Saturday, September 24, 2011

"The System"

Here is an email exchange I had with a friend and former colleague. 

His email:

"How in the hell does congress work so that a bill that primarily a bill to grant money to disaster relief gets packaged together with a bill that cuts emissions standards for cars?  Ends up Dems don't vote for it, because while they want the first, they don't want the second.  What the hell kind of a system allows you to package things that have nothing to do with each other?"

My response:

Well, it is not "the system" that does this but the people in it. And as with most people, they have reasons to bundle different stuff together in the same bills, and usually it is their way of justifying a vote against something that any sane or rational person would approve. Why do they do that? In this case, because some of the Dems don't want to approve disaster relief but they want to maintain the myth that we have two parties in this country. Smoke and mirrors, my friend, smoke and mirrors.

Just recently I reread a Federalist Paper in which Madison, after admitting that he hoped that elites would be chosen for Congress, argued that they would be kept faithful to those they were allegedly representing because they wanted to be re-elected. While not a bogus argument simply, what Madison failed to appreciate was that the desire to preserve one's power also would lead an elite to support that elite at the people's expense. Of course, because they cannot do this openly, they have to concoct ways to kill measures the people want - but they don't want - that disguise what they are doing. So much of what goes on in D.C. is of this nature.

Some academic from Berkley has written recently that Obama did not go after Bush for war crimes because he was afraid of a coup! To me, this is propaganda on an order that would make Goering or the Soviets proud. The elite devouring one of its own? For policies that the successor to Bush has continued? This is really too much foolishness to respond to.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Poor Analysis

"Traveling to Lynchburg, Va., to speak to students at Liberty University (as in Falwell, not Valance), Perry made light of his bad grades at Texas A&M.

"Studying to be a veterinarian, he stumbled on chemistry and made a D one semester and an F in another. “Four semesters of organic chemistry made a pilot out of me,” said Perry, who went on to join the Air Force.

“His other D’s,” Richard Oppel wrote in The Times, “included courses in the principles of economics, Shakespeare, ‘Feeds & Feeding,’ veterinary anatomy and what appears to be a course called ‘Meats.’ ”
He even got a C in gym.

"Perry conceded that he “struggled” with college, and told the 13,000 young people in Lynchburg that in high school, he had graduated “in the top 10 of my graduating class — of 13.”

"It’s enough to make you long for W.’s Gentleman’s C’s. At least he was a mediocre student at Yale. Even Newt Gingrich’s pseudo-intellectualism is a relief at this point.

"Our education system is going to hell. Average SAT scores are falling, and America is slipping down the list of nations for college completion. And Rick Perry stands up with a smirk to talk to students about how you can get C’s, D’s and F’s and still run for president."

These quotes are from a Maureen Dowd column in the NY Times, Sunday, September 18th.

This illustrates the problem with some of the analysis that is done in the U.S. today. The title of the article is "The Stupid Party" and here you can read Dowd's main argument. Well, the problem is that "stupidity" is not a political category. Being stupid does not impugn one's politics and you would think that those who have criticized the likes of Reagan and Bush II and other for being stupid, without denting their political followers very much, would learn this at sometime. This is why Reagan was called the "teflon president," why so much of the criticism of him did not "stick." It did not stick because it was not actually political criticism! Those who liked Reagan's politics did not care that he was at times or seemed at times "stupid." Ditto with Shrub or Bush II. What we need are critical analyses of Perry's politics, not his college transcripts.

There is another, lesser problem here as well. Everyone knows that "good grades" don't mean that much when it comes to evaluating a human being and her intelligence. Some of my best students were "C" students and would always be such. Some of the most intelligent of my students, as evidenced by what they did once they got to law school or went to work in a job that required independent thinking, pretty much blew off college in terms of grades and yet have done quite well in the later stages of their lives. In fact, some of my best friends now - and fraternity brothers in college - did this and yet they are far more intelligent than I am in many, many ways and have functioned quite well in the world. Dowd shows her ignorance, and I mean that word precisely, when she writes that "Average SAT scores are falling." Well, Ms. Dowd, that may be but it also may be a good thing and would be if it were deliberate. I think the most intelligent students would be all too glad to say, "Fuck SAT scores! What bullshit!"

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How Our Politicians "Think"

"Hours after 1,000 New York State troopers, sheriff’s deputies and correction officers stormed Attica prison to crush a four-day inmate revolt in 1971, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller telephoned President Richard M. Nixon to claim victory unambiguously" From Rockefeller on the Attica Raid, NY Times, September 13, 2011

“Tell me,” Nixon asked, “are these primarily blacks that you’re dealing with?”
“Oh, yes,” Rockefeller replied, “the whole thing was led by the blacks.”
Later that afternoon, Nixon asked H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, whether reports from the prison included “the fact that it’s basically a black thing.”
“That’s going to turn people off awful damn fast,” Nixon said, “that the guards were white.”

Blame it on the blacks and that works from a PR point of view. For Nixon, this action was what might be called "a teaching moment," that is, a moment when Rockefeller could teach other governors and the nation that there was a national conspiracy among blacks in prisons and that the way to deal with this conspiracy was deadly force. Nowhere in the reported tapes does anyone ask about the grievances that led to the riots and the take over of Attica. It is as if these grievances are irrelevant and, of course, once deadly force is used, that is what happens: The grievances become irrelevant and everyone, both supporters and critics, focus on the issue of whether deadly force should have been used. Sound familiar? It should.....

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sarah Palin Gets Interesting

"But when her throat was cleared at last, Ms. Palin had something considerably more substantive to say.

"She made three interlocking points. First, that the United States is now governed by a “permanent political class,” drawn from both parties, that is increasingly cut off from the concerns of regular people. Second, that these Republicans and Democrats have allied with big business to mutual advantage to create what she called “corporate crony capitalism.” Third, that the real political divide in the United States may no longer be between friends and foes of Big Government, but between friends and foes of vast, remote, unaccountable institutions (both public and private).

"In supporting her first point, about the permanent political class, she attacked both parties’ tendency to talk of spending cuts while spending more and more; to stoke public anxiety about a credit downgrade, but take a vacation anyway; to arrive in Washington of modest means and then somehow ride the gravy train to fabulous wealth. She observed that 7 of the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States happen to be suburbs of the nation’s capital.

"Her second point, about money in politics, helped to explain the first. The permanent class stays in power because it positions itself between two deep troughs: the money spent by the government and the money spent by big companies to secure decisions from government that help them make more money.

“Do you want to know why nothing ever really gets done?” she said, referring to politicians. “It’s because there’s nothing in it for them. They’ve got a lot of mouths to feed — a lot of corporate lobbyists and a lot of special interests that are counting on them to keep the good times and the money rolling along.

"Because her party has agitated for the wholesale deregulation of money in politics and the unshackling of lobbyists, these will be heard in some quarters as sacrilegious words.
Ms. Palin’s third point was more striking still: in contrast to the sweeping paeans to capitalism and the free market delivered by the Republican presidential candidates whose ranks she has yet to join, she sought to make a distinction between good capitalists and bad ones. The good ones, in her telling, are those small businesses that take risks and sink and swim in the churning market; the bad ones are well-connected megacorporations that live off bailouts, dodge taxes and profit terrifically while creating no jobs.

"Strangely, she was saying things that liberals might like, if not for Ms. Palin’s having said them.

“'This is not the capitalism of free men and free markets, of innovation and hard work and ethics, of sacrifice and of risk,” she said of the crony variety. She added: “It’s the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest — to the little guys. It’s a slap in the face to our small business owners — the true entrepreneurs, the job creators accounting for 70 percent of the jobs in America.'”

Never thought I would find anything Sarah Palin said interesting, but I do. Of course there is a permanent class that stays in power and they govern to stay in power. Whatever they do for the people is merely a concession they make because they have to, because they are forced to make them to avoid an insurrection that would cost them their power, insurrections like that which cost LBJ the presidency or that cost the Republicans the control of Congress in 2006. Of course, this permanent class is able, even after such insurrections, to maintain control. This is what the Democrats did to Jimmy Carter, undermining his presidency with the help of Ted Kennedy. And then they fell into step with Ronald Reagan, with Tip O'Neill leading the way. Whether Palin means any of this is a question. But at least she said it. And that is something. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011


“Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country,” said Mr. Perry. This is from the "debate" among Republican presidential contenders that took place last night, Sept. 7th, 2011.

When I read this, I wondered what constitutes "provocative language in this country today." For example, when Perry was asked whether he "lost sleep" about overseeing the execution of 234 people while he has been governor, he said that he had not, not at all. Is this "provocative" in the United States today? Not so much, I think, as most Americans assume that when it comes to executing people our governments never make mistakes. And, besides, even they did and a few innocent people were put to death, where is the harm? Deterrence works much better when people think punishment is a crap shoot!

But then Perry and Romney traded jabs about job creation, both of them taking credit for their ability to create jobs. Well, this is a bit odd coming from alleged "conservatives" who are suppose to think that government has little to do with a healthy economy or with promoting such an economy, except of course "getting out of the way." So this might be "provocative language" today but it passed without comment. And this is as it should be because we all know that the alleged "conservative" agenda of limiting the power of the government is more fiction than fact. As Ron Paul pointed out, at one time, Perry was supporting mandatory vaccinations of young women to prevent certain sexually transmitted disease and if this isn't "Big Government" - to say nothing of stupid public policy - then I don't know what is.

Finally, the candidates sparred over social security and we all know this is a joke and the joke is on us. Why? Because we all know that each one of these candidates does not need social security when they retire! I would prefer that those who are put in charge of "reforming" social security need it, if not now then in the future. That is my money - it is not an entitlement that I am about to receive - and I don't want those controlling it who don't have a similar stake in it.

And, of course, this is one thing that makes the entire event less than interesting to most Americans. We know that those who were debating are not in the same boat as the rest of us. Mitt Romney does not have a job and does not need one! The others on the podium also don't need a job like you and I do in order to survive or remain "out of the poor house." Just as I prefer those who need social security to control it, so too I prefer to have candidates and officials who, like me, need a job in order to survive. As I have said too often, when a politician tells you that "I feel your pain," run away as fast as you can. You know s/he doesn't. And insofar as s/he doesn't, s/he cannot represent me. It just doesn't work that way.

Perhaps this constitutes "provocative language," perhaps not. But this I can guarantee: It is not language you will hear from any candidate or incumbent running for office in the United States today. And you may judge from that whether it is "provocative." 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lying States: Libya and the United States

“No U.S. leaders dare to tell the truth to the people. All their pronouncements rest on a mythical assumption that ‘recovery’ is around the corner. Implicitly, they say this is a normal recession. But this is no normal recession. There will be no painless solution. ‘Sacrifice’ will be needed, and the American people know this. But no American politician dares utter the word ‘sacrifice.’ Painful truths cannot be told.” 

"Why has this been a lost decade? An answer can be found in one simple comparison: How Dwight Eisenhower and his successors used the cold war and how George W. Bush used 9/11. America had to face down the Russians in the cold war. America had to respond to 9/11 and the threat of Al Qaeda. But the critical difference between the two was this: Beginning with Eisenhower and continuing to some degree with every cold war president, we used the cold war and the Russian threat as a reason and motivator to do big, hard things together at home — to do nation-building in America. We used it to build the interstate highway system, put a man on the moon, push out the boundaries of science, teach new languages, maintain fiscal discipline and, when needed, raise taxes. We won the cold war with collective action.

"George W. Bush did the opposite. He used 9/11 as an excuse to lower taxes, to start two wars that — for the first time in our history — were not paid for by tax increases, and to create a costly new entitlement in Medicare prescription drugs. Imagine where we’d be today if on the morning of 9/12 Bush had announced (as some of us advocated) a “Patriot Tax” of $1 per gallon of gas to pay for education, infrastructure and government research, to help finance our wars and to slash our dependence on Middle East oil. Gasoline in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, averaged $1.66 a gallon."

Although I don't always agree with Thomas Friedman and what he has to say, this is a column I like. It is worth the read, despite some deficiencies, such as, Friedman's rather innocent characterization of the how the U.S. used the Cold War to build up the nation at home. And Friedman left out one of the most important elements of this use of the Cold War by leaving out any mention of the civil rights movement. As Nixon said, with his inimitable crassness, we needed to end segregation because it left us open to charges of racism by the communists. Not that segregation was wrong......rather that ending segregation was needed as something like "an act of war." Amazing. Also, if Friedman expects Obama to be "honest" I feel for his naivete. Obama is part of the problem, not part of the solution because he is one of the oligarchs as he has shown over and over and over again. Still, this is a column that should make us think about why things are so bad. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Just About the Crux: The Importance of Institutions

"[When] the media, and the respectable intellectual community generally, are to serve their 'social purpose,' [the most important] matters...must be kept beyond the pale, remote from public awareness, and the massive evidence provided by the documentary record and evolving history must be consigned to dusty archives or marginal publications. We may speak in retrospect of blunders, misinterpretations, exaggeration of the Communist [or Islamic] threat, faulty assessments of national security, personal failings, even corruption and deceit on the part of leaders gone astray; but the study of institutions and how they function must be scrupulously ignored, apart from the fringe elements or a relatively obscure scholarly literature." Noam Chomsky, The essential Chomsky, p. 274.

This is just about as accurate as one can be regarding what passes for political analysis in the United States these days and for some time past. As I have pointed out for some time to students, again and again presidents engage in questionable and irresponsible behavior of the most egregious kind and we ask: What was wrong with Clinton, or Bush II, or Reagan, or LBJ, or JFK, or Nixon [especially Nixon]? We rarely ask: What is wrong with the presidency? "The study of institutions and how they function must be scrupulously ignored!" Indeed, because were we to question our institutions, we would enter a realm where we might have to rethink how we are in the world, that is, how we choose to be as a people. But, unless we are prepared to do this, and only a few of us are so prepared, we will find ourselves caught in that "vicious circle" we hear so much about.

Another aspect of this mindset should be commented upon, viz., the recurring wish that if only we elect the "right kind" of people, our troubles will be over. As my mother use to say: "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." If the problem or the problems lie in our institutions, then electing the "right kind" of people, whether you take the "right kind" to be "liberal" or "conservative," is less than decisive. Let me put this more bluntly: If we have become institutionally and in part thanks to the Constitution - which makes our president "the commander in chief" - a warlike people, then electing "sensitive" or "humanitarian" types president will not make us less warlike. As Eisenhower warned in his Farewell Address, there is a "military-industrial complex" and its influence spreads throughout society, leaving even a person like Eisenhower, who was keenly aware of the what war did to individuals and to peoples, struggling, unsuccessfully ultimately, to keep the peace. That he failed is indicated by the fact, too often forgotten, that both candidates for president in 1960 ran against Ike and his conception of the presidency and the "military-industrial complex." Kennedy promised "to get the country moving again" and he did so, even if he did not live to see that it would be better had he paid more attention as to the direction of this movement than to motion simply. But isn't a prejudice in favor of motion built into the presidency itself? If you think not, just reread Alexander Hamilton's essays on the presidency in the Federalist. But "the study of institutions and how they function must be scrupulously ignored."

Monday, September 5, 2011

Dashing Hope

"In interviews with more than two dozen people in New Hampshire and Iowa over the Labor Day weekend, voters said they sensed a new vulnerability to President Obama.
But while they expressed a strong sense of optimism in the prospect of winning the White House, they were looking for a candidate who could not only prevail in a general election, but be a forceful conservative leader for a tumultuous time."

The above is from the New York Times today, September 5, 2011 in an article that is about how Republican voters are looking for "a winner," that is, some one who get beat President Obama and who is, as they see it, "conservative."

Now for me, from my perspective, it is absolutely essential, according to those who control our politics, that these hopes be raised and then dashed. Why? Well, because the people must be reminded that politics is powerless to affect real change. It is especially important to teach the people this lesson in what the Times calls this "tumultuous time." Why would the powers that be want to teach this lesson? How does it serve their interests, which include of course maintaining their power and status? Well, because if the people get the idea, and get it from experience, that politics can change things, that political change can result in genuine reforms, then the days of the current power holders are numbered. If people get this idea in their heads, then they will expect our politicians to actually change things, to actually engage in genuine reform and, when they don't, they will be voted out of office. What better way to teach the people that such change is impossible, is "unrealistic," than by raising their hopes and then dashing them? Sort of like what happened in and after the presidential election of 2008. Obama ran on the promise of "change" and then bailed. Of course, he justified or explained his bailing by claiming that he did all he could do, all anyone could do, given "political reality" in these United States. But it should not go unnoticed that his bailing serves the interests of the "powers that be." And if you don't believe this is persuasive, just think the following name: Russ Feingold. Did you see or hear anyone in the Democratic Party elite bemoaning Feingold's defeat in his re-election bid for the Senate? I did not.

It is important to recognize that this lesson, appropriately taught, serves the interests of both parties and their controlling elites. Hence, don't be too surprised if and when the Republican Party elite does things, makes "mistakes," that hurt the chances of its nominee for president in 2012. As the saying goes, "Better the devil you know....." But, also, because these are perilous times, especially for the ruling elites who know that they have a potential popular insurrection on their hands, it is all the more important to remind the people that politics and politicians are essentially powerless to change things. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Being "Political"

"There’s a specter haunting American politics: national decline. Is America on the way down, and, if so, what can be done about it?"

This is from David Brook's column in the New York Times, around September 1 or so. It is entitled "The Vigorous Virtues," and it touts Rick Perry while criticizing him as well, along with other Republicans who are thinking "cut, cut, cut." Brooks argues for government, that is, some government, pointing out that government is necessary for some things. And, of course, as even the most simplistic account of American history since the New Deal would point out, this is true. Hasn't anyone noticed that the rise of the United States to super power status has gone hand in hand with the creation of a humongous national government or that even Alexander Hamilton knew of this phenomenon?

But I have some criticisms of Brook's essay. First, he presents the specter of national decline not as a political event but as a social event. That is, like so many "conservatives" he points to such social phenomenon as single parents as being at the root of the decline. He does not see this decline as a political phenomenon, that is, the result of the fact that the nation has been controlled for the past several decades by those who may be called oligarchs. It is these oligarchs, like Clinton and Shrub, who have harmed the nation and especially its economy and they have done so in order to serve their own class. Divorce and single parenting are hardly responsible for the loss of jobs overseas or for the rise of the Walmart economy or the "failure" of social security.

Second, he posits the need for what he calls the creation of the "instigator state," which for Brooks is to replace the "nanny state" which, allegedly, we have been living in since, well, it is unclear but let me say since LBJ's "Great Society." This phrase, the "instigator state," is also a politically neutral category, as is the phrase the "nanny state." If the cause of our decline is a political phenomenon, then there is no way to know if creating an "instigator state" will remedy our ills. I suspect it will not and, further, that it is merely a cover which will be used by the oligarch's to retain their power.

Finally, Brooks illustrates the phoniness of Rick Perry's "attack" on the national government, of his pledge to make government inconsequential in our lives. I approve of this as a goal, even as the goal of politics but it cannot be successfully undertaken unless and until we reject "greatness" as the goal of political action. So long as we desire to be "a great nation," that is, great economically, socially, politically, and militarily, we will have to embrace a pervasively powerful national government. This should be clear by now, after Reagan and Shrub and their alleged "conservatism." Genuine conservatism requires rejecting greatness as the goal of politics, as the goal that human beings should pursue. This is what Jefferson and Jackson and even Mark Twain knew. It is a lesson we need to relearn or we will, even with a Rick Perry presidency, suffer the consequences.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Remaking History, American Style

I have been reading an interesting article by Noam Chomsky entitled "The Remaking of History," which begins as follows: "American imperialism has suffered a stunning defeat in Indochina. But the same forces are engaged in another war against a much less resilient enemy, the American people. Here, the prospects for success are much greater. The background is ideological, not military...." [p. 141, The Essential Chomsky]

Also, in this essay it becomes clearer why Chomsky is labelled by many a "radical." It is pretty simple, viz., it is because Chomsky looks at things politically. That is, he asks the question when examining the behavior of the United States, "Who benefits?" meaning which parts of society benefit. As he points out, most Americans don't like this. That is, they don't like to think of the United States as Aristotle would have, viz., as a "regime" or as an arrangement of power and institutions that benefit some at the expense of others. For example, we like to think that presidents govern with the intention of benefiting "the people," and not just a part or parts of the people.

How do we avoid such analyses? By using categories like "stupidity" or "savagery." As Chomsky points out, these are not political categories or that they are "politically neutral categories." And, as a result, we think that the cure for our ills is to elect a new elite, a different elite, a "more humane" elite or a more intelligent elite. And, of course, this doesn't work because the United States is a "regime" like any other political order and, as such, it favors some and disfavors others. Until we accept this and choose those who favor the many rather than the few, our ills will continue. Such is life in "wild West" - and anywhere else for that matter.