Thursday, December 31, 2009


Simon Johnson, former World Bank economist, professor at MIT, and one of the finest of our contrarian would-be bank reformers, reviews several recent books on the economic crisis of the last year, including the book by Andrew Sorkin, and writes:
And, as Sorkin relates, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the rhetoric regarding our supposedly free markets without government intervention just masks the reality -- that there is a revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, and powerful people bend the rules to help each other out. In an illustration of Wall Street clubbiness, Sorkin documents a meeting in Moscow between Hank Paulson, secretary of the treasury (and former head of Goldman Sachs), and the board of Goldman Sachs. As the storm clouds gathered at the end of June 2008, Paulson spent an evening talking substance with the board -- while agreeing not to record this "social" meeting in his official calendar. We do not know the content of the conversation, but the appearance of this kind of exclusive interaction shows how little our top officials care about public perceptions of favoritism.


And to welcome in the New Year, here is one of my favorite passages. I'll shall try harder to live by its wisdom in 2010.

by Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be
greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career
however humble;
it is a real possession in the
changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you
to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit
to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore, be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham,
drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Prospects Are Low

Here is one more post from Peter Schiff, his prescription for a decade of virtue:
However, if we can confess our sins, and vow to reform our ways, perhaps this will merely be a decade in purgatory [instead of hell]. Perhaps we can turn it into the decade of hope, hard work, individual liberty, savings, production, investment, sound money, de-regulation, exports, budget surpluses, capitalism, limited government, and respect for the Constitution. These traits will harden us to withstand the fallout from our reckless past.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that the odds of this--a libertarian political-economic definition of heaven on earth--happening are quite low, given our current cultural decadence, our paralyzed and bought-off political system, and our blissful ignorance of what makes for a strong, prosperous nation.

Sorry for the gloom and doom, but that's what I think.  I'm always hopeful, but I'm not very optimistic (the first is theological, the second is psychological and secular).

Decade of Sin

Peter Schiff, one of the contrarian economists who predicted the Crash and who remains very bearish, writes about Time Magazine's coverage of the last decade and naming of Bernanke as 'Person of the Year':
Apart from its misplaced reverence for the Fed Chairman, I would take issue with Time's entire characterization of what has now become history.

Under no circumstances could the past ten years be described as "the decade from hell." In fact, in terms of economic good fortune, the period shares parallels with the Roaring Twenties. I would describe this as a decade of sin that paved the way to hell.

Yes, we had spectacular problems like September 11th and the invasion of Iraq – which were horrific for those who were directly affected – but for most Americans, it was a time of unexpected wealth and unearned prosperity. Up to the days of the stock market crash, the economics of the decade will be remembered for cash-out refinancing for millions of homeowners, no-doc liar loans, no-money-down car purchases, eight-figure Wall Street bonuses, cheap Chinese imports, and trample-to-death holiday sales. In other words, the decade now closing gave us the biggest and most irresponsible spending orgy in U.S. history. The past decade was the party; the one ahead will be the hangover.

The fact that Time completely ignored these issues shows how poorly the mainstream media understands the forces bearing down on our economy. Yes, they were able to identify some of the adverse consequences we experienced this decade. That's the easy part. But as far as seeing the causes behind the effects, they haven't a clue. As a result, Time has no ability to see the underlying pattern and will happily encourage our leaders to repeat the mistakes of the past on a grander scale.
Perhaps rather than sin, I would use the term 'foolishness', because it was a very foolish decade.

Actually the last three decades have been foolish without letup, and I don't see much changing, unfortunately. Commentators have noted that Obama is simply trying to reboot the same system (with electric cars instead of gasoline powered ones), instead of fundamentally reforming the system. That would be my central critique of his first year, as opposed to the drift of his electoral campaigning.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

China Wrecked Copenhagen

What we got out of the Copenhagen Conference was a weak statement of political purpose, which was blamed mostly on Obama and his lack of backbone. An insider at the heads of state meeting has a different perspective on who is to blame:

Copenhagen was a disaster. That much is agreed. But the truth about what actually happened is in danger of being lost amid the spin and inevitable mutual recriminations. The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful "deal" so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.....
To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China's representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. "Why can't we even mention our own targets?" demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil's representative too pointed out the illogicality of China's position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord's lack of ambition.....
Copenhagen was much worse than just another bad deal, because it illustrated a profound shift in global geopolitics. This is fast becoming China's century, yet its leadership has displayed that multilateral environmental governance is not only not a priority, but is viewed as a hindrance to the new superpower's freedom of action.

This is a good reminder that whatever mistakes the United States makes as the world's superpower, the alternative is much worse: a non-democratic Chinese superpower that cares less than we do about what's good for the world. The rise of China has happened amazingly peacefully, and they seem to have become a rational partner for general world stability. But that doesn't mean they would make a very good world leader. Chinese power is probably the best argument for a continued American international presence, even as we attempt to end the over-reaching of the Bush years.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I don't believe this for a minute. 
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted once more that President Obama did everything he could to get a public option through the Senate, even if the administration never talked to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) about his opposition to the provision.

On Tuesday, Gibbs reiterated that President Obama "absolutely" did everything he could to ensure that a government-run insurance option was part of the final legislative product. Pressed by the Huffington Post as to why no one from the administration ever reached out to Lieberman to alleviate his concerns about the proposal, the press secretary said he didn't want to "rehash" the past.

Musical Interlude: Greg Lake

First an interview with Greg Lake, and then the original music video of I Believe in Father Christmas:

An Undemocratic Senate

I was talking to the Caretaker last night, and we both expressed frustration at the seemingly undemocratic nature of the US Senate.  Two Senators from, say, South Dakota, with its 800,000 population and California with its 36 million population (a ratio of 1/50), are basically equal in power .  In other words, a South Dakotan has basically 50 times the power and representation in the Senate of a Californian.  Now, that is ridiculous.  It may have made sense at one time, 200 years ago, when states were semi-sovereign, but now?

Add to that the Senate filibuster where you have to have a 60 vote supermajority to pass anything, and it really gets absurd.

Anyway, I was interested to see the following in E. J. Dionne's WaPo column this morning:
Of course what has happened on the health-care bill is enraging. It's quite clear that substantial majorities in both houses of Congress favored either a public option or a Medicare buy-in.

In a normal democracy, such majorities would work their will, a law would pass, and champagne corks would pop. But everyone must get it through their heads that thanks to the bizarre habits of the Senate, we are no longer a normal democracy.

Because of a front of Republican obstruction and the ludicrous idea that all legislation requires a supermajority of 60 votes, power has passed from the majority to tiny minorities, sometimes minorities of one.

Monday, December 21, 2009

White House Intention From the Start

I agree with Glenn Greenwald on this.  It's another example of the--I hate to say it, but this is the word that comes to mind--duplicity of the Obama administration.  Daily Kos and other supporters of this administration basically see it the same way.  I hope Obama knows the ill will he is engendering, because it is, I believe, going to haunt him in the very near future.
Of all the posts I wrote this year, the one that produced the most vociferous email backlash -- easily -- was this one from August, which examined substantial evidence showing that, contrary to Obama's occasional public statements in support of a public option, the White House clearly intended from the start that the final health care reform bill would contain no such provision and was actively and privately participating in efforts to shape a final bill without it. From the start, assuaging the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries was a central preoccupation of the White House -- hence the deal negotiated in strict secrecy with Pharma to ban bulk price negotiations and drug reimportation, a blatant violation of both Obama's campaign positions on those issues and his promise to conduct all negotiations out in the open (on C-SPAN). Indeed, Democrats led the way yesterday in killing drug re-importation, which they endlessly claimed to support back when they couldn't pass it. The administration wants not only to prevent industry money from funding an anti-health-care-reform campaign, but also wants to ensure that the Democratic Party -- rather than the GOP -- will continue to be the prime recipient of industry largesse.

As was painfully predictable all along, the final bill will not have any form of public option, nor will it include the wildly popular expansion of Medicare coverage. Obama supporters are eager to depict the White House as nothing more than a helpless victim in all of this -- the President so deeply wanted a more progressive bill but was sadly thwarted in his noble efforts by those inhumane, corrupt Congressional "centrists." Right. The evidence was overwhelming from the start that the White House was not only indifferent, but opposed, to the provisions most important to progressives. The administration is getting the bill which they, more or less, wanted from the start -- the one that is a huge boon to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry. And kudos to Russ Feingold for saying so:

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), among the most vocal supporters of the public option, said it would be unfair to blame Lieberman for its apparent demise. Feingold said that responsibility ultimately rests with President Barack Obama and he could have insisted on a higher standard for the legislation.

"This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place, so I don’t think focusing it on Lieberman really hits the truth," said Feingold."

Let's repeat that: "This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place." Indeed it does. There are rational, practical reasons why that might be so. If you're interested in preserving and expanding political power, then, all other things being equal, it's better to have the pharmaceutical and health insurance industry on your side than opposed to you. Or perhaps they calculated from the start that this was the best bill they could get. The wisdom of that rationale can be debated, but depicting Obama as the impotent progressive victim here of recalcitrant, corrupt centrists is really too much to bear.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Reason and Evidence Please

Fareed Zakaria had a scientist on his show today whom I've not heard before, Nathan Myhrvold.  When I did a search, this article of his came up, and he explains well how a scientific issue, decided on the basis of evidence and logic, can become a political debate, wherein it becomes very difficult to have a rational dialogue.
One of the saddest things for me about climate science is how political it has become. Science works by having an open dialog that ultimately converges on the truth, for the common benefit of everyone. Most scientific fields enjoy this free flow of ideas.

There are serious scientific and technological issues in studying our climate, how it responds to human-caused emission of greenhouse gases, and what the most effective solutions will be for global warming. But unfortunately, the policy implications are vast and there is a lot at stake in economic terms.

Political Movement, Not Scientific Issue

It is sad that global warming scientist Michael Manning chose to place an op-ed column in the WaPo, defending himself against charges by skeptics in the so-called 'Climategate' scandel.  Even worse is that instead of responding to other scientists, he responded to charges by Sarah Palin, of all people. 

This demonstrates to me the political nature of his advocacy, i.e. that he is more concerned about the political effectiveness of his reputation than the scientific case he is trying to make.  If the issue was science and his scientific reputation, he would 'case less' what Sarah Palin claims.
I cannot condone some things that colleagues of mine wrote or requested in the e-mails recently stolen from a climate research unit at a British university. But the messages do not undermine the scientific case that human-caused climate change is real.

The hacked e-mails have been mined for words and phrases that can be distorted to misrepresent what the scientists were discussing. In a Dec. 9 op-ed, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin argued that "The e-mails reveal that leading climate 'experts' . . . manipulated data to 'hide the decline' in global temperatures." Yet the e-mail she cites was written in 1999, just after the warmest year ever recorded (1998) to that date. It could not possibly have referred to the claim that global temperatures have declined over this decade -- a claim that is false (the current decade, as has been recently reported, will go down as the warmest on record).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

White Stuff

We had a little snow last night!

Picking Your Poison

For those of you who drink, this was an interesting study published in Wired:
A new study may help drinkers pick their poison. In a head-to-head comparison, bourbon gave drinkers a more severe hangover than vodka, report Damaris Rohsenow of Brown University and colleagues in an upcoming issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

But vodka drinkers aren’t off the hook: Drinkers’ sleep suffered equally with both drinks, as did their performance on tasks requiring attention and quick responses. Understanding the lingering effects of alcohol after a night of heavy drinking is important for people who engage in safety-sensitive tasks, such as driving, while hung over Rohsenow says.

The researchers recruited 95 healthy young adults, ages 21 to 33, and gave them caffeine-free cola mixed with bourbon, vodka or tonic water. The drinking ended when participants’ breath-alcohol concentrations hit an average of 0.11, well over the legal intoxication limit. Participants were then hooked up to sleep monitors, which record brain activity, and allowed to sleep it off. At 7 a.m. the next day, the researchers roused the subjects from bed (a wake-up that did not include coffee or aspirin) and asked them to rate the severity of their hangovers.

Overall, bourbon drinkers reported feeling worse than vodka drinkers, rating higher on scales that measure the severity of hangover malaise, including headache, nausea, loss of appetite and thirst. It should come as no surprise that alcohol drinkers said they felt much worse than those who had drunk only tonic water.

One reason for the different effects of vodka and bourbon, Rohsenow says, could be that bourbon contains 37 times more toxic compounds than vodka does, including nasty organic molecules such as acetone, acetaldehyde, tannins and furfural. A good rule of thumb for liquors, she says, is that the clearer they are, the less of these substances they contain.

Both the bourbon drinkers and vodka drinkers slept poorly compared to the nondrinkers, the team found. The next morning, when the participants performed cognitive tests that required attention and quick reaction times, the drinkers performed worse than the nondrinkers, but the type of alcohol had no effect on performance. Both groups of drinkers were impaired equally.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Great Source of Employment

Something's amiss here. Two graphs on our prison population, courtesy of Gary Farber:

AGW--Political Initiative Disguised as Objective Science

Alexander Cockburn is a contrarian of a different sort, a left-wing sort to be exact.  He edits an interesting online daily website of leftist political opinion called Counterpunch, which I find interesting and occasionally valuable. 

You never know where Cockburn going to stand on any issue, so he can be interesting to read.  On the global warming debate, for example, while most on the Left are quite strongly pro-AGW (anthropogenic global warming), Cockburn sees it as a bit of a crock.  Here an article from his website, with paragraphs below:
Shortly before the Copenhagen summit the proponents of anthropogenic – human-caused - global warming (AGW) were embarrassed by a whistleblower who put on the web over a thousand emails either sent from or received at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia headed by Dr Phil Jones, who has since stepped down from his post – whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen. The CRU was founded in 1971 with funding from sources including Shell and British Petroleum. At that time the supposed menace to the planet and to mankind was global cooling, a source of interest to oil companies for obvious reasons.

Coolers transmuted into warmers in the early 80s and the CRU became one of the climate modeling grant mills supplying the tainted data from which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC ) has concocted its reports which have been since their inception – particularly the executive summaries -- carefully contrived political initiatives disguised as objective science. Soon persuaded of the potential of AGW theories for their bottom line, the energy giants effortlessly recalibrated their stance, and as of 2008 the CRU included among its financial supporters Shell and BP, also the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and UK Nirex Ltd, a company in the nuclear waste business.

After some initial dismay at what has been called, somewhat unoriginally, “Climategate” the reaction amid progressive circles – 99 per cent inhabited by True Believers in anthropogenic global warming - has been to take up defensive positions around the proposition that deceitful manipulation of data, concealment or straightforward destruction of inconvenient evidence, vindictive conspiracies to silence critics, are par for the course in all scientific debate and, although embarrassing, the CRU emails in no way compromise the core pretensions of their cause.

Pass the Bill

After listening to Democratic Senators like Tom Harkin and Bernie Sanders, I'm persuaded that the Senate needs to pass this health care reform bill, saving the advances that it makes, and using it as a foundation for further reforms down the road.

I appreciate the sense of betrayal that some progressives have, but at this point, this is probably the reasonable way forward.  The fact that the Republicans are dead-set against the bill makes me even more sure of this.

Marked Out For Assassination

In my pile of books by my chair in the den is JFK and the Unspeakable.
In this eloquent, remarkable book, longtime peace activist and theologian Jim Douglass uses Thomas Merton, a prominent Catholic monk, to elevate the study of Kennedy’s presidency to a spiritual as well as physical battle with the warmongers of his time.

In 1962, as Douglass records in his preface, Merton wrote a friend the following eerily prescient analysis:

“I have little confidence in Kennedy. I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task, and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensitivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality ….

“What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what the politicians don’t have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self-forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that someday by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.”
If you want a good sense of what this important book is about, read this article by Lisa Pease.  One last recommendation:
As someone who has researched the Kennedy assassination for over 17 years, and who has read many books on the case, I can finally say, for the first time, this is the single best book ever written on why Kennedy was killed, who did it, and why it still matters.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

No Net Global Warming in the 21st Century

Until the global warming scientists like Jim Hansen and Phil Jones deal adequately and honestly and openly with the following data, their theories and models will remain under suspicion by many skeptics.  Trying to deny it or cover it up, such as seems to have happened in the 'Climategate' emails, is not helping the situation.
"There’s been no net global warming in the 21st century. Although seldom reported by the mainstream media, it’s quite a story, because no climate model predicted it."

"This graph, courtesy of atmospheric scientist John Christy, shows how climate models and reality diverge. The red, purple, and orange lines are model forecasts of global temperatures under different emission scenarios. The yellow line shows how much warming we are supposedly “committed to” even if CO2 concentrations don’t change. The blue and green lines are actual temperatures as measured by ground-based (HadCrut) and satellite (UAH LT) monitoring systems."

"What’s really rather remarkable, is that since 2000, the rates at which CO2 emissions and concentrations are increasing have accelerated."

US Energy Gluttons

Here's an interesting fact of energy use:
The issues of energy poverty and population are closely intertwined. And that connection can be seen by looking at the world’s six most populous countries. They are, in descending order of population: China, India, the US, Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan. The energy disparity among the residents of these countries is stark. The US, with about 300 million residents, consumes almost as much energy as the other five most-populous countries – let’s call them the Big Five -- combined. The total population of the Big Five – Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Pakistan – is about 3 billion, or about 10 times that of the US. And yet the average resident of the Big Five lives in energy poverty. The 3 billion residents of the Big Five consume, on average, about 0.66 gallons of oil equivalent per day, or about one-tenth as much energy as the average American.

Per-Capita Energy Use In the Six Most-Populous Countries,
In Gallons of Oil Equivalent Per Day

China: 1.26
India: 0.31
US: 6.32
Brazil: 0.97
Indonesia: 0.44
Pakistan: 0.32

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2009.

A glance at those numbers shows why the leaders of developing countries are so reluctant to agree to any kind of cap on their carbon dioxide emissions. The simple truth is that as energy consumption increases, so does wealth. While various promoters of “green” energy discuss the potential breakthroughs in alternatives sources like wind and solar, the reality is that 88% of the world’s commercial primary energy is provided by coal, oil, and natural gas. And as much as politicians and environmentalists might like to change that percentage, there are no other sources of energy that can match hydrocarbons when it comes to the Four Imperatives: power density, energy density, cost and scale. Furthermore, barring some miraculous technological breakthrough, there won’t be a significant change in the world’s need for hydrocarbons over the next two to five decades.

The simple truth is that the brouhaha over Climategate doesn’t matter. In fact, the entire battle over climate science – and in particular, the arguments over what concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide should be seen as ideal – is largely a waste of time. Given that global policymakers are convinced that carbon dioxide is bad, the most important question they must address is: then what? Put another way, what’s the policy response going to be?

With no ready substitute for hydrocarbons, the answer to those two questions -- then what? and what’s the right policy? – should be obvious: nothing. That is, despite all the hew and cry over the need for some dramatic political agreement at Copenhagen, nothing of substance will happen because too many people around the world are still living in energy poverty. And energy poverty brings with it all of the ills that come with poverty: disease, hunger, lack of potable water, lack of education, and other societal ills.
Another good reason to go on a permanent energy diet here in the US.

Just War Theory

A prominent moral theologian at Marquette University, Dr. Daniel Maguire, writes about President Obama's use of the just war theory in his Nobel speech:
Whether Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize is not the point. He didn’t. The fact is, he got it, and was gifted with the chance of a lifetime to make a classic speech on the politics of peace-making, a speech that in the glare of Nobel could have attained instant standing.

He failed miserably, producing a hodge-podge that resembled the work of a bright but undisciplined sophomore.

He was hoist on the petard of classical "just war theory," a theory that, properly understood, condemns his decision to send yet more kill-power into Afghanistan.

This theory which is much misused and little understood is designed to build a wall of assumptions against state-sponsored violence, i.e. war. It puts the burden of proof on the warrior where it belongs.

A Little Awkward

Dana Milbank of the WaPo demonstrates another example of the discrepancy between campaign rhetoric and actual policy formulation in the Obama administration:
On the campaign trail, Barack Obama vowed to take on the drug industry by allowing Americans to import cheaper prescription medicine. "We'll tell the pharmaceutical companies 'thanks, but no, thanks' for the overpriced drugs -- drugs that cost twice as much here as they do in Europe and Canada," he said back then.

On Tuesday, the matter came to the Senate floor -- and President Obama forgot the "no, thanks" part. Siding with the pharmaceutical lobby, the administration successfully fought against the very idea Obama had championed.

"It's got to be a little awkward," said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).

It's even more awkward for millions of Americans who are forced to pay up to 10 times the prices Canadians and Europeans pay for identical medication, often produced in the same facilities by the same manufacturers, simply because the U.S. government refuses to rein in drug prices.

Those favoring cheaper prescriptions amassed an impressive ideological coalition, from socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to conservative Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). But they were no match for industry-friendly senators backed by the administration, who on Tuesday night easily voted down "reimportation," as it is called.

No surprise here: Lawmakers, and the White House, are addicted to drug money. The industry has pumped upwards of $130 million into federal elections over the past decade and is now among the top 10 donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. At the same time, the White House needed the industry to spend its millions of dollars in advertising money on support of the health-care legislation, not against it.
Okay, so when will our President really stand up against the big health care and financial corporations as he said he would?  We're waiting.
That's why the drug industry has been fighting for a decade against congressional efforts to allow reimportation. Obama co-sponsored one such proposal in the Senate. He also said during his presidential campaign that he wanted to "let Medicare negotiate for lower prices" for drugs. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, when he was in Congress, also championed reimportation. Yet now, after their successful battle against it, the two are expected to fight off a similar legislative effort to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.

Even before the vote came, it had become clear that President Obama's aides had the votes to kill the proposal Senator Obama once co-sponsored. This, said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), "contributes to the enormous cynicism on the part of the American people about the way we do business here." To Dorgan, he pledged: "I will be by his side as we go back and back and back again on this issue until justice and fairness is done and we defeat the special interests of the pharmaceutical industry which have taken over the White House and will take over this vote."

Dorgan, on the verge of losing another reimportation battle, raised his voice as he pleaded with colleagues. "The pharmaceutical industry has a lot of clout. I know that," he said. "I hope the American people have the ability to expect some clout on their behalf in the chamber of the United States Senate."
To compromise when absolutely necessary is one thing.  That is pragmatic governing.  To give in almost from the beginning, as the Administration has with both the bankers and the health care companies, is another.  It is getting just a little too obvious what's going on here.  Or am I just being too cynical?

This is too much 'politics as usual' and not 'change we can believe in.'  I'm really sick of saying that, but isn't it true?


Simon Johnson, one of my economic gurus, on Paul Volcker's critique of the big bankers:
The guiding myth underpinning the reconstruction of our dangerous banking system is: Financial innovation as we know it is valuable and must be preserved. Anyone opposed to this approach is a populist, with or without a pitchfork.

Single-handedly, Paul Volcker has exploded this myth. Responding to a Wall Street insiders' Future of Finance “report,“ he was quoted in the WSJ yesterday as saying: “Wake up gentlemen. I can only say that your response is inadequate.”

Volcker has three main points, with which we whole-heartedly agree:

(1) “[Financial engineering] moves around the rents in the financial system, but not only this, as it seems to have vastly increased them.”

(2) “I have found very little evidence that vast amounts of innovation in financial markets in recent years have had a visible effect on the productivity of the economy.”

and most important:

(3) “I am probably going to win in the end.”

Volcker wants tough constraints on banks and their activities, separating the payments system--which must be protected and therefore tightly regulated--from other “extraneous” functions, which includes trading and managing money.

This is entirely reasonable--although we can surely argue about details, including whether a very large “regulated” bank would be able to escape the limits placed on its behavior and whether a very large “trading” bank could (without running the payments system) still cause massive damage.

But how can Mr. Volcker possibly prevail? Even President Obama was reduced, yesterday, to asking the banks nicely to lend more to small business-- against which Jamie Dimon will presumably respond that such firms either (a) are not creditworthy (so give us a subsidy if you want such loans) or (b) don’t want to borrow (so give them a subsidy). (Some of the bankers, it seems, didn’t even try hard to attend--they just called it in.)

The reason for Volcker’s confidence in his victory is simple--he is moving the consensus. It’s not radicals against reasonable bankers. It’s the dean of American banking, with a bigger and better reputation than any other economic policymaker alive--and with a lot of people at his back--saying, very simply: Enough.

He says it plainly, he increasingly says it publicly, and he now says it often. He waited, on the sidelines, for his moment. And this is it.

Paul Volcker wants to stop the financial system before it blows up again. And when he persuades you--and people like you--he will win.

Doing Well, Not Doing Good

There is one statement of Linker's about Niebuhr that I must take issue with:
Niebuhr rightly remarks that Americans nearly always mean well when they act in the world. Our moral perils are thus “not those of conscious malice or the explicit lust for power.” Yet the rules of the world are such that good intentions—even our own—often lead to unintended bad consequences.
I think that is a very debatable point, actually. We Americans like to think that we always act around the world with overwhelmingly good intentions, and without the normal materialistic desires for prosperity or for power. You know, 'we're just defending freedom around the world.'  But isn't that really just a part of our national self-delusion?

Perhaps the most naked example of this was our invasion of Iraq in 2003.  That was sold to the American people as necessary in order to defend ourselves and the world against the aggressiveness of a madman, Saddam Hussein, who had WMD and who also had been a part of the 9/11 conspiracy.

Frankly, I didn't buy it at the time, and for a very simple reason.  Would we so quickly invade any nation that really had deployable WMD, and take the risk of the mass casualties to our soldiers and Marines?  We were so sure of our ability to defeat the Iraqis, and that would not have been the case if they truly had WMD.

No, I also thought that our reasons for invading were always more closely tied to our 'national self-interest', not for any altruistic or truly defensive reasons.  Among those most obvious motives: the vast oil resources of Iraq, the quasi-permanent military bases we would gain in the vital Persian Gulf region, and the support for Israel, that is so much a part of our national purpose recently.

We rarely if ever risk our national treasure and blood for primarily altruistic reasons.  It is nearly always to support some vital national self-interest, economic, political, or military.  Now, of course, we think that our national strength and self-interest is vital for the well-being of the world.  You know, 'what's good for business is good for the country.'  But I don't think the rest of the world buys that line most of the time.

Our 'good intentions' have mostly to do with our 'doing well,' not our 'doing good.'  This is something we need to admit, and perhaps confess. Or at least not feign goodness, and end up the hypocrite.

Neocons, Niebuhr, and National Humility

I think Damon Linker puts well the Niebuhrian demand for national humility (in The New Republic), which I had stated here as well:
Neocons have begun to warm to Barack Obama’s foreign policy vision. What they’ve liked about his recent speeches (at West Point, but far more so in Oslo) is his willingness to defend (against the anti-political pacifism that dominates a segment of elite European opinion) the idea that there can be morally justified wars—and that the war in Afghanistan is one of them. I’m delighted that some on the American right have come around to supporting the president, but they should do so knowing that on one crucially important matter Obama will never satisfy them. That is the issue of American exceptionalism.

For the tradition of Christian realism from which the president’s foreign policy views derive, the United States is all-too-inclined toward what Alexis de Tocqueville aptly described as the “perpetual utterance of self-applause.” Neoconservatism has many facets, but the one that dominates today defines itself primarily by the opposite conviction—namely, that the United States suffers above all from a lack of self-confidence. That’s why neocon essays and editorials so often take the form of pep talks designed to serve as rhetorical standing ovations in our national honor.

For Reinhold Niebuhr, the greatest exponent of Christian realism, this gets things exactly backward—and threatens to encourage the very aspect of America’s national character that most needs to be moderated or restrained. “Every nation has its own form of spiritual pride,” Niebuhr noted in The Irony of American History (1952), and the American version takes the form of the myth that “our nation turned its back upon the vices of Europe and made a new beginning”—a beginning marked by moral purity and the special favor of God. This uniquely American self-understanding has tended to inspire national over-confidence with regard to our virtue.

Niebuhr rightly remarks that Americans nearly always mean well when they act in the world. Our moral perils are thus “not those of conscious malice or the explicit lust for power.” Yet the rules of the world are such that good intentions—even our own—often lead to unintended bad consequences. This is a lesson we seem incapable of learning, or remembering, so eager are we to deny that the actions of even “the best men and nations” are “curious compounds of good and evil.”

Having imagined ourselves standing by God’s side as his trusted lieutenant, we half believe he has granted us wisdom and power comparable to his. But this is folly, a prideful delusion as old as Genesis 3. In Niebuhr’s view America needs regularly self-administered doses of humility.

The point is not that patriots and politicians should abandon their faith that American power can play a positive role in the world. It is that they should act with caution in applying that power. Above all, they need to take the lessons of humility closely to heart and resist the temptation to view themselves as God’s agents in history. To do otherwise—to view their policies as having been personally authored or approved by the divine—is foolishness that will tend to distort their judgment, inspiring the distinctly American over-confidence that Niebuhr warned against so powerfully.
I hope that Linker is right about Obama, but I thought the President was a little too generous with his praise for American security efforts throughout the Cold War in the Nobel Speech, with little acknowledgement of our many mistakes and national sins. One could say, "well, a President can't say that", but if that is the case, then he's not being very Niebuhrian either. You can't have it both ways.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Imprisonment Without Trial

Glenn Greenwald takes issue with the way the new supermax prison in Thomson, Illinois, will work to replace Guantanamo:
The Obama administration announced today that it will create a new "supermax" facility in Thomson, Illinois, and will transfer to it many of the detainees currently held at Guantanamo. Critically, none of those moved to Thomson will receive a trial in a real American court, and some will not be charged with any crime at all. The detainees who will be given trials won't go to Thomson; they'll be moved directly to the jurisdiction where they'll be tried. The ones moved to Thomson will either (a) be put before a military commission or (b) held indefinitely without charges of any kind. In other words, they'll have exactly the same rights -- or lack thereof -- as they have now at Guantanamo.

The administration has already announced that it will rely on the Bush/Cheney theory to justify its indefinite detention power -- that Congress implicitly authorized that when it enacted the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force. But because Congress has banned the transfer of any Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. for any reason other than to be tried in a court, the administration will now seek express legal authority to transfer detainees inside the U.S. to hold them without charges indefinitely. Former White House Counsel Greg Craig said back in February that it's "hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law." One no longer needs to "imagine" it; it's soon to come.

The sentiment behind Obama's campaign vow to close Guantanamo was the right one, but the reality of how it's being done negates that almost entirely. What is the point of closing Guantanamo only to replicate its essential framework -- imprisonment without trials -- a few thousand miles to the North?

Are we really supposed to believe that the Muslim world -- at whom this symbolism is supposedly aimed -- is so simplistic that they'll be happy because Muslims are now being indefinitely imprisoned with no charges in Illinois instead of on a Cuban island? In many ways, this move is classic Obama: pretty words, rhetorical appeals to lofty ideals, self-congratulatory preening, accompanied by many of the same policies that were long and vehemently condemned by him and most of his supporters.

Two Views on Obama

My son Nathan and I both worked and voted for Obama last year.  However, since then, we have seen and interpreted political developments in a very different light.  We recently exchanged the followed emails.

Nathan to Carl
You never focus on the Republicans. Sure Obama is only taking half measures, but not a single republican supports anything good. Ever. Financial reform? Yeah right. You talk like Obama is a king or something. But he is constrained by the fact that Republicans and congress are the ones who, you know, have to pass laws. Congress, in particular, the republicans, are what is keeping things from changing. But yours and everyone elses relentless focus on Obama allows the republicans to get off scott-free.
Carl to Nathan
My serious disappointment with Obama is at least in part due to the fact that I want him to succeed in what we thought he was going to try and do. If he doesn’t succeed in reforming the economy (including the serious reform of the financial sector), this opportunity to begin to remake our economy will have disappeared. And as I’ve said from the beginning, it will damage Obama politically (which is what seems to be happening), and make the return of the Republicans that much more likely. Obama had a chance to be an FDR, in my opinion, but he has not gone in that direction. Instead he decided to be a Clinton. His political appointments in the economic and foreign policy area stink, in my opinion. All this has been a huge frustration and disillusionment to me.

The Republicans are a joke right now. And the last thing I want is for them to get back in power. But who is responsible for the dismal political prospects for Democrats right now? It’s not the Republicans. It is widespread disillusionment with Obama and the Democrats. They are becoming a joke, too.
Nathan to Carl
For my part I don't want to become like the Bush-supporters who praised everything that the leader did. Criticism of Obama is good. But there should be more criticism of the people who are enemies of the good.

I guess I don't really agree that Obama could have been an FDR. That was the point of my post a few weeks ago about the timing of the financial crisis. FDR came in after the disaster happened. America was destroyed and desperate for a change. Just talking to people, I don't think that Americans are ready for the kind of change we want. The only way it could have happened was if a total meltdown took place under Bush. Then Obama would have had more power. As it is, he is just trying to hold things together.

So what if Obama had went for the FDR model anyway, and appointed more liberal advisors? It would have been a high-risk, high-reward strategy. He would have either succeeded spectacularly or flamed out entirely. He would have been fighting with everyone at once: the Republicans, the banks, moderates in Congress, big business, foreign policy hawks and the media, which is controlled by all of the aforementioned groups. Maybe he would have won. Or maybe they would have ganged up on him and he would have lost big time. He would have been a failure in his first year of office with no hope of recovery.

High-risk, high-reward is not Obama's style for better or worse. He is going to doggedly pursue a middle course that makes incremental change. He is going to do it by avoiding unforced errors like Clinton and Carter had.

After Obama's first two years its realistic that we will have gotten a stimulus that helped avoid a Depression, decent health care reform, moderate financial reform, closing of GITMO, at the least a big alternative energy push (or at the most cap and trade), education reform, an improvement of America's standing in the world, better cooperation with China and Russia, the removal of weapons in Eastern Europe, and a drawdown of troops in Iraq (probable), among other accomplishments. In the big picture thats pretty good for two years. Its the most positive change we've had in this country in 45 years. It looks dark now but, if job growth returns in the spring, my prediction is that the Democrats will fare better in 2010 than it looks like right now.

Somehow I've become the eternal optimist!


I just ran across this somewhere.  It's interesting because Gilead is also my favorite novel.  It's about three generations of pastors, and is the best description of what it means to be a pastor I've ever read.
Obama’s Facebook page (the first ever for a president-elect) lists Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead as a favorite novel.

And In This Corner

Steward Brand, ecologist and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, writes in the NYT today about the four basic factions in the climate change debate:
CLIMATE talks have been going on in Copenhagen for a week now, and it appears to be a two-sided debate between alarmists and skeptics. But there are actually four different views of global warming. A taxonomy of the four:

DENIALISTS They are loud, sure and political. Their view is that climatologists and their fellow travelers are engaged in a vast conspiracy to panic the public into following an agenda that is political and pernicious. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma and the columnist George Will wave the banner for the hoax-callers.

SKEPTICS This group is most interested in the limitations of climate science so far: they like to examine in detail the contradictions and shortcomings in climate data and models, and they are wary about any “consensus” in science. To the skeptics’ discomfort, their arguments are frequently quoted by the denialists.

In this mode, Roger Pielke, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado, argues that the scenarios presented by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are overstated and underpredictive. Another prominent skeptic is the physicist Freeman Dyson, who wrote in 2007: “I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models .... I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests.”

WARNERS These are the climatologists who see the trends in climate headed toward planetary disaster, and they blame human production of greenhouse gases as the primary culprit. Leaders in this category are the scientists James Hansen, Stephen Schneider and James Lovelock. (This is the group that most persuades me and whose views I promote.)

“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted,” Mr. Hansen wrote as the lead author of an influential 2008 paper, then the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would have to be reduced from 395 parts per million to “at most 350 p.p.m.”

CALAMATISTS There are many environmentalists who believe that industrial civilization has committed crimes against nature, and retribution is coming. They quote the warners in apocalyptic terms, and they view denialists as deeply evil. The technology critic Jeremy Rifkin speaks in this manner, and the writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben is a (fairly gentle) leader in this category.

In his 2006 introduction for “The End of Nature,” his famed 1989 book, Mr. McKibben wrote of climate change in religious terms: “We are no longer able to think of ourselves as a species tossed about by larger forces — now we are those larger forces. Hurricanes and thunderstorms and tornadoes become not acts of God but acts of man. That was what I meant by the ‘end of nature.’”

The calamatists and denialists are primarily political figures, with firm ideological loyalties, whereas the warners and skeptics are primarily scientists, guided by ever-changing evidence. That distinction between ideology and science not only helps clarify the strengths and weaknesses of the four stances, it can also be used to predict how they might respond to future climate developments.

Niebuhr and the Neoconservatives

David Brooks writes today about the Christian moral realism that Obama has espoused at various time in the last few years but never so profoundly as in his Oslo Nobel Peace Prize speech, calling that speech the most profound of his young Presidency.

It is no accident that it is neoconservatives like Brooks (though he now calls himself a 'moderate') who are praising this speech.  It is precisely when I became a neoconservative in the 80s that I first began to read Niebuhr seriously.  Neocons are simply 'cold war liberals', as Brooks calls them (himself), who have become even more militant in their 'faith', in reaction to anti-war liberals, such as really showed up in force during the late 60s and early 70s because of the Vietnam War.  They really love Niebuhr, because he seems to give them moral justification for their wars and their militarism.  (I don't necessarily believe this was Niebuhr's intention, but it seems to be what has happened.  It probably indicates a deep fallacy somewhere in his ethical and political philosophy).

The problem with all this is that history has moved on.  Neocons (and I believe cold war liberals too) didn't want to let go of the Cold War and the Communist enemy.  When the Soviet Union simply melted away around 1989, neocons seemed very disoriented for a while, and then settled on the Islamic menace as the new world enemy.  That, in turn, gave us the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (which we are all enjoying immensely right now).  Somewhere in the 90s, I let go of that neocon faith and sought out something different.  That 'something different' led me to oppose the Iraqi invasion and to wonder why few others did.

There is, and always has been as I see it, a hidden agenda behind the neoconservative née Cold War liberal ideology, and that is American global hegemony and military/political/economic/cultural domination.  This agenda is support by our political/economic/military/media elites, because they benefit tremendously from it.  When I was a neocon, I was so captivated by the ideology and its Manichean worldview, that I didn't clearly see this agenda, but once I had unblinkered my eyes, I began to see it more clearly.

This is the so-called 'Establishment' that controls both political parties, and they simply will not allow any President to deviate from it, primarily by making sure that anyone elected buys into said agenda from the beginning.  Obama has, it seems clear to me, bought into it, and if we had been listening carefully, we would have understood this better during the campaign last year.

Hockey Stick vs. Ice Ages

Last week, I posted a few graphs that make part of the case for the global warming skeptics/dissenters.  I've just found this nifty video that expands on that case in about a minute.  Sometime to think about as we wrestled with the climate change issue:


A Democratic Congressman, Massachusetts Rep. Mike Capuano, freshly returned from the Senate primary campaign he just lost to Martha Coakley, was asked to address his fellow Democrats and tell them what, after traveling around his state talking to voters, he had learned on the campaign trail.

Capuano didn't mince words. "You're screwed," he told them.

Capuano confirmed the gist of the message -- "I'm not sure of the exact wording," he told HuffPost, chuckling -- and said that he doubted his wisdom was anything they didn't already know.

"I think I was just confirming stuff they already knew," he said. "I focused on two things: the war in Afghanistan and jobs."

Everywhere Capuano went in his state, he said, he was bombarded with demands that the government do more to create jobs. He was also greeted by deep skepticism about Obama's escalation of the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Political Iceberg

Arianna Huffington writes about the political iceberg lying directly in front of the Obama ship of state:
If the Obama White House is going to change course in time to avoid hitting the looming electoral iceberg, the president and his advisors need to immediately jettison two false ideas that are taking them wildly off course.

The first of these is the notion that the public's widespread anger over joblessness and the bank bailout will be dissipated by the magic bullet of passing a health care reform bill. Over the last few weeks, I've talked to several high-ranking White House staffers and this idea seems as deeply entrenched among them as the idea of Obama's Kenyan birth is among the birthers. And about as valid.

The other false idea that I've heard from White House advisors is that, even if they take a hit in 2010, they're going to be okay for 2012 because they'll bring back David Plouffe and recapture the magic of 2008. If this is really their plan for 2012, they might do better to bring in James Cameron. Perhaps he could CGI in all the voters who turned out in 2008, inspired by the message of "Yes, We Can," and who are now watching disillusioned from the sidelines.

People know Main Street issues like jobs and foreclosures haven't been given the attention they require, and they also know when they're being condescended to.

Fool Me Twice

Andrew Ross Sorkin of the NYT on the planned meeting of bankers and Obama:
President Obama didn’t exactly look thrilled as he stared at the Polycom speakerphone in front of him. “Well, I appreciate you guys calling in,” he began the meeting at the White House with Wall Street’s top brass on Monday.

He was, of course, referring to the three conspicuously absent attendees who were being piped in by telephone: Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs; John J. Mack, chairman of Morgan Stanley; and Richard D. Parsons, chairman of Citigroup.

Their excuse? “Inclement weather,” according to the White House....

That awkward moment on speakerphone in the White House, for better or worse, spoke volumes about how the balance of power between Wall Street and Washington has shifted again, back in Wall Street’s favor.

Now that Citigroup has given back its bailout money — and Wells Fargo announced late on Monday that it would, too — whatever leverage Washington had over the financial services industry seems to be quickly eroding.

Executive compensation, leverage limits and lending standards were all issues that Washington said it planned to change — and when the taxpayers were the shareholders of these firms, it probably could have done so. But now the White House has been left in the position of extending invitations, rather than exercising its clout. And in the figurative and literal sense, it is getting stood up.

Those who attended the meeting — Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan flew down on a private jet and didn’t take any heat for it — seemed to talk a good game, but even President Obama acknowledged they might have been just toying with him.

“The problem is there’s a big gap between what I’m hearing here in the White House and the activities of lobbyists on behalf of these institutions or associations of which they’re a member up on Capitol Hill,” he said after the discussion....

The meeting was always just going to be political theater. Wall Street bankers were supposed to play their part on the public stage in Washington, and submit to a scolding from the president about bonuses and the need to start lending more to help get the economy moving.

President Obama’s “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night eviscerating Wall Street laid down the not-so-welcome mat. “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat-cat bankers,” he said.

Inside the Obama administration, there were bruised feelings about the need for a conference call to have a meeting.

“It was pretty nervy,” one staff member told me.
Really, this is all so pathetic. I'm not angry at the bankers. They do what bankers do these days. Which is mostly make tons of money for themselves and their friends, with other people's money. Oh, and also 'invest in the economy and provide the capital for it to grow.' Can't forget that. 

It is Obama who is so pathetic here. Does he really expect to give them everything they want, until their pockets are stuffed with money, and then have them turn around and sacrifice themselves for the economy?

He is acting like such an innocent idealist here, when he's supposed to be such a sophisticated Niebuhrian realist, who knows how sinful and evil people can be in the real world!

I don't believe it for a minute. It's all, as Sorkin put it, 'political theatre,' to make his liberal base think he's trying hard 'on behalf of the people' and 'there's just nothing more he can do', because there is such a 'big gap' between their words and their actions.

The 'big gap' is between Obama's words and actions. And it's been there since the day he was elected.

On second thought, maybe it's us who believed Obama in the first place who are pathetic.  We got seduced by a political con-artist, I'm beginning to think. 

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Harkin Bill to End Filibusters

Oh yah!!!
With the news that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) plans to filibuster the current health care bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) options are looking increasingly limited. But one Democratic senator may introduce legislation that would make health care reform a lot easier.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa told reporters this weekend that he might reintroduce legislation to end the filibuster, something he first proposed in 1994. The Hawk Eye reports:

"I think, if anything, this health care debate is showing the dangers of unlimited filibuster," Harkin said Thursday during a conference call with reporters. "I think there's a reason for slowing things down ... and getting the public aware of what's happening and maybe even to change public sentiment, but not to just absolutely stop something."
Under Harkin's proposal, debate could be prolonged by the minority -- just not forever.

"You could hold something up for maybe a month, but then, finally you'd come down to 51 votes and a majority would be able to pass," Harkin said. "I may revive that. I pushed it very hard at one time and then things kind of got a little better."

Starry, Starry Night

Another breathtaking picture from Hubble

A Better American Dream

James Kunstler, for once, has a positive word for us.  Consider it his Christmas present to his website readers!
Can't we come up with a better American Dream, even one that includes Christmas? I think we can. It would require the liberation of American citizen's minds from their thralldom to bigness in every realm from work to worship to recreation. If you think Barack Obama is a hostage to Wall Street, reflect for a while on the people's self-surrender to the tyranny of everything that diminishes us to mere "consumers." We're on a journey - and we don't know it - back to a nation of communities where your character really matters, and where character rests on whether your deeds comport with truthfulness. Many will be dragged kicking and screaming upon that journey, and many a dark night will be passed in the cold and damp on the way. But it will take us to a place where the hearths are burning brightly and the estranged spirits of our national character await a reunion with us: fortitude, patience, generosity, humor. That will be a Christmas to live for and remember!
By the way, I'm reading his novel World Made by Hand at night just before I go to bed, and honestly, I'm really enjoying it. He has, as it were, put the preceding paragraph into fictional form in that novel, and I recommend it to you.

Fat Cat Bankers That Obama Loves to Help

Another witness, James Kunstler, to the Great Disappointment of Obama's economic policies:
Okay, so President Obama didn't run for office to help out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street - or so he said on CBS's "60 Minutes" show Sunday night. But maybe it didn't seem like such a bad idea once the election was over. Anyway, the net effect of his administration's actions since then - all nicely documented in the latest Rolling Stone dispatch from the choleric Matt Taibbi - was an immense helping out of fat cat bankers on Wall Street at the expense of a lot of American citizens who work elsewhere, if they are lucky enough to have income-producing work.

Mr. Obama has really offered no satisfactory explanation for why he larded his department of the US government from the get-go with so many agents and recent graduates of Wall Street's biggest firms. Nor has any clear reason emerged for the absence of criminal prosecution - or even investigation - by the Attorney General in such obvious cases of criminal fraud and insider trading as Goldman Sachs's double-window technique for hedging its own issues of mortgage-backed securities. By comparison, the Savings-and-Loan scandal of a decade ago led to thousands of criminal convictions.

Trojan Horse

Digby writes about Joe Lieberman (and Harry Reid and the White House):
If Obama and Reid actually formed their strategy around the idea that "Lieberman will come around," if the bill fails it's their fault. After what that man did during the presidential campaign there was no doubt that he had become a member of the opposition. He has been a trojan horse for the past year --- and everyone in the country but the head of the party could see it, apparently.
I like that, 'trojan horse'.  Really, Lieberman should just go ahead and become a Republican (he's already an Independent).  Short of that, the Democrats should definitely strip him of any power he has in the Democratic Caucus, and then go ahead and do what needs to be done, which is to destroy the filibuster and restore our ability as a country to get something done in Washington for the people.

P.R. Stunt

Greenwald on the President's meeting with the bankers today:
Everyone can decide for themselves how credible a threat Obama, Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and friends will ever pose to Wall Street, but at least some of the bankers don't seem to be taking it very seriously:

"So expect a healthy dose of political posturing before, during and after the President's meeting with top bankers Monday. "It's a p.r. stunt," says an executive at one of the banks that will be getting a dressing-down at the White House meeting. Executives from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo are expected to be among those in attendance."

One of the most revealing aspects of the bailout was that it was justified by the increased lending it would enable, yet contained no requirement that the funds be used for that. And, of course, they weren't.

One can say many things about these bankers, but they're typically quite perceptive about matters of self-interest. They don't exactly seem frightened -- or even remotely concerned -- by the presidential "dressing down" they're about to receive. In fact, they seem to think it's all a sham for public consumption. I wonder why they think that.

Last week, China executed a corrupt official of a securities company and, in the past, "has also executed government officials in its long-running fight against corruption" (h/t austinboy). Last month, the German Defense Minister was forced to resign in disgrace because of false statements he made about a NATO airstrike that slaughtered numerous civilians in Afghanistan -- American military officials, including Obama's handpicked commander in Afghanistan, have repeatedly done similar things. Earlier this year, the former Prime Minister of South Korea jumped to his death while being investigated for corrupt and illegal acts he allegedly committed while in power. Last week, Britain imposed a one-time 50% tax on bankers' bonuses in response to the crisis they caused and subsequent bailout they needed, and France is now doing the same.

I wonder what it's like to live in a country where political and financial elites are held accountable for wrongdoing.

Greenwald on the Nobel Speech

Leave it to Glenn Greenwald to have some interesting things to say about the Nobel Speech and Obama in general, and I'm quoting it at some length, because it speaks for my thoughts as well:
Reactions to Obama's Nobel speech yesterday were remarkably consistent across the political spectrum, and there were two points on which virtually everyone seemed to agree: (1) it was the most explicitly pro-war speech ever delivered by anyone while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize; and (2) it was the most comprehensive expression of Obama's foreign policy principles since he became President. I don't think he can be blamed for the first fact; when the Nobel Committee chose him despite his waging two wars and escalating one, it essentially forced on him the bizarre circumstance of using his acceptance speech to defend the wars he's fighting. What else could he do? Ignore the wars? Repent?

...there are two arguably confounding facts to note: (1) the vast majority of leading conservatives -- from Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich to Peggy Noonan, Sarah Palin, various Kagans and other assorted neocons -- have heaped enthusiastic praise on what Obama said yesterday, i.e., on the Obama Doctrine; and (2) numerous liberals have done exactly the same. That convergence gives rise to a couple of questions:

Why are the Bush-following conservatives who ran the country for the last eight years and whose foreign policy ideas are supposedly so discredited -- including some of the nation's hardest-core neocons -- finding so much to cheer in the so-called Obama Doctrine?

How could liberals and conservatives -- who have long claimed to possess such vehemently divergent and irreconcilable worldviews on foreign policy -- both simultaneously adore the same comprehensive expression of foreign policy?

Like all good politicians, Obama is adept at paying homage to multiple, inconsistent views at once, enabling everyone to hear whatever they want in what he says while blissfully ignoring the rest. Additionally, conservatives have an interest in claiming that Obama has embraced Bush/Cheney policies even when he hasn't, because it allows them to claim vindication....Moreover, there are foreign policies Obama has pursued that are genuinely disliked by neocons -- from negotiating with Iran to applying some mild pressure on Israel to the use of more conciliatory and humble rhetoric. And one of the most radical and controversial aspects of the Bush presidency -- the attack on Iraq -- was not defended by Obama, nor was the underlying principle that produced it ("preventive" war).

But all that said, it's easy to understand why even intellectually honest conservatives -- including neocons -- found so much to like in "the Obama Doctrine," at least as it found expression yesterday...Obama insisted upon what he called the "right" to wage wars "unilaterally"; articulated a wide array of circumstances in which war is supposedly "just" far beyond being attacked or facing imminent attack by another country; explicitly rejected the non-violence espoused by King and Gandhi as too narrow and insufficiently pragmatic for a Commander-in-Chief like Obama to embrace; endowed us with the mission to use war as a means of combating "evil"; and hailed the U.S. for underwriting global security for the last six decades (without mentioning how our heroic efforts affected, say, the people of Vietnam, or Iraq, or Central America, or Gaza, and so many other places where "security" is not exactly what our wars "underwrote"). So it's not difficult to see why Rovian conservatives are embracing his speech; so much of it was devoted to an affirmation of their core beliefs.

The more difficult question to answer is many liberals found the speech so inspiring and agreeable? Is that what liberals were hoping for when they elected Obama: someone who would march right into Oslo and proudly announce to the world that we have a unilateral right to wage war when we want and to sing the virtues of war as a key instrument for peace?

Yesterday's speech and the odd, extremely bipartisan reaction to it underscored one of the real dangers of the Obama presidency: taking what had been ideas previously discredited as Republican or right-wing dogma and transforming them into bipartisan consensus. It's not just Republicans but Democrats that are now vested in -- and eager to justify -- the virtues of war, claims of Grave Danger posed by Islamic radicals and the need to use massive military force to combat them, indefinite detention, military commissions, extreme secrecy, full-scale immunity for government lawbreaking, and so many other doctrines once purportedly despised by Democrats but now defended by them because their leader has embraced them.

Much of the liberal praise for Obama's speech yesterday focused on how eloquent, sophisticated, nuanced, complex, philosophical, contemplative and intellectual it was. And, looked at a certain way, it was all of those things -- like so many Obama speeches are. After eight years of enduring a President who spoke in simplistic Manichean imperatives and bullying decrees, many liberals are understandably joyous over having a President who uses their language and the rhetorical approach that resonates with them.

But that's the real danger. Obama puts a pretty, intellectual, liberal face on some ugly and decidedly illiberal polices. Just as George Bush's Christian-based moralizing let conservatives feel good about America regardless of what it does, Obama's complex and elegiac rhetoric lets many liberals do the same.

Andrew Sullivan praises Obama's speech and Obama himself as a shining example of Niebuhrian complexity. Again, I think the speech, like Obama himself, was intellectually skillful -- even more so politically -- though, personally, I think Chris Hayes is much closer when he says the speech was Obama's typical "wearying," too-clever "on the one hand on the other, I reject false choices, needle-threading 'pragmatism,'" which Hayes said worked well for Obama's campaign speech on race but does not work in matters of war and peace or for much else with Obama any longer.

The moment when I was convinced Obama would win the election was when, during the second presidential debate, McCain virtually accused him of being a warmonger -- or at least reckless -- for advocating further strikes on Pakistan. That Obama was defending himself from charges of being too eager to threaten military force -- voiced by McCain of all people -- was a shrewd political move. I don't find anything about Obama's foreign policy positions surprising; as opposed to his civil liberties positions, which he has routinely violated, he outlined these broad foreign policy sketches during the campaign (though added much more detail, and I'd suggest much more receptiveness to war generally, during yesterday's speech). I don't agree at all with the criticism that his escalation in Afghanistan (as opposed to his civil liberties positions) is a "betrayal." This is who Obama is and that has been clear for quite awhile.  [Emphasis mine]

The Changing Realities of World Power

Leon Hadar argues in this interesting article for a recognition that important U.S. allies such as Japan and Turkey will be seeking to readjust their relationship with the U.S. in light of its declining power, by reaching out to former enemies in their regions, for example.
But while the United States will not collapse with a bang a la Soviet Union, a process of gradual waning of American power has been taking place for a while, with the notion of a U.S. monopoly in the international system being replaced with the concept of oligopoly of great powers. The United States will cease being Number One and will start playing the role of first among equals -- or primus inter pares -- for some years to come. In fact, that process is already taking place, and some of the governments that are sensing that America is starting to lose its mojo include two staunch U.S. allies, Japan and Turkey, whose leaders have been trying to adjust their policies to the realities of the changing balance of power, as they hedge their strategic bets and diversify their global portfolio in response to the waning Pax Americana.
Obama, it seems to me, could be an important player in this readjustment. I'm not sure he's got the right advisors for this, but then again, maybe he does. He is still getting his 'sea legs' as President, and he's a smart cookie, with a long-range internationalist perspective.

Copenhagen in Chaos

It sounds like a real mess in Copenhagen at the Climate Change Conference: demonstrators being arrested outside, developing countries walking out inside, skeptics having heart attacks on television, scientific scandels casting a big shadow on the whole thing. 

Wait a minute: I think I see something!  It's a bird.  No, it's a plane.  No, it's SUPEROBAMA to the rescue!!  (Okay, I couldn't resist that, from my years as a young kid watching Superman shows on television.)

Obama is going to the conference, but I don't think even he's going to be able to save a deal, at this point.  There are too many positions, not enough consensus, there or here.

A couple of weeks ago, I would have been heartsick about the whole thing.  But after the 'climategate' scandel and additional reading I've done recently, I'm not quite as upset.  I've begun to realize that the data and the theory behind climate change isn't as simple or straightforward as I had thought.  Any climate scientist who says s/he is sure they know what is going to happen isn't being honest, I think.  There is a whole lot more uncertainty involved.

However, as the Caretaker has said on this site previously, there are plenty of other good reasons to pursue limitations on fossil fuel use, especially in America, which has become addicted to oil.  We need to go to a 12 step program for oil addicts, and get ourselves some help.