Friday, March 25, 2011

Spoiled Rotten

[photo: English countryside. Click to enlarge.]
I don't know if you'd call it human nature specifically, for it seems to be animal nature. Ants do it--even if it's a countertop you routinely clean, if they sense a fat crumb there, they cluster around it with no regard for the extreme likelihood and imminent danger of being literally wiped away. Animals fill the available niches, and they prosper as long as they've adapted to that specific environment--for as long as that environment lasts.

We live on a remarkable planet that, according to the proven Gaia principle, maintains itself within a range of conditions that nourishes life. On top of that, conditions for the past thousands of years have allowed human civilization to grow and survive, in fits and starts, even with some harsh conditions. Then for the past several centuries, much of the world--especially Europe and North America--has lived in golden times. The weather has been temperate--to the point of being unusually excellent. During the past century or so, the earth's normal seizures of violence--earthquakes mostly, but also volcanoes or even large meteor impacts--have happened very rarely in big urban areas, even where history records they have happened repeatedly and science strongly suggests they will happen again.

We've been spoiled by these times--spoiled rotten. And they aren't going to last. The natural disasters are going to be "bigger" than ever, because we've built so much on earthquake zones, we've put so many people there, and we've added lethal technologies to the mix, and we have no adequate plans for the inevitable disasters. We look at Japan today, and know there are no credible plans for evacuating New York or Los Angeles. There are no credible plans for evacuating even relatively smaller cities. And New Orleans after Katrina suggests we can't even deal with one major disaster in a relatively isolated city that size, without a lot of additional suffering.

We haven't had a major disease epidemic in a long time--perhaps not since the killer flu after World War I, which killed more people than the war did. Here we probably believe our science is protecting us, or will. To some extent, that's probably true. But again we are spoiled rotten--spoiled into believing we don't have to pay attention to public health--or more specifically, to pay for it, even as features of our interconnected daily lives makes possible a much faster spread of disease. We don't even consider how much we will need the civility and trust we are carelessly destroying to deal with any such emergency, moment to moment as well as over a long time and a lot of ground.

Ants are probably a lot smarter than we know, and they probably do some planning, but with our big brains, we're capable of a lot more than we do.

Of course, the greatest disasters of our time have been self-inflicted: wars mostly. The most pervasive catastrophe we've begun, the Climate Crisis, is self-inflicted--and continues to be, even when we know what we're doing, and what we're not doing about it. It's already begun, it's affecting almost everyone even now, it's only going to get worse over time with more extreme and violent winters and summers, and we are still not mobilizing to deal with it.

We've built our civilization over the abyss, and we know that we have. But while things are still relatively golden, we could be doing our best to stop what we can stop, fix what we can't, prevent what we can prevent, and prepare for the worst. It is our test: can human animals in human civilization adapt to its environment by anticipating the future changes in that environment? We're not entirely sure why some past civilizations flunked their tests--were they just not capable of dealing with the disaster they anticipated? Or did they not know enough to be able to anticipate it? We largely don't have those excuses. All we have is something we suspect was a factor in the fall of at least some of those empires: decadence, which is just another word for spoiled rotten. You'd think we know enough about history and ourselves to overcome this.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Libya and Liars

There are moral questions, questions of policy, of strategy--all kinds of questions on which humans of good will can differ.

And then there are liars, and shameless liars.

In the shameless liar division are the GOPers, prominent and not, who have extended their reflexive opposition to anything President Obama does or supports, even if they themselves have supported the same thing, to what used to be out of bounds for mere partisan politics: those very serious decisions involving the use of the U.S. military, putting Americans in harms way and causing destruction in another country. But several GOPers have lied about their position on Libya--which is in this case a more accurate term that the convenient "flip-flop"--the most prominent so far being Newt Gingrich. Either he lied when he said he was for a no-fly zone, or he lied when a few days later he said he wasn't.

But the simplier lie, and in some ways more pernicious, is John Banal's letter stating that President Obama acted without consulting Congress. In a letter that otherwise raised substantive policy questions, he asserted: “It is regrettable that no opportunity was afforded to consult with congressional leaders, as was the custom of your predecessors, before your decision as commander in chief to deploy into combat the men and women of our armed forces.”

This was and continues to be widely reported. What has not been reported is the answer to a question about this by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, in which he detailed the consultations that in fact happened: briefings and in hearings that senior people in the administration, as well as the President, have been engaged in consultations with Congress, going back as far as February 28th when national intelligence officers from the DNI briefed House members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence where they had a closed session on Libya and Somalia; March 1st there was a similar closed briefing with Senate Select Committee on Intelligence members, with issues in the Middle East, North Africa, including Libya. Secretary Clinton testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on assessing U.S. foreign policy priorities and needs, which included a substantial discussion of Libya. That was on March 1st. March 2nd, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen testified at a hearing on Defense Department appropriations, again including a discussion -- an ample discussion of a potential Libyan no-fly zone. Also on March 2nd, Secretary Clinton, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, included a discussion on Libya and possible policy options.

The list goes on. March 4th, March 10th, March 14th, the ODNI briefed Speaker Boehner on Libya in a classified briefing -- that was March 14th. On March 17th, Under Secretary Burns testified in open session to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on popular uprisings in the Middle East, but the main focus was on Libya. On March 17th... there was an all-senators briefing on Libya developments and possible U.S. government and international responses, including potential military options, by an interagency team led by Under Secretary of State Bill Burns but including the ODNI and DOD."

Now it's possible that Banal only counts "consultation" as when the President talks to him. Just as it is possible that Republicans in the Senate had a number of second thoughts on appropriate action. But as Carney also pointed out:

"And I should mention, as you all know, that on March 1st -- I believe it was March 1st where the Senate passed a resolution calling on actions that they believed should be taken by the United States and international partners, which was extremely similar to the actions that, of course, we did take several weeks later."

Presidents should be able to confer directly with congressional leaders of both parties on such decisions as they make them, and history suggests this used to be done. But really, when lives are at stake, would you trust these guys? That's another deadly result of a policy of lying for partisan politics.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Emerson for the Day

"Valor consists in the power of self-recovery, so that an man cannot have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled, but put him where you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth, and his alert acceptance of it from whatever quarter."

photo: Hanuman Langur

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Millions for Billionaires, Cuts for Schools, Poor and the Blind

The one consoling fact about GOPer victories is that sooner or later they blow it by overreaching. But this time breaks both the speed record, and the extent of it. Every day sets new standards for the incredible, the cruel and the corrupt. And they go hand in hand.

But there's really nothing funny or politically heartening about all this--not for the people who are cruelly victimized. This damage may never be undone, and what can be repaired for the future will take a great deal of effort and money that could have been expended on positive good.

Though she doesn't make the connection between the corrupt and the cruel, Rachel Maddow included both in her report from the states. (This is from Monday, but she continued on Tuesday, emphasizing again how these GOPer states are justifying actions based on cutting budgets while on the other hand taking actions that cost their states more money and put them in deeper deficits. She added a new example on Tuesday: state liquor store sales are a major source of revenue for the state of Ohio, but Governor Kasich proposes to privatize them. On both days,she emphasized also that the rest of the media is buying this budget-cutting message.)

First the corruption, which I'll just summarize: in Wisconsin, a GOPer state senator recently made news when protestors showed up at his house, only to be told by his wife that he doesn't live there anymore, he's off living in another district with his girlfriend. Now it turns out that the GOPer governor's administration has hired that girlfriend, with a $12,000 a year raise beyond what the previous person at that job got. (Which proves one thing: some people really don't need collective bargaining.)

That's your garden variety patronage corruption. But another "coincidence" is more insidious.
In Wisconsin, the GOPer leader of the Senate and the GOPer leader of the state House are brothers. That's actual biological brothers. The new GOPer governor has appointed their father to head the state patrol, even though he was the only candidate for the job who wasn't already in the state patrol. Apart from another member of the family joining those lazy overpaid government employees, there is this to consider (Maddow speaking):

"Scott Fitzgerald leading the Senate, Jeff Fitzgerald leading the assembly, and Stephen Fitzgerald leading the Wisconsin state patrol, which I‘m sure came in handy when the governor and the Fitzgerald brothers wanted to threaten to use the state patrol for political purposes to go arrest and round up Wisconsin‘s Democrats who fled the state to stop the Republicans‘ union-stripping."

Now for the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Rabid Right Class War. Maddow ended her program with a couple of lists that went by pretty fast. I think they are worth posting in print, for readers to absorb and contemplate:

"In Maine the Republican governor there wants to spend $30 million giving a tax cut to about 550 individuals, 500 of the state‘s millionaires.

In Ohio, House Republicans say they want to spend $10 million to give the petroleum industry in their state a tax break.

Pennsylvania‘s Republican governor wants to spend big on business as well. His tax proposals have been estimated to cost the state between $200 million and $833 million.

New Jersey‘s Republican Governor Chris Christy wants to spend $200 million on tax cuts to business.

Florida‘s Republican governor wants to spend $1.5 billion on tax cuts for corporations.

Michigan‘s Republican governor wants to spend $1.8 billion on business tax cuts.

And, of course, in Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker, his giveaways to business, his first actions as governor, are projected to cost the great state of Wisconsin nearly $140 million. And remember, we‘re broke.

In Georgia, the legislature is looking at cutting funding to the state university system by about $75 million.

Pennsylvania‘s Republican governor proposing a more than 50 percent cut to that state‘s higher education system.

In New Jersey and South Carolina, Republican governors want to drastically cut Medicaid benefits.

In Arizona, the Republican governor‘s budget would get rid of health care for 100,000 poor people.

"Just in case anybody even tries to make a case this is all ideological, this is just about Republican opposition to taxes and opposition to spending, consider that in most of these state is not only are Republican governors or legislatures trying to cut things like education and social services, they are also overtly raising taxes on poor people. We‘ve got tax hikes on the elderly and on low income residents in Michigan."

Also, Republicans in Kansas and in Wisconsin are talking about effectively raising taxes on the working poor.

In Georgia, House Republicans are talking about raising taxes on groceries. Also, they‘re talking about ending a tax break for blind people. That‘s up for grabs in Georgia right now, raising taxes on the blind.

And just to spread the pain around in Maine, the Republican governor‘s proposed budget would raise property taxes for the middle class."

But pushback on some of this continues--from the courts. In New Jersey, a superior court judge ruled that GOPer gov and national sweetheart Chris Christie's cuts to education violate the state's constitution.

Window on Cable

Between Maddows, here's Josh Marshall (not a fan of the current U.S. action in Libya, and one of Chris Matthews new favorite pundits ) at TPM:

As you know, we have cable news running in our news room permanently, flipping back and forth between the three biggies. And the percentage flow of obvious falsehoods, outright lies and what frequently verges on or passes for hate speech is just awe-inspiring. In an awful sort of way, but still awe-inspiring. I know it. You know it. But when I actually listen, pay attention to the stuff they're saying, wow. It's amazing that this exists as one of the big sources of news in this country. Just now we were listening to Megyn Kelly interview Mike Gallagher. Okay, I got it off my chest.

Libya, America and the Painful Change

I'm usually a day behind on posting stuff I liked from the Rachel Maddow program, because that's when the transcripts are available. In this case and the next one, I'm able to quote from Monday's transcripts on themes that she continued Tuesday. This first one is on President Obama and Libya.

She began Monday's program by quoting presidents and presidential candidates talking about how they want a limited, humble U.S. foreign policy. Candidate Obama said similar things, and was more specific about wanting to change the image (and reality) of the U.S. throwing its military weight around to control Muslim countries, especially when they've got oil. So when President Obama committed the U.S. military to air action in Libya, it was only after the UN Security Council in effect requested it, U.S. European allies demanded it, and the Arab League approved it. He did not make a grand announcement from the Oval Office, Maddow said, to signal that this is an international and not a U.S. action. He emphasized the U.S. lead role was temporary, and the goals of the operation were precisely what the UN resolution requested, regardless of further U.S. policy goals. He emphasized that no U.S. ground troops will invade. Maddow:

"This is what President Obama promised as a candidate he would do. It is frankly what most presidential candidates have promised as candidates they would do. But the fact that he‘s actually doing it as president is freaking out all corridors of the political world that really kind of liked the interventionist, chest-thumping, triumphalist stuff.

I mean, think about the big picture and what the presidential candidates in 2008 campaigned on and the legacy of George W. Bush. Do you want the narrative of America‘s role in the world to be America leads Western aggression against Arab countries or don‘t you want that? Do you want that continue to be the master narrative about America‘s role in the world, or do you want the narrative to be something different?

President Obama wants the narrative to be something different. He very clearly did not want there to be another American military action in the Arab world. He is very open about his reluctance. He wants everybody to know how reluctant he was.

The White House keeps broadcasting that. Why are they doing that? Because they want the narrative to change. And everything about the character of the intervention shows Mr. Obama‘s reluctance here.

The U.S. commander in the region reporting today U.S. air missions over Libya decreased dramatically today. He says the overwhelming number of missions were flown by non-U.S. pilots. U.S. officials again are going out of their way to point that out

Maddow is not alone in seeing it this way, but in the media and among foreign policy and military cable-ready mouths, she is in a decided minority. Yet I also believe that time will prove her correct--both about President Obama's actions concerning Libya, and about the reaction to it: including the utterly shameful politically motivated response of GOPer hypocrites and liars, and the "experts" whose thinking is very limited. (Others whose criticism is actually based on applicable principle are subject to analysis of their position rather than the pity and scorn due the former.)

Those who say that if the G/K/Qadaffis aren't deposed or killed this week, President Obama can't walk away from more military action--that he's started a war--are going to turn out to be wrong. And they are going to freak out even more than they're freaking out now. It's going to be painful for everybody, but if President Obama succeeds in this, and he still gets re-elected, it may change America's role in the world for awhile, and for the better.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Swarm

For what it's worth, which is next to nothing, I am adopting a wait and see attitude about military action in Libya. But I continue to be alarmed by the apparent inability of American media to report accurately.

I watched and listened to President Obama's press conference in Chile. What he said seemed very clear to me: in support of the "international community" (western allies plus Arab states), the U.S. is using its unique military capabilities to enforce the UN resolution's mandate, to protect those Libyan people who were threatened for opposing Kaddafi or Qadaffi or Gdaffi or whatever whatever media outlets choose to call him. Apart from that, U.S. policy is that this dictator should go. The U.S. for weeks has been organizing diplomatic and financial means to make it harder and harder for him to stay in power.

Military to prevent his military from slaughtering rebels and protestors and everybody else. Diplomacy and other non-military means to make it harder and harder for him to remain. What is so hard to understand? Obviously this military action also erodes Kaddafi's power. And making it harder for him to pay for weapons and mercenaries also makes it harder for him to defy the no-fly zone and attack the rebels. So they are related. But pursuing these two purposes by different means is not contradictory, it is not even unclear. Military action has probably already saved Benghazi from an even larger and more savage attack than began to happen the other night, when government gunmen rode down the streets shooting indiscriminately into residences. Now there is time for Libyians to evaluate what they want to do about Q/K/Gadaffi, and for him to evaluate his options.

What's so hard to understand about this? I understand it, the guy from Human Rights Watch I just saw understands it. American media seems congenitally hysterical, listening to each other more than anyone else. If they seemed capable of accurate reporting, I might have more confidence in this country coping with anything serious.

There are a lot of moral and political issues involved in all this, and the situation is fluid, chancy and rife with risk. But let's at least get President Obama's stated intentions straight.

Emerson for the Day

"Viewed from any high point, this city of New York, yonder city of London, the western civilization, would seem a bundle of insanities."

photo of Saturday's Super Moon in the state of Washington by Tim McCord at

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Various Items with Lincoln and Super Moon

photo: Saturday's "Super Moon" rising near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, from
After a week from hell for Japan, in which the Japanese not only suffered from the unprecedented but perhaps prophetic combination of massive earthquake, massive tsunami and massive nuclear plant crisis, but were criticized in the U.S. for their culture (among other alleged sins, not being forthcoming enough) comes Nicholas Kristoff's column titled "The Japanese Could Teach Us a Thing or Two":

"So maybe we can learn something from Japan, where the earthquake, tsunami and radiation leaks haven’t caused society to come apart at the seams but to be knit together more tightly than ever. The selflessness, stoicism and discipline in Japan these days are epitomized by those workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, uncomplainingly and anonymously risking dangerous doses of radiation as they struggle to prevent a complete meltdown that would endanger their fellow citizens."

Meanwhile, as news in the US focuses exclusively on Japan and particularly the ongoing air strikes in Libya, things are moving fast in Yemen, which could result in just as dangerous a situation for its people as in Libya.

Back in the class war at home, the new proto-fascist laws in a couple of GOPer governed states may be illegal as well as illogical and immoral. A judge has blocked the Wisconsin union-busting law, on procedural grounds, as violating Wisconsin's open meeting law. Michigan, operating pretty much under the radar, passed a law that provides dictatorial powers to the state, including the voiding of local elections and elected officials. But Think Progress makes a good case that it's unconstitutional in at least one respect: it allows the state to void contracts (aimed at those with union agreements), which is expressly forbidden by Article 1. This post (by Ian Milhiser) suggests practical possibilities as well:

"If a state is free to break contracts whenever they feel like it, than no one will agree to do business with the state. Investors will refuse to buy the state’s bonds, and state contractors will demand all payments upfront out of fear that the state will accept their work and then tear up the contract requiring the workers to be paid. Creditors will charge the state enormous interest rates to secure against the risk that the state will just waive its hand and make its obligation to repay go away."

Visible evidence of Saturday's "Super Moon"--the biggest, brightest full moon in 18 years--was one of many casualties of our current spell of near-constant rain and cold here on the North Coast. But lots of places were clear enough for people to see and photograph it. There are more photos and a video explaining the convergence of phenomena that caused it, at