June 27, 2008

I'd rather have a sustainable planet for the next generation than private e-mail

Currently, there is a blog war raging between two liberal darlings, Glenn Greenwald and Keith Olbermann, concerning who has the right attitude about Obama's cave-in on the FISA bill. Let us stipulate, at the outset, that Barack has caved in. He is not going to take the kind of heroic stand one associates with Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin or Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. Note, however, that these front-line champions of civil liberties are not similarly slinging mud in Barack's direction. This is because, unlike Glenn Greenwald on this issue, they are maintaining perspective. Greenwald has gone so far as to start a fund to defeat the reelection of the Democratic Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Once you become that emotionally and intellectually invested in one issue, of course, there is a tendency to imagine that unless you win, that absolutely nothing else matters, and even the election of John McCain would be acceptable just to prove this passing point.

Personally, when it comes to national politics I believe in game theory, practicality, choosing the lesser of two evils, compromise, tactical selling out, and incremental change. That is because I recognize better than Glenn Greenwald the kind of country I actually live in. I understand that Barack Obama not only has to convince Ivy League lawyers with 140 IQs to vote for him, but also people living in trailers in rural eastern Kentucky with sixth grade educations whose main issue is safety from alien abduction. Demographically speaking, this country has become a complete mess. In a lot of the ways in which we determine what a country even is, the United States does not measure up. Politicians invoke the word "American" and "my fellow Americans" and it seems to work every four years or so, maybe during the final lap of the medley relay at the Olympics, and our hearts then swell with national pride, but that's only because we each carry around some idiosyncratic concept of what the country is to us, and in many cases that idea is based on long out-of-date memories formed about 40 or 50 years ago, if you're old enough (as I am) for that to have happened.

The country is divided along a huge number of fault lines. There is, in the first instance, the gigantic disparity in income and wealth between a tiny super-rich class and everyone else. Politics are driven by Big Money; everyone recognizes that without necessarily thinking through the consequences. The "telecoms" belong to this group; large, extremely powerful corporations who control the flow of information in this country. Big Oil dictates much of the foreign and energy policies of the United States; again, a profoundly anti-democratic influence.

Then we have the religious/secular divide. The conservatives play to their religious base by designing an agenda catering to a vast array of niggling hang-ups. Abortion; school instruction in premarital sex; birth control; stem cell research; gay marriage; gays, for that matter. The "progressives" (as they must call themselves now because "liberal" was taken away from them by the conservatives) try not to offend the religious right while steering a course right-of-center in appealing to their perceived base, the secularist well-educated. They can only go so far. Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, with his electoral base, can approve of gay marriage. Barack Obama can go as far as "civil unions" before calling it a day. Let's not get hysterical here.

Overlapping with this schism to a certain extent is the huge nativist/immigrant divide. The United States has never been more a "nation of immigrants" than it is right now, and border states such as California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have huge Latino populations which are unassimilated to one extent or another in terms of language, culture and political agendas.

A politician in America running for our one national office has to navigate among this bewildering array of power centers, special interests, subgroups, cultures, educational levels, regional concerns and religions and yet emerge as a "consensus" candidate with enough pull to get a majority of votes in enough states to get 270 electoral votes. Such a process obviously requires him to check his "purity of conscience" at the door. The more cynical you are about manipulation and artifice, the more successful you can be. This and only this explains the successes of Karl Rove. One can feign purity of conscience; indeed, this is considered appealing, and the candidate who is better at simulating sincerity often wins the election, as George W. Bush once did (in 2004). The process, however, is about mounting a general campaign, not soliciting the votes of tiny constituencies with axes to grind, like Glenn Greenwald.

So, just to go on a bit longer, and to explain the reason for the title of the post: I agree with Glenn Greenwald's position on FISA. He's right, in my opinion. I wish I lived in a country where my preferred presidential candidate could simply agree with us and vote accordingly. But I don't. However, I do live in a world where James Hansen, testifying before Congress, said this just last week:

"The difference is that now [as opposed to 20 years ago when he first testified] we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next president and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.

"Otherwise it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity's control."

June 26, 2008

Returning to the fearless Dow forecast of the recent past

Yes, among Dow prognosticators (and from what I can see in the mass media, there are no apparent credentials necessary for entrance into the club), only I have risked setting out my algebraic "proof" that the venerable market indicator will sink to 9,100 as its "essential" level. As a quick review, my GIGO, back-of-the-envelope calculation used the Dow's high point in the summer of 2007 (14,000) and then considered the following data: Americans were borrowing equity out of their houses in the period 2001 to 2006 at a phenomenal rate. Some analytical writers put this figure at 50% of the total "income" received by Americans during this period. For the most part, this source of money has dried up as housing prices have moved south. The Case-Shiller index puts the year over year decline in home values for April 2008 at -15%, the worst performance of the "housing sector" since the Great Depression. Thus, so much for the house-as-piggy-bank economy.

Since the American economy is based on consumer spending for 70% of its action, removing half its juice results in a 35% contraction of the GNP. 14,000 x .35 = 4,900. 14,000 - 4,900 = 9,100. An oversimplification? Of course. A little arbitrary in its equation of the Dow (with its big multinational corporations to an extent insulated from strictly American woes) with the overall economy? I agree. Naive, trivial? Take it easy there. The Dow is down to 11,590 as I write this and General Motors is at its lowest point since 1955. Imagine if you had bought GM at the midpoint of the Eisenhower Administration at $11/share and held it till this morning. Subtracting out inflation for those 53 years...Is it just barely possible that General Motors was a little shortsighted in not anticipating the increasing scarcity of oil, its high cost, and the climate change scenario now bearing down upon us?

When I made my fearless call, I did not take into account oil at $140 a barrel or gas approaching $5 per gallon. Thus, I'm going to embellish my terminology with a new term, which is calling the 9,100 number the Essential Floor. Where else can you read about the Essential Floor than here, in this blog manned by one fearless jeremiah living in rustic squalor, surrounded by drought-stricken trees a mere 3,000 miles from the legendary pond which lends its name to the site? Anyway, when we get to 9,100, most of the water will have been squeezed out of the watered stock of the American financial markets and our new standard of living will begin to click into place. The Dow will then begin to wobble around this new level.

Not all bad, by a long shot. For all I know, this may have been George W. Bush's secret plan for dealing with global warming. If the American economy swirled down the toilet under his stewardship, at least his subjects would finally be forced to curtail their reckless spending and promiscuous energy wasting. If that was the plan, it's definitely working.

I remember about four years ago, I was walking the Philosopher's Trail above Heidelberg, looking down on the pretty Neckar River as it flows past the castle. And I came upon a rude sign, white letters on red cardboard: "Amerika: Climate Killers." I suppose it was placed there by the trail's side because whatever German chose the spot knew that the large American presence in and around Heidelberg (military, etc.) would encounter it on a regular basis. Indeed, here I am, spreading the word. Well, I suspect it won't be long before our per capita consumption of carbon drops from its dubious position of first in the world, and our place in that category will begin to match some of our other rankings, such as those for education, infant mortality and health care. But it will all take a lot of time. The U.S. had built up such a fantastic capital base during the good years, that we can, as in the last, desperate phase of a Monopoly game, sell off the red hotels and the green houses, and finally mortgage the deeds themselves, in an effort to stay in the game. It's just that a lot of the players around the board observing our liquidation will be wearing burnooses or speaking Mandarin.

June 25, 2008

For Whom the Bell Tolls? Could be your wake-up call, Mr. President

I commend Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut for his courageous speech on the Senate floor yesterday concerning the revamped Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), spelling out his reasons for opposing the bill. Rather than limiting the basis for his objections to the telecom immunity provision of the bill, Senator Dodd listed the long "chain of abuses" (language remarkably similar to the "train of abuses" phrase employed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence) of the Bush Administration. The speech is worth reading in its reasonably long entirety, linked here. Senator Dodd conducts a survey course in the unconstitutional actions of the Bush Presidency since September 11, 2001. It's the sort of speech, in its tone and and radical language (from the Latin, radix, of the root) I used to hear on a daily basis from the steps of Sproul Hall in Berkeley a few decades back. Live long enough, I suppose, and you'll see everything happen, including radical speeches from Senators who look as if they would be comfortable on the back nine at the Westchester Country Club.

A surprising trend seems to be underway these days. I would have surmised that as the Bush Presidency wound down, the American commoners and Beltway insiders alike would have been so relieved to see him leave that a spirit of reconciliation and letting bygones-be-bygones would have become the ruling zeitgeist. This does not seem to be what's happening. Rather, the criticism of Bush, particularly in Congress, has grown increasingly shrill and, for want of a better word, more fundamental. Repesentative Dennis Kucinich's 35 Articles of Impeachment are a further case in point. These are an extremely detailed list of charging allegations against virtually every aspect of Bush's unconstitutional, extra-constitutional and felonious activities while he's been in office.

Bush's entire defense to such charges, boiled down to its essence, rests on a very slender reed. Bush, who is not a deep or nuanced thinker, was seduced by the blandishments of a group of executive power extremists who convinced him that Article II of the Constitution in a "time of war" confers almost limitless power on the President. This was a dangerous concept to sell to a man as emotionally insecure as Bush, who overcompensates for his sense of inadequacy with a megalomaniacal assertion of self. So: 9/11 provided the war, and the first Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) gave him his charter to ignore the Constitution and any federal statutes which were seen by his bellicose advisers as contrary to free use of his power.

The theory has never been used successfully in court. One way or another the concept that the United States is a government of laws and not of men has been confirmed by all cases which have considered the issue. Bush relied too much on the counsel of intellectual lightweights like Alberto Gonzales in going down this path. When Gonzales attempted to justify all of the FISA violations on the basis of the AUMF, he was laughed out of the hearing room, and eventually out of Bush's administration. Bush's other mistake was listening to the extreme views of ideologues such as David Addington, Cheney's Chief of Staff, who is responsible for outlandish claims such as the Vice Presidency's exclusion from the Executive Branch. You add them up - Gonzales arguing that habeas corpus is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution, the free-floating Vice Presidency, that certain Arabs are not human beings for Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, the signing statements which selectively ignore Congressional enactments that don't comport with the SuperSized Presidency -- and an unmistakable picture forms of an Executive Branch which has gone completely out of control.

It's an ominous sign for Bush that the chorus is swelling, not diminishing. I would be very nervous in his situation. James Hansen, the climate scientist who at one time had his communiques edited by a Bushie corporate lawyer with no background in atmospheric science, testified to Congress and wrote an Op-Ed in which he suggested that trials for "crimes against humanity" might be appropriate for those who knowingly stood in the way of remedial action on climate change. He mentioned the CEO of Exxon, by specific name, but the principle obviously has broader application. This is Bush's Achilles Heel, ultimately; his presidency is confined to a certain finite period (mercifully), but the downstream effects of many of his actions will clearly extend well beyond January, 2009. The American people are going to be reminded of Bush next year, each and every day, by reports of continuing casualties in Iraq, by the crushing burden of the national debt, by the declining dollar, by the skyrocketing cost of fuel as the country sinks deeper into recession. And there will be no Bush Administration around for message control. Many of the secret proceedings and communications will be divulged, and the courts will be clogged with habeas corpus petitions from Guantanamo prisoners detailing their treatment.

Maybe there's something to the idea that Bush's third term will be twenty to life.

June 23, 2008

The victory lap of the neocons

Now that the surge has worked and everything is fine in Iraq, we are beginning to see the first tentative signs of gloating from previously much-maligned war cheerleaders such as David Brooks, William Kristol and other members of the brave commentariat who have fearlessly encouraged, from the safety of their air-conditioned Manhattan offices, our "brave troops" to keep up the good fight. They were in a terrible dilemma for several years there. Their entire ethos, their whole Weltanschauung, is premised on the idea of sounding like tough realists who are willing to pay the price, to do the hard thing even if it's not pleasant, and to risk everything, even the deaths of anyone but themselves. They also put on the line their most precious commodity: the perception of others that they're always right. Or, in Kristol's case, the illusion that he's ever right. Take this latest from David Brooks, for example:

"The additional fact is that Bush, who made such bad calls early in the war, made a courageous and astute decision in 2006. More than a year on, the surge has produced large, if tenuous, gains. Violence is down sharply. Daily life has improved. Iraqi security forces have been given time to become a more effective fighting force. The Iraqi government is showing signs of strength and even glimmers of impartiality. Iraq has moved from being a failed state to, as Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations has put it, merely a fragile one."

Here's a question which you might find difficult to answer right now because of the virtual black-out on war coverage by major media. In the first two months of the war, during the actual invasion of Iraq and just before George W. Bush, our astute leader, declared Mission Accomplished, how many American soldiers died? And while you're thinking about that, here's another question: during a period when we can all completely agree that the surge has been a triumph, say during the first six months of 2008 (with about a week to go), how many American soldiers have died?

These are the answers: in the invasion of Iraq, the actual subduing of the country and conquering of Baghdad, the U.S. sustained 119 fatalities (during the latter part of March and all of April, 2003). In the first six months of 2008, 130 American soldiers have died (so far). This seems to be a point that Brooks and other brave, laptop-totin' journalist-soldiers don't necessarily take into account while they extol Bush's astute escalation of his endless war of occupation. Guys are still getting shot and blown up on a very regular basis.

It's also noteworthy that during the recent uprising in southern Iraq in April, when Muqtada al-Sadr ceased his cease-fire, American deaths rose to 52 for the month, a number very typical of pre-surge mayhem. Close to two body-bags per diem, two flag-draped coffins secreted aboard a cargo plane for the clandestine off-load in Dover, Delaware, every single day. That was a couple of months ago.

This is the triumph that David Brooks and William Kristol are celebrating, and I admit that it could be worse and it has been worse. But here's another question: I have never understood how the calculus of win/lose in Iraq degenerated into a consideration of whether there is more or less violence on the streets of Baghdad. The consciousness of the nation is centered on this far-off conflict, it dictates and constrains so many choices, the opportunity costs are sky-high -- and yet the question remains: what are we doing there? It isn't like a basketball game which is played solely to see who scores more points. We aren't in Iraq, I hope, to find out whether the people who used the word "civil war" were right versus those who said it wasn't a civil war.

And yet I think that's exactly what it's degenerated into. After all his screw-ups, and leaving the United States of America in much worse shape than he found it, George W. Bush was not going to admit that Iraq was also a total fiasco. Conditions in Iraq were going to improve, dammit, no matter what it took. So they sent in Petraeus. And Petraeus built blast walls to carve Baghdad into sectarian enclaves and installed checkpoints everywhere to thwart the movement of suicide bombers. These ideas, obviously, were borrowed from Israeli practices in the West Bank, which have had similar successes in decreasing random explosions. Yet there's a critical difference: everyone acknowledges the de facto separation of the Palestinian state from Israel, which awaits a de jure treaty. Iraq is supposed to be one country. Gimmicks such as dividing Shia from Sunni with blast walls, and flooding the streets of Baghdad with occupying troops, and metering the movement of Iraqis from one neighborhood to another with harassing checkpoints, appears to produce a "win" for George W. Bush, because he's ahead in the game of reducing violence in Iraq. So he can leave office with the situation "under control."

Yet what good does that do? Note the careful use of the words "tenuous" and "fragile" in the David Brooks column. It's tenuous and fragile because unless we're willing to go bankrupt by maintaining an occupying force for one hundred years, as McCain urges, as soon as we leave Iraq is going to dissolve into chaos. There's no serious doubt about that. If Iraq can't really get it together politically while we're patrolling the streets with 150,000 soldiers, what are the odds things will hold together as we withdraw?

It's nice to see an American oil company (Exxon) join BNP, Total and Shell in securing no-bid contracts for oil exploration and development in Iraq. Now maybe Bush can harrumph about pushing the Russians aside in the great Iraqi oil rush. Maybe he'll feel vindicated enough to give up the rest of the violence up/down game. Would it help if we say he was right all along? Just tell us what to say so he'll end this thing.

Okay, so Barack is not a "LightWorker"

It's not my phrase, actually. I read the term "LightWorker" in a Mark Morford column on SFGate, and it seemed kinda twee, really, but that's life on the West Coast. A "LightWorker," I take it, is some sort of avatar of enlightened beings who visits us and leads us away from darkness and despair, dispatched by The Force when It sees we're in over our heads. I don't know if a LightWorker is actually armed with a LightSaber, for example, but one can hope, if only for ease of identification. When I read Morford's column, I thought maybe the canonization of Barry had ventured into dangerous, unsustainable territory. Lest we forget, Obama is the official nominee of the Democratic Party, that stained, compromised and completely co-opted political organization which also features Nancy Pelosi at the top of the org chart.

Obama has put matters to rest on the LightWorker front; we can now regard him as a canny political player who shows increasing signs of knowing, at least, what it takes to get elected in this sound-bitten society. Barack has backed off an earlier promise to filibuster the House-approved FISA rewrite in favor of "trying to amend" that part of the 4th Amendment Abolishment Bill which grants the big telecoms immunity for past illegal conduct. Otherwise, Barry is on board with the rest of the "compromise" legislation which essentially grants the Executive Branch unfettered access to all e-mail and telephone communication of Americans while...well, while using the Internet or the phone. The "restrictions" and "court review" built into the new FISA process are essentially meaningless. It's way too much to call them "warrants," that good ol' fashioned Fourth Amendment word. If the President, the Attorney General or a fourteen year old hacker in Beijing thinks he needs to read your e-mail to see if you're planning to blow something up, that's good enough. Be forewarned: the concept of a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in your heretofore private communications is about to be repealed.

Thomas Jefferson had this to say in 1799: "Free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence . . . . Let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitutions." Wise Tom was telling us that we should never forgo a freedom on the promise of a well-intentioned man or woman who tells us they have our best interests at heart and won't abuse the license. Keep your freedom and demand that the elected official do his best with the latitude he has left. And, as a specific, historical example, no one has ever demonstrated that the attacks of 9/11 resulted from the exercise of civil liberties by the American people. Indeed, the rough outlines of the plot were exposed while respecting these rights. It was a question of Executive Branch competence, not of restraints upon its freedom of action.

Some commentators, such as Glenn Greenwald linked over on your right, have been very, very hard on Obama for this lapse in "principle." I can't go quite as far as he does. Barack Obama is trying to get elected President in a country which elected George W. Bush President for a second term less than four years ago. Think about that for a moment. A vote against the FISA bill approved by the Democratic leadership will expose Barry to charges of "radicalism" and worse by the always-scrupulous John Sidney McCain. And then from the vast trailer parks of Florida to the lean-to shacks of Appalachia to the tent cities of Ontario, California, will issue the cry, "Barack can't keep us safe because he really is a Muslim!"

So what the hell's he supposed to do? Listen to civil libertarian eggheads like Glenn Greenwald and yours truly? Or get elected and use his new, unConstitutional powers responsibly, that is, until with a new majority on the Supreme Court made possible by his LightWorker appointments, the Court strikes down the FISA bill he supported on grounds it violates the Fourth Amendment? That's about as good as it gets in this, our 232nd year.