Thursday, November 21, 2002


At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just ground of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success. No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome as uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of true liberty. If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas have wrought still more; and its advance is recorded in the increase of knowledge as much as in the improvement of laws. The history of institutions is often a history of deception and illusions; for their virtue depends on the ideas that produce and on the spirit that preserves them; and the form may remain unaltered when the substance has passed away. -- Lord Acton

There's a general sense on the Left that the tools of invective should be expropriated from the Right. Expropriated? It's become a common paradox, worthy of a Slate writer, that the tools of invective were invented on the Left, usually in the sixties, when the Left was fun. Although the Slate writer, in keeping with the immortal rule of journalism, coined by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop, that the truth is only worth pusuing "up to a point" (that point being determined by the prejudices of who is in charge), never seems to find Leftists like Cockburn hilarious.

However, this cause has been taken up by many on the Left. It's the vague desire that for every Rush Limbaugh, our side should have a Michael Moore. LI can understand this. Certainly, Cockburn's Counterpunch is founded on the premise that the American public will be moved more by rock em and sock em than by the dictates of pure reason. The tabloid style is in Cockburn's blood -- from his dad, Claude -- and such is the style of CP.

But LI feels that this is a misunderstanding of the sources of rightwing triumphalism. That triumphalism does, indeed, go back to the dictates of pure reason, at least as it is purveyed among the makers and shakers in conservative think tanks, and absorbed, with a decreasing amount of substance and an increasing amount of smugness, among the Right's constituencies. The phrase, endless attributed to Churchill, that if a man isn't a socialist at twenty, he has no heart, and if he isn't a conservative at forty, he has no brain,
captures the mood of this crowd exactly. (Incidentally, LI finds that little saying screamingly funny -- it is usually quoted as if we've really hunted down a zinger, here, boys. Wisdom at last! When we know the real organs in question are the penis, in the first instance, and the intestine and anus, in the second. LI prefers Leon Bloy's Exegese des lieux communs, which treats such bourgeois maxims to the acid bath of inversion, in keeping with St. Paul's verse: Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate: tunc autem facie ad faciem.)

Excuse the convoluted prolegomena, ladies and germs, and on with tonight's feature presentation!

There's a nice article about pot on the Counterpunch site. It is by Ben Tripp. It scores on honesty -- Tripp is not coy about his own pot experience. We also approve of Tripp's sardonic tone. Of course, there's something peculiar about the "medical" part of the "free marijuana" campaign. There's something refreshing about demanding the end to the banning of pot on the grounds that it is a harmless and pleasurable recreation, instead of its supposed helpfulness in cases of glaucoma. However, there's an underlying rule in Tripp's piece, one endemic to both the Left and the Right in the endlessly sterile war over the Drug war. It is the premise that the main question, when discussing the banning a product, is to find out if it is immoral or harmful. As soon as you have that sorted out, you ban or you don't ban. Is pot as bad as alcohol? Is it better than cigarettes?

This, we think, is inverting the real analysis of the material conditions of banning.

We've just been in correspondance on this very topic with a friend. Our friend believes in banning guns, especially handguns, and LI doesn't. But by making LI defend that belief, our friend has refined the way LI thinks about what is involved in regulation -- in the mechanisms of governance.

Here are some various excerpts from our letters.

"What if the law prohibiting slavery resulted in locking up more people than the slave population?

I mean, the question isn't slavery so much -- and I really think that is something that can be successfully banned within a democracy, because the mechanism for banning it actually increases the domain of democracy -- as the question of what has happened to the poor and working class in this country during the last thirty years. I'm increasingly convinced that the "lockdown America" thesis has some merit. It isn't just that the prison population increased from something like 60 thou in 1970 to 1 and a half million in 1998 -- that really understates the number of people who have been cycled through the prison-court system. It is that this systematic marking, the explosion in the number of offenses that lead to prison, and their assymetrical enforcement, is the shadow Great Society program for dealing with blacks, hispanics, the unemployed, the blue collar white male, etc. It is the threat that has effectively demoralized these groups. I mean, I think there is something symbolically just in the fact that Gore lost the presidency because the Florida State Department "dis-enfranchised" black voters by going through felonies lists and delisting the appropriate (and inappropriate) names -- for this is the same Gore who advocated taking people who are found with drugs in prison and doubling their sentences.

He was, in fact, the perfect candidate for the era of punitive liberalism -- in which, behind a front of seemingly liberal concerns, like controlling the "violence" endemic in American society, the mechanisms were put in place to coerce the poor at the buttend of the policeman's Tasar. As for the real, systematic violence -- the violence of putting environmental hazards in poor neighboorhoods, the violence of allowing corporations to operate in a regulatory breakdown (or is it break dance?), the violence of allowing police to, in affect, abolish the constitution at their leisure in poor neighborhoods in NYC, in LA, in Chicago, in whereever -- that just isn't an issue. It is a joke.

What determines a successful ban is not the harm done by the product or the service, or the morality of it. Rather, it is the way the product or service is embedded in the political economy. That's it. That's the one and holy clue. Marx was right: you have to inverse the Hegelian dialectic before it comes out right -- start with the material relations of society, rather than the ideas. Or in this case, the morality. Or the harm.

So what are the signs of an unsuccessful ban? Let's just talk about one of them. An unsuccessful ban depends not on the compliance of the people in the marketplace -- the producers, dealers and users -- but on the police. The police are always the regulators of the last resort. They are the most inefficient, and do the most harm to liberty, justice and equality -- my trinity, still, after all these years. This is a rule of thumb that has some exceptions. Those exceptions depend, however, on the scale of the supply. For instance, when you look at environmental regulation, a good part of it is devoted to protecting a rare resource -- the water in a particular area, or endangered species, etc. In this case, police power can efficiently be concentrated, and can operate with a maximum respect for liberty. Even there, however, the only way a ban will be more beneficial than harmful is if it on a good or service that is amenable to other sources of cultural suasion -- this is why I think banning the trade in endangered bird feathers in this country worked at the turn of the century. The Audubon society, first of all, was able to militate against bird massacring, and there was a ready substitute available -- you could easily manufacture artificial flowers. But this point can't be gotten over in the rhetorical cloud around the 'war on drugs' because nobody wants to discuss substitutes -- they want to discuss abstinence. In other words, they don't want the market to be what it is.

So the market continues, its suppression continues, and the cops form the interface between the two. This is a disaster.

I think the number one act that can lower violence in this country is not the banning of handguns. I think that will eventually increase it. No, if we really want to eliminate gun violence -- gun homicide violence, that is, not gun suicide violence -- is the legalization of the drug trade. I think that is undoubtedly the biggest weapon used against the poor in this country -- it is where the cracks of race and class gape. Until that happens, I don't think there will ever be a real decline in gun violence -- or any violence -- as compared to other countries. And I think a debate (that will never happen) should occur about the lockdown mentality. And I think that debate would put into question what I see as the increasingly upper middle class composition of the only kind of lefty discourse that gets allowed in the media of this country, which can stage a million mom march but seems disinclined, to say the least, to stage, say, the five million, the ten million mom march of mothers whose kids, husbands, lovers and fathers have been cycled through the lockdown state. Unless, of course, that class doesn't get something -- when its candidate, Gore, loses, then they come out shrieking. Where was that shrieking when Gore and his boss were presiding over the sharpening of laws to imprison more people! Or calmly let neighborhoods slip into the maws of the penal system? When you build your house of virtue on the backs of the classe laborieuse et dangereuse, eventually it will tumble down. And before it does, a pervasive, unconscious sense of the hypocrisy of the whole exercise will become the norm -- feeding into the most reactionary currents abroad in the country, as well as demoralizing the most progressive segment.

So I guess this is my deal. I think we really are living in the Foucaultian nightmare.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002


The Justice department scored another smashing triumph over that unnamed colluder of all terrorisms, your constitutional rights, today. According to the NYT, Judges Ralph B. Guy of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit; Edward Leavy of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; and Laurence H. Silberman of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, who were all appointed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist of the Supreme Court and make up an entity grandiosely called the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, overturned the first ruling against the government's wiretap request in an 'intelligence' investigation ever by a special secret lower court, which bears the bogus moniker of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court.

Now, LI's question is, how did these Kangaroo Courts come into existence? We are always ready, on this site, to bash Bush. But it turns out the Bush Justice department is merely magnifying trends that started in the previous administration, with the US PATRIOT act merely the enhanced, special effects version of Clinton's own anti-terrorism legislation. There's a fascinating review of the Kangaroo Intelligence Malarky courts by Patrick Poole here. The Courts were instituted under the Ford administration. Ford was, apparently, terribly afraid that the intelligence infrastructure was being hurt by the Church committee. In Poole's words:

"The FISA bill was a product of closed-door negotiations lasting several months between legislators and the Justice Department. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who had attempted to regulate the power of warrantless surveillance in four different sessions, sponsored the FISA legislation. The FISC concept was a compromise between legislators who wanted the FBI and National Security Agency (NSA), the only two agencies affected by the FISA statute, to follow the standard procedure for obtaining a court order required in criminal investigations and legislators. The federal agencies believed that they should be completely unfettered in conducting their foreign intelligence surveillance work inside US borders. Hence, the FISC was born."

The seventies was a regular cauldron of agencies being hatched to crawl across the American landscape in search of rights to devour. The orthodox historical account is that this was the decade in which the system of civil rights violations was unravelled, via the Church committee and several pieces of legislation mandating intelligence agencies to spill the secrets to selected congressional committees. LI has read several accounts of the era, and none mentioned FISC.

Poole, however, shows that FISC is not a monster summoned from the deep by Ashcroft in all of his evil. Rather, since the end of the Cold War -- during, that is, the administration of Clinton -- FISC went into overtime, ruling on twice the number of cases that were ruled on in Reagan's era. As always, the secret growth of some malign habit in one administration gets carried over to the next administration, regardless of party, to metastasize among the flags and desks. As for the vaunted independence of the judiciary -- a concept that can be disposed of only at the expense of all democratic processes -- forget about it! Yesterday's news! Montesquieu and all the rest of those guy never faced "pure evil," as we now like to call our opponents. Ah yes, "pure evil" calls for a whole bunch of special whoopass. So we go to FISC, which has the rigidity and integrity and independence of a wet strand of pasta. The reason FISC hit the news today was that the court, for the first time, questioned the nature of a case. That is, they decided that the over-ride of our rights in some "intelligence" case was really a criminal case. So the FISC appeals court was duly convened, and of course they trashed the idea that there are any rights that the Justice Department can't take away from us, in the name of National Security.

Where are all those Orwellites -- the Hitches and such, who are using Orwell as a prop to support an unjustifiable and unprovoked war? Perhaps they better come out of the corners. But of course -- they are too busy doing battle with such dangers to the republic, and all of Western Civ, as Susan Sontag. A few thousand dark skinned individuals being stripped of their rights by secret courts at the discretion of the Justice department doesn't really register on the list of current dangers.

Monday, November 18, 2002


Out of the American mangle

The poor you don't need to have with you always. But if you do, and you give them credit (only 19.9% compounded monthly!), why, make their life a living hell for a generation. That was, and is, the message and substance of the bankruptcy "reform" act that died, again, in the Congress this week. Here's the Friday NYT:

"With a long-stalled bill to toughen bankruptcy laws declared dead today in Congress because of abortion politics, Senate Democrats and House Republicans were left to blame each other for the collapse of a measure that otherwise had broad bipartisan support and was championed by powerful corporate lobbyists."

The New York Times is long on the Homeric epithet -- you know, those things like "wine dark sea", or "swift footed Achilles", that fill in rhythmic spaces in the epic. The 'broad bipartisan support" and "championed by powerful corporate lobbyists" is the Times standard description of the bankruptcy act. LI would suggest, perhaps, corrupt enforcement of usurious practices similar in kind to that practiced by your average loan shark," but maybe the rhythm is off. What do you think?

LI has written about that undead bill before -- don't worry, it will be back. It was killed this time due to the ineffable mysteries of legislation: it got caught in a pr abortion rights -- right to life crossfire. LI has gone into the penetralia of the bill once too often before -- the way it penalizes the working class in extraordinary ways, the way it privileges paying back credit card debt over, say, paying child support, the way it sets up one more obstacle to blue collar redemption in an age in which every clintonoid politician tells us that we have to promote "flexible" job markets.

Open Secrets has a nice little summary of the issue and the parties in play. Here's their abridged version of what the legislation is about:

Banks, credit card companies and credit unions have been leading the drive to rewrite of the nation�s bankruptcy laws. The American Financial Services Association, the trade group that represents the major credit card companies, joined other financial industry trade associations, Visa and Mastercard in 1998 to form the National Consumer Bankruptcy Coalition. The coalition has been the leading voice in favor of bankruptcy reform, contending that more than 30 percent of those filing bankruptcy have the ability to repay significant portions of their debts. But the financial sector isn�t the only group lobbying on this issue. Gambling interests, including some of Las Vegas� biggest casinos, also are pushing for a new bankruptcy law, according to their lobbying filings. Car dealers, retail stores and even entertainment companies also have weighed in on the issue, mostly in support of reform.

Consumer groups, including the Consumer Federation of America and Public Citizen, are lobbying against the bill. They contend Congress should crack down on the financial companies, which they criticize for handing out credit cards and credit lines indiscriminately. Additionally, they contend the legislation is too far-reaching and could ultimately do more harm to indebted Americans than limit fraud and abuse.

As things go in America, there is, of course, another story about credit -- its extension and forgiveness -- that clues us in to the central moral of our skewed times. For the slackers and the lags that gamble and renege, that buy their fancy cars and thumb their noses at GM, well, their hatefulness -- and we know how bad bad bad they are -- could be washed as white as snow if only they were , well, a little higher in the food chain. There, the terms of the loan are reversed. There's a nice story about the unpaid and forgiven loans of CEOs and their immediate underlings, and the board members that "govern" them, in Business 2.0 -- happily coinciding with the vote on the the credit card company wish list act. Here's the core graf:

"Roughly three-quarters of the nation's top 1,500 companies -- 1,133, to be precise -- have disclosed loans to insiders in recent regulatory filings, according to a study due to be published in November by the Corporate Library, a firm based in Portland, Maine, that analyzes corporate data and advocates greater accountability to shareholders. Of the companies that disclosed loans, 510 made them for the purchase of stock, for a handful of other uses such as housing and tax payments, or for purposes that weren't specified at all. The average loan was about $5.5 million."

My my, 5.5 million dollars. For that money, even a slag might start biting his knuckles and wondering how, oh how he was going to repay it. But the GMs and MBNA America Banks that are weaping oceans of tears over the stray sheep lying through their sheep teeth in bankruptcy courts thoughout the land have, at least, a good heart. These are essentially Christian corporations when it comes to their highest employees. Character, you know, attracts its own redemption. That is why owing such terrific amounts of the ready has not distracted our governors from the tiller. No, they bravely shoulder those five million dollar, or fifteen million dollar, or even four hundred million dollar debts. Yes, and now we can admire them more, because it is so hard, what with yachts and depreciating stocks and such, to come up with 5.5 mil to pay back their companies! oh, could this mean the loss of invaluable personnel? These giants of industry, sucked into the industrial waste with the rest of us! Gasp!
But gentle reader, don't weap for them. This is a big country. Here's another delicious graf:

"All told, loans to insiders in recent years may have reached more than $5 billion. Hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, perhaps as much as $1 billion, have been or will be forgiven, based on Securities and Exchange Commission records and estimates by corporate compensation experts. This suggests that companies will be eating losses from insider loans for years to come. But the more damaging legacy may be that the practice -- by helping fuel the explosion in CEO pay that is at the heart of much of today's outcry over corporate behavior -- will contribute to the perception that management has all too often lined its pockets at investors' expense, and to the public's distrust of how American companies are run."

Luckily, most of these loans aren't made with interest -- that would be oh so gross. I mean, we are talking about some of america's best and brightest -- interest is something they collect, darling, not something they should be forced to pay out. But that the rate of non-payment is 20 percent -- now, that is something, ain't it?

The poster boy for corporate loans in the King article is from Microsoft. Meet Rick Belluzzo:

"Early in September, Microsoft (MSFT) had a small confession to make. Back in December 2000, the company had lent its president, Rick Belluzzo, $15 million, taking some of his stock options as collateral. Though the options were underwater and had no value at the time, Microsoft figured its stock would eventually go up. But by last August, when Belluzzo resigned, the options were even further submerged. So the software giant forgave the loan -- it had no choice under the deal Belluzzo had struck -- charged off the $15 million, and said its belated disclosure was "appropriate" because the loan was really just an "advance." "

Now, to be fair, our legislature has officially outlawed insider loans of the Belluzzo type. The Sarbanes-Oxley act definitely puts them under bar. This will call for a lot of semantic ingenuity on the part of corporate lawyers. In the meantime, the bankruptcy bill will rise again. You can MBNA bank on it!

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...