November 12, 2009

The origins of Selbst Schadenfreude

((Click on table to enlarge in new screen.)

In the ongoing effort to enrich the Blogospherical vocabulary, I offer Selbst Schadenfreude, which I will translate as meaning "the malicious pleasure taken in one's own difficulties or downfall." I think there are whole websites devoted to this pastime, and I read some of them:, Kunstler's Clusterfucknation, The Market Ticker, and many others. In the modern United States, there is a lot to work with, which probably explains the tendency in the first place, along with a sense of unconscious guilt arising from the simultaneous perception of (a) such a bounteous birthright of beauty, fertility, temperate climate, resources and historical timing and (b) such a piss-poor utilization of it all in recent times. Thus, the marked tendency toward self-laceration, doomsday prophesying, and the rest. Selbstschadenfreude.

The chart above is from the helpful public data made freely available by the Department of the Treasury. It is the national "P&L," in a way. If the United States were strictly a business, one would have to say that this is the financial picture of a company which has gone belly up. This is the most recent P&L, for October. Granted, I would not expect tax receipts to be their highest in October, although this is the designated extension month used by many taxpayers. Nevertheless, if one looks at the year-over-year decline from October 2008 to the present, perhaps a cold chill will also crawl up your spine. Last year $30 billion more in tax receipts arrived in October. This suggests two things: (a) we're in a steep nosedive financially, and (b) how the hell do you match up a fall-off of about 18% in tax revenue with the official unemployment rates? In October 2008 the rate was 6.5%; now it's 10.3%. How can these two data points be reconciled unless someone is seriously fudging the unemployment numbers? Is it possible that another Selbstschadenfreudemeister (Germans love those portmanteau words), John Williams at Shadow Government Statistics, is right that the true unemployment figure is about 21%?

The other really eerie thing about this chart is the expense side: $311 billion, including $70 billion for defense. Well, some things never change. So we've got $135 billion coming in, $311 billion going out. Does anyone see anything at all wrong with this picture? In what possible universe is this sustainable? Against this backdrop of utter insolvency, the generals are arguing that Obama should send more troops to Afghanistan and Paul Krugman of the New York Times is urging another round of stimulus, only really big this time. This is getting seriously nuts.

I would like to think that our sane, rational, deliberate President is looking at this chart the same way I am. I suspect he is. I think he is weighing the political demands from the rabid Right Wing militarists against the economic reality. I think he did the same thing with the national health care issue. I don't think he thought we could afford it. I don't think he believes we can afford an escalation in Afghanistan, or even to be there at all. Or to maintain those 750 overseas bases that the great, brilliant Chalmers Johnson has been trying to warn us about in his Nemesis trilogy. No one would listen to guys like Chalmers Johnson or Kevin Phillips, although they did their fricking homework, like crazy. They went very, very deep. They weren't guessing.

And now here it is. We're attempting to turn the national finances into an immense Ponzi scheme, where a little bit of income is used to leverage massive borrowing, where the ability to repay the principal is fading into a ridiculous fantasy, so that all we can hope to do is to keep borrowing, make interest payments on the national debt, until....until what? There's the problem. Until we emerge from this Depression and revenue begins flooding into the Treasury again? We have no idea when that will happen. The reason the stimulus was able only to mitigate the deplorable state of local budgets (to keep teachers and cops on the job) is because we waited way too long to begin investing in this country. Bush spent all that dough on Iraq and Afghanistan and on a pointless build-up of an already hypertrophied military establishment. Because a bunch of Saudis hijacked planes and flew them into buildings. So now we're in that very dangerous situation where time is not on our side. The economy has to turn around, fast, or....what? We publish this data, after all, and President Obama is in China now, and the Chinese are looking at the same figures he is.

Anyway, I'm very glad it's President Obama at the helm right now. If it were Bush, I'd still be taking night classes in French at the local junior college.

Fort Hood & the War on Definitions

The tragic event at Fort Hood last week appears to have settled down into more of a conventional news story. 12 soldiers and one civilian were murdered by an Army psychiatrist who went berserk. Many others were wounded, some very seriously (well, I suppose any gunshot wound is serious). The story would take its quiet place in the annals of American mass murders, along with disgruntled postal killers, school and college massacres and the rest in the sad litany of carnage in Free Fire Zone America, except for one salient fact: the shooter was a Muslim of Palestinian descent who had been in contact with a radical Muslim imam, who in turn had presided over mosques where three al-Qaeda, 9-11 hijackers had attended, in Virginia and San Diego (including one of the pilots, Hani Hanjour). The two San Diego 9-11 conspirators were the "muscle" hijackers who gave the CIA the slip in Southeast Asia and settled into suburban life in Southern California. You can read all about them in the Report of the 9-11 Commission.

This fact raised the stakes considerably. The forces of Political Correctness were mobilized immediately, of course, so that there were stories about the story almost before there was a story. Although Major Nidal Malik Hasan was himself pretty clear that his attack was motivated by "religionist" thinking (what else do we think it could have been? why was he shooting exclusively soldiers in the Readiness Center who were about to deploy to Iraq & Afghanistan?), it became verboten, in the beginning, to even talk this way. Many other Muslim soldiers in the Army were "consulted" so that a balanced view could be presented. Glenn Greenwald, who's real good on civil liberties and the law but goes a little crazy when anyone utters an anti-Muslim sentiment because of his deep dislike of Israel-U.S. connections, did a kind of Chomsky number where he started talking about Predator drones conducting "terrorist" attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. You know, who you calling a terrorist? I forget exactly how he got there, but I'm sure his logic was impeccable. It's just that it has nothing to do with the real world.

David Brooks went the other way and stated his conclusion that there's just something about Islam which results in its adherents regarding other people as sub-human. Of course, Mr. Brooks first had to begin at the beginning and set the context for this view, which in his case is always to build civilization from the ground up: "Humans breathe air. We all breathe the same air. Yet what we do with that air is different. Different cultures use the air for different things..." Poor David. He knows he's really, really smart. He just can't seem to prove it to anyone else's satisfaction.

After the political correctness wore off, people got down to business and started arguing (a) whether this was a terrorist attack, and if so, (b) who should be blamed. Now we're talkin'.

Was it a terrorist attack? First of all, you can't have a terrorist attack without a terrorist, can you? So was Hasan a terrorist before he shot up Fort Hood, as a result of shooting up Fort Hood, or not at all?

Like David Brooks, of course, we need to back up and lay the groundwork. For about an hour or so. I don't want to use the definition of terrorism currently in vogue, because it's case-specific. It has to do with our ongoing efforts to defeat Radical Islam. So I'll resort to the American Heritage Dictionary: "Terrorism, n. The systematic use of terror, violence, and intimidation to achieve an end."

Interesting. Nothing said there about "asymmetrical" warfare or any of that, which appears to be a definitional gloss on the topic to differentiate anything done by a nation-state from nonstate actors. On the other hand, what the hell does the American Heritage Dictionary know?

Anyway, it seems to me that Hasan gets a free pass from the dictionary, because it's hard to call what he did "systematic." Maybe the important take-away point is that these definitions don't really help much. After you get through defining it, the case remains that of an Army major who decided to shoot a lot of American soldiers for religious reasons of his own. You can't escape that. In psychiatric terms, this psychiatrist was in a state of profound cognitive dissonance over being part of a military which was in turn engaged in fighting countries where his co-religionists are the overwhelming majority, and the internal conflict apparently drove him to murder.

Did he kill all those soldiers as part of his part in worldwide Islamic jihad? We'll never know, I don't think. Was he okay with the West, in general, but this specific conflict overwhelmed his religious conscience and drove him to kill? We'll probably never know that either.

Like most murders, it has the "greater meaning" we assign to it, which we do in order to cope with tragedy. But it remains murder. A lot of dead individuals caught up in one man's internal turmoil. It doesn't tell us anything about the War on Terror, nor much about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It does suggest that a determined individual in the United States who wants to act out on his impulses, religious, ideological or otherwise, can find the means and firepower to do so, apparently even when he's on the FBI's radar because of consorting with suspected Islamic radicals, and there isn't much we can do about it if we want to remain a free society. That's not a popular conclusion in this country, but I think it remains true nonetheless.

November 11, 2009

Veterans & the Dogs Who Love Them

November 11, 2009. If you can watch these with dry eyes....well, then you're different from me.

November 10, 2009

Actual basis for Obama disillusionment syndrome (Freudian analysis)

Okay, look: I'm an inveterate amateur psychoanalyst in the great tradition of amateur everythings, such as the amateur sleuths Sherlock Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy Sayers, and Father Brown of G.K. Chesterton. Anyway, it's not that difficult to be an amateur Freudian shrink. All you have to do is to attribute everything to unconscious motivations, and if anyone disagrees with you, you simply argue that they're engaged in Resistance based on Denial. A closed loop.

The great physicist Richard Feynman took issue with the validity of psychology on the ground that the advances in the field were too frequent and too variable to be characteristic of a real science. He pointed out that it took hundreds of years to get from Newtonian physics to relativity and quantum physics, whereas psychology seems to go through a major paradigm shift every decade or so. That's not characteristic of real science, only "heuristic" musing or subjective philosophy. Leave it to Feynman to think about things in a way which would occur to no one else. One of the many reasons his loss is so immense.

So anyone should be able to use psychoanalysis because it's not real in the first place. Dr. Phil certainly doesn't let his lack of the appropriate credentials get in his way.

Back to Obama: here's how it works. Consider an analogy, always helpful in the fairy-tale based "science" of psychoanalysis. A woman meets a charming, dynamic man, and they engage in a whirlwind romance. She's just coming out of an eight-year relationship with a lying, semi-deranged, hard-drinking brute, who knocks her around, cheats and is monumentally insensitive. The new guy really looks like a step up, especially by comparison. They get married, and then on their wedding night something strange happens. Prince Charming drinks a little, says something derogatory to her, and then hits her one in the mouth.

That's it. He never strikes her again, and in the ensuing months he's pretty reliable. Not a bad husband.

So here's the analogy. Most progressive, liberal types saw Obama as the Great Redeemer during his campaign and just before his inauguration. We had been through eight years of George W. Bush, who had fabricated evidence for an unnecessary war in Iraq; gotten about 4,000 soldiers killed over there, and refused to count the numbers of Iraqi dead (he couldn't be bothered); established a torture regime (Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo, rendition) which violated the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. War Crimes Act and the Convention Against Torture; routinely and systematically violated the FISA law and the Fourth Amendment by spying without warrants on American citizens; and established a concentration camp in Cuba where the due process rights of many innocent people were completely obliterated.

Not a word of the above accusations is in any sense exaggerated, false or even controversial. Some of it has faded from memory, of course, but that's part of (Freudian) suppression. The overwhelming assumption among Obama's ardent followers (such as, ahem, Dr. Walden) was that Obama would kick some holy ass once he took power and cleanse the temple of all this filth and corruption. We can invent some convenient amnesia if we like, but that truth remains. Those salutary actions included the much-ballyhooed (and never realized) "accountability" moment so many talked about during the Bush years. If it meant that members of Bush's administration, including Bush himself, would be the subject of investigation and/or prosecution, so be it. Joe Biden said during the campaign that all of that was on the table; Obama kept saying that "no one was above the law."

Once Obama was sworn in (the wedding night), however, all of that changed for good. His murmured preference for "looking forward, not backward" became fixed policy. Then he took it further. His Administration, through his Justice Department, began interfering with private litigation based on Bush's various war crimes and felonies, using a broader definiton of the "State Secrets" doctrine than had Bush himself. He argued against releasing any more photos of detainee abuse "for the safety of the troops," meaning, of course (since the enemies of the troops were already well aware of the extent of the abuse), for Bush's safety from prosecution. His Administration redacted the CIA Inspector General's Report of 2004 on torture to an almost comic level. Once he decided to protect Bush from scrutiny, Obama used every legal and extra-legal method available to avoid inciting the citizenry's fading and dormant demand for justice.

Dormant, perhaps, but not really forgotten. It resides in a kind of collective unconscious. It affects the way we look at Obama. He's not our knight in shining armor at all. He kinda punched us all in the mouth. He's more like the previous guy than we really want to admit.

So he does good things, no doubt. He's progressive on health care, global warming, scientific research, a bunch of things where Bush was very much in the way. The world community respects us more, and they welcome a humane and emotionally healthy American President. Yet there's that lingering, shocking betrayal. Residing as it does deep in the unconscious, it "colors" our perceptions, and not in any racial way, not at all. I suspect that Freud was right, that our unconscious pushes our emotions around as undersea currents move the oceans. We can't help feeling the way we do, and it's just not possible to get excited about the new guy anymore. He just seems like a lot of talk, because that moment for action came and went and he displayed his true mettle. He never meant any of it.

November 09, 2009

Post-Disillusionment Syndrome

One good thing about writing a blog on current events in the hammock years between the denouement of the Bush Presidency and the ascension of the Obama is that you do get over yourself, in terms of how and what you write. One might begin, as many bloggers probably do, in a "hortatory mood," as if finding this outlet might, in fact, make some sort of a difference. This is of course only symptomatic of the projection-based nature of human psychology. Over time you come to terms with the idea that this diary of ideas (thanks again, Eric Blair) mainly just chronicles your own intellectual journey. And, you know, in the age of disclosure, why not do so in public? (Or in semi-private, most of the time.)

So that your analysis, in modern America, tends to devolve toward the forensic rather than the reformative. It's just an out-loud attempt to understand what is. If nothing else, modern America is very interesting. While we resist the notion that huge changes are occurring, that doesn't stop Reality from moving us in the direction of social evolution anyway. Right now, the American leadership is locked in collective denial about what's going on outside the Village. The idea seems to be that tweaking the interest rate, or emailing money to certain large banks, or recycling tax dollars (augmented by borrowed dollars) from the American citizenry right back to the American citizenry (the stimulus approach) will right the ship of state and restore us to the halcyon days circa 2005.

Like death itself, however, a Big Change was inevitable sometime, and ours began in earnest in 2007. It took a lot of preparation, however, to get America ready for the demolition of its economy. One leading indicator (along with, and related to, the off-shoring of all our good jobs) was the destruction of the American public school system. Under the sway of anti-tax ideologues marching under the banner of Our Patron Saint, Ronald Reagan the Divine, everything government did, including public education, was seen as inefficient and wasteful. It made sense that a man as intellectually limited as Reagan would denigrate education. So we began undereducating an entire generation of Americans, beginning in the 1970's. This worked okay so long as we had a "service economy" to provide jobs for the increasingly deficient products of our school systems. These were the serfs for the Crap Job Economy: the baristas, the fry cooks at McD, the ex-con zombies staggering in the canyons of Home Depot, vast legions of call center phone jockeys. The Crap Job Economy depended on lots of disposable income to keep all the retail outlets open, places where the increasingly rotund American could waddle in and dump some fiat currency. So we allowed everyone to turn their houses into ATMs, either with lines of credit or re-fi, so that we could all participate in the American Debt Orgy.

Then all of that became unhooked. Americans were living way beyond their means and borrowing to a level 30 to 40% above the lifestyle actually supported by their stagnant incomes. There was time for one more Bubble, the Bubble at the End of the Universe, called the mortgage-backed security fraud, which allowed the government-backed Big Boyz to vacuum up all the nation's mortgages, replace them with mortgages too good to be true (and programmed to fail), make a killing on the front end, and then walk away as the explosive charges detonated. There were few other ways for the Business Elite to get obscenely rich at the point when the Great American Mortgage Heist began, and obscenely rich is the only kind that plays in this country. Stocks had been stagnant for 7 or 8 years (even now the Dow is only at the level it attained in 1999). So the hypothecation of America's very land was about the only asset left to play, and the good part was that Wall Street (with the connivance of the government de-regulators, all still on the job) could entice everyone in America, in effect, to play the market (whether they realized it or not), because their mortgage had just been made into a marketable bond. The past was prologue to our present. Then: ka-blooey.

Obama's Administration wants to stimulate the American economy into producing 3.5 million jobs over the next three years. It claims (fraudulently) that it has "created or saved" 640,000 so far, courtesy of the ARRA. Deep inquiries into this number have yielded uncomfortable truths for our smiling leader. Half of this number, or 320,000 jobs, represent government jobs at one level or another. Where a raise is granted by means of the stimulus, this counts as a job "saved," although, of course, this makes no sense. Obama promised that 90% of the 3.5 million jobs would be created in the private sector, which means that he and his advisors originally prognosticated that only 350,000 jobs would be public; thus, Obama only has room left for 30,000 more jobs "created or saved" (or perhaps: "improved") in the public sector before he has to go all-private, all the time, on the balance of 2,860,000 jobs still to go. Hmmm. Well, you shouldn't use all your trumps so early in the hand.

First, of course, the private sector needs to quit firing people, which it's still doing at the rate of 200,000 per month. The current unemployment figure of 10.3% (the one most flattering to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) is already significantly higher than the prediction of Christina Romer, O's head of the Council of Economic Advisors, for the worst case American situation without the stimulus. So the reality (that word again) is that the unemployment rate is worse than the worst-case scenario predictions with and without the stimulus. So what does this tell us about the value of the Council's "predictions?"

I'm not surprised they're so wrong. It's just that, as Villagers, they live in a privileged world. They don't really know what's going on out in the real world, where stores are closing, commercial buildings are empty, strip malls are abandoned, banks are failing, and millions of residences sit empty. They're busy figuring out the Over/Under on Afghan troop deployments. The Japanese see this situation and buy our Treasury bonds, even at their low yield, on the theory that the longer-term (3 to 5 years) will become more valuable as the American economy continues to sink. They see our unemployment going to 13% and things continuing to unravel, and they base their predictions on Japan's own Lost Decade, to which our predicament bears an eerie resemblance.

Fasten your seat belts. It's gonna be a bumpy night.