Archive for September, 2017

The quest for perfection

September 30, 2017

Source: Incidental Comics.

The South as a culture of honor

September 29, 2017

I’ve been reading and thinking about the differences among American regional cultures, and especially the difference between the culture or cultures of the South and the culture of the New England Yankees.

I believe that one reason for the clash is that the South is predominantly a culture of honor and the Yankee culture is predominantly a culture of virtue.

David Blight

The other day my e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a link to the text of a lecture by David Blight, a history professor at Yale, that is an excellent discussion of this.   I link to it today.

A culture of honor teaches you to behave in a way that people are forced to respect you.   A culture of virtue teaches you to follow moral rules no matter what people think.

These are not polar opposites.  An honorable person and a virtuous person will do the same things most of the time.   But a person of honor will not tolerate an insult or a slight that a person of virtue might shrug off.   A person of honor will usually put loyalty to kindred over loyalty to principle.

When I write of the culture of the South, I mean specifically the white people of the South.  But I think the African-American culture is, in its own way, also a culture of honor.


Bernie Sanders’ baby steps toward peace

September 27, 2017

On foreign policy, Democrats in Congress fall into two broad categories.   There is a small group that is anti-war under Republican administrations and pro-war under Democratic administrations.   There is a larger group that is consistently bipartisan and pro-war.

Bernie Sanders was relatively silent on foreign policy during the 2016 election campaign.   He was less militaristic than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but did not question the fundamental assumptions behind U.S. global military intervention.

Recently he made a foreign policy speech and gave an interview to The Intercept criticizing some bad aspects of American foreign policy.

Most importantly, he questioned the long-standing U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, which goes back to Henry Kissinger and the Nixon and Ford administrations.   Kissinger made a deal in which the U.S. would support and protect Saudi Arabia militarily in return for the Saudis assuring the U.S. of an oil supply and recycling its oil profits into purchases of arms made by U.S. companies.

This long-standing policy continues in the form of U.S. support for the Saudi government’s struggle with its rival, Iran, to be the dominant power in the Middle East.

Sanders said he does not regard Saudi Arabia as an ally—in contrast to President Trump, whose praise for Saudi Arabia contrasts with his hostility toward European democratic allies.

He correctly pointed out that the Saudis support jihadist terrorists and the radical jihadist ideology and he opposed U.S. support for the murderous Saudi attack on Yemen.

In contrast, Sanders supports the agreement with negotiated by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, in which Iran agreed to stop its uranium enrichment program  in return for listing of international sanctions.

Mostly, though, Sanders criticized Trump administration policies mainly on procedural grounds, much like Al Gore’s and John Kerry’s criticism of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.   The criticism is less of what is being done as the way it is being done.


Can Trump be removed via the 25th Amendment?

September 26, 2017

The Constitution provides another way besides impeachment to get rid of a sitting President.   This is a determination by the Cabinet and Congress under the 25th Amendment that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.

I wrote a number of times during the election campaign that I do not think Donald Trump is intellectually, temperamentally or morally fit to be President of the United States.

His behavior is growing more erratic by the day.   Could this be this grounds for removing him, as the officers of the Caine removed Captain Queeg in the novel and movie The Caine Mutiny?

The process allows a President to declare himself unable to discharge his office and to delegate his power to his Vice President.   It also allows the Vice President, with the support of the Cabinet, to declare the President unable to serve.

I think the kind of situation they had in mind was President Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955 and his stroke in 1957.

Normally the President would resume the duties of his office when he declared himself able to do so.

But the Vice President and Cabinet could ask Congress to overrule him.

Congress would have 21 days to bar the President from resuming his powers.

This would require a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote a superb article on the subject—The Madness of Donald Trump.

It covered both how deranged President Trump seems to be now and the legal obstacles to applying the 25th Amendment to overthrow him.

In fact, the procedure specifically can’t be about politics.  John Feerick, a Fordham law professor who helped work on the original bill with senators such as Indiana’s Birch Bayh and authored a book titled The 25th Amendment, goes out of his way to point out the many things that do not qualify as “inability” under this law.  The list reads like Trump’s résumé.

The debates in Congress about the amendment, Feerick writes, make clear that “inability” does not cover “policy and political differences, unpopularity, poor judgment, incompetence, laziness or impeachable conduct.”  When asked about the possibility of invoking the amendment today, Feerick is wary.  “It’s a very high bar that has to be satisfied,” he says. “You’re dealing with a president elected for four years.”

Source: Matt Taibbi  – Rolling Stone

Even if deemed unable to serve, Trump would still be President.   No doubt he would have many choice words about how Vice-President Mike Pence administered the office.


Trump was once very astute: What happened?

September 26, 2017

The young Donald Trump, whatever you think of his ethics, was an astute operator.   He had the benefit of his father’s millions and political connections, but he used them effectively and became an important operator in the New York City real estate market.   When he chose, he was capable of great charm and persuasiveness.

He was able to hold his own when he worked with organized crime figures and corrupt politicians.   Whatever you think of his ethics, he knew what he was doing.

He appeared from time to time as a guest on TV talk shows, on which he expressed himself intelligibly, often in complete grammatical sentences.

That Donald Trump was very different from the Donald Trump of today—very different in terms of intelligence, I mean, not different morally.

He won election as President by being able to articulate the grievances of a segment of the American public who felt themselves ignored, but since he took office, his administration has gone through a continuing series of crises, almost all of them of his own making.

His staff worry about what he is going to say overnight on his Twitter account.   He seems more interested in feuding with journalists and celebrities than in advancing a program.

I have a theory as to why this might be so, which I can’t prove and which you probably will find far-fetched.

My theory is that a person whose aim in  life is to gratify their desires and appetites—for pleasure, for sex, for luxury, for acclaim, for taking revenge—and who has no purpose beyond that will lose the ability to think about anything else..

The end point is something like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings stories or the hungry ghosts of Buddhist cosmology—a creature in which there is no personality left, just the desires and appetites.

Has Trump committed impeachable offenses?

September 25, 2017

Impeachable offenses, according to Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, are “treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors”.

I happen to believe that President Trump is unpatriotic and dishonest, but I’m not convinced that he has committed an impeachable offense..

What Are Impeachable Offenses? by Noah Feldman and Jacob Weisberg in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, a good review of the law on the topic.

Feldman and Weisberg point out that, back in 1789, a “high” crime did not necessarily mean an extra-serious crime.   A “high” crime was a crime committed by a public official in the performance of their duties.

A crime committed by a President before taking office, even a very serious one, is not an impeachable offense unless it is, in some way, connected with actions while in office.

So even if it could be proved that Russian individuals or intelligence agencies tried to help Trump during the election, that would not necessarily be an impeachable offense.

An impeachable offense would be Trump, once in office, using the power of the Presidency to pay the Russians back for their help.

It also seems to me that a quid pro quo would be almost impossible to prove.

Take Hillary Clinton’s six-figure speaking fees for speaking to Goldman Sachs officers.  Was this bribery?   She challenged anyone to prove that she changed a single vote or made a single decision in return for these fees, and, of course, nobody could.

This was not bribery.   It is simply that the financiers approved of Clinton and her record.

Vladimir Putin made no secret of the fact that he approved of candidate Donald Trump’s hope for better relations between the United States and Russia if Trump were elected.

Maybe he helped Trump by means of leaking hacked e-mails or propagandizing for Trump on social media.   Maybe not.

But even if he did, that is a long way from bribery, treason or other high crimes and misdemeanors.  It is just that he felt good about Trump and his promises.

By the way, treason under Article III of the Constitution is fighting for the enemy or giving aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war.  An act of treason must be an overt act that is witnessed by two people, or is admitted in open court.

The United States has not declared war on Russia, so being friendly to Russia is no more treasonable that being friendly to Saudi Arabia, Israel, China or any other foreign country.


Jeff Spevak’s farewell

September 25, 2017

Last week the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle, which is my local newspaper and former employer, laid off Jeff Spevak, its arts and entertainment reporter.  Here’s what he had to say about it.


by Jeff Spevak

Last week I had caught my bus for the usual ride downtown and found a seat next to another fellow. He looked at me.  “Hey,” he said. “You’re the guy. The newspaper guy.”

“Yeah,” I said.

A few days ago I was watching Paterson, a beautifully subtle film about a bus driver who writes poetry. After a conversation about William Carlos Williams, a Japanese tourist who was sharing a park bench with the bus-driving poet asked him if he wrote poetry.

“No,” the bus driver said.

Twelve hours later, the connection between these two scenes, one from a movie, one from my life, fell into place.  In Paterson, the bus-driving poet’s dog had shredded his notebook filled with poems.  How can you be a poet when you have no poems?  So no, he answered honestly, he was not a poet.

It was the same thing when I got called into the Democrat and Chronicle Human Resources office on Tuesday.  “We’re eliminating your position,” the editor said.

So now my answer to the guy on the bus will be, “No, I’m not the newspaper guy.”

Two characters, a New Jersey bus driver and a newspaper arts and entertainment writer, who no longer knew who they were.

It’s a dangerous thing to tie your identity to your job. I’m not sure where the tipping point came, but somewhere during my 27 years at the Democrat and Chronicle I could no longer tell the difference between my personal life and my professional life.  Maybe it was the day at the jazz festival when a guy asked me for my autograph.  I looked at him and said, “Are you joking?”

The editor was wrong when she told me they were eliminating my position.  Someone else will have to write the long Sunday feature stories about the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra trumpet player whose wife didn’t get proper treatment for breast cancer and died, because the cult-like church they belonged to believed God heals all.  Someone else will have to interview Brian Wilson, carefully navigating his drug-ravaged brain to discover the genius within.  Another writer will have to find the words to describe the giant spermatozoa floating over the heads of 10,000 people last weekend at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival.

The newspaper wasn’t eliminating my position. It was eliminating me. That’s just the language corporations use so they don’t have to deal with the humanity in the situation.

I believe I said, “I’ll go get my shit and leave.”  My language might not have been quite that coarse, I can’t remember now.  But that’s what I was thinking.

As my fellow newsroom employees gathered around my desk for the uncomfortable condolences and hugs, I couldn’t find the words to explain how I felt.  Which was… I felt like nothing. I’ve always taken my job so seriously.  Now that I didn’t have the job any longer, it was like I didn’t care.  I hear 27 years of being rode hard and put away wet does that to a horse.

If they live that long.

I wonder what parts of me have gone missing, and which ones will return. A few months ago, I was told I couldn’t use social media for political comment, and I was not allowed to appear at public rallies; not as a speaker or anything official, I just couldn’t be there to see for myself what was going on.

As a condition of employment, I had to be someone other than who I am.

Big companies guard their images closely, and I can’t blame them for that. There are millions in CEO salaries to protect, shareholders must be rewarded for their investment. Yet news organizations use social media for political comment, and they are often observed at public rallies, if only to report what’s going on.

They aggressively protect their First Amendment right to do so. As Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people too, my friend.”

More so, I think.

My final act before walking out the offices of the Democrat and Chronicle for the last time was to go on Facebook.  I typed:

Myself and two of my newsroom colleagues just got laid off at the Democrat and Chronicle. After 27 years here, I feel… relief.


Fall foliage in New York’s Central Park

September 23, 2017

These time-lapse photos were taken by Jamie Scott. over a period of six months in Central Park in New York City.  He visited 15 locations, two days a week, just after sunrise, from August, 2011, through January, 2012.   The music is by Lower Dens.  I found this video on the Colossal website.

Repealing and replacing Obamacare

September 22, 2017

Two Democrats—Senator Bernie Sanders [1] of Vermont and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan—have proposed bills to do something that President Donald Trump promised to do, but can’t and won’t do.

That is, they would repeal and replace Obamacare with something better.

I applaud what they’re doing, and I think Sanders deserves credit for making universal health care politically possible.

Tom Price

I don’t think Sanders or Conyers can get their bills through Congress at the present time, and I think President Trump would veto them if they did.

That’s just as well.   Implementation of both programs would require the cooperation of Tom Price, the current Secretary of Health and Human Services.   He is an opponent of traditional Medicare, which he would replace with a voucher system, and favors cutbacks in Medicaid.

But under both the Sanders and Conyers bills, he would appoint the administrators of the new program, and, under the Sanders bill,

The Secretary is … directed to develop policies, procedures, guidelines, and requirements related to eligibility, enrollment, benefits, provider participation standards and qualifications, levels of funding, provider payment rates, medical necessity standards, planning for capital expenditures and health professional education, and regional planning mechanisms.

Source: Health Affairs Blog

I’m pretty sure that neither Sanders nor Conyers intends to give Secretary Price the power to sabotage and discredit their plans.   Their proposals are talking points to rally support for universal health care and encourage thinking about how to make their bills better.


President Trump and his new axis of evil

September 20, 2017

President Donald Trump said this to say in his address to the United Nations yesterday—

We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government.  But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.

He went on to say—

Rogue regimes represented in this body not only support terrorists but threaten other nations and their own people with the most destructive weapons known to humanity.

I think these would be excellent points, if only he had applied them to the United States as well as the rest of the world.

He called for an intensification of economic and diplomatic warfare against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, his new axis of evil.

How is this in the interest of the American people?  How is this consistent with respecting national sovereignty?   Are not North Korea, Iran and Venezuela sovereign nations?

The United States has paid radical jihadist terrorists to overthrow the government of Libya and is attempting to use them to overthrow the government of Syria—two sovereign states that never have threatened the United States.   The result has been to reduce these two countries to chaos and misery, as the cost of thousands of innocent lives.

President Trump in that very speech threatened another nation with the most destructive weapons known to humanity—

The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.

He accused the North Korean government of starving and torturing its own people, and various other crimes, which were real though not necessarily current.  But then he threatened an even worse atrocity.

To be fair, it is not clear whether he is threatening North Korea with attack merely if it fails to disarm or whether he is threatening retaliation in the event of an attack, which is different.

This ambiguity may be deliberate on President Trump’s part; he may think keeping others guessing is a good negotiating strategy.   Where nuclear weapons are concerned, this is dangerous.  It may lead the other person to think he has nothing to lose by launching an attack.


North Korea: totalitarianism in action

September 19, 2017

When I was young, I was haunted by the specter of totalitarianism—the idea of an all-powerful state that not only could regulate its subjects’ every action, but get inside their minds and convince them this was normal.

As a college student, I read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s 1984 and most of his essays.

I thought the future held three great perils: (1) the collapse of civilization due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion, (2) the destruction of civilization through nuclear war and (3) the triumph of totalitarianism, as manifested in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China.

None of these fears came true, although the first two are still very much with us.   As for totalitarianism, there are many cruel and bloody governments in the world, but they are not, in the strict definition of the word, totalitarian.   Totalitarianism exists in only one place—North Korea—where it has endured for 70 years.

I got an inside view of North Korea by reading WITHOUT YOU THERE IS NO US: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim.   She is an American of Korean heritage who taught English for six months in 2011 at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUSH).

The title of the book is taken from an anthem the students sang at different times each day.    The “you” was Kim Jong-il, then the ruler of North Korea, and the “us” is everyone else in North Korea.

Suki Kim said the whole idea of individual thinking was alien to her students.   For example, they found it incredibly difficult to write a five-paragraph essay, because this involved stating an argument and then presenting evidence in support of the argument.   What they were accustomed to writing was unstructured praise of their country, their leaders and the official Juche ideology.

PUSH was founded and financed by evangelical Christians, many of Korean extraction, who agreed to build and staff a university at no cost to the North Korean government, and to refrain from proselytizing.   Presumably their hope was that they could subtly plant the seeds of Christianity and that they would be on the scene when and if North Korea ever granted religious freedom.


Wit and wisdom on church signs

September 16, 2017

These photos of church signs were collected on the Bored Panda website.


Uzbekistan’s cotton picked by forced labor

September 15, 2017

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia and a crossroads of China’s so-called New Silk Roads—railroads and pipelines uniting the heartland of Asia and Europe.

This Human Rights Watch documentary shows how the Uzbek government uses forced labor and child labor in its cotton fields.

Students, teachers, medical workers, other government employees, private sector employees and sometimes children were ordered into the fields to harvest cotton in 2015 and 2016, HRW reported; they also were forced to plant cotton and weed fields early in 2016.

The World Bank has invested $500 million in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry.   Supposedly it should withdraw the money if Uzbekistan uses child labor or forced labor, but HRW says this is not enforced.

An African immigrant view of America

September 14, 2017

The polite term for the black American citizens who used to be called Negroes is “African-American.”   This term is intended to put them on a par with white ethnic groups, such as Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans.

However “African-Americans,” unlike white ethnics, are not immigrants, but the descendants of slaves, whose ancestors were all brought to this country before the Civil War, and most before the Revolution.

The USA now has a significant African immigrant population, who are the product of a different history than old-stock black Americans.   But the term “African-American” doesn’t really apply either, because it obscures the fact that Africa is not all one country.   African nations have national characters as distinct as Italy or Poland.

Recently I got a glimpse of the African immigrant experience by reading  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah (2013).

“Americanah” is a Nigerian slang word for someone who has lived so long in the United States that they no longer fit into life in Nigeria.

Adichie’s heroine, Ifemelu, grows up in Nigeria, immigrates to the United States as a young woman and, after initial hardships, achieves success and fame.  But, after 13 years, decides to return to her native land.

Ifemelu, like her creator, is intelligent and outspoken, with many shrewd observations about American culture and racial attitudes.   I don’t find her likeable; that’s an observation, not a criticism.

The early chapters show the frustrations of Ifemelu and her educated, middle-class family, in life under the repressive Nigerian dictatorship.   She and her fiance, Obinze, who is handsome, sensitive and good in bed, dream of the United States as the big time where real things are happening—the way some small-town Americans in Kansas or Nebraska may think of New York and Los Angeles.

Ifemelu gets a scholarship to study at an American university, but quickly finds that the USA is not the paradise she imagined.

Her family taught her certain standards of good housekeeping, good grooming, good manners and good grammar, and she is taken aback by the slovenliness, permissiveness and vulgarity of the many Americans whose attitudes are formed by the mass entertainment and advertising media.

She has to struggle to earn a living and is sexually abused by a white employer.   This is so traumatic that she feels unable to keep in touch with Obinze.

This clears the way for her to begin a love affair with Curt, a handsome rich white jet-setter, who is good in bed.   Curt gets her a lucrative job in public relations, and her financial worries end.

Eventually she tires both of Curt and the PR job.   She starts a blog about racial attitudes in America, which is not only an overnight success, but an unexpected source of income that guarantees her financial independence.   She begins a love affair with Blaine, a handsome black intellectual idealist, who is good in bed.

Blaine, a Yale professor, spends time talking to an uneducated black security guard.  Ifemelu can’t bring herself to like him.   She and Blaine break up temporarily when the security guard is unjustly arrested, Blaine organizes a protest demonstration and she can’t be bothered to take.


How strong is North Korea?

September 11, 2017

North Korea has the world’s fourth largest army.   It has nearly 1.2 million troops under arms, slightly less than the USA and behind India and China.

South Korea has about 655,000 active duty troops, more than Britain, France and Germany combined.  A war between North and South Korea would be catastrophic, even if the USA, China and Russia were not involved.

Click to enlarge

Some observers claim that South Korea is the stronger of the two, because, they say, North Korean troops are malnourished and South Korean troops are better trained and have better equipment.   I wouldn’t know.


The shadow of the Korean War

September 11, 2017

Photo via The Intercept

We Americans remember and memorialize the Vietnam Conflict, and tend to forget the equally savage and lethal Korean Conflict.   I’m not sure why that is—maybe because the Vietnam fighting was stretched out over more years, maybe because Vietnam was the experience of the Baby Boom generation.

Be that as it may, the Korean War is not forgotten in Korea, and especially not in North Korea.   The North Koreans remember that they have endured the worst the United States and its allies could throw at them, short of attacks with nuclear weapons.   I think that if you remember this, it goes a long way to explaining why Kim Jong-un defies the United States.

For the record, it was the North Koreans, and not the Americans or their South Korean allies, who started the war in June 1950, when they crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded the south. Nevertheless, “What hardly any Americans know or remember,” University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings writes in his book The Korean War: A History, “is that we carpet-bombed the north for three years with next to no concern for civilian casualties.”

How many Americans, for example, are aware of the fact that U.S. planes dropped on the Korean peninsula more bombs — 635,000 tons — and napalm — 32,557 tons — than during the entire Pacific campaign against the Japanese during World War II?

How many Americans know that “over a period of three years or so,” to quote Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, “we killed off … 20 percent of the population”?

Twenty.  Percent.  For a point of comparison, the Nazis exterminated 20 percent of Poland’s pre-World War II population. According to LeMay, “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea.”

Every. Town.  More than 3 million civilians are believed to have been killed in the fighting, the vast majority of them in the north.

Source: The Intercept.

The total population of Korea in 1950 was slightly over 20 million, with 9 million in North Korea.


Thomas Frank on the Democrats’ future

September 11, 2017

Scroll down for links to six recent Thomas Frank interviews on the Real News Network

Thomas Frank, who understands American politics as well or better than anyone else I know of, is giving a series of interviews on the state of the Democratic Party to the Real News Network.   I link to them below.

Most of my friends are liberal Democrats, like me, and they can’t understand why a working person would go against their own interests by supporting Donald Trump.  But then they themselves go against their own interests by supporting Hillary Clinton.

The problem is not Clinton as an individual.   As an individual, she is much more qualified to hold public office than Trump.

The problem is that the Democratic Party has come to depend on wealthy donors to finance its campaigns and it looks to well-to-do salaried professionals as its core voters.   Working people are coming to realize that the Democratic Party does not represent them.

It is not that large numbers working people are turning to Donald Trump.   The GOP is even worse than the Democrats.  It is that increasing numbers of working people—black, white and brown—see no point in voting for either party.


Would President Al Gore have invaded Iraq?

September 11, 2017

Click to enlarge

Almost all of my liberal Democratic friends think the United States would have avoided the Iraq War if Al Gore had been elected President in 2000.   I’m not certain that is so.

Gore voted in favor of the 1991 authorization to use military force in Iraq.   Bill Clinton chose him as vice president partly because he had a reputation as a war hawk and had served honorably in Vietnam.   Gore chose another war hawk, Joe Lieberman, to be his running mate.

He and John Kerry criticized George W. Bush not on the grounds that the war was wrong, but that the war effort was being bungled.   The timing was wrong, more effort should have been made to get UN support, more should have been done to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

Later on there was an argument that the U.S. should have focused more on Afghanistan rather than Iraq, or Afghanistan first and Iraq later.

But the argument for invading so-called rogue states was not questioned.  I don’t criticize them so much for that because that is what I, too, thought at the time.   I think that I, unlike them, have learned better now.


The US has tried negotiating with North Korea

September 10, 2017

The negotiations room at Panmunjom

North Korea is ruled by a murderous totalitarian government that has committed acts of terrorism.   But that government has been willing to make arms agreements with the United States in the past, and it is the U.S. government that has broken these agreements.

 The first agreement was the 1953 Armistice that ended the Korean Conflict.   Under this agreement, the two sides agreed to stop fighting, pull back, respect and demilitarized zone and not introduce any new weapons into the Korean peninsula, pending signing of a peace treaty.

That is, each side could replace weapons, rifle for rifle and tank for tank, but they couldn’t increase the total number of weapons or introduce new weapons.   The U.S. renounced that part of the treaty in 1958 by bringing atomic weapons to South Korea.

Now, you can make the argument that this action was necessary to preserve the balance of power.   And later on, the North Koreans were discovered to have dug tunnels under the DMZ for the purpose of sending spies and agents into South Korea.   But still: It was the United States, not North Korea, that broke the terms of the Armistice.

Sometime in the 1980s, North Korea began work on a nuclear bomb.  In 1994,  President Bill Clinton sent ex-President Jimmy Carter to North Korea, where he persuaded the North Korean government to shut down its plutonium test reactor and put it under the control of international inspectors.   In return, the North Koreans got shipments of oil for its power grid and two light water reactors built by an international consortium.   All this was supposed to lead to normal relations between the two countries—which didn’t happen.

In 2002, President George W. Bush canceled the agreement.   His administration claimed the North Koreans  were cheating, by working on a uranium bomb.   The evidence for this is unclear, and the North Koreans claimed that the U.S. hadn’t fulfilled its part of the agreement.

Be that as it may, the North Koreans sent the inspectors home and resumed their work on a plutonium bomb.   By 2007, they exploded their first nuclear device.   Ending the agreement accomplished nothing.

The Bush administration resumed negotiations and arrived at a new tentative agreement to freeze nuclear weapons development at the new level.   But President Barack Obama didn’t follow through.   Maybe he thought that he didn’t have enough political capital to try to make peace with Iran, Cuba and North Korea, too.

Instead the U.S. government tried to pressure North Korea by means of economic sanctions.   North Korea responded by doubling down on its nuclear weapons program.

Now President Donald Trump threatens “fire and fury”.   The government of North Korea says that it will never give up its nuclear weapons so long as the United States is hostile and threatens North Korea with its own nuclear weapons.   Which is a way of saying it might give up its nuclear weapons if the U.S. was genuinely willing to make peace.


Thomas Frank on Clinton’s attack on Sanders

September 9, 2017

Paul Jay of the Real News Network did a good interview with Thomas Frank, one of my three or four favorite political writers, on why Hillary Clinton is attacking Bernie Sanders at this late date.   The interview starts about five minutes into the video.

Frank says Clinton has no just reason to hate Sanders personally.   He conducted a relatively gentlemanly primary election campaign, and supported her loyally during the general election.   She should be grateful that he decided to run within the Democratic Party in the first place, and not as a third-party candidate, like Ralph Nader in 2000.

But what Sanders represents, which is the pro-labor New Deal tradition of the Democratic Party, is deeply threatening to the power of the corporate wing of the party, which is what Clinton and her husband have represented through their political careers.

I think the reason the Democratic Party has done so little to fight voter disenfranchisement and to register voters is that disenfranchised and unregistered voters are mainly in demographic groups that corporate Democrats don’t care about.

They would rather seek the votes of culturally liberal suburban Republicans, whose votes, as Frank noted in the interview, Clinton actually won in the 2016 election.

The argument of the corporate Democrats is that (1) the Republican leaders are so reactionary and dangerous that nothing else matters except defeating them, (2) this can’t be done without matching the Republicans dollar for dollar and so (3) Democrats can’t afford to advocate policies contrary to the interests of their big-money contributors.

This is why they found that Sanders campaign so threatening, Frank said.   Sanders showed it was possible to conduct a political campaign based on small donations.   As far as that goes, Clinton outspent Trump two to one, and she still lost.

Sanders and Clinton are both getting on in years, and I don’t think either has a future as a national political candidate.  But I think there will be a long struggle between Sanders and Clinton factions under different names.   The struggle will be bitter because the stakes are high—whether the U.S. government will be accountable to the common people or to a corporate and political elite.


Why threatening Kim Jong-un is futile

September 7, 2017

Kim Jong-un tells the people of North Korea that they live in the most advanced and admired nation in the world, but that they are under threat by the United States.

Threatening North Korea reinforces the message that they have to unify behind their Supreme Leader.

Isolating North Korea helps shut out the knowledge that not everybody in the world is as regimented and poor as they area.

Recent history shows Kim that there is no safety in renouncing nuclear weapons.  Saddam Hussein renounced nuclear weapons,   Muammar Qaddafi renounced nuclear weapons.   That didn’t save them from being killed like animals following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and proxy invasion of Libya.

Kim Jong-un surely knows that a nuclear attack on the United States would be suicidal.   His nuclear weapons tests and missile demonstrations make sense as an attempt to deter attack.   Bear in mind that the United States  conducts military exercises in South Korea as if rehearsing for an attack on North Kora.

The real danger is if Kim Jong-un comes to believe that his country is going to be attacked, and that he has nothing to lose by firing nuclear missiles (assuming he actually has nuclear missiles).


On the ground and in the air, two laws of war

September 7, 2017

Ben Mauk wrote a good article for Granta on how bombing from the air has changed the law of war.

There is a law of ground warfare, which treats targeting of civilians as terrorism, and a law of air warfare, which treats killing of civilians at worst as a purpose and at best as unavoidable collateral damage.

The Nanking Massacre of 1937 is considered one of history’s greatest atrocities.  As many as 200,000 or 300,000 Chinese civilians were bayoneted or machine-gunned by Japanese troops.

An estimated 100,000 Japanese civilians died in a single fire-bombing raid on Tokyo in 1945, which was one of many.   But, aside from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. bombing of Japan is not widely considered to be a war crime.   One you decide on a bombing strategy, civilian deaths are inevitable.

General William T. Sherman’s 1864 march through Georgia during the Civil War was regarded at the time as an atrocity.   He ordered the indiscriminate destruction of civilian property in order to break the Confederacy’s means and will to resist.   But he only destroyed property.  He didn’t massacre civilians.

Now imagine a Sherman not on horseback, but in the cockpit of an aircraft.   How could he have carried out his policy without large-scale killing of civilians?


Renewable energy’s mismatch with the grid

September 4, 2017

Falling cost of photovoltaic cells. Chart via QIC.

The existing U.S. electrical grid can’t handle too much solar and wind energy.   They’re too variable.   They can’t be counted on when they’re needed most.

Until this changes, electric utilities will continue to rely on their aging fossil fuel and nuclear power plants as certain sources of power.

The problem, as Gretchen Bakke describes it in The Grid: the Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, is in the unique nature of electricity as a commodity.   It is the only commodity that has to be used as soon as it is produced.

The historic economic problem of electric power utilities is that they have to be able to supply as much electric power as their customers need at any point in time, but that most of the time this capacity goes unused.   This is especially acute in the USA, Bakke wrote, because we Americans insist on being able to use as much electricity as we want, any time we want it.

The Public Utility Regulatory Power Act – PURPA – requires electric utilities to buy renewable energy at a price equal to their cost of making non-renewable energy.    Now wind and solar electricity are reaching the point in which they’re competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Bakke reported that 7 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from renewables.   The percentage is bound to increase.   Denmark reportedly gets 40 percent of its energy just from wind.

The problem is that wind and solar power are not always available when and where they’re needed.  The windiest and sunniest parts of the North American continent are not necessarily where the population is concentrated.   And the windiest and sunniest times of day are not necessarily when energy is most needed.

So some utilities are faced with the problem of insufficient solar and wind energy during some hours of the day, and so much solar and wind energy at other times that managers have to scramble to prevent the grid from being fried.

Solar power, by definition, is only available during the daytime.   But electric power use peaks in the early afternoon.   Fossil fuel and nuclear energy, on the other hand, can be turned on at any time of the day.   Until this mismatch is eliminated, electric utilities can’t stop using non-renewable coal, oil, natural gas or uranium.


Working at Kodak then and Apple now

September 4, 2017

Corporate headquarters of Apple Computer and Eastman Kodak

Neil Irwin of the New York Times wrote a good article about Eastman Kodak, Apple Computer and how the economy has changed for working people.

Gail Evans and Marta Ramos have one thing in common: They have each cleaned offices for one of the most innovative, profitable and all-around successful companies in the United States.

For Ms. Evans, that meant being a janitor in Building 326 at Eastman Kodak’s campus in Rochester in the early 1980s.  For Ms. Ramos, that means cleaning at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., in the present day.  [snip]

The $16.60 per hour Ms. Ramos earns as a janitor at Apple works out to about the same in inflation-adjusted terms as what Ms. Evans earned 35 years ago. But that’s where the similarities end.

Ms. Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ms. Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean.  She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages.  Going back to school is similarly out of reach.  There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.