SEPThis Ought To Be A Healthy Debate
So the President unveiled his health plan(s) to what I thought was an incredible display of bravery on the Republicans' part, and I'm jealous. I remember what it felt like to torture the substitute teacher from the back of class, yelling out "you lie!" and holding up signs and so forth. These people are really exploring new boundaries in civil discourse. Talk about exercising their liberties—if Joe Wilson had been Cynthia McKinney, they'd have dragged him out of the Capitol in handcuffs. Often behavior is perceived in ways that have more to do with the perpetrator than the crime.
If the Democrats had been as vehement over the plan to invade Iraq as the Republicans are about health care reform, we'd never have gone to war. But then again, criticizing the President used to be treasonous merely by virtue of the office; now it seems like a lot of plain ol' folks out there think Obama is committing treason merely by being the President.
So health care reform will be a valiant and pointless struggle, because the Democrats don't need Republican support to pass the bill. In fact, the President ought to say to those Blue Dogs who think they'll be vulnerable in the coming elections, "vote against it if you think your constituents won't like getting health care, run as a maverick and see how far it gets you."
And so, of course, a conservative Democrat comes out with a plan that does not include the public option, and the left is howling because it doesn't go far enough while the right howls about the government taking over healthcare. At least we have achieved one great accomplishment already: making sure no one can ever propose a single-payer option ever again. It worked! Hooray! Idiots.
Let's be clear. This is not about bringing down "costs." I get sick to my stomach whenever people talk about the need to control healthcare costs, because if the problem were costs, the whole debate would be over already. The crisis is not about healthcare costs. It's about healthcare prices. Medicare costs aren't what's bankrupting Americans, it's the profit margins collected by for-profit medical care. When the government runs the plan, prices and costs are roughly equivalent—about 2-3% off. When a corporation runs health care, the prices are whatever they can get you to pay and the costs are as little as they can spend. The greater the gap, the more money the corporation and its employees make, typically about 30% (i.e., a gap 10-15 times larger than government-run healthcare).
Obama's common-sense rules about requiring insurance companies to behave like human beings are great, but it will end up increasing prices unless there is a real public option. Insurers make money by eliminating risks; when it comes to healthcare, that means eliminating people from coverage. "But won't insurance companies make more money because now they'll be insuring tens of millions more people?" Not if those are the people who they have very carefully figured out are going to end up costing them money. Healthcare is expensive now and isn't going to get any cheaper any time soon, no matter how much "cost-cutting" we engage in. If the government's plans end up offsetting the losses by insurance companies who must now insure unprofitable patients, we'll be lucky, but we all know that no matter what happens, prices for healthcare consumers will go up.
If you want a glimpse into the minds of the people you trust to run your healthcare, you should be watching the debate play out on CNBC or Fox Business Channel. There, it's the poor beleagured insurance companies that are the victims, only trying to protect themselves from vicious, lying packs of diseased hustlers who sign up for insurance knowing that they have a preexisting condition. Insurance prices are going to go through the roof (just like they did in Massachussetts, where Romney instituted mandatory coverage) and we're all going to get screwed, all because Obama wanted to make nice with people whose votes he does not actually need. Inelastic markets don't work the same way elastic ones do, and nobody shops around for healthcare providers after their heart attack.
Repeat after me: a corporation cannot take the Hippocratic oath. Would you take your healthcare from someone who is barred from taking the Hippocratic oath? I'd rather not, entrez-nous, because it means that by definition they don't have my best interests at heart. The incentives are misaligned; which is no surprise considering that we are the only Western nation that has an "employer-pays" system. I mean, sure, employer-pays would be a fine idea, if your employers were prohibited from firing you. But they're not. These health plans were introduced as a substitute for wages in the postwar boom period, but now it's clear that companies are no longer reaping any benefits from running their workers' health insurance plans. And now we've gotten to the point where one sixth of America's economy is holding the other five ransom.
If you want to make a meaningful compromise—that is, with the insurance and healthcare companies directly, as opposed to their stooges in Congress—take a page from the President's playbook when dealing with a real sensitive issue; federally-funded abortions. With characteristic subtlety and nuance, Obama flat out said we weren't ever going to cover abortions. Well, where does that leave people who need abortions? At the mercy of the market, I suppose, and that's the idea I want to examine.
If the healthcare industry simply cannot bear to compete with government-run healthcare, it shouldn't have to. Instead of including a para-governmental "public plan" in addition to the panoply of existing government health plans and having it compete with private health insurance, the government ought to assume control of some parts of healthcare ought right, and let private insurers compete for others as long as they meet federal guidelines.
I say this because as I watched the President chicken out on abortion, it occured to me that I feel the same way about New Age "medicine" as I suspect pro-life conservatives feel about Planned Parenthood. The thought of federal dollars going to fund acupuncture or healing crystal treatments makes me, well, sick. At the same time, if you listen to health care reform opponents, America has the best system in the world because everybody's getting LasikTM surgery nowadays.
So, here's my proposal: the government should cover all catastrophic illnesses and emergencies (like they do now anyway in ERs across the country), all surgeries and medications. Private insurers, coops, sewing circles, witch doctors and other HMOs would compete to cover doctors visits, wellness, testing and preventative care, but most importantly, all elective surgeries, all 'non-traditional' medicine, all vitamin supplements, placebos, palm readings, gender reassignments, urinalyses and tattoo removals. It's not exactly single-payer, but it is unlike it enough to qualify as "unique," which is much more important to politicians than whether or not it works.
EINE KLEINE PORTFOLIO
"David Horowitz: Left Behind?" on MediaChannel.
Talking music with opera star Yevgeny Nikitin - a behind-the-scenes featurette I put together for the Sacred Stage DVD extras [7.6 mb MPEG]
The Finale of Boris Godunov [11.9 mb MPEG]: The final act of Mussorgsky's opera, with Yegveny Nikitin (basso) in the title role.
From Heeb Magazine, circa 2004:
The first national profile of Matisyahu, named Billboard's 2006 "Top Reggae Artist," and a comic drawn by the very talented Adam Kesner.
D. J. Was Editor-In-Chief Of His University Humour Magazine? D. J. does, but just barely. So he bought a scanner to help jog his memory:
Read "The Anatomically Correct Herring," from December 2000.
AUGAccording To My Careful Prosthesis
Like you, I was very concerned about the well-being of crazy right-wingers this summer. Their favorite party out of office, a Democratic super-majority in the Senate, the stock market dragging its feet—how were we, as a nation, going to keep these people off the streets? By staging a gigantic nation-wide debate about healthcare, that's how. All over the country, the McCain vote had evolved from staging ridiculous "Tea Party" protests to staging ridiculous rants about healthcare. If Obama had proposed legislation declaring puppies are cute, these people would be out there burning stuffed animals and talking about how he's some kind of tree-hugging fascist. If he had signed some executive order endorsing NASCAR, they'd be storming the tracks with pitchforks.
The healthcare debate has so little to do with the issues at hand that of course we'll end up with some largely worthless bill that shies away from addressing the actual problems with healthcare while preserving the structures which got us into this mess in the first place. That's fairly normal, but the rhetoric surrounding the debate would be funny if it weren't so tragic. Our healthcare system kills people every day, and there's no dearth of anecdotes to underline the point.
The status quo is always good enough for some people, provided they have some financial or political stake in it. What's so ingeniously stupid about the health-care protestors is that they aren't actually fighting on anyone's behalf—they just feel threatened by Democrats regaining power. Yes, theoretically they are fighting on behalf of the impoverished healthcare industry CEO, but it isn't clear that some new healthcare regime will actually kill upper-management (like it does their victims). Shock jocks and cable news hosts tell people to jump—and the audience asks, "how high?" And because most of these earnest American patriots don't understand what the hell they're talking about, their outrage becomes more ridiculous every day.
Like any good self-fulfilling prophecy, the media are now reporting that Obama's healthcare plan (whatever that may be) is in trouble because Americans are turning out en masse to shout down their Congresspersons in the name of democracy and freedom. Most polls see the country split pretty evenly down the middle on 'health care reform,' and—surprise!—we're divided in an eerily similar fashion to the 2008 presidential vote—along age lines. Old people hate government health care! Unless they're on the receiving end, of course. According to a recent CNN poll, the majority of Americans over 50 are now opposed to Obama's nefarious and somewhat nebulous plans to change healthcare. The majority of those under 50 are for it, of course.
Every other Western democracy had a moment (not unlike ours) where they finally figured out that the government runs health care better than anyone else, and then those entitlement programs become politically untouchable. For example, no matter how far to the right Canada's ruling coalition may move, they would never think of dismantling the single-payer system. But that system has only been in place since the early 1960's. The United States, on the other hand, was fighting a Cold War and had too much pride to let even the slightest whiff of Communism waft across our borders until that old pinko President Johnson instituted Medicare and Medicaid alongside Social Security.
In light of all this, you have to wonder about the people who are fightin' mad about "socialized medicine" when the government's single-payer healthcare runs a tighter ship (costs-wise) than the most profitable HMO. In the war of bullshit, this battle could be easily won by pointing out to those fearful seniors and working class parents who are being rallied against healthcare reform that their leaders have literally come out against their Medicare and Medicaid. If you want to fight fear with fear, you could very reasonably say that the same Republican and medical industry strategists are trying to kill Medicare and Medicaid on purely ideological grounds. How do we know? Well, we can start with the fact that (as reported by Media Matters):
On August 14, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, and O'Reilly Factor guest host Laura Ingraham featured a recording of Ronald Reagan speaking in 1961 against "socialized medicine" for the American Medical Association's Operation Coffee Cup Campaign against Medicare. Neither Drudge, Limbaugh, nor Ingraham, however, noted that Reagan was speaking out against an early version of Medicare, which has become very popular since it was enacted 44 years ago, or that Reagan's dire predictions of curtailments of freedom were never realized.(Side note: if every major liberal news outlet played the same clip with the same message on the same day, right-wing media would be foaming at the mouth with conspiracy theories. Liberal media knows that there's a right-wing politburo coordinating the message and we're already bored by it).
This is not to say that I am a supporter of the president's proposed health care reforms. I am not. Because even though the president has readily admitted that he prefers, ceteris paribus, single-payer healthcare, and the fact that there is a Democratic House and Senate and the midterms are over a year away, he still wants to pass a defanged bill that won't help Americans more than the debate is hurting us. I want to be clear: any system that is not single-payer (or at least universal with subsidized coverage) just isn't sustainable. Furthermore, there are people with valid concerns about how the hell we might pay for any expansion of coverage (although, to be fair, if this were a war, anyone asking how we'll pay for it is some kind of fifth columnist).
To hear almost any elected official on either side of the aisle tell it, because single-payer wasn't invented in America (like television, or the pet rock) Americans want nothing to do with it. We need a "uniquely American" solution, says Obama. Well, here it is:
If those people who are truly opposed to any kind of healthcare reform Obama tries to pass on the grounds that he's some kind of Nazi-Communist, the true believers who know that the government is the Devil and socialism is evil, those dyed-in-the-wool Reaganites who are homing in on the retirement age—if they would simply pledge to abstain from any and all single-payer healthcare for the rest of their lives, we could pay for it all by getting such louts off the rolls while these proud patriots can remain spiritually and physically pure. Everybody wins!
In order to help keep the peace nationally and make lots of money like Jesus wants me to, I'll be selling high-quality embossed medical alert bracelets for healthcare reform protestors. Pictured below, these 100% metal-plated and attractively brushed accessories are lovingly embossed using the timeless and elegant Comic Sans typeface to let your EMT or physician know that nothing is more important to you than your health except their bottom line! Just sign a binding legal pledge never to avail yourself of Medicare or government-run hospitals and this wonderful keepsake can be yours for only $129.99:
Usually I talk about politics here, with slight detours into science or arts or things like that, but on the sixth anniversary of Casual Asides, I've decided to turn to the foundational element of this blog: technology—specifically, the World Wide Web. Six years is a long time on the Internet, and even longer in the blogosphere. Allow me to quote my first blog post:
I've had a homepage since 1995. When I was in high school and the Internet was so new and all, I spent a lot of time on my web page. Eventually, the Internet became my trade, and I stopped updating my web pages in favor of paid work.So, what have I learned in the past 6 years? Lots of things, usually in the extremely laborious researching of almost 290-odd posts. I can't tell you how many spreadsheets I've made or hours spent researching a point which I ultimately had to edit out of the piece because my assertions ended up being unfounded (which is just fancy talk for me almost saying something which was dead wrong). I also have pages and pages of stuff left unfinished, some of it years old. But today's topic is not me: it's the Internet.
The phrase "Web 2.0" was coined in 2004, according to Tim O'Reilly:
The concept of "Web 2.0" began with a conference brainstorming session between O'Reilly and MediaLive International. Dale Dougherty, web pioneer and O'Reilly VP, noted that far from having "crashed", the web was more important than ever, with exciting new applications and sites popping up with surprising regularity. What's more, the companies that had survived the collapse seemed to have some things in common. Could it be that the dot-com collapse marked some kind of turning point for the web, such that a call to action such as "Web 2.0" might make sense? We agreed that it did, and so the Web 2.0 Conference was born.So, in the wake of the collapse of the Web 2.0 economy (which was suspiciously like the Web 1.0 economy with slightly less money), I present to you:
Rules for Web 2.1Information wants to be free. Charging for content is so 2004.
You can't patent a business model. This is merely a legal reality, but an important point, considering...
Too much venture capital is killing revenues. As a corollary to the above point, the problem is that at the point where you want to monetize a free service and/or the lack of available funding for R & D becomes an issue, there will inevitably arise a competing site on the upside of a financing curve. This is particularly a problem because...
Customers are not generally loyal in the long term. The Web 2.0 model is that you come up with a great idea, turn it into a free site, create a huge following, and then drive your user base away by screwing up the site. The exact way you screw up a site may vary, but it always comes down to asserting ownership of the space you've created in a way that lessens the value of the product. Sometimes it's your users themselves who destroy the service by trying to monetize it by spamming everyone else who uses the site. Which brings up another important point...
Advertising is bullshit. Truly a victim of its own success, the more successful advertising has become, the less successful it is. Continuing the theme of information technology being too powerful for its own commercial good, the web came with revolutionary metrics; the problem is that it exposed exactly how ineffective advertising can be. I watched click-through rates fall from 5% the year the first banner was introduced to 2.5% the next and so forth, arithmetically. In the old days (of the brown-shoes), a company paid an advertising firm to sell the company's product to the consumer and the advertising campaign to the contracting firm; you could never accurately gauge how effective an ad campaign was. That inefficiency in data gathering meant that it might have been the ad campaign that boosted or cratered sales, but you couldn't tell with any certainty. Now you know exactly how few people make the full trip from advertisement to virtual cash register.
You don't make money on data, you make money on relationships. Information may want to be free, but trust can be earned—or bought. It can also be betrayed (see above).
Data is portable, presentation isn't. Data is becoming platform independent. Many people apparently read this blog via bloglines or rss. All that CSS and graphic design for naught! I shed a tear, I really do, but that's the trend away from the problems of ownership described above. People want the steak, not the parsley.
Brace yourself for perfecting competition. Have you noticed a theme here? It's that information technology is perfecting marketplaces too fast for firms to adjust while maintaining their profits. In prefect competition, profits are always driven to near- or at-zero. Profit requires monopolization.
Keep it simple, stupid. That's why this post is so (relatively) short.
Next time I'll be talking about Web 2.2; after that, Web 3.0. Stay tuned.
MAYWhy Doesn't Somebody Pull Out A .45 And--Bang!--Settle It?
A modest proposal for extreme and Constitutional gun control:
The right is losing a considerable amount of ground in the culture wars—every poll released in the last year shows America lurching to the left on traditional issues for conservatives from gay marriage to economic regulation to opening relations with Cuba. But there is one issue where the Democratic party has largely ceded its position in recent elections: gun control.
Democratic party strategists saw they could be more competitive with Republicans in non-urban districts if they took gun control off the table. Even though a majority of Americans support stricter gun-control measures, exurban and rural districts where gun ownership is a staple of local culture and the $17 million the gun lobby gave to Congressional candidates since 1990 ensured that gun control would continue to be a third rail. Fortune ranked the National Rifle Association as the most powerful lobbyist group in 2002 for a reason. But the tides in gun control are shifting in fascinating ways: NRA contributions have ebbed from $3.1 million in 2000 to a paltry $1.1 million in 2008; at the same time, the Supreme Court's new conservative majority upheld the NRA's reading of the Second Amendment as preserving an individual right to own firearms in 2007's DC v. Heller, which struck down any Washington DC's ban on handguns. One of the aspects of the Heller ruling is also that it enjoins the Federal government from similar bans—because DC is essentially a colony under Federal control.
The fear of new gun legislation has sprung up as a rallying cry for rump conservatives and the fear of confiscation has fired up the fringes of the right-wing movement. Gun sales have skyrocketed since Obama's election. The fears of gun nuts that the government is going to confiscate or ban their weapons is not only palpable, it's a market force to be reckoned with—and exploited by conservative media. Although there is a visible minority of Americans who categorically oppose any restrictions on gun ownership whatsoever, most agree that there should be some degree of infringement on the right to buy firearms and want to keep them out of the hands of the mentally ill. One of those people, theoretically, is Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA, who admonished the government to enforce the current gun laws—on Mexican narcoterrorists who have been alleged to buy their guns in the US and run them back to Mexico. But there is a definite fringe element, currently being catered to by the likes of right-wing media stars Glenn Beck or Alex Jones, who don't even need to point to a particular piece of legislation—they know, deep in their hearts, that Barack Obama is going to take their gus away.
As is the case with almost every current right-wing phobia, it is the Obama administration who get tarred with the actions carried out by his predecessor. Bush nationalized the banks, which makes Obama a socialist; Bush ran up the deficit, which makes Obama an out-of-control spender; when, in New Orleans, mercenary troops contracted by the government for the first time actually confiscated legal firearms from citizens under martial law, Obama becomes a gun-grabber.
The way the lines in the battle over gun control have been drawn is deeply etched into the history of the NRA itself. The National Rifle Association was founded by Union veterans in 1871 "to promote rifle practice, and for this purpose to provide a suitable range or ranges in the vicinity of New York...and to promote the introduction of a system of aiming drill and target firing among the National Guard of New York and the militia of other states." As increasing urban violence led the government to pass gun control laws, the NRA moved away from being based around marksmanship and gun safety. The conflict between the old NRA (sportsmen) and the new NRA (militant gun owners) came to a head in 1977 at the annual convention in Cinncinati. Safety was out, unrestricted weapons-hoarding was in. The NRA that worked with police to improve marksmanship and supported the ban on cheap "Saturday Ngiht Specials" is long gone. Now, the NRA serves a growing radical fringe who fear the government is going to storm their houses and take their guns away.
It's important to draw the distinction between gun control and confiscation. The most important gun control lobby in the country today is the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, named after Reagan Press Secretary James Brady, who was shot by would-be presidential assassin James Hinckley. Since the shooting, Brady and his wife, Sarah, have been the foremost advocates of gun control legislation, culminating in the Assault Weapons Ban under President Bill Clinton. Today, the Brady campaign's stated goals are "to reform the gun industry by enacting and enforcing sensible regulations to reduce gun violence, including regulations governing the gun industry," and to "educate the public about gun violence through litigation, grassroots mobilization, and outreach to affected communities." In practice, this means reinstating the Assault Weapons Ban (which expired under Bush in 2004), pursuing legislation that restricts the carrying of weapons on government property, and working with victims to prevent gun violence and promote safety. The Brady campaign also makes it clear that they do not support confiscating all guns. The Brady Campaign take a similar stance as anti-tobacco groups who think the gun industry ought to bear more responsibility for the deaths caused by their products. On their website they laud "the President's commitment to requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales at gun shows, childproofing guns, making crime gun trace data accessible so law enforcement can fight the illegal arms trade, and permanently banning military-style assault weapons." The headline of the article reads "Gun Violence Prevention And Obama's First 100 Days: Incomplete."
In reality, the Obama administration has put gun-control on the back burner, generally speaking; but if the pro-gun control Democrats can gain any traction on the gun control issue, it will be centered around terrorism. In fact, all gun control laws in America have terrorism as their inciting incident, from New York's Sullivan law (prompted by the assassination of New York City mayor William Jay Gaynor) to the Gun Control Act of 1968 (prompted by the assassination of JFK with a rifle purchased for $19.95 from an ad in the NRA's membership magazine). The spree killing, so well publicized since the Columbine shooting ten years ago, is another example of the kind of incident that usually results in public outcry and tighter gun control laws. In fact, gun control's top advocate in Congress is Representative Carolyn Maloney, a former housewife who decided to run on gun control as her defining issue when her husband was killed in the 1993 spree shooting on the Long Island Railroad.
But those who actually have the most to fear from jack-booted Federal thugs knocking down their doors to take their guns are precisely the poeple who are imagining a Zionist Occupational Government in league with the Illuminati and the New World Order to take away their guns—the right-wing domestic terrorist groups who are resurgent in the wake of the election of the first black President. The Department of Homeland Security is well aware of the increasing threat posed by the right-wing extremists we came to call "militia members" after some of them bombed a government building in Oklahoma City in 1995. According to a report published on April 7th, "rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues. The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment... The possible passage of new restrictions on firearms and the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks."
For all the inflated rhetoric, there's a basic principle involved in gun control which is implicitly acknowledged by smart people on either side of the debate. The government is not going to go door-to-door across America to take NRA members' guns away. You know why? Because these people have guns, that's why. Unless you actually believe that Obama is capable of starting another civil war (more on this later), it must be realized that less than 5,000 Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms employees cannot take on 80 million American gun owners. What is possible is limiting access to weaponry, either by restricting licenses (excluding felons and the insane) or prohibiting a particular type of weapon or ammunition. A prominent thorn in the side of gun control attempts is the private sale loophole, which allows unregulated guns to be exchanged between private parties, usually at "gun shows" where vendors line up flea-market style to sell all types of weapons to eager consumers.
It is against this backdrop and the 2007 DC. v. Heller decision that Pennsylvania and New Jersey, respectively, have state and municipal gun control laws currently being challenged in court. Obama's new Attorney General, Eric Holder, was instrumental in getting the original Assault Weapons ban passed, and there will doubtless be many more spree killings (financial difficulties and/or job loss are often contributing factors for such crimes). So, what does the Heller decision mean for the future of gun control legislation?
Not since U.S. v Miller in 1939 had the court directly addressed the Second Amendment; then as now, both sides can find comfort in the middle path the Court has established. The right to bear arms has been judged as an individual (as opposed to collective) right, but the exact language of the amendment has lost some of its force: it can be abridged in any number of ways in a number of circumstances.
The language of the Second Amendment is unique among the Bill of Rights. "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Of the original Constitutional amendments, it is the only one in which a right declared for "the people" has a stated purpose. There can be no doubt that the purpose fo the amendment was to specify that you had the right to bring your own guns to the armed forces; in fact, men were required to bring rifles and ammunition when called into service. Part of the militia provision had to do with the Founding Fathers' insistence that a standing army was a threat to liberty; preferring an ad hoc militia.
The majority opinion in Heller, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, employs some curious logic and dubious references to support a political ideology. For example, a unique amendment needs a unique analysis: Scalia divides the Amendment into "prefatory" and "operative" clauses in order to argue against the idea of a whole sentence: "The prefatory language announcing the desirability of a well-regulated militia—even bearing in mind the breadth of the concept of a militia—is narrower than the guarantee of an individual right to keep and bear arms. The Amendment does not protect “the right of militiamen to keep and bear arms,” but rather “the right of the people.” The operative clause, properly read, protects the ownership and use of weaponry beyond that needed to preserve the state militias." At the same time, the majority opinon recongizes that "the right to keep and bear arms... was subject to restrictions at common law." So, guns cannot be banned outright, but it remains unclear if the way the court struck down a ban on handguns as a class of weapon means that a new ban on assault weapons would be Constitutional.
Heller makes it clear that the Supreme Court will brook no outright restriction on gun ownership, although it will allow for the same kind of limitations on the right to bear arms as we allow limiting free speech. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously declared in the famous Schenck v. US, "the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." Never mind that this sentence as structured is manifestly false—he should have said "the most stringent protection the Court will allow"—Schenck v. US established that our freedoms are circumscribed by executive necessity. So, if there is any hope for gun control, it must be not only Constitutional, meaning that we cannot outlaw arms outright; it must be grounded in the Court's decisions like Schenck and Heller.
Charles Schenck was locked up for sending leaflets through the mail opposing the Conscription Act during World War I, merely for asking people to sign a petition against the draft. The Holmes decision's famous restriction on speech constituting "clear and present danger" was supposed to be applied only during wartime; the leaflet in question never advocated treason or violent revolution; it encouraged readers, "Write to your Congressman and tell him you want the law repealed... Excersize your rights of free speech, peaceful assemblage, and petitioning the government for a redress of grievances." Yes, a unanimous decision sent a man to jail for quoting the First Amendment in conjunction with the Thirteenth, which reads, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
However, since we live in post-Schenck and post-Heller times, I have a modest proposal for gun control that remains consistent with all of the above Amendments and Supreme Court decisions. Heller makes it clear that "the right is broader than its civic purpose" when it comes to bearing arms in a well-regulated militia, which means that the Supreme Court will not allow the Federal government to outlaw weapons lest they be used for self-defense by responsible citizens. Likewise, we can predict that the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment doesn't bode well for states and local governments who wish to ban guns. But it leaves the door open to making the People take the bearing of arms less lightly, and the most Constitutionally sound way to do that may well be to reactivate that "prefatory clause" of the Second Amendment for which the majority opinion of the Court seems to have little use.
The problem with guns is not that responsible citizens are using them for hunting or self-defense. It's that the gun lobby has abandoned any pretense to the civic duty implied in the Second Amendment, to the point that they got the Supreme Court to nullify it. What I mean to say is this: every licensed gun owner ought to have to serve in their local National Guard.
The Court's conservative majority, which based its decision as heavily on the writings of libertarian blogger and law professor Eugene Volokh as on previous case law, saw this line of reasoning coming a mile away:
"Reasonable restrictions also might be thought consistent with a “well regulated Militia.” The registration of firearms gives the government information as to how many people would be armed for militia service if called up. Reasonable firearm proficiency testing would both promote public safety and produce better candidates for military service. Personal characteristics, such as insanity or felonious conduct, that make gun ownership dangerous to society also make someone unsuitable for service in the militia. Cf. D.C. Code § 49-401 (excluding “idiots, lunatics, common drunkards, vagabonds, paupers, and persons convicted of any infamous crime” from militia duty). On the other hand, it does not follow that a person who is unsuitable for militia service has no right to keep and bear arms. A physically disabled person, for instance, might not be able to participate in even the most rudimentary organized militia. But this person would still have the right to keep and bear arms, just as men over the age of forty-five and women would have that right, even though our nation has traditionally excluded them from membership in the militia. As we have explained, the right is broader than its civic purpose."
There's a major flaw in the majority opinion's reasoning here. We don't have even the most rudimentary militia, we have the best-funded military in the world, where, coincidentally, you can be court martialed for bringing your own gun. A quick look at the National Guard's website shows that you can serve your state militia in any number of non-combat capacities, from chaplaincy to food services, none of which require one to be particularly able-bodied. Though the Guard does have a physical fitness requirement, we've lowered our standards and we're perfectly capable of lowering them again. If the right to bear arms is explicitly predicated on a civic purpose (unlike the right to free speech or the right to a speedy trial), the balance of gun laws ought to incorporate civic duty into regulations instead of just limiting the rights of gun owners. Banning guns may be impossible as it is impractical. But at least we can try to ensure that arms are not borne lightly.
APRThe Democracy of Racism
Later this month in Geneva, the United Nations will be holding what it calls the Durban Review Conference (a.k.a. "Durban II") to "evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001." Part of the agenda at Durban II will be the recently passed resolution entitled "Combating Defamation of Religions." The resolution, among other things, "[s]tresses the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular." In practical terms, it calls upon Western countries to pass laws prohibiting 'insults' to Islam (and other religions, theoretically) as part of a larger struggle against racism. But hardly anyone in the West seems to think this is a good idea. The opposition to the resolution is making some strange bedfellows, uniting opposition from Christian activists to secular humanists, from Lou Dobbs to the Obama administration.
Every year or so, a resolution Combating Defamation of Religion is floated by a member of the OIC; the first incarnation was Pakistan's "Defamation of Islam" draft resolution in 1999, which passed through the Commission of Human Rights. Since 2005, the resolution has been passed by the general assembly three times, and each time, the language becomes a little more inclusive. But the goal remains the same—to pressure Western governments to pass the kind of blasphemy laws which would outlaw insults to Islam typified by the Danish Muhammad cartoons or the Islamophobia of the right-wing media. In this sense, it's not surprising that free-speech advocates are against this alongside reactionary elements who claim that this resolution is the beginning of a Muslim conspiracy to impose sharia law in the United States.
The latest draft resolution, which is non-binding (not that the more hysterical Westerners care), is the culmination of a two-decade campaign by a group of majority-Muslim governments called the Organization of the Islamic Conference, founded in 1969 in Morocco. The OIC is a permanent observer at the UN and has a parallel structure to the UN itself; the OIC has a secretary-general and forms committees and programs to foster ties and development among its memeber states. But the most striking parallel to the UN is that the OIC has issued its own universal declaration of human rights—the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), intended as a response to the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As one might expect, Cairo outlines a different spin on which human rights are actually universal from those liberal internationalists who founded the United Nations.
Right off the bat, the differences between the two human rights declarations become clear. THE UNDHR's first article says, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The CDHRI's first article says, "All human beings form one family whose members are united by their subordination to Allah and descent from Adam. All men are equal in terms of basic human dignity and basic obligations and responsibilities, without any discrimination on the basis of race, colour, language, belief, sex, religion, political affiliation, social status or other considerations. The true religion is the guarantee for enhancing such dignity along the path to human integrity." It goes on to say, "All human beings are Allah's subjects... no one has superiority over another except on the basis of piety and good deeds."
There is a direct line between the CDHRI and the resolutions Combating Religious Defamation (CDoR). After the OIC and the UN's Commission on Human Rights organized a seminar entitled "Enriching the Universality of Human Rights: Islamic Perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" in 1998, the first CDoR was passed in the Commission without a vote. (This first resolution also celebrates, with tragic irony, "the year 2001 as the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.")
The problem with the UDHR is that it posits that individuals have civil liberties, but it doesn't explain why we should. Similarly, the US Declaration of Independence says it holds truths to be self-evident and that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, which has the effect of rooting those rights in theology. Likewise, the Cairo declaration says, "fundamental rights and freedoms according to Islam are an integral part of the Islamic religion and that no one shall have the right as a matter of principle to abolish them either in whole or in part or to violate or ignore them in as much as they are binding divine commands." If we base our liberties on our religious tradition, it seems hypocritical for us not to let others base their liberties on theirs.
In truth, most Westerners don't have a fully realized conception of why we have civil liberties in the first place, save that it's the law. I know I didn't until I got to college and read the works of John Stuart Mill. Mill, who wrote in mid-nineteenth century England, recognized that merely having a democracy was no guarantee of freedom, particularly for minorities. As the saying goes, democracy is three wolves and a sheep deciding what's for dinner. Mill's writings on civil liberties have everything to do with the protection of minorities and the preservation of the right to express unpopular or even blasphemous opinions. In fact, Mill (who was deeply religious) spends a good deal of his argument for civil liberties arguing that even atheists, who could not be more opposed to his conception of the 'Truth', deserved freedom from prosecution. And the reason was not that God granted them the liberty to speak—rather, the whole point of free discourse is to allow Truth to be tested and proven. He brings up the example of the 1857 jailing of a professed atheist as an example of the failings of the government to protect both liberty and free discourse.
The impulse that declares an idea needs more protection than a human being lays bare the implicit weakness of that idea. The tragedy of this is that the preamble to the CDoR is absolutely correct; there is a growing wave of Islamophobia in the West that is intimately connected to racism and xenophobia. The rising fear and intolerance of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries and the invasions and occupations of several Islamic lands such as Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kashmir, and Chechnya by non-Muslim powers all contribute to a sort of siege mentality evidenced not only by the resolutions sponsored by the OIC but in their citizenry. Although the original resolution Combating Defamation of Religions was proposed in 1999, the rise in discrimination and general Islamophobia after 9/11 lent a certain creedence to the OIC's claims of a worldwide hostility towards Islam. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's 2005 printing of a collection of cartoons featuring Islam's holiest figure beside Allah himself, the prophet Muhammad, seemed to be a breaking point on the Arab street. Worldwide riots erupted—dozens of people were killed, embassies were burned to the ground, and Denmark lost 30% of its export market to a boycott of its products in the Muslim world.
One of the problems with blasphemy laws is that they don't work in multicultural democracies, because the optimal government structure for enforcing these laws is a hegemonic theocracy. How does a government draws the line between criticism and defamation of a religion without becoming a religious authority itself? More importantly, how can exclusive religions coexist in a legal framework that outlaws blasphemy? All the inclusive, liberal-style language of the CDoR could become awfully dangerous in the hands of lawyers. I don't think it's a stretch to imagine that any Muslim ought to be charged with defamation having published or publicly affirmed that there is no god but Allah. Similarly, denying the divinity or even the trinity of the Christian god was an eminently punishable offense during the Inquisition, as the descendants of Spanish Jews and Muslims well recall. As author Ethan David Miller once said, "once you stop the inquiry, you start the Inquisition."
Western liberal democracies say they hold freedom of expression sacrosanct, but our history of free speech is rather complex. To begin with, the idea that people should not be randomly murdered or otherwise punished for blaspheming is ahistorical at best. Massachussetts, home of the Salem witch trials, famously keeps its anti-blasphemy law on the books. It wasn't until 1952 that the Supreme Court declared New York's blasphemy laws unconstitutional in Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson, which concerned the censorship of a Roberto Rosselini film on the grounds that it was sacreligious. There are still plenty of Americans who believe that flag desecration should be made illegal—including New York's former Senator Hillary Clinton, who made a point of co-sponsoring such legislation 53 years after her adpoted state's blasphemy laws were struck down. Denamrk, home of the Muhammad cartoon controversy, investigated the offending newspaper under its own laws prohibiting the defamation of religion (no charges were brought). America doesn't have a state religion like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, but when it comes to the secular religion of patriotism, the flag evidently arouses the same passions as the prophet Muhammad does for Muslims. (That's why the word 'desecration' is used.) Hillary Clinton's Senate bill sought the protection of Old Glory from anti-American demonstrators in the same way the OIC seeks to protect Muhammad from cartoonists. Now that's she's the Secretary of State, you'd think she'd be able to identify some common ground with the OIC here, but the US is boycotting the Durban II Conference until the CDoR and the general anti-Israel tone of the proceedings is eliminated.
So, what should the role of the United States be? After all, we withdrew even from observer status on the Commission on Human Rights. We are boycotting the upcoming Durban II conference. No one know how the conference will turn out without the United States, but we do know what happened in Durban in the summer of 2001. The conference focused its attention almost exclusively on the military actions of Israel in the Occupied Territories, in the words of former Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier, "degenerated into open and divisive expressions of intolerance," which included several participating organizations selling copies of "Mein Kampf" and "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" outside the convention halls. The OIC operates as a bloc intent on castigating Israel (whose record on human rights during the occupation is certainly deplorable) to the exclusion of any other human rights agenda. Though Israel's occupation may be brutal, the nations of the OIC have successfully evaded discussion of racism or religious intolerance within their own borders. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have extensive documentation of the imprisonment and/or execution of a great many citizens whose actions were judged an insult to Islam in almost every OIC member state. Many human rights activists feel that the ultimate purpose of the CDoR is not to impose restrictions on free speech in the West (it seems virtually impossible for the Security Council to pass a binding resolution along those lines) but to provide cover for the blasphemy laws and prosecutions within OIC countries.
With all this in mind, there is a certain hope that Muslim nations have begun a long journey towards a more liberal democracy, the same way America did. First you recognize some very difficult principles to live up to (like mandating equality while condoning slavery) and then you work on fulfilling those great promises over the course of generations. The fact that the Cairo Declaration condemns torture is of as little comfort to today's generation of prisoners as the promises of the Declaration of Independence were to Thomas Jefferson's slaves. The democracies of revolutionary France and America, for all their present glory, weren't that much better than the Revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran today when they were that age.
But the attendees of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance won't be hearing any of that from us. Instead, they will likely be focusing on a narrow agenda that has increasingly less to do with actual human rights and more to do with institutionalized intolerance and politically-minded finger-pointing. By giving up our voice, even in the face of all the procedural and structural flaws in the system, we give up the means to make any of this better. The latest resolution passed in the General Assembly by 86-53, with 42 abstentions. It was literally the inaction of those abstaining UN members that allowed this resolution to continue on the path to being a binding resolution, which is the stated goal of the OIC. Our opposition may be strong (no binding resolution can pass without the support of the U.S. in the Security Council) but it's intellectually toothless. The fact that we refuse to engage in the process is, in a certain sense, undemocratic. If the history of democracy shows us anything, it's that only through participation in dialogue is there any hope for making democracy safe for minorities in particular, or the world a better place in general.
OCTHow Can America Break Free Of The Two-Party System?
The economic turmoil of the past year hasn't just thrown Wall Street into disarray—it's causing ideological havoc in Washington. The two major parties are just as confused by the crisis as the rest of America, and party lines are becoming blurred just at the point where the Democrats seem poised to steamroll the Republicans on a national level.
For years, the lines were clearly drawn in the sand—Democrats were Keynesians who wanted to increase regulation, and Republicans were free-market devotees who wanted to minimize government intervention in the markets. The last month has seen a startling realignment in Congress—the White House and moderate Democrats and Republicans lining up to hammer out the largest government intervention since FDR, while left wing Democrats and right wing Republicans banded together against this bipartisanship and the $700 billion bailout.
"There are a few hundred socialists in Congress," observed a friend during the first bailout hearings, "and one fiscal conservative—Bernie Sanders!" Sanders, who opposed the bailout, is the only Socialist and one of two independents in Congress (the other, of course, is Joe Lieberman, essentially booted out of the Democratic party over his support of the Iraq war). The major news networks all stumped for the bailout as soon as it was announced, warning that there would be a major drop in the markets if the bill did not pass. It seemed a foregone conclusion, said every newscaster, that Congress would act swiftly to "save the economy." There was only one snag. Poll results, announced a few days into the crisis, revealed that Americans were against the bailout by huge margins.
Let's look at the vote counts in the House, where every Representative is up for re-election in less than a month: on the first vote, where the bailout bill was defeated, 40% of Democrats and 67% of Republicans voted "No." On the second vote, 27% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans voted against the bill, which then passed. Both presidential candidates said they were in favor of the plan, with McCain even "suspending" his campaign to go back to Washington and work for the bill's passage. (If you want to gauge McCain's legislative effectiveness, note that the bill only passed when the Arizona senator left Washington.)
When both major-party candidates are in agreement with each other and disagreement with the majority of Americans in an election year, you have to wonder how well American democracy is working. On the eve of the first presidential debate, when it wasn't certain whether McCain would even show up, there was one thing which was undeniable: no minor party candidate would be allowed to speak. Libertarian candidate Bob Barr, Green candidate Cynthia McKinney or independent Ralph Nader could have provided counterpoints to McCain and Obama's support for the bill, but each was locked out of the debate. Barr is polling about 1% nationally, but 4% in his home state of Georgia, where he may draw enough Republican votes away from McCain to make the state competitive.
About a third of the American electorate consistently identify as independents, and the indepenedent vote is the most coveted prize in a national election. A popular theme for both major party candidates is either "bi-partisanship" (for McCain) or "post-partisanship" (for Obama). But why is it that there are only two independents in all of Congress? Why does dissatisfaction with the two-party system (which a Zogby poll in 2007 cited as 67%) have little to no effective outlet across America?
The answer, according to political scientists, is that America's voting system is the least democratic of any democracy. That's because we use "first-past-the-post," or, in poli sci jargon, "single member district plurality" voting. Simply put, whoever gets the most votes wins a single seat in each race. That may sound like common sense, but it leads to all sorts of unintended consequences—the most important is called "Duverger's Law."
Maurice Duverger, a French social scientist, was the first to publish the theory that voting systems like ours tend to produce a two-party system. When there are third parties on the ballot, as we saw in the 1992 (and arguably 2000) election cycle, their effects are limited to being "spoilers" for the parties most closely aligned with their platforms, helping mututal enemies more than anyone else. With only two parties, the actual platforms of each becomes secondary to vague cultural appeals, boiling down to "liberal" vs. "conservative," whatever those terms actually mean. Since two-party systems end in a competition for the independent vote, parties are in a constant state of coming apart at the ideological seams.
There are many other types of voting systems, but the one that has gotten the most traction in the United States is called "instant runoff voting," or IRV, where voters rank the candidates by preference. For example, if you were a Florida voter in 2000, you could have voted 1 for Nader and 2 for Gore, or 1 for Buchanan and 2 for Bush; when the votes are tallied, second preference votes are redistributed from the lowest vote-getters until an absolute majority of voters are shown to prefer one candidate over another. IRV is used in Australia and Ireland; many other countries use similar systems to fill more than one seat (imagine Congressional elections where Representatives are elected on a state-wide ballot, and apportioned according to the overall percentage of votes by party, instead of district-by-district plurality).
IRV, which is part of the platform for Nader and both Libertarian and Green parties, has already been adopted by a few dozen local governments and minor party primaries around the country—it eliminates the costs of having a spearate runoff election for multi-candidate races. Recently, Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina implemented IRV for all overseas and military voters, and cities from Cary, NC to San Francisco have adopted IRV locally.
Interestingly enough, both Obama and McCain are on the record as supporting IRV, according to Fairvote.org; Obama voted for IRV in Illinois municipal and primary elections, and McCain urged the voters of Alaska to adopt IRV in 2002, saying, "Instant runoff voting will lead to good government because voters will elect leaders who have the support of a majority. Elected leaders will be more likely to listen to all and cities will be able to enjoy big tax savings and keep majority rule." There has only been one call to implement IRV on a national level—a 2005 bill sponsored by current third-party candidate Cynthia McKinney, when she was a Georgia Democrat.
What IRV does (besides make election night vote-counting much more interesting) is allow third parties to have an impact on policy and provide an opportunity for wider debate on the issues. This is a lot more complicated than it sounds—Australia, for example, has had tons of minor parties with names like the Non-custodial Parents Party, the Fishing Party, the What Women Want party, or the No Aircraft Noise Party. Critics of IRV contend that it gives minor parties undue influence over general elections, and many point out that one of the two major party candidates usually wins anyway.
On the other hand, preferential voting doesn't always lead to multi-party democracy, and there are important exceptions to Duverger's Law. The recent election in Canada (which also uses first-past-the-post) underscored this point; Canadian federalism gave rise to certain parties which compete on a national level but only operate in parts of the country—notably the Bloc Quebecois, which only runs candidates in Quebec, or the New Democratic Party, whose power base is traditionally in the western provinces. The Canadian Green party, by the way, got 7% of the popular vote, but no seats in Parliament, and many progressive Canadians are heaping scorn on Green voters in the wake of the reelection of a Conservative minority government.
By the way, there is a simpler and supposedly more democratic voting system than IRV, which has become all the rage in voting systems analysis—range voting—where voters rate each candidate from 1-10.
No matter the method, what is clear is that breaking free of our two-party system will require a state-by-state campaign to change the way we elect our leaders, and most likely the elimination of our wildly unpopular Electoral College. So if you want third parties to have a real impact, you're better off organizing a state-wide ballot initiative than casting what amounts to a protest vote for Nader or Barr. If a third party gets a real foothold in Congress, they can make a real policy impact. Otherwise, we're still stuck with the lesser of two evils.
OCTIf You Plant Ice, You're Gonna Harvest Wind
A few years ago, I bet a friend that the Dow Jones Industrial Average, an index of the leading American companies' stock prices and one of the most celebrated economic indicators on Wall Street, would dip below 10,000 'points' as a result of the oncoming credit crisis. Today I called him at work and said, "I won! Everybody else loses."
I have steadfastly maintained that the American economy was overdue for a systemic, catastrophic collapse for many years now; and lately I have been fielding a lot of calls asking me what I think about the bailouts and the situation on Wall Street in general. My response, finely honed over the past two weeks, is now this:
It is clearly irresponsible not to pass the bailout. It remains to be seen, however, whether it was responsible to pass the bailout at all.
The bailout, a curious piece of legislation by all accounts, is the focus of the most confused ideological debate in American history. Is it socialism? Is it crony capitalism? Is it necessary? Will it work? The answers to these questions may be found in the answer to a simpler one: where is all this money going?
I bristle when people call the bailout bill socialism, and the reasoning is thus: when the government seizes private assets and then controls the means of production in the name of the people, that's socialism. When the government seizes private assets and then hands the control of the means of production over to private entities, that's "national" socialism, otherwise known as fascism. As Mussolini once said, "Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power." The bailout, with its new provisions for government ownership of companies in exchange for federal purchasing of "toxic assets," is a step in the right direction, but as any real socialist will tell you, the bailout plan is the furthest thing from populism or economic justice.
For those of you wondering how much further we have to fall, consider that more than three-quarters of subprime borrowers are still paying their mortgages on time. Watch for that number to continue to decline as the economy tanks. As I have mentioned here before, the three major causes of bankruptcy are job loss, medical problems, and divorce—and we're not even talking about people who can't make their adjustable mortgage rate payments because of hidden surcharges and "balloon payments."
The bailout plan, as we have seen today, does not and cannot address the fundamental problems with the international market system. In the shell-game of capitalism where all banks are bankrupt by definition and the world's largest firms still borrow cash in the short term to make payroll, the vaunted "rescue plan" is really just the equivalent of buying a three-card monte player an extra card. So how did we get here, and where are we going with all of this? And who, exactly, is to blame?
Faced with the collapse of the religion of deregulation, conservatives sought all kinds of villains in order to make sense of the chaos in a way that preserves their core beliefs. Blaming the victim (particularly minorities) has become the order of the day for the lassez-faire capitalist crowd. Ta-Nehisi Coates, blogging at The Atlantic, calls the narrative "blame the Negroes," and that's a pretty apt description. As far as I'm concerned, if we're going to start blaming the victim, I would prefer to look at the 51% of Americans who own stock. But seeking blame is a convenient way to ignore the systemic problems we have created with late capitalism's latest incarnation. When you look at trillions of dollars of "value" lost in a single trading day on Wall Street, you have to wonder whether any of that money was there in the first place, or whether the value of corporate assets across the board were inflated for the sake of balance sheets (as they were at companies like Enron, WorldCom, GlobalCrossing, Bear Stearns, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Adelphia Communications, Bristol-Myers Squibb, CMS Energy, Duke Energy, Dynegy, El Paso Corp., Homestore.com, KMart, Merck, Mirant, Nicor, Peregrine Systems, Qwest, Reliant,, Xerox, Refco, and the Italian company Parmalat, to name a few who have already been caught).
At the same time, there's a growing undercurrent in business media which seeks to shift all the blame on lax regulators, like the following missive from Gil Schwartz's Fortune magazine blog:
No, it’s not the fat cats who profited, or the weasels who sold the same bridge over and over again, or even the realtors who squeezed every last bit of juice out of the blood orange that was offered to them. These are all shallow, self-interested, slightly sleazy, ambitious, avaricious, mendacious forces that are DESIGNED to do what they did: Get away with whatever they could. Make the most money. Figure out rationalizations to make it all sound good. So you can’t blame the intellectual courtesans in academia, the press or the research departments of now defunct institutions who helped them do that either, no matter how tempting it is to do so.(As you regular readers know, people who try to make things simple are the enemy of this blog.)
Nuremburg defenses and financial death-bed conversions aside, the question remains—what the hell is going on in the American marketplace?
We are now seeing the "destruction" of the value contained in stock price rise since the "economic recovery" of 2003. What nobody wants to admit is that none of this illusory value was there in the first place. The reduction in the capital gains tax led, among other things, to skyward-spiralling executive compensation (much of it in illegally back-dated stock-options—e.g., Apple, United Health, Comverse Technologies) and more generally, a single-minded focus on stock price. Even the implementation of Bush-era regulations in the wake of the Enron collapse, namely the Sarbanes-Oxley Act which aimed to curb corporate mismanagement by threatening corporate board memebrs with jail time, ended up doing nothing but increasing their salaries. Focus remained on artificially inflating the stock prices of publicly-held companies.
The financial crisis that has so far characterized the 21st century has its roots in 20th, as one might imagine. There are, in my humbly vindicated opinion, four key interconnected reasons why Wall Street and the international financial system is crumbling (said points are in boldface):
First of all, for the last 15 years, there has been an ongoing vicious class war in America. Guess what—rich people won! Poor people can't afford mortgages! Congratulations. The underlying assumption of the class war, of course, was that Wall Street had successfully uncoupled itself from Main Street, so that the pains of the working class were good for business, or at least irrelevant to stock prices. The regressive tax system of the Bush administration, the dismantling of public services, the reigning in of non-defense related spending, capital gains tax reductions and so forth were all part of that bipartisan war on the poor. Notice that when poor people are suffering, nobody cares because it's that class' systemic role to bear economic pain; when rich people start suffering, you know the system is breaking down. The middle and upper classes succeeded in burying American workers in a deep dark hole. The only problem is, the rich stand on the backs of the poor, so now everybody's in the hole. You can see a fine graphic representation of this phenomenon in the chart below depicting productivity vs. real wages, which uncouple themselves as soon as George W. Bush took office in 2001. The result of this warfare was the destruction of the ability of working class people to contribute to the economy in a positive way (more about that in a few paragraphs).
A parallel but much more storied aspect of the ideological battle in Washington, and the second horseman of the financial apocalypse, was the campaign to destroy the legacy of the New Deal, specifically the sixty year war of attrition against the Glass-Steagall Act, which was decisively defeated by Sandy Weill of Travelers' Group and his pals on both sides of the aisle in 1997. The financial instrument industry, which is at the center of the current collapse, was nurtured and fed by this battle. Rich people have been fighting Roosevelt for years—from their Fascist plot to overthrow the President in the 1930's (known as the Business Plot) to the rise of the modern lobbying industry.
The class war itself is part of a larger narrative of the end of the Cold War and the triumph of international capitalism. This is the rise of U.S. mandated globalization, a term literally invented by the 'Third Way' politicians in the Clinton Administration. The impacts of globalization are legion, but for now I'll focus on the transition of the America to a service-based economy and the resulting massive trade and federal deficits, unprecendented in sheer size. The "Third Way" was supposed to be an ideological alternative to Republican-style lassez-faire capitalism and New Left-style social democracy. In practice this meant that environmental and labor regulations were considered legitimate market intervention, but systemic regulation regarding the structure of industries was considered off-limits.
Saskia Sassen's excellent (and fairly unreadable) book "Globalization and its Discontents," published in the mid 1990's, identifies the disconnect between "Main Street" and "Wall Street" in fairly obtuse academic terms (and you thought I was bad):
Global cities are the sites for the overvalorization of corporate capital and the further devalorization of disadvantaged economic actors, both firms and workers.What she means is, globalization isn't about state-to-state competition the way everyone seems to think, but place-to-place struggles. It's not about the U.S. versus Japan versus the UK, but about New York City, Tokyo and London versus Kansas, Okinawa and Yorkshire. "Overvalorization" refers to the fact that while the financial industry doesn't create wealth (just moves it around), the miners, farmers, factory workers and small business owners who create actual value are being systematically crushed. When Bill Clinton was out selling NAFTA to Middle America, he promised factory workers that globalization would help U.S. manufacturing sell their goods to China. Within a decade factories were being closed down all across the country and the equipment was often shipped directly to China or Mexico.
What happened was that the US became an export-substitution economy, where we focused on a single industry to sell products to the rest of the world. Usually when economists talk about this phenomenon they're talking about very poor countries whose economies are based on a single commodity, like coffee or sugar. In America, we focused on the financial industry, because there was no other sector that approached its profitability. We developed an economy largely dependent on corporate services, from banking to information technology. And while this happened, according to the Alliance for American
Reaching a high of 53 percent of the economy in 1965, domestic manufacturing accounts for only 9 percent of GDP forty years later. Not since the beginning of the industrial revolution has a lower percentage of Americans worked in American manufacturing as they do today. Tellingly, just since 2000 the manufacturing sector has lost nearly 3 million jobs.or, in Sassen-speak,
[T]he ascendance and transformation of finance, particularly through the securitization, globalization, and the development of new telecommunications and computer networks technologies; and ... the growing service intensity in the organization of the economy generally which has vastly raised demand for services by firms and households.
Sassen talks about a financial industry where money (imported from places like China and Japan) is the raw material; financial "instruments" named things like "asset-backed securities," "collateralized debt obligations," and "exchange-traded funds" were the widgets being manufactured; and the ultimate product was more money. As a friend of mine who works in CDOs once told me, the wealth being produced in finance is extractive, because the banks are just shuttling cash from one party to another and skimming a percentage off the top (otherwise known as a "vig"). And because America had all this money lying around, we figured we would just buy products made abroad as long as the financial industry kept making all that dough, which lead to the staggering trade deficits we have today.
Finally, the real 800-pound gorilla in the room: America is a victim of its own success. We lionized a financial industry whose success was to due to good old fashioned virtues like "innovation" and "competition." I can't find a better quote on this point than John McCain's op-ed in the September/October 2008 issue of Contingencies:
Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation.The financial industry was just doing its job, and they were damn good at it, too. It's only when things are bad that we feel it is politically safe to examine that success. After 9/11, increased consumer spending was actually defined as our patriotic duty. And the "democratization of credit" meant that even if you couldn't actually afford it, you could put your national pride on a credit card at rates which were legally considered usury a generation ago.
And for many years, the divorce between Wall Street and Main Street worked. The economy tanked in ways that only mattered to working people—real wages stagnated or fell, unemployment soared, unions were smashed, private health care costs soared, gas prices rose, college became more expensive, and government assistance dried up. But as long as you had a 401(k) that was heavily invested in the stock market, you were theoretically doing great! Damn the torpedoes, as we used to say.
The American economy became governed by cartoon physics, and we've been running flat-out over a cliff for the last few years. When free-marketists finally looked down into thin air, the fake populism began: suddenly it was "greed on Wall Street" which was to blame. Saying there's greed on Wall Street is like saying there's pavement on Wall Street. McCain recently decried the "casino culture" in the stock market, but still makes maintaining the capital gains tax at 15% a central part of his platform. As Fortune wrote in a profile of McCain's Phil-Gramm influenced economic policies all the way back in February of this very year,
Now that the faltering economy has replaced national security as the overriding issue in the presidential campaign, John McCain is portraying himself as a budget-shrinking, flat-tax-embracing, healthcare-privatizing champion of free markets. ...economic conservatives should take heart. McCain's chief economic adviser - and perhaps his closest political friend - is the ultimate pure play in free market faith, former Texas Senator Phil Gramm.As if all this weren't enough, the actual lifeblood of America is still petroleum. We've had since the oil shocks of the late 1970's to get off of it (which we did in terms of electricity generation; your car still runs on gas). We built the interstate and an entire suburban way of life based on government-subsidized white flight, cheap oil and profligate consumption of everything else. We dismantled public transit and subsidized the American auto industry so that they could build bigger and badder cars.
I met some well-intentioned folks a party recently and we got to talking about renewable energy. My new friends maintained that we don't need oil or coal anymore because renewable energy was now abundant enough to replace fossil fuels. I said I wished I could agree, but it's simply not true yet. The problem isn't that we can't produce enough renewable energy; it's that we consume too much energy in the first place. Americans buy six times as much oil as the world average. Americans consume over 100 quadrillion BTU's of energy a year, more than Europe and Africa combined. As long as our economic well-being is identified with continued growth, we will have to support growth in a variety of reckless methods, many of which are coming home to roost. For some reason conservatives are now harping about the greatest transfer of wealth in history—from America to oil producing countries. Well, they figured this out just in time not to be able to do anything about it.
It's not just oil that is becoming scarce, it's all kinds of natural resources. Even when it comes to nitty-gritty of solar panel manufacturing you see this problem. The world may run out of gallium and other crucial rare-earth semi-conducting metals in a few years:
But now comes word that it isn’t just wildlife that can go extinct. The element gallium is in very short supply and the world may well run out of it in just a few years. Indium is threatened too, says Armin Reller, a materials chemist at Germany’s University of Augsburg. He estimates that our planet’s stock of indium will last no more than another decade. All the hafnium will be gone by 2017 also, and another twenty years will see the extinction of zinc. Even copper is an endangered item, since worldwide demand for it is likely to exceed available supplies by the end of the present century.So, regardless of how we got here, what should we do now? Good thing I've been writing a book about it for the last three years.
SEPDrill Up, Stupid
The component of the price of oil due to speculation was always kind of an unknown quantity. At the height of the oil bubble this summer, with prices at $150, someone suggested to Congress that up to a third of the price was actually due to market manipulation (a.k.a. "speculation") by financial institutions, many of whom were looking for some quick cash after the housing bubble had collapsed.
Now oil is below the OPEC target price of $100 a barrel—so it looks like those speculation estimates were right on the money. (As my radio fans know, I called $100 as the baseline for the future, so I wasn't too far off.) Even the destruction of a Nigerian pipeline and hurricane season aren't buffetting crude prices, which is how you know there are much more powerful forces at work. The American financial system is in turmoil.
The 'invisible hand of the market,' if you will, is punching its way to the top of global financial institutions. And to offset their giant losses and acquisition costs, we're seeing these banks and brokerage houses and hedge funds liquidate their oil holdings.
What OPEC and those 'foreign oil' producing countries fear the most is "demand destruction," which is what happens when consumers at the top of the consumption curve start buying less. Even though global trends for oil consumption keep increasing, the greatest increases are in developing countries. (Interestingly enough, of the BRIC economies, Brazil and Russia are successfully developing their own domestic energy supplies, Brazil with ethanol and Russia with oil and natural gas. The real future for oil is in countries like India and China.)
The global average oil consumption is about 4 barrels of oil per person per year. But the American average is 24 barrels per person-year. We're not just on the far side of the curve, we're near a global maximum. There are other countries which have a greater per-person consumption of gasoline, but most of them achieve the numbers by using gasoline for power consumption, something the U.S. has largely stopped.
What OPEC is afraid of is America becoming more fuel efficient. "Properly-inflated tires," that old liberal hobgoblin, would, , be the equivalent of finding an oil field bigger than Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. A 1% decrease in our daily demand would be like canceling out the entire production of Bahrain.
Those who complain about the leverage that OPEC and "foreign oil" have over the American economy don't seem to realize that it goes both ways—we have plenty of leverage over global oil prices, and most dramatically, when it concerns reducing our disproportionate use. Our economy, and thus the world economy, is based on the assumption that everything will keep expanding. When things contract, the works get gummed up.
Speaking of I-told-you-so's, McCain's new running mate is pro-ANWR drilling, so as I predicted previously, Sarah "drill, baby, drill" Palin can be counted on to temper his position against it. The whole phenomenon of off-shore drilling expansion and the politics around make my head hurt.
Polls indicate that a large majority of Americans are for off-shore drilling, if it means lower prices at the pump. Republicans need you to forget the caveat there, because as we all know, it won't help. Look at, for example, gas prices today, which are at near-record highs even as oil hits a one-year low.
It's the math, stupid:
Likely targets include:
a) Saudi Arabia (10.7 million barrels a day),
JUNTop Ten Myths About Ecology
Since I spent most of my last appearance on Sirius' Blog Bunker and all of the previous post talking about oil without too much emphasis on the greenhouse gas part of the equation, I think it behooves us all on the left side of the political spectrum to deal with the fallacies of global warming politics.
Now, some of you may be wondering why I am focusing on the problems with "our side" of the global warming debate, as it were. I'm doing this because there are many better researched and comprehensive sources which explain the fallacies involved in global warming skepticism, which is essentially political and not scientific in nature.
Historian Naomi Oreskes has what I consider the best freely available and technically accessible overview of this topic, which you can watch on YouTube. The point about climate change skepticism is that it's an ideological battle against regulation, literally run by the same people the tobacco companies hired to tell you the science behind the tobacco-cancer link is "inconclusive."
All the same, I tend to stay way from discussing global warming when it comes to oil prices, because thn you get sidetracked int a whole new debate (at least when it come to more doctrinaire conservatives).
My goal in this post, on the other hand, is to combat the optimism with which the greenwashing movement has sold itself, because that's the kind of contrarian I am:
One of the problems in dealing with global warming is that the science behind it is so complex, and it's easy to make generalizations that can be picked apart. I mean, look at the twists and turns of calculating share of greenhouse effect by substance in the Wikipedia article on greenhouse gas effects:
Oil has become exponentially more important to humanity, and so when we build an infrastructure based on cheap gas, more expensive gas hits the poor the hardest, while we turn to ever dirtier and more expensive methods to extract fossil fuels from the earth. The higher gas prices go, the higher the ceiling for extraction costs, which basically means than drilling itself becomes less efficient and worse for the environment. As we have already seen, $4 gas just makes it easier for oil companies to drum up support for ANWR drilling and so forth, and forces more of our (and China's) energy production into coal.
On the other hand, nothing else, in the absence of government action of some sort, has the direct power to get Americans to drive less.
Not to mention that the principal way to manufacture hydrogen industrially is to use fossil fuels like methane or coal.
On the other hand, if we just affix a condenser to the exhaust from a hydrogen fuel cell, and found an efficient process for electrolysis (the conversion of brine [salt water] to hydrogen) and then figured out how not to lose another third of its energy to be compressed into a liquid and transported via pipeline...
What is slightly more promising when it comes to biofuels is waste recycling; landfill gas, cow manure, trash and so forth can be burned with less carbon than other fuels in the grand scheme of things, but really it's probably best to work on real carbon emissions processing (not sequestration) for all combustible fuels rather than drive up the price of staple foods world wide to fuel ethanol vehicles at a very small energy efficiency rate.
There's been interesting work done with algae (more biofuel technology) and turning CO2 into baking soda. Let's work on that, because nothing the biofuels industry does is going to stop the US and China from burning massive amounts of coal.
Of course, as with agriculture, if we figured out some real capture technology, we could recover and use that methane the way we do from landfills now.
The deal with Kyoto is that it's not about reducing total emissions or the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; it's about reducing projected emissions. It is woefully outdated and not based on today's global warming science, besides the fact that it isn't really designed to work.
Bottom line: 'cap' might have a chance, but 'cap and trade' just demonstrates that there's leeway with enforcement for political reasons, not scientific ones.
The math of this is really daunting at first glance, but along with the estimates I used from David Butcher's Solar Calculator, it's a bit easier to figure. According to the government, Americans consumed 101.6 quadrillion BTU, or 29,768,532,083,211,251 kilowatt-hours of energy last year, 72% of which is 21.4 quadrillion kWh. To meet America's fossil fuel needs with the highest efficiency solar panels on the market today (22% of light converted to energy), for example, we would have to optimally position about 22,500 square miles of solar panels, a little less than the total area of West Virginia.
In fact, if we covered two lanes and the median of our interstate highway system with 40% efficient solar panels (which have been demonstrated), we could generate almost half of the energy America's drivers need—if they switched to plug-in vehicles.
Look at it this way; each American consumes 98,740 kWh per year on average, which works out to 270.5 kWh per day. In order for ordinary Americans to generate that kind of power, we'd each need an optimally positioned solar panel the size of a Lafayette, Indiana Journal & Courier newspaper, operating at 40% efficiency.
But that's just the supply side of the equation; if we are to take Gore's challenge seriously, we need to look at demand. As Gore himself has recently estified befre Congress, the future is distributed, small-scale renewable energy (a.k.a. "micropower"). As this summer's upcoming blackouts will testify, our national power grid is in bad shape and getting worse every year. But even at peak efficiency, we still lose up to a third of the electricity we generate in transmission—i.e., powering the lines themselves. The farther you are from the source, the more power you lose in the cables. Some forms of micropower (the nasty burning kind) can also recover what at a large plant would end up as waste heat, which is not economically feasible to transport.
I would also be remiss if I forgot to point out that another big problem with energy is that Americans are being attacked by vampires, all across the country. I am referring, of course, to standby or 'vampire' power, which is the kind your appliances suck out of the wall when they are plugged in but turned off (or "mostly off," the state in which your big fancy electric machine functions as a digital clock instead of, say, a microwave). Standby power supposedly makes up 5% of our total consumption, and who knows how much more energy could be saved by replacing most of America's energy-hogging gadgets with more efficient ones over the next 10 years.
China builds a new coal-powered plant on an avergae of 1-2 every week. Can't we do the same thing with solar plants? It can't be THAT hard.
In summary, even if Gore's 10-year plan doesn't work, trying to achieve it will still help a hell of a lot more than the Kyoto protocol. Which, I suppose, is why Gore is now behind it—a taciturn admission that our current efforts are a little underwhelming.
Here's a great article from AlterNet that says most of what I would have said about nuclear power: it's simply not safe.
Nevermind the tons of radioactive waste; a terrorist attack on Indian Point [full disclosure: Casual Asides is nuclear powered] might leave New York uninhabitable for decades. And even if the terrorists never successfully attack a nuclear plant, the cost of security, not only for the premises and equipment but for fuel, workers and the waste products, only rises. And as that the article I mentioned points out, the massive water requirements and America's unease with other countries developing nuclear technology make it a poor candidate to solve the world's energy problems.
One of the ways to mitigate the risk factor is to build the nuclear power plant far away from populated areas. The problem is (as I talked about before) that the farther away the source, the more power is lost being sent over the miles of wires.
The big danger of global warming is the dreaded "positive feedback loop," which is a way of saying that warming can feed on itself in a vicious circle—more heat leads to environmental changes which lead to more heat. But then again, nature responds as only it can, with repercussions we describe as natural disasters, even if humans started it.
JUNDriving Like Jehu
What drives oil prices? Everyone has a theory that suits their ideological niche—Democrats blame lack of regulation, Republicans blame too much regulation, and the rest of us wonder why prices aren't higher than they are already. Earlier this month, Congress got an earful from a variety of oil experts on both sides of the ideological divide (and on a variety of paychecks), and the upshot is—it's all of those things, and more.
Really, what can and should politicians do about high gas prices in the U.S.? We've had plenty of Congressional hearings, firmly establishing the facts that a) much, but not all of oil's price can be ascribed to unregulated 'speculation,' and b) the larger point is that global demand is going to keep rising. The UN's International Energy Agency estimated recently that China and India will account for up to 70 percent of new demand from now until 2030, when the IEA projects the need for Asia's new power-players to import 20 million barrels' worth of oil a day between the two.
Karl Rove was on Fox News the other day saying that he knew people in the oil industry and they had told him that only a small part of the price of oil's increase was due to speculation, but really it was about supply and demand. Congressional hearings, on the other hand, say that the so-called "Enron loophole" which allows unregulated trading in energy markets contributes 25-50% of the current record price increases. But all the speculation in the world won't change the basic fact that global demand keeps growing, which of course is why people are speculating in the first place. It used to be that gold was considered an inflation hedge—nowadays, it's a better bet to put your money into oil instead. (By the way, small investors, the minimum amount of crude oil you can buy at a time is 1000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, so start saving those pennies.)
Merely saying "supply and demand" doesn't cover the whole of it—American gas demand is actually down and supply is actually up, and prices continue to rise, past $4 a gallon at the pump. As we learned in the 1970's, when our domestic production peaked, the United States no longer controls the price of oil. And because even the crude we pump out of American soil is priced according to the global market, it doesn't matter if Americans curb their consumption, which is actually what we've been doing for the past year. This is a great deal for oil companies with vertical monopolies, because they just pass the high global cost of oil onto consumers without having to buy their own crude on the open market. That's why, even though the cost of extracting oil is definitely going up, the speculative rise in price lead to record oil company profits.
Now that we created the globalized world, we have to live in it, and that means facing up to the reality that cheap oil is gone. As I wrote almost exactly three years ago, the point about 'peak oil' is not that oil will run out, but that it will become increasingly more expensive to extract in terms of both money and energy. And now that crude prices are never going below $100 a barrel, all sorts of 'unconventional deposits' are becoming economically (if not environmentally) feasible, such as all that shale oil extraction which is ruining everything it touches near Fort McMurray in Alberta.
Is there a responsible way to stave off $5 gas at the pump come September?
There is, sort of. If you look at the news coverage of crude oil increases, there are always two things cited as contributing factors: growing global demand and political instability threatening supply. It's no coincidence that an energy-intensive lifestyle and war are two of our major exports. Let's look at how demand is structured first.
As I've mentioned before, one of the major factors in the increase of demand is the rapid industrialization of countries like China and India, whose depressed labor markets have become newly available (thanks to globalization) to make large amounts of stuff for export, which takes even more oil to get to the industrialized countries which used to make the same products. And as I've said before, the price of oil will continue to climb as long as Americans drive their SUVs to Wal-Mart.
Break down the chain of events implied by this example—driving an SUV or minivan necessitates a certain amount of refined gasoline, of course, and Wal-Marts tend to be located in suburban towns (made possible by the Federal Highways Act and oil company subsidies), or exurban, smaller communities which are rapidly losing their manufacturing base to factories in China and India. Wal-Mart itself is largely responsible for this phenomenon. A memorable scene from CNBC's documentary about the world's largest retailer, "The High Cost of a Low Price" shows the buyers explaining to an entrepreneurial couple who came down to Bentonville to hawk their latest tchatchkeh that there is simply no way they can sell their item at Wal-Mart stores if the insist on manufacturing it in the United States (there are price targets which must be met). Of course, most of the items sold in Wal-Mart are actually made from oil in whole or part, from all the plastic to various industrial solvents and chemical process components. Not to mention the raw oil has to be moved from refining stage to processing stage to factory to consumer, all of which involve the consumption of even more oil as fuel. Even the agricultural products you can buy at a Super Wal-Mart invovle petroleum-based fertilizers and diesel-powered machinery, thanks to the Green Revolution in the 1970's, which saved the world's food supply at the cost of installing agriculture's dependence on plentiful oil (the Rockefeller Foundation, itself built on windfall oil profits, bankrolled that research). Transportation only accounts for two-thirds of our petroleum usage—and only 19.5 of 42 gallons in each barrel of crude end up as regular gasoline; 9.2 gallons become diesel.
China's exports, for example, have increased tenfold from 1992-2005. There are no available figures (please let me know if you have any) for exactly how much oil is involved in America's burgeoning trade deficits like the one we've been accruing with China, but I can say with certainty that they are a major factor in the rising global demand for oil. It's no coincidence that the Clintons have a long history with Wal-Mart and that Hillary (a former Wal-Mart board member) became the health-care industry's darling by stealing Mitt Romney's corporate health care plan. Whether or not you think the Democrats who were pushing it were betraying their constituency at the time, the promises of globalization (or at least as it was sold to the working class Democratic base) have certainly been exposed as folly. Not only are jobs, but entire industries are leaving, and they aren't being replaced. And underpinning all of this is a dependence on advances in transportation, which makes cheap labor affordable in the larger scheme of things by letting developing countries export back to developed countries. But some analysts are wondering whether fuel costs are challenging the structure of globalization, which, like everything else the United States has built, relies not only on petroleum, but cheap petroleum.
Globalization is designed to address those market inefficiencies which have made the middle class possible. Let's start with labor costs: the wages and job security which made America the envy of the world in the post WWII boom years were unsustainable in a globalized world, in two important ways: a) taxes were much, much higher for rich people back then, and b) organized labor and the industrialization required by World War II enjoyed a brief and fruitful affair. Workers got higher wages, health coverage, pension plans, and the promise of a career. To be fair, I don't think corporations should be handling any of these things, because look how they've screwed up wages (stagnant, while productivity has soared), health coverage, pension plans, and job security. The problem, of course, is that the so-called 'golden straightjacket' of globalization, the neo-liberal regime imposed on developing countries, is to have the government privatize these functions and leave everything to the market. "When America sneezes," they used to say, "the rest of the world gets a cold." Through the World Bank and the IMF, we've elevated our Reaganite 'pro-market' policies to (what used to be called) a social disease.
Post-war America (and correspondingly, the American-built global marketplace) was built on the assumption that we could rely on extracting cheap domestic oil indefinitely. European drivers pay twice what we pay for gas, so they have smaller cars and avail themselves of government-built public transportation. Which, as we all understand, is totally un-American. We need to have highways and suburbs and three-car families and two hour commutes and cheap plastic knick-knacks because these are God-given rights. That's why we consume so much oil (and everything else) per capita—it's not just because we can, it's a matter of national pride. Recognizing the consequences and costs of our lifestyle, however, is probably more un-American than taking a national rail service to a soccer match. This is the land not only of Manifest Destiny, but of white flight. America doesn't like to deal with problems directly; we'd rather just get in a fast car and keep moving until we lose them in the rear-view mirror. And for a long time, it worked for many people.
Conservatives seem to think that no matter how much demand grows, we should be able to keep extracting more and more oil from the earth in order to preserve our way of life. Unfortunately, even if we increased our domestic oil production, we'd still need to import large amounts of oil because our production peaked over thirty years ago. Take, for example the folly of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Any day now, Jon McCain will flip-flop and declare that he is for oil exploration in ANWR, the same way he just came out for off-shore drilling. In many ways the ANWR issue is a bellweather for your concept of America, because allowing companies to go in there today would mean Americans would see the oil start flowing in 2013 and hit a peak of just under 900,000 barrels per day (about 5% of our current daily consumption) somewhere around 2025. The question is, do you want to put America in the position of needing 900,000 more barrels of oil a day in 2025, no matter the cost to the environment?
Of course, the dynamics of demand are only half the story. Global demand has certainly risen greatly in the last ten years, but that isn't what's been fueling the sharpest upturns in the price of oil. Demand has been rising arithmetically worldwide, according to the IEA's web site:
But prices rose exponentially:
This rise in demand is totally fueled by globalization; demand in developed countries is actually shrinking. Supply is up, too:
So if supply is increasing and our consumption is shrinking, why are Americans paying $4 and more at the pump? It's simple: war is the answer. We export conflict; much as real and projected increases in global demand for oil drive speculation, real and projected disruptions in the flow of oil come to bear on prices as well. This phenomenon is concentrated in three countries: Iran, Iraq, and Nigeria. You'll notice that the price of crude drops during the beginning of the Iraq war by about $7 during the month of March 2003, when it seemed as though Bush's plan for $20 gasoline through sheer force of personality (and depleted uranium) might actually work. But soon after it became clear that "Mission Accomplished" was a bit premature, crude began its inexorable climb.
When it comes to Iran, which sits atop the world's second-largest proven reserves, U.S. policy, though less violent, is just as much responsible for driving up the price of oil. But our embargoing and sabre-rattling are always directly quoted as causes for any jump in the price of oil, even when we do it by proxy. Consider this snippet from earlier this month, when the price of oil sustained its largest single-day increase in history:
"It's Iran — all Iran," said Bernard Picchi, a senior managing director at Wall Street Access. "Iran is the bête noire of the Bush administration, the last remaining member of the 'Axis of Evil' that has not been militarily or diplomatically neutralized," Picchi said in emailed comments. Comments from Israel's transport minister, reportedly a close adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, that an attack on Iranian nuclear sites looked "unavoidable" has driven buying to a fever pitch, according to Michael Fitzpatrick, an analyst at MF Global. Israeli Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz* was quoted by Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper as saying that if Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, Israel will attack.By the way, Shaul Mofaz is actually Persian himself, one of the few 'Oriental' Jews in Israel's power elite.
And Nigeria? The oil companies have been engaged in a "low-intensity conflict" with Nigerians for many years; lately even these multinational corporations' white-collar Nigerian workers are ready to strike, not to mention the rebels who want their Nigeria's oil to actually, you know help Nigeria. Last year, Chevron (who, with Shell, represent the western oil interests in Nigeria) were dragged into U.S. court for some of their routine murders of Nigerians in the name of petroleum extraction:
United States (US) District Court Judge in San Francisco, Susan Illston, ruled that Chevron was directly involved in the alleged attacks by acting in consonance with Nigerian government security forces, paving the way for a trial which the company had made spirited attempts to avoid for eight years.Of course, there's one more component to how our foreign policy has raised the price of oil—the massive debts and global ill-will incurred by Bush's war-mongering have driven the dollar into a downward spiral.
Now, it is entirely possible, that if we stop threatening Iranian democracy, withdraw troops from Iraq, make Chevron and Shell pay for their crimes in Nigeria, enact a real alternative transportation energy policy, start drilling in North Dakota, and rebuild our railway system, we could get through this oil crisis. Or, there may actually be an oil speculation bubble to burst (although I think it's pretty unburstable, barring some major advance in alternative fuels). Let's see what Obama actually does in office.
JUNI Don't Believe In Bullshit
In 1517, a young monk named Martin Luther, began a new era in Christianity by declaring his independence from what he saw as the excesses and iniquities of the Roman Catholic Church. Having kicked off the Reformation by nailing an itemized list of complaints to a church door, Luther challenged not only the orthodoxy of the Church but the political structures of Christian Europe.
In the early years of Luther's new religion—Protestantism—he became known as a defender of the Jews, whose treatment at the hands of Catholics horrified him. "If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian," he once wrote. As his theological revolution had purged what he saw as the impurities of Catholic dogma, Luther thought that now the Jews would finally be able to be converted to Christ.
Of course, the problem Jews had with Christianity wasn't with the selling of indulgences, but with the divinity of Christ. When Europe's Jews failed to join Luther's new church, he turned on them most viciously. By 1536, he presaged the Final Solution in his book, "Of The Jews And Their Lies," calling for Jews to be put into bondage, killed, or expelled from Europe if they did not convert to the gentle message of the Gospels (he put his money where his mouth was by driving them out of many a German principality.) In the introduction to this seminal work of anti-Semitism, Luther writes,
"I have received a treatise in which a Jew engages in dialog with a Christian. He dares to pervert the scriptural passages which we cite in testimony to our faith, concerning our Lord Christ and Mary his mother, and to interpret them quite differently. With this argument he thinks he can destroy the basis of our faith."Chris Hedges, author, journalist, and himself a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and son of a Protestant minister, has written his own 21st-century version of "Of The Jews And Their Lies," entitled I Don't Believe in Atheists. Anti-Semitism is a bit passe for today's Christians (a bit tacky after Hitler, wouldn't you say?), but bigotry against the godless remains relatively safe to express in public. Many a reviewer and interviewer have called the title "cute" (cuter than Von Der Juden und Ihren Lugen?), and Hedges' bigorty seems to be getting a pass from folks on the left for who probably would have reacted differently had it been anyone else writing the same words.
I feel the same about Hedges as I do about Christopher Hitchens, after he came out so forcefully behind the Bush's invasion of Iraq; a deep admiration now gone sour. Hedges says the book was born of his debates with what he calls 'the new atheists,' writers such as Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and E. O. Wilson. He calls today's atheist writers religious fundamentalists, assigning them to "the cult of science" and decrying their intolerance and bigotry while doling out plenty of his own.
In foreign policy terms, an atheist like myself has much more in common with Hedges—we both oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (unlike Hitchens and Harris). In searching for a larger framework to contest what he sees as Hitchens' and Harris' support of imperialist war, however, he decides to tar even war opponents like Dawkins and Dennett with guilt by association and lumps us all together as evil and a danger to the Republic. But while atheism might be said to have a political philosophy (the separation of church and state), it certainly doesn't have a foreign policy.
Within the 224 pages of I Don't Believe in Atheists, Hedges winds his way through a dense thicket of strawmen. Not only has Hedges created a new Christianity for himself (one without heaven, hell, religious institutions, or an interventionalist god), but he's created another one for his enemies. "To turn away from God is harmless," Hedges grants, magnanimously, but "to turn away from sin is catastrophic." You can have your Model-T in any color you want, as long as it's black as religiously-defined sin.
Works like I Don't Believe in Atheists reinforce the fact that nonbelievers are one of the most hated minorities in America. Hedges' liberal bigotry is writ small, at least in the physical sense—the book is a pocket-friendly 5" by 7". The sprawling (and often repetitive) critique of today's out-of-the-closet atheists finds Hedges equating us with Nazis, all the while calling on the reader to heed the wisdom of, say, Christian Realist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who helped shore up support for the atomic bomb and is considered by many to the first neoconservative. Niebuhr's "just war" theory is often invoked by Iraq war supporters, because it frames mass murder as the necessity to confront evil.
I Don't Believe In Atheists is a gentle, liberal incitement to an American pogrom against nonbelievers, based on his very own version of a blood libel:
"while the new atheists do not have the power of the Christian Right and are not a threat to the democratic state as the Christian Right is, they do engage in the same chauvinism and call for the same violent utopianism. They sell this under secular banners. They believe, like the Christian Right, that we are moving forward to a paradise, a state of human perfection, this time made possible by science and reason."Do atheists believe in a 'state of perfection?' Do atheists belong to what Hedges calls the 'cult of science?' Must we all have gods, as Martin Luther once said?
A thoroughly modern believer, Hedges declares he can pick and choose truths and falsehoods from science with the same ease as he does from Bible (parts of which he calls 'morally indefensible'). As with other intelligent design advocates, a faulty understanding of science buttresses a foregone conclusion—that the divine inhabits the gaps in human scientific understanding and the pursuit of further understanding is hazardous to the soul. Richard Dawkins, a target of Hedges' self-righteous indignation, calls this belief the 'god of the gaps,' and Hedges tries mightily to sacralize the mysteries of the universe in order to warn scientists against the hubris of discovering truths about reality instead of waiting for revelation about the mystic.
Intelligent design, a modern descendant of creationism, is the same impulse which lead ancient mapmakers to draw sea serpents in unexplored parts of the oceans and declare: "thar be monsters." Hedges' book amounts to nothing less than the intelligent design argument applied beyond biology to all realms of human endeavor, from physics to philosophy. And the monsters are the so-called "new atheists."
"Religious thought is a guide to morality. It points humans toward inquiry," announces Hedges, but his dogma leads him toward an inquisition instead. The main thrust of the book is the idea that today's atheists are trying to 'perfect' humanity, which is at the top of Hedges' list of cardinal sins:
"[t]he belief in human perfection, that we can advance morally, is itself an evil. It provides cover for criminality and abuse, a justification for murder. It sanctifies war, murder, and torture, for an unattainable purpose. It denies our own moral pollution."One could substitute "the divine" for "human perfection" in the above sentence, but that's the easy way out. Even if the new atheist authors really believe in human perfection, is that the same thing as a belief in moral progress? "There is nothing in human nature or in human history that points to the idea that we are moving anywhere," protests Hedges. Well, it all depends on your metric for progress, of course—not to mention your definitions of 'moving' and 'anywhere.' If nothing in nature or history supported the idea of progress, Hedges' wouldn't have to repeatedly and weakly dismiss the notion. For Hedges, the fact that there is still murder and hatred and all manner of iniquity and inequality proves that there is no progress ever past or present, QED.
But really, is there anything in human nature to say we, as a species, I suppose, are moving anywhere? There's a whole science of genetics which is helping to explain how we got here in the way we did, from helping us trace the movement of early humans out of Africa to developing cures for birth defects which were never possible before. Did morality work differently for our pre-human ancestors as it does for homo sapiens? Does the evolution of and within hominid society qualify as moral progress? I would venture to say so, if only because I don't think animals are capable of the kind of abstract reasoning ethics require. Evolutionary biology shows us that change is slow, and its smallest increment is generational.
Hedges' idea that naturalists believe we are the culmination of a process leading towards perfection shows the limits of his understanding. "The belief in human perfectibility, in history as a march toward a glorious culmination, is malformed theology." Actually, it's malformed science; biologists understand that evolution is a continuing phenomenon, and we are not the end of it. Only under the weight of eschatology (the study of the end of time) does evolution have an 'end.' For scientists, Darwin only described a 'means.' What Darwin showed was that evolution was random, as opposed to competing evolutionary scientists of his day—like Lamarck, who theorized that giraffes grew long necks in order to feed from tall trees.
Hedges is just getting started mischaracterizing science for his own ends: "[p]luralism has no place in science. Neither does the principle (so familiar from the arts, humanities and human sciences) of competing truths. Scientific ideas, because they an be demonstrated or disproved, are embraced or rejected on the basis of quantifiable evidence."
Pluralism certainly has a place in science, and it's called the cutting edge, where such ideas are called theorems. (Just look at the panoply of string theories, which are themselves intended to resolve the competition between quantum field and general relativity theories.) Hedges' rants remind me of an English major drunkenly explaining that Science majors have no soul. And not only that, adds Hedges, but neuroscientist Sam Harris "does not engage in the laborious work of acquiring knowledge and understanding... He has no interest in debate, dialogue or scholarship." (One presumes Hedges had compelled Harris to debate him against his will in San Francisco in 2007). Or, "[Sam Harris'] assertion that Muslim parents welcome the death of children as suicide bombers could only have been written by someone who never sat in the home of a grieving mother and father in Gaza who have just lost their child." Now, I have never been to Gaza, but one such parent, known as 'Umm Nidal' (who famously encouraged her sons to become martyrs and handed out chocolate and halvah upon hearing her son was killed attacking an Israeli settlement) was, in fact, elected to Palestinian parliament on the Hamas ticket in 2006. Similarly, Hedges protests that somehow religion had nothing to do with the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Christians. The book is full of such hollow falsehoods, Jesuit-level equivocations and semantic boondoggles.
The tone of the book is reminiscient of a sermon—long, tedious, repetitive, and full of earnestly resolute pomposity:
"The question is not whether God exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent, that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction. [...] God—and different cultures have given God many names and many attributes—is that which works upon us and through us to find meaning and relevance in a morally neutral universe. [...] God is, as Thomas Aquinas argues, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence."Reverence of what, exactly? It isn't clear, but it seems that if anything should be exalted, it is human limitation and our irredeemable shortcomings, whatever those might be. Hedges not only constructs a strawman (the belief that atheists and scientists are trying to perfect humanity) but a new religion—the worship of human flaws. There is no greater sin for Hedges than to turn away from the concept of Sin, and those who do are embracing an evil so profound that Hedges' doesn't talk about much else. Hedges' speaks of the "wisdom of original Sin" and exalts, at length, human evil:
"Human evil is not a problem. It is a mystery. It cannot be solved. It is a bitter, constant paradox that is part of human nature."Hedges goes on to accuse the new atheists of 'externalizing evil' — but the truth is that Hedges is guilty of internalizing 'good.' English doesn't have a distinction between religious and secular definitions of 'good' the way it separates 'evil' from 'bad,' so let me clarify that as an atheist, I believe in 'bad' but not 'evil.' Because contrary to what religion wants you to think, the relevant parties to telling right from wrong are your fellow beings, rather than any imaginary ones. Yes, there is bad and good, but we must always ask—bad for whom? Good for what?
In a summary of his book published by the Free Press, Hedges writes,
"Religious institutions, however, should be separated from the religious values imparted to me by religious figures, including my father [who was a liberal minister]. Most of these men and women frequently ran afoul of their own religious authorities. Religion, real religion, was about fighting for justice, standing up for the voiceless and the weak, reaching out in acts of kindness and compassion to the stranger and the outcast, living a life of simplicity, finding empathy and defying the powerful."Leaving aside for the moment the question of how Hedges gets to cleave 'real religion' from the kind most people practice, we must ask—what exactly are religious values? Are there such things regardless of the religion in question?
The truth is, there's only one universal religious value: orthodoxy in the service of power. The world's faiths share a vast-ranging disagreement on everything else, even the number of gods to be worshiped—from zero in Theravada Buddhism to the Trinity of Catholicism to the countless loa of Voodoo. Everything about the temporal world is up for spiritual grabs, from the threshold for justifiable homicide to the divinely inspired way to wipe your ass.
Much as science is morally neutral, religion is merely a tool for the powerful to control the masses. And yet, there is a process by which religions themselves evolve. Within my own lifetime, for example, Bob Jones University, which went from defending their ban on interracial dating and marriage on God's ipse dixit 1983 before the Supreme Court to revoking the policy in 2000—not because George W. Bush was about to make a speech there and they didn't want to offend the heathens for political purposes, but because the sacred words of God must have changed, mysteriously acquiring a new meaning.
Whether there's a text or an oral tradition, every religious person picks and chooses, interprets and reinterprets the tenets of their faith and applies them to the real world. Those choices are temporal, secular—because religion is all in your head. Interaction with your fellow humans is real, and therefore will never live up to Hedges' idealized 'good.'
Morals are personal, ethics are interpersonal. The zeitgeist (as described by Dawkins) describes the movement of social mores—the definitions not only of evil, but of 'good' as well.
When Hedges admits that some parts of the Bible are 'morally indefensible,' it is the reader's duty to ask how they got that way. So when Hedges writes, "All ethics begin with religion. We must determine what moral laws to accept or reject. We must distinguish between real and false prophets," while enjoining us from using reason and science to do so, on what basis does Hedges make these distinctions? It would appear that there is no rational distinction between true and false prophets.
The truth is that all of us, Hedges included, create a personal moral code using real-life, secular ethics—the realm of human interaction which Hedges finds so spiritually devoid: "Those who focus only on human communication, who are unable to step out of the realm of prosaic knowledge, sever themselves from the sacred. They remain trapped in a deadening self-awareness. They lose the capacity to honor and protect that which makes life possible."
A band of prophets known as the Firesign Theatre once said, "when you clock the human race with the stopwatch of history, it's a new record every time." Things we view as "evil" or immoral by today's standards were moral yesterday, and we gauge our progress by comparing these standards. For example: would Jesus buy an SUV? Has burning gasoline always been sin, or just bad for the environment? And how could we possibly answer such a question (much less ask it) without the advances of science? Moral 'progress' is inevitable, if only because morality has to address new problems every day.
Hedges goes on at length about how the new atheists want to 'perfect' humanity, but suspiciously, he doesn't use any direct quotes. So, I decided to read Harris and Dawkins in search of this ideology of perfection, but I couldn't find any. Dawkins definitely speaks of the Zeitgeist and of "evolving complexity," but nowhere does he say that 'perfection' (whatever that is) is attainable or that he has set his sights upon it. Harris hardly speaks in absolutes, and certainly doesn't say that atheists seek to achieve perfection. So, where is this murderous ideology of perfection?
Seek and ye shall find, says the Bible, and Hedges' uses his denseness as his guide: "Wilson and Dawkins build their vision of human perfectibility out of the legitimately scientific theory that human beings are shaped by the laws of heredity and natural selection. They depart from this position when they assert that we can leave determinism behind. There is nothing in science that implies our genetic makeup allows us to perfect ourselves. Those who, in the name of science, claim that we can overcome our imperfect human nature create a belief system that functions like religion... there is nothing, when you cut through their scientific jargon, to support their absurd proposition."
Leaving aside whether Hedges is truly capable of understanding scientific jargon—as opposed to simply cutting through it—you have to wonder (as with his claim that "Dawkins, like Christian zealots, reduces the world to a binary formula of good and evil") where he's getting this stuff. As Hedges writes, "these are not questions atheists answer. They attack a religious belief of their own creation." Atheists don't believe in eschatology, and neither do we seek to negate ourselves by becoming gods. Atheism merely seeks to turn the pyramid scheme of religion upside-down.
"Because there is no clear, objective definition of God," writes Hedges, "the new atheists must choose what God it is that they attack." Actually, that's not true, but like all good debaters, Hedges needs to reframe the debate on his terms in order to claim rhetorical victory. What Hedges fails to understand is that atheism is a rejection of the whole notion of a top-down universe, no matter whom your particular creation myth places at the top. A universe without gods is one which is eternal and works from the bottom up, without meaning or intent. Hedges characterizes the universe as "morally neutral," but at the same time posits an objective 'good' and 'evil' and that God is the good in each of us. One wonders why, if there is only one god, why it can't be the morally neutral in each of us? If animals have a moral value, what is it, and do they share the same god as humanity or the rest of the universe?
For most of the book, Hedges' seems hell-bent on conflating atheists with Raëlians, an extropian UFO cult who send out press releases claiming to have cloned a human being every so often. For all his Western-centric chauvinism, Hedges' concept of the universe, with its personally uninvolved deity in an amoral universe who works through us, sounds a lot more like some Yoruba-derived syncretic religion, such as Candomblé or Santería: Oludumare, the creator, doesn't deal with people, and so requests are made of orishas ('the owners of heads') who possess and work through their followers. But Hedges' Christian prejudices against atheism and polytheism are merely precursors to the real weakness in his arguments.
When Hedges writes, for example, that "[w]e progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression and economic exploitation, and to accelerate environmental degradation," is he saying that the pursuit of any scientific knowledge (for example, genetics, which can certainly be said to "change human nature") is an evil because it attempts to improve the human condition? And if some science is OK, where is the boundary between good and evil science, the border line where Hedges and the Unabomber stand, wagging their fingers at humanity?
"There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving towards a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere," he proclaims. It seems by definition that if there there is human progress that we are moving somewhere (if not towards some glorious utopia). Hedges lives in a world of absolutes, as much as he protests otherwise; since the imaginary end (utopia) is deemed impossible, he seems to say there cannot be any movement altogether, failing to make the distinction between 'perfect' as a verb and as an adjective. When, for example, America's founding Deists employed the phrase 'a more perfect Union,' it didn't suggest (to me, anyway) that they thought there was going to be a perfectly perfect Union.
I Don't Believe In Atheists plumbs the depths of Hedges' unwillingness to engage with atheism, or atheists—encapsulated by the way he laughs off Christopher Hitchens' lack of theological training with regard to his question of who created the Creator:
"This is the declaration of an illiterate. Aquinas, along with many other theologians, addressed at length the issue of who created the creator. God, Aquinas argues, is not an entity. God is not a thing or a being. Creation is an act of handicraft. Creation is the condition of there being something rather than nothing. Creation didn't happen long ago. Creation is a constant in human existence. It is part of life."This is what's known as "conversion by definition" (or "the bear hug") where extremely lazy evangelists posit that the fact one is alive is proof that at least one god exists. (For the sun, or your electronic devices, which operate on the principle that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, it's a different story.) "God is a human concept," admits Hedges, but that's about as far as he's willing to go in understanding the subjects of his monograph. Because Hedges' doesn't understand atheism, his critique is understandably flawed. Worse still, he is unwilling to subject himself to his own critique:
"They see the "other" as equal only when the other is identical to themselves. They project their own values on the rest of the human race. ...Those who are different do not need to be investigated, understood or tolerated, for they are intellectually and morally inferior. Those who are different are imperfect versions of themselves."
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