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Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Real Sacred Cow (Podcast Version)

When budgets and deficits are discussed in the media, and on the floors of congress, Social Security and Medicaid are often called the ‘sacred cows’ of American politics, both by laissez-faire Conservatives, who think them a ‘Socialist’ abomination, and by Progressives, who see them as part of the safety net a humane society erects to protect its more vulnerable members.. But the real sacred cow is so sacred, it’s rarely mentioned seriously as a candidate for pruning at all.

It’s the US military budget, of course. Currently, the US military budget proper is 515 billion for fiscal 2009. Add discretionary spending, veteran’s benefits, and military programs that are under the auspices of other departments, and you’re up to over one trillion dollars per year on defense and war.

One trillion is a very hard number to get your mind around. It is bandied about almost casually these days in discussions of bailouts and wars to the point that it loses any real meaning. An American trillion is a one followed by 12 zeroes. One trillion dollars is over 3,000 dollars for every single man, woman and child in America. But that’s still too abstract. How about this: one trillion seconds ago was 31,688 years ago! 31,000 years ago we were nomadic hunter-gatherers living in caves. Agriculture was still 20,000 years in the future. Textiles, domesticated animals, pottery and metallurgy, medicine, writing, the wheel, the arch, houses – none of these existed.

Throughout history, empires from the Romans to the Spanish, Dutch, and British have all made the same mistakes. They’ve expanded rapaciously, controlling more and more territory and natural resources, often under force of arms, and then rotted from within as their treasuries went deeper and deeper into debt supporting the vast weight of their conquests.

America is certainly following the imperial paradigm to the letter. As in Rome, our infrastructure is crumbling; our educational and health care systems are no longer nearly the world’s best, based on any standard metrics from mathematical literacy to infant mortality. Our standard of living is manifestly eroding. We have military bases all over the world, from remote islands in the Pacific to Antarctica. Our military alone uses more fuel than the eighth largest country in the world, Nigeria, which has a population of over 140 million. And our military budget is greater than all other military budgets on earth… combined. Do we really think that this country can keep spending over 3,000 dollars per year for every one of our citizens and survive? That’s over 10 percent of the average adult American’s annual income!

There is a book entitled ‘addicted to war’ which details what our bloated military costs us. It also points out why this state of affairs persists decade after decade: our senators and congressmen are bought and paid for primarily by the Military-Industrial Complex, a term coined not by some left-wing radical, but by Dwight Eisenhower in his parting speech as president. In a draft, he originally called it the ‘Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex’, and his speech should be required reading in every school, as should Addicted to War, because we will not survive if we continue down the path of every empire that has preceded us.

Now, I’m not saying we don’t need a military; Far from it. There are real threats out there that must be met. Nor am I saying that our veterans don’t deserve the best possible care; they do. But I am suggesting that maybe the United States no longer needs bases in Germany, Poland and Great Britain. Maybe the European Union can figure out how to protect itself. I’m suggesting that a plane like the B2 bomber which was designed for a mission that no longer exists and costs over 2 billion per airplane is not the wisest way to spend our money. Our expensive weapons aren’t winning our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We will always need defense, and deterrence against aggression, but if we stop trying to bend the world to our will, and trade coercion for cooperation, we will see a precipitous drop in the number of enemies we face.

And we must tell our elected representatives and the media that the military budget must be cut, if we are to prosper as a nation.

Audio Version

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Monkey Business

You know, in general, I think everyone's too PC, too damn sensitive, and can't take a joke. Yet when I finally ignored the fact that Sharpton, one of the worst opportunists and demagogues of recent history, was decrying it, and looked at the Post cartoon, I had to agree: it's racist, incendiary, tone-deaf, in execrable taste, and worthy of condemnation. It's so damn obvious, I can't even call is a 'coded' racist attack. It's overt, and the subtext (assasination) only makes it even more troubling. Now, maybe the cartoonist isn't protesting too much. Maybe he's actually too stupid, or too White (as in 'I've never spent any social time at all with Black People) to see how disgustingly this plays on racial stereotypes. Maybe they're so imbedded in him that he can't even preceive them.

But that's what editorial boards are for.

No, I don't this was a mistake. It's like the mistakes on Fox, where the Republican Congressman who's trying to bed his congressional pages is labelled with a 'D' instead of an 'R' (for weeks on end). This was premeditated slander.

I hate to admit it, since I believe in free speech, and am generally in favor of puncturing PC balloons, but I agree with... Sharpton (oh that hurts!).

I'd agree with a call to boycott the Post too but.. who reads it? Mostly white, working class conservative guys who probably hate the idea of a Black President. I mean, this might improve the Post's circulation with that demographic.

So, when do we get worried? (Vol 1)

I see that the left's honeymoon with Obama is still in full swing. Despite mounting evidence that Obama is not going to be a very liberal president at all, that he is hiring some of the same guys who got us into this economic mess to fix it, that he's following that Bush administration's policies forward on excessive secrecy and on Guantanamo prisoners, everyone's cutting him a lot of slack.

Kinda reminds me of the right; You know, the guys who supported Bush no matter what he did?

Yes, I know it’s early. Yes, I know we can’t blame him for Republican partisan slash and burn tactics in Congress. But we can blame him for the company he keeps, and the policies he crafts, and for legacy policies that he upholds rather than repudiates. And we can also blame him for hypocrisy when he abrogates his own rules, citing the financial meltdown as an excuse.

Some things to ponder about the Obama administration so far:

1) In the administration’s first major test case on the rights of a Guantanamo detainee, they supported the Bush administration’s previous position.
2) Timothy Geitner was former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's right-hand man during the crafting of the initial, woeful T.A.R.P. plan - the one that had no real oversight at all for how the money was spent - hence, no loans, and big bonuses for execs in the bailed out companies. Geitner and Paulson are both veterans of Wall Street. Couldn't Obama have picked someone more Progressive, like Paul Krugman, or former Labor Secretary Robert Reich? Similarly, Robert Rubin, another top architect of the Obama economic plan, helped gut Citibank (while receiving a salary of over 100 million dollars annually). And Lawrence Summers, Obama's chief economic advisor, loves tax cuts and hates infrastructure. Sounds like... Bush! These people are embedded representatives of the culture of unrestrained greed and short-term gain that got us into this mess - do we really want the foxes guarding the hen house again? Don't we want people who are part of the solution, not part of the problem?
3) A recent NY Times article found the Obama economic plan to be strikingly similar to the Bush plans drawn up in November and December.
4) Obama abrogated his own promise not to hire lobbyists into his administration, citing the financial meltdown as a mitigating factor. Yes, I’m absolutely sure that there are no people outside of the power/money elite that have the skills and background to do the job.
5) A new article today indicates that the Obama administration is also perpetuating the same over-secretive tactics of the Bush administration in its dealings with congressional oversight and Media.
6) Despite the most catastrophic economic meltdown since the 1930’s, no one from the President on down through his administration has talked about our bloated, unsustainable military budget. This is the 800 pound gorilla in the room, studiously being avoided by everyone in power. It is inconceivable that this bloated budget (which includes plans for more nuclear submarines and a new generation of larger, even more expensive aircraft carriers), not be under review. One would think that the ‘most liberal member of the Senate’ might spend a little of his political capital (after all, unlike Bush, he actually did win a mandate) and put our military budget, our Imperial Achilles Heel, into the national debate about our future. Instead, all signs point to a heroin-like injection of even more capital into military projects, which will provide some short-term relief, and major withdrawal symptoms later on. This country has been on a permanent war-economy footing since 1939, and we simply can’t sustain it. Yet, the President, the Congress (and the Media, for that matter), don’t mention it, don’t bring it into the debate, into public consciousness.

So, yes, I’m officially worried. Far from being the most Liberal president in my lifetime (I guess I’d give that to Carter, who’s looking more prescient every day in some respects), Obama seems Centrist, embedded in the power elite, and towing the line for the Military-Industrial Complex.

It’s time for the left (where oh where for art thou, Move On?) to make some noise. It’s time to stop wishing, and fantasizing, and imbuing Obama with all of our hopes and dreams, and start demanding some action on the ground.

This financial crisis is actually an incredible opportunity to change this country’s direction, and to challenge some of the basic tenets of our government and economy that have been taken for granted for years. It’s an opportunity that hasn’t been seen since the early days of FDR. Unlike FDR, Obama is dealing with a much more strident and intransigent Republican faction in congress, which is more intent on bloodying him and the Democratic party than in saving working people’s lives, livelihoods, and dreams. I get that. But he is not even speaking to the real problems. He’s not even trying to inject new thinking into the old order. He’s surrounded himself with the usual Beltway/Wall Street suspects, and they’re polishing deck chairs on the Titanic. (Think I’m exaggerating? Look at the Stimulus Bill, and compare it to what FDR did; very little money for boots on the ground projects, lots to government agencies and… I can’t believe it… MORE TAX CUTS!). Yes, he needed some Republican votes. But the input from the Obama side itself had woeful little in terms of infrastructure construction and repair. The bill should have created something like the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The government could have employed hundreds of thousands of people to install solar power and water heating, windmills, for every federal building. This would have been akin to Roosevelt’s bold moves. Instead, we get incremental, timid, mostly status-quo mediocrity.

No, Obama isn’t Bush – don’t mistake what I’m saying for that. But from Geitner, Rubin etc. to his policies on secrecy and detainees, there is a whiff of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ – or at least, it’s feeling a bit more like that than ‘change we can believe in’ – I don’t see it. Same old crew, same old policies, incrementally polished up, same lobbyists like Remoras, swimming in a stream of money, sucking on the Federal carcass.

Kinda makes you pine for a real Revolution…

Monday, February 16, 2009

1300 Palestinians, 13 Israelis

When I was seven, the six-day war was raging in the Middle East. We were one of the first Jewish families in a primarily Arab neighborhood in Brooklyn. The Syrian Ambassador came to Atlantic Avenue and gave an incendiary speech. The only reason I remember it is because it terrified my mother.

Our next door neighbors, whose Americanized name was Kirshy, were Syrian. On the last night of the war, there was a knock on the door. When my mother opened it, the entire Kirshy clan, from young boys to the ancient matriarch, Nina, came in. They carried platters of food, including homemade stuffed grape leaves, made with leaves from our very own backyard grape arbor.

“Let Them Fight over there”, Nina’s eldest son Mike thundered, “here, let’s have a party.” And so we did.

This all seems so na├»ve now, because the ratio of suffering in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is so one-sided. One cannot simply smile and break bread here, when so many are dying there; Israel’s response to rocket attacks is so disproportionate that it seems a Goliath towering over David.

I saw Fiddler on the Roof a few years ago and was struck by the ending, where the Jews flee the pogroms and the land seizures, to go to the bright new land of Palestine. To do what, I thought? To seize land from others? To rule with an iron fist? To replicate their own suffering, with only the roles reversed?

I sometimes equate Israel to a battered child, which grows into a big, strong man, who batters his own small children. The Jewish preoccupation with the Holocaust – something that is not unique to Jews in intent, as any Rwandan or Armenian can tell you – has become a sort of moral carte blanche. We were nearly destroyed by the most highly industrialized genocide in history, and somehow, that gives us an excuse to do the inexcusable. And so, the Jewish state steals land and resources, tortures people, and practices collective punishment.

During the last 40 years, throughout every peace negotiation, Israel has continued a feverish process of land grabs and settlement building, which, to my mind, is untenable to true peace. America has made public noises about the need for this to end, but has privately winked and nodded.

But you cannot plow under a man’s house, his olive groves, where his family has farmed for 500 years, over and over, and not engender outrage.

This outrage has become darkly perverted: sweets are handed out after suicide bombings, so-called art exhibits, which are simulacra of Jewish limbs and blood flying out from explosions, are exhibited in the universities of the Arab world. The Palestinian Authority teaches school children that Jews are subhuman, and the preachers preach the same. And of course, the Muslim world as a whole finds the death of one Palestinian at the hands of the Jewish state to be far more distressing than thousands of Muslim deaths at the hands of the Islamic state of Sudan. There is no moral equivalency being practiced by anyone, and there are no clean hands in the Middle East.

So, what can we do to stop a runaway chain reaction that is inbreeding hate? Can we, as Jews, really abide the graffiti in Israel that exhorts ‘Send the Palestinians to the Crematoria’? Or do we, the American Jewish community, need to take a stand. You cannot really change the other in a relationship, only yourself. We need to change ourselves, alter our relationship to the Arab world by reasserting our relationship to our own ethical tradition of justice that stretches back over two millennia.

We should lobby our politicians to cease all financial support of Israel if one more house is planted on other people’s land. They must move back to the borders of 1967. Leave the towns and cities they’ve created intact, gifts to the Palestinians, or forfeit our support.

There is a perception that the American Jewish electorate is monolithic. It isn’t. There are many like myself who think that America’s one-sided support for Israel endangers America, Israel, and, ultimately, the Jewish people themselves. It is time we spoke up.




Audio Version Here

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fox: red-blooded journalism for those with Iron(y) poor blood!

Fox News ‘contributor’ and NPR Political Correspondent Mara Liasson was visibly angered that Obama called on the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein at his press conference. Horrors! A blogger was called on by the President! Never mind that Sam Stein has been a MSM reporter for years, including stints with Newsweek and the NY Daily News. No, the big question on my mind for Ms. Liasson is, you work for Fox, right? The most biased, propagandistic arm of Main Stream Media, and you really wanna go there? Have you ever heard the expression about 'glass houses', darlin'?

On a related note, former press secretary and serial liar for the Bush Administration, Ari Fleischer, on O’Reilly’s show, noted with some glee that Bush ‘never called on dot.coms and other oddballs’. Yeah, he just called on a shill with a fake name, (who was also, just for flava, a male escort), whom the White House granted credentials,
without a background check
, in order to throw softball questions for the President to hit out of the park! Very professional, Ari!

And let’s not even bother with O’Reilly, one of the greatest bullies of all time, who recently wrote a book for kids which tells them that bullying is wrong. Kinda like Hitler writing a nursery school rhyme about how all life is precious.

Human beings know no shame!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Intransigence (winning at any cost, even if it means losing America)

When Rush Limbaugh said ‘I hope Obama fails’, he spoke volumes, not only about his own world-view, but that of the conservative movement in general, and when coupled with his recent op-ed piece calling for more tax cuts, he really gave us a condensed view of the conservative zeitgeist.

In what he called (apparently without irony, since Rush’s ego knows no bounds) the ‘Obama-Limbaugh Stimulus Plan of 2009’, Limbaugh projects a sort of collegial disagreement, a mere quibbling with the President over details and proportions of modalities to be used to stimulate the economy. But on his radio show, his hard-line intransigence shows that he has nothing but contempt for Obama in particular, and the Democrats in general.

The tax plan he ‘boldly’ recommends is striking not only in its lack of originality, but in its utter adherence to the obviously failed policies of the last eight years. He touts more aggressive tax cuts for individuals, notably ‘wealth’ taxes, like Capital Gains (and who has seen their capital gain, of late, Rush?), and feverishly beats farts out of the dead horse that we have ‘one of the highest corporate taxes of all industrialized nations’. Well, yes we do, on the books, but unfortunately, the corporate tax laws are so rife with loopholes that in practice, we have actually one of the lowest.

I guess one question is whether Rush believes his own propaganda (I’m of the belief that he does – witness how he views his own drug problems, which included possession of an incredible 30,000 Oxycontin pills – versus those of others, most notably inner-city minorities). I know it’s hard to believe, but somehow, I think he really believes that he can save us, and with the same discredited ideas, with the label ‘New and Improved!’ slapped on them. Infomercial political thought, Sham-Wow policy-making.

But saying he hoped Obama would fail shows the other side of the Republican coin: that of a group that has been rejected, shamed, cast out into the wilderness, that is essentially saying, ‘If you don’t play by our rules, we’re going to pick up our marbles and go home.’.

The only problem is that home is here, in the US, and it’s teetering on a cliff of another Depression, and it’s the only game in town. I know that Rush and his ilk, with their large salaries, may be out of touch with the ‘common man’ (ironically, the blue collar ‘silent majority’ types they preach to daily on the radio), but on some level, with bank failures, and all the rest, the reality of the situation must have impinged itself on their consciousness a little, no?

But whether it has or not, the logical conclusion of militant intransigence in the face of our grave situation seems to have escaped not only Rush and his imitators, but the Republican party, from John McCain to the entire Republican side of the House: If Obama fails, we fail. It’s that simple. There’s not going to be egg on the face of the Dem’s and a resounding Republican comeback in the midterms if they just dig in their feet and stage (as one Republican congressman actually said) a ‘Taliban-like insurgency’ – there will be a possibly-fatal meltdown of our entire economic system.

During the great depression, things were so bad under Hoover that Roosevelt got what he needed from Congress; in the first 100 days of his administration, they passed almost all of his proposed legislation. Not so this time. Our political culture has evolved into a zero-sum game – Democrats win, Republicans lose – at least in the minds of the hyper-partisan on both sides. This acrimonious warfare trumps common sense, and the common good. Winning or losing the battle for control trumps losing America. We can’t all win, so we will all lose. But if the Republicans insist on clinging to old implementation of old ideas, and also secretly desire the President’s downfall more than America’s resurrection, we’re doomed.

A juvenile policy predicated on Republican shadenfruede at the expense of the Democrats does not public policy make. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. we’ve tried it the Republican way, it hasn’t worked – except for the very wealthy. It’s time to stop bickering, stop worshipping ideology at the expense of empirical observation, and get to work fixing this country.

I am, frankly appalled at the Obama plan, and not because of the ‘tons of pork’ that everyone on the right is apoplectic about (why, oh why, were the TARP bailouts not ‘pork’? Why is Halliburton’s extortionate pricing of military logistical support not ‘pork’? – oh, never mind) No, what galls me are the tax cuts, and, most of all, the miniscule investment in infrastructure! It’s absurd how little is going to project that will put American men and women back to work!

And yet, even this pathetically watered down bill, a bill totally unequal to the task, is too ‘radical’ in Republican eyes.

And I see the next Republican idea on the horizon. I see the billionaires rubbing fingers together. The way out of this situation must be… a nice big war! I mean, after all, it got us out of the Depression, didn’t it? Never mind that common sense dictates that you cannot survive on a permanent war economy, making things that are destroyed, rather than things like bridges, hospitals, and schools. Never mind that we’re already in a war! No, the solution must be… a bigger war! Perhaps a World War!

War in congress, war on the airwaves, perhaps war with Iran, perhaps with all of Islam; war without end, amen. I think that this, plus unrestrained greed, a juvenile Rovian win-at-any-cost pranksterism and a startling lack of empathy for regular folks, is what has blackened the heart of the GOP and reduced it to a legislative prankster and thug, rather than the party of progress and courage that it once was, under men like Lincoln.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Demeritocracy

According to every reference book I can find, there is no antonym for the word ‘meritocracy’. That’s too bad, because that is exactly what America has become. So I suggest the rather obvious ‘demeritocracy’ as a succinct word to describe our culture’s current trend toward rewarding the foolish, greedy, reckless, negligent and dishonest.

Today I read that Kellog Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton corporation, was just awarded a new contract worth 35 million dollars to do major electrical work, right after they’ve been severely reprimanded by the Pentagon for substandard electrical work that has resulted in the accidental electrocution of at least 18 solders in Iraq and Kuwait. I saw a picture of the mother of one of these dead soldiers, a photo of her son in front of her, testifying before congress a few days ago. She looked shattered, of course, but how does she feel this morning, waking up to find out that the people guilty of at least negligent homicide are being rewarded with another juicy contract?

The question ringing insistently in my head isn’t even why KBR is being given a new contract, it’s why on earth the principals in the company aren’t up on charges!

And of course we’ve also seen corporate CEOs and Wall Street gamblers rewarded richly for gutting their companies. But what’s been most amazing is the implacable entitlement mentality these people project. And it’s not just the corporations, it’s regular citizens too. A woman spills hot coffee in her lap, sues McDonalds, and gets a hefty settlement. A burglar on a rooftop falls through a skylight and successfully sues the building’s owner. A man donates sperm to a sperm bank anonymously, and a woman sues for child support later on.

It’s gotten so bad that if you buy a Superman costume for your kid for Halloween, the label will read something like this (and I am not exaggerating): “This costume does not confer the ability to fly upon the wearer. Do not attempt to fly while wearing this costume, as this may result in injury or death”.

This is how extreme our society has become. Those guilty of electrocuting our servicemen aren’t charged, but innocent companies are sued for acts of consumer idiocy. I’m surprised that reams of paper don’t have labels emphatically warning of paper cuts, but I’m sure that’s coming.

After 9/11, I was appalled to see that the victim’s compensation fund doled out money to families based on the salaries that the victims were making (i.e. a dishwasher at Windows on the World was implicitly labeled as being less valuable than a broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, which is doubly ironic since the dishwasher may have been more useful to society than the broker). Actually, I was sort of amazed that the government was giving these victims money at all. Heinous crimes, from a bodega shooting to a terrorist attack, happen – but does the bodega owner’s family get a government bail out? No. The best they can hope for is that they had life insurance.

Which brings me to the aspect that most disgusted and amazed me about the 911 fund: When the fund was initially set up, the families of those victims who had no life insurance would get more money from the government to make up the difference. So, if you preferred to spend your salary on cocaine, or a new BMW rather than on making sure your wife and kids were protected, your estate was rewarded.

It’s time that we, as a society, started rewarding merit again, and handing out demerits, real ones, that have real consequences; Which means having life insurance if you’ve got a family, losing your bonuses if you wipe out your company, and going to jail for negligence and malfeasance. I know president Obama’s got a lot on his plate, but I hope he will institute a draconian policy regarding government contractors: if you are found guilty of fraud or negligence, no matter who you are, your company will be barred from all government contracts for five years, and you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Proud to have been Ashamed, Happy to be Proud

When Michelle Obama stated that she was proud of her country for the first time, the right wing fell all over itself in faux outrage. Sean Hannity and company thundered, and Cindy McCain started every campaign appearance by pointedly insisting that she was quote always proud of my country end quote.

But even though I am a white, middle-aged American male, whose life experience is far removed for Michelle Obama's, her words had resonance for me. Because to have always been proud of America is to have willingly had one's eyes closed. And the implication among the right wing that you're unpatriotic if you do not show unalloyed, uncritical admiration for America is both simplistic and insulting, but most importantly this attitude directly contradicts what makes America special. This nation was formed through lively dissent, not knee-jerk fealty to any political ideology, and that tradition of feisty self-criticism has thrived throughout America's existence. Critics from Tom Paine to Studs Terkel to Mark Twain – who bravely and tirelessly objected in print to American barbarity in the Philippines – sacrificed popularity, influence and livelihood while trying to steer this country from wrong to right.

Yes, I have been ashamed of my country. And I am proud of that, because it means that I hold her to a higher standard, because I love her deeply and hate to see her sully her hard-won principles for profit and short-term gain. I am ashamed that we helped overthrow democratically-elected governments from Chile to Iran. I am ashamed of the napalm and Agent Orange America smothered Indochina in. And of course I am ashamed that Americans enslaved millions of Africans with unspeakable cruelty, often justifying this practice with quotes from the Bible.

Did you know that there was a time, not too long ago, when Americans by the thousands flocked to public lynchings with their children and actually held picnics while black men were tortured to death? To quote historian Phillip Dray: "Lynching was an undeniable part of daily life, as distinctly American as baseball games and church suppers. Men brought their wives and children to the events, posed for commemorative photographs, and purchased souvenirs of the occasion as if they had been at a company picnic." Often severed roasted body parts of the victim comprised those grisly souvenirs, as patently repulsive and barbaric a practice as anything Al Queda has ever done. And these heinous crimes were often not committed by robed thugs under cover of darkness, but by public figures like police chiefs and local politicians, before an audience of thousands in a festive atmosphere in broad daylight. These are historical facts, and how Cindy McCain could be proud of them is beyond me.

And how could Sean Hannity and his odious brethren possibly be proud of the fact that taxpayer dollars were used for decades to fund the U.S. Military's School for the Americas, where generations of Latin American death squads were taught how to torture and practice terrorism? America's gluttony for cheap foreign labor and raw materials engendered the institutional export of a type of death-squad strong-man terrorism to South America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, often with devastating long-term repercussions. This shameless policy of training and supporting human rights violators occurred under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

But on this past election day, before a house full of similarly disaffected liberals, people who like me have more often than not been ashamed of our country, I led a heartfelt and tearful toast, without any irony whatsoever, to the United States of America, for its refusal to relinquish hope in the face of ever more strident lies and fear-mongering and for its repudiation of race politics. America charted a brave new course into the unknown, and did something almost unthinkable to me. I never thought a black man could possibly be elected in my lifetime, and I still find it thrilling to be so wrong. We are at the vanguard of Western Democracies once more, in proving the impossible to be possible.

So I am extremely proud of my country today, a blushing, hopeful kind of pride. It's kind of a new feeling, but I could get used to it!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Please, a New Torment!

I have watched the stimulus deadlock with increasing incredulity. There’s enough blame to go around, after all, Obama’s plan has remarkably little public works funding, and quite a bit of pork, but it is the House Republicans who really amaze me.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Here they are, clamoring for more tax cuts. Their media mouthpieces, like Limbaugh, are opining on op-ed pages that ‘tax cuts work!’ Yet… we’ve had eight years of tax cuts, unprecedented in a time of war, and we’re in a state of economic ruin. They are opposed to ‘big spending’ for boots-on-the-ground projects like highway, school and hospital infrastructure – the very projects that are most labor-intensive and so put the most people to work, but seem to have no real problem with a massive war, or very costly tax cuts.

One Republican senator, who was narrowly re-elected, recently said: ‘If you want to stimulate the economy, increase military spending’. Excuse me, but isn’t that another thing we’ve been doing for the last eight years? Am I missing something or are these people psychologically incapable of evolving new ideas, trying new solutions?

And Obama, ever the compromiser-in-chief, is enabling this foolishness. He and the congressional Democrats stuffed the House bill full of tax cuts, yet still didn’t earn one vote from their hyper-partisan brethren across the aisle.

The time has come for some spine. If giving these one-trick ponies all the candy they ask for cannot yield a single vote, then Obama and the Democrats must take to the bully pulpits. They’ve got to start decrying the gridlock tactics of the other side, and they’ve got to stop watering down their own goals and principles to mush.

Compromise is a good thing. I’m all for it. But compromise denotes movement on both sides, and that simply doesn’t square with the Republican concept of compromise, which is capitulation… of the other side, on all major points. If these folks will not play ball, if they’d rather posture as Rome burns, then it’s time that they get called on it. Their intransigence can be pointed out to the American people.

But not with window dressing. Obama’s $500,000 per annum freeze on executive salaries for bailout recipients is just that. First of all, this stricture is only in play in the most heavily bailed out corporations. It is quite watered-down for others (for example, the corporations can pay more, much more, and only have to present a non-binding resolution to their shareholders to allow said shareholders to vent their impotent spleen). Moreover, these execs can still get massive stock and option compensation. Perhaps if they couldn’t sell these instruments until after they’d left the company, they would have some incentive to actually make the company profitable in a sensible, robust way, rather than gambling and gutting it for short-term stock price gains, but there is no such provision. This is a nice bit of political theater, designed to salve the populist rumblings that are echoing and gaining amplitude. It’s not mature, useful, or sensible policy. It’s politics.

But back to our friends across the aisle: Couldn’t they come up with some other policy to annoy me? I mean, their outsourcing of the military has resulted in the cost of an in-theater meal to the troops in Iraq quintupling (and Cheney’s Halliburton stock options gaining over one thousand percent). Their tax-cuts have further realigned this country’s income distribution to resemble a post-modern serfdom, or perhaps the land barons and compesinos in Latin American backwaters. Their de-regulation has resulted in the worst financial crises since the Depression (well, we hope it won’t be worse than the Depression – I think the jury’s out on that one). Their war in Iraq will have plundered over a trillion in national treasure and taken or irretrievably damaged at least hundreds of thousands of lives. I mean, come on, give me something new! I appreciate that you make insane policies that damage the country and raise my blood pressure, but please, give me a new torment!

Suggest we melt down homeless people and sell the tallow! Or set up concentration camps for those whose unemployment insurance has expired. If fetuses are full human beings in your world-view, how about tax cuts for the fetuses of the wealthy? Something, anything but the same old tax cuts, increased military spending, privatization, and de-regulation.

I am waiting to be appalled and amazed. I am hungry for more incredulity. Please, wow me, shock me, awe me with a new, creative plan for destroying my country!

(This post is a precursor of ‘Invective Day’, a bi-monthly purge that this blog commits to. A schedule of ‘themed days’ will be posted soon on the sidebar.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Real Sacred Cow

When budgets and deficits are discussed in the media, and on the floors of the senate and the house, Social Security and Medicaid are often called the ‘sacred cows’ of American politics, both by laissez-faire Conservatives, who think them a ‘Socialist’ abomination, and by Progressives, who see them as part of the safety net a humane society erects to protect its more vulnerable members. But the real sacred cow is so sacred, it’s rarely mentioned seriously as a candidate for pruning at all.

It’s the US military budget, of course. Currently, the US military budget proper is 515 billion for fiscal 2009. When discretionary and supplemental funding are included, that number soars to over 651 billion. Add to that military programs that are under the auspices of other departments (for example, most nuclear weapons research is actually funded by the Department of Energy), and you’re up over 660 billion. Along with veteran’s benefits and interest accrued, the United States is currently spending over 1 trillion dollars per year on defense and war.

One trillion is a very hard number to get your mind around. It is bandied about almost casually in media discussions of bailouts and wars to the point that it loses any real meaning. In America (as opposed to Britain), one trillion is a one followed by 12 zeroes. One trillion dollars is over 3,000 dollars for every single man, woman and child in America. But that’s still too abstract. How about this: one trillion seconds ago was 31,688 years ago! 31,000 years ago we were nomadic hunter-gatherers living in caves. Agriculture was still 20,000 years in the future! Woven cloth, domesticated animals, metallurgy, medicine, writing, the wheel, the arch, villages, cities, states and nations were all in the remote future.

Santayana said: “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”. Throughout history, empires from the Romans and Byzantines to the Spanish, Dutch, and English have all made the same mistakes. They’ve expanded rapaciously, taking more territory and human and natural resources, often under force of arms, and then rotted from within as their treasuries went deeper and deeper into debt supporting the vast weight of their conquests.

We are certainly following the imperial paradigm to the letter. As in Rome, our infrastructure is crumbling; our educational and health care systems are no longer nearly the world’s best, based on any standard metrics from mathematical literacy to infant mortality; Our families work harder and harder on an endless treadmill, only to see their standard of living eroding.

You and I may disagree over whether it is accurate to term America an empire. We use one quarter of the world’s fossil fuels. We have military bases all over the world, from remote islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans to the highlands of Scotland to Antarctica. Our military alone uses more fuel than the eighth largest country in the world, Nigeria, which has a population of over 140 million. And our military budget is greater than all other military budgets on earth, combined. But empire or not, do we really think that this country can keep spending over 3,000 dollars a year for every one of our citizens and survive? That’s over 10 percent of the average personal income for all employed adults in our country.

There is a large-format comic-style book called ‘addicted to war’ which details what our bloated military budget is costing us in terms of health and happiness. It also points out why this state of affairs persists decade after decade; Because our senators and congressmen are bought and paid for primarily by the Military-Industrial Complex, a term coined not by some left-wing radical, or populist in high dudgeon, but by Dwight Eisenhower, who originally called it the ‘Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex’. His parting speech as president, wherein he coined this term should be required reading in every school, as should Addicted to War, because we will not survive if our future continues to ape not only our own past, but that of every single empire that has preceded us.

Now, I’m not saying we don’t need a military; Far from it. There are real threats out there that must be met. Nor am I saying that our veterans don’t deserve the best possible care; they do. But I am suggesting that maybe the United States no longer needs bases in Germany, Poland and Great Britain. Maybe the European Union can figure out how to protect itself. Likewise, the South Koreans, whose economy is doing quite a bit better than our own is. I’m suggesting that a plane like the B2 bomber which was designed for a mission no longer needed and costs over 2 billion per airplane, is not the wisest way to spend our money. All the firepower in the world didn’t work in Vietnam, or in Afghanistan, or in Iraq. Our vaunted high-tech weapons are not making us secure, nor winning our military adventures.

It is my belief that if America can turn away from its Imperial past and stop trying to bend the world to its will, the need for such an overblown military will lessen. We will always need defense, and deterrence against aggression, but if we trade coercion for cooperation, we will see a precipitous drop in the number of enemies we face. America has an opportunity to step away from the twin imperial paths of decay from within and siege and attack from former colonies and lands laid waste from without.

Has this ever happened before in history? Has an empire ever willingly stepped away from domination to rejoin the community of nations as a good neighbor who plays well with others and shares its toys? I don’t know of any, but if you do, please drop me a line.

If she doesn’t change course, America could become a gutted impotent backwater, an oversized third-world failed state, rife with corruption and unable to care for her own people. Or worse, she could nova-out in an orgy of aggression, fomenting a third world war (probably with the third world), from which no-one might escape.

Before either of these tragedies ensues, we need to prod her towards one more American miracle, one more surprise that our vibrant, arrogant, creative, optimistic, terrifying and inspiring country could pull off: a peaceful de-escalation from unipolar hegemon to a cooperative, constructive member of the family of nations. We need to start agitating to get the military budget under control. It's the 800 pound gorrilla in the room, the one no one wants to talk about, and it's killing us.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

What this blog is.. and what it isn't...

I’m probably going to annoy all of you some of the time. Why? Because I’m not really a left or right winger. I have often taken issue with the left and have gotten my head handed to me for my trouble. But, being an idealist crossed with a masochist, I’ve never let that deter me.

So, if you are coming here to always have your own political ideas echoed back to you, you may be disappointed.

Some examples that may or may not cause cognitive dissonance for you:

1) I do not understand why tax cuts were evil under Bush, but acceptable under Obama. Does trickle-down-economics suddenly work under Obama? And if so, can he possibly part the Red Sea while he’s at it?
2) I am not philosophically opposed to capital punishment. I am opposed to it because innocent people (especially poor people and (god I hate this PC expression) ‘people of color’) are the ones who usually get executed, and, often, framed.. And I’m opposed to it because it costs more money to kill someone than to incarcerate them for life. However, I support the idea of capital punishment for two reasons:
a. When there is a rabid dog in the street, or a grizzly bear clawing someone to bits, unless you’re a member of PETA, you’re going to want to stop that animal, which usually means killing it. The ten-time sex offender who has just tortured, raped, and killed a little boy or girl is just such a creature. He is not ‘curable’, he is amoral, violent, and a clear and present danger. If I was presented with irrefutable proof of someone’s guilt in such a case, I’d shoot them myself. I wouldn’t enjoy it. Indeed, I might have nightmares about it for the rest of my life, but I would do it.
b. Who do we ask to guard people who are violent, amoral, and, because they’re in jail for life without parole, have nothing to lose? Do I have the right to imperil someone else just to quarantine a human virus, rather than eradicate it?
3) I own guns (and a hunting bow). I believe in the right to keep and bear arms. However, I do not support the odious company line of the NRA and other zealots who think we should be able to own just about any weapon, including high-capacity semi-automatic weapons. I do not need a 30 shot banana clip to go hunting, only to give vent to juvenile Rambo fantasies. Moreover, I think that anyone who buys a gun should have to do the following:
a. Register each gun, like an automobile.
b. Pay ‘gun owner’s insurance’ for liability
c. Take a mandatory gun proficiency course once every ten years.
4) I think it’s inexcusable that Obama dignified Pastor Rick Warren by giving him the signal honor of performing the inaugural invocation. Rick Warren has been videotaped comparing gay people to pedophiles (particularly ironic since the vast preponderance of pedophiles are heterosexual), people who practice incest, bestiality, and polygamy. Had Mr. Warren compared any other group I can think of: women, black people, Jews, Muslims, short people, fat people, old people… his words would have been villified in the press and he would have been rightfully shunned. But Mr. Obama (and the King Center as well, much to their dishonor of Dr. King’s memory) seems to at least implicitly accept that gay people are the one group acceptable as targets for hate speech. This frankly enrages me.

So, hopefully, you’re up for a lively debate, and a civil one. I love a good argument, and am more than willing not only to have you comment, but perhaps to be a guest blogger or a guest on my radio show someday. However, I WILL NOT tolerate personal attacks. Occasionally, I fall into ad hominem attacks too. For example, I think that it’s rather accurate to call Sean Hannity a ‘buffoon’. But, truth is, accurate though it may be, I will try to restrain myself, and ask that you try to do so as well.

If your idea of an argument is merely spewing personal invective, random cursing etc., please spare all of us your vitriol. I have sadly learned from experiences on sites like DailyKos, that this kind of nastiness is not confined to the right wing. There are mindless thugs on all sides of the political spectrum, and one reason I’ve started this blog and podcast is because I find the knee-jerk attack of anyone who even slightly disagrees with some predetermined party line (‘Obama is always right’, ‘Obama is Satan’ etc.) to be very disheartening.

I have a very old friend who is quite conservative. But he’s not an ideologue. We argue, albeit in a very civilized manner, and sometimes we even change each other’s minds. Neither of us is wedded to ideological purity, or fealty to any one ‘brand’. Oddly enough, we both support the constitution and believe in some form of capitalism and ownership of personal property, perhaps even a meritocracy. Neither of us is remotely politically correct, and we aim to keep it that way.

It’s people like my old buddy that I’m looking for. From the left, right, center, who love this country, and fear for its future, and sincerely want to make it better.

Obama's Economic Recovery Plan

It’s a little hard to criticize Mr. Obama’s economic recovery plan, as it has only been laid out in the most nebulous detail, but some aspects of it trouble me.

First of all, Mr. Obama wants tax cuts. As if the Bush tax cuts, the first in history made in wartime, were not destructive enough to our economy, and even after the so-called stimulus checks failed to stimulate the economy because people immediately applied them to their credit card debts, Mr. Obama thinks that more such checks will stimulate the economy this time. Or so he says. I tend to think that this is a cynical move: a bone thrown to the tax-cut fanatics on the right, and to all Americans who have seen their 401Ks vaporize before their eyes. These cuts will worsen the federal deficit, but they won’t stimulate the economy a whit.

Mr. Obama also seems reluctant to go over the trillion dollar mark in his recovery plan, a plan whose other main tenet is the rebuilding of our crumbling infrastructure. This re-investment in America’s veins and arteries, skeleton and nervous system is indeed the one thing that can pull us out of recession, or, dare I say it, impending depression. However, timidity is not called for here, but bold, unprecedented action. It was initial tight monetary policy that deepened the Great Depression. Only when the federal government loosened the purse strings and put vast numbers of Americans to work in the WPA and other similar federally-subsidized projects, did the economy bootstrap itself.

I have always been a deficit hawk. I’ve never liked them, and have never understood why ‘tax and spend’ was such an epithet while ‘tax-cut and spend’ was not. But there are times when printing money is appropriate, especially when that money is not thrown at fat cat bankers, or at corrupt regimes, but given as jobs, not one-time checks, to the men and women of America, in exchange for labor that will improve the quality of life for all of us.

This is especially true if the reconstruction is predicated upon a policy of using only American-made products whenever possible: American steel, concrete, asphalt, timber, hardware, electronics.

Which brings me to my other qualm with Mr. Obama’s plan. He speaks of improving the energy efficiency of federal buildings, which brings to mind weatherstripping and other worthy-but-incremental steps. Again, what is needed is bold action, a quantum leap, not methodical steps.

After 9/11, my first thought was that America needed to embark on a huge project, a combination of the Manhattan Project, and the Apollo Program, to not only make us more energy independent, but to make us a leader in alternative energy technology.

The first executive order Mr. Obama should sign should be one that mandates that within 10 years, every single federal building, from military depots in Alaska to the White House itself, should have at least 50% of its energy needs generated from its own alternative energy infrastructure. This would mean different things for different structures in different places. In the southwest, all federal buildings would get photovoltaic roofing. In Oklahoma, perhaps windmills. In the northeast, perhaps solar water heaters or geothermal heating. Usually, a mix of these technologies is the most appropriate; After all, when the sun isn’t shining, it’s often windy.

And of course, this executive order would also mandate that all of these devices be American-made.

Imagine the millions of people who would be put to work designing, manufacturing and installing this alternative-energy infrastructure! Imagine the cost of photovoltaics and other technologies plummeting as the economies of scale kicked in.

This would be a bold, sensible, do-able project that would get America working again, help reduce our dependence not only on foreign oil but on all fossil fuels, help reduce America’s obscene carbon footprint, and stimulate innovations that could make us a world-leader in alternative energy technology. This is a win-win-win-win agenda.

And if he really wants to give us a tax cut, he could give every American an enormous tax-incentive to install their own windmills and photovoltaics, American-made, of course.

That’s the kind of tax cut that I’m looking for!

Audio Version Here