Archive for July, 2014

The rise of Reagan: ‘They yearned to believe’

July 31, 2014

Rick Perlstein, author of books about Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, has a new book entitled The Invisible Bridge: the Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

invisiblebridgeThe title is taken from a remark by Nikita Khrushchev to Richard Nixon, “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.”

In the 1970s, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandals, the CIA scandals and the Arab oil embargo confronted Americans with the fact that we are neither all-powerful nor totally righteous, but in fact are not all that different from other nations.

Ronald Reagan’s political genius was in the fact that he was able to convince Americans that we are all-powerful, not matter what happens to us, and we are totally righteous, no matter what we do.

The Reagan illusion continues to this day and neither Republican nor Democratic leaders dare question it.

Perlstein gave a good interview about his book to David Dayen for Salon.  Here are some excerpts from the interview.


China, the USA and the world’s oil and gas

July 30, 2014
us energy independence jones map

China’s oil imports. Click to enlarge.

The other day I read that China has overtaken the USA as the world’s largest oil importer.  Earlier I read that China has overtaken the USA as the world’s largest market for automobiles.  As the world uses up easy-to-get oil, there will be conflict between the USA and China to get what’s left.

Notice this is just OPEC oil, not total oil importsChina needs access to the world’s oil and gas if it is to raise the material standard of living of its people.  But the USA needs access to the world’s oil and gas if it is to maintain what we call the American standard of living.

What this means is that, unlike with the situation between the USA and Russia, there is a real conflict of interest between the Chinese people and the American people.  The world may not have enough fossil fuels to satisfy the desires of both.

China has one of the world’s largest reserves of coal and one of the world’s largest coal industries.  It is a leader in developing solar energy technology, although this as yet serves only a tiny fraction of its energy needs.  China has extended pipelines into central Asia, and recently signed an agreement to build a new oil and gas pipeline into Russia.

0912ChinaSeaTerritory2The quest for energy explains China’s disputes with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries over control of islands in the East China Sea and South China Sea.  Control of these islands not only gives China control over offshore oil and gas.  It enables China to protect its shipping from the Persian Gulf.

Access to oil is a vital interest of the USA.  The Carter Doctrine, back in 1980, said that access to the Persian Gulf was a vital interest of the United States, meaning the U.S. would go to war if necessary to protect it.  The first President Bush said in 1991 was the Gulf War was about “jobs, jobs, jobs,” which meant “oil, oil, oil.”

In recent years, the United States has increased domestic energy production, with fracking and offshore oil drilling (both of which President Obama strongly supports).   But this doesn’t mean the USA doesn’t need imports.  Seeming inconsistencies in current U.S. policy in the Middle East make sense if you think of U.S. policy as a quest for oil rather than a quest for democracy.

The world’s easy-to-get oil and gas have been used up and competition for the rest of the world’s oil is bound to become more intense.  The European Union, in its need for oil and gas, may find itself in conflict with both the USA and China.

I don’t see any obvious way to resolve this.  It would be good if the world’s energy-importing countries could reach an agreement based on compromise.  It would be good if the world could switch to renewable energy.  But I don’t see either one happening anytime soon, and to the extent that either compromise or renewables are feasible, it might entail a more frugal way of life than most North Americans (myself included) would be willing to accept.


 Whose Oil Will Quench China’s Thirst? by Chris Dalby for Oil Price and Naked Capitalism.

The passing scene: Links & comments 7/30/14

July 30, 2014

To Address Honduran Refugee Crisis, US Should Stop Financing Repression in Honduras by Laura Raymond for TruthOut.

Hillary Clinton’s Real Scandal Is Honduras, Not Benghazi by Emily Schwartz Greco for Other Words.   Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

People in Honduras and other Central American countries suffer as much or probably more from violence by their own governments as from criminal drug gangs.

Many hand-scrabble farmers in Honduras have been pushed off their land to serve the interest of big landowners, mining corporations or hydroelectric power projects.  Many have gone broke trying to compete with cheap imports.   When they protest, or when workers try to organize labor unions, they risk what human rights organizations call “extrajudicial executions”.

I’ve written in previous posts that we Americans should be more accepting of desperate child migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.  But in the long run, what’s important is respect for basic human rights in those countries.  The U.S. government can’t assure democracy in any country, but it can stop subsidizing and propping up dictatorships.

Coal Miner Whose Brother Died on the Job Was Fired for Flagging Dangers by Dave Jamieson for Huffington Post.  Hat tip to Labor News of Rochester, NY.

In October 2011, Jeremy Coots, a coal miner in eastern Kentucky, helped carry the lifeless body of his brother, Richard Coots, out of a mine where he was crushed to death by a piece of machinery.  Now he has been fired from his job in a different mine for complaining about dangerous and correctable working conditions.

I don’t think that the United States is so poor a country that miners should have to chose between jeopardizing their lives and jeopardizing their livelihoods.

Argentina Deadline Day: Punishment for Rejecting the Neoliberal Consensus Is Nearly Complete by David Dayen for Naked Capitalism.

A U.S. federal judge overruled a deal by the government of Argentina with its major bondholders to refinance its debt.  The reason an American judge has jurisdiction is that the payments go through banks in New York City.

I think the long-range consequence of this is that foreign governments will try to do business with banks in China and other countries that don’t recognize U.S. jurisdiction.

Yes, Robert E. Lee Supported Slavery, the Confederacy and Its Battle Flag by Jonathan Ladd for The Mischief of Faction.

When Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia entered Pennsylvania in 1863, they grabbed every black person they could capture and sent them south to slavery.

The Limits of “Unlimited” by Barbara Fister for Library Babel Fish.

Why Amazon’s Kindle is no replacement for the inter-library loan system.

The new normal: Links & comments 7/29/14

July 29, 2014

Soak the Rich: An exchange on capital, debt and the future by David Graeber and Thomas Piketty, translated and reprinted by The Baffler.

David Graeber is an anthropologist and radical anarchist known for his book, Debt: the First 5,000 Years, which looks at the origins of money, taxes and debt.   Thomas Piketty is a politically moderate economist known for his book, Capital in the 21st Century, which looks at the persistence of gross inequality during the past few centuries.

I admire them for their opposite virtues—Graeber for his bold and original speculation, Piketty for his research and his refusal to assert anything that can’t be backed up by data.

Graeber believes the capitalist system is doomed.  Once it goes away, people will have a chance to create a new system without fear of bosses or police, and Graber does not see any point in trying to describe the specifics of what that new system will be.

Piketty says history indicates that capitalism has proved amazingly resilient in the face of change, and that there is no reason to think this time is different.  Furthermore, he said, any society has a need for capital, the means to invest accumulated wealth into the means of creating new wealth.  (This is a different definition of capital from the one in his book).  His attitude toward capitalism is: Mend it, don’t end it.

One thing they do agree on is the centuries-old tendency for wealth to be concentrated in a few hands, and the danger this poses to a democratic society.

On the Causes of Investment Decline in the U.S. Economy by Dr. Jack Rasmus, the Green Party’s shadow Federal Reserve chair.  Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

I have long thought that increasing the earning power of average Americans would make many things fall into place.  If people had more money to buy stuff, merchants would sell more stuff and manufacturers would make more stuff, and this would be to everybody’s benefit.

Jack Rasmus suggests that maybe this isn’t so.  Maybe getting people into debt and putting the squeeze on them is more profitable that creating useful goods and services.  If that’s so, we can’t look to private enterprise to recreate a high-wage, full-employment economy.

His solution is a massive public works program, which I agree is needed, but doesn’t address the problem he describes.

Defending Trade Unions While the Justices Are Away by David Coates.  Hat tip to Labor News in Rochester, NY.

Labor unions helped maintain American prosperity in the mid-20th century by fighting for good wages and job security.  But the union movement is handicapped by laws and court decisions that increasingly restrict unions while freeing corporations of responsibility.

In Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court ruled that home health-care workers in Illinois could not be required to pay dues the Service Employees International Union, but they were still entitled the benefits of the SEIU contract and to SEIU representation.  It is as if the Supreme Court ruled that I could not be required to pay my Rochester Gas and Electric bill, but RG&E is still obligated to supply me with gas and electricity.

Chris Dodd Warns of Coalition Between Populist Democrats and Republicans by Zach Carter for the Huffington Post.

Ex-Senator Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, gave a speech warning against trying to strengthen the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.   He said in a speech to the Bipartisan Policy Center that opening up the bill to amendments would open a “Pandora’s box” that would be dangerous the financial services industry.

He said warned against right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats teaming up against Wall Street.   He probably was thinking of a bill co-sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and David Vitter (R-Louisiana) to break up the “too big to fail” banks, an unacceptable type of bipartisanship.  Dodd said breaking up big banks is unnecessary.

As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying the Price by Joseph Shapiro for National Public Radio.

The criminalization of poverty by Radley Balko for the Washington Post.

A majority of U.S. states have recreated the equivalent of debtors’ prisons.  They are trying to make their criminal justice system self-financing by charging fees for public defenders, the cost of a jury trial, room and board for jail and prison time, and parole and probation costs.   Poor people who can’t pay these fees go to jail, even though this has been ruled unconstitutional.


A wise Navajo saying

July 29, 2014

You can’t wake someone up who is just pretending to sleep.

The interdependence of Russia and Europe

July 28, 2014

Europe Russia oil gas pipelines map chart

More Signs of Doubt in Europe About the Costs of Siding With Ukraine by Yves Smith for Naked Capitalism.

The Beginning of an End of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance by Mark from Ireland for Ian Welsh.

Hat tip for the map to Vox.

Denial won’t stop the world from getting hotter

July 28, 2014


If you want to understand how things are changing, you should not be content with comparing the current month or year with the previous month.  You should look at the data as far back in time as it goes.

The data on global warming and climate change shows ups and downs, but a long-range trend toward a hotter planet.  You could argue (although I don’t) that the change is due to a mysterious X factor rather than human-caused greenhouse gasses.   I don’t think any rational person can argue against the reality of the change.

That’s why it is important to prepare for the change, and that’s why it’s crazy for Republican congressman to try to forbid government agencies to take the long-range trend into account.

Here is one way the two political parties differ.  Most Democrats are willing to at least acknowledge that global climate change exists and will have consequences.  The dominant group in the Republican Party is unwilling to do even that much.

I think it was the SF writer Philip K. Dick who said that reality is that which exists whether you believe in it or not.  The global warming trend is real, whether you believe it or not.


The case of the paranoid sheep

July 28, 2014


Dmitry Orlov’s greatest hits

July 27, 2014
Dmitry Orlov ClubOrlov collapse

Dmitry Orlov

DMITRY ORLOV, author of Communities that Abide, is a Russian-born American citizen and blogger who posts about the coming collapse of civilization and other topics about once a week on his ClubOrlov web log, which is one of the Blogs I Like.

Here are my favorite Orlov posts.

Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century

Thriving in an Age of Collapse

Our Village

Closing the ‘Collapse Gap’: the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US

The Despotism of the Image

Dead Souls

The Five Stages of Collapse

Understanding Organizational Stupidity

The Sixth Stage of Collapse

Exodus to Yellowknife

I’m not certain Orlov is right about the future, at least not about the immediate future.  Neither can I dismiss what he says as foolishness.

The one thing about which I feel certain is that things cannot continue as they are, but I do not know what comes next, and in what ways it will be better or worse.

Three philosophies for hard times ahead

July 27, 2014

John Michael Greer, author of several books about the consequences of peaking of world oil supplies, thinks progress is a consoling illusion.  He does not believe there is anything about the nature of things that guarantees that this generation will be better off than the previous one, or that future generations will be better off than this one.

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

He writes a weekly web log, The Archdruid Report, which is one of the Blogs I Like.  In a recent post, he points to better and more enduring philosophies.

There is the Epicurean philosophy, which teaches you to be grateful for life’s blessings and not to wish for more than you have.  Epicurus did not teach the Playboy Philosophy.  He was a laborer who worked hard to support his aged parents, and who only enjoyed leisure late in life when his followers bought him a house and garden.

There is the Stoic philosophy, which doesn’t bother about happiness at all, but only acting constructively and with integrity no matter what the circumstances.   A Stoic would agree with one of my mother’s favorite sayings, “Expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed.”  Stoicism provides a grim satisfaction that comes from not having expectations and from not basing happiness or self-respect on anything that someone else can take away from him.

The third philosophy, to which Greer adheres, is the Platonist philosophy, which is that our world is a a shadow of a divine order, which, when glimpsed and understood, makes everything make sense.

I am more of an Epicurean than a Stoic, and not a Platonist at all.  That is not to say I deny the truth of Platonism and other religious philosophies.  It is that I have not had the religious and spiritual experiences that I read about, and that people I know tell me about, and I cannot say anything one way or the other.


Rewiring America: Links & comments 7/26/14

July 26, 2014

How America’s Internet can become the fastest on earth by John Aziz for The Week.

Americans created the Internet, and the United States has some of the fastest commercially-available Internet connections on earth.   But the USA as a whole is only No. 31 in average speed of Internet connections, behind such nations as Uruguay and Romania and barely equal to Russia, which is far from being a technology leader.

Digital-MediaJohn Aziz says the reason is the balkanized U.S. Internet system, in which, unlike in other countries, companies with broadband service don’t have to open up their service to other broadband companies.

Rather than try to force corporate owners to do something that is not in their interest, Aziz advocates spending $140 billion to build a nationwide fiber optic new with bandwidth equal to Google Fiber, which provides 1Gbps—50 times faster than the average U.S. Internet connection now.   That would be only 1/5th the cost of the TARP Wall Street bailout and less than 1/25th the cost of U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I think this is a good idea.  What makes a community, or a nation, a good place for entrepreneurs is to provide a benefit that is unique to their place or better than anyplace else.

Hundred of Cities Are Wired With Fiber—But Telecom Lobbying Keeps It Unused by Jacob Koerber for Motherboard.

life before the internetWell, maybe the USA is no longer capable of carrying out ambitious large-scale projects.  The least that could be done is to allow American municipal governments to wire their cities with fiber optic.  Current state laws forbid this in most places in order to protect private companies from competition.

The Server Needs to Die to Save the Internet by Natasha Lomas for TechCrunch.

A Scottish company named MaidSafe has a plan to protect privacy by creating a network without servers or data centers.  To be honest, I don’t completely understand what they’re doing, but it sounds as if it could be important.

Here Is How Google Works by Andrew Smales for Medium.

The Smales piece is satire—I guess.

Older Ladies by Donnalou Stevens

July 26, 2014

Hat tip to Jack Clontz and his friend Marty.

The passing scene: Links and comments 7/25/14

July 25, 2014

Why America is duty bound to help Iraqi Christians by Michael Brendan Dougherty for The Week.

Christians inhabited Mosul long before the Prophet Mohammed was born.  Now ISIS fanatics have given Christians, as well as Shia Muslims, the choice of convert, flee or die.   Iraqi Christians would still be living peacefully under the cruel but nonsectarian rule of Saddam Hussein if the United States hadn’t invaded the country and reduced it to chaos.  Since reconquering Iraq is not feasible, we Americans have an obligation offer refuge to Iraq’s Christians.

Who Bled Detroit Dry? by Peter Rugh for Vice.

The federal government rescued the banks and auto companies, but poor people in Detroit who can’t pay their bills have their water shut off by the non-elected emergency government.   It is too bad that a previous municipal government was suckered into buying credit default swaps, which quadrupled the city’s debt, or that so many of the city’s residents were suckered into buying sub-prime mortgages, but that’s not a justification for denying people a necessity of life.   Is it possible that citizens of a 21st century American city could die of thirst because they have no money?

Why You Should Not Take Pictures of the Seven Ugliest Buildings In D.C. by Benny Johnson of Buzzfeed.

Border Patrol agents hold Iowa Boy Scouts at gunpoint for taking a picture of them by Arturo Gracia for The Real Story.

I can remember when we Americans used to mock the old Soviet Union for the way police would interfere with tourists photographing the most ordinary and innocuous things.  The USA is a long way from being like the USSR, but there are too many of us with the same paranoid authoritarian mentality.

Why the modern bathroom is a wasteful, unhealthy design by Lloyd Alter of The Guardian.

As a result of reading this article, I resolved to keep the lid on my toilet down at all times and to keep my toothbrushes in a Ziplock bag instead of an open jar.


‘Don’t send your kid to the Ivy League’

July 25, 2014

A century ago, the Ivy League universities—Harvard, Yale and Princeton—provided an education suitable for those who were born rich.  Now they provide an education suitable for those who hope to get rich.  This is not an improvement.

The old thinking was that those born into the upper ranks of society should receive an education suitable for future leaders.   The universities taught them history and the classics to give a broad understanding of the world.  They also sought to teach mental and physical discipline to build character.  College athletics were part of the character-building process, not a producer of revenue.

ivyleague.jpg_largeThe great 20th century democratic dream was that this type of education should be made available not just to the children of the elite, but to everyone who wanted it and was capable of it.   I was fortunate enough to attend college in the 1950s, when this dream was at its zenith, and I received a broad liberal education (with some gaps, due to bad choices on my part).  I can’t prove it was of economic benefit, but it enriched my life.

Now higher education has become part of the process of sorting people into winners and losers.

President Obama says everybody should have a chance to go to college in order to advance themselves economically.  But of course if everybody goes to college, then a college degree will be worth no more in economic terms than a high school diploma today.  An Ivy League degree is what economists called “positional good”—something that is valuable only because not everybody has it.

My e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a link to an article in the New Republic by William Deresiewicz about how elite education has been corrupted by the quest for success.  Here are some highlights.

Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it. [snip]

I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League—bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from.  But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them.

Very few were passionate about ideas.  Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development.  Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.  [snip]

Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time.  I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class.  She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion. [snip]


Why is the GOP afraid of Obamacare?

July 24, 2014


I’ve long been of two minds about  Obamacare.   Sometimes I think it is a complete mess and sometimes I think that, despite its complexity and obvious flaws, it will be of net benefit to the American public.

There is one group of people who’ve made up their minds about it, and that is the Republicans who are determined to prevent implementation of the Affordable Care Act by any means necessary.

If they believed the law is as terrible as they say they do, the smart political strategy would be to allow the law to go into effect, allow the public to see how bad it is and then move to repeal or amend.

The only explanation is that they don’t dare let this happen because they think that, once Americans experience the new law in operation, they will embrace it and vote for Democrats forevermore in gratitude.

FBI uses sting operations to make terrorism cases

July 24, 2014

Human Rights Watch reported that many of the high-profile terrorism cases brought by the FBI since Sept. 11, 2001, were sting operations by the FBI itself.

The international human rights organization did not investigate all the cases, but a representative sample revealed a disturbing pattern of the FBI and its informants concocting fake terrorist plots and then recruiting people to join them.

No doubt some of their targets were real terrorists, said Andrea Prasow, Washington director of HRW.  “But take a closer look and you realize that many of these people would not have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts.”

HRW said the FBI at times has targeted people who were mentally retarded or mentally ill, people who had no previous idea of getting involved in a terrorist plot, and indigent people who were tempted by large sums of money offered for joining the plot.

Of four plots known to have been concocted without FBI involvement, two were carried out—the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the Los Angeles Airport shooting in 2002. The other two were an attempted car bombing in Times Square in 2010, and a plot to bomb the New York subways in 2009.

The American public would be better served if the FBI concentrated on actual terrorist plots, instead of generating fake plots to create a statistically impressive record.


ILLUSION OF JUSTICE, a report by Human Rights Watch.

US Terrorism Prosecutions Often an Illusion, the Human Rights Watch press release.

All But Four of the High Profile Domestic Terrorism Plots in the Last Decade Were Crafted From the Ground Up by the FBI by Tim Cushing for TechDirt.

Government agents ‘directly involved’ in most high-profile US terror plots by Spencer Ackerman for The Guardian.

Blacklisted: the Secret Government Rulebook for Labeling You a Terrorist by Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Deveraux for The Intercept.

The difference between average and typical

July 23, 2014


Here is a case study in statistics—showing why what is statistically average is not necessarily typical.

If all the wealth in the United States were divided equally, every American household would have $301,000.  But only a minority of Americans have that much net worth.  The more meaningful measure is the median, the point that divides the wealthiest half of Americans from the poorest half.  That midpoint is $45,000, a much lower figure.

Some of the reasons middle class Americans have less than their counterparts in other advanced countries is that we have greater debt and less equity in our homes, and also have to pay more for higher education and medical care, which reduces the ability to save.

For details, click on Middle class Americans: Not so rich as we think by Tami Luhby for CNN Money.

A professional diplomat looks at the U.S. record

July 23, 2014
Charles Freeman

Charles Freeman

Ambassador Charles Freeman had a long and distinguished career in government service, including President Richard M. Nixon’s principal interpreter in his 1972 visit to China, service in India, China, Thailand and Saudi Arabia and policy-making positions in the State and Defense departments.

The following is from a speech he gave this month at a conference of the Middle East Policy Council in Washingon, D.C.

Our hammer blows in the Middle East were intended to showcase our power. Instead they convincingly demonstrated its limitations. These interventions worsened – not improved – the region’s stability, politics, and prospects.

Our unmatched military prowess has not enabled us to impose our will in West Asia, in Eastern Europe, or elsewhere.  The record of covert action at solving political problems in all of these regions has been no better.

The question then is: what alternatives to the military hammer and related kinetic instruments of statecraft does the U.S. presidency now have?

Normally, the answer would be the political screwdriver of diplomacy or other non-percussive means of influence, like subsidies and subventions.  But there is a reason the Department of State is the smallest and weakest executive department of our government.

The United States seldom resorts to diplomacy in resolving major differences with other states.  Gladiators trump diplomats anytime in terms of the spectacle they provide.  And, even if they don’t work, coercive measures like sanctions and bombing are much more immediately satisfying emotionally than the long slog of diplomacy.


War and peace: Links & comments 7/22/14

July 22, 2014

Lessons from America’s War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew Bacevich for Notre Dame magazine.

Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations, retired career Army officer and self-described conservative Catholic, talks as much good sense about American military and foreign policy as anybody I know about.

In this article, he traces American policy toward the Middle East from the 1980 Carter Doctrine, which stated that the U.S. would use force to protect access to the oil of the Persian Gulf, down to the present day.  He sees more continuity than differences between the Democratic and Republican administrations.

The policy is based on the hope that, by the application of force, the United States can counter tendencies in the Islamic war that threaten American interests.  The result has been death and destruction, with the result that the people of the Middle East see the United States as the main threat to their freedom and well-being.

Bacevich says its time to stop ignoring reality and attempting the impossible.

Ukraine Open Thread (and Links) on Naked Capitalism.

Fact-Free Zone by Dmitry Orlov on ClubOrlov.

‘It was Putin’s missile’ by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

I don’t know who shot down the MH-17 airliner over Ukraine.  I agree with President Obama that a thorough and complete investigation is needed to determine the facts.  Why, then, is he ramping up a cold war against Russia, as if all the facts were known?

Israel mows the lawn by Mouin Rabbani for the London Review of Books

The author says the policy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to prevent, by any means necessary, the emergence of a Palestinian state that is independent in fact and not just in name.  The last thing Netanyahu wants is a peace process.

What would William Wilberforce do?

July 22, 2014

Refugees from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are fleeing to Mexico and many other countries, not just the United States.  But there is a particular reason, besides the obvious economic reason, why so many of the refugees are unaccompanied children.

This is the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Re-authorization Act, passed with broad Democratic and Republican support and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008.  Children were already turning up at the border then, and Central American children turned back into Mexico were easy prey for prostitution rings and other human traffickers.

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

It provided that any child caught crossing the border, if not from Mexico or Canada, would be granted a hearing to determine whether they were genuine refugees.

Under the international Refugee Convention, signing nations are required to give refuge to persons with a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, group membership or political opinion, and no protection from their own government.

The law was appropriately named for William Wilberforce, the great British Evangelical Christian reformer, who campaigned for the abolition of the African slave trade and then for the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies.

I think he would have approved of the law that was enacted in his name, and I think he would have been sad to see American politicians breaking their nation’s promise to give refuge to children.

Of course once the law was enacted, word filtered down to Central America that unaccompanied children, if caught by the Border Patrol, would have a shot at being able to stay in the United States—even though somebody fleeing criminal gangs does not really fit the technical definition of refugee.

We Americans remember how in 1939 our government turned away ships carrying Jewish refugees because of our immigration restrictions, and how many of these Jewish people were later killed by the Nazis.  We will have further cause for shame if we turn away children who wind up being killed or forced into prostitution and crime.


Why so many child refugees on the border?

July 21, 2014

I try to imagine myself at age 13 or 14, leaving home by myself, jumping on freight cars for thousands of miles, and entering a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, as thousands of children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are doing.

I try to imagine the desperate situation that would make my parents think that this was the best option.


Child migrants, Ixtpec, Mexico (photo CIPA Americas program)

Why then would they do it?  Why would their parents tolerate it?  One reason is that these three countries have become hellholes of violent crime and that they are at greater risk if they stay where they are.   The other is a U.S. law, which will be the subject of another post.

Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate.  Reporters who’ve interviewed Honduran families tell of young girls who fear being raped and becoming sex slaves of criminal gangs, of boys who fear being murdered if they don’t join the gangs.

Sonia Nazario, author of a book, Enrique’s Journey, about Honduran child refugees, described the situation in an interview with National Public Radio.

The people [drug cartels] are targeting as their foot soldiers are children. Christian [an 11-year-old Honduran boy] told me about going to school, his elementary school, and how the narcos were pressuring him to use marijuana and crack at 11 years old.

And then they threatened to beat him up if he didn’t use that and work with them.  And he knew what was coming next.  These children are recruited to work as lookouts, to rob people, to extort people, and then, ultimately, to become hit men for the narcos.

In many schools, the teachers have to pay a war tax to be able to teach.  Students have to pay rent to be able to go to school.  In this elementary school — Christian’s elementary school — a 12-year-old would show up, who is part of the narco-cartels, and he would say, “I want these three 10-year-olds to help me distribute crack today.”

And the teacher who questioned him had a pistol put to her head.  So, in many of these schools, they are controlled de facto by the narco-cartels.”

via What Honduran Children Are Fleeing | Here & Now.

Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are among the world’s top five countries in homicide rates.

I think that one reason for this is that Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have been ruled by dictatorships that have waged war against their own people, supported by the CIA and the U.S. military in the name of fighting Communism.

I think the result of all this violence has been the destruction of the structure of society and the elimination of all sources of authority except men with guns—the military and the drug lords.   Or so it seems to me, based on admittedly limited reading.

Nicaragua, under the pro-Communist Sandinista regime and its successors, managed to avoid this.  Nicaragua’s murder rate is less than 1/10th that of Honduras and about 1/3 that of Mexico. But I admit that it’s complicated, and there is no single reason that explains everything.

Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are battlefields of the drug war, but, sadly, ending the drug war won’t make the narco gangs go away, any more than ending alcohol prohibition in the United States made organized crime go away in this country.  I don’t have a good answer to any of this.   All I know is that teenage Central American boys and girls are not to blame for the world they find themselves in.


What’s wrong with the Republicans

July 21, 2014

A blogger named Brandon Finnigan had a thought:  What if the Republican Party broke with Wall Street and K-street and became the party that opposed corporate bailouts and subsidies?

Such a policy would be popular.  The rank and file of both political parties want to see the too-big-to-fail banks broken up and financial criminals prosecuted [1].   I, for one, would be pleased to see the Republican Party become the advocate for the property-owning middle class, just as I would be pleased to see the Democratic Party become the advocate for wage earners.

RepublicanpartylogoBut there are structural reasons why both parties go against the wishes and the interests of their core supporters.   One is the structure of campaign finance, which means that, ordinarily, no candidate can run for office who is not acceptable to the richest campaign contributors.

Political scientist Thomas Ferguson says that voters may decide the elections, but they only get to choose between candidates that have been screened by the monied interests.  If this is an exaggeration, it is a small one.  Recent decisions by the Republican-dominated Supreme Court make this even worse than it has been.

Along with this is that government regulators and congressional representatives who serve the corporate interests well are guaranteed good corporate jobs when they leave public service.

Both parties are subject to the need to please campaign contributors and to the attraction of well-paid post-political jobs.  But the Republicans have a special problem.

Many Republicans sincerely believe that there is something admirable, in and of itself, about getting rich, no matter how the riches were acquired.  And they also believe that there is something contemptible, in and of itself, about being poor, no matter what the reason for poverty.  They agree with Mitt Romney that 47 percent of Americans are parasites, even when they are among the 47 percent themselves.

Democrats who serve corporate interests have to pretend to be something they aren’t.  This isn’t true of Republicans, or at least much less true.  John McCain, Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz, unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, are what they seem to be.

A return by the Republican Party to the principles of Theodore Roosevelt or even Dwight Eisenhower would be a good thing.   Making it happen is easier said than done.


What’s wrong with the Democrats

July 21, 2014

If you think of Barack Obama as a liberal, he is a political failure.  If you think of him as a conservative, he is a political genius.

He told a group of Wall Street bankers early in his administration that he was the only thing standing between them and the mob with pitchforks.  And he in fact has succeeded in protecting them from angry bi-partisan public opinion.

Newsweek - Obama - The Democrats ReaganNo Republican president would have dared, as President Obama has done, to proposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare in return for modest tax increases and a balanced budget.  Yet he gets a pass on this, because of his political skills and because right-wing Republicans attack him for all the wrong reasons.

Obama gets the votes of African-Americans even though he continues a war on drugs that sends millions of poor young black men to prison for trivial reason, and makes them legitimate targets for racial discrimination.  He gets the votes of pro-immigration Hispanic voters even though he is deporting unauthorized migrants in record numbers.  It takes great political skill to do this.

Recently he suggested privatization of U.S. roads and bridges inasmuch as Congress and state governments decline to appropriate the necessary money for their upkeep.  He cited Ohio’s sale of the Ohio Turnpike as a good example.   This is something that, if Barry Goldwater had proposed it 50 years ago, would have been considered an example of right-wing extremism.


What I fear more than I fear death

July 20, 2014

Leading causes of death in the United States

Something that frightens me much more than death is the prospect of having my body outlive my mind.  Death is, literally, nothing.  What scares me is the prospect of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or any other condition where my physical body is kept alive but only disconnected and chaotic fragments of my mind remain.  I would much rather have a sudden fatal heart attack while shoveling snow one winter morning.


The Next Plague: Alzheimer’s by Maggie Mahar for Health Beat.

How Doctors Stymie the Wishes of the Elderly by Maggie Mahar for Health Beat (via Naked Capitalism).

Longevity and Long-Term Care: the Medical Crisis of the 21st Century by Maggie Mahar for Health Beat.

Our unrealistic views of death, through a doctor’s eyes by Craig Bowron for the Washington Post.  [Added 7/21/14.  Hat tip to Rod Dreher]

Why I wouldn’t want to live forever

July 20, 2014

[This is the draft of a lay sermon given at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., on July 20, 2014]

I remember lying in a hospital bed some 20 years ago after having had a pre-cancerous lobe of my right lung removed.  I got to thinking that this body part was not going to regenerate and that, in fact, the warranty had expired on many of my body parts.

Lying there in the bed, I began to fantasize about what it would be like if this wasn’t so—if I didn’t have to grow old and die, if I could live indefinitely, in vigorous physical and mental health, like  Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long or Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint Germain.

life's.clockI imagined having infinite time to do everything I ever had dreamed of doing.  I could read every book I ever wanted to read.  I could study every subject I was ever interested in, and could master every skill I lacked.  I could travel and see every sight I ever wanted to see.  There would be nothing I could not do—that is, if I were capable of doing it and willing to do the work.

I tried to imagine my future life for 50 or 100 or 200 years into the future and, to my surprise, I couldn’t imagine a future that I would like.

 There are only two things I know with certainty about the future.  One is that it will not be like the present.  The other is that I can’t predict it.  I am amazed at the transformations that have taken place during my lifetime.  None of the changes that I expected in my youth have come about, but things that I took for granted have been utterly transformed.  Sometimes it seems to me that the only things that haven’t changed are the structures of economic and political power.

The future brings the challenge of having to adapt to change.  Learning new things is delightful when it is voluntary.  I delight in things new technology makes possible—my blog, for example.  At the same time I am happy to be old and retired, and to be in a position in which I don’t have to master new knowledge and skills that I’m not interested in.

The worst thing about living forever would be that I would leave my friends behind.  If you live long enough—I haven’t yet lived to that point myself—you see all your contemporaries disappear, one by one.  I have made newer and younger friends, but to me, at age 77, a “young” friend is someone in their 40s or 50s.  I don’t really share the experience and thinking of the new generation.

If I lived long enough, not only everyone that I loved and cared about were gone, but everything that I loved and cared about would be no more.

The world during my lifetime has changed in many ways that I don’t understand and can’t relate to, from the music to the technology to the manners and morals. What would it be like in 50 or 100 or 200 years from now?  I would be as alienated as someone from the 18th or 19th century in the world today.

I am curious to know the future.  The far future would be an interesting place to visit.  But I’m not sure I would want to live there.

What would be the point of living so long if I lived it as a grouchy old man? I already find myself talking much too much about how different things are today from the way they used to be.