Word and Image of Vermont

Free Enterprise
February 28, 2009

I suspect that if we looked into our private affairs carefully we could all find examples of how so-called free markets work in this country. They are to a great extent a system whereby, when taxpayer money is spent for some necessary and socially beneficial program, free marketeers are allowed to rake a significant portion of the funds into their pockets, thus making the programs less efficient.

The story of my single medical prescription shows how this works. I take a blood thinner called warfarin as safety precaution against blood clots. Warfarin costs very little, as evidenced by my being able to buy a month's supply, with no insurance at all, for four dollars, from Wal-Mart stores which have a pharmacy.

But the money involved in my actually getting the warfarin is a different story. I have no Wal-Mart pharmacy nearby so I get my warfarin from Rite Aid, using the prescription program passed during the Bush administration. At Rite Aid each month I pay a seven dollar co-pay fee. In addition, I pay Humana, from whom I get my government-supported drug benefit, $39.40. This would be bad enough if that's all there were to it. But each time I get my prescription filled, the government itself pays a fee to somebody, presumably Humana. I don't know how much that fee is and, so far, I haven't been able to find out. But my guess is it's at least as much as I pay Humana. So, somewhere in the neighborhood of $86 is being paid to private systems for a drug which the government could issue to me, at no cost to taxpayers, for about $2.

This is the free enterprise incessantly touted by the Republican Party. Were it not for the funds siphoned off from the tax-supported defense and medical systems by convoluted regulations, there probably wouldn't be a Republican Party. In truth, the Republican Party is, largely, an association of people who do the siphoning off. And there's enough money gained by the process to allow many of them to live in 20,000 square foot houses and fly about the world in private airplanes.

I recognize that my personal example may have features that make the proportions of the payments somewhat different from other transactions. But the basic process is the same in all cases. Thousands of people are garnering vast amounts of money from the public and delivering no useful service, whatsoever, in return.

Most of our lawmakers know this, but they do little about it because they know the siphoners will punish them if they try.

We all put up with it, and, as long as we do, we will continue to be cheated.

Not Yet
February 28, 2009

At least we can feel a moment's relief. Rachel Maddow's interview with Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series, revealed that Barack Obama is not, and cannot be, the Antichrist. You see, the Antichrist cannot come to prominence until after the Rapture and although the conditions are being laid for the Rapture to occur, obviously it hasn't happened yet. In fact, in a moment of extreme graciousness, LaHaye acknowledged that Obama may be a saved Christian and therefore could disappear with all the other members of the blessed at the great moment.

Another assurance we have about Obama's non-Antichristness is his lack of perfect popularity. Obama still has enemies and opponents whereas, when the Antichrist arises, he will be universally lauded.

All this came out during a conversation which some may have found bizarre but which was conducted with almost perfect decorum. Ms. Maddow was courteous to her guest and asked her questions soberly, with no hint of sarcasm. Mr. LaHaye responded quietly, confidently, in a reasoned manner. That the one thought the other was a crazed loon and the other thought the first a hopelessly lost sinner was not allowed to disturb the tranquility of the interchange. This was as it should be. You really cannot imagine Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Greenwald having such a talk.

The interview was preceded by Rachel's explanation of the astounding popularity of the Left Behind books. They have sold more copies than all the copies of the Merriam-Webster dictionary since Noah Webster was alive. Yet, Maddow realized that some of her audience may not even have heard of them. We live today in such widely separated corrals, that the biggest news in one may never filter through to those in another. You may find this hard to believe, but I, myself, have met people who have not heard of Tim LaHaye, of Jerry Jenkins, or of Left Behind. When I tell them of the wild popularity of the series, they tend to be astounded and ask questions such as, "Why have I not heard of this?" Why indeed?

In any case, in the face of financial collapse, foreign entanglements of the most vexing nature, the prospect of climate degradation and uncontrollable biological disease, and the spread of suitcase-sized nuclear devices, it's comforting to know that the president of the United States is not the Antichrist. This knowledge we owe, in some significant degree, to Tim LaHaye and we should be grateful to him for it.

February 27, 2009

Every night on television we observe demonstration of an attitude that is very hard for me to understand. Republican spokesmen step forward to say that it is more important for wealthy people to add increments to their wealth than it is for ordinary people to acquire the basics of life. For example, they oppose a universal health care system, even though the lack of one means that many people will suffer and die. And why do they oppose it? Because it will require a small increase in taxes for people who already have so much money there is scarcely any luxury they can't afford. In other words, it is more important for a millionaire to be able to buy a bigger yacht than it is for a person of modest income to be able to get treatment for a sick child.

There is something to be learned from this, but its nature is so astonishing most journalists are afraid to expose it.

There can be only one conviction behind these arguments. For Republican leaders, there are people and, then, there are those other people. Some people count but a much larger group of people don't count. The difference between them is whether they have raked up big piles of money.  Those who have deserve society's effort to help them make their piles even bigger. Those who haven't deserve nothing. The reasons why some people have money and other people don't cannot be taken into account. Not having money is one's own fault and possession of money alone is the only measure that matters.

Republicans recognize that it is risky to state these views bluntly. You shouldn't, they say among themselves, get those other people too riled up. After all, there are a lot more of them than there are of us. And, besides, we need to dupe a good many of them in order to keep ourselves politically healthy. So they try to make up arguments they believe will sway a majority, such as the evil of class warfare, or the horror of using government to try to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, or the foulness of socialism -- the word itself, no matter how it's defined. And sometimes these arguments take hold for a while.

The degree to which they work is one of the key issues of politics. But, that's not what I am talking about here. I want to focus on the attitude itself. What is its source? What keeps it alive? I'm speaking of the attitude that some people just don't count, and its corollary that the measure of counting is money.

Perhaps my trouble in grasping it is something weird about me. Maybe the notion that only the in-group matters and that everybody on the outside can go rot is an ineradicable element of the human mind. I'm not sure. So, this little piece is far more a confession than it is an argument. I don't get why adding ten feet to the length of a yacht matters more than keeping people healthy and warm in their beds at night. I doubt that I could live long enough to learn that lesson. I'm just dumb that way.

Veiled Impacts
February 26, 2009

There are so many influential people around nowadays it's impossible to keep up with them. That means that people you have scarcely heard are visiting all sorts of effects on your life. It's a droopy thought.

The latest big influencer brought to my attention is Lee Hamilton, former co-chairman of the investigation committee on Iraq and now president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center. According to David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, Mr. Hamilton has Barack Obama's ear on what to do about Iran. Everybody says we have to do something about it because Iran is the biggest threat looming on the international horizon, unless, of course, it's Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or North Korea, or Hamas, or Hezbollah, or that old standby al Qaeda. I guess, too, there are some who feel that Russia is sneaking into the league.

Anyway, Iran is a big, big danger and Lee Hamilton has Obama's ear on what to do about it. And what does Hamilton counsel (if we can believe David Ignatius)?


I was glad to learn that because it seems to me that patience is a virtue which seldom gets its due. Perhaps that's because it does almost nothing for TV ratings.

Hamilton says the government of the United States should start talking to the government of Iran in a quiet way, attempting to lay out some areas in which agreement might be reached. Think of the profound knowledge it took to come up with that idea.

It has now become a course of deep wisdom to summon, against all odds, an alternative program to the William Kristol/Robert Kagan school of foreign policy, which has an immediate, cheery plan for any difficulty arising outside our borders -- "Wow! Let's have a war."

I'm happy Mr. Hamilton is taking the position he does. Yet, I confess it troubles me a bit that pundits believe somebody has to have an inside track to the president in order that diplomacy might be viewed as a workable option by the White House. Actually, I don't think that's the case, but that it can be seen as  a matter of powerful backdoor influence shows how far into military la-la land we have wandered.

Stepping Back From the Impossible
February 26, 2009

It irritates me for Chris Matthews to bring Tom DeLay on his show, as he did last night, and say that he understands DeLay's principles. Of course, that's not the only thing about Matthews that irritates me. He's one of the reasons why I sympathize with Glenn Greenwald's recent question: "Is it even theoretically possible to have a worse, more deceitful and more moronic press than the one we have now?"

That's not to say that I don't sometimes agree with Matthews. But his willingness to feign respect for anybody who's part of the Washington establishment, or ever was a part of the Washington establishment, is nauseating.

Tom DeLay doesn't have principles; he's a Republican.

In talk-show-TV land, language is so loose one loses the distinction between motive and principle. DeLay certainly does have motives, and they constitute merely a maniacal version of the general Republican goal: to rake as much money into as few hands as possible, and, to be one of the few.

I don't fault Matthews for putting DeLay on his program. Viewers enjoy hearing a ridiculous person say bizarre things. It stirs their blood. They sit on their chairs at home and regale themselves with how they would counter DeLay if they were ever on television with him. The truth is, though, that no matter how scathing or witty the remarks were, they wouldn't disturb him. He enjoys the fury that lying garners. That's why he deals incessantly in falsehood.

Neither DeLay himself nor his foolish opinions would be worth even a paragraph were it not that the public hasn't yet learned to respond sensibly to provocations of the kind he uses. We are taught from childhood that we should listen to opposing views and credit them as they deserve. It's generally a good rule but it doesn't tell us what to do when we confront someone whose views are worthless and absurd. How do we behave then?

Television needs a DeLay rule. When someone puts him, or those like him, on a show for the sake of sensation, he should be afforded no counter arguments. Instead, after he has fulminated, the host should remark something in the mode of, "Well, there's Tom DeLay" and smile.

I fear I've made this point before on this site. But it needs to be repeated. There's a gulf between those with whom we can have conversation, even if we disagree, and those like DeLay with whom no conversation is possible. The latter need simply to be smiled at. There's nothing else they deserve.

Almost State of the Union
February 25, 2009

By most accounts Mr. Obama's speech last night was good. Whether it will be seen as standing out in history must be decided by the future. If the country is able to make major improvements in the three areas he emphasized -- energy supply, health care, including medical research, and education -- then his words will be remembered and celebrated for a long time.

The House chamber presented a happy scene, despite a certain amount of Republican sulking. What must have been in everyone's mind, whether they were in the Capitol or home in front of their TV sets, was the contrast with the previous president. To call it dramatic would be severe understatement. It was as though the entire national mind were suddenly seized by the thought that there may be worth in intelligence. What a revelation!

There has been some grousing. I noticed that Bill Kristol was disgruntled because the president didn't talk up more war. But then you have to remember that for Kristol and those like him, carrying on war is about the only thing a president should do.

It's easy to become enthralled by moments of this kind, to be caught up in the belief that politics and government are almost the whole of life. Yet it's not the president's job to disabuse us of that idea. He is in government and so it's only natural for him to talk about governing. We have to rely on our own balancing mechanisms to remind us that there are other things.

We demand too much of presidents. They are expected not only to manage the government sensibly -- in itself an almost impossible task -- but also to tell us who we are and where we should be going. Mr. Obama is more capable of fulfilling the role than most of our chief executives have been, yet no people who expect to learn their purpose from a politician will rise to maturity.

Still, I'm glad that Barack Obama is president and George Bush is not. The government does have the power to affect our lives and if we want it to affect them for the better, we will do well to select for the presidency people who are capable of thinking about what life is. It's a mental ability that seems beyond most of the politicians in America at the moment. We do appear to have found someone who is able to think, and if we have mind enough to interact with him responsibly we can look forward to a happier public existence than we've had for some time now.

Actual Alternatives
February 24, 2009

David Brooks has an interesting column this morning in which he explains how he was weaned away from his youthful liberalism by reading Edmund Burke, and, then, more contemporary writers who taught him to see the wisdom of Burke's caution, including my old friend Ed Banfield.

It's a process that many have gone through. It has its benefits but it seems to leave most of its participants confused about the real political choices available to us. We can't pick between Obama-like confidence and Burkean restraint. We have to pick between Obama and John McCain. I wonder if, even once, Brooks has asked himself what Burke would have had to say about the war the United States recently launched against Iraq.

Edmund Burke was a gentleman. He met in mutual respect with Samuel Johnson. Who can imagine Richard Shelby doing such a thing? Or Jim Bunning? Or John Boehner?

Those who long for Burkean wisdom need to get it through their heads, once and for all, that there is no significant Burkean conservatism in the United States right now. If they wish to see it come to be they need to face the truth that they cannot get to it through the Republican Party. Edmund Burke was not a hard-hearted, mean-spirited intellectual clown, nor did he wish to associate with anyone who was.

When David Brooks supported John McCain over Barack Obama, as he did in the recent presidential campaign, what in hell did he think he was doing? What sort of persons did he think would staff the government in a McCain administration? Did he want to see the likes of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney back in the saddle? Did he want Sarah Palin to be vice-president of the United States?

Here's what David Brooks ought to do. Think of Edmund Burke taking tea with Alberto Gonzales. And then summon to his mind's eye the expression on Burke's face as he left the room. That should help clarify our real choices for him.

Running Off the Rails
February 22, 2009

Now and then, though I dislike the subject, I find myself wondering how many truly deranged people we can have in society without disruption of public peace.

The question was reactivated my mind by happening to watch a clip of a recent Fox News program titled "War Room," hosted by Glenn Beck. The show not only discussed, in a mock serious way, the prospect of armed militias attacking law enforcement authorities; it also featured two guests, introduced as sober experts, who endorsed the idea.

We may have underestimated just how wigged out some people would become over the actuality of a non-Caucasian Democratic president. We can be confident that such people make up a fairly small portion of the population, yet the intensity of their delusions doubtless gives them more influence than their numbers justify. Their force is further enhanced by a number of fairly prominent media outlets who promote bizarre political sentiments virtually around the clock.

Fox News leads the pack in this respect. They added Glenn Beck to their collection of news talk show hosts last October, demonstrating, I suppose, that they find unbalanced commentary a draw among their potential viewers. As long as people like Beck are seen, primarily, as comics, I don't suppose they do a great deal of harm. They influence no one other than people who have already gone berserk. Still, should they provide the impetus to propel those people over the line from insane thought to insane action, I guess we would have to start viewing them in a different light. I have no evidence that is about to happen and I presume that it's not. Yet, the pure craziness of some of the talk on these programs can be disturbing.

Beck said on the program just mentioned that he thinks we're on the road to so-called "Bubba militias" and his guests suggested that should civil war break out between these militias and government authorities, the U.S. military would side with the militias. The bigoted announcements on programs like Beck's against Muslims actually do have the potential to incite mob violence. And this sort of foolishness goes on, incessantly, day after day.

We can hope it will add up to no more than a big blob of nothingness. Yet, it's a grotesque phenomenon, and doubtless worth checking out from time to time.

Ignored Benefit
February 21, 2009

Paul Solman had an engaging segment on the News Hour last night about the upside of the downside, that is, about the positive changes that could emerge from the economic collapse. He mentioned a number of prospects, such as more healthy diet, lower prices for some products, and a general diminishing of the stress from the rat race. But he said nothing about the most significant possibility of all.

Might this upheaval cause us to modify our thoughts about intelligence? For a long time now, the masters of high finance have been touted as among the nation's brightest. They were seen as understanding systems whose workings were beyond the grasp of us ordinary drones. They made the world go round. And simply in terms of being wise they lived in an exalted realm near the top of the heap.

Lately, that image has been crumbling. We have seen these men on TV and actually listened to what they said. And, my goodness! They are scarcely the stuff to elevate the heart.

I'm not sure why we ever thought they were.  Generally when a social mythology is severely flawed it's because people have failed to take in account exactly what's being addressed. In this case, it's money. These former paragons were people who though almost solely of piling up vast piles of money.

We should ask ourselves what money is, in its reality. When we do we see it is the power to make temporary slaves of other people. We all seek this power to some extent. We want to be able to walk into a shop and tell the people there to make a cup of coffee for us. Or we want to require a mechanic to spend several hours fixing our car. Or we want a train of people to have labored to prepare entertainment for us.

The difference between most of us and the lords of finance is that ordinary people expect to contribute their own servitude to the social pool in order to draw other people's servitude from it. But not the high financiers. They simply want to siphon off; they're not concerned with putting anything in. They spend their entire lives dreaming up schemes to get an endless array of services without having to spend a second trying to provide well-being to other people.

I know that some people -- mainly themselves -- do claim they provide social services, but if you look closely, the claim is not borne out. What real service comes from credit default swaps, or collateralized debt obligations. The answer is, virtually none. Certainly, they were not dreamed up as instruments of social service. They were created for the single purpose of scooping up tons of money without having to offer anything in return. They were like an insurance man's dream, a policy that can never, under any circumstances, be called on to pay off.

A society that rewards people who do things like this with their adulation, their respect, their bowing down before financial smarts, will always be primarily a society of dupes.

The lords of Wall Street don't write any poems, they don't raise any food, they don't cure any sick people, they don't, except in a perverted way, provide any entertainment. They will tell you that none of these things can be accomplished without their contributions. But is that true? I don't think so. It's clear that they are thinking of no real social benefits as they work all day doing what they do. They are thinking of scamming people out of their money, and not a little bit of it either.

A person who expects gigantic amounts of unrequited service and who puts his entire mental output to getting it is not intelligent by any reasonable definition of the term. He is simply what Dr. Johnson would have called him, a scoundrel. We can keep on thinking that the skills of a scoundrel constitute smartness, but as long as we do, we're going to keep on getting what we get now.

If we could learn not to perceive intelligence that way, the lesson would be worth all the pain we're going to endure.

February 21, 2009

A vision floats into the mind. A man of ample girth, is sitting in his 5,000 square foot Texas house, with a Ford F-150, sporting custom hub caps, parked in the driveway. He wears cowboy boots and is wolfing down a pound of pork sausage for breakfast. If you were to ask him about his philosophy, he would say he believes in Jesus Christ, his lord and savior, even though he has never in his life given five seconds thought to who Jesus was or what salvation means.

Keep in mind, this man may not actually exist, or, if he does, he makes up only a tiny portion of the U.S. population. Yet, real or not, he is the figure politicians fear. He directs and constricts much of the nation's behavior, because he is the real American.

There's a bit of irony, don't you think?  The real American is not particularly real.

Texas has become a wonderful symbol for everything vulgar in America. Perhaps that's mainly because it was the Texans who gave us George W. Bush. The representation isn't completely fair. But, there it is. After all, Texans do, collectively, like to kill more people than do the residents of any other state.

Now we are launched into a great financial crisis, and we can't even think about doing some of the things it would be sensible to do because the real American would howl. We can hear his voice rising every day from the indignant tones of Rush Limbaugh, who is listened to on a regular basis by a gargantuan 5% of the population. As Gail Collins says about the prospect of the government restructuring the banks, we can't do it because "Americans will never do anything that Sweden does. Never has, never will. Don't argue with me. It's a rule." Chris Matthews and Bill O'Reilly, those masters of cliché, would doubtless nod in enthusiastic agreement.

In this realm of freedom we have an awful lot of rules, and a goodly portion of them come from the real American. He's been around a long time. More than a century and a half ago Charles Dickens penned several magnificent portraits of him in Martin Chuzzlewit. He would have had a Ford F-150 then if an effective internal combustion engine had been invented.

An impermissible question has come to my mind: can we ever get from under the real American's thumb, we denizens of the land of the free?

Children as they grow older tend to discard their fear of the boogeyman under the bed. But, it seems our country hasn't been able to grow up to that degree.

Economics at Heart
February 20, 2009

Watching the fairly civilized debate on The News Hour, between Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute and Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO, I realized I don't know what to think of globalization and world trade. Presumably they're good things or, at least, have the potential to be good things. Yet, they have too much been used for economic oppression.

A few minutes later, the report about a Hanes underwear plant in Vietnam also left me with mixed feelings. A worker there makes on average $80 a month, putting in 48-hour weeks. It sounds bad. Yet people flock to the jobs because that level of pay represents something better for them than they have known, living as peasants in the countryside. It's the old story of industrialization -- "The Deserted Village" of Oliver Goldsmith -- which has been debated by economists since, at least, the latter part of the 18th century.

To get something better is what most humans are after.

When we got to the interview with the CEO of Hanes, in Winston Salem, I began to feel my skin crawl. It seems to be that a person can't occupy a position of that order without being turned into a cold-hearted wretch. What does that mean? We have a system such that success in it demands corruption of soul. Has that always been the case with systems? Must it always be the case?

The first thing I read yesterday, early in the morning, was Roger Cohen's speculation, from Iran, about the real leader of that country, Ali Khamenei. He has said his goal is to align the Islamic Revolution with the world's disinherited in a movement against the dominance of the United States. In this country, that sentiment doesn't get you good press. But, what about it, really? Would the disinherited of the world be better off with leaders like Khamenei?

We say no -- and I agree -- because they demand such rigid social and religious restrictions, and such vile treatment of women. But, I am living in a fairly comfortable house and I have plenty to eat every day. Suppose I had little water, little electricity, little heat. Suppose I saw my children going to bed hungry. How would I feel then?

The globalists say their system will eventually lift everyone, so that throughout the world there will be adequate food and comfortable housing. But, are they right? Do they really mean it?

The whole business makes my head hurt. I sometimes wish money had never been invented, even though I don't know how we would have done without it.

February 19, 2009

I notice that State Senator Chris Buttars of Utah says that the radical gay movement poses the greatest threat to America.

What we too easily forget is that when people like Mr. Buttars make statements of that sort what they're talking about is not the actual country but, rather, their vision of it. We let them off the hook by failing to ask what their visions are.

I suspect that if Chris Buttars's desires for the United States could be laid out, in full, before the people of the country, his warnings about threats would not only be dismissed but be seen as having been dipped out of a fetid pool.

We listen too much to people whose general perspective is not just bizarre but, often, hideous. We don't know that about them, though, because we don't ask.

It's ironic that we have in this country a great gossip machine which we sometimes call journalism, but we don't employ it to discover exactly who the people are to whom we entrust our affairs. We look for scandals but we seldom look for the whole.

I suppose you could say that the president is scrutinized enough that, if we pay attention, we can gain a fairly accurate portrait of who he is, what he believes, how he thinks, what he would do if he could have his way. But scarcely any other politician is examined that carefully.

For some reason Orrin Hatch floats into my mind, perhaps because he, like Chris Buttars, is from Utah. I have seen Senator Hatch dozens of times on TV. I don't know how many of his words I have taken in, but, certainly, thousands. Yet, I have little idea of who he is. I don't know how he would behave towards a child in the room. I don't know if he is courteous to hotel employees. I don't know how much money he is willing to spend on a restaurant meal. I don't know if he has ever read a serious book in his life, or, if he has, what he thought about it. I don't know what causes his heart to rise up, if anything does. I don't know if he has ever given a thought to the wretched of the earth. In short, I don't know the things about him that I know about my acquaintances, and that allow me to decide whether I can trust them or not.

This is just one of the ways that we, the public, fly blind. And that, to me, is a far greater threat than any imaginable movement.

February 18, 2009

The percentage of Americans who care, significantly, about the legal rights of anyone whom the government declares to be bad is small. I don't know what it is specifically. But I would be surprised if it rises above 20%.

This means if you want to be a civil libertarian in America you'll find yourself on a fairly lonely road.

Over the past eight years, the United States government has been scooping up people by the thousands and declaring them to be enemies in the war against terror. Some of these people are eventually released. But many are imprisoned indefinitely for no good reason at all. They continue to languish in captivity, with some of them being treated hideously, because the government is too lazy to decide what to do with them and because a significant percentage of the people who guard them are bigots and sadists.

The average American, by which I mean someone in the majority of about 80%, doesn't care in the least. By vigorous reporting and protest, that number might be reduced somewhat, but it's unlikely that it could lose its majority status.

If you're concerned about these people you have to follow a legal rather than a political strategy. They are being detained in ways that are clearly unconstitutional, but getting the courts to rule on their unconstitutional status is a long, tortuous, frustrating process, during which lives continue to be degraded and used up.

No one who rises to the top ranks of political power in the United States is going to be their champion. That's not what major politicians do. We can expect, now that Barack Obama is president, that they will be treated better than they were during the Bush administration. It may be that most overt torture will stop, although we cannot be assured of that because secrecy will continue to be the main characteristic of their captivity. No one outside prison walls knows what goes on inside.

Sad as it is, our only recourse appears to be to keep applying legal pressure whenever we can. A small number of Congressmen and Senators might be enlisted in the effort. They need to be supported and applauded as much as possible. And every night, when you lie down to go to sleep, think of the innocent persons lying in anguish at that very moment, deep in the bowels of prisons. That might get you up the next morning resolved to do what you can.

Banking Common Sense
February 17, 2009

It is very hard to master all the technical details of the financial crisis or to follow every intricate argument about what needs to be done. Yet, there are some lessons anyone ought to be able to take from our recent experiences.

We can, for example, compare the financial network to other systems of public and legal life. As far as I know, it is against the law for private persons to buy and sell nuclear weapons in the United States. Why is this the case? Obviously, the potential damage that might come from that practice far outweighs any benefit it could possibly confer. So, we prohibit it.

Over the past several months we have heard, incessantly, that certain financial institutions are too big to fail. What's meant by that? Surely, that if they do fail, their breakdown will create widespread public distress. The situation has been summed up succinctly by our senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, who has been widely quoted as saying that if a bank is too big to fail then it's too big to be allowed to exist. Others are making the same point. Simon Johnson, writing in The Baseline Scenario just yesterday, noted that huge banks with great political power will always lead to social misery.

Think of it: here we have a system in the hands of relatively few private persons who are concentrated on amassing great wealth for themselves which, if it's misused, can spread hardship and suffering throughout the land. Obviously it has been misused and the hardship and suffering have come upon us. Are we too stupid to draw the obvious conclusion? You don't have to be an expert in the intricacies of financial instruments to know that if the laws permit a few people to hold the well-being of the entire nation in their hands, especially when those people have never been known for their social conscience, then those laws are foolish and ought to be changed.

If the counter argument is made that gigantic banks can do things no smaller institutions can do, and that those things need to be done, then it's clear those banks cannot continue to be completely private operations. It is folly to allow a few people who care nothing about the commonwealth to control its economic health. Who can justify such a thing?

My fear is that the people who have been set to solve the problems of the financial breakdown have for so long taken for granted a system that is pervaded by folly, they can't activate their minds to grasp its basic constitution. All they can think about is a little trimming and shaping. I don't think that's what we need right now.

Political Types
February 17, 2009

In today's Washington Post, Richard Cohen says that Obama thought that Judd Gregg was a nonentity who could boost the new administration's reputation for bipartisanship. But Gregg is not a nonentity, says Cohen, he's a Republican. Which is worse, the columnist leaves unclear.

The past couple weeks should have taught us, conclusively, something we ought already to have known. Political titles are simply terms for designating certain types of people. And people, being who they are, are not going to change rapidly, and many of them are not going to change at all.

In America, Republicans constitute the portion of the population who have the most trouble with change. Let's face it, most of us are bothered by change. But Republicans detest it. They are always the people most enraged by teenage styles, by new forms of art, by popular music, by anything which depends on being fresh and different. Some people call this attitude conservative, but I think that's a mistake. Conservatives are motivated by love. Republicans are driven by anger and resentment. The emotional content of one's political stance makes a big difference.

All politics is emotional to some extent. But Republicans are maniacally emotional. Most Democrats will admit that their party is no great shakes and is marked by much foolishness and inconsistency. They are Democrats not out of devotion but because their party is the least of political evils available to us. You won't find many Republicans saying that about the GOP. That's why they are noted for their so-called discipline.

Given who Republicans are, you shouldn't expect to win them over. Being won over is exactly what they most hate. That's why facts have very little influence on them. A Rush Limbaugh lie can be refuted conclusively a thousand times and Republicans won't care. They'll still believe it. Republican politicians know this and, consequently, can repeat the same falsehood incessantly with no worry about losing support among their key constituency.  John McCain's campaign was based on nothing but that conviction and the hope that his constituency still made up a majority of voters. In 2008, he was wrong about the latter. Even so, the campaign he ran was probably the best he could have done.

If you don't want to live in the world Republicans would construct, you can't escape it by convincing them that something else would be better. It doesn't matter how overwhelming your evidence is. Republicans are not into evidence. Instead, you have to create the kind of society you favor. Then, young people rising to political consciousness will increasingly choose your program over Republican programs.

Friendliness and bipartisanship can be talked up as much as one wishes. There's nothing wrong with them as long as one faces who people are. The truth of identity, though, has to be taken into account if one is to avoid self-delusion.

Legal Incursions
February 16, 2009

Philip K. Howard's Life Without Lawyers, which he discussed on Book TV's "Afterwords," (broadcast Sunday, February 15th), reminded me of a development that first began to force itself on my attention more than three decades ago. It is the attempt by Americans to avoid all judgment, whether made by oneself or by others. In its place we are supposed to put codes, or sets of rules, which take care of everything. There seems to be little recognition that codes cannot be drafted without using judgment, and virtually no recognition that it's impossible to draw up codes that cover every eventuality.

The motive for all-encompassing codes is the desire to escape responsibility. Everybody can say he was just following the rules, even if following them turns out disastrously, as often it does.

Howard cited the case of an elementary school principal who followed the code of not touching a rampaging five-year-old while she tore the school apart, resulting in the little girl's being handcuffed and dragged out of the school by cops ( the code allows the cops to do that, you see).

The effect of relying always on codes, and thus bringing legal procedures into every arena of life, results in doing things that everybody knows are wrong but that nobody dares to oppose. Who really thinks that the best way to deal with a misbehaving five year old child is to call the cops on her?

Howard argues that freedom itself requires giving authority to some people and then holding them accountable for any abuse they make of it. If the principal in the case had subdued the child using a baseball bat, then some other authority would need to take the principal in hand and render a finding of abuse. But if the principal had behaved sensibly, taken the child,  made her sit down and told her firmly that she had to get herself under control, then no ponderous, expensive and exhausting legal processes would have been set in order.

If we have to resolve everything in courts, we will paralyze ourselves.

The same attitude that forces school principals to participate in absurd outcomes caused judges to let insane legal issues clog the courts, as in the case of a man who sued his cry cleaner for more than $150 million in damages over a lost pair of pants. Nobody took the responsibility of saying, "This is silly. If you want to pursue this in small claims court, with a potential award of $100, okay. But you're not going to make a travesty of my courtroom." The ruling might have been overturned, but I doubt it. And even if it were, the judge would have done the right thing.

No system can be better than the people who administer it, no matter how skillfully the rules have been drawn. Mr. Howard says we need badly to learn that, and he's right.

February 15, 2009

The article in today's New York Times by James Glanz, C.J. Chivers and William Rashbaum, reporting on corruption in Iraq during the first several years after the invasion, is one more reminder -- presaging many yet to come -- of how foul the American operation in that country was.

Senator Claire McCaskill was certainly right to say, "You had no oversight, chaos and breathtaking sums of money, And over all of that was the notion that failure was O.K. It doesn't get any better for criminals than that set of circumstances."

I have thought for a long time now that there has been no more destructive official in U.S. history than Paul Bremer, commander of the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority, who set the tone of much of what happened. I don't know of any evidence that Bremer, himself, stole money. But he created an atmosphere where stealing came to seem the right thing to do.

Still, this was not a one-man operation. The same attitude seemed to be rampant from top to bottom.

There were, of course, decent people in Iraq, doing the best they could. But their best was of little consequence in the miasma constructed by the leaders. Even now, with all the billions poured into Iraq reconstruction, social services in Baghdad have not reached the low quality provided by the previous government. And guess what? Every penny of those billions went somewhere.

We are not averse in America to looking at particular cases of malfeasance and clasping our hands to our foreheads in horror. After all, we like to throw people in jail. Yet there is little in the newspapers or on TV about what all of this means. In the case of Iraq, the meaning is clear. American character undermined supposed American policy, undermined it to such an extent that we are justified in asking whether the stated policy was anything more than an elaborate sham.

Policy becomes a farce if the actual people designated to carry it out have no loyalty to what they say they are doing. As far as I can tell, that was the basic characteristic of the Bush administration. It remains to be seen whether it is also the basic characteristic of the American people.

Are we a democratic republic or are we an enormous criminal conspiracy? I don't think we can answer that question definitively right now.

February 13, 2009

The TV news shows yesterday were full of Mr. Obama's attempts to align himself with the tone and temper of Abraham Lincoln. The quality of the 16th president most emphasized was his devotion to union and his willingness to embrace opponents. Nobody talked much about the principal political action of Mr. Lincoln's life. He waged the bloodiest war of American history, and in order to achieve victory he employed one of the most ruthless commanders the world has ever known.

The general finding of scholars is that he was justified in both. Whether that judgment will stand up in the centuries to come nobody knows. Yet, regardless of assessment, we need to remember that Lincoln did what he did. Much as he hated suffering, he was willing to spread it across the land in order to achieve the union that became a religious cause with him.

So if we're going to use Lincoln as a model today, we have to say the lesson he teaches is that you have to defeat your enemies before you can come together with them.

As for myself, I don't believe in historical models as guides to future action. As time rolls on, conditions change so radically that no situation in the present is genuinely analogous to anything you can find in the past. We can learn from history but we have to make our own models.

In the Republican Party, Obama does not face the same kind of enemy Lincoln faced in the Confederate States of America. For one thing, the Confederacy was not as concentrated on Lincoln as the Republicans now are on Obama. The Republican Party of 2009 has one goal that so dominates all its other desires, the latter can scarcely be said to exist. That goal is to bring down Barack Obama. If they can do it by helping the country they will. If they can do it by ruining the country they will do it just as cheerfully. They are driven by resentment and indignation. They have demonstrated that beyond doubt in the first month of the Obama presidency.

Obama can respond to them however he wishes. But whatever response he makes should be based on knowledge of who they are and what they want. And, primarily, it should be based on the understanding that they have nothing healthy to offer a large majority of the American people. They are warriors for a small segment of the populace and they care nothing about the rest. Their attitudes reflect the sentiments of the people who elect them.

It's fine for Obama to go out among those people and see if he can win them over.  Doubtless he can persuade some of them. Yet, he can't get enough of them behind him to  change markedly the political conditions he has to manage. Think of it: the people of a state actually elected Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint to the Senate of the United States. What is it that Obama can say to such people?

Many Democrats are beginning to fear that Obama can't grasp who the Republicans are and that, consequently, he will continue to let them jerk him around as they have tried to do since the inauguration. I hope that's not the case.  Whatever manner he adopts towards his enemies, he needs to have a strategy to defeat them. If he'll study Lincoln in office, he'll see that is one lesson to be learned.

State of Mind
February 12, 2009

I see that the Gallup Poll is commemorating Charles Darwin's 200th birthday by asking Americans what they think about the theory of evolution. The results are that 39% believe in it, 25% disbelieve it, and 36% have no opinion.

That 61% of Americans either discount the major theory of biological science or have no opinion about it at all seems a bit droopy. But I don't think we grasp what it actually means.

The common assessment is that most Americans are ignorant about the facts of science, history, and political activity. That's doubtless true. Yet, the significant issue in the matter is not so much ignorance as blankness of mind. Ignorance can be alleviated. But blankness of mind is a condition I don't think we've even begun to address.

What is blankness of mind? I see it as an inability to perceive what knowing is, coupled with a radical uninterest and lack of curiosity.

When I was in the sixth grade, we were asked to memorize a set of four precepts, the final one being, "He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool; shun him." It has a nice ring but it's not good advice in a society where 36% fall into that category. That's too many to shun.

We need to find a way to reach out to them, but I confess I don't know how.

There's a theory that everybody knows about as much as anyone else; it's just that some know very different things than others do. Along with this view usually goes the judgment that there is no way to set one body of knowledge above another.

I don't subscribe to that theory. I have known people who had very little of anything in their heads, but what was more notable about them than the quantity of their knowledge was their disinclination to do anything with what they did know. They simply saw no reason to think.

I suppose we could have a big debate about whether this is a genetically induced condition. I can't say for sure that it's not. But I doubt that it is because some national populations demonstrate it more forcefully than others. When I've traveled in England, the people I met simply by chance showed a keener interest in facts than the average person I've encountered here at home.

Something in culture activates a desire for fact and pleasure in explaining facts through theory. We don't have as much of it here as they have in some other countries. Over the long run that will lead to sad developments.

I can't say for sure how things would be different if 88% of the American population believed in the theory of evolution. But I'm fairly confident that our general social life would be more healthy than it is now. So I wish we would find a way to start making that shift.

Reaching Across the Aisle
February 12, 2009

Bipartisanship continues to be a major theme in the national political debate. And I continue to be addled by the way it's discussed.

In the mainstream media, bipartisanship is generally treated as though it were a practice, like driving carefully or paying close attention to a text. There's little grasp that the possibility of being bipartisan is determined by the nature of the two groups in contention. If two sides agree that five things need to be done but disagree about the precedence that should be given to each, then you have fertile ground for bipartisanship. But if one side thinks five things should be done and the other side thinks that all five are horrible, evil, and the spawn of Satan, then bipartisanship is probably not going to work well.

In the United States right now, we are much closer to the second condition than to the first. The journalistic community has a terrifically hard time acknowledging the depth of opposition between the two major parties. Reporters are addicted to the happy myth that people can struggle mightily on the floor of the legislature and then go out at night and have drinks together. But suppose you were a Jew and the debate that day had been about the passage of the Nuremberg Laws. Could you enjoy the society in the lounge that night?

I use the extreme example not to argue that the differences between Democrats and Republicans are as biting as the gulf between Jews and the major political forces in Germany in the 1930s. The American chasm is not that wide. Still, there comes a time when it's wide enough that the two sides will be hard put to find modes of accommodation. I wish it weren't so but I fear we are close to such a time right now.

If you consider the general attitudes, values and tastes of, say, Mitch McConnell, David Vitter, Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, James Inhofe, John Cornyn, Jon Kyl and their supporters and then set them alongside the desires and concerns of the backers of Barack Obama, you are forced to face the truth that the overlap between them is so thin bipartisanship is unlikely.

It's true that in a country as fluid and complex as the United States, the nature of the two parties is in constant flux. There's nothing to say the existing divisions will persist for decades. I can remember a time when the struggle between segregationists and advocates of equal rights was as bitter as the fight between Republicans and Democrats is now. Less than fifty years later one of those contending forces has pretty much faded away.

Conditions can change. But at any given time, we have to deal with the situation as it is. Here in the first year of the Obama administration, I see little to indicate that genuinely cooperative efforts can take place between the two parties. Might we be better off to face that truth?

Forbidden Word
February 11, 2009

The talk since Tim Geithner's report yesterday has been varied and confusing, but an agreement of sorts does seem to be emerging. We have to nationalize the big banks but we can never, never say that's what we're doing. It would be too upsetting to elderly ladies in supermarket checkout lines, and others like them, who have been fed on the self-serving myths of capitalism so long they would go bonkers if they had to face the truth.

The best guide to all this I have found so far is the Noble Prize recipient Joseph Stiglitz, who, not having a government job, can speak honestly. He says forthrightly that the major banks are bankrupt. There's no equity left in them. The American taxpayer has already become the major supplier of funds to them, and now the issue is who will pay for their losses. Wall Street wants the government simply to give money to the investors in these banks even though their investment is now worthless. That would be bad for the public and bad for the future of the country, says Stiglitz. He's obviously right about that.

Normally, when a bank fails it gets reorganized through formal bankruptcy. Overseers kick out the people who have led the bank to failure, put new rules into effect, and try to guide the institution back to solvency. That process now has to take place with most of our mega-banks, but we can't call it bankruptcy and we can't call it nationalization. We have to do what politicians always do when they are faced with difficult decisions; we have to make up a lot of new words.

You might say that Geithner will become the Czar of our national vocabulary.

This does not mean that substantial decisions will not take place under the cover of verbal obfuscation. As Stiglitz says, it's a zero-sum game. Some people will win and others will lose. The two groups in contention for sustaining the biggest losses are the American taxpayers, on the one hand, and the owners, investors and managers of the banks, on the other.

The fear is that Geithner is so chummy with bankers and other big money operatives that he will do all in his power to reduce their losses. That was the theme of Maureen Dowd's column this morning in the New York Times.

I don't know whether she's right or not because I have little sense of who Tim Geithner is. Ultimately though, the responsibility lies with the president. He has to ride herd on Geithner just as a bankruptcy court has to ride herd on a failed institution.

The big question for his presidency and our immediate future is whether he's up to the job.

More Money
February 10, 2009

I just read Allen Salkin's article in the New York Times about how hard it is to live on half a million dollars in certain neighborhoods in New York -- neighborhoods where bankers not only like to live but feel they have to live. First, you have the $96,000 mortgage payments on, really, a very modest condo. Then you add the $96,000 coop maintenance fee. Private school for each child costs $32,000. Even a low-order chauffeur sets you back $75,000, and if you want one who used to be a police officer and can protect you with a gun, it's at least $125,000. A list of only a few items tells you how tough it is, even before you get to the tutors, personal trainer, and food.

Why is my face not wet with tears of sympathy?

The key thesis in this tale of woe is that the people who live in the manner of bankers on the upper east side of Manhattan feel they have to. It's not anything they choose; it's what they are required to do. It would be unthinkable to try to live any other way.

I'm not unaware of the force of social pressure. We all feel mashed and constrained by it at times. But if one reaches the point where he believes he has to have more than $500,000 each year in order to live, the time has come to stiffen his backbone. He might even activate his mind enough to ask whether his mode of life is worthwhile.

I said I wasn't sympathetic, but I do, in a way, feel sorry for people who have surrounded themselves with such constraints. They may be better off than prisoners at Guantanamo but they're a good way down that path. They appear to be locked up inside themselves with a set of pathological beliefs.

Their problems are severe but their effect on the rest of us may be even more ominous. It is to them we turn for advice about how our economic affairs should be ordered. Think of it: we have to seek counsel from people who don't have enough sense to live comfortably on a half-million dollars a year.

Seems a little screwy, doesn't it?

February 10, 2009

I wish I felt better about Tim Geithner than I do. I, of course, don't know how well the financial recovery plan he outlined today will work. In that respect, I'm in the same position as every other person on the face of the earth. I wish the plan had more direct help for individuals who are pressed by debt. It seems to me a provision that would lower the interest rates on all mortgages for houses that cost less than a half-million dollars would offer more direct stimulus and help a greater number of people than most other features of his plan. It would also assist the banks by reducing the number of foreclosures they have to initiate and strengthening the value of the mortgages they hold.

Still, I can't be sure about details of that sort and the failure to include much help for mortgage payers is not the main reason I lack confidence in Geithner.

My reason is that his mind has been formed by big-money thinking. I don't believe that people who live and work in the world he has inhabited understand what money is to most people. I think he would have a hard time imagining walking down the aisle of a supermarket looking for sale items. To find a bottle of juice that cost a dollar less than it usually does would not mean anything to him. I doubt he grasps the decision-making one goes through in deciding how cold to make his house. "Can we stand it all the way through today at 58 degrees?" is not a question that would resonate with him. Yet, that's how money operates for most people.

I realize that experience in the mass movement of money is necessary to formulate a workable plan. Still, ignorance of what money actually is constitutes a big handicap. My newspapers tell me there was a debate between Geithner and political operatives in the White House. And Geithner won. I wish I knew more about that argument and what it was that tipped the argument in Geithner's favor.

I have never had dinner, or coffee, with a person who raked in more than twenty million dollars in a single year. I have to try to understand such persons from accounts of what they say. For example, I read yesterday that John Thain, former CEO of Merill-Lynch, expressed frustration that some people didn't think he deserved a $40 million bonus for steering the sale of his company to Bank of America. I suppose we have to say that Mr. Thain is a human being, but he's not a human being like me. And I think Geithner has hung out more with men similar to Thain than he has with persons who see the world -- and money -- from my perspective.

That's why my confidence in the Treasury Secretary is not complete.

Republican Memes
February 8, 2009

In 1976, Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to indicate a unit or element of cultural ideas and practices. Memes, in short, are the means by which attitudes and values are transmitted, just as genes serve that same function with respect to biological characteristics.

Any person growing up in a social environment -- as all persons do -- is bound to be soaked in a set of memes which have a powerful influence on the direction of his life. Does this mean that one is completely controlled by the memes he inherits? I don't think so. But it does mean that unless someone works to eject some of his inherited memes, they will continue to shape his behavior. Memes don't go away simply by being forgotten or by oozing down into what is often called the subconscious mind.

How does it come about that a person decides to root a meme out of himself? That's a complicated question and one I doubt anyone has a complete answer for. It happens. We know that through biographical study. But we don't know exactly how. It seems to be the case that a few people decide to examine their own memes critically but most don't. Those who do are like mutants in biological evolution. They climb out of the meme pool in which they were born and flow off to form other pools. Or, to put it in a more common way, they join with others to create new social groupings.

You can define almost any social group from the meme pool in which it swims. There's fairly strong argument which holds that it's the most accurate way to define a social association. I don't know that the meme is, actually, anything more than an imaginative tool to help people sort out the movement of social evolution, but at least it does offer us some interesting propositions.

It tells us that we do better to examine a group not by its ostensible principles, or even by the appearance of its members, but by its underlying motivations. If we want to know what's really driving a group, we'll look at its memes more than we do at its position papers. In particular, if we are thinking of joining a group we should try on its memes for ourselves and see how comfortable we are with them.

As social, technical, and environmental conditions change, it's possible for a meme pool to become toxic. It may have once been okay but under the new situation it's poisonous. That's what I think has happened to the Republican Party. Its meme pool has become polluted.

That being the case, it's useful to ask what are the principal Republican memes? It's not a particularly hard question because when you think about it, the memes pop up like warning signs in the middle of the road. Here are the most potent seven.

  • The belief that white people are superior to persons of all other genetic background.

  • Faith that the possession of money is the primary indicator of human worth.

  • A suspicion of difference so strong it sets the prime social goal as possessing  weapons more powerful than those of anyone else.

  • A glowering indignation towards anyone who works to unravel and understand complexity.

  • Artistic taste based on nothing other than extreme sentimentalism.

  • The complete dominance of curiosity by authority.

  • Confidence in fear and punishment as the strongest human motivators.

When people lived widely spread apart, these were functional memes if not particularly noble ones. But now that the people of the world are being stirred together as they are, the Republican memes are, at the least, troublesome.

I wish we could find a way to talk about them more straightforwardly than we do.

February 7, 2009

Talking Points Memo is hosting a discussion among its readers about whether it's smart to publicize Rush Limbaugh in order to tie him to the Republican Party or to ignore him so he can slip into the obscurity he deserves.

I once would have been in favor of acting like he doesn't exist, but lately I've begun to see the usefulness of making him the voice of Republicanism.
A recent Gallup poll has reported that 60% of Republicans favor Limbaugh whereas just 23% disapprove of him. It would be healthy for Americans to get clear in their minds who Republicans are. You would think that was well established since their recent vice president is insane and their presidential candidate chose Sarah Palin to run with him, pushed forward Joe the Plumber as  the model American citizen and has been going around saying the stimulus package is not a stimulus bill but a spending bill.

Since Cheney and McCain, however, have the advantage of high public office, it's hard for much of the public actually to grasp the quality of their minds. The myth that the two parties in American represent contending and valid points of view has been drummed into the people so incessantly by a compliant and none-too-bright media that a majority still may not recognize that one our parties, as Bob Herbert pointed out this morning in the New York Times, has neither a heart nor a brain.

Who can better demonstrate that heartlessness and brainlessness than Rush Limbaugh?

I don't know whether a reform movement can rise up within the Republican Party or whether the GOP has to be dismantled so that a new second party can emerge. Being moderately conservative myself, I would like for Republicans to regain some sanity. It is sometimes the case, however, that an organization can sink to such a pathetic condition that there's nothing within it to build on. The Republicans are pretty close to that point.

For the moment, it's more important for Republicans to be seen accurately than for a responsible second party to come forward. If the latter does happen, it will probably be the result of a split within the Democratic Party. So, for the Republicans to have a buffoon as their principal voice right now is a healthy development.

Reality Emerging
February 6, 2009

A great cry is rising for President Obama to face the truth that Republicans are Republicans. They have two overweening motives: to concentrate as much money as they can into as few hands as possible and to spew venom at anyone with a propensity to think. It's fine for one to be as cooperative with them as he can within the boundaries established by their desires. It's also admirable to be courteous towards them during personal interactions. But, you can't forget who they are.

David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, tells Obama he needs to find his inner Eastwood. He needs to say to the Republicans, "Go ahead; make my day."

Paul Krugman says to count him "among those who think that the president made a big mistake in his initial approach, that his attempts to transcend partisanship ended up empowering politicians who take their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh."

E. J. Dionne reminds the president that "in just two weeks, the elation of Inauguration Day has given way to a classic form of partisan hardball. Obama and his advisers have been forced to learn basic lessons on the run."

I'm not one to rule out the possibility of personal reformation. Occasionally it does happen, though it seems to happen less often in politics than in most arenas of life. A president, though, has to deal with likelihood. The prospect of Lindsey Graham taking an interest in the general well-being of the American people is remote. Why should he? He represents a population who hate the majority of people in the country. They give him his rewards and that's all he wants.

The notion that the principal leaders of the Republican Party are somehow going to start caring about democratic equity, or civil rights, or a criminal justice system based on fairness, or social responsibility for health care, or comfortable public space available to all the people, or a healthy environment is fanciful. Nothing in their past indicates concern for those goals, and the typical Republican politician is kept in office by people who despise them.

If Obama wants to promote the things he has said he wants to promote (and I believe he does) then that has to take precedence over playing nice with Republicans. He defeated them in the election and now he has to defeat them in government. It is pleasant to cooperate, but there have to be areas where cooperation is possible. With Republicans, that space is very narrow.

Intellectual Atrophy
February 5, 2009

Glenn Greenwald says that if you watch cable TV news during the day you will actually, physically, feel your brain shrinking. The funny thing is, he's right.

Trying to formulate sensible answers to nonsense uses up energy and brain cells faster than anything. It's not that nonsense can be ignored. The essence of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 has shown us that. Nonsense has to be refuted, but it should be refuted in the manner it deserves.

Political nonsense is composed to a high degree of outright falsehood. And when someone knowingly employs falsehood he needs to be told he's a liar. There's no need to explain the details of the falsehood. Just name it for what it is. Make sure you have the facts on your side, but don't get caught up in the tangle of laying them out.

When you tell someone he's a liar, you don't have to be passionate about it. It should be the most matter-of-fact thing in the world. Say it just like you would say, "Shaws grocery store is on Main Street."

The reason cable TV news sucks substance from the brain is that its practitioners have devised a formula for sensation. They repeat Republican lies and then ask non-Republicans what they think about them. Most of the time, the poor Democrat will struggle to explain something in one minute which obviously takes at least ten, in the process looking like a pathetic dweeb. After about fifteen seconds, the host begins to commit facial misbehavior and by the time a half-minute has passed he's holding his head in mock boredom. Meanwhile, the viewer who knows the original premise is a lie is jumping up and down in his living room, depleting his brain in the process.

Suppose, instead of this scenario, a guest on Hardball, having been asked about something Mitch McConnell, or David Vitter, or Jim DeMint, or Tom Coburn, or James Inhofe, or John Cornyn, or Jon Kyle said, would smile pleasantly and respond, "Well, you know, Mitch (or David, Jim, Tom, James, John, Jon) is a liar." And then, say no more. What would Chris do then? His whole gimmick would be undermined.

He would probably try to get the guest to explain himself, but then the guest could say, "Gosh, Chris, you're supposed to be a journalist. You should know that's a lie. If you don't, look into it and report on what you find."

I don't want to hold out a false promise that cable TV newspeople might be turned into real reporters. That's probably beyond them. But the right kind of answers to their ploys could largely deactivate their brain-sucking power. And that in itself, would be a great public benefit.

February 4, 2009

I notice that James F. Reda, who runs a compensation consulting firm (whatever that is) says that placing a $500,000 compensation limit on firms that receive major financial support from public funds is draconian.

That got me to thinking that maybe I didn't know what "draconian" meant, so I looked it up in the dictionary. Here's what I found: "Of or designating a law or code of extreme severity; exceedingly harsh; rigorous."

Turns out, I did know what it meant.

If you divide $500,000 by 250 working days a year, you get $2,000 a day. Strange thing is, I can remember when making $2,000 in a day would have been considered pretty good. If I had walked around my neighborhood when I was a boy and asked people whether  they thought that making $2,000 a day was so little as to be draconian, I would have got some funny looks, even from those who knew what "draconian" meant.

Times change, I guess.

Here in Montpelier, you could rent what would be considered a fairly luxurious house or apartment for $2,000 a month. Most people I know don't get their housing for one day's pay. In fact, I think the average person ends up putting out between 25% to 35% of monthly income to pay for housing. If you were to go to one of them and say, "I can get you a great place to live for one day's pay a month," He would be likely to respond, "Hey! That's great." It would be hard to find someone who would say it was draconian.

I don't know how much money most people spend for food. We can get by very handsomely for $250 a week or $1,000 a month. In fact, that would be over the top for us. So, to get sumptuous supplies of food for a half-day's pay would not seem overly draconian.

If you can supply yourself with comfortable lodging and good food each month for a day and a half's pay, that leaves something over. You could go to the movies whenever you wanted, and even afford the outrageous prices for popcorn they charge there. And just think: you could buy a new pair of shoes every year.

It's hard to know, sometimes, what people need money for. But if a person needs so much that $500,000 would be tiny in a draconian way, I think we have to conclude that he may be suffering from psychotic requirements. I feel sorry for him, but it could be that his cure lies not in more money but, rather, in therapy or in reading a good book now and then.

Soul Shape
February 4, 2009

David Kurtz of Talking Points Memo says Republicans are hoping for one of two things: either total economic collapse or a mass-casualty terrorist attack. Such hopes, says Kurtz, place a blight on the soul.

His remark reminded me that I haven't thought as carefully about the souls of Republicans as perhaps I should. Truth is, I don't know many Republicans  so I'm not in a good situation to study their souls. My evidence comes mostly from reading what they say or watching them on TV. Most of the time, those experiences leave me befuddled.

Now and then I have a fantasy of what it would be like to take a long car trip with somebody like Mitch McConnell. Would it be as hideous as I suppose it would, or might we find things to talk about in an informative way? If I were to ask Mitch McConnell what he really wants, what would he say?

Obama wants to have dialogue with Republicans. I guess that's a good idea. Yet, my sense is that Republicans are not interested in dialogue, mainly because they don't know what it is. Occasionally, at events like family reunions, I try to engage a Republican in dialogue. It never works. Nothing takes place. There are blank stares and long awkward silences and then, generally, the Republican goes off to get another piece of chicken.

Suppose, for example, you were to try to talk to a Republican about Madame Bovary or Augustine's Confessions. What would happen? I did try once to talk to a Republican about Jane Austen and it didn't go well at all. He said he had heard of Jane Austen, but, then, as we talked, I got the sense he was just saying that but didn't really mean it. I also picked up that he thought my knowing about Jane Austen showed, beyond a doubt, that I was not a regular guy. As far as I could tell, being a regular guy was, for him, a really big thing.

I have a huge lump of curiosity about Republican haircuts, but I don't guess I should get into that.

Maybe there are mysteries it is not given to us to crack. Dr. Johnson seems to have been able to talk with Whigs and even to be friends with them. But that was in the 18th century. Now such experiences seem to have passed away. Under today's conditions, the souls of Republicans may be out there somewhere I can't go. I would go, if I could. But I don't know how.

What Should, What Can, Be Done
February 3, 2009

Probably the oldest, and most frustrating, truth about politics and government, is that obvious benefits for most of the people of a nation fail to be attempted because of the countervailing power of special interests. Even the most idealistic politician has to base his actions on what he thinks is possible. And assessing possibility correctly is the principal measure of political greatness.

Most politicians, of course, are far too timid in what they will try.

In the United States right now the defense industry gobbles up far more of our resources than is justified by the actual needs of defense. Yet, the defense industry, including the uniformed forces of the government, is pretty much a sacred cow. If a man can put on a fancy uniform and drape colored ribbons and little pieces of metal all over his chest, he will be viewed by a considerable portion of the public as not only a national benefactor but as one who is endowed with magnificent heroism. You would have to go thousands of years into the past to find a time when people didn't go gaga over uniforms. That's a reality every president has to face.

Every inauguration marks the beginning of an attempt by the Pentagon to take command of the new chief executive. Generals strut out at the Super Bowl and other huge public ceremonies. They show up on TV shows to announce solemnly the necessity of care -- and increased military spending -- during the time of transition. They remind us of multitudes lurking all around the world who live only for the sake of doing us harm. In short, they do everything they can to enhance their power.

We saw one feature of the campaign rollout this morning in the Washington Post where Robert Kagan made the absurd charge that the Obama administration intends to cut the Pentagon budget by ten percent. Obama plans no such thing. In fact, he has proposed an increase in defense spending. What Kagan is talking about is that Obama expects to spend about ten percent less than what the generals and admirals asked for. If they had asked for 1.2 trillion, Kagan would immediately pop up and announce that Obama had reduced the defense budget by 50%. What he and the generals know is that most people read only the headlines, if they read that much. So the war supporters will push ahead trying to create the "fact" that Obama intends to reduce spending.

Already David Petraeus and Ray Odierno are trying to undercut Obama's plans for reducing the amount we spend on military forces in Iraq. Obama knows that, but he also knows that public mythology requires him to appear awed by the grandeur of these magnificent warriors.

It will be interesting to see how he handles the tension. I doubt he can do much to reduce the power of the military machine, regardless of the gains that would come to the rest of us by reining them in. I would be satisfied if he could just hold them in check and not let them increase their power over the government. That in itself would require some boldness.

We can dream of a day when the president actually controls the military instead of the military controlling us. But the nature of possibility warns us we have to move towards that condition small step at a time.

Obama's Strategy
February 1, 2009

Barack Obama's mention of Rush Limbaugh a week or so ago has created a hullabaloo on the political talk shows. Chris Matthews for example, implies incessantly that the president made a huge mistake. He has, says Matthews, raised Limbaugh to a position of importance he never occupied before.

It seems beyond Matthews to imagine that's precisely what Obama wanted to do. What could be better for Democrats than to have Limbaugh elevated to being the primary spokesman for the Republican Party? I can't be sure that's what the president had in mind, but if it was, it was a brilliant political ploy.

Rush Limbaugh is seen by a fairly large majority of the electorate as a bigoted blowhard. If he speaks for the Republicans, what does that tell the nation about the GOP? It's not likely to sweep them back into a majority position in Congress.

I would like for the Republicans to become the defenders of a genuine conservative position. If they did, they could enhance our political health. I don't think that's likely to happen because Republicans, for the most part, don't have a reasoned definition of conservatism. Instead, they have come to identify conservatism with adolescent posturing. And the national press has gone along with them in transmogrifying the definition of the term.

No one is more adolescent than Rush Limbaugh, not even the most callow, ill-mannered teenager. He has no sense of mature thinking, no respect for careful analysis, no ability to fathom the validity of evidence. He just wants to pop off, make a lot of money in the process and smoke big cigars. We can't even be sure that Limbaugh means what he says most of the time because it seems likely that he's incapable of grasping the meaning of anything.

For the last eight years, we have wallowed in the kind of adolescent blather Limbaugh exemplifies. The public seems, finally, to have become weary of it. There will continue to be enough people with minds trapped in perpetual adolescence to make Limbaugh a media star. But they can't carry any major elections.

If I were Obama, I would find that quite satisfying.

January 31, 2009

More and more often I come on statements by journalists which cause me to doubt their sanity -- or, at least, their ability to read and write.

Here's an example from this morning's Washington Post. Jim Hoagland in a column titled "Good Words for a War That Goes On" says this:

Anyone who walks the now horribly polluted streets of Cairo after a long absence, as
I did recently, will sense the frustrations and furies that help drive a regional rebellion
that is part spiritual, part ideological and totally nihilistic. The young -- and many of
their elders -- turn to a perverted version of Islam to rebel simultaneously against their
sclerotic, failing local governments and the uneven, destabilizing intrusiveness of
Western culture and economic forces.

Does Mr. Hoagland know what nihilism is? Has he ever thought about its meaning? A movement cannot be spiritual, ideological and totally nihilistic. That's a rhetorical impossibility.

It became fashionable during the Bush administration to say that those who employed violence against the United States were nihilists. They had no reason for doing what they did, not even a deluded reason. They just did it out of pure hatred, with no positive motive whatsoever in their minds.

It was a nonsensical charge and amounted to little more than an adolescent insult. In fact, adolescence of that sort made up almost the entirety of the Bush foreign policy. Nevertheless the notion that members of al Qaeda were nihilists crept into the journalistic mind. And now among some journalists it seems ineradicable. It means nothing, but since it's there, they have to pronounce it every now and then.

It would be good if the men of al Qaeda were nihilists. By definition, then, they wouldn't believe that anything moralistic could ever be accomplished because they wouldn't believe that anything good exists. Consequently, there would be nothing to keep them steadily at their tasks. The problem with al Qaeda is not that it's nihilistic but rather that it’s hyper-moralistic, as all fundamentalist movements must be.

It would be encouraging if American journalists would stop being nihilistic about language, stop thinking that words have no meaning and, therefore, exist only to be flung around anyway that gives one temporary satisfaction.

Too Much
January 30, 2009

Reading about the recent flap between Turkish prime minister Recip Erdogin and Israeli president Shimon Peres at the Davos conference, I was reminded of a problem of modern society that comes more and more frequently to my mind.

Mr. Erdogin thought the Israelis had killed too many people during its attack on Gaza. Mr. Peres disagreed. When the panel's operator, who happened to be U.S. journalist David Ignatius, wouldn't let Erdogin continue to speak, he got angry, left the meeting and returned to Turkey, where he received a hero's welcome.

I can't discern what an event like that means to people like Erdogan and Peres.

I  have led a fairly quiet life and yet I have so many incidents in my memory, so many meetings, so many brief encounters, so many places I've visited, so many motel and hotel rooms I've slept in that they sometimes begin to buzz through my memory like a movie gone berserk, with no beginning, no ending, and no coherence along the way. As I say, that's the result of a quiet life. How about the lives of prime ministers and presidents? What's going on in their memories?

If I had participated in an incident of the sort involving Erdogan and Peres, if I knew it was being reported all over the world, if I were aware that hundreds were going to write commentaries about it, I would be troubled. It would take up a lot of my thought for quite a while. And if I had experienced many, many incidents of that kind, I'm not sure what influence it would have left on my mind. But I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be good.

Have we created a system of governance in which it is virtually impossible for major participants to think well? Do we overload their psyches with so much they're bound to break down? Do we move them about so frequently, it's hard for them to keep track of where they are?

I know that prominent people have always had a lot of furor around them. Alexander the Great doubtless had to deal with a lot of people. Yet, I wonder if we haven't now passed a boundary line such that important people live in induced insanity. Might that be a reason the world seems to get ever more messed up?

It's just a question, one, I know, that can't be answered definitively.

Still, I'd like to sit down with Erdogan, or with Peres, late in the evening, maybe over a Scotch, and ask him, "What do you think? How did it go today?" He might think I was crazy and if he did that would tell me something.

January 30, 2009

I've listened as carefully as I could to the arguments put forward about the stimulus bill passed by the House this week. I've tried my best to think through the logic of various measures being denounced and advocated. After all my reading, and listening, and thinking, I still don't know whether it's a good bill or not.

I know this: I have more time to devote to economic news than the average American does. So, if I'm confused, the general public has to be at least as confused as I am.

When we listen to the experts, we find them all over the map. They are all very distinguished and yet I doubt they, collectively, have any more knowledge about what needs to be done than I do. There may be among them individuals who are right. But how are we to know who they are, and how are we to test their rightness until time passes?

In a situation like this what is one to do?

First, we can discount the obviously foolish arguments. The Republicans, for example, got into a stew about a portion of the bill that would have planted new grass on the Mall. They said it had nothing to do with stimulus. They painted it as some kind of idiotic frivolity. Their argument makes no sense. Fixing up the Mall would have created jobs just as any other reclamation project would. The people who earned money from those jobs would have spent it. What's frivolous about that? Furthermore, it's a healthy thing to keep public areas in good repair. It creates the sense that we are not sliding into a pit. People need hope of that kind in times like these.

The only reason the Republicans fixed their ire on the Mall Project is they thought they could sensationalize it to make political points. They didn't care whether it was stimulative or not. They just want to tear down the new Democratic majority.

It is arguments of this sort that should be tossed in the trash can. They offer no help in deciding what is practical and what is not. And the truth is, at least three-quarters of the criticism of the bill falls into this category.

Sensible scrutiny of the bill divides into two parts: the timing of when the money can be spent and the division between tax cuts and public works. The major concerns are that the spending will not be quick enough and that too much is devoted to tax cuts. One of these is easier to figure out than the other. The tax cut part should be reduced as much as it politically possible. If the experts agree on anything it is that we get more stimulus from a dollar put to public works than we do from a dollar sliced out of taxes.

We are left with the question of timing. About that, I don't know.
So, as a relatively ill-informed citizen, I am left with these conclusions. Forget about Republican political arguments. They have nothing to do with economy. Encourage my representatives to push as much of the package towards public works -- including private projects, such as new energy companies that will benefit the public -- as is politically possible. On the timing, place some confidence in people, such as the new president, who have shown good judgment on other matters.

That doesn't eliminate the confusion or solve all the problems. But it does take my thoughts out of chaos. And that's a start.

True to Form
January 29, 2009

Dick Armey didn't do himself a favor last night on Hardball by telling Salon's Joan Walsh that he was glad he is not married to her. He more than deserved the censure he got from Bob Herbert immediately afterwards on the program. I expect Herbert's sentiments will be echoed for some time now and attach themselves permanently to Armey.

Armey was obnoxious but he did teach us a lesson, one we will do well to remember in this season of bipartisanship. Although it is possible for people to change, it is rare. In his slur against Ms.Walsh -- who, by the way, I have always seen as a gracious person -- Armey exemplified the spirit of the Republican revolution of 1994 and its "Contract With America." That was an exceedingly nasty movement and though it may seem like ancient history now the people who spawned it are still with us, and will be with us for quite a number of years to come.

President Obama is wise to show a willingness to consult with Republicans. He would not be wise to let that friendly gesture cloud his understanding of who they are. I suspect the vote on the stimulus bill in the House yesterday is reminding him of that. That legislation is far from perfect but the refusal of every Republican House member to give it a chance did not come from a desire to make it better.

Having been rejected by the voters, Republicans are trying their best to speak moderately and appear to be basing their actions on principle. Yet they can't completely hide who they are. Chip Saltsman will send out a CD with "Barack the Magic Negro" on it. As he said at the start of the furor, it was just a little joke. He didn't see anything wrong with it. James Inhofe will accuse the president of being an environmental thug because Mr. Obama wants to keep us from polluting ourselves more completely than we have already. Matt Barber will inform us that modern liberals are like ancient worshippers of Baal (whatever that means). Rush Limbaugh will keep on being Rush.

There are some people with whom you can compromise because they are willing to engage in give and take. Then, there are others who will pretend to compromise in order to bash you in the head. Joan Walsh can be thankful she is not married to one of the latter.

Geese and Ganders
January 28, 2009

At Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald continues to beat the drums about our two-tiered system of justice. I say more power to him.

What does he mean by a two-tiered system? Just this: we have in the United States, by far, the harshest criminal justice system in the Western world. We throw more people into prison, and keep them there longer, than any other country remotely resembling our economic situation. Yet, the political elite in the nation seem horrified by the thought of investigating possible crimes committed by government officials who have promoted practices such as torture and illegally using political power to force people from their jobs.

If we were to credit the Republican establishment, we would have to conclude that looking into these activities would be a gross violation of bipartisanship. The thought of examining someone like Karl Rove sends a chill into their sensitive souls. Let's put all that behind us; let's move on.

I wonder what the average Republican senator would say about forgetting an ordinary murder that happened five years ago.

To give credit where I don't usually give it, I'll admit that Chris Matthews has also been publicizing the issue. To prosecute little guys and never even ask what the big guys did is un-American, he says. He may not be right about that. But it ought to be un-American.

Nothing rips the fabric of social order more severely than allowing privileged men and women to commit crimes while ordinary people are held strictly accountable.  It destroys all respect for government. It promotes the attitude of every man for himself. It creates a savage society. It throws our systems of law into the trash can.

Yet there's scarcely anything many powerful politicians and many major media figures are more committed to than that rending.

The Gamma Quadrant
January 28, 2009

"The gamma quadrant" is a term Kevin Drum of Mother Jones employs to point to something or somebody who is really, really, really way out there.

It may be a useful concept in considering the financial moguls of America.

Consider, for example, the leaders of a corporation, which has just had to get $345 billion in government guarantees, deciding to purchase a $50 million jet airplane, which seats twelve passengers, to fly them around the world.

Or think about the head of a company, on the point of failure, who spent well over a million dollars to fix up his office, and when asked why, replied, "It really would have been -- very difficult -- for -- me to use it in the form that it was in." The horror of difficulty that deep!

Here's a challenge for you: try to get inside the heads of people who think that way; try to imagine what's actually going on in there. You would have to reside for years in the gamma quadrant.

I've been down on Maureen Dowd lately. She's so snarly it's hard to stomach her sometimes. But with respect to residents of the gamma quadrant her talents are well employed. She calls the heads of bailed-out corporations "ruthless, careless ghouls who murdered the economy." You might almost see that as mild.

There is one point, however, over which I'm at odds with her. She is infuriated over the extravagances of the inept CEOs who have been in the news lately. I'm not. In a way, I'm grateful to them. The American people have been so soundly unaware of the value-structure that dominated the government under George Bush and that pretty much rules the Republican Party, it takes something like a $1,400 trash basket to cause them to look at what has been happening to their country. Unless they look, they won't stop it.

The men and women who have been raking in tens of millions of dollars by shuffling paper-- and punching computer keys -- are so completely out of touch with what life is for most people, and with what life ought to be, they have no right influencing decisions in a democracy. They have nothing to offer to people outside the gamma quadrant. If people like John Thain can teach us that, once and for all, maybe it's just as well to reward them by letting them go off somewhere and sit around grouching about how they have been misunderstood.

After all, trying to throw them in jail will just cost more money.

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