Sunday, September 25, 2011

liberal losers

German liberals really want you to like them

The Free Democratic Party (FDP, Freie Demokratische Partei) has been a mainstay of German politics.  In my senior high in Bavaria, the kids voting for the FDP were the ones with preppy outfits and blow-dried hair.  They were into money and the market.  For them, consumerism rocked.

Liberals in Germany are how Republicans used to be before going insane.  No FDP-politician, simply no politician in Europe or Asia, for that matter, would be caught dead denying climate change or challenging evolutionary biology.  'Liberal' doesn't mean stupid; it means free, and in the case of the FDP it refers to freedom of the individual from too much state, freedom of the market from too much regulation, and freedom of the wealthy from too much taxation.  How much is 'too much' depends, of course, but among German parties, from the Greens (GrĂ¼nen) to the Socialists (Die Linke) to the Social Democrats (SPD) to the Christians (CDU/CSU), the FPD Liberals are at the conservative fringe: they want the least amount of government and the most coddling of big business.  Think Adam Smith with a little dash of Ayn Rand.

It is odd that European liberals are like U.S. conservatives without the extremism, since being liberal in the U.S. is the opposite of being conservative.  A U.S. liberal is on the left of the political spectrum; in Europe liberals are on the right. Still, all three positions, conservative, liberal here, & liberal there, are located in the same ideological framework: all join in a basic embrace of capitalism.  And in this way, Republicans, American Liberals, and FDP Liberals are one and the same.

This embrace is sustained by the faith in what Erich Fromm in his 1976 masterwork To Have or To Be called "The Great Promise": the promise of domination of nature, of material abundance, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and of unimpeded personal freedom.  As he puts it (Continuum ed. 1996, p. 2), "the achievement of wealth and comfort for all was supposed to result in unrestricted happiness for all."  Only it did not.  Already a generation ago, Fromm argued that the Great Promise failed for three reasons: the economic contradictions of industrialism, the confusion of happiness with satisfaction of any desire, and the delusion "that egotism, selfishness, and greed, as the system needs to generate them in order to function, lead to harmony and peace."

Nearly half a century later, the failure of the Great Promise is becoming all too obvious.  The religion of capitalism, Progress, has not delivered.  Young people in the West, whether in Europe or in North America, are realizing that capitalism does not like them.  And now they are caught between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, their immediate future looks grim because the chaotic interplay of reckless banksters, greedy speculators, and scary austerity programs poses direct harm to them.  And as long as there is no economic recovery, this malevolent dance will only continue, driving them into debt, and pushing them into poverty.  On the other hand, their long-term future looks just as grim, if not more so.  For if an economic recovery happens and resource exploitation and commodity production resume at full steam, new jobs will be created at the expense of pushing the Earth System, which is already at the brink, over the edge.  So young Westerners will either wind up jobless and poor, or find work amidst surging food prices, bad harvests, environmental refuges, and failing states.  Climate change is the consequence of capitalism.  Trying to make it on a hot, crowded, and barren world, it slowly dawns on the young generation that their elders, trusting in the Great Promise, thereby wrecked the future. 

The Liberals in Germany had never garnered a majority but always got seven, eight percent of the vote, enough to act as kingmaker or coalition partner.  In 2009 this party of preppy business kids triumphed with the best election results ever, an unprecedented fifteen percent, and partnered up with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Party (CDU).  The downturn of the U.S. economy, which had begun in 2008, had little effect on European and Asian markets in 2009.  In 2010 the first clouds gathered at the global economic horizons, and since then, of course, things have gone from bad to worse.  Somehow capitalism does not look cool anymore.  In the September 2011 elections in Berlin, the FDP plummeted to an astounding low of 1.8 percent and failed to retain the minimum number of votes to stay in parliament.  Voters are running away, recognizing that the Great Promise had been a lie.

And this makes me curious about Plan B.  When I was a kid, there was a Plan B.  It was called Communism.  But the socialist economies all failed because the Soviet and East European bureaucrats at the center of power who were supposed to steer production and match demand with supply could never keep up.  They were too slow, too clumsy, too inefficient.  And so the iconic image we remember from the socialist experiment of centrally planning an economy was of people standing in long queues in half-empty stores.  Eastern Europeans and Russians impoverished while the capitalistic West prospered, until the socialist citizens had enough, toppled their governments, threw the bureaucrats out, and went to McDonald's.  Thus Communism died.  Its structure had made it inefficient, and so it won a Darwin Award.

But now I am wondering.  This happened when I was in high school.  That was before computers.  With modern information technology, how could a planned economy still be inefficient?

Sixty-three months left.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

klare, hedges, and the irish

A propos being stuck in the tar pit: in the week after the 9-11 decennial -- a week with the Texas drought deepening to 'exceptional' levels; the Arctic melt either being the second worst ever or having set a new all-time record (depending on how the Bremen University data hold up); the polar climate having moved beyond the tipping point; and the U.S. House of Representatives now being 'the most anti-environmental in history' -- three superb summaries of the realities resulting from America's wrong response to 9-11 have appeared.

One is Michael Klare's America and oil: declining together? 
America and Oil.  It's like bacon and eggs, Batman and Robin.  As the old song lyric went, you can't have one without the other.  Once upon a time, it was also a surefire formula for national greatness and global preeminence.  Now, it's a guarantee of a trip to hell in a hand basket.  The Chinese know it.  Does Washington?  (more)
Another is Chris Hedges's We are what we loathe
We have still not woken up to whom we have become, to the fatal erosion of domestic and international law and the senseless waste of lives, resources and trillions of dollars to wage wars that ultimately we can never win. We do not see that our own faces have become as contorted as the faces of the demented hijackers who seized the three commercial jetliners a decade ago. We do not grasp that Osama bin Laden’s twisted vision of a world of indiscriminate violence and terror has triumphed. The attacks turned us into monsters, grotesque ghouls, sadists and killers who drop bombs on village children and waterboard those we kidnap, strip of their rights and hold for years without due process. We acted before we were able to think. And it is the satanic lust of violence that has us locked in its grip. (more)
Third is an editorial by Jim Roche in the Irish Times about the decennial.  Personally I have mixed feelings about Ireland.  Some repulsive relatives of mine live there, postmodern relativists with no moral compass.  But this Irish editorial rings so true it deserves to be quoted at length:
The communal grief and sympathy for those killed and bereaved on 9/11 was willfully exploited by a neoconservative agenda in order to wage terror on a massive scale, premised on the extreme ideology of the now defunct Project for the New American Century, through which Messrs Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney et al had argued repeatedly for regime change in Iraq. The real aim of the Bush administration, of which it boasted quite openly, was to seek global hegemony by the United States – a flawed policy that confused dominance abroad with security at home.
The farcically named “war on terror” has caused immense suffering to millions of people. Premised on disinformation, false claims and a desire for world dominance, it has involved the corporate theft of resources; the misuse of reconstruction funds; illegal rendition and torture (as in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib); an assault on civil liberties; the gross vilification of the Islamic religion; the stoking of ethnic tension and hatred; indiscriminate bombings and shootings; the use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous; the cowardly use of unmanned drone aircraft; and thousands dead, injured and displaced.
Take, for example, the violence visited on a medium-sized town of 350,000 people on the Euphrates river west of Baghdad in Iraq’s Anbar province between April and November 2004. As unembedded journalist Dahr Jamail relates in his book Beyond the Green Zone , the response to the killing by insurgents of four private Blackwater military contractors was a siege and assault by US forces in a surge of collective punishment.
US forces declared a curfew and refused the evacuation of the wounded and the ingress of medical aid while snipers shot from the minarets of mosques at anything that moved, including women and children. Hospital doctors confirmed between 20 and 30 per cent of victims’ wounds were the result of sniper fire, often from dumdum bullets.
Almost every family in this city lost a member. The number of dead is disputed but ranges between 6,000 and 12,000, the majority being old men, women and children.
Mike Marquez of the Guardian noted that the city’s compensation commissioner reported that “36,000 of the city’s 50,000 homes were destroyed, along with 60 schools and 65 mosques and shrines”. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent called it “a city of ruins” and reported on the dramatic dramatic increase in cancers, birth defects and infant mortality, more than those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, as a result of the use of chemical weapons.
The city is Fallujah. 
It is natural, indeed inevitable, to make mistakes.   That's what humans do.  We are not perfect.  And it is prudent, indeed intelligent, to own up to one's mistakes.  This requires courage and lends us our humanity.  The first step in owning up to a mistake is to cease and desist from doing more of the same.  The second step is to formulate and firm up the resolution to do the right thing from now on.  The third and final step, actually a process, is to launch into a clear-sighted effort at correcting the mistake made.

America can get out of the oil quagmire and return to its former leadership role on this changing planet.  It needs to own up to its contribution to climate change.  It needs to stop military operations in the Arab world.  It needs to enact a progressive gas tax, to regulate carbon emissions, and to launch three New Deal-style work programs -- one for building the wind farms we need to meet domestic energy demands, another for massive production and free installation of solar panels on every single rooftop in the country, and a third for expanding and upgrading the national railroad system.  Then -- and only then -- America would look at a bright future.  But as long as such realism, rationality, and courage are not shown, Gaia's clock will keep ticking ever louder and harder.

Sixty-three months left.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

ten years after

Ten years ago, an event happened that changed the course of history.  The attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the crash of flight United 93, and the abduction of flight AA 77 mark a day of suffering.  More suffering was to follow in the wake of the event: two wars and three far-flung military operations were launched in consequence.

In October 2001, the first war began, in Afghanistan, with bombing raids, followed by invasion,  pacification, insurgency, strategic retreats, re-occupation, reconstruction, bribes, and assassinations.  Ten years later, the war has expanded into the western parts of flood- and drought-stricken Pakistan.

In January 2002, the first overseas operation began, in the Philippines, with the deployment of military advisers to the Armed Forces of the Philippines for suppressing insurgencies in Basilan, Jolo, and other islands.  In October of the same year, the second operation was launched, in Djibouti at the Horn of Africa, to check maritime traffic and disrupt insurgencies in the failing and failed states of Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.  In 2005, the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative was added as a third operation, to train fighters in counterinsurgency warfare in eleven other African countries.

In March 2003, the second war began, in Iraq, under the pretext of securing weapons of mass destruction despite protests by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission that no search ever pointed to the existence of such weapons.  Without the backing of the international community, despite countless reports that the Iraqi government had no connection to the terrorist attacks, and regardless of the largest peace demonstrations that were ever held on the planet, the U.S.government choose to go to war anyway.  Since Turkey denied the US invaders any use of its territory, the invasion was launched from bases in Kuwait and vessels in the Persian Gulf.  The U.S. armed forces and their mercenary contractors reached the Oil Ministry in Baghdad in April 2003 and believed the war to be over.  A smoldering insurgency flared up in 2004 and erupted in two battles for Fallujah.  The invaders installed a puppet regime in 2005, which led to civil war in 2006.  This spawned a surge of American troops in 2007 and necessitated yet another try at foreign nation building from 2008 to 2010.

In 2011, U.S. finances are in shambles.  The budget surplus that had been created right before the Republicans employed the terrorist attack as an excuse for wars (with the most immoral of them, in Iraq, also having been the most costly) changed into the worst deficit in U.S. history.  The economic downturn began in 2008, with no end in sight.  Now little money is left for greening the economy, for building mass transit systems, for planting wind-farms and distributing photovoltaics, and for climate-proofing the infrastructure.  The oil dependence is worse than ever; the per capita carbon footprint remains the largest worldwide and grew even fatter in the past decade. 

I wonder how future generations will assess the military response to the terrorist attack ten years ago.  Chances are they will look back at it as a fateful mistake, and as a missed opportunity.  Before the terrorist attack, before the military operations, and before the costly wars, the U.S. had the power to end its addiction to oil, an addiction that forced it to intervene in the politics of Arab oil nations, a colonialist interference which was in no small part responsible for the rage that wove the networks of the extremists.  Ten years ago, the U.S. was wealthy enough to move beyond its fossil liability to postcarbon independence. Ten years ago, the U.S. had the chance to lead the world to a new era of innovation.

But instead of responding to the crime perpetrated by non-state actors with a police investigation, as would have seemed appropriate, all available resources were spent to exert military might in the far-flung regions that either did or did not harbor and house these or related actors.  While it was hoped that doing so would not only enhance national security but also shore up American dominance over oil producers, the flow of money went just one way: from the wallets of U.S. workers into the coffers of military contractors and oil companies.  Now the people's money is gone.  And just as the rising concentration of greenhouse gases worsens the weather by the year, making our planet harder to live on, and just as other countries are extricating themselves from the suicidal lure of fossil fuels, thus helping to give the world's children a future, the U.S. is stuck in a tar pit.

Sixty-three months left.


Sunday, September 04, 2011

two graphs

Sometimes a picture does say more than a thousand words. The  quintessential information in the IPCC AR-4 report is packed in two graphs on emissions scenarios and surface warming.  Both are pretty old hats.  But this adds to their appeal, because they are dated in having been too cautious.  Climate change in the past decade has outpaced the worst of expectations.  Reality is more cartoonish than we thought. 

Trippy about this twin figure is its philosophical consequence.  The scenario storylines are where the metaphysical meat is.  The worst case scenario evokes a collapse brought about by the skepticism of Hume, the relativism of Derrida, and the selfishness of Adam Smith-slash-Ayn Rand.  The best case scenario evokes a new era guided by the wisdom of Kant, Confucius, and Laozi.  So now we know.  Some thinkers are indeed wiser than others.

While this particular consequence of the IPCC storylines is sort of an in-house provocation, the other consequence is a universal challenge for civil evolution.  The information distilled in the twin graph of the AR4 Climate Change 2007 report serves a similar cultural role as Copernicus' De Revolutionibus (1543) and Darwin's Origin of the Species (1859) did in their day.  Christian Wolff would have had a ball.  In the guise of climatology, rational dogma is back and eager to kick our collective asses if we don't get up to speed. 

But right now there are two other graphs, far more ominous, astounding, and timely, that I keep obsessing about. One is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Drought Monitor housed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  I copied an image into the current climate events update at blisterdata.  Another is from a geoinformatics facility for satellite image analysis, a joint venture of the International Arctic Research Center and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.  The IARC-JAXA outfit processes information with real time updates into a graph on Sea Ice Extent.  A link is on the August post at blisterdata.  RealClimate just opened a new thread about it.

The two graphs on drought and melt speak for themselves.  Karl Marx must be laughing in paradise now: the graphs are the planetary legacy of capitalism.  And this raises two questions.  Must we sacrifice our children on the altar of corporate profit? Can we still turn civilization around?  The plot thickens.

Sixty-three months left.