February 13, 2009

Another Way to Tell They Aren't Serious in Washington

This graph illustrates the essential conundrum of American politics, in my opinion (he added unnecessarily-everything here is my opinion). It's a pictorial representation of the true state of federal budget priorities made plain.  

Not shown here is that slice of the budget pie allocated to the "entitlement programs"such as Social Security and Medicare, and there is a reason for this.  The Social Security program, for example, is a cash-in, cash-out system that has worked since the Great Depression and would have continued working, had it not been for Congressional embezzlement, until at least 2041.  It funds itself through a dedicated system of FICA taxes which have been more than adequate to meet the needs of the retired and disabled; indeed, the surplus built into the system in the early 1980's was designed to create a trust fund that would ensure its future viability.  The Congress Clowns, of course, couldn't keep their oversized mitts off the money, and now the system is on the brink of insolvency.  (This same Congress, by the way, is the one that you and I are counting on to devise a brilliant plan to rescue the United States from the grips of recession.  Yeah, that's going to work.)

And what was Congress doing with the trillions it stole from the Social Security trust fund?  The graph above shows you: playing army.  If you eliminate that part of the federal budget over which Congress acts as little more than a clearing house for collecting money from working people and sending it to retired people, you are left with about $2.5 trillion in "revenue," consisting of income and other (non-FICA) taxes, the money looted from Social Security and the inevitable borrowing. (Why does the federal government borrow money? Because it can.)  54% of this money is spent on the military and homeland security, one way or another, including that part of the national debt service properly attributable to military spending in the past.  We build things like the F-22 bomber, which is essential to our defense against Russian Migs discontinued in the 1980s, but unfortunately can't be used in Iraq because of the sensitivity of its electronics to the garage door openers used by insurgents to detonate IEDs.  We build aircraft carriers so it will be a fair fight against the Japanese Imperial Navy if they move on Pearl Harbor again. We build lots of tanks and half-tracks to guard against a land invasion by the Soviet Union through the Fulda Gap in case that East Berlin situation becomes a hot spot again.  And so forth.

Does the United States actually need to spend as much as the next 15 largest militaries in the world combined, particularly on the kind of weaponry, ships, tanks, bombs and planes suitable for fighting World War II again?  In truth, thermonuclear weapons have made conventional war against other nuclear-armed countries impossible.  The United States cannot start a "conventional war" against Russia, for example, on the expectation the war will remain contained.  Or, for another example, if you wonder why Syria, Egypt and Jordan never invaded Israel again after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, look no further than the Israeli nuclear arsenal.  In the absence of large-scale enemies where it is feasible to use our large-scale military in a conventional war, at least without bringing about the end of human civilization, we have instead embarked on a program of keeping our forces experienced and cutting-edge by fighting unnecessary wars in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, et cetera, and then using these unnecessary wars as the rationale for maintaining a large conventional military in case we need to fight an unnecessary war in the future.

The United States spends well over a trillion dollars per year on defense and homeland security, when you add up the basic Pentagon budget, the "supplementary" appropriations for our vanity wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the nuclear budget in the Department of Energy, all the espionage agencies (many of them redundant) and the debt service on past budget overruns.  No one in a "serious" position in Washington, including Barack Obama, ever talks about reducing military spending to a rational level commensurate with our true security needs.  

It is yet another illustration of the complete impotence of the federal government in dealing with real problems.  It is locked into ideologies and certain "idees fixes" which it cannot escape, so it begins its confrontation with reality, each and every time, with the result determined in advance.

February 11, 2009

I guess we don't need to worry about Barack's "connections" to Bill Ayers

Is that the whole camel in the tent now?  This is from the editorial in today's New York Times concerning the position taken by Obama's Department of Justice in the case of Mohamed vs. Jeppesen in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which, admittedly, sits in San Francisco rather than in the formal territories of the United States.  Still, read on:  

The Obama administration failed — miserably — the first test of its commitment to ditching the extravagant legal claims used by the Bush administration to try to impose blanket secrecy on anti-terrorism policies and avoid accountability for serial abuses of the law.

On Monday, a Justice Department lawyer dispatched by the new attorney general, Eric Holder, appeared before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. The case before them involves serious allegations of torture by five victims of President Bush’s extraordinary rendition program. The five were seized and transported to American facilities abroad or to countries known for torturing prisoners.

And what that dispatched lawyer told the 9th Circuit is that the Mohamed case must cease because it invades the "state secrets" of the federal government.  Much to the surprise of the three-judge panel.  So the good news is that all of those Right Wing noise-makers who were so concerned about Radical Barack can calm down. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.  It is becoming apparent that Barack Obama is a profoundly conservative politician who has absolutely no intention of doing anything which will in any way embarrass his predecessor and whose first instincts are authoritarian rather than civil libertarian.  To gain a perspective on how surprising this move by Obama's DOJ before a three-judge panel was, one can read the estimable Glenn Greenwald, linked to the right, who's been writing extensively about this development.  He's right, as usual, and he's joined by Andrew Sullivan, the ACLU, the lawyers at Balkinization, and, well - me. 

I don't quite get it, actually.  In the first place, there are no "state secrets" left in the Mohamed case, and not much with regard to the rendition/torture subject in general.  Seymour Hersh has written extensively about it, the Swedish government paid a large damage award for their role in the illegal capture and rendtion of some of the plaintiffs in this action, and the case at issue is not actually directed against the United States.  The action names the "travel agent" for the CIA involved in the logistics of illegal capture and rendition.  It's a private lawsuit.  As Ben Wizner, attorney from the ACLU,  has said, the only place where people are not allowed to talk about this matter of common knowledge is in a federal court room.

Barack Obama, as a Constitutional lawyer, must realize this is a ridiculous extension of the "state secrets" doctrine.  While he has declared that the practice of capturing foreigners and shipping them to countries known to practice torture, a program known as rendition and tantamount to a war crime, will not be part of his approach to anti-terrorism, his DOJ refuses to allow a factual investigation of just such a case which occurred during the Bush years.  Since no discovery of an actual, extant program can occur if the program no longer exists, the only plausible reason for using the "nuclear option" of the state secrets doctrine to blow Mohamed's case out of the water is this:  Obama is worried that a detailed description, in open court, of the ways in which the plaintiffs were detained, drugged, chained in the belly of a plane, and taken to places like Egypt where they were electrocuted and savagely beaten (as the United States knew they would be) would add impetus to the calls for war crimes investigations of the Bush Administration.

And Obama doesn't want that.  He wants to look forward, not backward.  It is becoming apparent that Obama is a master temporizer.  No one is above the law, but we must face the future, not the past.  Something like that.  

Anyway, Barack's no radical.  Calm down, Rush.  There's nothing to worry about.  We have a thoroughly conventional President, judged by the standards of the New Normal, which is just about where George W. Bush left things.  He'll upset a few Constitutional "purists' (the unreasonable who believe in the Bill of Rights and Due Process), but he's Mainstream.  I'm sure Bill Ayers would agree.

February 09, 2009

Trying to Avoid the Gorby Syndrome

I've thought for a long time that the closest historical parallel to the current economic and political perplexities in the U.S. is the situation the U.S.S.R. faced shortly before its demise in the early 1990's.  As the Soviet Union did, we have a central government that is in many ways an unimaginative gerontocracy (particularly in the Senate), and which is almost completely unresponsive to the everyday problems of American citizens.  The Soviet Union had its favored oligarchs and Party members, and we have our favored corporations and the revolving door between Washington D.C. and the influence peddlers who control national policy.  Our press is nominally free, but there is a Pravda-like conformity of the Big Media to certain agreed story lines for any given issue. Most recently, for example, we saw the nomination of Tom Daschle to run Health & Human Services go crashing down in flames; what we mostly heard about were his lapses in "optics;" he was a little too obvious about being a pampered lobbyist and didn't pay attention to the tax implications of riding around in a limo all the time on a fat cat's dime.  What was less discussed was that this was the guy Obama chose to revamp the creaking, disintegrating health care "system" in the United States, this former Senator who had grown enormously rich by working for Big Pharma and medical insurers since John Thune did him the favor of retiring him from the Senate.  Tom Daschle was going to put an end to the outrages which Michael Moore lacerated in "Sick-O?"  Look, I've got some shovel-ready infrastructure called the Brooklyn Bridge I'd like to sell you for $10 billion, financing available from the government.

I don't think President O likes the analogy between his situation and Gorby's, but it may be apt just the same, so much so that Google Images even has a picture of Barry with a port wine birthmark ready to go, as above.  Mikhail became the West's favorite Commie of all time, to the point where you forgot, almost, that he was a Red.  Gorbymania swept the world, in fact. The Soviets had glasnost and perestroika, and Barack has "change."  "Change" was never quite defined in Obama's campaign, but we welcomed him, first and foremost, because whoever was elected would not be Bush anymore.  We weren't asking a lot of tough questions, especially since he was running against another Angry Old Man from the Senate with antiquated ideas, a shaky grasp on contemporary America and a sort of omni-directional aggressiveness. 

It wasn't Gorby's idea to break the Soviet Union apart.  Garry Kasparov, former chess genius and current Russian activist, never saw Gorbachev as anything more than another Central Committee apparatchik with charm and a new line of baloney.  It's not Barack Obama's intention to preside over the disintegration of the United States, either.  That's why his first instinct was to gather around him, like defensive ramparts, the stolid, time-tested Clinton Politburo to advise him on how to light a fire under the U.S.A.'s previous go-go consumer economy.

In the living quarters of the White House, Barack must have a dart board with Bush's face as the target because I can't imagine how dismal it must feel for Obama to spend the first three weeks of his glorious ascension dealing with something so soul-killing boring as this "stimulus" "package."  This is what it's come to, thanks to decades of neglect while the U.S.S.A. rotted from the inside out.  Obama is presiding over a loan app.  He needs to re-fi the United States, so first he has to pull together a business plan for his creditors in Beijing and Tokyo and Riyadh to pore over.  ("$27 billion for highways?  Too much. Knock that down.") The bowdlerized, diluted, universally-viewed-as-useless piece of dreck the Ancient Mariners in the Senate came up with will (a) increase the national debt enormously while (b) maybe delaying the inevitable for a little while.

I read in Paul Krugman today that without the stimulus bill the U.S. GDP would contract about $2.9 trillion over the next three years, to which one might say, first: and your point is?  That is less than $1 trillion per year, or about 1/15th of the present American GDP, which is 25% of the world's GDP.  So about 6.67% contraction per year.  Not to be flippant or hard-hearted about this, but we can't abide that?  We don't have the internal resources, the innovative spirit and adaptability, to figure out how to arrange things differently so we can have an envirnomentally-sustainable economy?  We have to go back to that ruinous "growth" economy because there are no other options, or we're too impatient to figure out what they are? We prefer the reckless alternative of going broke trying to defib the corpse of the American consumer economy?

That stimulus bill just looks awful.  Note how they starve, as always, mass transit and my own hobby horse, inter-city high speed rail.  We never do anything fun.  Government spending aimed at certain high-tech innovations (such as solar and wind energy, desalination, and the aforementioned choo-choo) would get us somewhere and create a lot of jobs.  But not business tax cuts.  Not more freeways and offramps.

Congress just can't do it, anymore than the Politburo or the Presidium or the Central Committe could do it, past a certain point of collapse.  Congress is locked into certain failure modes it cannot escape.  Maybe some people are born Gorbymaniacs (that would be Mikhail himself), others achieve Gorbymania and some have Gorbymania thrust upon them.  I think O may fall into this last category.