Wednesday, May 27, 2009

OBAMA - May 28, 2009

As I look on our new US government, I have a feeling like watching a movie I have seen before. There is plenty of room between Tony Blair and Barack Obama, and yet the similarities are enough to leave me uneasy, and the delicacy of the present situation is enough to invest the actions of the new Administration with greater fears for the future. When Blair came to power in UK, there was no reason to expect any great reform of the disaster that was the earlier regime, but as the tenor of the campaign raised hopes that there would be a salvational change possible, we all hungered for it. After 12 years of Tory rule a resounding victory of the Labour Party, it seemed a reasonable expectation. In short time, it seemed that our expectations were excessive, and Rupert Murdoch’s were to be fulfilled. Even 4 years later, there seemed to be no choice other than the 2p worth between Blair and the Tories. We are now over 3 months into what some believed would be a new dawn but if so, we are seeing it from the bottom of a well and falling fast. As in the case of Blair, Obama has some concern for the poorest of the poor, but no general promise for all the working people, a few of whom will not suffer too much misery. The needs of Labor seem to stand in line well after those of the financiers and the banks, and even the party of labor may not have the stomach to borrow the hundreds of billions that would be required to do something like the New Deal. And in the wreckage even some of the plutocrats might be having to swallow the demise of companies like GM, because there are not enough working class customers to keep them alive. The economic predators are never sufficiently aware that as they cut the throats of the working people, they also are killing off the customers upon whom their own welfare depends.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

SAHARA - May 21, 2009

Tuesday last, on NOVA, a group of NASA scientists essentially agreed that the space odyssey we have been treated to since the USSR had the gall to put up an orbiter before US had gotten to it had a most limited scientific impact, hardly warranting the peril of so many lives and such a monumental expenditure. Its benefit, they said, had been mainly in sustaining US as the leading nation. And whatever gains we have realized in the moon rocks and the wonderful pictures from the Hubble Telescope have left us with an agency that must find a motivation for further exploration, no matter the cost. In order to sustain that agency, we have pretended that the planting of a colony of human beings on Mars is somehow essential to our species, especially as we despoil our native planet and render it uninhabitable. But before we can even fantasize in that direction, we must find a way to turn our present knowledge to the needs of Planet Earth, and its existential peril. In fact, if there is any hope of ever implanting a colony on Mars, we must find the means of using our present knowledge in rendering the deserts of Earth inhabitable, including those of the Sahara, the Gobi, and much of Australia. If it makes sense to build a biosphere on Mars, then the same effort would create an incomparably bigger one in one of our deserts, and supplying it with water would be far more feasible. Keeping the air and water would be trivial by comparison, and any one of them could be an Eden compared with the best we could hope to create elsewhere in the universe. Until we can demonstrate that we can make the deserts bloom on a gigantic scale, we must recognize the talk of inhabiting other worlds as almost literally pie in the sky.

IRAN - May 14, 2009

Obama is, by superficial considerations, very intelligent and excellently educated. So when he misstates the truth in a matter of great consequence it must be assumed that he is lying. He may have subtle reasons for his untruths, but his integrity on matters of substance cannot be taken for granted. The hostility of US to Iran has its roots in the unwillingness of Premier Mossadeq to sign on to political subservience to DC in the 1950s in the matter of the cold war. As a result, the Dulles brothers (John and Allen) came to Eisenhower as the first act of his administration to get him to ally himself with UK in a plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 and install a military dictatorship under the Shah. It was Iran’s only democratic government and the consequences continue to this present day. Thus it has been only one of the governments that have availed themselves of atomic weapons and the pretense that they are outstanding in this matter is a deliberate deception. The truth is available in the public record. At a time when we have are genuinely concerned at our outstanding exposure to the unreliable, atomically armed government of Pakistan we continue to pretend that the desire of other states to atom bombs is a unique defiance of the world’s will (meaning the frequently stated demands of the US in the UN). This is only one of the many instances of the demand of US to be considered ethically flawless and supported by the political myths of the US and the agreement by other states unwilling or unable to demand the truth. We need to deal with Iran on the basis of the record, not the concocted stories our government tells to justify its supposed adherence to principle.

POWER - May 7, 2009

Now we are facing a new incursion into our environment, as well as our wallets. The grid lobby wants to extend the power grid. That will cost a pile, which we will end up paying for in our electric rates, as well as much money pumped into the pockets of cronies and underlings, and also profits. Don’t forget the profits. And they want to continue stringing their wires all over our skies. And to top it all, it is unnecessary, well nearly so. The journals on saving our energy and also our money have been following the benefits of combined heat and power, which is something like the new power plant on UW campus, only cheaper, less onerous, and more efficient. Instead of generating power and sending the heat where it can be used, which involves digging up the streets, laying insulated pipe, and still losing heat to the cold outdoors, we could install gas-run power plants generating power in our basements and circulating surplus power to the grid. Then we could run this system just to the amount that we need heat in our houses, which is plenty in the climate of WI. Also the wires for distributing the excess power already exists, except that we usually send the electricity only one way. At the same time, individual houses would be able to generate power and heat under the rare instances when the weather denies us both from time to time. There is a company in WI that builds a unit that would work fine for individual houses here, and others in Europe and Japan that do much the same thing, at varying prices. Even at high US prices, the return on getting both heat and power from the same gas would mean a decrease of about 30% on the combined bill, and far less heat lost into the atmosphere. I brought this to the attention of MG&E several years ago, but was unable to bring the two sides together. I guess MG&E was possibly more interested in the juicy profits to be had from stringing high-tension wires all over our countryside. In the meantime, the journals I mentioned are telling us of the same idea being used profitably all over the world. The alternative still exists, and is better than ever.

TRUTH - April 30, 2009

Obama wants a commission to come up with the truth about what US did to its detainees and who authorized it and how. He has more or less promised that those whose motivations were exclusively the pronouncements of the legal office at the White House would not be punished, Nuremburg precedents notwithstanding. But as for those who may have chosen to ignore the Constitution, giving as authority their having spoken the word “war”, he has indicated that the AG must pronounce on the validity of their excuse.

Cheney has spoken to keep the truth from the US People, saying that his use of the word “war” confers upon him and his underlings the authority to do whatever they say they need in order to protect us. Some on both sides say they know all they need to pass judgment, but I say that until we know with more certainty what was actually done and before we validate the authority of office-holders to grant themselves cartes blancs we should not extend the Eichmann defense to those who hire and fire those who are said to advise them on their right to go around the supreme law of the land. Even those under military discipline are said to be obliged not to go beyond certain limits, but we do not know what they are. The US People must be careful about what we tell the world our word is worth. After decades, it seems the German People have accepted that there are limits to making excuses for inhuman behavior, which puts them in a position morally superior to that of the Japanese and if the US People decline even to castigate those who went beyond the limit, we will have to live with the opprobrium of Humankind. And in some of those cases, even opprobrium leaves us with the mark of sin and leaves us contaminated before the world.

OBAMA - April 24, 2009

When I was over in UK, I was asked endlessly how I liked Obama. I answered that I preferred him greatly over anyone else nominated recently and that was taken, accurately, as faint praise. My major objection was that he did not seem up to the weight of the task, and that was more in sorrow than in anger. Explaining my hesitation, I compared him to a kindly doctor steeped in the wisdom of the past generations, but not up to the brilliant surgeon upon whom the life of the patient depended. I concede that he expresses himself in terms redolent of most of the ills of the age, but I foresee decades of human waste and economic sloth as a result of the failures of the likes of Larry Summers and Milton Friedman (not to mention Ronald Reagan, Alan Greenspan and even Ayn Rand). And the result of decades of close embrace of the profession of economics by the large corporations via the business schools has left us with a religious faith in the automatic free market that was already threatening us with economic collapse nearly a century ago.

From those lessons we have been turned by the power of corporate greed. Just as in the age of Louis Pasteur and Paul Ehrlich over 100 years ago in medicine, the received wisdom of the Profession is wrong and again there are millions that will pay with their lives for the simplistic belief in the received wisdom. The faith of the 18th Century is not sufficient to deal with the flexible machinations of those who think that simple maxims would carry us through the consequences of greed and predation run wild. Even the New Deal would not carry us through the panic that is just starting. We need more and better today. We need a smarter, more flexible man than FDR and those (alas) are very few and far between.

BASICS - April 9, 2009

It was amazing to hear the reports of Obama and PM Gordon Brown pronouncing on the supposed triumphs of G20, emphasizing as great gains the small adjustments in the neoclassical model that would once again enact some of the gains after the 1st Great Depression in the new hopes of avoiding another, or at least dissolving the one we are now having. Both beamed with righteous glory when they asserted that none of the tamperings with the basics would touch the rock foundation found in the Free Market and Globalization, ignorant that the manifestations of these righteous-sounding ideas were the very roots of the system that had eroded FDR’s New Deal to the point that a na├»ve reading would tear down the weak dike built 80 years ago against a repeat of the troubles that were bedevilling that time. By the Free Market they meant that each person must be free to pursue predaciously their greed in a manner limited only by law and that they must be free to enact and change the laws by use of whatever wealth and power they had at their disposal. By Globalization, they meant the system that had enabled them to seek out the cheapest labor to be had on the planet and to use it to impoverish the working class and the system of economics they had wrestled out of the last Great depression. And Obama and Brown spoke these principles in such warm tones that they gave every impression of delivering holy writ. So it is hard to imagine what change of heart short of a divine transformation could lead us to exceed the repairs of the 1930s, and none to reach beyond them. Everyone alive today must thus anticipate years of this collapse followed by another forgetting and another Depression 80 years from now.

JOBS - April 2, 2009

When Henry Paulson and his pals told Obama that he would have to dump hundreds of billions on the banking corporations or the country would sink, Obama did not stop to fiddle with the details or to put limitations on how the money would be spent. A large portion of the remaining assets of those companies was parcelled out to Paulson’s pals and cohorts, safe in the knowledge that US would raise whatever was called for to keep them afloat. The auto companies were only a bit more questionable, and the new secretary of the Treasury did offer a deal to buy up the toxic mortgages on the basis of winnings to private billionaires, if any, and losses to USA. We still have hopes that Congress might put its kebosh on that one-way deal. But in the meantime, the States are struggling, CA and WI being 2 examples. There was no running to give them several billion on account while DC mulled over who would get more, and no sense that if a number of States, or even CA all alone, collapsed it would be US that would have to pick up the pieces, and probably bigger pieces than the failure of the banks’ holding companies. The money that vanished from the supposed impregnable bonuses would clearly have been spent anyhow by the billionaires, while the failure of the housing industry is decimating the consumer economy. Still, DC does not hear the pains of the electricians and plumbers as clearly as those of the billionaires, who have representatives in the Administration. And we will have to keep the building tradesmen afloat with unemployment insurance while they do nothing, a cost we do not have in the money manipulators. The banking executives we could safely leave to the vengeance of their stockholders, but the builders are needed a building.

BANKING - March 26, 2009

Barack Obama behaves as though he believes that the only way to put money in the hands of those who will lend it to consumers like those who want to buy houses and cars is to pour huge amounts of it into the pockets of those who have stolen billions from the US taxpayers. In fact that is plainly not the case, except that the US Treasury seems to be in the hands of the pirates. As I read the papers, US is covered by small banks and credit unions who are on sound ground, have not participated in the mortgage scam and who have customers eager to borrow money to buy such things as homes and cars, and there are banks that would be glad to borrow money from the Treasury at the tiny rates that are available to the banksters. For example, borrowing money from US at 1% and lending it to reliable customers at 6% should be attractive for those bankers who know their prospective lenders and can make a good guess at who would be able to pay it back. The papers say there are plenty of credit-worthy customers who just can’t get the money.

So I say the hell with the pirates. US should go closer to the grass roots and turn our backs on those who made the trouble. The small banks would carry some of the risk of non-payment, but who knows the local territory better? Builders could get foreclosed properties cheaply at auction sales, clean them up and sell them at a reasonable rate, and the banks could provide the mortgages. Car dealers could have the money to lend to customers. In a similar vein, US could lend money at about 6% to pay off the consumer loans of those who are now paying usurious rates, providing they would surrender their credit cards. That would clear a lot of decks in a hurry and put the money back in the hands of the People.

COLLEGE - March 19, 2009

A recent development in the party that calls themselves Labour in Britain is the bill to remove the limit on tuition fees, allowing the stresses of the labor market to put the privilege of higher education on the block for sale to the highest bidder. Already we see colleges describing themselves in terms appropriate for a department store, where the ruling paradigm is that the customer is always right. Although the unlimited fees apply only to the rich, it is surprising how little incomes remains in a family before they are ineligible for substantial decrease in tuition charges and how little it takes to defeat any claim for a fellowship due to need. Indeed polling data shows how many people think of college as beyond the reach of their children and available only by undertaking crushing debt, money beyond what they feel they can spare after dealing with ordinary household expenses. Indeed, the middle half of the income pyramid consists of families who think of college for the children as out of reach. And as the decision makers see themselves as those who can afford the cost, the genuine intellectual underpinnings of higher education are the bars to that education of ever fewer among those whose families can pay the bills, and a perversion causes those who can to think of a prestigious diploma as the natural right of whoever can manage to pay the financial costs. And the thought of attaining the level of subtlety appropriate to delicate thought is dismissed as elitism, more like the purchasing of fancy clothes. And surprisingly, even elementary and secondary schooling is also subject to the same thinking in increasingly many school boards. So those districts and school committees who are not driven by genuine intellectual commitment may find that only the richest can obtain the fruits that are said to be the heritage of all.

CHANGE - February 26, 2009

Einstein is credited with noting that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is a sign of mental incompetence. When will we learn the folly of giving over the control of our national economies to people chartered to fill their own pockets results in flights of opportunistic greed that cause near-infinite calamity every so often, with the exact length of the periods between collapses being a random event dependent on the exact stability of a house of cards? And why do the maniacs repeat each time the line about its being different this time? Yet every mention of any plan to put the control of the indispensible factors of the economy in the control of public officials who have no personal financial interest in the volatility is met with screams of “Communism”. So even Barack Obama, who is reputed to be very smart, repeats the line about needing to have the banks in the private hands whose own incomes are dependent on taking chances for which the public must pay in case of failure. Some take comfort from the illusion of increased regulation, yet we have learned that every pirate subject to regulation eventually comes to control the regulators, as we see so clearly in supposed federal regulation of the pharmaceutical racket. The only way to have public control is by having all the day-to-day business in the hands of civil servants. That must bear the possibility of corruption, but nothing is as corrupt as the mismanagement of people who are raised on the maxim that their private enrichment is the legitimate first goal of any manager. And whose second goal is the enrichment of their stockholders. They call it “incentives” but the people in the street here in UK have invented the word bankster to indicate what they think of it, and there is no telling what will follow when their tired patience is exhausted.

EFFICIENCY - February 19, 2009

As I listen to the British Prime Minister describing the economic fetishes he is pledged to support, and which I believe he genuinely worships, there are two that seem to be revered by all or most of the economic gurus of the capitalist world. They are a dedication to the belief that tariffs are destructive of economies and that the principal benefit of globalization is the efficiency of the world’s productive effort. In these beliefs, they are followed by whole armies of people with economics degrees repeating the sacred mantras of what they call the Free Market. And since they call themselves scientists, and even fortify their claim with the purchase of an annual award that they pretend is a Nobel Prize, they get a lot of support from people with power to expend in the doing of Good Things. But a look at the major results of globalization show that the claim of increased efficiency is no more and no less than the success of manufacturers and others in getting the jobs of prosperous workers done more cheaply by much poorer people, often at earnings that border on slave wages. The claim that this transfer is motivated by philanthropy is transparently self-serving. The visible truth is that the same amount of product or slightly more is being created with a smaller portion of the price garnered by the working people of the world. Thus, as the nominal value of the goods grows from year to year, the workers who create it are taking home less and less. This serial impoverishment of the global working class is called efficiency, even as some of the product is notably inferior to what we had before, as is manifestly the case in the phone-answering services. So when we are offered the argument that this impoverishment of the world’s workers is the result of a law of nature, many are not up to refuting it, including the US President and the British Prime Minister.

CAPITALISM - February 12, 2009

In the wreckage of the neoclassical idiocy, one might hope to detect some understanding that the model of capitalism that dominates the world’s economy these days is in need of fine-tuning in the direction of socialism to prevent continuing repetition of the boom and bust cycle that has now reached one of its episodic cataclysms. Rather than continue in the same direction with the ignorant hope that it will somehow lead to a different end, we see all the major players in the world economy looking for a quick fix that will somehow make it be 1965 again. Yet it must be clear that greed and predation are not a recipe for a fruitful and well-managed economy, no matter how much the plutocrats seek to continue to pull the wool over the eyes of the onlookers. While it is true that socialism on the pattern of the Soviet Union has its problems, so does capitalism. But bureaucratic corporate capitalism, in which greedy predators run corporations owned by a diffuse body of stockholders, has all the vices of both. We see it clearly in the banks, in which short-term gains wind up in the pockets of the executives, while losses must be borne by the stockholders or, in the worst cases, by the public at large. One might think that a sane public would come to realize how it is being abused, and socialize the giant corporations at least. But the plutocrats seem to be able to keep the blinders on the public and their leaders, so that the old untruths continue to dominate the thinking of those charged with finding our way out of the pernicious maze. A public bank, operating through small local banks as agents and dealing in public funds at a reasonable profit and paying sane wages, could surely do better than the kind of piracy we have just been witnessing. But Obama and Gordon Brown and the other leaders of EU nations seem chained to the idiocies that have carried us to this new Depression.

ANGER - February 4, 2009

It is wonderful how much I can learn about the US by watching Britain go through similar problems. Right now, I am watching the tide of anger sweeping across Europe in the wake of the collapse of the world’s finance and banking systems, much of it attributed to the hanky-panky of irresponsible banking originating in the predatory security manipulations around the mortgages in the US. All arose as part of the entrusting of the management of credit And to top it off, the winnings have disappeared, probably into the maze of money-laundering that the plutocrats arranged for themselves as tax dodges, in places like Belize that use their sovereignty to guarantee anonymity to the depositors of their banks. This money-laundering racket is at the heart of what the British call financial services, which has become this nation’s bread and butter since they stopped bothering to manufacture any actual things that anyone wanted to buy. Now into the mix of vanishing jobs and collapsing economies, comes a continental company to grab up some of the few left, in the building of a refinery, while the British workers who could do the work are displaced by more desperate ones from Eastern and Southern Europe, who are easier to intimidate and who have none of the worker rights the Brits have built up for themselves in the course of the turbulent XX Century. When the Brits scream in pain over this loss, the party that has the gall to call itself by the name of Labour reads them the riot act, pointing out that the deal they have made with the continental powers guarantees employers the right to the cheapest and most docile workers they can find anywhere on this continent. It masquerades under the name of freedom of movement for workers, just as the Right to Work laws in US guarantee not the right to a job but the liberty for the employers to smash unions and hire scabs. And all this is covered by endlessly repeating the lie that the Depression was caused by protectionism. But it does not look like the British workers will sit still for this latest betrayal.

NAFTA - January 29, 2009

Once again NAFTA was in the news recently, as representatives of the governments of Canada, US and Mexico met to celebrate their great accomplishment and polish the edges of the accord. They announced that it had been a triumph, and good for all the nations involved. The validity of the statement depended on whom they were in fact speaking for, i.e. whom they thought of as the nations. The one sure thing is that the cost of manufacturing and processing had gone down. That was due entirely to the lowering of the wages paid in each process. In short, the total labor bill in the three countries had been cut. And since no one would have gone to that trouble if the whole saving had been passed on to the consumer, that must have meant that the employers had taken some of it, in fact most of it, for themselves. And even if only some of the consumers were the workers that had drawn the lower pay, the cost to them would have been greater than the benefit, with the difference going to the employers and the non-working public. This kind of quantitative thinking was not evident to the working people generally. They, like most of the rest of the public, are mostly not arithmetic and have difficulty following a long line of logic, especially if it involves numbers.

What is especially poignant is that in each of the three countries, the proprietors’ press had portrayed the trade-off of as the workers in each profiting from their intrusion into the natural market for labor in the others. Like every successful scam, the mark was convinced that he was a junior partner with the con in victimizing someone else. And the economists, who are largely sufficiently numerate to understand what is going on, either don’t bother to make the calculation or keep quiet about their results. And the calculation is only made by the unions, who are successfully ignored.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

BANK SHOT - January 22, 2009

The Royal Bank of Scotland is one of Britain’s biggest banks and has been a recipient of major government money, to the extent that the Government now more or less owns 70% of it, but that is not enough to keep them in business. They just announced losses of another L 5B, and the Government is going to bail them out some more, to the point that it does not make sense to allow them to remain in private ownership. The stocks, which up to a few months ago were selling for over L 5, have sunk to just 11p, which is just about 15 c. In fact, it is the opinion of most financial commentators that their actual value is negative, but the price represents a gamble that the Government can be harassed to pay more than that as the cost of buying them out instead of seizing them. Seizure is a lengthy and messy business and the Labour government is very touchy on the issue of whether they are sufficiently friendly to business. An example of this was seen in the collapse of Railtrack, the company that was created when British Rail was split into a number of separate companies, one to own the rails and real estate and others to run trains over them. BR had run a deficit of L 2.5 B per year, and Thatcher had told the nation that private ownership would make a profit instead. In fact, all those companies required subsidies to keep in business, with Railtrack alone getting L 6.5 B yearly. So instead of letting them run into the ground, which would have meant a discontinuing of train service while that company pretended they could get things together, the Government pulled the plug and renationalized them. They screamed so loud and long that finally Gordon Brown, then head of the Treasury, gave in and paid them a hefty ransom to shut them up, and even that didn’t do it. So now everybody knows about the ransom game and the Government has the reputation of being a pushover. All the commentators agree that if they are too fierce on the bank, all the country’s banks will collapse as soon as the bankers start yelling Nationalization, which they use like a magic spell whenever their hostage game is about to be trumped by government action. You’re supposed to fear the ghost of Joseph Stalin and give up. It works like a charm. The British people can’t afford that kind of superstition, and neither could we.

TRAGEDY - January 8, 2009

I have mentioned earlier the similarity of the rise and prospective fall of the US to the model of tragedy given to us by Aristotle. It began with the rise and glory of a worthy
hero, who would be brought down by hubris, the unforgiveable sin of being too big for
his breeches. The history of the US seems almost to fall into the Aristotelian pattern. It is almost divided into five acts, each about 50 years long. In Act 1, the nation is born as the
political embodiment of the Enlightenment, to the plaudits of learned and sensitive people in EU and grows in strength and glory as EU descends into a century of war. In Act 2, as EU fights its imperial wars, US takes on the challenge of secession and defeats it, and then grows to the Pacific Ocean. Act 3, the climax of the play in Aristotle’s model, sees US emerge as a major power, arising from the Great War as prime among the empires of the world and in Act 4, as the Arsenal of Democracy, seems to lead the world into a period of peace and prosperity, although the Cold War, a challenge to its supremacy, seems containable. In Act 5, the small clouds that have accumulated since the Civil War finally coalesce in a debacle of imperial failure, leaving both the armed might and the economic strength of a formerly admired system lurching into military and financial disaster, the condition named by Aristotle as catastrophe. In all this, the sin of hubris clouds the eyes of the Hero to the limits of its power and leads it into excesses of imagined invulnerability. When nearly half of the nation yielded the White House to a man of no worth whatever, save only the virtue of seeming more human and less wooden than Gore, who himself exhibited only the virtue of being less ignorant and irresponsible than W, secure in the belief that it didn’t matter who was President, it set the stage for that catastrophe, whose middle we now see. It could be the beginning of the end.