Archive for July 2009
If Plato’s Republic is a third-grade civics primer of limited value in a democracy, Aristotle’s Politics is fundamental source material for PoliSci 101. About a third of it is dedicated to quietly dismantling most of The Republic with understated common sense, and it’s probably unnecessary for a modern audience to bother with (unless that audience has plowed through Plato’s simple-minded and unworkable ideas and feels it has earned the reward of seeing this philosophical “giant” get a well-deserved drubbing) but the other two thirds are Required Reading for anyone interested in how we got where we are. And maybe where we go from here.
Aristotle, a mathematician and scientist (mostly a biologist), supplants Plato’s childhood wishful thinking with a quasi-scientific examination of the types of governments he saw in the ancient world. Like a scientist, he first defines each of them according to their salient or dominant characteristics, then classifies them by which characteristics they share, and finally, after all that, (sort of) begins the process of comparing them as to which might be better for men to adopt.
Like a scientist, he does his best to be objective. Though in the course of reading this book it isn’t hard to figure out which sort of govt he favors, he bends over backward to keep from defaming those not his favorites, arguing over and over again from the beginning of the book that each of his govt types might be best for some people in some place at some time and that our job as citizens is to decide which form would suit us best. It’s a refreshing change from Plato’s one-size-fits-all autocracy.
If the Republicans Are Committing Political Suicide and the Democrats Are Copying Everything They Do, That Means….
By any measure, the Pubs are in deep shit. Digby thinks it’s “mystifying”.
There’s a lot about the new Republican Party that’s mystifying. “Disarray” doesn’t even begin to describe it. I suppose it’s a lot like it was back in 1964, although I think even then you could see the outlines of a comeback — which they did, four short years later with the election of Nixon, the sainted Kennedy’s bete noir.
But this time, it’s really hard to see how they can ever build a sustainable majority when they are doing things like [voting overwhelmingly against confirming Sonia Sotomayor].
Um, they can’t, not really. About all they can do is insist as loudly as possible that the Dems are in trouble and pretend the GOP is therefore in the process of making a comeback even if they’re, you know, so NOT. Earlier this week Roy Edroso caught AEI’s Joel Kotkin making it up as he went along. Read the rest of this entry »
Way back in April of last year I wrote that there are some things that are above political loyalty and that the Constitution is one of them. In July I wrote in a post titled “The Constitution Doesn’t Poll Very Well” that noted how busily the Obama Admin and Congressional Blue Dogs were gutting the Bill of Rights. This past February I listed a number of Bush’s illegal powers that Obama was protecting despite his promises for “transparency, accountability and openness”. Now I have to report that Obama has decided to protect the people who retroactively wrote legal justifications for this illegal and immoral policy, defend the policy itself, and worst of all, accept torture as legitimate behaviour once he puts a Yoo-style legal framework around it so we can all pretend it isn’t inhuman.
As the attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., debates whether to appoint a criminal prosecutor to investigate the interrogations of terrorism suspects after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he is at the brink of a career-defining decision that risks the anger of the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency, one of the Justice Department’s main partners in combating terrorism.
There is no surprise then that Mr. Holder is said by officials to have been resistant at first to the idea of appointing a prosecutor, particularly since the Obama administration has made it clear that it wants to put the issue of interrogation practices during the Bush administration behind it.
Mr. Holder has told associates he is weighing a narrow investigation, focusing only on C.I.A. interrogators and contract employees who clearly crossed the line and violated the Bush administration’s guidelines and engaged in flagrantly abusive acts.
But in taking that route, Mr. Holder would run two risks. One is the political fallout if only a handful of low-level agents are prosecuted for what many critics see as a pattern of excess condoned at the top of the government. The other is that an aggressive prosecutor would not stop at the bottom, but would work up the chain of command, and end up with a full-blown criminal inquiry into the intelligence agencies — just the kind of broad, open-ended criminal investigation the Obama administration says it wants to avoid.
AG Holder is caught between a rock and a hard place. He’s under pressure both ethically and legally to prosecute torturers yet his boss doesn’t want him to prosecute any of the people who devised and ordered the torture to occur. Glenn Greenwald put what this means succinctly.
[T]he Newsweek reporter who first printed what DOJ officials told him about Holder’s intentions, Daniel Klaidman, confirmed in an interview on The Young Turks that Holder intends to confine any investigations only to “rogue” interrogators who exceeded John Yoo’s torture permission slips while shielding high-level Bush officials who acted in accordance with Yoo’s decrees. Proving yet again that there is nothing more difficult than satirizing our rotted political culture, here is what I wrote about Holder’s intentions last week:
Holder’s plan, at least at the moment, is — from the start — to confine the prosecutors’ authority to investigate to CIA agents who went beyond what John Yoo and George Bush decreed could be done (“he used more water than Yoo said he could”; “he tied him up for longer than Yoo authorized”; “the room was colder and the freezing water icier than Yoo allowed”). At least if these reports are accurate (and, for several reasons, that’s unclear), anyone who “merely” did what John Yoo said was legal — meaning everyone who matters — will be shielded and immunized.
If low-level CIA interrogators — and only them — end up as the targets of investigations because they used m0re water than John Yoo allowed, or turned the thermostat lower than the hypothermic levels which the DOJ permitted, or waterboarded with more frequency than Jay Bybee approved, I wouldn’t blame the CIA for being furious. It was the regime itself, implemented at the highest levels of our government, that was criminal. Prosecuting only low-level interrogators who followed the torturing spirit of those policies but transgressed some bureaucratic guidelines would be a travesty on par with what happened with the Abu Ghraib “investigations.”
(emphasis in original)
Worse, by putting the legal emphasis on whether or not the interrogators had exceeded the authority given them by Yoo and Bybee and the other apologists, Obama is tacitly accepting the Yoo/Bybee/Addington/Cheney assertion that a) torture is legal in the US and b) the president can legally order an illegal procedure as long as it is kept within whatever bounds are set by the president. Which in turn means that torture is now legal and that US presidents have the power to ignore treaty law, international law, and domestic law – the Constitution – just as Bush/Cheney claimed they did. It is a de facto rather than de jure assumption of power, quiet, even stealthy. Without facing the issue squarely, discussing it openly, or explaining it clearly, the Obama Admin is simply going to act as if it’s true, thus creating precedent and making it true.
Also known as “innocence” or “prolonged ignorance”, it is often encased in infantilism.
Shortly after the First World War, John Dos Passos declared in his seminal novel 1919 “the death of innocence in America”. It became a catchphrase, the summation of America’s sudden blasted knowledge of a world – Europe – from which it had always considered itself safely distant. The world had shrunk, Dos Passos was saying, and the USA had finally been drawn into it. We were part of a global reality whether we liked it or not. American men, after all, had died fighting a war that had started in Europe over European beligerences.
Needless to say, Dos Passos’ declaration of the death was premature and greatly exaggerated. It may have been clear to him and to the rest of that post-war generation of writers and political thinkers that the nation could no longer afford the luxury of the isolationism we had practiced with relief since the War of 1812, but as a people it turned out we had no intention of religuishing the useless but comforting ignorance that allowed us to escape responsibility for anything that happened on the world stage.
“Innocence”, either the loss of or the retaining of, became a major theme of the Roaring 20’s. Rather than embrace our new knowledge, we turned our backs on it and…played. From the self-involved if indistinct longing of Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby for easy pickings and no regrets to the open admiration of Capone and the Wild West he made of the Chicago streets as if the consequences could be shrugged off as easily as a viewing of a Hollywood gangster film, we clung to our native “innocence” as if it were armor plating against adulthood. We shrugged off responsibility, if anything, much more casually than our attachment to films and their stars. We shut our eyes and turned up our noses whenever “serious people” warned that Wall Street was having us on and the whole thing was going to come crashing down. When it finally did, we felt hurt, betrayed, as if a parental promise of an endless playtime had been reneged on without reason. We pouted.
Rollicking, rampant, blind-as-a-bat optimism, anyway.
Look. Sometime around the Industrial Revolution business discovered the power of optimism and began to exploit it. From the bleariest, drunkest, shotgun-in-the-pickup-truck redneck Southern white trash to the snobbiest, most coked-up, Armani-only Upper East Side corporate-raider/investment banker dildo, Americans one and all believe in being optimistic.
- We voted for Nixon because he promised “Peace with Honor” even though we knew he was a man who wouldn’t know the sting of honor from the slap of a wet turd. We elected him not once but twice knowing full well – or at least with no excuse for NOT knowing full well – that he was a paranoid, belligerent, lying jackass and always had been.
- We voted for Ronnie Rayguns because he told us a fantasy about shining cities on hills and how it was “morning in America” because it suggested we had everything to look forward to and no history behind us that we needed to worry about. We elected him not once but twice despite knowing full well that he was incompetent, extremely ill-informed (trees pollute??!), and not so much a president as an actor playing one on tv.
- We voted for George W Bush because he was charming and upbeat and told us we could be millionaires if only he was in charge, a guy we’d like to have a beer with who was incidentally passing out slices of pie from the sky. We elected him not once but twice knowing full well – or with little excuse for not knowing full well – that he was a liar, a failure, a coward, and an arrogant pissant who thought God had elected him instead of us.
Behind all these incredibly bad decisions lay a miasma of denial and optimism, the first required by the second since optimism in the face of a blatantly negative reality is impossible without a fervent denial of what’s right before your eyes.
But to say all that is only to begin to enumerate the folly of unjustified optimism. For example, there’s the global economic crisis created by a handful of Wall Street manipulators and Main Street frauds. This -
The bank’s [Goldman Sachs] unprecedented reach and power have enabled it to turn all of America into a giant pumpanddump scam, manipulating whole economic sectors for years at a time, moving the dice game as this or that market collapses, and all the time gorging itself on the unseen costs that are breaking families everywhere — high gas prices, rising consumercredit rates, halfeaten pension funds, mass layoffs, future taxes to pay off bailouts. All that money that you’re losing, it’s going somewhere, and in both a literal and a figurative sense, Goldman Sachs is where it’s going: The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth — pure profit for rich individuals.
They achieve this using the same playbook over and over again. The formula is relatively simple: Goldman positions itself in the middle of a speculative bubble, selling investments they know are crap. Then they hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage. Finally, when it all goes bust, leaving millions of ordinary citizens broke and starving, they begin the entire process over again, riding in to rescue us all by lending us back our own money at interest, selling themselves as men above greed, just a bunch of really smart guys keeping the wheels greased. They’ve been pulling this same stunt over and over since the 1920s — and now they’re preparing to do it again, creating what may be the biggest and most audacious bubble yet.
- would not have been possible were it not for an America drowning in optimism, the belief that better days are right around the corner. Who but a zealot optimist could have possibly believed so fervently in the Reagan Paradox that the less the govt collected in taxes, the more it would collect in taxes?
Optimism is the weapon that Goldman and the other Wall Street manipulators use to make a strapped America overplay its already overstretched finances. “Better days are coming. We can take on all this extra debt because when the economy turns up we’ll be making more money, enough to cover this new house.” They had us convinced.
But the economy did get better and our wages still didn’t rise. We weren’t making more money. In many cases we were actually making less because the fear of inflation that infects the rich like typhoid and the power of a fascist-style govt kowtowing to the rich and incipient corporate panic meant that inflationary fears trumped every other concern. And if we fought for higher wages, the rich moved their companies to low-wage low tax countries, dodged the taxes involved, and our jobs were gone. Forever. The optimism they fed us was gibberish, a lie, a con.
To an extent, the entire economic meltdown could only have taken place in a country so besotted with optimism that it could deny the chasm under its feet even as it was tumbling down the slope to the rocks below. The bubble was built on optimism – not at the top where they knew better – but throughout the rest of the body right down to the very bottom. We would never have tied ourselves into financial knots if we hadn’t persisted in being optimistic about the future, and if we hadn’t tied ourselves into financial knots with debt on top of debt, there would have been no imaginary profits to feed the bubble Goldman and others were blowing up.
And still we learn nothing. Taibbi points out in his Goldman take-down that they’re ginning up to do it all again, and we’re going to let them because we’re…what? You got it. Optimistic. Dig:
[I]nstead of credit derivatives or oil futures or mortgage-backed CDOs, the new game in town, the next bubble, is in carbon credits — a booming trillion dollar market that barely even exists yet, but will if the Democratic Party that [Goldman Sachs] gave $4,452,585 to in the last election manages to push into existence a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an “environmental plan,” called cap-and-trade.
The new carboncredit market is a virtual repeat of the commodities-market casino that’s been kind to Goldman, except it has one delicious new wrinkle: If the plan goes forward as expected, the rise in prices will be government-mandated. Goldman won’t even have to rig the game. It will be rigged in advance.
Here’s how it works: If the bill passes, there will be limits for coal plants, utilities, natural-gas distributors and numerous other industries on the amount of carbon emissions (a.k.a. greenhouse gases) they can produce per year. If the companies go over their allotment, they will be able to buy “allocations” or credits from other companies that have managed to produce fewer emissions. President Obama conservatively estimates that about $646 billion worth of carbon credits will be auctioned in the first seven years; one of his top economic aides speculates that the real number might be twice or even three times that amount.
The feature of this plan that has special appeal to speculators is that the “cap” on carbon will be continually lowered by the government, which means that carbon credits will become more and more scarce with each passing year. Which means that this is a brand new commodities market where the main commodity to be traded is guaranteed to rise in price over time. The volume of this new market will be upwards of a trillion dollars annually; for comparison’s sake, the annual combined revenues of all electricity suppliers in the U.S. total $320 billion.
Wall Street makes its money on suckers like us by selling us optimistic fairy tales. Got a pollution problem? We can fix it and you can get rich at the same time. This is America. We can do anything!
Optimism is largely responsible for our being so deep in denial that we could consistently vote against our own best interests and even help destroy our own country and yet insist we did no such thing.
Fuck optimism. Give me a little healthy skepticism any day. If you’re staring at pie-in-the-sky instead of the ground under your feet, it’s a lot easier to walk off a cliff.
Yet instead of finally letting go of our childish and dangerous dependency on Happy Endings, we build entire sociological and psychological structures defending Optimism as “necessary for survival“.
We humans tend to be an optimistic bunch. In fact, it’s long been established by psychologists that most people tend to be irrationally positive. The optimism bias, as it’s called, accounts for the fact that we expect to live longer and be more successful than the average and we tend to underestimate the likelihood of getting a serious disease or a divorce. This tendency is adaptive—many researchers have claimed that a positive outlook motivates us to plan for our future and may even have an effect on our long-term physical health.
Optimism may be so necessary to our survival that it’s hardwired in our brains. A new study published in the journal Nature further confirms the idea that having a rosy outlook is a personality trait with deep, neurological roots. Researchers found that the brains of optimistic people actually light up differently on a scan than those who tend to be more pessimistic when they think about future events.
The disparity between positive and pessimistic minds is especially prominent in areas of the brain that have been linked to depression. “The same areas that malfunction in depression are very active when people think about positive events,” says Tali Sharot, a post-doctorate fellow at University College London, who conducted the research at New York University.
And in skeptical France, say, their brains are hardwired to be pessimistic? Crap.
Only in America is optimism made into a religion that supercedes everything but death and where we protect our divine right to remain children with guns. Hope has become an American fetish. America without optimism would be Europe. Ugh. Oscar Wilde said that the basis of all optimism is sheer terror. If that’s true, and it probably is, it makes us the most frightened country on Earth. Not good for an Imperial Superpower. It’s one thing to indulge your urge to defy growing up when all you can fuck up is yourself. It’s another to shove it down the throats of the rest of the world when you have the power to fuck up everything. At some point you need to become a responsible adult who considers reality instead of wetdreams to figure out policy.
What we are fighting now is a century-old training program. We have all been taught to believe and worse, act as if we have every right to ignore uncomfortable facts because, hey, somebody will figure it out and relieve us of the responsibility of fixing any of it. The Best Is Yet to Come! We’re No 1! Don’t Worry, Be Happy! Shop Til You Drop!
Enough already. Unjustified optimism has brought us to the brink of economic destruction. It’s time to put away childish things, y’all, and eat our damn green beans.