The end is near?

It used to be that we had men on the street carrying boards
saying, “The end is near.”  Now
we have Paul Krugman [today’s New York Times]telling us pretty much the same
thing.
“Whatever the deep roots of this paralysis, it’s becoming
increasingly clear that it will take utter catastrophe to get any real policy
action that goes beyond bank bailouts. But don’t despair: at the rate things
are going, especially in Europe, utter catastrophe may be just around the
corner.”
I hope that the reason this statement resonates with me is
that I have a deep neurosis:  Could a
dark pessimism lurk deep in my personality? 
I only hope it cannot be real.   
What I know is that I have friends from left and right who
fear catastrophe ahead — for different reasons, of course.  But when the future looks dark from starkly
different angles it could actually be as bad as we fear.
What is most exasperating is how easily — even in this
perilous time — our politicians pin  the
problems of our age on the failures of each other.  Of course each one tells us, in this election
year, that they know how to fix it — without giving us details; only that they
are the ones qualified to deal with the great problems of our age.   For me it is terrifying that we have to
entrust our future into the hands of politicians, the same guys that got us in
this mess.
This crisis — in governance, in the economy, in the global
ecology, etc — has been brewing for at least a generation and it isn’t going
away easily or quickly.  At least, so I
fear.  

Affordable Care Act: Issues worth noting in the search for truth

The debate about the Affordable Care Act, the health care bill enacted under Obama’s leadership, has been so fierce that the actual provisions of the law have been veiled.  Also, it turns out, some of the language used to characterize it are deliberately crafted to obfuscate it.  
In an article entitled “Obama and Health Care:  The Straight Story” in the NYRB [June 21,
2012 p45-47] Jeff Madrick reviews several recent books on the Affordable Care
Act.” The books he reviews are Remedy and Reaction by Paul Starr;  Inside National Health Reform by John E McDonough, and  Fighting for our Health by Richard Kirsch.
The whole article is useful but I note here some details I thought worth giving prominence to:
Some statistics on the current level of care in America:

“Except for the US, no rich nation in the world fails
to provide comprehensive health care that is free or inexpensive to its entire
populations.  Yet roughly 50 million
Americans, 16 percent of the population have no health insurance at all…” 

“A Harvard
Medical School
study found that some 45,000 deaths a year are associated with lack of health
insurance.” 

“Americans pay more than 17 percent of the Gross Domestic
Product for their health care, more than any other rich nation by far.” 

“The US
ranks forty-eighth in infant mortality among all nations, and its rank has been
falling…”

Some provisions in the Affordable Care Act:

“half of the newly
insured would be covered by significantly expanded Medicaid, …  The other half would be subject to an
individual mandate, requiring them to sign up for at least a minimal insurance
plan or pay a penalty.” [This latter provision is being reviewed by the Supreme
Court] 

“the bill would also prevent health insurance companies from
turning down applicants with preexisting health conditions or limiting annual
benefits for those who get sick.” 

Some historical notes on who have supported such an act in the past:

“Conservatives resent the individual mandate that all Americans buy insurance, even though mandates had been a staple of Republican
health care proposals since the 1970s.”  

“FDR favored universal health care … but hesitated to
develop a specific plan.” 

“Harry Truman favored a national health care plan…” 

“In the 1970s Richard Nixon favored a universal health care
system for all…” 

“Charles Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa, had favored a public option during the Clinton health care
debates in 1993…”

Republican strategy on how to characterize the health care bill

Emphasize that health care reform would “deny” care to
Americans;  

Talk about “a government takeover”,  “Takeovers are like coups… They both lead to dictators and a loss of
freedom.”

Deficit Outlook and Fiscal Irresponsibility

Voting publics have short memories.  This is why politicians can create “histories” the way they want and scarcely anyone will notice how they have fudged.  Just now, this year, we will hear many stories about what has gone wrong with our country and in particular, at least as the Republicans tell it, how the current leadership has been profligate in spending.  I discovered a statement by Peter Peterson, a “life-long Republican,” on the problem he saw in our country in 2004, and the prescience of his critique of his own party eight years ago.  It bears reading again, to grasp what the situation in this country looked like then, and how misleading could be the political rhetoric we will be subjected to for the next several months.

Deficits and dysfunction [Peter Peterson] Among the bedrock principles that the Republican Party has stood for since its origins in the 1850’s is the principle of fiscal stewardship — the idea that government should invest in posterity and safeguard future generations from unsustainable liabilities. … Over the last quarter century, however, the Grand Old Party has abandoned these original convictions. Without ever renouncing stewardship itself — indeed, while talking incessantly about legacies, endowments, family values and leaving ”no child behind” — the G.O.P. leadership has by degrees come to embrace the very different notion that deficit spending is a sort of fiscal wonder drug.  … Since 2001, the fiscal strategizing of the party has ascended to a new level of fiscal irresponsibility. For the first time ever, a Republican leadership in complete control of our national government is advocating a huge and virtually endless policy of debt creation. The numbers are simply breathtaking. When President George W. Bush entered office, the 10-year budget balance was officially projected to be a surplus of $5.6 trillion — a vast boon to future generations that Republican leaders ”firmly promised” would be committed to their benefit by, for example, prefinancing the future cost of Social Security. Those promises were quickly forgotten. A large tax cut and continued spending growth, combined with a recession, the shock of 9/11 and the bursting of the stock-market bubble, pulled that surplus down to a mere $1 trillion by the end of 2002. Unfazed by this turnaround, the Bush administration proposed a second tax-cut package in 2003 in the face of huge new fiscal demands, including a war in Iraq and an urgent ”homeland security” agenda. By midyear, prudent forecasters pegged the 10-year fiscal projection at a deficit of well over $4 trillion. So there you have it: in just two years there was a $10 trillion swing in the deficit outlook.  

Let Allen West’s Own Statement Reveal Who He Is

It’s hard to believe that Allen West would want the world to know what he thinks of his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives, but he has shamelessly put it out for all to see.  We wonder who votes for this guy.

A question submitted in writing): What percentage of the American legislature do you think are card-carrying Marxists or international Socialists?

West: No, that’s a good question. I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party…
(pause of approximately 27 seconds)
No, they actually don’t hide it. It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus

The question is, what kind of people would believe this man?  Who will vote for him?


Devices of Political Persuasion: Historical Amnesia and Deniable Slander

Jonathan Haidt’s recent op-ed piece in the New York Times notes that in public affairs folks tend to respond to moral appeals more than appeals to their self-interest.  “When people feel the group they value – be it racial, religious, regional, or ideological – is under attack, they rally to its defense.”  Political positions that get the votes are developed as narratives that appeal to moral concerns.  This is a fundamental concept of political activity in a society that has the vote.  We see it in the competing narratives now being spun by the Republican candidates for President.  In this election year the American public will be subjected to a lot of these narratives.

What he does not mention is that effective political narratives steer clear of some topics but also evoke feelings or implications that should not be mentioned.  Some things are best forgotten; others too crass to mention are best implied.
An example of the first is the careful avoidance by the Republican candidates for President of any connection with George W. Bush, or those who with him crafted and administered our country’s policies for eight years.  They have been out of office for only four years, but we hear no mention of that administration.  Could it be that the folly of an unjustified and underfunded war in Iraq promoted by lies, with so many Ameircan lives lost (to say nothing of the many times more Iraqi lives lost) is best left unmentioned?  The Bush policy in Iraq gave new life to Al Qaeda after it had been nearly totally crushed in Afghanistan.  Bush and those in power with so much cost to the country — Chaney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, etc. – have baggage best forgotten. 
So some stories have nuances you want to avoid in crafting a political narrative.  At the same time there are nuances you want to cultivate – some of them too crass to invoke directly.  Political narratives have to suggest connections and association without really saying them:  implications that can be denied but implied.  A good example is the title of Dinesh D’Souzsa’s newly published book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage.  D’Souzsa’s title has a couple of layers of nuance:  hinting meanings without exactly affirming them.  The word “rage” linked to Obama suggests that behind Barak Obama’s appearance of unflappability there is a seething caldron of malice, all of it carefully controlled so as to mask it from the public.  For a black man the hint of rage is dangerous:  No angry black man can be trusted; none can be elected President.  (Indeed, a young black man in a white neighborhood in Florida has been shot dead merely on the basis of suspicion.)  But there is another nuance in the title: it hints of the famous Bernard Lewis article in the Atlantic, “Roots of Muslim Rage.”  Buried in D’Souzsa’s title is implication that Obama is a Muslim, a claim based on the identity of a father he scarcely knew.  As in the previous Presidential election the rumor was circulated that Obama is really a Muslim who pretends to be a Christian.  Like the Islamists who attacked our country on 9/11/01 Obama is secretly planning to destroy this country.  
The point is, Obama is not what he appears to be:  He presents himself as placid, stable, unflappable but is in fact he is driven by rage.  He appears to be a Christian but in fact he is a Muslim, and (as many Americans believe) Muslims cannot be trusted. 
These are meanings best not mentioned specifically; they are too transparently gross, crass, to be affirmed directly.  They are merely a weak nuance; indeed they are eminently deniable.  Slanderous associations are best left for the reader to infer.  Deniable slander.
The point of D’Souzsa’s title is:  Nothing about Obama is what he appears to be.  Behind the exterior of stability there is seething hatred.  Behind the Christian blandness there is Muslim enmity.
If you can persuade me of that — that nothing about Obama is what it appears to be — then you can make me believe all kinds of things about him.  
As Newt Gingrich says, “You will never see Obama the same.”  Exactly.

Newt’s Outrage and South Carolina’s “moment of enthusiasm”

In the Republican debate in Charleston last night Newt Gingrich scored a standing ovation by his response to a question about the statement by one of his divorced wives that he had asked her to agree to “an open marriage” – that is, to “share him” with his mistress Callista Bisek, who is now his wife.  This was his response:

“I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office.  I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”

The response of the audience was the first of two standing ovations. 
Gingrich’s turning the question back on the news media is a familiar political device.  What alarms me is the response of the crowd, who not only accepted his response but endorsed it enthusiastically.  The question was obliterated by Newt’s outrage and the crowd’s enthusiasm. 
Consider the issue raised by the question:  How should the American public respond to a claim by an ex-wife of a candidate for President that he had asked her for “an open marriage” so that he could continue his liaison with a mistress and still retain an appearance of a faithful married man?  Also, how did this private proposal comport with Gingrich’s public behavior at the time?  Could this have been precisely during the time when he was condemning Bill Clinton for his extra-marital liaisons?  Gingrich would keep up appearances while presenting himself as a paragon of virtue. 
That was then.  Now is different, he says:  He has admitted to mistakes and now has reformed:  He is a good Catholic now; he’s got religion.  Now he would have the world understand that it is improper for anyone – and anyone in the media especially – to ask if his behavior in the past is worthy of someone who aspires to be President of the United States.  As he was outraged at the behavior of Bill Clinton he is now outraged at the behavior of the media who want to know more about his own behavior. 
To this outrage there was an audience in South Carolina that would join him enthusiastically in taking offense.  Presumably they agreed that the private behavior of a candidate for President should not be examined, even if it contrasts with the image he even then sought to present of himself. 
Their behavior brings to mind two statements of great nineteenth century social scientists on the behavior of crowds.  One of them said:

[Referring to “a section of civil society [that] emancipates itself and attains universal domination:] No class in society can play this part [of attaining universal domination] unless it can arouse, in itself and in the masses, a moment of enthusiasm in which it associates and mingles with society at large … and is recognized as the general representative of this society”

The author is suggesting that for a “section of civil society” to attain “universal domination” it must “arouse” in the masses “a moment of enthusiasm” through which it “associates and mingles with society at large” and appears to be “the general representative of the society.”  Such a moment of enthusiasm took place last night, when a crowd saw this man Newt Gingrich to be a “general representative” of their sentiments.
The other social scientist who wrote about crowd behavior had this to say:

The great movements of enthusiasm, indignation, and pity in a crowd do not originate in any one of the particular individual consciousness.  They come to each one of us from without and can carry us away in spite of ourselves… Once the crowd has dispersed, that is, once these social influences have ceased to act upon us and we are alone again, the motions which have passed through the mind appear strange to us, and we no longer recognize them as ours. We realize that these feelings have been impressed upon us …  It may even happen that they horrify us, so much were they contrary to our nature.  Thus, a group of individuals, most of whom are perfectly inoffensive, may, when gathered in a crowd, be drawn into acts of atrocity …

I hope that the good people of South Carolina will now, in retrospect, reflect on what happened, what the issues are, and what their response should have been. 

(And who were the social scientists I have quoted above?  And from what publications?)

Two powerful Kansans whose influence is shaping the course of history, in their own interest

An article in Al Jazeera on the Koch brothers, Charles and David, is chilling because it reveals how easy it is for money — that is, people with lots of money — to subvert the democratic system in the name of democracy.  To them “democracy” seems to mean the right for those who have the wealth to keep it and control the flow of information in their own interest, to control Congress so as to ensure that they and their enterprises will prosper, whatever it means to others, the rest of the country or the rest of the world.  I reproduce this article here in its entirety to emphasize how such a project works, how the super-rich, if so inclined, can subvert the conventions that are supposed to ensure opportunity for everyone in a society.  Could the Kochs themselves, with all their wealth, be the main forces behind the powerful pull to the right in American politics in the last 30 years?  That they are from a modest middle class neighborhood in Wichita, Kansas, however, prompts me to have another question:  How did they get from there to became what they are now, with their elitist and self-serving agendas?   RLC  [click on the title above for a link to the source.]

Al Jazeera 01 Nov 2011:  “The Koch Brothers:  People and Power asks if the tycoon duo’s fortune could put the radical right into the White House.”  By Bob Abeshouse. 

Charles and David Koch are each worth about $25bn, which makes them the fourth richest Americans. When you combine their fortunes, they are the third wealthiest people in the world. Radical libertarians who use their money to oppose government and virtually all regulation as interference with the free market, the Kochs are in a class of their own as players on the American political stage. Their web of influence in the US stretches from state capitals to the halls of congress in Washington DC.
The Koch brothers fueled the conservative Tea Party movement that vigorously opposes Barack Obama, the US president. They fund efforts to derail action on global warming, and support politicians who object to raising taxes on corporations or the wealthy to help fix America’s fiscal problems. According to New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, who wrote a groundbreaking exposé of the Kochs in 2010, they have built a top to bottom operation to shape public policy that has been “incredibly effective. They are so rich that their pockets are almost bottomless, and they can keep pouring money into this whole process”.
Koch industries, the second largest privately-held company in the US, is an oil refining, chemical, paper products and financial services company with revenues of a $100bn a year. Virtually every American household has some Koch product – from paper towels and lumber, to Stainmaster carpet and Lycra in sports clothes, to gasoline for cars. The Koch’s political philosophy of rolling back environmental and financial regulations is also beneficial to their business interests.
The Kochs rarely talk to the press, and conduct their affairs behind closed doors. But at a secret meeting of conservative activists and funders the Kochs held in Vail, Colorado this past summer, someone made undercover recordings. One caught Charles Koch urging participants to dig deep into their pockets to defeat Obama. “This is the mother of all wars we’ve got in the next 18 months,” he says, “for the life or death of this country.” He called out the names of 31 people at the Vail meeting who each contributed more than $1m over the past 12 months.
In the 2010 congressional elections, the Kochs and their partners spent at least $40m, helping to swing the balance of power in the US House of Representatives towards right-wing Tea Party Republicans. It has been reported that the Kochs are planning to raise and spend more than $200m to defeat Obama in 2012. But the brothers could easily kick in more without anyone knowing due to loopholes in US law.
The Kochs founded and provide millions to Americans for Prosperity, a political organisation that builds grassroots support for conservative causes and candidates. Americans for Prosperity, which has 33 state chapters and claims to have about two million members, has close ties to Tea Party groups and played a key role in opposing Obama’s health care initiative.
This year, Americans for Prosperity spent at least half a million dollars supporting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to cut social spending and roll back collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. The legislation passed by Walker makes it more difficult for unions, which are major backers of Democratic candidates, to secure funds for political purposes. Americans for Prosperity is also very active in a battle against unions in Ohio, another important 2012 presidential state. Its president, Tim Phillips, says that the organisation is winning in Wisconsin and around the country “because on the policies of economic freedom, we’re right”. He refused to tell People and Power reporter Bob Abeshouse how much the organisation is spending to combat the unions.
The Kochs have also poured millions into think tanks and academia to influence the battle over ideas. According to Kert Davies, the director of research for Greenpeace in the US, the Kochs have spent more than $50m since 1998 on “various front groups and think tanks who … oppose the consensus view that climate change is real, urgent and we have to do something about it”. As operators of oil pipelines and refineries, the Kochs have opposed all efforts to encourage alternative sources of energy by imposing a tax on fossil fuels.
Patrick Michaels, a senior fellow at the CATO Institute, often appears in the media to contest global warming science. CATO was founded by Charles Koch, and the Kochs and their foundations have contributed about $14m to CATO. Since 2009, there has been a sharp drop in the percentage of Americans who see global warming as a serious threat according to Gallup polls. Davies argues that the change can be attributed in large measure to the efforts of scientists like Michaels and others who are funded by the fossil fuel industry.
The Kochs have also promoted their free market ideology and business interests through aggressive lobbying in Washington DC, and financial support of political candidates. Greenpeace has tracked more than $50m that Koch Industries has spent on lobbyists since 2006, when Cap and Trade and other legislation to combat global warming was being considered. The Kochs have been the largest political spender since 2000 in the energy sector, exceeding Exxon, Chevron, and other major players.
The Kochs contributed to 62 of the 87 new members of the US House of Representatives in 2010. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the Kochs supported have taken the lead in opposing US Environmental Protection Agency efforts to reduce global warming emissions. Other members backed by the Kochs belong to the right-wing Tea Party bloc that took the US to the brink of default in July by refusing to consider a budget deal that would include tax increases.
In 2012, many believe that President Obama can raise a billion dollars for the presidential race, and break all fundraising records. But as Lee Fang of the Center for American Progress tells reporter Bob Abeshouse, in the end it may not matter “because the Koch brothers alone increased their wealth by $11bn in the last two years”.

A look at Chomsky’s critique of the world’s elite

A friend has pointed me to an article by Noam Chomsky that appeared some time ago, which I provide a link to here.  I have tended to see Chomsky as further to the left than I am, but the older I get and the more I learn about the world the more I wonder if Chomsky is right.  The whole idea that the elites of the world don’t really believe in democracy, don’t even want democracy, has seemed extreme.  But the more I watch the behavior of American political leaders the more I wonder.  I am appalled at the way that so many of them protect the rich — not merely the well-off but the super-super rich.  Lately several of our congressmen have shamelessly argued against asking the 1% to pay a higher percentage than the middle class.  They are offended the rich might have to pay a premium for the benefits from investing in this country where investments are believed to be safer than elsewhere.  It’s no surprise that the politicians want to protect their benefactors, their donors, but what astonishes is that they now do it so openly, so blatantly, and without shame.
So I think Chomsky may have been right all along.
Have a look at what he has to say by clicking on the following:  http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175382/
    

How the State Department intimidates its own employees

A recent post by Peter Van Buren on how he has been harassed
for posting a link from his personal blog to a Wikileaks site on the web should
alarm everyone.  There are still, and
always will be, ways of intimidating individuals without breaking the law, and
the treatment of this State Department official is frightening.  This kind of behavior, I can believe, might
have taken place during the George W Bush administration when the whole country
was punchy about every twitch that could be regarded as a threat to the
country.  But, no, this took place only
recently, by officials in the Obama administration, which we had all hoped
would avoid such knee-jerk reactions.  Consider
the following:
Van Buren was told that by posting a link to a WikiLeaks document already available
elsewhere on the Web he had essentially disclosed “classified material.”
This
was reason to be formally asked if he had “donated any money … to a forward
military base in Iraq.”
Had he “’transferred’
classified information” in any other way?
Mr
Van Buren assumed that there was a subtext to this interrogation:  Someone objected to what he had to say in a
forthcoming book, We Meant Well:
How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
.  Whatever the reason it was un-American.
Van Buren is a State Department employee with 23 years of
experience, and in this interview he was told that for the act of simply
linking to another website he could lose his security clearance, which for him
would of course mean the termination of a career.  The agents questioning him even stated that he
was subject to criminal prosecution.  Indeed
by merely revealing that he was being thus interrogated he could be charged
with “interfering with a Government investigation.” A report of the interrogation on his blog would be considered “Law Enforcement Sensitive”.  
Hmm.  This is a free society, right?  Not Syria,
not Saudi Arabia, not Bahrain, not Iran
or North Korea.  We think an open society is a good thing.  We like the idea of a society in which people
are free to use the internet.  It’s OK even to link to other sites the
web — because of course they are  already there.  

Is The Democracy Sought in the Middle East Being Abandoned in the Neo-liberal World? Corrected version

At the very time that the societies of the Middle East are crying out for democracy many folks in the the neo-liberal societies of the world are losing faith in the democratic process.

A recent poll in the United States indicates that many Americans are dissatisfied with the way their democratic system is working.

A CNN/ORC International Poll released Wednesday morning indicates that only 15 percent of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what’s right just about always or most of the time. Last September that figure was at 25 percent. Seventy-seven percent of people questioned say they trust the federal government only some of the time, and an additional eight percent volunteer that they never trust the government to do what’s right. [from firedoglake.com]

And today’s New York Times says that folks in other “democratic” societies are also dissatisfied.
In India, Israel, Spain, Greece and elsewhere there is a deep frustration with the failures of the democratic system to satisfy public needs, especially the need for adequate employment opportunities.

The Times reports that

complaints range from corruption to lack of affordable housing and joblessness, common grievances the world over. But from South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.

They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.

“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

We are living in fluid times, when the certainties of the past are ever more questioned, and the familiar conventions of social life being challenged. Such fluidity fosters uncertainty, insecurity, on many levels of society. It is easy — from my position — to see why Americans are frustrated, but the question is “What is to be done”?

Demands for social justice, for better opportunities, for “freedom”, don’t always produce such conditions. In the past there have been many social movements calling for more justice and more freedom. But how many of them have yielded positive transformations? Not many. And those, such as took place in the Americas, developed in fields of opportunity that will never exist again.

The Neo-liberal “democracy” of this country has failed to cope with the demands of our times. Our duly elected representatives have on many crucial issues been unable to act in the best interests of those who elected them, apparently because powerful moneyed interests have found ways to intervene in the process.

Addendum and correction to the earlier draft:
The sources mentioned above stress that the move in both contexts — the Arab Middle East and in the neo-liberal countries — the hope is to develop something that resembles a more open system of the sort enabled by the web.

Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.

In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.

My concern is how such a system should be enabled. It would seem that in the American context there might need to be revisions in the constitution as well as the standing laws. What would have to happen for such a change in the system to take place?

The hope is to develop a better “democracy”. Certainly if democracy fails, it is hard to envision a better system. I still wonder: What can be done? In the mean time what will happen to the calls for justice and equality in the Middle East? Will the cry for help by the young Yemeni woman that was featured on the previous post be left unanswered? So far it has not.