The Other I

June 15, 2017

Tower tragedies

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:01 pm

Image result for Glen Fell Tower

Watching the evolution of the Glenfell Tower in Kensington, London brought back the emotions I felt the day we watched the tragedy evolve on 9/11 after the bombings of the Twin Towers.

In both situations, people were trapped and the disaster was ongoing for hour after hour.  People jumped out windows, here in London children were thrown out windows in the hope they would survive.  In both cases, the firemen and other service personnel were heroic.

But there is one critical difference.  9/11 was caused by suicide pilots belonging to AlQaeda.  The London fire two days ago was the result of human actions, almost certainly reflecting disregard for the inhabitants of Glenville Tower.

Kensington, London, is one of the richest areas in one of the richest cities in one of the most developed countries in the world.  But Glenfell Tower, like many similar apartment towers throughout the country, was built by the government to house the less well-off.  The inhabitants of Glenfell Tower were often elderly or disabled;  they were often immigrants and their children, seeking an alternative to the civil wars in the Middle East and Africa.

All of the evidence is suggesting that Glenfell Tower was a tragedy waiting to happen.  There were no fire alarms, no sprinkler systems, only a single staircase ascending from the first to the 24th floor. Possibly worst of all, it was refurbished several years ago at the cost of several million pounds.  Unfortunately, the refurbishment consisted of  exterior cladding that seems not to have been fire-resistant, and quite possibly was the cause of the fire’s rapid spread from the 4th floor where it began when a cheap refrigerator exploded to the top, 20 floors higher, in less than 30 minutes.  It was also the middle of the night.

Apartment dwellers had complained to the relevant government departments for years.  But it looks as if these people just weren’t important enough.

Politically I guess I would have to say I am a capitalist rather than a socialist.  It looks to me as if socialism too often leads to a resentment of achievements of others, and a dependence on governments by too many people for everything from cradle to grave.  It’s a system that too often does not value diversity, and actively discourages creativity and innovation.

But it is clear that in any system, there are some things that only government can do.  Our federal superstructures – highways, bridges, electricity, financial stability, immigration – are projects that can only be accomplished cooperatively.   I also believe in a safety net in relation to the basic necessities provided for by governments, which the U.S. Republicans today do not.

It is clear to me that capitalism can – and sometimes has -gone just as disastrously wrong as various forms of socialism have done in the last century.  Capitalism unhindered too often gives honor and privilege and status to those with money.

I fear that is what has happened in relation to Glenfell Towers.  Governments – both Tory and Labour – have disregarded calls for basic safely mechanisms in the very buildings they have subsidized for the poor.  Even today, Theresa May, the Prime Minister, finally visited the site of the Glenfell fires.  She met with the firemen and police.  But she did not meet with a single victim, not a single person who lost everything but the clothes on their backs, which, since the fire occurred at night was often little more than night clothes.  People have been incredibly generous, providing donations of food, clothing, money, even sometimes opening spare rooms in their homes.  Theresa May said she was deeply saddened by the tragedy and promised an investigation to learn whatever lessons we could.

But that’s a promise that’s been made when fires like this broke out 3, 5, even 10 years ago.  One earlier tower block fire even pointed directly to the inferior cladding, which looks like the prime suspect in this fire.

Why was this allowed to happen?

I did not want to see Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party win the last election.  And they didn’t.

But I am beginning to think that it might be better if today’s fragile Tory government falls and there is another election sooner rather than later.   Despite profound reservations, I’m beginning to think it would be better if Labour won.

And I rather think I might be part of an increasing majority.

 

February 25, 2017

What has happened to my America?

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 5:00 pm
Tags:

Image result for taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut

The English Blog.com

I read with horror and anguish that some mainstream, accredited news media were shut out of the White House press conference yesterday.

It is not that I have not been appalled by the Trump administration’s behavior in relation to immigration, to trade, to climate change, or Trump’s behavior toward those who disagree with him.  I have.

And it’s not that I think America has lived up to its ideals of equality and justice and democracy for all.  It emphatically hasn’t.

But I have never seen an attack on this level against freedom of speech.  It’s what dictators do – take over the press and media.

Nothing has frightened me so profoundly.

It’s not much, but I’ve just taken out a paid subscription to the New York Times, a paper which I always thought of as rather center of the road.  Hardly revolutionary.  And as British residents, we pay for our BBC license fee.  Way too truthful for Trump as well.  My appreciation for them also just went up a notch.  And of course there was no room at the news conference either for the Huffington Post or Politico or CNN.  All way way too revolutionary for the likes of Trump & Co.

June 29, 2016

Still learning

When I was a university lecturer, I found that I learned a lot by giving lectures, because in the process I inevitably kept thinking, not only from the questions my students asked but from the additional questions the process of interaction stimulated.  I doubt many students knew it, but I was paradoxically learning as much as they were.

I am not an economist – to my frustration sometimes as I try to understand this world – but have been experiencing a similar learning process as I did as a lecturer as I am writing now about Brexit and its global implications.

I said in an earlier post that the issues underlying Trump’s “make America great again” were radically different from the sovereignty issues raised by membership in the European Union.  Yes, on one level it is.

But digging a little deeper, Trump and Brexit are responding to similar economic and political issues exacerbated by the globalization of capitalism.  Specifically, the working class has been disenfranchised either by an influx of immigrants from poorer countries taking the jobs of locals because they are willing to work for less pay under less salubrious conditions.  Or factory work and increasingly services have been outsourced to countries where workers are paid less, and their products shipped back to Britain or the U.S.  This has not protected the working conditions of those who are actually doing the work either overseas or as immigrants, and it has put thousands of non-immigrants out of work or reduced their pay and working conditions dramatically.

At the same time, management and those at the top of international corporations are reaping the profits.  Since the early 1980’s, incomes of those at the top of the ladder have increased dramatically while those further down have not kept up with the cost of living.  So today the gap between the upper and lower classes is greater than it has been for close to a century, and the middle classes are being gutted.

So prejudice and bigotry and the increase of hate crimes particularly among the working classes against those labelled as outsiders is understandable.  But something has gone terribly wrong with the system.  Unfortunately, neither the Brexit or Trump campaigns to slam the door shut against immigrants is  a solution and will not return prosperity to either America or Britain.  But far left-wing socialist systems tried and still being tried throughout the world have not been the solution either.  Somehow, they too produce an elite while too many workers had little freedom of choice and few opportunities.

thomas-piketty.jpgToday, Thomas Piketty, a leading left-wing economist, resigned as an adviser to the Labour Party for its failure to effectively fight against Brexit in the referendum debate.  He’s got some interesting ideas and I’m looking forward to reading his thoughts over the coming months.

Now I’m going to try to restore a little sanity, and watch Wimbledon tennis.

 

June 26, 2016

The blonde bombshells

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:39 pm
Tags:

    

Donald Trump, Republican, running for President in the USA                                  Boris Johnson, Tory, successful leader of UK Brexit

 

Someone just asked me if I thought these two men had anything in common apart from their blonde mops.  It isn’t a question that had occurred to me.  But now that I think of it, it seems to me that they share a surprising number of things.

  • Both politicians are personally well off financially.  Trump may be several zeroes better off than Johnson, but beyond a certain point, what do a few zeroes on the end of one’s net worth matter?
  • Both politicians are offering far-right solutions to voters who feel disenfranchised by economic changes both global and local, many of whom want to go back to the mythical “good old days” and make their country great again.
  • Both politicians are addressing issues which are often legitimate and which have not always been successfully addressed, or sometimes even recognized, by current governments.
  • Both have made promises to change things if they are successful, promises which unfortunately are sometimes unrealistic, uncosted, or mistaken, and in relation to which they both have begun to row back on.  These include promises about immigration and health care.
  • Trump’s pronouncements have sometimes been openly racist, while that is not true of Johnson personally, although it is true of members in his camp.  Both camps appeal to an anti-immigrant, anti-foreign mentality, and whether they mean to or not, have benefited from it.

 

June 25, 2016

All the King’s horses

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

 

Some of the implications of Thursday’s referendum in which Britain voted to withdraw from the European Union are beginning to emerge with some frightening possibilities.  The Brexit leaders are now saying that two of the most convincing arguments for withdrawal are false and the claims should never have been made.  They say that immigration from other EU countries is unlikely to be reduced significantly, and the weekly additional £375 million promised to the National Health Service was “a mistake,” and will not occur.

People living in Cornwall, a region in southwest England which voted for Brexit and which receives significant money from the EU are only now realizing that these funds will no longer be paid.  They say they expect London to pick up the tab.  Airlines  will no longer be permitted to fly between the UK  EU countries without authorization as “foreign planes.”  Tour companies are already raising their prices, there will no longer be automatic health insurance coverage for UK citizens travelling or living in the EU, UK driver’s licences will not be valid on the continent, and of course, UK passports will no longer include automatic admittance into or out of EU countries.  Moody’s has downgraded the UK’s credit rating and Standard & Poors says they are considering a similar downgrade.

Some people are already regretting their Brexit vote, thinking it was a protest vote that would never pass.  More than a million people have signed a petition asking for another referendum.  Even Boris Johnson, the leader of the Brexiteers and probably the next prime minister, is saying that there’s no hurry to extradite ourselves from the EU.  Personally, I tend to give credence to those who suggest that he never expected to win, but was merely positioning himself to run as leader of the Tory party and prime minister in 2020.

Nothing would please me more than to be dead wrong.  But I fear what has been done cannot be undone and that Britain has inflicted a great wound upon itself.

And all the King’s Men

And all the King’s Horses

Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again

June 24, 2016

Brexit the morning after

I was up an hour earlier than usual this morning, and was stunned almost speechless to see the Brexit result.  My thoughts are now tumbling on so fast that I don’t know where to start.

As I made clear in my last post, I was committed to the Remain-in-the-EU side because, although I deeply appreciated the limits of the EU, I thought Britain would be in a better position to influence change – for itself, for the EU, and for the world – in rather than out of the EU.

But probably the most appalling thing I heard today was from Donald Trump who claims that it was his influence that swung the British to the Brexit vote, and that he now wants to instigate the same thing in the USA as president.

Why is that so appalling?  First, because I assure you Trump did not swing that vote.  Hundreds of thousands of British people signed a petition asking that he be barred from ever coming to this country.  And because the issues over Britain’s position in the EU are in no way the issues facing the US.

The essential problem for Britain in relation to the EU is a democratic deficit that the US would never tolerate.  The US would not tolerate another country telling it that it MUST accept any migrants from 26 other countries who wish to live there.  It would not tolerate a ruling that convicted criminals – rapists, murderers, gangsters – may not be deported back to their own countries after they have served their sentences if it would “violate their human rights.”  In one case, the human right being violated was that the ex-convict would be separated from his pet cats.  (I kid you not.)  The US would not tolerate thousands of dictates a year from an un-elected bureaucracy in another country which they are bound to implement.  Everything from how much cargo must be carried on trains to the size of pans one may use in their kitchens.  The US would not tolerate a Supreme Court making the final decisions about whether its laws are legitimate.

Nor was this vote primarily motivated by bigotry or racism or religious intolerance.  It was a vote about sovereignty.  As one person said to me yesterday at the check-out counter of our local farm shop:  “It’s about making our own rules for ourselves.”

In any case, the decision has now been made, and the implications are huge, if not yet clear.  Both the Tory and Labour parties here are already feeling the repercussions.  So have the pound sterling and the stock markets.  How it will eventually affect the economy here is unclear.  Will it eventually break up the United Kingdom?  Scotland says another independence referendum is now on the cards, Northern Ireland shares an open unmanned border with Ireland which is member of the EU, a problem which must be addressed.  Hundreds of issues in relation to trade with the EU and with non-EU countries around the world will need to be negotiated.  And the EU itself, deeply shaken by this unexpected vote, must decide how to relate to an independent Britain and its effect on countries already within the EU that also want big changes in relation to the authority in Brussels.  The EU itself may not survive.

Enough blathering for now.  I am now off to have a Friday gin & tonic, followed by some very English fish & chips.

June 21, 2016

BR-Exit or BR-In?

Flag of Europe.svg        or       Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg

The day after tomorrow is the referendum in which Britons decide whether to stay or leave the EU.  I decided years ago not to make this blog into a political commentary since I would inevitably be repeating what those closer to the source would be writing.  But this week I have received a month’s worth of communications asking me what I think – should Britain stay or leave?  So for what it’s worth, here’s what I think.

Today someone sent me John Oliver’s thoughts on the question.

I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but he pretty much expresses both my own views on the subject as well as my feelings.  At the heart of the EU is a democratic deficit replaced by a bureaucratic minefield of infuriating finger-wagging.  I even have reservations about the European Court of Justice.

If I concentrate on what drives me crazy, the overwhelming temptation is to join Brexit, pick up one’s ball and say we don’t want to play anymore.
But that won’t make things better.  That’s not the solution.  It’s infuriating, but Britain is crazy to think it will be better off without Europe.  Besides, during the last century, Britain has done a great deal to make Europe far far better – politically and economically.  And if we paid a little more attention to whom we are electing when we send representative to the European Parliament, we might be able to make a dent in that gaping hole of democratic deficiency.  As it is, most British citizens have no idea who their EU representatives are and don’t care.
.
I do agree with those who say that this is quite possibly the most important vote every eligible voter in the UK today will make in their life time.   We must stay in and continue to fight – for our sakes, for Europe’s sake, and for the sake of the entire global economic and political world.
.
Don’t know what it’s going to be like when we wake up on Friday morning…
.
But at least there’s Andy Murray.

November 23, 2015

Should we bomb Syria?

Britain right now is in the grips of a debate over whether to join the coalition bombing IS in Syria.  The Tory government thinks we should.   Jeremy Corbyn, the controversial leader of the opposition Labour party and long-time pacifist is adamantly against it.  He believes that all conflicts should be solved by diplomacy, and initially in the face of a terrorist threat in London similar to the one in Paris, objected to increased armed police on the street.

I think we should bomb Syria IF – and only IF – we address the fundamental issues.  IS, in my view, is like a 2-year old who’s got a hold of a stack of papers he’s lighting with the wood fire in the living room and throwing them around the house.  He has to be stopped immediately – not through negotiation or discussion.  If it involves smacking him – or bombing them, then I would do that.  But just as with the child, you can’t stop there.

We were “successful” in our bombing Iraq, Afghanistan and Libia, but were arrogant idiots in our ignorance about the underlying problems there and ultimately made the fundamental conflicts within those countries worse.  Every one of those countries now have much stronger pockets of IS,  unknown numbers of trained committed jihadists – perhaps as many as several hundred thousand by some estimates – serving as recruitment and training centers for countries throughout Africa and the Middle East.

In addition, IS has money, and a sophisticated plan to convince Muslims, especially in Europe & America, that they are not welcome there, and are seen as inferior.  IS (quite rightly, I think) believe that this is helping them recruit jihadists from those countries, especially among young men who can’t get jobs.  America has just played into their hands with its latest vote on Syrian refugees.
.
And there is an even deeper problem within middle-eastern countries than feeling thought inferior and unwanted by Western countries.  The Sunnis & Shias are as adamantly opposed to each other as were the Catholics & Protestants during the religious wars for several centuries in Europe.  They believe Allah has given them a mission to destroy the heretics who do not agree with them.  So if we go into those countries, victory will require boots on the ground.  But military presence wouldn’t be enough.  We need a strategy for what happens if/when IS per se is defeated to control the forces that are making it so attractive to so many.  Otherwise, it will simply re-emerge, perhaps under a different name, but no less destructive.
.
I’ve read some interesting possibilities on that.  But they will require significant skill to implement them.  China, Russia, Europe, Iran, Turkey, the US and others may be united against IS but we are not in agreement about the alternatives either politically or economically.  Without that, what good would bombing do?  “Isis” will just turn up again, under a different name perhaps, but with the same deadly intents and possibly in even greater strength.
.
Climate change and globalization have both been significant factors in amplifying these conflicts.  Resolving them – even moderating them sufficiently to ensure the survival of the human species – I think is one of the biggest conflicts we have ever faced.  Unfortunately, neither slamming the door nor dropping bombs will resolve them.

November 21, 2014

Don’t think about it that way

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on human decision-making.  Now he has just published a book, Don’t Even Think About It, exploring the psychology of climate change deniers compared to those who believe that climate change caused by human behavior could be lethal.  His basic conclusion is that all of us have pretty much already made up our minds and that we aren’t likely to be persuaded by evidence or experience.  What matters, he says, is the ideological group with which we identify.  Tea Party members, for instance, tend to have an ideology that automatically takes a position in opposition to environmentalists.  And vice versa.  For this reason, Kahneman is quite pessimistic about the likelihood of our avoiding what might be the worst Great Extinction ever to hit our planet.

The potential catastrophe is terrifying.  (Obviously, I am not a convinced Tea Party member.)  Several reports in the last six months have been published by leading scientists who in the past thought we had as long as a century to avoid drastic climate change.  That has now changed.  A very large number of scientists now think that we have as little as ten years to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and at most twenty years.  If we do not act within that time frame, within sixty years, we may have an 8 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures.  That is a temperature not seen on Earth for the last 5 million years.  40% of plant and animal life cannot live in these conditions.  1/3 of the Asian rain forests would be at risk, and most of the Amazon rain forest would probably be destroyed by fire.  Crops would collapse in Africa by a third, in the US, crops like corn and soy, would fall by more than 3/4th.  2/3rds of the world’s major cities – like New York and London – would be underwater.  That’s in 60 years from now!  And that does not even factor in the conflicts and deaths in increased warfare created by starvation and disease.

Why aren’t we doing something about this!?  

Because scare stories don’t work, however realistic or scientifically-founded they may be.

Because when we read about the importance of reducing greenhouse gases, even if we take it seriously, there seems to be little we as individuals can do.  Will it matter in the great scheme of things if I walk or use a bike instead of drive?  if I turn down my heating so that all I do is prevent pipes from freezing, even if I myself am shivering?  if I change all the lights in my house to low-energy LED bulbs?  if I don’t turn on the lights at all?  if I don’t use the wash machine or dishwasher or microwave or oven?  The personal inconvenience could be huge, in some cases life-threatening, and it wouldn’t make a stick of difference unless there is mass cooperation in such a project.

I think we have got to think about this problem in a completely different way if we are to have any hope of cooperating sufficiently to solve it.

In September, 4 former presidents or prime ministers, 2 Nobel economic laureates, and financial experts from the World Bank, IMF and the Asian Development Bank published a detailed study entitled “Better Growth, Better Climate.”  They offer a list of costed changes that would both improve economic growth and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It would require governments world-wide to act on structural reforms of urban infra-structure, farmland, forests, and energy markets.  And it would not be a total solution to the climate change problem.  But it would be a huge start.  And it might make it possible for people of vastly different ideologies to cooperate.

http://logisticsviewpoints.com/

Even the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress might agree.

 

March 1, 2014

The question of war in Ukraine

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question,Worries — theotheri @ 4:10 pm

Last month I began an exploration of World War I, because that was when wars became industrialized, using tanks,  germ warfare and mustard gas, bombs and submarines and the hell-holes of the trenches.  I thought that if I could understand that war that I would be able to decide for myself whether I thought the horrors of war were ever justified.

I have now read two books about World War I, read reviews of four more, and thus far watched three BBC documentaries debating whether it was a futile war which Britain and America should have stayed out of, or whether, terrible as it was, the Allied victory saved the world from even greater enslavement, brutality, and bloodshed.  I know a great deal more about the events leading up to that war and the reasoning of politicians as they grappled with it.  I now have a great deal of information but rather than producing answers, it has left me with many more questions.

BelgiumThe first thing that seems apparent to me is that at the beginning, it is rarely clear what a war is really about.  Even those who start it seem to find themselves fighting for different reasons and goals than they first had in mind.  History generally begins WWI the Sunday morning in June 1914  when  a student drop-out assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the  heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as he was on his way to church in Sarajevo.  This took place in the context of  an empire threatened by calls for independence in the Balkans.  Germany immediately sent word that it would support the Empire should it attack what is now called Bosnia.  It looked as if it could be a short sharp war that nobody would notice and would quell the unrest which the Empire was facing.  But Russia, worried that the attack could spread to Serbia, lined up against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Then France, responding to its alliance with Russia allied herself with Russia.  Germany at this point thought it could take over France before Russia had time to get there, and invaded Belgium because militarily that was the best way to invade France.

It almost worked.  There was one last battle to be won, in which Germany had overwhelming force, and they had already drawn up their demands for any peace settlement.  It included parts of France and Russia.  But they lost the battle and had to retreat.

That is what changed Britain’s mind about getting involved.  First of all, Germany had invaded Belgium, a sovereign country uninvolved in the dispute, for no other reason than that it was militarily advantageous to them.  This violated an international agreement, a violation which made Britain feel highly vulnerable should a triumphant Germany be installed across the Channel.  Germany was also building huge ships, which ultimately would threaten Britain’s control of the high seas and so the entire British colonial empire.  Finally, Germany’s goals, as revealed in the demands for the peace settlement which they had thought was imminent, showed a Germany bent on vastly expanding the lands it controlled.  Almost overnight the British public backed a war which up until then they had resisted.

America got involved in the war on similar grounds of self-preservation.  For several years, President Woodrow Wilson kept American out of a European war which most Americans felt had nothing to do with them.  Wilson also saw his own position as a peace-maker.  But a German diplomat stationed in Washington rather stupidly – from Germany’s point of view anyway – admitted that intercepted messages from Germany to Japan and Mexico were indeed valid.  Germany was encouraging Japan and Mexico to invade the U.S., promising Mexico that it would support its attempt to regain Texas, and plotting with Japan to take control of Latin America.  As in Britain, the American public  swung behind a war effort against Germany almost immediately after they felt personally threatened.

World War I killed an average of ten thousand people a day for four years, including eight million troops and almost as many civilians.

The news today is about Ukraine.  It has some worrisome similarities to the situation in 1914.  Is it all right for the EU and US to effectively say to Russia that they can take over the Crimea simply cutting it off from Ukraine?   Should we say that the Russian helicopters flying over that part of the country is not an unacceptable invasion?  should we pretend that we don’t think  the troops who have taken over the sea and air ports aren’t Russian?  Should we say it’s not worth the fight?  – after all half the people in the Crimea speak Russian and would prefer to be part of Russia. Crimea is only that bottom bit sticking out into the Black Sea.  And Russia only gave the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.

Is it comparable to Germany’s invading Belgium in WWI?  And if so, was it worth fighting then?  Would millions fewer have died if Britain and America had stayed out of the war altogether?  Could the Crimea become another Belgium?  Should it?

I don’t know.  Ukraine does not have a functioning government.  It has been corrupt almost since the Orange Revolution.  The people in the west of the country want to become part of the European Union some day.  Can we help and support the creation of a free, truly democratic government and functioning economy there without stumbling into an escalating war?  Can we find a compromise with Russia that protects the strategic interests of all the parties?

We all are in great need of wisdom and skill and knowledge.  And good fortune.

February 17, 2014

Us and Them

Next September, Scotland is going to have a referendum to decide whether they want to be an independent country again and no longer part of Great Britain (also known as the United Kingdom) which today is composed of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.  The wording of the referendum has been agreed by the current governments in London and Edinburgh, and whatever the outcome, nobody foresees the issue degenerating into outright war.

But the situation is becoming tetchy.  Last week all the main parties in the UK agreed that if Scotland chose independence, Britain would not agree to their using the pound sterling as a common currency.  Scotland could continue to use the pound, if she wished, but her debts would no longer be secured by the Bank of England in London.  The reasoning, which seems obvious to me, is that the euro has already demonstrated that a common currency used by a number of independent countries each responsible for their own budgets is unsustainable in the long run.  The Scottish National Party which is Scotland’s independence party is accusing the English of being bullies.  And when David Cameron, the Prime Minister, encouraged the English to ask their Scottish friends to vote against independence, many Scots asked who the English thought they were to tell them how to vote.  Etc., etc.

I strongly suspect the exchanges are going to become more heated, if not more enlightened.  My hope is that by the time September arrives, the trading of accusations will not have become so bad as to make it impossible for the British and the Scots to work together, whether Scotland is or isn’t independent.

All of which has set me wondering again if we human beings are capable of getting along in our increasingly globalized world.  Can we stand being this relentlessly close to each other and still maintain our individual identities?

It seems to me, war inevitably requires a sense that “Us”, and “Them” are incompatible.  Whether the conflicts are between Catholics and Protestants, Black and White, Shias and Sunnis, Allied and Axis powers,  the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, or one of the hundreds of other warring sides, it happens when we find it impossible to share our essential identities with others.  Christianity still preaches that we are all God’s children, but that has not stopped us from killing each other as intolerable heretics.  Whites for centuries enslaved Blacks on the grounds that Blacks are inferior.  Tribes in Africa and Asia are also unable to find common ground, and would rather die than live together.

I don’t know if we can do it in this stage of our evolutionary development.   Maybe we are too aggressive and insufficiently cooperative, unable to recognize our common humanity whatever our differences.  The European Union was founded as a result of World War II, in the belief that if Europe were sufficiently united economically, countries would avoid the destructiveness of war.  But more than a functioning economy is required.  Sometimes people don’t understand how much cooperation a global economy requires.  Sometimes they’d rather take the chance of going it alone rather than take orders from Brussels or London or Washington or Moscow or Beijing.

It is highly unlikely that a Scottish vote for independence would utterly destroy their economy.  I strongly suspect independence would come at an economic cost, however, to both Scotland and to a lesser extent to the rest of Great Britain.  But that’s not the only issue.  Many Scots don’t like the feeling that they are being ruled by London, just as many states in the U.S. resent federal laws and taxes, or the way many in England resent the rules coming from Brussels and the European Union.

As anybody in any long-term relationship has discovered, making it last requires both compromise and cooperation.  If both feel that the independence one gives up is worth what one receives in its stead, the relationship is experienced as a success.  But if I’m losing more than I’m giving, I want out.

I suppose it’s the same way with countries.  Right now it’s the Scots who are asking the question.  But there are many other places too that are asking if they wouldn’t be better off on their own.  Scotland, I am glad, is not resorting to bombs and guns to find the answer.

Still, I hope things don’t get too nasty before the issue is resolved.

December 17, 2013

Equality is a dangerous word

Equality has a fuzzy comfortable feeling, especially if you’re an American like me.  We have a constitution that says we are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and even though it took a century and a half and a civil war to recognize even in law that WE did not mean only white men, and even though racism still rears its nasty head, we nonetheless all cross our hearts to the concept of equality.

But what does it mean?  What does equal mean?  In hundreds of important ways we are obviously not equal.  We differ in sensory sensitivity, in physical strength and coordination, in talent, in looks, in mathematical, musical, spatial, verbal, and social abilities to name just a few.  And we can only be grateful that this is true.  We would all be indescribably poorer if we were all the same.

And that’s the problem with the word “equality.”  Equal does not mean identical.  It does not mean we all have the same needs, the same abilities, or the same desires or opportunities.

And so, with all due respect for Pope Francis who in so many ways is a breath of fresh air, I think to talk about the injustice of economic inequality is asking for trouble.  Of course it is absurd for Limbaugh to say Francis is advocating Marxism.  If nothing else, it shows how little Limbaugh knows about Marxism.

And yes, there are some aspects of economic inequality which are hugely unjust and which we must try to reduce.   When people do not have the basic needs of food and clothing and shelter, when they are denied education for which they have the ability, when they are sick and denied medical support, when they cannot live even with basic dignity, how can we justify this if we can prevent it?

And that is part of the problem.  How can we prevent the kind of inequality which denies whole groups of society the basic necessities of life, or the right to education? The last century is littered with systems that have tried and failed.  The sources of injustice in society are not simple to eliminate.  India is dealing with the effects of a caste system, Britain a class system, ethnic and tribal differences in Latin America and Africa are both overlaid by waves of colonialism.  American today is dealing with the 2%, whose influence is destroying the hopes of the middle classes that if they work hard enough, they can build a better life and become more prosperous.

But achieving justice does not lie in economic equality.   Nor will it bring happiness or fulfillment.  To preach that it does is to walk down the road of envy and resentment.  Having as much money as everybody else is not the road to happiness.

I think we need two things which are often confused with economic equality.  The first is opportunity.  Not every job should pay equally.  But every adult should be able to do work which enables him or her to survive with dignity and to support those who depend on them.  This might sound like a simple principle, but it demands an educational system that enables young people to gain those skills which will benefit society.  And it demands a functioning economy which provides jobs for society’s workers.  Figuring out how to achieve this is not obvious.  In fact, as the political disagreements demonstrate, we really don’t know for sure how to do it.  My own sense is that we are in desperate need of gifted economists as much as politicians.

Yes, let us offer a helping hand to those in need.  Let us worry about the poor.  But in some sense giving is much easier than receiving.  When  our needs are greatest, it is often humiliating to receive.  But it can be gratifying to give, one can feel quite superior as a giver in a way we can’t at the receiving end.  So let us worry about giving people the opportunity to work, and not languish on benefits or unemployment insurance, or even to starve and live in degrading  penury.

The second thing we need beside opportunity is an appreciation of the vast richness for human society of our diversity.  Let us be grateful that people can achieve things we cannot, that others have talents and abilities we do not have.    We are all in this together.  We need each other.  We need those special gifts of others in order for our own lives to be enriched.  We need to learn to delight in our differences, not resent them, or try to insist that our own differences somehow make us superior.

The great injustices of life are not inequality across the board.  We need inequality.

But we all need love and respect and dignity.  That is how we are equal.

We all need to give and we need to receive.  We do not need to be all the same.

November 26, 2013

Us and them

One of the enduring struggles in human societies for as far back as we can see in history revolves around the inevitable tension between the small and the large.  Some times the tensions is between the individual and the family or the small group that constitute our friends, classmates, neighbours, or associates.  Sometimes the tensions are between families, between teams, between organizations, between ethnic groups, between nations, or even groups of nations.  Inevitably there is always a trade-off in benefits.

We can’t, for instance, work primarily for ourselves or for our own group and still gain all the benefits of cooperating with a larger circle.  And we can’t work for the benefit of the larger group without giving up some of the benefits that come with exclusively pursuing our own.

Often these tensions lead to war – the Allies versus the Axis powers, the east versus the west, the Christians versus the Muslims.  Sometimes the tensions are manifest in political struggles.

The St Andrews Cross and the Union JackToday the Scottish National Party published its arguments for an independent Scotland, which is going to be the subject of a referendum next September.   If they win, Scotland will no longer be part of the United Kingdom, presently consisting of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Scotland and England were united under the same king and parliament in London 400 years ago.  But although they speak a common language, they remain different cultures, rather the way the north and south of the United States are different cultures.  The Scottish National Party is trying to convince the Scottish voters that the benefits of becoming an independent nation of their own will greatly outweigh the benefits of being united with England.

Right now, those Scots who say they will vote for independence are in a minority.  But it is not at all clear how the vote will eventually go.  There are great number of undecideds, people who are not sure whether what they will gain with independence would be less than what they would lose.  For most people the questions seems to be primarily economic, and the paper arguing for independence promises all sort of goodies.  The question being hotly debated is whether these promises are economically realistic in an independent Scotland.

The struggle is not unlike the debate going on in the United Kingdom in general about British membership in the European Union.  All sorts of rules and regulations are sent down from Brussels which apply to all 27 member countries.  They inevitably sometimes feels high-handed, self-serving, picky, or ill-informed.  But they do a great deal to facilitate trade and economic development.  It’s a tension that also parallels the question of States’ rights in America.

As an American, I have no say on the question of Scottish independence.  As an outsider, it doesn’t look like a good economic move to me.  But I have some sympathy with the feeling that London is too far away, too remote.  I watch the struggle of the European Union, and particularly the struggle over its common currency, the euro, as Ireland, Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, even France, struggle, and I think I understand how the Scots feel.  Part of me would like to see the whole EU enterprise fail.   Brussels’ nannying is so infuriating.

But would it be worth it to try to go it alone?

My gut feeling is that in both situations, more would be lost by cutting loose than would be gained.

But for once, neither the EU or Scottish independence are my problems.

Thank goodness.  I have enough to worry about as an American.

October 11, 2013

Which is the worsest?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 7:08 pm
Tags:

Like many others, I have been watching in stupefied horror as the House Republicans try to un-do legislation passed by an earlier Congress by holding the country hostage.

Some changes need to be made so that a minority is not again in a position to negate legislation which is already law because they don’t like it.  But that is for the future.  The question now is not just how to get government workers back in their offices again, but how not to avoid an even worse situation in which the United States defaults on its debts.

I have thought that Obama is right to refuse to compromise on Obamacare at this point.

But if it comes to it, and the choice is between defaulting on our debts and defunding (ie, essentially destroying) Obamacare, I think Obama should choose the lesser of two evils and make it clear that it is the Republicans who are responsible.

The health care being made available through Obamacare is essential for tens of thousands of seriously sick people today unable to afford essential medical treatment.  It is terrible to refuse to help them.  But the economic destruction that will be caused by default by a major economy whose currency is the reserve currency of the world will cause even more suffering and poverty.  It will last for years – some economists think the economic effects could last a generation.

And the loss of prestige and trust and leadership by a country that does not pay its debt because it is fighting over whether to provide health care for its sick will probably be permanent.

I’m finding it hard these days to be proud to be an American.  We seem to be betraying so many of our own basic principles of justice and responsibility.

September 6, 2013

Why we shouldn’t bomb Syria

I have just read what for me is a compelling case against the United States bombing Syria.  The following are my own words, but the ideas are taken directly from  Dan Ebener.  He calls it “the Catholic case against attacking Syria,” using Catholic social doctrine but I can’t see what’s Catholic about it.  I’m convinced because I think he is right:  it gravely risks making things much worse rather than better for just about everybody involved.

Ebener gives several convincing arguments:

  • The evidence is pretty strong that somebody used chemical weapons.  It’s more likely to have been the Syrian government, but the evidence is not conclusive, and it could have been the branch of rebels supported by Al Qaeda trying to get the U.S. involved to support their attempts to overthrow Assad.
  • It would be illegal for the U.S. to bomb Syria under the circumstances.  Russia and China will clearly use their vote on the UN security council to veto a military strike on Syria.  Since the U.S. itself was not attacked, we will violate international law if we attack Syria without international backing.  In other words, as Ebener puts it, “we would be breaking international law against a country that we think broke international law to show that breaking international law is wrong.”
  • But let’s assume the U.S. bombs Syria and removes Assad from power.  I think about the possible alternatives.  The most powerful of the diverse rebel groups is probably controlled by extremists such as Al Qaeda.  If they gain power, they will have access to Assad’s chemical weapons.  Whether or not they have already used chemical weapons (and they may have) would they use them to maintain power?   I fear it is a strong possibility.
  • Along with putting the extremists in power, the chances that US military involvement will escalate the war seem to me to be huge.  Iran has already said it will not stand idly by, and Russia has made it clear that it is not a neutral observer.  How can a situation like this possibly make things better for the millions of Syrians already displaced?    or the millions more civilians caught in the line of increasing fire?  It is no good saying we would not target innocent civilians.  Modern warfare makes it almost impossible not to kill innocent bystanders.  Wouldn’t it be better to use the funding that would be used for a military attack to provide humanitarian assistance?
  • I was living in England on 9/11.  The response throughout Europe was one of solidarity with America.  But I saw that solidarity slip away as the Bush administration decided to use it as a chance to attack Iraq under the false pretenses that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction but was really a war in pursuit of oil and greater control in the Middle East.

Today, I’m convinced that our credibility and reputation would be far greater if we relied more on demonstrating that we are a country that lives according to its principles and the rule of law, even when we are threatened.

But the alternative to not bombing Syria is not doing nothing.   So what can we do?

  • We can give much more in humanitarian aid to help the refugees both in and around Syria who have fled the violence, support a full-fledged arms embargo in relation to all sides in the Syrian conflict, and reiterate again that the only viable lasting solution is political.
  • We can give our strongest backing to the United Nations/Arab League and call for a conference including Iran to work toward a negotiated settlement,
  • This settlement should not make the mistake we made in Iraq where we tried to replace all government institutions and people who had served in Saddam’s government.  It created a political vacuum, and ultimately simply changed the groups theoretically in control.  It has not established true democracy or eliminated regular acts of terrorism.  A true solution has to include the entire diversity of ethnic and religious groups in Syria.

America is often a trigger-happy country, and we tend to think that if our bombs are the biggest our moral superiority must be beyond question.  But the world today needs countries with the wisdom to find other paths to peace besides violence.

Besides, what we’ve had to recognize more than once since Vietnam is that our bombs simply don’t automatically make us the winners anymore.

And we really do need peace if we are going to survive.

August 29, 2013

A different point of view on Syria

In my earlier post today, I said I’d signed the petition to Obama not to try to deal with chemical weapons in Syria by bombing.

The Economist today published an argument for limited strikes, on the grounds that doing nothing in response to the chemical attacks that killed hundreds and injured thousands will eventually lead to more of the same.

It’s a measured reasoning which one cannot call war-mongering or even unreasonable.  Actually, it represents the kind of reasoning that has influenced my own thoughts every time I think of Nazi Germany.

I think now we have to find other ways than brute strength and military might to fight for even such important issues as the use of chemical weapons.

But the Economist’s position deserves to be taken seriously and answered with respect by those of us who don’t agree with them.  Because the results of whatever decisions are made will effect millions of people.  It’s worth struggling as hard as we can to be right.

Feeling righteous isn’t enough.

I don’t think we should bomb Syria

Tell President Obama: Don't bomb Syria

I am assuming that if enough of us sign a petition telling Obama that we don’t want the United States to try to solve the problems of chemical warfare by bombing Syria that it will influence his decision.

So I’ve signed the petition.

The more I read and think and listen, the more I am convinced that, ghastly as the situation is, our bombing Syria will make matters far worse, not better.

Yes, I know, we stood by in relation to Rwanda and we could perhaps have made things better if we had intervened.  And intervening in Bosnia, in retrospect, even without the UN approval, seems like a good idea.  But Iraq and probably Afghanistan have made things much much worse for the people living there, for the U.S., for the region, and probably for world peace.  Not all situations are the same, and each one must be examined carefully.

During the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations I asked my father what he thought about the war.  “I’m against it,” he said.  “Why?” I asked.  “Because we can’t win,” he said.

My first response was to be appalled.  How could one make a moral judgement based on whether one would win?  Shouldn’t one be willing to die for a cause that is right, whether or not one wins?

But I have come to realize that there is a terrible price that is exacted for fighting a war one can’t win.  The price is paid above in the deaths, starvation, loss, and suffering by civilians on whose benefit we are allegedly waging war.

Even when we drop our bombs, shoot off our missiles, or send out our drones without putting boots on the ground, we can make things much worse, however righteous our cause may be or wrong the actions we are trying to correct.

I think we can only make matters worse by military intervention in Syria at this point.

So as I said, I signed the petition.

August 28, 2013

Is there a third way?

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 2:56 pm
Tags:

I hope the situation with Syria does not escalate.  I think Obama was a fool to say that the use of chemical weapons was a line in the sand.  One can only hope that the results of our going in there militarily are not as catastrophic as the past suggests they will be, and as many are predicting.

Having said that, I’m not sure what I would do.  The older I get, the more I am convinced that Homo sapiens is too trigger-happy, and Americans have a particularly bad case of it right now.  We seem to think that because we have been economically so successful and have so much money compared to everybody else that we are also morally superior, and that our use of force is qualitatively different from an body else’s who disagrees with us.

I don’t see how we in the West can possibly bring about a resolution of the kind of conflicts that are ripping Syria apart and that are crisscrossing the Middle East.

But yet:   even without Obama’s having warned Syria, for the West not to respond in some way to such a massive use of chemical weapons against civilians would be a green light for more and worse from Syria as well as other governments under threat from civil unrest.

Over here, Prime Minister Cameron is bringing a motion before Parliament tomorrow asking for support for a response to Syria specifically targeted to the chemical weapons, not toward regime change or getting involved in the civil war there.  That sounds great in theory to me, but in practice I have grave doubts that the two can be separated.

As the man once said who was asked to give directions to a lost driver: “I wouldn’t start from here.”

I’m glad I’m not the President.

June 15, 2013

Oh please, not again already

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:33 pm
Tags:

The US announced late last week that the US would start arming the rebels because it was clear that Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people.  Not unexpectedly, Russia defended the Syrian government and said that chemical weapons had not been used.

Nonetheless, a shiver of dread ran through me.  This sounds an awful lot like Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, the justification for the US going to war there, with all the subsequent catastrophe which this had caused and the disaster that still stalks that land.

And now chemical experts in Washington are saying it out loud:  they are highly skeptical of the evidence supposedly proving the claims that Assad has used chemical weapons.

The situation in Syria is tragic, almost 100,000 people have been killed there already, whole cities have been destroyed, and at least half a million Syrian refugees are living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.  But I’m afraid that our getting involved in Syria will make things worse for everybody.  Not better.

The Syrian conflict is multi-layered.  The conflict between the Sunni and Shia Muslims goes back more than a millennium.  Overlaying that are the conflicts between Iran and countries like Saudi Arabia, and between Russia and China on the one hand and the US and the West on the other.

There is also the difficulty of controlling who our weapons will actually go to.  Weapons the US sent to Afghanistan to help the rebels there against Russian occupation are even now being used again US troops there.  And the Syrian rebels are not a united front.  There are Al Qaeda operatives there, and the rebels cannot even agree to coalesce behind one leader.  Weapons are sold, captured, abandoned, and would certainly get into the hands of fighters who ultimately would try to impose a regime that would severely limit the rights of the Syrian people.  As I listen to the news analysis over here in Britain, I’m not convinced that Assad is not the preferred option.

The chances of the conflict spilling over into neighbouring countries is also high, and could escalate into a major war with global ramifications.

And would American boots on the ground there help resolve the situation?  If Iraq and Afghanistan are anything to go by, they would not.  We do not understand the complexities of the mid-east conflicts, and more bombs and drones and raids will not bring peace.

And so I am terribly apprehensive about America’s announcement that it is going to send military aid to the rebels.  We cannot make things better by sending in more arms.

We should stay out of it.

I just look at the map with photos from the BBC and tremble.

Map of Syria and neighbouring countries

June 8, 2013

Nothing to fear?

The British today are on fire after Barack Obama’s confirmation that UK spies are cooperating with the CIA to monitor the phone and internet communications of UK citizens.  Barack Obama, in the meantime, is wheeling out the old saw “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.”  According to him, we all must bear some modicum of inconvenience and loss of inconsequential privacy in order to keep the world safe from terrorists.

I’m not a defender of terrorists, I do not want to minimize the terrible suffering they can inflict, and I think responsible governments everywhere must work to maximize the security of their citizens.

But I do not look without a certain amount of serious apprehension at our governments’ increasing intrusion into our lives without warrants or any court oversight.  I’m not worried that some secret activity of mine is about to be revealed to the glare of publicity or government scrutiny.

But I do not trust our government – or any government – absolutely.  Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  I have no doubt whatsoever that Americans are not exempt from this reality.  Our founding fathers set up a constitution with checks and balances for this very reason. I fear the potential secret terrorism of my own government as much as I fear the terrorism from others.

Has our government ever lied to us?  Do you think they knew that Iraq did not actually have weapons of mass destruction?  Did President Reagan tell us Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator who ruled Guatemala, was “man of great personal integrity and commitment,” even though he knew Montt’s forces had killed tens of thousands of Mayans in a single year, because it was a price worth paying to maintain a right-wing government in Central America?   Do you trust that the US had nothing to do with the mysterious dismissal of Montt’s trial which found him guilty of war crimes against humanity?  What about Guantanamo?  or Allende, the democratically elected president of  Chile?

Or etcetera.  I don’t believe the US government is guilty of every treacherous act suggested by every conspiracy theory offered to us in the last fifty years.

But I’m old enough to recognize the human condition, and I think watering down our system of checks and balances is a very dangerous development.

In fact, I find it terrifying.

April 14, 2013

Ding Dong the witch…

It is something of a shock, if not a surprise, to be living here in England listening to some of the unedited comments about Margaret Thatcher.  Hatred lives long and deep in the hearts of those who feel that she destroyed their communities, their jobs, even entire industries.  “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” is reaching number one in the song charts, and people are drinking champagne to celebrate her death.

I personally think Margaret Thatcher saved Britain from becoming a much poorer country, but I can understand and respect those who disagree with her policies.  I can positively agree with those who feel that her methods sometimes seemed to lack compassion.

But she was a legitimate leader of the country, re-elected prime minister three times.  The lack of restraint in relation to those who disagreed with her seem to me to show a lack of respect for the very political freedoms of Great Britain and of which she is so justly proud.

Besides that, Margaret Thatcher has been out of office for 23 years.  She leaves children and grandchildren and many voters who benefited hugely from her policies.  Many of the comments are cruel, mean, coarse, arrogant, and ignorant.

Not, of course, that we ever engage in behavior distantly resembling anything like that in the United States.

We’re a gun culture after all.  Guns are much more effective than words.

November 26, 2012

Distracted by the facts

I often enjoy discussions and even disputes with people who disagree with me.  What I don’t enjoy are discussions with people whose views seem impervious to the facts.

So it’s a little embarrassing to discover that I have drawn one of those non-negotiable, righteous conclusions without knowing what I was talking about.

I have said more than once that I thought the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court several years ago was one of the most destructive decisions that court has ever handed down, and that I would support a constitutional amendment to get it changed.

I did read that the decision was quite narrow, but I was sure I already knew that it gave the same democratic rights to corporations and big business as it gave to individuals.  Moreover, it gave business the right to donate unlimited funds to political campaigns and thus to fundamentally buy whatever votes they wanted to.

Well, the Citizens United decision doesn’t say that exactly, and repealing it won’t make much difference.   What it does allow is for entities of people to pay to express their views on political issues and in relation to political campaigns.  That means that businesses can publicly and aggressively express their opinions.  So can newspapers, unions, environmental groups, churches, bloggers, Tweeters, and You-tube videos.

In terms of campaign contributions, businesses and corporations are limited by the same $5,000 amounts as individuals.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways around this limit for both groups and individuals as the law currently stands.

I don’t think we need a constitutional amendment.  I think what we need is transparency.  Right now it’s way too easy to make anonymous mega-donations to 501(c)s and super-PACs.

Actually, the Disclose Act that came before the last Senate and would have increased transparency dramatically was filibustered.   By the Republicans.

I would be immensely valuable for American democracy if Congress could get it passed.  But I’m not hopeful.  The Republicans can still filibuster it.

 

November 6, 2012

Election Day, 2012

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 3:55 pm

Well, at least the electioneering is over.  I guess half the country is on suicide watch.  Though which half we do not yet know.  Analysts here are saying that if it’s close enough, it could be several weeks before we know who the next president of the United States is going to be in 2013.

If you need an upside to all the angst and anguish, some voters over here in Britain are saying that they envy the US voter.  At least, they say, we have a real choice between a fiscal conservative and a social liberal.  They think the two main parties are too much the same over here.

I don’t quite see it that way in either country, but I do agree there’s a discernible difference between Obama & Romney.  My own dilemma was to choose the candidate I disagreed with less.

Maybe I’m merely suffering from the realism of getting old.  Nobody is going to give us Shangri-la.

This is the human condition, for heavens’ sake.  Even in the land where you can become president if you are born in a log cabin.

October 21, 2012

We’re all in this …

I cannot think of a better expression of the Christian message than “We are all in this together.”

Yes, we are all individuals with individual responsibility.  But that does not mean we are not dependent on each other, it doesn’t mean that what happens to you has no effect on that happens to me.

Actually, I don’t think one must be a Christian at all to understand how interlinked we all are.  It’s the human condition.

So droughts in the midwest are affecting the price of food when I go to the supermarket.  Cures for cancer found in China are applied by doctors in England.  Polluted air or nuclear radiation from half way around the world can kill me.  Car bombs in Syria might be more significant than the recent threat to Wall Street.

In the good times when we don’t feel the need for help and support, it’s nice to think we each can take care of ourselves, and your troubles have nothing to do with me.  But they do.  Whether it’s SARS that started in China, or AIDS in Africa, germ warfare from Germany or nuclear weapons that started in America, whether it’s medical innovation or alternative energies or economic meltdowns, what happens to other people matters to me.

I may not be suffused with love for my fellow man.

But like it or not, we’re all in this together.

If I care what happens to me, even for selfish reasons, I need to care what happens to you.

 

 

 

That, by the way, is what I think the Tea Party doesn’t understand.

September 30, 2012

The duty of free speech

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 3:43 pm
Tags:

I have recently been introduced to a blog debate about the NY subway posters attacking Islam, which have been in turn defaced, which has in turn led to the arrest of those accused of defacing them.  After all, this is a country where free speech is enshrined in the Constitution.  But should it be?  Should we all be allowed to say whatever we think, no matter how slanderous, as long as it is not patently, provably untrue?

When I was a young psychologist, Richard Hernstein, an eminent Harvard professor, published his research in which he concluded that Blacks are genetically less intelligent than white people.  I was asked to join a protest outside the university where Hernstein had been invited to give a speech on his  research.  I declined to join the protest.  Not because I agreed with Hernstein’s conclusions.  But because silencing his opinion would only push it underground.  What his ideas required was the fresh air of debate.  I thought then – and still do – that it is more important to examine the research and the validity of Hernstein’s conclusions.

This experience had a major influence on the direction of my professional life.  I was already focussed on the way intelligence develops from infancy.  I knew the issues, the factors that influence cognitive development, and I was a trained researcher.  I knew the questions to ask about the data and had the skills to do it.  Nonetheless, it is an extraordinarily complex task, and it is easy to see why most people simply had to take Hernstein’s research on faith or reject it on faith.

This post is not a professional treatise on why I think Hernstein was wrong.  Suffice to say that I am convinced it is.  But not because it’s an uncomfortable conclusion.  Not because, having brought Blacks to America as slaves, it was a double insult to point out that they are less intelligent than their former white masters.  It is rather because I am convinced that the data simply does not support this conclusion.  I taught university courses in which students were asked to analyze the data themselves.  Their grades did not depend on their reaching a conclusion with which I agreed, but on their knowledge of the data and their ability to examine it forensically.  These students, at least, are not today walking around thinking that Blacks really are less intelligent, but that it is simply politically incorrect to say so.

STFU.jpgFrom everything I have read, the anti-Islamic posters in the NY subway are bigoted and nasty.  But if I were in a position to do so, I wouldn’t deface them, or pull them down.  I’d put up parallel posters to refute them.

In Germany it is against the law to deny that the Holocaust took place.  Here in Britain there is a law against racist speech and hate crimes.  I’m not campaigning for the laws to be abolished, but it’s a very tricky business.  Speech which many Britons have traditionally found acceptable, Muslims often find insulting.  One of the difficulties British soldiers in Afghanistan are having today is that they sometimes insult the Afghans with whom they are working without any intention of doing so.

I am reminded of Churchill’s comment about the then-prime minister Clement Atlee,  “An empty car drove up to Downing street, and Mr. Atlee got out.”  Atlee, as a matter of fact, was extremely astute. The remark did not require an apology.  It was okay to say it in that context.  Obviously, even Churchill would not have said it in many other contexts.

All of which is a fairly long-winded way of saying that not everything that should not be said in the first place should also be against the law.

We in America pay a high price for our freedom of speech.  And perhaps we too often do not realize that with that right comes the duty of care, the duty of truth.

If you put them up, I’d like to talk to you about those anti-Islamic posters.  But I’d rather convince you to take them down yourself because they are untrue and destructive.

July 29, 2012

Our devastating hypocrisy

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:16 pm
Tags:

I’m not sure if the war in Syria is getting the press coverage it gets here on a daily basis- well at least until it was pushed off the front pages by the Olympics.

But it’s a worrisome war if only because of the volatility of the entire region and its global implications.

This morning I read one of the most devastating critiques of what is happening there by Robert Fisk who lives in the middle east and whose analysis I have come to trust.  He points out that we in the West are happy to support Qatar and Saudia Arabia who are arming the rebels on the grounds that they are fighting for democracy.

Qatar and Saudia Arabia are supporting a fight for democracy?  These are two governments based on inherited powers just like Bashir’s in Syria.  They are dictatorships who do not even let women drive cars, let along vote.  15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were from Saudia Arabia.

And we in America had no problems with the hell-holes of Syrian torture chambers when they served our purposes.  The Bush administration regularly sent Muslims there for interrogation, guided by questions provided by the CIA.

What America is really concerned about, and the real reason they are supporting the Syrian rebels is because Iran is supporting Bashir.  We are really concerned not about freedom, or about the 20,000 civilians already killed in Syria.  But about Iran’s nuclear weapons.

But we aren’t saying so.  Just as we didn’t say oil was the real reason for invading Iraq.  Fighting for democracy sounds so much better.

If you can bear it, it’s worth reading the full article in the Independent.

May 4, 2012

January 9, 2012

My big mistake

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 3:50 pm
Tags:

One of the biggest errors of political judgement I have made in my adult life was in relation to the Iraq war.  Despite the fact that my husband, friends, and most colleagues were against the U.S. invasion from the beginning, I was influenced by my legacy of World War II.

As a result,  I was much more sympathetic to the idea of a just war.  It seemed to me there is a time when nations must do whatever is in their power to do to stop a government-directed rampage of genocide.

I still cannot dismiss this conviction outright.  I still think that when we can, each of us as individuals and as societies must do what we can to eliminate injustice.  “What we can,” though, is a much more difficult reality to assess than I ever realized in my naiveté.

The death and destruction, or what Rumsfeld called “shock and awe”, that are achieved by modern weapons of destruction is one thing to remember.  Is Iraq really better off now, are people living better lives in greater security and peace, after ten years of U.S. occupation than they were under Saddam Hussein?

But the error I made in first supporting the Iraq war was not to under-estimate the destruction of modern weaponry.  Or even to over-estimate our ability to bring peace to Iraq once we were there.  Rather it was to believe what our governments told us.  I can hardly bring myself to admit it, but I believed them when they said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction of sufficient range to attack Europe and even Britain.

And what I fear is that they are at it again.  This time it’s Iran’s purported nuclear arsenal and potential weapons of mass destruction.

Oh but I’m sure it’s not oil this time like it was in Iraq.

I’m sure it’s not power.

Oh I’m sure that this time the government isn’t exaggerating or distorting or burying information.

I’m sure that this time the government is telling us only the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But.

October 29, 2011

Looking for happiness

True Happiness David ChernoffHappiness these days seems to be a popular research topic.  What makes us happy?  what kind of people are happy?  is it genetic?  how much does it depend on our circumstances?  does enough money make us happy?   does more money make us happier?  Do the same things make people happy or cause them unhappiness?

If I were still an active academic, I think I would write a summary of this fascinating research in progress.  Happiness is a lot more complicated than I would have believed.

Many things influence happiness.  Generally speaking, the employed are happier than the unemployed, the young and old tend to be happier than the middle-aged, extroverts are happier than introverts, confident people are happier than their less confident contemporaries.  There are people who believe  we can teach ourselves to be happier, or that we need sunshine to be happy.

One study about a “happiness gene” has particularly intrigued me.  Researchers have known for some time that the capacity for happiness is partly genetically controlled, and have identified the gene that seems to be principally responsible for these differences.

A recent study found that Asian Americans tend to have fewer “happiness genes” than  White Americans and  Black Americans have more than White Americans.

There is a need for much broader study before reaching too-far reaching conclusions, but studies suggests that these serotonin-transporter or happiness genes tend to concentrate in ethnic groups, and so may reflect fundamentally genetic differences in societies, even in countries.

Furthermore, in societies such as China and Japan which have lower levels of effective mood elevating genes, people seem to prefer political systems that emphasize harmony and provide relatively high levels of security.  Entire countries with different levels of happiness genes may prefer greater levels of individual independence even at the cost of greater risk.

So the happiness question isn’t just of interest to psychologists anymore.  Politicians and economists are equally interested for reasons of their own.

In any case, it seems clear that one size does not fit all.  There isn’t going to be a system out there that will make everybody happy.

 

 

 

 

October 24, 2011

Encouraging thought for the day

Filed under: Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:39 pm

Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first. 

— Ronald Reagan

September 13, 2011

Sitting vs fighting

After my post yesterday on the alternative responses to the terrorist attack on 9/11, I have returned to a question I have been asking myself for more than half my life:  when should we fight and when should we choose instead to sit quietly knowing that we are strong enough to endure without lashing out?

One of the reasons I feel so betrayed by the Iraq war is that it was justified as a response to liberate people being persecuted, imprisoned or displaced by a dictator whom they were impotent to fight.  As a child of World War II, I came to believe that sometimes one cannot say about injustice “it’s nothing to do with me.”  And so I thought the Iraqi war was a just war.

I believe now that it was wrong on two counts.

First, we had and still have no idea how to mend Iraq, and we should have known that before we went in.  George Bush said when he was running for the presidency that he was not into nation-building.  I wish he’d kept his word.  We have not built a nation, but America has lost huge prestige and moral leadership in the world.  I know because I live outside the United States and the press here is not beholden to Washington, and does not have to worry about alienating its American readers.

Second, the lies that the American people were told were culpable.  They weren’t mistakes.  They were lies.  The evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction was substantial before the war began.  What we really went in for was oil.  It’s why, in the end, we didn’t wait to build a coalition through the United Nations.  And why we didn’t listen to the nuclear inspectors who thought it was unlikely that the weapons were there.  And why we were told that Al Qaeda was there when they palpably were not.  Al Qaeda got in on the coat tails of the American military.

Once we were fighting the war, our methods of torture, of rendition, of indefinite detention in Guantanamo are violating our principles of justice and are in violation of international law and the Geneva Treaty of which we are signatories.

But I’m not sure that means we should never go to war, never be prepared to fight to the death.   It seems to me to be a very complex question fraught with terrible guilt.  The costs of war are so great that going to war in situations where we cannot win the peace seem to me to be immoral.  Obviously, going to war as a mere manifestation of power is wrong.  Going to war on false premises or even as a result of having failed to learn the full facts is wrong.  Going to war when one has not exhausted all the other means of re-establishing justice is wrong.

But when in those situations when we honestly believe we have exhausted all other alternatives?  Is there, in other words, really such a thing as a just war?

Should we sanction a non-violent approach like Gandhi’s in  a fight against a mad man like Hitler, for instance?  Or more recently, were we right to refuse to tolerate Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of the Albanians in Kosovo?  I think so.  Should we have intervened militarily in the slaughter in Rwanda?  Are we right to be supporting the Libyan rebels with NATO air strikes as we speak?

After 9/11, America really could have chosen to sit quietly for a little while instead of “kicking ass.”

But I’m not convinced that sitting quietly is always the right choice.

Although I do know that fighting is never the whole answer.  After the military were finished and World War II officially ended, America spent years helping to rebuild Europe and Japan.  At least we had learned the lesson of World War I that total military victory does not win the peace.

I hope that somehow we can remember that again.

September 12, 2011

God’s favourite

In his comment following yesterday post on 9/11, Tony Equale forcefully suggests that the response of “kicking ass,” (which as I recall was President Bush’s colloquial way of expressing a determination to go to war) was self-destructive.

Instead of sitting in quiet dignity, aware of our strength and self-worth, we went to wars that, even if they had been justified, we cannot win, and which, given Vietnam and the earlier  experiences of Britain and Russia in Afghanistan, we should have known we could not win.  As a psychologist, I’ve learned not to trust anger in either myself or others.  Far more often than not, it is a sign of weakness, not strength.  Often it is irrational.

The assertion that our angry irrational outrage against countries that had nothing at all to do with the 9/11 attack arose from an “ancient paranoid ethno-religious rage,” as Equale puts it, has made me wonder about this almost universal tendency for societies to declare themselves to be superior to everybody else.  Most often this takes the form of identifying ones community or society as “God’s chosen people”  (though there are variations on this theme, as the study of the history of non-Judeo-Christian cultures demonstrates).

This position as God’s favourite has huge advantages.  First, it helps cement a social identity and to enforce a cohesive set of laws and customs.  Of course, it makes us intrinsically superior to everybody else as well, without our having to do a single thing.  We have been chosen.  And anybody who attacks us is therefore not only in the wrong, but by that very fact become God’s enemies.

Given that Christianity is supposed to include all people everywhere, one would think that this might lead Christians to work for peace and justice and love on a global scale.  Unfortunately, a belief in our unassailable self-worth is not so easily achieved.  Religion is used as often as the justification for attacking our fellow-man as it is for caring for him.  And her.

Being God’s favourite, though, does, I think have potential.  Parents have favourites.  They will respond to something in one child that another child does not have.  But if they are good parents, each child is a favourite in a different way.

Personally, if one believes that God has Chosen People, I think the mature version must be to recognize that God has many favourites.  We are each Chosen.  We are each his Favourites.

So maybe I’d better be careful about beating you up.  God might not like it.

 

May 5, 2011

The fantastic and fantastical

While we were watching the RW procession from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace last Friday, there was a marvellous shot of Prince Harry in an open carriage laughing with several of the very young bridesmaids travelling with him.  It was a delightful glimpse of Diana’s son.

Since then, we’ve discovered what was happening.  The three-year-old (the one who later was standing on the balcony covering her ears) was terrified of the noise made by the cheering crowds as they rode by.  Harry, knowing that he would be travelling with them and foreseeing the possibility that the young ones might need some special kind of help to get through the royal ordeal, had bought a rubber worm in his pocket.  It was less than a two dollar purchase, but the little one was entranced.  And comforted.

Welcome distraction: Bridesmaid Eliza Lopes was entertained at the Royal Wedding with a £1 wiggly worm

A close look at the official royal photograph taken after they’d reached the palace shows that she was still holding onto her bright pink wiggly worm.

On the less fantastic but hopefully fantastical level, a former Pakistani diplomat currently in Washington, said that he had no doubt that the killing of Bin Laden has unquestionably been a trade-off between the U.S. and some elements of the Pakistani authorities.  Why else, he asked, wasn’t he caught before?  And why, suddenly, was protection withdrawn at just this point?  No, he said, Pakistan has known for years that they held this bargaining chip.  They have just now decided that the U.S. had something to offer that made it worth playing.

I don’t know if it’s true.  I would like to hope it isn’t.  But I certainly don’t find it unbelievable.

May 2, 2011

Be careful what we hate

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:15 pm
Tags:

We were living in the Lake District of England.  It was late morning and we switched on the television to hear a speech to be given by Tony Blair.  Instead we turned on the Twin Towers.

We had lived in New York City and spent our professional lives there.  Friends and colleagues worked in the Twin Towers.  I barely moved from the chair the entire day, and lost my appetite and ability to sleep.  For days I walked around in a daze, feeling as if at any moment I was going to throw up.

That was just under ten years ago.

Now at last they have tracked down Bin Laden and killed him.

I knew people who died in the Twin Towers but I did not lose a husband, a father, a child, a loved one.  I cannot say that if I had I would not want to join those dancing in the streets today in my beloved New York.

But I do not feel like dancing.

I wonder if in some terrifying way, we have become too much like what we have hated.

Bin Laden believed that the West, and especially America, was responsible for the subjugation of Muslims around the world.  He believed he knew the judgement of God and had the mission to carry out God’s just punishment against those who betrayed his people.

But change the names in those beliefs.  Do we not have then many of our own views?  Bin Laden was no longer a significant terrorist threat.  But we feel that we have a legitimate right to bring about retribution for what he did.  Justice, we say, demands it, and it is our obligation to impose it.

Yes.  And has this made the world better?  or safer?  our leaders are already warning us that extra vigilance is required against those who are now going to try to exact retribution for Bin Laden’s death.   Have we shown anybody that anything but violence might be viable?  These are complex issues with huge areas of uncertainty.  I don’t pretend the right things to do are obvious or clear-cut

But do we really have to dance in the streets because we have finally killed him?

March 3, 2011

Guns or Gandhi

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 3:52 pm

Whether a non-violent revolution can succeed in a society whose military is willing to obey sustained orders to attack their countrymen engaging in peaceful demonstrations is the question we are now watching in Libya.

Reports in the last few days are that Gaddafi’s troops have tried to retake some of the territory held by the freedom-fighters and have been repelled.  There is also some speculation that the air attacks have been off-target deliberately, and that the government troops, having been repulsed, are demoralized.  But it’s not clear what is really happening.

Perhaps, though, the country will simply implode.  Hundreds of thousands of support workers have left the country.  If they are the backbone of essential services, bombing their empty offices and workplaces will not get the country moving again.

Meanwhile, some rebels are asking the international community to support them by launching air attacks on selected sites.  I personally hope that we on the outside stay out of it.  Libya has to rebuild from the inside.  They do not want foreigners telling them what to do, and resent that so many Libyans are unemployed while hundreds of thousands of outsiders are benefiting from lucrative jobs.  And as Iraq and Afghanistan are currently demonstrating, the United States lacks national-building skills for other countries.

About that at least, George W Bush was right.

March 1, 2011

Morality in the hands of government

I said in my post yesterday that I certainly would not want to hand over the power to dictate moral decisions to governments.  For thousands of years governments have hijacked God and tried to use religion to stay in power.

The struggle, unfortunately, continues even in America.  The South Dakota legislature are considering a bill that would legalize the killing of abortion doctors on the grounds that these doctors are endangering the lives of innocent victims.  The legislation proposes to change the definition of murder in the case of someone murdering a doctor who performs abortion.  Instead of calling it murder, killing abortion doctors would be categorized as justifiable homicide.

At least we have a Constitution and a Supreme Court.  I agree it is by no means a fail-safe way of keeping religion and state separate.  But it’s a lot better than nothing.

February 28, 2011

Is equality secular or religious?

The High Court in London today ruled that a couple who taught their children that homosexuality was wrong could not be approved to adopt a child.  They ruled that the couple were unfit as potential adoptive parents on the grounds that it is against the law to discriminate against homosexuals.

The couple are Pentecostal Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin and argued that discrimination against them on the grounds of their religious beliefs violated their rights to religious freedom.

What is so ground-breaking about this court ruling is that it ruled that secular laws of equality take precedence over religious laws, and that discrimination could not be justified on the basis of religious freedom.

Personally, I am loudly cheering the court’s decision.

But I do now find myself wrestling with a philosophical question about the source of moral values.  I’m not of the view that if people don’t believe in some kind of God they have no reason to be good.

But I have not yet answered to my own satisfaction the question of where I think moral and ethical values should be rooted.  I wouldn’t trust a group of elected legislators in any country I know with the task of making laws that simply suit their private moral views.

I need to do more thinking and reading about this.  Where do my moral values come from and why am I so convinced it is right to respect creation and all that entails?

February 23, 2011

The challenge of civilizations’ survival

I started asking the question after reading Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee:  The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal some years ago.  The question of just how often climate change has contributed to the collapse of civilizations continues to lurk in my consciousness.

It isn’t an easy a question to answer, mostly because it often isn’t climate change that leads to the collapse of civilizations but its accumulated effects.  Civilizations that are not destroyed by volcanic eruptions or earth quakes most often have collapsed as a result of  disease and tribal warfare arising from insufficient supplies of water and food, which may be exacerbated or even caused by climate change, but also have other causes.

There is, however, a frequent pattern of civilization collapse appearing as far as 7,000 years ago.  Civilizations prosper, populations increase dramatically, cities emerge with highly sophisticated systems of trade and specialized roles.   And then the climate changes.  Most often the most debilitating changes seem to have been extreme drought.  Mayan cities were abandoned  in the 9th century after 200 years of drought.  So did the Mesopotamian civilization three and a half thousand years ago, and Egypt collapsed following severe drought in 2300 BC.

But flooding and extreme cold also result from climate change.  The story about Noah’s and his arc is about flooding.  An ice age ended the Viking dominance in Greenland in 13-1400 AD.

The list goes on.

The question for the human population today is just how devastating the climate change we are currently facing might be.  In this last year flooding has displaced millions of people and destroyed crops from Pakistan,  Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Brazil, and Australia.  Drought has possibly destroyed so much of China’s grain this season that it may be driven to importing it for the first time, and the encroaching desert underlies many of Africa’s wars.

The human population has doubled in less than fifty years, and continues to grow, though at a slower pace.  Last month, scientists with the United Nations warned that in less than 20 years the world would have insufficient food and water unless we begin to take action now.  It’s impossible to imagine this won’t lead to increased war, disease, starvation, displacements, and immense suffering.

Will we survive?  Will we destroy Earth’s ability to sustain us?  Will we simply starve?

The pessimistic answer always somehow sounds like the braver, wiser response.  Optimism so often seems to spring from ignorance or simply naive fear of facing the awful impending reality.

But personally, I think we will survive.  Along with the greed and selfishness and arrogant stupidity that plagues our species, I see also incredible ingenuity, bravery, and creativity.  I see  love and determination.  I think we have a willingness to cooperate and share on a global scale.

It is a challenge.  It is a great challenge.  In fact, it is a very very great challenge, and we won’t achieve it easily.  The cost, in the best scenario, will be great.

But I am hopeful that the end of Homo sapiens is not yet in sight.

February 22, 2011

Among the Great and the Good

Filed under: Political thoughts,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 9:21 pm
Tags:

When I was young, I was planning on being great.  I mean world-changing great.

I have given that fantasy up bit by bit over the years as waves of self-knowledge have swept over me.  I  also give it up in small steps when I walk through ancient churches here and stop by at the tombs of the Great and the Good.   Most often Greatness seems to fade into anonymity.

But yesterday I read about Gene Sharp.  Today he is an emeritus professor of political science in Boston, and the author of  From Dictatorship to Democracy, a handbook of 198 non-violent “weapons” to unseat dictators.  It has been translated into 30 languages and the influence of his techniques have been felt across Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  In Russia book stores selling it have mysteriously burned down and the publishers run out of business.

Gene Sharp book

Today it is a handbook for protesters in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia.

Not many people know the name Gene Sharp, though he has paid the price for living by his principles.  And maybe a century from now, even fewer people will recognize his influence.

But that does not matter.  What matters is that it is hard to think that the world is not a better place for his living in it.

February 21, 2011

And on the 35th day-

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:43 pm

I’m not planning on turning this blog into a regular commentary on world events.  But I turned on the news tonight and stood there in amazement.  It’s pushed everything else in my consciousness into second place.

Libya – Libya of all places – for the past forty years under the heel of one of the most vicious dictators in the Middle East – is in the process of overthrowing its government.

And I recalled again how it started.  A 26-year-man trying to support his widowed mother and his younger brothers and sisters with the earnings from a market vegetable cart finally snapped and said no.  As had frequently happened before, he was badgered by the police.  He was expected to pay a bribe, and he said no.

In the confrontation, the female policeman slapped him in the face – humiliating in any time and place – but in Tunisia for a woman to slap a man in public is devastating.  The police confiscated his cart and all his vegetables.  He went to the town hall and demanded to see someone.  When he was told nobody would see him, he poured alcohol over himself and started himself on fire.  He survived for several days but by the time he died, the demonstrations and riots had broken out.

That was a mere five weeks ago.

Who could have believed – who could have dared to predict – that in that time the governments of Tunisia and Egypt would have fallen, that Libyan military would be bombing demonstrators, that half the country would already be under control of the protesters, officials are resigning, and fatwas are circulating calling on anyone to kill Gaddafi and rid Libya of his evil presence.

Commentators don’t think Gaddafi’s government can survive.  And they don’t think it’s the last Middle East country to be threatened by protesters wanting more jobs, more food, more freedom.  And first of all, a different government.

The price of oil is shooting up, which means we will be paying more for gas, heating oil, and everything that has to be transported to wherever we buy it from.

It could be a high price.  But not too high if the protesters succeed in gaining the freedoms they are fighting and dying for.

February 11, 2011

Yes we can too

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:02 pm

It was about four o’clock this afternoon when news began to come over the internet that Mubarak has resigned.  I turned on my CD of Beethoven’s 7th symphony and played the last two movements three times.  I skipped the movements called “Poco” since slow in no way matches my mood.  “Presto” and “Allegro con brio” are how I’m feeling.  In theory I was also exercising but I somehow kept dancing.

One of the protestors in Tahrir Square was carrying a banner say “Yes we can too!”  I know why I feel the same elation I felt when Obama was elected.

And yes, I know.  The military has taken over, and they are not natural democrats.  Will they keep their promise and hold free and fair elections?  If they do, will an extreme Islamist party get in to suppress the people with every bit as much ferocity as Mubarak?

And what is going to happen to all the other countries in the Middle East currently being ruled by dictators?  Syria and Jordan and Libya and Saudi Arabia.  What will the implications be for Israel’s security, and for freedom for the Palestinians?  How will the United States respond if our oil supplies are threatened?  I suspect the repercussions will be global, and there are those who point out that it could still all end in tears.

I don’t know what will happen.   I know the road ahead for Egypt and for the Middle East is not strewn with roses.  No human community has ever succeeded in creating an unremitting shangri la.

But tonight I am dancing with the people in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, and in all of Egypt.

They are exultant and my admiration for them is great.

I cannot imagine people protesting unarmed for 18 days non-stop in either the United States or Britain without protestors breaking out in violence against the tear bombs and water cannon and gun shots that killed as many as 300 of them.

So tonight I am dancing with the people in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, and in all of Egypt.

Tomorrow will be time enough for tomorrow’s tears.

February 8, 2011

Were the olden days better?

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:25 pm
Tags:

About a month ago, a friend sent me a description of President Harry Truman’s life which I found fairly surprising.  I’ve been pondering ever since what to make of it.

One response is the obvious one – people and our politicians had greater integrity back then.   I certainly don’t want to try to defend the integrity of some of our more recent presidents, but I’m not sure about the “it was better in the olden days” approach.

It was this man, after all, who lived most of his life in the same house his wife inherited from her mother who also authorized dropping the atomic bombs against Japanese civilians.

And do I really think U.S. presidents should be expected to retire on their own military pensions and lick their own stamps?  Does this really make them better presidents?  Do I think the trail of secret service personnel which today a U.S. president will have attached to him or her for the rest of their lives really is an unnecessary luxury?

I think Truman very possibly was a man of integrity.  But I also think he was president in a different time.  Everything was simpler in those days.  We all were.

Here’s the blurb.  Whatever else, it got me thinking.  But I’m sure there’s no going back to those times.

Harry Truman was a different kind of President. He probably made as many, or more important decisions regarding our nation’s history as any of the other 42 Presidents preceding him. However, a measure of his greatness may rest on what he did after he left the White House.

The only asset he had when he died was the house he lived in, which was in Independence Missouri . His wife had inherited the house from her mother and father and other than their years in the White House, they lived their entire lives there.

When he retired from office in 1952, his income was a U.S. Army pension reported to have been $13,507.72 a year. Congress, noting that he was paying for his stamps and personally licking them, granted him an ‘allowance’ and, later, a retroactive pension of $25,000 per year.

After President Eisenhower was inaugurated, Harry and Bess drove home to Missouri by themselves. There was no Secret Service following them.  When offered corporate positions at large salaries, he declined, stating, “You don ‘t want me. You want the office of the President, and that doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the American people and it’s not for sale.”

Even later, on May 6, 1971, when Congress was preparing to award him the Medal of Honor on his 87th birthday, he refused to accept it, writing, “I don ‘t consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise.”

As president he paid for all of his own travel expenses and food. Modern politicians have found a new level of success in cashing in on the Presidency, resulting in untold wealth. Today, many in Congress also have found a way to become quite wealthy while enjoying the fruits of their offices. Political offices are now sometimes for sale. (sic. Illinois )

Good old Harry Truman was correct when he observed, “My choices in life were either to be a piano player in a whore house or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference!


February 6, 2011

How is the U.S. news media reporting it?

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:11 pm

Yesterday’s news included the report that former President George W Bush has withdrawn from a planned trip to Geneva, Switzerland where he was scheduled to speak at an appeal for a Jewish charity.

Bush cancelled the trip rather than face the the possibility he would be arrested on terrorism charges.

Human rights groups filed a complaint in a Geneva court alleging that Bush authorized tortures such as water boarding forbidden by the Geneva Treaty under the name of “enhanced interrogation techniques” against suspected militants held at Guantanamo Bay.  Swiss government officials could have been required under law to open a criminal investigation against him.

I’ve been trying to find out how this news was treated by the news media in the States, but so far have not been in contact with any family or friends who have heard about Bush’s change of plans.

I did see on Google that it has been written up in an article by the Huffington Press.  I don’t know what to make of the fact that when I try to log onto the page to read the article, I get an error message saying the article cannot be displayed.

January 29, 2011

Egypt isn’t as far away as it used to be

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 8:58 pm

I don’t think I’m any better informed than usual in relation to events in Egypt but I am much more concerned than usual.  The news channels have been reporting live from Egyptian cities and the millions of demonstrators who have been on the streets for the last four days.  Reports tonight are that Mubarak’s’ two sons have just arrived here in London.

I cannot help but hope that the demonstrators are successful in overthrowing the present regime, and I am very glad the Obama administration has made it clear that the financial implications would be severe if the army started to fire on the demonstrators.

But Egypt has been under the heel of a dictatorship for almost 50 years, and under Mubarak’s dictatorship for 38.  There isn’t a government in waiting.  The newscasters here say here that the Islamists do not represent the views of the majority of Egyptians who want an authentically functioning democracy.

But as we have seen repeatedly, functioning democracies take more than a free vote to work.

And then there’s the even bigger question of other governments in the area.  Mubarak had Washington’s support because he was a cornerstone in supporting America’s peace plan for the Palestinians in Gaza.  What will happen with Mubarak gone?  And will the other dictatorships in the region be vulnerable if Egyptian protestors are successful?  There are demonstrators already in Yemen and Jordan.  Unemployment is high throughout the region and people are getting poorer.

I think we could be seeing a change as significant and wide-sweeping as the one that took place in Eastern Europe after the fall of Russian Communism.

But the implications for the United States may be felt more deeply.  What will we do if Israel uses its nuclear weapons in the region?  What will be the implications if oil shipments, many of which go through Egypt’s Suez Canal, are interrupted?  What will we do if Pakistan decides to use its nuclear weapons?

The Bible says that two thousand years ago Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled into Egypt to escape Harrod.

But today I fear there is no place to flee.

January 15, 2011

I wish Palin was the problem

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:55 pm
Tags:

I was simply dumbfounded to learn last night that an average of 30,000 people are killed by guns every year in America.  This includes murders and suicides, but also accidents, often killing our children.

To put the same appalling statistic in another way, more Americans in the US were killed by guns between 1979 and 1997 than have died in all of our foreign wars since independence.  So this doesn’t include the Revolutionary  or Civil Wars, but it does include the First and Second World wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars.

I have thought for a long time that America was a much more violent country than many of us think of ourselves.  But frankly, I am gobsmacked at this number.

I’m not hopeful we’ll do anything about it.  Too many people think the answer is to get more guns into more places – like schools and churches.  There are already as many guns in America as there are American citizens, and the hope that bringing guns into the classroom and churches will reduce the problem seems ill-founded.

I’ve never been in favour of banning private ownership of guns.  I don’t trust governments enough to make them and criminals the only people who can shoot.   In any case, Americans are not going to give up the historic right to bear arms.

But surely we need some laws constraining who may legally own a gun, where and how they may use it, and putting some limitations on the kind of weapon just anybody can own.

Do we really need to legalize the use of automatic assault weapons by certifiably insane individuals?

I really don’t think it is too hysterical to suggest that we don’t.

January 13, 2011

Finding words that heal

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 3:09 pm

As I listened to President Obama address the nation after the Arizona massacre last night, I thought again how wonderful it is to share in dialogues with people who do not disrespect someone simply because they disagree.  Who do not argue by insult or try to convince by ridicule and threat.     

One of the delights of this blog for me  is that it has led to dialogues – here and on other blogs – that enable me to listen and to defend, to change and to become more convinced, to respect and be respected in good faith.  The benefits have been huge.  My ideas have broadened and clarified, in some cases they have even been revolutionized, and have changed the way I look at the world and my life in it.   Many of the words truly have been words that heal.

Indeed, there have been several times in my life when I have been immensely grateful for words that heal.

Yet, as I look at my angry, polarized country, I can only conclude that most other people have the same impulses I still sometimes have to resist.  Rather than explaining and in turn listening to someone who opposes my point of view, I often would rather not make the effort.  I’d rather dismiss them with some terse psychological diagnosis about fear or levels of intelligence.

I remember once getting an email from a colleague expressing a religious view with which I profoundly disagree.   I put it into the email delete box  seven different times.  I kept taking it back out, deciding to try to explain, and then changing my mind on the grounds that it was hopeless to try to deal with someone so stupidly rigid.

In the end, my better self did win and I answered his accusations with as much clarity and respect as I could.  I didn’t change his mind.  But we are still on speaking terms and I am glad neither of us retreated permanently to the Delete Box.

Despite their huge potential, words that heal, that bridge a gap rather than widen it, are so often so hard to find in ourselves.   I think that to swallow that anger, to replace that cutting sarcasm with words that try to reach across the chasm often demands a greatness of spirit both to utter and to hear.

Like defending freedom, letting others disagree with us with civility is a never-ending challenge.

Okay, this ends my Thought for the Day.  It’s just that I want to say Amen! to President Obama.  Even if he already said it so much better.

December 23, 2010

Christmas condolences

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 1:52 pm
Tags:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Unfortunately, Rudolph is no longer with us.

December 8, 2010

Leaky Wickets

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:54 pm
Tags:

I have been trying to evaluate the documents published by Wikileaks in these last few weeks, and decide what I think about it.

First of all, the United States must take responsibility for the fact that what they considered classified material should have been so poorly protected.  Instead, I fear officials have covered up their own incompetence by making loud noises about hackers and trying to extradite some of the more vulnerable of them to the United States to face trial and prison.

Secondly, does the release of 250,000 documents increase real transparency and make governments more responsible to the people they are meant to serve?   A lot of the material published so far ranges from the trivial to the embarrassing.  It is no big deal.  But some of it looks as if it could seriously endanger a lot of innocent people.  Listing all of the factories, hospitals, and other sites around the world that the United States considers essential to its security seems to me to be irresponsible.  I would be in terror if I were the thinly disguised Iranian businessman cooperating with the US in Iran.

I also fear that whatever the content, the simple release of some of this material will damage the United States’ capacity to carry on an effective diplomatic mission.  There is no doubt in my mind that whether we are talking about governments, family and friends, or work unions, negotiations cannot be carried out in full view while the public makes evaluative comments about every suggestion along the way.

So I think that to the extent that governments even fear that these kind of leaks may occur, diplomacy is damaged.  And the possibilities of war increase.

But something else is beginning to bother me about the content of these leaks.  I find myself asking if this is it?  Do these quarter of a million leaks represent the real concerns of diplomats around the world?  Are the main efforts to close Guantanamo reflected in offering  a small island state millions of dollars to take several inmates off our hands?  or suggesting to Belgium that accepting some of the prisoners would be a way for that country to “obtain prominence in Europe”?

And why is there not a whole steam of correspondence on global finance and trade?  Let us not be naive.  America’s position in the world has depended hugely on our significant economic power and leadership.  Now that is slipping away to the East.  Shouldn’t we be thinking about that?  Shouldn’t we be working a little harder to develop a few more effective strategies for dealing with the economic development of countries like India and China beside arguing that China should devalue the yuan against the US dollar?

I’m reaching the point where I think I might almost be happier if the leaks were indeed a little more significant.

November 14, 2010

A little bit of really good news

Since 9/11, prejudice against Muslims in the West has increased.  The increase isn’t just on the paranoid right, but is evident even among people whom one might consider moderate.  Even among those who claim that “some of my best friends are Muslims.”

I guess it’s understandable.  Even if unjustified.

But here is the good news:

A report on violent extremists in the United States recently found that Muslim-American communities helped foil close to a third of al Qaeda-related terror plots threatening the country since September 11, 2001.

And what might not exactly be called “good” news but is certainly surprising for those who believe that Americans are all non-violent, tolerant and reasonable, the study also found that since 9/11,  terrorism plots by non-Muslims greatly outnumber those attempted by Muslims.

So there!

November 1, 2010

Bitter Tea

Filed under: Growing Old,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 11:10 pm

I think perhaps the Tea Party is not quite as selfless as I thought when I was writing my post yesterday.  They seem to be greatly in favor of repealing Obama’s health care legislation but increasing payments for Medicare.

Medicare is health care for the elderly.   And a disproportionate number of Tea Party members seem to be over 60.

Meanwhile, today I drove right past the supermarket where I’ve been hundreds of times and where I was planning on going today in the first place.  I was talking to my husband about something completely different.

They say one isn’t as good at multi-tasking as one gets older.

In other words, I need to pay more attention to what I’m doing.  Like maybe I shouldn’t drive and talk at the same time?

October 31, 2010

Tea anyone?

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:52 pm

I don’t have a lot of admiration for the Tea Party and their self-righteous intolerance.

But I have to say one thing about them:  they are not asking for government hand outs.

I think their economic policies are downright disastrous and to the extent they are implemented will cause them far more trouble than they have any idea.

But over here the minority parties are inevitably protesting not because government is doing too much for them but doing too little.  They are rioting in the streets in France over a law raising the official retirement age from 60 to 62.  Greeks may be out on the streets again on similar grounds.  The British government has just announced a cost-cutting measure depriving parents of their tax-free weekly child allowance if they have an income over $75,000.  Some people see this as a betrayal of family values.

It’s hard for me to say this, but I don’t disagree with the Tea Party about everything.

But oh, I do hope they don’t manage to elect too many representatives this Tuesday.

September 13, 2010

A donation worth its metal

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am not a great lover of any religious institution.  I’m not even a believer in any orthodox set of religious beliefs.

But I am a passionate believer in religious freedom, and the fundamental principles upon which the constitution of the United States are built.

And so I am simply thrilled to read that since yesterday, Michael Moore has received more than $50,000 donations toward the building of an Islamic Center several blocks from the site of 9/11.   I’m sending a donation.  I don’t care whose pocket it goes into, as long as it is clear that there are still Americans who will not throw away our religious freedoms because they are too fragile to consider an Islamic Center anywhere near the former World Trade Center.

Michael Moore says he thinks the Islamic Center should not be situated two blocks away from Ground Zero.  He says it should be on Ground Zero.  I take his point, although I fear the egos of too many Americans are too fragile to bear such a display of our vaunted religious freedom.

September 9, 2010

The Truth?

I don’t always know what I’m talking about but I know I’m right.

Muhammad Ali

And so a church in Florida with a mere 50 members, only 30 of whom attend services regularly, is still planning to burn the Koran on Saturday, the anniversary of 9/11.

Proclaiming the Truth, says the pastor, is more important than not insulting the millions of Muslims who will be offended, more important than religious tolerance or avoiding the deaths of U.S. military in Afghanistan or Americans anywhere.  “Don’t blame us,” he said.  “We belong to a religion of love;  Islam is a religion of hate.”

The local fire department says he does not have permission to have a bon fire, and may be on hand to stop it.  The news here reports that the pastor says he might consider not going ahead with the burnings if he gets a personal call from President Obama.

Oh my, we do think we are important now, don’t we?  They say another pastor in Tennessee is lining up to pull the same publicity stunt.

Seeing this virulent intolerance rearing its head once again in the name of freedom in my country is much worse than watching the disaster of the World Trade Towers.

August 25, 2010

National insanity

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 8:38 pm
Tags:

I cannot believe — no, I’m afraid I can believe.  So let me begin again.

I cannot fathom how any one in the United States can seriously think that bombing Iran is anything but an insane idea.

Have we learned nothing from Iraq?  from Afghanistan?  from Lebanon?  from Vietnam?  Do we still think we can win hearts and minds with bombs?  and do we still think we can win a war without the hearts and minds of the people?

August 14, 2010

Unlearned lessons

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:56 pm
A friend forwarded me these facts  I didn’t know.  They are included in a recent film, Iron-Jawed Angels, about the women who fought for women’s right to vote in the United States.
.
Women picketing the White House carrying signs asking for the vote were arrested and convicted of  ‘obstructing sidewalk traffic.’ Three were sent to prison for carrying a banner which said, “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

A ‘Night of Terror’ unfolded on Nov. 15, 1917.  The warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there.   40 prison guards wielding clubs went  on a rampage against 33 women.

They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air.  They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head  against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cell mate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack.  Affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women.  For weeks, the women’s only water came from an open pail. Their food was infested with worms.

President Woodrow Wilson tried to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized.  The doctor refused. Alice Paul was strong, he said, and brave. That didn’t make her crazy. ‘Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity,’ he added.

In the light of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, I wonder how much has changed.  Sounds like similar methods:  just different people they’re trying to subdue.

Women got the vote in the United States in 1920.

August 12, 2010

Prohibition Revisited

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 8:11 pm
Tags:

As prohibition demonstrated, making alcohol illegal did not solve the problem of alcohol abuse.  It criminalized it and drove it underground.

We are now beginning to realize that the same thing is true for the use of drugs that are currently illegal.  California has made it legal to grow and sell marijuana for medical use.  Now the current and former presidents of Mexico are calling for the legalization of drugsin their own country.

I strongly favour the legalization of drugs.

As we have seen, making drugs illegal doesn’t stop people from using them.  It just turns them and all the distributors into criminals.

If we legalized drugs instead, we could reduce our prison population, the accompanying costs of incarcerating them, and the “criminal training” to which inmates are inevitably exposed in prison.

And drugs could be subject to tax the way alcohol is.

Perhaps most importantly, society would put the responsibility for deciding how to use drugs safely into the hands of the individual, while simultaneously reducing the appeal to the young of engaging in what they regard as behavior rebelling against the outmoded and ignorant moralizing of the older generation.

I’ve used drugs in my life.  Now I merely indulge in an occasional drink.  But that’s not because drugs are illegal.  It’s a personal decision for quite practical reasons.

I’m unlikely to use them in any case, but my vote is to legalize drugs.  I think it would make the world a safer place.

Although I do worry what enterprises the drug gangs will move into.  People smuggling makes drug smuggling look cuddly.

August 1, 2010

My strangled objection

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 3:42 pm


I started to read the cover article in the Economist last week that discusses the extraordinary number of people the United States sends to prison.  No other developed country locks up so many of its citizens.  I don’t usually walk away from things like this, but I had to stop.  I couldn’t stand it.

There is something in the American psyche that thinks we can kick people into submission.  We have little insight and no mercy.

The only topic that makes me feel the same way is our attitude toward torture.   I think it comes from the same problem, the same inability to understand that punishment and torture does not achieve what we want it to.

From what I have read, though, the majority of Americans would agree that prison works.  And that torture is permissible under some circumstances when the torturer deems the security of America may be at risk.

So we inadvertently torture innocent people sometimes.

Is that okay?

I don’t think it is.  But quite possibly it’s because I think torture in the end is self-defeating.  It’s one reason why America’s standing in the world has nose-dived since Guantanamo and AbuGhaib.

June 12, 2010

Killing by remote control

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 8:51 pm

I was horrified to read yesterday that state officials in Arizona and Texas are asking the Federal Aviation Authority to authorize the use of drones to monitor their borders with Mexico.

Border patrol agents have just shot and killed a 15-year-old Mexican boy who was throwing stones that could have “done serious damage.”

Now we want to monitor our borders with drones.  We are already using them in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan and Yemen with whom we are not at war, and now we want to use them in Mexico.

What is happening to us?

Have we gone absolutely mad?

May 11, 2010

Returning to ground

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:31 pm
Tags:

The Queen has just accepted Gordon Brown’s resignation, and David Cameron is as I write on his way to the Palace where the Queen will ask him to form a new government.  He is expected to arrive at Number 10 Downing Street within minutes.

The Tories and Lib Dems have been in negotiations for the last six hours, but the details of any agreement for forming a government haven’t yet been released.

I must say there is a dignity in this final resolution.  The last five days it has looked as if principle had completely departed from politics here.  But in the end, it was Labour parliament members who said that attempting to build a coalition with the Lib Dems to muscle out the Conservatives who had won a majority.

It’s a huge relief to have this crisis resolved.  It has been historic and watching it has been mesmerizing.  But I’m looking forward to returning to a little predictable routine.

Not least, I can start writing posts about something else.

May 10, 2010

Quantum Fuzzies II

I really was going to hold forth on a serious aspect of quantum physics tonight, but once again the UK election is using up all my psychic energy.

All day today, news reporters have been going along expecting an announcement from the Conservatives and the Lib Dems this evening that they’d agreed on forming a government.

And then out of the dark, Gordon Brown (current prime minister and leader of the Labour party) announced that he was stepping down no later than September and that the Labour party was entering into serious negotiations with the Lib Dems toward forming a coalition government.

AHH is breaking loose across the board.  The negotiations with the Conservatives had been taking place with a very high public profile, and they had no idea that the Lib Dems had been carrying on parallel negotiations with Labour.  One commentator called them dishonourable, standing on the street, if you will, hawking for the highest bid for their parliamentary support.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen next:

  • The market is an important unknown:  how long will it take before sterling plummets and interest rates on government borrowings sky-rocket?
  • If nobody is able to form a stable government –  one that can at least command a majority vote following the Queens speech which lays out the government’s plan for the next year – there will have to be a new election immediately.  It’s not clear how long these negotiations can go on with no resolution, but next Monday might be the last possible date.
  • The one prize the Lib Dems are seeking is a change in the voting system.  Labour and the Lib Dems think they can get legislative changes through that will keep the Conservatives out for the foreseeable future.  Since the Conservatives command a majority in England, and Labour with the Lib Dems command majorities in Scotland and Wales, this could be divisive on a large scale.  In a desperate effort not to stay in contention, the Conservatives have, nonetheless, offered the Lib Dems voter reform if they will join them instead of Labour to form a government.

It’s a nasty business.

But it is totally fascinating.

May 9, 2010

Quantum fuzzies

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:09 pm

I was going to write a post today about one of the more intriguing findings of quantum physics, but I find that watching the current developments in British politics is sufficiently mind-boggling.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg

Brown (Labour), Cameron (Tory), and Clegg (Liberal  Democrat)


At this point, I have received 3 telephone calls and six emails from Americans asking me to explain what is happening.  Actually explaining what is going on is probably beyond my wit, but here are a few relevant features:

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are currently locked in negotiations in an attempt to form a coalition government.  The Tory  Conservatives have 306 parliamentary seats, 10 short of the majority they need to form a government that the other parties could not unseat without help from Tory defectors.  The Lib Dems have 58 seats, so together they could form a pretty solid block.

The problem is that, although they agree on some significant issues, they seriously disagree on immigration policy, Britain’s role in Europe, how to deal with the looming budget deficit, and on changes to the voting rules.  The last is probably the most difficult to resolve, because the Lib Dems cannot foresee being more than a third tag-along party without change.  The current system is rather like the electoral system by which the U.S. President is elected, making it possible for the party with the smaller popular vote to actually win the most electoral votes and so become president.  The difficulty for the Lib Dems is that this system applies to every member parliament so that they routinely get a much larger popular vote than they get seats in parliament.

If the two parties can reach some kind of agreement on this issue, I think the chances are  that they can make it work.  The question, though, is whether the party members on either side can work together for long enough to hold the coalition together for more than a year.

The alternative to a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is for a Lib Dem-Labour coalition with another party adding its votes when necessary.  The problem with this solution is that neither of these two parties received a commanding mandate from the voters.  And 62% of the population say that they want Gordon Brown out under any circumstances.

Okay, these are the public issues.  Slightly more sote voce issues which are nonetheless quite possibly of equal importance is the fact that each party is not only concerned, as they loudly proclaim, with the “good of the country first.”  First, also, is probably maximizing the chances of being or getting into power in another year or two.  For example:

Should the Conservatives let Labour and the Lib Dems deal with the cuts and tax rises and labour strikes which almost everybody expects to emerge in the next year, and then get elected with a majority next year?

Should the Lib Dems agree to a coalition with Labour in order to effect an immediate change in voter rules in their favour?  If they did, would the voters forgive them for such a blatant self-serving tactic?

Ditto for Labour.  Besides, will voters tolerate a party that came in second in terms of both the popular vote and parliamentary seats remaining in government?

Okay, tomorrow I’m writing about quantum physics.  That should be a good deal simpler.  (At least the way I’m going to write about it anyway.)

For what it’s worth, I’m hoping for a successful Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.  Given the very painful cuts and adjustments that the current economic reality is going to require for at least another five or even ten years, I think the country will find it easier to accept if it is coming from these two quite different parties together.

May 7, 2010

Resigning from running the world

Well, the election here in Britain has resulted in a humdinger of a hung parliament.  Britain has had hung parliaments before, but never before in the face of such a huge budget deficit and fiscal crisis.  The markets are wobbling, but if the Tories (Conservatives) can’t reach an agreement with the Liberal Democrats before markets open on Monday, pandamonium could break out.

Meanwhile, TruthOut, which I read with a due sense of outraged seriousness, continues to send me their daily updates about the dire state of everything.  Today their leads concerned the control of America’s mass media by the right wing, Arizona’s racist immigration law, the Time Square bomb, regulatory failure of the big banks, the Gulf oil spill, and the prediction that oil production will peak in 2014.

It’s a good thing I no longer feel responsible for the world.

Because even in the midst of everything that seems to me so wrong, so out of kilter, so cruel or stupid or unjust, I find an amazing joy, a great fulfilment, in just being here.

I wouldn’t have thought understanding something so simple would have taken me so long to learn.

But now I am going back to see what I can make of this jumble that seems to have resulted from the election here last night.

May 6, 2010

State of suspended animation

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 6:56 pm
Tags:

Very few elections in my life have seemed critically important.  Kennedy’s election and Obama’s win stand out on the positive side.  George Bush Jr’s election and re-election stand out as recent elections with disastrous results.

Today’s election here in Britain feels like that.  It’s been a wild four weeks.  Today everything is quiet — media coverage is subdued except for reports of continued demonstrations in Greece and the spread of the oil spill in the Gulf.

We will stay up tonight until we collapse and have some idea of the shape of the results.

Now back to the suspense being covered by the BBC.

Best vote for the day:  A wildly popular political blogger tells this story of his family life around the breakfast table this morning.  The night before Guido Fawkes (father figure) brought home  finger puppets  of the three men leading the three main political parties vying for votes in today’s election.

This morning Miss Fawkes (5) and Ms Fawkes (2¾) grabbed them off the breakfast table, ripping open the packets to give dad the benefit of their political analysis.

First, and mindful that Mrs Fawkes was watching with a wary look in her eye, Guido tried to exercise some fatherly objectivity and give the girls some background:-

“The one with the red tie is Gordon Brown, he is the Prime Minister, the one with the blue tie is David Cameron, he wants to be Prime Minister.  Nick Clegg has a yellow tie and he wants to decide who is Prime Minister.”

Miss Fawkes immediately and preceptively interrupted “They are all boys?”, “Yes” replied dad. Miss & Ms Fawkes chorused “Yukk”.  With that they discarded the politicians and went back to their porridge.

So there you have it, The feminist Fawkes girls say “none of the above”…

May 5, 2010

Just another ordinary chaotic day in the world

Sitting here in my little corner of England, I have tried not to make this blog a commentary on international affairs.  But right now three very big events are unfolding simultaneously that I think might have momentous results.

The closest to home is the British election tomorrow.  Four weeks ago the result looked like a foregone conclusion, but tonight the polls are suggesting that it will be a three-way nobody-wins outright outcome leading to a hung parliament.  The bond and currency markets are staying open all night on Thursday, because nobody knows how the markets will react.  Some analysts are predicting that if there’s no clear government identified by Friday afternoon, the value of the British currency will plummet and bond rates will inflate, quite possibly rocketing Britain with an unsustainable deficit, dashing the economy, and creating rampant inflation.

(I personally agree with analysts who think it will take a little longer than 24 hours for a crash like this to happen, but if there’s still no sign of a stable government grappling with the deficit within a week or ten days, the bottom will almost certainly begin to fall out.)

Which gets us to Greece.  The rioting on the streets again today in Greece, including the torching of a bank that killed three people trapped inside, is not a local matter.  Portugal, Spain, Italy, and possibly Britain, could find themselves in a similar situation, and it could tear Europe apart.  In the worst case scenario, riots and serious civil unrest could spread across the continent, the euro (Europe’s single currency used by 15 European countries) could implode, and Europe fall into a deep economic depression.

This would have grave effects way beyond Europe, including making it much harder for America to continue to pull out of recession and pay down our deficit.

The third event with potentially world-wide effects is the oil leak in the Gulf.  It’s already obvious that the environmental damage is going to be huge.  We just don’t know how huge.

But since most of the world’s oil is now being accessed through underwater wells, this accident is going to increase the cost of oil, and reduce its availability.  The one good effect of this catastrophe might be that green technology gets a bigger boost than all the warnings of global warming could produce.

Whatever else, I can’t see how anyone finds life boring.  Scary, maybe.  Infuriating often.  But not boring.

April 28, 2010

How bad would it have to get?

A friend who is facing serious eye surgery about which her surgeon has some doubts told me that if she goes blind, she will end her life – that it would not be worth living if she had to be taken care of in such a total way.

I was a bit shocked.  I admit one of the recent traumas of my life was related to how I would cope if my cataract surgery failed on the single eye with which I can read.  I wondered where I would gather the strength of character to live with such a profound deprivation, but the thought of suicide didn’t even occur to me.

Yet I began to wonder just how bad it would have to be for me to prefer to be dead than alive.  Intense pain as the result of a terminal condition has always seemed sufficient cause to me.  Or to attempt suicide, as a doctor I know imprisoned in Hungary during the revolution, did in order to prevent authorities from torturing his wife and children in the attempt to extract information from him.  Being completely bedridden in itself would not be sufficient, but if it also involved an inability to speak, hear, or read, it might be more than I could take.  But then I probably would not be able to commit suicide under those conditions.

All of this, believe it or not, actually began as a reverie, despite everything that can and does go wrong, how wonderful it is to be alive.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, Gordon Brown, the current Prime Minister who is running for re-election, was caught on a live microphone today expressing disgust about a voter with whom he had just had an apparently successful conversation and with whom he had parted with a warm farewell and an arm around her shoulder.

The press are having a field day.  The woman herself was profoundly shocked at being called a bigot, and is now being pursued by the media to tell her story.  Gordon Brown, meanwhile, is driving up and down the country in an attempt to apologize.  Some people believe him.

Greece is probably going bankrupt and the only people in a position to bail them out are the Germans who are reluctant to bail out a country which has not only been profligate and irresponsible, but lied about the country’s finances until last fall.

The Greeks are rioting on the streets at threatened cuts.  The markets are worried that the debt problem could bring down Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and even Britain.

I worry about the United States’ deficit if this triggers a world-wide depression.

As I was saying, it’s wonderful to be alive.

April 25, 2010

A glimmer of hope?

Filed under: Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:08 pm

The Taliban’s supreme leader in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar, said in a long interview with a journalist from Britain’s Sunday Times, that they are willing to talk peace.  He said that they know they do not have the skills to govern the country and were surprised when they were in power before how complex and difficult it was.

Now, he says, all the Taliban wants to do is to drive foreigners out of their country.  But their enthusiasm for fighting to achieve this end by whatever means necessary is unabated.

If this isn’t just a strategy to get the foreigners from the West to go home and let the terrorist training camps back in, it represents a glimmer of hope.

April 14, 2010

The devil’s choices

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 7:37 pm

I read an opinion today that Obama can’t withdraw our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and also get elected to a second term.

It had the ring of authenticity.

After initially supporting both wars, I have long been convinced that both wars are  possibly illegal, and arguably immoral.   Above all, they are unwinnable.

The question I am asking myself is whether Obama could get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan if he were willing to face the humiliation of being a one-term President.  And then if he could, should he?

When one considers Sarah Palin as the alternative, perhaps staying in Iraq and Afghanistan is the lesser of two evils.  I mean, seriously, perhaps it will do less harm to America and to the global community.

Speaking of the global community, I think Obama’s nuclear proliferation summit is immeasurably important.  Though I notice that Israel’s Netanyahu didn’t have the courage to attend.

That’s another one:  will Obama be able to take on Netanyahu and the American lobby supporting him?

I can only say that these questions seem so unanswerable that I obviously did not miss my calling by not becoming a politician.

April 13, 2010

Relenting

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 9:03 pm
Tags:

I have been trying to ignore the elephant in the corner but it’s there 24/7 and it’s difficult to keep pretending it’s not there:  Britain is in the throes of a general election which, like the Obama/McCain race, is finely balanced with clear differences between the two parties.

Gordon Brown is the current prime minister and I have developed the same sense of revulsion every time I see him open his mouth that I had in relation to George Bush.  Brown was chancellor for 10 years before he unceremoniously ousted Tony Blair and took over the country.  The chancellor basically decides the country’s entire fiscal policy – taxes and spending were all almost completely under his control for a decade.

Brown obviously didn’t cause the global recession, but he spent money like an addict for the ten years he was chancellor and increased public debt, so that Britain was not well placed to face the recession when it happened.   He was enamoured of the bankers, knighted several, and like them thought the good times were going to roll forever.

So I very much hope David Cameron and the Tories win.  Today Cameron revealed their manifesto which quoted John F Kennedy and tried to emulate Obama’s Yes We Can kind of hope.  Somehow it feels pretty dead in the water, but he would be better than Brown et al.

But there is also a serious possibility of a hung Parliament.  That means no party wins an outright majority, and the Queen then asks one party to try to form a coalition government.  If they can’t do it, the Queen then asks another party.  It tends to be an unstable arrangement and could quite conceivable lead to another election within months.

The election is May 6.  We will stay up waiting to hear the returns.  In the meantime, there is an awful lot of waffle, trying to pretend that it won’t cost anybody anything really demanding to pay down the deficit, and trying to pretend that the country can still afford a government that can give hand-outs as if we’d just won a lottery.  Instead of losing it.

All this agro, and I don’t even have a vote.

March 22, 2010

More better than bad

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:58 pm
Tags:

I will admit I was not prepared for the virulence of the debate -if one can elevate much of what was said in relation to the Health Care Bill to the level of “debate”.   But I’m glad something finally made it through Congress.

I have been trying to find out what actually was finally passed, because I strongly suspect the bill may contain some grave weaknesses:  there are still ten million Americans who are not covered by any health care insurance;  there is no public option;  the country may not be able to afford the delivery of the medical treatment it promises;  what is meant by providing “best practice” is horribly complex and may exclude the use of innovative or controversial treatments;  abortions or procedures to which some object on medical grounds may not be covered even for those whose religious beliefs do not exclude them.

But I think the bill, nonetheless, is far better than nothing.  Apart from the sheer inhumanity of refusing to treat the sick because they are too poor, America will not be able to remain competitive in the world economy if we do not reign in our medical costs and take them from the shoulders of employers.  There is no question that medical insurance was one of the factors that brought the American car industry to its knees.  And Obama had to get it passed if his Presidency was not going to become a dead duck less than half way through his first term in office.

Besides, we can make the system better.  When social security was introduced in the 1930’s, it was not a very good program.  But it got better.

Over here in England, the debate is when someone who participates in assisted suicide should face criminal charges.  Somehow, I don’t think America is ready for that one yet.  More on that subject tomorrow.

Unless the world falls in, which would be more interesting.

March 11, 2010

A surprising anniversary

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:41 pm
Tags:

Exactly a century ago, China ended slavery.

Lest we Americans feel too smug about this, let us remember that less than a century ago women did not have the constitutional right to vote in the United States.

And in truth, although the American Civil War ended slavery in America 45 years earlier than in China, Blacks did not even begin to get equal rights until the 1960’s.  They were relegated to seats at the back of buses and trains (or no seats at all if a white person wanted it), did not have access to the better schools, could not use public water fountains reserved for whites, and were refused admittance to hotels and restaurants.  In my own day, Blacks (and Whites fighting for equal rights) were lynched by righteous mobs never brought to justice.  And there is still a very real slave trade operating around the world today.

On the other hand, maybe – just maybe – there are more people today who know that this is dead wrong.  For the last century, there has been a struggle to create societies that provide equal rights and opportunities for all.  Communism was pretty much of a failure, but they were trying.

Actually, it isn’t that easy to find a system that works.  But it seems to me there at least has been a commitment – however imperfect and blemished by our human frailty – to human equality based not on inheritance or skin color or ethnic identity but simply on our common humanity.

I know.  We’ve got a long way to go.  And when you read the American Constitution, there does seem to be a lot of backsliding and selective application of principle going on to this very day.

But maybe, just the same, we are slowly turning our faces to the sun.

March 5, 2010

Yes we can!

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:01 pm

I opened up the newspaper yesterday and next to all the bad news was a whole page of hope.  A lot of people might still think that global warming is a myth and that environmental destruction can therefore be dismissed along with it.

But there exists a significant number of people around the world who are convinced that there is a problem, and that we can solve it.  Apart from global warming, the significant problem arises from the fact that in the last fifty years, the human population has tripled.  This has already put a great strain on the natural resources so many of us have used like a bottomless well.

But there are those who are convinced that there is something we can do besides wring our hands.  Many of them believe that waiting for top/down solutions from governments is folly.  Solutions, they believe history suggest, are going to come from innovators, entrepeneurs, and from the ingenuity of people in general determined that we need to respect the world and its resources.

Hope Example I is Daniel Ishag who made millions of dollars during the dot-com era and now wants to help the environment.  He spent several years travelling around the world looking for ideas.  He found it in South Korea where they are using bacteria to clean waste water.   Many waste-water treatments already use bacteria, but the advantage of the Korean version is that the bacteria can be re-cycled and used again and again, and requires half the power of existing technology.  Ishag’s company, Bluewater Bio,  is negotiating with companies supplying domestic water, industrial and sewage plants, agricultural sites, food-processing companies, breweries, hospitals, and textile manufactures.

Hope Example II is sustainable palm oil.  Palm oil is used in everything from our margarine and chocolate to products for our washing machine and car.  The problem is that tropical plantations to meet our voracious thirst has led to rampant deforestation and terrible habitat destruction.   Now within months a single refinery in Liverpool expects to be providing 1/3 of Britain’s annual consumption of palm oil from sustainable sources.  Sustainable means no more deforestation, no more habitats destroyed.  If one refinery in Britain can do it for 1/3 of Britain’s needs, it can be done for the world.

Hope Example III is my favourite, and the one I’m hoping for the hardest.  It’s a new approach to low-carbon fuel-cell technology coming out of Bloom Energy in Silicon Valley, California.   They think they can ultimately manufacture at a reasonable price loaf-size boxes that could power an entire house.  I will confess that my hope is not scientifically convincing because I don’t really understand how it works.  It was featured on 60 Minutes recently, though that doesn’t necessarily move it from the Hope to the Accomplished category.

Sometimes I just despair of the narrow-minded greed and selfish concern of the human species.  But sometimes I just look at us and think what an incredible, what an amazing, fantastic species we are.

Yes we can!

February 28, 2010

More worries about Plato’s left hand

I’m not really worried about whether Plato was left-handed.  But I’m worried about the influence of people who see the world in the way Plato seems to have seen it.  Because it is a view of reality that still exercises immense influence in the modern world.

I am not thinking, at this point, about Plato’s super-natural perfect world which has been hijacked by Christian theology and populated with spirits.   I don’t believe in the existence of that world, but my concerns tonight are for the influence in modern thinking of what I think is a form of brilliant semi-autistic thinking.

In particular, I am thinking of a small group of people, of whom I suspect Plato was one, who are highly gifted mathematicians and often musicians, but who, at the same time, are severely handicapped in their ability to understand less numerical concepts.   As a result, they are often extremely shy, uncomfortable in social situations, unable to intuit what appears to us as the most obvious feelings of others.  They are sometimes surprisingly concrete in their interpretations of what they hear, and so don’t understand poetry at all and misinterpret symbolic thought as literal.

Plato himself thought that poetry should have no place in society, and instead told poets that they should say “what they really mean.”

I remembered that yesterday when I heard a leading scientist here publicly argue for saving money in our schools by teaching only science and math on the grounds that literature and the arts were a waste of time we could not afford in this time of austerity.

It is an argument that has been running through the philosophy of science and through what are considered the “softer” sciences like psychology, sociology, and political science for more than a century.

Fundamentally, the argument has been whether everything that counts can be counted, and whether what can’t be counted should be included at all in a valid scientific analysis.

The recent financial crisis is a dramatic illustration of this debate applied to real-world systems.  Chastened economists have been looking at the rubble of the economic system they thought had tamed financial risk with sophisticated mathematical formulae powered by prodigious computer technology.  One economist even wrote a history of risk entitled “Against the Gods” in which he argued that financial risk had been permanently reduced by derivatives, securitization, CDOs, and the whole panoply of complex configurations that only a few could understand.

Financial analysts, traders, regulators, or bankers who argued that there was something else that needed to be taken into account besides what was included in these quantitative analyses were dismissed as old fogeys.  They were shelved and dismissed while for ten years a new form of credit risk dazzled and blinded financiers.

Not every gifted mathematician shares a blind spot for interpersonal, symbolic, poetic, and social reality.  Research suggests that those who are truly incapable of understanding these things lack what neuroscientists call “mirror neurons.”  It’s a syndrome that exists on a gradient, so one may be extremely a-social, belonging to a group labelled autistic.  But lesser versions appear as Asperger’s syndrome, or merely as shyness or social awkwardness.

I’m thinking about these people because when they are brilliant, even geniuses, it is not obvious that there is a whole half of reality to which they have no direct access.  Rather the way a color blind-person has no immediate experience of the difference between green and red.

I’m also personally concerned.  Because this syndrome runs in our family.  And although I am right-handed, I have recognized for many years that I have what you might call a “left-handed brain.”  I’m good at math and music, and with some instinctive wisdom, I became a cognitive psychologist, and went into university teaching, rather than becoming a psychotherapist.

What I worry about is just how big a blind spot I have when it comes to understanding other people.  Do I unknowingly miss the obvious?  Do I run rough-shod over the feelings of others?  Am I more sensitive to their effects on me rather than mine on them?

I know no one can really tell me the answer.  But simply entertaining it as a serious possibility has greatly increased my tolerance for other people who seem to me to so callously dismiss the feelings of others or to judge them with such arrogant ignorance.

I mean, maybe I do too.

February 26, 2010

Direct vs representative democracy

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:00 pm

This is one of those topics that would have bored my teenage mind in a political science course.

But now I’m worried about it.  Representative democracy is what we have theoretically in the States and here in Britain.  We elect representatives to whom we give a mandate to work out the best possible course of action for the people they represent.  We don’t elect them as cyphers.  We expect them to inform themselves, to think about the issues, to negotiate, whenever possible to integrate the best policies from all sides, and yes – to compromise.

In a direct democracy, the people vote directly in a referendum or issue presented on polling day, and the majority wins.  But there is another way in which direct democracy is increasingly displacing representative democracy and that is through opinion polls which give almost instantaneous feedback to politicians about where the majority of people stand.

It would be ridiculous to argue that politicians should not know what voters think and want.  But a wholesale displacement of an independent role of politicians  by the immediate will of the people seems to me to be seriously dangerous.

Are we able to be sufficiently well-informed on every subject of political importance to by-pass the experience and knowledge of politician  (and hopefully their professional advisers)?  Do we not risk the loudest opinion winning more often than the carefully reasoned or thought through?  Are we not going to increase the ideological splits which seem to tolerate so little compromise?

It’s not just issues like abortion, torture,  the death penalty or foreign wars that separate us.  There are questions about the best way to deal with the budget deficits, with unemployment, with banking rules, with the environment, with the cost of  medicare and social security as the proportion of elderly increases in our societies.

Do we really want to choose solutions based on the results of mass opinion polls on all these critical issues?  Personally, I don’t feel well enough informed about them all to feel confident that the entire country should do what I think is best.

February 25, 2010

Fighting with a hard ball

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:54 pm

Well, President Obama started out by offering his hand of friendship to those who disagreed.  It didn’t work with China.  It didn’t work with Iran.  It didn’t work with the Republicans.

But Obama is very smart.  He’s a fast learner, and he’s tough.  It also looks as if he may be getting a few breaks:

  • Scott Brown, the Republican who won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat has bucked party lines and is going to vote for Obama’s $15 billion jobs bill.  The tea-party brigade are incandescent.
  • Joe Lieberman is going to support equal rights for gays in the military.
  • And Obama is going to try to get his health care bill passed by using a process called – ironically – reconciliation, which by-passes the Senate’s right to filibuster it to death.  He might even get the public option through this door.

Right!  It’s made my day.

I even think I’m just about over the flu.

February 19, 2010

What’s scary about Greece

Up until now, I’ve felt that the world had enough problems without my worrying about the Greek economy.  But I’m afraid that not caring about what happens in Greece is like not caring about Lehman Brothers in 2007.  Only worse.

Why?  Because Greece is a member of the EU and uses the euro as its currency.  So do 22 other countries, including giants like Germany and France.  The euro countries have rules about how they run their economies, but Greece has  been faking the numbers and a budget deficit that was supposed to be a mere 3.7% of GDP in August has now rocketed to 12.7%.  The markets are going crazy and threatening to raise Greece’s borrowing rates to unaffordable heights.

And then Greece might default on its loans, creating a sovereign-debt crisis which is the posh word for an insolvent, bankrupt country.   Well, Greece has a retirement age of about 61, a huge culture of tax evasion in which over half the families in the country pay no tax at all, and a bloated public sector that gets 14 “monthly” pay checks a year.  So they deserve what they get.

Just like Lehman Brothers and all the other banks deserved what they would have got if governments hadn’t bailed them out.  Governments bailed them out not out of charity but because the fall out for the rest of us, had the banks collapsed, would have been even worse than they already are.

A sovereign debt crisis for an EU country would make Lehman Brothers look like play in a sand box.  Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy would all be in immediate danger of similar default.  Great Britain could be threatened, and even America would feel the heat.

If that happens, a second Great Depression looms.

And that is why half the world’s economists are arguing that we cannot go on stimulating the economies of the developed world without worrying about beginning to pay down our looming budget deficits.

As I said yesterday, it’s a critical decision, and to get it wrong will be disastrous.  Withdraw the stimulus too soon, and the economy sinks back into recession or even depression.  Borrow too much money and it’s depression anyway.

From what I can tell, Obama’s budget is trying to steer a middle road, making some cuts, but also increasing the stimulus.  As many people are convinced he’s right as are sure he’s taking the country down the road to perdition.

I understand the problem.  I wish I were that unique person who is certain of the solution.

February 18, 2010

An impossible choice that must be made

I’ve learned a lot about financial systems and the world economies since Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in September 2007.  But not enough.

Which would be okay, but I fear that nobody knows enough.  Should countries continue to borrow money to stimulate economies enough to keep them from falling back into recession and avoid the decades of deflation that has cursed Japan who increased taxes and withdrew its stimulus too soon? Or should they start trying to reduce deficits by cutting services in order to avoid having to pay crippling interest rates that could drag down the country for generations?

Getting it wrong will have terrible consequences.  But economists who are far more learned than I are lined up categorically on both sides.  Whichever way one goes, the numbers sound too terrifying to contemplate.  And yet we must decide.

But I bet Sarah Palin knows what to do.

February 6, 2010

Peace-loving Americans

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:55 pm

In the last century, America has been involved in major wars during 40 of those 100 years.  Sometimes, as today, we’ve been involved in more than one war at the same time.

Mostly, I think we think it’s not our fault – that we are just trying to achieve justice and security for all.

But I’m thinking maybe we are a very bellicose nation.  We seem to think it’s all right to go to war if we are convinced right is on our side.

But force isn’t always the best way to achieve justice and security.  I think we need a major re-think of who we are and how we want to achieve what we value most.  I know Obama’s softly-softly approach has not led to instant stunning success.  I know there is a place for taking a tough stand – whether it’s against Iran. China, the obstreperous Republicans or fanatical terrorists looking for the short straight road to heaven.

But Obama has to undue incredible damage resulting from the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld fisticuffs policies.  And perhaps we Americans aren’t very good at quiet diplomacy.  We just get in there and start bashing people around as our first option.

So I guess I shouldn’t now go round and tell my neighbour if he doesn’t turn down the volume of his TV I’m going to call the police?

February 5, 2010

Better than nothing

The impulse in possibly every human society in the world is to try to curb undesirable behavior with punishment.  We spank, slap and beat children to try to make them be good.  Even the more enlightened send children to their rooms or withhold an allowance or privilege.  The punishments become more draconian as we get older – fines, prison sentences, getting fired, or being put on probation.

The debate among psychologists, among others, is whether reward for good behavior is more powerful and effective than punishment for bad.   The ideal rewards are those that are intrinsic – benefits not added on, but arising from the behavior itself.  The high from the endorphins released by exercise, for instance, or the sense of pride from an accomplishment one knows without being told is a good job.

There seems to be an experiment of sorts between these two approaches in India where bribery is a significant problem.

The Indian government tried to curb the practice by publishing on-line the names of officials facing trial for corruption.  It didn’t work.  Instead, people used it as a guide about who to bribe.

But several years ago, an Indian expatriate physics professor from the University of Maryland was travelling back home.  He became so exasperated with constant extortion demands that he printed up a bundle of Zero Rupee notes with Gandhi’s photograph.   Since then, a charity has distributed one million of such notes with quite astonishing success.

On official handed back all the bribes he received.  Another made a loan instead to the person he’d been trying to bribe so her granddaughter could pay her college tuition.

As the Economist says, these notes might be without value.

But they aren’t worthless.

February 2, 2010

Which lies are worst?

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:50 pm
Tags:

A former cabinet minister testified to the Iraq Inquiry today that Tony Blair deliberately misled both the country and the cabinet.  She also said that when she tried to discuss the question of the war’s legality, she was jeered by her fellow cabinet colleagues.

Blair’s reputation is better in America than it is here.  I think it’s because Americans haven’t had as much opportunity as we have in Britain to see past his slippery charm.  But according to his own testimony, Blair said he believed the war was “right,” and if the argument about weapons of mass destruction did not convince people, then he would have tried another argument.

But as it was, that particular distortion of intelligence material was enough to get the war resolution past Parliament.

Yesterday I said the imperative not to tell a lie was at the centre of scientific inquiry.

But telling a lie to get your country to agree to go to a war that you personally believe is justifiable and rational but that the country may not seems equally immoral to me.

Maybe worse.  Hundreds of thousands of people were killed as a result of the Iraq invasion, and millions more displaced.  And neither the country nor the world are safer places than they were before they toppled Saddam Hussein.

These are not harmless white lies of courtesy.  These are black deliberate deceits by people in positions of huge trust power.

In my old age, I’m beginning to understand why my mother and father tried to teach us that lying was wrong.

January 29, 2010

Courage

I don’t know what other title to give to this post but Courage.   We’ve been watching the Chilcot Inquiry which is examining the process by which Britain became committed to the war in Iraq.

Up until now, the usual suspects have been interviewed, and have not said anything particularly new.  Most have been well-prepared and smooth, some alternately humorous, aggressive, evasive, and that old faithful standby, forgetful.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst was different.  She’d been one of the attorneys in the British foreign office asked to advise on the possible legality of a military invasion to unseat Saddam Hussein, and had been the only one to resign as a matter of principle:  she thought the war was illiegal.

At the time it looked like a self-defeating gesture.  None of the other 56 attorneys in the foreign office who also thought the war was illegal resigned.  Nor were they ethically required to do so.

But Elizabeth Wilmshurst could not be silent and if she did not resign, she was required to support government policy by keeping her personal views private.  She felt that under the circumstances she could not even appear to be supporting such a war.

Her testimonyto the Chilcot Inquiry was riveting.  It was quiet, understated, without rancor or hyperbole or accusation.  It was tremendously powerful.

When she stood up after completing hours of questioning by the committee and as she was gathering her papers, the “ordinary people” sitting in the public gallery broke out in spontaneous applause.  That has never happened before.  Admiration for a woman who stood her ground with such dignity and courage was universal.

I think the biggest challenges life offers most of us are like that.  The moment doesn’t come with a big sign saying “This is the Moment of Great Testing.”  If anybody is noticing at all, they very well may think one a fool or unnecessarily moralistic.

But every once in a while – maybe not more than once or twice in a lifetime – those moments come when one can either simply go with the flow, or stand up and say, whatever the cost, I will not be moved.

Tony Blair is testifying to the committee today.

January 4, 2010

English translation

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 9:26 pm

For the last decade or so, I’ve watched the English adapt political campaigning strategies originating in America.  Now the Tories are hoping to replace Labor in power in the next election which must be held sometime before June, and will probably by May 6th.   All parties have learned from Obama and are using the internet aggressively – blogging, twitter, social networking, and you-tube.

But the transfers of political strategies as they cross the pond are inevitably adjusted to fit the different cultural nuances of the two countries.

Today the Tories unveiled their slogan for the upcoming campaign:

WE CAN’T GO ON LIKE THIS

There is still time for further adjustment, but apparently it has displaced the previous leading candidate

CHANGE YOU CAN TRUST

Believe it or not, these are English versions of Obama’s winning slogan

YES WE CAN!

December 19, 2009

What’s wrong with global warming?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:27 pm
Tags:

Now that the Copenhagen conference seems to have failed comprehensively, is it really  so bad?  What’s really wrong with global warming?

Okay, let’s assume that the sceptics are right.  Everybody agrees that climate change is occurring – the ice caps are melting, water levels are rising, incidents of extreme weather are increasing.  The sceptics say that it is not due to the tonnes of carbon-dioxide we humans are pouring into the atmosphere.

I’ve just come in from clearing 8 inches of snow from our drive, and I wish the sceptics were right.  But I’ve read an awful lot, and I fear they are wrong.  The uncertainty that I worry about is whether the changes are occurring at a much fast rate than even the most pessimistic scientific projections predict.  But let’s assume that global warming is not a result of our carbon emissions.

There is another problem caused by carbon emissions and that is the acidification of our oceans.  What difference does that make?

There are two really significant problems.  The first is that acidification is already beginning to disrupt the ability of ocean organisms to make shells.  That means coral, crabs, lobsters, oysters, clams, mussels, and other small shell-fish which are vital to the diet of fish and plankton.  If acidification continues at its current rate for another 50 years, shells will actually be dissolved by the acidic water.  This will  feed through to the entire ecosystem including whales, dolphin, tuna, salmon, and the many species of other fish that currently provide roughly half the food sustaining us humans.

The second problem with acidification is that it may already be slowing down the oceans’ role as a “carbon sink.”  The data on this is still mixed, but it is scary.  The ocean absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide which is then sequestered on the ocean floor.  But if the ocean stops sopping up so much carbon, the problems of global warming are going to accelerate.

The politicians are putting a brave face on the abject failure that has come out of the Copenhagen conference, pretending that it represents a giant leap forward.  It does nothing of the kind.

I think that us “ordinary people” are going to have to take matters into our own hands.  I might sit here smugly with the comfortable knowledge that the deterioration of the planet is unlikely to be the cause of my death.  I will most probably die of something else.  But I don’t have another 50 years to live.  If I did, I wouldn’t be too sure that I didn’t have to worry.

And apart from how personally vulnerable I might be, I just don’t like the idea of trashing the planet, and leaving a lethal legacy to threaten the next generation.

November 21, 2009

Have we got this backwards?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 10:20 pm

Last month I bought an energy tracker.  It’s a gadget that plugs into the wall and it will tell you how much electricity is being used by whatever appliance is then plugged into it.

So far it has changed my habits sufficiently to reduce my annual bill by $100.  It’s a great idea.

As I am earnestly trying to reduce the atrocious percentage of carbon that I’m responsible for throwing into the atmosphere, I read that the OPEC countries – the oil producers who are so benefitting from the world’s oil extravaganza – are aggrieved.  They have announced if there is an agreement in Copenhagen in December to reduce world oil consumption, that they expect to receive compensation.

I wish I could dismiss this as simply preposterous self-serving egocentrism.  But what I’m afraid of is that they might use their oil to force some concessions to this outrageous demand.

It looks to me as if they could hold the world to ransom.

Unless, of course, we find some major effective alternative.  That really would be a giant step for mankind.

November 17, 2009

Afghanistan: When there’s no right answer

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 5:02 pm

Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, in a speech last night said that Britain is drawing up plans for beginning to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2010.  Since the former prime minister Tony Blair followed George Bush (“like a poodle” according to some journalists over here) into Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m wondering what this stance by Gordon Brown actually means.  There seem to be three possibilities:

  • Obama has signalled that the US is going to begin to withdraw troops in the near term.  The UK is going along.
  • The Afghan war is becoming increasingly unpopular here in Britain, and Brown is facing an election within the next six months.  He and his party are unpopular, and this may be one of his many attempts to meet populist demands.  Whoever is elected, in any case, is the one who will have to either implement or change Afghan war.  It is unlikely to be Brown.
  • Brown and his advisers really do believe the war is unwinnable are willing to cut their losses, no matter what America does.

I suspect the second is the reason, but hope it is the first.  But the real anguish is to look at the options that Obama has in relation to Afghanistan.  Every single one of them is fraught with terrible risks and potentially catastrophic consequences:

  • We can continue on the course we have been on for eight years.  This is leading to increasing military deaths, Afghans themselves are not rallying to the side of the West, costs are escalating, and the influence of the Taliban in the villages has not been checked but is actually growing.  And the presence of foreign troops and killing of civilians is increasing anti-American feeling.
  • We can follow General McChrystal’s  advice and send in 40-60,000 more troops.  This means more casualties and higher costs which are already billions of dollars a year, and still may accomplish little in the long-term.  The current Afghan government is corrupt and unlikely to be able to stop a resurgence of the Taliban when troops do withdraw.  Or we may be there for decades.  It is even possible that additional foreign troops will make the situation even worse than it is now.
  • We could reduce troop numbers and concentrate on the towns and cities in the centre and north of the country.  Unfortunately, this means the Taliban would expand their influence in rural areas, warlords and drug barons will continue in control.  It’s a reduced version of continuing the war as we are.
  • Finally, we can withdraw altogether.  The Afghan government is likely to fail, leading to civil war and a Taliban takeover.  This could also destabilize Pakistan.  If the Taliban or Al Qaeda take over Pakistan, they will gain control of its nuclear arsenal.  We might negotiate an agreement with Pakistan to secure their nuclear arsenal in the event they are threatened by the Taliban or Al Qaeda but of course, this may be merely an ineffective fig leaf.

The mistake, I fear, was ever to send troops into Afghanistan.  But the past cannot be undone.  Now Obama is faced with deciding how to try to go forward from where we are.

November 8, 2009

The impeccable theory is always peccable

In a recent post,  I pointed out that the Dali Lama said when there is a conflict between religious point of view and scientific observation, religion cannot censure scientific observation and we need to change our religious perspective.

I said I agreed.  But I see now that the problem is much broader than religion.  Scientific theories can do the same thing, blinding us to what is obvious.  For years, for example,  psychologists were committed to the view that thought – even human thought – was an epiphenomenon, not real in itself.  Even when human thought was reluctantly let back into the scientific arena, any psychologist claiming that animals actually think was subject to accusations of sentimentality.   The doctrine was that animals worked like machines, not like people.  The fear of being accused of being anthropomorphic still pervades the social sciences.

Now a leading economist has said that the recent economic crisis happened because economic theories blinded economists, politicians and bankers alike to what was actually happening.  They were so sure their theories were right that in the face of the obvious reality, they didn’t see it.

The core of their theories preached first that markets were efficient and rational, and second, that whatever could not be encapsulated within a mathematical equation was, if it actually existed at all, trivial.  Markets, therefore, were efficient and people did not behave irrationally, whatever the uneducated observer might think.  They, after all, were probably not making millions of dollars a year like the those in the heady world of financial services were.

The standard approach of science is supposed to be that theories are tested to see how well they fit reality.  Kaletsky suggests that in this case, and for a period of decades, reality was twisted to fit the theories instead.

I think this is probably an enduring problem of the human condition.  Our theories – religious and secular, formal and informal – are in a constant battle with bits of our experience that just don’t fit.

But as our current crisis illustrates, it often takes a seriously traumatic experience to shake our convictions.  As far as I can see, none of us is immune, and there is no field of thought which is not susceptible.

November 7, 2009

No need for redemption

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:43 pm
Tags:

The two House of Parliament – that is the House of Lords and the House of Members of Parliament (MPs) – have for long years had a choir whose members are drawn from their ranks.

This year they are scheduled to perform “The Messiah” but they feel they must change some of the words.  It is not that they are politically incorrect or may offend someone in the audience.

The problematic phrase is “we are sheep gone astray.”

In the light of the as-yet-unresolved scandal involving sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars fraudulently claimed by individual MPs, choir members are afraid that the audience might stand up and cheer at this admission of guilt.

I’m serious.  I’m not making this up.

November 2, 2009

Obama’s cleft stick

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 5:23 pm
Tags:

I have just read three serious, well-thought out analyses about the war in Afghanistan, one for staying the course, one for continuing to engage in surgical counter-terrorist strikes and one for pulling back as quickly as we can without committing political suicide.  The stakes are so high, the consequences so broad, and the situation so fraught with contradiction and confusion that I can understand why President Obama is taking his time deciding whether to send in more troops or find some strategy for withdrawal.

In favour of a surge and staying the course:

  • The West’s security could be seriously threatened if the region, including Pakistan, falls into full-scale civil war, especially if the Taliban should gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
  • Withdrawing from Afghanistan now would be an admission not only of defeat but of an unwillingness to fight, reflecting perhaps even a lack of confidence in our ability to make a difference.  Even an appearance of weakness would make us more vulnerable to attack.
  • Withdrawing at this point would be a betrayal of the Afghan people, many of whose troubles are the result of Western intervention.

The principle argument in favour of withdrawal sooner rather than later is that the war in unwinnable:

  • More than two thousand years ago, Alexander the Great invaded Afghanistan.  He was defeated.  So has every other invading army since.  Britain fought three wars there in the last 130 years.  In the 20th century, Russia tried for ten years to conquer Afghanistan.  After losing 15,000 Russian and more than a million Afghan lives, Russia withdrew in 1989, saying it was impossible to win a war there.
  • Last month, Matthew Hoh, a senior Foreign Service officer and former Marine captain resigned his Afghanistan job saying the war was not only unwinnable but that the presence of U.S. troops was exacerbating the situation.  Even if the US increases its troops, it will take generations and billions of dollars to create the conditions that might lead to success.

So the question I’m asking myself – as presumably Obama is asking – is whether the war in winnable,  and if it is, at what price and is America both able and willing to pay that price.

As I understand it, General McChrystal says that to win we must minimally:

  • Increase the number of troops there by 40-60,000.  These will be mainly American troops, because Europeans are not enthusiastic about the war, and after eight years of Bush’s high-handedness are not in the mood to cooperate on this venture.
  • The strategy must change so that civilians are not mere regrettable casualties of strikes against the Taleban.  If their security is not given a much higher priority, they are going to continue to cooperate with the Taleban to get the foreign troops out.
  • The Afghan government must be more credible.  The recent election, which was supposed to be a big step forward in this direction, instead turned out to be a showcase of corruption and ballot-fixing.  Karzai who is now the de facto winner is leading the government which NATO troops are dying to support.
  • Afghans must be trained more quickly to take over much more of their own security operations.  This was the goal of the surge in Iraq, which was initially declared a success.  But it is not yet clear that it was.
  • The current constitution of Afghanistan must be revised, creating a decentralized government reflecting the real distribution of power wielded by provincial and local leaders.  At present, provincial governors are appointed by untrusted President Karzai.
  • Americans must help re-build the country’s road, water and electrical systems, and schools.  It will cost American lives and billions of dollars and take a very long time.

Are we prepared to do these things?  And if we are prepared, should we do them?  And if we should do them, can we do them?

If we stay, we should at least, as Colin Powell argued years ago, have a clear set of realistically achievable goals.  We should not be there to create a democracy, we should not be there to create equal opportunity for all, we should not be there to destroy all the poppy fields.  We shouldn’t be there to capture Osama Bin Laden.

I am not 100% sure I’m right.  Not the way I felt right about the war in Vietnam.

But personally and regrettably, I think we should develop a strategy for getting out of Afghanistan as quickly as we can, and live with the consequences.

October 24, 2009

Counter-reforming

I would be interested to know if it has hit the media in the U.S. the way it has here.  Here in Britain, every major paper and magazine in the country seems to be carrying front-page headlines about what The Economist is calling “the pope’s power grab.”

In case you missed it, the pope, without discussing it with the archbishop of Canterbury who is the head of the world-wide Anglican Church, has set up a special “ordinariate” for any married or unmarried Anglican priest or bishop who wants to come over to the Roman Catholic Church.  Up until now, married Anglican priests have not been able to convert to Roman Catholicism and continue to work within their parish, but now the pope is inviting them to be re-ordained as Catholic priests and to bring their parishes or even entire dioceses with them.

The Anglican Church has been trying to find a way to resolve what seem to be unresolvable conflicts over the ordination of women and homosexuals.  Whether the Roman Catholic Church exacerbates its own conflicts about married priests as a result of this move is unclear.

Somehow this doesn’t look like Christian love to me.  It looks much more like politics.

October 20, 2009

Getting out of the war zones

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 1:49 pm
Tags:

It’s not that I don’t think, read, and worry about this all the time.  I do.  I lived through the Vietnam War and I know what it was like for America to be fighting an unwinnable war.  But I don’t know how we are going to get our troops out of Afghanistan.

The argument the government made for pursuing the Vietnam war was based on the Domino Effect:  if Vietnam falls to Communism, so will Cambodia and Laos and Thailand and India and the Middle East and Turkey and …  Well, Vietnam did “fall” to Communism but the dominoes didn’t all tumble.

The question in Afghanistan that worries me is Pakistan.  Under what conditions can we leave Afghanistan without further destabilizing Pakistan, a country which possesses the nuclear bomb?  Could we afford to leave Afghanistan with a strong possibility that a civil war will break out in Afghanistan and spread to Pakistan?

Let us forget about imposing democracy or equal rights as we understand them.  Let us forget about nation building and wiping out the opium crops.

Can we even prevent a full-blown civil war whether or not we leave?  Right now, the fighting in Afghanistan is called “an insurgency.”  There has been a highly dubious “democratic” election with a government still in place that is almost universally recognized as corrupt.  It looks to me like a fine line between the current situation and civil war.

What are we doing there?

More critically, how can we get out?  General McCrystal says we needs 40-60,000 more troops before there is even a chance of stabilizing the country so we can leave.

This sounds an awful lot like a Vietnam-type argument to me.

Meanwhile, the process of trying to bring about some kind of progress in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have taken a significant step backwards, and Iran is blaming the US and Britain for the latest assassinations of members of the Revolutionary Guards.

The world needs more Out-of-the-Box thinking that I’ve been remotely capable of coming up with.

I sure hope Obama and his advisers are better at it than I am.

But it looks to me as if things could get a lot worse and a lot closer to home ground for a long time to come.

October 16, 2009

The downside of Utopia

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 2:29 pm

I’m interested in keeping other people from building Utopia, because the more you believe you can create heaven on earth, the more likely you are to set up guillotines in the public square to hasten the process.

James Lileks

October 9, 2009

Not displeased but baffled

Filed under: Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:51 pm
Tags:

I guess like most of the world, I was exceedingly surprised to hear when I turned on the news this morning that President Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Even Obama himself seems to have been surprised.

I can’t say I’m displeased so much as baffled by the award.

Much as I still admire – and have hopes for – what Obama is trying to accomplish, I can’t help but think that getting the prize in another year or two would have been more helpful to him in pushing forward his agenda.

Whatever else, it does remind me to remember how very much I hope he can accomplish.  It was never going to be easy, but I didn’t expect it to be this hard.

I have to remember not to get discouraged to the point of giving up.

October 7, 2009

Redirecting attention

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 1:41 pm

This is the time of year when the major political parties hold their annual conferences.  They are particularly important this year because there will be an election in less than eight months and the parties are facing a deficit that threatens to derail the country for decades if it is not reduced.

In the midst of this most serious discussion, a marvellous story emerged from last year’s conference.

An exceptionally attractive member of a Tory think tank was being repeatedly propositioned by a Member of Parliament.  Finally, he thrust his hotel key into her hand and said “come tonight at 3:30;  I promise you a wonderful time.”

Some time later, another MP propositioning her also refused to take no for an answer.  “All right,” she said, “here is my room key.  Come by tonight at 3:30.”

Neither MP has been named.

But they each know who the other is.

September 29, 2009

Another Vietnam?

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 2:02 pm
Tags:

General McChrystal has asked for another 40,000 troops to fight in Afghanistan, and now Obama is faced with a decision that could not only make or break his presidency but one that will have profound implications for the world.  If he gets this wrong, everything else – health care, global warming, the economy, and America’s international standing – will be undermined.

The problem with giving up on Afghanistan is the fear that as a result Pakistan will become a failed state with nuclear weapons.

But I think we have to find some other solution to terrorism than trying to pacify the Afghan tribes.

I was in my twenties when we were fighting the war in Vietnam, and in those days I was graced with unquestioned certainty about the rightness of my position as  I marched, I protested, I participated in sit ins.  At one point, I asked my Dad what he thought about Vietnam.  “We should get out,” he said.  I was amazed.  Here was a member of the older generation who could actually see the immorality of this war.  “Why?” I asked him.  “Because we can’t win,” he said.

I spluttered in confusion.  Because we can’t win!  No, because we shouldn’t be there!  “It’s not that simple,” was all my Dad said in reply.

I am now six months younger than Dad was when he died.  And as I look at Afghanistan today, I find myself thinking that we should get out of there because we can’t win.  Since Alexander the Great, foreign armies have tried to subdue Afghanistan and failed.  The British fought – and lost – three wars there.  The Russians finally withdrew in equal defeat.

Today we do not have the will, the resources, the cultural sensitivity or the right to turn Afghanistan into a democracy in our image and likeness.

Besides, I am convinced we can’t do it.  We can’t win.

We have to find some other way.

September 19, 2009

What should we do about the banks?

It was almost a year ago to the day that Lehman Brothers went bust.  It was just days after the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and at the time, Lehman Brothers did not feel nearly as catastrophic.

In retrospect, the danger that loomed was far worse.  There was a serious possibility that on Monday morning banks around the world would not open.  That life as we know it literally would have come to a halt.  Fundamentally, capitalism would have been replaced with barter and trust.  Credit cards and checks would be useless.  World trade would have lost the capacity to carry on.

It didn’t happen.  Things are still bad, but nowhere near as bad as they might have been.

But now that the immediate danger is diminished and the shock has been absorbed, it’s time to ask what to do about the banks.

The key question, of course, is how to reduce the chances of this happening again.  Regulators are taking about requiring banks to hold more capital so that when the system starts to crack, they have more to fall back on than they did this time.

That sounds fine to me, but it doesn’t seem to me to go far enough.  The big problem is what to do with banks that are still too big to fail and who know that they are effectively being subsidized and insured by the taxpayer.  But the taxpayer has little — no, correction:  The taxpayer has absolutely no say whatsoever about the way the banks are run.  From what I am reading, they are going back to taking the same leveraged risks and paying themselves bonuses that are simply boggling.

I’m convinced from what I’ve read that the Glass-Steagall act, passed by Congress during the depression and retracted under the Clinton administration, must be re-enacted.  Big investment banks should not be allowed to conflate their investment gambling with the deposits of savers.  So that means that we need to rebuild our small banks who know their customers and serve them responsibly, and we need to require the big banks to build a fire wall between their investment activities and the individual consumer.

From what I have read, the big banks are fighting this option tooth and nail.

Obama says that the old ways cannot, must not, will not continue.  But I wish I saw more to make that happen.  Congress seems to be enthrall to big banks, and Obama has only so much political capital, which he is using to get as much of his health care package through as possible.

It still feels like a scary time to me.

September 10, 2009

In between elections

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 7:57 pm

When Nixon was in office and it looked increasingly as if he’d seriously broken the law but Congress did not have what they called “the smoking gun” with which to impeach him, I used to look over here at the British system. The Prime Minister is in that position because he is the leader of the party. Although it is not easy, it is possible for the party to overthrow the Prime Minister and elect a new party leader without triggering a national election.

But now the tables are turned. Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister who forced Tony Blair out of office two years ago, is looking increasingly – well, ineffective is the most neutral word one might use. The country looks rudderless in many respects.  But an election must be called before next May and the party seems reluctant to change leaders with a national election less than ten months away.

Very few people doubt the multiple stories about Brown’s temper tantrums – his throwing telephones and printers around the office, his shouting at journalists and secretarial staff being reduced to tears.  But now there are rumours that Brown is taking heavy-duty antidepressants. Not just prozac, but the mood altering Mono Amine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs) which are very rarely prescribed and used only sparingly when dealing with severely depressed patients.

The question is whether his medications are responsible for some of the strange public behavior that people have been commenting on in recent months. Even more pertinently, they are asking whether they might be interfering with his ability to make responsible decisions for the country.

The problem of a leader in situ who may no longer be able to lead effectively due to illness of some kind has occurred here and in the U.S. perhaps half a dozen times in the last century.  I can’t see an immediate solution to the danger this poses, but it is potentially extremely hazardous.

At least in a democracy, it won’t go on for a lifetime. We don’t have to have a coup or an assassination to change leaders. (more…)

August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 2:20 pm

We are five hours ahead of Massachusetts time, so we learned when we turned on the news this morning only a few hours after his death that Ted Kennedy died last night in his home in Hyannis Port.

I feel a sense of loss at his going that is more than nostalgia for the end of an era that began with the exuberant hope of John Kennedy’s election.

Yes, there was the drinking and the womanizing and the unanswered questions about Chappaquiddick.  Nonetheless, Ted Kennedy seems to me to be someone whose resilience is both extraordinary and hugely admirable.  Death seemed to stalk him – his oldest brother died in World War II,  a sister in a plane crash several years later,  two more brothers  were assassinated, a plane crash killed his nephew and his family, a drug overdose killed another.

I have faced the death of one sister.  It was like losing not just an arm and a leg, but half my heart.

But Ted Kennedy kept on.  One commentator said of him that his “dirty little secret” which made him such an effective Senator was that he worked very very hard.

He fought for the poor, for the dispossessed, for health care, and education for everyone who needed it.  Not just for those who could afford it.  I think Obama will miss his wise counsel and effective help in getting his proposed legislation through a fractious Congress.  He was able to craft compromises in Congress few others could achieve.

There are already tributes to Kennedy from people who knew him well and appreciated him and what he achieved more fully than I.  I’m sure he felt that there was so much more to do, so much more that he’d hoped to accomplish.  But what would America be like without the contribution he did make in his short 77 years?

This is a small tribute from someone with no public profile whatsoever.    I think there are many of us.

Edward Kennedy was not a personal friend.   I mourn for the loss to our country of a great statesman.  But I celebrate him too.

August 19, 2009

Living close to the edge

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 2:36 pm

Construction workers in Yorkshire today uncovered an unexploded 500 lb bomb dropped during World War II.

Explosive experts evacuated two villages before carrying out a controlled explosion, and nobody was hurt.

Maybe this kind of experience is why WWII seems so much closer here in England.  And possibly why serious doubts about the Afghan war are coming so strongly to the surface.  Our neighbour, a retired military officer, told us that on the walls of many Officers’ quarters there are tributes in memory of the first Afghan war.  And the second.  And the third.  None of which resulted in a British victory.  And the Russians didn’t win there either.

There is not the kind of hostility to the military that I remember greeting the veterans returning to the States from Vietnam in the 1960’s.  In fact, right now, day after day after day, people turn out on the streets to pay silent homage as the coffins of the recent war dead are carried to their final resting places.

But there is worry that this Afghan war is another Vietnam.

I wish we weren’t there.  I don’t think it is making Britain or America any safer.  In fact, it is perhaps making both countries less safe.  Instead, let’s take the manpower and money and technology and put it into protecting our borders.

And living in peace.

August 17, 2009

Laugh break

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:00 pm

People here are not pleased with the disinformation about the National Health Service here in England being pedalled by the far right in the US to derail the health care bill in Congress.

The antarctic ice cap seems to be melting about ten times faster than scientists thought.  Instead of disappearing in 500 years, at this rate it will be gone in 50.

A famine warning has been released, with the worry that millions of people who escaped poverty in the last two decades could be plunged back into subsistence living.  Those who are poor now face starvation.  Food prices around the world will continue to rise for years to come.

The war in Afghanistan seems increasingly meaningless.

I need a break from worrying about things I can’t do anything about!

Besides, I think worry sometimes is egocentrism which the self-deluded dress up as moral superiority and human compassion.

I’m not very good at generating humor, but I do appreciate it.  In fact, I need it to avoid becoming a pompous bore.

And so for my post, I am returning to our wonderful American font of nonsensical wisdom, Yogi Bera, and his quote for the day:

“Never answer an anonymous letter.”


August 11, 2009

Reducing my worry list

Filed under: Political thoughts,The Economy: a Neophyte's View,Worries — theotheri @ 9:01 pm

I can worry about only so many things at a time.  If I let the list get too long, I begin to feel responsible for the world, which is a pretty megalomaniac form of egocentrism.  Clearly none of us were created to make the world a better place single-handedly.  Those who have tried tend to be remembered in history as tyrants.

In these days of global communication, the number of potential items to worry about seems almost limitless.  But since I can’t do everything – in fact, since I can only do very little – I am currently limiting my principal world worries to climate change and to the U.S. getting some sort of universal health coverage passed.

I’ve lived in Britain which has universal health care for ten years, and I have had some of the best medical treatment in the world.  We have the option of private health insurance to increase ourchoices over and above the service provided by the National Health Service.  But no one is reduced to going to Accident and Emergency for routine treatment because they can’t afford to see a doctor.

40 million people  in America, the richest country in the world, though, cannot afford proper health care.  It is, quite obviously to me, a moral scandal.

But in addition, it’s a moral scandal that the United States can no longer afford economically.  We are now competing in a global world.  Companies in almost every other part of the world do not have to provide health insurance as part of their employment package, and this puts American companies at a disadvantage.  It was a significant factor in bringing GM to its knees.

And so I was delighted to hear that on August 19th, liberal-leaning evangelicals, mainline Protestant clergy and Catholic groups are backing Obama’s health care plan.  There will be prayer meets and national television ads, and a call-in program on the Internet in which President Obama will participate.

Apart from contacting my representatives in Congress, I don’t know what else I can do to help to get this bill passed.

But I am hoping madly that it will.

P.S.  I just realized that the credit crunch began two years ago this week.

July 25, 2009

Quotable quote

Filed under: For when nothing is going right,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:05 pm

I think the best way not to feel like a failure is to set ones sights very low.  Or perhaps not to set any sights at all.

I was thinking about how many things we hope the Obama presidency might accomplish – tackle universal health care, education,  climate change, the economy, equal rights, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Israel, torture, N. Korea, and terrorism for starters.

Of course there are going to be failures.  Big ones.

Just undoing the fiasco of the Bush years seems enough and we are hoping for so much more.

Well, I am.

So I’ll forgive Obama a lot for what doesn’t get done in the next four years.  Just starters on one of the above would be a mega-success in my books.

July 22, 2009

A terrifying homecoming

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 3:40 pm

I’ve not read much about public reaction in the U.S. to the capture of a U.S. soldier by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But the claim by Dick Cheney and the rest of them that the torture which the U.S. has used in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and other undisclosed locations around the world is required to keep America safe must sound terrifying to the family of the soldier.  Or to anyone else who has loved ones fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq.

If American can claim the high moral ground and use the kind of torture methods they did, so can the Taliban.

If the chickens come home to roost on this policy, it will be a terrifying homecoming.

July 17, 2009

Exactly how much did you say?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 7:58 pm

We had a spectacular series of storms that left all of Cambridge and surrounding areas without electricity for much of today.  We mopped up the floods in our conservatory, hoped that the blocked sewer would not back up into our house, and cooked our evening meal on a gas stove we kept from our camping days should such a need arise.

It quite obviously could have been much worse, and during the many hours without computer or television and no household appliances in working condition, I thought about global warming and about what much worse could be like.

Because I stumbled upon a figure that I admit challenged even my usual indefatigable optimism.

Last week, the G8 leaders and all the attending leaders from developing economies like China, Russia, Brazil and India, agreed that the dangers of global warming were such that it was imperative that average global temperatures not rise more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e. 2 degrees centigrade).

In order to do this, they were also all in uncharacteristic agreement that greenhouse gases needed to be cut by 50%  of our current levels by 2050.  The developed countries agreed that since our levels are already so high, America and Europe needed to cut carbon emissions by 80%.

Put more simply, the agreement is that by 2050, emissions should be cut to no more than 2 tons of CO2 per year per person.

There was absolutely no agreement about how this is to be done.

And this is why:

In Britain, the average CO2 emissions per person is 10 tons a year.

In America, it is 22 tons.

That’s why this isn’t going to be achieved just by turning off the lights when we’re not using them.

The changes are going to have to be big, they are going to have to be many, and they are going to have to be varied – a combination of ingenuity, science, and nuclear energy, and conservation.

I don’t know if we can do it.  America, I think, has the capacity for ingenuity. I believe that we can do it if we make up our minds that it needs doing.

But how many Americans think we need to do it?

July 15, 2009

The devil’s choice

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:08 pm

I read a political analysis yesterday saying that if Obama wants to get his health insurance and the next economic stimulus as well as climate control legislation through Congress, he cannot afford to alienate Republicans in the Senate by subjecting the Bush administration to charges related to torture and similar constitutional questions.

My first thought was that this is the kind of dilemma which illustrates why I’m glad I’m not a politician.

But in a democracy, its not quite that easy to walk away from responsibility.

Because members of Congress who don’t want an investigation into dubious practices by the last administration are elected by the people.  It’s we the people who send a message to our representatives that we will – or won’t – support them.

So what is my choice?

If the choice really is between Obama’s program and bringing the Bush gang to book, then I think a greater good will be served by getting Obama’s legislation through Congress.

But oh boy, I won’t like it.  In fact, it makes me feel quite queasy.

But then, so do 40 million Americans without health insurance.

And so does the spectre of global warming and devastating effects that I think will come with it.

July 14, 2009

A case for legalizing drugs

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:23 pm

I have just begun to think about the implications of California’s current law which permits growing and selling marijuana for medical use.  I don’t know the fine details of the law but I do know that it is possible now to buy marijuana at pharmacies.

I have long thought that drugs of all kinds should be legalized.  Think of the millions of dollars it would save:

  • vast numbers of those caught dealing or even in possession of drugs would no longer swell our prisons.
  • Instead of profits going to organized crime,  drugs could be taxed the same way alcohol and tobacco are taxed
  • police and enforcement agencies would be liberated to concentrate on crimes that seriously endanger society
  • governments could agree to buy drugs like heroine for medicinal purposes from farmers in Afghanistan and Latin American countries, or drugs could be bought for recreational use, giving these countries more viable economies

What about the fact that drugs are often horribly destructive?  Well, cigarettes and alcohol are also often horribly destructive but after the disastrous failure of prohibition to curb alcohol excess, isn’t it apparent that trying to stop the drug trade by making it illegal is futile?

Why not legalize it, make sure it is appropriately graded with the same kind of warnings of possible side effects that we put on medicinal drugs and cigarette packets?  Increase education, by all means.

But in the end, let people be adult enough to make their own decisions.

July 7, 2009

Familiar unrest

Filed under: Political thoughts,The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 8:40 pm

Uighur protests in a remote Chinese province were in the news again tonight.  The Uighurs are worth a Google search.  They are Turkic Muslims rather than ethnic Chinese, and have had a distinct identity since 300 BC.

Tension between the Uighurs and Han Chinese has been evident for years.  But as in so many other places, the world’s economic downturn has probably made it worse.  When people have jobs and security, domestic violence, burglaries, ethnic strife, and demagoguery all drop.  When jobs, enough food and water, or ones community are threatened, they rise.

Since the financial crisis began, twenty million migrant workers have lost their jobs in China, and over 60,000 factories have closed.  The current strife probably began in China’s manufacturing area among the unemployed.  A Uighur was accused of rape – apparently without justification according to the BBC report.  But several Uighurs were lynched.

That’s when the Uighurs began to protest against the Han in the north.

I participated in peace marches against the Vietnam war, and then read news reports about what was supposed to have happened.  Since then I have been sceptical about the accuracy, if not the downright truth, of about 90% of what is reported.

I don’t know whether it was the Uighurs who first attacked the Han or the security forces who first attacked the Uighurs.  The Chinese media say it was the Uighurs who started it.

June 23, 2009

Waylaid in Iran

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:57 pm

I have been reading Iran analyses and Twitter postings – I guess they are called tweets – out of Iran for several hours a day for four days now.   I haven’t been as distracted by events beyond my control since I was reading every poll being published prior to the US presidential election last November.

Given Iran’s pivotal role in the Middle East and even beyond, however the current crisis there plays out might be just as significant for the future of the world as the US election.

I don’t know what is happening in the States, but here in Britain, the main news channels are all referring to events in Iran without providing much on-the-ground information because most of their reporters have been thrown out of the country.  Which is why I’ve turned to Twitter.

Thousands of bits of information are coming out through Twitter and Facebook, and they are fascinating.  The problem, of course, is that they are unverifiable, but there is no question that some of them reflect the reality of what is happening on the ground.

I haven’t any more of an idea than anyone else how this is going to end.  The “supreme leader” is trying to create a Tienanmen Square ending.   Mousavi and the opposition are looking for something closer to the Velvet Revolution.

But in case you missed it, Twitter says that one senior Ayatollah, when asked why 141% of the population of a district had been counted as having voted in the election, said it was “because the weather was so good.”

Another young girl was reported killed today, and reports say that perhaps as many as 300 people have already died.  Meanwhile, the police have been told that if any one of them refuses to fire at “terrorist demonstrators” when ordered to do so, they will themselves be shot immediately.

The Guidance Council announced that despite the fact that over 50 cities registered more votes than voters that no fraud was discovered and confirmed the original election results.

Another Twitter says that the general strike this morning was a significant success, closing markets and shops throughout the country.   This afternoon the opposition was urged to go out into the streets without green arm bands but with their entire family, including children.  If they were stopped by the police, everyone was to say that they were going shopping.  But nobody was to buy anything.

The goal is to bring Iran to a standstill.

I don’t know what happened.  Coward that I am, I turned on the television to watch tennis at Wimbledon instead.

June 20, 2009

Twitter redeemed

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 2:57 pm
Tags:

Until now I have dismissed Facebook and Twitter as a bridge too far for old bones like mine.  And to confess the truth, I thought they were mostly for superficial exchanges for which I thought myself too mature.

I’ve now spent the last hour reading Twitter and Facebook communications coming out of Iran.

What more can I say?

Except to wonder if I would have had the courage to go out onto the streets of Tehran today.

June 15, 2009

A cool look at global warming

I’ve just come across what is looking like a fantastic book dealing with our energy use and the environment.  By sheer coincidence, it is written by David McKay, a professor here in Cambridge, England, who is a physicist who specializes in computational neuroscience, information theory and machine learning.  Despite these rather terrifying credentials, he talks in everyday English.

The book is Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, and is available to download for free on line at www.WithoutHotAir.com.  There’s also a downloadable ten-page synopsis which is as far as I’ve gotten so far but I’m definitely going to read the whole thing.

It’s written in terms of Britain but a lot of the things are universally applicable.   Hydrogen-fuel cell cars, for instance, don’t compare in terms of energy efficiency with electric cars, which was something I didn’t know.

To put things in perspective, it is helpful to know that the population of Britain is 60 million.  The US population is about five times bigger at 300 million.  And “an area twice the size of Wales” is about 10 million acres.

I’m telling you this because I think the book is worth reading.  McKay does not have a political agenda, he didn’t start out deciding to build a case for the greens, or for nuclear energy, or for Obama’s energy policies.  What he wanted to do was to look at our current energy consumption in a developed country like Britain and ask whether Britain could, given the will, develop sufficient alternative energy to replace its dependence on fossil fuel.

In terms of current technology, the answer is unequivocally no.

Britain has enough sun to provide most of the hot water needs for a small family and an unusual reservoir of wave and wind resources that could potentially be harnessed for energy use.

I have not yet read the entire book, but I am already convinced that the conclusion is going to be the same for any developed country, including America, and increasingly so for countries like China, India, and Brazil.

I am eager to see what MacKay proposes.  Just how drastic must be the steps we take if the situation is not going to be wrenched out of our control and solved by an involuntary reduction in human population and quality of life?

As I indicated yesterday, the more I contemplate the frequency of human error, the more nuclear energy frightens me.  Can we develop new technologies fast enough to avoid Armageddon?

I’ll let you know what MacKay thinks as soon as I reach that chapter.

June 14, 2009

Worrying about the warranty

Filed under: Political thoughts,The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 8:09 pm

Having reached the conclusion that there’s not much I can do about the credit crunch et al., I’ve been concentrating on trying to get an informed view about global warming.

As I begin to look at the actual numbers – how much energy we use and how we generate it – I’ve begun to understand why some people have reached the conclusion that we have to generate some of our energy through nuclear power stations.

Governments – at least governments over here – are loudly assuring us that multiple safe guards would be put in place to prevent even the sliver of a possibility of a nuclear accident.  (Like the ones in Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania or Chernobyl in Russia, only bigger.)  We’ve learned a lot in the last two decades, we are told, and some of the greatest scientific minds in the world are working on making these systems absolutely fail-safe.

What I find really scary, though, is the fallibility of Really Great Minds.  Even a band of conscientious geniuses with all the best will in the world, with all the backing of a duly-elected democratic government and unlimited supplies of taxpayers’ money, could make a terrible, globally-threatening mistake.

Isn’t that exactly what we’ve just seen happen with the banks?  All those brilliant minds didn’t deliberately come close to destroying the world’s entire financial system.

May 15, 2009

Parliamentary convulsions

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 7:52 pm

I doubt it is making the front pages or top of the news in the U.S., but here in England, Parliament is convulsed with quite possibly the most wide-spread scandal it’s faced in centuries.

This may be hard for the American mind to comprehend, because the individual sums of money involved are relatively small.  I say relatively, although sums between perhaps $5000 and $500,000 are not personally small.  But to discover that a great number of  U.S. Congressmen had fiddled their expenses to the tune of $100,000 would probably not threaten to unseat the government.

Over here it is.

It started some years ago when Parliamentary members thought that they should have a pay increase but that the electorate would not tolerate it.  So they instituted a lavish and covert expense system, whereby MPs (that is, Members of Parliament) could claim tax-free living expenses for a second mortgage, property tax, food, household furnishing and services, taxis, restaurants.  The list of possibilities seems to be limited only by the imagination of MPs, which, in this case, did not appear to be limited by anything.  One MP even claimed for the cleaning of his moat.  (Yes, a moat is that medieval body of water surrounding a castle or manor house to protect it from marauding attackers.)

About a week ago a national newspaper got hold of all the expense claims that have been submitted by every MP in the last five years.  They have been publishing them in a kind of water torture every day since Sunday, and they aren’t finished.  

After the scandal of the bankers’ bonuses paid from money provided by the taxpayer to keep the banks from facing bankruptcy, and with 2.5 million people presently unemployed,  the general public has exploded with a fury that even experienced journalists say they have never seen in their lives.  MPs are paying thousands of dollars back, but people are not satisfied.  The police are investigating whether there is any actual criminal fraud, and the tax authorities are inquiring whether any tax fraud has been perpetrated.  They say it’s so bad that some MPs are on suicide watch, though this might be an exaggeration.

Several MPs have been suspended, and party leaders are scrambling to convince the public that their party is getting a hold.  The Tories have agreed to post every expense claim made from today on-line the day it is submitted.

Nobody thinks it’s over.  We’re watching the news as live entertainment.

April 24, 2009

A new nuclear threat

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 7:13 pm

The papers yesterday and today covered the news that the Taliban have taken over swathes in Pakistan and are now in control of an area less that 70 miles from the capital Islamabad.

Pakistan has nuclear weapons.  The thought of the Taliban in control of a country with nuclear weapons, and where anti-American feeling is widespread, strikes me as terrifying.

It doesn’t feel all that comfortable sitting in Britain either.

The news also said that the Obama administration was gravely concerned.  I profoundly hope Obama and Co have some better ideas than I do.  My impulse is to run and hide.  Unfortunately, that isn’t, I think, a workable strategy.

I do wish, though, that I at least had some profound thoughts.  But in truth I’m just worried.

April 21, 2009

Using the drip-drip method against torture

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 1:46 pm

Like many others in touch with the news, I have been increasingly concerned about the evidence suggesting that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and critical personnel in the the Department of Justice unambiguously encouraged the use of torture against “terrorist” suspects.  The interrogation techniques unambiguously were torture in everything but the most twisted, legalese these men seem to have manufactured.  

The media here yesterday, for instance, reported that water-boarding was used hundreds of times in a single year on several different suspects, along with illustrations of other stress techniques, sleep deprivation, and  enforced nakedness.

I’ve been quite cynical about the possibility that anyone – no matter how much blood they have on their hands – will ever be made accountable.   Do I strongly suspect Bush, when he was president, authorized these things?  Yes.  But my fear has been the America does not have the will to bring him and other former high officials to account.  My fear has been that people would prefer to have the issue disappear with a vague promise that “it won’t happen again.”

But I stumbled on a article today that gives me hope.  The former federal prosecuting attorney, Elizabeth de la Vega lays out a strong case for moving slowly.  She argues that appointing an independent prosecutor now will give everybody a good feeling, but ultimately will kick the whole issue into the long grass, probably forever.

De la Vega argues that the more effective method is to let as much information about the support and use of torture become public as possible.  Then, she believes, the conditions for serious accountability may emerge.

If she’s right, then the best method for achieving justice is not to clamour for an immediate show of force, but to have the patience to let the evidence be uncovered in a slow, relentless feed.

Okay.  I’ll wait.  It will be worth it to get those arrogant hypocritical deceitful men who thought they were powerful enough to get away with it.

April 8, 2009

Err: what was that again?

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 7:46 pm

I was somewhat taken aback when I read  Afghan state minister’s defence of a new law which has just been passed.  The head of NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan has objected to the law on the grounds that it violates basic human rights, and that NATO troops are having difficulty fighting with their lives to defend this particular “rule of law.”

The law, according to Western media, requires women to have permission from their husbands before leaving their homes, basically putting them under life-time house arrest.  It also requires women to submit to the sexual advances of their husband under all conditions, which amounts, to Western eyes, to legalizing rape within marriage.

This particular Afghan, however (male) says the law will remain in force because it is in defense of “family values.”

I have to remind myself why American and other NATO troops are in Afghanistan at all.  It is not to protect what we see has basic human rights, or to change the culture of another country.  (Besides, if it were, we already have ample proof in Iraq that it is not a task which we are capable of achieving.)

The original purpose of going into Afghanistan was to rid the country of Al Quaeda’s safe havens and training camps for terrorists in order to maintain the security of our own country.  The question is whether we can even do that.  America certainly can’t do it alone.  

What I fear is that nobody can.  And that we are in yet another unwinnable war we don’t know how to get out of.  But like it or not, countries can’t withdraw into isolation anymore even if we want to.  So how we withdraw from Afghanistan matters as much as when.

April 3, 2009

Not cringing but smiling

It hasn’t solved all the world’s problems – not even all its economic problems.  But we didn’t sit here in England watching the media coverage of the G20 cringing every time the President of the United States appeared on camera with that smug smirk that so alienated the rest of the world for the last eight years.

On the contrary, everyone one from heads of states to children in the schools wanted to see the Obamas.  

People lined the streets with the hope of getting a glimpse of Michelle.  The Queen told the Obamas to “keep in touch,” not a usual royal invitation.  She hugged Michelle, or perhaps it was the other way around.  And Silvio Berlisconi, the Italian prime minister, was caught on camera chanting “Obama!  Obama!”  Today, President Sarkozy welcomed the Obamas with a French enthusiasm possibly not seen since American troops marched into Paris in 1945.

I’m savouring the feel-good factor.  There haven’t been a lot of them around for Americans in the last decade.  For a pick-me-up, I foundMichelle Obama in action in London.  One reporter said she is going to be “the new Diana.”

April 1, 2009

Obama in Britain

Filed under: Political thoughts,The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 9:08 pm

 Barack & Michelle Obama are here on his first presidential visit to Britain.  He is as charming and gracious as ever, and the media are giving him wall-to-wall coverage.  All the news programs showed him meeting the Queen, etc.   One journalist asked him if there was anything he liked especially about Great Britain, to which he replied “Yes.  The people.”  Gordon Brown, whose popularity has been in negative territory, is basking in some of the star dust.

Obama seems to have reached a significant agreement with the Russians over nuclear arms reduction, but nobody really knows if what the G20 is doing is going to help turn the world economy around. One analyst says that if it works, it should be evident toward the end of 2009 or early 2010, but that if it doesn’t, it could feed on itself for years.  The US, China, Britain, and Japan are focussing on the need for a global  stimulus package, while the French and Germans are pushing for urgent bank reforms on a global basis.

The IMF, in the meantime, is worried about the under-developed countries, and about protectionism destroying the international trade on which their fragile prosperity depends.   Some economists are worried about the still unknown size of the toxic debt – informed estimates are that banks are holding a total of anything from three trillion to a quadrillion dollars worth of this stuff.  They say that credit really won’t start to flow again until these hidden financial “weapons of mass destruction” are found and cauterized.

And anybody at all with a sense of history remembers not only the poverty of the Great Depression, but the political repercussions in the form of facism the Nazis, that ultimately culminated in the second World War.

The world won’t be the same when this crisis is over.  In fact, it’s already changed.  As Obama said today, America cannot spend the global economy out of this recession by itself.

Hopefully, we won’t have to fight a war before the economy turns around this time.  It’s a worry though.

March 27, 2009

9/11 still resonates

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 3:23 pm

Yesterday a friend forwarded a Power Point Slide Show of recently declassified photos of 9/11.  (If I can figure out how to do it, I will post them here, but so far the task has eluded me.)

One image is of people climbing out dozens of windows in order to jump. One particularly devastating photo includes a shot of an infant being dropped out the window to what must certainly have been death just seconds later.  

The slide show begins and opens with the admonition not to forget, which somehow grates for me.  How can one forget?   Forgetting doesn’t seem to me the issue:  how to respond in the most effective, meaningful way that adds rather than detracts from the human spirit seems to be a much greater challenge than mere “not forgetting.”

By inexplicable coincidence,the friend who forwarded the slide show works on the 26th floor of a New York City building.  Yesterday, there was a loud bang, all the electricity went out, and they were told that a bomb had just exploded five floors below.  The building was evacuated by the stairwells.

The strange thing, though, is that this incident does not seem to have been anywhere in the news.  I’ve trawled Google and cannot find any reference to it either.  Perhaps it wasn’t a bomb that made the hole in the building that could be seen from outside.  There was no smoke.  Only a gaping hole.

Perhaps whatever happened really was not news-worthy.  Perhaps the explosion wasn’t a bomb but a boiler or some similar non-event.  These days I find I’m as suspicious of silence as I am of spin.  

And the secret service has offices in the building.

Addendum:  Someone just sent me thestory published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  If it was something more than an electrical fire, it’s being well disguised.

February 27, 2009

Sputtering material

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:23 pm

Two days ago the Royal Bank of Scotland announced the biggest corporate loss in British history.  It was something like 24 billion pounds sterling which is equal to about 36 million US dollars – a number which for the average person on the street is so gargantuan as to be incomprehensible.

Not so incomprehensible, though, that the average person on the street is not outraged that the British government negotiated a pension for the outgoing chairman who is responsible for leading the bank into this catastrophic hole when the bank had to be bailed out two months ago.

“Fred the Shred,” as he was known because he cut so many jobs during his tenure at the bank, is 50 years old.  For creating this corporate black hole land mark, he has been awarded an annual pension of £700,000 beginning immediately.  That’s more than a million dollars a year to comfort him for having to step down.

Voters are furious, because as a result of the government’s bail out, his pension is now fundamentally being funded by the taxpayer.

The government is claiming (somewhat lamely) that they didn’t realize the pension arrangement was negotiable, and so entered into what seems to be a legally-binding obligation.  At the moment they are reduced to publicly asking Fred the Shred to “do what is right” and give the money back.

Not surprisingly, he says no.

I couldn’t make this up, could I?

February 18, 2009

What bees can teach us

I have just read a review of research studying how bees find a new nesting site when their nest gets over-crowded. 

First, scouting bees leave the nest looking for new sites.  When each one finds a potential nest, it returns to the nest and communicates to the rest of the community through a waggle dance, indicating the scout’s opinion of the new possibility.  Then the scouts go out and inspect each other’s sites found and then again go back to the nest, where the assessments of the pros and cons of the site are communicated through a variety of waggles.  This process is repeated and eventually leads to a consensus among all the bees.  Then the swarm then moves home, leaving a smaller colony to continue residence in the original nest.

But does it work?  surprisingly, researchers have found that the best site is almost always the one that is selected – even when there have been only small differences between the “best” and the “almost best.”

The researchers also discovered that if a scout that is very good at finding nesting sites does not share its information with the bee community, the entire swam is at risk of becoming homeless and vulnerable.  

Conversely, if bees just follow a leader bee and do not check out the suggested new site themselves, the chances of choosing an inferior nesting site are greatly increased.  Following the party line is no better for the group than isolated independence.

In other words, the best option is to listen carefully to what other experts say, and then to check out the evidence for oneself before joining the group in reaching a consensus.

Apparently, when he was in the White House, George W Bush did not welcome the expression of opinions that he did not already share.  And several of the bankers whose banks are now more or less owned by the British taxpayer actually fired risk-assessors who told them the bank was taking risks that were dangerous.    

(So just in case the moral of the story isn’t embarrassingly obvious, it’s another reason why intolerance or refusing to listen to people who don’t already agree with us, is so risky.)

February 16, 2009

Getting a word in edgewise

A member of Parliament (equivalent to a senator in the US) for Holland was refused entry into Britain last week because he wanted to show a film he’d made.  In it, he is trying to demonstrate that the Koran encourages acts of terrorism, and splices quotes for the Koran with video clips of 9/11, the train explosion during rush hour in Madrid, and the 7/7 bombings in the London underground.

The British government argued that showing the film would encourage others to commit acts of violence and/or increase antagonism between British Muslims, Christians, and other assorted believers and non-believers.

The MP argued that he was not encouraging violence, merely stating his view that the Koran did so, and that he was being denied the right to freedom of speech.  If you disagree with me, he argued, let’s discuss it. 

The interesting thing is that many educated and informed Muslims agreed with him.  They would greatly have preferred to engage him in argument than to have his cause be given publicity without the opportunity to oppose him.

But the government won, and he was sent back on the next plane.

I remember a similar argument as a graduate student when students at UCLA in California picketed against the presentation of arguments that Blacks on the average had lower IQs than Whites.  They said the position was racist.  In that case, too, the Silencers won, and the speech was never made.

But the point was made.  All people read in the newspapers and saw on television was that an eminent Harvard psychologist had been prevented from presenting his case.  

I was against the students’ position then, and I’m against the government’s now.  

Far far better, I believe, to listen to these arguments, and have the chance to show why they don’t stand up.  You don’t convince people by saying that some idea is so bad that it cannot even be expressed in public.  People are convinced by what they see and hear.  Not by what they don’t.

Which is why, by the way, I also think that blocking sex education in schools leads to more sexual promiscuity and more children born out of wedlock.  Not less.

So tolerance might be risky.  But I think intolerance is much riskier.

February 4, 2009

Security vs the Rule of Law

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:13 pm

The top news item here tonight – which has finally displaced the weather – is an announcement by Britain’s high court that the United States has threatened to withhold intelligence information relevant to Britain if the court releases information about an alleged torture case against American personnel.

What happened is that a former British resident currently being held in Guantanamo has alleged that he was captured in Pakistan, then sent on rendition flights to Morocco and Afganistan where he was tortured with the cooperation of both US and UK representatives.

The press here in the UK has gone to court under the Freedom of Information act to gain full access to the specific allegations.  The High Court has just announced this afternoon that the US had made the threat to cease intelligence sharing with the UK if it released this information, a threat which the court was not willing to keep secret.  It did not, however, authorize the release of the full allegations, saying that it would constitute a grave security threat to Britain if the US stopped cooperating in relation to intelligence data.

The questions now are whether the UK government was actually quite comfortable with this threat, since, for its own reasons, it may not want the information released either.  

The second question is whether Obama is backing up the Bush threat.  It appeared at first that he was, but it has since emerged that the UK embassy in Washington has not asked.

This would be a big one for me.  My husband is betting that Obama in the end is going to be a smoother version of Bush and will re-iterate the threat.  I don’t think he will.

Watch this space.  Or for faster information, watch the media of your choice.  It’s hard for me to believe this won’t be covered in the US media as well as over here.

But one never knows.

January 23, 2009

Science Phobia Cure

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:38 pm

The headlines on the front page of The Times here in England announced hope that paralyzed adults might regain their movement as the result of stem cell research.  Upon reading the article, I was surprised to learn that it was about the policy change already put into action by President Obama to return federal support to stem cell research.

In fact, as Obama promised, he is restoring funding for many science research projects which have been blackballed by the Bush administration.

 Bush seems to have responded for years to the significant number of people who are truly terrified of science.  They don’t want to explore the unknown or have their Right Answers questioned by difficult findings.  They know everything they need to know already, and perceive knowledge as dangerous.  Best avoided when at all possible.

I find this scary on two counts.  One was that they were powerful enough to influence the decisions of the highest office in the country on this matter.

The second, even scarier count, is that they are still out there.  Still committed to imposing their version of truth on the rest of the world – whether we agree or not.  However much history would seem to suggest this is a destructive road to go down, we keep thinking that this time, this Truth, will be different.

But for now we have Obama and his Blackberry.

January 21, 2009

Does hope make a difference?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:11 pm
Tags:

There is a great unresolved conundrum in science, and yesterday’s inauguration and the energy it generated illustrated it.

The conundrum is what we psychologists call “the mind-body problem.”  Basically, the unsolved problem is how our conscious experiences – like the hope, joy and exuberance yesterday, or fear, confusion, hatred, puzzlement, love, or understanding – are related to the biochemistry of our brains.

Hang on, this really becomes a fascinating problem that goes right to the heart of what we are doing on this planet in this universe.  Because people who try to answer the mind-body question do so by taking one of three positions:

  • In the first position, there are two worlds – one physical and one spiritual.  Plato made this position popular among the Greeks, and it was adopted by Christianity.  In this view, the conscious part of ourselves is a product of a spirit, or if you prefer, a soul.  When we die, the soul leaves the body, and so the body is no longer the medium through which the spirit operates and is manifest.   But the soul continues to live outside the physical world.
  • A second position dismisses conscious experience as an epi-phenomenon.  Like a shadow, consciousness isn’t real in itself but is merely a reflection of our physical selves.  So when our bodies die, consciousness is no longer possible, and is snuffed out with death.  This is a reductionist view.
  • The third position is that there is one natural world, and consciousness, which is real, is part of it.  Consciousness can and does influence what we do, and how we feel.  It is effected by our biochemistry, but in turn can also change our physical condition.  As we saw yesterday, our consciousness can be effected by events thousands, even millions, of miles away.  And that change in consciousness can change not only our feelings but our behavior.

I belong in this last category.  It still doesn’t answer the question of how mind and body are related, but it does put the problem squarely in the lap of science.

When you think about it, it’s almost the same question that asks how life and inert matter are related.  How did life emerge from non-living things?  We don’t know.

But until Einstein developed his theory of relativity, science thought that matter and energy must be two different things that shaped the universe.  Einstein showed that they were two different versions of the same thing.

I think some day some great mind may be able to unite body and mind the way Einstein united matter and energy.  In the meantime, nothing will convince me that hope and ideas and belief in what we can do can’t change the world.

Now I must return to painting the living room walls.  Somehow, despite my faith in the importance of thought and feeling,  I suspect sitting here and hoping won’t do the trick.

January 20, 2009

Yes we can. Now we must. Now we will…

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:31 pm
Tags:

I did not think I was capable of feeling so profoundly moved.  I thought I was too old, too experienced, too cynical.

Along with what feels like boundless hope and energy, I have a jumble of thoughts about science, and religion, and the human challenge.  Perhaps I will be able to discuss them coherently tomorrow.  

For tonight, my words are inadequate.

Tonight, I am simply celebrating with the rest of the world.

January 19, 2009

Celebrating the Impossible Dream

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:24 pm
Tags:

Millions of people are descending on Washington for the inauguration tomorrow.  But millions of people around the world are celebrating with unprecedented hope that this Black American President can somehow solve problems from the economy to our health system, can bring peace to Gaza, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, enter into fruitful negotiations with Iran and Korea, and end global warming.  For starters.

BBC television is starting coverage here at noon – 7 am Washington time – and will go on all day.  Every British journalist and newscaster who could possibly wangle a trip there has wangled it.

Today in the store, a complete stranger, on hearing my American accent, gave me a hug and said “Isn’t it wonderful?”

They – we – are saluting America, the hopes and dreams of the world held with unrealistic expectations that will be impossible to meet.  Yet, we are wildly dancing, celebrating without inhibition, whether we are Black or White, male or female, African or Indonesian, Irish or Hawiian, from Gaza or Israel, unemployed in Detroit, Michigan, or Guandong, China.  

Or just me in a supermarket in Cambridge, England.  

A friend sent me a link to a celebration in Ireland, which I personally think is simply marvellous.  www.oneeyedparrot.org/obama.html

January 8, 2009

Outrage in parenthesis

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 9:53 pm
Tags:

I tend to live my life the way I write this blog.  I begin to feel burdened and inadequate if I’m uniformly serious or humorous or spend too much time looking backward, so I tend to skip around to balance things out.

People have been reminding me of Suli and Dugo stories, and I was planning on posting another Suli escapade tonight.

But after watching the news tonight, I want at least to register my revulsion at the nature of Israel’s invasion into Gaza.  I’ve had some sympathy with Israel’s position that they cannot sit back indefinitely while rockets are routinely aimed at their villages by a government next door openly committed to Israel’s annihilation.

But Israel’s behavior is barbaric.  Clearly they do not think that the failure of Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” strategy in Iraq applies to them.   3 million civilians are locked into Gaza and are being forcibly prevented by the Israelis from escaping.  Meanwhile, they are starving, dying of thirst and many are in dire need of medical treatment.

I have little respect for Hamas.  But unless the news resports we are getting are wholly distorted, what Israel is doing is far far worse.

January 3, 2009

I don’t think God is only on one side

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:33 pm

George Bush announced this weekend that it was Hamas who was solely responsible for the current crisis in Gaza.  From his point of view, Israel’s six days of bombing (so far), and ground incursion which started just a few hours ago and will last who knows how long, is fully justified.  Hamas, after all, has been firing missiles into Israeli villages from their bunkers in Gaza for the last four years.  Even today, they refuse to agree a cessation of missiles unless Israel stops bombing first, and continues to call for the complete annihilation of Israel as a country.

Meanwhile an estimated 5,000 people protested in front of the Israeli embassy in London today, mostly blaming Israel for the Gata crisis and demanding an immediate halt to Israeli aggression.  From their point of view, Israel’s response has been at the very least disproportionate.  In the last week, four Israelis have been killed by Hamas missiles while over 400 Palestinians – at least 100 of whom are women and children – have been killed by Israeli strikes.  The UN says that a humanitarian crisis is developing with serious shortages of drinking water, food, and medical treatment.

It’s obvious that the Israelis have the bigger guns.  But like all fights from the school playground to full scale war, the right doesn’t seem to me to be all on one side, allied in heroic sacrifice against the bad buys on the other side.

This fight is like a bitter divorce multiplied by hundreds of thousands of people.  People are so viciously angry on both sides that they’d rather bleed to death than negotiate.

We humans are seriously dangerous to our health.  I wonder if we will ever change enough to survive.

December 12, 2008

Fascinated, indifferent, or worried?

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 3:35 pm

I have tried out at least three possibilities, and I still can’t decide how to respond to the world’s current financial situation.

Sometimes I find it fascinating, and I have spent hours trying to understand how men and women who were supposed to be among some of the world’s foremost mathematical and financial geniuses could possibly have blindly created such a mess.  I understand a lot more now how it was done, which has given me some opinions about what should be done to keep the global financial system safer for the future. 

Still, it occurs to me that there must be something else to life besides worrying about the arrogance and short-sighted greed of the world’s best brains.

So I have tried indifference.  This approach says nobody knows what’s going to happen, and besides, there is nothing I can do to influence events anyway.  Governments seem to want us to both save money and to spend it, two opposing strategies for the cash flow in this household.  So we are simply trying to do what we think is best for us – whatever that is.

Indifference works for short periods of time, but then, unbidden, Approach Three sets in.

Approach Three is worry.  Worry for millions of people in the world, for social unrest and starvation and increased crime.  And worry for ourselves.  We are not starving and we are not freezing.  We’re not anywhere near it. 

But what if the dollar crashes?  what if China decides to sell some of its huge reservoirs of US treasuries?  They announced shocking trade figures two days ago, indicating a slow down there that nobody saw coming.  China was supposed to be a major engine pulling us out of recession.  Now analysts are talking about depression.  What if the US auto industries go bankrupt in triplicate?  What if oil production is cut, sending the price back up over $100?

How bad can bad really get?

December 3, 2008

More fantasy money in our economic black hole

I thought I broadly understood how the world got into the financial meltdown which has shaved almost 50% off the major indexes in the last year, and ripping through the retirement funds so many people were relying on.  I managed to get my head around collateralized debt obligations, (CDOs),  credit swaps, subprime mortgages, and the Libor.  I thought I understood how the fantasy money was created, and I felt vaguely disdainful of those mega-paid bank CDO’s who really did not understand what was going on.

I apologize for my arrogance.  I have just read a mind-boggling article on the credit crunch recommended by my nephew, who is getting his doctorate in economics at Princeton, and discovered that there was a whole layer beyond CDOs and credit swaps that multiplied fantasy money many times over.

I don’t fully understand yet how they did it, and it doesn’t really matter, I suppose, if I don’t ever get it.  It took me about 30 minutes to read the article on-line and I came away stunned.  No outsider – no average investor who simply followed the traditional rules of investment safety – could possibly have known the depth of hollowness on which the whole global financial edifice has been built for the last 20 years.  Within the trade itself, the ignorance, the greed, and the corruption were impenetrable.  Only very cynical and knowledgeable insiders were able to grasp just how bad it was, and they were few and far between.

If you’re interested, read more.   If you don’t know what collateralized debt and credit swamps are, it’s possible to skip over the parts you don’t understand without missing the main thrust.

The only thing you really need to understand is arrogant stupidity and utterly ravenous, insatiable avarice.

November 28, 2008

Mumbai Why?

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 8:57 pm
Tags: ,

It isn’t what I want to write – or even think – about.  But the ongoing events of terrorism in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) seem all-encompassing.

Why?   Why do we humans come to believe with such ferocious tenacity that we are called by God to kill all those who do not share our beliefs?  Even at the cost of ones own death?

A short-sighted – very very short-sighted – view of world events and of history might suggest that we analyze the beliefs of Islam.  But very few religions do not have a history of righteous murder.  Today it’s Islamists or African tribes or ethnic groups in the Balkans, but we need not go back a full century to see one of the worst examples in history in Western Europe, and Christians were murdering “unbelievers” under the banner of the crusades a full millennium ago, and then moved on to burning heretics at the stake. 

And it’s not just religion, as some would suggest, that is the problem.  Tyrants and totalitarian governments who have no religious views – Communism, the rule of Saddam Hussein are two contemporary examples of secular creeds that supported mass murder of anyone who opposed them.

We must learn to let people disagree, or we shall destroy the human species.  America thought it had found the answer with democracy.

But we have learned that, even for us, we find it hard to let other countries disagree with our exalted principles.  In fact, we often can’t even let our fellow Americans disagree without calling them unpatriotic.

November 24, 2008

Beta test for financial rescue plan

The British government today announced what in the States would be called a huge bail-out plan for the economy.  Fundamentally it consists of cutting taxes, increasing hand-outs, and borrowing mind-boggling amounts of money that will ultimately equal at least 57% of GDP.  It’s a huge gamble.  It will be early next year before analysts can make an informed guess about how the dice are rolling.

It’s similar to what Obama and the Democrats are hoping to try with a $700 billion stimulus package, but it’s a greater risk for Britain because it’s a much smaller country, and the dollar is a world currency while the British pound isn’t.  If it works, the Labour government will be hailed as heroes.  If it fails, I strongly suspect I will be dead before the country recovers fiscally.  As it is, the government cannot foresee even beginning to pay down the debt in less than eight years, although taxes will begin to shoot up in 15 months time. 

To tell the truth, despite a lot of blustering, nobody really knows what will happen. 

I think in part it is simply a question of confidence.  If people believe things are getting better they will, because we will take risks rather than stuffing all our savings under the mattress. 

Alternatively, we can take the very very long view:  fishermen have just dragged a fossil out of the ocean on the coast of Britain.  It was the fossil of a turtle whose forebears had first left the ocean for life on land 215 million years ago.  50 million years later it returned home to live an acquatic life once again.

Well, I don’t think the changes we are facing in the world today are that drastic.

November 19, 2008

Where have all the flowers gone?

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 8:28 pm
Tags:

Queen Elizabeth was visiting the London School of Economics earlier this month and someone asked her what she thought about the global financial crisis.

“You’d think,” she said “that with so much money involved, somebody would know where it is.”

So it’s true:  absolutely nobody knows what’s going on.

November 15, 2008

The Great Conflagration

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 3:26 pm
Tags:

The best term I’ve heard so far to describe our global financial meltdown is “The Great Conflagration,” a term thought up by the economist Thomas F. Cooley.

Okay, so we now have a good name for it.  How do we put the fire out?  or rather, I suppose, get it under control?  Cooley and another economist, Lee Ohanian from UCLA have a scary article in Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/id/168626/output/print) about the effects of implementing the kind of populist approach we tried after the depression.

I can share the desire for justice and revenge with an urgency that drives me out onto the street with my placard and warm sweater for a night in a police cell.  But I do not think poverty will be reduced nor justice served by:

  • imposing heavy taxes on the rich and redistributing it to the poor.  Britain tried it for twenty years.  Their economy didn’t start growing against until they reversed the inevitable brain drain and lack of innovative motivation the policy stoked.
  • giving excessive powers to labor unions.  The US tried it during the depression and as a result kept unemployment above the 10% figure for a decade.  Only the labor shortages resulting from WWII finally increased the rate of employment
  • subsidizing some industries at the cost of others.  Our subsidies for farmers, and especially for growing corn, has both distorted the market and undercut profitability for farmers in the underdeveloped world, and has led to a huge increase of less healthy food in American supermarkets. 
  • imposing trade restrictions and self-serving tariffs.  India, a country rich in natural resources and abundant labor, tried it.  After 50 years of trying, they decided it wasn’t working, so they drastically reduced government controls.  The economy hasn’t stopped growing ever since and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted above the poverty level.

Well, I’m pretty sure I think I know what the wrong answers to The Great Conflagration are now.

I wish I were as sure about the right answers.  My back-up position is to hope that Obama knows what he’s doing.

November 11, 2008

“Smart is just less dumb”*

Yesterday I confessed that I initially supported the Iraq war.  My confession today is a little more contemporary and comes with less rehabilitation:  I don’t think the credit crunch and our current global financial chaos is primarily a result of greed.  I think it was a failure of intelligence.

But first, let us remember that the results of the fancy credit packaging that ultimately led to this mess are not all bad.  This crisis has been more than thirty years in the making.  It began with the globalization of credit when governments removed controls on movements of money in and out of the country.  Suddenly, the options for credit and investment were magnified and big and little investors benefited hugely.  My husband and I purchased our first house with credit provided by this liberalization.  So did millions of others, including people who would otherwise never have been able to even dream of owning their own homes.  Only a minority of those are now facing losing their homes.  Many people are still poor, but the level of poverty in countries like India, Brazil, and China has been reduced at unprecedented rates because of a liberalized credit situation.

Yet there has been a failure too, a catastrophic failure.  “Greed!” cry all of us little guys who have lost more money than we can afford.  But I’ve been asking myself why the brilliantly intelligent people who devised more and more sophisticated methods of packaging credit would kill the golden goose that was making so many of them so fabulously wealthy.  They didn’t.  They thought – and so did most of the world’s banks and governments – that they had figured out a way to reduce the risk of credit.  They failed not because they were greedy, but because they were wrong. 

This is an important distinction, because if we think the solution is primarily to keep greed under control, we will demand that governments treat financial institutions quite differently than if we think it was the result of failing to assess risk adequately and to take sufficient precautions in safeguarding other people’s money, which after all is what credit is about.

The greed hypothesis will clamp down on financial institutions, perhaps even demand that governments take them over to be run “for the good of the people.”   I shutter at the mere thought of governments running our banks.  Financial institutions want to make money;  governments want to stay in power so their motives for short termism will be even greater than the motive of people who want to make money.

The hypothesis that says that banks took risks with other people’s money that were too great will insist on greater transparency and a larger capital base.  It will make regulation and oversight more effective and hopefully more intelligent, but it won’t tell bankers how to run their banks and won’t outlaw risk.

Was there greed in the financial halls and dealing rooms around the world for the last 30 years.  Of course.  Is there still greed?  Of course.   And it’s not limited to only those who make pots of money.  Poor people can be greedy too.  They just use a different rationalization to justify their behavior.  It is a human impulse to gather unto ourselves more than we need.  It’s not just squirrels who prepare for the winter that is coming.

I think the difference between what we call greed and stupidity is often determined by whether the scheme succeeds.  Success is smart, failure is moral punishment for greed.

*A truth stolen unrepentantly from http://beversluis.blogspot.com/.

November 10, 2008

A confession of sorts

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:50 pm
Tags:

Just to clear the decks, I would like to confess that I was initially in favour of the Iraq war.  Not because of weapons of mass destruction, but because I thought we were going in to put a halt to mass genocide.  I thought it was rather like Rwanda or Kosovo or Darfur or Zimbabwe.  My husband never thought so, and it did not take long for me to learn that I had been a woman deceived.  I never voted for Bush in the first place, but once I realized the Iraq war was really about oil, I could barely look at his face.

I do not repent my second confession quite so fully.  So I will save it for tomorrow when I will try to justify myself.

November 9, 2008

Can Obama dig us out of this?

Far be it from me to tell Obama how to fix the global economy.  If he can do it, he can do it in whatever way that works.  But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what he said he would do, and wondering what I think about it.  I’m rather surprised to find myself thinking – in my amateur way –  that he might be proposing some surprising solutions.  From what I’ve been reading, here are five possibilities Obama might implement:

  • Provide universal health insurance.  Presently, health insurance is mostly provided by employers, and though it was big business that stopped Hillary Clinton’s health care plan, business is now staggering under health care costs that are rising faster than inflation.  GM says it adds about $4000 to the cost of each car it makes.   Universal health insurance regardless of employment will not only provide what has been a scandalous gap in our care for the poor.  It will free workers to change jobs without fear of losing their health insurance.  And it will help business.  Done right, it could be a win, win, win situation.
  • Repair our country’s infrastructure, including our roads and electricity grid.  Apparently our highways and bridges are in desperate need of repair.  Fixing them will not only be good for our transportation system.  It will provide urgently needed jobs.  The electricity grid is antiquated and lacks integration.  Updating it will also provide jobs, and just as importantly, make it possible to send green electricity to larger areas.  Electricity provided by wind, wave, and geothermal sources would reduce our dependence on oil as well as our carbon footprint.
  • Support property prices.  I’ve read three different proposals about how to do this.  One possibility is to legislate an automatic reduction in mortgage loans for any property that has dropped at least 20% in value so that mortgages are never higher than the real value of the property.  Lenders in turn would share in future price gains.  The benefit would be that owners would not be required to move when they dive into negative equity, and whole neighbourhoods would not be blighted as house after house is foreclosed for increasingly less values.  Banks would also find that fewer people default on their loans.
  • Increase state and local government aid.   This would help a lot of people through desperate circumstances and would help a lot of people keep their jobs doing all those things people need their local and state governments to keep doing.
  • Get out of Iran, and support the Middle East peace process between Israel and Palestine.  (The benefits here are too obvious to elaborate.)

 Okay, maybe it won’t work.  But to an economic neophyte like me, it sounds like it’s worth a try.

PS:  I read that some Democratic senators are talking about a $300 billion stimulus package.  I’d love to get a tax rebate, but in all fairness, I think it might be more effective to spend it on health insurance and mortgage relief.

I don’t, by nature, like big government.  But right now, I think some kinds of big government could help create the kind of world I would like to live in.

November 6, 2008

The day after the day after

I can’t stop yet.  Like thousands of others writing and talking about it in the media and private exchanges, I keep thinking about the election.  Here in England the papers are full of columns, reports, and predictions.  A barbershop in a black neighbourhood in Leeds stayed open all night because it got CNN so all the regulars just moved in until morning.  The people in our local store whom I’ve never spoken to are talking to me about Obama.  A neighbour came by simply to say congratulations.  My own mind is still whirling.

One of my more personal conundrums keeps returning.  Like so many others in America, my family has been riven in these last ten years by an almost insurmountable chasm.   It has been with great determination, and the salvation of significant distance that we have managed to stay on speaking terms.  But something broke among us.  The ease and delight of seeing each other that I had known for 50 years slowly drained away over rabid disagreements over which neither side could compromise.  We disagreed about gay rights and abortion, about the war, and the rightful separation of Church and State.  There were a whole array of topics which we dared not even mention.

By coincidence, the birthday of one of my brothers was Wednesday.  He had been an ardent supporter of Bush, and had already made it clear to all of us that we should now “vote our conscience” and support McCain.  As I watched the supporters at McCain’s headquarters listening to his concession speech, I knew how my brother must be feeling.  I knew from their faces, but I knew too because I remember the sense of devastation I’d felt four and eight years earlier.   And I wondered what I was going to say as I wished my brother a happy birthday.

I thought about it as I read Obama’s acceptance speech, in which he said again that Americans aren’t Blue and Red.  We are all Americans, whatever our political affilitation.  But he meant more than our politics.  He meant that with all our differences – black and white, Christian and non-Christian, male and female, liberal and conservative – we have something else in common that is more important than what separates us.  We are all Americans, all committed to justice and freedom and opportunity for all.

And as I read it, instead of feeling a kind of angry triumph that this time “our side” had won, I felt enlightened.  What Obama is saying, and what he demonstrated throughout the campaign, is that we have so much of value that we share.  The differences, I think, were exploited and exacerbated by Bush & Co.  They deliberately used the “values war” to gain more votes.  And in fighting them, I – and many like me who joined the “other side” – helped solidify these two sides, shouting at each other across the abyss. 

What Obama is saying is not that we should stop being different, or that one “side” can now stand victorious over the defeated.  But that we should concentrate on those values we share, the great and wonderful things we have in common.  Now is the time to build bridges, and to walk across those that others build to us.

And so I sent my brother a birthday wish, remembering those things that are important to us both and that we share with a depth and passion that goes back to our familial roots.

He wrote back today, saying “yes, we can!”

Well, words to that effect.

November 5, 2008

Barack Obama is elected President of the United States

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 11:55 am
Tags:

i thank You God for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth

day of life and of love and wings; and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

e e cummings

I was 24 years old when John Kennedy was elected president.  I never thought I would see anything like it again.  I was wrong.  And this is even better.

Correction:  It has just been pointed out to me that I was 20, and 24,  years old when JFK was elected. I was a senior novice at Maryknoll, and at breakfast during which we kept strict silence, someone held up a box of Special K, and pointed to the K. That was how I found out that he’d won. I wasn’t excited because he was the first Catholic president. It was because of what he stood for. It’s the same way for me with Obama. I’m very glad we have elected a Black man to be president. But I didn’t vote for him because he’s Black. I voted for him for what he stands for and for what he is and for the best he is calling forth from Americans.

November 4, 2008

This is a nightmare I prepared earlier

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 2:14 pm
Tags: ,

Most of my friends in graduate school during the Vietnam War were, like me, against the war.  We marched and protested and participated in sit-ins.  We felt immensely virtuous, and quite superior to the older generation whether they were comfortably – we thought – politicians in Washington, on the faculty of our colleges and universities, or the parental figures in our own homes. 

Our general lack of respect for most of those in authority became, for some, a lack of respect for authority, period.  So one fellow student returned from lunch break one day having been to the supermarket where he’d bought (and paid for) a bottle of coke, and “liberated” a t-bone steak for his evening meal.  It was justified, he said.  “They’re part of the industrial military complex.”  A another colleague who was working on a research project for which we were both being paid was open about the fact that he was “supplementing” his income with unemployment insurance. 

Of course, this kind of cheating occurs in any society in every age.  What was unique about instances like these is that they were being committed by people who under other circumstances would not have done it, with a rationalization for their behavior that somehow justified it for them as a behavior that was actually highly ethical.

My concern on this election day is that if McCain wins, in the light of the last 106 polls that show Obama ahead, many people will suspect that voting machines have been tampered with, and that many voters have been denied a valid vote due to illegally imposed restrictions on eligibility.  A lot of people already think the elections of 2000 and 2004 were stolen.  But the result of suspicions of fraud would be much worse this time. 

This time, the level of commitment and enthusiasm for Obama has energized the young and many who until now have been alienated.  It is not the rioting on the streets tomorrow morning that I fear.  That could happen.  But what I would fear more is that all those people newly-engaged in the electoral process will withdraw in cynicism and distrust.  But America badly needs their energy, their willingness to sacrifice and ability to innovate.

Their loss of faith in the system would be disastrous for America.

Maybe it won’t happen.  I’m even telling myself that probably it won’t happen.  In less than 24 hours we will know.

November 3, 2008

Thoughts on a precipice

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:01 pm
Tags: ,

Dark and cold we may be, but this

Is no Winter now.  The frozen misery

Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move.

The thunder is the thunder of the floes

The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.

Thank God our time is NOW when wrong

Comes up to face us everywhere

Never to leave us til we take

The longest stride of soul man ever took.

Affairs are now soul-size.

The enterprise

Is exploration into God.

Christopher Fry, English Playwright          1907-2005

As you can see, I’m not thinking about the election tomorrow at all.

October 30, 2008

questioning the camel

Christ said once that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven.  Personally, I’m not convinced that virtue is intrinsically connected to poverty.   Because you can’t say both that money is the cause of all sin, and that poverty is the excuse for all crime. 

For me, one of the more unusual websites is www.obamaforeconomy.com/.  It’s a website of comments of people who will pay more taxes under Obama’s tax proposals than they would under McCain’s, explaining why they are supporting Obama.

It’s a helpful antidote to the demonstration of greed and arrogance that has been on display with the credit crunch and the rupture of the financial system. 

Not everybody who’s rich is greedy and arrogant.  I suspect that not everybody who isn’t rich might not be able to claim that they aren’t greedy or arrogant, either.   Though it might be that people who have money can commit crimes that are more genteel. 

Well, that was before the credit crunch

October 28, 2008

Prayer facing the credit crunch

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 11:09 am
Tags:

Now are the rough things smooth, and the smooth things stand in flickering slats, facing the slow tarnish of sun-fall.  Summer is over.  And therefore the green is not green anymore but yellow, beige, russet, rust;  all the darknesses are beginning to settle in. 

And therefore why pray to permanence,

why not pray to impermanence, change, whatever comes next.

Willingness is next to godliness.

Mary Oliver:  from a prose-poem

 

 

October 27, 2008

From here to eternity

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:56 pm
Tags: ,

As Woody Allen once said, “Eternity is a long time – especially toward the end.”

On the other hand, it’s only eight days to the US election.   We bought a pumpkin in the market yesterday, and today played with the idea of carving  “HOPE” and putting it in the window.  It would certainly stand out in this most English of villages.  If I can get an American flag and Obama wins, we will hang it out on inauguration day in January.

In the meantime, I woke up at 4:am this morning and thought “It’s midnight in New York, and the polls must be closed in California by now!  I’ll get up and see how the networks are projecting the election results.”  I wasn’t actually out of bed when I realized I’d been dreaming.

Well, thinking about the election distracts me from thinking about the global economic crisis.  Or should I say crises in the plural?  I still have hope for the outcome of the election anyway.

October 24, 2008

And now for today’s good news

Right now all I want to do most of the time is read, think, worry, or analyze either what’s happening in relation to the U.S. presidential election or the current state of the global financial system.  I fit things like brushing my teeth and eating breakfast in around the edges.

Occupied in my pursuit of knowledge, I picked up the paper today and read three pieces of unexpected good news. 

The first is a report that the New York Times has endorsed Barak Obama.  So has Colin Powell, and I think Economist is going to do the same.  I hope Obama’s grandmother lives to see her grandson’s election.  The papers also say (whisper this softly) that McCain’s team is already conceding defeat and are beginning to engage in a “pre-mortem” blame game.

The second is a story about the New Orleans football team who are putting millions of dollars of their personal wealth and effort helping to rebuild New Orleans.  Teams are going out to help rebuild houses, one went into a  store in Houston where refugees were trying to get staples and gave his credit card to the cashier saying “give everybody what they need.”  One player who is earning $60 million says he has the money for a reason.  And he’s spending it for New Orleans.  It’s the kind of story that gives me hope for America.

The last bit of good news was my discovery that it is possible to order custom-printed M&Ms.  I think this may have been around for some time, but I’ve just found out about it.  Custom-printed M&Ms!  You can order bags of “Obama for President,” or “Happy Birthday, Jack” or “Will you marry me?”

Maybe the credit crunch isn’t quite as bad as I thought.

October 20, 2008

Oh frumtuous joy!

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 1:51 pm
Tags: , ,

Oh joy, oh joy, oh frumtuous joy to be back in the real world again.  It was a wonderful break, with wide sandy beaches, shell fish served within hours of leaving the ocean, and weather good enough for walks in the surf every day.  But I fear my convent years failed to instill in me sufficient discipline to maintain two weeks of other-worldly peace.  Especially when so much is going on in the fascinating wicked world.  We had no access to English newspapers or television, and the Internet connection was infuriatingly fitful.  I am thrilled to be back at my desk.

During our sojourn, I did come to understand a great deal more about the current financial crisis, and finally solved the riddle of how the banks and investments houses paid themselves such huge salaries without actually creating more money.  I now understand credit default swaps and the Libor and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and how bankers and regulators and governments around the world convinced themselves that they were not walking into a new global bubble that would bring the world’s financial system close to melt down but had found a new wealth creator. 

All of which gives me a completely useless sense of delight, since cracking this particular code is of no conceivable use to anyone.  I think I even understand why the two trillion dollars thus far pumped into the financial system has not returned the bloom to our cheeks.  However, since I would have to add possibly 9 zeros to my total net worth to be talking about the kinds of sums involved, there is a serious possibility I still don’t know what I’m talking about.  Which is why I have not decided to actually explain CDOs and swaps and why the Libor matters.  But I might, just for the sheer fun of trying to translate these exotic terms into plain English to anyone who will listen.

I might still be totally confused.  Which is okay, of course.   What I hope is that the Powers That Be aren’t as mystified as I might be.

September 30, 2008

My bi-polar self

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 7:53 pm
Tags: ,

I cannot remember in my life ever being so torn between such totally different political positions.  Last night when the news was announced that Congress had voted down the bail-out plan, I experienced two diametrically opposed feelings.  One was a kind of vicious delight:  “Fantastic!  We ‘ordinary people’ as you in Washington so like to call us, we working taxpayers, will not bail out Wall Street just because, you, unlike us, are too big to fail.”

My other feeling was profound concern.  Wall Street plunged 777 points, searing into the savings put aside for a first home, a wedding, college tuition, or decimating a life’s earnings and pension plans of millions of Americans who are not getting a golden handshake from their banks or anyplace else.  Already, it is not just the bankers and their minions who are going to work to find that their offices are closed as the result of bankruptcy.  Unemployment is already soaring – the auto repair shop worker, the sale person at the local drug store, the secretary, the workers in small businesses – are already trying to figure out how to feed their families on one instead of two salaries, or maybe on none at all.  Tent cities are already being erected by people whose houses have been foreclosed and who can’t get a job.  And it can get worse.  Much much worse.  For ordinary people, for taxpayers, many of whom were among those who shared in the trillions of dollars lost when it plunged 777 points yesterday.

Tonight I still do not know what I hope Congress will – or won’t do.  I suspect serious papers will be written for many years to come discussing what could have been done, what would have been better or worse, quite possibly with no more agreement among the experts then than we have now. 

I do hope Congress will pass a bail-out bill of some kind on Thursday.  However good it may be, it won’t make everything easier and better with one easy gigantic dollop of money.

But I will, I think, always feel a spark of delight when I remember that Congress, at the behest of the voters, refused at least once, to be railroaded by the fear-mongering that the administration used to get us into the Iraq war.  There might be a lot of hard times ahead, but at least we didn’t go in fear and dread on our knees asking the Powers of Government and Finance in their wisdom to save us.

PS:  A few morsels to maintain a pretence of sanity:

  • Apparently Palin thinks Biden might be too old to run for vice-president.  This is so unbelievable that in any other campaign I would dismiss it outright as untrue.
  • The paper here also said that McCain announced in Ohio that he’d been responsible for getting the bail-out plan through Congress.  That was before it didn’t get through, of course. 
  • The Wall Street Journal accidentally published a McCain advertisement a day early.  Unfortunately, it was due out the morning after the McCain-Obama debate, and announced that McCain had won.
  • www.intrade.com, a website that takes bets on who will win the next election today gave Obama a 62.5% chance of winning, McCain 37.5%.  People are putting real money on these bets, so it might reflect what they actually think will happen, rather than merely hope.  Or not.

September 28, 2008

For everyone caught in the middle

Well, Congress seems to have agreed some sort of rescue plan, for what it is worth.  The more I read, the more sceptical I am, but since the details of the final package haven’t yet been released, I can only hope it is not as self-serving as I fear.

It is the end of the day here as I write, and as I prepare for another day, I am resolved not to live my life in perpetual mental conflict with the political system for which I increasingly have so little regard.  I am not in a position to influence the outcome, and even if I were, I am not wise enough.  But I can remember that there are many people being crushed by this crisis, not merely squeezed as I am.  As DJC says in yesterday’s comment, if you are neither too big nor too small to qualify for help, one must somehow survive on one’s own.

This is not meant as a consolation prize or an expression of sympathy for those caught in the middle with nothing.  For people in real need, I admit this is a bitter irony, but a hidden benefit of not getting help is that at least one is not corrupted by the system of hand outs.

That’s what worries me about giving $700 billion to the banks.

PS:  The best analysis so far that I’ve read about what to do about the financial crisis is by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel-prize winning economist at Columbia University in an article in The Nation.   If you’ve not already had enough, here’s a decent summary.

September 27, 2008

“You can’t fool all of the people all of the time”

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 2:15 pm
Tags: ,

If I were not worried about the effects on my personal income, I don’t know if I would be as exercised as I am about the plan being debated in Congress which, even as I write, is meant to save the World Economy.  But first and foremost, the American Economy. 

Or is that what we’re really talking about?  Are we, as so many “ordinary people” think, merely bailing out the Fat Cats who got us into this mess in the first place?  The claim is that the financial mess is too complex for us everyday mortals to understand, but the more I read, the more I have my doubts.  I am not a dumb person nor am I uneducated, nor am I uninformed about this crisis.  I’ve read economists’ opinions from around the world on as many sides of the issue as I can find.

Most popular articles explaining the problem focus on the complexity of the loan bundling that has distributed dodgy loans throughout the global financial system, like cancerous cells hiding from view until they erupt to destroy the institution harbouring them in a weekend.

But I think there is another problem which is just as big, and that is Trust:

First:  How trustworthy is human expertise?   Do you remember the great computer crash that was supposed to happen when the date changed to the year 2000?  All that money spent on software by businesses and individuals convinced by the experts that if they didn’t, airlines, trains, traffic lights, banks, insurance companies, government offices and businesses everywhere along with all our personal computers would cease to function properly.  I think the experts were probably sincere in this case.  They were just wrong.  I’m sitting here now thinking of hundreds of examples when experts have been wrong, but this is a mere blog posting, not a book, so I will stop giving examples.

Second:  How trustworthy is our government?  How about the Weapons of Mass Destruction that Saddam Hussein had and was a major justification for America’s launching the Iraq war?  Whether this was incompetence or deliberate lies on the part of our current administration in Washington doesn’t seem relevant.  For whatever reason, they got it horribly wrong.  I’m wondering about trusting this same incompetent and/or lying government again about the need for an immediate $700 billion bailout.

Third:  How trustworthy are the banks?  We’ve been told for months that the crux of the credit crunch problem is that the banks won’t lend to each other because they don’t trust that other banks are telling the truth about the full nature of the debt they hold.  Washington Mutual Bank which went bust this weekend was found to have been fiddling the true nature of the equity loans it held.  Bankers obviously think all the other banks are doing as much hiding as they can too.

Fourth:  How trustworthy are the politicians?  Which ones have enough integrity to pass legislation they think the country needs even if the people who elect them don’t like it? 

So as an “ordinary person,” here are the questions I’m asking myself:  Will the world as we know it really end if no package is passed by Monday morning?  And if the package is passed, will it really start to solve the problem?  Does it matter that on my last reading of the proposed bill, there is nothing in it to help people facing imminent foreclosures?  Does it matter that in Black and Latino communities, nearly half the mortgages are subprime?  Does it matter that almost by definition, the banks that are going to be helped the most by this proposed bail-out are the banks who have been the most irresponsible in their lending practices? 

I dislike the term “ordinary people” intensely.  It’s a subtle way of putting people down, of suggesting that their opinion is sub-prime, if you will.  Whether they are right or wrong, I don’t think people are ever ordinary.  What “ordinary people” think is often a source of great insight.  But as one of our wiser predecessors once said “You can fool some of the people all of the time; and you can fool all of the people some of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” 

My problem is that I don’t know which it is in relation to this bail-out.

September 25, 2008

Worry Management

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:47 pm

I wonder how many people like me are wishing we could get back to Life as Usual.  Those by-gone days when whole days were filled with worrying about what to have for dinner, whether the local team won the big game, or even what to wear.  Somehow it feels shallow to worry about when to have my hair done when there are much much bigger things to worry about.

Is the world’s financial system going to crash, taking us all with it?  Is McCain going to duck out the debate with Obama with the lame excuse that he’s too busy with important matters?  Will the American voter buy it?  Then there’s global warming and food shortages, and torture and almost all of Africa including AIDS and sickle cell anaemia and malaria, along with swathes of Latin America, not to mention the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea .  And course the present occupants of the White House.

Looking at it from that perspective, I wonder if the good old days of everyday manageable worries are gone forever.

I have the niggling feeling there is something about life for me to learn here, but I don’t know what it is yet.

September 23, 2008

A dish better eaten cold

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:32 pm
Tags: , ,

I have been talking about food all week, but this post isn’t about food.  It’s about revenge.  And about the $700 billion the Administration says Congress must give it before the end of the week to Save the World as We Know It.

To tell the truth, I don’t know how much 700 billion dollars is.  I do know it’s more than $50 dollars for every single year the universe has been in existence.  It’s about $150 for every year our solar system with the sun and earth and all the other planets have been in existence.  But I can’t get my mind around that kind of money.  I know it’s a lot and that the value of the dollar on world markets has been dropping as people who do understand these numbers take it on board.

I do understand, though, that the world’s financial system is in a seriously precarious condition and that it is not out of the question that we might all be hurling headlong over the precipice that could make the 1930’s depression look like a chilly spring day.  And I’m sure that the only source for enough money that might avert this catastrophe is the taxpayer.

Which is where the cold dish comes in.  Revenge is the dish better eaten cold.  Because eaten hot, revenge often destroys the avenger along with the avenged.  And in this case, the destruction will be terrible for millions and millions of people around the world.  And so I am torn between resenting being asked to help bail out the Bankers, the Makers of the Universe, who have already personally enriched themselves by millions and millions of dollars, and no doubt want more golden handshakes and mega-bonuses for helping to clean up the mess they have helped create with their greed and arrogance.  But if we let our banking system fail, the little people – the middle classes and poor – will suffer far more than the Makers of the Universe.

And so I am trying mightily to resist my desire for suicidal revenge, and to support a rational plot which might help the bankers in its attempt to help everyone else who is not responsible for this disastrous mess.

On the other hand, I am grateful that Congress is not willing to give Paulson et al. a blank check with no accountability, no oversight, and no bottom to the amount of money they can spend in bailing out America’s financial institutions.  The possibilityof ceding to Paulson’s two and a half page request without qualification strikes me as terrifying as not doing anything and waiting for the bridge to fall.

But I do hope they act before they leave to go home for the election campaign, because the system cannot wait until after November 6th for something to be done.

September 21, 2008

Another morsel of thought about food

Until the 1950s, there wasn’t such a thing as commercial fertilizer.  Then a German scientist figured out how to “fix” nitrogen, one of the three essential components needed in the soil to make plants grow.  The traditional way of getting nitrogen into the soil was to rotate crops that alternatively took nitrogen out or put it back in the soil.  Corn which uses nitrogen had to be rotated with a crop like legumes that put it back in, for instance, making it impossible to grow corn in the same field more than twice every 4-5 years.

“Fixing” nitrogen combines nitrogen with hydrogen gasses under intense heat and pressure provided by fossil fuel.  The resulting synthetic fertilizer by-passes the need for crop rotation and makes monoculture possible.  As Pollan points out in Omnivore’s Dilemma, this trade-off ultimately demands a potentially dangerously high price in soil erosion and depletion.  But in the meantime – and this is critically important – it increased the world’s food supply sufficiently to feed a rapidly growing population.  Without chemical fertilizers, millions of people would never have been born, or would have died of starvation.  Without chemical fertilizers today, more than half the world’s present population would not have food.

I’m thinking about the problems of fixing nitrogen that will inevitably one day become too big to ignore at the same time as I have been reading an analysis predicting a world-wide shortage – not first of food – but of water.  Water to drink, to cook and wash with, to keep one’s animals alive, but above all, water for the plants that are grown to feed us.

At the same time, our financial markets are being shaken world-wide to their very core, and another terrorist bomb exploded, destroying a Marriott hotel in Pakistan.

And I am remembering that the fourteenth century in Europe was wracked by the plague which wiped out whole villages, and eventually killed one out of every three people in the entire population.  On top of this the weather was changing and led to almost a decade of famine in which another 15% of the population died.  The Catholic church was in the midst of a schism in which rival popes set up courts in Rome and Avignon, and France and England fought a war on and off that lasted a century.

When it was over, the old order of medieval Europe had been overthrown, and the foundations of the modern world were in place.

I wonder if the 21st century will result in a similar dramatic upheaval and change our societies as profoundly.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.