Saturday, March 26, 2011

Losing Our Way

With the approaching 'paywall' for the NYT, another columnist is taking the opportunity to bail out.  Bob Herbert has been a fearless advocate for the average person in this country, speaking the truth when many others look away.  And he does it one last time in this final column.
So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.

Welcome to America in the second decade of the 21st century. An army of long-term unemployed workers is spread across the land, the human fallout from the Great Recession and long years of misguided economic policies. Optimism is in short supply. The few jobs now being created too often pay a pittance, not nearly enough to pry open the doors to a middle-class standard of living.

Arthur Miller, echoing the poet Archibald MacLeish, liked to say that the essence of America was its promises. That was a long time ago. Limitless greed, unrestrained corporate power and a ferocious addiction to foreign oil have led us to an era of perpetual war and economic decline. Young people today are staring at a future in which they will be less well off than their elders, a reversal of fortune that should send a shudder through everyone.

The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Libya: Another Military Intervention With An Uncertain Future

George Will opines in the Washington Post about the Administration's intervention in Libya:
Does practice make perfect? In today’s episode, America has intervened in a civil war in a tribal society, the dynamics of which America does not understand. And America is supporting one faction, the nature of which it does not know. “We are standing with the people of Libya,” says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, evidently confident that “the” people are a harmonious unit. Many in the media call Moammar Gaddafi’s opponents “freedom fighters,” and perhaps they are, but no one calling them that really knows how the insurgents regard one another, or understand freedom, or if freedom, however understood, is their priority.

But, then, knowing is rarely required in the regime-change business. The Weekly Standard, a magazine for regime-change enthusiasts, serenely says: “The Libyan state is a one-man operation. Eliminate that man and the whole edifice may come tumbling down.” And then good things must sprout? The late Donald Westlake gave one of his comic novels the mordant title “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” People who do not find that darkly funny should not make foreign policy.

In Libya, mission creep began before the mission did. A no-fly zone would not accomplish what Barack Obama calls “a well-defined goal,” the “protection of civilians.” So the no-fly zone immediately became protection for aircraft conducting combat operations against Gaddafi’s ground forces.

America’s war aim is inseparable from — indeed, obviously is — destruction of that regime. So our purpose is to create a political vacuum, into which we hope — this is the “audacity of hope” as foreign policy — good things will spontaneously flow. But if Gaddafi cannot be beaten by the rebels, are we prepared to supply their military deficiencies? And if the decapitation of his regime produces what the removal of Saddam Hussein did — bloody chaos — what then are our responsibilities regarding the tribal vendettas we may have unleashed? How long are we prepared to police the partitioning of Libya?

Explaining his decision to wage war, Obama said Gaddafi has “lost the confidence of his own people and the legitimacy to lead.” Such meretricious boilerplate seems designed to anesthetize thought. When did Gaddafi lose his people’s confidence? When did he have legitimacy? American doctrine — check the Declaration of Independence — is that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. So there are always many illegitimate governments. When is it America’s duty to scrub away these blemishes on the planet? Is there a limiting principle of humanitarian interventionism? If so, would Obama take a stab at stating it?
Will argues convincingly against the irrationalities of liberal and neo-conservative interventionism (and he's been doing this for some time now, as the 'dean' of American conservatives, beginning with calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan a couple years ago).

As one who tends to think we're overextended militarily around the world (and spending WAY too much money on our military-industrial complex), I tend to agree with him on this.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

No Courage In His Convictions

Tom Friedman of the NYT, after describing the pain and folly we're courting if we don't get our act together as a nation, complains about our President in what I feel is an accurate description and criticism:
President Obama has the right convictions on all these issues, but he has not shown the courage of his convictions. The Republicans have just gone nuts.

If you listen to Obama, he eloquently describes our energy, climate and fiscal predicaments: how we have to end our addiction to oil and cut spending and raise revenues in an intelligent way that also invests in the future and doesn’t just slash and burn. But then the president won’t lead. When pressed on energy, he will say that he just doesn’t have the Republican votes for a serious clean energy policy. But the president has never gotten in the G.O.P.’s face on this issue. He has not put his own energy plan on the table and then gone out to the country and tried to sell it.

It is what a lot of Obama supporters find frustrating about him: They voted for Obama to change the polls not read the polls.

On fiscal policy, the president has put forth a decent opening budget bid and has opted for the same inside game of letting Congress take the lead in forging a compromise with the G.O.P. that would bring spending under control and raise revenues. That inside game worked for the president in producing health care reform and the stimulus, but in those cases he had a Democratic majority to push through decent legislation. I fear this time he will not have the votes for the kind of serious, sensible, Simpson-Bowles-like budget cuts and tax increases we need — without his leading and enlisting the public in a much more aggressive way.

Solution No. 1: Living Within Our Means As A Nation

In my last post, I listed ten things that we Americans will come to regret in the fairly near future.  I also said that I would try and list some possible solutions to our serious national dilemma.  So here goes.  (If you want to see the solution in one sentence immediately, scroll down to the sentence in bold.)

We have been on this 'road to perdition' as a nation for about 40 years now, with the trend lines that I sketched out in the last post pretty well in place (plus others that I didn't mention, like the eclipse of the labor movement, or the rise of the 'junk food/fast food' industry and the resulting health problems like obesity and diabetes in youth).  But most people didn't see it happening, though a few did.  (I began to see it about 10-12 years ago.)  And our leaders have almost totally failed us, again with a few rare exceptions. 

One of those exceptions (who has gotten credit for other good things but not for this) was President Jimmy Carter.  In the late 70s, he saw the energy/oil crunch coming and pushed this country toward energy conservation and renewable energy.  But sacrifice of any kind was not in our game plan, so when the Reagan Administration took over, with its new 'conservative' view of things, it totally reversed Carter's efforts at energy reform.  So we went back to our old profligate ways in that realm, that have basically continued to this day.  And, it's sad to say, most Americans remain in denial, though I think there is clearly a growing sense that something is seriously wrong.  You see this in the rise of national pessimism about our future as a nation, especially since the beginning of the Great Recession in the fall of 2008.

The question is: is there a point where we as a nation will reach the point of no return?  Where the damage that has been done within our nation by bad habits, corruption, selfishness, and blindness has gone too far?  I liken it to a patient who has had a heart attack and is lying in ICU.  Will he die because the damage is so great, or is there a chance he'll recover and go on living.

To be honest, I don't pretend to know the answer to that question, because no one really does and we won't know until one or the other takes place.  So all we can do is look for possible and realistic solutions, and then hope and pray for the best.

The problems are so big that it's hard to know where to start.  And to make matters worse, there is no consensus politically on these solutions.  In fact, the political system is so paralyzed right now that common sense solutions to any of the problems I mentioned are unlikely to be approved.  It needs to be said that President Obama has tried to nudge things in the right direction in several ways: by supporting new plug-in hybrid vehicles, like the Volt, in order to reduce petroleum dependence in our car fleet, and by the construction of a high-speed rail system.  But in my opinion, they are 'too little, too late'.

And frankly, most of the problems remain 'below the radar' of the American public, who tend to be preoccupied with various American 'spectacles' and celebrity hijinks, brewed and served up by our corporate mass media  And when they do get interested in politics, they are diverted from the real problems by ideological demagogues, which look in all the wrong directions for answers.

So, to repeat, solving the macro problems facing America in a reasonable and timely way is unlikely, to put it mildly.  But it is nevertheless worth listing some possible solutions that might work, if they could be put into place by some miraculously appearing political coalition of new founding fathers and mothers.

Let me begin then with the issue of debt.  Right up front, I will say that I agree with the general 'Tea Party' sentiment that we must start to 'live within our means' in all aspects of our national life, public and private (though it certainly didn't originate with the Tea Part, but goes back as an honored tradition of our country that we've forgotten).  All debt and deficit spending, again public and private, must come under scrutiny and be pared down drastically.  Conversely, savings and investment must increase.  This will require really difficult, indeed almost impossible, political decisions.

For 40 years now, we Americans (of the 'non-rich' class) have been living on debt, using borrowed money from both domestic and international creditors, to keep our standard of living from falling, as they otherwise would have done from the loss of jobs and wages, trade deficits, artificially low interest rates, etc.  Credit has been easy to get, with borrowed money available for almost any purchase (autos, houses, big screen TVs), and credit cards were pushed on us from every direction. 

Our international trade deficits have been increasing as we export less (and thus manufacture less) and import more of almost everything except maybe haircuts and pizzas.  Most people don't understand this aspect of our economic dilemma, and how it undercuts our economic strength and our strong currency.  And of course, to some extent, this has been aided and abetted by countries like China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia that have continued to loan us back those dollars they got from us, so that we could continue to import their goods (which in turns weakens our manufacturing) in what becomes a vicious cycle, undercutting our economic strength and hollowing out our industry.

Our governmental debt has exploded, first of all, because it has become dogma among conservatives that taxes must always be cut and never raised.  This is especially true for the wealthy, whose tax burden has gone down while their income and wealth has skyrocketed.  And now more recently, because of the Great Recession and the desire to stimulate the economy, along with the bank and corporate bailout, the national debt has risen to historically unprecedented levels.  The costs associated with Medicare and Medicaid continue to grow at an uncontrolled pace, threatening to overwhelm the rest of the budget.  Add to this the growing expenditures of our military and intelligence agencies, and you have a federal budget completely out of control.

The housing bubble of the last ten years has been devastating in terms of debt.  For years, American families used rising home equity to finance all kinds of expenditures, but the collapsing housing market led to falling housing values, underwater mortgages, foreclosures, and banks holding worthless housing securities.

How is it that we have allowed this to happen?  Those contrarian folks (from all political persuasions, by the way) who tried to point out the obvious were ridiculed until just a few years ago as weirdos and 'outside the mainstream'.  Most mainstream economists/Wall Street analysts seemed to feel that debt really wasn't a problem--we would just 'grow' our way out of it.  Our public leaders, even those claiming to be conservative, did nothing but add to the problem when they controlled the purse strings.  Vice-President Cheney, a conservative's conservative, once claimed that budget deficits really didn't matter, as he invaded Iraq, a war that had (and continues) to be paid for with borrowed money.

How blind we have been, as we have spent money like maniacs!  And how unprepared we are to make the political and economic decisions necessary to begin to get a handle on this problem.  Not only are we not prepared to pay our loans back, we can't even stop the deficit spending itself!  (The budget deficits alone, stretched out into the future, are in the 'trillions' of dollars a year.)

The only possible solution is cut back all areas of national spending drastically, while at the same time, raising taxes on those able to pay them.

In addition, we can raise the national income by decreasing imports while increasing exports, stop thinking we have to or can solve all the world's problems with our military machine, reform our health care system (or in other words, solve the other nine problems I identified in my last post, all of which worsen the national debt).

The only problem is that we're not even close to having the political will to institute this reform measures.  Indeed, I don't think we will be able to find the political will to solve this until we suffer a kind of financial and economic collapse (think 2008 x ?), which will be the equivalent of national bankruptcy.  Then we'll have to get our act together because we won't have any choice, but in the process, we may lose our democracy and whatever affluence that the middle class has left. 

I guess that would be my prediction for our economy in the next decade or two.  Sorry to be so pessimistic.  But then again, I prefer to see it as simply being realistic.

And really, in our heart of hearts, we've known this all along, because ancient Wisdom tells us that there is a serious price to be paid for being a prodigal, nation.  Which, if you're not familiar with the story from the Gospel, means that we're going to be wallowing in the mud and eating pig's food for a while.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ten Things We Will Live To Regret as Americans

Most of us have regrets about things we did or didn't do in our lives that have had bad consequences down the line.  Let's say we sniffed cocaine once and became an addict.  Or had an affair that destroyed our marriage.  Things that seemed so right at the time can seem so wrong in the rearview mirror.

Similarly, nations do things they live to regret.  For example, I'm sure that Germany really regrets allowing Hitler to rise to power in the early 1930s.  We (and the British) ended up bombing most of their cities to smithereens, and they lost many millions of soldiers and civilians in WWII.  Ditto Japan and Pearl Harbor.

So what are the things we may live to regret as Americans?  Here are my top ten choices, in no particular logical order, since they're all tied together in numerous ways.

We will live to regret

...allowing ourselves to become so dependent on foreign oil.  America was the leading oil producer in the world in the early part of the 20th Century.  However, by the 1960s American production was starting to decline.  But instead of beginning to encourage the conservation of our uses of oil through various means, we allowed oil imports to skyrocket, thus increasing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil.  We now import over 60% of our oil, much of it to run our enormous national fleet of gas-guzzling SUVs, trucks, and automobiles.  This of course adds to our burgeoning trade deficit and has also led to our dubious interventions in the Middle Eat, with its creation of anti-American Islamist sentiment.

...allowing ourselves to become so dependent upon automobiles, with a parallel decline in accessible and convenient public transportation, as well as the increase in our housing 'sprawl', all of which is integrally connected.  To most Americans, of course, this is the way life is supposed to be in any industrialized society.  It is only when you go to Europe or Japan that you begin to understand how public transportation is supposed to work, and how proper city planning allows people to actually live without a car, if they choose (living in Manhatten is perhaps the one place in American where this also happens).  As oil prices rise, as they inevitably will with the demand for oil worldwide increasing and supply decreasing, Americans are going to be hardpressed to keep driving in the fashion to which they have become accustomed.  And then life is going to get a lot harder, with no easy solutions available.  You can't suddenly produce overnight an integrated system of public transportation or a national fleet of fuel efficient cars or houses within walking distance of life's necessities.

...allowing the radical decline of our manufacturing capacity.  Beginning in the 1960s, for a lot of reasons, American manufacturing began to decline and our imports of manufactured goods began to increase.  This decline has accelerated and gotten so bad that many cities and town in America are beginning to look like scenes from the Third World, while our ports line up with ships hauling automobiles, televisions, cellphones, appliances, furniture, and all manner of goods from Asia and Europe.  A country simply cannot be a military, political, or economic superpower for long without its own strong manufacturing sector.  That lesson is going to hit home very soon.

...allowing our debt at all levels of society to grow uncontrollably.  America has in the last three or four decades gone from the world's large creditor nation to the world's biggest debtor nation.  Much of the illusion of prosperity in that time came from borrowing and spending without concern for the future.  Unfortunately, the future has now arrived.  Much of this debt can be attributed to the loss of our manufacturing and the failure to conserve oil.  The radical decline in the value of our currency is the nearly inevitable result of this growth in debt.

...allowing the wealthy elite to contribute much less in taxes and thus underfunding vital government expenditures and driving up debt.  The political cliche of 'no new taxes' masks the willingness of the rich to let vital government services either expire or be leveraged through borrowing, building up what is clearly unsustainable debt.  Thus the rich will help in the creation of a basically bankrupt and decaying nation.  They of course will be free to 'move about' the world, with cash stashed away in bank accounts in a variety of very willing countries.

...allowing our military-industrial-intelligence complex to become so bloated and out of control.  I read an analysis recently that estimated that our spending on this complex will top a trillion dollars this year.  We spend more on war and preparation for war than all other nations combined.  This kind of spending--on bombs, planes, ships, and gun--is bleeding us dry as a nation economically.  It's why we can't afford to upgrade our bridges, roads, sewers and water lines.  It's why the Tea Party is going crazy about our deficit.  It's essentially why we invaded (and continue to occupy) two Middle Eastern countries, all on the line of credit extended to us by China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. 

...allowing our Banking and Finance sector to dominate the economy.   Bankers and the Wall Street crowd now give more to our politicians by way of contributions than any other industry.  Consequently, they have had their way over the last 20-30 years, most of which has been deleterious to our economy.  By most accounts, they bear great responsibility for the Great Recession of 2008 (along with the bought-off government regulators) and the ongoing destruction of our middle class.  They also have led the way for the dramatic redistribution of income and wealth upward, much of which has gone directly into their pockets.  Before the 2008 crash, over half of the Harvard University graduating classes were going straight to Wall Street.  Case closed.

...allowing our Corporations and Wealthy to Control our Political System.  Plutocratic control of the government at all levels by the power and wealthy elite was common from after the Civil War until the Great Depression, a period of some 65 years.  The only exception to this was the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who acted to help enact a progressive agenda.  But the Presidency of Theodore's cousin, FDR, led America into a period of greater social, political, and economic equality that lasted through the 1970s.  Since the rise of Reagan Conservatism, the pendulum has swung back in the other direction, to the point where by many measures, we have returned to a new Gilded Age, except that we are now a debt-ridden, largely urban population, without recourse to the farms which allowed us a measure of self-sufficiency in the pre-WWII era.  The rich retreat to their gated communities and schools, while everyone stares at the increasing decay and desolation around them.

...allowing our health care system to become such a bizarre hybrid of public and private, with the worst of both worlds.  We now have in America both the most expensive and the most inequitable health care system in history, one that is completely unsustainable for very much longer.  Costs are growing out of control, and more people every year are uncovered by insurance.  Recent legislation attempting to resolve these issues will not work, in my opinion.  The bullet remains to be bitten, which of course is to adopt some form of true national health insurance, like every other advanced industrial nation in the world.  Meanwhile, rising health care costs wreak havoc on our jobs and our checking accounts.

...allowing our prison system to grow to the point where it is larger than any other country's, except perhaps China.  What happens to prisoners in our system?  How much does it cost to imprison them?  How much misery and bondage do we inflict in this god-forsaken prison system?  What will happen when our multiple budget crises force us to release many of these prisoners back into society?

So what are the solutions, if any, to these revolting developments in American life?  I'll share my answers in another post, as soon as I can write it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

13th Century Sweden and 21st Century America

I'm reading in a history of Sweden this morning, and I ran across this passage, about a time back around 13th century when actions by the Swedish kings led to a decrease in social equality and the rise of an aristocracy.  I thought it sounded suspiciously familiar to what the Republicans and conservative Democrats have been trying to do for about 30 years now.
The development of a separate noble class was one of the most fateful changes of the Middle Ages. Distinctions of status had existed earlier, but they were vague. No differences between freeman were recognized before the law. In the course of the thirteenth century, however...the need arose to provide a mounted armed force on land. Individual knights appeared....The kings could not afford to outfit armies of knights, but they could encourage their officials and the greater landowners to equip themselves. Hence King Magnus Ladulas...issued a statute at Alsno in 1279 by which he gave exemption from taxation to men who would supply themselves with horses and armor....

Thus King Magnus got an army and also created a lay upper class, the fralse, distinguished by its tax-free privileges and its social status....From an egalitarian peasant society with distinctions only between slave and free, Sweden became, with this new institution of knights and fralse, a status society with sharp gradations between ranks.

As the lands of the newborn fralse became tax-free, the lands of the ordinary free farmers had to bear an increased load. As the privileged fralse discovered how advantageous it could be to own land with no responsibility other than maintenance of a few knights, they bought up additional farms and took them off the tax rolls, thus increasing further the burden on the small landholders. The state found it harder and harder to collect taxes....The fralse served as functionaries of the state. They enjoyed mobility, contacts with foreign countries, and educational opportunities for their children; they worse fine clothes and built fine houses.  (Sweden: The Nation's History by Franklin Scott, pp. 57-58)
Sounds a whole lot like our current American aristocracy/upper class, their low tax burden and privileged life. 

Lessons Learned From Japan's Catastrophe

I can't believe that I haven't posted about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which happened last Friday.  I've been doing most of my commenting on Facebook, which is a little easier.

In any case, here are some lessons I'm learning (relearning!) from this most recent disaster:

1)  Always expect the unexpected (and when you least expect it!).

2)  Things can always get worse in life, so try to be thankful for the way things are, even while pursuing change for the better.

3)  Once again, the superficially appealing libertarian view that government is essentially bad (except perhaps to protect private property), is exposed for the nonsense it is.  In times of disaster (which come along fairly routinely), you need a well-functioning, effective, responsible, and representative (of the people) government.  For proof of this, simply look at Japan today.  And in times between disasters, you need 'good government' to provide regulation of such things as earthquake/tsunami codes, nuclear power plants, as well as the necessary government structures and institutions (aka the hated 'bureaucracy') to provide for when the bad times come.  (And I think the same argument applies with regard to government's role vis-a-vis the financial and economic system as well.)

You cannot simply rely on private corporations or Big Business for these things, because while you need a strong private sector, they are driven primarily, if not exclusively, by the demand for profit and return on investment, and not on public safety, the common good, or the long-term view.  You also cannot simply rely on non-profit or volunteer associations/organizations when disaster strikes.  These will also play an important role (eg the Red Cross), but they cannot replace the essential role of government, in either preparing for or responding to the tough times of natural disaster, war, financial crash, and famine and disease.

This means that such onorous things as government bureaucracy, regulation, taxes, etc. are not evils to be destroyed but rather lesser evils (or, I would submit, even positive goods) to be protected and provided for.  Any political philosophy that does not provide for them (such as seems to be the case with the current radical Republican, Tea Party, and Libertarian orthodoxies) is a bit ridiculous or worse.  In the final analysis, there must be a precarious balance maintained between the individual, volunteer social groups, non-profit associations, private corporations and businesses, and government.  All of these are needed in a properly functioning society.

4)  Modern life in advanced industrial democracies, while appearing to be insured and guaranteed, a 'sure thing', is actually quite fragile.  (I think many people rediscovered that truth in 2008 with the Great Recession.)  It can be upset by any number of factors: natural disasters, outbreak of war, shortage of natural resources, financial/economic disturbances, disease, etc.  While enjoying one's life as much as you can, it's probably a good idea to not get too comfortable, because that can all end in the 'twinkling of an eye', and you may need to resort to reserve caches of strength and character (and food?) in order to simply survive.

5)  And always remember what virtually all great religions teach us: that material things can literally be washed away in an instant, and that family, friends, faith, and the simpler things in life are also the truly important things in life.  "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Las Vegas, America's Corrupt Heart

One of the most compelling books I've read in a long time--Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion--has this passage on Las Vegas, in the context of a devastating chapter on American pornography:
Fake Eiffel Tower at Vegas
Las Vegas, a city built on illusions, lends itself to the celebration of porn. It is the corrupt, wilfully degenerate heart of America....Las Vegas strips away the thin moral pretension and hypocrisy of consumer society to reveal its essence. the commodification of human beings, the heart of the consumer society, is garishly celebrated in Las Vegas. Here there is no past, no history, no sense of continuity, and no real community. The mammoth resorts and casinos glittering in the desert are monuments to greed and vice, even as the rest of the country crumbles under the onslaught of physical decay, shuttered stores and factories, a disintegrating infrastructure, and mounting poverty.

Las Vegas sells a cartoon version of other cultures and other lands....the guts and sinews of every theme-park hotel and casino, however, hold the same, mind-numbing slot machines, roulette wheels, and blackjack tables, A trip to Las Vegas is a visit to a sanitized, cutout version of foreign countries without the intrusion of foreign people, the hassle of unintelligible languages, strange habits, different ideas and traditions, or bizarre food. Here everyone speaks English...Here, once you get past the facade, it is all the same....

Las Vegas, should, as Neil Postman observed in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, be considered the "symbolic capital" of America. "Today we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, a a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-food high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, our religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice."
I can say from first-hand experience that the church is struggling desperately with that very issue: worship as entertainment.

But I don't care what Hedges says...the dancing fountains at the Bellagio are awesome!

Comforted by Weirdness and Delusion

Listening to Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty and some other Republican candidates speak at a political event (in this case, of the Christian Right) in Iowa recently, with their going on and on about American as 'the Exceptional Nation', etc, brought this comment by Chris Hedges in his recent book Empire of Illusion to mind:
We [Americans] ask to be indulged and comforted by cliches, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous, either because of our own attributes or our national character or because we are blessed by God. In this world, all that matters is the consistency of our belief systems. The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, give lies and mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped in the linguistic prison of incessant repetition.
The current rhetoric of the "weird, careless, delusional, egomaniacal, spotlight-chasing [Republican]candidates to whom the sensible American majority would never entrust a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons" [to quote the conservative columnist George Will] seems to feed a certain strand of voters in our current 'culture of illusion.'

Forget about blessing us...God help us, please.

Staying Out of Libya

New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer makes the case for not intervening in Libya:
The reasoning [for intervening] is simple, and deeply rooted in American history. The world is a dangerous place, it needs to be managed, and the United States is called to do the managing.

The Culture of Illusion

Occasionally I want to post excerpts from my reading that are a little 'deeper' than some of the subjects I deal with here on my blog.  One of the more impressive and controversial of the thinker/writers of our time is the former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges.  After covering war for about two decades all over the world, he came back to his native United States with new eyes.  And he has been writing about it as a social critic prolifically every since. 

I'm reading one of his recent books now, entitled Empire of Illusion, and here he presents his thesis that our American culture has become an illusional culture, where "the fabricated, the inauthentic, and the theatrical have displaced the natural, the genuine, and the spontaneous, until reality itself has been converted into stagecraft."  Hedges quotes historian Daniel Boorstin, who writes that "Americans increasingly live in a world where fantasy is more real than reality....We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so 'realistic' that they can live in them.  We are the most illusioned people on earth." 

What is follows is a more extensive excerpt that has the ring of truth to me.
We all have gods, Martin Luther said, it is just a question of which ones.  And in American society our gods are celebrities.  Religious belief and practice are commonly transferred to the adoration of celebrities.  Our culture builds temples to celebrities the way Romans did for divine emperors, ancestors, and household gods.  We are a de facto polytheistic society....In celebrity culture, the object is to get as close as possible to the celebrity.  Relics of celebrities are coveted as magical talismans.  Those who can touch the celebrity or own a relic of the celebrity hope for a transference of celebrity power.  They hope for magic.  (P. 17)

We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality.  We have traded the printed word for the gleaming image.  Public rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a ten-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level.  Most of us speak at this level, are entertained and think at this level.  We have transformed our culture into a vast replica of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, where boys were lured with the promise of no school and endless fun. They were all, hoever, turned into donkeys--a symbol, in Italian culture, of ignorance and stupidity....

Television, a medium built around the skillful manipulation of images, ones that can overpower reality, is our primary form of mass communication. A television is turned on for six hours and forty-seven minutes a day in the average household. The average American...will have spent nine years in front of a television by the time he or she is sixty-five. Television speaks in a language of familiar, comforting cliches and exciting images. It provides a mass, virtual experience that colors the way many people speak and interact with one another....It is the final arbitrator for what matters in life.

Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we are bombarded with the cant and spectacle pumped out over the airwaves or over computer screens by highly-paid pundits, corporate advertisers, talk-show hosts, and gossip-fueled entertainment networks. And a culture dominated by images and slogans seduces those who functionally literate but who make the choice not to read. There have been other historical periods with high rates of illiteracy and vast propaganda campaigns. But not since the Soviet and fascist dictatorships, and perhaps the brutal authoritarian control of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, has the content of information been as skillfully and ruthlessly controlled and manipulated. Propaganda has become a substitute for ideals and ideology. Knowledge is confused with how we are made to feel. Commercial brands are mistaken for expressions of individuality. And in this preciptous decline of values and literacy, among those who cannot read and those who have given us reading, fertile ground for a new totalitarianism is being seeded.

The culture of illusion thrives by robbing us of the intellectual and linguistic tools to separate illusion from truth....Those captive to images cast ballots based on how candidates make them feel.  They vote for a slogan, a smile, perceived sincerity, and attractiveness, along with the carefully crafted personal narrative of the candidate.  It is style and story, not content and fact, that inform mass politics. (pp. 44-46)

Obama's Need to Give Assurance

David Bromwich, amateur Obama watcher, from his perch in the English Department at Yale, is always interesting and insightful, this time about the events of last month in the Middle East:
To say that our leaders covered themselves with shame would be melodramatic. To say that they were embarrassed by unforeseeable obstructions would be much too kind. They could not help speaking for democracy, because that is what the U.S. thinks it stands for; if our actions sometimes expose us to the charge of hypocrisy, our words have the single-mindedness of sincere belief. How then did American policy in February come so palpably untethered?

We have supported a succession of military strongmen in Egypt going as far back as 1952, when the CIA judged Gamal Abdel Nasser a plausible bulwark against Communism. The U.S. gives Egypt $1.3 billion annually in aid (mostly military). Of all our clients, only Israel gets more, at $3 billion annually. The view in Washington has long been that those two nations will oversee "the neighborhood" on our behalf. That is why a nonviolent insurgency on the West Bank, if it should occur, would meet as baffled a response from Washington as the February days in Egypt. The embarrassment is part of the situation.

A fair surmise is that Obama was no less confusing in private than in public; that when he spoke to Mubarak, his words were muffled and decorous: "You must begin leaving, but I will never desert you" — something like that. The difference between Mubarak’s shakiness in his first televised speech to the country and his evident composure in his second speech may well be explained by a signal that he took for an assurance.

I will never desert you, one recalls, is the message that Barack Obama conveyed to Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson (when Obama was still a candidate); to the banks and financial firms (in February 2009); to Dick Cheney and the torture lawyers (in his National Archives Speech of May 2009); to General David Petraeus (in the months preceding the 2009 administration review of the Afghan War); to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu via the Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak (in the summer of 2009); and to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (in February 2011).

The need to give assurance seems to be an inseparable trait of Obama’s character. He deals with big decisions by first moving to cement a secure alliance with the powers-that-be, no matter how discredited they are, no matter how resounding his previous contempt for them may have been. Yet this is a reflex that often prematurely cedes control to the powerful over whom he might otherwise be in a position to exert leverage. That fight, however, is not for him.

To say it another way, Obama visibly hates crisis. He is so averse to the very idea of instability that he seems unable to use a crisis to his advantage. Seldom, to judge by the evidence thus far, is he the first, second, or third person in the room to recognize that a state of crisis exists. The hesitation that looked like apathy and the hyper-managerial tone of his response to the BP oil spill offered a vivid illustration of this trait. Egypt brought out the same pattern.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Disillusioned Matt Damon

Matt Damon has come clean about what a lot of 2008 Obama supporters are thinking (but perhaps are unwilling to say):
Few of Barack Obama's celebrity supporters at the 2008 US presidential election were as committed to his cause as the Oscar-winning actor Matt Damon. Rather than merely support Mr Obama in an online video, Damon, one of Hollywood's highest-profile liberal activists, campaigned for the Democratic nominee in Florida. Not content with that, he provided one of the most cutting insults of the campaign when he described the Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin as "really terrifying... like something out of a bad Disney movie".

Damon, 40, star of the Bourne spy trilogy and two new films, The Adjustment Bureau and True Grit, is scrupulously polite and mild-mannered when we meet in a Manhattan hotel. But laying bare his disenchantment with the Obama administration, he doesn't hide how let down he feels. President Obama's record on the economy particularly rankles. "I think he's rolled over to Wall Street completely. The economy has huge problems. We still have all these banks that are too big to fail. They're bigger and making more money than ever. Unemployment at 10 per cent? It's terrible."

He is upset that Mr Obama, who promised to "spread the wealth around", has extended the Bush tax cuts and that the inequality gap has widened.

"They had a chance that they don't have any more to stand up for things," he says. "They've probably squandered that at this point. They'll probably just make whatever deals they can to try to get elected again."

Damon appears so disillusioned that, playing devil's advocate, I ask whether he is considering voting Republican. "Good God, no! I just got a 3 per cent tax cut. Do you think I'm going to start a small business with that money? You're out of your mind if you think so. I'm going to put it in the bank. So is every other guy that makes the kind of money I make. I don't think that's what's best for the country. I think a stronger middle class makes for a stronger country."

As well as the economy, Mr Obama's record on education repels him. "They have to get people who actually know about educating kids in positions of power. Now they're trying to get business people to come and manage schools like they're factories. It's not going to work."
Well, if you're reading this blog, you know that I agree with Damon.

A Pathetic 9/11 Commission Report

This column by Robert Scheer shows clearly that our official knowledge of what happened on 9/11 is mostly based on hear-say evidence from the interrogators of tortured Al-Qaeda members. 
What the public has been led to believe about the events of 9/11 is most fully encapsulated in the report of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, appointed by President George W. Bush. But the Bush administration denied the commission access to the prisoners whose testimony, elicited after torture, provided the basic narrative as to how Sept. 11, 2001, came to be. That fatal flaw in the investigation was clearly conceded in a box on Page 146 of the official 9/11 Commission report containing a disclaimer that the key chapters “rely heavily on information from captured al Qaeda members” and admitting that the commission was dependent on hearsay reports from the interrogators as to what those witnesses actually said.

“We submitted questions for use in the interrogations but had no control over whether, when, or how questions of particular interest would be asked. Nor were we allowed to talk to the interrogators so that we could better judge the credibility of the detainees and clarify ambiguities in the reporting. We were told that our requests might disrupt the sensitive interrogation process.”
In case you're interested, here are my past posts on this issue.

The Welfare State

I'm reading a book entitled 'Modern Welfare States' by two Scandinavian scholars, about the rise of the Welfare State in the Scandinavian countries.  I thought the following was a good definition (which is much different than the pejorative definition of 'welfare' you mostly hear in the U.S).
In general, those [welfare state] policies have been of three sorts: (1) the provision of social services and transfer payments that make up the welfare state proper; (2) the management of capitalistic, market economies to minimize unemployment and maintain optimal economic growth vital to finance welfare measures; and (3) the regulation of behavior by individuals, groups, and corporations to restrict the need for welfare and the costs of welfare programs. The aim was to guarantee a decent standard of living for those worst off in the society, and to increase the degree of equality among socioeconomic groups without undercutting the dynamism of the market economy. In the process, the Scandinavian countries have developed a security net of transfer payments--unemployment, disability, and sickness insurance; old age pensions; family allowances; rent subsidies; and special payments to those temporarily in need--and social services--medical and dental care; home assistance for the sick, disabled, and elderly; and child and after-school care--that provides a comfortable, solid floor to support living standards of anyone forced out of the labor market. In other words, if you have to be sick, disabled, or unemployed, the place to be is in Denmark, Norway, or Sweden.
As any one can tell from the current political debate taking place in Washington and around the country, we have been moving away from this kind of political understanding (formerly called New Deal Liberalism, now simply called--with distain--'socialism') for over 30 years, since the rise of Reagan conservatism.  Except for a few lone voices, what is now on the agenda is twofold: first, making sure that individuals have the right to strive for the 'American Dream' of becoming rich; and second, cutting back government spending at all levels, or in other words, trying to eliminate what 'liberalism' (aka FDR and LBJ) put in place since the New Deal.

In a discreet way in his TV special on restoring America the other night, Fareed Zakaria as much as said that we need to imitate the 'social democracies' of Northern Europe and restore the social safety net that is now being ripped to shreds.  But that is clearly not going to happen anytime soon, short of some sort of unforeseen political revolution.  And believe me, that is not what the Tea Party has in mind!

So, to paraphrase the last sentence of the quoted excerpt above, if you have to be sick, disabled, or unemployed [and I would add 'retired' and simply 'not rich' to this list], the place NOT to be is in the United States of America. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Zakaria's Solution to America's Decline

I thought it was really interesting that Fareed Zakaria, on his TV special about 'Restoring the American Dream' that aired Saturday night, rather overtly recommended the mixed economies/welfare state that social democracies in Northern Europe have developed, including a social 'safety net' for the poor and unemployment.

But his biggest criticism was directed toward our 'inflexible, schlerotic, antiquated' political system, that was 'unsuited for the 21st Century' and 'unable to plan for the future.'

Sounds to me like Zakaria is rather pessimistic about America's future, given the unlikely nature of either a restoration of a decent 'safety net', radical and courageous fiscal reform, or radical political change.

A College Degree Guarantees Very Little, Except Possibly For Student Debt

I have believed for some time now that the panacea of a college education for everyone was not going to solve the problem of jobs or a higher standard of living.  So I was glad to see Paul Krugman arguing the same thing in his column today in the NYT.  Here are the last couple paragraphs:
But there are things education can’t do. In particular, the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.

So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer — we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen.

What we can’t do is get where we need to go just by giving workers college degrees, which may be no more than tickets to jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay middle-class wages.
It seems that the revolt of the Wisconsin public unions against the attempt by their governor to destroy them is stimulating some new thinking about the importance of a strong labor movement in saving the middle class in America.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Deceit Built Into 'GDP Per Capita'

In a review in the WSJ of Tom Geoghegan's very entertaining book Were You Born On The Wrong Continent, which tries to make the case for the superiority of the 'European Model', economist James Glassman writes:
Photo by Sarahbeth Lindquist
Europe's economic story in recent years—well before the current crisis—has been one of sluggish growth and high unemployment. As a result, a wide gap has opened up between Europe and the U.S. in the most revealing indicator of economic well-being, GDP per capita. For the U.S in 2008 (all statistics from the OECD), the figure was $47,200; for Germany, $35,400; France, $33,100; Italy, $31,252. In other words, the average American produces 43% more than the average Frenchman. The economist Mark Perry has noted on his blog Carpe Diem that citizens of America's poorest state, Mississippi, have a higher GDP than Italians; and Alabamans beat the Germans, French and Belgians.
Question: does anyone really believe the average citizen of Mississippi (with its numerous and very poor racial minorities) is better off than the average citizen of France or Germany?  I would say that is simply a crazy statement, written by a enthusiastic free-market economist trying to persuade his readers, against all the on-the-ground evidence, as to why the American economy is SO great and SO much better than Europe's social democracy.

The issue of course revolves around the question of 'GDP per capita', which Geoghegan addresses in his book, and which Jeremy Rifkin debunks in a detailed (and persuasive) way in his 2004 book The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream.  Here are a few relevant paragraphs from the latter (p. 72):
Althought the EU economy is running almost head-to-head with the U.S. economy, the numbers don't tell the whole story. That's because the comparisons between the EU and the U.S. are being made by looking at their respective GDPs.  The problem with this approach is that GDP gives a false sense of real economic well-being....
The GDP was created by the U.S. Commerce Department at the height of the Depression in the 1930s and was used first as a gauge for measuring the nation's economic recovery and then to monitor wartime production capacity during World War II.  The fault with the GDP is that it doesn't discriminate between economic activity that really improves the standard of living of people and economic activity that does not....
GDP counts every economic activity as good.  So if crime rises because of unemployment and poverty, requiring an increase in police protection and enforcement, court costs, prison costs, and a beefing up of private surveillance and protection, the economic activity it engenders finds it way into the GDP....

The purchase of more missiles, airplanes, tanks, and bombs are all added to the GDP.  One would be hard-pressed to say that any of these activities actually result in a net improvement in our quality of life.  Here lies the rub.  So much of our GDP--and an increasing percentage of it every year--is made up of economic activity that clearly does not improve our well-being.
And then after a long description of his experiences in Europe, Rifkin makes this telling point:
The point is, there is a very real and demonstrable difference in "the quality of life" one experiences in much of Europe compared with that in most parts of the United States.
That corresponds with my experience at well, and as the crisis deepens in the United States, the difference becomes even greater. I'll tell you more in August, after my month in Europe this summer.

Hell Comes Under Fire

One of the most popular of younger evangelical preachers is questioning the reality of Hell:
Tour of Hell by James Anderson
A new book [Love Wins] by one of the country’s most influential evangelical pastors, challenging traditional Christian views of heaven, hell and eternal damnation, has created an uproar among evangelical leaders, with the most ancient of questions being argued in a biblical hailstorm of Twitter messages and blog posts.

In a book to be published this month, the pastor, Rob Bell, known for his provocative views and appeal among the young, describes as “misguided and toxic” the dogma that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.”

Such statements are hardly radical among more liberal theologians, who for centuries have wrestled with the seeming contradiction between an all-loving God and the consignment of the billions of non-Christians to eternal suffering. But to traditionalists they border on heresy, and they have come just at a time when conservative evangelicals fear that a younger generation is straying from unbendable biblical truths.

Mr. Bell, 40, whose Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., has 10,000 members, is a Christian celebrity and something of a hipster in the pulpit, with engaging videos that sell by the hundreds of thousands and appearances to rapt, youthful crowds in rock-music arenas
Ah yes, this was inevitable.  It happened 200 years ago, as the Calvinists of New England were shocked by the 'heretics' in their midst in the environs of Boston and that damnable and veritable fountain of heresy, Harvard Divinity School.  And that led to the rise of liberal Protestant theology, which has lately been in decline.

And now that the dam of evangelical orthodoxy has once again sprung a leak, more 'heresies' will flood forth on all kinds of theological topics. It's as natural as the coming of the rains of spring, and as lovely, in that it renews the fields and soil of Christianity.

More power to ya, Rev. Bell!

Peter Gomes, RIP

One of America's great preachers is dead.  Rev. Peter Gomes, preacher at the Chapel at Harvard University, died last Monday of a stroke.  His book, entitled The Good Book, was one of those that you read and remember, because he showed that the Bible has been used to support slavery, the domination of women, and the suppression of homosexulity.  Therefore, how one interprets the 'Good Book' is very important and must be done carefully and reasonably. 

Incidentally, Gomes was gay.  RIP, Pastor Gomes.

Higher Education in Decline

Bob Herbert's Saturday column on higher education is provocative concerning the sinking standards of our colleges and universities:
A provocative new book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” makes a strong case that for a large portion of the nation’s seemingly successful undergraduates the years in college barely improve their skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing.

Intellectual effort and academic rigor, in the minds of many of the nation’s college students, is becoming increasingly less important. According to the authors, Professors Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia: “Many students come to college not only poorly prepared by prior schooling for highly demanding academic tasks that ideally lie in front of them, but — more troubling still — they enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment.”

Students are hitting the books less and partying more. Easier courses and easier majors have become more and more popular. Perhaps more now than ever, the point of the college experience is to have a good time and walk away with a valuable credential after putting in the least effort possible.

The authors cite empirical work showing that the average amount of time spent studying by college students has dropped by more than 50 percent since the early 1960s. But a lack of academic focus has not had much of an effect on grade point averages or the ability of the undergraduates to obtain their degrees.

Thirty-six percent of the students said they studied alone less than five hours a week. Nevertheless, their transcripts showed a collective grade point average of 3.16. “Their G.P.A.’s are between a B and a B-plus,” said Professor Arum, “which says to me that it’s not the students, really — they share some of the blame — but the colleges and universities have set up a system so that there are ways to navigate through it without taking difficult courses and still get the credential.”
It is still not clear to me that 'college for everyone' can be tied to economic growth and a better standard of living for everyone (as I tried to show in a previous post). What is clear is that a big part of our personal and public debt load is now college loans.

Industrialized society does not require a majority of young people to go to college, and in all reality, it is likely a majority of young people cannot really take advantage of college, due to lack of interest or ability.