Thursday, November 01, 2007

Like one of North’s M & M astronauts, LI is blasting off to D.C. for the next four days. I’m going to be attending the Society of the History of Science conference there – or, really, sneaking into it. My friend M. is giving a paper there, a brief prospectus of her upcoming book on Colonial science. Then we are heading out to see the D.C. sites – ah, you FBI/Homeland security people who’ve been reading my pot-bouille of disgruntlement, take note! Yes, I plan on scourging with my fearsome criticisms every branch of government whilst up there. I’m taking my soapbox. (Although, in actuality, I’ll probably go to the zoo. Fuck worrying about the guv’mint. Picture me givin a damn I said never).

finally, monsieur, a wafer thin mint

Finally,monsieur, a wafer thin mint.

It is a minor thing, really. The Fed’s rate cut yesterday. It goes against every principle that the Federal Reserve used to adhere to. It was accompanied by a Commerce Department report that told a tale of epic fiction about inflation – down this quarter to its lowest point in years, apparently. Such is the magic of the hedging formulas now used to produce almost any result that you want. The rate cut sank the dollar further, and raised the price of oil. In effect, the Fed declared that its raison d’etre, at the moment, is simply and solely to help out the richest investors in this country, and the rest of the country be damned.

Sure, that has been the Bush mantra since 2001. Although it is a mistake to think that the change in degree brought about by the Bush seizure of power is a change of kind – we have had the same economic and social trends since 1981. The quiet violence of a policy intended to reduce the majority of the country to a comfortable peon status, where their major power would consist of selecting their favorite singers on American Idol and, if they were lucky, shifting their credit card debt to a lower interest rate on a special one time only offer, while in the background economic and political power was concentrated in the hands of a debauched few, has become the open violence of that meshing of interests between the financial, the petro-chemical, and the war industries, displaying its naked form in the great war crime of Iraq. We have been coming to this point ever since I was legally entitled to fuck. So I should be as used to the mix of affluence and powerlessness as anyone else. But unluckily for me, I was perverted to the very marrow by Sunday School, Bob Dylan, and the game of Monopoly, all of which taught me that untrammeled and irresponsible power forms itself, irresistibly, into murder. It also taught me about Get out of Jail Free cards. They are now issued like party favors in D.C.

So what happened yesterday and what happened this summer is that the Fed dispensed with disguises and openly became a boiler room adjunct of Wall Street. Having crafted one bubble after another to keep the economy humming along, we have reached the end of the string. Bubbles are the crack capitalist way to affect redistribution of the wealth. The crack for the common man comes in the form of an expanded power of purchase on all levels – although one not accompanied by a corresponding expansion of earnings. This, in turn, leads to an ever widening dominance of the investor class, the group that is, collectively, ‘owed’. That group, however, monetizes what it is collectively owed – its virtual capture of surplus value - to expand its own purchasing power – it builds a second tier of debt on the debt it is owed. And like the tower of Babel, from the ground level this looks like it can go on forever. There is an upper limit, however, at least theoretically, a point where the expanded power of purchase of the common man can go no further without something drastic happening – for instance, an expansion of real earnings. The primary directive of the Fed is to keep that from happening – it is the institutional embodiment of strike breaking in the U.S. But if that doesn’t happen, the wealthiest themselves will become overextended – they won’t be able to monetized what they are owed in the vulgar sense, that is, with actual money, without risking massive default, which comes down to one of those old economic laws: you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.

So, to treat the pain, the Fed has turned into Doctor Feelgood. But in two or three months, the pain is going to show up at the gas station. And nobody is going to like that pain. Similarly, the metric that the Fed really despises – how much common things cost for common people – is going to intrude like a big party crasher. On the upside, given the intangible of warmer weather, there will probably be less heating oil used in the cold states this year – that which doesn’t kill us, as Fred N. liked to say, allows us to contrive ever more elaborate systems for killing ourselves.

So the question then will be: how much more shit will the common man swallow? Since shit eating and toad eating have been the most popular American pastimes lately, it ought to be quite something to watch: this moment when we all can’t eat that last piece of crap, handed to us from on high.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

no little murders

“What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world who from opposite sides of great gulfs have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!”

It is a funny thing, murder. I am definitely romantic enough to be sympathetic to the right murderer. But in truth, I am not in the economic class where something like me being wiped off the face of the earth is going to make much of a stink. I am among the easily murdered rather than the other way around, and I suppose that makes me sensitive. So I have cause for some solidarity with the spilt blood of Raheem Khalif, a man whose image I can’t find on Google. No fame or fortune for him, indeed. And such a small, such a tiny, such a remote soul does not haunt the corridors of the State Department. Or so the State Department thinks.

I think differently. I think that when David conspired to have Uriah the Hittite ambushed so that he could take Uriah’s wife, Bathsheeba, I think God cursed Israel. I think when Lady Deadlock committed no crime but that of deserting her daughter and, on the way to the long discovery of this fact, Tulkinghorn was murdered, that Lady Deadlock would die herself, chased by the Furies of the liberal novelist’s conscience. I think when Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is murdered by the woman he could actually be in love with, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, that he turns her into the cops:

"Well, if you get a good break, you'll be out of Tehachapi in twenty years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I'm gonna send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl you'll be out in twenty years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you."

It is the improbable, liberal hope of the novelist that the circle will be unbroken, by and by lord by and by.

On the other hand, most murders do go unsolved. Who murdered the forty to sixty million in World War II? Who murdered the million and a half in Southeast Asia, circa 1954-1974? Name the murderers, make a list. But the river is deep and the river is wide, and you’ll never cross to the other side. Name the murderers of the 675,000 in Iraq. Or more. One can be resigned that this is the way it is. One can be angry as fuck. But there it is.

But one can’t be resigned to the little murders. No, the liberal novelists idea, his one shining idea, is that there aren’t any little murders. The liberal novelist represents the hope of every potential dumpee. For the defining trait of the republic that the novelist operates in, can operate in, is that it aspires to a minimum level of justice in which there will be no impunity for the Deadlocks – there will be none for the cops – there will be none for the rich heirs – there will be none for the politicians – there will be none for the policymaker, the stock broker, the VIP, the strikebreaker, the mercenary, the bodyguard. Watching night and fog, aka the Justice department, engulf and hide the murder of Khalif, and hide the murderer, and hide his accomplices, is an insult, an assault, on all of us who are eminently murderable. They begin the million murder strings with just such acts of gross impunity.

“But the evil of it is that it is a world wrapped up in too much
jeweller's cotton and fine wool, and cannot hear the rushing of the
larger worlds, and cannot see them as they circle round the sun.
It is a deadened world, and its growth is sometimes unhealthy for
want of air.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Update on the prosecution of Andrew Moonen for murder

For those interested in justice for the murdered Iraqi bodyguard, Raneem Khalif, the Washington Post's Karen DeYoung runs a shocker today. Apparently the State Department people in Iraq promised Blackwater guards involved in mowing down Iraqis in Nisoor square in September 'immunity.' As I said in a previous post, the comparison of Bush's administration to some European fascist regime is truly off base - it is much more like a Cold War classic kleptocracy, Argentina in the 80s, the Philippines under Marcos - a place in which the air of impunity that hangs over the elite allows them maximum leaway to flout the law until the stones cry out in the street and some crystallization of all discontents emerges. Of course, given the cholesterol around the American householders sense of justice, that crystallizing moment will have to be something that especially strikes them - perhaps a speech by the President that pre-empts a really exiting episode of American Idol. At that moment, I wouldn't be surprised to see marching in the street!

In any case, the unhappy few that are interested in the mundane workings of justice should look at DeYoung's article. Here's what it reports about the homicide committed by Andrew Moonen:

The FBI investigators sent to Baghdad are due to return to Washington early this week and will then turn the information they gathered over to the Justice Department, which will decide whether prosecution is warranted. An earlier case, involving the shooting of a bodyguard of an Iraqi vice president by a Blackwater contractor last Christmas Eve, was referred to Justice months ago, but there has been no prosecution.

Law enforcement officials have said it is unclear whether the contractors are liable under any U.S. law. The administration has said it opposes a bill passed by the House last month that would place State Department contractors under laws that currently apply only to Pentagon contractors.

Administration officials have said that the Christmas Eve case has languished because of the legal uncertainties. But in congressional testimony last week, Rice said that the holdup was "not the absence of law . . . it's a question of evidence."

Karen DeYoung is one of the good Washington Post reporters. She is having a discussion today about the crimes of Blackwater, among other things. Go to the Q and A here
and drop her a question about Andrew Moonen. Ask why he is not being prosecuted. Ask why Margaret Scobey is not being prosecuted as an accomplice. Ask politely but firmly. Although we can say, of the American relation to Iraqis, what Gloucester says in Lear about the relation of gods to humans - Iraqis are to Americans as flies are to wanton boys, they kill them for their sport - let's try to kick the habit. Let's do it by honoring at least one Iraqi murdered, indeed, for sport.


Well, for what it is worth, this is the question I sent in, and this is De Young’s answer:

Austin, Texas: In your article today, there is a puzzling paragraph about Andrew Moonen, the Blackwater guard who killed Raheem Khalif, President Maliki's bodyguard, last Christmas. Condi Rice seems to claim that the case has languished not because of an absence of law but because of "a question of evidence." But do we have any evidence that the Justice Department even has questioned Moonen after he was sent back to the U.S.? And if Moonen is prosecuted for the murder of Raneem Khalif -- which seems like an open-and-shut case to me -- will they prosecute Margaret Scobey, the acting ambassador in Iraq at the time, as an accessory? After all, she knew that Moonen killed Khalif while drunk and apparently approved -- or even decided -- the day after to help him escape back to the States.
I would think that this case is tailor-made for a special prosecutor, given that there were many people at the State department involved in covering up Moonen's crime. What frustrates people like me, outside the Beltway, is the perception since the Scooter Libby pardon of an air of impunity that seems to cover all wrongdoing by the government elite, even up to accessory to murder.
Karen DeYoung: Although we now know a lot about what happened in this case and actions of Blackwater and the U.S. Embassy in the immediate aftermath, we know practically nothing about the status of the Justice investigation into it or the likelihood of any prosecution. Although I've been told by many here that the problem is one of "what law can be used for prosecution," Rice did, indeed, say the other day that that was not the problem--that it was a lack of evidence. Apparently it is both--there were only two people present when the event occured, and only one of them is still alive.

For a more D.C.-centric view of the case, here’s another question/comment:

Washington: Everyone needs to be realistic about this ... of course these people were offered immunity -- they wouldn't be in Iraq if they weren't. They are there to protect our diplomats in a war zone where people hide behind women and children and use sucicde bombs and other things that we as Americans can't imagine using. Of course mistakes are going to be made ... and innocents are going to be killed. It is a neccesary evil, plain and simple. If we put these guys in jail, good luck getting private contractors into Iraq and other war zones across the world.
Karen DeYoung: More food for thought and comment.

I believe the good folks at UFOB invented a machine that processes lesser evil into rectitudinous squirrels. It has been a smash seller, as you can imagine. Mr. Scruggs was wined and dined extensively at the last Kos convention, where he modestly opined that he was “the Thomas Edison of political apparatuses”. I believe those are his words. Or was it "The demon Belzebuub, come to judge among the quick and the dead"? The vocal distortion on the video I saw made it hard to tell, although the room did, at that moment, grow bloody red, and griffons appeared to hunt among the shrieking members of the audience.

Anyway, UFOB needs to come up with an evil machine 2.0 tout de suite, that can work on ‘necessary evil’. Remember, without necessary evil, ‘good luck getting private contractors into Iraq.” Yikes. A world without mercenaries is like a day without sunshine – or rather, like hell without sulfur.

Monday, October 29, 2007

I'll give you four mars for one venus

Worldwide, irrigation guzzles about 70 percent of the freshwater people use. To grow food for expanding human populations, people divert rivers, drain inland seas, and extract fossil groundwater collected over thousands of years, often at unsustainable rates. Worse, current agricultural practices often waste as much water as they use: about half the water that flows through conventional irrigation systems never actually reaches a crop plant. A lesser--though still formidable--amount of water is siphoned off to slake the thirst of cities and industry, and when you add it all together, it's clear that people are using more than their fair share. The Mekong still manages to reach the sea. But at least ten other major rivers, including the Colorado, Ganges, Jordan, Nile, Rio Grande, and Yellow, now regularly run dry before they reach their outlets. – Sold down the river, Eleanor Sterling and Merry Camhi, Natural History, Nov. 2007

Via Crooked Timber, LI read this article in Nature’s commentary section by Gwyn Prins & Steve Rayner. It is well worth reading, even if the neo-liberal tone is somewhat grating.

Here’s the first paragraph of the Prins and Rayner article:

“The Kyoto Protocol is a symbolically important expression of governments' concern about climate change. But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth. And it pays no more than token attention to the needs of societies to adapt to existing climate change. The impending United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Bali in December — to decide international policy after 2012 — needs to radically rethink climate policy.”

‘Adaptation’ is the key word. Prins and Rayner are much too optimistic about adaptation as something the 'market' does supremely well. However, LI agrees with Prins and Rayner’s analysis of Kyoto, and in general the systematic problem that is posed by global warming – systematic in the sense that every economic module developed since 1800 is dependent on a manufacturing and resource extracting system that feeds inexorably into the interconnected problems of the massive increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and the complex of changes that unfold on the earth’s surface as the effects of the increase ramify.

Climate change is not amenable to an elegant solution because it is not a discrete problem. It is better understood as a symptom of a particular development path and its globally interlaced supply-system of fossil energy. Together they form a complex nexus of mutually reinforcing, intertwined patterns of human behaviour, physical materials and the resulting technology. It is impossible to change such complex systems in desired ways by focusing on just one thing.

Social scientists understand how path-dependent systems arise4; but no one has yet determined how to deliberately unlock them. When change does occur it is usually initiated by quite unexpected factors. When single-shot solutions such as Kyoto are attempted, they often produce quite unintended, often negative consequences. The many loopholes that have enabled profiteers to make money from the Clean Development Mechanism, without materially affecting emissions, are examples5. Therefore, there can be no silver bullet — in this case the top-down creation of a global carbon market — to bring about the desired end.”

I’d even embrace their self-interested suggestion about government financing of green R and D. I’d embrace it for the reasons they suggest, - because I think this is the only thing that will work short of catastrophe – and because of its one pleasant positive externality. Shifting the large scale bribery now given to that mesh of engineers, consultants and investors in the petro-chemical and military industries to bribing approximately the same sector, except to produce another kind of output, would positively inflect our politics. The neandrathal basement warrior group would simply have to change the objects of their psycho aggression without having to lose the vocabulary, to which they are addicted. Mass bribery of the well to do is, realistically, the only way to bring about change in the short term. In the long term, there’s always biblical denunciation and revolution and sniffing glue. (I must admit, I find it funny when the authors of articles in august journals of science solemnly advocate, after rationally viewing all the options, that more money be given to the authors of the article).

Here is where the article runs into trouble:

“For the best part of a decade, discussion of adaptation was regarded by most participants in climate policy-making as tantamount to betrayal. Even though it was widely recognized by the end of the 1980s that the existing stock of atmospheric greenhouse gases was likely to lead to some inevitable warming, the policy community suppressed discussion of adaptation out of fear that it would blunt the arguments for greenhouse-gas mitigation.”

The two problems with this is: one, it isn’t true; and two, it doesn’t reckon with the scope of the problem. Here’s one entrance into the scope of the problem: via John Gertner’s The West is Drying Up article, the projection is for the population of the Western states – the Rockie Mountain States, the Southwest, and the Pacific States – to grow by one hundred million more people. At the same time, the projection is for less rainfall, and a melt of the ice pack that could go from a quarter to three quarters. So tell me how these people are going to adapt to having no water? Prins and Rayner are great believers in the market, and believe that it we must contour the market to ‘adapt’ to this situation. But it is easy to predict that the market will make the situation worse – that it will spread drought by mining for water in distant places that it can carry to the West, thus creating unparalleled environmental havoc and, most likely, simply expanding the problem. Adaptation here could mean keeping current laws in place and making people pay the full price for their water in the West, which would mean that in fifty years, a cup of coffee would cost about fifty dollars. That, it is true, might encourage migration from the West. But I am not sure this is the kind of adaptation Prins and Rayner want to sell.
In Sterling and Camhi’s article, they concentrate on the species depletion that is coming with the maximum use of our water resources for drinking, growing crops, polluting, making electricity, etc., etc. Only 1 percent of the world’s water is really available for human use. That use, over the next fifty years, is surely going to lead to the human world – a world in which other, non-human chosen species have simply died off.

“As a result, even as the human population of the globe has doubled, many species that depend on freshwater ecosystems have suffered steep declines. The list would bring tears to a conservationist's eyes: in the past three decades, a fifth of the world's water birds, a third of freshwater mammals, a third of amphibians, and more than half of freshwater turtles and crocodiles have become either threatened, endangered, or extinct. Freshwater fishes represent a quarter of the world's living vertebrate species, and yet more than a third are threatened or endangered. The ecology of freshwater systems may be irreversibly damaged if we humans don't improve the way we treat them.”

The irony of the fully human world is that it will become rapidly unliveable for humans. The collision between less fresh water, expanding population, and the development along industrial lines of less developed economies is probably today’s most overlooked problem – forget flooding Florida – and it is hard to see at the moment any place from which it can be averted.

The problem with thinking that the market can solve these problems is – well, Sterling and Camhi put it pretty well here:

“Their rich biodiversity aside, freshwater systems bestow untold--and underappreciated--benefits on people. Indeed, they are the very foundation of our lives and economies. The value of all the services freshwater ecosystems provide worldwide, such as drinking water, irrigation for agriculture, and climate regulation, has been estimated at $70 billion per year--a figure that assumes, rather delusionally, that one could purchase the services elsewhere if they became unavailable in nature.”

There’s no market in planets.

Banners: charging andrew moonen with murder

You will notice that I've been trying to make some banners. One says: CHARGE ANDREW MOONEN WITH MURDER. The other is going to be: JUSTICE FOR RANEEM KHALIF. The murder banner is the more attention getting, I think. So far, the banners suck. But once I get them right, it will be relatively easy to copy the code and put them on a site.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

the sweetness of life, Donna Summer and Madame du Chastelet

In a famous phrase, Tallyrand once said that those who did not live before 1789 did not know what the true sweetness of life was like. We’ve been zapping that douceur de la vie with x rays, lately, on LI. And I hope all true followers of this death march through hedonism did note, in the Vibrational Man post, that we discovered something – yes, an actual discovery! Which is that the epicurean notion of pleasure, which preceded 18th century hedonism, was still anchored in the notion that, given pleasure and pain as quantitative descriptions attaching to the continuum of sensation, the idea that too much sensation – a quantitatively greater intensity of sensation – gives us pain, led logically to the fact that the maximum of pleasure should then be found in the maximum of non-sensation. In the early modern period that witnessed Gassendi’s rediscovery of Epicure, this notion of pleasure and pain changed to another. The change in conceiving of the structure of pleasure and pain is caught in the changing discourse concerning volupté, which is why the libertines and Hobbes were so shocking to European intellectuals, imbued as these intellectuals were with the Stoic ethos that essentially agreed with Epicurus here.

So, in the eighteenth century, while the continuum of sensation model is mostly retained, another structure is impressed upon it, in which pain is a catastrophic moment away from pleasure. Although I am using a non-eighteenth century vocabulary to describe this, basically, here’s what is happening: in the Lockean dispensation, the quantitative view of pleasure and pain results in what I’ve called, using Per Bak’s term, sensation as a form of self organized criticality. I should also note that the continuum of sensation takes a much cruder and more linear form in the works of the utilitarians and classical economists. Because much depends, there, upon greed, the hedonic calculus separates from any physiological or philosophical discourse about sensation. Because in that calculus – as Silja Graupe points out in The Basho of Economics – there is no limited to the amount of money that is desirable for the economic agent. There is no sense that pleasure can become pain along the continuum. There is simply greater and greater increments of pleasure. In a sense, even with Smith, in the heart of capitalism, disco was already pre-formed, for that is, as we all know, the disco ethos. It is about the orgasmic moan in “Love to love you baby” continued forever. Adam Smith was to Donna Summer as John the Baptist was to Jesus Christ. And don’t you forget it!

The editor of Madame du Chastelet’s philosophical oposcules introduces her essay on happiness with an anecdote that, by coincidence, has to do with the continuum of pleasure. Once, at the court of Frederick the Great, Chastelet asked the philosophical doctor, Maupertius, if he sometimes felt bored. ‘Always, madame,” the doctor replied, as a good old fashioned libertine. Chastelet, the editor points out, avoided boredom in her life. But she recognized its lurking power to bore into the very sweetness of life and rot it to the core. Her essay on happiness embeds it in the positional economy of her time – for among other things, the eighteenth century was the century of ambition. So, I’m going to translate a couple of pages, here, 25-27, since they point to the struggle between a new economic order (one that France got a heady taste of in the days of John Law) and an older, crumbling morality of restraint. The essay sorts through the conditions of happiness, and churns out the usual order – health, love, etc., etc. And then we come to that most delightful 18th century thing- gambling.

“… nature, I say, only gives us desires in accordance with our state. We only desire naturally by increments: a captain of infantry desires to be a colonel, and he isn’t unhappy not to be the supreme commander of the army, no matter what talent he senses within. It is up to our common sense and our reflections to fortify this wise sobriety of nature. It is thus best to desire only those things that one can obtain without too much work, and this is a point we can do much to manage for our happiness. To love what one possesses, to know how to enjoy it, to taste the advantages of its state, to not gaze too much upon those who appear happier to us, to try to perfect what one has and to derive from it all of its advantages, this is what one must call happiness. I think my definition is well formed when I say that the happiest men are those who desire the least change in their estates.[states of being] To delight in happiness, it is necessary to cure or pre-empt a sickness of our species, which is entirely opposed to us here, and which is only too common – that is, inquietude. This disposition of the spirit is contrary to all enjoyment, and by consequence to every kind of happiness. Good philosophy, that is, the firm persuasion that we don’t have anything else to do in this world than be happy, is a remedy against this sickness, of which the bons esprits, those who are capable of principles and consequences, are always exempt. It there is a passion that is unreasonable to the eyes of philosophers and to reason itself, it is the passion for gambling [jeu]. It would be a happy thing to have if one could moderate it and reserve it for that time of our life where it will be necessary, which is old age. It is certain that the love of gambling has its source in the love of money; and there is nobody who is not fascinated by big bets [gros jeu], by which I mean those that can make a difference in our fortune. Our soul likes to be moved by hope or fear – it is only made happy by those things that make it feel its existence; thus, gambling puts us perpetually face to face with these two passions, and holds, by consequence, our soul in an emotion which of one of the great principles of the happiness that is within us. The pleasure given to me by gambling has often consoled me for not being rich. I believe I have a good enough spirit that a fortune which would be mediocre to another would suffice to render me happy, and given that case, gambling would become insipid to me; … and this idea persuaded me that the pleasure I took in gambling was due to the smallness of my fortune and served to console me for it.”

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...