LOSING INTEREST

10 09 2011

Texas Governor Rick Perry recently lead a three-day prayer marathon, asking for God to make it rain on Texas.  God’s answer?  Tropical Storm Lee skipped the state, and even more wildfires have broken out.  No reports yet of any brimstone, but a volcanic eruption in Texas would put quite a cap on the summer disaster season, wouldn’t it?  Where are all the Evangelicals who have framed other natural disasters as God’s wrathful judgment on the sinners of New Orleans, New York,  or wherever?  If God is all-powerful and on their side, how come he’s burning up the home state of his self-proclaimed most devoted servant?  Do I blaspheme?

Speaking of God’s wrath, today is the tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center.  I’m starting to suspect we will never know the real story of what happened, despite the many obvious contradictions and peculiar decisions contained in the official version.  For instance:  cell phones didn’t work on airplanes in 2001–how was someone allegedly on one of the hijacked flights able to make cell phone calls?  How could an airliner hit a building at ground level (the Pentagon), and disintegrate so thoroughly that virtually no trace of the airliner was left?  How could somebody with virtually no experience flying an airliner do such a good job of flying it so close to the ground?  Why was no attempt made to shoot the plane down before it hit?  And if, as some claim, it was a missile and not an airplane that hit the Pentagon, thus explaining the lack of debris, what happened to the missing airplane?

And that’s just the Pentagon–moving to the main event, in New York, we don’t know how a kerosene (aka jet fuel) fire could get hot enough to melt structural steel–there are videos that seem to show molten metal pouring out of the stricken floors of the World Trade Center, and plenty of eyewitness reports of molten metal in the collapsed ruins.  Why were the remains of the buildings hastily recycled, rather than carefully examined for evidence of why they collapsed?  Why were traces of high explosives found in World Trade Center structure samples that were independently analyzed?  Why did Building 7, which was not hit by an airplane, and contained the security camera records for the towers, collapse and burn hours after the main event?

On the other hand, if it was, as many allege, a controlled demolition, how could the enormous amount of material needed have been spirited into the building and put in place without attracting notice?  Such a task would require so many hands that it is hard to believe that everyone’s lips would remain sealed after ten years.

I haven’t even touched on the larger questions–who knew what, and when.  Perhaps that is why our government took such great care to seal Mr. Bin Laden’s lips and confiscate his records.  We may never know if the attack occurred without the knowledge of our government, or whether it occurred with the collusion or outright participation of our government.  After all, the neoconservative “Project for a New American Century” had, only the year before, proclaimed a need for “a new Pearl Harbor” to galvanize Americans into supporting a war that, they believed, would result in American dominance of the Middle East and its oil.  And Pearl Harbor, let us not forget, was an attack that upper echelons of U.S. intelligence may have known  about, and allowed to happen, in order to…galvanize Americans into supporting a war.  Maybe that’s what happened.  As I said, there’s a lot we just don’t know.

But, in a way, it doesn’t matter whether Dick Cheney was in on the 9-11 plot or not.   It doesn’t even matter that the country, or at least the media, has largely lost interest in these questions. What the attack really succeeded in doing was provoking a massive increase in U.S. government spending–and borrowing.  Our national debt nearly doubled during the Cheney administration, largely due to increased war and “homeland security” spending.  This was all part of a mindset that saw no need to regulate or rein in government spending on big business , or in any way question the basic assumption on which our economy runs:  economic growth is the ultimate good thing.

And that is where this country has run into trouble, because our commitment to unrestrained economic growth at any cost was bound to create a crash, sooner or later, and increased government spending and borrowing–not to mention private sector spending and borrowing, as in the consumer credit boom–just brought the contradictions to a head that much faster.

Here’s the key:  a financial system based on loaning money at interest presumes that the economy can somehow grow indefinitely.  There is no way to pay off an interest-bearing loan other than to somehow create more wealth than the original loan represents.  But oops!  That presumes infinite growth on this small and extremely finite–not to mention fragile–planet.

In the prescient climactic scene from the 1983 Monty Python movie “The Meaning of Life,” the Chairman of the Very Big Corporation of America says

… which brings us once again to the urgent realisation of just how much there is still left to own.

In 1983, it seemed that there was still a lot left to own, but, just a few years later, the field had narrowed considerably.  By the early 90’s, the planet’s material resources were pretty much accounted for or tapped out, and bankers started resorting to what you could call ‘creative financing”–Collateralized Debt Obligations, Collateralized Bond Obligations, and so forth, even a second generation of essentially artificial financial instruments based on CDO’s, etc., which catapulted high finance into a realm of such huge amounts of–ultimately–imaginary money that the only “collateral” for these abstract investment opportunities was more  abstract money, because there just wasn’t enough actual stuff to do the job.  The world of finance had run out of things to own, and yet  banksters made billions in a market that resembled nothing so much as an off-track betting parlor for an imaginary horse race.  They made enough money to buy the U.S. government, with the result that, when their schemes blew up in their faces, they were able to manipulate that government into bailing them out instead of prosecuting them for theft and fraud.

The rest of us are not so well-connected.  Debt also became overwhelming at the family/individual level, resulting in a flood of bankruptcies and foreclosures that has decimated the American middle class and shoved the poor even farther down the storm drain.  Oh, and did I mention that part of the corporate Ponzi scheme involved moving as much manufacturing out of the US as possible, to places where they wouldn’t have to pay their workers as well, or observe expensive environmental safeguards?

Here’s some numbers:   real wages for the average person have declined by about 14% since the early 1970’s, while the cost of living,  as measured by the consumer price index,  has risen by a factor of five.  The cost of living increase is partly due to price increases, but also  involves using television to hypnotize people into believing they need things that they do not, in fact, need, thus inflating demand.

A more concrete example:  the average home price in 1972 was $27.000.  Adjusted for inflation to 2007 prices, that’s about $134,000.  But, in 2007, the average home price in the U.S. was  around $300,000, and the median was in the neighborhood of $250,000.  So, for the average American, income–down 14%,  while the price for keeping a roof over our head is up nearly 100%.  That has opened up a big hole between our expectations and our ability to fulfill them, a hole known as a “debt trap.”  The total amount of individual debt in the U.S. is about 2.4 trillion dollars, about a third of it credit card debt, the rest mostly home and college loans.  In 2009, the average household debt was only about $16K, but the average household debt of households with credit card debt was $54K.  The good news is, both these figures were about half of what they had been a year earlier.

The bad news is that a fair amount of this debt disappeared when banks gave up on collecting it, because the debtors went bankrupt.  Foreclosure, of course, technically transfers the asset to the bank, but unoccupied, unsaleable homes have a funny tendency to lose value rather rapidly.  Too bad for the banks.  My heart bleeds.

The other bad news is that, since our economy is based on credit, the fact that people are borrowing and spending less is ‘bad for the economy.”

But the good news is, our unsustainable, growth-dependent economy needs to wither and die, to keep the planet from withering and dying.  I’m not too hung up in the “either/or” of this, because it looks like the planet is going to wither and die enough to shake the cancer of our civilization, and possibly our entire species.  As one who appreciates what is valuable in humanity–our self-awareness, our ability to understand large concepts, and our ability to be compassionate with each other–I hope it doesn’t come to that.  But unless several million mostly rich, white, mostly Americans ( who are overall somewhat deficient in self-awareness, understanding, and compassion) don’t get a clue pretty quick, it could, indeed, be curtains for us.  These are interesting times, indeed.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “2153





MINIPAX BULLETIN: EMMANUEL GOLDSTEIN DEAD! MILLIONS CHEER!

7 05 2011

This just in from MiniPax:  Immanuel Goldstein is dead!  Goldstein was tracked to his lair in Pakistan, where he was living under the alias “Osama Bin Laden,” and died in a firefight with Oceania’s crack special forces troops, who had infiltrated Pakistan without its government’s permission to carry out the raid and assassination.

With Goldstein/Bin Laden gone, who will now be the focus of our “two minute hates”?  It’s a dirty job, as they say, but somebody will have to do it, even if we have to create them out whole cloth.

And now we will never know to what extent the “Osama Bin Laden” we have been encouraged to hate and fear was, like Emmanuel Goldstein, a creation of our own “Ministry of Peace.”  After all, Bin Laden did start out as a hero, even portrayed (in a manner of speaking) as an American in Idrees Shah’s thrilling 1986 novel Kara Kush, which describes how, with American help, the Taliban rallied the people of Afghanistan to push out the Soviet invaders and crush corrupt Afghan warlords.

Times change, don’t they?  Now the US is the invader in Afghanistan, and such corrupt warlords as remain there are our friends and allies in our attempt to crush the Taliban, who have been concealing Osama Bin Laden.  Remember?  The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to find Bin Laden?  Or has that gone down the Ministry of Truth’s memory hole along with so much of the rest of recent history?

So, now that we’ve found, and killed, bin Laden, will Obama wind down the war against Osama?  Or, in true 1984 fashion, will our “war on terror” prove to be an “endless war,” with new attacks and demons arising to replace the enemies we have killed and the acts we have avenged?

With Bin Laden conveniently dead, there are many questions that conveniently will never be answered, especially since U.S. troops had free run of his headquarters and were able to preserve–or destroy–what they found there, as they saw fit.  Likewise, what they found will be released at the discretion of the Ministry of Truth, and so we can only assume that there is much we will never know.

Here’s a few of the things we will probably never know:

Was the “Reichstag Fire” element of the attack on the World Trade Center really a coincidence?  The attacks came at a point when the Bush administration’s incompetence was about to make it the laughingstock of America, and the world.  Suddenly, it was all Americans’ patriotic duty to take the Cheney/Bush junta seriously.  The attack, if Bin Laden had anything to do with it, saved Cheneybush’s ass, ensured the passage of the Patriot Act, and gave us a sinister, dark-skinned, sneaky adversary to unite against.  Did the junta know of the plot and allow it to proceed?  Did they foment it?  Did they carry it out, with no help from the alleged perpetrators at all?  Bin Laden will never tell us.

After we spent all those years looking for him in Afghanistan, what was he doing in Pakistan, in a well-appointed villa, not a cave in the hills, and just a few miles from a major Pakistani military base?   Did they know he was there all along?  After all, “the search for Bin Laden” was a bit of a cash cow for the Pakis, and no doubt they, who know poverty far better than most Americans do so far, wanted to milk that (and their Uncle Sam) for all it was worth.

Was Bin Laden really “killed in a firefight” or was he executed?  (Since writing this, our government has admitted that he was unarmed when he was killed.)  Given the changes and uncertainties of his relationship with the U.S. government, Bin Laden’s side of the story might be quite different from our government’s version.  Making sure he’s dead is a good way to avoid embarrassment.  To bring up another example, the U.S.  invaded Iraq because, Cheneybush said, they had “weapons of mass destruction.”   After all, the U.S. had shipped them over there in the 80’s to help Iraq fight Iran–Saddam and Rumsfeld were buddies, remember?–how were we to know he’d actually used most of them against the Iranians as promised, and then dropped the rest on the Kurds?   Better to take the guy into custody and hang him than to exile or imprison him and give him the chance to write a tell-all memoir.  And since that trial and execution were kinda messy, just make sure Bin Laden is dead from the get-go, OK?

Finally,did this really happen?  There is no independent verification.  The body was “buried at sea.”  A government that has asked us to believe everything from Pat Tillman‘s heroic death at the hands of the Taliban to the guilt of everybody in Guantanamo (not to mention Bradley Manning) without the necessity of a trial, just to cite the most recent, glaring few incidents, going all the way back to the Gulf of Tonkin “attack,” and beyond, now wants us to believe they killed Osama Bin Laden and disposed of  his body, trust them.  Uh-huh.

Bin Laden has been widely reviled as a man with “the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands.”  Those who trumpet this viewpoint generally ignore the fact that the U.S. government, in avenging the deaths of thousands, has caused the deaths of millions of innocent Iraqi civilians and thousands of innocent Afghan citizens.  When will the Navy’s “Seals” drop in on Bush’s Texas compound and Chaney’s undisclosed location and exact frontier justice?  And why have we singled out Bin Laden and Muamar Qadhafi for rough treatment while we ignore the national tragedies taking place in North Korea, Burma, Saudi Arabia, and Central Asia, and encourage the repression of democracy advocates in Bahrain, for just one example?

Emmanuel Goldstein–I mean, Osama Bin Laden, is dead, we are told.  His was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it, and somebody will step–or be forced–into his shoes, one way or another.   How else can we continue to have our beloved two-minute hates?

music:  Bob Dylan, “Masters of War”





MILLION-DOLLAR SOLDIERS AND MISPLACED PRIORITIES

12 09 2010

Nine years ago yesterday, something awful happened in downtown Manhattan.  Whether it was the work of a small, dedicated group of terrorists who slipped through our defenses or a “Reichstag fire” has still not been settled.  While I find it hard to believe that the World Trade Center caught fire so readily and collapsed so neatly and completely without skilled assistance (including a building that did not get hit by an airplane but did contain surveillance equipment that could have told us who-knows-what), I also find it hard to believe that, in this Wikileaks age, nobody who’s in on the secret has spilled any beans so far.  Maybe it really was done by Israeli intelligence operatives.  They are some mean, dedicated mofos.

Speaking of mean, dedicated mofos, let’s give a shout-out to the US Congress for failing to pass a bill that would provide funds to help the thousands of people who are still sick today because they inhaled WTC dust.  Kudos to Bush’s EPA secretary, Christie Whitman, who announced that it was safe to work in the rubble without protective equipment. Kudos to the “support our heroes” Republicans who wouldn’t support the bill because it was  financed by closing a corporate tax loophole, and kudos to the Democrats who hobbled the bill by proposing it in a form that required a 2/3 majority to pass.  What a wonderful government we have, yessir.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.  The rubble from the World Trade Center has been consigned to the dust bin of history, and is unlikely to ever be exhumed and examined, to the great relief of whoever is keeping whatever secrets there may be about this event.  In response to the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, because a bunch of Saudi Arabians allegedly attacked us, and the Afghans were allegedly giving them shelter, aid and comfort.

We never have found that pesky Bin Laden, in spite of all our vaunted high-tech surveillance and the presence of around 160,000 US soldiers, over 100,000 mercenaries, aka “private contractors,”  and the deputization of around 200,000 Afghans as soldiers and policemen–although, given the shoddy state of record keeping in Afghanistan, one of those deputies could very well be Ben Laden…but, I digress.  The country is relatively small, about 250,000 square miles, which means that there are nearly two foreign or Afghan soldiers per square mile of Afghanistan.  Many of those square miles are incredibly rugged, but others are flat as a pancake, with nowhere to hide. That should be enough “boots on the ground” to find whatever’s there, but Bin Laden, that former CIA asset, still eludes us, as do thousands of his supporters, aka a sizable percentage of the people of Afghanistan.  Yet another batch of mean, dedicated mofos.

So, the U.S. has sent 160,000 soldiers to one of the most isolated, primitive places in the world, and is trying to make it comfy for them.  When my father fought in World War II, he was issued  a blanket to sleep in and a tent to put his blanket in.  The war was nearly over before he got a real sleeping bag.  In Afghanistan, Uncle Sam is providing air conditioning for tents in the desert.  That’ll boost your expenses.  In fact, the war is costing the U.S. a million dollars per soldier per year.  This comes to about six thousand dollars a year for each of the approximately twenty-five million citizens of Afghanistan, whose per capita annual income is estimated to be about $800.  Gee…might they become a lot more peaceful and open minded if we withdrew our soldiers and instituted a guaranteed annual income of $1600 per person?  We’d save a lot of money, too, which we could really use over here, dontcha know?

Meanwhile,just south of Afghanistan, Pakistan is suffering from devastating flooding.  The immediate cause of this is an unusually strong monsoon, but what has made this worse is that Pakistan’s hills have been denuded by firewood seekers and grazing animals, so there is nothing to catch the water as it falls on barren hillsides and swells the country’s rivers.  Over 800 million dollars has been raised for Pakistan so far for immediate relief; more would be necessary to actually fix the deeper problem.  Eight hundred million sounds like a lot of money–but it’s the cost of maintaining just eight hundred of the 160,000 American soldiers in the region.  That’s one-half of one percent of the troops and the budget.  But we can’t spare it–gotta make Afghanistan safe for democracy, or oil pipelines and mineral exploitation in any case.  The US has kicked in the equivalent of just 150 soldiers from our Afghan expedition–a tenth of one percent.  That’s seven and a half dollars per displaced person in Pakistan.  Pakistanis are dying from malnutrition and bad water while U.S. soldiers eat steak and sleep in air-conditioned tents.  What is wrong with this picture?

US soldiers in Afghanistan are making enemies just by being there.  Scrimping on aid to Pakistan because we’re fighting a war in Afghanistan is making enemies by not being there.  In the Middle East, this contributes to the perception that the US would rather shoot Muslims than save them.  Here at home, where mass demonstrations against mosques are all the rage from Murfreesboro to Manhattan, Americans are likewise pouring gasoline on the fire of Muslim anger at our arrogance in imposing our secular/Christian, commercial way of life on them.  Some Muslims are indeed violent and misogynistic, but we lack the moral authority to inspire them out of those bad habits.  Not only are we pretty violent and sexist ourselves, but our secular, commercial, “Christian” culture is revoltingly shallow compared to theirs, in which spiritual considerations take precedence over commercialism.

“Secular/Christian”?  How can our way of life be both?  OK, this is the “deep green” part.  One of the changes in thinking that marked the emergence of Protestantism from Catholicism was that Protestants viewed a person’s path through life, whatever it might be, as, at least potentially, a “calling,” a spiritual enterprise, and identified material success in the world as a sign of spiritual success.  That is, if God loves you, He will make you rich.   Therefore, if you profess Christianity, and you’re wealthy, God must love you.  That is how secularism and Christianity can reinforce each other.  If you want to learn more about this, read Max Weber‘s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”  Weber was a prophet.

At a still deeper level, we are falling victim to good, old-fashioned Christian dualism–good and evil, Devil and God.  “We who are saved are good, those who are not saved are evil.”  If we are saved/good, any “evil” must be “out there–our own mind is pure because we are saved, so somebody else is the problem.  This has been a consistent theme through American history–some group has always been demonized, starting with the Native Americans, then witches, Quakers, Irish, Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Negroes, Chinese,  Jews, labor organizers, Communists, hippies, gays.  Now it’s Islam’s turn.

Nor can we ignore the fact that the real villains in American history–the ruling class–have distracted the masses into these foolish prejudices to preserve their own power. And no, I am not just pointing to another “enemy out there.”  We are all deeply enmeshed with those who rule us.  It’s called “the American way of life,” and the sooner we admit that it is, in fact, negotiable, the easier it will be  not just on  us, but on the whole planet.

music:  Jackson Browne, “Soldier of Plenty








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