Word and Image of Vermont

A Mind that Sees
March 28, 2009

Simon Johnson's article about the banking crisis in the current Atlantic is a fine analysis of what happened and what needs to be done. America, he says, over the past decade, fell into the grasp of a financial industry oligarchy, which ran the country for its own benefit and ignored the needs of everyone else. This is his precise formulation of what happened: "A whole generation of policy makers has been mesmerized by Wall Street, always and utterly convinced that whatever the banks said was true."

The deeper value of his argument, however, is that it demonstrates yet once again that in matters involving major public policy, general good reason is superior to the detailed knowledge of experts.

You didn't have to be a wizard in the construction and sale of derivatives to know that the riches being garnered by financial manipulations were bound to be unhealthy -- and eventually disastrous -- for a majority of the people. There is no possibility of having a genuine democracy when the compensation ratio between CEOs and ordinary workers zooms above four hundred. That's obvious, and anyone who failed to see it was incapable of using his mind.

The widening gap between the rich and the average has been a persistent sub-theme of national life for decades now, and yet the ruling classes were so tantalized by the prospect of wealth beyond anything ever known in history, they simply shut down their thought processes. We have had a brain-dead national leadership for more than twenty years.

Now, even when the farce of past delusion is shoved right in our faces, a more enlightened political leadership finds it very hard to escape the control of the oligarchs. The very bankers whose blind greed brought on the collapse are being enrolled in a process to restore the old system, though now to be hedged round with more controls.

If you have a system in which the financial industry makes greater profits than any other form of activity, and workers in that industry are paid twice as much as people doing comparable work elsewhere, it doesn't matter how many controls you put in place. The financial oligarchs will still run the country. They will buy and sell politicians, and structure the system to benefit no one but themselves. Democracy will continue to be weak and a majority of the people will continue to be injured.

That's simple reason, and we would do well to take it into account and eject the bankers from the direction of our national affairs. A good way to get started would be to read Simon Johnson's article.


Full Disclosure
March 20, 2009

Of all the former officials of the Bush administration, the one I would most like to see write a full memoir is Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's chief of staff. He seems to have a clear-eyed view of what went on and a fair degree of willingness to speak of it.

For example, in an article in the Washington Note, he has mentioned the "mosaic philosophy" of the Bush war making team. When they took someone prisoner, they had no interest in whether or not the person was guilty of any hostile act towards the United States. They knew that many of the people they seized had done nothing. But they thought almost everyone might know something. So they tortured all prisoners in order to extract as much information from them as possible. Then, all the little bits were pieced together in the hope of getting a full picture.

The minds of persons who could conceive such a scheme as a great, patriotic strategy make up a fascinating subject. It seems fairly clear that the vice president was one of their leaders. Whether or not the president knew, or cared, what was going on, remains murky.

Willingness to snatch someone, torture him, hold him in prison for years, even though you know he did nothing to harm you, used to strike me as a peculiar phenomenon. Yet, over the past ten years, I've come to see it as a more common characteristic than I had imagined. In fact, I've begun to wonder if it doesn't mark the minds of a majority of those who work in the so-called security business.

If Larry Wilkerson wanted to, he could give us a pretty good reading of who, within the Bush administration, were the champions of the mosaic philosophy. If their identity became public knowledge, I suspect enterprising researchers would take them up as the leading psychosis of the early 21st century. We might find out from studying them how their psychological apparatus worked. And knowing them, we would be helped to know ourselves. Ask yourself this: if all citizens of the United States were to have the mosaic philosophy laid out before them, what percentage would approve of it?

Even though that figure would be hard to determine, we need to know what it is. Larry Wilkerson could help us approach it, and I hope he will.


Tempest
March 19, 2009

The rage against the bonus seekers continues unabated. I heard Mr. Liddy of AIG say the corporation had received letters recommending that the recipients and all members of their families be strangled with piano wire. We appear to be returning to medieval passions.

I'd like to go on record that I don't want anyone to be strangled with piano wire.

On the other hand, I would like to see the attitude crushed which holds that some people are such skillful financial manipulators they deserve tens of millions for their machinations. It's a pathetic notion, and disgusting too.

I confess, I don't know how to solve the banking crisis. But, in that respect, I don't think I'm in rare company. I am, however, growing more and more to believe that private financial institutions so large they can disrupt national economies ought not be allowed to exist. No matter what benefits they might, at times, confer upon us -- and upon themselves -- the dangers they pose are not justified. There is no way to keep unbalanced people out of their managerial ranks. In fact, it seems to be the case that it's the nature of such institutions to attract persons of disturbed mind. The first principle of politics ought to be that social health must not be placed in the hands of deranged persons.

In the United States over the past thirty years we have violated that principle radically. Now, we are reaping the consequences of the violation.

We have such a paltry grasp of history. Over long periods of the past, it was taken for granted that persons of a certain rank must have the power of life and death over ordinary people. If a king said, "Off with his head," then the head was lopped off. No reason had to be given.  During those times if one had said, "It is not right that one man should have the arbitrary power to snuff out the life of another," he would have been stared at incredulously. Yet, gradually, people came to see that giving unrestrained power of violence to any person was insane. Now, we say we don't do it.

Why, then, should we place unrestrained power to destroy life savings in a few private hands? Who can reasonably argue that's not crazy?

If, in working our way out of the current mess, we started simply to apply standards of sanity to our refurbished systems, we would be far better off than we have been. And maybe a place to begin would be to recognize that bonuses amounting to millions of dollars are not sane.


Away
March 17, 2009

Here I am once again in the land of no news, trying to figure out if it matters that I'm cut off from what's going on in the world. I don't suppose the world cares.

I shouldn't exaggerate. This morning I did walk to a box placed outside the Bowling Green post office and buy a copy of the Lakeland Ledger. It's not edging towards a great newspaper, but I don't suppose it's worse than the newspaper available to the average citizen in the United States. It informed me that the president is enraged that executives of AIG are going to receive millions in bonuses for selling securities they should have known they couldn't back up. I had heard that already but it was pleasant to be reminded.

Today there were five stories on the front page of the Ledger. Four of them were cut and paste jobs from the Associated Press. The fifth was about a local girl, Karen Olivo, who is now going to star in a production of the West Side Story, opening this week in New York.

The article about Ms. Olivo was entirely appropriate. The other four were selections from hundreds the Ledger might have picked from somewhere else. There was nothing particularly wrong with them. But if four stories like these were one's daily fare, it's hard to say what sort of citizen would result. Also, the truth is, most people who pick up the Ledger don't read all the front page stories.

The demands of democracy are endlessly mysterious. How much knowledge do they insist upon?

I have the sense that most of the residents of Hardee County, Florida, don't know enough or care enough to be effective citizens. But, perhaps, that's just prejudice on my part. I don't have a clear-cut perspective of what's necessary in the citizenry to produce effective government. About all I know is that we don't have effective government now. What it would take to bring it about is very hard to say.

I hope for a future in which any chance conversation in a coffee shop would involve thoughtful, well-informed exchanges about the public choices available to us.

Tomorrow, I'll journey down Route 17 to Wauchula, to send you these musings from the Java Café. I don't expect to have such conversation there. It's not in the nature of things when one is away.


Surprise
March 13, 2009

Never before have I seen Jon Stewart as he was last night. The star of a fake news program evidently expects people who profess to put out real news to try to tell the truth. What a novel idea!

Stewart hammered poor Jim Cramer so relentlessly, it was hard not to feel sorry for the wizard of Wall Street. In turn, Cramer was curiously contrite. He promised to try to do better, and to behave as Stewart demanded. It was not what I expected of him. Either this was a put-up job by both of the principals or something fairly important happened. We'll have to wait and see the result on Mad Money.

Everything Stewart said about the machinations of Wall Street leaders and their cozy relationship with financial reporters was valid. It's disgusting to see people you know are no better than common criminals being hosted on television as though they are the wise men of the West. The anger rising among the public towards figures like Ken Lewis of Bank of America and John Thain of Merrill Lynch is one of the more explosive emotions I've seen during my years of news watching. Maybe Cramer understands that the days of lauding them have to be over.

Bad as the behavior of the Wall Street titans has been, however, it's no worse than the actions of many leading politicians. When are the reporters who regularly bow down to them going to be given the Stewart treatment? We can't expect it always from the Daily Show. As Stewart said last night, he needs to return to vulgar humor.

How long can the major figures of network news sit and listen to politicians pump out pompous lies, and never hint, by word or expression, that they know what's going on. What would be wrong with saying, "I'm sorry, Senator, but that's just not the truth"?

I understand they're all scared silly about the problem of access. But how could the politicians respond if all the newsmen started carrying out their responsibility? What are politicians going to do? Cut off all contact with the press? I doubt it.

Maybe some enterprising newsman watched Stewart last night and had a stunning thought: "From now on I'm going to show that I know I'm being fed a pile of crap."

That would be a revolution.


An Old Tale
March 12, 2009

Bernie Madoff has now disappeared into the bowels of jail, presumably for the rest of his life. I don't know if we should feel sorry for him, or not. One thing's for sure, though: he's not a new phenomenon in the life of humanity.

Samuel Johnson, in his Rambler essay of January 7, 1752, had this to say:

The commercial world is very frequently put into confusion by the bankruptcy of
merchants, that assumed the splendour of wealth only to obtain the privilege of
trading with the stock of other men, and of contracting debts which nothing but
lucky casualties could enable them to pay; till after having supported their
appearance a while by tumultuary magnificence of boundless traffic, they sink
at once, and drag down into poverty those whom their equipages had induced
to trust them.

It would be hard to find a better short description of Mr. Madoff's adventures.

He now says he's sorry for what he did, and it's interesting to speculate on what he means by that. The cynical might say he's simply sorry he got caught, but I suspect his feelings are more complex than that. There may now be in him something approaching genuine regret. Once he had swindled his first million, or so, and was beyond the ability of paying it back, he doubtless realized he either had to be exposed or keep the swindle going until his life passed away. And he made a pretty good run at it. I guess you could say the big social problem was that millions turned into billions and, then, the billions into tens of billions. That was the nature of the scheme. It would be fascinating if someone could construct a chart showing Madoff's state of mind as the debt piled up.

Even more fascinating, though, is the quality of mind that trusted in fancy "equipage," as Johnson put it. What is it about wealth that causes people to believe that those who possess it also possess skills, abilities, and characteristics which speak to something other than the capacity to pile it up? And even more perplexing, what is it that makes them believe they can trust people who market commercial paper? Isn't it obvious that it's a trade which has to depend on deception? Substance does not come from nothing, so if a person accumulates vast wealth without contributing anything of substance, it has to be coming from people who haven't actually understood what has been done to them.

It's a simple, obvious lesson. Yet, it's one -- as Johnson's remark shows us -- the human race appears incapable of learning.


Appointment Imbroglio
March 12, 2009

I don't want to get caught up in the argument about whether Chas Freeman was a good choice to serve on Denis Blair's national intelligence team. I don't know enough to be either for or against Mr. Freeman.

I do know, though, that the firestorm over his appointment shows a troubling feature of our foreign policy process. It was stated clearly this morning in the Washington Post by David Ignatius: "the range of permissible debate is too narrow for a country as powerful as the United States."

To often, we are barred from considering possible solutions to our problems by the  wild indignation of those who oppose them.

Certainly, the right American policy towards the Arab/Israeli conflict is a vexing issue. Nobody knows for sure exactly what we should do. But that sort of uncertainly is a strong reason for considering a wide range of possibilities.

Chas Freeman has been more critical of the Israeli government than is popular among some circles in the United States. But I've read nothing he has said that justify charges he's a crackpot or a fanatic. Yet, that's how he has been characterized by those who don't want him to have a hand in preparing the National Intelligence Estimate.

We have got ourselves into the situation in America that most ideas can be dismissed not by marshaling evidence or reason against them, but by screaming so loudly and engaging in such wild name-calling that they can't even be discussed.

It's a tactic which proclaims: I don't have to refute your arguments because the very fact that you're willing to introduce them show you are evil, or unpatriotic, or an idiot.

Throughout the course of the Bush administration we saw the tactic employed against anyone who believed there were better ways to enhance America's security than to kill a lot of people.

Probably, the position that suffers most from such behavior is the assertion that having almost eight hundred American military bases outside our borders often undermines our policies and our physical safety. My understanding is that Freeman raised that point from time to time, and that seems to be one of the main reasons he was deemed unfit to serve.

If that was, indeed, the case, then I think it was a false justification for pushing him out of consideration for the position Mr. Blair wanted him to fill.


The Right Way
March 11, 2009

There seems to be an awful lot of attacking going on nowadays. Jon Stewart is attacking Jim Cramer and Cramer is attacking him back. El Rushbo is attacking Newt. Camille Paglia is attacking everybody. David Brooks is attacking Mrs. Obama's upper arms. Joe Scarborough is attacking all those he can't understand and that makes up an enormous number. Chuck Schumer is attacking Chas Freeman, and Mr. Freeman, in turn, is attacking the entire Israeli lobby, and so on.

Truth is, attacking in public media has become a major form of entertainment, perhaps the major form of entertainment. I guess that's okay. Yet the development calls for a new aesthetic of attack. If we're going to have something as big as attacking has become then we ought to invest energy into seeing that it not be simply a huge mass of ugliness.

Thinking through exactly how to do that is not easy. Some might say that attacking, by its nature, is ugly. But I think that's extreme. It's possible to find some attacks that are fairly graceful. Jon Stewart, for example, has been reasonably adept in making graceful attacks. Consequently, he might be taken as a beginning model. First thing is, you never get the sense that Jon Stewart wants the people he attacks to get cancer. That's a fairly important principle. The second thing is that his attacks are always mixed liberally with humor. That's an important principle also, but not at all easy to observe. The reason is that some people have no sense of humor at all, and there seems to be a big overlap between them and people who love to be, perpetually, on attack.

Think, for example, of the most famous attacker currently in action. I speak, of course, of Rush Limbaugh. He has no humor, none, not even a little smidgen. He does, now and then, say things that make people laugh, but their laughter is pure malice. There's no lightness in it.

The most important principle of all is that we need to get away from saying that the people we attack are bad. Nobody has the intellectual competence to say that anyone else is bad. That requires a sound theory of ultimate authority. And, at the moment, there is no soundness in theories of ultimate authority. What we actually mean, when we say that someone is bad is that he likes things opposed to what we like. We would be better off to make that clear. Then we could say things like, "Well, I just don't want to live in the kind of world Rush would like to live it. Inhabiting it would make me sick at my stomach, and you can see that no one wants to be nauseated all the time." There's something more subtle in that -- and more truthful, too -- than saying that Rush is a big fat idiotic bad man.

So, here are my startup rules for a system of aesthetic attack.

Don't say that anyone is bad.

Try to couch your attack in humorous terms.

Don't wish for any of the people you attack to get cancer of the rectum, or cancers of any kind, or, for that matter, not even a serious stomach ache.

Three rules do not a complete aesthetic system make. I'm aware of that. But they might well form a base from which we could build something far more solid -- and effective -- than what we have now.


Everything's Fake
March 10, 2009

The New York Times has an interesting video clip today, revealing that all photographs of glamorous people in magazines have been worked over with computer enhancements to make them look even more glamorous than they are. Even the great fashion models and movie stars, who spend major parts of their day trying to look wonderful, can't be as flawless as pictures in magazines depict them as being.

One might ask, who cares?

The problem is that increasing numbers of people, and particularly young people who are in the process of forming their values, take these pictures as models of how they ought to appear. When it turns out that they can't rival what they see on the glossy pages, they get depressed, or turn to ever more radical measures to achieve the ideal.

This is pathetic, but it is only one form of the way in which people chase fake and false values in the world today. The rich guy, who has piled up ten million, can't be satisfied with his gains because he's always being reminded of someone who made more than a billion in one year. The baseball player, who has achieved the extremely difficult goal of making it to the major leagues, can't be happy because he wants to hit eighty home runs a year. The author who has gotten good reviews for a book that took him a decade, dreams of writing fifty books before he dies.

I don't know what to call all this except insanity. And we need to recall that insanity doesn't make people happy or, even, lead to genuinely lasting accomplishment. Furthermore, it causes people to chase bizarre models instead of constructing a self who can gain original and personal goals.

Society, obviously, will set some standards. Within reason that's all right. A trim, limber person will be thought more attractive than somebody who emulates Jabba the Hut. A person who works hard to learn something and applies his or her knowledge to beneficial pursuits will be admired more than people who spend their lives driving around in pickup trucks throwing beer cans out the window. But, there are limits to the models society should set for us. Pushed to the levels we see in fashion magazines, the so-called way to be takes away the possibility of a distinctive self chosen for one's own reasons.

Science, before too long, will probably be able to manufacture synthetic people who fit perfectly the magazine model. But what's going on inside those model heads may well be, finally, the completed picture of hell.


The Horror!
March 7, 2009

The latest disaster descending upon us because of the Obama budget, according to Republicans, is the phenomenon of "going Galt." This refers to a character in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, who became so infuriated over taxes he just stopped working.

If Obama persists in returning the tax rate to what it was before George Bush came galloping in to rescue the oppressed, the great public benefactors of America -- that is the rich people -- will stop doing what they have been doing. Then we can see how we like that.

Could anything be more frightening?

Generally, the plutocracy in America has masked what it actually thinks about the rest of us. It's not to their advantage to let on that they view themselves as a superior form of humanity. What's the sense in ginning up more hostility than they already experience? Yet, their underlying system of values does emerge from time to time. When it does, we see that their only measure of worth is money, nothing else, just money.

If a person has lots of money, his worth is evident and he has to be viewed as a great public asset. If a person has little money, he is of no consequence. If the people who have a lot of money were to stop doing what they did to get it, everything would go to smash.

This is a notion of aristocracy more pure than any we've seen heretofore. In the past, those who were considered the better class had to have money, it's true. But they were also supposed to exhibit smoother manners, and better taste, and a deeper, more philosophic education. This is not to say that they always lived up to the standards associated with them. Still, the standards had some effect.

Now, in the view of the upper levels in America, all standards are gone except money. A well-read billionaire would be considered a gross eccentric; he would be perceived as one who took his eye off making money in order to do something else.

Maybe I'm insanely reckless, but I wouldn't mind trying the experiment of getting along in this country without the ministrations of the superrich. If every one of them decided to go Galt, it wouldn't send me to bed in a fret. I can even imagine --wild as this may seem -- living in a society where the wealth ratio between the richest and those with the least was no more than ten or fifteen to one. Sure, it would be different. But it might be a difference more pleasing than most of us would expect.


Gargantuan
March 6, 2009

If you attempt to think of the number of people who are trying all day long, every day, to gouge money out of the U. S. Treasury, your mind will begin to reel. Our principal problem nowadays is that we're trying to deal with quantities we can't comprehend. I suppose most people can tell you what a billion dollars is in arithmetic terms. It's a thousand million dollars or ten thousand packets of one hundred thousand dollars, or a hundred thousand stacks of ten thousand dollars. But people don't begin to imagine what's required to parcel such amounts out in honest and responsible ways.

Truth is, given who the people of the United States are, it's impossible to do it. And, it's insane to expect a single person, regardless of his intelligence and goodness of heart, to account for such an expenditure.

Now we're talking not about billions but about trillions (in case you don't know, a trillion is a thousand billion).

Under circumstances of reality, what can we expect from the president of the United States? There's almost no discussion of that question in the newspapers or on television. Yet, without a set of reasonable expectations, there is no way to make reasonable judgments of how well the president is performing. The implication of most talk is that we have the right to expect the president to insure well-reasoned expenditure of every dollar that flows into the government coffers.

That's silly.

The best we can hope for is that the president will set a tone resulting in less overt criminality than was taking place when he came into office. He can reward a few people -- not with money but with praise -- who expose hideous dispersal of government funds. He can work to see that the percentage of money going to worthy projects, such as medical research, will increase. He can attempt to reduce, somewhat, the percentage that goes to insane efforts, like weapons systems that can't be employed to defend the lives of citizens. He can reduce the number of people the government kills or imprisons for no good reason whatsoever. And, that's about it.

If we want more than that, we need to start working on ourselves, digging into details of what the government does and joining others in critical exposure.

To expect the president to be on top of all the things the government does is like expecting him to be God, who reputedly is aware of the fate of every sparrow. God is supposed to have powers we are incapable of grasping. Much as we may not want to face it, the president is a human being.


More on Earmarks
March 5, 2009

Two facts need to be kept in mind about the appropriations bill that is being so widely debated at the moment. First, the bill authorizes $410 billion of government spending. Of that, $7.7 billion falls into the earmark category, or less than 1.9%. Second, when earmarks are discussed on television, almost never is the substance of any of them investigated. They are denounced because they fall into a category, not because of what they are.

It's curious, isn't it, that 1.9% of a bill draws far more attention than 98.1% of it? You would think that if people are worried about wasteful government spending they would concentrate on the part of the bill that provides for almost all the money. But that's not the case.

How do we know that the projects called earmarks are less worthy than the projects that aren't called anything and constitute the vast majority of the spending?

We can't find out from television commentary because almost never is anything about an earmark project mentioned other than its title. And even those that get mentioned by name make up only a tiny portion of them all. Last night, for example on MSNBC's Hardball, Chris Matthews fulminated so excitedly about the bill that viewers were left with the impression there was nothing in it but earmarks. Yet, despite all the furor, not a single earmark was specifically brought up for analysis. I was left with the conviction that if Matthews were asked to say anything substantive about even one earmark, he couldn't do it.

This is nothing more than public discourse through buzzword. If something can be classified as the type of thing everyone is talking about then a lot of TV time and newsprint is devoted to it. It doesn't matter whether it's significant in the overall conduct of the public's business. In fact, it's worse than that; any action that can escape being tagged with buzzwords passes below public attention. I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist, but it's almost as though powerful people want it to be that way.

The average citizen expends little attention or energy learning what the government is actually doing. If those who are supposed to make that learning as efficient as possible concentrate on trivia more than they do on the major forces affecting people's lives, democracy is in a bad way.

I can't be sure of this, but I would almost be willing to bet that if the projects authorized through earmarks were compared carefully to projects which escape that tag, you would find more waste and foolishness in the latter. You don't have to worry that such a finding will further stir the pot, however, because the media will not allow analysis of that sort to come to light.


A Big Show
March 5, 2009

One thing we can say for the recent tumultuous months: they've treated us to a bewildering array of humanity. Think of it -- Bernie Madoff, Sir Allen Stanford, John Thain, Rush Limbaugh, Bobby Jindal, Eric Cantor, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, Michael Steele, Rick Santelli, Mary Bono Mack, to name just the first ten that pop to mind.

What do they tell us about the current stage of human evolution? A comment from Nietzsche imposes itself: "Too long the earth has been a madhouse."

If we want to get down to basic questions, one of the first we should consider is whether humanity can change to something more intelligent than it has been or whether this is it? What you see is what we're always going to have.

How you answer that question will have a lot to do with how you live.

Truth is, there's no certain way to answer. No one knows for sure how malleable so-called human nature is. We do know that some crazed habits and attitudes hang on with astounding stamina. But whether they're immortal is another question.

Some say we should embrace the whole business regardless of its nuttiness, but that thought raises another of Nietzsche's observations -- it would take an excess of Frenchified erotic irritability to approach the whole of humanity with lust.

People continue to tout the technological fix. When we get the right machines, to work not only on the world but on ourselves, then everything will be all right and we will enter at last into the earthly paradise we have always thought was our due. I wish I could have confidence in that process but, I confess, I don't.

Every week in the mail I get a thick envelope filled with materials which inform me that if I will take a certain pill it will erase every physical discomfiture I've ever had and have ever feared. Most of the time, I don't fall for these pitches, but now and again, generally as a lark, I've tried them out. I can't say whether they work, because most of the time I feel okay. If I hadn't tried the ones I have, I might this very minute be writhing in twisted pain. Who knows?

All of this speaks to the need for a faith of some kind. But what might it be? This week my little literary group met at my house to talk about Augustine's Confessions.  I was interested in asking my companions what, exactly, is going on in the mind of one, like Augustine, who professes to have perfect confidence in propositions he says come to us from a source of ultimate power, truth, and goodness. They had various answers -- self-delusion, desire to feel happier than one would otherwise, fixation on a beginning notion from which one is able to spin a psychological paradise. They were all good theories, as far as they went, but they didn't go as far as I wanted. Perhaps there's no going there.

I have not been able to surrender the thought that maybe, somehow, in the fullness of time, we humans will be able to think well enough to fit all our past experience into a coherent whole, which will then allow us to make far healthier decisions than we've been in the habit of making. And, then, when I consider my inability to give up, I wonder if that makes me an appropriate entry on the list with which I began this little musing.


Solutions
March 4, 2009

The theme of the day is exploding anger at the insurance conglomerate AIG. As knowledge of what the corporation did spreads, the charge of criminality becomes more firmly fixed in the public mind.

AIG promised to deliver services it couldn't possibly provide if the conditions it was supposed to be insuring against ever occurred. That's fraud. And AIG engaged in it on a scale that remains hard to grasp. In fact, nobody knows for sure how deep the hole is that the company dug. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been dumped into it and there seems to be no telling how much more will be required before it's filled up.

Commentators continue to denounce Timothy Geithner because he has no plan to make everything okay. It's like walking up to a guy standing over a body with fifteen bullet holes and screaming, "What are you going to do to heal him?"

It's a total mess and, yet, the attitude that brought it about remains relatively unexamined.

The American people got it in their heads that not only was it all right, it was surpassingly smart, to accumulate vast wealth through activities that delivered no social benefit. That's the basic definition of criminality, and when any people makes criminal behavior an object of admiration, they're going to suffer for it.

It's actually very simple. Worship a criminal and he'll take you.

Where does this asinine esteem come from? Peoples' dreams became concentrated on the notion that the ultimate ecstasy of life comes from having so much money you don't even have to think about what you spend. Do you want a Cadillac car; go buy one. If the next day you decide it doesn't quite suit you, ditch it and buy a Mercedes. Why not?

Are you so dull-minded you can't read a single serious book? That doesn't matter if you've got money.

Are you so craven you don't have a single friend? That doesn't matter. If you've got money you can buy companions and make them appear to dote on you.

Do you have such bad taste that everywhere you go you're surrounded by ugliness? You can hire people to fawn over the surroundings you've provided yourself.

It's a juvenile notion of paradise, and as long as it persists, there will be such things as credit default swaps.

In America, whenever we get into trouble we angrily look just below the surface and scarcely give a thought to where the truly foul stuff is bubbling up from.


Earmarks
March 3, 2009

I can't claim to understand fully the furor over earmarks but I'm pretty well convinced that most of it is foolish.

Senator John McCain is building a reputation as the great denouncer of earmarks. He regularly goes on the floor of the Senate and, with dripping scorn, describes what certain earmarks are supposed to do. The implication is that every one of these is idiotic.

I've tried to pay attention to each of the projects Senator McCain has ridiculed and, so far, every one I've examined has been sensible. The one about the bears that he practically went berserk over during the presidential campaign was a well-thought-out scientific investigation that promised important benefits. Senator McCain doesn't choose projects to attack because their substance is bad. He appears to be concerned only with whether he thinks he can make them sound silly. This fits perfectly with who he is -- a person who can fulminate sensationally but can't be bothered to concentrate or think. That was revealed clearly during the campaign.

How provisions get placed in legislation is a complex matter. Most come from the budget requests of government agencies and are included in ways that often don't provide precise detail. This is a necessary feature of government, but it's not the only reasonable way for budget items to be enacted into law. If a member of Congress wants to place a provision in a budget bill, I don't know why that should automatically be considered disgusting.

I do think all budget items should be accompanied by the identity of the requester. If a Congressman cares enough about an activity to be willing to spend public money on it, then he shouldn't mind having it recorded, officially, that he asked for it. Requests from government agencies should be treated in the same way. Then if someone, either a member of the government or a private citizen, wishes to investigate the reasons for its inclusion, he or she has a place to start.

If we wish to reform the earmark process, let's start by identifying the sponsors. I suspect that would take care of most of the corrupt or pork-barrel projects. At least it would be a good way to begin, and I can't see who would be harmed by it other than those who deserve to be harmed.

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