Monday, October 31, 2011

Mitt Romney--A Lubricated Weather Vane?

David Plouffe, campaign manager for President Obama, said on Sunday morning that Mitt Romney 'has no core', meaning that he has no core convictions that he won't compromise.  This is becoming a common criticism of Romney, that he is a flip-flopper who will change his position like a "lubricated weather vane", as Jon Huntsman put it a few days ago.  Conservatives seem to think this of Romney, primarily because he has switched from conservative to moderate and now back to conservative again over the years.

Does this mean that he is simply 'pragmatic', willing to follow where the evidence or needs lead?  Actually, this is how President Obama is often described, as a centrist pragmatist rather than a 'liberal/progressive'.  Is Romney just a Republican/conservative version of Obama, someone without strong core convictions who just follows where the facts lead?  Or does it mean that he will say anything to get elected, which is often considered to be a characteristic trait of politicians, with few exceptions (perhaps Ron Paul?).

Here is what we know FOR SURE about Mitt Romney.  He is, first of all, a committed, orthodox Mormon.  Secondly, he is a committed family man, with little likelihood of any moral 'skeleton's in his closet of a personal nature.  Thirdly, he worked in the private equity industry, doing leveraged buyouts of business, and in the process, became rich.  And fourthly, Romney as Governor worked with the political system in Massachusetts to put in place a public/private health care system that covers virtually everyone.  And in order to do that, he didn't take a strongly ideological position, but worked 'across the aisle.'

So here's my take on Romney.  I think that, given his background, Romney is what I would call a 'conservative pragmatist', which is to say that, though he leans strongly in a conservative direction in the three basic areas of economic/foreign/cultural politicies, he is open to compromise in order to get things done.  He's not an ideologue, in other words.  At least I don't think so.

One caveat to the above is that his list of foreign policy advisors is a rollcall of foreign policy experts from the early George W. Bush administration, which is to say, hawkish 'neo-conservatives' (Herman Cain doesn't know what that means) rather than the 'realists' from later on in Bush II.  If he is sincere about that, rather than just trying to assure that wing of the Republican Party to get their support, then that's a big problem.  And I think we have to assume that's the case, since we have nothing else to base a judgment on.

The other thing I would say is that, given that his background in the financial sector of the economy, Romney is even more unlikely than Obama to take the hard steps to reregulate the banking/Wall Street sector to help prevent the kinds of things that brought on our 2008 financial/economic debacle.

So actually, I hope that he is more pragmatic than might otherwise be the case.  Otherwise, it's going to be pretty dismal if he wins.

PS.  I forgot to say that another 'strength' of Mitts is his father, George Romney.  He was a very fine man and governor of Michigan, a stalwart of the civil rights movement when it wasn't necessarily a popular thing to do in the United States or in the Republican Party (or the Mormon Church, for that matter).  So if Mitt has some of his father in him, then he could pull some surprises (of the good kind) on us!  But on the other hand, Mitt could also be more like the sons of Billy Graham and George H.W. Bush: poor imitations of the original.

If Nothing Else, Mitt Romney Is Passionate About Becoming President

Here's some good stuff about Mitt Romney from an article in the New York Review of Books by Christopher Benfey.
Then I ask locals about their impressions of Mitt, I get a recurring response: Nixonian. “The overriding passion of his life seems to be to become president,” a conservative economics professor tells me. “I can’t think of a single issue over which Romney would risk reelection in order to stick to a principle.” A University of Massachusetts journalism professor puts it more positively: “He can be as cagey as Nixon, and he can be almost as smarmy, but he is also able to think strategically.”

It’s a point of pride in the college towns of Amherst and Northampton and South Hadley not to watch, or at least admit you watch, the Republican debates, which are nonetheless characterized as “scary.” Concern is voiced at local dinner parties that Mitt is a Mormon, though it quickly becomes clear, amid loose talk of magic underwear and scriptures in “reformed Egyptian,” that few of us really know much about Mormonism. One friend whispers darkly that “a disproportionately large share of the faculty of the Harvard Business School is Mormon.” A quick Google check reveals that the longtime dean, Kim Clark, is indeed a Mormon, but what number would be disproportionately large?

There’s also mild embarrassment at what might seem religious bigotry among us, a point reinforced by Mitt himself in his careful “Faith in America” speech from 2007, when he pointed out that fifty years ago “another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president.” I myself grew up in a sect (the same one that Nixon belonged to) as peculiar in its tenets as the Mormons, and with a longer history of persecution, though few people since Benjamin Franklin have feared that a cabal of Quakers is running the country.

Mitt’s favorite movie is said to be the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? Mitt, who majored in English at BYU, may imagine some connection between the picaresque hero of this Odyssey-inspired romp through the American South, a charming escape artist played by George Clooney, and his own shape-shifting career. When contemplating yet another change of direction with his aides, according to Ashley Parker in The New York Times, Mitt likes to quote Clooney’s line “We’re in a tight spot.”

On television, Mitt looks like someone hired to play the president in a movie that couldn’t afford Clooney. At the recent debate in Orlando, he joined a lineup of eight other candidates, all of whom seemed to be conspiring to make Mitt look and sound presidential. Pizza executive Herman (“9-9-9”) Cain was the favorite choice for vice-president, the appealing black man who proves that Republicans aren’t racists for going after Obama, whom Rick Santorum compared to George III....

Like the other Republican candidates, he has an aversion to Europe (and a professed love for Israel, a fervent cause for evangelicals, who worry about his Mormonism). Obama “takes his political inspiration from Europe and from the socialist democrats in Europe,” he said in Orlando. Romney spent two years in France during the late 1960s, peddling Mormonism door to door, as is expected of young members of the church, while disapproving of the student uprisings in May 1968. Not only is Europe bankrupt financially, Romney likes to argue, it’s bankrupt spiritually. “I have visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe,” he said in his faith speech. “They are so inspired, so grand, so empty.” In a debate devoted to the economy held at Dartmouth on October 11, Mitt dismissed as “hypothetical” a question about what he’d do if the European financial contagion spread to the US, implying that no one should expect a bailout from a tough businessman like him. Religion didn’t come up at Dartmouth (except for Michele Bachmann’s joke about turning 9-9-9 upside down), and Mitt was free to portray himself as a “job- creator” who knows how to turn a country around.

Social Security: A Safety Deposit Box With Nothing But IOUs In It

It's rare to find a decent analysis of Social Security in the MSM, so this weekend's article in the WaPo is worth posting.

Social Security is so fundamental to the well-being of our aged population--now and in the future--that every effort must be made to resolve the problems and get it to a solvent fiscal position.  Yet as the article points out, our current political impasse is preventing that from happening. 

And now, due to the economic downturn, along with the payroll tax cut agreed to by Obama and Congress, Social Security has gone 'cash negative', in that there is less coming in by way of tax revenues than outgoing in the way of benefits being paid out.  And the so-called Trust Fund (you know, the one in the lock box)?  Read on (and weep):
Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went “cash negative.”

For most of its 75-year history, the program had paid its own way through a dedicated stream of payroll taxes, even generating huge surpluses for the past two decades. But in 2010, under the strain of a recession that caused tax revenue to plummet, the cost of benefits outstripped tax collections for the first time since the early 1980s.

Now, Social Security is sucking money out of the Treasury. This year, it will add a projected $46 billion to the nation’s budget problems, according to projections by system trustees. Replacing cash lost to a one-year payroll tax holiday will require an additional $105 billion. If the payroll tax break is expanded next year, as President Obama has proposed, Social Security will need an extra $267 billion to pay promised benefits.

Social Security is hardly the biggest drain on the budget. But unless Congress acts, its finances will continue to deteriorate as the rising tide of baby boomers begins claiming benefits. The $2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief. The government has borrowed every cent and now must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors to keep benefit checks flowing.

Created during the Great Depression, Social Security grew in popularity as Congress repeatedly raised benefits through the 1950s and 1960s and then, in the 1970s, set initial benefits to rise automatically with wages and with inflation thereafter.

Those changes made the program vastly more expensive than the “old age and survivors” insurance originally envisioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He wanted to protect workers and their families from financial hardship due to death, disability or aging. Retirement benefits were available at 65, at a time when life expectancy was significantly lower than today.

No crystal ball is necessary to predict Social Security’s future. Hard numbers tell the story. Social Security supports about 55 million people. By 2035, that figure will swell to 91 million. Today, for every person claiming benefits, there are three workers paying into the system. By 2035, there will be two.

Congress foresaw this as early as 1983. Inflation had driven the program’s costs through the roof. After decades of expansion, Congress finally had to scale back the program, choosing to tax wealthier retirees’ benefits and gradually raise the retirement age to 67.

Those changes, along with other adjustments, restored solvency and promised yearly surpluses that would build up the trust fund in preparation for the retirements of the baby boom. The surpluses were invested in special Treasury bonds, which, by law, must be repaid with interest.

Assuming they are, Social Security can pay full benefits through 2036. Once the trust fund is depleted, the system would rely solely on incoming taxes, and benefits would have to be cut by about 25 percent across the board.

Several factors have disrupted even that timetable. The recent recession caused the program to go cash negative years earlier than expected. The payroll tax holiday is depriving the system of revenue. And 10 years of escalating debt have crippled the government’s ability to repay the trust fund.

Certner, of the AARP, said it is unfair to cut Social Security benefits to solve that problem.

“The federal government is saying, ‘We’re in the red right now and we’re having trouble paying back Social Security, so we’d like to cut Social Security benefits,’ ” Certner said. “But that’s not the deal.”

Others argue that the deal has long since been abandoned and that the trust fund has become a fiction of accounting. “We can debate until the cows come home whether there’s really a trust fund or not,” said Olivia Mitchell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who served on a 2001 presidential commission to study Social Security. “But the fact is, there’s no money available to pay for those benefits. And the system is short on cash now.”
Notice a couple of things.  First of all, as the article makes clear, the 'payroll tax holiday' is hurting the long-term fiscal outlook of Social Security.  So this is Obama's way of helping working class Americans?  Tax relief in the short term that hurts them in the long run?  I thought that was the case when those tax cuts were announced, but this is the first time I've seen it put that way.  How do they explain this?  I don't know, but perhaps it's that since the lower working class and working poor don't pay income tax but do pay payroll tax, they figure that tax cut goes to everyone. 

Second, there is supposed to be about $2.6 trillion dollars in a Social Security Trust Fund.  This is money that you and I have paid into Social Security through our (regressive) payroll taxes lo these many years, that was over and above what was immediately needed for benefits.  Well guess what, all there are is a bunch of IOUs in the form of US Treasury Bonds.  In other words, our payroll taxes have been going to buy tanks, airplanes, aircraft carriers, wars, tax cuts for wealthy folks, etc.  That is a gross misuse of those taxes, since they tend to be regressive in nature and should be reserved for Social Security.  How do they justify this?

Using the Trust Fund that way is like putting money in a shoe box for your vacation, then taking the money out to pay for some new furniture and putting an IOU into the box, thinking you'll pay it back before vacation comes along.  But when July comes along and you go to the shoe box to get the money for your trip to the beach, all you've got are IOUs.  Trouble is: BEACH HOTELS DON'T TAKE IOUs!

In other words, using the Trust Fund/Payroll Tax money to buy US Treasuries, thinking that's a good investment, was little more than fraudulent accounting.  Congress has taken the money that was designated to paying Social Security benefits for years and used it for all kinds of other things.  "Oh, we'll put it back when the time comes!"  Yeah, right.

So what can be done about it?  Most Americans are counting on that basic support for retirement income, and with pensions going the way of the giant woodpecker, they will need it in the future more than ever. 

Since Obama and the Congress don't seem to be able to get any leverage on this issue, I think we've got another issue for the Occupy movement.  (That gives you confidence, doesn't it.)

Herman Cain Proves That Conservative Republicans Are Not Racists

Let's just say it.  Conservative Republican support for Herman Cain should help to eliminate any residual charges of racism against Republicans and conservatives.  I've felt that was true for some time anyway.  Republican President George W. Bush appointed Colin Powell as the first black Secretary of State, and Condaleeza Rice as the second.  Conservatives and Republicans supported Alan Keyes for Senator from Illinois against Barack Obama. 

It's ideology now that trumps race or sex.

Of course, it doesn't eliminate the charge that Republican and conservatives prefer incompetent ideologues over competent pragmatists. 

Or to put it another way, loudmouth ignoramuses, even if they're black, still attract far too many conservative Republicans.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Mormonism's Biggest Problem Is Joseph Smith

There is something disturbing about Mormonism.  And it has nothing to do with whether or not it is Christian.
(My personal answer to that issue is: No, Mormonism should not be considered as a Christian denomination.  It is just too far outside the circle of what makes Christianity Christian, viz. the Bible and basic biblical Trinitarian theology.  Rather, LDS (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) is, as Indiana University historian Jan Shipps put it in her 1987 book Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, a brand new religion in history that precipitated out of 19th Century American Protestanism.)

Mormonism has a destructive virus embedded in its code that should logically end up destroying it.   And that is that the central focus of its faith, the hinge on which it swings, is not Jesus Christ but Joseph Smith.  To put it another way, the credibility of Mormonism rises and falls almost solely on the credibility of Joseph Smith and his revelations as found in The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.  Take away Joseph Smith, and Mormonism loses its very soul, its raison d'être.

Houston, we have a problem.

And here it is: unlike the founders of any of the great world religions including Christianity, we know a great deal about Joseph Smith, because he lived in 19th century upstate New York (not 1st century CE Palestine or 6th century BCE India).  There were newspapers, magazines, libraries, courts, diaries and journals, and all kinds of written sources all around him there, and many of them have been preserved.  We know a great deal about Smith, his father and mother, his wife Emma, his extended relatives, his neighbors, his community, and his eventual Mormon followers.

So, whereas the Mormon Church has created over the last 180 years a mythologized, idealized, "faith-promoting" picture of its "prophet, seer and revelator" Joseph Smith, we now have an alternative, historically-grounded, factually accurate account of his life.  And the two don't match.  At all.

Disinterested scholars of Mormonism and Joseph Smith--many of them ex-Mormons in fact, like biographer Fawn Brodie and historian D. Michael Quinn--have discovered that this young man was not really a saint or mystic or prophet at all.  Indeed, far from it.

Frankly, I did not necessarily expect this when I started reading in the literature.  As a rule, I tend to give the founders of religion--prophets, saints, mystics, etc--the benefit of the doubt, believing that at the core of their mission was a good heart and an intense desire to get close to God--however they conceived God--and to do God's will, as they understood it.

This isn't what I have found with Joseph Smith.  In fact, it looks to me, to put it bluntly, that he was either an imposter or a deluded zealot from the very beginning of his role in the founding of Mormonism. 

For example, years before he 'translated' the Book of Mormon or organized his new church, between the ages of 18 and 25, it is now clear that he was heavily involved in the 'folk magic' that was rampant in that area at that time.  (This is the essence of Quinn's book Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview, for which scholarship he was excommunicated by the LDS in 1993.)  It appears that Smith used these magical 'tools'--divining rods, incantations, magic circles, talismans, crystal gazing and 'seer stones', and the like--all as a means of treasure-hunting, ie. as a way of duping those around him into giving him money.  In fact, he was actually arrested and convicted for this activity during this time, historical evidence of which has been found in the last decade or two, much to the  extreme consternation of the Mormon Church. 

It was also during this same time that he allegedly found the famous golden plates (using his magic) and 'translated' them (using, again, his magic--a crystal ball-type stone in a top hat into which he put his face) into what became his Book of Mormon, the new scripture of the people called Mormon.  And in 1830, in Palmyra, New York, this magic-saturated and obviously talented young man of 25 called his congregation together, believers in him and his new magic book. 

It took only one year for the Palmyra, NY community to run him (and those who would continue to follow him) out of town.  He moved to Ohio.  The same thing happened there, and he moved to Missouri.  The same thing happened there, and he moved to Illinois.  And the same thing happened there, but before he could move again, a mob murdered him in the local jail where he was being held.  (After which, Brigham Young took charge and moved the flock out of the US and into Utah, then a part of Mexico.) This all happened because the things Joseph Smith and his followers were saying and doing were simply outrageous and offensive to the ordinary Christian people of those American communities.

Most disgusting of all is the now-verified serial adultery of Joseph Smith with teenage girls and the wives of his followers (33 of them, at least).  Blasphemously, he tried to justify his obscene behavior by claiming it to be God's command to him (though in his lifetime, he denied that publicly).  This so-called 'polygamy' or 'plural marriage'--aka fornicating with every woman he could manage to persuade with his gift of 'God-talk'--spread to the other Mormon leaders and soon became the basis for an entire Mormon way of life, which lasted into the 20th century.  (His successor as President of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young, had no less than 55 'wives', which, in its own way, is very impressive!)

Mormonism, because of its polygamous lifestyle, is the only religion that the US federal government, famous for its 'freedom of religion', has ever threatened to squash.  And that is the only reason that Mormonism outlawed its polygamy, officially in 1890 and in reality several decades later.

Unfortunately, history tells us quite clearly that it is very unlikely that Joseph Smith was who he said he was: the greatest of all prophets and the restorer of true Christianity.  No, he seems to have been the complete opposite.

I feel sorry for Mormons, I really do.  They are, on the whole, really nice, very good people.  Of that, there is little doubt.  It's just too bad they had such a screwed-up founder.

Switzerland, I Love You

It's so weird.  In the last two hours, I've had 24 hits on my blog from Switzerland, while only 16 from the United States.  I KNEW I loved Switzerland!


Atop The Jungfrau, Switzerland, 2007


Herman Cain And Cigarettes

Salon.com has an insightful article about Herman Cain's relationship with Big Tobacco, which most certainly explains the guy smoking in his recent Presidential ad.  Absolutely NOTHING in those political ads is coincidental. 

So, Cain may not know what a 'neo-conservative' is, but he seems to know the difference between Winston and Salem.

Who would have guessed that even the stake to the heart of the tobacco industry would be at-risk of being removed in our rightward surge? And yet, there he is: Herman Cain, lackey to Big Tobacco, standing poised and ready to help out his old cronies, the people who made him, under the guise of removing excessive government regulation.

An in-depth article in Sunday’s New York Times, “Cain, Now Running as a Political Insider, Went to Washington as a Lobbyist,”got the ball rolling, and thinkprogress.org has dug a little deeper, but neither do more than scratch the surface of the 156 references to Herman Cain contained in the University of California at San Francisco Legacy Tobacco Documents Library.

Cain’s tobacco era began when he took over as CEO and executive lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA). Cain developed a money trail that culminated in contributions from R.J. Reynolds alone at a level of many hundreds of thousands of dollars in in-kind benefits to the NRA. This was stated clearly by Rob Meyne, former senior director of public affairs for the tobacco company. He wrote in a 1999 memo published by the Times that indicated R. J. Reynolds gave the National Restaurant Association “nearly $100,000 in cash and much more in in-kind support” on a more or less annual basis. One wonders what forms that in-kind support took, and how such support may have buoyed Mr. Cain’s premature foray into presidential politics in 2000.

In return, Herman Cain became a junkyard dog for Big Tobacco.

The Answer to Herman Cain's "It's Your Own Fault" If You Haven't Got A Job

Starting From Scratch In Libya

Anne Applebaum of the WaPo is a scholarly journalist, an historian of the Soviet Union and its revolution.  And her column today on Libya shows how the dictator Gaddafi did not do his people any favors.

...Libya’s late dictator, Moammar Gaddafi, has left an unprecedented, even weird, vacuum in his wake. Post-revolutionary Libya is truly a desert, not only in the geographic sense but in the political, economic, even psychological senses too.

Look, by contrast, at Libya’s post-revolutionary neighbors. Egypt has a sophisticated economy, a middle class, foreign investors and an enormous tourist industry, not to mention a long history of financial interactions with the rest of the world. Tunisia has a highly educated and articulate population, which has long been exposed to French media and political ideas. More than 90 percent of Tunisians voted in the country’s first free elections last weekend. Outside observers proclaimed the voting impeccably fair.

Libya, by contrast, has neither a sophisticated economy nor an articulate population, nor any political experience whatsoever. There were no political parties under Gaddafi, not even fake, government-controlled political parties. There were no media, nor even reliable information, to speak of. Libyan journalists were the most heavily controlled in the Arab world, hardly anyone has Internet access,and there is no tradition of investigative reporting.

During four decades in power, Gaddafi destroyed the army, the civil service and the educational system. The country produces nothing except oil, and none of the profits from that oil seem to have trickled down to anybody. Some 60 percent of the population works for the government, but they receive very low salaries — a few hundred dollars a month — in exchange. There is hardly any infrastructure, outside of a few roads. There is hardly any social life, since so many young people were too poor to marry. There wouldn’t be any public spaces to enjoy social life even if it existed: Trash is scattered along the undeveloped beaches, and old plastic bags blow back and forth across weed-clogged city parks.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and of course, in the absence of an army, militias may step into the breach: At the moment, some 27 of them, from cities all over Libya, have taken up residence in Tripoli compounds and spray-painted their names on the barricades....
She does admit they have lots of money. But it's hard to tell if that is good or bad, actually.

Unfortunately, this all sounds like a recipe for anarchy, which is probably the only thing worse than authoritarian rule.  When chaos reigns, people want 'law and order', so that they can at least survive. 

What a mess!  I hope that NATO is up for the challenge, because this struggle isn't over yet.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Never Before Have So Many Been So Strange

Not only do I not know how I would go about estimating the likelihood that Mr. Cain will win the Republican nomination —I’m not sure that there is a good way to do so at all. But I do know what an analyst should not do: he should not use terms like “never” and “no chance” when applied to Mr. Cain’s chances of winning the nomination, as many analysts have.

There is simply no precedent for a candidate like Mr. Cain, one with such strong polling but such weak fundamentals. --Nate Silver
After quoting Nate Silver on Herman Cain, blogger Andrew Sullivan makes some good points on the contemporary Republican Party, helping to account for its great weirdness.
My own take on this is that Cain is a great performer - he makes a living as a motivational speaker, after all - and the rest of the field is hobbled by one glaring problem respectively, while Cain isn't. Perry is simply too dumb and lazy to be president. Romney too transparently opportunist for a purist party. Paul is disqualified because of foreign policy. Bachmann is a programmed bonkers-bot. Santorum is a frothy substance whose views of the world are frozen in place sometime around 1986. Gingrich is an asshole who could never win the presidency, and even those who like his permanent smirk/snarl understand that. Huntsman might as well be Al Sharpton, because of his views on climate change, gays and because of his working for Satan. No wonder Cain has a shot, given the debates. He is likable and brilliant at simple, effective presentation. He has the skills of an actor, and a roguish shamelessness that reminds me a little of Clinton. Even though you know he's a total charlatan, you still kinda like the guy.

He's black too, and one cannot help but feel that some of his support is really a way of expressing hatred for Obama, and proving that the Tea Party is not racist.

But Cain is a function, I think, of a deeper Republican reality. It has become a wing of the entertainment industry, and in that media-industrial complex, the money to be made is immense. You do not make that money or become a star in conservative circles by actually governing, by the process of compromise and negotiation with one's opponents, or by detailed policy knowledge. In the universe where conservatism is defined by Levin and Malkin and Limbaugh and Hannity, you have to be a great polemicist, you have to be partisan above all, you need to be outrageous at times, and you have to appeal to the gut, rather than the brain.

This is an entertainment company based around a religious identity politics and masquerading as a political party. Once you grasp that, you can see why a Mitch Daniels or a Richard Lugar or a Jon Huntsman are asterisks. They know things; they want to govern, not perform; and they are not in a permanent mode of marginalized and angry opposition.

I'm beginning to wonder if the GOP is heading for a defeat they don't see coming - even in an economic environment which should make the presidency theirs' for the taking. I hope it is. Something needs to wake them up from their increasing detachment from the reality of governance.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Flat Tax Means Poor Pay More And Rich Pay Less

Michael Tomasky writes helpfully in The Daily Beast on the notion of a 'flat tax':
Steve Forbes Likes Flat Tax
Herman Cain has given us 9-9-9. This week sometime, Rick Perry is going to announce the details of his plan for a flat tax. He keeps nattering on about simplicity. He wants to “scrap the 3 million words of the tax code,” he snarls, to great harrumphs of approval.

We don’t yet have the details on Perry’s plan, but it will certainly be, because all flat-tax proposals are, a gussied-up way of stealing money from the working and middle classes and handing it to the rich. Why is all too straightforward. Have a look at this list of current marginal tax rates. You’ll see that rates change at various levels, which everyone knows, but what everyone forgets is that even if you make more, within any given income range, you pay that rate. If you make $100,000, you are in the 28 percent bracket, but you’re not paying 28 cents on every dollar you earned, which is what most media shorthand would lead you to believe. You’re paying in accordance with the rate scale in the above link, each chunk of salary taxed at the appropriate marginal rate.

This means that what a person actually pays can be hard to figure, but this calculator gets us most of the way there. A $50,000 earner (married filing separately, as all these examples will be) pays 17.25 percent. A $100,000 earner pays 22 percent. A $250,000 earner pays 29 percent. A $500,000 earner pays 32 percent. And a $1 million earner pays 33.5 percent. Remember—I told you I was celebrating complexity!—these dollar figures are taxable income, i.e., after deductions.

If, however, there were an 18 percent tax on income—most flat-tax proposals are in that range—everyone would pay, duh, 18 percent. According to the above calculator, the 18 percent rate is paid now by a person whose taxable income is $56,000. So under an 18 percent flat tax, everyone above $56,000 would be getting a tax cut. And obviously, the farther away from $56,000 you go, the larger, in real and percentage terms, your cut. And I hope the obverse has already occurred to you: yes, the lower earners would be in for sizable tax increases. For example, a $25,000 earner would go from paying 13.3 percent to the said 18 percent, which is a 35 percent increase, while our $1 million earner gets a 46 percent decrease. And Kim Kardashian, forget about it. She’d pay a fraction of her current rates.

And it’s hard to explain why progressivity in the tax code is good policy, but it is. Even if you reject the moral argument that Kardashian should give more back to society than a waitress, there is the very practical argument that a progressive income tax code makes up for other more regressive forms of taxation—the payroll tax and sales taxes, notably. The waitress pays payroll taxes on her entire income, while a $1 million earner pays it on just one tenth of his (roughly), and of course the waitress spends far more of her income on sales taxes. The income tax helps even these things out, as has long been understood.

If we were starting a country of a few hundred thousand people from scratch, with minimal income disparities and other equities that America doesn’t have (national health care), a flat tax might be OK. But in the real context of the United States, it is an obscene transfer of wealth. Rick Perry may be such a bubblehead that he doesn’t understand all this, but you can be sure that the people who sold him on the flat tax understand it.

Simplicity is for simpletons: a handy slogan for the ruling class that wants more of your money. Don’t be that simple.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Paris Syndrome

I ran across this article on the Paris Syndrome, and I want to say that I experienced something similar in my visit to Paris this summer, albeit not quite so dramatic as described below.  Granted, it certainly would have helped to speak French, which I don't and that's my own fault, since I once-upon-a-time took it in high school. 
I'm glad we went to the 'City of Light'--there is much that is beautiful and grand there--but I think once is enough.  (I'm pretty sure I couldn't afford it more than once!)  In any case, I was  quite happy when we finally boarded the train for Munich. 
As tourist season here in Paris winds to a close and the air once again becomes crisp, fresh, and new, we must unfortunately acknowledge that it does not end without a few casualties. Yes, this summer, like the ones that have come before it, has claimed at least 20 victims of a very particular affliction: Paris Syndrome. And though it may sound like a disease unique to freshman girls with Le Chat Noir posters everywhere, it is a serious disorder that causes tourists, especially Japanese tourists, many problems on their trip through the City of Light. And what is Paris Syndrome, exactly? Simply put, it's a collection of physical and psychological symptoms experienced by first-time visitors realizing that Paris isn't, in fact, what they thought it would be.

It is no secret that the representation of Paris in entertainment is a limited one. If the subject matter even makes it past the World War II era, one is still usually going to get a fairly idealized picture. Watching movies set in Paris leaves one with an image of the city that is quaint, friendly, affluent, and likely still in black-and-white. When we use Paris in advertisements, it is invariably some non-threateningly attractive young woman riding a bike around the side streets or skipping down the Champs-Elysées, daintily nibbling a macaroon. We imagine the whole city just smells like Chanel No. 5 and has a government-mandated mime on every corner. And nowhere is this narrow view of Paris more prevalent than in Japan, where the media portrays the city as one filled with thin, gorgeous, unbelievably rich citizens. The three stops of a Parisian's day, according to the Japanese media, are a cafe, the Eiffel Tower, and Louis Vuitton.

Yet, despite our international desire to imagine that this is a city where pigeons stay in the parks and the waiters occasionally burst into song, Paris can be a harsh place. It has its share of social problems: crime, filth, inequality, and -- our special treat for the visitors -- not-so-friendly locals. Parisians are constantly breaking new scientific ground when it comes to being unaccommodating and even disdainful towards foreigners. If you do not speak French, you can look forward to stumbling through many uncomfortable, labored conversations with people who resent your very existence. The service industry, too, is notorious for treating tourists like something they recently scraped from the bottom of their shoes. Even the public transportation, instead of being the jolly metro cars in antique underground stations we see in films, are hot, overcrowded carriages filled with groping couples, screaming children, and unimaginably loud accordion music.

Paris Syndrome manifests itself differently in different people, but amongst the most common symptoms are acute delusions, hallucinations, dizziness, sweating, and feelings of persecution. The shock of coming to grips with a city that is indifferent to their presence and looks nothing like their imagination launches tourists into a psychological tailspin which, in at least six cases this year, necessitated the patient being flown back to his or her country under medical supervision. Usually, though, bed rest and hydration seem to take care of the problem within a few days. The Japanese Embassy, though, has had no shortage of people who, in the throes of the Syndrome, call or visit to be reassured that the city is not going to collapse in upon them.
Update:  I don't want to give the wrong impression here.  When we first arrived in Paris, we had a number of people help us: the young man at the train station, the young lady on the street, the hotel clerk.  So I wouldn't want people thinking that everyone in Paris is 'indifferent', because they're not.

Libya Has Consequences

Paleo-conservative Daniel Larison makes the case against the Libyan intervention:
Seven months after NATO's misguided war in Libya began, Moammar Gadhafi has been killed. While there has not been as much celebration of this in the West as there might have been before the Iraq war, the conventional wisdom seems to be that this outcome has proved the intervention to be right because it "worked." However, far from vindicating the decision to attack Libya, Gadhafi's bloody end represents much of what was wrong with the intervention from the start.

Instead of protecting the population of Libya — which is what the U.N. authorized — the West's intervention allowed the conflict to continue and consume perhaps as many as 30,000 Libyan lives, including many thousands of civilians, in addition to tens of thousands wounded and hundreds of thousands displaced. Rather than the "limited" war presented by the intervention's defenders, it immediately expanded into a policy of regime change. The official goal of protecting civilians was subordinated very early on to the real purpose of the war — namely, the destruction of the existing government and the elimination of its leaders.

Contrary to the hope that Libya would provide a deterrent to regime violence elsewhere, the political fallout from the war has stalled any international response to Syria's crackdown. By exceeding the U.N. mandate they received in March, the U.S. and its allies have poisoned emerging democratic powers such as India and Brazil against taking any action in other countries. Libya has confirmed every skeptic's worst fears that in practice, the "responsibility to protect" is little more than a pretext for toppling vulnerable governments.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

If Nothing Else, Obama Is Not Weak

Liberal political writer Michael Tomasky on Obama and the Libyan intervention:

Hey, suddenly “leading from behind” is looking pretty good, isn’t it? This instantly infamous phrase, spit like rusty nails out of the mouths of neocons and other foreign-policy bigwigs ever since it appeared in that New Yorker article, may have been an unfortunate locution in this age of instant TV analysis (including some by people who probably couldn’t place Libya on a map). But it described a way of conducting multilateral foreign policy that has achieved electrifying results.

It’s worth stopping to realize that this Libya operation is, so far, not only a big success, but also a historic accomplishment in American history. Is it not the first multilateral and bloodless (as far as U.S. lives are concerned; admittedly not Libyans) intervention the United States has helped lead in its history to rid a people of a dictator and try to bring them democracy? It surely is.

The only bad thing to say about this action has to do with the Obama administration’s legal justification for it back in June, when it argued for the sake of continuing the action under the War Powers Act that what we were doing in Libya didn’t constitute “hostilities”. That was hokum. It never became a huge issue, but it’s a bad precedent, and if a couple dozen of our people had died in some bomb blast, it sure would have.

But overall this was, if there can be such a thing, a model intervention. Now comes the part where we have to keep leading, this time diplomatically, to hope that civil society can get a foothold in the country.

Additionally, let us note how the Obama record on Libya compares with the neocon record. Libya was the great case of neocon hypocrisy in the Bush years. The neocons were supposed to be different from the Kissingerian realists, right? The neocons cared about spreading democracy and freedom. But all they spread in Libya was more tyranny, because Gaddafi did what the United States asked with regard to Sunni extremism. The Bush administration’s normalization of relations with the state was one of its true moral low points (quite a competition). Perhaps Gaddafi has renounced terrorism against us, but he hadn’t renounced it against Libyans, and it just showed that when push came to shove, the neocons could be as ruthlessly Kissingerian as the master himself.

And finally: how out to lunch do those Republican presidential candidates look now on foreign policy? Though the foreign-policy discussion got little attention, it was the most unhinged part of the last GOP debate. The Republican electorate may eat up potshots at Obama for being weak, but I doubt the broader public is buying it. A president who iced bin Laden and has overseen the ousters of two leading autocrats (and a couple of other minor ones) is not weak. Leading from behind, the sneerers forgot, is still leading.

Dead Men Tell No Tales

I spoke yesterday here of my support for the civil war in Libya and the way Obama pursued it.  But I'm never sure of these things, so I'm always looking for an articulate opinion from the other side.  So, for a different take of the capture and execution of Gaddafi, that of the Left as represented by the website Counterpunch and Vijay Prashad, read the following:
On the dusty reaches out of Sirte, a convoy flees a battlefield. A NATO aircraft fires and strikes the cars. The wounded struggle to escape. Armed trucks, with armed fighters, rush to the scene. They find the injured, and among them is the most significant prize: a bloodied Muammar Qaddafi stumbles, is captured, and then is thrown amongst the fighters. One can imagine their exhilaration. A cell-phone traces the events of the next few minutes. A badly injured Qaddafi is pushed around, thrown on a car, and then the video gets blurry. The next images are of a dead Qaddafi. He has a bullet hole on the side of his head.

These images go onto youtube almost instantly. They are on television, and in the newspapers. It will be impossible not to see them.

The Third Geneva Convention (article 13): “Prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”

The Fourth Geneva Convention (article 27): “Protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honor, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity.”

Humanitarian intervention was justified on the basis of potential or alleged violations of the Geneva Conventions. The intervention’s finale is a violation of those very Conventions.

It would have been inconvenient to see Qaddafi in open court. He had long abandoned his revolutionary heritage (1969-1988), and had given himself over to the U. S.-led War on Terror at least since 2003 (but in fact since the late 1990s). Qaddafi’s prisons had been an important torture center in the archipelago of black sites utilized by the CIA, European intelligence and the Egyptian security state. What stories Qaddafi might have told if he were allowed to speak in open court? What stories Saddam Hussein might have told had he too been allowed to speak in an open court? As it happens, Hussein at least entered a courtroom, even as it was more kangaroo than judicial.

No such courtroom for Qaddafi. As Khujeci Tomai put it, “Dead men tell no tales. They cannot stand trial. They cannot name the people who helped them stay in power. All secrets die with them.”

Qaddafi is dead. As the euphoria dies down, it might be important to recall that we are dealing with at least two Qaddafis. The first Qaddafi overthrew a lazy and corrupt monarchy in 1969, and proceeded to transform Libya along a fairly straightforward national development path. There were idiosyncrasies, such as Qaddafi’s ideas about democracy that never really produced institutions of any value. Qaddafi had the unique ability to centralize power in the name of de-centralization. Nevertheless, in the national liberation Qaddafi certainly turned over large sections of the national surplus to improve the well-being of the Libyan people. It is because of two decades of such policies that the Libyan people entered the 21st century with high human development indicators. Oil helped, but there are oil nations (such as Nigeria) where the people languish in terms of their access to social goods and to social development.

By 1988, the first Qaddafi morphed into the second Qaddafi, who set aside his anti-imperialism for collaboration with imperialism, and who dismissed the national development path for neo-liberal privatization (I tell this story in Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, which will be published by AK Press in the Spring of 2012). This second Qaddafi squandered the pursuit of well-being, and so took away the one aspect of his governance that the people supported. From the 1990s onward, Qaddafi’s regime offered the masses the illusion of social wealth and the illusion of democracy. They wanted more, and that is the reason for the long process of unrest that begins in the early 1990s (alongside the Algerian Civil War), comes to a head in 1995-96 and then again in 2006. It has been a long slog for the various rebellious elements to find themselves.

The new leadership of Tripoli was incubated inside the Qaddafi regime. His son, Saif al-Islam was the chief neoliberal reformer, and he surrounded himself with people who wanted to turn Libya into a larger Dubai. They went to work around 2006, but were disillusioned by the rate of progress, and many (including Mahmud Jibril, the current Prime Minister) had threatened to resign on several occasions. When an insurengy began in Benghazi, this clique hastened to join them, and by March had taken hold of the leadership of the rebellion. It remains in their hands.

The manner of Qaddafi’s death is a synecdoche for the entire war. NATO’s bombs stopped the convoy, and without them Qaddafi would probably have fled to his next redoubt. The rebellion might have succeeded without NATO. But with NATO, certain political options had to be foreclosed; NATO’s member states are in line now to claim their reward. However, they are too polite in a liberal European way to actually state their claim publically in a quid-pro-quo fashion. Hence, they say things like: this is a Libyan war, and that Libya must decide what it must do. This is properly the space into which those sections in the new Libyan power structure that still value sovereignty must assert themselves. The window for that assertion is going to close soon, as the deals get inked that lock Libya’s resources and autonomy into the agenda of the NATO states.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Doing the Job on President Obama

Rod Dreher posts this interesting tidbit about Steve Jobs, taken from Walter Isaacson's new biography:

Jobs, who was known for his prickly, stubborn personality, almost missed meeting President Obama in the fall of 2010 because he insisted that the president personally ask him for a meeting. Though his wife told him that Obama “was really psyched to meet with you,” Jobs insisted on the personal invitation, and the standoff lasted for five days. When he finally relented and they met at the Westin San Francisco Airport, Jobs was characteristically blunt. He seemed to have transformed from a liberal into a conservative.

“You’re headed for a one-term presidency,” he told Obama at the start of their meeting, insisting that the administration needed to be more business-friendly. As an example, Jobs described the ease with which companies can build factories in China compared to the United States, where “regulations and unnecessary costs” make it difficult for them.

Jobs also criticized America’s education system, saying it was “crippled by union work rules,” noted Isaacson. “Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.” Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year.
Despite all his vaunted successes (though I've never owned one of his gadgets and have managed just fine), it sounds like he didn't have good social skills.  Or to put it a little more bluntly, Jobs could be quite a jerk at times.

Defeating the Lord's Resistance Army

And while I was researching the Libyan issue, I took a few moments to look into Obama's decision to give the Ugandan government some US Special Forces military advisors to help them eliminate, for once and for all, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).  This was something I knew little about.  And it was recently (and naively) criticized by Rush Limbaugh (who I'm sure would have loved it if it were George W. Bush doing it), as a case of going after Christians, when in fact, it's really the opposite, a matter of protecting Christians.

As I said in the last post, I am somewhat allergic when I hear 'military advisors'.  It goes back to the Kennedy decision to put military advisors into Vietnam, which led to our complete debacle there.

Anyway, I came away from my reading with the feeling that this was a justifiable decision on Obama's part, in that the LRA, led by Joseph Kony, has been a scourge to the central part of Africa over the last several decades, committing numerous atrocities and massacres against unarmed civilians (many of them Christians in churches) not only in Uganda, but also in Sudan, the Congo, and the Central African Republic.  This kind of 'terrorist' group, comprised largely of 'child soldiers' wrecks havoc and sows disorder and chaos, and that's not good.  The governments of the countries involved have made efforts to defeat the LRA, but have simply not had the wherewithal to do it.

So, until I read something that sets off an alarm in my head, I'm ready to give Obama my support in this endeavor.  It seems like a good way to use our armed forces.

'Tip of the Hat' to Obama on Libya

I haven't posted very much on the Libyan situation because I haven't known what to make of it exactly.  (Am I the only one in the situation?)  Being a child of the 60s, I think I am congenitally opposed to US military and/or covert interventionism abroad.  And after our recent disastrous invasion of Iraq and our current war in Afghanistan, I am even more so.

So when our government--it doesn't really matter which political party is in control--tells us that they're doing a military intervention in an oil-rich nation for humanitarian reasons (Libya), my bullshit indicator goes into the red zone.  I think we need to be skeptical when it comes to such things, and not just take the government's 'word' for it. 

Given that the Libyan civil war seems to have ended, for all practical purposes, with long-time dictator Gaddafi (why are there a million ways to spell his name?) captured and killed, I thought I would take the time I needed to read up on the relevant issues, viz. the participants in the anti-Gadhafi forces, the recent history of Libya (by which I mean the last century), the nature of our military intervention, etc.

Here are my conclusions.  The anti-Gaddafi coalition--called the NTC or National Transitional Council--is made up of mostly good people (with a few bad ones, i.e. Islamists).  The leadership seems to be composed of legitimate democratic Libyans who are desperate to leave behind the Gaddafi years and move into something new, in line with the 'Arab Spring' sweeping across much of the Middle East.

For example, the President of the NTC is Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a native Libyan who has served various judicial position in the Libyan government, most recently as a minister of Justice for the last four years.  Having had enough of Gaddafi injustice, he broke from the regime and joined the uprising within the last year.

Mahmoud Jibril is an American trained economist who served the last four years in the Gaddafi regime as head of the National Economic Development Board.   He serves as the interim Prime Minister of the NTC, having gone over the resistance.   Also Ali Tarhouni, who looks to be the most American connected of the leaders, has been in the US since the 70s, is an economist, and serves as the Finance/Oil Minister in the NTC.

It would appear from what I read that the resistence to Gaddafi was widespread in Libya, though it started in Benghazi along the eastern Mediterrean shoreline.  It was widespread because of pervasive unhappiness with the lack of democratic rights, endemic economic problems, the corruption within the government, and the recent wave of democratic protests across north Africa.

The other aspect of this Western intervention was the truly coalition nature of it, comprising military forces from dozens of Nato countries, as well as participation from some non-Western countries as well, such as Turkey and Qatar.  The United States has had a military role, to be sure, but not nearly the extent that we have seen in Iraq or Afghanistan.  The number of coalition military air 'sorties' were in the hundreds, if not thousands, and there undoubtedly was much collateral destruction.  But it also had the backing of the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court.  So it seems that all the bases were covered were a truly legitimate and legal action against a despotic government.

(Having said all this, it is true that Western nations will now benefit from the flow of oil from Libya, especially as opposed to the Chinese, who were fast involving themselves in Libya under Gaddafi.  So at least a part of this effort strategically is an attempt to put a roadblock on the Chinese on the African continent.)

But, from what I can tell from my all-too-brief self-orientation, this Libyan intervention has been a complete success, and for many of the right reasons that all 'freedom-loving' people should be able to support.  And so, as Stephen Colbert would put it, the Libyan intervention gets a 'tip of the hat'!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

And The Next President Is? Willard Mitt Romney

Michael Brenner makes a plausible case for why Mitt Romney will be the next President (granted that Brenner does not like that prospect at all).
Mitt Romney is our next President in all likelihood. It will not be victory for his ideas (a pastiche of Wall Street, the Tea Party and the Pentagon) nor his personality (flat and uninspiring) nor his leadership (he is timid and painfully indecisive). Conviction, character and capability have little to do with who comes out on top in current American politics. Participants in these tedious marathons more closely resemble aspirants to celebrity in ‘dancing with the stars’ than dedicated office holders deliberating over the nation’s needs and future. Any search for coherence or probity will come up empty handed.

Still there are proximate causes that help explain why this outcome rather than any of the many other, no less improbable possibilities. Let’s look first at the contextual elements. Most Americans are poorer, more distressed, feel greater insecurity and fear what is around the corner than they have for generations. They are acutely anxious about their vulnerability to forces beyond their control or even comprehension – financial manipulation by the Wall Street barons, inept and uncaring governments at all levels, the anonymous specters of a globalized world – with existential dread of the Islamic terrorists thrown into the fearful mix. Then there is Barack Obama. For some, the Saviour revealed as false prophet; for others, the anti-Christ; for the vested interests – the sheep in wolf’s clothes who has served their cause as only a supposedly liberal Democrat could. For all, a faded star who can neither explain, guide nor reassure. Hence, the road to the White House is smoothed by the current occupant himself.

A second element has been the Tea Party phenomenon – an orchestrated movement that tapped always latent right-wing populism. Its influence on American politics has been far, far greater than its core support could generate....

Now, the air is rapidly coming out of the Tea Party balloon. Sarah Palin’s shooting star has landed in some remote Alaskan wilderness. Her copy cats in the Republican melee (Trump, Bachmann, Gingrich, Cain, Santorum, et al) are laugh lines in any honest history of this bizarre era. Rick Perry quickly exposed himself for the parochial Texas pol he is. Yet, the Tea Party’s two year run had served its purpose in the minds of the hard people and hard interests who own the Republican Party. It marshaled the free floating discontents of millions for the Party cause. It terrified Barack Obama into pre-emptive capitulation which added to the gifts that he already was bestowing on the financial moguls, big business, the industrial-military-intelligence complex, etc. It neutered the Democrats in Congress; and it muted the ‘progressives’ who dared not suggest that they had been betrayed by the White house so long as there was the specter of Sarah Palin’s finger on the button.

So the shock troops can stand down, the maverick Koch brothers can be properly rewarded, and the Republican establishment can rally around the conventional man in the grey flannel suit who frightens no one and who can be counted on to consolidate the gains, political and economic, made under Obama. He is the natural choice....

What kind of President will Mitt Romney be? We already know – a continuation of the Bush/Obama administrations. That includes economic policies geared to serve the wealthy and corporations, a downsizing of all social programs, further assault on Social Security and Medicare, pandering to the Pentagon, deeper attrition of civil liberties, and an unrelenting if foredoomed attempt to maintain American dominance in the world at all cost. All low-key, business as usual, and well-tailored.

Americans are abandoned and distained by the nation’s political class. Still, the sad truth is that they themselves have contributed much to their own A lazy, self-absorbed populace is now an indifferent, unknowing citizenry.
I'm not at all sure myself that this will happen. History takes many odd twists and turns before ending up where it want to go. But the trajectory seems believable, and the commentary on our current political actors and forces also seem right on target.

Capture or Kill

The Obama administration offered millions of dollars in new aid to Libya as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton encouraged the country's unsteady new leadership to commit to a democratic future free of retribution, and acknowledged in unusually blunt terms that the United States would like to see former dictator Moammar Gadhafi dead.

"We hope he can be captured or killed soon so that you don't have to fear him any longer," Clinton told students and others at a town hall-style gathering in the capital city.
So what is it with this new American foreign policy willingness to 'capture or kill' foreign leaders?  Does anyone else think that sounds awfully cold-blooded for American leaders to be saying?

Of course Gadhafi was no democrat, but I had not thought that he was a particularly vicious tyrant either.  Aren't a lot of the Middle Eastern leaders we have backed for decades just as undemocratic and, well, somewhat peculiar (to us anyway)?  The Saudi leaders, the Kuwaiti leaders, etc. are not Jeffersonian democrats, by any stretch of the imagination.  Anyway, we and the EU had normalized relations with Libya from 2003 until just recently, even giving Gadhafi a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council.

Then of course we backed the Libyan rebels.  Okay, that's realpolitik, you know.

Capture or kill?  Sounds like something you'd save for one of the exotic animals loose in Ohio, not a former world leader, even one as weird as Gadhafi.  Hell, even the animals should be captured alive, if at all possible.  You know, TRANQUILIZE THEM and then put 'em in a net and haul them to a zoo! 

I'm cynical enough about American involvement in the Middle East to believe that the main thing we're interested in is Libyan oil.  And we certainly don't want Gadhafi leading any of the other African nations in too independent a direction, you know. 

But I guess Gadhafi had resisted the West just a little too long in this war against him.  Time for him to go.  And besides, this gives Hillary a chance to show that she's just as tough as Barack, when it comes to killing foreign 'enemies'.  Can't look like a wuss, you know.

Update: Thursday, 11 AM.  It looks like Gadhafi has been killed.  Good, now we get to see bloody pictures of the 'monster'.  Everyone seems happy.  Another evil person hunted down and killed.  Fits the story line perfectly, I guess.  Dead lips aren't loose lips, that's for sure.  Anyway, check that one off.  Libya's back in the Empire!

Update 2: The common rationale for killing Gadhafi seems to be the Lockerbie bombing.  But you know, it's a funny thing.  Why did the West normalize relations with Gadhafi in the last few years, and then turn over the alleged Libyan mastermind and allow him to go home to Libya?  That seems like VERY strange behavior, if the West knew for a fact that he did it.  I'm suspicious (but then, I'm always suspicious).  There are other theories out there, but of course they're CONSPIRACY theories, so they can be dismissed as cranky and loopy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Professor Lessig Has One Solution To Our National Problems

One of the criticisms about the current Occupy movement is that its complaints are not matched by its desired solutions/demands.  Which to me is actually a compliment, because, unlike the Tea Party, which just seems to want to eliminate government by slashing taxes and budgets, the Occupy movement doesn't have such a simplistic and asinine approach. 

'Occupy' (or many of them anyway) knows that the solutions to our national problems are complicated.  The pain we are feeling right now is real, and we know that something is terribly wrong.  But eliminating the pain and suffering, and healing the disease, requires getting the right diagnosis and applying the correct treatment and medicine.  Otherwise, it's all for naught.

So what's the right diagnosis, and what treatments will truly heal the disease(s) of our nation?

One diagnosis and possible treatment can be found on this interview with Professor of Law Lawrence Lessig on the Diane Rehm show recently.  Professor Lessig, in his new book Republic, Lost, describes how our political (and therefore economic) system has been corrupted by the power of money in politics.  This has led to situation where the representatives of the people in Congress are no longer responsible or responsive to the people but mostly/only to the large special interests who fund their campaigns.

Lessig feels, and I tend to agree, that is one of the biggest problems at the heart of America, and that it is corrupting our politics (by turning it into a plutocracy, ruled by money), and our economy, by turning our free-enterprise system into a form of 'crony capitalism'.

Obama, Put Some Predatory Bankers/Mortgage Lenders in Jail, Please

One of the things that stick in the craw of many Americans, on both the Right and the Left, is the fact that many big-wigs in the American financial sector, including some of the biggest banks that were bailed out in 2009, seem to have broken the law and gotten away with it, in regards to the housing bubble and bust.

From all that I have heard, the amount of fraud involved in the mortgage loan industry--much of which was under the aegis of the biggest national banks--was enormous, and instrumental to the housing bubble and subsequent collapse.  Yet virtually no one has been charged, arrested, fined or imprisoned for these crimes.

As Professor of Law and former Prosecutor William Black tells it in this linked audio interview with Tom Ashbrook, there were thousands of convictions brought about in the legal follow-up to the Savings and Loan debacle of the late 80s and early 90s.  Though the current scandel is many times larger, almost no one has been investigated or charged by the regulatory agencies and the federal Department of Justice.

This is a national outrage and is part of what drives both the original Tea Party movement and the current Occupy movement.  Until the Obama administration gets off its behind and does this, it cannot claim to have done its duty with regards to protecting the general welfare of the American people against the rapacity of white collar criminals.

Obama, don't be such a wuss when it comes to your banker friends!  Direct your Attorney General to pursue these financial criminals who have destroyed so many American lives and livelihoods!! 

Mr. President, you seem to like to pursue terrorists overseas with your drones.  Well, these financial terrorists have done a lot more damage to us over the last 20 years than any of them, frankly.  So why don't you come back from your current campaigning all over the place and get to work doing this.  I actually think you'll find it will get you some votes (maybe mine)!

International Readership of 'Rude Awakening' at 25%

You may have noticed, dear reader, that I put the 'total pageview' number on the righthand side of the blog recently.  I had pretty much ignored that until recently, and then suddenly realized that it was there to be listed.  The total number was interesting, of course, but even more fascinating was the breakdown of which countries the blog hits are coming from, information which Blogger provides to us.

So here's the breakdown for the last 30 days:

United States 1,159
Canada 82
Germany 78
Russia 58
United Kingdom 53
Switzerland 40
India 22
Netherlands 16
Singapore 12
Poland 11

And there were a number of other countries with 10 hits and below, including my ancestral homeland of Sweden.

I had no idea that I had this kind of international audience.  It gives me motivation to write, I have to say.  So thanks, folks, for reading my blog!  And thanks to Goggle for making Blogger possible, as well. 

The internet, with its contribution to real freedom of speech and press, is one of the things that gives me hope for the future.  So, government, keep your frickin' hands off the internet.

The Deep Strangeness of Mormonism

You've probably noticed all my posts on Mormonism over the last past week or so.  I've been just a little uncomfortable doing it, in fact.  Like I was being a voyeur, peering into someone's taboo place.

But now, it seems, everyone's joining me!  All of a sudden, like mushrooms in your lawn, Romney's Mormonism is springing up in the media as a topic of conversation.  Here's columnist Maureen Dowd this morning in the New York Times:
At an appearance at George Washington University here Saturday night, Bill Maher bounded into territory that the news media have been gingerly tiptoeing around.

Magic underwear. Baptizing dead people. Celestial marriages. Private planets. Racism. Polygamy.
'Facsimile 2': From Mormon 'Book of Abraham'

“By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion,” asserted the famously nonbelieving comic who skewered the “fairy tales” of several faiths in his documentary “Religulous.” “It’s a religion founded on the idea of polygamy. They call it The Principle. That sounds like The Prime Directive in ‘Star Trek.’ ”

In a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll released on Tuesday, people were asked what single word came to mind for Republican candidates. For Herman Cain it was 9-9-9; for Rick Perry, Texas; and for Mitt Romney, Mormon. In the debate Tuesday night, Romney said it was repugnant that “we should choose people based on their religion....”

Another famous nonbeliever, Christopher Hitchens, wrote in Slate on Monday about “the weird and sinister belief system of the LDS,” the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Aside from Joseph Smith, whom Hitchens calls “a fraud and conjurer well known to the authorities in upstate New York,” the writer also wonders about the Mormon practice of amassing archives of the dead and “praying them in” as a way to “retrospectively ‘baptize’ everybody as a convert.”

Hitchens noted that they “got hold of a list of those put to death by the Nazis’ Final Solution” and “began making these massacred Jews into honorary LDS members as well.” He called it “a crass attempt at mass identity theft from the deceased.”

The Mormons even baptized Anne Frank....

Republicans are the ones who have made faith part of the presidential test. Now we’ll see if Mitt can pass it.
As I read Bill Maher's description of Mormonism above, the name of another very peculiar American religion, Scientology, came to me, with its very weird worldview. And it's pretty obvious to me that, if a Scientologist were running for President, religion would almost unavoidably become an issue. And frankly, Mormonism basically falls into the same camp, in my opinion.

Sorry, Mitt. That's just the way it is.  Part of me admires your devotion to Mormonism, and part of me doesn't.  And it's very much a part of the whole package of who you are.

What's Said in Vegas Stays in Vegas--Because Nobody's Really Interested

Last night's Republican debate in Las Vegas was so excruciating that I finally turned it off and simply watched a DVR-recorded Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Which leads me to ask: why is it that CNN has hosted two of these events this fall?  And why did they ran it like some 'reality show', or like 'Monday Night Football', complete with a suspenseful intro and the national anthem?  I'm surprised they didn't have a half-time show with Mick Jagger.  Is there no sense of gravitas and dignity apropos of the Presidency here?

But I actually did learn something about the candidates before switching to Jon Stewart.

I learned that when you have too many debates, the 'contestants' will start to be rude to each other and personally insulting.  The best example of this was Rick Perry's lame attempt to tar Romney with hiring illegal immigrants to work on his house.  (Ok, so we learned he uses a lawn service, who uses illegals...big whooping deal.)

Ditto Rick Santorum, whose petulant attitude was unbecoming a Pennsylvanian (I was born in Erie, PA).

I learned (again!) that Herman Cain likes to use obscure references that don't make any sense with regard to what he's talking about, like 'you're mixing apples and oranges' with reference to state and federal sales taxes.  Okay, Herman Cain, I'll use a fruit reference here: you're nothing but a fruitcake.  And if you become President, I may kill myself with an overdose of pineapple.

Otherwise, I learned nothing else that's relevant.

Enough debates already.  Time to vote.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mormonism and Polygamy--Firsthand Accounts

I ran across this powerful video on Mormonism and polygamy while during research.  It provides multiple interviews with former Mormon polygamists, detailing what they have gone through.  What is fascinating is the extent to which Mormon polygamy still seems to be happening among the so-called Mormon fundamentalists in Western states, particularly Arizona and Utah.



Ps.  I'm starting to get the feeling that polygamy became a central focus and organizing factor for early Mormonism, even though it's not central to The Book of Mormon.  It--and the secrecy of the Temple ceremonies, with its reputed freemasonry-like rituals--were what gave it an air of 'cultishness'.  When the main body of Mormons--the LDS--gave up polygamy in 1890, they left the 'cult' phase and moved into the 'sectarian' phase of religion.  And then sometime in the last 30 years, they became a more respected 'denomination' (perhaps when they allowed blacks to become 'priests' (go through the Temple ceremonies and become volunteer adult lay leaders in the local congregations).  That's my current take, anyway.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Is Mormonism a Cult?

I wrote here recently about the primary Mormon scripture, called the Book of Mormon.  Odds are that you've seen it somewhere, perhaps in a Marriott Hotel (the Marriott's are bigtime Mormons and actually close friends of the Romney family, according to that New York Times article I pointed to in the last post).

Seer Stone Used by Joseph Smith
In addition to the normal biblical history that most Christians 'buy' into, Mormons have come up with an entirely new sacred history.  This new scripture asserts that ancient Jews migrated across the Atlantic Ocean to America thousands of years ago, and they eventually became the American Indians.  Furthermore, Jesus appeared after his resurrection to these tribes of Jews/Indians, shared the gospel, and finally gave them the promise that he would return in his Second Coming to America, where he would establish his millenial kingdom in Jackson County, Missouri. 

Why that rather unusual location?  Because that was the original Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were created.  So really, you can forget about the Holy Land and Jerusalem over there in the Middle East, because actually the real Holy Land IS RIGHT HERE IN AMERICA.  The New Jerusalem is going to be in Missouri.  (And this is one item that could have political ramifications, when you think about it.)

I'm not making this up.  This is what Joseph Smith, that creatively brilliant young fortune-hunter and occultist, put down in his personal translation of the golden plates that he allegedly found buried in a hillside outside of Palmyra, NY.  Smith claimed that an angel named Moroni (whose golden statue adorns the top of all Mormon temples) directed him to the place.  Of course, no one else ever saw the golden plates, but hey, c'mon on.  If we can't trust Joseph Smith, who can we trust?

Joseph Smith
Actually, that's a good question.  Why should we trust this Joseph Smith, who apparently thought so highly of his spiritual powers that he created a sacred text that rivals and actually supercedes the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible?  Now he's either one man with truely amazing spiritual gifts, a self-deluded maniac, or a lying fraud and imposter (or some combination of these).  Those seem to be the choices that we have.

In my opinion, there's actually very little reason to believe Joseph Smith, when he's asking us to set aside 4,000 years of established Judea-Christian history, theology, and ethics and to believe instead this new, rather fantastical religious system that he single-handedly created 180 years ago in 1830 in upstate New York (about an hour from where my wife grew up, in fact). 

If you ask Mormons, of course, they will tell you (because that's what they're taught from birth or, like Glenn Beck, have accepted through conversion to be the Truth) that Joseph Smith was indeed an inspired prophet who provided authoritative and reliable revelation from God (and not just once in The Book of Mormon, but in numerous revelations over the next 14 years, all of which are accepted as scripture as well).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Romney's Works Of Piety and Charity

The Mormon Temple in Belmont, Massachusetts
In case you hadn't seen it, I wanted to draw your attention to an article in the New York Times this morning on the religious faith and practice of Mitt Romney.  Now, normally you don't see these kind of articles (unless the person in question is a member of--how shall I put it--a somewhat unknown and/or unusual religious organization), but there it was.

Pastor Jeffress and the Mormonism of Mitt Romney

In England, until as late as the early 19th century, any person wanting to fill a public office was required by law to be a member of the Church of England.  Office seekers did this by taking an oath certifying that they did not believe in Roman Catholic transubstantiation and by receiving Communion in an Anglican Church within a short period of time of taking office, thus demonstrating they were neither 'popish' Catholics or nonconforming Protestants (like Puritans).  The laws requiring this were called the 'Test Acts'.

Such a thing was reprehensible to the American Founders, since the American states had a great diversity of denominations and religious sects, hundreds of them in fact.  So the Founders placed a prohibition on such 'religious tests' in the Constitution (Article 6, Paragraph 3). 

Now, of course, this basic constitutional provision does not forbid individual citizens from deciding for whom to vote based on religion.  For example, if a Pentecostal prefers to vote for a Pentecostal over a Baptist, or vice versa, that's perfectly legal and, for all I know, moral as well.  Or if a Catholic decides that s/he could never vote for a Unitarian, or vice versa, that is within their rights.  The only thing this constitutional 'religious test' says is that the federal government itself may not discriminate against Methodist, Baptist, Catholics, or Unitarians in terms of elective or appointive office.

All that to say....that Pastor Robert Jeffress of Texas, an 'evangelical' Baptist preacher, was perfectly within his rights to say that he preferred a 'born again' evangelical Christian over against a devout Mormon when it came to the Presidency of this free land.  You may disagree with him, as may I.  You may think Pastor Jeffress to be a very narrow minded person, with a deep prejudice against Mormons, which he may be.  But, as we say, this is a free country.  And Pastor Jeffress was just expressing his personal opinion in a setting in which he felt free to do so.

I, on the other hand, might like to say that I was a bit uncomfortable in 2008 with John McCain having received the endorsement of Rev. John Hagee, that crazy apocalyptic, anti-Catholic, pro-Zionist preacher (also) from Texas.  (They sure do have some dooseys down there in Texas.)  In fact, I did say that on this very blog a few years ago.  So I like our national freedom to say what we want, even if it may transgress someone else's sense of what is politically correct.

So I don't have a problem with everyone expressing his or her opinion about the religious qualifications of political candidates, or about the religious leaders backing certain political candidates.  It's a free country, after all, thank God!  And it all comes out in the wash.

So Preacher Jeffress, feel free to let 'er rip.  Just let it all hang out.  It's perfectly legal and frankly, it's the American way. 

Just know that you'll probably get it all back in spades, so I hope you have a thick skin.