Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Zombies, Aliens and Robots - Killing in the Name Of...

In the American world of entertainment, nothing beats violence.  Well, technically sex does, but while you'd NEVER allow your precocious pre-teen to watch to attractive people make love, you all happily share a bowl of popcorn on the couch watching heroes unleash heavy firepower on their designated villains.  And those villains are often killers and rapists, pedophiles and madmen, serial killers and terrorists - the lowest, most vile scum of the earth.  This is necessary, as we Americans don't like any moral ambiguity in the vicious bloodletting of our popular culture.

But when you think about it, some stories are about, well, stories.  They include gunfights, car chases and brutal hand to hand combat in order to make them more interesting, more exciting if you will.  But they are still, at the core, a story about policemen or soldiers or even frightened citizens doing the right thing, or at least doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

Other stories, though, are somewhat less high-minded than even that.  They are about killing, the chatter of the assault rifle, the bangbangbang of a handgun in rapid fire, the cycling of the action, the clink of spent brass on asphalt, the cries of the mortally wounded.  In a straight line from Rambo to the Terminator to Falling Skies we sit impatiently through the brief homages to storytelling so we can get back to the gunfire and casualties.

But oddly, and somewhat surprisingly, we Americans find we have, at least collectively, a certain moral squeamishness when it comes to the massacre of large numbers of our fellow human beings for the purposes of entertainment.  Oh sure, we're more than happy with a final shootout between that detestable villain and the cops, or even a a denouement in the form of a serious firefight as might be found at the climax of "LA Confidential" or Season One of "Justified", but for our day-in and day-out viewing pleasure, as something we might enjoy after dinner on a school night, a large body count is something we have decided to claim we cannot abide.

Various solutions to this problem have been sought.  The original approach while having been around in one form or another for decades, reached its pinnacle of performance in the TeeVee series "The A Team".  Thousands of rounds expended on full auto, along with grenades and explosives, helicopter gunships on hot runs over the battlefield, with M-16s and Uzis spewing endless streams of hot brass - and yet, in the end, there were no casualties, no gruesome scenes of bodies frozen awkwardly in death, no screaming, bloodsoaked wounded, no tragic collateral damage from the massive volumes of randomly sprayed small arms fire.  This tradition of the firefight as performance art lives on even today with shows like "Burn Notice" where the majority of gunfights are staged for the benefit of frightening or fooling the bad guys - although it must be mentioned that when Michael Westin finds himself in a corner, he can and will take lives hard and fast, a redeeming characteristic of a show that often seems to be unsure if it aspires to be merely a cartoon or something much darker.

But the winning solution to this problem, this demand for large scale violence without the messy moral conundrums often associated with mass murder, has now become mainstream.  It's a simple fix really - just have the humans fight...well...NOT humans.  Aliens, robots, the undead, it turns out there are a surprising number of things that can fill in admirably for what would otherwise be a human enemy, and then can be gleefully killed in very large numbers, in various brutal ways, over and over again without causing the slightest ethical twinge.  Terminators, artificial digital humans in The Matrix, Cylons, aliens from "War of the Worlds" to "Falling Skies",  our producers and purveyors of cinematic entertainment can find an endless stream of near-humans for our benighted species to kill in large numbers, with every kind of weapon from Alice's Kukris to "Predator's" minigun.

It's possible that this observation helps us learn something important about human beings, or at least that particularly pampered and hate-filled sub-species known as Americans.  When confronted with the reality that our preferred form of entertainment was horrific, brutal and inhuman, we recoiled from the necessity that we seek other less nihilistic, more enlightened forms of entertainment, and instead dug deep into our creativity to create creatures that could stand in for other human beings when the time came for slaughter.  As intelligent and capable as we are as a species, we are still primitive, tribal, violent and warlike, and will actively resist allowing evolution to complete the process of making us into something more than we are today...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Debt Ceiling Tea Leaves

Nobody knows what's going on.  The President wants a grand bargain, Boehner wants a smaller deal with no new revenues, the Tea Partiers want to turn America into an agricultural backwater with nuclear weapons and the so-called Gang of 6 unveiled a proposal that everybody wants to talk about and nobody would actually vote for.  So how do regular folks, you and me, get some kind of handle on this whole Debt Ceiling kerfuffle and what it might mean to us?  Well, let's forget about the process and think in terms of outcomes.  There are, ultimately, only three possible ways that this all ends.

1.  Some kind of stroke-of-midnight deal is made, either with a deficit reduction package attached or just a clean increase in the debt ceiling, before the August 2nd econopocalypse.

2.  August 2nd arrives, the market freaks out, everyone panics and comes to their senses and they raise the debt ceiling almost immediately - say, within a week of the freakout, whenever it actually happens.

3.  The deadline comes and goes, the markets freak out, perhaps blow up, and STILL the US House of Representatives is unable to pass a new debt ceiling bill.  The standoff lasts for a month, perhaps several, with the US and the world adjusting to a 'new normal' where US government spending is cut nearly in half, interest rates spike, freezing up credit markets and the dollar collapses relative to other currencies.

There you have it - pretty much the whole universe of possibilities for the next 60-90 days.

The first outcome would, obviously, be the best by far.  It would establish that we are governed by partisan fools, but not madmen.  There would be some economic fallout, but nothing close to catastrophic.  The long term negative effect will be to firmly establish apocalyptic brinkmanship as part of our political process, ensuring that others will again take the entire system hostage and threaten to blow it all up.  Eventually, someone will.  But at least it wouldn't be now.

The second has real costs - to a lot of individuals who need their pension income, their health benefits, their housing assistance.  The economic costs would be significant - most debt instruments, from US Treasuries to Municipal bonds to credit cards would carry a higher interest rate for the foreseeable future, an artifact of the higher 'risk premium' that would be built into US debt going forward.

The third seems unlikely at this point.  The conventional wisdom is that the powerful financial interests have influence over the Republican party, and can somehow coerce them into accepting the kind of compromise they have repeatedly rejected to this point.  But it remains an open question whether those same traditional Republican constituencies have that level of influence with the radical right-wing true believers in Congress, along with those more fearful of a Primary challenge from the right than the of the threats of the traditional funding base.

But unlikely though it may be, it cannot be ruled out at this point.  It would be a historical event, changing nearly everything in one or two mid-summer months in 2011.  Think of it as a sliding scale of economic disaster - the longer the House Republicans resist a compromise deal, the worse both the short term and long term outcomes will be for all of us.

Recession?  Depression?  "Contagion" leading to the collapse of the Eurozone?  Plummeting global trade numbers, falling GDP in China leading to unrest, falling energy and commodity prices leading a brutal deflationary cycle, US unemployment over 20%?  When you think about what a bloc of elected representatives are willing to put at risk in order to advance an unpopular ideological agenda, you are forced to confront just how badly broken our system has become.  It makes a certain sense, though, as a system carefully designed in the late eighteenth century would be expected to lack the flexibility and adaptability to adjust to twenty first century changes in technology and society...

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Revolving Door Revolves

Casey Anthony walked free today, having served the sentence imposed upon her by the court.  Of course, there are people from Sarasota to Seattle who feel she somehow avoided the judgement she was due, and champion some poor hero, one lacking in both broad awareness and personal morality, to hunt her down and inflict upon her the physical harm they just know she must have coming.

Now, mind you, I can't speak directly to this issue, as I paid no attention to the events up to and including the trial.  I first became aware of this case when Ms. Anthony's acquittal gave birth to a vast, simultaneous outpouring of bile and hatred.  And once again, I was forced to confront one of the most important facts of American public policy.  You will occasionally hear that Americans are apathetic about their freedoms, but that really isn't the case at all.  Americans, for the most part, HATE their freedoms, are revolted by any manifestation of basic democratic liberty, and regularly state their unequivocal desire to roll back the most fundamental constitutional guarantees.  It is no wonder at all that obscenities like the ironically named Patriot Act and the 4th Amendment shredding Wiretap Bill are passed with minimal objection, that organizations like the ACLU and FEC are so roundly reviled and that calls for vengeance vastly outnumber calls for mercy even in the twentyfirst century.

It is certainly true that the key to empathy is to imagine yourself in the other person's shoes, that it was YOU on trial for your life, and then to imagine the outcome for which you would be so desperately hopeful.  But it really doesn't require empathy, indeed, simple self interest should require the same exercise.  Because if you DID find yourself incarcerated, on trial in a case where you were generally accepted to be guilty, and therefore as evil and inhuman a monster as could be imagined, unfit to be allowed to live among other people ever again, unfit, even, to live at all, your only hope would be within the system - a system so fair, so protective of the rights of the accused, so structured so as to place the burden of proof on your accusers that you might be able to convince a jury of your peers to set you free.  But in general, American people do seem to be inherently optimistic, to the point of irrationality, and widely assume that such things only happen to other, 'bad' people who are obviously guilty and so clearly should be punished.

So the prosecutor was unable to provide sufficient evidence to convince the jury to convict, and they did exactly what they are supposed to do in such cases - a finding of not guilty.  The result of the conviction on lesser charges was a sentence to time served, the appropriate paperwork was processed and today she walks out the door a free woman.  Except, not really.  After years of having her picture splashed across the internet, with a huge population of crazed, understimulated citizens taking up their pitchforks and torches and crying out for her head, she will have to spend many years in hiding, carefully avoiding the kind of public situation that could put her within reach of that most unstable of psychopaths - an American with a feeling of victimization.  I wish her the best, but I wonder if there's much chance that this story ends well.

In the meantime, the prison doors swung open to accept their latest evildoer, that master of ideologically driven tabloid snoopery, Rebekah Brooks, late of the News Corp executive suite.  Just as obviously guilty, but without the baggage that's unavoidable when there's a dead baby in the mix.  This one, however, will have more pre-verdict tempestuousness, with the observers drawn to their chosen side by political ideology, with international intrigue and the personal lives of celebrities and royalty, with money and power, sex and lies, cybercrime and media spin, we'll be watching the evolution of Rebekah's story for years, played out against a backdrop of the shifting media and political fortunes, all as fodder for endless cable news and Internet debate.  Honestly, we're all secretly grateful that as one story ended, this new narrative is at hand to fill our pathetic lives.  It's all we might have asked for...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Rick Perry's God Must Have a LOT of Altoids

Texas has a lot of problems.  Budget shortfall, hundred year drought, armies of unemployed and uninsured, and an angry, fearful, restive population seeking respite in various manifestations of bigotry and tribal hatred.  But fear not, Texas citizenry.  Your Governor, the esteemed Rick Perry has a plan.
...the governor stated that property rights, government regulation and a "legal system that's run amok" were threatening the American way of life and "it's time to just hand it over to God and say 'God, you're gonna have to fix this.' "
So we learn from this a great deal about Rick Perry - his decisiveness, his willingness to take responsibility and accept accountability, his creative hands-on approach to his State's overwhelming problems - but we actually learn a great deal more about Rick Perry's God.

Apparently, as I interpret this, the God Rick Perry worships has a plan for Texas, and that plan includes drought, disease, pestilence, poverty and war.  But in spite of the fact that his God has made these decisions about Texas, Governor Perry is pretty certain he can get God to completely change his mind about all of it, and in a 180 degree pivot change Texas from a crumbling hellhole to an earthly paradise.  I guess God wasn't terribly invested in his plan in the first place, and was willing to go in an entirely different direction as soon as his complaint department phone lights up.

Now, I don't mean to sound flip here, but this particular manifestation of the creator of the universe isn't terribly impressive.  Indecisive, wishy-washy, easily influenced, one wonders how he gets through the checkout line at Piggly Wiggly with all those impulse items stacked along his route.  "Oh look! Altoids GUM!!"  I mean, what's the point of a deity raining pestilence and suffering on his people if he can be expected to back down as soon as the people start to complain?  Man, I don't know what Testament we're on here in 2011 but we've come a long way from Old Testament Yahweh.  This God is like the kids of the Mafia Dons, raised in suburban wealth and comfort, and unable to summon the intestinal fortitude to do the Godly thing when called upon.

Of course, it could be that I understood the nature of Rick Perry's God perfectly well, and it is the Governor who has blundered badly.  Here's what I'm going to do.  I'm going to sit back and watch Rick Perry and his throngs of followers implore, beseech and otherwise formally request that God take them off the shit list, and soon.  Then we'll see what happens.  If the skies open up with a cleansing rain, the crops leap from the soil and all around is wealth and happiness, then I guess maybe I'll think about opening up my own negotiations with the big guy.  At least for a Ferrari 308.  Always wanted one of those.  But if things continue to go badly pear shaped for Texas, it will merely reinforce my longstanding opinion that asking for help from imaginary super beings and mythical creatures is a wholly ineffective approach to problem solving or governance...

Blue on Black

So the world stands transfixed by this utterly gratuitous argument the US government is having over the debt ceiling legislation.  Now bear in mind how truly bizarre the parameters of this argument are.  What we're talking about is Congress refusing to pass a bill authorizing the Executive to make payments that are, in every single case, already authorized and appropriated by bills passed in Congress and signed by the President.  To put it in blunt terms, Congress is refusing to allow the Government to follow the legal orders of Congress.

And the damage is already done.  Oh, it can get worse - much worse.  But throughout the world, where governments and finance professionals are used to seeing and dealing with Sovereign Debt Crises that result quite naturally when a government no longer can raise the funds to pay its debts, those same observers stand dumbfounded as the US, with massive resources and no lack of funds prepares to voluntarily default on its obligations out of nothing more than political chaos.  The reason there haven't been greater consequences to this point is simply that nobody can truly believe that any nation, let alone the largest economy in the world, could possibly be that stupid.

Ostensibly, the argument is about deficit spending.  The Republicans have taken the position that we must address our long-term deficits NOW, or the results will be nothing short of cataclysmic.  However, the reason this is plainly disingenuous and manipulative is that they refuse to allow any increase in government revenues - revealing their actual agenda clearly, for all to see.  Tragically, the Democratic President, in the midst of a financial crisis, with double digit unemployment, zero inflation, crumbling infrastructure and a rising output gap, has decided for the most venal reasons of political expediency to adopt precisely the Republican frame.  Indeed, it has become apparent that he wants to make much deeper and more draconian cuts to US Government spending than even the Republicans in Congress are willing to specify, and is more than willing to exploit the Repbulican's salted earth campaign to transfer massive amounts of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthiest fraction of people and corporations to accomplish that goal.

OK.  So one way or another, Americans are going to see massive cuts in precisely the kind of spending that holds communities together.  From health and nutrition to education and infrastructure, these deep cuts ripple down from the Federal level to the States, and from there to the counties and municipalities, at each level taking their toll on the people, the very individuals who created the government to represent them in the first place.  The cuts seem inevitable, as does the unnecessary suffering as people are hungry, fire departments are slower to respond, children are incarcerated and bridges collapse.

But it is all just pointless and meaningless, which makes it even more the tragedy.  Why?  American government runs on money.  Not just campaign money, or lobbyist money.  The very act of governance has become exclusively about money - determining who gets it, and how much.  From the military, the FBI and the FAA down to local grants to build roads and bridges.  Reducing that flow of funds, with the concomitant reduction in recipients, will lead, necessarily to a reduction in governance.  Whether from Washington, the Statehouse or the City Council, power is exercised through the distribution of funds.  A deficit reduction bill isn't even a budget - it's just a set of guidelines as to how money will be distributed over a ten year window.  Laws can be changed, caps raised, restrictions abolished and special cases defended.  The next Congress, and the one after that, will respond to the demands of those portions of their constituency they deem important.  And when this round of cuts begin to bite, and bad things happen, people die and crime increases and victims of disaster are left to fend for themselves, when all the consequences, foreseen and utterly unanticipated, begin to manifest, there will be no hesitation among those in power to take the only action available, to appropriate funds.  As the old saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The reason the US government depends on deficit spending is that Americans refuse to take a realistic approach to the cost of government services.  Make no mistake.  When people say they want to cut spending, they are most explicitly NOT saying they want to cut services.  They just don't want to pay for them.  So you find yourself in a situation where government revenues are less than 15% of GDP and government is spending 21% of GDP.  Neither of those numbers are "right" or "wrong" - whatever level of service the people demand should be delivered, and sufficient revenue should be collected in order to do so.

Ultimately, revenues will be raised and spending increased once again.  When the maintenance of personal and political power depends upon increasing spending, spending will be increased.  These things have always been cyclical, but with the most right-wing, corporate friendly government in recent history occupying all branches of government, the execution will be very extreme, and the volatility of the cycle very likely unprecedented...

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bits and Pieces

Pornography and Power:
Michelle Bachmann signed a pledge from an outfit called the Family Leader.  Now this bigoted, un - American pledge has a number of ugly provisions, but one of the more problematic of them is that she will seek an unconditional ban on Pornography.  This is a very bad thing on a number of different levels.

First, political candidates should be disqualified for signing pledges.  It puts them in a position where they are promising to never consider new information or conditions, but to hew to a previously determined belief structure no matter what might happen in the future.  We certainly do not need a head of state who is constrained by a set of political promises made to special interest groups during the campaign.  I suppose, in this context, it's actually a good thing that politicians have traditionally been willing to abandon campaign promises at the first hint of political expediency.

Second, again, these are people whose core ideology is to reduce the cost, size and footprint of the federal government.  But here once again, we find them embarrassingly willing to spend taxpayer dollars to enlist the overwhelming power of American governance to restrict specific liberties that they find objectionable.  I know it has gotten painfully redundant to point out the repeated hypocrisy of the American Political Right, but at some point it just seems like their constituency should demand some basic level of consistency in their agenda and message.

But the real problem here is actually a larger one, and one that crosses political and philosophical belief systems.  As much as Americans like to invoke the constitution and the American form of liberal democracy, it seems that a very large percentage of them, indeed, a majority even, do not have even a first grader's understanding of how it functions.  In most liberal democracies, the head of state is mostly a figurehead, with very little actual power.  Now, in the US system, where the head of state is also the head of government, the President actually has more power than most of his international peers, and over the last quarter century has accrued even more than he is entitled to.  But in the end, the President can only set the agenda.  He cannot change the constitution, create a federal statute or appropriate funds.  Certainly, in international affairs he retains greater flexibility of action, but when it comes to domestic legislation, he is ultimately powerless.

Just as  GW Bush was unable to privatize Social Security, and just as Obama is unable to allocate further expansionary fiscal policy, a putative President Bachmann would be unable to create new laws regarding the production and distribution of adult media.  This is a particularly difficult area, due to the First Amendment concerns it raises, and has been an argument between legislators and the Judiciary for decades, if not longer.

But this is something that politicians understand intimately, and the people never seem to truly grasp.  If you want to influence policy, the President is an ineffective vehicle with which to do so.  Lobbyists and political professionals have understood since the dawn of representative government that you influence policy by achieving legislative and judicial majorities.  As long as the people think they are electing a monarch instead of a President, they will always be disappointed by his inability to effect real policy changes - and these sorts of pledges that ask a Presidential candidate to promise to implement policy change that is beyond her legal purview will only continue to raise unrealistic expectations.

The Debt Ceiling Negotiations
Now that the destructive reality of this massive self-inflicted wound is starting to sink in, let's not let history and events obfuscate the fundamental blunder.  This should NEVER have become a negotiation at all.  Ask yourself, why is it the policy of the United States to refuse to negotiate with hostage takers?  The President could have said, from the very beginning, "I will not negotiate economic policy under threat of the destruction of the economy".  Everyone would have understood what he was saying, and after an appropriate amount of bluster and name-calling, the congress would have voted to raise the debt limit like they always do.  But by accepting the premise that an increase in the debt ceiling was an outcome preferred by only his party, and accepting further that his party would be expected to give something up in exchange for the votes to pass the increase, Obama created a whole new paradigm in the American political process.  We now accept as a viable option in major legislative negotiation for one side to threaten to just burn down the entire house if they don't get their way.

One can't help but hearken back to the end of the odious GW Bush years, when it appeared that the Republican response to that debacle of governance would be to simply decide he was just too far to the left, and to push ideologically extreme right wing 'conservatives' into the party mainstream.  I remember how we shook our heads and concluded that they ultimately just couldn't do that, as it would destroy their viability as a national party.  Alas, as it turned out, both things could be true, but the unanticipated outcome would be that they would becomme a kind of political suicide bomber, willing to take the country down with them when they failed.

South Sudan
Congratulations.  Now stand by for the horrific tragedy.  It is, once again, the same lesson, still unlearned.  A nation without some strong and stable institutions of governance cannot be governed, and will not survive.  Giving everyone a ballot in war and dictator ravaged Iraq resulted only in the Tyranny of the Majority, and an authoritarian kleptocratic despot, because there was no superstructure of independent governance to build on.  Places like Afghanistan and Somalia have never been functional nations, because they are not nations in any fundamental way except in an atlas.  They are completely artificial constructs, with groups of unrelated, often hostile people forced to claim the same nationalist identity - and again, there is simply no basis for developing the institutions of governance.  Not only is democracy impossible, but even some sort of benign dictatorship cannot be achieved.

South Sudan has every problem any nation can have, all at once.  Grinding poverty.  Tribal animosity.  Ethnic and sectarian divisions.  Decades of war and hate.  Resource wealth.  No infrastructure, no economy, no system for education.  Who thinks 7000 angry, desultory and heavily armed UN 'Peacekeepers' will do anything to change the obvious and oft - repeated calculation?