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.