March 30, 2011

Why the Republicans are acting so crazy

Sam Smith

Not every change in national policy and events is announced with a new conference or presidential speech.

A case in point is the rapid rise of apparent mental instability in the Republican Party. You used to just disagree with Republicans; now you have to worry whether your children will be safe in their proximity.

Historians may peg 2008 - with Sarah Palin chosen to run for vice president - as the beginning of the GOP breakdown. But in the past year things have moved from individually ridiculous to generally irrational.

The explanations vary. David Sirota, for example, calls it sadism, but where did it come from and why so suddenly?

The best rule of thumb is to follow the money.

And that, rather quickly, takes you back to a little over a year ago to January 21, 2010 when the Supreme Court declared that corporations were free to buy our elections at will. As Justice Stevens noted in his dissent:

At bottom, the Court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."

Of course, as Stevens suggested, the ability of corporados to buy politicians was already well underway. Twelve years earlier, for example, I had given a speech at a rally at the US Capitol in which I said:

My final objection [private campaign financing] is biologic. Elections are for and between human beings. How do you tell when you're dealing with a person? Well, they bleed, burp, wiggle their toes and have sex. They register for the draft. They register to vote. They watch MTV. They go to prison and they have babies and cancer. Eventually they die and are buried or cremated.
"Now this may seem obvious to you, but there are tens of thousands of lawyers and judges and politicians who simply don't believe it. They will tell you that a corporation is a person, based on a corrupt Supreme Court interpretation of the 14th Amendment from back in the robber baron era of the late 19th century -- a time in many ways not unlike our own.

"Before this ruling, everyone knew what a person was just as everyone knew what a bribe was. States regulated corporations because they were legal fictions lacking not only blood and bones, but conscience, morality, and free . .

"Corporations say they just want to be treated like people, but that's not true. Test it out. Try to exercise your free speech on the property of a corporation just like they exercise theirs in your election. You'll find out quickly who is more of a person. We can take care of this biologic problem by applying a simple literary solution: tell the truth. A corporation is not a person and should not be allowed to be called one under the law."
Further, you don't always need to buy a politician directly, as Source Watch explained:

In an April 9, 2009 article, Lee Fang reports that the principal organizers of Tea Party events are Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works, two "lobbyist-run think tanks" that are "well funded" and that provide the logistics and organizing for the Tea Party movement from coast to coast. Media Matters reported that David Koch of Koch Industries was a co-founder of Citizens for a Sound Economy, the predecessor of FreedomWorks. David Koch was chairman of the board of directors of CSE. CSE received substantial funding from David Koch of Koch Industries, which is the largest privately-held energy company in the country, and the conservative Koch Family Foundations, which make substantial annual donations to conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, etc. Media Matters reported that the Koch family has given more than $12 million to CSE (predecessor of FreedomWorks) between 1985 and 2002. .

Media Matters also lists the Sarah Scaife Foundation as having given a total of $2.96 million in funding to FreedomWorks. The Sarah Mellon Scaife Foundation is financed by the Mellon industrial, oil, and banking fortune. The Claude R. Lambe Foundation, also controlled by the Koch family, has donated more than $3 million to Americans for Prosperity.
That said, there is a moment when confusion turns into chaos or assault turns into murder. For the American political system that moment was the Supreme Court decision on corporations a year ago. Historians - if such people are permitted to exist in the future - will probably see this as one of the great tipping points in the collapse of America.

Further, what has happened in the last year - including the Tea Party surge in the 2010 election - is not so much the result of an intrinsic mental breakdown in the GOP as it is the conscious selection of candidates who would once have been considered absurd, but now can be safely used to carry out corporatist goals because the public no longer has the power to defeat the money.

A Scott Walker or Paul LePage can say and do anything that their campaign contributors want because it is assumed by the latter that money now inevitably trumps public will.

Yes, Scott Walker may be a sadist and Paule LePage a dumb bully, but they are merely tools of those who fund them. All they have to do is be pluto pimps for the corporate agenda.

This is scheme wouldn't work so well if their funders mainly wanted something, but what they really want is the absence of something -namely a government that might stand in their way. So long as Walker and LePage are destroying things, their backers are quite content.

These Republicans are wrecking trucks for the big businesses that want to tear down the neighborhood we call America.

It's working for them right now. Whether it will continue to do so remains to be seen. For example, for the working class to even think about supporting Republicans is an idea only about three decades old.

A short list of constituencies that Republicans have recently offended include supporters of 9/11 responders, the AARP, Americorps, black men, cchildren with pre-existing health conditions, college students, cops, disabled people, aarthquake warnings, employed women, EPA, ethnically mixed couples, gays, ill people who need medical marijuana, immigrants and their children, jobless people, journalists, latinos, Medicaid recipients, Methodists, minimum wage workers, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NPR & PBS, the Postal Service, public school students, public workers, scientists, supporters of separation of church and state, Social Security recipients, state workers, and women generally.

That's not a bad base around which to build an electoral rebellion.

Liberals could rediscover the working class and start showing it some respect in their policies. Issues could become more important than icons in our politics. Youth could rediscover their collective power once they turn off Facebook and their Ipods. The drive for a constitutional amendment ending corporate personhood could become a major issue.

And, as I noted at the Capitol back in 1999:

The people who work in the building behind us have learned to count money ahead of votes. It is time to chase the money changers out of the temple. But how? After all, getting Congress to adopt publicly funded campaigns is like trying to get the Mafia to adopt the Ten Commandments as its mission statement. I would suggest that while fighting this difficult battle there is something we can do starting tomorrow. We can pull together every decent organization and individual in communities all over America -- the churches, activist organizations, social service groups, moral business people, concerned citizens -- and begin drafting a code of conduct for politicians. We do not have to wait for any legislature. If we do this right, if we form true broad-based coalitions of decency, then the politicians will ignore us only at their peril.

At root, dear friends, our problem is that politicians have come to have more fear of their campaign contributors than they have of the voters. We have to teach politicians to be afraid of us again. And nothing will do it better than a coming together of a righteously outraged and unified constituency demanding an end to bribery of politicians, whether it occurs before, during, or after a campaign.
 In the meanwhile, it is best to keep in mind that the Republicans destroying our land are doing so not so much because of some new mental problems. They had them before and you just didn't hear about them.

They are tearing down the nation because their problems are extremely valuable to the corporados who have put them into office and don't want government to work at all.

Our battle, thus, is not with Walker and LePage but with the big bucks that put them where they are. Follow the money.

March 28, 2011

War as office politics

Sam Smith

Watching Wolf Blitzer shortly before Obama launched his Libyan Whatever It Is, it occurred to me that two of the most profound commentaries on American politics these days are The Office and Parks & Recreation. Someone was trying to explain to Blitzer how there was going to be a bifurcated military operation, with one loyal to the rules of the UN and NATO and the other apparently serving whatever the White House wanted on a particular day. The headquarters for these two operations would be separate and the question politely implied was: how are we going to prevent these two operations from killing each other?

I tried to remember another time when anyone had even suggested such a masochistic military maze, but then I realized these are no ordinary times. These are times when thought is merely a choice of trendy abstractions, where purpose is just a slogan, and all policy must be filtered, twisted and often disappeared into an institutional swamp that no one really understands.

To a Washington operative these days, having two poorly coordinated and potentially conflicting military operations is no different that having an energy secretary and an energy czar. After all, you need one for the Constitution and the other for the White House.

Or in the Parks & Recreation version:

Leslie: Please remember, this is a government project. So, we need to refrain from corporate promotion and religious items. Who'd like to start?

Man: I think we should put in the Bible.

Leslie: Great.

But then Leslie, most White House czars and cabinet secretaries aren't as well equipped with deadly weapons as the military, where directive confusion can not only prove controversial but fatal.

A few days ago, Charles Krauthhammer attempted an update:

"Let's see how that paper multilateralism is doing. The Arab League is already reversing itself, criticizing the use of force it had just authorized. . . Russia's Vladimir Putin is already calling the Libya operation a medieval crusade. China is calling for a cease-fire in place. . . As of this writing, Britain wanted the operation to be led by NATO. France adamantly disagreed, citing Arab sensibilities. Germany wanted no part of anything, going so far as to pull four of its ships from NATO command in the Mediterranean. France and Germany walked out of a NATO meeting on Monday, while Norway had planes in Crete ready to go but refused to let them fly until it had some idea who is running the operation. And Turkey, whose prime minister four months ago proudly accepted the Gadhafi International Prize for Human Rights, has been particularly resistant to the Libya operation from the beginning. And as for the United States, who knows what American policy is? Administration officials insist we are not trying to bring down Gadhafi, even as the president insists that he must go. Although on Tuesday Obama did add "unless he changes his approach."

We keep trying to describe these things in terms of politics, policy and grand intellectual schemes. And it drives us away from a simpler but uglier truth: we are all trapped in a gigantic Parks & Recreation Department and all politics has become office politics.

Which is why one of the more profound analyses of the Libyan situation was this from the British Guardian:

"One observer of Anglo-American military adventures over the last 20 years tried to make light of the impasse. "It's a bit like a barn dance," the source said of the efforts to decide whether and how NATO would run the operation. "Half of the people can't dance, a couple are drunk and then there's always the characters at the back with their hands up various skirts."

March 27, 2011

The Dead Hub Cap Society

Sam Smith

Volvo won't be selling any more station wagons in America. The station wagon, whose sales rose from 29,000 in 1946 to 707,000 in 1965 has joined the Dead Hub Cap Society.

I don't actually miss our Volvo wagon. It had been a lemon because new features were added without enough testing.

But I grew up on station wagons. We were the recipients of my grandfather's cast-offs and my father hated to part with a vehicle. So at one point in the mid-fifties, my parent's collection of vehicles in Philadelphia and at their farm in Maine included a 1952 DeSoto station wagon (the first new car my father had purchased since 1938), a 1948 Chrysler New Yorker, a 1946 wooden Plymouth station wagon, its 1941 forerunner, a 1946 six-wheeled Army truck, a 1939 laundry van, plus my father's four door 1938 Cadillac convertible and my mother's 1936 Plymouth. In 1955 I drove to college in the then 14-year-old Plymouth wagon and little concern or surprise was expressed when the front hood flew up at 60 mph on the New Hampshire Turnpike. The bent hood was secured with a jury rig and the car continued in service. There were, however, limits. When the DeSoto, with more than 100,000 miles on it, lost its front wheel on the Maine Turnpike, it was reluctantly retired as a pleasure vehicle.

The Amy surplus truck the author learned to drive at 14
 At the age of 14, I learned to drive in the Army truck. I was double-clutching and shifting into six-wheel drive and using a winch to haul things out of places long before I was able to drive legally on Maine roads beyond the farm.

My brother recalled, "You couldn't go directly from one gear to another but had to go into neutral first, let the clutch all the way out and accelerate or brake the motor before shifting again, depending on the direction of the shift. The maneuver also required one to take into account the load on the truck, its speed and the grade of the road."

The truck was a marvelous machine that lasted for decades. It withstood all punishment including my father's attempt to launch a boat by towing it out on to the mudflats. The truck, of course, became deeply mired, but the winch eventually pulled the vehicle back to dry land.

The Army truck was just one of a fleet of amazing vehicles that kept my parent's farm going, ranging from the practical to the insane. For example. my father obtained the local Railway Express truck from Clarence Bolster, a familiar figure at the local railroad station. It was, however, short on brakes. Asked how one operated such a vehicle, Jim Degrandpre, son of the farm manager, told me, "You planned ahead." Jim's brothers, Richard and David, converted the DeSoto wagon into a monster tractor, one of several such homemade vehicles.

The former DeSoto station wagon converted into a tractor
None of this surprised me much. After all, when I accompanied my parents to France as a college student, our rented Simca had broken down some miles from the nearest village. It turned out to be a broken accelerator rod. My father had me stand on the front bumper with the car's hood up adjusting the speed of the car by hand as he stuck his head out the window and steered it.

I followed in my father's tradition. My first car was an Olds - a 1941 - was bought in 1961 literally from a little old lady who only drove it on Sundays. It had 26,000 miles on it, still smelled new, and featured a Hydromatic Drive. Unfortunately the final attribute lasted only about six months. I replaced it with a 1956 Chrysler New Yorker, which I called Gloria, because it was such sick transit. Then I got into station wagons with another Olds, which was in an accident that necessitated a complete paint job. Unfortunately, I did not make my intentions adequately clear and the whole vehicle was repainted red, including the grillwork. Its successor, the Volvo station wagon, didn't run when it was cold, hot, or wet and was quickly replaced.

In 1985 I moved up from station wagons to a Plymouth minivan, which both my sons considered too embarrassing to use for dates. I would own two such vehicles and among their many attributes was the fact that thieves, like my sons, didn't like them.

I only bought the second one nine years later because the first one had collided with a cow.

The bovine miscreant had wandered from behind some bushes onto Virignia's Route 237, exploded into the frame of my windshield, rolled over, careened off the front fender and scudded by, pausing only long enough to look me directly and critically in the eye. The cow then completed its original mission -- namely to cross the road and enter the pasture on the other side.

My wife and I were wearing seat-belts and so the encounter between a Plymouth Voyager doing 40 mph and a 1300-pound cow doing 2.5 left us stunned but mobile. We stepped out of the car and were soon joined by a state trooper, the local rescue squad, a fire engine, a sheriff's deputy as well as a small swarm of men wandering silently with transmitters in the night.

Having quickly, almost perfunctorily, ascertained our good health, the rescuers asked which way the cow had gone. We pointed towards the field and most of the figures in the dark, much as the cow before them, rapidly faded into the pasture as though they, too, had been interrupted in their true errand.

Later, other problems developed. Our Honda was stolen twice. The first time it disappeared from a parking lot right next to the Brookings Institution. The DC constabulary said we would never see it again but at 11:30 that night I was awoken by the Prince Georges County police with word that it had been located at a public housing project recently in the news for the frequency of its murders. We were invited to retrieve it promptly or it would be taken as evidence in a drug bust. Which is why, at 1 AM, my wife and I found ourselves in a parking lot in the most dangerous locale in the Washington region. In the trunk was a six pack of beer, so we came out about even. The second time, no one found the Honda . . .

And finally, in February 2009, just six months before I moved to Maine, my wife's 1995 Cirrus was stolen for the third time. It had lived a good life and so I wasn't too concerned until May when I received a notice from the Department of Motor Vehicles - which apparently had no ongoing relationship with the Police Deaprtment - stating that I had failed to pay four recent parking tickets on the car.

Since the location of the offense was only a few blocks away I quickly drove there and found my car with tickets jammed under the windshield wiper and the front lock clearly mangled. The DMV, to its credit, did eventually decide I was not responsible.

Of all these vehicles, though, my favorite remains the station wagons. I even got my sons to accept a wagon formerly owned by the IRS as their college vehicle. It not only made innumerable campus trips but two and half treks across the nation before dying in Moab, Utah.

Station wagons combined the great American ideals of adventure, space and practicality. It was a car for an America that still had dreams.

March 24, 2011

Free markets, enslaved minds

Sam Smith

One of the myths of the economaniacs is that everything in life is a function of how money is used and who uses it. To be sure, it was, as previously noted here, fortunate that economists discovered money before manure or we would be faced with a Really Gross National Product and our lives would driven by defecatory trends as interpreted by academic and media experts.

But there is, in fact, one largely undiscussed way in which our economic approach truly reaches deep into all aspects of our culture: the massive corporatism under which we live (concealed under the guise of free market capitalism) is making us dangerously dumb.

This not only affects our purchases but every aspect of our lives. Consider, for example, where the average American learns things. At the top the of list would have to be advertising on television combined with the news and programming created to attract that advertising.

There are, to be sure, other influences such as schools, but how many teachers can sell common sense or useful skepticism as well as advertising agencies sell products and the values that lead one to buy them? And consider the time spent in the education compared with the time spent before the tube - even by the young, let alone by adults.

There is also organized religion, which - in its sadly most typical forms these days - is a prime encourager of myths potentially disastrous to the earth, including denial of climate change and opposition to birth control.

But still greater is the ubiquitous influence of the corporados not just on our wallets but on our minds. And it's not just the messages we receive through the television. It can be found in the distortion in values of non-profits now seeking to meet corporate standards and, perhaps most dangerously, in the policies and rhetoric of our politicians.

In the end, it will not be what we buy - foolish as that may be - that will do us in, but what we think. And the free market every minute is teaching us wrong things - in as many as 3,000 messages for each American every day.

As the anti-worker developments in Michigan, Wisconsin and Maine warn us, we are even losing the ability to perceive our own self interest. And when that happens, we cease being citizens and become helpless victims.

March 23, 2011

The dysfunction beat

Sam Smith

The other day on a talk show I found myself saying something I had thought about but hadn't put in words. In responding to a question about another absurd act by the Republicans, I told the host that I thought he needed a psychiatrist and not me to answer that one.

Never in my life have the gutters of American politics been so filled with the flow of madness - nonsensical statements, illogical actions, bizarre claims.And most of it - albeit far from all - is coming from Republicans.

There are two major subcultures of the GOP these days: the crazy and the criminal. The latter has always been a part of politics but it is at record levels. And the former is often so intrinsically mixed with the latter that it becomes impossible at times to tell them apart.

I use the word criminal to differentiate from the word corruption. The corrupt politics we read about of the Tammany years or in James Michael Curley's Boston welled up from the bottom. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude. It was the voter as well as the politician who was in on the deal.

Tammny's brand of corruption got down to the streets. Manipulation of the voter and corruption describe both Tammany and contemporary politics. The big difference is that in the former the voter could with greater regularity count on something in return.

Today, the bribery of private campaign financing, especially following the Supreme Court's full approval of corporate contributions, has drastically changed the game. The public doesn't have to be enticed with public works, public jobs and public short cuts. Today's assumption is that with sufficient funds to mislead the public on TV, what the public thinks it thinks no longer matters. The typical politician is no longer an intermediary between grand and small constituencies and no longer feels the need to even tithe to the voter. It is enough to have the money to buy enough ads to deceive them.

While the major participants in this sort of politics these days are Republicans, it is probably fair to date its universal application to the Clinton years. After all, Democrats were supposed to represent the little guy, to do the most for the most. Clinton made it clear that he would go with the highest bidder. And the Obama economic recovery programs - so twisted to aid the large over the small - continues this trend.

It is not, however, that the Democrats are more evil than the Republicans, only that when they sell out, there is no one left to represent the rest of America. If Obama won't defend the unions or those threatened with foreclosure, then who will?

It is difficult to tell where the money ends and madness begins, and this too has a bipartisan quality to it.

Consider a report from ABC's Jake Tapper:

||| In an interview with Univision, President Obama re-defined the term “exit strategy,” and said our exit strategy in Libya would begin this week.“The exit strategy will be executed this week,” President Obama said, “in the sense that we will be pulling back from our much more active efforts to shape the environment. We will still be in a support role. We will be supplying jamming, intelligence and other assets unique to us."

Planes in the air? Ships in the Mediterranean? Intelligence being provided? Doesn’t sound like an exit strategy at all.

What it does recall is Lewis Carroll.

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." ||||
Since it is hard to imagine someone as well educated by Obama being confused as to what an exit is, one must assume he is lying to us, just as he did about his Iraq exit strategy.

But at least Obama keeps it down to a dull roar.

For the Republicans, perseveration, ignorance, hyperbole, and distortion are not tools of last resort. They are the modus operandi. Thus, reports Alternet, "More than half of the incoming Republican caucus denies the validity of climate change science. Some 74 percent of Republicans in the U.S. Senate now take that stance, as do 53 percent of GOP in the House."

The difference between these Republicans and Obama is that the president lies like lawyer- with the considered manipulation of a con artist - while the GOP lies are not merely the work of the bribed but too often are truly believed by the politicians themselves.

It is this mixture of madness, imbecility and money that is hard to sort out.

I have increasingly come to think of our situation as that of a truly dysfunctional family, one in which the garb of the normal conceals deep inability to achieve any such thing.

Some, for example, have talked a lot about the need for more civil debate. But when, for example, has Michelle Bachman indicated any comprehension of what that might be, let alone an inclination to attempt it?

Indeed, any debate collapses in a culture in which facts and logic are held in such contempt. And how does the journalist balance properly the arguments of the rational and the mentally disjointed? What is the objective manner in which to cover someone being paid large sums to say the absurd, nasty or cruel things and who probably agrees with them anyway?

We are treating this all as politics as usual, but it isn't.

Perhaps it would help if more with psychiatric training would weigh in our political affairs. What is the best way to handle a Scott Walker or a Sarah Palin when they're having one of their fits? How does one debate with the paranoid, the aggressively ignorant or the pathological liar?

As a journalist, I feel that things seem to be moving beyond my skills. I know how to write about the traditionally corrupt, evil and stupid. But what does one do when members of one of the two major parties become so bizarrely irrational and, with no small help from the media itself, gain a constituency large enough to give them office? When madness is no longer a individual clinical matter but a popular consensus?

March 17, 2011

What's new with me

Sam Smith

One of the ways that bad policies, ideas, and values spread is because the system, especially the media, portrays them as normal. One of the ways one knows this to be untrue is to be old enough to remember when life was different.

I've been jotting down things of a political, social and economic nature that have been happening lately for the first time or in record quantity since I covered my first Washington story 54 years ago. Here are a few of the things that are new with me:

- The most radical and irrational Republican Party. To be sure, there had been Joe McCarthy but among those who eventually put him down were normal conservatives who found him embarrassing. Those people don't seem to exist any more in the GOP.

- The most conservative Democratic president. In an earlier time, there would have been a name for Obama: Republican.

- People who would have formerly been considered political jokes are now talking about running for president, such as Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump. To be sure there was a Pogo for President movement and comedian Pat Paulsen's campaign, but neither had a PAC.

- An unprecedented level of political nastiness. I can't, for example, remember a segregationist politician calling for blacks to be shot and killed by helicopter like "feral hogs" as recently proposed for immigrants by a Kansas legislator.

- A record bipartisan contempt for civil liberties. Never has a Democratic president or a Republican Party been so eclectically contemptuous of constitutional rights. As William Shirer, author of a great book Nazism, pointed out, "You don't need a totalitarian dictatorship like Hitler's to get by with murder . . . You can do it in a democracy as long as the Congress and the people Congress is supposed to represent don't give a damn."

- A decline in the respect for facts. In America's political debate, facts are now treated like just another ad hominem argument to be dismissed with colorful rhetoric. And numbers are considered simply another form of adjective.

- A Democratic administration without a single cabinet member one can truly admire.

- A Democratic Congress with only a tiny handful of party members who might have supported either the New Deal or the Great Society. But you can't save the republic just relying on Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich and Anthony Weiner.

- A stunningly vacuous cultural leadership and a weird willingness to let Jon Stewart take care of all it for us.

- Massive passivity by, rather than reaction from, the nation's young.

- The extraordinary level of bipartisan contempt (depending on who is in which office) for the constitutional powers of the Congress and states.

- The sense one has of Obama seeing himself as a CEO rather than a political leader of multi-faceted democratic institutions. And our treatment as either consumers or employees.

- The level of mind-blowing bureaucratic complexity of new policies such as the healthcare legislation, which no one has truly figured out.

- The willingness to replace legal argument with euphemisms to accomplish violations of the Constitution and international law.

- The bipartisan indifference and ineffectiveness regarding the ecological crises around us, all the more striking because the evidence of ecological danger is now far stronger than when the modern environmental movement started four decades ago.

- The unprecedented willingness by Democrats - from Obama on down - to dismantle great programs of the New Deal and the Great Society.

- A loss of privacy unlike any time I have experienced.

- A record number of people on food stamps.

- A record collapse in housing prices.

- The first decline in family net worth since the 1950s

- Record high average temperatures.

That's just for starters.

Here, for comparison is how was when I was just a starter, as Jermie D. Cullip describes it:

"From 1950 to 1959, the total number of females employed increased by 18%. The standard of living during the fifties also steadily rose. Most people expected to own a car and a house, and believed that life for their children would be even better. . . The number of college students doubled. Getting a college education was no longer for the rich or elite.

"Over the decade the housing supply increased 27 percent . . . By mid-1955, the country had pulled out of the previous year's recession and gross national product was growing at a rate of 7.6 percent. . . .Over the decade, GNP per capita almost doubled and the public welfare reacted accordingly as the cost of living index rose by just 1 percent and unemployment dropped to 4.1 percent'"

The amazing thing by today's standards is that all this was accomplished by a system producing less than 5,000 MBAs a year as opposed to the 142,000 that would be turned out annually by 2005. And nobody talked about branding, mission statements or strategic visions.

There was, of course, plenty wrong and the next couple of decades made big positive changes in the lives of those who had been left behind, including the poor, women, blacks and gays.

Then came the Reagan years and the corporatization of America that would follow. America seemed to stop wanting to be America anymore. Being just another phony brand was good enough. American began its thirty year decline. And to this day, there are few who will tell you.

Further, it all can happen faster than we think. Nine years ago, for example, I gave a talk at a punk rock concert in which I listed nearly 30 ways in which American freedoms had diminished during the lifetimes of the 20-somethings present.

Above I've noted just a few of things that have changed since then. If you haven't thought about them, don't blame yourself. The media and our leaders have given us cultural Altzheimer's and they're not about to change their ways. As Don DeLillo put it, "History is the sum total of the things they're not telling us."

So that's what's new with me. And, I'm afraid, with you as well.

March 15, 2011

A poker player's guide to environmental risk assessement

From our overstocked archives, something that seems applicable to what's happening in Japan right now., Originally published in 1997 in Sam Smith's Great American Political Repair Manual (WW Norton)

Sam Smith

Some simple rules

1. Calculate the stakes as well as the odds.

2. The odds of something happening at any moment are not the same as the odds of something ever happening. In ecological calculations -- especially ones in which the downside could ruin your whole millennium -- it is the latter odds that are important.

3. When confronted with conflicting odds, ask what happens if each projection is wrong. Temporary job loss because of environmental restrictions may come and go, but the loss of the ozone layer is something you can have forever.

4. When confronted with conflicting odds, remember that you don't have to play the game. There are other things to do with your time -- or with the economy or with the environment -- that may produce better results. Thus, instead of playing poker you could be making love. Or instead of getting jobs from some air or water degrading activity, the same jobs could come from a more benign industry such as retrofitting a whole city for solar energy.

5. Don't let anyone -- in industry, government, or the media -- define an "acceptable level of risk" for your own death or disease. They may not have the same vested interest in the right answer as you do.

6. If the stakes are too high, the game is not worth it. If you can't stand the pain, don't attempt the gain.

What poker taught me

I was a poker player long before I started paying attention to environmental problems. One of the things I learned while playing poker is that you can, from time to time, beat the odds -- but don't count on it. That's why you won't find me in Atlantic City or Las Vegas.

The second thing I learned is that even when you do beat the odds, don't count on it happening again. There's a big difference between one good hand and a whole good night.

The third thing I learned is that you can, from time to time, beat the odds -- but you usually have to stay in the game long enough for it to happen. Meanwhile, you can lose an awful lot of money. You have not only to calculate the odds but the stakes as well. And you are always on the edge.

Three scenes from the edge

1. A little girl makes a sand castle. It is a beautiful day and a beautiful sand castle, constructed not far from the edge of the water. The tide has risen only halfway. Then the girl's mother calls her for lunch. They go to a little carry-out near the beach and do some shopping. When they finally return it is high tide. The little girl looks for her castle but the sea has come in and washed it all away. She is sad but her mother says they can come back tomorrow and build another one.

If the little girl had consulted an oceanographer (or even an older kid), she might have learned that the probability of her castle being destroyed approached certainty and that she could have avoided catastrophe by moving the construction site to a safer, if less appealing, location.
On the other hand, should she have been accosted by a conservative columnist, she might have been informed that since the water had been safely rising for four hours and thirty three minutes it was clear that her castle was not in any danger. Anyone who told her otherwise was anti-growth, and a knee-jerk, liberal alarmist.

2. During their vacation, the girl's mother rents a house right at the edge of the beach. It is a beautiful house next to a beautiful beach. It is constructed on stilts between the highway and the first line of dunes. The following winter the mother gets a call from the real estate agent saying that she'll have to choose another location for next summer -- a gale has destroyed the house and several others near it. The agent calls it a "freak storm;" the mother explains it to her child by saying it was an "accident."

In fact, such storms occur in this area every 7 years on average. Over the years some 32 houses have been destroyed or badly damaged just along this stretch of beach. The owners had worried a bit about the danger when they first built the house, but no one else seemed concerned so eventually they stopped thinking much about it. Besides they read an article that said that "scientific support for the notion of a drastic rise in sea level has waned rapidly." The article didn't note that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had reported that over the past 100 years, sea levels have, in fact, risen four to eight inches. Or that this was enough, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, "to have eroded over 40 feet of a typical barrier beach on the East Coast of the United States." Or that the New York Times reported that "At the most likely rate of rise, some experts say, most of the beaches on the East Coast of the United States [will] be gone in 25 years. They are already disappearing at an average of 2 to 3 feet a year. "

3.  At home or at the beach, the little girl and her mother live on another edge. With nearly six five billion other humans, they exist in that thin layer where the atmosphere and the earth's crust meet. Like many parents these days, the mother finds herself occasionally worrying about the world in which she is raising her daughter. She's confused. For example, there was a 1995 story about global warming in the Washington Post that split the arguments so neatly one could easily reach the author's own conclusion: "When you sort through the confusion, how much you worry about greenhouse warming turns out not to be a matter of science." A MIT professor was quoted who said, "It comes down to personality, it comes down to politics."

Then just two months later, the New York Times reported: "In an important shift of scientific judgment, experts advising the world's governments on climate change are saying for the first time that human activity is a likely cause of the warming of the global atmosphere." When her daughter asks her a question about global warming, she doesn't know quite what to say.

The principles of poker, it turns out, are useful lessons for thinking about the environment as well. Let's return to the sand castle for a moment. There is a 100% probability that the little girl faces ecological disaster. The castle will definitely be washed away. On the other hand, she is only playing a penny ante game. In building the castle, she's engaged in a random act of harmless amusement. Her distress over her loss will be temporary -- after all she can build another one right away. Further, no one -- and nothing -- suffers permanent damage by either the castle's construction or destruction.

With the beach house, the game changes. The chances of destruction are far less, but still objectively calculable. Mathematically minded home owners could have figured what the chances were of losing their houses during a winter storm or, far more importantly, during all the winter storms that might occur during their lifetimes.

Incidentally, these two sets of odds are not the same. If you toss a coin there is a fifty percent chance it will come up tails; if you repeatedly toss a coin, however, there is almost a hundred percent chance that it will eventually come up tails.

Now if the down side of your game is not merely a coin that lands tails up, but the loss of your house -- or a nuclear plant radiation leak or a massive oil spill -- then the probability of something happening ever becomes far more important than the probability of it happening on a particular occasion.

Finally we come to the ultimate game -- a long future of uncertainty and highly disputable odds, in which the ante is the earth and human life itself. Here is the opposite of the sand castle problem: now we have unknown odds but enormous stakes.

So what does poker have to tell us?

It says you have to know when to hold them and know when to fold them. And as a rule of thumb, whatever the odds, you don't want to bet either your house or your planet on a game of chance

March 14, 2011

Morning Line: Using bribery to cancel the Constitution

Sam Smith

No, I'm not talking about the bribes - corporate and personal - given to politicians in the form of campaign contributions. That's rotten, but at least we know about it, and even talk about it  sometimes.

But there's another form of bribery that gets no attention. The use of federal funds to undermine state and local decisions by making these funds conditional on actions that the federal government has no constitutional authority to order. It is greenmail - with dollar amounts too large for the states and localities to ignore and so everyone plays along with the scam. Thus we have George Bush and Barack Obama blithely redesigning the country's local schools in utter contempt of what the Constitution intended.

It has become so bad that private foundations have gotten into greenmail, recently most dramatically by the ones that told the DC government they couldn't continue to get continued funding if they dumped Michelle Rhee. If an ordinary citizen tried to bribe politicians like this,  they would be subject to a lengthy prison term. But foundations just call themselves nonprofits and get away with it.

The media has been major enablers of greenmail, rarely mentioning the conflicts involved and so the public hasn't heard about it. But it's there and it's big and it's well past time to do something about it.

March 08, 2011

Rise of the new mercenaries

Sam Smith

One of the things that has perplexed me about the current chaos is how did so many Republicans become so bizarrely crazy so fast? The closest example that comes to mind is the McCarthy era – but that only targeted a progressive minority and not all union members and the middle class. Further, McCarthy was brought down with the help of other Republicans who saw the damage he was doing to their cause. Has any leading Republican spoken out firmly against Scott Walker?

While it is easy to blame it on the fiscal crisis, that seems a bit too simple. For example, consider the number of Republican politicians who have announced their retirement in the face of potential more rightwing opposition. I suspect what’s scaring these folks is not ideology but money. They are not facing a grass roots rebellion but political mercenaries well paid by forces recently liberated by the Supreme Court decision on corporate personhood.

One of the ways you can tell they’re mercenaries is because true conservatives act more like Ron Paul, people with a solid record of commitment to particular ideas. Can you imagine John Boehner actually having a coherent set of principles? Or Scott Walker doing anything based on ideals rather than campaign cash flow?

We have been educated to treat politics as a battle of ideas. In America it no longer is. It is the elite and their well financed mercenaries on the one side and their victims on the other. A milder and less violent variety of what’s going on in Libya but still pretty damn ugly.

March 06, 2011

The crime behind hope and change

Sam Smith

By the standards of the US Constitution as well as American and international law, Barack Obama is a criminal – as are many of his recent predecessors.

The fact that most Americans don’t see him as such reflects the degree to which we have come to accept the ad hoc policies of those in power as superior to established principles reached by democratic decision over more than two hundred years.

Here are some of the crimes which our recent presidents have committed

- They have repeatedly gone to war without the formal approval of Congress.

- They have steadily and illegally eroded the human space covered by the Fourth Amendment to the point the TSA was planning to do viral strip searches with scanners not just in airports but on ordinary streets and other public places. And, in the view of the president and the courts, the Fourth Amendment no long protects many private activities including phone calls and internet use.

- The CIA and other government agencies have engaged, with the president’s explicit or implicit approval, in torture and abuse of prisoners,

- This includes U.S. citizens such as Private Manning According to George Bush and Barack Obama, you or any American citizen can, without criminal charges, be placed in an isolation cell, denied sleep (with no clothes, mattress, blanket, sheet, or pillow) and painfully shackled.

- Under two presidents, the unconstitutional Patriot Act has been passed and extended.

- According to Obama, his administration has the right to kill you when you're overseas

- Obama supports warrantless tracking of US citizens via cellphone location

- His administration does illegal border computer searches

- He approves of illegal secret searches of library and bookstore data files

The contempt that Obama and his predecessors have shown for the law has created what in Latin America is called a culture of impunity. In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the controlling system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. A culture of impunity varies from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture.

In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. 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.

And when they feel personally threatened, those in power react with paranoia under the false name of national security, stripping away more rights, mistreating more citizens and expressing their fear with still more cruelty.

The government of such a culture is inevitably dictatorial, whether founded on ideology, such as fascism or communism, or upon personal power. And essential to such a culture is the willingness of the populace to give up most of its former values.

The fact that we have accepted so much illegal behavior by our recent presidents – including Obama – has been the surest sign to them that they were safe in continuing to do as they wish. After all, the impunity they enjoy was granted them by our indifference, ignorance and fear.

March 01, 2011

Flotsam & Jetsam: The forgotten war that still kills

Sam Smith

Recent news that the last American veteran of World War I had died didn't get a lot of attention because the war he fought in had long ago been forgotten by most Americans and is ignored by historians and the media. In my book, Why Bother, I wrote about it:

|||| How many school children are taught that, worldwide, wars in the past century killed over 100 million people? In World War I alone, the death toll was around ten million. Much of this, including the later Holocaust, was driven by a culture of modernity that so changed the power of institutions over the individual that the latter would become what Erich Fromm called homo mechanicus, "attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive." Becoming, in fact, a part of the machinery -- willing to kill or to die just to keep it running.

Thus, with Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Richard Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half of the officers assigned to them. But the internal bureaucratic logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance: six miles. ||||

To me this is more than a history lesson. Death at an early age hung like a shroud over my family. My mother's brother had died while serving in World War I. Trained as a flying observer at Fort Sill, he was killed by a shell as he went to help with the liaison between the airplanes and the artillery. His first cousin was an aviator with the famed Lafayette Escadrille. He lost his life while on a scouting mission over German territory just a few months before his cousin died in France.

Another uncle, married to my mother's sister, came back from the war, where he had helped move dead bodies from the front. He never smiled again. Suffering from what we would call post traumatic stress syndrome, he committed suicide ten years later.

And one of my father's brothers was lost near Lisbon while serving in WWI as an officer aboard Admiral William Halsey's first command.

All this in a war that one hears little about anymore, yet in an important way would shape the next century of violence. As I noted:

|||| No one in that war was a person anymore. The seeds of the Holocaust can thus be found in the trenches of World War I. Individuals had became no better than the bullets that killed them, just part of the expendable arsenal of the state. . .

Some of the most important lessons of the Holocaust are simply missed. Among these, as Richard Rubenstein has pointed out, is that it could only have been carried out by “an advanced political community with a highly trained, tightly disciplined police and civil service bureaucracy.”

In The Cunning of History, Rubenstein also finds uncomfortable parallels between the Nazis and their opponents. For example, in 1944 a Hungarian Jewish emissary meets with Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, and suggests that the Nazis might be willing to save one million Hungarian Jews in return for military supplies. Lord Moyne’s reply: “What shall I do with those million Jews? Where shall I put them?” Writes Rubenstein: "The British government was by no means adverse to the ‘final solution’ as long as the Germans did most of the work."

For both countries, it had become a bureaucratic problem, one that Rubenstein suggests we understand “as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the 20th century.”

These tendencies were not alien to America. General Curtis LeMay ran the air war against both Japan and North Korea, became head of the sacrosanct Strategic Air Command, and was one of the military heroes of his time. Here are just a few of his accomplishments as reported by Richard Rhodes in the New Yorker:

- The destruction of nearly 17 square miles of Tokyo with the loss of at least 100,000 civilian lives.

- The destruction of 62 other Japanese cities. Only Hiroshima and Nagasaki were spared -- reserved for their own special horror. In sum, more than a million Japanese civilians were killed. LeMay himself would admit years later, "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side."

- The bombing of North Korean cities, dams, villages and rice paddies. Civilian deaths: more than two million.

In short, with the enthusiastic blessing of the American government, LeMay was directly responsible for the slaughter of about half as many civilians as died in the Holocaust. And LeMay had even grander schemes. His plan for defeating the Soviet Union included the obliteration of 70 Soviet cities in thirty days with thirty-three atomic bombs and the deaths of 2.7 million citizens. ||||
No time in history can match the century of mechanization of violence that began with World War I. Only when you add up all of China's wars from the 8th to 19th century do you come up with anything comparable.

And like so many important things that made us what we are, we don't even talk about it anymore. Except when you come from a family where so many uncles had died as part of the story.