Monday, October 31, 2005

Thanks, Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks has died and is now lying in honor in the Capitol Building. Her refusing to sit at the back of the bus was one of the most public of the countless individual and group acts of courage that helped bring about the civil rights movement as well as the more general push for human dignity and decency that characterized the best parts of the 1950s and 1960s in this country. Those movements made my life better because I got to grow up in a world in which certain kinds of oppression were no longer acceptable, and I'm deeply grateful for that. Thank you, Rosa Parks, and thanks to all the courageous ones who are lying in honor only in spirit.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

All the President's Horses

So, yeah. Scooter Libby. Perjury, obstruction, etc. Good times. (Fun game: compare what Clinton's prosecutors during the impeachment said about the seriousness of perjury and obstruction of justice and what they're saying now. Hours of family entertainment.)

So I'm glad that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has indicted Libby. It seems pretty clear that, at a minimum, Libby was willing to do anything possible to discredit Joe Wilson and didn't care whether he screwed Valerie Plame in particular or the CIA in general. That's not how public servants should act. And I hope that Fitzgerald eventually does get enough evidence together to indict Karl Rove. It's would be nice to see a little accountability over on Pennsylvania Avenue.

But even those of us who think that Bush's presidency is a problem and an embarrassment should all be way more worried than pleased by the string of White House screw-ups that Libby has now become a part of. Remember when Bush ran for office, especially the first term, how he stressed that he might not be the most experienced public servant in the world but he knew how to delegate and how to pick people who did know what they were doing? Well, that turns out to be a lot of bunk. Bush may well know how to delegate--so that he can focus on the important task of chainsawing deadwood in Crawford, TX--but the people he's picked to be his eyes, ears, and brain have turned out to be pretty clueless. They got the WMD wrong, they got the Iraq occupation strategy wrong. And they really thought Harriet Miers was qualified to be a Supreme Court justice.

Bush also came into office that first time declaring loudly that he'd restore "honor and dignity" to the Oval Office. Even by his own peculiar standards, he doesn't seem to have tried to do that. And now, even if he wants to set things right, how on earth is he going to do it? The very people he would rely on in order to make the right decisions during any housecleaning are the same people who trashed the house in the first place. His intellience experts don't know the difference between WMD and ADD; his foreign policy analysts can't tell the differece between fantasy and reality; his emergency management teams think the hurricanes are a college football team; and his main political strategist apparently doesn't know right from wrong. These are not good go-to guys.

So what on earth is Bush going to do? I guess we should all just hope that nobody's whispering in his ear that the people of Iran would greet us as liberators.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Bye, Harriet--And I Want My Wallet Back

The big problem with the Bush administration--aside from the counterproductive wars, the hostility to the poor, the contempt for the environment, the inevitable cronyism, the...

Oh, all right. One minor but still annoying problem with the Bush administration is that I never get to really enjoy anything that goes right because it seems to do so by accident. Or worse.

Case in point: Harriet Miers withdraws from Supreme Court consideration. Great. She wasn't qualified. No real judicial experience, no significant stature in some sort of related field.


It seems pretty clear that Miers's nomination swirled southward not because she would've made a lousy justice but instead because she wouldn't have made the right kind of lousy justice. With Turd Blossom distracted and off his game, there wasn't anybody in the Bush administration to convince the evangelical wing of the Republican party that Miers was the kind of strict constructionist who would construct an article of the Constitution prohibiting gay marriage and abortion and then strictly enforce it. Just like Jesus would.

Democrats--or moderate Republicans--were never going to fight to keep Miers's nomination alive. But I bet some of them were tempted. It's like dating a compulsive, thieving liar and having a bunch of friends tell you to dump her because she dresses badly. You're tempted to keep her around for a while just to prove that you'd never dump somebody over the clothes she wears. Never mind that you can't ever find your wallet.

Plus, you're not picking your date--this is arranged dating. So if the idiot who picks your dates gave you a compulsive, thieving liar this time, you have to worry who you'll get if you dump the liar.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Fitzgerald Indictments

Looks like "Scooter" Libby will be indicted tomorrow. Karl Rove remains under investigation and Fitzgerald will seek to extend the term of the grand jury to continue that investigation.

Does Fitzgerald see a bigger target than Libby and maybe even than Rove, at the end of this? Is that why he wants more time?

Oil For Food

I bring this topic up, from time to time, because I think that the importance of the corruption in the UN's Oil for Food program have gone ignored. Also, it's been hijacked by the right wing as a weapon to be used against the UN, which they hate.

I don't hate the UN and, as I've said before, I wish that the sanctions against Saddam Hussein had been credible and effective enough that any notion of Saddam being able to fund a weapons of mass destruction program would have seemed like gibberish.

Paul Volcker's independent commission that looked into the Oil for Food program released it's long-awaited report today. I only read the section on international oil companies who paid surcharges to Saddam in order to get their hands on Iraqi oil, which the UN had set at below-market prices. In a sense, I have to tip my hat to hard core free market people who would rightly point out that when you set a price of one country's product below the world product, you create a clear reason for companies to bribe their way into getting that profit. Look at it this way -- the oil's 50 cents cheaper than what's it's selling for on the world market. Why not pay 10 cents to make sure you get some, knowing you'll pocket 40 cents a barrel. Some trades that I analyzed yielded an 11% gain in just a few days. Might not sound like much, but it's better than most oil traders get on one trade. Also, the profits went through Gibraltar, where it's unlikely that they were taxed.

Volcker found that half of the companies, from all over the world, who traded in Iraqi oil paid illegal surcharges to Saddam. The total paid to Saddam is close to $300 million. That not only explains how he built palaces while his people starved but it solidified his grasp on power and is thus part of, though by know means is it primary, the cause of the 2,000 troops who are dead in Iraq.

Back in college, we used to theorize about multinational corporations, acting beyond the control of local governments or international organizations. Well, guess what? It happened here. These companies were not necessarily even large. Sure, the Volcker commission points the finger at a giant Russian conglomerate called The Alfa Group (Alfa says the commission is in error and when I found something similar for a story I wrote for Forbes, they said the same to me). But there were also small operations with few or even one employee, like Italtech involved. It's not about size. It's about where you choose to operate.

In that sense, this is even less about corporations than it's about having an international market without any sort of influential international regulations.

Back in the 1990s, I wanted the UN to lift the sanctions. To me, sanctions don't work. As is clear, Saddam and his cronies got rich and his people suffered. Even in the absence of corruption, Saddam would have taken care of himself before his people. That's what dictators under sanctions do. Ask Fidel Castro about that.

But, my objections aside, the UN, admittedly under US pressure, chose to keep the sanctions in place for years after the first Gulf War. We can debate how smart that was, but it is the choice the UN made. Some UN employees, it seems, defied their own edicts in order to get rich. That's deplorable and dissapointing and does so much harm to the idea that we can have an international body to foster international cooperation and fairness.

To me, corruption within the UN is an issue that we can't ignore. However, I think we'd be foolish to focus on that and nothing else. Let's not forget that something else went badly wrong -- in the political sphere, the world decided that Saddam had to be contained by sanctions in order to make sure he was not a threat to his neighbors or to minorities within his own country. But a bunch of companies, both large and small, guided by an unregulated market and doing what companies do (seeking profits) completely ignored the directions of the world's politicians and governments. They didn't protest. They didn't debate. They didn't try to change minds. They didn't even really lobby and buy votes or anything like that. They didn't participate in a political debate, they just pursued their own interests. Some Americans have been indicted in the US. Some others will probably face charges abroad. But most won't.

Those charged here stand a good chance of beating the rap or of settling, too. Part of the problem is, once Iraq's oil left its ports, the only records of where it went, and at what prices, are on private balance sheets. When I investigated this, I was lucky to stumble onto an unrelated lawsuit that contained some of these records. Absent that stroke of luck, I'd have gotten nowhere. This is complicated stuff and juries will be hard to convince.

I know they'll be hard to convince because I was hard to convince. Look over the records of a bunch of international trades, often between subsidiaries of the same company, and your head swims. You do the math. $100,000 is missing. Where did it go? The records don't say. It's boggling stuff.

While a lot of people will focus on the failure of the UN, and while I hope they also focus on the failure of the US (we turned a blind eye to a lot of Saddam's smuggling operations, which is a separate issue) I hope that we also deal with the notion that there's a largely unregulated trading market at work in the world. This might be the first overt instance where that market has actually worked in direct defiance of the political decisions made not just by the US but by the UN.

I've never really been against globalization. It's done a lot of good for the world. Some times, it pays to remember that the sweat shops its created are better than the sweat shops that were there before. But that's no excuse not the get rid of globalization's sweat shops, is it? What we have, with globalization, is this very powerful force that, if guided and watched and designed, can really make the world better for most people. Guided. Watched. Designed.

Left almost entirely to find its own form, which is what we're doing now, will have consequences that we don't expect and that we don't necessarily want and that we will sometimes abhor. All markets, left unfettered, will deliver unintended and unhoped for results. Because they're so hard to control, markets will do that even under the best regulations. To me, though, it's impossible to think that we're exterting anywhere near the proper level of control when private interests, not even acting in grand concert and not even intending to make a political statement can completely undermine a global, governmental policy.

Tilting at Windmills

So here's another alternative energy rant.

I just found out that one can purchase a smallish windmill (a little over 3.5 ft. in diameter) for installation in one's home. It generates about 5-600 kilowatt hours
annually, which is about 5% of average per-home electrical consumption in the US.

I'm not rushing out to buy one, of course. I rent. And even if I didn't, I'd hold off. I'm cheap, and right now the economics don't make much sense. At the 9.5¢ per kWh that the DOE estimates for 2006, the annual household expenditure would be about $1,100 on electricity. So it would cost me $10,500 to buy three windmills, and they would only save me about $150 per year. Assuming current prices stay constant, it would take about 70 years for the things to pay for themselves. A lot houses don't even last that long.

Still, this is encouraging news. With real tax incentives (say a tax credit of 20% of the amount spent, up to $1,500 max), three windmills would then cost homeowners $9,000. That's still 60 years to pay off the investment--again, too long. But if you figure that a) the price will drop as more people buy them and b) the technology will get better as the field becomes more competetive due to more people buying the product, in a relatively short time (5 years? 10?), it could well take only 30 years to pay off the investment.

And that's important. 30 years is a standard mortgage length. So if you paid an extra $9,000 to put in windmills when you built or bought a house and included the expense in your mortgage, the windmills would more or less pay for themselves without requiring any extra monthly expenditure (the electric bill savings would cancel out the extra money for mortgage payments).

If, by (say) 2013, every house (or apartment building or office building) newly bought or built were to produce 15% of its energy needs (by any green source, not just wind), that'd be a huge step forward. And energy savings (better windows, smarter heating systems, etc.) could actually bump up that percentage without requiring any extra energy production.

Why does this make me think about the role of government? Well, for one reason, at the simplest level, you can't have tax incentives without state and/or federal governments offering them. State incentives make a lot of sense to me--if I were California, I'd be desperate to have individual homes and work buildings using solar and wind power as much as practical. In the long term, California needs to sort out its messy energy policy and supply, but in the short term, any reduction in the demand for power plant energy will help with the brownout problems. But federal incentives--above and beyond the anemic ones Bush offered in his latest energy bill--are also crucial.

For obvious reasons, energy is a national security issue, an economic issue, and a health issue. And that isn't going to change in the foreseeable future. The only thing that's going to change is the difficulty of our getting oil--we're running low domestically, we're competing with the Chinese for suppliers abroad, and the supply itself is running low. So we need to start taking action on these issues now, before our petroleum addiction screws us. And I don't just mean $3-per-gallon screws us. I mean economic-collapse screws us. These small-scale solutions seem the most manageable way to start making changes because they wouldn't require a massive overhaul of the power grid or the plants contributing to it. We'll need to do that too, but that's more complicated and contentious.

Effectively, small scale requirements for green energy production would be just another code requirement for construction. Local and state codes already massively govern how people get their houses built (pipe diameter, railing height, spacing between wall studs, acceptable roofing materials, blah blah). Why not insist, at a federal level, that all new buildings built after, say 2007, have to produce at least 10% of their own electricity by green means? (So that Chicago could use wind power and Tucson could use solar.) Or even that all buildings bought after 2007 require the same?

This could be flexible. I have no problem with production swapping along the lines of what the EPA already allows for emissions. For example, if Coke didn't want a green plant, and Pepsi did, Pepsi could produce 20% of its own energy instead of 10% and Coke could give Pepsi money for doing so while it continued on with its own non-green consumption.

I guess this is all very obvious, and if I'm not preaching to myself, I'm probably preaching to the choir. But it's astonishing to me that a painless partial solution for a pressing need doesn't even get discussed in public by most politicians in office.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Idea for a New G.I. Joe Cartoon

Surely, you all remember that after school, animated celebration of all things Cold War that was G.I. Joe. G.I. Joe was a US special forces unit, oddly made up of specialists who could all only do one thing (one guy could fly a tank, one guy could pilot a helicopter, they had a whole aircraft carrier and only one Navy sailor...)

They fought Cobra. Cobra was an international terrorist organization determined to rule the world and it had countless people who couldn't shoot straight and who would run away if you shot near them. They were led by the hooded terrorist mastermind, Cobra Commander, who The Joes could never, ever capture, no matter how many battles they won (and they won all of them.)

I think the G.I. Joe cartoon needs to be brought back.

The Joe's are sent to Iraq to fight the insurgents. But, all the while, they're menaced by the specrtre of Cobra Commander, the terrorist mastermind who is still at large and who has never even once visited Iraq and who's organization, also still at large, has nothing at all to do with Iraq.

What do you think? Or is that premise too wildly fantastic for a cartoon?

No Court in the Land

A couple months back, an Italian judge issued arrest warrents for about a dozen CIA operatives implicated in the "extraordinary rendition" (i.e., abduction to a foreign country for the purposes of torture) of a suspected terrorist from Italian soil. And I say, yay, judge. If Italian spies kidnapped someone from US soil--for whatever reason--I'd want them thrown in jail too. Kidnapping is kidnapping, and kidnappers should go to jail.

But now a Spanish judge has gone and raised far more complicated questions. The BBC reports that Judge Santiago Pedraz issued an international arrest warrant for three American soldiers, the crew members of a tank that fired on the Palestine Hotel in Badhdad April 8, 2003.

By firing on the hotel, the soldiers killed two people, one of them José Couso, a reporter for Spain's Telecinco network. The soldiers and the Pentagon say that the soldiers believed themselves to be under fire from the hotel. The Committee to Protect Journalists and eyewitnesses say that nobody in the hotel fired on the tank.

Couso's relatives brought charges because they're furious. They should be. They lost a relative to a mistake, possibly to a stupid mistake. And they want somebody to pay for that mistake. I get that. I would too.

Couso's relatives can blame who they want. But I don't think courts should be able to blame soldiers for honest mistakes made in a war zone. A lot of people doubt that it was an honest mistake, since the Palestine Hotel at the time housed most foreign journalists in Iraq and many of them didn't have much praise for the war. Unless, however, someone produces compelling evidence that the the tank crew fired on the hotel on purpose, criminal prosecution is wrong. Combat inherently breeds confusion and sometimes requires impossibly quick decision-making. It's hypocritical and cynical to prosecute someone for a mistake anyone might have made in the same position. (I'm not saying the soldiers didn't screw up. Maybe they did. I don't know. But I do know that no matter how competent soldiers are, bad enough combat conditions will inevitably force them into errors. And that's what combat conditions do--get bad.)

Still, although misguided, the prosecution nonetheless raises a couple big issues. First, there's the Bush administration's refusal to join the International Criminal Court. That refusal makes it impossible for the Spanish government to demand the extradition of the accused soldiers. Opponents of the US's joining the court described precisely such a scenario when they lobbied against signing on, and this particular prosecution makes them look justified in their opposition. But I think the prosecution actually underscores the importance of our signing onto the ICC.

Beyond the real and justifiable anger of the family, then, this is a protest prosecution motivated by Spanish political resentment of the Bush administration's unwillingness to cooperate with the world on almost anything and its willingness to unilaterally invade foreign countries.

I honestly don't know the ground rules of the ICC, but I suspect they disallow prosecutions for soldier error. As I remember, they only allow prosecution of troops for war crimes. And I'm all for letting our troops be tried for war crimes if they actually commit them. I support anything that makes commanders and soldiers--of any nation--think twice before raping someone, shooting an unarmed child from behind, or even just stealing a poor taxi driver's taxi. War can make people crazy; it certainly makes war crimes more likely. But soldiers can avoid war crimes even under conditions in which they can't avoid mistakes, so it make sense to prosecute war crimes.

So in the long run signing up for the international court would help us by cutting down on protest prosecutions. If judges and potential plaintiffs from other countries could believe that the US takes civilian welfare and war crimes seriously, they wouldn't feel compelled to resort to blaming soldiers caught in battlefield chaos for creating battlefield chaos. If everyone from other countries could believe that the US takes civilian welfare and war crimes seriously, we would have more goodwill abroad, which would help us track down al-Qaeda. Which would be good for our soldiers.

The second big issue that the Spanish arrest warrant raises is the issue of accountability. Someone should be held accountable for the deaths at the Palestine Hotel. I blame the people who started the war and put that tank crew in a combat zone in the first place. I blame the Bush administration and the Congress that lubed itself up to faciliatate the insertion of the administration's justifications for that war. People will die in war. Innocent people will die in war. When you order troops into battle, you know that your order will result in some of them dying, in some of the enemy dying, and in some of the civilians from one or both sides dying. If you're a good person, you don't relish those deaths. You especially try to avoid civilian deaths. But you know they'll happen. That's why the Congress and the Commander in Chief should only go to war with those who have invaded our country. Because whatever else they're doing, when they go to war, they're calling for death. And if you call for death and you have another choice, you've committed an evil act.

So if people in the administration crucial to selling the war effort lied in doing so, then, yes, they should go to jail. But they should serve life sentences here before we let the ICC have them.

On the other hand, if they didn't lie, if they just screwed up, then they shouldn't face criminal charges here or abroad--and no way should their subordinates in that tank. But any senior officials directly linked to the screw-up should face eviction from office and public shaming for the hubris and indifference that led to a massive waste of taxpayer funds and the loss of 25-30,000 total lives. No court can pass that judgement. But we as citizens should.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

But You Don't Just Lie

Okay, my earlier defenses of Judith Miller are getting tougher and tougher to stand by. In this post at Atrios we learn that Libby asked Miller to attribute any statements to him to "a former Hill staffer," rather than to a "Senior Administration Official." He is, of course, a senior administration official. Any other description would be a lie.

It's one thing to promise not to name a source. But if you choose to describe that source beyond them being familiar with the issue at hand, then you don't lie in the description. You don't, say, agree to describe a source as "an omniscient presence mostly located on Saturn's Fourth Ring," just because they ask you to, and you don't even imply to them that you ever would.

Sheesh. You're making it tough for me, Judy. Really tough.

Once More Heavenward

They're launching James Doohan's ashes into space. Warp speed, Scotty.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Save the Rich!

The Department of Homeland Security is trying to figure out whether some of its employees tipped off friends, relatives and maybe influential rich folk to the recent terror threat about New York's subway system, before the general public was informed. There's some confusion about whether or not the threat was credible or not, but I do think New York mayor Mike Bloomberg handled the situation well by being honest, open and by continuing to take the subway himself when he'd urged the rest of us to do so. But, what Bloomberg did right was to tell everybody everything he knew, what he was doing about it as mayor, what he was doing about it personally, and what he thought we should do. If an attack had occurred, after he told us to keep riding the trains, it would have made his advice look awful in retrospect, but it was still honestly and openly given, as it should have been.

Now, I have a sense of deja vu, because I think I once started a post here with something like, "I don't know who right wing radio host Neal Boortz is and I've never heard him, but..." Well, I have never heard him and I don't know who he is, but he says that if the Department of Homeland Security leaked the info to rich people first, then they were right to do so.

For one thing, it isn't clear that rich people necessarily even got the leak. It might just have been New York friends and family of rank and file Department of Homeland Security employees. But, Boortz assumes these folks are all rich and because of that, he supports the leak. His argument: after a disaster, society needs the rich because they're gods or something and will make things right.

ForgetBoortz's attempt at getting attention by trying to inflame a class war against the poor, who he accuses of being a drag on society. I don't know where Boortz lives, but I live in New York City and was here for 9-11. What did we need after the attacks? I remember it being all of those not exactly well-heeled police officers and fire fighters and construction workers and computer techs who got the ATMs up and running and Con-Ed line workers who kept power to the city and Verizon workers who kept the phones working and public employees who managed people having to walk en masse across the bridges to Brooklyn and Queens. Did I miss anybody who works for a living and isn't rich? I bet I did.

More than four years after 9-11, by the way, the rich people are still arguing over how to build on ground zero.

I keep quoting Woody Allen but, from Love and Death, with Allen playing Boris, marching to war with the Russian Army:

Russian Soldier - So you don't like Napolean and you don't like the czar. Who do you think should be running the country?

Boris - You want to know who I think? The serfs!

Russian Soldier - The serfs! He wants the serfs to run the country!

Boris - Sure, they're the only ones who know how to do anything. If a fence needs putting up, it's always the serfs.

Russian Soldier - Why not the criminal element? Or the Jews?

So, who is Boortz in that scene? He's sure not Boris, who thinks that society needs people who can do practical things. He's the dumb rube Russian Soldier who is such a lout that he descends into racism within 30 seconds of conversation.

The problem for Boortz isn't just that he's so insecure that he has to publicly hate the poor, the most vulnerable and easy to attack members of society. It's that the people he thinks of as the all-creating overmen would laugh in his face if he asked them to, say, help dig tunnels for a new subway, or even if he asked them to help fix there fence. They would, anyway, if they have any idea who this clown is. Which, like me, they probably don't.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Pause and Applause for Harold Pinter

Today, Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and it really made me happy to see it. The 75-year-old is still writing, still vibrant and, from what I've read, seems overwhelmed. It is so well deserved and is a great selection.


But, it seems he has opinions about the War in Iraq and some people feel that this award is simply the Nobel Committee snubbing Bush. It comes on the heels of the Nobel Peace Prize going to Mohammed El Baradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency, who worked to bring weapons inspectors back into Iraq in an effort to prevent the Gulf War. Put these two awards together, and some on the right think that this year's prizes are just a big antiwar statement.

I want to leave politics and even El Baradei aside right now, though. Trying to politicize Pinter's award is an insult to Pinter and to his fans. I doubt that even other writers who should win this prize some day (I nominate Philip Roth) would begrudge this award. Pinter created a new language, one that writers like David Mamet have relied upon, and he is especially gifted at finding the surrealism in every day life and he can make me laugh and cringe at the same time. It's not just that he's good. A lot of writers are good. It's not just that he's fantastic. I have shelves full of the fantastic. He made the art of writing better. That's what this prize is supposed to celebrate. He created plays and screenplays and novels and poems that are good enough that, if you're trying to write after him, and you encounter him, you feel like you have to deal with him.

Hell, the word "Pinteresque" even has meaning.

This was the right award. It's right up there with Ernest Hemingway winning. Pinter made the art he practiced different for the practitioners who have followed.

It ticks me off to see George Bush and Iraq and his political views mentioned in every story about this.

This should be a moment for those of us to care to say thanks to Pinter and to feel good ourselves to know that creativity, honestly given, can, indeed, be recognized. We all know that politics, fashion and circumstance are at play in any awards event. In the documentary Wild Man Blues Woody Allen takes no joy from receiving a lifetime achievement award because the organization hadn't given it to Fellini. I see Woody's point. These things aren't perfect.

They'll never be perfect.

But they can be right.

Congratulations, Harold Pinter. More than that, thanks for giving me so much to think about, enjoy and struggle with. It's the twisted world that Pinter writes about that could reduce his staggering achievements to a feud between aesthetes and George W. Bush. I hope, at least, that he gets a well deserved chuckle out of that observation.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Spending Cuts for the War

Congressional Republicans are starting to talk about the need for spending cuts in order to pay for relief efforts for Katrina and Rita. But such talk hides the truth about possible spending cuts.

First, as Mike pointed out a while back, the Republicans are using hurricane-relief expenses as an excuse to target programs that they wanted to cut when we had a budget surplus (remember those days?). This isn't about budget-balancing so much as about social priorities. They're the majority party; they have the power and the right to puruse their social agenda. But they should have the guts to admit that's what they're up to.

Second, a lot of the cuts to social programs will cost more money in the long run The more poor people you have, the more people you have in prison (at $30k a head annually) or in minimum-wage jobs that contribute almost nothing to tax revenue. Judicious spending in economic trouble spots improves people's lives and saves money over time. Cutting social spending to get a short-term, on-paper savings on just puts the bill on a credit card to be paid off in five, ten, twenty years--paid off at 19%.

Third, and most important, ANY SPENDING CUTS WON'T ACTUALLY BE A RESULT OF HURRICANE RELIEF EFFORTS. The hurricanes came onto U.S. soil. killed U.S. citizens, and destroyed U.S. property. We had to respond to them. Saddam Hussein didn't kill anyone on U.S. soil and he had no means of doing so. So clearly hurricane-relief spending was more important than the Iraq war, and any money we cut from the budget is not to pay for the more important task (hurricane relief) but rather for the less important task (Iraq). And since the Iraq war is so expensive (what are we up to now? $250 billion?), its cost will be the cause of any and all belt-tightening we do now and for as long as we're paying to keep 120,000 troops on the ground there.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Alas, Kate Moss

So Kate Moss got sacked by a bunch of companies for using coke.

I didn't respond to this when it happened weeks ago because, well, I don't really care. Kate Moss is hot and rich and the prospect of her having to be hot and rich a little more anonymously doesn't make me weep with compassion.

But then it occurred to me how weird the whole dynamic of her public shaming is. Most people, I think, assume that celebrities do as much coke as they can get their surgically improved nostrils around. Or at least that models do. So I'm trying to imagine who was actually surprised by this story. And yet the tabloids pretend it's a big shocking deal, and the readers of the tabloids do the same. Egad! A model on coke!

And the companies paying her are just as shocked. And they tear up her contract. Never mind that odds are 50-50 that Kate Moss at least once snorted the blow of at least one VP for Marketing from at least one of those companies. Hell, there's probably a 10% chance that Kate Moss's rider stipulated whether she got Bolivian or Colombian after public appearances.

So much professed outrage, but does anyone really disapprove of KM's coking-up? I mean really, strongly, passionately disapprove to the point that they wouldn't shop at Burberry's? I don't. I don't know anybody who does. Maybe I run in the wrong circles (you know what drug fiend party-kids academics are), but I don't think most people give a rat's ass.

And yet the whole chain of indignant consequences was inevitable as soon as the photographer snapped the lovely KM powdering her nose. Predictable, required, and formally precise. It seems like some peculiar ritual to drive out the ghosts.

But what are the ghosts? Our resentment of the fact that the people (often with no talent beyond a tight ass or rich parents) whom we envy for leading a different kind of life, uh, lead a different kind of life? Our awareness that it's perfectly possible to lead a successful life and occasionally take coke (unless someone takes a picture of you doing so)?

It seems like people wet their grunties because they were afraid that other people might wet their own grunties. I wonder what would've happened if everybody had said what they actually thought. If KM had come out and said, "Yeah, I did it. And I enjoyed it. And if I don't go to jail for it, I'll do it again." If the companies had said, "Yes, she did it. But she showed up on time for the photo shoots and looked hot while she was there, so we're keeping her on if they don't throw her in jail." And the public had said, "Wait, a model did coke at a recording studio? Next you'll be telling me that Germans speak German." And some politician had said, "See, this is why we need to decrinimalize coke, so that we can have more money to chase murderers and pension-raiders and less on throwing models in jail."

I know, I know. Never would've happened. But every once in a while, I get weirded out to realize how much everybody's individual hypocrisy (and I'm included, no doubt), which everybody finds distasteful to maintain, forces everyone else to maintain his or her own hyporcisy. Sometimes I think I have better uses for my energy.

Or maybe I just need more energy. Anybody have the number for Kate Moss's dealer?

No, wait, I mean, drugs are evil. They're like Satan. But powdery. Shifty, dirty Satan powder. Satan powder, I tell you.

Whew. For a minute there, I was afraid I'd have to fire myself from the blog.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

If Only I Were Art Bell...

...I could make a fortune.

The US at war in two places, hit by two hurricanes, the Asia quake, the tsunami before that, the bird flu, nuclear proliferation...

Light a candle, light a votive. step down, step down, watch your heel crush, crushed, uh-oh, this means no fear, cavalier, renegade steer clear! A tournament, tournament, a tournament of lies. Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline Er, sorry.

I feel fine.

It's The Quickening! The Quickening!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Thought You'd All Like To Know...

Just a brief note from economist land because, day in and out, I read essays written by economists from major investment banks. I get them in my e-mail. Usually, these missives are just for wealthy investors but I'm media, so I get them too. So I thought you'd all like to know that, since the recession of 2001, we've been in a period of economic expansion. All of the economists say this. There is some jon growth, profits at public corporations are way up, GDP Growth is beating inflation.

But, you know what isn't beating inflation and what hasn't since 2000? Wage growth. Inflation is still around historic lows and wage growth isn't keeping up. Some say the cause is globalism and outsourcing. But, were those signifigant, they would reduce GDP growth since outsourced workers in India or China or Africa don't add to GDP, they add to products that are logged as imports. Were outsourcing the major cause, it would cut into our robust GDP growth, just by definition.

The cause is a concept treated as abstract but that really isn't -- productivity. Simply put, it's workers in the US producing more, for the same wage. Any time you've been assigned an extra job at work, but offered no raise for doing it, that's productivity. I'm going to guess that this has happened to most of us. It happened to me and my colleagues. I find the extra tasks mostly pleasurable and not too demanding and so I do them and don't complain. You? Any of you out there? Anyone get some extra jobs that aren't pleasurable and that drive you nuts, for no more money?

In terms of the raw numbers, you have to give Bush some credit. The economy is growing, not shrinking. On paper. But we don't live on paper, we live in the real world. There's a problem. First, we had a jobless recovery, the longest jobless recovery since World War II, and now we have a wageless recovery. Most of the economists I read ignore this issue. The ones who deal with it usually say, "give it time." Higher productivity has, historically, led to even higher wages in the long term. Perhaps it has and perhaps it will, but...

What about compensation for this time spent waiting, when, for half of a decade, wages have trailed inflation?

Yeah, I want a raise and deserve one and haven't had one in too damned long. But that's not really why I'm writing this. I want this complaint published somewhere because, if the "wait and see," economists turn out to be right and wages start growing after another year or two of GDP growth, I don't think we should all jsut blithely celebrate... we should be asking about compensation for those years where we were forced to make do. It's not unreasonable, unless you really believe that the national economy is fundamentally flawed, to assume that another boom will come and, as during the late 1990s, we'll all benefit to some extent but, when those times happen, we tend to forget the years before.

I'm also a little annoyed with my brethren in the financial press. The media has taken note of the fact that wages have been behind inflation for a long, long time, but the media has not made an issue of it. To me, it's the human face of productivity. It's also of interest to the typical reader and typical American, but it hasn't been covered.

Last week, I received a copy of a newsletter meant for CEOs and high level executives. The cover story asked an interesting question which I paraphrase as, "why, when executivesget huge, annual raises and workers get nothing, are the workers not angry." There's only one good, practical answer in the piece -- fear. Nobody wants to lose a job for yelling out.

I sympathize. I believe that's the answer. The current corporate solution for firings isn't, "We'll replace you," it's, "We'll make the people in the cubicles around you pick up your slack." That's just, based on what I read daily, where we are right now. Unless this is a new era of history, that will change within a few years. If there is a fundamental change, we're in trouble and headed for a lower standard of living. If there isn't, well, deferred payment is still a loss. If you've ever had to wait 10 days for a deposited check to clear, you know what I mean.

My point is, this should be a political issue. But nobody on the left or right has made more than passing mention of it. The current situation, which boils down to most Americans working harder, better and smarter for no more, or even less, money, should be a political issue. Why isn't it?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Great Post at Atrios about Miers and Elitism

Harriet Miers isn't qualified to be a Supreme Court Justice but it's not because she didn't get her degrees from the right school. Miers just was never an influential political thinker. I'd have hated Robert Bork on the Supreme Court but he is qualified and is was part of the public debate and he is demonstrably smart enough that you can think, as I do, that he's a nutjob but you really have to engage him and think about what he says and writes in order to justify that he's crazy. Miers seems too inconsequential.

But, it has nothing to do with where she went to school. I went to the University of New Mexico, which is a pretty well-funded and sizable public university that excels in a few areas like medicine, biology and environmental law and is midling in the rest. I now live in New York and work around a lot of people with degrees from deservedly respected schools. Sure, I wished I'd gone to Harvard. I would have had a blast and would have done well. But, whatever. You get into life and you realize that thoughtful people have a lot in common with each other no matter where they went to school. UNM had it's advantages, anyway. Professors taught the classes and T.A.'s just helped. I always knew the prof, even in big lecture classes. The best profs, perhaps knowing they weren't exactly working at the top institution in their profession brought some enthusiasm to the table and had a little bit of the fire that can be lit when you've got something to prove. The more ambitious students, knowing that the university name on the resume wouldn't exactly open doors later, did what they had to do outside of school in order to give themselves an edge. That wasn't always easy but, man, they were good times. Heck, my friends and I kept trying to turn Albuquerque into the next Seattle. Silly much? Yes. But it's good to have an impossible goal.

But enough about me, this is about Miers. The objection to Miers should be about her lack of any substantive intellectual record, as she heads towards a lifetime appointment to the branch of government that is charged with deciding which laws are in accordance with our founding principles and which aren't. That's a serious charge. It's very easy to ask why she should be one of nine, out of 280 million, who we should trust on such matters. Hell, there are professors at schools so obscure that I've never heard of them who would be far more qualified than she is, or I am or than most of the court is. But there are, sadly, people on the right and the left, who seem mostly concerned that she went to the wrong schools. But everyone I know who went to a great school could name some morons who were in there with them. And, of course, I can't resist pointing out that our dear, uncurious president has degrees from Yale and Harvard in frames. Forget the pedigrees. Make this fight about Miers as a thinker.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

So Where Do They Keep All That Responsibility?

In a recent press conference in which he announced his latest pick for the Supreme Court, Pres. Bush also told reporters that he will "take responsibility for all the failures at the federal level" for the bungled response to Hurrican Katrina.


Responsibility as Bush uses it here means more or less "blame" but it also has connotations of duty and sober caution. By saying that he'll take responsibility, Bush is saying that he accepts the blame and implying that in so doing he's fulfilling his obligations as an ethical--responsible--leader who values thinking things through deeply and carefully.

But, as is often the case when public figures say "responsibility," the word also has another implicit meaning: "nothing." Partly, this is due to the weasel-wording of the statement. By adding in "at the federal level,"' Bush continues to insist covertly that his appointing an unqualified, unmotivated political ally to head FEMA and not insisting that FEMA have better disaster preparedness plans than it did before 9/11 and gutting FEMA when folding it into Homeland security have nothing to do with the fact that FEMA screwed up massively. Because the problem, goes the implication, wasn't with FEMA but rather with Louisiana and New Orleans. I've already pointed out in earlier posts that local officials do bear some blame in the matter. But not most of the blame, and in no way all of the blame, which is what Bush is hinting at.

Beyond sneaky qualifying phrases, there are big problems with the way the Bush administration uses responsibility and its synonyms. They try to sound serious by talking of taking responsibility while at the same time actually taking nothing serious or significant. Think back to May 2004, when Donald Rumsfeld said that, as Secretary of Defense, he was "accountable" for the abuse at Abu Grahib prison.

So what did Rumsfeld's accountability entail? Did he take responsibility for anything? Did he voluntarily take it on himself to pay a price of any kind price for having set military policy to as to encourage or at least allow torture? Did he even launch an investigation that would reach beyond the grunts on the ground? No. He didn't. His taking of responsibility was an empty formal gesture that actually refused any real responsibility. The logic of his taking responsibility was that since he was at the top of the chain of command, he should technically be held responsible for what his subordinates did. Built into this is the implicit defense that he was at the top of the chain of command, in DC, but the people who actually committed the abuse were at the bottom, in Iraq--meaning you can't really blame him for anything they did so very far away from him. Effectively, he offered himself as a scapegoat and then said he was offering himself as a scapegoat. So you could blame him if you really wanted to, but, gosh, it would be pretty unfair to scapegoat him like that.

This is the same defense Brownie offered when the Republicans called him in to testify about his bungling Katrina. His mistake, he said, "was not realizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional." Again: hi, I'm taking responsibility, by which I mean I'm trying to avoid blame by pointing out that my responsibility is a scapegoating resulting from the incompetence of others. So I'm not actually responsible even though I somehow ended up with all this responsibility in my lap.

Note, of course, that one the reasons for the Brownie hearings (which the Democrats boycotted) was in fact to make Brownie a real scapegoat for Bush--to make the terrible response Brownie's fault, rather than the fault of the guy who hired him, the guy who was willing to say that he was doing a great job even while preparing to send little scapegoat Brownie off into the wilderness.

I find it maddening to watch Bushie after Bushie "take responsibility" as a way of taking credit rather than taking blame. "It's not really my fault," they say, "But I'm pretending it is anyway. You should admire that." We're not supposed to expect that their taking of responsibility will entail any censure, any bad consequences. Instead, we're supposed to pat them on the back for taking one for the team.

And the mindblowing thing is that so often they're not even really taking one for the team. Those swords on which they so nobly, so self-sacrificingly fall often turn out to be collapsible magician's swords. The Bushies fall to the ground and groan theatrically for a few seconds before getting to their feet and going on with their lives, totally untroubled by the responsibility that they allegedly took. In fact, it seems to be part of the magic trick that somehow, during the sword business, the responsibility disappears from sight like a ball from beneath a handkerchief.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Good Question About Iraq

In earlier comments, Sam asked a good question, which I'll paraphrase as, "You're not for pulling out of Iraq but, given that our current leaders will keep following a plan that keeps failing, what do you want?"

I don't have a good answer, to be honest. All of my training and everything that I've learned, which has pretty much all been about theatre, fiction and journalism, has left me unqualified.

Ideally, I'd want international support and if I were in charge, I'd personally kiss the butt of every world leader who we insulted in our run up to this war in order to get some help. Turning Iraq into a global construction project, instead of an American occupation would not solve all problems but it would help a lot. I'd specifically beg for help from Europe, because those countries have the means and from the middle east because countries like Saudi Arabia not only have the means but have legitimate security interests.

But, part of Sam's question involves, "What would Bush do?" and Bush won't apologize and he won't admit mistakes and he basically won't do anything that would need to be done to organize real global support. Honestly, to get that support, we'd have to not only admit our mistake but we'd have to bribe countries with foreign aid and trade pacts and we'd have to give up the notion that Iraq will be made in a manner which we find useful and no other, we'd have to give up control. Bush won't do that.

It's a tough question. Without the fact that Bush is in charge and he is who he is, I have at least one answer. But, dealing with the reality of Bush, I honestly have none. He's going to pursue his strategy to the bitter end and given the balance of power, it could even work, after much cost and much time because, in the end, with only the troops we have there now, we probably can beat back, or make irrelevant, most of the rag-tag insurgency, just based on the simple laws of power. Yet we lost the Viet Nam war but we never lost a battle in the Viet Nam war. We can win lots of battles. We can even keep the insurgents from power for as long as we're there, but can we win?

We don't even know what "winning" is. Defeating the insurgents so badly that, even if they exist for decades after we leave is a kind of winning, I guess, and we can probably do that, though not without cost, as we've already learned.

I think this meandering post makes clear what I've already admitted: I can't answer Sam's question to my satisfaction, or to anyone's. I implied that I have no good answer because I have no expertise in military tactics and nation building. But that might not be the reason that I have no answer. I am pretty good, after all, at reading, thinking and imagining and I fear that if I went to Stanford to study international affairs that, with all I'd learn, I'd still return without an answer.

I do know that we started this and that millions of people, as real as any of us, are dealing with the aftermath and that we owe those people our continued efforts. If it were simply a matter of us losing, I'd deal with the loss and say, "Let's pull out." But I can't say that, because we made the situation.

But I don't believe in the slightest that Bush has a plan to make the best of things. So I circle back to fantasy land... Iraq's new history, its post-Saddam era, should be a global project, it's the only way to make the best out of what we've done and it even has the potential, with a lot of skill and luck, to make it all seem worth it, looking back, decades from now. But Bush won't do that. So... I guess we have to get rid of Bush and the people who think like him.