July 09, 2009

Obama Explained

Strange paradox: I received an email from my buddies at the American Civil Liberties Union urging me to write a letter to Obama protesting the newest wrinkle on his "preventive detention forever" program, which is the "preventive detention forever even after you've been acquitted in a trial" program. Curiouser and curiouser, as Lewis Carroll said. It was only about nine months ago that I was in Mangonia Park, Florida, as a precinct lawyer for O Himself, eating chicken and artichoke casserole with the poll workers and laughing with joy at the prospect of Obama's certain victory. In Mangonia Park, about 99% minority and most of that African-American, you could really feel the good vibe. Times were a-changin'. I preferred that feeling to the slightly sick one I get when I read an email from the ACLU asking me to help rein in the tyrannical excesses of the Obama Administration.

But I sent the letter as requested by the ACLU. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights are about the only two organizations left in the United States who take the Bill of Rights and civil liberties seriously. They're the only hope for the Guantanamo detainees who have been imprisoned for years and years whether they're guilty of anything or not. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights are doing what they're supposed to do, stand up for the due process rights of those without resources "at every peril to themselves," a professional requirement stated in the Canons of Ethics for lawyers. So it's the least I can do to write such a letter. Plus, I always keep in mind that old saying from Third Reich days, which ends, "When they came for the Jews, you were not a Jew, so you said nothing. And when they come for you, there will be no one left to say anything." So it's better to speak while you can. You never know. I'm only slightly paranoid; I don't think I'm going to wind up in an American concentration camp. But just in case, it would be nice to know there might be some way out.

I think Obama has modeled himself on the Kennedy style of "liberalism," updated to our very conservative and anti-Bill of Rights times. Which is to say, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not a liberal. It's hard to think of an American President, after FDR, who was a liberal, in the sense of the old idea of the intellectual, civil rights loving, secular humanist type of liberal represented best, perhaps, by Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy. In the Senate now we have Bernie Sanders, who's definitely a real liberal, and he's what the real deal looks and sounds like. JFK had disdain for liberals; in his book, they would rather lose nobly, never sacrificing their ideals, than win and actually do something. Adlai, Mondale, McGovern, Dukakis, all real liberals of the old school, and all losers. Eugene McCarthy was going to lose to Robert Kennedy in 1968, but lost instead to Hubert Humphrey, another real liberal and another loser.

Liberals, after FDR, were so badly scarred by the Joe McCarthy era of the 1950s that they never really recovered. The electable Democrats learned their lesson; they had to be as tough about national defense, as paranoid about the Commies, as the Right Wing, or no one would take them seriously. Above all, they had to be Realists. That was the school of thought into which JFK naturally gravitated. Thus, the Bay of Pigs and then the escalation of the Vietnam War. Whenever anyone talks about JFK's majestic handling of the Missiles of October, 1962, they tend to leave out the opening chapter, the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, an idea which Kennedy picked up from the To-Do List of the Eisenhower years. Is it so surprising that Castro, after being invaded (with his assassination as the end goal), cozied up to the Soviets afterwards, especially after Castro considered the CIA coup in Guatemala toppling Arbenz just five years before his own revolution in Cuba?

The U.S. was never any good at discriminating between nationalist wars and revolutions against colonial powers and dictators (as in Guatemala, Cuba and Vietnam) and the so-called Monolithic Threat of the Communist Bloc. But it was a willful kind of ignorance, as it is today with Islamic Terrorism, which has replaced Soviet Communism as the existential threat du jour. Treating Islamic terrorism as a monolithic threat is even crazier. We can fight all the local wars we want but we're never going to kill every last single gang that might successfully launch one successful terrorist attack against the U.S. You cannot even appreciably affect the odds with such wars. It doesn't matter. We need an existential threat in order to maintain a huge and inappropriate defense structure, one modeled on the Second World War, which we're never going to fight again.

So Barack internalized all that, because he's a very bright guy. Tough on the detainees, just as secret as Bush, escalating his own war in Afghanistan. When he's not giving a set-piece stemwinder, he's actually a little dull, a little monotonous. He kind of betrays his own boredom with what he's saying. I don't think he necessarily believes all this tough-guy crap. I think he likes being President more than doing the Presidency, because so much of it is inescapably fraudulent. But it's hard to go wrong if you stick to the basic playbook, which is: (a) Don't be liberal. (b) Recognize that Big Business is where the action is, the part of the American scene which pays the political bills. (c) Portray yourself as a tough-minded pragmatist on matters of national security.

In a way he and Michelle and the girls are the African-American version of the Camelot years: a nice family, some glamor (Gulfstream to New York), summer in Martha's Vineyard this year, and I wouldn't be surprised if he looks for a spot down in Palm Beach pretty soon.

His rightward moves, such as following Bush in the upending of the Bill of Rights, are simply the modern equivalent of Kennedy's conservatism. You can go farther Right than Kennedy could during an age of greater cultural awareness and education, when Americans took the Constitution more seriously, when we had a Supreme Court that was reliably liberal on civil rights. In fact, you have to go further Right these days in order to impress all the Dittoheads and mouth-breathers, or they won't think you're a Realist. Anyway, no one much cares about the Bill of Rights, due process or any of that. It's a safe way to go, if not very principled. He can leave the Bill of Rights and the Constitution to the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, with their teams of lawyers, mostly Jewish, who remember that old adage from so long ago.

July 07, 2009

The Inefficiency of American Happiness

I think I may have found my lfe's work, courtesy of a talented, insightful and mild-mannered professor of a geat metropolitan Southwest university, whose mother and father, by dint of incredible coincidence, were also my mother and father. Small world. So here it is, the Basic Answer to Everything. What I could never figure out was how the United States continued to lead the world in gross domestic product (GDP, "the world's largest economy") while seeming to be, how to put this, so fundamentally retarded on virtually every relevant parameter of a productive and worthwhile existence.

The key to it all is here, thanks to Professor Waldenswimmer (the family name or nom de blogue), a simple graphing of happiness on the y axis, as measured by a researcher named Veerhoven at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, as against the x axis measurement of energy use per capita, translated to metabolic equivalents. (To enlarge, hit ctrl + on your keyboard; if I place a large picture, it tends to go out of frame on Blogspot.)

The United States, as you can see, keeps the same company in terms of energy use (and satisfaction with life, for that matter) it keeps on such matters as capital punishment: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, other enlightened principalities and tyrannies. Denmark, as always, is #1. Those people are so happy all the time they must be doing something illegal, all the time. Iceland is an outlier, but that's understandable. The entire island is a geothermal power plant and energy use does not entail or imply, as it does in the United States, a culture of waste and inefficiency. Energy is cheap, clean and renewable and they can use it or lose it.

The happiness/energy chart clears up for me how the United States, which comprises only about 4% of the world's population, could nevertheless use about 25% of the world's daily supply of refined oil and account for 20% of all greenhouse gases. We use energy like it's going out of style, which it should be but isn't. And the return on all that energy use? About 18th in the world now in educational achievement, way down on the list in basic health parameters (infant mortality, obesity, incidence of diabetes [for people born after 2000, 30% will suffer adult onset diabetes]), yet we spend about about twice as much for health care as other industrialized (and happy) countries typically do per capita.

The graphic at the top depicts the basic components of GDP (colored arrows). Consumer and government spending, plus industrial investment in new capital and equipment, minus our trade deficit (we have a negative result when you subtract imports from exports). So, given our profligate waste of money on unnecessary energy expenses (unnecessary in the sense that such use is not positively correlated to increased satisfaction with life) and our insanely out of control government spending (which factors into GDP as well), it is small wonder that our GDP looks so large and seems so "powerful." In the case of government spending, we are now at the point that about half the money spent by the federal government (which will run a deficit this year of about $2 trillion) is borrowed, largely from abroad. Yet if we count government spending on a dollar-for-dollar basis as part of GDP, then of course it masks the fact that the USA does not actually have the money and makes our economy look far more prosperous than it really is.

Similar factors are at work with energy use. The actual importation of all that oil (about 14 million barrels per day, out of a total use of 20 million barrels) drags GDP down; it is a main factor in the trade deficit. But GDP is driven upwards again by Americans buying all that gasoline, which they use to operate the 250 million vehicles in the country, which on average get about 17 miles per gallon. And of course all those cars are bought with credit, increasingly in default. (The auto market died when the line of credit and refi markets died.) There are more vehicles in the USA than there are licensed drivers, and about half of the world's automobiles are located in the United States. It is small wonder that the epitome of American travel and commuting is one person in one large car on a crowded freeway.

So what do we wind up with? Bike trails, as in Holland? High speed rail, as throughout Europe and Japan? Salsa dancing, as in Colombia? No, with decrepit highways and bridges, a dilapidated rail network, a cratering airline industry, rusting autos, and a corrupt Congress bought off with the lucre of high finance.

So just one other point on the Happiness Scale: I don't trust the data point for the USA. I don't believe we really clock in at 7.0 on a 10-point scale. More likely we look at life at about the eye-level of those in Minsk. I think the relatively high number is the result of the self-reinforcing "externality" of American Exceptionalism, the narcissistic trance which makes it so difficult for Americans to see the way we are really living: a nation of very fat people, in very big cars, driving down crowded, potholed freeways, looking at the other cars.

July 06, 2009

Keeping the Truth from Us for Our Own Good

I can recall that during the darkest days of the Bush Administration, various liberal pundits (Paul Krugman comes to mind) used to console themselves by imagining that golden era when all of the fetid secrets of the Bush years would be revealed by a new, Democratic Administration, and then all the guesswork about what had actually been going on behind the scenes would be made...what's the word?..transparent. I've been following three stories relevant to that fantasy. The first is the 2004 CIA Inspector General's Report detailing the uses of torture, and the effectiveness thereof. The second concerns the notes taken by the FBI during its interrogation of Dick Cheney in the middle of the Valerie Plame investigation. And the third concerns the second set of photos of Iraqi detainee abuse.

All of these records, documents, photos are the subject of Freedom of Information Act requests. The government does not voluntarily give up anything damaging to its "image," although one might faintly argue (just for the record) that technically in a democracy, that government and that image belong to us. The United States has various secrecy doctrines and classified records statutes, but it does not actually have, as Great Britain does, an explicit Official Secrets Act which allows the government to throw a blanket over virtually everything. Still, nothing gets released without the work of various watchdog agencies, chief among them CREW (Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington) and the ACLU (the American Civil Liberties Union). I think it's reasonable to say that without the FOIA litigation of these two organizations (and a handful of others), we would know next to nothing about what has really been going on over the last nine years or so.

On the IG-CIA report on torture from 2004, Obama's Justice Department, having inherited a FOIA lawsuit which the Bush Justice Department had essentially already lost, is seeking to extend the deadline for producing the main report and its supporting documentation from June 30 to August 31, 2009. The letters back and forth to the court on this issue are interesting only if you're a lawyer and enjoy watching other semi-sincere practitioners trying to run numbers on the court. It's evident that all the Obama DOJ is doing is buying time in which to redact the hell out of the 200+ page report.

The Cheny notes are probably the most interesting situation. CREW is after these. Obama's DOJ is stonewalling the release of the FBI notes on a ground it memorized from watching Bush's DOJ do the same thing; to wit, if the notes are released, then "in the future," other high-ranking Executive Branch officials would be deterred from cooperating fully because their responses might wind up as fodder on Jon Stewart's Daily Show. I mean, they actually said that. One might think, if one were naive enough, that a high government official, having taken an oath promising to uphold the Constitution and to faithfully execute the laws of the United States, would already operate under the principle that he or she must cooperate with an authorized investigation. Apparently, this is not the case. If it's embarrassing, or maybe incriminating, or can simply be satirized, then you don't get to see it.

This is really too bad in the case of these notes. Cheney had already been spared the indignity of a grand jury session or testimony at trial, although Patrick Fitzgerald probably knew that an incomplete trial would result from the coddling treatment he afforded Cheney. If the FBI did its job (and I assume it did), then they would have gone into all the various people Cheney talked to about the decision to blow Valerie Plame's cover in retaliation for Joe Wilson's unflattering Op-Ed in the New York Times. Realistically speaking, one of those people Cheney talked to in the summer of 2003 must have been none other than the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush. So that against those months when Bush feigned ignorance of the identity of the leakers, and answered questions openly at a few press conferences about his ignorance and determination to "get to the bottom of the leak," we would have Cheney's notes as a means to test the veracity of those protestations of innocent ignorance.

Which is why the Obama DOJ is fighting tooth-and-nail to keep the notes secret. I hope they fail. It's obvious in all three of these cases that the underlying rationale behind Obama's decision to stonewall is to avoid public incitement against his predecessor. The photos, of course, would be highly inflammatory; the CIA-IG Report could be very prejudicial for the architects of our torture regime and stir up renewed calls for war crimes investigations; and the Cheney notes could actually expose Bush to criminal prosecution for obstruction of justice.

I read over the weekend that Obama has expressed his "deep concern" about various "left wing" attacks against those centrist Democrats in the Senate who are the chief impediment to a real reform of health care. Huh? How else does he think the American populace is going to break through the stranglehold of medical insurance lobbying, which is said to reach $1.4 million per day in the current hyped-up climate. Should we wait and just allow corruption to work its legislative magic?

Yet it all seems of a piece. Everyone should be nice. Anything that happened in the past, even in the last 15 seconds, should be allowed to stay there. Everyone was just doing their job, the best way they knew how.

I don't frigging get it.