Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Climate Hypocrites

The global warming bureaucrats have jetted in from around the world to party like there is no tomorrow as they plot and plan ways to make sure the rest of the world gets put on short rations:
In one paper Professor Kevin Anderson, Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said the only way to reduce global emissions enough, while allowing the poor nations to continue to grow, is to halt economic growth in the rich world over the next twenty years.

This would mean a drastic change in lifestyles for many people in countries like Britain as everyone will have to buy less ‘carbon intensive’ goods and services such as long haul flights and fuel hungry cars.

Prof Anderson admitted it “would not be easy” to persuade people to reduce their consumption of goods.
Yep, the 'little people' will get to stand outside and watch these self-important bureaucrats solve a non-existent problem by rationing your access to energy and economic growth...

Here's the Greenpeace vision for the future... you get to walk everywhere. No more cars, trucks, boats, planes. Nope... pedal power and shoe leather. That's the future... at least for the 'little people'. Of course the bureaucrats -- and Greenpeace -- will be able to jet in and around the world to pass out the little green pedometers to make sure that we, the underlings, are plodding and trodding our way into the carbon-free future they have planned for us! The hypocrisy of this "campaign" is that nobody "walked" to this conference. They all jetted to that sun-and-fun site! Oops... there goes the carbon budget for the next 5 years!

Christopher Hitchens' "Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man"

I had high hopes for this book, but Hitchens didn't deliver. Too often a Hitchens book comes across as dense and didactic. This is one of those.

I was hoping for a lively discussion of Thomas Paine, his life, his writings, and his impact on political thinking. This book was pretty dreary. There were three chapters devoted to his main writings The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. But I didn't learn much that I felt was useful. There was the odd bit that was interesting, but Hitchens didn't do what an expositor needs to do: make it lively and make it relevant so that the reader catches the excitement about the historical character and his writing.

Obama's Complicity in Wall Street Fraud

Here is an interesting Charlie Rose interview of Charles Ferguson who created the 2007 documentary about the Iraq war called No End in Sight and who has now created a 2010 documentary on the Wall Street financial collapse called Inside Job.

Click on the interview above to watch the interview, see a trailer for the new documentary, and -- if you watch at 12:30 into the video -- you will see Ferguson discussing the reasons why Obama will do nothing about this Wall Street fraud.

I've completely disillusioned with Obama. He is a Republican in Democrat's guise. He is the best friend the Republicans have and he appears to be working hard to make sure they get a full sweep on House, Senate, and Presidency in 2012. He is worse than the bumbling Jimmy Carter. He appears to be a Republican "plant" in the Democratic party who has handed over the key of the kingdom to the idiot Republicans. Listen very closely to the bit of the video at 13:50.

This video is well worth watching!

A Little Relaxation... a Virtual Visit to an Aquarium

Here's a video of the Georgia aquarium:

I find it relaxing to watch this wonder world of underwater creatures.

The Reason to be Optomistic about the Future

Here is a presentation by Hans Rosling:

War By Other Means

Here is an interesting article on the Stuxnet virus which was built by some Western intelligence agency/military and used to trash Iran's nuclear program:
Here's how it worked, according to experts who have examined the worm:
--The nuclear facility in Iran runs an “air gap” security system, meaning it has no connections to the Web, making it secure from outside penetration. Stuxnet was designed and sent into the area around Iran's Natanz nuclear power plant -- just how may never be known -- to infect a number of computers on the assumption that someone working in the plant would take work home on a flash drive, acquire the worm and then bring it back to the plant.

--Once the worm was inside the plant, the next step was to get the computer system there to trust it and allow it into the system. That was accomplished because the worm contained a “digital certificate” stolen from JMicron, a large company in an industrial park in Taiwan. (When the worm was later discovered it quickly replaced the original digital certificate with another certificate, also stolen from another company, Realtek, a few doors down in the same industrial park in Taiwan.)

--Once allowed entry, the worm contained four “Zero Day” elements in its first target, the Windows 7 operating system that controlled the overall operation of the plant. Zero Day elements are rare and extremely valuable vulnerabilities in a computer system that can be exploited only once. Two of the vulnerabilities were known, but the other two had never been discovered. Experts say no hacker would waste Zero Days in that manner.

--After penetrating the Windows 7 operating system, the code then targeted the “frequency converters” that ran the centrifuges. To do that it used specifications from the manufacturers of the converters. One was Vacon, a Finnish Company, and the other Fararo Paya, an Iranian company. What surprises experts at this step is that the Iranian company was so secret that not even the IAEA knew about it.

--The worm also knew that the complex control system that ran the centrifuges was built by Siemens, the German manufacturer, and -- remarkably -- how that system worked as well and how to mask its activities from it.

--Masking itself from the plant's security and other systems, the worm then ordered the centrifuges to rotate extremely fast, and then to slow down precipitously. This damaged the converter, the centrifuges and the bearings, and it corrupted the uranium in the tubes. It also left Iranian nuclear engineers wondering what was wrong, as computer checks showed no malfunctions in the operating system.

Estimates are that this went on for more than a year, leaving the Iranian program in chaos. And as it did, the worm grew and adapted throughout the system. As new worms entered the system, they would meet and adapt and become increasingly sophisticated.

During this time the worms reported back to two servers that had to be run by intelligence agencies, one in Denmark and one in Malaysia. The servers monitored the worms and were shut down once the worm had infiltrated Natanz. Efforts to find those servers since then have yielded no results.
This went on until June of last year, when a Belarusan company working on the Iranian power plant in Beshehr discovered it in one of its machines. It quickly put out a notice on a Web network monitored by computer security experts around the world. Ordinarily these experts would immediately begin tracing the worm and dissecting it, looking for clues about its origin and other details.

But that didn’t happen, because within minutes all the alert sites came under attack and were inoperative for 24 hours.

“I had to use e-mail to send notices but I couldn’t reach everyone. Whoever made the worm had a full day to eliminate all traces of the worm that might lead us them,” Eric Byres, a computer security expert who has examined the Stuxnet. “No hacker could have done that.”

Experts, including inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, say that, despite Iran's claims to the contrary, the worm was successful in its goal: causing confusion among Iran’s nuclear engineers and disabling their nuclear program.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the Iranian program, no one can be certain of the full extent of the damage. But sources inside Iran and elsewhere say that the Iranian centrifuge program has been operating far below its capacity and that the uranium enrichment program had “stagnated” during the time the worm penetrated the underground facility. Only 4,000 of the 9,000 centrifuges Iran was known to have were put into use. Some suspect that is because of the critical need to replace ones that were damaged.
Go read the whole article.

A Religious Debate

Here is a mildly interesting debate over religion, the Monk Debates held at Toronto Nov 26, 2010. The interest I have is in Christopher Hitchens who argues the "religion is not a force for good in the world. I find Tony Blair who argues that it is a force for good to be unconvincing:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

Part 8:

More Security "Theatre"

From Salon magazine's "Ask a Pilot" column an article entitled "TSA's double standard: In the uproar about scanners and pat-downs, no one seems to have noticed that one group is exempt from inspection":
Late last week, the Transportation Security Administration, bowing to controversy and the threat of lawsuits, ruled that airline pilots will no longer be subject to the backscatter body scanners and invasive pat-downs at TSA airport checkpoints.

For pilots like myself this is good news, though at least for the time being we remain subject to the rest of the checkpoint inspection, including the X-raying of luggage and the metal detector walk-through. Eventually, we are told, the implementation of so-called CrewPASS will allow us to skirt the checkpoint more or less entirely.

Not everybody agrees that air crews deserve this special treatment. That's not an unreasonable point of view, and I don't disagree with it, necessarily. As security experts like Bruce Schneier point out, if you are going to screen at all, it is important to screen everybody, lest the system become overly complicated and prone to exploitable loopholes.


And by "contradictory," here's some blockbuster news: Although the X-ray and metal detector rigmarole is mandatory for pilots and flight attendants, many other airport workers, including those with regular access to aircraft -- to cabins, cockpits, galleys and freight compartments -- are exempt. That's correct. Uniformed pilots cannot carry butter knives onto an airplane, yet apron workers and contract ground support staff -- cargo loaders, baggage handlers, fuelers, cabin cleaners, caterers -- can, as a matter of routine, bypass TSA inspection entirely.

All workers with airside privileges are subject to fingerprinting, a 10-year criminal background investigation and crosschecking against terror watch lists. Additionally they are subject to random physical checks by TSA. But here's what one apron worker at New York's Kennedy airport recently told me:

"All I need is my Port Authority ID, which I swipe through a turnstile. The 'sterile area' door is not watched over by any hired security or by TSA. I have worked at JFK for more than three years now and I have yet to be randomly searched. Really the only TSA presence we notice is when the blue-shirts come down to the cafeteria to get food."
I chuckle with horror at the idiocy of TSA. It is a typical "American solution", i.e. way too expensive, way too bureaucratic, a "solution" that is poorly thought out, and one that is implemented mostly for show and with little regard for purpose.

Krugman on Obama's Federal Pay Freeze

Krugman is brutally to the point in his criticism:
Yep, that’s exactly what we needed: a transparently cynical policy gesture, trivial in scale but misguided in direction, and in effect conceding that your bitter political opponents have the right idea.
It is amazing how Obama shoots himself in the foot again and again. How did this guy rise to such prominence? He is pathetically inept as a political leader! (Yep... I too was fooled by his campaign. He's good on rhetoric, but abysmal in leadership and policy. He's another Jimmy Carter, i.e. nice guy but way out of his league!)

Privatization of Pensions

The thrust of the last 40 years has been for private companies to move from
  • defined benefit plans (which give retirees a known amount of money during retirement) to

  • defined contribution plans (which the employer gives a fixed sum and manages of the pension) with the employee taking the investment risk to

  • employer contributes a matching sum -- up to a fixed amount -- with the employee managing his own funds and taking all risks to

  • no plans/no retirement benefits.
In short, retirement funds have shriveled up and blown away and more and more risk has been pushed from the private sector onto the shoulders of the individual. People are now supposed to be "investement experts" as well as do their jobs, be a good responsible citizens, and manage a healthy family life. More burdens, less time, more complications. That's the thrust of "modern" life.

In the face of this, right wing political agitation has been for the dismantling of public pensions to allow retirees the "freedom" to do with their money as they want. This in fact undermines the whole point of assuring a pension because there will be a certain percentage who will take the money and run, i.e. quickly lose it or spend it or gamble it away. Those people then will have to double dip because they will be indigent and need public assistance.

Despite these facts, the right keep agitating. Here is a bit from a Linda McQuaig article in the Toronto Star:
According to Jonathan Kesselman, professor of public finance at Simon Fraser University, management costs at Canadian mutual funds eat up nearly 2 per cent of assets — the highest rate in 20 countries surveyed. By comparison, CPP management costs were just 0.17 per cent last year.

This enables the CPP to pay out more in pension benefits. Kesselman argues that significantly extending the CPP would be “by far the best of all savings vehicles.” In fact, expanding the CPP would ultimately save governments money, by making future retirees less financially dependent.

But this eminently sensible, cost-effective public solution has been resisted by some on the right, who argue that the mandatory CPP deprives Canadians of the choice not to invest in their retirement.

This is reminiscent of arguments by the American right against public health care, on the grounds that some risk-lovers prefer to be without health insurance.

Of course, those making such arguments are usually well-off financially, with little risk in their own lives. Still, they fiercely defend the right of the poor to experience the risky pleasures of life without a safety net.
My personal preference is in exactly the opposite direction. I wish the CPP would open up to allow individuals to deposit their retirement funds to be managed by the CPP at a 0.17% fee. That is a hell of a lot cheaper than the best deal I can get right now. And I'm completely convinced that I would get better "management talent" with CPP than with the series of incompetents and fools I've dealt with over the last 30+ years (and not counting myself, the biggest fool who managed to shoot myself in the foot not once, not twice, but multiple times in "managing" my money).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Future War

Here's a bit from a NY Times article about robots and war:
Yet the idea that robots on wheels or legs, with sensors and guns, might someday replace or supplement human soldiers is still a source of extreme controversy. Because robots can stage attacks with little immediate risk to the people who operate them, opponents say that robot warriors lower the barriers to warfare, potentially making nations more trigger-happy and leading to a new technological arms race.

“Wars will be started very easily and with minimal costs” as automation increases, predicted Wendell Wallach, a scholar at the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and chairman of its technology and ethics study group.

Civilians will be at greater risk, people in Mr. Wallach’s camp argue, because of the challenges in distinguishing between fighters and innocent bystanders. That job is maddeningly difficult for human beings on the ground. It only becomes more difficult when a device is remotely operated.

This problem has already arisen with Predator aircraft, which find their targets with the aid of soldiers on the ground but are operated from the United States. Because civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have died as a result of collateral damage or mistaken identities, Predators have generated international opposition and prompted accusations of war crimes.

But robot combatants are supported by a range of military strategists, officers and weapons designers — and even some human rights advocates.
The world continues to get more complicated and humans are struggling to adapt and handle the complexity. The funny thing is that we will probably have to rely more and more on machines (computers) to understand the problems that our machines (robots) can potentially cause us.

The world is getting more "interesting" all the time:
Yet the shift to automated warfare may offer only a fleeting strategic advantage to the United States. Fifty-six nations are now developing robotic weapons, said Ron Arkin, a Georgia Institute of Technology roboticist and a government-financed researcher who has argued that it is possible to design “ethical” robots that conform to the laws of war and the military rules of escalation.
I find the idea of an "ethical" robot quite funny. It is right up there with a "conscious" robot and a robot "in love". Just how do you shrink wrap something indissolubly human and stuff it into a machine? You don't. Machines will be intelligent and do very interesting things, but they won't be humans, they won't be ethical, they won't be conscious, and they won't love.

If you thought living through the Cold War with the key technology being a progression of nuclear weapons and platforms for their deployment, just wait for the fun of living through the era of military robots!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Drugs and their History

Here is a short video setting out the content of a book by Mike Jay entitled High Society: A History of Mind-Altering Drugs:

Sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to keep my eye out for it.

Robert Paul Wolff's "Credo"

Here is a wonderful statement of belief by a modern philosopher, Robert Paul Wolff. I like it because the third paragraph is a wonderful refutation of libertarian philosophy (we are independent beings bound on by fleeting "contracts"). Instead, he presents the wonderfully positive view that we are a social species who has done wonderful things through our collaborations:
We human beings live in this world by thoughtfully, purposefully, intelligently transforming nature so that it will satisfy our needs and our desires. We call this activity of transforming nature "production," and it is always, everywhere, inescapably a collective human activity. Every moment that we are alive we are relying on what those before us have discovered or invented or devised. There is no technique, however primitive, that is the invention of one person alone. Like it or not, we are all in this life together. Even those giants of industry who think of themselves as self-made men are completely dependent for their empire building upon the collective knowledge and practice of the entire human species.

All of us eat grain we have not grown, fruit we have not planted, meat we have not killed or dressed. We wear clothes made of wool we have not combed and carded, spun or woven. We live in houses we have not built, take medicines we neither discovered nor produced, read books we have not written, sing songs we did not compose. Each of us is completely dependent on the inherited knowledge, skill, labor, and memory of all who have gone before us, and all who share the earth with us now.

We have a choice. We can acknowledge our interdependence, embracing it as the true human condition; or we can deny it, deluding ourselves into thinking that we are related to one another only as parties to a bargain entered into in a marketplace. We can recognize that we need one another, and owe to one another duties of generosity and loyalty. Or we can pretend to need no one save through the intermediation of the cash nexus.

I choose to embrace our interdependence. I choose to acknowledge that the food I eat, the clothes on my back, and the house in which I live are all collective human products, and that when any one of us has no food or clothing or shelter, I am diminished by that lack.

There are two images alive in America, competing for our allegiance. The first is the image of the lone horseman who rides across an empty plain, pausing only fleetingly when he comes to a settlement, a man apparently having no need of others, self-sufficient [so long as someone makes the shells he needs for his rifle or the cloth he needs for his blanket], refusing to acknowledge that he owes anything at all to the human race of which he is, nonetheless, a part.

The other is the image of the community that comes together for a barn-raising, working as a group on a task that no one man can do by himself, eating a communal meal when the day is done, returning to their homes knowing that the next time one of their number needs help, they will all turn out to provide it.

These images are simple, iconic, even primitive, but the choice they present us with remains today, when no one rides the plains any more, and only the Amish have barn-raisings. Today, as I write, there are tens of millions of Americans who cannot put a decent meal on the table in the evening for their families, scores of millions threatened with the loss of their homes. And yet, there are hundreds of thousands lavishing unneeded wealth on themselves, heedless of the suffering of their fellow Americans, on whose productivity, inventiveness, and labor they depend for the food they eat, the clothing they wear, the homes they live in, and also for the luxuries they clutch to their breasts.

The foundation of my politics is the recognition of our collective interdependence. In the complex world that we have inherited from our forebears, it is often difficult to see just how to translate that fundamental interdependence into laws or public policies, but we must always begin from the acknowledgement that we are a community of men and women who must care for one another, work with one another, and treat the needs of each as the concern of all.

If all of this must be rendered in a single expression, let it be: From each of us according to his or her ability; to each of us according to his or her need.
That last paragraph is interesting. That is the language of Karl Marx in his 1875 text Critique of the Gotha Programme. I have no love for Marx, he was a selfish, hideously fanatical, ideological man. But his words were at times wonderful. You just don't want to ever allow a Communist to "implement" any of Marx's ideas. Marx was a hateful person who squelched anybody who disagreed, and the Communists carried this to an even more vicious extreme. But there is some good in what Marx said. A lot of what Marx said was already in the socialist literature.

I like the collaborationist side of socialism, but I could never buy into the coercive idolization of "the State" by socialists. I prefer a minimal Jeffersonian state. I believe in a strong private economy (libertarianism/liberalism) but I also believe in a strong non-profit sector (collectivism/socialism). I want both because I believe strength comes from diversity. Just like a rich ecology involves many species with many niches. A strong human society involves a mixed economy of private, public, and non-profit organizations.

With that caveat, I'm a big fan of Wolff's Credo.

Police "Have a Bad Day"

I know the police have a job that can be miserable. I know they have to deal with rough customers who are pretty creepy and slimy. But it doesn't justify pouncing on somebody and beating the crap out of them. Here is a bit from an Edmonton Journal article along with the video so you can see for yourself:
An RCMP officer who beat a man in custody at the Lac La Biche RCMP detachment last year has pleaded guilty to assault in provincial court where a video of the incident was shown.

The video shows Const. Desmond Sandboe lunging across a hallway toward Andrew Clyburn after the man appears to say something to the officer. Clyburn is smashed against a wall, taken to the ground and punched repeatedly in an assault that lasts approximately 40 seconds and leaves the floor smeared with fluid.


Clyburn was taken to the local RCMP detachment around 3:15 a.m. and put into a cell. Around 7:15 a.m. Clyburn was taken out of his cell and escorted into a hallway area. Sandboe had just started his shift.

The video shows Clyburn, who is not wearing shoes, getting ready to put on a sweatshirt when the assault occurs. Clyburn appears to say something to the officer, although there is no audio in the recording. That’s when the officer lunges at Clyburn from across the hallway, smashing him twice against the wall and punching him repeatedly as he takes Clyburn to the ground.

The officer continues to punch Clyburn, while the man raises his hands to protect his face. He punches Clyburn at least 10 times, while the pair struggle and move along the ground of the hallway.

The assault lasts approximately 40 seconds and two other officers can be seen watching the incident. The video then shows Clyburn being hauled to his feet and taken back down the hallway. The video shows the previously clean floor smeared with fluid.

Here's the police video (ignore the 15 second commercial that preceeds the video):

Police don't have a "free pass" to brutalize people. This police officer needs to be arrested and jailed. He is a criminal. He is no better than the people he is supposed to be policing!

The needs to be an independent organization with the mandate to "police the police". There are far too many stories in Canada of the police getting away with this kind of violence because the police get to investigate themselves... and surprise! the police look at this video and say "no crime here, the guy deserved what he got". Nonsense! The guy was drunk, he's a jerk, he is violent, but it doesn't mean the police get a free pass to beat the shit out of him for their own pleasure.

DeLong on the Resentment of the Tea Party

From an article by Brad DeLong in Foreign Policy:
But their triumph, epitomized by the Tea Party movement and its hostility to government action, can be explained by our fourth horseman: Friedrich Nietzsche in his role as psychologist of human ressentiment.

Nietzsche talked about the losers -- or rather, about those who thought they were the losers. He looked at those who saw themselves as weak and poor -- rather than strong and rich -- and saw trouble. "[N]othing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment," he wrote. It drives us to madness.

Think of that when you consider this: The U.S. unemployment rate is stubbornly high, yet aid from a federal government that can borrow at unbelievably good terms could allow states to maintain their levels of public employment, and those public workers would then spend their incomes and so boost the number of private-sector jobs as well. But the voters are against that. No, they say. We have lost our jobs. It is only fair that those who work for the government lose their jobs as well -- never mind that each public-sector job lost triggers the destruction of yet another private-sector job. It's the underlying logic that has led to a wave of austerity across Europe that is now headed for America's shores. And it's the same logic that says, "It is only fair that homeowners lose their money" -- never mind that everyone's home prices will suffer. What does not kill me makes me stronger.

Because some are unemployed, unemployment is good -- we need more of it. Because some have lost their wealth, wealth destruction is good -- we need more of it. That is a psychology that Friedrich Nietzsche would have understood all too well. For, as he put it, "If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you."
Go read the whole article to see what DeLong says of the intellectual source for this new austerity: Friedrich von Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, and Great Depression-era Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.

Sadly Ireland took the advice of these liquidationists and that country is now paying the price as its bonds became junk and the government bankrupt, taxes are going up, government is downsizing, and the debt by taxpayers keeps growing. Instead of "growing out" of the problems, Ireland is turning it into a Great Depression by foolish policies.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Republicans Worry about Deficits & "the Debt"

The faux alarm that has recently hit the media from the newly rampant Republicans after this mid-term election wins is a bit rich. Here's the history of how Republican's "concern" over deficits under their administration got translated into action:

Click to Enlarge

The middle column is how much each president increased the debt (the total amount owing) during his tenure. The right column is the average annual deficit under his administration. Obviously the longer he was in office, the more the deficits accumlated to make a big difference to the debt.

Look closely at this graph. This is the "Reagan Revoluion". Yes. This is when so-called "conservative" Republicans took office with their concerns about family values and debts/deficits. As you can tell, they remade American both by improving family values and reducing debts. (Ha Ha)

In short, Republicans are hypocrites. They are as much for "family values" as they are for reducing the debt/deficits. In short, not one whit. They speak with forked tongue.

The Land of the Free (to be Harrassed by TSA Bullies)

There are so many stories of gross stupidity and malevolence by TSA agents. I find it incredible that polls show that 90% of Americans are sheep and want to continue to be shorn by these bullies as part of a ridiculous security theatre...

If I believed in God I would see this as God's justice wreaked upon a country that has revived torture as state policy. This might bring some satisfaction to the victims of Abu Ghraib, all those secret CIA jails, those who suffered "rendition" to other countries to carry out torture on the US's behalf (Maher Arar is one of many names), and for those who were tortured again and again in the (supposedly shut down by Obama) Guantanamo torture centre... this is some cruel justice God has mete out upon Americans to balance the scales. The only problem with the "God's justice" theory is that it is innocent Americans who are made to suffer while the bureaucracy that brought you torture continue unpunished. I guess that's why I don't believe is a God. His sense of humour escapes me.

Update 2010nov30: Here is the TSA website that explicitly says you are allowed to bypass screening if you present breast milk to the TSA agents. Obviously TSA doesn't bother to "train" its bullies to know their own rules or to behave in a reasonable manner.

Andrew J. Bacevich's "The Limits of Power"

This is an excellent book. It is one of the very best that I've read about the post-9/11 world. It isn't limited to that. Andrew J. Bacevich's critique starts with post-WWII. I side with 98% of what he says. The only time I found myself saying "no" and distancing myself from him was when, in the thirteen page conclusion he wanders from the theme of the previous 170 pages and suddenly throws in global warming and nuclear weapons as urgent national security priorities. Ignoring that, the book was excellent.

It was surprising for Bacevich to throw in "global warming" as a security threat. It would be if it was the threat that Bacevich thinks he sees. But he presents no evidence and my own study of the issue says to me it is overblow. It is a minor worry, but not the catastrophe that doomsayers would have you believe. Similarly, nuclear weapons are a threat, but one we've lived with for 60+ years. Bacevich seems to think that downsizing stockpiles by Russia and the US is absolutely urgent. This is bizarre because we are in an era of proliferation with India, Pakistan, China, and North Korea busily adding to their stockpiles. What possible advantage is there to unilateral disarmament by two of the 9 nuclear power, especially with a 10th, Iran, is eager to join the ranks. I don't get the "strategic vision" and Bacevich gives none. This was a bizarre throwaway item in a couple of paragraphs at the end of the book which marred it for me. I especially didn't appreciate this blunt assertion that the US was "unjustified" in using nuclear weapons on Japan. That is simply a position that I find ridiculous. History showed that those bombs finally forced the Emperor to do the "unthinkable" and force his generals to accept peace.

Back to happier thoughts... the rest of the book was excellent. It reviews history and looks in depth at the "national security" apparatus and how it has failed the American people. Bacevich is retired military, a colonel, so he knows the military and served in Vietnam. He has the knowledge and the right to examine the post-9/11 policies of the US. His son was killed by an IED serving as a first lieutenant in the US Army. What he has to say about IEDs and the foolish "strategic thinking" of shock-and-awe, highly mobile RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs) which ran up against IEDs is well worth reading.

Here's a bit about the evolution of American society post WWII:
Pick the group: blacks, Jews, women, Asians, Hispanics, working stiffs, gays, the handicapped -- in every case, the impetus for providing equal access to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution originated among the pinks, lefties, liberals, and bleeding-heart fellow travelers. When it came to ensuring that every American should get a fair shake, the contribution of modern conservatism has been essentially nil. Had Martin Luther King counted on William F. Buckley and the National Review to take up the fight against racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Crow would still be alive and well.
He passes judgements that should get the American public to sit up and pay attention:
Yet if presidents have accrued too much power, if the Congress is feckless, if the national security bureaucracy is irretrievably broken, the American people have only themselves to blame. They have allowed their democracy to be hijacked. The hijackers will not voluntarily return what they have stolen.

One result of that hijacking has been to raise up a new political elite whose members have a vested interest in perpetuating the crises that provide the source of their power. These are the people who under the guise of seeking peace or advancing the cause of liberty devise policies that promote war or the prospect of war, producing something akin to chaos.

To attend any longer to this elite would be madness. This is the third lesson that the Iraq War ought to drive home.
There is an interesting section of the book where he looks at the two side of whether to have a citizen army or a professional army:
Furthermore, to the extent that an army composed of regulars is no longer a people's army, the people have little to say in its use. In effect, the professional military has become an extension of the imperial presidency. The troops fight when and where the commander in chief determines.

Finally a reliance on professional soldiers eviscerate the concept of civic duty, relieving citizens at large of any obligation to contribute to the nation's defense. Ending the draft during the waning days of the Vietnam War did nothing to heal the divisions created by that conflict; instead, it ratified the separation of army from society. Like mowing lawns and bussing tables, fighting and perhaps dying to sustain the American way of life became something that Americans pay others to do.

So the third lesson of the Iraw War focuses on the need to repair the relationship between army and society.
And this:
For those distressed by the absence of a politically meaningful antiwar movement despite the Iraq War's manifest unpopularity, the appeal of conscription differs somewhat. Some political activists look to an Iraq-era draft to do what the Vietnam-era draft did: animate large-scale protest, alter the political dynamic, and eventually shut down any conflict that lacks widespread popular support. The prospect of involuntary service will pry the kids out of the shopping malls and send them into the streets. It will prod the parents of draft-eligible offspring to see politics as something other than a mechanism for doling out entitlements. As a consequence, members of Congress keen to retian their seats will define the wartime responsibilities as something more than simply rubber-stamping spending bills proposed by the White House. In this way, a draft could reinvigorate American democracy, restore the governmental system of checks and balances, and constrian the warmongers inhabiting the executive branch.
Bacevich looks into the closed world of the national security elite and its deceptions of the American people as well as its self-deceptions:
Time and again, for example, President Bush insisted that in Iraq, the United States was fighting not simply to protect itself or its interests, but to ensure the spread of democracy and human rights. There are two ways to interpret this so-called freedom agenda. The first interpretation took the president's words at face value: He saw war as a vehicle for deliverance and liberation. Through violence, either threatened or employed outright, the United States aimed to bring entire nations into conformity with Western liberal values. This was Bush channeling Woodrwo Wilson, via Paul Wolfowitz.

The alternative was to see the freedom agenda as purely cynical, providing a tissue of moral legitimacy to a strategy of naked aggression. Here, the belief was that force would produce hegemony. Coercion, starting with Iraq (but not ending there), would enable the United States to subjugate the Greater Middle East. This was Bush channeling Theodore Roosevelt, as interpreted by Dick Cheney
The above is a real hoot! He makes a point but at the same time he makes his point memorable by showing how absurd these machinations of the national security elite truly are.

Here's Bacevich's bottom line:
America doesn't need a bigger army. It needs a smaller -- that is, more modest -- foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities. Modest implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise. It also means reining in the imperial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions. When it comes to suporting the troops, here lies the essence of a citizen's obligation.
He wrote this book in early 2008. Here is his prescient comment on Obama:
Victorious in snowy Iowa, the candidate proclaimed -- to wild applause -- that "our time for change has come." If elected president, he vowed to break the power of the lobbyists, provide affordable health care for all, cut middle-class taxes, end both the war in Iraq and the nation's dependence on foreign oil, and "unite America and the world against the common threats of the twenty-first century." In an earlier age, aspirants for the highest office in the land ventured to promise a chicken in every pot. In the present age, candidates like Senator Barack Obama set their sights on tackling "terrorism and nuclear weaopns, climate change and poverty, genocide and disease."

The agenda is an admirable one. Yet to imagine that installing a particular individual in the Oval Office will produce decisive action on any of these fronts is to succumb to the grandest delusion of all. The quadrennial ritual of electing (or reelecting) a president is not an exercise in promoting change, regardless of waht candidates may claim, and ordinary voters believe. The real aim is to ensure continuity, to keep intact the institutions and arrangements that define present-day Washington. ...

... The same Americans who profess to despise all that Washington represents look to -- depending on partisan affiliation -- a new John F. Kennedy or a new Ronald Reagan to set things right again. Rather than seeing the imperial presidency as part of the problem, the persist in the fantasy that a chief executive, given a cledar mandate, will "change" the way Washington works and retore the nation to good health. Yet to judge by the performance of presidents over the past half century, including both Kennedy and Reagan (whose legacies are far more mixed than their supporters will acknowledge), a citizenry that looks to the White House for deliverance is assured of disappointment.
Bacevich proposed an alternative to the Bush agenda of perpetual war against "terrorism" and evil. He proposes going back to the successful policy of containment which was practiced during the Cold War:
One possible alternative is to pursue a strategy of containment. Such a strategy has worked before, against a far more formidable adversay. It can work again as a framework for erecting effective defenses. The main purpose of containment during the Cold War was to frustrate the Kremlin's efforts to extend Soviet influence. The purpose of containment today should be to prevent the sponsors of radical Islam from extending their influence.
This is an excellent book. It well deserves everybody taking the time to read it. It will help understand the events of today as well as the post WWII history. It is written by a guy with the background in the military and a knowledge of the "national security elite" sufficient to expose the folly of the current path America is following.

Post Mid-Term US Government

Here is an intelligent assessment of where the US government is headed after the recent mid-term elections. This is James Galbraith, an economist from the U of Texas:

You can see from this graph that it will be a long, hard slog to recover from this, the worst recession, since the Great Depression:

Click to Enlarge

Canadian Police as Judge, Jury, & Executioner

Police are necessary. But a police force that takes "the law" into its own hands and assaults innocent people is not just not necessary, it is a blight on a people.

Here is just one of an on-going series of "disclosures" of police brutality.

How can this happen? This is symptomatic of a society that does not hold its police to a high standard, a society that does not separate policing the police from the hands of the police, and a society that blindly worships "authority" as if it could never go wrong.

This latest incident proves once again that there needs to be an independent watchdog over all police forces in Canada, especially the RCMP. And that watchdog needs teeth.

I would suggest that video cameras be installed in all police stations and all police cruisers and that access to those videotapes be restricted to the independent oversight agency to ensure that the police don't "lose" or destroy vital evidence of wrong-doing. (Remember the Air India bombing that killed 329 people and where CSIS "just happened" to destroy all of its surveillance tapes before anybody was ever brought to justice. CSIS should not have been allowed to guard its own tapes. It destroyed them to protect wrong-doing inside the organization at the expense of justice for 329 innocent people.)

Remember Ian Bush: Bush died due to a single gunshot wound to the back of the head [while in police custory]. Because no independent, external investigation was performed, it is still unclear as to whether Ian Bush was murdered by Constable Paul Koester, or killed in self-defence.

Ian Bush is just one example. The list of deaths and injuries at the hands of the police is long, very long.

Remember Frank Paul: A drunk hauled unconscious out of the police drunk tank and dumped in an alley where he froze to death.

Despite the "recommendations" from the above, there still isn't any independent overview of deaths at the hands of the police. As for the police "assurances" at the end of this video that "this will never happen again". It has happened again, and again, and again.

Remember Robert Dzerkanski: An immigrant to Canada who didn't speak English, but who was joining his mother in Canada, who didn't get any help at the airport, but who did get tasered to death by the RCMP.

... and these stories keep coming, and coming, and coming.

A society gets the policing that it "deserves". If the society does not hold its police -- and its entire justice system -- to high standards, then you get this kind of police brutality. You get innocent people railroaded into long jail sentences. You get these kinds of horrors.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Dissolving the Barrier between You and Other Human Beings

Here is V. S. Ramachandran talking about "empathy neurons" at a 2009 TED conference. Watch the whole video, but if you go to 5:00 you will see the bit about how you can dissolve the difference between yourself and others...

His hypothesis, that these empathic motor neurons gave rise to civilization, is a fascinating one.

How Governments Sabotage Their Workers

The press is freer about its comments of other countries than of the practices of their own country. So the NY Times can make a pointed comment about "bad government policy" with respect to China. But the same policy applies to America (from NY Times):
The subsidies that China showers on its corporate sector have been crucial to building an industrial economy. But they have also led to a severe concentration of income. Some of it takes a form Americans are used to: the rich receive a much larger share of the national income than they did a few decades ago. Forbes reported early this year that mainland China and Hong Kong had 89 billionaires. Japan, with an economy almost as large as China’s and per-capita income several times higher, had just 22.
Since Reagan broke the labour unions, government in America has been "tilted" toward the ultra-rich and against working class and middle class Americans. So there are lots of billionaires in America and they are all clamouring to get their "Bush tax cuts". Who cares that there is 9.6% unemployment and a 17% under-employment rate (see here).

Wall Street Thumbs Its Nose

For 16% of the population, it is the starving time with unemployment and under-employment.

For 70% of the population, it is hanging on by a thread waiting for better times.

For 13% of the population, things seem to have recovered, things seem solid, they are feeling fairly good.

For 1%, the fabled feasts of the past are back. Greed is good!

A Second Vote in Agreement: the US is a Banana Republic

Here is a bit from a post by Robert Paul Wolff, a political philosopher of some fame who is now retired and writes a blog, The Philosopher's Stone. I've bolded the key bit:
What occasions these sad reflections is the struggle I have been having in recent weeks to sustain my commitment to, and enthusiasm for, the Obama administration. I gave my heart, if not my mind, to Obama [and also a very great deal of my cash], believing fervently that he was my one chance to see America turn decisively to the left before my time on this earth was up. I was well aware of his unwise decision to champion the war in Afghanistan, and I did not really imagine that he was, in my understanding of the term, a man of the left. Indeed, I knew that if he were, he could not possibly get elected by the American people as they are now constituted. But I did honestly believe that he would bring into his administration a large number of progressive men and women committed to many of the things to which I am committed.

There have been good moments, impressive victories. The health care bill, with all its faults, was an historic achievement, and the financial regulatory bill, with Elizabeth Warren in place, is a major step in the right direction. As for gay rights, I actually believe he has done quite well in the face of Republican hostility, and his handling of DODT has been masterful, in my judgment.

But the deep flaw in Obama's domestic politics has been has deliberate and clearly well-thought out decision to put the economic affairs of the nation in the hands of the likes of Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. I am very much afraid that Paul Krugman is correct. Obama is essentially conservative in his economic orientation, and nothing that has happened in the past two years has changed that.

Where does that leave me? Well, it leaves me supporting him against his enemies, because the Republican Party has become a nightmare. As I have written on this blog, America has become a Banana Republic, with a super-rich elite, a very comfortable upper middle class [of which I am a part], and a growing mass of increasingly impoverished and unprotected men and women with neither job security nor a secure old age. This has become a hateful country, in which the man who is likely to chair the Congressional Committee principally responsible for environmental policy is actually quote as saying that climate change will not happen because God promised Noah that there would not be a second flood. This is beyond humorous, or silly, or absurd. It is criminal.
OK, that makes 2 of us who vote "banana republic". I can't vote in the US elections because I'm a Canadian. So... how to get the other 310,793,336 Americans to realize the fact that their country has become a laughing stock, a banana republic?

Re-Thinking Economics

There are two excellent articles out looking at the disaster of macroeconomic theory.

First, Brad DeLong looks at the history in an article entitled "The Retreat of Macroeconomic Policy".

Second, Paul Krugman looks at the inherent instability of any attempt to find a synthesis of micro- and macro-economics in an article entitled "The Instability of Moderation". He examines three sources of instability: intellectual instability, political instability, and financial instability.

These are excellent articles and deserve very careful reading and re-reading.

I appreciate the social concern of DeLong:
There were three reasons [why governments were indifferent to unemployment and long dragged-out recessions], all of which vanished by the end of WWII.

First, there was a hard-money lobby: a substantial number of rich, socially influential, and politically powerful people whose investments were overwhelmingly in bonds. They had little personally at stake in high capacity utilization and low unemployment, but a great deal at stake in stable prices. They wanted hard money above everything.

Second, the working classes that were hardest-hit by high unemployment generally did not have the vote. Where they did, they and their representatives had no good way to think about how they could benefit from stimulative government policies to moderate economic downturns, and no way to reach the levers of power in any event.

Third, knowledge about the economy was in its adolescence. Knowledge of how different government policies could affect the overall level of spending was closely held. With the exception of the United States’ free-silver movement, it was not the subject of general political and public intellectual discussion.
But, he notes, that all changed between WWI and WWII. Activist government prevented the next Great Depression... until now.
Thus, I would confidently lecture only three short years ago that the days when governments could stand back and let the business cycle wreak havoc were over in the rich world. No such government today, I said, could or would tolerate any prolonged period in which the unemployment rate was kissing 10% and inflation was quiescent without doing something major about it.

I was wrong. That is precisely what is happening.

How did we get here? How can the US have a large political movement – the Tea Party – pushing for the hardest of hard-money policies when there is no hard-money lobby with its wealth on the line? How is it that the unemployed, and those who fear they might be the next wave of unemployed, do not register to vote? Why are politicians not terrified of their displeasure?

Economic questions abound, too. Why are the principles of nominal income determination, which I thought largely settled since 1829, now being questioned? Why is the idea, common to John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, Knut Wicksell, Irving Fisher, and Walter Bagehot alike, that governments must intervene strategically in financial markets to stabilize economy-wide spending now a contested one?

It is now clear that the right-wing opponents to the Obama administration’s policies are not objecting to the use of fiscal measures to stabilize nominal spending. They are, instead, objecting to the very idea that government should try to serve a stabilizing macroeconomic role.


Still, here we are. The working classes can vote, economists understand and publicly discuss nominal income determination, and no influential group stands to benefit from a deeper and more prolonged depression. But the monetarist-Keynesian post-WWII near-consensus, which played such a huge part in making the 60 years from 1945-2005 the most successful period for the global economy ever, may unravel nonetheless.
Here is the quick synopsis of Krugman's views:
Brad DeLong writes of how our perception of history has changed in the wake of the Great Recession. We used to pity our grandfathers, who lacked both the knowledge and the compassion to fight the Great Depression effectively; now we see ourselves repeating all the old mistakes. I share his sentiments.

But watching the failure of policy over the past three years, I find myself believing, more and more, that this failure has deep roots – that we were in some sense doomed to go through this. Specifically, I now suspect that the kind of moderate economic policy regime Brad and I both support – a regime that by and large lets markets work, but in which the government is ready both to rein in excesses and fight slumps – is inherently unstable. It’s something that can last for a generation or so, but not much longer.
Krugman has turned fatalistic. He sees a flaw in human nature which will thwart attempts to realize rational government or sound economics. We are doomed to fail because of a flaw in our character. We have lost the Samuelson synthesis:
It’s an approach that combines the grand tradition of microeconomics, with its emphasis on how the invisible hand leads to generally desirable outcomes, with Keynesian macroeconomics, which emphasizes the way the economy can develop magneto trouble, requiring policy intervention. In the Samuelsonian synthesis, one must count on the government to ensure more or less full employment; only once that can be taken as given do the usual virtues of free markets come to the fore.
Consequently we are doomed to an economic "dark age" because of the three instabilities which he discusses in detail. Sadly this lead to:
In the end, then, the era of the Samuelsonian synthesis was, I fear, doomed to come to a nasty end. And the result is the wreckage we see all around us.
Funny... As a kid I was raised in an era of boundless optimism but my teachers felt sorry for themselves because they had been forged in the Great Depression to learn virtues of moderation and satisfaction within a constrained set of possibilities. They all felt jealousy for my generation, those who came of age in the 1960s. But history is a jokester. The generation of 1960s ended up fighting for its ideals and getting its head busted in. Soon after the baby boom hit the workplace and unemployment grew, stagflation hit the econonmy, and times grew grim. This was tough for a generation raised on optimism and endless horizons. The great economic and social advances of the post-WWII generation died as politics turned rancid and strongly to the right. The rich rose both in power, in wealth, and in esteem. (I can still picture those TV shows "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous". Unlike the Charlie Chaplin movie which made the feasting of the rich as the poor watched from outside into a grim morality tale. In the 1980s the feasting of the rich was turned into a carnival and everybody else was told to "just wait" for soon riches would fall on their head in the infamous "trickle down" economy of Ronald Reagan.) Since the grim 1970s, through the over-the-top 1980s, to the grim early 1990s, to the bubble economy of the dot.com late 1990s, to the grim early 2002, to the bubble economy of the Wall Street bank manufactured "real estate boom", to the now dismal Great Recession, things have stalled for everyone but the top 1%. They have made out like bandits. (Hold it... they were bandits!)

These essays by DeLong and Krugman deserve careful reading and time spent contemplating what it "means" for all of us. It isn't good. There is no post-WWII "good times" looming in our futures. It isn't at all clear how we can get the bony vise-like hands of the ultra-rich off our necks and get an economy that delivers goods to the real workers. There has been 30 years of "productivity increases" with no corresponding wage increases. The difference was pocketed by the rich and they have no intention to stop their extorting their extravagant "share" of the economic pie.

Lessons Learned, Yeah Sure!

Here's a chunk of Paul Krugman's NY Times op-ed piece looking at the financial crash in Ireland. It has a lesson for all of us:
The Irish story began with a genuine economic miracle. But eventually this gave way to a speculative frenzy driven by runaway banks and real estate developers, all in a cozy relationship with leading politicians. The frenzy was financed with huge borrowing on the part of Irish banks, largely from banks in other European nations.

Then the bubble burst, and those banks faced huge losses. You might have expected those who lent money to the banks to share in the losses. After all, they were consenting adults, and if they failed to understand the risks they were taking that was nobody’s fault but their own. But, no, the Irish government stepped in to guarantee the banks’ debt, turning private losses into public obligations.

Before the bank bust, Ireland had little public debt. But with taxpayers suddenly on the hook for gigantic bank losses, even as revenues plunged, the nation’s creditworthiness was put in doubt. So Ireland tried to reassure the markets with a harsh program of spending cuts.

Step back for a minute and think about that. These debts were incurred, not to pay for public programs, but by private wheeler-dealers seeking nothing but their own profit. Yet ordinary Irish citizens are now bearing the burden of those debts.

Or to be more accurate, they’re bearing a burden much larger than the debt — because those spending cuts have caused a severe recession so that in addition to taking on the banks’ debts, the Irish are suffering from plunging incomes and high unemployment.

But there is no alternative, say the serious people: all of this is necessary to restore confidence.

Strange to say, however, confidence is not improving. On the contrary: investors have noticed that all those austerity measures are depressing the Irish economy — and are fleeing Irish debt because of that economic weakness.

Now what? Last weekend Ireland and its neighbors put together what has been widely described as a “bailout.” But what really happened was that the Irish government promised to impose even more pain, in return for a credit line — a credit line that would presumably give Ireland more time to, um, restore confidence. Markets, understandably, were not impressed: interest rates on Irish bonds have risen even further.

Does it really have to be this way?

In early 2009, a joke was making the rounds: “What’s the difference between Iceland and Ireland? Answer: One letter and about six months.” This was supposed to be gallows humor. No matter how bad the Irish situation, it couldn’t be compared with the utter disaster that was Iceland.

But at this point Iceland seems, if anything, to be doing better than its near-namesake. Its economic slump was no deeper than Ireland’s, its job losses were less severe and it seems better positioned for recovery. In fact, investors now appear to consider Iceland’s debt safer than Ireland’s. How is that possible?

Part of the answer is that Iceland let foreign lenders to its runaway banks pay the price of their poor judgment, rather than putting its own taxpayers on the line to guarantee bad private debts. As the International Monetary Fund notes — approvingly! — “private sector bankruptcies have led to a marked decline in external debt.” Meanwhile, Iceland helped avoid a financial panic in part by imposing temporary capital controls — that is, by limiting the ability of residents to pull funds out of the country.
This reminds me of the vociferous argument in the US that if Obama doesn't extend the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, then all hell will break loose.

For some bizarre reason, the world has gone crazy for the last 30 years. This is the "Reagan Revolution" that convinced everybody that "government is the enemy" and that everybody should love the rich because it will be crumbs from the tables of the rich that sustain the rest of us, the so-called "trickle-down economics". Look around you. Do you really feel better off than the world of the 1950s, 1960s, even the stagflation wracked 1970s? I don't think so.

People have beens old a pig in a poke by right wing politicians.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

US Budget Woes

You can read the details of the US Federal Budget in the "Budget Primer" put together by Peter G. Peterson Foundation:

The information above is intersting, but read it with a critical mind. You have to realize that Peterson milked the system for billions of dollars by working inside Wall Street... yes, that Wall Street... the one that has crashed the economy, that has spun off endless numbers of billionaires while it has hollowed out the US economy and left middle class and working people standing on the outside looking in. They are looking in on an economy that workers drove with productivity but saw their wages stagnate. It was Peterson and his buddies that milked the system to for their own benefit. You would think if Peterson was so concerned about "the country" he would have balked at his finance job that was all part of raping the economy for the last 30 years.

Unlike the stories of a government gone "rapacious" and that must be "starved" that Peterson wants to sell. The reality is that the government has given tax break after tax break to the rich which has cut revenues. Meanwhile the politicians have assisted as the manufacturing heartland was destroy by the "financialization" of America. The idea that they guys want to sell you the notion that entitlements must be cut and cut and cut is crazy. Just like the battle right now over "out of control budgets" hasn't stopped the Republicans from throwing a hissy fit demanding that the Bush tax cuts for billionaires, a tax cut that costs $700 billion over the next decade, that these cuts be kept despite the consequences to the deficit. That shows they aren't serious about deficits. They aren't serious about entitlements. They simply want to rape and pillage the economy, get more tax cuts, divert even more money to Wall Street and the big banks. They won't be satisfied until they've picked that last bone of the corpse.

So, go read about Peterson's foundation, and about Peterson himself. But ask yourself. If this guy is so concerned about the little guy. Why did he wait until he had made his billions? Why has he done his bit to raveage the economy and now suddenly paints himself as a "good guy" stepping in to "save America"? Does a leopard change its spots? Really?

Wall Street: The Culture of Fraud

Here's Matt Taibbi spilling the beans on the rampant corruption on Wall Street. You know, the guys who pay themselves tens of millions, hundreds of millions, even billions a year for all their "hard work"...

You can read more on Yahoo! Finance:
When FBI agents raided the offices of three hedge funds on Monday, the reacton on Wall Street recalled the famous scene in Casablanca where Claude Rain's Capt. Renault character is "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."

To Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibi, author of Griftopia, there's nothing shocking at all about revelations of possible widespread insider trading on Wall Street. (See Massive Insider Trading Probe Could Nab Wall Street's Biggest Names)

"Everybody is trading on the inside somehow or another, so this isn't particularly surprising," Taibbi says. "A lot of sources I talked to suggested this is endemic to the entire culture."
Read more here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Palin for President

Who could say NO to somebody with the audacity and vision to restructure the US strategic allies in this dramatic a fashion:
Transcript snip from Glenn Beck's radio show:

CO-HOST: How would you handle a situation like the one that just developed in North Korea?

PALIN: But obviously, we've got to stand with our North Korean allies. We're bound to by treaty—

CO-HOST: South Korean.

PALIN: Eh, Yeah. And we're also bound by prudence to stand with our South Korean allies, yes.
Palin has turned the tables. She has completely redefined the US relationship with the Koreas! Americans can lose that scruffy hang dog dependent democracy called "South Korea" and buddy up to a tough-minded, nuclear power called "North Korea" and immediately have more "street cred" hanging with American's new atomic buddy!

I'm thinking Palin is showing her preference for tougher "compassionate" conservativism. Nobody has managed to "conserve" their society in a 1950s time warp as well as the Kim family of North Korea. There is no problem with liberals, welfare, or entitlements in North Korea. If you don't show patriotism and volunteer to put in a six-and-a-half day work week in North Korea, you get sent to the gulag. Now that solves the "compassion" problem much better than Bush's mushy compassionate conservatism.

C. K. Williams' "On Whitman"

I wasn't particularly satisfied with this book. I could see that Williams was enthusiastic about Whitman. But the book was too scattered, too disorganized to pass that enthusiasm on to me.

I learned a few things about Whitman and this book gave me many samples of Whitman's poetry to sample. But I never felt that Williams offered a clear guiding hand to fully understand Whitman's artistry or to come to a good appreciation of Whitman's body of work. Instead this book came across as a stream of consciousness filled with recollections and enthusiasms about Whitman. You had to be an "insider" to appreciate a good deal of it.

I liked much of Whitman's poetry as presented in the book. I just wanted more introduction and more "glue" so that all the pieces made more sense.

Here is one bit that spoke to me. It is the poem "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they're so placid and self contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth.
The one thing this book did do for me -- so you can call the book a "success" -- is that it has pushed me into reading two books recommended by Williams:
  • Paul Zweig's Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet

  • David S. Reynolds' Walt Whitman's America

US Progress in Afghanistan: A Peek Behind the Curtain

Here's yet another delightful NY Times op-ed piece by Maureen Dowd:
And we wonder why we haven’t found Osama bin Laden.

Though we’re pouring billions into intelligence in Afghanistan, we can’t even tell the difference between a no-name faker and a senior member of the Taliban. The tragedy of Afghanistan has descended into farce. In the sort of scene that would have entertained millions if Billy Wilder had made a movie of Kipling’s “Kim,” it turns out that Afghan and NATO leaders have been negotiating for months with an imposter pretending to be a top Taliban commander — even as Gen. David Petraeus was assuring reporters that there were promising overtures to President Hamid Karzai from the Taliban about ending the war.

Those familiar with the greatest Afghan con yet say that the British had spent a year developing the fake Taliban leader as a source and, despite a heated debate and C.I.A. skepticism, General Petraeus was buying into it. The West was putting planes and assets at the poseur’s disposal, and paying him a sum in the low six figures.


America is stomping around the moonscape of Afghanistan trying to do the right thing, but we can’t because we’re clueless about the culture to the point where we can be faked out by an imposter masquerading as Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, a high-level Taliban commander.


Just as with Saddam and W.M.D., or groping and the T.S.A., we get no satisfaction for the $80 billion a year we spend on intelligence. Or we get fake information like Curveball that leads us into spending trillions more on a trumped-up war. Last year, seven top C.I.A. officials were fooled by a Jordanian double-agent who got onto an American base in Khost and blew all of them up. Our agents in the “wilderness of mirrors” may not be up to le CarrĂ©, but can’t they learn to Google, or at least watch “The Ipcress File”?

Who knows? Maybe we’ve been dealing with bin Laden all along. Maybe he’s been coming and going under a different moniker. As far as our intelligence experts are concerned, a turban and beard are just a turban and beard.
Maureen Dowd is pointing to the story documented in this news article:
For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement.

But now, it turns out, Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all. In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, United States and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor, and high-level discussions conducted with the assistance of NATO appear to have achieved little.

“It’s not him,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul intimately involved in the discussions. “And we gave him a lot of money.”

American officials confirmed Monday that they had given up hope that the Afghan was Mr. Mansour, or even a member of the Taliban leadership.

NATO and Afghan officials said they held three meetings with the man, who traveled from in Pakistan, where Taliban leaders have taken refuge.

The fake Taliban leader even met with President Hamid Karzai, having been flown to Kabul on a NATO aircraft and ushered into the presidential palace, officials said.
When you read that, and think about all those optimistic reports over the last 9 years of "progress" in Afghanistan, of the number of Afghanis trained to "defend their own country", of the political wheeling and dealing, of the endless battles and deaths, and realize it is all smoke and mirrors. The US has no idea who its enemy is. They end up negotiating with an imposter. How do you "win a war" against this?

Obama should fold his tents and come home. There is only one policy that is right for Afghanistan: declare victory and warn that if there is ever any more attacks that originate from Afghanistan, then US forces will come back with doubled fury and flatten everything in site.

Never put "boots on the ground". You are simply creating another Vietnam.

The Political Wars: Crazy Right vs Crazy Left in the US

Here is an excellent piece in Salon magazine by Glenn Greenwald pointing out how a left-leaning magazine has taken the same role that right-leaning media like Fox "news": character assassination. The supposed "investigative" piece imputes political motives to everything and never considers any more innocent interpretation. This drives the political divide in the US. Each side gets more crazy with every attack. Nutty.

Here's a bit from the article:
One long-standing -- and justifiable -- progressive grievance is that whenever ordinary Americans allow their personal plight to enter the public sphere in a way that advances a liberal political goal, they are gratuitously probed and personally smeared by the Right. The most illustrative example is the Frost family, who allowed their 12-year-old son Graeme to deliver a moving radio address explaining the benefits he received from the CHIP program when he was in a serious car accident, only to be promptly stalked and smeared by Michelle Malkin, among others. Today, The Nation -- a magazine which generally offers very good journalism -- subjects John Tyner to similar treatment, with such a shoddy, fact-free, and reckless hit piece (by Mark Ames and Yasha Levine) that I'm genuinely surprised its editors published it. Beyond the inherent benefit of correcting the record, this particular article is suffused with all sorts of toxic though common premises that make it worth examining in detail.

The article is headlined "TSAstroturf: The Washington Lobbyists and Koch-Funded Libertarians Behind the TSA Scandal," and is devoted to the claim that those objecting to the new TSA procedures -- such as Tyner -- are not what they claim to be. Rather, they are Koch-controlled plants deliberately provoking and manufacturing a scandal -- because, after all, what real American in their right mind would do anything other than meekly submit with gratitude and appreciation to these procedures?
Go read the whole article to see how Greenwald analyzes it.
These two paragraphs -- the heart of the case against Tyner -- are insidious. By their own admission, this is "all [they] know" about Tyner: he has failed to swear his loyalty to one of the two major political parties, a grievous sin worthy of deep suspicion. He refuses -- correctly -- to view TSA extremism as the by-product of either party. Worse, he doesn't believe in voting -- a fringe and radical position in which he's joined by merely half of the entire American citizenry (65% in midterm years), 130 million voting-age Americans who -- surveying the choices -- also apparently see no reason to bother voting. What kind of strange person would fail to find great inspiration from one of America's two Great Political Parties or refuse to see the world exclusively through a Democrat v. GOP prism? More suspiciously still, he went to "private Christian schools" as a child and resides in a community that has a lot of Republicans in it; why, his neighborhood is even near a Marine base! This is clearly no "ordinary guy."

As for his standing accused by The Nation of suspicion on the grounds of his avowed libertarianism, consider what he wrote several weeks before the TSA incident. In a post responding to this question -- "When’s the last time you were seriously inconvenienced or injured by something that big government did?" -- Tyner wrote:
Gay rights [infringements], TSA body scanners, highway checkpoints, the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretaps, extra-judicial assassinations, indefinite detentions, inflation, etc. Don't tell me that (some of) these don't affect me. When one person's rights are trampled, everybody's are, and that's just at the federal level.
What a right-wing monster!
Glenn Greenwald does an excellent job of showing how innuendo and "facts" without context can create politically "coloured" impressions.

The sad fact is that while political parties are useful for galvanizing civic participation and for crystalizing political agendas, they also have a poisonous side when they become over-zealous and seek to divide a people and create "enemies".

There is of necessity a fine line to walk. Using a political perspective to frame your analysis of the world around you can be a very effective tool. It helps prepare you to interpret events and find meanings that would otherwise be cryptic. On the other hand, it can create political paranoia and foster hysterical hatreds and bias. Like most things in life: politics is a two-edged sword. It is both good and bad. It is useful and dangerous. It is necessary but distracting.

Fun Science

Here's what a couple of square meters of sunlight can do...

What Good is Wall Street?

That is the question that John Cassidy asks in his NY Times article. Here's a bit from it:
A few months ago, I came across an announcement that Citigroup, the parent company of Citibank, was to be honored, along with its chief executive, Vikram Pandit, for “Advancing the Field of Asset Building in America.” This seemed akin to, say, saluting BP for services to the environment or praising Facebook for its commitment to privacy. . During the past decade, Citi has become synonymous with financial misjudgment, reckless lending, and gargantuan losses: what might be termed asset denuding rather than asset building. In late 2008, the sprawling firm might well have collapsed but for a government bailout. Even today the U.S. taxpayer is Citigroup’s largest shareholder.


In effect, many of the big banks have turned themselves from businesses whose profits rose and fell with the capital-raising needs of their clients into immense trading houses whose fortunes depend on their ability to exploit day-to-day movements in the markets. Because trading has become so central to their business, the big banks are forever trying to invent new financial products that they can sell but that their competitors, at least for the moment, cannot. Some recent innovations, such as tradable pollution rights and catastrophe bonds, have provided a public benefit. But it’s easy to point to other innovations that serve little purpose or that blew up and caused a lot of collateral damage, such as auction-rate securities and collateralized debt obligations. Testifying earlier this year before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that financial innovation “isn’t always a good thing,” adding that some innovations amplify risk and others are used primarily “to take unfair advantage rather than create a more efficient market.”

Other regulators have gone further. Lord Adair Turner, the chairman of Britain’s top financial watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, has described much of what happens on Wall Street and in other financial centers as “socially useless activity”—a comment that suggests it could be eliminated without doing any damage to the economy. In a recent article titled “What Do Banks Do?,” which appeared in a collection of essays devoted to the future of finance, Turner pointed out that although certain financial activities were genuinely valuable, others generated revenues and profits without delivering anything of real worth—payments that economists refer to as rents. “It is possible for financial activity to extract rents from the real economy rather than to deliver economic value,” Turner wrote. “Financial innovation . . . may in some ways and under some circumstances foster economic value creation, but that needs to be illustrated at the level of specific effects: it cannot be asserted a priori.”

Turner’s viewpoint caused consternation in the City of London, the world’s largest financial market. A clear implication of his argument is that many people in the City and on Wall Street are the financial equivalent of slumlords or toll collectors in pin-striped suits. If they retired to their beach houses en masse, the rest of the economy would be fine, or perhaps even healthier.


Perhaps the most shocking thing about recent events was not how rapidly the big Wall Street firms got into trouble but how quickly they returned to profitability and lavished big rewards on themselves. Last year, Goldman Sachs paid more than sixteen billion dollars in compensation, and Morgan Stanley paid out more than fourteen billion dollars. Neither came up with any spectacular new investments or produced anything of tangible value, which leads to the question: When it comes to pay, is there something unique about the financial industry?
Thomas Philippon, an economist at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, thinks there is. After studying the large pay differential between financial-sector employees and people in other industries with similar levels of education and experience, he and a colleague, Ariell Reshef of the University of Virginia, concluded that some of it could be explained by growing demand for financial services from technology companies and baby boomers. But Philippon and Reshef determined that up to half of the pay premium was due to something much simpler: people in the financial sector are overpaid. “In most industries, when people are paid too much their firms go bankrupt, and they are no longer paid too much,” he told me. “The exception is when people are paid too much and their firms don’t go broke. That is the finance industry.”
The article puts its galoshes on and wades through the muck and dreck of financial market history. It is a sordid story of greed and dysfunctional economic havoc.

The real tragedy is that Obama didn't take the opportunity to clean house on Wall Street like he did the auto industry. I guess that's the benefit of paying bigger under the table "political contributions". Wall Street gets to live and suck more blood from the economy. And the economy staggers around like a zombie.