May 26, 2010


What corporate America wanted was nothing less than the Third Worlding of the US, a collapse of both present reality and future expectations. The closer the life and wages of our citizens could come to those of less developed nations, the happier the huge stateless multinationals would be. Then, as they said in the boardrooms and at the White House, the global playing field would be leveled. Once having capitulated on economic matters, Americans would be taught to accept a similar diminution of social programs, civil liberties, democracy, and even some of the most basic governmental services. Free of being the agent of our collective will, government could then concentrate on the real business of a corporatist state, such as reinforcing the military, subsidizing selected industry, and strengthening police control over what would inevitably be an increasingly alienated and fractured electorate.

We would be taught to deny ourselves progress and to blame others for our loss. Worse, underneath the sturm und drang of political debate, the American establishment -- from corporate executive to media to politician -- reached a remarkable consensus that it no longer had to play by any rules but its own.

There is a phrase for this in some Latin American countries: the culture of impunity. In such places it has led to death squads, to the live bodies of dissidents being thrown out of military helicopters, to routine false imprisonment and baroque financial fraud. We are not there yet but are certainly moving in the same direction. In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition.

The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, at best practices only titular democracy, and puts itself at the service of what Hong Kong, borrowing from fascist Germany and Italy, refers to as "functional constituencies," which is mainly to say major corporations. A culture of impunity varies from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a culture does not announce itself. It creeps up day by day, deal by deal, euphemism by euphemism.

The intellectual achievement, technocratic pyrotechnics, and calm rationality that serves as a patina for the culture of impunity can be dangerously misleading. In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed and power. As Michael Douglas put it in Wall Street: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works."

Of course, there has always been an overabundance of greed in America's political and economic system. But a number of things have changed. As activist attorney George LaRoche points out, "Once, I think, we knew our greedy were greedy but they were obligated to justify their greed by reference to some of the other values in which all of us could participate. Thus, maybe ‘old Joe' was a crook but he was also a ‘pillar of the business community' or ‘a member of the Lodge' or a ‘good husband' and these things mattered. Now the pretense of justification is gone and greed is its own justification." The result is a stunning lack of restraint. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught. - Sam Smith, Why Bother?, 2001

Sam Smith - When I wrote that, I assumed that, having ditched the First American Republic, we might well move towards some form of ordered and unpleasant tyranny. I assumed that the establishment would stick to its agenda that we would be expected to understand and obey.

After all, as I wrote at the time, "we all live in a Mafia neighborhood now." And a big part of living in a Mafia neighborhood is that you know what the rules are. But what I missed was the possibility that the forces driving the elite would not only destroy our America, but their America as well. And it wasn't until the chaos, confusion, crises, conflicts and controversies of the last year and a half that it became apparent that both victim and tyrant had lost this battle.

What has happened is that atomized ambition has created aggregated anarchy. No one controls the country any more. Yes, they are in charge of the buttons, but the buttons no longer work. The housing and stock markets have collapsed. Academics act as though they haven't gotten their GED yet. Intellectuals grasp at adjectives and metaphors that bear no contact with reality. Corporate executives speak of markets long gone. We are in wars no one can defend reasonably yet against which there is no major protest. Reporters prefer adjectives over facts and have come to think of skepticism as a form of extremism. Sanctified, sanctimonious figures in the church and the GOP are caught in gay trysts. And a hustler named Madoff easily rips off the very high society of which he was a part.

Among the most striking developments has been the impermeable inconsistency of the Obama administration. Although it has spoken repeatedly of transparency, seldom has there been an administration whose true purpose was more difficult to perceive.

Of course, it has been aided mightily by a Democratic Senate that created months of trouble for itself simply by choosing not to revert to traditional rules that could have made it the most, rather than the least, effective upper body in years. Instead, all you needed for a filibuster was to hand in a slip of paper.

The results have been unlike anything that has ever been seen on Capitol Hill. Put together the stimulus package, the health care bill and banking reform and you have a triptych of laws of uncertain purpose, volcanic confusion and concealed contradiction - one to two thousand pages making the future impenetrable until it will be too late to do much about it.

Congress used to pass legislation in order to accomplish something, whether for good or evil. Now we have major bills no one can accurately explain, no one can predict their consequences and no one can convincingly argue on their behalf save for a series of abstractions easily balanced by similar vagaries of the opposition.

We do know that the stimulus bill has so far done little worthwhile, unless you work on Wall Street. Unemployment remains high, foreclosures have not been significantly limited and public works are pathetic.

What the score will be for the health care measure is far harder to guess, for the legislators and Obama have simply hid some of its most important elements for years in the future.

As for the so-called bank reform measure, it was clearly a gift to Wall Street. Yet the LA Times, among others, called it "the most sweeping rewrite of financial rules since the Great Depression."

In fact, the bill didn't even bring back the Glass-Steagall Act which would have been the most sweeping rewrite of financial rules since, well since 1999, when Bill Clinton and Congress buried it.

Eric Alterman came closer to the truth: "When was the last time Congress passed a bill so large that even its significant provisions resisted summarization, both for reasons of complexity and enormity? If you said 'health care,' well, perhaps you're noticing a pattern. Once again, Democrats spent the better part of a year playing three-dimensional chess with themselves, lobbyists, and Republicans to pass. . . The actual provisions of this bill are beyond the capacity of most of us to understand"

Add to all this the BP disaster, in which our leaders desperately try to spin the oil away by endless news conferences in front of a gulf they never cared about before. And the attempt to dismantle a system of public education that for a couple of centuries helped make America a place to admire.

How does one define politics in times like this? In truth, the only parties that still have a whit of purpose are the Greens, Libertarians and Socialists and they can't hardly make it on the ballot. The rest has been reduced to office politics.

We have now gone through a year and a half when either nothing has happened or nobody can tell what has happened. Yet the elite still acts like they know what they are up to and their indentured media loyally spreads the myth.

For example, Obama appoints a Supreme Court justice whom none of her social ilk can describe much except to say how smart she is. These same figures, however, then proceed to admit that her views are a "blank page."

Is the only purpose of intelligence to go through life filling out crossword puzzles correctly? Might it not help to do or say something worthwhile that someone might remember? Apparently, by today's elite standards, that is not smart.

Obama himself warned us in his memoirs that he was merely a mirror, that people would see what they wanted in him. Only now are many who voted for him beginning to realize that Barack Obama never really existed; he was only a transient reaction to things that really existed - a reaction based on what seemed to be most beneficial or safest for himself at the moment.

One leader of this kind would be a problem in any period, but when a whole elite has given up shared values, community and conscience in order to play the game solo, you have a problem that can destroy your entire culture.

And that's where we find ourselves. Vicky Ward gets close to the nub in her book on the desperate housewives of Lehman Brothers. The illusion of common purpose - taken to the extreme of precisely defined clothing, rigorously shared charities and climbing mountains together - is finally shattered by the reality that the men who were supposed to be partners in a common endeavor actually viewed each other as one more market to manipulate and beat.

Lately a strange image has been bouncing about in my head. It is a scene of urban riots, flames in the street, of aimed guns and aimless bodies. But the people in the image aren't the poor and the helpless, and they are not in Athens or Bangkok. Rather they are in Washington and they are judges and CEOs and lawyers and MBAs and cabinet officials and TV news hosts. They are looting stores, smashing statues, and lighting gasoline in a desperate last act of the greed that got them so far yet now has so little to offer. Their memories can no longer recall conscience, causes, or community. They have no friends, allies or movements. They are on their own just like the Lehman Brothers housewife to whom former friends would longer speak after the firm had died.

We have, from a young age, been trained to respect, admire and follow our leaders. Even now, you can hardly find a major op ed writer or a TV commentator who will admit that those who are supposed to show us the way have disintegrated like, say, a malfunctioning deep water well or a high rolling hedge fund.

But we're on our own now. Which was never a bad idea; it was just that we weren't meant to think about it.

If Obama has done us one favor, perhaps it is this: we now know there is no one waiting behind the curtain to save us.

But there still is an America and a good one. You just won't find it on the front pages or on the evening news. It is in our communities, our towns and our states and we have to rediscover and build this America from the bottom up.

It can happen, but the first step is to stop listening to an elite that has destroyed our land and disgraced itself, an elite that has rolled into one great cultural tar ball.

So move on, folks, nothing to see here.

From here on out, it's up to us.

May 06, 2010


Sam Smith

You know things are going poorly for the establishment when it starts appealing for civility as Obama did the other day, asking for a "a basic level of civility in our public debate."

That means they've pretty much run out of arguments to defend the way they're screwing things up and are now attempting to pass on the blame for to anger to the victims. It is interesting that Obama baRely mentioned the employment situation when talking at the University of Michigan graduates, something that even quite civil students would have been interested in.

I also like civility, however, and in the interest of improving my relations with the Obama administration I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to increase the amount of civility in our land:

- Get out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq now.

- Stop bailing out Wall Street and start helping endangered homeowners and the unemployed.

- Stop letting oil companies determine when their rigs are safe.

- Stop unconstitutional spying on people through wiretaps and other means.

- Stop trying to find ways to cut Social Security and Medicare for seniors.

- Stop calling for civility and start practicing it.

May 05, 2010


Sam Smith

The three wars we'll never win are easy to remember. The enemy in each conflict begins with the letter M: Muslim, Mexican and marijuana.

Leaving aside all moral restraints, there is still one exceptionally good rule about starting a war: don't begin one you can't win.

But an extraordinary percentage of our national, state and local budgets goes into these three failed struggles. The cause of our incapability varies in each case, but in the end the story is the same: by fighting these wars  we are making ourselves their major victim.

Consider what happened the other day in Times Square. In a few months it will have been nine years since something far worse happened in New York City, yet during all that time our country has not taken one significant step towards improving relations with the Muslim world. We have instead continued to support Israel's apartheid and its abuse of Palestinians, treated Muslims in this land like pro forma suspects of terror, escalated the war in Afghanistan and expanded it to Pakistan, including drone attacks on innocent households. All the time denying we were anti-Muslim.

The Afghan war, the second longest war in American history (after Vietnam), is also the second longest military failure in American history (after Vietnam). Again, leaving morality aside (since the media and our politicians find it offensive and cowardly), it can be said fairly that the major result of the Afghan war has been to increase Middle Eastern and Muslim hostility towards the United States.

This hostility has been reflected in a number of ways, but perhaps most interestingly has been the recent shift in the character of our most feared opponents from being little known residents of Pakistani encampments to being citizens of our own land. We have, you might say, domesticated Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This is not a smart move.

Faishal Shahzad even has an MBA from the University of Bridgeport. And unless he's just a cover for a new Wall Street assault on America by bombs rather than by derivatives, this is a striking symbol of how our foreign policy has not eased our problem but merely brought it to within an hour and 21 minutes of Manhattan via Metro North.

Justin Raimondo of Anti War describes it well:

|||| The oddness of this case is brought out in the details of Shahzad’s career – from being a financial analyst at the Affinion Group, in Norwalk, Connecticut, where he commuted from the home he and his wife had purchased in nearby Shelton, to quitting his job, in 2009, going off to Waziristan for "training," and then returning to at the beginning of this year, a changed man. . . News articles talk about how, in the beginning, Shahzad and his wife - whose Facebook page says she "likes to party every night" - were friendly, at first, but later seemed to withdraw as Shahzad became more "radicalized" . . .

What stands out about Shahzad and his family is their ordinariness - the wife, a University of Colorado graduate, majoring in business, and Shahzad, who spent his days calculating profit margins and tending his garden, not to mention a baby daughter nicknamed "Bunny Wabbit." So typical is this family that they recently had their Shelton house foreclosed." ||||

Even Walt Kelly - who warned us years ago of meeting the enemy and finding it to be us - might be alarmed.

This apparent enemy not only did not have to invade us; we gave him an MBA. This is not good military strategy.

Our war against Mexicans is less dangerous but similarly futile. It is not that illegal immigrants don't pose a problem, but not every problem in life can be solved by force, regulation, and macho police raids.

The anti-immigrant hysteria is driven by a number of factors including the successful effort by the repugnant right to blame our lack of jobs on a few of the weakest people in our land.

Yet the number of illegals has actually declined of late. And to get rid of all of them would cost each of us close to $1000 in tax dollars according to one study.

Further, The number of foreign born - legal or not - now comprise the same percentage of the population as was the case in 1930 and considerably less than between 1860 and 1910.

The blame for our economy being placed on illegals is grossly misleading. Here's a test I proposed some time back:

1. Has a Mexican ever fired or laid you off?

2. Was the plant you worked for until it was sent overseas been bought by Mexicans or is it still owned by the same people you used to work for?

3. Has a Mexican ever cut your pension or health benefits? Outsourced your job to India?

4. Was Enron run by Mexicans?

5. How much of the corruption in Washington has been instigated by the Mexicans?

6. Did the Mexicans make us invade Iraq?

The best way to think of illegal immigration is: how do we keep it down to a dull roar? Enforcement at the borders is clearly important, but turning our workplaces into magnets for police terrorism or Arizona style brutality is not helpful at all. Once again, we become the victim.

My sense is that many people are actually less concerned about the fact that the immigrants are illegal than that they got away with it. The best way to deal with that is with some form of restorative justice, such as required community service for undocumented workers.

An even better reform is to liberalize immigration. After all, our present policies have their roots in some of the most racist and xenophobic periods of our history. Consider this: if the immigration laws passed since the 1920s had been around when Europeans first landed, most of us would be the descendents of illegal immigrants. In fact, check with a native American for further thoughts on this topic.

In "Let Them In," Jason L. Riley writes: "Reasonable people agree that illegal immigration should be reduced. The question isn't whether it's a problem but how to solve it. Historically, the best results have come from providing more legal ways for immigrants to enter the country. Most of these people are not predisposed to crime or terrorists in waiting. They are economic migrants who would gladly use the front door if it were open to them. Post 9/11, knowing who's in the country has rightly taken on an urgency. But painting Latino immigrants as violent criminals or Islamofascists won't make us any safer. Nor will enforcing bad laws and policies, as opposed to reforming them. On the whole, immigrants are an asset to America, not a liability. We benefit from the labor, they benefit from the jobs. Our laws should acknowledge and reflect this reality, not deny it."

And the next time Lou Dobbs tries to scare you, keep this in mind. Cutting illegal immigration by half would be like someone offering you a two percent discount on something. Would you give up your Constitution and pay more taxes for that? Probably not.

Finally, there is the least important but silliest M War of all - that against marijuana. This has been an utter failure. And to what end? To punish those who dare to use a drug less dangerous than cigarettes and vodka.

The war against marijuana has been a vicious abuse of our young (and the once young), but more importantly has helped to lay the groundwork for other endless wars we are in against something or other. It was the drug war that convinced us to surrender our Constitution, and to waste money on militaristic, fatuous and futile police activities. In many ways the war on drugs helped lead us to the war on Mexicans and the Muslim world, to abandon reason and fairness, negotiation and compromise - in favor of a science fiction version of law, order and diplomacy in which nothing matters but the brutal power available at a particular moment.

There is only one sure result from such behavior: the practitioners become increasingly brutal and deranged, while increasingly failing at whatever it is they think they are doing.