Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Puff Piece

Bruce Jackson writes about 60 Minutes piece on the Afghanistan general:
David Martin’s 13-minute “60 Minutes” interview with General Stanley
McChrystal (September 27), the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, may have
seemed like one more of those insufferable Sunday evening puff pieces, like
Steve Kroft’s strokejob with Clarence Thomas in September 2007 and Morley
Safer’s with Bobby Jindahl in March 2009. As in the Kroft and Safer interviews,
Martin never asked a question that went faster than slowball and he spent the
whole time playing hagiographer and straight-man. He never asked one significant
follow-up question. If he’d been a flack for DoD editing this piece in the
Pentagon studio he couldn’t have done a better job.

But the interview was more than just another “60 Minutes” puff piece.
Four-star battlefront generals don’t put on dog-and-pony shows for reporters
without a very good reason for doing so, and he put on a very fancy show for
Martin, with stops at his room, his office, his briefing room, trips in his
helicopter and SUV, and much more. It’s difficult to imagine that McChrystal’s
reason was anything other than putting pressure on the Obama administration to
give him the series of very large troop increases he thinks he needs to win his
war.

David Brooks' Shallow Analysis of our Crisis

David Brooks sounds like a preacher (in fact, he sounds like me in Sunday's sermon) in his NYT column:
If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to
cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a
producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial
self-restraint, large and small.

It will have to take on what you might call the lobbyist ethos — the
righteous conviction held by everybody from AARP to the agribusinesses that
their groups are entitled to every possible appropriation, regardless of the
larger public cost. It will have to take on the self-indulgent popular demand
for low taxes and high spending.

A crusade for economic self-restraint would have to rearrange the
current alliances and embrace policies like energy taxes and spending cuts that
are now deemed politically impossible. But this sort of moral revival is what
the country actually needs.

In fact, if you were to look back in this blog at many of my posts on the economy, you would find me complaining about all the debt and fiscal irresponsibility that brought on the current crisis.

However....

It seems to me that Brooks' analysis is very shallow and incomplete. He cites four symptoms of 'erosion' in our financial values: state lotteries, large executive pay packages, large restaurant servings, and high debt to GDP ratio. Give me a break.

Of these, two are relevant (not lotteries and McDonald's french fries!). Large executive pay is one part of a much larger problem: the increasingly maldistribution of wealth and growing income and wealth inequality. My take on this is that it had many causes: the decline of manufacturing and increase in outsourcing, the rise of the financial sector, the decline and fall of labor unions, the hidden inflation which ate away at our standard of living, tax law changes favoring the wealthy, the pushing of credit/debt onto the public via the financial sector, and so on. All of this has been the result of conservative ideology being put into policy via the Reagan revolution, as well as the rise of neo-liberalism and globalization in the Democratic Party. The Republican Party has moved to the far right, while the Democratic Party left behind its New Deal/Great Society roots and also moved to the right. And all of this moved us away from the egalitarian ethos of the New Deal toward the inequalities of the Gilded Age.

Another part of this big puzzle is that we were the only major industrial country that didn't suffer from severe damage and disruption during World War II. In terms of industrial and economic party, we had the whole party to ourselves for a couple of decades after the war. Then as the countries of Europe and Asia recovered, and then India and China began to modernize, our portion of the pie began to shrink. This is not often recognized by the major parties to the debate on this issue, that it would be hard for us to stay ahead of the rest of the world under any circumstances.

A third major factor is our continuing reliance on expensive foreign oil, which has driven up our trade deficit to simply astronomical levels, weakening our economy and the dollar.

Now, as far as I can tell, almost none of these things will really be resolved by a 'revival of economic morality', at least as Brooks describes it (lotteries, supersizing it, etc.). It will take a turning away from the economic ideology and policies of the last 30 years. Which might (or might not) be happening right now, depending on how you perceive the changes Obama is making.

In any case, it is not a new Puritan ethics that will solve this problem, not that I'm against Puritan ethics. Actually, the Methodist John Wesley, decidedly not Calvinist, put it just as well: make all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Now, that will preach!

Ouch!

Richard Cohen's column in the Washington Post today is the single most sarcastic and negative thing I have yet read about Obama. There is a personal harshness to this critique that is breathtaking.
Sooner or later it is going to occur to Barack Obama that he is the
president of the United States. As of yet, though, he does not act that way,
appearing promiscuously on television and granting interviews like the
presidential candidate he no longer is. The election has been held, but the
campaign goes on and on. The candidate has yet to become commander in chief.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Garry Wills is one of most insightful intellectuals and historians. Anything he writes should be paid attention to. In the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Wills writes about how quickly Obama has begun acting like Bush. He attributes this behavior to our great national security empire that has been built up over the last 60 years. An extended excerpt:
Some were dismayed to see how quickly the Obama people grabbed at the
powers, the secrecy, the unaccountability that had led Bush into such
opprobrium. Leon Panetta at the CIA especially puzzled those who had known him
during the Clinton years. A former CIA official told The Washington Post, "Leon
Panetta has been captured by the people who were the ideological drivers for the
interrogation program in the first place." A White House official told Jane
Mayer of The New Yorker, "It's like Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that turning around the huge
secret empire built by the National Security State is a hard, perhaps
impossible, task. After most of the wars in US history there was a return to the
constitutional condition of the pre-war world. But after those wars there was no
lasting institutional security apparatus of the sort that was laboriously
assembled in the 1940s and 1950s. After World War I, for instance, there was no
CIA, no NSA, no mountain of secret documents to be guarded from unauthorized
readers, no atomic bomb to guard, develop, deploy, and maintain in readiness on
land, in the air, and on (or in) the sea.

Now a new president quickly becomes aware of the vast empire that is
largely invisible to the citizenry. The United States maintains an estimated one
thousand military bases in other countries. I say "estimated" because the exact
number, location, and size of the bases are either partly or entirely cloaked in
secrecy, among other things to protect nuclear installations.The secrecy
involved is such that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy did not
even know, at first, that we had nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey.

A president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire's secrets. He feels
he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and
diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this
vast, shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of
commitments. He becomes the prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could
not not use the bomb, a modern president cannot not use the huge powers at his
disposal. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that
makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a
self-entangling giant.

China Going Green

Speaking of addressing climate change, Tom Friedman wrote about China going green:
Yes, China’s leaders have decided to go green — out of necessity because
too many of their people can’t breathe, can’t swim, can’t fish, can’t farm and
can’t drink thanks to pollution from its coal- and oil-based manufacturing
growth engine. And, therefore, unless China powers its development with cleaner
energy systems, and more knowledge-intensive businesses without smokestacks,
China will die of its own development.

What do we know about necessity? It is the mother of invention. And
when China decides it has to go green out of necessity, watch out. You will not
just be buying your toys from China. You will buy your next electric car, solar
panels, batteries and energy-efficiency software from China.

Climate Change Legislation Had Better Be Next

One more quote from Krugman on climate change, on why it's on the backburner:
But the larger reason we’re ignoring climate change is that Al Gore was
right: This truth is just too inconvenient. Responding to climate change with
the vigor that the threat deserves would not, contrary to legend, be devastating
for the economy as a whole. But it would shuffle the economic deck, hurting some
powerful vested interests even as it created new economic opportunities. And the
industries of the past have armies of lobbyists in place right now; the
industries of the future don’t.

Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of
vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has
extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a
problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than
concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny
that the problem exists.

So here we are, with the greatest challenge facing mankind on the back
burner, at best, as a policy issue. I’m not, by the way, saying that the Obama
administration was wrong to push health care first. It was necessary to show
voters a tangible achievement before next November. But climate change
legislation had better be next.

Modern Day Cassandras

I find myself trying to stay away from columns on climate change, because of the way they make me feel (depressed). Today's Krugman column is no different, but it's interesting the way he starts:
Every once in a while I feel despair over the fate of the planet. If you’ve
been following climate science, you know what I mean: the sense that we’re
hurtling toward catastrophe but nobody wants to hear about it or do anything to
avert it.

And here’s the thing: I’m not engaging in hyperbole. These days, dire
warnings aren’t the delusional raving of cranks. They’re what come out of the
most widely respected climate models, devised by the leading researchers. The
prognosis for the planet has gotten much, much worse in just the last few
years.


This is exactly what I've concluded over the last few years, as I read and observed with growing alarm. It is without a doubt the most important issue we face, yet it is currently being neglected in Washington, pushed aside by other concerns such as health care and Afghanistan.

In my heart of hearts, I believe Obama feels and knows it to be the most important issue we face, but I think the Washington bubble may have led him to focus on the more near-term things. Understandable, but still a big mistake perhaps. And actually, 'near-term' increasingly describes the effects of climate change.
And we’re not just talking about disasters in the distant future, either.
The really big rise in global temperature probably won’t take place until the
second half of this century, but there will be plenty of damage long before
then.

For example, one 2007 paper in the journal Science is titled
“Model Projections of an Imminent Transition to a More Arid Climate in
Southwestern North America” — yes, “imminent” — and reports “a broad consensus
among climate models” that a permanent drought, bringing Dust Bowl-type
conditions, “will become the new climatology of the American Southwest within a
time frame of years to decades.”

So if you live in, say, Los Angeles, and liked those pictures of red
skies and choking dust in Sydney, Australia, last week, no need to travel.
They’ll be coming your way in the not-too-distant future.

Boxed In

Ross Douthat unfortunately makes a very good point about Obama having boxed himself in on Afghanistan (see excerpt below). Yet he also acknowledges that the options are horrible and that Obama risks failure unless he becomes a completely convinced that he has to fight this war all-out and brings as much of the country with him as possible. Douthat thinks this is unlikely. No wonder this decision is being seen as pivotal to Obama's presidency.
I heard a similar theme, in public and private, from many counterinsurgency
advocates last week. Having recently described Afghanistan as a “war of
necessity,” they asked, can the president really turn down a request for more
troops from a general he himself appointed to support a campaign that he
personally endorsed?

The answer is very likely no. However serious his doubts about
escalation, Obama seems boxed in — by the thoroughness of McChrystal’s
assessment and the military’s united front, by his own arguments across the last
two years and by his party’s long-running insistence on painting Afghanistan as
the neglected “good war.”

True Warrior

Last night's segment on 60 Minutes about General Stanley McChrystal (that last name is hard to spell) was very interesting. It could reasonably be thought of as a 'puff piece', encouraging Americans to think of this man in the best possible light. That always makes me suspicious. The average person shouldn't be seeing this much about the commanders in the field, except that there is a political donnybrook going on in the Adminstration.

Here is an article about him I found in the Guardian newspaper, with an excerpt from the last few paragraphs. This General could be trouble for Obama.

Born 14 August 1954 to Major General Herbert McChrystal. He was the fourth
child in a family of five boys and a girl, all of whom would serve or marry into
the military. McChrystal has a wife and adult son. Currently commander ISAF
international forces in Afghanistan.

Best of times Credited with masterminding the killing of Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida leader in Iraq. Zarqawi claimed responsibility for
numerous bombings and executions.
Worst of times A Pentagon investigation
ruled that McChrystal was "accountable for the inaccurate and misleading
assertions" in the scandal surrounding the death of former football star Pat
Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004. McChrystal approved his posthumous citation for
a Silver Star, claiming he died in "the line of devastating enemy fire". It
emerged that McChrystal wrote a memo to senior military officials that Tillman
might actually have been killed by friendly fire.

He says "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in
the near-term (next 12 months) – while Afghan security capacity matures – risks
an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."Confidential
report, 30 August 2009.

They say "If you asked me the first thing that comes to mind about General
McChrystal, I think of no body fat." Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign
Relations, quoted in the New York Times.

Does the UN Matter?

Fareed Zakaria writes in the WaPo:
There is a serious case to be made that it's not worth taking the United
Nations seriously, that it's an anachronistic institution based on 60-year-old
geopolitics and a platform for tyrants and weirdos. But while much of that is
true, the United Nations is the only organization in the world to which all
countries belong. As such it does have considerable legitimacy. And that means
power. As David Bosco points out in Foreign Policy magazine, over the past two
decades the Security Council has authorized "more than a dozen peacekeeping
missions, imposed sanctions or arms embargoes on 10 states, and created several
war crimes tribunals to prosecute those responsible for genocide and crimes
against humanity, including sitting heads of state." It's worth putting in the
effort to shape its decisions.

Obama's speech was part of a calculated strategy. In sentiment it
recalls Richard Nixon's line after losing the California governor's race in
1962: "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." Obama was telling the
world: The United States is willing to be cooperative, to rejoin international
institutions, to adhere to treaties. But in return, other countries will have to
help solve some of the world's common problems. You can't just kick us around
anymore.

Let's go back one year. Many countries had come to believe that America
showed little interest in the world. This hostility had become an easy excuse to
reject even modest concessions to U.S. requests. If this sounds partisan, recall
that after he was elected president of France in 2007, the pro-American
conservative Nicolas Sarkozy was asked by Condoleezza Rice what she could do to
help him. "Improve your image in the world," he said.

Obama's outreach to the world is an experiment, and not merely to see if
the world will respond. He wants to demonstrate at home that engagement does not
make America weak. For decades, it's been thought deadly for an American
politician to be seen as seeking international cooperation. Denouncing,
demeaning and insulting other countries was a cheap and easy way to seem strong.
In the battle of images, tough and stupid always seemed to win.

Obama is gambling that America is mature enough to understand
that machismo is not foreign policy and that grandstanding on the global stage
won't succeed.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hitting the Wall

A review of a new book by Peter Maass, "Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil":
Oil is the curse of the modern world; it is “the devil’s excrement,” in the
words of the former Venezuelan oil minister Juan Pablo PĂ©rez Alfonzo, who is
considered to be the father of OPEC
and should know. Our insatiable need for oil has brought us global warming,
Islamic fundamentalism and environmental depredation. It has turned the United
States and China, the world’s biggest consumers of petroleum, into greedy,
irresponsible addicts that can’t see beyond their next fix. With a few
exceptions, like Norway and the United Arab Emirates, oil doesn’t even benefit
the nations from which it is extracted. On the contrary: Most oil-rich states
have been doomed to a seemingly permanent condition of kleptocracy by a few,
poverty for the rest, chronic backwardness and, worst of all, the loss of a
national soul.

We can’t be rid of the stuff soon enough.

Such is the message of Peter Maass’s slender but powerfully written new
book, “Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil.” Unquestionably, by fueling
better and faster transportation and powering cities and factories, oil has been
critical to modern economies. But oil has also made possible the most
destructive wars in history, and it has left human society in a historical
cul-de-sac. Despite much hue and cry today, Maass argues, we seem unable to move
beyond an oil-based global economy, and we are going to hit a wall soon.

This is basically what James Howard Kunstler has been saying for years now.

A New Vietnam?

Frank Rich writes today in the NYT that Obama has a Kennedyesque decision to make about Afghanistan. He likens it to JFK's decision about Vietnam early in his presidency. The following quote picks up with a possible decision to wind it down:
If Obama instead decides to embrace some variation on the Biden option,
he’ll have a different challenge. He’ll face even more violent attacks than he
did this summer. When George Will wrote a recent column titled “Time to Get Out
of Afghanistan,” he was accused of “urging retreat and accepting defeat” (by
William Kristol) and of “waving the bloody shirt” (by Fred Kagan, an official
adviser to McChrystal who, incredibly enough, freelances as a blogger at
National Review). The editorial page at Will’s home paper, The Washington Post,
declared that deviating from McChrystal’s demand for more troops “would both
dishonor and endanger this country.” If a conservative columnist can provoke
neocon invective this hysterical, just imagine what will be hurled at
Obama.

But the author of “Lessons in Disaster” does not believe that a change
in course in Afghanistan would be a disaster for Obama’s young presidency. “His
greatest qualities as president,” Goldstein says, “are his quality of mind and
his quality of judgment — his dispassionate ability to analyze a situation. If
he was able to do that here, he might more than survive a short-term hit from
the military and right-wing pundits. He would establish his credibility as a
president who will override his advisers when a strategy doesn’t make
sense.”

Either way, it’s up to the president to decide what he thinks is right
for the country’s security, the politics be damned. That he has temporarily
pressed the pause button to think it through while others, including some of his
own generals, try to lock him in is not a sign of indecisiveness but of
confidence and strength. It is, perhaps, Obama’s most significant down payment
yet on being, in the most patriotic sense, Kennedyesque.

Fed and Regulation

In trying to get ahold of the faulty regulatory structure in our government, one big question is what should be the Federal Reserve's role in all this. This from the Washington Post today:
The Federal Reserve is best known as an economic shepherd, responsible for
adjusting interest rates to keep prices steady and unemployment low. But since
its creation, the Fed has held a second job as a banking regulator, one of four
federal agencies responsible for keeping banks healthy and protecting their
customers. Congress also authorized the Fed to write consumer protection rules
enforced by all the agencies.

During the boom, however, the Fed left those powers largely unused. It
imposed few new constraints on mortgage lending and pulled back from enforcing
rules that did exist.

The Fed's performance was undercut by several factors, according to
documents and more than two dozen interviews with current and former Fed
governors and employees, government officials, industry executives and consumer
advocates. It was crippled by the doubts of senior officials about the value of
regulation, by a tendency to discount anecdotal evidence of problems and by its
affinity for the financial industry.

My vote is, relieve the Fed of the responsibility.

Professional and Effective

David Broder, one of the 'deans' of Washington journalism, pays Obama a big compliment today in his column:
Official Washington is starting to realize that in addition to his personal
skills, Obama has assembled a highly professional and effective national
security team that serves him and the nation very well.

His first -- and in some ways most important -- decision was to ask Robert
Gates, George W. Bush's defense secretary, to remain in charge of the Pentagon.
Gates was anything but an obvious choice. Obama had campaigned as a sharp critic
of Bush policy in Iraq and had clearly signaled that he would insist on a new
approach to Afghanistan. Keeping the boss of the old policies was
counterintuitive -- and offensive to some of Obama's Democratic allies.

But Obama recognized Gates's strengths. And he bolstered the team when he
picked as his national security adviser retired Marine general Jim Jones,
another widely respected veteran of past administrations and a man of great
self-discipline and few ego needs.

The choice of Hillary Clinton was the most dramatic given their history as
rivals in a protracted battle for the nomination. The full story has not been
told of why he wanted her and why she wanted to be secretary of state. But so
far, it is working better than almost anyone could have imagined.


I agree with this, except that I wish he had someone in this mix who represented a little less 'hawkish' position, if only to make sure the position is represented.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

More Troops?

The New York Times reports on the current divide within the Administration on Afghanistan:

As President
Obama
weighs sending more troops to Afghanistan, one of the most
consequential decisions of his presidency, he has discovered that the military
is not monolithic in support of the plan and that some of the civilian advisers
he respects most have deep reservations.

While Mr. Obama is hearing from more hawkish voices, including those of
Secretary of State Hillary
Rodham Clinton
and Richard
C. Holbrooke
, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, some
outside advisers relied on by Mr. Obama have voiced doubts.

Former Secretary of State Colin
L. Powell
, a retired four-star Army general, visited Mr. Obama in the Oval
Office this month and expressed skepticism that more troops would guarantee
success, according to people briefed on the discussion. Mr. Powell reminded the
president of his longstanding view that military missions should be clearly
defined.

Mr. Powell is one of the three people, with Senator John
F. Kerry
and Senator Jack
Reed
, considered by White House aides to be most influential in this current
debate. All have expressed varying degrees of doubt about the prospect of
sending more forces to Afghanistan.

Mr. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations
Committee, has warned of repeating the mistakes of Vietnam, where he served, and
has floated the idea of a more limited counterterrorist mission. Mr. Reed,
Democrat of Rhode Island and an Army veteran, has not ruled out supporting more
troops but said “the burden of proof” was on commanders to justify it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Undemocratic Senate

The undemocratic nature of the US Senate is analysed here:

Many leaders and supporters are beginning to wonder, what is causing this
growing gap between the Barack Obama that many people saw on the campaign trail,
and the Obama they see in the White House? Beyond Obama's oratorical skills,
which excited not only American voters but people all over the world, he is
mostly untested as a politician. His previous experience was only a few years in
the US Senate and a few years more as a state senator. A sinking feeling is
arising among many that President Obama may not be up to the task, that he may
not possess the artful skills needed to accomplish even his own goals.

But it must be recognized that it's not just Obama's shortcomings that
are causing the problem. The very structure of the American political system is
at the heart of these failures. For example, thwarting Obama on a regular basis
is an unrepresentative Senate where "minority rule" prevails and undermines what
a majority of the country may want. With two senators elected per state,
regardless of population, California with more than 35 million people has the
same number of senators as Wyoming with just half a million residents. This
constitutional arrangement greatly favors low population states, many of which
tend to be conservative, producing what one political analyst has called "a
weighted vote for small-town whites in pickup trucks with gun racks."

In addition, the Senate's use of that arcane rule known as the
"filibuster" means you need 60 out of 100 votes to stop unlimited debate on a
bill and move to a vote. A mere 41 senators, representing as little as 20% of
the nation's population, can stymie what the other 80% wants. Given a vastly
unrepresentative senate wielding its anti-majoritarian filibuster, it is hardly
surprising that minority rule in the senate consistently undermines majority
rule, whether on health care, financial industry reform, environmental
legislation and many other policies.

Pile on to that an uncompetitive, winner-take-all electoral system, marinated in money and special interest influence, and the sclerotic US political scene is deeply troubling. None of these anti-democratic structural features are going away any time soon. Unless Barack Obama is able to demonstrate a better level of political skill than he has shown so far, everyone needs to fasten their seat belts. The world is about to enter a challenging phase where the US - the undisputed leader of the free world for the past 60 years - is going to rapidly cede its place at the head of the line.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cover Up

A new book on 9/11 has been published by the former Senior Counsel to the official 9/11 Commission, John Farmer (also former Attorney General for New Jersey and currently Dean of the Rutgers-Newark School of Law).

In The Ground Truth (which I have not had a chance to read) Mr. Farmer actually shows that the official version of what happened on 9/11, as given in the Commission's final report, is almost entirely untrue. And if you can believe this, he actually wrote the official report of the 9/11 Commission. And now he is saying that it is based on lies told to the Commission.

...“at some level of the government, at some point in time…there was an agreement not to tell the truth about what happened... I was shocked at how different the truth was from the way it was described …. The [Norad air defense] tapes told a radically different story from what had been told to us and the public for two years. This is not spin.”

Governor Thomas Kean, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, has said, “We to this day don’t know why NORAD [the North American Aerospace Command] told us what they told us, it was just so far from the truth. . . "

In 2006, The Washington Post reported..."Suspicion of wrongdoing ran so
deep that the 10-member commission, in a secret meeting at the end of its tenure
in summer 2004, debated referring the matter to the Justice Department for
criminal investigation, according to several commission sources. Staff members
and some commissioners thought that e-mails and other evidence provided enough
probable cause to believe that military and aviation officials violated the law
by making false statements to Congress and to the commission..."

What does Farmer's book tell us? Farmer offers no solutions, only a
total and full rejection of what was told and his own ideas concerning the total
failure of honesty on the part of the government, a government with something to
hide.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Goodbye

I am writing this final post on my blog, as a free and open-to-the-public blog. In 24 hours, I will be restricting it to those of my friends who are interested in reading it because they're interested in what I'm thinking and who I'm quoting. For most of us (except those few people earning a living doing it), that's what internet blogs are for.

I have been writing this blog for the last 12 months and 8 days. It has become for me several things: a personal journal of reflection and inquiry on the political and social issues of our day; a way of sharing with my friends some of my thoughts and opinions on politics and current affairs; and finally a hobby, a form of play, the equivalent of going fishing or golfing.

I never intended it to become something controversial in my church, something that detracted from my pastoral role there. That is why I never told anyone in my church about it who I thought would have a problem with it.

In restricting access to it, I am not saying that I am ashamed of this blog. In fact, I am proud of it as a record of the ongoing debate in our country about international, economic, and political affairs over the last crucial year in our country. I am proud of it as a record of some of my thoughts and reflections on that year. I value it for that reason.

But I can understand how some people might be upset by it, people to whom I have to minister and preach, people who have difficulty with their pastor having political views with which they might disagree.

Quite clearly, I do have some strong and occasionally provocative political views. As many of you do. It's simply a part of who we are. But please believe me when I say that I don't judge anyone as a parishioner based on their political views, and I would hope that people would not judge me as a pastor based on mine. In Methodist churches, we basically agree to disagree on politics, unlike some churches, where everyone agrees to agree on everything. That's why we don't talk about it in church. We're liberals, conservatives, radicals, libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and everything inbetween.

Frankly, I don't expect, nor want, my parishioners to be reading this blog. Believe me, it's hard to find on the internet unless you know where to look. It's just my little personal hobby that has nothing to do with my role as a pastor. And I do have a life outside the church.

In the meantime, I will continue to write it, for all the reasons I gave above. But clearly, to avoid problems, I need to restrict it to those who will find it a valuable and pleasing experience, and not disturbing. So let me know if you fall into the former category. I'm at clindquist@lexcominc.net.

Carl

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Original Neoconservatism

Michael Lind, ex-neo-con, writes about the evolution of neo-conservatism. (I was a neo-con in the 80s who left it in the 90s for the same reasons as Lind and Moynihan and many others.)

But in its origins neoconservatism was a movement of the center-left, not
of the right. Here is Nathan Glazer, co-editor with Irving Kristol of the Public
Interest, in that magazine's final issue in spring 2005, recalling the origins
of the journal in the 1960s: "All of us had voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964,
for Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and I would wager (?) that most of the original
stalwarts of The Public Interest, editors and regular contributors, continued to
vote for Democratic presidential candidates all the way to the present. Recall
that the original definition of the neoconservatives was that they fully
embraced the reforms of the New Deal and indeed the major programs of Johnson's
Great Society ... Had we not defended the major social programs, from Social
Security to Medicare, there would have been no need for the 'neo' before
'conservative.'"

The "neoconservatism" of the 1990s, defined by support for the invasion
of Iraq and centered on Rupert Murdoch's magazine the Weekly Standard, edited by
Irving's son William Kristol, had little to do with the original impulse, as
Glazer points out: "There is very little overlap between those who promoted the
neoconservatism of the 1970s and those committed to its latter day
manifestation." While Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz set aside any
differences with the Republican right by the 1990s, other first-generation
neocons like Glazer and the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan remained true to their
New Deal/Great Society principles. Several of them told me over the years that
they thought of themselves as "paleoliberals," not "neoconservatives," a term
that was coined as an insult by the socialist Michael Harrington and embraced as
a badge of honor by Irving Kristol.

In its origins, neoconservatism was a defense of New Deal/Great Society
liberalism at home and abroad, both from the radical, countercultural left of
the era and from its own design defects. The early neocons were Kennedy-Johnson
liberals who believed that liberal reform should avoid naive utopianism and
should be guided by pragmatism and empirical social science. The '70s
neoconservatives were so focused on the utopianism of the '60s campus left,
however, that most paid too little attention to a far greater threat to their
beloved New Deal tradition, the utopianism of the libertarian right. Ultimately
Milton Friedman and other free-market ideologues did far more damage to America
than the carnival freaks of the counterculture.

The sins of the sons should not be visited upon the fathers. I hope that, in the judgment of history, the "paleoliberal" neoconservatism of the 1970s will overshadow the crude, militaristic neoconservatism of the 1990s and 2000s. For two decades, between the Johnson years and the Reagan years, neoconservatism really was the vital center that Arthur Schlesinger had called for in the late 1940s. A robust new liberalism, if there is to be one in the aftermath of the opportunistic triangulations of Clinton and Obama, cannot leapfrog back to the Progressives or New Dealers, but must begin closer to home, with the early neoconservatives, who had learned from the failures and mistakes as well as the successes of the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Great Society.

Getting Kristol Right

I agree with Andrew Sullivan's take on the evolution of neo-conservatism under the Kristols (father Irving and son William) and their comrades:

And this is why David Brooks' encomium to Irving Kristol today does not
convince me. If Irving Kristol had remained a real empirical skeptic, as Brooks
claims Kristol was throughout, he would have resisted the transformation of
conservatism into a religious cult and a neo-imperial movement. But he did
neither.

He actually celebrated the cooptation of conservatism by religious
fanaticism, refusing to make any enemies on his right, as his empirical critique
of the welfare state morphed into the idolatry of Reagan, the collapse of any
serious interest in actually governing, the enabling of massive, destabilizing
debt, and unwavering support for Israel's long assisted suicide.

Yes, there was an affect of laconic disinterestedness. But it was an
affect, like his even more radical son's urbane gussying up of know-nothing
violence and fiscal recklessness. The gimmick of the Kristols was to wrap a
Trotskyite mentality in a world-weary, bourgeois gauze. It enabled them to evade
any responsibility for their grotesque errors, errors which led to the deaths
and torture of countless people, and the bankrupting of America, while
pretending to be reasonable and empirical intellectuals.

Becked

*beck v. trans. beck-ing, beck-ed, to be baselessly attacked by an idiot with a megaphone, then have those accusations alter your life for the worse because it’s politically expedient for your spineless superiors to demote or fire you

This is the Choice: War or Chaos?

The Washington Post in an editorial this morning offers a full-throated defense of General McChrystal's costly counter-insurgency strategy, which Obama seems to be backing away from even though he had given such a strategy his full support last March:

What has changed since March? As Mr. Obama noted, Afghanistan's
presidential election has been plagued by allegations of fraud, sharpening
questions about whether the government can be a reliable partner. Taliban
attacks are spreading despite the deployment of 21,000 additional troops
approved by the president earlier this year. Some in and outside the
administration have argued for a more limited strategy centered on striking
al-Qaeda's leaders, giving up the more ambitious political and economic tasks
built into the counterinsurgency doctrine.

It's hard to see, however, how Mr. Obama can refute the analysis he
offered last March. "If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban or allows
al-Qaeda to go unchallenged," he said then, "that country will again be a base
for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can."
Afghanistan, he continued, "is inextricably linked to the future of its
neighbor, Pakistan," where al-Qaeda and the Taliban now aim at seizing control
of a state that possesses nuclear weapons. Moreover, Mr. Obama said, "a return
to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance . . . and the
denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people -- especially women and
girls."

"To succeed, we and our friends and allies must reverse the Taliban's
gains, and promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government," Mr. Obama concluded. As Gen. McChrystal's report makes very clear, keeping faith with that goal will require more troops, more resources and years of patience. Yet to
break with it would both dishonor and endanger this country. As the president
put it, "the world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan
slides back into chaos."

This demonstrates quite nicely the Washington Post's editorial page slant these days: hawkish, even neo-conservative, advocacy of full-bodied military intervention in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. It's pretty amazing, really. And disastrous, in my opinion.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I'm a Lover, Not a Fighter

Paul Krugman is one of those nonconformist souls right now:
In the grim period that followed Lehman’s failure, it seemed inconceivable
that bankers would, just a few months later, be going right back to the
practices that brought the world’s financial system to the edge of collapse. At
the very least, one might have thought, they would show some restraint for fear
of creating a public backlash.

But now that we’ve stepped back a few paces from the brink — thanks, let’s
not forget, to immense, taxpayer-financed rescue packages — the financial sector
is rapidly returning to business as usual. Even as the rest of the nation
continues to suffer from rising unemployment and severe hardship, Wall Street
paychecks are heading back to pre-crisis levels. And the industry is deploying
its political clout to block even the most minimal reforms.

The good news is that senior officials in the Obama administration and
at the Federal Reserve seem to be losing patience with the industry’s
selfishness. The bad news is that it’s not clear whether President Obama himself
is ready, even now, to take on the bankers.

Okay, then what are some solutions, Dr. Krugman?
If we really want to stop Wall Street from creating another bubble,
followed by another bust, we need to change the industry’s incentives — which
means, in particular, changing the way bankers are paid.

What’s wrong with financial-industry compensation? In a nutshell, bank
executives are lavishly rewarded if they deliver big short-term profits — but
aren’t correspondingly punished if they later suffer even bigger losses. This
encourages excessive risk-taking: some of the men most responsible for the
current crisis walked away immensely rich from the bonuses they earned in the
good years, even though the high-risk strategies that led to those bonuses
eventually decimated their companies, taking down a large part of the financial
system in the process.


Got it. So what's holding us progress in this reform?
I was startled last week when Mr. Obama, in an interview with Bloomberg
News, questioned the case for limiting financial-sector pay: “Why is it,” he
asked, “that we’re going to cap executive compensation for Wall Street bankers
but not Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or N.F.L. football players?”

That’s an astonishing remark — and not just because the National
Football League does, in fact, have pay caps. Tech firms don’t crash the whole
world’s operating system when they go bankrupt; quarterbacks who make too many
risky passes don’t have to be rescued with hundred-billion-dollar bailouts.
Banking is a special case — and the president is surely smart enough to know
that.

All I can think is that this was another example of something we’ve seen
before: Mr. Obama’s visceral reluctance to engage in anything that resembles
populist rhetoric. And that’s something he needs to get over.

Prescient Souls and the Sin of Conformism

Ross Douthat, new conservative columnist, writes in the NYT about how George W. Bush rescued his Presidency by some controversial decisions on the surge and the bailout in the last couple of years. Then he writes:
In reality, many of the Bush-era ventures that look worst in hindsight were
either popular with the public at the time or blessed by the elite consensus.
Voters liked the budget-busting tax cuts and entitlement expansions. The Iraq
war’s cheering section included prominent Democrats and scores of liberal
pundits. And save for a few prescient souls, everybody — right and left, on Wall
Street and Main Street — was happy to board the real-estate express and ride it
off an economic cliff.

I hate to say 'I told you so', but I did tell you so. I was one of those 'prescient souls' who opposed both the Iraq War from before it began (publicly) and who predicted around the same time that the economic path we were on, including the housing bubble, would lead to disaster. (I convinced my son to avoid buying a house before the crash, for that very reason.)

Douthat is right, I was pretty much alone in that in my circle. Few joined me, and more than a few thought I was going off the deep end, when in fact they were the ones going off the deep end and I was trying desperately to get them to see their folly.

This leads to several conclusions. The 'conventional wisdom' is often tragically wrong and horribly misguided. Conforming to such 'conventional wisdom' is perhaps the most foolish thing anyone can do. However, for whatever reason, most people are conformists and therefore blind to what is actually going on. Only a few people have been given the gift of nonconformity (and it is a gift, not an achievement). These 'prophets' should be respected and listened to, not scoffed at and ignored.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Making Progress in Cutting Carbon Emissions

This article by Lester Brown on the drop in United States carbon emissions over the last two years is just about the first good news I've heard on the climate change front.

The Power of AIPAC

Stephen Walt, writing in the WaPo, describes the difficulties Obama faces to reaching a Israeli/Palestinian settlement. It is depressingly familiar, especially the power of the Israel Lobby in Washington.
And then there is the Israel lobby. The good news is that there is a new
pro-Israel organization, J Street, which is committed to the two-state solution
and firmly behind Obama. The bad news is that the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee (AIPAC) and other defenders of the status quo remain powerful, and
they will surely oppose any attempt to pressure Netanyahu. In May, for example,
AIPAC drafted a letter warning Obama to "work closely and privately" with
Israel. It garnered 329 signatures in the House and 76 names in the Senate.
During the August recess, 56 members of Congress visited Israel, and House
Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters that it was a mistake to
make settlement construction the key issue and that there was a "significant
difference" between settlements in the West Bank and those in East Jerusalem.

If Obama tries to make aid to Israel conditional on a settlement freeze,
Congress will simply override him. Putting real pressure on Israel risks
alienating key politicians and major Democratic fundraisers, as well as Israel's
supporters in the media, imperiling the rest of Obama's agenda and conceivably
his prospects for reelection. Moreover, several of Obama's top advisers, such as
Dennis Ross, are enthusiastic supporters of America's "special relationship"
with Israel and would almost certainly oppose using U.S. leverage to force
Israeli concessions. Obama and special envoy George Mitchell are negotiating
with one hand tied behind their backs, and Netanyahu knows it.

Wimps of the World

Thomas Friedman tells it straight today in the NYT when he says that we Americans are pretty wimpy when it comes to making the tough decision on raising carbon/gas taxes:
In sum, we would be physically healthier, economically healthier and
strategically healthier [by raising the gas tax]. And yet, amazingly, even
talking about such a tax is “off the table” in Washington. You can’t mention it.
But sending your neighbor’s son or daughter to risk their lives in Afghanistan?
No problem. Talk away. Pound your chest.

Out of Control Rage

The always insightful Frank Rich of the NYT writes today about the Joe Wilsons of our nation:
What made the lone, piercing cry of “You lie!” shocking was that it
breached a previously secure barrier. It was the first time that the violent
rage surging in town-hall meetings all summer blasted into the same room as the
president. Wilson’s televised shout was tantamount to yelling “Fire!” in a
crowded theater. When he later explained that his behavior was “spontaneous”
rather than premeditated, that was even more disturbing. It’s not good for the
country that a lawmaker can’t control his anger at Barack Obama. It gives
permission to crazy people.

The White House was right not to second Carter’s motion and cue another
“national conversation about race.” No matter how many teachable moments we
have, some people won’t be taught. (Though how satisfying it would have been for
Obama to dismiss Wilson, like the boorish Kanye West, as a “jackass.”) But there
is a national conversation we must have right now — the one about what, in
addition to race, is driving this anger and what can be done about it. We are
kidding ourselves if we think it’s only about bigotry, or health care, or even
Obama. The growing minority that feels disenfranchised by Washington can’t be so
easily ghettoized and dismissed.

As I written before, it's about guns, abortion, fundamentalism, immigration, economic crisis, and the crazed ideological promptings of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, that is coming together in a perfect storm of paranoia. How dangerous is it? Well, probably not too dangerous, unless someone starts a series of suicide bombings or takes out Obama or Pelosi.

Otherwise, the rage will eventually be assuaged by declining popularity of the Democrats and electoral victories on the Right.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

It's Not Race

Bob Herbert, NYT columnist and African-American liberal, writes today:
I have no patience with those who want to pretend that racism is not an
out-and-out big deal in the United States, as it always has been. We may have
made progress, and we may have a black president, but the scourge is still with
us. And if you needed Jimmy Carter to remind you of that, then you’ve been
wandering around with your eyes closed.

I just think this is way overstated. Racism is still around (and will always be around), but it's a whole lot better than it used to be. And the younger you are, the less racism is an issue, which bodes well for the future.

The Right's problem with Obama is not his race, no more than their real problem with Clinton was his promiscuity. They will use whatever they can find to undermine their political enemies. When it comes to their own promiscuous or black politicians, no problem. That shows that the real issues lie elsewhere.

What are those issues? Guns, abortion, immigrants, corporate profits, support for military actions abroad, cheap oil, fundamentalist delusions, protection of current economic advantages and wealth. Those are the things driving the Right to their current crazy antics.

Bold Words, Inadequate Actions

Derek Shearer, former economist in the Clinton administration, Ambassador to Finland, and professor of Diplomacy at Occidental College, sees what lots of others are seeing about Obama's administration:
In speeches earlier this year, most notably at Georgetown University,
President Obama said that he wants to lay the foundation for new economic
growth--growth that improves citizens' lives and does less damage to the
environment. Unfortunately, while his words are bold, he acts cautiously when it
comes to actual reforms that are necessary to create this new foundation for
economic growth, and he runs the risk of returning to the same old "money
values" that underpin Reaganomics, which brought us the recent economic
crisis.His proposals, and his economic team, seem at variance with his rhetoric.
Whether this is a function of his true beliefs about what his goals really are,
or simply his political calculus of what is possible, is difficult to know. On
the evidence, we do know that his choice of economic advisers and appointees has
not been reformist. Instead of Joe Stiglitz, James Galbraith, Paul Krugman or
Barry Bluestone, he has selected Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Christina
Roemer. Even Laura Tyson and Robert Reich, both of whom endorsed and campaigned for Obama, would have been more progressive and reform-minded.

In Washington, personnel is, in large part, policy--and who you see in
power is what you get. Obama picked stabilizers not reformers. His recent speech
to Wall Street spoke more about responsibility than about reform, as if it were
personal failings rather than an unbalanced system that caused the crisis.
Obama's proposed reforms are moderate and in the analysis of many experts like
Simon Johnson of MIT, insufficient to prevent a future meltdown. Wall Street
seems to have returned to its old ways of doing business, only with even larger
financial conglomerates like the new Bank of America which swallowed Countrywide and Merrill Lynch and is surely "too big to fail." The message seems to be that
the Obama government will bail out the big companies to get back to stability
and growth, but not significantly change the way the system operates to prevent
future bailouts.

Every President Needs a Little War

Here is an interesting essay on why we are trying to fight in Afghanistan, by a veteran American reporter, William Pfaff, based in France. Here's a taste:
A retired CIA counterterrorism chief named Haviland Smith has suggested in
a newspaper article that Obama trapped himself during the campaign into having
his own war (like most other recent presidents). He made the promise to leave
Iraq, and to defend against Republican accusations of weakness he announced that
instead he would fight the real war in Afghanistan, theoretically against bin
Laden. Now Obama is caught, and has handed the war over to his military
advisers, who assure him that they know how to win wars, even though they are at
a loss to explain what would constitute victory in this one.

The Oprah President

Ellen Goodman, who is a good liberal writer but seems absent from the internet these days, writes:

For me, the real Obama moment of this back-to-work season wasn’t the speech
before Congress or Wall Street. It was in the Virginia schoolhouse when a
ninth-grader asked him a question that had nothing and everything to do with his
presidency: “And if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would
it be?”

The president was not about to choose Lindsay Lohan. Nor did he pick
Abe Lincoln. His answer was Gandhi. Yes, that Gandhi.

“It would probably be a really small meal because he didn’t eat a lot,”
he added with humor. But the icon of nonviolent leadership was his inspiration
because “he ended up doing so much and changing the world just by the power of
his ethics.”

As I heard this, I imagined a huge groan emanating skyward from a
frustrated phalanx of his supporters. “Gandhi? Did he say Gandhi?”

This is the Obama story. Right from the get-go, Americans were attracted to
a man who was more collaborative than combative. Hillary was the tough guy in
the primaries. McCain was the warrior in the election. Obama was the Oprah
candidate who believed we could talk with anyone, even our enemies.

At times, supporters urged him into trench warfare with Sen.
Clinton. He didn’t go, and he won. At times, advisers wanted him to duke it out
with Sen. McCain. He didn’t, and he won.

The country liked a man who fashioned himself as a healer. And yet
there has always been this underlying anxiety. Can you be a healer and a
politician? If you try to mediate an ideological divide, do you just end up in
the crossfire?

Clearly, Obama knows this. But it’s equally clear that he wants to do this
leadership thing his own way. As his would-be dinner companion would say, “Be
the change you wish to see in the world.”

Obama Words, Bush Actions

Even though he was an Obama supporter, Robert Scheer of Truthdig and the Nation is thinking along the same lines as I am:

A president has only so much capital to expend, both in tax dollars and
public tolerance, and Barack Obama is dangerously overdrawn. He has tried to
have it all on three fronts, and his administration is in serious danger of
going bankrupt. He has blundered into a deepening quagmire in Afghanistan, has
continued the Bush policy of buying off Wall Street hustlers instead of
confronting them and is now on the cusp of bargaining away the so-called public
option, the reform component of his health care program.

Those are not happy sentences to write for one who is still on the e-mail
list of campaign supporters urged to back the president in the face of attacks
that are stupidly small-minded. But to remain silent about his errors, just
because most of his critics are so vile, is hardly an example of constructive
concern for him or the country.

Yes, Obama was presented with a series of crises not of his
making but for which he is now being held accountable. He is not a "socialist"
who grew the federal budget to astronomical proportions. That is the legacy of
George W. Bush, who raised the military budget to its highest level since World
War II despite the end of the Cold War and the lack of a formidable military
opponent-- a legacy of debt compounded by Bush's decision to first ignore the
banking meltdown and then to engage in a welfare-for-Wall-Street bailout. And it
was Bush who gave the pharmaceutical companies the gift of a very expensive
government subsidy for seniors' drugs.

But what is nerve-racking about Obama
is that even though he campaigned against Bush's follies he has now embraced
them.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Low Hanging Fruit

I was just listening to another BP ad about energy production (alternative and otherwise), and it occurred to me what's missing: conservation. There is very little being said about conservation, which is where the 'low hanging fruit' is to be had. Every megawatt of electricity or barrel of oil saved through conservation is a windmill or solarpanel that doesn't need to be built or offshore oil well that doesn't need to be drilled.

And the nice thing is: conservation is something that we as individuals can do a lot about. We can buy much more fuel efficient cars, insulate our homes, buy energy efficient appliances, and on and on.

Why isn't this being encouraged and pushed much, much more at every level of government and society?

Revengeful and Merciless

I haven't seen Inglorious Basterds yet, but here is one heck of a review by Gilad Aztmon.

Everybody In, Nobody Out

Mike Ferner believes that we just need to get back to HR 676, the AmericaPlan. It makes sense.

President Obama was Candidate Obama the last time he mentioned the
AmericaPlan and Sen. Baucus had 13 doctors and nurses arrested in his hearing
room for trying to get it discussed even briefly, so you may not have heard much
about the AmericaPlan.

Suffice it to say there is indeed a single payer – the federal government –
which replaces the health insurance companies and their morbidly obese salaries,
bloated bonuses, private jets to private Caribbean islands and a totally
unacceptable 30+% overhead.

That is the key. Medicare – that socialistic program teabaggers can’t wait
to take advantage of when they hit 65 – has an overhead one-tenth of the private
insurance companies! That savings nearly pays for an entire program which brings
everybody in; leaves nobody out. But to get there, our political leaders have to
take on the very same insurance companies that make those big, fat, irresistible
campaign contributions.

That’s where you and I come in.

Thanks once again to Sen. Baucus’ brilliant bill which, without the public
option fig leaf, is more likely to die a well-deserved death, we have one more
chance to pass the AmericaPlan, HR 676. To do it, we only have to do two
things:

1) Start thinking of health care as a right, not a privilege.

2) Get mad. I mean really mad.

Rich Country Corruption

Mark Weisbrot, an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, writes:

Corruption takes many forms in different countries and locations. Here in
the United States it may not be as common to pay off a judge or a customs
official as it is in most low and middle income countries, but we do have quite
a bit of legalized bribery, especially in the form of electoral campaign
contributions. The most obvious current case is that of health care reform,
where the powerful insurance, pharmaceutical and other lobbies are in the
process of vetoing some of the most important parts of the health care reform
that most Americans want and need. For example, the vast majority of Americans
favor a public option – insurance offered by the government, as we have for
senior citizens in the Medicare program – yet these powerful interests are
blocking it in the Senate. This is despite the modest nature of the reform,
which would not provide free or universal insurance, but rather an additional
option that employers and individuals could buy into, with some subsidies for
those who could not afford it. The insurance companies don’t want competition,
and the pharmaceutical corporations don’t want another potentially large buyer
that could bargain against their own monopoly power over the prices of patented
drugs.

The United States is a rich country, so it seems obvious that our forms
of corruption are preferable to those that plague developing countries. And they
are, in the sense that it that it is always better to be a rich country and have
rich country problems than to be a poor or middle-income country. But if we look
at the United States from the point of view of its potential – and I don’t mean
utopian dreams but merely what is quite feasible and practical in the immediate
or near future – it seems that we have a very limited form of democracy.

It All Feels So Past Tense

David Michael Green, professor of political science at Hofstra University, writes (read the whole thing at the link--it's well worth it):

I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which proposing
a new and better version of corporate-plunder masquerading as national
healthcare gets you burned in effigy for being a socialist stooge by gun-toting
angry mobs.

I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which the
same people who hate you for being a socialist simultaneously hate you for being
a fascist.

I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which angry
mobs of supposed anti-socialist demonstrators scream at their congressional
representatives to “keep your government hands off my Medicare”.

I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which claims
that the government is going to start killing off seniors are taken seriously by
tens of millions of people.

I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which people
are all worked up about government czars, but sat silently while the Bush
administration destroyed the Bill of Rights and used a thousand signing
statements to write Congress out of the Constitution.

I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which deficits
have all of a sudden become the source of enormous anger among people who said
nothing about them previously, as the tax cuts for the wealthy, off-budget wars
based on lies, and unfunded prescription drug Big Pharma giveaway transmogrified
the biggest surplus in American history into the biggest deficit ever.

I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which
politicians can rant incessantly about other peoples’ sexual morality, get
caught screwing prostitutes, and then still be reelected to the highest ranks of
government by trashing the president.

I could go on and on, but what would be the point? The positions of
so many Americans on so many policy questions are truly inane – yes, for
sure. I wish that was all that concerned me. But it all goes so much
deeper than that.

The entire premise of a self-ruling democracy rests on some reasonable
degree of rationality and some reasonable degree of an ability to discriminate
between real information and falsehoods. Today’s American democracy seems
to lack these qualities in increasingly abundant amounts.And yet it goes deeper
than that still. The entire premise of a society – any society, democracy
or not – is that it possesses a certain degree of shared community, a ‘we-ness’
that transcends narrower tribalisms and self-interest in critical ways and at
critical moments. That too has unraveled of late. Think of the nice
white men with shotguns blocking the exit from flooded New Orleans during the
worst moments of Hurricane Katrina.

Looking at America today, it all feels so very past tense to me.

Federal Reserve Goosing

Here's a little different perspective on the recent stock market uptrend, by Mike Whitney:

We keep hearing that "The worst is behind us", but the spin doesn't square
with the facts. Sure the stock market has done well, but scratch the surface and
you'll find that things are not as what they seem. Zero hedge--which is quickly
becoming the "go-to" market-update spot on the Internet--recently posted an
eye-popping chart which traces the Fed's monetization programs (Quantitative
Easing) with the 6-month surge in the S&P 500. The $917 billion increase in
securities held outright equals the Fed's $1 trillion increase to its balance
sheet. In other words, the liquidity from the Fed is following the exact same
trajectory as stocks, a sure sign that the market is being manipulated.

Surprisingly, traders seem to know that the Fed is goosing the market
and have just shrugged it off as "business as usual". Go figure? Perhaps it pays
to take a philosophical approach to market rigging. Who needs the gray hair
anyway? The result, however, has been that short-sellers (traders betting the
market will go down) who have placed their bets according to (weak)
fundamentals, have gotten clobbered. They appear to be the last holdouts who
still place their faith in the unimpaired operation of the free market. (Right)
Here's how former hedge fund manager Andy Kessler sums it up in a recent Wall
Street Journal article, "The Bernanke Market":

"By buying U.S. Treasuries and mortgages to increase the monetary base
by $1 trillion, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke didn't put money directly into the
stock market but he didn't have to. With nowhere else to go, except maybe
commodities, inflows into the stock market have been on a tear. Stock and bond
funds saw net inflows of close to $150 billion since January. The dollars he
cranked out didn't go into the hard economy, but instead into tradable assets.
In other words, Ben Bernanke has been the market."

Not Jeffersonians at all.

There has been much ado about Joe Wilson's rebel cry against the President during a joint session of Congress. As a progressive or radical or something like that, I naturally take issue with Representative Wilson. Yet I have to agree with David Brooks (in his NYT column today) that 'it's not about race.'

At least not mostly. I think there might remain a hint of racism in the conservative southern Joe Wilson. I see it still around me here in this small southern town I live in. Jimmy Carter is correct about that. It's by no means completely gone.

Yet President Bush appointed Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice to be his two Secretaries of State. Either of them might have had a shot at winning the Republican nomination if they had run. That being the case, it seems hard to say that racism still dominates the Republican party.

Yet David Brooks' answer, that rural white 'populism' is rebelling against progressive 'elitism', doesn't seem right either. The only person I know who went to the 9/12 rally was hardly rural (though he was white). He was a retired urologist, who had graduated from Princeton and Wake Forest University. (Indeed, the only conservative Republican staffer I know, who works for Mitch McConnell, is a sophisticated, well-educated young lady from one of the wealthier families in town.)

No, this is not the Hamiltonians (progressives) versus the Jeffersonians (populists), as Brooks postulates. That dichotomy does not exist anymore.

The disciples of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Seann Hannity, and Fox News who attended 9/12 are a weird mixture of corporate interests, Wall Street bankers, Chamber of Commerce types, southern reactionaries, the military and their supporters, neo-conservatives, old thinking physicians, fearful elderly, libertarians, small-town 4th of July patriots, NRA members, Christian fundamentalists and so on.

Now the odd thing is they 'only' make up some 30% or less of our population. But their ferocity, stoked by nonstop watching of Fox News celebrities and listening to the ravings of Rush Limbaugh, makes up for their smaller numbers. Indeed, this make them a potent national force to be reckoned with, as Nancy Pelosi made clear yesterday, when she urged a lower of the national temperature and rhetoric, recalling the violence in San Francisco more than 30 years ago.

No, David, if Thomas Jefferson were alive today, I doubt he would have attended the 9/12 Beckian rally in Washington. That former Ambassador to France, a true francophile, would probably have stayed at Monticello, reading his books and tending his garden.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mutally Assured Satisfaction

I agree with Matthew Yglesias' take on Obama's cancellation of the proposed missile defense system in eastern Europe:
Today, the Obama administration announced officially that it will kill a
Bush administration initiative to build a missile defense system in Poland and
the Czech Republic in order to protect Europe from Iranian missiles. This is a
good call. Bush’s idea was hugely expensive, and massively illogical. For one
thing, Poland and the Czech Republic aren’t in any sense between Iran and
Europe. Nor is Iran actually threatening Europe with any missiles. Which is why
nobody in Europe particularly wanted this thing built. The exception was the
Poles and Czechs themselves who liked the idea as a token of America’s
commitment to defend them against Russia. Which is how we wound up situation an
anti-Iranian missile shield in a place that doesn’t make sense as an
anti-Iranian measure, but does piss off Russia.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Glenn Beck

Since I don't watch Fox News, I'm really quite ignorant about the rise of one of its new stars, Glenn Beck. When I see him on clips, he reminds of nothing so much as a southern TV evangelist. He seems like a big joke. But it's becoming clear that he's not a joke at all. His 9/12 Ralley brought a lot of quite crazy people to Washington.

Here's is a good article as to what is driving Glenn Beck.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Failure of Nation/Culture Building in Afghanistan

For my final post of the day, I want to excerpt Justin Raimondo's piece on Afghanistan. As you'll see, he is echoing a recent statement by Zbig Brzezinski (sp?) that America may be moving down the same path the Soviets trod in Afghanistan:

When you look at it, our war aims in Afghanistan are virtually identical to
the Soviets’ – and one would think we’d learn some lessons from their utter
failure (and subsequent rapid decline). Like the Kremlin, circa 1980, we are
pledged to build a strong central Afghan government, one that has gained the
allegiance –or, at least, the passive compliance – of the people. Our intent,
like theirs, is to "reform," i.e., modernize Afghan society, at least to some
extent, a goal that seems to elude us as much as it did the People’s Democratic
Party of Afghanistan and their Red Army allies. The Afghan people, it seems,
want no part of modernity, either the Marxist version or its Euro-American
doppelganger, and all attempts to impose it by force are doomed to fail
spectacularly.

Of, By and For the Insurance Companies

Paul Craig Roberts, a former Reagan conservative economist who has become a radical in his domestic and foreign policy views, writes about health care reform:

The current health care “debate” shows how far gone representative
government is in the United States. Members of Congress represent the
powerful interest groups that fill their campaign coffers, not the people who
vote for them.

The health care bill is not about health care. It is about
protecting and increasing the profits of the insurance companies. The main
feature of the health care bill is the “individual mandate,” which requires
everyone in America to buy health insurance. Senate Finance Committee
chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont), a recipient of millions in contributions over his
career from the insurance industry, proposes to impose up to a $3,800 fine on
Americans who fail to purchase health insurance.

The determination of “our” elected representatives to serve the
insurance industry is so compelling that Congress is incapable of recognizing
the absurdity of these proposals.

The reason there is a health care crisis in
the US is that the cumulative loss of jobs and benefits has swollen the
uninsured to approximately 50 million Americans. They cannot afford health
insurance any more than employers can afford to provide it.

It is absurd to mandate that people purchase what they cannot afford
and to fine them for failing to do so. A person who cannot pay a health
insurance premium cannot pay the fine.

These proposals are like solving the
homeless problem by requiring the homeless to purchase a house.

Forecasting Unemployment

Time Magazine, the most recent issue: "America now faces the direst employment landscape since the Depression."

On April 7th of this year, the Chronicler (that's me), responding to an article in the NYT on returning to full employment, wrote:

"This reporting in the NYT really is economic 'wishful-thinking.' How can we conceivably return to the kind of economy we had in the recent housing-bubble of the past 5 years, or the dot-com bubble before that? Are we finally going to attempt to move into some kind of non-bubble economy, or are we fated to just have one bubble after another, followed by collapse? But the reason we have to have economic bubbles is that a non-bubble US economy wouldn't support full-employment or the kind of affluence we have experienced over the last two decades, and we haven't yet accepted that reality as a nation."

"All of this wishful thinking is predicated on increasing debt levels which are simply not sustainable for very much longer. Not only that, but the looming oil shortage and the corresponding price increases (which we tasted last summer) are going to really throw us for a loop. When I read statements like that above, I realize how out-of-touch our economic conventional wisdom really is."

Shadow Projection

There is a fascinating psychological analysis of the current uproar on the right here.
The right is projecting its shadow onto Obama. The same qualities that make
him a saint to the left make him the devil to the right - he is easy to project
onto.

That is why he is the out of control spender when they sat on
their hands through all of Bush's malfeasance. That is why his talking to
schoolchildren is dangerous when our government wiretapping its citizens wasn’t.
That is why saving the financial system from years of Republican regulation is
taking away our future. The more evil revealed about the right’s excesses
on torture, or wars of choice, or nearly destroying the economy, the more evil
Obama will look in their eyes, as they cannot tolerate owning responsibility,
because in their own minds they are only good.

That is why he is the Fascist/Communist/Socialist/Muslim… that is the
list of our shadow projections over the last 60 years. In their minds he is now
the USSR ("my grandchildren will have to stand in line for toilet paper!") or
even the Anti-Christ. The Obama they see is a projection of their own psyche,
not that actual man in the White House. Missing birth certificates, death
panels, indoctrinating children, these are all the projections running in their
own heads, not things happening in the real world.

Tea Party Incoherence

Publius (whoever that is), reflecting on the Washington rally, writes:
It's also frustrating to hear angry protests from people who would be
outraged if we actually took government services away from them. The
ironic aspect of the Tea Party movement is that it takes place within a
widely-shared (if invisible) consensus that government should pay for lots of
expensive stuff -- schools, retirement, massive military projects, and health
insurance for senior citizens and poor people.

These costs are the bulk of the budget, but any politician who
proposed serious cuts to them would be chased out of town with pitchforks . .
. by the Tea Party people.

The Medicare demagoguing is a perfect example of how internally
contradictory these protests can be. Think about it -- the GOP is
demagoguing "government-run health care" at the same time it demagogues
imaginary cuts to Medicare benefits. I mean, roughly 30%
of the country
is in a single-payer system already, and those programs are
extremely popular.

On top of all this, the Obama administration itself is extremely
pro-market and pro-capital (some would say excessively so). And the
examples cited to justify Obama's preference for "big government" don't hold
up.

The finance meltdown was forced upon them, but they resisted the more
obviously "Leftish" policy of nationalizing banks. Their health care
reform is painstakingly crafted to protect private insurers -- and is premised
almost entirely on market competition. Obama, recall, also ran on a
platform of not raising taxes on virtually anyone in the country. It's
hard to see the boogeyman here.

Pink Snow in Colorado

To add to our joy this morning, here is an interesting, albeit apocalyptic, article on the growing drought in the West:

Pink snow is turning red in Colorado. Here on the Great American Desert --
specifically Utah's slickrock portion of it where I live -- hot n' dry means
dust. When frequent high winds sweep across our increasingly arid landscape,
redrock powder is lifted up and carried hundreds of miles eastward until it
settles on the broad shoulders of Colorado's majestic mountains, giving the
snowpack there a pink hue.

Some call it watermelon snow. Friends who ski into the backcountry of the
San Juan and La Plata mountain ranges in western Colorado tell me that the
pink-snow phenomenon has lately been giving way to redder hues, so thick and
frequent are the dust storms that roll in these days. A cross-section of a
typical Colorado snowbank last winter revealed alternating dirt and snow layers
that looked like a weird wilderness version of our flag, red and white stripes
alternating against the sky's blue field.

Here in the lowlands, we, too, are experiencing the drying of the West in
new dusty ways. Our landscapes are often covered with what we jokingly refer to
as "adobe rain" -- when rain falls through dust, spattering windows or laundry
hung out to dry with brown stains. After a dust "event" this past spring, I
wandered through the lot of a car dealership in Grand Junction, Colorado, where
the only color seemingly available was light tan. All those previously shiny,
brightly painted cars had turned drab. I had to squint to read price stickers
under opaque windows.

All of this is more than a mere smudge on our postcard-pretty scenery:
Colorado's red snow is a warning that the climatological dynamic in the arid
West is changing dramatically. Think of it as a harbinger -- and of more than
simply a continuing version of the epic drought we've been experiencing these
past several years.

The West is as dry as the East is wet, a vast and arid landscape of high
plains and deserts broken by abrupt mountain ranges and deep canyons. Unlike
eastern and midwestern America, where there are myriad rivers, streams, lakes,
and giant underground lakes, or aquifers, to draw on, we depend on snowpack for
about 90% of our fresh water. The Colorado River, running from its headwaters in
the snow-loaded mountains of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, is the principal water
source for those states, and downstream for Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and
southern California as well.

While being developed into a crucial water resource, the Colorado became
the most dammed, piped, legislated, and litigated river in America. Its
development spawned a major federal bureaucracy, the Bureau of Reclamation, as
well as a hundred state agencies, water districts, and private contractors to
keep it plumbed and distributed. Taken altogether, this complex infrastructure
of dams, pipelines, and reservoirs proved to be the most expensive and ambitious
public works project in the nation's history, but it enabled the Southwest
states and southern California to boom and bloom.

The downside is that we are now dangerously close to the limits of what the
Colorado River can provide, even in the very best of weather scenarios, and the
weather is being neither so friendly nor cooperative these days. If Portland
soon becomes as warm as Los Angeles and Seattle as warm as Sacramento, as some
forecasters now predict, expect Las Vegas and Phoenix to be more like Death
Valley.

If the Colorado River shut down tomorrow, there might be two, at most
three, years of stored water in its massive reservoirs to keep Los Angeles, San
Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and dozens of other cities that depend on it alive.
That margin for survival gets thinner with each passing year and with each rise
in the average temperature. Imagine a day in the not so distant future when the
water finally runs out in one of those cities -- a kind of slow-motion Katrina
in reverse, a city not flooded but parched, baked, blistered, and abandoned. If
the Colorado River system failed to deliver, the impact on the nation's
agriculture and economy would be comparable to an asteroid strike.

Abject Failure to Reform Wall Street

Obama will be mostly remembered, I predict, for his failure to reform the financial system when he had the chance. The window of opportunity has now closed for that, it seems to me, and so the die is cast for another financial/economic crisis, only probably worse, somewhere down the line. Obama failed primarily because of the advisors he chose: Summers and Geithner. From the beginning, it was very clear they weren't going to seriously pursue reform. Anyone with half a brain could see that.

Robert Reich details the abject failures of the Obama administration:
As he attempted to do with health care reform last week, the President is
trying to breathe new life into financial reform. He's using the anniversary of
the death of Lehman Brothers and the near-death experience of the rest of the
Street, culminating with a $600 billion taxpayer financed bailout, to summon the
political will for change. Yet the prospects seem dubious. As with health care
reform, he has stood on the sidelines for months and allowed vested interests to
frame the debate. Nor has he come up with a sufficiently bold or coherent set of
reforms likely to change the way the Street does business, even if
enacted.

Let's be clear: The Street today is up to the same tricks it was
playing before its near-death experience. Derivatives, derivatives of
derivatives, fancy-dance trading schemes, high-risk bets. "Our model really
never changed, we've said very consistently that our business model remained the
same," says Goldman Sach's chief financial officer.

The only difference now is that the Street's biggest banks know for
sure they'll be bailed out by the federal government if their bets turn sour --
which means even bigger bets and bigger bucks.
Meanwhile, the banks' gigantic
pile of non-performing loans is also growing bigger, as more and more jobless
Americans can't pay their mortgages, credit card bills, and car loans. So forget
any new lending to Main Street. Small businesses still can't get loans. Even
credit-worthy borrowers are having a hard time getting new mortgages.

The mega-bailout of Wall Street accomplished little. The only big
winners have been top bank executives and traders, whose pay packages are once
again in the stratosphere. Banks have been so eager to lure and keep top deal
makers and traders they've even revived the practice of offering ironclad,
multimillion-dollar payments -- guaranteed no matter how the employee performs.
Goldman Sachs is on course to hand out bonuses that could rival its record
pre-meltdown paydays. In the second quarter this year it posted its fattest
quarterly profit in its 140-year history, and earmarked $11.4 billion to
compensate its happy campers. Which translates into about $770,000 per Goldman
employee on average, just about what they earned at height of boom. Of course,
top executives and traders will pocket much more.

Temperance Movement

So Obama is going to Wall Street to urge them to reform their ways? That's like going into a saloon to urge the drinkers there to please not drink too much! It's like going into a body-building club to urge them not to become too muscle-bound! It's like going to McDonald's and asking the patrons not to eat the fries! It's like going to a casino and asking them only to spend $20!! It's like....

Give me a break!! Does anyone take any of this seriously? It's total farce.

President Obama will head to Wall Street on Monday to try to breathe new
life into efforts to overhaul the financial regulatory system, an undertaking he
has said is essential to halting the abuses and failures that led to the current
crisis.

While the health-care debate has raged nationwide throughout the
summer, financial reform virtually vanished from the public radar, even as an
army of lobbyists worked on Capitol Hill to reshape the president's agenda.

In New York, Obama will try to retake the initiative, capping other
recent efforts in which top government officials have emphasized improvements in
the economy and made the case anew for rewriting the nation's financial
rulebook. He will urge members of the financial community "to take
responsibility, not only to support reforming the regulatory system but also to
avoid a return to the practices on Wall Street that led us to the financial
crisis," an administration official said Sunday.

Please Replace Summers With Stiglitz


My biggest gripe against Obama? Not picking this man, Joseph Stiglitz, as his main economic advisor, instead of that Coke-addicted (I mean soda) Clintonian, Larry Summers.

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize- winning economist, said the U.S. has
failed to fix the underlying problems of its banking system after the credit
crunch and the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

“In the U.S. and many other countries, the too-big-to-fail banks
have become even bigger,” Stiglitz said in an interview today in Paris. “The
problems are worse than they were in 2007 before the crisis.”

Stiglitz’s views echo those of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul
Volcker, who has advised President Barack Obama’s administration to curtail the
size of banks, and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, who suggested last
month that governments may want to discourage financial institutions from
growing “excessively.”

A year after the demise of Lehman forced the Treasury Department to
spend billions to shore up the financial system, Bank of America Corp.’s assets
have grown and Citigroup Inc. remains intact. In the U.K., Lloyds Banking Group
Plc, 43 percent owned by the government, has taken over the activities of HBOS
Plc, and in France BNP Paribas SA now owns the Belgian and Luxembourg banking
assets of insurer Fortis.

While Obama wants to name some banks as “systemically important”
and subject them to stricter oversight, his plan wouldn’t force them to shrink
or simplify their structure.

Stiglitz said the U.S. government is wary of challenging the financial
industry because it is politically difficult, and that he hopes the Group of 20
leaders will cajole the U.S. into tougher action.