Wednesday, February 4, 2009

One more thing...

I forgot to mention during my last post, but I will continue to update both my shared items and Delicious bookmarks. They are accessible from the right-hand column of this blog, or by bookmarking the hyperlinks in the last sentence.

Also, it appears that I'm not the only one feeling this way. Sharon Astyk writes a great blog, and today she wrote the following:


You see, I’m starting to feel I can’t compete with reality - any actual attention to events as they unfold points up the fact that my own doomiest imaginings are being wildly exceeded.

Let’s see - California is broke, functionally insolvent, and has stopped paying for just about everything, including its state police. Remember how often they trumpted that they were the 6th largest economy in the world - well, that’s kinda like saying the UK is insolvent…oh, and that actually might be not so far from the truth too, since they just had to nationalize their banking system. We’ve lost at least 300,000 jobs in two weeks. The New York Times may be out of business by spring. While neither rain nor sleet nor hail will keep the postal service from its appointed rounds, money probably will, and they are talking about cutting out Saturday deliveries. Homelessness and hunger are rapidly on the rise, as are suicide and murder suicide.

There’s rioting in Russia, China, Greece, and massive worker demonstrations in France and Britain. Australia is seeing record high temperatures, while many of the rest of us struggle with record lows. California’s drought may be the worst in a century. And the already hungry are among the deepest sufferers of the food crisis. The New York Times, Fortune Magazine, Bloomberg - they are all starting to use words like “Biblical proportions” “Deep Depression” “Apocalypse.” It is getting hard to compete with the mainstream doomers.

We’ve been “fixing” the problem - which is a big part of the problem - think of the word “fix” here as in “the fix is in.” We’ve just spent 8 trillion dollars bailing out the banks - more than all the wars in US history, the Louisiana purchase and the space program combined. And what did we get for it? Bank of America and Citi are still teetering, the jobs are still being flushed daily. The estimate is half a million a month - every month.

And people aren’t really very angry yet. They should be - think about what 8 trilliion dollars could actually have bought us, had anyone cared as much about the people as they do about the banks, and about the wealth of the fortunate. At some point people will realize that it isn’t going to work - and their anger will be frightening - and just. The New Hampshire state legislature is currently debating legislation that would assert that if the US implements martial law or abrogates the Constitution, it will effectively dissolve the Union. While one wonders where they were the last eight years, this is being taken quite seriously, and it would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Eight trillion could have paid for free health care for every American, cradle to grave for a century. Eight trillion was sufficient to cover the cost of almost all the mortgage debt - every American could have been given their house and the “foreclosure crisis” ended instantly. Eight trillion was enough to build renewable energy infrastructure that could have softened the crisis, to reinsulate our houses, to provide basic food and health care to the world’s poor. The same eight trillion we were told we didn’t have when it was needed by those who wanted educations, basic medical care, decent shelter, a home, hope, a decent life, we had a plenty for the banks and the wealthiest people in the world.

A number of energy and environmental advocates don’t seem to grasp that the 8 trillion figure - and the monies spent by other nations - aren’t proof that we can build a renewable infrastructure or address peak oil if we really want to - instead, they are what we are doing *instead.* Yes, nations can print money, but in order to inflate our currency, we’d have to disentangle ourselves quite violently from the other nations with which we are economically intertwined, and that would have its price too. That is, our ability to keep bailing is limited - and the 8 trillion now buried in bank vaults and flushed down the toilet is money we don’t have for future adaptations. Think about it - we’re debating 3/4 of a trillion dollars for all the American people combined (and some of that will also make its ways into the coffers of the bank) - while we’ve already spent almost 9 times that much on the banks. 300 million Americans get 1/8 or less what the banks get. What does that say about us? And what does it say about the ability and willingness to mobilize funds for things that actually protect human lives?

I encourage you to read the whole post, but that's the part that really struck me. I guess that's why I can't keep talking about all of this, it's got such an air of inevitability. Anyway, if you want to see the full-text of the New Hampshire (state motto: "Live free or die") legislation that would define the conditions under which they will secede (and encourage other states to do the same), it's here. Quite a read. Stunning really, watching this type of history unfold. I mean, the fact that the majority of the population in the US does not realize that there is a new debate about secession going on is really quite amazing. It ought to really hammer home the seriousness of the problems. And to think, I wondered if I was being too dramatic when I wrote about the potential for new wars of secession in November last year.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I'm done

We've had a pretty good run, here in the US. At least, since the Great Depression, things have been remarkably stable. My feeling, and that of others, is that the time for relative peace and economic growth has come to an end. You can see the signs everywhere, if you look for them. Unfortunately, too many people refuse to look, or refuse to recognize them for what they really are.

The bailout is not the problem. Sub-prime lending is not the problem. The credit crisis is not the problem. Unemployment, foreclosures, and defaults are not the problem. They are merely symptoms of the real problem. The real problem lies in our paradigm, the problem lies in our belief that things will, or must, always grow, always improve, and that tomorrow will always be better than today. This blind faith in inexorable progress is belied by the simple fact that our growth is simply unsustainable. Daily, more proof arrives that the tremendous march of "progress" since the industrial revolution has been purchased at a tremendous cost- one that the planet can scarcely bear for much longer. Or, as award-winning journalist Chris Hedges argued yesterday in a brilliant article, "It's not going to be OK".

Many will wonder why nobody tried to warn them what was coming. The reality is, there are voices out there that are telling you what is coming, but it's not a pretty picture and so you choose to ignore them. For myself, I listen to those who have been right all along. I choose track-record over happy thoughts. Since the current economic crisis really picked up steam in September of last year, the "experts" have been wrong time and time again, while those few voices in the wilderness have been saying that this downturn will be worse than anyone's expecting, will last longer than anyone's expecting, and the consequences will be far worse than anyone's expecting. Those are the voices I choose to listen to now. It certainly is not the politicians that have been saying that nobody could have predicted the current crisis, ignoring the fact that plenty of people did predict it. No longer comparing the current crisis to milder recessions of the 70's, 80's or 90's, expert economists are now calling for an unprecedented depression.

Journalists are starting to realize that they've been far too complicit. Lost in all the news about why newspapers are shuttering their doors around the country is the simple fact that they have been wrong, horribly wrong, for far too long. The rise of the internet has delivered undreamt of resources to those of us who demand truth, and that truth has come at the expense of the so-called opinion makers and spin-doctors. When the media only quotes those who say that we've reached a "bottom", and it becomes clear within days (or hours) that there is no end in sight, it becomes clear that both those sources and the media themselves are no longer worthy of attention. At the same time, they are useful as they ferret out a small portion of the corruption in our modern age. A staggering amount of wrongdoing exists in all levels of government, and if the populace were truly paying attention, the government would have already been overthrown. Taking one small glance at the news of the day reveals that two of Obama's cabinet level appointees (or 17%) have suddenly remembered that they forgot to pay taxes on perks or income they received, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Luckily, they remembered just as Obama won the election! Geithner has been confirmed, and Daschle is expected to be. These two people should have been disqualified on that basis alone, and yet nobody seems to think it's a problem.

Politicians only have themselves to blame, both for the current crisis and the fact that nobody is yet grasping the gravity of the situation. Like the boy who cries wolf, decades of overheated rhetoric has numbed the public to pronouncements of genuine seriousness. A week ago Friday, our new president had this to say: "Look, we are all political animals here. If we don't do this, we may lose seats. I may not be re-elected. But none of that's going to matter if we don't pass this because the economy will be in a crisis and the American people will be hurting." Ignoring for a moment the fact that his solution is unlikely to work, and just listen to the raw appeal for desperate measures. "I may not be re-elected. But none of that's going to matter." When have you ever heard a politician say that getting re-elected does not matter? It's a half-step away from admitting (as a British minister did last week) "
The banks are fucked, we're fucked, the country's fucked."

Iceland's government has fallen in this crisis. It will not be the last. Civil unrest is spreading rapidly throughout Eastern Europe and China
, and there have been many predictions that it will strike in America before we're done. We've thrown trillions of dollars at the problem, close to 30 banks have failed (with hundreds or thousands more poised to fail at any moment), unemployment has been rising at over half a million per month, and still we are no closer to anything resembling a solution, or even a slowing in the bloodbath.

I'm not asking anyone to take this all on faith. Read both sides of these arguments. Then go back and read the counter-arguments. Read opinions that disagree with yours, read about subjects that you ordinarily would not. Rely as much as you can using direct evidence, or any statistics you can find. The reporting of statistics can be spun, but the raw numbers themselves do not lie. Obama was indisputably correct during his inaugural speech when he said "
the time has come to set aside childish things." Stop watching "American Idol", or whatever mindless drivel masquerades as entertainment these days. Are you prepared to provide for yourself and your family should the grocery stores suddenly be empty of food- or closed due to bankruptcy? Or if water stops coming free from the tap, how will you conquer thirst?

Food banks around the country are reporting a 30% increase in demand, double the increase from six months ago. Last week, on Monday- in a single day- approximately 80,000 Americans lost their jobs, and the stock market rejoiced, if only briefly. That's 15% of the total loss for December, and it came in a single day. Where will you go for food when you have job, no money, and the food banks are empty? I hope you won't be part of the rising numbers of Americans taking their own lives.

For what it's worth, the government now admits that we have essentially ignored global warming for too long- it's now irreversible. The twin crises of global economic collapse and climate change are more interrelated than most people realize. In any case, it's too late to do much to solve either- the time has now come to focus on ways to mitigate the fallout. This is what collapse looks like. A slow-motion collapse is now occurring, and time is short for you to figure out how best to weather it.

As I said, rely on those whose predictions have been proven correct, not those who tell you comforting lies. Consider this from a 2006 Maclean's article:
And when the truth can no longer be obscured, the price will spike, the economy nosedive, and the underpinnings of our civilization will start tumbling like dominos. The U.S. -- Consumer No. 1 in the lingo of Leggett's book -- will be the most vulnerable, having allowed its citizens to pile up mountains of debt. "The price of houses will collapse. Stock markets will crash. Within a short period, human wealth -- little more than a pile of paper at the best of times, even with the confidence about the future high among traders -- will shrivel." There will be emergency summits, diplomatic initiatives, urgent exploration efforts, but the turmoil will not subside. Thousands of companies will go bankrupt, and millions will be unemployed. "Once affluent cities with street caf├ęs will have queues at soup kitchens and armies of beggars. The crime rate will soar. The earth has always been a dangerous place, but now it will become a tinderbox."

By 2010, predicts Leggett, democracy will be on the run. As with the Great Depression, economic hardship will bring out the worst in people. Fascists will rise, feeding on the anger of the newly poor and whipping up support. These new rulers will find the tools of repression -- emergency laws, prison camps, a relaxed attitude toward torture -- already in place, courtesy of the war on terror. And if that scenario isn't nightmarish enough, Leggett predicts that "Big Oversight Number One" -- climate change -- will be simultaneously making its presence felt "with a vengeance." On the heels of their rapid financial ruin, people "will now watch aghast as their food and water supplies dwindle in the face of a climate seemingly going awry." Prolonged droughts will spread, decimating harvests. As oceans warm, fish catches "will fall off a cliff," and protein will become a luxury.

The first paragraph reads like recent history or current newspaper headlines (see hyperlinks for examples, or your local newspaper), the second paragraph is yet to come. If you wish, there are plenty of others out there that have made similar arguments. Contrast the words of these prophets with the statements of your politicians, you will find very little overlap, if any. One of these groups has been consistently correct, the other group repeats lame excuses that "nobody could have anticipated the reach, depth, or severity of the current crisis" and then proceeds to promise you a return to "normal" in short order, if you only vote for them or agree with their decision to throw trillions of dollars at the crisis.

How can I begin to explain to you the insanity of politicians? They advocate spending close to a trillion dollars in a stimulus package in which they argue that every $1 of stimulus results in $1.50 in economic growth. If that were true, then why not spend like this every day? Why not spend quadrillions of dollars, and make everyone in the US wealthy? Or why has nobody noticed that every four years we have this masturbatory celebration known as an election- new politicians come to power promising change, vowing to tackle corruption and to solve the really hard problems; and yet, nothing ever changes, corruption is endemic, and the really hard problems are only growing in severity? Frankly though, we're all to blame. We keep looking to them for solutions to problems that they caused in the first place. Well, those days are ending, soon they will no longer be able to pretend that they have solutions- in fact, you can hear that in their statements right now if you are paying attention. The word "unprecedented" is used all too frequently for them to really know what they are doing. Even economists seem eager to get the stimulus on, as it will solve for them the debate over whether fiscal stimulus really works or not. Although politicians worldwide seem to act as though that debate was already settled, in fact, it's not. And what are we to do if we throw trillions into this black hole, and it doesn't do anything after all? Is anyone even asking that question? The Wall Street Journal quotes Rahm Emanuel as saying, "Never let a serious crisis go to waste. What I mean by that is it's an opportunity to do things you couldn't do before." This frank admission is chilling to anyone familiar with Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine. In short, the frightened masses which would normally oppose this type of reckless endangerment of their fiscal health (not to mention that of their children and grandchildren) can be persuaded that "desperate times call for desperate measures." Left unsaid is the fact that the desperate measures will tend to benefit the upper class of society disproportionately.

Most of the masses take some comfort in the fact that doomsdayers have been wrong before, a point I freely grant. However, doomsayers only have to be correct once. Additionally, those who believed their empires would last forever have also been wrong-- 100% of the time, historically. As the great Roman society was poised on the brink of destruction, did anyone alive at the time really believe what was happening, did they recognize the signs for what they were? Or any of the great civilizations that have sprang up to dominate their world- Mayan, Incan, Egyptian, Norse- did any of them recognize the coming collapse? Clearly, not in time to prevent it. Are we any different?

Of course, the end of the world has been promised by Jews, Christians, Muslims and assorted crazies with sandwich boards for as long as there has been a human world to end. But those doomsdays were the product of faith; reason always used to say the world will continue. The point about the new apocalypse is that this situation has reversed. Now faith tells us we will be able to solve our problems; reason says we have no answers now and none are likely in the future. Perhaps we can't cure cancer because the problem is simply beyond our intellects. Perhaps we haven't flown to the stars because our biology and God's physics mean we never can. Perhaps we are close to the limit and the time of plenty is over.

The evidence is mounting that our two sunny centuries of growth and wealth may end in a new Dark Age in which ignorance will replace knowledge, war will replace peace, sickness will replace health and famine will replace obesity. You don't think so? It's always happened in the past. What makes us so different? Nothing, I'm afraid.

If we manage to escape the current crisis relatively unscathed, will we heed it for the warning sign it is? Jared Diamond's amazing book Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed poses an interesting question: What did the person on Easter Island who cut down the last tree think about as he was doing it? You see, deforestation was a major factor in the collapse of Easter Island society. Diamond spotlights several other once-mighty societies that collapsed because of their stupid, short-term, profligate use of natural resources. Put simply, they used their resources until they were gone, and then they died. Their societies crumbled surprisingly quickly, often within only decades from reaching their peak. There is nothing to suggest that American society is any different, or has learned the lessons of the past. Quoting Diamond:

"One of the disturbing facts of history is that so many civilizations collapse. Few people, however, least of all our politicians, realize that a primary cause of the collapse of those societies has been the destruction of the natural resources on which they depend. Fewer still appreciate that many of those civilizations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society's demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power."

If we assume this is not the great collapse, then it will certainly arrive within decades if we continue on our current path, and probably even if we make radical changes. The deniers have been far too successful, and we are utterly unprepared for the implications. They have postponed action on the most pressing of problems, citing potential damage to the economy (which after all, must continue to grow, at all costs). Well, they've succeeded, and gained the ultimate pyrrhic victory. The economy is now in the process of being destroyed, and it's too late to solve the environmental problems we will be facing. Scientific consensus is now that the human race, if not all life on Earth, will go extinct within the next 100 years. It takes a bit of connecting the dots, but they are all well-regarded scientific studies. Or, if you choose not to believe that one, how about the NASA scientist and climate expert that says Obama has only 4 years to save planet earth? I, for one, am not optimistic that he can muster the will to do so, even if we grant that it's not yet too late.

In any case, I am not going to be spending much more time chronicling this collapse. I'm definitely done posting about political and economic corruption within the US, as there are far too many articles and I have too little time. I urge you to spend whatever time and resources you can muster in preparing yourself for what's to come. I am not going to point you in the direction of "recommended reading" or some similar list. If you are interested, you can find such information on your own, but I suspect that most of you are not interested enough to even try. Pity, but consider this parting thought: before the rise of the age of oil (a mere two centuries ago), the earth was able to support approximately 1 billion people. There are now approximately 6.7 billion. If there is the slightest chance that any of our most respected scientists are correct then the coming wars, pandemics, droughts, famine, and extreme weather are set to reduce that number dramatically, if not totally erase it. Mankind has proven itself to be a parasite, remorselessly feeding on the resources of our host planet. Like a parasite, we may just be killing ourselves along with our host. Or perhaps a cancer is an apt description- growing exponentially, eventually choking out and destroying the healthy parts until the whole organism dies.

Thanks to all who have taken the time to read my postings over the past year or two, and I'm very sincerely wishing you good luck.



THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

What GOP Leaders deem wasteful in Senate stimulus bill

What GOP Leaders deem wasteful in Senate stimulus bill - CNN.com: "(CNN) -- On Monday, House Republican leaders put out a list of what they call wasteful provisions in the Senate version of the nearly $900 billion stimulus bill that is being debated:

• $2 billion earmark to re-start FutureGen, a near-zero emissions coal power plant in Illinois that the Department of Energy defunded last year because it said the project was inefficient.

• A $246 million tax break for Hollywood movie producers to buy motion picture film.

• $650 million for the digital television converter box coupon program.

• $88 million for the Coast Guard to design a new polar icebreaker (arctic ship).

• $448 million for constructing the Department of Homeland Security headquarters.

• $248 million for furniture at the new Homeland Security headquarters.

• $600 million to buy hybrid vehicles for federal employees.

• $400 million for the Centers for Disease Control to screen and prevent STD's.

• $1.4 billion for rural waste disposal programs.

• $125 million for the Washington sewer system.

• $150 million for Smithsonian museum facilities.

• $1 billion for the 2010 Census, which has a projected cost overrun of $3 billion.

• $75 million for "smoking cessation activities."

• $200 million for public computer centers at community colleges.

• $75 million for salaries of employees at the FBI.

• $25 million for tribal alcohol and substance abuse reduction.

• $500 million for flood reduction projects on the Mississippi River.

• $10 million to inspect canals in urban areas.

• $6 billion to turn federal buildings into "green" buildings.

• $500 million for state and local fire stations.

• $650 million for wildland fire management on forest service lands.

• $1.2 billion for "youth activities," including youth summer job programs.

• $88 million for renovating the headquarters of the Public Health Service.

• $412 million for CDC buildings and property.

• $500 million for building and repairing National Institutes of Health facilities in Bethesda, Maryland.

• $160 million for "paid volunteers" at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

• $5.5 million for "energy efficiency initiatives" at the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration.

• $850 million for Amtrak.

• $100 million for reducing the hazard of lead-based paint.

• $75 million to construct a "security training" facility for State Department Security officers when they can be trained at existing facilities of other agencies.

• $110 million to the Farm Service Agency to upgrade computer systems.

• $200 million in funding for the lease of alternative energy vehicles for use on military installations.


Looks like a big list of waste, right? Add it all up though, and they're talking about a little more than $19 billion, or roughly 2% of the total size of the stimulus package. Put another way, the total "waste" amounts to $62 dollars of the $2,962 that the stimulus package is expected to cost every man, woman, and child in the United States. Of course, that amount doesn't include the roughly $8 trillion spent so far on bailouts and guarantees. If you want to break that down, we're looking at $26,330 for each and every person in the US. Congratulations, if you're single, you're soon to be $30,000 deeper in debt than you thought you were!

Do you want your kids to be like Michael Phelps?



Michael Phelps was recently outed by a British tabloid as a *gasp* marijuana smoker. That means that he's got at least one thing in common with about 42% of the American population. And it simultaneously proves the lie from every single anti-pot PSA ad ever. I mean, now that we can definitively add "multiple gold-medalist" to the list of things you can do when using marijuana, can the government seriously continue to claim that it ruins lives and saps ambition?

For what it's worth, I wish Phelps had handled it differently once it was exposed. Here's what he said:

"I'm 23 years old, and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public -- it will not happen again."

And here's what he should have said:
"Yep, I smoke weed. It's a great way to relax, without all those dangerous side effects like alcohol and tobacco have. I don't care who knows it, because it's really not that big of a deal. I'm smoke weed, I've won 14 Olympic gold-medals, and I hold seven world records in swimming. I'm kind of a big deal and I think it's high-time (no pun intended) that we revisit the sanity of our "war on drugs".

But, he's only 23. Maybe in a few years, he'll wise up. Anyway, here's some more quick facts about marijuana prohibition.

Enforcing marijuana prohibition costs taxpayers an estimated $10 billion annually and results in the arrest of more than 872,000 individuals per year -- far more than the total number of arrestees for all violent crimes combined, including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

US Marijuana Arrests Of those charged with marijuana violations, approximately 89 percent, 738,915 Americans were charged with possession only. The remaining 90,710 individuals were charged with "sale/manufacture," a category that includes all cultivation offenses, even those where the marijuana was being grown for personal or medical use. In past years, roughly 30 percent of those arrested were age 19 or younger.

Monday, February 2, 2009

It's not going to be OK

I'm finding it difficult to have much to say about this article. For once, I don't have anything to criticize. I thought I might be able to pick on the reporter himself, but he's impeccably credentialed, as far as I can tell.

It’s Not Going to Be OK

Posted on Feb 2, 2009
AP Photo / Nikolas Giakoumidis

Riots have spread across Europe since the economic crisis began. Here, Greek riot police stand near a burning car.

By Chris Hedges

The daily bleeding of thousands of jobs will soon turn our economic crisis into a political crisis. The street protests, strikes and riots that have rattled France, Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Iceland will descend on us. It is only a matter of time. And not much time. When things start to go sour, when Barack Obama is exposed as a mortal waving a sword at a tidal wave, the United States could plunge into a long period of precarious social instability.

At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or has the possibility of totalitarianism been as real. Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. And poverty and despair will sweep across the landscape like a plague. This is the bleak future. There is nothing President Obama can do to stop it. It has been decades in the making. It cannot be undone with a trillion or two trillion dollars in bailout money. Our empire is dying. Our economy has collapsed.

How will we cope with our decline? Will we cling to the absurd dreams of a superpower and a glorious tomorrow or will we responsibly face our stark new limitations? Will we heed those who are sober and rational, those who speak of a new simplicity and humility, or will we follow the demagogues and charlatans who rise up out of the slime in moments of crisis to offer fantastic visions? Will we radically transform our system to one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state, or will we employ the brutality and technology of our internal security and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent? We won’t have to wait long to find out.

There are a few isolated individuals who saw it coming. The political philosophers Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul and Andrew Bacevich, as well as writers such as Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten and Naomi Klein, along with activists such as Bill McKibben and Ralph Nader, rang the alarm bells. They were largely ignored or ridiculed. Our corporate media and corporate universities proved, when we needed them most, intellectually and morally useless.

Wolin, who taught political philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley and at Princeton, in his book “Democracy Incorporated” uses the phrase inverted totalitarianism to describe our system of power. Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism and the Constitution while cynically manipulating internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions. Political candidates are elected in popular votes by citizens, but they must raise staggering amounts of corporate funds to compete. They are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists in Washington or state capitals who write the legislation. A corporate media controls nearly everything we read, watch or hear and imposes a bland uniformity of opinion or diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip. In classical totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. “Under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true,” Wolin writes. “Economics dominates politics—and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness.”

I reached Wolin, 86, by phone at his home about 25 miles north of San Francisco. He was a bombardier in the South Pacific during World War II and went to Harvard after the war to get his doctorate. Wolin has written classics such as “Politics and Vision” and “Tocqueville Between Two Worlds.” His newest book is one of the most important and prescient critiques to date of the American political system. He is also the author of a series of remarkable essays on Augustine of Hippo, Richard Hooker, David Hume, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and John Dewey. His voice, however, has faded from public awareness because, as he told me, “it is harder and harder for people like me to get a public hearing.” He said that publications, such as The New York Review of Books, which often published his work a couple of decades ago, lost interest in his critiques of American capitalism, his warnings about the subversion of democratic institutions and the emergence of the corporate state. He does not hold out much hope for Obama.

“The basic systems are going to stay in place; they are too powerful to be challenged,” Wolin told me when I asked him about the new Obama administration. “This is shown by the financial bailout. It does not bother with the structure at all. I don’t think Obama can take on the kind of military establishment we have developed. This is not to say that I do not admire him. He is probably the most intelligent president we have had in decades. I think he is well meaning, but he inherits a system of constraints that make it very difficult to take on these major power configurations. I do not think he has the appetite for it in any ideological sense. The corporate structure is not going to be challenged. There has not been a word from him that would suggest an attempt to rethink the American imperium.”

Wolin argues that a failure to dismantle our vast and overextended imperial projects, coupled with the economic collapse, is likely to result in inverted totalitarianism. He said that without “radical and drastic remedies” the response to mounting discontent and social unrest will probably lead to greater state control and repression. There will be, he warned, a huge “expansion of government power.”

“Our political culture has remained unhelpful in fostering a democratic consciousness,” he said. “The political system and its operatives will not be constrained by popular discontent or uprisings.”

Wolin writes that in inverted totalitarianism consumer goods and a comfortable standard of living, along with a vast entertainment industry that provides spectacles and diversions, keep the citizenry politically passive. I asked if the economic collapse and the steady decline in our standard of living might not, in fact, trigger classical totalitarianism. Could widespread frustration and poverty lead the working and middle classes to place their faith in demagogues, especially those from the Christian right?

“I think that’s perfectly possible,” he answered. “That was the experience of the 1930s. There wasn’t just FDR. There was Huey Long and Father Coughlin. There were even more extreme movements including the Klan. The extent to which those forces can be fed by the downturn and bleakness is a very real danger. It could become classical totalitarianism.”

He said the widespread political passivity is dangerous. It is often exploited by demagogues who pose as saviors and offer dreams of glory and salvation. He warned that “the apoliticalness, even anti-politicalness, will be very powerful elements in taking us towards a radically dictatorial direction. It testifies to how thin the commitment to democracy is in the present circumstances. Democracy is not ascendant. It is not dominant. It is beleaguered. The extent to which young people have been drawn away from public concerns and given this extraordinary range of diversions makes it very likely they could then rally to a demagogue.”

Wolin lamented that the corporate state has successfully blocked any real debate about alternative forms of power. Corporations determine who gets heard and who does not, he said. And those who critique corporate power are given no place in the national dialogue.

“In the 1930s there were all kinds of alternative understandings, from socialism to more extensive governmental involvement,” he said. “There was a range of different approaches. But what I am struck by now is the narrow range within which palliatives are being modeled. We are supposed to work with the financial system. So the people who helped create this system are put in charge of the solution. There has to be some major effort to think outside the box.”

“The puzzle to me is the lack of social unrest,” Wolin said when I asked why we have not yet seen rioting or protests. He said he worried that popular protests will be dismissed and ignored by the corporate media. This, he said, is what happened when tens of thousands protested the war in Iraq. This will permit the state to ruthlessly suppress local protests, as happened during the Democratic and Republic conventions. Anti-war protests in the 1960s gained momentum from their ability to spread across the country, he noted. This, he said, may not happen this time. “The ways they can isolate protests and prevent it from [becoming] a contagion are formidable,” he said.

“My greatest fear is that the Obama administration will achieve relatively little in terms of structural change,” he added. “They may at best keep the system going. But there is a growing pessimism. Every day we hear how much longer the recession will continue. They are already talking about beyond next year. The economic difficulties are more profound than we had guessed and because of globalization more difficult to deal with. I wish the political establishment, the parties and leadership, would become more aware of the depths of the problem. They can’t keep throwing money at this. They have to begin structural changes that involve a very different approach from a market economy. I don’t think this will happen.”

“I keep asking why and how and when this country became so conservative,” he went on. “This country once prided itself on its experimentation and flexibility. It has become rigid. It is probably the most conservative of all the advanced countries.”

The American left, he said, has crumbled. It sold out to a bankrupt Democratic Party, abandoned the working class and has no ability to organize. Unions are a spent force. The universities are mills for corporate employees. The press churns out info-entertainment or fatuous pundits. The left, he said, no longer has the capacity to be a counterweight to the corporate state. He said that if an extreme right gains momentum there will probably be very little organized resistance.

“The left is amorphous,” he said. “I despair over the left. Left parties may be small in number in Europe but they are a coherent organization that keeps going. Here, except for Nader’s efforts, we don’t have that. We have a few voices here, a magazine there, and that’s about it. It goes nowhere.”

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Endemic corruption

Blagojevich did acknowledge that the truth of his actions might not be flattering in some cases. He referred to taped conversations played earlier in the Senate trial. The tapes appeared to show Blagojevich linking legislation to campaign contributions.

He said that's something "all of us in politics do." (source)
I believe him. It's refreshing when you hear a politician actually tell the truth for once, isn't it?

Systemic police perjury addressed

Coming quickly on the heels of my post two weeks ago on police lying to gain search warrants, today's Wall Street Journal addresses the issue of police lying later in the process, at trial.

Though few officers will confess to lying -- after all, it's a crime -- work by researchers and a 1990s commission appointed to examine police corruption shows there's a tacit agreement among many officers that lying about how evidence is seized keeps criminals off the street.

To stem the problem, some criminal-justice researchers and academic experts have called for doing polygraphs on officers who take the stand or requiring officers to tape their searches.

A Supreme Court ruling this month, however, suggests that a simpler, though controversial, solution may be to weaken a longstanding part of U.S. law, known as the exclusionary rule. The 5-4 ruling in Herring v. U.S. that evidence obtained from certain unlawful arrests may nevertheless be used against a criminal defendant could indicate the U.S. is inching closer to a system in which officers might not be tempted to lie to prevent evidence from being thrown out.

Criminal-justice researchers say it's difficult to quantify how often perjury is being committed. According to a 1992 survey, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges in Chicago said they thought that, on average, perjury by police occurs 20% of the time in which defendants claim evidence was illegally seized.

"It is an open secret long shared by prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges that perjury is widespread among law enforcement officers," though it's difficult to detect in specific cases, said Alex Kozinski, a federal appeals-court judge, in the 1990s. That's because the exclusionary rule "sets up a great incentive for...police to lie."

So let me get this straight: everyone in the criminal justice system accepts that police routinely lie to help them gain convictions. Rather than realize that this means something is fundamentally flawed with our system, their solution is to remove the penalties associated with police misconduct? The exclusionary rule is one of the few protections afforded to defendants, and now we're going to weaken it because some cops feel pressured to lie to gain admission of the evidence? Exclusionary rule or not, I really am still stuck on the fact that a fifth of the police department routinely perjures themselves in court, and yet that is not the focus of this article. Let me put this another way: our police are committing criminal acts, and nobody is doing anything to stop it.

Throwing out evidence because of wrongful searches and arrests "is not an individual right and applies only where its deterrent effect outweighs the substantial cost of letting guilty and possibly dangerous defendants go free," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.

Civil liberties advocates and defense lawyers say losing the exclusionary rule would harm the public. "We'd risk far greater invasions of privacy because officers would have carte blanche to do outrageous activity and act on hunches all the time," says JaneAnne Murray, a criminal defense lawyer in New York.

Excluding illegally obtained evidence "is not an individual right and applies only where its deterrent effect outweighs the substantial cost of letting guilty and possibly dangerous defendants go free." Really? If we follow Justice Robert's statement to it's natural conclusion, then police can do whatever they want, as long as they actually catch some people that have drugs. And just what are these "substantial costs" associated with letting drug offenders go free? It seems to me that there are more substantial costs associated with incarcerating drug offenders than there are in letting them go free. As I write this, the federal and state governments combined have spent over $4.1 billion dollars in the first 29 days of 2009 on the drug war. Police arrested an estimated 872,720 persons for cannabis violations in 2007, the highest annual total ever recorded in the United States, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Of those charged with cannabis violations, approximately 89 percent, 775,137 Americans were charged with possession only. An American is now arrested for violating cannabis laws every 38 seconds.(source)

[Chart]
When do we admit that the drug was has been a total and abject failure?

Mercury contamination widespread in US Food Supply

Rather than simply presenting this story and ranting about it, I want to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate my way of critical thinking. I think that the way the news is reported does a tremendous disservice to the American public. I further believe that a large segment of the American population is losing, or has lost, their ability to think at any depth about the implications of the stories in the press. Read this article, then meet me below for commentary.

Studies Find Mercury in Much U.S. Corn Syrup

Corn Syrup Industry Attacks Findings, but Researchers Stick by Studies

Reuters

WASHINGTON

Many common foods made using commercial high fructose corn syrup contain mercury as well, researchers reported on Tuesday, while another study suggested the corn syrup itself is contaminated.

Food processors and the corn syrup industry group attacked the findings as flawed and outdated, but the researchers said it was important for people to know about any potential sources of the toxic metal in their food.

In one study, published in the journal Environmental Health, former Food and Drug Administration scientist Renee Dufault and colleagues tested 20 samples of high fructose corn syrup and found detectable mercury in nine of the 20 samples.

Dufault said in a statement that she told the FDA about her findings but the agency did not follow up.

Dr. David Wallinga, a food safety researcher and activist at the nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said he followed up on the report to find mercury in actual food.

"When I learned of that work, I said that is interesting but we don't just go out and eat a spoonful of high fructose corn syrup," Wallinga said in a telephone interview.

"We went and looked at supermarket samples where high fructose corn syrup was the first or second ingredient on the label," he said. These 55 different foods included barbecue sauce, jam, yogurt and chocolate syrup.

"We found about one out of three had mercury above the detection limit," Wallinga said.

The Corn Refiners Association challenged the findings.

"This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance," the group said in a statement.

Wallinga and colleagues said they believed the mercury got into the food during manufacture, at plants that use mercury-grade caustic soda produced in industrial chlorine plants, although his team was unable to show this.

"Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two reagents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years," Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, said in a statement.

Wallinga said the studies were based on samples taken in 2005, the most recent available.

Many studies have shown that fish can be high in mercury. Wallinga said consumers should know about other potential sources so they can limit how much they eat. "The best mercury exposure is no exposure at all," he said.

"Even at low levels methylmercury can harm the developing brain. The last thing we should intentionally do is add to it," Wallinga added.

He said his team did not test foods that did not contain corn syrup to see if they were also high in mercury.


OK, so pretty scary stuff, but if you read the article uncritically, you might be left with the impression that there is a dispute about whether mercury is in high fructose corn syrup (and the foods that contain HFCS) or not. But a critical reader notices what the corn industry actually said, which is "This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance." That's not a denial. If there really wasn't mercury in the syrup, then they would say something along the lines of "We have the highest processing standards and a rigorous quality control process. We are confident that there is no mercury in our products. However, to be absolutely certain, and in the interests of American consumers, we are submitting samples to a third-party lab for testing as well as inviting inspectors into our plants to monitor our processes and submit ideas for improvements." Ah, but that's not what they said, is it? Instead, they admitted that at one time their products contained mercury, and argued that even if they still do contain mercury, it's probably not really that significant anyway.

The next thing to do is to thing about the motivations of the people cited in the article. Who has a motivation to mislead? The scientists are doing science, and publishing their research. They might have an incentive to publish something like this which could be sensationalized, if it draws more attention to them. It could lead to a book deal, talk-show appearances, etc...

Alternatively, the corn industry also has a motivation to mislead. HFCS is in practically everything you purchase. If news that it was contaminated with mercury became widespread, then people may not purchase as much of their product, or lawsuits seeking damages may be initiated. Millions of dollars in lost sales, punitive damages, and impaired goodwill are not unforeseeable. So, if they can mislead people into thinking the studies are no good, that might just nip the problem in the bud.

So which is more likely to be misleading you? I don't know, but I suspect that it's the corn industry, especially in light of their non-denial statement. However, it could be both of them. And if you are reading an article that quotes a politician, all bets are off.

So there you have it, you're probably injesting a significantly higher amount of mercury than you were expecting. Welcome to the dysfunctional American food supply, would you like some salmonella peanut butter with that?

Friday, January 23, 2009

More news on the dollar

After yesterday's brief discussion on the future of the dollar, there are three major articles today on the subject.

First, the Wall Street Journal takes issue with the presumptive replacement for Tim Geithner at the New York Fed- a Mr. William Dudley.

One of the Fed's most important tasks in coming months will be deciding when to remove the oceans of liquidity that it has been pushing into the economy to fight off a deeper recession. Remove it too late once the recovery begins, and the Fed will risk creating new asset bubbles or a run on the dollar. Yet as chief economist for many years at Goldman Sachs, Mr. Dudley consistently supported a weak dollar in the name of reducing the U.S. trade deficit.

This is a dangerous message to send at any time, but in particular as the new Administration embarks on an epic spending spree that will require from $2 trillion to $3 trillion in new U.S. borrowing over the next two years. The world's creditors aren't likely to lend as much, or as cheaply, if they think their dollar assets will be debased as a matter of U.S. policy.
Reuter's provides a contrasting view- that Geithner and Obama face a daunting, but vital, task of persuading the world that they intend to maintain a strong-dollar policy.

"This time around the administration probably means it when it says it backs a strong dollar. They have to be dead serious about it," said Samarjit Shankar, a director for global strategy at the Bank of New York Mellon, in Boston.

"Trillions worth of U.S. debt is coming soon to the markets. Which foreign central bank or institution will buy this debt if they are not fully convinced the dollar will remain strong?" he added.

The challenge for Obama's team, analysts said, will be to support the dollar's value without direct manipulation in the markets, with the economy in recession, interest rates near zero, and a ballooning current account deficit.

Moreover, Washington will have to achieve all that without antagonizing China, the biggest holder of U.S. Treasury debt, the analysts said.

"It will be a real test. One thing is to finance a $450 billion deficit and another is to finance $2 trillion," said Chris Rupkey, a senior financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York.

And finally, a wonderful op-ed piece from Peter Schiff.

Barack Obama has spoken often of sacrifice. And as recently as a week ago, he said that to stave off the deepening recession Americans should be prepared to face "trillion dollar deficits for years to come."

But apart from a stirring call for volunteerism in his inaugural address, the only specific sacrifices the president has outlined thus far include lower taxes, millions of federally funded jobs, expanded corporate bailouts, and direct stimulus checks to consumers. Could this be described as sacrificial?

What he might have said was that the nations funding the majority of America's public debt -- most notably the Chinese, Japanese and the Saudis -- need to be prepared to sacrifice. They have to fund America's annual trillion-dollar deficits for the foreseeable future. These creditor nations, who already own trillions of dollars of U.S. government debt, are the only entities capable of underwriting the spending that Mr. Obama envisions and that U.S. citizens demand.

These nations, in other words, must never use the money to buy other assets or fund domestic spending initiatives for their own people. When the old Treasury bills mature, they can do nothing with the money except buy new ones. To do otherwise would implode the market for U.S. Treasurys (sending U.S. interest rates much higher) and start a run on the dollar. (If foreign central banks become net sellers of Treasurys, the demand for dollars needed to buy them would plummet.)

In sum, our creditors must give up all hope of accessing the principal, and may be compensated only by the paltry 2%-3% yield our bonds currently deliver.

As absurd as this may appear on the surface, it seems inconceivable to President Obama, or any respected economist for that matter, that our creditors may decline to sign on. Their confidence is derived from the fact that the arrangement has gone on for some time, and that our creditors would be unwilling to face the economic turbulence that would result from an interruption of the status quo.

But just because the game has lasted thus far does not mean that they will continue playing it indefinitely. Thanks to projected huge deficits, the U.S. government is severely raising the stakes. At the same time, the global economic contraction will make larger Treasury purchases by foreign central banks both economically and politically more difficult.

Embrace the cause of liberty!

Politics is the science of liberty: man's government of his fellow-man, no matter the name under which it lurks, is oppression: society's highest perfection lies in the marriage of order and anarchy.
The end of the old civilization is nigh: under a new sun, the face of the earth is going to be remade. Let us leave a generation to die out; let us leave the old prevaricators to perish in the desert--the blessed earth will not cover their bones. Young man, outraged by the corruption of the times and consumed by a yearning for justice--if you hold your country dear, and have any feeling for the interests of humanity--make bold and embrace the cause of liberty. Strip off your ancient selfishness and immerse yourself in the popular tide of nascent equality. There, your rehydrated soul can drink deep of a sap an an unknown vigor: your wit, gone flabby, will recover irrepressible energy; your heart--even now shriveled perhaps--will be rejuvenated. Your purified eyes will see everything in a new light: new sentiments will inspire new thoughts in you; religion, morality, poetry, art, language, will loom taller and more beautiful; and, certain then of your faith, thoughtfully enthusiastic, you will greet the dawning of universal regeneration.

Proudhon, from Property is Theft

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Theiving Merrill executives accelerated bonuses before BofA deal

Every time I think I've seen the lowest, most despicable, most brazen, unconscionable, outright theft, something like this comes along and proves me all wrong. When do we start seeing these fucking executives in handcuffs?

Merrill delivered bonuses before BofA deal
Merrill Lynch took the unusual step of accelerating bonus payments by a month last year, doling out billions of dollars to employees just three days before the closing of its sale to Bank of America.

The timing is notable because the money was paid as Merrill’s losses were mounting and Ken Lewis, BofA’s chief executive, was seeking additional funds from the government’s troubled asset recovery programme to help close the deal.

Merrill and BofA shareholders voted to approve the takeover on December 5. Three days later, Merrill’s compensation committee approved the bonuses, which were paid on December 29. In past years, Merrill had paid bonuses later – usually late January or early February, according to company officials.

Within days of the compensation committee meeting, BofA officials said they became aware that Merrill’s fourth-quarter losses would be greater than expected and began talks with the US Treasury on securing additional Tarp money.

Last week, BofA said it would be receiving $20bn in Tarp money, in addition to the $25bn that had been earmarked for it and Merrill last year. It was then revealed that Merrill had suffered a $21.5bn operating loss in the fourth quarter.

Despite the magnitude of the losses, Merrill had set aside $15bn for 2008 compensation, a sum that was only 6 per cent lower than the total in 2007, when the investment bank’s losses were smaller.

The bulk of $15bn in compensation was paid out as salary and benefits throughout the course of the year. A person familiar with the matter estimated that about $3bn to $4bn was paid out in bonuses in December.

Nancy Bush, an analyst with NAB Research, described the size of the 2008 Merrill bonus payments as “ridiculous”.

BofA said: “Merrill Lynch was an independent company until January 1 2009. John Thain (Merrill’s chief executive) decided to pay year-end incentives in December as opposed to their normal date in January. BofA was informed of his decision.”

BofA declined to specify when Mr Thain informed the bank of his decision.

A source familiar with the matter says Mr Thain, in the weeks leading up to the December 8 compensation committee meeting, had been weighing the possibility of requesting a bonus of at least $10m for himself before ultimately deciding against such a move.


So, if you're not clear what this means, let me break it down for you. Merrill decides they are too broke to function as an independent company, so they decide to sell themselves to Bank of America. Bank of America gets $25,000,000,000 (it seems like a bigger number if you use all the zeros instead of just saying "$25 billion") from the Paulson to make the deal work. Merrill decides a couple of days later that they've done a hell of a wonderful job and still deserve their bonuses, but they've got to hurry up and pay them out before BofA takes them over. In the meantime, BofA realizes that Merrill's eyeball deep in bad shit, and wants out of the deal. Paulson says, "no way", and kicks in another $20,000,000,000 and agrees to guarantee up to $118,000,000,000 in bad loans. Today, BofA says to John Thain (former CEO of Merrill Lynch) "your services are no longer needed."

In short: Merrill executives are fucking theives, and have perpetrated a massive heist on Bank of America, who passed the buck on to you, the taxpayer. How does that make you feel?

"They hate us because of our freedoms" or....

In September, 2001 former-president Bush (I love saying that) stood before Congress and the American public and provided his explanation for why we were attacked:

Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
The truth makes far more sense: they hate us because our foreign policy has, for years, killed them in cold blood. The Christian Science Monitor from 9/27/01:

But from Jakarta to Cairo, Muslims and Arabs say that on reflection, they are not surprised by it. And they do not share Mr. Bush's view that the perpetrators did what they did because "they hate our freedoms."

Rather, they say, a mood of resentment toward America and its behavior around the world has become so commonplace in their countries that it was bound to breed hostility, and even hatred.

And the buttons that Mr. bin Laden pushes in his statements and interviews - the injustice done to the Palestinians, the cruelty of continued sanctions against Iraq, the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, the repressive and corrupt nature of US-backed Gulf governments - win a good deal of popular sympathy.

Specifically in regard to Israel:

From one end of the region to the other, the perception is that Israel can get away with murder - literally - and that Washington will turn a blind eye. Clearly, the US and Israel have compelling reasons for their actions. But little that US diplomats have done in recent years to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians has persuaded Arabs that the US is a fair-minded and equitable judge of Middle Eastern affairs.

Over the past year, Arab TV stations have broadcast countless pictures of Israeli soldiers shooting at Palestinian youths, Israeli tanks plowing into Palestinian homes, Israeli helicopters rocketing Palestinian streets. And they know that the US sends more than $3 billion a year in military and economic aid to Israel.

"You see this every day, and what do you feel?" asks Rafiq Hariri, the portly prime minister of Lebanon, who is not an excitable man. "It hurts me a lot. But for hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Muslims, it drives them crazy. They feel humiliated."

It appears that we have not learned our lesson. Fast-forward to 2009, we see new threats from Al-Qaeda based on our unquestioning support for Israel:

A prominent Al-Qaeda figure, Abu Yahya al-Libi, on Thursday urged Islamist militants to launch attacks in the West, naming the United States and Britain, to avenge Israel's onslaught on Gaza.

"Sacrifice what you can to deliver to the capitals of the infidel West, the criminal America, and the agent tyrants a taste of what they deliver to our brothers and our oppressed brothers and people in Palestine," Libi said in a videotape posted on the Internet, according a translation by SITE monitoring group.

Our hypocritical and unwavering support for Israel is endangering us again. Where do you think Israel got all those advanced munitions, used in an illegal manner? Why from your tax dollars, of course!

The U.S. weapons systems used by the Israelis -- including F-16 fighter planes, Apache helicopters, tactical missiles and a wide array of munitions -- have been provided by Washington mostly as outright military grants.

The administration of President George W. Bush alone has provided over 21 billion dollars in U.S. security assistance over the last eight years, including 19 billion dollars in direct military aid as freebies.

"Israel's intervention in the Gaza Strip has been fueled largely by U.S. supplied weapons paid for with U.S. tax dollars," says a background briefing released Thursday by the Arms and Security Initiative of the New York-based New America Foundation.

"The Bush administration has been unwilling to use its considerable influence -- as Israel's major military and political backer -- to dissuade the government in Tel Aviv from its pattern of claiming self-defence while perpetrating collective punishment, human rights violations and undertaking massively disproportionate attacks that harm and kill civilians," Frida Berrigan, senior programme associate at the New America Foundation, told IPS.


We can only hope that these policies will change under the Obama administration.

Cult of Personality







All excerpts from Wikipedia's entry for "Cult of Personality." All emphasis mine.

A cult of personality or personality cult arises when a country's leader uses mass media to create a heroic public image through unquestioning flattery and praise. Cults of personality are often found in dictatorships.



Generally, personality cults are most common in regimes with totalitarian systems of government, that seek to radically alter or transform society according to (supposedly) revolutionary new ideas. Often, a single leader becomes associated with this revolutionary transformation, and comes to be treated as a benevolent "guide" for the nation, without whom the transformation to a better future cannot occur. This has been generally the justification for personality cults that arose in totalitarian societies of the 20th century, such as those of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

Dollar set to fall?

As I briefly mentioned yesterday, a dollar devaluation is not unforeseeable in the near-term. Many analysts suggest that it is highly unlikely due to its status as reserve currency, a viewpoint echoed in today's Wall Street Journal.

Unlike the pound, the dollar is being buttressed by its unique status as the world's reserve currency and the vehicle for transactions in U.S. financial markets, including Treasury bonds. That means investors often seek out the dollar as fears rise, sometimes in spite of their concerns about the U.S. economy.

Fair enough, for now. But consider the factors driving the devaluation of the pound:
The U.S. and the U.K. face very similar predicaments, from a deepening recession to a damaged financial system. Both are orchestrating massive bank bailouts and attempting to assist struggling homeowners. Both are ramping up government spending even as they rely on financing from overseas investors. And both countries have central banks that have slashed interest rates and opened the door to unconventional ways of stimulating the economy.
Essentially, a very real fear that the massive bailouts and spending in the UK will bankrupt the government itself. The UK government is dependent on financing from overseas investors to keep the government functioning, as is the US government. As the situation deteriorates in China, perhaps dumping the massive investment they have made in the US become an increasingly attractive option, especially as treasuries become riskier as the cost of the assorted bailouts and buyouts and loans and guarantees spirals. Again, from the Wall Street Journal:

While the dollar continues to benefit from its unique position in financial markets for now, it is far from clear that the resilience will last. "Right now the market is beating up on the pound, but at some point it will look for something else to pick on," says Paul Mackel, a currency strategist at HSBC in London.

The fact that the Federal Reserve stands ready to use a host of unconventional measures to flood the economy with liquidity in an effort to stimulate growth "could hurt the dollar quite badly" later this year, he says.

Fed Balance Sheet Decaying

Fed Balance Sheet Decaying

Does anyone talking about this "bad bank" realize that we already have one? It's the Federal Reserve, and it has already taken on trillions of dollars of worthless paper from banks. If you really think the bad bank is the way to solve the crisis, then just let the Fed keep doing what they're doing.

Scientists Find a Missing Link

Scientists Find a Missing Link | Popular Science: "Paleontologists have excavated a plethora of feathered dinosaurs in China over the past few years, but none of those dinosaurs had feathers like this. Scientists examining a news specimen of the dinosaur Beipiaosaurus have found imprints of a proto-feather that looks like the missing link between primitive downy feathers and the modern feathers seen on birds."

Suck it, young-earth creationists! Where's your god now?? Oh, you'll probably invent some other gap for him to hide in, right?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Millionaire Obama freezes pay of top millionaire staff

Obama vows new 'era of openness', freezes pay of top staff: "President Barack Obama Wednesday vowed to forge a new era of government openness and froze the pay of top staff earning more than 100,000 dollars to show Americans their leaders could also tighten their belts amid economic crisis."

Boy, I sure hope those top staffers will be OK if they don't get any more raises! I mean, to be limited to your $100,000+ salary must be pretty painful! Millionaire Barack Obama shows he really knows how to tighten the belt, by freezing the salaries of his (millionaire) staffers, including Rahm Emanuel (estimated net worth of between $5,023,020 and $13,171,000 in 2007). Most progressive bloggers are praising the move, saying that it shows Obama empathizes with ordinary Americans' struggles. But he's not actually reducing anyone's salary, so I don't see how it's proof that the White House has a new commitment to "do more with less". Maybe it's along the lines of congressional spending, which when you hear about "slashing spending" really means "reducing the rate at which spending is increasing".

I think Obama's doing some good things here, especially if his commitment to "openness" holds. I'm all for restraining lobbyist influence, but color me skeptical that the tens of thousands of lobbyists in Washington are suddenly going to be unemployed.

Riots continue in Iceland

As I noted here December 23rd, riots and violent protests were disrupting Iceland, a country not known for these types of actions. Admittedly, the economic situation there is much worse (currently) than in the United States, but perhaps not for long. The Icelandic current account deficit is currently 22% of GDP, vs. 7% for US; the Icelandic GDP is forecast to decline by 9.6% for 2009- a number nobody is contemplating for the US. Inflation in Iceland is rampant, while deflation has taken hold in America.

However, there are several parallels worth noting. Iceland is forecasting a rise in the unemployment rate to 7.8% in 2009 (a number the US would be lucky to maintain in the face of steeply mounting layoffs and business closures). Iceland's currency has lost more than half its value, which is certainly not unforeseeable in the future for the US. But more than just the numbers, the story certainly sounds familiar to those of us in the United States. From The Guardian:

The fault is clearly shared between the business elite and the government, which failed to regulate the newly privatised financial sector, allowing a few incompetent and egotistical business tycoons to gamble with the nation's fortune. And yet neither the government nor the bankers – who, by the way, seem to have disappeared into the cold thin air – see anything wrong with their own behaviour.

The governor of the central bank blames the risk-seeking bankers, the bankers blame the government and the prime minister attributes the whole crisis to the international credit crunch. This lack of any sense of responsibility has angered the Icelandic public to the extent that they have turned to the streets in greater numbers than ever before.

Sound familiar? Do you hear anyone in American politics or banking accepting responsibility?

From the Huffington Post:

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the American Declaration of Independence that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [and] whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government." As the protesters fight to enforce that right, in this county that has known no war for generations, that has not seen violent conflict among its citizens for centuries, we must ponder what could be.

Today, as the United States makes a fundamental shift in direction, Iceland is tearing itself apart. The peaceful transition of power we watched in Washington following a fiercely contested election is a symbol of hope to us. The competent confidence and inspiring rhetoric of Barack Obama have rallied the vast majority of Americans behind him to face the myriad challenges all around us. The arrogance and obliviousness of Iceland's ruling elite has had the opposite effect.

Once again, I sincerely hope that I am wrong about the direction we are headed. However, the way I see it, he stimulus package cannot stand up to the kind of fiscal devastation that has been unleashed around the planet, nor can the TARP (or TARP 2.0, 3.0, etc... which are surely going to be coming). Please consider what could happen here if the results that people expect from the incoming administration fail to live up to the expectations engendered by the utterly non-specific rhetoric of "hope", and "change", and "yes, we can". What happens if we simply cannot? Once more, from The Guardian:

It is the first time in Icelandic history that a young anarchist can well expect to meet his grandmother in the crowd demonstrating against the government and drumming with her kitchen knife on pots and pans. The government is surely hanging by a thin thread and might fall at any moment.

The Icelandic public fear that their country has virtually been stolen by the globetrotting business elite that spent more time rubbing shoulders with international high society than giving back to the society that enabled them to enjoy this privileged lifestyle. Now ordinary Icelanders are determined to take their country back.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy Inauguration Day

I stole the graphic from Nostate.com, a page run by an anarchist that has just renounced his American citizenship. Kudos to him! As a commenter there pointed out, perhaps "Stooge" isn't exactly the right word, given how complicit Obama is in being the ruling class, so make up your own mind.
As an atheist, I don't see why prayer has to be part of a government function at all, but as prayers go, this one is decent. I like a lot of the sentiments there, but asking an invisible skydaddy to give you tolerance, compassion, etc... tends to absolve one of the responsibility to research those things on your own.

You may have heard the controversy over the bigot Rick Warren being invited to give the invocation. Subsequently, Gene Robinson was invited to give a prayer to open the whole inaugural event, and here's what he prayed:

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will…

Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.

Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for ALL the people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.

Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking FAR too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand – that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.

AMEN.

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