Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Déjà Vu All Over Again.

About 4 years ago, right after an American election and before an Israeli election, six prominent Gazans were assassinated by Israel. This came in the midst of a long-time relative lull in rocket attacks. It was clear at the time that the killings and subsequent bombardment of the Gaza strip had been planned for months.
This time, after several Palestinians, including a 13-year-old boy, had been killed in the previous week or so, Ahmed Al-Jabari, head of Hamas’ military wing, was assassinated in a trap set by Israel the day after he thought he had negotiated a cease fire with them.
Israeli leaders need to show how tough they are to be able to appeal to their constituents, who mostly seek revenge and retribution against the Palestinians will never give up their quest for freedom from occupation no matter how many die or how many suffer the repression that comes in response to their valiant, but feeble attempts to fight back and gain their freedom and dignity. Israel has no interest in negotiating a real peace, one that would be fair to the Palestinians, because that would mean giving up land they have stolen, so they need to kill and maim and destroy on a regular basis to try to suppress the restless natives and hold onto their dream of Greater Israel.  
The majority of Israeli Jews are completely out of touch. When the UN General Assembly votes 189 against Israel, 3 for, they don’t connect their actions, their murderous ways to the reason for their near universal censure. The BBC radio program World Have Your Say interviewed an Israeli living near Gaza. He was complaining about having to spend so much of his time in his bomb shelter. He then made one of the most preposterous, off-the-wall statements I’ve ever heard, anytime, anywhere. He said that the Gazans don’t build bomb shelters because they know the IDF doesn’t target civilians. This at a time when 90 Gazans had died and 700 were injured.
Is he unaware that his country has maintained a blockade of Gaza for 5 years in which building materials are banned from import? There is one way around the blockade, through the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, but everything costs twice as much when it comes in that way. Is he aware that Gazans are very poor. That they don’t have the money to build shelters. Does he know that 80% of Gazans are dependent on food aid. Is he aware that 50% of children there are malnourished because Israel limits the amount of food that’s allowed in.
The blockade has shut down 95% of Gaza’s industry because no raw materials are allowed in and no finished products allowed out. A substantial part of Gaza’s farmland is off limits because it’s either near the border – any Palestinian within 300 meters, and sometimes a lot more, of the border is liable to be shot – or was destroyed in the last Israeli rampage. They aren’t allowed to fish more than 3 miles from shore. They have few options and almost no hope so they don’t care how hard they are hit, or how many of them die as long as they can pick off a few Israelis with their rockets and occasional sneak attacks.
The next night an Israeli said that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. The words, moral army, in themselves are an oxymoron. Soldiers are trained to kill, and if they feel threatened, to shoot first and ask questions later. As for the IDF, it’s noted around the world for being ruthless, callous and brutal. Israeli Jews live on another planet where they are always right and everybody else is wrong.
Subsequently, an Israeli on the program said he wanted the army to go in and finally wipe out the terrorists, like the army hasn’t been trying to do that for the last 30 years. He sounded young, probably was not even born when the first Intifada began. They never learn, they’re always the victim, they never connect their brutal occupation with the attacks against them. No matter how many times their violent, bloodthirsty ways fail to bring safety and security, they only know how to double down on the killing.
The night before the cease fire, an Israeli insisted that his country had totally left Gaza, as if leaving a place still allowed you to enforce a near total and crippling blockade. In fact, the IDF goes into Gaza anytime they want, to arrest anybody they want, to kill anybody they want. Israelis have no clue, they only know talking points, they’re divorced from reality, they’ve lost their capacity for fairness or compassion or even logic. If the roles were reversed, and the Arabs were the occupiers, the Jews would fight to the death to free themselves, and use all means at their disposal to do it, just as they did in their fight to create the state of Israel in 1947 when they committed devastating terrorist acts, like the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem when more that 200 innocent people died.
It’s clear what Israelis want. A recent survey showed nearly 60% think they live in an apartheid state and want to keep it that way, with their Arab citizens, who make up 20% of Israel proper, permanently relegated to second class status. A poster of four maps showing the loss of Arab land since the beginning of Israel has circulated on the internet and elsewhere. The 2012 map shows the West Bank as hundreds of tiny dots or small enclaves – urban ghettos and rural shtetls – surrounded by land controlled by Israel. Palestinians now control about 10% of the West Bank.
When the poster was placed on the London Underground it was called a provocation by some Jewish groups. Yes, the truth hurts, and it is very provocative to show how Israel is seeking to squeeze the Palestinians into ever smaller ghettos, something no other country in the world would be allowed to do. As long as the US vetoes every attempt at the UN to stop Israel from its illegal and immoral actions and also provides billions of dollars in military aid - in spite of Israel being a wealthy country - the farce will continue, nothing will change to balance the Arab-Jewish equation or provide the Palestinians the freedom every person in the world deserves.
The Gazans consider their efforts to have been victorious, since in spite of being outgunned 1000 to 1 they managed to kill six Israelis and wound many more. It doesn’t matter to them that 162 Gazans were killed and more than a thousand injured, they’ll never cease their fight for freedom. On the other side, Israeli Jews have to know they will never be safe and secure until justice is done, no matter how much destruction they wreak or how many casualties they cause. They could indulge in mass murder or deportation to try to stop the resistance, as some Israeli politicians have suggested, but even the US might balk at that.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

QE3 - Not for You and Me

QE 1 and 2 worked so well the US Fed has figured it’d be great to go for another round. QE stands for Quantitative Easing, which is a lot like printing money in common terms. The first two involved printing a half-trillion dollars each, which was used to buy near worthless mortgage backed securities from the banks at face value. As a result of those QEs and lots of other money lent to the banks at near zero interest - which, since those super-low interest rates are less than the rate of inflation, is akin to paying the banks to take that money - the stock markets are near all-time highs, corporate profits are soaring to the point that American corporations are sitting on nearly $2 trillion dollars of cash reserves and the 1% are seeing massive gains in their wealth. So it’s worked out fabulously.
Well now, that was a joke, that’s not really why they did it, or why they said they did it. As it happens, the 1% already have a greater share of national income than at any time since 1929. No it’s because they’re worried about unemployment continuing to be stubbornly high and the economy being in the doldrums for a large number of Americans. Which brings up Einstein’s definition of insanity; that is, repeatedly doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome. But feeding the banksters is the only thing they know how to do, it’s the only trick in their bag, so they have to keep plugging away at it.
With all that extra money to play with the banks - or so the theory goes - will be eager to lend it out to businesses who actually need it to do real, productive work in the economy and finally some of it will trickle down to the masses. But that involves risk, it’s much easier to take that new-found free money and buy US treasuries at 2% interest. When they do indulge in risk they speculate on commodities, which inevitably raises the cost of basic foodstuffs and other necessities of life, but hey, that’s the magic of the free market – goods and services are allocated where they can create the most benefit for those capable of paying for them.
QE 3 will mean a mere $40 billion per month, with no end date, of new printed money. It’s free money, figmentary money, conjured up out of thin air, which means, at least in theory, it should cause inflation – if you’ve got an increased amount of money relative to economic size and capacity, then each dollar should be worth less. That’s actually not happening today since in spite of the inherent weakness in the American economy and its massive public debt and budget deficits, there’s such economic turmoil in the world, the dollar still constitutes a safe bet in the minds of many people and so world investors sitting on huge piles of cash have been flocking to US Treasuries. That cheap money that’s easy to print while still maintaining value cannot last indefinitely without drastic belt-tightening changes which are extremely unlikely to happen. If/when the dollar crashes it’ll come suddenly with almost no warning.
Meanwhile as long as it’s so cheap and easy to create money with no ties to anything real, anything of value, why not use it to actually create value? Why not use it in a way that actually makes a difference for somebody besides the bankster 1%? I realize it’s an immense stretch for America’s political and financial leaders - not to mention those of the UK and EU and others who are also indulging in printing money to feed the banksters - to imagine using that imaginary money for the public good, but just in case they’re struck by lightning and come within an inch of death, or close enough anyway, to have a change of heart, here are some thoughts how that free money could be used.
Forty billion dollars would buy a new extensive light rail system for eight to ten American cities. In a few months every city large enough to be able to take advantage of efficient, clean light rail would have one. Roads, bridges, sewage systems, electrical grids, alternate energy applications… whatever, $40b per month is not small change.
The anti-poverty programs of the sixties and seventies (not to mention the programs of the Great Depression) could be resurrected. In the late seventies at the end of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, before the Reagan revolution changed the US government’s focus to a war on poor people, I participated twice in the make-work, CETA – Comprehensive Employment Training Act – program. Anyone who was out of work for more than a year was eligible.
The first time I helped build a play structure in a small church-owned but publicly accessible park. CETA provided our wages and a small amount of money for administering the contract. The artist/sculptor who they wanted to do the job wasn’t eligible so I agreed to take the job but then work half time and share the pay with him. It was a six month contract which paid $833 month - $10,000 on an annual basis. Not a lot of money even back then, but enough to keep from begging or depending on other people for housing and food. CETA jobs lasted a maximum of one year and weren’t intended to be comfortable jobs but only tide you over until you could find a ‘real’ job and hopefully learn something in the process.
Just after that contract ended another CETA job opened up in a community recycling program. The business in question had been picking up food waste but didn’t have a good method for processing it. It’s great stuff when composted but super grody and a bear to deal with. That was a year’s contract for four staff. We learned a lot about composting that year and produced a decent report, but frankly the subject matter didn’t really warrant four people working full-time for a year. The occasional boondoggle aspect was one of the reasons conservatives hated the program so much. Still it kept us (me anyway) off the streets and provided a survivable income.
It also introduced me to a group of people doing a recycling program where I eventually spent 13 years and it became the major focus of my working life. And I was able buy a house on contract because I had a steady income for a year and a half which gave the seller confidence that I could make the payments. Today it’s tough love for the people, welfare for the banksters.
As long as QE money is ‘free’, not costing anybody anything (aside from the future possibility of inflation), not connected in any way to productive endeavor, now only going to line the pockets of the country’s wealthiest citizens, why not spread some of that largesse around? Why not get people working, provide a little hope for the future and a little pocket change for the present? Never. Cannot happen. The poor barely exist in the American political lexicon, now only the middle class matters and according to both candidates that includes people earning up to $250,000 per year, a figure which puts them in the top 3%.
Now the so-called fiscal cliff is approaching. According to agreements made in the past, if the Congress was unable to come up with a reasonable deficit reduction plan, there will be automatic cuts in spending and a return to pre-Bush taxes. In other words, the economy will head downhill, just as many of Europe’s economies are. It’s obvious if you increase taxes and cut public spending, then you will increase unemployment and generally hurt the economy. So now even the Repugs are turning into (back-door) Keynesians.
The only way to increase government revenue without harming the economy is by taxing the wealthy and their special breaks (taxing capital gains at less than working income, exempting inheritance from taxation and giving them a free ride on their stock transactions) since their excessive wealth does nothing good for the economy while their excessive speculation and high-speed trading are truly destructive.
Needless to say that can’t happen since they own the government.

In other news, Hurricane Sandy, a storm of unprecedented size, helped along by ocean temperatures 5º F above normal, wreaked havoc in the eastern US. Global warming, which unquestionably had an impact on the size and severity of the storm, was never mentioned in the debates for good reason: Both candidates were allowed to vet every question, neither wished to broach that uncomfortable topic. However, unprecedented storms, droughts and heat waves have a way of intruding on preordained debate questions. Without drastic changes, starting yesterday, in the way energy is produced and used in the world, and especially the US, then the worst, not to mention the unthinkable, is yet to come.
Meanwhile, after nearly two years of campaigning, the election is finally upon us. Mr. Pain Capital, who earned his money bankrupting healthy companies or sending their jobs to China is neck and neck in the national polls with Mr. Hopelessly Compromised. Still, in American elections the popular vote doesn’t mean much, it’s the votes of the individual states that matter. In that case Obama is ahead, though, as in the case of Ohio, not enough to insure against fraud and theft. He only won last time because his margin was too great to allow for Repugs to steal the election.
The reason why election theft is still a realistic possibility in spite of Bush’s boys stealing two elections in a row is that the Dumbos never thought it was important enough to pursue, uncover and root out the causes of the theft. They never thought it was important enough to hold hearings, do research, fight to have voting machines count honestly. Most of you will be amazed to learn that, according to Jimmy Carter, foremost authority on honest elections, Venezuela has the cleanest elections he’s ever monitored. Simply put, they have machines which in addition to electronic counts also produce a receipt which allows the voter to double check to make sure their vote is counted correctly. Incredibly simple.
Not in America where voting machines are owned and operated by private companies which are allowed to hide their software under the guise that it’s proprietary information. And if many voting machines in Ohio are owned by companies connected to Romney’s son or his partners at Pain Capital, where he still is reaping large returns, well, what the hell. According to the Dumbos, or so it would seem, if you’re smart enough to steal an election, then you must deserve it. Otherwise they would’ve fought like hell against the brazen thievery that put Bush into office twice.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why Organics?

When I first heard about the recently announced Stanford University study on organic food which stated that organic food was no healthier than conventionally grown food I was duly skeptical. Then I learned from lefty websites that pesticide residues were not included in the term healthier, as if ingesting known carcinogens was no big deal. Next was the revelation that the study was funded by agribusiness and further that a primary researcher listed on Stanford’s website has a long history of being paid by the tobacco industry to cast doubt on tobacco’s dangers; in other words, the study was ultimate bullshit.
Before I learned of the agribusiness connection to the study a friend had posted the Stanford article on Facebook – It was an aha! I told you so posting. When I pointed out the nefarious connections to him he went on railing about how it was science and it didn’t matter who funded it. In the summary put out by the researchers they disingenuously state they received no outside funding for the study, conveniently omitting that the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford which did the study receives millions from Cargill and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has been pushing GM crops very hard.
In this case it was a meta-analysis of about 300 other studies, so if you have an agenda and Cargill is paying your salary, you look for studies that reinforce your objective. So, yes it does matter.
The study concluded that organic was no healthier based solely on nutrition content, largely dismissing the effect of ingesting pesticides, so let’s deal with that first. That fact organic food is no more nutritional is not surprising since you don’t even need soil, organic or otherwise to grow healthy plants. You can, for instance, get just as high off of dope grown hydroponically as in soil. All you need in that case is a neutral medium for the roots to take hold in, artificial light and chemical nutrients.
The same is true of Genetically Engineered foods; that is, there’s no discernable difference in nutrient content between GE and conventional crops, which is probably why the FDA insists that there’s no reason for labeling, let alone concern. Their lack of concern might also stem from the revolving door between the FDA and Monsanto. In the latest affront to health and reason, Obama recently appointed a former Monsanto exec to an important post at FDA. But of course as my friend would argue, it’s all science; that Monsanto flack can be totally trusted to be fair and impartial when regulating the use of Monsanto’s agrichemicals and certification of its GMO crops. Of course.
From the study summary; “ (the researchers) did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.” (my emphasis) and “There were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food; the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years.” So, to recap, no fewer health risks from organics even though they do involve less pesticide exposure, and no long term studies of health risks that might actually shed light on the effects of exposure to same.
And finally, “The review yielded scant evidence that conventional foods posed greater health risks than organic products. While researchers found that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables, organic foods are not necessarily 100 percent free of pesticides. What’s more, as the researchers noted, the pesticide levels of all foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits. Two studies of children consuming organic and conventional diets did find lower levels of pesticide residues in the urine of children on organic diets, though the significance of these findings on child health is unclear. Additionally, organic chicken and pork appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the clinical significance of this is also unclear.”
So, all the benefits of ingesting fewer toxic pesticides and fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria are unclear, even the fact that children – who are much more sensitive to toxins –
fed organics had less pesticides in their systems didn’t seem important to the researchers because “they all generally fell within allowable limits” (my emphasis). Limits set by who? FDA, staffed by ex-Monsanto execs, of course. They generally fell within allowable limits, but evidently not always. Nonetheless, even though the researchers admit, somewhat grudgingly, that organics contain less of things we know are bad for us, they can still clearly state and publish to the world a study that says organics are no healthier than conventionally grown food.
So now it’s my turn to be clear. There is no totally safe level of pesticide exposure. There is no magic line between safe and unsafe. Ingesting smaller amounts reduces the probability of getting cancer, but the possibility is always there. Let me expand and illustrate from an experience in my past. In the nineties I participated in a citizens advisory committee for Portland’s sewage treatment plant. At one point the handling of hazardous materials came up for discussion. One of the hazardous materials the plant dealt with was chlorine. Sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it. Chlorine is part of the salt we use to flavor our food, we swim in it in public pools, it routinely is used to kill bacteria in our water, but still, when dealing with train car loads of it it’s classified as a hazardous material.
As part of the sewage treatment process, chlorine is added to the effluent to kill bacteria, but then before the cleansed water can be returned to the environment the chlorine has to be removed. So I asked if there was another way to kill bacteria without using chlorine. Yes, responded the plant manager, it can be microwaved, but it costs a lot more… think of the extra burden on the ratepayer, he emphasizes. Then another committee member said, Hey, it carries only a one in a million chance of giving you cancer, what’s the big deal? Only one in a million, I retorted, but then add all the other toxins in our water, in our air and in our food and give cancer a couple of decades to take hold and the easy to scoff at one in a million becomes a frightening one in seven.
At that point some people will respond saying, Well you have die sometime anyway, so again, what’s the big deal? It is a big deal; there’s a world of difference between dying of old age with a few assorted ailments and dying of cancer which comes with an extended period of pain and suffering (not to mention a great expense in America).
The other reason why organics are safer is the absence of GMOs. Every study I’ve heard about showed devastating consequences to animals who were fed them. Almost all of those studies have been suppressed, but one, about 10 years ago, did manage to break through the corporate news blockade. That was the study done on Monarch butterflies. Monarchs eat only milkweed. Researchers dusted milkweed with GM corn pollen. Within a reasonably short time half the butterflies died, while the other half suffered terrible stomach problems. The control group which ate milkweed dusted with conventional corn pollen were unaffected.
Yet the FDA insists there’s no difference between GM corn and conventional. That may be true when thinking only of nutritional value, but clearly there’s something else happening here if GE corn kills butterflies. One important theme in the corporate news articles was that Monarchs don’t eat corn so there was no reason to worry. Monarchs don’t eat corn but people do. GE corn includes genes from Bacillus thuringiensis a natural pesticide and one, in fact, used by organic farmers. One of the comments which my skeptical friend made in defense of pesticides was that they are water based so don’t remain on the crops. Great, but when the toxin is part of the corn there is no escape.
It’s possible that one species can remain unaffected by a certain substance while another is ruined but before a whole nation was experimented on there ought to have been real studies done. There has been a strong spike in asthma, certain cancers and other maladies in the past decade or so that coincides with the introduction of GM foods. And once again, these things may well take 20 to 30 years to show up in most people so the worst is yet to come. One interesting and frightening aspect of GE crops is they seem to have a much stronger will to live and propagate then natural crops. In one experiment on spinach where both GE and conventional were grown in close proximity, 95% of the next generation showed GE traits. In North Dakota which is heavily planted in GE rapeseed, which produces canola oil, the roadsides are lined with wild rapeseed, almost all of which is GE.  
Besides the impact on the individual consumer of conventional industrial agriculture, one must also think of the effect that type of food production has on the people involved in the process as well as the world as a whole. Researchers at Stanford can discount pesticide exposure to you and me but farmworkers suffer disproportionally.
Something like 80% of all antibiotic use in America is in industrial meat factories. Routine use of antibiotics in raising chickens and pigs has led to America’s rivers being contaminated with them. With so much antibiotics in both food and water, untreatable strains of bacteria have developed leaving many people without treatment possibilities. Many Americans drink treated river water, but there is no easy way to remove antibiotics, pesticides or chemical fertilizer runoff from that water.
Typical pig factories produce as much shit as a city of 100,000 people. It is left in large lagoons which smell so bad, it’s difficult for people to live within miles of them. They also sometimes leach into ground water or overflow into rivers. This is another case of industry externalizing costs. Yes, you get cheap ‘nutritious’ meat, but the true costs of that industrial process are born by society at large and by individuals whose bacterial infections, for instance, are no longer treatable with antibiotics. It would work as fertilizer but there’s so much of it in a small area and it’s so expensive to deal with, relative to application of chemical fertilizer, they just leave it to stink up the neighborhood.
Industrial agriculture produces ‘nutritious’ crops but the soil is rendered lifeless in the process. For instance, I’ve become a plant collector here in Cambodia where all those things referred to as house plants in the states grow outdoors here. I have hundreds of plants, most growing in pots. Several times I’ve purchased a plant that looked very good only to have it subsequently refuse to grow or start looking pale and unhappy, at which time I give it extra manure and compost to try to revive it. I grow only organically except for a water based pesticide I use to kill red ants which are an unholy pest, which I haven’t figured out how to get rid of otherwise; I would try a pepper spray if I could find it here. At a certain point I decide I have to repot it to try to give it a better lease on life. What I find is soil that is so thick and muddy the roots couldn’t penetrate. Some plants can grow in that type of soil, most can’t. The chemical fertilizer they applied made them look good in spite of the very poor quality of the soil.
In America some 25 to 30% of greenhouse gases are produced from industrial agriculture, which includes manufacture and application of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers, the giant machines used to plow, plant, cultivate and harvest, and the long distance shipping of produce. Once again the true costs are externalized. Cheap food now, a boiling planet later.
Finally, industrial agriculture, being based on fossil fuels, is simply not sustainable. No matter how much oil is found in the Arctic or under 5 miles of water out at sea, it’s a finite resource. We’re past peak oil, which means we’ve already used up half of the total resource. The first half was the easy-to-get-to cheap oil, we’re now beginning the expensive half. Much before we run out, it’ll become devilishly expensive, but the bottom line is it’s a finite resource and we will run out. When that happens, there will be only one alternative, we will revert to farming organically, the way it was done for all the millennia since the beginning of agriculture until the late 1940’s. That being the case, it would behoove us, if we were intelligent enough to understand where the world is going, to switch now. Waiting until the last drop of oil is consumed to change to organic will result in mass hunger since it will take years of applying organics to the soil for it to regain its former natural fertility.
Not only that but to save ourselves we’d need to develop systems for the gathering and processing of every possible bit of vegetable, animal and human waste to add to the soil. That is also something that cannot be done overnight. Today organic farms are just as productive as conventional ones. Organic farmers have access to large amounts of organic material today because that sector is so small compared to the whole picture. When conventional farming is no longer an option there will be a mad rush for organic material to enrich the soil.
The Stanford study pointed out that 30% of conventional produce tested contained pesticide residues and even 7% of organic did also. The later is a testament to the pervasiveness of pesticides in the environment, since a farm cannot be certified organic until three years after the last chemicals were applied.
Personally I’d love to be able to eat strictly organically, but it’s very difficult in this world to be fanatic about it. If I were living in America with the income some of my friends enjoy, I’d eat about 80% to 90% organic. Achieving 100% would practically preclude eating out, since organic restaurants are extremely rare and very expensive. When visiting the states in the past – I haven’t lived there in 11 years – I’d be on a limited income so I’d buy organic occasionally whenever the price seemed reasonable; maybe making up 10% to 20% of my purchases. Every little bit helps; every time you choose organics, you’re improving you’re chances for a long and healthy life.
Here in Cambodia it’s sometimes easier to eat clean, sometimes harder. Many Cambodian farmers use pesticides but have no idea what the proper dose is because all the labels are in foreign languages. On the other hand, last time I went to the public market to buy veggies I spied a worm on a green vegetable I was looking to buy. The woman who owns the market stall was taken aback… eeew… when I showed it to her but I was happy to see it and purposely bought that stalk… evidently no pesticides on that one. Cambo cows eat grass, real cow food, not GM corn. There are no pig or chicken factories here where living conditions for the animals is so bad they have to be fed massive doses of antibiotics just to keep them alive.
Packaged food in Cambo comes from all over the world. At various times I’ve seen breakfast cereal from France, Germany, New Zealand, Argentina and Egypt as well as the US. Occasionally, there’ll be organic cereal from Germany or France at a reasonable price. The Egyptian brand says GMO free, so I buy that. Needless to say, I almost never buy packaged food from the US, since anything produced there that contains corn, soy or canola also contains GMOs; though I can’t resist an American candy bar on a rare occasion. Once in a while other organic foods will appear; if I’ve got the money in my pocket, I’ll take it. There are no specialty food shops in my small town. There are some in the capital but they are few and far between and have very limited offerings.
They are beginning to learn about organics here and many farmers are being taught the necessary skills, so I expect it will be easier to eat organic in the future. Meanwhile, I think it’s worse to be fanatic than eat what’s available, as long as you remain conscious of what you’re doing. Without any recourse to science, my feeling is if you try to eat healthy – lots of fruit and veggies – and choose organic whenever you can, get proper exercise to stay fit, avoid pharmaceuticals whenever possible and use recreational drugs and alcohol in moderation to counter life’s stresses, then you’ve got reasonable chance of beating the odds. After all, some people smoke tobacco all their lives and don’t get cancer.
That won’t work for everybody. Some are doomed no matter what they do: they’re predisposed in their genes or at a young age carcinogens were introduced into their bodies and had taken hold. Still, living right will make the challenges they face easier to handle. Some years ago I visited a friend in his mid-sixties who had recently had a mild heart attack. He had made a serious adjustment in his eating habits. When cooking chicken for dinner, he removed the skin and explained how he absolutely minimized animal fats in his diet. I asked him what his previous cholesterol level was, he said 340 which is almost twice safe levels. With his changed diet, he had another good ten years.
If, alternatively, you are stubborn and have to have your bacon and eggs for breakfast every day in spite of being a old coot and knowing (or being in denial) that you are eating a cholesterol bomb which might eventually have dire consequences, and at the same time you reject the lettuce on your plate thinking it’s only there for decoration, not for actually eating, then you are testing the gods and you might well fail the test. If you think life is not worth living without your daily triple-cheese-bacon-burger or the equivalent, then stop and think what life would be like confined to a wheelchair because one side of your body has been paralyzed from a stroke or heart attack.
Maybe some of you are familiar with Ram Dass. Previously, as Richard Alpert, he was one of the original Harvard acid heads. After blowing his mind, he discovered Hinduism, found a guru and not long later became a guru himself. He wrote a book back in the sixties called Be Here Now which had a profound effect on my life. Be here now, be where you’re at, whatever you’re doing, do it right. In the early 2000s I saw him speak not long after he had had a stroke which paralyzed half his body and confined him to a wheelchair. Though he was a brilliant speaker, it was difficult listening to him because it sometimes took him a long time to formulate and voice the ideas in his head. He spoke of how being a respected guru and spiritual teacher he thought he was above mundane concerns over diet and lifestyle. He learned the hard way that nobody is. You don’t have to be fanatic or absolutist about what you eat, but you are wise to be smart.
Ponder spending the last ten or twenty years of your life in a debilitated, dependent state stuck in a wheelchair or dying a horrible death from cancer and hopefully that’ll inspire you to buy organic whenever you can afford it and eat your damn veggies!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


One of the most insensitive, clueless and just plain warped statements Romney has made in the campaign was when he spoke in Israel and said that the reason why Israel had a per capita income of $20,000 while the Palestinians only had $10,000 was due to a superior culture. To begin with his numbers were off by a factor of ten: The true numbers are $31,000 for Israel, $1500 for the Palestinians. You’d think someone in his entourage would take a minute to do an internet search to get the correct numbers. His statement was roundly criticized by many Israelis, and rightly so.
In the event, I’ve been pondering for quite a while how culture impacts a nation’s intellectual and economic advancement. Why is it that some nations are hopelessly poor while others are fabulously wealthy?
All peoples are not the same, all cultures are not the same, though political correctness places taboos on us making certain types of judgments and assumptions.
But even before you start judging a nation’s cultural status based on per capita income, you’ve got to step back and check for outside forces that might’ve affected those numbers. In the case of Israel versus Palestine, you have Israel, an already wealthy nation that receives $4 billion per year in military aid as well as an additional large amount more in private donations from Jews around the world and ‘Palestine’ – in quotes because it’s not a nation – which has been under military occupation for 45 years during which time it’s seen its land stolen, its water stolen, its access to the outside world strictly controlled by another country, which decides, based on how much pressure or difficulty it wishes to burden the Palestinian people with, what can be imported and what can be exported, it’s people subjected to more than 500 checkpoints in an area equivalent to Delaware, America’s second smallest state, so that merely going from one village in your ‘country’ to another is regularly designed to be a frustrating and humiliating experience, where guards routinely make Palestinians, including the elderly and pregnant women, wait out in the elements - women have been forced to give birth out in the open because the guards won’t to let them through to nearby hospitals, where... well I could go on and on and on, but suffice to say it’s a ludicrous comparison to make considering the circumstances.
However, it’s entirely possible that, even on a level playing field, Israel would have a higher income than a true, free Palestinian state. Culture undeniably has an impact on a people’s drive for financial success, though concurrently, financial success isn’t the only determinant of the value of a culture. It’s especially dangerous, not to mention morally and philosophically corrupt to try to equate a nation’s value based solely on its income.
First a little digression on per capita income. There are two ways to calculate it. One is to simply covert local currency to dollars. That method seriously understates quality of life in developing countries, since a dollar goes a lot farther in a poor country than in a rich. Before you come to the third world, you just can’t imagine how people can survive on $800 per year, Cambodia’s current nominal per capita income. But I can go to a local produce shop, which is a bit more expensive than the public market, and get two tomatoes, a small green pepper and an onion for 35¢. The same is true for almost everything produced locally. The second is Purchasing Power Parity in which the skewing against poor countries is corrected by adjusting for the greater purchasing power of a dollar in those places. On that basis Cambodia’s income is more like $2400 per year.
Back on subject: Qatar, calculated by PPP, has the highest income in the world at about $100,000. Does that mean Qatari culture is three times better than Israeli culture? Or merely superior? German income is close to $40,000. Do we really want to suggest that German culture is superior to Jewish culture because their income is higher? In the cases of both Germany and Israel there are special circumstances that have brought their income down. In Germany’s case they spent fabulous amounts of money in the cause of bringing East German society up to western standards. In Israel’s case they’ve spent vast sums on their colonization project in the West Bank and concomitant occupation and suppression of the Palestinian people. Still, setting the mitigating factors aside, one may well have a ‘superior’ culture when it comes to income and maybe other factors also. Every race, nationality, culture is different.  
Income is an essential factor in determining a country’s progress and advancement. Without a certain minimum income some people will be hungry, or be without access to education or health care. But that doesn’t mean a low income country has an inferior culture, only that it either isn’t focused on income or mitigating factors have brought income down.
Cambodia’s current poverty is mostly a result of its sordid history. Back in the sixties the country was one of the area’s wealthiest. While nobody but the Khmer can be blamed for the gruesome years of the Khmer Rouge, their takeover of the country did not happen in a vacuum. In the early sixties, King Sihanouk abdicated his throne to become the country’s political leader. That time was the heyday of Cambodian culture. While he wasn’t faultless, he was a respected and often revered leader; he also was a leftist with affinity for Mao and communist China. This did not sit well with the CIA so they staged a coup in 1970 in which the former king was deposed and Lon Nol, an imposingly corrupt right-winger was put in his place. That in turn did not sit well with the Khmer Rouge and the king who sided with the KR. Nixon’s ‘secret’ Cambodia bombing campaign in which more bombs were dropped per capita than any time in history, gave the KR a fantastic recruiting tool and sealed Cambodia’s fate. BTW, 40 years after the bombing ended Cambodians are still dying from UXO’s, unexploded ordnance, left in the countryside. The US always has the money to start new wars but somehow can’t find the relative pittance needed to clean up after the old ones.
While only the Khmer people could produce a Pol Pot, it’s reasonable to conjecture that the KR might never have been able to take over had the US not intervened in Cambodia’s affairs. Cambodia’s $2400 per year per capita income doesn’t compare favorably with the US income of $45,000, but is it entirely culture that made the difference? Had Cambodians been left to their own devices, they would be far above that figure today, but who knows exactly where they would stand?
Cambodia’s people may not compare in income, social advancement or intellectual attainment but it’s a hell of a lot easier to live here than in the states. The atmosphere is friendly, easygoing and relaxed, exemplified by the fact that the country has 26 public holiday days a year and that underestimates how much time people take off for Khmer New Year. The official holiday is three days but the private schools I taught at scheduled a full week off and nobody ever showed up for classes the last couple of days before the scheduled break. And that also doesn’t include Chinese New Year, a three day unofficial holiday that almost everyone who can takes off. We celebrate the new year three times in Cambo.
Speaking of the Chinese, when it comes to financial success, they undeniably have a superior culture. Nearly everywhere you go in southeast Asia they control a disproportionate share of the businesses and own an outsized share of the wealth. But does that mean their culture overall is better? For instance, when Chinese summon a waitress they use the term for servant and it’s always spoken in a gruff haughty voice. In contrast when Cambodians do the same they use a word that roughly translates as good person and they speak naturally.
I could go on, I intended to go on, but I’d just get into trouble. Suffice to say, there’s a lot more to culture than income. Leave it to vulture-capitalist Romney, the richest man ever to run for president, to see value exclusively in terms of material wealth.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Olympian Hype - ALEC - Assange

Olympian Hype

Once again the Olympics are upon us and this time it’s London’s turn to hold an extravaganza, to show off, to say to the world, Look at us, aren’t we great? The actual sports seem secondary to the desire to inspire one and all to go and spend their money there. Of course, not all Londoners are smitten by the great propaganda value of being host city, in fact, about 2/3rds think that holding the games was a mistake and that they’re all about big business. To enforce that image, London has deployed 300 ‘brand’ police who roam around the city to stop people from using the Olympic symbol for personal gain and to prevent a stray Pepsi from getting too close to the Coke-sponsored official venues. An athlete was reprimanded and forced to remove a picture of his shoes, which weren’t the official brand, which he had posted on Facebook.
And all it cost the UK was about $16 bn. Relative to economic size that’d be roughly equivalent to the US spending $90 bn. This at a time when the UK is brutally cutting back on basic services and reducing already meager social security benefits because of a huge budget deficit. While it’s true that London made its bid during boom times, it’s still one of those events which always come in way over budget and leave a mixed legacy. Yes, it’s great promotion for a city - as if London needed it - but 16 billion dollars worth?
Some of that money went to infrastructure improvements which are long-lasting and beneficial. A lot went to build sports facilities which are used once and then either torn down or left to decay. London has been smart in constructing some venues as temporary, designed to be dismantled at the end of the games. Holding the games inevitably results in displacing people who need to make way for the new construction and disrupting people’s lives as the sites are being developed as well as when the events are taking place.
Maybe there are other better ways for a country to show off, to advertise itself, if it really thinks that that’s important. Maybe instead of regular betting wars between prospective Olympic venues (and the corruption that has sometimes happened in the choosing process) and the great losses, or shall we say the great costs, the games always entail to the host country, the games should be returned to Mount Olympus or somewhere in Greece and held there permanently. That way, once the facilities are built they will be used on a regular basis until they’re worn out and need to be replaced.
The games also need to be trimmed back: Why is there a football (soccer) competition at the Olympics such a short time after the World Cup? That’s just duplication. Personally, I don’t think much of Olympic sports like beach volleyball, air rifle shooting and badminton; nonetheless there are international organizations which set rules for those games and advocate for every olympic sport. In this new permanently located Olympics each sport can be responsible for coming up with the money to build and maintain the necessary facilities for its sport. If they can’t get it together, they can’t compete. If world football wants to be represented at the Olympics let them pay for the stadiums required.
If the games are held at Mount Olympus or in or near a similar small town area then city life won’t be totally disrupted, the cost of building facilities will be far less and attendees won’t have to pay the high costs of big city accommodations. A rural location would also allow for campsites to be set up for those spectators and athletes who prefer to sleep outdoors. Initial costs for basic infrastructure would be substantial, but with each sport covering the cost of its own venues, the total cost for permanent infrastructure would be a small fraction of the cost of holding a single games.
Let the Olympic Games be for sport and not commercialism and hype.  

The above acronym stands for American Legislative Exchange Council, an extreme right wing lobbying organization funded by large corporations. Its purpose is to write model wingnut state-level legislation and then lobby for enactment in state legislatures. Along with the standard pro-business, anti-people goals, they’ve been pushing voter ID laws, the main purpose of which is to suppress the vote; the thinking being that people who lack ID’s tend to vote Democratic. Leave it to god, country and US constitution-loving conservatives to want to prevent people from voting, the essence of democracy.
There’s a case of a woman in her nineties, who’s voted in every election for her entire lifetime, who’s no longer eligible to vote because of quirks written into the law which make it difficult for her to get an ID. A poll worker who’d known a voter for decades couldn’t allow her friend to vote because she lacked an approved ID. In one case in another of the 19 states that have enacted these laws, people in one jurisdiction could only apply for ID on the fifth Wednesday of any month, which happens about 4 times a year. In some cases the ID has to be current, as if a driver’s license that’s a month out of date is any less valid for identifying a person.
These laws are promoted as preventing fraud, when actual cases of fraud are extremely rare. As part of a legal challenge against the law that was recently enacted in Pennsylvania, public officials there admitted they’d never come across an instance of voter fraud. A state legislator there has publicly and unabashedly stated that he expected the impact of the law, in which hundreds of thousands of voters will be disqualified from voting, will be to give the state to Romney. It’s a mystery how supposedly god-fearing conservatives can reconcile blatant thievery with their oft-stated hard-wired religious beliefs.
Republicans are running scared because they know that demographics are against them; they’re trying every dirty trick in the book to hold on to power as long as possible. The old, the white, the narrow-minded, the conservative are being replace by the young, the minorities, the hip and the forward-looking. There also is a vast gender gap in party preference in this election cycle with women going for Democrats by nearly 20 percentage points. Voter ID laws make it more difficult for women who’ve changed their names upon marriage to obtain ID.
ALEC has tried to stay in the shadows but recent revelations about its activities have prompted many of its corporate sponsors to back out; the damage however has already been done; if Obama loses by a small margin then voter ID laws will have had there intended effect. When Republican vote counting fraud and other types of voter suppression efforts are added, Romney’s chances are much improved. Other types of voter suppression include shorting voting machines in Demo districts while having plenty in Repug ones. That happened in Ohio in 2004 when voters in inner city districts that tend to vote Demo had to wait up to 8 hours to vote while voters in suburban, Repug-leaning districts in the same county sailed through in a few minutes.

Julian Assange

The Julian Assange/Wikileaks saga continues. He’s now holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London seeking political asylum. Sweden has been trying to get him extradited for nearly two years during which time he’s been under some form of house arrest or judicial oversight while fighting extradition. He skipped out on a very large bond, but his backers probably won’t mind since he and they (and myself also) think that once in Sweden, the US will demand his further extradition to stand trial for espionage and treason which would involve as much as life in prison or the death penalty.
Obama, who campaigned on promising a more open and transparent government and protection of whistleblowers, has been far worse in that regard than his predecessor, the Bushman. Despite the great government hype about how Assange endangered many people, not a single actual case of his leaks causing personal harm has been documented. They have, on the other hand, caused deep embarrassment to the political establishment and cries for revenge and even assassination among some American lawmakers.
Meanwhile no-one so far has charged him with any crime; he’s wanted by Sweden for questioning in a case of alleged sexual abuse. He’s willing to be interrogated in England but Sweden is adamant that he answer questions in Sweden. What is the great need to have him in their clutches, rather than question him in the UK? And what is the great crime he’s alleged to have committed which warrants nearly two years of harassment? He didn’t want to use a condom in an otherwise consensual sexual encounter. How many other people would face the same level of persecution over such a relatively small matter?
Though I’ve read a lot about the case, the details are murky, just like the case itself. Regardless, one doesn’t need to know the details to understand he’s being pursued relentlessly for baring the details of America’s often duplicitous foreign policy and nefarious motives. In some ways I was disappointed in his seeking asylum: Too bad he couldn’t be a Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi and be willing to subject himself to incarceration for a just cause. He’d be a cause celebre from prison as a clear case of injustice in the justice system. However, having spend a relatively short time behind bars, I don’t blame him a bit for trying to take the easy way out. It’s a hell I don’t wish on the worst people even when I recognize they deserve it and can’t be allowed to be loose in society.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Slow Motion Revolutions - Burma and Egypt

Burma and Egypt are both experiencing snail’s pace revolutions and yet both seem to be on the right track. There’s always the danger of reverting to past repression and autocracy but still their paths to democracy and basic rights seem irrevocable. After tasting the freedom to speak their minds, I doubt if the citizens of those countries can ever accept those kinds of restrictions again.

After 50 years in control, Burma’s military rulers have decided to cede power, albeit slowly and grudgingly, to democratic forces. A few years back they wrote a constitution that gives themselves permanent control over 25% of the legislature and at least initially stacked the rest in their favor. More recently the country held by-elections for 45 seats in the parliament in which Ang San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 44. The NLD is almost certain to win a majority in 2015 when the next national elections are held; that is, unless the generals abruptly change their minds and try to revert to the past. Suu Kyi’s party won 89% of the vote in 1989 which was then ignored by the military. Not long after they also reportedly killed about 3000 people demonstrating for power for the NLD (compare that to 300 killed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square around the same time).

When a country’s leaders are willing to commit mass murder to stay in power, the people have no choice but to retreat and bide their time, and so a whole generation has waited for the military’s change of heart. There are several possible reasons for the movement forward. For one I think they just got tired of being pariahs, of being ostracized by almost the entire world community. While they always lived lavishly, they’ve also watched while their policies and stubbornness brought their country down from one of the wealthiest, most advanced societies in Asia to one of the poorest.

It’s even possible that their impetus for allowing the slow transition to democracy - even while they continue to hold many of the reins of power - is based in large part on greed, since there’s a lot more money to be siphoned off of a growing, advancing economy than one strangled by sanctions. Cambodia provides a good example: half of all the private vehicles and 3/4 of all luxury cars in the country are owned by people connected to the government. When you see a $170,000 Lexus or Range Rover SUV pass by it’s nearly always a bureaucrat’s or public official’s car. That’s in spite of official salaries that are so low - the chief justice of the supreme court earns $640 per month - that  there isn’t a single one of them that could even afford a 10 year old Camry on their salaries alone.

Part of the Burmese military’s change of heart must also have come from the reverberations of the Arab spring and their fear of being on the wrong side of history. The people will eventually demand their rights and in that case autocratic rulers basically have three options. The first is to resist and then when unrest becomes too great to counter with force without killing large numbers of people, either flee or give up, as in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. The second is to fight to the death as in Libya and Syria. This will result in ignominy and the likelihood of a messy unceremonious death. The third is what the generals in Burma and Egypt are doing; that is, gradually devolving power to elected leaders. In that way they become good guys, if not quite heroes, and save their own necks in the process.

The situation in Egypt is a bit different than Burma. The military there control 30% to 40% of the entire economy and so they have an especial need to cling to power and have been walking a tightrope between that need and the desire to be seen as democrats and not unnecessarily inflame passions from opposing forces in the country. They set up a legislature and held a free and fair vote but the outcome wasn’t to their expectations so they had the legislature disbanded. It was set up with 2/3rds of legislators coming from proportional representation, 1/3 from individual districts. They weren’t happy that the Muslim Brotherhood, who’ve been the enemy of the military for close to a century, won most of the individual seats.

Before that they had disqualified several leading candidates for the recent presidential election. Voters were left with a choice between Shafiq who had ties to the previous government and Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood who actually was MB’s second choice. The election was very close, though MB poll watchers counted 51.5% for their candidate. It was close enough for the military rulers to contemplate stealing the election for Shafiq but in the end decided that the storm of protest that would’ve erupted would’ve been uncontainable. Besides only a few days before they had stripped the presidential office of most of its powers, so they let Morsi’s win go through.

Morsi won’t have a lot of real power, but he will speak out for the people and the military will have an impossible time resisting when the people are behind him. So, similar to Suu Kyi he will be biding his time and pushing gently but firmly for true democracy. He’s an Islamist but he’s spoken very clearly that he plans to represent all of the people of Egypt and will appoint women and members of Egypt’s minorities to his cabinet. Morsi was trained in the US as a rocket scientist and two of his children were born in the US and are American citizens. So it’s a good chance that he understands democracy and liberal society

There certainly has been backsliding or resistance to change on the part of the generals in both countries. There are still more than 300 political prisoners in Burma; the Egyptian generals are still arresting people under martial law. Still, considering how harshly American demonstrators have been treated lately, it’s hard to single Burma and Egypt out as not going in the right direction and it still seems that real transition is happening.

As long as the only alternative to gradual change is civil war and/or widespread bloodshed, the democratic leaders of both countries are probably making the right decision to hang back and set aside for the present their impatience for change and the hostility they must feel towards the military in both countries that have made life hell for their people for generations. A little patience seems a worthy tradeoff to prevent the unnecessary loss of life.

Monday, June 11, 2012

It's the Paradigm

Bankia, one of Spain’s largest banks, is needing a €23 billion bailout, to compensate for their over-zealous investments in the country’s late real estate boom gone bust. Throw in a few other teetering banks and the price tag rises to €50. The only way to thrive or even survive in a scenario of irrationally exuberant lending is to borrow more to keep the growth paradigm going. In other words, as long as the value of property is expanding, it’s not necessary to be rational in your investments. But then, as always happens with bubbles, they burst - it is a part of their nature, after all.
There are two ways that happens, though they’re often intertwined. One is inflated prices. At a certain point, prices have to reflect reality. The other is larger economic movements. The general economic malaise that pervades the country depresses optimism and growth. Either way, the loan is defaulted and somebody is going to have to pay.
Spain wants the European Central Bank to bailout the banks directly. That makes sense, since it’s the system, the paradigm, which encourages, almost demands imprudent lending. Used to be you had to put 20% down to buy a house. A buyer who’s accumulated that much cash will generally be a low level risk. However that would also constrict the market and slow down construction so we can’t have any of that. Instead the establishment wisdom is to push the economy to the limit, go for broke, the more growth the better.
The country is also at fault since it could’ve established rules and policies designed more for stability and prudence than growth at any cost. That would not be an easy task in today’s financial environment. There are only so many Hugo Chavez’s in the world who could ignore the dictates of the establishment view.
The borrower, of course, must take a substantial portion of the blame for the broken contract, but ultimately is has to rest with the bank to assume responsibility and take the loss. Banking is about risk; banksters know the level of risk they are undertaking. If you aren’t smart about lending your money, who else is supposed to compensate for your inadequacy?
Actually it’s the taxpayer who coughs up since some type of deposit insurance is essential to a functioning banking system. (But not in Cambodia, here you’re on your own.) There should be no question or hesitation when a bank gets into trouble; it should be shut down and small depositors paid off. There’s no good reason to keep a stupidly or irresponsibly run bank alive. Also as long as the taxpayer is on the hook to insure depositors the government has responsibility to properly regulate to prevent speculation that has the potential to get the bank into trouble. However, since the banksters own the government, at least in the US, we know there can be no changes on that front.
In Europe it may be different, since they have a more socialist, egalitarian political outlook and the people are hopping mad. Still, there’s a very powerful push on the part of the financial establishment for European countries to ‘take their medicine’, that is, to strip any benefits that might aid the 99% so that they’d have the money to feed the banksters.
Still, can you imagine, Spain coughs up €50 to protect the banks at the same time they’re slashing safety net funds in an economy with 25% unemployment? In fact, latest news is that the Spanish government has accepted a $125 billion loan to bailout its banks… anything to protect the banksters.
The European establishment may be forced to change the paradigm but Americans will never get it together if the recent recall result in Wisconsin is any indicator. Governor Scott Walker, who was elected in a Tea Party surge in 2010, started off giving $180 million in tax breaks to business and then discovered there wasn’t enough money to pay public employees. His ultimate goal, unstated in the campaign, was to break the public unions, which he proceeded to do by virtue of Repug control of both houses of state government.
This didn’t sit well with the unions or the progressive community so they fought back with a signature gathering campaign to recall the governor. The got the necessary signatures, all right, but lost badly in the election with Walker sustained in office by a 53% to 46% vote. There are two immediate reasons why the Repug won. The most important was the flood of money from right-wing billionaire assholes. According to the US Supreme Court - which today garners the support of only 44% of the people - money has the right of free speech. The other reason was that Obama gave the campaign neither financial or moral support. The feckless wonder did not stand by the people. The Dem running against Walker had $4 million and was outspent 8 to 1. Obama made $3.5 million in one fundraising event but couldn’t see his way to helping a fellow Dem.
The fundamental reason for the Dem’s defeat is that Americans, at least a lot of them, are political morons. It’s called the Fox News effect: A recent study showed people who watched Fox were less informed than people who watched no news at all. It’s people who rail against socialism at the same time they love their Medicare, that socialist program that would save the country $400 billion a year if it applied to everyone. It isn’t just the average low IQ wingnut dolt that doesn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. You’ve got Romney and the Repugs insisting on programs of slashing public services to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy as a path to economic recovery when that’s been an abject failure since Reagan.
Once again Americans face a disheartening lack of choice this November, though the country will slide downhill a little slower with Obama at the helm. In the end result, the people get the politics they deserve… unfortunately.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Euro Voters Reject Austerity

Voters in Greece, France and even in local elections in Germany rejected enforced austerity in recent polls. French voters narrowly elected the Socialist Francois Hollande on a platform demanding renegotiation of austerity measures demanded by the European Union. Taxes are already high in France so he’ll have his work cut out for him raising taxes enough to make a difference. At least if he can put people to work the country won’t dive deeper into debt and deficit.
In Greece the two main pro-austerity parties, who between themselves have governed the country for the last 40 years, together received less than 32% of the vote. The anti’s however, divided between the far left and right, will probably not be able to agree amongst each other to form a government so new elections are likely soon. But that means they won’t be eligible for additional bailout money and will likely default, though since they’ve already forced creditors to take substantial haircuts, to all intents and purposes they’re already in default. It’s no more than a pretense to think otherwise.
If they knuckle under and accept IMF and ECB austerity - the leftist candidate called those international bodies loan sharks - there’ll be 5 to 10 years of economic pain. If they default, they’re basically facing the same 5 to 10 years of wrenching changes and economic dislocations, but at least their pain won’t be for the benefit of the banksters and 1%.
The one percent’s mania for austerity for everybody but themselves is diving economies ever deeper into recession. If people aren’t working they aren’t paying taxes but are requiring government help for survival. Cutting is the wrong thing to do when a country is in recession, however, if a country runs big deficits in good times there’s no leeway for additional spending during downturns. As mentioned previously, the half of Keynesianism that governments have conveniently overlooked is the need to build surpluses during boom times. It’s too easy to prop up economies and make everything look good by spending money you don’t have. It’s too easy to think you can rely on growth or inflation or something to come along in the future to make the debt easy to manage, because as we are seeing it doesn’t always work that way.
 In any case, almost everybody is missing the point. Last year greenhouse gas emissions grew faster than ever before. Just imagine what would’ve happened if many parts of the world were not in recession and there was no effort whatever to curb emissions. Those record emissions might’ve been doubled. So while my heart goes out to those developed world people in America and Europe who are jobless and suffering, I have to say to those same people, Thank you for being poor and not being able to consume.
What’s needed is a new paradigm where slackers are tolerated if not appreciated and those who live simply by choice are honored; where growth is reserved strictly for non-material plane efforts: knowledge, intellect, beauty and spirituality. The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is promoting a Gross Happiness Index in place of Gross National Product which includes everything that is bad for us as well as good… every time an auto accident causes personal or property damage, it gets added to GNP. You want to help the economy? Get cancer.
We have to retrench. If somebody really doesn’t want to work (and so much of what’s classified as work today is so demeaning and undesirable, who can blame them) why not give them the minimum for survival and thank them for not consuming. Nixon had the right idea with his guaranteed annual income, which, if I remember correctly was pegged at $4000 per year. With a little casual work on the side, that’d be enough (in today’s dollars) to live a simple but decent life. We also need to take France’s lead and shorten the work week along with encouraging deflation to make life cheaper. It’s already happened in the housing market. It’s now much more possible for an average person with a job to afford a home.
Shortening the work week has the added great advantage of tremendously reducing rush hour traffic. Some people would work shorter hours five days a week, others would work a day less. Either way, all transportation systems would have much lighter burdens. Now most people are forced by the eight hour day to come and go at the same time. Shortening the work week would also give people the time to get involved in society and community, not to mention family, self -improvement and pleasure.
The way to deflate the economy is to tax the rich, really tax them, tax the shit out of them. Nothing good comes from the wealthy having too much money. If they have less money to throw around, prices would be forced down. This is especially true in places like New York which are magnets for vast wealth. If people can no longer afford sky high prices for purchasing or renting housing, then their prices will go down, and all real estate prices will follow, benefiting everybody (but the landed wealthy) in the long run.
The current system is top heavy. BBC interviewed a bankster asshole a while back who kept repeating how important the financial community was to the UK and predicting doom and disaster if a small stock transaction tax were imposed. He conveniently ignored the hundreds of billions of dollars the banksters cost the people in bailouts. A majority of people in a UK survey working for the banks said they were there strictly for the money and that they didn’t think they deserved to earn as much as they did. With so many people in finance earning upwards of half million a year, they’ve turned once middle class London neighborhoods into enclaves where only the upper classes can afford to live and by extension have raised the cost of housing for everybody in the city.
The other major change that needs to happen to save the world is to tax advertising, exempting only small businesses. I’m convinced that marketing is the root of all evil, not money. Money, after all, can do good things, while the sole purpose of marketing is to convince people to buy things they might not need or are possibly bad for them. Even if what they are encouraged to purchase through adverts isn’t necessarily bad, the act of consuming is going to consume our planet and people need to be encouraged to hold back, to not indulge, to buy only what they really need. The present path is not sustainable, let alone healthy.
Admittedly I’m way out of synch with prevailing philosophy (it’s not the first time). The idea of applauding slackers and promoting deflation and reduction in place of growth is about as likely in the present political climate as encouraging pedophilia and welcoming pollution-caused cancers, nonetheless that’s where the world needs to go. That it can’t possibly go that way is a sad commentary on the state of our only planet and its inevitable downward slide into catastrophe.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

It Doesn’t Compute

April is supposed to be the height of hot dry season here in Cambodia. The sun is now directly overhead and most years there’ll be few clouds and no rain for months around this time or it may rain once or twice between January and May. This year we’ve had clouds nearly every day with occasional rains which have been very heavy at times. The rain cools things off a bit, otherwise it’d be in the mid to upper 90’s with humidity up around 50% - super sweaty weather for sure. The rain also relieves me of having to water my plants which now takes about an hour every other day.
Last month America experienced an unprecedented late spring heat wave in which not only about fifteen thousand high temperature records were broken but they were surpassed by 20 and 30ºF  margins, even in one case 40ºF - equivalent to 22º C. In many cases overnight lows were higher than the previous record highs.  
And yet, mention of global warming by America’s politicians is either off limits, for those who you believe still have a brain left, or derided as a monstrous hoax by the idiot/lying class of conservative politicos. Besides it’d be too much trouble to actually do anything about it so we’re just going to keep drilling baby drilling. That’s the ‘practical’ option; after all, think about all those windmills and solar panel arrays and geothermal sites that would have to be developed as an alternative. Or how about the great inconvenience to all those people who’d have to conserve energy by turning off lights they aren’t using. No, as long as there’s a drop of oil or cubic meter of gas in the ground, it’s easier and simpler to stay on our present path.
But it’s kind of depressing just the same to think there are no good options on the table, none that would change the present trajectory to destruction. Bill McKibben, leading climate campaigner, has stated unequivocally that full development of the Canadian tar sands spells certain doom since it’s the dirtiest oil on the planet requiring a lot of energy for processing. The Keystone XL (for extra large) pipeline that’s supposedly essential to the exploitation of that oil is planned to bring the oil to the Gulf coast strictly for export, it’s not even for America’s use. Routing the pipeline across Canada to the Pacific Ocean is possible but it would be much more expensive going over the Rockies, besides the people on that route decidedly don’t want it. The Alberta tar sands don’t produce crude oil, rather a thick tar like substance called bitumen. It is highly corrosive to pipelines and a section operating in Michigan has experienced twice as many leaks as a typical crude pipeline.
An oil platform in the North Sea has recently had a gas blowout and copious amounts are now bubbling to the surface. There’s now a two kilometer exclusion zone for ships, four for airplanes and six for any kind of drilling work, otherwise an explosion of magnificent proportions is possible. It could be six months before the leak can be plugged. The methane that is leaking has 20 times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is now big business in many parts of the US. In addition to large quantities of methane leaking out when fracking is used to bring oil up from layers of shale, it also causes earthquakes, permanent contamination of groundwater and results in large quantities of toxic liquid waste to be disposed of. The toxic chemicals used in the process are trade secrets so the people are not allowed to know what their environment is being poisoned with. Typical of America where the corporations own the government, but how do the people who run those corpses live with themselves, how do they sleep at night knowing the havoc they are wreaking on the environment?
Now that global warming has reduced summer sea ice, the Arctic is now open for exploration. There couldn’t be a more difficult or more dangerous place on the planet to experience a blowout. If one happened in winter with the sea covered in thick ice,  temperatures of minus 40 or 50 degrees and darkness all the time, drillers would just have to wait until the next summer to even begin to tackle it. By then the ocean could well be beyond repair.
Meanwhile with the developed world in the economic doldrums, demand for fossil fuels there is not growing much, but here where I am in Asia growth is very fast. Cambodia which is growing at 7% is typical of this area. At that rate an economy doubles in 10 years and since we are starting from such a low point, electricity demand is growing 25% per year. India and China, which combined have nearly a quarter of the world’s population, are growing even faster at 8 or 9%. China is adding to it’s wind and solar power production very quickly but at the same time is still adding the equivalent of a 1 megawatt coal powered plant every week. They’re also buying cars like crazy and why not? Isn’t everybody supposed to be rich, to be able to live like Americans?.
It doesn’t compute, the numbers don’t add up, the world cannot continue on its present path. And yet it will, until it can no longer, because the voices of reason are overwhelmed by the quest for profit.
On another note, America’s political left will once again yearn for a presidential candidate who not only represents their own views, but the people at large. After all, it isn’t just people who call themselves Democrats who want a single payer, Medicare for all, health care system, it’s desired by 2/3rds of the population. It isn’t just Democrats who want taxes raised on the wealthy before Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are cut, it’s a large majority of all Americans. It isn’t only radical socialists who want to eliminate subsidies for the big oil companies, the world’s most profitable corporations, it’s the people at large. It can’t happen because of the obscene power of the corporations and because the Dumbocrats who’re supposed to represent progressive policies are feckless crybaby wimps, gutless wonders who have no fight in them.
The Senate recently held a vote to eliminate big oil subsidies, the Repugs said we’ll filibuster, the Dumbos said, Okay great, we give up. Instead why not say, Okay great, go ahead and filibuster, go ahead and spend a week or two or more explaining to the people of America why it’s so important to subsidize the oil companies while you, the masses, face budget cutbacks in all the programs you so greatly depend on for your quality of life.
But I’ve said it all before and I’m having a difficult writing lately because it seems so hopeless. I greatly admire those political, social, environmental campaigners who never give up, who keep pounding at the truth to try to break through the fog of corporate media and hegemony but I find it hard to maintain any faith that any of it will make a difference.
Still I’m heartened by the people’s response to the one percent’s harsh prescriptions on the lives of the rest of us. In Greece, for instance, jobless, homeless people are taking over and squatting in unused public buildings, with many also being used as community space. Some 70 buildings have been converted in Athens. Crises bring adaptability and change, or at least the opportunity for such. FDR took that opportunity and ran with it, to the great benefit of the people at large and the great frustration of the 1% who are still livid after all these years about Social Security, for instance, and the way it keeps millions of seniors out of poverty or at least off the streets.
Obama’s good at talking the talk, but he walks, along with the Congress, with the banksters. He just signed into law the JOBS act. The acronym stands for Jumpstart Our Startup Businesses. It aids startup businesses by exempting them from normal accounting rules and reporting. According to Matt Taibbi, one of the best investigative reporters of the financial scene who writes for Rolling Stone magazine, who coined the giant vampire squid moniker for Goldman Sachs, it’s basically a license to commit fraud. So after financial shenanigans brought down the world economy, the president and congress are eagerly facilitating further fraud.
Meanwhile the Repugs have given Obama a great electoral gift by waging a war on contraception in particular and women’s health in general. Thanks to sanctimonious Rick Santorum who believes that sex should only be for procreation and blubberhead Rush Limbaugh who called a young woman a slut because she advocated for contraception health coverage, Obama now has a 20% lead amongst women. There’s always been a political gender gap in America with men typically voting Repuglican while women vote Dumbocrat, but before the recent conservative tirades against women the gap was a few percentage points. With the manic Repug quest for ideological 19th century purity, Obama is way out in front.
I guess it’s a good idea that the Repugs are shooting themselves in the feet. Though I couldn’t personally bring myself to vote for Obama it’d be good if he gets to appoint supreme court justices and as I’ve mentioned previously he’s a good ambassador to the world even if he’s a mediocre president for the American people.