Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Wolf Defined

While media attention was mostly focused on other aspects of President Obama's press conference Friday, the following exchange I felt was the heart of it.  If I had video editing skills I would post a clip of just this portion, because it's much more powerful to see and hear it.  President Obama presented a cool and reasonable demeanor, even when he was not mincing words, and at times he projected a weary optimism about the long-term triumph of common sense.  But during this exchange, his anger and his compassion surfaced.  He was almost overcome by those emotions by the end of these statements, so that he stumbled over getting to the next question.   The best I can do is link to the video, and note that this question is asked at the 21:58 mark.
 Here is the exchange in its entirety.  It's long for a blog post, but then, it's my damn blog.
"Q    What do you say to the people like Mayor Bloomberg -- who is no critic of yours in general; he endorsed you -- who argues that there is some what he calls "posturing" in these claims that there are going to be big layoffs and a lot of people out of work, and thinks that the effects of the spending cuts are being overstated by the administration?
THE PRESIDENT:  Well Jessica, look, I'll just give you an example.  The Department of Defense right now has to figure out how the children of military families are going to continue with their schooling over the next several months, because teachers at these Army bases are typically civilians.  They are therefore subject to furlough, which means that they may not be able to teach one day a week.
Now, I expect that we'll be able to manage around it.  But if I'm a man or woman in uniform in Afghanistan right now, the notion that my spouse back home is having to worry about whether or not our kids are getting the best education possible, the notion that my school for my children on an Army base might be disrupted because Congress didn't act, that's an impact.  Now, Mayor Bloomberg and others may not feel that impact.  I suspect they won't.  But that family will. 
The Border Patrol agents who are out there in the hot sun, doing what Congress said they're supposed to be doing, finding out suddenly that they're getting a 10-percent pay cut and having to go home and explain that to their families, I don't think they feel like this is an exaggerated impact.  So I guess it depends on where you sit.
Now, what is absolutely true is that not everybody is going to feel it.  Not everybody is going to feel it all at once.  What is true is that the accumulation of those stories all across this country, folks who suddenly -- might have been working all their lives to get an education, just so that they can get that job and get out of welfare and they've got their kid in Head Start, and now, suddenly, that Head Start slot is gone and they're trying to figure out how am I going to keep my job, because I can't afford child care for my kid; some of the suppliers for those shipbuilders down in Virginia, where you've got some suppliers who are small businesses, this is all they do, and they may shut down those companies, and their employees are going to be laid off -- the accumulation of all of those stories of impact is going to make our economy weaker.  It's going to mean less growth.  It's going to mean hundreds of thousands of jobs lost.
That is real.  That’s not -- we're not making that up.  That’s not a scare tactic, that’s a fact.
Starting tomorrow, everybody here, all the folks who are cleaning the floors at the Capitol -- now that Congress has left, somebody is going to be vacuuming and cleaning those floors and throwing out the garbage -- they're going to have less pay.  The janitors, the security guards, they just got a pay cut, and they've got to figure out how to manage that.  That’s real.
So I want to be very clear here.  It is absolutely true that this is not going to precipitate the kind of crisis we talked about with America defaulting and some of the problems around the debt ceiling.  I don’t anticipate a huge financial crisis, but people are going to be hurt.  The economy will not grow as quickly as it would have.  Unemployment will not go down as quickly as it would have -- and there are lives behind that.  And that’s real.  And it's not necessary -- that’s the problem."

Friday, March 01, 2013

And Then the Wolf Finally Came

We've been artificially and needlessly pushed to the economic brink so often by GOPers in Congress that on the eve of the March 1 mandatory across the board cuts in the funding of all federal programs and employment, Congress went home early without doing anything, the stock market hit a new high, and the American people aren't exactly caught up in the drama.  According to the overview of the latest Pew poll:
"After a series of fiscal crises over the past few years, the public is not expressing a particular sense of urgency over the pending March 1 sequester deadline. With little more than a week to go, barely a quarter have heard a lot about the scheduled cuts, while about as many have heard nothing at all."

It's a living example of the old fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  Cry "Wolf!" enough times with the wolf not appearing and people are no longer thrown into a panic, or even calmly take precautions, they just ignore it.
That's what most people take to be the moral of the tale.

But that's not the end of the tale.  Because the wolf finally comes.  And no one is prepared.

Absent some last minute miracle, the wolf finally comes tonight in the form of the across the board disappearance of money to fund the federal government. We will see in the coming days and weeks just what will happen, and how ferocious this wolf turns out to be.   But we could see February 28 as the apex of the economy for the rest of the year or longer.  The U.S. economy seems to be turning around, the dollar is strong internationally, and while the rich are still soaking everyone else, there is at least still unemployment insurance and Medicaid, and older people (and others) can count on Medicare and Social Security at current levels.  We'll see what and how much of what the wolf eats up before it's done.

Chairman of the Fed Ben Bernanke testified to a Congressional committee the other day, and said what most other economists and smart people have been saying.  According to the New Yorker:

Departing from his statutory duty of reporting to the Senate Banking Committee on the Fed’s monetary policy, Bernanke devoted much of his testimony to fiscal policy, warning his congressional class that letting the sequester go ahead would endanger the economic recovery and do little or nothing to reduce the country’s debt burden.

There are plenty of articles about how bad this budget sequester is, for everything from daycare to national defense, especially long term but with lots of short term pain.  Just allowing it to go into effect for one day (though it is scheduled to last for ten years!) will cost the federal government a lot of unnecessary expense.
But even though other crises have been averted or dialed back, there are reasons to believe this one will go on for awhile.

One reason is that its basis reflects a failure to communicate--or at least a failure to understand--the real situation of government spending and debt. There are those who think unleashing this wolf is worth it because finally the federal deficit goes down.  It turns out that most American know shit about the federal deficit, let alone the ins and outs of government spending. Something like 6% of Americans apparently realize that the Obama administration has been cutting government spending and dialing down the debt.  That's just a question of fact.  Just as serious is the failure to communicate that government outlays are a vital part of a healthy economy as well as a strong civilized society--that the decrease in government employment at all levels is in fact a major reason the economic recovery is as slow as it is.

The Pew poll is just the latest to show how confused the public is on this.  They say they want the deficit cut as their highest priority, but can name not a single program they're willing to cut.  Except maybe foreign aid, which is commonly thought to be a huge part of the budget, whereas in fact it's tiny.  And they also agree that spending shouldn't be cut when recovery is so tenuous.

The second reason is the most obvious: more than any time in my memory and possibly a lot longer than that,   the opposition between Democrats and Republicans in Washington is a state of war.  So far firearms are not involved, but the opposition is just as profound.

It is worse than it was six months ago or even two months ago, because Republicans have gone faster and harder to the extreme right.  Look no further than the sequestration:  all President Obama is asking for in terms of revenue is cutting tax loopholes on the wealthy and big corporations,which pretty much was supported by Mitt Romney in his presidential campaign.  That was way back in--do you remember?--October.

This time the wolf may be a dog of war.  Political war but just as total.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Supremely Racist

In a terse statement in front of the just-unveiled statue of Rosa Parks, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that in response to statements made in oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, he was ordering that a new entity be placed under the protection of Section 5 for its evident predisposition to discriminate on racial grounds.

That entity is the U.S. Supreme Court.  Notwithstanding its various decisions in the past upholding equal rights, Holder said that the Court's historic pattern of racial prejudice has clearly been revived, most notably by the statements of Justice Antonin Scalia, who referred to Section 5 as a "perpetuation of racial entitlement."  Since the only "entitlement" granted under the Voting Rights Act is the right to vote without regard to race, the Attorney General concluded the the Court is now more of a threat to the rights guaranteed under this law than Alabama and Arizona put together.

Reporters asked if Holder had considered placing only Scalia rather than the Court as a whole under Section 5.  He replied that he had considered it, especially since Justice Scalia scoffed at the relevance of the U.S. Congress renewing the Act's provisions for 25 years, after 21 hearings and thousands of pages of testimony, by a near-unanimous vote in the House and a 98-0 vote in the Senate in 2006.  The renewal was signed by President George W. Bush.

That Scalia felt that all of this doesn't matter and that the Court can decide whether Section 5 is needed to safeguard voting rights for minorities, certainly suggests that he should himself be restrained by the Voting Rights Act, Holder said.  But he noted that while their language was less overtly racist, the other Republican-appointed Justices seemed to agree with Scalia on his main points.  Since they seem to have a majority, Holder said he had no choice but to add the Supreme Court to those states and districts within states that require Justice Department scrutiny and possible intervention, in order to protect the equal right to vote in the United States.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Nailed It

Back on January 23 I noted the continuity of President Obama's Inaugural Address to earlier speeches, in particular his commencement address at Knox College in 2005 (Knox being where I did my four years plus, though in the previous century.)

Now through the Knox alum newsletter I learn of confirmation from President Obama's speechwriter that indeed this Knox address was a major inspiration for the 2013 Inaugural.  Cool.  (Here's another link to the local Galesburg paper which links to an earlier article and includes photos and video of the speech.)

At Knox in 2005 then Senator Obama spoke outside Old Main, a site of a Lincoln-Douglas
 debate, commemorated by that plaque.

Evolution of Mom Dancing

Opening the envelope for Best Picture at the Oscars is one thing--but this First Lady has some serious moves.  P.S. This is what those bangs are made for.

Oscar Night Heist

HOLLYWOOD, CA—Los Angeles police confirmed that Denzel Washington, Naomi Watts, Joaquin Phoenix, and nearly a dozen other top-name actors had gone missing ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards after following a fake red carpet laid outside the Dolby Theatre that reportedly led into the back of an idling, windowless van. “It appears that the kidnappers were able to use an array of camera flashes, canned fan screaming, and an imposter catty fashion reporter to lure these unsuspecting movie stars right into their grasp,” said police sergeant Mark Morales, noting that Reese Witherspoon, William Hurt, and the entire starring cast of Silver Linings Playbook were seen waving and turning to show their outfits to an assembled corps of fake paparazzi before wandering into the cargo hold of a Ford Econoline vehicle.

Oscar Report from the Onion

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Cry Havoc: How the Iraq War Began

We are weeks away from the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war's beginning.  Books, articles and TV docus have begun, concentrating on the deceptions before the war, and the war's long and terrible extent. 

 On a Sunday almost exactly ten years ago today, the San Francisco Chronicle published my essay on what everyone already knew was the upcoming bombing of Baghdad which would start the war.  It was supposed to be so devastating that the war would be over quickly.  At first it may have seemed that way, and President Bush declared combat operations over.  But of course, it went on for nearly nine more years, at immense cost.

But lost in this history is the horror of the bombing itself, and what it represented beyond introducing the p.r. term of "Shock and Awe."  The piece reflects how it was advertised, and the reality turned out to be even worse.  For weeks some 1700 air sorties including more than 500 using cruise missiles bombed Baghdad, before the first American ground troops arrived.

 I refer also to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and its line,  "Cry 'Havoc', and let slip the dogs of war."  Once the dogs of war are loose, they are very difficult to rein in.  Once started, the machinery of war is very hard to stop.   The logic of war-including the emotional logic-- is that warfare feeds on itself, and there are plenty of corporate as well as political and ideological interests eager to keep feeding off the continuing warfare.  

The echo of the Iraq war continues to be loud, though now so distorted that it isn't always identifiable.  This war that depleted so much continues to have consequences in what this nation did, and what it did not do.  Those consequences may well continue for a very long time.

And this was a preview of how it began.  Here is the essay as it first appeared in the Insight Section of the San Francisco Chronicle on February 16, 2003.

When Islamic armies were the most powerful in the world, conquerors of Asia Minor and North Africa, and poised at the gates of Europe in the 8th century, Abu Hanifa, founder of a school of law in the city of Baghdad, proposed that the killing, maiming and raping of civilian noncombatants in war be forbidden. It was one of the first attempts to codify some kind of moral and legal restraints on civilized societies engaged in the dangerously uncivilized practice of warfare.

If and when war comes to Iraq, it will likely feature the relentless and perhaps unprecedented bombing of Baghdad. According to CBS News and other sources, the United States is considering implementing a strategy called "Shock and Awe," developed in 1996. The plan could result in at least 300 Tomahawk cruise missiles raining down on Baghdad in just the first day of an aerial campaign - more than were used on all targets in the entire Gulf War. And the plan calls for an equal or greater number on the second day as well, up to 800 total, each capable of carrying 1,000 pounds of explosives. There was no estimate of how many days the bombing would continue.

Although missiles would likely focus on infrastructure including electricity and water supplies, an average of one missile striking a city of 5 million inhabitants every four minutes around the clock could kill and maim thousands of civilians.

"There will not be a safe place in Baghdad," according to an unnamed Pentagon official quoted by CBS. "The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before."

The prospect of war in Iraq is crowded with moral as well as political questions, with multiple possibilities for ethical outrages of stunning proportions. But the continuous bombing of a city of civilians would probably be the first that confronts the watching world.

In A History of Bombing (published by New Press in 2001, and forthcoming this spring in paperback), Sven Lindqvist follows three main threads: the technology and use of aerial bombing in history, the attempts to deal with the moral implications of its use against civilian populations (Abu Hanifa is one example he cites), and social attitudes toward bombing found in sources such as popular fiction.

The historical parallels to the current prospect as well as the ironies are disquieting. The impact of the "shock and awe" strategy is meant to be on hearts and minds: to destroy the enemy's will, and mental and psychological ability to resist. But bombing's ability to terrorize - the sudden explosive death from the sky without warning - was one of the first effects to be observed, noted in 13th century China. It has often been a prime strategy of bombing, according to Lindquist, used extensively by European colonial powers in Africa, India and Asia.

Bombing is especially terrifying when used on the helpless. At first it was shelling from ships far offshore (which is how the United States bombed Nicaragua in 1854), then bombs dropped from airplanes. Bombing was a cost-effective way of keeping subjugated populations in line. Baghdad was a British target more than once in the 1920s.

As airplanes, bombs and cities all got bigger, moralists and diplomats negotiating the international rules of war and definitions of war crimes struggled to keep up. Several prohibitions against air warfare and the bombing of cities were proposed, and some were signed, except by the major powers capable of the bombing. Well into the 20th century, bombing was considered not so bad if the victims were of "inferior races." Some authors wrote glowingly of bombing as a way to civilize the world by permanently subjugating or even wiping out these races.

European bombing gradually got closer and closer to home, until the German military on behalf of Franco tested new kinds of bombs by dropping them on cities in Spain. Japan bombed civilian cities in China. Then in the 1940s, bombing of even the capital cities of combatant nations - Berlin, London, Tokyo - became a normal instrument of warfare, finally leading to the annihilation of the undefended cities of Hamburg and Dresden by British saturation firebombing, and of Hiroshima and much of Nagasaki by the U.S. atomic bomb.

By that time, terror was not the only result of bombing. Fifty thousand civilians were killed in a single night in Hamburg, most of them women, children and elderly. Twice that number died in Dresden. Two atom bombs did fill Japan with shock and awe, and killed several hundred thousand civilians in the process.

There are various strategic arguments for bombing campaigns that dovetail with apparent moral concerns, usually involving shortening a war's duration or substituting for ground assaults, thus saving lives, especially the lives of the side doing the bombing.

When facing the possibility that this war would unleash chemical, biological or nuclear weapons that have been largely absent from warfare for decades due to international taboos of one kind or another, it may seem quixotic to argue that bombing of civilian populations should be regarded as an evil in itself, and beyond the pale for nations that desire any sort of international relations. But it seems morally obtuse that there is a stronger taboo against assassinating a declared enemy's head of a state than against slaughtering babies in their beds. Surely bombing should be a last resort, not the first.

For even if the historical parallels are coincidental and not disturbing echoes of residual racism and empire-building, the bombing of Baghdad to begin this war would have a terrorizing effect on more than its residents. In Shakespeare's time, there was another word for the terror, the shock and awe that accompany a war without moral limits. The word was "havoc," as in the famous quotation from Julius Caesar, "Cry 'Havoc', and let slip the dogs of war."

The bombing and havoc may already be starting by the time you read these words, although according to Los Angeles Times reporter Doyle McManus on the Washington Week in Review, "You can pretty well mark on your calendar March 15. " It's the date formerly known as the Ides of March.

The bombing of Baghdad began on March 19, 2003.