POLITICS

johnwstiles.com

Where Franz Ferdinand Got Their Name 10.23.09

World War II has been described as the most destructive war in the history of mankind. The holocaust, wholesale destruction of many of Europe's finest cities by aerial bombardment and the horror of nuclear devastation testifies to the accuracy of this judgement.

The war with a far greater political, cultural, and psychic record of destruction took place twenty-five years earlier. The Great War swept away the European enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and laid the groundwork for the totalitarianism that made the Second and Cold Wars not only possible but inevitable. Even more tragically, the Great War wrenched from mankind's tenuous grasp the optimism that prevailed at the turn of the century and thrust into our clenched and bloody fists a pessimism and hopelessness that haunts us still today.

The Great War did not begin with a blitzkrieg. It was not presaged by Imperialist subjection of an indigenous culture. It was not fought for gold or oil or even land. The origins of World War I are found in the war plans of European military schools, the ranks of diplomatic corps staffed with friends and relatives of the ruling class, and the realities thrust upon a delicate balance of aging empires by the dawn of the modern mechanized age. Almost no one saw it coming and absolutely no one envisaged its nature or its outcome.

The Europe of 1914 was a complex world of empires and alliances, of filial relationships and gentlemanly discourse, of esoteric planning and ethereal visions of a New World. Three great empires were in decline, Germany, Austria-Hungary (the Hapsburg Empire), and Russia. France and England dominated the non-European world of colonial imperialism. Russia and France, and Germany and Austria were tied together in mutual protection agreements. Russia shared a common ethnic population with the near-outlaw state of Serbia. Germany and England were engaged in an arms race on the high seas. The British feared Russian designs on her Indian colony. France was preoccupied with matching the German Army soldier for soldier, despite its significantly smaller population.

In spite of these rivalries Europe was more bound together than split apart. Queen Victoria's grandson occupied the German throne. The Russian, German, Danish and English monarchies shared common bloodlines. All but France and Switzerland were monarchies. The cry for democracy and suffrage was heard throughout Europe as monarchies searched for compromise with their vocal minority populations.

The modern age was dawning. Population growth was on a steep incline. Emigration to the Americas and Australia was growing dramatically (twenty-six million emigrated between 1880 and 1910). The world of consumerism was busy being born. Electricity and the internal combustion engine were creating industries and etching the face of modern life. A revolution in transportation was in full swing as the steamship replaced the sailing vessel and rail connections brought the Russian and Eastern European communities in touch with Western Europe.

Prussia's victory over Austria in 1866 and the Prussian led German victory over France in 1870 resulted in the creation of a unified German state. In addition, the professional Prussian soldier became the model for the rest of Europe. Each European state began conscripting their young for mandatory military training along the Prussian/German model. Following an initial two to four year full time military training period, conscripts joined a series of reserve units as they moved through middle age. The result, by 1910, was the creation of a shadow class of military reservists.

The focus on the creation of a professional military force necessitated the growth and expansion of training grounds for military leaders. Much of the training in these military schools was centered on planning for war. Commensurate with the creation of this new military class was the recognition that the very nature of war was changing. Previous military campaigns benefited from de facto military planning. Military plans were drawn up as military campaigns got underway. Prior to mechanized troop movement by rail, armies were limited by the volume of material that could be hauled along by cart and by hand. Many previous military efforts involved marches within a day of the coast and awaiting supply ships. With the advent of rail, however, massive troop placement could be accomplished in a fraction of the time. Further and even more ominously for the war planners, large armies could be assembled from previously trained recruits in reserve units. Mobilization became the watchword of the new age. Since huge armies could now be transported great distances virtually overnight, mobilization (or the calling up of reserves) was equated with immediate and vitally threatening action. Should your enemy mobilize and you not, your cause and your country could be lost. Once deposited at the front, armies could expect to cover (on foot as the rail car was not a fighting but a transport vehicle) between twenty and thirty kilometers per day. For every day you were behind your enemy in mobilization, you could expect to lose up to thirty kilometers of your soil to an invading army. War plans were drawn up with this new reality in mind. Wholesale, immediate, and decisive action was thought essential for survival. Since no one knew for certain what threat might be forthcoming, war plans were drawn up for a variety of contingencies. Traditional enemies, though, were traditional enemies. France could reasonably expect an attack from Germany. Germany could expect to fight on two fronts, the Western (France) and Eastern (Russia). Alliances were struck accordingly. England played a passive role in these alliances, as England was relatively secure as an island with the world's strongest navy. War plans were drafted and redrafted as alliances shifted. Plans were stowed away for possible later use. Plan XVII of France and the Schlieffen Plan of Germany were two such plans that would be dusted off and executed in the early days of the war.

This, then, was the political and military climate when Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph's nephew, the Austrian Army's Inspector General, Franz Ferdinand traveled to the provincial capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo, to supervise the Austrian Army's summer maneuvers. Like a future member of another “royal family” Archduke Ferdinand ignored the warnings of his advisors and traveled with his young wife into the heart of a hostile and emotionally charged territory. June 28, 1914 was the five hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the Serbian defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Serbian nationalists saw the Hapsburg (nee Austrian) empire as merely the latest oppressor of their people. A group of five extremists (four Serbian and one Bosnian) lay in wait for the young Austrian heir. After bouncing a bomb off the royal auto with little effect, Gavrilo Princip (one of the extremists) happened to be standing at the intersection when the royal car attempted to correct a wrong turn. The young terrorist calmly walked up to the car, shot Franz Ferdinand's wife dead, and mortally wounded the young heir to the throne. Princip surrendered and confessed almost immediately. An Austrian investigation determined that several Serbian nationals had assisted in the plot. Austria, a declining and “weaker sister” nation, could not afford to allow such an attack to go unanswered. They could even less afford, though, to strike Serbia and find themselves at war with Russia, a Serbian ally. So, before confronting the Serbian nation directly, the Austrians solicited Germany's support. The German government, under the moderating influence of Kaiser Wilhelm, offered their support, provided the demands Austria was preparing for the Serbs would not be too onerous to meet. Austria complied and presented Serbia with an ultimatum of ten demands. Serbia considered and prepared to acquiesce when word was received that the Russian Czar had, in an unexpected and unsolicited (by Serbia) move, declared a “Period Preparatory to War,” tantamount to a mobilization. Emboldened by this declaration and word that sentiment was running highly pro-Serbia in Moscow, the Serbs rejected the Austrian ultimatum.

Kaiser Wilhelm sent a telegram to his cousin, Czar Nicholas urging him to reconsider his call to mobilization. The Czar, sensing Germany's reluctance to go to war, cancelled the general and issued a call to limited mobilization. The German military high command, however, was in a state of near panic over Russia's mobilization. The German Chief of Staff telegraphed his counterpart in Austria urging them to mobilize as “Germany will mobilize.” Incredibly, the German Chief of Staff had exceeded his authority. Nonetheless, Czar Nicholas, upon hearing the news, reversed himself once again and ordered full mobilization. The diplomatic corps of any of the major players in this drama might have averted war had they the experience and courage to step into the fray. The diplomatic corps, however, was a largely nepotistic dumping ground. They stood helplessly watching as the world slipped into chaos.

The date was July 30, just one month after Archduke Ferdinand's assassination.

The following day, July 31, Germany ordered full mobilization.

France's call to mobilize came three days later on August 2.

A final German ultimatum was delivered to Albert I of Belgium on August 2. Germany demanded use of Belgium soil for its military operations.

The ultimatum expired twenty four hours later, August 3.

That day, Germany declared war on France.

France, Russia, and England all declared war on Germany August 4.

The war to end all wars had begun.

The World Is Flat and Failing 12.26.08

A friend had tickets to a lecture by Thomas Friedman. She couldn't make it and I was pressed into service so the folks who invited her would think she came and invite her to the next event. Friedman's lecture would be given at the University of Houston Central Campus. If you don't know your way around the sprawling UofH central campus you won't be aided much by local signage. Even finding the east side of the campus is a challenge these days. One of the two major north-south thoroughfares that bracket the campus has been rerouted in such a way that it can only be accessed from a residential neighborhood miles north of the campus or from an exit off the interstate miles before the campus is visible. Most freeway exits are brief affairs and generally deposit one in the vicinity of the boulevard described by the giant green sign. Not so with the street I sought. One exits well in advance of the desired street and is compelled to navigate a singular ribbon of concrete over, under, and beside the just departed freeway until an entirely unrelated sign appears suggesting proximity to something called a spur. I understand we have many descriptors for our automobile paths, avenue, street, lane, boulevard, drive, road but spur is one with which I am not familiar. I think it hawks back to the days of the railroad but might also refer to the pointed wheel one wears on a boot heel to encourage an unwilling animal to maintain movement. Either way, I was unwilling to follow a spur and was instead deposited in a sweeping arc of asphalt circumnavigating the Forest Park cemetery.

Eventually finding my way to the campus and the well hidden Entrance One, I proceeded to the tallest structure on the horizon, a parking garage, bought a ticket and, after waiting for a charming but discombobulated co-ed to exit the entrance ramp, parked on level four and retraced my vehicles path to the ground, narrowly avoiding crushing injury at the hands of a stream of old folks in their SUV's and sedans there for the same reason as I. No arrows to the stairs, no centrally located cinder block structure that might disguise an elevator. People and cars were apparently intended to use the same ramp. A seat of higher learning indeed.

At ground level I followed the stream of people to what I hoped was the lecture hall and not an AARP seminar. Happily rewarded I offered my ticket to the mavens manning the doors to discover no ticket was required. I now had no reason to attend. Despite this nullification, I took an aisle seat near the back for ease of egress and settled in to watch the theater fill. The first fifteen rows were roped off for VIP seating. Every one occupying those seats would surely be able to tell you exactly what they were doing when Truman fired MacArthur at the height of the Korean conflict. We managed, after coming perilously close to our own Dunkirk in the South China Sea, to push the North Koreans back across the imaginary line they crossed in their attempt to unify their odd nation. Odd as Korea is a relatively small peninsula with a relatively small population extending off the body of mainland China and has somehow managed to remain independent for millennia. Our mechanized and well armed troops drove the North Korean army in a headlong retreat to within a hundred miles of the Chinese border all the while confident the Chinese would take no notice. Even as we captured Chinese army regulars happy to share their plans to attack in mass and force us into the ocean, we were not particularly concerned. After all, our military intelligence was clear on this point, the Chinese would not respond. When several hundred thousand troops of the worlds largest standing army poured across their border and drove the American army toward the sea, we began considering the nuclear option to prevent the annihilation of our soldiers. It seems our military leaders rarely get it right. We often win despite our leadership. MacArthur carefully constructed intelligence reporting to confirm his maniacal faith that the Chinese wouldn't dare oppose the great General, Westmoreland orchestrated a stunning campaign of deception in Vietnam, and Joint Chiefs Chair Peter Pace and General George Casey presided over a catastrophic failure in Iraq by refusing to challenge a criminally negligent Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. But I digress.

Some busy young man was snapping pictures of the honored and aged guests occupying the good seats while we awaited our evening with Professor Friedman. The program, a single sheet of canary yellow paper folded in half and filled with the names of the generous corporate sponsors, warned us of the two speakers to proceed Herr Professor. Friedman's book, The World Is Flat, won nearly every accolade a non-fiction tome can earn. Extolling the magnificence of a world where data reigns supreme and comparative advantage has given millions of young Indians and Asians the opportunity to be that voice ever ready to guide you through the removal of that malicious software designed by the Belarussian adolescent and propagated in the new great equalizer, the chat room, Friedman makes a stellar case for the boundless opportunity afforded the educated workforce in any corner of our flat world. Help desks are exported to a workforce thriving on a fraction of the bloated American, European or Japanese salary, software coding has become the vehicle driving the creation of a whole new consumer class in countries once thought forever yoked to the plow and the shovel. Data transmission technologies have become the warps and looms of the new millennia as former subjects of the Imperialism of a bygone age pull themselves up by their mouse cables and join the ranks of the first world, or at least the second. Yes, the world has become flat as education and opportunity meet the technology of data transmission and mountains laid low by bits and bytes merging market and workforce, service and supply.

Naysayers may point to the ever widening gulf between the wealthy and those who struggle to hang on to their new status in the middle class or the growing numbers slipping from a once tolerable living wage to crushing debt and the specters of unemployment and homelessness or the bold among them may decry the billions who remain hungry every day of every week. The world may be flat but it is far from safe for the great body of its residents.

Professor Friedman is not unaware of the challenges that remain and is in town this night to share his vision for an even better world than the one made flat by the inter- and ethernet. His latest elucidation is available in hardcover in the foyer for under thirty dollars and carries the catchy title Flat, Hot and Crowded. Our Pulitzer prize winning social scientist is keenly aware the energizing flatness of our world is threatened by overpopulation and climatic change. And he has penned another quick and entertaining read to help us navigate our new reality. I didn't stay long enough to hear his suggestions but I did hear the first few dollops of wisdom plop from the PowerPoint presentation. An increase in global temperature of only a few degrees will have disastrous consequences for coastal populations as the polar ice caps dissolve. I left at this point. I didn't hear from anyone who remained as I don't think I knew anyone there but perhaps emboldened by the presence of all those VIPs down front, professor Friedman may have borrowed a page from that nineteenth century Solomon, Jonathan Swift. Swift suggested the consumption of Irish babies as the twin solution to the dearth of potatoes wrought by the potato famine and the surfeit of Irish folk. Maybe what I missed by bailing out early was Friedman's perfect symmetry of global warming uncrowding the planet by drowning all the hungry millions occupying the world's coastal slums. After all, does anyone seriously expect Bangladesh or Myanmar to spring for cable modems? If they can't supply cheap labor to fuel a global economy making the super-rich obscenely so, then they are of no more use than all those hungry Irish babies. Right Professor?

Letter to the Editor 09.04.08

In rhetoric (the original meaning as discussion or argument, not the current meaning as speech giving) there are several key failings to avoid. One is the straw man argument and another is the ad hominem argument. The straw man involves creating an argument where one does not exist. As an example, You might be saying it is OK for gays to marry, Your unethical opponent will reframe the argument thus - "You say you don't believe in family, well I believe in family!" The ad hominem failing is to attack the person with whom you are having a discussion instead of what they are saying. "You want tax cuts do you, well you smoked pot when you were in school!" Instead of these arguments appearing from time to time in discussion, they seem to dominate these days. Karl Rove knows the difference and he also knows most of the electorate won't. It is a cynical and corrupt way to "win" an argument. And once again it is working. The fourth estate has a responsibility to the population. One they abdicated in the emotional fervor over 9/11. There isn't an excuse this time. Why don't those who know better help elevate this game instead of playing referee without a whistle?

Bubbles, Smoke and Mirrors 07.15.08

I went out to say hello to George this afternoon. He was cutting the grass in front of the office. He shut down his mower, pulled off his gloves, we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. He asked me what in the world was happening with the banks. George was born just after the Depression, has worked his entire life, and, like most of us, continues to struggle while being deeply concerned about our financial future. George is frightened.

Earlier this week, Michael, our systems engineer, and I were discussing a customer's ceaseless restructuring and the impact it was having on their service and ability to meet customer demand. I suggested there were more important things this customer should be concerned with than auto responders to inventory queries. Yeah, he said, like global financial collapse. Michael is resigned.

On a Sunday afternoon last March, the Federal Reserve offered JP Morgan Chase a thirty billion dollar line of credit with which to purchase a competing securities exchange and investment bank, Bear Stearns. Stearns was an eighty year old financial services company that survived the Crash of 1929 and was once the second largest firm of its kind. With enormous amounts of capital invested in the collapsing sub-prime housing market, Stearns stock value dropped from $157 a share in April 2007 to $2 a share less than one year later. Their financial difficulties were significant enough that Stearns formed a reciprocal financial relationship with a Chinese securities company in 2007. Nothing staved off the inevitable. To prevent the collapse of Stearns and the feared domino-like collapse of linked financial institutions, the Federal Reserve convinced Chase to buy the company for nickels on the dollar. The Feds argument to Chase was bolstered by thirty billion dollars in public funds, pledged against Stearns anticipated collapse. The Federal Reserve bailed out a mega-bank in a series of frenzied meeting over the course of a weekend. The first casualty of a financial institution as a result of the collapsing housing "bubble" had been marked.

India and China are placing greater demands on the world's oil reserves and the price of oil has increased so dramatically in the past year that General Motors will likely pursue bankruptcy as their way forward. As the cost of recovering a barrel of oil from the earth hasn't increased significantly in the past year and the world's oil producers are meeting the increased demand, there is no traditional value changes to justify the increase in oil prices. What is happening is that I will buy a barrel of oil for $150 because you will pay $155 for the same barrel tomorrow because Tom over there will pay $160 day after tomorrow. No oil is delivered or consumed in this transaction, it is an entirely etherial exchange.

In the explosion in market value in the run up to the millennium (the Dot-Com bubble), stock values for start-up internet companies with nothing more than a business plan and a website often exceeded the stock value of companies with hundreds of millions of dollars of real assets.

Look at a graph of the US Stock Exchange over the past ninety years and you will see an essentially flat line from 1910 to 1982. The market moved in representative value from hundreds to nearly one thousand over seven decades, during which our economy weathered an Industrial Revolution, a worldwide Depression, two World Wars, the Sixties, the Beatles, Vietnam and Watergate. From 1982, when the market finally broke the 1,000 point barrier through December 1999, when the market reached 11,500, the New York Stock Exchange increased in apparent value by one thousand one hundred and fifty percent. If I grew by 1,150% I would be six hundred and ninety feet tall. Silly perhaps but consider the following. If at 1,000 points the stock market's representative sample of stocks (the Dow Jones Industrial Average, for example, is composed of thirty actual stocks) would cash out at four hundred million dollars, those same stocks are now worth fifty trillion dollars. Has the value of the companies whose stock is traded at these dizzying heights grown by eleven hundred percent? Explore some real world examples. Did General Motors (one of the firms represented in the Dow Jones Industrial Average) worldwide vehicle sales go from seven million units in 1982 to eight hundred million units in 1999? No, they went from seven million units worldwide to nine million, an increase of thirty percent, not eleven hundred. Did Caterpillar (another DJIA firm) construction equipment profit jump from ten thousand dollars a unit to one million dollars a unit between 1982 and 1999? Of course not.

In an uncontrolled frenzy of buying and reselling, stock prices, unmoored from traditional measures of value like profit to earnings ratios or even more esoteric valuations, took on an intrinsic value removed from the business they purport to represent. As long as someone is willing to pay more than yesterdays price, stock increases in value without regard for the underlying value of the enterprise whose name it bears. Google stock value (as marvelous as Google is) is currently hovering at $500 per share. Googles product is, essentially, an Internet search engine and its revenue comes from selling ads on its web pages. Toyota, the worlds largest automobile manufacturer with manufacturing plants and equipment throughout the world, stock is selling at less than a quarter of the Google stock price. Both companies are valued near the one hundred fifty billion dollar mark. Imagine Google is a menu at a fine restaurant with all the promise of a sumptuous dinner while Toyota represents the actual food. Your waiter hands you a menu and a bill for five hundred dollars. When your poached salmon with asparagus arrives, another bill is presented for the food. See anything wrong with that picture?

The reality that stock market value has increased geometrically while business value has increased arithmetically should alone be reason for alarm. Our nation's greatest generator of wealth is based on the belief that the next guy coming down the pike will pay you more than what you paid for a paper representation of a business. See anything wrong with this picture?

Widespread acceptance of the stock market as an indicator of economic strength and vitality defies logic. Anyone on board for the ride as stocks doubled, tripled, and skyrocketed was substantially less interested in the logic of the transaction than the ledger.

We hear of the speculative bubble that burst in 1929, the dot com bubble that popped in 2001, the sub prime market bubble that continues to implode and now oil and food price spikes. The exponential growth in the value of stocks, derivatives, and sophisticated bond products dwarfs any previous or current financial bubble. As major financial institutions, pension funds, even sovereign investment funds flock to the artificial wealth of the stock exchange, no longer is the individual investor the only player at risk. Now, major financial institutions are at risk, even governments. The tragic image of the devastated business man tumbling from a New York skyscraper must be updated to hold a picture of retirement funds, government securities, even governments taking that sickening plunge. The lesson of the Bear Stearns collapse quickly faded from public consciousness. Nightly news broadcasts of food riots are seen as anomalies. The FDIC takeover of IndyMac, the Federal Reserve's extension of easy lines of credit to shore up the liquidity of the two largest mortgage institutions in the country, and the plunging share values of Washington Mutual and Wachovia Banks are enough to make George shake his head, Michael warn of global financial collapse, and me to put my fears on paper.

George, Michael and I are each profoundly worried over nightly images of folks just like us in a pre-dawn cue at once unassailable banks, desperately hoping to withdraw whatever cash the bank regulators will let us have. Our fears are multiplied by the latest reports suggesting as much as one third of the seventy trillion held in financial institutions is exposed in un- or under-insured accounts. That money will simply disappear in a bank failure.

According to Wachovia's 2007 Financial Report, almost sixty one billion dollars sits in FDIC insured accounts. Should Wachovia fail, much of the FDIC's available funds will be consumed covering those accounts. And where will the money come from for the next failed financial institution? The US Government is already deeply in debt over Iraq and greed driven tax cuts. What happens when the FDIC has to liquidate the US Treasury bonds it holds as emergency capital in order to bail out the next bank over mortgaged in the sub-prime (read predatory loan) market? Do we even know? Can the Federal Reserve fail?

Today, the President, the head of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Secretary all took to the air waves to reassure the public. To a person, every representative of the financial industry is calling for calm and faith in the economy.

When a chemical plant blows in this, the largest petro-chemical refinery complex in the world, civil authorities advise residents to "shelter in place." That means close your windows, turn off your air conditioner and stay off the roads. We "shelter in place" hoping the deadly chemicals don't blow our way. If they do, we die, if they don't someone else dies.

The message from the fiscal authorities bears striking resemblance to the "shelter in place" directive.

Hunker down. Duck and cover.

Here's hoping the deadly financial fallout blows your way and not mine.

The State Democratic Convention or How I Learned to Remember Why I Don't Like Politics 06.10.08

In the month preceding the Texas Democratic Convention in Austin I fielded a half dozen emails and a handful of prerecorded voice mails a day from National Delegate wannabes. The math goes something like this, 40 of the 300 people attending the Precinct Convention (caucus) were elected as delegates to the Senate District Convention. Of those 40, 2 were elected to move from the Senate District Convention to the State Convention. Of the 7,500 delegates at the state convention, 80 were elected to attend the National Convention. The likelihood moves from 13 out of 100 to 5 out of 100 to 1 out of 100. Of the 300 delegates from my senate district, 150 were running for national delegate. It was crazy. The only reason I made it as far as the state convention is because I took over the organization of the Precinct Caucus when the Precinct Chair went into meltdown mode. The whole thing was crazy. And then the professionals got involved.

The Senate District "training" for the State Convention was held at the Joy Tabernacle. I joined a line of about 100 people "signing in." One woman was trying to staff the A-L and M-Z tables. I watched for about two minutes and asked if she could use some help. Yes, she said, and thrust a pen and some alpha lists into my hand. I had four separate lists, one for delegates from Harris County, one for delegates from Ft. Bend county and two more for alternates from the two counties. Oh, and a fifth of "not on the other lists" list. After about thirty minutes someone came out of the tabernacle and said, meeting is starting, we'll sign in later. Everyone ran inside except a handful of ladies who had "issues" with lists and wanted to be sure their names showed up. After finding their names they too went inside. The half signed in lists were left with me. I eventually found an "official" to take them from me and later saw them on the floor with a child using them as streets for his hot wheels toy.

The "training" consisted of various locally elected officials making speeches about harmony and such. Then some charismatic fellow gave a speech about how "this time" Senate District 13 would not be a laughing stock. Having no idea what that meant, I was glad to hear we were doing better than we did in the past. After an hour and a half of hearing incumbent politicians espouse their commitment to their fellow citizens I left. Or tried to. Someone had parked their car directly in front of mine. I got in, turned on the radio and practiced not being mad while I assessed the nature of the person who thought this was an OK way to park. When they did come out I got a smile and a wave before they drove off going the wrong way out the exit. I should have known then...

The State Convention began on Friday, June 6. We arrived late Thursday night and were up early Friday to sign in and get credentialed (a new verb). Standing in a very long line I plugged in the headphones and listened to the high energy Oasis and Say Hi playlist while inching my way forward. I was in good shape as I wanted to make the 9 AM Energy Policy caucus in Room 15 Level 4 of the Convention Center. Some button festooned fellow was walking up the line saying something so I unplugged to give a listen. "Delegates to the short line at the counter," he was repeating. Cool, I thought and left the long line for the short one. When I reached the counter I was told to go back in the long line, see, right there, she pointed to the now longer line I left moments ago. Cool, I thought, knowing I shouldn't listen to a guy with buttons up both sleeves, both pants legs and wearing a sun hat indoors. Back in line I didn't have time to earphone back up when a fellow I knew cued in behind me. The Clinton lawyer rep from the Senate District Credentials Hearing. A real sneaky type with a decent sense of humor. We chatted for a moment but mutually realizing we had nothing in common, faced forward and shuffled ahead. People I barely knew would address me. I would respond, and then, seeing the lawyer guy behind me, they would stop in mid sentence and greet him, all smiles. Not once but three times. I earphoned up and eventually got credentialed.

I made the 9 AM Energy Policy meeting and was handed several flyers as I walked in. Everyone was wearing "oilpatch" t-shirts. The room filled up, ending up SRO, and some guy took the mike and began his talk. Nuclear is bad, he said, coal is horrible, and we're running out of oil. How many people here have heard of peak oil? Everyone raised their hand. For those who don't know, he said, I'll explain. Everyone had raised their hand. Everyone. Next speaker gets up and says, nuclear is horrible, coal is bad and we're running out of oil. Uh-oh. Third speaker gets up and says, now we're going to hear from some of our elected officials. The state rep from Bubba County takes the mike and says, nuclear is bad, coal is terrible, and we're running out of oil. He then proceeds to talk about all the bipartisan support he's garnered for his "anti-death and disease, pro healthy living" bill. I realize I have another five and a half hours to kill before the Senate District Caucus begins and another eight and a half hours before the Convention officially convenes. I try another caucus and hear from more incumbent Democrats. I find one of the eleven comfortable chairs in the Convention Center and make myself at home. Thank God I brought a book.

I make my way to the Senate District Caucus in Ballrooms E and F to be asked to please give us a chance to get the room organized so you can begin on time. Like I've been throwing tacks under their bare feet. A nice elderly lady asks me what she said. Get out, I say with a smile. We leave. Outside the mob gathers and some party official begins to lecture us on how we must take care of business this time because they'll be no coming back after midnight to finish like last time. Uh-oh.

The doors open and we begin filing in. Hundreds of us. Someone has a mike at the front of the room and is repeating, in an exasperated voice, delegates on my right, alternates on my left. No one can see him so his directions are worse than useless. Once everyone sits down he says, OK now the first three rows are for Fort Bend county delegates. Will everyone in the first three rows please make room? No one moves. Of course. Ballroom G adjoins E and F and no one thought to put up the giant partitions to separate them until after they started trying to be heard over each other. Some poor women was nearly crushed by a twenty foot sliding panel as they rushed to close off the ballrooms. I've grabbed an aisle seat and stand to let a woman pass. Someone grabs my chair and walks away. So do I. Had a nice dinner across town.

Came back Saturday. Stayed for about an hour of the actual convention. Saw the first part of Hillary's long awaited concession speech and then the Texas State Convention in Austin lost the feed. Folks with laptops all around me were watching it live on streaming video but...

The chair said she would now begin introducing the State politicians.

Obama is the nominee and we had practically nothing to do with it.

We made it home by dark.

Non-Issue Issues 04.17.08

I forgot the Pennsylvania debate between Hillary and Barack was on last night until about thirty minutes in. I turned it on to hear Obama starting off with, "Well look..." Not a good sign. When I use the "well look" prefix to a comment it is normally a stand in for something less kind like, "Since you are such an idiot and you don't seem to understand the words I've used so far, let me try one more time in words of one syllable." Sure enough, within five minutes I heard the little weasel Stephanopoulos (OK, maybe weasel is a little harsh. He seemed so totally overmatched by his compatriot James Carville in the 1992 documentary The War Room {a must see for political junkies} and then he quit the Clinton White House to write a tell-all and land a job on network TV. To me he is the poster child for amoral opportunistic ambition) ask whether Rev Wright loved America as much as Obama and then segue to the lapel pin. Setting aside the shameful abuse of the flag by all those pseudo-patriots lining their planters with little plastic flags on the Fourth, since when did we need to demonstrate our feelings for our country? When did cheap displays become fashionable, nee de rigeur? Oh, yes, I remember, it started with the America: Love It Or Leave It bumper stickers back in the 60's. Back when dissent was equated with treason. Kind of like how the Chinese felt about the students in Tienneman Sqaure. And then the neocons co-opted the Support Our Troops magnetic ribbons as the basis for any disagreement with our criminally misguided move into Iraq. Don't think we should have turned the Iraq Army loose with their weapons by dissolving their Army thirty days into the invasion - Don't You Support Our Troops? Don't think we should have fired four levels of civil service employees because they belonged to the Baath party thus rendering the Iraqi infrastructure utterly unmanageable - Don't You Support Our Troops? Think stop-lossing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder victims back to Iraq for their third or fourth tour is a bad idea - Don't You Support Our Troops? But I digress.

Our political discourse has reached such sad levels of trivialism that we are consumed with whether Hillary ducked when she landed in a war zone or whether Obama was in the pew when his minister had the temerity to suggest America's swaggering foreign policy might have contributed to the fanaticism that brought down the Towers? How about discussing our response to genocide and fundamentalism? No, we all sit glued to the TV watching our candidates for President try to wade through the trivialization of our world. Discuss the war on science? The destruction of our environment? The rape and murder of a helpless starving African people? The inability of our war veterans to get mental health treatment? No, thanks, I want to hear more about the lapel pin.

I'm with Britney, "I'm most likely to get on the TV for slipping on the streets when getting the groceries, now for real are you kidding me? No wonder there's panic in the industry, I mean please."

Fascism and More 03.28.08

He's trying to get me to see Funny Games, a remake of the German original by the same director, this time starring Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, a film I had grouped in the torture porn category -
On Mar 25, 2008, at 1:17 AM, He emails:
Fritz Lang made "Testament of Dr Mabuse" criticizing the Hitler regime. The characters of the film are implicated in the terror of Hitler Germany as Lang places the slogans of the regime in their mouths. "Funny Games" implicates the audience. It really is quite good. A good deal of the actual torture takes place off camera; we only hear the screams of the tortured and view the pained faces of those who love them, or the faces of the perpetrators. It is the same with the torture performed by this government. We are guilty. All of us. Yet we never have to actually see it. We see the evidence of snapshots; we are removed from the act. Are there monsters in the world? Few but their functionaries are numerous.

On Tue, Mar 25, 2008 at 3:06 AM, I reply:
I saw Funny Games today. The second time he turned to the camera I almost walked out. It was as if he were challenging me to do so. I didn't, of course, because I am complicit. In all of it. Lang was ahead of his time, Hitler wasn't even Chancellor when he made his film, just another radical party chief. Like Hagee...

He responds:
The fascist ideas of his party already had currency in the population. The evidence I have found of this is from various artists writing in the mid to late twenties. A curious thing happens at the end of World War I, a question that does not escape the German artistic community, What was that all for? In the mid 20s while the city comes to live at night, artists depict visually the destruction of the city, the urban milieu because it is inherently flawed. This answer is to the question: What's the point? What are we doing here? Will we just periodically engage in massive slaughter? Everything was so new. Rapid expansion, sensory overload, even the comprehensive lighting of the city at night would be a bit hard to take - it's a disruption of all that came before. Night into day. This is insane. Some thought it should just be destroyed and we should all return to woods so to speak. That was their radical vision. But of course it is very close to its "opposite": that we must not destroy the city but make it highly organized, central and subservient to itself. That is, there is no meaning in life but to do one's duty. This return to nature, these questions about freedom are all foolish. Duty to the whole is key. If everything could be organized...if everything had its place, then all would be well. It seems as though today we have these same "competing" visions on the fringes of things. from the fringes.

On Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 9:48 AM, I write:
I think you are absolutely right. Of course the society was rife with a variety of radical threads. I tend to think the economic one drove them into Fascism. The reparations imposed by the victors of WWI drove Germany into financial collapse. All of Europe, except maybe England, was in a state of hysterical recoil from the destruction of WWI. All the social mores were disintegrating. But Germany was driven into the economic gutter and I think the people reverted to their Maslow driven needs for food and shelter and were thus willing to accept anything that promised them bread and bed. Hitler wasn't magic, he was just the right demagogue at the right time. I think we are very close to that now. A nuke in NY or DC or even St. Louis would, I think push us over the edge. We were willing to devastate a country that had nothing to do with Sept 11, legitimize torture, and elect an idiot because he had Richelieu as his VP, over two buildings and a couple thousand folks. Imagine what we would be willing to do if a million were killed and a city made uninhabitable. If McCain is elected and it happens when he's president, he's likely to simultaneously nuke Syria, Iran, North Korea, and even China. And I don't say this to make en esoteric point. I believe it could actually happen. Where do we go when it starts?

On Mar 26, 2008, at 2:39 PM, he replies:
Your last question is very important. It would be the height of humanity to resist in any way possible such a destructive, horrific act. So the question could be "where do we go?" and this will be the right question for most people. And that's ok; one should never make such enormous demands of people. Besides compulsory resistance leads to Bad Regime Part 2. Where to go? I have no idea. Resistance. The rich countries, industrial Europe, they're all on the same page. Sure, they will say no and belly ache but they will be looking for an angle. And they surely will not resist. I mean, all the dead bodies this country has piled up over the years and which of the powerful countries resisted? Not one. Germans may have believed Hitler for the reasons you have written. However, I think that something deeper and more insidious is involved. It was not just economic hardship that created the Third Reich. It was this sense of meaninglessness, this utter lack of any reason for existing. We produce everything, all the time, everywhere. We are slaves to our productive capacity. We have never been able to make any sense of it. Why so many kinds of toothpaste? Or soap? Is this how I am to individuate? Is this how I form a self? Of course it isn't and we know better. We want answers. We want to know why. Hitler provides this answer. Why are you here? To do your duty. You have pain in your life? It is the fault of the Other. I feel this nation slipping into that trap. If the show "24" is any indication, we have already fallen into it. So where do we go from here? How do we provide answers? Religion doesn't work. Consumption doesn't work. What does? I don't know but I'm working on it. It seems to me that one key is to be as unencumbered by possession as possible. For most of the world this is very easy. But there is more to it than refusing material. We have to stop trying to possess one another. And this is difficult. Who wants to be alone? Who wants to live with the fear of another's liberty? It is difficult. It is as if there are no words for it. I am rambling. I age.

On Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 10:08 PM, I answer:
I listened to some Iraq veterans talking about their criminal behavior and asking forgiveness of the Iraqis and Americans. One of the guys said to the audience, mainly vets but he was talking to you and me, you are just as guilty because we are doing this in your name and you're doing nothing about it. There will be no widespread resistance as long as the people are narcotized by religion and consumption. I do want to take issue with your last paragraph. I don't equate not possessing another with being alone. I don't think I possess my partner and I don't think she possesses me. The key, I think, is to make sure the power dynamic is equalized. Much more difficult than it seems but nonetheless possible. It took me a long time to get it right. And I'm still working on it.

He writes
I misstated in my last paragraph the issue of equating not possessing another person with being alone. I think that many people do make this connection. I do not. It is obvious that you do not either. It does take a lot of work. We are constantly encouraged to possess others generally and as men we are encouraged to possess women. It is high time we took this notion seriously: we need to rid the world of domination in all its forms. Simply the act of working toward this goal would bring vast improvements. Would we ever get it right? Probably not. But at this point we, as a whole, do not try very hard. Personally, I put a lot of work into ridding my life of domination in all of its forms. I do not attempt to dominate animals or humans. I try to keep earth-dominating activity to a minimum as I do place my survival first. But these are all individual choices. Like the ones we make at the store; they take the same form as consumer choices. The tired mantra, I'll do what I can. It seems like most of the time that is all each one of us can do. Why do we so frequently fail to combine against this tide of insanity unleashed by the powerful? Historians do not like arguments that stem from some ideas about human nature - these ideas are products of particular places in particular times and have not the universal bearing they presuppose. It is so difficult to hear those soldiers tell us that we are complicit. I can hardly listen to them. It's because they are right.

On Thu, Mar 27, 2008 at 7:45 AM
Do you think your mere existence indicates a movement toward the objective? I mean you came to this awareness, why can't others? Is it the Maslow thing? I don't want to seem like a devotee but mass upheavals, the Russian and French Revolution, the Vietnam era protest marches I'm afraid found their origin in bread in the first two and survival in the latter. I guess the larger question is will we ever, as a species, move on the basis of enlightened awareness or always the baser drives. The whole male/female possession thing I fear is about procreation. Do we treat others better now than 500 years ago? A hundred? A thousand? I think maybe so. The Magna Carta might have been the big leap forward. Despite its thrust toward the liberty of the privileged, it was nonetheless the first attempt to move away from despotism as the primary organizing principle of the social order. I wish we had a better understanding of pre-agriculture/pre-literate humanity. I have always thought that the surplus that came from agriculture originated our top-down social order and abrogated any possibility of communal living.

He concludes:
Gerhard Lerner proposes in The Creation of the Patriarchy that male domination stems directly from male domination of animals. Herding animals provided men with a source of wealth that was not directly dependent upon women. Before herding women were the source of wealth in the form of children. If we examine the deities of nearly every culture on the planet there is a move from female deities to male ones. An example: the early Greeks had female goddesses as the head of the pantheon. Women were the source of life as they gave birth to children. Later we see male deities taking this role (Athena born from a male, Zeus). Female deities become evil as in the case of Medusa. Eventually, men dominate all intercession with the divine. They are priests, prophets, etc. Further, men wished to pass their wealth to their progeny. In order to ensure that the children to whom they pass the herd are actually their own there was a prohibition placed on women: they could only have sex with one man. Then follows what Levi-Strauss calls the "exchange of women."

Closer 03.07.08

It's seven minutes till polls open. 39 degrees, bright blue sky. There are fifteen people in line and I've been here since ten till six. The local news truck with their fifty foot satellite antenna beat me here. Got the signs out, set up the lawn chairs, taped an Obama poster to the back of one and I've got to go to the bathroom.
It's three days later. I got a sunburn, lost my voice, four pounds, and my confidence that Obama will sweep to the nomination. Faced with the possibility of a transformation of our politics from personal attacks to shared responsibilities, I cannot grasp the basis for the widespread support for Hillary. Is it racism? Sexism? Fear? My doctor, a woman, suggested my take on Hillary as a polarizing figure is sexist. Polarizing because a woman cannot be strong, if not fierce, without being labeled a B? Would a man suffer the same prejudice, she asks? The vast right wing conspiracy that pursued her husband to effective distraction would surely gear up against her, wouldn't it? So are we acquiescing to that conspiracy by opting for a less "polarizing" candidate? Can a black man in America be less polarizing than a woman? Is our country more prepared for a black man than a woman? Or vice versa?
These are the nagging questions that remain. And against them is the increasingly forlorn hope that Barack Obama represents a new age of American political discourse. Increasingly forlorn as we understand he will become increasingly focused in his attacks on her while fending off accusations over his apparently feigned opposition to NAFTA. Was Tim Russert responsible for pointing the question to them both, will you repudiate NAFTA? Could he have answered differently? Could he have said he wanted to talk to the Mexican and Canadian governments about labor and environmental issues? But he didn't. Were the delegates in Ohio worth pandering over? Apparently.
Now we hold our breath until late August. I'll be there, either watching on TV from Boulder or on the floor. I missed getting my head busted in Chicago in 68. Watched it on TV. Forty years later I'll put my faith on the line. My skull will be in no danger but my heart hangs by a thread.

Maybe This Time 02.22.08

I stayed awake as long as I could. I was only eight and so the hour was eleven. I awoke the next morning to my mom's smiling face. She held up the front page of the local paper. A color picture of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Color in the newspaper was unheard of back then. I may have added the color in memory but it is as clear and bright as if it is now before me. That was the last time I was excited about an election. From that day forward the choice was either the lesser of two evils or a pathetic protest vote.

Johnson, Humphrey, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis in the lesser category, McGovern and McCarthy in the pathetic lineup. When it seemed truly important back in 2000, Anton Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted instead of me. I wrote a lot during that election and turned my back on the process soon after. Sure I voted for Kerry, yet another son of privilege, and was served this criminal, this shame.

Now I'm in a line two hours before the doors open, feeling fortunate to have a ticket. Everyone is up, we are all talking to one another, listening to those nearby. We get in, past the cheerleaders, past the volunteer from Massachusetts blown away Saturday by the six hundred people showing up for a precinct captain training. Where seventy five folding chairs had been neatly arranged for the class, an impromptu mosh pit formed. She had to climb on a chair, shouting to be heard. Past the guys half-heartedly wanding us as we entered the building. Down to our seats where we are eye level with a podium and the "Change We Can Believe In" sign. A raised platform filled with television cameras is one hundred feet from the dias, five rows of folding tables behind it for the print media. This is a basketball arena, the podium is at one end, the camera platform at midcourt , the folding tables fill the balance of the floor. The TV cameras have the best seats in the house, the print media the worst. The next best seats are occupied by the people with the blue tickets. They gave more or did more or maybe they're just better connected.

A series of volunteers come to the podium leading cheers but none of them understand the dynamics of stadium acoustics and so the cheers start out strong but quickly fade as the timing between what they hear and what we see is off by seconds. Rock bands and team mascots have it figured out but these folks are all full of good intentions and short on physics. No matter, when Obama finally appears the roar is deafening and sustained. It comes from a cross section of people, the young, the naive, the jaded and the desperate. We all have the same thought, just maybe. Maybe this time it will be different, maybe this is the guy that will turn it around, maybe we can make it better. Maybe it's not too late for us. I'm out of my seat a dozen times clapping and cheering. My eyes water more than once. Maybe.

We were lucky when we got there, the last parking spot in a lot a block from the stadium was ours for a twenty. We leave the car along the fence, first in line to exit. We have to wait a while, though, because twenty thousand people are streaming into the streets and hundreds of them are cutting through the parking lot. Some crazed woman lurches forward in her big red SUV, desperate to get out of there. She's followed by two more willing to risk running down pedestrians and crashing into cars to get onto the street and zoom away. The same people that moments before were standing and shouting yes to Barack's challenge to change. Stomping and clapping their approval of the sacrifice and hard work it will take to redirect a nation jaded by the politics of money and power. And it is so critical that they be the next car out of the parking lot that children have to be tugged away from their big shiny bumpers lest they be crushed. A definite maybe.

Prosperity In Our Time 02.08.08

Before declining to spend any more of his millions on his campaign for president, Mitt Romney, son of privilege, promised to maintain the prosperity and peace we all enjoy. Even assuming he misspoke the part about maintaining peace and prosperity, it is almost beyond belief that any sentient being on the planet could think we live, or lived during our lifetime, in peace and prosperity. I grew up to the nightly news broadcast of a hopeless war being waged against a people we did not understand. Sound familiar? I watched black and white images of fire hoses turned on black people by white people. By the time the Chiacgo police were driving their barbed wire enhanced police cruisers into crowds of young people the images were in color. Peace? Prosperity? Was he considering the forty-seven million without health insurance? The nine million children living in poverty? The citizens of the Ninth Ward? The hundreds of thousands of military dependents forced to choose between food and clothing? The growing millions retired on fixed incomes stocking up on canned tuna from Sam's Club? Was he talking about those lucky beneficiaries of Wall Street's latest shell game? No, not the money managers that walked with millions, the working poor, bamboozled into a home they can't afford. Certainly he didn't mean the homeless. Or maybe he did, maybe he meant those clever souls making sixty k holding a cardboard sign on the corner? Or maybe he meant the vast multitudes that work every minute of every day just to stay even? And peace? Please. From road rage to roadside bombs, from race riots to police riots, there has never been peace in my time. He does not talk about Darfur, not about hunger, not about the quiet life of desperation that came unbidden with the dying torch passed from the Old Empire to the New. Retire to the life of Riley. We've seen your kind before. Good Riddance.

American Terror 11.27.07

We are in our own version of the Terror. Using the politics of personal destruction and a rabid, scandal seeking media in place of the guillotine we have just as effectively gutted the political landscape.

In the Terror that visited Paris and France toward the end of the eighteenth century, what began as a belief in certain inalienable rights evolved into the murder of anyone found insufficiently pure. With the death of Robespierre at the hands of a small group within the Committee of Public Safety, the sincere search for a higher political and social order gave way to simple power plays. Monarchists throughout Europe threatened and then acted on behalf of their own governments to thwart the Revolution that ended royal rule. This gave way to a paranoia over counterrevolution that began the Terror. When the popular and charismatic Danton was executed as a counterrevolutionary Robespierre ascended to the head of the Committee and moved to elevate Virtue above all as the measure of propriety. Virtue being not as clearly defined as Monarchist or Republican the path was cleared to begin the wholesale murder of otherwise ordinary French citizens as enemies of the Revolution by virtue of their insufficiently virtuous behavior. Who could be immune with perfection as the standard?

In our time, a Terror of equivalent, if less personally fatal, threat is loose. Take the example of Al Gore. Here we have a politician who chose not to take the country through a protracted legal battle over an election that we now know was largely stolen through the machinations of Republican operatives actively purging voting rolls of likely Democratic voters. A Supreme Court, in its darkest hour, stopped the counting of votes cast in a Presidential election on the clearly spurious reasoning that to continue to count votes would do irreparable harm to Bush. Gore then abandons the national political scene to rededicate himself to bringing world attention to the coming environmental crisis. In our media he is pilloried as an attention seeker and ridiculed after winning the Nobel Peace prize. Barach Obama is criticized for not attacking Hillary Clinton. He responds by attacking her and moves up in the polls. Ron Paul suggests a connection between our foreign policy of intervention and anger from the citizenry of those countries in which we intervene. The balance of the Republican candidates jump on Paul as if he were a traitor. The media, or should I say Rupert Murdoch's media empire, lead the charge to attack, vilify, demean and destroy any one that pops up on their radar screen. From dissecting Hillary's laugh to reporting Obama went to school in a Madrassa to repeatedly citing Giuliana's divorces, a public discussion of issues has been replaced with a private policy of character assassination. The result – a nearly complete absence of leadership at the national level. Who but the most jaded or the most cynical would subject themselves to the guillotine of character assasination that passes for informed discussion? In the same way an originally noble public discourse on freedom and the rights of man evolved in three short years to a Terror that kept all but the most foolish or power mad silent and hiding, our public discourse has gone from "Ask not what your country can do for you" to "Support the Troops" and "We don't torture people."

The result in France in the 1790's was the rise of a despot. We have our own pseudo despot suspending habeas corpus and wiretapping you and me. Where do we go from here? Without visionary, honest leaders, we will sink to the level of the Paris mobs of The Terror, if we haven't already.

The Price of Stupid 11.12.06

The measure of corporate CEO's these days is the impact they have on their company's stock price. Generally, the methodology employed to raise the price of stock is to increase profitability. The quickest way to raise profitability is to decrease expenses. Increasing revenues requires multiple steps where reducing expense is a one step process. As Paula Poundstone once justified her fondness for the Pop-Tart, any more than two steps required to prepare food and hell, you might as well be cooking. Cutting staff or eliminating R&D, as a one step process is as simple as dropping a Pop-Tart in the toaster. Cost cutting as a corporate strategy is, of course, stupid. The long term effects of reduced R&D or overworked middle management spell disaster for most any corporation but the short term effect is increased profitability and increased stock price. This short term gain for long term loss is what occurs to me having just finished Pervez Musharraf's In The Line Of Fire and Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine. They follow my reading of Martin Gilbert's The Somme and form the bookends of our thus far strange and disastrous War on Terror.

Suskind writes of Cheney's declaration that a one percent chance of a terrorist threat warrants our acting as of it were a certainty. On the surface absurd, Cheney's reasoning is that included in that one percent possibility is the specter of a nuclear weapon going off in one of our cities. In this context, all that matters is our response to a potential threat; analysis of the likelihood of such a threat manifesting could have catastrophic consequences. Hell, we might as well be cooking. The One Percent Doctrine relegates traditional intelligence and analysis to the category of R&D, secondary or even irrelevant to the greater and more immediate need. In our current polarized and terrorized political climate this has had the effect of rendering the CIA, the only legitimate bulwark against terror, a political arm of the White House's War on Terror. The agency is being recrafted to serve a supportive role to the White House with the predictable result of wholesale defection of the agency's most experienced and capable senior staff. Following GOP Congressman Porter Goss's contentious eighteen months as CIA chief, when the agency lost hundred of years of experience in early retirements, the Air Force General responsible for implementing the clearly illegal survellance of American citizens, Michael Hayden, has taken over the decimated agency.

Musharraf's surprising memoir stands in stark contrast to Cheney's shoot first One Percent Doctrine, addressing as it does the underlying causes of terrorism, calling for solutions to cause rather than actions to address threat. He displays a finer grasp of the underlying concepts of democracy than those currently running the Executive branch of our threatened democracy. Threatened not by terror but by itself. Elections decided by stopped recounts and voting irregularities notwithstanding, it is stupidity that threatens us. The stupidity that sent us with a hurrah into a nation that had not attacked us. The stupidity that framed a threat from a small subset of violent crazed fundamentalists as a clash of civilizations. The stupidity that holds us in a failed state in numbers insufficient to prevent an otherwise avoidable disintegration into civil war and anarchy. The stupidity that steadfastly refuses to consider why we are under siege by crazed fundamentalists as we seek out and elevate our own fundamentalists to positions of power and honor.

Consider the price of another such willing disregard of reconsideration in the face of overwhelming disaster. Three hundred thousand were killed in the five months between July and November 1916. The Allied command ordered onslaught after onslaught into the fortified German lines stretching along the River Somme in northwest France, each time believing this would be the decisive battle. None were. We look back at the inflexible generals behind the slaughter of the First World War as stupid. And we are...?

Velvet Underground updated (or about the ineveitability of it all) 05.12.06

The editor of the New Republic's mom apparently reminded him what happened when the world stands by and says OK to the slaughter of a race. Her folks died in a concentration camp in Poland. This month's New Republic is about shame on us for letting Darfur happen. Roaming bands of angry people ride into a village and kill everyone and burn the huts they lived in. The UN and Doctors Without Borders struggle to get food and water to the hundreeds of thousands running to tent camps in hope (hard to use that word here) that they will be spared. Meanwhile, we wring our hands over a former roach killer and drunken spoiled frat rat that threaten our glorious democracy. Three hundred and thirty years ago a beleagured king allowed an assembly to meet and discuss his country. The result was the French Revolution. Voters will turn out the bums, mobs guillotine the innocent alongside the guilty and the black man dies. Just like Sister Ray said.

What's Left to Say?

What's left to say? Earlier today I thought maybe George was the President of the stupid people. But that can't be right. Half the population isn't stupid, is it?

This is a guy who gave countless billions to the richest Americans in a tax break and then awarded non-competitive contracts to his VP's former company. He invaded a country supposed to have stockpiles of gas and biotoxins and nukes ready to use on us or sell to Osama. Well, the much ridiculed UN appeared to have dismantled that program and he had nothing but a bunch of opulent palaces and mass graves filled with, among others, the people we encouraged to rise up against him when George senior decided to call a halt to the slaughter of fleeing truck convoys and got out. Son has now gone back and finished the job and who hasn't wondered if this isn't about making dad proud?

According to Bob Woodard, he thinks God wants him in the job to make the world a better place for Jesus. Could that be because he believes his actions are dictated by God? He's surrounded by advisors schooled in the lessons learned in the 19th century about wielding world power. These would be Metternich's think a good solid of phalanx of American Army guys can make North Korea a happy place, Syria a democracy, and Iraq a haven for peace and freedom. Whether it's 150 tons or 350 tons or 2 tons of the world's most sophisticated high explosives, we knew where it was, why didn't we put a guy with a carbine in front? Why did we allow the Iraqi national museum to be looted and burned? This was the home of a great many artifacts from the birthplace of civilization and we treated it like a burned out Dairy Queen in Camden.

When the Iraqi Army dissolved into the countryside with their weapons we celebrated our great victory. No one suspected maybe these guys had decided to fight a guerrilla war against us. We don't do too well at those.

This Sunday morning it looks like George has a lead in electoral votes and I have a dark and depressing fear he's going to win again. My only hope is the damage he does in the next four years can be undone in future generations. The long view isn't very encouraging though, it looks from here that the light of the world's great experiment in democracy is flickering and the wind is building.

Illusions of Democracy

Until the last Presidential election I thought my vote counted. Now I realize it only counts if the race in my state is close. My vote for Al Gore in 2000 was a meaningless effort, insofar as the election was concerned. Texas' electoral votes went for Bush and so my vote for Gore was a purely symbolic gesture. I did join the majority of Americans who voted for Gore but that isn't enough to elect a President. Never has been, but until 2000 I never considered the true impact of the Electoral College. Even if I had lived and voted in Florida it wouldn't have made any difference. What with the tens of thousands of voters in Florida denied the right to vote because they had the same last name as a convinced felon or because they voted on a punch card machine that hadn't been cleaned in years so the perforated ballot wouldn't perforate my vote wouldn't have made any difference there either.

This country has never been all right. We killed or reservationed the native Americans, we took Texas from Mexico by threatening to burn down their capitol if they didn't agree to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, then systematically violated the Treaty we forced them to sign, built an economy on slavery, denied the vote to women, worked children to death until laws were passed to stop it, et cetera. We are also the same country that reluctantly entered the First and Second World wars, undeniably saving the world in the second, sent men to the moon, fund opera and ballet from the public treasury, guaranteed poor people the right to a legal defense if they are accused of a crime and set aside huge tracts of land for parks for our descendants.

I generally see things on a spectrum neither this way or that but moving in this direction or that. If we go too crazy to the left, we're bound to swing back to the right and vice versa. Something has changed though. People are moving to one end of the spectrum or the other and building impenetrable walls. And no one is speaking out against this polarization. Instead, we are condemning each other, accusing each other of evil intent, declaring everyone either with me or against me. The scariest thing of all is that our nations leaders are setting this tone of for and against. The fundamentalists have taken over the world. They declare themselves not just right, but so right that nothing else matters. No dialogue, no common ground, no give and take. In the impassioned and anguished days following 9/11 President Bush declared to the rest of the world that they had a choice to make, side with us or the terrorists. In this new world there is no room for dissent. Bush (directed or cajoled by Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. One of the first casualties was our relationship with France, one of our oldest allies. Dick Cheney described the European nations not willing to sign on for a preemptive war against Iraq as an old guard, out of touch and largely irrelevant. For the first time in our nation's checkered past we declared war on and attacked a sovereign nation that had not lifted a finger against us. We have very quickly moved from a nation reluctant to fight a war as clearly in need of fighting as the Nazis were, to a nation chomping at the bit to attack a pathetically weak nation like Iraq. With or without the weapons of mass destruction, regardless of Sadaam's abysmal record of abusing and killing his own people, we have never attacked first. Because, as we all have known since we were children, it's wrong. And yet we jumped on that bandwagon like we were going to a picnic. The same justification for attacking Iraq can be used to attack Syria, North Korea, Iran, and even China. Should George W. Bush be reelected, as I fear he will be, will he view his victory as a mandate to fulfill his destiny. A destiny inextricably linked to his Christian fundamentalist view of the world. I fear this man believes he is doing God's work by waging war on Iraq. he has pronounced Syria and North Korea as the other two components of the axis of evil. The dialogue aimed at Syria recently seems to be laying the groundwork for another regime change. North Korea is certainly on George W. Bush's hit list. As Dave Woodard described in his book Bush at War, Bush carries a visceral hatred for North Korea's president. At least Nixon's enemies list consisted primarily of American citizens, unlikely to have the capability to wage a war of insurgency and even less likely to possess nuclear weapons. But I digress.

What drives me to despair over our future is the relative ease with which we have accepted this Orwellian turn of events. We talk of the war in Iraq as being a war for peace. We are told of a Clean Skies act that effectively dismantles all the clean air initiatives of the past forty years. We go to war in Iraq because we fear nuclear weapons in the hands of Al Quaeda and within six months are justifying the war by saying Sadaam was a bad man. Otherwise intelligent people can, with a straight face, say they don't believe George W. Bush was the beneficiary of favoritism in getting into the Guard in 1968. Few people are outraged that a decorated Vietnam veteran is accused of cowardice by a fellow who "served" in the National Guard during Vietnam. The Vice President maintains there is no connection between his position as the former CEO of Halliburton and that company's contract windfall in the Iraq debacle. Josef Goebbels once said the bigger the lie the easier it is to sell it to people. The biggest lie of all is that this fellow was elected President. His brother and his campaign chairperson for Florida conspired to disenfranchise enough Florida voters to insure that state's electoral votes went to him. And when the recount of votes started to upset that plan, the Supreme Court stepped in and stopped the recount and anointed George W. Bush president. This is the tea party to end all tea parties, and I don't mean the Boston variety, I mean the one with the Mad Hatter. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, we can do about it. Because the people are going along with it.

Gearing up for November or Is This the End?

We were inseparable for two years. Both summers we left town together. Year one we went to Vermont, year two Colorado. We drove to Vermont non-stop. Thirty hours. We each had about a hundred dollars, enough for food and gas for a month. The cabin was free and we cleaned out our parents cabinets the day we left. I spent the first night staring out the window at the tree line. It was from the tree line that the zombies first appeared in Night of the Living Dead. I had just seen the movie and it looked like we had walked into a trap. We walked around the countryside a lot, encountering an old stone wall we decided was from a Union prison that once housed Confederate soldiers. The next summer we flew to Denver and prevailed upon the bus driver out of Denver to pull over and let us out on the side of the road outside Steamboat Springs. We hiked up the side of a mountain (hill really) and camped out for three days. I camped out for three days, LJ a week and Glenn went on to some wilderness area for a couple of weeks. I'll never forgive myself for letting him go. It was there he must have run into God and he was changed forever. He tolerated LJ and I from that point on and you could see in his eyes he knew we were Hell bound and there was nothing he could do about it. I loved Glenn then, and probably still do. One of the good guys. That's what made the email so painful.

Last week I opened an email from Glenn. Not really from him, whenever you see the FW: in the subject line you know the from line is a lie. The email, with the author's picture attached, explained to us that Republicans are proud of their faith in God while Democrats try to hide their faith, if even they have any. The ultimate in the politics of personal destruction, Democrats are godless, soulless hacks. Republicans are true believers, crusaders for Christ. The state of political discourse in our country is so abysmal as to rob me of almost all hope. I still have a shred left or I couldn't write even this. Or maybe I have none and this is the shout as I head for the bottom of the hole.

Glenn always represented the conservative side of our relationship, LJ was, by instinct, the Libertarian and I held a traditionally liberal position. LJ disappeared into some artistic community in central Mexico and Glenn went to work for the State Department. What is particularly distressing about Glenn's email is that he was/is an intelligent fellow. If the intelligentsia is succumbing to broad-brush platitudes designed to belittle and rob the opposition of any validity then any hope of legitimate discussion is fading. I long ago moved from the belief that I was right and everyone who disagreed was wrong to a place where I believed the melding of opposed viewpoints might yield a more workable if not truer position. I appear to once again be in the minority.

The complex answer, the compromise, the movement toward the truth are passe. Answers are simple enough to form sound bites, compromise is betrayal, the truth is known and it will no longer set you free. It will be used to jail you. This is the world of Delay, Limbaugh, and Wolfowitz. They look to humiliate and crush those opposed to them. They make no pretense to engaged informed discussion. The pundits have abandoned explanations and convincing aregument in favor of shouting and invective. And now the left has joined them. Al Franken and Michael Moore lead the way. Maybe they're right. Maybe if we don't shout back we'll be drowned out. But the rules of rhetoric haven't changed, civility doesn't go out of style. If the left wins by shouting louder and throwing darts more accurately, we all lose. But then we're probably lost anyway.

The culture may be corrupt beyond redemption. Violence has been institutionalized in our entertainment, the cult of the individual dominates the media, sports, even religion, the judicial and legislative branches of our government are at war with each other as judges legislate and congress imposes political litmus tests on judicial nominations, the party in power rewrites voting district boundaries to insure long-term dominance, one presidential candidate received half a million votes more than the man elected to the office and his "election" was decided by a state governed by his brother and we have, for the first time in our history, attacked a nation that did not attack us first. Worst of all, we've stopped talking about the issues that determine who we are and who we'll be. Opposition is treason, tolerance weakness. It's a dark dark tunnel we're in.

I Read the Paper Today

Haven't in a while. Been out. Here's what caught my eye. The Bush administration is "relaxing" the rules requiring emergency rooms to provide care for anyone regardless of their ability to pay. The war on cancer appears to be stuck in neutral as cancer deaths remain the same over the past four years. Well, not exactly, cancer deaths are on the rise in the black community and dropping in the white.

The Veep's old company is in the double digit billions in contracts to rebuild Iraq. The Baghdad police station was leveled by a car bomb yesterday. The Bush administration has decided to seek the UN's help in maintaining the "peace" in Iraq.

The US military has all but pulled out of the now "stabilized" Afghanistan. Bin Laden, according to Newsweek magazine, is holding meetings, attending weddings and funerals, and planning the next big strike from his mountain hideout along the Afghan/Pakistani border.

Jeb Bush has appointed state guardians for the fetus of a profoundly retarded woman pregnant by rape, thus precluding the possibility of abortion of the child. A smiling and apparently happy Presbyterian minister will be killed by the state of Florida today for murdering an abortion doctor and his bodyguard.

I shan't read the paper tomorrow...

Pax Bushama

For a thousand years Rome enforced the Pax Romana with an iron will and an army of unparalleled strength and cunning. Holding sway over the known world, any opposition force would have to deal with the Roman Legion, the smart bomb of antiquity.

Bob Woodard, in the final chapter of his book, Bush at War, paraphrases our own Caesar as feeling a "visceral hatred for the leader of North Korea... because of my religion or whatever." This comment, attributed by Woodward to George W, came in the midst of a conversation about ridding the world of oppressive and cruel governments. Seizing the opportunity presented by the terrorist attacks of September 11, George has become a man on a mission, a mission from God. Political confrontations are cast in Biblical tones as we align a "coalition of the willing" to attack and defeat the "Axis of Evil."

For a few short years after the defeat of the last Axis of Evil (Germany-Japan-Italy), America found itself in a position similar to the Rome of Antiquity. With Europe in ruins, a generation of Russian men killed, and America in sole possession of the ultimate weapon, the world was ours for the remaking. Our ambition then was smaller. We were about the rebuilding of Europe and the pacification of our the nations of Germany and Japan (Italy pacified itself with the public hanging of their dictator, Mussolini). Our opportunity to remake the rest of the world, had we visions of a Pax Americana, was circumscribed by Russia's entrance in the nuclear club. The political landscape reverted to its historical state of power balanced against power. Russia ruled the east and America ruled the west, and so it went for fifty years. With Russia's collapse, American power is now balanced only by our good judgment. A judgment tempered by "...religion or whatever." And what better intention can be found than freeing enslaved people? Why shouldn't we act to relieve injustice, free enslaved peoples, rid the world of bandits?

Rome acted not out of altruistic but selfish motivation. They quashed tribes, city-states, and nations to preserve their empire and way of life, a way of life enjoyed by a small percentage of the general population. Although we may cloak our actions in moralist fabric, we are acting in our own self-interest. We are setting ourselves against evil not because it is evil but because it threatens us. How many administration sopkesmen have we heard tell us, "the world changed on September 11?" We are being told we must act against the Axis of Evil because they threaten us and our way of life. Why we are preparing to wage war is the question posed and answered by our government. The "debate" has been framed by the people proposing the action. A better and more pertinent question is, can we succeed?

The Romans were defending against organized (even though the barbarians may have been at times little more than an unruly mob) resistance. When the government or tribal leader or city fell, the people found themselves subjects of Rome. Resistance was futile. Could one or even ten men march into Rome and plant a satchel of explosives at the base of the Coliseum? The individual had no recourse. This is clearly a different time. This is not an army we're fighting, the hordes are not crossing the Alba River en masse. It took less than ten men to bring down the World Trade Towers. It would only take one man, infected with smallpox, riding the underground train at Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta for a day or so, to wreak havoc. Nonetheless, we talk about war against a nation. We toppled the regressive and oppressive Taliban and now have our sights set on Iraq. Once Iraq is tamed, North Korea, Syria, Iran, and any other governments we declare outlaw. If you get to declare the law you can make anyone you want an outlaw by declaring it so. As these governments fall, though, the people they represent do not fall with them. Unlike ancient times, a very small number of people can do a great deal of damage.

We are making a mistake on a parallel with the mistake made by the old-school European generals and leaders who rushed into World War I with 19th Century tactics and notions about battle rendered tragically obsolete by the advent of 20th Century weapons (see World War I). Today's old-school generals (George W, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and the like), believe we can whip the world into submission in the same way Rome whipped the ancient world. Their miscalculation may hasten our own demise. As we wield American power with a righteous fervor born of a sincere belief in doing good, we are in danger of creating hundreds more Mohamed Atta's and Osama Bin's. With relatively little financing (by comparison to a traditional army) these fellows can inflict damage on a scale previously thought the prerogative of nations and armies. This is what we invite when we set ourselves against the Axis of Evil. Not the defeat of an evil axis but the splintering of that axis into ten thousand miniature axes wielded by an army of Lilliputians.

This weekend I drove from San Antonio to Houston along Interstate 10. I tend to go a little faster than the norm so I pass a lot of vehicles. Of note were a dozen or so flat bed trailers loaded with recently painted trucks and transformers. They were painted the color of sand but the interior was Army green. We are mobilizing for a war with Iraq. A war we will no doubt win. We will then occupy Iraq and set about installing a peaceful and "democratic" regime in place of the deposed dictator. I don't think anyone, including me, is ready for a war of occupation. Do we expect the Iraqi people to welcome us with open arms? Maybe some will but some will certainly not. And where will they go, these unhappy occupants of an occupied Iraq? Into the underground. An underground that will snipe and bomb and kill our soldiers at rates our "commanders" find acceptable. Five to ten casualties doesn't seem like much. Until they become the lead story on the evening news and a regular recurring headline below the fold in every morning paper in the country. "Two more US soldiers were shot and killed and four injured when their patrol was ambushed from a fruit stand on the outskirts of Baghdad. Two Iraqi terrorists were killed in return fire." Day after day, week after week, month after month. And for what? Will the world be made safer? Our cities more secure from terrorist attack? Just the opposite, I fear.

"Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it." Anyone listening?

A Conversation Overheard Between the Left and the Far Left

John:

what happened?
was I asleep?

perhaps we should recall the words of Benjamin Franklin, "The great thing about being a creature of reason is that you can find a reason for whatever you do."

Secret Court OKs Broad Wiretap Powers
Mon Nov 18
By Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a victory for the Bush administration, a secretive appeals court Monday ruled the U.S. government has the right to use expanded powers to wiretap terrorism suspects...in a 56-page ruling overturning a May opinion by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the three-judge appeals court panel said the Patriot Act gave the government the right to expanded powers.

Attorney General John Ashcroft (news - web sites) hailed Monday's ruling and said he was immediately implementing new regulations and working to expedite the surveillance process.

FOURTH AMENDMENT ISSUES

Civil liberties groups, which had urged the appeals court -- comprised of three appeals court judges named by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (news - web sites) -- to uphold the court's order, slammed the ruling.

The appeal hearing was not public, and only the Justice Department's top appellate lawyer, Theodore Olson, presented arguments.

did i miss something?
how did the "secret court" come about?
the secret court rules on whether to give the government more surveillance powers?

what can we possibly do about this?

david

Dear David:

The republic has been dying from the day it was conceived.

Like all "living" things, its life is finite. The proper question is, does this latest abrogation of our freedoms spell the final death knell? I believe the answer is no.

You must accept the tenet that we are at war. This is a position I share, but not for the same reasons it is held by the federal government and a plurality of the people. I believe we are at war not with Ossama or Al Qaeda or even with the Islamic world. I believe we are at war with the non-industrialized world. Our "partners" in the industrialized world are our partners in the same sense that Greek city-states were partners with Athens in the Delian League of the Peloponnesian War. Bush most recently spelled that out in his "for us or agin' us" speech. Like Athens partners twenty-five hundred years ago, today's Greece, like France, Canada, Kuwait and others, have little real choice but to "join" us in the war on terror. They are our partners because they are dependent on the economic machine that generates their wealth and the engine of that machine has been and will be for the foreseeable future, the US. They are our partners not just in thew "War on Terror" of course, but partners (albeit junior) in out pursuit of economic domination. Bodies like the WTO and the IMF exist as a buffer between the imposition of our naked will and our preferred perception of ourselves.

"They" believe we are at war because we were attacked by Al Qaeda in New York. As that belief is held by the Executive and Judicial branches, if not officially by the legislative, the government, with the support or acquiescence of the people, will significantly erode our civil liberties. The principle is, of course, if we continue to play by our rules while they play by their rules, we stand a greater chance of losing. Consequently, we are compelled to suspend many constitutionally guaranteed freedoms for the duration of the war. It has been done before and will be again. It will be better or worse contingent upon the magnitude of the threat and the predisposition of the courts to uphold or resist the Executive and Legislative branch's push to greater power. What makes this one worse is the preponderance of Republican/conservative judges in the Judicial. Rehnquist was appointed by Nixon, his eight plus Reagan's eight and Bush I's four gave the Republican's twenty years worth of "their" judges. We are seeing the results now in the rollback of rights for the accused, continued validation of the death penalty, etc. etc. I once thought the Presidency was not much more than Teddy Roosevelt's "bully pulpit" but I changed that position when I saw the power of the Warren Court (desegregation, attorneys for the poor, etc.) and John Sirica, the judge that "broke" the Watergate conspiracy by threatening to lock everyone up unless someone came forward with the truth.

The prayer is that the pendulum will swing back once hostilities have ceased, and our freedoms will be restored. The threat is that hostilities will not cease. That in our headlong rush to remake the world in a USA friendly image (Iraq is first, Iran and Syria will follow if the Bush Presidency goes to two terms) we will antagonize Hezbollah and the rest of the organized opposition. Should that happen, and real havoc begin to be wreaked on the world economy, we could see financial collapse in borderline countries like Mexico and Indonesia with the resulting political collapses bringing the New World Order to a halt. This would, I believe, usher in a new Dark Age as Order itself would disintegrate and we would retreat behind our borders and build a fortress America. The fortress would soon become a prison and no fit place to live.

I think that won't happen yet.

Maybe I hope would be more accurate.

JohnS

Some Observations on the Mid-Term Election

Two days before the election I deleted emails from two old friends about the difference between a republican and a democrat's reaction to a gun toting marauder. The Republican would shoot the marauder and celebrate the freedom that allows him to murder a murderer. The Democrat would be paralyzed in analysis and concern for the bad guy.

My initial reaction was frustration at the buy-in my friends made to this simple-minded, mean-spirited characterization. Like most things, of course, there is truth to be found and lessons to learn. First, Republicans have successfully established an identity. Even more, they have associated themselves with freedom, liberty, justice, and righteousness. What is the Democratic identify? Visualizing a Republican is easy, as my son remarked when he was only ten, "Republicans have the best hair." They are full of conviction, exclusive, passionate and outspoken. Democrats are softer, less in focus. They are unsure of themselves, inclusive, compassionate, politically correct. Perhaps a function of the right-wing or fundamentalist pillar in their midst, Republicans do not want for vocal proponents of their cause. Although mainstream Republicans might distance themselves from such icons of intolerance as Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell, the distance is still within earshot. Democratic voices? Gephardt, Kennedy, Gore are as eloquent as any political figures on the landscape but they muzzle themselves with minutiae and caveat any position. Perhaps that is as it should be, this is a complex time with complex issues requiring understanding and intellectual diligence to ferret out the truth. Or is it?

Remember when we used to worry about First Strike nuclear capability. Not ours, theirs. No one ever seriously discussed the merits of the US developing a First Strike plan. All the conversation was about the godless communists attacking us without warning. Happened once before when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, "a day that will live in infamy." Universal condemnation was the reaction. And now? In the "you are for us or against us" "wanted: dead or alive" world of our cowboy president we are openly discussing a first strike against Iraq. As awful as war is, we, until now, have never considered starting one. We are not at war with Iraq, they do not even have the ability to wage war with us, and we are, sure as shooting, going to blow them up. "After all, these are the guys that tried to kill my dad," George W reminds us. In the Mad Hatter logic that stands for reason these days, the justification for launching an unprovoked attack on a nation is their possession of weapons of mass destruction. Better add the UK, France, China, Russia, and a half dozen other nations to the list of those deserving a preemptive strike from the USA.

America emerged from the Cold War as the preeminent power in the world. Almost immediately, we set about remaking the world in our image. The World Trade Organization is not about the business of preventing starvation or slowing the AIDS epidemic. It is about the business of facilitating trade. Trade is important to half the world's population, the other half is busy trying to survive the day. Greater access to tennis shoes is not on their agenda. But it is on ours. The nation that will benefit the most from the WTO's mission is the greatest trading nation in the world, America. Using tools like the IMF and the World Bank we reshape nations into good trading partners. Portugal, England, and Spain once did the same thing. They were less clever and more direct, creating colonies where raw materials could be had and finished goods sold.

What was the percentage, eighty, ninety percent of the money from George's tax break into the hands of the top five percent? How can this be? Is this not an issue? Please, someone help me understand why the rich need a tax break. Trickle-down economics was once labeled voodoo economics by George W's dad. Shake that chicken bone George, shake it.

Maybe we should consider a Hippocratic oath for nations. First, do no harm. Promise to help without regard for economic or political status.

Dream on John.

It's Not As Easy As All That 09.12.02

I don't think I've ever been a dualist. Maybe it was having two older brothers and a younger sister. Maybe it was taking debate classes in junior high school. Maybe it is was being raised in the Methodist Church. Maybe it was mom.

I've never seen the world or people or issues in black and white terms. Right and wrong exist, but they exist on a continuum. People are good and bad but never all one or the other. Yes, Chris, the truth is out there but we will always see it from a perspective, ours, and we are unique. Mine isn't yours and hers isn't mine. Similar maybe, but never the same.

A German friend of mine once remarked that Hitler made some really good freeways. He was as much an anti-fascist as anyone I know. I don't think he intended it, but he made the point as dramatically as he could. When someone tells me about some dastardly person's "good side" I often retort with, "Adolph was a nice person to Eva." Now this isn't about Hitler, so sit back down please.

Good and evil are positions on a spectrum, not switches in an "on" or "off" mode. We are not good and they are not evil. To believe otherwise is dangerous. If I start from a place where I am good and you are evil, the ease with which I can justify my beliefs, thoughts, and actions is substantially enhanced. The ease with which I can condemn your beliefs thoughts, and actions is equivalently facilitated. As an individual, to hold to such positions would make me insufferable. If I'm busy relegating everyone I meet to their respective camps of good or evil, you might think me arrogant, and judgmental, if not nuts. For a nation to behave thus is dangerous in a way that hardly compares to the behavior of an individual. When that nation is the most powerful nation in history and alone on the world stage, the danger transcends and terrifies. Or it should.

Our government has been talking in terms of good and evil for some time now. From the beginning of the "Bush doctrine" that compels the nations of the world into the "for us" or "against us" camps, to the latest talk of "commitment to regime change" in Iraq, our foreign policy has operated from the imaginary, and false, world of dualism. Last February's declaration of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil" was the beginning of the administrations preparation for war against Iraq. Condoleezza Rice attempted to explain Bush's meaning, "äthey are repressive regimes that are opaque -- that are difficult to know what they are doing, they are regimes that have been very, very harsh on their people." By that definition we could expand the axis to include the Confederacy, Greece in the 1960's, Turkey all the way back to the Ottoman Empire, France under Louis XIV, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. What Bush is really saying is his axis of evil are bad guys, we are good guys, and in the world of Wanted: Dead or Alive, anything goes. Bolstered by righteous indignation, justified by the horror of the Trade Center collapse, we set out to make the world safe for "freedom loving people." We define freedom loving, we separate people from regimes, we make the rules because we can; more importantly, because we are good and they are evil.

Sometimes I wish I thought that way. Faith would be so much easier if I believed the book to be the incarnate word of God. The path ahead would be clear instead of the trail less jungle it is. As it is, I must find my way every day, ever vigilant, ever assessing, ever ready to change direction. It is the harder choice but, for the thinking person, no choice at all.

A Business Primer and a Threatening Shift in Paradigms 07.09.02

Traditional business management tells us there are three components to business: cost of goods, revenue and financial reporting. What does it cost to put a product into the marketplace, what do you get for it, and how do you account for the money coming in and going out?

Cost of goods includes the costs of raw materials and the costs associated with manufacturing. Raw materials might include the cost of steel or green beans or films on CD, depending on your line of business. The cost associated with manufacturing might include tools and equipment, facility and labor costs. Sometimes included in the cost of goods are marketing and the costs of sales.

Revenue is, of course, generated by the sale of product. Product price would appear fairly straightforward but must address issues of supply and demand. The markets need or desire for the product, its relative scarcity, and competitive factors all play a role in pricing.

The third component in business is accounting for funds received and dispersed. In the more straightforward model, the difference between funds received and dispersed is recognized as profit. Even profit, however, has its components, gross, net, and pre-tax are all qualifiers of the term profit. Gross profit is revenue less cost of goods but before overhead or administrative costs are subtracted. Pre-tax is the apparent profit before Uncle Sam takes his share, and net profit is the money left over for reinvestment or profit-sharing or partying, as the owners decide. The accountant's report of profitability is called the income and expense statement. Financial reporting also includes a report of assets and liabilities, otherwise known as a balance sheet. Income and expense statements measure the financial success of the enterprise over a fixed period, a month, a quarter, or a year. The balance sheet is the ongoing record of the business. Long term assets like land and machinery are reported in the balance sheet as well as money owed but not paid, receivables and payables.

In starting a business, in the absence of sufficient capital, partners or investors are brought in to properly capitalize the business. These partners or investors can be compensated by a simple repayment plan with interest or they might receive a percentage of the business itself, a share. In the late 1700's in New York, a group of banks formalized this practice of selling "shares" in businesses. Fees were levied on these exchanges and the business of stock trading was born.

The manner in which the value of a share of stock is determined can be rather complex. Ultimately, the value of a share of stock is determined by the price one is willing to pay for it. Unlike currency, another type of intrinsically valueless document to which we assign value, the value of stock can fluctuate wildly. When stock is first issued in a company, (an Initial Public Offering or IPO) a price or price range is assigned by the stock broker (current day incarnations of the original group of banks that formed the New York Stock Exchange in 1792) based on their best estimate as to the "market" price. That price is determined by a combination of factors including the product the company is offering, the background of the ownership or management team behind the company, current market trends, etc. The broker actually purchases the shares and then resells them to the buying public on the day of the IPO. Additional transactions can now occur with the stock being sold and resold an unlimited number of times at prices determined by the "market." The company receives the funds from the first sale (the one to the broker) but sees no additional revenue from subsequent sales. Annually, companies will pay dividends to their shareholders if they have had a good year, or nothing in a bad year. The dividends are usually a fraction of the original price of the stock but are a source of revenue for the shareholders. The primary revenue for the shareholder, though, comes from reselling the stock to anyone willing to pay more than they paid. The motivation to pay more is rooted in the belief that someone else will one day (sooner or later) be willing to pay even more still. Companies, therefore, are under some pressure from their shareholders to take actions that will increase the value of their stock.

The most direct method of increasing stock value is to increase the profitability of a company. Increasing profitability is done through increasing revenue or decreasing expense. Increasing revenue means more sales or higher prices. Increasing sales takes time and expertise. Either an increase in the sales staff or an increase in their productivity or more or more effective marketing requires time and investment. Higher prices can bring immediate increased revenues provided the consumer is willing to pay the increased price. Increase the price too much and opportunities are created for the competition.

A far easier and more quickly realized solution is decreasing expense. As labor is one of the largest components of expense in most businesses, a staff reduction can achieve the desired result almost immediately.

The pressure to increase shareholder value is as old as shareholders, about two hundred years. Shareholders are a subset of one of the three groups with a vested interest in a business. Shareholders are part of the ownership group, the other groups are customers and employees. Strategic and management decisions are most often made with one or more of these groups in mind. If the primary focus is on ownership, profit or return on investment becomes the primary guiding light. If the focus is on customers, service or product value becomes paramount. A focus on employees if most often manifested in the reverse. A failure to address the needs of employees can result in unionization, high turnover, or poor morale. The proper placement of emphasis is in a balance between these three interest groups. Should any of these groups become the overarching force driving strategy and decision making, the results can be disastrous. If profitability is favored at the expense of the employee (salary cuts, layoffs), employees may look elsewhere for employment. If value is emphasized at the expense of profitability, potential investors (future shareholders) will be hard to come by. Raising additional operating capital through additional offerings of stock will no longer be an option. Beginning fifteen years ago, one of these groups, or more accurately a subset of the ownership group, began to realize an inordinate share of influence over company strategy and decision making. To understand how this imbalance came about, a brief review of stock market history is necessary.

Between 1900 and 1929 the stock market fluctuated between 50 and 400 points. The dollar value of the stock certificates during that period ranged between two billion and thirty five billion dollars. Between 1930 and 1987 the market fluctuated between 200 and 2,000 points. The value of stocks in that same period ranged between twenty billion and one and a half trillion dollars. From 1987 to the present, the stock market has steadily grown from 2,000 to well over 10,000 points. The stocks represented by that range went from one and a half to five trillion dollars. It took almost two hundred years for the stock market to break and remain above the one thousand-point level. In the twenty years since that barrier was broken, the market has expanded to over ten thousand points. A graph of the Dow Jones moves along a nearly level line until the 1980's when it begins to move nearly vertically. The relative value of the stock market has increased far in excess of the value of the companies it purports to represent. The traditional methodology for stock valuation, an examination of the profit to earnings ratio, was entirely discarded in the nineties as companies with virtually no revenue and huge losses were suddenly valued at levels greater than General Motors, IBM, etc. The bursting of the dot-com bubble that fueled that explosion in the market has slowed but not arrested the nearly vertical ascent of the market.

The historical relationship between the value of the "shares" in a business and the value of the business itself has been compromised. Stock is being traded without regard for the underlying business it represents. Simultaneously, the overall value of the stocks themselves has increased exponentially.

The effect is to increase the "weight" of the shareholders at the expense of the remaining stakeholders, employees and customers. Increasing stock value became the preeminent concern of management. Business executives were lauded as geniuses when they took actions resulting in the increase of the price of stock. Selling unprofitable units, cutting staff, and reducing expenditures in research and development were hailed as the courageous acts of visionary leaders. In fact, these were simple-minded actions designed to do little more than increase short-term profit and inflate stock price. CEO's of Allied-Signal and GE were seen as model execs for twenty-first century business as they presided over organizations with no identity, little direction, and even less integrity.

Clearly, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the temptation to "adjust" financial statements to increase apparent profitability was too great to resist. The very public meltdown of Enron, Global Crossing, and WorldCom are all attributable to the headlong pursuit of increased stock price. Through one or another variation of moving expenses off their income and expense report, each of these companies appeared to increase profitability. In Enron's case, this was accomplished by creating separate companies where the expenses (and losses) could be shown without effecting the Enron statement of profitability. Global Crossing and WorldCom simply moved routine expenses from the income and expense statement (where profitability is reported) to the balance sheet. Instead of actually reducing expenses, expenses were simply whisked away with the stroke of a pen. All three companies (and countless others of smaller size and thus less noticeable) were misrepresenting their profitability in order to elevate or maintain the price of company stock. Once the workforce has been reduced through "downsizing," the research and development budget gutted and unprofitable units sold, executives faced with shareholders clamoring for further reductions in expense begin to look elsewhere.

Without a return to a shared emphasis on the three components comprising the standard business model we can continue to expect more of the same.

The rhetoric of recent days regarding corporate malfeasance belies the fundamental nature of the shift in emphasis to stock price at the expense of all other values. This week the President addressed the need for the Federal government to act swiftly to restore investor confidence. Restore investor confidence. The dissolution of these companies and the resultant effect on customers and employees is the secondary concern, if a concern at all. Attention must be paid first to the investors or shareholders. The stock price and the market must continue to rise, at all costs. Too much money is at stake to expect any other outcome.

Solutions are readily available, preclude stock from executive compensation plans, tie executive compensation to a factor of the average employees compensation, suspend stock trading when the value of a stock exceeds any rational connection to the value of the company or its product. As with campaign finance reform, however, the possibility of any real reform is virtually nil as long as the legislative and executives branches are the beneficiaries of the system they are charged with regulating. The million dollars Bush made from the Harken stock sale (just before Harken stock tanked) (see George W. and the Golden Calf for more about George's financial dealings) and the twenty-six million Cheney earned in his last year at Halliburton (of which twenty-four million was in stock and stock options) do not encourage hope that this administration will act to correct this imbalance.

Musings on Peloponnesia and the Panic Ploy 05.22.02

Odd, isn't it? Within forty eight hours of the nation discovering that George W. was appraised of imminent acts of terror prior to September 11 we are treated to a multi-day series of pronouncements about the new imminent threat of terror and appraised by the FBI of the almost absolute certainty that suicide bombers are here in the US. Even today, day three of the Bush counter-offensive in his War Against Criticism (WAC), we are told by our condescending Secretary of Defense (chosen for the post no doubt because of his faith in Reagan's Star Wars shield as well as his advanced age) that terrorists are sure to acquire nuclear, chemical or biological weaponry. Well, duh, Donald. Is this news? Or distraction. Maybe it's just the cynic in me, but the timing seems a little more than coincidental.

The threat assessments that we are now being told were way too general to tell us about last January, March, and August were, however, specific enough to compel the Attorney General to instruct Justice Department employees not to fly commercial airlines. Ashcroft himself leased a private jet at government expense to take him and his family on vacation. Obfuscation anyone?

George W. responds to the criticism by passionately declaring that anyone who knows him, knows if he knew about a plan to crash planes into the World Trade Center he would have done everything in his power to stop it. Well, of course you would have George. Not even the most rabid of your critics would suggest you would have allowed anything like that to happen. The question is, why are you telling us what you knew beforehand, EIGHT months after the fact? Why wait to tell us? And why now? Maybe that surge of support back then was too heady a rush to risk by giving us all the facts. And why now? Because we were about to be told by the news media! Those nattering nabobs of negativism, or to update the sweeping condemnation of the press so often heard from administrations with much to hide, the simpering scions of second-guessing, were once again about to spill the beans.

And so you go on the offensive. Balancing every revelation about information the administration had or should have put together is another revelation about the seriousness and imminent nature of the threat against us. The message - we are at war ladies and gentlemen and we must all stand together against the rising tide of terrorism. A house divided. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Yesterday, walking home from the movies, I noticed a small American flag lying in the dirt of a neighbors' flowerbed. I picked it up and replanted it. Today I was passed by half a dozen cars with their plastic flagpoles rolled up in the rear seat windows with the American flag whipping back and forth in a tattered frenzy. "God Bless America, Eat Our Fresh Seafood" the restaurant billboard along the freeway declares. Patriots one and all, right? Between the lemmings and their flags and the shameless hucksters and their billboards, probably not one could recite the preamble to the Constitution. But they can certainly repeat what their leaders tell them:
Anyone questioning the President during this time of war is irresponsible and should be silenced.
We must "finish the job" dad started and rid the world of Sadaam Hussein.
The Cuban embargo serves a purpose (other than ensuring the votes of South Floridians).
The government has compelling justification to arrest and detain in secret.

These cynical retreads from a time past are using the attacks from al-Qaida to further their own agenda. Why else would an Under Secretary of State falsely accuse the Cubans of exporting weapons of mass destruction just before President Carter makes a visit to Cuba? Why would the push for weapons inspection in Iraq suddenly make the leap to the front burner?

We have set the new standard in the New World Order. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel as their reactionary government, under the direction of Ariel Sharon, systematically dismantles the Palestinian authority. Lest we forget, the current Palestinian uprising began when Ariel Sharon insisted on visiting a Muslim and Israeli holy place on a Muslim high holy day. A conscious and deliberate provocation, cynically used by Sharon to call down the former government in a failed confidence vote and assure his ascension to power. Once in power, the West Bank is invaded and Arafat branded a terrorist. Sharon's heavy hand is only the more visible sign of the same cynical motivation behind our governments suspension of select civil liberties and vilification of old enemies. These men are using the real threat posed by bin Laden and Hezbollah to accomplish the objectives of a more general strategy.

The United States has embarked on a path to insure its unassailable claim to preeminent world power remains beyond the reach of any other nation. We are hammering friends and foes into line, in much the same way Athens compelled the ancient world's powers into line in the Delian League. Athens sounded the alarm over a very real threat posed by the Persians (ancient Iran!). Join us and defeat the Persians or our very existence will be threatened, the Athenians preached. True enough, the panic ploy served its purpose and the Delian League was formed. Once the Persians were vanquished, though, the Delian League remained. Soon, at Athens' (and a fellow named Pericles) direction, the Delian League began scanning the horizon for other threats, real or future. One major power, Sparta, had declined membership. The "for us or against us" mentality we have heard from on high of late was predominant and Athens eventually declared war on Sparta and The Peloponnesian War was joined. Athens was eventually defeated as the members of the Delian league, tired of the tyrannical and arrogant ways of the Athenians, jumped ship to Sparta's side. The world's first democratic experiment ended in disaster as the arrogance of power subsumed what was once the glorious democratic principles of a noble experiment. Does any of this sound familiar?

 

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