Belaboring the Obvious

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Have been meaning to...

... to write about Eric Alterman's recent article in The Nation, "Kabuki Democracy," not so much because I disagreed with it as because I wasn't sure it went far enough down into the roots of the problem.

Babara Ehrenreich has apparently gotten the same feeling as have I, as she explains here.

But, to explain a bit, we've likely (as Charles Pierce put it in his excellent recent book, Idiot America) become a bit too dependent upon what the Founders thought as a way of defending our points of view, as if they were oracles that could see much farther into the future than mere mortals, which is a fatal assumption. Some of this impulse comes from a solid decade of the Bush and Cheney and Obama administrations making a frontal assault on civil rights. In such times, it's a natural inclination to return to the founding documents and their authors for rebuttal.

Unfortunately, those rebuttals, however well-founded in plain language, have been about as effective, practically, as a popcorn fart stopping a windstorm. There are probably two major reasons why, and both of them might well go back to the structure the Founders created for us.

The first and most obvious is that the Founders chose not to address the issue of money in politics, and collaterally (although some had tremendous misgivings about them) never addressed the issue of political parties. The latter was certainly inevitable--even if the writers of the Constitution has specifically barred the formation of political parties, legislators still would have coalesced along informal ideological boundaries into groups that would have functioned much the same as political parties do today.

The issue of money, however, is one that they could have addressed and did not. The originators of the Constitution held private property in high esteem. That much is apparent in the language of the document--the regulation of commerce among the states, the limitation of voting to men of property--so there was little inclination on their part to limit the use of personal wealth in the political world. I would guess this was a reactionary position on the part of merchants to a feudal system in which wealth and political power were concentrated in a royal aristocracy. They likely felt--by extending political power to all with property--they were greatly expanding the power of the people when compared with the system they were opposing.

Even so, a few of them, such as Jefferson, thought that the accumulation of wealth could in time create what he termed "artificial aristocracies," which might function in governance in ways very similar to the royal aristocracy which was the bane of their collective existence, and that the surest way of preventing the rise of such an aristocracy was through a system of taxation of income designed to prevent the formation of such an artificial power base, which Jefferson saw as needing to be "geometric" in nature. Jefferson was describing the progressive income tax system, as it existed in this country from the 1930s through roughly 1963.

So, was Jefferson the first socialist? Hardly. Jefferson's conception of democracy was, generally, that any well-informed citizen could make the decisions necessary for his own governance through his representatives, and that unnatural concentrations of power (via large amounts of money) in the hands of the few mooted such a democracy. Jefferson was describing not the necessity for redistribution of income, but, rather, the need for a leveling of political power among individuals to preserve democracy.

In one sense, the system of government was set up with roughly equal powers to limit any one branch from dominating government, or, in theory, government from exercising tyrannical state power against the individual. The premise of government, then, was a leveling of political power within government and within the society which chose the governors.

For a lot of reasons, including the ceding of Congressional power to the Executive with the creation of the national security state in 1947, the balance of power has become increasingly lopsided, which calls into question whether or not we effectively operate as a democracy any longer. Much of that lopsidedness has to do with the concentration of wealth in a few individuals which Jefferson feared. Since the courts have increasingly chosen to see corporations as having the rights of citizens, they, too, must be considered as individuals with concentrations of wealth unhealthy to democratic rule, as Jefferson envisioned it.

Yes, here I am depending upon one of the Founders again, but, only to demonstrate that Jefferson may well have been the most far-sighted of the bunch, given how we've turned out, two hundred and twenty-odd years after the ratification of the Constitution, and to illustrate the great paradox of our time. Even if we recognize that the country's laws are shaped to ensure the continuing accumulation of wealth by the wealthy, even if we recognize that the political power of the wealthy increases commensurate with their economic power, even if we recognize that our own power has been diminished by this system, we're powerless to interrupt or rectify that process, simply because the people we elect are the very people most dependent upon that system for their reelection. Their self-interest is at odds with our own.

Which is why we've been completely unable to either derail or thwart the artificial aristocracy that now controls the system. There are fixes that would be rather simple and egalitarian and enforceable, such as a number of public election finance schemes (which, thanks to the stacking of the Supreme Court with functionaries of that artificial aristocracy, now will require a Constitutional amendment), but, none have been implemented, and the why of that is obvious.

More recently, the problem of the revolving door between government and corporation has become acute--and blatant--and is perhaps the worst of all indicators that the artificial aristocracy and government work hand in hand. Again, the fix is simple. Bar members of government, including Congress and Congressional staffers, from working as lobbyists to government or working for firms that do business with the government for twenty years after public service. Bar the military from working for firms that do business with the government for twenty years after leaving the military. Bar Executive branch agency officials for twenty years from working for the firms those agencies regulate. Simple legislation. It, too, will never happen, because even the most democracy-minded of elected representatives are compromised by the very system which has over time evolved in this country to benefit that artificial aristocracy.

Needless to say, even those in government who recognize the visionary perception of Jefferson in this regard are unable or unwilling to implement the means he suggested to prevent or ameliorate the problem, and are, instead, lost in the midst of quibbles about whether or not the expiration of a tax cut on the wealthy constitutes a tax increase; meanwhile, any resolution of that problem still leaves the wealthy with an extraordinarily undemocratic level of power in government, which is precisely why those quibbles were fostered, promoted and chewed on interminably in the media--to serve as a distraction from the underlying problem.

Today, the idea that democracy works best when in the hands of people with equal political power is a radical one. Even the Founders would not go so far in Jefferson's direction as to put that level of power in the hands of ordinary people. Even after enumerating a Bill of Rights protecting basic freedoms for all, when virtually all of which were intended to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority and the individual from the tyranny of the state, the Founders did not give the people the opportunity to control their national destiny by referendum, even with the counterbalancing force of a court system charged with the protection of civil and human rights.

We live now with what has evolved from the system left us by the Founders, one that to a considerable degree did not anticipate that the disproportionate accumulation of power through wealth would one day corrupt the very system of lawmaking and law enforcement upon which their society governed by rule of law would depend, and that would also shape and shift public knowledge and public opinion, as well as institutionalize governmental and corporate secrecy, in ways that would undermine the ability of the citizen to be truly well-informed, as the Founders said would be fundamentally necessary for effective citizenship in the democracy they launched.

So, for now, yes, finding candidates that somehow can prevail against the tremendously powerful (and, perforce, somehow resist the institutionalized corruption of the system as it is now, once elected) is the only avenue to change currently available. Still, over time, the imbalance of power has become so disproportionately large that we simply and finally must accept that our government is controlled by an artificial aristocracy, which to a considerable extent also determines the candidates for whom we may vote, thus further diluting the little political power we retain.

As with all other societies based on aristocratic control of government, ours will eventually succumb to the corruption that attends such aristocracies, and will lapse into a modern form of feudalism, signs of which are already apparent. It is important to note that if this happens, as looks likely, the fault is not in the concept of democracy itself, but in the inherent flaws of the system we inherited, that, like loose stitches in a sweater that, once pulled, unravel into an unrecognizable heap.

Therefore, we will need, eventually, to correct those flaws, perhaps through some national movement to write a new Constitution--outside of the traditional Constitutional Convention system which, because it is managed by that same aristocratic government, is sure to be corrupted itself--retaining the best ideas in the founding documents, but also adding those ideas that better undergird democracy in modern times, and then command the government to accept that document, through sheer force of numbers, or through mechanisms such as national non-violent sit-down strikes.

The inevitable alternative is revolution, and as I've mentioned here many times, that alternative is fraught with uncertainty. One never knows who prevails in such chaos, one can never minimize the human destruction or the damage to the national psyche, and the odds are at least even that what rises out of the ashes of violent revolution may be even worse than the previous status quo, however undemocratic that status quo may be.

Nevertheless, we are a nation in decline, and that decline is not measured by GDP, but, rather, by the degree of apathy and helplessness and powerlessness we feel, and increasingly, that we are being conditioned by the aristocracy to accept that state of affairs as normal, which it is not.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

She really, really, really, really is...

... just the rankest of opportunists, isn't she?

It's a nice twist on the dolchstoßlegende, though, even if her delivery of it might just rival Bush's tortured syntax in his more abstracted moments:

... however there are a 100 mosques already in New York to chose and be so adamant about this exact location just a block or two away from 9/11 is just that knife it feels like.

I give her a month or so before she's out hunting for car crashes to blame on Muslims....

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Maybe a bit difficult to reconcile...

... given the current state of affairs between Israel and the U.S., but, shit, guys, give us a break here.

Let's just lay out some facts, just to keep things from getting far off-kilter.

First, Israel is the fourth or fifth largest nuclear power in the world. If we have any worries about a nuclear Middle East, it's because of Israel, not Iran.

The reason why Israel so desperately wants U.S. help in bombing Iran is because Israel doesn't want to be seen as an aggressor in the matter, and hopes that the U.S. won't be accused of aggression because it's reputedly defending the NNPT (or, simply doesn't care if the flak is directed at the U.S.

This is rank bullshit, first, because Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons, isn't a member of the NPT, won't admit to inspections and, most importantly, wants to maintain--at all costs--its nuclear hegemony in the region.

The U.S. knows this. The Israelis know this. The rest of the Middle East, including Iran, knows this.

Iran is a particular problem for Israel, because it supports, either through small arms or money, the two groups most determined to prevent Israel from achieving its "Greater Israel" program, which is to expand Israel's borders far beyond its 1948, or, even, its 1967 borders. If one looks at Israel's actions related to war, it's all about fulfilling David Ben-Gurion's pre-1948 mandate--that Israel's borders must be "natural." By that, Ben-Gurion meant north to the Litani River, east to the Jordan River, west to the Mediterranean, and as far south into the Sinai along the Red Sea as would be possible.

Every military action of Israel since 1948 can be seen as furthering that mandate. Jimmy Carter's peace agreement between Israel and Egypt interfered with that edict, but, it didn't stop the Israel government occupying southern Lebanon all the way up to the Litani, did it?

This mandate is now known as the "Greater Israel" project, and the governments of Israel have continued to use military force to achieve that end.

Under ordinary conditions, it would make no U.S. foreign policy difference that Israel did these things, lied about their intentions, and went on behaving exactly like the very enemy that decimated their numbers in Europe in WWII. But, these are not ordinary conditions. For more than forty years, Israel's successive governments have been lying about their intentions, have carried out a systematic program of ethnic cleansing over the last sixty or more years, and have used both its military and its status with U.S. politicians to do whatever the hell it liked, regardless of how badly it has behaved toward Palestinians.

The truth is that most of the so-called pro-Israel groups--with extraordinary lobbying power in Congress--are not American groups. They're, more specifically, lobbyists for a foreign power, i.e., Israel. Even more specifically, these groups are the interface between the right wing in Israel and the right wing in this country. Most of these groups maintain political positions that don't reflect the views of most Jews in this country. A poll done years ago by The Forward pretty much nailed down the facts--2.2% of voters in this country are Jewish. Of those, fully 70% are liberal, ostensibly Democrats, or small-d democrats in general, while only 0.7% of respondents are right-wing Israel-first-and-always fanatics.

So, it's not a stretch to say that our foreign policy with regard to the Middle East is dominated by a very vocal 0.7% of the entire electorate of the United States. What's wrong with this picture? Well, maybe nothing, except that 0.7% represents an extreme minority of the country, and there's absolutely no good reason why that tiniest part of the electorate should determine how Congress votes, and what our foreign policy should be.

Every time one tries to make sense of this, the slightest suggestion that the government of Israel might be massively fucked up and is imitating its worst enemies in order to achieve its arbitrary ends invites a torrent of abuse in the form of complaints about anti-Semitism, and that if one doesn't reflexively defend Israel, no matter how badly the country behaves, one is for Hitler and against freedom.

Horseshit. Ever since the 1967 war, Israel's governments and its military have been pursuing the same aims with Arabs as the Germans did with Jews in Europe in the years encompassing WWII. Sorry, guys, but, you've been behaving like a bunch of right-wing, fascist assholes.

Never again? Hell, you've been repeating history since 1946. The only difference is that you're the oppressors, not the Germans, and the Arabs under your administration are treated just like the Jews were in Berlin, Romania, France, Poland and throughout Europe and Eastern Europe.

What's worse than that? You don't care what the international community thinks. You don't respect international law. You don't give a shit. How is that different from Hitler's Germany? No difference at all. Hitler said he was defending Germany. You say you're defending Israel. Neither of you have one whit of respect for the rule of law.

Yes, a lot of this is the fault of the United States. We gave you too much money, money which you used to further the arms trade and your own military. And we keep on giving you money and arms, even when you behave very, very badly. Some of that is the result of the lobbying groups you maintain to influence Congress, and some of it is the result of Jewish Senators and Congressmen and women who cannot admit--because of the Holocaust--that you're now controlled by a bunch of right-wing assholes who will not give up until "Greater Israel" is a reality, even if making that goal a reality destroys your national character, your people's ambitions, your lives and your livelihoods.

That's what this missive is about--your destruction. No matter how much you fuck with our Congress, no matter how much money you devote to our electoral process, you will fail, and you will destroy yourselves in the process. You were off on the wrong foot in 1947, and you're still on the wrong foot. Nationally, you no longer represent the Zionism that Albert Einstein envisioned in 1920. You're no longer representative of the pensive, contemplative, complicated Jews that tried to explain the complexities of life and human affairs to those of us in this country that never endured similar suffering and ostracism, and learned from such grand and great human beings as Isaac Bashevis Singer, or Sholem Aleichem. Or E.L. Doctorow, or Allen Ginsburg, or Eugene Ionesco, Joseph Heller, Franz Kafka, Clifford Odets, Grace Paley, Nathanael West, or Morris Rosenfeld, the best of the "sweatshop" poets.

With so much to teach, why have you learned so little in the last sixty years? Why have you become a nation of loud-mouthed, arrogant, half-assed warmongering liars that, behaving too stupidly for just an afternoon, could create events that would wipe you out in moments? Why is it that you revere petty tyrants such as Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman? Because they make you feel strong? Truly, I can't guess. You will have to tell me why these tin-pot dictators make you feel better about yourselves after you've stolen so much from others, and, in return, given the world so little since 1948, except more arms and more strife.

Israel, since its statehood, has given so very little to the world, and taken so very much. Perhaps the Holocaust created in Israel's citizens a sense of disproportionate entitlement, a sense that nothing--no matter how violent or perverse--was, as was said in earlier times, beyond the pale.

More likely, I think, is that the right wing in Israel has chosen, deliberately, to create a siege mentality in its citizens, to make them fearful of everything, and everyone not themselves, to despise an "other," exactly as their ancestors were described by the Nazis. Israel's right wing has done this to maintain power, to achieve ends that are meaningless in comparison to the blood shed, and to obtain goals that are just as inhumane as those historically inflicted on Jews by their various tormentors.

I am ashamed that my government has largely acquiesced in this process over these last many decades. It has done so out of imperial ambitions of its own, believing that Israel is a client state of the U.S., and out of a peculiar kind of cowardice, a cowardice that comes from the unwillingness to risk a tenuous alliance which, for a long, long time, has been predicated on mutual exploitation, rather than true friendship.

The proof of that, I think, is that the Israeli government--along with its elite business, intellectual and military classes--continues to use its disproportionate political influence in this country to obtain its own ends without suffering direct consequences itself, and this is no more apparent than in the current campaign to convince the American public to wage war on Iran, which is a stupidly aggressive intention. I think it obvious that America's foreign policy elite want to undo the revolution in Iran of 1979, but, hardly for altruistic purposes. Iran was once a reliable client state, just like Israel, until the Islamic revolution there. Since the time of that revolution, Iran has materially or symbolically aided the two groups, Hamas and Hizbollah, which have as their primary purpose resistance against Israeli territorial expansion via a disproportionate advantage in military force, backed up by a corrupt court system aiding an illegal occupation, in order to fulfill David Ben-Gurion's dictum. That is the "greater Israel project."

That gives both the U.S. and the Israeli governments equivalent motives for attacking Iran. But, both motives are aggressive and wildly ill-advised. Such an attack would, if anything, spur Iran to precisely the nuclear programs it has consistently denied pursuing and which the IAEA has confirmed it is not now pursuing, and would push Iranians toward a virulently nationalistic response, simply because the Islamic government there would rightly perceive both Israel and the U.S. as existential threats to its existence.

In other words, it's an exceedingly dumb move on multiple counts, and one in which the Israeli government should not attempt to engage the U.S.

Israel is now like a spoiled child with an allowance so large that it guarantees it will get into trouble, trouble from which the parent may be hard-pressed to extricate himself, let alone the child. We sometimes forget that Israel is a nation of barely 7 million people, about 30% of which live in contested territories that require constant military support or intervention, surrounded by perhaps 4 million Palestinians who have been denied their rights, had their land stolen from them and have suffered for more than forty years the daily indignities and pains of military occupation.

There are a good many people in Israel who are fervent and dedicated advocates for a just peace, and I salute those many people and I applaud and support their efforts. But, the majority in Israel has lost its collective mind, and has, after decades of brutalizing others, become what it has most hated in its history. Until Israel regains its sanity, I will mourn its moral decay and hope for the day when it comes to its senses. If it does not regain its sanity, it will destroy itself from within, or, others, either in desperation or frustration, will destroy it from without.

I am the avowed enemy of anyone in this country who continues to advocate for Israel's current leadership and policies, because those advocates wish for, whether they realize it or not, the inevitable destruction of Israel's neighbors, and, in the process, Israel, as well.

One day, and I hope sooner than later, Israelis will cast off the right wing's mantle of fear and xenophobia and violence, and finally fulfill the destiny set out for them by gentler, kinder, smarter Jews in earlier times.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ah, I see Robert Gibbs is expressing...

... his frustration by punching hippies again.

We've been told, again and again, over the years, that the President's press secretary is his official spokesperson to the press and the public, that the press secretary's views channel those of the President.

How closely, then, does Gibbs' tacky little tantrum track the views of the President himself? Because if that's the way Obama thinks about the people that worked very hard to get him into office, he's going to discover how little the fatcats' money helps when his base has abandoned him.

And, oh, yeah, if Gibbs/Obama think the Pentagon/militarists/right wing are their pals, and the great unwashed masses are the problem, it's time to sit down, shut up and think about which of those two entities has more to do with getting the country into the fiscal and foreign policy troubles in which it now finds itself, and which is more responsible for the intractable nature of those problems.

If Obama doesn't like the comparisons of him with Bush, he can stop promoting and perpetuating Bush's policies and wars. RTTT is little more than embroidery on the foul cloth of Bush's NCLB. Leaving 30-50,000 troops in Iraq permanently as "non-combat trainers" and filling the combat gap with mercenaries is just more of the same, not a departure from Bush's war policies. Back-room deals with sleazy assholes like Billy Tauzin are exactly like Bush's and Cheney's secret energy task force deals with the oil companies. Expanding unchecked state surveillance powers is fundamentally authoritarian, and in keeping with Bush's policies. Creating legal loopholes to further Executive power and sidestep the courts and the Constitution is what Bush and his fellow right-wing authoritarians did. Treating Wall Street banksters like aristocrats is what Bush and his Treasury secretary did.

If Gibbs' remarks are a window into Mr. Obama's current state of mind, there's no question now why Obama chose to not prosecute Bush and Cheney and their cohort for their many crimes, large and small. He's behaving just as they did.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Are we even capable of recognizing...

... that we are an empire in the midst of collapse?

We stagger from one war to the next, never making a full accounting of costs v. benefits (a fond obsession of every right-wing neocon idiot since Ronnie Raygun's tenure in the White House when it comes to social spending). The cautious advisories of "maybe we can't afford this expenditure of blood and treasure" are drowned out by the shouts of "USA! USA! USA!" from the nationalists and militarists from all strata of society.

We see the degradation of everything from the availability of jobs to public services and, still, we support the expenditure, without the least bit of kitchen-table discussion in the nation's households, of monstrous sums on "defense" which not only keep insane wars going, but also support the destruction of our own civil rights in the process, in deference to the demands of the national security state.

We're dummies. We're funding our own destruction.

The national papers tell us that the government strongly disapproves of Wikileaks telling us unpleasant truths about how we conduct our wars (paid for with our tax dollars), and there's an immediate call from the right wing in the country to kill the "traitors."

What happened to the dispassionate national debate about how to expend both the nation's blood and treasure? Lost in the ozone of propaganda. How about the inverse relationship between the secrecy of government and the defense of our civil rights? Forgotten in a firestorm of legalese prompted by the Federalist Society and the judges it installed on the bench with the help of right-wing administrations.

It's one thing to sacrifice uniformly during times of unavoidable war, and it's quite another to demand sacrifices from the few to accommodate eternal war in order to justify a neverending state of national emergency which, in turn, is intended to justify a continuing attack on our civil rights, rights which, after all, are our political birthright.

And, like dummies, we keep on electing the very people who enable the expenditure of our national blood and treasure on ideological insanity, and refuse, as well, to raise taxes on those who materially benefit from war, neither to pay for the costs of war nor to convince them of the futility of war profiteering.

However, that's only part of what drives us on toward this insane pursuit of war. Economic conquest figures prominently in the equation. We have a business community that depends upon having the economic and military power of the United States government behind it. Just as the foreign policy elite of the country brooks no independent-mindedness from other nations, our multinational corporations tolerate no interference with their aims to exploit resources, natural and human, at home and abroad. The European impetus to conquer the Americas began with the Spaniards in the 15th century and has not yet abated; in the past two centuries, Americans have expanded that obsession from east coast to west coast to the remainder of the world. No one elected us cops of the world, so, there must be another reason to have created nearly a thousand places around the world in which to deposit our military.

Maybe it's to intimidate other nations into doing what our multinationals want. We invaded Iraq to rid the world of weapons that did not exist (and that we knew did not exist), and, in 2002-3, our government tried its best to whip us into a frenzy of fear by claiming a third-rate nation--with a military effectively destroyed by nine years of a war of attrition with Iran, a failed invasion of Kuwait and twelve years of crippling international sanctions and under-the-radar bombings of its infrastructure by us--was an existential and imminent threat to the United States.

And we fell for it. Because we're dummies.

And now, because our forces have retreated to the dozens of bases we built in Iraq and are suffering smaller losses--even when Iraqis continue to die from the violence our invasion unleashed--and which will stay there for as long as the American public tolerates the costs, the right wing tells us we've "won." So, what have we won? Our multinational firms, along with those of a few other countries, will control 60% of the oil of Iraq, and will try to use that control to overproduce so much that OPEC is destroyed, which will return cartel monopoly control of oil production to the exclusive hands of the United States and a few of its favored allies, such as the UK (which would certainly give the Saudi royals good reason to look the other way when the money they supply their religious extremists is used to blow up pipelines and refineries in Iraq).

One also need only to consider the nature of the seemingly arbitrary commands issued by the CPA to tilt trade and investment in favor of American multinationals. Why prohibit Iraqi farmers from saving their seeds except to benefit American firms such as Monsanto? Why allow foreign firms to expatriate 100% of their profits from Iraq? Why institute a 15% regressive flat tax that's been the darling policy of every rich right-winger in the USA? Why take $9 billion in Iraqi oil proceeds and use it as a slush fund for U.S. contractors, with virtually no accounting? Why pursue oil PSA contracts with Iraq when that type of contract traditionally is only used in areas where returns on exploration investment are destined to be minimal at best, while Iraq very likely may have the largest untapped reserves remaining in the world?

And that's just a few of the reasons why our soldiers and our mercenaries will never leave Iraq voluntarily. They won't be leaving because they'll be needed to deter and defend against attacks on "American interests" in and out of the Iraqi oil fields, yes, but, they'll also be needed as a quick-reaction force to attack Iran.

Iran is a particular thorn in the side of the United States--and Great Britain, our witting accomplice in our recent international war crimes. MI6 and the CIA cooperated jointly in 1953 in the destruction of democracy in Iran, because the country's democratically elected leader--with the assent of the nation's parliament--nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (which would later become, hey, surprise, surprise, British Petroleum, later to become just BP). MI6 and the CIA did this in order to preserve the profits of western oil companies, and in doing so, installed through a planned coup a reliably compliant puppet in the form of the former Shah, Reza Pahlavi, a man of near-galaxy-sized self-importance, whose first task was to employ the CIA to help him create Iran's internal police force, the SAVAK, the task of which was to destroy all groups which might threaten Pahlavi's position on the Peacock Throne, including pro-democracy groups. The Shah continued to be a good friend to the U.S. for twenty-five years, first by giving away profits that should have gone to the Iranian people, and second, by returning a goodly number of those remaining oil dollars to the U.S. via purchases of U.S. arms.

Over the course of twenty-five years, the Shah lavished the meager remainder of oil revenues Iran received on himself, his family, various jetsetters and his corrupt friends (the Shah is reported to have spent $300 million on a party celebrating the 2500th anniversary of Persia, a party to which the Iranian public was not invited) while letting poverty in Iran reach crisis proportions (which is the real reason why the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution succeeded--Khomeini promised Iranians that a return to Islamic law would right the economic wrongs existing under the Shah).

It is for those reasons that the United States has had Iran in its gunsights for the last thirty years, not that Iran might one day, at considerable cost, make a nuclear weapon or two. The foreign policy establishment in this country is still rankled that its coup overthrowing Mossadegh was itself overthrown by a popular movement and that its reliable puppet, the Shah, was deposed. The entrenched hardliners in the U.S. government are determined to return Iran to the preferred status quo. They could give a shit about democracy there. In fact, for twenty-five years, they did their best to undermine democracy in Iran.

The Reagan administration even strengthened the power of the Ayatollah by selling arms and military spare parts to Iran (via arms dealers in that very same Israel that now claims Iran to be an existential threat, despite Israel's undeclared but very real existential nuclear threat to the greater Middle East--including Iran). Perhaps U.S. planners hoped that by giving both countries military assistance, Iran and Iraq would beat each other bloody, and the U.S. could then pick off the loser, thus gaining its desired military foothold in south central Asia (which we seem to have done in setting up Saddam Hussein in 1990 like a tin bear in a penny arcade shooting gallery). Now, it's Iran's turn, because that old slight of the Shah's removal is still stuck in the craw of this country's foreign policy elite. How dare those religious crazies send our favorite son into exile? And then demand that the money he stole from the Iranian people and deposited in the banks owned by some of our foreign policy elite be returned to Iran? The upstarts!

Ah, well, you get the picture. Our foreign policy has little to nothing to do with our espoused values. It does very much have to do with, however, old grievances, imagined and inflated, which the amoral, exceedingly crusty types who hang around Washington pick at like scabs. And it has very much to do with money. Big money.

Perhaps we forget our own history. The American Revolution was not just a rebellion against political tyranny. It was also an overthrow of an economic system which selectively benefitted relatively few people in England. The British East India Company operated by Royal Charter, giving it monopoly advantage in a number of trading areas. Both the King and members of the English Parliament received stock from the company in return for legislative favors. In India, it not only had a stranglehold on trade, it also used its own private army to suppress unrest which endangered its profits and its control over Indian regional governments. When its own army wasn't up to the task, the British Army was dispatched to assist (how many Americans know from high school history that Lord Cornwallis' next assignment after losing the war in the Americas was in India, propping up the private forces of the British East India Company?). It was a huge corporation, and precisely because of its links to British government and the advantages it gained from that link, was much feared by the Founders.

By comparison, in America today, the East India Company would be a flea among elephants. One of the unpleasant conundrums of political life today is that in a nation ruled by law, the way to complete corruption is through the law. Successive Congresses and Presidents have found ways to achieve their aims largely through legal collusion with the corporate world. Want to create the framework for endless war and get campaign contributions for it? Easy--just provide a no-bid earmark to a specific company for defense-related work. Maybe the company's not going to make enough money on doing the nation's bidding? Even easier, designate the no-bid contract as cost-plus, which guarantees a profit and inflates the profit through multiple layers of subcontractors where administrative costs are added on each subcontract, and all perfectly legal. Even if auditors find gross mismanagement, the fines, as compared to the profits to be made, are just a cost of doing business.

The inability to change this system in any meaningful way isn't only frustrating and expensive--it's also a big-ass signpost on the road to complete decay. Fifty years ago, the casual and extensive use of corporate mercenary forces throughout the Department of Defense and the Executive Branch would have been unthinkable. Now, it's not only commonplace, but a commonly accepted practice, as well, almost unremarkable, even though the costs are staggering. That this goes on as a matter of course at the same time that there is sharp debate in Congress on whether or not to pay comparatively small amounts to save the jobs of tens of thousands of teachers, for example, isn't just gobsmacking, it's a big ringing alarm bell that somebody's priorities are wildly fucked up.

We've been on this path since the turn of the last century, and dead earnestly for more than sixty years. It's only been in the last twenty or thirty years or so that the patterns of that neocolonial scheme have become more obvious to the ordinary citizen, and only in the last ten or so that the actions of the government to that end have become sufficiently blatant for a significant percentage of Americans to even notice (and even fewer seem to object). It's only been in this last decade that the phrase "American empire" even appears in print casually and without heavy qualification.

In a way, we're prevented from seeing ourselves as we are now, as a significant part of the world sees us, not just because of the incessant domestic marketing of American exceptionalism, but also because we have what is, I think, a nostalgic view of ourselves. Whenever there's criticism of U.S. actions today, we retreat to what we view as an impregnable defense--the past. We saved the world from tyranny in WWII (even though we forget some allies in saying that). We rebuilt Germany and Japan (well, we actually loaned them the money to do it, and part of the deal was that we helped structure their governments in ways that were suitable to our foreign policy objectives). We once spent a lot of money on foreign aid (never a great deal, actually, especially compared to military aid to some very questionable governments, and a great deal of that foreign aid, even today, not only comes with many strings attached, but often goes into the pockets of American corporations doing work outside the country). We were first to the moon. First with the atomic bomb. We beat polio. Etc.

This has become an almost reflexive defense. We were good world citizens, so we are good world citizens. And yet, a thirty-volume set in small type and quarto format couldn't contain and detail all the instances in which we have behaved with ruthless and exceedingly deceptive self-interest, to the detriment of billions.

A clear sign of our unwillingness to confront our failures, our imperial ambitions and our limitations is to be found in the modern conservative response to internal criticism of the country--it's branded as "America-hating." The phrase is used because of some very mixed motives, certainly, but, it's also meant to shut off debate about the country's faults. It's the macrocosmic equivalent of what goes on every day in dysfunctional families.

There's a huge divide between what we say and what we do, a divide that is growing wider with increased government secrecy and increased dependence upon communications which are increasingly propagandistic in tone and method, which likely explains the huge drop in support for Obama in Muslim countries--and the drop in approval of his performance in office in domestic opinion polls. A country which has invested much in its reputation as an egalitarian and open society doesn't easily admit that its aims are more about conquest and control by subterfuge than spreading democracy.

Maybe we're just in denial, or perhaps we've finally been sucked down into a sticky grand ennui and can't get out of it. Maybe today's versions of bread and circuses have distracted enough of the population that the government is able to operate ever more independently of public opinion. Perhaps we're all just busy scrambling for a living and don't have time to notice the creeping decrepitude around us. Most likely it's a combination of all those things and more.

We're probably not going to notice until the first invasion by this century's equivalent of the Mongol hordes.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Positing the possibility...

... that the entirety of the country's leadership went insane after 9/11:

BARONESS PRASHAR: Thank you. Lord Prescott, when did you personally first become aware of the discussions between the President and Prime Minister that might lead to the removal of Saddam Hussein?

RT. HON. THE LORD PRESCOTT: Well, I think the first awareness was when I visited the United States --

BARONESS PRASHAR: That was when?

RT. HON. THE LORD PRESCOTT: Just a couple of days after 9/11... in going to America at that time I talked to a number of my senator friends, Democrat ones, and I was absolutely surprised to find them talking about an aggressive attitude, that Iraq was unfinished business.

One of my own friends for 25 years, Senator Chris Dodd, I said, "Chris, how can you be expressing this?" He said, "It is unfinished business. We have to sort it out".

One of these days--and likely too late for it to matter--we're going to figure out that our country, whose leaders incessantly protest that we are peace-loving, is the most internationally belligerent in the world.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Some people on the right side of...

... the political aisle are having some serious hallucinations.

I guess there are a lot more small, fat men in search of a balcony in this country than I figured.

The conundrum of which few are willing to speak...

... is still with us, and will not be resolved until we make some fundamental reassessments of our obsession with so-called "free market" economics.

The conundrum of which I speak is the impossibility of creating a sustainable economy within the economic and political ground rules of today, in part because those operative ground rules are both justified by and are perversions of the nearly 250-year-old ideas of the two prominent philosophers of political economy of the United Kingdom, Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Both believed that markets were self-correcting, and that government interference in markets inevitably led to economic stagnation.

However, these views were informed by the position (held much more by Smith than Ricardo) that unlimited economic growth was both desirable and possible, and yet, we understand today that growth has built-in liabilities, which modern economists choose to call, in morally neutral fashion, "externalities," and that those liabilities are often unequally distributed in domestic society, as well as being unequally distributed among nations.

This problem is most evident when examining a world economy driven largely by petroleum energy. Perhaps the first and most obvious liability is that nations will inevitably and invariably compete for disproportionate shares of that resource, seeking to fuel economic growth through control of that resource, rather than simply seeking access to it through the markets, often through the use of military and economic power and war. The object of that control is as much to deny other nations access to the resource as it is to ensure the continuing supply to the nation carrying out such wars. The second liability is one unimagined by Smith and Ricardo, that the use of an economically beneficial resource is itself a threat to civilized society and the entire world, as global warming research now suggests. A third liability is the unequal distribution of economic benefit and liability itself in the production, transportation and use of petroleum. The ordinary inhabitant of the Niger Delta of Nigeria or of the Ecuadoran Amazon disproportionately bears the brunt of the liabilities associated with petroleum production without sharing proportionally in its economic gains.

For good and ill, governments inevitably intrude into markets and they do so due to competing interests within nations and among nations, and the great fallacy promoted by the right wing in this country (along with right-wingers in a few other nations) is that we would all be better off were government to leave business alone. As recent events have shown, nothing is further than the truth. First, much of the federal government exists to serve the business community, not the other way around. "The business of America is business," said that scion of laissez faire economics, Calvin Coolidge. For example, the statistics compiled regularly by the federal government are not used primarily by ordinary citizens, but, rather, by business economists and analysts, the USDA to an increasingly large degree works as an interface between the farmer and big agribusiness, and much of the research funded by the CDC and the NIH ultimately benefits the large pharmaceutical firms headquartered both here and abroad. The Pentagon, ever since 1950, has served as a subsidizer of contractor defense aerospace firms, and now, more recently, to those firms' subsidiaries in the intelligence/surveillance and war logistic support fields. The economic power of the Treasury has most recently saved the butts of big Wall Street banks from a retribution they richly deserved because of their lack of restraint and gross speculation with the money of others.

Second, what right-wingers mostly deride as government interference are those policies which marginally limit the corporate profits extracted by exploitation of the commonwealth and which in very meager ways put limits on the upward movement and concentration of wealth.

Therein lies a notable part of the problem--this decades-long insistence on so-called "trickle-down" economics requires genuinely huge rates of growth to have a positive effect on the economic life of the ordinary worker, since so much of the value of that growth is retained by the very few in society, and increasingly, as the graph shows, most of the last thirty years' productivity gains have been retained by the very wealthy in society. The wealthy will continue to demand greater growth in order to increase wealth, and the worker will, too, in the hope of even small increases in economic security, even if at the margins.

As noted above, much of that growth is tied to the burning of oil and coal, since density of energy use is intimately associated with economic expansion, and is a major contributor to global warming, which is, in turn, a direct factor in the unsustainability of the current economic model.

I don't think much of this is all that controversial, but, the notion that some huge structural change will be necessary to achieve sustainability remains at the ragged edge of economic and political thinking. Right now, the dominant model at work in U.S. government is an attempt to achieve stability by returning the economy to the status quo. Virtually every attempt to right the sinking ship of the economy has been directed at protecting the most politically and economically powerful entities in the country since, in traditional terms, they are the "engines of the economy."

They continue to be seen as such, even though they've become much less so in the last sixty years or so. The big Wall Street investment firms are doing much less in the way of traditional investment and are engaging in much more short-term, high-risk speculative ventures--raking off money from the "real" economy on which to provide a foundation for more debt-based schemes which prompted the recent meltdown. The Fortune 500 were responsible for nearly 25% of the nations jobs in the 1950s, but now account for about 7%.

Making the situation much, much worse is that these wealthy individuals and corporations are increasingly using their economic power to influence legislation to their advantage through campaign contributions and lobbying, mostly in the effort to reduce tax liability. That has to be the explanation for the results of the recent GAO study which indicated that in the years studied, 94% of the country's corporations paid an effective tax rate of 5% or less, and fully 60% of those corporations paid no taxes at all.

All this flies in the face of Adam Smith's dictum that at least some of the wealth accrued must be used to sustain the infrastructure which enables the wealth of the nation. More importantly, when those external costs begin to overwhelm the nation, and the corporate and individually wealthy are unwilling to assume some of those costs, the infrastructure begins to decay. If the impulse of the "engines of the economy" is then to make the situation worse through exercise of political power, in the expectation of increasing wealth by the greater avoidance of those external costs, the rate of decay can only increase.

We see that decay in ways that aren't always apparent as a diminution of economic strength or as a permanent loss of the commonwealth. For example, the country is littered with Superfund sites due principally to environmentally unsound manufacturing and mining practices, and rather than accepting those external obligations, the corporate community during the Bush administration successfully sought to upend the principle that the polluter pays and to transfer the clean-up costs to the taxpayers and/or slow down clean-up efforts, and in this age of demand for deficit reduction, Superfund clean-ups will become a back-burner item, so the external costs will probably increase over time due to adverse health and welfare issues.

We see the same impulse in the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has expended huge sums on lobbying and public relations to both shape public opinion and to limit its liability for its actions. The latest news reports that "the oil is gone," prompted by both government and corporate sources, are examples of this determined effort to evade the external costs of maintaining a rotting status quo.

Which brings me to that sticky matter of sustainability. Sustainability, by definition, requires not only a complete accounting of those external costs, but, as well, their elimination. Eliminating those external costs will require changes that a system built upon protecting the wealthy from their own excesses cannot tolerate. The very entities that traditionally have been designated as "the engines of the economy" are the major dead weights in the climb toward sustainability and may well constitute threats to the survival of the nation and its people, not to mention the rest of the world, because their profitability may be compromised.

We're going to have to rethink a great many things that we do without thinking much about them if we're going to last, as a nation and a species. We are, at this moment, living out Thomas Jefferson's worst nightmare:

“There artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.... The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provisions should be made to prevent its ascendancy.”

That artificial aristocracy is now real, not ascendant so much as realized and supreme, and has much more political power than the rest of us, and its political power is directed toward protecting and increasing its wealth and power. Unless that power is blunted, there's no genuine hope for a sustainable, equitable and egalitarian society. Very possibly, we're on the cusp of a precipitous decline the effects of which the wealthy, for a few generations at best, may be able to use their wealth to personally stave off. Eventually, Monsanto's drive toward oil-derived chemically-dependent monocultures may well starve the rich as well as the poor. BP's evasion of its responsibilities to people and planet may well destroy more seas and marine life and livelihoods, leaving rich and poor alike destitute. Lockheed-Martin's lobbying for more weapons production will only increase its profits until the society funding its production collapses, since it's become wholly dependent on taxpayer money for its survival.

We spend trillions on war, trillions more on arms and the standing army, and our government wages a continuing assault on the civil and human rights of its own citizens and others, all to protect a system that is destined to fail because of the flaws introduced into it by the moneyed aristocracy. We imprison more of our citizens than any other country in the world in large part to support the profits of companies which have taken over the state function of incarceration via the specious process of privatization. We create criminals to keep that part of the system going. We tolerate the wholesale destruction of our livelihoods to protect the wealth of the few. Our legislators subsidize corporations which offshore jobs with taxpayer dollars.

The nation's governance has been completely captured by those with the most economic and political power and we, in turn, have been rendered virtually powerless to influence either current events or our futures, in very large part because wealth accumulation is now the country's dominant religion among the movers and shakers in society.

The essential quality of tragedy is the inevitability of a fall from grace, that the qualities which bring the protagonist to the pinnacle of prominence are the same ones which ensure his downfall. Shakespeare would have understood well our dogged, perverse furtherance of a system which reveres the power and wealth of the few at the expense of the survival of all.