Thursday, 30 January 2014

Clapper says we should dump Constitution, Obama apparently agrees

Recidivist felon and uber-capo James Clapper redefined the term ‘balls’ yesterday by using the term ‘accomplices’ in reference to Edward Snowden’s revelations of the Clapper Mafia’s activities.

Recall that Clapper is the guy who got away with lying under oath to the U.S. Congress, which used to get you jail term or at the very least a hefty boot out of government service for life. Martha Stewart did several months for a similar act of felonious falsifying, but in the Weird New World that we now live in, official government criminals don’t even get a reprimand from their chief enabler, Barack Obama.

There is exactly zero evidence that Snowden had any help at all, which is a pretty devastating indictment of the security standards at the country’s cancerous and constantly spreading spy operation that Clapper presides over. Clapper, however, has a vast phalanx of co-conspirators to help him commit his crimes and cover them up, as is usually the case among the amoral hyper-powerful.

Clapper seemed to be avoiding committing any new criminal lies yesterday and mostly confined himself to blustering that Snowden put Americans at risk by spilling the beans about the Clapper gang and their snooping. For the sake of argument, let’s assume he’s right. So what? We know restrictions on police practices indirectly endanger citizens by forcing them to solve crimes legally. If you can’t prove someone is a serial killer, you run the risk of having him kill someone while you’re trying to find out for sure. It’s called due process, and it used to matter.

But, so far anyway, we have stuck to our decision as a society to pay the price of possible new criminal acts rather than, say, authorize the police to pick up all suspects and torture them until they confess. That was the old way of doing things, and no doubt it was quite effective, perhaps even kept crime to a minimum. If you were wealthy or connected, of course, you were exempt and enjoyed life. If not, you were screwed—whether or not you had actually done something. Clapper would be delighted to return to those ways, I guess. Would you?

So far, we have decided we like our system better than that of Saudi Arabia. We keep some minimum rules and procedures to remain in place and theoretically do not give the cops free rein although this doesn’t work the same way with non-white people. But if the only criterion is, as stated by Clapper consigliere Matthew Olsen of the National Counterterrorism Center, whether Snowden’s act ‘puts us at risk of missing something that we are trying to see’, then we should promptly sign over the Constitution to our protectors and call it a fun, 200-plus-year experiment that has outlived its usefulness.

It is one of the more pathetic ironies of our times that the person presiding over the surrender of this once-revered document is a former constitutional lawyer whose supporters continue to enjoy tasty glasses of Kool-Aid.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Emancipation or Decadence?

A new and very gay French film opened here yesterday after getting some attention at Cannes. One never knows how seriously to take the breathless blurb copy and promotional hustle, but let’s accept that people liked it enough to bring it to a New York run alongside a retrospective of the director’s previous opus at the prestigious Film Society of Lincoln Center. [Update: The New Yorker blog has a positive review, and Time Out New York gave it four stars out of five. So yes, it’s getting a respectful reception.]

The early scenes in the new picture, Stranger by the Lake (l’Inconnu du Lac), are full of allure: a few comely young guys (and a slew of ugly ones), the lakeside setting, lots of cruising and making out and even some swimming. The film has a rather clunky police-procedural element suggestive of Hitchcock and some interesting characters, enough to temporarily overshadow the repetitive nakedness. But the director’s consistent choice to set up the men’s beach-towel conversations as gratuitous crotch shots pushes the film closer and closer to straight-up porn, whose aesthetic it largely mirrors.

By the time this supposedly avant-garde vehicle lumbers to its melodramatic conclusion, a viewer could be forgiven for feeling a sudden sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism. While the sex is ostensibly linked to the painfully thin plot, the overall air of amoral (even murderous) hedonism not merely portrayed but delivered over and over with cock-numbingly dull regularity leaves a viewer needing a deep breath worse than the featured practitioners of fellatio.

The protagonist drives up to the lakeside cruising spot a total of, I believe, six times in the course of the film, and each time the arrival is shot from the exact same vantage point at the same rhythm. (He even gets the same parking spot.) Perhaps this is an intentional nod to the compulsive nature of the activity on view, and the critics insist that there is deep philosophy here somewhere, including the broad hint that l’inconnu by the lake is not just the mysterious assassin but also the dreamy and bizarre-acting protagonist, if not everyone in the whole movie.

But ideas about anomie and anonymity are hardly novel to anyone who’s actually visited a gay cruising ground, and if this piece is meant as a larger statement about something, it’s pretty lite beer. Straights will be duly shocked and/or swallow hard and consider themselves modern, and gay men will find nutrition for their more prurient yayas. Little will be learned about the human condition.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

David and Barack: An Unrequited Bromance

Times columnist David Brooks has now become such a complete parody of himself that if Alex Parene tried to mock him in Salon as he did last holiday season, the joke would no longer be very funny. Everyone’s caught on to him as the purveyor of a unique brand of oily, gray intellectual smoke served with a soupçon of class prejudice.

But Brooks’ latest weaseling defense of rich and comfortable people like himself tills virgin soil, so much so that half the Internet jumped on it. The content was particularly crude, but the style was interesting, given the timing, and it’s worth having a look.

As usual, Brooks starts out by pretending that everyone can surely pretty much agree on certain sensible principles, shall we? All part of his Mr Reasonable drag.

America has always done better, liberals have always done better, when we are all focused on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness.

Note the disingenuous nod to ‘liberals’, Brooks rhetorical arm around the shoulder. You can just see him charming impressionable youth at cocktail parties with that soothing patter, ‘Come come, young fellow, you don’t really mean to defend crude notions like ‘the 99%’ or ‘inequality’, do you?

Dean Baker demolished Brooks’ flimsy arguments in a Beat the Press riposte (a good site for correctives to orthodox economic thinking). Baker reminds us that class-consciousness was very much on FDR’s mind and in his speeches, which is a big reason why we got the New Deal safety net that Brooks (and his many allies in both parties) want to destroy.

After setting us up to concede certain oh-so-obvious points that turn out not to be true at all, Brooks then deploys the Complexity Meme by which all things that seem nefarious and hateful turn out to be, upon sober and exhaustive reflection by people like David Brooks, much more nuanced and debatable. This is good for chin-stroking passivity, which is where Brooks wants to take us.

Third, the income inequality frame contributes to our tendency to simplify complex cultural, social, behavioral and economic problems into strictly economic problems.

Brooks then proceeds to drum up all sorts of shibboleths suggesting that having no work or earning crap wages or living with miserable services isn’t why people are poor, but because families, because attitudes, because culture, because ‘social fabric’, because behavior, etc. He doesn’t quite come out and say ‘lazy-ass Negroes’ anywhere, but there is plenty of wink-wink for those who still need some.

Brooks is worried about the attention on inequality because he and the corporate and professional elite that he defends don’t want to talk about the massive deindustrialization of the U.S. that they have benefited from so mightily. If we engage in hours of Brooks-induced mental acrobatics, we won’t focus on how they ripped out blue-collar jobs, sent them to China and condemned anyone not on the gravy train to deteriorating future prospects if not outright destitution.

Brooks sophistically accuses those raising the inequality issue as believing in a static pie that must be cut up differently rather than letting Romney’s jo creators bake a bigger one. This is so lame that half a dozen commentators have already shredded it. It’s a rehash of Reaganite trickle-down theory that, sadly for Brooks, no longer obscures the death-grip exercised by the 1% that keeps vast wealth flowing ever upwards rather than us-wards.

But it was fascinating to read Brooks on the same day that Obama was presenting his defense of the NSA. Who knew that these two guys, ostensibly from rival camps, have so much in common? In his Friday speech Obama did a pretty good Brooks imitation.

Like Brooks, he started by amicably pulling us in with surely-you-must-agree statements. Our spies, in Obama’s telling, are the Paul Reveres of our time who have surely NOT gone hog-wild even though they now know exactly when we’ve cut a fart and how loud. Who could churlishly spurn his premise that Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty needed to spy on the Brits so that our republic could be born?

Obama didn’t mention that one reason the colonists wanted to throw off the British yoke was the monarchy’s historic abuse of individual rights. It’s pretty appalling that Obama, the constitutional lawyer, never once thought it important to bring up our Bill of Rights and its role in this debate over domestic spying. Instead, it was all about security, war-making and national defense from foreign powers, a speech George W. Bush could have made on the topic.

Think about it: Paul Revere was a notorious dissident, a political opponent of the governing regime, maybe even a violent one. If the Brits were vacuuming up his metadata NSA-style, what are the chances he would have got his horse out of the barn given his well-known links to murderers of redcoats?

While Obama defended spying NSA-style because of its utility in war and for combatting 9/11 type attacks on civilians (which he mentioned a dozen times), only a few minutes later he is applauding the new capabilities of intelligence-gathering and how it can ‘allow information to be collected and shared more quickly between federal agencies, and state and local law enforcement’. How very reassuring! Spying on foreign powers so that we will be KEPT SAFE also enables us to feed data to the cops. Good thing there is no evidence that local police forces ever abuse their powers!

Like Brooks, Obama wraps his professioral arm around the listener while saying, tut, tut, my lad, let’s get a couple of things straight that even you, in your perfectly respectable doubts, can accept. Then bends the truth:

Everyone who has looked at these problems, including skeptics of existing programs, recognizes that we have real enemies and threats, and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them.

But what ‘everyone’, especially including you, does not want to recognize is that one of the principal threats we face is from the intelligence apparatus itself and its increasing independence from any external—much less citizen—control.

Like Brooks, Obama also resorts to lawyerish verbal squeeze plays that we’re not supposed to notice. No one at NSA ‘sought to violate the law’, he says—oh, please. ‘No, Your Honor, I did not seek to violate the law. I merely sought to rob the bank’.

Or how about this one: the spies were ‘not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails’. But ‘not abusing authorities to listen to your phone calls’ is different than ‘not listening to your phone calls’.

In full Brooksian mode, Obama often nods to opposing views, appears to take them into account, massages them gently and then drops them back onto your plate in unrecognizable form. To listen to his speech, it appears that Obama was a vigilant skeptic of NSA’s powers way before mean little Edward Snowden blew the lid off their doings. If we had just trusted him and his decency to get around to fixing things, it would have happened in due course. Some day.

No matter that his solutions are ‘improved rules’ to be accepted by the rubber-stamp FISA court while he claims that Congress is ‘continually updated’ on everything—which we now know to be completely false and disingenous: does ‘Congress’ mean Congress or is ‘Congress’ = the secretive intelligence committees run by our friends who can be trusted to keep whatever we tell them quiet?

Moreover, we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies.

Who is proposing that? This is equivalent to arguing against Miranda and search warrant laws in criminal cases because they constitute ‘disarming’ the police. And yet we watch Law & Order and CSI placidly witnessing how these obstacles to wild anarchy among police actually force them to use good forensic procedures to solve crimes. The ‘unilateral disarm’ b.s. is a crude straw man designed to discredit criticis. But cops are being watched, albeit highly imperfectly, by courts, lawyers and sometimes citizens. If the spy bureaucracies have no real oversight and operate in secret, why should they obey technical rules, whatever Obama says they are?

Third, there was a recognition by all who participated in these reviews that the challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone. Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes; that’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone.

True enough, but a distraction. Facebook can be sued, prosecuted or legislated into obedience. Who can control the NSA especially when they can target critics or legislators and intimidate them with details of their private lives? We already have non-denials on whether the NSA targets sitting members of Congress. Google could be forced to stop. Can the NSA?

But this paragraph is also Obama at his most revealing: I am here to parse out the nuances for you because you benighted lesser ones do not have my massive intellectual powers. Brooks’ column accused people of having a ‘primitive zero-sum mentality’, and Obama’s speech could copy that: ‘Primitive Worries about the Fourth Amendment’.

Obama’s law school students have said that they never knew what his position on things was, and he is known to pride himself on beating anyone in a debate. Since he and only he can clearly see how all the details fit together, naturally he has the right to talk down to us.
Expert debates like Obama thinks he is love telling us that we’re not being rigorous and fact-based, like here where Obama characterizes all those nasty news stories he hates to read:

Fortunately, by focusing on facts and specifics rather than speculation and hypotheticals, this review process has given me – and hopefully the American people – some clear direction for change.

And yet Snowden’s revelations are anything BUT speculation and hypothesis; they are cold, hard, and for Obama painful facts, or as he terms it, facts and specifics. For the first time, we have very concrete, documented and undeniable information about what the NSA is doing. That’s why all the criticism of Snowden is hypocritical—Obama and his spy teams easily could have blown off anything short of what Snowden did from inside with stonewalling, denials and outright lies. The fact that they are being caught consistently in falsehoods because the reporters have the goods on them makes meaningful reform possible though not inevitable.

There are dozens of other revealing details in Obama’s speech, and commentators are mining it with expert glee.

Obama’s scolding tone makes him a twin cousin of Brooks in his similarly tweedy sophistry. They both like things pretty much the way they are, and their job is to reassure their respective audiences, roughly speaking Republicans and Democrats, that despite appearances to the contrary, there’s really nothing to see here, move along.

P.S. One of the most revolting moments of the speech was Obama’s use of the ‘enhanced interrogation’ euphemism as part of his continuing cover-up of the torture of defenseless detainees. Given that the only person in prison for bringing back torture as national policy is John Kiriakou, the CIA guy who blew the whistle on it, kindly do not tell us how Edward Snowden should come back and face a fair trial.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Christie should concentrate on big house, not White House

New Jersey governor Chris Christie should forget about any future occupation of Pennsylvania Avenue and worry about other Pennsylvania addresses—like the Federal Prison in Allenwood.

Christie has now doubled down on his patently bogus who-me? denials over the George Washington Bridge shutdown scandal, which could have gotten him through a news cycle or two if the affair were less egregious. Now he’s stuck with his lies, and the details are going to start trickling out from a raft of investigations with clear criminal potential. There is likely to be sworn testimony from the principals, and lying under oath remains a felony. Christie will have to lawyer up and start suffering from severe memory lapses, all the while wondering who among his inner circle, now tossed under the express lane busses, will decide to imitate the boss and save his or her own skin.

Stories are pouring out about other New Jersey mayors who suffered personalized retribution from Christie, further digging a large hole around his unbelievable story. There’s the Hoboken mayor who couldn’t get money to protect the city from another Hurricane Sandy, the Elizabeth mayor whose motor vehicles office was closed down, and most appalling, the former New Jersey governor whose wife’s post-partum depression program was systematically defunded—all out of petty spite.

It is now clear to one and all that this is how Christie operates and that the GW Bridge debacle has his fingerprints all over it. If he sticks with his flimsy excuses, he courts charges; if he backtracks, he looks even guiltier. Perhaps if he completely rebrands himself, pushes tons of state money at everyone he’s alienated and promises to play well with others, he can get to the end of his term without trying on an XXL orange jumpsuit. In any case Christie will soon be ‘spending more time with his family.’

Friday, 10 January 2014

"Bachelet and the economic crisis: A warning from the left"

This article from El Mostrador struck me as prescient although the main arguments aren’t particularly novel. But Chile has long been a social laboratory, so we should be paying some attention to how the neoliberal model unfolds there. (El Mostrador is an online magazine found at )

Pinochet was among the first neoliberals in modern times. He had the advantage, from orthodox economists’ point of view, of having smashed all opposition to his social engineering, so when he imported the ‘Chicago boys’, advisors from the Milton Friedman school of economic thought based on the rule of unfettered markets, people paid attention. We know that Margaret Thatcher was an admirer of Pinochet’s economic approach and saw that without labor unions or other social opposition in the way, you could create the conditions for capital to go wild.

Thatcher came to power six years after Pinochet and proceeded to act on this insight. Reagan followed two years after that (1981). So the Chilean experiment was merely a particularly bloody version of the neoliberal revolution that the developed world quickly copied in its more subtle way.

The authors describe how the incoming Bachelet administration faces a dilemma if the new president is serious about instituting deep structural reforms, including free university education, changes in the absurdly regressive tax code, pension reform to take people’s retirement funds back from the robber barons and a restoration of some workplace rights. While the instinct from the New Majority coalition (equivalent to the Democrats here) will be ‘moderation’, they argue that only a radical approach has any chance of success.

It’s interesting to read this piece and consider how Obama did precisely the opposite of what the authors suggest and how far that got him.

[The translation is my own. I tweaked the original here and there for clarity.]

No one now denies that Chile has changed. The student mobilization of 2011 unleashed a wave of social unrest. We see a challenge both to the political consensus that has dominated Chile since the transition [from the Pinochet regime] as well as to the institutional framework that has sustained it. The students’ slogan, “We are the generation that’s not afraid!” spread throughout Chilean society and began to undermine the authoritarian structures by which neoliberal ideology had hung on despite the end of the dictatorship.

The future government of Michelle Bachelet promises to reform the neoliberal model. At least that’s what her allies in the New Majority think (especially the CP [communists] but also the progressives of the PS, DC and PRSD [socialists, Christian democrats and radicals—parties of the center-left government coalition]). The 17.41% of voters who opted for left-wing candidates in the first round and then supported Bachelet in the second round probably also believe it. She already has said that she wants to address the country’s appalling inequality, which means that some Chileans enjoy income levels of Norway and others of Angola. But the big mystery is whether she will put together a program that can solve the problem.

The demands are many: a new constitution, tax reform, a new Labor Code, free education and a revamped retirement system. But the strategy emanating from her New Majority coalition is one of caution. The policy teams, coordinated by Alberto Arenas, have tried to zanjar a moderate vision so as to make sure the changes carry the least possible political cost. The problem for the Bachelet team is that it will have to please very diverse groups, from the radicalized university students to the Chamber of Commerce.


To succeed in this acrobatic game, the Bachelet team is doing a cold-eyed cost-benefit analysis. The costs are the popular demands, policies to reduce inequalities and maintain social peace. The benefits are economic dynamism and growth. The political team’s calculus is how much cost to sustain in terms of redistributive policies to assure governability and not put the precious high growth rate at risk. According to this vision, if the government gives too much in redistributive terms, it will undermine business confidence and weaken investment.

Pragmatists within the New Majority think that their moderate approach will protect Michelle Bachelet. They think that by reducing the depth of the changes, they will assure macroeconomic stability and therefore the long-term stability and sustainability of her reforms. However, the international situation indicates precisely the contrary: it is not radicalism but moderation that will make social changes unsustainable.

Today, the countries that had slightly left-leaning governments during the 1990s and 2000s are in pretty bad shape. Most European countries are suffering from high unemployment and stagnation. (The U.S. is experiencing similar conditions although less drastically). Fiscal austerity imposed after the global financial crisis is destroying the [European] welfare state and increasing inequality and poverty on a continent that was famous for its social pact. However, the collapse of the egalitarian social transformations of Old Europe is not the result of an irresponsible radicalism via high levels of state spending and redistributive policies. Instead, the European reality demonstrates that it is the moderation of the “Third Way” in the face of the neoliberal legacy that caused the crisis and has undermined social reforms.

In the case of the U.K., the supposedly leftist government of Tony Blair made great efforts to cozy up to the financial sector and never revoked the deregulation installed during the Thatcher years. This “pragmatic” moderation planted the time bomb that exploded with the banking crisis. In France it was the Socalist Party itself under François Mitterrand that, in pursuit of “moderation”, promoted financial deregulation that led to the destruction of the social model. Something similar happened in the U.S. where the domination of Wall Street interests and the financial sector during the Clinton presidency brought about the dismantling of the New Deal regulatory structure (most famously the Glass-Stegall Act), which aided in the creation of the financial bubble that continues to weaken the global economy. In all these cases moderation in the face of the neoliberal model did not promote but rather destroyed the desired economic stability.

Even worse, another result of this moderation is that today the European electorates blame the left parties (that were in government when the crisis blew up) for their economic problems even though these problems are the result of neoliberal deregulation. Similarly, in the U.S. there is a lot of discontent with the Democratic Party because its closeness with the finance sector blocks Keynesian policies that (as Paul Krugman explains) would end the crisis. In this context of a weakened left (caused by its moderation and association with neoliberal approaches), the right has been able to promote its discourse about how irresponsible government spending caused the crisis.

There is now a fiscal crisis because states have had to rescue deregulated banks, but the blame, according to the now hegemonic discourse, is due to the welfare state, not lack of regulation. It doesn’t matter that Spain, the country most often accused of fiscal irresponsibility, had a surplus before the bank rescue—the facts are irrelevant. Thus moderation by the left not only permitted the deregulation crisis but also strengthened the neoliberal discourse through its negligence.
Could something similar happen in Chile?


“What if the copper bonanza is transitory?” asks the Cambridge economist José Gabriel Palma. Despite the export boom and the high price of copper, Chile today is starting to experience a current account deficit of 4% of GDP. Palma has called this situation the “Trojan horse” that [outgoing president] Piñera is leaving for Bachelet. The export boom depends mostly on speculation in copper prices and the radical increase of imports concentrated mostly in consumer goods, which have more than quadrupled since 2003, instead of capital goods that could boost national production. So we have a boom without building the material basis that could sustain it Asian-style. Financial speculation and unproductive imports have generated the current account deficit, which lays the groundwork for a future crisis. Why don’t we remember the pre-crisis conditions of 1982: the financialization of the entire economy, unproductive imports, current account deficit along with a climate of euphoria and optimism?

As we have seen, those who construct the crisis are almost never those who end up paying for it. The dangerous present economic scenario in Chile is the result of almost four decades of neoliberal policies, but if the bubble bursts in the next few years, it will be the New Majority that will have to come up with answers to exit from the crisis while dealing with the right attacking the reformist program of Bachelet for causing it.

The economic impact of a crisis can lead to a consolidation of the [neoliberal] regime and block progressive reforms despite the defeat of the hegemonic model. Even worse, the crisis could not only impede reforms but also paradoxically strengthen the model politically.
It would be the perfect opportunity for the right to rearm itself politically. Only think of what they will say: “Piñera left office with a GDP per capita of almost US$20,000 and 6% growth anchored in a stable, orderly structural framework while the current government, because of its failed policies (constitutional change, educational and tax reforms), has generated institutional instability that has worsened the crisis.”


Progressive social policies are only sustainable over time with an economic regime that includes industrialization rather than the precarious and short-term approach of today. There’s a reason why development literature speaks of the need to link the welfare state with a development state. In Chile, social policy must be accompanied by an industrial policy.

Today we have the chance to begin down this road. Recovering copper production is a key objective if we are talking about a transformation in production. Together with a strong tax reform, earnings from copper will make it possible not only to implement solid social reforms but also for to elaborate new projects for a productive transformation that can bring new comparative advantages beyond the static current situation based on natural resources. The state, just as in the U.S. and Asia, has played an essential role in innovating business investment in new sectors. A strong state with a determined political bloc behind it and the necessary resources can open up new and dynamic comparative advantages.

We’re not talking just about increasing the state’s mining royalties. We need a state that isn’t afraid of utilizing its own tools. It should activate commercial and tariff policies that can temporariliy protect new sectors, and the political base for doing this is beginning to form. Let’s learn from what the developed countries have done, not what they say we should do.
Only a state with access to important resources, without fear of its own capacities and instruments, and with the political will to create new dynamic sectors can generate a productive scenario that can “protect” the Chilean economy from speculation and dependence and constructs a material basis for a welfare state.

The New Majority can only carry out its social reforms in a sustained way if it extends its policies to the productive sector. It has to be capable of linking social development with economic development and have the will to recognize that in the current economic scenario, radicalizing its policies by intervening in the arenas where economic power is concentrated, is a necessary condition to keep its reforms alive. The only way to stand still is to move forward.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

100 years after "The Guns of August"

The arrival of the new year 2014 has generated a lot of recollection of what was happening in the world a century ago, namely, how World War I was sneaking up on everyone. There are some new books out on the run-up to the hostilities, and apparently historians largely now agree that the war was not inevitable and could have been averted with some cautious good sense—a commodity not much in view then or now.

Given the value we place on belligerent ‘self-defense’, prudent restraint was never a big part of our biped race’s approach. Perhaps the trauma of a recent war and its horrific damage focuses our species’ collective mind for a while and then fades, giving way to the more organic witches’ brew of nationalism, aggrieved victimhood and clannish entitlement that lay the groundwork for the next war.

We know from our literature and films that the war with the Kaiser was taken as rather a lark at first in some circles, an opportunity to go off and be a hero without excessive effort given that no one thought the fighting would last more than a few months. This insouciant miscalculation is cited more and more often these days by people pointing to a disturbingly parallel situation now brewing in our world—that of the tensions among Japan, China, the Philippines, the Koreas and the United States.

The details of the territorial disputes and the commercial and geopolitical strategies behind them are available in all the major publications. Most experts commenting on them don’t anticipate an outbreak of hostilities, but increasingly they don’t discount the possibility. No one anticipated the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo either.

Disputes over the the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyutai Islands in the seas near Japan, China, and Taiwan (each country has its own name for them) may sound laughably petty to us, but a New Yorker article on the Japanese invasion of China that preceded World War II reminds us that the death toll among Chinese was 20 million, second only to the losses suffered by the Russians and other Soviet citizens in the Nazi assault. Given the steady refighting of the Civil War that we’re living through at home 150 years later, we shouldn’t be too quick to scoff at revived hostilities in Asia.

If you follow the news from day to day, there are steady signs of all sides ratcheting up the rhetoric and accompanying it with hostile actions. China recently laid claim to the air space over the disputed islands and coerced airline companies to report when their planes cross through it—enough to put a chill into anyone traveling over that way. (U.S. companies complied.) The Japanese are refusing to obey, and their PM just paid a visit to a notorious cemetery housing the remains of World War II war criminals to underline the point. Tens of thousands of nationalistic Japanese nostalgic for the good old 1940s promptly followed suit.

A Financial Times columnist wrote today that the favored historical metaphor for pretty much every situation has been “the new Munich”, that is, an attempt by a dangerous warmonger to bully us into submission as Hitler did in 1938. Kerry just used the analogy to push for war against Syria, Bush used it over Iraq, and Margaret Thatcher resuscitated it over the Falklands. Even more grotesquely, Lyndon Johnson used “Munich” to justify his war on Vietnam.

Instead, writes Gideon Rachman, we should be thinking of Sarajevo, the incident that threw Europe into an orgy of unnecessary slaughter.

In 1914, national leaders were so keen to appear strong and to protect their honour (or “credibility” as they would call it nowadays), that they were unable to step back from the brink of conflict. Reflection on the Sarajevo crisis might just prevent today’s leaders from falling into the same trap if Sino-Japanese tensions heighten again.

But, unfortunately, many of today’s political players still approach their rivalries with a Munich mindset. Neither Japan nor China is prepared to look “weak” by backing off in the East China Sea. The US is also worried that its “credibility” will be damaged, if it fails to show toughness. A prominent official in the Obama administration explained to me last year that—while he understood Chinese objections to US naval patrols near China’s coast—America could not cut back these patrols because that would be seen as weakness.

This is the kind of playground logic that four-year-old children are encouraged to grow out of. But, unfortunately, it still seems to be the dominant mode of thinking in international affairs.

We now live in a world that can produce vast quantities of material goods, enough to satisfy the basic needs even of the excessive numbers of bipeds circulating on our overtaxed globe. But instead of organizing a way to get the necessities of life to our fellow creatures, our human groups are trying to get the advantage over each other and plotting ever more ingenious ways to do it, up to and including new ways of performing the internecine slaughter that has marked our species since its arrival.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Bloombergians surprised that we were sick of him ages ago

It must have come as quite a shock to the Bloomberg set to hear their don slammed and discredited at the de Blasio inauguration Wednesday. After all, Republican mayors have been in charge here for 16 years even as the city roundly repudiated the national party at every opportunity. (The island that experienced 9/11 rejected Bush’s re-election in 2004 by 81%.)

But it was easy to think that while New York was a liberal place with all sorts of cool black and Hispanic people living in it, the rich white guys were always going to be in charge and continue to do things pretty much their way. Right up to the first primary vote in September, they could have imagined that Bloomberg’s heir apparent, Christine Quinn, was going to preside over the transition to more-of-the-same-but-lesbian.

As it turned out, not even the LBGs stuck with Quinn, joining instead the sudden bandwagon for Bill de Blasio and his biracial family. And expectations are high for the new mayor who promptly repeated in his inaugural address that he was dead serious about addressing the city’s gross inequality.

We’ll see. Some of de Blasio’s early appointments have raised eyebrows (like bringing back stop-and-frisk originator Bill Bratton as police chief). But the symbolism at the affair was not lost on anyone. Union leaders were prominent in the power seats near the new mayor, especially including teachers’ union president, Michael Mulgrew—a stark contrast from the Bloomberg years when public school teachers were systematically excoriated as the enemies of little children, also education.

De Blasio even named a former teacher and principal, Carmen Fariña, to be his schools commissioner, another departure from the Bloomberg record of putting his millionaire business buddies in charge. (The next-to-last, Joel Klein, now earns some obscene number of millions per year working for Rupert Murdoch. Not to mention the laughably horrific Cathie Black debacle.)

Denis Hamill outlined in the Daily News what de Blasio has to face from the legacy of Bloomberg’s 1%-er administration:

The January cold at his inauguration on New Year’s Day also reminded you that de Blasio was adopting the largest number of homeless the city has ever known, with 22,000 children in shelters [out of 50,000 total homeless]— a shameful legacy of Bloomberg’s New York. Bloomberg, who had as much sympathy for the common working man as a robber baron, left his pro-labor de Blasio 153 unsettled municipal contracts to negotiate.

According to a story in The Nation, 1% of New Yorkers earned 39% of the city’s total city income in 2012, compared with 27% in 2002, when Bloomberg took office. Meanwhile, Forbes reported that Bloomberg’s personal wealth grew from $5 billion in 2005 to $27 billion in 2012.

Bloomberg hasn’t been bad for public health, and probably only an arrogant prick with more money than god could have rammed through the smoke-free bars measure back when nobody dared to do that. Same for the bike lanes and other amenities that do make the city more liveable.

But liveable for whom? Runaway housing prices are destroying the few working class neighborhoods left and not just in Manhattan but more and more refuge zones in the outer boroughs. Bloomberg’s departure has revealed the existence of a very disgruntled populace that couldn’t get through to him ($25 billion creates a large moat) but was dead sick of his rule. If he weren’t a plutocrat, he would have been ousted a long time ago.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Fraud, American style

I spent New Year’s Eve watching Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and then David O. Russell’s American Hustle back to back and therefore conclude that the business of America is now defrauding the next guy, having fun, and then sorta feeling bad about it.

The two films, among the hottest in our cinemas today, are cracking good entertainments. Both narratives are also based on real people and events. But the extent to which they massage the facts is less relevant than what the massaging says about how our artists view the recent past and by extension the present.

Wolf reaches back to the pre-crash naughts, the same terrain explored by Margin Call, i.e., the wild west days of finance when deregulation and Reaganite worship of ‘success’ opened the floodgates to all manner of newly invented scams, which culminated in the mortgage-based Big Fleece from which we are still trying to recover. Leonardo di Caprio is another Gordo Gerko/Michael Douglas type named Jordan Belfort (a real person) whose origins are more mundane and whose pretensions are far more grotesquely nouveau riche. He satisfies them by peddling worthless penny stocks to suckers.

The film follows the predictable arc of wealth, glory, decadence, decay, and crash, lasts three hours, and provides the usual gratifications: we get to see all the cool luxury, join the orgiastic parties, throw up (a little) in our popcorn over the ostentatious excess, and piously cheer the come-uppances suffered by one and all.

What’s missing, as more than one commentator has pointed out, are the victims. We hear the anxious blue-collar workers on the other end of di Caprio’s phone calls (while he mimes butt-fucking them and taking their cash to the chortles of his employees). But we never see them, and that is, of course, essential to the entire operation, both for the di Caprio character in the movie and for ours in the audience. If we actually saw the people getting their hard-earned savings wiped out to pay for these frat boys to snort coke off hookers’ behinds, the film would not be very funny. And we do want to laugh.

Hustle reaches further back to the Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s that snared a few congressmen and a couple of Jersey mayors. It’s a more complex film with eerie plays on the shadowy world of scam artists and con men (and women), whose skill is tied to their sociopathic capacity to believe their own lies. Here, the viewer is as lost as the targets of the multiplying scams.

The take-away lesson from Russell (laid out explicitly in the epilogue) is that the FBI overreached in luring these workaday politicians into bribery scams that were easily believed in the post-Watergate era but also criminalized borderline activities like cutting deals to generate local business, jobs, a tax base, etc. So perhaps some day we’ll have similar films about how the FBI now creates terror plots by pumping up marginal or deluded immigrants whom they can then bust and crow about on camera (and get refunded for next year).

Meanwhile, the juxtaposition of these two films about lying and cheating and scamming and playing on human beings’ trusting natures in order to then screw them blind does lead to reflection on what we are telling ourselves about our culture and our motivations.

Scam artists are celebrated characters in our national psyche from Tom Sawyer and probably long before. We laugh at the smooth talking guy out to make a buck, the Music Man bringing wholesome band instruments to River City threatened by a pool hall, the buffoonish snake oil salesman one step ahead of a licking by defrauded locals; we even get serious at the death of a failed salesman in Arthur Miller’s iconic masterpiece. Commercial culture is in our blood as a society founded on trade rather than social class.

But there is something new in the way Scorsese winds up his treatment of the di Caprio/Belfort character, who emerges from prison to star in salesmanship seminars hosted by a New Zealand entrepreneur. (The real Jordan Belfort gets a brief cameo as his host—Scorsese never really condemns his bad guys.) Di Caprio starts to work his sleazy magic on the crowd as the credits roll, and we see a crowd of dazed losers who have paid serious money to sit through a course in how to rip the faces off stupid people with idle cash.

Ha ha, I get it. We’ve moved beyond getting your slow-witted friends to paint your fence. Today, you either sink your jaws into your neighbors’ haunches or get stuck with the losers taking the subway.