favorites, I'm sure, but for me this event, this occurrence, this unbelievable fact, represents Bush's Sistine Chapel Ceiling.  I consider it the single greatest error ever made by any President of the United States in the history of the Republic.  It is difficult to get one's mind around it because you blow your own mind in the process.  Regardless of latter-day historical revisionism, the fact remains that the main, the chief, the only rationale for invading Iraq was that it constituted an act of preemptive self-defense (surely very controversial even at that) against a "clear, present and gathering danger" to the security of the USA.  Not a single cannister of nerve gas, nor a single vial of anthrax, nor a gram of weapons-grade uranium has ever been found within the borders of Iraq despite our virtual ownership of the country for the past six years.  This colossal blunder, this incomparable error in judgment, constituted the basis on which we committed the military forces of the United States with consequences which have been detailed on this blog and everywhere else for numerous years.

2.  Hurricane Katrina:  The range of Bush's incompetence is perhaps his defining characteristic.  While the American public watched the city of New Orleans drown on national television, Bush, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security remained unaware that there was any sort of problem there. Bush breathed a sigh of relief and remarked that we "had dodged a bullet."  

3.  The Reintroduction of Torture by a Modern Twenty-First Century Democracy:  This is another of Bush's signature accomplishments.  As with Iraq & Katrina, I think it will take years, perhaps a decade, before the enormity of what Bush has done in this field can be truly evaluated and placed in context. Bush specifically approved the use of waterboarding, a form of torture devised during the Spanish Inquisition and prosecuted by the United States against the Japanese as a war crime following World War II.

4.  The Establishment of a Concentration Camp in Guantanamo: As the stories leak out, it becomes increasingly apparent that Bush, with the aiding & abetting of his consigliere Alberto Gonzales, created a legal black hole in Cuba where hundreds of innocent men who had nothing to do with a "war on terror" were incarcerated in cages and denied, for years on end, any form of challenge to the legality of their detention.

5.  The Obstruction of International Efforts to Deal with Global Warming and Ocean Acidification:  Perhaps in no other arena have Bush's innate anti-social tendencies wreaked greater havoc, and with such ominous long-term consequences, than in his obdurate, non-scientific, malicious interference with the international consensus that drastic and immediate responses are needed to deal with climate change.  He has sided with the yahoo, know-nothing idiots who have watched passively as the accelerating effects of climate change (which have tended, in nearly every instance, to be worse than the long-range predictions of the IPCC) have engulfed the world.

These are highlights, but of course any summary of Bush must be truncated to avoid rewriting something approaching the combined length of War & Peace and Moby Dick.  Historians will have to figure Bush out in the fullness of time.  One question that always perplexed me: what was Bush for?  It doesn't suffice to say he was for a "strong America," because he ignored the clear warning signals preceding the attacks of 9-11.  He wrecked the military by overusing it in unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He destroyed the nation's economy through a reckless and stupid regime of "deregulation."  He leaves behind a trillion dollar annual budget deficit for the US government, reeling safety net and health programs, and the essential bankruptcy of all 50 states.  Had he actually designed administration policy with the specific intent of damaging the safety and common welfare of the American citizenry, it is difficult to see how he could have surpassed his actual record of destruction.  75% of the American population disapprove of his presidency and are "anxious" for him to leave office.  The other 25%, of course, are clinically insane.  

So one must look out upon this vast landscape of destruction and conclude, as perplexing as the conclusion might seem, that this is actually what Bush wanted.  He wanted to wreck the country and found the best (which is to say: worst) people he could hire to help him do it.  As Sherlock Holmes instructed, in deducing the truth one must eliminate all possibilities until one is left with a single explanation that fits the facts.  And that explanation, however unlikely it might have seemed at the outset, must be the truth.

December 30, 2008

Twenty Days of Bush

As I begin writing this, Bush has 20 days and 9 hours left.  While he has been preoccupied over the last month or so with environmental destruction of a truly deranged character (opening wilderness up to mining, for example, and Endangering Species already listed as Endangered Species under the Endangered Species Act), I suspect that the last 3 weeks or so are going to be devoted to business of a more personal nature.  To wit, undertaking necessary measures to ensure his own freedom from incarceration over the balance of his life.

One thing we know about Bush is that the outrageous does not faze him.  The commutation of sentence of Scooter Libby, for example, was so clearly a repudiation of his own pledge to deal harshly with classified information leakers within his administration that one might have been forgiven for thinking that even Bush, that most hypocritical and morally indifferent of men, would second-guess himself on that one.  No, he went right ahead with it.  He didn't even pretend that the putative reason given (the sentence was "too severe," although it was actually less than federal sentencing guidelines) had any plausibility.  He would have been content, I'm sure, to give no reason whatsoever.  I am virtually certain that one of the things he'll do during these last 20 days is to grant Libby a full pardon.

I suspect, however, that Bush is reluctant to grant himself a pardon, either through an unprecedented auto-pardon or by the Cheney Two-Step, where Bush resigns close to the end of his term so that Cheney can preside over the Bush Absolution.  There may, in fact, be legal ramifications to resignation of a President, even for so brief a period as one day, of which I'm unaware.  But mainly I think that Bush, who is in a curious way obsessed with his "legacy" (a narcissistic fussiness about his historical image), does not like the ignominy which attaches to so craven a legal dodge.

Which must mean that his Administration is actively engaged in conversations with the Obama transition team. The historical precedent is the Nixon-Ford "understanding" reached at the time Nixon resigned.  Ford, for the good of the country, would put it "all behind us."  Certainly, in the smoking ruin that Bush has bequeathed us there are plenty of rationales for getting things behind us so we can focus on pressing concerns such as our economic survival. 

In a larger sense, however, a Bush Auto-Pardon would contradict the reigning ethos of the Bush Administration.  Bush& Cheney are devoted to the principles of illegality without accountability; it is their credo, their calling, in a way.  The Unitary Executive was an exercise in lawlessness.  They were most at home with themselves when blatantly breaking the law and defying a prostrate Congress to do anything about it, which Congress never did.  Never even a successful censure motion.  Think about that.  With all we know about what has gone on, from the fraud used to sell an unnecessary war, to the lack of preparation and seriousness re: the attacks of 9/11, to the torture regime, to the warrantless wiretapping, to the felonious disclosure of a CIA agent's identity, not a single peep out of Congress.  That, more than anything, will be the the Bush/Cheney Legacy: a completely broken system of checks and balances.  And any act of contrition, such as that implied in a pardon, even if prophylactic, demeans this proud legacy of doing whatever they felt like doing. It would almost amount to some sort of tacit admission of doing something wrong.

It's a chancy play, an obeisance to vanity, but I think Bush will risk it.  He will sneer at Congress one more time by going "bare," leaving office with no pardon in his pocket.  It's probably not that great a risk.  Since the attitude of indifference is now so firmly established, since Congress, no matter who's in charge, seems institutionally incapable of taking remedial action, I suspect that Bush may safely forgo that final safety measure of complete executive exoneration.  He will strut out of the Oval Office one last time on January 20, having hastily signed a final batch of Executive Orders authorizing nuclear testing in ANWR, and oil drilling in Lake Tahoe, and head off toward the sunset in the West, to his strange retirement in Texas.  If he does things that way, I doubt that Cheney will get a pardon either.  It's not like Bush to be selfless.  He'll withhold Cheney's clemency out of spite, just to razz him.

Obama & Co will look into things, form a commission, let the statute of limitations expire, and that will be that.  We'll all move ahead as if nothing happened.  We don't want to criminalize, you know -- policy differences.  Or much of anything else, as long as it happened in the Beltway.  The true Bush Legacy is that the nation's capital has become an accountability-free zone.

December 28, 2008

Back in the USSA, Reprised

Been away so long I hardly knew the place,
Gee, it's good to be back home.
Leave it to tomorrow to unpack my case,
Honey, disconnect the phone,
I'm back in the U.S.S....

A."   "Back in the USSR" (almost), John Lennon & Paul McCartney

With "change" in the air, the Magical Thinkers are enjoying a Renaissance.  The Resident Hysteric at the New York Times, the noted Friedman Unit, recently called for a "reboot" of America as Obama takes charge.  Conflating his two most recent columns, I get the idea that unless we enact Friedman's cherished idea of a gasoline tax immediately, we're toast, and we'll never have high speed rail or battery technology or a green economy, because without that tariff, Americans will just go back to buying used SUVs and Hummers.  The Unit said so.  Also, that the "next few months" will be among the most important in U.S. history.

I appeal to the good judgment of the American people: does anyone seriously believe that major changes in the basic way this country does business, lives, works and gets around the landscape, will be in place by, for example, June, 2009? Friedman, who travels a lot, keeps seeing the high speed rail of China and Europe, with their vastly superior Internet infrastructure, and the roll-out of the Chinese electric car and the Israeli nationwide system of electric vehicles with renewable electric power, and The Unit asks: why not us?

I would add to his list a fascinating piece in the Times recently which detailed the development of the "passive thermal" house in Darmstadt and elsewhere in Germany (a phenomenon spreading throughout the Northern tier of Europe), wherein hermetically-sealed houses are built without furnaces and maintain their comfortable temperatures with energy usage equivalent to a single hair dryer.  About 1/20th of a conventional furnace-heated house.  The houses are super-insulated, use an ingenious heat-exchanger to bring fresh air in from the outside, and cost only slightly more to build (in Germany) than conventional houses, because in Germany, you see, they have the technology, materials and inclination to use them.  It is the way out of dependence on natural gas supplies from Russia - simple, brilliant, vibrantly Green.

Our foreign energy dependence is certainly no less dire - about 70% of our petroleum is imported.  Yet the Unit concedes that unless Americans are in effect blackmailed (through a gasoline tax), they will more or less immediately revert to their old patterns of buying gas hogs.  Indeed, with the average price per gallon now again below two bucks, this is beginning to happen. In December trucks and SUVs outsold cars, and hybrid car sales took a beating.

The Unit was born in 1953, which makes him old enough to be susceptible to a fallibility which a psychiatrist I know calls the "trance of everyday living," a useful heuristic tool for analyzing things you hear people say which seem at odds with what you perceive with your own senses.  In essence, our Gestalt of perception is formed in childhood and shapes our interaction with the real world.  We imagine that The Others in our lives think and behave in line with a certain number of notional prototypes, based on our childhood experiences.  So The Unit is more or less mentally trapped in the go-go spirit of the American Colossus, the superpower, the inventive, infinitely adaptable U.S.A. of his youth.  Thus, he imagines that this huge juggernaut, which has been headed in the wrong direction economically, environmentally, culturally, militarily, for over 30 years can be "rebooted" through the incantation of Hi-TechSpeak, as easily as hitting the Restart button on Windows.  And taking shape on the screen as it boots up: A Brand New America.

Not so fast, Friedman.  Believe me, you will get the economic privation which you believe is essential to readjustment of attitudes, but it will come about as the result of natural processes and not government policy.  The United States is fundamentally changing now, but it has nothing to do with a capitalist fantasy of regeneration.  We are turning into the United Socialist States of America because the old system we were running has crashed and burned.  It has all happened so fast that we haven't taken in just how deep and basic these changes are.  The changes we will see in those "next few months" include the death of the U.S. auto industry, for example, which will result in the subtraction of a large percentage from the small residual manufacturing base of this country.  The financial system has already been poleaxed. The housing market is in ruins.  The crap job economy is now even incapable of producing enough crap jobs.  Roads, bridges, schools, national health - all moving toward Third World status.

To get to the Eden of The Unit's pipe dream, we first have to continue along our devolutionary path, and for quite a while longer than a "few months."  The huge "recovery plan" which has been forced on the Obama Administration is not the result of some minor glitch in the way things work here, but reflects a fundamental failure of the system.  Obama/Biden, and the economists advising them, are undertaking this crash program not as a "tweak," not as a "reboot," but as a desperate measure to avoid catastrophe.  Even at that, it seems unlikely that we're going to be allowed to remain in a trance too much longer.

December 26, 2008

Gay Marriage Considered Under the Equal Protection Clause

Perhaps it would be good, from time to time, to drop the grandiloquence and the witty turn of phrase and do more close-in legal analysis of some things which are in the public realm of discussion these days.  Such as, gay rights & gay marriage, two issues given higher visibility by the nomination of Rick Warren as the Communicator with our Invisible Friend as the religious start of a secular proceeding next month.  (First question: why are we praying at a state function?  It's unConstitutional in the extreme.)

I am taken to task from time to time for not observing the distinction which the Christian Evangelicals, as exemplified by Rick Warren and his Orange County cult, maintain between "tolerance" for homosexual activity and "endorsement" of such activity.  Herein, I am told, lies my failure to comprehend.  Evangelicals have "compassion" for gays; it's just that their belief system does not allow them to go so far as to "sanction" or "legitimize" such unholy practices as marriage between two persons of the same sex.  If I could understand this, you see, I would see The Light.

One wonders, of course, if the confidence of Evangelicals is this serene and untroubled, why Rick Warren told his Webmeister to take down the "No Gays Allowed" part of his website ( a few days ago.  It seems so...what's the phrase?  PR driven.  It's almost as if some deal got worked out by the Obama Transition Team and the madhouse in the OC.  (I was honestly trying to keep this post high minded, but it's just too much fun to write like this.  Sorry.)  Wouldn't you love to have a transcript of that telephone call?  "Hey Rick," Rahm says, "we don't mind you busting gays there in wherever the hell you are, but you gotta pull that 'Keep Out' sign from the website, capisc? We're taking some real heat from our side."  Rick:  "No problem. It's not like I believe any of this shit anyway.  It's just red meat for the Wal-Mart sales staff in the pews."  

Still...and along more serious lines.  The fundamental error in the specious distinction offered by the Evangelicals, which they use as a means of avoiding a charge of bigotry, is based on two false premises: First, civil rights in this country are not determined according to a religious standard.  And second, civil rights are not a matter of majoritarian "tolerance;" it is not the province of Evangelicals, or any other pressure group, to determine who gets to enjoy their fundamental human liberties.

The first error is based upon a confusion, in the case of gay marriage, between religious and secular institutions.  The state-sanctioned union of two people in marriage carries with it a great number of practical ramifications and exists as a legal arrangement. While the state permits marriage ceremonies to be performed by religious officials, marriage licenses are issued by the state.  You can get married with a marriage license in a ceremony performed by a judge, for example.  But the Catholic Church does not issue marriage licenses binding on the state.

Gay marriage offends the religious ideas of the Evangelical right wing because they perceive of marriage as a holy arrangement ordained by God.  That's fine if they want to believe that.  Such an attitude is not binding on the State.  The inability of the Evangelicals to see this easy and fundamental distinction lies at the root of their difficulty in being fair.  An analogy might make the point clearer.  If Evangelicals believed that the black man was a racial inferior who should be denied public office (as the Mormons, world leaders in this new intolerance, once did), that would not make the case for such discrimination.  The Equal Protection Clause would strike down the discrimination anyway, and the First Amendment's Establishment Clause would be cited in support of the ruling.

It is simply because "marriage" and "family" have acquired such a totemic, proprietary status among Evangelicals that they feel they have the right to enforce their bigotry in this area of civil rights. The "institution" of marriage will be threatened if gays are allowed to marry, they say.  No it won't.  The institution will be enhanced and made more generally available.  Pastor Rick's fear that gay marriage will lead to polygamy, pedophilia and incest, as he expressed in an interview on national TV, demonstrates only one thing: he's a really dumb guy, which is another reason I'm scratching my head over this Obama sell-out.  (Pastor Rick also expressed his desire to sleep with all the beautiful women he sees.  Oh man, there is going to be such a scandal someday down in Saddleback.  Obama is so going to regret this choice.)

The second point is that we don't subject fundamental civil liberties to popular vote.  We protect fundamental rights from "the tyranny of the majority," in de Tocqueville's wonderful phrase.  One day (ironically, after Obama replaces the Medieval thinker Antonin Scalia with a secular judge) the Supreme Court will rule, under the Equal Protection Clause, that gays, possessing an unalterable natural trait, sexual orientation, are denied equal protection on the basis of that innate characteristic by preventing them from marrying in the one, honest way they can.  This ruling will be, first, a victory of science over religious obscurantism and its sin-obsessed views of homosexuality, and second, a triumph of compassion and justice over bigotry.

As a civil libertarian and a believer in freedom of religion, I will, of course, go on arguing for the fundamental right of Evangelicals, Mormons, Catholics and others afraid of science and progress to be safe and secure in their discrimination and hatred, as long as it doesn't spill over into their old practices of violating secular laws, such as burning people at the stake.  Also, I would encourage them to read the New Testament a little more closely, since it doesn't really have a bad word to say about consensual homosexuality.  It was concerned with pederasty, a form of sexual assault upon adolescent prostitutes and slaves which was as much a problem among heterosexuals as the "gays" of Biblical times.  This is the sort of distinction which Pastor Rick, of course, is not likely ever to grok.  Jesus himself was a very tolerant guy; I'm pretty certain I know how he would have voted on Proposition 8.

December 25, 2008

A Christmas Story

The story surrounding the birth of Jesus on December 25 in Bethlehem is occasionally worth a second look, as part of one's own maturation process, because so much of what we take for granted about the story is based on childhood impressions that, for one reason or another, we never bother to disturb with later reading. The birth is described in what Christians call the "New Testament" and what Jewish scholars call "Mishagoss."  

I suppose it's actually unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25; one factor often cited is that the weather would not have been conducive to shepherds tending their flocks in the field.  But let's check today's weather in the West Bank and see:  It's 54 degrees, with an overnight low predicted of 40. Light rain.  C'mon: shepherds could hack that.  Other objections include the contention that Christians borrowed the birthdate of Mithra, a pagan character who was born on the Solstice of the old Julian calendar, which happens to be December 25.  Coincidences happen, I say.

Only Matthew and Luke actually write about the birth of Jesus. Mark & John shine it on, and pick up the story later.  Matthew goes into a lot of detail about Herod's role in the story.  Herod was a local despot and Roman puppet who heard about this birth and was a little worried about his sinecure being disturbed by the upstart.  So he convened a council of scribes and the rest of his cabinet to talk it over.  He's the one, according to Matthew, who sent the Magi to track down the newborn.  "Bring him to me, " he said, "so I can worship him too."  Heh heh.  That crafty Herod.  The Three Wise Men "followed a star" to Bethlehem, which was a neat trick, in a way, because Jerusalem was only about 8 kilometers from Bethlehem. Plus, stars tend to move east to west in the night sky, and Bethlehem is south of Jerusalem. Anyway, this star shone on one particular house in the West Bank and the Magi knew they had arrived. Matthew says it was just a house, by the way, not a manger.  Luke's story has the manger, which was fortunate because a lot of Christmas carols would not work without a manger.  Try singing "Away in a house..." if you don't believe me.

Never mind.  Matthew's always been a little sloppy, but what I like about him is his vivid imagination.  He came up with names for the gifts they gave to Jesus, and he also added the part where another angel comes to Joseph & Mary and tells them to go to Egypt to avoid Herod's ethnic cleansing, another in an apparently endless series of pogroms to which Jesus's people have been subjected.  So they decamp for several years, and Herod's slaughter of the innocents (all kids under two years old) rages through the Holy Land.

Herod's reputation would suffer more but for the historical game-changer that he died in 4 B.C.  I chalk this minor error up to Matthew's lack of access to Google.  It's easy to take potshots at Matthew now, because that looks like a huge blunder.  But keep it in context.  Anyway, Joseph & Mary return home after a few years.

Luke places J&M in Bethlehem to respond to a census ordered by the Roman Emperor.  They move from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which is odd since a census usually records where you live.  One must applaud Joseph's courage; to move his pregnant Jewish wife on a four-day journey.  "Hey!" she says.  "I'm about to blow here!"  "It's not my kid," Joseph retorts.  That's why the alter kakers liked Joseph at the card tables.  Always quick with a retort.

Although he knew it was his kid.  Matthew wasn't too good at translating Hebrew either, or maybe he was led astray by relying on a second-rate Greek translation. (How did Matt even get the job writing the first Gospel?  Where did he get his history degree, Oral Roberts?  Was he on a basketball scholarship?)  The ancient Hebrew word found in Isaiah 7:14 was "almah," which means a young woman of marriageable age, not a virgin.  "Bethulah" means virgin, but the Greek Septuagint translation renders "almah" as "parthenos," which indicates virginity.

Luke never has the doughty couple and their heralded offspring flee to Egypt.  They just go home after the "census," although maybe that didn't happen either, since there was no direct Roman rule over Nazareth or Bethlehem at the time of Jesus's birth.  I'm getting confused now, since I think this part of the history is screwed up by Luke, not Matthew.  Also, these census operations only applied to Roman citizens, and Joseph was a Galilean.  Other than that...What I will commend Luke for is that he doesn't libel the already-dead Herod by accusing him of mass murder.  The slaughter of the innocents is only in Matthew.

Yeah, there are other problems.  Matthew & Luke don't even agree on the name of Joseph's father, how many generations there were between David & Jesus, or even whether Jesus was within the "royal succession."  Jesus himself didn't seem to care and I commend him for it.  I commend him for a lot of things.  He doesn't need to be God for me to appreciate him as an extraordinary Jew born to a nice Jewish couple, and to honor his deep wisdom about ways that humans ought to conduct their lives and treat each other.  All this from a humble man, the son of a carpenter, a Jewish man, in other words, who made his living by being good with his hands -- now there's your Christmas Miracle.

December 24, 2008

You Too Can Be Successful

In our new Gilded Age it seems that only the Robber Barons really make out.  Reading about the pathetic saga of Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi scheme, one is led to think that in our society, where probably 99% of the populace go about their personal and wage-earning lives with integrity and a naive, trusting faith, that the Little Guy just doesn't have a chance anymore.  Add up all the cons, frauds, schemes, deregulation over the last twenty years or so and you must come to the conclusion that in modern American society, only crime pays.  Enron, the mutual fund scandals (inside dope to big investors, which Spitzer prosecuted - it's why he had to go), Martha Stewart, the subprime/Moody's/Big Investment Bank conspiracy -- these are headlines, but they barely scratch the surface.  The truth is that the entire financial system in the United States, including these vaunted "markets" that Bush/Paulson want to prop up, are all absolutely rotten to their core.  And in a decadent system where everyone has abandoned the idea of true productivity, the only people who are going to make money are the short-sell players (like John Paulson's hedge fund) and the crooks.

This is why it's so natural for Henry Paulson to embezzle $350 billion authorized by Congress and give it to friends and associates to reimburse them for the losses stemming from their criminal enterprises.  Congress members, like Barney Frank, cluck about it -- they're "disappointed," but they don't do anything.  It's actually what Congress expected.  Their campaign finance bills are paid by the same crooks.  Our liberal "friends" in high places, like Chuck Schumer of New York, who has personally guarded the capital gains rate tax advanage of hedge fund managers making billions; Joe Biden, who offered full-throated support for that awful Bankruptcy "Reform" Act to protect his credit card company friends -- get wise, little people. They are not looking out for you.  

When you look at it this way, you begin to see that the main difference between Bernard Madoff and someone like John Thune at Merrill Lynch is that Madoff dispensed with formalities and simply stole his investors' money outright.  He just cut out the pretend part - the part where he "invests" your money in some worthless "security" which evaporates like water on a Phoenix sidewalk in mid-July.  The investment bankers played a different game, which was to package millions of mortgages which they knew to be dodgy into huge "bonds," then paid Moody's to slap a Triple A sticker on this pile of crap, then used the imprimatur of the august, thoroughly corrupt ratings service to sell the "securities" to pension funds, hedge funds, high rollers and Norwegian School Teacher Credit Unions. The investment bank took its money at the front end; commissions and fees, which soared into the billions, which they doled out to the best con men among them.  Unfortunately for the banks, a lot of them also bought their own bullshit, or got caught up in credit default swaps which tied them inextricably into the demise of the American financial system.

So look -- why should you be left out?  When I was doing securities litigation a couple of decades ago, I studied the venerable art of the Ponzi scheme up close, as a lawyer trying to recover money for an "investor" in such a fraud.  It's not easy because Ponzi operators are not big on keeping detailed books.  The "books" which do exist are about nonexistent things: investments never made, dividends never paid.  I'm not saying in your own Ponzi scheme that you won't have to use your imagination - that's the fun!  Be like Bernard Madoff and give your pathological lying full latitude.  Make it all up.

He cheated his friends, Elie Wiesel, charities, Steven Spielberg, foundations, schools, hospitals, universities.  The one question I have to ask: aren't you sort of asking for it if you give your money to someone who pronounces his last name Made-off?  I guess.  On the other hand, it shows you just how far you can push things.  Could you set up a Ponzi called the Ima Rippov Fund? Why not try it?!

The basics are simple.  You have an external burn rate (EBR) and an Internal Burn Rate (IBR).  Let's see your fund in action.  It has a name, like Bernie's "Ascot Partners."  (Classy, huh?)  Yours has a marine theme - the "Pond Sea Fund."  That's pastoral and soothing, I think.  You start with ten good friends who put a million up (have them mortgage their houses to the 125% level) and you promise them 10% per annum. So your EBR (what you pay out) is $1 million per year.  You pay yourself $1 million too. You have to have fun while you're doing this.  Look at Bernie: apartment in Manhattan, house in the Hamptons, house in Palm Beach, villa in France, 55-foot yacht. It didn't all go strictly into overhead.

Your friends will do most of the work for you after that.  They're making 10% on their money!  Spread the word to children's cancer hospitals, the March of Dimes, disaster relief funds, Lighthouse for the Blind, your college alma mater - let them all in on this good thing.  The math does not change much.  When you hit $100 million, your EBR is still only $10 million, and you may as well increase your IBR to $10 million too.  Start buying real estate, nice second, third, fourth homes, in countries which do not allow extradition for financial crimes.  Also, get a good long range jet and a pilot who can fly beneath radar cover.

And whatever you do, don't make Bernard Madoff's mistake. Don't stay too long at the fair.  Sure, you could push your haul to $100 million, $500 million, a billion dollars.  What's the point beyond a certain number?  Finally, on that big day, you declare the Internal Burn Rate is going to 100%, payable immediately.  However much is in the Pond Sea Fund is yours. You wire it to that waiting account.  You put on your nice black suit and get into your nice black Mercedes and drive down to the general aviation field of your local airport where your fake flight plan (everything you've done for years is fake, this is easy) calls for a 3 am takeoff.  You leave all your troubles behind, including suicides among your friends, destitution, deaths of untreated children, fired teachers at the schools you destroyed, foreclosures left and right, alcoholism, despair, hopelessness.  Really, a whole lot like what an awful lot of Americans are going through after investing in "honest" securities with Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac.  So now you've done it - you've achieved a real American success. One not requiring a bailout, either!  But just like your heroes in the "straight" financial world, it's going to work best if you enjoy it somewhere else.

December 22, 2008

Economic Optimism & Other Illusions

Habitual Swimmers at the Pond are aware of my contention that Paul Krugman, ace economics columnist for the stately New York Times, is occasionally displaced by his Doppelganger, a guy who's not too bright and uses Krugman's byline.  Recently, I'm fairly sure the DG was in residence when Krugman wrote that the public debt was less important than people usually think because "it's basically money we owe ourselves."  I appreciate that the man won the Nobel Prize, but unless he means by "public debt" only that part of the national debt which the U.S. Treasury owes to the various trust funds (e.g., Social Security) which have been systematically looted in order to run the military industrial complex over the last 30 years or so, then his remark makes absolutely no sense.  At least 50% of the national debt is in the form of Treasury obligations (bills & bonds) of various maturities owed to private U.S. citizens and foreign citizens, banks and sovereign wealth funds.  It's just - well, stupid to say anything else.  And we're talking over $5 trillion, and of that amount over half is owed to foreigners.  That is not money "owed to ourselves;" it is very real debt, and the obligation exists against a backdrop of the Obama Administration's determination to invest in a recovery plan which will cost, initially, at least one trillion dollars.  And because of the many bailouts, TARP projects, promises to shore up the auto industry, etc., the deficit for fiscal year 2009 (which we're currently in) is clearly going to exceed a trillion dollars, by far the largest deficit (by a factor of two) in U.S. history, and almost all of that deficit is going to add to the real debt the country owes to real creditors.  The recovery plan of Obama's first year will clearly result in a deficit for fiscal 2010 at least as large, which means the nationald debt at the end of 2010 will exceed $12 trillion, pushing $13 trillion, and almost all of the new debt will take the "real" form as opposed to the DG's idealized notion of illusory debt.  Thus, we're looking at $8 trillion as the non-owed-to-ourselves part of the national debt, and that's difficult to laugh off the way Herr Krugman does.

I think the Doppelganger may have taken advantage of the twinned Christmas/Hanukkah week to push Paul out of his chair again today: 
Whatever the new administration does, we’re in for months, perhaps even a year, of economic hell. After that, things should get better, as President Obama’s stimulus plan — O.K., I’m told that the politically correct term is now “economic recovery plan” — begins to gain traction. Late next year the economy should begin to stabilize, and I’m fairly optimistic about 2010.

So my question for the Gheist is simply this: why?  What is the basis of the optimism?  Now, to begin with I do not want to stand in solidarity with such negativists as Jim Kunstler, the Clusterf**k Man (linked on this very page), who just never gives the American economy or its valiant people a break.  He's convinced that the generation currently in charge of the United States is simply incapable of any kind of rejuvenation, that we lack a real work ethic, that we're addicted to the Cosmic Free Lunch School of Economics, that we'd rather borrow than earn, that we haven't really done anything to ameliorate our situation or improve our modes of living (such as building a real railroad system or investing in sustainable farms) in generations, that we...okay, look.  Kunstler may not be totally wrong.  I note that yesterday Joe Biden, on "This Week," told cute little Georgie Stephanopolous (who does such an unconvincing job of playing a hard-hitting interrogator) that the economy could "tank" or "collapse" if we don't take drastic action, and that we just can't worry about deficits at this point.

I can see that it will do no good to worry about deficits.  It seems to me we're way past that point; indeed, we have crossed over into a new fiscal frontier, one where the Treasury Department is itself buying U.S. Treasuries to finance bailouts.  Now, perhaps I lack the sophistication of a Nobel Prize-winning economist, but isn't that more or less identical to covering a bad check at your bank by writing a check on the same account and depositing it?

"Legitimacy Dwindles."  That's the title on Clusterf**k's column today.  ("Dwindle" is one of only three common English words that begin with "dw," the other two being "dwarf" and "dwell."  See, Itz?  I read the emails, and Happy Festival of Lights.)  To lay my cards on the table, I really, really hope Krugman is right and Kunstler is wrong, and it's because, really, I think they're both partly spot on.  America is unique, which is why, so far, we've been allowed by the world at large to pretend we have the money which Biden talked about spending.  We don't actually have the money - not at all, not even close.  The problem is that the country which must use this unique resource, fake money, in order to revive the world's economies is the United States, and we are that collection of deadbeats, goof-offs, greed-heads, spoiled in-crowd kids sitting at the same table in the cafeteria, the one reserved for those who insist dining daily on the Cosmic Free Lunch.

December 21, 2008

Obama & Warren

Somewhat more than a year ago my cousin, oft-published writer, musician, philosopher, wit and alumnus of the same demented Fundie denomination that so scrambled my early cognitive development, had the idea that we should attend a "reunion" of the 17th Street congregation of this very church.  The 17th Street in question is on the western edge of the Mission District, not far east of Eureka Valley, and just a few blocks away from the heart of the Castro District, all of these locations in San Francisco.  Trusting my older cousin's judgment, and not wanting him to go through such an experience alone, I tagged along.  The congregation that used to meet at 17th Street now meets out at Lake Merced, along Brotherhood Way, in a soulless building, a giant A-frame, with an accompanying, depressing multi-purpose building. It was a foggy, cold day, which is to say: a day in San Francisco. The reunion started out with a Continental breakfast, a long table laden with the usual victuals typical of the denomination's Southern roots: ham, potato salad, fried chicken, strawberry cream pie.  Looking at this array, my cousin said, sotto voce, "What Continent?"  I told you he was a witty guy.

One of the "highlights" of the reunion was a visit to the old 17th Street building, which I remembered dimly from my 1950's youth.  The truth is, unlike my cousin, I never attended this church with any regularity.  I was down the Peninsula, but on occasion my mother would bring her sons up north for a special event, like the Sunday Pat Boone preached there.  What I remembered about the church was the semi-circular auditorium, with its great skylight in the ceiling, the balcony and the cold San Francisco wind forever blowing into the building.  

The building had changed hands.  It was now under the control of the Cornerstone Church, another Fundamentalist church which was to the Fundie church of my youth as National Socialism is to the politics of Nelson Rockefeller.  Our guide was a young fellow with a goatee and righteous attitude who displayed (subtle but nevertheless ill-disguised) contempt at the old congregants on the tour, at the pathetic size of the former 17th Street congregation (maybe 200 souls on a big Sunday), at the old-fashioned look of the joint when they first moved in, at how generally out of it those old alumnae now marooned out at Lake Merced really were.  The skylight had been removed and replaced with a hi-tech lighting array, which was much more conducive to the rock bands featured in the liturgy.  The guitars, drum sets, amps and mikes were all set up on the "stage" (what we might have called the dais back in the old days), in preparation for Sunday's gigs (the reunion was on a Saturday). On Sunday, our guide told us, they really packed 'em in, five or six separate shifts over the course of the morning, all SRO.  They recruited congregants from all over the Bay Area, but he was careful to tell us, turning to face West and pointing toward the Castro with both hands, that they did not recruit from the "gay community."  "We don't kowtow to the gays," he said proudly.  Because I am, in my own way, as much of a smart aleck as my cousin I couldn't stop myself from wondering in a stage whisper, "Who would Jesus kowtow to?"

As I've aged, I realize I've lost touch with a lot of things as they've developed, metastasized, degenerated, whatever you want to call these decadent changes in American society. One of those developments is the huge growth in the size and corporate structure of these Fundie religions, now mostly called Evangelical, I guess.  This thing at 17th Street was not the Old Time Religion of my youth.  If you look at Pastor Rick's website at, you'll be astounded at the slick, corporate, PR-driven, New Age look of the place.  It's kind of Dr. Phil meets Elmer Gantry hitched to the Recovery Movement.  Twelve-Step flowing seamlessly into career advancement flowing into Group Identification flowing into complete and utter madness.  This Purpose Driven Life stuff that Warren is selling is snake oil and bullshit.  It has all the trappings of a cult, different from Jim Jones & the People's Temple in the sense that the Kool-Aid they're all drinking is the ambrosia of Warren's megalomania.  The Supreme Leader (the goateed and omentum-paunchy Pastor Rick), with his array of "degrees" from various undistinguished religious "colleges," the enmeshment in all kinds of "ministries," meetings, Singles Groups, Couples Groups, Campuses, onward ad absurdum ad nauseum--like all cults, it's all about a quality of total immersion in a group under the charismatic sway of a Personality of dubious provenance and highly-questionable motivations.

And of course: gays need not apply. The website specifically declares that gays cannot become members.  Never mind this latter-day qualifying and excuse-making about whether Pastor Rick is a homophobe.  You bet your sweet ass he is.  I'm a straight man myself, but I do bear in mind the old adage that it's best to defend the rights of the oppressed in order to ensure the rights of all. Otherwise, when the forces of dark intolerance come for you, there will be no one to champion your rights.  Warren is running the same kind of shop as that creep on 17th Street; it's just that Rick has gone very, very big-time with it. Rick Warren, son of a Baptist preacher in a congregation no doubt very much like the church of my youth, saw that in modern America, slick & corporate packaging sell.  Give the suckers what they want.  Give them quick and easy answers to life's eternal dilemmas (like EST once did), give them high-tech, give them one-stop shopping for all their Recovery Needs.  And give them Hate, some things and some people to be against.  Give all these desperate, yearning people the sense there are people they are better than.  Oldest demagogue's trick in the book.

And Barack fell for it.  He put a guy like that at the top of the playbill.  Sign of the times, I guess.  Well, the guy carries some clout, he's got Visibility, he's Hot, at least for a little while, and in this day and age, that's all that really matters.

December 18, 2008

Cheney's Gambit

It has always been one of my tenets of analysis of the Bush Administration that Dick Cheney is perhaps the most overrated "intellectual" in American public life.  There's no doubt he takes himself very seriously indeed, but it's also true that he's nearly always wrong.One of the most oft-cited examples from his errata sheet is his pronouncement that the insurgency was in its "last throes" right at the moment two or three years of nonstop mayhem in Iraq were about to begin, but that's just one of his credits.  He was also dead wrong about his "no doubt" statement that Saddam had a nuclear bomb program.  On and on.  I suppose it's that growling gravitas he brings to all his nuanced utterances, all those prepositional phrases salted away in his long, intricate sentences, that give people the idea he's a trenchant thinker.  Compared to Bush, who has trouble describing coherently what day of the week it is, Cheney seems like Sir Isaac Newton, but that's damnation by faint praise.

I'm trying to figure out what he has in mind by essentially admitting his role in ordering the waterboarding torture of Muslim detainees, as he did Monday night in a television interview.  Personally, I think he was just stupid to do so.  Some analysts, who are prone perhaps to overthinking the issue, suggest that Cheney is forcing Bush's hand on a Presidential pardon.  What you might call a preemptory attack on a federal prosecution for offenses under the War Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 2441.  One devilish problem for the Torture Cabal right now is that the public visibility of such prosecutions seems to be increasing, not fading away as the Advent of Obama approaches. I admit I'm somewhat surprised by that.  Maybe it has something to do with overall hard times economically; the American people are in a foul mood and are looking around for someone to take it out on.  These are very ominous signs for Bush & Co.  These developments are happening very, very close to the end of Bush's term, and at the end of his term he and Cheney will essentially have no power to control the flow of events.

The New York Times in its editorial today calls for investigation, at least, and maybe prosecution of "Pentagon insiders" for war crimes relating to detainee mistreatment.  The editors there are such good little Establishment insiders.  They just can't quite bring themselves to state the obvious: circumscribing the prosecutions in such a way simply moves the "few bad apples" approach a little farther up the chain of command.  No, if the U.S. is going to prosecute "high government officials" for war crimes, then obviously we must include George W. Bush and Richard Cheney as defendants.  They stand right at the center of the conspiracy to violate Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.  They enthusiastically encouraged, aided and abetted, and most importantly, set the moral tone for, the torture regime of the Bush Administration.  It was all part of the sick play-acting of a couple of lifelong noncombatants, one an ex-cheerleader who found a way to look like a hero while carefully avoiding the Vietnam War, and the other a fat chain smoker with a bum ticker who took five deferments so he could pursue his career of wrecking the body politic.  And now it's come back to haunt them, the "tough guy" stuff they never imagined would ever trouble their easy retirements.

With Cheney's admissions (even with his inaccurate historical revisions), the choice for the Obama Administration becomes pretty clear.  Since my sense about Barack is that he doesn't like unpleasant confrontation, he may secretly hope that Bush pardons everyone (using the Bush-Cheney Retirement pas-de-deux to pull it off), so he can use Cheney's Gambit as a way to finesse the whole situation.  The new Attorney General may also point to the Congress-approved retroactive exonerations in the Detainee Treatment Act and the Military Commissions Act as a reason such prosecutions would be futile.

One rationale for avoidance will probably not work: the "press of other business," such as the economic stimulus package.  We're in for a long, rough haul in the immediate years ahead, as an unworkable economic structure thrashes and struggles (like an apatosaurus in the La Brea Tar Pits) and attempts to adapt.  The American People might need just such a distraction for a couple of years.  It's hard to foresee all the permutations, of course; but it might just happen that the Obama Administration, taking a page from Cheney's "improvements" to the Office of the Presidency, decides to rule the pardons ineffective by Executive Order.  And those retroactive exonerations?  Same treatment.  Sure, it's unconstitutional.  But so was the suspension of habeas corpus for the Guantanamo prisoners.  So was the decision to decide that the Geneva Treaty, entitled to recognition as the supreme law of the land under the Treaty Clause, was a "quaint" relic of another time which did not apply to human beings Bush decided to treat inhumanely.  

Cry havoc! and loose the dogs of war.  Karma's a bitch, Dick, when those dogs turn around and bite you in the ass.

December 16, 2008

The Shoe Thrower

George W. Bush will remain the International Man of Mystery (how did he get where he is and why?) until the very end of his term, I suppose..  I thought his immediate reaction to having shoes thrown at him by an Iraqi journalist was trademark bizarre: he described the size (10) and then characterized the assault as indicative of the growth of democracy in Iraq.  It's probably true that a journalist would not have thrown his shoes at Saddam Hussein, so I guess that's something.  Throwing shoes at someone, however, and not just in Arab cultures where it has a special significance, is not, strictly speaking, simply the exercise of some First Amendment right.  The guy was trying to hit Bush with his shoes, not just make a point.

Such events confirm for me that we probably don't have much of a handle on what's really gone down in Iraq.  The overall narrative, the one the Bush Administration sells at every opportunity (Bush was selling it just before he started playing Duck-the-Flying-Brogues), is that Iraq was liberated from a terrible tyrant, one who posed a threat to the peace and stability of the world.  It was confirmed within a few months of the invasion of March, 2003, that Saddam did not pose a serious threat to anyone; all such ideas were at that point at least twelve years out of date.  So we were left with the usual humanitarian fall-back position: America as the great liberator, the Big Brother who comes to the aid of oppressed peasantries, as we say we did in Vietnam.

So who was the shoe thrower?  Muntadahr al-Zeidi, a 28 year old journalist, Shiite, unmarried, who was detained once each by Iraqis and by the Americans.  So it was personal as well as political.  He keeps a poster of Che Guevara on the wall of his Baghdad apartment.  Throughout the Arab world, al-Zeidi is achieving what you might call minor cult status: the man who stood up to the Americans.  Nevertheless, the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki is going to have to do something with their fellow Shiite.  

One way or another, all of this seems pretty strange, based on the Official Narrative.  We did get rid of Saddam Hussein, didn't we?A lot of soldiers died and we borrowed and spent billions we couldn't afford in the effort.  And this guy is throwing shoes at the President? This journalist is part of the majority oppressed by Saddam's Sunni minority (as was Nouri).  

Something huge is missing from the picture.  My thoughts return, as they often do, to the reluctance (actually: refusal) of the U.S. government to do an honest accounting of two vital statistics: how many Iraqis have actually died as the result of violence in Iraq since March, 2003?  And how many Iraqis have actually been displaced from their homes by ethnic violence during the same period?  I strongly suspect the real reason for al-Zeidi's cult status lies in the answers to these questions.  Iraq became such a dangerous, treacherous place after the invasion of 2003 that America really has no unbiased eyes and ears dispersed throughout Iraq who can tell us what life is really like there now, and what has happened over the last six years.  We're at the mercy of American media which are constrained by the dangers of on-the-scene reporting, and which aren't that motivated to challenge the Official Narrative in the first place.

But the Iraqis, those we set free, throwing shoes, the ultimate symbol of derision in the Arab world, at their Liberator-in-Chief. Something just doesn't add up.

December 15, 2008

This Just In from the Senate: President Bush is a War Criminal

One might have thought that the Senate Armed Services Committee's Report on Detainee Abuse, signed by Chairman Carl Levin and Ranking Member John S. McCain, might have gotten a little more play in the national media than was actually the case.Naturally, if one might have thought this, it is because one has not been paying attention to the puerile and cowardly approach of Big Media to Our Own Private Nuremberg. The Report, which included the results of examining hundreds of thousands of documents, including autopsy reports on numerous detainee deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan which were "suspicious," to say the least (such as routine findings that healthy young men died repeatedly of "heart attacks" while in custody), was more or less ignored in favor of the riveting details of the antics and hijinks of Rod Blagoevich, the clownish governor of Illinois who tried to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat.  The Senate Report rejected, once and for all, the ridiculous notion that a systematic program of torture and mistreatment, all in violation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, was the work of a "few bad apples" operating roguishly and independently at Abu Ghraib.

From the Report:  

Presidential Order Opens the Door to Considering Aggressive Techniques (U)

(U) On February 7, 2002, President Bush signed a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention. The President’s order closed off application of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. While the President’s order stated that, as “a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions,” the decision to replace well established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. 

Demonstrating that if not great minds, then at least cynical minds think alike, I note that Paul Abrams, writing today on the Huffington Post, opines that President Bush will resign on January 19, 2009, in favor of Dick Cheney, who will then pardon Bush and everyone else he can think of so they can guaran-damn-tee that the retroactive immunities laced throughout the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 will not be their only line of defense against a hyper-zealous Democratic Administration & Congress.  Not that there is much chance of that.  Congress has so many other pinatas to swing at: the aformentioned tousle-haired governor, the Big 3 auto execs and their private jets - hell, who knows, maybe they can summon another panel of disgraced baseball players caught using human growth hormone.  Who's got time for war crimes?
So take it easy, W.  You won't have to dodge any shoes back home.  What's a little torture among friends?  Sure, technically a conspiracy to commit torture in violation of Common Article 3 which causes death is a capital offense, and every last element of a prima facie case has now been established by the Senate Report. But first someone would have to read it, report on it, and mention it in the news.  And that isn't going to happen, not here. W can go back to his Dallas mansion unworried and undistressed, a pleasure denied Hitler, who probably dreamed of those golden days atop Berchtesgaden in the dark days of the bunker.  But we "won" in Iraq, and to the victor go the spoils.

December 14, 2008

Globalization and other Anti-Human Conspiracies

I came rather late to Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," but it would be hard for me to recommend it too highly.  A couple of well-read friends mentioned it at Thanksgiving.  The book goes very deep; I can see why some people have suggested that Mr. Pollan should be Obama's Secretary of Agriculture, instead of the usual agribusiness shill from Monsanto or ConAgra.Perhaps there's hope. Barack's impending selection of Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy was nothing short of inspired, IMHO.  It makes me wonder whether this can actually be the same country that gave us the Pre-Enlightenment Obscurantism of George W. Bush.  The answer being, of course:  No.  As the Buddhists tell us, one can never step into the same river twice.

Pollan's theses include the idea, anticipated in the writing of Frances Moore Lappe and Wendell Berry, that industrial food production is a very sick idea.  Factory beef, factory chicken, factory corn, monoculture farming, processed food, long supply lines for delivery, fossil fuel inputs for fertilizer, nitrogen runoff, manure lagoons, massive pollution, Omega-3/Omega-6 imbalance, incompatible diets for ruminants, animal cruelty, cancer, diabetes, obesity -- hey, we've perfected it all right here in America.  Michael Pollan's book is a great public service.

I was musing this morning, while drinking a cappucino with a little too much foam (and musing out loud, because that's what happens when I'm fully caffeinated), that the USA has managed, through its mass industrialization of everything, to place itself in the degenerate condition of a kind of capitalist USSR in the depths of its senescence.  We have a sort of command economy now: highly centralized, grotesquely energy-inefficient, wasteful in the extreme, and with the great mass of our population on a downward spiral toward poverty.  We are in the process also of finishing up an eight-year experiment in Leadership by Mental Defective.  That will be one for the history books for sure.  How did the United States finally arrive at a place where half the population actually voted for a brain-damaged, emotionally unstable intellectual mediocrity as the President of the United States?  Do you ever think about it in just those terms? Because that's exactly what happened.

I have theories, because I have theories about everything.  (Beats working, as someone once said.)  The "Globalists" really love this "interconnectedness" of everything, the human mosaic pulled together by modern technologies like television and the Internet.  Thomas Friedman, for example, practically achieves orgasm when writing about Internet "platforms" that allow everyone to "plug and play" in a "flat world."  A question that never seems to get asked is fairly basic: simply because these technologies exist, and were invented by humans, does that necessarily mean that they represent the optimal means of human interaction and lifestyle?

Marshall McLuhan's use of the term "global village" is often misinterpreted, I think.  The automatic assumption is that McLuhan meant this in a positive sense.  It seems more likely to me that he meant it simply in an inevitable sense.  The interaction between electronic media and the human brain, given the way the human brain works, leads inevitably to the illusion of interconnectedness because that's simply the way the human brain operates.  The perception of the senses is accepted as Reality.  Millions of years of evolution adapted us to this literalness: if we perceive something with our senses, then we conclude it's real.  Any other way of looking at the world is just too dangerous.  There isn't time to second-guess the primary authority of our senses.

The world of advertising, including the selling of political candidates, relies heavily on this essential fact of the human-techonology interface.  People will vote in droves for a brain-damaged nincompoop if you can dress him up and give him some folksy aphorisms, resulting in an image reminiscent of some real person we encountered in non-electronic life.  George W. Bush was an amalgamation of electronic pixels and rehearsed affect.  Nothing more.  And he got elected.

As with politicians, so with our food.  All this crap we eat seems vaguely like food so we eat it. We're told it's food, it's advertised on television as food, so we believe it's food.  Is it optimal nutrionally, in terms of taste and enjoyment, all this bar-coded junk we ingest?  No, of course not.  But industrial food production is what we do now, and the cheerleaders for globalization, Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, the World Trade Organization, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agribusiness, are excited that the human race has lost touch with its localized sense of direct judgment and discernment in favor of this new "platform" of Mass Everything.

The pendulum is beginning to swing the other way now.  The big energy companies are frightened to death, as they should be, of the idea that indiviudal citizens will be able to access their own energy directly from the sun for home heating, cooling and electricity.  As Americans die off from obesity, cancer and diabetes, industrial food will give way once again to localized agriculture.  The experiment with the Total Economy, as Wendell Berry called it, will come to an end.  The Global Village will give way to the older paradigm of maximal diversity.

December 10, 2008

Nattering Nabobs of Nugatory Nonsense

The Friedman Unit is now actively promoting Shai Agassi's Better Place solution to public transportation, I note wryly.  The resident Pretentious Hysteric of the New York Times, in one of his fatuous sermons, informs us that Israel, in a consortium with Denmark and Nissan-Renault, is devising a nationwide grid of electric cars, with recharging stations all over the country powered by wind and solar power.  Faithful readers of the Pond Scribbler's Almanac (these here pages) knew about this long, long ago, of course, but Tom's got a new angle: see, it's just like Apple with i-Tunes.  The battery for the electric car is the iPod; the tunes are the...I forget, tell you the truth.  I was getting nauseous.  Friedman kept talking about "platforms" and generating "electrons" instead of electricity (see?! Tom knows his subatomic physics!) and all the other hi-techie baloney he dresses up his inch-deep grasp of technical matters with, and I started skimming.  Point is, he tells us, it's a mistake to bail out Detroit if all Detroit is going to do is resume building obsolete combustion engine cars.  It would be like investing in vinyl LP technology...

Duh.  Anyway, I call Friedman hysterical for technical, psychological reasons, an area where my own inch-deep grasp of the subject doesn't lead me nearly as far astray as Freidman's unscientific maunderings ("maunder: to talk incoherently or aimlessly" - Tom's picture is next to the definition) do him, because there's no rigor to psychology in the first place.  He is, however, exquisitely sensitive to contextual cues and influences, and overreacts to anything that comes into his skittish field of vision, or which occurs to his limited imagination.  The Friedman Unit never pays any attention to the gross errors he has made which profoundly contradict whatever he's saying at the moment.  For specific example, he never apologizes for cheerleading the Iraq invasion.  That little baby finished off the USA's real chance of fundamentally altering its technological course while we still had the borderline solvency to retool.  Alas, it was more interesting to Friedman at the time to experiment with "remaking" the Middle East by bombing and annihilating the Iraqis into democracy.  You know, it's how he was thinking at the time. We all change, and the Friedman Unit changes every six months, thus giving rise to the Friedman Unit as a scientific measurement akin to the light year or the Angstrom Unit.

On "This Week" Condi Rice told George Stephanopolous, he of the gleaming, blue-white dentition (a radiant tone that surely never occurs in nature unaided) that "the world doesn't need a crisis in South Asia."  I love that sort of insider's, in-the-know parlance.  See, the fate of the world is on her desk, and she lets us know how the really hip thinkers talk about Big Events when they're hanging out in the Situation Room.  I would have thought that a face-off between two nuclear-armed countries sharing the made-to-order tinderbox of Kashmir is just exactly what the world needs. Condi (the return of whose academic excellence Stanford must be breathlessly awaiting) shares her mentor's penchant for Analysis By Obvious Description.  In Bush's case, it doesn't get much deeper than "Iraq is a country in the Middle East.  It is an important country.  Democracy frees the people to enjoy the freedom which is God's gift to the free, the gift of freedom."  After a couple of Excedrin Plus (with heroin added, e.g.), you're ready to take on another of George's pronouncements.  The Spelling Bee Champ is cooler than that.  "The world doesn't need a crisis in South Asia."  See, she's got all on her plate anyone should ask her to handle, and then here come these pesky Indian/Paki people to like totally stress her out.  The SBC ought to consider that the world doesn't really need an Israeli-Palestinian crisis either, but that hasn't moved her, in however many years she's been screwing around with the subject, to focus on it long enough to change anything.

When you wonder sometimes how things get so absolutely, completely, irredeemably bollixed up, think about the "influential voices" setting the "agenda" for America's action list.  Who listens to these people, and why?  Could they just email each other and otherwise just STFU?

December 05, 2008

Mr. Bush's Neighborhood

Yes, I agree that there is something beyond obscene about the recent news that President Nero and his wife Laura have just announced their happy news: they've bought a new home in Preston Hollow, North Dallas, for about $2.2 million.  A specimen of the kind of McMansion they'll inhabit is featured to the left, the sort of energy-wasting, self-aggrandizing, ostentatious joint you'd exactly expect the Bushes to move into after leaving the White House. And leaving the United States, for the rest of us, a smoking ruin.  They'll spend their weekdays there and then "weekend" at Prairie Chapel "Ranch," or at least George & Barney will.  I suppose the consolation story is that Laura will finally achieve her breakaway.  I shudder to think about the logistics involved in getting W, every single weekend, from Dallas to Crawford, if that's really how it's going to happen.  The spoiled little scion is going to demand a helicopter ride, of course; he can't take any chances, not given his "popularity" ratings and the mobs of angry dispossessed he will leave in his ruinous wake.  But if there's one thing we know about W at this point, it's that his new jolly life among the nouveaux riches of North Dallas will be entirely unperturbed by the collapsing American economy.  Deep into his stupid, dreamless sleep he will fall every night, confident that History will judge him a magnificent leader.  As my own personal hero Bugs Bunny used to say, "What a maroon."

At the same time we hear about the Bushes new start in life, the Department of Labor announces that 533,000 more Americans became unemployed in November.  Rest assured that this is a tentative number; the numbers for September and October were revised way, way up at the same time this dismal stat was divulged.  The Department admits at this point that 1.9 million have lost their jobs in 2008, but of course the number is higher than that.  By the end of December, we can have every confidence that Bush's Economy will have delivered over 2.5 million jobs lost.  And since the economy needs to produce about 150,000 new jobs per month to keep pace with population growth, you can see that we're about 4.3 million jobs away from where we need to be.  The "jobs" we're talking about, of course, are the crap jobs of the service economy, but even those are tanking mightily.  

“We have gone from recession into something that looks more like collapse,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief domestic economist at High Frequency Economics, referring to the accelerating job losses in recent months.  New York Times, December 5, 2008.

There's that word again: collapse.  Shades of Dmitry Orlov and his cheery prognostications about the Soviet-style implosion currently underway here in the Homeland.  Realistically speaking (and what other way is there to speak at this point), there is nothing that can really be done to keep things from getting considerably worse for quite a long time.  Even as I, the humble Pond Dweller, mused months ago, the subtraction of the re-fi and LOC (line of credit) money as "income" available to the stuff-buying citizenry (an insight provided in the first instance by the brilliant Kevin Phillips) portended just this rolling-up of the American works.  Nothing else really could happen.  If 70% of your economic activity depends on people buying stuff, and you take away half their money, the first thing that will happen is that consumer spending will come to a shuddering halt.  The second thing that will happen is that all of those crap-job employees will start getting the axe as people stop coming into the stores to buy stuff.  What we have here, in other words (W's favorite throat-clearer), is a classic vicious circle.  As people get laid off, they lose even the real income part of their "income," subtracting them from the Stuff-Buying Horde. So what starts out as, say, a 35% contraction in the economy brought about immediately by the cessation of re-fi and LOC "income," eventually becomes much worse.  Great Depression style contraction, in other words

The Maroon of Preston Hollow was advised this was coming in 2007, so he and his fellow croupiers devised a scheme of sending tax money back to the taxpayers so they could spend some more.  The sole purpose of this plan was to buy time.  Isn't that obvious now? How could it possibly work in the long run? Six hundred bucks?  Bush simply wanted to get to the gated confines of North Dallas without this very "collapse" we're now experiencing.

So that is the one, dismal consolation (along with Laura's liberation) that we get out of this fiasco: Bush didn't make it out unscathed.  It all happened on his watch.  The Democratic "Leadership," in their neverending idiocy, are demanding that Obama "take the lead" now.  Huh?  They want him to own this thing without any real power to do anything about it?  Just how fricking dumb are Barney Frank and Harry Reid and Christopher Dodd?

Nah, this is Bush's Baby.  That stimulus plan should have been directed toward the conversion of the American economy toward a sustainable future.  That was $160 billion down a rat hole, a rat hole already jammed with wasted bucks from the Iraq War and the rest of Bush's nightmare initiatives.  In a vain attempt to stave off the collapse, Bush simply inflicted more damage on a writhing body politic.  And then headed off to settle in with Mark Cuban and T. Boone Pickens in the opulent acreage of Preston Hollow.

December 04, 2008

Working on the Waldenswimmer Brand

I now see the key to success: development of my Brand.  I have heard this word over and over recently in public discourse; for example, watching "60 Minutes" on Sunday, and its segment on Olympics swimmer Michael Phelps.  Phelps has an agent devoted to promoting the Michael Phelps Brand.  As an aside, I can offer Michael, who seems like an honest-to-goodness nice guy, a leg up on the whole brand thing.  A blogsite name:  OlympicSwimmer.  What will I think of next?

Arianna Huffington appeared on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart and talked a lot about blogging.  She has a book out now called just that: Blogging.  She noted that 50,000 new blogs are launched each day.  A stat like that gives me a headache.  Arianna also suggested that a blogger write about "private passions" and matters of public interest, not necessarily the same thing, of course.  Arianna's MegaBlog, the HuffingtonPost, is a mishmash of mostly pro-Democrat hype and offbeat humor.  The quality of the writing and the writers has been in steady decline for about a year now.  The Post openly takes sides, naturally, which is the beauty of internet news reporting and commentary.  There is no need to pretend to any kind of "journalistic" neutrality.  The Republicans are bad news and the Democrats are somewhat better news: that seems to be the overriding message.  Liberal talk radio uses the same approach.  Semi-hysterics like Randi Rhodes and Mike Malloy attack Republicans mercilessly, are generally much more supportive of Democrats, but manage to convey their essential "radicalism" by trashing the institutions of government in a more generic way.  You know, by talking about the failures of "Congress" without specifying which Reps or Senators they're actually referring to.  

That's all part of their Brand strategy, I guess.  The HuffPost's Brand is progressive liberal Democrat.  Randi & Mike are leftist Democrats, unless that's a contradiction in terms.  The identification with a Brand is essential, I think, in order to command a broad audience.  If, for example, Randi or Mike or the HuffingtonPost were to take the position that the entire Congress, indeed the entire federal government, was in some sense merely a conspiracy of like-minded careerists who play at attacking each other but were all devoted to one purpose, and one purpose only, the getting and keeping of powerful jobs, then their Brand would become tarnished and they would lose their listenership, if that's a word (Blogspot apparently thinks it is - no wavy red line).  You can't just complain; you also have to have a rooting interest, a group you champion as the answer.  The world of politics and the political commentariat have, in my view (my Brand view), degenerated into something a little along the lines of professional wrestling.  Currently, the Republicans are the Masked Avenger type bad guys, who wear black tights and knee boots, have big bellies, and cover their heads with executioner's hoods.  The American public is hissing and booing at them now, and the Democrats are the fair-haired, clean-cut wrestlers in red, white & blue Speedos who never cheat and manage to crawl back from a brutal (illegal) pummeling by the Avenger to win at the last minute with a devastating, patented set of moves which thrill the crowd.

My Brand, I'm beginning to see, is a little cynical.  The problem I have is with the entire system: the ossified, two-party apparatus which has dominated American politics since the end of the Bull Moose Party in the first decade of the last century.  For over a hundred years now.  There are essentially 545 people who control the basic economic, political and legal framework for the country, and they are drawn almost entirely from these two parties.  These two Brands.  435 Representatives, 100 Senators, a President and 9 Supreme Court justices.  They establish policy for everything.  So how did the United States wind up in the shape it's currently in, slumping toward a Depression and enshrined as the great environmental outlaw of the world?  As the only modern industrialized country in the world without guaranteed health care for all its citizens?  As the only advanced Western democracy which refuses to sign the Hague Treaty for the International Criminal Court?  As the country which neglects health care, education and mass transportation so that it can spend more on defense than all other countries in the world combined?  As the high fructose corn sipping world champions of obesity?

I suspect it's because the Republicans and Democrats lack any competition.  The system has frozen up, become nonresponsive to actual problems in American society because we've got Coke and Pepsi and that's it.  The Democratic Brand works if the Republican Brand is in disfavor, regardless of whether the Democrats are actually dealing with that long list of societal ills above. They don't have to do anything, really, because the default reaction to one party's demise is the other party's ascension, and the Powers That Be know it.  Yet it's impossible to advance any new party, any innovative Brand, because the public visibility for such a party depends on the cooperation of a media which also plays the Two-Party Game, including the so-called "rebel" commentators who use the Democrats as their substitute for creative thinking.

All this is toward, you know, a further definition of my Brand.  My Brand is sort of being sick of Brands and the limitations on constructive engagement with social problems caused by the channeling of all thinking into one of two Brand-determined modes.  And this recent past is just prologue to how bad things are going to get as this Depression gains momentum, even as the Masked Avengers and the Clean-Cut Speedos madly print money and throw it in all directions in a vain effort to cover up the misallocation of resources and fatal policy mistakes made over the last 50 years.  The General Motors Brand, you see, may show us the future of the American Brand.