“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, May 19, 2006

kammist hijinks

Oliver Kamm is a joke, but I like to read him to find out what bad faith is doing today. His post about Chavez, however, is beyond his usual stunning work. The disinformation conveyed by every lovely sentence (this is a man who loves the plummy sound of his own pomposity) is a work of neo-con kitsch that even Hitchens would have a hard time matching. I'm talking about golden age Hitchens, the one defending Chalabi, not the bare ruined choirs of the unreadable recent screeds in Slate. For instance, here is what Kamm says about Venezuela at the time that Chavez instigated a coup attempt, in 1992. This is in response to Johann Hari’s positive Independence interview with Chavez:

"Another point undermining Johann's morality tale is that the structural reforms, so far from being the acts of a despised regime, steadily gained support. Javier Corrales, in Presidents Without Parties: The Politics of Economic Reform in Argentina and Venezuela in the 1990s (2002, p. 55) notes that from the first quarter of 1989 (when the riots took place) to the first quarter of 1991, the number of people who wished the government to persevere with the reforms rose from 29 per cent to 45 per cent, while the economy performed strongly (a growth rate of 9.7 per cent in 1991 and a rise in investment of 81 per cent). The number of labour disputes rose in that period, but the number of actual strikes (authorised and unauthorised) declined. Mass opposition to the government's reform programme, so far from driving Chavez's failed coup attempt, was in fact driven by it. Chavez shattered a fragile consensus by showing the potential for a different form of politics, namely populist demagoguery and violence (nearly 100 people were killed in his failed coup attempt, the great majority of them civilians)."

Well, is this the same Javier Corrales who writes, in the Political Science Quarterly, 1997, comparing the Argentine and Venezuelan responses to economic crisis:

"These points will be demonstrated by referring to some cases where reforms have been implemented, successfully and otherwise. Special reference is made to the cases of Argentina (1989-1994) and Venezuela (1989-1994), which constitute clear-cut dichotomies of divergent outcomes in processes of economic reforms. After launching similar programs of economic reforms, these countries undertook different political paths. In Argentina, both the reforms and the reformers acquired unimaginable political momentum and prestige. In Venezuela, they became amply repudiated by society in general.”

Huh, Kamm does seem to have a bit of a problem with his specs, reading “amply repudiated by society in general” as “was widely acclaimed like Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.”

And here’s how Corrales describes the period in general:

“[In 1991] Venezuela plunged into its most serious political crisis since the 1960s: uncontained civic protests, two military coup attempts in 1992, intense cabinet changes, interruption of most ESSA reforms, presidential impeachment in 1993, urban terrorism, and a devastating financial crack at the end of 1993.”

Now, the heart of the deception in Kamm's little post stems from a man he, oddly, doesn't mention. Just who was that president who was impeached in 1993? Why, it seems to be a man well known for having stolen a quantity of money, Carlos A. Perez – although, as Kamm might put it, to call it stealing money is demagogic, since it was a part of a structural reform implementing a “put Venezuela’s money in Perez’s Swiss bank account” that was surely only unpopular because it was so misunderstood, Perez instituting an ultramodern CEO system of payment for Venezuela’s spanking brand new leadership. And of course his mistress, Cecilia Matos, also received a couple of million here and there, as was only right and fair. All part of a sort of New Labour before New Labour kind of thing, which Kamm so rightly beams upon. The 13 million in the Swiss bank account was all an incentive scheme..

In any case, Kamm's odd statistics for support of reform seem to be contradicted by the fact that Perez was elected on a statist platform -- and once elected, turned about and repudiated the very economic policies he represented in his campaign. Here's a May 2, 1988 Wall Street Journal article reporting on a typical Perez speech:

"Of 15 candidates standing for the December 4 election, the two front-runners are former President Carlos Andres Perez, the 65-year-old candidate of the ruling Democratic Action party, and Eduardo Fernandez, 47, who leads the main opposition party.

Both of them have pledged to fight to soften the terms for repayment of Venezuela's 30 billion dollar foreign debt, the fifth biggest in the developing world.

The country has one of the best repayment records in Latin America, repaying more principal on its debt than any other, but the leading candidates have vowed to change this.

In a newspaper interview published on Monday, Perez said Venezuela should repay its debt at a rate of around 20 per cent of its export earnings. Last year, it paid 46.5 per cent.

"We can not pay under the conditions imposed by the industrialised world," Perez, Venezuela's president from 1974 to 1979, told El Nacional. "The situation is becoming intolerable."

On the basis of such rodomontade, the man was elected, only to impose every condition asked by the 'industrialized world' and then some. Surprise surprise. It is as if George Bush had run on a platform of smaller government, only to balloon the size of the government... Oh, bad example. Well, it is as if Tony Blair had assured the British people that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction in spite of knowning that the intelligence was iffy or non-existent... Oops, another bad example. Well, it is as if the Venezuelan people are supposed to swallow the lies and bad faith of their elected leaders without complaint, as they do in the U.S. and the U.K. There, that's better.

Anyway, the comedy of Kamm writing propaganda for the regime of a ex-crook who was put under house arrest twice for his crimes (and protected from worse by his buddies on the Venezuelan Supreme Court) is pretty good. One looks forward to his defense of the Salinas family next. But there is still more from this one little post. Two points, actually. One has to do with the figures that Kamm quotes, pointing to them as if the early nineties was a time of sound economic policies. Now, the background here is important, This is how Corrales puts it:

“Nevertheless, comparing numbers alone tends to ignore issues of diachronic relativity. Venezuela in January 1989 was in the midst of its most severe economic crisis since the 1930s. Venezuela's GNP was expanding but only as a result of deficit spending, growing indebtedness, and reserve burning. Artificial aggregate-demand boosting was a deliberate state strategy to hide the severity of the economic crisis for electoral purposes. But the severity of the crisis was real--very high and accelerating inflation for the first time ever, large trade and budget deficits, declining revenues, severe foreign reserve shortage (unusual for oil exporters), consumer goods scarcity, and growing social unrest. And yet, this was only the tip of the iceberg of a chronic, decade-old economic deterioration. Since the 1970s, Venezuela's economic competitiveness and living standards declined steadily. Despite the growth of GNP between 1984 and 1988, there is little evidence of any trickle-down effect. (See Table 1.) After peaking in 1982 at US $4,980, the GNP per capita declined to US $3,190 in 1988, roughly the same level as in 1977. Few countries experience such a dramatic (35 percent) decline in such a short period of time. Argentina certainly did not: its GDP per capita actually increased 32.9 percent during this period.[25] Venezuelan real wages between 1980 and 1988 also exhibit a dismal record (34 percent decline compared to 2.7 percent for Argentina). In 1988 alone, real wages declined 11.3 percent compared to 5.5 percent in Argentina.”

But how about the good times to which Kamm refers -- that strong 9 percent growth? How about those the privatizations, the austerity, the price liberalization, all of the stuff “promoting sound economic policies through so-called structural adjustment programmes.” Well, here we must leave Coralles, who has a soft spot for the Washington concensus, and ask about the way the neo-liberal policies in Venezuela, and Mexico, and Argentina go round and round in the same cycle of boom and bust, with the busts being those times when the government kindly extends itself to the neediest -- owners of banks and telephone companies and such --and bails them out.

In 1996, the Economist gave a soft focus view of what happened:

"During Venezuela's most recent boom, in the early 1990s, its banks grew like topsy. Lax supervision allowed lenders to run wild, and there were too many soft loans to bank insiders. The boom ended in January 1994 when Banco Latino, then the second-largest bank, was taken over by the government. As panicked depositors pulled out their money, seven other banks also failed. Standard & Poor's, a credit-rating agency, reckons the bank bailout has cost 1.8 trillion bolivars ($12 billion), equal to 22% of GDP in 1994. The crisis helped drive the inflation rate above 60%. That led to a sharp devaluation of the bolivar. In 1993, 106 bolivars could buy one American dollar. Today, it takes 474.

Officials see privatisation as one way to recover some of the costs of the continuing bank bail-out. Two other banks now in government hands, Banco Republica and Banco Latino, will go on the block early next year. Esther de Margulis, head of Fogade, the deposit-guarantee agency, expects to receive over $1 billion from the sale of banks and related assets."

The typical cycle -- tax money bails out banks that fail due to the lax regulation that is ignored by "structural adjustments" that encourage privatization. Using the state as a piggy bank, the banks are nursed back to health and sold, often to the same people who bankrupted them in the first place or their friends. To really get a sense of what happened in Venezuela, read the Funny Money chapter in The Blood Bankers by Henry S. James. Kamm's notion that the structural adjustments were sound is as bogus as is his careful non-disclosure of what happened, economically, after the reforms were put into place.

The other point, on which we will take Corrales' word, is that, far from Chavez destabilizing Perez, Corrales claims his own party did:

"In Venezuela, the ruling party virtually rebelled against the executive and his reforms at the end of 1991." And here:

"AD [Accion Democratica] felt increasingly threatened. It soon began to attack the reforms and reformers, disparaging most economic initiatives and belittling every economic accomplishment. Never in Venezuela's democratic history were executive-ruling party relations so distant and discordant. A vicious cycle developed: the party grew increasingly resentful, in turn, further persuading the executive of the need to supersede the party.

By 1991, AD was in a virtual state of war against the executive, even though this was the "best" economic year of the reforms in terms of macroeconomic indicators. This war culminated in AD's internal elections of September-October 1991 in which the orthodox sectors captured the top positions in the party. From this moment on, the balance in executive-ruling party relations shifted toward the party, now under the control of the most recalcitrant critics of the reforms."

Finally, a word about Corrales. Three years after the 1997 article, the much praised Argentine economy, which Corrales regards as a model of instituting sound economic policies, collapsed. By coincidence (I guess I should put heh here) the reformist Argentinian president, Menem, was accused of massive corruption himself. The neo-cons do love their leader/swindlers.

There are days when Kamm is just an average punter, and then there are days when he is absolutely golden – attaining scores that are almost near the legendary Melanie Phillips. This post was one of the latter.

PS: – for Bush corruption -‘n-incompetence junkies who just can’t get enough, this article in the NYT is the place to go. The usual complaints about the “good news from Iraq’ being a pack of lies served up by right wing talking heads and relayed dutifully by a cowed press doesn’t really get to the function of the lies. If you are going to pick a country apart, if you are going to pursue unilateral power in the Middle East, and if you are going to disgorge tax money to your campaign contributor – all at the same time - you need to operate like cartoon villains in Sin City, you need a bunch of zombies constantly relaying ‘good news’ and you need to baptize the whole thing with an inspiring name. Democracy, freedom, the rest of it. And that is what 2003 and 2004 were all about.

freedom

O, my America, my Newfoundland,
My kingdom, safest when with one man mann'd,
My mine of precious stones, my empery ;
How am I blest in thus discovering thee !

And the news about the one man manning our America is that he has appointed a court spy jester who, we are told in tones of syncophant’s awe, will – well, like the WAPO headline say it all: “Nominee Has Ability To Bear Bad News”.

In the town of the wealthy think tanker, where Kissing Ass is the major growth industry, this is like a major thing. The WAPO knew to headline it, since as we all know, it is rare to find a really good babysitter. So often the babysitters just sit around playing poker with pimps! Which, to tell the truth, is what I would like my CIA head to be doing. But no – Hayden, this marvel, we are told, while changing the royal diapers and rubbing vaseline onto the royal bottom, will be able to say things like, this excellent war that you, destroyer of worlds, most Christian of all Christians, the only anointed one, the cock of cocks and cocaine of cocaine, holy and sacred and better than Daddy, initiated out of your great and good mind, is grinding people into small little pieces for no discernable reason, your highness, except of course that they really really appreciate it, the freedom and the liberty and the light that you have shown upon them, but there are these tiny, tiny problems. And then give baby a playful spank.

Will Hayden convey the agency's deep concern about Iraq to Bush? "Yes, I think he will," said a senior CIA official who has seen Hayden in high-level meetings. "I think he'll be professional about it, though. He won't jump on the table. But he'll make the point."

In the past year, the CIA station in Baghdad has told headquarters that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating dangerously, according to a senior CIA official familiar with the station's view and with Hayden. The assessment has only gotten worse, the official said.”

Deep concern - wow. Those are such grave words that they are topped with moussed gray hair. Oh, this kind of thing will surely get a two thumbs up in the WAPO editorial even now being metastasized in Fred Hiatt's head.

Typical of the media badmouthing of our great and good war, isn’t it? For instance, the news that people are moving to Baghdad, supposedly in such a shambles, should be suitably cherrypicked and played over the instaborg for all to see, I think:

“Although the killings of foreign and Iraqi journalists in Basra have limited coverage in the city, residents describe political violence that leaves corpses on the streets daily. Iraqi newspapers this week reported Basra residents fleeing to comparative safety abroad or even in Baghdad.

The governor of Basra province, a member of the Islamic Virtue Party, last week demanded the removal of Basra's police chief and local military leader, accusing them of failing to rein in political and sectarian killings. Since then, the unrest has included an attack on a police station; burning of offices of Iraq's most powerful Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; and marches Wednesday that drew thousands of participants.”

It is the Pottery Barn principle: once you break it, then break dozens of it, break it all, burn the place down, blow it up and sprinkle the ground with salt and call it: Freedom.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

low toppers, anyone?

The political talking heads may be right – it might be that this year’s elections will be all about Iraq and Iran. LI, however, thinks this discounts what might well be on the minds of voters in November – the series of storms that are going to be rolling across the Gulf like huge bowling balls this hurricane season.

Of course, there are always variables that could kick in. There is no certainty that we have so fucked with the Gulf and the weather that the one two combination is going to be hammering at our door this year. There is a certainty that, if it isn’t this year, it will be next, or next. For five years we have done nothing but pour more shit into the ocean and more CO2 into the atmosphere, and in between driving the forty miles daily in the SUV, watched scintillating specials on PBS entitled Cheating Housewives on Shrinking Glaciers, or whatever.

It is funny how the news item that beeped a few weeks ago – the one about the extent of damage to the Gulf oil extraction biz from last year’s storm – went into the memory hole. In fact, the U.S. depends on offshore Gulf fields that are right in the storm path – and it isn’t as if it is even possible to build offshore rigs that will resist the kind of damage the Katrinas dish up.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting to today’s topic. LI has a suspicion of those who indulge in flamboyant apocalypses, when apocalypse is a household thing, a matter of humble accidents accumulating before our eyes. The peak oil people have always struck us as way too fevered, but – doing our duty – we have been reading The Empty Tank, by Jeremy Leggett, who is a peak oil person – or as he calls it, a Low Topper, which has a nice erotic ring about it. Of course, we are reading The Empty Tank in intervals between the account of Edmond Dantés imprisonment on the Chateau D’If. The latter is much more riveting.

Still, Leggett’s book does give both a history of the Low Topper movement and the sources of its concern. Basically, the Low and High Toppers aren’t that far apart. The former think that the world’s cheap oil supply will top out this decade, and the latter think it will be in 2030. Leggett makes a good case for mistrusting the BP’s review of oil reserves – the foundation of the orthodoxy – by pointing out that the figures BP is relying on have been mysteriously tweaked by the big oil suppliers – the Saudis, the Kuwaitis – who have upped their estimate of their oil reserves without presenting a lot of evidence that the new, inflated numbers are correct. Leggett’s notion is that we are going to experience the first wave of panic over the low topping point in the next two years, and that this is going to drive some very bad things – including pressure to use coal much more extensively. Coal is a real CO2 menace. In Leggett’s opinion, the hype about using, say, shale oil or tar sands ignores the startling costs of extraction – starting with the enormous energy costs, and including the water use.

The nightmare scenario is that we start to look for really deep sea deposits. The reason this is a nightmare scenario is that we one of the sure ways to end life on this planet is to release enormous volumes of methane underseas – what he calls methane hydrate destabilization. The USGS estimates that there is more than 10,000 billion metric tons of carbon in methane hydrate deposits. And the USGS actually and insanely is optimistic about mining the stuff. As Leggett says: “This despite knowing, presumably, that methane is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, molecule for molecule, and that much methane would escape into the atmosphere during any mining process...’ Which is a rather calm way of saying that mining would turn Earth into Venus.

On the other hand, it is unlikely that any company is going to start trying to draw up the methane hydrate, since the expense would simply be too great. Otherwise, of course, the buzzards would be busy doing it.

At the back of any discussion of the depletion of a natural resource is the bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon, which has become a economists’ myth, to be trotted out whenever an economists meets an environmentalist. Wired, which in the 90s became athe Johnny Appleseed of the techno cargo cult still popular on the right published a pretty good portrait of Simon. This is the wager:

“The battle lines now drawn, it was not long before Ehrlich and Simon met for a duel in the sun. The face-off occurred in the pages of Social Science Quarterly, where Simon challenged Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was. In response to Ehrlich's published claim that "If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000" - a proposition Simon regarded as too silly to bother with - Simon countered with "a public offer to stake US$10,000 ... on my belief that the cost of non-government-controlled raw materials (including grain and oil) will not rise in the long run."

You could name your own terms: select any raw material you wanted - copper, tin, whatever - and select any date in the future, "any date more than a year away," and Simon would bet that the commodity's price on that date would be lower than what it was at the time of the wager.

"How about it, doomsayers and catastrophists? First come, first served."

In California, Paul Ehrlich stepped right up - and why not? He'd been repeating the Malthusian argument for years; he was sure that things were running out, that resources were getting scarcer - "nearing depletion," as he'd said - and therefore would have to become more expensive. A public wager would be the chance to demonstrate the shrewdness of his forecasts, draw attention to the catastrophic state of the world situation, and, not least, force this Julian Simon character to eat his words. So he jumped at the chance: "I and my colleagues, John P. Holdren (University of California, Berkeley) and John Harte (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory), jointly accept Simon's astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in."

Ehrlich and his colleagues picked five metals that they thought would undergo big price rises: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Then, on paper, they bought $200 worth of each, for a total bet of $1,000, using the prices on September 29, 1980, as an index. They designated September 29, 1990, 10 years hence, as the payoff date. If the inflation-adjusted prices of the various metals rose in the interim, Simon would pay Ehrlich the combined difference; if the prices fell, Ehrlich et alia would pay Simon.”

Simon, of course, triumphed. All of those metals went down in price – as did oil. In the 80s and 90s, the boom times were on the back of a primary product glut. Ehrlich reportedly refused to bet again in 1990. Too bad. If he had set the terms at twelve years, he would have cleaned up. And if Simon and Ehrlich were old Dean (k)yK and Qfwfq, it is good money that Qfwfq (Ehrlich) would lose at first and then win. The Simonian libertarians are betting on the bell curve never having a down side. It was Simon’s ghost in 2004 assuring us that the future’s market in petroleum had it wrong – a rare bout of irrationality in the market.

Still, the Simon-Ehrlich bet’s larger story is that one shouldn’t dismiss three hundred years of history like it was yesterday’s garbage. The triumph of technology over scarcity that is the essence of the treadmill of production is not something you can understand the way a biologist can understand, say, the population density of some fish having only its ability to reproduce standing between it and environmental accidents.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

dear ayatollah k, we both like sweets...

LI has read many commentaries on the loopy letter sent by Iran’s president, Ahmadinejad. But oddly enough, the last exchange of letters, this time from the American side, is hardly referred to at all. I am talking, of course, of the incomparable mission, undertaken by Bud McFarlane and Oliver North, in May, 1986, to Teheran. Our oh so sane president at the time, Reagan, sent a signed copy of the Bible (sometimes, as we know, Reagan suffered from hallucinations – the Bible signing resulted from the hallucination that he was really Charleton Heston, who, as we know, wrote the Bible) and a cake. I don’t know if Nancy baked the cake. I have a feeling that is one of the things that Nancy didn’t do. Before the trip, North had been advised by Casey to take along some poison pills. You never know, they might not like German Chocolate.

Actually, according to the times, it was a kosher cake:

“On May 25, Mr. McFarlane and his group brought a kosher chocolate cake from Israel for the Iranians in Teheran. In a report back to the White House from Teheran, he interrupted his narrative to describe a watermelon break. At another point, Mr. McFarlane said he distinctly remembered telling President Reagan in the hospital about the arms shipments ''because the President was wearing pajamas.''

And this is the NYT article from January 30, 1987, which should make us all breathe easier about how, well, sane American leaders are compared to those clownish Iranians:

“The White House confirmed today that President Reagan had sent a signed Bible to Iranian leaders.

The confirmation came in remarks by Larry Speakes, the White House spokesman, three months after Iran first disclosed the Bible's existence.
The book, with a signed inscription by Mr. Reagan, was displayed Wednesday at a news conference in Teheran by Iran's Speaker of Parliament, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Today Mr. Speakes said the Bible, with Mr. Reagan's signature and the date of Oct. 3, 1986, under a handwritten quotation, had been given by American emissaries to an intermediary in Frankfurt to be passed on to Iranian leaders.

''It was a gesture to indicate that those who were there were truly representing the President, and that the President, too, was a man of God,'' he said.
On Wednesday, after the Teheran news conference, Mr. Speakes said that he knew nothing about the matter and would not ask Mr. Reagan about it.
The existence of the Bible was first disclosed by Hojatolislam Rafsanjani in November. At that time, the Iranian leader said the United States had sent the Bible and a cake shaped like a key, reportedly in an allusion to the possible opening of relations.

The Iranian leader spoke after a Beirut magazine had revealed the secret sale of arms to Iran by reporting a trip to Teheran by Robert C. McFarlane, former national security adviser.

After the disclosure, Mr. Reagan said on television on Nov. 13, ''Don't believe all these wild stories.''

Today Mr. Speakes said the handwritten passage in the Bible, from Galatians, had been suggested to Mr. Reagan by Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, then the national security adviser.
The White House spokesman said details about the Bible had been uncovered in a review of documents left by Admiral Poindexter and his aide, Lieut. Col. Oliver L. North. Mr. Speakes said that Colonel North was almost certainly the emissary at the Frankfurt meeting, which occurred a few days after Mr. Reagan had signed the Bible. Mr. Speakes said he did not know the identity of the Iranian intermediary.
According to Mr. Speakes, the sending of a signed Bible had been suggested by Colonel North ''because there had been discussions about the common religious heritage that existed between Moslem and Christian and Jewish religions.''
The handwritten quotation read: ''And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the nations shall be blessed in you.' Galatians 3:8. Ronald Reagan. Oct 3, 1986.''
When Mr. Speakes was asked why he had not acknowledged the Bible episode in the first place, he said the White House wanted to be sure of its facts.”

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

hot air and circumstances

Harper’s has a review of some recent Churchill books. Churchill has become the bloated Macy’s balloon of the neo-con legions. In some ways that is appropriate: the neo-cons are invariably attracted to frauds and swindlers (re the Chalabi romance) and Churchill was often fraudulent. The funniest thing about the review is the raking over of Churchill’s sham Augustan prose – as Evelyn Waugh labeled it. In the fifties, Churchill’s history of the Second World War was received with awe – one reviewer speaks of the hush of greatness – but in actuality, this was committee work on a scale that would have embarrassed Dumas:

“In fact, Churchill had long used ghostwriters. He was paid enormous sums by newspapers and there was nothing he wouldn't stoop to if the money was right, in a way that a professional journalist must find endearing. At one point in the 1930s, he wrote a series of "Great Stories of the World Retold," potted versions of everything from The Count of Monte Cristo to Uncle Tom's Cabin-except that "wrote" meant he would farm out the actual work to someone like Sir Edward Marsh, his sometime private secretary and a fastidious man of letters, who would be paid rather less than 10 percent of Churchill's fee. Since Churchill collected the modern equivalent of $17,500 for each piece and Marsh received $1,300, everyone was happy.

With The Second World War, this principle operated on a far larger scale. The Syndicate, as Churchill's team of researchers and writers was called, was headed by William Deakin, an Oxford don who had been Churchill's wartime emissary to Tito (Deakin died in great old age in January of last year), and Sir Henry Pownall, a former senior army officer. They would draft whole chapters, using the first person, to which Churchill would then apply his finishing touches, some in that shamAugustan prose, some inimitable-whether it's the laconic ending that marks the departure from London in 1938 of the German ambassador, "This was the last time I saw Herr von Ribbentrop before he was hanged," or the delightful admission, "All I wanted was compliance with my wishes after a reasonable period of discussion." No member of the Syndicate could have written those.

Nor would they have contributed the tendentious slant. ... many more pages are devoted to the North African campaign than to the Eastern Front, where the Germans had about fifty times as many divisions engaged and where the war against the Third Reich was in reality decided. The treatment of the other great and historically decisive conflict of 1941-45, between the United States and Japan, is just as cursory, and secondhand at that.

This also led to a most embarrassing charge of plagiarism. The cursory account of the Pacific war was cobbled together by the Syndicate; Churchill scarcely looked at it. When the eminent American historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who had written the classic History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, read these chapters he felt "a keen sense of déjà vu and then mounting indignation" at the wholesale purloining of his work. But he did not want to be seen taking the great hero to court, and the matter was smoothed over with the addition of a fulsome tribute to Morison's work.”

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, the reviewer, also quotes a moving tribute to Neville Chamberlain, who – in the cartoon version of history beloved by conservatives – gets to play to appeasing wimp compared to Churchill’s Cato like warnings about Nazi Germany (although, alas, I don’t think such warnings were supposed to allow Britain to intervene on the Republican side in Spain. That, after all, would be premature anti-Fascism). Appeasement, we are meant to think, is always the same – it is always a Hitler being appeased. Hitlers are, in reality, extremely rare. Most nations that have suffered losses in the millions in a war are not eager to start new ones. Stalin, as much of a murdering tyrant as Hitler ever was, tried to keep the Soviet Union out of any major war -- and failed. He tried to keep the Soviet Union out of a major war because he remembered vividly World War I. At the end of which, as you will recall, Russia's supreme leader, the Czar, was shot in a basement. In fact, the implausibility of the here a Hitler, there a Hitler stance of the pro-war party in this country would be funny, if it weren't so utterly successful as a propaganda ploy. Here’s what Churchill said at Chamberlain’s funeral:
“It is not given to human beings, happily for them for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days.

...It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was the faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour.”

The sham Augustan is certainly there, but Churchill’s judgment of the Chamberlain’s motives is surely just. And the idea that the most highly armed and dangerous nation in the world, the U.S., which spends a trillion dollars on the military every three or four years, is in any danger of falling into appeasing anybody (instead of finding outlets for its addiction to the political economy of war) is one of the funnier delusions of our time.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Louisiana is us

Looking back over LI’s life (smoking opium and sitting in my cork lined room), there is one political book that stands out for us, still. A book that forever changed the way we thought about politics. The book is Cadillac Desert. Marc Reisner abjured parts of the book before he died, but this piece in 2000 drastically condenses the case against the way in which the treadmill of production has changed the environmental interaction between water and the land in the last century. It includes this passage:

“The socio-economic benefits of water development are undeniable. Even environmentalists acknowledge them. The problems created by water development are still under-valued, and they will get worse. Here, in a nutshell, are some of the big ones:
• the sedimentation of reservoirs on which millions of people have come to depend;
• the ruin, through salt build-up, of millions of acres of once-fertile soil;
• the creation of cities in deserts where they arguably shouldn't exist, and then their vulnerability to earthquakes, which can destroy aqueducts and cause dams to collapse;
• the stoppage of river-borne sediment and the erosion of river deltas and ocean shorelines;
• the disappearance of world treasures like the Aral Sea in Russia and Tulare Lake in California, as the rivers that fed them are diverted elsewhere;
• the collapse of great fish habitats, like the Caspian Sea's sturgeon and the Great Lakes' lake trout;
• the insidious bio-accumulation of methylated mercury in water, fish, and ultimately humans;
• the displacement of millions of people from fertile river valleys;
• the rampant deforestation that accompanies most dam projects in rainforest zones.

Solving a problem as complex, immense, and expensive as this will be difficult. We cannot do so without sealing up the oil corridor channels, taking down the Missouri River dams, and breaching the levees — at least south of New Orleans. The economic and social repercussions would be awesome. But the economic and social repercussions of doing nothing are also awesome. For the next three or four decades, until the Gulf of Mexico is at New Orleans' door and the tidal surge from a Category 5 hurricane threatens to put that city twenty feet under water, we can shove this dilemma onto our children and grandchildren.”

‘Our,’ there, is an honorific, and as we have seen in New Orleans, our grandchildren get the tender attentions of government financed private companies restoring and rebuilding, while their children, all that their, are displaced, harried, intentionally dispirited, and made into prison fodder to serve the patho-industries that give so generously to the government, and have that eternal source of free advertising, the evening news, to keep processing all that theirness -- a distant, profitable offshoot of the slave trade.

However, segmenting the class and race issues here from the environmental issues blinds us to the essentially connectedness of all these issues. The dying of the Louisiana coast -- and the probability that hurricanes will be striking there again, hard – would seem to have been raised by Katrina – but to raise issues like this, which strike at the dysfunction of the system, is to get uncomfortably close to a true apocalypse, when false apocalypses are much more entertaining. That is why, after all, the latter exist.

Michael Greenwald’s article in the Post Sunday section is a long, depressing read – and funny enough, it too goes back to 2000. LI – as we have smugly noted before – also wrote an article about the Mississippi system and the disaster that was coming in 2000. Our article was about this odd gap in the presidential race – neither Gore, nor Bush, nor Nader seemed to care about a very predictable natural disaster that was looming, and that was aggravated by the limits on engineering a river – a limit that is now entering, I imagine, its final testing stage. There is no one central problem with the Mississippi and the Gulf interaction, but many of the problems do radiate out from the fact that, if it were not for fifty years of engineering, the Mississippi would by now have turned into the bed of the Atchafalaya River.

However, let’s not go there. The Greenwald piece slams the Corps of Engineers. And it raises the question: why is the Corps of Engineers unsinkable?
“In 2000, when I was writing a 50,000-word Washington Post series about dysfunction at the Army Corps of Engineers, I highlighted a $65 million flood-control project in Missouri as Exhibit A. Corps documents showed that the project would drain more acres of wetlands than all U.S. developers do in a typical year, but wouldn't stop flooding in the town it was meant to protect. FEMA's director called it "a crazy idea"; the Fish and Wildlife Service's regional director called it "absolutely ridiculous."
Six years later, the project hasn't changed -- except for its cost, which has soared to $112 million. Larry Prather, chief of legislative management for the Corps, privately described it in a 2002 e-mail as an "economic dud with huge environmental consequences." Another Corps official called it "a bad project. Period." But the Corps still wants to build it.”
The Corps, as Reisner shows in great detail, has never been stopped by a bad project. In fact, due to changes made by Reagan in the way the Corps operates, the Corps can’t even tell a bad project from a good one – it is hemmed in by law from studying the safety effect of its projects on people, or from considering environmental impacts. Reagan had good reason to like the Corps – while the story of the 1980 election is all about how conservatives won, in actual fact, Reagan’s wins in the West came from his opposition to Carter’s retrenchment of government water projects. Conservatism did not, at some golden period, mean smaller government – it meant, and it will always mean, government-business interactions to exploit the working class. Period. If politics were a gemstone, that is the facet that the jeweler would carve too – only clumsy jewelers think that politics is about big or small government. In the same way that Reagan’s anti-communism certainly accommodated ending grain embargoes on the Soviets, his small government ethos was mitigated by his knowledge that agribusinesses weren’t going to be shoveling money into his campaign if he really left the land and water to self-organize.

But this is simply to cavil at Greenwald’s claim that all presidents have tried to control the Corps.

The bulk of the article is about the Corps systematic, and encouraged, hydrological malfeasance around New Orleans:

“After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the Corps also began building levees to protect the city from the Gulf of Mexico, but its misguided plan led to even more destruction during Katrina. The Corps put most of its levees around undeveloped and highly vulnerable floodplains instead of focusing on protection for existing developments -- partly because Corps cost-benefit analyses did not consider the cost of human life or environmental degradation, and partly because powerful developers owned swampland in those vulnerable floodplains. Katrina destroyed many of the houses built on those former swamplands.

The Louisiana delegation and the Corps also deserve blame for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, an alternative shipping route to the Port of New Orleans. The outlet was always popular with port officials and a few shipping executives, but it destroyed more than 20,000 acres of wetlands, created a "hurricane superhighway" into the city and never attracted much traffic. Now computer models suggest it amplified Katrina's surge by two feet.

And the outlet was only the most destructive of the pork projects the Corps has been building in Louisiana when it should have been upgrading levees and pursuing its plan to restore the state's coastal wetlands. In 2000, I described how the Corps had spent $2 billion wrestling the wild Red River into a slack-water barge channel that wasn't being used by any barges; four of its dams had been named for Louisiana members of Congress, and the entire channel had been named for former Louisiana senator J. Bennett Johnston (D). The Corps was also spending $750 million to build a lock that was supposedly needed to accommodate increasing barge traffic on the New Orleans Industrial Canal -- even though barge traffic was steadily decreasing. The Corps spent $1.9 billion in Louisiana in the five years before Katrina, more than it spent in any other state. But all that money didn't keep New Orleans dry.”

Having lived on both the Red River (Shreveport) and the Mississippi (New Orleans), I find this more than usually interesting. There are a number of converging factors here that aren’t mentioned by Greenwald, however. One is that the channeling of the Mississippi naturally increases the force of its flow. Plus, the Corps is dedicated to desilting the river. The result is that it has been tunneling its riverbead as it goes below New Orleans. This, in turn, has an effect on one of the peculiarities of the Louisiana coast. The coast is made up of what are, in effects, huge blocks of mud. There are heated debates about the blockiness – is this natural, or is it the result of the numberless channels cut and never backfilled by the petro companies? In any case, for shipping purposes, the river is being kept from its delta creating function. And if delta isn’t created, land starts slipping into the Gulf. But this isn’t the only factor. One that I have no scientific backup for – an LI speculative special – has to do with the dead zones created in the Gulf by the delivery of massive amounts of fertilizer, pesticides and other pollutants by the river. It has become a sort of pipeline delivering these things to the Gulf, and the Gulf, in turn, develops huge areas of hypoxia. Oxygenless water, in which living things like fish die. It is the kind of thing that has turned the Black Sea into a gigantic, mostly lifeless area. The Gulf is more than due for a prolonged period in which hypoxia simply becomes permanent:

Instead of getting better, the Gulf's dead zone could quickly get a lot worse, says Scavia. "There comes a time when the fisheries collapse," he says. Not only will commercial harvests plummet, but fish and shrimp reproduction will also drop off. In some cases, a commercially popular fish might completely disappear.
Unfortunately, he says, no one knows how close the Gulf is to that point. It might take a year, or it could take 2 decades. The problem, Scavia notes, is that once a hypoxia-fostered collapse starts, "it happens fast" and can be devilishly hard to reverse.”

Here's the speculative part. The dead zone is interesting insofar as its seems to correlate with another fact about the Gulf – although whether there is a mutually causative relationship is not for LI to determine: the water surface temperatures in the Gulf are rising. And that rise in the surface temperature feeds the storm cycle.
All of which is to point out that the treadmill of production is paralleled by another interconnected system – a geographic and planetary one. To keep the former going, in Louisiana, means trying to differ the consequences on the ecological system. This is where the Corps becomes the pointmen for our blindness about these processes. Their job is to extend that blindness a little more. Build more levies on the Mississippi, concentrating the water flow even more. Keep dredging the silt, which causes more land to salinate and flood. Keep the irrigation system going that delivers the pollutants to the river, from which they can be deposited into the Gulf, where they can enlarge the killing zones.

To paraphrase Martin Niemoller -- first they came for the crabs, but I figured, fuck em. Then they came for the rivers, and I figured, fuck em again. Then they hunted the life out of the oceans and made them into toilets, and I figured, fuck em again if they can't take a joke. And then the seas and the winds rose and the dead zone became human. And a little voice in the wind said: fuck em.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Arthurs and entertainers

Due to the frequent allusions of Le Colonel Chabert to Dumas, I have become curious enough to finally penetrate Dumas (and Co.)’s Comte de Monte Cristo. At the same time, I thought I’d read his biography. I was startled to see a parallel between Dumas’ financial difficulties and those of Michael Jackson, as they are outlined in the business section of the NYT.

Like Dumas, Michael Jackson’s life is as big as his income. This is rarely ever true of the wealthy. Extravagance can only bring you down so far when you are the beneficiary of some obscene stock option deal – the distant prospect of immiseration really only threatens when investments go bad. Supposedly Ken Lay is down to his last million (although that might just be a lawyerly smoke-screen), but Ken Lay is, of course, a rare idiot. The more usual fate assigned to criminal millionaires (or allegedly criminal) after the slammer is to face the cruel, cold world with merely forty, sixty, one hundred million tucked away. Milikan, whose jailtime still can cause the tears to fall at AEI meetings, was able to shift about, in his parole days, with close to the billion he had pilfered before his jail time. Iron bars do not make a cage, for such hearts.

But Michael Jackson’s lifestyle is a sort of investment, a tabloid amusement park. And delegations have been sent to Dubai from Sony to discuss his future. The tone of the story is such that I expect him to be moving into my apartment complex any day now. A small, all efficient complex, starting at 420 per month. Somehow, though, I think that the shrinking of his fortune will never be so bad that Michael will have to taste the vie de bohème which is the lot of all of us here:

"SEATED in a $9,000-a-night luxury suite in the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, Michael Jackson played the role of a wealthy pop star as he met with two senior executives of the Sony Corporation last December. From the opulent setting to Mr. Jackson's retinue of advisers, there was little indication that Sony's troops were paying a visit because they were concerned that he was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy proceedings.

"Sony was worried because Mr. Jackson was the company's partner in a lucrative music publishing business that included songs by the Beatles and other musicians. If Mr. Jackson became insolvent, his 50 percent share of that $1 billion business would be up for grabs to the highest bidder, leaving Sony to confront the uncomfortable possibility that it would be forced into a new, unpredictable partnership not of its own choosing."

The upshot of which is, Jackson signed away a right. A paper. A little signing away paper. And so it begins...

Alexandre Dumas, like Michael Jackson, made his pile when he was very young. Dumas’s plays brought him in princely sums. Those sums went into a veritable directory of mistresses, apartments, trips, feasts, balls, and all of the rest of it – as well as maintaining a number of children. However, by 1839, Dumas was tapped out, even though he was, via various collaborators (including Gerald de Nerval) still turning out two or three plays a season. Plus he had begun a lucrative sideline in serial fiction for the newspapers. Not that the latter meant too much to him at the time.

Into his life wandered a character named Jacques Domanges. Domanges was a jeweler from Metz, but he ‘d come to Paris to make money in public works – notably sewers. The online biography of Dumas from the twenties gets the story wrong in some ways:
Domange was apparently a man who wasn’t picky about how he made money. So he decided that Dumas was still good for something – and he bought his debts.

To make his investment pay, however, he had to remove Dumas from the sybaritic existence he was leading in Paris. His instrument was one of Dumas’ old mistresses, Ida, who had also loaned Dumas money and – rumor had it – had given him a choice – debtor’s prison or marriage. Here’s the way J. Lucas Dubreton tells the story:
“The story goes that two reasons finally forced him to decide. Ida's guardian, a dung-farmer, it appears, who wished to assure his ward's future, bought up 200,000 francs worth of Dumas' debts for 40,000 francs, and, accompanied by the sheriff's officers, summoned the great man to marry or go to Clichy, the debtors' prison. One argument! An indiscretion was the second. Dumas took Ida to a ball given by the Duke of Orléans and presented her to the prince. "Of course it's quite understood, my dear Dumas," said the latter, "that you could present only your wife to me."

Because the money from his plays was going into Domange’s pockets, Dumas went in another direction: the serialized novel. In a sense, Dumas’ own existence is traced in one of those books he tossed off, Filles, lorettes et courtisanes , a physiognomy of Parisian prostitution. The difference between prostitute types is defined by the souteneur – whether it the pimp of the filles à cartes, or the wealthy man of the filles a numero, or the lorettes – who are supported by a male cartel, the Arthurs. (what are now called Johns)

Here’s Dumas:

Every animal species in this world has its masculine and feminine.
Love being a law of creation, reproduction is a necessity of nature.
Thus, the Arthur is the lover of the Lorette.
But, you say, what is an Arthur?
[…]
The Arthur is bipedal, what Diogenese called an animal with two feet and no feathers – Genus homo.
Only, the Arthur is only called Arthur between his eighteenth and thirtieth years. Up to eighteen, he is called by his baptismal name – Pierre, Paul, Francois, Philippe, Emmanuel, Justin, Adolphe, Horace or Felicien.
After thirty, he is called by his last name: M. .
M. Durand, M. Berton, M. Legrand, M. Lenoir, M. de Preuilly, M. Delaguerche, M. de Barou ou M. de Chemillé.

But, during those twelve years, he is invariably called Arthur.
Arthur is multiple. He is present under every form: the artist, the man of letters, the speculator, the son of the family. He has anywhere from 100,000 francs of debts up to 25,000 francs of rent. Only, it is very rare to pass from the 100,000 france of debts to the 25,000 francs of rent, while it is common to pass from the 25,000 francs of rent to the 100,000 francs of debt. And even more.
The Arthur is thus not rich enough, in our age of constitutional misery, to keep a Lorette a la mode by himself. But just as the poor girls of the street go by twos and fours and sometimes sixes to keep a pimp, the Arthurs go by sixs to eights to tens to even dozens to keep a Lorette. One furnishes the gloves, the other the hats, this one buys her threads, the other gets her knickknacks. An Arthur furnishes her dining room, another her salon, another her bedroom, and the latecomers sow the tables and cabinets with old Sevre and china chez Gansberg, and the Lorette is what one calls – at home.

This multiplication of the Arthur is great security for the Lorette. One does not break in one blow with a dozen lovers, as one breaks up with a single one; one can fight with one, two, even three, but this only signifies a little dip in the receipts, an embarrassment, and not ruin….”