March 04, 2009

All the news that's hard to take

697,000 jobs were lost during February, according to the Department of Labor's preliminary estimate.  This will be revised upward later, of course; you can see the propaganda effect pretty easily in the number.  Ju-u-u-s-t shy of 700,000.  Odd how often that seems to happen with the first number that comes out early in the month: 595,000, et cetera.  Does anyone even have a job at this point, aside from (a) TV news people and (b) government employees, such as the President?In a few months will the Dept. of Labor simply announce, "The rest of the American people lost their jobs last month," and that will be it?

Here's a wiseass from Russia weighing in: 

"MOSCOW — If you're inclined to believe Igor Panarin, and the Kremlin wouldn't mind if you did, then President Barack Obama will order martial law this year, the U.S. will split into six rump-states before 2011, and Russia and China will become the backbones of a new world order."  

Sheila Bair, the head of the FDIC and the remaining federal employee in the financial sector with any credibility left, says the FDIC may become insolvent by the end of the year.  I don't see how that can happen.  Wouldn't the Treasury Department simply "replenish" its capital by "injecting" a few trillion to keep it going?  I think that's our operative principle for everything these days.  A bulkhead buckles, the water starts pouring in, and we patch the hole with more federal "money."  That's why I'm concerned about this guy Panarin; it isn't so much that I see him as some kind of spot-on Cassandra for the West's misery.  It's simply that he's saying it at all.  Like G.K. Chesterton's horse who could play chess: it isn't so much that he plays well, said the wit; it's that he plays at all.  Sort of like that.  Russia, while floundering itself, still has a lot of stuff to sell, namely, oil and natural gas, so they can raise cash.  And we're counting on that cash, and a few trillions like it from China and Saudi Arabia, to keep the party going at the Casino at the End of the Universe.  So we don't want these guys drooling over the prospect of our collapse.  We need the money.

So this outbreak of Schadenfreude is disconcerting, to say the least.  These other... people, as Daniel Plainview says in "There Will Be Blood:"  what are we to do with them? Or without them? Are they going to drink our milkshake?  They are well aware, because they are educated at least as well as we are (okay, better, but I'm looking for a silver lining here), that the immediately precipitating cause, that which gave impetus to a long process of decline in the U.S., was the last great Casino game we could come up with: mortgage laundering.  Mortgages were sold to anyone who could pass the mirror-fogging test, then lumped together into gargantuan pools of "diversified risk," then sold as jigsaw-puzzle bonds.  It's important to remember that what looks like the actual and efficient cause of our problem is really only a symptom of something far more dire.  We had run out of ways to make money in any productive way, in any way that the plutocratic class could use to maintain an extravagant lifestyle, and so the final resort was made to the hocking of the very land of America.

And we've come up snake-eyes.  The Grim Croupier is raking in all the chips and looking askance at our furtive effort to pass off crude chips made of particle board as the real thing.

What's the guy mean by "rump state," anyway?  That sounds like some sort of Commie-speak. They're forever using such terminology in their dialectical analyses.  Bourgeois, proletariat, stooge, apparatchik, rump state.  I think he means some kind of regional federation thrown together in a state of panic.  Not to worry: one of George W. Bush's "secret memos" covers that, the memos containing what Bush/Cheney considered the Real Constitution.  The one without the Bill of Rights, and that allowed the U.S. military to operate within the country to "quell insurrections," even citing the Civil War as an example or a provocation.

Could be Dick & George were on the same page as Igor.  What may be hard for us to accept is that there are situations too dire to get out of.  They happen regularly in world history, often as the result of imperial overreach.  Everything seems okay, manageable, just a rough patch. But it just keeps getting worse, and it gradually dawns on you that you're running out of options. There's no money, no credit, and too many people are beginning to operate independently to save themselves for a cohesive center to hold.

Barack running a regime under martial law?  I was kidding about that Sheriff Bart thing, you know.

March 02, 2009

America's Sheriff Bart Gambit

In Mel Brooks's immortal "Blazing Saddles," the gentle townfolk of Rockridge get their first glimpse of the new sheriff, a hip freed slave foisted upon them by Governor Lepetomane ("the leading asshole in the state"), and decide to string him up.  In the late, great Cleavon Little's achingly funny rendition of Sheriff Bart, the new law man pulls his own gun on himself and begins dragging himself toward the safety of the jail.  "One move and the n___r gets it," Sheriff Bart tells the stunned crowd.  One of the morons watching announces that they'd better do as they're told, because "he's not bluffing."

For reasons that probably say more about my peculiar thought processes than they do about reality, I was thinking of Sheriff Bart while contemplating President Obama's (our hip, sharp, first African-American President) budget of $3.5 trillion.  With a $1.75 trillion deficit.  This makes for pretty easy mathematics: half of the money the federal government needs in fiscal 2010 (beginning Oct. 1 of this year) will be borrowed.  50%.  

The budget was announced after last Tuesday night's speech, where Prez O was as sharp, masterful and on top of his game as Sheriff Bart.  ("Baby, you are so talented," Bart says to himself after he sits down in the sheriff's office.  "And they are so dumb.")  More than to a little extent, the budget verges on the unbelievable (even though, as I've admitted, I love it).  While it's presented as business as usual, I think we can admit one thing.  If any other country in the world presented a budget where it proposed to spend $3.5 trillion while borrowing half of it, we would realize that country had gone fully belly up.  It would be seen as the last gasp of a hyperinflationary, completely out-of-control banana republic on the verge of complete collapse. No one would go near the place with a loan.  Foreign countries doing business with the nation would pull up stakes and head for the exits one step ahead of expropriation.  Terrified visitors would clog the airports, as in "The Year of Living Dangerously."  The government would fall, to be replaced by a military junta run by guys in green fatigues.

But not here.  Borrowing half the federal budget from...well, whom?  Or from what?  Where do you come up with that kind of dough?  No matter.  We remain serene.  The Sheriff Bart gambit works, or has worked so far, because the rest of the world stands in for the Rockridgers that Gene Wilder's Waco Kid called the "simple people of the know, morons."  We're holding the gun to own heads and the world doesn't want to take the chance that we're bluffing.  Everyone is suspending belief, and credulity, in order to wish along with us that the United States escapes this self-inflicted hostage crisis.

"Do what he say-ay, do what he say-ay," the terrified Bart yells to the town folk as Bart drags himself off to the safety of the jail.  That's right, World.  Do what we say-ay.  Otherwise, we gets it.  And we're not bluffing.

March 01, 2009

Echoes in the Left-O-Sphere

Bill Maher had a lively crowd at his table Friday night on "Real Time," including Gavin Newsom and Alan Cumming, the Irish comic actor.  At one point in the discussion, Bill Maher made a point which has occurred to me over and over again, that the entire case against Afghanistan and its role in the attacks of 9/11 seems to be built on the complex of dreaded jungle gyms (which Maher may have called monkey bars) which show up in the standard stock footage every time we hear about bin Laden's training camps.  Maher had ealier inteviewed Robin Wright (the journalist, not Mrs. Penn), and she had confidently assured us that we cannot allow Afghanistan to become a "failed state," or it will become a breeding ground for terrorists.  Thus, we have no choice: we have to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely to nation-build even though, as with Iraq, this was not part of the original mission statement or war authorization.

Maher wondered to his panel (which also included P.J. O'Rourke) whether the world actually needs a whole "failed state" in order to breed terrorists, or in order for them to plot an attack against the United States.  I think a fair reading of the Report of the 9/11 Commission, which gave full credence to the testimony of Khallid Sheikh Mohammed at a point before we knew he had been systematically tortured, leads one to the conclusion that the actual plotters of the attack were in no need of Kandahar, Afghanistan or even a children's playground in order to put together a successful conspiracy.  Atta & the other ringleaders were apparently radicalized by contact with the West while attending school in Hamburg, Germany, and held their meetings at the local mosque and in their apartments.  If bin Laden was a funding source, and if Khallid Sheikh was actually the mastermind, it nevertheless does not follow that they needed a whole "harboring country" in order to proceed with their plans to enter the United States, train in American flight schools and hijack the aircraft.  It seems also doubtful whether the prior attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 in any way relied on the existence of a "safe haven" for terrorists; similarly, the attacks on American embassies in Africa in the 1990's did not require the Taliban or a whole country full of radical Muslims as preconditions.

In his speech on Tuesday night, President Obama emphasized, to deafening applause, that Afghanistan would not be used to "launch" attacks against the United States again.  This is more or less the standard formulation of the thesis, but it points to an almost superstitious approach to anti-terrorism in this country.    If Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan when the attacks of 9/11 occurred, then the U.S. military must fight, for seven plus years and counting, in that country so that bin Laden can't use that country again.  I'm sure this plan, as formulated, will probably succeed.  There are, however, two billion Muslims in the world; the largest Muslim population anywhere is Indonesia, where we are not fighting any battles at all.  And what is it about fighting a land war in Afghanistan that would prevent another group of 15 Saudi "muscle" hijackers from going to work for another Egyptian (probably radicalized originally in the Muslim Brotherhood, not al-Qaeda) and UAE national (Mawran al-Sheihi)?  What would have worked in 2001 was to act on the good work of American intelligence agencies which discovered clear evidence of the plot, and all without (a) a "war on terror," or (b) an invasion of Afghanistan.  The clearest rationale I can think of for the war on Afghanistan in the first place was that it distracted the American people from thinking about these fundamental, obvious facts.

The problem of "bad conditions" in Muslim countries is simply far too diffuse to approach the problem by pacifying every trouble spot with the U.S. military. Added to this difficulty is the widely acknowledged problem that "collateral damage" in the form of civilian casualties in Afghanistan probably results in greater risk to American security.  

I think it's unfortunate that President O, who is beginning to find his stride in very positive ways in other areas, feels the need to double down on this original American mistake. I can understand the political exigencies; it's more important to appear tough on terror than it is to make any sense.  But Maher's simple question reflects what I think is a lucid perspective on Afghanistan. One looks at the war and can find no rationale, no matter how far your gaze. Alice in Wonderland looked down the road and said she could see nothing.  The King complimented her on her vision; one must have astonishing eyesight, he said, to see nothing at such a great distance.