December 31, 2010

Closing thought for 2010

I leave you with this idea, as we see the headlight of Train #2011 appear far down the track, heading toward the station: a constitutional democracy is something of a learned discipline, not so different from the scientific method in some ways. It takes a certain habit of mind, a kind of intellectual persistence to sustain. There is nothing automatic about it. "Serious" people in our society often seem to discount the idea that a democracy such as ours can degenerate into some far less desirable form of polity, but such thinkers suffer from the fallacy known as the normative tendency of the factual. This fallacy inculcates the illusion that the social and political arrangements around us are in some sense permanent and indestructible.

This is not really the truth at all. Democracy is actually the aberration; humans are far more predisposed to arrange themselves into hierarchical systems which are anti-democratic, which repose absolute power in elites accepted either by acclamation or by acquiescence in Divine Right. Looking back over history, and around the world even now, we can see that kings and dictators have been far more plentiful than democratic governments. Such tyrannies are the default position, anthropologically speaking, just as religion is the default position in the absence of a scientific establishment.

What is going on right now in Washington, D.C. is a modern, technologically-driven form of this degeneration. Sheldon Wolin calls it "inverted totalitarianism," Chris Hedges calls it a move from "Brave New World" to the dystopia of "1984." What it doesn't seem much like is the democracy in the United States which existed even twenty years ago. It's true we still have elections, as poorly attended as they are. There are still "sea changes" in our government, even "hope and change," yet you can still discern the inexorable slide toward a government of men and not of laws. If you pay attention, if you don't get caught up over much in partisanship and just observe how almost all of our leaders are behaving, you can see this. It has become the norm to disregard statutory law and the Constitution, most particularly the Bill of Rights. To my way of thinking, this is neither a "liberal" nor a "conservative" position, the act of pointing out this devolutionary process. Absolute power, once it is achieved by elites, is indifferent to "left" or "right." Was National "Socialism" a disease of the "left" or of the "right?" Were Stalin's gulags features of a "leftist" government or a "rightist" dictatorship? What's the difference, really? In neither system did the common person have any rights. Both systems were simply about the exercise of absolute power by those who seized it.

It has become standard practice in Washington never to punish a member of the political/financial/military elite for anything except betrayal of the elite's interests. That is the only crime now. Torture, lying to Congress and the American people in furtherance of a war, routine violations of the Fourth Amendment, suppression of First Amendment rights, fraud on an industrial scale - nothing ever is done about it through the justice system. Wars were launched first without a Declaration as required by Article 1 of the Constitution. Now they are pursued, as in Yemen, without even the token (and constitutionally insufficient) compliance with the War Powers Act. No government official seeks a FISA warrant to spy on us. If Wikileaks is too big a problem for the U.S. government, it employs a specious distinction which does not exist between Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg, as far as First Amendment rights are concerned, in order to silence the former while leaving the latter, contradictorily, untarnished as an American hero.

In some way the power elites, as C.Wright Mills called them, have managed to confuse the common American into thinking that patriotism consists in party loyalty and not devotion to the best interests of the country. This is a very clever trick, and one that the Tea Party has completely fallen for. The Tea Party demands that "the Bush tax cuts" be enshrined and perpetuated, without seeming to realize that the evisceration of the U.S. Treasury cannot possibly serve the interests of the middle classers who tend to populate the movement. They cheer on wars that are supposed to keep us "safe," without thinking through that the wars are for the same purpose as the tax cuts, to keep taxpayer money (and the huge borrowing which such dwindling income makes possible) flowing to well-connected defense contractors and war profiteers. The power elites have managed to incite hate between liberals and conservatives by getting them to argue about such things as wars and tax cuts for the rich in symbolic terms - being for war and tax cuts for the wealthy is patriotic; being against such things is subversive and anti-American.

Eventually, when all the bills come due, the commoners always realize they've been had, when intellectual distinctions or the fine points of partisanship are no longer relevant, because the Queen is telling you to eat cake if there isn't enough bread. Then you wind up with France in 1789, or the American colonies in 1776. Or more darkly, Russia in 1917 or Germany in 1933.

While I don't really see how we're going to do it, I hope we begin to figure such things out before events themselves compel the changes. History teaches us that's often a disastrous way to evolve.

December 30, 2010

My fearless predictions for 2011

It's that time of year when all serious writers, or even people like me, cast their eyes toward the future and make meaningless predictions about what is to come. Since no one, including me again, is likely ever to look at this blog to see if I was right, I proceed fearlessly.

First, on the economic front: the leading economic indicators show some recent improvement. Even websites such as zerohedge which depend, for their very existence, on an unabated flow of disastrous econ news have been forced to acknowledge that some things are getting better. Mostly these things are of little benefit to the millions and millions in the abandoned lower and lower-middle classes, those on food stamps, unemployed, scrambling to keep body and soul together. 2011 will be another bad year for them. In the increasingly merciless form of pure capitalism which dominates the American scene, where even Christians believe that if someone is starving he probably deserves it because of character flaws (i.e., insufficient money), we leave the dead and broke behind and move on toward a Darwinist Utopia. Thus, next up: a curtailment of future Social Security benefits, sanctioned by our proto-Republican President in his upcoming State of the Union, and a gradual paring back of Medicare. With a House of Representatives full of Tea Party thinkers, those delegates ensconced by Fat, Dumb & Busted Americans trained to vote against their own economic interest, the entitlement programs will at last be under serious attack.

The American standard of living, based for the last thirty years or so on the housing market and house-as-ATM and retirement plan, will continue its inexorable sagging toward an Asian (Chinese) mean. There can be no miracles in this regard, folks. Prosperity depends on most people having a good, productive job, and we've sent most of those away. The housing market no longer takes up the slack; thus, how do we continue the consumer jubilee? The best we can hope for is that the descent is more gradual and less disruptive, as Americans adjust to their new, lower station in life. The Federal Reserve seems as though it's beginning to get the message, that the housing bubble cannot be reinflated without ruinous debasement of the U.S. dollar.

My reading, listening and watching lead me to believe that the next major economic hurdle facing the U.S. of A. is the insolvency of its constituent parts, that is, the states. The states and local governments are going to have to choose between paying their current and former (pension) payrolls or paying their bondholders. Big, populous states such as California, Illinois, and New York are involved in such excruciating calculi. I think this is where the Federal Reserve, having ridden to the rescue of Wall Street and Europe during 2008 to 2010, will next focus the powerful beam of its Magical Money Hallucination Generator. The Fed will "purchase" state and municipal bonds to stop a wave of defaults which will otherwise bring the roof down on the populace's heads. This at least is a more manageable job than the previous attempt to reinflate the housing bubble. Probably a trillion or two, chump change in Bernanke's world, will do the trick and buy the states and cities time to bring their programs into line with the general lowered expectations of America as a whole. Bernanke's willingness to conjure money out of thin air and to "appropriate" dough where the skinflint new Congress will not will of course cause all kinds of political convulsions, and that will be a big story line next year, especially with Ron Paul riding herd on the Fed. But we've all gotten used to doing things in a completely illegal, unconstitutional way, and it just doesn't matter anymore.

And as for war, and rumors of war: Obama may actually propose a budget for this (2012) fiscal year, unlike last year when he never got around to it, and there will be no decrease in the defense budget. Maybe a slight increase, although the Ungrateful Nouri over in Iraq remains adamant that the U.S. will leave his country at the end of 2011 as promised in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Smart move on his part; he's probably noticed that we have bases in Germany and Okinawa that were set up in 1945, and if he's going to pull this off, it's best to do so with a President who practices a form of preemptive submission when confronted with any challenge. What will happen to our "permanent" bases in Iraq? And that $12 billion embassy? How would you like to be posted with the foreign service in Baghdad, just across the border from Iran, with no U.S. military as backup? That's a weird one. We're going to leave the embassy staff in the gentle clutches of the Ungrateful Nouri, who is in league with Muqtada al-Sadr, who's already declared war on the U.S. once. What are we, nuts?

Afghanistan will drag on, of course. We have to have at least one shooting war and Afghanistan will have to do until North & South Korea actually get into real warfare, which could very well happen in 2011. That will be the new tour of duty for soldiers rotating home from Iraq.

American culture will remain the same dismal swampland of the lurid and meretricious. So be it. I still have my Complete Annotated Works of William Shakespeare, so I'm alright, Jack. Let us remember, as the Bard would have it, that it's not all that serious in the final analysis. Prospero said so:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

December 26, 2010

The Comeback Kid, Redux

If you're looking for a creative outlet during this slow time of year, you might want to sign up at and begin making your own cartoons, using such characters as displayed in the linked cartoon or the familiar bears at right. I've written a couple of screenplays myself, collaborating with a buddy of mine who holds an MFA from the UCLA Film School, and thus has serious chops. One of these screenplays (based on my novel) went so far as to be read (and rejected) by a script editor at Lion's Gate. This is considered street cred in the amorphous world of movie making. Anyway, I pass along a couple of screenwriting tips for your use as you put together your YouTube viral instant classic:

As you write your script, remember the basic improv formula: build, don't refute. A character says one thing, and the other character says something which extends that comment or leads to a new turn. For example, if one character says, "Do you want to go with me?" the other character can't simply say, "No," or the skit is over. Instead, character 2 should say something like, "I'd like to, but I'm blowing up the Chinese Embassy." Then character 1 can say, "Well, how about Tuesday," or "Did you get a bad pot sticker?"

Keep the statements of the characters short. It doesn't have to get mannered in the style of David Mamet, but soliloquies are boring unless you can write like the Bard himself. Rapid interchange of dialogue is more interesting than two characters weighing each other down with speeches.

I'm working on a cartoon with two ready-made characters, Obama and George W. Bush, from the It's getting pretty obvious that the two are far more alike than different, and not just in the sense that they are both Harvard grads. Neither of them is (was) really up to the job of being President and Obama relies, and Bush relied, completely on a group of advisors to tell them what to do. Indeed, the three main advisors, David Petraeus, Robert Gates and Ben Bernanke, are the same for both of them. When you've accounted for the military-industrial-financial complex, there really isn't much left to talk about as far as American policy is concerned, and the same people call the shots now as did during Bush's reign. Obama kept Bush's desk, his Oval Office rug and his government, so it isn't really surprising that things don't seem very different. The fact that Obama would choose to copy George W. Bush in making most of his calls tells you probably everything you need to know about Obama's insecurities and internal resources.

In retrospect, it was Bush's unfortunate fate to fall under the insidious sway of Dick Cheney, and Bush the Elder was probably responsible for that, knowing, as he did, that his eldest son was a consummate lightweight and needed heavy guidance from a D.C. insider. But Pappy Bush misunderestimated just how radical Cheney was (I can't figure out why Blogger is underlining in wavy red a perfectly good verb form like "misunderestimated"). Thus, our Constitutional form of government went down the toilet during the Bush years and is probably not coming back.

I note that the MSM has lightened up on the O-Man recently, right about the time I decided to terminate Obama-bashing. Positing a causal connection between my decision and this more general trend, however, would amount to megalomania bordering on solipsism, so I will search for a different explanation. And it's this: the MSM and their corporate owners have decided to Manufacture Consent (thank you again, Noam, for this useful analytical tool) around the idea that Obama's list of trivial "victories" on DADT and Reagan's START negotiations (Obama being one of Ron's major Groupies) should kickstart the Barack's comeback. I believe that this decision (reflected in many opinion pieces from David Brooks at the NY Times to Howard Fineman) was in turn a result of these learned opinion-makers staring into the yawning abyss of a Palin Presidency and not liking at all what they were seeing. Obama, meanwhile, had given the rich a huge tax break in his "deal" with the Republicans (I hope he checked for his wallet as he left the room), and furthermore kicked the stool out from underneath Social Security with his really idiotic "tax holiday," which will cause the "trust fund" to bleed from every orifice over the next year and set it up for sacrificial slaughter. That really was the most evil ploy I've ever seen a Democratic President fall for.

Nevertheless, the MSM, and their dwindling band of mega-owners (Rupert Murdoch, Comcast, General Electric, a few others), must have asked themselves: what's not to like about Barry? He's given us trillions in tax breaks, he's gutted Social Security, he's agreed to leave Guantanamo open in perpetuity, he's "surged" the war in Afghanistan - what does he have to do for us? Why are we giving this guy a hard time? Meanwhile, Sarah Palin is a step into the great unknown. Some of the things she did during her brief reign as Governor of Alaska were scarily populist, such as dividing up oil revenues with common people. She's not controllable and malleable in the same way Obama is. Thus, the trick must be to maneuver the 2012 election toward an outcome where either the proto-Republican Obama is reelected, or (worst case) Jeb Bush is the Third Bush to ascend to the Kennebunkport Throne.

We should all take a great deal of comfort in that. The Powers That Be, while looking primarily to their own interest, of course, accidentally may look out for ours. I guess.

December 25, 2010

Christmas Comes But Once A Year

Which is undoubtedly enough. I trust no one is actively urging that it happen two or three times per annum. I once had the idea that Christmas should be like the Olympics: every four years. The Summer Olys use the prime time, the quadrennial divisible by four, like the Presidential elections. The Winter Olympics are relegated to the midterm election years. So the first New Christmas could use 2013, and every four years thereafter. 2017, 2021, 2025 and like that. Also, move the holiday itself to the solstice, which is usually on December 21 or 22, occasionally (very rarely) on the 23rd. When a 23 December Solstice happened to fall in a Christmas year, we could call it a Jubilee Year. That would happen very, very rarely. On a Jubilee Christmas, everyone's debts would be forgiven. Also, in the Quadrennial Solstice Christmas which we will first observe in 2013, we will adopt the Days of Awe approach of Judaism and use the roughly 10-day period between the Solstice and New Year to go around and make amends with all the people we've managed to offend or become estranged from in the preceding 12 months.

I think I have markedly improved the all-important Quality of Life in the United States with these humble suggestions.

My next random thought has to do with the Internet, and Al Franken's heroic efforts to preserve "net neutrality." I think I almost understand this subject. It has to do with convincing, or requiring, the big, soulless, monopolistic purveyors of Internet traffic, such as Comcast, to play fair with everyone who wants to use the Internet and not get into the practice of charging higher usage rates for websites such as Netflix who demand more bandwidth, or, worse yet, begin censoring offensive websites. The idea is that the Internet should remain the basic open access free-for-all we all know and love. All you have to do is come up with a ton of money every month in order to get online. And, naturally, it's all going to change over time anyway, no matter what Al Franken does. Completely open access might remain in Europe or even parts of Asia where Wi-Fi is ubiquitous and essentially free, but this is America, where the sheeple unquestioningly shell out 1000% more for the same American drugs which Canadians acquire for a pittance, and where our own Congress forbids us from cutting a better deal with pharmaceutical companies so we can afford our own drugs. This is the same Congress upon which we will rely to protect us from the monopolistic abuses of the big Internet providers. That should work out.

Though I had another thought: it's okay if the Internet providers commit suicide and make it too hard to use the thing. One big complaint I hear these days is that the federal government is spying on all of us, compiling dossiers, violating the Fourth Amendment left and right, et cetera. No doubt this is true. And what makes this espionage so easy, what makes us so vulnerable? Our constant use of the Internet. Think about it. When we were phone-based communicators, the federal government could certainly tap phones, but it's a monumental hassle. What you wind up with is billions of hours of taped conversations, most of it of the, "Q: Wanna come over? A: 'Kay. Q: When? A: I dunno, whadya think?" variety. There was great safety and anonymity in this tiny signal-to-noise ratio. Now we (a) label our conversations with our IP Address and (b) write it down so it can be archived by the big Internet providers like Comcast, who are dying to cooperate with the FBI and NSA and turn you in so they can demonstrate how Patriotic they are. Smart of us, huh? Even dumber is blogging.

The Internet is an amazing source of information, a great fraction of it unverified and unreliable. The Internet has driven traditional dead-tree journalism to the edge of extinction, including newspapers such as the Washington Post, which more or less by itself unmasked the Watergate scandal. Or the New York Times, which broke the back of the Vietnam coverup with the Pentagon Papers revelations. Nowadays scandals can take place in broad daylight and nothing ever happens to the perpetrators. Take the Valerie Plame situation, one of my favorite examples. One show trial with a communted sentence. One book deal and movie. That's it. Wall Street defrauded the entire world by knowingly boxing up and selling millions of mortgage-backed securities which they knew, at the point of sale, were absolutely bogus. And nothing happens other than the federal government's bailout. All of it massively covered by the Internet, by thousands and thousands of website posts, detailing every last fact and data point about what happened. Not a thing was ever done about it.

We live in an age of Impotent Information Overload. The Internet diffuses everything so there is no focus of public outrage. Just a million wildfires all burning at once and no concerted action. Blogging, Internet posting, the Huffington Post-syndrome, "email forwards" (remember the millions of forwards during the Bush years?) all give the illusion of resistance and push-back, but the only problem is that nothing ever happens. Not to go all Old School on you or nothing, but back in the day if liberals wanted to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, they did not forward a lot of emails and call it a day. They got together in a show of force and brought attention to the issue. They demanded accountability from the government. The same thing is true of the Civil Rights Movement. Email forwards would not have integrated the Old South.

The Tea Party people seem to know this. Sometimes it doesn't look like much, but they hit the bricks with their protests and their ideas and that's why they've gotten somewhere. They elected a lot of Congresspeople, an astonishing number, really, through mass organizing in the Real World, not the Virtual World of the Internet.

The non-business use of the Internet, when you get right down to it, is just a nice way to waste time. Even on Christmas morning, you know? Which happens about four times more than it probably should.

December 20, 2010

Obama Serenity Prayer

My favorite Disneyland thrill when I was a kid was Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, which was a little scary, not too much so, with no nausea-producing, vertiginous changes in altitude or anything, just a ride through a kind of Gothic landscape of dark and vaguely spooky scenes. We should have a real life version of such a diversion beginning with the swearing in of the 212th Congress in about a month when the Republicans, with their huge majority in the House, man their battle stations. The Republicans already control the Senate, somehow, even if they only had, during the 211th, slightly more than 40 Senators, depending on which side of the bed Joe Lieberman got up on in the morning. They could have had 12 or 13 and they would have completely outmaneuvered Harry Reid. The Senate, as we all know, is the graveyard of good intentions. It does seem like a minor miracle that something so obviously right as repealing DADT could make it through that creaking, obsolete chamber, but thank goodness for such moments of grace.

Après ça, le deluge. Are you aware that among the new House of Representatives, only 35% can be counted as reliable votes for what us here liberals like to call a woman's freedom of choice? That's ri-i-i-I-ight. 53 of the new Reps are what the conservatives like to call pro-life.
Sobering, eh? Does this help put some of the Obama-pouting in perspective? Felt good, though, for a minute, didn't it? The lesser of two evils...think there will ever come a day when it's safe to move beyond such dreary calculations? I don't either.

Anyway, the chart above is from a recent New York Times article on the federal budget, which will loom large, early and often, in the Obama versus the Volcano 212th. For one thing, we'll have a debt ceiling "crisis" along about April. Mr. Mumbles & The Diva were not able to lift that sucker much above $14.3 trillion when they were "in control," and since we're currently at $13.9 tril, and we're adding to the national debt at about $2 trillion per year (never mind the "official deficit," that's the actual number), we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth, as General Buck Turgidson told the President in "Dr. Strangelove." You will recall, back in the glory days of Bill Clinton, that Newt (The Salamander) Gingrich had the creative idea of shutting the government down over a debt ceiling raise as a way of implementing his Contract On America over Clinton's objections. Only Clinton wouldn't blink, so the legend we have this group of Young Republican Turks suddenly in the ascendant, and the same opportunity presents itself, and instead of Clinton...see, this is where The Obama Serenity Prayer comes in. Lord grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change...

No O-Bashing, remember. That's done. Looking at that Kansas-shaped schematic up above, where do you suppose these New Republicans will want to slash and burn? Do you think they'll want to take a big chunk out of Defense and Homeland Security spending? Tee-hee. I sort of doubt that. Now, the problem for the rest of us is that it's not as if the Republicans don't have cogent arguments for fiscal responsibility. Take, for example, the commonly accepted definition of "insolvency" for purposes of bankruptcy law: a general inability to pay one's debts as they come due. Elegant, isn't it? Does that apply to the United States? Well, I suppose you could answer no with a straight face. We have about $2.2 trillion in income yearly, and about $3.7 trillion in expenses, but we're able to borrow the difference at rates kept fairly low by the simple expedient of buying more than half the debt ourselves (huh?).

This is by far the most creative Ponzi Scheme ever devised. We borrow money to pay our enormous debts, we borrow money to pay the interest on the money we borrow, we borrow money to do everything, and we mostly borrow it from ourselves. The Federal Reserve is now the single largest holder of American debt in the world, with over $1 trillion of our own paper.
More than China. Guess we have to change that old saw about borrowing "from China" to do this and that, huh?

We don't need China. You think I'm making this up, but I'm not. This is the great innovation of the Bernanke Federal Reserve. Well, actually he's responsible for two changes, both ingenious. The first of his ideas was to turn the Federal Reserve into the Ultimate Bad Bank. This is confounding his critics; he's driving them nuts with it. You see, when The Bernank launched QE One, where he bought up all that securitized mortgage crap from the Wall Street banks and others, everyone predicted disaster. All of that sludge would go bad, about $1.3 trillion worth of it. But what Bernanke knew, and no one else seemed to appreciate, is that it doesn't make any difference. The Federal Reserve cannot have a solvency problem because it makes up for bad assets on its books by simply hallucinating more "money." So once Bernanke had that insight, there was no stopping him, and certainly Obama does not know enough about such arcane finance to even try. Thus, Bernanke's Next Big Thing, his true Flash of Genius, was to extend this idea and allow the Federal Reserve to be the principal buyer of U.S. debt! Don't you see how brilliant that is?

So why would the Republicans want to cry wolf about the national debt? There is no national debt, not anymore. Why are we even paying taxes, that's what I don't understand. It's quite possible that The Bernank will think of that next, you know. The Dude is Santa Claus. He's got the beard and everything. He's got all bases covered. The national banking system is moving toward solvency because Ben has taken all of their bad debt off their books and put it on the Federal Reserve's, where it doesn't matter. He's solved our problem of insufficient income by declaring the existence of additional trillions with which to buy our own debt. He's done it all!

His critics, including his foreign critics, cannot figure out why he's wrong. It's like watching David Copperfield make an elephant disappear from a theater stage. That cannot have just happened, and yet it did. Since countries like China, Japan, the Middle East petro-states have so much invested in the dollar, they can't do much except go along with the gag.

Well, prophets are not much appreciated in their own time. Ben Bernanke is a stone genius, pure and simple. It's magic, what he's done. And if these rambunctious idiots soon to infest the House will just stay out of his way, everything will be fine forever. They need a Serenity Prayer of their own. There are no debts. There are no deficits. Lord, help us to realize that The Good Bernank has saved us, rising in the East (Princeton), and come to Earth to deliver us all. A true Judeo-Christian Christmas Story.

Will the Democrats Replace Obama in 2012?

Pretty catchy title, I think, the kind real columnists use. First of all, I want to go on record as saying I'm going out of the Obama-bashing business. No more. It's one of my New Year's Resolutions. I'm motivated by something that Scout said about Boo Radley; it's like killing a mockingbird. I can be as decent as Scout, I think (although that's tough, come to think of it). Barack's problem is that he's just not up to the job. Call it anything you like, inexperience, naivete, constitutional inability to be tough when tough is needed, fundamental confusion about what a chief executive is supposed to do - whatever, it's obvious the media got carried away in 2008 with the chance to elect either the first minority or the first woman President, and did not pay enough attention to the very specific attributes of the candidates in question, focusing solely on the "narrative line" and newsworthiness of this novelty. It was just too good for the networks and news outlets to pass up, and thus, once again, we got sold a bill of goods. There is a very real difference between an Image and an Actual Person, because it's the second version of reality that actually shows up in the Oval Office later, not the Virtual Hologram. There's no point in going over and over this obvious situation, and there aren't going to be any big surprises from here on out. It's all kind of painful to watch, actually.

The question is what the Democratic Party will do about it. Will they run Obama in 2012? My guess is that they certainly will. I base this guess on the party's traditional tendency to fulfill death wishes. The Democrats value things more than winning, a trait not much shared by their Republican opposition. The leadership of the Democrats is kind of like a mediocre college coach who prizes things like "attitude" and "sticking with the program" and "working his way up" to the starting rotation, et cetera, more than chalking up W's in the Win-Loss column. When it's your turn in the Democratic Party, then you get the Big Job. I used to write little parodies a few years ago about Mr. Mumbles & The Diva, based on the Congressional leadership of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. If you can find two people in the country, in any line of work, who are less inspirational and effective than these two, then you should really submit their names to the Guinness Book of World Records. With substantial, sometimes huge, majorities in the House and Senate, these two stiffs were unable to make any dent in the Republican juggernaut. When Bush was President, Pelosi, who presided over the Constitutional body responsible for all budgetary appropriations, could not figure out a way to deprive Bush of the money he needed for the (a) Iraq War, (b) the Afghanistan War, (c) his Black Sites, or anything else. Although Bush and Cheney would admit on national television every couple of weeks that they were torturing people, Pelosi could not could come up with any argument that the failure of the United States to observe the Convention Against Torture (signed by Reagan), which requires the investigation and prosecution of anyone suspected of torture within a party-state's jurisdiction (and remembering that treaties are the "supreme law of the land" under the Constitution), might at the very least be grounds for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. Clinton was impeached because he horsed around with an intern and then didn't want to talk about it. The Democrats could not see their way through to impeachment when dealing with confessed felonies and war crimes. The Democrats play badminton, the Republicans play Rollerball.

I always thought Pelosi seemed more like someone who should be walking up to you at a party in Pacific Heights with a tray of canapés than the leader of one of the world's great legislative bodies. Mr. Mumbles, on the other hand, was so completely intimidated by the badly outnumbered Republicans in the Senate that he would blanch and hide under his desk if Bill Frist or Mitch McConnell handed him a note reading, "We might filibuster that." That's all it took. So while the official line now is that Obama is too "bipartisan" or too accommodating, in truth it's the whole group of Democrats in Washington who don't know how to return fire.

It's possible the Republicans might bail them out in 2012 by running a lunatic like Sarah Palin or a cornpone empty suit like Mike Huckabee. I think this is the GOP leadership's great fear, in fact. This would represent a hijacking of the Republican Party by the Tea Party zealots. It's hardly impossible. A recent poll demonstrates that about 40% of the American populace really, truly believes that the universe was created in seven days by an omnipotent being. Forty percent. In such a country, just about anything is possible. However, I think it's too soon even for an open-air asylum like the United States for Sarah Palin to win a presidential election. The independents (the modern key to any election) would recoil in horror, weigh the real consequences of their self-indulgent pouting about Obama, and rush to the polls to give the O-Man another term. Sort of kicking the Apocalypse Can down the road a few years.

But if the Republicans can enforce their legendary discipline in their ranks and head off the Cuckoo Brigade, and run someone plausible, they'll probably win. In November, 2010 the Republicans pulled off the biggest midterm defeat of Congressional Democrats in the history of the United States (way to go Barack, Harry & Nancy! okay, that was absolutely the last time.) And that Republican winner (who might very well preside over the collapse of the American Republic) will, if s/he wins, defeat Barack Obama, who will advance to the Democratic nomination by acclamation, as the Democratic delegates shout out their approval in the form of a Voice Suicide Note.

December 19, 2010

Random Solstice Thoughts

The winter solstice will arrive in the Northern Hemisphere on Tuesday, December 21, 2010, at 3:38 pm Pacific Standard Time. The winter solstice was a big deal to the Ancients; Stonehenge and the Mayan Observatory at Chichen Itza are two examples of how attuned the old cultures were to the most basic celestial rhythms of the Cosmos. My guess is that Christmas occurs a few days after the winter solstice because the pagan celebrations on which the modern Carnaval do Consumidor is built reflect the anxiety of the ancients about the sun's steady descent in the sky. Will this be the year the sun disappears altogether? After a few days of watching it climb back up to a more reassuring azimuth, the pagans probably relaxed and threw a party, as only pagans know how. I would agree the sun's return is something definitely worth celebrating.

So I'm glad Christmas happens after the solstice, that millisecond, that flash when Earth, roaring along its orbit at about 70,000 miles per hour, passes Go and goes on to collect 365.25 more days. Up here where we live, way up above the Tropic of Cancer, the days begin to get longer and longer. The brain awakens, the mood lifts, the retina signals the pineal gland to cool it already on so much melatonin, and the next thing you know, it's all good. Happy Days are here again.

It's a shame we're not as attuned to these celestial rhythms, in a conscious way, as the ancient Mayans or Incans. If we were, if we paid more attention to what is actually going on in the Universe around us, I don't think we would have used December 25 as a guess as to when the Jewish kid was born in the West Bank region. Right when Northern humanity's energy levels are at their lowest and we most feel like sleeping, our culture demands that everyone crowd into Best Buy & the Big Box stores and line up for Chinese manufactured goods all at the same time. That's demented. If we're really going to do something that insane as a national pastime, why not in May or June, when we're up for it? You think there's maybe a good reason that brown bears just sleep this whole thing off?

Granted, "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" is not going to have quite the same feeling in June, although they celebrate Christmas in Los Angeles and Honolulu in December, so how impossible can it be? Anyway, not to come off as a Grinch or Scrooge, but I think non-stressful approaches to the Solstice/Christmas are better for the soul. No one feels much like working, which is probably more attributable to the pineal gland being in overdrive and the shortage of natural Vitamin D production than reverent thoughts about the birth of our Savior. Naturally, being unnatural in our habits, we fight against these perfectly logical responses to short, dark, cold days, and force ourselves to waste this ideal time to take it easy by substituting a different hamster wheel for the one we've been treading.

As Thoreau wrote in Walden, a philosopher, to be worthy of the name, has to do things differently, not just talk about it. Thus, heeding my secular patron saint, no perfectly healthy fir tree dies to adorn my living room. I listen to Christmas music, but I try to be selective. I burned out a long time ago on the usual Xmas tunes sung by Ella Fitzgerald or Rosemary Clooney, or even Mel Torme. I downloaded most of Dave McKenna's "Christmas Party" onto my iPod, and plugged that into my car's stereo. That's a nice way to drive around the rain-slick streets. Dave's swinging piano, with that inimitable walking bass, can make anything sound like fun.

It's a good time to see friends and shoot the breeze. For the last few years, I've taken a walk on Christmas Day up on the Bolinas Ridge, a couple of thousand feet above the Pacific. Not too many souls out and about on that Solstice + 4 day in December. For some reason, it seems that Christmas is often a very mild and calm day around here, no matter the weather in the periods immediately before and after. I wonder if that could have something to do with the sun's azimuth suddenly doubling back on itself, providing a minute of additional sunlight for the northern atmosphere and disrupting jet stream patterns which had adjusted to the steadily diminishing solar energy. Where's John von Neumann when you need him, anyway?

So Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men, Women & Children. These simple facts about life on Earth are really far more important, in the grand scheme of things than macroeconomics or the other diversions we constantly occupy ourselves with. Try checking out of the Carnaval do Consumidor sometime. Black Friday, as you may know, is so named because retail stores finally start making money (go into the black, in other words) for the year the day after Thanksgiving. Thus, without this frenzied insanity, it seems very likely the whole awful Consumer Society would thrash about for a while and then die altogether. It's amazing how momentously great things can be accomplished through the simple agency of doing...nothing, exactly when you most feel like it.

December 16, 2010

Half of what I say is meaningless

Wow, an actual person validating my own preconception:

"The whole country is now seeing the story that Michigan has been living with for a long time," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial. "We have kicked the can so far down the road that now all we have is a cliff to fall off."

"The recession merely revealed a reality that has been with us for a long time. We faced a growing gap in education and skills that we tried to fill with debt and credit, which gave us the illusion of growth."

I have long thought that the Official Story, that the "financial crisis" was itself alone responsible for our current economic disaster, was a case of whistling past the graveyard. The quote above was from a recent Reuters article which delved deeply into U.S. economic history from the 1960's to the present in a more comprehensive treatment of the origins of the American dilemma than one ordinarily encounters. ("Is America the Sick Man of the Globe?") [Note to TJR: a witty play on the old line about Turkey, huh?]

(Those are Diane's pictures, by the way, posted in her honor. Help me out on this, but I think the ring on Diane's left hand is on the middle finger, right? Just checking.)

Reuters goes into a lot of detail about the decline in American manufacturing in the decades since our economic heyday 40 to 50 years ago. At one time, for example, manufacturing accounted for 28% of our GDP; today that number is 11%. In the 1950's about 15 million Americans were employed in manufacturing, a number that has never been surpassed although the population has nearly doubled.

During Reagan's benighted reign, the graph lines representing "financialization" and "manufacturing" crossed paths, with the fast money boyz in the ascendant and the blue collar guys, the backbone of the economy, on the way out. About 40% of corporate profits now are attributable to the FIRE section (finance, insurance, real estate). It used to be that an American worker with only a high school education could nevertheless achieve a middle class standard of living for his family through the engine of American manufacturing prosperity, but those days are long gone. To keep the game going, we substituted debt in all its myriad forms - mortgages, lines of credit, credit cards, the national debt, until we reached the point that total societal debt reached 130% of total GDP. And then the entire house of cards began to teeter and, finally, to collapse.

Diane Ms. Swonk, who graduated from the University of Michigan, a fine public institution just like my own alma mater, no doubt has seen first hand the ravages of the hollowing out of the once mighty United States, the epicenter of which is in Detroit and its environs. (Ms. Swonk: if you're Googling yourself and come across this post, that's a fairly recent photograph of me taken in the subway in New York City, although I now sport a rather dapper [if I say so myself ((hey, I guess I just did!))] mustache. So try to picture...) Where was I? Okay, so the point being that...

The point being that in the face of this huge catastrophe, at last brought to full fruition, our political and media institutions are so bereft of new ideas, and so fundamentally dishonest, that they just won't face these awful truths. The weekly pep talks from Tom Friedman are a case in point. He calls for a "reset" et cetera blah blah blah, or whatever computer-tech-derived term he thinks is cool at the moment. The timeline for our recovery is always ludicrously short, as if decades of neglecting education and technological innovation (and training workers to participate in such new fields, such as alternative energy) can be remedied between his Wednesday column and his Sunday cerebro-spasm. Congress and the White House are the same way; it's all tax breaks all the time, or an extension of unemployment benefits, or a crash program to fix as many potholes in the roads as we can immediately fund. Beyond these largely empty gestures, both political parties appear to believe that solutions to real world problems can be fixed by adherence to a particular "ideology." This is so fundamentally nuts.

Without the infusion of trillions of dollars in borrowed and printed money from the federal government, the American economy would, right now, reflect the real further deterioration in our circumstances which has occurred since September of 2008. The elected leaders act as if they are doing us a favor by perpetuating the illusions of "recovery" through goosing the Dow Jones via Federal Reserve injections of fake money or dumping trillions of hallucinated largesse on the vast legions of the unemployed. Anything, anything, to avoid facing the truth. Simply keep denying the basic econo-thermodynamic laws. Never admit that those old jobs, the ones that supported the middle class of my youth (and Di-Di'sMs. Swonk's) are gone and are not coming back, and that the huge cohort of blue collar unemployed workers have no employment prospects for the future. Congress (with notable exceptions, such as Bernie Sanders) cannot admit that without admitting that in essence that economic policy in this country, for a very long time, has fundamentally betrayed the American commoner, the real worker, the foundation of our once-great economic edifice.

When you think about what is really going on, and how we got here, you can see how pathetic the "Keynesian stimulus" ideas of pundits such as Paul Krugman really are. The federal government cannot run yearly budgets of $3.6 trillion against income of about $2.2 trillion and survive forever, and anyway, returning to an economy built on an illusion will not last. I don't understand why Krugman and his ilk can't see that. They imagine that early 2007 or so was some halcyon period in American history, and if we could just get back there... Instead of seeing it for what it really was, the end of the line for a failed economic theory (the empire of debt). Even if we could re-employ all those disenfranchised folks by getting their Best Buy "sales representatives" or Wal-Mart "greeter" jobs back, it could not last, because the actual earnings of Americans (on which we are now going to have to rely) will not support the level of consumption that temporarily made such jobs possible.

These stimulus advocates propose making the situation worse as a way of making it better. Flooding the system with borrowed and printed cash is not going to lift America's educational standards from 15th in the developed world to its former competence. That would require a re-recognition that public education is a positive good, a necessity, of a functioning economy, and such a realization is nowhere to be found. Instead, the American economy will be the victim of our decades of cultural and educational neglect for years and years to come, as the ranks of the hiring pool are filled with victims of our lousy schools. You don't clear out such problems with a short-term "stimulus" jolt, no matter how many "reset" columns Tom Friedman writes. News cycles are one thing, the cycles of Reality quite another.

Sometimes I feel very alone, except for, well you know...I'm not trying to come off like Winston Smith to her Julia, and anyway, I'm not sure the Eurasian authorities will even let me talk to her at this point, but

December 13, 2010

Obamacare hits a snag

Few Constitutional provisions get half the workout of the Commerce Clause, that Article I, Section 9, Clause 3 prerogative of the federal government

"To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes".

This is the essential wellspring of the power of the central government to get involved in state matters where the Constitution does not confer primary jurisdiction on the feds (for example, the exclusive federal jurisdiction over bankruptcy, or the law of the high seas, or America's biggest business, war). As a good, die-hard liberal, I have mixed feelings about the overuse of the Commerce Clause. On one hand, without the liberal use of the Commerce Clause, it would have been much harder to rein in the abhorrent practices under the Jim Crow laws. "State action" (such as public education or voting rights or access to the courts) is governed by the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 5th and 14th Amendments; but private prejudice, such as Rand Paul's desire to return to the days when a black family caught out in the rain and seeking shelter in a Kentucky motel could be turned away as an exercise of the motel owner's "freedom" (his freedom equating to the family's consequent need to drive on up the road to, oh say, Pennsylvania). Or lunch counters in Montgomery, Alabama, or a swimming pool in Macon, Georgia. The Civil Rights Movement was given a tremendous boost by expansive interpretations of the Clause.

On the other hand, I'm also a "small d" democrat in basic agreement with Thomas Jefferson's idea that the government is best which governs least. A pervasive, all-power central government can guarantee civil liberties, but it can also threaten them through NSA spying, TSA sexual assaults at the airport, or an out of control military-industrial complex. No one in this day and age can convincingly argue that the central government is too small.

Along comes today's ruling by a federal judge in the 4th District in Richmond, Virginia holding that the mandatory purchase of medical insurance under the recently-passed health care bill is unconstitutional, to wit, not permitted by the Commerce Clause, and thus an overreach by the central government into areas of state control. Essentially, Judge Henry Hudson concluded that an individual's decision (and resultant inaction) in not buying insurance cannot be "interstate commerce" because the individual...didn't do anything. The language is fancier than that, of course, but that is the essence of it, metaphysical as it may seem (what is the sound of a wallet not opening?, and other Zen koans). Thus, the federal government has no right to force, on pain of monetary penalty, an American citizen to interact with a private insurance company in order to make the actuarial basis of Obamacare viable.

There is, of course (if your mind runs in the same channels mine is most comfortable) a delicious irony in all of this. Had the spineless Dems and the Lawn-Chair-in-Chief offered a public option as part of the solution to the national disgrace of American health care, this problem would not exist. An "option" to buy insurance from a government plan not only (a) would have acted as a serious brake on out-of-control, predatory pricing by the insurance cartel, but (b) is by its very nature proactive, positive action and thus, of course, covered by the Commerce Clause. The federal government can constitutionally regulate the purchase of health insurance on an open, interstate exchange where the government is itself the vendor.

I don't know whether this decision will hold up or not. It seems a little too cute by half. A Zenesque interpretation's survival all the way through the Supreme Court seems iffy at best, for whether or not the individual's inaction is interstate commerce, there is little doubt that the whole business of medical insurance most definitely is (hell, if the feds can regulate the sign-in desk of the R-U-Lonely Motel on the outskirts of Nashville because it's in interstate commerce, they can regulate this), and the mandatory purchase requirement is part of that entire scheme. The judge (a George W. appointee) didn't like the Big Government plan, obviously, and did what judges can do with the vague language of the Constitution and the sketchy guidance of case precedent: he made things turn out the way he wanted them to, and he didn't like the coercion involved in making people buy products from private industry (I don't really like it much myself). The Department of Health & Human Services, as defendant, pointed out that many states make residents buy car insurance if they want to drive, but Judge Hudson distinguished these cases by noting that one can avoid buying auto insurance by not driving, whereas, one has to buy health insurance under Obamacare by virtue of one's "very existence." Hudson might be in the wrong field; he should probably be teaching existential philosophy at the Sorbonne.

Interestingly, however, the Virginia trial court where this occurred (in a proceeding known as a Motion for Summary Judgment) is part of the notorious Fourth Circuit, which occupies the same approximate position for conservatives as the Ninth Circuit (based in San Francisco) does for liberals. It was not accidental that the Bush Administration, when it wanted to deprive an American of constitutional rights (such as Jose Padilla), was careful to incarcerate them within the compassionate confines of the Fourth (Padillia was in a Navy brig in South Carolina). That way the prisoner had to fight his way up through the brutual jurisprudence of the trial courts and appeals court of the Good Ol' Fourth, Confederate flag waving in the background. Ah such glorious memories of our Gulag past! Aren't you glad Obama was quick to reverse all this nonsense? Oh that's right, he didn't.

Thus, the appeal by the Department of Health & Human Services will be to that same Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld gang had what little judicial success they enjoyed in their war on the Constitution. There is another Virginia case from Lynchburg on essentially the same issue which recently went the other way, so the Fourth Circuit will have to decide which one they like the most. Make no mistake, judicial decisions interpreting vague language such as the reach of the Commerce Clause are far more political than "legal," whatever that may mean.

Ultimately, of course, this mess will wind up in the weird clutches of the Roberts Supreme Court. I don't know how the Robed Rascals will handle this one. One one hand, the court is conservative and sort of believes in states' rights (except where they have the opportunity to reinterpret state election law so they can appoint a president; see, Bush vs. Gore). On the other, these people are in the District of Columbia and hate giving away power. But I would surmise, just to thwart Obama and make him sorry he ever criticized the Citizens United case during last year's State of the Union, that Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas might go with an anti-Obamacare ruling. Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan would probably go the other way. So we're where we always are: Judge Kennedy, essentially, is the Supreme Court.

It's what I've always loved about the law: it's so rigorous and scientific.

December 12, 2010

The Naive Manchurian Lawn Chair

I saw "Inside Job" at my local trendy-art theater recently and can report that it is a good, clear exposition of how the financial crash of 2008 came about. The movie is narrated by the sincere, trustworthy voice of Matt Damon, but the star of the show is the writer/producer Charles Ferguson, who never actually appears on screen; however, the intelligent, incredulous questions he asks of the various vermin who stupidly agreed to be interviewed for the documentary are the best part of the movie. Ferguson (who graduated from Berkeley in 1978 with a mathematics degree, then obtained a PhD from MIT in political science) is certainly a match for the shifty economists, politicians, investment bankers and other scum placed under his unrelenting microscope.

At the end of the movie, you have little doubt that American business and politics have descended completely into gangsterism. There is really no other word for it. I've been reading about all this stuff for a couple of years, particularly on sites such as, Karl Denninger's, Yves Smith and her and others, so I didn't really encounter too much that was new or surprising. The American people have been sold out by politicians who take bribes from a highly organized kleptocracy. Yawn. Who didn't know that? You learn in more detail just how vile all the people running the rackets and swindles are, the constant whoring (literally), cocaine abuse, obscene displays of wealth, tax fraud (putting their call girl bills on invoices marked "investment research," etc.). It is a world totally drenched in fraud, with no socially redeeming purpose whatsoever.

The only thing I noticed, watching the movie in a crowded theater, was that the reactions to the moronic visage of George W. Bush are different now. No booing or hissing, not even here in liberal Northern California. What's going on, I think, is that Bush is now seen as nothing particularly special. When you look at the Wall Street/Washington Complex, you realize it was given its first big impetus during the Reagan years, when the idea of government regulation was first characterized as an unmitigated evil. This attitude was carried forward by Bill Clinton, who often sided with pro-business, anti-government Republicans against his own party in passing such bad ideas as NAFTA and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which gave tremendous impetus to the financialization of the American economy. Bush was kind of a bit player in all this; his focus was always on unnecessary wars, and he left the destruction of the American economy to others.

The movie does not spare Obama. It meticulously notes that all the same characters who promoted the deregulated and over-leveraged Wall Street of Clinton & Bush are still on the scene - Bernanke, Geithner, Summers, Rubin, Gensler, et alia. Nothing has changed. The FinReg bill accomplished nothing - just a lot of populist hot air. Obama's comatose Attorney General, Eric Holder, comes to life only when someone's First Amendment rights need to be squelched. All the frauds and thieves responsible for the financial crash are still running loose, still earning millions. There has been no accountability at all. Obama is forever Looking Forward, Not Backward.

Thus, the liberal side of the American political scene has turned the page on Obama. He's simply another part of the problem. My guess is that this latest fiasco, his collapse in the face of Republican demands that the Bush tax cuts be perpetuated, will turn out to be the last time that the liberal/progressive wing even expected Obama to do the right thing. It will be different now; his cooperation with Republicans, his betrayal of his campaign rhetoric, will be seen as de rigeur, nothing to even talk about. Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Cenk Ugyur, Robert Reich, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taiibi, all of the liberal pundits have markedly changed their tune in the face of this latest outrage.

The question for now, where Obama is concerned, is which of the three competing theories is closest to the truth: 1. Obama is in over his head, lacks leadership experience, and just gets taken (Naivete Theory). 2. Obama is in some way congenitally incapable of a fight; he doesn't like controversy or discord, so he folds to avoid unpleasantness, thinking the liberals will forgive him because they're nice, whereas the Republicans are meanies and must be appeased (the Lawn Chair hypothesis). 3. Obama is actually a Reagan conservative who's doing exactly what he always intended to do, shares no values with liberals, and sees the Presidency as a way to set himself up as a plutocrat in the coming years (Manchurian Candidate theory).

I'm beginning to think #3 is definitely the answer. There are definite elements of truth to Nos. 1 and 2; Obama doesn't intimidate anybody, and particularly in terms of organizing his agenda to do the most important things first, Obama is pathetic as a leader. This tax situation is a classic illustration of this problem. Why on Earth are the Democrats trying to negotiate this issue now, after the 2010 elections in which they got hammered, when they had a full two years, with overwhelming majorities and control of both houses, to deal with a Bush tax program which had been enacted in 2001 and 2003? Did it never occur to Obama that one way he might have ameliorated his $1.5 trillion yearly deficits was to roll back the top bracket giveaway to the "Inside Job" crowd?

Well, under Theory #3, it might have occurred to him and he decided he didn't want to do anything about it. More important to spend a year on driving more American citizens into the waiting clutches of the medical insurance complex.

Anyway, no wonder George W. Bush makes it a policy never to criticize Barack Obama in public. Obama's the best thing that ever happened to him.

December 09, 2010

And it's one, two, three...

what are we fightin' for?

I watched the movie "Restrepo" on Netflix recently; it had a short theatrical run a while back, too short for me to get there in time. It was good to save the money, I would say, on actually seeing the movie. I think the producer/cinematographer Sebastian Junger (author of Perfect Storm, that phrase which has forever entered our cliched lexicon as the only allowed description of a confluence of bad coincidences) did a good job with what he had. The movie is essentially static, as the lives of the men of the Airborne platoon posted at the Restrepo base in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan must have really been during the year they spent there in 2007. Restrepo was the name of one of their fallen comrades, killed early in the deployment.

The movie has three main recurring sequences. Life atop the outpost; patrols; and interaction with native Afghans. The first is boring; the second intermittently gripping or a little theatrical in a self-conscious way, depending on what was filmed; and the third pathetic and very sad. Occasionally the U.S. military kills innocent natives. Then a meeting is held where the young American noncoms sit and explain why these things happen, sometimes in the presence of a dead and bloodied child who got in the way of a firefight or was hit by a rocket fired by a helicopter. These are strange encounters. The GIs are all decked out in their camo and state of the art weaponry, Kevlar helmets with built in spot lights, the works. The tribal elders have long straggly beards, a few teeth, weathered bronze skin, wear robes and turbans. The elders nod inscrutably, betraying no expression at all. The sergeant, through his interpreter, talks a mile a minute, patiently, condescendingly explaining why we're trying to kill the right people but it doesn't always work out that way, and anyway, don't go helping the Taliban or this stuff will happen more often.

There is no real attempt to place the war in context. You do not get the impression that anything the soldiers are doing is helping anything, but on the other hand, you're unable to tell whether it's counterproductive. It isn't made clear what other things those local Afghans would have to put up with in the absence of U.S. soldiers patrolling their valley and barging into their ancient dwellings. Out on patrol, as they take fire (and as two soldiers are hit, one fatally), you get the feeling that context doesn't matter. It's this group of soldiers versus the bad guys, and there's no room for philosophy. The Taliban, the mujahideen, are trying to kill the U.S. soldiers; the GIs want to kill them first and to protect each other. That's essentially the story.

Do the mujahideen want to kill the Airborne soldiers because the insurgents are in league with the attackers of September of 2001? Because they feel just the way an Egyptian ringleader, with an accomplice from the UAE, and a couple of other pilots, and 15 Saudis felt that day in New York and Washington? When they hatched their plan in Germany and perfected it in South Florida? Is that why these American soldiers are humping through the high mountains around the Korengal Valley, because we have to root out....what, exactly? You'll never figure it out from this movie. All you can say is that whatever is going on there seems far removed from one terrorist plot carried out in another part of the world.

The soldiers just seem like average guys. They horse around a lot, the F word is used constantly, they smoke, they're heavily covered in tattoos. Their quarters are messy and dirty and they have virtually no amenities. You get the impression they're well trained with their weapons. One slightly bizarre feature of modern...everything, really, which I hesitate to bring up, given the hardship, privation and mortal danger these guys were in - but even in combat, I noted, this strange modern phenomenon of Americans speaking as if they were characters in a movie was constantly present. Well, I suppose these guys were in a movie, but I couldn't help noticing the huge difference, for example, between the interviews of these soldiers (many of them conducted back home in the States after the deployment was over) and those conducted of the World War II GIs in the HBO series on the European and Pacific theaters. That's probably a brain belch for another day, but it is as if, in our media-saturated times, our very consciousnesses have become so permeated by media images and snatches of dialogue and action movie cliches that any kind of "authentic" behavior and reaction has sort of gone by the boards. You see this all the time in TV interviews after disasters, for example; everyone sounds exactly like the characters in a disaster film sound reciting scripted lines. We all know how it's supposed to sound - it's supposed to sound the way Bruce Willis would say it. The soldiers at Restrepo even spent some of their down time playing "World at War" on their GameBoys. Well, you know: why not? Their lives were imitating the art of our culture anyway.

Whatever the reason, we're still in Aghanistan, more than nine years after the putative cause for our involvement occurred. The soldiers of the Airborne platoon seem competent at killing people, but the "hearts and minds" project is probably in the wrong hands. Why, indeed, should they be expected to carry out such a mission anyway? They've got other things to worry about, like surviving. As it becomes increasingly obvious that President Barack Obama is not very clear on why he does anything, it's hard, after watching a movie like "Restrepo," to escape the conclusion that we're in Afghanistan because we were there when Obama was elected, and he doesn't like to change things, campaign slogans be damned. The military brass told him we should stay, and that was good enough for him. And thus the war drags on and on and on.

December 08, 2010

Washington D.C. Jumps the Shark

The phrase is based on a 1977 episode of "Happy Days" where the Fonz, wearing swim trunks and his trademark leather jacket, water skis on a Los Angeles vacation and jumps over an underwater enclosure containing a shark. The concept seems to refer to some watershed development in a sitcom which forever marks its turning point toward fading out. I think I remember when that happened in "Seinfeld;" it was some episode late in the Seinfeld era (it may have been the last year) where Kramer is taking a test drive with a car salesman and they get into some silly plot point about seeing how far they can drive with the gas gauge warning light on. It seemed like an attempt at the Theater of the Absurd, and it didn't really work at all. It was tedious. Seinfeld had jumped the shark.

Thus, we now have the federal government, itself a kind of sitcom or running gag, jumping the shark with its "tax deal." Make no mistake, this is a major turning point in the history of the republic. Faced with mounting debts which it increasingly cannot handle, Congress and the White House have decided to go all in with their madness. While with one hand Obama has created a Frankenstein of a "deficit commission" headed up by the certifiable lunatic Alan Simpson, former Cowboy/Senator from Wyoming who is openly hostile to America's safety nets, on the other Obama has decided to cooperate with the Republicans in further decreasing America's income stream by perpetuating the "Bush tax cuts" and also decreasing the employee's FICA contributions from 6% to 4%.

These are truly insane ideas. It appears that young Barry has bought into the idea that if you just keep cutting taxes sufficiently, jobs will magically appear. This was Bush's cover story when the "temporary" tax reductions were enacted in 2001 and 2003, but that was not the mendacious former president's real goal. He just wanted to lower the top marginal rate for his plutocrat friends. Knowing how fiscally irresponsible the tax reductions were (and how unnecessary for the chief beneficiaries), Bush & Co. inserted a sundown clause of December 31, 2010 so that in "outer year" calculations the tax cuts would look more benign. Yet the goal was always to make them permanent, using what was assumed to be permanent Republican majorities to do so. What is truly amazing is that Obama and the Democrats are going to allow Bush to get away with his sleight-of-hand. They are going to make the tax cuts permanent for Bush, for no reason, and with disastrous fiscal results for the United States. The last thing this country needs is a deeper deficit hole. We're barely holding on as it is.

Similar concerns apply to the Social Security system. The mythical "trust fund" is cited far and wide as a reason that the system is in good shape, that $2.5 trillion in government IOUs that supposedly guarantee the solvency of Social Security for decades to come. For the last time: there is no trust fund; it is nothing more than the historical record of money stolen from the American people by its politicians and spent on other things. When the trust fund "pays" into the Social Security system to make up for what are already existing cash shortfalls, all that is happening is that the intergovernmental debt is transmuted into public debt, which is to say, the trust fund is "funded" by more borrowing. On a cash in/cash out basis, the Social Security system already does not take in enough money to fund itself. Against this reality, the federal government proposes to make the situation worse.

This is shark jumping, pure and simple. It is a picture of a national government so overrun by incompetence and bad faith that it has gone insane. There is not even a suggestion in any of this that anyone, any adult of good will, actually has a plan to deal with the looming threat of government bankruptcy. China is going to downgrade our bond issuance to junk status; interest rates on longer-term government obligations (such as the 10 year) are already beginning to rise sharply. And to deal with its deadbeat status, the federal government proposes to reduce its own income. As Arthur Fonzarelli would have said, "Wrongamundo."

December 06, 2010

President confined to couch, not allowed on rug

from today's Washington Post (Dec. 6)

Incoming Speaker of the House and Republican Bully John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader and Republican Bully Mitch McConnell continued their Oval Office occupation today with even more onerous restrictions on President Barack Obama's use of his West Wing quarters. Obama was forced to sit on one of the sofas with his feet flat on the hardwood floor and not touching the large oval area rug in the office. Last week the President was allowed to use his desk occasionally to take telephone calls, but that privilege was revoked today. Senator John McCain of Arizona was the only politician allowed to sit behind the President's desk.

Obama is allowed to walk around in the Oval Office, provided he does not step on the rug or touch any of the stuff on the desk. The President was upbeat in his assessment of these new restrictions.

"Mitch and John have been here for about a week now," the President said, smiling. "They've made some demands, such as telling me where I can walk, and of course the rule about not stepping on the rug."

(As he spoke, the President appeared to step on the edge of the rug with his right shoe. Both Boehner and McConnell were quick to point emphatically and yell "Hey!" in unison. The President stepped quickly off the rug.)

"Working with the other side is part of the job," Obama continued, stepping backwards toward his desk. (McCain reached out and poked him in the back with a ballpoint pen, causing Obama to jump forward and almost step on the rug.) "It's made running the Executive Branch a little harder in this case, but I just don't think, with the country needing cooperation from both sides of the aisle, that this is the time to play politics. So I'm working with my friends in the Republican Party."

Obama returned to his seat in the corner of the sofa by carefully walking heel-toe along the edge of the rug and sat down facing Boehner and McConnell. "Can I go to the bathroom now?" he asked.

McConnell checked his watch. "In another twenty minutes," he said.

Since the midterms the Republicans have seemed to flex their political muscle and grow in confidence about their ability to extract concessions from Obama, such as the amazing coup of gaining a Democratic President's agreement to extend the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, which were only temporary and would have expired without Congressional action in another 25 days; thus, the Democrats only needed to refuse to take a vote, an easy task when they currently control both houses of Congress. Nevertheless, the Democrats and Obama capitulated, completely unnecessary as it may have seemed.

Some White House observers believe that this show of weakness on the President's part may be part of the reason the Republicans have upped the ante and are now restricting Obama's use of the Oval Office. A high White House official, speaking off the record because he is afraid of his own shadow, indicated that starting tomorrow Boehner and McConnell may not allow Obama the use of the sofa, confining the President instead to a side chair in the hall.

"It's one of the options we're looking at," the President said. "Right now, the Republicans are refusing to allow me back to my desk, but politics is the art of compromise and it's possible a bipartisan consensus can be reached which allows me to use my office, at least for a while."

McConnell was less optimistic about reaching a deal. "I think we've made our position plain," the multi-chinned solon drawled. "We're open to suggestions, but I just don't see a compromise where the President uses his desk or starts walking on the rug again. I think the American people need a clear position from us on that."

December 05, 2010

One Moment of Grace of Highway 57

Although I will say this. No matter how debased existence can sometimes seem, there will always be moments of grace possible through a shift in perspective. Could be that Kandinsky, Grosz and others discerned in that very macabre quality of Man's artifacts, his alienating creations, a strange beauty that transcended their surface repulsion.

And in such a way, while riding through that nightmare traffic jam, my daughter asked if I wanted to hear some of the "Symphony of Science" she had downloaded onto her iPod, and I said, "Sure." Not realizing what recordings of transcendent beauty these simple things were. So, if of a Sunday evening, you would like a religious experience of your own, I commend them to you.

(They reminded me too of how much we need people like Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan in our own day and time.)

The Not-So-Open-Road

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain-- All, all the stretch of these great green states-- And make America again!

Langston Hughes

I went to Arizona for Thanksgiving. I left very early Wednesday morning and arrived home very late Saturday night. Of the various ways of traveling between Northern California and the Phoenix area, I decided against taking the high-speed rail line. There was something axiomatic about this choice in the sense that there is no high-speed rail line between Northern California and the Phoenix area, nor will there be during my life time. It is possible, with enough ingenuity, to travel by train between San Francisco and Phoenix, or mostly by train. All you have to do, for example, is to take a bus (buses are prominently featured, oddly enough, on Amtrak's schedules) from Oakland's Jack London Square (picturesque! a way) and Santa Barbara, leaving around 10:30 pm (I guess I'm talking about Tuesday night, to make this work) and arriving around 6:30 am Wednesday. When dealing with Amtrak, it's always best to say "around." 15 minutes later (that is, about an hour before your bus actually arrives in Santa Barbara), the Surfliner leaves Santa Barbara for Los Angeles and Union Station. For some reason, this trip (about a hundred miles) takes the better part of three hours. So you pull into Union Station around 9:30, and you wait for 5 hours for the Sunset Limited to leave at 2:30 pm or so. Not for Phoenix, for Tucson, which is on the direct route. This is a distance of about 485 miles by road, yet it takes Amtrak almost 10 hours to cover the distance. Isn't this about the same speed as the old Pony Express?

Obviously, Tucson is not Phoenix, so you haven't arrived, actually. You're 116 miles away. It's now around midnight, Wednesday, or early Thanksgiving morning, and you've been traveling by bus and train for more than 24 hours. You're exhausted; a logical response to your predicament would be to commit suicide there and then, perhaps by leaping in front of an oncoming train. This works for the French TGV, where such suicides are fairly common; however, with Amtrak you might have the problem of trains (a) being so rare you would change your mind before one came along and (b) going so slow they would simply inflict annoying, non-fatal injuries. Somehow or another, another bus I guess, you would get to Phoenix in the small hours of Thursday morning, unbathed, unshaven, sleep-deprived, depressed.

So you can fly or drive. Not thinking it through completely, I drove. I wasn't the only one with this idea on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Things reached their hypotheosis sometime around 7 pm on Wednesday night on State Highway 57 between Pasadena and Pomona. I became trapped on an inner lane, #2 or 3, perhaps, of 5 or 6 lanes. The traffic crept along, inching forward in spastic lurches. Looking out over the sad asphalt, it occurred to me that not a single living thing, an insect, a rabbit, a human being, could survive out there for more than a few seconds. It was an alien landscape, a hideous apparition, the sort of subject that a German Expressionist such as George Grosz or Max Beckmann might want to wallow in, if there was some way to capture this claustrophobic perspective. There was no way out, no way forward, no way to change lanes. Cars were everywhere, hemming you in, pushing against your rear bumper, stretched out in front to infinity. I knew that someday, if I did not run out of gas, if I did not abandon my car, I would get to Indio. Indio became a kind of El Dorado - getting to Indio became my own form of Zionism. Aliya - to get to Quartzsite!

Or you can fly, submitting to a probably dangerous dose of radiation (or sexual assault), the madness of airport check-in, the contortionist tricks of sitting in an airline seat, the anxiety of the overhead bins, the expense, the parking, the remote location of airports from where you live and where you ultimately want to go...

The conservative blowhards who don't like trains (I'm not sure why they don't, but they're threatened in some way) insist that trains always require government subsidies to remain viable. I'm sure they do. Of course, even the bone-jarring, axle-cracking, potholed poor excuses for a highway we have now, such as Highway 57, demand huge government subsidies in order to be maintained even in the lousy condition they're in. Roads, railways, take your pick, they have to be maintained, you have to keep investing. So what? Trains, however, offer huge economies of scale in transporting people. They can be run, as in France, with centralized power generated by nuclear plants. You don't need oil as fuel, at a sufficient level of infrastructure build-out. Only one guy has to drive, the engineer. Everyone else can talk, read, sleep, party and carry on.

I've ridden some great trains in Europe. The TGV from Lyon to Paris, a distance of 250 miles, covered in two hours and 15 minutes (scheduled time: we had a suicide that day - see above). The Spanish AVE, from Madrid to Sevilla, under 3 hours to cover 350 miles. The Eurocity from Ulm, Germany to Paris. Cologne to the Frankfurt Airport. These trains all offer a high JDV Factor (joie de vivre factor, or jdv(f*). On the standard 10 scale, they come in at about 9.3. You're glad you're alive when you're riding one of those trains. Life enhancing. It's almost as if the countries who build and operate those trains care something about quality of life. They're nicer than they even have to be.

Highway 57 actually carries a negative jdv(f*). The experience of driving on that road subtracts from your overall will to go on. Highway 57 is ameliorative of the fear of death - you will be dead, but you will never again drive on Highway 57. So buck up.

In modern America, you accept such benisons where they are offered. But you will not travel from San Francisco to Phoenix on the Train A Grande Vitesse. Train A Grande Distress, peut etre.

December 01, 2010

Merry Christmas, California!

California always leads the way. We all know that. Trend-setters, daredevils, iconoclasts - it's what we're about. If you want to see what's going to happen next in the country as a whole, pay attention to California. Of course, with 36 million people officially (and another 5 million currently driving on Highway 57 between Pasadena and Fontana), over 10% of the American population is already here. So there is something of a tautological feel to declaring that California leads the way.

For example, California has an official 12.8% unemployment rate. We all know this is nonsense, of course; if the BLS U-3 for the whole country is 9.6%, whereas the more "comprehensive" (that is, a number that actually counts people out of work) U-6 is 17%, then we must assume (with good reason, let me tell you) that the same differential applies here in the Golden State, and that the real UE rate for California is 12.8 + 7.4 = 20.2%. That seems reasonable. A good, round Depression Era feel to that number, doncha think?

Where it gets interesting, right here on the threshold of the Restoration of the Brown Monarchy in California, is that this month, due to the utter paralysis of the U.S. Congress, extended unemployment benefits are going to run out. Congress is understandably otherwise engaged; for example, they're trying to figure out how to spare the defense budget by raising the Social Security retirement age to the outer reaches of the human life span. The only actual "money" available is that printed by the Federal Reserve (by the cargo container lot) to distribute to the Primary Dealers to reimburse them for the Treasury bonds the PD's just bought the previous week (no joke there: literal truth). This is all in furtherance of the Fed's "dual mandate:" (1) to enrich Wall Street and (2) bankrupt the country.

All effects are bigger in California; thus, when UE shuts down, 410,000 (the official number) Californians will suddenly have no income of any kind. As the winter begins. This number is equal to the combined totals of 27 other states plus the District of Columbia. This number also exceeds the 2010 population of Oakland, California (where, no doubt, a significant fraction of the unemployed-with-no-income will be found). Not to put too fine a racist point on things, but one shudders to imagine what might happen in places like East Oakland and South Central Los Angeles when the money suddenly dries up completely.

Situations like this expose the essential vacuousness of the "trickle down" philosophy, the smug idea that the ultra-rich, the One Percenters, can enjoy their Fed Reserve largesse, their privileged, Congress-maintained assurance of bonuses, low tax rates and offshore fortresses, while the hoi polloi are left to their own devices, while the rich bastards bellow on about "creeping Socialism" (such as the kind that has perpetuated the existence of the zombie banks in the first place). Sad to say, fellas, but it isn't going to work, and if you actually think that an orderly, governable society can be maintained while half a million people are suddenly turned out into the streets, in one state alone (the national figure is two million), with no income of any kind, then I say: good luck with all that.

If Congress goes through with its Marie Antoinette routine, a very poorly controlled experiment, a form of dangerous Street Theater, will commence. People without any money do not simply roll over and die. They will seek shelter, food and money by any means necessary. As with so many of these social currents, the effects may be subtle and confused with background noise at first. A rise in violent crime, particularly mugging, armed robbery and burglary. Gangs will get bigger. Violent stand-offs between the police and criminals will become more frequent. But it will get increasingly obvious that a sea change has occurred, and only the thoroughly intellectually dishonest (i.e., the Mainstream Media) will deny what is really going on.

Who knows? Maybe this is the sort of "social development" necessary to demonstrate to the Elites that solely taking care of their own and affording benign neglect to the rest is not going to work. Congress may even realize, after consultation with their lobbyist-benefactors, that some of the federal swag may have to be diverted to paying tribute to the rebels. If so, California might again lead the way. Mitch McConnell might want to watch some old footage of Watts, 1965, to see how this can play out.

November 21, 2010

California's Pension Nightmare

I use inflammatory titles such as the above because it's a great way to stir up readership for the blog. In general my hit count increases by a factor of about 50 for any post which concerns pensions in California. This is a highly nerve-wracking subject for those directly involved, that is, state pensioners, because this guy Joe Nation and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research just won't shut up about it, much as the pension managers and local politicos wish they would. Last spring, for example, Nation & SIEPR came out with a report on CALPers, the teachers' fund and the UC system which demonstrated that they were unfunded, using reasonable rates of return over the foreseeable future, to the tune of about 1/2 trillion smackers. Now Stanford is back with a study of local (county, city and district) pension systems in California which demonstrates that these smaller funds are also on the short side by about $200 billion. Adding it all up, we're missing about $700 billion in order to guarantee payment of all those pension promises, those Constitutionally-mandated contractual rights, those good-as-gold annuities signed with the sacred blood of John C. Fremont and Ishi, the California Yahi who walked out of the wilderness in 1911 and into the waiting arms of the University of California Anthropology Department.

Serious stuff, in other words. A fiscal nightmare. I couldn't quite follow what was going on with the report as described in headline versions in the Marin Independent-Journal (Marin is one of the worst-funded local governments in the state), which were so unbelievable they seemed like something out of Mad Magazine, so I read the actual report from SIEPR, and I still don't quite get it. But the idea seems to be that the pension funds are in such bad shape that the only hope is to devote large amounts of existing budgets equal to huge fractions of existing employee payroll to cover the pension obligations. Using an 18-year "amortization" approach (that is, an attempt to pull even over an 18 year period), on average local pensions at the city, county and district level will have to devote about 50% of "covered payroll" in order to meet pension obligations.

I can't find a clear definition of "covered payroll," surprisingly enough, since that is the denominator for computing the fraction. I guess it means the payroll for current employees in the pension system, which must be a very large percentage of the government work force.
"The average for all systems
in the 18-year scenario is 50
percent, suggesting that one-half
of future covered payroll will
be required to meet unfunded
pension and OPEB obligations.
It is important to emphasize
that this estimated share of
covered payroll reflects only that
required to eliminate unfunded
obligations; contributions to
fund ongoing pension and OPEB
costs are additional."
Local governments generally have to throw in another 15 or 20% to meet the ongoing pension obligations. Anyway, it's a helluva mess. It explains a few things for me. As a lawyer, I use a lot of county facilities, and things have gotten a little sketchy lately, I've noted. Things just don't happen the way they used to. The clerk's office in Marin County, for example, used to allow access to case files on a more-or-less instantaneous basis; now you phone ahead and maybe a week later they'll call you back, but probably not. The file staff is only there four hours a day.

It's pretty clear what's going on. The county is firing current employees because they need the money to pay people who used to work there. San Rafael is, along with San Diego, one of the worst political entities in the state in terms of unfunded pension and health care liabilities. The SIEPR estimates that in the 18-year scenario, San Rafael will have to pay an amount equal to 82% of its "covered payroll" to meet unfunded liabilities. With slightly worse returns on investment, and higher inflation in health care (both factors more likely than not), San Rafael may achieve that exalted status where it owes more to former employees than it does to current employees, if there are any left.

Ah, the Bubble Years, first the Dot Com bonanza and then the housing boom. It raised such lofty expectations about what was fiscally possible in the coming era. The pension formulas were all based on that Golden Age. Now you're lucky if you can earn 2.5% on a 10-year Treasury bond, the benchmark for pension returns. Yet to work, the funds need to earn 6 or 8% per year, which is why the Illinois teacher's pension, for example, has gotten into writing credit default swaps in an effort to make up massive shortfalls. It worked so well for AIG. This is only one step away from playing the lottery as an investment strategy.

Naturally, the local government entities are not going to go in for anything as logical and orderly as "18 year amortization" plans. That's the stuff of policy institutes, not real life. These are politicians we're talking about, and the first line of defense will be denial (San Rafael is already denying like crazy). When the mathematics become overwhelming, they'll resort to blaming someone else, most likely a predecessor. And finally, of course, like pension systems all across the country, the locals will wait for a federal government bailout. I think this is one of the reasons, in fact, that the Federal Reserve has been manipulating the stock market with "POMO" operations, the shell game by which the Fed slips printed money to Primary Dealers with which to play the market. If the damn stock market will just keep going up (despite the overall weak economy), the pensions can make up some of their losses and delay the inevitable bailout.

In the end, however, none of this can work, any more than Social Security can work or the Fed's other Ponzi schemes. Having "globalized" our economy, we can't just print without limit or we risk a ruinous debasement of the currency. Odd, isn't it, how a former city hall janitor's future solvency depends on what the People's Bank of China thinks about our monetary policy? Byzantine complexity - such a good idea in human affairs!