Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Hitch in Memoriam

It is often tragedy, outrage or joy that conspire to force one to write.  Writing at it's best is a compulsion, with words pouring out in torrid waves and smashing onto the page.  Words can be weapons, far deadlier than any sword, or they can be tools of diplomacy, the well crafted essay shifting the Zeitgeist and molding it as though it were something malleable. Very few writers can be said to truly matter - to have the necessary brain and talent to shift debate.  This can be said all the more so for political writers: pamphleteers - the ill fancied bastard children of Voltaire, Thomas Paine and Orwell.  Those that can make a difference are few and far between.

Christopher Hitchens was one such writer.  For him, to write was a compulsion -an almost animal response to the world in all of it's joys, sufferings and inequities.  At his best, Hitchens seemed able to meld tragedy, outrage and joy into a singular kinetic whole - a fire breathing prophet one moment, a demure coiner of witticism the next.  The man could take complicated political, social or literary issues - score a cheap though frighteningly funny joke on the back of them - and make an often controversial point that forced one to come to recalibrate ones belief system.  I certainly can't say that I agreed with him on everything, but Hitchens served as one of the architects of my intellectual foundation and I will remain indebted to him.

Hitchens liked to encourage the young, and clearly liked it better when one disagreed with him.  The man clearly lived for intellectual debate and rarely lost.  His skill at winning debates, and his ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat - even in those rare occasions where the facts seemed to stand against him probably earned him as many supporters as critics.  Yet there he was, always there with a strikingly original one-liner and an opinion.  Always an opinion.

I had the pleasure of meeting him twice.  The first time was a drunken flurry of conversation and ideas - the man seemingly unfazed by mega doses of Johnny Walker as we, sitting on Monona terrace in Madison, Wisconsin one cold October afternoon managed to polish off the better part of a bottle of the stuff.  The man was magnanimous with both his time and his whisky (although he did appear to drink most of the bottle with almost no debilitating effect whatsoever, while I was rapidly in my cups, so to speak).  I still remember looking at him, even then, and thinking that he looked like he was made of some kind of parchment - the cigarette smoke and whisky clinging to his skin and infusing him with the essence of the pages of a book that he lived to turn.  Despite the omni present booze and smokes, it was the love of the printed word that always was the most telling and that was perhaps his deepest addiction.  Still he was no sedentary creature confined to a library - Hitchens was someone who exuded energy and who wrung from life everything it could give him and then some.

I met him again a couple of years later on a rainy night in Portland, he saw me in a crowd, astoundingly remembered me, served a refutation to the one point I felt I had bested him at years earlier and remarked how the dreary Portland rain overjoyed him because it reminded him of his boyhood in Portsmouth.  Stubborn to the end, but stubborn with purpose.  From all accounts, the man was not always lovely to deal with, and he proved unwilling to admit to any error of judgement when it came to Iraq. I will one-day have to write a longer essay about Hitchens' uneasy relationship with the Left, his flirtations with neo-conservatism and the rest.  Despite this, even where I disagreed with Hitchens, I tended to respect his rationale for believing what he believed.

While his death seemed eminent for some time - very few people walk away from Stage IV Esophageal cancer (a malady which even if detected in it's early stages is often considered a death sentence) - Hitchens' death still feels like a shock.   This may be because, for so long, he seemed to cheat the odds with his apetites for self destruction.  Despite his diagnosis, part of me seemed to hold on to the belief that he would somehow cheat the odds and live to be 100 - if anything as an act of spite designed to give the incredulous a bloody nose.  Sadly it was not to be.  Wherever you are when you read this, raise a drink to Christopher Hitchens.  The world will be a drearier, sadder and most importantly, a less interesting place as a result of his passing.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Obama Paints Occupy Wall Street in Awfully Broad Strokes

Let us take pause for a moment and consider what may be the most important, and most missed point that Obama made during his visit to the Jay Leno show the other day: Obama views the Occupy Wall Street Movement as being equivalent to the Tea Party.

To wit quoth the President:
Look, people are frustrated. And that frustration expresses itself in a lot of different ways. It expressed itself in the Tea Party, it's expressing itself in Occupy Wall Street ... Everybody needs to understand that the American people feel that no one is looking out for them right now.
So basically, both are manifestations of frustration - but in painting them with the same broad stroke it reinforces with a false extremist left vs extremist right dichotomy.

The reality of course is that Occupy Wall Street is that it is the first nominally leftist protest movement in a while, and has still yet to find it's principle cause, however is a means of for a lot of people who have been divested of a real future of systematic economic and social corruption to express their problems with that system. It is a form of political civil society in the vain of John Stuart Mill and with strong academic roots.  The Tea Party meanwhile are a bunch of wealthy and middle income white people who want to pretend they are an aggrieved minority and drive back what little is left of the social state to satisfy their own short-term interests.

I know it's an election cycle and all, but come on Obama, you can at least pretend to be part of the left.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and Civil Society

"Anger cannot be dishonest." - Marcus Aurelius

This morning I woke up thinking I may be allowing the single most important moral imperative of my generation pass me by. Though I have been vocally supportive of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests and have attended one in Portland – my lack of more in depth engagement with said protests is telling. My difficulty with engaging has more to do with a personal discomfort with mob mentality – I think sloganeering can be important to drive group solidarity - I just find it unpalatable to utter them. I also share Adam Curtis’ discomfort with individualist and heavily decentralized driven protest movements, as the lack of predefined goal and rationale dilutes message and allows for the easy infiltration and misdirection of a movement by opportunists and the nefarious.  This was the very problem that is presently seeing the declared advances of the so-called 'Arab Spring' rolled back, while elections prove problematic in many of the involved countries.

At the same time, I feel that the re-engagement with ideas and the venting of anger and frustration at the appropriate targets is a necessary.  The recklessness of Wall Street in particular and how the United States has conducted capitalism in particular has endangered the retirements and futures of much of it's population.  The gradual regression of middle class incomes against inflation (something I talked about here) further intensifies matters.  Why more ire is not being directed at the Obama administration - an administration which may even be more corporatist than that of the administration directly before it - speaks more about wishing to avoid feelings of culpability on the part of Wall Street protesters than anything.  That said, it is time that this country began to look at what unregulated capitalism has wrought - both in terms of human and environmental costs borne elsewhere.  I agree with Chris Hedges in his book "The Death of the Liberal Class" when he points to the fact that many supposed liberals have been co-opted by money and the capitalist system and have become apologists for powerful economic interests that practice institutional violence against the poor.  The policies of the Obama presidency is clearly symptomatic as is the branding as an extremist of anyone who is willing to speak out about the disadvantaged in terms of economic policy. This is also clear in the terror of third-party candidates and the vilification of Ralph Nader as a spoiler, despite the 10 million registered Democrats that voted for Bush in the 2000 election is further proof that Nader is one of the few still willing to express ideas that run counter to what the modern American liberal consensus has sold-out to.

I think where the protests are most successful is in that they have returned, to some extent, conversations about Capitalism and most importantly social class to the fore. Thus, we have the rebirth of Marxist analysis of economic and political systems without the determinist trappings of applied Marxism.  Marx may have been wrong about a good many things, however he at least presented a tangible counter ideology to free-market capitalism, which has proven itself a force similarly virulent to the old Soviet Command economies.  The triumph of singular ideology is always going to lead to extremes and human misery because ideologies can never explain the complete picture and often, by nature, willing to sacrifice human beings at the expense of self-reaffirming.  Pragmatism and competing notions of how to structure economies and governmental systems tend to lead to better outcomes in that they encourage us to look at data and develop systems that most effectively serve humanity in it's variety.

This dialogue is crucially important as so much of our culture has become commoditized.  The death of Steve Jobs and his subsequent veneration says it all.  Steve Jobs was an incredibly skilled salesman who managed to more completely integrate the seamlessness of consumerism and identity politics built around products into our lives.  Instead, he seems to be weirdly regarded by many as a singular force for good in the world, despite his repeatedly documented unkindness and unpleasantness.  That so many people seem to feel so strongly about someone who effectively sought to sell them more firmly on a consumerist lifestyle and asked them to define themselves through products (no matter how well designed) should be seen as chilling.  Instead people seem to have expressed genuine loss - which speaks to the extent of Jobs' success.  This has of course manifested itself in my generation with Hipsters - a vapid leisure class whose sole rationale for existing seems to be to define themselves by insuring that their consumer choices are cooler than anyone else. They, like the recent consumerist driven looting in North London, are the end-result of late Capitalism.  Creatures that exist not to create, but only to destroy and perpetually consume.

Valid questions are being asked, in one form or another, by the Occupy Wall Street movement.  These include not just questions about the Free-market capitalism, but also about the roll of higher education, whether institutions should be allowed to charge the usurious rates that condemn students to decades or even lifetimes of indebtedness to financial institutions and why a country of the affluence of the United States cannot create living wage jobs or provide adequate health care or affordable housing for much of it's population.  Whether this movement will inspire the appropriate degree of terror in politicians to shift thinking somewhat in Washington or if entrenched financial interests will find convenient means to undermine change remains to be seen. Economic ideology has been skewered so far to one-side of the debate that the centre may be beginning to come apart.  This is cause of hope as it may prove to drive an eventual restoration of civil society altogether. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Music Parable # 8: Stravinsky Encounters Charlie Parker


At the Birdland club in New York Charlie Parker is onstage playing the tune "Koko" and incorporates the main theme from Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s "the Firebird" into his solo. Stravinsky, who is visiting New York, is sitting in the front row and spills his scotch in ecstasy.

Parker had tried to contact Stravinsky previously while on a tour of West Germany and had purportedly been playing bits of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in his solos, but before the New York club date, he had never managed to connect with the Russian composer.

Stravinsky would later go on to try to write Orchestral jazz pieces. They sound a lot like Gil Evans arrangements.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Music Parable # 7: Joe Strummer 'Runs Out' on The Clash


It is April and The Clash have just finished recording what was to become their biggest selling album “Combat Rock.” The band are gearing up for a tour in support of the album, but are mired by internal strife. Drummer Topper Headon has a crippling addiction to heroin and is being told to either clean up or leave by the rest of the group. Meanwhile guitarist Mick Jones and front man Joe Strummer are locked in a battle for power for the ideological and existential future of the band. Manager Bernard Rhodes decides that what is needed is a publicity stunt to help sell the new album, and hopes the success of the new album may help bring internal cohesion to the band. It is decided that Joe Strummer would “disappear” for a few days, while checking in with Bernie throughout this period.

Strummer took this to heart, and really did disappear. He went to Paris for three weeks, without once contacting the rest of the band or Rhodes. When asked what he had been doing upon his return Strummer notes, “I grew a beard and ran the Paris marathon.” It was not Strummer’s first marathon - he had run the London marathon in 1981 and would run it again in 1983. His training regimen apparently consisted of simply drinking 10 pints of beer the night before the race.

The Clash would eventually collapse after the firing of Mick Jones by Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon. Headon had already been given the sack and the band had toured with their original drummer Terry Chimes throughout 1983. Strummer and Simonon tried to resuscitate the Clash with two replacement guitarists and a back to basics approach, but this failed miserably. Strummer would spend years in the Wilderness, doing soundtrack work here and there, before reemerging in the late 90s to some success with his new group, the Mescaleros. Jones would front Big Audio Dynamite. Strummer would die of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect at the age of 50 in December of 2002. It could have killed him at any point during his life. Strummer and Jones reunited at an impromptu gig only a week before Strummer’s death in support of higher wages for British firefighters. Both said that the old magic was still there.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Final Frontier of Absurdity

For those that believed Dubai to be the final frontier in human hubris, The Guardian has put together a handy profile of holiday the ultra wealthy, the flagship projects being the 'space hotel' and new 'artificial countries'. The latte of these described as: "billionaires may soon be able to buy their own artificial countries – built in international waters on oil rig-type platforms – where they can indulge in their dictatorial fantasies."  These artificial countries in particular seem to have taken a page (a-la the failed, 'World Project') from Dubai's already particularily bulbous book of projects that only those with far too much money and far too little sense might initiate.

The Guardian article continues:
Peter Thiel – who co-founded PayPal and who was one of Facebook's earliest backers – has revealed that he wants to create communities that would be run according to extreme laissez-faireideals. According to Details magazine, he wants to build artificial islands – based on oil-rig designs – that would be a "kind of floating Petri dish for implementing policies that libertarians, stymied by indifference at the voting booths, have been unable to advance: no welfare, looser building codes, no minimum wage and few restrictions on weapons." A billionaire's dream venture, in other words.

Indeed, the desire to build ones own floating oil-rig country strikes one as equal parts Machiavelli,  PT Barnum and Ayn Rand at her most adolescent.  The opulence and sheer wrong headedness of these endeavors has now left Dubai looking sheepish by comparison. Alas, with Dubai financially on the brink, how can they ever fight back against the opulence on offer.  Is a solid gold pyramid suspended above the desert via maglev too much to ask?  Come on Dubai: the world needs you to rise to the challenge.

Music Parable # 6: Elvis Costello's Unfortunate Outburst


Elvis Costello is completely drunk at the bar at the Columbus, Ohio, Holiday Inn. He is sitting with Stephen Stills and journalist Bonnie Bromlett. Stills is deeply annoying Costello who in turn is going out of his way to be obnoxious in order to offend Stills. Stills keeps banging on about old soul musicians. In order to get Stills’ goat, Costello refers to Costello to James Brown as a "jive-ass nigger", then upped the ante by pronouncing Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger". Bromlett is appalled by Costello's language and writes up the exchange in her column igniting a tinder box of media accusations directed at Costello.

Costello almost immediately apologized for the incident in the cold light of morning, indicating that he had only said what he had in order to annoy Stills and because he had been drunk. Costello pointed to his work with Rock Against Racism, and swiftly recorded 'Get Happy!!!': an album of largely obscure soul covers that went far to demonstrate Costello’s long-standing love of soul music – but controversy over the incident continued to follow Costello. In a Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus, Costello recounts an incident when Bruce Thomas was introduced to Michael Jackson as Costello's bass player and Jackson said, "I don't dig that guy..."

Costello remained mortified by the incident and declined an offer to meet Charles as a result of long standing guilt and embarrassment - though Charles himself had apparently long-since forgiven Costello ("Drunken talk isn't meant to be printed in the paper"). Costello’s ongoing championing of black music, from soul to jazz to blues would eventually see the incident put behind him.

One of the songs on Costello's 'Get Happy!!!' album, entitled ‘Riot Act’, deals with the incident.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Music Parable # 5: Keith Richards and Muddy Waters


The Rolling Stones are recordings sessions at the legendary Chess Studios in Chicago. The label owner, Leonard Chess, tells the stones that there is someone who really wants to meet them. The Stones are taken around the corridor and into one of the studio rooms which is being painted. There they find Muddy Waters, paint brush in hand and white paint rolling down his face touching up the roof of the studio. Waters looks to at the Stones, laughs and says, “I like what you boys are doing with my music.”

Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morgansfield), like most black blues musicians, did not sell many records until the late 60s when a white blues audience, having their attention drawn by white rock groups like the Stones and the Beatles began to listen to the original versions of the blues classics that were the staple of many early rock bands. At the time that the Stones first met him, Waters would occasionally take odd jobs, when not working, to try to make ends meet. He lived in a very modest house in a working class neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. Waters, along with Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Little Walter and a score of others would be the first to electrify the blues, effectively inventing the template that rock and roll would be built upon.

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards would worship Waters - the Stones even taking their name from the Waters song "Rollin' Stone". Richards and Waters would eventually become good friends and Richards would actively advocate for Waters' music citing it as one of his main influences for picking up the guitar in the first place. Richards notes that whenever the Stones were in Chicago, he would stay with Muddy and his wife, where he fondly remembers that: “Every morning, you would be pulled out of bed, thrown in the bath tub, and shoved full of food – whether you wanted it or not.”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Music Parable # 4: How Thelonious Monk met Harry Colomby


High School music teacher Harry Colomby (who’s brother Jules worked as a recording engineer for Signal Records) was involved in the jazz scene in New York. He was watching Art Blakey & the Jazz Messnager play. Blakey was to come to Colomby’s high school the next day and play a concert for the students. Colomby had come to insure that Blakey knew the way to the school and the time that he was scheduled to appear. It was already 1:30 AM, and Colomby had to teach a class the next day at 7:30. At around this time, Thelonious Monk walked into the club. Colomby had met him before, but it took someone yelling “Hey Monk!” for him to make the connection. It took Monk a couple of minutes to recognize Colomby, but once he did, he asked Colomby if he could give him a ride home. Colomby said, okay, but that he had to be up at 6:30. Monk assured him that he just wanted to see Blakey for a couple of minutes, so once Blakey’s set had ended, they both went up to see him.

Monk proceeded to involve himself in a lengthy conversation with Blakey, much to the distress of Colomby. Finally, Monk tried to draw Colomby into the conversation:

“You’re a s school teacher?” Monk asked. “Yeah,” replied Colomby, “And I have to get up very early. I’ll probably only get an hour or two of sleep.” He added with a bit of a laugh. “You don’t need much sleep,” offered Monk, “Really, I haven’t slept for two days myself. You feel more alert with less sleep.”

Finally, Monk was ready to go at around 3:00 AM. As he was driving him home, Colomby noted that Monk was his favorite musician. Monk wasn’t receiving the accolades that he would later, but Colomby stated that he should just keep doing his thing and that he would make it big eventually. Monk seemed to like this, it was what he was planning on doing anyways, and by the end of the car trip had hired Colomby to become his manager.

Colomby would remain Monk’s manager for the rest of his musical career. Monk would gain enormous national prestige in 1964 when he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, one of only five jazz musicians to do so in the history of the publication. Colomby always referred to Monk as "a man of great personal courage and great dignity."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Biosphere 2: A Cautionary Tale Of Utopianism

Those that know me well will know that I take certain perverse pleasures in outstanding acts of human hubris.  There is something fascinating about processes, frequently by determinist ideologies, that drive the creation bubble economies built around perversities (the Dutch 15h century 'Tulip mania' is a favorite dinner party topic) or monuments to extreme arrogance or ostentatious wealth teamed with no sense (the mad proposals for Paris of  Le Courbusier and the 'stupid buildings' of Dubai excellent example of the former and then latter). Wrong-headed attempts at social engineering may be among the most Schadenfreude rich.  To wit, I've been reading a lot about I've been reading up a lot on Biosphere 2 recently (which came out of the commune and ecology movements of the late 60s) which I think is one of the more fabulous and flawed ideas that humanity has attempted. Biosphere 2 something of a pitch-perfect example of a fraught pseudo-scientific concept being used to underpin a crazed enterprise with disastrous results.

Housed in a stretch of the Arizona desert, a recent Cabinet magazine article on Biosphere 2 described it as:

...[A] three-acre complex of interconnected glass Mesoamerican pyramids, geodesic domes, and vaulted structures contained a tropical rain forest, a grassland savannah, a mangrove wetland, a farm, and a salt-water ocean with a wave machine and gravelly beach. This was Biosphere 2—the first biosphere being Earth—a $150 million experiment designed to see if, in a climate of nuclear and ecological fear, the colonization of space might be possible. The project was described in the press as a “planet in a bottle,” “Eden revisited,” and “Greenhouse Ark.
The project caught the national imagination. Discover, the popular science magazine, declared the mission “the most exciting venture to be undertaken in the US since President Kennedy launched us towards the moon.” Tourists came by the busload to peer through the glass at the bionauts, trapped in their vivarium like laboratory rats (the project was an acknowledged precursor to the Big Brother reality-TV show). Over the first six months, 159,000 people visited, including William S. Burroughs and Timothy Leary.

Biosphere 2 had a prominent role in the most recent Adam Curtis documentary cycle: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. Over the course of that series, Curtis made the case that a false notion of ecology - notably that natural systems are in any way balanced - promoted a mechanistic (almost Descarte-like) view of the world that resulted in the creation of non-hierarchical institutions that failed to govern effectively, enabled the abuse of minorities and proved damaging in the long-run to the notion of a 'common good'.

In a promotional article for that series, Curtis provides a slightly different summary of the Biosphere 2 project and it's eventual collapse:

Biosphere 2 was a giant sealed world. Eight humans were locked in with a mass of flora and other fauna, and a balanced ecosystem was supposed to naturally emerge. But from the start it was completely unbalanced. The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the "ocean" and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse – the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The "bionauts" began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another's faces. A psychiatrist was brought in to see if they had gone insane, but concluded simply that it was a struggle for power.
Then millions of ants appeared from nowhere and waged war on the cockroaches. In 1993 the experiment collapsed in chaos and hatred....

Curtis concludes the piece:

...At the end of Biosphere 2 the ants destroyed the cockroaches. They then proceeded to eat through the silicone seal that enclosed the world. Through collective action the ants worked together and effectively destroyed the existing system. They then marched off into the Arizona desert. Who knows what they got up to there.

What was so wrong-headed about Biosphere 2 was it was Utopianism projected onto non-scientific assumptions under the guise of being 'good' science.  Like with many economic models, you can build as many fancy mathematical equations you want on top of a false assumption, but that hardly makes the assumption any more accurate.  That biosphere 2 ended with a colony of ants - a 'superorganism' structured, surprisingly, almost as a fascist state* - obliterating an army of cockroaches and escaping into the wild is almost too perfect a metaphor for the whole endeavor. The arrogance of attempting to control and 'game' natural systems deserves no less.

Surprisingly, the near starvation conditions resulting from Biosphere 2's food production shortages and shortcomings were actually recommended and promoted by the doctor tasked with monitoring and advising the bionauts on their health and nutrition.  The doctor you see had pioneered said diet and believed that it's test within the context of Biosphere 2 was proof of it's efficacy.  After all, though the bionauts appeared half-starved and weak, they were relatively free of disease.  To this day, there remains nutritional pseudo-cults that believe (admittedly with some evidence) that these diets may greatly prolong human life spans and guard against illnesses.  One gets the feeling that the ascetic demands of the diet are such that, salubrious health affects aside, death may be preferable option.

Perhaps the most clear lesson is, as with the human race's experiments with Social Darwinism, Communism, Fascism, American style capitalism and other absolutist ideologies that promise Utopia of one sort or another - any belief system that relies on various rationale rather than pragmatism seem doomed to collapse under their own self-importance and hubris.  The human desire to build Utopia seems to frequently result in dystopia instead.

Our finest achievements are indeed visionary, but are flexible and perhaps the best that can be said for them is that they succeed in meeting particular needs with limited maintenance. As our ability to 'know' natural systems, let alone control them is highly limited - thus our ability to effectively 'play god' also remains limited. Certain grand ideas can be effective, but they are not always the ideas that stir the public imagination.  Because we think we can know everything, the solutions we arrive at tend to be those that play towards our desire for simple, or elegant solutions that sweep all considerations into a single, satisfying package.  This is not how organisms or natural systems actually work however, creating a disconnect that can often be dangerous. Thinking 'big' is not the problem - thinking ideologically is.

As for Biosphere 2: after the 'bionauts' were eventually evacuated, the project went bankrupt in a cloud of disgrace.  In the 90s it was resealed and resuscitated as a research station by the University of Arizona and the research project was eventually taken over by Columbia University in New York. While certain breakthroughs about how microclimates or biological phenomena operate in a closed system may yet be derived through the ongoing operation in some way of Biosphere 2, what remains most educational remains social. This does not simply constitute the break-downs and power relationships of the 'bionauts' while they 'manned' Biosphere 2, but rather the ideological system and thinking patterns that built Biosphere 2 in the first place. It may also be the hardest of lessons to learn.


*All insects are fascists, which was why Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers was so effective (almost more so the Paul Verhoeven film adaptation) - you were left wondering which society was the more totalitarian, that of the 'bugs' or that of the humans that waged war against them.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Music Parable # 3: Charles Mingus


Miles Davis, Max Roach and Charles Mingus are driving from New York to San Francisco in Roach’s new car. While Miles and Roach share a good rapport, both are annoyed by Mingus who talks a blue streak and continually accuses the two of being insufficiently responsive to the black rights movement. Because of Mingus’ large physical size and often terrifying temper (he is purported to have chased musicians around the studio with a fire axe, among other incidents) the other two humor Mingus. At one point Mingus poses the question:

“If you were to see an animal and you’re driving your new car, and the animal is in the street, would you swerve to keep from hitting him and crash your car, or would you try to stop or would you just hit it?

Roach responded, “Well, I’d hit the motherfucker, because what should I do, stop and get all fucked up if a car is behind me? Miles agreed with this logic.

Mingus angrily growled back, “See there, you got the same ideas that white people have; that’s just how a white man thinks. He would hit the poor animal, too, wouldn’t care if he killed him or not. Me? I would smash up my car before I would kill a little defenseless animal.”

Upon arriving in San Francisco, Roach and Davis thought that they were finally rid of Mingus, but Mingus needed to borrow the car. Roach leant it to him only to have a wheel sheered off by Mingus later that day. It transpired that, driving along, Mingus had swerved to miss a cat that had run into the road and had crashed into a fire hydrant.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Music Parable # 2: Martin Hannett & Joy Division


Joy Division, fresh from signing a deal with Factory records had holed up in Strawberry Studio’s in Stockport, England. Producing them was drug swollen and soon to be legendary producer Martin Hannett. As the band attempts to cut “She’s Lost Control”, Hannett becomes increasingly dissatisfied at what he is hearing being played by drummer Stephen Morris, who is playing a typical rock back beat. Hannett first had Morris change his drum pattern to that from the Ronnettes’ song “Be My Baby”, because he wanted something that sounded “colder and lifeless.” 

Hannett remained unhappy with what is coming back through his speaker cans and, despite using one of the first digital recording boxes, continued to insist that the drum sound was “leaking”. Finally, Hannett ordered the drum kit taken apart, and a more minimal kit reassembled using pieces taken from the toilet, on the roof the studio. This proved to give the track the distinct, almost industrial sounding drum sound that Hannett had wanted for the band.

Joy Division singer Ian Curtis would later hang himself. The rest of the band would solider on, initially with vocalist Kevin Hewick, before guitarist Bernard Sumner took over vocal duties and the band was rechristened New Order.

Hannett would continue to produce records and pioneer new uses of recording technology before his eventual dug and alcohol fueled demise in 1991. At the time of his death he had exploded to over 360 pounds.

Vive la France!

S&P, mustering, as Shakespeare had it, 'a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours' now appears to be threatening to downgrade France's credit rating as well.  Paul Krugman appears to take issue with this in a recent blog post, and rightfully so.  The French economy weathered the storm of the financial crisis well, showing modest growth, retaining jobs and organized labour has prevented the Sarkozy government from imposing serious austerity measures.  The European Central Bank has done a great deal to assist the struggling Italian economy in a move to help stabilize the Euro. Certainly, France has not balanced it's budget, but this is because it is doing the sensible thing in times of recession by continuing social spending and thus insuring that money continues to move through the economy.

This said, it would appear that S & P decision is largely ideological.  Has S & P drunk deeply of the Tea Party ideology and is now consumed by the notion of demanding deficits be balanced?  I think the French economy is one of the safer economies to bank on.  Admittedly, there are several features holding the French economy back, but it is not as though France is pursuing policies that result in undue risk. It should also be noted that many of France's problems are more circumstantial than structural. All in all, S & Ps rumored considerations remain somewhat baffling.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Music Parable # 1: Glenn Gould


Iconoclastic Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould is waiting backstage at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, preparing to play a concert. He is approached by a janitor who wants an autograph. Gould obliges, writing across the 8 X 10 glossy photo of himself that he is handed:

“Glenn Gould, Los Angeles, April 10th, 1964: The Final Concert.”

Gould had yet to tell anyone that he was retiring from the concert circuit, though he had always stated that he preferred the level of control granted to him in the recording studio to live performance.  This was ironic coming from a classical musician who would regularly audibly 'sing' along with piano music he was playing.

Gould would continue to record until just before his death in 1982. This output included not simply recordings of classical works - Gould also wrote and recorded radio programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on non-musical subjects. Most notable among these was “The Idea of North”.

The Definition of Insanity

The Obama Administration has called for an an extension of tax-cuts in order to "stimulate the economy" in the face of ailing stock markets.*  This is apparently because those ongoing tax-cuts for the wealthy has thus far been ever so-effective in stimulating the economy and creating jobs. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The administration's response appears to be a fairly compelling exhibit 'a'.

Meanwhile, economists overwhelmingly hold that increasing spending on social programs is a far better way to stimulate the economy and create jobs than tax cuts. Tumbling share prices and lack of investor confidence are all issues that would be rapidly remedied through a robust jobs creation program and stimulus programs that built or repaired public infrastructure and helped small-businesses gain access to lending.

I've previously written that Obama is far more in line with far right economic ideology, however, his lack of any comprehensible policy vision, a willingness to apparently muddle through is a very real problem. Obama's anemic positions have annoyed moderates, such as Robert Reich, as well as the progressives that elected him. Drew Weston argues meanwhile that Obama failed to create a pertinent national narrative that holds the financial industry publicly accountable, in the same way that Teddy Roosevelt and FDR did, and thus has avoided the policies that would naturally flow from that narrative. To me, one of the big differences is that both Roosevelt's were incredible people- strong charismatic leaders with strong, progressive agendas. Teddy Roosevelt in particular was something of a superhuman, capable of subsisting on almost no sleep and armed with both a photographic memory and near pathological need to win and push himself. Obama is simply not made of the same stuff.

Part of Obama's response may have something to do with a tendency, observed in neuroscience, that people, in the face of data that would disprove their positions, are more likely to retrench their positions than to head that data. If Obama is genuinely sold on the free-market capitalism that his economic team, notably Rubin and Geithner espouse, then he is likely to ride this wave of cognitive dissonance to electoral defeat to a Tea Party ideologue - like the illustrious Rick Perry. Such joy.

*As as afterthought, as far as the current stock market palpitations go, I have to agree with Paul Krugman: why anyone should care what S & P should have to say about US securities, regardless of their rationale, when they only recently gave junk bonds 'A' ratings in the lead up to the current financial crisis, is something of a mystery. China is justifiably angry, but has been arguing that the US needs to live within it's means (and 'be nice to the Countries that lend it money') for some time.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Last Thoughts on the Negotiated Debt Ceiling

With the grotesque business of the debt ceiling negotiations finally apparently concluded, and the far right largely triumphant - pushing nearly $3 trillion in austerity measures with no tax-increases - despite the foolishness implicit in trying to balance a budget during a recession - we should now, as Dean Baker argues here, turn our attention to what the economy is actually doing. Growth has all but stopped and unemployment has exploded. Baker notes:
On Friday, the commerce department released data showing the economy grew just 1.3% in the second quarter. Even worse, it revised down the first quarter growth number from 1.9% to just 0.3%. This means that the economy was growing at just a 0.8% annual rate over the first half of 2011. This is well below the 2.5% pace that is necessary just to keep unemployment from rising.
Of course, unemployment has been rising, with the June figure hitting 9.2%. That is up from a post-recession low of 8.8% in March. The unemployment rate does not give the whole story, since many of people have lost hope of finding a job and given up looking for work altogether. The employment to population ratio (EPOP) – the percentage of the population with jobs – has fallen back almost to its low point for the downturn. The EPOP for African Americans has hit new lows in each of the last three months.
Instead of worrying about US debt being downgraded on the Standard and Poor (S&P) index, perhaps politicians should be worrying about how to actually create jobs - most commonly done by governments through vigorous spending on social programs, infrastructure improvement or replacement projects and other stimulus programs rather than worrying about debt. The whole idea that there is some inherent benefit to a government always operating a balanced budget is non-nonsensical anyways, and current measures seem to be benefiting exclusively corporations who are (a) loathe to pay their taxes, and (b) cutting jobs anyways.

I'm getting tired of carping on about the economy on this blog. Everyone is tired of hearing me carp on about the economy. That said, the same economic problems will persist until we hold elected officials responsible and require them to push a sensible program that would create jobs, require meaningful financial reform, and require corporations and the very rich to pay their fair share of the tax obligation.  This must be done rather than continuing to play these increasingly dangerous ideological games that have no relation to how much of the population actually lives or how economies work.

The humanity has been ripped from people. It's time to adjust policies such that humanity is brought back into discussions about the economy, fiscal policy, taxation and programs expenditure. As the late Joe Strummer once wisely said: "Without people, you're nothing."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Debt Ceiling or How Not To Negotiate

As we enter the 11th hour and 59th minute of furious deliberation on the debt crisis, Paul Krugman has made the most sensible point about the whole mess thus far: namely that the media's decisions to portray this debate in an even handed fashion despite the obvious extremist position that the GOP is taking.

Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.
So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.

This debate has been so extreme that even David Brooks managed to see the forest for the trees for once, despite, true to form, rapidly returning to his overarching approach of 'even handedness'. As it stands, what is being pressed is pure heads Republicans win, tails Democrats lose, which is a bit rich. I think Boehner et al, are using their current stalling tactic as a means of pushing their plan at the last possible moment and try to pass it on the grounds that their is no way of coming up with an alternative. Never mind the fact that the Reid plan has been ready to go for some time and was scored more highly by the Budgetary Committee.
Meanwhile, Dean Baker argues repeatedly that the Republicans will inevitably have to cut a deal as those most inconvenienced by the failure to raise the debt ceiling increase are Wall Street interests that the party is aligned with. Baker notes:

This fact is essential in understanding the endgame on the debt ceiling. Suppose that we get to the dates in August when the Treasury has reached the limit of its ability to shuffle accounts and literally can no longer pay its bills. Secretary Geithner will at that point make an announcement that in three days there is an X billion payment on Treasury bonds coming due. He will say that the government does not have the money in the bank and will therefore have to miss this payment.
The markets will then go into turmoil. We will see the same sort of plunge in the stock market that we saw when the House voted down the TARP the first time back in September of 2008. At that point, the Wall Street boys will be screaming their heads off at Speaker Boehner and the rest of the Republican leadership. The news media would all be running clips with depression footage, telling us that another Great Depression looms just around the horizon.

Despite the intransigence of the Tea Party, one cannot underestimate the power of Wall Street. Besides, the Tea Party, despite their populist rhetoric, largely represent strong corporate interests at the end of the day and will eventually be made to bight the bullet and agree to something. They seem to merely be trying to agree to things on their own terms with a compromise only coming once a means of saving face in front of their base can be concocted.

One does get the sense, however, that Obama is not a strong negotiator. Then again, his position is already largely to the right, and as I have written repeatedly previously, he has done little to secure much in the way of progressive legislation, or even reign in the extreme right, over the course of his presidency. The administration's negotiation position in the debate runs something like the following clip:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mute Ideology

The ongoing ridiculous debt ceiling debate (touched on in my last post) has further pointed to what many of us guessed from the onset about would be liberal messiah Barrack Obama, namely that he is clearly a creature of the far right. Yet the partisan nature of American politics has created a culture within which, for a leftist to point a finger at the failings of the administration, one is to commit an act of betrayal worthy of Benedict Arnold. It is similar to Christopher Hitchens' often-voiced complaint (some might say he never tires of repeating) that progressive people made the worst sorts of excuses for Bill Clinton while he was president, regardless of his lapses, either ideological or personal. I think this is a pertinent observation and that the tendency to make excuses for ones own 'side' frequently prevents politicians from not doing a better job.

To wit, Glenn Greenwald, in the pages of The Guardian has convincingly argued that the Obama administration is as determined as anyone to gut what have been the core of the the Democratic policy since the New Deal. As was pointed out to me by my friend Nick, the most prescient statement from within the whole piece may very well be the following:
The nature of American politics is that once a policy is removed from the partisan wars – once it is adopted by the leadership of both parties – it is removed from mainstream debate and fortified as bipartisan consensus. That is why false claims in the run-up to the Iraq war, endorsed by both parties, received so little mainstream journalistic scrutiny. And it's why the former Bush lawyer and right-wing ideologue Jack Goldsmith – back in May 2009 – celebrated in The New Republic the fact that Obama was doing more to strengthen Bush/Cheney terrorism policies than his former bosses could have ever achieved: by embracing the very terrorism approach he once denounced, Obama was converting it from rightwing radicalism into into the official dogma of both parties, and forcing his supporters to defend what were, until 2009, the symbols of rightwing evil.
Greenwald hits the nail firmly on the head here. As we can see with the Clinton administrations' embrace of both free-trade and welfare reform within the 1990s, the moment an issue is co-opted by both political parties, it becomes official party dogma. I recall being repeatedly chided by fellow 'leftists' for asking questions of policies articulated by the inchoate and then latter Obama campaign. The sectarian nature of the response was shocking, especially during the (troublesomely ephemerally brief) debates about TARP. The venom that would be rapidly directed when one questioned exactly how the Democratic congress planned to help people keep their homes by giving hundreds of billions to the commercial banking industry painted questions asked about who's interest was being served, and why, with a mist of poison.

This may have had something to do with the issues at hand. Discussions of the economy and financial sector reform beget discomfort and quiet distress in many people. Many people simply do not like to talk about the finer points of fiscal policy because many of the loopholes that need to be closed are difficult to fully comprehend, (and thus easy to apply partisan sensibility to), and fear is being used as the primary vehicle by both Republicans and Democrats in any discussion of economic policy, acting as a catalyst for that discomfort. Secondly, a close examination of how the financial sector seems to influence political decisions seems to invalidate much of what people like to think about the democratic process. This challenges the very nature of what people think they understand about government.

After all, people have an understanding of politics that often the politician they support will pragmatically (or cynically, depending on ones outlook) cut deals with the opposition, where no one quite gets exactly what they want but a legislative docket is moved forward. They believe that, their elected officials, at base, share many of their deeply held political convictions. At the same time, the voting records and lifestyles of the majority of career politicians should lead us to believe that the priorities of these people are largely not our own - which is why the process of angrily and bitterly holding politicians accountable is so important. Instead of shouldering this responsibility, many have simply allowed their beliefs about how policy should be written to be ignored as their party- which has become the far greater cipher for self-identification than the actual issues - remains in office.

Obama remains a master of this process. By outlining throughout the 2008 presidential campaign center to far right political stances (with the odd scrap, usually on a culture war issue, thrown to progressives) while cloistering his language in that of the civil rights movement, he was able to create an image of genuine progressive leadership potential to many people, despite his very clear conservative stance on many issues. Obama, has been remarkably honest on the campaign trail in that he seems to genuinely attempting to carry out the policies he campaigned on. The distinction has been that people did not read his policy stances literally, and instead were captured by the rhetoric with which he articulated those policies.

This most clearly plays itself out in Obama's economic, and specifically, preferred taxation policy. Obama initially elected to last year portray, in this case inveigle, his decision to not end the Bush tax-cuts for the wealthy as a deal he had to cut with the Republicans in order to maintain welfare benefits for a few thousand Americans. This struck many as a terrible exchange, and further, by forgoing billions in potential tax-revenue, how would the federal government pay for those benefits? The current budgetary talks, where Obama has led by offering two trillion in austerity measures demonstrates just how deeply his commitment to assuring those welfare benefits really ran. This has been further compounded by an unwillingness to raise taxes in any meaningful way for the most wealthy. (I have written more about this here.) As Ezra Klein among others points out, Obama has absolutely no real interest in letting the Bush era tax cuts expire, thus any gamesmanship the administration may be locked into seems to be (if you will tolerate me abusing a metaphor) variances in which shades of grey hedge fund managers should get their next Brooks Brothers suit cut in. This is because Obama is hand-in-glove with the financial sector and thus asking for reasonable taxation rates for bankers and the other wealthy would prove pungent towards Obama's economic 'base'.

The most striking outcome is how similar both parties stances on the issues have become, largely because at the end of the day, they serve very similar financial interests. The federal government has become almost exclusively vehicle for advancing the interests of banks and the defense industry and that this has intensified, and become more nakedly apparent over the last couple of decades. I think that local government remains overwhelmingly a far more capable and willing to act in the public interest, but this is beginning to be eroded by a groundswell of economic conservative populism. Further, local government can only go so far. This aside, I think that people intrinsically are less willing to give up local government that national however because the sense of scope makes the fight feel more winnable.

The only natural solution to the these problems of governance then is to either try to force bottom-up change through progressive action by local municipalities while simultaneously doing what tired old Chris Hedges keeps advocating and voting for third-parties as a means of insisting on better federal policy outcomes. People remain complacent and an injection of anger, as Stephan Hessel argues, may be a necessary outcome, but this business of partisan co-option seems to indicate that this point of civic outrage may only come at a point when the social state is so badly eroded it may prove unrecoverable. One also wonders how well, or what type of policy demands can be articulated at any point when rationality has been abandoned in favor of the passions of a mob. Still, anger seems better than the present system in which beliefs are allowed to die through a grubby process of negligence then made to dance macabre, come election cycle, by way of sweeping oration and rigor mortis.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Mendacity in Austerity

The notion that economies will somehow 'austere' themselves back into economic growth - perhaps best illustrated in the current budget negotiations in the United States and in the the emergency measures being undertaken in Greece - is perhaps the most damaging economic misconception being peddled today.  The notion that drastically cutting already limited services, especially at a time when populations are more dependent upon them, is not only irresponsible, but represents a form of wishful thinking.  Simply reducing spending, or balancing a budget, cannot in and of itself serve as an engine for economic growth.  Indeed, deficit spending on large-scale stimulus projects in order to put people back to work - or to subsidize wages in the short run (as Germany recently did to great success) in order to prevent people from being laid off seems the best way to insure that money remains flowing through the economy.  As Paul Krugman has repeated many times in his New York Times editorials, the economy is best served when people are capable for spending money.  Simply cutting services reduces consumer spending possibility and makes everyone suffer.

More worryingly, the Democratic Party in general and the Obama administration in particular has continued down the neo-liberal route of the Reagan, Clinton and Bush Administrations. As Krugman has also noted, the Obama administration has effectively shed itself of it's real economic advisers, turned to ex-Wall Street insiders for policy formulation and pursued policies that have (a) largely been far more amenable to banks than to citizens, and (b) allowed the Republican party to insist on even more extreme cuts.  Meanwhile, the nominal taxation rate for the richest 1% stands at a staggeringly low 31% and the US is well on it's way, as new research demonstrates, to becoming one of the least equitable countries on Earth.  With that inequity, as the book The Spirit Level (previously discussed on this blog both here and here) indicates, is that we will be faced with the greatly elevated host of social ills associated with that inequity.  Indeed, the notion that taxation rates may return to 35% for the top 1% of earners, generating potentially billions in revenue is being vehemently opposed by the Republicans in the debt ceiling debates, with the Obama administration seeming perhaps willing to cave into even these extreme demands.

Recent statements by Obama point to where the administration stands:
“Government has to start living within its means, just like families do. We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs.”
There is clearly very little real difference between the type of statements that represent free-market orthodoxy, the very orthodoxies that have seen the financial industry bailed out again and again while the Middle and Working Classes are forced to pay the bills.

Matt Taibbi, in typical clear eyed form, has come to the following conclusion about the Democrats:
I simply don't believe the Democrats would really be worse off with voters if they committed themselves to putting people back to work, policing Wall Street, throwing their weight behind a real public option in health care, making hedge fund managers pay the same tax rates as ordinary people, ending the pointless wars abroad, etc. That they won't do these things because they're afraid of public criticism, and "responding to pressure," is an increasingly transparent lie. This "Please, Br'er Fox, don't throw me into dat dere briar patch" deal isn't going to work for much longer. Just about everybody knows now that theywant to go into that briar patch.
Late last year, the economist Joseph Stiglitz published a thoughtful editorial entitled 'Alternatives to Austerity' in which he came to a similar conclusion, outlining a very clear plan for how austerity measures might be avoided and the economy, through modest increases in the nominal taxation rate for the riches, disentanglement from foreign wars, and the closing of laws to prevent the financial industry from running rough-shod over regulators and the system as a whole would secure a healthier economy.  He acknowledges that these solutions are unworkable because they would be certain to be opposed by those at the top and the financial industry as a whole.

Further, much as the Bush administration used raw fear as a means of garnering public acquiescence for their misadventure in Mesopotamia, current politicians are using debt panic as a means of advancing further economic policies that are beneficial to corporate interests but highly damaging for the public as a whole.  Most recently these attacks have been launched as a means of stripping Social Security of funding. This was exactly the same mechanism of aspersion that was used to bail out the financial sector, first with TARP and then with the additional measures.  The public was told that we needed to act before the economy melted down.  Panic was sounded and instead of meaningful, measured and thoughtful response that might have saved people their homes and jobs, we instead press forward with a policy of further corporate welfare.

This is exemplified by the recent discovery (via a freedom of information request) that in 2008, Timothy Geithner lent Goldman-Sachs an additional $30 billion from a discretionary fund at .01% interest.  This at a point in time where HUD was going wanting for a few hundred million to help keep people in their homes. This is the sort of act of government mis-use of public funds that can cause ones blood to curdle. Yet, in the face of this, austerity still remains the preferred government mechanism.

And of course, the austerity measures, without fail, hurt the poorest far more than they do the rest of the population.

I was recently sent the following article by John Lanchester on the current Greek crisis, where the full affects of this rush towards austerity as an economic balm is being felt.  The article should be read in full, but Lanchester summarizes that most Greek's are only dimly aware of how their countries economic evils began, and do not feel to have personally enjoyed the fruits for which they are now being made to pay the costs. Further, austerity hardly represents a sound means of putting the Greek economy on sound footing and simply insures at least a decade of misery.  To restate the point that I began this post with:
That was the old plan A, and it didn’t work. Papandreou made deep cuts across public-sector spending, but two things went wrong. One, the Greek economy kept crashing. Economists have varying theories about the practical effects of ‘austerity’, meaning sharp cuts in public spending. To an outsider, it’s a little alarming how they differ about something so big and basic as the effect of large public spending cuts. But if you ignore the economics and look at the history, it seems to be the case that you can’t simply cut your way to growth. (There are a couple of contentious counter-examples, but this is the broad rule.) Holding public spending flat while other parts of the economy grow is historically a more valid model – and, by the way, holding public spending flat is in itself a huge struggle, being roughly what Mrs Thatcher did in the UK. So the first problem was that the Greek cuts led to a worsening of the Greek predicament: the economy kept contracting, and unemployment hit a record high of 16.2 per cent. The second problem was that those richer Greeks who had never fancied paying their taxes showed no increased desire to do so, and, much worse, the state showed no new ability or desire to make them. Without the ability to raise more tax, the old plan A was invalid.
And thus, we shall see the poor continue to have crucial services cut cruelly and inhumanely from beneath them while the structural problems implicit within the financial system that wrought the current financial crisis remain ignored and we continue taxation and recovery policies that serve exclusively corporate interests. If there was hope for the Obama administration to embrace it's rhetorical progressive stance, now would be the time for it to prove that this is the case. Instead, the administration is hamstrung by it's corporate largess. The dishonesty is chilling.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Economist and Logical Fallacy

A recent article on sovereign debt article represents precisely a regular gripe I have with The Economist. To me, the magazine advances a prose style that comes across as completely anodyne while advocating for economic policies that positively bellicose in their affirmation fundamentalist Chicago-school economic policies. This is done seemingly despite their reportage suggesting very different conclusions be drawn. Despite the rather clear picture we have now that extensive de-regulation of markets got us into the current economic mess, the magazine seems delighted to continue to cheer for it on the grounds that rapid capital flow is always a good thing. Any economic problem, no matter how complicated, seems to be solvable through further deregulation, regardless of cause and regardless of how non-intuitive that response may be. It is as if the articles are written and then the editors return to insert seemingly unrelated conclusions that reaffirm the magazines ideology.

To wit, their argument is flawed in that 'a' does not follow 'b': after stating that the high savings rate, a result of higher regulation, more difficulty in moving money and reserves requirements under the Bretton-Woods system, was instrumental in allowing for rapid debt elimination following World War II, the article then goes on to state that:

Fortunately, the financial world is a far more liberal, multipolar place than it used to be. The Bretton Woods system fractured amid the inflationary pressures of the 1970s, around the time the rich world embarked on a three-decade process of financial liberalisation. Capital now flows quickly and easily around the world in search of high returns. New regulations in the West have done little to change that. China, too, is easing its financial controls. It is difficult to imagine how the genie of liberalisation can be stuffed back into its lamp. (Emphasis added)

Thus, as always with the magazine's reasoning, easing financial controls - despite what the article just told us, is somehow, sans explanation and taken as a matter of orthodoxy - a good thing and any problems or costs borne of that process should be borne by populations through painful austerity measures. To The Economist, the fortuitousness of deregulation allowing for the easy flow of capital across markets should not distract us from the fact that it was perhaps that easy flow of capital that allowed for massive increases in consumer debt and the elimination of savings that undermine the ability of economies to recover from debt. Try to follow that logic.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Helvetia and Agricultural Land Preservation

What follows is testimony to be delivered tomorrow evening before the Washington County Boards of Commissioners:

As a transplant to Oregon some 14 years ago, what I have found so compelling living here is the natural beauty of the place and the willingness of legislators to protect that natural beauty. In the Portland area, this has traditionally gone beyond simply protecting natural amenities, but also in controlling urban sprawl that seeks to engorge itself upon the surrounding agricultural land. As many urban theorists - including Lewis Mumford and Murray Bookshin - have noted, cities work best when they are ringed by agricultural land that supplies them with food and green space. By historically protecting this land from development through comprehensive land-use management, the wider Portland area has been able to mitigate urban sprawl and provide Portlanders access to locally produced foods and wines.

Dense urban development, including access to local foods and wines are important today – they enable mass transit linkages and make cities more generally sustainable. As fuel prices continue to rise, and as formally sprawling, car dependent areas across the country, such as Detroit, find themselves forced to contract in size – the wisdom of the Portland model for controlling urban growth proves to be all the more apparent.  Our land-use policies should reflect the urbanization choices and opportunities of both the traditional city and of the future – dense urban development with preserved agricultural land - rather than those simply of the last 50 years.  It is for this reason that the urban and rural reserves process currently being undertaken by Metro is crucially important.  It is also why I feel that Metro is making an enormous error of judgment in designating some 352 acres of the Helvetia area as an urban reserve area.

The Helvetia area to the immediate North of Hillsboro represents an important example of an active agricultural area that supports the Portland area and helps to make Portland the City that it is.  According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Helvetia boasts the best soil in the state currently given over to cultivation (other areas with equivalent soils have been paved over, and thus ‘lost’ for cultivation).  It also boasts a vibrant local wine industry – a point that is especially important due to the primacy the state places upon protecting Oregon Pinot Grape cultivation.  Helvetia represents an important breadbasket for the Portland metro area – and one which will continue to prove more important as time goes on.  Additionally, the Helvetia area, due to its stunning natural beauty, is also well-loved by those in the Portland area seeking respite from the city and is a popular destination for cyclists. 

The idea that much of this area could easily be transformed into suburban strip development and suburban homes through the extension of Hillsboro is jarring and should be rejected as poor policy by both Washington County and by Metro as a whole. I take no quarrel with the need to allow for some urban growth beyond the current urban growth boundary, and feel that the urban and rural reserves designation process outlined by Oregon Senate Bill 1011 represents a sound mechanism for which to go about determining future urban growth areas.  Further, I understand full well that, as identified by Harvey Moloch, Cities are ‘growth machines’ and that Hillsboro feels compelled to grow in some way – however agricultural land preservation is a stalwart of the Oregon idea, and this encroachment into rural areas currently proposed represents a rejection not only of the legacy of former governor Tom McCall, but also of Metro’s very raison d’etre.

Indeed, the inclusion of Helvetia within the proposed urban reserves designation was previously rejected prior to Ordinance 740 and the reopening of the reserves designation process.  Residents of Helvetia, preservation organizations - including 1000 Friends of Oregon and others had protested the inclusion of Helvetia within the reserves area last year.  Indeed, all of the 624 acres the county and Metro identified in 2009 as suitable for growth north of Cornelius were rejected last fall by the state Land Conservation and Development Commission.  A workable compromise had been largely agreed upon by all involved parties that would protect Helvetia from development pressures. 

All that remained was a final vote on the process, which was scheduled to occur this past November.  The elevation of former Hillsboro mayor, Tom Hughes, to Metro President has changed this.  Hughes, in his role of mayor of Hillsboro had long called for the inclusion of Helvetia as an urban reserve and he opted to enact a Byzantine law in order to reopen a process that had, after much conflict been largely agreed upon.  Indeed, this move appears in many ways hubristic – the closeness of the election for Metro President hardly gives Hughes a mandate to enact whatever policies he would like, and I find it to be a violation of the Democratic process and the consensus derived agreement that had previously been achieved. 

Ordinance 740 was derived through a single nine and a half hour meeting from which many of the affected stakeholders were absent from the table.  This new ordinance changes some 352 acres east of Groveland Road from undesignated to urban reserves (Area D) leaving only around 233 acres west of Groveland Road as undesignated.  This proposed process of urbanization would destroy the community presently within the Helvetia area.  It would strip Helvetia of its agricultural riches and transform the area into featureless suburbia – what James Howard Kunstler calls “the geography of nowhere”.  Indeed, the unease of numerous Metro counselors in adopting this process speaks to the likely negative impacts of the process.  Councilor Carlotta Collette noted that: "It's only with deep reluctance that I do this."  This hardly represents the ringing endorsement of process that Hughes portrays it as.

Further, the rationale for preserving the remaining 88 acres on the northwest corner of Helvetia Road (near the interchange as urban reserves (Area 8B)) in last year's Ordinance 733 was said to be put aside to accommodate interchange improvements.  This designation also appears to be unnecessary as road improvement can occur regardless of designation and the designation to designate this 88 acre corridor enables urbanization on the north side of the Sunset, opening up the rest of the area to urbanization.  As a result, this too seems to be a bridge too far.

It is for these reasons that I strongly urge Washington County to uphold the democratically agreed upon consensus that was arrived upon in Ordinance 733 and to reject Ordinance 740.  To do anything else would be to both disrupt the Democratic processes within the state and hinder the long-term resilience of the greater Portland area while simultaneously depriving it of one of its greatest natural assets. 

Photo thanks to

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Stéphane Hessel's Imperative

Christopher Hitchens once posited something to the effect that one could tell that life was no longer worth living when one no longer woke up angry. Nonagenarian French resistance hero, Stéphane Hessel, seems to have taken this adage to heart with with the recent publication of his 13-page pamphlet entitled Indiginez-Vous! Hessel's argument is a clarion call for the left. It elevates several issues dear to the left: destruction of the environment, Israeli colonization of Palestine and the gradual erosion of the public sector, and demands response to these issues in the form of non-violent resistance.

As the New York Times notes, Hessel's biography as a resistance hero and as a co-author and signatory of the International Declaration of Human Rights is part of what gives Indiginez-Vous! its importance. Hessel's long-standing modesty and belief in privacy further strengthens his case.  Hessel himself notes that much of what he is saying in the pamphlet are simply the things that many left-wing people believe and likens the moral imperative he felt to resist the Nazis as similar to the impulse one should feel in engaging with many of the pressing issues of the day.  He is right in this, but the surprise success of Indiginez-Vous! speaks to a certain deficiency within the left that has traditionally been filled by important moral thinkers especially in highly literary societies like Hessel's native France where writers are frequently elevated as public figures.  Additionally, many writers are creatures of the left. Thus, the loss of literary moral guidance has undermined the ability of the left to act. This is a point that has been well-addressed by the late historian Tony Judt in his essay on Albert Camus, The Best Man in France and in his last book published while still alive, Ill Fares The Land.

Judt, who died of Lou Gehrig's disease last year, argues that Camus presented an important moral touchstone for French, and wider western society.  While many of Camus' philosophical works were not particularly well regarded, his novels and World War II era journalism, appearing largely in the underground newspapers Résistance and Combat, while Camus was active in the French underground, have helped to inform the moral sense of much of post-war Europe.  Camus' moral clarity in the face of fascism, colonialism and other pressing issues catapulted him to a position of preeminence in French society.  Judt argues that, despite the erosion of Camus' stature within French literary circles over the second half of the 20th century, the surprise success in the publication of his incomplete, autobiographical novel The First Man in the early 1990s (at the hight of the decadent and corrupt Mitterrand years) spoke to a long-standing need for moral guidance. Thus Camus, in some way returned from the grave to reignite the fires of moral leftism, much as Hessel, now in his late 90s has again done so.

France, however, is a country, that while at times growing complacent has never fully lost its revolutionary zeal.  The public sector unions remain strong in France and frequent strikes prevent the impingement of basic rights, liberties and Social Democratic tendencies in such a way that France, despite well-over a decade of Conservative control, and the rise of the far-right in the form of the odious Jean-Marie Le Pen has never lost its residual leftist resonance.  Indeed, the French Revolutionary ideals of liberté, egalité, fraternité  have never become watered-down platitudes in the same way the Democratic constructions of the American republic have been.

The Fifth Republic has not always embodied those ideals: the deportation of the Roma - a source of supreme injustice and anguish noted by Hessel - a clear example of failing to live in accordance with them.  Despite this, the basic provision of health, education and public services for a population must be tantamount within a just society.  These are all ideals traditionally of the left, with Social Democracy being the great social compromise created by the World War II generation as a means of preventing the collapse of civil society that led to that war and its inhuman cruelties.  These institutions are currently what are under attack by the right and remain, to my mind, things worth fighting for.

The erosion of Social Democracy and the grand institutions of the state, which had previously served as a bulkhead against iniquity and despair for many, are at the center of Judt's book, Ill Fares The Land. Similarly to Hessel, Judt argued in favor of traditional leftist beliefs and for re-engagement with the roots of those beliefs.  The deregulations of Reagan, Clinton, Thatcher and the two Bush's and others paved the way for the naked greed worship of the financial sector and the loss of civic sense.  The free-market ideology of Clinton in particular, taken with the administration's decision to cave to Republican demands and gut the welfare and social security systems has permanently shifted the debate. With the Democratic Party in the United States traditionally serving as the party of social security institutions, Clinton managed to permanently shift the party away from its traditional base and into the same free-market, exploitative abyss as advocated by Reagan.

Especially shocking in the number of former hippies - a traditionally leftist faction - that would go on to vote for Reagan.  However, the emphasis on the self, and the rejection of traditional institutions that characterized the hippie movement, should have even proven telling.  While certain institutions overthrown were traditional vehicles of racism or repression for minority groups, the underlying emphasis on the self, on Dionysian pleasure-seeking above all else eventually led to a reaffirming notion of self-efficacy at the expense of all else. This is a point argued by Judt, and taken a step further by the French novelist Michel Houllebecq. Houllebebcq argues, in his novel The Elementary Particles, that the eventual logical outcome of the orgiastic self-worship that characterized much of the 1960s and 70s, was violence in the form of self-indulgent, De Sade-esque serial killers.  The paradigm has eventually merged with that of nakedly individualistic paradigms, and, as Adam Curtis argues convincingly in his documentary series The Trap, warped our sense of freedom.

The destruction of the welfare programs that provided basic services to the indigent has proven especially telling in affirming, to many, the narrative of the Right within the United States which largely ascribes virtue to avarice and equates vast material wealth as an entitlement to those most fit.  This paradigm is vulgar and destructive to the very fabric of good civics, it leaves most of society out, yet it continues to prevail.  This ideology has spread such that, even with the ever present elephant in the room that is Anthropogenic Climate Change - which threatens the ability of all of us to meet basic needs - we as a society remain unwilling to engage as a society and give up certain material wants in order to insure a viable future.

Further, media continually feeds us a master narrative that encourages further consumption, degrades the poor as being in some-way unworthy and encourages further propagation and worship of the idea of the individual at the expense of society. It achieves this by perverting facts, in its focus on the fringes and by continually pulling the twin levers of fear and greed in the levels it pulls.  The shift away from standard reporting and towards talk radio and blogging degrades straight reporting and hinders science-driven public policy by enabling various agendas - frequently those advanced by moneyed interest - often cloaked as news to predominate.

We also have an element of gawking, in which celebrity has been further elevated and has driven dissociation from events and from each other. We have come to identify with the singular rather than with the collective.  Thus even acts of charity become referendums on the greatness of the individual - and thus we have been given the celebrity missionary that I have previously addressed here and here.

Belief in the public sector has been largely swept aside by the twin brutalities of individualistic neo-liberal economic policies and the selfishness of public sector bureaucracies - many of which have begun to act merely for self-preservation than for their intended purpose of providing basic services.  However, the attacks on these bureaucracies by the far right, which in America has become the mainstream right, elucidates their need for self-preservation.

This has lead to the rise of the Tea Party within the United States.  The Tea Party is the ultimate vehicles for self-edification.  It creates a bizarre duality by which upper middle class white people adopt an attitude of victimization.  They genuinely begin to feel that they are some kind of aggrieved minority despite their holding absolutely every advantage within American society.  They then utilize this notion as a rationale for tearing apart what remains of the public sector.  They seem to genuinely seek the dismantling of even the last vestiges of social equity and basic social services.

Thus we see the attack on public sector Labor Union in Wisconsin - unions that largely exist to provide the basics for retirement to people that have given their careers to serving the public. The movement seeks to demonize the public service and characterize them as greedy leeches upon the tax-payer. In reality, the public sector is largely comprise of talented people who selflessly forgo greater financial rewards to thanklessly help educate, provide basic services for, or improve society as a whole.  These are people who seek only security and a decent retirement in return for their sacrifice. In the United States, this is one of the last remaining enclaves of the compromise that created the New Deal and the policies that have helped so many to realize their potential.  The Tea Party threatens to wipe this out and to thrust us back into the ages of deregulation and destitution for the disadvantaged.  Effectively, they seek to eliminate the notion of society altogether.

Hessel's few words then are important because they glide, knife-like into the festering belly of injustice. They are an elucidating blade crafted to help return steel to the left.  Hessel's pamphlet, though not particularly well-written, resonates because it articulates a vision of what the left used to stand for and what it appears to have lost.

My grandfather, though of a slightly younger generation than Hessel, was similarly moved. His belief in opposition to the evils of fascism, and belief for equal justice were unshakable.  When World War II broke out and claimed his native Belgium, he was only 17.  He had tried to run away from home several years earlier to fight against Franco in Spain.  The war stripped him of his childhood but never his sense of humor.  Like Hessel, my grandfather was imprisoned in a Nazi POW camp, escaped to serve in the French Resistance, and unlike Hessel, eventually joined the American Army and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and elsewhere.

The genuine compassion, even for the Germans he fought against, and the dedication to social justice that my grandfather quietly carried is true of many Europeans of a certain generation. The promise of social democracy was that it, as Judt noted in Ill Fares the Land, created a system driven by compromise - rather than by deterministic ideology - that genuinely created a better world. The institutions of the state were built in accordance with empathy and understanding with the generation returning home from war developing these institutions in order to create security and opportunity for all thus mitigating future reasons to go to war.  Despite decades of degradation of the social state, it remains a set of ideals worth fighting for.

As Albert Camus said:
If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.
This should be the stated view of the left. Rather than a dull focus on avarice or material acquisition, it is our interactions with each other and our common humanity - that will enable us to tackle the social issues of the day - that allow us to realize that grandeur.