October 15, 2009

Frontline's "Obama's War"

Pretty good show on PBS a couple of nights ago about the war in Afghanistan. An embedded reporting team moved around Helmand province in Afghanistan with Echo Company, a Marine outfit patrolling an area dominated by the Taliban. Spliced into the hour-long show were excerpts from speeches from David Petraeus and lots of think-tank talking heads. I came away with these thoughts:

1. Watching Petraeus's PowerPoint-aided speech to some think tank institute or other (one of those focusing on defense), I was struck by how similar in style and content a war speech is these days to the language of the business consultant. "Missions," "objectives," "modalities," "partnering with," etc. It's a real industry, war-making in this country, with a huge constituency. A lot of people in government and quasi-government would be out of work if we stopped fighting wars. A war is a business venture with purposes far removed from the putative reason for the conflict; for example, no one is very convincing that the Afghan War, now in its 9th year, is really about 9/11 anymore. When you think about it, how could it be? A certain obeisance is paid to this original rationale, but the main purpose of the war is the war itself, and all the careers and government contracts connected to it. This situation provides tremendous institutional momentum.

2. The show opens with a Marine commander giving his version of Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech. It's not a very good speech. He tells the Marines that 50 years from now their grandchildren will ask them about what happened that summer in Afghanistan. With all due respect to the terrible danger the grunts face every day over there, I kind of doubt this. 50 years from now the Afghanistan War will be in the same category as the Panama invasion or the great conquest of Grenada. Anyway, given the awful, inarticulate nature of modern speech patterns in America, wouldn't it be better just to quote the Bard himself?

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Clearly this is what the commander was going for, and it didn't work. I would say, however, that Henry V's decision to invade France was beset by a problem similar to the Afghan invasion: Henry's war didn't make any sense either, but with Shakespeare writing his material, it seemed more rational.

2. Everyone in Afghanistan, except the U.S. military, is interested primarily in one thing: the money you can make with opium poppies. The Taliban, Karzai's government and the native tribes are all up to their eyeballs in heroin production. Karzai's chief aide is a narco-dealer, for example, or is widely viewed as one by the populace. The U.S. military just looks the other way: they can't win hearts and minds by wiping out the lucrative poppy business, so they leave it alone.

3. Pakistan is a real mess. No doubt this is the real reason we're in Afghanistan - to keep an eye on the Muslims with the nukes. The ISI (Pakistan's security apparatus) is highly supportive of Afghanistan's Taliban, which means that a lot of the billions in aid we pay to Pakistan probably finds its way one way or another into the hands of our nominal enemy. The Pakistanis, by and large, seem to hate us, so the idea of a direct solution to our problem, simply garrisoning soldiers in Pakistan, is a non-starter, as the management consultants/generals might say. So we have to mess around with a war next door in order to keep our forces ready to...? Hard to say.

4. Karzai is hugely corrupt and probably plays the Taliban off against us and vice versa.

The grunts of Echo Company patrol the primitive villages of southern Afghanistan and get shot at, and blown up, by a largely unseen enemy who avoid direct confrontation. It really looks like such a war could go on forever. The Taliban aren't going to leave and the local, non-hostile population seems largely indifferent to their presence so long as they're allowed to grow opium poppies. Karzai rules Kabul, but beyond that it's all sort of the Wild West.

I suppose the only real question is whether our presence in Afghanistan helps or hinders stability in Pakistan. Those who want us out say it "destabilizes" Pakistan, those who say we "must win" claim our presence is necessary. McChrystal (who spends a lot of time on-air during the show) of course believes he needs a lot more troops in order to get the job done. I imagine he'll get most of them because Petraeus demonstrated in Iraq that a fractional increase in the number of American troops (the "surge") does something, and I don't think Obama wants to take a chance on varying from this template even if the two situations are not at all analogous. The war may fail, but Obama will want to fail in a way that is acceptable to the War Industry, and in America Surges 'R Us. If you go rogue and do something weird, like withdraw completely, you take a huge gamble. You change the "brand." In later reconstructions of your failure, the analysis will be simplified so that Fox News and the Republicans will yell that Obama had the compelling example of The Surge to guide him, but made some fancy argument that Iraq was not Afghanistan and tried something else. That doesn't play in America. Way too complicated.

October 13, 2009

Obama as our guide to oblivion

A preliminary note from the always entertaining/informative Dmitry Orlov:

I've said it here before: Obama is the new Gorbachev, the smiling face behind the crumbling imperial fa├žade, the personable, non-threatening loser. Gorbachev got his Nobel Consolation Prize in October 1990; a little less than a year later the USSR was no more and he was unemployed.

In awarding him the Peace Prize, the Nobel committee actually did some good: by reaffirming his legitimacy as a leader, it helped to weaken the hand of the conservative forces within Russia, which later staged an unsuccessful coup in an effort to reclaim control of the dissolving empire.

Gorbachev certainly deserves credit for making sure that the USSR disintegrated with a whimper and not a bang. May Barak Obama be just as successful in completing the dissolution of the USA, quietly and without any undue bloodshed. Moving forward, I wish him a long and happy unemployment.

Now is that actually the case? Dmitry likes the analogy between the collapsing Russian state and what he sees as the same inevitable American fate; and I myself have conceded that if there is one polity that springs readily to mind when considering the ossified condition of American politics, it's the old Soviet Union. Congress and the White House are incapable of responding to real problems, and largely this is because of our own superannuated Politburo, which we call the U.S. Senate.

It's a pity that during the expansion of the U.S. westward, with the inclusion of all those new states beyond the original 13, that we simply didn't get rid of the Senate. It's profoundly undemocratic, since very small populations are vastly overrepresented. Those tiny electorates in South and North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana: they all have two Senators, just like California, yet California has a population twelve times the combined population of all those states (about 3 million for them; 36 million for the Golden State- by that logic, shouldn't Los Angeles have 8 Senators all of its own?). What's with the bicameral legislature? Nebraska doesn't have one, and who's got more corn than they do? The bicameral legislature is obviously a kind of vestigial artifact from the Houses of Lords & Commons, and why do we want to be reminded of that?

But the main problem with all those ancient pols in the Senate is that (a) they're a stationary target for lobbyists, and (b) they have that stupid 60-vote rule which they put in place so they would never have to do anything other than approve wars and pass unconstitutional legislation (Telecom immunity, Military Commissions Act, the Patriot Act, etc.). The Senate assures that lobbyists can use their money efficiently to buy votes. A little systems analysis allows the influence peddlers to figure out where the key committees are, how many votes they have to buy, and how to use the 60-vote rule to choke off anything they don't like. The Senate is the choke point for all meaningful reform in this country. Pretty obvious when you think about it. Why is the health care reform bill such a watered-down, soggy piece of nothing? Because it has to get through the lobbyist-infested Senate.

I don't know if Dmitry is right, but the Senate certainly doesn't hurt his case. The U.S. is in a depression and Congress really cannot do much about it because they are institutionally incapable of reordering American spending priorities. Look how much talk is still devoted to this Afghanistan question. 20% unemployment, $1.5 trillion deficits, the states going broke, and the Senate argues endlessly about whether in this 9th year of the Afghan war we should add 20 thousand or maybe 40 thousand more troops.

That's why it doesn't surprise me that the early rumblings about secession have come from large, cash-strapped (there's another kind?) states, such as Texas. You begin to wonder how to make ends meet locally, how to pay for schools, roads, state employees, and you realize that all those federal taxes your citizens pay go into the insatiable maw of the military-industrial complex, which exists not primarily to protect you but to enrich itself with your money, and you think....is there a simpler way to do this? Like just keeping the money here?

As the depression persists, more talk of that sort will surface. Orlov could be right that Obama might be the perfect president, with his fetishistic attachment to mediation and everyone getting along, to oversee the orderly breakup of the U.S. of A. Better him than Bush, that's for sure. Bush would have launched a preemptive strike against the first state that tried it. Not so Barry. It might be change he could believe in.

October 12, 2009

The Doppelganger Seizes Krugman's Keyboard

Nothwithstanding his Nobel Prize in Economics (and let's face it, the Nobel Committees in Oslo and Stockholm are getting pretty whimsical these days), sometimes I think the problem with Paul Krugman is that he's just not very smart. He's ambitious, obviously, since you can see him opinionating on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, on Real Time with Bill Maher, and on George Steph's snoozefest on Sunday mornings, where you can also listen to the Climate Change Deniers' Champion, George Will.

To account for my ambivalence about Krugman's true intelligence, I have invented the literary conceit of the Doppelganger, a mysterious (but still bearded) phantom who periodically takes over Krugman's spot at the Times and writes his column for him. I think the DG was keeping Krugman's seat warm over the weekend and wrote his column appearing today, in which Krugman (?) argues that the falling value of the dollar against international currencies is an unequivocally good thing. It's simple, according to Professor K: it makes American exports more attractive, and the reason the dollar is actually falling is because foreign banks have relaxed as they bask in the warm glow of the obvious economic recovery and have retreated from the safe haven of the dollar into their domestic currencies.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Romania's government just collapsed because they're broke. California, which would be in the G-8 if it were a country (its economy is/was that large), is on budgetary life support, and if it crashes (it might) then the state which produces half the country's food (including all those exports) will come asunder.

I just figured out who's writing Krugman's columns! I don't why it never occurred to me before. It's Ben Bernanke. All the details fit. Faculty of Princeton's economics department? Check. Beard? Check. Refusal to confront reality? Check.

It's him alright. Look, Paul, Ben, Doppel, whoever you are: it's obvious to us why you're printing money (monetizing the debt, though you refuse to admit it), keeping interest rates at the "zero lower bound" (fancy Fed talk for not charging interest at all), and maintaining all the happy talk about the economic recovery. Politically speaking, it's just not possible anymore to face the truth. The Bubble-Built-On-Debt Economy is over, but the problem is that the bubbles in that economic champagne we were drinking have left us with a helluva hangover. To wit, to keep the party going during the Bush years, and to funnel the remaining notional wealth of the United States into the accounts of about four or five large investment banks on Wall Street who were well-connected in Washington, American consumers took on residential, commercial real estate and credit card debts they could not pay with existing incomes. They could not pay the present value (factoring in the interest increases built into such loans) of the loans even at the moment when the ink was still wet. The vaults of large banks (Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citi, Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Indy Mac) became stuffed with these dodgy pooled mortgages, and hundreds of billions more were sold to fixed-income investors. The cream (the commissions) was skimmed at the front end by Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, JP Morgan Chase, et al., and they all got very rich.

Then sunrise came. The world at large is now looking askance at the epic scene of wreckage in America stretching from sea to shining sea, the hundreds of thousands of houses owned by banks representing the worthless collateral of all those failed loans. At the specter of America borrowing 40 cents of every dollar its government spends, yet that government is unable to stop itself from expensive foreign wars. At the Federal Reserve's hypertrophied balance sheet, heavy with all those toxic loans it traded for Treasuries during its "cash for trash" triage operations. And the world is saying: WTF?

There's the true story of the dollar's decline. The FDIC is broke and afraid to declare any more banks insolvent, although hundreds of banks are in that condition. The Treasury is holding huge auctions on practically a daily basis to raise cash to meet the inexorable needs of Congress for more dough to keep the game going.

This is all about improving our export position? I doubt that, just a little. The real purpose of zero interest loans and the Fed's ravenous appetite for all the crap on the books of the banking system is the hope, however faint, that the real estate bubble can be reinflated so that, voila!, all those loans become good again. That's the game, that's the prayer. It's the only way out, short of doing something politically impossible, such as telling the truth.

A weak dollar is very scary, because the ability to decide how much money we have (by virtue of our status as the printer of the world's fiat currency) is mostly what we have left. Krugman says the weak dollar is "good news." It is what's new, but I don't know how good it is.