September 17, 2011

Katch-22 in Kandahar

"To summarize: our invasion and occupation is what enables the Taliban to recruit massive numbers of Afghan teenagers into their cause. And now, we have to stay until we either kill all the people who hate us and want us gone from their country or propagandize deradicalize them into meekly accepting our presence. Once there are no more Afghans left who want us gone, then we can leave. For those of you who have been cynically claiming that this war has no discernible purpose other than the generalized benefits of Endless War for political officials and the Security State industry, now you know." -Glenn Greenwald, summarizing a Washington Post article on current plans for de-radicalization of Afghan youth.

Yossarian didn't know whether he believed in reincarnation or not; he just knew he wanted to stay alive, and if Eastern mysticism did the trick, that was good enough for him. Even if it meant that instead of being a B-25 navigator based on Pianosa during World War II, he was now a grunt in America's seemingly endless war in Afghanistan.

"Think I'll ever get back to New Jersey?" he asked Doc Daneeka, as they sat on a couple of canvas chairs in front of the medical tent.

"It depends," said Doc Daneeka.

"Depends on what?" said Yossarian.

"On whether you survive this war," said Doc Daneeka.

"Interesting you should say that," said Yossarian. "I've been thinking of ways I could get out of this war and get back to New Jersey. At last. And one of those ideas involves you."

"I'm not surprised," said Doc Daneeka. "Although I think you'll find New Jersey is not quite the garden spot you remember from 1942."

"I can't even figure out why we're fighting this war. Or why I'm here. Every day, the Taliban try to kill me."

"They're trying to kill everybody," grunted Doc Daneeka. "Don't think of yourself as so special."

"So why do you think we stay here?" asked Yossarian.

"Because they want us to leave," said Doc Daneeka. "As long as they want us to leave, we have to stay."

Yossarian nodded, sensing what was coming.

Doc Daneeka went on: "If they want us to leave, it means they're not ready for democracy and we have to stay."

"Until they're ready for democracy?" asked Yossarian, taking a shot.

"No, until they ask us to stay. When they ask us to stay, it means they're ready for us to leave."

"So if they ask us to stay, we know we can leave," said Yossarian, half to himself, filling in the blanks.

"Right," said Doc Daneeka. "They'll never be ready for democracy. Not even we are crazy enough to wait for that. Meanwhile, the war must go on, and we must keep killing them until they ask us to stay."

"Doesn't it seem unlikely that they'll ever ask us to stay if we keep on killing them?" asked Yossarian.

"It's only unlikely until we kill all the ones who want us to leave and only those who want us to stay are left," said Doc Daneeka, staring straight ahead as he took a swig from his beer bottle.

"But if we keep killing all the ones who want us to leave, won't that just make the ones who want us to stay angry about our killing all the ones who want us to leave, and then the ones who want us to stay will want us to leave, but we can't leave then because they want us to?" Yossarian took a deep breath, exhausted by articulating this fine web of logic.

"That's right," said Doc Daneeka. "As long as we keep killing all the ones who want us to leave, we'll keep turning the Aghans who want us to stay into Aghans who want us to leave, so we have to stay and keep killing those same Afghans until there are only Afghans who want us to stay."

"Then we can leave," said Yossarian.

"Right," said Doc Daneeka. "Or until there are no more Afghans at all."

"Can they have a democracy with no people?" asked Yossarian.

"Probably not," admitted Doc Daneeka.

"It's Catch-22 all over again," said Yossarian.

"Some things never change," said Doc Daneeka. "Especially in war."

"So about that Section 8," said Yossarian.

"Same problem as last time. The war's crazy, you aren't. I can't Section 8 you out of a war you think is crazy to fight when it's a war that's crazy to fight. Sorry."

"If I thought it was sane to fight this crazy war, would I be crazy enough for you to say I was insane and didn't have to fight?" asked Yossarian.

"Maybe, but not in this life."

September 14, 2011

The fish weren't biting anyway

Enough of a break for now. I feel that I'm missing out on opportunities to chime in on this Rick Perry "Ponzi scheme" "controversy," and that's intolerable, given the close, quasi-symbiotic relationship which has always (okay, almost never) existed between the Perry Campaign and Waldenswimmer (which is to say, they quoted me at length once; think about it: there will probably come a day when I can say that I was quoted by the campaign of the President of the United States of America. Awesome.)

Anyway, my main complaint about the abuse of such terms as "Ponzi scheme" to describe Social Security is that, as with so many other usages which evaporate into the MediaCloud (TM pending) and become completely amorphous, this perfectly good, sensible term becomes debased and useless because of the lack of precision so characteristic of this dumb-ass country. Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme. It has many problems, chief among them the fatal demographics of this country and the fact that on a cash flow basis (the only basis that counts) Social Security is already in the red, 6 years earlier than forecast in the recent past. So we're hosed.

Still, it's not a Ponzi scheme. Charles Ponzi ran a Ponzi scheme, Bernie Madoff ran a Ponzi scheme. The cardinal characteristic of this species of confidence fraud is that the fraudster, such as Madoff, solicits investments which he represents will be placed in income producing assets. He promises a steady, lavish rate of return. The gullible marks turn over their money. The fraudster then takes this money, skims enough to buy and maintain his chateau in the Loire Valley and waterfront house in Palm Beach, sets himself up with lavish cash flow, and then begins doling out the "returns" (say 12% per year) to the suckers, who are unaware that their own money and that of later "investors" who bought from Madoff on the recommendation of themselves and other suckers is being used to fund these fictitious gains. Then a smart Greek like Harry Markopolis comes along, realizes in an instant that nobody can pay out returns like that, year after year, in a dogshit economy like the United States, and proceeds to bust the con.

That's a Ponzi scheme. It's really beautiful in its simplicity and sheer criminality; the crook gets rich using only what Willy Loman had, "a smile and a shoeshine."

But that's not Social Security. As I listen to more and more of Rick Perry, I am reaching the conclusion that even by Republican candidate standards, this is a pretty dim bulb. His explanation for his charge against Social Security is that younger workers won't receive their promised benefits. Yeah, true; it's likely that those now retired or nearing retirement aren't going to receive all of their benefits either, and for the same reason. The program just doesn't work anymore. Today's retirees (the Boomers, who are reaching Social Security age at the rate of 10,000 people per day) are counting on about 1.75 workers per retiree for their support. In a dead jobs market. With average wages, in real terms, declining. Indeed, the Census just released numbers showing that the average male worker in the United States, in inflation-adjusted dollars, earns less than such a worker in 1968 America. As I said to the research scientist at the Great Southwestern University, that sounds completely believable. 1968 was absolutely an affluent, wonderful time here in the U.S.A, provided you weren't involved in fighting one of the first of the completely useless wars America concocted. Or unless you were Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Bobby Kennedy. Okay, nothing is ever entirely perfect, even if you had a new black Mustang.

Social Security worked fine back then, too. It was easy; the tax was light, the earners were many, the country was rich. None of these things is true anymore. The latest monthly disaster report was just issued by the Department of the Treasury, which confirms the ongoing trend. Total FICA receipts (including disability) were about $43 billion; the outlays, including disability payments, were about $60 billion. The shortfall was made up by payments from the "Trust Fund," which doesn't exist; that is to say, the difference was made up the usual way, by public borrowing, or by having the Federal Reserve pay the interest which the Treasury owes the Federal Reserve on the Treasury bonds held by the Federal Reserve to the Treasury (I just like saying that).

Consider the viability of a system which requires 1.75 workers to support each retiree (many of such retirees are still of working age, actually - such as your faithful blogger here, who is still working - please, no applause necessary), a retiree cohort increasing by 10,000 golfers per day. And all of this is happening against the background of a crap job market, massive unemployment, declining real wages, and a political class who keep reducing the FICA tax (thus hamstringing the funding mechanism further) in an effort to curry favor with the electorate. Rather than ideological rhetoric about "Big Government," the C+ student from Texas A&M should focus rather on the inherent unworkability of this thing (I'm still trying to help, Rick - shucks, I just cain't quiiiiiiiiiitttt you!). But you can't call this "fraud," because the facts are open and obvious. Liberal economists may emphasize the "moral imperative" of recognizing the validity of the Trust Fund (which I have always characterized as a crime scene), others may talk about "tweaking" the system, but it doesn't make any difference in the long run. The money isn't there, it's not going to be there, and as younger voters come into their own, they're going to dump this thing. And who can really blame them?

Social Security is doomed, but not because it's a Ponzi. Because its day has come and gone. Because we'd rather spend a trillion on the military to fight wars to secure our oil supplies. Because we'd rather go on being energy pigs. Because we're a country in name only. Because, fundamentally, we don't give a shit. Because frankly, Scarlett, it's not 1968 anymore.