Archive | September, 2007

Issue VIII: American Apocalypse?

22 Sep

Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.

Hunter S. Thompson on the death of Nixon (1994)

Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for — but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush-Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him.

Hunter S. Thompson (2004)

Is America done for?
I haven’t driven out into the Nevadan desert with a Samoan lawyer, a potato gun, and a trunk full of drugs, but I’ve been starting to see the fear and loathing of the American Dream. Hunter S. Thompson in his rant/obituary of Richard Nixon said that Nixon “represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character” and that by “shitting in his own nest… he also shit in our nests…. Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.”

And if Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream, and Reagan (as they say) broke its back, did Bush just discard it in a haze of torture, preemptive war, crackpot pro-rich policies, and a Red Sea of a deficit?

What does that leave us with? The American Nightmare?

The American Nightmare? What is it? It’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a few years now, particularly since the invasion of Iraq. The basic gist is that the United States is losing power and declining due to an imperial hubris, and like a Greek play, those in power ignore the voices of the wise. The ancients told us to be humble and respect the Gods, but this country has no god but power: the rule of both gun and money. Is our forsaking coming?

Collapse?
I’ve been reading Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, about how society’s choose to succeed or fail. While we have advantages that ancient Easter Islanders didn’t have, are we being any brighter than the man who cut down the last trees that supported Easter Island? Will we like Oedipus deny reality like blind men only to see reality once blinded by it?

Diamond argues that besides climate change, human-induced environmental change, foreign/trade relations with neighbors, the role of the ruling classes also sealed or prevented a collapse the civilization. If the adaptations and changes in cultural attitudes needed conflicted with the short or long-term interests of the elite, and the changes needed weren’t made, it could hurt a country as much as cutting down that last tree, having that extra baby, and despoiling that last source of clean water.

So I ask if the same is true here of our rulers. Will a turnover in power change whether our political system gets out of hospice care or will the replacements just take advantage of the vast powers and broken precedents taken by the previous president?

People will say, “We never saw this coming.” But we did. People in the know pointed this out and were ignored, marginalized, or shooed off stage to talk about Paris Hilton. And then it falls like a Minnesota bridge. Does anything say bread and circuses stronger than the fact that there were twice as many journalists at the Michael Jackson trial than in Iraq?

How?
I know, I know. People always are doomsaying. What great wisdom do I have? None really, but these are things I think could “bring us down.”

Its clear that the United States government needs to borrow $2 billion a day to cover its deficit. Invading countries on borrowed money is expensive. What is needed is basic investment in health, education, and (apparently) bridges. Which we aren’t doing.

The biggest buyer of this debt is China, Japan, and other East Asian central banks. Meanwhile, the average American income hasn’t increased (inflation-adjusted) for around 27 years while the the income/wealth inequality in this country has skyrocketed since 1980. All the growth since has mostly gone to the top while the rest of the country finances its consumption with debt (credit cards and mortgages). This borrowed money goes right back to East Asia, just like they expected.

But what happens when Asia cashes out its chips? Or even threatens too? That day may be coming soon.

Subprime meltdown (as my small brain understands it)
A strange thing happens when a bunch of “smart guys” in suits with computers try to make money with algorithms. They loan money to people without money. Now, you may think this is crazy, but that is basically what happened where banking industry engaged in a practice called “subprime lending” were poor people (mostly minority) were lent money to buy houses they couldn’t afford. After the economy began to tank and housing price boom ended, the poor defaulted on their loans. But instead of this hurting the banks that loaned the money, the defaults floated up macroeconomically. This is what a good explanation I found (not by a business/economic analyst) said,

The banks bunched all these mortgages, both the sound and unsound, into packages, then sold those packages to investment companies. These investment companies packaged many mortgage packages together and sold them to bigger investment companies – really big investment companies, involved in really big deals. Those really big investment companies used these mortgage packages as collateral for their really big deals. When shaky (“subprime”) mortgages started defaulting, it meant that those mortgage packages weren’t worth as much as everyone had believed; therefore, the really big investment companies don’t have as much money and credit as they thought they did – and that, in turn, scares the crap out of lenders up and down the line, who’ve suddenly become reluctant to loan money to anybody, even individuals and companies with proven credit.

Fun stuff like this causes runs on the bank (in England), state bank collapses (in Germany), and a (basically) devaluation of the dollar. This is the complaint from the Asia Times about the Federal Reserve.

Its policymakers initiate policies that they know full well will weaken the US dollar, and they just don’t care. It’s almost as if the nation can pay for goods with checks it knows the other party will never cash; if you could do this, you’d probably be living pretty large too.

This is particularly true in the case of China. China’s foreign exchange reserves are now approaching the trillion and a half dollar level, and this massive wad of cash is mostly kept as US dollars. China has earned this treasure through being the gleaming supermall for the shop-till-you-drop obsession that has swept the US, and to a lesser extent the rest of the Western world, this decade.

I’d like to write checks no one will cash. I wonder how long that lasts.

More stuff:
The Austin Chronicle“Letters at 3AM” Not a superpower
The Economist argues America is A-OK. Despite stuff.
Asia TimesLike a Blow to the Head

Dear General Petraeus

13 Sep

To all the bullshit going on in Washington over the “surge” and how it is working, I’d like to send all of you this.  These guys were there fighting, while the generals and all the guys who get interviewed on CNN don’t see combat.  And this also goes to all the politicians who think that shopping in Baghdad is like “Indiana in the summertime.”  We can listen to General Petraeus and Bush… or these guys. 

“The war as we saw it” by 7 active-duty soldiers

Two of the active-duty U.S. soldiers who wrote a controversial Op-Ed in the New York Times questioning the direction of the Iraq war died Monday in Baghdad. Here are their words.

Editor’s note: This Op-Ed by seven active-duty U.S. soldiers was published in the New York Times on Aug. 19. Two of its authors, Sgt. Omar Mora and Staff Sgt. Yance T. Gray, were killed Monday in a vehicle accident in Iraq. Staff Sgt. Jeremy Murphy, another of the seven authors, was shot in the head in Iraq on Aug. 12, before the Op-Ed was even published. He is recovering at the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland and, through a woman who identified herself as his sister, declined a request from Salon for comment.

News Roundup

4 Sep

Okay, so I haven’t posted in a while. School has been rough. I figured I’ll give you the roundup of the biggest news and opinions that happened in the last few months rather than a narrow issue on one topic this time.

America

  • The Democrats (see synonyms: spineless, craven, unprincipled) caved in to George Bush’s illegal National Security Agency wiretapping program that breaks the FISA law regulating domestic wiretapping by passing a law legalizing its existence: The Protect America Act 2007 . This law didn’t need to be passed, and it is the fault of the Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid that they even put Bush’s bill up for a vote. The ACLU calls them sheep, and I’d agree.
  • The Democratic Congress has a worse approval rating than George W. Bush. However, unlike Bush who still has popularity in his own party, Democrats and independents are pretty sour on the Democratic Congress too. Caving into the president on the war and wiretapping and everything else.
  • Middle class disappearing in America. The San Francisco Chronicle piece is about how California is dividing into a rich educated class and a poorer immigrant service class. I remember one California schoolteacher telling me, “How am I supposed to buy a house in California on this sort of salary?”
  • “Why don’t people of color get involved with the environment,” asks a black author.
  • Labor Day was yesterday, and people are starting to pay attention to the election. I’ll do an issue on the candidates later, but for now look at Hillary’s FOX News connection.
  • As you might have heard, Sen. Craig of Idaho is resigning because he was soliciting sex in a Minnesota airport bathroom from a cop in June. Meanwhile Sen. Vitter of Louisiana has been seeing a prostitute in Washington many, many times, yet is not pushed to resign by his GOP colleagues.  Glenn Greenwald points out the nonsense of the “religious right” so focused on “family values” by anti-gay politics when divorce causes more damage to American families than gays do. And divorce is more common in South than it is in the North, with Massachusetts having the lowest divorce rate in the country.  It’s also more common in religious people than among atheists and agnostics (link provide religious breakdown divorce rates).
  • The United States is the most heavily armed country in the world with 90 guns for every 100 people. More than half of all guns manufactured annually are bought in the United States. I didn’t get that impression from watching City of God….
  • Suprime mortgage shit hit the markets. I dunno what it means, but American financial regulation is crap and usually involves bailing out rich people while regulators looked the other way.

Iraq
A mess of course, but here are some of the messiest messes.

  • The General Accounting Office says that the meaningless “benchmarks” put into the Iraq funding bill this year will mostly not be met. Right now it looks like 11 of the 18 will not be met and violence has not significantly been reduced. And it looks like 30% (180,000) of the guns we delivered to Iraq can’t be accounted for and probably are in the hands of the insurgents. Looks like they will kill our soldiers with our own money and weapons.
  • The latest talk is that the United States might support a coup by the first Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi (i.e., the one we picked) to replace the current Shi’ite/Kurd government run by the idiot Nouri al-Maliki. The current Iraqi government is mostly made up of Shi’ite religious parties that allied as the United Iraqi Alliance in the 2005 election. Moqtada al-Sadr’s faction has withdrawn from the group as well as the Sunni parties and the coalition is wobbly right now. However note this statement: “According to Allawi’s published program, the parliamentarians would not only appoint a new government but also suspend the new constitution, declare a state of emergency and make the restoration of security its priority.” He even hired a Republican lobbying firm (run by the Mississippi governor) to press the case in Washington. Bringing freedom to the Middle East indeed.
  • Refugee crisis in Iraq. 4 million people have been displaced from the war (out of 25-30 million people in Iraq) and the UN has asked for help supporting the huge number of refugee in Jordan and Syria. Translators working for the United States have not been helped out in getting refugee status (they are under a huge threat of being killed by insurgents) and are probably the most screwed.
  • The Nation interviewed 50 soldiers about the treatment of Iraqi civilians and documented the human rights abuses that commonly occurred during the war. The house raiding section is interesting because it shows how most of the raids they do are useless and based on bad intelligence. Iraqis would rat on neighbors to “settle scores” with people they didn’t like.
  • 7 soldiers have written an op-ed called ” The War as we Saw it” for the NY Times showing the hopelessness of continuing the war including militia infiltration of the Iraqi Army.
  • The oil law has not been passed by the Iraqi government. The law is one of the “benchmarks” set by Congress. It has the good provision of sharing Iraq’s oil wealth to all areas, not just the north and south, but Iraqis will be violently against the part that allows Iraq’s oil industry to be privatized and sold off to foreign companies. For all Bush has done to Iraq, he hadn’t tried privatizing the oil… until now.
  • War profiteering in Rolling Stone. Corruption that Bush refuses to prosecute.
  • The British leave Basra. Full withdrawal soon?

Texas
There’s no real rush to write about Texas politics since the Legislature won’t meet again until January 2009. But this year’s legislature was, of course, a useless joke that accomplished nothing for a polluted, uninsured, and fast-growing Texas. Undoing the train wreck of the 2003 session (the first GOP Legislature since Reconstruction) is done piece by piece and much too slowly. Disasters started in 2003 and still not fully fixed are the cuts in Children’s Health Insurance Program (150,000 kids cut), the Trans-Texas Corridor, electricity and tuition deregulation. And the effort to get rid of Speaker Tom Craddick (since 2003) also hasn’t resolved itself.


Israel/Palestine

  • Israel has made Shimon Peres president. An interesting reason why Olmert did it was to undermine his rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Lipni, by making Peres a super-foreign minister. But Lipni was right about invading Lebanon, bad idea.
  • I just read Jimmy Carter’s book on Palestine, “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid.” I was pretty impressed and learned quite a bit about the daily life of Palestinians (stuff like, for every terrorist attack by Palestinians, something like 14 Palestinians have their houses bulldozed). It’s a quick and good summary of the situation. The term apartheid I think is getting to be more and more appropriate for the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Even the Arab Israeli citizens do not have the same rights as Jewish Israelis. Check out this NPR interview with Carter.
  • Is the omerta in the American media on criticizing on Israel cracking? The London Review of Books published an article on the “Israeli lobby” by Harvard professors that got the Israel “right or wrong” crowd in a fury. They pressured universities and venues to cancel talks on the topic, making more of a media stir about it. Its a joke that I can read more criticism of Israel in Haaretz than on American TV (a point made by Carter).
  • The Palestinians poorer than ever. The economic boycott of the elected Hamas government has backfired and impoverished hundreds of thousands, and Hamas has now run the secular Fatah Party of Yassir Arafat out of the Gaza Strip, peaking their triumph by throwing a Fatah security chief out of a window in the mini-Palestinian civil war this year. Hamastan and Fatahstan anyone?

International Randomness

  • Peasant fashion in South America. The election of the first Indian president in Bolivia has made it okay for the European-descended population to start wearing native American clothing. When Evo first visited world leaders wearing an alpaca sweater, people laughed and Bolivians were ashamed. Now its hip.
  • Ethiopia celebrates Y2K, seven years after the rest of us.
  • Don’t eat swordfish; catching it kills everything else in the sea.
  • Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India, cool article in National Geographic.