June 21, 2008

Post No. 400: Another Milestone

I only wish I had something highly significant to say. I could talk about the Boumediene decision again (establishing habeas corpus for Guantanamo prisoners), and how John McCain's reaction to the decision ("the worst in U.S. history") convinced me that he's (a) preposterously ignorant about American judicial history, (b) a racist and (c) disturbingly similar to Joe McCarthy in his xenophobia.

Actually, it's not a bad topic for a post, but I don't know...how much can you say? Dred Scott vs. Sandford established that an erstwhile freed American slave (Dred Scott) could be returned to his "owner" because an African-American slave was not actually a person at all, but property. Because it undermined the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott decision has been cited by many historians as a precipitating cause of the Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history. Could that have been, maybe, a worse decision than a case holding prisoners held indefinitely without charges in a concentration camp can file a piece of paper in a federal court asking, why am I here?

How about Korematsu vs. United States, which affirmed President Franklin Roosevelt's decision to intern Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast during World War II, and to deny them due process rights to (a) challenge their detention or to (b) recover all of their confiscated real and personal property, leaving them penniless, although not a single instance of disloyalty or sabotage was ever committed by a Japanese-American during the entire war?

Here's my guess: John Sidney McCain would approve of the Dred Scott decision (if he knew about it, a huge assumption) for the same reason he voted against the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday. Korematsu? They looked like the enemy. Boumediene? They're Arabs. It's simple, really, once you get the hang of the decision-making process.

I like what the great Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter had to say about due process and civil liberties. The greatness of a nation is measured by the justice it affords its enemies, not just its friends. That's a concept that is lost on John McCain for the same reason it's lost on George W. Bush. They don't really know how to think. They can't make elementary distinctions between situations which are presented as analogous.

Take the Guantanamo situation, for example. Contrary to popular belief, many of the inmates who have cycled through there, or are incarcerated there now, were not captured by U.S. forces on foreign battlefields. In fact, only a small percentage of them were. Most were turned over by foreign bounty hunters, police or military forces. They're not just "Taliban" or "al-Qaeda," either. Many of them deny an affiliation to any terrorist organization. Thus, if the argument is made that the United States has not historically granted the right of habeas corpus to enemy soldiers captured during war (an argument made by Justice Antonin Scalia in his willfully stupid dissent), one can rejoin that this "war" bears no resemblance to the wars it is being compared to. And the first rule of distinguishing putatively analogous situations is to note differences in the facts of each case.

So follow along, John Sidney, as well as you can with your class rank #894 out of 899 at Annapolis (Barack has already finished the test, nailing it, and his pen lies atop his blue book). In World War II, for example, the United States fought Germany and captured German soldiers who were held in POW camps in the United States. There was no reason to grant them the right of habeas corpus because they were uniformed soldiers captured on the field of battle and served a nation-state which could, when the war concluded, sign a treaty covering such matters as the repatriation of POWs. And that's what happened.

Contrast that situation to Lakhdar Boumediene. He's a Bosnian. The United States is not in a state of war with Bosnia. He's not a uniformed soldier in the Bosnian army, and there is no treaty between the U.S. and Bosnia on the horizon which will deal with his fate. The United States "says" that he is a foot solider in the "war on terror." The war on terror has no end-date and no clearly defined parameters. We do not identify any particular nationality as the enemy (if we did, Congress would have declared war on Saudi Arabia in September, 2001). Someone thrown into Guantanamo, as Boumediene was, thus has to "hope" that he's "tried" before a Military Commission and is exonerated. But he's never been charged with anything, the same situation which pertains to hundreds of other Guantanamo prisoners, now and in the past.

This is completely unjust, particularly when we know from empirical data that the United States has wrongly imprisoned many Guantanamo inmates and released them without ever charging them. So there cannot be any reasonable claim that an infallible system exists for holding men in a concentration camp without recourse (other than the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which do not allow a full factual exploration on the merits, and deny the effective assistance of counsel). In other words, the Guantanamo inmates are denied a fair hearing, even though they may be completely innocent.

Mouth-breathing simpletons like George W. Bush and John Sidney McCain equate the existence of detention with proof of guilt. When you think about it, so many of the problems they cause stem from this style of a priori thinking. It is a profoundly unscientific and undisciplined way of analyzing situations. A Guantanamo inmate who files a writ in federal court demanding to know the basis of his incarceration has not been set free. The jailer is simply required to demonstrate that probable cause exists for detention, meaning, would a reasonable person believe that it is more likely than not that this person has committed a crime on the facts presented? Why is the Bush Administration afraid of such a right? Why is the "creation" of such a right (which has only been around since Magna Carta) the result of the "worst case in U.S. history"?

It's regarded as the worst case in United States history by someone who wants to succeed the worst president in U.S. history and become the new worst president in U.S. history. We really ought to deny him the opportunity.

June 19, 2008

Let's Check in with the Dow!

This is not a blog about Eastern Mysticism or I would simply ask, "What is the Dao?" When I ask about the Dow, you know that I'm into something equally mysterious yet less, how shall we say, spiritually rejuvenating.

I generally start the day, now with sunrise so eerily early with Daylight Saving, by turning on CNBC about the time of the opening bell on Wall Street. 6:30 am PDT. And there she is, Erin Burnett, with that perky, Katie Holmes-like crooked grin and luxuriant dark hair, next to the old puffy guy with the comb-over and sour disposition. Mark, I think his name is. Quite a couple. Erin is the real star, of course, because what these cable channels are selling now are pretty young women. The information is useless because the market is stagnant and the only people making money are the players, the short-sellers, the commodities manipulators, the arbitrage wizards.

The Dow is hovering around 12,000 now. This is a new "psychological resistance point." It dips a little below 12K once in a while, but it's almost too embarrassing for it to remain there. You see, when Bill Clinton was president, the Dow achieved an all-time high of 11,500. Bill inherited a Dow of 3,500 and proceeded to more than triple it. Ah, those were the days! I wish the Dow would simply revert to 11,500, instead of levitating 500 meaningless points above it, in order to simplify the math which follows, but there's that psychological resistance point...Bill's zenith was achieved in December 1999, more than eight years ago. In the 8.5 years since, the Dow has "gained" about 500 points. So you see the difficulties I face now. If the Dow were simply flat, I could use some reasonable discount rate for inflation and tell you how much poorer we are (measured by the Dow) today versus December 1999. Now I have to figure out...hell, do I even want to do this?

Okay. George W. Bush is too intellectually lazy to do this kind of number crunching, but someone has to carry on the great American tradition of scholastic rigor. Why not me? Let's first figure out the percentage increase by calculating the ratio of 500 to 11,500. So: 500/11,500 = 4%. (Notice that I show my work. Would W do that?) Let's divide 4 by 8.5, = .47%. So the yearly average of increase is less than 1/2 of one percent. It feels like that out there, doesn't it? I thought W was the CEO President? Oh that's right. He's being a CEO as he was always a CEO.

Now that we've got some basic numbers, we really should adjust them to reflect inflation. We can't accept flat numbers. Just for the hell of it, and to give the Bush Administration a break, and since it doesn't really matter because these numbers suck no matter how you look at them, let's use 2% per year, something like the CPI number, a contrived statistic to keep Social Security recipients on the verge of starvation, while we carry on the real business of government, wars of foreign conquest. So we have to discount the Dow by 17%. Here we go, W, follow along now! 12,000 x .83 = 9,960. That's pretty generous too, since it incorporates Alan (Let Them Eat Cat Food) Greenspan's "substitution" principle for inflation. So the Dow has lost about 13% over the last 8.5 years.

To have more fun with this number, however, let's consider an alternative way of looking at the Dow. Suppose we hypothesize a German investor who decided to invest euros in the American stock market in December 1999. Let's call him Klaus Fuchs, because he's going to get fuched at the end of this. (I apologize to anyone who finds him/herself on this site because you Googled "atomic espionage," but to make it up to you, I'll throw in a fun fact at the end about Klaus.) Klaus is tired of German investments and German life generally, with its universal health care, 8-week vacations, superb beer, great cars, smooth roads, clean bullet trains and the rest of that tedium and wants some real action, the kind you find in America. I realize that in December 1999 the euro was sort of a notional currency and didn't become paper currency for a couple of years, but the principle is sound nonetheless.

At the point of his investment (let's say Klaus puts in 100,000 euros) the dollar and euro are at rough parity. Klaus buys into a Dow Index Fund to track the overall market. The market is at 11,700 when he puts his money down. 8.5 years later, wie geht es ihnen, Klaus? Schade, nicht so gut.

Nicht so gut at all. Klaus' investment was denominated in dollars, of course, just as the vast majority of Dick Cheney's investments are denominated in currencies other than the dollar (don't you wish you were an insider?). The first of many haircuts which Klaus must endure is that his dollars are now worth 64% of the original euros, leaving him with $64,000. Which we now must reduce by 13%, the real loss over that 8.5 year period, leaving him with $64,000 x .87 = $55,860 in constant dollars. Ach du Lieber. With what Klaus lost, he could have bought a new 530i.

This may suggest why the United States may have increasing difficulty convincing foreign governments to balance our budget for us in the immediate future. It is also an object lesson in another uncomfortable fact: the U.S. economy is moribund, the banks are broke and Americans are having an extremely difficult time affording not just the cost of living, but something more basic - living.

Oh, when Richard Feynman's wife was sick during World War II, he had to leave Los Alamos to visit her in a nearby hospital. He didn't have a car of his own, so he borrowed one. It belonged to Klaus Fuchs. Professor Feynman had no idea Klaus was a spy.

June 18, 2008

Coastal Reefs versus Taking a Walk

On average adult Americans are 24 pounds heavier per person today than they were in 1960. If we were to take this additional avoirdupois and use it to construct 1960-size American people, we would increase the current U.S. population by 42 million. It should be pointed out that 42 million people constructed entirely out of reclaimed American fat would look a great deal like many contemporary Americans.

The laws of basic physics tell us that more energy is required to move obese people from Point A to Point B than would otherwise be the case. Additional force is necessary to displace a more massive ass than a toned, tight ass on which one can bounce a quarter. Thus, the huge engine in the Escalade must do more work to transport the 5'4", 185-lb. American mother of four equally gargantuan children to McDonald's than her 1960 counterpart, who smoked and popped Dexedrine while her husband in the Gray Flannel Suit went off to work for Acme Corporation, all as God intended.

But I digress. One salutary approach to America's crises of health and energy is to decrease the total human mass that we ask our cars, planes, trains and buses to displace over distance. Our toned, fit and increasingly Green-oriented President, George W. Bush, spoke in the Rose Garden today about the problem of high gasoline prices (the Dow went from -80 to -100 while he spoke) and urged the "Democrat Congress" to open up the Alaskan wilderness and American offshore sites to oil exploration and to move ahead with new refinery capacity. These were his principal recommendations. These are, of course, long-term approaches to the problem and will do nothing for years to ameliorate the energy crisis. W said nothing about asking his tubby subjects to drop a few pounds as a more immediate solution. Doesn't he care about the airline industry? Not only do our carriers have to pay exorbitant prices for jet fuel, once they fuel up they have to lift Americans seven miles into the air.

One can't blame President Bush for the prevalence of auto overuse in the United States, and I make no such accusation. Certain perceptive researchers, such as Professor Richard McKenzie of the University of California at Irvine, have noted a positive correlation between a decreasing real cost of gasoline during the 1990's and the growth of two other American social phenomena, the sale of large sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and the gut/ass/upper thigh complexes of American citizens. The SUV problem is taking care of itself as both the new and used markets for these gas-guzzling dinosaurs fall through the floor. The other positively-correlated artifact, obesity, is obviously more intractable.

High gasoline prices, however, will obviously serve as a goad to walking and biking places instead of driving, and the long-term approaches suggested by President Bush will do nothing over the next few years to alter the price of gasoline; indeed, it seems more likely that demand/supply/speculation dynamics will continue to put upward pressure on the price of oil. At a certain point, Americans in economic distress will be reduced to using cars (if they still own them) for absolutely essential purposes and returning to more primitive forms of ambulation for everything else.

Two-thirds of all Americans are overweight and one-third are obese (defined as a Body Mass Index higher than 30). The unaffordability of gasoline will probably begin immediately to affect these statistics, while any ameliorative proposals which either Congress or President Bush can suggest for the price of gasoline cannot work for perhaps a decade, at which point it is doubtful that the gasoline-powered vehicle will actually be the prime mode of transportation in this country anyway. Which is another way of saying that the politics being played by George W. Bush and John McCain have as their real object the very short-term economic advantage of American oil and oil field equipment companies, such as Halliburton and other usual subjects. And that is another way of saying that nothing at all has changed and that the President remains committed solely to the welfare of Big Business, first, last and always.

But for his cellulite-encased subjects, deprived of any help whatsoever from their president or Congress (as always), a means of waddling through has been presented. This is a chance to shed 42 million people we are currently carrying around on our backsides. It may feel so good we decide to go swimming at those beaches instead of turning them back into oil-soaked strands, as Santa Barbara was in 1969. We can leave ANWR to the great moose and caribou herds as our svelte loins carry us to the local Safeway to load up on soy substitute for the meat we can no longer afford. Forget Congress. Forget Bush. They have no answers. They work for someone else, not you. Inside all that jiggling fat resides an American Rebel who, setting out on an unfamiliar trail, will stride fearlessly onward to a new, leaner American Arcadia.

June 16, 2008

Bush's Rules of the Game

Bush's London press conference, June 16, 2008:

Q: "Mr. President, in his last major speech, Tony Blair said on Iraq, 'Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right. But if I got it wrong, I'm sorry.' Is it possible you got it wrong? Would you share at this point those slightly more reflective sentiments? And in particular, should you, in retrospect, perhaps have concentrated a little more on Afghanistan?"

A: (President Bush): "History will judge the tactics. History will judge whether or not, you know, more troops were needed earlier, troops could have been positioned here better or not. Removing Saddam Hussein was not wrong. It was the right thing to do."

From numerous accounts I have read of Bush's early life, he had the disconcerting habit of changing the rules of contests as he went. If the basketball game was supposed to end at 20 points, he demanded his opponent play to 30 if he was behind when the game was over. A baseball game that was supposed to end in 9 innings would extend as far as Bush needed to catch up, or if that didn't happen, until the other players simply quit out of boredom or disgust. Many of his boyhood friends attested to this quality. He had to win, perhaps one of the earlier signs of serious emotional insecurity.

The boy is father to the man. Now that it is 2008, and we have been in Iraq more than five years after Bush himself said the game was over, that the mission had been accomplished, Bush has changed all of the rules of a game once again. If we can dimly recall, the only rationale that Bush really sold the American people in the run-up to the Iraq war was the defense of the United States. In point of fact, this is the only principle under international law or the Charter of the United Nations which would permit an attack on a sovereign nation. Bush called it "preemptive defense." Saddam's advanced nuclear program would soon announce itself over America in the form of a mushroom cloud. Saddam was going to run a Big Box store for terrorists called "Anthrax, Nerve Gas & Beyond." We were in grave peril, in danger so great that the negative findings by Hans Blix and the UN inspectors were clearly meaningless, the result simply of Saddam's treachery; the inspectors needed to go home so the real inspection by the Third Army Division could begin.

This was the reason that Bush gave for removing Saddam from power in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was not undertaken as a social studies experiment in spreading democracy in the Middle East.

From the same press conference, here is Bush's snide rejoinder to the naive who believe that democracy cannot flourish in Iraq:

"Now, there are many doubters. I understand that, because there is some who say that perhaps freedom is not universal. Maybe it's only Western people that can self-govern. Maybe it's only, you know, white-guy Methodists who are capable of self government. I reject that notion. I think that's the ultimate form of political elitism."

Trying to ignore the awful grammar for a moment, and concentrating on the "substance:" no one is really saying anything of the kind; however, you can see the completion of the rules-changing trick in his comment. Bush now has set up a game in which the winner will be decided based on who's right about the following propositions:

Bush's Argument: I believe that it's good to overthrow Saddam Hussein, although many others think it's not a good idea. Also, I believe that Arabs can govern themselves in a democracy even if they're not white-guy Methodists, unlike there is some people who aren't smart like me who doesn't believe that. Also, if we said the war might cost $2 billion, we would be welcomed as liberators and the whole thing would be over fast, which we did, we now need the judgment of "history" to tell us whether we've made any tactical errors.

Bush's Straw Man: We think Saddam is a good guy, and it's better that he remain tyrannically in power, oppressing, torturing and gassing his own people. Also, we don't think Arabs can have a democracy, because we're stupid.

Well, the results are in, and Bush has won the game, except for the parts where it's too soon to call, because history can't be written yet. Not surprising, because only Bush was smart enough to set it up so he couldn't lose. Unless, of course, you're like one of those annoying friends of George the Boy, down in Midland, who's ahead 6-3 in the tennis set he just won from Jr., only to learn that he must play on and win 8 games, or 12 or 327, or whatever number Bush needs to come out ahead. In which case you might point out:

There are many tyrants in the world, many despotic governments. North Korea, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, the People's Republic of China. It would be "good" to get rid of all of them. It would be the "right thing" to do. No doubt the homo sapiens living in all of these countries could respond to the idea of self-rule in one form or another, Methodist or not. But the United States cannot undertake wars of invasion against all of these countries, and as the Iraq war has conclusively shown, against even one such country, unless we essentially have no choice. It's way too expensive, it's too destructive, we don't have the resources, we have too many pressing needs of our own, and it doesn't even work. If Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist from Columbia, is mostly right and this war will eventually cost $2 to 3 trillion, and if the military has been severely damaged, and if we have in fact killed 4,000 + American soldiers, and mutilated another 30,000, and killed somewhere between 200,000 and 1,000,000 Iraqi citizens, and blown the country apart, then it's obvious that this colossal blunder needs to be one of a kind. We need to admit it was a huge mistake and cut our losses.

He'll never see it that way. It's getting dark out, we're hungry, we've been having these dumb arguments for more than seven years, and we're just worn out by a Man-Boy who cannot admit the game is over and he lost. So okay, George, you win. Now please take your ball and go home.

Iowa Drowns While the MSM Mourns

It was epic bad timing for Eastern Iowa to disappear beneath the Cedar River around the same time as Tim Russert threw a coronary clot. I mean no disrespect; Mr. Russert seemed like a jolly enough soul, and his death is a tragedy to his family. I did not think he was a particularly great journalist, but increasingly there is no such thing. One would never know this from the nonstop electronic keening which has gone on over the weekend while the Cedar River crested at 31 feet during a 500-year flood.

Tim Russert was part of the mainstream apparatus which "manufactures consent," in the irreplaceable term coined by Noam Chomsky. It was Noam's sharp insight that the media tend to cluster around some median ideological point, wheresoever it is pushed by social and political processes. This point becomes the New Normal, and over the last thirty years in the United States, the New Normal is the New Capitalist Right. Mainstream, respectable journalists cannot stray outside the limits of a tiny bandwidth left or right of this point. So, for example, if the President sets up a regime which disregards the Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens, through felonious spying in contravention of the FISA law; or which breaches the norms of human decency in torturing prisoners in violation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, TV guys like Tim Russert voice small but carefully inoffensive complaints in the form of "hard-hitting" questions of their Sunday morning guests. These questions are often directed to the miscreants directly responsible for the outrage at issue. Yet at the end of the interview, Big Tim (for years I thought he was Randy Quaid) would smile and thank Karl Rove or Dick Cheney for "comin' on the show," and we all felt better because the issue had been "aired out."

Herr Russert of Das Reich TV: Herr Eichmann, you've taken some real heat for setting up this train system for transporting all these European Jews to the gas chambers. I want to show you a quote from 1943 [shows quote]. Isn't that a little inconsistent with your claim now that you thought they were all headed to banking conventions in Poland?

Herr Eichmann: Tim, we can play these gotcha games all morning, if you want to. Both sides obviously have arguments they can make. At the end of the day, what me and the others in the High Command are all about is doing the work of the German Volk.

Herr Russert: I just wanna thank you, Adolf, for comin' on Das Show.

If Tim Russert had been such a "giant" of the Fourth Estate, why did he casually enable, like the rest of his colleagues in the MSM, the shredding of the United States Constitution and the entanglement of the country in a disastrous war of choice? So what's all this public display of grief about? What I think: it's another show, and it's self-aggrandizement. I would delicately point out that not long after Mr. Russert's heart went into fibrillation, he lost consciousness. From that point forward, he was unaware of anything Tom Brokaw or Barbara Walters or Chris Matthews had to say about him. So what these people were really doing in their orgy of hagiography was reminding us of what important honchos they are, because really, they're just like Tim, and this sort of tasteless, 24/7 oversaturated coverage (like the soils of Iowa) is what they do. They talk up, under and around any topic which comes into their cross-hairs, and they talk it to death. They even talk death to death. And the purpose of their talking is never to have a distinct or subversive point of view, but only to mouth over and over whatever consensus opinion fits within the Chomsky Bandwidth; in this case, that Russert was a Giant, A Unique Voice, The Indispensable Conscience of a Nation.

Probably not. He was a well-paid employee of NBC and MSNBC. He was the host of "Meet the Press." He went along to get along and played the fake controversy game to perfection, shot the breeze with both "sides" which are positioned about two nanometers left and right of the MSNBC midpoint. His family will miss him. The country will move on to the next manufactured hero.