Sunday, February 21, 2010

Villains in the Movies

This year I’ve noticed a change in the villains in science fiction films—from machines to multi-national corporations. Both the “Terminator” and “Matrix” series were built around the concept that computers had become intelligent and after a period of evolution of machine intelligence, the machines decided that they would be better off without frail flawed human beings. The films revolved around the wars between the machines and humanity.

However, two new films, both up for Best Picture this year—“Avatar” and “District 9”—are very different. Their villains are corporations.

In “Avatar” an alien planet is being mined by a corporation, and when the native Na’vi people resist being moved so the corporation can get at the rare mineral lying under their home tree, the company’s private military is called in to drive the people off.

“District 9” has a twist—aliens have landed on Earth but something is wrong with them. They are sickly and weak, and the government isolates them in a camp. After a time they need to be moved and “Multinational United,” evidently a group of multi-national corporations, is called in to do the job of relocation. Once again a private military organization does the job.

Personally I find this a much more likely future than war with intelligent machines. Already there are multinational corporations with more power and wealth than many nations, and the whole point of a multi-national as far as I can determine is to avoid being controlled by laws and regulations of any particular nation.

Benito Mussolini said, "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power," and that is what I foresee as humanity's near-term future.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bitter Times for a Liberal

I am feeling so angry and bitter about my country lately. I can’t believe how much the conservatives are dominating the national political conversation just a little over a year after being thrown out of power.

Why is it that the people in this country are so conservative? I have heard it said that in many European countries the members of the conservative party are akin to Democrats in this country—even more liberal in some cases—so you can only imagine how liberal their liberal parties are. What is wrong with this country?

I’m reading an article about Attorney General Eric Holder in the latest New Yorker and the firestorm of criticism about the decision to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the “9/11 mastermind,” in a U.S. civilian court. The author, Jane Mayer, documents the glaring hypocrisy of many critics and the fact that the Bush administration had used domestic criminal courts for some of the terrorists arrested under their watch. In fact, Mayer makes a strong case that the record under Bush demonstrates that the civilian courts do a better job in getting strong convictions and prison sentences than the military tribunals do.

But more than that, Mayer also clearly discusses the fact that we are talking about some of the most basic principles that this country was founded upon: habeas corpus, the right to know the evidence being used against you, etc. The critics say that if you weren’t arrested in the U.S. you don’t have the right to be tried in a civilian court—that’s why Bush and company set up Guantanamo in the first place; they thought if they held these prisoners outside the U.S. they could do anything they wanted to them. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled repeatedly that that wasn’t the case.

But the most dismaying part of the article was the poll statistics about Obama—people give him generally good marks for all foreign policy issues including terrorism, except for this one area. The American people are dead set against having an open civilian trial for Mohammed.

Meanwhile the bankers, who have been treated like kings by the Obama administration (I’m reading Freefall by Joseph Stiglitz, the book documents this point in detail), are now complaining that the administration’s plans for new regulations and taxes is an unfair punishment of the financial industry, and are attempting to scare the Democrats into submission by giving money to the Republican party.

The Democrats, as much as I hated them before 2009, have given me plenty of new reasons to be disgusted. They are incapable of doing anything. There is only one good reason for their inaction—they are so bought and sold by corporations and the financial industry that they can’t follow through on the promises they make to the long-suffering liberals of this country…who else are we going to vote for, Ralph Nader?

There are so many critical issues facing this country. And we can’t accomplish anything. Frank Rich ( I think) said in a column a week or two ago that no major legislative achievement has come out of Washington for thirty years. That’s quite a statement. The only thing I can think of under Bush was tax cuts and the Medicare drug bill, which just added onto an existing program (without figuring out how to pay for it I might add). What happened under Clinton except welfare reform, which was basically just getting rid of a program?

Everything that has a beginning has an end. Every nation that was ever dominant was brought down by one cause or another. Paul Kennedy’s classic The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is a very instructive history of the hubris and decadence that precedes a great power’s fall. America’s reign will inevitably come to an end one day, but I think our country’s fall is being hastened along by the incredible short-sightedness of the people in power and the appalling ignorance of the average citizen.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Deficit Scare Tactics

Paul Krugman’s column “Fiscal Scare Tactic” today confirmed my assertions below that the deficit news stories are a political tactic:

Many economists take a much calmer view of budget
deficits than anything you’ll see on TV. Nor do investors seem unduly concerned: U.S. government bonds continue to find ready buyers, even at historically low interest rates. The long-run budget outlook is problematic, but short-term deficits aren’t — and even the long-term outlook is much less frightening than the public is being led to believe…

Why, then, all the hysteria? The answer is politics.

The main difference between last summer, when we were mostly (and appropriately) taking deficits in stride, and the current sense of panic is that deficit fear-mongering has become a key part of Republican political strategy, doing double duty: it damages President Obama’s image even as it cripples his policy agenda. And if the hypocrisy is breathtaking — politicians who voted for budget-busting tax cuts posing as apostles of fiscal rectitude, politicians demonizing attempts to rein in Medicare costs one day (death panels!), then denouncing excessive government spending the next — well, what else is new?

The trouble, however, is that it’s apparently hard for many people to tell the difference between cynical posturing and serious economic argument. And that is having tragic consequences.

For the fact is that thanks to deficit hysteria, Washington now has its priorities all wrong: all the talk is about how to shave a few billion dollars off government spending, while there’s hardly any willingness to tackle mass unemployment. Policy is headed in the wrong direction — and millions of Americans will pay the price.

I’m also reading Joseph Stiglitz’s new book on the financial meltdown of 2008, Freefall, and he confirms my assertion that President Clinton was distracted from his campaign pledges by warnings about the size of the federal deficit after he became president. Stiglitz was part of Clinton’s economic team in the early years of his administration along with Larry Summers and Robert Rubin. Stiglitz wrote, “Bill Clinton had sacrificed much of his presidential ambitions on the altar of deficit reduction.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Deficit Monster Eats the United States

The New York Times had a “news analysis” today that proclaimed in its headline that “Deficits May Alter U.S. Politics and Global Power.” The pertinent sentence was “Unless miraculous growth, or miraculous political compromises, creates some unforeseen change over the next decade, there is virtually no room for new domestic initiatives for Mr. Obama or his successors.”

Of course. This is part of the conservative strategy to hamstring this country’s liberals. While the Republicans are in power they drive up the national debt to dangerous levels which wrecks the economy, resulting in the election of Democrats. The Democrats then have to spend all of their time fixing the wrecked economy, leaving no time or money for their liberal initiatives. After a term or two, the electorate wonders why the Democrats haven’t delivered on any of their promises and fall prey to the Republican snake-oil pitches again.

Case in point: after 12 years of Reaganomics, the U.S. economy was sputtering in 1992. Bill Clinton’s internal campaign motto was “It’s the economy, stupid.” Ross Perot received a respectable number of votes for a third-party candidate because he spoke to people’s fears about the mushrooming federal deficits.

In the 12 years of the Reagan-Bush Sr. administrations, the federal debt quadrupled, from 1 trillion to 4 trillion dollars. (At the U.S. Treasury website you can see the official federal debt for every year from 1791 to 2009)

Bill Clinton won in 1992. One of his campaign promises was to cut middle-class taxes, but Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan scared him so bad about the risks of the deficit, Clinton reversed himself and didn’t ask for that tax cut. Clinton scaled back on all of his progressive legislative plans because, he’d been convinced, the country couldn’t afford them. The voters turned on him and the Republicans won big in 1994.

Despite the prosperity of the 1990s, the country was evenly divided in 2000 and George W. Bush got into the presidency. You could easily argue that the reason was partly due to the widespread perception that, as Ralph Nader famously said, there’s no difference between the two parties. The Democrats acted like conservatives--fiscally responsible ones, that is--in the 1990s.

The Bush administration took the prosperity and federal budget surpluses handed them by Clinton and squandered them. Tax cuts for the wealthy, two wars, and a massive drug bill, all unfunded, caused the federal debt to double during George W. Bush’s administration.

Yet during those eight years of profligate deficit spending, almost no one spoke of it. As long as a Republican is in power, it seems that deficit spending is not worthy of mentioning. It certainly never interferes with the legislative priorities of the Republicans.

But now the Democrats are in power we once again hear the warnings that the deficit monster is threatening to destroy our nation. Not only can’t the Democrats initiate any new programs, they have to freeze programs already in place.

Buried in the New York Times article was this sentence: “In the early years of the Clinton administration, government projections indicated huge deficits — over the ‘sustainable’ level of 3 percent — by 2000. But by then, Mr. Clinton was running a modest surplus of about $200 billion.” Those projections were wrong but the damage had been done.

Notice that no one mentions cutting the military budget, obscenely bloated to over $700 billion. Notice that no one mentions raising the income tax on the wealthy. A CBS news report on Obama’s budget stated that one of the groups who would be “losers” if this budget were enacted were families making over $250,000 a year, because the Bush tax cuts were going to be allowed to expire.