"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."
- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)
"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."
- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"
Friday, 5 December 2003
Topic: Election Notes
Stranger in a Strange Land
On being a Republican in New York City
David Brooks has some comments in the Saturday New York Times warning Republicans about the city, where the Republicans will have their convention next September. Amusing.
New York is not a place where Republicans can feel at home. New York has Central Park, which is a large pastoral area without a single putting green. It is a city with nearly eight million people, none of whom own riding mowers.
New Yorkers suffer from liberal anhedonia, which is the inability to derive pleasure from grossly oversized pieces of machinery. So when a Republican starts a perfectly normal conversation about the glories of his powerboat, snowmobile, combine or hemi, the liberal is likely to screech out something about the ozone layer.
New York is a city of strange rituals. The people live in these vertical gated communities they call apartment buildings, but they don't seem to have normal family structures. If a Martian landed in a Manhattan playground, he would conclude that human beings start out small and white, and grow up to become middle-aged Jamaican women. In Manhattan, when an oldest child turns 12, entire families disappear overnight.
His advice to the delegates:
They'll be subjected to long harangues that rely heavily on the words "multilateral," "Kyoto" and "John Ashcroft." They'll get condescending looks when they go into a deli and order a strawberry and chocolate chip bagel with pineapple cream cheese -- a perfectly acceptable bagel option in most suburbs. They will na?vely pick up The Village Voice, thinking it contains small-town news. When the Utah delegation pauses to say grace before dinner at Elaine's, the cultural dissonance will be so great it will be measurable on the Richter scale.
We need to tell prospective G.O.P. delegates what sort of clothing they cannot wear in New York: pastels, pleated pants, khakis, Docksiders and tassels. If a Republican was seen walking down Riverside Drive wearing his normal outfit -- tasseled loafers, no socks, green pants, a festive plaid sports jacket and a faded Hawaiian Tommy Bahama shirt -- some New Yorker would come up and ask him if he could bring Paris Hilton out to his home for a reality series.
We also need to tell them what they will need to blend in: dark, rumpled clothing, frayed shopping bags from the Strand, logo-less sweatshirts, Yasir Arafat-style facial hair and those black rectangular glasses that make everybody look like a Dutch architect.
We're going to have to give them phrases they can use in case they are called upon to make elevator small talk. We have to give them examples of sentiments they should avoid ("You're Jewish? Oh, I love your Ariel Sharon!"), and examples of phrases they should use ("Nice weather we're having. Too bad about the climate of McCarthyism settling over the land.")
The rest generally makes fun of liberals. I find it a little lame, but Brooks gets off a good phrase here and there.
For further comments on anhedonia - the inability to feel pleasure or happiness, a psychological condition characterized by inability to experience pleasure in acts which normally produce it - see The Albert Camus - Woody Allen connection...
You can read all of the Brooks thing here: Going Native for 2004 David Brooks, The New York Times, December 6, 2003
Notes from an indolent, or unlucky in some self-fulfilling way, victim of our country's economic fecundity...
A change of topic: Comments on Macroeconomics
David Ignatius in this morning's Washington Post writes about the economic news of the day - no, not that the job growth posted today was one third of what was expected. That's a bummer, yes. He writes about exchange rate changes.
Something ominous is happening when the United States reports its biggest surge in productivity in twenty years, as it did Wednesday, and yet the dollar plunges to an all-time low against the euro.
The dollar is sinking these days on good news and bad, and the explanation is pretty simple: Investors around the world are worried that the Bush administration's policies are eroding the value of the U.S. currency. So they're rushing to unload greenbacks, in what could soon become a full-blown financial crisis.
"The dollar crisis is the story," warns James Harmon, an investment banker who headed the Export-Import Bank during the Clinton administration. "A lot of smart money has moved out of the dollar in the last six months," he explains. "Now the latecomers are rushing to sell, and that's adding to the momentum."
Ignatius of course then goes on to explain all the awful things that would happen if folks in other countries stop buying US treasuries - it becomes really, really hard to finance our new multi-trillion dollar deficit when folks don't buy those things, interest rates rise in a desperate effort to convince investors to finance our economy, and that rise in the cost of money depresses all the markets and ends the current odd job-loss recovery. That stops it dead in its tracks. Investors think the dollar is less attractive and buy euro bonds, which offer a better return. Yeah, yeah.
And is this true?
The dollar's decline during the Bush presidency has been remarkable. It has tumbled about 44 percent from its October 2000 high of about 83 cents to the euro. Over the past year alone, the decline has been more than 15 percent. Investors who trusted in the dollar as a store of value have been clobbered, so it's not surprising that they want to sell, even at current depressed prices. They fear that worse is coming.
Perhaps so. A few years ago a euro would cost you eighty-five cents. Today you would pay about a buck twenty-two.
And it will get worse, perhaps...
If you haven't already gagged on your raisin bran, consider this nightmare scenario -- outlined by an investment banker who for many years headed his firm's currency-trading operations. This veteran trader contends that the markets have entered a cycle in which "overshooting" -- meaning a further sharp fall in the dollar's value -- "is a distinct possibility."
Yeah, but our productivity is growing by leaps and bounds! Isn't that good?
Well, Everett Ehrlich, who was an undersecretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration, now director of research of the Committee for Economic Development, a nonpartisan economic policy think tank, had some stuff to say about that in today's Los Angeles Times.
Ehrlich says it good, but not the answer to the problem:
Nothing so unites a gaggle of economists as their reverence for productivity growth. Higher productivity allows us to make more, earn more and consume more; it is the stuff of which our standard of living is made.
... To optimists, this news was the robin that heralds spring. To the pessimists, it foretold a rain of pink slips as firms eight years from now make the same stuff they always have but with a smaller labor force.
Well, the problem is simple. We can make more and more stuff with fewer and fewer workers. But as unemployment rises with massive gains in productivity, who is going to be able to buy all this stuff?
The problem is that productivity growth does not automatically turn itself into economic growth. Productivity tells us our potential to grow, but not the actual result. Consider an economy spilling out 9% more "stuff" -- haircuts, computers, insurance, fast food, all of it -- every year without any need for new hires. Who will consume the fruits of this abundance? Incomes would need to rise by a like amount (or prices fall like a son of a gun) in order to snarf this stuff up.
Yes, one should not use "snarf" as a verb. One should not use it at all, I suppose.
Be that as it may, he does tie this issue back to the weak dollar.
Still, two issues remain. The first is: What happens next? If the economy does grow substantially in the year ahead, business demands for funds may start to compete with burgeoning federal borrowing, and the low interest rates that have helped propel the economy may start to unravel. Or the Asian lenders who are financing our deficits by soaking up Treasury bills may think twice about doing so, with the same result.
And the second issue is the human one. If productivity is surging, then some jobs will be harder to find -- read manufacturing.
We are told to think of the jobless as indolent, or unlucky in some self-fulfilling way. In fact, they are the victims of our country's economic fecundity. The story of productivity is that economic growth and change are irrevocably intertwined. We need an economic policy that promotes adjustment in order to make productivity the productive force it is supposed to be.
Yes, but what adjustments?
That is a problem. I do not see a solution. As Ehrlich points out, the traditional economic stimulants have already been tried; the economy is already heavily tax-stimulated and money is already dirt-cheap. And we are producing more and more with less and less labor. Now what?
Anyway, this is something else to consider in addition to the issues with our occupation of Iraq, our standing in the world, and who will run against Bush.
Topic: World View "Americans have become dangerous to the world lately not because they are evil, but because ..." David Neiwert is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. His reporting for MSNBC.com on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000. He is the author of In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: Hate Crimes and the American Landscape (Palgrave/St. Martin's, summer 2004) and the forthcoming Strawberry Days: The Rise and Fall of the Bellevue Japanese-American Community (publisher pending). His freelance work can be found at salon.com, the Washington Post, MSNBC and various other publications.
On his site Orcinus he has published a letter from a fellow in Brazil that is quite good.
As to the whole matter of liberals vs. conservatives, or whatever you may call it, I would like to point out that this whole discussion is just one more endogenous American game which makes no sense whatsoever to the rest of the world. No matter who wins next year or which trend prevails in the long run, Americans will continue to be Americans -- a race of mostly benign aliens who conquered the Earth with their superior technology but are still unable to understand what makes the rest of us tick. It is precisely this American alienness, previously a source of discreet and slightly envious amusement, which has become scary in recent times.
To us un-Americans, an American conservative is a guy who doesn't give a damn about you because you are a foreigner, whereas a liberal is a guy who makes an earnest effort to give a damn about you even though you are inferior. The first are offensive, the second are offensively condescending. Of course, it is very difficult to notice this when you are immersed in the culture, but it does happen all the time. Take, for instance, Mr Bush's visit to Iraq -- an apparently harmless stunt -- and try to look at it from the other side of the fence: this guy secretly flies into my country to celebrate an American national holiday at the time of the Eid, a very important Muslim date; he speaks of Thanksgiving as if we knew what it is about; he makes no mention whatsoever to Ramadan, which obviously means nothing to him; he issues advice and stern warnings to Iraqis; and he has the gall to call the Iraqis present at the dinner "our guests" in their own country.
What I am trying to drive at here is that underneath all this American meddling with world affairs there is never a premise of equality. The whole American debate, even at its most liberal -- just read the blogs -- is totally self-referential and usually takes for granted that everybody else ultimately just wants to become American (or else destroy "our freedoms" out of spite). In their innocence and single-mindedness, Americans are either blind to diversity or view it as threatening. I, a Brazilian, could walk on the streets of Baghdad and have a cup of coffee with an Iraqi; we could, in spite of our profound differences, exchange views and share our experiences. The average American can't, because for an American the ultimate experience is being American; all the rest is irrelevant. It is very hard to breach this wall. This would be inconsequential if we were able to just ignore the Americans and leave them to themselves, but can become quite worrisome when they aggressively try to shape the world to their own image.
Unfortunately, this is not a political issue that can be solved replacing Republicans with Democrats; it is rather a cultural matter which requires a great shift of perception. Americans have become dangerous to the world lately not because they are evil, but because they don't understand others and, therefore, fail to understand themselves or the way they are seen by others. It is my impression that what was particularly shocking for Americans on 9/11 was not the attack itself, but the realization that people could harbor such a murderous hatred of the United States. (Unfortunately, instead of increasing awareness, this led to greater denial, which is why the same mistakes are being repeated in Iraq.) There is a great book by Graham Greene, "The Quiet American," in which an American consul in Saigon (pre-Vietnam war), full of noble intentions, makes a great deal of damage without ever realizing it. That's precisely what is happening today.
Please forgive me for such a long rant. I am writing to you because I have been feeling quite worried lately with the way things are going. I have a young daughter and I want her to live a long and peaceful life. I do believe the United States run the risk of becoming a "soft" media-controlled totalitarian state or worse. On the other hand, I feel -- for the first time -- that there is a great deal of perplexity around, which is a positive sign. In my opinion, the only way to effect a lasting change is to take a step back from the self-centered inter-American debate and accept the fact that we're all in this together. Power feels good, but happiness is better.
You might want to read more via the link above. Scroll down to America: The global view.
PARIS, Dec 04, 2003 (Kyodo via COMTEX) -- One thousand and seven hundred U.S. soldiers have deserted their posts in Iraq, with many of them failing to return to military duty after getting permission to go back to the United States, according to the French weekly magazine Le Canard Enchaine.
The magazine, known for its satires and exposes, said the French intelligence agency obtained the information from what it described an "American colleague."
Citing a senior French official posted in Washington, the magazine also said that 7,000 U.S. soldiers have left Iraq allegedly due to psychological troubles and other illnesses.
Some 2,200 others sustained serious injuries including the loss of limbs, it said.
2003 Kyodo News (c)
The source? Guess you have to buy a copy. Nothing is on the web, as their site is "under construction."
LE CANARD ENCHAINE SITE OFFICIEL en cours d'installation
LE CANARD ENCHAINE www.lecanardenchaine.fr 173 rue St-Honor? 75051 Paris Cedex 01 r?daction tel 01.42.60.31.36 abonnements tel 01.42.60.75.16
They carry this at the bookstore down on Sunset - Book Soup. My French neighbor across the courtyard, the woman from Toulouse, often has the latest copy. I'll check this out.
Topic: Iraq The Odd Couple: A Left-Wing Alarmist Speaks with a Fox News Military Guru David Corn, the fellow who, a few posts below wonders about Bush being a pathological liar, or not, here interviews Major Bob Bevelacqua, a Fox News military analyst. Well, Corn has a best-selling book about Bush lying about this and that, and Corn appears on Fox News as a commentator for "the opposition."
This, though, is mighty odd. Fox News is the television cheerleading section for whatever Bush does. Off duty one of their "war guys" says some interesting things that aren't too nice. Fox enlisted Bevelacqua as a commentator eight days after 9/11. When not explaining developments in Iraq for Fox viewers, he works with William Cowan, another former military officer who is a Fox analyst, in a company trying to provide security assistance to the U.S. occupation authority and private enterprises in Iraq. And he did his time in the Special Forces. Bevelacqua supported going to war on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant and a threat to stability in the region but not a direct threat to the United States.
Perhaps Bevelacqua knows what he's talking about. You judge.
Was it unforeseen that the invasion of Iraq would lead to a vicious insurgency? Was there no plan for that?
It was unforeseen by the politicos, but it was foreseen by the guys who had worked in and around the military. Some were looking down the road and thinkin [bad text] tion Provisional Authority (CPA) would look like and who some of the key players would be. They took questions, and I asked two questions. First, what are you going to do with the military? Then what are you going to do with the police? There was no answer. I got a shoulder shrug: "We don't know." So I got on my soap box for 30 seconds and went over what happened in Haiti and the lessons learned. We got the military to become police there. We changed their uniforms and changed their appearances. We gave them classes on human rights. We did not collapse them. The reaction was silence, "Thank you very much, next question." A few of us looked at each other and raised our eyebrows. After the meeting some of us huddled up in the hallway and said, "We don't have a plan." In the small circle that I run within, the Special. Forces, this way of doing business is known as a "guided discovery."
What does that mean?
Go over there and make it up as you go along. If it works, great. If it doesn't, we'll try something else. That's fine if you're making chocolate bars. In this context in the Middle East, it is a recipe for failure--which is what we have at the moment, though that can be changed.
It really was avoidable. Every administration does the exact same thing. You bring in your connected friends and allies, and you give them jobs, appoint them as Cabinet secretaries and other officials. Some do a good job. Some have no skills to do the job. As a prime example I would use [national security adviser] Condoleezza Rice. What does she have in her past experience to allow her to advise the president on all this? She's a Soviet Union expert.
There are a lot of smart guys in the Pentagon, and the ones with the ability to come up with a realistic plan are not going to be heard--especially if they challenge the ideology of the guys in charge. Now I think what we see in Iraq is a classic mission for the Army Special Forces--a mission heavy with civil affairs and psychological operations. It is all about working with the indigenous population of Iraq, period. The Army has doctrine on how to conduct these types of affairs. And it has flat-out been ignored.
Yipes! He said that about Condoleezza? And he thinks no one is planning, and that we're making this up as we go along? Well, it worked for Indiana Jones in that first movie, Major Bob. Maybe it will work for us.
But here is what he sees on the ground:
The security situation as a whole is nonexistent. In certain areas and sectors, it is pretty good. But the first day I got there in October somebody parked a car bomb outside the gates of the compound where our offices are in Baghdad. That first night, mortar attacks were fired from the area I lived in, which is only a kilometer or so from where the 82nd Airborne is based. If they could get that close to the Americans and fire mortars, I don't know how anyone can argue that security is good.
The enemy has the ability to fire when and where they like. That's because the civilian population is allowing them to do that. And that's because we have not embraced that civilian population. We have isolated ourselves in Saddam castle behind concrete barriers. Think of the irony of this. We put ourselves in the castles from where he dominated and repressed that country. Who do we look like? The members of the interim council had to be searched before they would be allowed to enter their offices. It was a slap in the face, and they could see foreign subcontractors coming and going into the CAP offices just by flashing an ID card. This is totally unacceptable.
I suggest reading the whole thing. It's good. And it's not what you usually hear from the Fox News military guys.