Wednesday, December 28, 2011

R.I.P. 2011

I've spent a lot of time the past few nights collecting and posting photos of people who died in 2011.  I've posted them in the appropriate sites: the theatre people at Stage Matters, the authors at Books in Heat, the science fiction figures at Soul of Star Trek, the boomer heroes and pop culture figures at Boomer Hall of Fame.  There's even an earlier post at Blue Voice about three of my college professors who died this past year. 

Even with all those, I've missed some significant names, like artists Cy Twombly, Richard Hamilton, Lucian Freud.  I also don't know what to make of two of the weirder notices I came across: like the 23 year old German porn actress, Sexy Cora, who died from breast enlargement surgery complications, and an Italian actress named Dorian Gray, who committed suicide by gunshot.

I started doing this a few years ago, with the stubborn conviction that I should pay respect to people whose legacy should be remembered.  A way to say thank you.  But this year it may have gotten away from me.

So here I want to note just four that mean a lot to me.  I noted the contribution of Lynn Margulis here earlier.  I posted about James Hillman at 60s Now.  Hillman's work has been most present with me, and I didn't know he died in October until a few weeks ago.  Neither of these two have made the lists or photo albums of big newspaper and media sites, with Elizabeth Taylor and Steve Jobs.  I included two photos of Hillman because they show two aspects of him that I value.  Upon reflection, it does seem that he had seen to his legacy well.  He'd written his books, saw to an edited complete works, left some late thoughts on video, and apparently cooperated with a biography, the first volume of which is published in 2012.  The biography may tell us more about the smiling man in the black and white photo.

The black and white of Hillman in the center even resembles the black and white of Joko Beck at upper left.   She's another person whose passing doesn't make those lists.  But her books, especially Everyday Zen, were and are important to me, and she was personally a teacher to a dear departed friend.

The fourth photo is Vaclev Havel, who bridged the gap between the arts and politics, and brought a human, ethical spirit to both.  His books are still inspiring.  (Even this extra-large photo cuts off the right edge, so you might need to click on the collage to see it in full.)

I leave them, and you, and 2011, with these words from Wallace Stevens' poem, "Peter Quince at the Clavier":

Beauty is momentary in the mind
The fiftful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebrations of a maiden's choral.

Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death's ironic scraping,
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Class and Climate

Stephen Marche at Esquire begins his article, "We Are Not Created Equal":

"There are some truths so hard to face, so ugly and so at odds with how we imagine the world should be, that nobody can accept them. Here's one: It is obvious that a class system has arrived in America — a recent study of the thirty-four countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that only Italy and Great Britain have less social mobility. But nobody wants to admit: If your daddy was rich, you're gonna stay rich, and if your daddy was poor, you're gonna stay poor. Every instinct in the American gut, every institution, every national symbol, runs on the idea that anybody can make it; the only limits are your own limits. Which is an amazing idea, a gift to the world — just no longer true. Culturally, and in their daily lives, Americans continue to glide through a ghostly land of opportunity they can't bear to tell themselves isn't real. It's the most dangerous lie the country tells itself."

There's lots of support for his major contention of a pretty rigid American class system, the 1% v. the 99%, including one new anecdotal: when the New York Times asked members of Congress whether even a friend or relative has suffered from the Great Recession, fewer than 20 even replied.  Congress, suggests the article, is on average comprised of "rank and file millionaires," many of whom became wealthy or increased their wealth while "serving." 

But Marche is wrong about one thing: this is not necessarily the "most dangerous lie the country tells itself."  The most dangerous lie is that global heating isn't real, there is no Climate Crisis.  The two lies are not unrelated, but the future of civilization and life as we know it on planet earth, with suffering and destruction spread throughout generations of humanity and many other species, is at stake with that second lie. 

We are not dealing with the causes of the Climate Crisis, and so the future prospects continue to get worse.  We are not even prepared to deal with the effects.  Of our major institutions, only the military is taking it seriously, and so is preparing to fight wars that may result, which will only hasten the onrushing New Dark Ages. 

Our scientific institutions and their often courageous scientists are openly mocked, vilified, ignored, and now perhaps worst of all, being prevented from doing their work.  Another NY Times article asserts that scientists could be doing a better job figuring out if and how the unprecedented spate of spectacular weather-related disasters of 2011 and 2010 are related to the Climate Crisis.  The reason they aren't doing as much as they could be doing is not only that there's no political urgency, but that there is an active political hostility to Climate Crisis research that results in less funding.

Such disasters usually result in damages that might add up to $3 or $4 billion in any given year in the U.S..  In 2011, they added up to at least $50 billion.  So far, apparently a small price to pay for the payoff of denial--psychologically to many, but in money to a very few of the few at the top of the American class system.  

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Tales of Christmas Past

Elsewhere I've posted two tales of Christmas past that coincidentally are exactly 60 and 30 years ago respectively, this Christmas.

"Christmas 1951" is a fictionalized account of Christmas with my family in that year.  That's been posted for a few years, right here.

The other is an account of the decorating of Greengate Mall in Greensburg, PA, in 1981, with photos I took of the results in the days after.  I did that for my book, The Malling of America (which still makes a fine last minute Christmas gift, which you can order from your favorite online bookseller.)  An account of that all-night decorating appears in that book.  But I've just reposted excerpts from that chapter, along with photos (some posted on another blog, others never posted before) and more about Greengate and Christmas there (apparently a subject of ongoing nostalgia back home.)  It's all on Kowincidence, my repository for articles and reviews published long ago (though not always in this form.)    The direct link to Greengate Christmas is here.

So happy holidays, Merry Christmas, and see you back here after.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sneak Previews

The spectre of one caucus in one house of Congress being thoroughly and inexorably isolated while being thumped on the head continuously in the media was a kind of amazing spectacle to watch, but House GOPers got it, with further consequences to come.

The payroll tax cut continues, as does unemployment insurance, for the next 60 days.  Speaker Banal told his GOPer caucus he would sign off on it (reportedly in a conference call that was electronically rigged to be only one way), the House and Senate voted by "unanimous consent" (so they didn't actually have to come back to Washington) and the President signed the bill into law, and went off to join his family for Christmas in Hawaii.

But right after New Years, Congress has to consider extending both provisions for a full year.  Most pundits assume the House GOPers will meekly submit so this issue goes away, but no one knows really.  Whether John Banal can survive as Speaker is another question.  Some analysts suggest he will if only because the GOPers don't have anyone ready to replace him. 

The political consequences for the 2012 elections are even more interesting to contemplate.  President Obama did several things for himself.  He fought irrational and extortionate GOPers and won.  He bolstered his claim to be fighting for the middle class, which was already becoming effective, according to new polls.  GOPers demonstrated their hypocrisy and obstructionism.  There's little disagreement on this right now.  The question is whether this will all be forgotten (remember when all Democrats had to say was that GOPers voted to kill Medicare, and the election would be over?)  or whether this is one of those instances that a party's image is fixed in the electoral mind, and is taken into the voting booth even 10.5 months from now. 

There are two examples that come to mind, one very recent.  That's Barack Obama as the candidate who promised to end the war in Iraq.  The primaries made this clear.  And after all the rest of the campaign, and all the noise and polls and more noise, that probably was still the issue that won him the presidency.  (And oh, by the way, he just ended the Iraq war--and his poll numbers went up.)

The other example, perhaps more apropos, was when Speaker Gingrich and his GOPer extremists shut down the government in a fit of arrogant extortion.  It's conventional wisdom now that this doomed the GOPer Congress and re-elected Bill Clinton, despite scandal.  But there was considerable time between the shutdown and the election.  In that case, the electorate got that GOPer image fixed, and it stayed. 

This example also suggests something else.  Some pundits claim that if the economy is bad, the electorate blames the President because they don't know or care who is actually responsible.  But voters did not blame President Clinton for the government shutdown.  They blamed the GOPer Congress.

Here's one other byproduct of this payroll tax cut fight, according to a brilliant analysis at TPM by Kyle Leighton: it made voters aware of the existence of that tax cut.   As he says, they heard President Obama fighting to keep a tax cut they didn't know they had.  One of the many ironies has been that GOPers have seemingly gotten away with accusing President Obama of raising taxes when he has actually cut taxes for most people--for the 99% or a good portion of them-- and more than once.  Media broadcast these charges and never both to correct the lies.  So many voters didn't know that President Obama cut their taxes.  Now more of them do.  And this can turn around some other perceptions as well.

The last pre-Christmas news was significant, especially in terms of what it may portend politically for 2012.  The U.S. Justice Department has blocked the new voter ID law in South Carolina for being discriminatory, in that it would disenfranchise a high proportion of African Americans.  This doesn't mean that Justice will stop the many other such laws enacted by GOPer state governments trying to disenfranchise people who may be part of groups that mainly vote Democratic.  Justice can do this in South Carolina because it is one of the states covered by Civil Rights laws that gives the federal government this oversight.  Apparently the only other state covered that has a new law like this is Texas.

Some advocates believe that Justice can use other laws to at least sue states for discriminatory effects.  But the political and psychological effects of this action are likely to be large.  South Carolina's governor and attorney general are vowing to fight this, which will keep it in the news, and make more people aware of how GOPers are trying to take away the right to vote from people they don't like.   In both situations, what happened this week may be like a sneak preview of 2012.       

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Elected Extortionists

GOP Speaker of the House John Banal

The House Republicans have outdone themselves.  Having taken the United States and the world to the brink of economic catastrophe in the debt ceiling crisis they created, and having made extortionist demands by threats of bodily harm against the nation and its institutions, House GOPers have now refused to pass the bill that continues the middle class tax cut and extends unemployment insurance, if only for two months.  This bill, which passed the Senate on an extremely rare bipartisan vote of 89-10, must pass the House or millions of Americans will see their paychecks decline starting January 1 (an average of $1000 a year, and for an income of $50,000, some $40 a week), while longterm unemployed will see their benefits end. This also withdraws millions of dollars from the economy and will increase unemployment.  Merry Christmas.  Happy New Year.

The most insidious element of this latest GOPer-created crisis is that if Speaker John Banal just allowed this bill to be voted on, it would most probably pass, because a majority of the House supports it.

This is the House version of the Senate system of extortion, which requires 60 votes rather than the simple majority of 51, because of their chronic misuse of the filibuster.  If the Senate GOPers hadn't used their form of extortion, this tax cut would have not only been extended for a year but broadened, so more Americans would see more of a tax cut, along with extending unemployment insurance.  It would all be paid for by a 3% surcharge on Americans making more than $1 million a year.  That bill passed the Senate with a majority.  But GOPers killed it by requiring a two-thirds vote to override their filibuster.

The filibuster and other such procedures seek to provide a minority with some check against excesses by the majority, but they are meant to be invoked rarely, not regularly.  Basically, legislation that passes by a majority vote is democracy.  Subverting this democracy to get your goodies is extortion.
The Senate GOPers succeeded in their extortion, by requiring that the tax surcharge for the very wealthy be dropped, and that an unrelated requirement be added to force President Obama to decide on the Keystone tar sands pipeline.  And that was simply to extend the tax cut and unemployment for 60 days.

That's not a big enough ransom for the House.  They want a long list of demands, including shortening unemployment benefits, means-testing and drug-testing, dropping some environmental regulations, etc.  So far the White House, the Democratic leadership in the Senate and House, and even Senate Republicans, are refusing to negotiate with these terrorists.

There is lots of talk in Washington about the fury of Senate GOPers directed at House GOPers, and about the hypocrisy of GOPers refusing to vote for a tax cut which they claim is what they want to be doing, as well as their specific hypocrisy in claiming to want to pass a year long extension when they've been publicly opposed to it.   But what no one is saying loudly enough is that congressional GOPers are subverting the Constitution, attempting to extort public officials, and undermining not only the economic recovery, the economy and the economic lives of millions of Americans, but the United States itself.    Merry Christmas.  Happy New Year.

President Obama in front of the counter that is counting down the days until the middle class tax cut expires.  At a press briefing on Tuesday he said: "I just got back from a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, where we received the flag and the colors that our troops fought under in Iraq, and I met with some of the last men and women to return home from that war. And these Americans, and all Americans who serve, are the embodiment of courage and selflessness and patriotism, and when they fight together, and sometimes die together, they don’t know and they certainly don’t care who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican and how somebody is doing in the polls and how this might play in the spin room. They work as a team, and they do their job. And they do it for something bigger than themselves."

"The people in this town need to learn something from them. We have more important things to worry about than politics right now. We have more important things to worry about than saving face, or figuring out internal caucus politics. We have people who are counting on us to make their lives just a little bit easier, to build an economy where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded. And we owe it to them to come together right now and do the right thing."

The New Waltons Story

There once was a television series called The Waltons.  It began with a Christmas story in 1971, then a weekly series that ran for nine seasons.  This drama was about a small town rural family in the Great Depression and during World War II.  With three generations living under one roof, they were poor but hard-working, with intimate connections to others in their town, and connections as well to the wider world.  They remain the image of the American family.

A real life Walton grew up in the same era, and became the entrepreneur who created the Walmart empire, now a global empire.  His family has reaped the benefits.

But this is a different America.  Courtesy of the Rachel Maddow Show, consider just this one statistic:  the net worth of the bottom third of the American population--some 93 million people--together equals the net worth of six members of the Walton family.   So those three people there have more money than at least 47 million of their fellow Americans, put together.     

Monday, December 19, 2011

Emerson for the Day

"Make the most of your regret deeply is to live afresh."


Going Postal on the Post Office

From the steps of the Post Office in Greensburg, PA, it was possible to watch the parade of Buffalo
Bill's Wild West Show, and a lot more of this town's life.  This building now houses the public library, but the "new" post office (probably 50 years old by now) is across the street.  This photo was in 2010 and posted here by someone who identifies himself as Burgh15. Takes me back.

It's easier to start a war than to end one.  But it is easier to end a postal system than it is to start one.

The U.S. Postal Service predates the Constitution, though it wasn't called that then.  It is yet another system that has worked and has been the envy of the world, that shortsighted politicians and greedy (therefore non-sighted) business types can't wait to destroy.

The USPS is especially important for four specific reasons.  First, other businesses (and the USPS these days is a business that turns a profit) depend on it--including Fedex and UPS.  Second, it provides relatively secure, good paying jobs all over the country, which are secured through merit(basically by passing a test.)  Therefore it has been one of the least discriminatory employers for at least the last half century.  I suspect the first reason may get Congressional attention, and the second one will focus the attention of Democrats in Congress, to fix the idiotic problems that Congress has imposed on the USPS.

The third reason it is vital is that it goes everywhere, not just the most profitable urban corridors.  It is one of those institutions that holds the country together at the same time as it links all parts of it.  It is a foundation institution in small places, which is losing its others--such as the railroad station and the public library.  This is of even greater importance in the computer age, which encourages decentralization of businesses.  Without USPS, small businesses out in the country would find moving products impossible or prohibitively expensive.  But the role of the Post Office as a civic institution should not be overlooked.  In many small towns it is the prime representative of the federal government, a benevolent symbol of one nation.

The fourth reason is redundancy.  It is dangerous for a nation to put all its eggs in untested or vulnerable baskets.  New technologies may be more fragile than the hubristic new technologists realize.  Other fully privatized systems for moving mail and packages are subject to the same unpredictability as all corporations: they can go bust, they can be done in by financial manipulation, or they can cut so many "unprofitable' services that the country as well as the economy is helpless.

Having a system in place which is both centrally controlled and decentralized, in which the nation and every village and town have a vested interest in operating it efficiently, and which has worked--not always too well, but overall with remarkable consistency--for hundreds of years, could turn out to be extremely vital, especially in the times of emergencies that we are inevitably going to enter.

It's been fashionable to badmouth the Post Office.  People have legitimate gripes but amplified and simplified by the twittering media monomind, it's added up to a crippling image which is out of proportion to the facts.  USPS takes no government money, for example.  Did you know that?  It costs nothing in taxes.  And its services have improved to a pretty competitive level, at least where I live.

The announced cutbacks are being held off for now--let's hope that our otherwise entirely clueless Congress can eke out a moment of sanity to remove the barriers to a successful USPS continuing to improve into the future.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Predicting the Unique

Political pundits sometimes sound like sports reporters, only with worse grammar.  (Sports reporters, at least on ESPN, may be the last group in America to understand the difference between "fewer" and "less.") Polmouths handicap the current though actually upcoming presidential election based on statistics, the more arcane the better.  It's often like predicting the outcome of a single football game based on quarterback ratings or a baseball game by comparing the respective teams won/loss ratio in that ballpark over the past century: it gives you intelligent-sounding talk to fill the air between commercials.  But the meaning of those stats, particularly applied to any given game, are questionable.

The predictive value of historical statistics is dubious, but that doesn't stop the polmouths from saying that "the American people" will or won't do something, based on what some other "American people" did or didn't do in the past.   There are always some factors that are different from the past.  In this election, there are at least two very significant differences.

The Republican Party has never been so dominated by angry fanatics.  They are so angry and so fanatical and self-righteous that they seem to be slipping away from the control of the big monied interests that have successfully manipulated them.  Many, maybe most, are fanatical Evangelicals, who simply don't care about governance or the actual responsibilities of elected officials, including members of Congress and most particularly of the President.  Their belief system doesn't include believing in the premises of economics, science in general, government and foreign policy that have always been held in common by most voters and almost all national public officials.   That stuff is irrelevant at best, and evidence of evil most of the time.

Evangelicals or not, the so-called conservative GOPer is characterized by anger and hatred: anger and hatred when in power, and when out of power but still numerous enough to poison government and the political process. 

The Republican party has not always been a near total toxic waste dump, but it seems to be now.  It is taking the pundits by surprise, and it is so far making a big difference in this 2012 campaign.  If it continues, either Mitt Gingrich will be nominated, risking alienating the majority of voters, or if the establishment takes back some control, Newt Romney will be nominated, and the Rabid Right will angrily walk away, perhaps to back their own non-GOPer candidate.  This is different--at a much higher temperature and of a much different character than the Goldwater rebellion of 1964.   The major question that the election will answer on this score is how much this anger is shared among the so-called Independents, who are mostly yesterday's GOPers.
The second factor is so obvious that everyone ignores it.  It's President Obama.  In case you haven't noticed, he's black.  He's the first black President of the United States.  He's unique, and I don't think that's appreciated enough, or at least admitted by the pundits. 

On the plus side for Obama, he was elected by a multiracial coalition that in population terms is still growing.  On the minus side, there is still a lot of conscious and unconscious racism at work.  Even in Obama's landslide victory in 2008, a recent Harvard study concluded that he lost three to five percentage points in the popular vote because of racial animus.

Part of the hate, and part of the fuel behind the hate and anger of the Rabid Right is racist.  The Rabid Right led then by Newt Gingrich hated Bill Clinton with irrational intensity.  But hatred for President Obama is made more powerful by racial animus.  The racist buffoonery that occasionally gets exposed is the tip of the iceberg.  There are all kinds of racist dog whistles in the language even of the candidates: Obama as the "food stamp President" (Gingrich), or as privileged by affirmative action who won't release his college grades because he wasn't and isn't very smart (Trump to Limbaugh.) 

Not to mention the Kenyan dogwhistles which say "black" as loud as they say "foreign."  To these folks,  black is foreign.  The country they "want back" is the one run exclusively by whites (even if they are darker brothers by another mother of white kingpins like the Kochs.)  Reporters are starting to recognize a violently negative mood among GOPer primary/caucus voters, and the violent anger is directed at President Obama.  To say it's all from racism would be simplistic.  To think that racism isn't a big part of it is willed blindness.

 The pundits' favorite stat is the correlation between the unemployment rate and the Presidents who get reelected.  But there were exceptions, and this election is even more exceptional.  The turgid, angry, hateful, fanatical and violent mood of the GOPers has so far produced a field of candidates that by conventional standards is exceptionally weak--and exceptionally absurd. Meanwhile, the first black President is for the first time seeking reelection.  Do these factors outweigh the apparently persuasive stats from the past?  We'll see.  But it's not a done deal.  Even apart from the likelihood that the majority of voters understand they have a year to decide how to vote.  And the big stages of the party conventions and the presidential debates are still to come.    

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Happy Christmas: The War Is Over

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Panetta and Chair of the Joint Chiefs Demsey "cased the colors"--put away the flag--at a military base in Iraq, formally ending the U.S. military presence in that country.  The war is over.

The day before, President Obama addressed returning (and cheering) troops at Fort Bragg:

"It’s harder to end a war than begin one. Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq -– all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering -– all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We’re building a new partnership between our nations. And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home."

It is harder to end a war than to begin one.Yes, a bitter truth some of us were crying out in 2003--it is the tragic fact that letting loose the dogs of war is much much easier than reigning them back in.  So nearly 9 years of pain and waste later, at least a trillion dollars spent, hundreds of thousands of lives lost and maimed, millions of lives deformed, and our entire political process so fractured that we are unable to respond to the real threats we face, this terrible and quite possibly catastrophic war is over.

Barack Obama promised to end this war.  He did what he promised, and continues to be castigated for it in shameful terms by mad dog GOPers in Congress and running for president.  Let's hope the American people leash them up good in the next election.

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Blessed be he whose mind had power to probe
The causes of things."


Wednesday, December 14, 2011


There's a rule in astronomy: if I'm watching for a meteor show, it will be cancelled.  Sort of.  Skies didn't get clear here until the wee hours, when the moon was high.  But I stood in the cold for awhile, a few hours after the predicted peak of the Geminid meteor shower.  Even though the moon is past full, it is still very bright here--I was casting a definite shadow. When I first got here I was astounded by how bright the moon gets here on the North Coast, and I guess I still am.  The first place we lived had a skylight in the bathroom, and one night I saw my reflection in the mirror by moonlight.  Tonight--this early morning, with the sound of distant garbage trucks grinding and beeping--there were only about a hundred heavenly bodies visible (including, reputedly, five planets.)  But they were very bright and twinkling.  I don't remember stars really twinkling like this when I was a kid in PA, though I could see many many more of them.  Tonight was like a highlight reel.  The big dipper.  Orion.  Very nice.  And over Orion I caught one flaring meteor, just to the side of where I was looking.  That was it.

But last evening, just after dark, Margaret was walking home and saw a meteor twist across the sky, in a long wobbling path.  She happened to be looking in exactly the right place, and had no idea there was a meteor shower.  Well, there may be some tomorrow night.

Meanwhile on Tuesday a pretty trustworthy poll had Paul running even with Mitt Gingrich in Iowa, while in a national poll, Gingrich was leading for the nomination but against him, President Obama gets 51% to under 40 for the Gman.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Scared Mittless

It started here, O happy few.  Now Rachel admits that she keeps calling Mitt Newt and Newt Mitt.  Michelle Backmanniac of all people introduced the Mitt Gingrich/Newt Romney ID into the GOPer debate.  And on 60 Minutes Sunday, President Obama affirmed the essential point: there's really no difference in what they advocate.  What he didn't mention is that they are identical in other ways as well--both serial hypocrites and liars who will say anything to gain momentary advantage.

But as the Iowa caucuses approach it does seem down to Mitt Gingrich vs. Newt Romney.  As Gingrich has taken off in the polls, the GOPer (Nixon/Reagan.Bush/Bush jr) establishment as well as lots of current and former members of Congress who "served" with Gingrich, have been loudly and ferociously attacking him.  Yet what the polls do make clear is that nobody loves Romney, and he appears to be even more nervous than circumstances warrant, which suggest he's really really worried.

But the first unreality check (something the prospective GOPer nominee must pass) will be Iowa in a few weeks.  What Iowa will suggest is whether Gingrich's bet that traditional "retail" politics and political organization no longer matter, and that the brute force of media will (pardon the expression) Trump all.  Because he has no effective Iowa organization at all, especially among caucus participants, by all accounts.  So will the caucus results reflect the opinion polls, which show Gingrich about 10 points ahead?  That's what we will learn from the results.  And that outcome will suggest whether Gingrich can be successful in getting the nomination.

If traditional Iowa caucus politics prevails, first place could very well go to Ron Paul.  That's especially if between now and then, something turns negative for Gingrich.  Paul sees him as his biggest threat in Iowa and has made the most devastating anti-G ad and statements.  Paul combines that focus with good organization and a dedicated group of Iowa activists.  Low turnout favors him.

I have to say I'm surprised that after word got around that Romney was actually going to jump into the Iowa fray, it took so long for his campaign to start there.  It took too long, both in terms of organization and especially it got overwhelmed by the Gingrich boom of the past couple of weeks.  Now Mr. G is topic A.  Nobody seems to be taking a second look at Romney.

Even more impressive than G's poll numbers in matchups is this Rasmussen poll in which 49% of GOPers find Gingrich the more electable candidate, with Romney at the level he seems to maintain for everything, the 20s%.  GOPer Ras isn't the most reliable pollster, but if GOPers really see G as the electable, then Romney's last remaining rationale is gone.

So the function of Iowa will likely be to further inflate or prick the Gingrich balloon.  If Romney still wins New Hampshire, then the noise goes on, but political heads are finding a path for G to the nom, which nobody did a month ago.

All of this is the politics of consequences, rather than the disgraceful circus politics in general and the GOPer race in particular have become.  As someone said on TV, it would be a farce if it wasn't a tragedy.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"What we need in literature today are vast philosophic horizons; ...we need the most ultimate, the most fearsome, the most fearless 'Why?' and 'What next?'"

Yevgeny Zamyatin

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Reality Check

The dangers of economic inequality (which are largely founded on economic injustice) threaten our economy and our polity, and in the process they cause suffering and destruction to real people.  They limit and may destroy the chances of future generations.  All of this--and all the economic and political theory outlined in President Obama's speech and my last two posts--are demonstrably true.

But they don't tell the whole story.  To the extent that in the end, none of this may matter much.  Because virtually all economic theory is fantasy.  It is, to be sure, really pretentious and boring fantasy, and the purveyors of these fantasies dress in severe suits and ties, and are boring and pretentious.  But nothing Disney ever produced is as unreal as the economics accepted as operating procedure by the global economy, by the institutions of commerce and finance and government, at every level.

Economic theories work within the premises, in both senses: they work within the artificial constructs, the closed system, within the building.  And for a few hundred years we've managed to pretty much stay inside the building.  But the building is not self-contained, not really.  The natural world outside it is essential to its survival, to our survival.  And the laws there are very different, and we've been ignoring them.  The world is so big that we got away with ignoring them.  But we're too big now, and we're destroying the world's ability to continue to give us life.

The most obvious way to translate this into economics is by assigning cost.  Costs are calculated without regard to the resources used and the environment ruined, such that it will not sustain as much life, or any life, in the future.  The jargon is that environmental costs are "externalized," that is, ignored.  But these days there is far too much damage being done on scales that are almost unimaginably vast and fast, by and on behalf of far, far too many people. 

We're using up resources and poisoning our planet, destroying the diversity of life we don't really understand, and in the process, we are destroying the human future.  And our economics ignores this most important fact.  If we don't get this right, none of the rest is going to matter for very much longer.
Waste is one of the most ignored problems.  Of all the resources that go into making products we use, only 6% of the materials actually show up in the products themselves.  And then many of the products become waste in short order, often toxic waste.  The computer revolution, which looks so clean and futuristic, is making this very much worse.  The rapid proliferation and obsolescence of devices is creating waste on a stupendous scale.  There are more discarded cell phones in Japan than there are Japanese.  It's getting worse, utterly out of control, and it is utterly ignored.

The greatest costs to be exacted on human civilization are the result of greenhouse gases still polluting and deforming our atmosphere at a record rate, decades after the dangers they pose were known.  The latest international climate crisis conference, in Durban, South Africa, is now over.  An agreement was reached in its final hours that some are hailing it as a modest success, and a blueprint for progress.  Others are less enthusiastic.
My first impression is this: The agreement (which is basically to negotiate a new treaty) sets out a framework that will be available in the near future, should world leaders (conspicuously absent at this conference) and their governments be scared enough by climate catastrophes into looking for a way to act, to forestall even worse effects.  And perhaps to deal with the effects then happening.

I don't think there are many climate scientists or close observers of climate science and what's already happening worldwide who believe that even a strong global treaty in 2020 is going to prevent climate catastrophe beginning in this century, and a much altered climate for the planet for many centuries. But if action is taken the prospect might be that the return to a very hot climate before human life arose--and one which would make human civilization unlikely if not impossible--might be forestalled, eventually. 

But nobody really knows.  Nobody knows what small changes may result in big changes.  Nobody knows if we've already passed any number of tipping points or not.  What almost everybody knows is that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have caused, are causing and will cause global heating, with dire consequences for at least a significant proportion of the human species, and eventually negative consequences for all.  Not to mention the polar bears.  Every species lives within an interdependent ecology.  Some adjustments for some species are possible.  But the economy of life in the real world sometimes rules extinction, or something very much like it.

We're smart enough to figure that out.  But it does look like we've been too slow to accept it, take it seriously and act on it at the scale of the problem. This is the ultimate economics, and without dealing with it, the rest is going to be superseded.    

Friday, December 09, 2011

It's the Technology, Stupid

Within the major movement of President Obama's speech in Kansas that's the subject of the previous post, there's a more specific one that is a lesson of the past that he is applying to "winning the future."  In a way, it is what he means by winning the future.

President Obama was in Osawatomie because it was where Teddy Roosevelt made his New Nationalism speech in 1902.  It's clear by the way that Obama has known the TR speech for a long time, as it seems a source of his own rhetoric and approach--for instance in his first famous speech, to the Democratic Convention in 2004.

 TR made the speech in response to economic and social problems he saw as a consequence of income inequality and corporate domination (huge corporations called trusts.)  But both of these were partially products of the same phenomenon--one which we share now.  And it is not in itself political.  Here is what President Obama said about what TR faced:

At the turn of the last century, when a nation of farmers was transitioning to become the world’s industrial giant, we had to decide: Would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were being controlled by a few giant monopolies that kept prices high and wages low? Would we allow our citizens and even our children to work ungodly hours in conditions that were unsafe and unsanitary? Would we restrict education to the privileged few? Because there were people who thought massive inequality and exploitation of people was just the price you pay for progress."

This transition was the result of the industrial revolution; it was in essence caused by new technologies.  Those technologies allowed corporations that controlled them, and the few who controlled the corporations, to benefit greatly, while workers did not.  The economy expanded rapidly, but since workers weren't making enough to buy enough, there were severe economic downturns, called panics (there were other causes and specific events that set them off, but this was an underlying problem.)

Though TR and others in the Progressive era began the process to institutionalize economic justice that would eventually profit the entire economy, it was only partially accomplished.  The Great War expansion and other factors created a bubble of prosperity in the 1920s, though again mostly a very small percentage--the 1%--got most of the wealth and the buying power.  By the end of the decade, the stock market crash and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

"Seen in perspective, the Depression appears to have been the last convulsion of the industrial revolution creating a hiatus before the technological revolution," writes William Manchester in his sadly neglected historical masterwork, The Glory and the Dream.  The techniques of mass production, he continues, raised efficiency by man-hour over 40%.  "This enormous output of goods clearly required a corresponding increase of consumer buying power," but that didn't happen.  Workers weren't making more money, though they were being urged to spend more.  They did, on credit.  Sound familiar?  Enter the Great Depression, caused in part by a failure to respond to an economic problem caused by new technology.

"Today, over 100 years later, our economy has gone through another transformation," President Obama said, with reference to the time of the TR speech. "Over the last few decades, huge advances in technology have allowed businesses to do more with less, and it’s made it easier for them to set up shop and hire workers anywhere they want in the world."

And that's just for starters: once again, there is a gap between technological change and the response of the economy.  Now a rational politics (not to mention a discipline of economics not controlled by ideology and corporate interests) would see how this problem has recurred, and would recognize it when it happens--even anticipate it.  And act accordingly.

President Obama has recognized it (see? He just said so) and since he took office he has advocated and engineered programs to address it, some of which he emphasizes in the rest of this speech: education, infrastructure, innovation in new technologies, particularly in the globally growing sector of green energy.  These lead to tech jobs that pay well (and with wages rising globally, America becomes more competitive.)  All of these recognize that technology now defines and largely determines the global economy.  (He didn't mention programs like health care but they also contribute in increasing buying power for people as well as for businesses, not to mention, you know, health.)

But here's something else that isn't part of this speech, or even part of the public dialogue anymore.  Because the impact of new technology--so quickly obvious in the last couple of decades--has been clearly in the cards for a half century.  It went by the name of automation for awhile, and it was a major topic for economists and sociologists in the 1960s.  (My first paper in my freshman sociology class was about a book on automation and alienation.)  The larger problems were foreseen: more production, less work.  The current situation wasn't always foreseen: employed people working a hell of a lot more, tied to their jobs around the clock by computers and cell phones, while millions of others aren't employed at all.  So these academics worried about the increased leisure time.  But they also worried about the basic problem that always occurs, that had happened in the Great Depression when many of them were in school--when technology increases production and the economy expands, but not enough people have enough money to buy what's being produced. 

They went so far to seriously consider...well, you're not going to believe me.   You might believe me if I told you there is really a Hogwarts, or that Jane Austen really was a vampire.  But you won't believe this.  But it happened, it really did.  What was seriously considered, by mainstream economists among others, was something called the Guaranteed Minimum Income.  It was clear that a high tech economy could produce such an abundance that the economy would actually work better if everyone got a minimum living, so they could buy stuff.  Businesses would profit far more than supporting the Guaranteed Income would cost them in taxes.

There were other benefits.  Poverty would essentially be abolished, if that means anything to you.  And therefore a lot of other social costs would decline--as poverty-borne disease and a lot of crime declined.  There would also be long term benefits.  Crazy geniuses wouldn't have to starve or get wage slave jobs--they could just create and innovate, and some of their art or science or whatever might benefit society. 

In any case, there was concern that at minimum there would be a gap between changes caused by new technologies and the ability of many people to deal with those changes, especially economically.  And that the economy itself would suffer, again. So something new--something to fill the gap--would be needed.  If not the Guaranteed Income, then something else.  This was foreseen in the 1950s and 1960s, and we've had half a century to figure it out.

So here we are, having not figured it out and having apparently forgotten we even knew the problem, in a situation that includes several important features of the early 1900s and the 1930s: a small number of extremely wealthy people, and a lot of people barely getting by or not getting by.  A few pigs, and a lot of suffering.  A dwindling middle class sunk further by credit (card) debt.  Growing unemployment, including people who will not be employable again, at least not with their current skills.  Technology increasing prosperity for some, but sinking many many others.

Oh, and one more factor, which the 60s economist didn't foresee.  They assumed that strong unions would protect workers incomes, and so would society.  They may have realized that capitalism has always depended on some form of slavery, but they thought that thanks to unions and the kind of progressive laws advocated by TR and instituted by FDR, the slaves of the future would all be machines.  They didn't realize they would at first be Mexicans and then Asians, and then de-unionized Americans. 

And you can tell how sophisticated our political dialogue is about these problems by listening to Mitt Gingrich and his plans to return to the child labor of the mid 19th century. Once again, the poor and the unemployed have nobody to blame but themselves, it's all their fault.  The necessary role of government in preventing economic collapses, and in responding to technological and other change, which was largely accepted 50 years ago, is now considered an alien ideology.  As President Obama said in this speech, this is partly a consequence of income inequality--the filthy rich and their institutions are dominating and corrupting the political system, and actively destroying the resources of institutions that they see as a threat.  Beyond the bumper sticker of greed, this is a source of the growing darkness.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Fair Shot, Fair Play, Fair Share

I saw headlines about President Obama's speech in Kansas on Tuesday, so I figured it must be significant since most of his speeches are ignored.  Then I heard some soundbites on cable news, which puzzled me a little: he was saying things he'd said before, maybe a little more sharply, but in somewhat the same phrases.  So why were these shows taking precious time out from their lascivious interest in Newt Romney and Mitt Gingrich?  (It wasn't much time, of course.)

The answer turned out to be in watching and listening to the whole speech (which I did on the C-Span site, but which you can do in the post below.)  It is a one hour brief for what we need to do to create jobs and revive the American economy, and why.  As part of that argument, it is about what we should not do, and why not.  It is a speech shorn of jargon, with some cliche but basically very direct and yet pretty comprehensive.

In this post I will try to outline the basic argument of President Obama's address, that combines economics with American values, as informed by history.  In a later post I'll focus on an argument within the argument, more specific but important.

President Obama began by noting that his mother and grandparents were from Kansas, but he quickly turned this into his premise: that his grandparents, who were young adults during World War II (grandfather in Patton's Army, grandmother in war plant), were able to enter the middle class, along with millions of other Americans.

"They believed in an America where hard work paid off, and responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried -- no matter who you were, no matter where you came from, no matter how you started out. (Applause.) And these values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known...So you could have some confidence that if you gave it your all, you’d take enough home to raise your family and send your kids to school and have your health care covered, put a little away for retirement."

But over the decades, this changed, and here's as succinct a summary of what has happened to the 99% that I've seen: "But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments -- wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t -- and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up. Now, for many years, credit cards and home equity loans papered over this harsh reality.

But in 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We all know the story by now: Mortgages sold to people who couldn’t afford them, or even sometimes understand them. Banks and investors allowed to keep packaging the risk and selling it off. Huge bets -- and huge bonuses -- made with other people’s money on the line. Regulators who were supposed to warn us about the dangers of all this, but looked the other way or didn’t have the authority to look at all.

It was wrong. It combined the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility all across the system. And it plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we’re still fighting to recover. It claimed the jobs and the homes and the basic security of millions of people -- innocent, hardworking Americans who had met their responsibilities but were still left holding the bag."

At this point is the part of the speech that made the soundbites, when the President called redressing this 'the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement."

He said that some (read GOPers) propose solutions that show signs of a "collective amnesia," for their solutions are to return to the conditions that caused this economic breakdown in the first place.  He will come back to this with particulars, but he identifies the difference that is a theme of the speech, which harkens back to his "one America" speech at the 2004 Democratic convention--the speech that launched his national political career.  At this point he identifies the opposing ideology as everyone for himself.   "And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. I am here to say they are wrong. (Applause.) I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. (Applause.) These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them. (Applause.)"

Now he goes to the historic occasion: Theodore Roosevelt's speech in 1902 in this very same Kansas town in which he proposed his New Nationalism, a program that outlined much of the progressive legislation now deep in the country's fabric and taken for granted.  “Our country,” he said, “…means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy…of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.” (Applause.)

Now, for this, Roosevelt was called a radical. He was called a socialist -- (laughter) -- even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour work day and a minimum wage for women -- (applause) -- insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax. (Applause.)

The big corporations in TR's day were called the trusts, and TR was the trust-buster, and they opposed him.  Obama links their ideology to that of GOPer politicians and their corporate masters today, through the intervening history:

"Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes -- especially for the wealthy -- our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty.

Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (Laughter.) But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. (Applause.) It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade."

He gets specific about the Bush era:
"Remember in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history. And what did it get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country and provided the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class -- things like education and infrastructure, science and technology, Medicare and Social Security.

Remember that in those same years, thanks to some of the same folks who are now running Congress, we had weak regulation, we had little oversight, and what did it get us? Insurance companies that jacked up people’s premiums with impunity and denied care to patients who were sick, mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford, a financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy.

We simply cannot return to this brand of “you’re on your own” economics if we’re serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country. (Applause.) We know that it doesn’t result in a strong economy. It results in an economy that invests too little in its people and in its future. We know it doesn’t result in a prosperity that trickles down. It results in a prosperity that’s enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citizens."

President Obama then recited statistics about the current level of income inequality, the largest gap between the 1% and the rest since the 1920s.  But he doesn't rely on the emotional effect.  He first makes the economic argument for why this is so damaging.  The rich spend a smaller proportion of their money.  It is what the middle class spends that generates an economy, and they can't spend what they don't have.
"Now, this kind of inequality -- a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression -- hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run."

Add to the economic, the political argument:

"Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. (Applause.) It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans."

And the American values argument from before, the opportunity to make it into the middle class:

"But there’s an even more fundamental issue at stake. This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try."

"It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal. But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That’s inexcusable. It is wrong. (Applause.) It flies in the face of everything that we stand for." (Applause.)

The speech turns towards the positive agenda needed to create a better future.  He outlines this approach through three concepts: "... in America we are greater together -- when everyone engages in fair play and everybody gets a fair shot and everybody does their fair share. (Applause.)"

The "fair shot" involves making it possible for Americans to compete in the world economy, not by a race to the bottom (the low wage economy envisaged by GOPers, all too bluntly articulated by their presidential candidates) but a race to the top, to innovation, and high skill, high wage jobs.  (I'll have more to say about this section of the speech later.)  Government, as an expression of "we're all in this together," has its role in supporting education and fairness for individuals and families, but also in a larger sense, in creating a national economy that can compete.  As through infrastructure--here the President makes the argument for infrastructure spending not only as a win-win for meeting known needs and employing idle workers, but for competitive advantage among nations quickly improving their infrastructure to create better efficiency for businesses. 

He correctly identifies this position as one that's been mainstream throughout American history, and certainly since the Great Depression.   "But as a nation, we’ve always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed. (Applause.) And historically, that hasn’t been a partisan idea. Franklin Roosevelt worked with Democrats and Republicans to give veterans of World War II -- including my grandfather, Stanley Dunham -- the chance to go to college on the G.I. Bill. It was a Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower, a proud son of Kansas -- (applause) -- who started the Interstate Highway System, and doubled down on science and research to stay ahead of the Soviets."

But to do this requires spending, and to pay for it requires the second factor: fair share.  The wealthy must pay their fair share.  This section of the speech isn't new, but it is a succinct summary of what he's been saying, and again it's folded gracefully into the complete argument. "We have to ask ourselves: Do we want to make the investments we need in things like education and research and high-tech manufacturing -- all those things that helped make us an economic superpower? Or do we want to keep in place the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in our country? Because we can’t afford to do both. That is not politics. That’s just math." (Laughter and applause.)

His comparison of the Clinton and Bush years, which he also often makes, is more deftly elaborated:

Now, so far, most of my Republican friends in Washington have refused under any circumstance to ask the wealthiest Americans to go to the same tax rate they were paying when Bill Clinton was president. So let’s just do a trip down memory lane here.
Keep in mind, when President Clinton first proposed these tax increases, folks in Congress predicted they would kill jobs and lead to another recession. Instead, our economy created nearly 23 million jobs and we eliminated the deficit. "

Contrast this with what he said earlier in the speech about the Bush era approach: "Remember in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history. And what did it get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country and provided the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class -- things like education and infrastructure, science and technology, Medicare and Social Security."

Then comes the third element: "Finally, a strong middle class can only exist in an economy where everyone plays by the same rules, from Wall Street to Main Street."  Here he makes his best case so far for the regulations his administration has put in place to control Wall Street and to protect consumers.  But just as importantly, he articulates the rationale for this kind of regulation:

"Some of you may know, my grandmother worked as a banker for most of her life -- worked her way up, started as a secretary, ended up being a vice president of a bank. And I know from her, and I know from all the people that I’ve come in contact with, that the vast majority of bankers and financial service professionals, they want to do right by their customers. They want to have rules in place that don’t put them at a disadvantage for doing the right thing. And yet, Republicans in Congress are fighting as hard as they can to make sure that these rules aren’t enforced."

Discussing the banks, he makes some politically blunt statements:"We shouldn’t be weakening oversight and accountability. We should be strengthening oversight and accountability... The fact is this crisis has left a huge deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street. And major banks that were rescued by the taxpayers have an obligation to go the extra mile in helping to close that deficit of trust. At minimum, they should be remedying past mortgage abuses that led to the financial crisis. They should be working to keep responsible homeowners in their homes."

President Obama then broadened beyond these arenas to talk briefly about individual and family responsibilities, but also about the responsibilities of businesses to their communities (a very Dickensian Christmas theme.)  He brought it back to TR and his main theme:   "We are all Americans,” Teddy Roosevelt told them that day. “Our common interests are as broad as the continent...” We still have a stake in each other’s success. We still believe that this should be a place where you can make it if you try. And we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, “The fundamental rule of our national life,” he said, “the rule which underlies all others -- is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.” And I believe America is on the way up. (Applause.)

President Obama's address on the American economy, in Kansas on Tuesday.  For those who want to get beyond the soundbites, as well as the analyses in the next few posts.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote of those uneventful times that seem at the moment only a link between past and future pleasure but turn out to have been the pleasure itself."

F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tender is the Night

Friday, December 02, 2011

War of the World

"The rise of the human neocortex is the only example of evolution providing a species with an organ which it does not know how to use."---Arthur Koestler

That the international climate crisis talks in South Africa are being universally ignored in U.S. media, including the progressive shows and sites, and even including such climate sites as Climate Progress, speaks volumes not only about how unproductive these talks are expected to be, but about the dire state of human civilization at this stage in its lifecycle.

All the news coming out of the conference (which is being reported, if you look for it) is of a downward spiral of conflict.  Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy on climate crisis, is blaming China and India for not joining in binding agreements (though you know not in a bad way) so the U.S. won't either.  So-called Third World countries are blaming the U.S.( saying in an echo of charges against the Bush team, that the U.S. is not a leader but a barrier) and going after Canada for some severe retrenching from Kyoto promises, and for burying its head in the tar sands.   And the poorer countries are going after everybody, including China.   It's even worse than no new agreements. Old agreements, even promising ones made at just the last conference, are unraveling.

Meanwhile the evidence behind the scientific consensus keeps getting stronger, including a study which further confirms the determinative role of greenhouse gases--especially CO2--in heating the climate.  The news of what's happening just keeps getting worse--on releasing methane, on the warming Arctic, on rapidly degrading environmental base to human civilization and the life of the planet.

In fact, once you get outside whatever news bubble you live in--from social networks, sports sites, political porn, entertainment etc.--and click on an environmental story on say, the BBC site, you are confronted with a list of other stories that sounds like a countdown to doomsday.

Long ago in the 1890s when Darwin's work was relatively new and some Europeans were already worrying about decadence in western civilization,  H.G. Wells was beginning to make the case that the survival of the human species--or at least of civilized humanity--was going to depend on global self-government, on governing the world as a whole.  He saw even before the invention of the airplane that mechanized warfare was going to push civilization into destroying itself as long as nations pursued self interest first and foremost.

After the immense devastation of the Great War, and again after the even more widespread destruction of World War II which ended with atom bombs, the practicality of an international body governing common interests was grudgingly recognized.  But Wells was making a larger point: that in order to govern themselves as a planet, civilized peoples were going to have to think of themselves as planetary citizens.  They would have to deeply feel that war was a global problem, and so were the causes of war.

Now we face a global threat requiring a global solution, though in not such a simplistic way as an invader from another planet or a giant asteroid on its way.  The Climate Crisis requires that we understand that we are truly all in this together.

Yet at this crucial point, we aren't even at the stage of political mindset we were after World War II. In the U.S. at least there is more suspicion of international agreements and the UN that at any time in my memory, precisely when international action is most necessary.  And it will be necessary in part for exactly the same reason that H.G. Wells said.  The effects of the Climate Crisis are going to be longlived and extreme, but uneven.  There are going to be nations that are suffering from drought, and nations that have plenty of water (though maybe too much.)  And there are going to be wars over resources, which not only can have--but will have--dire effects everywhere in this delicately interconnected world, with greater vulnerability than I've ever seen thanks to our dependence on trade and transportation (and therefore energy), and on electronic communications. 

  As Todd Stern says, all these nations at the climate crisis conference are pursuing their self interests, which he doesn't find all that upsetting apparently.  A certain amount of what's going on is understandable, given the state of the world economy and the problems in individual countries, including the U.S.  But instead of so easily giving in to this, it is the time to emphasize how serious this is by transcending it.

It seems that the human mind is capable of grasping the concept of global problems, but apparently not enough minds share it, or can overcome their own darker and dumber selves.  About the only words of significance out of this conference so far that I've seen referenced came from Bishop Desmond Tutu, who called for concentrating on confronting the Climate Crisis as a moral imperative as important as fighting apartheid was. "Now we are facing another huge, huge enemy. And no one, no country can fight that enemy on his own... an enemy called global warming, climate change...We have only one home. This is the only home we have. And whether you are rich or poor, this is your only home... you are members of one family, the human race."

The statement is significant because of Tutu's moral authority in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and his subsequent efforts in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  And perhaps for the fact that he was a voice in the wilderness at first, but that there were relatively sudden changes that ended apartheid.  Now these words, so simple and yet so scientifically as well as morally profound, are not yet heeded--perhaps not even in South Africa, where he spoke before only a few hundred people.  If time has not already run out for human civilization moving on from this level to greater fulfillment, it soon will.  Enormous changes at the last minute may still be possible, but it is far from certain that even such a fantastic turn would be soon enough.  

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Ron Paul ad attacking Mitt Gingrich.  It's now widely believed among poltalkers that the upcoming Iowa caucuses may come down to Gingrich v. Paul, although Romney is making a belated effort.  That's our political porn for the day.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

You Read It Here, Now Read It There

You happy few, you happy band of readers, smaller than the Henry V army but maybe smarter.  At least you got a lead on a couple of heavy-hitter opinionaters with way bigger readerships.  To wit:

Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times sez what I've been saying: President Obama's real accomplishments are being overlooked by the sometimes rabid left as well as the media, and while differences are of course legitimate, the danger is in creating such a sour mood that the President's reelection is endangered--and you really, really don't want that.  You don't want Newt Romney, Mitt Gingrich or any of the Rabid Rightists.

And Kristof makes exactly the analogy I make, maybe too often: the self-hypnotic chant of the year 2000 that there's no important difference between Gore and Bush (remember the Bore v. Gush bumper stickers?) so it doesn't matter, vote for Nadir or stay home, flip a coin, who cares.  Please, please remember how that turned out.  As Kristof and a lot of people have been saying this week, the election is a choice, not a referendum.

Kristof was on Lawrence Tues. with Tom Friedman, usually the model of a moderate business-oriented futurist.  He was even more insistent on the absolute necessity of reelecting Obama, not just for the sake of the U.S. but for the world.  He thinks there's a strong possibility that the world will face a major crisis before election day. 

The other preview you got was to the thrust of Frank Rich's piece in New York Magazine.  Frankly, for me this was validation, because I hadn't seen anyone make these connections besides me.  Rich was writing about this year's books on JFK, comparisons to Obama, etc.  He writes that JFK was getting about the same media treatment as Obama--disappointment, he should be communicating better, he doesn't work Congress enough, etc.  But the main similarity Rich sees is that  JFK was surrounded by Rabid Right hatred that led to his assassination, and President Obama is surrounded by even more widespread hatred now.  So Rich takes the assassination attempt of 11/11/11 seriously.  These are both points I've made here.

Apart from several hours of conversations on the phone and in New York over several years a good many years ago, I don't have a great deal in common with Frank Rich except experiences of that week of November 22, 1963.  We were roughly the same age, we both idolized President Kennedy, we both were glued to the TV that weekend, and we both saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot to death on live TV.  So all of that remains real to us the way such a formative experience would.  And it remains an in-formative experience.