Itchy nuclear trigger fingers

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doubts that Iran can convince western powers that its nuclear program is peaceful. Like Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction, while denying it has a program to develop proscribed weapons, Iran has preserved suspicion.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to divert attention from the country’s treatment of Palestinians and its expansion of settlements in the West Bank by citing an Iranian threat. Iran’s PressTV reports that Saudi Arabia has granted Israel overflight permission for a strike against Iran. President Barack Obama has demanded that Iran “come clean” about its program.

But as the drumbeat against Iran picks up its pace, we should keep Iran’s as yet nonexistent nuclear weapons in perspective. According to the Arms Control Association, China has 100-200 warheads; France has approximately 350 strategic warheads; Russia has 2,787 strategic warheads, approximately 2,000 operational tactical warheads, and approximately 8,000 stockpiled strategic and tactical warheads; the United Kingdom has less than 160 deployed strategic warheads; and the United States has 2,126 strategic warheads, approximately 500 operational tactical weapons, and approximately 6,700 reserve strategic and tactical warheads. Israel has between 75 and 200 nuclear warheads. Of these powers, only one has ever used atomic weapons: the United States against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

So as the U.S. and others pursue sanctions against Iran, I’m reminded of a clause in chapter two of the United Nations charter which Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi pointed to in complaining about the Security Council. It reads, “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.” Yet it would be through this organization that additional sanctions would be imposed.

Piss trickling down on the rest of us

One of the very important myths I’m supposed to believe is the “trickle down” theory, that making the rich richer leads to benefits that “trickle down” to the rest of society. Another way of phrasing it which I recall from the Reagan era is that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

So I’m wondering how I’m supposed to understand the following chart:

It shows that about two thirds of all income gains between 2002 and 2007 went to the top one percent of the population.

Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr., write:

According to the ideology of the American Dream, America is the land of limitless opportunity in which individuals can go as far as their own merit takes them. According to this ideology, you get out of the system what you put into it. Getting ahead is ostensibly based on individual merit, which is generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity. Americans not only tend to think that is how the system should work, but most Americans also think that is how the system does work (Huber and Form 1973, Kluegel and Smith 1986, Ladd 1994).

So when Ronald Reagan became president, I should have gotten rich! Somehow that didn’t work out. I just don’t understand why. I mean, it just couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that the top twenty percent of the population takes home nearly 50 percent of the income or that the top one percent of the population holds over 30 percent of the wealth.
And surely our President Barack Obama wouldn’t have bailed out all those rich people if they didn’t need the help a lot more than the six million who have lost their jobs since the beginning of this recession. After all, it’s not like anybody needs a job or anything. I just don’t understand.

You know, I guess there’s just one explanation. It must have something to do with what McNamee and Miller have to say about how wealth seems to be associated with inheritance. After all, if you were born to money, you might have a mental breakdown or something if you don’t have it anymore. And you know that’s gotta be more important than anybody else having food to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof over their head. I mean think of poor Paris Hilton! Nothing else makes any sense, does it?

A fascist future?

If Gene Lyons is right, and there’s a good chance he is, a majority of the U.S. public recognizes much of the recent health care insanity for what it is. And while some of the furor is self-inflicted, it is pretty obvious that a lot of this is more about racism than health care.

So I’m trying to envision a scenario where Republican politicians who may exploit idiocy without necessarily being idiots themselves see an advantage in doing this. That they may fatally cripple Obama’s presidency is certainly a factor. But how does it work to do this if Republicans make themselves look worse?

It works if Republicans have reached a similar conclusion to the Center for American Progress that their long-term electoral hopes are dim. It works if Republicans want a vocal and potentially violent enough faction to frighten a majority already suffering a profound dissonance between their experience and their beliefs about the U.S. into acquiescence. It works when Democrats undermine their own mandate and preserve the status quo by doing everything possible to appease Republicans. It works if Republicans are moving towards a fascist future.

Of course, I don’t know that this can work. It might be that if anything like this scenario came to fruition, the people of the U.S. would rise up, violently if need be, to restore the system of government they were raised to expect. But when I look at what didn’t happen in the wake of two stolen elections, when I look at early public acquiescence followed by an enthusiasm for the Iraq war that waned only when it became clear the U.S. could not win, when I look at public reaction to passage of the Patriot Act, I’d have to guess that just maybe the Republicans are on to something.

Fractured states, fractured minds

True to form, U.S. President Barack Obama backed down from his demand for a complete halt to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. So I’m going to show you two maps. Both are maps of states which are untenable because they lack territorial contiguity. The first is the initial partition plan for the creation of Israel and the second is a map of the West Bank today. Both are from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site:

Israel has, since independence/nakba, gone from one extreme to the other. It began as a refuge for Jews convinced they would never find security in Europe following the Holocaust and now commits crimes against humanity against the Palestinians. It began with a territory that was unreasonably fractured; not only is it now whole on territory stolen from Palestinians, but expects Palestinians to accept a state which is even more unreasonably fractured than that which was initially offered to Israel.

Maybe race is the only thing that matters about the Obama presidency.

President Barack Obama’s post-racialism is reaching absurd proportions. In an interview, former President Jimmy Carter said, “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African American.”

Carter’s remarks are reasonable. One would have to dig pretty deep and reach pretty far to otherwise explain the sheer venom behind the birther movement which keeps resurrecting itself under new pseudonyms to go along with new excuses for bizarre and frankly dangerous behavior. Even Bill Cosby, whom I criticize harshly for blaming impoverished Blacks for their own condition, agrees (and sounds pretty reasonable in the process).

It isn’t like Obama doesn’t know there’s racism in the country. He admitted as much when first asked about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.

So we have to dig a little too deep and reach a little too far to explain White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ remark that:

The president does not believe that the criticism comes based on the color of his skin. We understand that people have disagreements with some of the decisions that we’ve made … I don’t — I don’t think that, you know, the president does not believe that it’s based on the color of his skin.

Gibbs held his ground under remarkable (for the White House Press Corps) questioning.

People in the White House simply cannot really believe this. The article from which I draw the Gibbs quote explains that “the Obama team has always been wary of suggestions that race plays a role in the opposition to the president, for fear that he’ll be accused of playing the ‘race card’ or tagged as a new Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson.”

But what’s really troubling is that they apparently expect to maintain credibility while issuing these denials. This is not the first time, by a rather long shot. Obama backed off on his entirely reasonable initial statement about the Gates arrest. After a masterful speech that still denied the significance of Reverend Jim Wright’s remarks, he repudiated his former pastor, of whom he had initially said he could “no more disown . . . than . . . my white grandmother.”

It’s starting to look seriously delusional. Perhaps even pathological. Obama’s been lying so much he doesn’t even see what surely the entire rest of the world must see. He’s been in office for less than eight months. He ran on a platform of “change,” but his term looks more and more like Bush’s third.

Which makes it all the more clear that the birthers, deathers, tenthers, and whatever it is they are this week are really about race, and that Obama’s denials of race as a factor are all the more ironic. Because it looks like the only thing that’s changed at the White House is the skin color of its occupants.

No, you can’t be an environmentalist, even if you eat pasture-fed beef

The Utne Reader published an article encouraging people to eat “environmentally friendly” beef. This is supposed to be good because the waste from pasture-fed cattle gets recycled into the earth, dramatically reducing their carbon footprint. The article ends with a quote from Lisa Hamilton in Audubon magazine:

“In order for pasture-based livestock to become a significant part of the meat industry, we need to eat more of its meat, not less,” Hamilton writes. “So if you want to use your food choices to impact climate change, by all means follow Dr. Pachauri’s suggestion for a meatless Monday. But on Tuesday, have a grass-fed burger—and feel good about it.”

The Florida Sierra Club also argues in favor of pasture-fed beef because such cattle require fewer pesticides and antibiotics.

Beef, and meat generally, are part of a large issue involving the environment, the amount of food we have available to feed a world population which now approaches seven billion, and the land it takes to produce that food. Whether you keep cattle in factory farms or more humanely on pastures, they require food and lots of it. And growing that food requires lots of land.

P.W. Gerbens-Leenes and S. Nonhebel estimated that a meat-based diet requires six times the amount of land as a wheat-based diet. And you can’t use just any land. “On a global scale, 31% of the soil surface can be used for arable crops, while an additional 33% is suitable for grassland,” they write.

In the United States, that picture is worsening. Not only is much of this land being developed, but drought has punished a lot of traditional agricultural land in the west. Though the article doesn’t explain this, Colorado River water is over-allocated. And now it’s running low.

Las Vegas is now aiming to tap into an aquifer under the Snake Valley that straddles eastern Nevada and western Utah. Recently, a rancher friend who ekes out a precarious living there mentioned the obvious to me: the dusty surface of that arid high desert is barely held in place by a thin covering of brush, sage, and grass. Drop the water table even a few more inches and it all dies.

A Tomgram notes similar effects around the world:

Jump a few thousand miles and along with neighboring Syria, Iraq has been going through an almost biblical drought which has turned parts of that country into a dustbowl, sweeping the former soil of the former Fertile Crescent via vast dust storms into the lungs of city dwellers.

In Africa, formerly prosperous Kenya is withering in the face of another fearsome drought that has left people desperate and livestock, crops, and children, as well as elephants, dying.

And, if you happen to be on the lookout, you can read about drought in India, where rice and sugar cane farmers as well as government finances are suffering. Or consider Mexico, where the 2009 wet season never arrived and crops are wilting in a parched countryside from the U.S. border to the Yucatan Peninsula.

It probably isn’t just drought and development that is doing this. About the time that Ronald Reagan was elected and inaugurated, during the years 1980 to 1981, I was working as a programmer/analyst under contract to the Bureau of Land Management Nevada State Office in Reno, Nevada. The major project I was working on was a conversion program from their old forage inventory system to something called “Soils and Vegetation Inventory Management,” which was an attempt to calculate the number of animals a given unit of land could sustainably support. This was a Jimmy Carter-era project and was assumed to be doomed when a less environmentally-friendly Reagan was elected.

I became very familiar with the data. And I saw oddities, such as domestic horses being allocated 1000 pounds each of forage per month while wild horses only got 800 pounds. I learned that the ranchers wanted to count every pound of plant available, whether animals would eat it or not. Cattle will eat everything else available, absolutely destroying the ecosystem, before resorting to sagebrush, but ranchers complained about the “preference use factor” allocated for sagebrush. Calculating it the ranchers’ way meant that nothing but sagebrush would be left, but it also meant they could put more cattle, sheep, and horses on the ground.

One of the movements that helped Reagan’s election was something called the “sagebrush rebellion.” It was ostensibly about the amount of land in the west under federal control. But it was really about how many cattle, sheep, and horses ranchers could put on that land. Ranchers would insist that they were just as interested in long-term sustainability as environmentalists, but with a hindsight that now includes the present financial collapse, it is hard to argue that this wasn’t just more of the same old capitalism at work. I don’t actually know how this came out because I didn’t stick around to see it, but I have little doubt that with Reagan in the White House and James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, the ranchers won and the ecosystem lost.

Reagan was in power for eight years. He was followed by George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. But some liberals still think you can eat meat and be an environmentalist.

Ridiculous, except to the audience that counts

I’ve been watching a series of editorial cartoons in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which surely appear elsewhere as well, making it clear that a lot of recent right wing nuttery is, well, nuts. I imagine it appears this way to anyone left of Attila the Hun.

After Joe Wilson’s outburst during President Barack Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress, one might think that even the Republican leadership might acknowledge that maybe things have gotten a bit out of control. It might not be playing out that way.

The Washington Times, a very right wing publication, published articles critical of Wilson’s conduct but also sent out a fund raising mass email from Joe Wilson, complaining of liberal efforts to silence him. Yesterday, ABC News was compelled to issue a denial that they had, as Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, the group that organized an anti-Obama march to Capitol Hill, had claimed, ever reported the size of the protest at 1 million to 1.5 million people:

At no time did ABC News, or its affiliates, report a number anywhere near as large. reported an approximate figure of 60,000 to 70,000 protesters, attributed to the Washington, D.C., fire department. In its reports, ABC News Radio described the crowd as “tens of thousands.”

We already know the importance these budding fascists attach to accuracy. All this is not even really about health care but at least about defeating Obama. More fundamentally, it is about who may hold power in this country. It is about race. It is about whether far left or far right voters will be disenfranchised. And for a president who promised to govern from the center, it is about a country more deeply divided than at any time in his famously divisive predecessor’s presidency.

Even if Obama manages to get a health care bill passed, Republicans have made clear that they exert more influence under a Democratic White House than Democrats ever did under a Republican White House. Supreme Court appointments will tilt to the right, just so nominees can be confirmed. And, as if it would have made any difference to progressives, the rest of Obama’s agenda may well be dead.

But even more crucial is that a certain vocal segment of the U.S. population takes to heart the hate speech we’ve heard so much of in recent weeks. The Republican leadership has encouraged these protests and condoned the lies. They see political advantage in what any reasonably astute person sees as hogwash.

The trouble here is not with the astute. It is with a stereotypical beer-guzzling football fan who pays little attention because it doesn’t do him or her any good anyway. These people don’t question the myth of the U.S. as a “shining city on the hill.” They don’t question the myth of the “American dream.” But they surely see their worldview as a fading memory.

A nation’s wounded pride is a dangerous thing. The 9/11 attacks led the world’s mightiest military power into two ill-conceived wars and it is losing them both. They illustrate a willingness to lash out in blind rage. And I fear the consequences of that rage even for Democrats I see as collaborators in the criminality of the previous presidency. These are dangerous times; I fear for Obama’s life and I fear a possible rise of fascism.

The richly deserved mainstream ridicule directed at the far right does nothing to move the range of acceptable discourse back from where Ronald Reagan shifted it. It does nothing to advance progressive ideals. And I don’t think it even touches the 60,000 or 70,000 protesters in Washington, D.C., the hecklers at “Town Hell” meetings, or the gun nuts outside Obama speeches.

A story I won’t read

Referring to the 9/11 attack, the New York Times calls it the bloodiest terror attack in American history.

Let us set aside, just for the moment, the impossibility of distinguishing between modern warfare and terror attacks. Forget, just for the moment, that beginning in the 20th century, war began largely to target civilians. Let us further forget Ward Churchill’s suggestion that the chickens had come home to roost, his reference to chronic U.S. interventions outside its borders.

I want to remember instead a war that started when Columbus “discovered” the western hemisphere and which continues to the present day. This is the war for the land the U.S. claims as its national territory, but stole from American Indians through a series of genocidal attacks. The military part of this operation ended roughly in 1890. But structural violence against the Indians continues. They suffer high rates of poverty and spousal abuse, substantially diminished lifespans, and limited opportunity. They have been robbed not only of their land but of their culture.

And the only relief the U.S. offers is a right to build casinos otherwise forbidden by the states, casinos fiercely resisted by less powerful occupiers because they associate casinos with alcoholism and crime.

Anthropologists object to a romanticization of American Indians, I suspect in part because being wed to the status quo, they do not wish to acknowledge that in a great many ways people in hunter-gatherer societies lived lives superior to our own, with more free time, better health, considerably less hierarchy, and genuine community, much more in harmony with the earth. All that is lost, now, not only to Indians but to the rest of us. In the U.S., a look at any organization chart will show we live in one of the most hierarchical societies on earth. There are a great many jobs that don’t even pay rent; people must work two or more, just to get by. There are a great many people without access to health care outside an emergency room, and many more limited to western medicine, founded in the torture of slaves. Meanwhile, a particular class is immune from financial crises that strike terror into the heart of the many who live just a paycheck away from homelessness.

We killed people and destroyed an idyllic lifestyle in the name of a god whose Old Testament manifestation hates women, hates gays, and hates everybody except Jews, and whose New Testament manifestation, we are to believe, endorsed world conquest. And then when it was inescapably clear the British were overstretched, we largely took over the empire we had kicked out when its Parliament passed the Quebec Act, limiting westward colonial expansion. Now, we kill throughout the world even as we destroy lives at home. We have killed by the millions.

I asked that we set aside a few issues just for a moment. That moment is over. I’m not forgetting that the chickens came home to roost on 9/11. And I’m certainly not forgetting all the terror we have inflicted throughout the world. I am sickened by the elevation of victims of 9/11 as heroes in dichotomy with the demonization of people fighting to preserve their culture against a western onslaught. And I am certainly not forgetting our own genocide right here at home.

Talking about debt

Paul Krugman eats a little crow, admitting that so-called “new Keynesians,” including himself, were fudging the numbers to support the notion of an efficient market, guided essentially by rational decisions, with a little help from the Federal Reserve. I say it is “a little crow” because for writing this long piece, he is praised; while other economists will eat their crow salted, his will be mixed in a casserole.

Keynesian economics assumes that the government will need to step in from time to time to create demand to resuscitate an economy when crises like the one we’re still in happen. It does so by incurring the debt that the private sector cannot or will not take on.

The economists who bear the brunt of Krugman’s criticism worry about this debt. And the trouble is, that despite absurd notions like, as Krugman phrased it, the Great Depression (of the 1930s) as the Great Vacation (suggesting that unemployment is voluntary), in a capitalist system, debt must be paid, some way, somehow. Even in the case where debts are forgiven, accounting rules require a write-off. The asset account of accounts receivable is reduced to reflect any debt deemed noncollectable. Debt comes at a cost to someone, be it creditors who perhaps should not have lent the money to begin with, debtors who perhaps should not have borrowed the money to begin with, or their heirs who are blameless in the original transaction.

Assuming the U.S. does not default and assuming the U.S. continues to spend money beyond its means, our descendants will have a considerable debt to pay which they did not incur. Hence a hysteria about saddling grandchildren with our debts. Against this, many will argue that the debt financed economic growth, making possible a standard of living which those grandchildren also inherit.

It is possible this will be muted a bit. Bill Clinton presided over the first federal budget surpluses in memory.

But the sums will never add up because the imperial elite are themselves in default to workers in their own countries and around the world, in default to their own countries and those around the world whose resources they have claimed a right to exploit, in default to the entire world for all those social and environmental costs that they don’t reflect on their books. In short, developing countries must pay their debts. Working people must pay their debts. But capitalists pay merely a fraction of what they owe.

This is because hardly anyone questions the right of the wealthy to control resources. The answer for anyone so importune as to ask is that obviously the rich purchased those rights. But this begs the question, for in the beginning, someone asserted a claim to those rights, without ever themselves having had to purchase them, in order to sell them.

And with those rights came a something more than a free pass on what sensibly are responsibilities, responsibilities to compensate the rest of us for additional education and infrastructure costs to support their profit-making enterprises, responsibilities not to harm the rest of us through environmental degradation, responsibilities to compensate the rest of us for their appropriation of resources which are in fact our common inheritance.

Because only a fraction of debts are recognized, debt becomes unsustainable, the rich grow richer, and the poor grow poorer. And because the rich are now so rich, and the rest of us are now so dependent upon them, they have an influence on political decision making which exacerbates the problem and which ensures that a full reckoning will likely never occur.

Yet Keynes’ answer to economic difficulty is to incur more of a particular kind of debt without any consideration for the other kinds of debt, in order to preserve growth in an economic system that celebrates class discrepancies. Krugman ultimately argues for the preservation of this system; his failure to challenge it ensures that his views are within a narrow range of acceptable discourse and are therefore suitable for publication.

This is a system that celebrates greed. It assumes that the best interests of a particular class will always in the end be the best interests of society even as that class enhances its own gains by using its purchasing power to minimize what it pays others. Ask anybody who works for tips: the rich are almost always the worst tippers. This system celebrates competition and rewards the winners while neglecting the costs to the losers.

Peter Kropotkin, early in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, in his critique of competition, attributes to Charles Darwin a view that “the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community.” Kropotkin sought to learn from animals in the wild, possibly anthropomorphizing them, but showing again and again how animals not only cooperate but seem to care for each other even in circumstances where no evolutionary advantage can be discerned.

Our competition is a race to exhaust the planet. The myth that everyone can succeed presumes unlimited resources, but those resources occur in a finite space. And it is a myth that not even those who succeed in this system believe. As G. William Domhoff illustrated in “The American Upper Class,” as reprinted in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States (edited by Thomas Shapiro), in fact the wealthy go to great lengths to preserve the discrepancy between themselves and those “below.” Were there in fact equality of opportunity, they could not hope to succeed.

Krugman likens markets to casinos and criticizes those economists who rely on gamblers to set values. But in his analogy, he neglects the role of the house, the elite in those halls who calculate payoff percentages and set the odds, those who given a sheer volume of transactions can ensure that they always win while gamblers who fail to stop will eventually end up destitute.

In a larger rendering of this analogy, we cannot help but observe that those who led us into this crisis have been sheltered from the calamity. While those of us who succumbed to the lure of capitalism, perhaps by taking on debt we shouldn’t have, perhaps doing the only thing we could see to survive in a society where honest means to a living have become rare, perhaps by failing to rebel against a system so obviously rigged against us, have been left to twist in the wind.

When presidents speak to classrooms

Coming on the heels of a blatantly racist “birther” campaign, a blatantly dishonest “deather” campaign, and a blatantly ridiculous “tenther” campaign, the opposition to Barack Obama’s urging of schoolchildren to stay in school seems like more of the same. Their accusation that Obama is a socialist doesn’t help.

But I remember another president whose State of the Union Address I didn’t want to listen to, but which our conservative professor insisted on playing in class as part of her notion of civic engagement. Though she was far more conservative than most of her colleagues, I’m not sure they would have disagreed. But George W. Bush was a liar, a war criminal, and a thief of constitutional rights. And I didn’t feel any need or desire to hear more of his dissembling.

One of the posts that flew by on Twitter today argued that it is the Pledge of Allegiance which is indoctrination, not Obama’s speech. The author of that post is undoubtedly aware of the Pledge’s prominent role in perpetuating the foolishness that so many cling to about the United States. And I remember when I was in high school feeling a cognitive dissonance so powerful that I defied my classmates’ and homeroom teacher’s pressure to conform and refused to recite the Pledge.

But Obama is a liar too. He ran on a promise of change, but has delivered Bush’s third term. Promising to govern from the center, he has in fact polarized this country more radically than it ever was under Bush. Many progressives whose votes delivered Obama’s presidential victory may well stay away from the polls next year.

One reason (there were several) I chose to have a vasectomy was that I feared for the future of any children I might have. Those fears included nuclear devastation (Ronald Reagan was president then, but we still have a lot of nukes), environmental havoc (okay, I didn’t forecast global warming), and my own financial uncertainty (though I didn’t realize that this would be a national problem with a series of devastating recessions). I did not forecast the complete betrayal of politicians and corporate managers in our political and economic system.

But now I have to think. Would I want this profoundly dishonest politician be the voice I would want urging my children to stay in school?