August 06, 2011

What if they held an election and nobody came?

I haven't been able to bring myself to the effort necessary to understand the "debt ceiling deal." Some of it sounds, as usual, unconstitutional, since our scofflaw government rarely pays any attention anymore to the actual rules of our charter document. Something in there about a "Super Congress" which will fast-track budget cuts, without the opportunity for normal amendments, if the two Constitutional bodies (the House & Senate) don't get with it and impose enough austerity on the American people. The Super Congress will be composed of gangs from the two houses - this gang problem is getting serious in Washington. Every time you turn around, there's a new Gang of Six taking control of the street and telling the rest of them in the Capitol 'hood what to do. The Super Congress will apparently be a Gang of Twelve, indicating an escalation in turf warfare. Maybe Obama should appoint a Gang Task Force to try to get this crisis under control.

Meanwhile, despite the best efforts (ha ha) of Congress and its various Gangs, the United States has had its FICO score lowered by the rating agency S&P, which was one of the main rating agencies most guilty of malfeasance during the mortgage-backed securities fiasco, which (briefly) brought Wall Street to its knees, until it was rescued by the Gangs of Washington. Thus leaving only the American people in general on their knees, the other 90% or so who are not actually represented in the District of Columbia.

I was gratified to see on Lawrence O'Donnell's show the other night that at least one national poll indicated that the general approval rating for Congress now stands at 14%. In some ways this is remarkable, given that it was only last year that there was a wholesale turnover in the composition of Congress. It would appear that this convulsive, spasmodic thrashing around by the electorate is not making any big difference in how the American commoners view Congress. As if an awful truth is beginning to dawn on The People: it doesn't make any difference what the exact composition of Democrats and Republicans in Congress is: we still cannot abide them. They are a pestilence, a waking nightmare from which we can't escape. They are forever there, these same Zombie-Solons, Mitch McConnell, John Kyl, Harry Reid, Joe Lieberman, John Boehner, Michele Bachmann, betraying us, selling us out at every turn, standing in front of a "bouquet" of microphones, intoning the same nonsense, the same stock, utterly fraudulent phrases, invulnerable even to Woody Harrelson swinging a baseball bat to their oozing heads - they just keep coming!

Aiieeeeeee!! (In the old comic books, that was supposed to be a scream.) In the space of a couple of weeks or so, I have now read the same blog post by two different writers. The first, which I take to be the original, was by Guy Saperstein, an East Bay civil rights lawyer working in Berkeley for whom I have high respect. He argued, rather persuasively, that the main problem with the Obama presidency is that it has utterly de-fanged and neutered any progressive or civil liberties movement in the U.S. His logic proceeds from the simple binary truth about our politics: if a Democratic President does all of the same awful things as a Republican (which Obama does), such as starting unconstitutional wars, over-using secrecy, denying due process, using "military tribunals" indiscriminately (and contrary to the 5th & 14th Amendments), reauthorizing the Patriot Act without even bothering to see how it's working, jacking up the Afghanistan War in ways not even Bush would have countenanced, refusing to close Guantanamo, buying into Republican ideas of dismantling the social safety net, passing an insurer gift bag of a health bill, etc. ad infinitum ad nauseam, there is no effective opposition because the Democrats in Congress must support their party leader. Whereas if John McCain had done all of these things (plus had acted out his essentially insane ideas on other other subjects), there would have been at least the semblance of resistance.

Then on "Counterpunch" yesterday, I read Alexander Coburn's piece saying the same thing, without so much as a h/t to Guy (Hey Alex! didn't realize us detail geeks read around so much, huh?) Coburn suggested that electing Romney would be a good idea for these reasons; Saperstein simply thought that any Republican in 2012 would be superior.

I take these two columns, thoughtful as they are, for the acts of sheer desperation which they represent. That's how nuts things are now - liberals are arguing for the advantages of electing John MCain and Mitt Romney. As they say in the rehab game, we've hit bottom.

Here's another idea: with only 14% of the electorate to go, how about a complete boycott of the electoral process in 2012? Instead of shuffling the Dems and Pubs, let's do away with them altogether. This surely would appeal to Americans' sense of disenfranchisement, apathy and dillusionment, don't you think? And what is easier than doing nothing? We don't have to vote - who is it, after all, who is constantly urging you to "exercise your franchise," to "do your civic duty" by voting? Democrats and Republicans. Know why? Because they want the power and the money.

Unlike my "535 Plan," whereby we simply replace everyone in Congress with someone new, preferably from a "third" party, this one would entail the honor system. Everyone must refrain from voting. Of course, even members of Congress can vote, so we might wind up with the same 535, each receiving precisely one vote. Yet that would certainly convey a message, would it not? What kind of authority and authenticity would a Congress person command through receiving a plurality of one? The important thing is, like the riddle "what do you call 10,000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the sea?" - it's a good start.

August 03, 2011

Imagine there's no country

(Just a note: it occurs to me that John Lennon and George Gershwin, who both died too young, at about the same age though in different ways, were the two incandescent musical geniuses of their respective generations. John Lennon, who could not be imitated, fused rock music with the lyrical sensibility of poetry and the art song; and Gershwin, similarly inimitable, took the American standard to an entirely different level with the influence of jazz, Yiddish folk themes and classical music.)

As I tool around the fair environs of this pretty nice county where I live, sometimes on foot, or in a car, or even on a bike, I sometimes think to myself: my actual interface with government, the parts I really rely on, are very local. For example, we have a very good fire department here, because the conditions demand it. Lots of trees, lots of dried-out tinder every fall (we're entering fire season now and the signs are everywhere - "Get Ready! - meaning, prune back the overgrowth from around the house, etc.). I live in an unincorporated area so there's no city council and no municipal police, but we're covered by the Sheriff's Department. The nearest emergency room is within two miles from where I sit. The only federal facility I can think of, that I interact with regularly, is the U.S. Post Office. I practice law at the state court level, organized by county. These are the government features that seem to matter most to my individual well-being.

Which is to say, all this crap that goes on in Washington, that I write about, talk about, blog about, actually has very little to do with my everyday life. More than anything, it's a huge, complicated, irritating annoyance. It's such a mess that it's virtually incomprehensible. The semi-competent grifters in Washington, D.C., who went there out of ambition or because they could never find work in the private sector that paid nearly as much, have run the country's finances into the ground so that we're now a zombie country, more than just technically bankrupt - we're the real thing. When the tax revenue pays for slightly more than half the "services" you're trying to provide, you're bust-o - you just haven't admitted it yet.

All of these matters are intellectually diverting, of course, something to talk about, argue about. In a mostly pointless way. Americans have to "interface" with the federal government mainly when they fill out a 1040, and make their contribution to the "insurance company with an army" that is the United States of America. Although the federal government actually seems to have very little to do with one's day-to-day life, they're the big tax hogs. They want most of the money, even if to a large extent we have overlapping and duplicative levels of government - local, county, state, layered beneath the federal behemoth, all of which have to be paid for.

The sheer size of the United States produces a feeling of alienation and powerlessness in the individual taxpayer and citizen. Maybe we hang in there because we want, at the end of all of it, those goodies we've been paying for all those years - the "Entitlements." Social Security and Medicare.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the U.S. population in the year Social Security was enacted, 1935. It was 127 million people. The official census says we now have 307 million, so FDR introduced a program, when unemployment was at 20%, in the very depths of the Depression, to a population that was about 41% of its current size. In other words, the entire population of the United States was about three times larger than California's current population.(Detroit beat the Cubs in the World Series that year, 4-2, and Fred Perry won at Wimbledon. Minnesota was the NCAA champ in football.) The total federal budget was $6.4 billion. Life expectancy (from birth) was 61.7 for both sexes combined. A male reaching the age of 60 could expect to live another 14 years.

In 1965, when the Great Society brought us Medicare, the U.S. had a population of 194 million (the Dodgers took the Twins in the Series, 4-3, and UCLA beat Michigan, 91-80, for the NCAA b-ball championship. Roy Emerson won at Wimbledon.) Federal spending was $118 billion and the national debt was $322 billion (and was about to get much worse because of the Vietnam War). Life expectancy was 70 years; a male achieving the age of 60 could expect to live another 16 years (it's about 20 years today).

If James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg, Dmitry Orlov, Guy McPherson (that's his website over to the right, "Nature Bats Last") and others are correct, that imminent energy shortages are going to force a "re-localization" of commerce and life in general, it's probably good to keep such basic statistics in mind. The local government entities that we rely upon stand a much better chance of weathering the storms of energy constraints, and of national insolvency, than the huge, bloated, militarized, globalist federal government, for which size, distance and "reach" (the ability to "project power") are everything, its life blood, perhaps the only justification for its existence (if that's a justification). The feds dangle those pretty baubles of the "entitlements" in front of a dazed and confused populace in order to keep them in the game, along with the paternal protection of the huge military establishment keeping us safe from all those terrible al-Qaeda monsters who are out there somewhere, "plotting" even as we sit here nervously wondering why they've waited a decade to hit us again. (We're spending trillions to protect ourselves here! For God's sake, give us something to work with!)

July 31, 2011

At the Souk in Old Baghdad

(Click on the image to see full picture of satisfied customers.)I dimly recall that the chief rationale for invading Iraq in 2003 was to rid that nation of its suspected stores of weapons of mass destruction. Now that we've pacified that country (only 15 Americans killed in June, for example), it's time to do some business:

"Iraq's prime minister said Saturday he was reviving a stalled deal to buy multi-million-dollar fighter jets from the United States and affirmed the need for American trainers to help Iraqi forces operate and maintain the 36 F-16s.

"However, Nouri al-Maliki avoided saying whether the trainers would be active-duty troops or private contractors - sidestepping the key question of whether American military personnel will be asked to remain past an end-of-year deadline for withdrawing. That question is Iraq's top political issue and is being hotly debated among the country's leaders."

Look, Lockheed Martin needs to move some merchandise, and food and war are two of our best product lines. The F-16, sort of the Chevrolet of Lockheed's fighter-bomber fleet, no longer interests the U.S. Air Force, we know how to make these things, so why not work a sale with the government we put in power in Iraq? The cover story we're using is that Iraq may need these 36 F-16s "to protect its sovereignty." (From whom? From us?)

Whatever. I looked up the specs on the F-16 to get an idea just why the Iraqis would be interested in these somewhat obsolete warplanes. Turns out they're surprisingly cool, still. At top speed, they'll make Mach 2, 1,500 miles per hour. If you're wondering (as the thought immediately occurred to me) how long it would take an F-16 to fly from Baghdad to Tel Aviv, the answer is about 20 minutes, since Tel Aviv is 565 miles away (as the F-16 flies). Of course, we've also sold plenty of F-16s to the Israelis, and the F-16, as well as being an effective bomber, is also highly maneuverable and a good dogfighter, so the Israelis will probably put in a purchase order for more F-16s to deal with the F-16s we're about to sell to Iraq.

Actually, we've sold F-16s to just about everybody. And no wonder:

"The F-16 soars above all others as the world’s standard. Nations around the world have evaluated the variety of choices available and consistently selected the F-16, the world’s most capable multirole fighter. More than 4,400 F-16s have been produced for 25 countries with 53 follow-on buys by 14 customers – a key indicator of customer satisfaction. These customers have experienced the performance and reliability of the F-16 firsthand and reaffirm the high quality of the aircraft."

Okay, that's Lockheed tooting its own horn a little. "Customer satisfaction:" you have to kind of like that. We're not really instigating war by governments when we sell these warplanes. We're servicing our customers. Could Milo Minderbinder have said it better? I wonder if you can get a luxury-pak upgrade with seats made of fine Coreenthian leather? It's surprisingly difficult to get a clear read on what the F-16 costs. For one thing, you can't just get an out-the-door price. It's not like Best Buy where you have a choice on the extended warranty and the Geek Squad. If you buy an F-16, you're going to need all the spare parts and the Geek Squad, most likely private contractors from the U.S. who know how to maintain these complicated contraptions. The basic price seems to be about $25 million, but $40 million, counting all the support you need, is more likely. Thus, by creating a new customer in Iraq, the U.S. government has handed Lockheed Martin and subsidiary companies a cool sale of about $1.44 billion. You don't think Lockheed Martin appreciates that? Just ask Senator Daniel ("Mr. Earmark") Inouye, a wholly owned subsidiary of the company, whether they do, next time a senatorial election is held in Hawaii.

Lockheed Martin lobbies like hell, in fact, which, along with their satisfied customer base, is one of the reasons it's such a huge government contractor, where it derives about 86% of its business. In our civics class fantasies, we don't always think about these things as much as we should. John Tirman wrote about the influence of the arms trade in his landmark Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade, quite some time ago. Since reading it, I've acquired a different way of looking at Congressional voting patterns. Why is Sen. Joe Lieberman such a hawk? Well, what companies are headquartered in Connecticut? What about Dianne Feinstein of California? California has a very large aerospace business, including Lockheed Martin in Palmdale, California. Hell, even Barbara Boxer voted for the continuation of the F-22 fighter-bomber, even though the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, thought we didn't need it. We don't need it for war, maybe, but members of Congress need Lockheed's money, so let's build the damn thing.

Sometimes, when you add it all up, you have to be a little...pessimistic about America's overall influence on the well being of the world. Uncooperative (and ignorant) about climate change; flooding the world with genetically modified, patented, unreproducible crops; endlessly warmongering to protect our oil interests so we can maintain our car-based transportation system, and selling other countries the means to wage war and subjugate their populations with our high-tech gimmickry.

I guess all these things are offset by our intentions, however, which are always good. If we make a little money at it, it's only our just reward.