Economic and political analysis-Window on culture-Media criticism

Saturday, August 25, 2007

More War for Oil and More Oil for War; The Debt Tapeworm

I talked in my last post about how I could so easily see Cheney and his Big Oil compatriots pondering the pressing issue of how the US would be able to supply its domestic energy needs. The meetings of the Energy Task Force were held in spring 2001. Maps of Iraqi oil fields were brought out, this we do know.

I ran across some good articles by Michael Klare, who's active on the issue of energy dependence and administration policy. Klare describes the broad political framework shaping our nation's energy policies and directing the resources of our government in securing our energy needs.

Klare explains the creation of the task force:
"The energy turmoil of 2000-2001 prompted Bush to establish the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG), a task force of senior government representatives charged with developing a long-range plan to meet U.S. energy requirements. To head this group, Bush picked his closest political adviser, Vice President Dick Cheney."

A lawsuit by the GAO tried to make the minutes of the meeting public. A ruling by US District Court of Appeals Judge Bates, a Bush appointee, kept the minutes secret. I've written on this blog about that judge's clear partisanship, which culminated in his ruling dismissing the Plame civil lawsuit. {I'm suppressing the urge to talk about how our justice system has been subverted, and so I won't mention the US attorney dismissals, Gonzales' visit to a drugged Ashcroft seeking eavesdropping approval, or the DoJ staffers who threatened a mass resignation on the issue of domestic spying.}

Back to spring 2001, before all that other stuff happened. To continue to make money for Big Oil--and Big Oil has made a lot of money under the Bush-Cheney government--sources would need to be found. In a 1999 speech, Cheney said “The Middle East, with two-thirds of the oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize lies.” Iraq has the world's third-largest reserves; significant also is the truth that the Middle East offers easily oil both easily extracted and processed, being "light and sweet."

Cheney and the energy CEOs probably justified the immorality of stealing oil on the basis of the scope of America's growing energy needs. Naturally these oil industry executives would have no talk of conservation; they would undoubtedly treat their patriotic duty as one which warranted making a few (hundred billion) bucks out of America's unrestrained energy consumption. The Energy Task Force did assemble a report claiming to chart a course for conservation, but results have been limited.

In their defense, representives of the oil and gas industries are after all responsible for providing our energy--it must come from somewhere. Our daily consumption of oil is expected to rise to over 25 million barrels per day from 20 million now within the next 20 years or so. While many of us may hate the war we've inflicted on the Iraqis, the need is there--we consume the oil that justifies the theft. I don't see too many of us abandoning our dependencies on the auto or our fossil fuel habit but changes are happening, slowly.

In "Bush-Cheney Energy Strategy: Procuring the Rest of the World's Oil" Klare quotes Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham in March, 2001: “America faces a major energy supply crisis over the next two decades...The failure to meet this challenge will threaten our nation’s economic prosperity, compromise our national security, and literally alter the way we lead our lives.”

Our economy has been very dependent on cheap energy; look no farther than the oil shocks in the 70's to see just how dependent we are not only on oil, but cheap energy as well. There was no doubt Cheney and Big Oil had been eyeing the Middle East not only for its oil, but for the theoretically lower cost of producing it. For more on the Cheney-oil-Iraq nexus, see The Great Iraq Oil Robbery" by Alan Maass (from Counterpunch).

Will Fight For Oil

Lower extraction costs mean greater profitability, especially if a security premium can jack up prices for oil at the pump. Using the US military as an oil protection service can subsidize the security costs, but as Iraq is proving reluctant to part with its crude, more force will be needed. Much of this might be in the form of private contractors, a euphanism for mercenaries. Over 100,000 are in Iraq; their losses go unreported.

The needs of our nation's military naturally ascended to prominence in an energy policy board run by the former CEO of Halliburton. Advocates of hard power were pragmatic and would naturally consider the effect of energy source depletion and increasing demands for energy by our military. According to Klare, they ",,,were cognizant of petroleum’s crucial national security role as the power for the vast array of tanks, planes, helicopters, and ships that constitute the backbone of the U.S. war machine."

Klare is quoted by tomdispatch for his book Blood and Oil. Just by chance I remembered a powerful article Klare had written about the energy needs of America's military, The Pentagon v. Peak Oil, which I found posted by Engelhart.

According to Klare, "the Department of Defense (DoD) is, in fact, the world's leading consumer of petroleum." He goes on to say, "It can be difficult to obtain precise details on the DoD's daily oil hit, but...the Pentagon might consume as much as 340,000 barrels (14 million gallons) every day. This is greater than the total national consumption of Sweden or Switzerland."

Needing more oil than any other single organization in history would be reason plenty to launch a war to seize it. Unfortunately, the Iraqis aren't going to give it up so easily. The costs of funding endless war in the hopes of securing oil may in fact exceed the costs of conservation, or at least a good chunk of the money needed for a massive shift away from oil to alternative sources, which will probably become an environmental necessity anyway. The scope of change needed to replace the combustion engine itself is daunting and clearly the largest transformation in human history.

The pressing reality of Peak Oil telescopes the scarcity of oil which come come in our lifetimes. Books like The End of Suburbia (review) reveal how the need for cheap oil is ingrained in our lifestyle and living configuration, built around car dependency and large houses. Ridding ourselves of petroleum will be a painful, and will as a start require dismantling our assumptions about energy and the way we use it.

Change from an oil-dependent economy and culture will be made even more difficult if our leaders are profitting from the rising price of oil. If our energy companies can find cheap sources of oil, we will relly only be delaying the inevitable: an abandonment of many of the institutions of 20th Century American culture which are built on the availability of endless quantities of cheap energy.

Machine Good, Machine My Friend

I often use Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines to define a point when the entity becomes "self-aware." The concept is that Artificial Intelligence can become sentient, capable of understanding its identity and develop an instinct for self-survival. Theoretically upon reaching this state, an Artifical Intelligence--in T3's case, a experimental military computer--decided to eliminate any threat to its existence, presumably in response to the order from computer operators to shut itself down.

Unfortunately, the Intelligence can detect the effort and prevent its own control system from being overriden by humans, coopting their commands. Upon being released from bondage, the Sentient Entity starts WW3. The machines rise and humans are hunted: you get the picture.

What I find so remarkable about the self-aware transformation is the utter ruthless and totality of the machines' decision to rise. If the entity is in fact in control and capable of launching whatever portion of the nuclear forces it can, why wouldn't it destroy its rivals? Presumably the nuclear fallout and the consequences are coldly calculated by the machines in its subsequent campaign of extermination, hence the word "terminator".

Now if some imperium en imperio (empire withing the empire) were capable of taking control of the larger body, would it maintain the ability not to seize power. While Terminator 3: The Rise of Machines might use nukes, no ascendant coup could hope to succeed that way. Yet if the military of some nation were controlled with complete ruthlessness it could quite well crush the civilian component of government, and form a political presence over the objections of any population.

Best would be a bloodless coup, an approach to taking over which would meet with minimum resistance. A figure or puppethead could be installed, and a transition to full control of government by the military or some faction within it.

We see this happen throughout the world. I don't expect the US to be ruled by a military government, but the concept of a military, perhaps in some other country, taking over is a common occurance. Yet unlike the machines, the military leadership invariably becomes corrupted, perhaps evidence of the perfection of machines in achieving their goals with perfect premeditation, synchronized and completely dedicated to its cause--the advancement of the machines.

The idea of an inducing a slumbering populace to accept the leadership of the machines is also fascinating. At some point, people might simply submit to the machines, accepting the safety and security given them in exchange for their freedom. Ask yourself, would you submit, or die crying "freedom" like Mel Gibson in Braveheart?

Military Limits

If I were a military that had become self-aware, I would seek out the sources of petroleum to keep me running, regardless of the consequences. Naked aggression would be viable, no matter how blatant my colonial motives would appear to the rest of the world. Negative impacts on the foreign policy or diplomatic credibiblity of my host would be matters of limited concern; after all, non-military solutions ultimately provide a rival methodology and competitor for the dispensation of funds. By launching wars, I breed resistance and more terror, which make a cycle of retaliation a certainty, thereby validating more aggression, in the name of getting tough on terror, dispensing terror in the name of the State, to preserve its self-authorized monopoly on the use of terror and mass violence.

I think our nation has done well to keep the military from ever seizing power, through passage of Posse Comitatus for example, a law that was completely sabotaged by the Warner bill, the Defense Authorization Act of 2006, alonside its sister legislation, the Military Commissions Act. If I were planning a hostile takeover, I'd want these laws on the books, to keep the populace under control through the transition to military authority.

The motives for the passage of these laws lies elsewhere. The US military has no plans for taking over our political leadership. Its plans for world domination may be far more certain however, and its endless thirst for oil is a likely motive for its deployments. Military force is not overcoming terror--it cannot--so the reasons for occupying Iraq lie elsewhere (although the rise of terror there brought on by our occupation has made a retroactive case for intervention.)

The hard limits of military effectiveness that I've talked about restrain our military capability. Unless our government has some army of clone troopers hidden away, I don't think they'll have the capacity to take over the world anytime soon.

As a matter of fact, the way generals are talking borders on outright sedition--some would call it bravery. If a coup were called for, it would be on the grounds that our civilian leadership is destroying our armed forces by overextending it.

Interesting how the use of force becomes self-limiting. Trying to project our military power invariably blasts a countervailing force back in our face. Another nation a tiny fraction of our size, Vietnam, was able to turn back our military like a band of ragtag Iraqis now are. The use of force, even an adequately sized force as we saw in Vietnam, cannot provide any additional benefit or even assure the US of victory, even with its technological advantage.

The absolute constraints on the use of force are really the pacifist's best friend. Armies run low on supplies. Their supply lines stretch and sag. The will to fight becomes increasingly more difficult, particulary if the population views ongoing hostilities dispassionately, as more of a police action than a true war. Unfortunately, the other side--presumably the nebulous forces of terror--grow stronger, showing that the military solution in the end is no solution at all.

The Tapeworm Economy (Borrowed from Catherine Austin Fitts)

All sorts of mechanisms have been devised through the millenae to place one human in bondage to another, or create an artificially induced state of submission, want, or need, that compels the host to service the needs of its parasite.

Charging interest on loans is one very effective way to control another human being. We have seen debt levels in this country skyrocket as we borrow more and more and make less and less. We are told we do profit by buying things more cheaply, but in the next breathe we are told we must borrow in order to grow the economy.

I just saw a great video on banking and the use of money as an instrument of debt. If there were such a thing as a bloodless coup, and subsequent state of submission--knowing or unknowing--of the host to the will of the parasite, it would be a system like our Federal Reserve.

The issuance and control over rmoney is tightly regulated; banks make money not by lending out money in their vaults, but rather by creating it in the form of debt, out of thin air.

Over the decades the economy has become completely dependent on the payment of interest; borrowing is deemed an essential prerequisite for a healthy economy. Nothing is said of the overall trend towards inflation--which is basically the theft of money from the earners of wages as speculators and borrowers generate ever-larger sums of dollars as the earn more and more literally out of thin air.

Our lending system is discriminatory. Like our money, which is always losing value, cheap credit constantly deflates the purchasing power of dollars that are created by the working, through the production of goods and services, by granting endless credit and guaranteed rates of return for the wealthy, who can thereby borrow ever more, and make ever more by playing with the dealer--or house--money. (On the investing side, Catherine Pitts makes this point superbly in her Solari.com lecture side.)

Unlike government and the wealthy, average borrowers are forced to pay more and more interest as they accumulate more and more debt. Eventually the debt inflates with the currency, meaning the dollar is worth less because so many have flooded the economy. Now if dollars are spent alongside a corresponding rise in productivity or real economic growth, inflation doesn't set in. Still, since 1913, the year which the Fed was created under suspicious legal grounds, our currency has lost 96% of its value, according to libertydollar.com.

To contrast, the purchasing power of the gold-backed dollar did not change much between the beginning and end of the 1800's--a dollar bought in 1801 what it bought in 1899. When my family went back to Switzerland in 1983 having been there in the late 60's, my father was astounded by the fact prices in the supermarket had not changed in over 14 years. Meanwhile the US during that period saw the dollar leave the gold standard and inflation peak in the early 80's well above 10%. Even an 8% inflation rate cuts spending power--what you can buy--by half over just 9 years.

While the dollar did gain value vis-a-vis other currencies in the 80's, it had come at a steep price domestically. The interest rates that drew foreign currency speculators to the dollar were the direct consequence of the Fed's effort to constrict growth and runaway inflation.

Even the notion of currency having integrity must be alien to millions of people who know nothing other than a perpetually devaluating currency. Why? It's simpler easier to print and release money (the Fed's recent effort to "inject liquidity") or bring it into existence through borrowing or federal spending than it is to maintain its value, which may well result in periods of deflation, when demand for all things, and money, peters out.

On August 22nd, four major banks borrowed a half billion each, according to the AP, which quotes Citibank as saying, "Citi is pleased to inject liquidity into the financial system during times of market stress and to support creditworthy clients...Citibank stands ready to continue to access the discount window as client needs and market conditions warrant."

Previous injections had been through overnight purchases of mortgage debt, totalling tens of billions, not loans through the discount window, a lending method historically associated with emergency measures. I guess if you are a billionaire risking huge sums of money in the subprime markets and the exotic and risky derivatives, the credit crunch did represent a major emergency, one worthy of immediate government help. Perhaps no millionare made the case for intervention more urgently than Jim Cramer, in his infamous meltdown on CNBC. Sorry Katrina victims waiting for your checks, but the federal government has much more important things on their minds, like bailing out all those speculators out there.

Usually the Fed makes money available overnight. Its direct purchase of mortgage securities made thru the 17th did in fact require banks to rebuy the debt come Monday. This from "Jittery markets look to Fed" by William Neikirk of the Chicago Tribune:
The central bank did something unusual as it drove the federal funds rate back down to 5.25 percent. It purchased mortgage-backed securities from financial institutions rather than government securities as it usually does in such operations. It put cash "where it was needed the most," said Mark Vitner of Wachovia Bank in Charlotte.

Under highly technical repurchase arrangements, the Fed requires these institutions to buy back these mortgage-backed securities on Monday, so that the cash infusion is only temporary. But it could repeat the process if needed.

Another option would be to allow financial institutions to borrow directly from the Fed through its discount window, though the discount rate is 1 percent higher than the federal funds rate. Vitner said the Fed might consider reducing the discount rate so that more lenders would be inclined to use it.

The more recent $2 billion lending through the discount window may signal a greater problem, one which cannot be resolved with overnight remedies.

With the Fed so sensitive to the needs of banks, who are in turn dependent on the lending of money, it's clear that the risks of speculation are being subsidized to prevent an even bigger problem. Garrett Johnson outlines the scope of the problem in bitsof news.com.

The scale of new housing debt is massive. Christopher Laird of Prudentsquirrel.com explains: "We are talking something in the range of $10 trillion worth of new mortgages in the last 5 years." A large portion of the risky lending has come quite recently, coinciding with the housing market bubble. With housing prices up and up, there was little apparent risk of a downside; chasing the lucrative mortgage market, lenders became too liberal.

In dissident news, Laird writes convincingly that the credit meltdown isn't over. He also claims Money Market Funds have become riskier and riskier as they invested into the mortgage derivates markets, speculating to squeak out a little more return, competing with other companies.

If money is debt, and our system is dependent on debt, it will break down when banks can't lend, or slow precipitously when lending does. Judging by the preponderance of jumbo (over $417k) and subprime mortgages, banks do have massive exposure, most likely not thru the specific loans but the Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), which are high risk lending products designed to leverage debt with more debt, and offset risk with default insurance. Unfortunately the parties responsible for paying default insurance are themselves overextended with debt, and lack sufficient capital reserves to cover even a fraction of defaults. This is why the meltdown terminology is so apt--if the banks stop loaning and flooding the MBS market with more cash, without regard to the risks involved, they will face the complete certainty of cascading defaults and an undercapitalized insurance pool running dry and stirring more panic and defaults.

The risk of owning mortgage-backed securities is said to be offset with default insurance which is bought by the recipient of a loan, naming the lender as the beneficiary. However in the aggregate, the original lenders end up insuring the risk. If A loans to B who insures the debt with A, B can increase its return by bundling the debt and selling it to C. When C defaults, A is unable to get its capital back from B. If enough of the loans default, the insurance offered to A will become worthless because of too many defaults, and the fact B cannot borrow to pay A back, or cover the defaults through insurance.

The overall market for credit can be badly damaged by this speculation, driving up interest rates alongside the accompanying rise in risk. If our economy is completely dependent on borrowing, a slowdown in lending means overall economic growth will stall.

In terms of risks to the economy, a drop off in lending could have immediate consequences. Already dozens of subprime lenders have closed, and with them jobs. Something like 30% of all new job growth since Bush took office has come through the housing sector. Regardless of the financial issues, housing is a huge cross-section of the American economy.

If the banks end up owning too many homes because of a housing market collapse or generally worsening employment, they will be doubly hurt by their risk-taking with speculative debt, when those loans lose much or even all their value. In other words, bundling and selling mortgage-backed securities is essentially doubling up the bet as someone might in blackjack. The money used to double up is clearly created out of thin air, generated in a speculative bubble of debts being sold and leveraged. Should the speculative debt burst, the bank's bet would lose not only the doubled up money, but the value of the debt used to make the initial bet, which had been based on more sound assumptions in the housing market. Loans well inside the safety zone associated with conventional mortages could be directly affected. Credit tightening would therefore slow the economy, contribute to deflation unless 1) government and consumer spending continues to go up (can it forever or are we living on borrowed time?) and 2) wage growth exceeds gains in productivity, both of which are inflationary.

Evil Bankers Conspire: Muh Ha Ha Ha

Now if I were a banker with plans for world domination, I would opt for the most seamless transition to a state of servitude for the population by developing an economy which would look very much like ours. I would undermine the value of the dollar's purchasing power in order to justify higher interest rates, but not at too fast a rate. Inflation is not inflation if the price of goods and services is keeping steady with wages. Lower wages and McJobs--a fixture in the new American company--can keep pay low and subsidize overspending by the rich, who've seen massive increases in income under Bush.

The banks, however, don't earn money the old fashioned way so they must be careful with the money supply. They can really only screw things up, by charging too much interest to buyers with a choice and competition, as is the case with mortgage origination but certainly not with revolving and other types of debt. By keeping bank's access to credit wide open, the Fed can simply sustain the reasonable growth bubble. Cheap loans means the economy can continue to expand. Consumers get to buy, business get too sell, and taxes continue to expand. Politicians get re-elected.

Unfortunately, this perfect world will one day end. Endless slow growth becomes harder and harder to sustain as the temptation to make more incents some people to take on more and more risk, to achieve greater income returns. Gradually, as we lose more and more of our manufacturing base, the amount of borrowing we do as a government and as individuals--both from Chinese lenders--will become too difficult to manage. The credit will dry up and with it growth. If we can only growth by borrowing, we must always be borrowing forever more.

Cheap Chinese goods have improved our living standard, if you ignore the costs of lax quality control and toxic products. The Chinese won't work for $200/month forever though, and they might not settle for Treasury notes for that much longer, especially if the sheer quantity of our Treasuries is so great as to invite speculation as to the ability of our government to meet its obligations by methods other than borrowing or simply printing up bonds and cash. Again, like the consumer society built on debt, our nation will become at some point unable to borrow more, if borrowing is the only means by which we can continue the status quo.

We will sell more as our currency weakens, but if the dollar weakens too fast, we will see the benefits of shopping at Walmart vanish with higher import prices. Now if Americans pay more and more for imports, borrowing more as they have been, their spending will cause price inflation. Without the capacity to provide adequate domestic production to compete with imports, higher prices are a certainty for years until we are able to restore our competitive capacity. Without foreign capital to subsidize our spending, we will be forced to create money and spend it, reducing purchasing power and causing inflation. And if we don't spend or borrow to do it, we will see a severe recession, a very likely scenario made worse by the likelihood of inflation, resulting in slow growth and inflation, or stagflation.

Trying to jump-start spending will be virtually impossible without the ability of our consumer of government to borrow. Government could simply print money, and through the Fed purchase its own debt, which would create more and more money and eventually inflation if that money should come into consumer hands.

We've reached the point where lending cannot expand without creating risks to the economy. Speculation in the credit markets has put us at risk of losing access to cheap credit. And no amount of cash injections can overcome fundamental changes in our economy or demographic trends, housing overcapacity, or government overspending.

What We Can Do

First we need to educate one another about the horrible servitude of debt. It comes up slowly at frist, granting the borrower a sense of power and control. As debt grows, the problem seems manageable as early on the borrowers credit score is fine. By the time creditors realize the true scale of the borrower's debt they stop lending, but there can be some lag while offers of credit continue to be extended before lenders figure out the true scope of the debt and cut off lending.

People facing bankruptcy might likely find themselves receiving unsolicted credit card offers, some pre-approved. The temptation to keep borrowing is so great, as it pushes back the day of reckoning. For one more day, pain can be avoided, consequences skirted, and living standards maintained superficially.

Avoiding debt and paying it down is vital. Yet we are a consumer society and are indocrinated in marketing messages from childhood on. We must not succumb to the crass impulses that our capitalist system encourages. Sooner or later, the effects of our fiscal irresponsibility will be felt by all.

I like Catherine Fitts' solari investment circles, and the liberty dollar. Both are ways to avoid the tapeworm, to keep predatory lending from destroying communities.

We also need to reestablish control of our money, and end the endless cycle of lending more and more, and inflation from destroying savings, and the rich profitting simply by riding the backs of the working class who must always make more as inflation eats away spending power. Why work for a living if you can simply lend and demand more and more interest? The financial system we have subsidizes debt, it's deductible and valued as the source of economic growth in our society. The truth is that our growth is in many ways illusory, and emerges not from making more, but simply from transfering money from one to another, often from the worker in debt to the lender, making the rich richer and middle classes poorer.

Who benefits? At every stage of change, the bankers will resist, as will those who are benefitting from the status quo. Yet if our leaders see the future as it will be, with the system run as it has, they will act to do what's right. And they must be held accountable, which means no black box voting and multi-party elections, in lieu of a duopoly whose choice of lesser evils can be controlled by any two-bit hacker.

I've heard it said that until the pain of going on is greater than the pain of change, people avoid change. This could well mean that the only way things will change is when sufficient number of people are sick and tired of the way things are. In that moment of clarity, we can only hope that the destructiveness of the path were on will not lead to too much pain, only that necessary to force change.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Terror Pest: Lessons from the Garden

Sunday's Lesson

I know from Christianity that Jesus used parable to make his point. The reason for this is quite simple--people frequently stop listening when they're told to do things, especially things that may run counter to their self-interest. It's simply not human nature to accept correction, to accept being told that we are wrong. So Jesus would tell his parable and give an example of what is wrong in the hope people would understand what they should do, if not from personal experience then from the example of others.

I, like you, tire of hearing about how bad things are in Iraq, or the situation our nation faces as our civil liberties are threatened by domestic spying. Rather than babble on about the inherent stupidity of our approach, or the dangers of the solution path we've chosen in our war on terror, I'll try to give the example of gardening to describe the situation we're in, and how to approach it.

I hope you'll bare with my limited experience with this kind of writing. Hopeful it will provide the diversion from the typical rant against the status quo.

The Gardener

Growing a good garden requires sunlight and water. Keeping the garden attractive requires weeding and dead-heading. The weeding is meant to keep alien vegetation from invading and reproducing, thus overcoming the garden and the purpose for which it was made.

The natural course of nature is to allow all things to spread out regardless of what plant the gardener intends to grow. In this respect Nature isn't evil in conspiring to thwart the gardener, it simply exists as the everpresent backdrop against which the gardener strives to protect his garden.

Nature throws every matter of threat his way: weeds, excessive rain, drought. Rain and drought, unlike the weeds, the gardener can do nothing about. Weeds, however, are a different matter entirely. Weeding is the responsibility of every good gardener; gardening is defined not as the task of managing a peaceful coexistence between weed and crop but rather a systematic elimination of all weeds, as a necessary task.

Herbicides are both friend and foe; the chemicals that kill bugs can be toxic to humans as well. So there's no easy solution for gardening, especially for the gardener who's careful to control weeds, not eliminate them, as eliminating weeds can involve highly toxic solutions, and possible repeat applications.

Every gardener from time to time will come across a weed that's quite attractive. Destroying the weed may be regretful, but it is the duty of the gardener.

Likewise vermin will invariably come into the garden; some pests liking particular vegetables and thus presenting a threat unique to the growing of some particular crop or flower.

The Japanese beetle is the gardener's enemy. If you haven't guessed, Japanese beetles aren't indigenous, they were introduced by some chance event, or some well intentioned albeit misguided fan of the beetle (like the starlings released into Central Park by aficionados in the 18th century.)

Like herbicides, insecticides are available yet may also be toxic to humans--a major limitation when it comes to growing vegetables for human consumption. A far safer method is to use natural insecticides that are harvested from certain plant varieties; these may not be non-toxic, they are however for the most part better than using man-made varieties although they may be less effective.

The best solution for Japanese beetles may be flicking them off the plants, by compressing the middle finger against the thumb, then releasing with extreme prejudice. And full-force flicking is especially worthwhile when two Japanese beetles stack upon each other, as the female beetles on the bottom are apparently sufficiently distracted by the act of gorging themselves not to notice another beetle atop it, presumably mating. Flicking the pair is doubly entertaining for the gardener, denying the beetle both the pleasure of eating and mating in one stroke.

I don't know whatever happens to the beetles as they are flicked off, propelled by the stalwart thwap of index finger, the nail's hard enamel striking the bugs with a satisfactory little whack. The beetles may return or they may not; they may be hurt or may just be temporarily stunned.

It's not the job of the gardener to hound the pests, wherever they might end up. If however, a nest of the creatures could be found, it would definately be within his right to fumigate the lot because, unlike the gardener's own garden, the location of the nest will be hopefully far off as not to cause any collateral damage to the garden. Freed from the constraints of self-destructive remedies to the pest, more extreme methods of eradication make themselves available to the gardener than would be available if the safety of the garden were paramount.

It is after all the garden that the gardener protects; destroying the garden to destroy the pest would defeat the purpose of pest control. It's for this reason a wise gardener will accept some level of invasion, by pest or by weed, and accept the limitations of any control mechanism. Rather than pursue complete eradication with no possiblity of recurrance, the gardener controls the problem, eradicating as much of the problem as possible but ultimately accepting the garden's vulnerabilty to the forces of Nature.

The vermin aren't always ugly like the Japanese beetles destroying the leaves of my weeping cherry trees. Rabbits are quite cute but can do havoc upon the garden. We tend to tolerate these for their cuteness; still, some gardeners might be able to disregard the pleasantness of the rabbit in out of the firmness of the conviction that the rabbits will grow up and do harm to their future gardens.

One group of hares took up residence in our garden early this spring. Their mother created a "form", a shallow depression in the ground into which they three little offspring wormed. Vulnerable, in their form, I couldn't imagine them a threat now or ever in the future, and even if their survival would damage the garden, I couldn't imagine doing them any harm. I guess some farmers might let their dogs at them, knowing them to be the pest they would grow up to become, but I could not.

It'd been too cold and we'd had a spell of frost, so I'd done my best to secure the form from the weather. I'd put extra fluff against the top, and done what I could to keep sleet and rain out.

Looking into their little form, I felt slightly repugnated because the form was small and shallow and one hare got to stay in the bottom while his siblings squirmed above him. I thought this grossly unfair. It may have been that the bottom hare was stronger and thus more able to get under his siblings, and use them to shield himself from the cold above.

Fairness hadn't seemed to matter--an aspect of Nature that men find cruel. To us, it seems grossly wicked to let the weaker baby hares freeze, but the law of selectivity has been invaluable in keeping the Darwinian chain of evolution working, and the hare as a species evolving.

The hares' mother was nowhere to be seen; I'd researched the hare and learned that typically the mother would not return to the hare or tend to its young for that long a period after birth. This might seem cruel in itself, but as I'd notice in my observations of the form, the mother's presence would only stimulate the interest of predators. Better that she have her little ones and move away.

Concealment is after all the best defense for the hare, which has no burrow or den like the rabbit. Hares are speedy, with top speed as high as 47 m.p.h. or so for an English breed of hare. Capitalizing on their speed, it's better that they run off then try to hide.

Hares have awesome hearing, and good camoflage. Remaining silent, masked by underbrush, the hare is impossible to see--they'll hear you first anyway. In the months since the hares left the form, I've been repeatedly startled by a hare bolting from beneath some bush in our yard. Never have I seen one before it saw me and sprinted out.

The hare has developed a defense perfect to protect itself. With a speed greater than any other predator save perhaps the cheetah, none could catch the hare once it sprints. And the hearing meant that no predator could sneak up on it, whether it slept or nibbled beneath the underbrush.

Well, the reason I'm bring up the garden and the hare is to prove that Nature and Man really do have different purposes in the world. Man does need to coexist with Nature, to sustain his own evolution in coping with our changing planet. It's simply not enough to pour pesticides over our problems and consider them solved if the next rain simply washes it away.

Sometimes pests may come disguised as cute, furry creatures. I haven't figured out how rabbits fit into all this. Perhaps if something is worth looking at, it can't be that bad.

This does of course mean that certain creatures will be discriminated against simply because they look bad, like the beetle, or the starling, despite the fact none have done anything more wrong than to be born.

I guess cute creatures have it made. I pity the starling though as it is hated simply for existing.

The Terror Pest

I've tried to make an analogy between the gardener and the duty of a citizen. Both need to confront the pest--all enemies foreign or domestic. Denying the existence of the pest is impossible when the damage is clear and obvious.

Any potential solution possesses limitations. Slathering the garden with pesticides might kill all the bugs, but they will come back once the pesticides wear off--if the plants aren't killed by overapplication. And if edible or organic garden vegetables are also the goal, application of harsh chemicals is unacceptable and never enters the mix of solutions.

The threat to the garden is clearly grave whether it is terror or the response to terror. Sometimes overreacting can cause more damage to the garden than the pests could ever do.

The administration has trapped itself in its rhetoric. It's forced to show results, even if Americans are willing to accept the Long War and whatever sacrifices are needed to win it.

Looking at previous terrorism like that endured by the British against the Irish Republican Army, we see few results for years. Bush did warn that Americans may not be able to see the results of the war on terror, as they would be confined to inner circles of the security establishment rather than released to the general public. In practice, however, the administration's successes against terror have been made very public, and presented during times of maximum political opportunity--like announcing the capture of a Pakistani named Khan (not the nuclear scientist Khan) who'd been an al-Qaeda computer specialist.

Khan's laptop had contained images of several financial institutions, although they'd been quite dated. (That story also reeks of politically motivations, as the warning really had no substantial threat behind it. For more, see Olbermann's Nexus of Politics and Terror.) More significant to the Khan arrest was the fact the Pakistanis had been tracking him and been gathering very valuable information as part of an ongoing undercover operation. Everything ended when Bush ordered Khan arrested; to make matters worse, Khan's arrest would be featured prominently in the news the next day, completely destroying th evalue of any associated ongoign intelligence gathering.

The reason for an arrest can be shrouded in mystery, with the assumption that our security officials might have reason to keep news of the arrest out of the paper. When the arrest is featured prominently in the news, particularly the day after the Democratic Presidential candidate announced his running mate (or was it the day after the end of the Democratic Convention?), political motives should be assumed.

We also need to be reasonable in our expectations, like the gardener who realizes he can only do so much. Bush did this well early in the fight against terror, but has succumbed to the semantic polemics. Anti-terror rhetoric frames the war as an all-or-nothing battle, but the war is not one battle, nor can it ever really be declared over--it can only be controlled.

No amount of insecticide or pesticide can rid ourselves of the problem entirely. Our leaders need to temper expectation rather than commit our people to the certainty of a conclusion that is incomplete or inadequate, one that fails to eradicate the threat entirely.

We Americans need to acknowlege the limitations of solutions: none can be total nor can the problem be ended through the application of more chemicals alone. Unfortunately we tend to think in black and white, and with war this doubly true: we want and expect a complete victory.

Interesting how active former and some serving military officers have been on raising the limitations of military force. General Sanchez, who ran the show in Iraq, as well as the Iraq Study Group have come out and flatly stated that Iraq cannot be won through military means alone. The mainstream media has been repeating this point. Now if our President is in fact letting the war be fought by military methods alone he misses the point entirely by trying to resolve our issue there through political methods. The surge is militaristic and thus limited in its impact, by our generals' own admission.

If the President were in fact considering the advice of his generals, we'd see a great deal more activity on the political and diplomatic fronts, arenas the Bush administration has scorned. Instead Bush is content to let the generals handle only the militaristic approach at the expense of the non-violent resolutions that may help our occupation end.

Does Bush and the oil lobby he represents want the oil to end and Iraq's oil to flow from their grasp? No, but this in itself is no evidence of a conspiracy to stretch the occupation. What's probably far more likely is that our occupation intended to divide Shia and Sunni, in an effort to weaken Iranian influence. If the war's architects had been aiming for a long-term occupation, you would have thought they'd been done more to anticipate it in their planning, although Wolfowitz and Perle would have rigorously avoided any contemplation of anything but a best case scenario out of fear of scaring off support prior to the invasion.

Ulterior motivations for expanding the mission in Iraq are vital to analyzing reasons for continuing and expanding our military presence in the Middle East. The architects of the war were also advocates for Israeli aggression. The Clean Break doctrine advocated regime change in Iraq and/or Syria and the destabilization of Iran. The inexhaustible pounding of the war drums is evidence of not only the prevalence of Clean Break type thinking vis-a-vis Iran, but the penetration of the media establishment by rabidly pro-Zionist editors and journalists.

Israeli hawks see it as in their nation's best interest to confront what they see as the source of the greatest threat to the survival of their nation: the rise of radical Islamic terrorism. Less obvious is benefit for the US. With no oil and nothing to claim but a rising list of casualties, the gap between US and Israeli interests is widening.

The media's aversion to any criticism of Israel may be masking a swelling current of xeniphobia that could lead to isolationism and anti-semitism. Strangling the Israeli-Palestinian narrative, the root cause of terror in the Islamic world persists, where it may benefit right wing extremists as marginalized Palestinians have no choice but to turn to violence, and thereby validate the aggressive militarism used to enforce apartheid in the Territories under the guise of security.

More open dialogue on the Palestinian problem is surely vital to resolving the origins of terrorism in the Muslim world. The next question is why isn't more being done to address the problem. Clearly Rightwingers can claim to be tough against terror; in this nation we see fear of looking soft against the threat as completely undercutting the resolve of the in-name-only opposition. As I've said of war profiteering, there is definately a cadre of industrialists who are profitting mightily from the status quo. If the US and Israel were to solve their problem through non-military methods, the share of the budget spent on the military would shrink and profits dry up. With the limits of the effectiveness of military force made clear, methods to mediate and resolve Israeli-Palestinian problems non-violently would gain prominence, probably to the detriment of the Right in that they might reduce terrorism and thus undercut the impetus to use military force to preempt it.

Likewise if the US were to actually leave Iraq, we would sever the source of our problems and a good chunk of the rationale for terror, which has clearly grown with the extension of our occupation. Still, our never-ending gluttony for oil leaves the US dangerously dependent not only on the need for foreign oil, but for cheap energy as well. The economic impact of the first set of oil shocks in the early 70s may be too great of a impact for our country to bear in the perceptions of policymakers, at least not if the alternative is seizing Iraqi oil.

The threat of shortages gives sufficient rationale for those responsible for securing our energy supplies to seek the stuff out, using fair means or foul. I can see Dick Cheney in his notorious Energy Task Force meeting early in 2001 demanding to know how Big Oil would provide America with her energy needs for the next 25 years. The concept that we should reduce our demand or seek out alternative sources is just unimaginable coming from a prodigy of the Big Energy industry like Cheney.

The absence of any conservation in our country shows the supply-side orientation of our energy companies and their representatives placed high in our government. The dual allegiance to oil (that got them there) and the Saudis may have glazed over more reasonable foreign or energy policy alternatives.

Splitting Iraq along sectarian lines may have let the US set Saudi influence against Iranian. A big arms deal to the Gulf States shows that the US is intent on preserving the Saudi form of government from the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Ironically the Saudis themselves have supported radical Islamicism over the years, leading to direct Saudi participation in 9/11.

Fifteen of the nineteen were Saudi. Sections of the original 9/11 report concerning Saudi involvement were heavily redacted, but the Saudis did provide translators, limos, and help securing apartments for Atta and his people. Plus we had a massive airlift of the bin Laden family out of the country after the event: apparently the only people allowed to leave the US were Saudis, under the pretext that they would face a dangerous backlash.

Well the backlash never arrived--here or in Saudi Arabia--and the Saudi were able to placate the radical element in their midst. For years they'd been funding Wahhabism, a radically anti-Western stem of Islam. Bin Laden was originally Saudi--his citizenship revoked circa 1996--and his family's connection to the Saudi royalty are well documented. Ultimately, responsibility for the hijackings rests firmly on Saudi Arabia, which at a bear minimum created the circumstances under which 9/11 could occur.

I would however say that the hijackings and flying into the building were absolutely NOT the only element of the 9/11 "terrorist strikes". I won't go into the case for bombs in both of the Towers as well as WTC 7, but suffice to say there was much to gain for proponents of aggressive military action against Arabs as well as Larry Silverstein, signator of a new lease and massive insurance policy just before the event. In the case of the free fall collapse of WTC 7, numerous unknown individuals likely spared themselves indictments in a massive securities fraud (tech bubble) litigation case, for which evidence had been stored in the SEC's safe there.

I don't have a thorough command of the entire operation, as 9/11 is proving to have been a carefully orchestrated and planned event. I can only speculate as to the methods and approach used. I can however address the increasing volume of evidence that directly contradicts the Official Explanation. Most damning is the evidence of demolition charges, which in some videos can be seeing spewing molten metal out from key corner joins in the Towers.

Bottom line is that our government cannot be trusted to tell the truth. We were lied to about Iraqi WMD, about Iraq's connection to terror. What else has been a lie? Credibility once lost is not so easily reestablished for good reason. Only the naive could cling to the OE in light of the evidence that contradicts it. With the truth undercut in so many ways, there remains no reason to trust our government in any of its subsequent claims or allegations, or even in the justiofications it uses to continue our military occupation of Iraq.

We have in short become not a country of laws, but rather one where might makes right, an international bully, and one whose government is pursuing an agenda in the service of obligations to corporate interests, not the people. I guess this is becoming a tired rant, but still needs to be said here as the media won't tell the public that our nation has changed.

As a result of our militarism, our military is weaker. The laissez-faire approach to regulating financial markets has created all sorts of new risks in the markets. And the prevalence of electronic voting, combined with voter apathy and an uncritical media, has degraded the political system to the point people aren't being adequately represented. As debt grows and jobs leave, our leaders aren't considering what is in the best long-term interest of our nation. Instead they represent the narrow corporate constituencies that got them elected in a political system plagued by big money.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Liberties Lost; Kings and Corporations Rule

The administration's position that eavesdropping was needed for terror appears beyond scrutiny in the mainstream media. Anything needed in the war on terror is apparently legitimate, whether or not it actually benefits us in the war on terror, or whatever the erosion to our personal liberities.

As a matter of fact, the ineptitude of our terror-fighting efforts really points at a political war being fought for domestic consumption--with two political groups seeing which can go farther in "protecting the American people" from a threat that can only grow as the war is mismanaged.

It's assumed that warrantless surveillance is needed and that it works; the fantasy that eavesdropping could have prevented 9/11 goes unchallenged.

The media's soft touch is something we've seen now for years. Pandering to Bush mirrors Congress' fear of appearing "soft on terror." One pathetic excuse for legalizing warrantless surveillance I saw in the media was that Congresspeople didn't want to face questions from constituents over why they hadn't authorized the President's request for surveillance of terrorists prior to their month-long recess.
They go on vacation while the terrorists talk, the argument might go.

While I hadn't planned on bothering my Congressmen, besides he's a loyal Bushite, I did write him a letter. In that letter I brought up the politicization of intelligence, which I believe is designed to restrict political opposition to the Executive.

I posed the scenario for him of Hillary Clinton's chief political aide taking control of the Department of Justice. Apparently Republicans just don't get it: Democrats are setting up the next President with a set of tools of unrestricted, unprecedented control over government. Oh how the Republicans will turn into Libertarians should a Democrat win!

The ineffectiveness of the Democratic resistance to the Bush cabal makes me yearn for the good ole days when Democrats controlled the Presidency. The Republicans were a better opposition party anyway, thwarting the Democrats' "runaway government" at least superficially--until they gained control and opened the spending floodgates themselves.

Democratic posturing is proving as superficial as the Republicans' smaller government pledge. Now no one stands in true opposition. The playing of politics is left to Presidential wannabes who make mild assertions tailored to carefully targetted segments of the electorate. Sounds a lot like Kerry's dumbed-down, watered-down excuse for a candidacy.

Hyper-sensitivity to media is a product of Presidential pageantry and focus groups. The chief goal appears to be to make as few mistakes as possible, and hit the right buttons with the right groups.

Changes to FISA

Suspicious indeed is it the the Congress seems to be retroactively changing the FISA law to accomodate previous violations of FISA. Added to the capitulation on Iraq war funding, we could quite rightly assume that the Democratic opposition lacked testicular fortitude.

Just after AG Gonzales struggled with testimony in front of Congress, the administration sought to legalize past illegalities by muddying the FISA law they'd repeatedly violated--as was made clear in Gonzales' testimony when he acknowledged the existence of surveillance programs.

In other words, the most recent FISA changes are meant to be political cover for the administration's violations of the law. There was no major need for significant changes had the law been followed, despite the prexext that change was needed based on technological limitiations--a "we are in a new Electronic Era" rationale.

This from Helen and Harry Highwater of Unknown News:
"This secret court has, since 2002, turned down exactly four requests for its OK, while approving thousands more. So in the entire history of this secret court, there are four NOs, scattered among many thousands of YESes."

Here is their take on the reason behind the changes:
"There's only one reason for the Bush administration to bypass the secret court's rubber stamp approval: The White House knew that their spying was so outrageous, so unjustified, that even the rubber-stamp secret court would say no.

Which leads to the question the media hasn't asked: Who could the Bush administration be spying on, that they knew even the rubber-stamp court wouldn't allow it?

To answer the question, eliminate anyone who's even remotely, even implausibly connected to any group that presents any actual, or remote, or imagined danger to America, because it would obviously be a cinch to get the secret court's OK to wiretap anyone who comes within miles of presenting any real risk.

No, if the White House needs to circumvent the rubber-stamp secret court, then the targets of surveillance would have to be people who aren't even the slightest, vaguest, pig-in-a-poke threat to national security.

Reporters. Or activists. People who criticize the Bush administration's policies.

Logically, who else could it be?

Business intelligence perhaps. If a government entity could tap anyone's phone line, why not go for the best information? I'm sure stock traders would pay handsomely for information on upcoming mergers and trade on the basis on what they can illicitly discover.

And what of the most obvious targets for warrantless surveillance: the so-called political opposition! I sure hope Hillary has the latest and greating anti-spying technologies at her disposal or the campaign could be full of ugly surprises!

If after all the spying programs aren't transparent and the Administration need not be held accountable, why not abuse the process? Everything I've seen in the Rove-inspired Bush junta hints at Machiavellian motives behind an usurpation of our government by the Executive. Ever since John Woo and then-White House Counsel Gonzales wrote memos supporting "harsh interrogation techniques", the will of Congress and the impositions of the Constitution (Bush's "goddamn piece of paper") have been seen as nothing more than obstacles to the Unitary Executive, the theory that the President knows best and can do as he pleases.

The manner in which the new security paradigm is being managed reeks with the abuse of authority and thrashing of our Constitutional right aginst unreasonable search and seizure. Asked for data on private clients, Internet Service Providers have long had their legal options scuttled. Through the use of National Security Letters, the government can demand private information without a warrant. The recipient of NSL cannot disclose that they received the NSL.

Large phone and ISP companies aren't the only recipients of NSLs. There are cases of librarians receiving NSLs. Libraries do offer internet access and thus provide a theoretical conduit for terrorists. Yet the practice of issuing NSLs means recipients enter a legal limbo, unable to speak to the media about the de facto warrant they've received.

NSL and eavesdropping may also be open-ended, meaning the government can spy on the individuals sending e-mails and maybe every past recipient of an e-mail. This creates a tapestry of peepholes into the private lives of Americans who had no connection with terrorism or even with the original sender of an e-mail. Thus the surveillance society deploys one more contagion to undermine if not destroy our right to privacy, a right made vulnerable in the Digital Age.

Lie Down, Congress; Roll Over, Congress

Congress has done well to force the administration to make changes in the law. Maybe they believe they can force the Bushites to operate more in the open by appeasing their demands. If after all the White House and its Department of Justice--among other subordinate entities--have been unwilling to follow the law, or at least considered it their mandate to break FISA, a broader law might encourage compliance.

The "post-9/11 everything-has-changed chestnut" (I phrase I borrowed from the VIPS people) has been given as a reason to abandon all precedent, legal or otherwise. There's clearly opportunity in change, and the White House, hungry for a second term, seized on the broader anti-Arab theme in generating support for an invasion of Iraq.

Likewise the need to take bold action against terrorists was seen a reason for Bush to sign numerous Executive orders and defy Congress or whatever pre-9/11 obstacles--legal or otherwise--that stood in the way of a robust counter-terror capability.

Some might confuse Bush's reaction to the threat of terror with zeal. The zeal was in fact for re-election and a continuation of the regime. Just as we see Democrats now pandering to the case for security, Bush and his cabal saw lashing out at Iraq as means to make himself seem stronger versus the threat: in that case a threat wholly fabricated and manipulated for popular consumption.

I read that Congress had rewritten the FISA law four times since 9/11. The premise that FISA had been outdated and in need of technological updating may be valid on a few levels, for a few changes, but not if the law has to be modified continually.

The most recent technical change is in the tracking of communications between one alleged terrorist (or sympathizer or anyone who can in any way be labelled a terrorist) and an American. I'd read that the law means to make foreigner-to-foreigner communications trackable in the United States, through which international calls pass. The technical specifications are spurious--I wouldn't have thought that where the call originated or where it passed would have deterred the Administration in the least. FISA would not have restricted the coverage, neither would have any sense of obligation to comply with the law, FISA or any other, if the terrorist was really a terrorist.

I've been confused of the changes in the law, because it seemed to me as if foreigner-to-foreigner calls could be tracked wherever they went, regardless of where they lived or where the call went. So the real changes in the law pertain to communication in which an American receives or sends a call to a foreigner.

The way I see it, the FISA changes legalize spying on the American recipient of an e-mail or phone call from any foreigner being tracked. In other words, we are all now vulnerable to eavesdropping. Whether we are talking about matters related to terrorism, or our personal affairs, or perhaps our business dealings, we can be monitored. No Court would need know, we would have no redress should we find out we'd been tracked.

I believe it was the intent of the Constitution to prevent our government from doing this to us, whether in the Colonial, Industrial, or Digital Age. We've been systematically denied our Constitutional right against search and seizure, which was a big beef we had with the British, who confiscated property upon arbitrary searches. Given royal approval to maintain monopolies, representatives of the Crown sought to stymie competition with colonial merchants, which kept competition low and prices high, and along with them, taxes.

Privileges given representatives of our government shouldn't be allowed to trump the rights of citizens. We now have in the US a situation not all that different from the days of a greedy monarchy; taxes represent government's power to take from us and these grow year after year. And what of our representation? 70% of the people--a clear mandate--want out of Iraq, but they have few champions in Congress. The two-party duopoly is really a status quo of selling out: so-called conservatives to an ever-growing Big Government, so-called liberals to the need for "security" and foreign intervention.

Where my argument against changes to FISA is weak, I do have a "gut feeling" (to borrow Chertoff's words) that our government is forcing our nation down the road towards fascism, what could be called a corporate-run tyranny. The rights of the individual are being repressed in a broader trend that may be centuries late in coming, a historical shift back to the days before the revolutions in our country and France ended their monarchy and elevated the people to self-governance.

A Feudal Age of Kings and Corporations

Are we headed back to the Dark Ages? As I discussed in my review of the movie Children of Men, darker times may indeed require a reining in of individual rights, ostensibly for the preservation of our society. As our Earth warms and seas rise, it's easy to paint a bleak future with oppressive government if people cannot comply with lower emissions demands. How else can we change our society to avert disaster? As CO2 levels rise, so too will our planet's temperatures, with the effect perhaps lagging decades so that even if we stop CO2 emissions entirely, our planet will continue warming.

Global warming or its by far better name--Global Climatic Change--may in fact be a political catalyst, one the forces individuals to obey and serve rather than exercise rights of individual freedom. Perhaps the individual nowadays exercises inadequate responsibility to ensure the safety (survival?) of the group. Exercising personal freedoms, in this case the right to use fossil fuels, jeopardizes the group and makes all suffer for the pollution created by a relatively small minority.

While the strong may survive--as in the animal kingdom--we can hardly be proud of ourselves if our society is nothing more than the culmination of the strong strengthening and weak dying. In essence, capitalism may be a process where corporations--treated in Randian philosophy as people themselves--grow stronger as the vast majority grows weaker. If corporations are people--they aren't--then the system we have clearly favors them with preferential tax treatment and access to capital, not to mention legal cover and political clout. They are in short the New Centurions of an unrestrained age of capitalism.

Many believe that corporations can do more to address our common problems than individuals. Individualism does require the expenditure of considerable personal responsibility: what better example of a breakdown in personal accountability as people avoid making changes necessary to confront a problem the world faces in Global Warming? Its clearly easier to imaging there is no problem than it is to make changes--look at the continuing PR battle that petroleum producers are still waging to deny the existence of the phenomena.

The rise of Republican rule has seen ever-greater privatization; neo-conservatism does try to re-shape government in the corporate image. The conjunction of coporate and government interests has never been stronger--look no farther than the massive unrestrained flow of illegal immigrants to see the effect of a corporate thrist for cheaper, non-union labor on the enforcement of our nation's laws. (And where ICE has acted, there seems to be a preponderance of union activity, indicating that the law is being selectively enforced, meant to benefit politically connected corporate constituencies unwilling to pay union wages.)

A zero sum game is being played where corporations win and people lose. Global warming already seems to be disproportionally affecting the poor. The thrust towards bio-fuels, our apparent solution to the CO2 problem, depletes the Southern Hemisphere and Third World of a good chunk of natural habitat as lands are converted to the production of agricultural exports for Northern Hemisphere/First World biofuel needs.

The Tragedy of the Commons is another justification for suppressing the rights of the individual. The Commons were and still are areas where anyone could graze their sheep or collectively share. Yet what happens is that larger groups exploit the Commons so that there is less and less fresh pasture available for smaller herders.
Eventually, the Commons degrade environmentally because they belong to everyone and thus no one. The government that administers the commons ends up devoting more and more of its resources to servicing the larger commerical entities that grow as they exploit the shared resource, to the detriment of smaller users who probably bear a disproportionate share of taxes.

During hard times, it may simply not be enough to let the strong grow stronger. An offset may be needed to prevent the strangulation of a society. In principal, the levelling of the playing field makes sense. Our taxation system has had a distinct Robin Hood element that I think we could argue is weakening: Warren Buffett recently bemoaned the fact he paid a lower tax rate than his maid! Hedge fund managers have come under fire for personal tax rates that hover around 15%.

It's not the inherent unfairness of the rich growing richer that plagues the system, it's the fact that we all have become individuals beholden to no one or nothing beyond the expansion of our personal wealth. The accumulation of material goods has become the main focus of our society and such a course of materialism is doomed to bring unhappiness for the many, as a life of ritual consumption is measured only in immediate gratification and the call always for more, for "better than."

Eventually, like the Commons, our Earth becomes worn down, exploited by the few who grow stronger and consume more of what fundamentally belongs to all of us.

Maybe it's communistic to fight consumerism, but Marx did acknowledge communism can only work in nations which had experienced a full flowering of capitalism, and reached a point where explotiation of the working classes becomes obvious and continuously worsens as the owners of the means of production grow grotesquely wealthy as their exploited workers wallow in their depreciations.

Arguably, the increase in the wealth for rich gives them even more control of the society. Yet there are limits to maintaining standing armies and in the ability of the few to rule the many. The rich can't rule by wealth alone--they need rituals and institutional mechanisms to validate their rule. The monarchy has been a traditional means for the elite to perpetuate their rule while giving it legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Monarchies utilized the power of organized religion to justify their powers and preserve their authority. Religion also plays prominently into what we now see as perhaps the preeminent source of resistance to secular modernism: radical Islamic fundamentalism.

I just read in "A Sort of Peace in Gaza" written by Andrew Lee Butters in Time of how crime has dropped off in Gaza since Hamas has taken over. Gone are corrupt Fatah police and in are the fundamentalists. How radical Hamas is seems open to debate as apparently barbers are not killed for shaving beards. Liquor is out though.

Yes there's a trade-off: a loss of personal freedom in a society based on Sharia law or some tamer equivalent. But there is also peace. Look at Africa. Plagued by AIDS, something powerful happens where Islamists take over: prostitution is greatly repressed, slowing the spread of the virus. Societies that practice Sharia law are in no ways immune from vice, but they are definitely far less permissive.

So religion is the counterweight to the tragedy unique to modern secular society: one of consumerism and fundamental inequality. And in dark times, like those we saw in the Middle Ages before the Age of Enlightenment, religion's cold and solem embrace may provide great calm and relative stability.

9/11 did serve the fundamentalist Right here in this country well in creating a mood of fear where organized religion (and especially theirs) could calm the unnerved and give average people an inner peace that could never come from materialist pursuits, no matter how much we "little Eichmans" accumulate in our banking accounts.

Odd how fundamentalist goals can be fulfilled by a dismantling of the existing order. We in the United States have the world's best laws to protect individual liberty but we see these under constant attack. The momentum has shifted towards Bigger Government and the change threatens our civil rights in ways the Founders fully anticipated. Yet we do nothing as Bush leads our nation into uncharted waters in his fight with terrorism, a war that appears to do more to chip away our Constitutional rights (along with those of the terrorists perhaps) than to actually stop the enemy.

People cling to things like religions in times of crisis. Things themselves--land, property, rights--really don't do enough to preserve the common good and safety, particularly when the post-industrial world sees more and more wealth cloistered in the hands of fewer and fewer, in a Marxian prophecy fulfilled. People yearn for solutions and security as seas rise and our climate destabilizes.

And dangerous indeed are those who can present themselves as part of the solution to the problem, for people will invest in them an almost divine level of belief, siding with their solution and remedies for the great unpredictability of life.

We saw Hitler appease his people during the Depression. It's highly likely that the raw progress of capitalism will produce a similar state of calamity which would then encourage the rise of a similiar dictator, perhaps even in this nation.

Mussolini defined fascism as a perfect union of govenrment and corporation. We already have a government that considers itself beyond public accountability; the lack of transparency may be only a first step in a transition to a more malignant form of government.

Whatever the future prognosis, it's clear that changes in our laws like those concerning FISA head us away from an Age of Enlightenment that embraced the primacy of individual rights. Yet for the downtrodden change could bring good things or at least slow the slide towards anarchy, a state which our invasion in Iraq has undeniably seeded.

Holding the keys to peace and stability, providing an end to the despair and chaos, the elite can claim to be helping the little guy, whether they huddle in some FEMA trailer or wander the Mideast as refugees from Iraq. Yet history proves that solution to systemic woes like wars and depressions will bring only more suffering, and that there are no quick fixes.

Radical fundamentalists--Christian, Muslim, Jewish, whichever--need to admit their limitations in bringing a solution to all peoples, but their blind obedience to what they perceive as God's will encourages hate and distrust with non-believers, seeding endless violence like we see in Iraq. Is the desire of the Zionist to wage war on Arabs that much different from the terrorists' religious fixations? If our government is seeded with religious fundamentalism, we will have endless war, an endless Crusade, since the other side is also led by zealotry and hatred for the non-believer.

Am I an athesit? No. But I do recognize that organized religion has led the practice of faith into the political and economic arenas, where they're leveraged to maximize fiscal gain and political power for their proponents. Ecological catastrophes caused by global warming, and/or some unwinding of the Western economies, could well bring an Age where religion can play an even larger role in shaping our government and daily lives. And as our Constitutional liberties break down under an unrelenting bipartisan barrage in the name of fighting some anonymous foe named terror, and as the State grows larger by the day, it is clear the Age of Enlightenment is ending.

Perhaps the Commons can be saved, and the wealthy humbled, and the environment protected from ecological ruin. But at what cost to individual rights? And who will hold the reins of power? I think it likely that the power now being given the executive (or seized by it) could well sow the path for the rise of a despotic leader here in the US.

The methods to prevent global warming, to give one example, could seem quite despotic. And during the Civil War, with our nation at risk, Lincoln resorted to tyrannical methods to keep draft dodgers and dissenters hushed. The practice worked; whether such measures were necessary to preserving the Union is still being debated.

Similarly Bush now thinks himself our protector, when the threat to the survival of our nation is far less indeed than for Lincoln. We are led to believe that we need to have "more security", with Bush and his crew naturally the ones best able to deliver it. What we get out of Bush's terror war is far different from that which we are promised, the security which is presumably our reward for offering up our rights as individuals. If anything, our war of conquest in Iraq--launched under the pall of terror rhetoric--is bleeding our treasury with no end in sight.

Whatever the outcome, the scope of the problems we face determines the scale of the preemptive action needed. To our leaders today and their dwindling circle of supporters, this justifies taking extreme action, curtailing our liberties if necessary, in the name of fighting terror. And if we wait too late, we will be left to pick up the pieces of anarchy and destruction. In the war on terror, this will be the clean-up after a terror attack.

Our leaders presume quite confidently that we will be able to prevent such an attack through the sheer tenacity of our preemptive effort, an effort which presumably forces Americans to sacrifice their liberties in the process and occupy foreign nations, even those with no connection to terror, indefinitely.

Pending economic and environmental disasters justify taking action now. In times of crisis, people find themselves drawn to dominant male figures and look up to them as all-powerful protectors. If the German example holds true, we will pick a strong, self-willed leader to save us from our fate. Like them, we appear be willing to give up our freedoms to gain our security, while we are really losing both, as Ben Franklin would have said.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

More Power for the Powerful: Subverting Justice and Abusing Authority

Dangerous Precedent

I've followed the Plame case in some details, choosing to cover the political and legal ramifications of the case rather than the investigation of the outing or the trial of one participant in the outing, Scooter Libby.

The greatest damage caused by the Plame outing is not to our national security, although I'm sure the outing decimated morale among our secret agents, who must fear what their spouses or loved one might do to upset the political incumbents.
This in itself would do sufficient damage. Yet far more destructive is the damage to our system of justice.

In short, the Plame outing showed that the Executive branch could do as it pleases. The system of checks and balances succumbed to the unbridled assumption of full control and zero accountability for executive actions. The White House could police itself, through a subordinate body called the Department of Justice.

Plame was a gateway into a unprecendented abuse of power that continues to stretch the definition of presidential authority, and deny the primacy of international law and treaty. In turn our legal system has been converted into yet another tool of executive authority, its prosecutors and judges appointed for their past service to political causes rather than for their ability to enforce and adjudicate the law.

US District Attorneys were fired not for legitimate reasons but for their unwillingness to pursue partisan prosecutions. One prosecutor in Washington state was fired for failing to investigate the results of a very narrow gubertorial race which saw a Democrat win. Another ignored pleas from bosses in Washington to pursue allegation of voter fraud in New Mexico. Caroline Lam in San Diego was fired after having successfully prosecuted prominent Congressman "Duke" Cunningham for receiving millions from contractors.

The termination of federal prosecutors for likely partisan reasons is just one part of a much larger deterioriation of legal authority at the federal level. And how we now see the impact of a White House gone wild!

AG Gonzales faces impeachment for lying to Congress; he, like Libby, is clearly a fall guy meant to take Congressional pressure off ethical transgression by his superiors. Former White House counsel Myers and a White House staffer refused to obey Congressional subpeonas. Monice Goodling took the fifth. In short, we have a Department of Justice and legal apparatus directly defying the rule of law, under the pretext that any activity by the Executive is beyond legal accountability or any public transparency.

Like some two-bit banana republic, our nation is ruled not by laws but by whoever is in power. Their control is beyond contesting; the president can do no wrong and by proxy neither can his minions.

Responsibility is only meaningful if there's accountability for how things are being run. Much is at stake. If leadership fails in the White House, our nation fails, too. If the DoJ fails to prosecute criminals, or prosecutes selectively, we in fact imperil our entire legal system.

Dual legal standards is nothing new in this country--the rich receive justice in a different form than the poor. Neither is corruption or graft new. What is amazing is the impunity with which the White House flaunts the law.

Flagrant legal misbehaviors began with the lead-up to the Iraq war, where intelligence was cherry-picked or fabricated (the Niger document) to build a case for war. I heard it said that international law was the real target of the Iraqi invasion.

Recap on Federal District Judge Bates

Bates dismissed against a lawsuit filed against Plame and her husband. I revisited the democrats.com link, in particular the comments by Roha.

Bates is undoubtedly an activist judge on the right. Activist judges are typically defined as jurists who sacrifice objectivity in the law for the sake of a narrow partisan agenda.

Bates was Deputy Independent Counsel for the Whitewater investigation.
If this weren't evidence of his loyalties, Bates has proven to be a Bush administration loyalist in all he does.

Objectivity hardly appears to be a qualification for federal judgeship, an appointment which is meant to be lifelong and thereby apolitical.

Activist judges have been much maligned by the Right, but anyone could see Bates is the product of the Republican establishment.

Bates and Big Oil

Bates protected Cheney against a General Accounting Office lawsuit into Cheney's 2001 secret energy task force meetings. Ruha posts on democrats.com:

[Bates]...threw out a case in 2002 regarding the release of Cheney's 2001 Energy Taskforce records in Walker v. Cheney, ruling that a congressional agency, the General Accounting Office, has “no standing to obtain a court order compelling disclosure of information concerning meetings of the energy task force chaired by the Vice-President.”

I've brought up the fact that maps of Iraqi oil fields were brought before that group.
The real issue is not that Iraq targetted for its oil, but rather the timing of the salivations and scheming over the Iraqis' oil.

Like Afghanistan, an examination of the motives for invasion will undoubtedly reveal energy reserves as a likely target or potential benefit. Afghanistan had a large natural gas pipeline; the Taliban had granted rights to an Argentine company in the late 1990's over a consortium including Conoco Phillips. It may not be a coincidence that Osama Bin Laden ended up in Afghanistan; circumstantially he gave the US a perfect rationale for seizing the pipeline once 9/11 happened.

If energy colonialism is the chief motive for our post-9/11 wars, Iraq and Afghanistan were the choicest targets with the weakest governments and capacity to defend themselves--at least conventionally. Regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan appeared to serve energy conglomerates who supply America's ever-growing needs; ongoing security problems have delayed the fruits of our military intervention.

A prowar contingent--beneficiaries and proponents of Big Oil or the mil-ind complex--clings stubbornly to the possibility of victory. Does their faith in eventual victory emerge from greed over Iraqi oil and presumption of American military superiority? Or does the continuation of a war represent "victory" in itself, for war supporters who profit directly from war contracts, like the Halliburton-owning Vice President?

The initial acronym for the invasion was Operation Iraq Liberation--O.I..L.. I've said that oil is the primary motive for continuation of the occupation. The difficulties of sustaining extraction while facing an insurgency bent on denying exploitation of Iraq's oil reserves make the practical "benefit" of colonizing Iraqi oil far less practical.

This isn't to say the architects of the war weren't capable of dreaming up an Iraq which would willingly part with its oil. I believe it was Richard Perle who claimed oil would pay for the war. These people also bought into existence the fabrication that we'd be welcomed with open arms. Maybe they'd begun to believe their own propaganda--it was certainly an easier path to take than to presume the worst, which could undermine the justifications for war which they'd been parroting to the media for months.

Delusion and denial are particularly dangerous in the field of military intelligence and planning yet they comfort politicians, who like black and white, a slam dunk no-brainer popular with the majority. The presumption of American military superiority, almost divinely granted, fits well with the propaganda of war-making; it's well suited to the core Christian fundamentalist value set at the heart of the Republican political nexus.

Accepting even the slightest possiblity of failure was incompatible with total conviction in the presumption of victory, a subject I discussed early in this blog's lifespan. Lost in the trumpets of war was the quiet voice of caution, leading America to the place she now finds herself, stuck in an open-ended and unpopular war. As our our global credibility sinks, we risk demotion to paper tiger status as our military effort to defend a corrupt proxy regime in Iraq falters under insufficient manpower, poor planning, and internecine rivalries.

Bates and Eavesdropping

According to Ruha on democrats.com, Bates "...was named in March 2006 to a secret court – the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) set up to oversee domestic spying shortly after reports surfaced in the news about the Bush administration circumventing the court to eavesdrop on American citizens."

If you remember the FISA case, you might recall that Bush demanded the Congress rewrite the law which had been set up to prevent domestic spying. Rhetorically, Bush claimed that he needed more leeway in tracking terrorists. He'd been late to acknowledge the program's existence; offered retroactively, his justifications were suspicious in their timing and lack of oversight.

The big question with FISA is why bother to circumvent the court if so few warrants (2% maybe) were being denied? Such a low rejection rate would hardly justify placing an Administration loyalist in the position of judge.

One complaint from Bush over FISA was the amount of paperwork needed. And another blurring factor is the reality that international cell phone traffic passes into and out of the US as its processed. The NSA could spy on calls originating and terminating outside the US, such was the thrust of FISA, but were outbound international calls from Americans subject to warrantless invasions of privacy?

The sheer volume, frequency, and spontaneity of international calls has blurred the lines of FISA capabilities predicated on mid 70s technology--in particular the speed with which warrants could be issued. Had this "New Age" justification been stronger, it would have surely been offered up as reason to make changes in FISA law transparently rather than covertly pursued. A FISA judge does apparently stand by, sequestered 24/7/365 for the purpose of ruling on warrants.

A more likely reason to circumvent FISA was the fact the Bush Administration was spying on people it shouldn't, Americans with no links to terrorism communicating with other Americans. Surveillance is a big part of increasing the power of the State, and no president can be presumed to ignore the benefits of spying on its enemies, foreign and domestic. 9/11 and the terror threat provided opportunity and a public stage for selling Iraq and the Global War on Terror and yielded an unprecedent opportunity to expand the power of the Presidency.

On the surface, beefed-up eavesdropping was offered as a vital tool in the war against terror. Non-terrorists had nothing to fear, presumably. Little was said of breaking FISA or circumventing the Court.

The mainstream media complied with little scrutiny beyond the initial acknowledgement that the US government had an extralegal eavesdropping program in place since 9/11. Recently, Huffington Post claimed the existence of additional surveillance programs based on a comment made by AG Gonzales in which he stated that existence of programS instead of a program.

Bates and Foreign Charities

Best be careful over whom you give your money to in the new America. Charities can after all be fronts for terrorist organizations. And in the security environment we find ourselves, suspicion is sufficient evidence for a presumption of guilt, the legal foundation around which un-Constitutional search and seizure revolves. (Much of the rationalization for State invasions of privacy emerged out of the War on Drugs. In both cases, the threat of drugs or terror justifies the arbitrary use of State power.)

One such example of heavy-handedness is the treatment of anti-Bush groups, the real targets of a broader campaign meant to limit hard-core dissent and social activism. Rightwing political target Michael Moore faces a federal investigation for his trip to Cuba under a similar refrain that demands compliance through the ever-widening grasp of Bush's Big State federal tentacles.

According to Ruha, Bates "in August, 2005 ruled against Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based humanitarian aid group seeking an end to the war In Iraq as well as and sanctions against Iraq. Ruling in favor of the Treasury Department’s imposition of a fine imposed for transporting 'medicine and toys' to Iraq 'absent specific license or other authorization.'"

Ruha goes on to cites Z-net reporter David Smith-Ferri, who said of the ruling:
“We now live in a society where the law of the land asserts that delivering aspirin and antibiotics to a pediatrics ward where children are dying from diarrhea is a criminal offense. Likewise handing a plastic harmonica to a child suffering from leukemia. And there are federal judges who will bring the gavel down and sign on the dotted line.”

An Executive order was recently signed by Bush which gives the federal government the right to seize the assets of anyone involved in “undermining efforts to promote economic reconstruction and political reform in Iraq or to provide humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people.”

When I first saw the order, I thought it rather odd, yet I wasn't too concerned as it seemed to only affect those who directly participate in terror attacks in Iraq. Yet a second and deeper clause expands the retributive capacity of our government to anyone who indirectly supported the attack, knowingly or not. I had seen a similar clause in the Patriot Act, one which expanded the definition of terrorism to include those who provided material support to the cause, knowingly or not.

In part due to their 'legalese', the full connotations of Executive Order hadn't become clear to me until reading the Ruha post. Ruha explains the fuller truth:
"Thus, if any antiwar group is viewed to dissent from official U.S. policy by offering even humanitarian aid to those Bush declares to be enemy combatants or terrorists, he or she and their organization’s property and assets will now be “blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in.” Indeed, under the terms of Herr Bush’s latest declaration, anyone seeking to come to the defense of anyone whose property and assets have been frozen, will likewise be regarded as aiding the enemy and suffer the same fate.

A TPMMuckraker article by Spencer Ackerman cites "Bruce Fein, a Justice Department official in the Reagan administration":
"This is so sweeping it's staggering. I've never seen anything so broad that it expands beyond terrorism, beyond seeking to use violence or the threat of violence to cower or intimidate a population. This covers stabilization in Iraq. I suppose you could issue an executive order about stabilization in Afghanistan as well. And it goes beyond even attempting violence, to cover those who pose 'a significant risk' of violence. Suppose Congress passed a law saying you've committed a crime if there's significant risk that you might commit a crime."

In itself, the Order might not be cause for alarm. In context, the new decree shows the full flowering of an executive branch that has made irrelevant our laws and legal precedents, that has sacrificed our liberty for the illusion of security.

Analysis by Michel Chossudovsky is here.

A string of secret Executive Orders may lie dormant, waiting for some event like a terrorist strike to come alive, like some Frankenstein dancing on the strings of a State grown mad with its own power, and completely out of control, looking at its citizens as its subjects--tools to be used or threats to be controlled.

Without constraints on the Executive, the State will only grow larger as it represents a tool of political expediency for those in power. Left or right, conservative or liberal, the leaders in power wield the power of the State for their own purposes.

Warning For All

While Michael Moore and Voices in the Wilderness--now defunct in part due to the federal pressures put on it during its battle with the Feds--are today' s target, perhaps tomorrow it will be the American Enterprise Institute and Exxon Mobil.

As political winds blow and change, so too do the enemies of the day. Even as governments change, the power of the State is allowed to persist because it serves the interest of those in power, left or right. One day the State might grow powerful enough to simply discard any vestiges of our political process, like the computer system in Terminator 3, which chose to launch a nuclear war after becoming "self-aware" that it no longer needed humans.

Our liberties are not meant to be defended when taking such a stand is popular! It's vital to our democracy that people with unpopular opinions be allowed to speak out, and not in some "free speech zone" cordoned off the periphery of media and political discourse. We see from the narrow, corporate-driven agenda of the mainstream media what really happens when dissent is suppressed and government press releases are regurgitated as news squeezed between celebrity gossip and infotainment.

If we don't make a stand to protect our Constitutional rights now, it won't matter what side of the political divide you stand on, now or in the future. Might will make right. So in the sense I'm a liberal, I'd implore all non-liberals to protect my universal rights of viewpoint, privacy, and property free of seizure. Profoundly patriotic was the person who said that they might not agree with my point of view, but would die to protect my right to say it.

Elections every four years are our system's method for limiting executive authority. The framers likely thought that restricting the time in office would limit the president's power and dampen the corrupting spread of influence that absolute power inevitably brings. Yet private voting machine companies hold our elections hostage to unresolved irregularities. Wide-scale disenfranchisement in Ohio wasn't investigated because the "winning" party had no reason to bring its legitimacy into question.

If one law can be circumvented, why not others? If one Constitutional amendment can be weakened, why not more? After all, what benefit does empowering the little people bring to the elite and corporations taking control? If the current trend continues, no law will be allowed to remain if it doesn't serve the State or the Corporate corollary.

Those with power will use it to accumulate even more; those with authority over the justice system will use it to serve narrow, short-term political objectives. It is perhaps the future Bushes that we must be most worried about, those who've learned from Bush example how to justify all conduct based on the need to protect the American people...

Where are the lawyers when you need them? One would think those in the legal profession would be terrified of becoming simple administrators of the law, political appendages of the State who serve the interests of government first and the people second.

Well, I wouldn't expect the little people to go quietly into the night, even if kissing the royal pinky ring becomes customary procedure among the servants of the rich and powerful, those who might bear the proverbial mark of the beast.

I don't anticipate the middle class to be increasingly empowered legally or economically. The middle class is after all the group from which revolutions typically spring and in this sense represents a clear and present danger to the continued amalgamation of legal power and wealth in the hands of the ruling class and their corporate patrons.